Thursday, September 25, 2008

Thursday Talk-Time: Writing Romance Around the World

A huge welcome to Jessica Hart, who is celebrating a huge milestone these days - her 50th book with Mills and Boon!

Not that long ago I was at the RWA conference in San Francisco, presenting a workshop with Barbara Hannay and Barbara McMahon on writing romance with global appeal. We argued that if you want to write a romance that will resonate with readers around the world, you need to start with the emotional tension between the hero and the heroine. And that’s true, of course … it’s just that when I started to think about it, I realised that while it’s what I say, it’s not in fact what I do.

When I start a book, more often than not I begin with the setting. Where are my hero and heroine going to be? In a London office? On a tropical beach? In the Outback? Knowing where they are gives me a sense of who they are. Why are they there? Do they want to be there or not? And if not, why do they stay there? I use these kind of why/why not questions to build up their back story and discover just what it is that has brought the two of them to that particular place and what, more importantly, is going to keep them there. Both hero and heroine need a good reason why they can’t leave so that the setting keeps them together while the emotional tension between them keeps them apart.

For me, the setting is critical in all of this. I don’t always describe it in any great detail, especially not if the story is set in England, where I live, but I still need to have a very clear idea myself of exactly where characters are and what they’re doing. And it’s much more fun to write stories set in other countries so that I can relive the experience of being there. I’m a frustrated travel writer, I suspect, and when I started writing romance my manuscripts used to come back with red pencil through all lyrical descriptions of place (yes, it was back in the days when we were still submitting hard copies – it feels like a different age now!) I soon learnt that the only way I could sneak in a description was if the setting reflected the heroine’s experience in some way. In other words, as she falls in love with the hero, so her feelings about the place she finds herself in change. This is what happens to Meredith in Outback Boss, City Bride, for instance. She’s a city girl who hates the outback when she first arrives, but she comes to love it just as she comes to love Hal.

I like to take my characters especially my heroine - out of their comfort zones and put them somewhere they don’t belong. In Newlyweds of Convenience Mallory finds herself in the Scottish Highlands, and the (to her) alien setting forces her to change the way she thinks not just about Torr but about herself. I’ve just finished writing a book called Honeymoon with the Boss, where the idyllic island setting makes the workaholic hero, Tom, think about what he really feels for the first time. That, by the way, was a lovely book to write during this miserable summer we’ve had here in the UK. When the rain was streaking my window on yet another grey, dreary day I could escape to the Maldives, even if it was only in my imagination.

Honeymoon with the Boss was the first book I’ve set somewhere I haven’t actually been, and I do feel as if I’ve cheated a little bit, but I’ve got wonderful memories of basking in other lagoons, snorkelling along reefs and listening to the insects rasp in the tropical darkness so I’m hoping that counts! The important thing is that when Imogen digs her toes into the white sand and sighs with happiness, I know exactly what she’s smelling and hearing and seeing ...

I love writing stores with exotic settings – it’s a fabulous way of revisiting places I’ve travelled over the years. I was born in Ghana, and my father’s job meant that we spent quite a lot of time overseas when I was a child. My earliest memories are of Africa, and we went to Australia and Papua New Guinea, and later to Oman, where I first fell in love with the desert. It all left me with itchy feet that meant my early ‘career’ was little more than a random series of jobs that took me where wanted to go – and provided settings for many of my stories! So I cooked on an outback cattle station in north west Queensland (Woman at Willagong Creek and many others), taught English in Indonesia (A Sensible Wife), and was PA/interpreter on an expedition in Cameroon (The Trouble with Love) In between I took lowly temporary jobs so that the moment I’d earned enough for my ticket I could take off to places like Belize and Algeria, Egypt and Kenya, Greece and Jordan … cue nostalgic sigh!

Earlier this year I was wondering what I could do to celebrate the publication of my 50th book, Last-Minute Proposal, this October. When I started to think about what was really important to me about the way I write, I ended up with the tag line, Writing Romance Around the World. To me, this reflects not just the different settings I’ve used, that are based on my own experiences, but also the many different countries where Harlequin Romances are read. The global appeal of romance never fails to amaze and move me, and I love hearing from readers from all around the world. My absolute favourite part of my 50th book celebrations has been the Where in the world are you? page The map and the flags have registered every time someone clicks on the page from a new country. I was hoping we’d get to 50 countries before October and as I write we’re on 58, including some countries, like Libya, Thailand, Iran, Vietnam and the Ukraine where I had no idea my books were even available! I love the idea that I’m sitting here in York making connections with women who live different lives in different countries through the stories I write, so if you live somewhere exciting and can register a new country, have a click, do, and maybe we’ll get up to 60 countries before Last-Minute Proposal hits the shelves!

Are settings important to you? Tropical islands, Mediterranean beaches, deserts, the outback, ranches, exciting cities, quiet country villages or any of the wonderful settings in between … which appeal to you most? A copy of Last-Minute Proposal (plus fabulous Jessica Hart tote bag – gasp!) is up for grabs – I’ll do a lucky dip from the posts!

Thank you Jessica for such an amazing post...anyone else logging on to expedia right now?

And here's a look at the cover of Jessica's 5oth book...congratulations on such a fantastic milestone - but the true winners are your readers, who get to enjoy your books so very much!


  1. I think settings are very important. For me it is more of the description of the setting that I want. I love a great description because it makes me feel like I'm really there. I like when a book is so good at painting a picture that you find yourself thrown into that world, your are at that point in time part of that story.

  2. I agree with you Rebekah. However,
    I've never been for instance to Australia so when I read one of Annie West's or Trish Morey's books I feel like I've been there. Trish Wylie takes her readers to Ireland and all over the world, the same as Kate, Abby and the rest of you who write and entertain us. That's means a lot to me as a reader. Thanks.

    Very nice post Jessica and congrats on your 50th book!

  3. When I am engrossed within a story I can picture the setting which has been vividly described. I enjoy reading about the locale which I find appealing and new. It can be a lovely area in Italy, or perhaps a beautiful countryside in England. Wherever it is I enjoy the scene and hope to travel there someday.

  4. I'm delighted to hear that I'm not the only one with a taste for armchair travelling! I'll never forget spending a lonely week in Singapore in 1984, and reading 'Devil Within', by Catherine George. It was set in Brazil and I could picture it all so clearly. Strictly speaking, I've never been to South America ... but thanks to Catherine, I feel as if I have!

    I have books (and bags) to spare, so if any of you ladies who have posted would like one, email me at to let me know your address and I'll put one in the post to you next week ...

  5. Reading gives me such pleasure and especially so when it involves a setting that I can picture. Imagining having the opportunity to experience that place and the story has provided me with so much enjoyment.

  6. Jessica,

    Congrats on your 50th!! What an accomplishment. I recognize the itchy feet having grown up the daughter of a teacher for American military kids and living in Holland, Sicily, Spain, Germany, Turkey and the Philippines and traveling the globe on holidays.

    I think the setting is important and one of the facets that allow us to dive into a book and enjoy that alternate universe!

  7. Settings are really important to me, too, Jessica. A sense of place really grounds things for me - but, as you say, it needs to reflect on the relationship rather than being a travelogue.

    I have to admit to being an armchair traveller. I've never been to Chile (but one of my best friends did the trek I describe in WHERE THE HEART IS, and I grilled her mercilessly!).