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Writing the Romance Novel: Divisions and Subgenres

Sunday, May 18, 2008

When talking about romance, we cannot ignore the fact that over the past twenty or thirty years, authors have become quite successful at creating hybrid stories that have generated subgenres. So far, we’ve looked at the basics of what makes up a romance-genre novel. With Contemporary and Historical Romance as the “mothers” of the genre, let’s look at some subgenres. This is by no way an exhaustive list, but I’ve tried to cover the most common subgenres.

Romantic Suspense: There is a suspense element (one or both the hero or heroine is personally in jeopardy) that is almost to equally important as the romance plot. Take out either thread, and the story falls apart. These are usually contemporary settings (historical romantic suspense tends to fall into the “Gothic” category–see below), and one of the characters may be involved in law-enforcement in some manner (an FBI agent, a police officer, a homeland security agent, etc.). Harlequin has a couple of lines for romantic suspense: Harlequin Intrigue and Love Inspired Suspense. Dee Henderson has probably written the most popular series of romantic suspense novels in the Christian market with the O’Malley series.

Paranormal Romance: In general-market novels, these are stories in which one of the characters is a vampire, werewolf, sorcerer/ess, shape-shifter, ghost, etc. In inspirational romance, this subgenre isn’t seen quite as much, but one of the characters could be an angel (or former angel) or someone with God-endowed supernatural abilities (prophecy, healing, discernment). These are set in the real world (contemporary or historical), though the actual location (city, country) may be fictional. Not to be confused with fantasy.

Fantasy Romance: These are romances that have an other-worldly setting. The characters may or may not have special abilities. While the fantastical setting is important, the romance is still what takes center stage. Mira’s Luna Books imprint is making great strides in this category with series like Maria V. Snyder’s Study series.

Time-Travel Romance: This can be a hero/heroine falling in love though separated by time (such as in the Hallmark movie The Letter, in which the present-day hero and the Civil War–era heroine fall in love by exchanging letters through her desk that is now in his possession), a character finding a way to time-travel because of love (Somewhere in Time), accidentally traveling in time and falling in love with someone of that time (Jude Deveraux’s Knight in Shining Armor), or someone in love in his/her own time who gets stuck in another time period and must make it back to his/her own time. Whichever way it works, the time travel has a major impact on the development of the romantic relationship—and the romantic relationship is what makes the time-travel important.

Futuristic Romance: Can be science fiction or end-times—but, again, the romance/relationship is the focus of the story, not the setting or events, which differentiates it from the sci-fi/end-times genres.

Licensed Theme: A few years ago, Harlequin contracted with NASCAR for a series of novels that featured racing, drivers, cars, fans, real venues, and real people involved in the NASCAR industry. They were written by well-known authors who were given very specific guidelines to follow.

Medical Romance: These romances emphasize medicine/doctors/hospitals as a major part of the plot. One or both characters are involved in the medical field, and the story usually features several medical cases that will all tie in with the romantic plot. The husband-wife team writing as Hannah Alexander excels in this genre.

Regency Romances: Though the actual Regency period in England didn’t start until 1811—when the Prince of Wales became Prince Regent because of the insanity of King George III—the term has come to cover romances set in England any time from about 1800–1820 (when the Prince Regent became King George IV). Regencies are very much focused on the social scene of the era, the rules of society—though in recent years, the trend has been to write heroines who are far too modern in their attitudes and who constantly and flagrantly ignore/purposely disobey the societal norms (much to the frustration to those of us who love the actual historical era). The hero is usually very wealthy, most likely titled. The heroine can be wealthy/titled, or she can be the daughter of a poor but genteel family. Neither comes from the “working class.” Regular Regency readers are as familiar with barouche, spencer, pelisse, pin money, the Pump Room, and Almack’s as contemporary-romance readers are with Cadillac, blazer, pea coat, allowance, the gym, and the prom (or the club). There is a specific cadence to the language—both in narrative and dialogue—and the little niceties of social interaction, such as bowing and curtsying, are observed.

