Issue #99 (August 1, 2000)

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Welcome to At the Back Fence! This is one of my favorite yearly issues in that I get to announce the winner of our annual Purple Prose Parody Contest. We'll also be discussing a subject that anyone who regularly reads romance will be familiar with - the Big Misunderstanding (or "BM," which should let you know how I often feel about this over-used plot device!). Why juxtapose the Purple Prose Parody with the Big Misunderstanding? I think they go hand in hand myself!

Y2K Purple Prose Parody Contest:
This year we conducted our fourth annual PPP Contest. Although it took some cajoling on my part, we had more entries than ever before. Frankly, when I received the first one, I figured it was a done deal and that everyone would be too intimidated to try to compete with it. Tina Engler's homage to Robin Schone, one of her favorite authors, in the parody entitled The Spinster's Tutor, was brilliant. In fact, when author Marsha Canham, winner of the first year's PPP Contest weighed in with her comments on this year's crop, she wrote, in part, "I read The Spinster's Tutor. All those farking single line sentences drove me batty, along with calling the guy the Bastard Shiek every other paragraph. It was quite brilliantly done, and very professional." Marsha, btw, did not vote for this parody.

Raelene commented that Tina did such a "wonderful job parodying the original author's style, combining references to two of her books," that I realized I had made an error when I referenced it only as an author homage. In fact, it is both an author homage and a merge-matic parody, combining, in part, the themes of The Lady's Tutor and The Lover.

I can remember discussing Schone earlier this year with my At the Back Fence co-columnist, Robin Uncapher, who is a tremendous Schone fan, when the author "won" the dubious honor of most purple prose in our yearly reader poll for 1999. Why had Schone won, I asked, when her love scenes were not nearly as purple as many other authors? When Tina's entry came in with the repetitious and melodramatic phrasing, short sentences that were even shorter paragraphs, I realized that, however exaggerated the parody, I had my answer. Robin concurred.

This also illustrates just why this contest is such fun year after year. Only someone who truly loves the writing, the authors, can so cleverly skewer these excesses without coming across as mean-spirited. To craft with such care these parodies is a remarkable thing to witness every year, even if this year perhaps some of the entries were a bit excessive. I think next year I'll have a word limit - what do you all think?

Competition was very high this year; the caliber of the entries has gotten better as the contest has matured. The writing is often so good, in fact, that we've used past entries to flesh out our writing staff - our managing editor, Blythe Barnhill, current reviewer Mary Ann Lien, and one-time reviewer Kate Smith (soon to have her first Avon-published historical romance released) all came to us from the 1998 contest. Candy Tan and Claudia Terrones both became reviewers after last year's contest. Claudia, quite a prolific reviewer, was actually the winner for last year, although her entry was considered controversial since she killed off the heroine in a macabre love scene.

For many voters, the final decision was a difficult one. Rita, for instance, thought Pansy and Brent from our own Jennifer Keirans' entry was "truly hilarious," but since she most loves historical romance, she voted for the Robin Schone parody. Vanessa also voted for Tina's Robin Schone parody. She wrote, in part, "I nearly fell out of my chair laughing at the words, 'rising like a beast of prey from its nest of dark curls' and how 'it' pulsed with her heartbeat." For Kim, it was the heroine's pouch belly that sold her on Tina's entry. And while our own Blythe loved (as I did) the name of Candy's hero, laughed "like a 13-year-old boy" at the characters' names such as Haywood Jublowmi in Shirley U. Gueste's parody, and wanted especially to mention how Carrie Lynn managed to include her own pet peeve about pet wolves, she thought the funniest parody of this year - or any year - was Tina's. She wrote:

"I laughed.

"And laughed.

"Laughed like a reviewer who has read Schone.

"Laughed."

Carrie Lynn, whose entry in the contest was dedicated to other readers who prowl our Message Boards, agreed with Blythe, who entered as well this year, in believing Tina's parody was best. She wrote that "it was the essence of parody - taking pieces of Schone's work to a ridiculous, but completely logical, level. She added, "I only wish I knew more Schone fans who would get it so we could laugh together. Plus it was funny as hell."

