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Historical vs. Contemporary, Part 2

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

I started writing this as a reply to Kav’s comment on yesterday’s post, but it was getting long enough it deserved its own post, so that’s why you’re getting a real post instead of Open Mic Wednesday today.

Kav wrote: I would think that an author might gain more readers by doing both. If they captivate a contemporary reader that reader might just take a leap into the same author’s historical books because she loved the contemporary.

Starting out writing more than one genre can be helpful—instead of switching after building a name with only one type of books. For example, when I was in my teens and early twenties, I absolutely devoured every historical romance novel written by Julie Garwood and Catherine Coulter. Then, in the mid-1990s, both of them inexplicably switched to writing contemporary-set romantic suspense novels. I tried reading them, but I didn’t enjoy them (understand—up to that point in time, I had never read a contemporary romance novel in my life). In the last year or two, both JG and CC have each put out a new historical romance novel (not those that are pictured—those happen to be two of my favorite historicals from these authors). I was so excited, I got both in hardcover. And I was horribly disappointed in both—they were terrible. It’s not just that their writing style hasn’t changed since the ’80s/’90s (head hopping even to the servants and walk-on characters), but the stories were poorly thought through and executed—not even up to the standards set by the worst historical romance novels they wrote twenty or thirty years ago. So building a readership in one type of fiction doesn’t necessarily mean that those readers will follow them over into another genre. And I know that Garwood and Coulter have huge readership numbers for their romantic suspense novels (or they wouldn’t still have books coming out). But how many of those readers would make the switch to reading their non-suspenseful historical romance novels—even if their new ones were up to snuff?

Liz (Roving Reader) wrote: I must say that I prefer reading historicals…I think because I enjoy getting lost in a place and time completely different from my own.
I didn’t read a contemporary romance novel until I was in my late twenties. I grew up reading historical romance, from the time I got my hands on my mom’s Jude Deverauxes and Catherine Coulters when I was twelve or so. I tried reading the contemporaries, but I just didn’t enjoy them. I think it’s because it was easier for me to get completely lost in the reading experience with a historical because there weren’t things in it constantly reminding me of the real world. (And my favorites have always been medievals.)

It’s easier for me to read historicals that are set during time periods about which I don’t know as much—for example, I was never able to read anything set during the Civil War, and now I have a hard time reading anything set during the Regency era or that’s set aboard a ship, especially a Royal Navy ship…simply because I’m always checking their facts against what I know and the research I’ve done.

Because I read only historical romance when I was young, that’s what I tried writing. My problem was that not only did it come across as very juvenile (using all of the historical romance cliches found in YA books—the girl and her horse, the swooning, the mandatory complaining about the corset, the 20th century girl in costume, etc.), I got so caught up in the research that I’d “lose the plot” as the Brits are so fond of saying. I was more concerned about making sure I got the history right that I couldn’t mesh it with the fiction.

If I love reading historicals so much, why did I ever decide to try writing contemporaries?
In 1992, a fateful remark from my college best friend started me on a path that would eventually lead to Stand-In Groom—when out running errands one night we were merrily chatting about mutual friends, and Amy made the very innocent comment, “I wonder where we’ll all be in five years.” That night, I had a very vivid dream and spent most of the next day writing—about where she and I and these friends of ours would be five years down the road. I wrote about those characters for the next ten years—changing the names and location (that was the birth of Bonneterre) and coming up with hundreds of peripheral characters. . .including the ones who would become the main characters of the first two manuscripts I ever completed in the early 2000s. But even though I worked on that “story” for ten years that story was just for me—something entertaining but nothing I’d ever consider sharing with anyone else. I was still trying to write historicals—and reading only historical romances.

When I attended my first writing conference in 2001, I was developing these new Bonneterre characters while still writing the college-inspired “epic” (already at 200k words with no end in sight, as it was an episodic/follow-the-lives-of the-characters piece). When I left that conference knowing that God was calling me to pursue publishing, I came to a couple of decisions. First was that I needed to learn a lot more than I knew about writing, and to do that, I needed training—in the form of writing. Could I write something from start to finish? Could I do it using only one character’s viewpoint per scene? Could I actually finish a manuscript? Those questions led to the second decision—I needed to write something that would allow me to focus on the writing, not have me pulling out research books every five minutes to look something up. So I decided since I had a strong story idea with these new characters that had grown out of the college-story idea, I’d write their books.

