By Marta Perry
The covers may no longer feature a heroine fleeing a dark mansion in her flowing white nightgown, but contemporary romantic suspense is the direct descendant of the classic gothic novels of such talented authors as Daphne du Maurier, Victoria Holt, and Mary Stewart. No matter what twists and turns the genre takes, storytellers still promise a combination of compelling romance and chilling suspense that will keep readers spellbound.
But today’s author faces some challenges that didn’t exist twenty or thirty years ago. How do you put your modern heroine in danger and keep her there without letting her fall into the dreaded too-stupid-to-live syndrome? Why doesn’t she use the now-ubiquitous cell phone to call the police? Why not hire a lawyer, or practice her karate on the villain? To make the contemporary heroine’s plight believable rather than pathetic, I look to two sources: motivation and circumstance.
Motivation #1: The heroine has fallen in love with the hero and doesn’t want to desert him, even though this puts her in danger. This common motivating factor in romantic suspense works, but it should be bolstered by other compelling motivation.
Motivation #2: The heroine feels responsible for another character who is helpless: a child, an elderly grandmother, a disabled person.
Motivation #3: The protagonist must solve the mystery or be forever unhappy or guilt-ridden at her failure.
Motivation # 4: The protagonist’s survival or her sanity depends on learning the truth.
The specific situation you set up in your story can also bolster the credibility of your heroine’s actions.
Situation # 1: She doesn’t realize until too late that she is in danger.
Situation # 2: She is physically isolated and can’t escape. She may be on an island, trapped in an isolated lodge in a
snowstorm, or cut off by a flood.
Situation # 3: She is isolated by social or political circumstances. This is easier to pull off in an historical setting, but it can be done in a contemporary if the heroine is, for example, stuck in a small town controlled by a political boss or alone in a foreign country where she doesn’t know the language or customs.
Situation #4: Her credibility is in doubt, and even if she goes to the police they will not believe her because she is a suspect in the crime; she has a history of mental or emotional instability; she doesn’t know why she is the target of the villain; or the villains are in such hot pursuit that she doesn’t have time to explain or ask for help.
Once you have established a strong, believable reason why your character must fight this battle, the romantic suspense requires all the elements of any good novel, but given sufficient motivation for your characters, your reader is happy to go along for the ride.
A lifetime spent in rural Pennsylvania, where she still lives, and her own Pennsylvania Dutch roots led Marta Perry to write about the Plain People in her current novels. The author of more than fifty novels, Marta is active in her church and community. When she’s not writing, she and her husband enjoy traveling, gardening, and visiting their six grandchildren.