A Silhouette series author we'll identify only as Gail added her kudos as well. She wrote, "While Kathleen Panov's entry had me giggling at her four-four waltz time, and Jennifer Keirans' ending was absolutely hilarious, they just couldn't top Tina Engler's gimpy, pockmarked, aging spinster and half-Arab bastard Lord. . .The repetition became hilarious."

Diana too had a hard time choosing between entries. While she loved Sherry Thomas' High Pluto Orbit and found it the most purple of all the entries, Tina's "clever and deadly" use of cliches won her over. In particular, she found Tina's description of the "'avenging one-eyed god of death and destruction . . . growing another Six inches' at Virginia's plea to 'show me what I've missed all these years" to be hilarious.

All the parodies received this year were clever in some way. Shirley U. Gueste and Oliver Klosov both earned points with me just for those go-ahead-say-them-out-loud names that remind me of the horrible puns my husband loves to make. Jennifer's entry tickled my funny bone with her metaphors, especially those nipple-related ones such as:

"The cold in the freezer made her nipples stand to attention like tiny, alert soldiers, skirmishing with the clinging material of her sports bra. . . Pansy couldn't help but notice that his nipples, too, were erect, like those tiny thermometers that come in turkeys, declaring that the bird is ready to go."
And, perhaps I am as breast-fixated as half the heroes I read, but when I read, "her oh-so-sensitive breasts were flattened against his chest like Twinkies against a brick wall," I practically peed in my pants. Of course, the "I think my tung'th thtuck" ending of Jennifer's parody was sublime. Marsha Canham's email on the day it was posted simply said, "Oh gawd, I just spewed coffee all over my damned lap! What a riot!"

Carrie Lynn's parody proves my theory that no one in a romance novel has "brown" eyes, or any plain color. Here are my favorite snippets from her entry:

  • "Her pulsing purple eyes gleamed with lust. Or maybe they were violently violet? NoÖ longingly lavender."
  • "My name is Julie, not Darliní, so stop calling me that."
  • "Could you please finish a Goddamn sentence without pausing all the freaking the time?"
  • "My nipples are not pert or puckered for you - itís frigginí cold out here you moron. And stop talking in those annoying alliterations!Ē

Kathleen Panov's Perdita Poorwhit earned the top nod from Marsha Canham. She wrote:

"I loved Perdita Poorwhit. The anachronisms were liberally salted through the story. I was particularly fond of the run-on sentences too: 'Angered because he was correct, that she could not forget the night he brought her to ecstasy seventeen times before they both succumbed to an exhausted slumber, she stamped her foot, her porcelain orbs heaving with indignation.' And the metaphors! 'let me lick you until your cries of desire echo like the wolf that bays at the moon.' <g> The excellence of this year's entries just make my initial win all the more meaningful."

That first phrase Marsha noticed was one I noted myself, albeit for different reasons. It was the seventeen times and heaving orbs that got my attention. At first I thought it was Perdita's eyes that were porcelain, but eyes don't heave. . .do they? And who could forget the "SLAMSLAMslamslamslam" and "CRASHCRASHcrashcrashcrash" of hearts and doors? Dee certainly couldn't; she loved Perdita (and Norman), and their horrible romance names. Can Melvin and Bertha be far behind? For Patricia, though, it was "the image of Perdita and Norman boinking like frustrated bunnies whose little paws were scratching the cage was priceless."

High Pluto Orbit was the third choice among our voters, although a couple mentioned the parody was somewhat too long. The creative use of purple prose such as the rippling muscles, heaving breasts, hot cylinders of male arousal, dewy petals of female flowers, fervid embraces, the shrill 'sszzz' of silks and satins, large arrogant hands, and the mass destruction of historical undergarments" was enough for me. When added with the inventive concept of the story itself, I had to agree with the Candidate, who "couldn't get enough of his eloquent verbosity and his passionate euphemisms." And when she said to Rorik, "Oh, do possess me, my demigod, drown me in the flood of your fervent words," I was a goner.

