Romantic Historical Fiction: Capturing the Intellect and the Heart

History or romance? When I’m asked, the short answer is an emphatic yes, but it tends to confuse people. As an author, I have discovered it very problematic to be both a history geek and a romantic. When people ask me what I write, I have to suppress the urge to apologize for the long explanation forthcoming, and almost have to take a deep inspiration before I answer.

“I write historical fiction with strong romantic elements.”


“Romantic historical fiction. History with romance.” I try again.

“Ah, romance.”  I immediately note the cynicism, especially from men.

“Yes. No! It’s much more than that. While there is certainly a romantic story involved, it is not necessarily the defining element of the book,” I endeavor to elaborate, often with futility.

At his point true “historians” never take me seriously and romantics tend to cross their eyes or yawn when I get excited about some obscure person or event I’ve discovered in my joyful perusal of The Encyclopedia of Military History or The Oxford History of the British Monarchy (both of these titles sit comfortably on my bookshelf).

Although I write romantic fiction, I truly love history and take pride in “getting it right.” While this takes a tremendous amount of effort and adds significantly to the time required to write a novel, I feel that it’s also what sets me apart as a writer. In the end, my goal is to both inform and entertain by bringing my romantic story to vivid life in the reader’s mind though meticulous research.

So what the heck is romantic historical fiction anyway? Is there truly any differentiation from Historical Fiction and Historical Romance?  There truly is! Although publishers inevitably want to put every writer solidly into either “box,” I discovered early on that I hate boxes! A little over a year ago, in my own bout of rebellion against this I created the Goodreads Romantic Historical Fiction Lovers Group in which I describe RHF as:

Either historical or biographical fiction with a strong romantic element, OR a work of historical romance based upon real characters, a major historical event, or having a well-researched exotic setting. Sub-genres such as suspense, time travel, and some paranormal elements are also eligible.

While the above description seems to encompasses many different subgenres, the two key elements are, firstly, that the author has the ability to tell an emotionally compelling story and secondly, that they’ve done their bleeping homework.

While I personally love to lose myself in a well-written historical romance, I am most gratified when a book is able to answer the cravings of both sides of my brain, by taking me well beyond the romance and deep into the era itself. When I read a historical title I want to become truly immersed in another time, not only by the characters’ dress, manners, and speech, but by the setting itself. For me, if an author has truly done his or her job, the setting is more than just a colorful backdrop but becomes equal to the characters in the reader’s mind with the real historical elements so vivid and seamlessly interwoven with the fiction that it becomes virtually impossible to distinguish the two.

This can be done in several different ways such as by using a major historical event. An interesting and unusual example that comes to mind is Ciji Ware’s, A RACE TO SPLENDOR set during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

It can also be beautifully accomplished in biographical fiction when romance is used to advance the historical plot. A great example of romantic biographical fiction (and there are many) is TO DEFY A KING by Elizabeth Chadwick, in which the relationship between Mahelt and Hugh is a critical element of the greater story.

It can also mean equally combining fact and fiction such as in my own debut, THE HIGHEST STAKES, in which I use many real characters, horses, and actual races to tell the fictional love story of Charlotte and Robert; or in the case of FORTUNE’S SON (to be released November 1, 2011), where a cast of true historical characters grace the Georgian gaming rooms. Surprising to many readers I have included an extensive bibliography in both of these works of fiction.

In the end the author’s goal in writing romantic historical fiction is to use an emotionally compelling story (romance) to bring an era (history) to vivid life.

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