Discovering the Good C+: How Readers Could Help Reboot Historical Romance

There’s been a lot of talk the last week or so about the decline (in numbers, quality, new authors, readers) of historical romance. Jane’s suggestion at Dear Author that “We should let the historical genre die” has generated a lot of discussion (both there and on Twitter).

I agree with a lot of what Jane says about how stale the subgenre has become and how few new authors are breaking out (forget talking about why this is so, which only seems to lead to arguments among people who basically agree that variety would be nice). I don’t want to launch a campaign to save historical romance in its current narrow form, but I would like a campaign to reboot it. What can I do?

Today’s discussions led me to this post by Evangeline Holland, and one of the things she suggests is that historical romance needs a Fifty Shades, a breakout book from outside the genre, to shake it up. I’m not sure that’s the only way to change, but it’s one way. Evangeline also got me thinking about the rise of New Adult, a genre for which there was supposedly no market, which no publisher would buy. Authors wrote books, they self-published, and they created a market (I suspect by building on the strong online community of YA readers/writers/bloggers, from which some of them came).

Is it risky? Yes. But I think it’s a way forward for new kinds of historical romance if writers want to take that risk. There’s an online romance community, many of them are saying they want change. Is it a giant-best-seller-size audience? Perhaps not, but it could be a sustain-your-career-size audience. That audience needs to do their–our–part. Romance-readers discovered New Adult because a few hardy souls started reading it. They read a lot of not-great books to discover a few they felt were gems. And other readers followed them. There are some unusual historicals out there. And I think there would be more if authors and publishers believed there were an audience, if they saw readers talking about such books. (I might be arguing that if we build it, they will come. What other clichés can I spout?)

I don’t want to read a lot of crap. But I will read some “good C+” books. The good C+ is what happens when a writer takes a risk that doesn’t quite work. (I see it in student papers all the time). There are C+ books where everything is kind of “meh” and there’s not much hope for better, and then there are C+ books that are really just a step from a B+/A, once the writer has better mastery of her craft. Books with some real flaws, but also some great stuff. I think that will be what the best “different” historicals mostly look like, at first. They’ll be from new writers.

So here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to pay more attention to small (probably e-only) press and self-published historical romance, and to historical fiction that might have a strong romance plot but isn’t being labeled “romance” because it’s not Regency. When I find books that are somewhat out of the frothy-Regency-Duke mold and make it to at least the “good C+” level, I’m going to talk about them.

I don’t hate Regencies. I’ll still read them. I just want more variety in my historical romance. Too much of the same thing (and packaged/marketed to elide any differences) = jaded reader= focusing on the bad in books rather than the good.

Feel free to suggest the new and “different.”

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37 Responses to Discovering the Good C+: How Readers Could Help Reboot Historical Romance

  1. SonomaLass says:

    There are also some established authors who want to self-publish books that their publisher isn’t interested in, or books for which the contract offer was laughably low. Some of those will be “unusual” as well, since I think publisher constraints (or perceived publisher constraints, which themselves are perceived reader preferences) have a lot to do with the same-old, same-old we’re complaining about. While self-pubbed books by established authors have an automatic advantage over books by an author with no track record, they still have to fight for readership and sales. I’m hoping that committing to buy, read and talk about unusual books, even if they aren’t all four- and five-star reads, will help sustain and even increase diversity in the genre.

  2. Have you read Anna Cowan’s upcoming e-only book, Untamed? It *is* a regency, but I’m over halfway through it and so far the hero has spent most of the book in female garb. He cross-dresses in order to travel alone with the heroine and then visit with her family and be allowed to sleep in her bed (so far all they’ve done in it is sleep). It’s too early yet for me to grade it but it is an interesting book and I’d love to hear what you’d make of it.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I’m planning to read it. Responses from people I know have been all over the map–it seems like a definite “flawed but with great stuff” possibility.

      • kaetrin says:

        I’m reading it now. So far about 1/3 in and everything is mysterious. Some of the writing is lovely but it could go either way at the moment in terms of plot. You know how some books you know how you feel about them from the start and others, you have to look back on the whole to really decide? I’m thinking Untamed might be one of the latter.