That purple prose was the Official Language of the futuristic Alliance was appealing to many readers, including Michelle and Cheryl. Wrote Christina, "This has been a tough decision. But ultimately I think I have to go with Sherry Thomas' "High Pluto Orbit" as my choice. Just the thought that purple prose would be so exalted by a superior and spacefaring race is a very entertaining premise. And of course, the underlying theme that romance readers will take over the world is a very satisfying one"

Robin's entry really knocked me out - it takes all the Mail Order Bride romances I truly adore and turned them upside down. "Jebediah rolled and considered his swollen manhood. No doubt about it. He was in love." - indeed! Cheryl loved Robin's ending too. She wrote, "I loved the role-reversal and especially the ending leaving Jebediah unsatisfied but in love." Our own Teresa wrote of Robin's entry, "My favorite has to be Robin's Mail-Order Groom for the marvelous way it turns the stereotype on its head. The parody works so much better with a groom rather than a bride and thus illustrates how silly the typical mail-order bride scenario really is. And it's hilarious to boot!!

Our own Blythe Barnhill's time travel adventure into historic Scotland came in second place - given the current popularity of Suzanne Brockmann's Tall, Dark, & Dangerous mini-series, Blythe's SEAL reference sealed the deal for many readers. As for me, anyone using "flat male nipple" gets automatic kudos. Add to those things the brogue and lines like "He was part Jamie Fraser look-alike, and part Disney character," and you can see how deftly Blythe included not only many romance staples, but beloved characters and settings as well. Janice surely agreed, writing, "I can't say enough about an author who recognizes and is willing to pander to her audience."

Chris Nistler's Cream Lover parody, written as an homage to Virginia Henley proves that Virginia Henley fans have a sense of humor. As for Christine Peterson and her IRS audit, this was another bold and inventive idea. Those sensible shoes, the clueless alpha hero with his horrible innuendo, and the deliberate errors that all too many copy editors seem to miss these days were wonderful. My favorite lines from Christine's entry were:

  • "What was happening to her? She was not a harlot, a hussy , a woman of questionable morals. But this man made her feel like a sleazy, hot blooded whore with no dental plan."
  • "His roguish tongue spelunking in the uncharted cavern of her mouth."

A Twist to the Tryst at the Twisted Trellis by "Shirley U. Gueste" would win as my "best of worst," if there were such an award. The double entendres and innuendo-filled names of Dick, Woody, Haywood Jablowmi, and Wilhemina Maakeme were so bad they were good, and the disappointment of poor Wilhemina was priceless. As Karen wrote, "the play on words made me laugh harder than any of the others. The purple prose was excellent and the ending was so unexpected!" Barbara agreed, writing:

"The sagacious, saporous and savory saga of the buxom beauty Wilhe Maakme and her handsome, hugely-hung hero, Haywood Jablowmi titled A Twist to the Tryst at the Twisted Trellis or Prelude to Mr. Right, wryly written and sagely scribed by Shirley U. Gueste is my perspicacious, personal pick to win. IMHO, said steamy, stupendous story ranks as the most prurient and passionate of the entries and is perhaps the purplest prose I have ever perused."

Teresa Cooper's Anger Lost, Passion Found created quite a mental picture in my mind when I read the following tongue-in-check bit of dialogue of what the heroine would do if her hero displayed his "assets" in public after he has forbidden her to go out in a low-cut gown:

"Charlotte declared, 'Why, I will simply interrupt any conversation you are having by reaching down, and grasping these perfectly matched jewels. Then I would inform whomever you are speaking with, that this is private property.' Squeezing gently, Charlotte continued, 'And, as such, should not be on display like a cheap bauble in a shopkeeperís window. We will then walk around hand to jewels, until we leave the ball.'"

The hero in Candy Tan's entry has a name so long and convoluted that I read it to five people the first day I received it. Even people who'd never read a romance thought it was hysterical. And as funny as the name "White-Winged-Albatross-Sailing-Gracefully-Oíer -The-Ever-Eddying-Currents-Of-The-Eternal-Air-And-Sky-While-Looking-For-Di nner-(Most-Probably-Fish-Again-But-Heíll-Take-What-He-Can-Get)" is, I also loved the ever-changing spelling of the heroine's name and her nickname of "Woman-With-Hair-Like Gold-Cotton Candy." Some of Candy's dialogue charmed readers, like Mary, who wrote in about her own favorite line: "My meaty sausage of passion hungers for your hot dog bun of love." And though Christina did vote for Sherry Thomas wearing her reader's hat, she found Candy's Savage Lighthouse Keeper to be the most entertaining as a critic. She wrote, in part, that, "It seems to me Ms. Tan admirably captured the flavor of those books, and then melded it very well with and ending so incredibly ridiculous (she dies from making love with him, for Christs' sake!) it could only be a parody of a bad mainstream fiction novel trying to be profound."

