Posted On September 26, 2016 by Print This Post

Easy? I wish… by Virginia Heath

Thinking about writing category romance? Well, you’re in the right place because author Virginia Heath joins us today to talk about herVirginia Heath experience on writing category romance for Harlequin Historical.

I write what is termed as ‘category’ romance. Personally, I dislike that label because it suggests books are churned out in some factory somewhere. All uniform. All the same. What really rustles my jimbobs are the people who sneer and look down their nose at me. Oh, you write for Harlequin. Hardly proper books- but then I suppose once you get the formula right… If only there was a formula, then my job wouldn’t be so difficult!

However, until recently when I attended the Romantic Novelists Association conference for the first time, I did not appreciate how many writers had tried and failed to get their work published by Harlequin. Those writers did not sneer or look down their nose at me. They were impressed. In fact, I lost count of the number of people who asked my advice about how to crack the tough nut of ‘category’ romance. So many that I thought I would share a few nuggets with you today.

I would stress at this point that I am far from being an expert. I have only written five books so far for the Harlequin Historical line, however in that time I have learned a great deal. You see, the guidelines are in fact very woolly. A few scant sentences at most. There are only two sacred rules you absolutely have to obey. Rule one is that a romance has to be central to the plot and the other is the strict word count. For me, as a Harlequin Historical author that is 75,000. Other lines have even tighter limits. Presents, for example, cannot exceed 50,000 words; something which is no mean feat when the average commercial novel runs to 85-100K.

Those strict word counts mean you have to be very selective about what you put in. You seriously have to trim all of the fat. No superfluous flowery descriptions. No meandering down little side paths. You can write whatever plot you want, send the hero and heroine on all manner of adventures, but it must remain CHARACTER CENTRAL. The side characters cannot have too much space- and that can be hard to do. Think of them as the seasoning but the hero and heroine have to be the meat in the stew.

Which leads me nicely to my next point. I might be wrong, but I have never read a category romance written in the first person. You have to allow your reader to get inside both of the main protagonists’ heads, hear their internal musings, understand their actions or reactions. Therefore, you have to HEAD HOP with extreme caution. Do it too often and it becomes messy and confuses the reader. Do it at the wrong time and the story becomes disjointed. Don’t do it enough and one character will not get the audience rooting for the happily ever after because they haven’t engaged with the character.

Then, of course, because your word count is so limited, you must continually move the romance forward. To do this you must KEEP THEM ON THE PAGE TOGETHER- although not necessarily physically. There will inevitably be necessary plot scenes where your two leads are in separate places. If your hero has gone missing or there has been a kidnap, such integral plot devices have to occur. They have to be physically apart but you can still show the blossoming romance in other ways. The hero could smell something that instantly brings a picture of the heroine into his mind, your heroine could be raging internally about how unreasonable the hero’s behaviour has just been. Show them thinking about each other! In one of my books (because I am a panster not a plotter by nature), my hero kept avoiding the heroine, so I had to do something drastic to force them together else suffer from the dreaded ‘sagging middle’ in my story. On a whim, I decided to have her cause him to have an accident. Obviously, because they were in the middle of nowhere, she had to nurse him back to good health and those pesky broken ribs created a sense of enforced intimacy which helped to drive them both mad with lust and longing.

And finally, you have to make the pair of them EARN THE HAPPILY EVER AFTER. Really, you can throw whatever obstacles you want at them. Some fairly controversial issues have been tackled head on in category romances, from domestic abuse to modern slavery, so you can let your imagination run riot. However, no matter how many bad guys or bad days you give them, there also needs to be a solid INTERNAL CONFLICT that continues to keep them apart so that reader is cheering by the time they finally work it all out. Fear of commitment, previous bad experiences, a deep, dark secret. Whatever it is, it needs to throw a spanner in the works. They need to have an emotional journey as well as an adventure. I like to think of my hero and heroine as equally strong magnets. Push them together the wrong way and the opposing force prevents them from getting too close. Then, when you flip those magnets they will stick together like glue. It is that solid bond you need to eventually create- because in category romance you have to believe the hero and heroine will be blissfully happy forever. Your end is their beginning…

Do you write category romance? Have any questions for Virginia? 


the-discerning-gentlemans-guide-uk-coverTHE DISCERNING GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE  – [Harlequin Historical – October 2016]

“Choosing a wife is not a task that should be undertaken lightly.”

Bennett Montague, sixteenth Duke of Aveley, is seeking the perfect bride. He’s narrowed his search to five worthy “Potentials”…until the arrival of his aunt’s companion unravels his carefully laid plans.

Having fought for everything she has, Amelia Mansfield is incensed by Bennett’s wife-selection methods. But as she’s forced to spend time in his company, she begins to see another side to Bennett—and that man is infinitely more tantalizing and enticing…


Bio: I live on the outskirts of London with my understanding husband and two, less understanding, teenagers. After spending years teaching history, I decided to follow my dream of writing for Harlequin.

