Monday, 14 July 2014

My RNA Conference Talk - Love and Death in Romantic Intrigue

My RNA Conference Talk – Love and Death in Romantic Intrigue

There’s been so much interest in the talk I did at the RNA Conference over the weekend of 11th-13th July 2014, I thought I’d try and summarise it here for everyone.

So this blog post will discuss (as it did in the talk):

  • How I came to write Romantic Intrigue
  • What is Romantic Intrigue?
  • Romantic Intrigue Examples
  • Romance Tropes
  • Crime/Intrigue Tropes
  • Combining the Two – How Would you Do it?
  • Tips on intrigue and dealing with death in romantic fiction.
  • Who Publishes Romantic Intrigue?
    And I am more than happy to answer any questions in the comments afterwards.
    How I came to Write Romantic Intrigue
    Don’t worry. I’m not planning to go back in my writing career to Year 1 in High School when I had a poem published in the school magazine. I’ll only talk about it in so much as it applies to this talk and writing romantic intrigue.
    As my regular blog visitors will know, I had some success with writing short stories in my early writing career. I had tried writing novels, but I’d start writing a romance, then when I got fed up of the hero and heroine’s conflict, I’d suddenly throw a dead body in halfway through. Or I’d start writing crime, then shoehorn in a Mills and Boon type romance. The problem with this is that the novels were neither fish nor fowl. They weren’t cohesive or well written. So naturally I didn’t have much luck with them.
    In 2008 I decided to focus on writing for My Weekly Pocket Novels. At the time the novellas only 30k (they’re now 50k), and so it seemed a nice transition between writing short stories and novels. I researched the market (which is essential) but with all due respect to the authors whose books I read, I didn’t find anything that appealed to me as a writer. I decided to think about what I really liked, and the answer came back ‘Alfred Hitchcock  films’ and ‘Agatha Christie novels’. In essence, romantic intrigue. Now I’m not saying that My Weekly Pocket Novels had never published romantic intrigue and I certainly didn’t invent the genre. I just hadn’t found any during my research. But I decided to have a go anyway, and that was when I wrote The Secret of Helena’s Bay, inspired greatly by Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes.
    In writing that novel, everything fell into place, as I finally realised how to balance the romance and the intrigue element, which is why I felt this talk/blog would be helpful to other authors.
    Since then I’ve had 19 novels/novellas published, most of which have been in the romantic intrigue genre.
    Once I’d told everyone at the RNA conference my background, we got around to discussing:
    What is Romantic Intrigue?

  • A love story with a dash of mystery.
  • A mystery story in which romance plays a big part.
  • The hero and heroine are connected somehow to that mystery.
  • Could be psychological ‘crime’, such as ‘gaslighting’.
  • Could also be paranormal.
  • The outcome of the romance is tied to resolving the mystery.
  • Also known as Romantic Suspense.
    Romantic Intrigue Examples

  • Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier (novel) and Alfred Hitchcock (film)
  • Gaslight – film starring Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten
  • The Lady Vanishes – Hitchcock film
  • Romancing the Stone – film starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner
  • Knight and Day – Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz film
    I then discussed the two separate genres of romance and crime, and how to combine them. So I started with the basic tropes for writing romance. What I like to call The Recipe for Making Love Stories. There are many more tropes in the genre, but these are the building blocks of a romance.

  • Hero and heroine
  • Conflict
  • ‘Getting to know you’
  • Pivotal moment
  • Black moment
  • Happy Ever After/Happy for Now
    Then we have the basic crime tropes (again not extensive, but the building blocks of the genre)

  • The sleuth
  • A mystery to be solved
  • The victim(s)
  • The cast of characters who all had a reason for wanting victim dead/to steal the McGuffin
  • The red herrings
  • The denouement (aka the reveal)
    Putting the two side by side, I asked the class how they would go about putting the two genres together to create a cohesive story, and they came up with some great answers.  So how would you do it?

Romance Tropes
Crime Tropes
¢  Hero and heroine (h/h)
¢  Conflict
¢  ‘Getting to know you’
¢  Pivotal moment
¢  Black moment
¢  Happy Ever After/Happy for Now
¢  The sleuth
¢  A mystery to be solved
¢  The victim(s)
¢  The cast of characters who all had a reason for wanting victim dead/to steal the McGuffin
¢  The red herrings
¢  The denouement (aka the reveal)


First of all I stressed that I run equal opportunities workshops and that the hero and heroine can easily be the hero/hero or heroine/heroine. I just don’t want to drown in pronouns so will continue to use hero/heroine.

