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At the Back Fence Issue #150

Treat yourself to the AAR Bookbag!

December 1, 2002

Thanks giving is not only a day to give thanks for family and friends (and food), it also marks the beginning of the holiday season that culminates with New Year’s. We realize that many of you will be busy for the next month; we hope AAR offers you a place to get away from the stress of the season.

The Thief (LLB)

Earlier this year Rachel Potter, one of our review staff, asked whether she should read Anne Gracie’s An Honorable Thief, featuring a thieving heroine. She mentioned that she’d seen it in the supermarket several times but resisted the impulse to buy it because “thief protagonists usually turn me right off.” Though we maintain a Special Title Listing called Cons, Burglars, and Pickpockets, I never really thought about thieving heroes and heroines, but after reading Gracie’s book myself and recalling Rachel’s comments, I realized I must be at the opposite end of the spectrum, at least as far as heroines are concerned. Every romance I’ve read featuring a thieving heroine is one I’ve enjoyed… often a great deal. An Honorable Thief was no exception; it joins some wonderful romances featuring heroines who steal or enact cons:

I’ve come across thieving heroes more often than thieving heroines and I think there’s a reason for it. Readers of romance novels are more accustomed and perhaps accepting of heroes with egregious behavior than they are of heroines whose behavior may be equally suspect. Years of alpha heels, hero-to-heroine cruelty, and heroes tortured by their pasts have taught readers to accept, and perhaps crave moral ambiguity in our heroes. And when you consider that the vast majority of heroes who steal – particularly in historical settings – aren’t in it for the money, it’s even easier to accept. Forget the glamour of “the Highwayman;” most romance novel heroes who steal do it as a lark or because they’re enacting the Robin Hood scenario and stealing from the rich (either to give to the poor or simply to steal from the rich, who don’t need their inherited booty and didn’t do a thing to earn it).

Thieving heroines do not populate nearly as many romance novels as do thieving heroes. And mostly when they steal, they too aren’t in it for the money. The heroine in Foley’s Prince Charming, for instance, steals from the rich and gives to the poor. Anne Wilder, the heroine in Brockway’s brilliant All Through the Night steals for the thrill of it. And Kit Singleton, the heroine from Gracie’s An Honorable Thief, steals because she is avenging her father’s honor – or so she thinks.

A rich moral ambiguity is at work in all of these scenarios, but because it is still the norm that heroines are more often the character least in need of reform, I think it’s harder for readers to accept a heroine who is not a “bad” person, but one engaged in “bad” acts, often for a “good” reason. That whole place-holder/reader identification concept comes into play and it is because of this moral ambiguity that readers may be more apt to tolerate illicit behavior.

In An Honorable Thief, the heroine is asked by her dying father to avenge his expulsion from polite society by stealing items of value from those he says caused his exile. Thoroughly mistreated by this man throughout her life by virtue of not being a boy, she promises to follow through on his request; she takes this honor business quite seriously. Here’s what Gracie writes about Kit:

“I think readers do more readily accept heroes in this mold and have a tougher time if the thief is a heroine. I think it’s easier to accept a hero thief partly because we expect our heroes to go out and wrest a living in the world, whereas we have a deep down feeling that women are supposed to protect the home and not violate it. We can accept the male-as-predator thing more easily. So maybe it is trickier to keep a heroine thief sympathetic.”However, whether male or female, hero-thieves are not your average thief. Usually their thievery is not ordinary stealing – not everyday moneygrubbing – it’s almost always for some other reason. Like Robin Hood – rob the rich to give to the poor. Hero thieves are almost always honorable, especially towards women and children, and nobody except baddies get hurt.

“When I was working out my characters for An Honorable Thief, I really spent some time delving into Kit’s motivations for stealing, because I felt there had to be reasons behind it which readers would empathize with, even support, if they could see where she was coming from.

“Kit’s background is important – all her life, she’d traveled the world with her ne’er-do-well aristocratic father, who’d had her taught to steal as a young child. At the age of 13, she learned it was wrong to steal, and stopped, despite all her father’s objections. So at heart, she is an honest person.

“When she starts stealing again, it isn’t stealing for profit – it’s to keep a deathbed promise to her father, who she loves in spite of his behavior. He demands she promise, knowing she always keeps her promises – he’s banking on her strong sense of honor.

“The promise is to steal particular items from particular people and the purpose is to regain her father’s lost honor. She believes the men who she steals from stole the items in the first place and also caused the exile and moral decline of her father.

