Keira: You started Promantica late last year. Why did you start and what are some of your favorite posts that you’ve written so far?
Magdalen: I’d been blogging about other things (my life generally, knitting, quilting, even local politics) for a while when I heard the April 2009 NPR interview with Sarah Wendell and Amy Tan, aka the Smart Bitches. I was stunned by their blog — I’d been living in a cave with respect to romances, and had no idea social media specific to the genre had taken off. Here were bright, educated, funny women interested in romances in a way I’d never seen before.
Before I knew it, I’d found Sarah Tanner’s relatively new blog, Monkey Bear Reviews. If it had only been book reviews, I probably wouldn’t have started to comment, but she had some very intriguing questions about publishing and the media. I’ll pretty much comment anywhere (I’m slutty that way), and her blog was still small enough that I got to know people and be known.
And all of it got me thinking about romance fiction, why it’s not respected, and so forth. I actually wrote a couple posts on my “life in general” blog on the subject. But that didn’t feel like quite the right venue, so I started Promantica.
My favorite posts? Truthfully, I still think my very first post — about etiquette on the Internet — is still timely and funny. I suspect no one else has ever read it though; I had no followers when it was posted. After that, well — it’s hard to pick a favorite when there’s so much variation.
Keira: Which do you like more: finishing a book or starting a new one?
Magdalen: I have a confession to make. I only read one book at a time. Yes, there are books only partially finished that I haven’t yet declared to be DNFs, but those have been kicking around for months. So, generally, if I start a book, I either finish it or ditch it. For that reason, I enjoy finishing books because it means I’m invested in them and like them well enough to keep going. Also, all the angsty goodness is usually at the end!
Keira: You’re stuck in an airport when your next flight has been delayed. You visit the airport bookstore to get yourself a romance and a kind stranger offers to buy you your choice. What genre or author do you pick?
Magdalen: You might as well make that my husband, Ross, who a) actually is someone I might abuse enough to say, “Honey, would you please go buy me a book?” and b) has about as much clue about the romance genre as a total stranger would. So, what instructions would I give Ross about what to buy? That’s a great question — I can’t just say, “Buy me a Nora Roberts,” because what if I’d already read whatever he bought? I means, she’s written hundreds of books and I haven’t read them all, but I’ve read enough to lower the probability Ross would find one that was new to me.
I think I would tell him to look for romantic suspense — I don’t read that much of it, and as I recently discovered, any book is readable if you’re eager to find out whodunnit. As Anne Stuart is a leading light in that sub-genre (and I’ve only read one of hers), that’s probably the name I’d give him.
Keira: What is your favorite and/or least favorite plot, character type, or literary device?
Magdalen: Oddly enough, I don’t have an immediate answer to the question of what my least favorites might be. I’m not a fan of medievals, mostly because a modicum of personal hygiene seems more romantic to me. But for every stock character that someone might name — the virgin heroine, the manslut hero, the beta hero, the other woman, the villain — I can probably think of a book I liked that had one. Same thing with tropes, like the marriage of convenience, the trapped-together-by-a-blizzard meet-cute, and so forth.
I have a rule: every book gets judged on its own merit. That means, for example, that Loretta Chase’s Don’t Tempt Me, with its sexually knowledgeable but miraculously virginal heroine, didn’t bother me. A great writer like Chase could probably redeem anything I think I hate in the abstract.
Wait — I take it back. I do have a fundamental objection to one specific sort of romance. When a contemporary romance pairs up a famous celebrity with a pleasantly non-famous mate, I’m skeptical. There’s a reason why the divorce rate is higher in Hollywood, for example, and it’s not one that encourages me, as a reader, to believe the HEA in those books.
As for what I like, that’s much easier. I like smart characters in interesting situations. I like characters who fall in love above the waist before the loins get involved. I like plausible backstories; too much childhood trauma and I want that person in therapy, not in a relationship. And I do love angsty goodness in a romance: if the protagonists have good reason to think their romance isn’t going to work out, I eat it up with a spoon.
Keira: Who are your five favorite romance heroes?
