Q & A Part II: Jane Austen’s “Romantic” Possibilities and Limitations

Jane Austen has consistently provoked strong emotions, and among writers who deal in romantic love, they have not always been positive. In 1848, three decades after Austen’s death, newly-published Charlotte Bronte called Pride and Prejudice, “. . . a commonplace farce; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck . . .”

Bronte-esque

Is this what Bronte was hoping for?

Well, given the radically different approaches of these writers it’s not so surprising to see the disconnect, but it’s as good place as any to open the second part of the Q & A with our modern romance writers.

Question 3: What in Austen has your romantic-writer-self either used or discarded? Are there aspects of Austen that I have overlooked that may have provided an enduring template?

Jenna Da Sie: I’ve used Jane Austen’s pattern of main characters meeting and taking a dislike to each other in the beginning. Sometimes my characters realize they care for one another or there is attraction near the beginning/middle but are too scared to voice their opinions out loud. So, I think [modern romance writers] each take a little bit of Austen  make it our own.

Barbara Burke: I’m always getting in trouble with my editor for leaving it to the reader to use his or her imagination (or at least that’s the way I interpret it when I’m facing edits and feeling grumpy). She’s constantly writing little notes in the margin that riff on the theme of ‘tell me how that makes him/her feel’. . . No, I expect you to put yourself in his or her shoes and figure it out. That way we can all come away with something different from the story. However, that’s not the modern method, even though it’s what Jane would have done. Also, I’m a huge fan of dialogue. Keep your clothes on and get to know this person.

Kate Robins: What I love most about Jane Austen’s novels is her incredible dialogue. Since she wrote in the omniscient POV, her character’s dialogue was the best way to show the reader who they are and how they will react in a challenging situation. I think she does this better than any other author I’ve ever read.

I strive to capture that wit and the intended meaning with every word my characters speak. And I thought eliminating author intrusion was difficult! Clear, concise, and realistic dialogue is a critical part of creating characters and an author cannot go wrong studying Jane Austen’s work.

Robin St. Croix: Pride and Prejudice is such a rich and complex novel that more than 200 years later, it still evokes an emotional response in the reader. We react to every single character – even Mr. Collins who is a complete idiot. We hate Wickham. Lydia is annoying. Bingley and Jane are none too bright, but we love them anyway. And on and on the list goes.

Love stories are powerful things. They speak to our need for human connection and intimacy. There’s a huge market for books that skim romantic relationships on a superficial level. In fact, sales of modern romance novels are keeping the publishing industry afloat. However, there’s a need for books that dive deeper and have higher stakes.

Carolyn Parsons: I think I employ all Austen’s patterns in different places and at different times. I certainly wouldn’t take any of them off the table. And a happy ending is a must in a romance novel.

Question 4: What other 19th century writers had a great impact on the genre which would become romance? Which books from that era are your favourites and how do they influence your work?

Carolyn Parsons: Beyond Austen, the works of the Bronte sisters come to mind when I think of romance precursors. But neither of them impresses me in the way Austen does.  I’ve never read them after studying them in school. I read Austen frequently.  Other authors of the 19th century that I enjoy and consider most influential—Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, Oscar Wilde– are not precursors to the modern romance writer but had an impact on my work.  I am first and foremost a poet so my writing tends to be far more poetic than Austen’s. I am a huge fan of the Concord transcendentalists including Emerson, Louisa May Alcott as well. I certainly tend to think of myself as a romantic writer as much as I consider myself a writer of romance.

Barbara Burke: Sir Walter Scott immediately springs to mind if looking for a contemporary of Austen’s. I would say Diana Gabaldon is a direct literary descendant of his (not to mention our own Kate Robbins).  I don’t think kilted heroes have ever been as popular as they are now. I’m a big fan of Ivanhoe (my daughter is even named Rowena and though she wasn’t named after the character in Ivanhoe that might be where I learned to love the name because it’s not exactly common in Canada), which is actually medieval, also a popular time period for modern writers. Do we even have to mention the Brontes or is that blindingly obvious? I’d say Scott and the Brontes were the ones with the greatest influence on later generations, but there were bucket loads of romance authors in the nineteenth century, like Mrs. Gaskell or Disraeli to name just two who were famous at the time, who might have had an indirect influence on the genre.

