Laurie's News & Views

May 16, 1997 - Issue #26

This column is decidedly different than most of my columns. I decided that after having received some interesting romance writer e-mail, that I would share them with you. Each of these authors readily gave of their time; some authors responded to my queries while other authors got in touch with me after reading a review of one of their books. In the latter instances, the reviews were less than stellar, yet the authors wrote with dignity and grace, asking for my opinions, which I readily gave, always noting that I am not necessarily a reader whose tastes are widespread.

It's a Two-fer:

I've been asking for input from you on secondary characters, and happened to have recently read a wonderfully romantic book - A Whisper of Violets, by Linda Madl. In addition to strong lead characters, she created a strong secondary character in the brother of the heroine, who has quite a ways to go in learning about love. His redemption is all the more joyous to read because it occurs through a physical attraction to a woman he feels is beneath him. Linda creates a wicked irony in that this stuffed-shirt of a man becomes whole after giving over to his baser instincts.

What this author shares with some other authors in terms of the creation of strong secondary characters, is a strong secondary romance. In Kat Martin's Innocence Undone, a very strong secondary romance was created for dark and damaged characters. Their strong physical attraction for each other led to their redemption. After having read these two books, and recalling the strong secondary romance in last year's Captive by Joan Johnston, and realizing that a good part of my enjoyment of each of these books was derived from these characters, I decided it was time to get an expert opinion. I was lucky enough to garner two expert opinions. I spoke first with Kat Martin about secondary characters. Later I spoke with Linda Madl not only about secondary love stories, but how she, like Kat and Joan, decided to use good old-fashioned love-making to redeem these characters.

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Kat Martin

Second place is never to be envied. In most of our minds, it's as good as last.

But in novels, secondary characters can be the grit that holds a book together. Though I usually have my story line fairly well plotted before a I begin a book, I often allow the secondary characters to develop out of the story. When I started Innocence Undone, I realized that Jessie would need a friend to help convey some of her hidden character traits. Though she would never choose to visit a whorehouse -- she'd had enough of that atmosphere to last her a lifetime -- her best friend, Gwen, would like nothing better. Since deep down, Jessie had the same sort of grit as her friend, all it took was a bit of encouragement, and the two of them were off on an adventure.

Adam St. Cere, the man who fell in love with Gwen, arose from an old concept I'd had of Matt Seaton, the hero, having three close friends from Oxford. St. Cere was one, as was Adrian Kingsland, the Baron Wolvermont. I just finished Wolvermont's story, which will be out in March of '98, a high adventure, set during the war.

Originally, I had intended to give St. Cere his own book as well, but alas, got carried away and wound up telling his story in Innocence Undone.

Secondary characters can be terrific tools in a novel, furthering the conflict and misunderstandings between your primary characters. In Innocence, Gwen is constantly goading Jessie into doing the sort of things Matthew Seaton disapproves of. In the end, however, he begins to see Jessie's loyalty as an admirable quality -- but it definitely takes him a while!

Secondary characters can give depth to a story, fleshing out the time and place and allowing the tension to develop between your primary characters. They can help impart information about your hero and heroine and give the reader a different perspective on what they are really like.

A secondary character can add pathos and/or humor to your work. If he or she is a tinker, or a cooper, a seamstress, or tavern maid, then the reader gets a sense of time and place. In Bold Angel, a medieval I wrote several years back, one of the secondary characters was a girl who disguised herself as a court jester.

Time and place, plus a chance at a bit of humor.

If you're lucky, as I was with Adrian Kingsland, sometimes secondary characters can be the subject of another book. Adrian was a cavalry officer, home on leave during Innocence. Four years later, he meets his nemesis, a woman his is convinced is a spy.

In my upcoming novel, Nothing But Velvet, Jason Sinclair, the hero, is aided in his search for the man who murdered his father, by his best friend, the Marquess of Litchfield, Lucien Montaine. Litchfield wound up being such a strong character, I am hoping to give him his own story later on.

All in all, secondary characters can be colorful, a bit off the norm, and really fun to write. I've got a doddering Earl and a scheming half-brother in Nothing But Velvet. I hope you'll watch for it in June and that you enjoy!

Linda Madl

I went a step further with Linda and asked her to talk not only about secondary characters, but about the love scenes she wrote for both sets of lovers (the lead characters are Dorian and Nicholas and the secondaries are Davis and Susannah). Here is what she had to say:

I knew from the outset of A Whisper of Violets that Davis' love story would be important. His Aunt Charlotte had charged him and Dorian, his twin sister, with finding their true loves. Dorian was going to have difficulty; she falls for a man who is accused of treason and is set on regaining his honor. There is no place in Nicholas' heart for romance and marriage.

