My Contemporary Dilemma

Rear view of a couple sitting on beach Series romances with contemporary settings appear to be going strong. Harlequin releases plenty of them every month and readers (including me) eagerly snatch them up. However, single title contemporaries are a little harder to find. Anyone who reads romance sites and blogs or who spends any time at all following romance readers on Twitter has seen plenty of moaning about the dearth of single title contemporaries. I started to wonder why this is, and that in turn has made me wonder if contemporaries might not be a more narrowly defined subgenre than one might think at first glance.

At first glance, the contemporary landscape appears wide open. The choice of settings is almost endless and so too the choice of character types. After all, a book can feature cowboys in Texas, a shop owner in Paris, or archeologists in the Middle East and so long as it’s set in the here and now, we can call it contemporary. The possibilities for the imagination at this point almost boggle the mind. Then comes the plotting – and that’s where things get sticky.

After all, what kind of plot can one employ? Obviously there has to be a relationship between a hero and heroine (or two heroes, if we’re talking m/m). In a series romance, the page count is lower and a story narrowly focused on the relationship between the two leads can really work. However, in the expanded page count of a single title book, it seems to grow more difficult. How is the author to keep the reader’s attention? There are certainly some books out there that keep the focus on the primary relationship and have compelling characters that work. After all, we’ve got books out there like Just One of the Guys, Vision in White, Practice Makes Perfect, and Welcome to Temptation, just to name a few good ones I’ve read.

However, if an author throws in a suspense plot that takes up too much of the story, it starts reading more like romantic suspense. For example, I consider Welcome to Temptation a very good single title contemporary, but I know of others (including my local library) that classify it as romantic suspense because of some of the plot points. If a book starts dealing with too many of the issues of life and dealing less with the actual romance of a couple, it can start looking more like women’s fiction than romance. While some of Susan Wiggs’ recent books are definitely women’s fiction, some of her recent books such as Dockside really walk that line between being romance and being women’s fiction. On the one hand, we get to read a real “second chance at love” story. However, the book also deals with issues including a teen pregnancy, and it’s a book about life almost as much as it is a romance. And if there are plenty of vampires, werebeasts and other things that go bump in the night frolicking in that contemporary setting, then we’re reading a paranormal.

So, what is one to do? Life itself is full of endless plots and so it would seem that there could be an endless variety of contemporary romances. However, when I look at what we classify as contemporary romance, things narrow a bit and it becomes romance in a contemporary setting but without: (1) too much suspense, (2) too many women’s fictiony life issues and side plots, and (3) supernatural creatures. The subgenre is certainly flexible, and the books of many talented authors attest to that, but perhaps not as completely wide open as I used to think when I was a brand-new teenaged romance reader. So, what’s your definition of contemporary romance? And what are some of your favorite reads?

– Lynn Spencer

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15 Responses to “My Contemporary Dilemma”

  1. Lea AAR says:

    Straight contemporary as you describe it is my favorite genre. Longer than a series romance (I can’t really get into those series although I’ve tried), its plot revolves around the couple and the growth of their relationship. No suspense going on in the background – no paranormal happenings – no concentration on the heroine and her girlfriends. The leads spend a good amount of time together. I know this must be a challenge for the author. I just finished Julia London’s Light at Winter’s End. Not outstanding but a pretty good read until the end. To create an unneeded conflict, the author wrote a lead acting out of character and it read like immaturity more than anything else. And it brought down the grade to the C+/B- range.

    My favorite straight contemporaries:
    Susan Elizabeth Phillips – nearly all of hers are straight contemporary and she is my favorite author as well.

    Julie James – Just the Sexiest Man Alive and Practice Makes Perfect. I’m disappointed in her last two since she includes a strong suspense element in both

    Jennifer Crusie – Welcome to Temptation

    Julia London – The Summer of Two Wishes

    Rachel Gibson – many including See Jane Score, The Trouble with Valentine’s Day, Not Another Bad Date, Daisy’s Back in Town, True Confessions, Tangled Up in You

    Anna Jeffrey – Sweet Water, The Love of a Lawman, Sweet Return

    Lisa Kleypas – Blue-Eyed Devil and Smooth Talking Stranger

    Joy Nash – A Little Light Magic

    Karen Robards – One Summer

    Theresa Weir – Amazon Lily, Cool Shade, Long Night Moon, One Summer

  2. AARPat says:

    Contemporary for me is set in today’s world, but doesn’t have a suspense plot. So it’s usually centered around two unlikely people and the way they come together.