Finally, there was The Rancher, The Redhead, and the Rugrat, as co-written by Catherine Witmer and Charlene Lokey. Wasn't it inspiring to see all those over-done plot elements in one place? If the cowboy and baby weren't enough, there was also the feisty red-headed heroine. Between those things and a yak named Peaches, the Rosemary's Baby/vampire hybrid really hit the spot. It did for Rita as well. She wrote, "My vote is for The Rancher, The Redhead, and the Rugrat. It covered all the subjects I have grown so tired of; "found"babies, lonely ranchers, and "fiery"redheads. The twist about the vampire baby was hilarious, as love vampire books!"

As pleased as I am, and most of our readers were as well, in this year's contest, and as pleased as I am to announce Tina Engler as the winner (she'll be picking her choice of two author-autographed books from our Reader Give-Away page), there will need to be some changes in next year's contest. While four years have brought many fabulous entries, each year has seen longer and more outrageous entries - are some perhaps too long and too outrageous? Please let me know what you'd like to see in next year's contest, and remember that later in this year we'll do our Reviews Parody Contest again.

To sum up the final tally, Tina Engler is our grand prize winner. Blythe Barnhill is the first runner-up, Sherry Thomas is the second runner-up, and Candy Tan tied with "Shirley U. Gueste" for third runner-up. Nearly all the entries received some votes, and, for the first year ever, my own choice matched other voters.

I'd like to thank all those who put themselves out there in submitting entries, and I'd also like to extend a special kudo to those talented reviewers who showed their creativity and humor.

The Big Misunderstanding

Youíve seen it in novels time and time again. The hero and heroine are moving along in their relationship just fine, and wham! One sees something or hears something that makes them distrust the other - and they wonít say what it is. The other is left in the dark to figure it out. Often, the explanation is a simple one that could clear the problem up right away if the two characters would sit down and just talk to each other. This can last for a good portion of the book. This is what we call the Big Misunderstanding.

The Big Misunderstanding is one of my pet peeves, and many readers share my frustration. In this segment, youíll find some discussion on different aspects of the Big Misunderstanding (abbreviated as the Big Mis rather than BM for obvious reasons) and several comments from readers, fellow reviewers and authors.

Why Do Authors Use the Big Mis?
Why do authors use the Big Mis? It's a standard method for developing conflict, obviously, and for stretching out the drama of a love relationship. But how can it be a good conflict when it makes many readers want to scream? The hero or heroine who refuses to state the problem can become unsympathetic to the reader, and, if itís taken too far, stupid as well. I just finished a book that could easily have turned into a Big Mis but didnít, The Trickster by Kathleen Nance. Iíll use it as an example. The hero and heroine had been in love in high school. He graduated first and promised to come back on her graduation night. He didnít, she never tried to find him, and on they went with their lives. When they met up again, they didnít wait too long to actually talk about it. What an unusual notion!

Several readers and reviewers feel the same way. They bring up different aspects of the Big Mis that annoy them.

For our own Marianne Stillings, "they are a cheap ploy to keep a story going when the writer can't think of anything original to keep it going; it's a sure sign of poor writing. They most often could easily be solved with a little open communication. 'Did you?' 'No, it wasn't me.' 'Oh. Okay. Never mind. The End.Ē

I wanted an authorís point of view, so I wrote to Gina Wilkins. I recently read one of her Harlequin Temptations, Seductively Yours, that uses a misunderstanding between the characters. It wasnít a big misunderstanding, it was part of a bigger issue. It bothered me that the hero bought into the misunderstanding, but since he acknowledged it fairly early, I didn't mind as much as I normally would have. Hereís Gina's take on the Big Mis:

"ďI think any plot device can work if it's done with skill and originality. Granted, this is a tough one to pull off. Nothing exasperates me more than a book in which one question asked would have settled the entire conflict. But misunderstandings? Misinterpretations? Miscommunications? All happen every day in real life, so why not in books?

