You’ve Got Romance

Writing my first romance was a challenge, literally. Some of my author friends were deciding whether to participate in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) last November, and two of us who usually write historical fiction decided to write historical romances.

There were no worries getting up to speed on the genre. In younger days, I read historical romances all the time: Amanda Quick, Johanna Lindsay, etc. I was charmed by the strong heroines and the handsome rogue heroes, and the way the characters spoke to each other. I could not resist, however, creating an underlying mystery, problems they had to solve, things they had to find. So the novel does have a “caper” aspect to it as well.

The research part was pleasant, too, because the focus was on the characters and their relationship. I couldn’t let the setting go entirely; to me setting is always a character in the story. I chose a part of England with which I am somewhat familiar: West Sussex. I know this area because I’ve been there for other work. For most of the last several years I have been researching H. G. Wells for non-fiction, and the estate of Uppark is in West Sussex. Wells’s mother worked at Uppark, first as maid and later as housekeeper, and young Wells frequently stayed there. I’ve visited, and was even invited to be a docent.

I used Uppark’s location as Lady Brandon’s house, where my heroine, Amanda, works as a companion. Everything else that happens is measured from there, to the surrounding towns (especially Petersborough, where there’s a pub that claims Wells wrote there at the tables) and south to Portsmouth. Portsmouth I visited many years ago on another historical quest, for the first Duke of Buckingham, who was murdered there in 1628. I even found the room where he was taken, which in the 1980s was an architect’s office, and they were so nice about letting me in to absorb the atmosphere.

Writing about places one has visited or lived is always enjoyable. But the story was another challenge. The standard pattern for a heterosexual couple romance is boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. But I wanted my heroine, Amanda, to be unusual as well as strong, not conventionally attractive but attractive to the hero, and unfailingly honest. I’ve known women who are tough and swear like truck drivers, like Amanda, and men who lie through their teeth as a matter of habit, like Jack. Their innate truthfulness (or lack thereof) plays a major role in the story.

But I didn’t want this to be another tale of a woman falling for a man, like so many romances. Although told from Amanda’s point of view much of the time, I wanted Jack to fall harder. Why? Because in so many romantic stories it is the female character who has to sacrifice something–leave her home, end her associations–to be with the man. I wanted the man to make the sacrifices, and give up things, and change more than she did.

Only recently did it occur to me that this impulse may have come from my feelings about the movie You’ve Got Mail.

<Spoiler alert! If you haven’t seen You’ve Got Mail, stop now, see the movie, and come back!>

I’m a huge fan of Nora Ephron, including her movie romances. But the ending of You’ve Got Mail has always bothered me. The female protagonist loses her business and her associations (with the neighborhood, the customers, and her family memories) because of the man’s actions (in a predatory business), and she gets together with him anyway. Although it’s based on Shop Around the Corner, this takeover aspect is not part of the original story nor any of its variants (the movie In the Good Old Summertime, the show She Loves Me). It wasn’t right; it wasn’t fair. I wanted him to make some sacrifice to be with her. So in my book, it’s different.

For that reason, perhaps, like You’ve Got Mail, my novel A Heart Purloined ended up being a “clean” romance, where physical attraction is there but not explicit sexuality. The emotional connection, the changes to each as a result of knowing the other, were simply more important.

But the reader should in no way feel there is a “message”– it’s a fun, light-hearted story with delightful characters, not a treatise on loving sacrifice. The book is doing well in its first month, and I hope even more readers enjoy it.