Once upon a time, there were two kinds of romance novels: contemporary and historical. Contemporary was the present day, and historical was anything set before the turn of the twentieth century. Anything else….well, there wasn’t anything else. Category romance, such as Harlequin, was contemporary, and traditional Regencies were, obviously, historical. Paranormals, as we know them, hadn’t been born yet, and, when time travels first came on the scene, they were usually firmly in one camp or the other. Anything between prior centuries and the current calendar year was usually reserved for multigenerational sagas outside of romance. These days, it’s not so cut and dried.
The romance genre has experienced a world of growth in only a couple of decades, so it makes sense that some classifications are going to expand along with it. On the surface, the line between “then” and “now” should be fairly straightforward, but is it really? Contemporary romance allows readers to identify with the world, and time, in which we currently live. While we may not all have experienced life on a rural Texas ranch, refurbished a house in urban Detroit, or attend glamorous parties in Manhattan every night, we know what it’s like to live our lives with various electronics clamoring for our attention at every minute of every day, the trick of juggling work and life, and tracing complicated family trees, as the definition and construction of family expands. What possible down side could there be to a world we already live in every day?
Two words: phone booth. Once an everyday necessity (and not only for Superman) phone booths are now as obsolete as bell bottoms, radar ranges and running boards. If you’re squinting at the screen and wondering what any or all of those things might be, you’re not alone. At one time, all of those items would have been part of daily life, but are now relics of the past, though some may still remember them from days gone by. Well established contemporary authors, considering reissuing their classic works in digital form, may have an important choice to make: do they update technology and references to make it more relatable to modern, often younger, readers, who have never listened to the Bay City Rollers while waiting on a gas line, and hoped they make it home in time for their favorite show, lest they have to wait until summer reruns for another shot, or keep it as originally written? If they opt for the former, they run the risk of losing important parts of the story, perhaps even an extensive rewrite. If they opt for the latter, does that make the once-contemporary story now a historical? The third option, the “timeless now,” can give the best of both worlds, but use of more general, less-identifying, terms, such as a character listening to “a hip hop song” rather than “Rapper’s Delight,” can miss out on the details that make the time in which a story is written unique.
While we’re at it, let’s look at the definition of historical. Back in the day, it was clearly defined as any romance taking place before 1900. Okay, that’s a firm boundary, but then what about everything between 1900 and contemporary times? There have to be love stories in there, too, and it wasn’t long before authors first tiptoed over that line, then tore it down entirely, as Victorian romances edge over into the Edwardian era (thank you, Downton Abbey) and beyond. Time does march on, and the reading and writing population ages, passing the torch to those whose living memory begins at a later date than it did for the previous generation, giving history a little more room than it had a few decades before.
As if that weren’t enough to try and straighten out, we have not only time travel, in which at least one character leaves their era of origin, to live in another, but time slip, in which two stories, in two separate times, while not interacting, interweave. If our Viking hero finds himself in Rat Pack era Las Vegas, but goes back home, showgirl heroine by his side, what kind of book is that? (Besides one I would totally read, that is, because I would be all over that, like sugar on a snickerdoodle.) If our modern heroine finds her great-grandmother’s love letters to a man who is not great-grandpa (or is he?) and discovers that great-grandmother’s story parallels her own, where do we shelve that?
While speculative romance is definitely its own subgenre now, it’s also frequently firmly in one camp or the other. Our vampire clan is ensconced in contemporary Boston, for example, or we have a pack of Regency werewolves stalking Almack’s. Aliens are, literally, in a world of their own, where our calendar may not even apply. The early 1990s saw a proliferation of futuristic romances, which usually did feel either historical or contemporary in flavor, and often took place on original worlds of the author’s creation. These days, we do have what some call near-future novels, set perhaps only decades after our own, instead of centuries. Parts of the world we know are still in place, but writers can speculate how other aspects of daily live might evolve or change in a single instant. With the constantly new influx of creativity, who can tell what comes next?
So, dear readers, I turn it now over to you. How do you divide romance novels set in different times? Are you strictly a historical and/or contemporary person, or are there points in between that catch your fancy? Points beyond? Do you consider time travel and/or time slip novels to belong primarily to one time or another, or is it more fluid than that? If you’re wondering what the heck all this fuss is about, because stories are stories, and time doesn’t matter, we want to hear about that, too. Pull up a chair in our comments section and tell us all about it. There’s room for everybody at this table.