Today we're thrilled to be joined with Manda Collins (Ready, Set, Rogue) who always infuses an element of mystery into her novels. She's here today to break down all the elements that make for the balance between romance and suspense that makes us love romantic suspense. Thanks, Manda!
ONCE UPON A STORY…
There’s a theory of fiction writing that every author has what’s called a “core story,” present in everything they write. Mine is—not surprisingly give how my books blend historical romance with suspense—a combination of a few core threads: partnership, rescue, protection and acceptance.
All of my books focus on a Hero and Heroine working together (PARTNERSHIP) to find someone/solve a mystery (INVESTIGATION) while they take turns looking after one another (PROTECTOR) and one of them—usually the heroine—finds the place where she feels at home (ACCEPTANCE).
I think it’s safe to say that all Romantic Suspense novels are built on a foundation of the INVESTIGATION + PARTNERSHIP + PROTECTOR core stories, which is, not coincidentally what I write. (The ACCEPTANCE THING is my own particular baggage added to the mix.) This combination isn’t always RS, but RS always has these elements.
Step into my parlor and I’ll give you some examples… (Look, I’m a historical author, of course I have a parlor! A metaphorical one anyway.)
Naming Investigation as one of the key elements of a romantic suspense novel is something akin to declaring that water is wet and snow is cold. But, when you’re talking genre constraints, it’s necessary to declare the obvious sometimes. Like saying romance has to have, uh, romance in it.
Nevertheless, investigation is the main thing that sets RS apart from just straight up character driven romance. Is it possible for the latter to have a mystery that needs to be solved in it? Of course. But a straight romance can generally stand alone without it. Not so with RS. If there’s no suspense, then the rest of the novel falls apart. It touches every part of the story.
In Karen Rose’s You Can't Hide, Chicago PD Detective Aidan Reagan and Psychiatrist Tess Ciccotelli must work together to find out who’s been stalking her and putting her life in danger. Not only does the stalker plot spur their first meeting, it gives them a reason to keep on seeing each other, and working together throughout the book. Could they just go on some dates and fall in love without it? Probably, but that would be another book, and one that wouldn’t serve the needs of these characters as well as the stalker plot does. Tess and her own guilt over her patient who’s murdered by the stalker, and Aidan’s sense of duty as a cop are tied up in the unfolding of the story. The Investigation is the glue that binds the characters, and the story, together.
Obviously partnership is a key factor in most romance—after all, the hero and heroine spend the whole of the book cementing a partnership that will end with them at either a Happy For Now or Happily Ever After. But when I speak of partnership in Romantic Suspense, it’s of the hero and heroine working together toward a common goal that is NOT their own HEA. It might be the solution to a mystery, or the capture of a bad guy, but it’s external from their own romantic relationship. Though it might, and should be something that allows them to work toward their own commitment to one another in the process.
For example, in Laura Griffin’s Deep Dark, Austin Police Detective Reed Novak and White Hat Hacker Lainey Knox meet and must work together to find out who is murdering young women based on their dating profiles. This is their reason for partnering up—Lainey has specialized knowledge of the cyber world and cybercrime that Reed needs to put the puzzle together, and Reed, as a member of the APD, and privy to inside information about the cases, has information Lainey needs to do the same. And as they negotiate the rules of their working partnership—what information to share, what information to hold back, and what information they owe to one another—they are also negotiating the details of their romantic relationship. And there are overlaps between the two, like Reed’s awareness of their age difference, and Lainey’s inherent distrust of the police because of her hacker background. And the intertwining of these partnership conflicts make the story richer and their HEA stronger when it comes.
The protector thread is another one that seems like a given in RS, because, let’s face it: where there’s danger, there’s gotta be a protector because otherwise the danger wins. The key to the Protector in RS is what he or she is protecting against. In a straight contemporary romance, the Protector could be a heroine shielding the hero from the disdain of his estranged family, or a hero hiding an actress heroine from the paparazzi. In RS the threat is more dangerous and often, life-threatening.
There’s a reason why so many Romantic Suspense protagonists come from either a Law Enforcement or Military environment. It’s in the job description to protect, for heaven’s sake. And though traditional gender roles suggest that the Protector is usually the hero—especially when the threat is physical danger—some of my favorite Romantic Suspense authors use this theme to show that it’s not about gender so much as training, inclination and duty—which are genderless.
FBI Special Agent Elizabeth LeBlanc and Navy Seal Derek Vaugh, the hero and heroine of Griffin’s Beyond Limits are both Protectors by profession. But part of what makes their story interesting is the way that they negotiate the role of Protector within their partnership, sometimes with Elizabeth protecting Derek and sometimes with Derek protecting Elizabeth, and both of them always trying to protect the public.
Whether you’re a fan of Romantic Suspense, or you prefer your romance without a lot of danger and derring-do, the idea of core story is one that can help authors and readers better understand the books they prefer and why they prefer them. In my own writing, knowing what themes I—sometimes unconsciously—return to again and again when I tell stories, let’s me know which projects will suit me and which won’t. For you, the reader, knowing what themes you gravitate to can mean the difference between a read that goes on your keeper shelf and a DNF.
Take a look at your top twenty favorite books. See any commonalities beyond genre and subgenre? Themes that cross subgenres? Elements that go deeper than tropes? You’ve got everything you need to find your own core story!
Learn more about or order a copy of Ready Set Rogue by Manda Collins, available now:
Manda Collins grew up on a combination of Nancy Drew books and Jane Austen novels, and her own brand of Regency romantic suspense is the result. An academic librarian by day, she investigates the mysteries of undergraduate research at her alma mater, and holds advanced degrees in English Lit and Librarianship. Her debut novel, How to Dance with a Duke spent five weeks on the Nielsen Bookscan Romance Top 100 list, was nominated for an RT Reviewer's Choice Award for best debut historical romance, and finaled in the Gayle Wilson Award of Excellence contest. Both How to Entice an Earl and Why Dukes Say I Do were selected for inclusion in Eloisa James's Reading Romance column. She has been reviewed in Booklist, Publisher's Weekly, RT Book Reviews, and USA Today.
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