Earlier this week, Jo announced the launch of a new Yahoogroups list whose admirable purpose is to bring attention to a wide range of historical romances, books that readers might enjoy but otherwise overlook. The list is aptly named HistoricalDelights. For the writers and readers on this list, history IS a delight.
But some of the comments that followed this announcement made me wonder exactly how much history is necessary these days to qualify a book as “historical.” Some readers defined the differences between “lite” and “traditional” historicals, making their choice based on their mood. Some want as complete a time-travel experience as possible, and labled the more frothy books as “wall-bangers.” For other readers, the emphasis is always on entertainment first, and hang the anachronisms.
This dilemna is, of course, not a new one. Any writer who sets a book in a time period other than her or his own faces the same challenge. A large part of history has always been remembering what’s been forgotten, and a historical writer must decide exactly how much of the past to incorporate without overwhelming the love story. Even the most assiduous academic historian can’t entirely put aside the perspective of his own time, and recreate the past without coloring it through the present.
When historical romance made its splashy appearance in publishing in the late 1970s, historical accuracy was not what most readers sought. (Steve! Ginny!) In those sprawling sagas, heros and heroines always wore silk (how else would you identify them as the hero and heroine?). All pirates had huge, four-poster beds aboard their ships, and every highwayman could jump on and off his stallion (!!) with gymnastic ease, then ride the same snorting beast for days at a time without rest, food, or water.
Yet as readers grew more discerning and competition among writers increased, the historial research became more accurate, too. There was more concern for recreating long-ago speech, dress, and manners (though the majority of historical romance heroines mysteriously continue to avoid having periods, the lucky creatures.) Some writers even included footnotes and bibliographies at the end of their historical romances The writers on this blog all work hard to “get it right”, as you can tell by the eagerness with which we swap titles of out-of-print books and exotic web-sites.
But the glory-days of 500 page historical romances are gone. Most historicals today hover around 100,000 words and often less. Publishers say that readers want faster reads, more love scenes, less history, and besides, paper costs too much. Regencies, one of the bastions of historically detailed romantic fiction, are nearly extinct. The current hot trend is for titles taken from current top-forty songs, and dialogue that sounds more appropriate to “The OC” than Almacks.
So now I’ll ask you, readers and fellow writers: how much history is too little, too much, or just right? Do you notice historical errors, or does history make you feel like you’re back in grade school history class, and chick lit in costume more to your taste? Are you one of those heading off in dismay to Phillipa Gregory and your library of old favorites, or do you think 21st century puns have their place on 18th century lips?