A Newbies Guide to Romance
Ah, romance. Everyone thinks something different when they hear it, and especially when you are talking about the literary genre called Romance. For one thing, it can be argued that tales as far back as Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe were romances, as in the romanticized tales of action and adventure, in which the guy always got the girl. In a more strict sense, the Romance genre began with Jane Austen’s comedy of manners tales of wooing, marriage, and slowly developed relationships. Now? Well, when I started talking about writing a romance, this is what my First Reader told me he thought of when he heard the term.
The problem with romance is that this is what the typical romance novel is, especially the harlequin books of the 60’s which was the last time I read one. Nurse Jane loves Dr John, who is handsome and everything she wants. Dr John is caring for terminally ill patient Clara. Nurse Jane is sure Dr John loves Patient Clara. Patient Clara is actually Dr John’s sister/mother/aunt, and would love to see Jane and John together. Dr John loves Nurse Jane, but doesn’t know how to approach such a ravishing beauty, he’s sure he’s not worthy. Patient Clara pushes them together. Sparks fly, there is an explosion, they break up, but true love wins out and they get back together. If Patient Clara is terminal or not, she’s at the wedding, if she’s terminal, it’s her last act before she dies.
So… well, the good thing is that’s no longer a common theme in romances, although I swear I’ve read something like this myself. You see, when I was younger, and we lived out in the deep woods, 5 miles or more from the library, I used to read every book in the house, even the Harlequin romances my mother thought she had hidden (sorry, Mom). It didn’t take me long (at the age of ten or eleven) to figure out that the one thing romances have in common is a formula. More than any other genre, Romance is full of comfort reads, which means that the readers expect to see certain things. Perhaps the most firmly set-in-stone rule is the HEA (happily ever after) ending. Heaven help you if you write one without that.
I’m really not kidding, folks, Harlequin (whom I’m using as an exemplar because this is the publisher most people associate with Romance, although I strongly recommend you go read this before you even consider submitting to them. Submission to Harlequin is like going all 50 Shades on the author doing so, and not in a good way). Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes, Harlequin has a specific template of what they want to see in manuscripts to this day. For any of you considering writing and indie-publishing romance, this isn’t a bad place to start, to get an idea of what readers will expect to see in your work.
Can you get away with not writing to a formula? Yes, maybe, I don’t know? I’m trying, with what I’m writing. I’m really sick of the neverending TSTL heroines (too stupid to live) I remember from reading illicit romances as a girl. On the other hand, some authors and books made strong impressions on me, and them I wouldn’t mind emulating. Gaudy Night, for instance, Dorothy Sayer’s romantic mystery tale of how Lord Peter and Harriet finally got together.
“But when he entered, she knew that the image had been a false one. He came into the quiet room as though he belonged there, and had never belonged to any other place.” And a little later, “Harriet could find nothing to say to him. She had fought him for five years, and found out nothing but his strength; now, withn half an hour, he had exposed all his weaknesses, on after the other. And she could not in honesty say ‘why didn’t you tell me before?’ because she knew perfectly well what the answer ought to be. Fortunately, he did not seem to expect any comment.”
Now this is such an understated love-affair you can almost miss the undercurrents that are in play, the give-and-take that make a real relationship, one outside the covers of a book, one that might last the undertow of time. Unlike the explosions and flames of the trite stories.
Another author I grew up reading – couldn’t help it, given my name, and everything – is Zane Grey. Between him, and Louis L’Amour, I was steeped in a Western romance until it flavoured much of my outlook. I pulled Maverick Queen off the shelf to find an exemplar passage to share, and this one is colorful enough.
“The sheriff shoved open the door to reveal Lucy, clad in a new becoming blue costume with a small bunch of flowers adorning her coat. To Lincoln it seemed that he had never seen anything so beautiful as the blue of her eyes or the flush that tinged her cheek.
