Issue #93 (April 15, 2000)

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We have an excellent assortment of topics for your reading pleasure today. Some are connected, others are just so much fun we stuck them in even though they might seem out of context. Please enjoy.

So Many Cowboys. . . So Little Rope

"Howdy, ma'am," said the cowboy as he tipped his Stetson to the woman dressed in white. He was a prime specimen - all sinew and brawn, his Wranglers molded to his muscled thighs, his polished boots sporting a pair of fancy silver chaps. "Care to dance?"

The bride swept aside her sheer tulle veil. "Why, thank you, sir. I'd love to." She gathered her voluminous skirts. "But what about the baby?" she whispered. "He's a secret, you know." "We'll take the baby with us." The cowboy strapped the little tike's Snugli to his broad chest. The besotted bride floated into the cowboy's arms, her heart swelling with joy - at last she'd found a man worthy of her love, honor and respect!

And thus, united as one, the cowboy, the secret baby and the runaway bride danced the Texas two-step across the harlequin diamond-patterned floor...all the way to the bestseller's list.

You can see them still - dancing across the bookstore shelves, never lagging, never in short supply, for they are replenished month after month after month. Regardless of complaints about hackneyed plots and cutesy-poo titles, their sales remain strong. But for now let's concentrate on the masculine point of the series romance writer's troika. Cowboy heroes continue to proliferate. What is their appeal? Aside from the obvious female attraction to men who look so-o-o-o dang fine in tight-fittin' jeans, and, as a reader named Kerry recently told me, "just say ma'am so darn sexy."

The Cowboy Mystique:
Romance writers didn't invent the cowboy as a hero of mythical proportions. He was celebrated in legend, story and song long before the first Cowboy Bride's Secret Baby title hit the stands. We have had penny-dreadfuls, Kit Carson, Wild West shows, Tom Mix, the novels of Zane Gray and Owen Wister, spaghetti Westerns, the strong silent heroes portrayed by John Wayne and Gary Cooper, to name only a few. The list continues at length, certainly proving that the cowboy hero is an archetype enjoyed equally by women and men. In my research for this piece, the same refrain was repeated by both writers and readers: Cowboys are seen as being solid, courageous, gallant, compassionate, loyal, rugged, down-to-earth, independent, protective and honorable. Always honorable.

Heroes, indeed.

The link between our contemporary version of the romanticized cowboy and the chivalrous knights of old is clear. Gayle Wilson, creator of the Intrigue Home to Texas miniseries, calls her cowboy heroes "white knights," continuing, "They combine in our minds the romantic elements of the loner, the vagabond knight, and even the conqueror." Sheryl Lynn, another Intrigue author, also cites this connection: "Cowboys are modern-day knights, bound to chivalry and the pursuit of justice. Mysterious because what they do is accomplished alone. Loners who need a good woman to still their roamin' feet." Compare the feudal rules of chivalry to the cowboy living by his Code of the West. Contrast the knight in shining armor astride a fiery charger with the mounted cowboy in his hat, chaps, gloves and spurs. Coincidence? I think not.

Heroes, indeed.

Let's Get Real:
Whoa, there. Maybe it's time to wake up and smell the manure. What are "real" cowboys like? "More Gabby Hayes than John Wayne," says Harlequin author Julie Kistler (who'd rather write about men in tuxedoes than men in chaps), bringing to mind a scruffy, bewhiskered, bowlegged, tobacco-chewing cow puncher with bad skin, bad teeth and creaky arthritic joints. Not a character we'll see on the cover of a romance novel any time soon!

Neither are the realities of the job particularly appealing. Devastating weather, blood and guts, pain, loneliness, deprivation and low pay can put a damper on any romantic ideal. Yet even the harsh honesty of outdoor work plays into our vision of the cowboy as a heroic figure. Patricia McLinn, author of multiple cowboy romances set in Wyoming, explains that cowboys are "a bridge back to a time when we all had to plant and herd or we had no food." Writing of ranchers, she says, gives her the chance to "show a character who is more intimately attuned to the natural rhythms around him/her than urban dwellers would likely be." In these days of air-conditioned malls, processed food and hermetically-sealed office buildings, I believe Pat's right on the money. There's a certain mystique to physical outdoor work performed in a majestic yet potentially dangerous land; it's a fantasy far removed from most of our everyday lives. And fantasy, even one as grounded in rugged reality as the cowboy legend, is the hallmark of the romance biz.

