In the publishing world, the romance novel reigns — at times an underappreciated, resented, and mocked monarch, but the sales numbers don’t lie. Historical romances are among the most popular books in the genre — the queen’s crown jewels, so to speak — pulling readers in since the very beginning.
Although much has changed over the years in historical romance, including the rise of heroines who are more likely to save themselves than wait around for a hero, much has remained the same. Historical romance is often (though not always) shorthand for a romance set in England, with the Regency era being the most popular setting. In these books, the duke/earl/viscount hero is usually white (with bronzed or golden skin—because the British Isles are known for their great tanning weather and tawny-skinned inhabitants). The heroines are usually fair—like, really fair—with milky, lily-white skin mentioned often enough to cause concern about their health. While this description might seem playfully reductive, the books that garner the most attention within the genre are homogenous to the point that one author, Genevieve Turner, was compelled to start the Year Without A Duke project, in which she only reads romances that do not fit the description above.
In recent years, new areas of the historical romance landscape have been mapped. Much of the change has been pushed by Beverly Jenkins, the prolific author whose well-researched historical romances feature African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, and other ethnic minorities in America, and now several romance authors are following the path blazed by Jenkins. In this roundtable, you’ll hear from a few of them: Kianna Alexander (author of two multicultural historical romance series), Piper Huguley (author of inspirational historical romances), Lena Hart (writer of sensual to steamy interracial romances), and me, Alyssa Cole. All four of us have contributed stories to The Brightest Day: A Juneteenth Historical Romance Anthology (June 2015; now available for pre-order). Here, we discuss our personal experiences as romance writers, the current state of multicultural historical romance, and our thoughts on the future of historicals that feature people of color as the heroes and heroines.
What first inspired us to write historical romance featuring people of color?
Alyssa Cole: It’s “who” for me: The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates. I was a commenter (well, lurker mostly) on his blog for years and followed along as he studied the Civil War, the Civil Rights movement, and other aspects of American history. His work, and the knowledge of the blog’s other commenters, opened my eyes to the fact that the history I’d been taught in school had left out a lot of details, specifically where POC were concerned. There are so many amazing people and stories that most people know nothing about, and I was inspired to incorporate my love of history into my romance writing.
Kianna Alexander: I’m kind of a history nerd, and writing is second nature to me. Beyond that, I am a huge fan of Beverly Jenkins’ work. I recall hearing her complain about being “all alone” in the historical romance genre when it came to authors of color. So I decided to join her, and write the type of books I’d like to read. Like most readers, I longed to see myself in books. Beverly’s books gave me that gift, and now I’d like to give the same gift to another reader searching for herself in a historical romance.
Piper Huguley: The fact that there weren’t that many of them out there, and I couldn’t understand why there weren’t any–especially ones featuring people of color historically as Christians. Before I published The Preacher’s Promise, I had exactly one book comparable to mine. And at that time, it was not in print.
Lena Hart: I remember years ago, the first historical romance I got really excited about reading that featured people of color was Julie Garwood’s One Red Rose. Unfortunately, it didn’t have the chemistry that I was used to in Garwood’s other books. I don’t remember much of the story, but I remember thinking, “Why isn’t there any passion here? Why can’t I get into these characters?” My need to read a historical romance that isn’t afraid to show the beautiful along with the ugliness of our history is what inspires me to write historical romances.
What are some of the roadblocks we have encountered writing within this genre?
Kianna Alexander: People have far too many generalizations and not nearly enough knowledge of African American history. I’ve found that both readers and industry members, like agents or editors, have formed these immovable assumptions about what African American historical books have to be about. The first thing they mention is slavery—as if that’s all Black people have ever done. It boggles my mind that people don’t seem to know there is more to our history than slavery.
Piper Huguley: The biggest roadblock has been that there is a new view of history, different from the one readers learned in school.
Lena Hart: Some of the roadblocks I encounter when writing historical romance with people of color are probably more mental and emotional for me. Sometimes the history gets so depressing and ugly that I tend to forget I’m writing a romance. But once I can get over my own anger and disgust and sift through the history that is relevant to the story I’m writing, then I just try and focus on my characters and write their journey to finding happily ever after.
Alyssa Cole: For me it’s the “believability” issue. I think that because people of color, and African Americans in particular, have been presented as non-actors in American history for so long, it can be hard for even open-minded people to wrap their minds around certain ideas. Why would a slave want to fight for the country that enslaved him? (African Americans have participated in every military engagement in U.S. history.) Would people really make time for romance while doing backbreaking work? (Enslaved Africans maintained relationships, marriages, and had social lives—like most humans do even in hard circumstances.) I know that slavery existed after the period your story is set in, so how can I believe they have a happily ever after? (Meanwhile, no one questions whether the couples in Western-set historical romances die of diphtheria after the last chapter, or if Regency romance Lady So-and-So dies in childbirth, as so many women did.)
What are some of the more affecting things we’ve come across in our research?
Piper Huguley: I’m constantly amazed by the strength and fortitude shown by those who endured. They willingly shouldered such difficulties for the sake of the future that they could not see. So whenever I see something hard to deal with in my research, I think about their endurance and honor it in whatever I am doing.
