A floaty green dress and sandals

A floaty green dress and sandals

We think romance is about him and her, right? That it’s Lizzie and Darcy dancing at a ball, emotions pushing at each other. Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. Anna Karenina and Alexei Vronsky.

And, OK, that’s true. But there are two sides to romance and they both matter.

There’s romance when the two protagonists are on the page together. And the romance that happens when they’re apart. They both matter – and I want to do a little bit of dissection of both.

Him and her

So here, to start with, is a chunk of early Fiona, with her at an early stage of her first important relationship. The two not-yet-lovers are both coppers. In this scene, they’re sharing a moment on the office stairs. My comments in square brackets.

The door at the top bangs and Brydon’s tread starts to clatter down. He’s both heavy and light. Heavy because he’s a biggish lad, and light because he has a natural athleticism, a bounce that carries through into every movement he makes.

[In any decent romance, the physical presence of the other is a note that wants to carry through into most encounters. The constant awareness plus a good splash of attraction.]


‘Sorry to grab you. I just had to see you. Sorry.’

Brydon is on the step above me and I’m talking somewhere in the region of his belly button. ‘First things first, Fiona,’ he tells me. He comes down a step, then hoists me up to where he’d been standing. We’re still not eyeball to eyeball, but we’re a lot closer.

[This shows the man being manly – taking control, lifting his girl. She’s accepting of all that – in effect playing a very traditional female role here, though she is not in general very traditional at all.]

‘Do I see DC Griffiths in a dress?’ he says. ‘Have all relevant authorities been notified?’

That’s Brydon humour for you, like it or lump it.

‘And heels,’ I say. ‘Look.’

[Here, we see both Fiona’s inner and outer worlds. The inner one notes Brydon’s rather ponderous joke – affectionately, yes, but without admiration. But she doesn’t give Brydon that ‘rather ponderous joke there’ memo. Instead, she flirts in a tiny way, by calling attention to something prettily feminine. The fact that she chooses the soft route here, not the more abrasive one, tells you a lot about her choices, her inner emotional state.]

He smiles at me. A nice smile, but I know that half his mind is occupied by the clock. He needs to get off to London as soon as he can […]

‘I just wanted to tell you I might need to take things slow.’


‘It’s just . . . things can get a bit crazy in my head, and slow tends to be better than fast.’


‘I don’t want you to think that because I—’

I’m not sure what I’m trying to say, so I end up not saying anything.

‘You don’t want me to think that, although you almost walked out into a line of cars on Cathedral Road last night, you’ve got some kind of death wish.’

‘That’s it,’ I say. ‘That’s exactly what I was trying to say.’

The scene closes with female, emotional awkwardness and a male rescue – a rescue notable for the simple directness of Brydon: he physically moves her to a better position, he makes dad-jokes, he says ‘OK’ when she signals emotional complexity, and so on. That simple directness isn’t a limitation of Brydon: it’s what Fiona seeks and needs. (And what, ultimately, will prevent their union.)

What I really notice about this scene, reading it back, is that Fiona adopts, for the purposes of this early romance, the posture of girlfriend. She simplifies herself and feminises herself. It’s not fake, that. She’s flirting. She’s in love. But nor do we see the full Fiona here – the one who is quite likely to throw a bad guy off a cliff, or smoke a joint, or expose others to her abrasive humour.

I think that, probably, in any early romantic scene, we’ll feel the presence of the physical, the jostle of traditional male / female roles, and self adapting to the presence of this lovely other.

Her without him

Now none of this is at all unexpected. But I do especially want to point out that the romance continues – and is just as intense and maybe even more so – when one of the parties is absent. Here’s how the scene above plays out once Brydon has gone:

He’s off. Up the steps. Heavy and light. Thumping the door at the top open so hard that it whacks against its doorstop. The stairwell echoes with the noise of his departure… [A big male departure in other words. Even the sound of his going carries his physical presence.]