Elizabeth Hanawa, an aspiring writer, speaks along the same lines when she says that "Nature and the environment must be dealt with honestly," in a ranching plot. "There is no pretending or deceit to nature. (It) has a way of destroying liars, particularly those who lie to themselves. There's nothing more attractive," she concludes, "than a truly honest man." The characteristics of honesty, sincerity and forthrightness are also valued by another reader named Jenn, who says longingly of her preference for contemporary cowboys, "I like to believe that there are still those men that are gentlemen out there. I know that I am raising my sons to be so."

These are powerful images with a grand scope. Man against nature. Good versus evil. The white-hatted sheriff's showdown with the black-hatted outlaw. The ruggedness of rodeo sports that pit one man against an ornery beast ten times his size. Yes, the myth that began in the Old West and was perpetuated as folk lore, then later took hold as popular entertainment - a la The Lone Ranger, Maverick and Gunsmoke - before landing four-square in the pages of today's Western and Romance novels, is one that has, according to Harlequin author Vicki Lewis Thompson, "never lost its punch." And likely never will.

A Final Word on Girls Who Love Horses:
The first Harlequin romance novel I ever bought featured a gorgeous stud on the cover. A magnificent creature - gleaming muscles, deep chest, flowing mane...ahhh, what a horse! (The man wasn't bad either.) Twenty-five years later, I finally had the opportunity to write my own girl-meets-boy-meets-horse stories for the same publisher in a Duets trilogy called, both suitably and ubiquitously, The Cowgirl Club.

Supposedly Freud said something significant about girls being drawn to horses because they are powerful and sexual. And ride-able, I can't help wondering, with my tongue planted firmly in cheek. Perhaps there is a sound psychological reasoning to my theory that girls who love horses grow up to be women who love men who ride horses. "Naturally we'd be drawn to men on horses," says Thompson, whose upcoming Temptation miniseries is called Three Cowboys and a Baby, "and thereby get a double dose. A cowboy astride a powerful black horse is erotic as hell." To which I can only sigh and nod in agreement.

For those of you who are still unconvinced of the cowboy's appeal, I leave you with this from Silhouette author Karen Templeton, who says the rancher and cowboy types she'd seen in real life were not romance novel material...until the day she attended the State Fair and happened upon a Stetson-wearing man putting a gorgeous horse through its paces.

"Both were in their prime, sleek and muscled, and I was suddenly struck by the beauty and sheer sexiness of the man and horse moving as one.

"Then I understood."

On What She Said (by Laurie Likes Books):
The three plot devices/character types I hear complained about more than any others are babies (secret babies are even worse), amnesia, and "cowboy books." These complaints are not about cowboys in a historical context, or even about cowboys in single title contemporaries. No, they are strictly in reference to the series romance. The problem? Enough is enough - too much of any thing, even what was once a good thing, is simply too much.

Personally, my reading of series romance is fairly limited - I buy certain authors only and for every five books I read, only one is likely to be a series title. As such, I haven't been overwhelmed by either baby books or cowboy books, but when I browse the new series releases at the book store each month, I am consistently amazed to see so many books featuring babies, cowboys, and my own least favorite plot device - amnesia. In fact, when AAR Reviewer Anthony Langford sent me his review for The Rancher and the Amnesiac Bride, I thought it was a joke.

What's up with that?

More than two years ago, author Carla Cassidy did a piece for this column in defense of the "baby book." It engendered a great deal of discussion, and she was game enough to do a brief follow-up for us as well. Many of the readers we heard from at that time had been tired of the "baby book" for some time, and yet, there are still a great deal of "baby books" on sale every single month. The publishers would not continue to buy these books and release them if they were not selling well. Are on-line readers unrepresentative of the general romance-buying public? If not, and the general public is also sick of these books, how long will it take to cycle through? And, what will replace them?

