Back in the day, romance novels came in two flavors: contemporary, and historical. A few things have changed since then, with the proliferation of paranormals, including, but not limited to time travel, and dual (or triple) timelines, which are not paranormal at all, and what about that gray area between historical and contemporary? Where do we draw that line? Is there one? If there is, is it a fixed line, does it move over time, or is it more of a jump rope, depending on who’s telling the story?
Quick, name a great contemporary romance. Did Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen come to mind? No? :gasp of horror: Would that be because it is obviously a classic Regency romance? Weeeeel, yes, but it was written during the Regency, with a publication date of 1813, which means that the story takes place at the same time the author was writing it, which makes it….drumroll please….contemporary. The story is rooted in the time in which it was written, and, while there have been countless adaptations, some involving time travel and/or translating the story to the modern day, even transporting the setting to other countries, such as the US, or India, at its purest form, the story and setting are one.
This also goes to show how historical and contemporary can sometimes be two great tastes that taste great together. Many modern authors of romance write in both subgenres, and sometimes more. While some readers prefer to read only historicals, or only contemporaries, there are others who like both, or who don’t have a strong preference, as long as the story is good, or will follow a particular favorite author anywhere. Sometimes, as with Jude Deveraux’s Montgomery/Taggert saga, which spans from the medieval era to present day, with an occasional dash of time travel or sprinkling of magic along the way. Lynn Kurland plays double dutch with the whole concept of time, as her historicals, contemporaries and time travels have been delighting readers for years. If an author writes both historical and contemporary, it’s not entirely out of the question that the modern-day love stories may hold a few Easter eggs that readers of the historicals will especially appreciate.
Though time travels are not as thick on the ground as they once were, these stories provide a special experience. Whether it’s a hero or heroine who does the temporal traveling, by whatever method, and in whichever direction, the modern reader gets to experience the historical period through the eyes of someone from their own world. Not that all time travels do include a contemporary portion. Virginia Henley wrote a time travel romance where a Regency era heroine travels to Roman era Bath, and there is Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon, where the “modern” part of the story is the aftermath of WWII, a full two hundred years after Culloden, but on the fringes of living memory for most of its readers.
“Living memory” is a term frequently used to define where historical stops and contemporary begins, and, as one might expect, that’s a line that does move with the passing of previous generations. Where, only a couple of decades ago, many considered the turn of the twentieth century to be the dividing line, that left everything in between in limbo. Not so anymore, as writers such as Dorothy Garlock have consistently turned out stories set in the early twentieth century. Stick a foot over another line, into the realm of romantic historical fiction, and we have one of the grande dames of that genre, Beatriz Williams, and her dual timelines, sometimes only a couple of years apart, and sometimes whole generations in parallel.
Dual timelines do not intersect, but do combine to tell one cohesive story, in two distinct, separate timelines. Sometimes, this involves a contemporary character solving a historical mystery or unraveling family secrets, or it can be the same story, of the same characters, told at two different points in that same story. Nonlinear storytelling, masterful use of point of view, narrators who at reliable or not, all add a delicious edge, because while the characters in the earlier timeline may have no idea what long-term effects their choices and actions may have, and the characters in the later timeline can’t put a finger on why the earlier character valued some completely ordinary object, the reader knows, and can put together the puzzle pieces far earlier than the characters, because the reader has information that the individual characters don’t.
Phew. Not so cut and dried then, is it? Historical authors writing contemporary, contemporary authors writing historical, time travel, family sagas, dual timelines, and retellings of classic tales can all blur the lines between the historical and contemporary designations. Maybe Jane Austen was on to something.
So, dear readers, I turn it now over to you. Do you prefer historical or contemporary romances? Both? No strong preference? How about that in between stuff? If you read time travels, does it matter if the HEA happens in the past or present? What do you think of dual timelines? Is it possible for a family saga to go on too long? Pull up a chair in our comment section and tell us all about it. If this whole in-between stuff doesn’t float your boat, we want to hear about that, too. There’s room for everybody at this table.