Friday, February 24, 2012

Why I write romance

Some time ago during a blog interview I was asked why I wrote romance. The question came back a few days ago when a relative, after snubbing the genre, proceeded to ask me why I wrote romance. Here is my journey:

I read my first romance novel when I was ten years old. It was a Mills and Boon. At that time, my mother called them “dirty books” and forbade me to read them. I hid in the bathroom, under the bed; I climbed the Guinup tree and read it. Just before I got to the end of the book, one of my siblings ratted me out. My mother confiscated it. That was the end of that book, but it left me enthralled with romance novels.

The heroine in that Mills and Boon was tall and astoundingly beautiful with long straight hair and alabaster skin. The hero was tall and handsome with the body of a Greek god, and unbelievably rich. Those heroes looked nothing like me. They didn’t resemble my parents who were both of African descent. My father was less than six feet and my mother was only four feet ten inches and quite rotund. Most of all we were struggling to put food on the table. But that didn’t matter. The book transformed me to another world where all was perfect and beautiful women fell in love with wealthy handsome men.

By my early teens I voraciously read Sweet Dreams Romance and Sweet Valley High novels. The heroines were constantly compared to Carly Simon and Brooke Shields. I didn’t even know who those celebrities were; I just knew they were tall and beautiful… and they didn’t look like me. Of course when I wrote my first romance novel at the age of fifteen (unpublished and now lost forever), the heroine was tall and graceful with long legs, had long straight hair and creamy white skin. The hero was over six feet tall, exotically handsome and wealthy beyond the imagination. By that time I was into Danielle Steele romance.

I devoured Danielle Steele’s wealthy uncommonly beautiful characters: the slim shapely figure type, the long shapely legs, long straight shiny hair. I followed the characters as they traipsed from New York City and California to London, Rome, Paris, Nice, Greece, Italy, all the places I knew I could never afford to go. There were so many royal characters and moguls who presided over mega business empires. Again the common thread: none of these people resembled me.

Finally, in my late teens to early twenties I began to ask, “Don’t poor people fall in love? Don’t black people fall in love?” You see, before then, I had never read or even seen an African American romance. In the books I read, the characters were all upper middle class to rich and if they weren’t, they fell in love with the wealthy heir. Tired of the titled, the wealthy, and the overly beautiful falling in love, I stopped reading romance and devoured mysteries and suspense novels.

Then I discovered Arabesque romance. I read a few, and the lead characters were African American. But again the overly beautiful, the upper middle class dominated. The men always seemed to have some wealth whether it was self made or inherited. It seemed as if the average person did not fall in love. In fact, with the exception of having milk chocolate skin (for females) and coffee cream (for males) the characters could have been the same as any other mainstream romance I had read.

That’s when I decided this world needed more romance that reflected the average person. That’s where Tamara Fontaine, the heroine of “A Marriage of Convenience”, came in. I made Tamara short (originally 5’ 2” but later by the urging of the editor I added two inches to her height). I made Tamara overweight. Not “big boned” as some like to put it, but fat – over two hundred pounds of fat. And I made her jobless, the victim of a recession and corporate downsizing. She struggled financially, she struggled with her self image, she struggled with her weight. However, Tamara grows during the story and blossoms into a confident woman. Yes she falls in love with a very handsome larger than life, accomplished man (I have to leave some room for fantasy) and she does get the man. But somewhere in the story you stop seeing Tamara as a fat short woman. You see her as beautiful and sexy because you begin to see the inside, the wonderful personality and you are rooting for her to get her man.

Many reviewers of the book expressed their appreciation for a heroine that is not the stereotypical model thin or ultra rich. The most common comment I hear from readers is that they can identify with the characters. Tamara embodied the average person.

So to get back to that question, “why do I write romance?” Well, we all need a dream. We need heroes and heroines that look like us, feel like us and go through some of the struggles we are going through. Are all my heroines short and overweight? No. But they are average people who are underrepresented in the romance genre. There are enough writers writing about princes and dukes and wealthy people. Those who struggle financially, those who are not tall and ultra slim and overly beautiful need a happy ever after (HEA) too. That’s why I write romance. To give the average woman (and man) her (his) HEA.

