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Monday, March 4, 2013

Historical Romance in the American South

 (As first seen on Southern Writers Suite T)

When my agent asked me to write a historical romance, my next task was to decide on a specific setting. Prairie stories dominate the inspirational romance world, but I’m not really a prairie kind of girl. I long for settings with elegance and mystique. My favorite place on earth has long been a stretch of country situated on route 17 near Paris, Virginia, featuring rolling hills, vineyards, horses, and gorgeous old plantation houses. You see, I’m a transplanted Southerner. I’ve now lived in Virginia for twenty years, and for a decade, I would pass that spot on route 17 while driving to visit my parents in Pittsburgh. I fell utterly in love with it.
But alas, once I pinned down my 1817 date and the plot for my novel, I realized the best setting would actually be Charlottesville, Virginia. A location slightly to the south and east of my personal paradise, but every bit as picturesque and even more full of history and gorgeous plantations. There I found the legendary Three Notch’d Road and the lovely Birdwood Pavilion, which almost perfectly matched the plantation in my head.
Maybe you’re wondering why more inspirational romances aren’t set in the ideally romantic American south. I mean mint juleps on the verandah? Gone with the Wind? I think the answer lies in slavery. An issue far from romantic or ideal. That idyllic Southern existence was an illusion based on oppression, often even abuse. And inspirational romance fans aren’t the best audience for ugly stories about oppression and social injustice. So my challenge in choosing this Southern setting was to find a way to deal with this issue and still create an enjoyable, romantic read.
The solution I found was to face it head on. Several of my main characters are involved in the abolitionist movement. So the ugliness of slavery is not overlooked. Meanwhile, my primary plantation owners are kind to their slaves, treating them like family. And my main character, Constance Cavendish, often finds herself drawn to befriend the slaves around her.
Meanwhile, my reader is able to focus on Constance’s primary challenge, to teach the “scandalous” waltz to the twin sisters of her former fianc√©, the man who jilted her when she needed him most. That gives the reader the perfect opportunity to visit those amazing plantation homes, including Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and take a fun peek at the planter elite class of Virginia complete with its balls, fancy parties, and Regency fashions. They get to glimpse the culture of that day including music, dance, literature, and even science. They also get to experience the nearby mountains, frontiersman, and American Indians.
I call this my Scarlett O’Hara meets Jane Austen novel, and I’m glad I took the risk of setting my book in the beautiful South. Historical Virginia might have included a degree of villainy and oppression, but it was also a fascinating place full of beauty, excitement, and legendary figures, which I’m thrilled to explore in .
And I’m not the only author branching out to the American South. Mary Lu Tyndall has been using Southern settings for years. In her newest book, Veil of Pearls, she takes a direct look at the world of slavery. Tamera Alexander has set her most recent books, ALasting Impressions and To Whisper Her Name, on the plantations of Tennessee. And look for Magistrate’s Folly, a great short historical romance by Lisa Richardson set in Williamsburg that should be releasing early 2013. I’m excited about this shift in romance settings, and I know many other authors and readers are thrilled to visit the American South through fiction as well. I hope to continue exploring the rich history of Virginia for many years to come.

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