"Writing Romantic Suspence" with Louise Crawford

Thursday, May 2, 2002

Moderator is Mel Boring, substituting for web editor and writer, Kristi Holl. Mel is a much published author, specializing in nonfiction.

Louise is Louise Crawford, author of the suspense series featuring 12-step counselor Blaize McCue: Blaize of Glory, Hat Trick and 12 Jagged Steps. Hat Trick was a Best Mystery Eppie winner.

Names in blue are viewers who had questions.

Interviews in the Professional Connection room begin at 9 Atlantic/Canada, 8 Eastern, 7 Central, 6 Mountain, and 5 Pacific.

Mel: I'm Mel Boring, happy to be your moderator for this evening while Kristi Holl attends the happy occasion of her daughter's wedding. Louise Crawford is going to talk with us tonight about "Writing Romantic Suspense," covering three writing genres in one evening: romance, mystery and suspense. Her successful suspense series includes Blaize of Glory, Hat Trick and 12 Jagged Steps. Hat Trick was a Best Mystery Eppie winner. Louise, a hearty THANK-YOU to you for joining us tonight!

Louise: I'm glad to be here, Mel!!

Mel: By definition in publishing, Louise, what is a romance?

Louise: A romance is a story that focuses on the relationship between the hero and heroine.

Mel: Why do you think romances are so popular, making up 50% of the mass market sales each year?

Louise: I think it's because there are more women readers than men, and women are interested in reading about relationships.

Mel: Who reads all those books?

Louise: The last statistics I recall said that the average romance reader was a woman in her forties with a college education.

Mel: What types of romances are there, such as historical, teen, contemporary, mainstream?

Louise: There are many subgenres of the romance genre as well. There are paranormal romances, futuristic romances, romantic suspense, and variables of these.

Mel: I hope this isn't a touchy subject, but for the sake of new writers, I'd like to ask anyway. There's a common misconception that "anyone can write a romance." Is that true? Are the requirements for writing a romance "less than" writing regular fiction?

Louise: This question or comment has come up in every genre I write in. I've heard mystery authors, fantasy authors, science fiction authors, and historical fiction authors all say that "writing in their genre" is harder than any other. The same goes for romance. Good writing takes work, no matter what story you are telling.

Mel: Is historical accuracy a "must" all the time? Where can a writer fictionalize?

Louise: Historical accuracy is important. A writer can fictionalize by taking a famous historical event and adding to it to create a problem that the characters solve. Adding in fictional characters works well in historical settings. A writer needs to be careful with the setting trappings. For example, not having the hero use a pen if a pen hasn't been invented yet.

Mel: Does setting matter in a romance (other than historical)?

Louise: I've heard it said that setting is as important as your characters, and I agree.

Mel: We sometimes think of the romance hero being the stereotyped bare-chested "stud" and the heroine being a tad ditzy and top-heavy. True or false?

Louise: I'm sure there are some that fall into that category, but (I hope) most do not. A good character has flaws, and those flaws make that character more believable and more likable.

Mel: What ARE today's romance heroes and heroines like?

Louise: They're very fallible. They're people whose struggles we can relate to in some way.

Kb: I see the word "mainstream" a lot when looking at magazine guidelines; could you explain what that is?

Louise: Mainstream fiction refers to fiction that will appeal to a wider audience than a genre like romance or mystery or science fiction. Many mainstream novels have romances in them, but the romance is not the complete plot problem.

Angel1nikki: Do you ever interview people about their relationships for your romance novels?

Louise: No, I interview people about their jobs and I get a sense of what drives them and how they relate to others. I may use this with a character in a book. For example, in Hat Trick I interviewed two different detectives, and the energy of the homicide detective made me realize that he loved his job. I used his energy and how he came across to me to create part of Stephanos Zoloski's character.

Mel: What about their relationship--is there a set pattern or formula you need to follow, like, boy wants girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back?

Louise: There are guidelines for every genre. In romance, obviously something must get in the way of the hero and heroine getting together, but in the end they must have a happy ending. Otherwise the book would not be called a romance.

writer_of_books: What kinds of sub-genres are there today, compared to years past? And what are most popular?

