At the Back Fence Issue #208

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

The Need to Know

October 1, 2005

I’m an information hog, and it drives my husband crazy that whenever we’re watching a TV show and I don’t know the episode’s synopsis, I grab the DirecTV remote and click the “info” button. He thinks I should just sit there and watch rather than needing to know before-hand what we’ll be watching that week on Rome, Lost, or even The King of Queens.

My obsessive need to know goes beyond TV…when I pick up an historical novel and cannot immediately discern the book’s era, I get annoyed. When I pick up a romance novel set in the Georgian period and the year isn’t provided at the start of chapter one, I get frustrated, and often go to my desktop to check BYRON, Google, Amazon (and other sites too!) to see if somebody else has provided the missing date. It’s one of the reasons why, unlike most other websites, we try and be very specific about a book’s setting, and why we had built into our reviews database not only broad outlines for historic sub-genres, but more specific fields for time and location settings.

Transferring 5,000 or so reviews from our archives into the database has been a daunting project, and it’s all the more daunting in that we became more sophisticated – okay, call it obsessive – over time in helping readers get a sense of time and place when they accessed one of our reviews. In the first few years of the site, an historical romance was either a Medieval, a trad Regency, a European Historical, or an American Historical. If you look now at our historic designations, we make distinctions between the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages. If an historical is set outside of England between 1485 and 1648, it’s a Renaissance Romance. If set in England between 1485 and 1700, it’s either a Tudor or Stuart Romance…with Restoration Romances in between. The European Historical designation spans the Georgian, Regency, Victorian, and Edwardian eras, and the trad Regency has its own designation.

Across the ocean, we no longer have one designation for all historicals set in North America. We have designations for Colonial Romances (1630 – 1789), Civil War/Reconstruction (1861 – 1880 in books set in the South), Frontier/Western Historicals, which can be set in the U.S. Canada, and even Australia (Australian-set historicals have that frontier-like quality), Indian Romances, Americana Romances, Turn of the Century Romances, and a catch-all for other American Historicals. And if a book is set, say, in the U.S. and England, or the High Seas, we call it “Historical Romance.”

Which takes care of the “Book Type” field as far as historical settings, but because most historical time periods are lengthy – the Medieval period, for instance, spans hundreds of years, the Georgian era lasted nearly a century, and the Victorian period, which doesn’t quite coincide with Victoria’s reign (we start the period with the Reform Act of 1832, five years before she assumed the throne), extends over a period of more than 60 years. That’s why we also provide – not only as a searchable field, but also simply to give readers more information once they do access a review (whenever we can), the decade during which the book is set. We don’t get any more detailed than that, though, because while knowing the precise year might satisfy the most anal among us (ie, me), it would make querying the database less user-friendly and more time-consuming prospect. (And does it really matter if a romance is set in 1861 or 1860? Probably not…even to me)

 When Cheryl Sneed (bless her heart!) jumped in to manage the transfer process, the two of us tried to be on the same page as often as possible. I discovered a few days ago that while we determined precisely how to dot the i’s, we’d never agreed on how to cross the t’s. In assigning letters of the alphabet to other volunteers and then final checking them herself, she followed Cheryl’s Common Sense: as a reader of Victorians she only cares that a book is Victorian…she doesn’t need to know the year or decade during which that Victorian is set. This conflicts, unfortunately, with Laurie’s Anality: if a book is set in the Victorian era, is it early or late, pre or post the death of Prince Albert, are the women wearing large hoop skirts or bustles, etc.? As someone who isn’t a stickler for historical accuracy, I don’t need to know what was being argued before Parliament in a romance novel, but some context is always appreciated, and having to guesstimate when a book is set is something I’d rather not fuss over – even if it does make me feel particularly brilliant when I can guess based on my limited knowledge.

After Cheryl and her team transfer the reviews, it’s up to me to assure that before I delete the original, there’s a corresponding review entered into the database. At the start of this project I basically duplicated her efforts, checking Amazon links, style conformity, links to author interviews/articles, whether or not the book is part of a series, etc., but pretty early on realized we’d never finish unless I gave up my need for Control of the Universe. So beginning several months ago I limited myself to spot-checking and simply counted…if we had six reviews for Johanna Lindsey in the archives, did we now have six Johanna Lindsey reviews in the database?

