Not Your Grandmother’s Harlequin: Writing Romance in the 21st Century

When Linda Cardillo's manuscript drew the interest of Harlequin, she had reservations about the bodice-ripping stereotypes attached to writing romance fiction. But her preconceptions were dispelled when she learned more about the breadth and diversity of the genre today.
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When Linda Cardillo's manuscript drew the interest of Harlequin, she had reservations about the bodice-ripping stereotypes attached to writing romance fiction. But her preconceptions were dispelled when she learned more about the breadth and diversity of the genre today.

I have a confession to make. I write romance novels.

When I first ventured into the book industry, I cringed at the label. My agent had called to tell me that an editor at Harlequin was interested in my manuscript. However, she tempered the news, “She wants you to make a few changes before she’ll consider an offer.” I immediately had visions of a shirtless Fabio on the cover and the transformation of my story of a young Italian immigrant making her way in turn-of-the century New York into a formulaic “bodice-ripper.”

[Enter your self-published romance into the Self-Published Book Awards!]

When I expressed my reservations, my agent quickly tutored me on the genre—or, as I remember it, she read me the Riot Act. Was I not aware of the breadth of Harlequin’s reach in women’s fiction? Did I not realize the diversity of romance fiction or the size of its audience? Chastened, I agreed to hear out the editor’s suggested changes. There were five, all of which enhanced the historical aspects of the story, deepened the characters’ motivations and enriched their relationships. Not a single mention of a chiseled profile or a bare-chested hero.

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Thus began my education in the genre and my initiation into the (mostly) sisterhood of authors who create romance fiction. What I discovered was a literary category that generates sales of over $1 billion a year and represents the largest share of published fiction. Romance encompasses a broad spectrum of stories, from the type traditionally associated with the genre (e.g., wealthy, powerful but damaged alpha males who resist and finally succumb to the love of a good woman) to those with challenging contemporary themes; strong, independent women and complex modern relationships. The common thread that unites them is an understanding of our human longing for a deeply gratifying and emotional love story.

 Write Naked: A Bestseller's Secrets to Writing Romance & Navigating the Path to Success

Write Naked: A Bestseller's Secrets to Writing Romance & Navigating the Path to Success

The Romance Writers of America identifies the defining characteristics of romance fiction as “a central love story—two individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work; and an emotionally satisfying, optimistic ending—lovers who risk and struggle for each other and the relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.”

Beyond those basic elements, romance novels offer a rich smorgasbord of tone, style, setting and sensuality—from the “sweet” romances found in the thriving “inspirational” sub-genre to the erotic stories most recently and commonly associated with genre. Readers of all tastes can find romance fiction that is quirky, laugh-out-loud funny or life-or-death serious; they can travel to exotic locations or the next street over; they can experience life in 18th-century France or a 24th-century future on a distant planet. Nothing limits a romance novel in the telling of a love story.

It has been nearly 15 years since my agent corrected my misconceptions of the romance novel, but it is dismaying to encounter the continued snub of romance as a step-child in the literary world. I’ve found that most people who dismiss romance, or who titter when I identify myself as a romance novelist with the comment, “Oh, you write one of those books,” have actually never read a romance novel. Perhaps if they did, they might discover the reasons so many readers choose romance: to be transported to a fascinating or challenging world; to be entertained; to be inspired; to be surprised by a dramatic turn of events or simply to have some fun.

I write romance because I love to tell stories that resonate with readers about the possibilities inherent in love. Despite the challenges faced by my characters—duty, family, political upheaval—my stories offer hope that love can not only survive but flourish. What is most meaningful and satisfying to me is hearing from readers who have been touched by my stories and recognize in them the threads of their own lives.

Once upon a time… storytellers were the repository of their people’s history, guides in darkness and uncertainty through the tangle of human relationships, and thrilling entertainers during a long winter night. As a romance novelist, I proudly take my place as a storyteller.

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Linda Cardillo is an award-winning author who writes about the old country and the new, the tangle and embrace of family, and finding courage in the midst of loss. Hailed by Publishers Weekly as a “Fresh Face,” Linda has built a loyal following with her works of fiction—the novels Dancing on Sunday Afternoons, Across the Table, The Boat House Café, The Uneven Road, and Island Legacy, as well as novellas in the anthologies The Valentine Gift and A Mother’s Heart and the illustrated children’s book The Smallest Christmas Tree. Her newest book, Love That Moves the Sun, is a work of historical fiction set in the Italian Renaissance and based on the relationship between the poet Vittoria Colonna and the artist Michelangelo. Learn more at:

Take 15% off registration for the online course Writing the Romance Novel with code LOVE15, now through Valentine's Day 2019.

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