History Hoydens

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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

01 February 2008

Sickday Post,: Nervously, and in Praise of My Near and Dear

I've got a rotten cold today. I'm sneezing. Coughing. Blowing. Wiping. Tossing. Missing the wastebasket. Writing under the covers with my laptop on my knees. Trying not to worry too hard about the revision requests my editor is going to make and whether she even likes the manuscript I recently sent her. Trying to distract myself by remembering interesting conversations I've had over the years about what I think I'm doing writing historical romance anyhow.

I wasn't a huge romance reader before I started writing them. Instead I came to this business fresh from a fascinating experience of writing two erotic novels as Molly Weatherfield (still going strong after a decade and multiple reprintings), and from a lifetime of reading mostly literary fiction. Also (perhaps more to the point) from a lifetime of being a woman in this culture, of growing up in the golden age of Technicolor and cherishing a lifelong passion for historical costume movies and romantic comedies (including a passion for Shakespeare's gutsy girls in tights, like Viola in Twelfth Night).

Well, it wasn't the first eccentric resume I'd ever brought to a job. But in retrospect it seems to me I showed remarkable chutzpah during the time I was trying to get published in romance. My near and dear, though enthusiastic and appreciative of my writing, were pretty much convinced I'd gone bonkers. But in a nice way. A nice, talky, interesting, substantive way.

(In fact, one of those conversations may have been documented on audio, when my friend Susie Bright interviewed Molly Weatherfield for In Bed With Susie Bright, her series on Audible.com. It's not the best interview I ever gave and who knows how it was edited. But in the original conversation, at least, I tried to convince a skeptical Susie that there might be a place in romance fiction for me.)

And of course I talked nonstop about what I was doing with my husband (who's always been my most astute reader and who's become my research partner). But then I've always talked with just about anybody I could grab, both before and after I got published. (That's me over on the right, continuing to spritz at last year's RWA National Conference, after Janet Mullany and my workshop on Writing the Hot Historical -- which we'll be giving again this year -- yay!)

Today I'm particularly remembering a conversation with my sister. Not usually a romance reader, she'd nonetheless read my first two romance novels with pleasure. "But let me get this straight, Pam," she continued, nailing me with her bright-eyed gaze, "there's a hero and a heroine. And they meet up early in the novel and it takes the rest of the novel for them to get together. And that's... it?"

Which didn't mean, I hasten to add, that she hadn't enjoyed the plotting and the cliff-hangers and the sex and all that good stuff in my books. She had. But she'd also quickly focused in on what the business calls "foregrounding the romance."

"That's it," I said.

Or perhaps not -- at least after I thought about it some more, in the secret part of me that persists in wondering just how many romance conventions you can tweak and still have a romance.

Because in this current manuscript (the one that my editor might be frowning over at this moment), it's not so clear from the opening chapters who the hero is. Which makes me think maybe my unconscious had remembered that little conversation with my sister and created that little jog in the narrative for her.

Will it fly in romance? I'm still not sure, even if My Son the Victorianist told me reassuringly that "Lukacs said that every novel should keep you guessing about who its protagonists are in the beginning."

But perhaps you've already noticed that I'm very very proud of my big smart boy Jesse, who sometimes understands what I'm doing in my books better than I do, and who, in his own professional life, has compiled a terrific use of 19th century British literary and historical resources that you should check out.

Jesse explained that Georg Lukacs, an early twentieth century literary and social theorist, says that anyone could be the hero or heroine of a novel, because a novelistic narrative takes place in a recognizable world of everyday events. An in that world of events everyone has a story and none of these modern stories are necessarily the easy, obvious instances of folk and fairy tale.

While in the folk tradition, on the other hand, there's no problem recognizing the hero or heroine in beginnings like "once there was king, who had a very beautiful daughter." Or, "there was a miller with three sons. The oldest inherited the mill, the second got the land, but when it came to the youngest, all that was left was a handful of beans and a ragged cloak..."

Any yet don't romance novels draw upon both traditions? Don't the best of them weave the everyday and the hyperbolic, the quotidian and the fantastic? Is it perhaps because the story of finding someone to build a life with is so ordinary and yet so important and miraculous and magical, that we use the old folk forms to tell ourselves our love stories, even as romance writers like myself might want to test the strength of those forms against the hard stuff of modern novelistic convention?

But Jesse didn't tell me all of that. Actually, the bit about her own love and courtship story being the one story that every woman carries around inside her comes from none other than my mother. She's a huge reader -- mostly midlist literary fiction, with liberal chasers of Anne Perry, Amanda Quick, and me -- and I'll always be grateful to her for that true and penetrating observation.

And now I think I'll just slip (ah-choo!) further down under the covers...

While as for questions --

I guess the big one (for readers and for writers) is -- what mix of the everyday and the fantastical do you like in your romance fiction?

For writers, do you get useful, provocative help and support from friends and family outside of the romance reading and writing community? (And don't you just hate waiting around for that revision letter?)


And (for everybody, please) what do you take for a rotten, miserable cold and sore throat?

