The previous four interviews in this series have been with people who were kind and generous enough to help me out with research for The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction, but this one is a little different, though still the result of kindness and generosity on the part of a talented novelist.
On March 23 I wrote a post here entitled DON’T BE A SNOOBY READER (LIKE ME) or HOW ANDY GIBB MADE ME WANT TO READ A ROMANCE NOVEL in which I accused myself of dismissing the romance genre in the same way I had seen fantasy, and specifically sword & sorcery or tie-in fantasy, dismissed by others. You’ll have to click back and read that original post to figure out what Andy Gibb could possibly have to do with all that, but the upshot was that I made a promise on these digital pages to actually read a romance novel with an eye toward how these genres are the same, and how neither should be summarily dismissed.
By May 18 I’d settled, more or less at random, on the Harlequin novel At the Sheikh’s Bidding by British author Chantelle Shaw, and again made a promise here to read it. I kept that promise, read it cover to cover, and was delighted by it. The story is terrific, some of the “action” really made me blush (he said, politely), and I think I get it.
But that wasn’t enough for me, I had to track down Ms. Shaw through the good folks at Harlequin, and ask a few questions. I think her answers shed some light not just on the romance genre and the romance publishing business, but how closely related that genre is to fantasy and science fiction, and how many experiences authors of those genres share in common.
Philip Athans: In interviewing science fiction and fantasy authors for The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, I asked authors to define the SF/fantasy genres in 25 words or less. Please indulge me with a definition of “romance” in twenty-five words or less.
Chantelle Shaw: The emotional journey taken by two people as their feelings for each other develop into a love that will last a lifetime.
Athans: In the bio printed in At the Sheikh’s Bidding, it says you began reading Harlequin novels as a teenager. You started your career as an author of romance novels as a reader of romance novels. Could you imagine writing for Harlequin, or any other romance novel publisher, without first having that experience as a reader/fan?
Shaw: No, I think you have to read first to learn how to write. I read many different genres but loved romance novels, particularly Harlequin Mills and Boon romances best. Knowing what I liked to read meant that I knew what I wanted to try and write.
Athans: As an editor and author of shared-world fantasy, I’m curious about Harlequin’s approach. What parameters, if any, are you given before you begin writing a novel like At the Sheikh’s Bidding, both physical (a target word or page count, etc.) and creative (content standards, or relative level of “sauciness,” and so on)?
Shaw: I write for the Harlequin Mills & Boon Modern/Presents line (released as Modern in the UK and Presents in the US) which specifies a word count of 50,000-55,000 words. [NOTE: The US edition of At the Sheikh’s Bidding weighs in at 192 total pages, including front matter and ads.] The stories should be character driven, with an interesting plot and most importantly a developing relationship between a hero and heroine who usually have to overcome problems that keep them apart, but they gradually realize that they love each other. A happy ending is a must, but shouldn’t be twee, and the characters should have believable motivations for acting the way they do. In the Modern/Presents line the hero and heroine’s relationship is usually physical as well as emotional. Sex can be described in a fair amount of detail, but should be part of the developing romance—not just bunged in because the book seems a bit flat! There is guidance from editorial on content, but I truly believe you have to read many books from the line you want to write for to understand what readers want.
Athans: Is there a particular source for ideas you find yourself going back to? Current events, history, your own life, etc.? And to what degree does your editor influence that? For instance, are you assigned to write a book set in, say, Victorian England, or that deals with a custody dispute, etc.?
Shaw: The Modern/Presents books are contemporary romances, with strong Alpha males—by that I mean that they are leaders; powerful, intelligent, handsome, and successful. The heroines can be plain or beautiful, rich or poor, but they are strong, independent 21st century women. Harlequin publishes many other types of romances in different lines, such as Historical, Medical, and Nocturne. [Harlequin’s fantasy romance line] Ideas for my books often come from current events—a newspaper or magazine article that triggers an idea. Editorial sometimes suggest an idea for a plot, but mainly my books have been my own ideas and definitely my own characters.
Athans: How careful are you that your novels that take on real world issues—such as the East-West culture clash in the Middle East, which you touched upon in At the Sheikh’s Bidding—have a particular political point of view, either liberal or conservative, or are you careful not to take sides?
