USA Today best-selling author Kasey Michaels recently set me a challenge. Since I’ve publicly offered to “refresh” novels for authors who have regained their rights to books originally published a couple of decades ago, what, she asked, would I do with Romeo in the Rain?
Wait! Do we need a glossary of terms here?
Refresh? In the context of “contemporizing” a story, “refreshing” is usually understood as deleting references that might signal a particular societal trend or fashion that has flamed and died, (lady, get rid of those shoulder pads!) obsolete technology references (a character playing Eye of the Tiger on an 8-track? Not cool!) outdated expressions or colloquialisms (characters had best not refer to a local news item about someone “going postal”) etc. Music, books or events related to a specific period originally intended to provide color and context for a story can also severely date it. (hands up if you remember when the following were a big deal: Hurricane Andrew; “Let’s be careful out there,”; the first Three Tenors concert; the fall of The Berlin Wall….)
And what do I mean by “the near past?” When it comes to the term “historical fiction,” the publishing industry has a number of very strict definitions….all of which seem to vary! The Historical Novel Society defines the genre as works “written at least fifty years after the events described.” Critic Sarah Johnson delineates such novels as “set before the middle of the last [20th] century […] in which the author is writing from research rather than personal experience.” And Lynda Adamson, in her preface to the bibliographic reference work, World Historical Fiction, states that a “generally accepted definition” for the historical novel is a novel “about a time period at least 25 years before it was written.”
Popular culture, particularly television, can attest to the fact that, with the popularity of Mad Men, Masters of Sex and The Americans, shows set in the 1960’s are “having a moment.” Critics refer to these as “long-form historical dramas.” But they are regarded as historical. Forty or fifty years prior to the present, even though some of us were alive during those years, is history, apparently. Go figure!
So, if you wrote a novel twenty-five or more years ago—for our purposes, in the near past–and it was contemporary then, but isn’t now, it is NOT historical….it is simply dated! And yet, you love your story. You feel it still has emotional power, a universal theme, appealing characters. It still has something to say. But for today’s audience, it needs updating.
Kasey Michaels’s Romeo in the Rain is a romance novel first published in 1990. The heroine, Courtney, is a bestselling author, widow and single mom who retreats to her friend’s vacation home in Ocean City, New Jersey to try to overcome her writer’s block. The hero, Adam, is a newly- elected senator, who decides to use his assistant’s place in Ocean City for some well-deserved R and R after his exhausting election campaign, and before he takes office. In summary: November, Ocean City, an ‘’enforced proximity” story in which these two strangers are thrown next door to each other and can hardly avoid an attraction–both naturally being gorgeous, eligible, fascinating, etc.! R in the R bears lots of earmarks of a satisfying romance read: a heroine with “baggage” she must overcome, as well as some biases that root her conflict with the hero, a cute daughter with matchmaking tendencies, secondary cheerleaders on each side that assist in propelling the action and romance forward. Will it work for a 2015 romance reader? Most likely. With some caveats.
First, I would change both the title and the back cover copy. Neither does the story justice. The former just reads as cheesy, and the term “Romeo” has a slight connotation of sleaziness that doesn’t accurately describe the hero. The back cover copy is plain misleading, and was probably written to suit a particular marketing or packaging strategy that was deemed successful at the time of the original publication. We can do better!
Sometimes a story written a couple of decades ago will revolve around plot turns, ideas or expectations that no longer seem valid or even believable to today’s reader. Romeo in the Rain employs a plot device that unfortunately no longer works in the current era. The heroine has no idea who the hero is, though he gives her his real name and is not incognito in any way. Nor does the daughter recognize his face or his name. In a decade in which people are addicted to their cell phones and social media, communication is immediate, and most important, Google is an instantaneous encyclopedia for any trivial or important piece of information anyone aspires to, the heroine spending weeks not knowing the true identity of the hero simply doesn’t fly. This element would need to be reworked to make the ignorance of the hero’s celebrity plausible, since the conflict hinges on the heroine’s belief that Adam spends his life clipping coupons.
