Harper Fox is one of my favorite authors and a huge influence for me and my work – excuse me while I have a fangirl moment. I first experienced her work in an amazing book entitled, “Life After Joe” and I was hooked by the end of the first chapter. She has a knack for deep emotion and creating characters and setttings that are fresh, original, and turning the usual romance tropes on their ears. I selfishly asked her to answer my most pressing questions and she graciously agreed. Welcome Harper!
Hi, everyone. It’s a very great pleasure to be talking to you here at the Romance University today.
When Robin invited me to write an article, I really had to scratch my head for a topic. It’s not that I’m not brimming over with thoughts, but I was aware that RU is a forum where authors – very erudite and successful ones – offer insights to readers and writers into the process of writing romance, and although over the past couple of years I’ve thought more about technique and method than I ever did when I was only writing for myself, I do remain a very seat-of-the-pants sort of author. Not so much in terms of plot – selling books on proposal means you do have to come up with one and stick with it – but when it comes to the daily business of making places and people come alive on the page.
Eventually I gave up and asked Robin what she thought a good topic would be. She was kind enough to say that my work engages readers emotionally whilst avoiding melodrama, and that my books offer fresh, original characters, settings and storylines. (Thank you, Robin.) She suggested I share with you some ideas about how I provide that emotional connection and come up with those protags, places and plots. That idea appealed to me a lot because, although the process to me is very organic, obviously there is some conscious thought going on! “I just do it” is not a helpful answer, and not a true one either – ultimately I want and need to create a saleable book for the romance market, and that immediately provides me with a set of guidelines, a target audience and a plot dynamic.
What I’d like to say first of all is – what an amazing amount of room for manoeuvre there is within those romance guidelines! When I started the first book I intended to try and publish, I did wonder if my M/M heroes had to be just that – leanly muscled semi-divinities who strode about solving their problems and everyone else’s, falling into bed together to an accompaniment of orchestral music and fireworks after just the right amount of angst. I’m a bit ashamed of myself over those fears now. Over the course of eight books, my publishers have accepted, and readers taken to their hearts, an enormous range of seriously flawed and struggling men, including a middle-aged Edinburgh copper with a drink problem, an army doctor racked with PTSD, an illegal immigrant and, in Scrap Metal, a Glasgow runaway who may or may not have committed a terrible crime. I haven’t felt trammelled in any way when creating these guys, and the happy-ever-after requirement hasn’t felt restrictive either. No-one wanted an HEA for McBride, Tom, Sasha and Cameron more than I did. I’m pretty optimistic about the chances of love, redemption and happiness in life, and for me it’s been a matter of harnessing redemptive potential within my protags to carry the story through to a satisfactory and realistic conclusion. I don’t deploy miracles. The road to love can be a tough and dirty one, and maybe it should be. There’s hard work and a big effort of self-realisation involved, and often a leap in the dark. One form of believable magic I do enjoy is placing someone there to catch.
With regard to forging emotional connections between my men and my readers – for me that’s the easy part. No matter how bad a day I’m having, how uninspired I’m feeling, I still have my basic qualification to do that, which is that I’m human. (Some days it takes a coffee or two, but still.) That means I can write a believable rescue pilot or a doctor. I haven’t been either of those things but I know how it feels to fail to help or save someone, or to succeed in doing something good for someone, and I bet you do too. Obviously I research the technical stuff, but the basic connection I need is right there.
I know that the enormous majority of my readers will share the same base palette of emotions and reactions, and the very ordinariness of those feelings is what makes them so precious. We most of us know what it’s like to be lonely, heart-thumping scared, teetering like an idiot on the brink of falling crazy in love. I’m not reaching far for these driving forces in my prose. Melodrama isn’t necessary. The ordinary forces in our lives are enough to sling us down into the mud or upward into heaven. So for me it’s a matter of getting inside my own skin, remembering how it felt for me, then getting inside of Tom’s skin, or Cam’s or Flynn’s, and showing – not telling – how it feels for them. (That’s an important distinction. You can inform your readers till the cows come home how awful or how ecstatic a character is feeling, but you bull’s-eye the target when you make the guy get up and do whatever it is these emotions are compelling him to do.)
