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Aren’t We Ready to Bring Back the Exotic Setting?

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Earlier I sat here at desk, looking out to a window, thinking that it was great the vast expanse of the world is out there with its rich and varied cultures and peoples. If I had the money and the time again, I would travel for as long as possible to enjoy the sights-’some may be memorable and some upsetting-’and to gain insights-’deep and shallow-’from the surroundings and the encounters with strangers. I think many of us were born for such an existance.

Adventuring is part of my family’s lifestyle; almost a way of life. I left home at sixteen because it was expected of me. All my relatives, at least once in their lives, have travelled abroad and some lived there for months and even years. They have returned home when they have felt ready to hang up their travelling bags.   Some of us remain transplanted. I haven’t yet to return home because I feel like I still have much of my journey left.

As it stands, I don’t have the money or, more importantly, time or opportunity.   I’m deskbound these days. For times like this, the best means of travelling is a book. This is why I read every day. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find a contemporary or historical romance novel with an "exotic" setting these days. If there was one, it isn’t usually stated in a book blurb. I usually find them through the word of mouth.

I don’t understand why the romance genre nowadays is so  restrictive with its range of settings. A book is a window to the world, isn’t it? Why offer just a handful of familiar (and overused) countries? Whenever there is a romance conference, there would be a panel of editors that peddles the same old statement: romance novels with exotic settings don’t sell. I do realise the cause of apathy lies with readers, but I want to know why.

Do we prefer to read stories with familiar settings because it’s easier to imagine and therefore doesn’t   interfere with the storytelling? If we were to do word association with 1820s London, a woman in an Empress dress and a chap with a funny-looking hairdo, speaking Heyerseque dialogue springs forth. 1820s Shanghai? What comes to your mind?

When readers mention Europe, what they really mean is Europe that consists just England, Scotland, France, Ireland (Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland) and Italy.The Harlequin Presents’ categories overcome some of these self imposed and silent geographical restrictions. The settings in HPs include Spain, Portugal, Australia and New Zealand and, of course, the popular Sheik settings. For the most part, the rest of Europe, Eastern Europe and the Netherlands are  frequently ignored. The rest of the world doesn’t seem to exist for romantic fiction.

What strikes me interesting is that romance novels of yesteryear – historical and contemporary – were much more international. It wasn’t unusual to find a contemporary romance set in South Africa, a Medieval-era romance in Germany, or a 19th century historical romance somewhere in Russia. Many historical romances were set during the Gold Rush in the US; some in South America, and on the seas somewhere in the world.

Where did these go? Why aren’t readers interested in them now? Does it mean readers of yesteryear were more adventurous than we readers are nowadays? I’m thinking, yes and no. Paranormal romances, SF romances, futuristic romances and urban fantasy romance novels are quite popular. Aren’t these exotic? Why, if these are welcomed with open arms, aren’t contemporary or historical romances with exotic settings popular as well?

I used to believe long-time romance readers felt they overdosed on those exotic settings and so they opted for something familiar, but it’s been more than ten years. And there’s a new generation of romance readers, too.

Could it be that knowing too much makes it hard to hold the suspension of belief? If this is true, how could anyone enjoy reading English historical romance? 19th century England wasn’t pretty. The most exotic setting some seem to be willing to accept in historical romance novels nowadays is India. No one seems to care about the socio-political implications of using British characters as part of a romance sets in India although Meredith Duran’s The Duke of Shadows touches on those issues briefly.

No one blinked twice when an author made Australia a penal colony once again in a futuristic romance. No one said a thing about a contemporary romance in which the author completely ignored the existence of South Americans to focus on an American couple on a run somewhere in South America. If these readers didn’t care, why restricts the world in the romance genre to a selected few? If readers and authors could be selective with how a country or time was portrayed, why not for the rest of the world?

At least, if there were more choices, I could afford to ignore historical romances with Indian settings (because I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of romanticising the British Raj) and some readers would enjoy those. A bit of something for everyone, so to speak. And with epublishing becoming a commonplace, why not?

Surely it’s time to bring back exotic settings? If now is not the time, then when is the right time?

77 Comments

  1. Bianca
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 08:18:31

    It wasn't unusual to find a contemporary romance set in South Africa, a Medieval-era romance in Germany, or a 19th century historical romance somewhere in Russia

    These sound lovely. Also, as a historical romance reader, I too am sick to death of Regency England being the bread n’ butter of today’s historicals. But part of why Regency England is so popular is because it’s so easy. If you have even a passing familiarity with historical romances, then you know exactly what to expect from a book set in England circa the early 1800s. It’s just familiar, I guess.

    I’d love to see books set in a different time frame (how about the 17th century? Or during Rome’s heydey?) and/or a different locale. I kind of feel that the “doesn’t sell well” schtick about exotic romances is bullcrap because if you have a really well-written novel, and you market it properly, it should have as good a chance at selling as a novel set in the Regency. At least it would open the door for something, anything different.

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  2. BevBB
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 08:26:14

    This post showed up in my Kentucky folder because of a chicken! I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry. ;)

    As to your question, I tend to think it’s a case of cause and effect repeated endlessly. When there are books with unusual locales, publishers might do more if they did well. But–and it’s a very specific but–they’d have to do extremely well for publishers to take note at all in this humongous genre. OTOH, this is also a genre that because of it’s size that they probably have sizeable figure of all kinds of trends for all kinds of types of books. So, as readers we both help and shoot ourselves in the foot with any noticeable interest at all in any particular type of book because publishers are going to react. For good or for bad. Does that make any sense?

    In truth, the only light at the end of the tunnel in recent years has been ebooks and niche publishing. Because they do publish things that the NY publishers won’t publish. They break away from those trends. They break those molds and show that there is reader interest.

    But only if we let people know the stories are being published.

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  3. Aoife
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 08:40:52

    Could it be that knowing too much makes it hard to hold the suspension of belief?

    I think this is a huge part of the limited number of historical settings we currently have. I, for example, just cannot read anything set in the Ante-Bellum or Civil War South. There isn’t enough ignore in the world for me to be able to forget whose sweat, pain and labor fuelled the economy. My willing suspension of disbelief has boundaries I can’t get past. I also approach books about the Raj very cautiously, and for the most part I think Meredith Duran and Sherry Thomas walked the tightrope fairly well: they touched on the issues without breaking the fantasy, for me, anyway. It’s a fine line, that’s for sure.

    While the early 19th century in England IRL had some of these issues, I think the vast number of books that have been written about this time period, beginning with Georgette Heyer, has created a kind of shared alternative reality that allows the reader to mostly skim over where those Nabobs really got their money, and what was really happening on those estates that provided the funds for the Season. Carla Kelly is one of the few writers I can think of who touches on those realities, very successfully in my opinion.

    It’s really hard to find a time period in modern or early modern history that doesn’t present a similar kind of minefield.

    And, speaking of the British Raj, has anyone else read William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal? It is one of the best books I’ve ever read about the 1857 rebellion, and presents multiple aspects of the conflict, lays the groundwork for understanding the current situation in India, as well as some current conflicts in other parts of the world.

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  4. Darlynne
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 08:49:00

    Mystery fiction does a much better job, imo, of opening the door to international locations. My favorite authors write books set in Tibet, Thailand, China, Laos, Sweden, and those are just the ones I can think of while I’m not quite awake.

    The dearth of different in romance hadn’t occurred to me before your article and I have to agree with you. Mary Stewart is one of the last in my experience to transport us to other countries and make them an integral part of the story. Elizabeth Cadell did the same thing (now I feel really old) although her books might qualify more as romantic suspense. It’s a shame really, because I would enjoy having my eyes transported along with my heart.

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  5. Roxanne St. Claire
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 08:51:12

    When I sold my first book to Pocket in 2003 (TROPICAL GETAWAY), it was set in St. Barts and they decided to make it launch what they called the “Bon Voyage” line of romances set in exotic places. The other two books in the line were set in Italy and Ireland. And just to really push the exotic locale envelope, they asked me to write about *France* for my second book (which was FRENCH TWIST). Again, not exactly off the beaten path, but at least it required a passport. But after that, they either weren’t getting enough books set in faraway places or they didn’t like the reader response, so it was back to USA, for romantic suspense anyway. In fact, when I pitched the concept for FIRST YOU RUN, with a Maya 2012 backstory, they did not want any of the book set in Central America, so I made up a faux replica of a Maya ruin in California.

    However, I’ve been able to squeeze good portions of my next two books in Venezuela (still not over the top exotic) and the Azores. I think readers like to visit these places within the story, but maybe don’t want the whole story to be set there.

    I would set every book somewhere exotic if I could – I absolutely love using the unique elements of a setting to help drive the plot. I’m with you – bring back exotica.

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  6. Jane
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 08:53:45

    With the broadening worldwide readership perhaps other locales will become popular. I read that India was becoming the largest English speaking country in the world. Surely they don’t want to read about European billionaires all the time?

    And why, if Persians are so hot in 300, why can’t they be hot in 2009?

    It’s depressing to me that we can have all these alternative worlds and alternative species but they still resemble the same old Western European/ America settings and characters.

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  7. Keishon
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 08:54:46

    I would set every book somewhere exotic if I could – I absolutely love using the unique elements of a setting to help drive the plot. I'm with you – bring back exotica.

    And I would read every one of them, too. I love exotic settings. Sometimes it’s the setting that will make me pick up and read the book.

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  8. Edie
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 08:59:33

    I must admit I do not like exotic locations in my historicals, maybe because I only studied Australian, American and British history at uni and don’t know enough about the others to follow it?? Not sure, but have never liked them.
    But contemporaries are a whole different ball game! Love exotic settings in those, go figure, and wish there was a lot more of them. Especially find Asian settings interesting for some reason.

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  9. German Reader
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 09:05:55

    I miss the exotic settings too. When finished with a fascinating historical novel set in an exotic country I could spent hours looking up the people and facts to find out more. These realistic and well researched books could really teach the reader something.

    And maybe there lies some of the blame – an exotic setting requires lots of research. It’s a lot easier to invent your own world /species (no matter how stupid) Nobody can argue with the author about cultural/historical accuracy when the world is not real.

    Personally, the whole fantasy/paranormal/shapeshifter boom can’t end soon enough for me.

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  10. Acquanetta Ferguson
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 09:10:34

    I grew up reading and loving historical romance. I especially loved the details and research the authors put into their works. It was harsh, it was dirty, and I could see or smell the time. These are the books that had me inthrall to get to the end, then dream of these exotic locales.

    Now I’ve gravitated towards the paranormal, erotica, and futuristic genres. Simply it is because reading historical fiction now does nothing for me. It is not so much that it won’t sell, I honestly think that authors are not truly doing the research on these times, so I just can’t get into it.

    The last historical book I read was so horrible, and so disappointing that I just threw my hands up and gave up. I wish I can tell you what the name of the book was, but it was just some horrible little story about a guy who was half black and white and was sent away from the islands by his father. But he goes back and finds out that he is a slave. There is some weird relationship between him, another man who ends up dying and a female. It was more about the stupid, idiotic relationship vs the actual historical fact of slavery, the overall harshness of the time.

    So until an author chooses to paint pictures with her/his locale with a damn fine tale to boot, I will stick with the stuff I like now. Thanks this was a great article!

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  11. Lorelie
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 09:12:46

    Aye-aye! I love exotic settings. :) Exotic time periods, too, at least compared to Regency. *Pets the 1920s ms currently languishing in her drawer*

    If I may do a little pimping on behalf of my CP: Carrie Lofty heads up a group blog focused on unusual historicals. It’s my recent go-to source for finding the latest ones out.

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  12. Jinni
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 09:32:03

    I too love different settings. But when I was at RWA last year, the editors of different houses (though mainly Harlequin) insisted readers only wanted local settings, small towns preferred, Texas preferred most of all. But I think this is yet another example of the editor-writer-reader disconnect. i.e., I loved the Sarah Mayberry books set in Australia and was fascinated by some of the local treats. Her books set in West Hollywood and LA (where I live), not so much.

    Right now, I’d love to read books set in India, Eastern Europe, and South Korea – if I had a choice. It’s one of the reason I’m addicted to Bollywood movies, and KDramas – different stories, with different people in different locations adds to the spice of (my) life, at least.

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  13. Phyl
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 09:32:58

    As a teen (several decades ago) I devoured the sweeping historicals of Thomas B. Costain. A few of them had strong romantic elements. I would highly, highly recommend his 1945 book, THE BLACK ROSE, one of the most romantic books I have ever read and tells of the journey of an Englishman from London to China and back again during the late 13th century.

    If we can’t find exotic locales in today’s books, sometimes we have to go back to the classics.

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  14. joanne
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 09:46:35

    I have to agree wholeheartedly with Aoife @#3. I did think for a while that maybe it is just another stage I am in as a reader but in truth I just think I can’t forget what I know, if that makes any sense.

    Picking up a paranormal book automatically puts me in a different frame of mind before I even start to read so the author can take me anywhere that she wants to build a world.

    Books set in India or Persia (Iran) or wherever sound appealing to me but generally I can’t make myself read them no matter who the author is.

    Also for some of us er– um — older readers— some places have been done and re-done very well in the past and those settings don’t call to me now. Betty Neels did Holland and the Netherlands forever. Margaret Way did — and still does — Australia.

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  15. Sharron McClellan
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 09:50:59

    >>>don't understand why the romance genre nowadays is so restrictive with its range of settings. A book is a window to the world, isn't it? Why offer just a handful of familiar (and overused) countries?

    I must be the odd person out because I didn’t know that exotic locals weren’t popular! I read a lot of action/adventure so I suppose I simply never noticed. Though now that you mentioned it….most of it's not romance. hmmmmm

    I think part of the reason I both read and write the exotic locale is that I like to travel. Having been to Syria, Jordan, etc makes it easier to write about it. Easier to visualize both the setting and the culture. To me, it’s familiar. And perhaps that familiarity is why my editor lets me write it as well. I know that when they asked me to be a part of the Athena Force series (BREATHLESS) they asked me because they knew I was a diver. And while I haven't been to South America, I've spent a lot of time in Central America so it's wasn't a huge leap for me to write about Colombia and FARC (the Mercenary series). And I have to say that my editor encourages this. Of course, she's a helluva traveler as well.

    I only hope they let me continue to write the more exotic locale, I don't think I could do the whole Ireland thing.

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  16. Amanda
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 09:51:44

    I’m all for exotic settings in romance, but if you’ll look at what’s been selling in the romance genre over the past few months (what authors are selling to publishers, that is) you’ll see that NY is very much resistant to anything other than Regency set historicals. With the way the economy is right now, I’m guessing that pubs are not willing to take risks on anything except those books they KNOW will sell. So unless it’s been done before or by someone with a built in audience (Loretta Chase’s latest comes to mind) it’s just not going to make it past the first round of editors. There are a few exceptions. Kensington bought a WWII set romance a couple of months ago.

    Remember Meredith Duran and Sherry Thomas both sold before the publishing meltdown of last fall.

    I’m hoping that once the economy stabilizes a bit we’ll see some of the exotic settings getting more play but for now it looks like we’re lost in the Regency.

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  17. Zoe Archer
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 09:56:13

    The romance writers of exotic settings are out there! If I may direct you towards the Unusual Historicals blog: http://unusualhistoricals.blogspot.com/ , where you will find a bevy of authors who delve into other settings and time periods.

    Admittedly, it’s a tough sell to editors. When my agent was shopping around my BLADES OF THE ROSE series, more than one editor backed off of the series because of its exotic settings. (The books are set in 1874-75, and the first novel is set in Mongolia, the second in the Greek Isles, the third in the Canadian Rockies, and the last in England.) They seemed to believe that readers would eschew anything but the standard English Regency-set or Victorian-set historical. Thank goodness that Kensington saw the potential of the series, and believed that readers would embrace the breadth of settings. I am very eager (and a little anxious) to see how readers will respond to the BLADES.

    When I started working on the series, I was prompted to do so because I wanted to write books I would read, and so I freed myself from the constraints of the current historical genre. Thus liberated, the trouble then arose as to picking just four locations, when a whole world opened up.

    It’s been said before regarding other aspects of publishing, and, at the risk of redundancy, I’ll say it again: if you want and support more exotic and unusual settings for your books, the way to let editors know this is through buying these titles. The language of commerce speaks far stronger than any other, and if the sales numbers are strong, an editor will be happy to support a growing trend.

    This post isn’t to shill my series, but rather a means of alerting readers to the fact that unusual and exotic settings are indeed still out there, but they need a supportive readership. RT is planning a panel on unusual settings and subject matter for next year’s convention, which will include myself, Carrie Lofty, and a host of other excellent authors and editors. If you come to RT next year, please attend the panel and show your support!

    I remain,
    Yrs., &c.

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  18. Melissa Blue
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 09:57:09

    Just call me a horrible reader, because I really don’t care about the locale. Yes, setting should be another character, but often times it’s just a background noise when I’m reading.

    But, I do see what you mean. Don’t know when “exotic” places became a no-no, but if it’s done well I don’t understand how or why an editor wouldn’t take it on.

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  19. Jennifer Mueller
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 09:59:16

    I’ve had books out in ebook since 2005 and while trying print most that time the one success I’ve had with a print publisher was a regency.

    I’ve written stories in Kenya, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Morocco, China, Japan, Oregon Trail, Scotland, Ireland, France, Portugal, Cuba, Malta, Greece, Byzantium, Caribbean, England, Italy, Canada, Majorca, India from Ancient times to modern day.

