At the Back Fence Issue #170

November 1, 2003 

Anne Marble goes solo for the first time in this issue of At the Back Fence. She follows up on various reader idiosyncrasies and delves even further into a discussion of the mystery/suspense subplot we find in so many of today’s romances. We’re already busy at work on the next ATBF column; you can look forward to Anne’s “Ick factor” segment on November 15th, as well as Robin Uncapher’s return after a brief hiatus.

Reader Idiosyncrasies – Part Deux

Call them bookies, or call them bibliophiles, or call them Raymond J. Johnson Jr. But one thing is clear. Romance readers, like most other avid book-lovers, have a wide range of habits. Also, these habits vary from reader to reader. One reader’s obsessive habit is something that another reader, just as avid, may not care about at all.

Bookmarks versus Dog-Ears

Like LLB in our October 1st ATBF, Gail K admits to having a stash of unused bookmarks. She gets them as gifts because she’s a bibliophile, and she has plenty of bookmarks she bought for herself. However, she tried to stop buying them once she realized that she never used them. Gail doesn’t dog-ear, either. “Usually I have an unerring sense of where I stopped reading and can flip to the correct page/line within seconds. This may be made easier by the fact that I either finish or discard a book within days.” Sunita too can usually remember where she left off. Sunita uses bookmarks only about a third of the time – but rarely uses regular bookmarks unless she buys them from a favorite bookstore. “More often, I use airplane boarding passes, especially international ones. They’re the right size and if you lose it, big deal!”

Bekah also has lots of bookmarks, most of them given as gifts, but she doesn’t use them. “What can I say – I’m evil. I’m a totally unrepentant dog-earer. I bought the books for me – I keep 95% of the books I buy and reread them constantly. I pull them open as wide as they can get and lay them open flat sometimes.” Bekah doesn’t borrow books from other people, and her friends know that if they borrow a book from her, it’s going to be in rough shape. But she compares books to the perfect quilt. “You want it to be preserved for all time because it’s beautiful – but once a quilt is broken in it’s so much more cozy and comfortable. There’s nothing I love more than curling up with a tattered book and a tattered blanket.”

While Cheryl S is also a dog-earer, she has a lot of bookmarks – but she doesn’t have them by choice. People who know she reads a lot keep giving them to her as gifts. “They’re nice, they’re pretty, but they’re useless to me and I can’t seem to throw them out, so they rest in my desk junk drawer and get in the way.” Someday, Cheryl swears, she’s going to post a “No bookmarks, I beg you!” sign.

Fair has problems with bookmark gremlins. She wants to use them, can’t resist buying them, but keeps losing them. “I’ll put one in a book, put the book aside and then forget which book the bookmark is in. Then I have to resort to grabbing a subscription card that fell out of a magazine, or whatever else is handy to use as a bookmark since I can’t find any of my millions of real bookmarks! Apparently other people do this since I sometimes find bookmarks in used books I’ve bought. I always enjoy those free bonus bookmarks – for the five minutes before I lose them, too.” Maybe Fair has found a home for Cheryl’s unwanted bookmarks

Katherine has a collection of lovely leather bookmarks, but she never uses them, relying instead on “found objects” as bookmarks. Her books are littered with everything from movie tickets to pieces of foil from chocolate bars. Sometimes she even leaves these impromptu markers in the books. “Sometimes I’ll pull a favorite book off the self and read a chunk, and leave the marker in at one of my favorite spots. Then when I want to pull it out again, I can find the same place.” However, after spending a lot of money on Post-Its, Katherine is considering returning to her collection of bookmarks again.

On the other hand, it’s the design of bookmarks that bothers Janis. “When you read a lot of paperbacks, the usual bookmarks (the kind with or without the satin cord-and-tassel at the top) always fall out when you toss the book on the table or floor beside your chair or bed. It drives me crazy to pick the book up and discover the darn bookmark fell out!” Janis has also tried using fold-over magnetic bookmarks, but she keeps losing them. Her latest discovery is the Book Thong – “a waxed string with a few beads knotted at each end. It stays in the book even if I drop it, and the beads hang out of the top and the bottom, so I can always find it again, even if the book is abandoned in a large stack for a while. I figure, it’s the closest thing I’ll get to owning and using a thong, so what the heck!”

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Laura also had trouble with tasseled bookmarks, but hers involved her cats, who started to play with the tassels and chew on them. Even worse, they sometimes managed to pull the bookmarks out of her books! After first going to the trouble of removing those tempting tassels, Laura began to use free bookmarks from Borders; besides, they “stay better” in books.

After reading some of the reader posts, you might think no one uses bookmarks, or that if they do use them, the bookmarks take a walk when no one’s looking. But there are other readers who adore them. Inga, for instance, can’t live without them. She makes them herself, and collects others from bookfairs or bookstores, even though, as she admits, “I have loads more than I can actually use at any one time but the idea of them is nice. Besides, I abhor not using any when I’m interrupted while reading.”

Kestra makes and sells bookmarks, so of course, she’s loves them. “If a favorite author mails me one, I’m a happy camper. When I lend or give a book, I give a bookmark with it. Insert them in greeting cards. Carry spare ones with me in case I buy, borrow or find a book while I’m out so I won’t be caught without one. Maniacal? Maybe, but dog-earring books gives me the heebie jeebies.”

I love bookmarks. Sometimes I even use them! I’ve owned bookmarks since I was quite young. Believe it or not, I still have some of those early bookmarks simply because they were so darned cute – even the one my nephew chewed. I thought it was wonderful when romance authors started giving away bookmarks to promote their books. I kept some of those hunky hero bookmarks for years, even if I never read the book.

