How Hot Do You Like It?

I have been going through Madeline Hunter’s articles for USA Today since I really enjoy her take on the romance novel business. One that was recently published was on the sexual heat in romance stories. She explores the new ‘sweet’ genre emerging. I found this really interesting as often on Netgalley or on other bloggers site’s I see Amish or Christian romance novels. I’ve wondered about them, but never read one.

One of the things I love SO much about romance novels is the sex scenes. Some books I have read still stay with me for some of the scenarios the authors have created are just so good. I don’t read too much erotica, but from the stuff I have it is quite a challenge to weave great sex and plot together in a way that works for the reader. I think that is why I love historical romance novels and contemporary so much. Imagine Outlander without the sex. To me, it’s suddenly not as appealing.

What makes a reader interested in sex scenes? Why are they even put into the books? I think it is because when we spend time learning about characters and their motivations, we see all of them. It’s hard to stay emotionally connected when the characters disappear into their bedroom and shut the door on the reader. I want to know the sweet nothings they whisper in each other’s ears. I want to know that the chemistry they have translates elsewhere. I want to live vicariously through the honeymoon phase of a relationship.

When I am looking for a book to read, one of the things I look for is the heat level. How much is there? Is it well written and a clear part of the story? To be totally honest, when I have seen a review that says there is little action…I am not as interested in buying or reading it.

Lisa Kleypas has a reader Q & A section on her website. The second question asks her about writing love scenes. This is what she has to say, “If done right, they’re crucial in showing the development of the characters and their relationship. But sex scenes are the most difficult to write because I try not to rely on cliché, and I have to choose the words so carefully. There’s actually a need for “choreography,” so I know who’s doing what, but at the same time I’ve learned that the scene is sexier when I’m less graphic in the physical descriptions.”

I asked three authors about creating and writing love scenes. This is what they had to say on the topic:

I asked Madeline Martin why it was important to include love scenes in books?

She said, “I think this is the one that resonates with me the most due to the misconceptions surrounding sex in manuscripts. It’s not gratuitous filler or added slips of pornography to color an otherwise bland book like a lot of skeptics assume. The heart of romance is in the incredible play of emotion – the way it jerks you toward tears of sorrow one moment and then leaves you with your heart in your throat the next. Sex is the ultimate core of emotion. The power of acceptance, the unveiling of perfect imperfection, the overwhelming realization of love. A sex scene peels back the layers of civility and social constraints and lays bare the raw emotion we cannot mask – and I think that’s beautiful.” (I just reviewed Madeline’s debut novel and it’s awesome.)

I asked Julie Johnston if it was challenging to write love scenes.

She said, “Heck yes! At least for me. I think it’s so challenging because I’m really modest at heart, but I firmly believe that love scenes are an important part of a romance book. When two people connect in an emotional way it and the attraction is there and strong, a well-crafted love scene can deepen that emotional connection and take the relationship to the next level or enhance the level it’s on. I stress when writing loves scenes over making them sexy enough without being in your face descriptive. I want to open the curtain for you, but I also want to leave a bit to the imagination. So yes, for me, love scenes are very challenging, and I get tickled when I read things like Julie Johnstone writes the best love scenes. Or Julie Johnstone’s kissing scenes curl my toes. When I read comments like this I know I have succeeded and the permanent stress lines in my face from writing the scenes are worth it!”

I also contact Lauren Smith and asked her if she worries about keeping things PG or prefers descriptive scenarios. She said, “I like descriptive scenaries. I don’t write erotic romance, but I touch the edge of it. Anyone can use words to make something erotic, I tend to use more euphemisms and focus on actions during sex scenes rather than words. For example, describing a man as he physically enters a woman, can be more powerful to a reader than having the hero “dirty” talk to the heroine. Actions for me, speak louder than words. I want a healthy balance between words and actions in the descriptive scenarios, so that the scenes are tasteful, but still *smoking hot.”

Lauren commented that she gets her inspirations for love scenes (like, how do you come up with setting and descriptive language?) from, ” I tend to watch other romantic movies, or read my favorite romance novels where I felt the love scenes moved me and I try to figure out what is it about those scenes that lit a fire in my blood and then I tap into that inspiration for my own characters.”

I also asked her about if she ever feels embarrassed writing love scenes and how she handles it when family and friends read her work. Lauren commented, ” Maybe initially years ago when I first started writing romances, I was a tad hesitant to share. But after I wrote them enough, and got comfortable with the genre, I approach my own words on a scientific level and don’t get worried about them. My parents and family have actually read my books and they happily separate my life from my books, and they don’t think about me when they read them, nor do they embarrass me when we talk about them. It’s just stories, and that’s really what we all focus on.”

It must be really hard to develop a great love scene that doesn’t rely only on words like “manhood”, “root”, “plunged” and “inexorably”. I have a hard time accurately describing them in my reviews. I find that often I shy away from sharing the explicit nature of the scenes and tend to fall back on generic terms like spicy and hot. However, when I read other reviews, it is one of the things I am looking for. How hot is the story? Am I only going to get a kiss?

