Historical Fiction vs Historical Romance by Genevieve Graham


When I was growing up, I had no interest in history of any kind. Maybe I was just waiting for the right moment—or the right book—to strike me before I realized Historical Fiction was my favourite genre. Now I love to imagine myself faraway and long ago: castles and cloaks, heroes and ladies … hearing the clashing of swords and howling of dying men, hiding in darkened cottages that reek of pig, eating freshly killed meat, bathing once a month if I’m lucky …  

Aye, as they say. There’s the rub. 

The thing about historical fiction is that it’s based on fact, and the better the writing, the less appealing the time period can seem to be. I mean, back then folks didn’t change into a t-shirt when it was warm, didn’t programme their day around skyping relatives, didn’t check their daytimer to see if lunch would work that day. If they didn’t hunt they didn’t eat. If they didn’t defend their property they found themselves without a roof over their heads. If they didn’t have the stomach for killing, well, they’d fall first.  

And yet … it’s still romantic. Those were the days when men dueled to the death over a woman’s honour, when family was everything, when love was rare and precious, when people laboured over writing exactly the right handwritten note. And from that concept springs Historical Romance. 

Technically, Historical Romance has what people call a HEA, or Happily Ever After. That, and it has to include romance. Fortunately for authors like me, those are the only rules, really. Lucky for me because my books don’t step carefully around distasteful subjects, avoiding ugly truths. I write about normal, everyday people who lived back then, the people who had never even felt the luxury of satin with their fingers, whose floors were dirt, who barely traveled farther than their traplines. Because now that I’ve learned so much about history and so many of its little details, I am loathe to hold back and miss out on so much of what made history real—and romantic.  

I’m learning about the absence of any kind of rights for women. I’m learning that a child had to grow up awfully fast back then, and I’m learning about slavery—and not the kind of which you’re automatically thinking. Starting in the 17th century, did you know hundreds of thousands of white slaves were brought over to the colonies from Europe? I’m not referring to “indentured servants,” though that was no picnic either. I don’t know why that’s not more widely known fact, but I think it should be. So I include it. 

Of course there’s also a point where you have to decide just how detailed you’re going to be. After all, it’s Fiction. Though actual 18th century Highlanders were more often five feet tall and clothed in hair, I’d rather fantasize that my hero is six feet tall, with clean locks flowing neatly by his muscled, hairless shoulders. Oh, and he bathes frequently. When prisoners were left for two days, alone and unfed because their captors doesn’t know what to do with them all (which did happen), how did they fare? Fortunately, my hero managed not only to survive, but to still have the strength to stand up for some of his weaker cellmates. And his heart is consumed with finding the woman he loves, not with the question of where he’s going to find his next meal. Yes, it’s fiction.

So what is Historical Romance? I think it’s different things to different people. For many, it is the cleaner, “safer” stories told of lives lived in salons, featuring privileged dukes and duchesses and the like. To me it’s knowing history was unkind and only the strong survived. From those survivors, only a few could find love. But that love meant everything to them. It became their purpose, their destiny, and they are determined to beat the odds so they can have their HEA.  

How do you look at Historical Romance? Do you prefer to get down and dirty with the common man and the realism of the times, or are you more comfortable with “court” romances?  First posted at IN THE HAMMOCK BOOK REVIEWS, MAY 10, 2012 http://inthehammockblog.blogspot.com/2012/05/genevieve-graham-guest-post-and-blog.html


Genevieve Graham didn’t start writing until she was in her forties, inspired by the work of the legendary Diana Gabaldon. Her first two novels, “Under the Same Sky” and “Sound of the Heart” were published by Berkley Sensation/Penguin US in 2012 and have met with enthusiastic reviews. Genevieve writes what she calls “Historical Fiction” rather than “Historical Romance,” meaning she concentrates on the stories and adventures, and she doesn’t turn away from the ugly truths of the times. Romance binds her stories together, but it is not the primary focus. Genevieve also runs her own Editing business and has helped dozens of authors with their novels.

CONNECT ONLINE: www.genevievegraham.comwww.facebook.com/GenevieveGrahamAuthor  , http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4505583.Genevieve_Graham  , twitter.com/GenGrahamAuthor


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  1. Hi, Genevieve. I certainly agree that history isn’t always clean and safe. While I read the occasional ‘court’ stories, my first love in historical romance is in the ancient/medieval era when men and women had to fight for their survival. Throw in a warrior or knight, and I’m a happy bunny. 🙂

    But I have to admit I don’t want the stories to be too realistic. I still like my characters to be clean . LOL.

    I write stories set in Ancient Africa so I’m lucky that my characters don’t have to deal with freezing winter. In fact I love that they wore as little clothing as possible. And for my stories within the rain forests of West Africa, there’s plenty of access to warm rivers and streams. So no reason for them not to be clean. Historically, going for a swim was a good way of cooling off after a busy day at the farm or hunting.

    • Hey Kiru! I will HAVE to pick up one of your stories – I’ve never met anything set in Ancient Africa. That sounds so intriguing! The closest I’ve come is Wilbur Smith …

      Yeah, I do keep my characters “clean” – or if they haven’t had a chance to freshen up lately I at least keep the description to a minimum! But it’s not like they could go to battle, then take a shower, maybe gargle some minty antiseptic … LOL It’s so important to me that it stays “real”, but for everyone’s sake, I don’t let it get too gross! 🙂

  2. My favorite author of historical fiction is Philippa Gregory. She brings to life historical figures such as Queen Elizabeth I and Anne Boleyn. My favorite book of hers is The White Queen about Elizabeth Woodville.

    My first love is historical romance, while I know life doesn’t always have a HEA, I want my stories to. My favorite author is Mary Balogh. She brings the regency period to life for me and creates deeply satisfying love stories.

    As an author of historical romance myself, I try to include some historical event in my novels, or at least information about a particular area, such as Bath, England. While the romance is the most important part of my novels, I want to sprinkle in some details of the history of the times.

  3. I prefer stories which have lots of historical detail, which can include dirt and cruelty and hardships — but not too much. For me, a romance needs to have a light side — a view into the enjoyable aspects of life in the past — not just a happy ending.

  4. Great post, Genevieve! I’m actually a fan of both…I like the courtly, but I also like the down and dirty, or the combination of the two. Two great examples of that combination are Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth and World Without End. Two of my favorites of all time. And I agree with you. I prefer to think that William Wallace looked like Mel Gibson (although William Wallace was a tall man for his time, unlike Mel Gibson). 🙂

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