Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Romance in a Mystery Series

How do you develop a romantic relationship in a mystery series? Most importantly, keep things slow and subtle. You don’t want to resolve the romance by the end of book one. Build it step-by-step, advancing or retreating each stage per book.

Give your characters internal and external conflicts to keep them apart. The external conflict is your mystery. The internal conflict is the reason why they hesitate to get involved in a relationship. Maybe your heroine was hurt by a former lover and is afraid of getting burned again. Or she has a fierce need for independence because she has to prove herself worthy of respect. Why? What happened in her past to produce this need?

Keep asking questions to deepen the motivation. Maybe your hero doesn’t want a family because his own parents went through a bitter divorce; and secretly he feels he isn’t worthy of being loved. Or maybe he suppresses his emotions and doesn’t know how to give affection. Whatever the opposite sex character does appears to deepen or challenge this inner torment.

Your characters are immediately attracted to each other through physical chemistry. This pulls them together while the inner conflicts tear them apart. Yet for the relationship to succeed, it must advance. The benefits begin to outweigh the risks. As they become emotionally closer, your characters progress through the stages of intimacy.

Stages of Intimacy:

1. Physical awareness: Your characters notice each other with heightened sensitivity. For example, he is aware of her physical attributes; identifies her personal scent; feels a response in her presence. This may include a racing heartbeat, coiling warmth, tingling skin, etc.

2. Intrusion of thoughts: Your character begins thinking of this other person often; he/she invades your character’s mind.

3. Touching: First, it may be an arm around the shoulder, lifting a chin, touching an elbow. They come closer until the desire to kiss is almost palpable. Rising sexual tension is the key to capturing your reader’s interest.

4. Kissing

5. Touching in more intimate places

6. Coupling: Focus on the emotional reactions of your character. Avoid clinical terms or use them sparingly if at all. This is lovemaking, not just sex. For it to be romantic, think "slow seduction", not "slam bam, thank you ma’am".

Throw a wrench into the relationship when all seems to be going well. His former wife appears on the scene; the heroine does something thoughtless and alienates him; he feels pressured and backs off. Finally, they both change and compromise to resolve their differences.

Here is how this work in my Bad Hair Day mystery series (spoiler alert):

PERMED TO DEATH: Hairstylist Marla Shore meets Detective Dalton Vail. [girl meets boy]. While instantly attracted to each other, they share a mutual distrust. Marla is the prime suspect in her client’s murder [external conflict]. Vail is suspicious of her, and rightfully so. Marla hides a secret that gives her a motive. Meanwhile, Marla is suspicious of Vail’s interest because she thinks it’s a pretense. He wants to get to know her in order to learn what she’s hiding.

Besides the external conflict, Marla and Dalton have several internal conflicts at the start of the series. Marla doesn’t want children because of a past tragedy, and Vail has a preteen daughter. Marla values her independence after divorcing a domineering attorney, and Vail tries to direct her behavior. Vail, having lost his wife to cancer, is afraid of losing Marla. He wants to protect her, but she keeps placing herself in jeopardy. She interprets his protective behavior as telling her what to do. Thus they have several issues to overcome before intimacy. At the story’s end, he asks her for a date and she decides to accept [relationship moves forward].

HAIR RAISER: Marla meets Vail’s daughter [forward]. Marla dates an accountant who earns her family’s approval but he may be a murder suspect [backward]. Marla and Vail share their First Kiss [forward].

MURDER BY MANICURE: Marla takes Vail’s daughter, Brianna, to dance class [forward]. Marla pretends to be her friend Arnie’s fiancĂ© so he can rid himself of an amorous old flame. They bring Vail into the scheme to date this woman. Marla gets jealous of Vail when he pays the lady more attention than her [backward]. Marla earns his daughter’s regard [forward].

BODY WAVE: Marla’s ex-spouse, Stan, enters the picture when his third wife is a murder victim. Marla and Vail work together to solve the case [forward]. Stan stirs up feelings Marla would rather forget. Vail is jealous. Marla accuses him of wanting to pin the murder on Stan [backward].

HIGHLIGHTS TO HEAVEN: Marla and Vail argue over his restrictive rules for Brianna, and Marla feels she has no place in their life if he won’t listen to her advice [backward].

DIED BLONDE: Vail proposes [forward].

DEAD ROOTS: Vail meets Marla’s extended family; he presents her with engagement ring [forward].

PERISH BY PEDICURE: Marla meets parents of Vail’s dead wife. Vail takes their side [backward].

KILLER KNOTS: Marla meets Vail’s parents on a cruise. She and Dalton set a wedding date [forward].

And watch for SHEAR MURDER coming in January 2012 to see what happens next. Most of my fan mail is about Marla and Dalton. That should tell you something about what readers care about. Keep the conflict alive to keep your readers interested. Even if your couple gets married, nothing is perfect, is it?


