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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

On Controversial Settings

They call me the Countess of Controversy. With this topic, I will live up to my nickname. What, you may ask, could possibly be controversial about settings? But in the world of historical romance writing, it’s a very controversial topic, indeed.

I live on the Oregon Trail, a place where walking the dog means walking in century-old wagon ruts. A spin in the car will take me to high cliffs overlooking the Snake River, where eagles soar and the wilderness has not changed in thousands of years. So, it’s only natural that the books of my heart are set in the American heartland.

But American publishers prefer British settings. A recent trip to the romance aisle of my local bookstore sounded a lot like a game of duck duck goose. Duke, duke, duke, duke, hijab. . . Of course, I stopped on hijab, because it was different. I ended up loving Veil of Roses, a delightful novel by Laura Fitzhugh, about the experiences of Iranian women in America. But I have to think that the publisher felt like he was taking a giant risk by stepping out of the typical romance formula. And I applaud Bantam for taking that chance with a first time author.

Now before you dismiss me as an insular dimwit who can only understand Made in America, let me say that I have lived on three continents. I’ve swum in the Mediterranean and rode a camel through the Sahara. I’ve walked the bowels of the Coliseum in Rome, strolled the Left Bank, and wandered through ruins of ancient Timgad. Any one of those places would make a truly spectacular backdrop for a historical romance. The possibilities for settings are endless. And yet, somehow, we limit ourselves to England.

Please understand. I have a genuine love for Tudor England and I do enjoy regency. But I read it for the excellent writing, the outstanding characterization, and the subtle humor. I have to believe the same talented authors could set a novel in Paris, Milan, or Carthage and make it equally enticing. I, for one, would love a novel that took me someplace new and taught me a thing or two about the world while it entertained me.

So, what are your favorite settings for historical romance? If you write regencies, do you write it because you love it, or because it’s what sells? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject.


  1. I really like this topic. I would love to write something different - which I did once - and agents are afraid to take a chance on my time-travel / paranormal / mystery / historical. It seems my story is too different. It doesn't matter that the whole story (past and present) takes place in California.

    My favorite setting would have to be England. I love reading / writing Regencies and Victorians. I have written a couple of stories that are historical westerns taking place in Texas or around there. That was fun, too...but once again, I didn't want to step out of the boundaries too much because some agents / editors won't take the chance on publishing new authors. (darn!)


  2. Interesting topic, Gail. And I don’t think you’re controversial, at least not at the moment. On this subject, I can only speak for myself…

    I love Regency England. I first fell in love with it when I discovered Fitzwilliam Darcy at age 13. It is, without a doubt, my favorite time period to both read and write about. I am fortunate that it is an era publishers do publish. So for me it works out well.

    No matter my mood, I can find a Regency that captures my interest and fills that need. The light-hearted, feel-good novels of Sabrina Jeffries; the darker, grittier novels of the brilliant Liz Carlyle; the wittiest of witty banter, character novels of Claudia Dain; and the non-stop action/adventure novels of Deb Marlowe. If I want to escape into romance novel, for me there is no other place I’d rather be than Regency England.

    However, if your heart is in another era, I’m certain it is very frustrating. We should never forget that publishing is a business and publishers are in that business to make money. If they see a trend leading toward American set Historicals, I’m sure we’ll see an influx of them on the shelves. If that’s what you want to read, buy what’s out there. Let your pocketbook indicate to the powers-that-be what you want to read.

  3. I do like Regencies and I enjoy setting my stories in England. However, France is what calls to me at the moment and I have started writing a historical that takes place during the French Revolution. Someone told me once that I can go to France if I start in England first. Isn't that kind of like tricking the reader? However, I do have a few English characters so there probably will be some English scenes. But, why couldn't I just start in France and stay there, if the story called for it. I've never limited myself on setting when reading and like to discover historicals set in different parts of the world.

  4. I have to reply to Amy's post - as I was that someone who told her she could go to France if she started in England. LOL

    As writers we're always looking for new stories, new settings, a different way to tell a familiar tale. And as far as our creativity is concerned, change and new things is awesome.

    But you have to look at the big picture. Are you writing for yourself or are you writing to sell. And if you're writing for yourself, then you have no limitations on where you go and what you do once you get there. But if you're writing to sell to others, you have to give them what they want to buy. The bottom line is UK based historicals sell in numbers large enough that publishers buy that kind of book.

