Wednesday, February 20, 2013

One reason I write historical romances

As I mentioned fleetingly in my last post, I'm not inclined to self-disclosure.  In fact, I have a strong tendency to compartmentalize.  My teaching career, my writing career, and my family are the three biggest priorities in my life, and yet never the twain shall meet.  So the approaching release of my debut historical romance, Never Too Late, generates some interesting situations for me.

In my offline world, only a limited number of people who know "the real me" know what I'm writing. And the reactions have been vastly amusing to me. While some people have simply congratulated me, others have been, well, incredulous--which likely says as much about how they see me as about how they see the genre.  Upon being told that I have a two-book deal for historical romances to be released this year and next year, some people have said...

{edited to add my usual responses}
  • "You write what?!" {"Historical romances."}
  • "So, um, what are they...I mean...is it...are we talking 50 Shades?" {"Well, um, no."}
  • "Wait, you're writing housewife porn?!" {In this particular case, my exact response was "Shuuuut up."}
The faces that go along with these comments are priceless.  I've seen some very red faces.

And the most common question, asked by many--including my beloved hubby, is "Why?" Frequently, this little question is in the tone of "Why would you write that?" Again, it seems unexpected that I, of all people, would write such things. 

So here is a little story for you...

Once upon a time, an ambitious fledgling writer, educated heavily in big, weighty literary classics and equally ponderous literary critical theory, decided to write a novel.  Oh, the little writer was tremendously intimidated. The notion of writing deep, thought-provoking, delicate, moving fiction that explores the human condition and does so in a way that brings new attention to language and literary technique...well, it was quite a daunting task. Still, the little author had a vision of great work. She took some creative writing classes, attended a few writers' conferences, immersed herself in agent and editor blogs to learn about the publishing industry, and she wrote wrote wrote wrote wrote wrote. 

Sometimes what she wrote was even not-so-crappy. 

But when she focused her energy on writing historical fiction, new challenges arose. In addition to the usual challenges of delving into characters, weaving a thoughtful plot, etc., she found herself increasingly depressed and stilted. And it wasn't just the usual challenge of being a writer--having something worth writing, making time to write, everything that facing a blank page entails.  It was the weight of history and "literariness" and this particular story.

That work-in-progress was set in Victorian England, and it was set to end in Victorian India, at the beginning of the "Indian Mutiny of 1857." There were characters, a good deal of plot developed, etc., etc., but as the story unfolded, it was clear that the key elements of the plot were increasingly dark and traumatic. To be clear, such elements included marital rape and an awful, climactic infanticide. It was no wonder the little writer began to dread every writing session. And while a story is, of course, ultimately in the hands of the writer, such darkness felt "true to the story." And so...struggles continued.

And, yes, I'm well aware that there are literary novels, including historical literary novels, that have happy endings.  But I think it's reasonable to say that "literature" is not known for happiness. (Every semester, I teach literature & composition...it's not so easy to find serious literary works that have happy endings, especially unabashedly celebratory happy endings.)

By some strange synchonicity, after wrestling with this dismal tale for some time, the little writer stumbled upon Meredith Duran's debut historical romance, The Duke of Shadows. With a half-Indian hero, the novel touched on several ideological underpinnings of the British-Indian relationship that the little writer had been struggling to express. Yet Duran communicated the complexity and anguish of British-Indian politics deftly, embedding it in what was ultimately a lovely and redemptive love story. While lots of historical romances do a similar thing, incorporating history into deeply personal stories of love and triumph, this one struck home specifically because it dealt with a time period and set of issues that were so much at the heart of what the little writer was trying to write about.

It was a revelation.

And so, while there are many reasons I write historical romance, here is one of the reasons that drives me the most:

I get to write about ideas and times and places and characters that fascinate me in a way that is ultimately joyful. I still strive to write deep, thoughtful, delicate, moving fiction about the human condition...but, in doing so, I also get to play. I get to celebrate love, which is perhaps one of the greatest elements of the human condition. I get to give characters unabashedly happy endings. Yes, life is difficult, full of suffering and pain, and I don't ignore that in my writing. If anything, I can address the darkness, particularly the darkness undeniable in Victorian English history, but I get to do so with optimism. I get to face that blank page knowing that life is full of love too...and that a happy ending is possible.

So...why do you write what you write? Why do you read what you read?

2 comments:

  1. I write historical romance because I like the tension of gender roles that, unlike today, were difficult to question and definitely difficult to break. I also have a fondness for setting the characters against difficult and/or tragic backdrops for maximum emotions that make the HEA that much sweeter.

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  2. Evangeline: Oh, yes, I could write a whole blog series on wny I find the Victorian period especially interesting for historical romance. The gap between the Victorian ideology of "separate spheres" and reality is particularly interesting to me. So much of what's commonly understood about the Victorians is seen through the lens either of what they idealized (but didn't always reflect actual life) or of how they were perceived by their successors. It's so much fun to play with levels of perception vs. reality.

    And I completely agree that the HEA is that much more powerful when the characters have to go through significant challenges to get to it. I just find it a huge relief that I know I'm writing to an HEA, rather than getting mired in the tragedy. :)

    Thanks for sharing!

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