Ever have a great idea, one that thumps you in the heart with excitement? And then in the next breath, you say to yourself, “That won’t work. No one does that in XYZ subgenre.” If so, you might find a bit of inspiration in my words below.
From the first moment I decided to write a historical romance, I knew I wanted to push the bounds of the subgenre, and that knowledge scared the heck out of me. How far could I push the envelope for my writing to read fresh, rather than overboard? Would agents and editors share my desire to meet readers’ expectations and then take them to a dark place they never anticipated? Paranormal and romantic suspense do this all the time, but Regency-set historicals?
In order to write my unconventional historical, I finally had to set all those questions aside and simply write the manuscript. I suppose, you could say I followed my gut and hoped it would not lead me astray. Don’t get me wrong, I faltered a few times along the way.
The opening of A Lady’s Revenge is a torture scene. Well, sort of. The reader isn’t exposed to the brutality my heroine endured at the hands of the French, but readers do experience the aftermath and the nervous anticipation of what “could” come next. It took me a good year and a half of dancing around before I finally made that scene the opening to chapter one. I’m glad I did, because the uniqueness and intensity of the first chapter helped sell the manuscript.
Interestingly enough, I had another scene about midway through the manuscript, where I stopped short of killing a beloved secondary character. My agent suggested that I not stop. Even though this recommendation terrified me, I knew in my heart he was right. Killing the character would make the scene much stronger—and it would also upset many readers. Once again, I followed my gut and am really pleased with the outcome. And thankfully, I haven’t received any disappointed emails from readers.
Authors are told over and over to write fresh. But what does that mean? I’ve found that it means different things to different writers, readers and publishing professionals. Sometimes, all we have are our instincts, courage, and a desire to push the bounds beyond readers’, and our own, expectations. And then we must have the fortitude to ride the tumultuous wave also known as the submissions process. Because eventually, we’ll crash into an agent and/or editor, who share the same courage, instincts, and desire as we do.
Just remember—bounds can be stretched and rules can be broken, if we do it well. Here’s a snippet of the opening scene of A Lady’s Revenge. Can you pick out the other “rule” I’ve broken?
Guy Trevelyan, Earl of Helsford, stopped short at the sharp smell of burning flesh. The caustic odor melded with the dungeon’s thick, moldy air, stinging his eyes and seizing his lungs. His watery gaze slashed to the cell’s open door, and he cocked his head, listening.
A sudden scrape of metal against metal. A faint sizzling sound followed by a muffled scream.
He stepped forward to put an end to the prisoner’s obvious suffering but was yanked back and forced up against the dungeon’s cold stone wall, a solid forearm pressed against the base of his throat.
Guy thrust his knee into the bastard’s stomach, enjoying the sound of air hissing between his assailant’s lips, but the man didn’t release his hold. Nearly the same size as Guy, the Viscount Danforth wasn’t an easy man to dislodge. Guy knew that fact well. For many years they had tested each other’s strength.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” the viscount whispered near his ear. “We’re here for the Raven. No one else.”
Guy stared into Danforth’s shadowed face, surprised and thankful for his friend’s quick reflexes. What would have happened had he stormed into the cell to save a prisoner he knew nothing about, against odds he hadn’t taken time to calculate? Something in the prisoner’s cry of pain struck deep into his gut. His reaction had been swift and instinctual, more in line with Danforth’s reckless tendencies than his own carefully considered decisions.
“Leave off,” Guy hissed, furious with himself. He pushed against Danforth’s hold, and the other man’s arm dropped away.
He had to concentrate on their assignment, or none of them would leave this French nightmare alive. The mission: retrieve the Raven, a female spy credited with saving hundreds of British lives by infiltrating the newly appointed emperor’s intimate circle and relaying information back to the Alien Office.
Guy shook his head, unable to fathom the courage needed to pull off such an ill-fated assignment. The ever-changing landscape of the French government ensured no one was safe—not the former king, the Ancien Régime, the bourgeoisie, or the commoner. And, most especially, not an English secret service agent.
Although Napoleon’s manipulation of the weak and floundering Consulate stabilized a country on the brink of civil destruction, the revered general-turned-dictator wasn’t content to reign over just one country. He wanted to rule all of Europe, possibly the entire world. And, if his enemies didn’t unite under one solid coalition soon, he might achieve his goal.
Another muffled, gut-twisting cry from the cell drew his attention. He clenched his teeth, staring at the faint light spilling out of the room, alert for movement or any signs of what he might find within.
Did you notice the other no-no in my opening scene? Where’s the heroine? Many editors (not all) want the hero and heroine on stage ASAP. It’s sound advice, but in some cases, like this, we must make the reader wait for the meet-cute. A slow (not too slow!) build up to their first meeting can be an exciting way of keeping the reader engaged and turning the page.
Essentially, that’s what we want—reader engagement, anticipation, and satisfactorily surprised.
Have you written beyond readers’ expectations? If so, how? Do you have a favorite author that continually exceeds your expectations?
Please leave a comment for a chance to win a print copy of A Lady’s Revenge (U.S. and Canada only, please).
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A LADY’S REVENGE
A British agent flees her French captor’s torturous dungeon and falls in love with the decoder responsible for her imprisonment.
British agent Cora deBeau has spent the last three years seducing secrets from the most hardened of French spies while searching for her parents’ killer. When her latest assignment goes awry, she suffers at the hands of her French captor until Guy Trevelyan, the Earl of Helsford and master cryptographer, saves her during a daring rescue. Scarred and wary of men, Cora shies away from the one man who could heal her savaged heart.
After rescuing Cora from a French dungeon, Guy discovers it was one of his deciphered messages that led to her captivity. Guy strives to earn her forgiveness while outwitting their enemy. But will he find the scars on her wounded soul run too deep?
Tracey Devlyn writes historical romantic thrillers (translation: a slightly more grievous journey toward the heroine's happy ending).
She’s a member of Romance Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, Australia Romance Readers Association and the WindyCity, Beau Monde, Women’s Fiction, and PASIC Romance Writers of America chapters. Tracey’s also co-founder of Romance University, a group blog dedicated to readers and writers of romance, and Lady Jane’s Salon-Naperville, Chicagoland’s exciting new reading salon devoted to romantic fiction.
An Illinois native, Tracey spends her evenings harassing her once-in-a-lifetime husband and her weekends torturing her characters. For more information on Tracey, including her Internet haunts, contest updates, and details on her upcoming novels, please visit her website at: