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Ashley Barron's Blog / Writing A Novel

Writing Fiction: Historical vs. Contemporary Romance

Writing Fiction: Historical vs. Contemporary Romance

Like many writers, I find my creativity fueled by reading the works of other novelists.

I read every fiction genre, major or common, except horror (I’m not emotionally equipped for the utter darkness often presented in its pages), and I tend to be the type of consumer who purchases my stack of my weekly reading, one sub-genre at a time.

Two weeks ago, for example, my stack was entirely paranormal romance. The week before that, it was Washington, D.C.-based thrillers. At the end of October, every book on my desk had the Civil War in common.

This particular week, I’ve been devouring one historical romance after another.

A side benefit of cluster-reading a specific sub-genre is that I am able to immerse myself more fully into the “universally accepted” elements that comprise said sub-genre. I am better able to experience a novel, and to better evaluate its true effects on me, by reading several different presentations of a loosely repeating theme, one right after another.

What occurs to me is that for all the challenges associated with immersing oneself in historical details and facts, and imbuing one’s novel with them, is that happily ever after is harder to write in a contemporary setting.


Simple. Social media.

Before any writer out there gets offended by this assertion, let me explain my reasoning.

As both a reader and a writer of romance, it seems to me that a main challenge with writing a historical romance novel rests in infusing myriad details of Period living into the book’s pages through elements like the setting, language, character choices, and key plot points.

And in making those factors believable, of course.

Yes, writing historical fiction certainly has its challenges, as I’m coming to find out. My NaNoWriMo novel, Lions on the Way, takes place in the mid-1800’s. This manuscript represents my first attempt to write scenes set in a time other than the one in which I live. (Actually, that is not entirely true. My short story, The Line, is set in the early part of the twentieth century. But, as a short story, it did not require nearly the same intensive historical research as does a full-length novel.)

The Line_500x750

Research notes have been my constant companion during this harder than I’d imagined journey to become a NaNoWriMo winner.                                                                                                                         

On the surface, the research topics seem simple enough.  How did people live their daily lives? What did they wear? eat? amuse themselves with? What about slang terms and favorite expressions? What were the societal “norms” of the day, with regard to relationships, love, and marriage?

But to truly understand the answers to those simple questions, to put them in the context of their time period, not mine, makes me feel like I’m earning secondary credits as a social archaeologist.

If I get things wrong, the readers will likely know it; or, at least, they may feel disconnected from the plot, or characters.

Contemporary romance, on the other hand, has a whole other set of challenges. As one who writes most often in this sub-genre, I find the biggest challenge comes in the form of the ever-expanding ways in which we communicate with one another these days. (Really, if my boyfriend sent me a love letter through the mail, and I’m talking the U. S. Post Office type of mail, I’d pass out from sheer surprise before I ever got the envelope flap unstuck. Am I alone in this?)

When the problem/challenge/angst occurs between the protagonists, a writer of contemporary romance has to take into account the many exclusively modern ways in which the protagonist might take action to declare undying affection, or even to reunite the splintered edges of two hearts brutally torn apart by a cruel fate/lie/relative.

Will any of those magic communications happen by text message? How about by email, or voice mail, or tweet? Did one of them post something charming and irresistible on a Facebook page? Maybe a YouTube video was created – and went viral – all the while the intended recipient was in the throes of a temporary power outage and had no access to the Internet?

(I am certain such things have happened, both in real life and in the pages of a romance novel.)

The first draft of my novel, Ava (Book One in the Priya Series), contained no mention of social media. Though set in the present, the story was, in that sense, old school. But in subsequent rewrites, I introduced Twitter, YouTube, and Instant Messaging, among other modern tools, as literary devices that either hampered or aided the reuniting of the should-be lovers.

Would a contemporary love story feel authentic without at least a passing reference to the increasingly vital role that smart phones and the Internet play in the modern dance of love?

Personally, I don’t think so.

A romance novel set in a time when horses and carriages were the primary modes of transportation, on the other hand, might take the angst and pressure off of how the message is received (or not received) and instead focus that pressure squarely on the emotions of a lovelorn person who is hoping, praying, pacing, waiting endlessly for a letter to arrive by post.

Or, if he or she is really lucky, by special messenger.

To my way thinking, today’s special messenger is called “UPS” and is usually not, at least when he or she comes to my house, bearing “gifts” from a faraway lover, but from Amazon or another Internet retailer. (I like to say “gifts” because even though the odds are nearly 100% that I sent the package to myself, I still answer the doorbell and act surprised, and I usually gush, “For me?” Sad but true.)

My point in all of this is that, when writing historical romance, there are fewer ways for lovers to communicate when not in person. And often (and this statement reflects only my own experiences as a reader and a writer) these very limited options serve to emphasize the role certain emotions play – the angst, the longing – much faster than can be achieved in contemporary romance, unless one leaves out the all-reaching power of the Internet, all the social media options, phone lines, and video chat. And airplanes. And helicopters. And fast cars racing down perfectly paved and lighted superhighways.

Obviously, I’m simplifying to make my point.

Still, without such a broad range of communication tools, and without the ability to instantly connect by phone or Skype no matter the physical distance between the people, it seems to me that authors of historical romance distribute the pressure points of the story line differently.

Oftentimes, we readers of romance relate differently, or more directly, to a contemporary novel because we’ve been there. Right there.

Holding that smartphone and praying for a text message to pop up; or endless checking a Facebook page to see if the object if our affection has publicly upgraded his status as “in a relationship”; or have been thrilled to have that one photo, the one in which both of us are smiling, limbs intertwined, as evidence that love has sunk it first roots into the heart’s rich soil of hope, and is growing.

As I read that last sentence above I am laughing at myself and at my eagerness to determine which romance sub-genre, contemporary or historical, presents the greatest challenge to cutting a literary path to a happy ending.

What is it about that sentence?


Isn’t it the goal of every romance novelist, no matter the sub-genre, to tell an engaging story that keeps the readers wondering all the way to the end whether or not the would-be couple will find a way to get their information through, and to unite as one, no matter how many mountains/untruths/gossip-mongers they have to move to do it?

What matters is that the love is moving forward, that hope is alive and well in the lives and actions – and communications – of two hearts trying, usually against the odds, to become one.

Maybe the romantics among us should consider taking a real-life page from historical novelists and immerse ourselves in the joys of sending our significant other a slow and sweet promise of love, contained in, say, a good old-fashioned love letter.

And whether you are the one writing it or the one receiving it, a well-crafted, heartfelt love letter could even become the starting seed for a future novel.  

Love, so long as it is alive and well on planet earth, so long as it is flourishing in the minds and lives of readers and of writers, carries with it that most precious of all societal hopes, peace.

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  1. I always find it fascinating when writers track their own writing process. Each person’s process is like a fingerprint, as unique as the writing itself. I look forward to following your blog.

  2. Interesting post!

    I’m struggling a little with technology in my current novel because it is set in a dystopian future, not today. While I have a pretty good idea of what the technology situation is, working it subtly into my novel is challenging. I can envisage myself doing a revision where getting the technology right is my main focus.

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