Just how sexy can historical novels be?

Colin Firth Mr Darcy
Because Darcy.

To the surprise of no one, romance novelists often talk about sex when they get together. When my writing pal, debut author Sara Jane Stone, and I were chatting about sex it was how soon it should happen in a book. She writes super sexy Blaze books for Harlequin where sex must happen by, like, page 20.

 

She’s always advising me to add more sex to my novels.

 

“But my plot won’t allow it!”  I protest.

 

That’s the thing—historical romances derive so much of their tension from the rules and restrictions around sex. Or rather: not having sex.

 

A proper lord and lady cannot just fall into bed with each other and still be true to the era. Think of the scandal, one’s reputations, the risk of an out of wedlock baby! Sex in historical novels is fraught with complications. But it a way, it also makes it more meaningful. When the hero and heroine break the rules to make love, the risks they face show how much they want it. Or we—and they—have to wait, full of pent up lust, until wedding vows are exchanged.

 

But in contemporary novels (and in contemporary real life), the restrictions around sex have lessened. Heroes and heroines can do it by page 20 without feeling pressured to get married. It’s ok to act on desire—and not have all those other questions about marriage, and forever, and what does this mean answered.

 

So how sexy can historical romance novels be while maintaining accuracy, and can they compete with super sexy contemporaries? Or perhaps they don’t need to. I think all that restrained desire that’s been smoldering on page one make the inevitable sex scene on page 189 even better.

 

How sexy do you like historical romance novels to be?

(And do you ever skim over sex scenes to get back to the plot?)

 

Ps: Sara Jane Stone’s book is Command Performance. There is LOTS of sex.

Comments

ki pha
Reply

Hi Maya, I do like my Historical romances sexy to a certain point. And I have to admit that I have skimmed over sex scenes more than once in a Historical romance book just to get back to the plot. Sometimes I just want to stay in the plot more than in the sex (although they are great!). Well, that only happens if the story is going slow or I want to find out who the murder is. But I think Historical romances are great where they are with the sex.

Maya Rodale
Reply

Ok, glad to hear I’m not the only one who has skimmed so I could get back to the plot! 🙂

alicia
Reply

I agree I read romance for the love story not so much the sex scenes. I like historical romances for that reason, less sex more relationship and I also think that because of that the historical romance story lines are better developed and more entertaining then contemporary……you miss out on the actual relationship in contemporary sometimes because there is more sex and it happens so soon its more about pheromones then falling in love

Nikki
Reply

I think Historical Romance authors need to amp it up if they want any chance to compete in today’s market. With all the changes and new genre’s like New Adult popping up, readers are flocking in droves and salivating at the mouth for the latest steamy novel. It’s a good time for those new readers to be introduced to a genre like Historical Romance. Unfortunately, while HR isn’t necessarily boring, one book is eerily similar to another and each one falls into the same pattern. Background on main characters /they meet /sexual tension ensues /plot twist & issues for main characters /sex /more problems /resolution of whatever issue /then sex again. I just summarized almost every HR novel I’ve ever read. Something in the genre needs to change somewhere or HR will get left behind. If it means putting a modern or paranormal twist on the story, so be it. Most of the HR books I enjoy are the ones that push the boundaries. Do I care if there are more than 2 sex scenes, no. You can make a book sexy without the characters having sex every 10 pages or so. The problem is either the woman is so pure and innocent that she’s boring or she’s so un-innocent she’s almost a courtesan. There is no happy median, it’s either all or nothing. To top it off it’s like HR writers forget underneath the innocent veneer is a hormonal teenager just like everyone else. Why the female of that time never balked under the authority of there parents, completely baffles me. And even if you don’t have the exact logistics of how sex works, its almost impossible to go through life without some idea. I’m sure at some point the female will come across a male cat, dog, horse, ect ect. it’s easy to spot the difference. Anyway, that’s just how I feel. I’m more likely to read an New Adult story, then a HR novel these days. Sometimes, I’ll find a book that strikes my fancy but mostly I just read the author’s I already know and enjoy when it comes to HR.

Maya Rodale
Reply

THIS! “Unfortunately, while HR isn’t necessarily boring, one book is eerily similar to another and each one falls into the same pattern. Background on main characters /they meet /sexual tension ensues /plot twist & issues for main characters /sex /more problems /resolution of whatever issue /then sex again. I just summarized almost every HR novel I’ve ever read.”

I agree–there is a definite pattern to a HR novel. In the one I’m drafting now (Wallflower #3) I’m deliberately playing with the order of EVERYTHING. You know the quote “the beginning, middle and end don’t necessarily have to happen in that order”? I’m trying that out 🙂 We’ll see how it works and what my editor thinks.

Totally agree on your points about romance heroines struggling to balance innocence with raging teenage hormones. When do well, that can be so sexy and conflicting. A great read.

becky caudill
Reply

I’m so curious to see how this worked out for you that I’m off to Amazon right now!

Lene
Reply

Me, too! Wallflower #3, eh?

Lene

LOL! Just popped over to Amazon to grab a copy of this book, and also to pre-order the one you have coming out in December, only to find that I already had the new one pre-ordered. Apparently I was smart enough to pre-order it a few months back. 😉

Lis
Reply

One of the reasons I read historical romance more than contemporary is for this exactly. I have skimmed my fair share of sex just to get back to the plot. When an author can write characters in scenes without sex and make their encounter incredibly sexy, ones that are filled with tension and desire, are erotic without the explicitness of intercourse, I become a fan! And I am a fan of yours because your characters have amazing chemistry and your books aren’t oversexed. I also read a lot of Chrisian/Inspirational historical romances because I don’t always need sex as the end result. You know it happens, I just want to see how you got there and leave the rest behind closed doors. I have only found a few contemporary writers that do this well. Most jump right into into insta-love and you know sex is right around the corner.

Maya Rodale
Reply

Thanks Lis! I’m a fan of the tension and desire, too. And Nicole, I agree–sexy is great but they don’t have to jump in bed right away. They can save for page, say 25 🙂 Or 100.

Nicole L
Reply

Isn’t that why there are so many widowed heroines?! 🙂 I do prefer any romance I read to be more sexy than not, but that doesn’t mean the H/h have to jump into bed right away! And I’ve certainly skimmed sex scenes on occasion, because there can be to much of a good thing!

Amy Valentini
Reply

Good question but as with everything in life, it depends on the situation or in the case of historicals, the plot. I agree with Nikki that we have to remember that beneath the innocent veneer of each female character there beats the heart of a potential vixen and since most men, even of this time, were far more experienced than their counterparts at the same age, expectations from a female companion were higher – even more so than today. Our romances have evolved away from the rape and mayhem of yesteryear, but it doesn’t change the fact that if a woman found herself in a compromising position and then said “no”, the man didn’t necessarily listen or stop. He didn’t have to because rape was much harder to prove. Yes, he faced possibly having to marry her but then again, he might prefer it to add to his reputation as a rake. Not every taking of an innocent’s virginity ended in marriage but many did in pregnancy and ruination.
I think some historical romances can heat things up and others can continue on their steady course. It would depend on the story, the characters, and the author, of course. I personally don’t skip scenes when I”m reading. If I find myself tempted to do so, it usually means I don’t like the story. There’s meaning in every word, even sex scenes, so I don’t want to miss anything.
Also, those innocent young virgins might not have had their cherries popped yet but it didn’t mean that they didn’t play the game a little. It’s nature, darlings, and it will continue to be so because when we stop playing with sex, the human race will cease to exist. *wink*

NancyS.Goodman
Reply

I have no problem with sexy historical romances. I don’t want sex every chapter, but there were enough affairs and babies out of wedlock that I think these women knew more than they were giving up, restrictions and chaperones aside!
As long as the book is well written I can read all of it-sweet, one sex scene, lots of them.
It’s a topis I think about quite a bit actually as I pick and chose what I read and write