I love Madeline Hunter’s articles because they get me thinking and pondering about the tropes and issues around romance novels. What do you think of love scenes? Do you prefer sweet or steaming?

Here is Madeline Hunter’s article that got me thinking about love scenes:

Romance Unlaced: Seeking Shelter From the Heat?

One day a few years ago I received an e-mail from a reader that went something like this:

I really liked your story and characters, and I would love to read more of your books, but I am not comfortable reading explicit sex scenes. Can’t you do a version that removes those, for those of us who don’t want them?

I thought about that. Just removing them would not work because they were not only about sex. However, with some careful rewriting, could I do it without losing too much?

I was fascinated to learn recently of an author trying out this idea. Ruth Kaufman’s medieval historical romance At His Command won a Golden Heart award in the inspirational category. She is indie publishing it this month. However, she is also publishing a sensual version of the story, with the same title, at the same time.

I asked her why she’s trying this. “According to statistics on Romance Writers of America’s site,” she says, “33% of e-book readers primarily read historicals, while 14% primarily read Christian romances. I wanted to appeal to as many readers as possible. Every author I mentioned my plan to thought it was a great idea, so I went for it. In my opinion, this particular story works well in both versions.”

While the covers are different, the title is the same, except that the titles include an indication of which version it is, “Inspirational Version,” below, or “Historical Romance Version,” which is pictured at the top of this post. How different are the two versions?

“The story is the same,” Ruth says. “Lady Amice Winfield doesn’t know how she can follow the king’s command to marry because she’s falling for the knight he sent to protect her from undesirable suitors. The IV has a faith element, meaning the heroine and hero each have a relationship with God (without preaching) in addition to the romantic relationship. The HRV has no faith element, though there are mentions of praying and the Church here and there because of the importance of religion in late medieval England. The HRV also has a curse/oath or two. In the HRV, they open the bedroom door. It doesn’t open all the way, shall we say, until more than halfway through. And there’s significantly more sexual tension and physical contact throughout.”

My conversation with Ruth got me thinking about readers who want historical romances that are — to use the industry’s word for it — sweet. In a market where hot seems to be getting hotter, where can such readers go to find the sensuality level they prefer?

As Ruth’s experiment indicates, the inspirational market is one place. The books published in that segment of the market have increased in variety, to the point where some of the writers are crossing over without losing their inspirational roots. One is Julie Klassen, author of the recent The Secret of Pembrooke Park from Bethany House and this July’s Lady Maybe from Berkley: “I simply hope to reach more readers by going with a second publisher who promotes books through different channels. I’m doing this with the blessing of my longtime publisher (Bethany House) and plan to continue publishing with them as well,” she says.

She thinks there is evidence that her books can cross over successfully. “I already hear from many readers who write to say they love my books because they want compelling historicals without overt sex or violence. I also work hard to make sure faith elements are subtle and natural to the time period, plot and characters. Many of my readers are CBA readers, but others prefer the romance shelves and never venture into the inspirational section. Booklist has said my books ‘have wide appeal to both inspirational fans as well as readers who enjoy sweet historical romances.’ I am grateful that is true.”

Other than inspirational, what are the choices? Some authors do write “sweet” today. They can be found among indie writers and also those published by major publishers. One is Erin Knightley. In her new release, The Earl I Adore, Sophie Wembley has mere weeks to secure a husband before looming scandal ruins her chances. When the earl of her dreams shows up in Bath at the summer music festival she is attending, Sophie decides to risk everything in order to pursue the only man she’s ever truly wanted.

The Earl I Adore is PG like her other books — nothing more than a kiss! “Before I was published, I distinctly remember being told by two agents and a bestselling author at my first conference that I would never sell to a major publisher without adding sex or changing to inspirational. I’m so glad I didn’t listen to them!” she says.

Do readers complain that the books are PG? It is not typical of historical romances today, after all, and readers can react when expectations are not met. “Believe it or not, I don’t get a whole lot of comments about the heat level,” she says. “First and foremost, I want to write a really great book that gives the reader a very full and satisfying experience. When it comes to that first kiss, I want my readers to feel it in their stomachs, for their toes to curl, and for them to hold their breath with the sheer intoxication of the moment. If a reader feels that something is missing, then I haven’t done my job. That being said, when the heat level is mentioned, it’s usually a reader commenting positively about it being ‘clean’ or that they were thrilled to be able to share it with their teenage daughter/granddaughter/niece.”

She acknowledges that finding sweet or PG historical romances can be difficult, especially those that do not fit into a subgenre that is known to be sweet. This was echoed by many of the other authors I interviewed. It means even if the books are out there, they can be buried for a reader for whom sensuality levels matter. So it takes a bit of digging.

“As much as I wish there was,” Erin says, “there is not to my knowledge a heat-ranking system on Amazon or any of the other major distributors. RT Magazine rates heat, but three out of five of my books were rated as ‘hot,’ so even that may not be the best way to gauge.” She adds, “Search terms like ‘traditional Regency’ or ‘sweet historical’ can be helpful, but are not as inclusive OR exclusive as one might hope. I think for now, reviews and word of mouth may be a reader’s best option. Oh, and don’t be afraid to ask on social media — you may be surprised how many people will answer!”

