A long time ago, on a hilltop far, far away, I started writing category Romance. With two pre-schoolers to run herd on, I fed my appetite for reading with short, satisfying Romances I could gulp down during nap time. So when stuck with said pre-schoolers inside for a week during a blizzard, I began to scribble down one of the stories in my head in a notebook. It was intended to save my sanity, and became a career and a passion.
Writing Harlequin-style Romances was a natural choice as I gobbled them during this time period. I’d grown up reading everything–everyone in my house read everything– but at this particular turn of my road, category Romances comprised the bulk of my reading.
My career roots in Romance spread over the next decade or two. One of the appeals to me was this was a genre that could, and did, include everything. You could, especially when the genre and the market evolved, add elements of mystery, suspense, paranormal, horror, comedy, fantasy. As long as the story contained a core romantic relationship, tied things up with a happy ending, you could rock on.
I continued to write category even as I expanded into writing mainstream novels, and produced 100 books for Silhouette before I turned off that road. With Bantam, then Putnam (which became Penguin-Putnam which became Penguin Random House), and now St. Martin’s Press I wrote and continue to write Romantic Suspense, I wrote trilogies–straight relationship or with elements of fantasy and paranormal. I began the In Death series as JD Robb.
The In Death series certainly took me onto another lane of the highway. I thought of these as relationship mysteries/police procedurals with continuing characters set in the near future–which gave them a science fiction light touch.
Mostly they were and are fun and interesting stories for me to write, with core characters I adore and enjoy. That makes them tremendously satisfying creatively.
The Romantic Suspense novels I write drive down another lane on the highway. They’re not a part of a series, sometimes have more than one romantic relationship, generally have other non-romantic relationships–friendships, family–as writing about people is what I do. For these it may be a setting that flicks on the light bulb, or a character type, or a situation. For The Obsession, for instance, that flash was: What’s it like to be the child of a serial killer?
As I write without much of a structured plan, relying more on Let’s See What Happens next, I have to be very engaged in the story, very connected to the characters to see it all through. That first flick on has to pull me in.
The trilogies I do wind down another lane. For these everything’s broader and interconnected. The concept has to tell me, this needs more room, and has a theme or goal that can weave through three books. Whether straight relationship, like the Born In trilogy, or The Bride Quartet, or with those paranormal elements, like The Circle Trilogy or Three Sisters Island, the initial concept always included that central romance, and the romance highlighted in each book would be resolved in that particular book.
I conceived them as one big book in three distinct parts, each containing–whether it be mortal, wizard, business-woman or vampire–that elemental romantic relationship.
Writing on those different lanes of the highway has served to keep me fresh and creatively satisfied–and it seems to me gives readers a lot of choices in my work. Some like the Robb series, some don’t. Some like the more traditional relationship, some are eager for the more magickal, others prefer the suspense.
But when you offer a variety, the downside is those who prefer one gripe when you offer another. That’s just how it goes. If a writer discovers how to satisfy every reader every time, I really want to have a sit-down with him or her and learn the secret. But in the meantime, I have to pay attention to that flick of light and turn down the road where it shines for me.
And so, some time ago, that light flicked on a turn off the highway, a detour, an unexplored road. It’s a little risky to take that turn, see where it takes you. But it’s also exciting. And challenging.
The flash of this light didn’t beam on the Romance of my roots, or how my own work has evolved around it, and frankly, away from what the genre is today. It shined on something different, something I saw as more a Fantasy saga. Relationships, absolutely. Books and stories for me are all about the people in them, how they relate, or don’t. Touches of romance, sure, but at least in the opening book, the story can’t center on a central love story and hold for the rest.
I thought about it for quite awhile, played with it in my head, chewed on it, studied the concept from different angles. The light didn’t dim, so I turned off and followed it.
Year One — the first of this different sort of trilogy — begins a journey, for me as a writer, for the characters within, and hopefully for the reader who wants to take a chance with me. It begins with a global crisis, a pandemic that wipes away much of the population and opens a door to magicks. Black and white, courage and cowardice, the determination to survive and rebuild, the evolution of powers for good or ill. And the light again, that’s hope and love and bravery that shines through.
The process of structuring this story–and laying the groundwork for the two that will follow–presented a creative challenge, the need to take a leap, a lot of sweaty work, a larger cast of characters to develop and connect to, multiple relationships to weave, the logistics of world building. Because even when you’re basically destroying the world, you’re building another.
For the first time in too long to remember a book woke me up at night, or kept me up. What do I do about this, how will I resolve that, how does that even make any stupid sense? It wouldn’t leave me alone, so I knew it had me, however it turned out. I had to follow that light and see where it took me.
Writing it proved hard and bumpy and frustrating and tremendous fun. Finishing it was, for me, monumental. The relief that my editor didn’t say WTF when she read it, beyond enormous. It matters, a lot, to be satisfied with a finished manuscript. It matters, a whole giant bunch of a lot, when an editor a writer knows and trusts, whose purpose is to publish, package, market a book and help it be the best it can be, gives the work two thumbs up.
I already know the following two books that will comprise this trilogy will be hard and bumpy and frustrating and fun. But I’m on the road now, and I’m enjoying the scenery.
Normally, I wouldn’t have a lot to say to readers about a book that won’t be out for a year, or a trilogy that’s only just begun on my end. In this case, since it’s different, since it’s not Romance or built on the framework of the genre, and is a turn off onto a new road rather than a different lane, I thought it fair to let those who follow my work know something else is coming.
I understand some might think: But this isn’t what I want from her! That’s okay, don’t worry. The In Death series will continue. The Suspense novels with that core love story (or stories) will continue to pull me in. But you’ve got to follow the light, go where ideas pull you. And hope that readers take the journey with you.