Romance is the bestselling fiction genre, and yet, it is often dismissed as being “fluff” or a “guilty pleasure.” Like a “sharing size” bag of peanut M&Ms you don’t share, many readers are embarrassed that they love to read love stories. Heck, I used to emphasize that I wrote historical fiction and then would mumble under my breath, “historical romance fiction.” We’ve been led to believe that unless a book made Oprah’s book club or was fit to be dissected in a graduate level literature class, it had no real worth. Even the ubiquitous “cozy” murder mystery has been considered smarter? More thought worthy?
Well, I’m done with being “ashamed” of loving reading and writing romance. Here’s why: nearly every great work of literature has, at its core, a deep relationship that evolves throughout the story. And very often, those relationships are romantic ones. They may not follow some of the strictures of a romance (a guaranteed happy ending being one), but they are, in essence, a romance.
It is not outrageous to propose that romance is looked down upon in the literary world because it is largely written by women, for women. Consider Nicholas Sparks’ books. They are listed primarily as Contemporary Fiction, Family Fiction, and even Animal Fiction (I was today years old when I learned this was a genre!). Eleven of his books have been made into movies!
Now I’m not bitter—I love an author’s success and I love that people love reading books about relationships (duh!). I just think we need to recognize that many authors like Sparks are writing romances, but they’re dodging the stigma, mostly by being male. Let’s just drop the stigma!
Watching two characters evolve, seeing the unfolding of how they interact and grow to love one another is primal human stuff, people! Don’t say reading romance is your “guilty pleasure.” Just enjoy what pleasure it brings you, just like those M&Ms!
Although I've mostly published in romance (just wait, my GreatAmericanNovel is not romance--more later!), I read across most genres. This year I particularly enjoyed sci-fi/speculative science and mystery, but as always a complex character with a rewarding developmental arc stays with me long past the end of the book!
In no particular order, here are my favorite 10 books (why is it always ten?)
Normally, a character will tap on my mental shoulder and whisper a bit of their story in my ear. I always listen, even if they decide they don't want their story to become a book. Only once did I decide I couldn't tell their story.
HOWEVER, I set an assignment for myself: I decided to write a prequel, enemies-to-lovers novella telling the love story of Eleanor Chalcroft's parents (Eleanor was in The Lady's Secret, book 2 of The Unconventionals). I have a plan for this which I will share soon.
Imagine my surprise when Eleanor's mother gave me a blank stare when I demanded she share how she fell in love with Eleanor's father!
Of course while I was deciding this, I returned to working in the office after working at home for 18 months AND enrolled in two grad classes (yes, I am crazy. As if the first paragraph of this post didn't inform you...) It finally occurred to me that Lady Eudora (Eleanor's mother) was not just going to share her most personal experiences to an author who was as distracted as I was. And yes, I learned all about cognitive load in last semester's grad class. So there it was, a fancy description of why I couldn't write.
But that didn't solve my problem. I actually started to worry a bit. For the past seven years, I've been able to write non-stop. With the romances, I usually knew what story was next before I'd even finished the one I was working on. Then I wrote a modern grief/relationship/science fictionish book and wasn't sure what to work on until a publisher acquired my last romance and I had a slew of edits to work on. I thought I was back in the game, but alas.
I am a strong believer in the power of the subconscious. Not in any sort of mystical way (although, why not? Our brains are pretty amazing), but in a "I will consciously state this problem and then not worry about it. Tomorrow or the next day, the answer will be ready for me." It's proven true with freakish regularity in my writing. So I kept thinking to myself "Lady Eudora hated Lord XYZ and then something happened to change that. What was that something? And why did she hate him?"
Finally today, I made myself take a long walk without earbuds. Every time I thought of something I needed to do or an email I needed to send, I shoved it away. Finally, at about step 3,000 she gave in! Not just her, but Lord Hugh (? I think that's his name...for some reason I'm sure it begins with an H) started sharing little bits of their love story. I even had a short scene play out in my head. You can't imagine the relief I felt! As soon as I got back to my desk, I jotted everything down so I wouldn't forget. And I'm taking Friday off of the day job to get some WORDS ON PAPER!!!
