Some romances are designed to read like sunshine and lollipops, some to please with sass and snark, or comic situations and big laughs. Some show the storm clouds.
Like a lot of authors, I write romance in part to explore issues that interest me. Sometimes that means showing the darker underbelly of storm clouds. I’ve written a mentally ill hero who was homeless, a male nanny, a female executive in a male dominated industry, a tech titan who got sacked from his own company for being a bully, a character who explored egg-donors and another who was addicted to pain pills.
My current series, The Confidence Game, was born from distress and anger with the world at the end 2016. I took rage, fear and befuddlement and made them the fuel for a series about a family who Robin Hood the rich and entitled and to save the planet.
Along the way they scam and humiliate the prideful and hit the bank accounts and egos of masters of the universe types who engage in disadvantaging others.
I modelled characters on egregious public figures and cut them down to size. It was glorious.
It also had bad idea written all over it, because my intention was to poke at misogyny, sexual harassment, rising social inequality, climate change denying, political ineptitude, hypocrisy, fake newsism and the death of expertise.
Those darker things do not immediately light up the romance beacon and say come on in, the feels are warm.
I took heart from the fact that a lot of authors have trodden this terrain before me.
A fantastic example is the Tamsen Parker, AJ Cousin, Ainsley Booth project, The Rogue series. Styled as resistance romances the stories in the Rogue Anthologies which began life as a tweet from Emma Barry, address topics like health insurance, grass root political campaigning, intolerance, income inequality, the war against science, racism, police violence, and anti-Semitism.
There are seven books in the series featuring multiple authors including, but not limited to: Tamsen Parker, Amy Jo Cousins, Emma Barry, Olivia Dade, Sionna Fox, Ruby Lang, Andie J. Christopher, Molly O’Keefe, Dakota Gray, Ainsley Booth, Suleikha Snyder, Stacey Agdern, Jane Lee Blair and Talia Hibbert.
Go browse the story descriptions and you’ll find characters who are political staffers and Hollywood activists, presidents, VPs and presidential candidates (female ones), journalists, campaign volunteers, social justice advocates, students who join protests and rock stars who find their voices can be used for good.
The Rogue authors proved that you can have your social commentary, your darker clouds, and sunshine and lollipops too.
Roni Loren is another author who has written romances that walk on the sunshine lite side. The four books in her The Ones Who Got Away series are styled around a group who survived a school massacre. That’s not your regular workplace, family connection, meet cute setting.
Which brings me to book 3 in The Confidence Game, The Mysterious Stranger. It’s about a group of people suckered into joining a doomsday cult, exchanging their wealth for the illusion of safety, and the two best friends who bust it open and let the truth in while learning the truth about themselves, and falling in love.
Specifically, the book that helped me think – well, hell, I can write a doomsday cult was Adriana Anders, In His Hands. It’s book three of her Blank Canvas series. The lead female character in that story was born in a doomsday cult.
The challenge writing The Mysterious Stranger was in crafting a story about two characters, posing as siblings who are discovering each other while they’re deep in the dark things, trying to expose the gaslighting crook who promised a community salvation.
At the end of the day, every story, no matter the setting is about the characters. The more engaging their journey is, the more involving their struggle to realise love, the better the reader’s experience.
Which is all great in theory.
TL;DR. Writing any book is difficult. Picking a setting that doesn’t instantly say I’m carefree and fun, or saucy and sassy, curl up and escape with me is a specific challenge and even done well, it’s not every reader’s cup of tea.
I wrote The Mysterious Stranger knowing that I needed sunshine to balance the storm clouds, and to blend character and setting so they wove around and informed one another. That’s why the story has games night, goats (named after some renowned romance writers, looking at you Therese Beharrie and Melanie Ting) and sexy times, a romance reading heroine who loves Nalini Singh and a hero with a Starbucks coffee addiction who is very particular about his bed.
The bad guys lose. And we all get to feel a little better about the world. The good guys, after much unrequited love get their forever happy, which is just what every romance, no matter the shade and setting needs to deliver.
If you feel like a little walk on the social justice, cult busting side, come for the intrigue of being totally off the grid, stay for the goats, the grumpiness, the will they, won’t they tension, and what goes bump in the barn.Buy: The Mysterious Stranger by Ainslie Paton