Jenna Da Sie: I think Charlotte Bronte, Lucy Maude Montgomery, and Emily Bronte along with Jane Austen have had a great impact on the genre. I know Anne of Green Gables was written much later, but Lucy Maud Montgomery did a wonderful job interspersing romance throughout everyday life. Anne disliked Gilbert from the very beginning but in the end, love won out. I think all these authors have influenced me in some way. I love to read and always reread the classics. 

Kate Robbins: While Jane Austen has certainly had the biggest impact on the format of the modern romance novel, other authors from the 19th century have greatly influenced the genre as well. One cannot discuss this impact without including the words of the Bronte sisters, specifically Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Though darker, the primary theme in these novels is still a love story. Other novels like Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy seem to follow this dark path just staying shy of the HEA, while Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South works hard to give the hero and heroine everything their heart desires in the end.

In all of these books, the reader roots for the hero and heroine and their HEA, though that may actually mean something different in each case. But there is no doubt they belong to one another and in that sense has helped shaped the format for today’s romance novel.

Thanks to these talented authors. Check out their work!

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.

Don’t forget the New Hook Contest in the previous blog!

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How to Write a Romance, Q and A with Three Experts, Part II

Welcome to part 2 of the Q & A with three highly successful romantic novelists: USA-Today bestselling author, Victoria Barbour, award-winning Highlands Chiefs author, Kate Robbins and bestselling YA author-turned romantic suspense writer, Robin St. Croix. This round is a free for all. Any or all of the authors were invited to answer any given question.

Question: cough …cough…do I need actual sex in my novel? In mainstream fiction the instinct is to provide distraction during a sex scene or perhaps even an ellipse, something that justifies leaving the scene and returning when it’s over. It looks to me that if people do make love in romantic fiction, then it’s erotica; the reader expects to take part directly. What are the potential hazards? What words must be avoided? How do you get the right tone?

ROBIN: I’m also going to challenge you on your point that “the instinct is to provide distraction during a sex scene.” That may be your personal instinct, and it’s certainly true of the English literary classics I studied in university, but in modern fiction it’s all about the story itself and not about society’s comfort levels or censorship. In my opinion, if sex serves the story then it needs to be there, if not, it’s gratuitous and should be edited out. Of course, there’s a whole industry built around erotic shorts that proves me wrong, but we’ll leave that discussion for another day.

Speaking of erotica … I think you’re referring to what we in the biz call “heat levels.” A sweet romance (where there’s one peck on the cheek at the end of the book) would be a 1, whereas erotica is a 5. So it’s not whether characters have a romantic relationship, it’s whether they’re holding hands or swinging from the ceiling. Romance is a very wide genre; there’s dozens of subgenres and different heat levels within each one. With romance, the reader only expects one thing: a happy ending. (More on this below).

A note of caution here: if you set your readers up for a steamy sex scene and then don’t deliver, you’re dead in the water. You cannot leave the reader listening at the door. You must bring them into the bedroom with you and allow them to live vicariously through your characters.

Finally, to answer your question … nope, you don’t need to put sex in your romance if you don’t think it’s warranted. Sweet romances don’t contain sex but instead focus on the relationship between the main characters.

Here’s the thing about sex scenes … they are brutally difficult things to write. No one will believe that until they try to write one – and I’m guessing you’ve tried already which is why you’re asking the question! Here’s why they’re hard … sex is not the kind of thing that lends itself well to running commentary. We do it. We don’t describe it. Ok, sometimes there are words … but try writing them out. They look ridiculous in black and white, don’t they?

Love and sex are all about emotions and sensations, not words. Throughout history mankind has been trying to articulate the emotion of love, but it’s beyond words. With sex scenes, there’s the immediate problem of vocabulary … we all know what the parts are called, but use any term – Latin, colloquial, slang, euphemism … at best they look out of place on paper. At worst, they’re laughable. My solution? Focus on the anticipation.

KATE: Just as there are authors who have comfort levels with sex, readers do as well. In romance fiction there are what’s called steam levels. They go from one, which is very sweet, maybe a peck on the cheek or everything happens behind closed doors and is referenced after the fact—to five, which is very descriptive and may require a new headboard. 😉

I think it all comes down to the author’s comfort level. There’s an audience for all steam levels, thankfully. Romance readers know what they like and gravitate toward authors who can deliver. 🙂

The correct tone will flow from your characters. If mine want raunchy sex, I let ‘em have at it. I am pretty sure in all cases, I have let my characters guide me in terms of the nature of they sex they enjoy, i.e. when, where, positions, etc. I am bound to a certain historical era and so therefore the words I use must have been used at that time. Etymology dot com is a great tool for this purpose.

Steam level will determine the words you use as well. A level one will be very mild with no explicit language. Level five? You can let your imagination run wild. My romances are a level four. 🙂

Question: Is romance escapism? And if so, is it helpful to make a list of the kinds of things that readers are escaping from (in the hope I can avoid replicating them!)

ROBIN: Yes, romance — like every story in every genre regardless of discipline — is escapism. Why else would a person pick up a work of fiction if not to escape into that world for a little while? Why watch television, go to a movie or the theatre? We do these things to relax, to get away from the pressures of the daily grind for a while. If we didn’t want a break we’d read non-fiction, watch a documentary or the news…Nah, you don’t need to make a list. You instinctively know what the pressures are.

KATE: A romance novel has one rule: it must have a Happily Ever After (HEA). Your characters and the unique balance of romantic conflict between them will make it unpredictable. Thinks like the internal versus external conflict and black moment will define your romance novel and set apart from others.

VICTORIA: Romance is total escapism. It’s one of the reasons why I read it. I didn’t know this about myself until my grandmother died. She left me all of her romance novels, and I read every single one of them. That’s what opened my eyes about the genre. I’d been full of the misconceptions non-romance readers have about this genre. You know, that’s it formulaic, easy to write, sexist, and porn. That’s not true at all. Romance novels may be easy to read, but that’s a testament to the writing of the authors. We write books that are enjoyable and accessible for all readers. As for making a list to avoid the things that readers want to escape from, I don’t think that’s necessary. Because of the HEA necessity of the genre, you can deal with loss, heartbreak, violence, etc. because the reader will finish that book feeling like there’s light at the end of the tunnel. I personally don’t read romances where characters lose a child or have miscarriages, but that’s because it’s a personal decision of mine. Plenty of other readers love those story lines, and it’s important for those books to be written. Think about how you can craft a story with those elements that will ultimately leave the reader feeling hopeful at the end.

Question: Do I need a happy ending? And if so, how can I avoid making it predictable?

ROBIN: YES! Happily Ever After (HEA) is what makes a romance a romance. If the characters don’t get together in the end, even if your magnum opus is worthy of the Nobel Prize, it isn’t a romance. It’s something else.

It’s not predictability you want to avoid, it’s cliche. That’s another very difficult thing about writing in the romance genre because frankly, it’s all been done before! The best advice I can give is to read as much as you can in your particular sub-genre of romance so that you know what’s on the market already. Then spend time innovating your ending. Innovation requires creativity. This is where you earn your paycheque. Your readers know that the characters will get together. What they don’t know is how. Give them a spellbinding how.

Question: Do romance characters move towards self-knowledge? Are there things about themselves they conceal from themselves?

ROBIN: Of course they do! The characters in a romance novel are no different than any other character in any other genre. Usually we (as readers) want our heroes to grow and develop from the beginning of a story to the end, but not always. Exhibit A: James Bond.

Thinking that romance is a genre of wooden, two-dimensional characters is where writers get themselves into trouble. They crank out a tired story, slap it up on Amazon and then wonder why it isn’t selling. There are a lot of poorly written romances on the market. I won’t argue that point. There are a lot of poorly written books in every genre on the market.

This is not amateur hour. The mark of a professional author is that he or she can write in a saturated genre while still innovating the characters, plot and ending payoff of the story. That’s not to say every book has to be “War and Peace” (or “Lolita” or “Lady Chatterly’s Lover”). A well-written beach read can sometimes be just what the doctor ordered.

VICTORIA: I think all characters must change somewhat in a book. That’s the nature of a relationship, isn’t it? To learn things about yourself and figure out how to be with someone while being true to yourself. There’s always an element of personal revelation there, where you learn something about yourself you might not have known. There are always parts of our personalities that we don’t realize about ourselves. It’s the same for our characters. A character in a romance novel is not some mythical-being unlike other characters. Characters are characters, regardless of the genre, with all the complexities that come with them. Some romance novels are plot driven, while others are character driven. So the stronger the character you create, the stronger your book will be in the end.