Medieval Romances: Usually set during the “dark ages” up through the early part of the Renaissance era, or from about 1066 A.D. (when William of Brittany conquered England) to the early 1500s (Columbus made his fateful journey in 1492; Henry VIII split from the Catholic church in 1534). These are usually set in England, though authors are starting to venture into other European countries. The key feature of medievals are the presence of knights, barons, vassals, castles, tournaments, armor, and usually a visit to Court (the royal court, not the justice system) in London, though not always. These are not to be confused with . . .

Highland Romances: Though these are also set during medieval times, if kilts are involved, ye’ve got yerself a Highland Romance, lassie. Instead of dealing with the British court, disputes between vassals/barons, we’ve got good, old-fashioned, blood-boiling, body-paint-adorned, bare-kneed clan feuds. The hero is the laird of the clan (or possibly the heroine, as in Jude Deveraux’s Highland Velvet), and his clan is “at war” with a clan their land borders (or is just separated by one other clan between them, whom both clans are trying to woo to their side of the conflict). They hate the English, though seem to marry them in vast numbers, as the heroine is almost always English. The marriage is rarely a love match, but usually an arranged marriage or the hero marries the heroine to protect her from some threat from her real family or from the evil laird she was actually supposed to marry when the hero kidnapped her as a way to get a dig in at his enemy.

War Romance: Just like it sounds, these are historical romances set during a real war: one of the World Wars, the American Civil War, the Napoleonic war. It isn’t just set during that time period, though. The war must have an effect on the storyline/relationship.

Gothic Romance: In these historicals, the heroine’s life is in jeopardy from someone very close to her—usually a close relative—but the suspicion usually falls squarely on the hero. These are most often written only from the heroine’s POV (1st or 3rd Person), and are set in gloomy climates (lots of storms, fog, cloudy skies, cold, etc.) in mausoleum-like houses/castles. They very often appear to have paranormal elements that are usually explained to be of perfectly natural origins at the end.

Frontier/Pioneer/Western/Prairie Romance: Up until about five years ago, this subgenre was the bane of the inspirational romance industry—because this setting had become synonymous with “inspirational romance.” But just like there are those of us who enjoy Regencies and Medievals, there is still a huge fan base for romances set in the 19th Century American West (i.e., west of the Mississippi River).

Marriage-of-Convenience/Mail-Order Bride Romance: This is one of my favorite subgenres. I’m not sure why, but there’s just something about watching the hero and heroine fall in love after they’re married that enthralls me. These are found across all historical genres—and even pop up in contemporary romances from time to time. One of the key elements of this subgenre is that one or both characters have no choice in the marriage (usually the heroine, though the hero is typically reluctant, even if the marriage is the heroine’s idea to begin with—such as if she needs to marry someone to keep from being forced to marry someone much less desirable or to hold on to her family’s property/wealth). In the 1970s through 1990s, this is the subgenre that was a primary culprit in the creation of the term bodice-ripper, as the typical MOC romance usually featured the hero taking the heroine by force on their wedding night. In Inspirational Romance, the hero is much more of a gentleman and makes the decision that he won’t bed the heroine until she’s ready/until he woos her to fall in love with him.

Again, this is not an exhaustive list, but those I could come up with easily, just looking through the titles on my own bookshelves (or thinking about what authors I know are writing). For a much more exhaustive list, complete with examples of specific titles, visit this great site:

For Discussion:
What is your favorite subgenre of romance? What subgenre(s) have you written/are you writing? Do you have a tendency to read mostly one subgenre over others? What are some of the advantages of writing in a subgenre that crosses over to another genre (such as suspense, fantasy, or science fiction)? What are some disadvantages?

  1. Sunday, May 18, 2008 1:48 pm

    About the only genres of romance I don’t read are the sci-fi and paranormal. I have been known to enjoy a good time travel ;). I like mostly historicals, though sparingly on the Regencies. Love MOC/MOB stories. I write American Historicals, (four so far and another in the works). The advantage, as I see it, of writing across genres is the same as having a Mickey Mouse Cookie Jar. Folks that collect Mickey Mouse will want to buy it, but so will people who collect Cookie Jars. If you can cross genres, you can get readers from both the camps your book covers.