But I’d never read a contemporary romance novel before—so how in the world was I supposed to write one? I went to the Christian bookstore and found a book called Danger in the Shadows. Sure, it was romantic suspense, but it was the only contemporary-set novel with some kind of romance premise that I could find. And I loved it. As I loved the remainder of the O’Malley series. And Susan May Warren’s first Deep Haven series. And Linda Windsor’s romantic comedies Along Came Jones and It Had to Be You. Suddenly, finding contemporary romance in the Christian market, I discovered I liked it. But I was still finding that I enjoyed reading historical romance just a little bit more.

It wasn’t until 2005, after I’d finished the first draft of Stand-In Groom—my fourth completed manuscript (all contemporaries)—and had a much better handle on what it takes to structure a story and write it from beginning to end, that I had an idea for a historical romance novel I thought I could really write. It was a different time period/setting than anything I’d ever tried before. And as I did research (already started a couple of years before when I wrote my senior literary criticism thesis, “Wealth and Social Status as a Theme in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice”), even though I got caught up in the research, it wasn’t for the sake of the history itself—everything that caught my interest did so because it was tying back into my characters or my plot or my setting. The difference was that I had come up with the story first—the history was just there to make the story better. (Whereas before, I’d been trying to come up with stories to fit the history I loved so much.)

Which do I now prefer reading/writing?
I can honestly say I enjoy writing the historicals as much as the contemporaries. Sure, they take a little more work—but it’s work that I thoroughly enjoy (especially when I can take my time doing it!).

As far as reading . . . by just looking at my bookshelves, it’s easy to see that I still enjoy reading historical romance more than contemporary romance—in my office, I have about one and a third shelves of CR and three shelves of HR. On my Kindle, I have 116 titles of historical romance (at least half of which are samples, not full books, only about 1/3 of which are Christian fiction) and 29 titles that are contemporary romance (most of which are full books, about half-and-half general-market and inspirational, but which also include four of my own books as PDF galleys).

Would you follow a favorite author over into another genre, even if it’s a genre you typically don’t enjoy reading? Writers, would you try writing a genre you don’t usually enjoy reading?

  1. Kav permalink
    Wednesday, August 17, 2011 6:44 am

    The one thing I’m going to take away from this is just how much book covers have improved in thirty years! LOL.

    Thanks for delving into this Kaye. I checked my blog stats and I’m about even between historical and contemporary reads.

    I don’t think I’ve come across an author who has crossed genres that I didn’t like (in the Christian market). I’m amazed by the compeletly different voice from the same writer. Like you with your contemp and regency. And Siri Mitchell is the same. Y’all just keep writing them and I’ll keep reading them!


    • Wednesday, August 17, 2011 7:57 pm

      They’ve changed . . . sort of. In looking at the covers of recently published historical novels in the general market, they still aren’t books I’d feel comfortable reading in public. (Thank goodness for my Kindle—no worries about that anymore!)


  2. Wednesday, August 17, 2011 9:48 am

    Deeanne Gist is another example. I fully expected “Beguiled,” written with Mark Bertram, to be historical, but it was contemporary – and one of my favorite Gist books. I think like you, Kaye, authors that successfully write both write the heroine to have a voice that we can understand on a deeper level than just what’s current.

    Thanks for sharing this – my takeaway? That you came up with the STORY first, not the history.


    • Wednesday, August 17, 2011 7:59 pm

      As a reader who can be hit-or-miss with an author within one genre, I think you’re right—it’s more about the author getting the characters’ voices right which makes me, as a reader, become part of the story and believe what’s going on in it.


  3. Wednesday, August 17, 2011 10:13 am

    Wanted to say I have read all of Julie Garwood’s novels with exception of the newest. I love her work both historical and comtempoary. The key to her comtempoary series is reading them in order, all the characters come together from book to book. What draws me when reading books across the genres is the writing style of the author.


    • Wednesday, August 17, 2011 8:01 pm

      I just downloaded the sample of her newest romantic suspense, determined to give her romantic suspense a try, since she was my favorite author for so long.


  4. Wednesday, August 17, 2011 12:52 pm

    I would never try to write a genre I don’t enjoy reading. I can’t stand chick-lit, so naturally I’d never try to write it. Part of my dislike of it is the first person POV, and part of it is the almost required heroine attitude.

