Thursday, December 08, 2011

Technical Topic -- Historical Romance versus Historical Fiction

Someone asked elsewhere, "I write historical fiction. But I love a good love story. And so I set out to write a story where the love story played a prominent role  . . .  I've read about a "formula" that most romances adhere to; I know that I haven't stuck to it."
Is this book a Historical Romance?

Well . . . it might be.  Then again, it might not.  A 'love story' isn't enough to put you on the Romance shelves.

What it is --
There are many more titles on the shelf that call themselves 'Historical Romance' than there are titles in the 'Historical Fiction' section. Maybe it looks like it would be easier to go the Romance genre route.

But, not so much.  The many Romances are not really germane to a book stuck in the no-man's land between Historical Fiction and Historical Romance.  They're lighter reads.  History is a backdrop in these books, not a main player. Getting a dense and accurate Historical Romance published is probably about as difficult as getting published in Historical Fiction.

What you cannot do is get a book published as Historical Romance if that is not what the book actually is. The agents and editors are really canny about this. They know.

To qualify as Romance -- (I'm talking via my direct link to Infallible Knowledge here) --

(a) At least half the manuscript should be the male and female protagonists in the same scene, face to face.

(b) Another quarter or so, if you can't put the two protagonists face to face, should be scenes directly related to the MMC (Male Main Character) or FMC (Female Main Character.)

(c) The POV should be either MMC or FMC, (unless it's Omniscient Narrator,) for more than 90% of the writing.  You will see that this means almost every scene has one of the two protagonists in it.

(d) Here we come to the big one:

The central problem of the story -- the stuff that sends everybody into action -- is solved when the MMC and FMC finally get together at the end.

That is -- the central problem is not the Queen's Pearl being misplaced or Princess Elizabeth dodging the ax long enough to inherit. The central problem is that Thomas and Anne can't get married because their grandparents are feuding.
You know what problem is central to the story because most important actions the MMC and FMC undertake are motivated by that. We see them act in ways that will get them married rather than merely recover the Missing Pearls.

(e) In a Historical Romance, the FMC should have considerable 'agency'. She does stuff, and important later events happen in response to her action.

(f) The ending should be upbeat. There is a plausible HEA for the MMC and FMC. Everybody walks away smiling, except the villain.

(g) Nobody kills a puppy. This means the MMC's friend does not die lengthily on stage. Nobody the reader cares about dies.

(h) As a minor note, the word count is going to be under 120K.  Better and more salable if it's under 100K.

(i) Roberta Gellis did this.  Georgette Heyer got away with this once or twice.  But a brand new Historical Romance author probably can't.

Do not write about history.

By this I mean, be as accurate as you want, but do not have the narrator or any character tell us 'Why Henry VIII had money in the treasury when he inherited' or 'Why the 1814 Battle of Paris was a good deal more important that the Battle of Waterloo'. No consecutive 300 words should convey historical information.

If the readers of dense, accurate, well-researched Historical Romances want to read Historical Fiction, they know the way to those shelves. When they pick up your Historical Romance they do not want to read Historical Fiction.


  1. Anonymous5:24 PM

    I always love how non-romance readers who happen to also be writers always reference this “formula”. Has anyone got a copy? Is it an inner sanctum thing? Have I not yet ascended to the proper level to be trusted with it?

    -Isobel Carr (whose Google account won't let her comment as herself)

  2. And it's only Romance that has a formula. *sigh*

    Not Mystery or Action Adventure or Elvish Fantasy. Just Romance.

  3. Have to confess here that I killed a puppy in a historical romance. In the opening scene, too. Or rather the villain did -- he was trying to kill a young prince and poisoned his milk, and the boy gave his milk to the puppy.

    I did not like killing the puppy. But I did it.
    I do not recommend it.

  4. Oh dear . . . killing PUPPIES . . .

    Such ruthlessness. Where will it all end?

    I remember somebody was saying my villain in one book was so stereotypically evil they expected him to go around kicking puppies.

    And then somebody or other quoted the passage where he HAD.


  5. Bwhahaha, Isobel! I have a copy of the Super Sekrit Formula and I'm not sharing it. (Also it's written in indecipherable hieroglyphics.)

    Excellent post, Jo. Re. a) and b). You've left up to 25% of the book w/o MCs. That seems to leave a terrifyingly large number of words for - gasp - History. I do like your limit of 300 words for historic information. But do you think it would be OK if FMC and MMC debated the Battle of Paris vs. Waterloo in several pages of banter?

  6. Banter forgives anything. Make the dialog good enough and you list the English kings from Offa to Harold.

    They do this in SF. There's always the "our FTL drive works something like this. Imagine space is folded . . ."

