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WRITING: is Romance Fiction an easy beginning for aspring Authors?

Friday, July 24, 2015

Is Writing Romance an Easy Beginning for Writers?

Lisa Chaplin reveals the truth about the widely held belief that writing a romance novel si the quickest and easiest way for an aspiring author to be published.

All my writing life, I’ve heard these comments: “Oh, I’ll write a romance novel when I have a free weekend” or “I’m starting with romance novels and building my way up to mainstream” or “I’ll build my name/fan base and take it to mainstream. What I really want to write is X (crime, historical, mystery etc).”

Have you ever thought that way – that it’s dead easy to write a romance novel, or that it’s the easy way to sell to mainstream later? So many people seem to think that romance novels are a jumping-off point, a weigh station to something better.

I respectfully disagree. You see, that’s what I did – at least in the publishing stakes. Having sent my completed mainstream saga to a reputable Sydney agent back in the late 90s, I was very, very lucky that she called me a few weeks later. The upshot of the call was that she wouldn’t represent me – yet – but she wanted me to write a few romance novels. 

I was taken aback. Why, I asked (for I’d tried and failed at writing romance 5 years before) – for the ease of selling to mainstream later? Because romance is so easy to write? The agent’s answer to both questions was an emphatic no. She wanted me to write romance novels for two purposes. One: she said I needed to learn closer focus on human relationships, which good romance novels are expert at doing; and two: to quote her, “Romance writing is the best editing discipline in the world.”

She went on to say that I’d overwritten the book – I’d been, in her words, too self-indulgent in my writing, using far too much narrative exposition and not enough dialogue and action. She said it was a very common failing of mainstream writers; they won’t discipline their work (her words, not mine). She said, “I hope you’ll take this advice – very few writers do when I tell them this. Romance writing will help you focus on the core story, will make your characters’ relationships deeper and stronger, and hopefully, the best lesson of all, you’ll be able to do it all in fewer words.” She went on to advise me to join RWA. I had to ask what that was. She said, “The Romance Writers of Australia. There are also counterparts in New Zealand, America and the UK. I think, if you go into this venture with the respect it deserves, you could learn a great deal about focused, disciplined writing from these groups.”

Her final words were that she believed I’d go on to be published in romantic fiction, and when I’d written 5 or 10, I’d “know what to do” with my mainstream books.

I called the Romance Writers of Australia that day. When I discovered there was a conference in Sydney only two weeks ahead, I talked my husband into paying the fee to join the organization and attend the conference. In one weekend I found my first critique partner, met my first and still current writers’ group, and learned more about writing discipline than I believed existed. I also learned about writing contests (I really was in the wilderness back then – I wasn’t even on the internet yet!). For the next three years, romance writing became my focus – and my writing improved a great deal. At the end of that time, I’d won my first contest, finalled in others, and signed my first and second contracts. One company went belly-up, sadly, but the second was with international giant Harlequin. 

I wrote 20 books, novellas or online reads for 3 different lines of Harlequin, and most of them sold well. I was happy. 



Then, reading a biography on early Napoleonic Europe, I got the kernel of an idea that excited me. Before long my focus began to change: I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my writing life: to write historical mainstream novels. It took 8 years to complete the book that would sell – and not because my romance career hindered me or cheapened my work. Writing romance gave me the focused writing and central relationship, as Sophie had promised, but I discovered I still had a lot to learn about writing quality historical mainstream fiction. 

Lucky for me I have a very patient agent, and I attended two excellent courses: The fabulous 5-day Popular Fiction MasterClass with Fiona McIntosh, and the excellent History, Mystery and Magic with Kate Forsyth. I believe those courses have helped me write stronger, more intense historical fiction. The advice I received completed my education to the degree I needed. I completely rewrote The Tide Watchers in 8 weeks (and got my title, thanks to Fiona), and it sold to my absolute dream publisher, William Morrow (a mainstream imprint of HarperCollins New York). 

I will always bless that agent for her advice. Because I took what she said on board, The Tide Watchers will be my 21st release with a major publishing house. 

