The Unromantic Romance Writer

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So here’s a curious thing, dear internet, a much adored friend of mine recently pointed out to me how odd it is that I’m currently writing romance, because, she said, I am the least romantic person you could hope to meet. She’s not the first person to observe that I’m slightly lacking in the hearts and flowers department. My sister-in-law, much more recently married than my husband and I, oftens makes fun of our habit of marking shared emotional triumphs with a high five. She considers this unemotional in the extreme. She is equally bemused by the fact that she will share a heartfelt reminiscence from her wedding day, and then ask about memories of my wedding, only to be met with a blank face and a vague excuse about it having been a frightfully long time ago.

We don’t do Valentine’s Day. We don’t do anniversary gifts. For the first 2-3 years we had a competition to see who could buy the other the most ghastly wedding anniversary card, but that petered out after I refused to spend a fiver on objectively the most hideous card ever produced (about 8 pages of “rhyming” verse, much glitter, many badly drawn flowers). It would have been a surefire contest winner, but it cost five whole English pounds, which might otherwise have been spent on important accessories.

The most romantic gift my husband has ever bought me was a dictionary and thesaurus. The most romantic gift I’ve ever bought him was… no, actually I’ve got nothing to offer there.  He’s bought me flowers about three times in 15 years. If he started buying them regularly I’d probably think about getting him checked in for a brainscan. And flowers are wasted on me. They’re lovely when they’re fresh, but the following 3 weeks, where they slowly die and then begin to rot in the vase before I get around to chucking them out, does rather take the shine off.

However, I don’t think any of the above means I’m not romantic. I’d argue that it just recognises that romance isn’t something you can buy off the shelf in a one-size fits all package. To be truly romantic a gesture has to be individual. So, in our special little world, high fives are romantic. The act of mildly winding up people who think we should be more lovey-dovey is a personal, specific shared joke. The dictionary and thesaurus present really was romantic, because it was based on a very vague comment I’d made months earlier about wanting a nice dictionary and thesaurus, because I thought that maybe one day I might like to try to write stories, and a dictionary and thesaurus seemed like the sort of thing a Proper Writer ought to own. That’s personal, and personal, I think, is romantic.

So in a very individual way, maybe I am romantic, but even if I wasn’t I don’t think that would preclude me from writing romantic stories. It’s so common for writers to be asked whether they base stories on real people and real situations, and the answer, if we’re honest, is probably both “Of course,” and “Of course not.” In the bigger sense, you can ultimately only write from the brain that you have and that is entirely conditioned and created by the life you’ve led and the influences you’ve been exposed to. Having said that, I’ve never sat down and conciously based a story on a person or situation from my own life.

As a writer I don’t want to be tied to only writing about what I’ve directly experienced. I want to make stuff up. So even if I’m not romantic, there’s nothing to stop me from writing a character who is. In the story I’ve just begun my heroine is uptight, has an overblown sense of duty and is terrified of losing people she cares about. My hero is impulsive, loyal and focussed on living life to the full. When I write about those characters, I’m not thinking, how would I react in this situation? I’m thinking, how would this character react in this situation?

Your characters aren’t you. You don’t have to live their lives. If you did, there would be no fantasy novels, no historical stories and scary crime fiction would be even scarier, knowing how many people the writer had to dismember for the purposes of research.

So, in conclusion, I don’t need to be romantic to write romance. And anyway, I do think I’m romantic, but probably only in a way that 1 other person on the planet would appreciate, and in real-life, as in fiction, you only need 1 other person to make the romance work.

Reading that last sentence back I’m finding it a bit uncomfortably mawkish, so I think that’s a good place to stop. You can scurry off and follow me on twitter, or subscribe to the blog, or leave a little comment – are you romantic or does the notion induce a mild nausea? If you write, to what extent do you draw on your own experience? Or you could not comment and run along and crack on with the day. I shall go and do something bracing and emotionally unengaging. Good-day to one and all.

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5 thoughts on “The Unromantic Romance Writer

    Highland Writer said:
    December 1, 2011 at 7:58 pm

    ‘Your characters aren’t you. You don’t have to live their lives. If you did, there would be no fantasy novels, no historical stories and scary crime fiction would be even scarier, knowing how many people the writer had to dismember for the purposes of research.’

    Absolutely. If we’re halfway-decent writers, our readers come and inhabit a reality we construct for them. It doesn’t mean we inhabit it ourselves. And if we do it well enough, they might just come back for a couple more helpings 

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    john said:
    December 1, 2011 at 11:59 pm

    Knowing you, and the man, I think you are a very romantic person. As you say – romance is personal and there are usually a hundred or more personal glances exchanged which only you and the one know the meaning of. I would say that I am similar and don’t fit in with traditional romance sterotypes but rather have personal jokes which when we both get it feels like an internal hug. On the other hand – 3 bunches of flowers in 15 years seems a little lame – doesn’t he ever feel guilty about something?!

    Liking the blogs and looking forward to the books. Any progress on the previously editorially snubbed book????

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    Marilyn Rodwell said:
    December 2, 2011 at 9:37 am

    Good post. Personally, I think romance is something you have to be in the mood for. So it happens occasionally. But to write romance, read it, watch romance films, or be romantic all the time, is rather boring and unrealistic. And takes the edge of real romance. Which is, as you say, a personal and meaningful gesture.

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    Julie Cohen said:
    December 4, 2011 at 11:14 am

    I don’t read romantic fiction to get all of the romantic cliches thrown at me. The romantic fiction I love to read, and romantic films I love to watch, are quirky, individualistic; they make me believe that these characters have found the right person for *them*. It’s all about character, as you say.

    I agree with John…it sounds as if your relationship is very romantic!

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    Laura E James said:
    December 4, 2011 at 1:49 pm

    Haha Alison! You have just written a blog about me! I and three NWS friends spoke about this the morning after the RNA Winter Party. I declared how unromantic I am yet here I am writing romance stories.
    There is nothing wrong with a thesaurus as a romantic present – to this day my Roget’s remains the best gift from my husband ever. It showed me he realised how serious I am about writing and that he is happy to support me. And as for flowers – they’re pretty, but I’d rather not be left in charge of them.
    If I engaged in the romances I imagine, I’d have no time left for writing.
    Laura 🙂

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