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The Perplexing Problem of Romance

I spent much of the winter and spring writing a non-fiction project, Writing Romantic Fiction, which will be published in November by Hachette/Macmillan [1]. I was romance [2]approached to do the project some time ago, and agreed to do it because it seemed like it would be a good exercise for me, and because it’s good to have something to offer at workshops.

What I didn’t realize is how much soul-searching it would trigger, both about process and how it works and why and but also about the role of romance and romantic novels in my life and in the great flow of books. I love the genre, and writing about it helped me to understand why. Love is important. Not just romantic love, of course, but romantic love can be a great and powerful blessing. Falling in love is a magical, amazing feeling that I would want everyone in the world to experience. Finding a partner—a true helpmate and lover who sees you and understands you and is willing to travel the path of life with you—is wonderful.

And yet, romance novels continue to be the most disdained of all genres. Often not just disdained or dismissed, but reviled with an unbridled hatred that oozes and splutters.

Why is that? Serious question.

Genre novels such as mysteries or science fiction are often dismissed, but they are not often reviled the way romance novels are. Why is it so much more ridiculous or ignorant to read and write romance novels than something like Game of Thrones or the latest gory offering from Patricia Cornwell?

When I first began writing romances, it was the mid-eighties and women were still wearing power suits to make their way in an often hostile business world, afraid to show the slightest bit of femininity for fear of being seen as weak, so I understood that by writing romantic fiction, I’d have to accept that some derision would be part of what I would have to grapple with. I lived with it. I didn’t like it, especially when well-meaning friends and relatives and even sometimes readers would say, “So when are you going to put this talent of yours to work on something important?” As if I was slumming there in romance, working on my craft until I could do something good with it.


it came to me that my experience was just as important as any story of a soldier’s quest or city tale of sadness. It was just as authentic, it had just as much to say about life.



As more and more women came on the scene with romance careers of many ilks, I anticipated attitudes changing. My romance writing friends are some of the smartest people I know, and some of the most erudite—doctors and lawyers, Ivy-league and Oxford, chemists and engineers and psychiatrists. They all had a choice of genres, and chose romance.

I didn’t exactly choose romance. Well, I did. In junior high and high school, I wrote five complete novels on colored spiral notebook paper, and they were all romances. But then I went to college, and of course, one learns different things about Literature in college. When I started writing seriously after that, I began by writing the things I was reading in college, dark stories of loss and pain and fatal flaws and racism. My intention was to change the world, you see. Books change the world, don’t they? Novels can transform entire societies.

Then I had a baby, and another. I grew a garden and learned to cook and found great pleasure in all of those things. I was happily married and my husband was big eater, so that was great, too. I was writing when I could, when the children were sleeping or playing together. I wrote by hand and on an old IBM typewriter and struggling to find my voice. I still wanted to save the world, but more and more it seemed that what I was reading just wasn’t speaking to me on any level. What was I looking for?

The answer came to me one sunny August afternoon. My boys were napping, and I’d just made plum jam. The quilted jars were cooling on the stainless steel counter (I would kill for that counter now), and I was writing a poem about my connection to my great-grandmother, whose recipe I’d used. The lids of the jam started to pop as they cooled, sealing the jam, such a satisfying, final sound, and I realized with a sharp, powerful ache that I wanted to write about that. Not the jam or the lids popping, but the happiness it gave me, the joy I found in domestic life, in a very ordinary sort of woman’s life, and it came to me that my experience was just as important as any story of a soldier’s quest or city tale of sadness. It was just as authentic, it had just as much to say about life.

I wanted to write about women, for women. Plain and simple.

It took another year or so before I realized that the market I sought did not actually exist in any meaningful way. I read and researched and dragged the boys to the library and used bookstore as often as I dared, but aside from a handful of women’s magazines who all wanted short stories, there was nothing.

It was my sister who said, “What about romances?” I’d read zillions of them as a teen, but in college, I got away from all genre reading (who had time?) and in the meantime, they’d undergone a huge transformation. She brought me bags full of them and I started reading. I thought, because academia had trained me to think so, that they would be dull and suburban and the opposite of hip. In some cases, they were.

But in many others, they were not. They were fresh and exciting, about women in towns all over America, doing all kinds of things, and about men who were engaged in as many pursuits, with as much damage as the women. I studied the writers I most admired, like Rebecca Flanders (who writes now as herself, Donna Ball) and noted when they broke the rules. I took apart the best ones and figured out why I loved them.

Mostly, I recognized was that I could write about plum jam and the pleasure to be found in finding a good partner and in children. Is that a small subject? Not when you’re engaged in it.

It also came to me, in a flash one night while I literally rocked one of my sons to sleep, that the hand that rocks the cradle rocks the world. What if I wrote to change the world and did it in romance novels? That lit the fire. Two months later, I started writing romances. One year after that first attempt, I sold my second and never looked back.

In romance, I found my voice. I learned that I am a writer who is rooted in the west, also not that popular with the mainstream if you want to know the truth, though we are becoming more and more populous and we do buy books, too. I learned that I am interested in people who have survived trauma and sorrow and moved on, and I’m curious about why that works for some people and not others. I discovered that I am in love with food and kitchens—the hearth—and how food influences and shapes our lives.

As I thought about all of this for Writing Romantic Fiction, it came to me that one thing has not changed in all this time. Romances are still reviled, and the closer you get to a pure romance, the more reviled they are. While I absolutely understand why you might not want to read a genre—I’m never going to read space operas or monster books—I do not understand the continued revilement.

It just doesn’t make any sense. Romances and romantic women’s fiction are not a monolithic thing. They’re enormously varied. They cover a tremendous amount of ground, in thousands of ways. So many different writers choose the genre as the vehicle for their tales, not because they aren’t good enough to do anything else, but because romances are particular, with a particular format, and a very clear vehicle to speak with other women.

It’s time for a change in the wider world. I’m not sure how to get there, but I’m not going to stop trying to change minds. Romances rock. They’re empowering and thoughtful and fun. They can be trashy and poorly written, like anything else. They are often breathtakingly wonderful, beautifully written, elegantly constructed. I am proud to be a romance writer, a writer of romantic fiction, however one says it. If you are, too, raise your hand.

I found my voice here. Maybe some of you will, too.

(I’ll be teaching much of the material in this book at the Writers Digest Novel Writing Conference in Los Angeles August 15, in an in-depth boot camp. If you’d like more information, go to Novel Writing Boot Camp [3].)

Why do you think romances are still not given the same standing as other genre novels? Is it just gender? The sex? The happy endings? Let’s hear it.

About Barbara O'Neal [4]

Barbara O'Neal [5] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [6], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [7].