Previously published in The New Writer Magazine
The supernatural romance is big business in publishing. This is partly as a result of Stephanie Meyer’s phenomenally successful Twilight series, which charts the lives and loves of middle-class, teenage vampires. A sort of Beverley Hills 90210 - with teeth. I suspect that Meyer’s success was built upon the interest in the occult that was created in the wake of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Best-selling novelist Marian Keyes new novel, The Brightest Star in the Sky also touches on the supernatural, as does Sophie Kinsella’s Twenties Girl. Now major romance publishers like Mills & Boon are getting in on the act, with their Nocturne imprint; a world away from the fluffy romances that made M&B successful. The world famous ‘punishing kisses’ have been replaced by white-hot vampire love bites. Though, they tell prospective writers, the favoured hero still must be an alpha male.
I spoke to two rising stars of the genre, Cally Taylor and Tamsyn Murray, to find out why supernatural romances have become so popular, and whether the British treatment of the theme differs from the American.
Cally Taylor’s novel, Heaven Can Wait, (ISBN 1409103234) was published by Orion on 15 October 2009. Cally told me about her novel, “It’s a supernatural romantic-comedy about a woman called Lucy who dies the night before her wedding. In order to become a ghost, and be reunited with her fiancé, she has to find love for a total stranger in twenty-one days.” The novel has been described as “a fabulously warm, funny and romantic novel that will have you laughing and crying in equal measure.”
Tamsyn Murray’s My So-Called Afterlife (ISBN: 978 1 84812 057 0), is due for release in February 2010. Tam said, “(it) is a bittersweet supernatural teen novel about a fifteen year old ghost called Lucy who haunts the men’s toilet on Carnaby Street. The story revolves around how she comes to terms with a complicated afterlife following her murder. With psychics, psychos and sidekicks ... who says death is the end?”
I asked them why they chose to write a supernatural novel, as opposed to dealing with more earthly subjects.
“Two reasons really,” said Cally. “The first is that I was compelled to write the book as soon as I came up with the idea. I couldn’t stop thinking about Lucy, Dan and the other characters and found myself constantly jotting down ideas for scenes and plot twists. I couldn’t wait to start writing it. Secondly I’m a huge fan of films and TV dramas about the supernatural, or anything a little bit out of the ordinary - everything from ‘Harvey’ where James Stewart talks to an imaginary rabbit, to Harry Potter to True Blood – and it felt natural to write something in a similar genre. If I find a novel exciting to write hopefully the reader will find it exciting to read.
Tam started with a slightly different premise. “The novel grew when I wondered about what happened to ghosts if the place they haunted was knocked down – did they haunt whatever was built on the land or did they have to find a new home? As I was picturing the ghost of a sixteenth century Lord or Lady finding themselves haunting a public lavatory, Lucy arrived in my head along with a corking first line for the book. She was such a strong character and very much dictated the subject and tone of the book!”
I wondered how difficult it was to find a publisher, given that the genre seems to be more popular in America.
“I think I was lucky because it wasn’t especially difficult,” said Tam. “I joined Antony Harwood Literary Agency in October 2008 and Piccadilly Press was one of the first publishers to receive the manuscript. We agreed terms in March 2009 so it only took a few months to find a publisher, something that’s due in no small part to my agent, Jo Williamson.”
Cally didn’t find it quite as easy. “I think some of the publishers my agent approached were definitely nervous about taking on a supernatural romantic-comedy as there’s no proven sales record for that genre in the UK,” she said. “That said there was interest from four different publishers in the UK and I was delighted when Orion gave me their full backing and support.”
Both Cally and Tam’s novels have a strong vein of humour, whereas Stephanie Meyer’s novels tend to be very earnest, charting a darkly obsessive love. Why did Cally and Tam choose to inject their novels with humour?
“As well as being interested in supernatural films and TV dramas,” said Cally. “I’m a big fan of romantic comedies and I wanted to write a book that was a combination of the two. Writers like Sophie Kinsella and Helen Fielding have both written hugely successful comedy novels whilst films like “Just Like Heaven” have married the supernatural and comedy, but there aren’t many supernatural romantic-comedy novels around. “Heaven Can Wait” could have been very dark, particularly as the main character is dead, but I wanted to see if I could inject some humour into the subject and make it an entertaining read rather than a depressing one.”
