Once upon a time, a young girl stole a book from her mother’s nightstand. She read that book under the big brass bed in the guest bedroom, and knew, within pages, that she had found what she wanted to read and write for the rest of her life. That girl was me, and that book was The Kadin, by Bertrice Small. My mom found me (darned flashlight beam) and took the book back, because I was too young to read that sort of thing. Mind you, I wasn’t even anywhere near the love scenes. What grabbed me, besides the author’s voice, was the cadence of the language, the lavish description, the sense of adventure, and being inside the skin of a heroine the back cover blurb already told me was going to come out on top, no matter what happened to her.
I stole the book back, of course, and the next one, and, by the time the third book by Ms. Small came out, I had my own copy. While I do appreciate my mother’s concern for my young sensibilities (but really, she had no problem with the horror comics I also devoured, but I don’t think she actually knew what was inside them, either) there was one other unarguable truth. This kind of story, this epic love of long ago, this was mine. Maybe I didn’t fully understand what was going on, but I did understand the force of recognition that slammed into me, in those first few pages.
That feeling has become, thankfully, familiar over the years, and yet the thrill of one of those waves as it crashes over me never gets old. This weekend’s episode of Outlander, “Freedom and Whisky,” and the episode that preceded it, “Of Lost Things,” brought a huge wave of the stuff. This also reminds me that Poldark is back in business. Yes, I know, historical fiction, not historical romance, but Ross and Demelza fit the hero and heroine roles admirably, even if Ross dropped several thousand points in our esteem at the end of last season. He may want to start practicing his grovel, because getting on Demelza’s wrong side is never a good idea.
Right about now, I would love to reference an essay/blog post about teacup romances and king-slapping heroines. I want to say it was written by Ilona Andrews, but, as I’m not turning up anything on my search results, perhaps I have remembered wrong. Even so, it’s the essence that matters, not the specifics at this point. The author wrote about what she termed teacup romances, in which characters could move through the story, holding a teacup, and not spill a drop, and contrasted those with another, when a heroine rebuffed the advances of the reigning monarch with a slap. This fascinated another character, who revealed that they’d always wanted to slap a king. Big move there, and definitely not without risk.
Both types definitely have their place, but, for me, it’s going to be king-slapping, every time. I think Janet Leslie (aka Cyra Hafise) from The Kadin would find much in common with Claire and Demelza, and, maybe, if Bertrice Small were to send that manuscript to a publisher today, it might be marketed as historical fiction rather than romance. Still, take out the love story, and the book would crumble. Could any of these stories take place in any other time and place than the ones they do? Hard no, to all three, and I love that. I love the full period immersion. In Outlander, we get three periods: the eighteenth century, 1940s and 1960s, all rendered in loving detail. The past really is a whole other world, and that’s where the stories I write, by myself, take place. Even my co-written contemporary stories have a historical tinge. I’m hardwired for this kind of stuff.
That’s the bedrock. That’s what’s not going to change. That’s the sweep and the surge and the power of historical romance that I love best, and it’s what I want to put into my own work. Taking in what one wants to put out is always a good idea, not only to see what others have already done, but what I would do differently. Watching one of these shows, or reading a book with a similar tone gets my idea hamster running. I take in some of that stuff, I want to make some of that stuff. If a few teacups get broken along the way, well that’s a risk I am willing to take.