Magdalen: Even though I first read Betty Neels’s Fate is Remarkable in 1970, I just wrote some fan fiction about its hero, Hugo van Elven, for the Bettys at The Uncrushable Jersey Dress blog. He’s the classic Rich Dutch Doctor from Neels’s early Harlequin/Mills & Boon romances, but with a twist. At the end of the book we learn that he fell in love with Sarah years before he suggested the standard Neels trope: the chaste marriage of convenience. Now there’s a great source of angst! So I rewrote the plot from Hugo’s POV (in a fraction of the words that Neels used, of course), and fell in love with him all over again.
Forty years later, I’ve just fallen in love with Wulfric Bedwyn, Duke of Bewcastle, the pater familias in Mary Balogh’s Slightly series. Balogh does such a great job exploring why Wulf is the way he is, and just how much (or how little) he can change. The advantage to romances written more recently is the amount of time we’re allowed to spend inside the hero’s head. I’m not convinced men think the way we’d like to believe they do, but that’s why they call it fiction. (Ross, proofreading over my shoulder, tells me that men don’t think at all. We women think they think, but they don’t. Hey, that’s just what he’s telling me. Don’t shoot the messenger.)
I’m a sucker for almost all versions of the Beauty and the Beast plot, but my favorite — the one I’d strongly consider running to get if the smoke alarm went off — is “The Beast of Belleterre,” a novella by Mary Jo Putney found in a couple different Christmas anthologies. James, Lord Falconer, is plausibly beastly but has a generous and loving heart. He marries a beautiful neighbor to keep her from A Bad Fate but then refuses to touch her. The ending is surprisingly poignant. While “The Beast of Belleterre” isn’t perfect, it’s still my favorite romance story, and Lord Falconer is a hero worth crying over.
Elizabeth Mansfield is not an author many people talk about these days, but some of her Regencies are nearly flawless. The best of the bunch, Her Man of Affairs, is fun largely because its hero, David MacKenzie, is a very different sort of alpha hero. Instead of being the bored aristocrat, he’s a middle class Scottish bank clerk hired to help the heroine (who is aristocratic) sort out her finances. That he’s not of her class doesn’t make him any less heroic, or their ultimate pairing any less swoon-worthy. Plus, I learned a lot of Scottish terms from him. Some of which may even be authentic!
It’s hard to winnow the list down to just five, but I can’t exclude Christy Morrell, the vicar in Wyckerley. He’s the hero of To Love and to Cherish, the first of Patricia Gaffney’s wonderful trilogy. While I’m not a religious person myself, I’m fascinated by faith, and Gaffney does a wonderful job of showing Christy struggling with his love for Anne and the tenets of his religion. Some characters in romances are lucky to fall in love. For others the happy ending seems almost karmic reward for a hard life. But Christy falls in love not because it’s especially easy or particularly hard. He falls in love because in Anne he finds the rest of himself, and all of her. If I had to pick one of these five heroes I would most like to fall in love with myself, it would be Christy. (I have to admit, though profession and hair color are different, Ross comes awfully close to having Christy’s heart and soul.)
Keira: How do you define love?
Magdalen: Wow! I really have to do some heavy lifting here, don’t I? Well, let’s start with a dictionary definition — fondness, charity, strong liking… — uh, okay, so that didn’t help.
I remember when I realized I had fallen in love (for the second time, actually) with my first husband. I’d gone to England to spend Christmas 1997 with his family, whom I’ve known since 1971. Henry hadn’t married in the 17+ years since the first time I fell in love with him, but I wasn’t the same dewy-eyed 24-year-old, inclined to find him charming no matter what. So it was a shock when, after I’d returned to the US, I was reading Dream a Little Dream by Susan Elizabeth Phillips and I suddenly realized that this falling in love stuff in the book was what I felt for Henry. A year later, we were married. We had a great marriage, until it ended.
Here’s the surprising part, though — even though we’re divorced, I love Henry today precisely the way I did the day we married. He’s the family of my heart, and always will be. Love isn’t the toughest element to accomplish in a romance, such that once you love and are loved back, you’re home-free. It’s necessary, but it can’t ensure an HEA all on its own.
