Getting Intimate With History

 

When I try to come up with a description for my writing career, this is the best I can do – it’s the global economy in action.

I live in Australia and write historical romance set in Scotland and England primarily for the American market. Because of the worldwide popularity of British-set historical romance, my books are published in Australia and have been translated for Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Norway, Indonesia, Thailand, Russia, Turkey and Japan.

So there’s gold in them thar historical hills!

According to Romance Writers of America, romance fiction in North America in 2010 is projected to earn US$1.358 billion and the genre has proven pretty much recession-proof. Historical romances comprise a large slice of this huge market. In fact, the modern single-title romance industry was basically founded in the early 1970s thanks to the enormous sales of historical romances by authors like Kathleen E. Woodiwiss and Rosemary Rogers.

A number of Australians have made major waves in this perennially popular genre. Stephanie Laurens from Melbourne has written over 20 New York Times bestsellers. Other local success stories in historical romance include Christina Brooke, Anna Jacobs, Isolde Martyn, Anne Gracie, Sara Bennett and Elizabeth Rolls.

These days, the most popular setting for historical romance is the English Regency period. While the true Regency only lasted between 1811 to 1820 (the years when the future George IV became head of state during his father George III’s madness), in terms of historical romance, the Regency encompasses the early 19th century from about 1800 through to 1837 when Queen Victoria ascends the throne. My books are set in the 1820s so come under the umbrella of this broader Regency period.

Why is this relatively short period of English history the golden age for historical romance?

You can’t ignore the Jane Austen factor. Readers love revisiting that world of wit and elegant manners – and women in high-waisted dresses and men in breeches, boots and neckcloths. One of my theories to explain why the Regency is more popular than the Victorian period is that the clothes (and the clean-shaven heroes!) appeal more to a modern reader.

Then of course there’s Georgette Heyer. For many Australian women, reading Georgette Heyer is a rite of passage. This wonderful writer established much of the tone and subject matter of Regency romance and readers love to return to that setting with its rakes, routs, musicales, the London season, debutantes and madcap comedy. If you’d like a taste of the Regency, you can’t do better than to read these sparkling romances which are still readily available.

I think there are other reasons for the Regency’s popularity as a setting for romance. It’s close enough to our own time for people not to feel alienated, yet it’s still far enough away to have that fairy-tale quality that readers like to find in a romance. It’s a time packed with incident and drama and larger-than-life characters – just think the Napoleonic Wars or Lord Byron. It’s also a time of wildly contrasting prosperity and poverty, with the most glittering manifestations of high society rubbing shoulders with devastating social unrest and privation. The era was decadent and licentious – the strength of the Victorian moral backlash gives you some idea of the high-jinks the previous generation got up to. It’s an age of gossip and celebrity and rags to riches – not to mention riches to rags. The scope of what you can write about in a Regency romance is enormous.

The Regency also witnessed the rise of the companionate marriage as the ideal – Lizzie and Darcy marry for love, not for worldly gain, even if she does make a joke about falling in love with Mr. Darcy after she’s seen the glories of Pemberley for the first time. Not only that, but the characters are entering into the long Victorian era of peace – at least at home! In a romance, readers always like the idea of characters’ happy ending continuing!

If you’re targeting the international romance market, the Regency is definitely the most commercial setting. Which doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities for books set in other times and places.

Victorian Britain is popular as are romances set in the Highlands of Scotland. Medievals have a steady following. Again, British settings are the most commercial. Strangely, the American market doesn’t respond particularly strongly to historical romance with American settings. There is a market, if limited, for stories set in the West but currently the Revolutionary War and the Civil War can’t raise a mass audience.

You will see major print publishers occasionally releasing historical romances with settings other than the ones I’ve mentioned – and as with any book, if you’ve written something that will rock an editor’s world, the rules don’t apply. One publisher who accepts a wide range of settings from Ancient Rome through to World War II is Harlequin Mills and Boon. If you’re interested in writing historical romance, my advice would be to explore what’s available.

Speaking of rules, they’re being remade as we speak. With the explosion of e-books, writers have a huge opportunity to experiment with tone and subject and setting in historical (or any) romance. Romance readers have embraced digital publishing with gusto and there’s a wider range of stories out there now than ever if you explore beyond the traditional publishers.

People often ask me about the market potential for historical romances set in Australia. The local houses are open to Australian settings although my feeling is that they lean more towards romantic elements rather than full-blown romances. A romance concentrates almost entirely on the development of a romantic relationship between the hero and heroine and offers readers an optimistic ending. The definition ‘stories with romantic elements’ covers a large proportion of current mainstream popular fiction.

Another issue people often ask about is research. Personally this is part of writing that I always love, but then I’m a history geek from way back. Because the Regency is so popular, resources abound, although beware of the internet. Mistakes can be posted from site to site without ever being corrected.

I like to stick to books and a couple of reliable sites – the BBC or the National Trust spring to mind. If you want to experience the flavour of the period, good costume dramas bring history to life. It’s always nice to have an excuse to watch something like Pride and Prejudice – for research purposes, naturally!

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Britain regularly. Research on the ground is obviously invaluable, but if you can’t immediately afford a ticket to Heathrow, again there are wonderful resources including documentaries about history (I recommend Treasures of the Trust, for example) or the natural world in Britain that can help you develop familiarity with your setting.

Remember when you’re researching, that your principal goal is to tell a compelling romantic story with strong emotional punch. I’ve heard several historical romance authors say they take the iceberg approach – only leave about 10% of it visible, even if the other 90% provides a stable platform for the story.

If you’re interested in writing romance, historical or otherwise, there’s a plethora of informative sites on the net. Among those I’d recommend:

Writing historical romance sweeps you away into the rich, complex world of the past and offers you an opportunity to communicate with an enthusiastic international audience. It can prove rewarding in every sense of the word!

This article first appeared in WQ, the newsletter of the Queensland Writers Centre, August 2011