Sunday, October 18, 2009

(Trying to) Write a Heroine with Universal Appeal - Sabrina Philips

(Trying to) Write a Heroine with Universal Appeal
and how it reminded me to live in the moment...

When I sit down to plan a new book, there are certain questions I keep asking myself. Whether the story potentially has universal appeal (that elusive 'global voice'), is one that I ask particularly frequently. The reason being, aside from the fact that it's an essential part of Harlequin Presents, is that when I read a romance, I imagine myself as the heroine, and when I write one, I do the same, only even more so. As a result, I always have a slight fear about whether I might be writing a heroine only I can relate to, a sort of fictional version of myself, when I really want to be writing a heroine that as many women as possible can relate to.

It was a concern that arose particularly when I wrote my latest release, Prince of Montéz, Pregnant Mistress. I didn’t expect it to. The planning was very pragmatic. In my first two books, I’d shied away from writing love stories in which the hero and heroine haven’t met before the start of the book, convinced it was more difficult to show really deep, believable emotion in the short word count of a category romance if it wasn’t a reunion story, but I made up my mind that now I would give it a go. Plot wise, I decided that the best way of showing just how deeply attracted my heroine was to my hero from page one was to have her acting uncharacteristically (i.e. going to bed with him) early in their relationship.

However, another one of the questions I keep asking myself is Is this believable? and I decided, that even if my heroine met a drop-dead gorgeous man who she desired more than anyone she’d ever desired anyone before, she still wouldn’t go straight to bed with him unless she had good reason to act so recklessly. A reason like being in a highly emotional state already…

And so I decided to put my heroine (who at that point had nothing more than a name: Cally Greenway, and an occupation: art restorer) in a situation which would be a catalyst for her acting so out of character. And so my opening was born: it’s the night of the most glamorous art auction in London and a top gallery have promised her the job of restoring her favourite paintings the second they’ve won them at auction, but to Cally’s horror, they’re sold to a mysterious telephone bidder and she loses out on her dream commission!

In order to make the stakes even higher, I realised Cally would need to have everything riding on that moment for her to be so devastated when it falls through. I saw that she’d need to be the kind of woman who’d been working solidly to achieve her career goals, and that part of her emotional journey during the course of the book would need to be learning to chill out and live in the moment.

Which was exactly when I also realised, as I looked up from my computer screen in the middle of a Sunday night as I stressed about my plot and longed for the moment this book would be written and my deadline met, that entirely unintentionally I had invented a heroine who was a sort of fictional version of myself. (I was also a bit bemused that my own fictional character had just made me take a long hard look at myself!).

As well as making me take stock and realise that I needed to stop being so goal-driven and remember to enjoy the process of writing (something I'd started to forget in the exciting, chaotic and challenging months since 'the call'), I was also suddenly afraid that I’d egotistically created a heroine who would only appeal to me.

However, by chance, the following day, my fears were allayed. In my day job arranging wedding registrations, I often have to check any readings that couples have chosen to be part of their ceremony. My colleagues handed me one they had already checked to take a look at, because they thought it was particularly beautiful. It was The Station Essay by Robert J Hastings, a piece I’d never seen before. When I read it, I was both deeply moved, inspired, and relieved. Because by complete coincidence, it not only summed up exactly what I wanted Cally to learn in my story and what I could do with remembering, but it seemed to strike the same chord with everyone who read it.

Which was the reassurance I needed. I wrote Cally exactly as I had planned, and whilst she does remind me of myself, I hope everyone can identify with the need to live in the moment a little more too.

If you get a chance to read Prince of Montéz, Pregnant Mistress, I’d love to know if you saw a little bit of yourself in Cally, but for now, I urge you to read The Station Essay. I can’t reproduce it here for copyright reasons but you can read it here: Please post below and let me know if it strikes a chord with you too! I'll give away a signed copy of Prince of Montéz, Pregnant Mistress to one lucky commenter.

Prince of Montéz, Pregnant Mistress, is out in the UK in November 2009 and North America in January 2010.

For another chance to win a copy of the book and some L’Occitaine goodies, please visit the contests page on Sabrina’s website


Linda Henderson said...

I love your books and I can't wait to read this one. It sounds wonderful. I don't know if I will see myself or not. I read romance books so that I can imagine myself as someone else and travel to places I will never see. I love learning about new people and places in books. Sometimes by the end of a book, or even before, I will feel like I know these people and I will be able to visualize the country that they are in. I love reading romance books. I am a diehard romance reader.

Lynz Pickles said...

