OK, so I'm rarely in jeopardy, but I write woman-in-jeopardy novels—otherwise called "Modern Gothics"—and this is my blog. It will probably have lots of time between posts, but I'll try not to bore you. Welcome.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Why the Golden Heart Awards Matter

I should have written this post months ago.

I meant to. Back in Denver in the summer when we gathered for our annual national Romance Writers of America conference, I was already planning this post in my mind, having watched the finalists of this year's Golden Heart Contest working so hard to put a brave face on what, for all of them, must have been a truly difficult experience.

Since RWA's board first announced it was doing away with the Golden Hearts, I've felt, very strongly, that our organization is making a mistake.

When I came home from Nationals, I started drafting open letters to the board, to try to tell them how I felt. To try to tell them why. I couldn't get the words right, and so here I am, on the same weekend the new board is holding its first meeting and I'm writing my long overdue open letter to all the board members, and anyone else who will listen.

Dear Board Members:

You've asked us to suggest what you should do that could replace the Golden Heart Contest.

And my answer is: Nothing.

I've read the data that was posted when this process all began--the fancy numbers used to justify the killing of the contest. Yes, the Golden Hearts cost more than they return, on paper. But so do the Ritas.

And for all the internal prestige we may place on the Ritas--and I'm saying this as someone who values that golden lady very highly, having had books final three times and win once--when it comes to fulfilling our actual mission "to advance the professional and common business interests of career-focused romance writers", the Golden Heart Contest wins hands-down.

The Ritas are for us individually. They don't help us sell more books (they really don't--ask your editor). They don't help us make friends within the organization. They are peer recognition, which is valuable and wonderful, but just for us.

The Golden Hearts help writers finish books, because only a completed manuscript can be entered. They help writers, especially shy new writers, connect with other writers. Look at the networking and camaraderie that happens among Golden Heart finalists. Nothing like that happens with Rita finalists.  Through the contest, writers pursuing a traditional publishing path have found agents and editors.

That all sounds like a pretty good use of my dues, to be honest.

I never entered the Golden Hearts. I had been published long before I joined RWA. But my first real success--the book that opened all the doors for me in 1993--was a book called Mariana, that won a contest for unpublished manuscripts. Maybe that's why this feel personal, to me. I know that feeling of having your world truly change overnight.

And the thought of us taking not only that feeling but that opportunity away from so many of our members, especially when the Golden Hearts are--of the contests that we run--the one that serves our mission best--seems wrong.

You can't replace it with anything because nothing could adequately replace it. If you want to do something positive, you could restore it to its former place of honor on awards night, alongside the Ritas, so all our finalists are on equal footing and we're not paying unnecessarily for two awards ceremonies with two emcees.

The Ruby Slippered Sisterhood has more suggestions--I hope you'll take the time to read them: http://tinyurl.com/y8qwzm72

Thanks for your service, and thanks for your time, and for listening.

I might be sending this too late to have any real effect, but I just couldn't stay silent.

If anyone reading this wants to add your own experience with the Golden Hearts in the comments, please do.



Sunday, April 15, 2018

But Why Is It "Bellewether"?

Some of you have written to me asking what the title of the new book means, and why it’s spelled wrong.

“Bellewether” is, in fact, the original Middle English spelling of the word bellwether.

Apart from its literal meaning—a sheep that wears a bell to lead the flock—the term can also apply to a predictor or harbinger of something.

Without spoiling the story, I can tell you there’s a character who serves the first purpose, and events that serve the second, so that’s why the title—when it first rose up and attached itself to the text—seemed like a good one to keep.

As for the spelling, I chose it because the original version appealed to me, and because I hoped to reduce confusion with Connie Willis’s science fiction classic Bellwether (although if you’re searching for my book and buy hers by mistake, I will totally forgive you—it’s a great story), but also because that’s how one of the characters spelled it when he named his ship in the book, and I liked how it looked on the page.

Here’s the scene where that happened:

* * * * *

Lydia wasn’t entirely sure herself why the mare favored her, but they had shared this rapport from the very first day that her father had brought the mare home as a yearling. Just as a horse could sense a nervous rider or a cruel one, it appeared that the mare could sense Lydia already carried a full share of troubles and did not need more. Whatever the reason, the mare bent her head to the halter and made no complaint and submitted herself to be led.

Not that Lydia was in a rush to be leading her anywhere just at the moment. The day, being only begun, was still peaceful; the chill of the air making mist of her breath as the sun ventured up from its bed into view, sending pink and gold streaks spreading over the eastern sky.

Here on the upland where the land had been well cleared, she had a view not only of the bay but of the wider Sound, and of the ships that came and went continually between New York’s harbor and the sea.

