what i’ve learnt about writing (and life, probably) from reading Susan Elizabeth Phillips: part I

I think Marian Keyes is probably my favourite contemporary romance writer, but as far as romance romance writers go, Susan Elizabeth Phillips wins hands down.

I’ve been reading  a lot of her recently. And watching NBA matches on the telly. And eating American pancakes.


I just can’t help it! She makes me want to be a superhero woman with just the right amount of vulnerability just arrived in a small American town!

The standouts, I think, are the Chicago Stars books. Most recently I read Match Me If You Can. It made me laugh out loud. A lot. And it left me feeling a bit like a big, schmoltzy, bubbling, human-shaped balloon of goodness.

So. Back to topic.

The first thing I love about her writing is the way the oddball/eccentric/anti-social/nasty characters all end up being absorbed into the sense of family. It’s very like Miyazaki, but that’s probably a whole post in itself.

For example, in Natural Born Charmer the nasty, old, villainous woman who owns the town, Nita Garrison, becomes the heroine’s family “till death do us part” – and it’s the first real family Blue’s ever had. The two of them still insult each other every chance they get, and the closest they come to signs of intimacy is when Blue rests her head on Nita’s shoulder. But you don’t doubt their loyalty and love for each other for a second.

There’s something very powerful about this device. The hero/heroine has a kind of human empathy and brash, stubborn acceptance of others that is intoxicating for a reader. It allows the characters to be vulnerable and flawed without necessitating that they’re so cheesy they also make you want to vomit.

So, 1. Who does your hero/heroine attract? How does contact with these people transform everyone concerned? Does this transformation make you want to cheer or vomit?

Comments 4 Responses

  1. Mini-Mike

    I don’t think I’d ever write a Romantic Novel, in the modern sense, though I think my main Story(Novel?) I am writing is, effectively, a dark, gothic, Scientific Romance, in the classical epic definition of a romance. Certainly my two main protagonists find themselves, for various unsubtle reasons, somewhat isolated from their society by, inevitably,, failing to ‘fit in’ (This is mainly for ‘young adults’ – so gimme a break 😉

    Both could be said to be in possession of abilities or critical faculties that makes such isolation inevitable.

    Lucielle, because of her own stubborn self-assured nature, finds herself at odds with the patriarchal, victorian-esque culture she lives in but, as it is based on rationalist principles, her attitudes could also be said to be a product of that society.
    Her own brash nature is a shield from the pressures she feels put upon her by others, but it also causes her distress, as she lacks emotional subtlety or the ability to integrate herself more comfortably and naturally in her relationships with other people.

    Ren, on the other hand, comes from a society that is, nominally, a Matriarchy. His problems stem, not from the vulnerability of a strong personality in an adverse society but rather from aspects of himself he simply cannot help. Blessed with precognitive abilities almost unheard of in the men of his society, he is feared and misunderstood, despite being kind, thoughtful and understanding. The demands of the hard life experienced in his Gypsy-like culture make him a victim of social circumstances.

    Thus, when the two eventually meet up, he is somewhat in awe of Lucielle’s seemingly super-human strength of will,, he doesn’t see her eroded inner life at first, despite the scorn and hostility she might (I suspect) initially pour upon him. Inevitably his persistent acceptance and warmth will win her friendship, and her hardness will help him understand strength and certainty of purpose, though not without some juicy conflict first!

    Its pretty two dimensional, I know, but I am taking their interactions in isolation here, Partly as it seemed to be a vague mirror to the example you gave but partly because it is a classic duality that I think is usually worth exploring.

    As for the wider implications of their interaction as regards transformation in them and others around them, well I’ve only gone as far as working out the plot-arc effects but I think (I hope!) the conclusion of this conflict/interaction will be cause for rejoicing, not regurgitation!

    1. superaniistar Post author

      Your ideas sound amazing, Mike! Not two dimensional at all. I am already totally intrigued just by that description.

      And just go ahead and call it a novel, I reckon! 🙂

      How far along are you with it?

      Also, I reckon you’d really like the book I’m about to write a review for: Soulless by Gail Carriger. It’s steampunk Victorian London with werewolves and vampires thrown in. The heroine sounds a bit like how you’ve described Lucielle, but probably a bit more concerned with being polite.

  2. Mini-Mike

    Ah cool, I saw your post and went and found a mixed review. I’m curious to read it anyway, it looked interesting!
    If you want a classic example of ‘Society Vampires,’ Kim Newman’s ‘Anno Dracula’ series is truly excellent! Its set in a world where Van Helsing and his companions fail to kill Dracula and he becomes Consort to Queen Victoria! Its a very dark but very well realised portrait of an alternate Victorian England.

    Oh, and for a Steampunk, fairly risqué mystery novel with a strong female character, G.W Dahlquist’s ‘The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters’ is also fantastic, and very well written! There is a sequel, but sadly it isn’t as good…

    Thanks for the encouragement, by the way 🙂
    I’m not very far along with it at all. I keep loosing sections of writing, or annotated print-outs, which sets me back. To be honest, its mostly notes, ideas and outlines at the moment with a few random scenes or half-chapters written. Actually, replying to your post led me to properly consider the characters and their motivations, so you helped kick-start the process again!

    The trouble is that it is set on an Earth-like world where the Sun is dying, so I’ve been trying to create a reasonably scientifically plausible world and incorporating concepts of theoretical physics in the background (Its over-arching plot and would take a long time to explain.) creating a world and societies that are familiar but unique, is a time-consuming but enjoyable process!
    I wouldn’t mind discussing it over Email as I progress, its always good to have writing buddies 🙂

    Have you been writing recently?

    1. superaniistar Post author

      yep, it’s pretty much what I’ve been doing full time for the last year or so! I love it.

      I’m always up for supporting people in writing, and am very happy to have kick-started more thinking. Send me stuff any time you want clarity/another opinion/brainstorming etc.


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