Setting Dictating Sub-Genre

Here’s a strange question for you. Does a contemporary romance set in urban parts of England signal Chick Lit to you as a US (or outside-the-US) reader?

One of the conversations I was having this past weekend in Seattle at the Emerald City Writer’s Conference centered on setting and locations, and how some locations signal certain genres. The question about single women finding romance in urban parts of England instantly meaning Chick Lit for US readers made me wonder – I didn’t *think* it was true but outside of Harlequin category romances, I couldn’t think of any single title romances that broke that rule. So many “chick lit” novels here in the US followed that set-up that perhaps the association is inescapable, much like clinch covers and romance novels.

Then I started pondering (it was a long flight and I was awake for a bit of it, until the sleeping aid I took made me start hallucinating that Lisa Kleypas’ hair was waving on the back cover of her book) (true story, not even kidding) (it looked awesome) whether setting dictates sub-genre a bit more now that previously, especially since contemporaries set in small towns are becoming more and more common. Small towns lend themselves well to single title contemporaries – so how to define Julie James’ novels, which all take place in Chicago? Urban Contemporary?

Then there’s the Urban Fantasy genre, where the setting is in the name, and it’s contrasted a bit by Ilona Andrews’ “Rural Fantasy” series, The Edge, which she calls “Rustic Fantasy.”  It’s sort of a chicken-or-egg question – does setting have more of an impact on sub-genre than I thought originally, or is it more that there are so many books in a particular setting in a particular sub-genre that ultimately they borrow tropes and cliches from one another? Regency London is sort of a hallmark of the Regency genre, though there are more Regency novels taking place in the country (I love those, especially Kate Noble’s historicals).

So, does single female + urban parts of England + romance = chick lit in your brain? Do you expect a particular sub-genre based on setting?


Random Musings

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  1. Tina C. says:

    So, does single female + urban parts of England + romance = chick lit in your brain?

    Not necessarily, but single female + urban parts of England + romance + first person narration = chick lit pretty much all of the time.

  2. Alex says:

    I hope not, because I’m attempting to write a contemporary set in the UK at the moment and to my mind it’s definitely not chick lit.  There’s a lot more sex in it than in your average chick lit novel for starters.  I’m always a bit wary of diving in to define genres and I’m sure there are a lot more differences between the two genres but that’s the obvious one that I can think of.  I like my contemps quite steamy, what can I say?

    Most of what I read is set in the US and I actually prefer more urban settings.  That’s not to say that I don’t like small-town US setttings but as someone who lives in a decent sized UK city, they’re very far beyond my experience.

    Perhaps it’s just that there aren’t an awful lot of single title contemporaries set here getting published?  Or if they are, they’re not that easily accessible unless you’re familiar with epublishers or prepared to trawl through Amazon?  It seems as if the choice in the chain bookshops (and don’t get me started on how woeful their selection of romance is) is either basic chick-lit or Mills & Boon (which can be great but comes with it’s own standards and rules).  The only publisher I can really think of that’s publishing some UK based contemps is Little Black Dress and even then a lot of the titles lean more towards chick lit.

    So I suppose my answer is no, a contemporary romance set in urban parts of England doesn’t necessarily signal chick lit to me as a UK reader but I’d dearly love to see more of them around to be able to definitely make my mind up on this point.  If anyone has any suggestions then do give me a shout.

  3. ev says:

    Not to me. But I try not to put things in the chick lit category since I also read a lot of men’s lit- WEB Griffin comes to mind first- military, espionage, police, but they also always have a romance running thru them and continuing into the next book in which ever series.

    I just read what I like and sounds interesting in places I would like to visit or read about. On the other hand, there are places I have no real desire to read about, so I avoid them.

    I need coffee.

  4. Inga says:

    No, but then there’s a fair amount of British chick-lit that is set in the countryside—Trisha Ashley’s books come to mind, and some of Katie Fforde.  Alex makes some excellent points, and it seems that many UK writers lean more towards chick-lit than US-style romance anyway.

