Laurie’s News & Views  Issue #7

June 16, 1996

I’m getting all geared up for the national RWA (Romance Writer’s of America) conference to be held right here in Big D next month. I’ll be your roving reporter, filing reports every day, attending sessions, meeting and greeting, and interviewing authors and publishers. If I had my druthers, I’d interview 20 authors and attend every session. That isn’t possible so I am working diligently with the Romance Reader’s publisher to whittle down my wish list.

What is your wish list? If you could talk to certain authors, what would you want to know? Would you want to ask Suzanne Barclay if she plans another Scots medieval trilogy? Christina Skye about writing sizzling love scenes? Laura Hayden about her obsession with television? I’ll take your questions with me, but keep them brief. No silly stuff, please — I won’t ask the equivalent of “do you wear boxers or briefs”. :) E-mail me here.

We’ve all lamented about our “guys” who wouldn’t be caught dead reading a romance – that includes authors as well. Occasionally I’ll get an e-mail from a reader whose husband actually reads romance. Well, I’d like to introduce you to a guy who does – author Douglas Clegg.

Doug introduced himself on-line on Prodigy’s romance novel BB. As you can imagine, we all fell all over ourselves in writing notes to him. Doug became the guy and I was as fascinated as anyone else about him. A lover primarily of historical romances, he “just love(s) costume dramas and epics, and books you can sink into for hours.”

Doug writes in the horror genre. His latest novel, The Children’s Hour, was a lead release by Dell last fall. A horror novelist who hates to scare people, he loves romance for the same reason he loves horror – they both deal with primal emotions. He sees them as mirrors of each other. He says, in part, that what he loves about romance novels is that, “when they’re done well, the novels transport you to a completely and fully imagined world in which love is the central emotion.”

Discussing romance with Doug was so fascinating that I not only talked with him about romance, I talked with him about horror, sensuality in romance from a man’s perspective, and his interest in writing romantic fiction. I’m in the process of writing a profile about him for this site and thought I would intrigue you with a snippet of our discussions:

“I think one given in the human condition is our very real need and interest in love. . . One aspect of human love is romantic love. . . (which) gives us a connection to a sense of eternity. Now, whether you believe in eternity or not, it’s a great connection anyway.”There is something timeless about romantic love, even when it’s ended, it’s as if it was a golden moment out of time. That’s part of my draw towards romance fiction. The other reason, and I know some romance readers who feel the same way (only the mirror opposite) is: I write horror. I write about people who face terrors of the imagination. So, for relief, I often pick up a romance because it’s the polar opposite of horror. And still, both genres are within the “fantasy” boundaries of Anything-Can-Happen.

“We all live in the harsh glare of reality: work, debts, love that sometimes works, sometimes does not, worrying about taxes, etc. The novels of the imagination (and here I’d classify romance, science fiction, fantasy, and horror–there may be others, too) are great escapes from that, but escapes that all point you towards a different way of looking at the reality around you, of emphasizing other priorities in the world rather than the prosaic.”

Having read few horror novels besides Anne Rice’s, I located a copy of The Children’s Hour and have just begun to read it. If any of you romance readers also enjoy this genre, e-mail me here. And, look for my profile of Douglas Clegg (to access the q&a with Doug, click here).

For those anxious readers who want to know if I enjoyed Laura Kinsale’s re-released Midsummer Moon; I’ll let you know as soon as I finish it. So stop bugging me already, please.

The topic which engendered so much e-mail about Laura Kinsale was “authors/books others love that we don’t”. Here’s what you told me:

RReader Catherine said Shanna by Kathleen Woodiwiss “popped straight to mind. Which brings us to book length. Do you realize this book is close to 700 pages long? I think I grew old reading that book.” – LOL, CatherineLeila “dissed” several best-selling books including Sandra Brown’s Slow Heat in Heaven, which she found “boring, plodding, and sloppily written”. About one of Catherine Coulter’s Bride trilogy, she said, “it was a loathsome and vulgar book. . . The interactions between the protagonists made me grit my teeth. . .” And, even though she thought it was well-written (it was), had a likeable heroine (it did), the hero had potential (yes, he was wonderful), and there was humor (yes, this book is very funny), Leila just “couldn’t get into” Stella Cameron’s Bride.

Andrea hated Annie’s Song by Catherine Anderson. Brave, isn’t she? She “just could not be convinced that no one could figure out this girl was deaf before she spent about ten minutes in the company of the hero.”

