Sophie King: Romance comes in many forms and sizes …

Sunday, May 29th, 2016

Monday, May 2nd, 2016

By Sophie King (and others)

When I first started writing novels (long before I was published), I didn’t intend to write romance. I simply wanted to write a story. In fact, I’d been writing stories ever since I’d picked up a pencil at the age of two. But this time, I wanted to write one that ended up on a bookshelf.

At the same time, I was earning my living as a magazine journalist. My job consisted of interviewing famous celebrities including Julie Walters at the start of her career. I also wrote about Barbara Cartland : the ‘Queen’ of romantic fiction at the time. But although I admired her (not least for her insistence on reading journalists’ copy and taking out all apostrophes that were not of the possessive variety!), I knew I didn’t want to write like her.

Pink lace love affairs were not my thing…..

Yes. That’s right. In those days, I thought romantic fiction consisted of froth and underwear; satin quilts and cupid bow lips. How wrong I was!

Back to my first novel, which I entitled ‘Amersham Wives’, partly because we lived in the area at the time. My characters consisted of a bored housewife who swapped places with an exhausted journalist. Before I knew it, the journalist fell in love with the housewife’s husband; and the housewife fell in love with the journalist’s editor.

Before I knew it, I had a romance on my hands. But it didn’t get published (although it did get me an agent and some nice ‘not quite for us’ letters from publishers). I then went onto write one book a year for the next ten years. Two got to editorial conferences, which is when editors sit round a table and discuss manuscripts which have potential.

But to my disappointment, it turned out that the other editors – apart from the one championing my cause – had manuscripts with similar romance themes. I later found out that this was a very common reason for rejections.

My experience made me wonder what a writer had to do, in order to be different. I was beginning to realise that you couldn’t have a story without love. But you had to inject other elements as well, in order to make that love story have a unique selling point all of its own.

Enter The School Run. I wrote this under my Sophie King name on my agent’s advice because I used my real name (Jane Bidder) for my journalism. The School Run was about seven characters , all involved in the same school route. Two were friends who shared a run. Another was a teacher. A fourth was a single dad. The fifth was a much older mother. A sixth was a stepmother….and so on.

The important part was that each one of them had experienced a different type of love. This included love between friends; between parents and child; between characters who were alive but still loved the dead; and between children and pets.

It became, for a while, a best-seller. After that, I wrote four more books: all in the same kind of school run territory with mothers and neighbours and lovers and teachers. I then changed publishers and wrote under the same kind of books under the name Janey Fraser, including ‘AFTER THE HONEYMOON’ which was published by Arrow this year and was shortlisted for a Festival of Romance award.

But my lesson in love had not finished. My first marriage had ended between my Sophie King and Janey Fraser books and I took a job as a writer in residence of a high security male prison. Yes – I WAS scared at first but then I found that words could be a great leveller. Once I started to help men write their life stories and poems and short stories and novels, I stopped thinking about the headline crimes that had put them there.

Instead, I began thinking about love behind bars.

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t fall for a criminal – although there are some staff in prisons who do just that. But I did realise how important love is in places where you might not expect to find it. Many of ‘my’ men wrote about broken relationships because it’s not easy to keep a marriage going when one half is Inside. Several wrote about love for their children. And a few wrote about their remorse for their victims and the loved ones which had consequently been left behind.

All this gave me another idea for a different kind of romance. GUILTY tells the story of a middle aged solicitor who has just got married again. He offers to take some drunken guests home but picks up a mobile phone call from his stepson as he is driving. There is a terrible accident and his beautiful passenger dies. Simon is then sent to prison where he is haunted by the voice of the dead victim who acts as his guide.. The reader doesn’t know until the end if the voice is his guilty conscience or a real ghost.

But at the heart of the novel is a love story: that between Simon and his wife Claire on the outside. GUILTY is told from two viewpoints: his and hers. Can their marriage survive, even when Simon is eventually released?

One reviewer, who gave it five stars, said it was a ‘modern love story which could happen to anyone making a split-second wrong decision’.

That’s very true. But already, another kind of love story had come into my head. THE WITNESS, a follow up to GUILTY, tells the tale of a woman who witnesses a young couple ‘making out’ in the park. She walks on, not wanting to intrude. But then a policeman knocks on her door. The man in question was a drugs dealer. The girl was under age. My woman is the only witness. If she doesn’t take the stand, the dealer will strike again. But if she does, her past will come out under cross-examining and her ‘respectable’ life – not to mention her marriage – will disintegrate.

Without meaning to, I have strayed into the territory of psychological suspense with a love story. It’s also, I ought to say, partly based on a true experience.

Talking of true experiences, I have always wanted to write an historical novel, partly based on my grandmother’s life. She met her husband when visiting his brother who had been wounded in the First World War. My grandmother’s father was a doctor and had encouraged his daughter to ‘cheer up the patients’. It was love at first sight. After the war, my grandfather swept up his new bride and took her to Borneo where he had been working his way up in a rubber plantation.

Hooked? Five publishers in Germany were, when my agent took it to the Frankfurt Book Fair. The result is THE PEARLS, which is coming out in the UK next year but has already been a best seller in Germany and Italy. It’s a very different romance from my prison book and my Sophie King/Janey Frasers because it’s more of a literary novel with greater emphasis on setting and period features.

I also write lots of romantic fiction for women’s magazines and recently, a friend of mine (Linda Mitchelmore) and I published our own Kindle collection called CHRISTMAS LOVE STORIES (see below).

What tips do you have on writing romantic fiction, enquired one of my uni students only this morning. Most of the answers are in my new HOW TO WRITE ROMANTIC FICTION which has just been published by Constable & Robinson. But here are some tasters:

Always accept an invitation. It might take you into a new setting with fresh faces – and act as inspiration for a love story you didn’t know you had inside you

Don’t assume that a novel has to be a traditional love story from the word go. Write about a situation that excites you and you’ll find that romance creeps in without you realising.

Make your story different by including a male viewpoint. Heroes need a say too.

The villain is more interesting if he/she starts out good and then turns bad. Or vice versa.

You don’t need to spell out the nuts and bolts when it comes to the physical side. Some scenes are best written behind closed doors.

Look up the Romantic Novelists Association. Members include published and unpublished writers. The RNA holds lots of events, including an annual conference, where you can meet publishers and agents.

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