To date, I’ve written six fairly long romance novels, two of which are published and the rest are in the pipeline. That equates to many, many hours of researching, planning, writing, editing and marketing – and learning; so much learning about writing romance and publishing process romance. A question I’m commonly asked is: ‘What advice would you give an aspiring romance writer?’ I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject – really, who is? – but the following outlines some of the lessons I’ve learned on my journey from being a little girl who dreamed of writing romance to being a grown woman who really does write romance, every day.
1. Write what you passionately want to write.
Jeffrey A. Carver conveys this beautifully as follows: Write from the soul, not from some notion what you think the marketplace wants. The market is fickle; the soul is eternal. To write a good love story, you have to be really passionate about that story. You have to write what you most wish you could buy from a bookstore and read for yourself. Yes, you must know about marketability and genre norms, but what is most important is that this is a story you care deeply about. Writing that bores the writer bores the reader. Writing that moves the writer moves the reader. Write the love story you wish was your own!
2. Make the lovers forgivably flawed.
First, the heroine. Readers want to be able to identify with her – to understand how she thinks and feels and acts, and perhaps even to imagine themselves in her shoes. Perfection is off-putting. Say the heroine is a very successful businesswoman who’s climbed the corporate ladder with no hiccups, and she’s beautiful, and she dresses impeccably, and she never misses an aerobics session, and her house is immaculate, and she has an array of similarly perfect friends; oh, and she’s in perfect control of her emotions. First of all: really? That character sounds far too fictional to me. Second of all: how dull to read about her.That kind of book will simply irritate the reader, who’ll feel inferior for her own flaws. All characters need to feel real to the reader, which means they’re imperfect. In my first book, Burning Embers, for example, the heroine’s rather naïve, and in The Echoes of Love the heroine is held back by her fear of getting hurt.
As for the hero, the writer has to carefully strike a balance: the man must be attractive, but not unattainable; strong but not overbearing; chivalrous but not sexist; sexy but not vain; masterful but not mastering. Women notoriously accept and even honour flaws in men – scars don’t sully physical attraction; a touch of arrogance doesn’t hurt respect and affection. In fact, it’s possible to push the imperfections of the male protagonist quite far – in Burning Embers, for example, Rafe is a womaniser. What’s essential is that any big flaws in the hero are forgivable; that his backstory allows the reader to understand the imperfections and accept them. In the case of Rafe, that means realising that he womanises as a means of simultaneously punishing himself and protecting himself due to an incident in his past.
3. Foil the protagonists with antagonists.
In literary terms, a foil is a character who contrasts with a protagonist, thereby highlighting qualities in the protagonist. Any loves story requires conflict, and so most stories contain another woman or another man who threatens the developing love between the protagonists. If the other woman is a foil for the female lead and the other man is a foil for the male lead, this further cements the leads’ characters, and helps each of the characters detemerine what his or her path should be. For example, in Burning EmbersRafe has a mistress, Morgana, and she is Coral’s foil – where Coral is naïve, Morgana is seductive and experienced; where Coral’s beauty is English and innocent, Morgana is dusky and exotic. In The Echoes of Love, Paolo’s foil is Count Umberto, a man who would like to be with Venetia. But as events unfold it becomes clear that next to Umberto, Paolo is the more honourable man by far.
4. Take your characters to amazing places.
I situate my romances in beautiful, divinely romantic locations. But within the overarching setting I’m always careful to take the characters to places that inspire soul-searching and connection – a hot-air balloon ride over the African savannah at sunset, for example, in Burning Embers. Just as place inspires writers, it inspires lovers – and readers of romance! The writer of a love story is in the enviable position of being able to control the story and take it wherever she pleases. Why place lovers somewhere boring, like a train station café, for a heart to heart, when you can put them somewhere with a view that makes their hearts sing? If the outer landscape is amazing, the inner one is bound to be too.
5. Always think from an emotional standpoint.
What I love most about the romance genre is that it’s unashamedly emotional. The writer’s job is simple: to make the reader feel. The immense popularity of the genre comes down to readers enjoying the way a romance novel makes them feel: the escape from daily life into a world that reawakens the surge of feelings you get when you first fall in love. No wonder some romance readers call themselves ‘romance junkies’ – the love story is like a fix that gives you a wonderful rush of feelings. So when writing romance, you always have to be thinking about the emotion. Every element of the story, every action of a character, every description of a person or a place – they must all be designed to move the reader on an emotional level. Certainly in the first draft, don’t hold back in feelingas you write; later, when you edit, you can tone down overwriting. For me, writing from an emotional standpoint is the fun of writing romance – what a wonderful way to spend a day: lost in a fantasy world that makes you feel love and passion and hope.
