Have you ever consumed romance novels like potato chips? One right after another until you are licking your fingers to pick up the crumbs at the bottom of the bag?
I just read ten or twelve historical romance novels in less than a week. My other “activity” was sleeping. My excuse is my usual illness — chronic fatigue/fibromyalgia — with the added thrill of a novovirus. (I am recovered from that nasty bug, thank you.)
Over the years, I’ve read uncounted hundreds of romance novels set in England between the loss of the American colonies and Waterloo. But I can’t write them. The books are total fantasies to me. I have an inability to suspend disbelief and that is fatal to composition.
But maybe you can!
First, choose a heroine from the selection below. These are all main characters I’ve met in one or more books and if I haven’t met them yet I probably will in the next book I read. These women are English, of course, and with rare exceptions, they are seventeen to twenty five years old.
- The Governess. This heroine is a classic. She’s a gently-bred young woman from on old* family, though recently impoverished. The governess forged her own references and lives in fear she will be discovered. She disguises her beauty by hiding her glorious tresses under a matronly cap, wearing ill-fitting clothes and ugly spectacles and sometimes even hunching her back or feigning a limp. She may be fleeing from an arranged marriage. The children are recent orphans and love her and she’s a gifted teacher. Or maybe they are awful and she’s about to be sacked.
- The Young Widow. Her late husband was a bully or a pervert or a wastral or a gambler or a drunk or (if she’s still a virgin) a homosexual. She may believe herself repulsive because her late husband couldn’t consummate their marriage. She is left penniless and must marry again — and soon — if she doesn’t want to starve. If she has children, she is a devoted mother, and will marry anyone to provide them with all the advantages of their rightful station. Society believes the widow is heartbroken and will never recover from her grief.
- The Bluestocking. This foolish woman is so over-educated she’s ruined all chances of womanly happiness. She pretends she doesn’t care and studies astronomy or botany or hieroglyphics. She can read Latin and Greek! She doesn’t need a man. She doesn’t even want a man.
- The Diamond of the First Water: This beautiful young thing is the toast of the town. Exquisitely gowned and coifed and suitably demure, eligible men swoon at the sight of her, but she longs to be loved for her true self, not her looks.
- The Kid Sister. After her mother died in childbirth, her indulgent father and brothers let her run wild. She can ride, shot, swear, and puff on a cheroot with the best of them but now her ferocious great-aunt takes charge to mold her into a fashionable, compliant miss. Our tomboy is laced into corsets and carted off the London to snare a rich, titled husband. But her less than lady-like ways offend society. She’s a disgrace! Oh — and she’s secretly in love with her brother’s best friend.
- The Wallflower. This mousy, plump, firmly on the shelf spinster is barely tolerated in her brother’s house where her sister-in-law resents her every bite of food. No man has every looked at her twice and no man ever will. At twenty-five, she is resigned to being the poor relation for the rest of her life, always an aunt and never a mother.
- The Madcap. This is a girl who rescues abused dogs from street urchins and brings them home, fleas and all. Or she might adopt one of the street urchins. Or an elderly cart horse. Impulsive and adorable, her heart leads her into compromising situations verging on scandal. She lacks decorum. Respectable gentlemen avoid her like the plague.
- The Girl Next Door. The girl from the bordering estate has always been in love with her handsome neighbor but all her sees is his former playmate. How will she convince him she’s all grown up?
- The Soiled Dove. Circumstances beyond her control forced her onto the stage/into the demimonde. She has a loving heart, but love and marriage is not for the likes of her.
- The Virgin. This beautiful and pure-minded soul was inexplicably born into a disreputable family. She makes excuses for her father or older brother as long as she can but when they die and leave her with nothing but bills, she must bargain whatever she has to marry money, even as she shudders at her own base motives.
I could go on — but you get the idea. Any likeable young woman in a desperate situation will do for your heroine. If she’s not plucky and brave on the opening page, she will be by the last page. So pick one of these heroines or invent one of your own.
The heroes are always English, usually thirty to thirty five, invariably “one of the wealthiest men in England.” These gentlemen, are magnificent, dangerous specimens — superb horsemen and fencers and boxers. Under their immaculately fitted jackets and trousers, they hide the physiques of Greek gods (judging from the Elgin marbles). Lesser mortals can’t meet the commanding gaze of their piercing amber eyes (or stormy grey eyes, or unearthly blue, or even pale green). They move with leonine grace. If one of these men enters a ballroom unexpectedly, the awe-struck assembly falls silent. They are skilled at eluding the snares set by manipulating mothers with marriageable daughters.
