As much as romance readers love familiar settings like Regency London and Texas ranches, modern or otherwise, even those fan favorite settings can get a little populated after a while. Sometimes, they can even get over-populated, and readers who once flocked to a popular locale flip things into reverse and search for greener pastures. On the other hand, there is literally a whole world of settings where romance novels could take place, but we don’t often see them actually set there. Why is that?
There’s a lot to be said about the comfort of the familiar. Series have never been more popular than they are today, and many of us have seen series beget other series, which may beget another series, all with ties back to the original bunch, no matter how tenuous. In an ever-changing world, many readers like to come back to a world they already know, with familiar characters, customs and locations. Familiar settings can be a code of sorts, which can make jumping into a new story that much easier, as there’s less time finding one’s feet.
When we see a historical romance, for example, set among the upper crust of the Regency era, or a contemporary set in a cozy small town in a rural or touristy setting, we know what sorts of people and places this story will bring us, so we can already fill in many of the blanks. We know that one will bring us heroines looking for (or attempting to avoid) a suitable match, heroes with a certain background that puts them in that category, the sorts of supporting characters that will surround them, and at least a basic understanding of the historical events that may have any degree of effect upon them.
To follow the example, when we see a small town contemporary romance, we know that the town has both a history and an identity that sets it apart from all other small towns. At least one of the lovers is likely to be torn between their roots and their wings, unsure if they should choose the safety of what they’ve always known, or what lies out in the great perhaps. Maybe one of them has been out in the great wide world and is now coming home, happily or otherwise. We know those situations, and we can get comfy as we settle in for the ride.
For some readers, that familiarity is absolutely paramount, and the thought of reading a historical set in ancient Rome, or a sweet romance set in the big city is about as appealing as the thought of jalapeno jelly on their next peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The brutality of ancient Rome has, for some, about as much place in a romance as a contemporary hero taking the subway to his entry level office job. How can romance flourish in the midst of all that upheaval, or during the daily grind? Where’s the glittering ballroom? Where’s the warmth and tradition? All valid concerns, and good reasons why familiar settings have strong followings, year in and year out.
For others, though, the unusual setting is what makes their ears prick, makes them stand up and take notice, and even thrust cold, hard cash and/or credit card numbers in the direction of same. Gothic romance set in a 1930s traveling carnival? Single dad has a second chance at his first love in downtown Detroit? Sold! Stop talking, and take these readers’ money. For these readers, the thrill of falling in love can only be matched by the thrill of discovering a new time and/or place, or a setting that they haven’t read in…well, they can’t remember when.
For still others, their favorite setting could fill a library, if only more authors would write it. American Revolution romances were all the rage in the early days of the historical genre, conveniently coinciding with the Bicentennial. In the 1990s, futuristic romance had a big bang of its own, with entire lines devoted to love among the stars. Gothic romances may immediately bring to mind the misty moors of the United Kingdom, but how spooky could an old southern mansion or abandoned skyscraper be, if given the chance?
Once upon a time, unusual settings weren’t…well, all that unusual. Historical romances could be set anywhere from the ancient world to the early twentieth century, and all stops in between, and they were. Janet Dailey, in her category days, proved beyond all doubt that romance could and did flourish in all fifty states, and countless others followed suit, setting tales of love in the here and now in their own backyards. When and how did that change? These days, great stories can be turned down before they even hit the stands, because using an unusual setting can be seen as a risk, especially for new authors. How to turn that around -if indeed the direction needs to be changed- would take more time and space than we have here, but romance readers know that love can bloom in the most unexpected of places…even between the pages of an unusual setting.
So, dear readers, I turn it now over to you. Do you like books with unusual settings? Why or why not? How do you, personally, define an unusual setting? Do you see the pool of acceptable settings shrinking, growing, or holding steady? Is there a setting you would love to read but can’t find? Or, conversely, is there a setting that would be a dealbreaker right then and there? If you don’t see what this fuss about settings is all about, we want to hear about that, too. Pull up a chair in the comment section and tell us all about it. There’s room for everybody at this table.