At first blush, it may seem like romance and suspense have little in common. But fans of romantic suspense novels and the authors associated with the subgenre know one thing to be true: romance and suspense are a perfect, singular literary match. Both genres are fraught with tension, peppered with intrigue, shrouded in mystery, and characterized by heightened, often uncontrollable emotions. Perhaps most importantly, both romance and suspense deal with a very specific fear: the fear of being vulnerable. When you combine the physical fear of an outside force with the fear of letting someone past your mental and emotional barriers, a truly compelling story can emerge.
Romance and suspense are a match made in heaven — a happily ever after just waiting to happen.
Two of the most popular faces of the romantic suspense subgenre are New York Times bestselling authors Carla Neggers and Brenda Novak. The two have collectively penned over 100 novels, but their most recent releases include Neggers' Liar's Key, out Aug. 30, and Novak's The Secrets She Kept, out now. Needless to say, these women know a thing or two about how romantic suspense works and why it works. Bustle asked Neggers and Novak to explain the dynamics of romance and suspense and break down why the two genres are such an unconventional match. Here's what they said:
Carla Neggers: Brenda, let me start off by asking you if people ever wonder how you—a mother of five and a romance novelist—come up with some of the dark stuff you write about?
Brenda Novak: Because what I write ranges so broadly, from the sweeter, small town contemporary romances (like a Robyn Carr or Susan Mallery type of novel) to the dark, Sandra Brown kinds of thriller, with my Fairham Island books (The Secret Sister and The Secrets She Kept) falling somewhere in between, I get that question quite often. The answer for me is that I’m such an eclectic reader it inspires me to take an interest in quite a few of the various subgenres of romance. Notice I said “subgenre.” I never stray too far from where my heart resides, and that’s firmly in a good love story. So what draws me, as a reader and a writer, to the suspense part of a good romantic suspense novel? I’d say it’s the strong plot. A clever puzzle or mystery can provide a great framework for the romance. It can also heighten every emotion and thereby add a great deal of dimension and intrigue. Sometimes the suspense might overpower the romance, or vice versa, but in a true romantic suspense novel, these two elements are so woven tightly together that one depends on and heightens the other in a somewhat equal way.
Wouldn’t you say that’s the case, Carla? What draws you to this particular genre—and why do you think it’s so appealing to readers?
Carla Neggers: I agree that romantic suspense works best when you can’t tweeze out one or the other or divide them into percentages—X% suspense and X% romance. It’s one story. As a reader, I discovered romantic suspense when I checked out Mary Stewart’s The Moon-Spinners from my local library as a kid. I didn’t know it was called romantic suspense, just that I was drawn to the characters, setting, storytelling, the mystery and sense of danger, the action and the romance. I went back to the library and devoured everything Mary Stewart wrote. She wrote in a different time, but the intertwining of great suspense and satisfying romance has a perennial appeal for readers and for writers. As authors, we bring our own individual voice and sensibilities to what we write. Romantic suspense can be light, edgy, gritty, dark, sexy, the violence “on stage” or off, plot-driven or character-driven— its breadth is part of the thrill for readers as well as for writers.
Brenda, I’d love to get your take on the challenges and opportunities of the stand-alone romantic suspense novel versus a romantic suspense series? While Liar's Key the sixth book in my Sharpe and Donovan series, I’ve also written stand-alone romantic suspense novels. Do you have a preference?
Brenda Novak: Somehow I missed Mary Stewart, but I read Jane Eyre when I was nine or 10 and absolutely loved it. Iconic for its dark, gothic tone, it’s a great example of how a little mystery and danger can enhance a good romance. I was biting my nails at the mysterious sounds in the night, the fire and the shocking discovery of the hidden woman, which then, of course, further complicated the romantic conflict. I see it as a textbook example of what I was saying before—that the romance and the suspense need to enhance each other. I've loved stories that mix these elements ever since.
As far as the opportunities and challenges of writing a stand-alone romantic suspense novel versus a romantic suspense series, I'd have to say it depends. If the series is built on a family (like my Stillwater Trilogy) or an organization (like my Last Stand series), it's easier. I get to return to a locale, a cast of characters and even a set-up that's familiar to me instead of having to create an entirely new world. But if the series focuses on the same lead couple throughout (like my new Evelyn Talbot Chronicles), it's much more difficult. Drawing out the romantic conflict for too long can become tedious to the reader and yet having the characters fall into a committed relationship can kill the sexual tension. So an author really has to be on her toes to make the other types of intrigue/tension/conflict so engrossing that it can carry the series.
Carla, have you found this to be difficult with your Sharpe and Donovan series? What are some of the things you've done to overcome this challenge?
Carla Neggers: Great points, Brenda. Having Emma Sharpe and Colin Donovan as continuing, central characters has its challenges, but that’s part of what excites me as a writer. Emma and Colin are at the core of each book and their relationship develops as the series progresses, but other relationships come up and develop. In a series, work, friends, family, colleagues, settings and even certain villains all can provide an endless source of inspiration. It’s a lot of fun but we sure do have to stay on our toes as authors! Readers have written to me with their thoughts on what’s next for Finian Bracken, an Irish priest and Emma and Colin’s confidante. They want to know whether he’ll quit the priesthood and get married. It’s exciting for me when readers take such an interest in a recurring character. I do that myself as a reader!
What about you, Brenda? What are your thoughts on recurring characters in a romantic suspense series? Anything goes? Do they get their own romance, turn into villains, get killed off?
Brenda Novak: The recurring characters are a fabulous “well” to draw from, especially if they have an interesting backstory, profession or goal. I do kill some of them off. Others I save as leads for future books. I particularly like to work with “wounded” characters — those who need to find some way to become whole. I also like to redeem characters who may be wrongly perceived — incorporating the old “don’t judge a book by its cover” theme.
Fortunately, in a romantic suspense novel, these types are in good supply, because many of the characters are private investigators, detectives, ex-military, and police and the people who fulfill those roles often contend with some very challenging situations. I believe this is the biggest reason readers love the genre. Romantic suspense provides a safe way to experience extreme emotion — intense passion, fear, life-and-death situations — all while knowing there will be a satisfactory ending, just like with every other kind of romance.
Which brings up another question, Carla. Do you believe every romantic suspense novel needs to end with a happy-ever-after, which is the typical convention of a romance novel, or do you think readers can be content with happy-for now?
Carla Neggers: I’m drawn to a happy-ever-after ending, but I can see happy-for-now working, especially in a series. We might have to wait several books for the happy-ever-after. For me, it’s trickier with a stand-alone romantic suspense novel. That happy-ever-after is a great payoff after we’ve experienced so much shoulder-to-shoulder with these characters! Whether a book is part of a series or a standalone, I also like having a sense of completion with the story itself. Continuing threads are one thing but I want do know “whodunit” in the book I’m reading or writing! But I never say never, and who knows where various writers might take us when they dive into a story. So much boils down to the characters. Federal agents, police detectives, ex-military and so forth are naturals in romantic suspense, but the “amateur” up against a tough villain presents a different kind of tension and options and can also be great to read and write about.
I can’t say it enough: romantic suspense is a wide-open genre! Thanks for chatting about this fascinating genre, Brenda. This has been fun.
Beginning on August 1, Bustle will host Romance Novel Month, a celebration and examination of the romance novel genre. But don't worry, romance readers: the coverage won't end in August. We're proud to support romance novels, and we will continue to do so all year long.
Images: Alyssa Foote/Bustle