Last week I had coffee with two of my best friends, who also happen to be fellow writers–Penelope Williamson and Monica McCarty. Over lattes in a bookstore café, we got to talking about the differences between historical romance and historical fiction. Monica (who writes wonderful historical romances grounded in real events and characters–the couples in her first three books are all real historical characters) blogged about the topic and inspired me to do the same.

As Monica wrote in her blog, the differences between historical romance and historical fiction “can be difficult to qualify (Outlander comes to mind, as do Katherine, or The Other Boleyn Girl). In general, I think romances focus on the relationship whereas in historical fiction, the romance is just one of the plot threads.” That’s certainly true of the three books Monica’s mentions. Outlander and Katherine have a central love story, where The Other Boleyn Girl has more than one romantic relationship for the heroine. The Other Boleyn Girl and Katherine center on real people whereas in Outlander the main characters are fictional. But in all three books historical events and secondary characters and relationships share focus with the love story. I’d also add in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles and House of Niccolò series, in which fictional main characters are so intertwined with real characters and events that it’s difficult to separate the two. Both series have multiple love stories and a central love story for each hero (the outcomes of which are the subject of much speculations and anxiety by many Dunnett readers), but the focus is much more broad.

Penny (who moved with equal skill from writing historical romance to writing historical fiction and is now writing a contemporary thriller), summed up the difference really well by saying that in historical romance there’s a spotlight focused in tight on the main couple. Whereas in historical fiction it’s more as though the lighting shifts all over the stage, catching the main couple (if there is one) at times, but also secondary characters, political intrigues, historical details.

The line is still often blurry. Many historical novels (like those mentioned above) contain a love story and many historical romances (such as Monica’s) deal with real people and events. When I first discovered the historical romance section (years and years ago), I was excited to find all these books with historical settings. I didn’t really differentiate them from historical fiction. I don’t think I completely started to understood the difference until after I was first published writing historical romance. Even then I constantly drove my poor editors to distraction by getting caught up in intrigue subplots, historical details, secondary characters. Going back to Penny’s description, my lighting plots tend to be broad, with lots of shifts of focus. It was when I finally realized this that I decided to write the first Charles & Mélanie book (Daughter of the Game/Secrets of a Lady).

I also discussed historical fiction/romance differences recently with my friend Lauren Willig, who like me writes a romantic historical spy series set in the Napoleonic era (it’s so wonderful to talk to a friend who also writes such a specific type of story!). Lauren said that when she wrote The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, the first book in her series, she thought of it as an historical romance. Unlike my books, each of hers has an individual central romance. But the intrigue plots and secondary characters play an important role, perhaps more so as the series has progressed. Kirkus Reviews describes her latest book, the wonderful The Seduction of the Crimson Rose, as “romantic adventure.” Lauren’s website sums her books as up with the words “Intrigue. Espionage. Romance. Sword play. Comedy.”

My Charles & Mélanie books have been described as “historical mysteries,” “historical fiction,” “romantic historicals,” “historical suspense,” romantic suspense,” “Regency thrillers,” “historical romance,” “psychological thrillers.” I tend to call them “historical suspense fiction,” a nice broad all encompassing definition🙂

Do you read different types of historically-set novels? What do you think sets historical fiction apart from historical romance? Does how a book is marketed affect your expectations when you read it? Can you think of examples of books that blur the lines between categories? How would you categorize the Charles & Mélanie books?

For this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition the focus shifts to Kenneth Fraser (Charles’s father) writing to the Marquis of Glenister.

Update 14 April: I’m blogging today on History Hoydens about The aftermath of Wateroo & Peterloo. I take off from the Historical Notes for the The Mask of Night and ask how people feel about books where the social and political context is the basis of the conflict. Do stop by and join the discussion.