So I would define love as the feeling of value we experience with another human being — we value that person, and we want to be valued in return. When it’s romantic love, of course, we want the value to be of the heart (and, sure, sexually) as well as the head. Add some additional elements — the qualities of the relationship, for instance — and you’ve got a winner.
Keira: You have a great post asking What’s Wrong With Thinking in a Love Scene? What are some other things you’d like to see more of (or less of) in love scenes?
Magdalen: Do you mean sex scenes? Because that’s easy — more emotion, less anatomy. I think writers get to the sex scene and switch from a more lyrical writing style to very specific exposition of where someone’s hands are and so forth. I know we all want to know that the protagonists have hot hot sex, but I’m not sure that requires quite as much specificity as writers imagine.
What I want a love scene to tell me is this: whoever’s POV is our window into the bedroom (or wherever they’re getting down to business) — what’s that person feeling? Yeah, okay, we can guess what the actual nerve endings are doing, but before that final uh, thrust — there’s still room for thoughts and emotion.
Keira: If you could rename any five romances, what ones would you choose and what would you change their titles to?
Magdalen: I have two already worked out: Nora Roberts’ current series about the wedding planners riffs on the various heroines’ occupations. So Vision in White for the photographer, Bed of Roses for the florist, Savor the Moment for the baker, and that just leaves the actual wedding planner for last. What did La Nora pick for that one? Happy Ever After. Oh, please — “Planning for Love” would have been better, or maybe “Making It Happen.”
I also thought Mary Balogh missed a trick when she picked Slightly Dangerous for the final Bedwyn story. Given how top-lofty the Duke of Bewcastle is, “Slightly Perfect” would have been better. But if Balogh had wanted to keep that vaguely salacious tone, “Slightly Stiff.” (Okay, maybe that’s too salacious…)
But can I do three more? Not really — generally speaking, titles are either anodyne and forgettable, or they’re memorable in an unobjectionable way. Series titles end up all sounding alike, which is confusing, but at least you know a JR Ward Black Dagger Brotherhood title when you see one.
Plus, I’m cranky enough as it is. I figure authors are entitled to the titles they pick (or which were picked for them by the publisher…).
Keira: Your favorite clinch cover is:
Magdalen: I may have to pass on this one. Covers rarely appeal to me, and the more explicit the pose of the models selected, the less it says anything to me about the book. When the hero and heroine clinch in the book, I promise you I’ll have no trouble imagining it!
(After being poked with a sharp stick and told I had to pick a cover, I added the following: )
Magdalen: Ah, okay. I went and looked at all my “keeper” books as well as everything I’ve read in the last four months. (That tells you how long it’s been since I reshelved anything!) There are books where I love the book so much, I like the cover by association — but I ruthlessly rejected those. And there were covers, like the one for LaVyrle Spencer’s That Camden Summer, that included a pleasant landscape with no real suggestion that it’s covering a romance novel.
But I found one that I think comes closest to doing it right. Jane Ashford’s Bride to Be. Do I remember anything about the book? No. (And now I have to re-read it to see why I was saving it!) But it’s a misty photograph of two models who a) aren’t ubiquitous, b) physically resemble the characters, c) are wearing period costumes that don’t have implausible slits up the side of the skirt, or include an undue amount of skin, and d) still evoke the modern iconography of weddings: a veil and some creamy roses in the corner.
And hey, will you look at that! They even in an embrace! Clinch cover for the win!
Keira: Is there anything else you’d like to share or discuss?
Magdalen: Keira, you have orders of magnitude more readers than I do, so I’ll just borrow your bully pulpit, if you don’t mind, to air my petty gripe about romances set in 19th century England:
Authors, please don’t use the word “bloody.”
I can forgive a lot of historical inaccuracies, but that one drives me bananas. I know it’s a quaint Britishism to our American ears, but it was a Very Bad Word in that century. Heck, it was a Pretty Bad Word in England when I first lived there in 1971. So, sure, a 19th century nobleman might, upon having a horse step on his foot, have blurted out some Very Bad Words. But maybe not that particular Very Bad Word, and never ever in mixed company. (A well-born woman of the period might never hear the word, and would NEVER use it herself.) If American authors would just remove “bloody” from their lexicon, no one would ever miss it.
And I personally could sleep easier at night.