But I do not now, nor have I ever believed that writing romance was “easy”, or some kind of quick intro for me to sell to mainstream. Romance taught me the editing and self-disciplinary skills I needed to write a tight, focused historical mainstream. Though I admit it was easier to write contemporary romance (less intensive research than historical mainstream, though writing about PTSD, racism, anorexia and bulimia, child rape and the other issues in my contemporary romances demanded fairly thorough research), the lessons the genre taught me, and the excellent skills that I took with me when switching genres, will ensure that I will always treat this much-maligned genre with the respect it deserves.


INTERVIEW: Lisa Chaplin, author of The Tide Watchers

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Today, on the blog, I welcome Lisa Chaplin, a friend of mine who has written an incredible historical novel inspired by the true story of British spies who sought to prevent Napoleon's forces from invading Great Britain in 1803. Here's my review of her novel THE TIDE WATCHERS if you'd like to know more about her book, but today we're exploring Lisa's dreams and inspirations. Please give her a warm welcome!   

Are you a daydreamer too?

I always have been, always will be. It was the reason I got in trouble at school – but by year 3, teachers and school counselors were telling me to aim at becoming a writer. I still dream on walks, on trains and in cars, working my fictional characters into real-life situations. A lot of my best work comes from those daydreams!


Have you always wanted to be a writer?

No, not at all. Though I loved to dream and make up stories as a child, I was completely focused on becoming a nurse. Nothing anyone said changed my mind. I did nursing until I got pregnant with our first child. I only began writing after our second child, when my husband came home with an article about writing and said I should try it. I did, and was soon wondering why I’d never listened to anyone before!


Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?

I was born in Darlinghurst, Sydney. After a childhood in Sydney, both east and west, we moved to the Central Coast five years after I married. We’ve owned a house there ever since, raised our three children there. I’m afraid I’m a complete history nerd – I love to research, to find out more about “hidden history” that the victors never tell. Apart from that, I love to read, and walking the dog and jogging on the local beach. I do a swim class that I really like, as well.


How did you get the first flash of inspiration for THE TIDE WATCHERS?

That’s a story! Short version: I took an American friend and her family around Sydney in 2006, and at the Sydney Maritime Museum, picked up a book that completely ignited my dormant love of history. I stood there so long, reading the book, my friend had to remind me that her family were hungry! So I bought the book, and 9 years later, it’s still with me on my travels. I found an untold story in that book, one I had to tell…but because it was a hidden history, I had to piece it together over time. 24 books, 3 DVDs and a trip to France and the UK later, The Tide Watchers finally grew from a story kernel to a full-blown story.


How extensively do you plan your novels?

Before I began historical writing, not nearly so much as now. As Melissa James (my contemporary romance pseudonym), I could make up stories and let my imagination play. However, I always did plan the deeper story beneath the romance. I wrote about issues: PTSD, anorexia, bulimia, missing family members, etc; so that part was always plotted, as were my three espionage books, the Nighthawks series; but the rest was my imagination basically running free. Now it’s a different story, because so many of my characters were real people. I need to know where they were at any given time, what they wrote, said, or did, so I can weave my fictional characters in without jarring the well-read historical fiction reader with any inaccuracy. I have currently in front of me more than 50 pages of timelines, plot points, and information about every living character I use. I’m on a research trip now so have folders full, and books filling my suitcase! They’re my “American Express card”: I never leave home without them!


Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?

In a strange way. My dreams are usually vivid, frightening things that tell me when I haven’t used my imagination enough lately. Quite often I’ll wake very early with a dream, get up and write, and quite often on a similar subject to my nightmares. I wish I did dream about my characters, but alas, I don’t. I think it’d be much easier if I did!


Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?

Oh, definitely! The book I mentioned earlier talked about a fleet of French ships that sank eight miles out to sea, and that Britain, who had been conciliating France until then, declared war ten weeks later; but there was nothing more. Researching that led to amazing discoveries, some that fellow history lovers said never happened – but they did. The realization that “history is told by the victors” led me to France, to a small town and some villages that held a history few know about. Discovering the part Lord Camelford, (“The Mad Baron”) played in world events of the time, really changed the book. Then a friend from my writers’ group gave me a book (an out-of-print book worth far more than I knew when she gave it to me) that had the real-life code-names of British spies, and the French spies working for and against Britain. That book changed everything! Without those serendipitous discoveries, THE TIDE WATCHERS wouldn’t be what it is.


