How to Make Contemporary Romance Fresh While Keeping True to Stories of the Past

Publish date:

It’s advice almost every contemporary romance writer has heard at some point. Maybe it was at a conference, or in a response to a query, but we’ve all heard something along the lines of, “Oh, I love this trope, but I’m really looking for something fresh and different.” And, if you’re extra lucky, that comment was followed by, “I love this trope, and I’m always looking for something new, but I worry this won’t feel familiar to readers.”

GIVEAWAY: Rachel is excited to give away a free e-book of her novel to a random commenter. Winner can live anywhere. (UPDATE: Ivanchan won). 


Column by Rachel Goodman, author of debut novel FROM SCRATCH
(July 20, 2015 Simon & Schuster/Pocket Star). Her novel was well-praised
and hailed "a winner" by Publisher's Weekly. Goodman was raised in Colorado
on her mother’s award-worthy cooking and Roald Dahl. Now an engineering
professor at her alma mater, Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas,
she has not lost her passion for culinary discovery or a well-told story. A member
of RWA, she continues to hone her craft through the Writer’s Path at SMU while
seeking to create the perfect macaroni and cheese recipe. Contact her on Twitter,
the XOXO After Dark website, or on Facebook.

So, here are the five things I’ve learned for keeping contemporary romance fresh and familiar.

1. Old Dog, New Tricks: Know Your Genre

Read voraciously, especially in your chosen genre. Contemporary romance can be particularly hard to nail down, if only because so often the market wants both the old dog (readers LOVE tropes!) and the new trick (the fresh twist). Reading a variety of contemporary romance not only broadens your perspective, but also gives you insight into what readers expect—and an edge in figuring out how to surprise them. And the biggest advantage of reading prolifically? Glasses! Kidding, kidding. While binge reading might damage your eyesight, it will also teach you the single most valuable thing you can learn before you start writing—what you most enjoy reading. Don't chase a trend—not every book can or should have a billionaire, a bad boy, a rock star, or a guy with a playroom. But it helps to understand a trend, and figure out what you like about it, what pulls you in. Start with your interest, write the book you most want to read, and the fresh perspective will follow.

(Why writers who don't have a basic website are hurting their chances of success.)

2. We’re All a Little Crazy Here: Look to Your Life for Interesting Characters

Once I had a solid idea of what I wanted to write about, almost immediately the question became: How in the heck do I make this interesting to other people?I, in all my new author naivety, had thought the idea was the hard part. Ha! But I soon realized, we’re all a little crazy—writers just know how to put it on paper. So before you eschew showers and buy stock in Two Buck Chuck, embrace the crazy in your life, in your friends’ lives. The contemporary romances I like most feel real. They're about people I recognize. I see pieces of my friends in there, pieces of family members. That girl I hated in high school? Yeah she's there too. Slice-of-life stories are what make contemporary romances so widely appealing. Don't be afraid to look to your own life for inspiration. Odds are, the personalities that make you laugh, fall in love, or spin into a homicidal rage are going to affect your readers in similar ways.

3. Food for Thought: Take Inspiration From Things That Fascinate You

Okay, so you’ve got an idea and characters with real-life issues your target audience can relate to. It’s all cake from there, right? Ha, yeah, it’s all cake. Whatever gets you through the moment until you realize (as I did) that your characters and world are just a little too familiar, bland and as prone to crumbling as store-bought, bargain-aisle cookies.

So do what I did and take inspiration from your surroundings. Because guess what, your perspective is a fresh perspective. For me, it was easy to infuse my love of food into my debut novel. If you want to make your work multi-dimensional, look no further than your own passions and interests. Are you a foodie? Incorporate it. Sports fan? Write about it. Wine lover? Pour yourself a glass (and one for me, if it’s not too much trouble) and infuse your pages with the depth and complexity of a richly structured Cabernet. To me, the best contemporary romances make me feel as if I’ve known the characters forever. I’ve walked through their towns, flirted with their boyfriends, and cried over their losses. It’s the quirks, the passions, and the carefully crafted characters that have made these books stand out. Familiar as old friends, and as exciting as new experiences.

4. Devil is in the Details: Small Quirks Make for Larger-than-Life Characters

So often authors assume that in order to be fresh and original they have to come up with convoluted story lines, complicated character backstories, and far-off settings. Those can all work, of course, but in contemporary romance, the devil is truly in the details. Characters feel real and original when they have little idiosyncrasies and quirks. Small character traits, when carried through the course of a novel, infuse your manuscript with memorable characters readers relate to and want more of.

(What types of novel beginnings get an agent or editor to keep reading?)

5. When In Doubt, Start From Scratch

See what I did there? Finally, after you’ve driven away your loved ones, run off your dogs, and bought stock in Hostess, don’t be afraid to wing it. Relationships and love are complex and layered, and sometimes the very best stories lead you down paths you never considered. And remember, the best secret ingredient in your contemporary romance is you. Readers don't know you. You're what's fresh, and you're the one who makes the familiar feel new again.

GIVEAWAY: Rachel is excited to give away a free e-book of her novel to a random commenter. Winner can live anywhere. (UPDATE: Ivanchan won).


Check Out These Great Upcoming Writers' Conferences:

Image placeholder title

Don't let your submission be rejected for
improper formatting. The third edition of 
Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript
has more than 100 examples of queries,
synopses, proposals, book text, and more.
Buy it online here at a discount.

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 3.39.23 PM

Your new complete and updated instructional guide
to finding an agent is finally here: The 2015 book
GET A LITERARY AGENT shares advice from more 
than 110 literary agents who share advice on querying, 
craft, the submission process, researching agents, and
much more. Filled with all the advice you'll ever need to
find an agent, this resource makes a great partner book to
the agent database, Guide to Literary Agents.

Sara Nisha Adams: On the Celebration of Reading in Literary Fiction

Sara Nisha Adams: On the Celebration of Reading in Literary Fiction

Debut author Sara Nisha discusses the impact of growing up reading on her writing as an adult.

Writer's Digest Best Live Streams, Podcasts, and YouTube Channels 2021

Writer's Digest Best Live Streams, Podcasts, and YouTube Channels 2021

Here are the top live streams, podcasts, and YouTube channels as identified in the 23rd Annual 101 Best Websites from the May/June 2021 issue of Writer's Digest.

Poetry Prompt

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 576

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write a back to blank poem.

Where Are the Toxic Families in Children's Books?

Where Are the Toxic Families in Children's Books?

Christina Wyman discusses how for children who suffer difficult family dynamics, seeing their experiences reflected in books is few and far between.

the island

The Island

Every writer needs a little inspiration once in a while. For today's prompt, build yourself an island.

Nawaaz Ahmed: On Personal Identity in Literary Fiction

Nawaaz Ahmed: On Personal Identity in Literary Fiction

Nawaaz Ahmed discusses how his personal experiences acted as the impetus for his new book, Radiant Fugitives, and how it went from novella to novel.

Comedy vs. Comity (Grammar Rules)

Comedy vs. Comity (Grammar Rules)

There's nothing funny about learning when to use comedy and comity (OK, maybe a little humor) with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.

Shugri Said Salh: On Writing the Coming-Of-Age Story

Shugri Said Salh: On Writing the Coming-Of-Age Story

Debut author Shugri Said Salh discusses how wanting to know her mother lead her to writing her coming-of-age novel, The Last Nomad.

100 Ways to Buff Your Book

100 Ways to Buff Your Book

Does your manuscript need a little more definition, but you’re not sure where to begin? Try these 100 tips to give your words more power.