Writing Regency Romance: Courage or Stupidity?

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.



A Guy’s Guide to Regency Romance

Just as grunting, inappropriate scratching, and endless sports trivia long have been the domain of the male of the species, so historical romance novels have belonged solidly to the realm of women. Female authors (mostly), female readers (mostly), and female bloggers (mostly). It is the “mostly” that brought me to a starling conclusion. Some men enjoy – and even write – historical romance. I’m talking about guys who run jackhammers, hunt wild boar, and perform their own plumbing repairs. Even more astonishing is that recently those thin but proud ranks welcomed me. I have fallen down the rabbit hole of historical romance novels and don’t yet know how deep it goes. As a newcomer to the genre, I feel it my solemn duty to leave a trail of breadcrumbs along the way, not so that I may return, but that others of my gender may follow. If they are man enough.

Types of Romance Novels in General

Historical romance aside, there are basically three types of romance novels. The primary delineator among them are questions of sexual acts:

  • Do they happen at all,
  • If so, do they happen outside of the marriage bed,
  • If so, do you get to watch when they do happen.

The first category of historical romance basically consists of novels about sex with a minimal plot painted over the surface to set them apart from the magazines your uncle kept hidden in the backyard shed. In short, the plot is simply a vehicle for repeated and graphic sex scenes. Think “Fifty Shades of Amorous Congress” here.

The second category consists of novels having an actual plot where sex occurs as part of the story. There are two sub-categories for this: “fade-to-black” and “Mabel! Cover the eyes of the children!” In the fade-to-black sub-category, sex happens off-screen, so to speak. The other sub-category looks remarkably like the first category above during the time when sex is occurring. Graphic. And detailed.

The third category consists of novels where sex does not happen outside of the marriage bed, and when it does, you aren’t invited to watch, thank you very much. The shades remain drawn. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

The Regency Romance Novel in Particular

In general, good historical romance consists of categories two and three only. Why? Because the level of research needed to produce a reasonably accurate historical novel typically forces an actual plot. With all that time spent researching, why just have the characters mate continuously? Nevertheless, category two can produce some blush-inducing scenes. Often. And in graphic detail. The audience for this category is enormous, as you might imagine.

That brings us to category three, and the special relationship it enjoys with Regency romance. The modern romance novel was invented by Jane Austen in the early 1800s, or at least popularized by her. If you don’t know by now who Jane Austen is, then you either slept through high school literature or have never actually talked to a woman. If either is the case, I suggest you go now and find a monster truck to drive. Through an explosion. To get to a fight.

For those of you still here, I would remind you that Jane Austen wrote her novels around the Regency period about characters that lived around the Regency period. I would also remind you that the Regency period, which lasted from 1811 to 1820, was the time during which King George battled debilitating mental illness and therefore was unable to serve as king. Meanwhile, his heir, the Prince Regent, was busy attempting to personally bankrupt the British Empire with his spending habits. As a result, Parliament kept a tight rein on the prince, which allowed him to party, philander, and spend even further. In other words, Justin Bieber.

The upper echelons of society somewhat mirrored the behavior of the Prince Regent through lavish parties, endless social maneuvering, and forbidden trysts. However, the good and hypocritical people of society never admitted such impropriety, and roundly condemned anyone careless enough to get caught and too poor to sweep it under the rug. Given that society’s ideal was that wives bring their virginity intact to the marriage bed, and given that Jane Austen was the daughter of a church minister, and given that she never married, she wrote to the ideal of society in terms of male/female relationship. No sex outside the marriage bed. Ever. And for heaven sake’s, don’t even hint about it. Given that approach, Regency romance novels occupying the third category are the most direct heirs to Jane Austen’s work.

The Male Archetypes

Now, then. This entire guide thus far has been about sex. Given that this is a guide for guys, it only seems appropriate. We typically start off thinking about it, finish up thinking about it, and manage to squeeze out a few rational thoughts in between. On a good day. This brings us to a discussion of the male archetypes that occupy Regency romance novels. There are three basic male hero archetypes. If you don’t know what an archetype is, shouldn’t you be looking for a monster truck by now? Anyway, the three male archetypes are:

  • The unrepentant rake.
  • The brooding wounded man.
  • The iron but dying man.

