Patiance and Optimism

Ever since I hate read Harriet the Spy in fourth grade, I’ve been perfectly ok with walking away from books that don’t bring me joy.  I’ll give a book a paragraph, a page or even a chapter, but I strongly believe that when you read for pleasure, that time should be pleasurable.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that while I will walk away from one-offs, I am much more willing to work through a first book if there is an already established series.   In many ways, the first book in a series is like a pilot television show, an early promise to introduce the cast and set, leave you with a taste of the world you will enter with them, there are no expectations that characters are fully fleshed out, that dialog is always on point, or that that the seemingly random interactions make sense to a larger narrative arc.  

This was a lesson I learned with Lorelai James, a best selling romance writer.  I started Rough Riders with the first book, Long Hard Ride.  The concept was forced, the heroine the literary equivalent of a paper-cutout, the intimate relationships were hot but odd.  It is likely that James, who had been writing mysteries under another pen name, began Rough Riders as a test to see if she could switch genres.  Whatever challenges plagued the narrative arc were more than made up for by James’s tone and writing style.  Cowboy romance novels were not a sub-genre I’d dipped into before, but James was able to pull me in and surround me with rodeo culture without ever making me feel like the newcomer helped pave the way for my continued investment.

Lorelai James (author) Long Hard Ride (book) handsome white cowboy on cover, shirt open.
First in the Rough Rider Series

Book two took an unlikely turn with two main love stories,  one featuring a mature heroine and hero, and the other the young brother of our hero from Long Hard Ride.  In Rode Hard James begins to find her balance between storytelling and sex scenes while writing stronger, more complicated and complex leading ladies.   Book three, Cowgirl Up and Ride, brings us to Sundance, Wyoming where the remainder of the 17 novels are set and James picks up her pace in terms of building out a universe with complicated family lines, land disputes and plenty of single people looking for love.

The formula of the cowboy hero can withstand only so much variation.  Characters have to be young, handsome, strong from spending the day lifting bales of hay or hours in the saddle and James doesn’t stray far from the mold.  James uses her heroines to bring diversity to the universe.  We don’t see the same type of mold for the women of Rough Riders. Each woman is unique and her struggles for independence and autonomy provide the consistent narrative arch against which she must find a love worthy of her.   Our hero must then find a way to let down the tough guise exterior and make himself vulnerable enough to be loved. 

Good Read reviewers would have you believe that the series really pivots on book three, but of the series, that turned out to be my least favorite couple.  Again, knowing there was more to the series allowed me to push on and stick with James and I was rewarded with Tied Up, Tide Down and what remains my favorite of the series, Rough, Raw and Ready – one of a handful of MMF romances that are worthy of being novels and not half-baked erotic stories.  

From there on in, James continues to use a consistent voice, variations on a character theme, and distinctly relevant conflicts to create a world of characters that will remain among my favorite in the literary world.  But I wouldn’t have gotten there without a bit of patience and optimism, fuelled by James’s wonderful writing style and a deep back catalog for me to work my way through.

Writing across the rabbit holes

As I am sure is true in sci-fi and horror, the romance genre’s ability to subdivide at times feels like one of those bio films of watching bacteria grow.  Fast and oddly connected.  Successful authors can cross imaginary lines and take their audience with them into new and fascinating corners of the card catalog.  Successful authors know their craft.  They understand how to use character’s voices to drive clear motivation away from instant resolutions.  As craftspeople, they know how to craft worlds that somehow seem familiar but all-together new, with enough subject matter expertise to always be authentic.         

Sarina Bowen broke out into the Romance genre with a series called the Ivy Years, set on and off the ice for a college hockey dynasty.  She followed that up with the Him –her first mm romance, the setting is still hockey, but it is a new team and a new cast of characters to fall for through the next several books.  In her next series, she sprinkled in players from the Ivy Years as we watch the Brooklyn Bruisers on their path to the Stanley Cup. 

For many of Bowen’s loyal and new readers, Him was their first MM romance.  This was a leap of faith for them into a wholly unknown territory.  Bowen had an established history of having smart characters fall in love by talking to each other.  For Him Bowen maintained a consistency of voice to craft rich dialog and familiar enough characters, but broke from the expected and explored the idea of what it means to be a hero when there is no heroine. 

Her more recent series shift away from sports entirely and into apple cider and beer making.  (There is a narrow Venn diagram of readable works about romance and alcohol.)  Bowen needed to move readers with her.  One way she did that was to use her world to create emotion — the moment before the buzzer blows, feeling the stick pulling back, making impact and watching the puck miss the net is not that different from the perfect clarity of a fall evening on a hill in Vermont, overlooking the sun setting into the mountains to the west, eyes drawn to the back of a pickup as a lover driving away.

As I think about my own writing, I will need to keep developing a consistency of voice that can hold my universe together while still allowing me to branch out.  I long for the finesse of world building in service to the central conflict.  I’ll be paying attention to these elements as I continue to revise and write.