“So the stealing Kit does is for reasons of honor and love, is to right an old wrong and in the process she hurts no-one and no-one is impoverished.

“The only other thing she steals is when she steals a phoenix tie-pin from the hero in a mischievous impulse during an early encounter. I’m not entirely sure why she did that – it was one of those moments where a character does something and it feels right so you have to work out what happened and why. I think it was partly a sub-conscious thing to get his attention and to punish him for being pompous. It also becomes symbolic on a number of levels – as a phoenix (rebuilding from the ashes), and as token from the man she loves but cannot have, and as a symbol of her past as a thief. It’s the only thing she stole for herself – and even so, it wasn’t for profit, it was for emotional reasons.”

While most heroines whom I’ve read about steal for an honorable reason, there are those romances featuring heroines who steal for more reality-based reasons – they are essentially addicted to the thrill or they need the money to survive. One of the reasons arm-chair psychologists say Winona Ryder shoplifted is because she was addicted to the thrill of doing something dangerous. This thrill of danger and the illicit is the motivation for Anne Wilder’s stealing in All Through the Night, about which author Connie Brockway writes:

“I think one of the reasons Anne Wilder was accepted as a morally ambiguous heroine is simply that she was morally ambiguous. Nothing indicated that her actions were done solely for some greater good. She didn’t act out of selflessness. There was never any question that she stole things only to aid widows and orphans although that is the excuse she gave herself. But it was never more than an excuse and even Anne acknowledged this. Yes, she stole from those who’d welched on promises of financial aid – but Anne never bought into that rationalization. The real reason that she felt compelled to her risk-taking crimes was because she was an adrenaline junkie. She may have had an inkling that this driving compulsion stemmed from the love/hate relationship she’d formed with her very twisted, needy husband but she never fully understood that what she did, the fear and ‘rush’ involved, insulated her from the pain she felt.”But – hopefully – the reader did.

“This is what, in my opinion, enables a reader to empathize with the morally ambiguous female character: an understanding of the character’s motivation that the character herself may lack. The reader must believe that the heroine’s thrill-seeking crimes are a substitute for pain and confusion. That belief stimulates our empathy.

“We have all had moments when we did not understand why we acted contrary to our own best interest. The self-destructive impulse is, unhappily, universal and to some degree we can all identify with heroines who undergo similarly confusing periods. Sometimes the most heroic story an author can chart is a character’s escape from the compulsion to seek her own destruction.”

Then there are those heroines who steal for the most realistic reason of all – they need the money to survive. Two of my favorite romances, Sutcliffe’s A Fire in the Heart, and Dodd’s My Favorite Bride, feature heroines who steal to survive. While Dodd’s heroine has since been reformed, Sutcliffe’s Bonnie begins the book as a guttersnipe who blackmails the hero into keeping her out of the workhouse. As someone with major “authority” issues whose heart pounds every time a police car gets within 100 feet, this book by all rights should have been a failure for me. So why didn’t it fail?

Throughout much of the world’s history, wealth has been concentrated with the few and poverty spread among the many – all based solely on lineage. It’s a topsy-turvy concept for Americans to accept that those who worked hard had relatively little while those who inherited wealth often frittered away their time. So while there’s certainly nothing noble about stealing, Bonnie’s behavior has a most poignant quality because her situation was not of her doing. About Bonnie and A Fire in the Heart, Katherine Sutcliffe has this to say:

“It’s been 12 years since the publication of A Fire in the Heart and I can’t count the number of letters I still receive about Bonnie and Damian. Certainly, Bonnie wasn’t your clichéd heroine who cringes at the hero’s occasional tirades. Instead, she is a raggamuffin who gave as good as she got. Often foul mouthed, insulting, stealing the Warwick’s silver, etc. Not to mentioning despising everything Warwick stood for.”The most important aspect of developing a character such as Bonnie is motivation. Going beyond the outward appearance and behavior, digging deeply into her background and psyche. By doing so you develop a character with depth – relating to the reader that there is a good reason for a romantic heroine not to walk on water. Simply put, a reader must sympathize with a character – even relate to them in some way – so the reader doesn’t despise the character so much they throw the book against the wall.

“In Bonnie’s case, she had seen her father and mother financilly destroyed. Her father killed in a mining accident (a mine owned by the Warwick family). Orphaned, she had been interned in a workhouse – starved, beaten – turned into a young animal who was forced to fight for her survival. Trust for another human being was a non-issue. She related her problems to the aristocracy who had brought the ruination of her family, and, who apparently didn’t give a flip for the plight of the orphan in general.