The course of true love never did run smooth’ – so wrote Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I think that no single axiom is more explored in romantic fiction! A romance story that unfolds simply, without a hiccup, is delightful, but uninteresting in literary terms. So authors create a set of obstacles to throw, with Machiavellian intent, into the path of the lovers. All sorts of obstacles exist, from social pressures to physical separation, illness to ideological differences, but perhaps the most classic and the most compelling is the introduction of The Other Woman or The Other Man.
Enter the love triangle, with its many variables, the most popularly used of which are:
- Characters B and C love Character A, and Character A loves Character B only. I call this the One-Left-Out Triangle.
- Characters B and C love Character A, and Character A is torn between Characters A and B. I call this the Torn Triangle.
In my novels, I like to really challenge my protagonists and test the strength of their love. That is why I often incorporate love triangles for both the hero and the heroine.
In Burning Embers, I incorporate three.Rafeis in love with Coral, but two other women, the bewitching Morgana and Cybil, Coral’s stepmother, are vying for his attention. Coral, meanwhile, is in love with Rafe, but her adulterous ex-fiancé eyes her with intent. The result looks something like this:
In The Echoes of Love, Paolo is in love with Venetia, but his charge, the wild young woman Allegra, is passionately possessive of him. Meanwhile, the heroine, Venetia, is falling in love with Paolo, but another man, Count Umberto, covets her.
In these books I stick to One-Left-Out triangles, but in the upcoming book (news on that one soon!) I develop a Torn Triangle, and all the confusion and longing that creates.
I don’t include love triangles superficially in my writing, as a means to throw up a quick and easily resolved issue in the story. The human heart is so deeply complex and riddled with conflicting emotion that I use love triangles to force the protagonists to really explore themselves and their true desires.
I also like the drama and high emotion they bring to the narrative. In The Echoes of Love, the Count and Paolo are friends, which places Venetia in an impossible situation – how can she tell Paolo of the Count’s lecherous advances on her? And then there is Allegra, dangerous in her desperation to keep hold of Paolo – so desperate she will resort to violent destruction. In Burning Embers, Cybil is manipulative and cunning, and determined to keep Rafe from Coral.And as for the sultry dancer, Morgana – how can the unworldly Coral stand firm in the face of this woman who tells her that Coral is merely a dream and that she is the reality to which Rafe must cling in order to survive?
Ultimately, both novels are the stories of lovers finding the courage to trust each other and to let go of their pasts – but they are also stories of people struggling against people, of love vanquishing envy and possessiveness. The battle is on, and the stakes are high: the winner attains the happy ever after.
And what of The Other Men, Dale and Umberto, and The Other Women, Cybil and Morgana and Allegra? Well, the all-powerful author has the means to leave those who play unfairly, those who are selfish and manipulative and would destroy the happiness of those they purport to love, to reap the effects of karma. But if any should redeem themselves, acquiesce and know that when you love someone, sometimes all you can do is set that person free – then, perhaps, that person deserves their own happy-ever-after. And I’ve a mind, one day, to write that story. About whom? Well, you’ll have to read the books and then decide…
In both of my novels published to date, my heroines are very much women standing alone in the world. This is in part due to their fierce independence and determination to make their own way; but it is also because they lack parents on whom they rely.
In Burning Embers, Coral’s parents divorced when she was a child. Her father returned to Africa; her mother remarried and had more children; and Coral was sent off to boarding school. By the time she has become a young woman, she has come to terms with her mother’s remarriage, but there is a distance between them: she would not turn to her mother for comfort or guidance. And at the start of the novel, Coral is on a ship bound for Mombasa to take up her father’s plantation, for he has died. She is so very lost, and so very alone, on that ship:
Coral was overcome by emotion, remembering the last time she had seen this landscape. She thought of her father, who today would not be waiting for her. How empty her childhood home would seem without him. A lump formed in her throat, and she bit her lower lip while fighting to control the tears quivering on the edge of her eyelashes. Unable to restrain them for long, they spilled over and down her cheeks.
