Noveljutsu Episode 04 - Genre Part I (Romance and Historical)
If you missed the last Noveljutsu post, we discussed how to make sure you were aiming your book at readers of the right age, but there's more to finding your audience than knowing how old they are. After all, how many of us go into a bookstore and scour every single bookshelf in our age category before we pick a book that interests us? I know when I go to the bookstore, I'm interested in just a handful of categories. If you don't want your readers to wear out their eyes reading the titles of every book in the store before they find yours, you'd better make sure your book is getting placed on the right shelf, whether that shelf is in a physical bookstore or a virtual one.
You don't have to know the genre you intend to write before you begin your novel—it's possible to figure it out later if you're okay with doing some extra editing—but knowing what readers you're reaching out to before you put words to page can save you some time revising later. It can tell you what targets you need to hit and, just as importantly, which ones to avoid to leave your audience feeling satisfied their expectations have been met.
For example, just because someone gets murdered in your novel doesn't mean your novel is a murder mystery. Just because your book has a romance in it doesn't mean it is a romance. Readers of mystery novels and romance novels are going to have some very specific expectations of any novel you market toward them, and if you fail to meet the expectations of your audience, you'll be lucky if all you get is the cold shoulder.
CHARACTER, SETTING, OR PLOT?
How do you know if the murder in your novel will put your novel on the mystery shelf? To decide, first think about your goals with your novel. Where do you want to spend the most time—with character, setting, or the action of the story? For example (keeping in mind that sub-genres can switch reader expectations around a bit), many fantasy readers are interested in the setting of the story. They enjoy, within reason, detailed descriptions of the world and the magical elements in that world. They're probably very interested in getting to know your characters and having some cool action as well, but they'll want to see how those elements interact with that new and magical world. If your character's growth and development doesn't have them engaging with a fantasy setting, your readers might be disappointed. Imagine if Harry Potter never went to Hogwarts, played Quidditch, or picked up a wand.
Romance, on the other hand, is all about character, so if you spend most of your time describing the architecture of the house your heroine lives in rather than the, er, architecture of her love interest's gorgeous body, you've probably missed the mark.
Secondly, you need to look at the main plotline of your novel. If you haven't written your novel yet, take a look at the idea you've nailed down. There is probably a plot suggested in your idea, and that main plotline will be a big indicator for which genre your book will fall into. In the first official Noveljutsu post, I mentioned how the first novel I ever wrote was a really bad Twilight but with the focus of the story on the evil vampires in town rather than on the romance. While Twilight was a romance novel, my novel wasn't.
Now that you've isolated the main plot of your novel, hold it in your mind. For the next few posts of Noveljutsu I’ll give an overview of some of the major genres, as well as some common subgenres of each. Note that different bookstores will combine or divide these genres differently; this is just how I've chosen to list them. For today's episode, we're going to start with...
Love stories span all genres and are one of the most common secondary plots to the point where some authors feel like they have to include a romance in their novel, no matter what genre they're actually writing. (You don't.) But does the love story in your novel make it a romance?
As the name might suggest, romance is all about love, which means the primary plot of a romance novel will be about love too. As I mentioned earlier, character is also paramount here. Your main character's desires and motivations, their virtues and vices, how they learn and grow, and especially how their love with another grows are aspects that should take precedence in your story.
Your character's love story can be sweet or spicy. They can do the deed on page one, or maybe they only get as far as a first kiss by the end of the book, if that. If your book ends in your lovers' breakup or their tragic deaths, however, you probably haven't written a romance. While there are some exceptions to the rule, romance readers are almost always looking for a happy ending.
Most romance novels still heavily feature heterosexual couples, but there is an increasing demand from industry professionals and readers to see more romances featuring LGBT couples. Likewise, while romances in the western world are primarily written for a female audience and have a female protagonist, this isn't universally the case. Anyone who's ever stumbled into the plethora of harem anime can tell you there are stories that are definitely romances but are intended for a male audience.
