Historical Fiction or Romance – Know the Difference

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Historical fiction and historical romance are both made-up stories that use real historical facts as a backdrop for the plot. Both require the author to do her research! Although the characters and dialogue will be created from the writer’s imagination, the era in which the story takes place should be real. How people in that time talked, dressed, lived, and worked should be accurately portrayed. After all, readers who pick up any work of historical fiction want to be swept away by the time period. There is a distinction between historical fiction and historical romance, and those similarities and differences are what I’ll discuss in this post.

Historical Fiction is….

Historical fiction is whatever you want it to be. It can be a mystery, a thriller, a character study, a story about family, or it can be a romance. All historical romances are also historical fiction, but not the other way around. I’ll get to this in the next section. Historical fiction can be about real people and their actual deeds with the precise conversations devised by the author.

I’ve used Hilary Mantel’s engrossing series Wolf Hall as an example in the past, and I’ll do it again here. It’s about King Henry VIII’s top advisor, Thomas Cromwell. Mantel writes about things that really happened from Henry’s efforts to divorce his first wife, the beheading of Anne Boleyn, and the machinations of the court and church to make that happen. She references food and activities that really did occur in the 1500s. Mantel’s series is not a romance, even though romance does occur in it (Henry VIII really was crazy about Anne Boleyn…until he wasn’t). This is historical fiction precisely because it’s not historical romance.

Okay, What’s Historical Romance Then?

Romance has a clear definition that publishers, booksellers, and readers know. Their expectations about what will happen in a romance are distinct, and if you write it, you have to deliver. Here’s more on writing romance, in all its incarnations: Top Tips for Writing Romance.

Historical romance centers on two people falling in love and ultimately getting their happily ever after. Romance promises the drama of two people coming together, despite it all, and it delivers on those people working it out in the end. If you try to say you wrote a romance, but your protagonists don’t end up happy, at least for now, you didn’t write romance. Some writers might think such a specific definition is inhibiting, but it’s not. Readers know what they want, and that’s okay. These stories are important because matters of the heart are important. Also, we all deserve to escape, especially in 2020!

Historical Romance Still Has History Chops

While it’s true that Regency romance is a popular time period (who doesn’t love a dashing duke or a, ahem, vigorous viscount?), some authors pick a less well-known era. One of my favorites is the world brought to life by author Beverly Jenkins. She writes about all-Black towns established in Kansas (and some other western states) in the post-Civil War era. There are train robberies, small town gossips, carriage rides, and all the fun elements of an old West tale—but told about African-Americans. I’m ashamed to say I had never heard of these villages until I read Jenkins’ historical romance novels.

If you’re looking to write a tale set in the past, be sure you know if you’re writing historical fiction or historical romance. Feel free to set your books in any time period, but don’t disappoint romance readers by not delivering romance!

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About Author

Mary is a young adult writer and archaeologist. By day she teaches at a local college, and by night she writes about the adventures of adolescence.

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