Some updates on History Ever After

For a moment there, I wondered if I was getting to Sydney for IASPR at all. One of the legs of my journey was canceled, and it took two international calls to clear up the mess. (I think I’ve done it…we’ll see if I actually board a plane). When I hung up the phone, I thought to myself: “Gee, I would rather put the finishing touches on my History Ever After talk than grade those thirty-six exam essays waiting for me.”

(I would have probably also opted to fold laundry, clean out the fridge, and even scour the shower if any of those would get me out of grading. I feel bad about this reluctance because I teach really great students, and I love to see them succeed. But staring at such a large pile is disheartening.)

In any case, I procrastinated a few hours and updated the data on my slides. The last time I posted about my research, I only had about three months worth of market data to crunch. Now I have six. The results have not changed so much, even as Twitter has been alight with criticism of the lack of diversity in romance in general and historical romance specifically. But I should not get ahead of myself.

The dynamic duo of Regency and Victorian romance still dominates the industry. Of the historical romances that make the New York TimesPublishers Weekly, USA Today, Amazon, and Barnes & Nobles bestseller lists, 63% are set in 19th century Britain. And among online retailers, dukes are like kings:

Bestselling-historical-romance-peers-duke-marquess-earl

With the royal wedding this past month, I understand the appeal of the royalty-slash-nobility happily ever after—though this wedding was far more inclusive and kick-ass than any Heyer book, I dare say. (While I am thinking of the wedding, let me give a shout out to my good friend Andres for bringing me a commemorative tin of shortbread. I may have been a little excited—ahem—when I received it. However, that “best by” date sticker has me confounded. I mean, really? The tin is what I want. That doesn’t expire. Who the heck cares about the shortbread?)

Meghan-Harry-Commemorative-Wedding-Tin

Anyway, I get it. I really do. But that still does not explain why dukes/duchesses appear in the titles of a third of the Amazon Regency and Amazon Victorian Top 20! (See the above slide.) About the same number of historical romance novel finalists in the 2018 RITAs have duke or duchess in the title. Not in the book; in the title!

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. History ever after.

The New York Times Review of Books just put out a Summer Romance Reads list. The Review‘s new romance columnist (yes, they learned to ask someone who actually reads romance to write about romance) indicates a fresh trend: poking a stick at the genre’s “reliance on aristocracy.” I would have cheered this news loudly if it were not for the fact that 3 of 4 historical romance novels mentioned have peerage or peerage-adjacent heroes (2 duke offspring—one illegitimate—and a marquess).New-York-Times-Review-Books-Summer-Romance

I have no doubt these books are great, and I look forward to reading them. I love all four histrom authors featured, and I have even interviewed Joanna Shupe on this very blog! And a few of these books challenge the chronotope in different ways—for example, Cat Sebastian has written a bisexual marquess and a nonbinary love interest. Cool!

But I want commoner heroes and heroines who make things, heal diseases, and run businesses—and they did in history. Women did, too. The Times book reviewer writes: “In Regency England, the space [strong women] can eke is usually tiny, the size of a marriage and no more. Sure, there are outliers, but authors can only stretch historical constraints so far.” First of all, give me those outliers. Outliers make the best fiction! Second, this is true only as the Victorian era restricted women’s rights from what they had enjoyed before. So why do we love the 19th century so much?

Victorian-Medievalism-diversity-race-women

Despite all these facts above, there are still strong women who made history, no matter the odds against them. And we might expand our understanding of women’s work to include the many household management and childrearing tasks that women had extensive control over. And you did see women in professional fields, such as education and health care. There are interesting stories out there.

And I do want to read all four of the historicals on the Times‘s review. The problem is not them, or any individual book. Any book is great if it is a good story well told. The problem is the effect of the aggregate. The overreliance on two chronotopes—19th century Britain (especially peerage heroes) and medieval England/Scotland—may distort readers’ view of history and make the market less friendly to diverse books and authors. This is a theme I will expand upon late this month in my recap of my talk, History Ever After. Stay tuned.

Inspiring Words from Beverly Jenkins

I don’t usually spring for the master class at conferences, but to hear Ms. Beverly Jenkins?! Yes, please! I was doubly excited when she said that this was the very first master class she had ever given. And triply excited—I know that’s not a thing—when she said her talk would be about world building. Perfect for a historical fiction author!

She talked about a book being like a painting: your hero and heroine are front and center, but the background is full of the details of your world. The beauty of the painting depends on these details, no matter what genre of fiction you write, from science fiction to historical. The geography of our stories should not just be what town or state or country they are in, but all the small details that add life to that image—from weather to topography to points of interest.

Beverly-Jenkins-Master-Class-NECRWA

Ms. Bev illustrated each point with examples from her own writing, especially two of my favorite books of hers: Indigo and Forbidden. But it was the Blessings series (a contemporary saga) that stole the show. I was completely smitten with the tales of Cletus, the 600-pound hog who wore human clothing, killed a man by sitting on him, and then went on the run from the law. (Yes, a hog went on the lamb. Awesome, right?) The whole audience very quickly felt like we knew the town of Blessings better than the one we were sitting in. Ms. Bev is a master world-builder.

