Historical Romance: The Quest for Its Creator
On a rainy afternoon last week, I browsed the romance section of my neighborhood bookstore and wondered—who wrote the first historical romance? A little investigation revealed that some of the first historical romance writers include 19th century Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott known for his novels Ivanhoe and Rob Roy, and the French author Alexander Dumas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and later, 20th century Englishwoman Georgette Heyer for her novel, The Black Moth.
In the United States in 1972, Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower was the first paperback historical romance novel to follow the ‘principals into the bedroom.’ Since then historical romance has become a mass-market fiction genre related to romance.
Empowered Heroines in Historical Romance
Over time, a new style of historical romance has emerged. Historical romance heroines have evolved from the ‘Damsel in Distress’ into strong-willed independent women drawn to alpha heroes who grow into compassionate admirers of the women they love.
Romance Drives the Plot… Through a Historical Landscape
In my first novel, On the Edge of Sunrise, I chose Diana Gabaldon’s popular novel, Outlander, as a compass. Although Outlander is marketed as historical fiction, a romance drives the plot of Gabaldon’s novel, but the love story includes strong historical events and persons, political intrigue tied to a variety of supporting characters, and true to the romance genre and life—sex.
With historical romance writers developing and expanding their content in these areas, the standard historical romance has experienced another transformation. From the common perception of the historical romance as a ‘bodice ripper’ or a romance set in a historical time period as merely a backdrop, the reader now has the opportunity to enter into a broader realm of history, characters, and sexuality, creating a hybrid I refer to as—romantic historical.
Historical Events Come to life
On the Edge of Sunrise is set in the 5TH century. The Western Roman Empire is waning and losing its way under the rule of Valentinian III. The barbarian groups are on the rise. Valentinian’s famous and respected general, Flavius Aetius, holds the empire together by blocking Attila the Hun’s invasion into Gaul (France).
After the Huns are defeated on the Catalaunian Plains, Valentinian murders Aetius in a jealous rage, and in an act of revenge, two of Aetius’ soldiers assassinate Valentinian. A puppet emperor, Petronius Maximus steps in and is killed by the Roman mob when he attempts to flee the Vandal invasion of Rome.
History is Rigorously Researched
These true historical events and characters are detailed and highly researched. It’s not a simple historical backdrop with a hero and heroine and several minor players that one might find in a standard historical romance.
An Example: Political Intrigue and Character Development
Besides the over-arching historical events and persons found in my novel, is the thread of political intrigue that runs through it via a mysterious riddle and supporting character, a concubine named Marcella, who provides a dark contrast to my heroine Arria.
In addition to weaving a political scheme—based on real historical facts that have left historians puzzled for centuries—into the plot, I want my reader to have a favorite supporting character, whether good or evil.
From time to time, I give these characters their own ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ or passionate moments because it fits the story and adds another layer of humanness. The Game of Thrones is popular because Martin has built a world of characters who play to the human condition on all levels and who allow us to love, hate, pity, and enjoy more than just the hero. Ironically, the hero of today, John Snow, was not the hero in the beginning.
Martin has given himself room to grow, move and evolve his fictional world and characters. These are the kind of characters who should be allowed to live within the framework of historical romance, or the better term—romantic historical. It’s a hybrid. The reader gets to experience more.
Sexuality is a Part of History, and No Less Important
When I write, a movie often plays out in my head. As the story progresses and the main and supporting characters—young feisty women and virile men, often warriors—are thrown together, it’s only natural that at times they feel longings and passions. If as moviegoers we can watch the expression of lovemaking, then is there not a place for it in a romantic historical?
Sexuality, passion, and romance, aside from money, do run the world or at least keep it populated! Thousands of readers and viewers were drawn to the passionate relationship between Jamie and Claire in Outlander. In The Game of Thrones, sexuality and passion also motivate the characters whether in the form of love, lust, power, or revenge.
Thanks to the fusion of historical and historical romance novels into ‘romantic historical’, modern readers view history, an array of characters, and human sexuality as essential to the art of historical fiction. The romantic historical is a hybrid genre come to life and worthy of recognition.
If you enjoy traveling back in time, why not find a romantic historical—or more commonly known as a historical romance—novel that will carry you through the pages and may even include a mystery, fantasy or just an epic tale.
*Romantic historical/Historical romance is one of the highest selling genres in the publishing marketplace.