Thursday, June 12, 2008

12 Points on the 12th - with Kate Walker

Are you writing in the right century ? Or even in the right decade?

No, I’m not talking about writing historical novels here, I thinking about the way that some would-be authors ruin their chances by writing the sort of dated novel that might have been wanted, even very popular, some years- some decades ago. But now time has moved on and this is the last sort of thing that an editor is looking for.

I was thinking about this last week when I was lucky enough to be invited to the opening of the Mills & Boon Centenary Exhibition – “And then He Kissed her” - in Manchester Central Library. The exhibtion covers, obviously, the history of the company from 1908 when it was founded right up to the present day. And nothing showed more clearly and more strikingly how far the company, the books, and the writing styles have come than the different styles of the covers on display in the big glass cases.

There were books from the 1930s and 40s and 50s, obviously meant to appeal to fans of Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks with tall, conservatively dressed heroes with , short dark hair brushed back and Brylcreemed into glossy, (greasy) waves. There were the first paperbacks of the 1960s onwards, with chiselled jawed heroes and elegant heroines in evening gowns . On Call Sister was a typical title – or perhaps Five Shilling Holiday or even Mystery at Butlins. And then there was the case that showed the modern romance novel – with titles like Mission to Seduce or 91/2 Days.

So many critics look at the masses of romances on the shelves and see the way that they are all produced in such a similar format and they jump to the wrong conclusion that these books must all be the same inside. In the same way some uniformed people will claim that romance writing hasn’t changed since 1908. That all the books are just the same as they were in their grandmother’s day, with a demure kiss and perhaps a crushing hug being the only demonstration of affection. They are stunned to find that romance writers have ‘discovered’ sex and that we actually are prepared to go well beyond that bedroom door.
But would-be writers know better – don’t they? They know what the up to date romance is like. They read it and enjoy it and learn from it - or do they?

I was once at a romance writers’ conference where an unpublished writer came up to me and asked if she could discuss the plot she had for what she hoped would be her first published Mills & Boon /Harlequin novel. She was convinced that she had the most amazing, unusual, original plot. One that no one else would have thought of. One that would surely win her a lot of acclaim from the editors.
So she was shocked when I had to say that this plot had been written before - lots of times.
Did she read romances? I asked her. Oh yes, she told me – lots. But closer questioning showed that what she were rather elderly novels – book that were more than ten years old. When I pointed this out to her she frowned then said, ‘Well how have they changed in the last ten years?’ Read the books I said.

I’ll be willing to bet she didn’t. She was not only one of the people who believes that romances haven’t changed with the times, she had also stopped reading at the point she liked them best, and she was trying to recreate the books from the late 80s. And that just didn’t work in 2000+

The 1970s/80s were also the times when every perfume was named, when the designer of the dress or the handbag would be mentioned. I remember using one afternoon of a holiday in the duty-free shop doing research for the designer fragrance my next heroine would be wearing. Then almost everything the heroine wore was described in precise detail right down to the last stitch in the hem. But fashions change so quickly and what would have been a very glamorous and fabulous outfit could very soon become a dated frock-horror from the decade that time forgot.

It’s not just the fashions in clothes and hairstyles that date a book. It’s social behaviour, the types of heroes who are popular, relationships between men and women, jobs . . .

My second book, Game of Hazard, had a hero who smoked. In fact those cigarettes were fairly important in the plot as his initials were etched into his lighter (he had amnesia and didn’t know who he was) and when he went to find his car where it was crashed, he brought back several packs of cigarette with him. I don’t think I could get away with that now – nor would I want to because I’ve long since given up smoking. But I think I’d have a hard time creating a hero who regularly smoked. And the aristocratic hero, with his family stately home somewhere in the green hills of the UK is no longer the immediate pull he used to be. Princes yes – but perhaps even they are starting to have had their day.
So when you are reading, remember to read as a writer. I’m not saying don’t read the older books – there are some fantastic stories by fabulous authors. But always think about whether these stories will still work today. Once upon a time the hero always had a friendly, motherly housekeeper who looked after him – or perhaps a butler. Does anyone actually have a ‘faithful retainer’ these days?

And what about language? Will the slang phrase you want your heroine to use still be popular when someone reads her story? Will ‘awesome!’ have the right effect when the book is published or will it be strange and out of place - as ‘swinging’ or ‘fab’ or ‘most excellent, dude’ might have been when out of the time in which they were so popular.

So when you’re reading keep the present popular fiction market in mind. And when you’re writing, remember that you hope that readers will be buying you book for years to come. My Alcolar Family Trilogy (2004) is being reprinted in both book and ebook form this summer and just yesterday I received a reprint of a book that had originally been published in 1995 Don’t date your books with very topical references or mentions of a very fashionable trend of the time. You can be sure that would sound so ‘old hat’ to a reader, possibly even just after the book is published.

Remember that every book you buy this week was probably written months, possibly even a year ago, My current title, Spanish Billionaire, Innocent Wife was written in March-May 2007 so it was already a year old by the time it was released.

In some ways, a romance writer needs to be something of a fortune teller, writing a book now that they hope will be popular 12 months in the future – or even more. So be careful and keep alert for all the little points of style, of fashion, of character – even the perfume your heroine wears. You want your book to be every bit as appealing in the future as it is now when you’re writing it.
And don’t date it before it’s even been bought by following the trends and styles of bygone days. Not if you’re writing contemporary romance anyway – historical stories are a very different matter.
What about you? Did you love the older books and think the latest ttiles are just not the same? Who were your favourite authors - and would you stillread them today?

Or what about the sort of things in a story that 'date' it for you? Are there fashions right now that you think are on their way out? Things that just won't be around - or shouldn't be around by this time next year? Have you ever thought bout the tiny clues by which a book gives away the decade, maybe even the year in which it was written?


Jane said...

I notice that names of places change. Some countries don't exist anymore, like Czechoslovakia, which split into Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Bombay is now Mumbai. I read on another blog about outdated fashions, such as shoulder pads.

Anna Campbell said...

Kate, what fantastic advice for someone targeting the contemporary market. It's strange - I'm perfectly happy for my heroine to wear corsets in a Regency novel. But put her in shoulder pads and big hair in a book meant to be set 'now' and I just can't believe the story.

Annie West said...

Ah, Kate, what an interesting post. In some ways the historical authors have it over us, don't they? Their fashions and social situations can't alter. Once they know their time and setting they're fine.

A friend just lent me an old romance (several decades old) because she'd enjoyed it so much. I read it for old times sake and was struck by the fact that, as you say, every fragrance, stitch of clothing and piece of music was named. I had to say I was dragged out of the moment to discover the hero had hosted an intimate dinner for the hero while wearing embroidered petit point slippers. Maybe it was the height of luxury then but...

Thanks for this post, Kate. It's really made me think about what I put in my stories.


Pat Cochran said...

One bit of "fashion" which I would just as soon "wish away" are the overly-short skirts and dresses
seen today. They make the minis
of my day look like ball gowns!!

Pat Cochran

kimmyl said...

Hi Kate. Great post and just want you to know I love reading your books

Anonymous said...

I headed over here from September 2008's BBAW contest, and am I glad I did. Great stuff!