Louise: There are paranormal, futuristic, and suspense, to name the three I read most. Popularity changes. Scottish historicals became the rage after Gabaldon's books were so successful. Paranormal and futuristic romances usually have a smaller market than traditional romances. Contemporaries do well, too.

james55clinton: In a historical romance the author referred to the hero's 'clear sky blue eyes' about twenty times. Any reason for the repetition?

Louise: Maybe poor editing?

paja: I am working on a story for a mainly religious audience; do you have any suggestions for toning down sex scenes?

Louise: My best suggestion is to read books in the market you are targeting and see what the authors have done. There are plenty of sweet romances out there at used bookstores, too, that would be of help.

Kb: In a romance suspense novel or short story, shouldn't your heroine and hero both be strong characters?

Louise: Yes. The traditional heroine who is saved by the hero is dated. Most editors, myself included, like a hero and heroine who can take care of themselves, but who also complement each other and need each other. Their lives are better because of each other.

Mel: Do the popular romance series give you a formula to go by?

Louise: If you're talking Silhouette and Harlequin, each line has certain guidelines that would be posted at their web site. They usually want you introduce the hero and heroine ASAP in the beginning and to have a happy ending.

Angel1nikki: One of my favorite movies was "City of Angels." It was so romantic it hurt.

Louise: I was bummed that Meg Ryan died. Because she died, it would not be considered a romance by romance editors.

Mel: How can you get publishers' guidelines?

Louise: Most publishers have guidelines available at their web sites. Or they have an address you can write to ask for guidelines.

Mel: What about sex scenes? Implied? Explicit? Different for different series?

Louise: Different for different series. A sweet romance would not have any sex in it. That doesn't mean there isn't sexual tension, but there are no sex scenes. A steamy romance will have pretty hot sex scenes.

Mel: What about viewpoint? Are romances told through the heroine's eyes, or through multiple viewpoints?

Louise: Most romances are told through the heroine 's and hero's viewpoints. Very few use more than two. There are exceptions, like Nora Roberts, who uses many viewpoints throughout her books. I prefer one or two, but more can work if done well. For new writers, I suggest they stick with one or two.

Mel: What advice can you give viewers who want to break into this genre?

Louise: First, know what you want to write by reading it. Second, write and find other writers who can critique your work and see problems you may not see. Third, go to conferences where you'll have a chance to meet editors and/or agents. But have a blurb about your book ready to spill from your lips if someone asks.

Mel: Louise, what if someone has a great idea for a romance? Will an editor work with her to polish it and get it published?

Louise: Maybe twenty years ago, but it's not likely now. Most editors today don't have much time for editing -- that is now an agent's job. And an agent will expect your book to be very polished, basically almost ready to publish. That's why it's so important to get feedback from someone who writes.

Mel: How important is marketing? What I mean is, how much does a writer need to know about the industry before submitting a book?

Louise: Way more than I ever wanted to know! The more you know about the industry, the better. Once you've sold a book, then you must work like heck to sell it. There are many authors' groups out there where a new author can get ideas for marketing. When you submit a book to a publisher though, it is the marketing department that will decide whether or not they will buy the book. So a good marketing angle can only help.

Mel: What will a writer need to send a publisher if she wants them to read her book?

Louise: A good query letter. There are some examples in the Long Ridge Magazine Markets book. The query should give a short paragraph about the book. About what obstacles keep the hero and heroine apart, their motivations, and how they end up together. Don't leave the ending as a surprise to get the editor to ask for your book. The editor won't ask.

paja: Marketing is such an aggressive business; how can I overcome my reticence to be in the public eye?

Louise: Paja, I hate being in the public eye, but it's become necessary. The more I speak in front of groups and do book signings though, the easier it gets -- believe it or not. This is from someone whose knees shake so bad I can hardly stand up when I'm in front of a group of people.

Mel: By the way, my own question, are any romance writers men? Is there such a genre of romances for men?

Louise: Yes, the current president of RWA (Romance Writers of America) is Leigh Greenwood, a man. As to whether there are romances geared towards men, I would say they are more action oriented stories with romances in them and probably not categorized as romances. How's that for an answer?

Mel: GREAT! What makes an editor notice a manuscript most? Is it the story? The writing?

Louise: It's both. The story must be compelling (how many times have I heard that from an editor? too many times to count), and the writing must "sparkle." It's the sparkle that's hard to define. My guess is the writer's "voice" must come through. "Voice" is tough to define, but I would call it the author's personality somehow coming out in the work.

