Evangeline Holland

Sweeping Drama ⚜ Larger than Life History ⚜ Exquisite Romance ⚜ Diverse Perspectives
February 19th, 2013

Writing What Readers Want

Lord Grantham and his daughters

To piggy-back a bit on my post about self-publishing and perfectionism, wherein the kernel of the topic rests in the truth that writers write and readers read, I found Tasha’s comment about the Greeks and the concept of the Perfect Novel quite perceptive and thought-provoking. It provoked further rumination when I read today’s guest post on Kristen Lamb’s blog titled The First Step to a Quality Book. The guest post was written by a former Doubleday editor and to sum it up, Fishman declares “[e]xpectations are the context in which quality gets judged. That’s why giving the reader the content that she wants is the first step toward quality.”

This then put me in mind of a comment I left on Erin Satie’s blog last month, where she defended the presence of “rules” (or conventions) in romance writing. In response to her astute observation “I’d much rather follow a convention than toil away in isolation, if that’s the choice” (which is the lifelong war between art and commerce) I responded:

[It] takes a learned, a shrewd, and/or an experienced unpublished author to acknowledge this reality…It takes a while to get to a place where you’re not slavishly imitating published authors and you’re not writing completely unconventional novels, but where you recognize conventions, tropes, trends, and patterns, and can fine tune them to your own writing frequency. It does maintain the status quo, but you’re earning the right–-with readers and with publishers’ money!–-to fiddle with the buttons…[R]eaders will crave something similar to what they’ve last read and adored (“I want to read books with a red-headed hero” or “recommend some books with unrequited love”), but still want to be surprised. We can use that reader desire as the basic framework on which to build our own unique material, thereby producing more of the “same” but with a “fresh voice.”

Which then brings me to the reason for the Downton Abbey photo that prefaces this post. Many fans of the period drama are now seeking Downton read-alikes (h/t Sarah Johnson) and for a brief moment last year, I struggled with the notion of jumping on that bandwagon because *hand to forehead in dramatic fashion* I am not crassly commercial!! Then there was the whole issue of feeling that if I sold books that would appeal to Downton Abbey fans, it wasn’t because I was a good writer but because I tapped into a burgeoning trend.

Welcome to the complex world of my mind.

Yet, isn’t the whole upstairs/downstairs, aristocrats and housemaids, manor houses and country estates, et al, merely a trope or a convention in and of itself? There are a dozen or more ways to dress this basic scenario into something innately my own, and to traipse back to the Kristen Lamb guest post, I’m just giving readers what they want to read and love–which is my sole job as an author of commercial fiction, isn’t it? As I work on my Bledington Park trilogy and my WWI-set romances, I am being forced to think less of my own ego and more on what the book needs and how to woo and delight my future readers. And hand-in-hand is that old aforementioned war between art and commerce, which will probably never be solved.

January 28th, 2013

On Melodrama vs Drama and Downton Abbey

melo·dra·ma noun ˈme-lə-ˌdrä-mə, -ˌdra-

a work (as a movie or play) characterized by extravagant theatricality and by the predominance of plot and physical action over characterization

Merriam-Webster

dra·ma noun ˈdrä-mə, ˈdra-

a composition in verse or prose intended to portray life or character or to tell a story usually involving conflicts and emotions through action and dialogue and typically designed for theatrical performance.

Merriam-Webster

I am contemplating these two words as I write my Bledington Park trilogy and as I muse on Downton Abbey. Having watched all of season three as it unfolded in the UK, I can say that the “plot and physical action” has overtaken the characters by leaps and bounds. I gnash my teeth, grow frustrated, and roll my eyes over some of the implausibilities of certain plot twists (Matthew’s sudden windfall anyone? And sweet, selfless Lavinia somehow writing a letter on her deathbed absolving Matthew of his perfidy with Mary? Ha!), yet the method of Julian Fellowes’ madness–his sheer genius, in fact–is that he still manages to “portray[s] life [and] character” and “tell[s] a story…involving conflicts and emotions” within the over-the-top melodrama. The little moments, like Carson’s little song and dance over the positive report from Dr. Clarkson during Mrs. Hughes’ cancer scare, or Edith’s happiness over the hustle and bustle of Downton finally being all about her, or even Violet’s quips, all braid themselves together to make you care about the characters even when they’re being put through a contrived and hackneyed wringer.