Benjamin had come here often as a boy to chase his dreams of grand adventure, studying the passing ships so that he could, like Joseph, know the types of vessels by their varied shapes and rigging, be they brigs or sloops or bilanders or snows. He’d watched them for so long that he could name most of the New York ships on sight, amazing Lydia, who only recognized her brother William’s four: the Bellewether, the Honest John, the Katharine, and the Fox.

Of these, her favorite was the Bellewether, because although the smallest of them all it was the prettiest and swiftest.

“She will run before all others,” had been William’s explanation of the sloop’s name. “Like the sheep we bell to lead the flock.”

“You’ve spelled it wrong,” their mother had said mildly as she’d read the brave name painted on the hull. “It is spelled ‘bellwether,’ without the second e.”

“But ‘belle’ is French for ‘beautiful,’ and she is surely that,” had been his answer.

And she was. Built to outrun the privateers that prowled the trade routes, she had turned the tables on them many times and carried her fair share of captured ships as prizes into New York’s harbor, but the true prizes for Lydia had been the letters carried from Jamaica from her brother Daniel, and the gifts and parcels that he regularly sent, which, since their mother’s death, had been one of the few bright things their family could look forward to. The sight of the Bellewether’s sails sweeping past in the Sound was a sight that, on most days, brought Lydia joy.

But this morning, the sight of sails sliding below her and into the bay brought a darker confusion.

Those sails were the Bellewether’s, but they’d been set strangely. In this uncertain light, moving through shadows and mist on the dark water close to the shore, she appeared to have no more than half a mast, less of her rigging, and dangerous, jagged holes scarring her deck.

Lydia, who had been stroking the mare’s warm neck, stilled her hand. And then she moved it and took a firm hold of the mare’s tangled mane, and in one scrambling motion she hauled herself up, clinging to the mare’s withers and urging her into a quick walk at first, then a run, down the slope of the field, racing home with a warning.

Because on the heels of the Bellewether, gliding now into the bay, sailed a second ship—larger and darker and trailing the wounded sloop’s wake like a predator.

* * * * *

The book comes out April 24 in Canada, and August 7 in the USA. You can order/pre-order it here, from my website.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

A Change In My Travel Plans...

Dear Friends,

George Washington, in his Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior, counsels us to: “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”

And my conscience has been urging me for some time now to listen to it.

As many of you know, I have deep roots in the United States. I had five ancestors on the Mayflower, I’ve lived in south Texas, and I have immediate family, many friends, and valued readers scattered from coast to coast, so this has been a very difficult decision for me to make.

But I have become increasingly heartsick while reading the growing accounts of people’s experiences trying to enter a country that, to me, has always been so welcoming. It’s not an easy thing for me to feel that welcome when I know that many others will be turned away through no fault of their own.

I had already booked three conferences this year in the United States, and was as always looking forward to them. I’ve decided, however, to withdraw from two of them—the RT Booklovers’ Convention in Atlanta in May, and RWA’s National Conference in July—which are both primarily professional development and more for my benefit than anyone else’s.

My involvement with the third—the Historical Novel Society conference in Portland in June—is different in that I’ve promised to teach a workshop there and I won’t go back on that promise. I will be there.

Because I’ve been so fortunate in my career, I decided that instead of focusing on my personal disappointment I’d turn it into an opportunity to do something positive for someone else. In March I invited unpublished romance writers to enter a sweepstakes for a chance to win a full registration and paid room in the conference hotel at one of the two conferences that I won’t be attending. Winners were chosen at random.

I’d like to congratulate Carrie Bastyr, who’ll be taking “my” place at the RT Booklovers’ Convention, and Naomi Nelson, who’ll be attending the RWA’s National Conference. I know my publishers, readers, and writing friends will make them welcome.

Again, this was not easy for me, but I’m grateful for your understanding.

I agree with Nelson Mandela, who wrote, “I always knew that deep down in every human heart, there is mercy and generosity. No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart.”

With love,


Thursday, October 20, 2016

Near Vancouver? Come Say Hi!

Today I’m packing to head west for what’s always the highlight of my writing year: The Surrey International Writers’ Conference.

I love this conference best of all for its true community vibe, with authors of all genres and media leaving their collective egos at the door and mingling to teach, learn, and socialize—published and not-yet-published alike.