Usually, I prefer to use a bookmark, but sometimes, I can’t resist the lure of dog-earring. Sometimes dog-ears can be appropriate for a book I am trying to savor slowly, especially if I don’t intend to trade it later.


There are people in this world who are list-makers and others who are not. When a list-maker is also a reader, a variety of lists may ensue. Some readers maintain a list of books to be bought, others keep a list of books bought but not yet read, while still others only list those they’ve read. It’s true that many multiple listers are able to organize and coordinate their purchases, but other readers find all this list juggling cuts into their reading time and perhaps takes some of the fun out of buying books.

tlouise probably wins the unofficial listmaker award of the year. Her “to buy” list is more than 100 pages long, and includes out of print books, current books, and books to be published (up to a year in advance). Her list is broken down by genre and she maintains lists for anthologies as well. When going into a bookstore, she breaks the lists into a shorter format. “Sometimes I think I have more lists than I have books.” Obsessive? I don’t think so. After all, tlouise admits that she has never purchased a duplicate by accident, and considering she owns more than 3,000 books, that’s quite an accomplishment.

Jenn S has a list that’s shorter – her list is only four pages long. She carries that list into her library – and also fills out the sheet to request books she wants the library to acquire. Peggy H also keeps a list. Actually, two lists – one list of the books she already has by certain authors, which she uses to keep from buying the same book twice, and another of books to look for. “This is a list of books and authors I haven’t read yet but would like to try, gleaned mostly from reviews and recommendations here are AAR. I look for these at the library, UBS and thrift stores and if I really really like a certain writers work, I will move it onto my ‘collecting/glom’ list.” And then there’s Karen, whose uses her “Due out next month” list to keep her purchases under control; she only buys those books on that list.

Those readers who are multiple genre readers face different challenges than those who mostly stick to one genre. Mark, for instance, maintains separate lists for SF/F, another for Romance, and still another for Nonfiction/Other. He’s got 23,000+ books in his computerized database and takes printouts of his lists to bookstores, although if you came across him in a bookstore a decade ago you’d have seen him with his notebook computer in hand.

Lists? Lists? Do I do lists? You betcha! I still have lists floating around from when I first joined AARList. In most cases, I can’t even remember why I was interested in most of those authors. I first started making lists on a regular basis when I started reading Romantic Times. Although many of the books turned out to be disappointments, I liked the idea of having lists that went by category. Now that I have a Palm Pilot, I keep multiple lists in my purse without having to worry about paper crinkling, ripping, or falling out. Right now, I have a long lists of romance recs (by category) based on Reader to Reader Message Board posts; a list of shonen-ai and yaoi manga (heh, long story); lists of fantasy novels about elves and about persecuted mages; a list of legal thrillers; a list of Sherlock Holmes pastiches; and a list of recommended military SF.

Do I still buy the same book twice? You betcha.


ChristineMarie thinks there’s nothing wrong with glomming, nothing whatsoever. She’s surprised that when people on the boards talk about glomming an author or about autobuy authors, they act as if it’s an usual event. But when she finds an author see likes, she usually buys (and reads) her backlist and makes it a point to buy that author’s new books as they come out.

Cheryl S admits to doing a lot of glomming. If she’s enjoyed three books by an author, she gloms that author’s backlist. Cheryl also tries to make those backlists last. “I have been known to save a book when I know it’s the last one in the TBR pile by a favorite author. It took me forever to read my last glommed Jo Beverley and Carla Kelly.”

AAR’s Jen Schendel says, “Basically I find an author I like, I glom. The number of books I read depends on the length of their backlist. If I buy it I usually read it. Though I do admit to having at least 11 Nora Roberts books I’ve yet to read, mostly because I don’t really enjoy her books written prior to 1985, but I like having a complete collection so those 11 books are on the shelf. What’s rarer for me is having a book on my keeper shelves and then buying nothing else by that author. There’s only a handful of those.”

Bekah gloms as well. About 75% of the books in her household were bought as a result of glomming, although, unlike diamonds, glomming isn’t forever in her house. She stops glomming after the second bad book by that author. If that happens, she’ll only buy that author again if a book is highly recommended. Many readers follow a similar M.O., but unlike a great number of other readers, she never removes an author from her “worth reading” list. Once she’s been burned, she simply becomes more cautious about buying that author. However, for all that, glomming and autobuying are rather rare for her. She warns wannabe glommers, “The one thing about glomming I’d say is to only buy two or three at a time – you never know if you’re going to run into a really bad period in a really good author’s writing history. I have to be very careful buying Robards and Coulter – there are just some chunks of both writers careers that I don’t want on my shelf… There’s nothing quite like expecting a beautiful story in the style you love from an author, grabbing a handful of a backlist and finding out you have your hands full of wallbangers. It’s too expensive to buy wallbangers!”

Anodyne is also cautious about buying an author’s backlist. “My pattern is usually to read a really great book and then try a few books from the author’s backlist. If those books are good I will then glom or auto-buy. For example, I’ve read a few books by Mary Jo Putney and really enjoyed them… but there are several more that I did not, therefore, I have not really glommed her nor is she on my auto-buy list.”

Caution? What’s that? I definitely glom. A lot. It’s a good thing I have very well made bookshelves, or my living room would be filled with pine and oak splinters from groaning shelves. I’ve been glomming romance since I was in college. First it was Fantasy, than SF. I never gave it much thought. If I liked an author’s book, why not buy her other books? I love bookstores (both chains and indies), used bookstores, and on-line used bookstores because they make it so much easier for me to track down those elusive titles.