I can't wait to read Prince of Montéz, Pregnant Mistress, especially after reading that essay. It's so true... it's easy to become obsessed with a goal and get out of touch with what really matters. I think I'll really like reading about Cally, since while I often find heroes who are fixated on a goal, but it's rarer to find heroines like that. You know the heroes I mean: if they just get revenge, if they just buy this company, if they just own this piece of property, everything will be better! I'm sure I'll relate to Cally a bit, and even if I don't, I love your books, so I'll enjoy myself.

Mary said...

I really love your books and can't wait to read The Prince of Montéz, Pregnant Mistress as well. The essay was very interesting.

Sabrina Philips said...

Linda, thank you for the compliment about my books :) Imagining myself as the heroine when I read/write is just one part of what I enjoy about romance, and you're absolutely right, getting to 'travel' to another country and visualise it all is fabulous - my fictional french island in this story was great fun to write.

Lynz, I'm really glad you like the sound of a heroine who has become fixated on a goal. You're right, it is more often the trait of a hero, but like you say, I think it's easy for all of us to get out of touch with what really matters - whether that's because of a career goal or just being so busy running a home, preparing for Christmas etc etc and forgetting why we're doing it! Thanks for your thoughts.

Mary, I'm glad you enjoyed the essay (I hope the fact that it sounds hideously long doesn't put other people off going to have a look! I think of it as more of a poem) and thanks also for the compliment, I'm smiling from ear to ear :)

Caroline Storer said...

What a wonderful blog Sabrina. As a would be author it struck a chord with me! In order to get the best out of a book I need to put my H/h through the mill, torture them a bit, and then finally get to the root of their internal/external conflicts and only then can I get to the important HEA. Easy? No not really - but who ever said writing was easy! Take care. Caroline x
p.s will look forward to reading Prince of Montéz, Pregnant Mistress, when it comes out.

Maisey said...

A heroine with universal appeal. Now that is a tall order as women are each other's own worst critics! :-)

I do think, and I could be wrong, that making the heroine a part of you, or relatable to you, is about the best course you can take. If it rings true to you, I think it will to the readers.

I appreciate all the thought you put into what it would take to get the heroine to sleep with a man she's just met, because I really thing that care will show.

I too can't wait to read your new book! Thanks for taking the time to write this blog.


Michele L. said...

Wow! I am impressed at all the research you go through to write a story when it comes to emotions. I think if author projects her own emotions and feelings into the heroine, the story really comes to life! I can't wait to read this book to see how the character, Cally, handles her situation! It is always fun reading your books, Sabrina! You always provide such entertaining stories infused with love and adventure.

Have a great week!

Sabrina Philips said...

Caroline, I'm glad you enjoyed the blog. You're right about needing to torture the h&h to fully understand their conflicts. For some reason my heroine's internal conflict always tends to be the clearer one to me whenever I first start writing a new story. I had to write quite a lot of this book before I understood so much about Cally's hero, Prince Leon, but when I did it was certainly juicy! Good luck with your writing. It's definitely not easy, you're right, and when I read back this blog my process sounds very 'neat', being in the same place again now with my new book reminds me it definitely isn't the case at the time! But it is so rewarding.

Maisey, you're right, I think a heroine should definitely share emotions you can totally relate to as the author in order to be as real as poss, the danger I think is giving her you personal opinions or issues about things, that are a self-indulgence rather than bringing anything to the romance, and that's what I was afraid of with this story, but hopefully I didn't. With regards thinking about what would make my heroine sleep with the hero so early on - I have to say that learning to try and well motivate my characters well was really what made the difference in getting my stories published. It's so important. Sadly it's also something I still find agonisingly difficult...

Michele, thanks for your lovely words! Glad you enjoyed reading about the process, and 'research' is a good word. I do a bit of the more conventional kind (into art restoration for this book, for example) but I think the majority of my research IS into my character's emotions, I spend so much time thinking about them!

Sabrina Philips said...

Thanks again to everyone for their comments, I really enjoyed the discussion!

The first commenter's name out of the hat was...

Lynz Pickles!
Congratulations Lynz!

Please drop me an email with your postal address to and I'll send you a copy of Cally's story.

For more chances to win don't forget you can enter the contest on my website

And big thanks to Lee for inviting me to blog today!

Alison said...

'The Station Essay' - what a wonderful reminder to live in the moment. I'm as guilty as anyone but knowing what a brief time I have to enjoy my baby daughter before she becomes a teenager and hates the sight of me, I try to enjoy the little things. I can't remember who said it but I try to live my life by it - 'Remember the little things, for one day you will look back and realise they were the big things'.

Sabrina Philips said...

That's a lovely quote Alison, and so true. I'm glad The Station Essay resonated with you :)