Are you one of those people who think that romance novels probably don't have much plot or character development? Yeah, I was one of those people too. That is, until I read Millie Criswell's The Trouble With Mary. This book changed my mind about the romance genre, and I'm not easily swayed in my convictions.
With her kids in middle school and high school, Millie Criswell's life as a mom wasn't as hectic as it used to be. And she wanted to get back to work somehow. So her husband suggested that she try writing a romance novel, since she was always reading them. She gave it a shot. Now she's one of the genre's most prominent authors.
It took about two and a half years from when she first started writing to when she finally sold the third manuscript she wrote. A relatively short time, I'm told, since many people spend their lives trying to make a go of a writing career, and it never happens. What ever happened to those first two manuscripts she wrote? They never got published, but she says she's borrowed from them for various later novels.
Criswell started off by reading about how to write. It had been a while since she'd sat through an English class, so she wanted to refresh her memory about all those important details, like how to use a semi-colon. One book she said was particularly helpful was Maren Elwood's Characters Make Your Story. It's a simple lesson she has remembered well.
That's what you get when you open a Millie Criswell novel: a compelling character story. Her first contemporary novel, The Trouble With Mary, was the first in a series of four books that throw you into the lives and thoughts of many interesting characters, each with their own flaws. And some of their thoughts are certainly amusing!
Mary, the main character, is a 33 year-old woman who, at the beginning of the novel, still lives at home and is, shall we say, less than experienced in the field of romance. She seems somewhat intimidated by life and her mother, but at the same time has a hot temper. Her best friend, Annie (the female lead in the second novel, What to Do About Annie) is wild, lives by her own rules, and encourages her inexperienced friend to get out in the world.
When flipping through a page-turner such as this (a cliché phrase, perhaps, but true in this case), it's hard to imagine the person at the other end of the book, who, a year or two prior, diligently kept to a work schedule, with breaks for lunch and laundry of course. But that's what it's about. "It takes discipline," says Criswell. And it's a process.
Criswell says she starts out with a synopsis of the general story idea. Then she often does character profiles, because, she says, "You have to know the characters first, to see what's driving them." Then you just need to get writing. And you need to stick to a schedule. Fortunately for Criswell, she's not often plagued by that evil little syndrome known all too well by most writers as "writer's block." But in the rare case when it does strike, Criswell says she gets away from the computer, sits down with a paper and pen and just lets the words come out. She says you can't worry about first drafts. "You just have to get the words down. You can fix it later."
It seems like her process certainly works well. By profiling her characters first, Criswell knows how they think, what motivates them, and how they'll react to certain situations.
Criswell began writing historical romances; her Brazen Virginia Bride was set in her native Virginia. She says that accuracy is important when writing such novels. People are drawn by the romance, but don't want to read about Ben Franklin participating in the gold rush when that just didn't happen. A good deal of research goes into the work, and with help from ever-reliable copy editors, most historical inaccuracies are caught before hitting the bookshelves.
Although she began in historical fiction, Millie Criswell has expanded beyond that, experimenting with various novel types within the genre. Her first dip into the contemporary romance scene went over very well with The Trouble With Mary. Over the years she's written historical, contemporary, as well as the relatively new "chick lit" (along the lines of "Bridget Jones' Diary") romances.
Having established herself as a romance author, Criswell says that joining Romance Writers of America (RWA) is one of the best things she did, and one of the best things an aspiring romance writer can do today. They conduct writing and professionalism workshops that can help new writers who are looking to establish themselves. She says that any writer should get involved in an organization like RWA that pertains to his/her area of interest.
Criswell is currently involved in releasing three major novels. Look for her latest, Suddenly Single, a novel about a woman recently separated from her husband, this month from Harlequin Flipside. In the fall look for Body Language, a story about a romance between translators for the UN, and next fall, No Strings Attached, both from Harlequin HQN.
For someone who began a writing career on a somewhat spur of the moment decision, Millie Criswell has established herself as an accomplished author. She has a knack for creating realistic and humorous characters that make her works enjoyable to read, and that's what romance is supposed to be about: fun. So give romance a try, and start with Millie Criswell.