Though Bledington Park is not a romance romance, that is the writing community I know best, and I must admit that sometimes the critical voices calling for more realism, more seriousness, more gravity, more anything that does not feed the stereotypes of romance readers as sex/man-starved, cat-owning, bon-bon eating repressed housewives and spinsters, can be smothering. Especially when I read books touted as flouting those stereotypes and conventions and find them too careful, too safe, too self-conscious (but perhaps my reaction is because I come to the books with the burden of “This is different!!! This is quality!!!”). I definitely like a bit of realism, a bit of gravity, and a bit of boundary-pushing in my romance reading, but I don’t want to give up the thrill of the drama–or perhaps even the melodrama–that takes my breath away, makes me teary-eyed, or makes me angry. So perhaps writers should not be shy of letting the plot take the characters for a ride, or worry about angering or frustrating readers, and perhaps you don’t always have to reinvent the wheel to write quality fiction–perhaps at the end of the day, our concern should always be with writing great, unforgettable characters.

April 9th, 2012

The Danger of Superficial History in Fiction

My Google Alert for Downton Abbey led me to a Daily Mail article, where the journalist questions Hugh Bonneville’s explanation for the phenomenal success of the show. While I do think his reply was worded diplomatically, it nonetheless paints a rose-colored view of Edwardian society. However, one comment in particular shocked me (truly): “Some of us enjoyed “Downton Abbey” because it featured characters who were beautifully dressed, well-spoken and had good manners. It featured no screaming babies, unmarried mothers on benefits, druggies, yobs,”students”, British citizens who were members of ethnic minorities and above all no pop music. Nor was there any evidence of so-called popular culture. For those of us who hate what this country has become, it was required viewing.”

Everyone knows I am a massive fan of the Edwardian era (or Turn of the Century, Belle Epoque, Gilded Age–whatever you want to call it), and while the zeitgeist of historical romance (and in fact, most fiction) focuses on the privileged class, I’ve made an effort to dig up the hidden stories concerning people of color because most people automatically assume life was one long tragedy until the 1960s and 1970s, not just in America, but in Britain. While I don’t sugarcoat or marginalize the presence racism, segregation, and prejudice played in the lives of ethnic minorities, I celebrate the fact that things were not as black and white in the early twentieth century. When I read statements such as the one quoted above, it makes me angry not at the person, but at the reasons why such statements are prevalent in society when discussing the past.

In my own experience, I didn’t know anything about the history of US and international race relations, Colonization in Africa and India, and African-American history until I took a few classes to fulfill my college graduation requirements. Independent studies related to Edwardian Promenade unearthed such people as Li Hongzhang, the Princesses Sophia, Bamba & Catherine Hilda Duleep Singh, Meta Vaux Warrick, Dadabhai Naoroji, John Archer, James Reese Europe, and so on. This is not to say that every book must include people of color (the resentment towards this form of “political correctness” irritates me as well!), but the more we weavers of fiction fail to push beyond the superficial boundaries of history, the more likely it is for viewers to assume people of color were nothing, for women of color who love Jane Austen or Downton Abbey to feel uncomfortable with this love because “they” were just slaves or sharecroppers or were being exploited in Africa, China, or India back in the day, and for people to accuse writers of being “PC” when characters of color are introduced into a storyline (or an actor of color is cast in a period piece).

If we can create dozens of Dukes when we know there have always only been a handful, or turn (virginal) courtesans into the toasts of polite society, or have our heroines befriend and care about the welfare of all lower-class people, why should knowledge of racism stop you from including a wealthy black Liverpool family? Or a Japanese society hostess? Or the German-Japanese daughter of a diplomat who marries a German prince? Perhaps even an English lord who converts to Islam?