Historical romance?

I’ve always considered what I write to be historical fiction, even if there is a love story involved. I’m seriously surprised at the suggestion that I might have actually written a historical romance novel. While there’s nothing wrong with reading or writing romance if that’s what makes you happiest, I think most people know that romance novels aren’t as serious as historical or literary fiction. They’re like costume plays, where the historical setting is window dressing on a romance story. It’s not the other way around, a love story taking place during a certain period in history, where the history shapes the characters and the other storylines.

Why does a book with a love story have to automatically equal romance novel for some people? A lot of books feature love stories as one of the main storylines, yet they’re not automatically romance novels. Besides, the average modern-day romance novel is well under 800-900 pages. I agree that when you’re writing genre fiction, it does make sense to stay within certain length parameters. The average, say, police procedural, crime novel, romance, or cozy mystery does not need to be 500 pages! I have other storylines besides my main one, all featuring characters who ultimately are tied in with the story of my main group of characters, like the orphanage girls.

In the typical romance novel, unless we’re talking Christian romance, the romantic leads don’t wait till the book is over half over to finally sleep together for the first time. Though they come close a number of times, ultimately Amy and Ivan don’t make love for the first time till September of 1921, when he’s 23 and she’s 21. (He’s a year and five months her senior; depending on the time of year, they’ll be two years apart in age instead of only one.) That’s in Chapter 27 of 42 chapters. And it’s definitely not a bodice-ripper, since there’s only really one true sex scene in the book, that first time they sleep together. There are some makeout and kissing scenes prior, but no sex scenes. And I only chose to show her in bed with the man she really loves, not any of the other men she’s been with, since I don’t want to depict scenes of rape or sexual acts that otherwise take place between people who aren’t in a loving, respectful relationship. I took the same track in the book I was querying in the spring. The only sex scenes are the ones where Allen and Lenore make love for the first time, when Adicia and Ricky consummate their marriage before he leaves for Air Force boot camp in preparation for Vietnam, and when Ricky comes home after a year away. Maybe I’m too old-fashioned or prudish, but I don’t see the point in depicting scenes of non-consenting or at least non-loving sex. I also consider it too titillating to have gratuitous sex scenes when they don’t add anything to the plot. Why do we need to see our characters with their clothes off and having sex just for its own sake? There are actually more depictions of violence or pillaging in my Russian novel than there are sex scenes!

Although I suppose our definition of historical romance vs. historical fiction with a love story changes depending on the era. I’d heard about how Forever Amber was the type of book you hide under your mattress because it’s so racy, and then when I read it, it turned out to be really tame, at least by modern standards. There are no sex scenes at all in the book, and everything is hinted at instead of graphically spelled out. Take the scene where the sleazy Duke of Villiers pays Amber for a night of sex so kinky and perverted it makes even her stomach turn. Yet we’re never even told just what this sex act entailed to make even seasoned Amber nauseated. It’s left up to the imagination.

Historical fiction also involves at least a fair bit of research. You don’t just use some historical basics and then focus on a romance story. You have to depict accurate social, cultural, and political attitudes, not use anachronisms or fill your books with women who have more education and who are more opinionated than the average women of their era. You can depict a woman who’s feminist, enlightened, and empowered in the way she could believably be for her time, like Amber St. Clare is for the Restoration era in England. Catherine (Katrin) is the most radical character by far in my Russian novel, like wearing pants after she comes to America in the 1920s, having Socialist meetings with other Baltic and Russian immigrants in her penthouse suite, joining the Communist Party in Russia, being a fervent Estonian nationalist, writing for very left-wing Russian and Baltic émigré newspapers and magazines, being an advocate for birth control, breastfeeding in public, having her hair cut as short as a man’s some years before bobbed hair or even Eton crops caught on, and even arguing in one particularly shocking article that infant mortality isn’t a tragedy, but a perfectly normal, natural way of controlling the population. But prior to coming to America, she also loved going to balls and parties, wearing fashionable clothes, and swooning over pictures of handsome celebrities and royalty (her favorites included Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and Grand Duke Dmitriy Pavlovich Romanov). But she’s the most radical of my female characters in that particular book. All the rest of the women don’t go that far in crossing the line of what was considered acceptable behavior in the late Teens and early Twenties.

When your characters have to flee for their lives from the approach of marauding Bolsheviks numerous times, moving from boarding house to boarding house and abandoned house to abandoned house, or even sleeping and making camp in the open for a short time, that is not just window dressing for a very long “romance novel.” When there are subplots involving girls in various orphanages, with the main girls eventually tied into the story of the main set of characters, that is not something out of a romance novel. Maybe by the standards of 50 years ago, I wrote a historical romance, but just because a work of historical fiction contains a love story (often a love triangle) doesn’t make it automatically historical romance. Why is it that everything has to have a label on it nowadays? At most, I’d consider what I wrote interstitial, since it contains elements of historical fiction, literary fiction, and old-school romance.

And, again, I know better than anyone that what I wrote isn’t overwritten or bloated. I cut over 18,000 words out and am finally to the point where it only needs another cursory going-over before it’s all done. God forbid we look at the actual content of books instead of declaring they’re overwritten based on nothing other than a high word count. I know there’s no way to retain the story and characters if I cut out over half the book’s length to make it a more “marketable” 100,000 words or so. It’s staying at around 320,000, or however many words it contains after all that editing and adding in some new passages and rewriting some scenes entirely. I know very well how to write much shorter books, but this isn’t the type of book that only needs 250-300 pages or so to tell the story all of the way through.

Author: Carrie-Anne

Writer of historical fiction sagas and series, with elements of women's fiction, romance, and Bildungsroman. Born in the wrong generation on several fronts.

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