    One reason Regency works so well is the author doesn't have to explain the history. It's all assumed and familiar.

    I'm going to give Isobel my Sekrit Romance Formula decoder ring if she promises to use its awesome powers only for good.

  7. I remember that puppy and the romance he rode in on -- I loved it (the romance, not the dead puppy). That's another annoying thing about people who scorn romance -- they assume no one ever breaks the rules.

    Re: d) When you say the MMC and MFC's actions are motivated by the marriage plot, are you saying this is *their* intention or that the novel frames their actions to make the HEA inevitable? In your books, the MFCs are often, even usually, acting against their own self interest in ways they assume will prevent them having a life with the MMC. It's the MMC who clings optimistically to the love-conquers-all ideal. Maggie doesn't quite fit that mold, but then again, she's an aristocrat and more used to having her way.

  8. Hi Annie --

    Hmmm ... some scenes are part of the 'love plotline' and some part of the 'suspense plotline'. Some are really both.

    It's not the MCs motivations in a scene that put it in the love plotline. Loving each other or hating each other, it's all about the relationship.

    So Lady Matilda helping her knight George into his armor and giving him the last kiss before she closes the helm is part of the relationship plotline and fits into the 75%. George, thinking about how he wants to bed Lady Matilda as he fondles his lance in a Freudian way, is relationship.

    George talking to his squire or charging down the lists and skewering somebody or a description of him swinging his sword in the melee is not relationship and goes into the 25% .

  9. Well, crap. We did extensive research for our romance novel concerning the Revolutionary War, and had our hero involved in one spy mission and battle. Does this mean we should cut that chapter? Yes, the whole chapter is devoted to it. We even inserted some recent findings, formerly unknown, into the manuscript. Not good, eh?
    Oh, also our novel is much more than 100,000 words...seems we did every novice mistake you can possibly do.
    I have the distinct feeling more edits are on the way. LOL

  10. This is an interesting post, Jo. Even though my currently unfinished English civil war novel is told exclusively from the heroine's POV, has her chiefly driving the action, with the main plot being about her relationship with the hero, and the story ending with her and the hero getting together, it is probably not a "historical romance" per se because there's too much war and unpleasantness going on.

    Oh well.

  11. "Nobody the reader cares about dies."

    I can't tell you how relieved I am to see that this is your rule!

    Anne, I read the dead puppy book too and loved it!

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  13. Hi S.L. --

    I adore research. Research is my secret lover that I spend my time with while I pretend to be faithful to Fiction Writing. I am so infatuated with my lover that I suffer from, 'Let me babble on about this great historical stuff I found out.'

    Because I'm writing fiction here, instead of cool articles on history, I pretty quick come to the vexed necessity of
    Using Research in the Service of Story.

    Everybody agrees we get to haul out the historical knowledge to create an authentic background for our people to walk around in -- tastes, smells, events, clothing. This is universally acknowledged to be a Good Thing.

    Where it gets sticky is when we write an actual scene that is about historical goings on instead of about the the love story.
    Your hero riding off to accomplish feats of derring-do on the battlefield for example.

    Now, I do not believe every scene in a single-title Romance needs to be claustrophobically focused on the relationship. This makes me unpopular with some readers who disagree with that. I am sorry to displease them.

    But I figger a single title work of 90K+ words has space to spread out a little. I think roughly a quarter of a single title can go to discursions, backstory, and subplots. In your case this one-quarter that would be well over 25K words. Thats close to half the wordage of a good many category books.
    That's a lotta space.

    Having said we can subplot if we so desire ... can we subplot our way into some straight history writing?

    Ummm ...

    Look. Subplots delight me. About all Adrian's action in Forbidden Rose is a lengthy subplot. The Severine-Justine scenes in Forbidden Rose and Black Hawk, Pax's unhappy revelation in Black Hawk, and Jessamyn's confrontation with Lazarus in My Lord and Spymaster are all subplot.

    These subplots are little stories inside the larger Romance. They're not Romance stories, themselves. They're not necessary to the larger relationship plot of the book. They could be pulled, in toto, and not damage the plotting.

    What I hope they do is enrich and entertain. When I put one of these discursions in the manuscript, my test is --
    "would my kind of reader be interested in this little mini-story if it were written into a novella and slapped at the back of the book?"

    Following this line of thought into your case:

    Would your chapter about the hero spying and battling and adventuring off on his own send the reader turning to the mini-mini-short story of this at the end of the book?
    Or would they skip it?

    If your chapter delights the reader, it's earned a place in the manuscript. If not, no amount of interesting historical facting will give it an admission ticket.