Tam said, “Again, I’d have to lay this at Lucy’s door. She had such a witty personality, a typical sarcastic teenager in a lot of ways, that it would have been impossible not to include humour. I was also aware that the subject matter of the book is often very dark and humour enabled me to touch on some painful topics without depressing the reader. That’s not say Lucy isn’t obsessive about her love-life but it’s probably the only thing which goes smoothly after her death!”
I wanted to know if this was a quintessentially British trait. As a nation do we prefer to deal with dark subjects in a humorous way?
“I think the supernatural is a growing area of interest in the UK and there’s no shortage of people who believe in the paranormal,” said Tam. “But Brits often approach difficult situations with humour and since death is one of the most harrowing experiences we go through perhaps it’s no surprise we use humour to help us deal with it. Or maybe it simply allows us to cope with things beyond our understanding.”
In Cally’s experience, “some Brits take the supernatural very seriously. I recently went to a Psychic Fair to try and get some ideas for novel 3 and the people there took it very seriously indeed. TV programmes like ‘Most Haunted’ seem to get a very loyal following too although I’ll admit that most Brits are quite sceptical about anything to do with the supernatural. Earlier this year the BBC broadcast a programme called ‘Being Human’ that mixed humour with the supernatural and seemed to get a very good response so maybe there is something in the ‘Brits take a humorous take on the supernatural’ theory.”
We all know that research is important for any novel, and it’s also a good idea to know what’s out there already. However, Cally admitted to being fairly new to the genre in novel form, although has she has already told us, she’s always been a fan of films dealing with the supernatural. “I have to admit that I hadn’t read any supernatural romances prior to writing my own book as, as you said earlier, it isn’t a huge genre in the UK yet. Since writing my book I’ve read the whole Twilight series, which I enjoyed – particularly the fourth book which was more plot lead than the previous books – and am planning on reading Sophie Kinsella’s book Twenties Girl about a 1920s ghost visiting a modern day young woman.”
Tam had read supernatural romances, and it led to her asking some interesting questions about her own characters. “Although romance is only one strand of the plot to My So-Called Afterlife, I’ve read several supernatural love stories and really like the genre. I love the freedom to explore the traditional aspects of love, which the supernatural element gives – do ghosts kiss? How? Plus there’s great potential for comedic value; ghosts can wreak a witty revenge on a cheating ex and get caught up in all manner of other funny events!”
I asked them what the good and bad points of the genre were. Cally said, “I don’t think I can really point out the good and bad points of the genre without reading a more varied range of books.”
Tam pointed out some of the problems that might arise. “…it’s easy to fall into the cliché trap, with chain-rattling ghosts and convenient magic. Also, sometimes the author doesn’t make the parameters of the supernatural world clear to the reader, which can lead to confusion and weakens the plot.”
Finally I asked them what advice they had for writers wanting to break into the supernatural genre.
Tam said: “Be fresh with your ideas and treatment of traditional supernatural elements. Make sure you know the rules of the world you are creating and be prepared to spend time thinking about the fine details – how does your ghost cope with the material world and where does a werewolf find clothes that fit when he changes back to a human? Above all, avoid lucky coincidences (something that applies to all writing!) and have fun experimenting.”
Cally stresses the importance of being unique. “I think it’s important to write what you want to write whilst also thinking outside the box. In the same way that lots of writers started writing books about wizards and witches after the huge success of Harry Potter there’s bound to be a glut of vampire novels arriving in agent’s inboxes after the success of the Twilight series. It takes so long to write a novel, find a publisher and then get it published that what’s ‘hot stuff’ now might be out of vogue in two years time. Make your characters memorable, your ‘hook’ unique, your plot compelling and, if you’ve got a strong voice, agents and publishers will sit up and take notice.”
So the time to start writing your supernatural romance is now!