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16 Comments:

Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Hope you feel better soon, Pam! I love the idea of a romance in which one isn't quite sure who the hero is at the start. In my mom's and my second Regency, there were three possible heroes. I still hear from some readers who wish the heroine had ended up with one of the other two :-).

My dad, a social psychologist who didn't read much fiction at all, was great for talking through character motivation. And my best friend from college, a grad student in sociology, is wonderful at brainstorming plot twists and character details (he actually came up with the ending of my current book), though I don't think he'd read my books if he didn't know the author.

9:55 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Chicken soup, Pam! You should know that! I need it too; I've got the same damn cold.

I love the concept of not knowing who the hero/heroine is at the beginning of a novel, particularly because I'm one of those writers who has a tendency to ease the reader into a story, a slow immersion into a warm tub scented with rosewater instead of the cold plunge into the narrative.

BUT (big but -- with one "t"), my agent and editors don't always agree with me. Always? Try never. They don't think that's an effective way to begin a novel which they view as "commercial" -- meaning one that will sell copies, which appears to be their raison d'etre for being in the publishing business.

I just went through three revisions for an opening of what I hope will be my next work of historical fiction because my agent wanted to be sure it began with more of a bang.

And as for support from family and friends, my parents seem to view my historical fiction as my "real" writing (remember, it's not classified as "romance") and my more comedic contemporary mainstream fiction as -- what? "Unreal" fiction?? My father, who has never read start-to-finish a single one of my 11 titles to date, definitely thinks the comedies are fluff and the historicals are "real." However many times I have tried to explain to my parents that in the alleged last words of Anton Chekhov "dying is easy; comedy is hard," that one genre is no easier or less "real writing" than the other, it doesn't make a dent. Fortunately, I have a dear friend who suggested I pursue writing professionally in the first place, and who still gives me advice and reads and comments on my stuff when I request it. And greatest of all, my rock and redeemer, is my husband Scott, who is wildly supportive and the best, most patient and loving fan I could ever hope to have.

10:40 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

I feel your pain, Pam! Get better soon.

As far as supporters of this writing thing I do--I am amazed at how accepting, even supportive so many people are about writing romance. My boss. My mother. My office friends.

The seem genuinely suprised when they discover what I do "on the side" but no one has ever discouraged me from doing it.

To help me get over the cold season...I'm all for nose spray, and headache medicine, and hot showers---and lots and lots of sleep. Get rest!

2:36 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

feeling better about my slow to be revealed hero, Tracy. And of course you had the best family support of all, writing with your mom. That must have been wonderful.

It should be chicken soup, Amanda. But Michael and I are both too sick to cook, so we're having to settle for take-out wonton (not a bad substitute). Hot showers sound good, Kathrynn. Hot baths, better, imo.

And I do think having a significant other who reads one's stuff -- eagerly, intelligently -- is the best. In The Bookseller's Daughter, when Joseph calls Marie-Laure his "most astute reader," that was me talking to Michael (as he well knew), and meaning ALL the ways he knows how to read me.

4:14 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Feel better Pam, there's nothing worse than battling a cold when you have so much to do. I have a loyal group of critters as I call them who critique my work before I sent it out in to the big wide world who I couldn't do without. They read my synopsis for me, my proposals and my complete manuscripts when I beg. They too are all for plunging the reader into the story, whereas I like to give the reader more of a slow build particularly in my current historical YA that I'm working on.

I'm also lucky enough to be able to write at my day job as long as it doesn't interfere with my job, which is great since I have a steady supply of paper and envelopes! And they were just as excited as I was when I found out I was a semifinalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.

4:52 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I'm also lucky enough to be able to write at my day job as long as it doesn't interfere with my job, which is great since I have a steady supply of paper and envelopes!

As well as wireless, fax, etc, Elizabeth... A creative person needs these things, as performance artist Josh Kornbluth said in his piece Haiku Tunnel, about his day job at a law firm.

And congrats on the semi-fina.

5:16 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

Bless your heart, Pam. A cold is just one of the most miserable experiences! Actually the hot and sour soup would be better for you in your condition. Try Zicam. It works!! For a sore throat gargle with warm salt water. A bath with eucalyptus oil will help to loosen the chest.

Cayenne pepper will help too.

I am very fortunate in that my Mom and my brothers are very supportive of my writing. My BFF is the editor from hell so she keeps me on the straight and narrow. I have a few people at work (including the store manager) who are really stoked that I am winning contests and trying to get a book published. The majority of the people I work with just don't get it. Oh well!!

6:44 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Cold relief: here's what was passed on to me recently -- put Vicks Vapo Rub on your feet and then put on a pair of socks -- for some reason (reflexology related?) this helps sore throats. I can send you a list of writers who swear by this -- I have avoided THE cold so far so I have not tested it. Wish I was close enough to bring some Vicks to you and Michael.

I want to know who the hero is early on and will read the end to find out if it is not clear up front. Same for the heroine. Just another way I a very traditional reader (and writer)

I actually love the revision process (sometimes I can be an annoying Pollyanna) -- of course I have only had to do it once but it was major. Shauna was totally and completely right. The book is so much better for the four months of work and I was so lucky to have the time.