Question: Where did this genre come from? I think about The Monk, by Matthew Gregory Lewis, sometimes credited as the first Gothic novel. It’s way too dark to be classified “romance,” yet the pacing and the lurid power seems to have opened the door which later became romance. I also think of Emily Bronte and Charlotte as possible forerunners, particularly in the depictions of Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester.

ROBIN: Love stories have been around since time began. They predate the written word. If you want to know the first English novel to be considered a romance, I couldn’t tell you. But the genre itself comes from the fact that we’re human, and there is nothing more human that the desire to love and be loved.

KATE: One can look back through literary history and see romantic stories in many places including Greek, Norse, and Roman mythology. Romance is something we have always held in fascination. The likes of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters have certainly added new elements to old stories as well. I read somewhere that Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca has been considered the first ‘modern’ romance, birthing the currently perceived genre. I don’t believe it is possible to narrow it down to one book, however. What a shame to leave out the wonderful additions given to us by Johanna Lindsey, Julie Garwood, Eloisa James, and Jude Deveraux. Elements like author intrusion accepted from these amazing authors 30 years ago are now unheard of and so the genre continues to evolve. The rise of ebooks and self-publishing have made it much easier for authors to get their books in front of readers and so the market has never been more flush with variations and new sub-genres. I think there’s never been a better time to be a romance writer. 🙂

Thanks to these terrific writers, Victoria Barbour, Robin St. Croix and Kate Robbins for their generous and thoughtful answers. If you want to know more about romance writing, take a good look through their websites and pick yourself a few of their books!

Bound to the Highlander — Q and A with novelist Kate Robbins

How’s this for an international splash?

A Newfoundland-Canadian author gets a publishing contract in Ireland for her historical romance set in Scotland in the 1400s. On the eve of publication it wins a literary award in Florida, U.S.
Bound to the Highlander by Kate Robbins - TARA - 500

Kate Robbins’s novel Bound to the Highlander has just won the 2013 Tampa Area Romance Author (TARA) Award for Historical Romance and is available now at Tirgearr Publishing, on amazon.com and a host of other retailers.

Bound to the Highlander is a racy, enthralling tale of a noblewoman Aileana Chattan who is compelled to wed James MacIntosh, a man whose actions caused the death of her father. Though Aileana despises him at first, James soon awakes something that forces her to question her own notions of loyalty…There is passion, betrayal, kidnapping, and true love all set within the swirling mountains and barrens of the Scottish Highlands. I spoke to Debbie (“Kate’s” nom de non-plume, so to speak) about the romance genre in general and Bound to the Highlander in particular.

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Q: The first obvious thing about Bound to the Highlander is that your novel has so many features — landscape as metaphor, constant sensory engagement — that we associate with the “higher” literary arts i.e. literary fiction, and yet there seems to be a cultural divide among readers. Is the divide unjustified and is historical romance for everyone? And, if not, should it be?

A: Genre fiction focuses on a specific preference in storytelling style and so fans of romance, for example, know what they’re getting when they approach that genre. The same is true for sci-fi, fantasy, thrillers, mystery. Romance must have a Happily Ever After (HEA) otherwise it’s not a romance novel. Those who read specific genres want that same ‘something’ when they select that kind of novel. In literary fiction, the focus tends to be on the writing technique as much as the story itself. Same thing but different? Maybe. But literary fiction is not bound by the same expectations as genre fiction in the sense of formula – Romance must have a Happily Ever After (HEA) – Fantasy and Sci-fi must have world building upfront.

I’ve often heard people say that genre fiction novels like romance are ‘junky’ because they’re poorly written or it’s the same old-same old. I’ve read both good and poor in all genres actually so I can’t say I agree with that. I read everything and if the story is good, I’m not worried about the genre or lack thereof. However, there are many readers who gravitate toward the same kind of novel because they know what they’re getting every time. If this were not true, Harlequin would not be the mega giant and household name it is. Their novels are not my preference, but there are thousands of readers out there for whom they exist.