    I love Siri Mitchell’s historicals, but I’m not at all interested in reading her chick-lit. I’ll follow an author into any genre except chick-lit. I don’t even care for movies based on chick-lit novels.


    • Wednesday, August 17, 2011 8:02 pm

      I’ve been accused of having a chick-lit voice in my contemporaries . . . but I didn’t take it personally. 😉


      • Thursday, August 18, 2011 3:23 pm

        I don’t think you have that tone at all in your contemporaries.


  5. Wednesday, August 17, 2011 2:04 pm

    I used to read quite a bit of historical fiction, but have found myself over the last few years enjoying contemporaries more and more.

    As far as following an author to different genres…I think it would depend. There are a number of authors that I’ve read both their historical and contemporaries and greatly enjoyed both genres. I also have three authors (one writing with a pseudonym, two not) that I greatly enjoy that have recently come out with books with a vampire/zombie theme…definitely not my preference and I have no desire to read those books.


    • Wednesday, August 17, 2011 8:03 pm

      There is quite a difference between following someone from contemporary romance to historical romance . . . and between following them from romance to vampire/zombie. I don’t blame you at all for not wanting to read those! (Also why so many people will use a pseudonym for books so vastly different.)


  6. Wednesday, August 17, 2011 4:40 pm

    Kaye, one of my very favorite writers did this to me way back in the nineties. They wrote one type of novel and did it incredibly well–bestsellers. But another era was hot and so they stopped what they were doing and wrote that. I read a book or two, but I didn’t like that era in history and quit reading them.

    Just recently they’ve gone back to that original era I loved, even returning to the same characters. I’m eager to read the book, but at the same time I’m not sure I’ll be a fan anymore, partly because when I stopped reading them, I moved on to other writers.

    So it’s a big risk for an author to stop the genre they’re excelling at and switch to a new one. I think it’s different with you because you started out with the two genres, but if you suddenly went all biblical fiction on us–yeah, that might not work. 🙂

    By the way, what on earth has happened to Dee Henderson? She seems to have just dropped off the planet.


    • Wednesday, August 17, 2011 8:07 pm

      The three historical romance authors I loved back in the ’80s and ’90s (Deveraux, Garwood, and Coulter) all wrote in different eras—all three wrote medievals, G & C also wrote Regencies, and D moved her characters into America, so had many American historical settings. But even with as much as I enjoyed their other settings, it was the medievals I kept going back to.

      As far as Dee Henderson . . . I’ve heard rumors over the last year or so, but I don’t know if any of it is actually true so won’t pass any of it along.


      • Thursday, August 18, 2011 2:34 am

        Dee Henderson was one of my first writer heroines. She was head and shoulders above other RS writers I’d read and is one of the people I point to as inspiring my own attempt at a writing career. Danger in the Shadows is still my all time favorite RS and the O’Malley Series follows close behind. I’ve always been more of a CR fan, but do read historicals set in the right time period. Anything Celtic or Scottish, Medeval or Regency. I got really burned out on Prairie/Western and Amish tales. Only recently have I found writer’s that can entice me back to that era. Mary Connealy and Karen Witemeyer. I’m a big fan of SciFi and Fantasy too. I find my book mss and outlines tend to cover a wide range of genres because I enjoy reading a large variety. But the stories that are easiest to write are CR and RS. And I always have Dee in the back of my mind while I write, the mark I measure all other RS against.


      • Thursday, August 18, 2011 3:24 pm

        Speaking of Dee and our conversation at Olive Garden, I was on her website yesterday just to see if she’d updated. The book that never should have been in the SEAL series has been removed from that series and renamed!


  7. Audry permalink
    Wednesday, August 17, 2011 7:53 pm

    This is a great topic, and I’m glad you expanded it to a second day. As I think I said yesterday, I typically try to find authors whose writing I enjoy and then read them out, and I read practically every fictional genre that exists, so my initial thought was that of course I’d follow an author I liked to a different genre, why wouldn’t I?

    But then I started trying to think of an author I like who actually writes more than one genre (and I have to say that before these two blog posts, I never really considered “historical romance” and “contemporary romance” to be separate genres – just lumped ’em all together as romance). I had a hard time, but I eventually came up with a couple and realized something that surprised me. I enjoy John Grisham’s legal thrillers, but when I tried to read “A Painted House,” I just couldn’t get into it at all. Similarly, I love Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series (anyone who has a problem “showing” instead of “telling” should read a couple of those!) but when I tried to read one of his westerns, again I couldn’t get into it at all and ended up returning it to the library after only about 10 pages. Considering I’ll read just about anything, even if I don’t like it, that’s pretty unusual.

