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Writing Regency Romance in a 21st Century World

You know when you have to throw together a dinner party at the last minute because you forgot it was your turn? (One of these days you really need to figure out that calendar thing on your phone that tells you stuff like this ahead of time.) Or your husband forgot to tell you? (Plan the dinner party. Then plan his untimely demise.) Or your mother just assumed since “You’re such a wiz in the kitchen, I knew it wouldn’t be any trouble for you to throw something together for my book club. You are an author, after all.” (Exactly what does a group of twenty little old ladies reading Fried Green Tomatoes because they would never read those dirty books you write have to do with you being an author? An author who now has to prepare a five course meal for these ladies??)

Where was I? Oh yes, you know when that happens and you choose that handy stand-by meal everyone loves? What do you pick? Perhaps spaghetti. Easy to make. And you can do two sauces – one with meat and one without for the vegetarians in the crowd. Don’t ask me about vegetarian anything. My Welsh Celtic warrior ancestors and my Native American warrior ancestors would rise up and smite me if I refused to eat meat. As my favorite Native American comedian says “Vegetarian is Navajo for ‘crappy hunter’.” Suffice it to say, there are foods, like spaghetti, that almost everyone loves and nearly everyone can make. Some browned meat (or tofu,) some noodles, some tomatoes, and spices and you have a hearty meal everyone can sink their teeth into. It might not be their favorite meal. Definitely not something you want every day. But it will get you by.

Regency romance is a great deal like the spaghetti dinner of romance novels. They are always there, in spite of constant rumors of their demise. Almost everyone who reads romance has read at least one. For many people, their first romance novel was a Regency – Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, the Bronte Sisters, Barbara Cartland. They are sort of the gateway drug to romance.

As Regency romance is such a ubiquitous staple of the romance genre, a great many writers have tried and continue to try their hand at writing one. Perhaps an author is burnt out on their regular genre. Perhaps their agent has told them to try something new. Perhaps they read an article that told them writing a Regency is a way to make a quick buck. Perhaps they watched Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and thought “That looks like fun. I can write that!” (Even a Regency purist like myself enjoyed it. If it happens for real I am volunteering to check Mr. Darcy’s body for zombie bites. Just saying.)

And if someone wants to try their hand at writing a Regency romance I am all for it! We all know all it takes is that one breakout book to rejuvenate a sub-genre of romance and bring new readers of said sub-genre into the fold. So, yes, I’ll welcome you. I’ll read your book. If it is good, I’ll give you a great review. If it isn’t, I’ll keep my mouth shut. And those of you who know me know it is easier to keep certain people off Twitter than it is to keep my mouth shut. (I’ll let you work the Twitter person out for yourself.) But I will do it.

However, what I won’t do is give you a pass. I won’t give you a pass on the historical research. I won’t give you a pass on the societal norms and the consequences of bucking those norms. I won’t give you a pass on writing a book set in 1810 and having your hero wear pants. He won’t be wearing pants for at least another twenty years and even then he will probably only be wearing them in the United States. To this day, pants refers to a man’s underwear in England. Over those pants he is wearing breeches in 1810 and trousers in 2017, or at least he’d better be!

There are two kinds of Regency romances (probably more, but we’ll go with two.) There is a Regency romance. And then there is a Wallpaper Regency Romance. I write Regency Romance. Authors who write Regency romance with a quick wave at the language and behaviors associated with 19th century England and then proceed to write a contemporary romance with a few references to carriages, ball gowns, and silk wallpaper write Wallpaper Regency Romance. Well, actually, there is a third kind – the kind that doesn’t even attempt to hide the fact the author knows nothing about the era and doesn’t care to know either. The first kind I read and write. The second kind I read and if it is particularly well done I will read the author again. The third kind? I give the cut direct, as any Regency lady would.

If a young lady sneaks into a man’s bedroom and has wild monkey sex with him during the Regency and people find about it she will either marry him or be ostracized as a fallen woman. Were there women who slept around during the Regency? Please. Check the church records for wedding dates and subsequent christening dates of first children born to those couples. The late 18th and early 19th centuries were not kind to babies born prematurely. There were plenty of hefty, healthy babies born six months after those fancy Regency weddings. More often than not, however, it was because once a couple became engaged it was pretty much a done deal. The only person who could call it off was the woman and you had better believe if they’d slept together she was not going to do that.

