Writing the Historical Romance Novel
One of the post popular romance genres is historical romance in which true love is found, lost and regained against a sizzling backdrop of political intrigue, strict social mores, arranged marriages and turbulent wars. It’s escapist fare that simmers with sensuality and danger and, more often than not, features a heroine who is as intellectually engaged as her daring hero is physically virile. And of course, they’re always strikingly attractive and will defy all odds to be together. With a variety of subgenres, the sky is the limit when writing historical romance.
Historical Romance Novels are set before World War II and currently stop with the Viet Nam War period. Many historical romances include contemporary attitudes, such as heroines with far more education than was the norm in their time period. Historical Romance includes a wide variety of other subgenres such as:
Viking: These books feature Vikings during the Dark Ages or Middle Ages. Heroes in Viking romances are typical alpha males who are tamed by their heroines. Most heroes are described as “tall, blonde, and strikingly handsome.” Using the Viking culture allows novels set in these time periods to include some travel, as the Vikings were “adventurers, founding and conquering colonies all over the globe.”
Medieval: These romances are typically set between 938-1485. Women in the medieval time periods were often considered as no more than property who were forced to live at the mercy of their father, guardian, or the king. Always a lady, the heroine must use her wits and will and find a husband who will accept her need to be independent, yet still protect her from the dangers of the times. The hero is almost always a knight who first learns to respect her and her uncommon ideas and then falls in love. Heroes are always strong and dominant, and the heroine, despite the gains she has made, is usually still in a subordinate position. However, that position is her choice, made “for the sake of and with protection from an adoring lover, whose main purpose in life is to fulfill his beloved’s wishes.”
Tudor: These romances are set in England between 1485 and 1558.
Elizabethan: These novels are set in England between 1558 and 1603, during the time of Elizabeth I.
Georgian: These novels are set between 1714 and 1810 in England.
Regency: set between 1810 and 1820 in England. Common elements include:
- References to the Ton (le bon ton)
- Depictions of social activities common during the social season such as carriage rides, morning calls, dinners, routs, plays, operas, assemblies, balls, etc.
- References to, or descriptions of, athletic activities engaged in by fashionable young men of the period, including riding, driving, boxing, fencing, hunting, shooting, etc.
- Differences of social class
- Marriages of convenience: a marriage based on love was rarely an option for most women in the British Regency, as securing a steady and sufficient income was the first consideration for both the woman and her family.
- False engagements
- Cyprians (sex workers), demireps (women of ill repute), mistresses and other women employed by rakehells and men from the upper classes
- Mistaken identity, deliberate or otherwise
Victorian: set between 1832 and 1901 England, beginning with the Reform Act 1832 and including the reign of Queen Victoria. Those set during this period but in a fictional country.
Pirate: novels feature a male or female who is sailing, or thought to be sailing, as a pirate or privateer on the high seas. Pirate heroes are the ultimate “bad boys,” who “dominate all for the sake of wealth and freedom.” The heroine is usually captured by the hero in an early part of the novel, and then is forced to succumb to his wishes; eventually she falls in love with her captor. On rare occasions where the heroine is the pirate, the book often focuses on her struggle to maintain her freedom of choice while living the life of a man. Regardless of the gender of the pirate, much of the action in the book takes place at sea.
Colonial United States: novels are all set in the United States between 1630 and 1798.
Civil War: Set in the South’s former Confederacy, these novels cover the time period of the American Civil War and Reconstruction. These can also be set in the North (Union). Who doesn’t love a woman rebel spy captured by a handsome Union soldier?
Native American: novels could also fall into the Western subgenre, but always feature a Native American protagonist whose “heritage is integral to the story.” These romances “emphasize instinct, creativity, freedom, and the longing to escape from the strictures of society, and to return to nature.” Members of Native American tribes who appear in the books are usually depicted as “exotic figures” who “[possess] a freedom to be admired and envied.” Often the Native American protagonist is struggling against racial prejudice and incurs hardships trying to maintain a way of life that is different from the norm. By the end of the novel, however, the problems are surmounted. The heroes of these novels are often fighting to control their darker desires. In many cases, the hero or heroine is captured and then falls in love with a member of the tribe. The tribe is always depicted as civilized, not savages, and misunderstood.
Americana: is set between 1880 and 1920 in the United States, usually in a small town or in the Midwest.
Research: is important when writing historical romance. However, after you have compiled your research you need to sort through it and reduce it to key topics, then let go! Despite all of the work you’ve done conducting extensive research, you need to let it go so it doesn’t bog you down and detract from writing a great story. The last thing you desire is for readers’ eyes to glaze over because of encyclopedic details. What is interesting to you, may make readers yawn. While you’ll never be able to fit most of your research directly into the fictional rendering, the more you have learned about your topic the stronger the result will be.
It is important not to lose sight of writing a good story. At the end of the day your main goal is to write novels that are engaging, authentic and resonant, and with characters that readers will remember long after your write ‘The End.’
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