The same can be said for (and asked about) "cowboy books." One would imagine the United States was a rural country filled with ranches and farms from the number of books on sale each month featuring the cowboy/rancher hero. I could swear I learned in junior high school that we are mostly an urban/suburban nation - aren't we? But before we dump all over the "cowboy book," let's look at series romances featuring covert agents. How many do you know in real life?

My sense is that as long as the myth of the West continues to fascinate people, the "cowboy book" will be around. Maybe not in the numbers currently published, but the western hero is a part of America's heritage. While it may make more sense to focus on the western hero in a historical context, there are, no doubt, plenty of readers out there who find the western lifestyle romantic - in any time period - even though it can be rugged, difficult, and lonely.

What do you think?

And, while we're on the subject of series romance. . . .

Series Romance Conversion Kit

A while back in this column, Laurie re-introduced her idea of the Conversion Kit - that is, a list of books to suggest to a person who has never read a romance and would like to try one. I went back and re-read some of the reader's examples of conversion kits and I was struck by how few series romances were suggested. I know these are ephemeral - here for one month, gone the next - but there are titles worth seaching for.

I never was a romance snob, but I was once a series romance snob. For a long time I dismissed them as nothing but fluff. Had I read any? Well no, but I knew they had to be silly. Just look at the covers, and those titles! But being the book addict that I am, one day when I had nothing else to read, I read one of those books. How lucky for me it was The Bachelor Party by Paula Detmer Riggs. I admitted I was wrong about them and I have been reading series romances ever since. When it comes to series romances, there are a few rules to keep in mind (come to think of it, these rules can apply to all romance novels as well).

  • You can't judge a book by its cover.
  • Titles are misleading
  • Beware the blurbs
If you are willing to take a chance on series novels, there are some gold nuggets hidden in the sand. Despite the plethora of cowboys and babies that are currently populating the series novel, there are some treasures to be found out there especially in the older books. I got my start by trying different authors at the used book store and found several who are now automatic buys for me.

Here is a list of some of the series novels that I have particularly enjoyed - my series romance conversion kit.

Do you like a touch of mystery, or police stories?

Justine Davis' Trinity Street West mini-series is excellent. Ms Davis (aka Justine Dare) is a police officer herself and really knows how to give a book an authentic atmosphere. The characters are interesting and these are a good mix of love story and police procedural. The titles in the series (so far) are:

Other series titles of this type that I have enjoyed are The Man She Almost Married and Prime Suspect by Maggie Price and Marrying Mike, Again by Alicia Scott.

Do you enjoy women's fiction? Paula Detmer Riggs' books are favorites of mine. They are all different, but they all have the themes of the second chance and the healing power of love. She sometimes uses controversial themes in her works (date rape, drug addiction and in one, a character who is wrongly jailed for child abuse) but her books never become just "problem novels". These are a few special favorites, but I have read and enjoyed all her books.

Ruth Wind (aka Barbara Samuel) is an elegant writer who has no peer when it comes to expressing deep emotion. She has used her books to explore themes of social relevance (battered wives, problems of military veterans) but she is not a "problem novel" writer either. As an added bonus, her characters are sometimes of various ethnic backgrounds, American Indian, Hispanic and Middle Eastern for example. She is another writer of whom I can say that I have enjoyed all her books.

I can always depend on Marilyn Pappano for a good story. Even when she uses a stock character (a single mother, a rancher) she can make them seem fresh and interesting. Lately, she has been writing a series set in Heartbreak Oklahoma. If the rest of them are as good as the first two, Cattleman's Promise and The Horseman's Bride, we have a winner.

Do you like action?

Suzanne Brockmann's Tall, Dark and Dangerous mini-series features the adventures of a group of Navy SEALS. Yes, I know that SEALS are a romance novel cliche, but these are different - trust me. These books are a mixture of romance and action with more action than most series romances. I had one customer at Waldenbooks tell me her husband, who was a former member of the Rangers, enjoyed these, "Because she gets the weapons right."

Want to laugh?

While I'm not a fan of recent Jennifer Crusie titles, her early series titles are delightful. My special favorites are: Manhunting and What the Lady Wants.

Elizabeth Bevarly is guaranteed to make me laugh. She is witty and often laugh-out-loud funny. Her Blame it On Bob mini-series is especially good.