    Currently, my favorite two contemporary authors are Sarah Mayberry from Australia and Kathleen Eagle who writes about contemporary Native Americans in the upper Midwestern U. S. I also enjoy Jill Shalvis for her understated sense of humor. I’m sure there are more I like, but I can’t think of them right now.

  3. Gail says:

    I agree with Lea and Pat. For me, a good contemporary romance puts the relationship first and has a lot of dialog between the hero/heroine. This is what Nora used to write and what made her the queen of romance for a long time, not so much these days. There can be some suspense or a specific thing that pulls them together like wedding planners or hockey but the couple need to be in the forefront not the afterthought. Vision in White was really good but each subsequent book was more about the friendship between the women and the weddings than the couple.

    I think we’re seeing a resurgence of the straight contemporary and I’m excited to see new authors like Julie James and Kristan Higgins join other favorites Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Jill Shalvis, Erin McCarthy, Rachel Gibson and Jennifer Crusie.

  4. Ida R. says:

    I do like straight contemporary too. True, they don’t always get published as much as other types of romance sub genres, but the ones that make it are very good. Some authors that I have enjoyed reading more recently would have to include Jill Shalvis, Deirdre Martin, Marie Forece, and Robin Kaye. I love Louisa Edwards, a somewhat new author, epecially since she writes about the restuarant business. I cannot praise Kristan Higgins enough, as her novels are fasting becoming favorites of mine. She has become an auto-buy author for me.

  5. Susan says:

    Add to some of the new names (for me, anyway), Abigail Reynolds-”The Man Who Loved Jane Austen”, Laura Moore’s current Rosewood trillogy, and Erin McCarthy, who writes various genres. If anyone wants to dig back in time, I adored Linda Howard’s old contemporary romances which were not mysteries – always a good re-read!

  6. AAR Lynn says:

    All kinds of good suggestions. I’ll need to try those! I’ve got one of Shannon Stacey’s books waiting for me on the Kindle, too.

    I think good contemporaries are almost the ultimate character-driven stories because the story rests so heavily on the leads. With romantic suspense, I can sometimes like a book with a good plot even if the leads are so-so but in straight contemp, that just doesn’t work.

  7. Leigh says:

    I love contemporary books. Like Lea one my favorite authors is Susan Elizabeth Phillips.

    If an author can make me laugh, then she typically goes on my auto buy list, which currently includes Jill Mansell, Rachel Gibson, Susan Andersen, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Kristin Higgins, Jane Graves, Hope Ramsey.

    I also like authors that can handle the more serious plot devices like Emilie Richards, Lucy Dillon, Robyn Carr, Laura Moore, Sarah Addison Allen

    Over this past year I have some great luck with Harlequin authors (beside the Mira line which includes Robyn Carr, and Emilie Richards) with Karina Bliss, Sarah Mayberry, Maggie O’Keefe, Jessica Hart, and Kasey Michaels.

    Authors that have a hint of mystery that doesn’t overwhelm the story include Mariah Stewart and Susanna Kearsley.

    I wish that there were more contemporary books released every month.

  8. Magdalen says:

    Well, I’m trying to get my single-title contemporary romances published, but it’s hard. Here are two problems I’m facing:

    Because there aren’t that many out there, a lot of publishers are going to be skittish about publishing a genre that doesn’t seem to be selling well. (Uh, chicken? Did you just get here, or was the egg first?) Clearly someone’s going to have to come along who creates a whole new niche, the way Susan Elizabeth Phillips has done, and that will hopefully make publishers more enthusiastic.

    Another problem I have is that my plots seem weak on “external conflict”. Well, uh, yeah. That’s because I don’t have someone trying to steal from the protagonists or kill them or kidnap them. I don’t even have them hating each other. Much of my conflict comes from the fact that smart people have often constructed some really wacky ways of getting through the world, and when they meet a great person and fall in love, they still need to get out of their own way in order to have an HEA. That process, that need to figure out what the internal barrier to happiness is, fascinates me.

    But if great writers like Julie James and Jennifer Crusie seem to need more external conflict, one wonders if that’s market driven or just their own personal preference.

