The Historical with Romantic Elements

Guest post
by Frances Burke

I love ‘Historicals’, but in recent times this category has become divided into sub-genres, with the emphasis almost totally upon the emotional conflict. The old Historical Novel wasn’t intended to be a Romance, as such, but a novel set in a historical time frame with Romance as one, sometimes major element.

Today the term covers everything from erotica to sweet Regency, with some historical data thrown in. (Apologies to those writers who do their research, although still allowing the love story to overwhelm other aspects.)

I am proposing another, more specific category: “The Historical With Romantic Elements”. It would cover many genres – adventure, thriller, fantasy, paranormal, you name it. It would follow no pattern but the one in the writer’s mind, allowing her to bend rules and take flights of fancy, use any time frame and as many major characters as were consistent with the length of the novel and common sense. And the romantic element might be relatively small, or even relegated to a sub-plot.

A Historical With Romantic Elements (herein to be known as HWRE) would be distinct from Historical Romance and Historical Saga in that it tended to concentrate heavily on research, with the setting detailed and imprinted with colour and texture. Background would be all-important, with bonus points for an unusual setting. Georgian and Tudor times, for instance, are so well documented and used that research almost falls into the lap. With many other periods, it takes hard work to understand the intricacies of politics, wars and social upheavals and to weave these into a story without overloading the reader with detail.

Philippa Gregory’s earlier novels are examples of the HWRE, although the emphasis on romance has recently increased. She has an immense and entertaining grasp of period. My own novel, Scarlet Wind required a clear understanding of the politics and events of the 1788 French Revolution. And with choices of background varying from Biblical, through Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Asian, Medieval European, Latin American up to the usual early modern Europe and U.S., it’s not so hard for a writer to be different.

Barbara Erskine and Diana Gabaldon use the paranormal element to take us back in time. We are immediately absorbed into another world that is rich in detail. Yes, these are romances. However, the historical background, the events and other major characters are vital and, together, carry equal weight with the love story. Look at the Hornblower series, where the romance plays a relatively small part against the romance of sea-faring adventure. Bernard Cornwell’s books evoke the very smell of early 19thC London. His sense of period is outstanding; the romantic element is always secondary.

Naturally, as with all fiction, well-rounded characters are vital. With HWRE the writer would have the option of introducing an iconic character, someone who actually took part in events, someone the reader could recognise. In a novel with a Tudor background I chose to feature Sir Thomas More in a minor role, but one which influenced the story line. Hopefully, this added a colourful thread to the tapestry that became a book.

Even as secondary characters, real historical figures give verisimilitude – a lovely word that is integral to historical writing. And if the facts show that something is likely to have happened, let’s make it so.

An added benefit is the ‘commercial’ topic. A reader given a choice between two well-written Historical Romances, one about a solid Victorian banker and another about a Georgian political spy, would probably choose the spy. Researching the spy’s background could open up fascinating details about the politics, wars and lifestyles of the period – all of which would enhance the romantic element. Of course, the banker could have led a secret life as Jack the Ripper, but introducing the romantic element there would be a challenge.

Writers are always being told to live up to the promise they make to readers in title and blurb. So the HWRE would need to play fair and define the content, making it clear that the emotional element would not be the whole emphasis. More likely, character, place and/or event would at least enjoy equal status. Jane Eyre, for instance, begins with a momentous incident in the principal character’s childhood and takes some time to introduce the love interest. In Anya Seton’s Katherine the two principal characters don’t meet for fifty pages. Those pages are filled with interest and colour and establish the atmosphere and, importantly, the depth and strength of the heroine. A dramatic setting is being staged, ready for the arrival of the hero. There is a reason why such books become classics.

So I’m nailing my colours to the mast. Here’s to the Historical With Romantic Elements, a novel that is immediately recognisable for what it is –a good meaty story, colourful, eventful, with standout characters, plus the element we all want, the Romance.

Frances Burke is an Australian writer of historical novels (with romance element) set in varying countries and periods, usually with a background of war or civil upheaval, and from the viewpoint of a woman challenging the accepted mores of the time.  Learn more about Frances from her website and her Amazon author page.

Author: Administrators

All Indies Unlimited staff members, including the admins, are volunteers who work for free. If you enjoy what you read here - all for free - please share with your friends, like us on Facebook and Twitter, and if you don't know how to thank us for all this great, free content - feel free to make a donation! Thanks for being here.

8 thoughts on “The Historical with Romantic Elements”

  1. An excellent article, Frances.

    I agree there is a place for historical novels with romantic elements, an area sadly lacking in today’s field of novels. The historicals I love the most are those that balance romance with adventure, intriguing historical characters and fascinating backgrounds. Not only do these books entertain me, they also educate and fascinate me, as well as leaving me thinking about events from the past and how they relate to today’s society.

    There’s a quote that says “To know where you’re going, you need to know where you came from.” Historical novels are a fun way to learn about our past, and raise questions about our present and future.

    I’ve always been interested in the French Revolution, so I’m going to order a copy of your novel, Scarlet Wind. I look forward to reading it.

  2. This is an excellent analysis. I believe there were several excellent writers of such books in the fifties and sixties. I am thinking of Daphne du Maurier and Taylor Caldwell, and also Annemarie Selinko. It is somewhat unfair to judge these writers by the standards of Jane Eyre, since Bronte actually wrote about a time very close to her own — only twenty or so years earlier, but the point is well taken nonetheless. And I have to say that HWREs were made me realize that I love history when I was a teen — since they made the very dry material taught in school come alive. My mother, bless her, introduced me to it, and later my father added some extraordinary European HWREs. I would have never fallen in love with history without such books.

  3. llil, I appreciate your comments and heartily agree about the novels you mention, and others, being the true spur to loving history. My history teacher in final school years was woeful, and so was the single text we followed. I taught myself history and have never looked back on this great love.

  4. Some very valid points, Frances, and you’ve given mention to a couple of my favourite authors. I am not an historical fiction writer as such, but I have written one historical fiction, ‘Terra Nullius’, which I did extensive research for. The central character, Trucannini, has a very full emotional life, with a fiancé and three husbands through the book; however, the characters, the story and the historical accuracy are paramount.

    Great post, Frances.

    1. Thank you for your comments, td. As you say, in any ‘historical’ accuracy is paramount. One of the reasons a writer chooses this field is the enjoyment of research. To learn something fresh and perhaps not widely known is a thrill; to understand the how and why of events and reach a personal conclusion based upon several versions is immensely satisfying.

  5. Thank you for this, Frances. I write HWRE and have been thinking I was out there between genres, alone – too historical for romance, too paranormal for history, too fictional to be a biography, and too literary for historical fiction.

    Seton’s ‘Katherine’ was one of my favorites as a teenager. I love it when a book evokes a place and time and leads me in.

    I will be reading your ‘Scarlet Wind’ with anticipation.

  6. Veronica,I know what you mean about falling between genres when publishers are all about classification. That’s where independent publishing on the net is so good. And there is the fact that writers of HNWR are usually taking the trouble to be original.

Comments are closed.