Elaine Fox: Rewriting Romance Rules
Romance writers have all the fun. They go everyplace and everywhen and hang around with the most gorgeous men. And then there's the research. If science fiction writers study quantum physics, and mystery writers hunt for undetectable poisons, what kind of research does it take to make the grade in love?
Whatever it takes, Elaine Fox's "report cards" speak for themselves. Her debut novel, Traveler, was a finalist in the Romance Writers of America 1997 RITA Awards for "Best First Book," and her audience expands with each new release. Stand by for the inside scoop on one of the freshest new voices in the genre.
Crescent Blues: We always hear that there are very specific rules for writing romances. What are some of those rules?
Elaine Fox: The only hard and fast rule for romance writing is that the story must have a happy ending. The rumor that they're written by some sort of "formula" is untrue -- unfortunately, because think how easy my job would be if it were!
It is true, however, that some publishers have narrower guidelines than others for the books they publish. For example, some lines don't want much mystery or suspense, some want a lot. Some don't want the hero and heroine to have sex before marriage, some want spicy love scenes. Some want romances with paranormal elements, such as time travel or ghosts, and some won't go near a story with those elements. But as the editors at writing conferences always say: nothing is truly off limits as long as it's done well. Which is probably true in all fiction writing.
Elaine Fox: I did go against some of the things that publishers generally frown upon in my first book, though I wouldn't say I broke rules, exactly. Maybe "overcame some generalizations" is a better way of putting it. Traveler was written in a first person narrative, for one thing, which they say is a hard sell. And my heroine starts out with a boyfriend who is not the hero, which some editors don't like.
I also incorporated some unusual elements, such as making my time traveler the hero and having him come forward in time instead of back. In addition, in my book Untamed Angel, I had a hero who was bi-racial, which is also unusual.
But again, if it's integral to the story, and it's done well -- which I hope mine was -- they'll let you do it. I'm very happy to say that my publisher has given me a great deal of freedom in what I write about.
Crescent Blues: How did you get your first break in publishing?
Elaine Fox: I found an agent. This can be almost as hard as finding a publisher, so this isn't any stunning new advice or anything. But I sent out a proposal and got lucky. I truly think that's the crux of getting started in this business: Get Lucky. And the only way to do that is to finish your book and get it out there so people can see it.
Elaine Fox: I think I got into the business right when publishing was starting to see a downturn. While romances are selling almost half of all mass-market paperback books, it is still seeing the same decline that the rest of the industry is suffering.
In addition, with the advent of the superstores like Wal-Mart making up a large piece of the market, many mid-list authors -- those writers who haven't become bestsellers or made a well-known name for themselves yet (like me!) -- are losing shelf space. As a result, publishers want fewer mid-list authors, which is scary.
But I've heard from many people in the business that the publishing world is nothing if not cyclical, so I have high hopes for it to bounce back in the near future.
Crescent Blues: You use historical backgrounds for some of your works--for example, 19th century England in Pray Love, Remember, and the Civil War in Traveler. How much research do you do?
Elaine Fox: I do just enough. Actually, I like researching the everyday life things. Problems such as how long did it take to get from here to there, did they have bathrooms, do the women wear underwear, things like that fascinate me. I think everyone should learn history this way, it's so much more interesting than learning solely about wars and dates and economic influences. If high school students were told to find out how a 16-year-old girl in 19th century England went about dating there'd be a lot less napping in class, I bet.
As for researching the Civil War, I do find that time period fascinating. While I don't get into troop movements so much (and there are VOLUMES written about that sort of thing) the impact of the war on the people, both North and South, is endlessly fascinating to me. And the instant drama that a war adds to fiction is helpful.
Crescent Blues: How particular are your readers about the history contained in your books? Do they ever try to correct your stories for you?
Elaine Fox: Readers of historical romance are generally very knowledgeable about their favorite time periods. I've heard many stories of authors getting letters from readers on points of history they got wrong, particularly in the Regency sub-genre.
Fortunately, I haven't gotten any letters like that yet. I'm not sure if that means all my research has been correct or if the people noticing didn't feel the need to write. I'm hoping it's the former! Though research is not my favorite thing, I do try to make sure I've got everything right. It never works to fudge a detail.
Crescent Blues: You've chosen different locations and time periods for most of your books so far -- do you have a favorite?
Elaine Fox: As I said before, I love the Civil War period. But I'm also a big devotee of Jane Austen, so the early 1800s in England is also a time period I love.
Crescent Blues: Do you plan to return to any of the settings you've already used?
Elaine Fox: I'll probably do more set in Regency England. It's generally thought that the Civil War has been overdone in the genre, which is unfortunate, but maybe it'll come back around. I also would like to do some books set in contemporary times.
Crescent Blues: Tell us a little about how you work. Do you start with a plot idea or with the characters?
Elaine Fox: I like to start with at least one character, but sometimes the plot comes to me first. When that happens, I really can't begin until I get a very clear idea of who the two main characters are. If they don't come to me easily I'll sit down and write profiles of each character, figuring out details from what they carry in their wallets to what their relationship with their parents was like -- even if I never use that information in the book -- just to be sure I know them thoroughly. After that, deciding what they'll do in any given situation is easy.
Crescent Blues: Is there one character or situation in your books that you felt most compelling to write about, and why?
