A Call to Romance? Why I’d Rather Read Than Write

Last month, I came across an Avon Books  ad in a bookish publication.  It was a call for romance manuscripts.

From now until September 15, 2019, we are accepting manuscripts of all subgenres of Adult romance fiction – HEA (happily ever after) or HFN (happy for now) required! 

 I took this as a call to arms–the arms of Love, that is.  Of course romance is an old frenemy.  Surely I could scribble one of these between episodes of Poldark. I don’t read the genre, but I can research the hell out of anything.  

The problem:  I don’t enjoy modern romance novels.   I prefer the Gothic novels of the ’50s and ’60s whose covers portray women in miniskirts or negligees fleeing along cliffs from dark mansions.  Why not start with Mary Stewart, the master, I asked.  And so I reread her 1959 novel, My Brother Michael, which  I’d been meaning to do anyway, because, if I’m not mistaken, there is a playful allusion to it in Grant Ginder’s new novel, Honestly, I Meant Well (which I wrote about here).

I have a soft spot for Stewart’s heroine Camilla Haven, a Latin teacher on vacation in Greece. She has just broken up with her fiancé, and, worse, her friend Elizabeth, who was to travel with her, broke her leg right before their trip.  It is fair to say that Camilla is feeling low as she sits alone in a cafe in Athens. “Nothing ever happens to me,” she writes.

Then a stranger approaches her, mistaking her for someone called “Simon’s Girl.” This other woman had rented a car to Delphi and said  it wasmatter of life and death. Camilla decides to take the car: she had wanted an adventure, and now she’s found one.  And she thinks it’s her duty to find this Simon.  

The only Simon in Delphi turns out to be an Englishman who teaches Greek. (Now there’s a match made in heaven!)  But he did not order a car.  He has come to honor his brother Michael, who was murdered during the war.  Soon they are embroiled in a mystery involving betrayal, art, stolen treasure, and, in a way, the gods of Delphi.  

I have tragically realized that I can’t write like Mary Stewart, whose landscape descriptions  are breathtaking, but I have devised my plot.  I have borrowed the names and professions of Stewart’s Camilla and Simon for inspiration.  

Camilla, a Latin teacher who lives in Baltimore, has just won a Teacher of the Year Award.  She is partly exultant and partly ironic—but mostly thrilled. Her boyfriend Philip receives the news in silence and then announces he is moving out.  Will she spend the summer writing in her diary and watching Meg Ryan movies?

Fortunately, she is offered a free vacation on the gorgeous Maryland shore in exchange for running her friend Elizabeth’s used bookstore.   Camilla is has settled in, and is sitting in a cozy leather chair with a glass of wine and a copy of Horace when Simon, an unshaven Greek teacher who has backpacked from God knows where, bursts in.  It turns out Elizabeth had also asked him to take over the bookstore for a few weeks…and he had mixed up the dates with Camilla’s.

Am I actually writing this?  Well…I haven’t started.

But I am reading another novel by Mary Stewart.  She is very good!