I’ve been musing a lot lately on what ingredients are necessary for a great HEA historical romance read. It’s something I’ve been turning over in my head, on and off, for quite a while as I’ve realised my current Work In Progress is a conscious effort to ‘correct’ those things that I’ve read that have either broken the author/reader spell for me or led me to fall out of love with that author. We read this genre partly (or solely) because we’re buying into a fantasy. But, for me at least, it still has to be a ‘realistic’ fantasy.
I know I’m not the only one to find these things frustrating; Susana Ellis has written a series of blogs along similar lines. I don’t agree with all her “deal-breakers” though so I decided to make a list of things I can find off-putting when reading an historical Happy Ever After:
- Character’s names – if the book is about an English lord and lady, I really, really can assure you that they would not have been called something like ‘Lord Brad Smith’ or ‘Lady Brandi Pitt’ (not even making that ‘Bradley’ would improve it). Obviously the name depends on which period of history and location the book is set in, which requires more research. I know we all want to be Original and Clever when writing but we English are really quite boring and traditional with our names, particularly in aristocratic lineages – check out Confetti’s list here.
- A 21st century man in historical costume – I know we’re all mindful that we don’t want to repel our reader but there’s really no way that, even a man born 50 years ago, would have the same morals and values as those born more recently. And the further back in history you go, the more those morals and values are likely to be different to today’s. Automatic respect for women’s opinions/intelligence (if he’s even willing to hear her out in the first place)? Consideration of the number and frequency of his wife’s pregnancies? Would never even consider being unfaithful? No, no and no. Helping oneself to the female servants? Hitting one’s spouse if she stood up to him/betrayed him? Much more probable. I’ve read HEA’s with more historically suitable heroes and still loved the book and found the hero likeable even though he acted in a manner which we wouldn’t accept today. The hero has to be a believable fantasy and making him too historically inaccurate ruins it for me.
- Women’s expectations – linking with the above, heroines often seem to be too modern too, with expectations for their lives that can be unrealistic for the historical setting. Most women would have expected to marry as well as they can and be a housewife and broodmare. Of course, the hero and heroine’s characters can be different to the historical stereotype; it’s just about achieving it in a realistic and substantiated manner that doesn’t jar the reader.
- Acceding to wife’s wishes for no wedding night conjugal rights – I see this one a lot for a variety of plot reasons. Most ring false, I don’t think most historical men (particularly the aristocrats that are so popularly written about) would agree not to have sex on their wedding night (see No. 2). But a man deciding not to consummate the marriage for a substantiated reason, like the (low) age of his wife, would pass muster.
- Lack of rape/pillage/violence/fox (or other animal) hunting etc. – Unescapable fact: historically, life was more violent than Western society is today, especially the further back in history you go. And animal welfare/rights only started to be a ‘thing’ in the 19th century, with fox hunting a favoured pastime, not just of the landed and rich, until it was banned in 2004. If the historical setting and plot calls for it, I think these sorts of details should be there rather than ignored as inconvenient historical facts just because of the modern reader’s potential discomfort. It can be implied rather than overt and, naturally, should be handled sensitively and in moderation; nobody is going to find a serial rapist attractive but a redeemed character who learns from his mistakes gives the character great depth and makes them more historically realistic.
- Blatant historical inaccuracies – I realise I’m coming at historical HEAs from a history lover’s perspective (it was my favourite subject at school and I studied it at university) which I know not all readers are. But anything glaring inaccurate or unrealistic sets my teeth on edge (see above 1-5). I mentioned in my 15 Things Only Historical Novelists Will Google blog post that I once read a novel set in 1000s where potatoes were served at dinner and readers have alerted me to other faux pas’ they’ve spotted, so I’m not the only one.
- Excessive and/or easily solvable miscommunication/misunderstanding – it’s a popular plot arc to have the hero and heroine talking at cross purposes or suffer misconceptions about the other (Pride and Prejudice ahoy). But when the matter could be solved by a short, simple and straightforward conversation between the two? Frustration abounds. Especially when this is the only plot arc in the novel and there’s nothing deeper to get your teeth into.
- How the hero and heroine are always unmarried – I know that being single does rather help when writing romance and makes it more straightforward for the two to achieve their HEA. But wouldn’t it be a fascinating plot arc if one or both of them were already married…
- Perfect hero and/or heroine – one or both of the leading characters is so god-like in their perfection as to be positively nauseating. They can’t all be drop-dead-gorgeous, charitable heroes, tending to the poor and unfortunate, championing women’s rights, never being unfaithful and rescuing kittens in their spare time, without putting a hair out of place or sweating a drop. The main characters in HEAs tend to be aristocratic/well-off rather than just being ordinary folk. This means they were probably a bit spoilt and either unaware of life’s hardships or sheltered from them (women more than men). When they could have almost anything their hearts desired by simply crooking their finger, I really can’t see how that doesn’t go to their heads. However, if the hero is gods-gift-to-women in the bedroom, that’s one fantasy I can certainly get on board with.
