Learning as you go

For the last several years, I’ve put out two books a year. One of those books usually falls in the category of what I’d call a pure romance; i.e., a character-driven story focusing on the emotions two women experience when they meet and fall in love. Etched in Shadows, Life After Love, Rhapsody.

Alternately, I write plot-driven stories — adventure, suspense, drama — with a romantic subplot. Stories like these are explorations, bolstered by what feels like an hour of research for every half hour of writing. I begin knowing next to nothing about life in the navy (West of Nowhere), the process of cleaning up an oil spill (Anyone But You) or the quest for Mars (T-Minus Two). No matter how much reading I do before I start writing, I can’t get through the first page without stopping to look something up. And bookmark. And look for images so I can best describe the scene, since I know my editor’s going to scribble “needs visual” in the margin.

Photo from thedailycoin.org

Photo from thedailycoin.org

Where’s the line between “enough information to be convincing” and “too much detail for a romance novel”? My rule of thumb is try for the minimum necessary to tell a good story, but then I run across bits of research that I think my readers will find interesting. Next thing I know I’m down the rabbit hole. And so are you.

“Writing is an exploration. You start with nothing and learn as you go.”

So said one of America’s greatest historical novelists, E.L. Doctorow. Doctorow had a fascinating style, fictionalizing history with stories of peripheral characters (e.g., Billy Bathgate, Daniel Rosenberg) on the fringe of real events. Though his work was filled with rich detail of famous figures and the era in which they lived, one never lost the story, never felt sidetracked or overwhelmed by minutiae.

Oh, to write that well.

So what kind of romance reader are you? One who likes to explore and learn while you read, or one for whom the details fade in the background as you focus on the relationship of the characters? Or somewhere in the middle?

10 Responses to “Learning as you go”

  1. I think the quality of your stories from the very beginning (Shaken-the online version was my first) is what captured me and has kept my attention through the years. It is strange what can trip up a mind. The first uber story I ever read was giving details for each day, but the number of days didn’t add up. My geekish mind freezes at that spot every time I read that story. That hasn’t happened while reading your books. I especially loved T minus 2. Only days after I read that, the news carried stories about one group leaving a dome and a new study on a mountain in Hawaii. Your characters are current, complex, and interesting while dealing with current challenges and issues many of us are interested in. That is a refreshing combination. Thank you.

  2. Sylvie Saint-Laurent Reply September 14, 2015 at 7:00 am

    Well, you know that, even if I was a character in one of your book, I didn’t need that incentive to read it. You’ve never disappointed me in any of your stories. I don’t like when the two characters hate each other at the beginning, then love is in the air (so Harlequin!). Great chemistry is essential between the two lead characters. In order to have it and the readers to feel it, you need description, more than only dialogue. You want to care for them. To achieve that, you must put them in a situation that is detailed in such a way that you would like to go there and help them. At the end of “Anyone But You”, for example, I was really infuriated. Oil transport, fracking, oil sands are killing our planet. But money prevails.

  3. Regardless of genre I think you need credible characters… I hate it when I’m reading and a character does something I reckon they ‘wouldn’t do’… Also as an engineer who worked in construction I need enough authenticity that it doesn’t grate and stop me reading… I’m the one shouting at the screen at Towering Inferno “you’d have smoke dampers and you can’t crawl through ducts” … deep breath…. Your books are great and a good balance and characters have always been ‘real’ – loved T minus two

    • I totally get that. It never leaves my mind that certain details will resonate more with some readers. If I write about a nurse, nurses will read it. If I set it in Atlanta, people who live there will read it. With some stories, I’ve gotten feedback saying “it’s nothing like that” along with “it’s exactly like that.” I don’t think any story or character has ONE TRUTH, but you can’t crawl through ducts! You just can’t! 🙂

  4. Love your books! The current balance that you have works well for my reading taste. I do like more detail in general but that is more because I am a reader that likes to learn rather than a reader who is just along for the ride. T-minus two was a particular favourite of mine, as I felt I learned something, as well as feeling the tension between the characters building in a unique situation. If anything I would have liked it to go on for another 300 pages about their life after Earth…!

  5. For me, characters are only valid if their backstories are presented with authenticity. If they aren’t then nothing else comes across as being feasible, and that means the romance between them as well. If a story lacks detail but is told well then I can cope with it better then a story that is factually incorrect.

    • Yes, I’ve found that getting into the details of their work is the easiest way to layer a character and give her dimension. But you hit the key — no matter how much detail, just don’t get it wrong!

  6. I believe I am somewhere in the middle, I like both. I want a story that gets my attention but, mostly, I want characters who I care about, who are human, who have flaws, little ones, this is romance after all:-)

    • That’s the Holy Grail, I think — great characters, great chemistry, with just the right balance of detail. It makes me wonder how many books I can write that fit that description without writing the same book more than once.

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