Monday, January 3, 2011

Defining Romantic Suspense

I'm blogging this week on some of the sub genres that inhabit the world of Romance books and since I write romantic suspense I thought it a good place to start. I assumed this would be an easy post to write, I mean I do write the stuff and it is my chosen genre to read, however I found the old 'assume' quip proved accurate!

I'm not an expert on any genre much less my chosen one. I'm also not a varied reader of romantic suspense. I tend to stick with a few authors and read all of their books. I also gravitate toward what I call 'cozy romantic suspense'. I'm not really into cop/military/CIA heroine/hero books where the hero and heroine are out of their ordinary world almost from the beginning of the story and only return to it with the conclusion. I think of those books as "dark" romantic suspense because they put me in mind of suspense movies like Kiss the Girls or The Skeleton Key. I like those movies and I've enjoyed those types of books when I stumble upon one but my very favorite books, the ones I actively seek, are the accidental sleuth romantic suspense.

The, bookstore owner who stumbles upon a dead body in the A-E aisle, the wedding planner that finds a corpse face down in the wedding cake, or the cafe owner who inherits a blue diamond ring and a mess of trouble ;). So, I started pondering exactly what it is that I like about this type of romantic suspense and that is where my troubles began. For the life of me I couldn't put into words what draws me to the genre or differentiates my favorite styled plot from the "dark" ones. But then I started thinking about some of my favorite books and things became clearer.

My favorite types of romance books used to be historicals-preferably Regency period and I usually didn't venture far from it. Until I picked up an Amanda Quick book. My first was Rendezvous and I was hooked from the get-go. I loved her voice-the humor that she infuses into the dialog and scenes was refreshing and made her heroine's charming. Her books are wonderful romps through the Regency world with enough detail to set the "stage" without the limiting adherence to strictly accurate period details that is found in 'true' Regencies. I enjoyed these books for their lightheartedness but it wasn't until I read Surrender that I realized what I really loved about her books was the mystery that surrounds every hero/heroine relationship.

Until I'd read Amanda Quick I'd never encountered a romance plot with an equally strong mystery plot but the equal strength of these two plot lines isn't even what came to define my definition of romantic suspense. Using Amanda Quick's works as my standard, I've come to define romantic suspense, the good ones anyway, as a romance with a mystery that totally merges with the developing relationship. There is no definable beginning and ending of romance/mystery plot lines throughout the story.

That concept is best exemplified in Quick's book, Surrender. In this book, the heroine's feminist beliefs and keen interest in herbal medicines are not just devices to make the heroine a believable and 3-D character. They directly play into the mystery and danger she finds herself in as well as adding enormous amounts of humor to the story. Every scene meant to depict the rising romantic relationship in some way ties into the developing mystery. In "writer speak" every scene moves both plots forward at the same time. In Surrender, this is done seamlessly; the reader isn't even aware of it until the mystery is solved and the villain is unmasked. Then we think back to things that happened and realize how each incident, tied into the mystery.

Andrew Carnagie paid Napoleon Hill to study him and write a book on how Carnagie had achieved success. That book became Think and Grow Rich. A core idea in the book is the belief that success can be obtained by studying and modeling oneself after someone they admire who has achieved that success. I believe and try to follow those principles so when I wrote Ring of Lies I went back and analyzed what made Surrender such a great book. I used sticky notes to mark pages and I mapped out how each scene meshed with the romance or mystery plot. I basically broke the book down by scenes/chapters and laid them out on a plotline map like I do for my own works. Doing that made me see how a master author achieved a great story and I tried to transfer that to my own book.

So, what elements need to be in a book for you to call them a great romantic suspense? Do you have an all time favorite that you read again and again? On another note, have you read Hill's Think and Grow Rich?


  1. First, I've always regretted that the creators of this genre name chose romantic SUSPENSE for any romance in the mystery sub-genre, because there's such a huge continuum -- from cozy to thriller, and everything in between. I write romances with mystery themes, NOT suspense, so readers often expect a different kind of book. I don't like to know anything beyond what the hero and heroine do, so anything with a villain's POV puts me off as a reader (not to say there aren't a lot of wonderful books, but I prefer a straight mystery to a suspense).

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  2. Fabulous post, Rachel. I love how you dove right into the analysis of your chosen genre. You're such a structure-maven. I fell into romantic suspense while branching out from paranormals and am still floundering my way around the sub-genre, testing/tasting/tackling. But as a newbie, I'd say that I still need a mystery that hooks me and keeps me on the edge of the seat the whole way through. And a H/H who have to work with their own and each others weaknesses as well as strengths. The push/pull of opposites adds to the spice as well. Thanks again for the thoughtful post and I look forward to more.

    Denise Golinowski
    Fantasy With A Kiss of Romance

  3. Great post to head into the new year Rach. I prefer suspense whether the villain has a pov or not. Sometimes it adds to the mystery (thinking of page 19 of a specific book I just started reading on 1-1-11 ;))
    But for me its the seamless interchanges between the growing romance and suspense that grabs me. If there's too much/little of one or the other I get bored with the book.
    I read one RS that has stuck with me for years because it was a wonderful read and I could relate to the h/h. But the suspense in it felt contrived at times, and that is also part of why I remember that book. If it wasn't a great romance, I would have tossed the book against a wall midway through.

  4. I've always said I like a little mystery with my romance or a little romance with my mystery. Doesn't matter either way to me as long as I get a little of both. The difference I think is suspense gives you the bad guy right away, maybe not the name, but you know who you are battling. For a mystery, you can suspect everyone from your best friend to your neighbor and need clues to put it all together. Just my opinion - lovely post!

  5. Thanks Ladies. Your comments have my brain whirling. Terry started it by pointing out something I hadn't consciously thought about. There is a difference in suspense and mystery-LOL, I know what ya'll will say,(you're just figuring this out!?)
    As a reader I never think much about it, I just find an author I love and settle in for the ride, I'm not one to try and solve the mystery before the heroine/hero I just travel along with them (though I sometimes get a hint of whodunit & the really good ones leave me guessing 'til the end). I haven't been reading much since I started writing, unless it was a friends' new release, so I'm amassing a large TBR pile. Already had Terry's on my list-think I'll move it to the top of the pile because she got me thinking about the mystery/suspense difference and I think I am more like her: mystery until the end of the book, red herrings thrown in, etc. The book I'm working on now is like that-LOL, I fell into the genre so I'm still looking to find my identity!

  6. Yeah, I definitely love suspense, not so much for the mysterious element as much as the hinky jinky feeling you get when you don't know what's around the next corner. I don't need to solve a puzzle, but I like to be surprised. So yeah, definitely pull toward the suspense side of things. Great post!!! Rachel Firasek

  7. LOL @ Calisa: now I have to go check out page 19! :)