I could do without Valentine’s Day. This probably stems from one Valentine’s meal I had with the English Husband many years ago, well before children spoiled spontaneous romance. On the spur of the moment we booked a romantic meal at a restaurant near the Husband’s work. I dressed up for the occasion in a soft, newly bought cream sweater (dry clean only). I don’t remember much about the meal apart from the fish soup. It was a bad choice for a date. The soup had seafood that required eating with your hands, and one particular prawn – still in its shell – ended up squirting brown fish sauce all over the sweater. The Husband made the mistake of laughing, and everything went downhill from there. We’ve avoided expensive restaurants and set menus on Valentine’s Day ever since.
Fiction and fantasy – not as messy as the real thing
Anyone who has been in love knows that it is messy and full of compromise. No wonder people get swept up in fictional romance instead. A lot of women fall for the myth of the brooding hero who rescues a pretty girl from a life of penury and hardship. It’s a tried-and-tested formula in fiction – and it sells in vast quantities. So I was curious when I found out that my local library was hosting a session with four romance writers, who would talk about their craft. The flyer teasingly said that romance is the second-most popular genre in the library. Really? It did not say what the first was, but I am putting my money on mystery/thrillers. My half-baked theory is that rubbing shoulders with writers might actually inspire me to start writing the book I always half compose in my head, in dozens of variations. And it gets me out of the house.
I feel nervous as I drive over to the library, which is conveniently located across the street from a retirement community. Ironically, I feel a bit like I am going on a date. I am worried that there will only be about five people there and that we’ll be required to talk about how much we adore romance fiction. This would mean lying, unconvincingly. My fear doesn’t materialize because there are about 20 people in the room when I arrive. Since this session starts at 11am on a Friday, I was expecting people who don’t lead highly productive working lives. In other words, women over 55 who live across the street. I am right. I see a lot of turtlenecks, fleecy fabrics and elastic trouser waistlines. I hide out in the back row, slump in my seat and try to look invisible. This is always my strategy when confronted with a roomful of strangers.
The session kicks off with a discussion about how these authors fell into writing. One was a history teacher who liked telling stories about her eccentric family members; another an unsuccessful screenwriter; while yet another, who I would put at about 76, was writing for 14 years before she had her first book published electronically in 2009. The most interesting writer in the group managed to combine the paranormal with romance. I suspect this means writing about good-looking werewolves and vampires who fall in love with humans. She was visiting New Orleans when a palm reader predicted she would be a professional writer. ‘I ended up writing the plot for my first novel on cocktail napkins at the airport because it was the only thing I could get my hands on,’ she told us. She’s been writing for several years and still juggles a day job and two kids. Alarm bells rang in my head – writing does not mean you can give up your day job, even when you get several books published. It only means that you end up writing at night, when you are tired. You are probably always tired.
How hot is hot?
I was hoping for some tips about writing sizzling bedroom scenes, but the discussion never veered in that direction. I blame the time of day and lack of alcohol. Still, there was quite a bit of giggling about dukes and earls with big houses; there was a lot of talk about men in uniform rescuing heroines from steep cliffs. I couldn’t help but picture these women – two of them looked like grandmothers, with wavy white hair and prim clothes – writing about sex. I saw them sitting at their computers, trying to come up with different ways of spelling out the same thing. I didn’t ponder this for long. I did learn that there are different ‘heat levels’, an insider’s phrase for how hot the romance gets. Apparently you should communicate this to your reader so that they know what they are delving into. How you communicate it is a mystery to me. Do they have some sort of code on the cover? The bigger the bosom, the hotter the prose? I was too shy to raise my hand and ask.
Afterwards, there were some heart-shaped cakes. I had two and quickly headed for the door. But not before I collected my free library bag. I don’t know whether this provided the inspiration for writing I wanted, but I felt a tad better about my prospects. If someone can get published for the first time in their 70s, I figure I have over 30 years before I really need to start worrying.