“Enter Warwick, who had his own issues. Who begrudingly was forced to look deep into what was left of his own conscious to save her, not just from the fiendish orphanage, but from herself.

“Why? Because beneath Bonnie’s tough exterior he, along with the reader, caught glimpses of the abused, aching young woman who hungered for love and attention. This element was imperative to win the reader over. Such characteristics were revealed in dialogue, introspection, and actions that shouted louder than she did. The reader was allowed to glimpse the diamond in the rough–if you’ll pardon the cliché. As we peeled away that soot-covered, sassy, belligerent exterior, we eventually revealed the reality that Bonnie simply hungered for someone to love her, care for her, and revive the dreams of happily ever after that had been extinguished by the destruction of her parents who loved one another beyond all earthly bonds.

“Simply put, strong motivation is the key to develop characterization.”

Thus far we’ve talked to authors of romances featuring thieving heroines in intense romances. On the flip side are humorous romances; characters in the Dodd, Garwood, and Michaels books grew up on the wrong side of the law. Instead of intense moral ambiguity, place-holder/reader identification issues, wit and humor blunts crime and its effects. Think The Sting.

In the traditional Regency The Mischievous Miss Murphy, the heroine has been raised by her Uncle Max, a con-man who uses the beautiful girl to enact his cons. He swindles only from the foolish rich even if he never pays for his lodging. When the hero rescues Uncle Max from jail and assumes the heroine will be grateful enough in return to share his bed, he’s in for the surprise of his life. For even though Candie Murphy has been involved in unscrupulous behavior, the girl has standards. Soon Tony Betancourt is in way over his head, in a battle of wits with the lovely young woman who has forsworn men and marriage. Here’s what Kasey Michaels had to say about the mischievous Miss Murphy:

“I have an edge with a character like this because I write romantic comedy, and you can get away with things in romantic comedy you might have to struggle with mightily in a more serious book. Also, Miss Murphy was simply her uncle’s child, had been raised to be his ‘helper’ in his cons. Others cut their baby teeth on nursery rhymes. Miss Murphy cut hers on cons – never knew the difference, although she certainly knows right from wrong. This is all a game to her. And, ah, her rascal of a uncle was an ‘honorable’ man, never fleecing any but those who could afford the loss. She was ‘in the game’ more to keep tabs on her daddy than to be dishonest. I have used that ‘never hurt a good guy’ ploy since, especially since beginning my continuing series (begun with Maggie Needs an Alibi, ), where someone is gonna die in each book. I only kill off nasty people, never nice people – to keep the tone ‘lighter’ for the sort of book I like to write.”

I look forward to hearing from you on the ATBF Message Board about thieving heroines, and heroes too, whether they are featured in serious or humorous romances. And what of the issue of setting? Each of the titles discussed above features an historical setting. I don’t know that I’d enjoy this type of character in a contemporary setting where honest and hard work can lead to monetary success in life. What about you?



I mentioned not long ago that I’ve begun writing “fan letters” to authors whose books I enjoy. Donna Simpson was on the receiving end for her A Matchmaker’s Christmas because I hadn’t expected to enjoy the book given the age of the lead hero and heroine. We got to talking after she wrote back; based on some of AAR’s message board discussions, she wondered if I would be interested in her writing a segment on what a writer owes the public. I did express my interest, although I added that I would understand her not wanting to do the piece once she saw one of two reviews I was preparing to post for her books (one was a very positive review, the other was negative – her one and only “bad” review after two DIK’s and several mostly B level grades). Her response was that while she appreciated the heads-up, she wasn’t surprised at the grade our reviewer awarded that particular book. More than that, though, she is an author who seeks feedback on her books; she takes very seriously the idea that the reader is the boss. Read on and see what I mean.

Although her piece was written before the current discussion on our ATBF Message Board regarding an author’s responsibility to her readers, the timing really couldn’t be better.



What a Writer Owes Her Readers (Donna Simpson)

When I sat down to write this, doubt assailed me. How presumptuous for me to speak about what a writer owes a reader, as if I am some sort of authority on the subject! Let me just say, then, as a caveat, I am not the most read writer, nor the most famous, nor the best. I am a Regency writer, and I love what I do and have been blessed with a modest success.

But as a writer I have thought long and hard on this subject, and so what follows is the result of that thought, and my own opinion only. If it seems to be a dialogue with a reader, that’s what it is, I suppose, a conversation with you.

