Monday, September 27, 2010

Stephanie Laurens on the Historical Romance

Later in the day at the RWNZ conference, Stephanie Laurens gave a workshop on writing historical romances.

First, the good news is that the bad news isn’t so bad. When you ask a publisher how historicals are doing, he will say, “Sales are flat.” That DOESN’T mean historicals aren’t selling. In fact, they are. What he means is that the percentage of historicals being sold, compared to the whole spectrum of romance subgenres is the same as it has been. But, the whole romance market is getting bigger. In other words, if this year the publisher sells 100 romances and 30 of them are historicals, and next year he sells 200 romances, 60 of them will be historicals. The market is actually growing.

One of the big changes over the past five years, though, there’s been developing a bigger gap between the authors at the top and the rest of the crowd. This has to do with mass market distributors like Wal-Mart, etc.) They have a limited number of slots for romances, and only one goes for historicals. Naturally, that one slot is going to go to a top author “guaranteed” to sell. Now, Stephanie said that the other authors are doing well – because there are still lots of other outlets with more slots (in other words, book stores). But it’s the mass market distributors that push an author’s numbers over the top and determine whether or not a book is going to be a best seller.

On the other hand, it’s not harder to break in for a new author. In fact, with the advent of e-printing, it’s getting easier. Furthermore, (and surprising to me) the most voracious e-book readers aren’t the young kids, but the older reader. The average e-book reader’s age is 56.

OK, what is selling in historical romance? Stephanie said that medievals are not selling (Alex Logan of Grand Central Publishing, who also spoke at the conference confirmed this), unless you can put a kilt on it. What is selling right now is Regency – though that can be expanded to Georgian and Victorian as well. The boundaries are blurred. Editors are looking for story elements that stand out. Right now that’s families and groups (in other words, series), because readers love to return to familiar worlds. Stephanie suggests that you read widely; read bestsellers whose work is closest to yours. Read the best-selling lines.

One of the trends is historical romances are getting hotter.  Audiences today are looking for a higher level of sensuality.

Stephanie also shared with us some information on structuring a book around word count that I’d never heard before. Mass market and commercial fiction plots are structured around blocks of 40,000 words with a block of 5000 at the beginning and end. This is why publishers come up with the word counts you see printed in their submission guidelines.

For example a novella of 50,000 words looks like this:
5000 word intro (includes inciting incident )
40k development to climax
5k denouement

An 85,000 to 90,000 mass market looks like this:
5 k intro (with inciting incident)
40k development to central turning point/black moment
40k development to climax
5k denouement

At the end of every block, you have a major turning point. Stephanie said that in terms of structure, 100,000 words is a bad length. You have either a short book written too long, or a long book written too short.

What settings are selling? Right now, because of the economy, it’s almost impossible to get book publishers to take a risk. Stephanie says everyone loves Scotland and England, but editors are shy of exotic settings right now. She said if you want to use an exotic setting, ground your story in England, then move it offshore.

Stephanie was quick to point out, though, that historical fiction and historical romance are two different beasties. Historical romance, the romance is first and foremost and history is just the backdrop. In historical fiction, history is an essential part of the story. What this means is that historical accuracy for a romance isn’t particularly important. You can bend it a bit. A popular device is to put what you changed into an author’s note at the end. But for historical fiction historical accuracy is crucial.

The question about historical accuracy led to one about the "not nice" parts of the time period.  Tacky things like what women did when they had their menses.  Stephanie said that with a historical romance, you're creating an escape.  So leave those ugly things out.


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  2. Sorry that didn't read well. I meant to say my Regencies, Georgian and Victorian novels always find a home, but that will change as trends come and go.

  3. Great information Vicky. I love to hear from editors and agents, and I took a look through some of your older posts about the conference.

    The ebook market will probably continue to grow through the 'older' crowd. E Readers (kindle, nook, etc) make nice gifts for adults who pretty much have accumulated what they want where as teens and young adults are more likely to get clothes or things for their home as gifts, IMO.

  4. Yeah, my guess is the e-readers are also able to enlarge print without enlarging the size of the book. ;D That's a nice benefit.

    Thanks for the breakout in differences between romances and straight fiction. I don't know what to say about where lines are drawn for historical fantasy. By definition, we change history when we write fantasy, so I don't think the rules of straight fiction apply. I hope.

  5. Re e-books, we had another speaker at the conference who was an e-book publisher and he said that the market is growing very fast. The biggest user is, as Debra has said, the older reader, but young people are also embracing the technology. The comment was that print books won't go away, though. Lots of people want to have a permanent copy for their library.

    Re Victoria's comment on historical fantasy: I think that's a different beastie from what Stephanie writes. She's known for her hot Regencies and Regency suspense. The way I see it, there are two branches of historical fantasy. One creates an alternative universe, such as Victoria's alternative Han dynasty. The other puts paranormal elements into a historical world. In both cases you're bending history. I recently listened to an RWA conference talk that discussed reader expectations when either of those happens. The author (I can't remember who, but it was a best-selling writer of fantasy historicals) said that with the paranormal type you have to stay within the limits of actual history, especially if you're using real people. But you can give them a "secret" life, providing it's coherent with what people already know about them historically. So say your character has a gap in thier life in which biographers have no idea what they were doing. YOu could have them go off and have a paranormal adventure that changes their outlook and explains why later in life they made certain decisions, etc. Another way to handle this, which I've seen even with "straight" historicals and with contemporaries that use famous people but don't want to get into liable suites is to not name the actual person but make them similar to the real person so that the astute reader knows who they are. The character that pops into my head is the Prince whose life Tom Clancy's hero saves in one of Clancy's early books.

  6. I've abandoned three or four recently written historicals lately because they were gruesome or hard to read. Must be getting pickier as I get older!