- The Arrogant Duke. The Duke is as rich as Croesus and he is in the market for a bride worthy of himself. He requires impeccable lineage, a generous dowry, stately bearing, and good taste. Love is beside the point.
- The Rake. He is a gambler who never risks more than he can afford to lose, a drinker who is never loses his head, a lover who never loses his heart. He beds only widows and other men’s wives. He hides behind his reputation as a shallow man, but he’s really a spy.
- The Soldier. After he unexpectantly inherits the family title, he resigns his commission . He must marry and get a heir, but he feels guilty for surviving when better men fell. Love is the last thing on his mind.
- The Dark Earl. After several years exile on the continent, he’s returned to London. Maybe he killed his best friend in a duel. Maybe he abandoned his betrothed at the alter. Now he needs a wife. Any wife.
- The Noble Bastard. He was born on the wrong side of the blanket, educated as a gentleman. He makes his own way — as a pirate, a financier, an industrialist or a gambler. Maybe his swarthy good looks come from a mother with Moorish blood or a maharaja’s daughter. He might be a companion to the sons of a good house, but he can never marry one of the daughters.
- The Widower. His adulterous wife died in childbirth. He is bitter and vows to never love again but, for the sake of his small children, me must marry again.
In todays’ politically correct historical romances, feel free to create a hero who secretly funds a home for orphans or a school for reformed street walkers or a haven for retired race horses. Today’s enlightened hero usually knows the names of his servants, pays them generous wages, favors progressive reforms, is a responsible landlord and good steward of the land and treats his lessors well. Sometimes he is emotionally scarred from a bad childhood or a bad love affair. Sometimes he is too proud to enjoy life.
(And it’s anachronisms like these that throw me right out of the book and makes me laugh. Like English lords during the Napoleonic Wars were SO concerned about the well-being of the servants. And their stupendous wealth never came from children mining coal or slave labor on a sugar plantation. Some contemporary authors feel compelled to make these men out to be paragons of virtue even by today’s standards.)
To me, no matter how writhing with hidden hurts, or how motivated by high morals, the heroes are not particularly interesting. Their only excuse for existing is as a vehicle for the heroine’s happiness. I read to see the woman saved from starvation/despoiling/a life of thankless toil and delivered into a life not just of new gowns and jewels and pin money, but of perfect happiness. At the end she must be respected, deeply cherished, and sexually sated. (But I really don’t need the details though the current fashion is for pages and pages of details! Oh, Jane Austen and Georgette Hayer and Marion Chesney, you set such a good example! Biting wit! Clever conversation! Chaste sex. Why must time march on?)
So — you have chosen your fair lady and her hero and you are about to have them meet each other, however unlikely. The more unusual the situation, the better. Have the girl fall out of a tree into a pond where your hero bathes unclothed. (Maybe someone else already did that.) Have them, two strangers, be discovered in a dark room alone and be obliged to marry. Have one crawl into the other’s bed by mistake during a thunderstorm at a house party.
Make sure they hate each other on sight, or, conversely, fall in love on sight and fight the mutual attraction through 75% of the book. It’s typical to have them consumate the relationship halfway through the book but — you are the author! — you can have them, somehow, engaged in sexual intercourse on the first page if it leads only to confusion and keeps them apart for another two hundred pages. Because that’s the whole plot: one thing after another keeps them out of each other’s arms. Choose from below:
- They love each other but won’t admit it.
- She gets kidnapped.
- He gets bonked on the head and gets amnesia.
- They are about to confess/make love/blurt out the truth but are interrupted by one crises after another.
- They endlessly misunderstand each other.
- One of them is convinced the other is in love with someone else.
Me? I’m really tired of kidnappings, so please skip that plot device when you write your romance.
For additional interest throw in a haughty mother-in-law, a younger brother begging for money from the new bride, a jealous ex-mistress, murder attempts by the next-in-line for the dukedom, a ghost, or a mysterious bequest. Just find some way to keep the lovers apart for almost all of the book while simultaneously maintaining enough tension to keep the reader interested. It should be easy. After all, I’ve given you all these prompts and told you what’s essential.
Even if I can’t write one of these, it’s only a romance novel.
It’ll be a piece of cake.
Let me know when you’re done. I’ve got my fork and I’m ready for another book.
*And aren’t all families equally old? But we all know what this means, so I won’t belabor the point further.