Lis
Reply

To comment on what Nikki said, I think though the NA market is trendy and sex seems to be the main topic, but it will ony be a trend. I think eventually this will fade and the scenes will get old and boring and readers will want to get back to the story and characters. Romance seems to have a formula but for me, and other readers like myself, I think we like the character development much more than the sexual roller coaster. I’ve noticed most contemporaries, NA specifically, is all about the sex. Sure there is a story there somewhere but it’s all hopped up on hormones. Not all 20 year olds are sex-crazed. Some of us like to hold a bit of modesty and purity in our lives. I don’t see why that should be overlooked. Sex is not always hot and romantic. It can be awkward and embarrassing, so again, doesn’t always need to be protrayed as it is in most books. And as I said before, I do read Christian books for this reason, even when I don’t care to be preached to. But it is hard to find clean(er) books for the 18-30 crowd these days. And the NA books that I read are dark and a bit twisted with characters I would not want to either be friends with or be in a relationship with. There is a big difference (at least to me) between reformed rake in historicals to the man-whore in contemporaries. Most are being writen as volitale sociopaths with extremely questionable motives that goes beyond bad boy. And to be honest, this world is filled with so much drama as it is, I like to get away from that. I can’t relate to these books and characters at all and it really makes me wonder about society. I want witty banter, sassy heriones and men who are real alpha-males, not some version by today’s standards. I think the NA writers are getting this wrong and it will (maybe not soon, but someday) get old just as any trend (the Vampire, Fallen Angel, Fae bandwagon).

What I wouldn’t mind reading is more average/working people historical romances. Maybe not always people with titles. For example: my favortie couple from Downton Abbey is Anna and Mr. Bates. *hint, hint*

So, please historical writers, don’t change who you are to please the trend. You are timeless and always will be. Stay classy and true to yourself and you will always have a fanbase that appreciates your genre without having to compromise your era.

Maya Rodale
Reply

The excessive use of Dukes in another blog for another day! I’m totally loving your comments, LIs, and everyone else’s on this post!

lemitchellrn
Reply

I tend to avoid dukes as a general rule (because there’s not that many). I like barons, viscounts, and earls for my stories.

lemitchellrn
Reply

Personally, if you’re going to have sexual tension, it needs to go somewhere. But it should be reasonably plausible, especially if it’s premarital sex. If it’s marital sex, you’ve got a lot more wiggle room IMHO.

Simona Tempra
Reply

The reason why I prefer Historical romances to the modern ones is because I think historical romances writers are generally more talented and the topics are better developed. In some modern romances people don’t even wait to get page 5 to get sex and there is little or poor plot, little characterization, flat characters and generally most of the stories and the heroines are quite boring for me. I’m not saying that all historical romances are good, in fact there are only a group of talented writers over there who can really balance plots, characters and sex scenes. Historical romances are also more challenging because they have to deal with restrictions and codes we don’t have anymore. I generally like 2 or 3 steamy scenes in a book but they must be in accordance to the whole plot. I know sex and bondage is the trend now, but it will eventually wears out if there is nothing else around it.

Maya Rodale
Reply

Good point! When characters can’t just have sex or make out as a way to deal with problems, it challenges the writer to come with another way that these two people would approach that particular problem.

And yes, so much of everything depends on context and how well the author pulls it off.

Thank you everyone for your comments here today! They’re making me feel excellent about the risks I’m taking in the draft I’m working on now (phew) and I also just love, as a reader, than other readers share my opinion on the genre 🙂

Lily
Reply

In the first place I read historical novels because the heroes just do not jump in bed, we have to wait and all between that happens and that leads to that is more important, better and sweeter when then in the end end up in bed, sometimes to me the description of kisses and all that is way better then just description of act. 🙂

