Viva La Difference: Gaps in History
Are we avoiding difficult periods in history when writing historical romances? Is it a hard sell to set a story in times of Slavery, when being gay was a crime or when interracial relationships were illegal? Our authors tackle the subject of Gaps In History...
The thing I miss in historical romance, and where it really deviates from contemporary romance, is the lives of ordinary people. I do tend to like nineteenth century settings but I find it terribly frustrating that so many people focus on the upper classes and the gentry. If anything they are the really boring people of the period, the ones who are busily cultivating leisure as a profession, getting themselves as far away from interesting things like trade, and political change as they possibly can. It’s why I wanted to set my own story (and hopefully sequel) among the trading families of Birmingham.
All the interesting things of the nineteenth century are happening in the levels below. I think I may have been heavily influenced by Mary Jane Staples (a writer who specialised in the working classes of inter-war London) because you can get some really interesting conflicts and tensions when you look at a group of people involved in a changing trade, or the rise of a new industry. Social gradations are just as relevant at lower rungs of the hierarchy—as Terry Pratchett noted, the rungs get closer together but are often more jealously guarded; so too are social and ethnic differences especially when you live cheek by jowl with them; in cities among the tradespeople and the working poor, people cling together for connect, for opportunities, for familiarity. Romances are made in those networks and can make or break someone’s life.
Writing about a lower social class also means you can use older women characters without having to make comments like “almost on the shelf” because it has only ever been the very rich and the very poor who married super young; generally the average age of marriage for women in the middle and lower classes has been mid-to-late twenties (both because a couple needed to save and establish themselves and because a later marriage reduced the number of children you would have which everyone knew was desirable). Women in their early twenties are far more interesting than eighteen year olds: they have some independence, they often have work (if poor) or a role in the business (early nineteenth century middle class) or in civic life (later nineteenth century middle class), either way, they have a fuller profile to be exploited.
The upper classes are also the most homogenous of groupings: with the exception of the occasional Russian Princess, French Grandmere or half Indian daughter of a second son who went out to India and made a fortune in the cotton trade, you are pretty much stuck with nice white English people and the occasional Scottish or Irish lord thrown in. The same rather goes if you stay rural. And they will all be Christians. But if you move into the cities then there is no period or time when there aren’t migrants, both from the countryside and from other countries.
When I was writing Spring Flowering I was also reading Jenny Uglow’s In These Times about the Home Front in the Napoleonic Wars. Apparently a bunch of French Caribbean soldiers were held as POWs in Devon. Brilliant! I thought and one of my minor characters is the son of one such soldier, working in Birmingham as an apprentice toymaker. There aren’t a lot of people of colour in Birmingham in 1825 so of course he is dating a white girl. People bat an eyelash, but the evidence is that such marriages were fairly common and not much commented on in this period, before Britain becomes an Empire power in Africa. But I also wanted a setting in which differences did matter, so my heroine is Church of England but her uncle is Welsh Methodist, and it causes some complications. We smooth over the importance of those differences to the past and we shouldn’t. People cared about different things, and in 1825 I suspect that religious differences were far more important than racial ones because they dictated which Church you went to which told you who you would socialise with and in turn shaped your business interests and opportunities. All much more familiar to an American audience I suspect than a British one.
The more I think about all the unused diversity out there the more I have ideas about things to write. We have a bad tendency to think that we are now a more diverse population than ever, but that’s much more because some diversities of the past just aren’t visible to us any more, rather than because they didn’t exist.
Recommended reading: Birmingham, the Workshop of the World ed. Carl Chinn and Malcolm Dick, 2016 Bloody Foreigners, Robert Winder, 2005.
Writing Regency romances I am constantly aware of the complex streams of reality that run parallel to the worlds I choose to write about. My novels usually have a fair share of humour in them but I don’t dodge difficult issues – I’ve written about PTSD, suicide, and botched abortions – but writing about homosexuality is an area I haven’t ventured into and I admit I find it hard to approach without losing my objectivity. Two of my three brothers are gay (well, one was, he passed away from an AIDS-related illness eight years ago) and this is an area that affects me deeply. When I read historic accounts of how homosexuality was regarded, condemned, and punished during history, I admit my creativity runs aground. I can’t help but imagine what would have happened to my brothers had they lived in any time but the present and in relatively tolerant societies – and even in our times their lives are and were so much more painful, challenging, and lonely than they need have been.
There was a significant gay subculture in Georgian and Regency London – with Molly houses (gay brothels and clubs where men could come to enjoy music, dancing, and each other’s company, both social and sexual) and known codes and men who would arrange assignations for those who had means. But this was only tolerated so long as it remained out of the public eye and when the veils were ripped off this hidden world, the public response was vicious. One day I would like to include in one of my books the tale of one of the most famous homosexuality trials in English history – the DeVere trial. In 1810 The White Swan on DeVere Street was established as a Molly house but that very year it was raided by Bow Street Runners who arrested twenty-seven men. Eight were tried and convicted, six of them were pilloried in the Haymarket and two (a sixteen year old drummer boy) were hanged at Newgate the following year. Placing people in the pillory was hardly reserved for these crimes and often drew appreciative crowds but this particular case drew so much venom from the crowds it was reported that the six convicted men had to be protected by almost two hundred armed constables. Still, that didn’t stop them from being pelted by the corpses of dead cats, rotten fish, and the usual crowd pleasing mud and vegetables.
I try to imagine what the families of those men and boys felt at the time, whether they were agonized or ashamed or angry or all of these emotions. I try to imagine what those men felt as they faced the vicious crowds, locked into the pillories for hours and suffering verbal and physical abuse but possibly thankful they were at least not heading for the gallows. Their lives before this experience were probably already unimaginably difficult, but what were they like after their release?
