Grace Burrowes: Why Historical?

This represents my (Renee Dahlia) notes on the presentations at the 2018 Romance Writers of Australia conference. Please consider my status as an imperfect recorder of verbal presentations (ie this is not a transcript). This blog uses affiliated links.

Historical tales of love are where our genre first put down roots decades ago. At a time when women’s voices need to be heard more than ever, does historical romance still have relevance? Grace Burrowes examines this question.

Georgette Heyer is often credited with establishing the historical romance genre, especially regency romance. She read all the of the Duke of Wellington’s war dispatches, and her descriptions of the Napoleon Wars (1803-1815) are precise and rich. First published in 1921, Heyer’s first historical romance, These Old Shades (Historical Romances), was released in 1926, featuring a Duke who falls in love with his ward. It sold 190,000 copies. Her first regency-era romance, Regency Buck (Regency Romances), was published in 1935.

Burrowes’ point is that Heyer began writing only a hundred years after the regency period, and it was easier for her to find reference material and people to interview who had personal connections to the regency (their parents and grandparents were alive in the regency). The other two major writers of early regency era romances are Jane Austen (who wrote as a contemporary of the era), and Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (BBC) (written in 1855). Note: The link is for the TV series, not the original novel.

In today’s publishing world, regency romance is dominated by a few big names, and authors writing in this era have the choice between historically accurate language, and losing readership. The idea of accuracy is often nonsense – many readers use Heyer’s world-building to base their view of accuracy on, but while her research was amazing, she also erased certain elements of the real world. Adding to that burden of ‘reality’, people living in the Victorian era destroyed a lot of documents to clean up their family’s image. They produced a ‘selective view of grandma’s youth’, and regency writers from Heyer onwards have continued to assume this clean version of reality reflects actual reality.

Burrowes’ notes this is a major issue for writers because “readers are frequently in error, but seldom in doubt” about ‘facts’. Writers of historical fiction have all the burdens of non-fiction, and of fiction.

The upside of all this: there is room for new authors. The dominant top-sellers are getting older and slower, many only releasing a new every year or so. The readership of historical is also older (50+ is the main age group) than contemporary readers (36-50), so they have money to buy books, and are less likely to pirate books.

“We can use the past to wrap harder themes in a softer focus.”

“Historical romance allows us to tell stories that aren’t written by old white men.” Burrowes thanked writers of colour, such as Piper Huguley, for telling the stories of American history that she didn’t read at school. In Burrowes lifetime, some couples weren’t allowed to marry in the USA. She referred to the Loving vs Virginia case and subsequent book – with a “scathing commentary on bigotry”.

Questions from the floor

What are your techniques for avoiding the rabbit holes of research? Where do you draw the line?

Burrowes: It’s a fact of life. I tend to write a dirty draft with placeholders for research, eg find out Wellington’s favourite dessert. Then I let myself have ‘fill in the blanks’ days, which are especially useful when I’m not feeling creative. I keep all the links in a separate document to the draft, so I can refer back to them.

Is historical really two separate genres? The dress up version vs the deeper history.

B: I hadn’t heard that before, but it makes sense. You should all write to your own brand, not the one you think appeals to the most readers. Aim to throw the least readers out of the book in terms of history.

What about accuracy?

B: The Victorians cleaned up the roles of women in the regency, removing many of the women doing work seen to be unfeminine. For my own books, I realised I was white-washing my books. The regency was the beating heart of the commonwealth. It simply makes no sense that only white people existed then. There was plenty of diversity, as people from all over the world came to London. As to your own writing, your historical facts must be in support of your storytelling, and look deeper into history to find untold stories. Newspapers are a good resource, and most are online now.

Check titles and towns – double check that the ones you are using aren’t real. A recent American author used the Duke of Edinburgh in a contemporary romance – the title belongs to the Queen’s husband, Prince Phillip, and yet, the book went through many editors eyes and no-one picked it up.

What about print vs digital in historical romance?

Burrowes said her own books are about half/half, but library sales of print copies increases the print percentage. In America, 90% of romance novel sales are digital.

Renee Dahlia’s The Heart of a Bluestocking is available on 20 October 2018.

When an uncommon lawyer meets an unusual doctor, their story must be extraordinary…

September 1888:
Dr Claire Carlingford owns the bluestocking label. Her tycoon father encouraged her to study, and with the support of her two best friends, she took it further than anyone could imagine, graduating as a doctor and running her own medical practice. But it’s not enough for her father. He wants her to take over the business, so he can retire. Then his sudden arrest throws the family into chaos and his business into peril.

Mr James Ravi Howick, second son of Lord Dalhinge, wants to use his position as a lawyer to improve conditions for his mother’s family in India. When an opportunity arises to work for Carlingford Enterprises, one of the richest companies in the world, Ravi leaps at the chance to open his own legal practise. But his employment becomes personal as he spends more time with Claire and she learns the secret that could destroy his family.

Both Ravi and Claire are used to being outsiders and alone. But as they work together to save their respective families from disaster, it becomes clear that these two misfits might just fit together perfectly.



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