Bookish Ramblings

15 Things About HEA Historical Romance That Make Me Scowl

HEA Historical Romance

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:


  1. 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.


  1. 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.

HEA Historical Romance

  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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.

  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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…


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


HEA Historical Romance

  1. Implausible pre-marital sexAnnie 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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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…

HEA Historical Romance

  1. 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.


  1. 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


Picture credits:

Poldark –

Mr Darcy –

Rhett –

Ellie Gibbons tweet by Ellie Gibbons

Comments (17)

  • This made me laugh! I have only read a couple of historical romances (by mistake; they were portrayed as proper historical fiction), and thought they were DREADFUL; they seem to be written for people who have zero knowledge about any historical period, who just want to drift into a make-believe world where all men look like Aiden Whatsisname but have the morals of a vicar crossed with a WW2 hero, and all women are ‘feisty’, gorgeous and witty, with a tumble of unruly russet curls. Period unspecified, often, just a load of long dresses, horses and castles.

    I read one a few weeks back that had Elizabethan noble women going into a tavern on their own, as if they were on a girls’ night out. I’ve read the Aiden Whatsit-alike servant walking into the mistress’s bedroom with no reprimand – oh, you name it!

    By the sound of this, it is time for you to move into proper histfic – there is plenty of relationship stuff to be found in some of that, too!

    • Many thanks for your kind words, Terry, I’m very glad I’m not the only one who has also been forced to scowl whilst reading.

      Your comments on ‘proper’ historical fiction tie in with something else I’ve also been mulling over in my head about the genre. It’s another blog post I’ve just written (but not published yet) on Falling Out of Love With A Favoured Author. In 20+ years of being an avid historical fiction reader, these days I do find myself reading more ‘proper’ historical fiction than what I’ll call ‘traditional’ and I’m wondering why that is.

      ‘Traditional’ authors who are very successful and who have been publishing historical romance since 1980s/1990s are releasing titles that I’m now finding very boring, bland and, well, PC (therefore leading to me falling out of love). But I still love their original titles, published several years ago, mostly, I’ve decided, because they don’t commit any/all of the above and if they do, then they ‘do it right’. Are authors choosing to be more PC of their own volition or is the industry demanding this? If the latter, it rather seems like they’re castrating the plot. Does the industry have a perception that readers only want the PC version? I can’t determine any difference between older ‘traditional’ novels that I still like and the ‘proper’ historical fiction apart from marginally less sex in the latter. In many instances they’re both character driven and the plot arc centres around the romance, not the history, but the history is realistic and mostly accurate in both. All of it leads me to wonder – is there an unspoken line between these two types of romance and it’s just taken me years to notice? And which is more important: the romance or the history? Are more sexually explicit titles now mutually exclusive of more accurate and realistic history?

      If you have any wisdom or light to shed on this I would very much appreciate it.

  • How very interesting! Sadly, I cannot shed much light on this as I have never been a reader of historical romance, preferring historical fiction (‘serious’, if you like!) that is centred round the life and times of the people, rather than romance; I’m not a romance reader generally. I’ve only read some because of reviewing for a book blog team and assessing on a panel for a historical fiction award

    I am sure there is some truth in what you say – from what I know from trad pub authors, they are very much guided by their publishers, and of course the publishers by what is perceived as being wanted by the public! I do wonder, too, if the more sexually explicit titles are being pushed more as a genre on their own, separately, as you say, because of the demand for erotica since the 50 Shades phenomenon. Speaking as someone who reads history because I want to immerse my self in the period, I find sexually explicitness (is that a word??!!) tedious, out of place and unnecessary – so perhaps you’re right. If I want to read a sexy book I’ll buy a sexy book – and the relationship aspect can be sexy without being anatomical, in my view. So perhaps if the marketing divisions of publishers have done their research, they’ve come up with the two basic types of historical fiction readers – hmm!

    (ps, if you want any recommendations, I can’t praise Ann Swinfen, Deborah Swift and Gemma Lawrence too highly. Deborah is published by Pan MacMillan, Ann by Random House and an independent press, and Gemma is self pub. I have a book blog, link on my Twitter bio – I’m afraid my praise for these three might become repetitive (!!) , but I am not one of those reviewers who gush about all books, far from it!).

    • Hi Terry – many thanks for your follow up comments, have been musing on this quite a lot. It’s lovely to have a different perspective, especially from someone who is less enthralled to the genre than I am. I find it very interesting that you’d rather keep any sexually explicit content separate from the historical content. Personally, I don’t think I can separate the two; I want accurate, realistic history and a grand romance with flawed characters that are still likeable – a line I can only hope to emulate in my novel. There are some authors out there I’ve found that have achieved this but far too few for my liking!

  • As a reader of many genres and an aspiring writer of Victorian-set historical romance who puts a whole lot of effort into historical research, Terry’s comment offended me.

    Terry, I just read the blurb for your novella. I shudder to think how you depict your writer ‘of light-hearted romance’ given your attitude to historical romance and the fact that you admit you haven’t read many. Don’t you think it might have been a good idea to properly research the genre before you wrote about someone who writes in it? After all, 90% of everything written is crap. You can’t judge an entire genre based on one or two books you read by accident.

    • You do have a point, Julie but yes, research is essential whether historical romance or Romantic Historical Fiction. And yes, there are excellent historical romances. I love Cross Stitch and have quite liked In Possession . I found both well researched. I think I can claim to be an historian as well as an author. I don’t enjoy Regency novels though I do love Jane Austen. I think you do find dreadful as well as very good straight historical Fiction. I think Diana Wallace’s The Woman’s Historical Novel has much to say about all of this. It is very readable and informative.

