Tuesday, 19 July 2011

How about historical; I need a genre!

An Historical (Romance)?

When I first designed the cover of ‘Ellen’s Tale’ I called it ‘an historical romance’.  I still consider the story historical despite it’s setting in 2161!  How so?  You may well ask.  The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, that hefty tome of a book, sums up history/historical as

1) Original meaning of the word was learning or knowledge by enquiry
2) Narration of incidents
3) Continuous methodical record of important or public events
4) Branch of knowledge that deals with past events

1) Pertaining to history
2) Concerned with events of history
3) Belonging to the past not the present

Ellen’s Tale concerns the work of two archivists in 2161 researching events fifty years in the past – 2111.  Using archival material they try and discover how these events influenced history.  They have to read and study around the basic source material so that the story can be placed in context.  The tale is the first part of a longer narrative which seeks to unearth the facts of the events.  Now tell me Ellen’s tale isn’t an historical something (I’ll come to romance in another post!).

I know, I know; life moves on, language changes.  However, it is to dictionaries we go for meanings; if we cannot do that language will mean nothing.  So moving on from the dictionary to Wikipedia – from the sublime to the ridiculous!  Amongst its pages on History we have

1) inquiry/knowledge acquired by discovery/ collection and organisation
2) presentation about past events

Alright, I know this a bit tongue in cheek but I have always liked to play around with the man-made, changing birthdays to suit myself ditto my names.  However, on this idea of straightjackets for fiction I do get so impatient.  Am I the only one who

1)    cares about the meanings of words
2)    thinks genre is just a useful ploy of distributers and book shops
3)   considers it not only a laziness of description but
4)   a bar against readers’ exploration of all fiction – readers also get into pigeon holes.

History is supposed to be real/factual – well we can dispute that.  As we are so often told, it is written and sometimes distorted by the winners, the powerful, to suit themselves (sounds like me!).  It is supposed to be a discipline which looks at past records (written by whom?); an inquiry into past truths by substantial and solid means.  So a strand of beads from a Roman ruin tells the historians a noble lady lived there? – sorry it doesn’t, it tells us someone dropped some beads there. 

Many historical novels and plays are about the author’s interpretations on their subjects or periods of time; events could differ substantially from ‘historians’ common pronouncements.  Shakespeare was a past master of this writing up historical events according to the ruling party of the day and why wouldn’t he be in the days when the Tower and the chopping block were real deterrents to doing otherwise!!  Robert Graves and Mary Renault presented their own interpretations of events in their novels and, of course, it is easier to play with ancient Rome and ancient Greece than something that happened last year.

'Historical romances', according to Wikipedia, are stories set before the Second World War.  Historical fiction, however, seems to follow the true course of the word history and allows stories from the past: such as Jonathan Coe’s ‘The Rotters’ Club’ set in the 1970’s or Courtney Thomas’ ‘Walls of Phantoms’ set in 1989.  So what makes romance different?

I accepted, reluctantly, that others had differing views to mine on the meaning of a history and went in search of romance.


  1. If you self-publish, you can call it whatever you want. So buyers wouldn't feel cheated, you'd want them to understand by the synopsis what you mean by historical, though. But, as you concluded, it's best not to buck the system, in this case.

  2. I think that genres are useful sometimes, but not the be-all and end-all of what a book is about.

    I mean, I still classify my book as a Fantasy, but it isn't even close to all that this book is about. :-)

    Also, readers can get pigeon-holed, but on the other hand that isn't really our concern. We're about writing damn good books and getting them sold. If getting them sold means that I have to stick a genre on my book, then I'm all for it.

    At the heart of it, it is just another business, even if it is considerably more creativity-orientated.

  3. I think genres are important becuase they will draw your target audience to you. Genre is a simple way for people to narrow down their options, otherwise there are way too many options out there. Especially for people who don't read a lot.

    Using genre recognizes that not all readers have as much time as they would like to research their next read. It gives them a hint before they even look at the title.

    That is not to say that every book has an obviouse genre that it neatly fits into.

    Your quest to find your genre sounds kind of like it could be a fun experiment. I hope you enjoy it, and I hope you find a genre that feels good to you.

  4. It is fun finding what genre to label my series - I do realize I need to have a label to attract readers but which readers is a problem when the story doesn't slip meatly into a slot. Am looking for stops on a book tour and it is becoming an increasing problem not knowing the exact target - but hey in my research am finding lots of new authors to read and that is always a bonus in life

  5. Hi Alberta. Very interesting look at what should / could constitute your "historical romance."
    In a workshop with literary agent Donald Maass, he used the example of Diana Gabaldon as an example: her books crossed so many genres it was difficult to decide where they fit. In the end, they qualified them as historical romance because that's where it seemed most likely they would sell best, and if we want to make money with our writing, sometimes sales and marketing are helpful. :)
    For a definition of "romance" (and certainly from a market stand point) I recommend the RWA (Romance Writers of America). Either way, good luck, and happy writing.

  6. Great post, Alberta. Since you are writing the novel in the 'future' but the characters are piecing together a story from their past, I follow your reasoning on the word 'historical'.
    I would understand your book to fit within that genre based on the definitions of the words, but I agree with you, that others may not.
    I have a similiar problem with Claiming The Prize. I've received some negative feedback on listing it as a straight up romance, because there's a lot of story that revolves around the sport of cage fighting. In the end, I've decided to list it as Action/Romance. I need to research a bit more on the category 'romantic fiction' even though I don't think that will be a fit for my novel.
    Good luck, Alberta. I noticed you haven't posted in awhile....hope you're feeling well. ~ Nadja