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The Allure of the Mail-Order-Bride Romance

We asked author Sharon Ihle to discuss the allure of the mail-order-bride theme in romance. Her delightful 1995 release, The Bride Wore Spurs, tweaked the theme with a wonderful twist. And her new release, Tempting Miss Prissy, touches lightly on the theme, albeit in a negative light. Why does she respond to the mail-order-bride theme, as an author (and a reader)?

Here is what Sharon had to say:

The thing I find most alluring about the mail-order bride theme in historical romance is the element of surprise and the many variations possible on that same theme. Even in a standard mail-order bride plot — that is to say, bride and groom have written, think they know what to expect of the other, and even have photos or sketches of each other — their expectations can still be in for a jolt.

The phrase “What if?” is a favorite tool among writers, and really comes in handy for the mail-order bride plot, especially if the agreement has been made and photos have been swapped. How do I try to make a unique situation out of what could be very ordinary?

I’d probably brainstorm along these lines; what if she gets to town, climbs down off the stage, and finds the man she’s agreed to marry surrounded by six whining children — offspring he neglected to mention in his letters. What does she do? Climb back on the stage and go home? What if she’s spent her last dime coming west? How will she support herself in a new town if she doesn’t marry the man? If she does marry him, how will she ever manage six kids — she knows nothing about raising children. Or maybe, she thinks she hates kids, only to be turned into a loving mother by the time the hero’s children are done with her.

In another scenario, what if the heroine steps off the stage and to the hero’s horror, she’s about a foot taller than he is? She’s as lovely as her photo, has a voice like a canary, and doesn’t seem to be annoyed by the fact that she is taller than him, but what if the hero can’t get past her height and refuses to marry her on those grounds? Will she stick around and make the effort to convince him that he is a giant in her eyes? Will he try to have lifts made in order to “measure up” to a woman he otherwise loves? Will he stand on a box for their wedding photo? Will she sling him over her shoulder and carry him across the threshold?

All right, I got a little silly with those last two “what ifs” but I was trying to make a point. Almost any “tired old plot/theme” can be brainstormed into a fresh, exciting story if you ask yourself “what if?” and let your mind wander wherever it wants to take you. That’s what I did when setting up the story for The Bride Wore Spurs.

Since I happen to enjoy and write with humor in my books, I introduced two major secondary characters as a standard mail-order bride and the man who’d ordered her, then introduced the heroine as a mail-order bride for a the first man’s friend. Then I thought; what if the hero didn’t order the heroine in the first place–or any other woman? What if his friend, thinking he’d be doing the hero a favor, did it for him without telling him about it? That situation not only brought some humor to the story, but gave my hero, a man who never planned on getting married, reason to seriously consider taking a wife.

I used the same “What if” technique in my upcoming book, Tempting Miss Prissy. I needed a good reason for my “runaway” heroine to flee to Central City, where she meets and falls in love with the hero. I thought, what if her best friend had gone west as a mail-order bride? My heroine would run to someone she knew and trusted, even if she hadn’t heard from her except once since they’d parted, and would naturally head to the last known address of her best friend.

To make the story even more interesting — and life more difficult for my heroine — I had her follow that old friend to Central City a year after they’d last seen each other. Because they hadn’t kept in touch, the heroine wasn’t aware that her friend had been jilted by the man who sent for her, used her, and then moved on before a circuit preacher could marry them. “What if” came into play again when I decided that Miss Prissy accidentally discovers that her friend has turned to prostitution to support herself.

To see how this works out, and maybe even spot a few more “what if” situations, you’ll have to pick up a copy of the book. I hope you do and that you’ll enjoy it.

Sharon Ihle

You can e-mail Sharon by clicking here.

Read an LLB/TRR Review of Sharon Ihle’s Maggie’s WishRead an LLB/TRR Review of Sharon Ihle’s Tempting Miss PrissyRead an AAR Review of Sharon Ihle’s Untamed