Sunday, July 20, 2008

Defining the Historical Novel

I'd like to read the sage advice of some of you seasoned authors about narrowing down the historical genre by definition. I run across writers, including myself, that struggle with what to exactly call their historical novels when querying agents or publishers. It appears they want something more precise than simply 'historical fiction'.

In my novels I have strong elements of love along with suspense. But they are not formula, you know, girl mets boy in chapter 1 and by chapter 3 they are married, and the entire book is from the girl's point of view. My novel that I am submitting is from the hero's point of view mostly, but also includes the point of view of my heroine. One agent asked me after I had queried her, 'Is your book historical romance, historical suspense, historical romantic suspense, historical adventure, historical intrigue, or just historical'. It got me thinking, what exact category my historical falls into. Now when sending out proposals I refer to the novel as a romantic historical.

Another point. I've never been clear on the reasons why the industry, especially in Christian publishing, prefers novels that center solely on the female lead. I've read a few of these novels and found myself longing to know what was going on with the male character. I could not get inside his head, understand his motivation, and I wanted more from him than just being a prop. I wanted him to be 'the quintessential hero' and swoop in and save the woman he loves from peril.

Does it not seem to you that we need a resurgence of the male hero as well as the female? Isn't that what gets women's hearts pounding when they read novels or watch movies like Pride & Prejudice? Yes, the novel is from Elizabeth Bennett's point of view, but did not Darcy grow into an unexpected hero? And what about Sense & Sensibility? Colonel Brandon saves Marianne in more ways than from a storm. He saves her from the storm of heartbreak, poverty, and loneliness. His love for her is patient, reserved, and constant.

The photo above is from the 1935 movie 'Captain Blood', one of my favorites. It's a good example of the strong hero and the wise heroine, both deeply in love but separated by class, social stigma, and politic circumstances. A favorite scene is where Captain Blood sword fights the notorious Captain Lavasseur to save Arabella from his evil clutches. If you have never read the book, and enjoy an old read, I highly recommend Raphael Sabatini's novel. He wrote a series of novels based on the hero Captain Blood.

Earlier this year,
I received a message from a fellow author who offered to read the first couple chapters of my novel in progress. I thought I had made it clear that the story is a historical with elements of romance and suspense. She thought she'd be reading as sampling of a lusty historical romance, and so with that mindset, even though she said I am a talented writer, she was disappointed it did not fall into the industry's definition of an historical romance. She suggested I throw out the beginning, about the hero, his patriotism in the Revolution, his capture and escape from the British, his inheritance, and his journey to England. Instead she told me to write it solely in the female character's point of view. If I do that it will be an entirely different novel.

I never set out to write formula fiction or historical romances. I never had the thought to join Romance Writers of America. Interesting though, Nora Roberts writes a lot of her stories from the male point of view, such as the Chesapeake stories with the Quinn brothers. She once told me, 'Rita, write a darn good story. That's what publishers want, and don't worry about all the rules.' Notice she said 'don't worry'. In other words do not fret or become paranoid about them. However, as one author commented on this blog , it's important to follow the publisher's guidelines.

Please post your comments on the writing of historicals.

How do you define your historical novel?

Are there publishers out there who will publish historicals that are NOT formula romances?

Has the feminist movement killed our fantasy of the Knight in Shining Armor?


Celia Yeary said...

Rita--this is a difficult topic, and I feel the same frustration, but for now, I'm happily following the rules and having two Western Historical Romances published. Oh, how I wish I could write what and how I want and some publisher would fall in love with it.I have a historical "with a light love story woven through." But the real story is the Coming of age of a sixteen-year-old girl in Early Twentieth Century North Texas--WISH FOR THE MOON. Another one I have is mainly the man's POV--no dice, sorry, not written according to the rules(HEART OF A HERO). Another is MAKING THE TURN-a love story, yes, but the big story is the woman's relationship with her mother. That one didn't get to first base.
In essence, we all write from our hearts, stories we love and so do our critique partners and "amateur readers." But they don't fit into an established category.
I believe, too, that readers want a good story, but you must follow the publishers' guidelines--it's their company, and they know what their readers expect.
I attended a reunion this weekend, and among my classmates,I discovered three "authors"--all men, writing historicals--but none could place his ms in an exact category.And all three were frustrated.Since none wrote romance,all I could do was agree and sympathize.
So, follow Nora's advice, yes, but do find a "target" publisher and learn their guildlines.
Good luck, and I do so enjoy your blog site. Celia Yeary

Margaret Tanner said...

Hi Rita,
I agree with what you have said, and I always have some portion of my books in the male point of view, but I do think a lot of the blame for publishers being so unsympathetic to certain historical eras, rests with the category publishers, they seem to have set the rules and most of the other publishers slavishly follow them. A pity really.
I love the pictures on your site to Rita, they are beautiful.
Margaret Tanner

Chiron said...

Even though I don't write historicals, the same issue pops up for me.

I think you're right defining it as an historical with Elements of suspense and romance. This would be a great question to send to Jessica Faust over at BookEnds Literary:

I hope there's still room for a Shining Knight!!

Hang in there. You write such beautiful prose...


J. M. Hochstetler said...

Rita, you and I must be soul sisters! LOL! It's so good to find another Rafael Sabatini fan. LOVE Captain Blood. Have you read Scaramouche and The Sea Hawk? Wonderful stories!!

I agree with everything in this post. And I wonder if the strictures publishers place on their authors are due to the legitimate preferences of their readers...or to the expectations publishers have aroused by the publishing decisions they make...or because readers simply aren't presented many other options.

I also strongly relate to the male POV, so my books include strong male characters as well as strong female characters. I hate the typical simpering female who is always waiting to hear about the action from the hero...who also is never shown actually doing anything. Hey, I love writing scenes of exciting, violent action, including battle scenes!

I have to admit that I had a lot of trouble finding a publisher, and then was dropped when another editor took over. After another couple of years of frustration I finally decided to establish my own small press, Sheaf House, to publish my own work and other excellent authors of inspirational fiction who are encountering the same closed doors.

As I suspected, I'm finding an abundance of wonderful manuscripts, many more than I could possibly ever publish. I wish I could, but I've been so inundated I finally had to close submissions until at least next summer.

It's frustrating, but in order to keep on publishing I have to have sales. The books in the warehouse need to move out into readers' hands. My distributor and I are working hard on that, but like any new business, it takes a while to get the ball rolling downhill.

My local writers group, bless their hearts, decided to help out by initiating a viral campaign to spark attention for Sheaf House books. So we'll see what happens with that.

Of course, not everyone can found their own publishing house, and the jury is still out on this one. Like you, I've been resistant to writing to the guidelines of the big publishers. I'm focused on writing the vision the Lord has given me. And I guess only time will tell what the fruit of that will be. But my feeling is that if we're called to write a story, the Lord is going to use it for his purposes, whether that means the kind of success the world recognizes or not.

So keep on writing what you're given and leave the results God. His are the best hands for our work to be in. And keep in touch with me. If all goes well with Sheaf House, we'll be talking.

Miss Mae said...

Like Margaret said, I love your pictures that you include here. Lovely!

Yes, I do think the feminist movement has greatly hurt the "knight in shining armor". Now, so many stories must have a Laura Croft type heroine and effeminine 'heroes" that I cringe with despair!

What's wrong with a woman needing and WANTING a man to help her across a muddy ditch, engage in fisticuffs while she watches from the shadows (instead of her jumping in tooth and nail herself), or sweeping her away on his white charger?

It does sound harder to define historical. I give it a broad sense...if the story centers at a time "back" in history, then I call it historical.

Lovely blog you have here :)