Then there’s that mysterious phenomenon, glomming without having read (GWHR). jg was relieved to learn that she’s not the only one who does that. “I have to admit I was a bit relieved to see this referred to in the column because I was afraid I was the only one with this problem! Thankfully I have stopped, but that is probably because I have already collected the backlists of most prominent and often discussed romance authors, so I don’t have many left to glom. Or maybe it has to do with that I don’t have much space left for many more books – who knows?! It all began with Mary Jo Putney. When I first found AAR a few years ago, she seemed to be discussed on the boards all the time. So, I figured she was really a great author and began furiously buying up her backlist – I think I have about 15 or so of her titles and I haven’t made it through one of them yet! This same scenario has played out with other authors as well, including, Susan Wiggs, Roberta Gellis (finally read Dazzling Brightness in a recent book chat), Kasey Michaels, Marsha Canham, Lisa Cach, Morgan Llywelyn, Danelle Harmon, Anya Seton, Eva Ibbotson and Laura Kinsale. Does it matter I’ve never completely read any of their books? Apparently not – but I now have most of their backlists!”

Cindy also finds herself glomming without having read. Some authors she buys because she has read DIK reviews at this site. She leaps upon the books the moment she finds them in the bookstore. Because she lives in Canada, she finds it harder to find the books she wants, even in the large stores. “My husband has told me on many occasions that I should get a job with them so I can show them how to set up a real romance section. So, if I find the book I buy it.” She also will glom an author if she reads one great book by that author.

LLB no longer gloms without having read, but like Cindy, she does glom after reading only one book by an author:

“…which invariably means I have lots and lots of books tbr. Even authors I really like – such as Deborah Simmons – have lots and lots of books I’ve not yet read. Hard to believe that I’ve only read six of her books, but that’s how it pans out. I’m pretty sure if I stopped reading so many series titles, I could control this problem, but there are lots of times when I only have the time or concentration for a book I can finish in an evening. But for me, glom behavior is a sign of a larger problem, because I do the same with movies and favorite TV shows. I wonder how many other people have 300 video tapes in their closet of movies and television shows they taped off cable over a period of years? God help us now that we’ve got TiVo!”

I confess to suffering from a major case of GWHR – though it goes in cycles. Maybe it comes from learning early on that if I didn’t buy that book I wanted the moment it hit the shelves, I might never see it again. Or maybe I am simply insane. Okay, most likely my case of GWHR comes from the fact that I read a lot of different genres and never know what I’m going to be in the mood for. Then you throw in a force like book reviews in Locus (a magazine about SF/F and related fields) or Romantic Times or Gothic Journal, and you can guess what happens next. Anne buys more and more books.

Book Condition

Many readers admit they take that extra step to look for the most pristine copies in the bookstore – even if they’re buying used. For example, when he’s in a bookstore, Mark always checks to make sure the books he buys are unmarred books, but if no other copies are available, he will buy the slightly “dinged” books. He has also bought extra copies of favorite books because his original copies were falling apart. And he doesn’t dog-ear. However, while he doesn’t crack spins deliberately, he also doesn’t go out of his way to avoid cracking the spines of books.

Peggy H also admits to being somewhat careful – okay, semi-anal – about condition. She doesn’t lay them down with the face open, she doesn’t crack the spines, she doesn’t dog-ear the pages, and she always uses bookmarks. Her sister is another story altogether. “I have a sister who (you are going to gasp in horror when you read this) has a nervous habit of tearing little pieces off the corner of book pages as she reads. I stopped loaning her any of my books when she did this to one of my favorites. Fortunately we live in different states now.” However, Peggy doesn’t worry as much about the condition of books she buys at the UBS.

Keishon falls somewhere in the middle. “Call me crazy but I don’t care to see someone’s lunch on the pages that I read and indescribable stains on pages just makes my skin crawl. I do care what condition the book is in if I am buying it brand new.” However, like Peggy, Keishon doesn’t worry as much about the condition of books she buys used.

Somewhere near the edge of Book Abuse are readers like Jessica. She doesn’t mind worn books. She even dog-ears the books, and yes, she breaks the spines to make the books easier to read. “In a way, I feel like that says the book is mine and it’s been read and loved. I’m not at all fanatical about books that look used, as long as it doesn’t have jelly on the cover or some mystery substance sticking the pages together. As long as the wear is from reading the book, I don’t care.”

And Cheryl wants to form a support group for Book Abusers:

“I know someone who has told me that I can’t be a real booklover because I abuse my books. I dog-ear, I break spines, I write in them, I get them wet in the tub, I get food stains on them, I tear the covers jamming them into my purse – you get the picture. Now, I don’t do this with hardcovers, just paperbacks. Hardcovers are different, and I’m careful to use a bookmark with those. But paperbacks are made to be convenient, to be portable, to be tossed about. I say that a well-used book is a well-loved book.”

Bekah agrees that “book abuse” can be a sign of love. “All my books are dog-eared. A broken spine is a happy spine!” Also, her favorite books are in terrible condition from rereading. “And I still read them (although carefully) and love them just as hard… I’m a bad book abuser. But I love them. I read them. I cart them everywhere. Saying book abusers don’t love books is like saying the velveteen rabbit was unloved. I kill them with love.”

Kathy has a foot in both camps. When she buys a book, she looks for the most pristine copies available. Her hardcovers are in mint condition. However, her paperbacks are another story. While she doesn’t resort to dog-ears, she does break the spines. Hey, it’s the only way to get those suckers to lay flat. Kathy props her books open while doing anything at the bathroom sink, so the books are often water-stained. “Every once in a while the prop job fails and the book falls into the sink. I hate that! I always have a book at hand. Books are more important than food.”

