Why I read historical romance

I’m back today with #WhyIReadHistoricals (there’s also #WhyIWriteHistoricals but I’m a reader here, not a writer). I’ve been ravenously reading historical romance novels for the past few months — right now I’m at that point where I’ve read the first book or two of several series but I’m waiting to get book 3 or 7 and can hardly stand it. (Recommended: Julie Anne Long’s Pennyroyal Green series, Tessa Dare’s Spindle Cove series and Castles Ever After series, Isabella Bradford’s Wylder Sisters series, and Grace Burrowes’ Windham series.)

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Source: Historical Romance Network/Facebook

What’s drawn me to historicals? Pretty, pretty dresses. Seriously, I’ve been doing some Regency fashion research because I love seeing the details of a dress vividly in my mind, or I’ll come across a reference to a piece of clothing or accessory that I can’t picture (what’s a reticule? or a pelisse or a spencer?) so I look it up. There’s some fond, unanswered girlhood wish of mine to swan around in dresses with enormous skirts, and historicals scratch that itch a little bit.

And I read romance (not just historicals) because I love to be caught up in the emotion of a book. When I read for pleasure, I’m not necessarily paying attention to themes or foreshadowing, and I can forgive plenty of fudged details for the sake of the story. I’m not trying to guess the ending, because it’s clear before the story even starts that the heroine and the hero end up together. What’s interesting and satisfying is how they get there and what they feel along the way. If the hero is a notorious rake and love of the heroine changes him into a loving, respectful, monogamous gentleman, how does that happen? If the heroine has sworn off love and sees only duty and sacrifice, why does she give up her duty as she falls in love with the hero? What do the two of them do (and not just the sexy times) to create that change in themselves? How can the happily-ever-after be believable for those two people?

And it’s not pure escapist reading, either. The hero in When the Duchess Said Yes by Isabella Bradford, the Duke of Hawkesworth, doesn’t much care for his ducal responsibilities; he’s set up agents to take care of his households and affairs, and he’s got his villa in Naples, and that’s where he prefers to be. However, one of those responsibilities is to marry the heroine, Lizzie (this arranged marriage is what starts the story). There’s a scene after the wedding in which Lizzie, now a duchess, meets the staff of her new home. Not only is it a trope, Bradford describes how this particular meeting is ritualized and what’s expected of each person; with that knowledge, we can understand why it’s a big deal that it’s been days between the wedding and this scene. Rather than the Duke introducing her to the staff, Lizzie introduces herself, and even though this is a breach of etiquette they’re more relieved that it’s done. The staff know what to do next in their jobs, and Lizzie has taken her proper place and now has one less thing hanging over her. When I read this book, I was in a place in my own life where I felt just like Hawke but needed to see how, even though it feels good to hare off somewhere and delegate my responsibilities to someone else, I really do need to show up, take my place, and handle those responsibilities. (Without completely spoiling the book, I’ll say that my takeaway doesn’t map to the ending; this was just a way I connected with the story.)

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Source: Historical Romance Network/Facebook

I’ve never been to London, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t seen it. Or the Scottish highlands. Or Paris (I don’t even know how many times I read The Three Musketeers as a teenager; it’s why I took French in high school).

I hope it won’t be months until my next post here. I lost my voice for a bit, and I do very much want to get it back.

Books!

Well, there is clearly no faster way to kill regular posting than to announce a new blog series. Nevertheless, here’s a few recent titles.

A Triple Knot by Emma Campion (Goodreads): This story woven around the real medieval woman Joan of Kent looked really thrilling, but I couldn’t get into it, even though I normally like historical fiction. I tried several times to read the first chapter but it just didn’t hold my attention. (NB: I received an ARC to review.)

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo (Goodreads): A stunning blend of historical fiction, fantasy, and romance. Li Lan’s family has fallen on hard times and her father suggests a ghost marriage to the recently deceased eldest son of the Lim family. I loved the way the story unfolds through 19th-century Malaysia, both in the physical world and the afterlife. The book ends with a decision but I wanted to keep reading more of Li Lan’s story.

Dark Witch by Nora Roberts, the first of the Cousins O’Dwyer trilogy (Goodreads): Iona Sheehan comes to her cousins in Ireland and finds that they share not only blood, but an ancient spiritual gift and an ancient enemy. Roberts blends in some elements of modern Wicca (the rhyming Silver Ravenwolf-type spells were incongruous and a bit silly), but the story of Iona finding bonds of family, friendship, and love kept me turning pages. I’m now reading Shadow Spell (Goodreads), the second book in the trilogy; the third book, Blood Magick, comes out in December.

What I’m reading now: A series

I’ve taken an idea from Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000), which is itself an amazing book full of good stories and equally good advice; I quote pieces to myself rather a lot. The part I’m thinking of now is what King calls the Prime Rule and the Great Commandment:

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others; read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around those two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.

I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction. I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read. It’s what I do at night, kicked back in my blue chair. Similarly, I don’t read fiction to study the art of fiction, but simply because I like stories. (p. 145)

I read and read and read all day, and then in between I read for fun, but there’s a difference. When I read with an editorial eye, I’m looking at how sentences work and whether words got repeated or misspelled or misused. I’m reading functional text and thinking about how well a teacher will be able to follow this lesson, whether all the facts in a story about a celebrity are correct, whether references to a figure or a handout title are capitalized consistently, how well a reader will be able visualize the action happening in a scene. It’s also repetitive work; I read through, make changes, read through again, go back and fix this or that, read through again to make sure I didn’t miss anything, and so on. I’m practicing my craft.

When I read for fun, I’m a very fast reader. Especially in novels, I love to get completely swept up in the story. Before my kids were born, I’d curl up on our big leather couch and read for hours at a stretch, not really realizing how much time had passed until the sun had gone down, my cup was long empty, and I was mysteriously hungry. (That still happens occasionally now, except the hours involved usually bookend midnight, after both girls are asleep.) It’s a lovely break to just fly through and not worry about the detail stuff because many other people have already worked on this particular story and the details have been attended to. It’s just me and the story.

And yet, as Stephen King continues, “there is a learning process going on. Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.” Which I’ve found to be true as well. King tells about reading a book in which the author described everything as zestful and it became “the literary equivalent of a smallpox vaccination: I have never, so far as I know, used the word zestful in a novel or a story. God willing, I never will.”

A few weeks ago, I decided that the balance between work and play had gotten out of whack, so I settled myself down to read some novels. (Actually, I can pinpoint this to the day I edited a review of Lick by Kylie Scott. I finished editing the article, kept a tab open to buy the book, and read it straight through as soon as I could. Then I bought the next in the series. And I signed up for Smart Bitches Trashy Books’ Books on Sale newsletter and bought plenty more by other authors. I’m kinda backlogged with romance reading and it’s wonderful.)

So here’s to a new series of posts with short reviews of what I’m reading now. It’s probably gonna be romance-heavy for awhile.