Archive for December, 2008

I once made the mistake of taking a Mary Balogh novel with me on a long flight. Don’t get me wrong—reading Mary Balogh’s novels definitely isn’t a mistake. And I usually get so engrossed in her books that I can overlook minor inconveniences like my fear of flying. But the thing about Mary Balogh and me is this: she makes me cry. Always. At some point in reading Balogh’s books, I always break down. And while that’s not a particular problem when I’m sitting in my own living room, it’s a bigger problem when I’m sitting next to a complete stranger who becomes convinced that he’s stuck beside a nutcase.

Crying at romances is a cliché, of course. Women are supposed to be particularly susceptible to sentimental stuff, breaking down over puppies and daffodils. But crying over books isn’t something that happens to me all that regularly. The books that really get to me, the ones that overcome my usual reluctance to get teary, usually have a couple of characteristics.

First, they have the kind of characters that pull me in. They don’t have to be much like me, nor do they need to go through situations I’ve gone through. But they do need to be drawn so well that I can momentarily enter into their lives and feel what they’re feeling. Take the heroine in one of my favorite Balogh’s—Slightly Dangerous. Christine Derrick is a classic Balogh character, plucky, decent, and beleaguered. She’s been wrongfully accused of something she didn’t do, but she hasn’t let it keep her from living her life, although she’s still hurt by the desertion of people she cared about. During the course of the novel she falls in love with one of Balogh’s best heroes—Wulfric Bedwyn, Duke of Bewcastle. Wulfric is, in fact, a very irritating man: repressed, severe, apparently unemotional. He doesn’t really want to fall in love with Christine because she’s so obviously wrong for him, plus the difference in their social status is immense. However, once he falls, he goes about rectifying the slurs against her, correctly identifying the real villain and reuniting her with her estranged family before marrying her.  The thing that makes this book heart-rending isn’t Christine’s suffering. In fact, Christine’s a remarkably sunny character—cheerful and full of self-deprecating humor. She doesn’t particularly want to be part of the ton and isn’t too upset over their rejection. But she is heartsick over the loss of her former in-laws’ affection, and she’s hurt and confused over their censure. And because you like her and sympathize with her and, thanks to Balogh’s careful characterization, understand her, you definitely feel her unhappiness. When Christine suffers, you suffer. And when Wulfric fixes everything, you may get tearful all over again.

There are also certain situations that make me tear up. Almost anything involving childhood pain or disillusion can do it. The really horrific descriptions of Sebastian’s childhood in Lord of Scoundrels make me ache; ditto the descriptions of childhood trauma in Susan Smith’s The Vanished Child. Mothers and fathers dying or giving up their children (usually the hero or heroine) can also bring me to tears (I’ve even been known to tear up at Citizen Kane when the banker takes little Charlie away from his father). And yes, I know these are sentimental situations. I just don’t think sentiment is necessarily bad.

So what doesn’t make me tearful? Usually novels where I never really bought into the hero or heroine in the first place. If they don’t seem like real people to me, their pain doesn’t really seem real either. Sometimes this happens when the hero/heroine endures too much angst. If a character’s life is just one disaster after another, you get a little shell-shocked. Sometimes I lose interest if the characters’ suffering is the major point of the plot. If all the heroine does is wring her hands and moan, I’m out the door pretty fast.  I’m more drawn in by people who do their best to persevere, even if their best doesn’t always work. That way when they meet with reversals, I’m more inclined to feel for them. Finally, if the author makes a big point of how tortured the hero/heroine is (usually, the hero), I frequently find myself going “Naw.” It’s all part of the telling/showing thing. Balogh shows you how the characters feel through the way they talk and the way they behave. She doesn’t say, “Christine had always been hurt by the way her sister-in-law rejected her.” She shows us Christine avoiding contact with her sister-in-law, then working not to show any hurt at her coldness. You feel with her because you’re shown how she feels. And although she won’t cry, you can.

Actually, I don’t feel embarrassed about feeling tearful when I read romances. My family is used to my sniffling by now and they usually ignore it.  On the other hand, I’d just as soon not freak people out on public transportation. So don’t take Mary Balogh on a plane. Maybe that’s the time to read that cookbook you’ve been meaning to get to. 