Why can I write an 80-110,000 word book with (relatively) little pain, but when I have to come up with a title?? I think I'd rather have to edit by candlelight. I like some of my book names. Lord Worthing's Wallflower is a good one because it tells the reader that it's a historical and that the heroine is that ever-popular trope of the overlooked woman. My most recent book, The Daring Mrs. Kent is another favorite title, but not as effective at conveying exactly what the book is. But then there is The Dishonorable Knight. <sigh> I actually love this story and don't know what I was thinking with this title. I mean, our knight hero does defect from Richard III's service and goes and helps the future Henry VII, so technically he "dishonored" his vow to his king. But ... yeah. I wouldn't have made that choice again.
I also have a lot of difficulty coming up with blurbs and hooks (those paragraph and one-line descriptors to tell people what the books is about). HOW can you convey an entire book's meaning in one sentence?? Well, there are professional copywriters who can do just that, but I am certainly not one of them!
Well, wait...I just looked up The Scarlet Letter on Amazon and here's the hook:
"An 1850 work of fiction in a historical setting, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne and thought to be his best work." Ok, clearly I'm not the only one who has difficulty writing a gripping hook!
And oooh, there are lists and lists of the worst book titles ever! Like
Essentially, writing "short" is a completely different skill set than writing a novel and one I need to work on!
Years ago, I was in a writer’s group with my dad. We all wrote in different genres; I was the only romance writer at the time.
I remember hearing a successful author one time bemoan the fact that his mom read one of his books that contained a sex scene. He was embarrassed and awkward about it. Huh, I remember thinking. At least she didn’t have to read it with you in the room, an hour after it came of the printer! There’s nothing like having your dad sitting across the chips and salsa at writer’s group reading your first sex scene. Not only that, this was my first book (which thankfully disappeared in one of my computer upgrades over the years).
I’d been a big fan of Judith McNaught at the time who wrote male characters who were “damaged” (i.e., assholes) and female characters who were “pure” and way too understanding. She had a few sex scenes that were…uncomfortable. Needless to say, I followed suit in my characters’ first scene. And MY DAD HAD TO READ IT! GAH!
A few years ago, I had a friend start reading my books. She’d never read romance before and she loved them. But she couldn’t get away from the fact that she knew me. Reading sex scenes I’d written made her feel like she was peaking in my diary, apparently. I tried to explain that they weren’t my scenes. Yes, I wrote them, but I certainly didn’t replicate experiences from my own life.
It’s sometimes hard to explain to a non-writer how these people (characters) live in your head and you try to massage
their story, but ultimately (at least for me), their experiences are entirely theirs. I don’t feel like I create the characters so much as I discover them. As I write their story, if I’m doing a good job, they begin to trust me and share more about themselves.
I know that sounds like I’m channeling the dead or something equally paranormal, but it’s the only way I can explain it. It’s the only thing that explains to me how something that I wrote in chapter three with no plan for that something to become a major plot point suddenly turns up in chapter eighteen with major significance. Yes, I plan my story, the timeline, the progression of conflicts and challenges, the character arcs, but only loosely. It’s the characters who ultimately flesh it out and make it real. I just get to put the words on paper.
So, if you know the person who wrote that spicy scene you’ve reread three times, don’t worry that you’re some sort of voyeur. Chances are, the writer was just as surprised by the turn of events as you!
You write for weeks, months even. Dragging words out of a brain loathe to give them up, crafting a plot and characters, finally bringing all the various threads of the story together in a satisfying resolution. Finished! your baby has been born and it is perfect. It is just as it should be and the world is surely looking to read its magnificence.
Except you have twenty instances of passive voice. And waaaay too many dialogues in the second half of the book but the first half you can't tell who's talking because there are too few. And where did that secondary character go? They dropped off the page in chapter thirteen. But weren't they crucial to the finale? Let's not even get into how cheesy that flirtation scene between the two main characters was....