What does a writer owe a reader?

First, I think every writer would agree that we owe readers our absolute best work. We may work for ourselves and be paid by our publishing company, but for all intents and purposes, you are our boss and we owe you the product of all of our abilities utilized with hard work and great care.

However… we’re human, and there are stretches in everyone’s life where tragedy, sadness, turmoil and heartache make work drudgery. Those days are not going to be our best. In most cases we can clean up those patches of pathetic prose in the rewrite, but what about when a bad patch lasts too long and a deadline looms? Then we can only do the best we can and let it go. Other people are relying on us, after all, to come through with something. The trouble is, we can’t even guarantee that an editor will catch our failings, for they are a terribly overworked tribe, let me assure you. So, if a writer whose work you love falters for one book, be generous and read the next. Everyone deserves to be allowed to fail once in a while and still be able to pick up the pieces.

Second, we owe our readers honesty in every aspect of our career, from our writing to our online cruising. In writing, we owe you introspection and truth, as much as we are capable of giving it at the time. We should not use cheap tricks to manipulate emotions, nor should we betray a character’s deeper meaning for the sake of better book sales. Writing romance has elements of art and craft, and creating a story is a balancing act of those elements. When the scale tips too far to the art side, a writer can break faith with the reader by creating something more akin to literary fiction. Too much on the craft side and we run the risk of manipulating the reader’s emotions with our skill, cheapening the finished product. It is indeed a fine-edged sword.

Online, we absolutely ethically-some may disagree with me here-owe our readers the fair identification of ourselves on message boards, chat and any other kind of online presence. To do anything less, in my estimation, is unethical and cheap. However, I think this really only goes for comment and talk about our own work. A writer can also be a reader, and to comment favorably or unfavorably on another author’s work using the weight of our own name could be construed as virtual trashing or some other negative infliction. A writer can be excused, then, for taking an online name when commenting as a reader of novels. That is the only way to ensure that no other reader gives his or her comments undue weight, as they may if they respected that author’s work. It behooves that writer, though, to be scrupulously careful about what he/she says, examining every comment on another writer’s work for the taint of jealousy, professional envy or any other harmful influence.

Third, I think we owe our readers our own advancement and learning. To stagnate is to die; to stretch is to live. I used to love a certain writer’s Regency books ( I don’t think the writer is still writing) until I began to recognize the same dull facts trotted out and the same tired observations made in every single work. I doubt I could read her work today.

Last, I think a writer owes his or her readers passion. The moment a writer stops caring about what they write, they ought to quit. In my own career I have ambitions encompassing more forms than Regency, but I still love writing them. The moment I don’t, I hope I’ll have the courage to step away, make room, and let someone into the business who will have as much fun as I have over the last three and a half years.

As a last thought, writing romances or any form of fiction is not brain surgery. It doesn’t feed the hungry or house the homeless. This was something that many of us, I think, and not just writers, had to come to terms with in the wake of 9/11. What is our place in this world? Is there honor in creating fictional folks who dance the quadrille and fuss about their social invitations?

But of course writing of all kinds, writing Regency romance included, is more than just manipulating people across the pages of a novel. At its best, any fictional piece enlightens and gives hope by holding up the best in human nature and praising it, and by recreating human emotions and relationships with truth and beauty. Even at its least, it entertains and gives a laugh or a dreamy sigh on an otherwise dreary day. We’re lucky people, those of us who get to do this for a living, and most of us know it.

We owe you our best and you have every right to hold us to that standard. So, keep up your end of the bargain. Challenge writers you care about, criticize work you think is lax, and praise beauty and truth where you find it.



The current ATBF Message Board discussion on authors and their publishers brought out the helpful in one anonymous author who seeks to answer some questions you all have raised in the past. Read on as she answers reader questions. You may be surprised by some of her answers – I know I was. Then, on the ATBF Message Board you can respond to whether her answers correspond or conflict with the answers you’d have provided .



An Author Answers Your Questions (Anonymous)

Why does an author go hardcover?

An author can go hardcover for many reasons, but contrary to popular belief, it’s never to squeeze more money out of existing fans. Of course the publisher isn’t going to complain if Mary Author’s loyal fans choose to shell out more money for a different type of edition, but the decision to go hardcover is always primarily about reaching new readers, which, when push comes to shove, is what every book is about in publishing, regardless of format. Yes, the publisher (and author) wants to hold on to every reader they can, but they are always striving and searching for ways to reach new readers, readers which might not have even noticed previous books. The hardcover audience is not the same as the mass market audience (although there is certainly a fair bit of crossover), and thus a hardover edition has the potential to reach different and new readers.

