All articles copyright © Liz Fielding 2001-2016

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Blending Humour With Emotion

WHEN I was asked to give a talk at the Caerleon conference I was on my second glass of wine and it was so far into the future that I said “yes” without a second thought.

By the time I was having second thoughts and I emailed Jan to tell her that I was having kittens at the prospect, she replied telling me that I didn’t have to worry about a thing.

All I had to do was turn up and you would be happy to worship at my feet … so, if you’d like to make a circle…

I told her it wouldn’t work…

Okay, I am going to start by confessing that I find the “humour” in the title of this workshop/talk slightly embarrassing. It is a truth universally acknowledged that while many of the techniques of writing can be taught, I’m not sure that humour is one of them.

My own sense of humour, the stuff that spills over into my books, comes directly from my family. My Dad didn’t tell jokes, but he had a dry wit and I remember him as someone who made everyone laugh.

I had an aunt who could reduce us all to helpless tears of laughter when she talked about life in service. Dressing up in the Mrs' fur coat, putting on her diamond rings and smoking her cigarettes while she vacuumed the bedroom carpets. All with actions.

And then there was my mother, bless her, who knew what she meant, but often said something very different. She died twenty years ago but she can still make me laugh. Usually with a tear on the side.

What makes us laugh, what makes us cry is deeply personal. It is who we are, and can never be forced. It only works as part of our unconscious writing voice. Something that comes naturally.

I never set out to write romantic “comedy”. I wanted to write for Mills and Boon and thirty years ago that mean the dark, dramatically emotional stories pouring from the pen of Charlotte Lamb and Anne Hampson.

They were the benchmark, living as tax exiles. Charlotte lived on the Isle of Man. Anne Hampson had a house in the West Indies.

I really, really wanted to be Anne Hampson.

I wrote three dark, dramatic books that were turned down. My fourth had a revenge scenario. My heroine was going to get her own back on the arrogant hero. I can’t remember why.

The editor who read it doubted that the conflict would carry 55,000 words. She suggested I think again and then rewrite the first three chapters.

I walked around in a bit of a daze for two weeks. And that was when something weird happened.

LIZ FIELDING'S LITTLE BOOK OF WRITING ROMANCE is a primer, an entry level aid for the writer who has a story to tell, but is struggling to get it out of her head and onto paper. To quote the theme song for the movie of Erich Segal’s bestselling book Love Story, “How do you begin…”


"A fantastic newbie guide to writing romance with clear jargon-free advice and examples from published works to back it up. This will be regularly called upon for my writing, of that I have no doubt!"


...Amazon Reviews



Like it? Buy it!


Amazon | Amazon UK





On Writing Romance

Leigh Michaels


Solutions for Writers

Sol Stein


The Writer’s Journey

Christopher Vogler



Robert McKee


The Art of Romance Writing

Valerie Parv


Dangerous Men & Adventurous Women

Ed:  Jayne Ann Krentz


Kate Walker’s 12 Points Guide to Writing Romance

Kate Walker


Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook

Donald Maass


The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon 1909-1990s

Jay Dixon


The Pocket Muse

Monica Wood

The basic set-up, the frame of the story remained the same but instead of driving the agenda, my heroine is trapped in a high stakes situation where, in order to gain something of huge importance to her, she has to work with the man of her nightmares. They’ve met before, but it’s vital, for the sake of her goal, that he does not recognise her.

Not revenge, but survival.

The minute she began to put together her disguise, everything fell into place.

Humour wasn’t a Mills and Boon thing back then but the editor who’d seen something in my writing loved it, An Image of You was published by them and the rest, as they say, is history.

I imagine, since you’re obviously interested in humour, that you all watch romcom movies?

Which are the ones that stay with you, that you go back to? 

  • My Big Fat Greek Wedding

  • Sleepless in Seattle

  • Pretty Woman

  • You’ve Got Mail

  • 27 Dresses

What are the scenes that you remember?

