Monday, November 26, 2012

Wordcraft -- Romance, historically speaking

A couple of weeks ago, I reported on the influence of romance fiction on current popular writing. But a single post couldn’t do justice to a genre beloved by a significant segment of readers. A much-lamented survey by Pew Internet Libraries earlier this year reported that 19 percent of American adults read no books whatsoever last year. Before we writers faint, remember this means about 80 percent of the adult population did read books. And very often, they read romances.

Romance Writers of America reported that 20 percent of romance readers bought (and presumably read) at least one book monthly, putting them in the 45 percent or so of people in the Pew study who reported reading at least six books, and in some cases 50 or more, in 2011.

Of those romance books, nearly half -- both in print and e-book versions -- were historical romances. Which explains why the panel on historical romances was one of the best attended at the Readers and ’ritas convention in Allen, Texas, earlier this month.

Why read historical romance? Asked that questions, panelist (and former lawyer) Lauren Willig turned the tables on audience members -- asking why they were attracted to historical romances such as her Pink Carnation series. Why look for relationship guidance to eras whose rules were so different from today’s?

“I don’t think people have changed. The mores have changed,” said panelist Elizabeth Boyle (Along Came a Duke).

Some audience members yearned wistfully for the tension derived from cultural taboos of the past -- “the looks across the room, the point where they can touch hands.”

“I like taking a challenging idea and putting it in a historical situation,” said panelist Cathy Maxwell (The Chattan Curse series and others). “What I’m interested in is the dynamics of the relationship and whether these people are going to complement each other.”

But if the point is the relationship, is it permissible to bend the rules of history to make them serve the story?

“As writers of historical fiction, we’re only allowed to know what (the people of the time) know,” Willig said. “Taking things that could have happened is all right.”

“(But) there’s no artistic license for dates,” Maxwell said. “If we can get it right, we should get it right.”

On the other hand, “There are expectations of readers,” Boyle said.  “It’s better to put in something that’s factually incorrect than to put in something that readers won’t accept. A book doesn’t live until it’s read.”

(For details of the Pew survey and the Romance Writers of America statistics, see
http://libraries.pewinternet/ and

(Next Monday -- Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Kidder insisted at this year’s Literature + Medicine conference that he didn’t set out to do a good deed when he wrote about third world health problems. He just wanted to tell a good story.)

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