    I’d love to see more single-title UK-based contemporaries—I’d buy them like a shot if they were well-written.  I generally don’t read Mills & Boon, but I have read quite a few of the Little Black Dress titles and enjoyed most of them.

  5. DeL Dryden says:

    To me that urban English setting usually signals that I’m reading Charlotte Stein, which is so not chick lit…

  6. No but then again I try not to get hung up on subgenre’s either. All an urban english setting tells me is that I’m either a.) going to love it b.) hate it and never read the author again because she tried to be “trendy” and failed.

  7. corina says:

    I guess most of the novels I’ve read that are set in London probably do qualify as Chick Lit now that you mention it, but if I saw London as the setting in a blurb I definitely wouldn’t assume that’s what I’m getting. Now, a contemporary romance set in the U.S. West or a historical on the American frontier? I’m going to be very surprised if a cowboy/rancher isn’t involved somewhere in the plot.

  8. No, because all books have to be set somewhere.  But then, how do you define ‘urban’‘?  London?  Manchester?  Or do the smaller cities also count, despite having the population of a good-sized US town?  I think Chick Lit is defined by content, not by location – my novels are dark psychological romances set in York (simply because I live near there and can’t be bothered to research), they’re first person female narrator but I don’t call them Chick Lit (although a lot of review sites do).

  9. RachelT says:

    Can you remind me how you define chick lit? It always confuses me what the difference is. A lot of UK authors including Katie Fforde, Tricia Ashley, Jill Mansell, Harriet Evans etc write HEA endings. What is the difference?

  10. Ann says:


    I always think of chick lit being light on the sex (and the romance too mostly) and as Tina C. said—almost always a first person narrative. 

    My two cents.

    BTW—no—I always think I’m picking up a mystery novel if it’s set in London 😉

  11. Alpha Lyra says:

    A setting of urban England doesn’t suggest chick lit to me, but I’ve always preferred urban settings (as in Julie James’ books) to small towns when I read contemporary romance. I don’t read chick lit at all.

  12. Ros says:

    I think what passes for chick lit is different in the UK from the US.  Most of the UK-written and UK-set chick lit that I read is rural, 3rd person and has a central romance with a happy ending.  What distinguishes it from Romance for me is the amount of secondary characters, non-romantic subplots, and other relationships going on.  I’d expect a chick lit novel heroine to have friends and family, all with their own issues, some of which might not directly relate to the heroine and certainly not to the central romance.  I have read some chick lit set in London but not much and not in a way that identifies it closely with the genre.  Urban chick lit strikes me as much more of a US phenomemon with the Sex and the City attitude – shopping, shoes, men as the themes, rather than aged parents, incontinent pets and village pubs.

  13. Silver James says:

    So, does single female + urban parts of England + romance = chick lit in your brain?

    No more than it = Cozy Mystery(tm) in my brain. I don’t read chick lit as a rule. When I think of chick lit, my thoughts turn to light, fluffy, emphasis on shoes and BFFs, and misadventures with boys. Definitely not my thing.

    Frankly, I’m surprised there’s not more urban fantasy set in England and other European cities. And I don’t have a problem if an urban fantasy is set in the middle of a Kansas corn field. It’s the “feel” of the book, the type of heroine, and plot line that determines a subgenre for me. Contemporaries can be set in *insert major metropolitan city of your choice here* or in some tiny, fictional town where I tend to wonder how they preserve the gene pool. Okay. That sounded a bit snarkier than I meant. But really? How many couples can be gleamed from a population of 1000?

    Short answer—character and plot define subgenre. The setting is just icing on the cake.

  14. CarrieS says:  But really I also don’t understand the diff between chick lit and romance and I try to focus on what I like.  LOVED Bridget Jones.  HATED Shopaholic.  Does that mean I love or hate chick lit or just like some books and dislike others?  I do think chick lit is associated with a lot of shopping but there’s a lot of shopping (or acquiring of new outfits by trading or borrowing) in Jennifer Crusie too and I guess she is not considered chick lit?  Jane Austen is set in England and has relationships, secondary characters, a focus on women and no explicit sex – and, as I recall, some serious shopping for bonnets or ribbons or something so is Pride and Prej chick lit?  If it is, I guess I’m a fan!

