I had the most interesting discussion with someone on the subject of romance novels.

“Come on and kiss de Girl”

Based on that discussion, I thought I’d see what others had to say about what is or is not a ‘Romance Novel’. Some of the language seems to rule out LesFic or Gay Romance; I don’t necessarily agree with that. A romance is a romance.

I write across genres, depending on the story. However, I have two romances: The Orphan’s Tale and The Safeguard, both set in the 19th century, one in Paris, the other in 1864 Georgia. They are love stories; one ends with a kiss, the other with the heroine rising to stand, beaming, as her returning lover rides across the lawn toward her.

That said, here are some definitions:

This blog post from a while back has a definition I endorse:

A story about the growing love relationship between a couple that has an HEA ending. There may be other elements, but the love relationship and its progression should be the focus. Because of this, there should not be lengthy separations between the lead characters. There should be, however, an emotional bond with the reader that develops out of their story, and it doesn’t matter whether the bond is laughter or tears or a strong sense of lust.

Another, quoted there, says:

A romance is just like any other type of fiction out there; it can be mystery, suspense, science fiction, historical, western, comedy, even horror. The only differences are that the story concentrates on the relationship between the lead male and female, and the book is guaranteed a happy ending.”

RWA (Romance Writers of America) are a little more limited:

Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.

A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.

An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.

Romance novels may have any tone or style, be set in any place or time, and have varying levels of sensuality-ranging from sweet to extremely hot. These settings and distinctions of plot create specific subgenres within romance fiction.

Finally, there is this summation:

A novel is generally considered to be romance fiction if:

1.A love story is central to the plot – The main idea of the story must be that two people who are in love must struggle through obstacles to their having a relationship. While their can be sub-plots (job, family, etc.), the love story must be the main element that drives the narrative. And…

I love you, I love you, I love you – I do!  But don’t get excited:  I love monkeys, too!

2.The ending is emotionally satisfying and optimistic – The appeal of the romance novel for many is that the struggles of the lovers are rewarded and the risks they take pay off in a happy ending for them both.

A romance novel may be a one-off (“single title”), or it may be part of a series. Within the parameters of the romance novel, there are many romance subgenres, which yield endless variations in: 

*Timeframe – Romance novels can be set in the past (historical); the present (contemporary); or even the future. 

Most normal men would opt for armor…

*Setting – Whether the Scottish Highlands or a made-up universe or even Topeka, romance novels can be set anywhere. The story can take place during a family reunion or a murder investigation (which would put it in the romantic suspense subgenre).  

Sand in swim trunks: the essence of romance!

*Hero – He can be an “average guy” (as long as he looks better-than-average with his shirt off); a man in uniform (whether military, fireman… or kilt); or not even a “man” at all, as happens in the popular paranormal subgenre (“Hello, Werewolf!”).

 *Tone – The sexual explicitness of romance novels ranges from demurely warm (the inspirational genre is generally not explicit) to hot and steamy… to super-sizzling.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Uh…  No.

The Sheik springs   to mind as a very good illustration.  Women were swooning over that book in the 1920’s.  Having read it, myself, I have to say that it is an excellent illustration of The Stockholm Syndrome, and I do wish that Diana (no relation) had had the gumption to brain him and his spineless buddy with something very heavy.  Several hot-sellers from the 70’s, in which the woman is repeatedly raped (and just loves it) do  not, to my mind, qualify as romances, but nevertheless fit the various descriptions, though (to my mind) with one or two of them, the HEA (Happily Ever After) consists of being stuck with the Nasty One, whether male or female, for the rest of their life.   

I think this is a topic that is not going to go away, and I tend to enjoy listening to the arguments.  Besides, when has the presence of romance, in whatever form, *not* lent spice to a story?


Historical Romance

I have been giving a lot of thought lately to what some people scornfully call ‘Bodice Rippers’.  You know the sort of story I mean.  Sometimes they are called ‘Historical Fiction’, to the dismay of people like me who actually write historical fiction.     
I do not like to use the term ‘bodice ripper’ because while there are two types of stories that fit that slot, the word for, or title of, the second type of ‘bodice ripper’ does not exist, and the first term is a little too sexual.  I will be using the term ‘Historical Romance’ for both in this post because I think it fits the guidelines given by Webster Dictionary for the noun ‘Romance’: 
prose narrative treating imaginary characters involved in events remote in time or place and usually heroic, adventurous, or mysterious    

The books are always set against a backdrop of a period of history.  The period is not important; it fluctuates from year to year depending on what is in fashion.  Medieval history is a perennial favorite, though the Scottish Wars for Independence are in the ascendant.  Dark ages Europe is also gaining popularity.  Another dependable standby is the ‘Napoleonic era’ – from about 1790 through about 1816.  The American Civil War also makes an appearance.