Sometimes the decision to take an author into hardcover is for very traditional reasons: the author has hit a certain level of mass market sales, and it seems a logical step. The first romance authors to go into hardcover (McNaught, Garwood, Krentz, Spencer) did so for this reason. The publisher knows that some of that author’s loyal fans will buy the hardcover, which guarantees that the shift won’t be a flop, but they also know that there are some readers who browse in the hardback section who don’t look at mass market. Sometimes it’s easier to get the discount clubs to carry a hardcover title than a mass market title. A hardcover can also garner review attention that mass market titles can’t (Eloisa James was dubbed “Page Turner of the Week in People Magazine; they wouldn’t have looked twice at her if her book had been published in a mass market format.)

All of these things together, plus a whole lot more I’m probably not privy to, work together to help an author reach new and different readers than she did while in mass market. And yes, everybody makes more money off a hardcover – provided it’s not a flop, of course. But publishers are not going to take an author into hardcover unless they feel it will increase her readership.

But what about authors who are going into hardcover without hitting the New York Times Bestseller list?

Publishers will do whatever it takes to reach a wide readership. An author like Mary Balogh might be published in hardcover because her style is very serious and probing, and it is thought that her books might appeal to readers of straight historical fiction – readers who do not visit the romance section of the bookstore. An author like Kathleen Eagle, who also writes about serious themes, will be published in hardcover because her books are the sort that will appeal to women’s fiction readers (again, who might not visit the romance section and who are more likely to purchase hardcovers). Not to mention the issue of review attention. Eagle’s books are the sort that can garner stellar reviews from mainstream reviewers. Hardcover print runs are a great deal smaller than mass market, and review attention is extremely important in this arena.

Also, contemporary romances and romantic suspense tend to do better in hardcover, so you’ll see those authors moving to hardcover before most historicals.

What about debut authors?

Debut authors are another story. There was a big brouhaha a few years back when Eloisa James and Michele Jaffe were published in hardcover for their debut titles. People complained that publishers were playing favorites because of their Harvard degrees. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jaffe had to be published in hardcover. There was simply no other way. Her books were set in Renaissance Italy, and if her publisher knew that if they went out there with a traditionally published mass market romance set in Renaissance Italy, the book would flop. The wholesalers would pass, the chain stores would buy low – the book would not have had a chance. So the publisher decided to play up the difference and publish the book with a lush package and try to make a big deal of it. Readers complain non-stop about the lack of variety in historical romance books, that it’s all regency all the time. Well, it’s a problem for publishers, too. When they have a book they love that’s not set in the Regency, they’re in a quandary. Because if they publish that book in a typical fashion, it will fail. So don’t complain that Jaffe got a hardcover deal, not if you want variety in your romance settings.

But what about…

It doesn’t even matter what the rest of that question was. If you remember one thing remember this: the decisions that are made in publishing are individual. Ten authors can go hardcover for ten very different reasons. And you can’t even assume that because Author A goes hardcover and Author B does not that the publishing house likes/supports/pays more to Author A. The simple fact of the matter is that Author A and Author B are different, and thus their career are going to grow differently. They and their publisher will need to different things to reach their audiences. Contrary to popular belief, romance novels are not interchangeable, and that’s why publishing decisions such as whether and when to go hardcover have to be made on an individual basis.

Why does an author change her style when she switches to hardcover?

Not all do. Some continue writing exactly the same sort of books they’ve always been writing. Julie Garwood’s first hardcover was a historical romance in the same vein as her prior books. Garwood did later switch to contemporary romantic suspense, but unless you count Garwood among your close friends (and I, unfortunately, have never met her), you have no way of knowing why she made that switch. Quite frankly, she might have been bored of writing historicals. Maybe she just wanted a change. It could be as simple as that.

Some authors probably do change their style when they switch to hardcover; they know they will be reaching a different sort of audience and perhaps they want to cater to that. But again, unless you sit down and chat with that author and ask her yourself, it’s fairly useless to speculate about her motives.

But don’t they understand that they’re losing readers when they veer away from romance?

Probably, but what you need to understand is that when an author moves away from romance and into women’s fiction or suspense (or perhaps keeps the romance, just makes it a bit less of a central focus), she gains new readers. And chances are, she’s gaining more readers than she’s losing. Iris Johansen sells way more books now with her suspense novels than she ever did with her romances, and she was no slouch in romance.