    Captcha:  Only 69.  Seriously.  I’m not making this up.  So many jokes, so little time.

  15. kkw says:

    Sure, it would suggest chick lit, just like pacific northwest signals likelihood of paranormality.  If chicklit and contemporary urban set novels featuring single females were different circles on a Venn diagram, there would be a lot of overlap, but separate areas as well, as they’re not the same thing.  I’d be thrilled to read more urban set contemporary romance, UK or elsewhere, so I don’t see it as a problem – unless it were marketed as chicklit, which I tend to avoid.  I don’t know if there’s a standard definition, but I think of chicklit as fiction lite.  Whereas romance means trashy novels.  It’s like the difference between mediocre food and junk food.

  16. Laura (in PA) says:

    This made my head hurt. I am another one who isn’t clear on the difference between chick lit and romance, and it looks like different people have different definitions. That said, I LOVE Jill Mansell and Katie Fforde and Gil McNeil and lots of other UK authors, and I, too, HATED the Shopaholic books.

    Whatever all that means…

  17. donna says:

    What @Tina C said.
    I hadn’t really thought about this before, but I must say that when I read a blurb of that nature, don’t egg me, I put it down and walk away. I’d walk away from the same scenerio set in LA or NY, so what does that say about me?… Aside from the fact that I’ve missed some good books…

    spamword would64. If I could I would list 64 reasons the term chick lit often strikes me as perjorative.

  18. Randi says:

    “Here’s a strange question for you. Does a contemporary romance set in urban parts of England signal Chick Lit to you as a US (or outside-the-US) reader?”

    No. Chick lit, in my mind, is simply a story about a woman growing up, or maturing. There might be romance, but not necessarily an HEA and, in fact, the romance is not the core goal of the storyline. Conversely, I expect a romance to end in an HEA and the core goal to BE the romance. Locale has no impact, for me, on either genre.

  19. Kate Pearce says:

    Not sure I’d agree with that. I read quite a bit of Brit chick lit and often the theme is urbanite female plunked in the countryside out of her comfort zone and having to adapt, with a hunky (usually grumpy) hero on the side. There are usually a lot of secondary characters, some serious themes running through the plot and the h/h occasionally get to flirt, kiss or have relationships with others rather than in a U.S. romance when that tends to all stop when the story begins.
    I really like UK chick lit but have struggled with the U.S. version which seems to lose the serious themes part.

  20. Nadia says:

    Tina C. said:

    Not necessarily, but single female + urban parts of England + romance + first person narration = chick lit pretty much all of the time.

    I’m gonna add trade paperback sizing and shoe, purse, or dress on the cover to that.  Add in at least one scene of excruciating public humiliation meant to be humorous teachable moment, and you are good to go. 

    Location isn’t the defining factor, but success breeds popularity, and the London chick-lit girl is the Queen Bee of that subgenre, with only the New Yorker in competition for the title.

  21. Lilian Darcy says:

    Randi, that’s a really interested definition of chick lit, and of the diference between chick lit and romance. I like it.

    I’ve struggled in my women’s fiction with a whole lot of “What is it that I write?” and “Where does it fit?” type questions, especially since chick lit became largely a pejorative term, and you’ve given me something to think about.  Thanks!

  22. Vicki says:

    Certainly there are certain genres that seem to use certain settings frequently but those same settings are also found in other genres. In general, setting does not make me think specific genre.

    I have lived a number of places. I enjoy reading various genres set in those places as long as the author gets enough detail right. One of the places, however, was a nightmare that left long repercussions with husband and kids. I have trouble reading anything set in that area and usually avoid books set in that area.

