Write Byte

The Allure of Romantic Suspense

(November 24, 1997)

When Susan Andersen recently joined Aarlist, I was thrilled. I had briefly met her at the national RWA conference in Dallas in 1996, and looked forward to getting to know her further. I wrote to her, reintroducing myself, and we traded e-mails back and forth about my calling card still being in her caddy "thingamabob". We both enjoyed the irony of two women who write using terminology such as "thingamabob" and "dohicky" (it's a woman thing, don't you think?), and then got down to business.

I asked Susan to talk about the books she writes - romantic suspense. I wanted to know if she could address the fact that editors are now telling authors not to send them romantic suspense novels as the market is glutted. I asked if there was a ratio between romance and suspense that was a general rule or something she adhered to. But, most of all, I wanted to know what attracted her to the sub-genre, and how she makes her books sizzle.

Here is what she had to say:

"I don't care what people say - Romantic Suspense is here to stay." Can this kid belt out a tune, or what? Okay, I know it's supposed to be 'rock 'n roll is here to stay', but let's not get sidetracked by my inability to keep one little dynamite quote straight. Let's talk about a genre whose appeal will never die.

I discovered romantic suspense on the mahogany bookshelves in my parents' house when I was about twelve years old. Madam, Will You Talk? was the very first book I read by Mary Stewart, and it was love at first page. She occupied entire blocks of my free time from that point onward; for her I would have even cleaned my room, and this is not a negligible sacrifice I'm talkin' about here - just ask my mother. And the titles! This Rough Magic; Nine Coaches Waiting; Wildfire at Midnight. Clearly the naysayers in marketing were a smaller, less vocal presence in those days, or perhaps they were simply more willing to credit the reading public with intelligence. Ms Stewart was the queen of my life back then, but there was an entire coterie of runners up: Charlotte Armstrong, Celia Fremlin, T.E. Huff - and we haven't even begun to discuss the gothic authors yet.

But you probably don't give a rip who I used to read. You just want the skinny on today's market, am I right? Word out on the street has it that editors don't want to see any more romantic suspense these days. Too many writers are apparently turning to it to plump up their plots. I doubt anybody disputes the fact that readers love romantic suspense (RS). But it's a balancing act to keep the romance from being overwhelmed by the suspense and still have it remain a romance. Let's face it, that is what editors of the genre are in the business of buying. Few authors balance all the elements well, especially when you throw red-hot sex into the mix, but - oh, mama - those who do, do it really, really well. Anne Stuart. Rachel Lee. Nora Roberts. Linda Howard. I doubt editors are going to be turning down proposals from these women. Nor, I suspect, will they turn down a talented new voice with a unique story to tell, just because it happens to be RS. This genre is not a passing trend; it's been around for ages. Remember Jane Eyre, boys and girls? But there is that all-important balance to be considered.

Finding it can be tricky. I was recently asked what the appropriate percentage in romantic suspense should be - 60/40, 70/30? The truth is, I don't have a clue. There probably isn't a hard and fast rule to cover this. But if you look at my sampling of successful authors who handle this genre well, I think you'll agree that the main thrust of their books is the romance. And romance for me begins and end with its characters. Give me a hero and heroine I care about passionately, and I'll keep turning those pages and resent every interruption that prevents me from making sure they're going to end up safe and together. If the writer errs on the side of suspense at the expense of the characters' thoughts and emotions, I imagine her readers will begin to stay away in droves - at least if the book is being marketed as a romance. If you're buying a Tami Hoag thriller, on the other hand, that's a different story. Your expectations change - and in the case of a mainstream suspense the romance is only expected to be a portion of the overall plot.

Romantic suspense is an enormously difficult genre to market effectively. I talked to Ellen Edwards about this once and she said if she owned her own bookstore, she would shelve RS in both the romance and mystery/suspense sections to capture the widest possible readership. But, she added, she doesn't own a bookstore and shelf space is at a premium, so a choice must be made. And since she was the Executive Editor of Romance at Avon at the time, one guess as to what her choice was going to be. Then there's the matter of covers, back blurbs, and first-page teasers. As the queen of bad covers, I know from whence I speak when I tell you the wrong "look" can land your book in a section of the store where your audience will never think to look for you.

I've always weighed in heavily on the romance side of the scale in my own writing, which is one reason I'm so tickled to have connected up with Avon, who is marketing me as a romance writer. I think there's something endlessly fascinating about exploring the developing relationship between a man and a woman. The suspense in my books is often the catalyst that brings my hero and heroine together and at the same time prevents them from finding immediate happiness. It was recently pointed out to me that I mostly write cop heros, and although I hadn't made the connection before, it's true. There's just something about tough, dominant, authoritative men that punches my hot button, I guess. I love to pit them against equally strong-willed women who manage to save themselves in the end and tame their guys, to boot, in the process. Which is not to say I don't love to read about an anti-hero who's determined that his interests lie strictly with ol' Number One . . . and then when it comes right down to it, can't prevent himself from risking his own neck to rescue the gentle heroine.

Like romance itself, there are genres within genres in romantic suspense, and nine-tenths of them have something absolutely wonderful to recommend them. But simply defining the term can be confusing. A lot of people think suspense and mystery are synonymous, yet they aren't necessarily the same thing. I personally subscribe to the Alfred Hitchcock school of suspense. He once said something along the lines of, "It's not figuring out who done it. . . it's waiting for that other shoe to drop.' I like revealing my villain to the readers even though the protagonists don't know who he is. Others prefer to keep the reader guessing up to the end. Then there's that Stranger-In-the-Dark-Looking-In thing. I think it was Celia Fremlin who did a book about a couple of school girls who entertained themselves by calling up random numbers and saying, "I know who you are, I saw what you did." They played the game one time too often and called the wrong person. . .whereupon they found themselves thrust into the midst of a terrifying ordeal. Her books most likely wouldn't be considered romantic suspense by today's standards, but when it came to suspense as opposed to mystery, she typified that edgy, nail biting, oh-God-don't-let-him-get-her chill 'n thrill read that I find much more exciting than straight mystery.

My, oh, my, does this kid ramble on, or what? Well, shoot me - it's an interesting subject. And the ultimate question, I suppose, is: When all is said and done, do I foresee myself continuing to write in this awkward, bastard step-child genre we call romantic suspense?

Oh, you betcha. "I don't care what people say - Romantic Suspense is here to stay."

Susan Andersen

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