    I wold love to hear of a print publisher taking something more exotic. Okay so I have a bit more than just location in standing in my way. If it fits all other requirements It won’t be long enough, it if its long enough it won’t fit the rest. LOL

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  20. Lynn Raye Harris
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 10:03:53

    I love exotic settings! A book set in China? I’d be all over it. Connie Brockway’s Egypt in As You Desire? Oh yes! Meredith Duran is on the TBR pile. And Morag McKendrick Pippin did 3 books a few years ago set, respectively, in Bengal, Britain (not exotic, I know), and Berlin (early 20th century). Who could forget Laura Kinsale’s historicals? France, the desert, Hawaii, and even Antarctica (Seize the Fire — though was it really A. or just a frozen island somewhere in the Southern hemisphere where they landed for a while?)! Oh, and Candice Proctor (who now writes as C.S. Harris) wrote a historical called Beyond Sunrise that was set in the Pacific. A keeper book.

    As a Harlequin Presents writer, yes, I get to use exotic settings. If I knew the first thing about China, I’d pitch one set there. Heck, I may research it and try anyway one of these days. My first release bebops between Hawaii, Madrid, Dubai, and New York. Admittedly, in a 50K word book, one doesn’t spend much time talking about the setting.

    And now, I’m really supposed to be revising! (A book set on a Caribbean island I made up, and a Mediterranean kingdom I also made up.) :)

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  21. Kalen Hughes
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 10:22:34

    I kind of feel that the “doesn't sell well” schtick about exotic romances is bullcrap because if you have a really well-written novel, and you market it properly, it should have as good a chance at selling as a novel set in the Regency. At least it would open the door for something, anything different.

    I wish this were true . . . but the #s simply don’t bear it out. And since authors live and die by their #s (as in “you’re only as good as your last sales say you are”), we’re mostly pretty cautious about risking our entire career on “exotic” settings.

    And as an author it bums me out. I LOVE to travel, and as I seem to be doing a Grand Tour of the Muslim world for some reason (I’m simply enamored with Turkey and Morocco), I'd LOVE to write books set there. Maybe someday I’ll be secure enough to take such a risk . . . I even the first one pretty much plotted out (mmm, 18th century Morocco).

    Totally OT, if you want to see pictures of those trips, I have links on my website to Morocco, Bangladesh and New Zealand.

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  22. Keira Soleore
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 10:31:22

    But when I was at RWA last year, the editors of different houses (though mainly Harlequin) insisted readers only wanted local settings, small towns preferred, Texas preferred most of all.

    @Jinni: And yet, Harlequin (or more likely, Mills & Boon) has consistently done different time periods and international settings all throughout their publishing history. They’ve taken these “risks” that most NYC publishers shun or claim readers don’t want.

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  23. Barbara Sheridan
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 10:34:26

    @ Lynn Raye Harris

    The Concubine

    Check out Jade’s “Tigress” series too.

    *hearts Jade *

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  24. Lynn Raye Harris
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 10:49:40

    @Barbara Sheridan

    Oooh, thanks! Will do. (How did I miss her thus far? Hmm, must get head out of clouds from time to time…..)

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  25. Janet
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 11:08:09

    Just wondering if the dearth of exotic locations might have something to do with the need to identify with the heroine – she being english speaking of western cultures. Are we ready to deal with other cultures on their turf?

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  26. Monica Burns
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 11:19:23

    My Jan release from Berkley is set in Morocco, late 1800s. When the cover copy was being developed, my editor indicated that readers like to see that they’re reading about an English noblemen. So we included a few words that tells readers the hero is an Englishman Viscount. It helps that his title does have a strong connection to who the hero is.

    I’m convinced adding this tidbit to the blurb was the right thing to do because experience told me Cindy was right. Having tried to sell my Egyptian-set book, Mirage, to NY, I knew an exotic locale would be a hard sell with readers if they didn’t think the hero was an English hero. Mirage came close to selling to two different NY houses. One house rejected the book specifically because a book set in Egypt with one of their established authors two years earlier, had not sold well, and they weren’t willing to test drive a new author with an exotic setting.

    I contracted Kismet to Berkley AFTER I contracted for my three-book paranormal series. I think it might have been a harder sale without that paranormal sale, even though my editor definitely loves the book. But with my paranormal series, I sort of have the best of both worlds. I get to explore a cultural that has it’s roots in Ancient Rome, while placing my characters in international locales.

    I love the sweeping, exotic locales of writers like Kathleen Woodiwiss, Rosemary Rogers, etc. but they’re few and far between. Someone mentioned the idea that it’s about knowing a place already so one can easily visualize the setting. It’s there in the back of their head as they read. I think this concept is pretty accurate. Personally, I think Loretta Chase did a FANTASTIC job of creating the setting of Venice for me in Your Scandalous Ways. I was there in the gondola, could visualize the ornate ceilings the sweeping beauty of the setting itself.

    IMHO, writing an exotic locale means an author must either know the setting well, or have done extensive research on the setting to get the ambiance just right, so that as the reader’s pulled into the book, one feels like they’re really there. I don’t know that I succeeded in doing that with my books, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. I researched Egypt and Morocco extensively for my two historicals. In fact, I had as much fun researching as I did writing Mirage. Kismet was a bit more painful.

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  27. FoolsErrant
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 11:32:55

    I would personally love to read some historicals set in the Ottoman Empire. A Barbary pirate as a hero? Yum. Arabian Nights and Sinbad style stories always appeal to me. And I’m debating doing a romanticized or updated version of the Ramayana myself. Oooh, or a historical set in Renaissance Spain. Mmmmm.

    I think I have to agree that a large part of the problem with exotic locales is the ability to relate to the heroine. Plus there are touchy subjects lurking out there for these exotic time periods and locales — colonization, slavery, women’s rights, religion. It’s a veritable minefield for the author.

    Or it could be the numbers. Either way, I’ll snap up any historical with a 1001 Arabian Nights flavor.

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  28. GrowlyCub
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 11:41:44

    I’m not really overfond of exotic locales. Mostly because there is so much potential for the author to get it wrong. And if you have had any exposure to the place or the language it’s really pulling you out of the story. Once I start nitpicking, the book is doomed regardless how well the rest of it works.

    So for me it’s not so much that I don’t like to read about these places, but that I learned from bitter experience that some authors do not do the necessary research, so I’m much less likely to let myself be burned.

    As to Persia or other Muslim settings for historicals, those are absolutely not appealing to me at all. Either it’s whitewashed with regards to what really happened to women there or it’s about the reality of ending up in a harem as a white woman, neither of which is something I want to read about. Because ‘true love’ in a Harem when she is one of several hundred =/= HEA for me.

    Also, the majority of books with exotic locales seem to be road books, which aren’t high on my list either, because the outside plot of the journey often overshadows the character development.

    And with books getting shorter and shorter these days, I don’t want to read a lot of setup of different culture/locale, because that leaves less room for the characters.

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  29. Misty Evans
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 11:57:10

    Monica, your books rock. Your research for Mirage definitely shows in the writing.

    I love foreign locales for contemporary books as well as historicals. To keep my CIA novels believable, it’s imperative to use settings outside the U.S. Research is easy with the internet and social networks allow me to get specific places, customs and language accurate.

    I’m lucky to be published by Samhain. At one point, a NY publishing house was interested in my series but I was told even Paris was too exotic. Well, then give me exotic. I want to read it and write it!

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  30. Kalen Hughes
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 12:11:22

    My Jan release from Berkley is set in Morocco, late 1800s.

    I’ll so be keeping an eye out for this! Morocco is one of my favorite places on the planet, so a book set there is so going right to the top of my TBR pile.

    I'm not really overfond of exotic locales. Mostly because there is so much potential for the author to get it wrong. And if you have had any exposure to the place or the language it's really pulling you out of the story. Once I start nitpicking, the book is doomed regardless how well the rest of it works.

    Yep. I had this problem with a contest entry I read years ago that was set in the Ottoman Empire. I may be the only judge she’ll ever get who has been to Turkey multiple times (my best friend is Turkish) and knows a lot about its history and culture (and who also happens to have spent a lot of time studying 16th century Europe). Not sure if that made me the right judge or the wrong one for that particular entry . . .

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  31. ReacherFan
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 12:36:36

    :-) How serendipitous this is. I just re-read Loretta Chase’s Mr. Impossible. One of my reasons for selecting that particular book was the setting. I grant you I’m an Egyptian history buff and since childhood and archeology buff, but I loved it was NOT in England.

    I think one of the reasons historical romances find location and period such an issue is because they must skirt touchy social issues. If you write it as it was, someone’s modern sensibilities are offended. Just reading books authored in the ’30′s and ’40′s or South Africa in the 70′s are an interesting insight. I recall how various minorities were portrayed, casual prejudice and discrimination. Some topics elicit such a strong visceral response, we cannot enjoy the story. Well written historical fiction often has all these elements within their covers, complete with the horrors and barbarism of the period, but Romance is hard put to deal with all this AND the story of two people. That seems to be the defining difference between a Romance and a love story and historical fiction with a love story element.