  23. Susan says:

    Hmm.  So…setting indicates genre or subgenre?  News to me.  So, what kind of books are set in lower middle class suburbs of Dallas, TX?  I happen to live in one…

    Oh, of course.  The fictional version of “You May Be A Redneck If…”

  24. orchid7 says:

    Honestly, if I hear a book is a contemporary story set in England, my first thought is definitely “chick-lit”. I would probably base my final decision about whether or not to bother with reading the synopsis blurb based on whether or not I liked the cover design. I will very occasionally read a book with a slight “chick-lit” feel to it, but I’m not really into that whole genre very much. Once I hear the location, if the cover and story idea don’t really appeal to me, I won’t bother with it.
    I disagree with some of the other commenters about the story’s location not helping to determine it’s genre. The location gives the “feel” to the story as much as the characters and the plot. And certain genres tend to be located more often in certain locations.

  25. DianeN says:

    I’d like to know what marketing exec coined the term “chick lit.” I’m willing to bet the farm (the one I don’t own!) that it was a man. I honestly don’t know what chick lit even means anymore, and judging by prior posts it seems like I’m not alone. Perhaps when prompted for a definition, Mr. Marketer said “Oh, they’ll know it when they see it.” That might have even been true back in the early Bridget Jones era. Today, not so much!

  26. Over a year ago, a published writer critiquing my query told me not to use the phrase “chick-lit”.  Yet I see it all the time.  Why do some people think that definition of a genre doesn’t/shouldn’t exist any longer, how would you define it, and what are the people who are publishing it calling it?

  27. Scrin says:

    Frankly, I’m surprised there’s not more urban fantasy set in England and other European cities.

    There’s the Nightside books by Simon R. Green, which are set in a pocket dimension connected to London—a city where it’s always night, always three in the morning, and the moon is a dozen times larger than the one on earth. A city where the eternal night is lit by the eternal neon of the come-ons and clubs for tourists after desires too dark to be shared anywhere the sun has touched.
    I can recommend them for light reading. John Taylor, the hero and narrator, is a PI with a gift—he can find anything. Other characters include Suzie Shooter (aka Shotgun Suzie, aka The Only Woman Ever Thrown Out OF The SAS For Excessive Brutality, aka Oh God it’s her, run!), Razor Eddie (the Punk God of the Straight Razor), Dead Boy (has been seventeen for thirty years. Killed on the street in a random mugging, and came back, possessing his own dead body for horrible revenge. Now trapped and unable to die because he didn’t read the fine print on his deal with the devil), and Tommy Oblivion (the Existential Detective, who specializes in crimes that may or may not have happened).

    The author does tend to get repetitive after a while but the books are fun.

  28. Donna says:

    So, what kind of books are set in lower middle class suburbs of Dallas, TX?  I happen to live in one…

    @Susan, that would be the Southern Vampire series aka as the Sookie Stackhouse books aka True Blood. So be careful out there. Things definitely go bump in the night in your neighborhood!!

  29. CarrieS says:

    @ Silver James and Scrin:  also of course there is Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, Kraken by Chia Melville, The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul, by Douglas Adams – none of these are romance or chick lit by any reasonable possible definition, but all are urban fantasy set in contemporary London.  If we’re adding all of England and other European cities, we’re looking at a really long post, even if we only count more or less contem. settings. 

    yes38 – yes, I have read 38 books set in London and I think I hit every genre except Western 🙂

  30. Kari says:

    Chick Lit versus Romance, just my opinion.

    It all boils down to who’s the maid of honor: the relationship or the heroine’s self-discovery. I don’t think it matters much about the setting although some are more common than others.

    (Also the sex is better in a romance.)

  31. Psychbucket says:

    Chick lit to me is represented by the trade paperbacks marked down to $4.99 at B&N with cutesy neon-toned line-drawings on the cover.  The heroine is usually a loveable screw-up on the brink of some sort of professional or personal disaster, usually induced in some way or another by her not understanding the importance and nature of true luuuurve.  Lo and behold, along comes the hero who is either another loveable screw-up or a devastatingly handsome fellow with issues, either of whom are inexplicably charmed by the heroine.  HEAs all around.  From the limited amount of chick lit I’ve consumed (or attempted to consume; I think most of my DNFs were chick lit), settings are either major urban centers or small town hodunk-podunk land.  In any event, I don’t find the genre appealing and I’ve given up buying them even when they are super cheap (think $1.00).

  32. @Psychbucket.  I did feel the cover art was the distinguishing feature.

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