That mostly worked fine…until I discovered that the bit of coding calling the banner ad rotation carried in each of our reviews had been truncated. Ads that had expired were popping up embedded in reviews, and in other instances, ads were distorted size-wise. In trying to fix that problem, I realized that Cheryl’s Common Sense and Laurie’s Anality intersected badly. With more than half the work done, it would make sense to fix how we did things in the future and not waste time on the past, particularly since in many cases, it required some substantial research to narrow down a time setting. That’s what Cheryl and I agreed on early in the week…the next day when I emailed her to say I couldn’t help myself, I’d gone through the eight pages of Victorian results and four pages of Georgian results (that’s roughly 240 reviews, btw), and “fixed” them. When I received her response saying, “Of course you did, darling. I knew you would,” I burst out laughing.

Until Cheryl mentioned that her time period requirements were less stringent than mine, I’d never really thought about it. After all, whenever books we review don’t have dates that are readily identifiable, the reviewer always mentions this as a negative. And not just those reviewers who most crave historically accuracy. I simply thought it was human nature when setting foot into another time and place, to at least know where your feet were landing.

What about you? Is knowing a general period – whether it’s 60 years in length or 300 years in length – enough information for you? Would you prefer to know not only what decade a book is set in, but the precise year, and if possible, which shire in England it takes place? In other words, how anal are you, and if you don’t like that word to describe us, what term would you use?

Recalling Mr. Rogers

Nearly a year and a half ago, we debuted our Unusual Professions List, and when Rachel Potter had just begun working on it, she asked if any of us at AAR had titles to submit to it. I remember the discussion quite well, because Robin Uncapher piped up and said, “Why do we need a list for this? Every single contemporary romance novel I read is filled with unusual professions!” I wondered the same thing myself. After all, it seems as though there are nearly as many owners of sexy lingerie stores selling crocheted panties or late-night sex talk-show hosts as there are Dukes in Regency England (or even those cottages that are so very easy to be found in the English countryside during rainstorms). And yet, I also understand the allure.

My husband, the foodie in our house, is hooked on the Food Network. As a result we watch a lot of Food Network programming. Even though too many of the segments are repackaged and appear over and over again in other episodes, Unwrapped is a favorite for all of us. I like it because of the food factory tours, somewhat reminiscent of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, when Fred Rogers invited his audience to see his visit to the graham cracker factory or milk dairy. After all, when I was in elementary school in suburban Los Angeles, a great treat was a yearly field trip to the commercial bakery or when the traveling animal farm parked in the schoolyard and we could watch cows being milked.

Isn’t it human nature to be excited about the new and unknown? I may be allergic to bees, after all, but I’m as fascinated by bee-keeping as I am enthralled to watch maple syruping or cheese-making on TV. Though I’m no Martha Stewart, if she visited a furniture factory, I was nearly as interested in watching the craftsmen turn wood as she was. This in spite of the fact that hammering a nail is the extent of my handiness around the house.

So when I read a contemporary romance, do I want to read about the life I’ve lived, or something completely foreign to me? After all, I once insisted on reading only historical romances…set in Europe no later than the Regency. As an all-or-nothing person, if I’m going to immerse myself in fantasy, I want to go whole hog.

After years of only reading historicals, I did eventually start to read contemporaries, and discovered one of two things: if a city or profession I was familiar with was part of the book, ever little detail out of whack lessened my enjoyment. A professor wearing spaghetti straps to teach? A national law exam? And even if the details were right, reading about streets I’d driven, neighborhoods I’d seen or lived in really was too close to home. I’d been there, after all…where was the fantasy?

And if the profession was one I knew nothing about, did I want to, or was I satisfied by in-name-only professions too many contemporaries provide…the business person who “does deals.” Having grown up with a father who did deals, I didn’t understand what it entailed then, and I still don’t. I don’t need to know every line pecked into a Blackberry or all the minutiae involved in preparing a legal document, but if a character spends eight or more hours a day doing something, I’d like to see them actually do some of it.

I’m not an butcher, baker, or candlestick maker. It’s nice to come away from a romance novel having learned a bit about a new profession, but I don’t want to end a romance feeling I now know more about butchering a cow than I do about a couple.

In other words, I’m pretty damn hard to satisfy!