According to Crystal, Kathryn Lynn Davis’ Too Deep for Tears was too depressing to read. She also “can’t stand Nora Roberts”.

Nancy “wondered what all the hoopla was about” when she read a book by Kathleen Woodiwiss.

Rose said that “two authors who have become very successful without me are Arnette Lamb and Kat Martin.” She added that “someone else whose spectacular talent has seemed to escape my comprehension is Amanda Quick.”

Let’s see, what other authors can we alienate this week? I heard from readers who also dislike Linda Lael Miller, Jude Deveraux, Elizabeth Lowell, Virginia Henley, Laurie McBain, and Lorraine Heath. Is there anybody we haven’t slammed?

The point of all this? No doubt some of your favorite authors/books were mentioned above – some of mine certainly were. We are very lucky there is such variety out there for us to read. Which brings me to my next point . . .

Just as there are authors and/or books we like or dislike, there are certain themes that are mainstays of romantic fiction. Just as there are alpha heroes and feisty heroines, there are marriages of convenience, warring Scots clans, kidnappings and the like. One theme I’ve noticed lately is the heroine so fearful of sex that her relationship with her hero is nearly ruined. A good use of this theme is in Jane Kidder’s new release, Passion’s Kiss. A less good use of this theme, is Catherine Coulter’s Heiress Bride. If you have any titles that fit this category, please e-mail me here.

The Good –
Some of my favorite themes include faeries, witches, or mad-cap heroines who take the stuffing out of stuffed-shirt heroes; marriages of convenience; heroines who are beloved by everyone but the thick-headed hero; conversely, heroines who are misunderstood by everyone but the hero; heroes who love the heroines first; mail-order-brides; and “road romances” where much of the book takes place en route from one location to another. I also enjoy stories where the conflict is outside the hero/heroine’s relationship – it’s what brings them together. Julie Garwood and Amanda Quick are experts in this area – Deborah Simmons’ regency-era historicals also fit the bill.

The good, the bad, and the silly plot-line cannot easily be separated out. Whereas in the hands of Elizabeth Elliott, a wonderful book (Scoundrel) can be written about a hero whose first wife/love was a bitch and so has trouble trusting another woman, in the hands of a less skilled author, the same plot would read as trite, contrived, and over-the-top (Indiscretions by Margaret Allison). The same can be said for many other themes. What transforms a basic plot-line into a powerful romance is in the characterizations of the primary (and often secondary) characters.

Another manner of transforming a basic plot is to twist it. In Catherine Hart’s Irresistible, for example, the hero’s first wife was indeed a complete bitch. To all except the hero, she was a paragon of virtue and the fact that now he’s fallen for someone considered a tramp is beyond the pale. Was he bitter, though? No, not at all. So the typical first-wife’s-a-bitch-so-now-he-doesn’t-trust-women theme was successfully tweaked into a new and definitely not over-the-top fashion.

I received dozens of e-mails about plots over the past few weeks; most readers provided me with over-used plot-contrivances, but some did send in their favorites. Here is what you had to say:

  • From Leila: The marriage of convenience, or the variations on the theme such as being forced to marry because of compromising situation, interfering parent, etc. The evolving relationship while both are trapped is something I usually enjoy
  • From Karen: When people who were friends suddenly see each other in a new light, and fall in love. It makes the instant intimacy so much more believable and meaningful
  • From Penny: My favorite, favorite plot is the physically challenged/disfigured hero or heroine. I like to read a story where someone can look beyond what is considered ugly and find beauty
  • From Leila (again): The Beauty and the Beast theme – recluse/shunned hero. I am not sure it’s the tale of redemption that hooks me, but reading about the hero adoring his Beauty always gets to me.

Betrayal or supposed betrayal is a common theme in romance. There are a myriad of books where one or both lead characters believes the other has betrayed them. Whether true or not, such books can be utterly wonderful or completely dreadful. The same can be said about danger. Is the hero in danger? Is the heroine in danger? Are they both in danger? In some books the characters’ love for one another sees them through the danger. In other books, both characters act in such a contrived manner that, by the end, the reader almost wants the villain to win.

Tortured souls? They can be magnificent . . . or boring. If the reader “knows” why the hero is so tortured and nasty but the heroine doesn’t, it often makes no sense that she loves him. Haven’t you read a book where you’ve wondered why she loves him? Or, why he loves her? I’d like to hear from you.