Dorian and Nicholas struggle along the way, wary of each other's motives and afraid to trust their own feelings. Each must come to terms with their attraction for the other. I knew their relationship had a long rocky road to climb, but the rewards would be worth it.

But one of the twins had to be successful in finding love for Aunt Charlotte's sake.

Developing Davis's romance gave me the freedom to write about a man who is no hero. He is an honest, but ambitious man unrestrained by any noble hang-ups or dark secrets -- except for his lust. There are no holds barred in dealing with Davis' confusion about lust and love in his life. It was a delight to see how he responds to being Susannah's reluctant hero, when Dorian, his sister would never allow him to be one.

To show how Davis came to understand his feelings required that we, reader and author, have insight into his love life. So Davis had to have love scenes with the object of his lust, Susannah.

Like many readers, I find a vicarious pleasure in peeking through the window at a couple's private moments, emotions, and desires. Two likeable, attractive people finding love and fulfillment together physically is a beautiful thing. But a good love scene offers much more than tantalizing entertainment.

A good love scene expresses an additional aspect of a character: his or her passion, sensuality, and feelings toward their beloved. This is where the romance excels. While mysteries dwell on puzzle details with a peripheral romance, the romance novel deals with the intimate side of relationships. Each character expresses himself or herself individually in the privacy of a love affair.

With Susannah, Davis discovers a woman, a genteel lady who has a passion to match his own. Nothing he does shocks her. Every boldly intimate caress he ventures pleases her. He never expected to find that kind of sensual relationship with a woman other than the doxies of Whitechapel.

On the other hand, Dorian and Nicholas' relationship progresses much more slowly, mirroring their own wariness of each other. It also reveals that Nicholas is very aware of Dorian's innocence, despite her age and seeming worldliness. Making love to her is a commitment and he does not do so lightly. There is at least one close call during a late-night carriage ride where he wants to make love to her and she wants him to, but he does not. Nicholas is a man of honor, no matter how painful.

I've always felt multi-faceted characters give a story more texture and depth plus added entertainment and food for thought.

Case in point, Dickens' classic tale of A Christmas Carol would hardly be so endearing or well-remembered if each of the characters that Scrooge plays against didn't seem like a living, breathing person: Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit, Mr. Fezziwig, right along to the ghost of Marley.

So I saw no reason not to give Davis and Susannah a share of the love scenes in A Whisper of Violets. I don't want to give away the story for those who haven't read it. Davis resolves some of his problems, but the tug of ambition is strong.

In my next two books, Davis reappears as the beleaguered of father of scheming twins, Charlotte and Cassandra. Plagued once more by the desire for a title, Davis must rediscover what's important in life while his daughters do their own searching in Scotsman's Lady and Scotsman's Bride, to be published in 1998 and 1999.

Taming of a Shrew? Further Correspondence with Katherine Sutcliffe:

About six weeks ago, after Romance Reader founder Leslie McClain's 3-heart review of Katherine Sutcliffe's Devotion had been online for a year or so, Katherine discovered the review and wrote a very scathing e-mail to our publisher. In response, our publisher wrote what I felt was a very reasoned response. Both Katherine's e-mail and our publisher's response was posted in our mail section, and several readers weighed in with their responses. Then Katherine wrote a second e-mail to our publisher.

There are forces inside my head and heart that often compel me to do things. Once those forces grow strong enough, I don't fight them. I wrote Ms. Sutcliffe on my own, without my publisher's knowledge, because I felt she had unfairly maligned The Romance Reader. As I indicated to her, I was torn between my admiration for her as an author (her A Fire in the Heart and Dream Fever comprise two out of my 31 all-time favorites), and my dismay at her virulent posts. I indicated that the review of her book was similar to what I had read on some of the romance listservs and bulletin boards. I specifically mentioned that many readers were bothered by the lack of closure at the end of the book. I even included that I found her writing, on occasion to be uneven. I had no idea if she would respond, and, if she did, how she would take my criticism over her actions.