    On the other hand, fantasy is probably the genre I’m most indifferent to, yet after running out of science fiction novels by Orson Scott Card, I started reading his fantasy stuff because I really like his writing, and I enjoyed most of those as well. Science fiction and fantasy are much more closely related than legal thrillers and coming-of-age or detective novels and westerns, so that may be part of it.

    Since contemporary and historical romance are still both romance, I would expect someone who could write one to be able to write the other, but I don’t really know. I’m not sure I’ve read both from a single author other than you, and obviously you can do both!

    Does following an author from blogging and essay writing to fiction count? I was actually helping my best friend with her genre paper during her last semester at Seton Hill when she gave me a copy of your paper (about Happy Endings Inc.) as an example, and it was that paper that really made me want to read “Stand-In Groom.” Not so much the description of the book, but the quality of the writing. Before that, I don’t think I’d read a romance novel since a couple I’d in high school, but now I’ve read all the rest of your books, and requested that my library buy them all :D. I also started picking up other inspirational romances here and there, often because they were profiled on this blog or because someone commenting here recommended them. (I have this weird mental disorder where if I see a book recommendation, even from a total stranger on the internet, it doesn’t matter what it is, I will request it from the library if they have it.)

    Maybe I’m an anomaly though – as a kid I used to read the encyclopedia if I ran out of library books, so I’ll obviously give anything a try 😛


    • Wednesday, August 17, 2011 8:10 pm

      Teehee . . . I take a perverse pleasure in knowing you picked up my book because you read my critical essay from SHU (now I’m going to have to go back and re-read it just to see what I said!). And I’m so happy that you’ve found other authors whose books you’ve enjoyed because you were willing to take a chance on my book and came to the blog.

      I follow a couple of general-market romance novel review sites and between their reviews and the ability to download free samples on my Kindle, I’ve discovered a lot of great authors (debut, small-press, self-pubbed, and bestselling) I never would have tried before.


  8. Wednesday, August 17, 2011 7:53 pm

    Just spent an hour or so perusing Amazon and downloading contemporary romance novel samples. And upon opening one of them up and reading the first page, I realized what’s always turned me off about general-market contemporary romance: the language. I’m no prude—after all, I was reading general-market romance when I was twelve years old. I also worked in the newspaper industry for thirteen years—there isn’t a foul word/phrase I haven’t heard. But it seems like most general-market romance authors writing contemporaries go out of their way to lace their prose with foul language. I don’t know if they think that makes it more “realistic” or what, but that’s the fastest way to get me to delete a sample off my Kindle from just the first page!


  9. Thursday, August 18, 2011 9:53 am

    Dee Henderson’s books (specifically her Uncommon Heroes series) were also my first introduction to Christian romantic suspense…I remember picking up the first one at a bookstore in high school not knowing it was inspirational fiction and really enjoying it. That caused me to seek out other romantic suspense novels like Terri Blackstock’s Cape Refuge series. I hope Henderson decides to write more in the near future!

    As for following a favorite author across genres, I think I would if I really liked the author’s voice and felt that would translate well between contemporary and historical or vice versa.


  10. Lady DragonKeeper permalink
    Friday, August 19, 2011 6:43 pm

    If one of my favorite authors went into another genre, I’d at least try to borrow it from the library … I don’t know if I’d purchase it until I’ve read it if it was a genre I don’t usually like.

    I’ll read almost any historical and though I don’t mind reading prairie/western, over the past year, I’ve realized that because there are SO many of them, that I am sort of tired of seeing that same setting over and over (I also read a lot of Janette Oke in high school) … so because of “burnout” I don’t purchase them anymore except ones done by specific authors or if I like the storyline. I’m most often drawn to historicals that seem different or that are set in a time period that I like or haven’t read a lot from … recently, it’s been the Regency period thanks to Julie Klassen and Ms. Kaye.

    I don’t know why contemporaries don’t appeal to me as much … generally, I only read contemporaries if it’s by an author I like or if the storyline interests me. Maybe because reading a book in a contemporary setting isn’t as much of an “escape” …

    If you have time, Ms. Kaye (or anyone who wants to answer), I was wondering what your definition of “chick lit” is?


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