Monday, March 10, 2008

Historical Fiction 101- Part 3

OK, so we've looked briefly at what historical fiction is and what time periods qualify as historical fiction. Here's where the waters get kind of muddy.

Are you writing historical fiction or historical romance? There is a difference, and that's what we're going to talk about today.

Historical romance is exactly what it sounds like. It's a romance set in a historical period. Usually, the romance is the focus of the plot. The only technical difference between historical romance and contemporary romance is the setting. The subtle differences between the two is almost a craft series in itself.

Straight up historical fiction isn't always so easy to identify. The line can be very blurry. The general rule of thumb is this: If you can remove the romance element without losing any of the plot, then you're not writing a historical romance. That said, even most straight up historicals still have a romance element in them somewhere.

Gilbert Morris is the author who first comes to my mind as the author who straddles this line and helps make it blurry. But he does it so well that I personally don't really mind. He does not write romance. He writes historical fiction with a strong romance subplot. Much of his writing does meet the test though. If you remove the romance thread, you still have a good book. Maybe not as riveting, but still a good book.

In my mind, the most classic modern example of historical fiction is Michael Phillips' Secrets of Heathersleigh Hall series. It's not one of his better known series, but it is one of his best written. It follows the life of a family in England, who live at Heathersleigh Hall. When the series opens, no one in the family is a Christian. In fact, the father fully believes and endorses Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and encourages his children to question everything. Even his authority as their father. As the series progresses, he wisens up to the errors of his ways and watches the evolution lies destroy his daughter. Being as this is Christian fiction, she does eventually come back home and accept her father's change, but at a great personal cost. It's a story of redemption really, and how much fathers love their daughters. It's riveting and some of Michael's best writing IMO. But it's not a romance.

Another hallmark of straight up historical is that the historical events are as much a character in the novel as the characters themselves. This particular plot could not happen believably in any other setting because it needs this particular event to make it happen.

Historical romance was pretty much created by Janette Oke. Unfortunately, far too many people associate the term "historical romance" with the prairie westerns that Janette is famous for. That's something that is slowly changing. Today's masters of historical romance include Catherine Palmer, Deanne Gist and Tamera Alexander.

Much of my own writing is very difficult to categorize using just these two terms. The Epic is not historical romance. There's a strong romance subplot going on with Yelena and Dmitri, but if I remove that subplot I don't lose any of the story. But at the same time marketing it as just historical fiction doesn't feel right either. I'm glad I'm not the one who will make the final decision on where it belongs.

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