We were treated to a long Q&A session next, and if you have heard Beverly Jenkins speak you know how clever and funny she is. There was a lot of nodding along with her insights on publishing, and also a lot of laughter. You bet I asked her about stuff relevant to my History Ever After talk at IASPR next month. When I asked if any editor or industry representative had ever asked her to change anything historical about her books, she said, “No, not a thing.” That is enormously refreshing, to be honest, given that Ms. Bev writes all kinds of underrepresented American history. She calls it “edutainment,” and there is not a duke in sight. What she did say, though, was that when Forbidden came out in France, they chose a white woman for the cover—and Eddy is not the one who passes, the hero Rhine is. “Oh, Jesus, is right,” Ms. Bev said.

Two-versions-Forbidden-Beverly-Jenkins

She ended with some inspiring advice for all us writers out there. I could not get it all down, but here are some of the pieces I did quote:

  • “The 38th book is just as hard to write as book one.” (Note: This is somewhat scary news since the fourth is hard enough for me right now!)
  • “It’s your book. Write it the way you want to write it.” (Yes!)
  • About writing the tough stuff from your own experiences: “Tell your story. [The readers] are not looking for you to sugar coat it.”

The woman is not a legend for nothing. Beverly Jenkins was such a wonderful person to talk to and to learn from—a highlight of #NECRWA18 for me. Thanks so much, Ms. Bev!

NECRWA This Weekend!

It was a long Monday, and I’m feeling like this weekend cannot come soon enough. NECRWA 2018, baby! Have you registered yet?

ballroom-invitation-NECRWA-workshopThis is the only way to see my workshop with RedHeadedGirl of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books on practical history research.

RedHeadedGirl-Jen-Hallock-costume

There are so many other amazing workshops, including Namrata Patel’s two-workshop series on SEO, or search engine optimization. Honestly, that’s worth the registration fee right there. And whether you are a reader or writer, you do not need to register to come to the amazing book signing this Friday night from 6-8:30 pm. Admission is free and there are over 35 raffle baskets you could win! And look at those authors!

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For example, you could win the basket that Jen Doyle and I made:

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The theme of this location-driven romance extravaganza is a throwback to Jen and my amazing #RT17 road trip, but without the Peachoid—because honestly that you have to see to believe.

Come on out to NECRWA 2018!

History Ever After: The Historical Romance Market

One of the components of History Ever After at IASPR in Sydney, Australia, will be a market study of online retailers and their potential influence on chronotopes. (Chronotopes are literary representations of time and space, a term coined by Mikhail Bakhtin). The heavy-lifting of my analysis is still to come, but my data has given me a better snapshot of the industry right now.

Let’s look at the only two major retailers that have subcategories of historical romance are Amazon and Barnes & Noble:

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. History ever after.

Given how big Amazon is, I was surprised they did not have more variety in their categories. English history is relatively pinpointed: with Tudor, Regency, Scottish, and Victorian choices. But some of the other categories—Ancient World, Christian, and Medieval—are huge blocks of time. Moreover, calling something medieval (from the “middle age” between ancient and modern) is a Eurocentric view of history with potential negative connotations that do not fit other areas of the world. For example, the European “Dark Ages” were actually the height of the Islamic empires. China was pretty rocking, too. And, even in Europe, what does one do with a romance set in the Renaissance? And—side note—why aren’t there more Renaissance/Venetian romances?

The Barnes & Noble categories do add more variety, particularly some needed U.S. representation, including: Southern U.S., Native Americans, and Western and Frontier. Also, props for the Prehistoric category: Clan of the Cave Bear, baby! There are two Vikings options. One also includes pirates and sailors, taking it out of northern Europe and thus making it more inclusive. Plus there are some genre-crossing categories: Paranormal Historical, Suspense & Intrigue, and Time Travel. Still, there is not a whole lot of non-Western representation, if you really look at it.

Should these retailers re-examine their categories? I have been observing bestseller lists for over three months now to learn what is selling in the largest quantities. Truthfully, historical romance does not hit the trade lists very often. Contemporary (both adult and young/new adult) and romantic suspense are the biggest sellers. In the first quarter of 2018, only one book—Lisa Kleypas’s Hello Stranger—made the New York Times list.

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. History ever after.

For those historicals that do make the retailers’ charts, they do so more often on Barnes & Noble than Amazon. This does not mean that B&N sells more overall, but a higher proportion of what they sell are historicals. By the way, those historicals are about a half as likely to include the words duke or duchess in the title if charting on B&N’s top 20 Regencies than in Amazon’s top 20 Regencies.

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. History ever after.

Most bestsellers—no matter which list they are on—are Anglocentric. In the first quarter of 2018, 46% were Regencies, 23% were Scottish (any time period), 18% were Victorian, 5% were Georgian, and 2% were English medievals.

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. History ever after.

