Thinking about writing category romance? Well, you’re in the right place because author Virginia Heath joins us today to talk about her 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 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.
- The Right First Impression by Virginia Heath
- Cracking the Category Code – How to Write Short and Write Often with Kat Cantrell
- Erratic Breathing and the Steely Glare by Virginia Heath
- Fifty Shades of Sweet with Heartwarming Editor Victoria Curran