Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Anne Marble
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If you're writing a contemporary romance (or for that matter, a futuristic romance), chances are that both your hero and heroine will have careers. Characters can have professions ranging from law enforcement and firefighting to managing a circus. Gone are the days when heroines were relegated to being governesses, nurses, and secretaries. Today's romance heroine can be a cop, an executive, even an airline pilot. And daring romance writers have even created heroes who are male escorts or strippers. That's a far cry from yesterday's books, where heroes tended to be ranchers or executives.
Some of the greatest romances have centered around the workplace. One of the most successful romance novelists of all time, Jayne Ann Krentz, has become famous for writing about characters in unusual professions. Krentz's heroines tend to have creative careers such as event planning, while her heroes are often high-powered executives. There's already plenty of conflict when artsy people and high-powered businessmen are forced to work alongside each other. Let those characters fall in love, and the conflict is ratcheted up even further. Krentz is just one of many romance authors who knows that the workplace is one key to creating conflict.
Use Professions to Create Conflict between Your Hero and Heroine
What are the strongest memories many of us have about the jobs we've had? The conflicts with our coworkers! Our jobs are important to us, and when something isn't right on the job, it can affect everything we do. You can create conflict in your characters' lives by making trouble in their workplace. Think of it as a sort of therapy to help you deal with your own workplace conflicts.
One way to make sure your hero and heroine are at loggerheads is to give them jobs where they have to compete against each other. For example, he's a prosecutor, and she's a defense attorney. Or she's a psychic, and he's the reporter who is trying to prove that she's a fake. Or he's a real estate developer, and she's an environmental activist. Or she's a social worker, and he's a cop or judge. These are often conflicts you can imagine being the basis for a Tracy and Hepburn movie. The hero and heroine are both strong people, and both want very different things.
The hard part is finding a way for those characters to work out their problems at the end without making either one of them wimp out or be humiliated by the other. The obstacles may seem insurmountable, but they have to find a resolution that is acceptable to everyone -- to themselves, to their coworkers, to the stockholders, and so forth. They have to learn to compromise, and they may even have to choose love over goals that no longer mean as much to them now that love has brought something more important into their lives.
Your hero and heroine can also be at conflict even if they are in the same company. This is true whether one of them is the boss or whether they are both coworkers at the same level. For example, you could write a romance where both characters work hard to earn the same promotion or award. Or a novel where they are reporters hoping for the next big scoop or trying to win the same journalism award. Even if the characters aren't competing directly, the workplace can still be rife with conflict. Let's say your reporters are both political commentators on the same news network. They get into such impassioned fights that their producer decides to give them their own show -- together. How do they work together day after day without killing each other? Then when they start to fall in love, how do they keep those impassioned fights going on the air without letting it filter into their personal lives?
As is true of real life, fictional conflicts in the workplace can run the gamut from trivial to life-altering. The drama can involve everything from betrayal and perceived betrayal to forcing your characters to work together to save lives. But even if you're writing a fun and frothy romance that doesn't have anything to do with the rigors of the workplace, consider using the workplace in your novel. Frothy novels need conflict, too -- in fact, if they don't have enough conflict, they run the risk of being so light that they might float away like the cake in that old TV commercial. Look for ways to get a humorous conflict out of the workplace. For example, in the humorous series romance Hannah's Hunks, the heroine, Hannah Hart, is a caterer who can't cook. When the hero, an undercover agent, first meets her, he thinks she is a madam, and he starts out trying to uncover her "crimes." Even after that humorous misunderstanding is resolved, the plot involves the hero trying to unearth a small-town drug ring while keeping his true identity secret. The author, Bonnie Tucker, also makes a running joke out of Hannah's bad cooking and the way the townspeople don't have the heart to tell her that her most of her food is terrible.
Use Professions to Create External Conflict
Even if your hero and heroine get along in the workplace, their professions can still create conflict from external forces. Some professions are rife with external conflict, such as law enforcement. For example, let's say you're writing a romantic suspense novel and that your hero and heroine are both FBI agents on a task force created to capture a serial killer. In this type of story, the main conflict would be the hunt for the serial killer -- man versus killer, or rather, man and woman versus killer.
This doesn't mean that your hero and heroine have to get along all the time. The really neat trick is when you can combine both types of conflicts. Let's go back to the serial killer novel. Of course, the hero and heroine have to work together to find that serial killer. If they don't, the serial killer will get away, and a hero and heroine who let that happen would be unpopular with readers (and editors) to say the least. The true test of any worker, whether they're an FBI agent or an office manager, is learning to get along with others to get the job done.