Evangeline may have found the perfect solution to food stains, torn pages, water damage, and so forth. She buys two copies of the books she loved. One is a reading copy, and the other is “a keeper copy for when the book is no longer in print and I’ve worn out the reading copy.”

dick thinks the content is the most important part of the book. He does check to make sure the book has all its pages before buying it, but he doesn’t worry about the cover, the spine, the edges of the pages. The only problem that really annoys him is books that smell bad because of mold, and those bother him because of allergies.

Like dick, I hate books that smell bad, even if it’s just a slight whiff of “eau de sitting in warehouse.” Still, I’ll buy the stinky book if there’s no other copy in the store. I both care about condition and sometimes don’t give a hoot. Can I belong to the No Creases Allowed and the Book Abusers Anonymous groups at the same time? Sure, why not? When I’m buying new books, I look for books without creases and dents and chips. If I’m buying a hardback, I look for dust covers that are in great shape. Sometimes, I have to decide between the book with the chips missing from the cover and the one with the bend in the cover. Oh what a quandary! However, if the only copy of the book there is dinged or decrepit, if I want it badly enough, I will bloody well buy it.

Once they’re in my hands, most of my books fare well. I am careful. While I may read wallbangers now and then, I still don’t actually fling them at the wall. (I live in an apartment, and I don’t want to pay for the damage.) On the other hand, sometimes the book gremlins leap out and bend the covers of my books. I swear, it’s book gremlins. It couldn’t be because I threw the book into a book bag too quickly, could it? Nope, gotta be the gremlins. And then there’s that incident with a bottle of soda in the car that went hssssttt all over some of my books. Not to mention the gallon of bleach that leaked on books in my car’s back seat. Gremlins again.

However, I don’t break the spines. Oh the horror!

Book Temples, aka Keeper Shelves

Ellen has a keeper shelf that is organized by author, but her TBR pile is a mess on the floor of her closet. “When I’m ready for a new book, I usually just reach in and grab – that way it’s a surprise. I prefer Regencies and Historicals; Contemporaries don’t generally do much for me. My keepers include a lot of books by a few authors, while the rest are one or two books by various authors.”

Like Ellen, AAR’s Jen arranges her keeper shelves by author, with hardbacks on the top row of five sets of shelves. On her keeper shelves, there is an entire set of shelves just for Nora Roberts. MarianneM also stores her keepers on shelves – special paperback keeper shelves, built by her husband. “When they get filled up, it’s time to cull out the ones I can do without and take a trip to the UBS. Problem is, when you love books as much as we do, life is full of pain and denial when you have to give some books up in order not to become one of those strange old people who pick their way through their houses along narrow aisles lined with towering stacks of books and magazines. Ah, well, life is a process of choosing better over good.”

Handmade bookshelves are a great boon for readers. Rosario keeps her books on bookshelves built by her father. The shelves are deep enough to store two rows. (What, only two rows deep?!) Her “keeper-keepers” are in front, and books she’ll reread that aren’t favorites are behind those. She tries to keep books by the same author together, but if an author has only one keeper-keeper and many others, she is forced to separate them. If Rosario has only one keeper by that author, she stores it by sub-genre.

Instead of shelves, Carolyn uses plastic boxes – about five large boxes full of both TBR books and keepers. Most of the books she reads are from the library, however – she couldn’t afford to buy and keep all the books she reads.

jg keeps the entire backlists of favorite authors, even if not all the books were keepers. “These authors include Julia Quinn, Judith McNaught (I hated Tender Triumph, yet I can’t seem to trade it), Nora Roberts, Deborah Simmons, Connie Brockway, and Candice Proctor.” Of books she’d read, LLB used to keep everything written by favorite authors. She also kept all romances by non-favorite authors if graded C+ or higher. Over time this became impossible. First to go were the C+’s, then the bad books by favorite authors – even if part of a series featuring a book considered an all-time keeper. Next to go may be the B- reads, although she doubts if she’ll ever end up keeping only all-time keepers because so many B’s and B+’s have many terrific scenes.

I have an irregular system of keeping my keepers. Some of them end up on that one Special Shelf in my dining room. But others end up in boxes in closets, along with other books, to be unearthed again when I organize my boxes. I didn’t start stashing away my romance keepers for a long while. While I was in college, I usually traded in everything I read, even my favorites, because of lack of space. Once I had room to keep books again, I was reluctant to keep the romances I had liked. Sometimes, I kept a beloved book for a little while, but then I would think “It’s just a romance.” I guess I had been brainwashed by the literary establishment or something. I finally broke free of my brainwashing and started keeping beloved romances.

Anthology Quirks

Maili admits that she rarely reads the entire anthology, and she usually buys them for one story, generally a story by a favorite author. She writes, “It drives me batty sometimes, knowing that it is a waste of money to buy the anthology just for one novella. I know that the purpose of an anthology is to introduce other authors via their novellas, but for some reason, this method doesn’t work on me.” Maili believes that most authors write novellas that are either better or worse than their full-length titles, so for an unknown author, it’s rare that she will read an anthology piece by them. “There is one author whose historicals I worship, but I refuse to buy any anthologies that contain her novellas because she’s bad at it. Same with the other author who excels in writing novellas and category romances, but her single titles are generally awful, e.g. too much padding to stretch the story.” She does make exceptions to this practice, trying novellas by new authors if the story has a favorite theme or interesting premise.

Some readers automatically buy an anthology based on one or more authors while others buy anthologies because of their subject matter. AAR’s Blythe Barnhill, for instance, began her recent review of Signet’s 2003 Regency Romance Christmas anthology thusly: “There are two kinds of romance readers out there: those who buy the Signet Regency Christmas anthology every year without fail, and those who don’t.” And, as she admitted earlier this year (in our Pandora’s Box of the Where’s My Hero? anthology), she nearly always reads every story in anthologies, and reads them in book order.

