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?









Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 9 Comments

Afterwonk: A Guest Post by Jill Sorenson

Please welcome to Wonkomance author Jill Sorenson, who writes kick-ass romantic suspense and is known for dropping the word “vagina” into Twitter conversation on a more-than-regular basis. Jill’s visiting to talk about her latest release, Aftershock. She’s not sure if it’s wonky, but the reviews at Goodreads for Aftershock are peppered with words like “disturbing,” “gritty,” “intense,” and “original.” I can’t be the only one who perks right up at that. Disturbing! Romance! Let me at it!

Here’s the blurb—


As an emergency paramedic, Lauren Boyer is dedicated and highly capable. Until an earthquake strikes, trapping her beneath the freeway with a group of strangers-including Iraq war veteran Garrett Wright…


Handsome and take-charge Garrett aids Lauren in her rescue efforts, even as the steely look in his eyes seems to hide dark secrets. When a gang of escaped convicts goes on the attack, Garrett’s bravery makes him more than a courageous bystander to Lauren. If they can save the others before time runs out, maybe, just maybe, they can explore the fire igniting between them-if the truth about who he really is doesn’t pull them apart forever….

And here’s Jilly!


Hi Wonkettes! I’m excited to be here among the wonky people!

When I invited myself over, Ruthie asked me to list five wonky things about my upcoming release. I struggled with this task. Someone once said that my books are about “messed-up people falling in love.” I like that description. Sounds wonky, right? But many romances feature deeply flawed characters. I think of my books as traditional: strong, protective hero meets pretty, independent heroine. They overcome obstacles, have vanilla sex, and fall in love.

I’ll just list 5 “unique” details about Aftershock and let you judge the wonk factor.

  1. My characters meet-cute in earthquake rubble after a freeway collapse. The structure they’re trapped under, now that’s wonky. It could fall and crush them any minute.
  2. The hero and heroine are regular people. He’s a former Marine and she’s a paramedic.
  3. They’re dirty. Not sexy-dirty, but bloodstained and dusty. I won’t tell you how they get clean enough to have sex. Just trust.
  4. They bond over Dune, my favorite science fiction novel. What could be more wonky than Dune? The lack of water in the cavern is very Arrakis-like.
  5. My secondary characters are always on the edgy side. In this book, a pregnant teenager and escaped convict become friends.

I don’t know if Aftershock is any wonkier than your average romance. I’m wonky. I definitely went wonky writing it. Maybe the fact that I consider my books traditional is wonky, in itself. If romance is based on fantasy, escape, and perfection, where does gritty realism fit in? If the characters can’t escape, is it still an escape fantasy?

I’d love to hear what you think! Leave a comment for a chance to win a copy.

Posted in Shameless Self-Promotion, Talking Wonkomance | 9 Comments

The Next Big Thing Wish List

Do you read? Do you love zombies or the men who fight them? Vampires who for some reason hang around high school girls? Kinky rich dudes? Then you my friend have been loving the shit out of the past few years!

Whenever a book hits it crazy-big out of left field, stories with similar characteristics naturally flood the market, to meet the demand of both readers and the publishers hoping capitalize on the latest trend. There’s nothing wrong with trends. They’re interesting cultural phenomena, and they cycle in and out, year by year. Yesterday’s vampire is today’s billionaire Dom, is tomorrow’s who-knows-what.

Turn, turn, turn. And as many of us hope, chest hair will cycle back into popular acceptance any year now, and grown-ass men will stop wearing tapered stretch-jeans and growing ironic beards that make it confusing for us women seeking guys to ogle who can actually split wood.

But publishing trends can become a touch tedious, especially when marketing dictates that even the covers must all look alike. When Twilight was catching fire, everything was suddenly about red-on-black. And now with Fifty Shades, every erotic romance cover seems to feature a posh accessory on a swathe of satin. All logical marketing shorthand for, “If you liked X, buy this!” But it can feel homogenous, at a certain threshold. Remember all those chick-lit covers? Café-casual illustrations of thin women and lap dogs and high heels? And don’t those look sooo 2002, nowadays? Ubiquity has its perils.

