The Cultural Gutter

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Now vs. Then

Chris Szego
Posted February 19, 2009

hoyt3.JPGGenerally speaking, Romances are divided into two broad groups: contemporary and historical. Those distinctions are somewhat fluid. For instance, although it used to refer to anything set after  1900, ‘contemporary’ now encompasses anything set after World War II. ‘Historical’, meanwhile, covers everything else.

Some readers have a solid preference for either contemporary or historical novels, but many read across the spectrum. Which makes it all the more puzzling that the historical market is rumored to shrinking, or even vanishing entirely.

This wasn’t always the case. In the eighties, Judith McNaught electrified the historical market with Whitney, My Love, a Regency historical. She followed it up with a string of smash bestsellers than invigorated the style of the day. Other writers, like Iris Johansen and Julie Garwood followed suit. Suddenly, historicals were everywhere, racing up the lists and, not incidentally, making massive sums for their publishers.

Somewhere during the nineties, things changed. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly where or how.  Maybe it was in reaction to the recession, a strike against earlier excess.  Maybe it was in imitation, or at least under the influence, of the most popular writer of that decade (and this one):  Nora Roberts.  but by the end of that decade, most of the major historical writers from the previous decade had switched their allegiance. Iris wrote thrillers starring an FBI facial reconstructionist. Julie wrote stories set around a modern law-enforcement family. Even Judith, when she wrote at all, set her books in the present. The short Regency category lines ceased publication. Historicals were still out there, of course, but they had somehow lost their lustre, and many of their superstars. And possibly, their market share…?

Well, not entirely. New stars arose, as could be expected: Loretta Chase,
Lisa Kleypas and Amanda Quick, to name a few. But the market as a whole was smaller, and publishers devoted much more of their energy into the contemporary side of things. It became harder for a new historical writer to break into the field, and harder still to grow a reputation and an audience. What was a new writer to do?

harper book 250.jpgElizabeth Hoyt decided to write both.

In 2005, Elizabeth’s agent was shopping around her debut novel, the Georgian historical Raven Prince, which she had written despite being told by everyone that the historical market was dead. She didn’t want to give up on the book, but she listened, at least a little. So while her agent chased the sale, Elizabeth plotted and wrote Hot, a contempory romance featuring a bank robbery, a days-long pursuit, and the FBI.

Of course, as it turned out, the historical market wasn’t quite as moribund as predicted. Hoyt sold Raven Prince, along with two related spin-off novels Leopard Prince and Serpent Prince, which she had already completed. All three books were released within a year, and Hoyt’s reputation as writer of sophisticated, sensual historical romance was assured. Having done so well so fast, she was a little hesitant to have her agent submit Hot. But she did anyway, and her editor loved it. And thus a dual career was born.

Hot, and its recent spinoff For the Love of Pete were released under the pseudonym Julia Harper. Fair enough: Elizabeth Hoyt isn’t her real name either. I picked up the ‘Prince’ series primarily because a friend of mine offered one of the cover blurbs. I picked up Hoyt’s new ‘Four Soldiers’ series because the ‘Prince’ series impressed me so much. Her writing is
assured, her characters real, and flawed, and she understand the all-important distinction between ‘emotion’ and ‘angst’ (to wit: the former is interesting; the latter, not so much). I glanced at her website – not in any depth – and went away happy with the knowledge that more books would be forthcoming.

I read For the Love of Pete earlier this month, when I was desperate for a new author. I was
delighted by the crisp dialogue, by the reality of the danger, and by Harper’s ability to create emotional connections. I hunted down Hot, and enjoyed it even more. Afterwards, for the first time, I looked at the author photo in Pete, and thought, ‘Hey, I know that face.’ The author bio explained why. Worth a thousand words, indeed.

So the secret is out, not that it was much of a secret in any case. She maintains two websites, each of which references the other, but which is still well suited to its time period. The Hoyt website, is patterned and pretty, full of book covers, research articles, and a free serialized novella featuring a minor character from Raven Prince. The Harper website is bright and colourful, with spare design elements and a MySpace page.

A book has always been a sort of bridge from the past to the
present. Elizabeth Hoyt/ Julia Harper has simply refined the
concept.

~~~

Chris Szego thinks it would be fun to have a pseudonym.

Comments

One Response to “Now vs. Then”

  1. weed
    March 18th, 2009 @ 12:27 pm

    Hi Chris,
    This article is really fun. I enjoyed comparing the author’s two webpages. I also appreciate that you illuminate some of the mystical forces of the publishing industry and how they affect not only what publishers promote, but also how they influence individual author’s work.
    Thanks!

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