Cindy has gone through different stages in her anthology reading. She discovered new authors via the first several anthologies she read. Then she started to buy anthologies only because of favorite authors. Now she is in a new stage (or is that a new old stage?), reading anthologies to try out new authors. “I will read those in order unless I am eager to try a certain author. So no, I am not compelled to read in order or to read the whole anthology.”

Alison W. is insistent on reading anthologies in order. “I cannot stand to start in the middle. I’ll search and search for the first in a series before purchasing or reading one further down the line.” Jessica is Alison’s polar opposite on this subject: “I do not always read the entire anthology. I usually read the author I bought it for first. Then I may read the others later, or not at all.” Yet dick admits he has never read an entire anthology. “I’m not fond of them, particularly in the romance genre. They are sort of like vaudeville acts, with a headliner and second level acts. Once I’ve read the headliner, I don’t want to stay for the rest of the show.”

Rosario reads all the stories, but not in order. “I sometimes skip some, but not often, because they’re a very good way of finding new authors. In the Out of This World anthology, for instance, I read only the J.D. Robb story. I don’t feel I have to read the stories in order. I usually do, but if there’s a story I feel like I need to read now, I just do.”

And for those lovers of romantica, for eight years readers looking for hybrids between romance and erotica ordered Red Sage’s annual Secrets anthology. More recently, Kensington followed the Red Sage model and began, in 1999, to publish its own trade size Romance/Erotica hybrid.

I love anthologies, but I don’t really buy them that much. SF and fantasy and horror anthologies are a great way to find new authors. They can also be showcases for some of the best writing in those fields – some famous authors in those fields rarely, if ever, write novels, but they do great short stories. However, romance isn’t like that. Most romance authors are best at writing longer work, because a romantic relationship is best when it unfolds over pages and pages.

That said, anthologies can be fun, they can be a great home for stories that weren’t long enough to fill a novel, and they’re a wonderful way to find new authors. And I do like theme anthologies – although I was getting sick of Regency kittens for a while there. My one anthology quirk is that I check out the number of stories in an anthology before buying it. If there are too many stories, that means the stories are probably too short, so I’ll put it back on the shelf unless something else draws me to it.

More Quirks than We can Shake a Stick At

One thing I learned is that readers have a lot of quirks about the books they read. Sharing them with others builds a sense of community and alleviates some of the “I’m the only weird one!” concern we sometimes feel. But it’s also a lot of fun, isn’t it, to revel in our quirks, whether or not we are in a minority or majority? We are avid readers. Books mean a lot to us. So we’re going to treat them with love. Okay, to some people treating a book with love means never getting fingerprints on the cover, and to others, treating a book with loves means reading it until the pages come out and the book smells like scrambled eggs. But it’s the thought that counts, isn’t it?

I Spy – Readers Talk Back about Suspense Subplots

In the last issue of ATBF, LLB discussed reader subplots and what they have meant to romance. She doesn’t like the way almost every historical romance now has a suspense subplot, and almost as many of the contemporary single-title romances are about SEALs or cops.

Send the Spies to Elba!

Many readers agree that there are just too many Regency spies, suspense subplots, and SEALs, including Jenny E, who writes, “I can handle spy stories if they’re straight-up farces, but the serious ones where some evil super spy with a maniacal laugh traps the hero and heroine on a beach and flings knives at them – that’s where I draw the line.” She thinks Regency characters could be involved in activities other than “breaking into townhomes or catching smugglers.” She’d rather read about “Cits and bastards who build empires out of nothing” even if this type of book’s “I can’t touch the heroine because she’s too pure and noble” hero is also overdone. She adds, though, that “as long as they’re not searching for Napoleon’s diary I’ll stick with them.”

Candice is also not a fan of mystery subplots involving diaries, for the simple reason that many of them aren’t very mysterious or suspenseful. Because they are subplots and not the main story, they lack in complexity and are more “more like games of hide and seek.” Nine of ten romances featuring a mystery subplot fail for Candice, who writes, “Hide and seek is fun to play but is not much fun to watch or read about. And because a romance has to remain focused on the couple and can’t devote too much time to the sleuthing, you get tons of dialogue that is just exposition. Amanda Quick’s books are full of heroes going on for paragraphs (or pages!) explaining secret societies to the heroine and it’s really boring.”

Don’t get me started on diaries, either. Like both Jenny E and Candice, I think that too many books are ruined by diary subplots; all too often they make me yawn. A prime example of this is Christina Dodd’s A Well Pleasured Lady. Don’t get me wrong – I liked the book, though not as much as LLB, who lists it as an all-time keeper. The one thing that kept me from loving this book was the missing diary subplot. After all, I had to read LLB’s review to remember what the mystery subplot was about. That’s never a good sign, is it?

I don’t know which is worse, a forgettable mystery subplot or one that becomes nothing more than a distraction. And it’s not just the mystery that detracts, it’s the villains. I’ve read plenty of romances where we spent some time in the villain’s POV, and I got antsy because even if it was well-written, I didn’t care. And if it wasn’t well-written, then I wanted to scream “Give me back my hero and heroine!” In those cases, the villain just got in the way of the romance. Ironically, in many books that spend too much time with annoying villains, there is something missing in the hero/heroine relationship, something undeveloped or underdeveloped. I was often left thinking that the book might’ve been a keeper if the writer had ditched the villain and subplot and worked on the h/h relationship. Ironically, even if this meant a more straightforward plot, the result would have been something more complex.

Kerstin doesn’t like the way Regency spy subplots so often portray characters in simplistic form. The evil super spy is always French and the honorable spy is always English, “driven by patriotism and self-sacrifice.” She wonders what happened to the types of English heroes found in Georgette Heyer’s books, who “cared much more about the weather, their horses, and the shine of their boots than about spying under miserable conditions in an alien and hostile country.”

