The marvelous Ana Coqui began a monthlong celebration of all things romance on Twitter in May 2017, identified with the hashtag #RomBkLove. It was a monumental undertaking, and when she wanted to celebrate it again in May 2018, she asked her reader and blogger friends to help her by writing columns during that month. I work with Ana and others on the #readrchat monthly reader chat on romance topics, and we spoke about me writing something. I chose worldbuilding as my topic, but as I didn’t have a website then, Ana graciously hosted me on her site. You can find the original post here.
Please welcome Mary Lynne, a long-time Romance reader. I’ve always enjoyed her thoughtful tweets on Romance, and I hope you enjoy her thoughts on Worldbuilding:
How many times have you heard of romance referred to as an escape? You’re told that you should be swept away, that you’ll explore worlds of adventure and love. Heck, Harlequin even built an entire ad campaign around this.
But the underlying theme of these ideas is that romance removes you from the everyday to something else. And you wouldn’t have any of that without worldbuilding. Merriam-Webster calls worldbuilding “the art of creating a fictional world,” while Charlie Jane Anders says it’s “the lifeblood of storytelling” in her blog post The 7 Deadly Sins of Worldbuilding. While most people, unsurprisingly, think of worldbuilding in relation to fantasy and science fiction, it has a vital role to play in romance.
The most direct and obvious connection is in fantasy and SF romance. I recently read Elizabeth Vaughan’s newest book in her Chronicles of the Warlands series, Warsong. Even though it had been several years since I’d read one of her books, I was instantly transported to the Plains and its clan structure, to the imperial city of Xy and its complexities. When I asked Vaughan about worldbuilding, she noted, “I think good worldbuilding is essential. But the writer always has to remember that the worldbuilding needs to be behind the scenes. What makes a great read is the focus on the actions and struggles of the characters moving through your world.” Vaughan’s comment, to me, drives home that necessary connection of not just creating a believable world but creating believable characters within that world.
Another great example of enveloping worlds in fantasy romance are Jeffe Kennedy’s Twelve Kingdoms and Uncharted Realms books in her series of the same names. She even has a map available for you to see those countries, which is a classic SF/F tool for worldbuilding! Linda Winstead Jones, in her first trilogy in her wonderful Columbyana series, reminded me of Mervyn Peake’s classic Gormenghast books when she set a huge portion of the action in a castle that is, in and of itself, its own world. Ava Sinclair built a complex dragon culture in her Drakoryan reverse-harem series—and then once I grew accustomed to it, she went even further and changed it through a long-suppressed and now-risen threat. Tracy St. John has created an intricate world of war and cultural differences in her Clans of Kalquor series, which includes ménage relationships as well as an intersex heroine in her book Michaela.
But good worldbuilding applies to historical romances as well. The difference is that the historical writer doesn’t get to create the rules of that world as the fantasy writer does. Instead, historical writers have to work with the facts and conventions of the time. They don’t have to slavishly adhere to them, but they also can’t consistently go so far from the mainstream that they become the dreaded “wallpaper historical” author, with people who don’t act or talk like someone from the years they’re supposed to be living in. As KJ Charles writes on her blog, “I am not here for histrom that is modern day people in silly hats; that takes all the fun out of it.”
Georgette Heyer, of course, is the ur-Regency romance author, building the conventions of that massively popular subgenre as we know it today. Interestingly, Heyer actually created some of the things we take as gospel for the Regency period: her use of slang exceeds anything you’ll find in Austen. But as noted in The Private World of Georgette Heyer, her research was meticulous and filled volumes, with information far beyond what she ever used in her books. Her depiction of Waterloo was used for years in British military schools to teach that battle. And that attention to detail has been passed down as a requirement for every historical writer since; woe betide the author that messes up the use of titles for English lords! (There’s nothing that annoys historical fans more, as it’s a relatively easy thing to research.)