Although this year’s conference is sold out, there IS an author signing event, open to the public, this coming Saturday (22 October) from 5:30 to 7:00 p.m., at the Sheraton Vancouver Guildford Hotel, 15269 104th Avenue, Surrey, British Columbia, Canada (Telephone: 604-582-9288)

The signing event is FREE, and there's a great list of authors who'll be there, including Diana Gabaldon, Lauren Dane, Sonali Dev, Jasper Fforde, Daniel Jose Older, and many many more. You can find the full list on the Conference website, here: http://www.siwc.ca/author-signing

The Conference's onsite bookseller, Chapters, will have books available for purchase, or you can bring your own books from home to have them signed.

So if you have the chance, drop by and say hello! I'd love to see you there.

(The photo above is from last year's signing event, where I got to play with Sarah Wendell from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, and the supremely talented Beverly Jenkins)

Monday, April 25, 2016

Romance With Other Elements

Below is the letter I'll be sending in a couple of months to the Board of the Romance Writers of America.

Please note: I'm a proud member of the RWA, and this letter should not be read as a criticism of their decision in 2012 to eliminate the NSRE category. They stated then that "It is not within RWA's mission to grant awards to books outside the romance genre", and the organization is entitled to its decisions.

But many of us write books that are WITHIN the romance genre, and I just think there's a better solution.

If you're an RWA memberor a member who left the RWA because of the elimination of the NSREand you'd like to add your name to mine on this proposal, please feel free to "sign" in the comments below, with "Member" or "Past Member" written after your name, and I'll be sure to include your "signature" when I send this letter. (If you write under a pen name, just "sign" with that. I'm keeping this informal and friendly).


* * * * *

Dear RWA Board Members:

RE: RITA® Awards Category Changes – A Proposal

Four years ago in Anaheim, when it was announced  that the Novel with Strong Romantic Elements category was being eliminated from the RITA® and Golden Heart® Awards, I felt sad and disappointed—not only for myself but for the younger authors starting out whose stories, like my own, were never going to fit neatly into any other category.

The following year, I wrote to the Board proposing a possible compromise position, which they discussed and declined.

But because I’m stubborn, and because I still feel it’s important for our organization to include and embrace a diversity of voices, I’d like to present the same proposal to you now:

That the lost Novel with Strong Romantic Elements category be replaced by the category of Romance with Other Elements.

By our organization's own definition, every romance novel contains two basic elements: a central love story and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending. We further divide our genre into subgenres: currently Contemporary Long, Contemporary Mid-Length, Contemporary Short, Erotic, Historical Long, Historical Short, Inspirational, Paranormal, Novella, Romantic Suspense, and Young Adult, with a RITA® Award category for each subgenre.

This arrangement works well for stories that keep within one single subgenre, but it leaves no easy place for books that cross subgenres or multiple subgenres, like Lauren Willig’s (contemporary/historical), Lynn Kurland’s (contemporary/historical/paranormal) and my own (contemporary/historical/paranormal/ romantic suspense). 

Those of us who write cross-subgenre romance are currently told to choose one of the subgenres we’ve crossed and enter our books in that category. And fair enough, in 2014, when I let my readers select which of the four possible subgenres my novel The Firebird should be entered in, it did win the RITA® for Paranormal Romance. But that was a one-off—even my readers were hotly divided on which category it belonged in, and in most cross-subgenre books, my own included, the balance between the subgenres doesn’t allow it to tip into any one category.

Imagine you’ve written a novel in which fifteen chapters out of thirty are set in the historical period, while the remaining fifteen are in the present day. Both threads of the story are equally weighted and equally strong, so you flip a coin (or poll your readers) to decide whether to enter it in the Historical or Contemporary Romance categories.

Historical Romance is currently for “novels that are set prior to 1950”. Contemporary Romance is for “novels that are set after 1950”. 

Your coin flip or reader poll comes up “Historical Romance”. 

Your novel begins in the present day, and stays there for a couple of chapters before switching to the past, then back again, and so on. 

Assuming the RITA® judges don’t dismiss you out of the gate as being in the wrong category because your book starts “after 1950”, entering your novel this way is a lot like entering my cockapoo in the Best Poodle category of a dog show. He’s fully half poodle, and has a lot of the same physical features as a poodle, but no reasonable, rule-abiding judge could ever declare him the best example of a poodle in that dog show. Nor should they. He’s not the Best Poodle. In dog shows, he’d only be judged against others like him—other crossbreeds.

The original wording of the Best Novel with Strong Romantic Elements category description (see below) actually stated, in fact, that it was for novels “not belonging in another category”, and I feel this is an important catch-basin for us to preserve.

By creating the category of Romance with Other Elements, we’d be keeping the place for these cross-subgenre books, as well as for longer, epic books that might contain two or more romances, and books that, although they contain the requisite central love story and the emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending, may not be shelved in the Romance section of a bookstore or have “Romance” written on their spine (something we all know is rarely within the author’s power to decide). 

