I love to read romance, particularly historical romance, yet as a reader there are some things that really annoy. I’m not the only one who has these complaints either, at least based on the Amazon and Goodreads reviews I read. Hopefully this will help authors who want to please their readers avoid some pitfalls. I try to keep this list in mind when I’m writing, so I’m counseling myself, too.
Join me if you have a pet peeve I failed to mention. Here are my top 10:
1. A cover that has nothing to do with the story. I realize the authors have little to do with this so it’s really a gripe at the publishers. But it is nonetheless valid. Real examples abound: A handsome pirate with black hair and dark eyes on the cover, but the hero has blond hair and silver eyes! A Victorian costumed woman on the cover of a Restoration romance. A Highlander in a plaid kilt centuries before they wore kilts. A heroine described as “plain and plump” but the cover shows her a beauty with a devastating petite figure. Please. Why is it the publishers think readers don’t notice? Well, we do!
2. A title that doesn’t describe the story or cheapens it. I know the publishers are selling romance like the cable outfits sell sex, but when they pick a dime store novel title just because it sounds like a book that is selling well, or they think the words “seduced,” “ravished,” or “in bed with” will make us buy it, to me it cheapens a serious historical romance. And don’t use words in the title that aren’t related to the story, like “pirate” if there’s no pirate in the romance (yes, I encountered one like that!), or “seduced” when there’s no seduction. The authors I’ve talked to hate it when publishers do this, though some say they have little say about it. That is sad, really. I have heard this from several authors. Do the publishers think we readers would like the books less if they used more honest, serious, worthy titles? (Like perhaps the one the author prefers?)
3. Not enough emotion to engage mine. Witty dialog, clever storylines and great hooks may be preferred by today’s publishers, but if you can’t engage my emotions, if you can’t make me care, I won’t be rating the book 5 stars. And it takes time to build characters, to tell me why I should love or hate them. I need layers of interesting tidbits about them. Only some authors get my 5 star emotional rating: Penelope Williamson (a two-Kleenex box author), Kathleen Givens, Elizabeth Stuart, Jan Cox Speas, Laurie McBain, Nadine Crenshaw, Jennifer Blake, Virginia Henley, Betina Krahn and Iris Johansen, to name some.
4. Simpering, snippy, whiny or weak heroines. Some people might like the weak, simpering females, or the continually snippy ones. Not me. I like my heroines with backbone. Not snippy, mind you, but courageous. Inspire me with heroines who think, women who won’t be dictated to, who rise to meet life’s challenges while still have a caring heart and you just might make me a fan. A good example is Sarah in BROKEN ARROW by Judith James. She is one of the best heroines out there: strong, compassionate, a unique individual who swims against the tide—and a woman who fights for her love. Another is Fallon in PRINCESS OF FIRE by Heather Graham (aka Shannon Drake), who refused to be cowered in the face of William the Conqueror. Or, there is Rachel in Penelope Williamson's THE OUTSIDER. My reviews are replete with other examples. (See my Favorite Heroes and Heroines List I publish each December.) There is no quicker way to turn me off to a story than to make the heroine a whimpering, whiny female. (I could give you examples of those, too, but I won’t.) And it doesn’t make up for it if later in the story she suddenly becomes a female warrior. Not buying it. Mind you, it’s ok if she cries for a valid reason. People do. But if she is constantly teary eyed and whimpering, or snippy in the extreme, I won’t read another by that author.
5. Contrived plot elements. I’m reading along, enjoying a great romance when suddenly, wham, out of nowhere something happens that just doesn’t fit—and isn’t believable. I know it’s romance, but it has to be natural…not contrived just to get the story moving in a certain direction. This is really important and can turn me off to an author quicker than anything. I have found that authors who engage in this do so again and again. I won’t mention names but suffice it to say these are the ones I’ve given 2 or 3 stars to on Amazon; and they are not on my “Best” lists.
6. A research dump. I really appreciate it when the historical romance reflects the author’s thorough research. Those are my favorites. I can always tell and I give the authors high marks for it in my reviews. But don’t dump everything you learned into long passages in the story. If the heroine is a potter, I don’t need the encyclopedia version of everything there is to know about pottery—or fossils, or painting, or stone masonry, etc. If I want more details, I’ll look them up. I can give you many authors who incorporate their research very well. A few whose names come to mind are Heather Graham (aka Shannon Drake), Nadine Crenshaw, Elizabeth Stuart, Meredith Duran, Judith James, Kathleen Givens, Shirl Henke, Cynthia Wright and Penelope Williamson.
7. Moral lectures disguised as romance. Yes, I know poverty existed in the past centuries (as it does now), and I expect it to be reflected in a historical romance, but don’t lecture me on the importance of being socially responsible. Don’t lecture me on the evils of slavery, natural healers that aren’t really witches, the benefits of vegetarianism, being charitable to the poor, etc. I get it. Reflect it, but don’t moralize. If you feel strongly, write an editorial, not a romance.