As someone for whom the romance is always paramount, my favorite contemporary romances generally feature women’s professions presented in a very Romance Novel fashion. It’s true that I’d rather read about an architect than a waitress, a doctor instead of a sales clerk, but that’s likely just the snob in me. After all, those of you who’ve been reading this column for about a year already know that my knowledge of acquisitions and take-overs is sorely lacking because I missed or glossed over major errors in 2004’s The Real Deal. And apparently the behavior of Anna Quinn as a social worker also left something to be desired…a good friend of mine who is a social worker pointed out several of the heroine’s ethical lapses in Nora Roberts’ Sea Swept. As for my other all-time favorite contemporaries, the heroines were: gym owner (To Die For by Linda Howard), fired advertising exec (The Beach House by Mary Alice Monroe), glass artist (Nora Roberts’ Born in Fire), ex-debutante florist shop owner (Roberts’ Chesapeake Blue), psychology professor (Jewels of the Sun, again by Roberts), headmistress of a girl’s school (Lady Be Good by Susan Elizabeth Phillips), and Olympic diver (Elizabeth Lowell’s Too Hot to Handle).

To Die For is romantic comedy; the heroine owns and runs a health club, and runs it quite well. She’s clever and snarky, and apparently a good businesswoman, although most of what I learned about her business acumen derived from her overall behavior throughout the book. She’s smart, she worries about closing her business down during the police investigation, hence, her business will succeed. The heroine in The Beach House is a type-A personality trying to fit into her mother’s far more relaxed world. While once solely focused on her successful career, being fired forces a re-examination of her life and goals. Is living to work really all there is? While some may find this heroine the stereotypical cold and buttoned-up businesswoman, given that I was once as driven as she was – and felt my career was the most important thing in my life – this didn’t bother me in the least.

Roberts’ Born in Fire features a glass artist heroine, a tormented and self-centered woman whose pain fuels her art. Roberts has written several artistic characters, and just as she writes wonderful families, she writes wonderful artists. There’s a scene in Born in Fire during which I could almost feel the heat of the fire used to create the heroine’s art, a moment when I was actually nearly as absorbed in the piece she was creating as she herself was. Elizabeth Lowell, who, as many have pointed out in the past (most recently during September’s Pandora’s Box), can sometimes go overboard in giving backstories to professions or areas of expertise, once created another brilliant [stained] glass artist in A Woman Without Lies. As a person she was 180 degrees apart from Roberts’ heroine, but both focused on their art with laser-like intensity. The artist came through in both books while in comparison, the heroine as artist, and the art itself didn’t shine through as strongly in Janelle Denison’s recent Too Wilde to Tame.

Perhaps it is because authors are artists of the written word that both Roberts’ and Lowell’s books so strongly conveyed the artistic experience. But Lowell, in Too Hot to Handle explored the blood, sweat, and tears involved in being an Olympic-caliber athlete trying to recover from an injury.

The professions mentioned so far are not exactly common, although being a high-powered executive is far more likely than perhaps any of the others. Other uncommon careers I’ve come across include: B&B/hotel owner, chef, caterer, zookeeper, ballerina, art auctioneer, actress, sociologist, author, relief worker, spy, shoe designer, airline pilot, Air Force colonel, perfumer, and interpreter. I can say that in all my life I’ve never met a B&B owner, zookeeper, ballerina, art auctioneer, spy, shoe designer, perfumer, or interpreter, and yet careers as diverse as this are almost commonplace in romance novels.

While exotic occupations occur as a matter-of-fact in romance novels, many mainstream occupations abound as well. Many a romance novelist either has or had another occupation, and they incorporate their knowledge and experience of the law, law enforcement, the military, medicine, etc., into their books. What makes their books more authentic to me is in what they know or have experienced that those outside the occupation haven’t. Susan Grant imbues authenticity into a heroine piloting a jumbo jet just as Merline Lovelace’s (she’s a former Air Force officer) characters exude competence and responsibility. It generally doesn’t interest me to know about an author’s personal life, but if I’m browsing and read in the inside back cover that the book features a profession shared by the author, I’m more likely to consider buying it.