"The trick is that the Big Mis should be a part of the overall conflict, IMO, not the main conflict. For example, in Seductively Yours, Trevor briefly believed the gossip about Jamie because it fed into the baggage and fears he'd already been battling. The trust wasn't quite there yet. The books that make me crazy are the ones in which the h/h already have a wonderful, close relationship that seems destined to lead to an HEA, and then one of them hears something, believes it without hesitation, refuses to ask the other for the truth, breaks off the relationship to the devastation of the other person, then finds out the truth and all is magically forgiven. Grrrr. Again, it would take a very skilled author to pull this off without me throwing the book against a wall.

"It probably would be somewhat easier to do it in a humorous setting (she thinks he's married and/or gay, he thinks she's engaged/ married/gold digger) but even then it takes more than the Big Mis to carry a conflict, or a book. It takes extremely strong characterization to make that humorous twist work well."

Gina clearly has a point here, because reader Jody also believes the Big Mis works best as a comic device. She wrote:

"It's hard to use this plot and have the characters be taken seriously. Since the two main characters in the story are expected to behave like real people, big misunderstandings are not usually believable. Readers like the heroes and heroines to be true to life and (by the end, at least) admirable. People do get the weirdest ideas about one another in their heads and are not always mature enough to talk about it, so big misunderstandings are not entirely implausible. But readers do not appreciate it when a contrived and annoying big misunderstanding is the central force behind the plot, with the two main characters hating each other and boinking all the while."

Iíve read and enjoyed several of Andrea Kaneís books. One reason hers are favorites is that the hero and heroine come together early in the book and work together to solve the outside conflict. Although she talked with AAR in 1998 about the subject (see her Write Byte on Conflict in Romance, I wanted to see if her position had changed since then. Hereís what she has to say today about the Big Mis:

"I agree that misunderstandings breach trust between the protagonists. I'm a big fan of external rather than internal conflict, which makes the characters draw together rather than apart. It's all a matter of taste. Personally, I'm not a big fan of any contrived plot devices. I like to see characters come together naturally and to like, as well as love, each other."

Why Does It Get Under Our Skin So Much?
The Big Mis drives me nuts because it could so often be resolved with a simple conversation. I donít believe real people avoid conflict this much. Or, if they do, they might talk to a friend or someone else about it. In too many romances, it simply has a manufactured feel about it.

AAR Reviewer Jennifer Keirans agrees. She said it is often a very artificial plot device only there to prolong the conflict between the hero and heroine. She added, "It's as if the author thinks, 'Okay, this manuscript is only one hundred and sixty pages long, and my characters have run out of things to argue about. Therefore, I will have the heroine see the hero embracing a beautiful woman with long red hair, and she'll assume that he's sleeping with her, but actually she's his long-lost sister visiting from Duluth.'"

Jennifer and I both believe that, nine times out of ten, "only very stupid characters get into this situation." How many romances fail to feature that "two-minute conversation they need to have to clear the matter up?" How many feature the hero or heroine who fails to defend him/herself? What Jennifer finds perhaps most obnoxious is "the character (usually the heroine), who is so indignant at the accusations that she deliberately perpetuates them. ('Yes! You're so right, Brad. I have been having an affair with my boss, and let me tell you, Mr. Pertinowski is better in bed than you are!')"

Jennifer added that this type of action grows out of plotting necessity and not character. Hasn't the author been telling us all along, she wondered, how intelligent and resourceful the characters are, only to have them "behave like complete nitwits?"

Jennifer's ideas on the Big Mis are echoed by reader Donna, who hates this type of plot. She wrote, "They always seem contrived to me, and the hero and heroine usually wind up looking like idiots. I think the reason I dislike them so much is I always wonder how they can really be in love if they can't trust one another enough to discuss whatever the misunderstanding is about."