I enjoy humorous spy stories. I loved the farcically inept villains in Barbara Metzger’s Miss Lockharte’s Letters – although I wished the romance had been stronger. Blending humor and suspense seems to be just as hard as blending romance and suspense. Take Simply Magic by Kathleen Kane. Although this was a cute paranormal Western historical, it still managed to have a suspense subplot about mysterious incidents involving the heroine’s hotel. By itself, this might have been a perfectly suitable subplot for a charming book. Where it really veered off was when the person involved in the incidents turned out to be a major secondary character who went around the bend and ended up trying to kill people! So much for the charm! And while I enjoyed the funny paranormal romance Wish and a Dream, I didn’t like at all the way the end of the book was taken over by a suspense subplot. Again, a likable romance is ruined somewhat because of yet another character turning psycho on me.

Susan K believes mystery/suspense subplots often fail in romances because there simply aren’t enough suspects. She writes, “[When] there are only four characters [and] two of them are the h/h and one of them is his charmingly dotty old aunt, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who done it. Almost any competition for the h/h turns out to be villains or are being set up for the next book in the series.” She adds, “While the focus on the developing [h/h] relationship is something many readers like, a mystery requires a larger canvas or it is too easy (and therefore too boring) to figure out. A good author can successfully combine both genres, but there are a lot of books out there which are successful as mysteries or romances but not both. And the ground is littered with books that fail in both genres.”

I agree with Susan. One reason that a lot of Gothics worked (on the suspense level, anyway) is because they were more mystery than romance. They had no shortage of suspects, not to mention whole trays of red herrings. Even when the heroine was stuck in an isolated manor, there were suspects aplenty in eccentric relatives, hangers-on, and even the kindly family doctor. Also – and this is a big difference – it was often not clear who the hero was. Generally the brooding guy turned out to be the hero, and the seemingly nice fellow turned out to be evil, psychotic, and a bad dresser to boot. But sometimes the brooding, mysterious man turned out to be guilty! Imagine trying that plot in a romance today – would it even get past the editor?

Another reason I generally prefer “gothic” type plots (by that, I mean plots similar to Rebecca and Jane Eyre) to “romantic suspense” plots is that I find it harder to get interested in the story of a heroine who got involved in the plot because she just happened to witness a murder or happened to own the gallery that was attacked by robbers, or whatever, and then just happened to end up on the run with the hero who saved her, or the hero just happened to be the cop investigating the case.

I’d rather read about the woman who is drawn to a charismatic man but must wonder why all fifteen of his governesses ended up dead. When done well, Gothic plots are often more intimate. In many of these plots, the hero could be the killer! It’s more dysfunctional than the typical romantic suspense relationships we find today, but I’m more likely to accept that the characters are involved in this particular plot. I guess it doesn’t seem “tacked on.”

Gail K agrees that the mystery subplots in romances often aren’t very mysterious. First, the bad guy is usually easy to figure out, and second, the characters are often not fleshed out enough for the reader to care whether or not the bad guy gets them. Gail says, “My instinct is that the type of mind that excels at writing a good romance will not typically excel at writing a good mystery. There are a few authors, such as the genre-hopping Dan Simmons, who are talented enough to pull off writing any type of story they want, but such talent is not the norm.”

Even if the characters are well developed, the suspense subplot can get in the way. In rereading my DIK Review of My Darling Caroline, I noticed I’d mentioned that the suspense/spy subplot detracted from the novel. When I read that, I had to think a moment because I didn’t remember that it had a spy subplot. Yet that book is one of my keepers. So I think that is one case where the novel could have gotten away without the suspense subplot. The real suspense to me while reading that book was, “Will she tell him? Come on, Caroline, tell him! Oh, no, now they’ve slept together! She can’t tell him now, she cares for him too much. But what if he finds out on his own?”

But at least Ashworth’s book had those strong characters and that fascinating relationship. It had a romance at its heart. Looking back at some of the romantic suspense novels I’ve read over the years, I think back to a famous line from the original Star Trek. In The Naked Now, Sulu goes insane and runs around the ship with a fencing sword. He tells Uhura “I’ll protect you fair maiden!” Uhura calmly responds, “Sorry, neither.” Most romantic suspense novels fall in the “Sorry, neither” category. They aren’t romantic, and they aren’t suspenseful.

Please, M’am, I Want Some More (Spies and SEALS)!

But for every reader who doesn’t care for the mystery/suspense subplot, there’s probably another reader who disagrees entirely. SK Heaton likes a “little espionage in my Regencies” just as she appreciates a little “romance in her Ludlums.” While some see the mixing of spy plots and romance as the equivalent of wearing plaids with stripes, she sees these plots as the equivalent of mixing chocolate with peanut butter. “Hey, you’ve got a spy plot in my Regency. Hey, you’ve got a Regency in my spy plot.”

PB suggests that it’s the sense of urgency added by a suspense subplot that can improve a romance: “In a purely character driven novel, what brings the hero and heroine together – besides love, of course, which can occur at first sight but often takes a little while to develop?” She notes that many romances occur within a period of weeks whereas she knew her husband for four years and dated him for three before marrying. She writes:

“Heroes and heroines in romance novels usually go from strangers to lovers in very short order, and an author can make this more believable if there is some outside force pushing them together… like a matter of life and death. Under stress, forced to depend on each other or confide in each other or work together in some way, the h/h can become very close very quickly, more quickly than might happen to two regular people just going about their lives. The other thing it can add is unusual character growth, if the extraordinary circumstances of the plot force the characters to act in ways they never would in ordinary circumstances.”

