I know I’m not the only one who spent a childhood reading under the bedcovers, caught up in the escapism of a good mystery story. I binged on the entire Enid Blyton collection, moving on to devour the Nancy Drew series, and soaking up every page of my brother’s Hardy Boys collection, almost ruining my eyesight in the process. It’s no surprises that for me a good, page-turning read has to include a layer of intrigue and suspense. Likewise, it’s the kind of book I am most drawn to write. In The Compromise, Juliet lies trapped at the bottom of the cliffs at Howth Head and the big story question is whether she fell accidentally or was pushed deliberately. In A Question of Betrayal, Carrie is visited by a woman who makes startling claims about her mother and it thrusts Carrie out of her self -imposed rut as she slowly uncovers a web of intrigue, unaware that she is being watched by someone who wants the past to stay buried.
In my latest book, A House Full of Secrets, someone wants the painful past exposed. Right from the opening sequence, we know that the Blake family is gathering in their remote county Mayo home after many years, and one of them is determined that the past will be wrenched out of its hiding place and hung out to dry during the course of the weekend. Which it is, with dramatic and life-changing consequences for all concerned.
Grip Lit? Not quite.
Chick Lit? Not quite.
Romance? Not quite.
The stories I like to write are an amalgam of the above. There are elements of romance – and I don’t mean a love affair although that happens too. I’m talking about romance in the grander scheme of things. Adventure, passion, excitement, a touch of glamour and the exotic, be it a colourful character or location. There’s nothing quite like meeting enthralling characters between the pages of a book and being whisked off to wonderful locations that take us away from the mundanity of everyday life. Good writing can help to make us feel we are lounging on a sun-drenched beach, even if it’s a grey November day, or chilling out in a beautiful part of Ireland while we’re stuck on a commuter bus in a traffic-choked city. Added to the above, throw in a gripping plot with plenty of twists, an event that asks questions, raises suspicions, tears people’s lives apart, puts them in danger, or plunges them into a trap of deceit or betrayal, and you have all the ingredients of a book brimming with intrigue and romance.
Certain guidelines are useful when combining an edge of intrigue with a layer of romance:
- Both strands are separate and carry equal weight, yet are interwoven with each other as the story unfolds.
- The plot is driven by the characters finding themselves in a precarious position on account of the intrigue going on around them, a set up that will keep the reader guessing.
- The characters’ reactions and motivations link directly to the element of intrigue, but they must also be intrinsic to them personally and entirely plausible.
- Elements of romance add colour and excitement: the passionate, feisty protagonist – strong and immediately relatable, someone we can root for; the engaging love interest; beautiful and exotic locations; moments that thrill and delight us in between dramatic moments that have us turning the pages to find out what happens next.
- Each chapter ends on a cliff-hanger, ensuring a gripping read.
- By the end of the story, the resolution of the intrigue/ suspense has changed the characters and affected them in a way that alters their lives.
- The main character, in solving the intrigue, develops a dynamic with the love interest, or any of the main characters resolve a relationship issue that needs mending. This could be daughter/mother, sister/brother, husband/wife, or sometimes an inner journey of their own.
However the above guidelines could equally apply to many a contemporary genre, because the heartbeat of many stories is about faulty and flawed connections between people, and what those people get up to when thrust into a dangerous or unfamiliar situation – in particular how different circumstances can inform decisions made and actions taken. Whatever your background or wherever you live in the world, this is central to the whole human experience. Behind the genre-inspired book cover, stories are all about the trials and triumphs of the human race in some shape or form. Good fiction becomes great fiction when the writer digs deep enough to know their characters inside out, to breathe life into them, getting their hopes and fears onto the page so that they resonate with the reader. Being able to fully identify with a character and immersing ourselves in a book helps us to feel less alone. Add to that a dash of intrigue and romance, and it’s not too surprising that books are the perfect, portable escape from the ordinary, everyday pressure of life.
© 2017 Zoë Miller
* This article first appeared in www.writing.ie