Mel: How do you know your story is "good enough"? How can you make it better?

Louise: My first drafts are always good enough until I read them later! Write your story, then put it away for a month or six months or a year even, then take it out and reread it. My bet is you'll see all kinds of flaws that weren't there before. Rewrite the story, then when it's the best you can do, ask someone to read the first few pages. Preferably someone who knows how to write and can give you constructive feedback without crushing you into pieces. Every writer has to start somewhere, and usually it's with more talent than technical skill. The skill takes time. Like learning to be a doctor, you don't do it overnight.

Mel: Do you need an agent?

Louise: If you submit to Silhouette and Harlequin, no. They will read your query. If you want to submit a book to a NY publishing house like St. Martin's, then "yes," you need an agent.

Mel: Are there agents that specialize in marketing romances?

Louise: Yes, there are. Many of them go to romance conferences. If you check RWA's web site or do a search for Romance Writers of American, you can find information about romance conferences and places that agents will be.

Mel: Do you belong to Romance Writers of America, and why or why wouldn't a romance writer want to?

Louise: Yes, I do. They have local groups called "chapters" and anyone can attend those groups and meet other writers and authors. It's a great place to network and to find a critique partner or group. RWA also has a monthly magazine that covers new markets and all kinds of information important to the industry.

Mel: Now for some specific mystery/suspense questions: Is reading mysteries for pleasure important if you also want to write mysteries?

Louise: Yes. I love mysteries, and that's what made me want to write one. Reading them gave me a sense of pacing -- how the books are set up, what happens when, where the climax comes in, and how the wrap-up is handled. I read every mystery in the local library from A-Z (unless I didn't like it) and that helped me get a sense of pacing for my first mystery, BLAIZE OF GLORY.

paja: Should the suspense or the romance be most important?

Louise: In romantic suspense they must both be important. The best definition I've heard is this, that the mystery cannot happen without the romance and vice-versa.

writer_of_books: What kinds of suspense would you say are important in a romantic suspense story?

Louise: There are so many kinds! I started out reading women in jeopardy stories where the main character didn't know if the hero was also the villain or not until the end. That's a very traditional type of romantic suspense novel. Then there are novels like Krentz's where the hero and heroine might work together to solve a crime or discover a secret.

paja: How did you personally come to write in the genre you do?

Louise: My first agent like my dark fantasy (a vampire book I've never sold) and asked me to rewrite it as a romance. She told me to go read a bunch of romances and find out what authors I liked best, then to target those lines of books. I did. I discovered that I liked reading romances and I liked writing them.

Mel: I know in the romance genre, women read most of those books. What about mysteries? What group enjoys mysteries?

Louise: I don't know the stats on that, but men do read mysteries, too! I know Sue Grafton's mysteries appeal to a wide audience, and that's why they're thought of as mainstream now instead of "mystery" like they were when she sold her first book.

Mel: Generally speaking, how long are adult mysteries, both books and magazine mysteries?

Louise: It depends on which publisher you're targeting. For a first book, most publishers don't want a book that's more than 65,000 or 70,000 words. Most magazines want stories that run from 500 to 5,000 words. Short stories are generally easier to sell than "longer" short stories. Around 15,000 words you're looking at a novella.

Mel: As a children's writer, I find 65,000 to 70,000 words way too much for me. Any secrets to sustaining that length?

Louise: I have a main plot or problem for the book that must be solved, then I have smaller plot problems that crop up to get in the way of the solution. One way to get through the "sagging middle" syndrome is to put your plot points or chapter points on index cards and shuffle them around to see how best to create tension and keep the story moving forward. If a story is running out of steam, chances are the problem isn't big enough or it's too easily solved. Give your character a lot of internal and external conflict.

Kb: How far can you go in suspense before it becomes a thriller?

Louise: Thrillers generally involve a larger consequence to the hero or heroine's actions. As in "saving the world" like in a Robert Ludlum book. In suspense, I tend to limit my viewpoints to the main character and possibly one other. In thrillers, there are often multiple viewpoints: the main character's, the bad guy's, and friends or acquaintances of both.

