On (Not?) Writing Romance - Catherine Czerkawska

From the Roman de la Rose - possibly the earliest romance!
Let me say right from the start: there's absolutely nothing wrong with romance. Some of my good friends write romances, and they do it beautifully. And a lot of what I write certainly has romantic elements. But if somebody reads my books expecting them to obey certain romance conventions, he or she may be doomed to disappointment, and that's one of my reasons for becoming an independent 'writer as publisher'. I don't fit many of the genre specifics.

Traditional publishers were never very sure where to place my novels. When I'm uploading them as eBooks, even I don't know quite where to place them and swither between contemporary women's fiction, historical fiction, (I write both) literary fiction and - you've guessed it - romance.

Specifically, though, I don't really do happy endings. Or at least I don't do happily-ever-after endings. I do my best to make the endings satisfying, but my characters seldom if ever walk off into the sunset. Well, not while they're alive they don't!  I also write about physical and sexual abuse, violence and appalling cruelty. (Bird of Passage and a couple of forthcoming novels) I write about illicit love and obsessive physical passion (The Amber Heart) and I invariably have some loose ends that can't be tied up.

Romance used to mean knightly tales of derring-do, interspersed with a little courtly love, the kind where the perfect knight adores his lady from afar, but never gets much further than wearing her favour on his sleeve at a tournament. If you look up the word 'romance' in a contemporary context, though, you'll find this definition: 'An artistic work, such as a novel, story or film, that deals with sexual love, especially in an idealised form.'

Now I'd be the first to admit that I write love stories. I write about all kinds of love, including sexual love and when I ask myself why, I suppose the answer is that I find love, in all its manifestations, absolutely fascinating. But I don't think I write about any of these things in an 'idealised form'. Some of my characters flatly refuse to be redeemed, which I suppose makes me even less of a romance writer than the author of Fifty Shades of Grey. Which is still not to denigrate romance in any way - I'm as fond as the next woman of a novel where the central characters live happily ever after. It's just that I I'm not sure I've written one.

Until now.

My forthcoming novel, Ice Dancing, is probably the closest thing I'm likely to get to a genuine romance (with the possible exception of a backlist title I'll be working on next year) But I'm still not quite sure I've succeeded. The first draft was written about ten years ago, but it has been through a lot of changes since then.

Helen is a Scottish farmer’s wife, living in a rural backwater, approaching forty, with her only child about to fly the nest. She has almost resigned herself to the downward slide into mildly discontented middle age. But when Joe, a visiting Canadian ice hockey player, comes to live in a nearby cottage, she realises that nothing will ever be the same again. ‘He came gliding into my life and changed everything. He didn’t intend for it to happen any more than I did. I think it took us both by surprise. Like a bolt of lightning. Like a puck to the head, as Joe would say.’

So far, so romantic. But even then, I couldn't resist the dark side. If this is a romance, and I think it probably is,  it has a twist, because Joe – who skates like an angel – has his own demons to cope with, a sadder, more complicated and much more shocking past than Helen could ever imagine. Oddly enough, (especially in view of Cally Phillips' recent publication of her excellent Powerplay) that part of the story began life as a serious hockey themed play called The Locker Room, which never found a professional production. The feedback was good, but I think the subject matter was uncomfortable.As soon as I started the novel, I saw that one of the characters from the play had walked straight into the book, bag and baggage, with the stress on baggage. Characters are like that sometimes. They demand to be heard.

Ice Dancing is scheduled for publication before the end of this month. It's a novel about physical passion and many kinds of betrayal. the story of two people for whom the habits of a lifetime must be broken before they can move forward, but here they are, dancing precariously between past and present, between hope and despair, balancing on ice, together and apart. Oh, and it's quite funny in places: a novel about village life. But nobody really skates off into the sunset either. 
Sometimes I felt as though I might be channelling Barbara Pym. (I'd be delighted. She's one of my all time favourite authors.)
And sometimes it seemed more like The Bridges of Madison County.
But it's also, I now realise, a novel about my own long love affair with the game of ice hockey, a game so enthralling and enticing and just plain sexy that I knew I would have to attempt to write something about it one of these days! 


Dan Holloway said…
I'm intrigued by this flurry of hockey books. It's not something I've ever got into beyond Jason's hockey mask in Friday 13th sequels and vaguely watching at the winter olympics.

I could never write romance for largely the same reasons as you to do with the frustration at having to tie ends up, but I spent several years studying courtly love and found it fascinating, and its progression to full-blown Romanticism in Wagner, Mahler and Goethe. I can't say I remember too many happy endings, but as a movement it does like to wrap things up neatly. I guess it depends whether a reader wants realism or escapism
My son played hockey until he had to choose between hockey and exams or karate and exams and the hockey was too time consuming, so he stayed with the karate (and the exams)! Plus, he was rapidly approaching 6ft 4 and would definitely have been en enforcer, (not a nice position - you sort of beat people up) But the whole family were, and still are to some extent, hockey daft. Sadly, we lost our local team when the wonderful ice pad (one of the best in Europe and partly built with public money) was demolished to make way for a supermarket, with the permission of our local council. Still angry about that one.
Yes - that whole courtly love subject is fascinating, isn't it? I'm fond of a bit of romance, but I'm not a natural happy ender. Although I don't think I'm a natural pessimist either!
Chihuahua Zero said…
I'm definitely writing a love story that breaks a few conventions too. Just how LGBT is it? Just how much of a romance of it? And how will they feel about it at the end?

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