Another potential problem is the opening scene. It takes place in a library, where the heroine and her friend meet because the latter is checking a reference to a quote. Nowadays, she would probably Google it on her phone as she walks down the street. It is true that people still use libraries for research, but so much of that is now done on-line, that adjustments would need to be made to this scene to make it credible in a contemporary novel.
Technology issues can affect almost every element of the story. Here– no cell phones, and people are able to disappear and be unreachable and untraceable for days on end. Not likely to happen today. The heroine, Courtney, instructs Adam to leave the two large black watch cases containing her computer and printer in the car, as they’re “allergic to water.” And the hero, bless him, wonders, “Why would Courtney need a computer? She sure as hell didn’t look like an accountant……” Uh-oh! Attitude adjustment required!
Courtney also seems to be using floppy discs to store her novel-in-progress, and a computer-shaped icon appears on a grey screen with a blinking question mark, silently asking her what to do next. Young women reading this novel would have no idea what kind of devices our novelist is tapping away on!
In fact, my benchmark in assessing potential changes to this story could well be: “Would a twenty-five-year old woman reading this novel relate to the premise, the issues and the backdrop against which the conflict and romance play out? Given those criteria, what have we got?
We’ve got an on-going background story arc of the heroine trying to quit smoking. Probably very appropriate in the early 90’s, when many people, particularly those in solitary occupations like writing, were trying hard to kick the habit (Ms Michaels, were you perchance trying to quit as you wrote this book?) but smoking is practically never even mentioned in current novels. It’s just not a front-and-center issue any more.
We’ve got outdated language, for sure. The heroine’s teenage daughter Sidney is addicted to the adjective “rad”, as in “totally rad convertible,” she refers to her thirty-three year old mother as a “wet blanket”, Mom refers to “my sweet patoot”, and doesn’t “believe she was ‘liberated’ enough to want her thirteen-year-old daughter to know she had spent most of the night with a man.”
And we’ve got a lot of references to current events or trends of the day—the launch of a space shuttle, Nancy Reagan, the greenhouse effect, Viet Nam–and television and movie allusions –heroine does a rif on “I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not”, mentions Curly, Larry and Moe, King Kong, and the hero allegedly reminds the heroine’s best friend of “a young Peter O’Toole.” Even clothing sizes have changed. Who wears a size 5 anymore?
One element we don’t need to worry about is overly euphemistic language in the love scenes. Romance novels written in the 80’s and 90’s frequently employed purple prose and were peppered with multiple, sometimes overly drawn-out love scenes. Happily, that’s not an issue in this novel. Thank you, daughter Sidney, for cramping your mom’s style!
Well, Kasey, there you have it. Tweaks to the title and cover copy, plot, language and background detail ….most minor….seem to be in order to update thisstory. I suggest stripping Romeo in the Rain of its vintage clothing and dressing it in some new duds. Then it should be ready for a new millennium contemporary romance reader!
I previewed the thoughts above with the author. Here is her response:
I’m nuts about what you wrote, except of course for the title change, as I always loved that title. Over the years, though, I’ve learned that editors rarely love author-suggested titles.
The observations and comments were all spot-on — many of them things I definitely would not have thought of on my own. Plus, as I read along, ideas kept popping into my head: “Oh, I can fix that simply by…” and “Sonofagun, if I just take that bit of information and build on it a little, it would be a perfect lead-in to the next book in the series.”
In other words — you changed my entire outlook on the book, and its possible place in today’s world.
I can’t thank you enough for this, and for joining us at St. Pete’s Beach in Florida for Novelists, Inc ‘s 26th annual conference: NINC World 2015, NINC Goes Global.
Okay, everyone! Kasey and I would love your opinion on whether the title to this book should be changed in order to appeal to a contemporary audience. Please let me know and I’ll post a summary the responses I receive!
(Oh, and btw, did you notice I’ll be in St. Pete’s Beach Sept 30-Oct 4 for the Novelists Inc Conference?)