I used the example of the film, Romancing the Stone to illustrate how the two are combined. To anyone who doesn’t know the film, it stars Kathleen Turner as a frumpy (Ha!) romance novelist, and Michael Douglas when he was hot for about 5 minutes in the 1980s, and Danny Devito who is basically playing Danny Devito.

Kathleen’s character, Joan Wilder, is told that her sister has been kidnapped, and the only way to save her is to bring a map that leads to some buried treasure (the ‘stone’ of the title). Don’t worry too much about the sister, as she’s going through a nice little case of Stockholm Syndrome with her kidnapper… So Joan travels to South America, where she meets Jack (Michael Douglas), a seemingly amoral adventurer, and gradually her clothes fall off and they fall in love. Here is my interpretation of how the crime and romance tropes combine and criss-cross to create a whole story:

Romancing the Stone: Romance Tropes
Romancing the Stone: Crime Tropes
¢  H/H: Joan and Jack
¢  Conflict: Joan wants the stone to save her sister. Jack wants the stone for financial gain.
¢  ‘Get to know’ each other on the quest to save Joan’s sister/find the stone.
¢  Pivotal moment, several but especially when Jack decides to help Joan during denouement.
¢  Black moment – Joan thinks Jack is dead and that she’ll never see him again (note however that the trip has changed her outlook on life).
¢  Happy ending: Jack turns up on his boat to take Joan away
¢  Sleuth(s) – Joan and Jack looking for the stone. Also Joan looking for her kidnapped sister.
¢  The mystery – The whereabouts of precious stone that Joan needs and Jack wants and that others are willing to kill for.
¢  The Victim – Joan’s kidnapped sister
¢  Lots of characters who want the stone
¢  Red Herrings – ‘Gangster’ who turns out to be a fan of Joan’s and helps them; the cop who turns out to be a bad guy. And Jack, who is a rogue but essentially noble.
¢  The denouement – when all is resolved regarding the bad guys (note that this comes before the romantic happy ending)


Tips for Writing Romantic Intrigue

  • Be clear from the outset what/whose story you’re telling.
  • Keep asking how the intrigue element affects the romance and vice versa.
  • Follow the rule of K.I.S.S. (keep it simple stupid)
  • Remember that all elements of both genres must be resolved by the end
  • Make sure bad guys/girls get their comeuppance in some way.
  • It helps to solve the mystery first, and then give the couple their happy ending.
  • Though there’s nothing wrong with a last minute ‘thrill’ to dispense with the bad guy/girl.
    In relation to the third point, about keeping it simple, I explained to the class that if you have too complicated a plot, then you have to somehow resolve all those issues. Now I like a complicated plot, with lots of twists and turns, but most plots that seem complicated have very simple main plots, regardless of what happens on the journey. Take Romancing the Stone as an example again (and I wish I’d thought of this in the workshop, so you can have it for free now…).
    The plot, which could practically be written on a postcard, is ‘Mousy woman goes to (insert name of exotic locale) to find (insert person or object), meets and falls in love with handsome adventurer, comes back a more assured woman, goes off into the sunset with handsome adventurer’. Yes, there’s a lot more going on there, with the various factions wanting the stone, but the plot itself is very basic and could be even utilised by anyone to create a very different story.  In my own novels, though I like twists and turns, the intrigue part of the plot usually boils down to ‘A did something to B, because…’
    Once we’d discussed the tropes and how to combine them, I moved on to the more general topic of how one deals with death and/or dark themes in romantic fiction. I gave the example of a romance I’d read somewhere (she says vaguely), which, in the first chapter started that mummy was a crack whore, daddy died in a hail of bullets, the heroine growing up on the streets and/or being abused by various foster fathers, then in the fifth paragraph of the first chapter (!) she’s suddenly an adult, working in a bright modern building and having a cute meet with the handsome hero (and ALL of the aforementioned told in the quirky tone of a Bridget Jones novel…). And my response on reading was ‘Hold on a minute! I haven’t even come to terms with your crack whore mother yet.’
    And the point is that if you give your character a back story like this, then it *must* be dealt with, and how on earth do you do that with so much anguish in the heroine’s background?
    Another example I gave was a crime novel I read, where in the first few chapters the two main heroines were revealed to be one whose boyfriend had cheated on her, but she had blamed herself because she had a career so forgiven him; the other was in a violent relationship so had had an abortion so as not to bring a child into that relationship, and the novel itself was about young women being murdered. Now this novel, by a best selling author, didn’t have to be what I thought it should be, but the misery (and the way women were shown as ‘victims’ – and by a woman writer no less!) was so relentless I had to put it down.
    That’s not to say that dark subjects can’t be dealt with. There’s a Penny Jordan/Mills and Boon novel where the heroine’s mother was indeed a prostitute and drug addict, but it’s dealt with in such a subtle way, that by the time the whole story is told (and Penny doesn’t go into the specifics of drug addiction) you realise just how far this heroine came in her life before she met the hero. And that was the main problem with the first example I gave. The heroine could not possibly have resolved all those issues, so it appeared that he hero was going to be the one to make it all right for her. Regardless of what some people might think of romantic novels, that isn’t how it works.
    We moved on to talking about death and grief in particular. I gave the example of one of my own novels (True Companion) where the heroine’s father was hanged as a spy. Yet the story begins a couple of years after that event and the novel deals with her attempt to clear his name, and at the same time she falls in love. Can you imagine how I might have dealt with it if I’d started the story the day of her father’s hanging? Do you think she’d have been in a fit to go off having adventures with the hero?
    Remember that romance, even romantic intrigue, is still a fantasy, and yes your hero and heroine might have gone through some crap in their lives, but it’s important to deal with it in such a way it doesn’t bring the reader down.
    Tips for dealing with death in light romantic fiction

