Archive for October, 2008

The Big Misunderstanding

I not only write romances, I read lots of them. And like most romance readers, I’m very particular about what I like and don’t like. One of my major peeves is the Big Misunderstanding. You know–the plot where the hero thinks the heroine has been unfaithful because he saw her kissing that guy at the ball, but it turns out the guy was her long-lost cousin Alfred, thought to have died at Waterloo but actually hale and hearty. However, the hero is so bummed that he decides to sail to Virginia without telling the heroine why, and the heroine is so hurt that she decides to let him, etc., etc., etc. Usually, the problem with the Big Misunderstanding is that it requires both hero and heroine to be morons. Whatever they’re getting so worked up about could usually be taken care of with a quick conversation, i.e., “Oh, that guy? That was just Alfred! Here, let me introduce you.” The only way an author can make this situation even slightly credible is to set up both hero and heroine with tortured backstories that explain why they both overreact so badly. The hero’s been hurt before by an unfaithful wife. The heroine has always been belittled by her horrible family and can’t believe anyone would ever love her for herself. And so on. It’s sort of like the monster movie set-up where the characters have to find some reason to head back into the house where the insane ax murderer is in residence. You’re spending a lot of authorial energy justifying something that’s basically absurd to begin with. This is not to say that you can’t have legitimate misunderstandings in romances. In Venus in Blue Jeans, my heroine has a misunderstanding with my hero that ends up threatening her life. And it’s not to say that characters can’t have quarrels over stupid stuff–as they say, that’s life! But if the major plot hinge is something that requires both characters to behave stupidly, it’s a problem for me. I don’t like to feel the characters are behaving like dodos for no good reason, and as a reader I’d rather not spend a lot of time with idiots. One of my all-time favorite books, Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels, is actually almost a satire of the Big Misunderstanding. The hero is one of those fairy-tale-style rich lords who’s living a life of unhappy debauchery. The heroine is a classic independent woman who doesn’t particularly want to get married but finds herself unaccountably attracted to the wastrel. Again and again, Chase’s hero and heroine are set up to misunderstand each other’s motives and actions. She even provides the hero with a horrendous backstory that explains his numerous psychological quirks. And again and again, one or the other fools you by behaving, well, like a reasonably intelligent adult and explaining exactly why he/she is behaving the way he/she’s behaving. Needless to say, the course of true love doesn’t exactly run smoothly, but neither of them is a dope. It’s one of the great joys of a wonderful book–the way Chase keeps setting you up to believe that there’s going to be this awful misunderstanding that will ruin everything and the way it doesn’t happen.

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Normally, I’m a very disciplined writer. Honest. But over the past month, it’s gotten harder and harder to keep myself on the page. Life keeps getting in the way. I mean to get my quota of pages done, but then I think, I’ll just check the blogosphere, see what’s going on with the election, maybe read a couple of news stories and catch whatever Jon Stewart said last night. Next thing I know, I’ve lost an hour of writing time following through on today’s news. I tell myself it’ll get better after the election, but I’m not sure. Right now I’m obsessed with current events and they’re keeping me from finishing up my latest Konigsburg saga. Is it wrong to be writing about romance when the world looks like it’s going to hell? Not really. But sometimes it’s hard to get yourself in the mood. Konigsburg is a kind of fairyland, apart from the real anxieties of 2008. I like being there. But sometimes I have to struggle to find my ticket back.

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