    • I’m also over halfway through it and I’m experiencing reader whiplash: lovely bits or writing and moving emotional interactions alternate with astonishingly basic errors ranging from politics to law to fashion (I’m on shakier ground on this last one, but I don’t *think* hoops were considered fashionable in the Regency). Not trivial ones, either; they are fundamental to the storyline and are easily checked. I’m glad you said it was Regency, Janine, because that’s what I thought, but there are references that are properly placed in the early Victorian era. So I am continually confused.

      • Well, I think it’s Regency — I could be wrong! And yeah, much of it seems unlikely even to me, who doesn’t know that period well.

        Re. the hoops, wasn’t it said that “Lady Rose” dresses in the clothing of the previous century? Though that in itself seems to me to be something that would set off other people’s weirdness bells.

        I have loved some mistoricals (Julie Anne Long’s come to mind) so inaccuracies don’t automatically disqualify a book from being a favorite of mine, It remains to be seen whether this one will be, though.

        I love some things about the writing. Cowan really has a way with metaphor and internal narration. Kaetrin is right — in my case at least, it’s one of those books one has to finish to form a full opinion about — but I would love to hear Liz’s thoughts on the book because it’s just so different.

  3. merriank says:

    It’s funny because amidst this wringing of hands in the past few months my historical romance novel reading has gone up exponentially. I also think we need to define terms because I am reading more m/m historical and many of those are ancient world settings because these are digital only they are not counted in the historical pub tally. I would include in that historical reading – Elizabeth Chadwick’s Greatest Night, lots of Carla Kelly and Rhys Bowen’s series of books about an impoverished young Duke’s daughter with a connection of Queen Mary who solves problems in the early 1930’s milieu of fading aristocrats, the nouveau riche and the the depression. I would also call these Bowen’s good C/C+ books.

    My planned fiction reading over May/June (which may or may not happen & is likely to include other books consumed when I don’t want to think about things). I add in the SFF and fantasy books because in their world building they are alike to historicals. I think I have the same question for historical and SFF writing: how does the world inform and create the characters lives and possibilities, their agency and love?

    ‘The Pyramid Waltz’ by Barbara Wright f/f fantasy

    ‘Crusader Captive’ by Merline Lovelace m/f historical

    ‘Mortal Fire’ by Elizabeth Knox YA SFF/contemporary set in NZ

    ‘The Laird’s Forbidden Lover’ by Amelia Gormley m/m historical

    ‘The King’s Courtesan’ by Judith James m/f historical

    ‘The Death of the Necromancer’ by Martha Wells SFF

    ‘Midnight Confessions by Candice Proctor m/f historical

    • merriank says:

      Sorry, missing a few full stops and that should read Knight as in The Greatest Knight

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      It’s interesting that both m/m (in which historical seems to be small but growing) and inspirational have a much wider variety of historical settings than mainstream romance. Because those readers are already reading outside of certain boxes and rules? I wonder. Maybe that will have an influence, too.

      • This discussion, here and elsewhere, has made me think about m/m historicals. I haven’t read that many over the years, but the ones I have read have been really strong, for example: Snowbell in Hell by Josh Lanyon, An Improper Holiday by KA Mitchell (not erotic romance, btw), Skybound by Aleksandr Voinov, The Only Gold by Tamara Allen.

        They do seem to be coming at historical romance in a slightly different way than m/f historicals where Regency and Heyer’s legacy has such a strong hold on the books. There’s a mix of settings/times in the books listed above.

        I keep thinking that at least some of these m/m historicals would appeal to readers who don’t often turn to m/m because of the immersion into a different time and place that (I think) some people are looking for, and the authors’ clear interest in anchoring the books in that historical time and place.

  4. I wholeheartedly agree with the concept of the “Good C+”. As I said on Dear Author, there are or have been a number of “unusual” historicals published over the past five years, but little to no buzz or so-so/poor word of mouth works against at least supporting the existence of these books. And, as seen in the rise of New Adult and authors like Kristen Ashley, book bloggers have the power to wield strong buzz–Romancelandia saw this happen when DA, TBS, and SBTB led the championing of The Iron Duke, Private Arrangements, Butterfly Swords, A Lady Awakened, etc.