Note that some books listed across two categories, such as Victorian and Scottish, and they were counted in both. Also note that the “Twentieth Century” category is inflated by the appearance of a book entitled White Rose, Black Forest. This romance of a German dissenter and Allied spy during WWII was published by Amazon’s own imprint (Lake Union). Amazon gave it away as a Kindle First read, which means any Amazon Prime member could have downloaded it in the month of February (but it technically wasn’t free). Great for that author, but not so realistic a picture of twentieth-century romance’s market share.

I have also noticed that Amazon stats are heavily impacted by paid newsletter services, like BookBub. I am starting to compile some statistics on just how much. (Stay tuned.)

What about award winners? Looking at 2018 RITA nominees, Regency and Scottish romance are even more heavily represented. Only two historicals on the entire list were not one or both of these categories:

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. History ever after.

All nominees receive that recognition because they have written a great book, which took a lot of hard work. I will be looking at the last few years of historical winners to see if 2018 was an aberration, but certainly we can say that—paired with the market data—it is a reflection of reader preferences (and, in this case, author preferences, since authors were the judges).

In the end, what do readers want? They want it all. Here’s a wishlist of sorts from the survey I conducted in February 2018:

International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Sydney Think Globally Love Locally presentation by author Jennifer Hallock of Sugar Sun historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. History ever after.

The best sellers may be the most traditional time periods, but there are readers out there for everybody. Or, at least, that is how I choose to see it.

 

Research with Red at the Concord Museum

I am thrilled to announce that I will join RedHeaded Girl of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books at the 2018 New England Chapter of RWA® Let Your Imagination Take Flight Conference to present our workshop: Breeches, Banquets, and Balls: Living Your Heroines’ History.

Don’t just research history—live the life of your characters! See how cooking their feasts, wearing their clothes, and recreating their dances or battles will make your writing better. Join practical historian and blogger RedHeaded Girl of Smart Bitches Trashy Books, and Jennifer Hallock, history teacher and author of the Sugar Sun series, for the latest online and offline trends.

Red is an experienced practical historian and officer in the Society for Creative Anachronism, a group of over 30,000 members worldwide who are “dedicated to researching and re-creating the arts and skills of pre-17th-century Europe.” Dressed in clothing of the Middle Ages and Renaissance that she makes herself, Red attends “tournaments, royal courts, feasts, dancing, various classes & workshops, and more.” Oh, and she cooks and bakes for those feasts. Our workshop will tell you all about her adventures and how it gives her insight on daily life in historical times.

I have a lot to learn about making clothes (or food) from history, so Red gave me a primer at a new exhibit at the Concord Museum, “Fresh Goods: Shopping for Clothing in a New England Town, 1750- 1900.”

Fresh Goods Concord Museum history fashion Regency Victorian Georgian American history
Red “shopping” for shoes at the Concord Museum.

Do you see those shoes? People had small feet. I learned that. Also, as Red pointed out, shoes were made from the same fabric as dresses, which is why they had so little durability. If you have read that a character danced right out of their shoes, that description may be literal. It was possible to wear through the soft soles in a single ball, especially in flats. Heels helped.

Fresh Goods Concord Museum history fashion Regency Victorian Georgian American history

I loved the colorful clothes at the Concord Museum. These dyes must have been quite expensive, which may be why they were so treasured and therefore survived—more on that below. We saw dresses for every stage of a woman’s life, too. Below (going backward, from right to left) you can see the dress of a young girl, who then grew to be a young woman and required a formal gown to attract a husband, and then with that husband needed a maternity dress. If your family was frugal—and they probably were—they saved your baby dresses for your babies, and so the cycle went.

Fresh Goods Concord Museum history fashion Regency Victorian Georgian American history

As Red showed me, the fabric of these dresses often predated the styles they were recrafted into. It was not uncommon to see an 1860 dress made out of an 1820 dress, which may have been sold first in 1790 in a slightly different pattern. In fact, clothes were so often repurposed that it is hard to find surviving pieces of a working-class person’s wardrobe because they were worn to the bone. What is left to us is often clothes in odd sizes—especially small pieces, Red tells me—or the clothes of the elite, who bought new duds every time fashion changed. And fashion changed a lot. Do you see the photo above, with the blue dress? Look at the dress on the far left with the big sleeves—you see the one? Yes, the 1830s were a rough time. Sort of like the 1980s.

Concord Museum history bedroom Regency Victorian Georgian American history

And going to a museum with Red makes you look at things differently. For example, at the display above of life for a woman lying-in after the birth of her child, my first thought was: “Are those tea cookies real? Because I’m hungry.” My second thought was, “Look how pretty this room is!” (And our friend Namrata Patel—also a presenter at NECRWA, giving a must-see workshop on search engine optimization—said: “Where can I get this wallpaper?”) But Red’s question was, “Where is the chamber pot?” because she has lived this period (or, rather, earlier) and knows what is truly important. She also admired the washstand in the corner and wished she had one of those for her SCA “camping” retreats.

This trip was just the beginning of my education—and yours. I hope you can join us in Burlington in April! You can see all the great workshops and speakers, as well as register, at the NECRWA conference home page.