Rakes are smooth-talking, overtly charming ladies’ men who move swiftly through society from one conquest to another. Only the heroine can save him from his wicked and self-destructive ways, and bring on repentance and monogamy.

The brooding wounded man is, as you might guess, a man who suffers deep hurt from a past incident (usually at the hands of a woman), and broods relentlessly as a result. Only the heroine can heal him and draw him from his wounded shell into the land of light.

The iron but dying man is one who lets no outside force penetrate his emotional armor, but is slowly dying inside from lack of emotional contact. Only the heroine can find a chink in his armor and pour into him the love that will save him.

Regardless, all of the above are typically tall, broad-shouldered, and fill out a pair of trousers like a Russian gymnast. In addition, they are usually wealthy, titled, adept at societal functions, and surprisingly good dancers. Oh, and they are quick to jump to incorrect conclusions regarding the heroine, which they do with alarming repetition. Most heroes have an antagonist or two, regardless of the hero’s archetype. His antagonist is usually a lesser man who has more money, more power, or a higher title than does the hero. The antagonist often sets his sights on the heroine, and often only wants her for shallow reasons such as social standing, more money, and more power. The undeserving lout!

The Female Archetypes

There is only one female archetype for the heroine, really. The under-appreciated woman with hidden talent, beauty, will, title, or a combination of those, who fights bravely against male-centric societal conventions to break the shackles while winning the eternal affections of the hero. To know her is to love her, but getting to know her can prove a torturous journey filled with maddening pitfalls.

The antagonist of every heroine usually comes in the form of a woman whom the heroine sees as more beautiful, cultured, and/or connected than the heroine is. Said antagonist usually sets her sights on the hero and tries to win him with her charms while simultaneously discrediting the heroine in a very passive-aggressive manner. The hero is often either too brainless or too honor-bound to just tell the antagonist to shove off.

The Story Arcs

Story arcs usually go one of three ways.

  • Love or lust at first sight, complicated by a barrier. That barrier could be title (e.g. one is beneath the other’s station), a prior agreement (e.g. a marriage promise to a less worthy woman), a damaging act (usually, either the hero doing something stupid or the heroine running away, or both). Most often, though, the barrier consists of a series of misunderstandings that cause significant strife between the would-be couple before they sort it out in the final pages. These misunderstandings are often fueled by the antagonists. In between, there is a lot of flirting, touching, and kissing even when the heroic couple are at odds. In the more carnal categories, there is often sex. “I hate you. Now let’s have sex.”
  • Animosity or apathy at first sight. Animosity or apathy is usually brought on by the fact that some societal rule or faux pas forces the couple together, that their families are at war with one another, or that they simply get the wrong impression of one another. This story arc is basically the same as the first, but skips past the societal barrier straight to the string of misunderstandings. From there, the two arcs progress very similarly.
  • The slow burn. The couple experiences an initial interest that slowly builds into passion. This is again like the first story arc, but the barriers only manifest after the couple begins to fall for one another and believes for a brief moment that all will be well. Then the full weight of society collapses on top of them.

In other words, virtually every Regency romance tells the same story under differing circumstances. The characters, the settings, the actions, the historical context – all of this can differ dramatically. However, a good Regency romance is ultimately about a man and woman navigating the mine field of the very class-conscious and rule-bound world of Regency England in an attempt to find love with one another.

Five Rules

If this is all too much to take in at one time, then consider my Five Regency Romance Rules of Inevitability for understanding a Regency romance novel.

  1. If it is possible for the hero and heroine to jump to the wrong conclusion about the words or actions of the other, they inevitably will.
  2. If the hero and heroine have the opportunity to provide enlightening information that will resolve the incorrect conclusion of the other, they inevitably will be interrupted just before sharing it.
  3. If the couple attempts to avoid one another, they instead will encounter one another inevitably, repeatedly, and with nobody else around.
  4. If society has the opportunity to squash the budding relationship, it inevitably will try in rather ingenious ways.
  5. No matter what happens, don’t sweat the details, because the stories all end with a “happily ever after” – inevitably.

