First of all, an apology. I’m sorry – I have been away for a very long time due to illness. I’m currently away from my ‘real-life’ job too because of it, so naturally I am taking a hiatus from Limebirds too. This is hopefully not going to be for too long I hope, but until I’m fit and well again, I’m afraid there is a minimal service from me.
As I’ve agonised over my magnum opus, I have decided to read around the genre a little, to perhaps give myself some inspiration. The story is a romance and a thriller, so I’ve had to have a jolly good look at those areas.
When I was being taught Art at High School, I was told that emulating another artist was a good way of starting out and finding your own style. I was rather in love with the work by Charlie Adlard, a comic book artist and the late, great Beryl Cook. I am no great artist by any means, but the point is, is that emulating can help sometimes.
I didn’t particularly want to emulate other writers, more familiarise myself with the genre a tad and seek out the formula’s within the novels. Reading around and seeing what is formulaic is such a helpful thing to do. It shows you in a lot of ways what the audience expects from that kind of area, hence its usage and popularity.
I’ve been reading a lot, probably far too much, romance fiction recently. Most of it is historical and mostly written by American or American-based authors writing about 19th century Britain.
Over my many readings of many novels, I have identified a few features that I find particularly interesting.
First up, Americanisms are a major distraction for me. British people do not say ‘fall’ instead of Autumn. Nor do we drop the letter ‘u’ from words like ‘color’. As I’m reading along, I’ve been able to identify if a book is really well written by how distracting I find the use of what I term Americanisms. If I’m dragged away from the voice and the perception of the piece by these small flaws in the narrators voice, I get pretty cross if the book is really good. Sometimes the author has tried extremely hard to get the language spot on, not just by modern British standards, but by Victorian standards too. I appreciated that extra hard work. It really shows so as a reader I can forgive these ‘slips’.
In those cases, I can forgive the odd slip. In fact, the story can be so engrossing, that I only discover the writer is American, or writing to an American audience, because they’ve used the word ‘color’. Otherwise, I would have thought the writer was British, so convincing were they. The novel ‘Unravelled’ by Courtney Milan is a very good example of a well-researched novel with a convincing voice. The writer even went to the records office in Bristol, UK, to research her book. That level of dedication raises the humble romance novel to a new height.
Similarly though, if a British writer is writing in an American voice and they get words wrong, that can irk me too. The best example I can think of where a British writer has gone all-out on writing a novel completely in an American voice is EL James’ ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’. She spells colour without the ‘u’, calls a handbag a purse and her character goes to the bathroom, rather than the loo. I did get a sense of the writer’s voice with this – EL James tried to convince us that the narrator was American.
There are flaws – of course there are. There are a lot of turns of phrase that are distinctly British and this can distract the reader from the story, even a British reader. I’m expecting the narrator to speak to me with an identifiably American lexicon, so I am jarred from my reading by some quintessentially British idioms that wander in.
Voice is important in any genre though, so romance novels are not alone. I think that romance novels, especially the historical ones, are simply a good example.
There is the subject of adult situations that take place in a lot of romance novels. Modern romance has no qualms in getting everyone stripped off and having a jolly romp. I think that that is okay and can happen – but it has to be contextual and justifiable. It has to aid the story and have its place in the narrative. Frankly, there have been some novels where the hero and heroine seem to have problems being able to keep their clothing ON. It turns the story into little more than a predictable, eye-rolling series of ‘encounters’.
When I read ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ I was fed up the constant love scenes. As I got to book three in the series, I was desperate for them to just crack on with the plot. The plot itself was quite interesting and I really was rooting for the characters by the end – a sign of a good book in my opinion.
My favourite novel of all time is ‘Jane Eyre’, a novel I class as a romance. There is absolutely no hanky panky in this story; in fact, it’s a major plot point that Jane will not behave in that way. She values herself more than to allow herself to be the mistress of some rich bloke, nor did she find committing adultery palatable in the least. Morals strongly held by the Bronte sisters themselves. Some may say society today could learn from Jane’s example.
