Those who read this issue of REaD ALERT last fall know that I am no expert in romance (the genre, I mean, not the art of)–in fact, a couple of them sent me e-mails, strongly worded, decrying my lack of expertise. There are, of course, many holes in my reading knowledge, but for my New Year’s resolution, I decided to try to plug some of them, asking readers to recommend suitable works in the genres–romance, sf, western, etc.–that I don’t know enough about. I received many helpful responses, so many that I haven’t even managed to compile my tentative reading list yet.
But no matter, because fate has played a role, and I got started on my romance reading purely by accident. Attending the Love Is Murder conference in Chicago last weekend, I found myself assigned to moderate a panel called “Writing Sexual Tension.” Was I surprised? You bet. I do a little writing on the side, and, in my four books, there are exactly two and a half sex scenes. But at least I would be asking the questions, not answering them.
My panel consisted of Jennifer Turner, J. L. Wilson, and John Galligan. I think that John, who writes the Fly Fishing Mystery series, was as surprised as I was to find himself on the panel–but more on that in a moment. I asked each author to send me one of their books. Jenny Turner sent me My Biker Bodyguard, J. L. Wilson sent Ex-Wives, Extortion, and Erotic First Editions, and John sent me The Nail Knot.
Given that I only had about a week to prepare, I knew I wouldn’t finish all three books in time (I was also on deadline to review Lawrence Block’s A Drop of the Hard Stuff), but I dug in and read as much as I could. I wouldn’t have picked up the two romances if I wasn’t interviewing their authors, but I did enjoy them more than I thought I would, and I was impressed with the way both Turner and Wilson got their stories going: both of their books start quickly, have likable characters and clearly defined premises, and pull the reader right along. My Biker Bodyguard is a bit like an action movie with plenty of sexual tension, and Ex-Wives is part mystery, part road trip (with plenty of sexual tension). Both of them are pretty fun, and I’m definitely not the target audience.
The one book I did read to the end was The Nail Knot. Galligan, who teaches writing in Madison, Wisconsin, takes a potentially goofy scenario (a trout bum named Dog finds a body near Black Earth, Wisconsin, and solves a mystery due to his knowledge of fly fishing) and delivers a story with intelligence, feeling–and a satisfying conclusion. And, lo and behold, a slow-building romance between Dog and Junior (who’s a she), has plenty of . . . sexual tension.
Any worries I had about moderating the panel were quelled as soon as we started: despite the difference in our approaches and backgrounds, good writing is good writing, and the authors all had smart–and sometimes similar–things to say about craft. Creating sexual tension in a story is, it turns out, pretty much like creating any kind of storytelling tension: if readers don’t care about the characters, it won’t work.
Not to say there weren’t some lighter moments. Galligan cracked us all up when he explained that, as a kid, he had learned something about both sex and metaphors from a howlingly bad line in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. I can’t recall it exactly, but it involved putting arrows into a quiver. That book did go on to become a cultural touchstone, of course, but had Puzo consulted a romance writer, he could have improved the sex scenes.