Friday, May 20, 2011

A Date With Kate - It's All About the Differences

May is the birthday month for myself and my eldest sister.  Last Saturday I celebrated my birthday with a day trip to York, afternoon tea in Bettys Tearooms, a bit of self-indulgent shopping and time with my family. After a couple of difficult months it was a lovely time specially as the sun shone all day.
In a week’s time my sister will celebrate her birthday, literally on the other side of the world – she lives in Tasmania.  There it will be heading into autumn, not Spring. Her weather will be becoming cooler as our weather here in the UK becomes warmer with each day. She is of course older than me and her life has taken a very  different path – she worked in hospitals and has lived in Canada as well as Australia. But if we were together, which is all too rare an occasion these days, no one would doubt that we were sisters. We share a sense of humour, a love of reading, swimming and cats. We have similar colouring, though I am several inches taller, and  of course we share many memories from when we were growing up.   
But if you met the men we married, you’d start to see some of the differences between us.   They’re both Alpha males of course - driven,  successful in their own fields.  But very different fields. Many of you have met the Babe Magnet, either in his role as a lecturer in English and Creative Writing or as the author of the true crime etc books that I label the Grim and Gruesome. My sister is married to an ecological engineer, a scientist – who is several years younger than me and I’m nine years younger than my sister.  And it’s there that, as a writer of romances, I can see where the story lies.  I think it’s a difference that’s particularly important when it comes to creating your heroines when you’re writing their romances.

I read manuscripts for the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s New Writers’ Scheme. I also  - as I’m sure you know – teach regular courses or long weekends (Fishguard Writers’ And Artists’ weekends, Caerleon Writers’ Holidays)  and i have the prospect of another residential course coming up.    One of the things I've been looking at to prepare for these is a list of the most common mistakes that  beginners make when writing romance.  And one of those - together with thoughts about myself and my sister - is what has sparked off this blog.  Because for me a romance is all about the characters - it's the characters who make the story, the characters who create the plot, build the conflict, move the events along . And finally, in  the very best romances it's the characters who bring about the resolution and the happy end as they dig deep inside themselves and  find what is needed to deal with the hurt, the arguments, the distances that have come between them.

But all too often I find that the characters -  particularly the heroines - are all but interchangeable.  They might have short dark hair or a long blonde mane,  blue, green or grey eyes. They can be  five foot nothing or a tall, statuesque  amazon - but  there is such a sameness about them that they might be  pasted on to a series of jigsaw puzzle pieces the same size and shape ready to slot into a hole to turn it into a whole.

I've been thinking about writers who create really good characters - particularly good heroines - and the first one who springs to mind is Liz Fielding.  Liz’s Trading Places duet even features two heroines so alike they can pass for each other  when the paparazzi come after them. But no reader could ever mistake  Lady Annie for Lydia – and certainly not their heroes. Because it’s the differences in these two women that grabs the attention of their heroes and makes him fall in love with her. Not her lookalike.    And one of Liz’s most memorable heroines is Matty Lang in The Marriage Miracle   who might  be wheelchair  bound – but that certainly isn’t  all that you remember about her. The women who appear in the books of Jessica Hart, Anne McAllister, Nicola Cornick, all  have a unique quality about them that make it obvious why their particular heroes fall madly in love with them.

What do I feel is a ‘jigsaw puzzle’ heroine?  Unfortunately she’s almost always blonde, often a waitress,  usually a virgin – if she’s not then she’s given birth to the hero’s ‘secret child’  but never told him (why not?).  She has no family -  they’ve probably been killed in car crash (the roads in Romance Land are terribly dangerous and the death rate on them is huge)  and she usually spends huge chunks of the book confiding in her flatmate about the hero she’s just met and how he can’t possibly want her while the flatmate regales her with stories of the hero’s endless love affairs and the women whose hearts he’s broken.  And the problem is that if she does have a sister then they are often so interchangeable that  I have no idea why the hero would choose one or the other – unless of course they are that other clich√© the ‘good twin’ and ‘bad twin’.

Going back to my sister and myself – and those two alpha heroes who share our lives, they are so very very different from each other that it’s as if, in the jigsaw of our lives, my piece can connect up with my sister’s but our husbands’  can only connect with their partner. They might have some points of contact and empathy  - but there are strong parts of the other’s personalities that stops them from being a perfect fit.  The links are made  from shared pasts, interests,  beliefs, hobbies, family connections . . . And it's those that make one of us right for someone and not for the other.  It’s the differences that make us right for each other -  so right that we have clocked up well over a half century of marriage between the two couples.

