When I became interested in writing romance, my reading predilections steered me directly into historical romance. I like a good relationship story, and I love history, so what’s not to like? But as I’ve started following the blogs of historical romance writers, I’ve started noticing something; writers referring to historical romance as “alternate history”. I’ve always shook my head at this, but I keep seeing it come up again and again, and it’s really started to feel like a burr in my boot every time I see. Do folks just not know what alternate history is? I cut my teeth in science fiction writing alternate history, and from what I’ve read of historical romance, nothing I’ve read is true alternate history.
So what is alternate history? At its core, AH is What if?. Further, Wikipedia defines it as looking “at ‘what if’ scenarios from some of history’s most pivotal turning points and present[ing] a completely different version, sometimes based on science and fact, but often based on conjecture. The exploration of how the world would look today if various changes occurred and what these alternate worlds would be like forms the basis of this vast subject matter.” So in AH, the world which we know has been changed and the resulting future is noticeably different than the one we live in.
The thing about historical romance is that, in my limited reading so far, there’s been no “what if?” and no significant altering of history. There’s a lot of taking liberties with historical figures, usually minor ones, or outright substitution of actual historical figures with made up ones, but in the end, history is not fundamentally different than we know it; the world is not changed so that Columbus never discovers the Americas or the Roman Empire survives into the modern era. History continues on in pretty much the same fashion it already did. All the historical romances I’ve read thus far miss this key benchmark of alternate history.
So, if they aren’t alternate history, then what are they? Taking a look at Uchronia’s definitions, I’d call them Secret Histories. Some aren’t even that; they’re just romance stories told in a historical setting.
But why is the distinction even important? Maybe it’s not, to anyone but me. See, I want to read actual alternate history romance, romances set within “what if” scenarios where the story is not confined by actual history, where unlikely relationship combinations occur thanks to history not unfolding the way it actually did. My own current WIP is exactly this kind of story; it takes place early in the timeline of my One World series, within a couple years of the point of divergence–the Mexica defeat and kill Cortes before the Spanish can start their march inland–and as a result, two historical figures who would have been enemies instead end up falling in love with each other. And the story is highly aware of its own alternate-ness and makes it a plot-point. These are the kinds of stories I’d really like to read more of.
Am I just missing the true alternate history romances out there? Have you read any/can recommend any? My impression is that there aren’t many–if any–out there.