I mention all this because Katherine's response to me was very interesting, not just because I write for this site, but because she spoke directly about her writing and her readers. I'd like to share a portion of that e-mail with you now:

. . . The reviewers and readers are disappointed and dismayed because feelings were hurt on your end. What about the authors' feelings? That's the point I was trying to make. The public as a whole seems to think that entertainers purposefully set out to write a lousy book or fail in their attempt to portray a part on screen. I've never known an author who hasn't tried their hardest to give their readers their money's worth. Writing a book is like giving birth to a child. Perhaps the child is less than perfect in someone else's eyes, but in the mother's eyes, he or she is exquisite. Would that mother not be crushed to learn there are masses of people out there ready to stone that child because it didn't live up to their expectations.

Do I not have as much right to be upset over negativity as you have to be upset with mine? Laurie, that is the point I was trying to make by coming back so scathingly. When our intelligence, talent, or job is questioned, we're going to get our back up, just as your friend and editor did over my response. Just as I shouldn't take it personally, neither should you guys. When we get into the "business" we are constantly told that criticism comes with the territory, and that we must get a thick skin to survive it. Well, so must anyone who ventures to write or work for the public. Your reviewer and editor just got a dose of what the entertainer must confront every time we bare our soul to our fans. Because that's what our books are to us: our hearts and souls. Money has nothing to do with it. If we fail to please the majority of our fans, we feel that we've let them down. Believe me, writing books doesn't get any easier through the years. It gets harder because we try to give the reader a better read each time. When we learn that we've failed, it bothers us.

The point that has apparently failed to come across is that we authors feel that because opinions are so subjective, that opinion should not determine whether or not a person buys a book.

I agree that in Devotion a number of people were baffled by the ending being left open. After 20 years of happily ever afters, must they be hit over the head with the obvious? The duke told his grandmother to go to hell: he gave up all his wealth to follow the heroine. How more blatantly obvious can you get? But that is neither here nor there. If my readers want obvious, that's what they'll get. They are the boss. Not the reviewer.

I've just finished Jezebel. It's a sequel to Desire, Surrender and Renegade Love. Why? Because the readers wanted it.

I figured your editor would put my letter on line. I hope she puts all of my letters on line. That way the readers get an objective view of this entire discussion. Perhaps they will understand better just how important their support is to the writer.

Will my readers like my next book? I can't predict, obviously. What I am in the process of doing is getting my own Web page to invite their opinions so I have a better way of determining what I need to do to keep them happy. Perhaps in that way I can get a broader look at their opinions so I can more easily determine what the overall attitude is toward my work. I feel that those with negative comments are more inclined to reply when another negative comment invites them to do so, just as someone with a positive review would invite a positive response. In honesty, if I discover that I no longer entertain this genre audience, then perhaps it's time to move on to writing something else. That would be a sad day for me, because I don't believe other audiences reward the author with so much love and support. But a true writer has to write and we must find that audience who we connect with. Perhaps, as your reviewer insinuated by pointing out that she believes my last books have fallen short, I have outlived my ability to satisfy my fans. To that I must say, "Sorry I failed you. I did my best while staying true to myself."

A Different Tact Times Two

Those of you who read Katherine's initial post about her book will note a marked difference in tone and content from her post to me. She certainly ruffled a lot of feathers. Contrast Katherine's handling of a less than stellar review to two authors who also received less than stellar reviews. One author prefers to remain anonymous so as to not call attention to her 2-heart review and I will honor her request. The other author is Lynna Banning, aka Carolyn Woolston. I have reviewed two of her books and given them both 3-heart ratings, although, had I read her first book, Western Rose, now, I would probably award it 4 hearts. In both instances, she has written with eloquence and dignity about my reviews, and requested additional feedback. (And, to the cynical among you who think that flattery from an author is important to me, I'd like to remind you that Lynna wrote a similar letter to me after I awarded her first book 3 hearts; it did not affect my review of her second book.) My anonymous author, whom I will call Romance Writer for the duration of this column, did the same. Since we've been talking about Not Pet Peeves, I think our discussions should be shared.

But First

I'm breaking up the natural flow of this column to interject an entry that appeared in my Guest Book today. I include it here for two reasons - I don't want anybody going into a diabetic coma after reading the quite flattering author e-mails. Secondly, I include it to dispel any "Laurie's stuck on herself" comments that might come up after those flattering e-mails.

