Friday, April 18, 2008

On Books and Booty-Kicking

(cross-posted at
My house is a pit, and I am ignoring it. Not looking. Totally not looking....

So I've been reading Donald Maass's book Writing the Breakout Novel lately. Not because I'm planning to defect from Intrigue and write the Great American Masterpiece. I love Intrigue and plan to write for them until they drag me away kicking and screaming. But I think as writers, we can always get better, and after a friend emphatically recommended Maass's book, I figured couldn't hurt, might help.

As a reader, I found this idea from Maass particularly interesting: He says that what's hot in fiction (and, by extension, romance fiction) often roughly corresponds to the times that we're living in. For example, and I quote:

Judith Krantz ruled the bestseller lists in the 1980s with glitzy fantasies that set female protagonists squarely in positions of wealth and power. Nowadays, women do not feel as empowered. The have-it-all lifestyle has become overwhelming. The gains won by the feminist movement today can seem somewhat hollow.

So who is now on top of the bestseller lists? Mary Higgins Clark. Her portrayal of women as prey (though not, it must be said, as helpless victims) clearly strike women readers as resonant. Clark has caught the mood of our times.

Maass published his book in 2001, but since then, Judith Krantz and similar glitz authors haven't rocketed back to the bestseller lists. Suspense authors and romantic suspense authors are still up there with their heroines-in-jeopardy, along with powerful (and often heartbreakingly sad) fiction from the likes of Jodi Picoult, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Khaled Hosseini. There's a whole mess of self-help and self-improvement books, and heavy memoirs as well. In the romance world, paranormal and erotica rule at the moment.

What does this all mean? In a post-9/11 world, where we in America are fighting two wars and trying not to think too hard about the possibility of another Twin Towers catastrophe, it's interesting that we're reading so much in mainstream fiction and non-fiction that's grounded in a frightening or depressing reality. Maybe we want to be inspired by people overcoming terrible odds or abusive parents or other horrible circumstances to ultimately survive and even triumph.

And while the grimness of some of these books doesn't extend to the romance world, that need for inspiration may also extend to current romance trends. The current popularity of paranormal and erotica definitely speak to our need for escape. But much of that paranormal has a huge helping of danger and suspense added to it, as does the straight-up romantic suspense the Intrigue authors specialize in. So how are women-in-jeopardy books that we all end up writing/reading in some form or another speaking to the mood of our times?

Our heroines definitely do not start out having it all, especially in suspense. In both paranormal and straight suspense, there's a huge set of obstacles to overcome, although thanks to the genre conventions, we're assured of that happy ending that means the obstacle will be overcome. And in the end, women do have it all, and they balance it all beautifully, of course.

I know how these books speak to me. I'm deeply grateful for the gains of the feminist movement (and still gaining!), but I agree with Maass that it's sometimes difficult to have it all. I'm the mother of two preschoolers with a full-time job, AND I'm trying to keep a fiction writing career going. Most days, I feel like my head is going to explode. But I try not to let that happen, because YOU KNOW who would end up cleaning that mess up....

So I keep on, and I keep making changes to my crazy balancing act to maximize time with my daughters and carve out a little writing time, too. In light of what Maass has to say, it's interesting that what I gravitate to again and again are stories with heroines who kick some major booty. The hardship is there, but the heroine in my favorite stories always kicks, punches, shoots, and verbally decimates her way out. Or, as is often the case in my Intrigues, she may not start out being able to do so, but in the end, she's more than a match for whatever gets in her way.

Lately, I've been loving Jeffrey Deaver's latest books, both his Lincoln Rhyme series, and his new Kathryn Dance series. Both feature women in law enforcement--one with an amazing eye for crime scene details that others miss, the other with an almost preternatural ability to read people's microexpressions and gestures so she can tell when they're lying to her. I adored Sarah Addison Allen's Garden Spells, featuring two sisters with what their Southern small town tries to dismiss as peculiar quirks: One can influence people's moods and behavior through her cooking, and the other can cut hair so well, it makes the person look twice as pretty as she had before. And Christi Phillip's The Rossetti Letter pulled me into 17th century and modern-day Venice, where I watched a brilliant literature student piece together a story of 17th century Venetian intrigue that had eluded many scholars before her with her sharp mind and a few well-chosen books.

So what does that say about me? I think it's obvious: Heck, yes, I want to be Superwoman!

What have you read lately that you've loved (every Intrigue ever written aside, of course!)? And what do you think your reading habits say about you?


Chrissy said...

I've recently read The Osogoode Trilogy by Mary Martin.
This suspense has many twists and turns with murder and fraud...what I think my reading habits say about me...Guess I'd say a book worm that is happy as long as my nose is stuck in a book or looking on the web to see what's the latest and greatest!

Tracy Montoya said...

Thanks for stopping by, Chrissy. Twisty suspense is always a good time--I may have to check the trilogy out. This question is dangerous--I have a book-buying disease.

MaryF said...

Another factor in paranormal is that there is a definite set of rules. You can defeat a vampire this way, or a werewolf this way.

Also, in a lot of the paranormals, people who have a black vs. white viewpoint are forced to see shades of gray. I think that's a strong message for today, too.

The best book I've read lately is Natural Born Charmer by SEP. I'm on a definite straight romance kick. (straight as no suspense, no paranormal, just falling in love.)

Cathy in AK said...

I recently finished your Mission: Family series, Tracy, and totally love your strong heroines. Celia, in particular, stood out for me because she is a librarian for goodness sakes! Who'd have thought a librarian could be so kick-ass when it's called for? (Except for Super Librarian, of course.) You do a great job with all your heroines.

But these are the kinds of heroines I've gravitated toward lately. They don't necessarily start out as cops or soldiers or other things that you'd expect to be kick-ass. And they aren't always physically kick-ass even in the end. They are strong in some sense, and in the course of the story they face those things that affect them the most. Overcoming, or at least being willing to confront, fears and vulnerabilities makes these heroines stronger. I like that in both heroines and heroes : )

Tracy Montoya said...

Great insights, Mary. The "rules" comment especially--how appropriate when we're at war with a group that shifts and blends and disappears with every second that goes by. I haven't read Natural Born Charmer. I did read Ain't She Sweet after you'd recommended it ages ago on your blog, and I really enjoyed it. Might have to pick this one up.

Tracy Montoya said...

THANKS, Cathy! I loved Celia, too--she's probably the closest to my personality that I've gotten. I think what's different about her is that while most of my Intrigue heroines tend to grow into their booty-kicking ways, Celia started out that way (as did Sabrina Adelante from Finding His Child). Good times.

I like that vulnerability in heroes and heroines, too. It makes them more real and, hence, the story more enjoyable.

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Tracy Montoya writes romantic suspense for Harlequin Intrigue.

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