When I was thirteen, I visited my great-aunt Audma for a long three-day weekend. We called her Skippy, and I can still see her sitting in her Victorian chair chain smoking, her head surrounded by a cloud of smoke, as if she were the feature in a haunted stage set. She was so skinny that she looked like a skeleton with a head full of hair.
She was an odd bird. And without fail, she would always ask my sister and I to pull up our shirts show her our bellies, to which she would pronounce one of two things: we’d gained weight and our britches were too tight, or we’d lost weight since she’d last seen us and we were looking unhealthy. Regardless of her declaration, she’d then offer us ham and ice cream saying, “You need to eat SOMEthing for lunch, you’ll starve,” and refused to take no for an answer.
I was always bored out of my mind on these visits. She lived on an isolated hill in West Virginia and there was nothing to do but read. After walking up to the family cemetery, we’d have another 48 hours of straight boredom.
And then I discovered her room full of romance novels. It was a trove. She had shelves and shelves, hundreds of books. And the covers…
Wind-swept. Writhing. Disheveled. Muscular. Epic. Airbrushed.
Fantastic!!! For the next two days I did nothing but skim every book I could find to all the steamy sections. Certain words jumped out and I knew I was getting close – vexation, tension, indignance, resentment, hatred, displeasure. When the female protagonist was good and angry, in the next scene she suddenly became quite witting.
I as I tore through twenty-five or thirty books that weekend, I began to understand the pull of the romance novel for someone who has not lived, or who is stagnant. And somehow I knew, without ever before having read one, that the scenes in between the steamy ones were mostly wasted words.
After my binge I was pretty disgusted. I was only thirteen remember. I walked away having learned one thing.
I knew I needed to live my life before I would have anything worth writing. I didn’t pick up a pen again and attempt to write till about 17 years later – after I’d had heart break, different careers, and multiple lessons learned.
The syrupy stories of those novels didn’t satisfy me nor did they impress me. Real life is so much better!
(This is not a rant about people who write legitimate sex scenes about real people with real motivations and reactions.)
Romance novels serve their purpose, but it is not great literature. I suppose if you are looking to make money (aren’t we all) then by all means, put those characters in a field beset by a flood waters in the middle of a lightening storm with no chance of survival. What will happen? Hey, it’s a romance novel. The obvious decision is to make love.
But if you want to be taken seriously as an author, write about your life. It may contain romance, but it’s the difference between a Disney movie and Casablanca.