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#Romance Novels: What’s the Difference Between Historical Romance and Historical Fiction? #amwriting

Monday, April 25, 2016

Kaye's HistoricalsWhen talking about fiction, there are some areas in which there seems to be more distinction between genres for writers than there may be among readers. And one of the grayest areas is when it comes to figuring out how to categorize historical fiction versus historical romance.

So what is the difference between Historical Fiction and Historical Romance?
Though it would seem like there would be an easy answer to this (and there is, to some extent), in the historical category, there’s a little more line blurring than in most other genres.

Historical Fiction vs. Historical Romance | KayeDacus.comThe easy answer is this:

  • A historical romance (HR) is a romance novel that’s set prior to the Vietnam war (or WWII, depending on the publishing house). Remember, the definition of a romance novel is that the storyline focuses on the developing relationship between the two main characters—if the romance is taken out, there is no more story—and it ends with a happy/joyful union (HEA or HFN) between the two.
  • Historical fiction (HF) is a story that takes place in a historical setting which is more about the effect of that setting on the characters—whether it’s a war, the frontier, or the Protestant Revolution. There might be a romance that occurs in the story, but it’s a subplot.

For example: Georgette Heyer wrote historical romances (primarily Georgian and Regency settings); Jeff and Michael Shaara wrote/write historical fiction. Gone with the Wind is historical women’s fiction (it’s about Scarlett’s internal journey and how the events of history effected that journey); John Jakes’s North & South trilogy is historical fiction (it’s about the friendship between Orry and George, and the relationships between the Hazard and Main families, and how they interacted with and were involved in the historical events).

But most historical fiction includes romance.
This is why there’s so much of a gray area and why the answer gets harder when we take into account that many HF novels include a grand love story as part of the storyline. It might not be the main focus of the plot, but it is integral to the story—the main plot just wouldn’t be of any interest without it. Grand love stories increase both the emotional depth and the jeopardy to the characters in any story—but especially in historical fiction. There’s something about the additional jeopardy of war or wagon travel across the continent or eras when one could die from any infection or wound that makes the addition of having someone else’s hope and happiness depending on the character that adds conflict and tension.

But unlike HR, in HF the love story doesn’t have to have a happy ending. Scarlett and Rhett don’t end up together at the end of GWTW (oops, spoiler alert—and they’ll continue in this paragraph). In Cold Mountain, Inman is shot and killed just before he’s able to reach Ada. The title character in Anna Karenina finds her happy ending with an oncoming train.

And while many HF stories do reward their long-suffering characters with a happy conclusion to the love story, it’s not necessarily required for the novel to have a satisfying ending.

How can I tell the difference between HR and HF?

Here are some of the features HR and HF have in common:

  • Set prior to the mid- to late-20th century.
  • The time period is important to the story—whether it’s because of the real historical events and how they impact the characters/plot or because of the limitations/burdens of the time period on the characters/plot.
  • Readers have certain time periods they enjoy more than others.
  • Research is vital.
  • The language—the dialogue, descriptions of the setting, the narrative—should be accurate without being overwhelming in order to give the reader an immersive experience.


As for differences . . .

Historical Romance Historical Fiction
The developing relationship between two main characters is vital to the plot of the story. There may be a love story, and it may be important to the plot, but it isn’t the only focus of the plot.
The story focuses on two main characters—the two in the developing relationship (the H&H). Number of main characters can range from one to multiple. The “main” character may not be the one involved in a love story—it could be a secondary character/plot.
A happy union between the H&H, happily ever after or happily for now, is required. The love story does not have to end happily—in fact many have tragic/discordant endings to the love story.
The HEA/HFN is the ultimate goal and conclusion of the story/plot. Even if main character(s) have a happy ending to their love story, that may not be the end/resolution of the story or plot
May have real historical characters as minor/secondary (non-POV) characters, but not as a main character in the story May not only feature real historical characters, but are also sometimes written with them as main characters, telling lightly (or sometimes highly) fictionalized versions of their real lives and activities (think Philippa Gregory or Jeff Shaara).
The H&H are rarely apart, as the story hinges on their being together in order for their relationship to develop and move the plot forward. Varies from story to story, but oftentimes the love story hinges on the two in the relationship being separated, sometimes for years, whether by social custom of the time or the actual historical events surrounding them (war, natural disaster, arranged marriages to someone else, etc.).
The H&H are the central focus of the story no matter what historical event(s) or characters are around them. Everything always comes back to how the historical setting impacts their relationship. Sometimes, characters and/or relationships can take a backseat to the history—depending on the novel, it’s the history (or the historical figure) that is the main focus of the story, with the characters built in to serve the historical aspect of the novel.

But what about historical series that feature a main love story?
It’s been a trend for the last few decades for historicals (both HF and HR) to be written as series, from trilogies to epic libraries of ten or more books to tell one story (whether based on a limited number of main characters or sagas that follow generations of one or more families). Even if a romance is integral to the plot of the story, the romance may not be resolved for seven or eight volumes (or more—it depends on how long the author drags out the series).

The entire series may be looked at as a romance once it is complete, because the overarching thread is the love story between the H&H—who are, for example torn apart by the eruption of the French Revolution. Their relationship may be set up in the first volume, but it isn’t actually resolved at the end of that first book. Each book in the series then follows these two characters, slowly developing their relationship while using the events of history—whether actual events or fictional events molded by real history—to keep them apart.

Each individual book can be considered historical fiction, as it doesn’t follow the seven basic beats of the romance novel—and though each should have a satisfying ending (that leaves the reader wanting more), it isn’t a happily ever after ending. However, the final book in the series will end with the triumph of these two characters over the history that threatened to keep them apart, the war will be won, and they will have their happy ending. Then, only when the series as a whole is complete, we could apply the seven story beats to the entire story and we’ll see the romance “novel” emerge.

See how the definitions can get muddied?

BTW, Jane Austen did NOT write Historical Romance!
Oh, and just to add one more facet to the definition: the works of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, etc., are not considered “historical” romance or fiction—because they were contemporary fiction when they were written—in other words, set during the time period in which they were actually written. A true “historical” (HR or HF) is written by someone not living in the time period in which the story is set.

For Discussion:
Who here reads historical romances? Who are your favorite authors? Who is writing historicals/historical romances? Can you define from this whether your story is a historical or a historical romance?

(Oh, and BTW, I do use “a” with the word “historical” based on the Chicago Manual of Style which says to use “a” if the “h” sound is pronounced. If I pronounced it ’istorical, I’d use “an.”)

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