Janet Evanovich wrote some books for the Loveswept series line which are worth looking for. They are just as funny as if not funnier than her Stephanie Plum mysteries. Two that I have found and enjoyed are The Naughty Neighbor and Wife For Hire.

I'm still looking for the others.

If you know someone who likes slapstick (I love it) then Trish Jensen's The Harder They Fall is guaranteed to bring a laugh. I have read it several times over and laughed each and every time. It's probably my favorite funny in the series line.

Finally, I want to recommend some series books by an author who is as versatile a writer as I have ever seen. I have read books by her that were action, mystery, contemporary, historical, gothic, time-travel, fantasy and all points in between. I'm talking about Anne Stuart.

  • Cinderman - a lab explosion leaves the hero able to become invisible and blow things up and the heroine develops the ability to read minds.

  • Crazy Like A Fox - a widow and her daughter come to her worthless ex-husband's family for shelter and discover his cousin who is a crazy man locked up in the attic. A very charming man who may not be all that crazy.

  • One More Valentine - a woman attorney falls in love with a charming and handsome man - a man who was a gangster killed in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

  • Winter's Edge - a woman wakes up in the hospital after an accident suffering from amnesia. She is implicated in a murder and her husband hates her - or does he? Would that all amnesia stories were this good.

  • Hand In Glove - murder, mystery, and romance in a puppet factory. Not your average romantic suspense.

There are more good series novels out there - I have barely scratched the surface. There's Linda Howard, Leanne Banks, Nora Roberts. . . These are only a few of my favorites, how about you?

En Guard!

I don’t remember how we ended up discussing sex shops, but before I knew it, one of my fellow AAR comrades had suggested I visit Good Vibrations in San Francisco, since I live closest to this legendary shop and all. Not one to pass up a new adventure, I enlisted Suzi, one of my coworkers, to go along with me.

As the day of reckoning neared, I began telling people about my little side trip - one of them raved about it. “Very safe, very geared toward women, not smutty at all,” she declared, very enthusiastically, as people around discreetly listened in. As I value this woman’s opinion, I thought it a good omen.

Sunday morning, 10:30 a.m.
After passing by what it seems like a billion churches, we get there just in time for the store to open, only to find that they’re opening half an hour late due to computer problems, so we get a parking space and talk real estate, as in, how I can’t afford to live in the Bay Area.

11:32 a.m.
We get our butts in gear and go into the store. The first thing I see is the Wall of Dildos. Oh my. I keep fearing that one of the nuns from the convent school where I spent my tender years will materialize.
Every size, every color. No kidding.
I can’t bring myself to touch the dildos yet. Suzi and I get down to business. She’s shopping, I’m just looking. Really. What would the nuns say? I wish I could take a picture.

I indulge my recent passion for Erotica at the Erotic Fiction section. Some titles I am familiar with by now, the selection is quite good and the staff recommendations help those who are very, very new to all this. By the register, however, are some discounted books from the Black Lace series, which I have heard a lot about, so I pick up a couple and head over to the harness section.

11:45 a.m.
I can’t believe I just thought that. “Oh, I’m just going over to the harness section!” I try to figure out where all the strips of leather go without strangling myself and give up soon enough. Back to the book section. They have a photography section, a how-to section, with books like Bend Over, Boyfriend! which sounds to me like the pickup line I’ve been looking for.

12:10 p.m.
The porn video display has a lot of variety for rent or sale. You have your classics, Debbie Does Dallas, the Nina Hartley videos (she also has instructional ones, like Oral Sex I and Oral Sex II), and then there are the ones that I will just call Highly Specialized. I have to test the merchandise - right? - so I get one made in Italy. It’s the story of the Marquis de Sade, and it boasts of luscious locales, a budget of over $100,000, and tons of costume changes. "Well, if taking off means 'change,' . . ." I think as I slyly look at the other people in the shop.

So who visits Good Vibrations aside from me and Suzi? Well, chalk it up to the shop’s reputation as a safe, regular store, but the people there are just like the people I see in the supermarket. I check back with Suzi. She’s found a kit she likes. If you don’t know what to get, GV has put together kits (with names like The Lusty Lady), which have everything necessary for a little fun. I also like the Sex Checks, which are, as you would expect, check sized vouchers good for various activities, and at $3.50 a booklet, pretty darn cheap if you ask me.