The difference would be that, just as the word “Romance” would come first in the name of this new category, all the books entered in it would have to comply with our mission statement, and be judged first as romances. That means they would be scored and rated just like all the other books within the RITA competition.  And a book that did not contain the central love story and an HEA or HFN would be marked just the same as any other entry would, as “Not a Romance”, and disqualified.

I’m optimistic that, if this difference were to be explained and made clear to our authors and their publishers, we wouldn’t have the problem that I’m told we’ve had in past years, with books that don’t have a real love story within them being entered for the RITA®, wasting everybody’s resources and time.

Here, then, is how I would propose re-working the former category description and judging guidelines for Novel with Strong Romantic Elements into a new category of Romance with Other Elements.

The former description and guidelines were as follows:

Novel with Strong Romantic Elements
A work of fiction in which a romance plays a significant part in the story, but other themes or elements take the plot beyond the traditional romance boundaries.

Judging guidelines: Novels of any tone or style, set in any place or time are eligible for this category. A romance must be an integral part of the plot or subplot, and the resolution of the romance is emotionally satisfying and optimistic.

This is how I’d personally alter that wording, to create the new category. The text in red shows altered/inserted words or phrases, with footnotes below to explain each change:

Since the awards categories now all share this common header: “All entries must contain a central love story and the resolution of the romance must be emotionally satisfying and optimistic”, there’s no need to include that in the individual guidelines anymore.

Romance with Other Elements
Novels1 A work of fiction not belonging in another category2 in which a romance plays a significant part in the story, but other themes or elements may take the plot beyond the traditional romance boundaries. also be significantly developed. 3

1 Novels: Changed to conform to the current wording of other category descriptions.
2 Not belonging in another category: This was in the original description of the former category, and I believe it is also an important filter.
3 In which other themes or stories may also be significantly developed: Again, this is a return to the original wording  of the category description.

So then, assuming all those changes are made, the new category description and judging guidelines would read as follows:

Romance with Other Elements
Novels not belonging in another category in which other themes or elements may also be significantly developed.

By putting the romance first, both in name and in eligibility requirements, I feel these changes would allow us to restore an important and much-loved category by bringing it firmly in line with our mission.

I’d like to respectfully submit this for your consideration and, hopefully, discussion at your upcoming Board of Directors meeting in San Diego.

Thank you for your time, and for your work on behalf of myself and all RWA members.


Susanna Kearsley

(The original wording of the Novel with Strong Romantic Elements category introduced in 2004 was: "A work of fiction not belonging in another category that contains a strong romantic element, such that one or more romances contained in the story form an integral part of the story's structure, but in which other themes or stories may also be significantly developed.")

Monday, March 14, 2016

Music in Motion

(Photo courtesy my eldest son)
In this past weekend’s Toronto Star, bestselling author Marissa Stapley rounded up some of our fellow Canadian writers to ask them about using music to write by. They each shared their thoughts and some songs from their playlists, which I thought was fun.

I don’t listen to music while I’m actually writing—for that I need silence (and sometimes white noise on my headphones)—but playlists have definitely become part of my process.

Writing, for me, is a visual thing. I “see” the story play out like a movie, and sometimes songs set characters in motion unexpectedly, creating little private music videos within my mind that show me scenes developing.

Each character will have specific songs that make them “move”.

Hugh, the historical hero of A Desperate Fortune, really liked The Fray, to the point where even now, if I play that group’s song “I Can Barely Say”, Hugh will start stirring. It’s become very much “his” song, and while I was writing it showed me a whole sweeping arc of his backstory—a useful thing, since Hugh rarely spoke and I came to rely on the lyrics to speak for him while I was coming to grips with his character.

In Bellewether—the book I’m writing now—the historical hero, Jean-Philippe, is more a One Republic kind of guy.

The playlist just develops while I’m working on a novel. If a song comes on the radio that makes a scene begin to stir, I add it to the iPod. On the Bellewether playlist right now I’ve got 26 songs, and I’m sure I’ll add more.

Here are ten of them, in no particular order:

Breathe - Ryan Star
I've Told You Now - Sam Smith
Mercy - One Republic
The Words - Christina Perri
Unbreak - Ryan Star
Say - One Republic
Hold My Hand - The Fray
Secrets - One Republic
Human - Christina Perri
Stop and Stare - One Republic

It’s the rare writing day when I don’t listen to a few songs from that playlist. Just not while I’m actually writing. :-)

Here’s another of Hugh’s favourite songs by the Fray. Hope you enjoy it as much as he did.