The background research varies from nearly nonexistent to substantial.  And there may be a story line found inside the pages.  (In my opinion) what makes these stories ‘bodice rippers’ – or, rather, Historical Romances – is their focus, which is to titillate, to satisfy a hunger or a fancy, with the story line taking second place to that purpose.  To avoid a trip into semantics, here is Webster’s list of synonyms: 
charge, electrify, excite, exhilarate, galvanize, intoxicate, pump up, thrill, turn on
These stories’ descriptions are fairly similar.  The protagonists/antagonists are set forth and the basis for the story.  The dangers that lie along the path are hinted at.  You can choose to read or to pass:

The (band of heroes)  have itchy feet. Battle-hungry and tired of keeping the homestead fires burning, they are restless for action. And… action is what they get. When their homestead is attacked … the (band of heroes) promise bloody revenge. … Packed with epic adventure and bloody action…


“A rollicking, dangerous and often very gory gallop through the largest land empire the world has ever known.”

Contrast that with:

For Gunnar, vengeance is all that matters. He seeks the ultimate price from his enemy’s beautiful young daughter, claiming Raina as his hostage. But the proud beauty defies him at every turn, tempting him like no other. Setting out to break Raina’s glorious spirit, Gunnar instead finds himself bewitched by her goodness, her strength. Can he seize the justice he is due without losing Raina forever. 
 It is obvious that they are different sides of the same coin.

The covers of Historical Romances tend to hint at the items of attraction that will be delivered by the book:

There is no black and white in this life.  Some of the Historical Romances   of either type are close to excellent fiction – The ones whose covers I have shown have been written by people described as ‘award-winning authors’ and have received good reviews from a good many people averaging 4.5 stars.  I remember one series of romances, set in the time of the conflict between Stephen and Matilda (England) that had wonderful plot and excellent research.  The stories did involve men and women and their relationships, but they were secondary to the plot. 
Someone, speaking against his/her notion of ‘Historical ‘Romance’ of one sort expressed it in an interesting fashion.  This is a paraphrase:  

There is the man who loves his woman and longs to see her once more before he is killed on the field of battle.  Or there is the fighter who lives for war, whose love is battle and whose mistress is his sword, who satisfies his physical urges by patronizing the whores that follow in the tail of every army. 

I think both types share a distortion of history or, more accurately, the ‘historical norm’ of the period that they concern.  Human nature and inclination has not changed appreciably over the millennia.  Most people lived at home and interacted with their families.  They had their tiresome tasks, their moments of delight, their festivals and their tragedies.  Not everyone in the Northlands  went i-Viking.  They knew about sex – that is why we are here today – and loving relationships existed as did attachments based solely on monetary payment for physical need.  A love affair between two people or a rousing fight scene does not necessarily make a novel an ‘Historical Romance’.  It all depends on the purpose and focus of the book.

So, What’s With the Ladies Without Heads???

Or, alternatively, When Can We Expect This Silly Cover Trend to End?
The realm of historical novels is being inundated by headless women. Why this should be is something I can’t say, but there it is. I have been looking for historical novels and the trend at the moment is to get a model wearing a period dress and only show her from the neck down.
I am hard put to understand this trend, unless perhaps some cover designer had the bright idea of doing this with a photograph in order to get around the fact that, aside from a Merchant Ivory movie (and sometimes not even then) a modern person photographed in period dress doesn’t work.

Actually, being a writer of historical novels and a nit-picker myself, I could remark on Cicely, Duchess of York (‘Queen by Right’) holding an un-tethered hawk on a lightly gloved hand while bearing a basket of flowers in the other.  Did the hawk  help her pick flowers?  I can’t imagine that he was at all cuddlesome or companionable, especially considering that his pose shows that he is most likely stuffed.  Also, the lady would be wearing a headdress composed of a stiff frame to the face and then a headcloth falling behind.  High-ranking ladies in a public setting did not uncover their hair, as this photo shows.

Catherine De’ Medici (‘The Confessions of Catherine de Medici’) is shown in a garment that would have been several decades out of date, worn around the time of Henry VIII.  Catherine was a contemporary of Elizabeth 1.

I am not as conversant with costumes from the time of Eleanor of Aquitaine, but I will say that the unbound hair looks wrong (‘The Scarlet Lion’).  It would have been braided or otherwise confined or covered.

But wait! The problem appears to have originated in Ptolemaic times and then spread to Rome, based on other covers I’ve seen.  And–Is Selene wearing a toga???  It certainly looks like it.

The other problem with all of these covers, aside from the one about James II’s mistress, is that the facial features – what you can see of them – are wrong.  In the centuries since these people lived, we have seen a blending of the breeds (meaning Celts, Angles, Norman, Tuscan, Palatine).  Bone structure is different.  I remember reading an article, once, by a forensic anthropologist who was discussing how he could tell if a skull came from the Civil War era.  He said that people in the 1860’s in the US were generally more hatchet-faced, with sharper bridges to their noses and generally longer faces,  The influx of late Victorian immigrants brought higher cheekbones and wider faces. 

Let us be reasonable, here.  These are covers for books and are meant to draw attention to the book and, perhaps, draw people in.  The first one I saw was somewhat interesting; they got the costume right.  But this parade of headless ladies has gone beyond interesting and into the banal: they look utterly silly.