The dress scene in 27 Dresses? Where she’s dashing across the screen in outfit after outfit and she’s laughing and he’s laughing, but then you realise that it’s not funny at all, because this is her life. Always playing second fiddle to the girl that got the guy.

And there’s a scene in Pretty Woman, when Julia and Richard have an argument at a polo match. He knows she’s ticked off, but when he asks her about it, she just says she’s “fine”. He’s not convinced and he asks her for a different word – he wants something a little more telling than just “fine”. She gives him an unflattering expletive and he mutters, “I think I liked fine better.”

It’s a simple line that doesn’t diminish the emotion of the scene, but injects a brief moment of humour at low point for both of them.

And a wry smile does the job.

Humour isn’t one big laugh dumped into the middle of a scene. It tends to trickle in, along with the emotion. It’s interwoven with character. It’s about stuff that the reader instantly gets, that will evoke a response.

Opening the door in your “scrubbing the floor clothes” to a drop dead gorgeous man and attempting nonchalance as you toss your Marigolds over your shoulder. It has a touch of the Charlie Chaplin’s about it. It would work as a visual gag in a movie. But the point is that most women will be empathising with the heroine. Smiling, hopefully, but also feeling her pain. Who hasn’t been caught out in unflattering gear?

It’s a smile rather than a belly laugh; this isn’t comedy, it’s romance and you’re less likely to fall flat on your face with humour if you steer clear of pratfalls.

We’re in the “emotion” business and it’s the smile of recognition from the reader that will heighten the emotion.

So where do we find the smiles?

The great Ray Galton, talking about Hancock’s Half Hour once said that humour comes from situation and character. He and his partner, Alan Simpson, had to fight the programme’s producer to get rid of the jokes. Get rid of Kenneth Williams with his funny voices and catch phrases.

It was only when they’d pared their scripts to the bone — to character and situation — that the series touched something deeper with the viewers and became an enduring classic.

So how can you do that?

I was trying to find some moment in one of my books to demonstrate the switch from humour to empathy, a snippet I could read to you and say there – see - that’s how you do it.

I re-read the books that seemed to offer the highest humour to emotion ratio, but apparently I don’t write handy snippets. The scenes were long, and didn’t involve a humorous build-up followed by an emotional twist. The scenes were long and switched back and forth between smiles, aches, and the occasional tear.

Finally, I realised I’d have to talk about humour and emotion separately.

First, the humour. It helps if you start by putting your heroine in a situation with comic potential.

Commissioned to write a book for a mini series called The Fun Factor, I had my heroine hiding out from her beastly ex as an elf in Santa’s Grotto.

In Wedding At Leopard Tree Lodge, I set a celebrity wedding in the wilderness. This was a story that could have gone either way since both hero and heroine had a big dark hole in their lives.

The opportunity for disaster was too tempting, however.

A shortage of rooms for the A list guests, jetlag and a bridesmaid catfight were balanced against high stakes for the heroine and an emotional minefield for the hero. The minute the monkey stole the heroine’s toast – she was … toast.

In The Secret Life of Lady Gabriella, the story opens with Ellie March, a widowed drop-out teacher, working as a cleaner to support her dream of writing the great historical novel.

She’s been invited the formidable editor of “Milady” magazine to discuss Lady Gabriella’s Journal – a fictitious diary piece she’s written as a exercise set at her writers’ group. There’s only one problem. They think she really is Lady Gabriella March.

She’d never meant to take it this far.

Never expected to get this far.

Wouldn’t be here if the idea of her contributing saleable copy to a magazine aimed directly at ladies who lunched, gossiped and shopped, hadn’t produced such howls of mirth at her writers’ group.

She’d set out to show them…

Famous last words.

Until that moment it’s been pretty much straight comedy. It’s a game, a bit of laugh but now she’s being offered a contract for a regular contribution based on her own experiences of entertaining, household management, family life. There’s just one small problem or three. She’s not a “Lady”, she doesn’t have a home, or a family, and any entertaining she does involves a phone call to the local takeaway. And what the heck was household management when it was at home?

