How Dorothy Dunnett Ruined Me for Writing Category Romance

**Spoiler Alert! If you plan on reading these books and like surprises then stop reading now. Right now. This instant! **

**I mean it.***

**Well, okay, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.***

I like subtlety. My very favourite historical romance in all the world – The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett, that I first read at the tender age of 15 – was chock full of it. I liked the way nothing was ever semaphored in large, friendly letters, merely hinted at. Whispered. I liked the way that sometimes I had to go and re-read parts just to see if what I thought happened, actually did happen. Or that I’d missed something that I should have picked up on. I liked how you had to pay attention to the most seemingly innocuous conversation because it might contain some clue to a character’s emotional state or to their past. Or how even the way they were standing was some hint as to their deeper emotions. I liked the way there was ALWAYS a subtext going on and how half the fun was guessing what exactly the subtext was. And I liked the way you hardly ever got the hero’s POV because it kept him mysterious.
But most of all, I really liked how my best friend and I used to argue for hours about questions the answers to which were never clearly answered – what really happened to his father? What was it with his mother? Was the boy who died really his son or the son of his enemy? Was he really in love with the woman in book 2? And what exactly was the nature of his relationship with the Turkish prince in book 4?
In fact, those questions and many others, kept a whole web discussion forum going for years and probably still does. But that’s beside the point. I loved the subtlety of it and I read and re-read those books over and over again, just to see if could pick up any more bits and pieces of information that I’d missed the first ten times I read it.

I loved that subtlety SO much that I swore, as a writer, I would never hit my readers over the head with conflict (actually, I didn’t really know what conflict was back then but you know what I mean), that I’d dole out little bits of information like cheese before mice, leading the reader into the story but perhaps never revealing anything too much till later. If at all. I’d give them little puzzles so they would be fascinated about my characters motivations and perhaps go and re-read bits so they could maybe pick up on something they’d missed. And I’d also keep my hero very mysterious and not give him a lot of POV so no one would know quite what he was doing or why until right at the end. Oh yes and I’d torture him lots too because there’s nothing like a tortured hero.

And I bet you can guess how well that worked out when it came to writing category romance.

It didn’t.

I blame Dorothy Dunnett and Francis Crawford of Lymond completely for my inability to get to grips with category romance. And I have to repeat to myself daily what worked for six 500 page books published in the 60s will not work for one 50k book published in 2010.

So, no to subtlety. No to little reader puzzles. No to carefully hinted at emotional states. No to mysterious motivations. No to limited hero POV. No to roundabout dialogue where the characters talk about everything but the thing they actually need to talk about. Oh and BIG nos to torturing your hero with opium addiction (seriously!).
Yes to have that conflict in the first chapter. Yes to being absolutely clear as to the motivations of your characters. Yes to the reader knowing more than the characters do NOT the other way around.

Still, I suppose if Dorothy Dunnett had actually written on the first page ‘Francis Crawford had always secretly feared he was the secret lovechild of his mother’s affair with her husband’s father’ then I’m sure there would not have been six books to write.*

Anyway, that’s my excuse as to why this category romance lark is so damn difficult for me and I’m sticking to it. πŸ™‚ And you’ll be pleased to know that I have actually broken the habit of a lifetime and in the latest couple of WIPS, got out my conflict stick to beat the reader over the head with it. πŸ™‚

So, question for the day – have there been any particular book/books that have had an influence on you as a writer?

*Note: okay, so that’s kind of a spoiler. Sorry. But it’s only part of the conflict not all of it. Or is it? You’ll have read it to find out. And you may come to an entirely different conclusion. πŸ™‚

13 thoughts on “How Dorothy Dunnett Ruined Me for Writing Category Romance”

  1. “In fact, those questions and many others, kept a whole web discussion forum going for years and probably still does” – yes it does – in fact there are several of them on Yahoogroups (search for “Marzipan”) not to mention a society – the Dorothy Dunnett Readers’ Association – that publishes a quarterly magazine about all things Dunnett. So you are not alone with your obsession.

  2. Simhedges – Oh yes, I know I’m not alone. There are tonnes of kindred spirits out there and I always feel very happy when I encounter one. Especially if they are as obsessed as I am. Still treasure my signed copy of Gemini…

  3. Ooh i have NEVER heard of Dorothy Dunnett but now (cos i really respect your reading choices) I’m gonna have to seek her out!!!

    Good luck with that conflict stick!

  4. Never heard of her either but like the idea of weaving parts into the story instead of giving the whole plot away in the first chapter. I obviously haven’t got the knack of this either, as my revisions kept telling me to make it more obvious and spell it out. But I like little hints that keep you turning the pages. x

  5. Great blog Jackie. DD is someone I’ve never read – but I’ll go and check out one of her books from the library this weekend – you’ve got me intrigued! Caroline x

  6. Rach – awww, that’s lovely about my reading choices! Well, I love DD. She’s not a take out your brain and kick back kind of author though. The books are very political and it’s not really a straight out romance.

    Susan – yes, well, I have the same problem with not being obvious enough – and it was entirely intentional. But not good for category when you only have 50k. Ah well, we live and learn.

    Caroline – I LOVE her. And her hero is one of the most incredible romantic heroes ever. But she’s not straight romance. However if you like a highly intellectual historical with lots of political detail and angst thrown in, then you’ll love her. πŸ™‚

  7. Hey Jackie,Kathleen E woodiwiss’s The flame and the flower made me decide I would start writing Romance. I went to a boarding school and I told the story to my dorm girls for 2 weeks in a row

  8. Hi,

    Simply loved DD, GHeyer, DdMaurier, R.D.Blackmore, besides the clasic Brontes’ and Austen etc., but most of all I adored SergeanneGolon’s Angelique books!

    Serge and Anne Golon inspired my writing. It was their daring to write uninhibited sexual content and the gorgeous heroes that led me toward the erotic elements so oft absent within M&B novels and other romance offerings, (not so nowadays) hence my first published novels were rated erotic because content considered too hot for a plain old romance novel. πŸ˜‰

    I’ve given my best shot at category romance as hopeful comeback chance into the publishing world and it’s gotten me nowhere despite being a pubbed author, and to be honest I’m heading back into blockbuster territory of no less than 100,000 words.

    A 50k intensive one-to-one love affair is OK for light reading, but only a half fulfilling read in terms of length. I’m more often than not left wanting answers: like hero and heroine’s background beyond that of last job or last lover? What is their heritage, who are their parents, who are their relatives etc., because they can’t all be devoid of a family and a past. I know category romance supposedly airs romantic fantasy, but hey, I’m a material girl and if something looks like white gold bespeckled with diamonds it better be the real thing not just market stall bling!

    Give me a romance to read involving multiple characters, sub plots and dynamic thrill factor alongside indepth family background and I feel I really know the characters and everything about them, like somehow I’m part of the family. These kind of novels are the real deal for me, so I know what you mean re DD! πŸ˜‰

    This probably sounds controversial and a sure-fired way to see me unpopular with eds, but if I never get published again because I say it how I see it, it’s no big heartbreaking dumb deal. All the rejections in the world won’t stop me writing, and I’m not saying all category romance is wafer thin on content, the truth is I prefer a delectable five course meal with excellent wine: not pizza and Cianti on the hoof.

    Keep writing and reading what you love best, not what you think and hope will see you get a quick-fix publishing deal.


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