I happen to be a reader who prefers straight romance to romantic suspense and women’s fiction, and so I’m with all of you in wishing that some of my favorite authors would go back to their older styles and themes, but I certainly can’t begrudge them their success in a new field. Especially since it’s very likely that their move to a new field was not part of a premeditated strategy to get new readers but simply because, after writing dozens of romances, their muses were ready to try something new. It’s pretty easy to get upset with an author for writing the same story over and over again; on the flip side of the coin, it can be a challenge for an author to stay fresh book after book.

As an aside note, though, authors like Johansen and Garwood who move into suspense and experience great success do so in a large part because of their romance roots. Many of their romance readers follow them from genre to genre because they love their style and voice, and publishers know this. Trust me, publishers never underestimate or disparage the loyalty and devotion of romance readers.

Why does an author switch from hardcover back to mass market? Is that a demotion?

Not necessarily. It’s simply a move to try to reach a bigger audience. Remember, each author is treated individually and each book is as well. A publisher will look at each author and try to figure out the best way to reach readers with her. And it may very well be in mass market. Case in point: Teresa Medeiros had two books out in hardcover and she’s switching back to mass market. Considering that her last book hit the New York Times list, I don’t think anyone could say that her career is doing anything but soaring.

Why do publishers spend so much money promoting their bestselling authors whose books would sell if they were wrapped in tin foil? Why don’t they use that money for their newer authors?

The sad truth is, it’s easier to increase sales for a bestselling author than it is for a new one. It’s easier to move a print run from 400,000 to 500,000 than it is from 40,000 to 50,000. You might think that everyone and her mother has heard of Julie Garwood, but the truth is, there are lots of readers out there who have never heard of her, and her publisher knows that once they do, they’ll go out and buy her entire backlist. All authors wish that more money was spent promoting new authors, but unfortunately, unless the publisher goes out for that author in a big way, it often doesn’t make a whole lot of difference. Romance, for the most part, is a slow and steady business. Authors just have to keep plugging away until they reach some critical mass, and then they can really fly. But for almost everyone, you’ve simply got to write and publish and write and publish to gain name recognition before you can start to see substantial sales growth book to book. There are very few overnight successes in romance.

When I go to my supermarket, there are racks and racks of bestseller backlist and nothing by my new favorite author who has only written three books. Why?

An old Catherine Coulter book will sell more copies than a new book by a beginning author. Much as I’d like to see more variety, who are we to tell the supermarket to cut into their profits?

I went to my chain superstore and they had three times as much science fiction as romance even though we all know romance sells better. This is snobbism, isn’t it?

No. Don’t forget that as a romance reader, you can usually buy books at supermarkets, and Wal-Marts, and the like. Even though the variety at those outlets is shrinking, there is still plenty of midlist to be had there, and lots of bestsellers. Science fiction is rarely offered outside of bookstores, so SF readers have to go to bookstores to get their books. Hence, bookstores enjoy high SF sales, even higher than romance quite frequently.

The romance section is hidden in the back of my bookstore! This is snobbism, isn’t it?

No. Romance is in the back of the store because the management knows that romance readers are the most devoted readers around. We will walk to the back of the store to find our books. Other readers will not. It’s just like at the department stores – the men’s section is always near the entrance, but the women need to hike it upstairs. That’s because they know that we will expend energy to shop; men won’t.

The clerk at the store said their romance section is small because “those books don’t sell well!” This is snobbism, isn’t it?

Yeah, probably.

I’m not happy with the romances being published today. What can I do?

Write a letter. You can find the address on the copyright page of any book. Address it to “Romance editor” or, if you have a specific author in mind, “Editor of Mary Author.” It will get read. You may or may not get a response, but it will get read.

I wish there were more variety in romances. What can I do?

The number one thing you can do is support the quirkier themes/settings with your purchasing dollars. If you’d like to see more books set in Colonial America, then please – next time you see one, buy it. Choose to take a chance on that new author before taking a chance on a regency historical author. Of course, if the Colonial book is horrible, don’t purchase that author’s next book. But if you want to see more variety, you have to support that variety. Remember, publishers take a chance when they publish something without a built-in audience. If you can show them that there IS an audience for a category romance without a secret baby, then they will publish more of the sort. You can also write a letter, as I mentioned above.

Do authors who give quotes on books actually read the books?

Most of the time, yes. Sometimes, if an author has given another author an endorsement quote that supports the author, rather than an individual book, that quote is reused. But generally, authors do not give out quotes without reading the book first.