    My own example of this is Adrian sneaking into Robespierre's house in Forbidden Rose. That scene is in the book to fill some structural needs in the suspense plotting. But it's also there to talk about history.
    I got a book in French that showed the actual layout of Robespierre's house at this period. I read biographies that covered the other people in that house -- including the actual dog.
    Lots of history.
    But I would not have added that chapter if I didn't think the reader would want to read it for its own sake. If I didn't think the reader would turn to that chapter if it were appended at the back of the book.

    As to the wordcount.
    Straight Historical Fiction can be pretty long. Historical Romance probably cuts off at 120K. My stuff runs about 115K.
    If you are writing above 120K, you might maybe consider cutting some.

  14. Hi Suburban --

    There's no reason your story SHOULD be Historical Romance, though I'm always delighted to see another carefully-researched HR on the shelves.

    There are reasons we don't kill puppies. HR, like all genre Romance, is escapist literature. The writer's goal is the reader walks away feeling good.

    When I write, I'm directing it to an imaginary reader in my mind. Sometimes it's a woman my own age with all the dreadful problems ordinary people face. Sometimes I'm writing for a doctor sitting down in the hospital cafeteria between patients, some of whom won't make it.

    I try very hard to give that reader an hour or two away from real life. For the space of time it takes to read my book, I want her to believe that nothing really terrible happens to good people and, in the end, if you're brave and hold onto your ideals, love triumphs.

    That is my gift to her, and the reason I write Romance.

    Now, I say, for something to qualify as Romance it needs to pass the 'killing a puppy' test.

    But there is somewhat an 'or not, as the case may be' added on. See comments above. There are great Romance books with horrendous scenes. Angelique in Revolt, Sergeanne Golon, has the heroine's baby killed in front of her.

    This puppy prohibition is one of the rules you can break IF you know exactly what you're doing.

    I add it in my list because, in practice, the gentle fall of twitching bodies in various stages of pain is one of the watersheds that separate Historical Fiction from HR.

  15. Hi Rose --

    I like Romance because I know everybody's going to make it to the end in fairly good shape.

    When my daughter was ten she read a series of children's book called "Animorphs'.

    The last book of the series of about 30 had one of the (I think it was) five continuing protagonists, who had made it together through the whole series, die. On stage. In POV.

    I really could have done without that.

  16. Thank you for a very succinct explanation!

    @Anne that dead puppy book is the Stolen Princess isn't it? I remember it well! It reminds of the quote about not having a gun on the stage if it isn't going to be fired, because the dead puppy means Callie acts all paranoid later on when her son is offered milk in the hero's house. Good call!

  17. There now -- you see. That breaking of a rule had a story purpose that couldn't have been implemented as well in any other way.

    ... and thirdly the code is more of what you call guidelines than actual rules, welcome aboard the Black Pearl, Miss Turner.

  18. I know my roommate loves the Animorphs so I asked her about this.

    ME: So what do you think about the character death in the last book of the Animorphs?
    ROOMMATE: [makes heartbroken little noise][thinks] Well, it's been a long time, maybe if I read it now I wouldn', it was bullshit. I'm just gonna call it right now, it was bullshit.

  19. Your roommate is a wise woman. She say it like it is.

  20. Hi Charity Girl -- Yup, that's the book. It's fresh in my mind, because I read my first Anne Gracie book about two weeks ago and have now read all of them. If only I had more self-control. Now I'm in the same boat as all her other fans waiting for her new release.

    I also read romance because I can be confident that everyone will escape the troll. But it sure is satisfying when someone is good enough to break the rules in the service of the story. That doesn't mean any of you have my permission to kill off your hero or heroine. ;)

    Sometimes authors think it's brave to kill off a much loved main character. The writers of the BBC Robin Hood killed off Marian at the end of series 2 -- on Christmas Day -- with little kids watching. The BBC boards were lit up by the comments of irate parents.

  21. Excellent post. I am pleased to say that my very modest historical romance does not have lots of history in- so I did it right! Huzzah!

  22. Well, heck. I have to say that Historical Romances can have LOTS of history.

    It's just that the action of the story is more apt to be motivated by the love story than the history. And the attention of the reader is directed to the love story. Or, looking at it from another angle, the primary way in which historical events are seen is through the lens of the protagonists' relationship.

    Forbidden Rose is set at the time of Robespierre's fall. If I were writing Historical Fiction, I'd probably want to bring my protagonists right into the Assembly to hear Robespierre's last speech, to the Hotel de Ville to see him shot, to the Place de la Revolution to see him and St. Just die.

    If I were writing Historical Fiction, I'd shape my story around those historical events. Historical Fiction wants to see history and the characters reacting to history.

    Historical Romance has a slightly different perspective. So I can put getting Doyle out of prison front and center, instead of all the historical stuff that was going on more or less simultaneously.