In July I’ll be teaching again, and it’s coming up to the time when the RNA’s New Writers’ Scheme manuscripts will start to arrive. I’ll be hoping to find someone who can really write, someone who has a true chance of  succeeding  in the difficult business of writing romance. And I’ll be cheering when I discover a heroine who isn’t a  jigsaw puzzle, one size fits all sort of character.

I’m always quoting the one best piece of advice on writing I was once given but a Senior Editor at HMB – Keep it simple; dig deep.’  And I’d love to see more writers digging really deep with their heroines. A one armed, black-haired,  brown-eyed, circus performer who’s been married twice . . .? A six foot tall, desperately short sighted, bald, tattooed mother of six .. . ? Well, yes – if you can also create the man who  had been looking for her all his life and would truly love her as she is.  Because when I’m reading a romance – as a reader rather than as  a writer or a teacher  - that’s what I want to see. A couple who seem to have been made for each other.  A hero and heroine where I can be convinced that they are the ones who can make each other happy and stay that way for the long time that it takes to create a happy ever after.   A heroine who completes the  hero’s ‘jigsaw’ and vice versa. I want to see why this particular hero fall in love – and stays in love – with this particular heroine.

Lizzy  Bennett and Mr Darcy. Jane Eyre and Rochester.  Antony and Cleopatra.  Westley and Buttercup (in the Princess Bride). You can’t think of one without the other – and you can’t imagine any of them with any of the other heroes or heroines – Buttercup and Mr Darcy?  Jane Eyre and Westley?  (Hmmm -  now those might spark off stories where I could try and make them work.) Those are the sort of couples I want to read about.  

(And no, I’m not including  Cathy and Heathcliff  because I don’t believe that was ever a true love story – if you want to know why, come back in September  when I’ll be talking about reworking this particular classic and the problems involved in it.)

So what about you? Who are your favourite  romantic heroines – the ones who aren’t just ‘jigsaw pieces’?  Which authors write really great, memorable, different heroines? Which romantic couples do you think were made to fit together – and only with each other? Which ones really work for you? I’d love to know.

Kate's latest release is The Proud Wife which spent 3 weeks as the #1 bestseller on the Mills and Boon web site in March and is now available as a Presents Extra in America. Her  March 2010 title The Konstantos  Marriage Demand has just been awarded Best Presents Extra 2010 by Romantic Times Magazine.     And if you missed getting a copy of Spanish Billionaire, Innocent Wife, then that is currently reissued in One Night in Madrid, a  3 in 1 collection.

Her next book, part of the The Powerful and the Pure mini series -  The Return of The Stranger has just been scheduled for September 2011.(That’s the one that is inspired by Wuthering Heights.)

You can get all Kate's news and read the latest updates over on her web site or her blog.


  1. Brilliant post, Kate. I am reading a romance at the moment and the male lead is awful and the female as wet as july! he is so moody that he is just a pain in the bum and any right minded woman would dump him like a hot brick. i love a good romance, the exoctic locations can be as unlikey as the author cares to make it but the characters have to be real.
    keep this stuff coming :)

  2. Hi Kate,

    Thanks for sharing a lovely post. I love all romance stories so wouldn't be able to point out a particular book or author!

  3. Hi Judith I'm glad my blog spoke to you. The exotic locations, wealth etc are what I call the 'trappings' and a romance stands or falls by its characters. We can all suspend some disbelief over some things but for my money we do need to see just why A would fall in love with B!

  4. Hi Nas - thank you too. I'm glad you enjoy so many romances. The characters must work for you in the ones you read. I hope you continue to find lots of great stories to read.

  5. I just read Savas' Defiant Mistress by Anne McAllister and loved her heroine Neely. Her menagerie of pets and her desire for home and lasting love, after moving from place to place in her childhood, made her the perfect fit and challenge for a guy who'd lost all faith in anything permanant.

  6. Hi Summer - That's exactly the sort of thing I'm talking about, Summer! I loved that book too - and one of the main reasons I did was because of Neely and her menagerie. I could just imagine her hero being confronted by that lot!