  2. Monday, May 19, 2008 6:49 am

    Gothic Romance! Those were the first ones I read (Phyllis A Whitney and Victoria Holt) I found then on my mom’s shelf one day and started reading them. I love any time of Historical Romance too though 🙂


  3. Monday, May 19, 2008 1:30 pm

    With the exception of erotica, I think I’ve read every subgenre at one point or another.

    My favorite is inspirational and my favorite favorite is multicultural. (No surprise there, huh?)

    I enjoy contemporaries more than historicals but I was struck by how much is missing, like historicals set in the early 1900’s (I think Deeanne Gist writes these). I’d love to read post-WWII romances, going up to about early 1980s.


  4. Monday, May 19, 2008 4:01 pm

    My number one pick is most definitely Inspirational Romances, but I’ve read suspense, historical and gothic romances and have enjoyed them as well. As for as fantasy and sci-fi, paranormal, etc. they definitely don’t resonate with me for whatever reason. Not to say they aren’t written well, I just can’t seem to relate to them.


  5. Monday, May 19, 2008 4:39 pm

    I purposely did not include inspirational as a subgenre, because I believe it is a “mother” genre–as it can include all of the subgenres listed here.

    I love Medievals and Marriage of Convenience romances. Since delving into Jane Austen’s work for academic purposes as well as studying the era for my own Napoleonic-war-set historical romance trilogy, I have a really hard time reading Regencies, as I usually find some of the research is off or, as I mentioned, the heroine isn’t appropriate for the time period.

    Oh, and Erica . . . I’m liking time-travel romance more and more every day!


  6. Monday, May 19, 2008 11:29 pm

    I love the whole mood of gothic, but I’d have to say romantic suspense comes out on top. Historicals are catching up quickly too. A paranormal or time travel has to be excellently written for me to suspend my disbelief enough to get into the story.


  7. Tuesday, May 20, 2008 7:34 am

    As someone new to the writing world I appreciate this article. So do you have a list of sub-genres for suspense and what about womens fiction?


  8. Tuesday, May 20, 2008 3:02 pm

    I don’t really care for Regencies as a whole, though I will read ones that are highly recommended by people whose opinion I trust. I’m the lone Jane Austen hater in every group I belong to, lol. I know so much about the lifestyle and what the mindset was like, and also every day life, that I am incapable of enjoying most contemporary Regencies because they have crucial elements all wrong.

    My favorite sub-genre would have to be historical romance, followed by romantic suspense and gothic romances. I adore gothic romances!! I just wish there were more of them. I’m going to have to track me down some Victoria Holt books. Any recommendations?

    I’ve never read a time-travel all the way through, but that’s only because I haven’t found one that satisfies my requirements for historical accuracy. They’re pretty strict, lol.

    I write mainly historical fiction, so it’s very easy for me to go back and forth from that to historical romance. I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that most of my contemporary qualifies as women’s fiction.


  9. Tuesday, May 20, 2008 3:03 pm

    I love a good medieval too!


  10. Jess permalink
    Tuesday, May 20, 2008 11:28 pm

    I love how in Love Comes Softly, you could tell being saved changed her because she quit saying “dad-blame.” There’s some spiritual growth for ya. (But, no, really, I loved that book.)
    I’m for marriage-of-convenience romances. All the way. I know it’s not a contest, but we consistently write those better than our secular sisters. And, well, it’s an awesome concept.
    Good job not including IR as a subgenre.


  11. Wednesday, May 21, 2008 10:26 am

    Well, I’m not a regular romance-reader (you probably already knew) but like you I enjoy the marriage-of-convenience corner of books.

    I think, at least in part, because the couple in question has already taken marriage at immutable and moves to find peace within that important assumption.

    My one major issue with romance (in theory, as I haven’t read broadly) is the lover-as-savior and source-of-all-happiness.

    On one level those things don’t bother me, but the implication of them is that if those roles aren’t fulfilled the potential partner is the wrong person. I get nervous that “falling out” might be too easy if “falling in” was too perfect.

    I just feel more secure in a (literary) relationship when I can see during the course of the story that they are committed to staying together.

    Really, I’ve only ever felt nervous reading the modern stuff. I’m sure the authors didn’t intend to leave any implication they were less than blood-committed, but my cynical/analytical mind tends to nit-pick, or fear the worst.


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