Our Pages

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The In-Between Years

I recently started writing a novel set in Algeria in 1954.
An odd setting, I know.
But the location is not really the problem. It's the date that's giving me fits. The year 1954 falls into the black hole that lies between Historical and Contemporary romance.
The in-between years.
Which leads me to the question: What exactly is a historical romance novel?
Since I write romance, I looked up the RWA® category definition of a historical romance:
Historical Romance:
Romance novels set in any time period prior to 1945, and taking place in any location.”
By that definition, my story would be a contemporary. The problem is that it doesn’t feel like I’m writing a contemporary.
In 1954, both England and France still clung to their colonial empires. Algeria was a French departément, or state. Since then, the Mediterranean country has regained its sovereignty and reaffirmed its Arabic and Islamic traditions. The clothing, currency, transportation, and language have all changed. Even the cities have different names now.
I have lived in contemporary Algeria, but because of these changes in the last 57 years, I’m doing more research for this "contemporary" novel than I usually do on my historicals. I must weave bits of historical fact into the text. I can’t assume the average reader will be familiar with the country’s backstory.
I’m not complaining. I love writing historicals. I love doing historical research. But I do worry about my audience.
I want my novel to read by people who love history the way I do, who want to be transported back in time to another world. I’d like to run these new chapters past some contest judges who appreciate historicals, and get some unbiased feedback. I’d like to pitch it to an editor as a historical romance.
But 1945 is the official cut-off date. Even my beloved historical romance critique group defines a historical as “a hundred years in the past.”
Maybe it’s time to update that definition.
I’ll admit my Algerian example is a little obscure. Let’s consider something more people can relate to: Mad Men.
Set in the 1960’s, this award-winning television show stands out precisely because of its attention to social history. From the clothes the characters wear, to the cigarettes they smoke, to the carbon paper in their typewriters; every detail reminds us that the story is set in a different era. The history in Mad Men is just as important as it is in a regency-era romance.
If you don’t believe Mad Men is a historical, watch the episode on the Kennedy assassination. The writers must have done a ton of research to be able to give their audience that minute-by-minute reenactment experience.
So maybe it’s time we updated the “historical” definition to—let’s say— “before 1975?”
I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. What makes a historical? Are stories set in the 1950’s and 60’s historicals? Or do you feel that they still belong in the contemporary category?


  1. If I were the one setting the parameters for what makes a historical, I'd go with anything before the last ten to fifteen years. So much changes so fast!

    But most publishers still require historicals to be set pre-1900 even, not just pre-1945. A few of them are starting to stray into the 20th Century--but most of the ones that are would be considered small presses or e-publishers. The major publishers? 19th Century and before, please.

    It doesn't make a lot of sense to me, but there you have it.

  2. If I did my math correctly 1954 is 57 years ago.

    I think the historical category should be placed at 50 years ago. We have come so far in the last 50 years, it's like time travel. We put a man on the moon. (And I won't even get into what else we've accomplished.)

    I think I would categorize your novel as historical.

  3. Clarissa, this is an interesting topic. I would definitely classify your book as historical, just for the fact that it is an entirely different era, one that only people with a certain amount of "life history" would recognize. :) It sounds fascinating, and I can't wait to read it.

    Too bad there couldn't be categories of historical timeframes, the way they do with cars: classic, vintage, etc. It's based on how many years have gone by I think.

  4. Hi Clarissa! BTW, congrats on your GH final!

    I agree with Anne. According to www.historicalnovelsociety.org/definition.htm, the book has to be written at least 50yrs after the events in the story. That would mean yours qualifies as historical. What I like about this definition is that it's not static.

    I think I mentioned to you a while back (through email) that I lived in Algeria in the 1970's. When you walk the beaches and see the remains of bullet ridden tanks, you can't think of the war with the French as anything but history. Certainly not contemporary to me.

    Perhaps there are some publishers out there who have different guidelines, or are more flexible with what constitutes a historical. If not, it's about time the rules change ;).

  5. Hi Catherine, Donna, Anne, and Rula,
    Thank you so much for the comments.

    Anne, I love your 50 year rule. What a great idea.

    Rula, It's so good to hear from you again. Sometimes when I mention Algeria I feel like I'm talking about outer space, but it's actually the 10th largest country in the world, I think.

    As I'm writing this book, I keep thinking about the film Gandhi. Definitely a historical with all the colonial images, right? Yet he was assassinated only a few years before the start of my book.

    I think I will try to market it as a historical and see if anyone throws "the rules" in my face.

  6. What an exciting project! Truly fascinating. It seems the 1945 cutoff relates to pre- and post-World War II, a major turning point in the West.
    Yet does that apply to Algeria? Their turning point would be their War of Independence. And your novel takes place before that, right? Still under colonial rule?
    Also, I'm guessing Algeria in the 1950s was more like 1930s in the West. If I'm right, that would make your novel ... historical!

  7. Thats an interesting question. I kind of have an image of historical as stopping early 1900's, really early 1900's, although I don't know why I thought that. Curious.

  8. I'm with Anita on this one. I tend to think of historicals as Regency romance or Victorian ... set in England in the 1800s. That's probably because those are my favorite historicals to read.

    I even have a problem with World War II as historical, even though I'm always watching the History Channel specials on HItler and the Occult or Hitler and his drug use (That one's called "High Hitler." Fascinating stuff. I always wonder how that man could fool so many people for so many years into thinking his ideas were sound.)

    It does seem like the 1950s are a world away now. It's like a strange, alien land — no cell phones or internet ... black-and-white TV. Maybe it is time to change our definition of "historical."

  9. As a writer of WWII fiction, I understand your dilemma. Yes, it doesn't feel like a real historical to the publishing world, but it sure doesn't feel like a contemporary novel either. Our facts for our books have to be just as well researched as for one written in the Victorian period, if not better. What we trade off for more sources of information is the reality that there are still people alive who remember our time periods, and can call us out on mistakes.

    Good luck. It sounds a very interesting book to me.

  10. Clarissa,
    I am in the same boat as you. One of my stories is set in 1947 India, when India attained Independence from British. Clearly it is a historical, and yet it is only two years after 1945 - the cut off line for the year. It has put me in the soup, not knowing in which category to fit it. Rather frustrating...


  11. Ellen and Ash, Thank you for the comments. It's so nice to know someone else can understand my dilemma.

    Arlene and Anita, I do think it's funny how the mere word "historical" brings and instant picture to mind and it's different for all of us. Thanks for you input.

    Holly, I love your reasoning. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  12. Hi Clarissa, I have two stories set in the "in between years" One is a short story set in 1969 enroute to Woodstock, the other is set in the early 1980's. I was thinking of pitching them to a branch of the Wild Rose Press. The branch is called Vintage Rose and it about stories from WWII thru the 1980's and even in to the year 2000.
    Personally, I think there has to be a market out there for stories set in these era's or Vintage Rose wouldn't be accepting and e-publishing them. Hope this helps.

  13. We are in a new century. Maybe it's time to update our definitions. Either way, you won't see the same limitations in literary fiction, so your books can still find homes. And literary fiction can have romance included. Look at Nicholas Sparks. I guess what I'm saying is not to get discouraged.