‘Go on in, young lady,’ said the sheriff. ‘He looks kinda like he might want to see you after all… Wal, young folks, I’ll lock this gate and stand guard.’ He closed the door, chuckling to himself. For and instant they stood looking into each other’s eyes; then she literally ran into his arms.”
Here we see a more floral language, and open sentimentality that suits the style of the era it was written in, although it may seem strange to our modern sensibilities. Another of my old-school favorites is The Harvester, by Gene Stratton Porter. Literally floral, in this case, the story of a man who made his living growing and harvesting medicinal herbs. There’s a strong thread of mysticism in this book, as there is in many of her tales.
“’Six years,’ said the Girl softly, as she studied him. ‘I think it has set a mark on you. I believe I can trace it. Your forehead, brow, and eyes bear the lines and the appearance of all experience, but your lips are those of a very young lad. I shouldn’t be surprised if I had that kiss ready for you, and I really believe I can make it worth while.’
“Oh, good Lord!” cried the Harvester, turning a backward somersault over the railing and starting in big bounds up the drive toward the stable. He passed around it and into the woods at a rush, and a few seconds later from somewhere on top of the hill his strong, deep voice swept down, “Glory, glory hallelujah!’”
Even for a book published in 1911 that seems like a funny reaction to the offer of a kiss, but as I said, this is one of my favorite romance tales (she’s been very ill, you see, and he really thought she was dying). I think a lot of my favorite romances fall into the historical settings, like the works of Georgette Heyer, which I recommend for many reasons, not just if you’re thinking about writing romance.
See, here’s the thing. Many, many books have romantic elements in them, without being straight romance. Falling in love is a universal. Pairing off is as natural as breathing. Sometimes there is drama, other times you fit together like to puzzle pieces, and it’s not dramatic at all, just comfort, warmth, and mutual support.
How about modern romance? First, I suggest if you’re interested in learning more about it, you start haunting the blog of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. It’s an education, for sure. I really enjoy some of their snarkier moments, but also, reviews like this one of Lady Windermere’s Lover give you a thumbnail sketch of what’s popular, and reading the comments tells you why.
Secondly, be aware that Romance is a very broad category. Within that, you can find paranormal romance, Western romance, and many more. Type it into Amazon and take a look at the things that pop up, or go here and take a look at the sheer variety of what’s out there. When I was prepping Farmhand, I categorized it as a Romance, and Western Romance, as it involves a modern couple living on a farm out west (sort of Montana, although I was vague about locale, as my mother pointed out, it could well be in Eastern Oregon).
Finally, because I could say a lot more, but this post is getting on the very long side of my usual offerings here, don’t be afraid to write Romance. It’s not always about the tropes. Sometimes it’s about love, family, and life. Focusing on character development, letting your readers get all warm and fuzzy inside without blowing up worlds, well, there’s nothing wrong with that. Big stories about saving the world are good, but so are the little intimate ones about the perpetuation of the human race (ultimately… first, they meet, then they kiss…)
Oh, and you will note I didn’t even get into sex. Not that it doesn’t belong in Romance, but IMHO it’s not what the story is all about. If it is, then it’s properly Erotica, a whole ‘nother ball of wax. By the way, if you don’t have sex onscreen with your romance, you’ll note that the word ‘sweet’ indicates this kind of romance for people searching for their love stories sans smut.
Love is…. holding the cabinet door while your man gets the hinges on straight.
Love is… making your sweetie eat a good breakfast before an exam.
Love is… sneaking up behind her while her hands are in the dishwater and tickling her.
And now, the moment of self-promotion. I have just released a sweet Western Romance, Farmhand. It appears under an open penname, because I know that some of my fans will shy away from anything romance related, and down the road when I have fans of my romances and mysteries that I plan to write, some of them will not appreciate the close encounters with pixies, ogres, and exploding spaceships of my other persona. If you read and enjoy it, please leave a review, as that will help others know what they are looking at when they find it.