Were there fallen women who were accepted in Society? Sure. A few. They either had to have extremely blue blood or be the mistresses of men with extremely blue blood or men who were national heroes. Emma Hamilton was Lord Horatio Nelson’s mistress, but she still had to deal with some ostracism. There were personal items Nelson wanted left to her and he wanted the government to take care of her. Didn’t happen that way. Had she been his wife, it would have been different.

When I edit or proof books for my historical romance writing clients I spend a great deal of time with the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) and on etymonline.com checking the first usage dates of words that I either know are anachronistic or I suspect are. I check travel times and coaching routes for trips. You cannot ride from Scotland to London in one day no matter how big and bad your horse is.

There is an entire online chapter of RWA dedicated to the writing of Regency-set romance. The Beau Monde Chapter. We have members who research every little aspect of their novels. We have members who let a great many things slide in the name of getting the story told the way they want to tell it. Contrary to popular belief we are not the Regency Police. Well, some of us are, but somebody has to be. We have a great many discussions on the various sorts of Regencies being written in the 21st century. And lets face it, a great story is a great story. If the readers don’t mind, then why should we?

The publishing world is changing. Authors have a so much more control over their content than they did before the advent of e publishing, both with a publishing house and indie publishing. It affords the author a great deal of freedom. With freedom, however, comes great responsibility. There is still a large pool of readers out there who demand historical accuracy in their Regency romances. I write for them. There is another pool of Regency romance readers out there who aren’t really sure what is appropriate and what isn’t. I write for them, so they’ll know. There is yet another pool of Regency romance readers out there who are just looking for a good story. They’re not quite sure what is right and what isn’t and they probably don’t care. I write for them, because if even one of them learns what life was like for men and women of all ranks and positions in the nineteenth century, if even one of them learns how a man can woo you and love you and learn who you are without jumping your bones first (Don’t get me wrong, plenty of bones are jumped in my stories. Just not on the first date.) – then I have done a little bit more than entertain my readers.

When I write I want to lure my readers into the world of the Regency era. I want them to sink into it like a hot bath and never want to leave. I want them to be fascinated by the rules, horrified by the injustices, and intrigued by the very real and passionate courtships my heroes and heroines endure before they find their happily ever after. I do my research because I love it and because I want to meld it into my stories so that my readers don’t notice it, but they remember it and come to expect it and look forward to it. Nearly four hundred research books and counting and one hundred binders filled with research should tell you how much time I spend getting it right for my readers.

Many people in the bondage/dom lifestyle were not terribly happy with Fifty Shades of Grey. They felt the author used the scene like a Chinese menu and only picked the things she wanted to include and messed up the rest. I have no idea. Not my thing. First time Mr. Moneybags swatted me with that belt I’d have handed him his head and said “Hey, you dropped this. Try it again and I’ll be neutering you with that belt.” But, I do think if you’re going to write in this genre, you should do your research. Either through books and the internet or in person. Dealer’s choice. 🙂

I’d expect the same thing of someone writing about Navy seals or the FBI. Many authors sit around and wait to see what is going to sell and then they write that. Which means if they do it right, they must be spending a great deal of time on research. And if they aren’t, they don’t need to be writing it.

Are people buying stories that are badly written and poorly researched? Sure they are. Will they do so once they find one that isn’t – one that is well-written, and well-edited, and sharply researched? Probably not. I would never write an FBI hero without researching that job completely. Why should I encourage a writer to write a Regency romance without knowing the difference between a phaeton and a barouche?

Writing Regency romance in the 21st century is not easy. It requires a real love of the Regency era and an understanding of the people, places, and societal norms of the time. I adore every minute of it. Every day I discover things and ideas and people I can bring to my stories that will intrigue my readers, make them laugh, make them cry, and make them think. Is there anything better?

