Compared to writers of other genres, writers of Regency romance as a breed are either more optimistically courageous or just plain stupider.
This is where I should mention that I formerly wrote science fiction novels. My initial thought was, “Hey, I write science fiction. How hard can writing regency romance be?” As it turns out, somewhere between incredibly difficult and ridiculously difficult. Why is that?
When writing science fiction, I started with an endless canvas on which to create a story. No idea was too odd. No scenario was too outlandish. No character was too unbelievable. The only cardinal rule was this: please attempt to adhere to plausible science. Failing this rule can cause science fiction readers to wrinkle their collective noses in disgust. However, the writer may break even this rule if she provides a reasoned explanation for why gravity causes one to fly away from the planet instead of toward it. The writer need only do a respectable job of not grossly violating the laws of physics. Everything else is forgivable.
When writing regency romance, I instead began within a very narrow framework of time, space, and acceptable rules. And maintenance of the rules is an immovable object! If a writer breaks the rules cavalierly, she will receive swift and deserved condemnation and correction from an audience that seems to know more about the social rigors of riding in Hyde Park during the year 1815 than how to talk to a modern teenager. To heighten the challenge, the list of rules is immense. This list includes rules for what to say, what not to say, how to eat, how to dress, how to dance, how to smile, how not to smile, how to address those of different social classes in the context of any other social class, and “how” just about everything imaginable. The rules mean knowing the difference between a chemise and a chemisette, a chaise and a curricle, a Quadrille and a Scotch Reel, a baron and a baronet, and … everything and everything else. The writer cannot, may not, must not break these rules. And, for the love of God, never, never refer to Jane Austen as Jane Austin. I nearly lost a hand once when I did so.
More difficult than abiding religiously by the rules of regency romance is maintaining the contract with the reader. With science fiction, the writer makes a contract with the reader to provide something sciencey and fictiony, and perhaps melt the reader’s brain in the process. The story may end however the writer deems fit. The protagonist may win, lose, or draw, live or die, change the world or move into a bunker, become enlightened or get eaten by aliens, find love or lose it forever. It’s all acceptable within the bounds of the science fiction contract.
The regency romance contract is much, much narrower. As in, keyhole narrow. In particular, the writer must provide the reader with a happily ever after. No. Matter. What. The implications of this contract are mind boggling. In particular, before the reader lays eyes on the first word of the first page, the reader knows how the story will end. Typically, within a few pages, the reader also knows which characters will experience that blessed happy ending. This means, then, that the strength of any regency romance novel is in the journey. The writer must take familiar characters through a familiar landscape and familiar situations to a familiar conclusion while keeping the reader on the edge of her chair wondering, “holy-cow-I-can’t-believe-that-just-happened-what-will-happen-next?”
How difficult is it, then, to create a captivating story inside this narrow framework where literally tens of thousands of stories have been written? Difficult enough that only very talented or very naive people attempt it. As a new writer of Regency novels, I’m definitely in the latter category, but with hopes for future glory regardless of my inherent stupidity.