Now I spend my days happily writing regency romances, creating heroes that I fall in love with and heroines who inspire me. When I’m not doing that, I like to travel to far off places, shop for things that I do not need or read romances written by other people.

To learn more about Virginia, visit her website or connect with her via Facebook and Twitter.

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17 Responses to “Easy? I wish… by Virginia Heath”

  1. Thank you Virginia for coming! I’ve been trying to write category for the last year now and it’s not at ALL easy. 😛 I keep coming back though.

    My question is: are your editors forgiving if your word count is under the required limits?

    I’ve been consistently under (and for the same amounts) on each manuscript I’ve attempted and wondered if this would be a problem on the day I manage to get an editor to look at my work.

    Posted by Nicole | September 26, 2016, 8:20 am
    • Hi Nicole- I suppose how many words you are under by is the key. I always try to go under by about 3-5K as then I have some wiggle room when I get the revisions back. however, 10k or more would be an issue as the books are all printed to be a standard size. What category are you writing for? As a 50k presents is quite short enough- anything less would be a novella! A good editor will work with you to extend a story if they thought it had the right potential- and often it’s the internal conflict which hooks them above all else.

      Posted by Virginia Heath | September 26, 2016, 4:56 pm
  2. I know writers who think writing category is easy and anyone can do it. But romance writers know better.

    Posted by Susan Gourley | September 26, 2016, 8:42 am
  3. I love this topic! I know several Harlequin authors, and they all work hard to write engaging, memorable novels and I think they succeed. I first discovered Harlequin’s British imprint, Mills & Boon, when I was living and working in London in the 1970s. There was a street market near my office, and since I had a long commute on the train, I was often in need of new reading materials. The street market vendors sold bags of Mills & Boon paperbacks for a pound (roughly $2.50 at that time). I read a book a day on my commute and became hooked. When we moved back to the U.S. in the 1980s, I subscribed to Harlequin, Silhouette and Candlelite Ecstasy romances and my addiction grew. Years later, when I struggled to write my own romance novels, I realized just how hard it was to write “category” or any other kind of romance. It drives me crazy when people blow this genre off for whatever reason. Congratulations on your success!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | September 26, 2016, 11:01 am
  4. Virginia, thank you for sharing your experience. Writing is hard, no matter what ‘category’ it’s in.

    Posted by Sara Zalesky | September 26, 2016, 11:04 am
    • Agreed! so many people think anyone can do it, and are so dismissive of romance as a genre, but millions of readers can’t be wrong 😉 I think being able to write is like being able to draw. Some have the talent and some really don’t.

      Posted by Virginia Heath | September 26, 2016, 5:03 pm
  5. Hi Virginia,

    I’m in awe of authors who write category because I’m the kind of writer who has to get it all down and then go back and start cutting scenes and characters. I’ve enjoyed your books and even though they’re category length, they read like single title historicals. Not easy to do.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | September 26, 2016, 8:39 pm
  6. You’ve only published 5 books? You are 5 up on me! I went to your website and found an excerpt from your newest novel (mentioned here) and I found your writing beautifully fluid and the plot certainly pulled me in! Your writing is superb (if my opinion counts). If only I could write as well! In any career -there is always someone ahead and others who are following behind (unless you’re Nora Roberts of course)and so, from someone behind – thank you for the “word candy” here. I am a history buff, AND I love a good romance. I’m a writer still seeking her niche so thank you for the inside peek at what you do and how you do it. I’m reading and learning for now and so I’m off to find out how things go for Bennett and Amelia! Such a clever plot!

    Posted by Meg | September 27, 2016, 3:35 pm
    • Awww thanks Meg. I loved writing about Bennett and Amelia. He is one of my favourite heroes so far. He is so stiff and formal at the start and I love him for that. And so pompous and misguided when it comes to women. Actually, so far on 2 are technically published- with another 4 somewhere in the Harlequin pipeline. But I’ve just signed a new 5 book contract with them, so expect lots more, including my first series and (and I am thrilled about being asked to do this) a Christmas story for next December. PS- Bennett’s book is on a Goodreads giveaway at the moment if you want to win an advance copy before the Discerning Gentleman’s Guide goes on sale in November 🙂

      Posted by Virginia Heath | September 28, 2016, 5:13 pm
  7. Virginia, thank you so much for this post!! I’m trying to break into Harlequin I know how difficult it is. I have learned every word counts when I have only 55k of them to tell my story.

    Posted by Carrie Nichols | September 27, 2016, 5:22 pm
    • Hi Carrie-take my advice and keep it to 50K. It’s easier to enrich with revisions than revise and cut. I sometimes use the ‘Negative Trait Thesaurus’ (Angela Ackerman) reverse backstory tool to ensure the internal conflict is strong for both characters. Good internal conflict is key with category romances.

      Posted by Virginia Heath | September 28, 2016, 5:07 pm


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