Jumping In and Out of Boxes

I always did love a great romance. I like them just as straight romances, but truthfully I’ve always craved something more. Being, for most of my childhood, the only girl among a bunch of boys, I always found jeans better than flouncy skirts and a hike through the woods or a night skating on the ice lots more fun than dressing up in the vintage clothes my my girlfriend’s attic.

Going to a movie meant cowboys, Indians, or creatures from black lagoons and far away planets. My reading fiction was filled with drama from ancient times and mystery and suspense. Daphne du Maurier was a favorite. And I remember Lorna Doone and King Solomon’s Mines which had been written long before my adolescence, but were the stories that first completely encompassed me to the point where I forgot even the bed beneath me as I read.

One scandalous mistake…
And she’s caught in a sea battle
Off the Coast of France…

So that was what I wanted to write. But full of earth-shaking, heart-wrenching romance, too. Too bad for me. Nobody wanted to buy it. “Too hard to slot,” was what a certain male editor told me years ago when I sent him my Early Victorian Romantic Suspense Adventure. It was called A Tiger Purring, and he lied when he said it showed promise for future stories. But it was still the kind of story I really wanted to write.

I think I’ve written some straight historical romances. Mostly, that is. But Every one I can think of has crossed the line into another genre at least a little bit. Some. of course, we expect to have other elements, like the Westerns- they’ve got to have adventure. Regencies and comedy are always a great match. But for a number of years, the “Rules”, a.k.a. “what sells”, were severely limited. The historical genre became fixated on England to the point where the hero and heroine almost didn’t dare set foot on a boat in the English Channel. And heaven forbid that either of them might not be English. Regencies, of course were not supposed to have any sex in them, and even when I re-wrote mine without the sex, I was told they were too steamy. So I’ve been out of the box for the last sixteen years, no matter what I tried.

“But I though
t I could trust him…”

But now, I think the boxes are opening up (please understand I’m not sure about anything contemporary since I only read that when a friend writes it and have never written it.) It seems to me the book that cracked open the door to Paranormal Historical was Karen Harbaugh’s The Vampire Viscount. I remember a conversation with her editor Hilary Ross who told me she’d told Karen, “don’t expect it to sell because Regency readers want their Regencies to be Regencies.” She told me how shocked she was that the book flew off the shelves and went into a second printing when Regencies almost never went to a second round.

Maybe the traditional Regency had to die, as far as major publishers were concerned, before things could open up- I’m not sure. But the Historical has really changed in the last few years. True, a lot still follow the standard plot and conventions, with only a sprinkling of a suspense or adventure plot. But there are series in which multiple heroes are involved with the heroine. There are seriously heavy paranormals full of vampires and werewolves, dragons and demons. Some writers are attempting to stretch the constricting bands of adventure and head for foreign soil or find heavy involvement in traditionally male fictional activity, like smuggling and battles, or politics, although adventure seems for some reason to catch far less reflective shine than paranormal stories. After all, pirates are not exactly new stuff in fiction.

The difficulty is still how to catch the editors eye and lure her into your world. Your lure has to be pretty shiny, and gleam like none she’s ever seen before. You need a shiny new hook. Instead of yellow feathers and bright red paint, all of which are discouragingly familiar to her, you need something she’s never seen on a lure before. Baubles. Bangles. Beads. Translucent whrly-gigs that spin in the water and catch even the gleam from distant stars to reflect into her eyes.

When you’re attempting to cross genre boundaries in Historicals, you’re still running a risk. But it’s a little easier now- or a little harder, depending on your perspective. The thing is, the mix you’re making is itself the risk, but it’s also your hook. When you’re laying out your concept to the editor, the wheels in her head are spinning and the question she’s posing to herself is, how intriguing is this concept? Can she make it play into a whole story without losing that basic lure?

If you’ve just told her your hero is a werewolf-vampire who spends his moonlight hours as a fry cook working for his abusive demon step-father, I think you’ve lost her. That’s just a bunch of hooky elements strung together, but in a way the de-sizzled all of them. What are you missing? hold on, I think I’ve said this before. There is, in fact, nothing new in any of what I’m saying, as you can see in these old re-colored engravings. Same old ideas, but making them new.

Your story needs what all stories need, goal, motivation and conflict. When you’re mixing a romance with a traditionally male genre such as adventure, science fiction or mystery, you may have a good, easily discernible dividing line between the two. Romance tends to be told more in terms of internal conflict, while adventurous genres tend to have more external plot lines. Not entirely, for either of them, but focus tends to be that way.

“Come to me, John Wall”

In my current WIP, my heroine has escaped from Napoleonic France where her secret politics made her a criminal. The last thing she wants to do is go back there. So obviously, what’s going to happen? She has to go back and risk her life. Although that’s an emotional thing- her life is threatened, that’s really external plot. It’s the adventure and the suspense all rolled into one. But on a romantic level, the man who rescued her is her exact opposite. She is everything he detests, but he has so recently been jilted by the “perfect woman” that he’s in no mood at all to allow her any room. She’d like to hate him, but it’s just not working out that way (the romance plot) and she doesn’t dare tell him the real truth, because of the external plot. And so the two plots tangle back and forth, each enriching the other.

“Fire on my home town, will you? Take that!”

I’ve done a lot of the same thing in my medieval paranormal, juxtaposing the strongly male warrior plot with the female emotional tangle. And by thinking of them as male and female, I’m having an easier time of making them intertwine efffectively.

And not only has that been effective for the plot line, it’s helped in my decription to editors, who love the contrast of elements.

Well, we’ll see if it works when it comes time to actually sell the stories.


Jumping In and Out of Boxes — 1 Comment

  1. Fry cooks are hooky? My XY cook will be so pleased 🙂 I like the image of jumping in and out of boxes. Like a cat. Pupils blown wide and muscles twitching. Watch out, editor.

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