Monday, October 20, 2008

Experiment: THE BIG H, Report #3

As someone with no Harlequin/category experience, Apprentice Writer decided to read six titles from the 'Harlequin Historical' line (which publishes 4 titles per month) concurrently to see if patterns develop.

Chapter One

5/6: End by page 22 (which is actually page 15, since text always starts on page 7)
The only one that didn't was first published in UK, where format may be different than North American guidelines

5/6: Hero & Heroine meet by page 5
The prize for speed of bringing the parties together goes to the Tudor title (A SINFUL ALLIANCE, Amanda McCabe) where the very first line reads,

"Her quarry was within her sight."

In the only book where the main characters didn't physcially meet by page 5, the heroine thought of the last time she saw the hero. So: in 6/6 titles, there is some connection between the love interests from Chapter 1 on.

5/6: Leap into action/main conflict of the story
Slow buildup doesn't seem a common theme, with a clear preference for heading into the drama without delay. Bells peal in warning of Viking attack by page 3, a kidnapper appears before the heroine by page 2, the heroine gears up to carry out an assasination from paragraph 1.

4/6: Detailed description of physical appearnce of heroine and/or hero within first 3 pages
Apparently, it is important for devotees of this line to know early on and thoroughly what the main characters look like - and not just in terms of historical costume. Half the titles made a point of mentioning large stature/broad shoulders of the hero, with the prize going to the Regency title (A MOST UNCONVENTIONAL MATCH, Julia Justiss) by working it in at word #3. A third of titles made use of the 'looking in the mirror' ploy to describe the heroine. For two of the titles, it is worth mentioning that there was a good reason for describing physical appearance in such rapid detail; in the Restoration title (THE ABDUCTED HEIRESS, Claire Thornton) the heroine's facial scars play an important role, and in the Tudor title the heroine is in disguise.

6/6: England as main or secondary setting
AW chose the titles for her experiment via a super-quick sift through a literacy street-festival pile, simply searching for different time periods. So the 100% British result is a surprise, especially given that a number of the main characters are of other backgrounds (Danish, French, Norwegian (?), Russian). If AW ever decided to run Experiment II, she would make a point of checking whether other geographies are available, and how hard it is to find them relative to the English juggernaut.

If publishers offer what sells, then does that mean people of non-English descent are not interested in love among their ancestors?

Things that stood out:
One of the risks a reader takes when developing a fondness for a particular genre is coming across repeating themes so often they become irritating or even stereotypical. It's great when authors not only recognize this danger, but have fun with it. From the Regency title (THE VANISHING VICOUNTESS, Diane Gaston):

"She and Eliza had devised all manner of ways they might meet (Lord Tannerton), none of which they'd dared to carry out. Too bad they had not thought of being caught in a gale on a ship that broke apart and tossed them in the sea."

Sometimes, redundancy lies not in the similarity of theme from author to author, but repetition of words too soon or pointlessly doubling up on meaning. From the Viking title (TAKEN BY THE VIKING, Michelle Styles) scene where a man is cut down:
"...staining the golden sands deep red." Three paragraphs later: "...the golden sands would be stained red.." A few pages later: "...his blood spilt on the golden sand."
Gee, I wonder what color the sand is?

There follows a battle scene, wherein one group "advances forward"(as opposed to advancing backward?) and a warrior's "tongue licked his lips" (in case anyone thought he might lick with a different part of anatomy).

AW is very fond of authors who manage to build up a certain expectation and then take the reader somewhere else. From the Tudor title, in a scene where the heroine is impersonating an employee in a brothel to approach a patron:

"...the sounds of laughter and moaning, the whistle of a whip for those with more exotic tastes. Marguerite hoped that was not a Russian vice. Baring her backside for the lash would surely reveal her dagger."

AW loved how indicative it is of the heroine's character that she doesn't fear the pain or object to the nudity; it's the target realizing she's an agent that worries her.

Gentle Reader - any thoughts on the math or interpretation? Any readers of Harlequin Historicals who can shed some light?


Unknown said...

This was great. If I *advance backwards* through your blog, will I find similar analysis of other sub genres?
~ Gina (from your TRW group)

M. said...

Hi Gina! Welcome!
If you 'advance backwards' (hee!)you'd find the previous thoughts on this experiment, but I haven't thought to extend to other subgenres. Intriguing thought, though. What other ones specifically do you think would work?