If, by this guide, you believe that I am mocking Regency romance novels, then you are sorely mistaken, sir, and risk a duel by insinuating so. In reality, I can’t get enough of the stuff, much to my everlasting bewilderment. After I finish reading a Regency romance novel, I feel the overwhelming urge to grow a beard, chop down a tree with an axe, or drive a monster truck through an explosion. However, I also experience actual, dare I say, feelings. I catch brief glimpses into the feminine side of my soul, and it blinds me. Somewhere, Jane Austen is smiling and shaking her head while I search for sunglasses.

Finding Wychwood Finals

My unpublished manuscript, Finding Wychwood, has been named one of three finalists for the Best Banter Contest sponsored by the Mid-Michigan Romance Writers of America. Here’s a quiz. The prize for winning is:

  1. A new car
  2. A lucrative publishing contract
  3. Eviscerating feedback from experts in the field

If you chose #3, then congratulations. Don’t misunderstand me, though! I am happy for feedback from those who know the game, and am pleased to make edits with those comments in mind.

A new car would be nice, though. Just saying.

Finding Wychwood: 2nd Place

My unpublished manuscript, Finding Wychwood, won second place for historical romance in the recent Ignite the Flame contest. This stuns me, as I have only just begun writing romance novels after ten years of finding little success in another genre. I can only think of three reasons for this:

  1. Perhaps my writing voice is suited to historical romance, or
  2. Perhaps I got lucky, or
  3. There has been a terrible mistake

I hope to get to the bottom of this. I will keep you posted about the trials and travails of Finding Wychwood as I seek an agent and enter more contests in the meantime. Whether suited, lucky, or the beneficiary of a mistake, I am hoping for a happily ever after. As is fitting.



The Difference Between Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic SciFi

My favorite SciFi sub-genre is post-apocalyptic science fiction, with dystopian literature coming in a respectable but distant second.

Why?

Because I’m fascinated by the behavior of people when the thin veneer of civilization is stripped away and all hope is lost. What remains is a true glimpse of humanity at its worst and best, and the question “what makes us human” leaps to the forefront.

For the past several years, dystopian literature has been hot, especially with young adults. Many readers remain confused about the subtle difference between dystopian literature and post-apocalyptic literature. Allow me to explain my interpretation of the difference.

A dystopia is a society where societal perfection or societal transcendence is obtained at the expense of something else. That “something else” could be a devalued class of people, the loss of a fundamental freedom, or the surrender of some aspect of human nature. Literary dystopias often arise through a slow process of societal change, or more abruptly as the result of some cataclysm. In either case, the dystopia represents society in a stable state, albeit a state most of us find appalling in some manner.

Post-apocalyptic literature, on the other hand, focuses on the instability during and/or following a cataclysmic event that shatters society both in form and headcount. During the story, whatever society exists is typically small, isolated, and highly threatened. Often there is little or no hope for any meaningful future. Although it is true that post-apocalyptic events can lead to the formation of dystopian societies, it is the immediately endangered nature of the society that interests me as a reader.

For example, consider the blockbuster series The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. This is a dystopian story because it describes a stable but imperfect society that has sacrificed morality and most of the population for the comfort of a few. However, as a lover of post-apocalyptic stories, I wanted to know “how.” How did this society emerge? What happened to create such a place? The story offers few clues, other than hints of a horrific war.

I preferred the very poetic Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan. The survivors of a zombie-plague apocalypse huddle together in a small community surrounded by a chain-link fence, unaware of other survivors. Pretty hopeless, right? Despite that hopelessness, a small band of teenagers ventures into the unknown with a vague hope that there must be something better “out there.”

So … it may come as no surprise that I wrote a post-apocalyptic series. Write what you like; write what you know – right? The Well series describes an underground society 300 years after a cataclysm, one that believes it is stable but is in fact slowly dying. In each case, as is true with most post-apocalyptic literature, an act of courage is needed to save the world.

The Well (on Amazon)

I’ll leave you with this. The best example, in my opinion, of an utterly hopeless situation where survivors soldier on is the short story “A Pail of Air” by Fritz Leiber. It’s available free on-line by the original publisher, Baen books. If your tastes mirror mine, then do yourself a favor and read it at the link below.

A Pail of Air by Fritz Leiber

(Note – there is a short Preface, but the story starts at the line “Pa had sent me out to get an extra pail of air.” Good opening line!)