Romance novels, and romance writers, still get a lot of no respect. Why would any self-respecting, trained historian with a fairly intellectual job choose to write romance, knowing that a lot of people – even people who read romances – scoff at it?
Why on earth would I make that claim? Is not a fictional love story the most trivial thing in the world?
Because a happy intimate relationship is one of the best indicators of healthy long life.
Because the desire for a happy intimate relationship is embedded in our genes.
Because the drama associated with intimate relationships drives most great literature, never mind the 140-page paperbacks you used to find at the supermarket checkout.
And because the choice of a mate is often, if not always, the single most important choice most people make in life.
Especially in a historical context, but not much less so now. Who you choose to marry and have children with (or not) has a weight of consequence that is ignored only by the foolish. The choice of mate can still be, in many cultures including our own, a matter of life and death. Even now, when conventional marriage is no longer seen as the only acceptable form, the uncoupled person is often viewed as somehow less-than. The person (especially the woman, because we always get the heavy end of the judgement stick) who never achieves a successful intimate relationship is seen, nearly everywhere, with pity not unmixed with scorn.
So even though I started reading mysteries long before I started reading romance, even though I still read at least one mystery or science-fiction or fantasy novel to every romance novel, my personal preference is for literature – of all genres – that does not shy away from the importance of the intimate relationship. I have a hard time engaging with books in which a loving relationship is not central to the main characters’ lives.
As I get older, I’m consciously using the guaranteed happy ending of a romance novel to fill in blanks in my own life. I don’t enjoy books in which terrible things that happen to the main characters are unresolved. In which those characters are left at the point of failure, loss, or tragedy. If I like the characters, I want to feel as though those characters are going to be alright. (If I don’t like the characters, I don’t finish the book.) A lot of us read romance because we need to see things work out well. When real life is not giving us happy endings, looking for them in our literature is perfectly legitimate. I’m giving my characters successes I haven’t had. Letting them achieve things I missed out on.
If you’re writing with any realism, of course bad things are going to happen. People get sick, lose jobs, break up with their lovers. I’ve found myself doing bad things to my characters. The series I’m writing has a timeline from 2000 to 2020; that’s much too much time for everybody’s life to go perfectly. And with over a hundred characters, it’s statistically unlikely that nobody’s going to run into trouble.
But these are romances. Even the people who run into trouble are going to find happiness eventually, or again.
Will I turn around one day and say to myself: Self, you need to write a Serious Novel? It’s possible. It’s possible that I will continue my current trend of getting more serious about the issues my characters have. It’s also possible that I will get more and more frivolous over the years. I have yet to see a study finding a connection between portentousness and happiness. In my observation, those who frolic have a lot more fun in life. It’s possible to frolic while still being responsible. And that’s just what I intend to do.