Captain Blood by Raphael Sabitini, 1936 paperback edition.
When I first saw this cover as a small child (not that it was a new book by any means then) it had a profound effect on my psyche. I knew nothing of Freudian sexual psychology at the time. Hell, I didn't even know what sex was, but I did know that there was something going on here that stirred odd feelings deep inside. I've had a rather embarrassing interest in historical romance (often called, bodice rippers) ever since.
When people today think of historical romance they think of the countless brightly covered books with Fabio half undressed on the cover in a passionate embrace with a heroine wearing even less, a pirate ship, a castle, or some other appropriate piece of decor in the background. These books, hugely popular in the 1970's and 80's are from the same tradition, but for all their popularity, are a smaller field of literature, or sub-literature, than their predecessors, written almost exclusively by women for an almost exclusively female audience.
Male authors, however, are typically more careful of their hero's virtuous intentions and their heroine's modesty than female authors. The heroine might be carried off by bandits, pirates, or slavers, but she manages somehow to retain her virginity through it all. Even her modesty is not too far compromised. She might be sold at auction or publically whipped, but she is never stripped farther than to the waist. After all, breasts are only slightly indecent. Such classic situations might be mitigated by an annoying failure of imagination on the villian's part, but more often were an opportunity for the hero to come to her rescue. We have a takeoff on this theme in Mythosphere, but the treatment is rather more postmodern. The heroine recognizes and accepts her role with weary impatience and the hero waffles.
(The Bodice Ripper)
Several years ago my wife and I set out to find the ideal bodice ripper cover. We imagined a lurid confection of pinks, blues, and skin tones with an embossed gold title, and as many symbols of sex and violence as could be crammed onto a space of only a few square inches, but nothing we saw quite lived up to expectations. We waited, and new books came out. The colors were more subdued, there was less skin, and the heroine's expression was less orgasmic. Even objects suggestive of domesticity began to appear in the pictures. At last we concluded, rather sadly, that the bodice ripper was losing its grip.
I have had several creative writing students begin historical romances, but none so far has finished one, though one student's work looks promising. If you think you could do better than much of what is out there, you could be right, but it is not a field I would recommend. The market seems to be shrinking, and there is by now a considerable backlog of of writers with a proven track record, whether deserved or not. Publishing, especially these days, is less about publishing books than about selling them, and those who have sold before will always seem a safer bet. Still, it's a cheap and harmless hobby, which will take you somewhere sexy and exotic. There are worse and far more dangerous and expensive ways to waste your time.
Setting is also important. History, in itself, is not the issue, but fantasy. Proper settings are the pirate world of the Caribbean in the late 1600's and early 1700's, the Near East and North Africa in the 19th century, puritan New England, and Medieval England, Scotland, and Ireland up to the late 1700's. Write a classic in almost any other local and you're out of luck. Violate any other rule stated here, and you're probably sunk. Genera fiction does not want what is new; it wants the same thing over and over.
Two other characters are common. The heroine's father-- heroines almost never have mothers. He is good-intentioned, but fuddled by drink or gambling, or misled by pigheaded ideas of what is best for her to the point that he is more harm than good. The other character is the older male who is physically weak and short on passion, but full of sympathy and advice, a kind of personal eunuch.
Ultimately, of course, hero and heroine get together, usually after she has saved his life, his castle, his plantation, or whatever. This is to even up somewhat the fact that the hero seems to be her superior in most respects other than good looks. Even his dubious moral character turns out to have deep roots in virtue where it really matters.
The plot changed as well. Now the problem was between the hero and the heroine. Every reader could see that they belonged together; only they, or just as often, only she failed to see it. Jane Austin pioneered this motif in Pride and Prejudice, but it has become a standard since, and Sharon Greene has even introduced it to science fiction. Sometimes the hero is the villian, in which case a secondary villian must take up the slack as the hero-villian becomes increasingly redeemed. Aside from the heroine, typically a flaming haired, green eyed hellion in the Maureen O'Hara tradition, the hero, and the villian there is only one other character absolutely required. That is the nasty, spiteful, jealous, shameless superbitch rival of the heroine. She starts with some social advantages which she shamelessly exploits, though if the truth were known, the heroine is really of much better antecedents than she is. She is also good looking, at least as long as she isn't wet or too rumpled. The crises which bring out the best in the heroine, however, bring out the worst in her, and she soon reveals herself in all her sneaking, cowardly, backstabbing contemptibility. Even very mediocre writers blossom in dealing with this character, though really she deserves some pity. She wants to be considered the best, but the heroine keeps showing her up, she wants the hero, ut the heroine has him, she would settle for the villian, but the heroine has him too.
One result of the genera's restriction to a female authorship and audience was a shift to a clearly feminine aesthetic. The heroes changed greatly. No longer were they impoverished, but optimistic young men on the make, full of wide-eyed idealism and a little naive on the ways of the world, easily taken in, but resourceful in making up for mistakes. Now the heroes were older, wealthier, and more successful in their chosen field--usually something violent and not entirely respectable. The were less cheerful and less conventionally handsome. They were also ruthless, stooping sometimes even to rape, or to something very close to it--something no male author would have considered. The heroines changed less, though they became more resourceful, and often suffered worse indignities.
During the seventies, however, the historical romance returned, turning the somber gothic bookshelves of drugstores to riotous pinks and baby blues with lurid scenes of passion and as much nudity as public standards would permit. This historical romance was back in a big way, but addressed to a more limited audience. Few came out first in hardback, and even fewer ever saw film. None of the authors is a household name. Perhaps a testament to the social fragmentation of modern society.
This tradition which had thrived so long died out by the end of the 1950's. Men either quit reading popular fiction, or chose cowboys, war, or international intrigue. Women took up the Gothic romance, a tradition with roots in the 1700's, but given its classic form by Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. An enormous number of these books were published in the '60's and early '70's, mostly in paperback. They are easily recognized by a dark background, a castle or manor house silhouetted against the night sky, and the heroine, a pale figure in the foreground dressed in flowing white nightclothes, standing with her hand in front of her mouth in a state of terror.
Earlier in the century the historical romance was a major field, and most such books came out first in harback. Paphael Sabatini, Frank Yerby, Taylor Caldwell were generally know names to the reading public, and their works were often taken up by Hollywood for major motion pictures with major stars such as Erroll Flynn and Maureen O'Hara. Many of the writers were men, though no such work is better remembered than The Scarlet Pimpernel, which has a female author. Plots varied, but for stories written by men there was usually a young male hero in love with a blonde virgin. Circumstances, often contrived by some enemy, remove him from the country, usually England or America, for an extended stay somewhere exotic, dangerous, and sexually charged. He is befriended by a dark, sensuous woman far more knowing about the ways of the world than a properly raised young woman should be. He is attracted to her, though not at a truly deep level, and becomes committed to her by circumstances and obligations, so that there seems no way out. She may even have saved his life. However, in some cowardly and sneaky attack on the hero she is killed, and he is free to return and reclaim his orginal, still virgin love and avenge himself on his enemies. Sometimes it is the virgin who is carried off, but it comes to much the same thing.