The not-to-be-missed Vibrator Museum is right by the register. Most of these antiques look rather painful to use, but there is an interesting little blurb about the history of vibrators and how their real benefits have been lost or ignored throughout the ages. Before checking out, I decide to go for broke and head over to the Wall of Dildos. Various textures, too, I realize. There are metal vibrators nearby, I pick up a huge gold one as a pony-tailed girl goes by and picks up a huge silver one; we eye each other. Suzi comes by before our Jedi Knight LightSaber fight can escalate. We’re ready to go, so we pay for our purchases and head out with our almost plain brown bags.

Epilogue
So am I glad I went? You betcha! The video was quite the thing at my house, although some parts (ahem) had us going “Ewwwww!!!” The audiotape was a typical anthology, a mixed bag of cool stories and silly ones. The most lasting effect, however, was the looks I got at work, since I hadn’t realized that the bag in which I keep my stuff in the fridge is the bag with the Good Vibrations logo.

RNSCCC:
Romance Novel Secondary Character Central Casting

Remember those old movies about Hollywood, where the director grabs a phone and orders, "Get me Central Casting!" In the movies, an actress, sent over to play a stock character, gets discovered and becomes a star. But in reality, Central Casting provided a living to hundreds of actors who played maids, sidekicks, bartenders, madams, ranch hands, and butlers over and over again.

Romance novels have their own version of Central Casting, where authors go for the secondary characters. These folks are foils for the hero or heroine, help move the plot along, and sometimes provide comic relief. The characters play the same predictable roles over and over. When done well, they illuminate a story and add dimension to the main characters. They can be comforting to the readers because as soon as they step on stage, you know what part they will play. Of course, if they are written carelessly, they seem like cardboard stereotypes, props put in place and manipulated by the author. They can be welcome diversions or annoying cliches.

Let's take a look at a few examples. I came up with some of these, others were provided by the helpful and well-read people on the AAR staff:

The heroine's best friend: Usually braver, spunkier, more daring than the heroine, unless the heroine herself is super-spunky, in which case the friend will be the voice of caution and reason. She appears in all subgenres, although in contemporary romances, her role may be played by a gay male. She often gets a secondary romance of her own, or a starring role in the author's next book. (Note: the latter does not apply if the part is played by a gay male.)

In J.D. Robb's In Death series, Eve Dallas' friend Mavis is a classic spunky best friend. She's a rock singer who wears six inch heals and purple hair, uses twenty-first century expressions like "frigid" and often advises the serious Eve on how to loosen up. Mavis has an equally eccentric fashion designer lover a way of showing up whenever things get too serious.

In Jennifer Crusie's Charlie All Night and Stephanie Bond's Irresistible, the best friends are gay men. Irresistible's best friend even gets an abortive secondary romance. Unfortunately this romance is with the hero's boss, who doesn't realize that the roommate is a drag queen.

The hero's brother/cousin/best friend: This character's main purpose is to provide witty repartee and tease the hero. He's generally in no hurry to get married himself, he is often dismayed to see his buddy falling into the tender trap. He is seen in all types of romances, and ranges from the genteel hellraiser hanging around the gentleman's club in a Regency, to the little brother helping out on the ranch, to the levelheaded buddy who expresses misgivings and distrust of the heroine in a romantic suspense. If he plays his cards right, he may turn up as the hero of the next book.

The Fallen Angels series by Mary Jo Putney provides classic examples of these-Lucien, Rafe, Michael, and Nicholas show up in each other's books to provide support and male bonding, Regency-style.

Alison Kent's Temptation title, Call Me has a classic secondary male character in the hero's younger brother. He's helping out around the ranch and going to vet school in and teasing his big brother about the, um, excessive time he spends in secretive phone conversations with the heroine.

The heroine's widowed dad: He is present in all genres, but turns up most often in historicals. He brought up the heroine to be spunky and self-reliant, perhaps even a tomboy, the son he never had. He didn't pay much attention to the lack of feminine influence in the house, and let his daughter run with the men at arms or ranch hands, learning to do everything they did. Note: in Victorian and Regency-set historicals, this part is sometimes played by the spinster aunt who raised the orphaned heroine.