But PB admits that it’s hard to combine both romance and suspense without one suffering because the “easy source of conflict” offered by the suspense can become a crutch for the author “so that the characters all of a sudden come together at the end because the book is almost over.” The best mix for her is a strong romance with a little suspense, “preferably rooted in the characters in some way (something from their pasts, for example).”

One historical where I liked the suspense subplot was Barbara Dawson Smith’s Her Secret Affair. This was the sort of plot PB mentioned – one where the mystery subplot involved something from the characters’ past. The main reason that story worked for me was because it was so appropriate to that particular hero and heroine. They weren’t just plunked into the story, they belonged there. After all, the subplot involved finding out who had killed the heroine’s mother (an infamous madam). That made the stakes personal to the heroine, and even the hero had a reason to be there. Also, the hero and heroine were so perfectly suited for each other, even if they didn’t think so at first. He was the father of a licentious lord, and she was the daughter of a madam, yet ironically, they were both upright because they did not want to be like their parents. Unlike so many other Regency historicals, I wasn’t left yawning while the hero and heroine looked for a collection of missing love letters. They were looking for justice.

Romances have changed a great deal in the past fifteen or so years; both PB and Fair point to today’s romances, in which stories seem to be required to take place over a relatively short period of time. Fair adds that this goes “hand-in-hand with the rule that the hero and heroine must not be separated.” She argues that were these rules relaxed “to permit a realistic portrayal of a romance developing over time (which means, yes, the hero and heroine must be portrayed as having lives, problems, and personal evolution outside their relationship), all kinds of plots would be possible.” This is the real reason she sees for those omnipresent mystery subplots: “Real romances don’t often involve solving mysteries, but they do often involve arguments and conflicts and forced separations, and even breaking up and getting back together, due to, say, family opposition or another man/woman, or world events such as war, or job pressures, or whatever… it would be nice to see more of this in romances.”

Fair makes a good point. In the past, romances used to cover longer stretches of time. Sometimes incredibly long. I recently finished reading Bertrice Small’s Enchantress Mine, and it starts with the heroine as a young child. She doesn’t even meet the hero until about halfway through the book, and she doesn’t love him when they marry. Their love builds – much as the love between Brent and Caroline developed over the course of My Darling Caroline. Also, as I mentioned in the last ATBF, almost all older romances included a crisis point near the end, something that broke up the hero and heroine for a while until they could come together again. In a way, I think the emphasis on this “crisis point” has been overtaken by the emphasis on a mystery or suspense subplot. Instead of splitting up two-thirds of the way through the book, many romance heroes and heroines suddenly find themselves involved in a hunt for purloined letters.

Those readers who don’t understand the allure of the mystery subplot might find author Tracy Grant’s love for spy subplots illuminating. She writes:

“I’ve always loved writing about espionage, as I’m sure is obvious to anyone who’s read my Charles and Mélanie Fraser books (Daughter of the Game and Beneath a Silent Moon). But what I love about spy stories is the moral ambiguity, the inherent lies, the need to win people’s trust and then betray them, the soul-damaging effects of spending so much time playing a part. So I like to write about characters who spy for various sides and often come to care for people in the opposite camp to make the choices and loyalties that much more fraught with conflict. Mysteries with romantic relationships (especially over a series, like Dorothy Sayers’ Peter and Harriet books) have always been my favorite books to read. Which is why I’m now writing mystery/thrillers with romantic elements instead of the other way ’round.”

Anu439 sees the lack of ambiguity as the key to the problems in most spy story romances. Most stories either don’t see the ambiguity of the life of a spy, or they ignore it. Instead, they resort to the usual equation of England = Good, French = Bad. Sure, there are a few references to the hero enduring the hard life of the spy and being tortured by what he’s done, but that’s about it. It’s this superficial treatment, she adds, “and the narrowness and limitations of such treatments [that make] these stories feel old hat.” It’s not that she doesn’t love the idea of a spy story, she just doesn’t find them well done all that often. Tracy Grant’s DOTG marks an exception: “[It’s] really the only one I’ve read the past few years that has handled this type of story well… The character sketches were wonderful and the plot turned what could’ve been just another regency spy story into something more because Grant was willing to show us more.”

I prefer Tracy Grant’s approach to romantic espionage. Some authors who veer toward the mainstream suspense arena sacrifice the romance. (That was the case in Diana Chamberlain’s Breaking the Silence. The h/h romance didn’t convince me at all. In fact, the love story in the flashbacks outshone it by far.) Ditching the romance for the suspense is a real loss. Great suspense comes from characters we care about. A strong relationship can contribute a lot to making us care about those characters, even to a more mainstream novel. Without characters we care about, suspense is just sort of there.

Dear Santa: We Want it All

Many readers read both romantic suspense and character-driven romance. Maili is a fan of both types of romances. She loves both character-driven and action-driven romances, both relationship romances and romantic suspense. It depends on what she’s in the mood to read. Both have strengths and weaknesses as far as she’s concerned, and she believes writing a romantic suspense novel is more difficult to write than a relationship romance. Maili goes further to categorize five types of novels found under the “Romantic Suspense” rubric:

  • Romantic Suspense novels that are really mainstream mysteries
  • Romantic Suspense novels that are really relationship romances
  • Action-Oriented Romantic Suspense Novels
  • Mystery-Oriented Romantic Suspense Novels
  • Gothic-Influenced Romantic Suspense Novels

As for that elusive “right balance” between suspense and romance? She doesn’t buy it, arguing, “It’s very much like humor. What may make one laugh may bore another.”