    All new and mid-list authors must actively promote themselves, but if you’re writing a fun Regency romp, you have a recognizable–to the marketing department and to booksellers–audience. If you study publisher catalogs, the marketing copy used to entice booksellers to stock a particular title easily compares debut Regency romance author to Julia Quinn or Mary Balogh. If the book is set somewhere else, let’s hope the book has a very, very strong and high concept hook or some awards/pre-pub buzz to cull from (which then implies that “Regency” is a hook in and of its own self–the copy doesn’t think to compare like voice to like voice).

    But I digress! (I happen to enjoy studying this side of publishing and can ramble on and on :) ) For too long I’ve looked in the wrong direction for some sort of “signal” I guess (industry professionals/The Market) instead of the right direction–eager readers and the strong network of encouraging and talented authors out there. This conversation has actually given me a boost of confidence and fearlessness to write what I want and “publish and be damned!” in the words of Wellington.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I have really appreciated your perspective here and elsewhere! One of the frustrations of the discussion is that when readers say “we want this” some writers say “but it doesn’t sell well.” I think “we” readers need to put some of our money where our mouths are, even if that means less safe reading choices and taking risks on books that are OK but not great for us–because the author is also taking risks.

      • Wendy says:

        That. So much that. Readers need to vote with their dollars – which means we’re going to have to suck it up and just deal with that fact that not everything we buy is going to be a winner for us. I love historical westerns and made the cognizant choice YEARS ago to buy every historical western (this was pre-self-pub explosion – so I’m talking traditional publishers) that caught my eye / sounded appealing brand new. Preferably the same month it was released – if my budget allowed. Not sure if my buying that one copy made THAT much of a difference – but at the very least I feel like I can back up my whining now because I am doing *something* about it. However small and meager.

        Also – yes on the C+ reads. I’ll pretty much give any new-to-me author writing in unusual time periods / settings a second and even third chance if their book hits anywhere in my C or above range. I cannot necessarily say the same for new-to-me authors writing in more prevalent time period / settings. If your historical set in Regency London was a C for me? Unless there was an element that knocked my socks off – your next book may get a pass.

  5. kaetrin says:

    What I’m wondering, re historical romances is something I may not say very well. Please forgive me if I mess it up and please assume good intent :)

    If “we” are asking for different settings in HR, then what happens when we get it? I mean, for example, say there’s an African set romance in the early 1900s. That’s going to deal with Colonialism and race most probably, particularly if the protags are white. If it’s accurate in terms of historical setting, then (many of) the white characters are going to be racist in one way or another. Using the new Deanna Raybourn as an example (which I have not read), I saw the thread on DA about it and there were comments about racism (which seemed to me to be valid criticisms). Are people going to shy away from writing such romance if they’re going to go up against the backlash? Are people going to read it? Because we have 21stC mindsets now about Colonialism and racism etc. Can we read an accurately set romance and enjoy it without guilt? Therefore, is the Regency “safe”? It’s not going to offend anyone (unless it’s a mistorical and that’s a different issue) or, at least, not many.

    I’m sure it’s possible to write an historical book set in Africa (as an example) and successfully navgate the minefield of modern sensibilities but it seems to me that it might be really hard to do and still stay true to the time period. I see in the comments at DA that people are saying they don’t want historical books where the characters are contemporary people in “long dresses”.

    Oh, damn. I’m really not saying this very well. My thoughts aren’t very well articulated at all on this. I know, from Sunita, that there are some books set in India which navigate Colonialism and race issues really well (I know she loves the Jewel in the Crown books), so I know it can be done (even though those books weren’t genre romance I believe). But sometimes I wonder if “we” are asking too much?

    Does anybody understand what I’m getting at here? *sigh* I’m not sure I even do. LOL.

