Balancing Act

on May 4, 2006

Okay, we have a theme this week and my diversion is . . . I’m writing about something completely different. Which is really the story of my writing life. It took me years to get serious about my writing. Why? Because every time I started a story, I’d get 50-300 pages into it and then . . . get a better idea and start something new.

But I have a good reason for going off on a tangent today. Several authors and I were chatting on-line (okay, there’s MY biggest diversion from writing: the Internet. End of story. See, what a boring post that would be!) . . . anyway, these suspense authors and I were chatting about the difficulty of maintaining a high level of suspense WITH a believable, growing relationship. This balancing act becomes even more difficult when you’re writing a short time frame story–like, oh, 24 hours or so.

I love romantic suspense. I love writing it and reading it. To me, there’s nothing better than a dark, scary suspense book with a fantastic romance that ends in a happily-ever-after . . . the villain gets what’s coming to him, and the hero and heroine ride off together into the proverbial sunset.

Romantic suspense has grown into its own genre. It’s no longer simply a sub-genre of romance. The edges are blurred and romantic suspense has bled into other genres as well. There is erotic romantic suspense; paranormal romantic suspense; historical romantic suspense. And there are huge ranges from light to dark suspense, warm to hot romance. Anything goes, and I think that’s fantastic.

To put this in perspective, look at the fantabulous Nora Roberts. Her “Nora” romantic suspense (ala THE THREE FATES, DIVINE EVIL, etc) while definitely RS are more focused on the relationship. Her JD Robb books, while they definitely have a strong romance, are more focused on the suspense. Both tones are romantic suspense, but you have different levels of suspense.

On the romance side, you’ll find “warm” romances without explicit sex, and “hot” romances with lots of sex. There’s a place for both in the genre. To me, it’s what the story calls for.

For example, in THE PREY, multiple, detailed, hot sex scenes fit the story. In THE HUNT, there were two “warm” scenes between the hero and heroine. Because I put myself deeply into the characters, I couldn’t seem to write the scenes any more explicitly than they were, because it didn’t fit the characters. In THE KILL the scenes hit my hero’s rough-around-the-edges personality, and my heroine’s coming into her own sexuality.

You’ll also find not only different levels of suspense-to-romance, and heat within the romance, but different ranges of grittiness as well. I tend to write more gritty. Not AS dark or gritty as some of the straight suspense writers like Tess Gerritsen and Karin Slaughter, but grittier than what might be considered typical of the romantic suspense genre which is probably why I’m finding my books cross-shelved in romance AND mystery/suspense.

Balancing romance and suspense isn’t always easy. In THE PREY I didn’t have any problems–the story took place over a three week period. The relationship developed naturally, out of proximity and common interests and values. In THE HUNT, it was a reunion–I had a strong backstroy between the hero and heroine and because of that, I could go back and forth between then and now, showing how they first fell in love, what happened to split them apart, and how they found their way back together–all against the primary story of hunting for a killer.

The suspense must be believable. I spend a lot of time in my villain’s head because I want to know why he does what he does, I want to see him fully. No one is evil in a vacuum. They become evil, they may do evil things, but there’s a reason. The villain is the hero of his own journey, he can and will justify everything he does. His rise and fall is as important as the hero and heroine.

Balancing a page-turning suspense with a strong romantic relationship can be tricky. Like in THE KILL, I had to have a realistic time when my hero and heroine could acknowledge their attraction, then act on it. I think I found it, in the lull before the storm so-to-speak, but it took a couple of tries before I got it right.

In the end, though, romantic suspense authors write what they want to read. If they are true to their voice, they’ll be different than what is out there. We don’t need another Lisa Jackson or Linda Howard or Nora Roberts, because new authors will be pale imitations to the originals. We need a unique voice, and romantic suspense offers such a range of romance to suspense that there’s room for many strong voices.

The key is to write for the story, remembering first and foremost that “character is story” and if you’re going to be true to yourself, you’ll let your natural balance control your voice.

I write what I write because I love it. Some people may want more romance, some less, but in the end, if I’m going to be true to MY voice, I write what comes most naturally to me. Anything else will feel artificial. Not only to me, but to my readers.