From Azraelle:

"Well, you certainly have built a tight and sheltered little site here. I was really annoyed by your idea of conversion kits. That's rather an insult to individual taste and personal preference. I don't expect you to know about this, but there's currently a great divide among music fans about the band Marilyn Manson -- one either loves them or hates them. The fans are trying to push the music on the non-fans, and the non-fans are trying to convert the fans back to real music. Point is, everybody's missing the point. Personal preference should be respected. You're doing a great disservice by trying to force romance fiction down people's throats. Why not engage the strapaddo and the thumbscrews? It's the same idea."

One thing I've definitely noticed; I may not piss of authors, but I sure do piss off readers!

And now, Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Topic

Romance Author Hi. As the author, I found the reviewer's comments harsh, yet thought provoking. I would be interested to know if the reviewer ever read the prequel and if that novel fared better under her careful scrutiny. Thank you.
LLB

I have a copy of the prequel, but haven't yet read it. Unfortunately, now that I do reviews, most of my reading is of new and upcoming releases.

I am inordinately pleased by your calm and considered e-mail. Generally when we hear from an author whose book did not fare well in the review process, the author's response is an emotionally negative one. It is to your credit that you were able to read my review and accept the criticism constructively, which is how it was given. You have my admiration.

Thank you very much for your taking the time to write. I don't often say I will read another book by an author when the first book I've read received a rating of 2, but I do look forward to the third in this series.

Romance Author

Thanks for writing back. I've read some of your other reviews, and you not only have strong feelings about what you like, but take the time to really delve into what works and doesn't work within a novel. I've never seen such detailed reviews. Have you long been a romance reader/fan?

I'd be interested to know what are the top things you look for in a romance that works for you; it would be very helpful to me. You mention emotion a lot, and really wanting to care about the hero/heroine and their story. It seems for me as an author that there is only so much time (and page length) within which to tell a story that not only has an intriguing plot but also fully realized 3-dimensional characters. To me, the characters. . . made sense, but perhaps I didn't delve into them as much as I should have. (Or else relied on some of the emotional "set-up" in the prequel.) Yes, it was easy to get an emotional response from reading about the villain, a visceral rise as it were. I want to do that consistently with my hero/heroine as well, and wonder sometimes what really moves romance readers. Any input would be much appreciated.

LLB

All of us at The Romance Reader take our reviews seriously, although they are often wickedly funny or biting. Our founder started the site because she was unable to find in romance publications the type of mainstream reviews she saw elsewhere. Conversely, she was unable to find in mainstream publication romance reviews.

I have been reading romance for just over 4 years and have read in that time nearly 300 romances. In the outside world, that seems remarkable, but after having written my column for more than a year and corresponding with hundreds of romance readers, I know I'm just a newbie.

I tend to hear from readers about my columns and interviews more often than I hear back from them about my reviews. I don't know how representative I am of the typical romance reader in my tastes. I have, as I like to say, peasant-like tastes in romances. I might read a general fiction piece that requires quite a bit of intellectual input on my behalf, but don't want to have to work that hard for a romance in general. I enjoy learning history but don't want to feel as though I'm taking a course when I read a romance.

For me, the romance is primary. I've done some columns on whether the definition of a romance should be drawn narrowly or broadly. I am in the minority - I like a narrow definition. So, for me, the characters count the most, over plot, over action, over anything else in the book.

I have even been known to enjoy books where there was basically no plot - of course, those books are often humorous romances where the dialogue is key.

There are no easy answers in terms of what I prefer. I gave one recent read a 4 heart review and enjoyed something that I didn't enjoy in another recent read which received a 1 heart review. What made the difference? Emotion - pure and simple. I came to care for the hero and heroine in the first book and couldn't have cared any less for the hero and heroine in the latter.

One of the 4 books I gave a 5-heart rating to for The Romance Reader was Jill Marie Landis' Day Dreamer. That book had me blubbering like a baby. I got horrible mail on that review - no one else but me loved it as I did. I think romances are terribly personal in a way that other fiction isn't. I can love Anne Rice's bizarre writings, and I do, but I don't love her characters in the way I come to love my favorite heroes and heroines.

I tend to analyze everything (sometimes to death!), and am no different in analyzing what I read. The reason I started my column and interviewing authors and working with them on topics of discussion was to create a sense of community for romance lovers who have felt rather "in the closet" in the past.

To analyze romances and look at the pieces that make them up is what is done in literature of other sorts - I don't think it's been done with romance because most romance publications that I've seen have been unwilling to do that. But I think that, for the genre to be taken seriously, the same sort of analysis needs to be done, the same sort of care needs to be paid to the writing, the styles, what works, and what doesn't. . ."