Trust is of major consequence in romances with a Big Mis storyline. If these characters trusted each other, wouldn't they believe in each other? This does not bode well for a relationship. AAR Reviewer Lori-Anne Cohen concurs. For her, the Big Mis shows not only a lack of trust, but a lack of maturity. How could these people fall in love but still believe the worst about the other? Lori-Anne has a difficult time believing there will be an HEA for characters like this. On this, April agrees as well. She stated, "A Big Misunderstanding shows a major flaw in the love relationship between the couple." Deirdre piped in as well, adding, "If they don't talk when dating it makes you wonder if they will ever talk when the relationship is more settled and less flexible."

Who Uses The Big Mis?
When I solicited names of authors who use this device, I found something interesting. Very few people could name a specific author or book using the Big Mis, and when they could, it was often only one title. What's behind this misunderstanding amnesia? For me it's that the Big Mis is such a pet peeve Iíve traded in and forgotten most books that use this device.

One name who came up quite often was Judith McNaught. She happens to be one of my favorite authors, but she does tend to favor this device. One my favorite books, Whitney, My Love, features several misunderstandings as Whitney and Clayton come together, and one whopper leads Clayton to behave in a manner many find objectionable. The writing and the plot engaged me so completely that I count the book as one of my all-time favorites. I like to believe that this final misunderstanding taught them something. Besides - Judith McNaught has her heroes repent long and well, and that includes Clayton.

Another McNaught book with a Big Misunderstanding, more than one actually, is Paradise, and yet this book worked for my colleague, Jennifer. Here's why:

"In Paradise, Matt and Meredith have a fling, she gets pregnant, they get married, and he goes to South America to work on oil wells or something. While he's gone she loses the baby. Her dear old dad tells Matt that she had an abortion and wants a divorce and lets Meredith think that Matt wants a divorce because she lost the baby. The two spend about half the book (and several years of their lives) believing horrible things about each other, and it's definitely a Big Misunderstanding. It's the central conflict of the book.

"In this situation it works, because Matt and Meredith tried to communicate with each other, tried to work it out. A third party interrupted their communication and succeeded in keeping them from talking for several years, by which time their rancor was firmly established. I thought the book was a great success.Ē

For AAR Managing Editor Blythe Barnhill, Mary Balogh is not only a favorite author, she's a big offender. She points to Secrets of the Heart as belonging in the Stupid Misunderstanding Hall of Fame. The worst Big Mis book Blythe's ever read? Cyber Bride by Annette Couch-Jareb. What's so bad about it? The hero is told that the heroine is married to a man named Harry, when Harry is actually her grandfather and spends the entire book believing it - every time she tells someone that Harry is her grandfather, the hero has conveniently stepped out of the room. For Blythe, "it was so entirely stupid that it completely boggled my mind.".

Blythe has more issues with Secrets of the Heart than colleague Anne Marble does. She argued, "It's quite logical that a man from the Regency era would react that way if his wife weren't a virgin. Logical, yes - pleasant, no (okay, he was a jerk). What made the book most believable to me was the fact that the heroine was afraid to tell him who had raped her because she didn't realize she was a victim. That made much more sense than the hero's behavior - divorcing and shaming her."

When Does it Work? When Does it Not?
Reader Robin finds that some big misunderstandings can be handled well. She points to Princess Charming by Jane Heller, in which the divorced heroine accidently discovers that a hit man on her cruise ship is planning to kill someone's ex-wife. While snooping into the hero's wallet, she finds evidence that contradicts what he's told her about himself. For Robin, the heroine's reaction seemed justfied, particularly since it was played for laughs and it was in the heroine's character to be somewhat paranoid.

On the other hand, the Big Mis can fail, as it did in Diana Palmer's Heart of Ice, according to Anne. The hero definitely made an ass-of-you-and-me by ass/u/me-ing that the heroine is a slut because she writes romance novels. Anne went on to speculate what a different author could do with a Big Mis by comparing and contrasting what Diana Palmer would have done with the storyline Adele Ashworth presented in My Darling Caroline: "You want to study botany?! Then you must be a slut!"

Big-name authors such as Palmer seem to be known for their Big Mis plots, but Judith McNaught and Linda Howard are known for this as well. Many readers seem able to "forgive" both McNaught and Howard these excesses, but not always, and not everyone.

