Friday, February 15, 2008

Carol's question

Still working my way through the questions posed. :)

I've been hearing that historicals are making a comeback. Do you agree? Also, what about Historical Westerns? Do you think they're making their way back in?
Well, I'm no expert on marketing, but a couple points. First, there are two major types of historicals --

1) Historical romances, which usually come out as mass-market paperbacks,
2) Historical novels, which often come out in hard-cover first.

What's the difference? Historical romances have a focus on the romance of a couple.
Historical novels are novels set in an earlier time, and those tend to break into another two categories:
1) Those connected with actual events or personages, like The Girl with the Pearl Earring (about Vermeer and his model), and
2) Those which are set in historical settings but involve mostly fictional characters, like Cold Mountain.

As usual, historical romances are direly predicted to be dying as a genre. From what I can tell, most traditional romances, including category contemporary, are going through a sales slump. But historicals are still selling, and publishers are still acquiring historical romances. I think it's a lot harder to sell a historical romance
than in the 90s, especially for new writers, and the biggest sales are still being garnered by a handful of long-successful writers.

This genre goes through trends, so it's a good idea to do some research in a bookstore to study the current focus. For example, a few years ago, it was all about romps-- wild "cute" premises, very much focused on the romance, not much focused on the setting or history. Now (as in the 80s, actually), erotic romance is more common in historicals; in fact, many historicals now are really erotica novels in historical settings.

Historical novels are doing pretty well, however, led by the huge success of The Girl and Cold Mountain a few years ago. A connection to a major historical figure seems to get some special interest; you know, Beethoven's valet, Queen Elizabeth's maid. (The focus should NOT, apparently, be on the actual historical person, but a fictitious person close to that person.) There are also novels which track the history of a trend through fictional characters, like Sebastian Faulks's Human Traces (which explores the history of psychiatry).

There's a renewed interest in historical mysteries. I've seen (just from the Regency period) "detective novels" with Jane Austen and Beau Brummel solving mysteries.

Readers are always interested in previous eras-- it's just how these eras are approached that changes. It's hard to scope out what will be big in a couple years, so what can you do? I guess choose between romance and regular historical, and think about what seems to be catching the imagination of the reading populace. The sudden popularity of Jane Austen-connected books is certainly connected to a spate of Austen movies a few years back. I'd say probably there'll be more WWII books soon, because that era is becoming "historical" as many of those who fought in the war are dying off.

As for Westerns, well, there's a solid if not thriving market for Western historical novels, but not that big a market for Western-set historical romances. That could change at any time, of course, but several Western romance writers I know ended up writing for the category Western market, which required some shifting, as many of those readers are men. I suspect that there might be a resurgence in the Western settings soon, just because we've seen several Western movies lately... and popular fiction often trails film.

BTW, I should share with you my "tight pants" theory of what periods are most popular in historical romances-- when men's pants are tight, that's a good era. For example, in the Regency era, men wore tight breeches, and in the medieval they almost were wearing tights. And westerns -- jeans, right? Tighter the better?

You'll seldom see a romance set in the "pumpkin pants" era of the late Renaissance. :)


Ian said...

The Tight Pants Theory of Historical Romance. LMAO!

I guess that means the '70s and '80s glam and hair rock culture is ripe for romance. I remember how I dressed during those eras (especially the '80s when I was old enough that it mattered what I wore).

I'm a closet Western writer. I keep sneaking aspects of it into the Sci-Fi, Action, and Fantasy that I write. Is it any wonder I loved Joss Whedon's Firefly TV series? :)


Dara Edmondson said...

I love your tight pants theory! I suppose those "pumpkin pants" don't make for a very sexy hero!

Edittorrent said...

I've been a longtime adherent to Alicia's Tight Pants Theory. The first time she mentioned it to me, I swear I heard the chorus of angels singing hallelujah. It just makes so much sense.

But don't forget the Easy Access Corollary to the Tight Pants Theory! Kilts, togas, those little leather flaps Native Americans used to wear -- these are all very sexy, too.

I will say that I think nontraditional historical romances might be heating up just a bit. Too soon to know for sure. And stories with strong sexual content and strong worldbuilding seem to get more play.


Dave Shaw said...

Hmm - so should science fiction romance be set in a time with tight space suits? LOL

Genella deGrey said...

As a writer of all historicals I'm totally down with that theory.

Anonymous said...

The focus should NOT, apparently, be on the actual historical person, but a fictitious person close to that person.

As a historian, I can understand that. We know too much about historical figures, and it's much easier to have a character fall in love or quarrel with an enemy or turn up at an important place if his whereabouts are *not* documented.

The readership between biographies and historical novels overlaps to a fair degree (The Sunne In Splendour has been set reading for a history course I took) so there is that competition and the fear of someone calling the writer on historical accuracy. Minor personages and invented characters are a lot safer.

I do like the tight pants theory, though...