Mrs. Giggles thinks that the biggest mistake romance authors make when writing romantic suspense is that assuming the same formula works for both types of stories. In a suspense novel involving dead bodies, for instance, she finds it lacking realism if “the main characters’ personal issues override the need to catch the killer ASAP” and would prefer that “romantic suspense novels downplay romantic interactions while emphasizing emotional bond[s]. She points to author Anne Frasier (aka Theresa Weir) as one who gets it right. “Anne Frasier is a perfect example of this: her characters rarely indulge in annoying psychobabbles about love and issues, but their bond resonates strongly. The happily ever after is more of a promise that one day, they will make it.”

Jenny E admits that she still reads Regency spy stories, but they have to be well done. Wallpaper historicals? What about all those wallpaper spies? Sure, the hero is a spy, but you never really know why and you never really know who he is. She thinks the hero as spy is shorthand to make him more attractive and heroic and prefers stories where the hero or heroine as spy is a major part of his/her personality. She’d rather read a book where the character is a spy because of who he is rather than because the author said so. And yet, she wonders how spies became such a popular occupation for Regency heroes, adding, “They are everywhere. I don’t think spying would have necessarily been all that interesting back then. It’s not as if they had cool toys and sleek glass offices a la MI-5.” (My personal guess is that this does allow the hero to be perceived as heroic. It also adds a sense of danger and provides all those titled gentleman the opportunity to actually work instead of whiling away their days boxing, gambling, shopping, and driving their carriages through the park.)

Yes, books about “internal conflict” are great. Character-based novels are great. I mean, can you really imagine Donna Simpson’s Lord St. Claire’s Angel with a suspense subplot? “Celestine, wait here while I chase after that man who’s stealing the diary!” No, that would not have worked at all.

But one thing to keep I mind is that internal conflicts can be harder to use through an entire book, too. In the hands of an author like Donna Simpson, yes, they can work. Definitely. But not all authors can (or want to) write internal conflict. Maybe this is why, when historical romances were longer, so many of them involved long separations, swashbuckling, big misunderstandings, etc. And why a lot of romances still have elements such as the big mis, obnoxious relatives, etc. However, today’s romances are much shorter – in length and usually in time span. Does this mean they could more easily sustain a stronger character-oriented plot? Or does it mean that the author has to include a suspense plot to keep things interesting? As usual, it all depends on how strong those characters are.

The characters are the most important elements. It’s true that most romantic suspense novels manage to be either one or the other. Even some of my favorite romantic suspense novels had to skimp on the suspense. (Heck, if I’m reading a romance novel, I’d rather sacrifice the suspense than the romance.) I adored the main characters in Theresa Weir’s Cool Shade, even though the suspense subplot hinged on one too many coincidences. The characters were great, and I preferred watching them cope with life and get to know each other than worry about clues. Contrast that with Heather Graham’s Never Sleep with Strangers; while I loved the Gothic atmosphere, I didn’t find enough to like in the characters (dysfunctional though most were) to truly recommend the book. Somewhere in the middle comes Kay Hooper’s Finding Laura. I enjoyed the book but might not have kept it if I had bought it as a paperback instead of a hardback. In that book, the heroine was more of a catalyst than a solver of puzzles. In that book, the setting and the dysfunctional family dynamics – both straight out of classic Gothic mode – were what made the book work for me. To this day, I remember the maze and the dysfunctional family more than the romance. If the romance had been as strong as the Gothic elements, I would have worshipped the ground this book walked on and built a maze behind my apartment in tribute.

Time to Post to the Message Board

While writing the segment on Reader Idiosyncrasies, Anne realized she had more “bookie behaviors” than she realized. What about you? Do you see yourself in any of those remarks?

Are you a list maker? Do you have a list of to be bought? To be read? Books read? Do you update your lists regularly? Do you take them to the library or bookstore? Is your list/are your lists computerized or hand-written?

How do you store your books, do you keep any after you’ve read them, and if so, where do you keep them? For instance, do you separate books tbr from books you’re keeping? Do you keep books in alphabetical order, subject or sub-genre, on shelves or under-bed boxes, etc? Do you sneak a peek at the end? If so, for all types of books or only certain types – ie, romances yes, mysteries no.

Where did your biggest gloms take you? How did you track down the titles you sought? How much have you ever paid for a backlisted title? Do you only buy used backlisted titles? How many books formed that biggest glom, and how has the Internet helped in this process?

Does your library look like the bookcase pictured in the column? Is it haphazard or more neatly kept? How many titles do you think are in your unread section? Your keeper section? Your “these need to be traded” section? Do you keep nothing after reading or keep everything?

In discussing romance reader quirks with other readers, Anne was surprised to discover that many of the quirks she mentioned seem unique to romance readers. Does this surprise you? Why or why not?

Have you ever read a romance where you wished the mystery/spy subplot had been surgically removed to give more emphasis to the actual romance? On the other hand, can you think of romances that could have been improved with a suspense subplot?

Is there a blend between the suspense and the romance, or is that magical blend as mythical as the comedy that makes everybody laugh?

Do you think the problems some readers have with Regency spies also apply to SEALs, cops, and other modern-day heroes?

When reading a romance with a mystery or suspense subplot, do you prefer the subplot to be job-related as opposed to happenstance? In other words, would you rather read about a spy or SEAL in a plot as relates to their job or an ordinary person who gets caught in something extraordinary?

What’s at the base of mystery/spy sub-plots? Is it the need to create “heroes” or, as author Tracy Grant suggests, moral ambiguity and/or betrayal, which would seem to play into Anne’s suggestion that as romance novels became shorter and less epic, these subplots replaced h/h separations and the other larger-than-life behaviors seen in 1970’s and 1980’s historicals?

Do you think Maili’s categories for “romantic suspense” novels are reasonable? What are the best and worst titles you’ve read for each or all of the five categories?

Anne Marble

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