Romance, Mystery, and the Blues

I will never convince my husband to love romance and cheesy pop music. And he will never convince me to love blues and gritty mystery novels. But the dirty little secret is that we love our genres for the same reason

My husband is a blues musician. He plays piano and Hammond B3 organ. He was trained classically and as a teenager began playing jazz piano, but it wasn’t until he was an adult living in Iowa City and discovered a club called The Metro that he fell in love with blues. When he did, it had the hallmarks of good romance, that twin sense of both surprise and inevitability. Of course: This is what I’ve been waiting for.

He comes by his addiction to mystery genetically: His mother is an addict and she plied him with paperbacks like a dealer offering teaser hits.

My love affair with romance follows a slightly different—but equally familiar path—it’s more of a reconciliation story. My first romance novels, like so many girls’, were Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children books. But soon after that, I discovered Harlequin romance and other books tucked and stashed in my mother’s and other mothers’ bookshelves. It was love, but our families were determined to keep us apart. When I told my novelist mother that I wanted to write romance when I grow up, she told me I couldn’t. I’d hate it, she said. (She was wrooooooooong, but that’s another story.)

College came between me and romance, too, asserting that only literary books were worth reading. So for years in my twenties and early thirties that’s what I read, and if I had a constant sense that I was missing the compelling reading experiences of late childhood and my teenage years, I told myself that that was just how it felt to grow out of Nancy Drew.

Finally a guardian angel of sorts told me to read Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, and I realized that in point of fact, there was another way. And then—well, like every story of reconciliation, there was brow-beating and teeth-gnashing about lost years, and that sense of newness and familiarity … you know the tale.

As for the cheesy pop—I grew up in a classical household; my mother tolerated pop but my father scorned it and I didn’t listen to the radio ‘til I was thirteen. Maybe there was something special about coming into popular music as a young teenager. Maybe I was primed to glom onto the music of the moment and never let it go. Or maybe you can view my entire taste in all art forms as one giant rebellion against my high-brow upbringing. (Or—and this is the most compelling theory as far as I’m concerned—I like cheesy pop music because so much of it is alpha male singers exhorting their innocent girlfriends to say yes to se—I mean love—you know, kinda like romance…)

For both my husband and me, the way we feel about our genres of choice is not one of those happy accidents—it’s part of who we are artistically. We are lovers of form. My husband also writes poetry, mostly poetry whose form is recognizable beneath the flourish.

The beauty of form is that it gives you structure to work within, and your challenge is to do something astonishing and surprising within that structure. In some ways it’s easiest to see this in the blues because it’s such a rigid form, a set, unvarying chord structure. And yet somehow the songs sound different—different beats, different singers, different voices, different styles, different lyrics, different vibes. Like romance, right? One story, but an infinity of variations, and some of the pleasure—if not all of the pleasure—is in the tug of the form on the story’s need to break free.

I love studying the wonky in romance because it’s all about asking the question of how far you can stretch the form before it breaks. At what point is it not a blues song, but something else? Would you be laughed off the stage at the Thursday night blues jam at your local club? Or applauded ‘til your ears rung? Is it romance that makes you laugh, makes you burn, makes you think? Or some Frankenstein that makes someone throw the book across the room? Have you played by some of the rules and broken the rest? And which are the rules that matter?

Rules are great because you can break them. I enjoy having a schedule to write and live by, but I also like to walk away from it because I can. Without the schedule, there’s nothing to walk away from, and no sense of release. Without the rules, there’s no rebellion.

Without the form, there’s no innovation.

Besides romance, are you attracted to other strong forms? Sonnets? Mysteries? Blues or jazz? Classical music’s rigid structure? Do you find it easier to garden in a small, neat bed than—as I did before we moved cross-country—in a wide-open but not particularly well-defined yard fringed by ever-encroaching woods? How does following the rules work or not work for you in your life?









About Serena Bell

Serena Bell writes stories about how sex messes with your head, why smart people do stupid things sometimes, and how love can make it all better. Read more >
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9 Responses to Romance, Mystery, and the Blues

  1. Mary Ann Vadnais says:

    As a writer, in my MFA, I studied as a poet and maybe because of my previous undergraduate and graduate studies in music and literature, I was deeply attracted to the study of formal poetry in contemporary poetry, and to create boundaries and constraints around my writing process. Like a lot of writers, I found that constraints like form were extraordinarily fertile, and while I generally wrote within the free verse convention, I was and am heavily informed by formal rules in both writing and editing poetry. This was also around the time that I moved from classical music performance to looking for gigs as a session musician–I liked the foundation of formal understanding but wanted to fuck around with everything. Your husband sounds like someone I’d love to talk to at a dinner party.

    I have never not been attracted to genre fiction, and to writers who pushed against conventions. I devoured romance and mystery fiction equally, even as I studied English lit. I’ve also always been good at finding comrades–my AP Senior English teacher was a mystery junkie and we traded books weekly, with as much deep discussion as she expected from me in class. When we both discovered mystery novel rule-breaker Sara Paretsky, we were over the moon (later, my favorite undergrad English prof introduced me to her best friend at a dinner–Sara Paretsky. At one point during the dinner I think I asked her if I could hold her hand). I discovered contemporary romance around then, too, and read Jude Deveraux’s SWEET LIAR, which at the time, bent and broke a lot of conventions in that subgenre. (Deeply embroiled in a sort of scandalous romantic entanglement at the time, I wrote Jude Deveraux a letter about SWEET LIAR and my problem. Reader, she wrote me back a six page, typed letter solving my problem and explaining her process writing that book.)