It’s not a requirement, though…a good author does not only “book research,” but she talks to doctors if she’s writing about them. And then she incorporates medicine into the book seamlessly. She doesn’t break the narrative flow to give a lecture on the subject, she simply makes it part of the heroine’s daily life. One of my favorite romances of a couple of years ago was Barbara Bretton’s Girls of Summer. The heroine was a doctor (as was the hero), and rather than focusing on the struggle of a woman becoming a doctor, she was already well-established in her profession. Both hero and heroine were compassionate and committed to their patients. There was no sub-plot of heroic measures taken to save a patient from dying, there was simply a day-to-day illustration of being an OB-GYN, of having your sleep interrupted to deliver a baby, of talking to a teenager about birth control, and so on.

Getting it Wrong

I mentioned earlier that at times I’m oblivious to errors in the books I read. Because so much of the history I know was learned from reading romance novels, I’m not exactly a stickler for history, although if I come across something in an historical romance that even I know is wrong, the author loses a tremendous amount of credibility with me. In general wallpaper history works just fine for me as long as the feel is somewhat authentic, although since I didn’t live in 1066 or 1815, that’s kind of an odd statement to make.

Wallpaper contemporaries are another matter altogether. More and more contemporaries are being published, and more and more of them are romantic suspense novels, which takes them out of my realm of interest right off the bat. If a heroine in a contemporary romance makes maple syrup, as long as she lives in the appropriate part of the world and follows what I know are the basic steps involved, I’m happy. But if she is 25 and her favorite song is from thirty years ago…oops. If her speech doesn’t sound natural…oops. If she’s 35 and the hero “rocks her world,” oops. If she’s a parent and has no trouble getting a babysitter for a last minute date…oops. And if she’s caught up in a plot point that would make sense in an historical, oops. Each of those things really strike a discordant note for me, although none is a deal-breaker. Instead, I make little mental tick marks in my mind whenever one of these occur in a book I read.

Another problem in contemporary romances is the product placement or slightly “off” focus on money. Here’s what I mean. When I worked at the City of Dallas, some of the women staff didn’t quite “get” what business dress was, and instead wore their “Sunday best” to work. When I read a romance wherein the author writes about a Buick as though it were a Mercedes, Ikea furniture is written of as though discussing an Eames chair, and instead of Jimmy Choo the author kvells over Nine West shoes, that’s the equivalent of believing your church dress is appropriate business attire.

Not that it’s any better if the focus on money is dead-on, but overly done. I don’t really need to know which designer she’s wearing every single time the heroine dresses. If the heroine goes shopping once and is excited to buy a Kate Spade bag, that’s enough. (Better still if she finds it on sale or can buy it wholesale ) . If the heroine can’t decide when dressing for a date whether to go with the Kate Spade or Prada bag, once is enough…don’t do it every time she’s getting ready to go out. It’s even okay to let me view the heroine’s closet through her eyes and see the Kate Spade next to the Prada next to the Coach next to the D&B. But I don’t want to see it more than once…I’m reading a book, not watching Cribs on MTV.

And why do so many contemporary romance novel heroines were stockings and garter belts? It’s true that in my day, unlike today, it was not appropriate to go hoseless to work or a social function, but I can honestly tell you that I’ve never owned a pair of stockings in my life. I know for a fact that not all women under the age of 35 wear thongs and demi-bras, but you’d never know it by reading today’s contemporary romance. And don’t get me started on straight-laced virginal librarians who wear their hair in a bun and have on thongs and a demi-bra!

I mention these pet peeves because, as I theorized on one of our message boards, this is the time of the year when I notice many of us in romance reading slumps. I know that in the month since Hurricane Katrina hit, I’ve not been able to read much, but it’s not just me. A quick look at our New Reviews page shows that of 81 new reviews, 40 earned C level grades. Given that over time the amount of C level reviews hovers at 33%, that’s significant.

Is this time of year in publishing the equivalent of late summer/early fall in the film industry when distributors dump all the crummy movies after early summer blockbusters and in advance of the “quality” films released just before the end of the year? Or are we all just so beaten down by the heat (the temperature hovered at or above 100 degrees in Dallas for much of the summer) to enjoy ourselves?

A Personal Solution

Whereas last year at about the same time I’d decided to do some re-reading because I’d already reached my reading goal of 100 books, I’m nowhere near that this year, but because I’m in a slump, I’m thinking of re-reading again in an attempt to reinvigorate my reading. But rather than reaching for some of my all-time favorites, I thought it might be fun this time to go for some glom-reading among my most-read authors. I’ll be choosing from among my most-read authors (at least five books each) whose track record with me is above 50%.

