Jane Austen: Romance Author or Anti-Romance Author?

Sweeping moorlands, craggy mountains, and kilts fluttering in the breeze. These images could not be farther from Jane Austen. In fact Austen rarely “engaged the senses”  – that single most oft-repeated advice to the modern author, romance and otherwise. Yet, in some crucial ways, Austen helps us define the ingredients of the English-language love story. For instance, her novels are models of symmetry and resolution (the famous happy ever after, for instance) and she explores the psychology of romance in a way that left a recognizable path over which others would follow.

Jane Austen portrait

In this first in a two-part series, five modern romance authors — Jenna Da Sie, Kate Robbins, Robin St. Croix, Barbara Burke, and Carolyn Parsons  — each tackle the question of how we understand Austen in terms of her influence on the modern genre of the romance novel.

Question  1: How might Jane Austen be a precursor to the romance novel as you write it?

Kate Robbins: It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen’s novels are some of the first romance novels of the modern age. However love stories have been around for as long as people have been sharing tales and embellishing the details.

The thing about her novels that makes them stand the test of time is that struggle between the hero and heroine with the promise of the Happily Ever After (HEA). Surely half way through Pride and Prejudice, few could see how Lizzy and Darcy would ever find common ground, yet Austen shows us time and again that no matter what the stakes, love will prevail in the end. The fact that the number one requirement of a romance novel today is the HEA, illustrates her impact on the genre.

Jenna Da Sie: I’ve always been taught to write what you know and all Jane Austen’s characters play out within the realm of the possible. She wrote about the behavior between parents and their children, the dangers and pleasures of falling in love, making friends and discriminating between those who mean us well and those who may not.

There is a clear relationship between Jane Austen’s works and modern day historical romances. Everything that I’ve written has had happy endings, love that overcomes hurdles and many other situations that happen in everyday life.

Jane Austen defined a structure. We all write for the happily ever after. Just as in Pride and Prejudice my novel starts with the main characters having an aversion to one another and in the end find out they are actually attracted to one another.

Barbara Burke: If it weren’t for Jane Austen there wouldn’t be regency romances — So asking this question is like asking a staunch Roman Catholic how God might be a precursor to the world! Georgette Heyer came along in the twentieth century like Jesus and started a whole religion (subgenre) around her worship. Though JA created the template she was actually a contemporary writer, not a regency writer.

Robin St. Croix: It’s important to recognize that in contemporary fiction there’s a distinction between romance novels and love stories. If you look at the Amazon category list, the term romance has taken on a very limited definition. The books tend have simple story lines (i.e. no sub-plot) and half-dressed men on the covers. The lovers are kept apart by nothing more than a bad first impression. Authors think they’re writing a heroine who is prejudiced like Elizabeth Bennet, and a hero who is proud like Mr. Darcy, but they’re not. In modern storytelling, if you want to a book with more oomph, you’ve almost certainly got to head over to the women’s fiction list.

Carolyn Parsons: One similarity is in the creation of rules of engagement. The era plays a role in the navigation of love in the Austen novels with rules determined by society.  In modern times they’re often author-created, but they still exist. By creating and employing rules (usually self-imposed, e.g. a character has decided never to  marry or the lovers live in separate cities and neither can move) the modern-day romance writer mimics Austen.  Navigating these rules and occasionally breaking them creates the tension required to keep a reader engaged.

A second similarity is that she, like the modern-day romance author, brings them close, where they both see the possibility and then creates a situation that blows things all to hell, usually in the form of contrived misunderstandings between the characters. This is followed by despair and a feeling that all is lost. Eventually resolution is found and she brings them to their happy ending(s) in the same way a modern romance writer does.

Question 2: How is she an anti-romance writer? Little physical description of heroines or heroes, except in the vaguest terms, little sensory description of anything. The success or failure of romantic couplings on character strengths or flaws, not physical desire.

Barbara Burke: Bite your tongue. We fall in love with the mind, not the body.  Having said that, there probably isn’t a lot of room in the modern romance world for a writer who emulates Austen too closely. People seem to want their love scenes very graphic and physical these days. I expect if she were alive today she wouldn’t be considered a romance writer – with her penchant for analyzing social mores and interactions as they play out against the background of the central romance she’d probably be classified as a woman’s fiction author, whatever the hell that means.