Where do you write, and when?

I still have two grown children at home, and their friends often drop in, so I tend to write whenever I can. My family is really understanding of my work, including my nieces where I’m staying right now. When I’m at home, if the house is too noisy (there are dogs galore in our street, and few owners at home) I go to my favorite café, an eclectic little place with kitschy furniture and great food, and set myself up there for hours. They look after me beautifully there!


What is your favourite part of writing?

I think for me it’s the whole finding out astonishing facts, and dreaming up ways to work it into the story and characters. Often it means changing whole chapters and even more to make it work. Lucky for me I have a very patient agent, and a fabulous editor who not only goes along with my changes, but she gets excited when I tell her why. She’ll call me to discuss it if she doesn’t understand, and we work out storylines together sometimes. So I’m one of those annoying writers that love revisions. I take every chance to improve the book, to do more research to make the book bigger, faster-paced, more exciting.


What do you do when you get blocked?

Research! For me, a block means I’ve forgotten something important. I go back to my books or my timelines. I have 13 whiteboards in my study covered in facts, plus cork-boards with maps and pictures. I took pictures of everything, printed it up and brought it with me on my travels, or the next book wouldn’t be written. I also tend to make soundtracks and create signature scents that trigger imagination. I also go for long walks if those things don’t help.


How do you keep your well of inspiration full?

One thing I constantly do is new writing courses, in person if possible. I find learning a continuous source of inspiration, and really revs me up to keep writing. Also, I’m constantly on the lookout for things I didn’t know. It’s the real history hidden beneath the story of the victors that excites me. Telling the tale from the perspective of those who lived with the consequences of the great political decisions: the ordinary people and the spies. I’m in contact with several historians, specialists in their chosen subject or person, all of who have been wonderfully eager to share tidbits with me. A really big thing is travelling to the places I write about. I can’t do it all via books and the internet. For real stories that brim with life, that take the reader to the places and times you write about, I have to walk it, smell it, feel it, taste it. I was lucky to live in Europe for four years, which made all the difference to THE TIDE WATCHERS; now I have friends and family living only a few hours’ travel from the places in my books.


Do you have any rituals that help you to write?

Very much so. The aforementioned whiteboards and cork-boards surround me in reminders. I’m a very visual person; if I didn’t have the reminders I’d forget vital pieces of the story. Even now while travelling they’re beside me, and I have blue-tack to put it on walls around me. I create soundtracks for each book, usually a mix of classical, modern opera and acoustic versions of popular songs. I also find a signature scent for each book, one that transports me to a place or a person. For The Tide Watchers, I don’t know how many L’Occitane Winter Forest candles I bought! Now it’s lavender water, made to the 18th century recipe, and ocean scent. I walk the dog, jog or go to the gym or pool before I get into writing. I find, as I get older, that it’s hard to write if my body’s uncomfortable. I also stretch quite a few times through the day.


Who are ten of your favourite writers?

I tend to go through phases of loving different kinds of writing, but authors I keep returning to for inspiration and beautiful writing, or just plain enjoyment of story are: J.R.R Tolkien; Sharon Penman; Elizabeth Chadwick; Markus Zusak; Carlos Ruiz Zafon; Paulo Cuelho; Jane Austen; Georgette Heyer; Agatha Christie, and L. M. Montgomery. I read widely of other, newer authors as well. I’m currently enjoying Tasha Alexander’s Lady Emily mystery series, and Charles Todd’s Bess Crawford mysteries. 


What do you consider to be good writing? 

I tend toward the lyrical and historical. Ever since reading Lord of the Rings at fifteen, I’ve loved the beauty amid danger, shimmering poetry in the frightening. The opening of The Shadow of the Wind by Zafon is amazing, as is the narrator of The Book Thief by Zusak. I’m not at that level, but would love to be one day. 


What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?

