This weekend, Pink Heart Society columnist Kate Walker gets back to basics with just what romance means to her
Of course, M&B Centenary has created some interest in the media. Some of it has been the usual mockery that Romantic Fiction writers have had to grow used to over the years. The comments about ‘silly novels’ and the descriptions of romantic fiction and romances being ‘pink and fluffy’ – and generally not worth bothering with. Many journalists certainly seem to take the lazy way out and condemn romances as being all the same and that they’re stuffed full of clichés like chocolate and roses and heaving bosoms and moustache twirling villains and manly-chested heroes.
I suspect that this comes from a very poor – and very limited understanding of just what romance/romantic fiction actually is. So I thought I would take time this weekend to take a look at why I wrote romance and what it means to me. Some of you may have read some of this before, but I make no apologies for repeating it - in the light of some (but not all) of the newspaper coverage Mills and Boon and romance writers have had, I want to nail my flag to the mast and say just why I write romance.
I’m often asked me the question 'Are you a romantic person.' I usually answer yes, but add 'if being romantic means caring deeply about things and about the other person - it doesn't necessarily mean hearts and flowers and all those things that the stores would like us to buy for Valentines's Day.' The problem is that then when the quote appears the second half of it is usually missed off.
Then once in a Q&A I was doing, I was asked what was the most romantic thing that has ever happened to me and I found that incredibly difficult to answer. I couldn't think of something that was truly romantic to me and that would sound romantic to other people and that was when and I realised that, deep down, the most romantic things are often not the ones that people might really expect - and that got me thinking about Romance and what it means to me and why I write it.
You see, I think one of the reasons why I ended up writing Presents is that I don't find hearts and flowers and boxes of chocolates truly 'romantic'. Don't get me wrong - they're all very nice in their place and I'm never going to turn down a beautiful bouquet. But they are not at the heart of romance.
Let me tell you a story - a real life story - a real life romance story.
Once upon a time there was a lovely lady - she was beautiful, intelligent, generous, hard working - and very lonely. She had married young to a man she adored but the marriage had broken down irretrievably and they had parted very bitterly. She had young children to care for and she focused her life on them. She was a deeply committed Catholic and never thought of divorce - it just wasn't possible for her. But she got on with life, she bought a little house, she had a tiny garden and in that garden she grew roses.
She'd been brought up in Ireland, in the countryside and she always said that the best thing to fertilise roses was donkey manure. So if anyone ever asked her what she wanted for her birthday, she would always say she's love a load of donkey manure for her roses. But because she was a lady and elegant and stylish, everyone laughed and thought she didn't mean it - and they gave perfume or chocolates and that sort of thing as gifts.
Some years later she met a lovely man - he came to work where she did and they fell for each other. But the lady's husband was still alive, and she still believed that she couldn't get a divorce. And the new man was a Catholic too so he understood. Eventually there came a time when he couldn't bear staying and not being able to be with the person he loved. So he applied for a job a long way away and he got it and prepared to leave. But just before he left it was the lady's birthday and on the day he left he came to her house in his car - and in the car was a sackload of donkey manure for her roses. Those roses grew beautifully ever after.
That's romance. That's caring for the other person more than for yourself. It's giving the person you love what they need - what they want - not what you think they want. It's understanding that, no matter how much you might want to get something for them, it will not be right for them and it will make them unhappy even if you make them go along with it. True romance finds a way to love the person as they need to be loved.
So when I'm writing a romance, I'm not writing the sort of book that people describe as ' a soppy love story' or 'hearts and flowers' or 'chocolate box' romances where the heroine is moping around without a man in her life and then when she meets the hero she 'swoons away' or her heart races in her 'heaving bosom'. I try to write real relationships between people who really could exist. (Okay in a Presents novel the hero is usually a billionaire - but take away all the money and the power and the success and he's just a MAN underneath it all - and it's that man's problems I like to deal in.)
When I think of romance, I think of the way it originated as stories in mediaeval times - when knights of old used to court ladies - and act as her champion and fight for her honour at a tournament or in a duel or in battle. That meant really fight. A knight could be injured, maimed, killed - he took great risks for his lady and often she took them for him too - because women had very little choice in who they could marry and dreadful things could happen to her if she fell in love with the wrong man.
Modern romance is very different and yet very much the same. The heroes and heroines I write about today aren't likely to be executed or killed in a hand to hand fight (though there might be a risk of that in some suspense story) so perhaps the physical risks are less violent.
But the emotional risks are every bit as dangerous - the emotional stakes every bit as high - or they should be.
Love is something we all crave - something we all nned, we all hope for, dream of, work towards. It's what adds a special value to life and puts a whole new light onto each day. But love can bring those dangers as well - the loss of someone you love is the most devastating blow you can suffer. But often love also gets trivialised - 'If you love her buy her XXXX chocolates' or 'show you care - with a bunch of red roses . . .'
Anyone can put on the trappings of romance these days - there are cards for every event, flower arrangements you don't have to think about, perfume or jewellery advisors in every shop. The soaps are full of characters who say 'I love you' and then move on to someone new when the script writers believe that the story has got boring - because happiness is boring! It's when the chips are down, when the hard times come, when loving is a struggle, that real romance shows itself.
And that's why I write romance. I write about characters who are faced with difficulties, with problems that could destroy their love- and they hang in there, fighting for what's important. For their love and the love of the other person.
And all the clichés in the world - all the money, power, red roses, perfume . . . can't solve those problems for them - it's only by going into their own hearts and having the courage to be honest and open that they can win this particular battle. They might not risk death like those knights of old - but they do risk the death of their hearts and that's the real danger for a human being, no matter what century they live in.
So romance isn't in the things that can be faked - it's in staying with someone through good and bad 'for richer, for poorer. In sickness and in health.' It's in working at it and dealing with the hard stuff and caring enough for the other person to find ways through the darkness to the light.
Okay, I'd better get off my soapbox now,
But this is what is in my mind when I'm writing - that I need to show that this particular heroine is the love of this particular hero's life - and if I don't convince my readers that they're right for each other then I've failed. If they are going to be blown apart by some trivial problem or bicker so hard all through the story and then say 'Oh, I'm sorry - I love you' - it doesn't convince me - so how can it convince any reader? And if he treats her appallingly and doesn't have very good reasons for it - and she lets him walk all over her without a protest - then what sort of future would they have together? That's not love - and it's certainly not romantic, not in my book. My heroes sometimes make terrible mistakes and behave badly as a result -but the heroines fight back. And when whoever made the mistake ( because it can so often be the heroine as much as the hero) realises what they've done they do the best thing they can to put it right - because all the grovelling and apologising in the world is really pretty self indulgent - it not saying I'm sorry/I love you/I'll change over and over and over again - it's doing it. Or refusing to do something if you know it's wrong. Sometimes the hardest thing you have to fight for love is the person that you love!.
That's what I try to put into my books - strong passions, strong characters, strong love - which I hope creates a strong romance That's the main reason why I write romance because the books offer me the chance to write about the things I believe in.