- Modern language – I know some historical novels are deliberately written in the modern vernacular but when it’s not deliberate, again it can be jarring for the reader. “OK” is always the one to really jump out at me when it wasn’t in common American usage until the 1850s. Which brings me on to usage of other American colloquialisms (modern or otherwise) in a novel set in England. The English aristocracy were generally disdainful of Americans (although happy to accept and/or marry their money) and so would be unlikely to use many Americanisms. And using an historically accurate expression and/or cliché is also one to watch. I wrote “bombshell” in my WIP the other day when they didn’t even have canon, let alone bombs. I’m as guilty of these as anyone, I have to really watch myself and rely on my mother’s English-teacher-trained eagle-eye to spot. Of course, authors shouldn’t go too far the other way either, as the wise Ellie Gibbons advises.
- Implausible pre-marital sex – Annie Burrows recently wrote a bit about this in her blog for Novelistas. I really enjoyed this because she recognised that sex isn’t always acceptable for the plot, particularly if the heroine is a very properly brought up aristocrat, never out of her chaperone’s sight, and would never consider something so risky and damaging to her reputation as pre-marital relations with her fiancé (or anyone else). “This means that my heroes and heroines are going to have to think very carefully about sleeping with each other before marriage. Which in turn means I have to think very carefully about how far to let them go if they aren’t married. I do aim for historical accuracy, you see, and often I just can’t imagine a scenario in which an unmarried couple would leap into bed with each other.” Of course, sometimes pre-marital sex is part of plot, in which case balls away, but back when a virtuous reputation was everything, anything pre-marital really does have to be plausible.
- No sex at all – I’m not going to lie, I like my HEA with some sex (or a lot of sex). Just makes it more real for me and I think it’s one of the most fascinating dynamics between men and women (especially when the hero and heroine still have hurdles to overcome). I know there are categories of historical HEA that are very Georgette Heyer and all prim and proper and these books absolutely have their place – they’re just not for me (or, at least, the vast bulk of my reading. If it’s spectacularly written then I can cease to care about the lack of sex). For me, love and sex are inseparable; there cannot be true love without good sex.
- Implied sex but no actual description – I know it’s not everybody’s cup of tea but when the chapter ends with the hero and heroine getting down to business and the next chapter starts the next morning, I don’t half feel cheated. Was it any good? What about her maidenly sensibilities? I want to know exactly what Rhett did to Scarlett when he carried her up the stairs; did he rock her world? And in how many different ways? Details please! If he was no good then maybe that’s why Rhett failed to get Scarlett to fall in love with him until it was too late. But on the other hand…
- Sex just for the sake of sex – not quite the same as No. 11 but same principles apply; any sex must be plausible and necessary to the plot. As Annie Burrows says: “Sometimes the fact that the hero and heroine make love is an essential part of the storyline, but sometimes it just isn’t.” I once got all the way to the end of a HEA before the hero and heroine had sex and it was so awkwardly and totally unnecessary placed. The couple weren’t married yet but had overcome all their differences and already had their HEA. The book should have ended before the sex scene but this author either chose or was told to include a sex scene. And I totally acknowledge that some other authors go too far the other way and include too many sex scenes that don’t offer us anything new about plot or character development.
- A rushed ending – OK, so this one could apply to all books, not just historical romance. I recently read a novel of a wonderful new(ish) historical romance author whose previous books I’d thoroughly enjoyed. The book was beautifully written, the historical detail glorious and the hero and heroine were gradually inching their way to overcoming the obstacles to be together. The narrative was detailed and enjoyable about all these incremental steps which left me completely unprepared for the novel’s climax; the dramatic rescue; the tying up of loose ends, not just from a broader historical perspective but also for the main and minor characters; summary of the wedding and future marital bliss to all be tied up in one chapter of approximately 2,000 words. It was jarring and felt to me like the author had already gone over the prescribed word limit for the novel and so was told/felt she had to wrap everything up PDQ. I wanted at least another chapter of more beautiful prose and detail.
Having said all that, most of the above can work in a novel if done right and appropriately substantiated. Anyway, what do you consider to be essential ingredients or absolute no-no’s for HEA Historical Romance? Let me know 🙂
© This blog is an original rambling of Eleanor Small
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