    So, Amy, I stand behind my advice. You can go to France or wherever else you want to go. But start off in the UK. :)

  5. Lydia,
    You stated earlier that the way to change a trend is to start buying up the books and let your pocketbook indicate to the powers-that-be what you want to read. And, I agree completely. However, if there is nothing else to choose from but English based stories, with a few American and Scottish thrown in, then how will a reader ever be given a chance to discover they may love Milan or Paris as much as London during the season without having to start there to begin with. If there were historical novels out there that took place soley in France, I would buy it in a heartbeat. Of course, there could be and I am unaware of it. If anyone knows of any, let me know.

  6. I write Regency set historicals because that is what I love to read. That said, I'm not afraid to take my characters out of the UK, if the story calls for it. I've also tossed around the idea of writing something set in Medieval Europe, which would give me more latitude as to the particular setting I chose, but as of yet I haven't decided to go with that. I think largely in part because I haven't had a story idea strike me that would suit one of those settings.

    I also really enjoy reading stories set deep in the heart of America, whether it is my home of Texas or the American West. Somehow, though, I've never been drawn to write those stories. Not because they aren't selling to publishers, though that would pose as a deterrent if it came down to it, but because it just hasn't called to me.

  7. Do I have a resource for you! Have you ever been to ....


    They list historical romance and have sort engines that look all different kinds of things, but one is by time period and setting.

    If you click on the link above, you can search any time period, any setting to your heart's content. Then start buying books that meet what you are searching for.

    Happy reading.

  8. I have never heard of that site. Thanks for the reference. I am off to find romances set in France :).

  9. Hello, Gail, as always, an insightful and interesting post. We’ve talked about this, that everyone all over the world falls in love, in different cultures and languages, and of course, throughout history.

    I’ve read a few historicals, but tend to read almost everything.

    Curious, I did a search for “Regency+England,” and came up with this Wikipedia link, (of course, it’s Wikipedia, and the information must be weighted for accuracy).


    So, I’m curious to know the appeal of Regency. Aren’t most characters aristocratic? Is it that British society was hierarchical and maybe repressed, and the sexual tension between people made for an interesting contrast?

    Jane Austen died before the official start of the Regency period… dumbbell me, I thought Austen wrote in the Regency era. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jane_Austen

    Who can figure why the American reader gravitates toward Regency so. I wonder if it’s because it seems like an idyllic time. (Would be if you were an aristocrat, wouldn’t be so great if you were at the serf level) I watched “Wuthering Heights” with Lawrence Olivier the other night. He did a great job playing Heathcliff, and to see how that creep looked down at him as he cupped his hands so his “master” could mount his horse – that image stays with me. The poor are so often invisible.

    But I’m with you, Gail. Why not explore different settings and times? Other cultures?

    Regency romances are great fun to read, but there’s a universe of possibilities out there. Why not American history? I watched “John Adams” on HBO and hated to see it end… loved Abigail Adams! One moment, scrubbing the floors after the dreaded ‘Pox” hit the town, next, hobnobbing with French royalty. Smart, opinionated, every inch her husband’s equal. What a woman. I kept hoping she’d run away with the actor who played Thomas Jefferson.

    Another great one, Countess of Controversy. Your fan, the Charwoman of Chocolate.

  10. Great topic Gail. I find the overwhelming concentration of historical romance in England at specific periods frustrating as a reader (I don't dare venture into writing historical romance; the hurdles and research I would have to do feel too great for now!). It may be that I'm French, and the old trans Channel rivalry is rearing its head! I understand these settings are popular, so there should be lots to read, but I suspect it also becomes self fulfilling: if that's what available, that's what people will become familiar with and read.

    Thanks for the great link Lydia. I'm going to orient my wallet towards more unusual times and settings, which I enjoy very much. At the last RWA annual meeting in July, one of the Golden Heart winners was a woman who wrote a historical set in ancient China. I immediately wanted to read it. She said in her speech that she faced so many hurdles to break the mold, that so many people told her it would never be published because of the unusual setting. But she got a publishing deal just the day before winning the award (so I'm waiting for it to come out to buy it!).

    I imagine it is particularly difficult for first time authors to break the mold. it is hard enough to convince agents and publishers to take a chance on someone new. At the same time, they're (supposedly) looking for something fresh and new. A fine line to walk...

  11. Sorry. I do hope this is the last post I'll have to make today. I didn't mean to take over your blog, Gail. But I do have to correct something Cheryl said...