    I’m writing precisely the romance I want to read. Ironically, the fact that it doesn’t yet exist works against my efforts to get published.

  9. Blanka says:

    Contemporary is my favorite genre and I want them with absolutely no supernatural elements and little or no suspense but I do not mind — actually I rather like it — if they venture into woman’s fiction territory as long as there is a strong romantic element and a satisfying ending.

    My favorite authors are probably Kathleen Eagle and Kristan Higgins but another really good book I read after a recommendation on the message boards is Girl From Mars by Julie Cohen. I guess it qualifies as woman’s fiction but I found it really romantic and with a lovely hero. Right now I’m reading the her latest one ‘Getting Away With It’ and it’s also very good so far.

  10. maggie b. says:

    I love contemps, although I also love RS and paranormal which also give me a contemp feel.

    Favorite authors are Robin Wells, SEP, Sarah Addison Allen, Robyn Carr, Nora Roberts, Janice Kay Davidson (Harlequin), Rachel Gibson, Kristan Higgins.

    Since I started reading inspirationals I have loved books like “Love Finds You in Hershey, PA” and “Always the Baker, Never the Bride” by Sandra D. Bricker.

    Beth Patillio’s “Jane Austen Ruined My Life” and her other two Austen related contemps are also great reads.

    Chick lit as contemp and romantic women’s fiction work for me as well. Katie Fforde writes some charming contemps. Wiggs writes some good- and very memorable – woman’s romantic fiction.

  11. Carrie says:

    I like contemporary romance, and agree with many of the suggestions here. I also read Susan Donovan, Elaine Fox, Robin Kaye, Robin Wells, Toni Blake, Sarah Mayberry, a few of Tami Hoag’s early works (like The Trouble with J.J.), Deirdre Martin, Kate Angell, Suzanne Brockmann’s non TS books (like the Sunrise Key trilogy, Heartthrob, Infamous), Victoria Dahl, some early Sandra Brown (Sunny Chandler Returns), Jane Graves, Shirley Jump. Christie Ridgeway, Dallas Schulze (The Substitute Wife), Susan Mallory, Sandra Bricker, Erin McCarthy, etc…

    Since contemporary romantic suspense is probably my favorite sub-genre, I enjoy it when there is some sort of mystery/suspense plot in the book, but most of the above authors have at least some books w/out any suspense.

    My #1 favorite contemporary romance is Butterfly Tattoo by Deidre Knight.

  12. Karla says:

    Lately I’ve been satisfying my contemporary craving with YA romance books. Obviously the experience is a bit different, for one thing there is very little sex. The books are also often set in high school, which could be a turn off for some readers. For me high school is safely far enough in the past to be interesting again. But I’ve found that the romance in these books can be very emotional.

    Here are some Ya books that have hit my romance buttons:

    Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins
    The Duff by Kody Keplinger
    Something Maybe by Elizabeth Scott
    Going Too Far by Jennifer Echols
    Just Listen by Sarah Dessen
    The Big Crunch by Pete Hautman

  13. Barbie says:

    My def of Contemporary Romance is Romance that deals with today’s world as viewed by the heroine. I think that a great author is able to create that story for today’s women but at the same time create her in such a way that when reread (or read for the first time) we the readers can are able to see her 10 20 years and still consider her a part of our world. For example Fancy Pants- by Susan Elizabeth Phillps, I think that I can see Fran in our world ,( despite this book was made in the early eights) She is to me what a modern woman should be like ( after her trails) . She is a single woman trying to discover who she is in the world, what her mark on the world should be, and be a single good mom to Ted.
    I also believe that Contemporary Romance should make us as women feel empowered. We as women play many roles and sometimes as women forget that we can do everything or we are humans and cant do everything in day, week or month that we need to do. We should be able to laugh at ourselves or at least have time to do the things we love.

    I enjoy reading Contemporary Romances. Well I prefer to listen to Contemporary Romances or close to Contemporary. I know that I might be acting bias but truth is Historical good when you want live in simplier times, Suspence/Mysteries are cool when need a fix, Series( like HQ ) are good too if you want a quick read, Paranomal are for times when life needs no
    explanations it is what it is, chicklit is like book therapy for a woman’s soul.

    You as the reader has the power to define what is Contemporary Romance and what it is not. I believe that we have the ultimate power lies in the reader.

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