    • Emma says:

      Yes! The Regency period — and even to an extent the late Georgian and early Victorian — has been depoliticized and generally flattened. It’s not history, with it’s complications and sometimes abhorrent attitudes about class/race/gender/sexuality/etc., it’s Disney-ized fiction. So when someone says she want historical fiction with different settings, it sometimes sounds like what is wanted is for other places/times to get the same treatment.

      Good historical romance doesn’t do this, of course. Carrie Lofty’s His Very Own Girl is the first book I can think of as an example. It deals with class and gender in fascinating ways that reveal how very complicated the WWII period was — and undermine a lot of the “greatest generation” rhetoric we’ve all heard repeatedly.

      I recently wrote a Civil War-set novella. I didn’t mean to; it came out of dissertation research and daydreams. What I found was that it was far more difficult than I had anticipated not to write problematical things — to write the period honestly and to not do some very icky cultural work by, saying, using a trope like the anti-slavery Confederate (which is not to say of course that every Confederate soldier supported slavery, but that the existence of this figure in lit is so often about support Lost Clause ideology, which has nothing to do with history and everything to do with a political agenda that’s anathema to me; this digression proves my point).

      No historical fiction is a perfect replica of the past, it couldn’t possibly be. Our attempts to write it will always tell us more about now than then.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        Thanks, Emma, for these insightful comments. I think that writing a story set in some or even most historical periods is much more difficult in romance, where readers want the protagonists to be likeable/heroic, than it is in straight historical fiction.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Kaetrin, I understand exactly what you mean. This is part of the risk, I think (as Emma says below, we’ve made the Regency a “safe” period by flattening a lot of the history out of it). I do think some (many?) “unusual” historicals will fail for some readers, especially if they are set in times and places where the politics are tricky to negotiate while keeping the book romantic. I wonder if readers demanding more variety are also readers interested in less escapist and ahistorical romance, though. Raybourn’s book is a perfect example of one that took risks that failed for a lot of readers.

    • Las says:

      I understand what you’re saying. I guess my question is why do the h/h HAVE to be white in that setting? What is so unique about yet one more white couple with the world at their feet, no matter what their location? I mean, if an author is going to make the effort to research and write a time and place that’s completely foreign to her, why is it that she can only imagine colonizers as the main characters?

      I’m not saying it can’t or hasn’t been done well, or that each individual book with such a premise is automatically problematic, but collectively, when book after book is “White people in Africa/India/West Indies/etc., that’s an issue. Those books really aren’t as unique as we’d like to think they are.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        Word. I think there’s the idea that colonized people are only tragic/noble/downtrodden. They go on loving and living too. Who’s telling those stories? (The more global publishing becomes, the more we might find these stories not written by white Westerners, though they might not look like US-style genre romance, either).

      • I recently read a blog post in which a reader stated that she said that she was unlikely to connect emotionally with main characters who are a different ethnicity when she reads genre novels (the reader is white). It’s not that uncommon a sentiment, although a lot of readers don’t say so in public anymore, and I think it’s something authors worry about.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        These conversations turn depressing so quickly . . . .

      • Las says:

        I don’t doubt for one second that many (most?) white readers won’t read books featuring characters of different ethnicities, and I understand authors worrying about that. Plenty of authors have stated that their sales have dropped significantly when they feature non-white characters, and I believe them. But it struck me while reading the discussion of that review at DA–and kaetrin’s comment here reminded me–that while people complain about “political correctness” in historicals and ask how can you write an historically accurate book without the main characters being racist, it doesn’t occur to the that writing a historically accurate non-racist character is actually really easy. They want different countries, but the same exact people they’ve always read. That really is depressing.

      • Lynnd says:

        The Disnification of the Regency (and other time periods, such as the Tudors or the Victorian period), at least for me, is the reason that I am becoming increasingly bored with historical romance and am gravitating more towards straight historical fiction and historical mystery to get my “historical fix”. I believe that there are many others like me who are doing exactly the same thing. There will always be readers who want the Disnified version of anything, but I find that I much prefer the Grimm’s version – it’s far more interesting. Given the popularity of many paranormals where the characters are not predominantly white (ie: Nalini Singh), I think that many readers would happily gobble up historicals about non-white cultures/heroes/heroines if they were available (as a baby step, I’d even be happy with non-Anglo Saxon heroes/heroines).

