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Monday, August 1, 2016


As writers of romance, each of us has a perspective on what makes the PERFECT romance, right?  For some, it’s all about characters. For others, it’s all about conflict. For others, it might be the setting or the history associated with western or historical romances...

When first starting out, I wonder how many of us believe we must follow a prescription or formula. Critics of the genre always seem to point to this as a “weakness” or flaw. Of course, writers of mysteries or thrillers are no less subject to a similar criticism. In truth, stories of any sort contain certain patterns that attract readers; eg: as in romantic films, the audience expects happy endings vs. tragic endings. 

But as we explore the genre, we all develop a broader range of understanding of what makes a good romance a great romance...not that we achieve it with every story we write! It’s that element of writing, however, I want to look at: what is it that takes a story from “good” to “great?”  Or, what elevates a story?

According to Author Elizabeth Sims, “There are subtle differences between fiction that’s passable and fiction that pops—fiction that shows that you know what you’re doing. Consider agents and editors your über-readers. If you win them over, a larger audience won’t be far behind.”

I think focusing on a specific audience such as that is probably a powerful tool. At Prairie Rose, we are—of course—quite lucky in having our publishers eager and ready to consider our writing for publication, so focusing on THEM is a great “first step” in upping the ante, so to speak.

There are other elements, too, that can ramp up a story. For me, one is secondary characters. These individuals can provide comic relief or act as catalysts. They can provide a harsh and/or curious perspective on our main characters through their dialogue and actions and perceptions. Think of great films whose secondary characters increase the attraction of the audience: eg: R2D2 and C3PO or Chewbacca in “Star Wars!” Think of the sidekick characters in western films or comedies, and, more provocatively, Shakespeare or Dickens or Jane Austen. Sometimes these characters will take a film or story out of the realm of the ordinary into the realm of the delightful or powerful.

Another element is incorporating all five of our senses, eg: more than just sight or sound. Romances incorporate the beautiful people, but that is a visual. What about using more of our senses in describing our characters or settings? Incorporating the sense of smell—either good or bad—will flesh out our characters. Things to consider: what does a mountain lake smell like? What smells or feelings does the desert evoke?

Does our hero smoke, or chew? Is he a field hand or cowboy who will definitely “reek” at times? Or is he a more refined hero--and how does that affect the senses?
On a personal note that often lends itself to my western heroes:  My cowboy/ranching husband rarely walks in the door without bringing a definitive smell with him, whether it’s from cutting hay or working cows or wallowing in the mud...  And, contrary to some opinions, those smells remind me of the very physical nature of his work and life and can be alluring. YES, alluring!

Along with broadening our use of the senses, we can broaden our perspective on what makes a character attractive...Again, according to Author Elizabeth Sims, she noted that she had a student who shared, ““I once had an art instructor say, ‘If it didn’t have to be pretty, what would you draw?’”

GREAT question! What a challenge for us as authors. Of course, we have the template of Beauty and the Beast and that template has been used many times over. But it is a successful kind of storyline to study. Can our hero be beautiful on the inside, even if he’s rugged or damaged on the outside? Realistically, a soldier returning home from the Civil War would very likely be damaged—if not physically, certainly emotionally—and that might well be reflected in his walk, his talk, his demeanor.

And perhaps the last element to consider is two-fold: let’s make our readers either laugh OR cry. Not all at once, of course, but that notion takes us from the realm of a pleasing story line to a powerful one. What has happened in our characters’ lives that can be incorporated into their internal or external conflict? How can we raise the stakes of their potential love affair—and the potential failure or success of their relationship?

Again, develop secondary characters that can weave their own magic into the story and provide a comic relief or heavy-handed insult that revs up the drama. This is emotional suspense at its core: providing realistic (not caricature-like) emotions that rise and fall as the action and conflict grows. But it takes time to let these emotions develop, whether from past disappointments or failures to unfulfilled dreams or heartache. 