I sit on the step, getting my head into shape again. My pulse rate is high, but it’s steady. I count my breaths, trying to bring my breathing down to a more relaxed range …

This isn’t love and this isn’t happiness. But it’s like I’m in the hallway and can hear their music spilling out of the living room. Their laughter and candlelight. I’m not there yet. I do know the difference. I’ve had just a single date with Dave Brydon. Nothing that remotely constitutes a relationship. These are early, early days and anything could happen from here. But for once in my life, for once in my hopeless crackpot life, I’m not just in the same timezone, I’m actually shouting-distance close to the love-’n’-happiness twins.

I feel the feelings, piece by miraculous piece. Bum on a concrete step. Heart thumping. A floaty green dress and sandals with two-and-a-half-inch heels. A man who hoisted me up a step because I was talking into his belly button. This is what humans feel like when they are getting ready to fall in love.

I get up from my step and walk slowly back upstairs to my desk.

I’ve compacted this scene quite a bit for reasons of length. (Fiona’s relationships with her own feelings is odd, so it takes her awhile to figure out her own thoughts.) But what you feel here is the huge presence of Dave Brydon, even when he’s not there. I almost want to say: especially when he’s not there.

When the two of them are together, Fiona can’t get into the detail of her feelings too much: there isn’t the space to do it. With him gone? The world opens up: “I’m in the hallway and can hear their music spilling out of the living room. Their laughter and candlelight.” She can start to review those feelings in detail. Her review of the situation still includes all the elements necessary to the start of a hot (and hopeful) relationship:

  • Self as feminine. (The floaty green dress and sandals.)
  • Self as physically embodied. (Bum on a concrete step. Heart thumping.)
  • Physical and masculine presence of the other. (A man who hoisted me up a step.)
  • Feelings as rare and precious (piece by miraculous piece.)

Him and him, her and her

If you only felt the romance on the page when the two people were present, that romance would fail to ignite. It would be incomplete. It’s the two things together – romance with, and romance without – that gives you your complete brew.

I’ve never really written a gay relationship, so I can’t speak with authority there. But I think the basic principles remain the same. In the chunks we’ve just read, we see Fiona self-simplify, into someone more feminine than she really is, in order to get her man. That process of self-simplification will, I think, happen in gay relationships too, just not necessarily along classic masculine / feminine lines. If you have insights here, do please share them!

Romance with a lower case r

I’ve only once written something that would be classified as a real Romance novel – it was longlisted for a romance award and a German publisher wanted to publish it under the name Emma Makepeace. But all my novels have had the flutter of romance somewhere, and nearly all novels need them. There’s a particular pleasure, in fact, in interweaving romance and action. Both elements shine the brighter. Just don’t forget all about the romance when the action happens. If the Beloved leaves the Lover’s thoughts too long and too often, it’s not much of a romance at all.

Feedback Friday: Romance

Last week, we relished an excursion into hist fic. This week, it’s all smooochy kissing and close dancing. Or actually – the opposite.

Here’s a useful masterclass on romance in all its different manifestations – from a woman so prolific, she needs two names. Please don’t ignore that video if you don’t write capital-R romance. We all need to know how to write about love.

The exercise this week involves scenes where your character is thinking about their beloved, when their beloved is not present. It’s your version of the ‘her without him’ bum-on-a-concrete-step scene.

Specifically, I want:

  • Title
  • Genre
  • 1-2 sentences of explanation, as needed
  • 250 words where your character is thinking about their loved one, without that person being physically present.

I’m going to be looking for physical awareness, strong feelings, and some sense of the way that the character is being squashed into a different shape (perhaps just temporarily) as a result of their passion. Off you go – and ah! My heart beats faster, my cheeks are a little pinker …

That’s it. Feedback in Townhouse as per usual. If you aren’t a Premium Member, you can’t access the masterclass. 

That’s it from me. Post here.

Til soon.


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