To quote Rocky Horror, “don’t dream it, be it.”  My biggest advice, though, is respect the craft. Writing is an ongoing apprenticeship and should be treated with respect. Don’t indulge in “writer’s block” – fight your way through it. Taking writing courses refreshes creativity (I took your History, Mystery and Magic course after I sold The Tide Watchers to refill the well when I felt a bit blocked, and it really helped me get my revisions done!). Publisher-requested revisions are part of making your book the best it can possibly be for the shelves. Taking courses and doing revisions is part of an ongoing journey; I never want to be arrogant about my writing, and think I know enough. Just as you wouldn’t go to an unqualified doctor or lawyer because they’re cheap, don’t do cheap courses, or buy self-published books simply because they’re cheap (or free). You wouldn’t do so with university courses or an apprenticeship; don’t cheat your writing. One final thing: try not to let anyone, even your family, treat writing as your self-indulgent hobby. I made that mistake. Trust me, you’ll regret it when you sell and it becomes your job!


What are you working on now?

BLIND WINTER is the second book in the series following The Tide Watchers. The more I researched the time, the more it became a real-life, four-way ‘game of thrones’ between leaders and spymasters, between countries and power struggles inside governments. It was also a time of rapid change with inventions being used in warfare. For The Tide Watchers, it was the infancy of submarine-torpedo warfare. Blind Winter has quite a few new, surprising kinds of inventions that were used at the time. Robert Fulton, an American inventor I fell in love with during The Tide Watchers, returns in Blind Winter with new and exciting ideas, while the games of kings and spymasters complicate the lives of all my main characters.

BOOK REVIEW: The Tide Watchers by Lisa Chaplin

Monday, July 20, 2015




Age Group & Genre: Historical Fiction for Adults

Reviewer: Kate Forsyth

Source of Book: Lisa gave me a copy

The Blurb from the publisher:

In the tradition of Jennifer Robson, comes this compelling debut that weaves the fascinating story of a young woman who must risk her life as a spy to help stop Napoleon’s invasion of Great Britain in the winter of 1803.

Though the daughter of an English baronet, Lisbeth has defied convention by eloping to France with her new husband. But when he breaks her heart by abandoning her, she has nowhere to turn and must work in a local tavern. Her only hope for the future is to be reunited with her young son who is being raised by her mother-in law.

A seasoned spy known by his operatives as Tidewatcher, Duncan apprenticed under Lisbeth’s father and pledged to watch over his mentor’s only daughter while he searches the Channel region for evidence that Bonaparte has built a fleet to invade Britain. But unpredictable Lisbeth challenges his lifelong habit of distance.

Eccentric, brilliant American inventor Robert Fulton is working on David Bushnell’s “turtle”—the first fully submersible ship—when he creates brand-new torpedo technology, which he plans to sell to the French Navy. But when his relationship with Bonaparte sours, he accepts Tidewatcher’s help to relocate to the French side of the Channel, but he refuses to share his invention. With an entire army encamped in the region, blocking off all access, Tidewatcher must get that submersible, along with someone who knows how to use it, to uncover Bonaparte’s great secret.

When Lisbeth is asked to pose as a housekeeper and charm Fulton so she can learn to use the submersible before the invasion fleet sails, she will be forced to sacrifice herself for her country—but is she willing to sacrifice her heart when she’s already lost it to another…?

A fast-paced, deeply-researched, and richly imagined novel, The Tide Watchers explores a long-hidden, chapter of Bonaparte’s history.

What I Thought: 

The time of the Napoleonic wars is such a fascinating period and there are still so many stories to be told. Lisa Chaplin (who is a friend of mine) has discovered the intriguing untold story of a group of British spies working undercover in France in the early 19th century, trying to prevent the French invasion of Great Britain. At the heart of Lisa's tale is a young English woman, Lisbeth, and her determination to win back her baby son who has been taken by his violent French aristocratic father.   In order to gain the help of the British establishment, Lisbeth goes undercover in the house of the hot-tempered and brilliant American inventor, Robert Fulton (a real-life character), who is working on making the world's first submarine. How far is Lisbeth prepared to go to win Robert Fulton's trust and gain control of the submarine? This moral dilemma helps drive the suspense, as Lisbeth fights her attraction for one of the British agents yet knows the only way to get back her son is to win Robert Fulton's heart.

THE TIDE WATCHERS is a surprising and unusual historical thriller with a twist of romance that will appeal to anyone who loves books set in the 19th century.  

HARPER COLLINS Information page on The Tide Watchers


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