    The other big issue is research. It can takes years to adequately research a major historical novel. You have to read an analyze many books, often with contradictory views. (It’s why I often recommend people read The Historian as Detective before taking a single source for their ‘truth’.) One of the advantages of being a thousand years removed from events, even 500 years, is the ability to compartmentalize events. The further we remove ourselves from the ‘now’, the more willing we are to tolerate behavior that would bring condemnation under today’s standards.

    Regency England becomes the perfect compromise. Modern enough society – especially if you stick with the upper classes and ignore the burgeoning social unrest – language and customs we can easily understand, even the clothes are nice. It’s far enough away that we can ignore the lack of plumbing yet near enough we can enjoy a ballroom waltz. It’s comfortable for the vast majority of readers. A sweet spot.

    If I have learned nothing else in the last 20 years of looking over characters and plots everywhere from fantasy to mystery to romance, it’s that the trend is to safe settings and characters with publishers and authors alike. For proof of that, look how hard it was for J. K. Rowling to sell Harry Potter. I wonder just how much of a debt the trend in paranormal and urban fantasy romance owes her for making magic popular with the masses again and reminding us all just how much fun it can be.

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  32. SarahT
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 12:44:01

    I would love to see more historical romances with exotic settings. I think the unusual location was a huge contributing factor to my enjoyment of Meredith Duran’s ‘Duke of Shadows’ and Sarah Parr’s ‘Renegade’.

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  33. Oyce
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 13:22:08

    Hrm. First off, I have a problem with terming non-Western-Europe/non-US locales as “exotic,” as that implies they may not be familiar with romance readers, which further implies that romance readers like me (Asian, grew up partly in “exotic” Taiwan) do not exist.

    With that in mind, I would like to see a greater diversity in romances, but not only in terms of setting. While I like romances not set in Regency England, I also am very wary of exoticizing romances set in non-Western countries that basically place white people in there as heroes and heroines and relegates all the people of color who live and work in those countries to the background. This is particularly problematic for me when the book involves historical injustices, such as Sherry Thomas’ latest book set in India during the Raj. Don’t get me wrong; I love Thomas, but the reminder that the hero and the heroine are actually the villains in greater world history wasn’t particularly conducive to romance for me.

    I say this having read a fair amount of “exotic” romances that are bent upon exoticizing me and mine, from Patricia Gaffney including opium-smoking Chinese villains who drug the (white) heroine with aphrodisiacs (Crooked Hearts) to Mary Jo Putney writing a half-Chinese heroine and mistakenly attributing her every motive to honor and the desire to commit suicide.

    So yes, I would love more romances that focus on non-European, non-US settings, but I would love it even more if those romances focused on non-European and non-US people, not caricatures and collections of stereotypes.

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  34. Moriah Jovan
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 13:41:52

    I’m reading Seabird of Sanematsu set in feudal Japan with Japanese hero. Nom nom nom.

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  35. Monica Burns
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 13:55:11

    @Kalen Hughes:

    Ok, now I’m screwed. LOL I happen to know you’ve BEEN to Morocco, so your research alert hat will be on. Hopefully my research is as good as yours always is. LOL

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  36. SonomaLass
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 14:13:30

    It’s not that I don’t love Blighty, but I DO like some diversity of setting and characters — even if the main characters are Western Europeans, an Eastern setting allows for variety of race and culture in the minor characters. Of course it is harder than just another Regency setting, but I snap up historicals set elsewhere anytime I can.

    I enjoyed Sherry Thomas’ Not Quite a Husband, and I suspect that’s as far as most mainstream print publishers are willing to go with a historical romance right now. Carolyn Jewel has a Regency coming out in October called Indiscreet that takes place mostly in the Ottoman Empire. She blogged about her research at Risky Regencies earlier this month, and I can’t wait to read it.

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  37. BevBB
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 14:33:52

    @Oyce:

    Hrm. First off, I have a problem with terming non-Western-Europe/non-US locales as “exotic,” as that implies they may not be familiar with romance readers, which further implies that romance readers like me (Asian, grew up partly in “exotic” Taiwan) do not exist.

    This is a very good point. There is also the argument that more and more things like comics and manga are breaking down those international divisions. Think that isn’t important? Well, both my son and daughter read whatever they can get their hands on from overseas in their favorite genres. Most of these stories aren’t limited to a cast of charaters who are any one ethnicity or from any one locale. Why is it so strange for publishers to grasp that coming generation of readers are going to expect the same thing in their regular reading choices?

    Yes, there are going to be cultural and language barriers. There always are. But, you know, somehow I thought that was a publisher’s job to overcome and sell.

    Now, I gotta fly and go take care of some family stuff. That’s why I’ve been least in sight on Twitter today. Way too much tempation. ;)

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  38. Misty Evans
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 14:42:19

    @BevBB

    Both my sons devour comics and mangas. I’ve read a couple mangas myself (still trying to get the hang of it) and find them entertaining. The diversity of the characters is often the best part for me – fresh and original.

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  39. Kalen Hughes
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 14:50:12

    “Don't get me wrong; I love Thomas, but the reminder that the hero and the heroine are actually the villains in greater world history wasn't particularly conducive to romance for me . . . So yes, I would love more romances that focus on non-European, non-US settings, but I would love it even more if those romances focused on non-European and non-US people, not caricatures and collections of stereotypes.”

    And this is why I (as a Native American) can't read “Indian” romances or books set in the “Wild West” (let alone write them). The whole subtext is too personally offensive and I can't seem to forget that the happy ending for the couple comes at the expense-’historically-’of my own people.

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  40. Kalen Hughes
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 14:56:11

    @Kalen Hughes: Ok, now I'm screwed. LOL I happen to know you've BEEN to Morocco, so your research alert hat will be on. Hopefully my research is as good as yours always is. LOL

    But I've only been to 21st century Morocco, which I'll admit in some aspects I think probably wasn't all that different from Victorian Morocco; especially Fez, and to lesser extent Marrakesh. When you're in walled city that is essentially Medieval in origin, and where everything in the medina is still delivered by mule or donkey, it's easy to imagine that you've actually traveled back in time . . . right up until a cell phone rings, or someone on an illegal scooter runs you down, LOL!

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  41. XandraG
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 15:11:02

    I like the occasional unique locale in an historical romance, but I also read historical romance when I’m firmly in a mindset of it being fantasy, or a romanticized version of the time and place, because part of me can’t quite get over the voice in the back of my mind that whispers reminders about the status of women, non-whites, the lower classes, the lack of basic human rights, sanitation, and all those historical realities that so prompted people to invent gadgets and machinery and revolutions so they wouldn’t have to keep living that way forever. (I get this way with cowboys, too–ranching and farming are tough lines of work).

    As a writer, I don’t feel confident that any era I’d write in would be portrayed with the right balance of realism and romanticism that would keep it from being completely sugar-coated, yet not a wretched and squalid horror of reality.

    When it comes to exotic locales, I’m always aware that no matter how much research I do, I’m white and American, and therefore all my research is filtered through my worldview, and that has a way of coming out in the writing. It can be a good thing if I can successfully translate or transliterate the experience of the foreign culture and see my own cultural filters for what they are, but I can (too easily) fail, and end up coming off a ham-handed and clumsy effort that does nothing but offend.

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  42. BevBB
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 15:11:55

    @Misty Evans:

    Both my sons devour comics and mangas. I've read a couple mangas myself (still trying to get the hang of it) and find them entertaining. The diversity of the characters is often the best part for me – fresh and original.

    Okay, still here and while I am I’ll continue to comment. Then I’ll just disappear and reappear later. When exactly, I do not know but sometime. ;)

    Yes, and while people are always talking about how popular paranormals are they tend to forget how strong comics are as inspirations for movies currently. They are the biggies in the movies right now. Oh, sure, there is the occasional blockbuster that isn’t comic related (Star Trek, anyone, and even there we have a comic book connection) but they’re rare nowadays. And a lot of them are based on products that are from all over the world – not ones originating in America.

    I mean, technically, even Transformers did not start here. Yeah, I know – toys, but toys created to be marketed in as many mediums as possible. Same difference, though.

    A generation that’s grown up with multi-ethnic characters and there I’m including myself and not just my children. Because I’m a comic book addict too. I may not read the actual comics but I love the cartoons made from them. Especially the ones made from the graphic novels.

    Do publishers honestly believe every single one of those stories is supposed to happen in the US? Or that fans actually believe they would, should or could? It boggles the mind.

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  43. Monica Burns
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 15:22:40

    @BevBB:

    Oh, sure, there is the occasional blockbuster that isn't comic related (Star Trek, anyone, and even there we have a comic book connection)

    You’re talking reverse movie to comic, right? Not that the series came from a comic book, right?

    Especially the ones made from the graphic novels.

    V for Vendetta. Awesome says it all.

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  44. BevBB
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 15:27:44

    @Aoife:

    While the early 19th century in England IRL had some of these issues, I think the vast number of books that have been written about this time period, beginning with Georgette Heyer, has created a kind of shared alternative reality that allows the reader to mostly skim over where those Nabobs really got their money, and what was really happening on those estates that provided the funds for the Season. Carla Kelly is one of the few writers I can think of who touches on those realities, very successfully in my opinion.

