Anne here. Late last year a new writer asked me about the market for historicals. She'd been told that historicals were passé, that nobody smart was writing them any more. (The timing of the question is significant, because things have changed since then. But more of that later.)
It's not a new idea. When I first started writing historical romance, so many people warned me off the idea. "Historicals are dead," they told me confidently. "Nobody's buying them any more, not publishers, not readers."
I found that hard to believe. I've always loved historicals of all kinds — not just romance — but when I started writing with the aim of being published, that was the general consensus.
But I'd grown up reading Georgette Heyer and others, and I found it hard to believe that there would be no market for the kind of stories I loved. Besides the book I was writing (Gallant Waif) was itching to be written, regardless of whether any publisher would want it. So I kept writing.
I wrote to the major US publishers, asking them if they'd be interested in my "Regency" and they all wrote back saying they weren't publishing Regencies any longer. So it seemed as though "people" were right. (But again, more of that later.)
But the book wanted to be written, so I kept writing. People thought I was mad. One of my friends even said, "Historicals? What's the point? Everyone's dead." Which was true, in a sense —the everybody being dead bit. But I would argue that a good character lives forever. So I ignored all the well-meaning advice. One of the pre-requisites, I believe, for being published is stubbornness and I have it.
In the end I sold that book to Harlequin UK, having first cut more than 40,000 words from it, in order to fit their required maximum word length. It was so hard to do, but I have to admit it improved the book.
But my very first reader, before any editor saw it, was Stephanie Laurens, who lives in the same town. We were put in touch by a mutual acquaintance and after a phone chat, Stephanie offered to read it. When we met, I learned that she'd just left Harlequin and had sold to Avon. She gave me her first cover flat — the first I'd ever seen. She told me she liked my manuscript and advised me to send it off.
I asked her whether she thought historicals were dead, and she laughed and said, "Nonsense!"
And the thing is, her Avon books were something a little different, and when they came out they made a splash, and if historicals were indeed dying (which I don't believe) her books helped keep the sub-genre alive.
And that's what happens. A new writer — I won't say reinvents a sub-genre, but reinvigorates it with a fresh take on the genre, and that creates buzz and attracts new readers to it, and entices former readers to return. Since I've been published I've seen it happen numerous times. Sometimes it's a historical with fantasy elements, sometimes it's historicals with a crime basis—the variety is endless.
As it turned out, my query to US publishers had been "wrongly" phrased. At that time in US publishing "a Regency" meant a traditional sweet regency story, which were indeed being phased out — though they have returned since. I later learned that had I queried my book as a "regency historical" they might have been interested. Ah, the learning curve.
Jane Austen wrote Regencies, though she was actually writing contemporary stories. It was Georgette Heyer who more or less invented the modern Regency romance, and still the classic style of a Regency romance continues to be written and bought and loved by readers, with new writers joining the throng all the time.
And in the last few decades, another method of reinvigoration has hit the market — historical romance on the screen. The various Jane Austen remakes brought Austen to a new, younger audience and, nearly two hundred years after her death, Jane Austen was suddenly a superstar, no longer only studied in English Literature courses, but huge in popular culture and beloved of people who'd never read her books.
Then Downton Abbey hit our screens, and suddenly the post-Victorian era were madly fashionable. And books set around that time were suddenly being published. Victorian-era romances boomed as well. (I recall, way back when, proposing a romance set in Victorian times and my English editor nixed it, saying the Victorian-era was too gloomy and depressing and readers wouldn't want to read books set in that time.)
And now it's the Netflix extravaganza, Bridgerton, which has brought a whole new audience to historical romance. After watching it, fans start with the Julia Quinn books, and once they've read them, hungry for more, they move on to other historical romance writers. I've followed discussions on line, and smile when I realize that so many of these enthusiastic fans of Bridgerton not only have never read historical romance before, in the past, they wouldn't have deigned to. Watching Bridgerton has opened their eyes to the fun of historical romance.
It's also a reimagining and re-presenting of history, which has provoked controversy and heated debate among lovers of historical romance. I look at it as a kind of fantasy historical romance — and I'm in favor of anything that brings more people to reading and appreciating historicals of all varieties. I don't want to open that debate — it's never-ending — but here's an article about the show that I thought was well balanced and interesting.
So, are historicals dead? Nope, and they won't ever be, as long as there are fresh ways of looking at history, imaginative writers who keep mining the past for wonderful tales, and readers hungry for good stories.
Over to you. What historicals of the past do you think have refreshed and reinvigorated the genre? Do you have any favorite historical screen adaptations? Are there any books that you've like to see turned into TV series or movies? I'll start by suggesting Georgette Heyer.