At the Samhain Blog, an editor was putting out the call for different types of romance stories, especially those set during the Civil War, the 20s, the 50s, and the 60s. Our historical genre is often limited to pre 1900s, with a few authors venturing to the early 1900s/Victorian era.
When I asked about this limited time frame a long time ago--I mean, when one did a time travel, right, why not back to World War II instead of, let's say, Culloden?--I was told that many readers were unwilling to read a romance set so close to their time, and especially World War II, when their parents were alive at that time. I accepted this strange concept because I was new in writing within the romance genre.
However, I posed that question LAST CENTURY (ahem, yeah, I feel oooold) and World War II is, to me, the next Culloden because of the epicness of it. And if not World War II, why not World War I? The many interesting things a romance writer can do within that era--the lushness of the decadent rich versus the growing middle class; the Upstairs, Downstairs (GREAT PBS TV show, if you are babes) stuff; a love story (with a happy ending, ahem) set around the Titanic, for gadsakes. There aren't many published with these settings (there are some, but far in between, and of course, there are historical books with love stories, which isn't what I'm writing about).
I have a theory why there is such a glut of futuristic/urban fantasy books these days. Don't get me wrong; I love this genre like a teen loves his text messaging, but yeah, too much of the same thing can breed a certain ennui.
As a reader, I get into a rut trying to keep with all the different series of One Special Heroine, her quest, and the one (or two or dozen) Special Alpha Man in her life, set within a very special mix of modern times and fantastical elements (shapeshifters, magic, apocalyptic, angels, demons, etc.) As a writer, I love the many twists to the old myths, the way other talented writers make each urban fantasy their own, using familiar history and mixing up the old myths to create fascinating stories.
But, like I said, there is a glut. Just look at the bookstands, if you still go to the book store. The most popular books are all urban fantasies. Readers love them, apparently, and so, editors seek more authors writing them. We also get younger writers who are venturing into the romance genre, young women who grew up comfortable with playing fantasy video games and writing fanfiction of fantasy/supernatural heroes and heroines, and thus, able to create the mixed-genre feel of urban hipness and medievalish fantasy.
I'll throw out an example of this mix. Modern world with current tech (maybe even better). Psychics are used as some kind of soldier, able to read minds of citizens unless they are insane or mentally ill. Except there is one special breed, called PsyBlind. My heroine is a PsyBlind--psychics are unable to read her and she is able to hide this by being a Depressive, one who has to have certain drugs given her to keep the voices out. During this time, the Psychics' hold on humanity has become tighter, as they move higher up in the echelons of ruling power. The President is said to be under the power of a top Psychic. The Psychics also has a secret, one concerning their inability to have real sex, and this is the story of the first book.
Of course there is an underground system of anarchy, with special heroes, with their own special powers. My heroine will be rescued by one of these heroes but is he going to use her and thus sacrifice her for the greater good?
Can you see how certain concepts have been twisted to fit into a "new" but familiar urban setting? I can throw in the techy stuff and still have my heroes fight like medieval dudes with swords and sorcery because the Psychics don't allow guns and are arrogant enough to think they can control sorcery (mind) games. I can make every tech thing that we love into a subject of paranoia. GOOGLE is now GOGGLE and yeah, IT watches you. Cable TV is all about mind control.
And this is all from the top of my head, with no real research yet. I know how far I can push this series and what kind of romance I want it to be. There is a wealth of stuff out there waiting for me to mine and I can actually visualize all the notes already. It'll be fun.
One thing I realize while reading urban fantasies is that, in a majority of them, there is very little real atmosphere other than the requisite blood and action. Sometimes I feel that the characters speak younger than I'd like but I chalk that up to personal preference, but even so, I do smirk at centuries-old vampires speaking younger than me. This, I do sometimes blame the author. For being young. For taking for granted that her readers are young like her. And maybe even the editors, because heck, they are getting younger too.
An old fart like me have opinions about older men, especially those who have been playing with power for a long, long time. About experienced men. About killers. And a combination of all the above and have the man still talking like a hormonal teen can make me chuckle, but that's just me.
Yes, I know, I'm digressing from my main point. In my opinion, the glut of futuristics and urban fantasy and the lack of historicals (in romance) come from the same thing--the readers' familiarity with the present world. You see, whereas, in a fantasy/urban fantasy/futuristic where one could play with the familiar and still give it a fictional feel, many of us are still familiar with the last century, especially from the 1940s onwards and there is no hiding the facts behind fiction here for us.
I came from a Third World country, which meant that our standard of living back then was quite backward compared to the States, very like the 50s, in fact. I know what it's like to live without electricity. I remember a world without telephones at home, when the TV was in black and white, when going to the moon was just some kind of sci-fi story. I was THERE when they televised the walk on the moon. I was THERE when the first color television showed up. I was particularly excited about that new thing called the VHS that goes into the VCR because now we could watch "real" TV shows from Hong Kong.
So, when the new group of writers are researching about the 50s and 60s, they might come across the age-old trope of Leave It To Beaver and Wait Till Your Father Comes Home. Granted, research and smart googling will* give many writers a wealth of knowledge, but I'm talking about familiarity of the senses here.
Yes, life was something like that in those days but we're writing romance here--would the readers know about smoke-filled barrooms? This wasn't even a long time ago; bars in the 80s were full of smoke because we allowed inside smoking in public places in those days, but I suspect many writers would leave out the smoking when it was so much a part of night life then. And mosquito-filled nights that could destroy a romantic walk. And the fact that travel takes a long while, with no instant messaging between parties. And oh, forget about phone calls, okay? I remember two calls in Hong Kong to/from my boyfriend that cost about $400 that nearly had him killed by his mother. And no, we had no credit cards back then.
These are more atmospheric things that might be missing. Coming home with clothes and hair smelling like cigarette smoke. Unprotected sex. Women SELDOM drove, if at all. Men don't actually cuss out loud in public. Phones--we DIALed, not punched buttons. The pre-computer era--yes, we read all about what people do in the Medievals and Regencies before they could surf the net, but we're talking about a time not too long ago--can readers dissociate themselves so close to their times? I know I'd be much more judgmental because I know* about those times--the smell, the craziness, the things we ate, etc. Many of today's readers are already complaining about the "wallpaper" historicals, wherein the feisty heroine acts and talks like a modern woman from today, with the ability to just up and get deflowered at any given night. I don't mind reading those stories at all, but I'm wondering whether I'd be as forgiving if a 1950s young miss start spouting about animal rights or a 1960s heroine lectures about unsafe sex to her hippy free-loving friends.
The fear of not getting it right is very real. Details, cleverly written within dialogue and action, make a story. I enjoy my good urban fantasies because of the detail in the worldbuilding, the cleverness of the mixing between real and fictional. I love my good historical romances because of the mix in history and culture. I can't wait for a good 1950s/60s or World War II story, one that would take me back because of an authentic voice.
P/S Yes, I'm aware that the 1980s and early 90s have tons of romances (Harlequin and Silhouette) that had smoking heroes and heroines. I have many of those bks on my shelves. Also, the authors then were writing about their contemporary time, so those books don't really count.
P/P/S Yes, I have read several time travels that had the heroine going back to the 1920s and World War II. Anne Stuart wrote a great short story with a time travel/paranormal element with gangsters and ghosts, and she did a wonderful job with the authentic feel of those times. And there was one set during Vietnam. Yes, I'm also aware of Suzanne Brockmann's three-stories in one books in her Troubleshooter SEALs series, but I skipped those stories set in WWII because I was more interested in reading the main one and having jumped ahead, never did go back to reread. The titles are gone from my memory but I remember the stories.