Carolyn Parsons: One notable difference is that she pays a lot of attention to several love stories at once.  In a modern romance, there is one central romance. Any hint of another romance is taken off into another book altogether which creates many of the series so popular among romance readers today.  Unlike modern romance writers Austen spends a great deal on all the potential couples in her books. Jane and Bingley get a great measure of attention in Pride and Prejudice as do Maryanne and Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility (and then eventually Colonel Brandon.) This leads to another exception…Maryanne’s great love is not the love she ends up with.  Another huge difference is the ages of the characters. Austen’s characters are often teenagers. (Maryanne Dashwood is just sixteen). I consider the Austen novels to fit into the women’s fiction genre far more neatly than they do into the romance genre in many ways though mostly they stand alone and fit into modern literature as simply a literary novel.

Kate Robbins: She is [an anti-modern Romance writer] in the sense that she wrote in omniscient point of view (POV). Romance writers are highly criticized today if we are not deep into the character’s POV with no author intrusion whatsoever. This you will not see in a Jane Austen novel. She is always telling the story resulting in a disconnect between the reader and the characters.

Take the first line in Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Who is telling us this? Lizzy? Mrs. Bennett? No. Jane Austen is telling us this. Incidentally, this is my favourite first line of any book I’ve read.

Jenna La Sie: Jane Austen never wrote love scenes into her novels, the couples always just got together in the last few pages. I think that would be considered anti-romance in the way today’s romance novels are written.

In today’s romance the main characters would meet and dislike each other, but there would still be an attraction between the two of them, either the man or woman noticing. When Mr. Darcy meets Elizabeth he strongly dislikes her and says so: “…till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said, “She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. . .”

More to follow. In Part II as we discuss the other 19th century influences on the romance novel and other ways that Austen herself may have impacted the genre. Thanks to our romance authors (links below) for these insights!

Kate Robbins is the author of the Highlands Chiefs series.

Barbara Burke is the author of the regency romance Recompromising Amanda and the WWII romance Not2Nite.

Jenna Da Sie is a California-based romance writer completing her regency romance novel.

Carolyn Parsons is a Canadian author whose latest novel is Charley through Canada.

Robin St Coix is the author of Masquerade, a novel in twelve parts.

Writing Contest: “New Hook” Update

Are you preparing for the 2017/18 Instant Hook? Good! There are some changes though in keeping with the theme of the history of fiction.

The main one is this: your extract no longer has to be from the very beginning of your novel, but the work must be some kind of ‘riff’ on classic or previously published work (in the public domain). Could be anything from a Helen Fielding-like romp on 19th century literature to a work which uses a Shakespeare play as its template. Your entry could even be a riff on a poem if you like, though, of course, the entry itself must be prose. For the sake of clarity, please state on the entry itself the title of the classic work as well as the title of your entry. Here, below, are the rules:

 

  • The awards are open to anyone who is over 18 at time of entry.
  • The submission must be sole-authored, in English, and no more than 250 words.
  • It must reference, though character, situation or plot, a literary work in the public domain.
  • The extract may have been written for the competition or may be part of a manuscript already completed. But it cannot have been published, and cannot have been accepted by a publisher at time of entry.
  • These awards are open to new or established, already-published, authors (it does not have to be a first novel).
  • This is a blind-judged competition. HB Creativity must not have seen any part of this novel prior to entry; it must not be a work for which I personally have provided tutoring or editing services. I cannot absolutely guarantee I will not recognize a writing style, but I must not recognize the writing, the characters, or the plot.
  • Please use 12 Times New Roman font and double space your entry.
  • Send your entry by mail only (no emails please) to Paul Butler, HB Creativity, 8 – 121 Silkstone Road West, Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, T1J 3Y6 (make sure you have “Paul Butler, HB Creativity” as well as the address) with a postmark date no later than December 31, 2017. Winners will be announced in March 2018.
  • Please do not put your name on your entry! Enclose in a separate envelope your name and contact (email and phone), plus the title of your entry. This envelope will be opened after the winners have been decided. Along with your name and contact please indicate whether you wish to receive our bimonthly INK STAINS news bulletin.
  • There will be a one-time email to entrants to announce the competition winner. There will be no advertising of any kind on this email. If you do not wish to receive this email, please indicate this on your entry.
  • Do not send your only copy. Copies without sae cannot be returned. If you do not want your entry returned, it will be shredded and recycled.
  • There is no cost to enter.
  • There is no residency or nationality requirement.
  • Copyright remains with the author. We may ask for permission to publish an extract of the winning work on this website but this will not be done without the author’s express permission. Withholding permission will in no way invalidate the entry or disqualify it from winning a prize. By entering you merely give permission for me to use your name and the (provisional) title of the work.
  • One winner will receive a cash prize of $250.00 (Canadian).
Advertisements

How to Write a Romance: Question and Answer with Three Experts

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.

Now I turn to bestselling author of award-winning Highlands Chiefs series, Kate Robbins:

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!