Welcome to the first in a two-part Q & A with three terrific writers, USA Today bestselling author, Victoria Barbour, award-winning Highlands Chiefs historical romance writer, Kate Robbins, and bestselling Young Adult writer and about-to-be romantic suspense author Robin St. Croix. I am seeking expert advice on how to turn my battered fiction brain to the art of the romance novel.
First the background to my quest: Several years ago, I had an unnerving experience at a book signing. It was a large box store with a reputation for moving huge amounts of books, so I was grateful my publisher had booked me. Under the iron roof and the fluorescent lights there was more of a bustle than usual. I was excited by the possibilities.
And scarcely had I sat down at the end of the book aisle, but a large bristling mob of buyers — mainly female, I noticed — had gathered around my table. Who would have known I was so popular?
Actually I wasn’t.
Behind my table were shining copies of a book I hadn’t heard of, but the frustrated mob of buyers clearly had. I was sitting between them and the novel they craved. Before long I was being mobbed, and not in a good way. One lady literally shoved me aside as she reached over me for her copy. Another knocked me on the forehead with the spine of her purchase. My (unused) signing pen skittered along the concrete floor and I was obliged to negotiate feet and shopping cart wheels as I retrieved it — to little purpose as it turned out.
The book, if you hadn’t guessed by now, was Fifty Shades of Grey. Don’t try pressing the title hoping to find a link. I haven’t added it. Am I bitter? Yes.
At the time I was flustered. No doubt the literary snob in me came to the surface as a muttered something less than generous about the likely contents of this most popular of works. But something else happened too; somewhere in the dim inner recesses of my mind a faint voice had begun to chime: if you can’t beat them, join them.
Well not everyone admires Fifty Shades of Grey, although who can blame any of us for envying its success? And a number of very talented writers have turned their hands to the romance genre. Among these are some remarkable success stories who produce some excellent writing. I recently asked advice from three of these literary uber-achievers.
My first question is to bestselling author Victoria Barbour who scored big with her e-books even before Against her Rules and Hard as Ice became available in print format.
Question: I’ve started a romantic novel and I thought everything was going fine when I noticed I’ve given my heroine a mysterious love interest, a disinterested current boyfriend and an alcoholic ex-husband. I was aiming for romance, but I seemed to have crash-landed into the foam of a kitchen sink drama. And my heroine might be a little too sour, a bit too disappointed.
How do you keep things uncomplicated, yet interesting? And (related question) how complicated does my heroine’s life have to be before it gets . . . well, just too messy?
Victoria’s Answer: That sounds like a romance I’d love to read! And so would many other readers. There’s a misconception about romance that it has to be simple and uncomplicated. There’s only one hard and fast rule about romance and that’s the mandatory HEA (Happily ever after.) The key to complexity is believably. Readers identify with believable characters. They need complexities to be real.
Complicated is great as long as it’s not convoluted or contrived. I never try to keep things neat and tidy. The stories I write come from what is keeping me entertained as a storyteller. I don’t think there’s such a thing as too messy…. as long as you can make it all come together in the end with a positive resolution. Her whole life doesn’t have to be perfect, but the relationship should make facing the rest of her challenges easier. Jaded heroines are great, especially if they do so with sassy and wit and strength. I’ve learned that you can’t please all readers. I’ve created characters that some readers haven’t liked at all. But I don’t regret that because those were the characters that the story needed. If you feel your story is getting too bogged down in tropes think about the heart of the story you want to tell and let that help you rise from the foam of your soapy drama.
Question: What about place? Your novels have sweeping landscapes, rising mists. I’ve set my novel in Mount Pearl — just joking . . . But my setting is indeed urban and contemporary. Yet the romantic dimension still has to be there. How much do you think my story could have in common with the historical romances you have perfected?
Kate’s Answer: A good setting is important in all fiction. In some cases it can be considered an additional character when it helps shape the plot. In historical romance, the key element, besides the romance, is the history and as such things like setting, clothing, and manners add a certain charm to the story. Breaking through strict propriety in the medieval era adds another layer of challenge for the H/h’s romance to blossom. Part of the fascination of historical fiction is readers get to learn what life could have been like during a certain time frame they find appealing.
In your case, being contemporary and urban, on the surface I would say the location and time frame are miles apart, but that should not matter if the romance is front and centre and the setting plays a role in the plot. Your characters may have barriers that their place and time present making it unique to them and allowing their story to stand apart from others in the contemporary genre.
Newfoundland set romance novels are a new beast, thanks to trailblazers like Victoria Barbour. I see them as a great opportunity to expose contemporary romance readers to a great location with a unique set of challenges simply based on where we live. And really, that’s part of the beauty of living here. We are the best kept secret in the world for a good reason.
I think your setting and era will be a large part of your novel and I very much look forward to reading it.
Next I turn to a bestselling YA author who will soon release a very intriguing series of romantic suspense novels under the name, Robin St. Croix.
Question: I’ve always admired your organizational skills. I know you have character maps and graphs and so on. In the past I have always avoided this to an almost superstitious extent. If I write it down, I always fear, it’s pegging a character too much and robbing him/her of independent life. Do I have to cast this superstition aside? Is planning more of an integral part of “genre” fiction than it is in mainstream or “literary” fiction?
Robin’s Answer: Yes, I am freakishly organized. It’s a running joke between myself and Victoria Barbour. For me, having outlines is more about me and the kinds of stories I tell, and less about the genre in which I’m writing. I tell big stories with twisty plots. My YA series is one over-arching story told over 9 full-length novels. My romantic suspense novel “Masquerade” is one story in 12 parts. If I don’t map out what’s happening, my books will wander and the reader will lose interest. I have to know what the breadcrumbs are and where to drop them so that my readers can savour the endings. It takes time to write these big stories. There’s no way I can remember all the details without outlining.
For other authors, outlines don’t work at all — they find them restricting. (Although in certain sub genres of romance restriction is an asset.) In the end the only thing that matters is that you have a good story that readers enjoy. How you get there is entirely up to you. If you want to try mapping though, I highly recommend “The Story Grid” by Shawn Coyne. It was developed for book editing, but works as a brilliant planning tool. (For an overview of what “The Story Grid” is all about check out Shawn’s YouTube videos. He also has a podcast)
The most important thing is that you have fun writing it. If it’s fun to write, it will be fun to read.
Great answers, all! In the next blog, I will talk to Robin, Kate and Victoria about how to handle a sex scene, the importance of escapism, and the origins of the romance novel. Stay tuned!