So what’s next? If anyone knew how to predict that, publishers wouldn’t be sent scrambling every time the next big thing presented itself! We can’t know the next great trend in romance, but after simply asking around on Twitter, one thing is clear to me: we want to be surprised. Not by what the trend will be, but by what rules it will break.

We want conventions challenged.

Fifty Shades certainly broke them for the mainstream masses. To the broadly-read romance fan, BDSM’s not so elusive a unicorn. But can you imagine how many of our parents must own floggers now? Wait. Let’s not think too hard about that. Boundaries, Cara.

Here are a few possible trends—my own wishes and those curated via Twitter—that some us would like to see shake up the romance world. They don’t have to be the next sparkly vampire, but it would be nice to see them go mainstream enough that we aren’t stuck begging one another for recommendations.

(Note: these would-be trends all happen to be hero-focused. Not an intentional commentary on anything, just a coincidence…or perhaps an indicator that many of us read romances so we can imagine boning interesting dudes. A distinct possibility.)

Heroes with nerdy jobs. “I’m sort of hoping the next big thing is hot botanists who speak in botanical Latin… [B]otanists are WAY under-rated as sex objects,” says @PennyRomance. There are certainly scientific and academic geek heroes out there, and many of their books have sold well. My brain immediately goes to Wonkomance’s own Del Dryden’s Theory of Attraction, featuring a socially awkward rocket scientist, and forward to Ruthie Knox’s highly anticipated “stuttering hacker” hero in Flirting with Disaster, due to hit your shelves and panties this coming July. We want these books and they do exist, but we still need to turn to community recommendations to find them. They remain the exception.

Heroes with traditionally feminine jobs. @Miss_Shelley_H tossed out, jokingly, “Sexy beta hero social workers with lots of body hair.” She then quickly amended in seriousness, “I really wanna read romance novels with heroes in trad[itionally] feminine careers.” This sparked quite the little discussion. @MaryAnnVadnais wondered, why so many doctor heroes, and nary a nurse to be found? (I was proud to say that After Hours, my April debut with Penguin, features an alpha hero who’s an orderly—basically a nurses’ assistant.) So where are the school teachers, counselors, stay-at-home dads? We want to meet them! And I’d personally like to see a few who aren’t betas. Not because I don’t love beta heroes, but just to prove that a caring profession doesn’t preclude a dominant personality. He can be a nurturer on the clock and still trounce a woman senseless. Dimensional!

Broke-ass heroes. This one’s from my own wish-list, and I know Ruthie shares it, so there are at least two of us in line to buy these books. There will always be an extraordinary abundance of billionaire entrepreneurs and magnates in Romancelandia—too many readers love our genre for the escapism, and for plenty, they want to escape into a world free of financial worry. Understandable. But I’m a weirdo who finds wealth strangely repulsive. Don’t ask me why, I’ve just always been highly suspicious of rich people. So I’d love to see more heroes who are struggling financially, or at the very least who are working class (no shock to anyone who’s read pretty much any of my books.) And as I saw someone say—forgive me, their identity and exact phrasing were washed away in my tweetstream—how come it’s never the heroine who’s the billionaire?

Still, I won’t be holding my breath that a down-on-his-luck autoworker will be the next Christian Grey—not until this recession’s over, at least.

And so those are just three requests I’m tossing out there. But what else are we craving? Racial diversity? Older heroes and heroines? Amputees? Overweight characters? Married couples? Romances set in Africa or Russia or an underground doomsday bunker? Organic farmers? Balloon fetishists? Lay ’em on me. Even if we can’t start a trend, I bet we can at least scare up some good recommendations.

Posted in Recommendations Needed, Talking Wonkomance, Writing Wonkomance | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 46 Comments