02 June 2010

What Surprised Me: People Don't Read Historicals?

By Isabel Roman

What surprises me? The fact that there are so many people who don't know about the historicals we write!

Let's face it, there are a lot of people who like romances but wouldn't pick up an historical if it was the only romance left on the shelf. Why is that? Do they think the story isn't something they'd be interested in? Do they think the hero isn't realistic? The heroine is a bumbling airhead? Do they not like history?

Looking at this blog now, I wish I'd had the time to do a survey, but alas, that didn't happen. So on the one hand we have readers who will read only contemporaries. On the other we have the historical-only readers. Ignoring the Venn Diagram of those of us who'll read just about anything, there are a great many people who know nothing about history.

I'm not talking America fought in a Civil War sometime during the 1800s. I'm talking, "Of course I know who Napoleon is--I saw Bill And Ted!" This quote is from an actual conversation I had a couple days ago. This was during my explanation about an idea I had set during the Regency Era/Napoleonic Wars--the blank look prompted me to explain Napoleonic wars = Napoleon Bonaparte and whatnot. That's when I got the indignant reply.

Forget going into the more Unusual Historicals we excel at here--Ancient Egypt? Victorian Russia? The Roaring 20s? English Civil War? China during the Tang Dynasty? And all the other places we writers love. One thing at a time.

So is that it? The fact that people aren't interested in history? They don't want to read historical romances because they're afraid it's one giant history lesson? What's the difference between that and thinking all contemporary romances are one giant political essay?

This is only a guess and I'd love to hear what others think. If you read historicals, do you stay close to what you know? Or are you up for anything so long as the subject interests you? With luck, a couple contemporary readers will let us know why they don't read historcials too.


Anonymous said...

I am hopelessly addicted to the Georgian/Regency era in my romances. After reading your post, I'm determined to spread my wings and look at some other eras. Thanks!

Jeannie Lin said...

I love to time travel to new places through historicals so I'm always a bit surprised that some readers just don't go there. I've heard a few opinions that they get turned off by the realities: some of these eras were harsher, grittier times and hygiene issues are just not sexy. :) There are also people who love history, but don't read historical romances because they can't stand the inaccuracies. I can suspend disbelief a little bit for the richness I get in return.

Angelique said...

I'm actually one of those people who will read almost any romance novel (usually historical or contemporary with some paranormal and suspense thrown in) as long as the story sounds great. However, I do have friends that refuse to read historicals. From what I understand, they think it's weird to read romances where everything is so different (i.e. customs, clothing, time periods, etc.), which makes no sense to me because they have no problems reading paranormal romance. I don't get it. I LOVE historicals because of the history involved. I think it's more romantic in that time period because of the different clothing and customs and settings. I love reading romance novels set in Britain, but I do read others set in India or Russia or occasionally Colonial America (though admittedly not my favorite). However, I do have phases where I just don't feel like reading any more historicals, so I'll switch to contemporary or paranormal romance for a while.

Isabel Roman said...

Hey everyone, thanks for dropping by! I love to read pretty much anything, too. Occassionally I get tired of certain genres, but after a suitable break find a story that draws me back in. It really is all about the storytelling.

MsHellion said...

Don't get me riled about how little people know about history. My student worker--newly graduated--is horrifically ignorant about historical tidbits I apparently take for granted.

She spent a semester in London. She showed me a picture of a monument she was standing in front of. I asked, "Who was it for?" "I don't know. Some Prince?" "Do you mean PRINCE ALBERT?" "Maybe. Who was he?"

I'm surprised I have hair really, having some conversations with her.

My sister--who's 15 years older and reads historicals--had to ask me which war our father fought in. She couldn't remember if it was WWI or WWII. Seriously? Dad said he wasn't surprised because I was the only one who asked about stories.

I tend to stick with subjects I'd rather read about: England (just about any period, if the story is compelling enough, but usually from 1700 on); America (any period, but preference for Revolutionary War or Turn of the Century or The West). I'm not overly fond of Asian historicals, but I can't say I don't read them. I loved Memoirs of a Geisha. It would have to be a compelling story--it would have to be DETAILED, where I feel enriched, like I learned something as well as fell in love with some characters.

Oh, and I love contemporaries, but they can't be romantic suspense. So you see I don't read much any more of the contemporaries. (I prefer rom-coms. Which is even more hated than poor historicals.)

Nicole McCaffrey said...

Great topic, Isabel. I'm always surprised to hear that readers don't enjoy historicals! I have always read historical--it simply provides a better escape for me. American history has always been my first love, but I'll read pretty much any historical setting. I definitely think I was born in the wrong time, LOL.

I go in spurts with contemporaries, if I find an author I really enjoy I'll go on a binge and read through her back list-- but most of the time I don't pick them up unless it sounds really different.