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        I’ve always liked historical mysteries, and there’s such a great variety of periods and settings. Of course, readers there expect/accept “grim” in a way that many romance readers don’t.

  6. merriank says:

    I wonder if the Napoleonic Wars are seen as a a just war so any story with soldier or sailor heroes works? Trafalgar was in 1805 and the Royal Navy began anti-slavery patrolling in 1808 for example. Yet the rest of the century was much more about the colonial and empire building work and the great deal of civil unrest and poverty/industrialisation and we can’t un-know what we do about that. Things go from Waterloo to Peterloo. Is it also that authors of the time like Dickens e.g. ‘Our Mutual Friend’ and Mrs Gaskell are writ so large in our understanding of these times that there isn’t much space to squeak a new type of historical romance genre story out? As a by-the-by my stepfather’s father was named Alma after the battle of Alma in the Crimean War which leads me to the contrast of the stories that can arise from the Peninsular War but not from the Crimean War e.g. no women following the drum in 1853.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      All good points. It’s the rare Regency that shows the reality of war, too (Carla Kelly is one exception). It’s more likely to show up in the form of romantically-cured PTSD.

      When people talk about all of the bad stuff in the Victorian period, all I can think is that novelists writing in the period dealt with all that, and many–most–also included a love story. Yes, it isn’t genre romance, but it is often romantic, and the protagonists aren’t usually wealthy and titled, either. So I firmly believe it can be done, even if not to every reader’s satisfaction (what is?).

    • Women may not have followed the drum in the Crimean War but Florence Nightingale took women out as nurses, and I read a novel more than two decades ago with that plot point. I have a box of Signet/Fawcett romances from the 1970s and 1980s that were set in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, so it’s not that authors *can’t* write about it, it’s that contemporary writers either don’t write it or can’t get it published.

  7. Since you asked, I’m going to be self-serving and recommend a few of my books from Amber Quill Press (ebook and paper). Sea Change (Golden Quill and Beacon finalist) is set during the War of 1812, and the hero is an American privateer. Smuggler’s Bride is set in Florida in 1843, and The Bride and the Buccaneer (Beacon Award winner) is a road book set in 1820s Florida.

    I had trouble getting them published by the large houses because they were not quite Regencies, but small presses like Amber Quill are more willing to take a chance, and I appreciate that.

  8. The Notorious Lady Anne is a new Loveswept Romance that I’d give a C+ to. A lady pirate kidnaps the hero.

    Anna Randol’s Sins of a Ruthless Rogue begins in England but moves almost immediately to Russia.

    Hope you try them:)

  9. I think WW 2 romance would really take off – defensible war, close to contemporary for mixed audience comfort, degree of remove for cultural conflict. I read one before 2009 that was a C+ but Amazon won’t let me look far enough back in my reviews to find it.

  10. Women in the Crimean War served abroad as sutlers, laundresses, prostitutes; many wives of both officers and common soldiers traveled to war as well. I am not sure if there were any in reality, but you could make a fictional case for a female journalist, since journalism was such a big part of the Crimean War and there were some women in that field at the time. Plus nurses, though nurses at the time had terrible reputations for being sluts, drunks, etc. (plot conflict!). Plus there were some rich women who were essentially tourists, gone to see a battle or hobnob with the officers.

    • kaetrin says:

      I read a number of books set in the Crimean War when I was younger. Not at all racy. Quietly romantic. I *believe* the author was Emma Drummond. But it was a long time ago now so I might have that wrong.

  11. elisecyr says:

    I’m so glad to see this. I recently signed a contract with a small press for a medieval romance after a number of agents gave me variations on “great story/writing; can’t sell it.” With all the posts this week (Dear Author and All About Romance) lamenting the subgenre’s decline, I questioned what kind of impact my book could have in this landscape. I agree with your assertion that readers being more adventurous and making non-Regency romances more visible would go a long way. I’ll be interested in seeing how this evolves.

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