    Jane Austen did not die before the Regency period. The Regency is officially between the years 1811-1820. (Austen died in 1817) Those nine years were when George III was still alive, but his oldest son was acting "Regent" due to the King's madness. We often push the dates a decade in either direction, including the official reign of George IV, once he became King. The reason to push the date a decade is earlier, is to include all of the Napoleonic war stuff into one time period. But any way you look at it - this was Jane Austen's time period and the settings for all of her books.

    Interesting side note, Caroline. You mentioned being French and the "old trans Channel rivalry". For whatever reason, Regencies are huge in France, which doesn't make a lot of sense to me, since historically speaking - the French were the "bad guys" at the time thanks to Napoleon. But it is what it is.

  12. Oh Gail, this is probably the post of my heart, you wrote exactly what I've been feeling for the last year or so. I'm sooo envious of your life, how exciting it must have been to visit so many things. History in general intrigues me and I simply cannot get enough of it. I crave exotic alabaster Jaimacan beaches, Egyptian pyramids, Viking longboats along the shore of the incredibly beautiful Iceland, and the incredible beauty of the jungles in Africa. Why oh why must we limit ourselves to one area. I've searched and searched for new releases in exotic settings, and have found little. The link searches for books of a certain time period but many of the books are books written decades ago. Our writing and indeed, our reading has evolved so much so that those written years ago just don't satisfy me. Many are still really good but I do enjoy the fast pacing of the writing today. Hopefully soon, maybe there will be a slight change in the market and we can see if not many at least a few different settings.
    I'll continue to write the controversial settings I guess and I believe if you write a good story above all, people will want to read it. Including editors.
    Great blog Gail, thoroughly enjoyed the debate as well. lol

  13. I read stories in all settings as long as it has a good plot and compelling characters. However, and this may be very shallow of me, I get turned off to the different dialects in books, and that is often what you find in books set in other eras or regions. If I'm reading a romance, I'm reading it for entertainment, and I don't have a lot of tolerance for having to work hard to read it. If I'm reading literature, I feel differently, and I actually read more literary fiction than romance.

    It is true the regency period was a time when there were no equal rights for women and the poor were treated badly, but that was true of the world historically. Therefore, that could be a factor to turn people off to all historical romance. In fact, gender discrimination and poverty happens in many countries around the world even now. Regency authors don't write submissive heroines, so in a sense, I think it is cathartic. And the heros are enlightened men before their time.

    Anyway, I'm on a tangent. I love regency, because it is comfortable, which is sometimes what a reader wants. The world is already created for me, so I can simply sit back and enjoy the story. I have nothing against new settings or learning about a different culture, and I have loved everything I've read of Gail's. I'm simply explaining why I love and write regency.

  14. Great post, Gail!

    I, personally, am obsessed with England and more specifically, the Regency. I discovered it a few years ago and that's when I realized I wanted to be a writer. There's something about the time period that just reeks of romance. I've read historicals with other settings and enjoyed them, but not enough to either write in that time period or to continue to seek out other books in the time period. Regency, Victorians and modern day are what speak to me...and if the modern days take place in England, even better! Yes, I am a bonified Anglophile :) When hubby and I took a research trip to London a few years ago, I did NOT want to come home, and I still get teary eyed watching our video footage.

    I suppose I should mention that my ancestors hailed from England, so there must be some deeper connection that draws me to the country. But don't get me wrong, I love Scotland, too ;)

  15. P.S. While we're on this topic, I do have to recommend a book that takes place in India and surrounds the building of the Taj Mahal. It's called "Beneath a Marble Sky." It's more along the lines of literary fiction, but OMG, the love story is one of the most beautiful I've ever read. I cried for about 45 minutes after I finished the book. So if you're looking for a good read in a unique setting, I HIGHLY recommend this one!

  16. I read regencies mostly because it's one of the few genre's that almost alway make me laugh out loud while reading. When you're still in the store thats a bit awkward but I generally buy that book. :o)

    Strangely, I read Laurell K Hamilton (Anita Blake series) for the humour (all right and her Jean Claude) but she's really dark.

    MaryJanice Davidson writes really witty paranormal (vampires) and I've turned a lot of my friends to her Undead series.

    I guess for me it boils down to the tone - I like wise-cracking characters.

  17. I do love England, but lately I have been drawn to France. My new ms starts in France, and four chapters into it, I'm still there. My characters will eventually get to England, but only because that is what my story dictates not because the market dictates it. I never write fo the market because you never know what will be the next hottest thing/area to write about. I pick my setting based on where the characters need to be for the plot.