Saturday, June 11, 2011

Writerly Stuff: Thoughts on Writing the "Outside the Box" Historical Romance

The following Q&A paraphrases questions and answers that often come up in discussion, whether during an interview, or in conversations with other authors.

Why write historical romances set in unusual times and places?

I am intrigued by stories written outside conventional settings because these novels can encompass more than just infrequently explored eras and out of the ordinary physical settings. They can also embrace different cultures and other elements that are not found in the majority of historical romance novels, allowing the writer more freedom and the reader more selection.

I didn’t consciously select the early 18th century as the setting of my debut novel, Fire at Midnight. The novel’s plot is tied to an historical event (the Great Storm) that took place in 1703, but once I became engaged in researching the famous Eddystone lighthouse that was swept away during the storm, it became apparent to me that less frequently portrayed times and places are a relatively untapped source for intriguing ideas.

As a reader, I love to learn about history and explore other cultures, so it was a natural progression for me to write novels that include times, places, and even cultures that have received less exposure than others.

What are some challenges in writing a historical romance?

One challenge is research. Some eras and settings are easy to research due to the vast amount of information available. For example, there are a number of authoritative experts and websites dedicated to the Regency era and the American Civil War and Restoration periods, but the more obscure the time and setting, the more difficult it can be to unearth useful information. While most writers will tell you that only a fraction of their research actually shows up in the pages of their novels; it’s easy enough for a reader to spot a novel with an historical setting that hasn’t been well-researched. It is very often the trivial details encountered during the author’s exploration of the era or setting that will lend realism to the completed novel.

My second novel, Stolen Promise, features Romany (Gypsy) characters. The challenge for me in writing a culture-based historical romance was to move away from stereotypes often presented with regard to the Romany people. The vast amount of research I conducted in order to present the Gypsy characters as faithfully as possible took more time and effort than I had initially anticipated, but several scenes in the book were enhanced by the knowledge I had acquired about the Romany culture and customs. Without doing the research necessary to present the characters honestly, I might have written an historical romance that simply continued to perpetuate cultural myths.

The ability to balance the amount of history woven into the story so that it does not overwhelm the romance element is another challenge. Some romance readers enjoy the flavor provided by the historical framework, but they don’t want a history lesson, while there is another faction of readers who are avid students of history who prefer that the romance element be a factor—but not the focal point—of the story. It’s not easy to appease both camps, and I’m in awe of the writer who can accomplish such a feat.

Another challenge is selling the romance. It’s a leap of faith to write any book with the hope of publication, but the author who chooses an era or setting that isn’t among those considered marketable by publishers is taking that leap off the deep end. There is still a strong conviction among publishers that readers prefer certain eras and settings to the exclusion of others.

While we do seem to go through cycles where publishers are more willing (and can afford) to take risks with unusual settings, it is still easier to obtain editor or agent interest in a book with (for example) a Regency setting than it is in a novel set during the Bronze Age. Still, even knowing that a sale might be made more difficult due to an unusual time period or setting, most historical romance authors won’t be deterred from pursuing an idea they find interesting, and this is as it should be. In the end, if the story holds the reader’s interest and features characters the reader cares about, the book will find a publisher.

The writer of an historical romance featuring an unusual setting faces the same challenges any writer faces: how to create a well-paced piece of fiction with believable characters that will keep a reader engrossed and turning the pages until they reach “The End.”

What strategies do you use to overcome these challenges?

I avoid investing time in developing ideas that don’t make me feel enthusiastic about the project because there is so much time and effort involved in researching and writing a novel that if I don’t love the idea going in, it will be very difficult to sustain interest for the length of time it takes to complete a 400 page manuscript, and I have even less hope of engaging a reader if I’m not excited about the story.

This is especially true in the research phase because if it feels like I’m preparing to write a paper for a college course, the end result is going to be about as fascinating to the reader. I look for something unique in terms of era, setting, or plot idea that stimulates my imagination and makes me want to do the research.
The ratio of history-to-romance really depends upon the setting of the story because some novels may require more narrative explaining the historical context than others, so that the reader can have better insight into character goals and motivations. For example, some background about the Civil War will be needed to set the stage for a novel featuring two brothers divided by war, one fighting for the North and the other for the South.

When it comes to pitching a novel to an agent or editor, I think the best strategy is to know the marketplace. There are smaller publishers who are risk-takers and there are editors and agents who will champion a story they believe in, even when they feel it might be difficult to market. It is important to keep abreast of changes, and to know the players because they change frequently.

When reading a historical romance, what annoys you as a reader?

I don’t enjoy reading what could just as easily be a contemporary plot that has been dressed in a corset and plunked down in the middle of Regency England. People in 1810 behaved very differently than they do in 2010, and if the novel doesn’t reflect the customs and mores of the time period in which it’s set, I think the author has short-changed his or her readers by not doing the amount of research required to lend authenticity to the novel.

My personal pet peeve is when I come across phrases in dialogue that are too modern to fit the historical setting. While I appreciate not being required to slog through Middle English just for the sake of realism, I’m easily thrown out of a story when I come across phrases that don’t feel natural or believable, or contain slang terms that weren’t in use at the time. I don’t want to read dialogue where an early nineteenth century character tells another character to “stop dissin’ me!”

Lisa Marie

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