Don't Be Like Mrs. Hazeltine
One of my favorite scenes in the movie Throw Momma from the Train is the one where the Billie Crystal character is teaching a class on writing. One of his students, Mrs. Hazeltine, reads from the submarine thriller she is writing. The scene starts with "Dive! Dive!" yelled the Captain through the thing! So the man who makes it dive pressed a button, or a something, and it dove. What should be an exciting scene filled with jargon is filled with words such as "thing," vague dialogue, and as much suspense as the phone book. The Billie Crystal character suggests to the aspiring author that she do some research before writing about submarines.
OK, you've probably done more research than she did. But when I start out writing a novel in a new setting, I often feel like that Mrs. Hazeltine. Every workplace has its terminology, its protocol, its rules... As a writer, your job is to make readers believe that they are in that world, even for a little while. Too many false notes, and your readers will wander off and buy somebody else's books from now on.
If you make your characters' workplace an important part of the story, then you have to sound as if you know what you're talking about. This doesn't mean that you have to be an FBI agent or submarine captain. However, you should try to find out as much as you can about the world you're writing in. Don't just look up things on the Internet (though that's a good place to start). Go to the library. And don't be afraid to ask real-life experts for help. When you're researching, always keep your story in mind -- because anything you learn might help you come up with new ideas for your character or your plot.
Depending on the type of romance you are writing, you can still get away without making the background completely accurate. People are opening your book for a love story, not for career guidance. Don't let the workplace get in the way of the romance. Keep in mind that romance novels are usually fantasies. Not only is the love grand and the sex wonderful, but the workplace is often nothing like real life. Many a romance best-seller has utterly ignored the realities of the workplace in which it was set.
On the other hand, many books with disappointing sales have also utterly ignored the realities of the workplace in which they were set. And some readers do demand a little more reality. So try to avoid losing touch with reality completely. All About Romance's Robin Uncapher has often complained about the way businesspeople are portrayed in romances. One of her chief complaints is that the setting is often "dumbed down." On top of that, businesspeople often come across as villains right out of central casting. You can still write a romance that treats the business world as something out of a fairy tale, and you may very well earn a lot of readers. At the same time, you might get even more readers if you avoid the usual romance novel cliches about the business world.
Don't Make Your Characters Act Like Idiots Once They Meet
Your characters have professions. So make sure they act like professionals. Deliver me from yet another novel in which the heroine starts out as a respected cop, shop owner, florist, or whatever, and then begins to act like a neophyte the moment she meets the hero. And every time he walks into the room. And every time she sees him. Most of us have managed to hold down jobs without turning into blooming idiots every time we were involved in a relationship.
Even worse is when your characters act like idiots because it would be convenient for the plot if they suddenly forgot something important or made a horrible decision. Sure, people make bad business decisions all the time. That doesn't mean you have to write about them. After all, readers are savvy, and if a character does something stupid and creates a crisis, they will become suspicious.
Sexual Harassment and the Hostile Workplace
In the 1970s and 1980s, it was common for office romances to center around relationships where the hero was in charge, whether or not he was the boss. They were alpha males who domineered the heroines, often coercing them into a relationship, or even stalking them until the women succumbed to their... charms. For the most part, today's romance heroines would sue those jerks for all they were worth.
That sort of hero is pretty much out of fashion. (There are always exceptions, of course.) A lot of readers will avoid stories like that today, probably because those heroes remind them of their own workplace nightmares. Yuck! Still, by definition, workplace romances have to break some of the rules of sexual harassment. That's OK -- readers expect that up to a certain point. Just make sure your characters (yes, that includes the heroine) don't cross the line. When they stop taking "no" for an answer and end up becoming jerks, you risk losing readers.
Similarly, it used to be much more acceptable for heroes to all but attack heroines and claim they couldn't do the job because they were women. If you're writing a historical novel, this sort of behavior will make sense. (In fact, a historical hero who accepts a heroine in an unusual profession might come across as too unrealistic for the times.) Yet even in contemporary settings, depending on the type of workplace, heroes can still get away with this. If you create this sort of hero, however, be aware that he will be walking a fine line between hero and jerk. Try to come up with reasons he believes this. For example, a cop hero who thinks women shouldn't be on the force for no reason will simply come across as an annoying jerk. But a cop hero who thinks women don't belong on the force because his partner died when a woman cop failed to subdue a suspect at bay can be a sympathetic character.
Also, today's romances can be about sexual harassment and the hostile workplace. This isn't new -- romance novels were broaching this topic long before Michael Crichton's Disclosure came out. If you write about this topic, remember that it is a charged topic with no easy answers. Writing any type of book about sexual harassment or the hostile workplace is difficult, but setting a romance around such a hot topic is a particular challenge. If you deal with it in a story, avoid preaching, avoid easy solutions, and make sure you research the topics as there is a lot of misinformation out there. For an example of how romance novels can deal with difficult topics, Kathryn Shay's novels (including Code of Honor) often deal with women firefighters and the difficulties they endure.