In The Echoes of Love, Venetia is also a woman alone. Her mother has died, leaving her with a father with whom she does not see eye to eye; so much so that she flees England and makes a life for herself in Venice, Italy – away from him. Paolo, when he meets her, is somewhat horrified by her isolation:
Abruptly, his eyes darkened. ‘What is a pretty woman like you doing out on the town on her own, on a night like this? I can’t believe you have no fidanzato, Venetia. Is the man away? Do you have no father? No mother? No brother to care for you?’ His outburst was almost angry as he threw down his cigarette, crushing it vigorously beneath his heel.
In Paolo’s world, Venetia should be cared for, protected.Independent as she is, she rallies against this. But the truth is, she is very vulnerable and very alone.
Why do I isolate my heroines so? It’s terrible of me, n’est-ce pas? Ah, the cruelty of the author! The truth is, I need those heroines to be alone. Not in a militant Greta Garbo ‘I want to be alone’ sense; but in a way that is both their choosing and at once not. Coral and Venetia go to a new country alone to make a life there – that is their choice; their spirit and strength as women shining through. But in a sense, they are driven by their circumstances. Can Coral remain in England, hiding behind her mother’s skirt and clinging to her mother’s new family? No, she mustmake her own life; she mustgo to Africa and reconnect with the father who so recently died but whom she lost, in truth, long ago. Can Venetia remain in England, controlled and bullied by her autocratic father, building a life of which he and only he approves? No, she must stand strong and escape his iron rule.
Ultimately, both women must stand alone – and while they find friends and mother figures to support them, they must know their own hearts and take their own decisions. I suppose, in a sense, this mirrors the personal journey I took when I left home after my degree and went travelling. We must all fly the nest at some time, and find our own way in the world.
For me, it is essential that a romantic heroine finds that path before falling in love and committing to a man. Hence Coral is a successful freelance photographer who comes to Africa on her own to run her plantation before she meets and falls for Rafe. And Venetia is a prominent mosaic restoration expert who’s assimilated into a foreign culture and has her own beautiful home beforeshe meets and falls for Paolo. My heroines aren’t damsels in distress to be rescued. They are women who have proven they can stand alone – but who ultimately make the courageous, difficult, wonderful choice not to do so any longer.
Ask me my most favourite books, and a classic English romance will always appear near the top of the list: Wuthering Heights. The agony and passion at the centre of the love story between Heathcliff and Cathy has always gripped me, moved me – and it inspired me as I wrote my novels Burning Embers and The Echoes of Love. For each of the main characters in these novels is in his or her own way tortured by a past love, as are Heathcliff and Cathy.
Burning Embers, Coral
Coral is fairly naïve and inexperienced in love, and the one relationship she has had left her hurt and defensive:
On a holiday weekend, she had flown to New York, unannounced, to surprise her fiancé. The nasty surprise had been all hers, since Dale showed little concern when she arrived at his office and caught him red-handed kissing his secretary. The typical cliché…
Betrayal, a terrible burden to carry. How hard it is to trust again, especially when Coral meets a man who makes her heart sing – but is a notorious womaniser with an impossibly beautiful and seductive mistress.
Burning Embers, Rafe
The womaniser. And why is he that way? Because he is a widower, stalked by thememory of a wife long-passed. A wife who drowned. A wife many would have Coral believe he allowed to drown. What is the truth of his past? Why exactly is he tortured by his wife, Faye? These are questions Coral must answer if she is ever to tame and quiet this wounded soul.
The Echoes of Love,Venetia
Were you in attendance at the grand masquerade Venetian ball at the opening of The Echoes of Love, and you were introduced to Venetia Aston-Montagu, the impression you’d form would be of a capable, confident, independent woman. But you’d never guess that beneath the cool exterior lay a bruised heart. And the cause of the wounds? Judd Carter, the man who had abandoned her when she needed him most:
One day, while Judd was away on manoeuvres in Ireland, Venetia had discovered she was pregnant. … Venetia had written to Judd with the news, but he had never replied. The string of letters she had sent after that, imploring him to get in touch, had all remained unanswered. If he’d been killed in action, she would have found out very quickly, so even having that morbid reason for his silence was denied her. She was devastated.
Worse, soon after the abandonment Venetia fell and miscarried: a double loss, and a heartbreaking one. By the time Venetia meets Paolo in the book, she’s understandably reticent about letting her heart love, trust. What if he hurts her, lets her down… leaves her?
The Echoes of Love, Paolo
Paolo, like Rafe, is a widower. But there the similarity ends – for while Rafe is tortured by his memories of the death of his wife, Paolo is entirely unable to remember his. As Venetia learns in the book:
Paolo is amnesic. He lost his memory in a car accident ten years ago, while on his honeymoon. He and his wife were returning from a nightclub; his wife was driving, and she died on the spot. He was badly hurt and was in a coma for several months. When he woke up, he had forgotten his past: a total loss of memory.