The Bad. . . And the Silly –
Getting beyond what is well-written or poorly written, we are often left with what has been over-written. Here is what Rose had to say:

“If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it is heroines who can ‘rope, ride and shoot as well as any man’. If I see those dreaded words on a blurb on the back of a book, I drop it like a red-hot branding iron and westerns are one of my favorite kinds of historical romance! Something else that makes my interest wane is a heroine that has the sight! When it comes to a good read for me, twenty/twenty does me just fine.”

The theme I find most difficult is when the lead characters have such a strong love/hate relationship that lust seems to be the only common ground. Some other themes I could do without include those where the hero and heroine are separate for much of the book, heroes who sexually manipulate the heroine, characters who do not practice fidelity, and romances set in the middle east. I’m not too crazy about westerns either, although they do tend to be a nice break after reading intense medievals. Oops – that reminds me, I’m not a big fan of romances where politics or war strategy overwhelms the romance and where court life is examined ad nauseam. Finally, I’ve read enough stories where the step-father behaves incestuously towards his step-daughter, haven’t you?

Other themes some readers could do without include the following:

  • From Cindy: The hero who physically manipulates the heroine, and the heroine who submits
  • From Cathy: They had a brief affair and parted. She was pregnant but never told him. Now she’s back in town with a kid in tow
  • From Dana: Both the hero and heroine are so dysfunctional they can’t manage to walk and chew gum at the same time. . . having both characters heal each other is more than just a little over the top. And such books are usually so depressing
  • From Andrea: The Scots woman falling in love with the hated English overlord who lives in her castle
  • From Leila: Babies thrown at us for no apparent reason
  • From Guylaine: I cannot stand heroes that have been betrayed by an unfaithful woman, and thus cannot trust the heroines. I hope someday the unfaithful woman gets a chance to show that the hero was a jerk that deserved to be betrayed.

No talk about plot lines could be considered final unless the issue of virginity were examined. Readers feel strongly about this issue. Most agree that, in a contemporary setting, grown women who are virgins are unrealistic. Others are also bothered in contemporary romance when the grown woman is not a virgin, but has never reached fulfillment until she meets the hero. RReader Robynn said “The other beef I have is that the heroine if she was married or involved before meeting the hero often reveals that she ‘never really experienced sexual pleasure before her involvement with the hero.’ I find this vaguely distasteful and rigid.”

This approach does not bother me. Even though I don’t read many contemporary romances, this issue is broached in many an historical where the heroine is either a widow or a virgin bride expecting to “close her eyes and think of England” on her wedding night. I enjoy these books a great deal.

The expression of love in a physical manner transforms the emotions of both the heroine and her hero from the abstract to the concrete. Yes, it is fantasy – I don’t think the experiences of real women upon losing their virginity are as spectacular as the ones we read about, but isn’t that why we romance – to escape reality for awhile? It would truly be a wonderful world if we had great sex every time and if men had an epiphany of what true love is when they first touch that special someone.

But variety is the spice of life. While we enjoy historicals with virginal heroines, sometimes we like a heroine with a bit of a past. According to Samantha, a student of medieval history, most noble women in the middle ages were widowed at least once at a young age. She adds that, “If the social historians can be believed, only 60 to 70% of noble women were virgins before their first marriages. Although how they claim to know that is dubious, coming mainly from the records kept by the clergy, who had a stake in making immorality worse than it was.”

What many readers object to in an historical romance is when virginity is so equated with feminine virtue that it subsumes the rest of the story. Jill wrote me that, “If it’s an historical, the issue of the heroine being a virgin and the hero expecting her to be, isn’t something that makes me angry – I sort of expect it. But I do dislike it, if it’s the sole point of the story and the hero gets all bent out of shape for no other reason than he thinks she might not be a virgin.”

I’ve read many books where the hero believes the heroine is not a virgin (although she is) and this is quite bothersome to him. I’ve read some wonderful romances where this is effective, including Once a Princess by Johanna Lindsey and Moonspun Magic by Catherine Coulter. I’m sure I’ve read others where this is annoying, but I can’t seem to think of any right now. Please e-mail me with good and bad examples of this type of story.