Years ago, I was a technical editor. I would try to make technical information written by engineers and physicists comprehensible to the rest of us. At one lab, the tech experts were so grateful for my assistance. They were amazed at how I'd taken their random thoughts and synthesized them into a cohesive document. An another lab...The documents were fine just as they were, thank you very much. I'm not sure they ever incorporated any of my edits into the final product. Sheesh, what egos, I remember thinking.
Over the course of writing my last six novels, I fell into a rhythm a pattern that was
The tension between them was palpable. Elizabeth felt her heart pounding in her breast as Lord Winters stalked closer. His broad shoulders blocked the feeble light from the fireplace and his smoldering gaze was locked on hers. He stopped mere inches from her and she could feel the heat radiating off his body. Her fingers itched to brush the lock of hair off his brow but she knew if she stayed in this room, she risked being caught and her reputation ruined.
“I’m going to kiss you, Elizabeth,” he said, the low rumble of his voice causing the fine hairs at her nape to raise in delicious anticipation.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she replied shakily.
“Of course it’s not, but you can’t deny the attraction between us.”
He was right. Since the moment they’d met, there had been a visceral pull between them, one that threatened everything she’d worked so hard to attain. Grasping onto the shreds of her common sense, she moved to leave.
He grabbed her shoulders and pulled her against the rigid contours of his body. A shiver like a static shock ran through her body but she shook her head as he bent to kiss her.
“No . . . You musn’t,” she insisted, but he ignored her, plundering her mouth with--
<Insert record scratch . . . >
Did he just ignore her directive to stop?
I’ve read historical romances for more than twenty years, and while there are some trite stories and terrible writing, there are also books that feed the soul, that allow you to experience the rush of new love and the heartbreak of young and old, that teach you about personalities and relationships far outside the bedroom.
However, as a feminist whose awareness of how the normalization of anti-feminist beliefs sets us all back, I often find problematic scenes in historical romances.
Do you know that picture in Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion? The one with the Victorian girl and her parasol? As the room stretches, she’s revealed to be balanced precariously on a sagging tightrope over a pit of hungry crocodiles. As a writer of historical romances, I often find myself sympathetic to that girl’s position. I wish to write a strong female character who is loved and respected by an equally strong male character but must still make them seem believable in a time period one, two, or five hundred years past.
Historically, women have had very little control over their lives and bodies. And history books written by men have, either by intent or ignorance, obliterated those who strayed from the norm of a “well-behaved woman.” Writing a historical romance that embodies the flavor of a bygone era while maintaining prose that does not normalize misogynistic and anti-feminist behavior is not only achievable, but it is downright crucial.
In my experience, people either enjoy romance books, or they roll their eyes and relegate it to a category of literature a step above tabloids, as if it is somehow not intellectually credible to focus on a couple’s relationship.
Never mind that stories from Shakespeare to John Greene, Jane Austen to Leo Tolstoy have featured the building and development of such a relationship as a pivotal part of the story. Never mind that a book like The Horse Whisperer can become an international sensation and even go on to be made into a movie starring Robert Redford. It was written by a man and so not marketed as a romance, but as mainstream fiction.
I offer this defense of my genre simply to illustrate its key importance to the evolution of our society to one of equality and mutual respect. Approximately thirty-four percent of fiction sold in the U.S. is romance—that's no small influence on our culture.
A modern romance can easily feature feminist characters. Not so easy, one might think, for a story based in the Regency era, for example. But a historical romance is an incredibly effective genre to tell a relationship story for the simple reason that when you remove modern “conveniences” like cell phones, televisions, cars, and fast food, you are left with a time period that focused more on interpersonal interactions, rather than relationships that could be carried out almost exclusively online or via text.
Read a Jane Austen novel and you’ll notice that the characters are forever taking walks. No TV and no internet means you had to find something to do and a walk through the countryside or garden was a socially acceptable way for men and women to spend time together. So all of a sudden, you have characters who are able to talk, to get to know one another. As a writer, it allows you to focus on the point of your story.
