If you would have told me that one day I would write a romance novel, I wouldn’t have believed it. I don’t read romances and my usual taste in writing is for darker fare. However, on July 26 my new romance novel Happiness: How to Find It kicks off as a web serial on Curiosity Quills. I am glad I wrote it because I can say without hesitation that Happiness helped me to grow as a writer more than anything else I have written. It’s a good story and I’m thrilled to be able to share it.
My grandmother was the reader in our family. Her living room was a wall-to-wall bookshelf crammed full of books bearing bare-chested muscle men holding brazen women with lusty gazes despite the fact that romance novels were held in disdain by her Jehovah’s Witnesses religion for stirring up the body members to inappropriate passions. When I stayed at her house, I never did read the bodice ripper paperbacks instead opting for the gothic horror of V.C. Andrews. In retrospect, my dark and twisted fiction today probably has a small root in the seedy soil of Flowers in the Attic.
Writers are often asked where they get their ideas. It is a difficult question. Unfortunately, the concept of a personal muse is lost on this age of logic and reason, though I’m still a believer. I do know when the idea for Happiness happened. It was during an online chat with a friend and I was joking about writing a Jehovah’s Witness romance novel. The idea of writing one specifically for the puritanical religion made us laugh as I riffed: “He adjusted the microphone stand, his muscles bulging as he tightened the boom, the back of his JC Penny suit stretching across the broad expanse of his shoulders.”
The conversation was quickly forgotten until the following November when I participated in National Novel Writing Month, a writing challenge where writers attempt to write 50,000 words during the month. Because I was working a full-time job as well as attending college part time I didn’t feel I had the time or focus to devote myself to my usual labored writing, heavy with deep symbolism and overreaching themes. I decided to use the month for experimentation and write far out of my comfort zone with a flippant genre novel. Why not a romance? If nothing else it would be goofy fun. However, because I was writing a Jehovah’s Witness romance, it couldn’t be a tawdry, sweat-laced romp; it would have to be a gentler love story. The pinnacle of JW courtship is gratuitous handholding after all.
Writers have certain tools in their belts, but when they cross genres they may discover that some of their tools don’t work. Genre novels by nature can be formulaic, which requires learning new ways to tell a story. Like Haiku poetry and Michael Bay filmmaking, there is a challenge in the limitations. In order to prepare to write my romance I picked up A Walk to Remember by Nicholas Sparks. As they say, you can’t judge a book by its cover and I was disappointed that Mandy Moore wasn’t in the book. If you ever need encouragement of the “I can write better than that” variety, nothing beats a Sparks book. A writer friend also recommended I read the non-fiction Writing the Christian Romance which provided an extensive list of “Thou Shall Not’s” for the genre. I broke quite a few of the rules, in Happiness there is mild swearing and body gazing, but no real alter calls or NASCAR.
I had hoped that Happiness would be something that I could quickly write and forget about, but it took many months to finish. I owe much to Suzanne Hartman, author of Peril, who pointed out the importance of quickly jumping into the main conflict of the story. She also showed me how to show and not tell a required writing skill that I struggle with. Many thanks to High School Musical and Taylor Swift for providing a writing soundtrack that captured the angst of teenage longing and the thrill of mass commercialism. I also owe something to my grandmother, who served as the template for my heroine’s own round-face, romance-reading, country grandmother.
While I had expected to write something trite, it wasn’t long before the story started speaking to me. I quickly began to take the novel seriously and give the characters, however quaint, the respect that they deserved. I loved my main character Rose for all of her backwoods backwardness, and wanted her to overcome the strict controls that were placed on her sheltered life. The theme of the novel is simple, but important: love, not just romantic love, is a powerful thing, and sometimes religion is its fiercest opponent.
If you are a writer I encourage you to experiment, perhaps writing in an unexpected genre. That’s what pen names are for, right? If you are a reader I look forward to hearing what you think of my little love story. Check out Happiness: How to Find it, starting July 26 at Curiosity Quills.