Romance in Ancient and Unusual Historical Periods with Christina Phillips

Please Note: This article first appeared in RWA’s official monthly newsletter, Hearts Talk, in July, 2010. Due to the passage of time, some information in the article may no longer be relevant. Please ensure you research your chosen genre thoroughly before submitting.

Historical romance is alive, well and hot! But is there a market for this sub-genre outside of the enormously popular Regency era and the

increasingly popular Victorian period? Do agents want authors who write in more unusual time frames and are editors buying romances set in ancient civilizations?

OK, but what exactly is an Ancient Historical Romance?

Very broadly speaking, ancient history is often referred to the period known as Classical Antiquity, the beginning of recorded Greek history in about 776 BC. By happy chance this roughly coincides with the traditional founding of Rome in 753 BC. Western scholars use the fall of the Roman Empire in AD 476 as the end of ancient European history and the start of the Middle Ages.

And as for the Unusual heading, I’ve included that to embrace eras up to Regency and civilizations and settings other than 19th century England.

Literary agent Emmanuelle Morgen, of the Judith Ehrlich Literary Management LLC, has this to say: “Historical romance, and historical fiction in general, are very popular areas in publishing. In romance, the Regency and early Victorian eras still reign, with Scottish historicals in any time period coming in at a close second, followed by medievals.”

Which publishing houses are more willing to look at AH?

Harlequin Mills & Boon Historical has been open to more unusual settings and time periods for a while. Back in 2004 Michelle Styles, HM&B author, was told by agents, published authors and the UK’s RNA New Writer’s Scheme there was no market for ancient historical in the romance genre. However, Linda Fildew, senior editor of HM&B Historical, opened up the guidelines and Michelle published her debut M&B book with them, The Gladiator’s Honour, in 2006. HM&B accept unagented submissions.

Going on my own experience and those of some author friends, Berkley is another house willing to look at ancient civilizations and more unusual time frames.

Michelle Diener sold her Tudor-set books to Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster in January 2010. With the popularity of Philippa Gregory’s novels and movie adaptations and the recent Showtime series The Tudors chronicling the turbulent reign of Henry VIII, this era is definitely of interest to the North American market.

What kind of AH are we talking about?

A quick survey of some author friends reveals when it comes to writing ancient historical romance the options are wide open. Michelle Styles writes “straight” ancient historical for HM&B, set during the Roman and Viking periods. Stephanie Dray (aka Nocturne author Stephanie Draven), whose January 2011 Berkley release Lily Of The Nile centres on Selene, daughter of Cleopatra, incorporates magical realism. The heroine in Michelle Diener’s Illuminations is based on a real woman. Lila  DiPasqua, whose Berkley Sensation release Awakened By A Kiss is released this August writes steamy retellings of classic fairy tales set in the 17th century. And my upcoming Forbidden, set during the Roman invasion of ancient Wales in AD 50, is an erotic romance with a paranormal element woven throughout.

What about the Roles of Women?

Readers want heroines they can empathize with, a woman who is an active participant in her story and not simply a helpless victim waiting for her hero to rescue her. How do we, as writers, balance our modern sensibilities with the roles allocated to the genders back then?

Stephanie Dray has this to say: “I think one of the advantages of writing in the ancient world is that—depending on the time period–heroines may have actually been more free to act and manipulate events. I like to use ancient history to remind people that gender equality isn’t a new struggle and it hasn’t all been a forward march. Much of the progress that was made in the ancient world was lost during the Dark Ages, which may be why my imagination is always looking to the ancients for inspiration.”

Michelle Diener: “The interesting thing about my heroine, and what drew me to her, was that she was competing in a man’s world, and she was a professional… I think the fact that Susanna truly was operating outside of the gender expectations for women in her time makes it easier for me to walk that line between modern expectations and the realities of the period.”

Lila DiPasqua: “I strive to have a strong heroine, someone who is smart and behaves sensibly in her circumstances. Someone the reader understands and can respect.”

