“Fine, Have Your Stupid Romance!”

Even amidst a pile of corpses, readers still want to see a passionate kiss.

Agatha Christie

Dame Agatha Christie often lamented spoiling a perfectly content mystery novel by cramming an unnecessary romance down its throat.  However, she realized that readers would not be happy unless someone fell into someone else’s arms at some point in the story.  It didn’t matter if the story was about a shell-shocked former soldier healing on the home-front whilst contending with a vindictive “poison pen” writer (The Moving Finger), or three brow-beaten siblings who may or may not have murdered their domineering stepmother (Appointment with Death); readers wanted love!  So, even though it pained her frequently, Christie gritted her teeth and dished up a romance with each of her murders.  She usually made the romance peripheral, and with her quirky sense of humor, often made the romances rather humorous (or just plain odd, as was the case in several of her novels that played around with psychology).  A few times, she actually embraced the element of romance, which led to the creation of the inimitable duo Tommy and Tuppence.  On another occasion, she tricked the reader by faking a romance, then sending the heroine back to the pathetic, sniveling fiance who really needed her (I won’t mention the title, since I don’t want to spoil that story for you).  She also indulged readers by writing several books that were pure romance with no dead bodies at all.  These, however, she wrote under the pen name Mary Westmacott.  Christie did something right — more than thirty years after her death, she’s still the best-selling book author of all time (actually, the only writers who have outsold her in any medium are Shakespeare and God).

Dorothy SayersDorothy Sayers, my favorite author by far, dealt with romance as well.  Readers desperately wanted her phenomenal character Lord Peter Wimsey to fall in love (and here I must admit to having a tremendous crush on the man myself).  Sayers acquiesced willingly with the creation of Harriet Vane, another wonderful character.  However, Harriet was such a complex character that the average reader could not at first appreciate her, and poor Sayers was besieged by letters begging her not to allow dear Peter to marry “that horrid girl.”  In response, she wrote Gaudy Night, a book that is as much a love story between the characters and higher education as it is a love story between themselves (which is why I LOVE this book).  In this lengthy novel, Sayers dealt fully with the implications and inhibitions of her characters, and in the end, she resolved all of the pesky issues that were in the way of romance.  When she finally got around to marrying Peter and Harriet in Busman’s Honeymoon, she had cleared the way for a happy marriage that made sense on every level, and was all the more romantic because of the work that went into it.  This, my friends, is a masterful way to write romance.

Romance comicsOf course, there can be too much of a “good” thing.  When I was in high school, my English teacher once made me read a Christian romance novel for an hour as punishment for forgetting my book (she was one of those memorable creative teachers that we often curse at the time, then spend the rest of our lives secretly thanking).  Let me tell you, I never forgot my book again in that class!  The novel, the title of which my mind has apparently blocked out (dissociative amnesia) started out with an exciting event: a woman’s beach house was caught in a massive flood, with her trapped perilously inside.  I felt like this might be the easiest punishment ever!  A man showed up to rescue the imperiled woman . . . okay, this I could still handle.  As the man scooped her up, the poor, terrified woman could think of nothing but . . . the man’s broad shoulders and muscular arms?!  I felt my breakfast lurch warningly inside me.  Who the heck ponders rippling pectorals when they’re about to lose all that they own to a natural disaster?!  The book, I am sorry to say, only got worse from there.  I have no idea what happened, because I stopped reading as soon as the hour was over and never again opened that horrid volume, but I’ll hazard a guess that the man and woman wound up happily ever after.  Of course, being a Christian romance, the woman probably led him to Christ first, since evangelistic dating is SUCH a good idea (note the sarcasm that positively drips from my words).

red heartsHaving seen the good, the bad, and the excessively nauseating when it comes to literary romance, I find it a difficult element to incorporate into my own work.  For some reason, I have a hard time taking my characters’ love lives seriously.  I’m repulsed by smoldering glances and burning kisses; in my stories, my characters are much more likely to wind up married to their worst enemy (a la Edric and Flavia in Sidhe Eyes), earn the hand of a handsome prince whose personality resembles an amoeba and then escape from him (On the Other Side of the Wall), or indulge in a deep and fulfilling, yet exceedingly disturbing, inter-species romance (such as flapper Joanne and her dearly beloved speakeasy-running kraken, Lew, in one of my odder short stories).   I just can’t seem to write a straight romance . . . or perhaps it’s that I don’t want to.  It feels too much like Mae West trying her hand at an etiquette book, or Tom Cruise trying to write a psychology manual.