  1. Nancy, you're right about the need to keep things lively between love interests. I heard from readers when my protagonist, Kate Gallagher, made the "wrong" romantic choice in one of my books. Of course in the next book, she got to dump Mr. Wrong-for-Her and re-meet Mr. Right from the previous book. Then, in the next book, she is betrayed by Mr. (Formerly) Right. And so forth, and so on!

  2. Useful list. I wonder if this is a rigid list or can the characters complete the steps out of order? For example, steps 5 and 6 seem to me easily reversible. Are there others?

    Also, are you familiar with Desmond Morris' 12 Steps to Intimacy?

    01. Eye to body
    02. Eye to eye
    03. Voice to voice
    04. Hand to hand
    05. Arm to shoulder
    06. Arm to waist
    07. Mouth to mouth
    08. Hand to head
    09. Hand to body
    10. Mouth to breast
    11. Hand to genitals
    12. Genitals to genitals

    I see parallels with your list. (e.g. Your #1 = DM's 01-02, #2 = 03, #3 = 04-06, #4 = 07, #5 = 08-12) I definitely like your addition of #2 - Intrusion of thoughts. I already have such a scene in my head for my WIP. Now I know where to put it. As they say, the body's most sexual organ is ... the brain.

    BTW, I found the above list years ago on, Writer's "Cheat Sheets" by Michele Albert. It's a single, focused web page (oriented toward romance writers) that contains several useful reference items for any writer. Take a look~

  3. Your reference to your reader's interest in the romance is instructive. I heard Vince Flynn speak and he shared interesting and funny stories similarly noting the incredible fervor of his readers' opinions regarding the romantic developments of his Mitch Rapp character. Seems clear to me that the ability of a writer to generate such interest is very desirable.

    In my WIP the romantically involved characters start the series with a marriage at risk and two small children. The relationship is strained due to, among other things, the rigorous demands and commitment the protagonist must or feels he must direct to his responsibilities as a physician-in-training and researcher. As currently outlined the match is not perfect, doubts abound on both sides and conflict is common. This likely will be the future of the relationship throughout the series. The strength is the mutual love of the kids and an incredible sexual compatibility.
    Any thoughts on whether I might be writing myself into a losing situation by not targeting a more ideal pairing?
    Great post!

  4. Kathryn, sounds like your protagonist has an active love life! Daniel, my list is merely a guideline. Real life doesn't follow in this exact order, does it? And yes, the romance writer side of me is familiar with the 12 steps to intimacy you've mentioned but thanks for sharing them here for other readers. TJC, I think it's good your characters have problems. If their marriage were perfect, it would be unrealistic and lack tension. The conflict between duty and family is a common one and very viable. You mention the husband's feelings. What about the wife's?

  5. Thanks.
    The wife has a number of well founded issues...her 'deferring' to the demands of her husband's real and perceived obligations, a lack of opportunity to develop her potential, presumption of her role and more. My beta readers have had strong and wide ranging opinions on the issues ('she's a bitch'/'he's an a--hole').

    I'm inclined to think that this response is a good thing but wonder if must watch out for overload on the 'relationship' stuff. Have found myself as a reader put off by too much in the works of some mystery-suspense-thriller writers.
    Is there a greater danger? too much or too little? Particularly given my genre (mystery/suspense in medical setting)
    Anybody with thoughts on a popular series (other than KL's example as provided)that works it well?

  6. Hey! That's the same list I use in real life!

    Walk in door:

    1. Awareness: "Hi Honey!"
    wow she's hot

    2. Thoughts: "How was your day?"
    couldn't stop thinking of her all she smells good

    3. Touch: Huggy Wuggy

    4. Kiss: Smoochy Smoochy mmmm....soft...sweet

    (from this point the list diverges dependant upon the number of children in the house or potentially bursting in the door)

    5. Intimate touch:
    -5a (kids about) hand slides to lower back, carresses back of neck/head, light nose rub

    -5b (kids at grandma's) Non-TSA regulation Stuff touching

    6. Coupling:
    -6a (kids about) holding hands, giggling, whispering tonight... in each other's ear.

    -6b (kids at grandma's and definitely not coming home that night) curtains and blinds shut, placemats and flatware flying off the dining table, amour fabrication process in full operation as the potatos boil over in the background.

    Now that I think of the first few years, pre kids, we seemed to lump steps 1-5 into a single unit quite often...or even just skip to step 6b....which is probably where the kids came from.

    Friday I celebrate 22 years of steps 1-6 with my Ipun Yobo (Korean for Lovely Wife) and looking forward to many more to come

  7. TJC, as long as your relationship adds to or affects the plot, you're okay. Just don't have them bitchy for no real reason or for a misunderstanding that can easily be cleared up. It's realistic for the wife to resent her husband's career when she's had to give up her own. Maybe she decides it's time to pursue the interest she's always had in [whatever] and he thinks she isn't spending enough time with the kids. More conflict.

    Basil, your take on the intimacy steps was amusing. Congrats on your 22 years. I'm approaching 34 years of wedded bliss myself.