Mel: Let's talk about characters here. In your opinion, what qualities does a good hero or heroine have? And are men or women protagonists more popular? We'd enjoy hearing examples from your books, Louise.

Louise: We're in the 'women protagonists are more popular' cycle right now in publishing. I've heard authors joke that they only need to rewrite their main character from a man to a woman and they could sell the book. As for character qualities, again it's the flaws that make characters interesting. In my Blaize/Zoloski mystery series Blaize is a recovering food addict and she counsels people in recovery. She has a past she'd like to forget and she's done pretty well until the first book, when it catches up to her. Zoloski is interesting because he loves his job, is a workaholic, is divorced, and is also patient and very good for Blaize. On the humorous side, in my Murry/Kidman series, the first book, Voodoo, Whipped Cream, and Billy the Kid, Murry throws his cell phone out the window of his car because he hates them. He's twenty years older than Billy, and their dialogue is a lot of fun because of the age difference. I use that difference in all kinds of ways.

Mel: In a similar vein, what makes a good villain? Again, examples from your books would be welcomed.

Louise: I love my villain in Voodoo, Whipped Cream, and Billy the Kid. He's Haitian, as is the victim, and he's had some terrible experiences that make him feel justified in doing what he does. A good villain is every bit as smart as the hero/heroine so that the reader is kept on his/her toes. In the case I cited, the villain is a bokor, sorcerer of the black hand, and practices his religion seriously to get what he wants. I did a ton of research for his character and for the victim's character which is shown through diary excerpts throughout the book.

Mel: Sometimes villains are more memorable than the heroes. How do you keep your villain from taking over the book and becoming more important than the hero?

Louise: Through a lot of work to make the hero more interesting!!! Give the hero foibles and blind spots, but also make him/her smart and capable so that the hero and villain are evenly matched.

Mel: Why--or why not--is it important to know why the villain does what she or he does?

Louise: VERY important. If I don't know why, I'm not going to be very successful in getting it across to the reader. If the reader understands why, then that will draw the reader that much more into the story. If the reader is tearing his/her hair out and saying "no way the character would do this," then you may have just lost your reader. The reader needs to understand.

Mel: How do you decide on a victim for your story? What things do you consider before deciding on your victim, Louise? You probably have some examples.

Louise: You'll laugh. My victim for Voodoo came from a dream I had about Murry and Billy talking about a headless corpse and wondering where the head was. That got me speculating on why someone would cut off the victim's head. That got me reading about Haiti and Voodoo and that led me to Julia, the victim, and her history growing up in Haiti then moving to Beverly Hills.

Mel: That is a RICH anecdote! (-:} Let's talk about suspects next, Louise. What are their purpose in a mystery? How many do you need? How do you "hide" the real villain among several suspects and still play fair with the reader?

Louise: You need enough suspects to keep the reader guessing. I generally have four or five. Their purpose is to keep the reader guessing. I "hide" the real villain by not showing everything. I do show though what the hero/heroine learns as he/she goes along. I may show the villain's POV if I need to create tension or show something that can't be shown from one POV.

Mel: Do you give all your suspects a possible motive for the crime? Do you tell your readers?

Louise: Yes. I try to. Yes. I let the readers learn the facts along with the hero.

Mel: What if it appears as if NO ONE has a motive?

Louise: That sounds boring to me.

paja: Would it be possible for the hero and villain to change places and the villain win?

Louise: When you say change places, do you mean that the villain turns out to not be a villain after all?

paja: Not necessarily. The villain becomes more desirable to the heroine than the hero, who then becomes the new villain.

Louise: I don't think I've read such a book, but I'm a firm believer that anything can be done, if it's done well.

james55clinton: Is it a suspense/romance if the hero captures her heart but not her hand, like Bogart in 'Casa Blanca.'

Louise: That would not be considered a true romance in the genre sense because the hero and heroine do not end up together at the end.

Mel: New writers are told to "be creative" and "think outside the box." How creative can you be within this genre? For example, could a sleuth have a handicap that would make some things more difficult?

Louise: Oh yes. Think of Syd Halley (Dick Francis's first mystery character) who lost his hand when a horse crushed it. I love Syd and will never forget him!!

paja: Do you recommend writing the individual plots or scenes before shuffling them for maximum conflict?

Louise: I write down the main points for each scene, then shuffle them if I'm having trouble with tension or story progress.