The heroine in Karyn Monk's recent The Rose and the Warrior had a Dad like this. He is dead during the story but we are treated to lots of memories of him and how he brought up his daughter to be "like a boy." Sure enough, when the hero meets the heroine he is sure that she is a man, the dreaded " Falcon."

Salty grandfather/grandmother: This elderly person knows with one look that the hero or heroine is in love, usually before the hero or heroine has realized it. He or she gives good advice, usually along the lines of "go for it!" This sometimes embarrasses the hero or heroine as sexual suggestions are sometimes part of the humor. He or she always has educational anecdotes about his/her wife/husband (may they rest in peace), with whom they shared a long and wonderful marriage.

Wendy Rosenau's recent Silhouette Intimate Moments title, The Long Hot Summer, has a classic grandmother. Mae may be old and a bit frail, she spends most of the book in a wheelchair, but she knows what she wants for her granddaughter and is not above manipulating circumstances just a bit (in a kind hearted way) to make sure her granddaughter notices that sexy ex-con with a heart of gold working on the farm for the summer.

Geri Guillaume features a crusty grandfather in her Simply Irresistible. This grandfather regales the heroine with tales of the hero's childhood, makes a mean jambalaya, ogles her curves, and tells the hero that he needs to marry that girl before someone else does. Another great grandpa is Nora Roberts' Daniel MacGregor. Daniel plays his role in a series of books including The MacGregor Brides and The MacGregor Grooms. Sly as a fox he subtly manipulates all of his grandchildren to find wonderful mates.

The traumatized child: The child of the widowed hero or heroine, this little one has been withdrawn and mute since mom or dad's death or some other trauma. To recuperate, the child needs the nurturing love of the heroine, and/or some rough-and-tumble play or horseback rides with the hero.

The books I can think of examples are both Desert Isle Keepers: Katherine Kingsley's The Sound of Snow and Adele Ashworth's My Darling Caroline. In the case of My Darling Caroline, however, there is more to the story than meets the eye.

The acting-out teenager: Usually female, this young lady turns up most often in contemporary romances. Poor mom or dad just doesn't know what to do with her, as she listens to loud music, wears trashy clothes and makeup, and nearly gets date raped by unsavory ranch hands. But she's really just a hurt little girl, still missing her mother (or dad), and the wise and patient heroine or hero can get her back on track.

Maggy, the divorced heroine of Barbara Bretton's The Day We Met, has an example of an acting-out teenager who is so realistic that I was tempted to get my tubes tied! Nicole wants her daddy back, hates Mom's new boyfriend, and caps everything off by nearly getting raped. Fortunately, the hero rescues her and in the process, wins Nicole's respect and helps Maggy see that she needs to pay more attention to what Nicole's attitude was really saying about her needs.

The adorable child: See traumatized child, except this moppet can talk - boy, can he or she talk! This child is sometimes so adorable you need an insulin shot, and tends to say precocious things like "Lady [who I just met), are you going to marry Daddy and be my new Mommy?" Hijinks ensue.

The children in Rules of Surrender by Christina Dodd are definitely adorable moppets. When pressed by the heroine, a governess, for polite dinner conversation, little Leila pipes up with, "Nurse says that my bottom itches because I sat in nettles!"

Suzanne Brockmann's titular kid in Frisco's Kid is similarly winsome. She's part traumatized child too - she's been largely left to fend for herself by her alcoholic mother, and can't understand why Frisco and girlfriend Mia want her to stay nearby or tell people where she is going. And of course, at one point very early on, she announces that Frisco and Mia should marry and become her parents.

The maid with the dirt: She fills the heroine on the mysterious master, the dead first wife, the workings of the household, local gossip, or social mores. She's the one in the know and she is willing to share. She is indispensable in historical romances of all kinds, and often turns up in Gothics and time travel stories as well.

The upstairs maids in Robin Schone's Awaken My Love and Amanda Quick's I Thee Wed both seem to have been recruited from the Helpful Exposition Maid Placement Agency. The maid in Schone's book fills in the hapless time-traveling heroine in on crucial things like how one dresses and how to handle one's period in Victorian England. Quick's upstairs maid doesn't seem to do much serving other than breathlessly filling in the heroine on the goings-on at the manor house, including the mysterious disappearance of the lady's companion who used to sleep in the heroine's bedroom.