    I had to go back and find this so I could highlight something. I tend to think this is where the simplified RWA definition of romance collides with the dictionary one where romance is:

    a medieval tale based on legend, chivalric love and adventure, or the supernatural; a prose narrative treating imaginary characters involved in events remote in time or place and usually heroic, adventurous, or mysterious; a love story especially in the form of a novel; a class of such literature”

    Because, to me, that last one is what we mean when we say we want exotic. A monogamous story about two people just doesn’t quite describe exotic, now does it? ;)

    Exotic has nothing to do with whether it’s a paranormal or perfectly normal, set in the future, present or past. The key phrase for exotic to me is “remote in time or place”. We want to be transported away from our lives and into their lives.

    Wherever, whenever that might be.

    And you know what? There are no boundaries on that.

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  45. Kalen Hughes
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 15:32:17

    Do publishers honestly believe every single one of those stories is supposed to happen in the US? Or that fans actually believe they would, should or could? It boggles the mind.

    Don’t you think a lot of comes from either “write what you know” or “write what you love”? I know what I write does. I’m a humongous history geek (and an Anglophile*) and grew up as a re-enactor, so I write historicals. My favorite period is 18th century, so that’s where I gravitate . . .

    If I was going to write a paranormal series (and yeah, haven't we all thought about it, LOL!), I'd probably base it in San Francisco, since that's where I'm from, and it's the place I know best in the world.

    *The other big obsession I was raised with is Feudal Japan, and I've seriously thought about attempting a Samurai romance. I just went to Lords of the Samurai at the Asian Art Museum and spent the afternoon sighing and coveting.

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  46. BevBB
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 15:37:56

    @Monica Burns:

    Oh, sure, there is the occasional blockbuster that isn't comic related (Star Trek, anyone, and even there we have a comic book connection)

    You're talking reverse movie to comic, right? Not that the series came from a comic book, right?

    Actually, what I was talking about was that there were comics produced about Star Trek: The Original Series. And The Next Generation, too. Not sure if any of the others series had comics but it’s possible. I do know I’ve seen some of TNG, though.

    So, from the TV series to comics.

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  47. Kalen Hughes
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 15:49:37

    So, from the TV series to comics.

    Lots of that going around (and I too am a fan). I LOVE the Firefly ones that Whedon has been doing for Dark Horse. They’re set between the end of the series and the movie. The third set is supposed to be back-story about Sheppard Book!!! I'm on tenterhooks . . .

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  48. FD
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 16:04:41

    Assorted thoughts, no conclusion because this is a complex question.

    Without wanting to get into the whole Racefail 09 debacle, I do wonder whether there’s a connection?
    I personally love romances set in places / times or with people that are outside of the white UK / US cultural norms.
    But I am uncomfortably aware that they often serve as little more than cultural appropriation / window dressing / or culture as setting – I think Sherry Thomas’ Not Quite A Husband fell into this category, much though I loved the book.
    These settings are home to many people, and by exoticising them, don’t we run the risk of ‘othering’ them?

    How many African-American authors are there in the major romance publisher lists? How many from cultural backgrounds other than the US/UK/NZ/OZ?

    I would like more variety to our romances and am honestly a little baffled as to why we don’t have it. Is it publishers limitations? Is it caution on the part of writers? (I can understand that – the most common advice is after all write what you know.) Is it wariness of the part of readers who prefer familiar settings that they ‘know’ they can relate to?
    I’d be interested to see Harlequin / M&B’s demographical research into their readers and see if it actually matches the audience to the output.

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  49. BevBB
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 16:10:02

    @Kalen Hughes:

    Lots of that going around (and I too am a fan). I LOVE the Firefly ones that Whedon has been doing for Dark Horse. They're set between the end of the series and the movie. The third set is supposed to be back-story about Sheppard Book!!! I'm on tenterhooks . . .

    Exactly. The market for these things are huge. They are cross generational, cross genders and yet book publishers see no potential markets?

    Right.

    Or is it that they see them and don’t know how to promote them when they do have one? My jaw is still dragging over that post the other day about how authors should set up their websites that Jane linked to, which was supposedly from so-called experts in the field. If that’s the kind of “help” that midlist and below authors get, I’m amazed you sell as many books as you do because they don’t even seem to know who your target audience is.

    Okay, where was I? ;) The write what you know question is always pertinent but you have to balance it with imagination and research, always. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have most of the stories we do have.

    Why do you think I’m such a stickler for picking books by plot rather than what we call “sub-genre” in romance, i.e. historicals, Regencies, futuristics, paranormals, Westerns, whatevers or whenevers? Plots can happen anywhere, anytime. So, all I’m waiting for is the right author to put together one of my favorite plots with a new locations and/or time and I’m good to go.

    ‘Course I better like the characters, but we can’t have everything all at once now. ;)

    Oh, and as to whether there’ll be a movie to comic version of the new Star Trek? I wouldn’t doubt it. I mean these people don’t miss a trick and they were going for a younger demographic anyway.

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  50. Monica Burns
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 16:19:55

    @BevBB:

    Damn it, that’s what I meant! LOL I knew I was making a mistake when I used reverse. *sigh* I understood you, just wanted to make sure I understood what you were say. *head banging desk*

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  51. Kalen Hughes
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 16:22:54

    Okay, where was I? ;) The write what you know question is always pertinent but you have to balance it with imagination and research, always. Otherwise, we wouldn't have most of the stories we do have.

    Totally agree. For me the research falls into “write what you love” as well as “write what you know”.

    Exactly. The market for these things are huge. They are cross generational, cross genders and yet book publishers see no potential markets?

    Right.

    I think they see a risky and potentially small market, and they’re looking for the biggest bang for their buck (who isn’t?). They can publish Debut Regency Romance Author, and know that they have a ready audience, or they can publish Debut Samurai Romance Author and cross their fingers that everyone who loved Memoirs of a Geisha will buy a copy (but realistically they know that the DRRA is going to outsell the DSRA). A couple of houses take more risks than others, but I've noticed that the authors who tend to get picked up for new contracts are very rarely the ones writing outside the box . . .

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  52. Carrie Lofty
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 16:25:36

    Hello, my people!

    So you’ve all been hiding here, waiting like I have for a revolution of exotic settings? I hope your enthusiasm bears out in contracts and sales, because readers are getting restless. Hopefully we even-more-restless writers will keep storming the gates.

    I founded Unusual Historicals in Nov 2006 specifically to add to my TBR pile. Since then, it’s become a networking and commiseration tool! We’ve featured the bravest of the romance world with book locales ranging from Ancient Rome to 1939 Berlin. We profile a new author/book every Sunday; for example, in July we’re featuring Beth Williamson (westerns, which are pretty damn rare these days) and Meredith Duran (whose Written on Your Skin is partly set in Hong Kong). Of course we’d be tickled to have more readers and more people spreading the word!

    If you’re interested in an in-depth look at industry reasons for a lack of exotic settings in romance–and yes, there are reasons that go well beyond “publishers are stubborn”–then check out my Nov 2008 article from RWR. I’ll also be on an “unusual historicals” panel at RT in April with Jade Lee, Sherry Thomas, Blythe Gifford, Zoe Archer, Kristina McMorris, and Megan Records.

    On a more personal pimpage, my January 2010 release is set in 1201 Spain. I just got the cover for it yesterday. Oooohhh….!

    I just get so excited with people even bring up this topic!

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  53. Oyce
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 16:59:02

    @Kalen Hughes

    And this is why I (as a Native American) can't read “Indian” romances or books set in the “Wild West” (let alone write them). The whole subtext is too personally offensive and I can't seem to forget that the happy ending for the couple comes at the expense-’historically-’of my own people.

    A thousand times yes! While I totally advocate expanding the realm of romances to include more POC and more settings around the world, it’s impossible to do so while ignoring the history of how romances have participated in exoticizing certain people, from the “Savage Whatever” Indian romances to the multitude of sheik romances out there. And of course there’s the trend of having white-POC multiracial heroes and heroines in those books as well, which I think speaks to the industry’s idea that (white) readers have a difficult time relating to characters who are not white.

    But yeah, that’s why I think just going to more locations in romances is not enough. There needs to be a deeper examination of the actual history of people and places, particularly when those histories often involve genocide and colonization.

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  54. Oyce
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 17:08:48

    @BevBB

    There is also the argument that more and more things like comics and manga are breaking down those international divisions. Think that isn't important? Well, both my son and daughter read whatever they can get their hands on from overseas in their favorite genres. Most of these stories aren't limited to a cast of charaters who are any one ethnicity or from any one locale. Why is it so strange for publishers to grasp that coming generation of readers are going to expect the same thing in their regular reading choices?

