what makes a romance novel

It’s funny. I made a resolution-y commitment to blog and twitter and all that this year, and then I got slammed by a project at my day job that has zapped all my time and energy. In an effort to at least hold up my commitment to blog once a week, here are some disconnected thoughts:

I’ve been thinking some about what constitutes a romance novel. Given what a wide range of stories fall under the umbrella “romance,” I think the only connecting thread is the focus on the development of a romantic relationship culminates in a happy ending. Other than that, I think all bets are off. Now, I love romance and I love mysteries and suspense thrillers, so it’s probably not at all a surprise that romantic suspense is my favorite romance sub-genre (to read), and in those novels, the couple usually meets under trying circumstances and spends the novel not only falling in love by trying to stay out of danger.

Maybe this is only on the brain because my younger brother is getting married this summer, so he and his fiancée get asked the “Oh, how did you meet?” question a lot, and the answer is pretty mundane (college) and I imagine that’s pretty true for most couples? A lot of my coupled friends have similar stories; a mutual friend introduced them or they met at a concert or they both participated in the same after-work activity. It’s pretty rare for a romance novel to feature a couple who just, like, meet and go on dates. At least in the books I’m reading. I think if someone wrote the story of a typical couple, readers would complain that there wasn’t enough conflict. (And they’d probably be right.)

Which begs the question, how much should romance novels resemble real life? People cite fantasy escapism as a reason to like romance novels. I like books that deal with hard truths, gritty settings, difficult circumstances, those sorts of things—corrupt cops, reformed criminals, heroes with troubled pasts, yes, yes, yes—but at the end of the day, no matter how “true to life” those stories are, they aren’t really true to my life, so I can get absorbed in the story of someone who overcame incredible adversity but then put the book down and be back sitting in my nice warm bed in my cozy apartment.

I was the kid who always had a book in her hand. (This hasn’t really changed; my shopping weakness is handbags, and my main criteria for evaluating them is whether they are big enough to hold a book or two, or at least my Kindle.) I went through phases (see my note on binge reading); I liked adventure stories as a tween, for example, I think because they were the sort of books you could get pulled into enough to block out the world. I read a lot of historical fiction in high school. Perhaps the cliché about a book taking you places you couldn’t go otherwise applies.

There’s still something of that in me as a reader. I’m not a big fantasy reader in the high genre fantasy sense, but I like the “fantasy” element of romances—they exist in a world where big things happen and everything works out. Maybe the two main characters meet in college, like my brother and his fiancée did, but they meet under unusual circumstances or there’s a huge roadblock or one of them has to overcome some deep secret from his past, etc. etc.

It’s sort of like how, if all of your knowledge of New York City came from watching police procedural television series’, you might think the city was still a violent cesspool, which it really isn’t. Fiction is so often more extreme than real life, or different enough from our lives that we feel safe observing it.

I don’t know where I’m going with this. A lot of my characters are ordinary folks who get caught up in extraordinary circumstances. In my latest (out next Tuesday!) we have Lowell, who until recently lived in a studio apartment in NYC and worked as a graphic designer. His new next-door neighbor is Jase has a mundane office job. Ordinary guys who are connected by a shared past. Lots of extraordinary things happen in the novel—without giving much away, I can tell you that Lowell and Jase both have plenty of baggage, with plenty of roadblocks in their way. Because these guys can’t just be neighbors… what kind of romance novel would that be? 😉