How to write fairytale-free romantic fiction
Clare Swatman, author of Before You Go, a spellbinding story of enduring love in the face of tragic loss, on why she writes romance novels set in the real world.
Like most little girls I always used to love reading fairytales - all those stories about the girl finding her handsome prince, getting married and living happily ever after.
But even back then I couldn’t help wondering how they could all fall in love straight away, when they’d only just met each other. I mean what would happen if, once they’d got married, Cinderella discovered that Prince Charming farted in bed, or left dirty dishes festering in the kitchen and never picked his socks off the floor? How did she know whether she could live happily ever after with this man if she didn’t even know whether he changed his pants every day? Because let’s face it, for many women hygiene habits could be a deal breaker.
Of course I knew it wasn’t meant to be real life. But I realised that what I really wanted to read about WAS real life. Not the farting and the dirtiness, but the imperfections, and the arguments and the unglamorous details of everyday life that, quite frankly, many love stories fail to mention. Nobody is perfect and so writing perfect characters and perfect love stories makes the story seem a little less real and, therefore, a lot less believable.
I enjoyed writing many of the scenes in Before You Go, but one of my favourites was where Ed and Zoe are trying to have sex in the shower. It was so far removed from the Hollywood ideal of brass bands playing and steam filling the bathroom as they reached a crescendo – more elbows in the way and slipping on the floor before realising the cubicle was just too damn small – that it made me smile when I read it back.
Throughout the book, I also write about Zoe and Ed’s rows, about their disagreements, about them being cross with each other; I write about them not knowing how to say sorry, and not understanding what the other person is thinking and so having no clue how to make things better.
And I write about how sometimes, you can look at someone and realise that they might not be perfect, and that, actually, sometimes, they make you really, really angry – but you still love them more than anyone else in the whole world.
That, to me, is what love is about. Stories where people love each other despite their imperfections, their annoying habits and the busy, chaotic nature of everyday life.
And so that’s what I’ve always tried to do, whether wittingly or unwittingly; keep the relationships that I write about as real as possible – without making the reader dislike the characters, of course.
Because love might be all hearts and roses at the beginning of a relationship, but the truth is, when you’ve been together ten, twenty, thirty years, the things that make you happy change beyond recognition. By the time you’ve lived together for twenty years you can forget flowers and chocolates and little love notes left in your lunch box for you to find when you get to work - it’s a bonus if he puts out the bins without being asked, or brings you a cup of tea when you’re hungover.
And so I try and write about real relationships. Relationships where people have faults, and they argue, and things go wrong – and yet they still love each other. Just like in real life.
Because nothing – and no-one – is perfect.
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Some people stare love in the face for years before they find it. Zoe and Ed fumbled their way into adulthood, both on different paths - but always in the same direction.
Years later, having navigated dead-end jobs and chaotic house shares, romance finally blossoms. Their future together looks set. But when, one morning, Ed is knocked off his bike and dies, Zoe must find a way to survive...