  • Try not to pile on the angst too much. If you’ve killed off the heroine’s entire family and her dog, you may have overdone it a bit.
  •  It helps to have some distance between the characters and the ‘death’ aspect. Either physical difference or emotional distance.
  • So: Only kill off unpleasant people or have several months/years between ‘loss’ and current story.
  • If the hero/heroine is widowed, it’s particularly important to put some distance between that event and the new love affair. At least one year. Two years is better.
  • Use light and dark strokes to create a story that has highs and lows, but be careful the lows don’t last too long.
  • Use humour for light relief, as long as it’s appropriate to the situation.
  • Try not to make the death(s) too gruesome. Remember you are writing romance, not Hannibal Lecter-esque serial killer novels. Keep the death count low.
  • Cosy crime is more suited to romantic intrigue. This can include murder, but it’s better if the murder takes place ‘off-stage’.
  • However, supernatural plots are also good for romantic intrigue.
  • Characters, as in all novels, are always the most important aspect of your story.
  • Keep an eye on the market, but write what you would like to read.
    Who Published Romantic Intrigue?

  • DC Thomson – My Weekly Pocket Novels and The People’s Friend Pocket Novels
  • Harlequin/Mills&Boon
  • Pulse/Myrmidion
  • Harper Impulse
  • Accent Press
  • Ulverscroft Large Print (Linford Romance Library)
    (Sue Barnard, who was at my talk, also told me that Crooked Cat take Romantic Intrigue novels).
    And that was it. My talk at the RNA conference (though to be honest I’ve thought of things to say here that I didn’t think about on Saturday!) I did end by asking for questions, and I’ll do the same here. Do ask in the comments if there’s anything you'd like to ask me about the discussion above.
    I do hope people find this helpful. As I said to the attendees at the talk, I try not to be too prescriptive about writing. I just throw stuff out there, and even if people disagree with me, I hope it gives them some food for thought. Because sometimes even disagreeing with someone else’s view can really help you to decide what works for you as a writer.
     (Copyright (c) Sally Quilford 2014)


  1. That's an excellent article Sally, I'm a social worker and have been writing about social work because its such a rewarding and fascinating job. But its surprising that so many people think social workers just take babies away but there is much more supporting parents than child protection. Its very similar to call the midwife, which really mostly deals with people's social situation, the medical aspects are really small. Even when you do take a child away it is for the best and even call the midwife dealt with still born babies. Your article is excellent though, thanks so much.

  2. Laura Orion/Laura Rosemont22 July 2014 at 21:17

    Thanks for this enlightening post! Very helpful, and I've just purchased your book Love Craft. I had my first short story published by People's Friend in February, and I currently have three other stories out to three magazines, and I'll be submitting a romantic intrigue novella to few publishers next month, so this article is very timely for me. I really owe a lot to you and other authors for helping us newbies along. Thank you so much!


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