I read an interesting complaint the other day in a group on Facebook for historical fiction lovers. They complained that far too many historical romance books were invading the list, making it difficult for them to find books. Naturally, I jumped on the bandwagon to explain how publishers and authors choose categories and keywords when uploading a book. I don’t know that it helped any, because the complaints kept coming.

Frankly, I will admit when I look at the best selling list for historical romance, I get confused. There are plenty of category crossovers as well, causing readers to sift through the top one hundred. As a result, I occasionally read nasty reviews when a reader who expected a certain genre gets a miss-match instead.

What is the difference between the two genres? Historical romance is a sub-genre of romance and is set in a time period set before 1950 (per RWA – it used to be WW2, but time marches on). I’m going to borrow from the Romance Writers of America website the definition. Romance novels should have a central love story, where the main plot revolves around individuals falling in love and struggling to make it work. It should have an “emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.”

The definition of historical fiction, which is a sub-genre of literature, is set in the past and “characterized chiefly by an imaginative reconstruction of historical events and personages.” (i.e., dictionary.com) Of course, those personages can experience romance too, but it’s not the central story. The Historical Novel Society has a rather lengthy article on what defines the genre.

As a writer myself, I can say that I have fallen into the trap of cross categorization. Some historical fiction novels may have romantic elements, so does that make them historical romance or historical fiction? If it doesn’t follow the rule for a happy ending, reviewers will definitely balk and complain it was not historical romance. If your lover gets beheaded at the end, it’s definitely historical fiction.

There are a few good examples of crossing genre lines taking a look at today’s bestseller lists. What the Wind Knows is a good example that is currently in the top selling-categories of historical Irish fiction, cultural heritage fiction, and 20th-century historical romance. It’s a time-travel trope, heavily laden with historical fiction, with some romance. Diana Gabaldon has repeatedly stated that Outlander is not a historical romance when it clearly stays in the top one hundred of the category. (Read Here) It currently holds a spot on the bestseller list for historical fiction too. Of course, both books have romantic elements, but they are more clearly historical fiction time-travel, with romantic elements. I like to write family sagas, but they also have romantic elements. They are not, however, historical romance as defined.

Checking the current list of best sellers in historical fiction, Julia Quinn owns six of the top-ten spots in that genre, when clearly it’s historical romance. There are quite a few other obvious historical romance books by known authors in the list, including Lynsay Sands, K. J. Jackson, and Anne Gracie. Undoubtedly, that is a result of the historical fiction category being chosen by the publisher and/or independent author during the release of the book.

Is there a solution? Not really. As long as Amazon gives publishers and independent authors the ability to choose two categories, the problem will persist when sales cause it to skyrocket to the top one-hundred in the bestseller list. If you’re looking for a true historical romance, you can always stick to the titles with a duke, earl, marquess, or other English titled- aristocrat looks like a rogue on the cover. It’s a sure sign that history inside might not be exactly historically correct (which brings up another subject altogether), but the romance is hot and steamy with a happily-ever-after ending.


  1. Great explanation of the dilemma I face. I can’t call my historical novel a romance, although there are some spicy romantic elements. It’s a multi-character historical without a HEA and for a time I called it a hybrid. But I had to pick a genre and “hybrid” is not an option. I can’t really call it a historical novel per se as historical events serve as a backdrop only. And romance readers want their HEA!
    Thanks for the opportunity to vent about this.

  2. Author

    I know the dilemma. My first book was trolled heavily because it ended up in the historical romance category, but was really historical fiction with romantic elements. Eventually the series ended up a family saga. I got killed in reviews because of the category classification. I wish there were more options.

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