Mary Balogh (8 books)
Leanne Banks (17 books)
Jaid Black (10 books/short stories)
Rhyannon Byrd (5 books/short stories)
Catherine Coulter (27 books)
MaryJanice Davidson (10 books/short stories)
Marcia Evanick (5 books)
Julie Garwood (but I re-read her last summer!)
Jennifer Greene (6 books)
Lorraine Heath (5 books)
Linda Howard (10 books)
Donna Kauffman (7 books)
Alison Kent
Jayne Ann Krentz (29 books)
Ruth Langan (6 books)
Johanna Lindsey (5 books)
Elizabeth Lowell (19 books)
Melinda McRae (5 books)
Kasey Michaels (7 books)
Lucy Monroe (8 books/short stories)
Patricia Oliver (8 books)
Julia Quinn
Nora Roberts (35 books/short stories)
Deborah Simmons (7 books)
Donna Simpson (7 books/short stories)
Anne Stuart (5 books)
Katherine Sutcliffe (5 books)

Elizabeth Bevarly
Barbara Delinsky
Janelle Denison
Merline Lovelace

Judith McNaught

 Linda Lael Miller
Marilyn Pappano
Suzanne Simmons
Teresa Southwick
Lisa Ann Verge
Peggy Webb

I noticed when putting together this list that I’ve also read at least five books for some authors who have written fewer books I liked than those I didn’t. Generally this fact sort of creeps up on me when I’m writing something that requires me to check BYRON and do a title count, at which point I go into a state of shock and denial. Occasionally, though, the author will be in the plus column until a disastrous glom-read puts her in the red, so to speak. I usually won’t try an author more than once if I don’t like her the first time around. If an author gets hosannas from all around me, I’ll give her two or even three tries. With authors who are proven winners in my book, they get multiple strikes before being out. Luckily my list of five-books-or-more “no more” authors to the right is far shorter than the list above.

I know that many of us are in reading slumps right now. Re-reading DIKs really worked for me last year and I’m hoping that re-reading glom-authors will do the same for me now. Are you in a slump, and if so, what might you do about it? What does your most-multi-read author list look like, and do you have a second list like I do, of authors you discovered you didn’t like as much as you once thought?

Time to post to the Message Board

Please consider these questions in addition to others that may have arisen out of your reading of the column:

How strong is your need to know when it comes to a book’s setting? Do you notice right away if one isn’t given? Does it become a mental challenge for you to try and figure it out on your own, or do you just get annoyed? How much specificity do you need, and if you need a lot, would you call yourself anal? Also, how often does reading about a person or event or item in an historical romance lead you to do some outside research?

Do you like the “factory tour” in general? If so, was it Mr. Rogers, a school field trip, or a family vacation that you best recall? What was your favorite factory tour – either in real, or as an arm-chair viewer?

When reading romances in contemporary settings, do you want to read about lives similar to your own, or lives completely foreign to your own experience? Do you prefer one over the other, or a mix of the two? Which books have you enjoyed and/or disliked – that fit into both categories – and why? When you read a romance set in a city you are very familiar with, does that present its own special set of problems, or do you simply get a kick out of it?

As far as professions and occupations found in romance novels, do you prefer reading about the typical or the more exotic? Talk about both, and which ones you liked or did not care for. And how much information about a character’s working life is enough…and how much is too much? Talk about some specific romances you’ve read that have handled occupations well, and others that did not, and why not? Was the information correct or incorrect? Was there too much, too little, or just the right amount of time devoted to work? Did the author plug in the information in a clumsy manner, or was it well-integrated into the storyline?

We spend a lot of time talking about historical inaccuracies and historical “wallpaper.” What are some contemporary inaccuracies that drive you crazy whenever you read them? And in general – although let’s not talk about virginal heroines – what are some of your biggest contemporary pet peeves?

Are you in a romance reading slump? Do you notice yourself in slumps at particular times of the year, and if so, why do you think that is? What have you done successfully in the past to get yourself out of a romance reading rut, and what are you trying/will you try now if you’re currently slumping?

Which authors are on your your most-multi-read author list, and do you have a second list like I do, of authors you discovered you didn’t like as much as you once thought?

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books

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(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)

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