You see that attention to Regency detail in some of its classic authors, such as Mary Balogh, Joanna Bourne, and Jo Beverley. Their books are rooted in research of the period: Balogh exploring the challenges in recovering from war in books like The Proposal, Beverley showing the complexity of smugglers’ life in A Shocking Delight, and Bourne, who recreates the exploits of spies in books like The Black Hawk. But recent years have shown us more diverse elements of this historical period, with authors like Rose Lerner exploring the Jewish experience in books like True Pretenses and Cat Sebastian and KJ Charles movingly revealing the many aspects of life for gay men in the Regency in their m/m romances, such as The Ruin of a Rake and A Gentleman’s Position. There are authors like Carla Kelly, who made a point to write books that *didn’t* feature the nobility (unlike the plethora of dukes found today). As her biography notes, “Carla has made certain types of Regencies her own, particularly novels and stories about people who are not lords and ladies. Many of them are hard-working and hard-fighting members of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines in the Channel Fleet, and the British Army on the Spanish Peninsula.”
Another historical period that has been an inspiration for romance novel worldbuilding is the American West. Lorraine Heath illustrated the challenges of pacifism in the Civil War in her classic Always to Remember, while Alyssa Cole gives us spies who navigate an interracial relationship in that same time period in the marvelous An Extraordinary Union. Piper Huguley blends the black experience in the post-Civil War era with inspirational themes in her wonderful Home to Milford College series. Alexis Harrington expanded our view of the West by going to the edges of the frontier in the world of the Alaskan Gold Rush of Harper’s Bride. And no discussion of this time period is complete without mentioning Beverly Jenkins, the doyenne of African-American romance. Books like Night Song and Indigo opened so many people’s eyes to the historical African-American experience back in 1995, and Ms. Jenkins hasn’t stopped since.
Even contemporary romances have to build worlds. Sometimes they blend with other genres, such as the enormously popular paranormal genre. One of my favorite authors for great paranormal worldbuilding is Becca Jameson. Books like Grizzly Survival are rooted in a shifter culture that is both affected by and affects the human world. In this book, it’s not just that one man of the main couple is human and the other man is a shifter; there are PTSD issues, issues of transformation, and threats to the shifters that all come into play and make this world seem real despite its fantasy aspects. Jennifer Ashley’s long-running Shifters Unbound series deals with prejudicial topics in its paranormal world, like internment and separation of the “other,” that speak to difficulties in our world at the same time.
There has to be logic in the place a contemporary author builds: I always roll my eyes when a town of a few hundred people out in the country somehow manages to support a cupcake-store business. Jodi Thomas is a master at the small-town Texas story, writing historical and contemporary romance in this region. Her Ransom Canyon series has built its world of a Texas town, Crossroads, over its books. Thomas acknowledges the challenges of small-town life, such as having characters leave Crossroads in their late teens to live elsewhere due to the difficulty of education and employment in a small town. Jessica Scott is an author who creates vividly the ups and downs of military life in her romances. She addresses the sorrows, the challenges, and the joys of being a military spouse in books like Homefront.
Alexis Daria built a specific world in contemporary romance by rooting her Dance Off books such as Take the Lead in a “Dancing With the Stars”-like reality competition. And of course, I have to praise the original mistress of them all: Jane Austen. While we may view her as historical, she wrote contemporaries, presenting the opportunities and challenges of Regency life as she knew and lived it. Books like Persuasion draw on her experience with family in the Navy, and the poignancy of lost opportunities and time.
But now it’s time for your thoughts! What makes for good worldbuilding in romance? What breaks it down for you faster than you can say, “wallpaper”? What are some great examples that you can think of, Romancelandia? I’m excited to see your tweets today!
Finally, I want to thank Ana Coqui for hosting me today. I’m not a regular blogger, but I’m involved in the setup for #readRchat, helping determine the topics and questions for each month’s prompts. And when Ana proposed dropping readRchat for this month to bring back #RomBkLove again, our team members were the first to volunteer to help Ana and spread the load of managing the behemoth that is a month of RomBkLove. So that’s how a simple reader got involved. The message I hope all you readers of these blogs gain from this? You can do it, too!