I may be making spaghetti, but you won’t get any Chef Boyardee or even Olive Garden spaghetti from me. I’m going for the spaghetti served at Vetri in Philadelphia. Look it up. And if you are ever in Philly do yourself a favor and eat there. Call ahead to make reservations. And bring your credit card.

I write Regency romance because I love it. And when you love something, only the very best will do.

 

What is your take on writing a book in a new genre? Do you do your research? Do people who write in your genre and don’t do their research tick you off? If you read or write Regency romance does historical accuracy make or break a book for you? Do you appreciate it or could you care less? Lets talk. And be honest. We’re all big girls. here!

20 responses to “Writing Regency Romance in a 21st Century World”

  1. Addison Fox says:

    Louisa – what a beautiful post!! It’s clear you have such a deep love for the genre. Your post is proof that the details are as important as the story – it’s ALL part of our craft and just as it’s not fair to skimp on dialogue or setting, it’s equally unfair no to do the period the justice it deserves.

    Great post!!
    Addison

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    • Thank you, Addison! I truly do love Regency romance. There are those who say I was born in the wrong era. They may be right. You are spot on – every aspect of a story deserves a writer’s full devotion.

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  2. Spot on advice, Louisa.

    Years ago, In my very infant writer years, I made the comment that I would never write historicals because of all the research involved and I wouldn’t want readers disappointed. I quickly learned that research is necessary for all genres. This is no lie. On my to do list today, I’m to call the National Guard in Vt. I have questions in my mind that need to be answered for a 10K novella I’m working on. Could I bull sh*t my way through the short story? Probably, but I’d rather have info from people who walk in those shoes, the shoes of my characters.

    It doesn’t matter if you’re writing Regencies, Suspense, Westerns, or a contemporary where a woman has lost her entire business to a fire, if you have’ to lived through it, research the lives of those who have.

    Why would you not ask questions for the sake of your readers and your reputation?

    Great post!

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    • Exactly, Autumn! With the wealth of information available to us it is foolish not to do the research. With as much research and reading as I have done about the Regency era I could probably BS some of the details in my work, but that isn’t my reputation. Set the bar high and keep working to raise it in all aspects of writing. That’s the best way to work!

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  3. One thing I like to consider is whether one intends to write a book that takes place in a given historical era or write a book that reads as if it were written in that historical era. I see them as two very different goals, both with value.

    Most historical romances, I think, are written for a modern audience and wouldn’t be mistaken for a period work. Courtney Milan, for example, is a more or less an auto-buy author for me who writes beautiful and intellectual books set in an historical era but that wouldn’t have been *written* in that era. That’s not what she’s trying to do.

    It’d be basically impossible to write a novel for the commercial market that sounds as if it were written prior to the 1700s, as language has changed too much (and the concept of a “novel” didn’t popularly exist until around then, anyway). One could write an authentic Regency or Victorian, though, to say nothing of the 20th Century years.

    I recently read Sarah Waters’ “Fingersmith,” which is an unusually compelling bit of historical crime fiction, and it read very much like it was written in the Victorian era. The cadence, the dialogue, the themes — it was transporting! (It also got her shortlisted for a Booker prize).

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    • I meant to add that this is why I’ve felt paralyzed when I try to write in an historical era: I feel compelled to write the work as if it were written in that era, instead of merely taking place in that era. And that’s really hard!

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      • You have hit on the rub of it, Jamie. I want my stories to be as authentic as they can be without tripping the reader up in language that isn’t easily read by today’s reader. It is difficult, but it can be done. And I truly admire those who can write a book as if it were being written in the age in which it is set. That is a completely different skill set!

        I love Courtney Milan’s work as she takes real issues of the era and presents them in a way that will make the reader apply those ideas to today’s world.

        I do, however, love to use Regency slang in my stories. When will I ever have the chance to call someone a great looby, a dollymop, a nodcock, or an addlepate??

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  4. Rita Henuber says:

    I believe the quality of research shines through in the writing. When the author has knowledge and a good grip of the topic it puts me, the reader, at ease and brings me along for the story ride. Long live research.

