TEN TOP TIPS FOR WRITING ROMANTIC SUSPENSE
I’ve written more than twenty-five romantic suspense novels, so over the years I’ve learned some good guidelines for writing successfully in that genre. Here are ten suggestions, not necessarily in the order of importance—it all matters.
HAVE A HOOK FOR THE BOOK: Think of this as having something really intriguing about your book that will attract an editor or reader in just a sentence or two. An Amish woman and a police chief are forced to work together? The heroine is a forensic psychologist? (Hmm, that’s the hook for my new South Shores series in which the heroine is a forensic psych and the hero a criminal lawyer.) The hero/heroine careers can be the hook—or not.
WRITE A GRABBER BEGINNING: I’ve noticed that my novels that do the best do have a grabber, if not in the first sentence, then very early. People can check out those first few lines if they have the book in their hands and can’t decide whether to buy. On-line excerpts often use the story’s first pages. One of my books that did so much better than I had anticipated (Below The Surface, a New York Times bestseller that will be re-released with a Heather Graham novel in October) read, “When she surfaced, her dive boat was gone.” Another favorite of mine is Drowning Tides, out in February, in which the first two sentences read: “I’ll get her back, Claire. I swear to you, I’ll get your daughter back.”
HE DOESN’T HAVE TO BE A SEAL OR A COP (Or a billionaire): Many excellent romantic suspense novels have a hero with these “sexy” careers, but it’s not necessary. Granted, for some readers, that’s a hook for the book, but don’t follow the crowd. Be creative. Arson investigator? Scuba diver? Scientist? Granted, you have to do whatever works for you.
SETTING MATTERS: One thing that lifts a romantic suspense tale or any novel over others is an intriguing setting, hopefully one so real it becomes another character in your story. Is your setting well described and not just painted on the background? Does your setting change and “interact” with the characters? An obvious example is the Titanic, which starts out as a glamorous haven and ends up as a killer. Think of how Tara changes and “interacts” with Scarlett in Gone With the Wind. I used Alaska in a romantic suspense, at first as a frightening enemy that later became the heroine’s friend and (along with the hero) her salvation.
THEY DON’T HAVE TO HATE EACH OTHER: Of course, this setup for the hero/heroine of a novel works well, but don’t think it’s a golden rule. Yes, there does have to be tension between them, but they can’t keep bickering and fighting. The outside danger they face, their “mission,” will pull them together in more ways than one.
WATCH THAT SAGGING MIDDLE: No, we’re not talking weight gain. The middle (I call it the muddle) of the book is where most stories bog down. The author is probably juggling many characters and subplots at this point. The opening was a grabber and you know your bang-up ending, but don’t let the story sag midway. Another murder? A real twist in the romance or in the plot here? Study this in romantic suspense books you really love and don’t let up partway through your own story.
DON’T HAVE TOO MANY POSSIBLE PERPS: I got this advice from the famous British mystery author P.D. James when we were on the faculty of a writers’ conference in Florida. She told me that the tendency is to make lots of people look guilty, but then you don’t have enough space to do justice to each person. You might end up ignoring a possible suspect for a while. I try to stick to this advice, but I love to give at least three or four possible guilty parties a motive. Of course, your villain could be known from the beginning, and it’s a chase-and-escape plot.
KEEP UP THE TENSION: I admit this sounds like a no-brainer when writing in this genre, but you must remain aware of this. In a way, it overlaps with avoiding a sagging middle. This can be sexual tension between the hero and heroine, of course, but also from outside forces they are facing. Once they really begin to fall in love and start working together, the tendency is to lighten up on the tension and you don’t want to do that until the very end, when they have escaped or conquered their problem or the danger.
SHE CAN SAVE HERSELF—MAYBE BOTH OF THEM: When I was first published in 1982, it was very common for the hero to be the one who saves the day. Well, we’ve come a long way, baby. It can be both of them on an equal basis solving and saving, or it can be the woman who really comes through at the end. Unless you’re writing historical novels (which I do, but I still don’t let the “knight in shining armor” always come to her rescue), the heroine needs to be strong at the end.
WORK HARD ON THE TITLE: This also sounds obvious but, especially if you’re building a career as an author, it’s huge. I’ve seen titles on romantic suspense novels that should have been on a charming English mystery or a straight romance. Can you get that hook, that tension in your title, too? My next romantic suspense books took a lot of back-and-forthing between my editor and me, and she ran titles through marketing minds. We came up with Chasing Shadows, Drowning Tides, and Falling Darkness. And it doesn’t hurt to have the same basic pattern for titles (the ing words here) to hold titles within the same series together. Nora Roberts’s many In Death titles are a great example of thact.
Happy romantic and suspenseful writing!
Karen Harper is the USA Today and New York Times bestselling author of romantic suspense and historical novels. Her most recent romantic suspense novels are The Cold Creek trilogy, and upcoming is The South Shores series. Visit her website at www.KarenHarperAuthor.com or her Facebook page at www.facebook.com/KarenHarperAuthor.