Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Yesterday or Today? Haven't Even Considered Tomorrow

When I first sat down to write a story – I mean, with the intention of actually letting someone else read it – I was sure my destiny was as an historical romance writer. I loved historicals, especially medievals placed in Scotland, and my first nearly completed manuscript was set in colonial America. It never entered my mind that I’d write anything else. Those were the books I loved and the stories I wanted to tell.

My experience reading contemporary romance was fairly limited. I’d read Judith Krantz and a few Danielle Steele. I’d also enjoyed Maeve Binchy, but I’m not even sure she’s considered romance when you apply the strict definition. As much as these books were good reads, nothing about them screamed epic romance. Too much quiet living and not enough excitement on a grand scale. The love stories I loved were all set in the past.

Because, after all, how could you have a true romance unless there were horses and damsels in distress and knights riding to the rescue? Not to mention the inherent romance in something as exotic as a completely different time and way of life. There can’t be any more romantic setting than a castle or pirate ship, neither of which are part of life today. (Unless you’re a Windsor. I’m not a Windsor nor a pirate.) Even the clothes screamed romance, such intriguing things as bliauts and chausses and mantles, and the most seductive of all garments, the chemise.

Too, the dangers of the past seemed far grander than those of today. Misguided fathers and evil uncles forcing virginal heroines into wedding contracts with dark, mysterious scoundrels. Abductions for political alliances and sieges and attacks. Ongoing clan wars where the hero could risk life and limb and prove his prowess and superior manliness. Pirates and Indians, warlords and nobles, mistresses and rakes. A cast of characters just made for excitement and romance.

The harsh environments and physical requirements of the past made for brawny, muscular heroes toughened to the cold and impervious to pain. Heroines were softer, more feminine with their long flowing tresses and gentle, innocent ways. There was nothing un-PC about a man protecting his woman and home, nor in a woman who accepted such protection. As a writer, you could lean on the backwards mores of those times without explaining yourself. It was okay for men to be men and women to be women, as long as the men weren’t boorish unfeeling brutes and the women weren’t wimpy doormats. Who would want to read about people like that, no matter when they lived?

In historical romance, you got the best of both worlds. You got all the pageantry, all the danger and the cool clothes. But because the hero and heroine always bathed regularly and had at least one healer in residence (or the heroine an extensive knowledge of all things herbal), you didn’t have to recognize the realities of poor hygiene, prevalent disease and even the ick-factor of having bathrooms that were really only glorified port-a-potties.

So, yeah, I was all set to write the next great line of medievals and Scottish highlander novels. I did my research, read about life back then, learned the names of the clothes and the difference between a keep and a donjon. Got my heroine a complete wardrobe of embroidered chemises and my hero a stable full of fine horses. Built them a castle and threw in a few conniving barons to mix things up a bit.

Then I picked up my first Suzanne Brockmann novel.

And I saw that today’s world held just as many dangers and opportunities for excitement as the olden days. Warriors still exist in the form of Navy SEALs and FBI agents and CIA operatives. Cops and firefighters and the hunky auto mechanic with the mysterious military past. Instead of clan wars or battles between warring nobles, the fight had shifted to the war on terrorism and drug cartels. Damsels in distress had become endangered scientists or innocent hostages, newspaper reporters and ambassador’s daughters.

And there was romance. Hot, steamy, sweet, romantic romance.

Which led me to take a closer look at exactly why I liked historicals so much. I started to think about which romantic movies I liked best. Were they all set in the past? Last of the Mohicans and Braveheart. The Count of Monte Cristo. Sense and Sensibilities and Pride and Prejudice. Yep. Loved them all. But, too, I loved the romances in Witness, Top Gun and Romancing the Stone. And I count many modern television couples among my favorite all-time romantic pairings – Buffy and Spike (shut up!), Lois and Clark, Maddie and David (from Moonlighting for all you young’ns out there), Josh and Donna. Okay, this last one is just a wish, but you get my drift.

Through this process, I learned something important about myself. What I had thought was a love for historicals turns out to be a love for romantic adventure. It doesn’t matter when the action occurs for me, as long as the story includes action. Even more specifically, my favorite romances are those where the danger is tangible, the hero protective and the heroine at risk. I’m a sucker for the save, the rescue, the pulling from the jaws of certain doom. And I’ve come to see that quite often these days, the heroine is just as likely as the hero to do the saving. That’s pretty cool!

Since that first Brockmann (which happened to be Out of Control if you’re interested), I’ve moved through Linda Howard and am working my way through Jennifer Crusie. I’ve discovered a whole new world of writers who stick with the here and now and do quite nicely with it. I’ve found humor and mystery. Heat and excitement. Heroes larger than life and heroines who match them inch for inch. All of it set within the last decade or so. Nary a castle in site.

Plus there’s the benefit of showers and modern plumbing. Hospitals for treating those bullet wounds. Cell phones and e-mail to help avoid those horrible communication snafus that always seemed to lead to the big Misunderstandings.

So the book I’m writing now? A contemporary. My ideas for my next three books (a trilogy)? Contemporaries.

I still love my first idea, that book set in colonial America. The writing is horrible and I wince when I read it, but I think the idea can be salvaged. Some day I plan to revisit it. And I know there’s a regency lurking somewhere in my head as well as that medieval. After all, I need to use all of that stuff about castles that I committed to memory.

If I could only figure out a way to work a chemise into my heroine’s wardrobe along with her cargo pants and bullet-proof vest, I’d have it all.

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