My Conclusions:
Big Misunderstandings certainly undermine trust, but they can sometimes work as a necessary turning point in a relationship. The last huge misunderstanding in Whitney, My Love finally illustrates to Clayton that he has been a complete ass. After reading (and re-reading) it, I was hopeful that both Whitney and Clayton learned to talk to each other about things.

Misunderstandings can work as a small part of a bigger problem (but they can still be irritating). If the reasons are good enough, they can be understood. Iíd still prefer not to see them in the plot, but in the hands of the right author, theyíre okay. Letís hear from the rest of you readers now!

On What She Said (by Robin Nixon Uncapher):
I was delighted by Gina Wilkens' comment that The Big Misunderstanding may be most successful in comedic plots. I think she is absolutely right, though I don't think I would have noticed it without her help.

Barbara Metzger's Snowdrops and Scandalbroth has an absolutely delicious one. The hero, Courtney Choate, Viscount Chase, is a virgin and is determined to remain one until marriage. As a result he refrains from all those rakey habits that Regency Romance writers hold near and dear. He doesn't have a mistress, go to brothels, or have affairs with married women. Unfortunately, his virtuous behavior has been interpreted by the ton as meaning that he isn't interested in women. A rumor circulates that Courtney was um... "wounded in the war," and as a result, nobody wants him for a husband. What makes this hilarious is that this man is dying of sexual frustration. He finally hires the heroine, Kathlyn, to pose as his mistress so that he can seem more sinful than he is. Kathlyn has heard the rumors too and they have made her concerned for him. She's worried that he may be overconfident about his ability to perform in bed and she tries to discuss it with him, suggesting that he may be overconfident! I loved it when he tells her that he does know what to do and that every boy who has reached puberty knows what to do!

What I really have a tough time with is when the Big Mis is based on a series of coincidences. To me the granddaddy of all Big Misunderstandings is in Romeo and Juliet. (Listen to me give advice to Shakespeare. Lightning should be striking me any second now.) Nevertheless, the ending of Romeo and Juliet never fails to drive me crazy. It's not that they die. Dying is necessary for the point to be made. It's that they die because they misunderstand the situation. Every time I see the play I hope that Juliet will wake up!

But I don't mind the Big Misunderstanding when its clear why the hero and heroine don't talk about the situation. In Mary Balogh's The Plumed Bonnet, the hero initially believes that the heroine is a lightskirt because of the gaudy hat and cloak she wears. When he discovers his mistake, he has compromised her and offers for her. The heroine is unaware, throughout most of the book, of the misunderstanding. All this made sense to me, for even in today's world a man would have a hard time telling a woman that he had mistaken her for a prostitute.

For whatever reason, I haven't read too many Big Misunderstandings lately. Perhaps they are on the wane? Now the Big Secret is another story. Don't get me started. . . .

On What She Said (by Laurie Likes Books):
I have plenty of comments on the Big Misunderstanding, but Andrea (and Robin too) have made most of them for me, and made them better, I might add. I would like to touch on some aspects you may not have considered. When I think of the Big Mis, my mind automatically jumps to the Big Secret, as these two plot devices often go hand in hand. Immediately, then, my thoughts turn to terms such as "betrayal, escape, virginity, and fidelity" because these are the themes I see occurring most often with the Big Mis.

When my colleagues and I were talking about this topic, Anne Marble mentioned that she is more likely to accept the Big Mis if she can believe the characters have a reason for not sharing secrets. She said, "These stories can be good because you watch the character get caught up in the secrets. They come to a point where they realize they can't tell the truth without destroying the relationship, and in the right hands, this is powerful." What about Mary Jo Putney's Dearly Beloved, Anne wanted to know, and the moment the hero tells the heroine about what happened to him with his mother and you realize it's too late for her to reveal her big secret?

While The Big Secret often goes hand in hand with the Big Misunderstanding, they are not the same, often because the Big Mis isn't even real. Two excellent medievals are Elizabeth Elliott's The Warlord and Catherine Archer's Velvet Bond. Both feature issues of betrayal and trust, but there's a difference between the heroes, who each feel betrayed and lack trust in their heroines, and that difference is that Elliott's heroine is hiding a big secret and Archer's. Where these two particular books are concerned, it makes perhaps a more satisfying moment when Raynor realizes he's been wrong in Velvet Bond than when Kenric learns why Tess is seemingly betraying him in The Warlord, but that's not the point. The point for me is that the Big Secret is not the same as the Big Misunderstanding. Each has worked for me at times, but under different circumstances.

