What is Historical Romance?

A historical romance can be defined as a romance is set anytime before the 1940s . The technology and background will reflect real history (with perhaps a few minor alterations to fit the story) and be reflective of history at that point in time. The focus of the story will be the romance/relationship between the hero and heroine and by the end of the book, happily ever after (HEA) will be achieved.


Historical Romance 101

Suzanne talks a little about historical romance, including what it is, some popular tropes and character types and throws in some recommendations.

Video originally posted in 2019

Definition of the genre

It seems like a simple task to identify a historical romance book, and for the most part it is. If there’s a romance and it’s set in the past then the chances are very high that what you have in your hands is a historical romance. But then again, maybe it’s a historical fiction book…or maybe some tricky author added a time travel story line in there and now your head is spinning and you have no idea what the hell you’re reading!

How do I recognise a historical romance?

A historical romance can be defined as a romance is set anytime before the 1940s. The technology and background will reflect real history (with perhaps a few minor alterations to fit the story) and be reflective of history at that point in time. The focus of the story will be the romance/relationship between the hero and heroine and by the end of the book, happily ever after (HEA) will be achieved.

Historical romance covers such a massive time period and can be set anywhere in the world, although for the most part are set in the UK or US. You can go from Medieval Scotland to 1930’s Hollywood glamour all within one genre, the scope is huge. Here are some popular time periods and places that authors like to explore:

If you still aren’t quite sure if you have a historical romance, ask yourself this:

  • Is this set anytime before and including the 1940s?
  • Does it (more or less) reflect the technology and historical facts of the time i.e. there has been no concerted effort to change history or technology?
  • Is there a HEA at the end of the book between the two main characters?

If all the answers to those questions are yes, you have yourself a historical romance. If they aren’t, you may have steampunk (question 2) or a historical fiction (question 3).

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Exceptions: lets complicate it!

It’s never easy is it? There always seem to be exceptions and historical romance is no different. It is such a broad category that you are bound to find sub categories with in. Here are a few, they are all still historical romance…but you may want to add an extra tag on your book shelf to differentiate them:

Historical Spy Romances 

These are the historical equivalent of romantic suspense, however, unlike their contemporary counterpart they don’t have their own genre. In these types of historical romances, usually the hero and/or heroine are spies working for the Crown trying to uncover some kind of plot. Maybe the heroine accidentally gets caught up in the danger; or maybe the hero is undercover and our spy heroine doesn’t realise it. A historical spy romances are perfect for readers who like a little extra danger.

erotic historical romance

A historical romance can cross the line from romantic into erotic territory. Perhaps there is some BDSM involved, menages, or just more sex than story. If that’s the case you have yourself an erotic historical romance, this one is more of a judgement call. You could shelf it as an erotic romance or a historical romance. Personally I tend to still shelf as a historical romance, with an erotic tag as well.

LGBTQ+ historical romance

What if the hero and heroine are actually hero and hero or heroine and heroine? Again, this is a judgement call, what do you think the defining characteristic of the book is, that it’s a historical romance or that it is LGBTQ+? Whatever you said, there’s your answer and that answer may differ reader to reader and no one would be wrong, it’s all about personal choice. Personally I add it as a historical romance with a LGBTQ+ tag.

time travel historical romance

I love that this is a thing in historical romance. There is a well established tradition of time travel in historical romance. Just look at the popularity of Outlander! And Diane Gabaldon isn’t the only one who does it. Usually, a woman from present times, for magic reasons, will be flung back in time and right at the feet of a sexy Laird or Lord. A heavy dose of suspension of disbelief needs to be take for these books, but it’s worth it; they can be a lot of fun. But is it historical romance? Yes. If most of the book is spent in medieval Scotland (or wherever the heroine has been flung) then it is a historical romance. I’ve read one or two where it was the other way round, and a hero/heroine was flung to the future and most of the book was spent in present times. In those cases I categorized it differently, either as a paranormal romance or contemporary depending on what else occurred in the book.

In conclusion: how do you like to organise your books?