I’m glad my characters come across as fresh. I’m glad the storylines do too, because I’m sure that my tales of love, loss and redemption have been told in their essence a billion times before, and that’s no bad thing. I don’t believe there are many “original” stories, not when it comes to romance and the motivations of the human heart. But if as an author you can truly get inside a protag’s head, wrap yourself up in his hide, whatever story he tells is going to come across as fresh because although we share common feelings, our individual way of experiencing those feelings is unique. Perhaps that’s the writer’s gift – to make a string of different protagonists out of her sole self, to get inside different skins.
Having said all that, I do absolutely cheat with settings. Man, settings are a gift! The world is full of the most fantastic backdrops against which to tell a story. A tower on a Cornish cliff! Great stuff. An ancient Roman wall, or a priory besieged by Vikings, or Edinburgh in winter – bring ’em on. Even if I’m struggling to give a protagonist an individual voice, I can take him and his lover and set the pair of them loose in one of these environments, and they’ll start to react for me as no-one has ever reacted before. Or, okay, never mind the exotics – give me a lonely teenager’s attic room, or just a street in my own home town where I’ve walked a million times before. Now I’m sitting up there as Laurie in A Midwinter Prince, wondering how the hell I’m ever going to escape my wealthy, stifling background. Or I’m Matthew in Life After Joe, and the boring street has just become riveting to me because I’ve got a skinful of nightclub drugs and I’m running down it for my life with a gang of murderous thugs in pursuit. I am, by the way, a woman in her mid-forties, of very staid daily habits, and I’ve never had much to do with drugs, thugs or (unfortunately) wealth. It just isn’t necessary. I just need to feel the basic emotion, and switch skins. That’s what I’d say to anyone struggling for a fresh scene, story, character – just feel. How would it be for you? See the environment. Smell it. Plonk down on a wooden bench on the promenade and promptly get a splinter in your bum. Detail, detail, visceral physical detail. You wouldn’t be in this writing game if you weren’t already empathetic, imaginative and simply dying to tell your story. I’m pretty sure that for most of us, the tools for that fresh magic, that original way of serving up even the oldest of tales, are right there at hand.
I’ve really enjoyed this. If you’d like to comment and/or discuss with me any of the things I’ve been talking about, or indeed anything else, I’ll be around to answer all today. Anyone who leaves a comment has a chance of winning a nice little prize – I’ll random-pick three of you, and you can each choose either a copy of my latest release, Scrap Metal, or two ebooks from my backlist, details on my website. Thanks to Robin, and the Romance University, for the opportunity of blogging here today!
Whew! What is your organic process to touch your readers, create memorable characters, and fresh settings? As a reader – what touches you and makes a book one you can’t put down?
Emmie Dark, debut Harlequin Superomance author is here on Monday. Don’t miss it!
On a rainy Scottish island, Nichol is struggling to save his grandfather’s farm. Lonely and nearing the end of his rope, he almost shoots the intruder who breaks into his barn one stormy night. But Cameron, on the run from a Glasgow gang, quickly charms his way through Nichol’s defences and into his heart. Even Nichol’s curmudgeonly old grandfather takes to Cam, whose hard work and good head for figures help set the business back on its feet.
Nichol is grieving for lost family and the academic life he’s had to leave behind him in Edinburgh. As a cold Arran springtime melts into summer, Cam’s presence restores all his love of the island and his joy in life. He’s falling in love – with a young man whose heart is full of secrets and who stays resolutely silent about his past.
When tragedy strikes the farm, Cam’s secret is finally revealed. Now Nichol has to face the truth. He’s given his heart to a stranger, and it’s time to pay the price. Is their bond strong enough for love to survive – no matter what Cam has done?
Bio: Harper Fox is a UK-based author of M/M romance fiction. She’s had eight novels published in the last two years and is living in a scary abyss between her day job and full-time writing. Find out more about Harper’s books, inspiration and ongoing projects at www.harperfox.net
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