Monday, July 27, 2015

A Tale of ?Two? Genres

I’ve been writing “genre fiction” for 36 years. I began with romance, then moved on to mystery.

That’s the simple version.

For a start, I wrote Regency romance, not just any old romance. It’s a very distinct genre, set in England in the early 1800s, when Jane Austen was published. The doyenne of the (sub)genre was Georgette Heyer, who set the standard for humour, well-developed characters, historical accuracy, and lively dialogue. Fans of regencies often don’t read any other kind of romance.

Given the limits of the genre, I managed to write all sorts of stories, some set around historical events such as the Battle of Waterloo, some comedies of manners, some exploring serious subjects like the mistreatment of chimneysweeps (Crossed Quills). I also branched out into several sub-sub-genres: fantasy—fairytales rewritten with a Regency setting (The Magic of Love); time travel (Byron’s Child);
and a ghost story (The Actress and the Rake).

One of my regencies was classified by the publisher as a “Regency Historical,” largely, I gathered, because it was considerably longer than normal.

The genre “Mystery” turns out to be even more complex. Most people agree that my Daisy Dalrymple series, set in the 1920s, is historical. Some, however, contend that a book can’t be called historical fiction unless it’s set at least 100 years before the present. The Cornish mysteries, set around 1970, have even more dissenters from the historical label. It’s not historical if it’s set in the lifetime of the writer. It’s not historical if it’s less than 50 years ago. Et cetera.

I’ve even heard from medievalists that nothing after 1400 (or is it 1500?) can be described as historical as that’s when the “modern era” began. I hope they have their tongues in their cheeks!

As far as I’m concerned both my series are historical. Yes, I lived through the ’60s and ’70s, but I have to do research about the past when writing both.

Another battle is whether to call both series “cosy/cozy” or “traditional.” I used to be quite happy with the cosy label until a flood of craft mysteries arrived on the scene, in which the mysteries of the craft get as much attention as the mystery of the crime. Nowadays I much prefer to be placed in the traditional group.

Both terms are ill-defined, but they do guide readers to the type of stories they prefer. That, I suppose, is the purpose of the whole shebang.

Carola Dunn is author of the Daisy Dalrymple Mysteries, Cornish Mysteries, and multitudinous Regencies.


  1. As a teenager/YA, I think I read everything Georgette Heyer wrote, and Barbara Cartland. I fell in love with that era of history. I had read that anything after 1900 was not considered historical, but that is plain silly in the year 2015. Time has moved on.

  2. Your grasp of the whole genre thing is amazing, Carola ... I'm still just at the fiction or non-fiction level! Oh, and where else but the BRP would I see the word 'doyenne'? A never-ending source of education for Homey.

  3. We definitely are seeing a lot of shape-shifting when it comes to genres. I kind of liked it when it was just romance, mystery, western, science fiction, fantasy and mainstream, with maybe a few sub-genres in each. Now some book classifications list five or more sub-genres. I laugh when I get a query for a review for a book that is a "paranormal romance with mystery in a historical western setting." What? LOL

  4. So the plot thickens. I understand the reason for categorizing books and even agree that it helps to reduce the confusion for a reader who wants to read only a certain type. However, all the genres, sub-genres, multiple genres, etc., really make it challenging for an independent writer to find the right cubbyhole in which to market a book. I appreciate your comment about wanting at this point to be placed in the traditional group -- it seems the target audience might be larger.

  5. I almost think the covers of books sometimes say more about what's inside than any genre description. The craft cozies are so obvious. If those are not your thing, you can just skip over them. I love your Daisy covers, Carola. They say what they are. I've never been a big romance reader, nor am I a historical reader unless it's a Cold War book. I guess these days, that would be considered historical, wouldn't it?

  6. The other argument/confusion is whether a book written in the period where it's set can ever be described as historical. Some people, for instance, would call Dorothy Sayers historical, which to my mind is completely out of the question. So, to me, a book written now but set in the Cold War would be historical but eg The Spy who Came in from the Cold, absolutely not.


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