Mind you, that said, there will be no complaints if that is the only time it ever happens.(I can wish)

Pam, what a trooper you are to blog away when you are feeling so crummy. Great to read as always.

ALERT: POSSIBLE SPOILER Pam do you have two well tanned archaeologists in your next book? if not then I will know who the hero is right away...

9:19 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Oh Pam, hope you're better soon! I swear I've been fighting off the same cold for months now . . . it goes into remission, but never really goes away.

My friends and family are really supportive, but I think they all secretly think I've lost my mind. LOL! I am, after all the crazy academic with an MFA. The history wonk. The serious writer. The fact that I suddenly started writing romance instead of poetry kind of blindsided them. But I also think that many of them take my romances more seriously than they would have because they know I have such a hardcore background. Don't know why, but I think--like Amanda's historical fiction--that having another side to you gives non-romance readers something to hang their hat one.

Does that make sense?

9:50 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks for all the remedies, doglady and Mary. I've got to try the Vicks vaporub to the feet thing.

My editor improved my last book immensely, so I'm optimistic. But like Amanda, I'm temperamentally at odds with the start-off-fast way of writing, and I'm not a fan of grabber first lines (at least not since Call me Ishmael, and that's been done).

Perhaps I have 3 writerly identities -- the romancer, the smut-writer, and the reviewer. The smut-writer is probably the most intellectual of the three: just recently I got a fan letter from someone who wanted to make sure he'd gotten the Thomas Pyncheon reference in Carrie's Story. Writing that sort of pastiche early in my published career shaped me, I think -- my interest always has been in writing and commenting at the same time. I've been lucky, thus far, to be allowed to do it and I'm deeply sympathetic to people who have to edit me in romance.

7:38 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

In the first draft of what became LORD SCANDAL I had a reference tying the heroine to Caesar's wife: like Caesar's wife, she was no longer above suspicion, and never could be again. I kept getting told I had to explain this. *sigh* I ended up just taking it out, but it makes me sad to have done so.

10:21 AM  
Blogger kdilday1 said...

Hey all! I'm a newbie to this blog but that's me in the picture with Pam so I thought I would contribute a little. :-)

Pam! So sorry about your cold. I'm for the Vick's too, but I use it in traditional fashion (rub on upper chest & cover w/a piece of flannel) for congestion. Also, lots of Celestial Seasonings Peppermint Tea and a humidifier in the bedroom at night.

As for what I enjoy in romantic fiction...I think I will address the question of the fantastical vs. the everyday. Maybe a digression but I just finished reading an article in this month's Psychology Today about what goes on in our brains chemically when we fall in love. I find the scientific exploration of intangible things like how we fall in love fascinating because somehow these explanations end up making the process even more mysterious. When scientists map emotion to specific areas in the brain and track even more specific chemical reactions in the body, color code them and cross-reference them...and love still has the power to amaze, compel, confuse and flutter the heart. Well, it just makes me smile. For me, there is something comforting in the idea that we are so "programmed" for love, yet are still so stymied by it. In a romance novel, if the author can show (not tell!) this feeling that the characters are compelled by their love but in the end they CHOOSE each other. Well, I say that's good stuff and I will come back for more. And of course, that's what I am seeking to do in my own (yet unpublished) work. And that's why I tear my hair out some days too!

6:18 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Sympathies, Kalen. Since my next book is a love story between a classicist/archeologist and a silver fork novelist, I don't know what they're gonna do with all the classical references. (Spoiler's out, Mary!)

And welcome, Kecia. Love your comments here as much as I did last summer. I read a very similar article in Time to the one you read in Psychology Today. Which reminded me of something I've been asserting for years about the subset of BDSM fiction than I wrote in and whose assumptions I've brought to romance as well: which is that the joke behind it is about being forced to do what we most want to do anyway.

More material for the comments I'm going to be bringing to a panel at the Popular Culture Association Conference next month: my remarks will be titled "From BDSM to Erotic Romance: Observations of a Shy Pornographer".

9:07 AM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

Pam, so sorry you're ill. Gallons of hot tea, a cozy chenille throw, fuzzy bunny slippers, and a fluffy robe. And every once in a while a teaspoon of honey and an inhalation of steam with a couple drops of eucalyptus oil.

No family support, other than my husband, for my romance writing. Literary, yes, because that's the kind they can talk up to their friends.

From the POV of a reader, I like both approaches to fiction. Amanda's slow approach and Julia Quinn's immediate plunge. However, I'd say the Tolstoy approach, where Anna Karenina doesn't waltz onto the stage till halfway through the book, will certainly not fly.

From the POV of an aspiring writer, I was "told" umpteen times that you had to do the quick immersion. The smaller the length, the quicker the story setup and character intro.

3:06 PM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

Ooh, Elizabeth, many congratulations to you for being a semi-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.

Pam, way to go!!

3:33 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Sympathetic hugs, Keira, that your family doesn't support the romance writing. It seems to me that just about any kind of writing can be done well, and ought to be supported.

But surely Anna K. comes into the book sooner than halfway thru.

6:50 PM  

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