Lilian Bobadilla
Reply

Actually one of the main reason the books I read are either regency or historical most of the time is because sex is not in every page, in a way it makes the story more compelling. I like getting to know the characters see their relationship develop and how they interact with each other. I find I like the build up, the tension and the stolen kisses, I think that when a novel is well written all of build up pays up at the end it makes the sex about intimacy instead of hormones, about love instead of just plain lust. I agree with Lis but again is all about the readers taste, I chide away from contemporaries with so much sex on them that they might as well be in the erotica section. I don’t like to have to find a story buried within so many layers of sex. I think Sex in all genres should be like everything else to try to move the story forward and to make a point, to tell us something, to be part of the characters development. And frankly I like HR so much because in our everyday life we are surrounded by sex, everything is about sex the motto “sex sells” exist for a reason. I find it is nice to pick up a book and find be wow by the pageantry and the splendor, to learn about the characters and their relationships, to be transported to a different time and place, makes for a fabulous getaway and all for under 8 bucks (paperbacks)

julie
Reply

When reading an historical l like to know about the manners and traditions and what they wore. yes ive read over some sex scenes just to get back to the story, and then again ive read them just to see how they did it then. 1 of my favourite classic books North andSouth has a wonderful romantic ending. which give me far more pleasure than seeing romping

Kathleen Williams
Reply

It depends! (how’s that for a typical wishy washy Libra answer!!!). If I think the sex scene is just thrown in there for a sex scene to be included in the book, I skim over it to get back to the plot. If the whole story has built up to the sex scene, then I savor every word! I totally agree with what you said about historical romances just cannot have a sex scene by page 20. I like the build-up–I love a good romance story. I think that is what is wrong with contemporary stories (and the attitude in contemporary life in general–it’s “just sex/instant gratification/no accountability”–but that’s another discussion topic entirely!!!).

Nikki
Reply

In regards to what Lis said, you can only read so many HR’s before you’ve read them all. I’ve been reading HR since, gez I was 13, so 11 years now. Just from the 90’s HR has seen quite a bit of change. And I did not say sex it up, I am saying amp it up. Meaning the plot, the characters and just the genre in general. One of my favorite HR novels, doesn’t even have sex in it, maybe at the very end but its more implied and I don’t even remember the sex if it did happen – that is how little it meant in terms of the overall story. (Nicola Cornick’s – The Earl’s Prize) But, let’s be honest here – sex sells. As a human, heck even when compared animals, we all have the same few primal driving factors – hunger, fear, sleep and sex. Sure in our case (humans) it’s more complex because you have responsibilities but that doesn’t make those urges go away. Some people might be to shy or uncomfortable admitting it, they might even avoid sex scenes completely because of the feelings it stirs or idk it makes them feel dirty, but those urges are still present beyond whatever book you are reading. Writers and publishers know this and you can bet your bottom dollar they bank on it. Do I personally skip sex scenes, yes all the time – it just depends if I want to get back to the story and some sex scenes themselves are awkward or ridiculous. Honey pot, cracks me up every time. Did I enjoy a book like 50 shades, no I couldn’t get past chapter 5, but that’s because I thought the writing was abysmal, not because of the content. Now, the reason I don’t think New Adult is going anywhere is because its current. I can’t tell you enough as 18-23 year old how tired I was of reading about 30 something divorcées or 16 year old’s who couldn’t even utter the word sex without mom’s everywhere being up in arms over the smut their teens are reading nowadays. The reason NA works is because it appeals to a younger adult and guess what, there are quite a few of us – hence why Amazon has a New Adult category now. Plus, for the majority of my age group it’s easy to relate to, which HR & Paranormal Romance is not, and it’s in some cases disturbingly honest. There are more screwed up people in this world or some that just make bad decisions, then the very few lucky ones that escape any sort of evil throughout their lives. Take a book like Hopeless by Colleen Hoover, it breaks you with its honesty. If you’ve read it, then you know what I mean and if you have not, you should. My first reaction after finishing the book was the urge to be sick to my stomach, but then the clouds parted and I realized holy guacamole she sure as heck didn’t pull any punches. More often than not, no one in NA is perfect and no one has a happy-go-lucky life. It’s messy, disgusting and doesn’t pretend to be a fairy-tale romance. If there was a way to capture that honesty in a historical setting any HR author would find themselves striking gold. Expand the NA genre to NA-HR and HR writer’s will be able to cross over to a new crowd of readers previously out of reach.

denise
Reply

people have always had sex…they weren’t as prudish as we’d like to believe…condoms made from animal intestines are mentioned in the Holy Bible…we know French letters existed…

I never skim over

Lis
Reply

I totally understand where you are coming from Nikki and yes, sex sells. But we are all not so depraved. I’d like to see the HR genre mix it up a little also but I think there are reasons we always come back to it: it’s timeless, you know what you’re getting, and it’s an escape. As others have said, it’s the build up, the tension that keeps you wanting to know how the characters work through and get to the end where they live happily ever after.

As you mentioned with Hopeless, “it breaks you with it’s honesty”. I had the opposite reaction of, wtf just happened and still haven’t seen the redeeming quality. There have been many NA’s I’ve read where when I get to the end (even with an epilogue) I don’t believe that the characters have that HEA. NA writers put their characters through so much, too much at times and that to me is more unbelievable than what is called the fairy-tale story. And this is why there are different genres for many readers and their diverse palates. To each their own.

I think the NA genre has potential but it’s still new and there are a lot of kinks (pun intended) that need to be worked out.

So, when I read from other genres and come back to my trusty historicals, I open the book and melt instantly into a world I can understand (sad, that I feel more connection with the past than I do with the present) and upon finishing, which I always dread, close the book and sigh. That is what I look for.

Erin Knightley
Reply

If these comments prove anything, it is that there are a variety of tastes out there, and no one level of heat can please them all. And you know what? I think that’s great! I love that there are all kinds of historical romances out there – from sweet to searing. And I think readers are generally happy to read a good book, within a fairly broad range of sexiness.

As I’ve talked about before, I was told by several industry people point blank that if I didn’t have sex in my book (and it wasn’t inspy), I would never sell to New York. People were so negative, in fact, I *hated* being asked about the heat level for a while, as if it was some sort of dirty (clean?) secret. Well guess what – not only did I sell, I sold at auction. I’m carried by Walmart, have been #1 on Amazon’s Regency Bestseller list, and have sold to several different languages. I’m happy to offer sensual books without the sex for those who like that option. I’m equally happy for there to be smoking hot reads out there for those who prefer it.

I don’t like putting any genre in a box (and I must say, I dislike hearing people say all HRs are the same!). In my opinion, the more choices, the merrier!

Maya Rodale
Reply

That’s fantastic Erin! I love hearing stories of writers who stick with what they’re passionate about and feel GOOD about–and then find other readers and people who support that. YAY!

Maria
Reply

First of all, I never skim a sex scene–if the writing is as good throughout, I want to enjoy every single word. And I prefer sexier historicals, but as long as it works for the story. I enjoy the “rules” of society in historicals and that’s big part of what creates the sexual tension between the hero and heroine.

Marcy Shuler
Reply

I’ve never skimmed a sex scene. If I didn’t want them in a book I’d read only Love Inspired books. The intimacy has to fit the story so if that means more time before actual sex in a Historical than that’s fine with me. The frustration and the lead up to the actual act can be just as hot as the sex itself, IMO. LOL

becky caudill
Reply

Unless I’m reading someone like Georgette Heyer, I definitely want some steam in my historical romance novels, BUT the sex can’t be written in just for sex’s sake. It has to advance the plot somehow, or create drama between the characters. AND, it has to be good sex. If an author is going to take the time to include a sex scene in a period in which sex wasn’t really on the table, I need it to titillate.

There’s one very popular romance novelist who I’ve stopped reading because the plot wasn’t important to the book, it was all about the sex and the flimsy plot was just another way to get from sex scene to sex scene. By the time I finished her third book I couldn’t tell you what the stories had been about.

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