Can a man write a romance novel?
I remember one of my college English professors talking of wanting to “pick up a little spare change” as a graduate student. He decided to write short stories using a female pseudonym and submit them to women’s magazines (this was back in the early 60’s, when magazines published a lot more short fiction). His comeuppance was almost immediate: several editors sent him personal rejection letters, telling him to stop trying to write as a woman.
His words came back to me in the summer of 2007 while I was competing in the Gather.com romance novel contest. The first chapter of my novel Lacey Took a Holiday was getting a lot of kind feedback, much of it from other authors and almost all of them women. Then Starr Toth, the fine romance author whose story Lie to Me took second place in the contest, read and commented on my entry: “This feels like a mainstream novel with romantic elements, rather than a straight romance.” Busted! Starr had figured out in one brief chapter that the book wasn’t a “true” romance. “Oh, she’s just prejudiced because I’m a guy,” I thought. This was just an insidious prejudice against men writing romances, I assured myself,.
I have to say that a lot of people liked Lacey, including the Second Wind Publishing people, and I guess the book had enough good stuff in it to make it into print (although I still get comments that the book is not really a romance). The great thing about the Gather contest and being published along with other romance authors is that I have been give the opportunity to learn a lot about romance—books, I mean. In fact, I think I’m on firm footing when I say I’ve learned things about romance novels that most guys never understand. So here are some of the really important things I’ve learned about romance novels:
Fine romance novels are quality works of literature. Well-written romance is the prose equivalent of fine poetry. Face it, Jane Austen was a romance author. If she were living today, some dippy reviewer would be criticizing her for trying to make social commentary in romance novels. For sheer descriptive power and lyrical beauty that simultaneously deals with the consequences of human actions, you owe it to yourself to read Dellani Oakes captivating Indian Summer or Sherrie Hansen’s poignant Night and Day. Oakes story deals with Florida in the 18th century, while Hansen’s is a post-modern story of a love affair that starts on the internet—but the social consciousness is a gripping element in each.
In ways other fiction genres cannot match, well-written romance captures and suborns a setting and makes it a compelling servant of the story being told. How I wish more people would read Juliet Waldron’s magnificent Hand Me Down Bride. It captures precisely what rural life was like in the days immediately following the Civil War (and her characterizations are perfect). Suzette Vaughn does double duty in her Badeaux Knights. She depicts small town, Generation X life along the sleepy Gulf Coast, while giving a wonderfully detailed account of Renaissance enactors. Stormy Weather, Sherrie Hansen’s heartland romance, absolutely captures the essence of a Midwestern small town—gossip and all.
Romance has a unique ability to make the supernatural and the spiritual plausible and accessible. It’s probably impossible to find two more disparate examples of this than Amy De Trempe’s Loving Lydia and Mairead Walpole’s A Love Out of Time. De Trempe blends 17th century Catholicism and passionate human love into a tale that is as full of aching and longing as it is of faith. Walpole takes an equally ancient set of religious beliefs—that are also startlingly contemporary—and twines them into a marvelously intricate story of lovers and a group of sisters who are, well, more than human. The charming, devilish romance Nora’s Soul, by Margay Leah Justice, manages to spin two tales simultaneously: while a beautiful human couple find themselves drawn inexorably back to their childhood love, a pair of angels vie for a young woman’s soul. Janette Rochelle Lewie and Suzette Vaughn in very different ways take on the pantheon of the ancient gods. Lewie skillfully unpacks an ancient myth in a steamy, modern way in Sonya Recovered. Vaughn, in Mortals, Gods and a Muse, does a magnificent job of demonstrating for modern readers the ancient conceit of what happens when the gods start messing with your love life.
A well-written romance can be every bit as thrilling and suspenseful as the best crime novel—and a lot more emotive. Safe Harbor, Sherilyn Winrose’s first novel, is a tremendously intense, breathtaking roller coaster that just incidentally is really all about a sweet, compelling love story of a young woman and man trying to right wrongs. Life and death, virtue and vice, love and deceit all hang in the balance in both of Claire Collins first two novels—that in truth are remarkably distinct. In Fate and Destiny—a Gather contest semi-finalist—Collins wows readers with a tale at turns frightening, heart-warming and hilarious. Her second novel, Images of Betrayal, seems to be a paranormal thriller, yet turns on profound psychological insights, all the while describing pure first love.
The truest, grandest form of romance novels, the regency, is among the most exacting and rewarding types of literature. Back in the days of my ignorance, I referred to these as “lords and ladies books.” I had no idea the level of historical and geographical knowledge it takes to write these novels. I had mentioned Amy De Trempe above and I should note that, like Loving Lydia, her second regency title, Pure is the Heart, is seamless in its accuracy—and delightful in the poignant story it tells. Tart, funny and ultimately joyful is the best way to describe Lucy Balch’s romp of a regency novel Love Trumps Logic (and, brother, she’s right about that!). Then there is Jerrica Knight-Catania’s first offering, a tender novel of justice and duty (here we are back at Jane Austen again) called A Gentleman Never Tells.
How very distinct from one another these titles are. Indeed about the only thing they have in common is that they were all written by outstanding women authors. It’s more than a little ironic that my first published novel falls into the genre of romance. At least my romance colleagues at Second Wind are kind and accepting. Maybe one day I’ll be brave enough to try a second romance novel—just to prove that a man can do it. —Lazarus Barnhill, author of Lacey Took a Holiday and The Medicine People
Check out the Second Wind Romance Sampler. It includes the first chapters of all these romances, and it’s free! Click here: to get your free download.