In today’s historical romance genre, the female lead is generally a bit of an outsider. She is not the most beautiful girl (in society’s eyes), or she fancies books too much, or she (gasp) has had to work to save herself, her family, her castle. However, as more and more accounts of “unusual” women come to light in the academic world of history, I think it becomes very evident that “usual” women were not necessarily the norm.
“Until the lion learns to write, every story will glorify the hunter” –African proverb
I first read “Whitney, My Love” early in my romance-reading phase. At the time, I thought the crop-wielding beating and rape scenes harsh and traumatic, but I bought into the idea of a male protagonist as the “rake” who goes on to be reformed. The biggest tragedy of this book is that the female protagonist blames herself for inciting his actions.
“She had driven him to it, by denying her feelings for him for so long, by her blind determination to marry Paul.” Twenty-two-year-old me allowed the male character to remain the hero of the book. Interestingly, the author re-wrote those two scenes in a later edition. However, the lead was still ultimately a misogynistic predator.
Older me was not impressed.
On the other side of the spectrum is the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. This is the story of a World War II nurse who travels back in time to eighteenth century Scotland. It was initially marketed as a historical romance and the author has since sold twenty-five million books. Her incredible success is due to the memorable main characters and their relationship which is at once intellectual, sensual, humorous, and constantly evolving.
It was only when planning this article that I realized how effortlessly Gabaldon created an eighteenth-century male protagonist who was strong, powerful, charismatic, and yet completely feminist. Not once does Jamie treat Claire as anything less than his equal.
There is not a single instance of “mansplaning” in over 5,000 pages of story, and yet he is utterly believable as a Highland Scot of 1743. There is a corporal punishment scene in the first book when Jamie must put Claire over his knee for actions which put their group at mortal risk.
But the thrashing occurs because she is a member of the clan, not because she is his subservient wife. He tells her that if she were a man, she’d have been beaten with fists for her gross misconduct, and it is only by her accepting similar, though less brutal, punishment that the rest of the group will forgive and accept her.
You could argue that he should not have laid a hand on her at all, but this scene was handled with a perfect blend of modern sensibilities meeting norms of the distant past.
In editing a manuscript I first wrote a few years ago, I came across a sex scene in which the male protagonist approached the female protagonist “like a predator.” What I meant, of course, is that he was moving with the sinuous grace of a lion. But I didn’t expand on that and as a result, the “predator” disrupted what was otherwise a rather engaging bit of steaminess.
I am all for a bit of consensual dominance in a love scene. There is a great deal of intellectual engagement to be enjoyed with the physical differences between men and women. But a writer must take care to illustrate that enjoyment and not allow predatory behavior and physical dominance to become the norm in writing a historical relationship.
Aggression toward women is still so easy to normalize that even an avowed feminist can find herself using words or phrases that evoke a male hierarchy. When we remove it from our writing—even when writing about a time generally considered more misogynistic—it allows the reader to enjoy the story, encourages her to expect respect, and allows for the awareness that people in the past were not necessarily how history books portray them.
I had no idea how long it had been since I posted here! I think keeping up the whole Facebook page has fulfilled my "need to share." And in fact, this blog entry began as a Facebook post. It was only when I was in paragraph three that I thought, "oh, hey, this sounds like a blog!" And so here we are...
For the last 8 years I've been writing pretty much non-stop. I would generally know what my next book was going to be near the end of the one I was writing and I would jump into it quickly after first edits.
I spent ten months of last year writing a completely different book (from my usual historical romance), called The Space Inside. I put a lot of myself into each character, even though only one scene in the book is based on an actual experience. After lots of edits, I jumped into the new idea and began writing. I hit about 28K words when I just went "ugh."
It's not writer's block...I just don't feel the story has enough flesh to make a full book. I think it has potential as a short story (which I have no experience writing) and I'll get to it. But now I'm going to do something different. I'm going to keep editing and re-writing, and staying in the mindset of The Space Inside while I seek an agent to represent it. I'm going to try keeping my energy on this project because I really, deeply believe in it. And also, I think I need a break! I think I finally know why some writers have years go between their books.
