One of the things that happens when you finally manage to “birth” a book is that curious folk want to know all manner of things about you. In interviews for their blogs or for articles, they’ll ask how you came up with the idea for your book or who’s your favorite character or, like I was recently asked, what’s in your to-be-read pile.
Frankly, I’m a little embarrassed by that TBR pile. Like a lot of writers, mine is about four feet high (or it would be if half of the titles weren’t on my Kindle), because I don’t have the time to read all I would like. But you may be surprised to learn my TBR pile is not dominated by SFR. When I escape to another world, it isn’t always to another planet via starship. I read historical romance, romantic suspense, paranormal romance, even a little contemporary romance (most of it written by people I know, but not always). Occasionally I’ll read a straight science fiction novel on the recommendation of a friend, just to see if I can follow the science. And I’m a big fan of historical nonfiction and Stephen King.
Reading Stephen King over the years has given me a thorough education in the basic skills of novel writing—structure, character, tension, choosing the right word for the job. He is the absolute best at what he does.
Reading nonfiction keeps me connected to the real world and gives me something to talk about at gatherings besides politics and religion (which should be off-limits to polite folks) and writing (which no one but another writer understands).
But I’ve learned a number of important things from reading other forms of romance which have become a big part of my own writing. Here are, in reverse order, the Top Five Things I’ve Learned From Reading Non-SF Romance:
5) From historical romance—the art of dialogue. In many historical romances, much of the action takes place in drawing rooms and ballrooms, occasionally stables or carriages or gardens. Apart from the occasional duel (usually held off-page), there is little real physical action (well, except in the boudoir, of course), so the plot and all character development must be carried through the dialogue. If the dialogue is flat, the book fails. The absolute master of this is Eloisa James (Four Nights with the Duke), who can make a conversation about making over a dress sparkle with wit and innuendo while conveying hidden nuggets of information. Amazing.
4) From romantic suspense—the art of pacing. All those King novels certainly gave me a leg up here, but romantic suspense is very different in tone from horror, or from a thriller or a mystery, and needs a different approach. You have the added element of sustaining the romance while danger threatens. How (and when) do you introduce those elements of danger? When do you start to accelerate to the book’s climactic finish, where the hero and heroine finally triumph over the villain? I’m still learning how to structure the story so you just can’t put it down, from Maggie Shayne’s early stuff, Jayne Ann Krentz, Linda Howard and others.
3) From paranormal romance—the wounded hero trope. The idea of the alpha male who is vulnerable because of past hurts or a dark secret is not exclusive to paranormal romance by any means. The writers in this subgenre have just crafted it to perfection. From the beginning, with Christine Feehan’s long-suffering vampires, continuing with Sherrilyn Kenyon’s tortured Acheron and Nick, brought up to the minute with J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood and found in nearly every demon, vamp, were-creature, angel and hunter imaginable, the wounded hero redeemed by love is a fundamental principle of paranormal romance. Readers find this idea irresistible—and I admit, I do, too. The vulnerability of the hero is essential. Without it, why would he ever need the heroine? (This was a big theme in TREK fan fiction, too. Both Kirk and Spock were seen as vulnerable, fallible heroes—and, thus, lovable.)
2) From contemporary romance—the need for community. The heroes and heroines of contemporary romance live surrounded by friends and family, often in small towns or in the places where they grew up. Sometimes, in military romances, they live on ships or bases, with a cohort of their peers. When things go wrong between them, they have people to talk to. When bad things happen in their families, or among their friends, or in the town, they have each other. There is a sense of comfort in community that readers of contemporary romance like—a lot. They will seek to return to a certain community--Jude Deveraux’s Nantucket or Debbie Macomber’s Cedar Cove--over and over to have that feeling of comfort again. This is uncommon in the world of SFR, but it shouldn’t be. Just think of the great SF series—STAR TREK, STAR WARS, FIREFLY, BATTLESTAR GALLACTICA, FRINGE, X-FILES. These are ensembles, with the individuals surrounded and supported by a web of relationships. Create a community, and readers will want to return to that place over and over.
And, finally, the Number One Thing I’ve Learned From Reading non-SF Romance:
Worldbuilding. Yes. The thing we are supposed to be so good at in SFR. When I read a good historical, I’m swept away by the detail of interior design and costume, street scene and manner that the author has so painstakingly provided for me. Similarly, the consistent, detailed creation of a new paranormal world allows for necessary suspension of belief in the rules of this world. Do I believe in vampires when J.R.Ward writes about them? You bet I do.
You may think it’s easy to design a cozy little town on the coast of California and fill it full of seemingly normal people. But that town has to be as believable as any distant planet, and each of those folks has his or her own backstory. If something about them doesn’t ring true for the reader, the book fails. The same is true of a good romantic suspense novel. The world the author creates must be filled with authentic detail in order to set the mood for the tense action of the plot.
From all these wonderful writers, I read, I watch, I learn. Then I practice. Maybe one day I’ll get it right.
So, what’s surprising about your TBR pile? Learn anything from a good book lately?
The latest issue of SFR Quarterly is out, with fiction from Charlee Allden, a review of Sharon Lynn Fisher’s Echo 8 and an opinion piece about what makes a great SFR film from yours truly! Download your copy now here.