Michelle Styles: “It is all about character and to a certain extent—doing your research. Certain themes transcend time and society. With Rome, I chose to concentrate on the late Roman Republic when women did have more power and were educated. So some of it, I would argue, is about making sure your characters resonate with your reader. People are people and I find it fascinating when they are forced to act within a society’s rules.”

And the Heroes?

As with any other sub-genre of romance, the hero has to appeal to the reader. And while we have to remain true to the known construct of society in our chosen time period, as with any era and any civilization not all men are created equal. I for one don’t want to read about a brutal medieval knight who believes it’s his unquestionable right to abuse women. But give me a tough alpha warrior who believes it’s his unquestionable right to protect the woman he loves to the death—even if he hasn’t admitted to that love yet—and I’m hooked.

Interestingly, Michelle Styles comments: “For whatever reason, going by overall sales, Vikings tend to do better than Roman. It could be the whole warrior culture versus a more urbane culture. Or the fact the Viking period is a bit more established in the Romance canon.”

Research – How Much is Too Much?

One of the reasons I’m so drawn to the Druids of the first century is because so little is really known about them. The contemporary written accounts we have are by Roman historians and are inevitably biased. This, of course, opens up all sorts of possibilities for the writer!

I research extensively (possibly obsessively!) but I’m a historical romance author not historian. I ensure to the best of my ability my facts are accurate but ultimately it’s the story that counts. So while we know, to some extent, the lot of women during the years of the Roman Empire, there isn’t so much information concerning female druids. We know some ancient Celtic women were warriors and fought alongside their men-folk but I’ve read conflicting accounts as to how much power they may or may not have wielded. And so, for the purposes of my story, druids lived in an equilateral society where the goddess culture predominates.

Is that likely? It’s probable the goddess culture was already on the wane long before the Romans invaded Britain. But is it possible? My imagination says yes it is. That’s the magic of being a historical author, rather than a historian who is obligated to stick with known facts only.

Michelle Diener says, “I think the key issue is to make the reader unaware of the research. Anything that jars, that pulls them out, needs to go…Research is really a vital case of show don’t tell.”

Lila DiPasqua: “I really do strive for as much historical accuracy as I can. I think it’s important to be true to the time and place you set your books, and give it an authentic feel. Plus, most people who adore historical romance want to learn interesting facts about history.”

And Michelle Styles: “It is up to the author to create a vivid and believable world from the research. Details  matter but the skill of the author comes in manipulating those details and making sure those details are relevant to the story…Accurate details make the world but it is the story that holds the reader within that world.”

Stephanie Dray: “…historical fiction writers are free to imagine anything that isn’t contradicted by the historical record. There are always mysteries to be solved and blank spots to be filled and that’s where the magic happens.”

In Conclusion

The historical romance market is thriving, and it is possible to sell outside of the more established Regency and Victorian eras. Scottish highlanders and medievals are popular but beyond those, according to Emmanuelle Morgen, “…we’re not seeing a lot of experimentation with other time periods or settings…” She also adds, “… ancient history is a bit of a harder sell, so the story lines and hooks have to be that much stronger.”

So if your ancient or unusual historical is burning to be told, there is a market. It might not be an easy ride—but then, what in publishing ever is? Good luck!


Christina Phillips writes hot ancient historical romances for Berkley Heat. Her first book, Forbidden, hit the shelves in September, 2010.

Leave a comment


  1. Amazing Christina, It’ so wonderful to have your books hitting the shelf here in Oz. I can’t wait to be a spotter. lol… They are awesome. I wish you all the best, and more good things to come. I’ve got a grin from ear to ear. 🙂 Yah!!!

    Hope to catch up with you this year.

    Suz 🙂

  2. Christina,
    Lovely to have another chance to read all about your wonderful historical world,
    Thanks to Sandy Harris for her work republishing our fascinating archived material,

    • Sandra Harris

       /  April 22, 2011

      The pleasure is all mine, Suzi, thanks for dropping by.


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