How does Romance Writers of America’s RITA contest work? How does a book get nominated?

First of all, “nominated” is a bit of a misnomer. The list you see published in spring is a list of finalists, which is very different than a list of nominees, a la the Oscars. To enter the RITA, an author must send five copies of her book to RWA and pay a fee of $40. (The rules do allow for someone other than the author to enter the book, but that rarely happens.) The book is then sent out to five judges, who read up to eight books in total and then judge those books on a scale of 1 to 9. The scores are sent in, tabulated using some sort of standard deviation rule, and then the top eight scorers reach the finals. If there are fewer than eighty books entered in a given category, then the top 10% reach the finals. The finalist books are all judged by the same panel of judges. This time around, instead of assigning a score, the judges rank the books in order, favorite to least favorite. I have no idea how these scores are tabulated, but whichever book is determined to be the favorite wins. The prize for the RITA is a statuette and a great deal of acclaim from one’s peers. It generally does not translate into higher sales for an author, although it might bring her to the attention of publishing professionals looking to attract new talent.

How does Romance Writers of America’s Favorite Book of the Year (FBY) work?

Any RWA member can nominate any book published that year as a favorite book. If I read a book that blows me away, I can go to the RWA website (or send in a postcard) and nominate it. I can nominate as many books as I like, although I can’t nominate any book more than once. Members may also nominate their own books (only once!) The votes are counted and top ten become the top ten Favorite Books of the Year. Like the RITA, the main “prize” for the FBY is acclaim from one’s peers. However, RWA does use this list (which is conveniently ready for distribution prior to Valentine’s Day) to publicize romance novels and the romance industry. And sometimes RWA is able to work with book distributors to give these books another run on the supermarket shelves. Additionally, last year Waldenbooks did a special display featuring the FBY winners.



AAR Reviewer Jennifer Schendel provides the final segment for this issue of ATBF as she ponders the question of why so many romance novel characters have such quirky names. If you’ve ever wondered whether the name Moon Unit would be anachronistic in a Regency or whether Iphiginia was a real or made-up name, read on!



The Name Game (Jennifer Schendel)

Juliet once said, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet.” A love struck teenager might not care if her boyfriend is named Capulet or Montague, but a romance reader is little more discerning. Let’s face it given the choice between a hero named Roarke and a hero named Egbert, the reader is likely to choose Roarke. Why?

A name is as important to the creation of a character as their physical description and background. It’s a quick way for a reader to get insight into a character. Look at the name Roarke and think about what words that brings to mind: Irish, strong, sleek, and sophisticated. All good words to describe a hero. So how about Egbert? I hear it and think about a geeky nerd wearing glasses with a nasally voice; not exactly the traditional traits of a romance hero. Granted in the hands of a talented author Egbert could be quite the hero, but readers have to get past the /wp-content/uploads/oldsiteimages they associate with the name first.

Sometimes authors only use a name a reader would not expect for a hero or a heroine, but at other times they get more creative.

Recently on the Potpurri Message Board, reader Maili mentioned coming across the description of a Scottish historical with a hero named Merlyn Lammergier and a heroine named Ysabella. This bothered her, because not only were the names not Scottish, but the spelling was a little unusual. It led Maili to ask if sometimes character names are just too quirky?

Many readers would say, “YES!”

The names that seem to irk readers the most are those that require an elocution lesson or a phonetic spelling to figure out. Such as Laoghaire McKenzie from Gabaldon’s Outlander series. Its actual pronunciation is similar to Leery, but some readers like Pia and reviewer Andrea Pool admit to calling her Leg-Hair. For Pia this made her more sympathetic because in her words, “what a terrible name to be saddled with.” Whereas Andrea turned to the pronunciation to further illustrate her personal dislike of the character.

It’s not only Scottish characters with names that give readers a fit. In Ann Major’s Marry a Man Who Will Dance, the Mexican-American hero was named Roque; which led reviewer Ellen Michelletti in her review to ponder potential pronunciations such as: Rock, Rook, Rohk, or Rocky? This authentic Spanish name made a bad book worse by further alienating the reader from the hero.

Sometimes it is not the pronunciation, but the spelling that gives a reader issues. While Gwenhwyfar is a legitimate Welsh spelling of Guinevere in Mists of Avalon it drove reviewer Heidi Haglin nuts. Guinevere was authentic enough for her taste. Meanwhile Andrea cannot get past the additional ‘a’ at the end of Nicholaa to read Garwood’s The Prize. Even when the author explains away a unique spelling, like Jaine with an ‘i’ in Linda Howard’s Mr. Perfect annoys some readers.

