Romance Settings and World-Building

Romance Settings

This month on All The Kissing, we’ll be discussing more basics of the romance genre, particularly as they relate to settings and world-building. While a romance can be set anywhere, any time, savvy readers will have expectations about where your novel is set according to its subgenre. Let’s take a look at a group of romance subgenres under the lens of their settings.

Romance Settings by Subgenres

Some romance subgenres require more stringent attention to setting than others, just as some require more thorough world-building than others. We’ll limit the discussion to contemporary romance, historical romance, romantic suspense, paranormal romance, sci-fi romance, and fantasy romance. The argument can be made that every subgenre has its own rules, but these are the ones where setting and world-building are most critical.

Contemporary Romance
Romance Settings City

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This subgenre’s title alone gives you a great idea of the settings you can expect to find. Contemporary romance settings are in…well…modern-day locations. We might not be personally familiar with the setting—it can be anywhere from a small coastal village somewhere by the Atlantic to a sparkling city we’ve only ever dreamed of visiting—but the world the story takes place in will be familiar.

With contemporary romance, we know the technology, the modes of transportation, the pop culture references.

Whether it’s a road trip across Route 66 in a 1959 Chevy Impala convertible or a private jet whisking your characters away to a private Mediterranean island, you know you’ll be in the current-day world when you choose a contemporary romance.

Historical Romance
Romance Settings Historical

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The first thing most people think of when they hear historical romance is Regency: London’s cobblestone streets, horse-drawn carriages, nobles in waistcoats and their prospective dance partners in ballroom gowns. However, historical goes far beyond this setting. Anything you can imagine from the past (and by “past” we generally mean “any time in history before about 1950”), from the foundations of humankind to the 1980s, is fair game. So is any location, anywhere in the world. The only caveat is that it has to be in an actual time period. If you’re making one up, even in the past, that falls under a different umbrella. You’ll find settings from ancient Egypt to Tang Dynasty to Vikings to Regency to pirates, and everything in between. It’s all fair game.

Romantic Suspense

Most romantic suspense novels are set in contemporary times. Since there’s always an element of intrigue in romantic suspense, there will also always be an element of intrigue in the setting. This subgenre features either someone in peril, or someone in a perilous situation requiring rescue. You can also expect a high percentage of bodyguards, Navy SEALs or Special Ops, detectives, and police officers in their expected habitats in romantic suspense.

Paranormal Romance

Your vampires, demons, werewolves, shape-shifters, fae folk, zombies, and others can be found in all sorts of romantic situations and eras. While these stories typically take place in modern times and settings, paranormal romance is one of those sub-genres where you’ll have to read the description to be sure. It’s not uncommon to find that a paranormal romance takes place in part in other dimensions (particularly where demons and fae folk are involved).

Sci-Fi Romance
Romance Settings Sci-Fi

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The world of sci-fi romance is as wide as the world of speculative fiction itself. The setting for SFR can be anywhere from near-future Earth to anywhere else in the galaxy. Some sci-fi romance takes place entirely on a spaceship, another planet, an inter-dimensional space…if you can imagine it, that’s where it will be. The rule of thumb is that these books must either be set in the future or contain futuristic elements that set them apart from contemporary romance. Contact with aliens isn’t assured in sci-fi romance, but it’s not out of the realm of possibilities either.

Fantasy Romance
Romance Settings Fantasy

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Like any fantasy novel, fantasy romance is set in a world of magic, mythology, or folklore. At the very least you can expect a setting with magic or abilities that differ from ours (creatures with advanced healing powers or those who routinely cast spells, for example). While the settings might seem familiar, you can expect a huge degree of world-building and background in fantasy romance. The scene has to be set and the world explained so that we mere mortals can understand the rules of the fantasy world, after all.

So how does this affect us as writers?

When we set out to write our romance, we need to know which subgenre we’re working with. As a writer of contemporary romance, I would be wrong to set the novel in a fantasy world and still call it contemporary, just as someone writing historical wouldn’t be setting their story in present times. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule, and the exception to that one would be a time-travel romance. Please note that the above examples are nowhere near exhaustive (there’s an excellent list of romance subgenres for the curious on Wikipedia, and another one from Romance Writers of America). However, the subgenres not covered in this post generally follow the same setting rules as those of contemporary romance.

As writers, it’s our job to not try to hoodwink an audience into reading our books. Romance readers are savvy people, and if you flaunt their expectations…well, let’s just say you don’t want to do that.

There are crossover romances that blend subgenres, but you do need to define the primary subgenre you’re working in. This is important not only for world-building but for marketing purposes as well.

When you’re writing, keep in mind that changing a book’s setting will change and inform the entire novel. There’s a lot to be said about experimenting—writing widely in a variety of subgenres—to find the one that best fits your authorial voice. With practice and a little bit of luck, your writing will find its home. Then you’ll be off and running (or drafting). We wish you all the best!

G. L. Jackson
G.L. Jackson lives in the Seattle area with her family and pets. Although born in New York City and raised in New England, she prefers the west coast.

She's been writing since childhood. While some things never change, she hopes the quality of those stories has increased at least a little over time. These days her focus is primarily on contemporary rock & roll romance featuring strong, sassy heroines who know what they want and aren't afraid to reach for it. She does her best to bust at least a few tropes per book. Banter is her guilty pleasure.
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