The Inner Workings of a Romance Novel

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by Sandra Murphy

RomancecoversBarbara Metzger has written over 40 historical Regency (and five contemporary) romance novels. “I tried to find a balance between the sexy scenes and humor,” she said in a recent interview. “I always found the writing took half as long as the thinking.” In one book, comments from the dog provided the added humor as he tried to understand why humans let problems get in the way of being together.

Research is important when writing an historical novel. It’s hard to know what it must have been like with no telephones or even radios, but harder yet to know anything about not having cameras or snaps on clothing. It’s easy for slang to slip into conversations too—and romance readers will call you on it.

Metzger says romance novels have one rule you can’t break—they must have a happy-ever-after ending. Of course, along the way, there have to be a number of obstacles for the couple to overcome. She’s used lack of reputation, parental dislike, class difference, poverty, and distrust to keep her characters apart. Once in a while, a writer can bring a couple together, only to have disaster strike near the last page—as when the police arrive to arrest one of them just as things were going well. It’s a cliffhanger ending that can’t be used often, but will leave readers wanting more.

“Romance writing is a wide-open field. There’s something for everyone, since romance can cross any genre,” Metzger said. “People can identify with characters whether they are from the future or the past. The typical romance is a woman’s story.”

Sarina Bowen writes contemporary and new adult (college-age) romances. “Some people think romance novels are formulaic because the ending is known,” she said. “The challenge is to keep the reader worried in spite of that—will the two characters get together, how will they overcome problems that keep them apart, and will they get back together? It’s a matter of pacing, since you can’t make them a couple or break them up too soon.”

Bowen says there are more sub-genres in romance than in any other genre. Readers also like certain types of characters—cowboys, Navy seals, the bad boy/good girl combination, or brother’s best friend. To find new characters, problems, and points of view, Bowen put one character in a wheelchair, something not often found in romance novels.

She’s found external conflict works better than internal, since challenges like financial problems or family obligations are more interesting to read than angst. “Conflict makes a character take stock and decide what’s important.”

Think you can’t tell a book by its cover? Bowen says in romance novels, you can. A purple font or one with pointy or dripping letters will signal a paranormal romance, maybe with vampires. How much skin is showing also gives a clue to the heat index (steaminess) of the story inside. Are the characters hugging or clinging to each other? What the characters are wearing on the cover also lets a reader know if the text is modern or historical, sensual or racy. If the book is described as sweet, there’s no sex. Inspirational means conservative and with religious values. “For romance writers who self-publish, keep in mind, packaging matters,” Bowen said.

Leonora Blythe finds there’s always something that will offend a few readers. “In one of my first books, I used the phrase, ‘His manhood stood,’ and heard about it,” she said. “My publisher got five complaints that it was too explicit. Now the books are racier, although no clothes come off before at least the third chapter.”

She agrees research is key to period writing, but found using a character’s family to create a new storyline helps. “There’s no need to reinvent everything when you can simply use someone’s brother or sister as the new character. It brings familiarity to readers and gives them a chance to find out what happens after the previous book.”

She’s found a concussion, lost memory, or a coach accident makes a good obstacle to true love.

Judith Glad came to romance writing from an unlikely beginning—science. Here’s her take on romance.

“One of the questions I get asked frequently is how did I, a scientist by training (botany), end up writing romance. I never really wrote any other genre, even when I dreamt of being a science fiction writer. It just took me a while to realize any story I submitted to the SF mags was a romance at heart.

“Straight romance is difficult to sustain through a whole book, and I admire anyone who can do so. What I like to do is stir in a little suspense, perhaps a scoop of the paranormal, and often, an historical event or two. Most of my historical have a suspense subplot, my Regencies deal with social mores of the time, and one contemporary (Improbable Solution) is strongly paranormal.

“How does one write romantic scenes without getting too racy? I believe a love scene is about emotions, not about what goes where, so I try to keep mine involved with the feelings the people are sharing and their emotional reactions. I’ve written scenes that were quite graphic, but I hope they were still more about feelings and less about body parts. I’ve also written scenes that had no mention of hands, mouths, or genitals. Readers found them extremely sensuous. Bottom line, I write love scenes that please me and I hope they will please my readers.

“I got an idea for a mystery, and my pen name, Jaye Watson, was born, mostly because I didn’t plan to include any romance. Forlorn hope, because one developed in the very first story of what was to become the Emaline Banister mystery series. They are mostly novellas, and the romance is moving slowly, but it’s there. They are great fun, because I can stick in a bit of science, a bit of suspense, a bit of romance, stir them all together, and end up with what I hope is an entertaining read.

“I heard a successful author say, ‘Run your heroine up a tree and throw rocks at her.’ I’ve never forgotten it. Coming up with ways to complicate my characters’ lives is sometimes a challenge and I have to try a lot of outrageous scenarios before I come up with the right one. Throwing those rocks is imperative to maintain tension. If a hero’s life were easy, what opportunity would he have to show heroism? Without complications, every romance—every work of fiction—would be about five pages long. Besides, it’s great fun to figure out ways to almost kill a character, to break someone’s heart, to defeat a villain’s dastardly plans.”

Judith’s most recent releases are Improbable Solution, a paranormal romance, and A Pitiful Remnant, a Regency romantic novella.

So there you have it—the inside scoop on writing romance. It’s a genre with a huge following and wide latitude in scope. Just don’t forget that happy-ever-after ending—or at least happy-for-now.

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