Romance novels are primarily about one hero and one heroine (H/H) and while there may be some variations, typically those are the only Points of View (POV) the reader will see. What will you not see in a well-crafted romance novel that you may see in literary fiction? Author intrusion and head-hopping. A romance novel should put the reader as deep inside the H/H’s POV so they feel right along with the characters. The reader should anticipate, yearn, crave, and despair as deeply as the characters do.

Readers know what they want. Those who read genre or literary fiction do so for very personal and subjective reasons. I think the sandbox is big enough for us all to play in.

Q: I loved the pacing of the book, the fact that it’s a story always in motion. This makes the writing look effortless. I’m wondering how long it took from beginning to end, from first idea you would write this  story to its actual publication?

A: Thanks Paul! <<blush>> The first draft of Bound to the Highlander (BTTH) took me six months. While the beginning-middle-end and character development was always there, I realized early on that I did not have the mad skills to pull off a romance novel good enough for historical romance readers. They know their history and they know what they want to see in terms of quality and style. As I learned the craft, I also developed my voice and that’s a tough one for a writer to find sometimes.

Further to your point on pacing, that comes down to defogging. It took me a while and some online courses to learn just how to defog my writing, but I think I’m getting there. In a nutshell, it’s all about omitting needless words. Want an example? Of course you do.

Take this sentence. “Sally was going to go to the market, but she decided to go to the mall instead.”

Wordy and awkward right?

How about this? “Sally went to the mall instead of the market.”

By changing “was going” to “went” and removing “to go to” and “decided” we get to the heart of what happened? We don’t need a play-by-play. We just wanna know what happened.

Make sense?

Bound to the Highlander was five years from initial idea to publication.

Q: I note you have both a full time job and a family(!) How hard is it to stay focused on the story? What techniques do you use to stay on track?

A: I am a juggler with no balls LOL. Time management is a constant struggle for me and we’ve developed a full-on negotiation strategy for my writing time which balances time with my family and time to get my Butt in Chair Hands on Keyboard (BICHOK).

Right now my writing schedule during the weekday evenings is Monday, Thursday, Friday. I usually write all day Saturday and Sunday unless the boys have something I need to attend. Tuesday evening is one on one time with Daniel and Wednesday evening is Nicholas’s. Where does hubby fit in? Saturday and Sunday nights LOL. I know, it’s nuts. I drink a lot of coffee.

Q: What kind of rewards do you give yourself when times get tough? How do you encourage yourself?

A: If I’m stressed or feeling overwhelmed, I usually grab a bottle of wine and watch something very different from what I’m writing. This time of year I watch a lot of horror movies and so I find it a great way to remove my thought process from whatever is snagging me with the rom novels.

Q: I’m always in awe of people who write within genre conventions and do it well. How do you juggle your instincts about where this story might go on the one hand and genre dictates on the other, i.e. what readers might demand or expect? Are you constantly aware of guidelines? (Note: it doesn’t look as though you are as the story is certainly satisfying yet unpredictable)

A: I have broken some rules, yes. And by that I mean I’m not following the exact formula. The backstory has always played a role in what’s happening with the characters outside of their budding romance, and so BTTH may not have the black moment in the exact spot you might expect, for example. But I don’t like doing what is expected to the letter, otherwise I personally would get bored with it. I’ve held true to the expectation of how the H/H’s romance develops, but I’ve not caved to getting them together too early in the novel. I’m a fan of the slow build and as long as a publisher will take a chance on me and readers want that, that’s what I’ll give them.

The key is, you have to know the rules before you can break them. Still, the central theme of this novel is the love story and I gotta say I’ve had a lot of fun writing it. I love it when the main characters get under each other’s skin. <<wags eyebrows>>

Q: This is the beginning of a series. Can you give us a hint of where the saga is leading? Where are you in the actual “writing” stages of the series?

A: Bound to the Highlander is the first of three books in my Highland Chiefs series. There’s a plot to usurp the king introduced in the first book that involves four other clans besides the MacIntosh (hero of book one). As each book progresses, the plot is unraveled a little more until the ultimate conclusion. So there’s a secondary story happening in the background the whole time, but each book is about a certain clan chief and his love story.

Book two, Promised to the Highlander, is written and I’m currently polishing it to submit to my publisher hopefully by the end of October. I’m gonna take a little spell after that and then dig into book three, Enemy of the Highlander in January.

Thanks for hosting me today Paul!!