    Yeah, I think this is very important as well. I love historicals, but right now I’m actually more interested in paranormal romances because I feel they’re drawing more on comics and manga. Well, at least Marjorie Liu ;). I mean, comics and manga have their own problems in terms of racism and sexism, but I think the trend I’ve been seeing in comics aimed toward a YA audience is a greater increase in women to capture the shoujo manga readers and a greater diversity of people (I’m thinking here of Brian K. Vaughn’s Runaways in particular). Sadly, a lot of comics publishers seem to think they can do surface treatment when it comes to diversity, which reminds me of the focus on “exotic” locales instead of a focus on a wider range of characters and experiences and authors.

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  55. Angelia Sparrow
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 17:10:11

    I like exotic settings. I remember reading Persia in the time of Alexander (ROXANNE) and Judea in the reign of Herod (SALOME) and the Caribbean when I was younger. Now, it seems to be all The City (nameless, no character) or Mayberry USA.

    I like writing in different settings. I’ve enjoyed the British Raj (we missed most of the politics since Naga are not interested), 1880s Dakota Territory and the early 19th century Caribbean. I’ve done fanfic in Ancient Rome, in Miklagard (Byzantium) and Ireland plagued by Norse raiders. My most recent–coming August 31–went to Egypt and Transjordan and Turkey and along the route of the Arlsburg Orient Express, in 1923.

    I try not to get too hung up on politics, but to be mindful of them.

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  56. TrustMe_2_Forget
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 18:07:09

    I really miss vikings, pirates, cowboys, pioneers, early 1900′s America, the Gold Rush (California & Alaska), Revolutionary and Civil War (ok anything historical Americana) stories. I love stories that take place in Scotland, Ireland, South America, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Africa… a variety of places and themes, and have been pulling out my “old skool” historical romances to get out of Regency England.

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  57. Jennie
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 18:57:37

    I, too, decry the dearth of variety in the settings of historicals. Give me a book set in Germany or India or South America and you’ve got my attention (the book still has to be good – I’ve bought some dreadful books based on setting alone and lived to regret it).

    I think this is a huge part of the limited number of historical settings we currently have. I, for example, just cannot read anything set in the Ante-Bellum or Civil War South. There isn't enough ignore in the world for me to be able to forget whose sweat, pain and labor fuelled the economy. My willing suspension of disbelief has boundaries I can't get past. I also approach books about the Raj very cautiously, and for the most part I think Meredith Duran and Sherry Thomas walked the tightrope fairly well: they touched on the issues without breaking the fantasy, for me, anyway. It's a fine line, that's for sure.

    I absolutely agree regarding antebellum and Civil War-era romances set in the South. I stopped reading those when I realized that I wouldn’t want to read a romance with a Nazi officer as a hero; why would I want to read one with a slaveholder? (The few I read tried to fudge by making the hero benevolent and the slaves of the happy-toiling-in-the-fields, well-treated variety, but this almost offended me more.) I was never much inclined to “Indian” romances, which in my experience tended to be lower-quality, anyway (maybe just because Connie Mason and Cassie Edwards had flooded the market).

    But while I’m aware of the horrors of colonialism in a general way, I don’t think I have nearly the same level of knee-jerk outrage as I do about American slavery. Ignorance is not quite bliss but it makes the morally questionable more palatable. Though I’d like to think that if I read an “exotic” romance featuring clearly exploitive white people and clearly exploited native folk, I’d recognize it as such.

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  58. Kat
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 19:28:14

    I’m having a hard time just with the term “exotic setting”. Nothing is exotic if you grow up with it, and the emigration patterns of the last 100 years or so guarantee that even your so-called American readers may well have relatives in that “exotic” locale. Talk to someone who’s emigrated (if you haven’t yourself) sometime to find out how exotic your own home town seems at first blush.

    Now, I think having books set in lots of different locations instead of just the usual is a great idea. It’s the part about making them “exotic” that makes me wince. The whole term just seems a bit too colonial for the twenty-first century. How about “international” or something?

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  59. TiffanyClare
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 19:35:15

    I love exotic settings too!

    I’ve had to look outside of romance to get it… Anchee Min is a fave.

    I sold a Victoria-era exotic setting to St. Martin’s Press. Should be out next summer (don’t have a solid date yet). Hidden Beauty takes place between Constantinople, Isle of Corfu and Brindisi Italy!

    My settings after this book are England though.

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  60. Kat
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 20:04:49

    They’re there, and they’re being written (and to reassure GrowlyCub, local authors are writing them, so authenticity should be as good as it can get), but I’m not sure US publishers are buying them. It’s been ages since Brownyn Parry’s As Darkness Falls was published in Australia, and I think it’s out in the UK, but still no US publisher.

    I think there’s also an issue of local book markets having different requirements to the US market. I’ve heard Parry talk about how her book was originally targeted for the US market, but when it was acquired by an Australian publisher, she had to make lots of changes to suit Aussie market.

    Somewhat related is the fact that the Aussie market, as I understand it, doesn’t have a separate romance category. So my favourite local “romance” authors actually write bloke-lit/chick-lit-ish crossover books (Dominic Knight, Melanie La’Brooy) with (usually) a happy romantic ending. The HQN-published authors are an exception, although I have to be honest and say that I don’t often find even their Australian-set books believable. Again, I think that’s because the books are primarily aimed at US/UK readers.

    One other issue: ebooks. Parry, Knight and La’Brooy’s books aren’t published electronically, as far as I know. I’d have thought ebooks would be a great way to sell these authors overseas if they’re unable to break into the US/UK print market.

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  61. Jennie
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 23:35:11

    Now, I think having books set in lots of different locations instead of just the usual is a great idea. It's the part about making them “exotic” that makes me wince. The whole term just seems a bit too colonial for the twenty-first century. How about “international” or something?

    I see your point, but I’d just like to point out that, in my context at least (and I think that of some others here, if I’m understanding people correctly), “exotic” can refer to pretty much anything outside of a U.S. or British setting. In my earlier post, I mentioned romances set in Germany; I absolutely consider Germany an exotic setting for a romance, though it obviously doesn’t have any of those overtones of colonialism many of us can find troubling. I think even for a romance reader in say, Singapore, a romance set in historical Singapore is “exotic” in the sense that it’s not just another English Regency romance.

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  62. BevBB
    Jul 01, 2009 @ 06:55:08

    I’m going with the dictionary definition of exotic — strikingly unusual and often very colorful and exciting or suggesting distant countries and unfamiliar cultures – which to me suggests that we’re talking about anything different from what we’re each used to. The more foreign to our normal existence the better.

    So, sure, if something is native to someone, then sure it’s not going to be exotic to them. It might be to someone else, though.

    As to portraying cultures in romances who’ve historically been on the recieving end of colonialization, repression, exploitation, slavery or whatever, here’s something to think about which goes back to that definition of romance I like to quote. We can never forget how much we value the hope and triumph aspect of Romance. And, yes, there I did use the capital R because I’m talking about that other much broader definition because it’s a definition of overcoming as much as it is one of relationships. Of finding hope where there is no hope. So, if you want those stories to be told then you’re going to have to adjust your internal filters as authors and readers to make them possible regardless of external circumstances.

    Do you think that medievals are so popular as romances because the white men conquered the world? Or do you think that it’s because the medievals set the pattern for Romances in the first place? Because we all know there are romances that do work in places other than white-centric regions of the world. This isn’t about race or ethnicity. It’s about seeing the possibilities that fit recognizable patterns.

    Or being willing to make your own patterns.

    Otherwise those stories may never be told.

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  63. Maili
    Jul 01, 2009 @ 07:50:12

    @ Jennie, Kat and Oyce

    @Jennie says:

    “exotic” can refer to pretty much anything outside of a U.S. or British setting.

    Yes, that’s what I understood as well. It’s a term used frequently by editors of US publishers as well as by some readers/reviewers/reporters in the romance community over last decade.

    International does sound (and is) better, but since the majority of romance novels we read (which I had in mind when writing this article) are published by US publishers for the US market, so any place outside the usual settings would be seen as “exotic”. And for many readers, it is.

    For myself, I have mixed (mostly, negative) feelings about the word “exotic” in context of the romance genre and have talked about it with some readers (too many times, admittedly). I acknowledged this with the use of quotation marks, as seen here from the third paragraph of the article:

    Unfortunately, it's hard to find a contemporary or historical romance novel with an “exotic” setting these days.

    It was my fault for not making it clear, though, but I do think it’s a topic that deserves a spotlight in its own right. I’m not articulate enough to write a piece about this particular topic and also, I admit, my emotions may – no, will – get in the way.

    I thought I got over it, but a couple of weeks ago I discovered I didn’t because when Janet/Robin and I discussed the genre’s history of romanticising the “savage noble” aspect of Native American and Scottish historical romances, my blood pressure instantly sky-rocketed. Yup, I still can’t handle it.

    Anyroad, I hope you (Kat or Oyce) or someone will write a letter of opinion instead.