There's No Such Thing As a Dull Workplace
You might not find your own job particularly interesting, but someone else might, particularly if it's new to them. Similarly, you don't have to set your novel in a firehouse or in the Supreme Court to make the book exciting. You could set a book in a fast food restaurant and still have a great romance. All you have to do is make the workplace interesting. Oh, yeah, and create a great couple with terrific chemistry, give it a thrilling plot, keep up the sexual tension, and add an interesting theme.
I didn't say it was going to be easy, did I?
Characters Who Give Up a Career
Sometimes, at the end of the story, it becomes necessary for one of the characters to consider giving up their career. Often, it's the heroine -- and as you can imagine, that alone is enough to create controversy. Just as with real life, however, characters sometimes have to make difficult decisions about their work, especially after they fall in love. A Navy SEAL might decide to give up his dangerous job after he marries. A heroine who is a cop or firefighter might do the same.
If you characters have to decide whether or not to keep their careers, there are several things to keep in mind. Have you planted the seeds of discontent throughout the story? If not, the character's decision will come out of left field. Do both of the characters discuss the decision, or is one of them badgered into it? If that's the case, then the relationship will leave a bad taste in the mouths of many readers. Does the character decide on an alternative that will leave him or her fulfilled? If not, try to think of something the character might decide to do once they leave their original job.
Finally, if you do decide that it's best for your heroine to give up her career at the end, try to avoid an overly cute epilogue where the hero and heroine are seen with several children. While epilogues showing the characters in their happy ever after are popular, it's easy to become too saccharine.
Keep Up with the Guidelines
Keep up with publishers' guidelines and marketplace trends. (You can get this sort of information from romance writing conventions and from mailing lists.) Some workplaces are popular, while others are "on the outs" with editors -- and readers Don't worry about following trends to the letter as they usually change before you can get your book in front of publishers. However, try to be aware of what's hot and what's not before submitting your book.
Professions in the Historical Romance
In historical romances, it's less likely that your heroine will have a profession. For that matter, many wealthy Regency heroes don't have a job other than managing a successful estate! Still, many women in the past did brave the workplace, even daring to work in male-dominated professions. Quite a few romance writers have penned historical romances about women in a variety of professions, from perfume maker to apothecary to linguist.
If you do choose to write a historical romance about a heroine with a career, then keep the constraints of the time in mind. First, do your research to know whether or not your heroine could have even worked in that profession in the time period you've selected. Also, don't make the story take place in a sort of "romance Disneyland" where none of the other characters think it's odd that a woman would chose to work. Some characters will accept it, but most will be outright hostile. At all costs, avoid sweet, sappy overly PC scenarios. For example, there was a Western romance (I won't name names) where the heroine was a wheelchair-bound lawyer in a frontier town. Not only did all the townspeople accept her, despite her profession and her disability, but she had no trouble getting around in her wheelchair.
Even if your heroine has an acceptable profession, such as governess or school marm, all should not be easy for her. Governesses had to deal with the same problems women face in the workplace today, and they faced it without the ability to sue for sexual harassment or unionize. Keeping those things in mind can help enhance the story. A Victorian governess heroine who sleeps with the hero at the drop of a pin makes little sense. On the other hand, a Victorian governess heroine who tries to avoid doing so despite the strong attraction she feels for him not only is more realistic but also provides increased dramatic tension.
Even if your heroine doesn't have a profession, as often occurs in historicals, the hero's profession can affect them both. Is your hero a soldier or a gunslinger? Then the heroine will often worry about whether he will come home alive. Is he a spy? Then the heroine may run the risk of being attacked by his enemies. Is he a politician? Then there might be conflict if he believes she is not the perfect politician's wife -- not easy in an era when appearance was vitally important.
Whether you write historicals or contemporary romances, whatever your setting, whatever the workplace environment you choose, your characters' jobs can be a vital part of your story. Their jobs can create conflicts and even drive the couple apart for a short while. If you prefer, you can make their professions a minor part of the background. Just as many readers don't mind historical romances where the background is nothing more than "historical wallpaper," many readers don't mind stories where the characters' professions are relegated to the background. Still, by shading in that aspect of your character a little more, you can make your story that much deeper and more rewarding for your readers.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Anne M. Marble has published articles in Gothic Journal and Writer's Digest and is a columnist for the At the Back Fence column at All About Romance (AAR). In her "spare time," she moderates AARlist, a busy list of romance readers sponsored by AAR. Just about everything she writes includes a romance element, even if it's a fantasy novel about a lord and a countertenor. Her day job involves editing articles for the Journal of Biological Chemistry.