Lena Hart: I’ve come across quite a bit of disturbing information during my research—and from all sides too! From finding out that the KKK was started as far back as the post-Civil War era by former Confederate soldiers, to discovering the Rufus Buck Gang—a multiracial group of teenaged thugs that terrorized their way through Indian Territory in 1895. The more recent traumatizing piece of history I’ve come across was the massacre of 133 peace-keeping Native Americans in 1864, including women and children, who were all killed in the name of revenge by Colonel John Chivington—a military officer in our government!
Alyssa Cole: There are many horrific stories about the atrocities committed against enslaved people, and of families torn apart—I don’t want to downplay that. However, the stories that bother me most are those showing how often African Americans had the possibility of freedom dangled before them like a carrot, and then snatched away at the last minute. “Fight for us and you’ll be free” during the Revolutionary War; we all know quite the opposite happened. The promise of the Civil War, followed by horrible government-sanctioned brutality during Reconstruction and after. Despite all that, people lived, loved, and worked toward the day when they could truly be free.
Kianna Alexander: Most of my research has involved three consecutive time periods in American history: the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Gilded Age. What’s shocked and hurt me most are the images of lynchings, beatings, and other violence inflicted on African Americans during all these periods. Also, reading some of the letters and accounts about lovers and families torn apart by war and racial strife is difficult, but necessary to inform my writing.
What do we hope to accomplish with our books?
Lena Hart: I want to show readers that, yes, our history has been ugly and painful, but it was also beautiful and filled with hope. I want them to realize that the history of Black people didn’t start during the slave trade, and that people of color had lives and families well before the Europeans settled on their lands—that people of color were also kings and queens, chieftains and Pharaohs, explorers and inventors.
Piper Huguley: I hope that other people will learn how much their ancestors endured so that they might have the opportunities they currently do.
Alyssa Cole: Romance novels have gotten me through many tough times in my life, and many good ones as well. My goal is to write books that make people feel things (hopefully, not the desire to throw their e-reader), and to learn things, too. I also want to show that, no matter the time period, people of color were falling deeply in love and getting their freak on just like everyone else.
Kianna Alexander: I hope to portray the strength, the adaptability, and the courage of my ancestors. Just about every horror imaginable has been visited on African Americans; yet somehow we’ve survived. There is beauty in that, and also proof that love truly does conquer all.
Alyssa Cole: I think things are getting better, largely because of the opportunity afforded by self-publishing. Readers of color are excited to see themselves represented—I know how much I squee when I see a historical romance with heroes or heroines of color (all too rarely)—and growing numbers of “mainstream” readers are looking for diversity, too. Multicultural and LGBT historical romance are both growing markets. Now we have to see whether they get the attention they deserve from publishers.
Kianna Alexander: I think there are many in the publishing industry who are quite comfortable with the “old” way of doing things—publishing books that ignore or marginalize the existence and experiences of people of color. I’m not sure it’s totally malicious; people tend to do what is easiest, and resist change. Still, as the population changes, becoming more diverse, I think readers are demanding more books with characters they can relate to, characters who look like them. I think the change is happening, but very slowly, and with some degree of trepidation and reluctance within traditional, larger publishing houses.
Piper Huguley: In the current traditional publishing climate, there is still resistance. In the self-publishing climate, my books have done well. I don’t think things are changing. Not yet. But as Sam Cooke says, the change is gonna come.
Lena Hart: I think multicultural historicals still have a ways to go. We need more writers who enjoy writing historical romances with people of color, and we need more vocally hungry readers who will invest in them. There are small groups of multicultural/interracial historical romance readers and fans on Facebook and Goodreads, but I don’t think their rumblings for quality MC/IR historical romances have grown loud enough, thus the publishing industry isn’t listening. I think until the demand increases, writers and publishers will continue to focus on the tried-and-true genres.
Advice for those who aspire to write historical romance featuring people of color
Kianna Alexander: Be prepared for comments that will insult and or confuse you; they’re coming. Also, don’t expect the average person to understand why you’re writing it, or to even be interested. And don’t pin your hopes on outside validation. Know why you want to tell these stories, and don’t wait for anyone else to give you permission. Write your truth.
Piper Huguley: Be patient. No, it won’t take 20 years for acceptance of these books (as I was told at Romance Writers of America 2013), but it will take some time. Keep going. The voices of the past must be heard.
Lena Hart: Research, research, research. And not only the racial group you plan to write about, but the culture and climate of where they were living. Once you’re well-versed in your time period and the people, start pulling out the 10% that you will need to write your character’s story. You have to remember that you’re writing their story, and it’s important you tell a good story through their eyes.
Alyssa Cole: Do your research, prepare to have your intelligence questioned, and don’t be afraid to speak your mind. Tangentially related, and for posterity: Do not ever try to pass off the Thomas Jefferson/Sally Hemings relationship as “romance.” THOMAS JEFFERSON WAS A RAPIST.
Alyssa Cole is a science editor, pop culture nerd, and romance junkie who recently moved to the Caribbean and occasionally returns to her fast-paced NYC life. When she’s not busy writing, traveling, and learning French, she can be found watching animal videos on the Internet with her real-life romance hero.