Hanna Rhys Barnes said...

I love historicals and tend not to read contemporaries. I have tried and tried, but they just don't appeal to me. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I fell in love with the twelfth century when I was ten years old and have gobbled up everything about it since. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that I feel like I would have been one of those strong heroines that the men I write about would love to have. I'd pick up a sword to defend my self or my property in a second(Maybe that's why I like to fence so much).lol

Barbara E. said...

One of the reasons I read historicals is that I love history. I don't read many contemporary books, but I do read some. I'm more interested in reading something from a time and place different than my own, and that's why I read historicals as well as paranormal, urban fantasy, steampunk, scifi, etc.

Isabel Roman said...

Oh, MsHellion, how I feel for you! I totally understand! I have a BA in history and sure I don't expect everyone to know all the esoteric tidbits I do, but even the major ones. It's sad and depressing.

Nic, I go in spurts, too. I won a copy of Roxanne St. Claire's Bullet Catcher series and devoured them! But then I went back to historicals.

Hanna-fencing! Way cool, I always wanted to take lessons, but never found the time. I guess it's one of those I should just do it things.

Barbara, that's why I read, too. Historicals really do take you away, but if the contemporary is different enough, or fast-paced enough, it does the same. Plus I can always learn something new!

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

I adore historicals and if given a choice, I read historicals. I think for me it is to slip back into a time where I would be more comfortable with values of people. I like to see how life was in 'those days' and watch how people survived. Give me a castle any day over a fanciful resort and modern times. I have no idea why people don't want to read historicals. I love history and all that goes with learning about it.

Tess said...

While HF and HRF are my favoured genres, I read across many and can't understand how anyone can just refuse to read something on the grounds that it might be different. I review books partly because I love to do it, but also because it forces me to move outside my comfort zones and I often find new favourites in the most unexpected places.

As for lack of historical knowledge, it scares me too. My husband and I often raise eyebrows amongst certain people we know when we make historical references that it's clear no-one else gets. I admit, some are pretty unusual (the "man-eating tree frogs from Geraldus Cambresis' Journey Through Wales), but others seem pretty obvious to us. Fortunately we also have friends who share our interest in history, so we can talk about Napoleon or Richard III and they get it.

Anna Carrasco Bowling said...

Historicals are my favorite, and I prefer a wide variety of settings. I seriously don't get it when people say they can't read historicals because the clothes, mores, etc, are too different...but then those same people gobble complex fantasy universes. :shrug: We all have our favorites.

For my money, the more true to whatever era the historical is, the more I'm going to immerse myself. Make the h/h people of their time and I am happy.

Susan Macatee said...

Great post, ladies!
When I started reading romance, I stuck to historical, but I read most of the available published time periods and absolutely loved time travels. Contemporary is just too much like real life for me, although I do read them on occasion. But it has to be a really unique storyline.

Isabel Roman said...

Haha, Tess! I love dropping historical comments and seeing who gets it. Normally none, but it's fun anyway. Every once in a while someone will surprise me and the conversation will be great.

Paisley and Susan, thanks for dropping by. A castle yeah. I'm in! Susan, I think a contemporary can be very life-like but on the other hand, I think they have their own interest, and will read them (paranormal or not!) if the topic is interesting.

Anna, it's true, we all do have our own favorites, but at least give something a try! OK, you don't like X but have you ever read it? Then you can say yea or nay.

Michelle Styles said...

I read all time periods including contemporary. I am equal opportunity reader as long as the story holds me.

I am always surprised when people say that they don't read historicals or different eras. Or don't even know that different eras are being/have been published.

Some of it I am sure is the appeal of the familiar. Or the worry that they might not be drawn into the story...

Susanna Fraser said...

I've been a history geek ever since I started reading the Little House books at age 6 or 7, and it's so deeply ingrained in me that I have trouble either explaining just why I care so much about the past or comprehending how anyone else doesn't.

I read any kind of historical--romance, mystery, straight historical fiction, alternative history and fantasy with a historical feel (think Naomi Novik, Jacqueline Carey, or Guy Gavriel Kay). I don't read as much contemporary fiction because reading for me is a mental vacation where I get to visit a different world. It takes an unusually good story or strong writing to make a realistic contemporary setting feel like a whole new world to me.

Caroline Clemmons said...

I'm always disappointed in young women who think it isn't current to read historical romances. If only they knew what they were missing, they'd kick themselves--and save me the pleasure. LOL

Isabel Roman said...

I agree, read an historical and see what they're all about! Never judge. :) We say that all the time at work, how you can't (and really shouldn't) judge people based on appearance. Can't judge books if you haven't read one!

I feel better, having read all your wonderful responses, about the state of the historical. An there are rumors historicals are dead-ha! This renews m faith in readership. :)