Romance storiesSadly (for me), readers really do want romance.  And yes, I admit it, I usually like to see it in a story, too.  Although I read Wodehouse for his fantastic humor, I still love it when his characters come together at the end (great example:  A Damsel in Distress).  Half of the enjoyment I get out of Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels is watching the development of the great love story between Peter and Harriet.  Jane Eyre, my favorite novel, is a gorgeous love story.  Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel novels (she wrote several) are marvelous fun, and Percy’s devotion to his wife is beautiful . . . and overdone a few times, but he’s the Scarlet Pimpernel, so you have to forgive him.   Additionally, on some days, nothing but a good regency romance will do (but it must be an actual regency romance, not a modern book dressed up to look like one).  On such days, my soul requires Jane Austen.  Rachel and Melissa of LHP strongly recommend Georgette Heyer, with whom I’m still in the “initial handshake” stage of reading.

From my own experiences with (literary) romance, here are a few points to consider should you decide to try your hand at writing romance into a story:

  • People really don’t move straight from antipathy to true love. They can transition from one to the other gradually, but there has to be a reason, and the cause of the antipathy needs to be dealt with.  A few good examples are Pride and Prejudice and Anne of Green Gables.  In Pride and Prejudice, the antipathy stems from misunderstanding and from Mr. Darcy’s need to first undergo some character development before he can be worthy of Elizabeth.  The characters need time and space for thawing before they’re ready to share that oh-so-romantic walk.  In the instance of Anne of Green Gables, the characters also are the victims of misunderstanding, and they transition first to friendship before ever reaching love (in a later novel). For a bad example of the antipathy-to-love storyline, go watch the 1945 Greer Garson and Clark Gable film Adventure.  Actually, on second thought, don’t watch it — that thing was an abomination and a dismal waste of two otherwise brilliant actors.
  • Don’t try to write a regency romance set in the modern period. Really.  It doesn’t work.
  • Don’t try to write a regency romance at all, unless you’ve studied a couple of good etiquette manuals from the time and have also devoted some study to the history of the time period. Anachronism just saps all the romance out of even the tenderest scene.  I can’t suspend my disbelief during George’s sentimental proposal to Victoria when he’s wearing trousers that won’t be in style for another fifty years and she’s using speech patterns and expressions straight out of the 1990s.
  • While we’re on the subject of anachronism, social class matters! If she’s a servant girl and he’s a lord, he’s not going to marry her.  No, he’s not.  No.  NEVER.  Yes writing allows for creativity, but ridiculously inaccurate dealings with important (at that time in history) distinctions between classes just make me froth at the mouth and see odd little spots in front of my eyes.  Oy; I think I need to sit down for a moment.
  • Carefully ponder whether romance would actually be a topic for consideration at all under the circumstances your characters are dealing with. If Mary has just lost her home and all worldly possessions in a massive fire, she’s probably not the least bit aware of how cute the fireman’s cleft chin is.  If Brigitte just saw her father gunned down by enemy soldiers, she’s probably not going to promptly fall into the arms of someone fighting on that side.  If Billie Sue is truly suffering from a horrendous illness, she is most likely not contemplating the handsome doctor (there is always a handsome doctor!) from her sickbed.  In fact, she’s probably too drugged to think of anything other than friendly purple sheep dancing in a row.
  • Vampires are not romantic. No, no, no!!!  A thousand times no!  They are undead corpses who sleep in coffins with no ventilation. They have been drinking blood for hundreds of years without ever once brushing their teeth.  They have deplorable hygiene, in fact.  Do you have any idea how horrible the stench of their breath must be?!  Blech!  Lack of sunlight and lack of fruits and vegetables means that they all have vitamin D deficiency and scurvy.  Go do an image search and see just how desirable scurvy doesn’t make a person.  And besides, a vampire’s goal in life is to KILL you.  What’s romantic about someone desiring your demise?  Oh, and vampires don’t sparkle.

Snape no Diggory vampires don't sparkle

For more Lantern Hollow Press dealings with romance, be sure to read these posts:

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About HistoryGypsy

I'm a high school history teacher and author of upcoming novel Sidhe Eyes. I live in gorgeous Qingdao, China, where I spend much of my free time studying the fascinating and frustrating Chinese language, eating odd things, or taking long walks along the Yellow Sea. At "While We're Paused" I have the pleasure of blogging about things that catch my interest: good books, language, history, poetry, writing tips, grammar rants, random humor . . . I don't like to get in a rut! Some of my favorite writers include (and this is by no means an exhaustive list): Dorothy Sayers, J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Agatha Christie, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Jules Verne, Baroness Orczy, Geoffrey Wawro, John Lynn, Bill Bryson, the Bronte sisters, John Christopher, J.M. Barrie, O. Henry, Roald Dahl, and Robert Graves. I usually find myself reading no less than three books at a time!