8. A character acting inconsistently. You know this one…a smart, savvy heroine who suddenly does something really stupid. In once romance I read, the heroine, who had been pretty smart up until this point, suddenly goes along with an abduction. Doesn’t scream, doesn’t fight. Nada. It was so disappointing it threw off my whole feeling about the story. Or, consider the hero who has always been a noble, forthright guy, who suddenly believes the worst about the heroine with no real evidence or provocation. Ugh!
9. Manufactured sexual tension. It’s gotta be real. It should come naturally out of the circumstances and the lives of the characters, but in some 2 and 3 star romances, it comes out of thin air. That will sour me on a story quicker than anything. You know what I’m talking about: arguments that should never have happened; misunderstandings any normal human being would clear up with one sentence—those things! I give highest marks to an author who has an intriguing plot that naturally develops and holds my attention, one who does not throw a wrench into the works merely to separate the hero and heroine. As a writer I know how tough this is to accomplish.
10. Love scenes that don’t match the characters or are the same in every one of the author’s books. If the heroine is an innocent virgin and suddenly she is seducing the hero with moves like a practiced courtesan (including the word “please” as a euphemism for “do it now”), you just lost me. The love scene has to match the people involved and their experience. If you want a courtesan’s moves, then make the heroine an experienced woman of the night. A failure to match the love scene to the characters can be subtle. If the heroine is insecure and her past reflects bad experiences with men, she isn’t going to jump into bed with the hero and take the initiative in lovemaking (yes I’ve encountered this). No way. It must seem like the kind of love scene these two people would share. And, don’t make all your love scenes the same in every book you write!
Great points here, Regan. But I would also add, when an author works too hard to bring out emotion. Over-written, over-modified, over-blown. A good author doesn't need to tell the reader what to feel...let the actions and dialogue do the showing. When the point is made, back off of the heavy introspection. Readers are smart enough to know what's going on if the groundwork was done right. (I say this because it's a HUGE failing of mine and one I have to guard against constantly.) But at least I'm aware, right?ReplyDelete
I think you are one of those authors who do it very well! But thanks for the point. You are right, of course, and we writers can learn to tread more softly in the jello.
LOL, love your list. I find 5 and 9 particularly annoying. Unfortunately, romances guilty of contrived plot elements abound. Ugh.ReplyDelete
Margaret, glad you liked the list. I think we all struggle as writers to make the story feel real. Thank God for beta readers who tell us when we have it all wrong.Delete
Yes x 10. Can we also add in "predictability"? Do we really have to know who's going to be doing what to whom within the first two pages? What happened to a little mystery? A little keep-'em-guessing?ReplyDelete
Genevieve, I so agree with you. Should add that point to my list. I loved it when one reader said of my book that it had her favorite combination: history, mystery and sex.Delete
The title should be left up to the author. They are the ones who know their book the best and what would resonate with the readers.ReplyDelete
Fallon from Princess of Fire is one of my all time favorites too.
I also like a strong heroine. They need to be strong to keep up with the strong heroes. I can't stand to be around whiny people in life, why in the world would I want to read about one? :)
Very good post, Regan!
I also want to make mention of emotions. I love when the author takes me in so deep that I forget I'm actually reading. I want to be drawn in feeling happiness and pain. I want to hate the evil one in the story, not just dislike them. I want to feel that suspense and feel the frustrations they may feel. When they can bring me to tears.... they definitely get a 5 star from me. I want to hate to see the end of the book coming.Delete
Leah, I so agree with you and it's a gift of a great writer to be able to do that. It's what makes my best list every time and gains 5 stars.Delete
as always Regan your points are thought provoking and incisive.Delete
I especially like your list of favorite authors.mIt's a great guidepost.
Thanks, Bob! That means much. It's the reason I do this after all.Delete
Great list, Regan. One you didn't mention, but that pushes my buttons, is a heroine who thinks and acts as if the restrictions imposed on women in the past don't exist. The authors either fail to research the mores and manners of times or else deliberately ignore them for the sake of more liberated sexual attitudes. Well, or maybe because they can't figure out how to get their couple together while the heroine is rigidly guarded or chaperoned! Whatever the cause, it destroys the illusion of being in a historical time period.ReplyDelete
I do agree, Jennifer. When I have pointed this out to some authors what I find is a failure to understand the culture in which they are writing... so yes, it comes down to research. But there are others who only use the historical setting as "wallpaper" and their romances can seem very modern. However, in my story, WIND RAVEN I felt compelled in my Author's Note to point out that there was an historical model for my heroine who crewed ships with her brothers lest readers think she was not consistent with her time. (Anne Chamberlyne, a scholar’s daughter and member of the gentry in 1690 at 23 declined offers of marriage, donned a man’s clothing and joined her brother’s ship to fight the French off Beachy Head.)Delete
I totally agree with Jennifer, I deduct one, to two stars, depending on how much they distort morals of the times. Especially for women, Gentleman were not supposed to discuss such things in front of others, period.Delete