At the same time, we must avoid or eliminate the superficial or “cheap” emotions that are really only plastered onto the exterior surface of our characters! They must rather come from a heart-felt and deeply embedded aspect of DEEPER character.

Of course, other writers may have other kinds of ideas about what takes a good story to the level of great. The above “list” reflects some of the things I value when I read a story and sigh, “Wow....loved it!” I think about classic novels, but also novels I have read more recently, eg: Sarah’s Key or Nightingale or Widow of the South.  With each of these stories I was left with a full heart—not wanting the story to end.  

And isn’t that our goal—to affect our readers so deeply they want to come back to our stories time and again????
Gail L. Jenner has enjoyed working with Prairie Rose Publishing and her collection of stories published by PRP has grown since "joining the gang" in Dec. 2013 with the re-release of her WILLA Award-winning Across the Sweet Grass Hills

"Prettiest Little Horse Thief"  and "July's Bride" are two of her other favorites.....and then there are the boxed sets and anthologies!  For more about Gail, check out: or


  1. I really enjoyed the 'peek' inside what you enjoy and strive for in a story Gail. I do believe, like you say, we each have that something that strikes a cord in us. Thank you for sharing so great food for thought. Doris

    1. Thanks, Doris! I think that what we forget about the very things we respond to in reading a great novel....and of course, there are more things to dig into --- the craft of writing, revision, dialogue, etc.....

  2. Some excellent thoughts. It is always good to be reminded of those elements that make a story great so we don't fall into a rut of mediocracy.

    1. Yes, it's easy to let a story slide along and then suddenly it's an 'Aha!' moment when you think, "Gosh, I'd like this story to be more!" Deeper themes, maybe, or conflict, and then (in my mind), that is when the adventure really begins. But, it's not always easy to achieve what we hope to achieve with every story!!

  3. Gail,

    This is a timely article for me as I just finished a deep edit on a previously published western romance novella. This story was originally published in 2007. I have grown/matured as a writer since then, and I am so thankful to have the opportunity to revisit this story and do justice to the plot, secondary characters, H/h, even the setting.

    Your question, "Does our hero smoke, or chew? Is he a field hand or cowboy who will definitely “reek” at times?" rang true with me. The hero in this story I've re-edited does smoke, but I don't make a big deal about it. And yes, there are times he reeks, and the heroine makes sure he knows it, too. :-)

    I grew up on a ranch and then spent many years on thoroughbred racetracks, so I definitely related to your statement of "smells remind me of the very physical nature of his work and life and can be alluring. YES, alluring!" *wink*

    I tend to focus on the sights and feels in a first draft, and when I go back through the manuscript, I add the other senses where I can.

    And I agree wholeheartedly with you in that I feel extraordinarily fortunate to be among the Sister Roses at Prairie Rose Publications.

    1. Ha! It's always nice when someone understands that animal/work smells can be alluring **wink**! I don't feel the same way, however, about pig smells....hmmmm, those are not as appealing! And yes, it's the editing and revising process that makes all the difference in the end....Thanks for stopping by, Kaye!

  4. Good stuff, Gail. I guess I'll add that a great story is one in which you (the reader) would really like to know the H/h. I believe that the strength of fiction definitely lies in the characters first, the plot second. Simple idea, not always simple in execution. But we all keep trying, especially here at PRP.

    1. I have heard that PLOT actually derives from characters and their conflict and that is how I approach novel construction, too. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Great info, Gail. It always helps to refresh and revitalize our memories as to what really adds to a great vs. good story. Thanks so much and wishing you much success.

  6. Thanks, Beverly! I think most of us spend a lot of time reassessing --- reconsidering what it is that draws us into a story. And what it takes to take that story to the next level... Hopefully we can achieve what it is we hope to accomplish in and with a story :-)

  7. Gail, I'm glad my words resonated with you, and thank you for quoting them. Best wishes on your writing and blogging!