Basically, you can shelf your books however you like. I usually add these books as historical romance as that’s how I like to find my books. When I am looking for something to read, I usually think about the time period it’s set first, then I can consider whether I am in the mood for a spies, time travel or something a bit sexier.

Characters and tropes you’ll see

Historical romance has a lot of variation, but you can find yourself bumping into the same characters and tropes. Here are some classics and some our favourites!

the virgin

If you’ve read a few historical romances you will be oh-so familiar with The Virgin.  I admit this Virgin character probably describes 95% of all historical romance heroines. As that’s the case, there aren’t that many defining characteristics: you can have a feisty virgin, a shy virgin, a prudish virgin, a curious virgin… and the list goes on. But, they do have one thing in common. There is always, always that “oh my will it ever fit?” moment, whether it is in a thought or a conversation. I love that moment. It’s a cliche but it’s one that I hold dearly to my heart.

the rake

Ah the Rake. The counterpoint to our Virgin character. The historical romance equivalent of contemporary romance’s Manwhore. He’s charming, he’s aristocratic, he’s wicked and all the particularly alluring rakes have some deep emotional wound as well. It’s completely understandable why heroines across the historical genre fall head over heels for the Rake. And, it’s extremely satisfying to see a Rake brought to his knees by his heroine, prove the verity of the phrase “reformed rakes make the best husbands.”

the help

Whether it’s the governess, the stable boy, the scullery maid or the factotum. When a lord or lady falls for the Help, it’s always one hell of a ride. Dealing with the class differences as well as cultural differences between the two characters is always a rocky and emotional ride when done right. But, who can resist the allure of a brawny stable boy (man) or the charms of a buttoned up and beautiful governess?

the heir

The first son, the one everyone is depending on to produce the next duke, marquess or earl. His responsibilities to his family and his title weigh heavily on him. He probably has a list of the perfect attributes for his perfect wife. She must be meek, biddable, pretty…dull as dishwater. So, he best be ready for when the entirely unsuitable heroine bursts onto the scene and disrupts his very ordered life.

the wallflower

I LOVE a wallflower or plain Jane story. In fact many of the items on this list will probably be a version of this in some way or another. Often, she isn’t really that plain, she just happens to not be disgustingly beautiful, or she’s slightly awkward, or she doesn’t conform to the tons strict rules. Perhaps she is a scientist, or mathematician with interests that lie beyond the ballroom and finding a husband. However, she does manage to snare the attention of a disgustingly beautiful hero. I love it, especially when that hero is a rake, swept off his feet by a wallflower. Love. It.

marriage of convenience

These books put the cart before the horse as it were. The couple marry, whether by arrangement or because of circumstances beyond their control. Either way they are shoved into the intimate contract of marriage without really knowing one another. Or having wild misconceptions (my favourite!). As they get to know one another love blossoms and all misunderstandings are thrown aside and they live in much delayed marital bliss.

agents of the crown

He’s a  handsome spy working undercover for the Crown. She’s a beautiful lady who keeps getting tangled up in this web of intrigue. It’s inevitable that sparks will fly, passions will flare and general shenanigans will ensue. Sexy shenanigans that leave bosoms heaving and tight trousers in their wake.

the laird

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention somewhere a little more about Scottish romances. Beautiful brawny men wearing skirts, yet still somehow managing to be the most masculine men in romance. Of course romances featuring the Scots is diverse and can incorporate some of the other tropes I have mentioned above. Only with an extra dose of a verra sexy Scottish burr,  aye lass?

Why we love historical romance

Personally, historical romance is one of my favourite genres. I don’t know what it is about it that I adore so much, but I do. Maybe I’m English enough to enjoy the concept of a dashing titled gentleman courting his lady. Although, that can’t be entirely it, as us Brits aren’t the only ones who enjoy a historical romance. Perhaps it’s the formality, the old-fashioned romance and manners. To chose to marry in a historical you have to be sure it’s not like you can get a divorce, and as a woman your life is very much in your husband’s hands. Of course in real life it didn’t always end up quite as well, but at least when I crack open the latest historical romance I am excited about I know, for the next 300 odd pages, it will be perfect.

Historical Romance Guide originally posted on 2017

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