At any rate, if you've made it this far in my mid-week ramble, thank you! And I'd love to hear your thoughts on the use of breaks (and particularly if you know if any good agents looking for material )
I write romance. Because I love romance. Mostly historical romance and right now mostly Regency/Victorian era for reasons that will be its own blog post. Because I love romance, I obviously read a lot of it. But I also read it to better my own writing. So while part of my brain is (hopefully) falling in love with the characters, another part is analyzing how far in the characters meet, how much backstory there is, how snappy the dialogue is.
Sometimes the characters, the story just don't catch me. Those books I try to analyze even more and for right now, I've determined that more often than not it is the the snappy dialogue (or lack there of) that has done a story in.
Perhaps I should clarify. Not every couple has to have rapid-fire, Julia Quinn-ish verbal repartee to be engaging. However, the dialogue has got to be natural. And more often than not, when I don't love the characters, when I don't fall in love alongside the characters, it's because their interactions are contrived.
True confession time. I started this blog post three weeks ago because I was reading a book that just had such contrived dialogue it was a chore to finish the book (I rarely don't finish a book even if I don't love it. Sometimes I shut it down, but usually I plow through). Then I thought, "This post won't make sense if I don't show some examples of contrived dialogue." But then I thought, "How can I in good conscience hold up someone else's work for criticism when my own writing is far from perfect?" So then I thought I would create some pseudo-dialogue to demonstrate but seriously, I am trying to write better dialogue and I don't think it's a good idea to purposefully write bad dialogue. Plus, who really has the time. I mean, c'mon. So I saved this post in drafts.
And I finished the book with unnatural dialogue. Finally. And then I read another book. Am currently reading, I should clarify. And OMG the dialogue is so stilted! (And, coincidentally I looked at my blog posts and realized I'd only posted two updates this year...) And so here I am again, dragging this post out of the drafts folder.
I really try to enact dialogue scenes in my head. Well, that's not exactly true. What I do is hear the dialogue in my head (seriously, I have very little control over it) and transcribe it. Sometimes I have to create it to link two scenes, to get important information across, or perhaps because the voice in my head has laryngitis. Either way, I read it and re-read it and try to make sure it sounds like actual human interaction. Perhaps that's why I use so many em-dashes. Because I am often incapable of completing a sentences without thinking of something else I want to say, forgetting what I was going to say (because my mind has already gone on to the next subject) or occasionally because someone has interrupted me with their own interjections.
It goes something like this:
Me: "I heard this story on NPR about how exercise can prevent Alzheimers--oh did you sign up for that dance class? Are we going because I have something that evening--but we should really make each other--
Friend/husband/child: "No I don't want to learn Samba. By the way, what are we having for dinner--"
Me: "That reminds me, I forgot to ask you to pick up a loaf of bread--oh there are my keys! Anyway, about this story..."
As a result, this sounds natural to me and while I try to keep my characters on topic, I do allow their sentences to be interrupted or their words to fade off. Do other writers do that? And by other writers, I mean the one's whose dialogue feels so contrived to me. And does it sound natural to them? And if so, is that how they speak? Because if so, she and I would clearly never meet for coffee...
I've wanted to be a writer since college--I started out wanting to be a journalist, then I wanted to be a technical writer. When I discovered historical fiction and particularly historical romance, i knew I'd found the genre I was passionate about, but I sure as heck wasn't passionate about the writing process. It was arduous, painful, and darned inconvenient! Now, years later I realize I was only learning to write. I spent years as a dance teacher and I knew first hand that learning an art form was painful, but somehow I never made the connection to writing so I was always slightly resentful that it didn't come easier. It took me years as a dancer, but I reached a point where I could choreograph a group dance in a couple of hours instead of weeks. Now I have finally reached a point where I can make the words come more smoothly. The point being, whatever you do, don't forget to give yourself some slack for that learning curve!
Great, all I need is one more reason to procrastinate! As if Instagram wasn't enough...