Writing Modern Women: A Moving Target By Sarah Hegger

Saturday, August 01, 2015

When I wrote the Willow Park Romance series, I no longer needed to know how many miles a bullock cart could travel in one day or who occupied the English throne. Having written mainly medieval historical before this, contemporary romance brought a whole new set of challenges. The settings and everyday details of contemporary were familiar. The challenge lay in writing stories modern women could relate to. For the reader to feel as if they knew the heroine.

I joined that boisterous male chorus chanting: “Who can understand women?”

It took me back to when I was still at university. A very good friend of mine wrote her thesis for her Italian Literature honors degree on the romance novel. These were the days when we used to drive down to the second-hand bookstore, load up on romance novels by the grocery bag, then hide them under our beds from our literary snob mothers. Secret night binge reading with ice cream and cheap wine commenced.
Back to the thesis. Phlée (a nickname, don’t ask) shocked and intrigued her literary professors with her subject matter. Writing the entire thing in Italian, Phlée used the romance novel as a mirror for the emancipation of women. Her argument was that as women’s role in society changed, this was reflected in romance novels. The idea has stuck with me, and some twenty-something years later, it made me want to reflect the lives of the women I knew in the books I wrote.

When I first got hooked on the novels of the late Dame Barbara Cartland, the heroines were all shy, definitely virginal, much younger than the hero, and if they worked, it was ‘gentle’ occupation—nanny, companion, housekeeper. The hero was often ‘greying’ at the temples, very wealthy, domineering and would swoop in and rescue her from her ‘fate’.

So, let’s jump forward to where we are now. As women have entered all parts of the workplace, so have their heroines. As women have demanded to be treated as equals, so have their heroines. We have heroines earning more money than their hero, women competing and often winning in contests of strength, skill, and will. And gasp women taking control of their sexuality.

The heroes have had a similar metamorphosis from rigid, controlling cartoon cutouts, to heroes with real flaws, wicked senses of humor, and despite all their alpha blustering, a warm gooey center that draws the reader in.

The stories have grown as well, to reflect real issues that affect real women. I don’t think there’s a romance author alive who hasn’t been treated to the eye roll scenario. People ask what you write, you tell them, and there goes the eye roll along with phrases like: “So you write those books, all heaving bosoms and pulsating manhoods.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I haven’t read of any bosoms heaving in the last fifteen years or so. And manhoods, pulsating or otherwise, have not crossed an editor’s desk in even longer. As women readers and writers change, it’s no big mystery that their counterparts in books change too.

The authors I love and aspire to, write stories that keep it real. Women we can identify and empathize with. Stories we recognize, not just from our own lives, but from women around us. Who doesn’t know a woman who’s been drawn in by a smooth talker and then dumped? Who hasn’t been dumped for that matter? We all know stories of abuse. Some of us are unfortunate enough to have suffered them personally.

As a contemporary writer, I focused on keeping it real. And this is what I came up with.
Lucy, the heroine of Nobody’s Angel, is a recovering alcoholic who’s returned home to deliver her amends. The hardest of those amends is to the man whose heart she broke, Richard. This being a romance novel, of course it takes Lucy a few days to realize that her feelings for Richard are not over. But other than the romance, the point to Lucy is all about forgiveness and redemption. It was important to me not to make excuses for Lucy. I’ve certainly done things I’m ashamed of. Sometimes there were good reasons leading up to what I did, sometimes I just messed up, and now I have to own that. And that is essentially what Lucy does through the book, owns her mistakes, forgives herself and moves on.

In Nobody’s Fool, Holly jumped onto the page for me from day one. Like so many women I know, Holly focuses solely on those around her. She forgets herself in the process of caring for those she loves. I’m a firm believer in finding your power and your joy. In the real world we all have responsibilities, but they shouldn’t come at the cost of our own fulfillment. I take Holly on a journey to balance her responsibilities with her needs and wants.

The last in the series, Nobody’s Princess, is about Tiffany, a woman battling to find her identity. Between being daddy’s princess, the beauty queen, and the perfect fiancée, she’s lost sight of Tiffany. This was also a book about how as women we can become defined by our outward appearance. Tiffany has to reach inside and find Tiffany—the real one—flawed, wonderful, quirky, and on occasion, misguided Tiffany. She needs to meld together those disparate parts of herself and learn to like and accept who she is.
Did I succeed? You’d have to ask my readers that question. But in writing Lucy, Holly and Tiffany it took me back to Phlée’s thesis. None of the issues I tackle in my books would have been possible when I first started reading romance novels. Times have changed, women have changed and writing the modern woman is a constantly moving target. And as I watch my two teen girls grow and mature, I look forward to where women will develop next, and writing those stories too.