For me, Jane Eyre is the best romance novel. The tension between her and Rochester is utterly compelling and deeply charged. Let’s not beat about the bush, it is an obviously sexual tension they experience. Yet, despite the attraction and the depth of emotion they do experience, it all comes down to Jane not being willing to defile herself in anything that was ‘unpure’ by her standards. This chastens Rochester and perhaps brings about some self-re-examination on his part.
The escapades of the heroines that are placed in her era by modern writers would fill Jane and Bronte alike with contempt.
I suppose the point I’m trying to make is, is that sex isn’t needed for a romance to be, well, a romance. Yes, it famously sells, but it is not necessary. I’ve definitely seen a pattern emerge from all the novels I’ve read, in that the more the couple end up in bed, the more I’ve become bored of the story and even flipped over those scenes to just get back to the plot.
Another feature that I’ve seen appear in romance novels, as well as other types of genres, are the annoying subplots. I don’t care if the hero’s brother is getting off with his childhood sweetheart, ten years since they’ve seen each other. I just want to know about the tricky situation over a pound note going on with the hero and heroine.
Not all subplots are bad by any means. To be honest, some can offer light relief and texture to the main plot. I object to them when they offer nothing at all to the main story and act simply as fillers and asides.
A really, really good romance novel I read last year had a deeply annoying subplot or two running in the background. The novel was ‘His at Night’ by Sherry Thomas. It even won a few awards too as I recall reading, so it is a really good book and terribly diverting.
I just objected to being made to read about the hero’s brother. I understand why it’s in there and I completely get the purpose for it, but I just think it’s a sign that the main story is so successful that the minor subplots pale in comparison. I think that is certainly something to watch out for when writing them. Do they add to the story? Are they blatantly being outshone by the main plot, ergo exasperating the reader?
A commonly recurring thing is ‘damage’. A lot of the protagonists appear to be two damaged people who find each other. In ‘Unravelled’, Smite was abused by his mentally ill mother as a child and Miranda was left orphaned on the streets as a kid. Yet, they find each other and ultimately happiness together. In ‘What I Did for a Duke’ for Julie Anne Long, Genevieve is heartbroken and Moncrieffe lost a wife and child years before. Same outcome as the Thomas novel. Even when we look at my favourite ever novel, Jane Eyre, we can see this pattern: orphaned, unwanted and unloved Jane finds love with Rochester who was tormented by the arranged marriage he was put through to make his family happy.
Less frequently, we see one protagonist as a strong, undamaged person, trying to ‘save’ their damaged romantic interest. A very good example of this is seen in Ana and Christian in ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’.
It does make the plots a tad predictable and a bit repetitive. The more you read around the genre, the more you see this being repeated. I’m sure other genres have their little plot foibles too, but it’s interesting to flag up.
Another very general point that I’ve encountered when it comes to romance writing is the pigeon holing and bad press it gets. People see it as kitsch porno’s that are easily mocked parodied. The term ‘mucky novel’ or ‘dirty book’ are too readily assigned to this area in writing. I think it’s woefully unfair to stereotype or putdown a novel because it subscribes to a certain genre. I actually really like romance writing. It’s engaging and diverting, two things I always want from a book – like any reader.
Admittedly, some of it is a bit melodramatic and trite and you can easily understand how parodies such as Twitters ‘fifty sheds of grey’ sprang up. I guess though, that this is simply one of its stigmas that it has to endure to account for some of the more poorly written works.
The above are just my takes on things I see recurring over and over again, which I think is so interesting. I do absolutely still love romance novels though and will keep reading them, as I will other genres I read. They have their formulas, which can be annoying at times, but some are clearly written with a very clear eye for detail and a flair for narrative description that it makes it a genre never to deride or ignore.
I’m not sure when I will post again as I’m not sure how long this blasted illness will last. Never fear though, I will return as Limebirds is such an important forum with a fantastic writing team and readership. Tis’ a pleasure, nay, an honour to be counted within their number.