Does this lack of memory mean Paolo is not hurt by his past, of which he has no knowledge?
Set on the wall behind the desk, the huge portrait was of a beautiful young blond woman with deep set, laughing blue eyes that looked down at her mischievously. The artist had captured the obvious joie de vivre that shone through her smile. Paolo’s dead wife, Venetia thought, and her heart ached for him as she wondered how one would get to grips with the tragedy of losing not just a loved one, but also one’s own identity.
‘My wife,’ Paolo announced to her in a matter a fact way that took Venetia a little aback. ‘She died in the accident which robbed me of my past. I don’t remember her – for me it’s as if she never existed.’
He took out a couple of glasses from a drawer in his desk and poured Venetia a glass of white wine from a bottle that stood in a bucket of ice on a small table next to it. ‘I don’t grieve for her as much as I grieve for my lost life. We were on our honeymoon. She was driving, so I don’t even have the privilege of feeling guilty. I might as well be dead.’ His voice hardened as he spoke.
Paolo does his best to be anything but Heathcliff – but his actions with Venetia reveal he’s notunemotive. Will the past always stand between Venetia and Paolo, the ghost of Paolo’s wife, the forgotten marriage?
Venetia admits that she needs ‘tortured, complicated souls to spark an interest in her’. For me, that’s fundamental in a romantic lead. Only tortured, complicated souls create stories grounded in realism, in conflict, in passion. Characters need to find the dark places in their souls; to find the courage to trust despite knowing too well the risks of doing so. Then, ultimately, that powerful connection that unites Heathcliff and Cathy through life and death exists: ‘Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.’
Recently, I’ve been thinking about dreams. To be a romantic is to be a dreamer. And so to write romance is to write of dreams. The dream is integral to the romance novel. No wonder, then, that a search for the word dream’ in my latest novel, The Echoes of Love, returns so many results, among them:
… like two people in a dream… trying to break into her daydreams… the echo of a dream long forgotten… eyes took on a dreamy look… filled with a dreamy sort of kindness… she could dream, and her dreams might actually come true… her heart full of dreams… had dreamed so often of those strong, masculine hands upon her… a tremulous, glittering, fragile dream from which she had no desire to awaken… a fevered dream… to allow himself to dream of love… gazing dreamily out at the peaceful scene… alone in a world made up of their dreams… an aura of wispy dream clouds…
Beyond the language of dreaming, the physical dream takes two important forms.
The sleeping dream allows the author to explore the subconscious world of characters. After the heroine, Venetia, is saved from a mugging by a handsome stranger, her sleep is disturbed thus:
Dreams came to her of a dark figure pursuing her through the streets of Venice, cloaked and masked, whispering her name. But each time she turned round, he had gone.
Later in the book, we learn that Paolo is similarly restless come night-time:
He would dream of her tonight, as he had dreamt of her every night since they had met. Those dreams were always tormented, painful – almost nightmares – from which he invariably woke up panting and in a sweat, with at best only a vague recollection of the details. But one thing remained clear: Venetia was always at the heart of them. Was she a danger to him somehow, is that what his subconscious was trying to tell him?
Both Venetia and Paolo are haunted, stalked by some understanding that eludes them. Later, for Venetia dreams of danger mingle with ‘the most erotic dreams she never knew her imagination could conjure’. Wherever she won’t allow herself to go with Paolo by day, she escapes there at night.
And what of the day? Then, my characters dream too. One might think these conscious dreams were easier to cope with; that with the awake, logical mind in force, the emotion of the sleeping dream dissipates. But in fact these daytime dreamings represent the very hearts of the characters – their yearnings for the future; ‘bright, shining dreams of everlasting love’ – and they are tremendously stirring. So much so that Paolo, whose heart has for so long been a closed book, is quite transformed by his visions. For years he has been a man without a past – and a future. And as he explains: ‘To live without a dream is a frightening prospect.’ It is love that gives him back the ability to dream – that ability so essential to really, truly living. ‘“Thanks to you,” he tells Venetia, “I dream. I hope and believe in love, and in all the wonderful things that the world has to offer.”’
I like to think that by the end of the book Venetia and Paolo are living the reality famously suggested by children’s writer Dr Seuss: ‘You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams.’ That’s the true happyeverafter!