Elaine Fox: The hero in Untamed Angel was very compelling to me and I think that ended up showing in the final work. He was the son of a mulatto slave and the master of the plantation and could pass for white, but was very conflicted about it.
On the one hand, passing gave him freedom but it also made him feel like a liar. He was also brought up with some of the privileges due a master's son, such as learning to read and write, but was ousted from that role at a young age when the master fathered a legitimate son. So he was a product of many worlds and a member of none. He wasn't white and he wasn't black. He was educated, but he wasn't wealthy.
The main conflict of the book was within him, but was also personified in the character of the heroine who was a rich, somewhat snobbish, blue-blooded New Yorker. When she meets him he's a drifter, playing at being a cowboy, and she wants to clean him up and bring him to NY as a gentleman (kind of My Fair Lady in reverse) to marry her sister. He knows if she ever knew the truth about him she would have nothing to do with him, but of course they fall in love. It's that kind of meaty, character-driven conflict that I love exploring.
Crescent Blues: How much do you plan your books, and how much do you let things happen as you work?
Elaine Fox: Before I sell anything I have to have a complete synopsis of the story finished to give to the editor, which means I've at least got to figure out the basic progression of events. But -- and it's a big "but" -- I have yet to write a book that sticks to my synopsis.
Things happen, layers develop, associations and details you could never imagine in the beginning stages take root and give the book much more depth than a synopsis can ever have. (At least one of mine!) So I guess the answer to this question is, I plan about the first third pretty closely, generally know how it's going to end (that happy ending, you know), and everything in between is up for grabs.
Crescent Blues: You've also appeared in collections of romance short stories or novelettes, such as Christmas Spirit and Celebrations. How does short fiction compare with novel-writing for you? Is it harder or easier; more or less fun?
Elaine Fox: I resisted writing short stories for a long time because I never read them, and I'm not sure you can write something well that you never read. When I read, if the story's good I want it to go on and on, so I get frustrated with short fiction. But when I was invited to do the anthologies (I'm working on another one now, by the way, a Masquerade anthology coming out in October 1999) I discovered that they're really quite fun to write.
For one thing, you deal with one situation, one crisis, solve it and that's that! For another, the two I wrote were contemporaries, as opposed to the historicals I normally write, and that was a refreshing break for me. While I still prefer long fiction -- so much more room to explore the characters and develop plots with some subtlety -- the occasional short story is a lot of fun.
Crescent Blues: Are the constraints in an anthology more difficult -- for example, having to avoid certain themes or ideas because one of the other writers in the collection is using them?
Elaine Fox: I look at them as a kind of writing exercise. You're generally given guidelines by the publisher. For example in Christmas Spirit we each had to have some kind of "spirit" involved, and I was designated to write a story based in the present while the other two authors wrote the past and future -- which can actually give you something to go on in the early stages of plotting. I've never run into the problem of overlapping ideas between authors. Hmm, something new to worry about.
Crescent Blues: Do you share the idea that romance fans are more loyal and supportive than readers of other kinds of fiction?
Elaine Fox: I think romance readers are very author loyal. Whether they're more loyal than readers of other fiction I don't know. I imagine other genre writers enjoy the same kind of loyalty, whereas mainstream might not have quite as much because of the diversity in themes in their works. I think when people are reading genre fiction they're looking for something more specific and they know which authors will give them what they want. I know when I pick up a romance I'm frequently looking for particular elements.
Crescent Blues: Tell us about what you read. Do you read much in the romance field, or do you tend to read other things?
Elaine Fox: I read all across the board. I like to keep in touch with what's happening in most fields of publishing, though I do tend to stick to fiction. I have romance authors who are my favorites, and I'll read anything they write, and I'll check out new writers too. But I don't like to confine myself to one type of book. It's all mood, really, for me.
Crescent Blues: What advice would you give to unpublished writers?
Elaine Fox: KEEP WRITING. No matter what. You finish one book, send it out, and start the next one. Don't sit around waiting for the first one to sell or you'll drive yourself crazy. This business is so fraught with struggle it's easy to get discouraged. The main thing is to stay focused on the writing, which aside from being the most important thing is the only thing you have control over anyway. If you write the best book you can and it's good, someday it will find a home. Unfortunately there's a lot of luck involved in publishing because getting bought depends on finding the editor who loves your work. It's so subjective that finding that one nerve in that one editor who will fall in love with your book sometimes seems impossible. But I'm here to tell you it's not. Just keep at it.
Crescent Blues: How do you react to people who take you less seriously because you're writing genre fiction instead of "mainstream" or "academic" fiction?
Elaine Fox: First of all, I don't get defensive. Everyone has different tastes and if they don't like or respect romance that's their prerogative. I may tell them that I happen to love writing love stories and I didn't turn to it because I'm unable to write anything else.
And I do try to point out that the field is probably much more diverse than they may believe it to be. What they might consider a uni-dimensional genre really offers a huge spectrum of writing styles, plots, characters, settings and issues.
If you pick up a romance novel in a store, flip through it and think the writing's poor or the situation silly, that's just one book. You could pick up the wrong mystery, science fiction or mainstream novel and have the same experience. That author just isn't for you. But there are many, many more books on the shelf and the one thing you can be sure of is that they are not all alike. It's just a matter of looking a little further. In fact, I'd be willing to bet there's something in romance for almost everyone.