Here's the secrets of a best-selling romantic novel
What does it take to write a best-selling romance? Commitment and sincerity, I would suggest – as well as talent. Daisy Cummins, who writes under the name of Abby Green, is a best-selling author for the romantic publishers Mills & Boon; she has published five romantic novels under their imprint (known as Harlequin in America) and has just completed her sixth, out next year.
Daisy is in her late thirties. Instead of going to university to do a degree in social anthropology, she got into the film business where she worked successfully as an assistant director for some years. Then she began to grow restless making movies – which involves a lot of "early starts, long hours, mucky fields and wet weather gear" (besides tending to the sensitive egos of the acting profession) – and began to think about writing scripts.
But it's hard to make money as a scriptwriter, and anyway, Daisy reflected, "it wasn't really where my heart lived". Then a pal suggested that Mills & Boon always read proposals for books sent to them, and as Daisy had loved romantic fiction all her life, she decided to submit something.
She sent the publishers a synopsis and three chapters, and they liked it. Her first romance, In Christopher's Keeping, was published in 2006, and her most recent, Forgiven But Not Forgotten?, came out this year.
Some literary folk are snobbish about romantic fiction, but as Daisy says, the sales speak for themselves. Daisy's Abby Green books will sell between 10,000 and 20,000 copies in Ireland and the UK, and triple that again in the States.
In America, they take romantic fiction very seriously: it is regarded as a proper genre, with dedicated sections in bookshops and its own awards and recognised best practitioners.
Daisy, who grew up in Dublin, but has Co Kerry roots, greatly admires one of the ace American writers, Nora Roberts (who also writes in several other genres under different names).
Daisy's mother, Mary, a journalist, – who died in 1998 – was a fierce feminist, and chose to be a single mother, so in a way I was surprised that her daughter should have embraced a genre of writing which is associated with the hearts-and-flowers, wedding-bells-happy-ever-after narrative tradition.
Yet Daisy says her mother never opposed romantic fiction, and in any case, modern fiction often features an independent young woman as a heroine.
It often challenges other stereotypes too: in Forgiven But Not Forgotten? the heroine, Siena, has seriously wronged the hero by falsely accusing him of rape: Siena's father has been convicted of trafficking girls for prostitution, and her sister, Serena, has bi-polar disorder.
There are gritty elements in a contemporary popular romance. There is also more explicit sex than there used to be. Nevertheless, a Mills & Boon story will usually have a conservative ending: romance realised, characters redeemed, marriage, children, and in Siena's case, acceptance into the warm bosom of an extended Greek family.
The fantasy element often lies in the locations, which are usually international: London, Paris, Italy, Greece, Mexico. The Mills & Boon hero is rich, because that's part of the escapism, and jewels, helicopters, and palazzos feature in the scenario.
Readers turn to this experience to escape from real life: did not T.S. Eliot himself say that "man cannot bear too much reality"? Neither can woman.
Are there any rules you must adhere to, in creating romantic fiction? "Nothing is forbidden," says Daisy – who has just signed an eight-book contract – "but you have to be aware of what interests the readers."
Could you have a gay romance, for instance? "You could have, but the mass market won't identify with a gay theme. "Could you have a paedophile as a hero? (A paedophile is the protagonist in Lolita, after all.) No, says Daisy, the readers wouldn't find that acceptable, but you can have a paedophile episode – in her next book, the heroine is raped at the age of 14 by her uncle. Despite the advance of equality (and independent-minded young women), heroes still tend to be dominant Alpha-males, and heroines, feminine.
A virginal heroine is still popular with readers – "because it gives the readers their chance to have that first time all over again– especially if it wasn't great for them the first time".
Daisy's success is rooted in the fact that she really loves the genre she has embraced: the stories, the characters, the relationships. Her advice to rookie romantic novelists would be to read obsessively the kind of books you want to write. As a teenager, Daisy herself would read 10 romantic novels a week.
There are different branches, today, of the romantic novel market: since Fifty Shades of Grey, there's more kinky erotica,and also more in the "contemporary female" genre.
Daisy was much affected by a contemporary female novel Beyond Grace's Rainbow, self-published by the author, Carmel Harrington, and subsequently taken up by a commercial publisher.
Despite her feeling for romance, Daisy herself is single, and remarkably sane and serene about her life: happy to be single, but happy to be partnered if the right man came along, although the dominant males of romantic fiction wouldn't be her cup of tea.
She has dedicated her most recent book to her half-siblings, the Greens of Cornwall, where her father, Martin, now 82, and very frail, lives.
She's warm about family life in her writing, but she also cherishes her freedom, her independence – and her work of creating fictional romance.
'The mass market wouldn't identify with a gay theme'