Write Byte

“You Can’t Write That in a Category Romance!size=4>

(March 21, 2001)

When Linda Hurst asked if I would do a short column on “the serious (and often sad) subjects” that I deal with in my category books, my first response was “Oh, dear.” I write romance, for crying out loud. My career is only five books old. The last thing I need is to be labeled as Virginia Kantra, the Depressing Category Book Writer. But then I saw that “depressing” and “category book” form an oxymoron, and I realized what Linda was getting at, and I cheered up and agreed to write this article.

The first thing I need to make clear is that I have never set out to write about a sad or serious subject in my life. Yes, characters in my books for Silhouette Intimate Moments have dealt with the death, murder, or suicide of a spouse; with the hospitalization of a child; with addiction, with gang violence, with date rape and domestic abuse. But I don’t set out to write stories about those things. I write stories about people, not issues.

I glanced at my bookshelves, and favorite titles leapt out: Kathleen Korbel’s A Soldier’s Heart; Ruth Wind’s Last Chance Ranch; Justine Dare’s Trinity West series. These are all category books that tackle serious subjects. But they get discussed and win awards not because they are treatises, but because they are moving stories about characters who touch us. The writers are not reporting on issues, but exploring the human heart.

Although I care passionately about domestic violence and gun control, I did not write Mad Dog and Annie to further a cause. Simply, I had a leftover character from a previous book, Annie, in an unhappy situation and with a lot of growing to do. I wanted her to have the chance to earn her own happy ending. As a storyteller, my goal is not to explore an abstract subject, but to take my characters – and myself, and my readers – on a journey. Making that journey with my protagonists helps my own growth and self-discovery.

When I first suggested writing Annie’s story to my editor, I ran down the list of reasons I thought it might be rejected. Like, the heroine was an uneducated, pregnant teen who stayed married to an abusive jerk for ten years and now has a felony conviction for stealing twenty thousand dollars from her best friend. There was a long pause on the other end of the line.

“Hmm,” my editor said. “Ann certainly has a lot of baggage.”

I winced. “Yes.”

“I like that in a heroine,” my editor decided.

And now you know why I write for Silhouette.

My editor isn’t shopping around for controversial storylines. But she knows that the wounded hero or the tortured heroine are sources of emotion. Obviously, serious situations can evoke strong reactions and compel strong emotions. And it is the emotional “hit” that readers are often looking for when they pick up a romance.

However, for me to be satisfied – for my readers to be satisfied, for my editor to be satisfied – the strong negative emotions my characters deal with must be balanced with strong positive ones. Or, quite simply, the angst cannot overshadow the romance. The relationship is central to the characters’ experience and growth, and, in category in particular, must take precedence over the plot. (My screensaver is set to scroll “It’s the relationship, stupid.”) I read for all kinds of reasons. I read romance, however, for escape and affirmation. And I write romance to provide my readers with the same.

The world I create in my stories is the world I know. It’s not a world without problems, but it’s not a world without humor and hope. The best advice I can give a writer following a character on a difficult emotional journey is to write the truth, your own truth. Ursula LeGuin wrote, “We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains.” Adjust the language, if you must, but don’t compromise what you know or condescend to what you imagine your readers will understand or your editor will tolerate.

Getting at this truth is one of the reasons that research is so important to a writer. Is your character in trouble or in pain? Don’t just exploit it for a quick emotional fix. Learn the law, observe the hospital procedures, or interview the victims before you presume to write about it. And do justice to your research, respect the real feelings and experience of your sources, when you write.

Once all the research is done, the writer is a creator, not a reporter. In the words of Madeleine L’Engle, the storyteller’s task is to bring cosmos out of chaos. That is, to bring meaning out of tragedy. This can be done on a very grand scale – think of Shakespeare affirming the continuity of kingship after the rotten state of Hamlet’s Denmark, for example. But I see the storyteller’s role expressed most simply and intimately in the romance genre, when one man and one woman overcome whatever life throws at them to earn, with passion and courage and humor, their own happily-ever-after.

Can’t write that in category? Sure, you can.

— Virginia Kantra

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