    I have also broken a lot of grown-up rules. I worked into a great career in academia but fell in love with something I was doing on a volunteer basis and broke up with the academy and went back to graduate school as a mom in an utterly and completely different field. But I kept dragging the best parts of my life in the humanities academy along with me, into everything I did. It meant that I now have a strange and hybrid and rule-breaking career that’s mine alone.

    I think it all comes down to doing your own work. This is a mantra I repeat daily. Do your own work. There isn’t enough life for any of us, to do anything else. Doing your own work may mean that you have to work over, under, and through what everyone else thinks. And you’ll break rules, if you’re lucky. Doing your own work means you’ll know what the rules are, but also know which ones actually make sense and which ones drool. I can’t at all claim to have earned my own work writing in contemporary romance, as I’m still developing and working on my craft, polishing, in early submission. But I learned a lot of good rules publishing in poetry, working in two different careers and working as a mom, risking–and those rules are the ones I hope stay steady under my feet. What’s more, I’ve found myself in yet another wildly interesting and supportive community. I don’t really think anyone is any better at breaking rules and changing the world as women are–we have nothing but generations of experience.

    • Sarah Wynde says:

      Loved this comment. Very, very much. Thank you for writing it.

    • Serena Bell says:

      Sarah already said it: LOVED this comment. I am so thrilled my post resonated so much with you, and thank you so much for sharing how it fits with your experience. Love the Sara Paretsky story, and I’m totally fascinated by your career stuff–would like to hear more some time.

      This may become my mantra: Do your own work.

      And yes, this community is phenomenal–when I first started going to a local romance writer’s chapter, a friend asked me, “Do you feel like you’ve found your tribe?”


  2. Mary Ann Vadnais says:

    Obviously, I found your post way, way inspiring, Serena. Thank you so much for your thoughts.

  3. Jessi Gage says:

    I love studying the wonky in romance because it’s all about asking the question of how far you can stretch the form before it breaks.

    Wonderfully put, Serena. Great post.

    I like reading romances that make me cringe a little. This is usually accomplished by bending of rules, like “there must be strict monogamy between the H/h” or “there must be love before sex”. Some of my favorite authors who push boundaries are Charlotte Stein and Cara McKenna.

    In my writing, I flirt with breaking rules, but I doubt myself a lot. I’m a newb, and have just barely gotten a couple books accepted at a small press. I like virginal heroes, so I guess that’s a twist compared to the usual sexually-expert stud sauntering onto the page with panty-melting confidence. Not sure it’s a full-on rebellion to put a more beta/inexperienced hero on the page, but it makes me happy, so I’ll keep doing it.

    I might like to read some mild beateality (I’m thinking werewolf hero in were form + heroine in human form). Also, infidelity kind of turns me on if it’s done right. I don’t think I could pull it off, but I like reading it when it’s done well. I’ve recently read a novella featuring “hotwifing” (Jasmine Haynes) and that perked me right up. Talk about rule-breaking!

    Thanks for the food for thought, Serena, and long live Outlander!

    • Serena Bell says:

      “I like reading romances that make me cringe a little.” :-) Yes, totally. My favorites are the ones that make me cringe AND laugh, but I like them serious and cringey, too.

      I’m enough of a newb too that I haven’t gotten comfortable with which rules I want to follow and which ones I want to break. I wonder if it will take a long time? At the moment, I follow most of the ones I know about, assuming that I’m accidentally breaking a whole bunch along the way. I have a friend who writes mystery who told me that he wrote his first novel with total disregard for genre convention, not on purpose but because he really just didn’t know what the heck it was, yet. When he wrote his second, he had learned all the conventions and was slavish about following the–and he felt like the book was much worse as a result. The market in genre THINKS it wants convention but what it really wants is books that have energy and something unique.

      I *really* want to be able to write romance that deals in some way with infidelity …

      Am about to go look up Jasmine Haynes. :-) Don’t know what “hotwifing” is but I’m all curious.

      • Jessi Gage says:

        It’s refreshing to hear an author admit to a little insecurity about the rules. I’ll be looking for that book you write that deals with infidelity. As for hotwifing, I believe you’re in for a very sexy treat.

  4. WOW – I want to hear more about that letter from Jude Devereaux! Sweet Liar was a favorite of mine for a long time. I agree with you totally – with no rules, there’s no rebellion and I think there will always be genre writers who push those rules as best they can. The reading world may not always love it, but the genre grows for the effort and I for one love that!

    • Serena Bell says:

      All I Want for Christmas is You flirts with rule-breaking, just enough to be a tiny bit wonky, in the best possible way. It’s got a deep, dark backstory, some gritty family situations, and because it’s a lead-in, the HEA is muted a little. Which is a big part of what I loved about it! Subtle and interesting …