Posted on April 17, 2011, in Agatha Christie, Authors, Books, Characters, Dorothy Sayers, Stephanie Thompson, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Thank you HG for saying what others have feared to name … yes, the emperor is naked and no, vampires are not nice!

    • And thank YOU for also seeing the truth about vampires. Perhaps if enough of us spread the word, people will finally wake up to the fact that these creatures are actually quite nasty, smelly, and completely repulsive.

  2. CHRISTIAN ROMANCE NOVEL (n.): Poorly written fiction in which the main characters consist of one handsome, troubled agnostic male and one beautiful, co-dependent religious female. The plot revolves around the male overcoming his problems, being converted, and marrying the female in a matter of days (or hours), whereupon they live happily ever after. The purpose of these novels is apparently to entice religious women into “missionary dating,” thus ensuring that they will marry an immature and unstable male. They will then need an escape from their life with him, which they will find in continuing to read said novels.

    From THE DEVIL’S DICTIONARY OF THE CHRISTIAN FAITH (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2008).

  3. Ah, love the Peter/Harriet love story! And Georgette Heyer.

    You’re so right about anachronistic features in supposedly ‘Regency’ romance – but what about those writers who go too far in their quest for authenticity? I call them the ‘and his underwear came from Paris’ stories, after one particularly dreadful example, where the author obviously wanted to show how much research she had done, and described, in detail, every single piece of clothing the hero wore, in the world’s most excruciatingly badly written paragraph, ending with the lines quoted above. [Given that this paragraph arrived in the middle of a ballroom scene where the heroine first sees the hero, I spent the next couple of minutes wondering whether this was some sort of paranormal/scifi/Regency crossover (the heroine must’ve had X-ray vision to know what sort of underwear he wore, and where it came from). Sadly, I didn’t stick with the book long enough to find out whether I was right about the genre crossover…]

    • Hahahaha, I rather want to see that book… just because.

      Our historygypsy is reluctant to convert to Georgette Heyer because her storylines tend to be much more exciting and dramatic than dear, lovely Jane Austen, but we hope that she will come to enjoy them. Georgette Heyer strove for authenticity (while allowing herself a few deliberate delineations) and her humor is delightful.

      • I do intend to give her a fair chance. Whenever my thesis isn’t sucking away at my soul, I’m presently on a Wodehouse kick. He’s very healing in these days of thesis-imposed exile. Someday, when the birds once again sing and the flowers once again bloom, and the butterflies flit among the heather, I shall again return to Heyer. She has a few titles which intrigue me.

        For the record, in the book that I read, I liked much of the style; it was just that the storyline got a bit too farfetched in that particular one and I found the heroine impossible to believe.

    • You’re quite right about too much detail. I run into that a lot in my work in history! I specialize in both film history and military history, and let me tell you, military historians LOVE detail! They positively sweat with delight at telling me exactly what type of bullets were flying toward the 77th regiment of Such-and-Suches at the Battle of Whatchimacallit and what type of metal was used on the guns, and what type of planes dropped what type of bombs on them, and how many men swore as they marched into battle . . . oh, do they love details! Main points seem to be a stumbling block for some of them!

      • I myself intend to write some sort of romance element into my stories- although so far I’ve been purposefully ignoring it as one of those “I’ll figure it out when I get there” elements… which is probably a bad thing. In any case, considering the danger involved in the characters’ worlds, I don’t expect anyone to be falling into the arms of anyone else (unless they’re dying or dead), or any sweet nothings to be uttered (while cities burn around them…although I suppose that would be an appropriate backdrop…sigh). Good advice. I will certainly stow it away for whenever I decide to tackle that particular problem in my eventual writing.

  4. Even though Agatha Christie put romances in many of her books, they actually didn’t interfere that much with the main plot, but rather, blended in nicely. Examples, Crooked House, and as you’ve pointed out, Appointment with Death. I totally hear you on the Regency romances, I’ve seen a few where the woman addresses her mother in law by her first name and uses modern American idioms. Ouch! And vampires! I just want to get into a cave and hibernate until this vampire fixation passes. They are so not cool.

  1. Pingback: “Fine, Have Your Stupid Romance!” « While We're Paused | Partner Connection

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