Romance is a huge and diverse genre that often overlaps with other genres, creating a wide range of sub-genres that include but are not limited to:
1. Contemporary romance.
In Contemporary Romance, your story takes place in more modern days and often deals with more modern social expectations and issues. It's common to have a career-minded woman as the heroine, for example, who has goals outside of romance she wants to achieve.
2. Historical Romance
Historical romance is a romance set in a real-world time period that isn't today, and the chosen time period for the story is probably going to inform a lot of the conflict and tension that happens between the main characters. Romances set in England during the Regency or Victorian eras are common, but there are a lot of other interesting time periods and settings available.
3. Paranormal Romance.
Paranormal Romance is where all your romances featuring supernatural beings go. That means your love stories with vampires, angels, and ghosts fit here, but that doesn't mean your protagonist or their romantic interest have to be a werewolf or a demon themselves. Maybe they're merely two humans falling in love, trying to find a quiet moment together with the threat of a zombie apocalypse outside the door.
Historical fiction novels are set in times long past. Or sometimes in times not that long ago. There is some disagreement over how far in the past the time period in which your story must be set qualifies as historical fiction. You're usually safe if your story is set 100 years ago or more, but there are plenty of publishers and readers who consider World War II to be a perfectly suitable era for historical fiction as well.
If you haven't caught on yet, while character and action may be important elements of historical novels, setting is going to be a major focus of a well-done historical novel.
Historical fiction assumes a real-world Earth as your setting. That means that even if you play with history to invent a fictional town or event, real places, historical events, and even people are likely to feature heavily in your novel. That's why J. R. R. Tolkien wasn't writing historical fiction when he wrote The Silmarillion. Even though a lot of his writings imagined a rich mythos for early Europe, his lack of recognizable, real world settings, people, and battles leaves him standing firmly in the realm of fantasy.
Depending on the sub-genre of historical fiction, the amount of historical accuracy expected will vary, but you generally want to be as historically accurate as possible not just to events, but also to the cultural and societal norms of the time.
To prepare for my own historical fantasy novel, I researched a lot of Canadian history. I looked up photographs and old maps, read memoirs, found a transcript of a criminal trial that was relevant to my novel, and I even stumbled upon a transcript of the delightful journal of a young school teacher living in the area at the time.
This doesn't mean you can't change anything from history, but a rule of thumb is to change only what you must to tell the story you intended to tell.
Just like the previous genre, historical fiction can pair with pretty much any other genre. I already mentioned historical romance, but here are a few others.
1. Alternate History
This is where you take a historical event, often one of major consequence, and imagine how the world would be different if that single event hadn't happened or had happened differently. Maybe you take a major battle and show how you imagine the world, or a portion of the world, would be different if the other side had won. Maybe you imagine a North America in which neither the Vikings nor Christopher Columbus had ever arrived.
I have seen a number of others classify this as its own genre, but I'm putting it down as a sub-genre of historical fiction, though I should mention that contemporary westerns also exist. But when it comes to historical westerns, this is the place for all your Wild West saloons, gunslinging, train-robbing, and your cowboys riding off into the sunset with a kick of their spurs.
3. Historical Fantasy
When you add magic or fantastical creatures to a historical novel, you get historical fantasy. Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Glamourist Histories series fits here. In many ways the series feels like it'd fit right alongside Jane Austen's novels, but Kowal’s novels include a form of illusion magic called "glamour," and it is often used to solve problems the characters face in each book.
4. Time Travel
Depending on how close you're sticking to history, your time travel story may or may not qualify as historical fiction, but if your intent is to have your time travelers experience a near-authentic version of the time period they visit, this is the place for you! Other types of time travelling stories are likely to fall into the science fiction or fantasy genres.
That's it for today. Since there are still more genres and sub-genres to discuss, I'll hold off on Project: Noveljutsu updates and issuing challenges until I’ve finished covering the genres I missed in this post.
If you have any questions or comments, go ahead and leave one below or over on my YouTube video.
If you want to earn your black Noveljutsu pen and become a novel ninja, I will see you again next time!