How to write the ultimate love story

June 30, 2009

What better way to wile away the winter nights than by writing your very own love story? Here is an extract from a new book “Heart and Craft” that will help you get those creative juices flowing.

“Writing romance is a feminist act. If you write romance, expect your feminist friends to be horrified at your betrayal of the sisterhood, literary ones to ask you when you plan to write a real book? and casual acquaintances to say, ‘So, you just change the characters’ names for each book?’ Most people don’t intend to be rude, although it’s difficult to think otherwise of the woman who listened to a talk I gave her writing group, and afterwards
interrupted my conversation with several other people to state, ‘I’ve never read a Mills & Boon. They’re all rubbish anyway!’ before stalking away.

How she knew this, never having read one, I don’t
know, but her unsupported pronouncement on the
books is an all-too-common opinion.
Romance is almost exclusively a female genre,
and for centuries women’s literature was assumed to
be inferior to that produced by men. Even now romance
novels—almost exclusively written, read and even
edited by women—are still unthinkingly dismissed by
the majority of academics and most media as unworthy
of serious attention.

The vast majority of romance readers are voracious
and eclectic readers. Like myself and other constant
readers, they probably compulsively read the labels on
sauce bottles and cereal packets.


Romance readers, according to surveys conducted in
the UK and US, cover the entire spectrum of womanhood,
and match almost exactly the median of those who
don’t read romance. There are as many doctors, lawyers,
bus drivers, librarians, university lecturers, freezing
workers, businesswomen, nurses and shop assistants
among romance readers as in the general population of
women. A couple of American studies suggest they are
less likely to watch TV than the ‘norm’, though they’re
slightly more likely to be interested in politics—and in
sex (a chicken-and-egg conclusion?).
bigger and badder he is, the more satisfying the victory.
How many people would buy a book about climbing the
Netherlands’ 300-metre highest point at Valkenberg?
Yet, numerous books have been written and read
about the conquest of Everest (8800 metres and still
growing). Similarly, a book about a nice girl who marries
an amiable, housebroken specimen of the male species
is about as exciting as a coddled egg.


Fighting isn’t a necessary component of romance, but
tension is. The most even-tempered hero can show a
steely streak, or have his moments of quiet and terrifying
anger. Whenever one of Betty Neels’ large, sleepy-eyed
doctor heroes spoke in a ‘silken’ tone, it sent shivers
down my spine. Neels’ impeccably written sex-free
books had a huge following and are still being reprinted.
Whether there is no sex on the page or explicit sex is a
major component, the true core of romance speaks loud
and clear to its target audience.

It’s about women and power. In real life most
women would likely run a mile from some of the hard
men depicted (as the average man with any sense
of self-preservation would from Goldfi nger or Darth
Vader), but in their chosen genre the stories are a
delicious read.

Mary Burchell, writing for Mills & Boon in the
1930s–60s, was quite pitiless towards her heroes, who
took their power and privilege for granted until it hit
them that some mousy girl had them in thrall. Typically
Burchell’s heroes are lofty, superior and frequently
impatient beings, like Quentin Otway in Damaged
Angel (1966) who, fi nally laid low by love, admits
to being ‘ungenerous and unworthy’, or Oliver who,
in Except My Love (1937), realises ‘he’d been so stupid,
so lacking in understanding’.
‘. . . all the way home . . . I tried to imagine ways
of telling you how sorry I was, but of course they
didn’t come very easily to me in those days.’
‘He imagines they do now,’ thought Erica

Obviously Erica has the upper hand now, and is having
a quiet laugh at Oliver’s expense. Burchell’s heroes at
this point are often literally on their knees, described
as boyish or childish, while the heroines embrace,
reassure and mother them before allowing them to
return to being masterful lovers. Few writers have
so clearly invoked the fantasy at the heart of the genre.
The man the heroine wants for her lifelong
companion, the father of her children, must be both
strong and sensitive, and make her the centre of his
world, the one person he will bow to.

Romance addresses needs, desires and concerns
shared by women all over the world—choosing a
mate, nurturing relationships, the preservation of our
species, and women’s place in the world. Ever-evolving, it changes as new challenges arise for women and as society alters its mores and its views. Young women today don’t remember, as their mothers and grandmothers do, how men were allowed and even expected to behave, way back when. The romantic heroes of the last century were not-greatly-exaggerated examples of their sex at the time they were written. Contemporary romance always takes place in the Now, and has often been in the vanguard of feminist thought. In a world where men ruled, heroines loyal to their own principles asserted their independence
rather than succumb to the dictates of the men they loved.


For years before the new feminist wave of women’s liberation, Mills & Boon writers like Mary Burchell, Eleanor Farnes and Rosalind Brett depicted young women struggling with the tension between careers and marriage. When IVF and surrogate motherhood came along, romance writers immediately began writing about the possibilities and pitfalls of the new technology.

“Heart and Craft: Best selling romance writers share their secrets with you”
Valerie Parv
$24.99, Allen & Unwin

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