Andrea mentioned that Judith McNaught, Linda Howard, and Diana Palmer often use the Big Mis in their books. Another lead author who relies on this premise is Johanna Lindsey. Lindsey also relies on the Big Secret. In Prisoner of My Desire, there are both premises at work, but the basis of the conflict is a Big Secret - the heroine hasn't told the hero that she's been forced to act as she has in order to protect the life of her mother. In Once a Princess, one of the largest conflicts revolves around the virginity Big Misunderstanding. She is one but he doesn't believe her, and when he discovers the truth (it's not when you think he would either), it's a great moment, as is the "ah-ha" moment in Moonspun Magic by Catherine Coulter. While I can sometimes handle Lindsey's use of the Big Mis, the main reason I don't read Jude Deveraux is because of it - I've tried three times and failed three times out.

For the most part, however, the Big Mis joins purple prose at the top of my list of pet peeves. It often seems an excuse for poor plotting. Can't figure out how to stretch the length of a book or get from point A to point C? Stick in a Big Misunderstanding that would have taken five minutes to resolve if the characters had had an actual conversation.

Another problem with the Big Mis is that it often shows up in romances featuring the "I hate you, let's jump in the sack" style of writing. Some of the best writers don't use much internal conflict between the hero and the heroine because they can show tension and develop an exciting relationship without it. I think it's easier to write a romance based on internal conflict, but it's not always better. And, what better way to create internal conflict than through the Big Mis?

On the other hand, have you ever noticed that some of the most boring books are those without internal conflict between the hero and heroine? Those writers aren't skilled enough to pull it off, and I think most writers know this, and so they end up writing lots of conflict to cover for their lack of skill. Some are brave enough to try it without the internal conflict, but most fail. Many who succeed, not surprisingly, are those who write humorous romances.

The longer I read romance, it seems, the less willing I am to entertain what I used to find entertaining. Many of the misunderstandings that filled the pages of the romances I read and admired years ago would likely seem melodramatic to me now. I agree with those readers/reviewers Andrea spoke with who found the characters involved in these misunderstandings to seem unreal, or, at the very least, immature. I have to disagree with Gina Wilkins on at least one point - it does not happen in real life as it does in many Big Mis romances!

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

In tabulating the votes for the Y2K Purple Prose Parody Contest, we heard from many of you, but by not means in the numbers who actually read some or all of the submissions. What can we do next year to make the contest better? Limit the length? Suggest a different sort of content? All ideas are welcome!
Does it bother any of you that we allow our reviewers to participate in these parody contests? We already had a contingency plan of what to do if one had actually won the contest, but since we do two parody contests a year, and the next one will begin soon, we thought we'd ask!
We are very interested in creating a companion dictionary of Silly Sex to go along with our The Purple Dictionary of Historical Romance. We envision a page that lists that most frequent and/or most annoying phrases of purple prose used in romance novels. Please share those that would be at the top of your own list.
Does the Big Mis drive you nuts? Regardless of whether your answer is yes or no, please share why. Is it because a short conversation would have nipped it in the bud? Maybe, like some of our readers/reviewers, the characters come off looking stubborn, silly, or at worst, stupid? Or perhaps the Big Mis looks plot-driven as opposed to character-driven?
What are the most frequent uses of the Big Mis in your mind? Or, put another way, what issues surround it in the books you've read? Plans of escape? Virginity? Fidelity?
Which books featuring the Big Mis either didn't work at all for you or worked wonderfully, perhaps in spite of or because they contained the Big Mis? Are there authors who tend to rely on the Big Mis? Is this a good or a bad thing, or something which can be both good and bad, depending on the book (or author)? What role does humor play in the Big Mis?
Does the Big Mis seem to be on the wane? If it seems that way to you, could it be because you are consciously choosing books that don't feature it or do you think many authors are writing differently?
Let's compare and contrast the Big Mis and the Big Secret now. Do you like one and not the other? Are both pet peeves? Do you enjoy both? What about when they are combined?

In conjunction with Andrea Pool

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