When I started writing romance novels back in the early 1990s, print was the only game in town. And Harlequin was the biggest player, at least for category romance. I read dozens of romance novels to see what sold, I joined Romance Writers of America as well as a local chapter to learn the business, and I read dozens of books on writing in general and writing romance in particular in order to learn the craft. And of course, I wrote. Like crazy.
From my research and from what I gleaned at meetings, I discovered there were certain rules that you had to follow when writing a romance, and if you didn’t, you’d get one of those form letter rejections back from an editor, pretty darn quick. Here are a few of the rules back then:
- Time Period – Romance novels at that time were either set in contemporary times, or in historical times, which meant before World War One. The eighty plus years in between were ignored as if they’d never happened. This always baffled me. Good grief, there are a million stories of love and loss and sacrifice to be told during the two world wars, not to mention the Korean or Vietnam wars. And what about the Roaring Twenties that saw so much social change after WW1, or the upheaval of the Great Depression of the 1930s? This rule made no sense to me at all.
- Settings – The majority of Historicals of those days took place in the American west, in England or Scotland. Hello? There’s a whole wide world out there, but romance publishers of the day didn’t believe readers wanted go there.
- Occupations – For some reason, you couldn’t write a novel with an actor or actress as the main character. Maybe if you were Nora Roberts you could get away with it, but a new writer was advised to stay away from these characters. I’m not sure why. I think they were considered too flakey or something.
- Perfect Characters – You could never have a story where one of the characters is already in a relationship when he or she meets the other. No, no, no. Because that never happens in real life. If one of the characters was married, his or her spouse had to be conveniently dead. There could be no hint of adultery. This was pretty standard in category romance, but big name authors could get away with a little adultery in single title books. Laveryle Spencer did it a couple of times, most notably in “Bittersweet”. In this story, a widow meets her high school boyfriend after many years apart. They fall in love again; unfortunately his wife is still very much alive. Of course, this wife turned out to be a piece of work, and readers forgave the hero and heroine.
Thank goodness for the expansion of publishing through ebooks! So many more story lines, settings and time periods are acceptable now. There’s a heat level for every taste, and an expression of sexual love for every taste as well. I’ve broken a couple of those old rules myself. I’ve set both FLAWLESS and HOME FIRES during World War Two. In THERE GOES THE GROOM, Olivia is engaged to someone else when Tony comes back into her life. But she doesn’t sleep with Tony until she breaks up with the old fiancé. One thing in the romance genre hasn’t changed; once you find your one true love, you remain loyal, forsaking all others. Unless you’re writing a polyamorous romance or a ménage, but that’s a whole different blog post!
As a reader, what rules are you glad romance writers have broken?