Why Not Twentieth Century Historicals?

Why are so few (print) romance novels set in the twentieth century?

If you go to a bookstore and look at the section labelled “Romance,” certain things are there and certain things are not. With the exception of occasional outliers like Harlequin’s line of 20th century “decade” books– a line of categories that some bookstores didn’t carry, and which was then closed down–historicals seem to include only a few periods.

The highest proportion of historicals set in Britain and Europe are set in the 19th century, with the Regency era far surpassing the earlier Georgian period (technically, Regency is still Georgian, I know–but in Romance the distinction seems to be made that way). Medievals seem to be a much smaller slice of the market, as are Victorians. Sometimes, you get something set in the Renaissance, mostly in Italy, or in France during the Revolution. (There are always exceptions, and I love exceptions, so please tell me your favorites!)

American history seems to consist of the Civil War and the “western expansion” era of the late 19th and sometimes very early 20th century. I have seen some paranormal authors, for example Susan Krinard, write books that take place at least partly on the US East Coast in the 19th century, but that isn’t common. Occasionally someone writes a book set in the American Revolution, usually including some intersection between Americans and British. Suzanne Brockmann got away with some WWII content mixed with contemporary in some of her Navy SEALS romance/suspense novels, but I note that she’s stopped doing that some time ago; her current series is all contemporary. And that is mostly it, at least that I can think of.

Why is this? Who decided? Are more current time periods–the 1920s through, say, the 1970s–seen as less interesting? Are writers simply not producing books set in those periods, or is it that publishers don’t want them? Have they tried them, and they don’t sell? Is it just too weird for people to read about a period they lived through, or that their parents lived through? Is the recent past too close to us, and does it disrupt the fantasy aspects of the story? Do we know too much that’s disturbing about our recent history?

Aside from all those issues, it may be part of the problem that one researches a romance partially by reading other romances to see the shape of the genre, and there are few predecessors for romances set during more recent historical periods (what about novels contemporary to those periods, from the 1960s and 1970s, for example?).

Or could it be the fault of readers that 20th century historicals aren’t popular? Regular readers of, say, Regencies, acquire a basic grasp of that time period. In relation to periods in which one never lived, what if the majority of readers don’t want to learn about a new time period, since they’re happy in the one they’ve chosen?

Since we’re well into the twenty-first century now, perhaps it’s time to think more about writing books set in the twentieth.

About Victoria Janssen

Victoria Janssen [she, her] currently writes cozy space opera for Kalikoi. The novella series A Place of Refuge begins with Finding Refuge: Telepathic warrior Talia Avi, genius engineer Miki Boudreaux, and augmented soldier Faigin Balfour fought the fascist Federated Colonies for ten years, following the charismatic dissenter Jon Churchill. Then Jon disappeared, Talia was thought dead, and Miki and Faigin struggled to take Jon’s place and stay alive. When the FC is unexpectedly upended, Talia is reunited with her friends and they are given sanctuary on the enigmatic planet Refuge. The trio of former guerillas strive to recover from lifetimes of trauma, build new lives on a planet with endless horizons, and forge tender new connections with each other.
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20 Responses to Why Not Twentieth Century Historicals?

  1. stakebait says:

    Maybe it's just me, but the more recent the historical period, the more jarring I find the sexism, racism, and classism of the culture. I can manage to treat the constraints of Regency England as a given, even as the heroine struggles against them, but in 1950s America I'm ready to go on a political rampage. I do not find this restful.

    Also I think periods and places of social change are fruitful ones for stories to be set in. The Regency was actually one such period, shifting power from the monachy to the aristocracy, and the ideal of arranged marriage was in transition to Victorian ideal of women being all for love (but nothing for sex). American Westward Expansion is another such time and place. It's obviously perfectly possible to set a story in a stable culture, but it doesn't give you as much to work with.

    For that reason, I think the 1920s is ripe to be the next popular historical era — it's long enough ago to be exotic, it was a time of dramatic changes in clothing and social mores, and it's already got its own mythos thanks to things like the Great Gatsby. And there's nothing more soothing than the excitement of a bloodless revolution when you already know the good guys are going to win.

  2. Victoria Janssen says:

    A 1920s romance recently came out in e-format: Jazz Baby.

  3. Amber Green says:

    Prohibition. The Charleston. Hard times. Jazz. Foreclosures. Breakaways and cutting loose. Twilight Amery sets her sights on Harlem, where a girl with a voice–even a white man's bastard from Alabama–can be somebody. Hopping a freight train, she joins up with the beautiful, bitter Mr. Stone and the compellingly magnetic Hector, two Harlem men trying to get home however they can.

