I am excited to welcome author Dru Pagliassotti, who is discussing how she threw out romance genre expectations and kept Taya happily married in Clockwork Lies: Iron Wind.
Love and duty collide when Taya is appointed attaché to Ondinium’s first exalted ambassador and is soon plunged into a sinister world of secrets and lies. After the diplomatic contingent’s hasty withdrawal from Mareaux to avoid an international incident, Taya’s faith is shaken by a disastrous crash and a tragic murder, which reveals just how much she has to lose. Now, if she’s going to fulfill her duty to her nation, she must risk everything she cares about. As the winds of war whip around Ondinium’s borders, Taya’s metal wings must bear her through storms, gunfire, and explosions as she fights to save them not only from their enemies, but also from their own government — a government that regards them as nothing more than clockwork cogs in a ruthless political machine.
Make sure you stick around to the end. We’ll be giving away an ecopy of Clockwork Heart.
Turbulent Romance vs Martial Bliss in Romance Novels
I wrote Clockwork Heart as a standalone novel. When I was asked to write more, I panicked: “But — but the characters are together now!”
Have you ever noticed that in most romantic series, the couple remains eternally divided? It’s part of the formula. In A Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003), Pamela Regis defines eight essential elements of the contemporary Western romance novel, of which two are The Barrier — the reason(s) why the couple can’t get together — and The Point of Ritual Death — the moment at which the union seems absolutely impossible. In other words, romance depends on keeping a couple apart until the last minute. In a romantic series, the couple needs to be kept apart over and over, their “happily ever after” kept dangling out of reach until the series comes to an end.
So what in the world was I going to do with my couple if I wrote a Clockwork Heart series?
One solution I’d seen used elsewhere would be for my protagonist, Taya, to find herself unable to choose between romantic options. In other words, I’d have to bring in a romantic rival. I hesitated. I’ve seen that “oh, dear, I just can’t decide” plotline stretched over thirteen or fourteen novels in some series, and I get fed up with it by the end of the second book. Indecision isn’t an admirable character trait, and it would be tacky for Taya to have committed to someone at the end of Clockwork Heart and then backpedal in the sequel.
I wouldn’t do that to her or my readers.
My other options? Barriers can be external or internal. External forces could include a set of parents forbidding the union; one of the couple being sent away to school, to a new job, to war, etc.; or a social or religious prohibition against the pairing that must be surmounted or escaped. Another type might be an enemy deliberately undermining the couple’s faith in each other with gossip and lies.
Interesting ideas, but I couldn’t see them working well without having been built in from book one. Both of my characters were independent enough not to let tradition stop them from doing what they wanted, and gossip and lies only work if the characters take them at face value. My characters had a nasty habit of talking to each other, and open communication quickly derails malicious gossip.
That nasty habit of talking also made traditional internal barriers difficult to use. Miscommunications, misunderstandings, misconceptions, mistaken identities, and misguided secrets are common fare in romance novels, often leaving me wanting to shout, “Just talk to each other, for heaven’s sake!” The characters are prevented from talking, however, by pride or fear. While my characters weren’t immune to either weakness, they’d largely worked them out by the end of Clockwork Heart, and I couldn’t see them suddenly being afraid to open up to each other again in the sequels.
I finally gave up. Clearly, I wasn’t going to be able to satisfy genre expectations and stay true to my story. Instead, I decided to start the second book with Taya happily married. And I kept her that way throughout.
Sure, Taya and her husband negotiate a few marital bumps now and then, but with a little conversation and a lot of patience they sidestep the high drama that plagues so many other married couples in fantasy fiction. No tumultuous arguments, no throwing the others’ possessions out the window, no bitter accusations of infidelity, no public humiliation or private histrionics — they wouldn’t do that to each other because they’re friends as well as lovers, just like the married couples I admire most in real life.
My primary inspiration for their marriage dynamic was the crime-fighting team Nick and Nora Charles in Dashiell Hammet’s The Thin Man and all the movies spun off from the book. My secondary inspiration was the city guard team of Hawk and Fisher from Simon R. Green’s Haven fantasy series; one of the few examples of a contentedly adventuring husband-and-wife team that I could find in fantasy. For some reason, husband-and-wife teams are a lot rarer in fantasy than in mystery.
There are other husband-and-wife teams in fantasy, of course — I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Alexia and Conall from Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate steampunk novels — but there’s usually a level of tension between them that keeps readers wondering how well the marriage will survive. Husband-and-wife teams in the mystery genre appear to be more capable of working in tandem. I don’t know why that might be.
So what did my decision mean for the series’ “steampunk romance” label? Clockwork Heart is a steampunk romance. Its sequels, Clockwork Lies: Iron Wind and Clockwork Secrets: Heavy Fire, are steampunk adventures. Taya and her husband are still in love, but the heady rush of their initial courtship has passed. As the second novel opens, they’ve settled down into a comfortable, mutually supportive relationship that will provide them with the solid emotional foundation they’ll need in the dangerous months to come. But for better or for worse, a supportive and loving relationship isn’t a “romance” as the genre is defined today.
Let me be clear — I enjoy reading novels about the emotional clash and fireworks of a turbulent romance, too. But I hope they aren’t mandatory. I guess I’ll find out — Clockwork Lies: Iron Wind recently came out, so I’m hoping that readers will agree with me that a stable marriage isn’t necessarily a dull marriage, and that a happily married couple can still have adventures together. Maybe we wouldn’t want to read about happy couples all the time, but once in a while they can certainly be a refreshing change of pace!
(For a list of some of the best-known husband-and-wife teams in mystery novels, see Regina Library.)
Meet Dru Pagliassotti!
Dru Pagliassotti writes steampunk (Clockwork Heart) and horror (An Agreement with Hell) and owns The Harrow Press, which publishes horror fiction anthologies (Midnight Lullabies, Day Terrors, and the upcoming Mortis Operandi). Her stories can be found on Amazon as standalones (Alien Shots: After the Sleep) and in anthologies (Apexology: Horror and Corsets & Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances).
Dru is also a professor at California Lutheran University, where she teaches media studies and, to her colleagues’ bemusement, researches boys’ love manga (Boys’ Love Manga: Essays on the Sexual Ambiguity and Cross-Cultural Fandom of the Genre) and male/male romance fiction.
Want to purchase Dru’s novels?
An Agreement with Hell
Thank you Dru for taking the time to stop by Literary Escapism!
We’re giving away an ecopy of Clockwork Heart. To enter, all you have to do is answer this one question: Who are some of your favorite literary husband-wife or long established couples? Remember, you must answer the question in order to be entered.
Contest ends at midnight on July 8th.