   
Lynna Banning

Wow, you did it again! Honest, incisive, thoughtful reviewer (among many who aren't) that you are -- you widen my eyes, make me smile, grit my teeth, nod in agreement, and feel honored for the three hearts you awarded my work.

One of these days I'm gonna come up with a book you will love. (Just tell me what it takes. . . more sex? Not a western? If you would be so kind, would you name me one or two Harlequin Historical works you really liked?

LLB

You got me - my favorite historicals are not generally westerns, although I have read several that I enjoyed a great deal, including:

  • Tempting Miss Prissy and The Bride Wore Spurs by Sharon Ihle
  • Irresistible by Catherine Hart
  • A Taste of Heaven by Alexis Harrington
  • Winter Bride by Theresa Southwick
  • Spring Rain by Susan Weldon
  • Denim & Lace by Patricia Rice

I really mean what I said about your book; it was more enjoyable for me than most westerns I've read. My preferences in historicals is for the regency era (although not Regencies), and medievals.

My all-time favorite medieval is by Harlequin Historicals author Catherine Archer. The title is Velvet Bond. I also adore Deborah Simmons - her The Vicar's Daughter is amazing. Her books are very funny and sexy, or very brooding and sexy. She writes for HH as well.

Love scenes aren't a requirement with me, although I tend to prefer "R" rated books, but Jillian Hunter's new release, Fairy Tale, earned 5 hearts from me and was definitely not R-rated.

As I said in my review, you had me going for about 3/4 of the book, and then it sort of fizzled. But I rarely like "message" books, and it is indeed to your credit that you didn't preach to me - I hate that.

My favorite western theme is the mail order bride story and/or the road romance. My favorite parts of your book were the road scenes; I love adventure in a western.

Also as indicated in my review, this could have been a 4-heart read and I know you'll get me next time! But I don't know whether or not you should look to me for my likes and dislikes - a great many of our readers have tastes different from mine.

Your perseverance and courage in writing to me is greatly appreciated. I hope the book does well. I look forward to reading your next one!

Other Author Morsels

Kathryn Lynn Davis:

The Romance Reader received some recent mail about author Kathryn Lynn Davis. I too have received some mail about her, in specific, asking if she plans a sequel to her native-American book, Sing to Me of Dreams. I called her last week; we plan to do a full-length interview in June, but she did provide a thumb-nail sketch of what she's working on what's next.

Kathryn is finishing the third book in her phenomenal trilogy comprised so far of Too Deep for Tears and All We Hold Dear. After that, she will begin a contemporary book that she's been thinking about for thirteen years. After she writes that book, she believes she'll be ready to tackle a sequel to Sing to Me of Dreams.

Authors Comment on LLB's Love Scene

Lisa Kleypas:

"I started out my day with the best laugh I've had in a week, reading your "love scene". You managed to include so many of the words I can't stand in these scenarios; petals, manroot, etc. The funny thing is, it reads just like some of the published love scenes I've read in the past!

"It doesn't make sense that your love scene was removed! Compared to the similar scenes I've read in romance novels, it was relatively tame. . . Moreover, most women who read The Romance Reader have been exposed to racier stuff.

"I regret that you had to take the scene out, and I can only hope that many readers will find it in your archives and get the same enjoyment out of it that I did.

"You know, this isn't the first time I've been perplexed by someone's attitudes toward love scenes. I believe that for some reason the rules are different for some authors, and they're able to get away with silly, cliched work -- praised for it, in fact -- when it's obvious they put very little effort into it. Your love scene was a dead-on lampooning of the silly sex I've read all too often, and I definitely think it should have been left in The Romance Reader."

Marsha Canham:

"Not to knock your effort, but I was so relieved when I found out it was a parody and not by someone real! The dreadful part is, that I recognized some of those lines and had an author in mind!!!!!!!

"I didn't think it was anywhere near as explicit as some of the exerpts I have read in Romantic Times. An example would be Bertrice Small's little passage on putting grapes up her ying yang and having the hero suck them out.

"Censorship at The Romance Reader?

"Hmm.

"That's my opinion."

Until We Meet Again

Feel free to comment on any and all of what I've presented this time by e-mailing me here. I like to do different things from time to time, and could use feedback on whether you are interested in author discussions such as those presented in this issue.

I won't present the usual list of what I'm working on now or what you can find at my site because this column has gone on long enough. See you in another two weeks!

TTFN, Laurie Likes Books

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