    The 20's, 30's and 40's are fascinating, and certainly fertile grounds for romance. I set Steal Away on the cusp of two eras, which makes things even more exciting.

  4. Victoria Janssen says:

    Amber, do you think there's a sub-genre of 1920s romances beginning?

  5. Jeannie Lin says:

    It's the fantasy element, I think. The 1920s – 1970s feels too close, I think. It's not escapism, it's a history lesson. (I'm trying to project into the mind of me as a reader). Stakebait had a good point – the social issues of these times are still present. We can more easily see the lines that connect poverty, racism, classism and all the -isms then to now.

    I'm writing turn of the century right now. I think the historical feel is harder to capture when the differences are more subtle.

  6. Victoria Janssen says:

    I think the historical feel is harder to capture when the differences are more subtle.

    Good point.

  7. Amber Green says:

    Mancusi may have begun the new focus on the 20's. More and more of them have been coming out recently. I do think this is the time to explore the romantic potential of the first half of the twentieth century.

    The writer does have to pay a great deal of attention to details when readers (or people the readers can readily speak to) have personal knowledge of them–but that's much of the fun, isn't it? Or not. My characters in Steal Away had to deal with routine indignities ranging from the third restroom door to blatantly condescending attitudes. That's all part of it.

  8. Victoria Janssen says:

    As you might have guessed, Amber, I adore all those little details – to me, that makes the book.

  9. Sela Carsen says:

    Rosemary Laurey also writes as Georgia Evans and in 2009, she published a 3-part (so far) series of vampire romances set in WW2 Britain! They were very cool!

  10. rosefox says:

    If you don't mind paranormal historical romance, check out recent books by Terence Taylor and Alaya Johnson.

    A lot of Regency romances are fantasy novels, set in a world that pretty much didn't exist. It's much easier to turn a long-ago time period into a fantasy setting that way. The more recent it is, the more pressure you're under to get it right.

  11. Victoria Janssen says:

    Sela, I read the first of the Georgia Evans books – it was a lot of fun!

    Rose, I'll check out the Taylor. Alaya's book is in my TBR, and I'm looking forward to it.

  12. Saskia Walker says:

    When I started out, I wanted to write a book set in the 50's and one in the 30's. The editor who looked at the partial for the 50's idea told me no one wants to read about their mother and grandmother's generation. Well, obviously I did. ;) That was about 12 years ago though, perhaps we have enough distance on the 20th C now, the early decades at least. I hope so, I do ses more titles coming out.

  13. Delia says:

    I love the 1920's, which is obvious, since my 3rd Twenties era book is going to be released this fall. One comment I got which may have something to do with people's reluctance to read 1920's books is a person commented on being worried how my characters would survive the Depression. I've never heard people worry about characters future lives in books set in other eras. Maybe it's because everyone knows someone who's lived through The Depression and hears the horror stories and it's just so fresh in peoples minds yet. Just a thought

  14. Victoria Janssen says:

    One comment I got which may have something to do with people's reluctance to read 1920's books is a person commented on being worried how my characters would survive the Depression.

    That's really interesting! That hadn't occurred to me. I wonder if the "happily ever after" epilogue might become more common – only showing they survived the 1930s and 1940s?

  15. Victoria Janssen says:

    Saskia, I don't think I've EVER seen a romance novel set in the 1950s.

  16. Fae Sutherland says:

    My co-author and I have a short story set in the late 1960's Vietnam era and frankly, it was a very hard sell. Most pubs wouldn't touch it based on the time period alone. And even though it did find a home eventually, it remains our worst seller. For reasons I don't understand either, readers don't seem to want to read about recent history. Just the older stuff.

    Which means the character who keeps begging to be written, a greaser from the 50's, probably won't ever get his story told. :( He keeps bugging me, though!

  17. Natasha Moore says:

    Just last year I asked an editor about setting a romance during WWII era and was told flat out no, there was no market for it. I wanted to say…well, yeah, that's because there are no books to market…

  18. Victoria Janssen says:

    Bummer, Fae and Natasha. I love reading romance set in periods where I already have knowledge of the setting.

  19. Gina says:

    Steal Away was brilliant; I fell a little in love with Hector! But I truly loved the places the author shows the characters moving through; you get a real sense of their reality (even the racial issues, which thankfully the author didn't ignore). I hope more writers will take up the challenge of early 20th century fiction.

  20. Victoria Janssen says:

    Thanks, Gina! *makes title note*

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