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The Madcap

I love old movies, and by that I mean really old movies—movies from the thirties and forties. One mainstay of thirties comedies is the “madcap” heroine. The kook. The flake. The one who keeps doing nutty things that nobody expects. The hero (like Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby or Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve) is first annoyed by her, then fascinated in a kind of annoyed way, and then, finally, entranced. Both the hero and the viewer are supposed to be charmed by her wacky personality—and sometimes you are. I like Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, and I absolutely love Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve. This heroine shows up in romance novels too, of course, particularly in contemporary and historical comedies. In historicals, she’s the Regency bluestocking, beyond marriageable age, reputed to be plain, frequently with a pet cause (getting her beautiful but dim cousin married, taking care of orphans, protecting animals, etc.) that gets her into difficulties with either the hero or society in general—sometimes both.  In contemporaries, she’s the party planner or the gift shop owner or the caterer who’s also a disaster magnet (although she usually has some particular talent that sets her apart from everybody else and saves the day). In both cases the hero decides she’s annoying but ultimately adorable.

The tough thing about the madcap heroine isn’t the annoying part—that comes with the territory. The really tough part is the adorable. Because if she goes too far, the madcap can always turn into a pain in the ass. Remember, the hero has to find her quirks adorable in the end, or at least tolerable. Her determination to flout convention (and she’s always determined to do that) has to seem justified in some sense, although the madcap usually takes it too far (if the heroine’s convention-flouting seems totally justified and society seems totally wrong, it’s not comedy anymore).  Moreover, for me at least, the heroine can’t be rendered totally ridiculous. If she takes too many pratfalls, I start being exasperated with her. She reminds me of the heroine in Support Your Local Sheriff, who wails at one point “I am sick and tired of all these stupid things happening to me!” You and me both, sweetheart!

She also can’t be dumb. That should go without saying, but it often doesn’t. There should be some justification for her actions, even if they seem slightly loopy. And if she gets slapped down, she shouldn’t keep doing the same thing over and over again—masochistic madcaps just don’t cut it. At some point, she also has to win, even if it’s only a minor victory. That party she’s planning has to turn into a triumph or her orphanage has to earn the patronage of somebody rich and famous (and possibly as eccentric as she is). We have to feel that she isn’t a total loser, in other words.

I have to admit—I sometimes either start skimming books with madcap heroines or I put them down altogether. The “annoying” part of the job description sometimes gets to be too much, and I’m also not crazy about stupidity. If I start thinking the heroine is a dope, I’m likely to get out of Dodge. But when she’s done well, the madcap can be engaging. Loretta Chase’s The Last Hellion works well for me. So does Barbara Metzger’s The Duel. In contemporaries, there’s Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ It Had To Be You and Jennifer Crusie’s Tell Me Lies. All of these heroines have madcap elements, but they’re also smart and resourceful—you don’t feel like you’d be grinding your teeth after ten minutes in their presence.

And that’s the final thing about the madcap: you need to feel that the hero isn’t totally nuts for loving her. That means you have to love her too, at least a little bit. That isn’t always easy, but it’s usually interesting. 

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I just finished a draft of a novel where the heroine has a nine-month-old son, and I feel a little like W.C. Fields–“Never work with children or animals.” Actually, I have lots of animals in my books and they’ve never caused me any trouble. If they’re not needed in a scene you can send them outside or have them fall asleep in the sun. Unfortunately, babies aren’t nearly that accommodating.

Romances require that the hero and heroine spend a lot of time together, sometimes very together. I know from having raised two sons that babies pay no attention to what grown-ups want in the way of alone time. Moreover, babies can’t be plunked down and forgotten–not unless your heroine is a total sleaze (usually not a good idea in a romance). With animals, you sometimes don’t even have to worry about explaining where they are and what they’re doing–readers will accept that they’re taking care of themselves.  But nobody with any sense would accept that with a baby.

I admit–I made things a little easier on myself by making the baby remarkably good-natured and placid. I had a feeling a colicky baby would take care of any romantic possibilities in a split second. Still, he couldn’t be sleeping all the time, which meant that somebody had to be holding him or playing with him, and in many cases that couldn’t be the heroine because she had to be interacting with the hero. I ended up giving her sort of a dream support system–a group of men and women who were only too happy to take the baby off and play with him so the heroine and the hero could have some time together, actually, lots of time together (if only my husband and I had had people like that around when we were raising our own kids).

Making things even more interesting, the hero had a three-year-old daughter of his own. Now, of course, this meant the kids could interact and actually spend some time together.  But it also meant the hero had to spend a certain amount of time taking care of his daughter too. This dream support team could take care of the two of them, but I felt like they were on the verge of turning into something like the shoemaker’s elves (“Oh look, dear, the fairies have arrived to take care of the kids!”).

I managed to finish the draft, but I’m sure when I go through it again I’ll find places where the kids have magically vanished into the woodwork while the adults have meaningful conversations. The moral of all this? In the future, I’m sticking to dogs!

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