Mel: Since mysteries are "plot-driven," are the characters really that important as long as they do their jobs?

Louise: There are plot driven mysteries where you don't get a great sense of character -- they read more like movie scripts to me -- and I don't enjoy them as much as mysteries where the characters seem well-developed and real. A mystery that has a great plot and great characters that are memorable is always my goal as an author.

Mel: How hard is it to plot a mystery? For new writers, is there some simple formula for plotting a mystery? Do your editors help you with the plotting?

Louise: It takes thought. I'd say stick with a simple motive, then create complications around that motive. Run your plot idea past another writer or critique group. My groups let me know when something isn't working . Simple is usually better, with complications that make it appear complex. For example, in Voodoo ( I should have picked a shorter title for that book) the villain appears responsible for the crime, but is he? Others also have motives, and the motive might be love. From a Voodoo practitioner's viewpoint, it would be better to cut off a loved one's head than to allow a bokor to make that person a zombie to his will. So the motive would be love, not revenge or hate or greed.

paja: Sometimes scenes and dialog are like a movie in my head. Would you recommend voice activated software as a method to capture the "vision"?

Louise: If that makes it easier for you to write, then yes. I see scenes in my head as well, but I type much faster than the "voice" can type so I prefer my fingers .

Mel: How important is choosing your SETTING in mystery/suspense, Louise?

Louise: Think how important a creepy house is to a horror flick. It's very important. Setting can create ambiance, further the emotion in the scene, deepen the reader's visual image and draw the reader deeper into the book. The more I write, the more attention I pay to SETTING.

Mel: Planting clues can be tricky, as well as knowing just when to reveal certain information. When is it too late, or too soon? How early do you need to reveal the important clues in order to "play fair" with the reader?

Louise: I hate to say it, but learning this came from reading all those mysteries at the library. You want to start off with a great hook into the story, and I usually introduce a clue to hook the reader into the second or third chapter, depending on what else is happening. What you want to avoid is getting to the end and having the detective or heroine figure out who did it based on a clue the reader never saw. That will not make any reader happy.

Mel: How do you hide clues, especially so early in the book, so they aren't "seen"? Do you find it easier to plant your clues after you've written the first draft?

Louise: Often, I go back and plant clues in the early part of the book that weren't there to begin with. After I've written the rough draft, I have a much better idea of who did it and why and how the hero figured it out. You mention something casually in passing, but you don't emphasize it.

Mel: Do you outline each story before you start?

Louise: My first mystery wasn't outlined, but I had a clear idea of the story, who did what, and how it would end. I've only plotted out books that I've co-authored so that we're both clear on what's happening. I do write a synopsis for each story before I start. This gives me a clear idea of whether I have a story or just an idea that needs more work.

Mel: A few romance/suspense questions now: Are the mystery and the romance separate plot lines, like a plot and a main subplot? And does each of those elements have a beginning, middle, climax, ending?

Louise: I don't consider them separate plot lines. I consider them intertwined, one needing the other in order to progress. Yes, they do have a beginning, middle, climax, and ending.

james55clinton: Can you drop a clue before the reader knows about the crime?

Louise: Oh yes.

janp: Does the story ever change from the synopsis you started with?

Louise: Yes. Many times. My characters tend to take over and things change as a result. The killer changed in Voodoo, and in my fantasy romances (also from dreams I've had) the stories changed a lot because of the characters.

paja: Do you feel that a college degree vital to a writer?

Louise: I think having a journalism degree and writing credits won't hurt. Having any kind of "hook" that a marketing department can use to sell your book can only help. And no, I don't feel you must have a degree. A good writer writes, period. That's all that's necessary.

Mel: One final question, Louise: Since men read many mysteries and women read romances, does this genre appeal to both?

Louise: Yes. I think Sue Grafton's publishers were surprised to find that many men read her books, not just women as they'd assumed.

Mel: I'm afraid we're out of time, and it seems like we just got started. THANKS SO MUCH, Louise, for very practical information! You've given this children's writer much hope that he can write for adults, maybe even romance! Thanks for coming, Louise!

Louise: You're welcome!

Mel: Come back next Tuesday for the Open Forum, when Kristi Holl will be back. I've enjoyed being your host tonight! Good night to each one of you, and thanks for being here!

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