    @FD says

    Without wanting to get into the whole Racefail 09 debacle, I do wonder whether there's a connection?
    I personally love romances set in places / times or with people that are outside of the white UK / US cultural norms.
    But I am uncomfortably aware that they often serve as little more than cultural appropriation / window dressing / or culture as setting – I think Sherry Thomas' Not Quite A Husband fell into this category, much though I loved the book.
    These settings are home to many people, and by exoticising them, don't we run the risk of ‘othering' them?

    But aren’t authors (and some readers) already doing that with the US and the UK in making US- or UK-born members of ethnic minorities the “others” by ignoring their presence?
    I’m British and a Scot, but my ancestors and I aren’t exactly Caucasian, for example, thanks to a Chinese ancestor. Others in the North East had ancestors who were Italian (rare until the war when Italians were made as POWs), Polish, Norwegian, Portuguese, and blah blah. There is a historic link between Japan and Scotland, dating back to 19th century, too. This sort was rarely acknowledged in Scottish historical romances.

    The US, the UK and many parts of Europe as a whole are multi-cultural countries and in some cases, have been for centuries. The Chinese communities in the UK (the best known – and the most documented – would be the Limehouse in London) have been around since 18th century, for instance. Same for black people in London who were around a lot earlier. By ignoring their existence in British settings, authors are already making them “the others”. It’s not just romance authors, quite a few authors of other genres and some social historians are guilty of this as well.

    In any case, the romance genre didn’t seem to mind authors exoticising the hell out of the so-called Scottish highlanders and the Native Americans, so why not // tongue in cheek mode on// do the same for the rest? // tongue in cheek mode off //

    I just feel that if authors and editors are willing to turn a blind eye to certain aspects of the US, the UK and a selected European countries’ histories, then why not for the rest of the world? It doesn’t apply just to print publishers, it could apply to epublishing where it apparently has more editorial freedom.

    On that note, a massive thank you to everyone for contributing thought-provoking opinions, which is an awesome surprise, considering how badly written my letter of opinion is. Thank you.

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  64. Kalen Hughes
    Jul 01, 2009 @ 11:16:33

    I also thought Venice, while fresh and interesting, was too confusing of a setting. I think they were supposed to be doing it in a bell tower with guards at one point and I was never there.

    The above comment, from the review of Chase's new book Don't Tempt Me (but about Your Scandalous Ways), sums up why authors and publishers think twice (and then twice more) before setting off to unfamiliar settings . . . If Italy is too confusing what are readers who share this desire for the familiar going to make of Morocco, China, or Chile?

    And then there's the fact that even with “exotic” settings, the protagonists are usually still Caucasian (and often still English nobles if the book is historical!). Much like there seems to be an amazing number of non-Muslim Sheiks out there in the land of Harlequin . . .

    As a bit of synergy, last night I was watching Better Off Ted (which I think is a hoot) and a Caucasian male character referred to an Asian female one as “exotic” to her face. She and the AA character she was flirting with protested and pointed out that planet-wide Asian women are far more common, so HE was really the “exotic” one. It was a great moment and brought me right back to this discussion.

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  65. Janine
    Jul 01, 2009 @ 11:22:16

    @Maili, @ Oyce, & @FD

    But aren't authors (and some readers) already doing that with the US and the UK in making US- or UK-born members of ethnic minorities the “others” by ignoring their presence?

    Putting on my writer hat, I feel this is not an easy problem to solve. I’m sure if I were to write a book with major African-American characters, for example, I would be very afraid of getting them wrong and offending readers (even though my sister-in-law and nieces are black), and even if I bent over backwards trying to get them right, it would still be controversial since I’m not African-American myself.

    In addition to my Victorian historical WIP, in which the characters are mostly British, I do have a contemporary project that has an Italian-American heroine and an Irish-American hero, and I hope I’m getting those characters right. Mostly I try to portray them as normal people and avoid giving them strange ethnic quirks. I try to veer away from stereotypes.

    I’m Jewish myself and as a reader I wish there were more Jewish heroes and heroines in romance. I suppose I ought to be more annoyed about stereotypes but frankly there are so few Jewish characters in romances that unless it’s the kind of stereotyping that reminds me of Nazi propaganda (like in Heyer’s The Grand Sophy) I’m usually just glad to see someone of my ethnicity portrayed at all.

    I have to admit that I don’t have that much interest, at this point at least, in writing about Jewish heroes or heroines myself. It is funny to say, but I would be leery of getting Jewish American characters wrong since I spent the first eleven (nearly twelve) years of my life in Israel and have only been in a synagogue on rare occasions. But also, I’m not drawn to writing about my own minority experience. I write partly for the same reason I read — to escape the difficulties of my own life.

    I also cannot see writing a romance (at least a contemporary) set in my native country of Israel, although I might enjoy doing that. I don’t think it would sell because of political issues. But even putting that aside, I suspect readers who feel as Oyce does would look askance at a romance between two Israelis, while a romance between two Palestinians would leave me completely out of my depth. I would be so afraid of offending someone if I tried to write that. A romance between an Israeli and a Palestinian would be just as difficult because frankly I cannot see a true happy ending for such a couple.

    FD said:

    I personally love romances set in places / times or with people that are outside of the white UK / US cultural norms.
    But I am uncomfortably aware that they often serve as little more than cultural appropriation / window dressing / or culture as setting – I think Sherry Thomas' Not Quite A Husband fell into this category, much though I loved the book.
    These settings are home to many people, and by exoticising them, don't we run the risk of ‘othering' them?

    Sherry Thomas who is my friend and critique partner, is Chinese born and Chinese-American. Her husband is Indian-American (I can’t remember at the moment if he is also India-born, but I know they have relatives in India). I know that as a minority herself she is sensitive to this issue and I don’t think it was her intention to marginalize minorities. I think it is just very hard to write about Asian countries from a 19th century European viewpoint without having to choose between political correctness and authenticity. IMO it is better to be true to what attitudes were like in those days than to misrepresent history.

    A few years ago, Sherry wrote a historical novel that was partly set in China and had a Chinese-born, half-Chinese heroine and several other Chinese characters. Ying Ying (the heroine) was such a memorable character, and the China setting was extremely well researched. It didn’t sell. I don’t know whether the China setting and Chinese characters were the biggest factors in why it didn’t sell, but I also don’t blame Sherry for writing a couple of England-set books after that.

    So, in the final analysis of this long post, I feel that writers are being cramped from all sides of this issue. Books with foreign settings require more research than usual and don’t sell often, yet they’re most likely to sell if the books feature English or American characters. But when the major characters are English or American and the setting is foreign, readers who are minority members feel marginalized. So what is the solution? I don’t have it, but these discussions make me understand why so many writers stick to writing about white, Christian, English speaking characters.

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  66. Moriah Jovan
    Jul 01, 2009 @ 11:35:08

    I'm Jewish myself and as a reader I wish there were more Jewish heroes and heroines in romance.

    I’m not Jewish and I’d love to see that, too.

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  67. Kalen Hughes
    Jul 01, 2009 @ 11:42:19

    But also, I'm not drawn to writing about my own minority experience.

    Me either.

    A romance between an Israeli and a Palestinian would be just as difficult because frankly I cannot see a true happy ending for such a couple.

    I know one! She (Jewish) was teaching at a school in the Gaza Strip and fell in love with a fellow teacher (Palestinian). They now live in New York and have an adorable son.

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  68. Janine
    Jul 01, 2009 @ 11:59:22

    @Moriah Jovan: I’m sure there are other readers who aren’t Jewish but would enjoy reading about Jewish characters, but for whatever reason those books don’t seem to sell.

    @Kalen Hughes:

    I know one! She (Jewish) was teaching at a school in the Gaza Strip and fell in love with a fellow teacher (Palestinian). They now live in New York and have an adorable son.

    I was thinking as I wrote that post that the best ending for such a story would be for the couple to leave the Middle East. It’s a sad statement on the current political situation there. I’m glad your friends have found a way to be happy together but I guess I’m just too aware of the prejudice that I’ve seen on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide to feel that I could pull such a story off.

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  69. Kalen Hughes
    Jul 01, 2009 @ 12:32:56

    I know one! She (Jewish) was teaching at a school in the Gaza Strip and fell in love with a fellow teacher (Palestinian). They now live in New York and have an adorable son.

    I was thinking as I wrote that post that the best ending for such a story would be for the couple to leave the Middle East. It's a sad statement on the current political situation there. I'm glad your friends have found a way to be happy together but I guess I'm just too aware of the prejudice that I've seen on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide to feel that I could pull such a story off.

    Yeah. They caught some seriously dangerous hell while they were still trying to make it work in Israel (she’s a dual citizen, so it wasn’t too hard for them to leave and move here). Her family is totally on board, but I think his is still bent out of shape (they were last I heard) . . . I'm wondering if it has something to do with who has access to the grandbaby? Babies have an amazing ability to make people change their minds (just look at Dick Cheney and his opinion on gay marriage; which yes, I do at least partially attribute to the gay daughter having a child).

