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Keir Graff and editors from Booklist's adult and youth departments write candidly about books, book reviewing, and the publishing industry

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Tuesday, February 8, 2011 9:15 am
Romance Not Deadly at Love Is Murder
Posted by: Keir Graff

Those who read this issue of REaD ALERT last fall know that I am no expert in romance (the genre, I mean, not the art of)–in fact, a couple of them sent me e-mails, strongly worded, decrying my lack of expertise. There are, of course, many holes in my reading knowledge, but for my New Year’s resolution, I decided to try to plug some of them, asking readers to recommend suitable works in the genres–romance, sf, western, etc.–that I don’t know enough about. I received many helpful responses, so many that I haven’t even managed to compile my tentative reading list yet.

My Biker Bodyguard, by J. R. TurnerBut no matter, because fate has played a role, and I got started on my romance reading purely by accident. Attending the Love Is Murder conference in Chicago last weekend, I found myself assigned to moderate a panel called “Writing Sexual Tension.” Was I surprised? You bet. I do a little writing on the side, and, in my four books, there are exactly two and a half sex scenes. But at least I would be asking the questions, not answering them.

My panel consisted of Jennifer Turner, J. L. Wilson, and John Galligan. I think that John, who writes the Fly Fishing Mystery series, was as surprised as I was to find himself on the panel–but more on that in a moment. I asked each author to send me one of their books. Jenny Turner sent me My Biker Bodyguard, J. L. Wilson sent Ex-Wives, Extortion, and Erotic First Editions, and John sent me The Nail Knot.

Ex-Wives, Extortion, and Erotic First EditionsGiven that I only had about a week to prepare, I knew I wouldn’t finish all three books in time (I was also on deadline to review Lawrence Block’s A Drop of the Hard Stuff), but I dug in and read as much as I could. I wouldn’t have picked up the two romances if I wasn’t interviewing their authors, but I did enjoy them more than I thought I would, and I was impressed with the way both Turner and Wilson got their stories going: both of their books start quickly, have likable characters and clearly defined premises, and pull the reader right along. My Biker Bodyguard is a bit like an action movie with plenty of sexual tension, and Ex-Wives is part mystery, part road trip (with plenty of sexual tension). Both of them are pretty fun, and I’m definitely not the target audience.

The Nail Knot, by John GalliganThe one book I did read to the end was The Nail Knot. Galligan, who teaches writing in Madison, Wisconsin, takes a potentially goofy scenario (a trout bum named Dog finds a body near Black Earth, Wisconsin, and solves a mystery due to his knowledge of fly fishing) and delivers a story with intelligence, feeling–and a satisfying conclusion. And, lo and behold, a slow-building romance between Dog and Junior (who’s a she), has plenty of . . . sexual tension.

Any worries I had about moderating the panel were quelled as soon as we started: despite the difference in our approaches and backgrounds, good writing is good writing, and the authors all had smart–and sometimes similar–things to say about craft. Creating sexual tension in a story is, it turns out, pretty much like creating any kind of storytelling tension: if readers don’t care about the characters, it won’t work.

Not to say there weren’t some lighter moments. Galligan cracked us all up when he explained that, as a kid, he had learned something about both sex and metaphors from a howlingly bad line in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. I can’t recall it exactly, but it involved putting arrows into a quiver. That book did go on to become a cultural touchstone, of course, but had Puzo consulted a romance writer, he could have improved the sex scenes.

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