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    • Exactly, Rita! If the story is written so the research is seamlessly inserted it draws the reader in and surrounds them which can only enhance their reading experience!

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  5. Good research is important, especially in my world: suspense/crime fiction. But there’s nothing worse that a suspense that drags because an author went overboard including too many details of police procedure. Zzzzzz.

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    • See, I cannot begin to imagine all of the research that goes into writing about modern police, FBI or any law enforcement agency’s procedures. I love reading it though! However, as you say, whether it is historical research or modern police methods, there is always the danger of too much of a good thing!

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  6. Kate Parker says:

    As Louisa knows, I write in the time period from the 1890s to the 1940s set in London, complete with soul-seeking kisses and dead bodies. I’ve discovered what my American readers enjoy as historically accurate, my British readers complain is written in Americanese. The details are correct, but the words I use for handbag/purse and parlor/drawing room drive them crazy. This is another level of editing I need to have done to my stories, after I’ve written a lively yarn that everyone will enjoy.

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    • Drat! Internet ate my reply! What I said, before technology so rudely interrupted me – One of the biggest blessings and problems with writing Regency romance or any historical romance set in the UK these days is that we are garnering British readers. The good thing is – a whole new market of readers. The bad thing – they don’t like it when you get it wrong and boy, do they know and tell you about it!

      We’d done very well with the Brits in our Christmas Revels Series, Kate. I have no doubt your new series is going to go great guns as well. And I know how far you have gone to do your research!

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  7. “I want them to sink into it like a hot bath and never want to leave.”

    YES!!! This. This! I love Regency romance so very, very much. My first ms was a Regency which I researched for 6 solid months before even attempting to write, and I still got things wrong.

    I’ve been reading historical romances since I was 15. I’ve read dozens and dozens, so going in, I thought I knew it all. I thought, “This whole research thing should take me a couple of weeks, then I can get started. Boy, was I wrong.

    It was an eye-opening experience but one I’ve cherished. I learned so much, but not having written in that genre for 14 years, I’ve forgotten more than I learned. I still read a ton of Regency because it was my first love, but I have learned that reading historical and writing it are two very different things.

    I love this, Louisa! Thank you for being so awesome!

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    • Thank you, Darynda! You read historicals and write paranormals. I write historicals and read paranormals. LOL And writing paranormals comes with an entirely different set of research – the kind that has you creating an entire world and keeping it straight! And I’ll bet your readers would call you on it if you didn’t adhere to the parameters of the world you’ve created!

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  8. Andrea Stein says:

    I’m about to take the Regency plunge, and I may have to camp in your library – LOL – I’ll bring critter treats for the four-legged critics. Bless you for another great, fun blog.

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    • Bring it on, Roomie! I cannot WAIT to read your Regency!

      You and my mother know exactly the way to my critters’ hearts! She sent treats for their Christmas and I nearly had a riot the day they finally ran out.

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  9. Vivi Andrews says:

    I personally love Olive Garden spaghetti and what you are calling Wallpaper Regency Romances. But then I don’t claim to be Italian or a historical expert. Some of my favorite romances might infuriate a purist, but at least there’s something for everyone. 🙂

    In my own writing, I try to get it right so I don’t offend those who know better, but I’m looking for emotional resonance, thought-provoking ideas, and strong characterization first and foremost. And I generally find that it’s not the research we do that messes us up, it’s the research we didn’t even know we had to do. Like Mark Twain said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

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  10. Oh, I quite agree, Vivi! Some of those wallpaper Regencies are the most fun to read. There are some purists who won’t touch them, but when I am looking for a fun, romantic read on the wild side of the Regency I have my go to Wallpaper Regency writers who always deliver.

    And without emotional resonance, thought-provoking ideas, and strong characterization all the research in the world won’t make it a great book.

    Lord, that Mark Twain nails it every single time! I have always said the reason I love research about the Regency is the more I know, the more I realize I don’t know. I won’t live long enough to learn it all, but I am going to go out trying!

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  11. Mary Blayney says:

    Great post Louisa. It’s all been said but wanted to know one more person appreciated your words.

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