The valet: You simply cannot have a romance set during the Regency without a gentleman's gentleman, although he turns up in historicals from Elizabethan to Victorian. He is cool, reserved, and knows everything from fine wine and cigars, to hangover cures, to where to find a fully fitted, respectable dress to avoid compromising the heroine's reputation on the morning after. He knows when to keep his mouth shut but always has an opinion when asked. Often falls in love with the mistress' loyal maid.

In a twist JD Robb aka Nora Roberts decided to revive this character for her futuristic In Death series. Sommerset, Roarke's loyal valet, fills this role, dryly pointing out to Eve, every social faux pax she commits.

The big, dumb, loyal guy: Most often found in medievals, he's the enormous retainer of the hero, often terrifying to the heroine on first sight, but who turns out to be a marshmallow inside. He's not the brightest candle in the sconce, but he would give his life for the hero. He is often seen with a sharp-tongued wife, equally dim girlfriend, or a puppy. An example of this guy appears in Lynsay Sands' Sweet Revenge.

Then there's the ones who don't even need a person in the role - call it the Central Casting morgue.

Hero/heroine's mother/father: any and all combinations. Preferably died when the hero or heroine was very young and impressionable, sometimes even died in childbirth. But whenever they died, it wasn't before they had a chance to traumatize the hero or heroine, either because of their behavior, the circumstances of their death, or merely their absence during the hero or heroine's formative years.

Examples of this are too numerous to mention. Dead parents are in just about every book you pick up. Unless the parents have a romance story of their own (as with Elizabeth Lowell's Donovan family series, or the head of the MacGregor clan in Nora Roberts' series), it's a rare hero or heroine who makes it to adulthood with their parents both alive and the parents' marriage to each other intact!

Hero's partner: He turns up a lot in romantic suspense novels, or any book where the hero is a cop, P.I., or soldier. The hero was responsible for him and he died in the line of the duty; therefore the hero doesn't trust himself to be responsible for anyone else ever again.

Hero's first wife and child: Hero was doing something dangerous and the first wife and child got in harm's way. They very likely died at the hands of the bad guy in the current story, or someone just like him. The hero feels responsible and therefore doesn't trust himself

Agent Harry O'Dell in Suzanne Brockmann's Bodyguard is a classic example. His wife and child died because of his involvement in fighting organized crime. The last thing he wants, while guarding a woman endangered by the mob, is to become too attached to her.

. Sometimes this device can be fairly effective as in Karyn Monk's Surrender to a Stranger. In that book the hero blames himself for allowing his wife and mother to go to Paris during the French Revolution. His cure for guilt is saving other victims of the Revolution, which leads to his meeting the heroine.

So there we have it. These were all the characters and examples that I could think of. Can you think of more? We'd love to hear of them.

Next time: RNACC (Romance Novel Animal Central Casting)!

Time to Post to the Message Board:
Here are some specific questions to think and post about:

Let's talk about "cowboy books," in particular, series romances featuring cowboys and ranchers. Do you read them? Which are the ones you like best, and why? Did you used to read them? If you have tired of them, when did you reach your limit? And, if you've never read them, share why not as well.
Would you like to create a series romance conversion kit like Ellen did? What titles would you include and why? If you are a series romance snob, and both Ellen and I used to be, would you be willing to give some select titles a try? If you mostly read series titles, tell us why as well.
Claudia's journey to a sex shop was obviously a departure from our usual segments. If you are not bashful and have been to a similar store, please feel free to share your experience. And, if we offended you, you can let us know.
Secondary characters are often critical to a book's success. Whether we're talking about parents, in-laws, friends, or villains, these characters add color and texture to most stories. Can you think of some Central Casting characters to add to what Colleen presented? Are there some types she missed altogether? Can you think of some additional examples of the stock characters that Colleen described? When did these characters add to your enjoyment of the story? Are there some books where these characters took away from your enjoyment of the story? Please share book titles and reasons with us.

In conjunction with Carrie Alexander, Ellen Micheletti, Claudia Terrones, and Colleen McMahon

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