This may not sound like material for writing traditional Regency romance but any situation where people are coping with extreme situations there is an opportunity to find powerful and romantic stories. In the best romance stories I have read falling in love goes hand in hand with overcoming personal pain and internal barriers. I haven’t yet written about this painful topic and it might forever remain too close to home for me to approach directly, but I know it is already there in my writing. When I write about loneliness, pain, shame, loss, determination, and bravery I draw on what my two brothers have faced in their lives.
In developing a new time period/genre, what comes first the reader, the publisher or the author?
Ultimately all three have to come together. Readers can’t buy what a publisher doesn’t publish. Publishers can’t publish if the authors don’t submit the manuscripts. BUT authors can’t sell manuscripts if publishers are not open to new time periods etc and publishers will not be open to such things if readers don’t buy or if readers don’t buy in sufficient numbers (i.e. if the publisher perceives the market as being too small). In the past, a section of the readership has proclaimed – we want different, but the vast silent global majority has not necessarily followed and has continued to purchase familiar time periods.
How does an author go about starting a new time period or reviving a dead one? Having done both, I can share my experience. My first Rome set romance (The Gladiator’s Honour) was the first time a major publisher had a romance set in that era. And several weeks before my first Viking (Taken by the Viking) was commissioned, a 2006 Publishers Weekly article on the Romance genre declared the one time period which will never ever come back is Viking set romance. No one asked my senior editor who liked the period and had done her research on actual global sales. She suggested I try as I had done four Romans and Harlequin Historical wanted to broaden their offerings.
The author needs to start with crafting an unforgettable romance with characters who wrap themselves about the reader’s heartstrings. If you have an unusual setting, you need to make sure other aspects are familiar and powerful. Settings and social mores change but human emotions and reactions remain the same. Readers long for that emotional roller coaster of falling in love.
You also should think in terms of a trilogy because as readers find out about the period, they want to revisit that world. I didn’t realise this aspect until after my Roman set books, but accidentally did this with my Vikings. In France where the first three Vikings were released in quick succession, the third book sales soared and convinced my editors that they did need to keep faith with the time period. They had been hesitant to do more than three books set in the time period, until they knew how well it was going to perform internationally.
Because romance books are popular culture, the author needs to be aware of what is happening culturally, particularly what is coming up on television or in the movies. If people are watching a certain period or will be when the book comes out, they are more likely to take a chance on the unfamiliar setting. For example, my first hero was a gladiator who resonated with the editors because The Gladiator had been such a huge hit and then by serendipity the TV series Rome came out about the same time as my book was released. Although I started writing my Vikings back in 2006, I know I was able to do more books in part because the success of Vikings and Game of Thrones created interest. Such tie-ins make it easier to convince a publisher that the market might be big enough to take a punt, particularly if they are operating in a global market like Harlequin.
Ultimately it depends on the quality of the romance and the size of the potential global market. There are great gaps in the market but it takes a special sort of author to take the risk in exploiting them.
Historical romance is known for dukes and Cinderella stories, and when I started writing the first of my Royal Wedding stories, Secrets At Court, I did not do so with the intent of writing a “diverse” heroine. The book is set medieval court of Edward III and, for plot reasons, my heroine had to have some characteristic that would put her at a disadvantage in the world --- one that would mean she needed special protection and was unlikely to find it through marriage.
My solution was to have Anne of Stamford born with a club foot. So, suddenly, I was writing a heroine with a disability. Or, in the language of the Middle Ages, a cripple.
This was new territory for me, and as an author, here’s what I learned from the experience:
The research will be difficult. The everyday lives of women in history are difficult to document. This is doubly true of people who have been marginalized by history. Many of these people were not even mentioned, let alone discussed in great detail, though at least academic historians are now starting to explore their lives. My first challenge was to uncover what society would have thought about her. Would they assume her to be cursed? And how would the medicine of the era have responded? If I had any hope of making the character and her world authentic, I had to understand her place in society. The answers were not always clear, though I was fortunate to find an academic treatise and a few articles to steer me in the right direction.
The character’s situation cannot be tacked on. It must be integral to the plot and motivations. There may be some differences of opinion here, but a character’s background and upbringing create a unique personality and circumstances. In Anne’s case, a pilgrimage to Canterbury hoping for a miracle created one of the most dramatic scenes, and one which shifted her relationship with the hero. Internally, her lack of mobility made her long to see the world, realizing that would never be possible. These came directly from her specific situation and would not have worked for another character.
Don’t let your fears hold you back. Every book is scary. This one was especially so. Could I do justice to the character? And even if I did, would readers accept her? The first hurdle was my editor, and I awaited her response holding my breath. She embraced the story without hesitation and with only the usual questions and suggestions that would insure Anne was a fully fleshed out character. In fact, the back cover copy even called out her disability, so there was no attempt to hide her situation from prospective readers.
And the readers? I never heard even a whisper to suggest they could not identify with Anne and enjoy her story. Several mentioned her strength and that I had effectively conveyed the real risks for her as a lame woman while not making her a pitiable character. The book is among my highest reviewed.
Would I do it again? Secrets At Court broadened my horizons and serves as a challenge to me. I need to continue to strive to make my books broader, deeper, and richer by making them more reflective of real history. It is not easy, but it is worth it.
Do you think there are gaps in Historical Romance? How do you feel the realities of these eras should be addresed? Let us know in the comments or use #gapsinhistory and join the #PHS #ViveLaDifference discussion on Social Media.
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