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  70. Oyce
    Jul 01, 2009 @ 14:43:14

    @Janine

    I know that as a minority herself she is sensitive to this issue and I don't think it was her intention to marginalize minorities. I think it is just very hard to write about Asian countries from a 19th century European viewpoint without having to choose between political correctness and authenticity. IMO it is better to be true to what attitudes were like in those days than to misrepresent history.

    I am sure she is, and I am also sure it wasn’t her intention to marginalize, but my problem as a reader is that I have no way of knowing these intentions. All I see is what I get, and what I got was, well, white heroes put in danger because of an Indian “rebellion” (I put that in scarequotes because one person’s rebellion is another person’s revolution). Again, I love Thomas’ books, I am always grateful to have more POC writing, and I realize that editorial constraints are very difficult to get around. But it still doesn’t erase the fact that the book itself, no matter what the intentions, contributes to a pattern of white heroes and heroines put into a country they are colonizing without portraying the people of that country or really even addressing that colonization.

    I don’t think it is an issue that can be solved by a single book or a single author, but that is also why I think it’s so important to point out the pattern that exists despite people’s best intentions. Mostly that means I think there needs to be pushback from everyone, from readers and writers and editors, because staying with the status quo is harmful to everyone. It means readers don’t get books they want and writers can’t write books they want (I’ve heard too many stories about agents and publishers rejecting books with POC characters or settings to say they won’t sell), and it makes all of us poorer off.

    @Maili

    In any case, the romance genre didn't seem to mind authors exoticising the hell out of the so-called Scottish highlanders and the Native Americans, so why not // tongue in cheek mode on// do the same for the rest? // tongue in cheek mode off //

    Hrm. I have a problem lumping the exoticization of Scottish highlanders and Native Americans together, even tongue in cheek, specifically because the political situations surrounding that exoticization are so different. I very much agree that the Scottish are exoticized in romances, but they have not also been subject to the same level of attempted genocide as Native Americans. And of course that isn’t even going into what Native Americans are still facing today, thanks to a legacy of colonization.

    I don’t want to deny the power of romance or optimistic thinking, but I also wish that that power were more often directed toward righting things. I for one would love to see romances in alternate worlds or something in which people fight off colonizers or reimagine the world so that there isn’t this history to deal with—not by erasing colonized people a la Patricia C. Wrede’s Thirteenth Child, but by providing an alternate, empowering vision. And I don’t think it’s limited to fantasy settings either; I would love books about African revolutionaries and Chinese pirates and etc.

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  71. GrowlyCub
    Jul 01, 2009 @ 15:27:10

    I always find it difficult to place a ‘degree of awfulness’ on things that happened to other people. My instinctive reaction to Oyce comment ‘but Scots didn’t have it as bad as Native Americans’ was very negative.

    I guess if you look at it in total numbers, it might be ‘worse’, but I’m sure for those families that lived through Culloden and the atrocities that followed and the later clearing of the Highlands where thousands lost their homes and livelihoods, I’m not sure what happened to Native Americans was ‘worse’ in degree, even if higher numbers of people were involved in the ‘clearing’ of the Native Americans.

    All I’m trying to say is that it’s offensive to tell one group of people that they don’t have it as bad as another one you find more ‘worthy’ of being championed.

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  72. Kalen Hughes
    Jul 01, 2009 @ 15:52:14

    I'm not sure what happened to Native Americans was ‘worse' in degree, even if higher numbers of people were involved in the ‘clearing' of the Native Americans.

    Scotland still exists and is peopled by the Scots . . . can’t really say the same for Native Americans.

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  73. Karen Scott
    Jul 01, 2009 @ 16:39:51

    I have to say, I’m not too bothered about settings, but if I picked up a romance that was set in Iran/Iraq, I sure would have a problem with reading it. Then again, I loathe sheik books with a pash also.

    I think it might be a case of us knowing too much about the ‘exotic’ countries, or at least having certain preconceptions, but then again, what did Belgium ever do wrong? Hmmm, actually what did they ever do right?

    I’m kidding, I’m kidding. Belgium, lovely place.

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  74. Maili
    Jul 02, 2009 @ 01:56:40

    @Oyce / Kalen Hughes

    I mentioned both groups – the highlanders and the Native Americans – in my earlier post because they were popular historical sub-genres in the romance genre.

    I didn’t even think further than that when I wrote it.

    @GrowlyCub

    All I'm trying to say is that it's offensive to tell one group of people that they don't have it as bad as another one you find more ‘worthy' of being championed.

    Thank you.

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  75. Janine
    Jul 02, 2009 @ 12:35:23

    @Oyce:

    I am sure she is, and I am also sure it wasn't her intention to marginalize, but my problem as a reader is that I have no way of knowing these intentions.

    I’m not saying you should know her intentions, but I guess I feel that authors could be cut some slack on this issue, since it seems from this discussion that there’s no pleasing everyone. It sounds to me from your earlier posts (though I may be wrong) like you’d prefer books set in England or the U.S. to books set elsewhere with main characters who are English or American. But on the other hands, Maili is saying she would like to see more books set outside England and the U.S., and I don’t think she’s stipulating that the main characters have to be people of those settings. And from what Kalen is saying, books set in England or the U.S. are far more likely to sell. And here’s what Monica Burns said in comment #26:

    My Jan release from Berkley is set in Morocco, late 1800s. When the cover copy was being developed, my editor indicated that readers like to see that they're reading about an English noblemen. So we included a few words that tells readers the hero is an Englishman Viscount. It helps that his title does have a strong connection to who the hero is.

    It sounds to me like perceived reader preferences are a big factor in the decisions that are being made by editors and authors.

    All I see is what I get, and what I got was, well, white heroes put in danger because of an Indian “rebellion” (I put that in scarequotes because one person's rebellion is another person's revolution).

    Yes, but if the characters are English, they would be more likely to see it as a rebellion. I personally prefer that the word “rebellion” rather than “revolution” be used in a scene that is written from the POV of a 19th century European.

    I’ll give you another example that pertains to my own ethnicity. One of my favorite medieval romances is Mary Jo Putney’s Uncommon Vows. It is set in the 12th century. The hero is Norman and the heroine part Norman and part Welsh, but the subplot that pertains to this discussion for me is one that involves the household of a Jewish merchant.

    The merchant asks the hero, who is an earl, to allow the Jewish family to live in his domain after they are left without a home due to the machinations of the villain. The hero gives them temporary shelter but initially refuses to allow them to settle down there. He is afraid their presence will endanger the souls of the Christians in his community. At the end of the book (after the Jewish family has aided the heroine), the hero changes his mind and realizes his initial stance was wrong.

    Now, the Jewish characters themselves were a bit stereotypical, though they were portrayed in a positive light. But what thrilled me was the hero’s attitude. I felt that Putney handled the situation beautifully. Had the hero given them a permanent place right away, it would have struck a false note with me, because it would have been untrue to history. Since I’m Jewish myself, I’m very conscious of the long history of prejudice and persecution that Jews faced in Europe. If the hero’s attitude had been PC, I would have been offended, because I would have felt that this painful history was being given short shrift.

    For that reason, I would much rather see historical attitudes portrayed with authenticity.

    Again, I love Thomas' books, I am always grateful to have more POC writing, and I realize that editorial constraints are very difficult to get around. But it still doesn't erase the fact that the book itself, no matter what the intentions, contributes to a pattern of white heroes and heroines put into a country they are colonizing without portraying the people of that country or really even addressing that colonization.

    Yes, but as I say she wrote another book that IMO did all that you have suggested you would like to see (as I recall there was a lot of anger on the part of the Chinese characters, including the heroine, about Englishmen coming to China and addicting the Chinese to opium). And that book didn’t sell. Not Quite a Husband sold.

    I don't think it is an issue that can be solved by a single book or a single author, but that is also why I think it's so important to point out the pattern that exists despite people's best intentions. Mostly that means I think there needs to be pushback from everyone, from readers and writers and editors, because staying with the status quo is harmful to everyone. It means readers don't get books they want and writers can't write books they want (I've heard too many stories about agents and publishers rejecting books with POC characters or settings to say they won't sell), and it makes all of us poorer off.

    As I said above, I’m not sure what the solution is. I think many readers do also want books set in England or the U.S., or books set elsewhere that still feature English-speaking protagonists. I know that I myself don’t categorically object to either. Let’s face it, if I did, there wouldn’t be much left for me to read in this genre.

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  76. Janine
    Jul 02, 2009 @ 13:01:10

    @Kalen Hughes:

    Yeah. They caught some seriously dangerous hell while they were still trying to make it work in Israel (she's a dual citizen, so it wasn't too hard for them to leave and move here).

    I wish I could say that surprised me, but it doesn’t at all. :(

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  77. Travel to romance & mystery
    Apr 04, 2010 @ 12:54:15

    [...] post Maili wrote a month or so ago about exotic locales in romances got me nostalgic for some of the “travelogue romances” of yore. Now, granted there were some [...]

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