In my last column, I set myself up for one heck of a task. I wrote about the familiar tropes and characters that reappear in romances, and why they can work wonderfully in the hands of a good writer. Now, I have to assemble my favorites and share them, which pretty much guarantees that any ideas will fly out of my head, leaving me adrift and lost like I usually am in the romance aisle of the bookstore, struggling to remember what and who it is I love reading. You'd think it would be easy to describe my reading catnip. Alas, it took some staring at my bookshelf of tattered paperbacks, but the pattern emerged. Today I'm going to talk about one of my very favorite plot types.
I call this form of my reading catnip "This Is Only Temporary." These are romances where one or both characters are on a journey elsewhere, or visiting one place for a brief period of time, and thus don't want to embark on anything permanent. The Kowalski series by Shannon Stacey often features the template of one character coming to town temporarily and finding reasons to stay, or one character who is determined to leave as soon as possible. The small-town setting of the series is almost a character in its own right, because it's part of every character's conflict in each book. Their relationship to the town and their feelings about it form a major part of the struggles they have with themselves or with each other.
Two of my favorite examples of "This Is Only Temporary" in the Kowalski world are Holiday Sparks, which is easily my favorite romance novella, holiday or otherwise, and Yours to Keep, which is a full length novel.
Holiday Sparks features a heroine named Chloe who is housesitting for her parents in her hometown while they're on a holiday cruise. When she manages to blow half the fuses in the house making coffee, she calls the electrician her parents use. He turns out to be a guy named Scott from her high school class who had a very secret crush on her back then—one that hasn't fully disappeared. When Chloe decides to upgrade her parent's electrical service as a Christmas gift (which, dude, nice gift), Scott spends a lot of time with Chloe, and their attraction grows, limited by the knowledge that Chloe doesn't live in town anymore, and Scott doesn't want to leave his home and his growing business. Chloe's limited time in town is both their friend and enemy in this story.
Yours to Keep is another Kowalski novel that I love to re-read. The "This Is Only Temporary" elements are layered, and cause no end of conflict the longer what’s supposed to be temporary becomes more and more permanent. Emma Shaw has been lying to her grandmother about Sean Kowalski being her fiance for a while. So when he turns up in town after leaving the Army, Emma asks him to pose as her fiance while her grandmother visits. He moves in, they pretend—badly—and his visit to town becomes more complicated the longer he stays and the more attracted he is to Emma. There are scenes with Post-It Notes that are hilarious and heartbreaking, especially as Sean, the temporary fiance, tries to communicate to Emma things that he would have already said if their relationship were real and permanent.
Another book I enjoyed that features the "This Is Only Temporary" motif is by Leslie Kelly. Her novel Play With Me is about a pilot, Amanda, who finds herself flying a party of one, a guy named Reese, when she was expecting a party of five. When Reese invites her out to a Halloween costume party (due to some silly, charming circumstances, Amanda is in costume for the flight as a vintage flight attendant), Amanda accepts, and follows up by asking Reese for a one-night stand.
Now, everyone knows that, in a romance novel, one-night stands rarely succeed as temporary fulfillment exercises. This is no different: Reese and Amanda like each other a lot, and find reasons to visit one another, made possible by the fact that Amanda can fly herself to Reese, and does so for the most flimsy and sometimes adorable reasons. It's a minor holiday, like Arbor Day? Let's celebrate with dinner and more! In this case, Amanda's visits to Reese are temporary: She's flying in for a visit then flying home. But over the course of the story, Reese becomes her home base instead of her temporary destination, which is quite a change for Amanda, who is commitment-shy, to process.
I love contemporary romance, but it can be a challenge for a writer to come up with viable reasons why a character both could and could not be together at any moment. Establishing tension that simultaneously brings two people together and pulls them apart can be a complex task in a contemporary, where there's not much stopping two people from hooking up and moving on. The "This Is Only Temporary" trope works well for me because it comes with built-in tension (someone's going to leave, or intends to) and a timeline for changes to take effect in the characters' lives.
I'll be sharing more of my favorites, with examples, in the coming weeks. What's your favorite plotline? What type of conflict is your reading catnip?
Sarah Wendell is the co-creator, editor and mastermind of the popular romance blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. She loves talking with romance readers, and hopes you'll share your new favorite romance reading recommendations. You can find her on Twitter @smartbitches, on Facebook, or on her couch, most likely with her eyeglasses turned towards a book.