RReader contributor Cathy Sova reminded me that some publishers require historical heroines to be virgins. Leisure/Lovespell, for example, has as one of its written guidelines this requirement: “Spunky heroine whose love for the hero never wavers; he’s the only one she makes love with and she’s as passionate as he, although he may have to instruct her in the ways of love, as she’s almost invariably untouched before she falls in love with him.”

Again, this is not a problem for me – it all works as part of the fantasy described in the last issue of this column by author Catherine Archer and alluded to above by author Douglas Clegg. Rebecca, on the allure of romance as fantasy (and yes, addressing the stereotypes of those who read and write romance), e-mailed me this provocative note:

“Finally, a genre that is not afraid to allow its characters to live happily-ever-after. I realize that a romance novel is not “real”, but many of them do reflect real life issues. Besides, very little popular fiction reflects real life. Are Tom Clancy’s books realistic? How many of us can hope to be involved in high-tech espionage and counter-terrorism? How much of Stephen King’s work is based on real-life happenings? Yet critics never single out these types of fiction as being divorced from reality.”I believe that true love does exist. Love can last forever, but it is a choice. I make the decision every day to love my husband more than anyone else in the world, and I have no doubt that romance novel heroes and heroines are capable of making that same decision and staying in love. Romances speak to something in the heart. We see our own experiences in their relationships.

“A great book is one that moves me. If it just happens to have a happy ending, that’s even better. Romances move me and leave me feeling good about life. I get enough depressing realism on the evening news. I find everything I like in a book in romances.”

Just as no discussion of themes in romance could be properly addressed without discussing virginity, no discussion of virginity could be discussed properly without addressing . . .silly sex. I received so many hysterically funny entries for this section I hardly know where to begin. So, grab your Depends, and read on.

I’d like to award the most hilarious silly sex entry to Maya, who doesn’t recall the name of the book but does remember this: “Her nipples stabbed through the fabric like gold-embossed invitations.”

Readers Ilana and Kerry submitted the following:

“We’d like to submit a few silly sex terms. . . Our favorite term for the male, ahem, ‘member” is also ‘manroot’. In fact, the first time we discovered this stupid word, we were so amused that we drew a face on a Daikon radish and name it ‘manroot’ – he also had a condom hat!. . . Anyway, our favorites for women’s, ahem, ‘parts’ (include): dew-moistened petals (which unfurl at his deft touch); rock-hard ruby nipples (ouch!); and pouty nether lips (uh-huh).”

RReader Samantha hopes our heroines would be having “too good of a time to think up 20 euphemisms for his penis.” She also asks, What do these people use as erotica, a thesaurus? Jill votes for throbbing manhoods, pouting lower lips, and “the nubbin” as the silliest of sex terms. She makes the point, however, that “what else is there to use? The formal clinical terms. . . are just too cold.”

I tend to agree with Jill about the clinical terms, but, what to do? We don’t want to go back to the days of the Hayes office, when one foot had to remain on the floor at all times during a film’s love scenes, do we? Do we just want the allusions of love-making, with “candles going out, oceans crashing against the shore and the like?”

There must be some middle ground between “throbbing shaft” and “penis” and “chestnut patch of pleasure” and “vagina”, although some readers would prefer the cold, hard terminology. Certainly authors such as Susan Johnson are using the “real” words and finding an audience for them. Some readers appreciate the euphemisms. Guylaine believes some authors are parodying silly sex in their very own love scenes: “Amanda Quick can usually do very funny sex scenes. The “shores of transcendent love” scene in Scandal where she makes fun of metaphor in lust is hilarious.”

For those of you who haven’t checked out our home page, we have re-printed an hilarious article written by Deb Stover all about this issue. Check out what she has to say about purple prose and how it rears its ugly head.

As usual, we’ve run out of room. Don’t despair if a topic you wrote in about hasn’t found its way on-line yet. Here are some of the topics I’ll be bringing you in the weeks to come: Alpha and beta males; book-length (I could use more input on this); what you think about RT’s ratings; what I call Gilligan’s Island Syndrome, or Do We Really Want/Need to Know?; are our first books read by a certain author our favorites?; the mid-list crisis (including discussions with Kensington/Zebra/Pinnacle/Arabesque president Steve Zacharius; and publishers – is your personal library filled with books by certain publishers, are your discards by a different set of publishers?.

E-mail me about anything you read here or anything you’d like to read here. As usual, back copies are also available upon request.

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


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