BOOKTHINK: Ok, a final surprise: Descriptions of prostitutes and the rooms they did business in were to say the least graphically repellent - no glossing over realities here! If I didn't know better, I'd say this was a romance writer preparing to evolve into mainstream fiction. I'm reminded of romance writer turned mystery writer Janet Evanovich, who mentioned in a BookThink interview last year that she'd run out of sexual positions after penning a number of romances and just had to move on. Do you have any desire to break out of the genre sometime in the future?
MACKENZIE: Before I wrote The Duke, I'd read the abridged edition of Lawrence Stone's The Family, Sex and Marriage In England 1500-1800. The latest period it covers is a little earlier than The Duke's setting, but I think many of the book's points were still relevant. In any event, the book certainly stirred things up in my imagination. And I think at the time I was annoyed by novels that romanticized prostitution. Also, this event was supposed to be pivotal in James's (The Duke in The Duke) development. It had a huge impact on him - I was hoping it would have a huge impact on the reader so she/he would understand and believe its effect on James. The scene was fun to write and some readers liked it. As to moving out of romance, I have no plans to do so any time soon. I'm just learning how to manage my stories and the genre. Plus I'm a huge fan of happy endings - and perhaps more to the point, I've got a contract for 3 more books, so I'll be writing romances till at least January 2010.
BOOKTHINK: Here's something strange. How it got there I don't know, but I came across a romance writing reference book on my bookshelves last week: The Romance Writer's Phrase Book. This is blurbed on the front cover as "The Essential Source Book for Every Romantic Novelist," so am I correct in assuming that your copy is falling apart with overuse? (Don't answer that.) Seriously, the authors, Jean Kent and Candace Shelton, have filled this book with what they call tags - "short, one-line descriptions so skillfully tucked into dialogue and laced through the narrative that they usually escape notice. The reader may not see them, but they can always be felt. Tags, in fact, make the difference between a cold, factual report and an eager, pulsating, sensuous story." Example: "the stroking of his fingers sent pleasant jolts through her." Okay, so, what's up with this? Are these kinds of prompts something any romance writer actually needs, or do you simply wing it - chuck your own tags in - or, alternately, not even think about tags?
MACKENZIE: Hmm. Can't say I've heard about this tag business before, but since I'm mostly self taught, I suppose my not being aware of it doesn't prove anything.
The romance genre is incredibly varied. Stories can include mystery, suspense, vampires, magic, history, ghosts, etc., but most, if not all, also include a romantic relationship and end happily. There's not a lot of room for surprise in that part of the plot. One of the major challenges in writing romance, I think, is to make that love story compelling and fresh for readers. For me as a writer, this means taking favorite plot conventions and giving them my own twist. And it means trying to find new ways to convey the emotions of a scene, ways to make what's happening on the page as unique as my (hopefully) unique characters. Canned language is not the way to accomplish this, in my opinion. (Actually, the example you quoted, "the stroking of his fingers sent pleasant jolts through her..." would be interesting if this were from a paranormal and electricity was something integral to the hero and/or heroine's nature.)
That's not to say every word in my books is scintillatingly original. Different scenes require different levels of prose - the more important the scene, the more important the diction. And I do get "infected" with certain words or phrases that will show up too many times in a book. One reader pointed out I used "trifle" a trifle too many times in The Duke. And when I was doing the page proofs for another book, I thought I would scream if another character nodded!
BOOKTHINK: A related writing question: Romance writing is clearly not cold reportage, and some would say that it's downright overwrought, florid, etc. What I noticed in The Naked Duke was more restraint than I expected. Your style is crisp and clean, and the pace doesn't linger - all of which contributed in my mind to a more contemporary aura. Again, is this a departure from traditional romance writing?
MACKENZIE: Romances are just like any other novel in that some are spectacular and some ... aren't. I also think - and this is probably truer of commercial fiction than literary fiction - some books carry the reader through on plot or characters and not so much on the sparkling quality of the actual prose. Each romance writer has his or her own style. My style, at least at the moment, does tend to be on the spare side. I agonize, sometimes to a fault, over every word, and I do try to eliminate any that aren't necessary. I think this may give my books a more contemporary sound - which is not always a plus with some historical readers. So, perhaps a spare style is a little more unusual in historical romances, but it's certainly not unique. I don't believe any current romance writers' styles are really florid or overwrought, though, or at least not so that their writing alienates their fans. Getting published is pretty tough, and staying published is even tougher. Publishers now get sales data very quickly and know incredibly (to me) soon if an author's books aren't moving briskly off the shelves.
BOOKTHINK: All genres evolve. Where do you see Regencies headed in the coming years?
MACKENZIE: Gee, that's a hard one - and I'm no expert on the market. Two of the changes that have already happened - and some of these are changes to the romance market as a whole: The sexual content has increased, and there are now erotic Regencies; and genre mixing has increased with Regencies incorporating mysteries, chicklit, and paranormal elements such as ghosts, vampires, magic, etc. I think Regencies are also being written for the YA market, especially since the sweeter, traditional Regencies are no longer being published by NY publishers, though smaller press and e-publishers are starting to offer them. There are a large number of talented writers - many NYT bestsellers - writing Regencies these days, so I imagine the Regency will evolve in whatever direction the imagination of these and other writers take it.
BOOKTHINK: How do you see yourself creating the necessary and plausible historical setting? It seems to me that your approach is to use restraint here as well - include descriptive detail now and again in small doses to set the stage and maintain a stronger focus on character.
MACKENZIE: I sometimes say I write "Regency Lite" because I do tend to go easy on the historical details. When I started The Duke, I decided that I wouldn't put in my books the stuff I skipped in other books - detailed descriptions of dresses, furnishings, etc. This is probably easier to do with Regencies than with stories set in other time periods because there is a large group of readers who are Regency fans and so already know what "the ton" means and what Almack's is.
BOOKTHINK: That's a valuable insight that has, I think, universal application. We're forever suggesting at BookThink that new booksellers learn how to sell books by becoming buyers first - teaching yourself what works for you and what doesn't from that perspective so you can apply it to your sales techniques. What about research? Have you more or less stockpiled what you need from reading other romances?
MACKENZIE: I probably did absorb the bulk of my Regency knowledge by reading hundreds of Regencies over the years. (I've even been known to slip a Regency word into everyday conversation and not realize it until my husband rolls his eyes.) However, I also do research. My favorite tools are the , which gives dates when word meanings developed and The Regency Reference Book by romance author Emily Hendrickson. I also poke around online for details, and I have many reference books on the period as well as a modern guidebook of England. I particularly like books with pictures and floor plans. I've also pulled out some of my college English lit books and a book of paintings that I think was mistakenly bought for some kid's high school art class.
BOOKTHINK: Let's move to character development. I'd say that your hero, heroine and villain in The Naked Duke are somewhat short on complexity in that they are either very good or very bad with not much gray to complicate things. Is this de rigueur for the genre? Do readers expect sharp delineation?
MACKENZIE: Any lack of character development in The Duke can be attributed to my status as a "baby" novelist, not to the genre. I'm working on it, though I suppose the fact that I write humor might affect the depth of character development somewhat. There's an incredible amount of stuff to juggle in writing a book - character development, point of view, plot, setting, diction, etc.!
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Questions or comments?
Questions or comments?