As a romance reader, Historical fiction was my first love and remains so to this day. I was all of eleven when I snuck my first romance, a western, from the library. I want to say it was a Johanna Lindsey? All it took was half a chapter and the hint of a heated glance on horseback for me to be hooked.
I want to preface this with a little bit about me at age eleven. I was a tomboy, I was from a pretty rough neighborhood and had never so much as seen a horse or cowboy up close. I was far more accustomed to city pavement and endless buildings than I was the open stretches of wild prairie land and petticoats. But here’s the thing. None of that mattered. Not when it came to good writing and adventure. I was able to fall into the shoes of characters living and loving in 1868. I might not have known exactly what I was reading but I knew I liked it, and if historical romance could reach a Mexican girl living in the barrio, then I’m here to say that it can reach anyone.
But even so, I went on to desperately wish the characters on the pages of my romance books resembled myself and the people in my world. All around me there were people of all shades and ethnicity but in my romance books there was one recurring theme—everyone was white. The only people of color appeared as nothing more than backdrop characters, more apt to function as scenery than humans. My yearning to see a more diverse world in historical romance led to me creating my own stories because to accept the world existed as presented by the books was to erase myself and my people from existence outside of a contemporary setting.
My interest piqued by historical romance, I looked to school to fill in the gaps. Regrettably, I found it to be lacking nearly as much as historical romance. Even with few offerings and historical figures to study, I knew there was more out there and applied myself to the pursuit of history. I went on to become a trained historian and have a Master’s in American History, specifically 19th-century law and the Reconstruction Era. It was in my studies that I encountered the exact history I had always hungered for—an inclusive history.
When you know where to look there is no denying the rich and diverse history of the world. I never lost my love of historical romance, but now I knew exactly what the genre could and should look like.
I know the genre gets misunderstood a lot by readers as stuffy, boring, and lacking in scenarios or characters that are both relatable and applicable to modern times. I understand the confusion. I mean, how many of us sat through boring history courses obsessed with forcing specific dates and obscure names of generals in wars long since fought and won? It’s hard to relate to figures when they are described in the abstract or as in possession of perfect character and morality.
It’s also nearly impossible to do this, or even care when each and every historical figure fails to resemble one’s self or community.
It’s also a lie.
And that is the beauty of historical fiction. It can help dispel the lie.
Though it is fiction, the medium functions as a tool for modern society to see themselves in history, which is integral to creating a sense of belonging and self for the reader. When people have the opportunity to see themselves in fiction, they, in turn, feel seen and accepted. This is critical for marginalized communities such as POC, LGBTQIA+, those with disabilities, and the neurodiverse. These people have always existed, have always been here, and it is time historical romance acknowledged that fact by telling their stories with empathy, joy, and most of all passion. I am earnest about using historical romance to reflect the world as it is and has always been because I believe the genre is meaningful and that romance as a genre is singular in its telling of a woman-centered story focuses on a happily-ever-after. There are no lost dreams or unlived potential for the characters in a romance novel. Each and every one of them find the destiny and love they were meant for and in doing so live their very best life.
Romance is powerful in this way. Historical romance even more so by the fact that writers have the ability to create a sense of belonging and recovering a lost history for scores of people not afforded the privilege of seeing themselves in history. This is a beautifully poignant thing to be able to offer readers. An increased sense of self and confidence, an enlightened view on their worth is possible with historical fiction. I am committed to doing my part, alongside the talented writers that have come before me and are still telling amazingly diverse stories, to create intentional space for marginalized communities within the genre of historical romance. These incredible writers include Beverly Jenkins, Alyssa Cole, Piper Huguley, Courtney Milan, Vanessa Riley, Liana De La Rosa, Lydia San Andreas, and Jeannie Lin.
In the spirit of inclusive history, I wanted to share a woman who you might not know of but is the inspiration for one of my works in progress. Her name was María Amparo Ruiz de Burton and she was born in Baja California, Mexico in 1832.
María was born into a life of privilege and aristocracy. Her family was largely involved with large landholdings and founded several missions in Baja Mexico but their control over the land ended in the Mexican-American War. It was during the American occupation and surrender of Baja that María met Captain Henry Stanton Burton, a U.S. Army officer from New England. The pair fell in love and were married when she was all of seventeen in 1849. María gained a reputation for her beauty, charm, and wit, all of which made her a sought after guest in the era’s well to do social circles. She was also a novelist and the first female Mexican-American author to write in English.
María wrote several works with two novels: Who Would Have Thought It? (1872) and The Squatter and the Don (1885). She also wrote one play: Don Quixote de la Mancha: A Comedy in Five Acts: Taken From Cervantes’ Novel of That Name (1876). These works are foundational works to Chicano literature and serve as historical touchstones for the Latinx community in terms of citizenship, gender, latinidad, and what it meant to be Latinx in a context beyond national citizenship and borders.
If María’s story isn’t worthy of a historical romance then I’m not sure what classifies and I am greatly enjoying the work of telling a story like hers!
Rebel Carteris an award-winning romance writer. She is a trained historian who loves a good love story and pushes the boundaries of what readers have come to expect from historical romance. Carter’s Gold Sky historical romance series celebrates truly diverse love and outsized HEAs in the American West. The latest Gold Sky novel, HONOR AND DESIRE, will be released on January 29th, 2020.