      • Hello Julie and Carol – many thanks for taking the time to comment, much appreciated. I, too, agree that the historical romance genre does not automatically preclude excellent historical research. It can be a wonderful source of knowledge about a specific era, event or culture that I otherwise wouldn’t know anything about. My mother once asked how I knew so much about American Indians (which I’ve never studied) and my answer was Brenda Joyce and Susan Johnson novels! However, I seem to be finding of late that a lot of what I’ll call ‘traditional’ historical romance has only a passing acquaintance with history and is, in fact, becoming very 21st century PC. Perhaps I’m just picking up the wrong novels but it’s been lovely to hear than I’m not alone with my gripes and that other authors out there are bucking/trying to buck the trend too.
        And I’ve just looked up The Woman’s Historical Novel Carol and it does indeed look really interesting so have added that to the wishlist, thanks for the tip!

      • Julie, I am sorry I offended you. I could only comment on the historical romances I had read, which, I think I made clear. I was not speaking for all writers in the historical romance genre. I review books as part of a blog review team, and also am on the panel for judging a historical fiction award. This is how I came to read these books in a genre I would not normally choose.

        As for my own book on which you comment, I haven’t read much historical romance, but I’ve read MASSES of light romance over the last 35 years or so. Even if I hadn’t, though, it wouldn’t have affected the writing of my novella, as it is more about the writer herself than the genre. If you would like to see if I wrote if effectively, you might like to look at the reviews, which you can see via my Amazon page.

  • I really enjoyed reading this blog (which I saw on Twitter originally.) I’m with you on all counts. I once read a historical set in the middle ages where they all went back to the castle for tea and scones. Really. It always rings false with me in movies etc when the hero/heroine are allowed to spend time in each other’s company unchaperoned. What? Who’s going to marry her now? My other bugbear (in movies) is when the heroine STRIDES across the screen in a crinoline or whatever, because she knows the freedom of wearing jeans/trousers in her everyday life. Very hoydenish (LOL). As for long flowing hair . . . don;t get me started. Great blog, thank you for sharing.

    • Hi Lizzie – many thanks for taking the time to comment, much appreciated. Knowing that someone else feels the same about the genre is lovely. And now I’m craving tea and scones 🙂

  • I found this post particularly apt as I am giving a talk on the subject to the RNA in July. I agree with most of the points made here. An interesting thing is marriage historically. It would generally speaking be unusual for a noble woman to have sex before marriage for the reasons given. However, marriage laws were not as we now know them, not before 17thC. Couples could promise themselves to each other. A priest was not necessary nor was a church porch wedding. Think too about Anne Boleyn and Harry Percy. They may not have had sex but there was the accusation of pre contract levelled at Anne Boleyn. Poor people often married this way, sometimes without parental consent and yes there was sex before marriage as evidenced by the fact that children of a couple could be present under a later marriage canopy in church. I think this is superb material for historical romance but of course research it before using it. There are legal cases involving such scenarios.

    • Hi Carol – many thanks for taking the time to comment, much appreciated. Would love to hear your talk, sounds fascinating, I hope it’s tweeted about so non-RNA members can share too. I’ve stumbled across another blog relating to this topic today, focusing more on historical characterisation and how to make them relate-able to the modern reader. if you’re interested.
      I totally agree with you that marriage historically is a great source of novel material. I keep coming back to Maureen Waller’s The English Marriage (John Murray) as it’s just so well written and accessible, documenting the good and the bad for women throughout English history. I’m so grateful to the suffragettes and others for fighting for women’s rights so we’re not subject to these awful scenarios now!

  • I’m English author of Historical Romances and couldn’t I have said it better on the points mentioned above – says she who gets criticised for archaic language derived from personal journals penned in the periods she writes about. As an aside to the issue of clipped endings, often as not “less is more” because novellas indeed need tight honing and yet still provide sense of length and an HEA . My pet hates are too much waffling (padding), too much attention paid to domesticity and toilette scenes, and modern prose within some novels that are essentially depicting eras when formal speech and prose were obligatory for the better off in society; such being a mark of education and literacy. My crime is having written about a married woman in love with her husband’s brother “Waterloo Legacy”, rape in “Her Favoured Captain”, and adhering to regional English and county dialects, but heavens above, I’m English. Lovely write-up!

    • Hi Francine – many thanks for taking the time to comment, much appreciated. Knowing that someone else feels the same about the genre is lovely. I’ve been intrigued by your novels and added to my TBR (for when I hopefully get an e-reader this summer. Behind the times, I know!)

  • Totally agree and I’ve written many a blog post to say so. But often the implausible stories sell better than the accurate ones!

  • Your points are all good – especially the one about the potatoes. I started keeping a list of such things, partly as a reminder to make sure that I don’t do anything similar.

    I write historical romances set in the fourteenth century and the more I read about that period the more I realise how little I really know. I also cringe at some of the mistakes I made in my first books. In a few years’ time I’m sure I’ll be cringing at the mistakes in my current WIP.

    Top of my own list is the 21st century heroine set down in medieval England, complete with daft name. Second on my list is the ability to complete a journey that would have taken days in a matter of hours. One such journey seemed so ridiculous that I checked the distance between the two towns and saw that it took the hero on horseback slightly less time than it would have taken him in a car had there been a traffic-free motorway between the two towns.

    • Love that other people find these quirks annoying too. I don’t think we can preclude making some of these ‘mistakes’ ourselves either – love the idea of keeping a list, might start one! And the fact that you’re aware of them means I’m pretty sure your books are a lot more realistic than the average Couldn’t agree more about 21st century woman with a daft name – immediately gets my hackles up too. And I want to borrow that hero’s horse – clearly got some superpowers!


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