Shaw: I don’t feel it is my job to take sides or make judgments. I just try to write good romance stories with believable characters who the reader cares about.
Athans: I’m of the strong opinion that it’s the villain that drives the plot of fantasy and science fiction novels, what is the role of the villain/antagonist in a romance novel? Is a “villain” in the classic sense of the term even necessary in a romance novel?
Shaw: There is not really a villain in the type of romance books I write. The books focus almost exclusively on the relationship between the hero and heroine. There is always conflict between the two, not just them arguing for the sake of it, but well motivated reasons why they can’t fall in love and live happily every after in chapter 1. The books focus on how these two people resolve the problems that are keeping them apart.
Athans: More than one of the authors I’ve worked with in shared world fantasy have had people ask them, “When are you going to write a real book?” Have you been confronted with that attitude, and if so, how do you respond to that sort of oblique criticism?
Shaw: It has happened a few times, but the romance genre, and Harlequin in particular, have had very positive publicity recently. It seems that in times of financial crisis romance novels sell particularly well. I just quote my sales figures!
The attitude that I don’t write ‘real’ books can be annoying, but I feel that anyone who says it is not and probably never will be a published writer because those of us who are—in every genre—know that our books are written from the heart. We live and breathe with our characters and believe absolutely in the story we are telling. My characters are completely real to me; I see them and hear them—usually at 3 a.m, and I think all ‘real’ writers understand that feeling. Although there are certain types of book I don’t read—anything with death and violence is not for me, I still respect the writers of those books, I know they will have spent hours doing research, struggled with plot twists, and been frustrated with characters who won’t do as they’re told!
Athans: Ultimately, any good novel should be about people, and people are inherently “romantic” creatures in that we’re drawn to each other and into and out of relationships, so any good fiction should have some romantic elements. Do you have any advice for authors of other genres, from science fiction to mystery, on how to nurture compelling romantic and sexual relationships for their characters?
Shaw: I think your characters have to be absolutely real to you, the writer, so that they can be believable to the reader. The writer has to be the characters, to live inside their heads and then show their emotions through actions and dialogue. I write giving the points of view of both my hero and heroine so that the reader knows what both are thinking and feeling. Some writers find it difficult to write ‘sex scenes’, but I don’t think of it in terms of actions, but in what the characters are feeling—it’s more important to show what is going on inside their heads rather that what they are actually doing in bed. Sure, there can be description of what is happening, but in Harlequin romances sex is part of a loving relationship—even if the characters don’t realize they love each other yet.
Athans: Research tends to be either a joy or a terror for authors. How much research do you do into settings, cultures, current events, psychology, sex—anything and everything—and how do you balance research (thinking about your book) with inspiration (writing your book)?
Shaw: When I have a rough plan for a book I do a fair amount of research on the place it is going to be set, which would include the culture of the country. I recently wrote a book—Argentinian Playboy, Unexpected Love-child—in which the hero was an Argentinian polo player. I’ve never been to Argentina and knew nothing about polo or horse riding in general. Thanks to the internet I now know quite a lot! I probably do too much research—it’s rather addictive—but I like to have some knowledge of my subject and then give a flavour in the book rather than overload the reader with facts.
Athans: How would you define the “typical” romance reader, not just gender, age, and that sort of demographic information, but in terms of their expectations and desires. Why does a romance reader read romance?
Shaw: I think romance readers are mainly women, although certainly romances are read by men, particularly in India from the research I’ve seen. There are also a couple of male writers who write romances for Harlequin, but under female pseudonyms. Women of all ages and all walks of life enjoy romance novels. I think this is because the books are intense, emotional and take the reader away from everyday life. Of course the books are fantasies—otherwise Greece would be bursting with gorgeous billionaires! [NOTE: See, women just can’t resist those Greek men!] But the stories deal with real life issues and emotions that touch all of us. Critics argue that happy ever after love stories have nothing to do with real life, but I think a lasting, loving relationship is something many of us aspire to. Romances have a feel-good factor that leave the reader feeling uplifted—that’s what I want from books I read, and it is what I try to give the people who read my books.
Thank you, Chantelle Shaw, and here’s to a happily-ever-after life for genre authors everywhere!