Erin in not alone in writing PG historical romances. Other authors include Cindy Holby, who writes Western historicals. She acknowledges that the difficulty in categorizing these books can cause problems at times. “I’ve had my books shelved in inspirational then get bad reviews because of the violence and closed-door sex,” she says. “My books are gritty and real, I just close the door. But a lot of people say I tiptoe the line between inspirational and romance and do it well.”

Susan Gee Heino, author of Miss Farrow’s Feathers, does not limit herself to only PG, but she tries to make sure readers know what they are getting in each of her stories. She has heat levels on her website’s descriptions. “To me, ‘mild’ means that references to sex and/or sexual acts are not present,” she says. “Kissing, yes. Longing, yes. Teasing and hinting, yes and yes. The language used throughout the book is benign. The mid-range heat level, as I’ve defined it, is ‘spicy.’ This means there might be a few more references to sex, maybe a villain who gets a little out of line or a hero making promises he intends to keep, and maybe just a little more unfulfilled lust. There’s still no open-door sex scenes, and very limited groping in the dark. Basically, my characters don’t actually get to do the deed until after the book ends. Then there are the books I call ‘steamy,’ where I do fling the bedroom doors open and let the characters do what they want.”

Some authors mix it up in other ways — they write spicy novels but will write PG novellas. That is the case with Deb Marlowe. “I keep my novellas sweet, even when they are within the same series of more sensual novels. Haven’t had any complaints!” she says.

Erica Ridley’s The Viscount’s Christmas Temptation is the humorous stand-alone prequel novella to her new Dukes of War Regency romance series. Her novels are hotter, and she did hear some reader disappointments. “Interestingly, I got several reviews that said things like, ‘I loved this book! But I’m taking away stars because there wasn’t any sex,'” she says. “Since this novella was released as a free series starter, it reached far more than my usual readers, so it’s hard to say if those kinds of comments are from people who expect sex in books from me or whether those were readers who expect a higher heat level from the genre in general.”

One safe harbor that is tried and true is the subgenre of traditional Regencies. These are different from Regency-set historical romances in many ways besides sensuality level, but that is one big difference to be sure. Twenty-five years ago these were so popular that there were dozens of publishers bringing them out, and some of historical romance’s biggest stars started in them. Today no large press publishes them, but small presses do and some writers publish as indies. Here are some options:

• Reissues of backlisted traditional Regencies can be found on the websites of many authors and online booksellers. Among the authors who have such books available are Loretta Chase, Jo Beverly, Mary Jo Putney, Candice Hern, April Kihlstrom and many others.

• Some authors publish such backlists, but also are writing new traditional Regencies. Check out Cheryl Bolen, Joan Smith, Carla Kelly, Barbara Metzger and Gayle Buck.

• Then there are authors who began writing such books after the golden age and whose works are mostly new, including Mary Blayney, Eileen Fish, Elizabeth Cole, Sue London, Lynn Messina and Susanna Ellis.

If you are looking into exploring the many traditional Regencies available, Candice Hern suggests a search for “sweet Regency romance.” For historical romances, keep your eyes out for “sweet” in reviews and cover blurbs — it doesn’t mean charming or bubble-gum-flavored, but instead signals that the story is not “hot.”

USA TODAY and New York Times bestseller Madeline Hunter is the two-time RITA-winning author of 25 historical romances. Her most recent book, The Accidental Duchess, was published June 3. You can find her at http://www.MadelineHunter.com. To contact Madeline about content for or in this column, please e-mail her at RomanceUnlaced @ gmail.com (close up the spaces). Due to the volume of mail, e-mails from authors may not be answered personally, but all will be read.

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10 thoughts on “How Hot Do You Like It?”

  1. I enjoy a good steamy scene in romance novels also but not over the top, then it can just become comical. Terms like “manhood” and “quivering limbs”, usually make me giggle out loud though 🙂

  2. I love it when its sensual and steamy but tender and sweet too. I can just imagine how difficult it must be to write them. My favorite thing about reading romances is seeing every aspect of a relationship. The physical and the emotional. A talented author will have a balance of both.

  3. I think that comment “sex reveals character” is just an excuse for putting sex into a story. Everything a person does reveals character. You don’t need to see people in the bedroom to learn their character. I think there’s a lot of sex in romances nowadays simply because people like to read about sex, and, in general, sex sells everything.

  4. I’m not the type of person who needs her books to involve sex scenes to like them. I like reading the love scenes, but what I actually need to have in my books is the closeness and the intimacy and love between the characters. Sometimes this translates to love scenes, but not always. I get particularly frustrated when the whole book is about sex. There was this book I read recently that said on the blurb that if you had liked Fifty Shades of Grey, then you would like this story, but when I finished reading it, I was still searching for the plot. I was like “No no no no NO!”

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