Another gripe is with accuracy. Would a Regency miss be called Whitney? Or would a medieval lady answer to Jamie? Not likely. While it was sweet of Judith McNaught to name her heroine after her daughter, and Garwood explains Jamie away as a family name, both had readers paging the anachronism police. Then there’s our pronunciation nightmare Laoghaire an 18th century Scottish woman named after a 5th century high king of Tara. Sure it was possible, but highly unlikely that Scottish highlanders were giving their daughter’s Irish boy’s names.

Then there are those names that are just plain odd. My personal peeve would be Sandra Brown’s heroes that seemed to be named after in-animate objects such as Cage Hendren in Led Astray and Key Tackett in Where There’s Smoke. What about H’Ring Montgomery from Devereux’s Mountain Laurel; which has the honor of being a triple whammy by causing pronunciation issues (for the record it’s ring), having an unusual spelling (while it is an authentic English spelling that ‘H’ apostrophe puzzles readers), and really it’s just weird.

There are some other doozies. According to reviewer Jennifer Keirans the only thing interesting about Amanda Scott’s Highland Spirits was that the heroine was named Pinkie and her brother named Chuff (anyone else reminded of Pinkie and the Brain by this?) Teresa Galloway pointed out that Connaught and Valerian aren’t something one hears everyday. Though author Kantra hides them behind the nicknames Con and Val in The Comeback of Con McNeil so most readers don’t notice if they are a bit off. Neima, the heroine of Howard’s All the Queen’s Men also struck her as a little strange. Yet, the dumbest name for a heroine she’s come across occurred in Susan Paul and Betsy Morgan’s short story The Bodyguard (from Secrets: Volume 4) – Kaki York (is it Khaki or Cocky? Is she part Asian?)

This is not to say different names always ruin a story for a reader. While Pandora’s Box co-columnist Linda Hurst fell back on calling the heroine of Amanda Quick’s Mistress “Iffy” until she heard an audio version for the pronunciation of Iphiginia (if-uh-juh-ny’-uh), she wasn’t bothered by the name in the least. Mary Novak finds Submit Channing-Downes “a special effect” in Judith Ivory’s Black Silk that added a certain aura to the story no matter how unusual.

In the end it really comes down to an author’s talent to pull a reader in and make them suspend their disbelief. Yet, authors must realize an odd name can pull a reader out of a story and hinder their enjoyment. Especially if that name is on every page to drive them nuts.



Time to Post to the Message Board

Here are the questions we’d like to have you consider this time:

histbut Do you enjoy books where the heroine is a thief? If so, is there a particular reason? If not, why not? Even if you do like these books, is there a line you don’t want the heroine to cross? For example, is it acceptable for a heroine to steal for a noble cause but not because she is starving? Or do you give more leeway to impoverished heroines?

histbut Not only thieving heroines this time, but thieving heroes as well. Do you find you prefer this type of character in a serious or humorous romance? What about historical versus contemporary settings?

histbut What does a writer owe the reader?

histbut Do you read heavily in other genres, where hardcovers are more common, and if so, are you more or less likely to buy hardcovers in those genres?

histbut As more romance writers are published in hardcover, do you think there will be less controversy when a publisher decides to put out an author’s next book in hardcover? Or do you think this will continue to be a hot button issue?

histbut Many writers and publishers see hardcovers as a boost to a career not because they make more money from those sales but because hardcover books are more likely to get reviewed, more likely to get cataloged in libraries, more likely to be picked up by a book club… In a way, they are a marketing tool to sell the mass market edition. If romance authors did not go into hardcover even when they become popular, can you think of ways they could get the same attention for their mass market releases?

histbut The anonymous author interviewed for this column mentioned writing to publishers to make your opinions known. Have you ever written to a publisher in this way, and if so, what kind of response did you get? Was it encouraging, or did it make you wonder if they listened?

histbut What’s in a name? What are the most evocative names you’ve come across while reading romance? What are the silliest? How about the most anachronistic? Or perhaps you’ve been surprised to discover a name really was used in that historical period.

histbut What is/are the most quirky names you’ve seen in a romance novel? What one could you not figure out how to pronounce? What was the most annoying or too cutesy or most bizarrely spelled name? And what name did you find just plain old annoying? Finally, what’s your favorite romance novel name?



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