Monday, November 11, 2013

Wordcraft -- Romance writing with a side of mayhem

There are as many kinds of romance writing as there are writers--or readers. And last weekend’s Readers & ’ritas conference in Allen, Texas, brought out so many, I had to make some difficult decisions in picking which discussions to attend.

One that made the list was the “50 Shades of Mystery” panel featuring authors with styles as different as Diane Kelly’s relatively light-hearted Death and Taxes series, Mary Burton’s law enforcement thrillers, Kay Thomas’s Elite Ops military-flavored series, and Dianna Love’s terrorist hunting operatives. The covers for their books feature guns, bullet holes, and fully-clothed characters (with maybe a bare shoulder or so). And they do believe in doing their background work, from the Writers Police Academy; to citizen police academies, to trying on the ever-present Kevlar vests. And talking a lot to experts.

So what, exactly, does it take to write a story that qualifies as “romantic suspense”? And how much suspense/thriller/mystery gets added to the mix? And given the usually slender page counts for series romances, how much room does a writer have to deal with multiple plot complications.

To a great extent, panelists agreed, the answers depend on the which publisher--and which line of that publisher--the author is writing for.

“We talk a lot about the percentage,” Thomas said. “It’s fifty percent suspense, fifty percent romance for some lines,” with other publishers looking for as little as twenty percent or as much as eighty percent of the plot to come from suspense elements. Although Romance Writers of America’s criteria for awarding awards requires the love story to be the main focus, sometimes the suspense is dominant bookstores don’t even shelve the volumes in their romance sections, as Kelly says happens to hers.

And Love and Thomas are tending toward single title books rather than series, to allow for more complicated plots. “My newest is 110,000 words,” Love said. “I write what I
enjoy and I like really big.” (Compare that to the Romance Writers of America guidelines for “traditional romance” with word counts topping out at 60,000.)

How hard is it to do to the technical research for suspense writing, a reader asked. “The research can really fuel your writing,” answered Burton, who recommends the Writers’ Police Academy, to be held next fall in Jamestown, N.C. And all panelists agreed on the need to check facts with experts.

“People are so willing to be helpful,” Thomas said, adding that she’s also lucky to have a homicide detective as a family friend.

“It helps if they know you,” Burton agreed, and especially if the interviews are done in person, “because honestly,” she admits, “if you just email, your questions will sound kind of creepy.”

Face to face interviews can also bring out information a writer may not think to ask questions about, Kelly noted.

Just how much of the facts she gathers does a writer need to put into her books?
“Sometimes you can’t be technically correct but you have to do enough to draw the reader in,” Burton said. “Too much information is a huge temptation.”
“It’s a balancing act,“ Kelley said. “What do you owe your sources and what do you owe your readers? I would never make (my sources) look bad, but as a writer I have to do what it takes to entertain a reader.”

Readers & ’ritas is a program of Fresh Fiction, the brain child of mother-daughter book reviewers Sara and Gwen Reyes. See Fresh Fiction events and featured authors, at

For information about the Writers’ Police Academy, which usually sells out quickly, see

(Next Monday--romancing the paranormal, another facet of the Readers & ’ritas conference.)

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