Why do you write your genre? Did you pick your genre or did your genre pick you?


Charles Gramlich said...

Many people seem to want to sneer at certain types of writing. Most of them have never tried writing themselves and have no idea how hard it is to tell an interesting story that will keep someone turning the pages. And that's in every genre. I've known several romance authors over the years, and have seen how hard they work, and have read and enjoyed their books. Thanks for telling us your story.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Thanks Charles. It's interesting that Romance novels out sell every other genre and yet so many people sneer at it. I've had folks who asked me why would a scientist write romance or suggest that I write sci-fi or some other more "serious" genre. I think there is a disconnect between some people's impression of the genre and the wide appeal it has.

Liane Spicer said...

Great post, Jewel. I used to devour Mills and Boons as a teenager but had stopped reading romance for many years before I heard about Arabesque and decided my first novel would be one of those. My friends and I used to bemoan the fact that people of colour were not represented in the genre; I wanted to contribute to what I saw as a welcome and long overdue development.

I write in several genres but as a former literature teacher I still feel somewhat apologetic about writing romance. There's a lot of bias out there. I'm getting to the stage though where other people's opinions don't affect me the way they used to. Reader reviews help, like the one that said she wasn't a romance reader until she read my book. That's all the endorsement I need.

Jodi Ashland said...

I read my first book for pleasure in my early twenties. Nora Roberts had me hooked on romance from that point on. I'm also an action movie junkie, so when I started writing novels it was natural for me to write Romantic Suspense. I love reading and writing mysteries and suspense with romance and HEA.

Thanks for sharing!


Jewel Amethyst said...

Liane, I think I mentioned earlier that I began writing romance using a semi-pseudonym because I wanted to keep my identities separate. One of the reason is the bias out there against romance writers. Another is that as a professional people take you less seriously if you write romance.

The thing is, once you are happy in writing what you write, it doesn't matter what a few out of touch people think. When I finally revealed to my family (most of them) that I was a published romance author, they were actually proud of it.

There is now a lot more AA romance than back in my teens and twenties, but they are still marginalized as not being mainstream. I'm hoping there will come a time when characters of mainstream romance will run the full spectrum of ethnicities, economic status and of course figure types. Until then, we've got a lot of work to do.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Jodie, thanks for sharing your journey. It is uncanny how one or two authors can have such an impact, not only on what we read, but also what we write.

I too enjoy romantic suspense, though I prefer straight up contemporary romance and multicultural romance with all of its variations.

G said...

Great post.

I've tried for years to figure out what genre I write in, but the closest I've come to is the ever popular "fantasy" genre.

So instead, I label my writing "quirky" and eventually some day, something will finally click, and I'll be able to replace the personal genre of "quirky" with something more concrete.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Thanks G. The thing is, we do not have to limit ourselves to genre writing. In fact, the lines between some genres are so blurred, they defy labeling. Then there is commercial fiction which seems to encompass everything as long as it has commmercial appeal. I've given up on labeling fiction according to broad genre definitions. Instead I try to find out what the specific publisher is looking for in its definition of the genre(s). It varies widely.

KeVin K. said...

Get a kick out of your friends recommending science fiction as a more "serious" genre. My brother teaches English at a university not far from you. He occasionally shoulders a lit or even a writing course. After my second novel: "Kevin, you obviously have some talent; when are you going to get serious about your writing?" Lord knows what he'd say if he knew I'm also interested in writing romance.

Thanks for telling us about your journey.

Julio Sporer said...

Mills & Boon and Harlequin did inspire a lot of people with their novels. They paved the way for the romance novel scene to break out and inspire budding writers to publish their stories, just like you. Romance novels provide readers a temporary escape, and at times, it gives them hope and motivation. On the other hand, authors have the chance to share their passion and their concept of love to their readers through their romance novels. I’m glad that you were able to find your “voice” in writing, and I hope that you continue to write more stories and inspire people.