Okay – This is chapter one and if she owns up, confesses that it’s all a joke, there isn’t going a book. So …

…she tuned out the voice of sanity.

Chances like this were once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, and no one knew better than she did that they had to be grabbed with both hands.

She’d worry about the children and the household management later. There were books. The internet…

As for her “husband”…

For a moment Ellie was assailed by such an ache of loneliness, loss. How could she do this…? Pretend…

She’s caught out by the word “husband”… Is she betraying the memory of her dead husband, her childhood sweetheart, by pretending to be this domestic goddess with her titled husband, three perfect children and a pony in the paddock?

Memory is the trigger to turning that moment when you’re smiling with the heroine, to the prickle of tears.

We’re all sponges, soaking up images, sounds, feelings. Laying down memory. As writers we have to tap into our emotions, use them in the same way that a method actor reaches into himself, searching his own experiences, memories to create a living, breathing character.

Search your memory for an occasion when, one moment you’ve been laughing, on top of the world celebrating some achievement with family, friends and then, without warning, there’s a prickle behind your eyelids.

Present laughter evoking a memory that has tears in our eyes before we know it.

What emotional trigger has caught you out that way?

For me it was at my daughter’s wedding. Not the moment when she walked in on her father’s arm. Not the vows. It was the moment when she and her new husband, and all the members of the band he plays with lined up to perform air guitar to some rock number on the dance floor. It made me laugh and then, as thought how much my mother would have loved that, it made me cry…

Music can do it, too. You’re at a party, dancing, having a good time and then a song will come on that evokes a memory and you fall apart…

It isn’t always the big occasions that get you and, maybe, for the writer it’s the small things that are the most valuable. Picking the first strawberry from your garden, making a daisy chain with your daughter, building a sandcastle can spark a tender memory. My Dad used to make the world’s greatest sandcastles…

Tap into those moments, use them and you can turn a scene from laughter to tears.

In the first of my ice cream trilogy, Tempted By Trouble, Elle’s back story includes her flighty mother who had three daughters, each fathered by a different — and absent — man.

She makes light of it to Sean, making light of the fact that they all have February birthdays. Making light of the fact that, if they were seen together, the village biddies would be marking their calendars and counting down the months.

He’s more interested in what happens in June and she finds herself telling him how, every year when the travelling fair comes to the village, she stands on the sidelines watching the men putting up the rides, the marquees. Looking for a likeness. Trying spot the man who might be her father.

That’s one twist of the emotional knife, but then Sean says:  

‘I think it’s far more likely that some man would look up, see you with the sun shining on your hair and remember a long ago summer interlude with a beautiful woman. And wish he was still young.’

And that’s the one that gets you.

The comedy grows out of situation, the emotion comes from the character. Sean has father issues of his own, he feels her need and he gives her a different perspective – one that comes from his own loss and the scene turns on a sixpence.

You can have emotion without humour. In romance, you cannot have humour without emotion.

We go to extraordinary lengths to find fresh and exciting plots for our stories. We conjure up hurricanes, make or break fashion collections, desperate boardroom takeover battles, paper marriages – conflict situations that throw our hero and heroine into a crucible where they are held together and forced to confront feelings they would rather ignore.

But these are merely frames. Romantic fiction is character led and what brings readers back to our books time and time again is not the frame, the situation we have created to give our heroes and our heroines a hard time.

They come back for the emotion generated by the conflicts, problems, heartaches that we toss in their path like so many hand grenades.

Our reader wants to experience what the heroine is feeling. The excitement, the raised heart rate, the pounding pulse. An attraction that is all the more exciting, compelling because, for her heart’s sake, it has to be resisted. She wants to experience that moment of attraction. The highs and lows. To have her withers rung by a black moment so dark that even when the heroine is proudly holding back her tears, they are running down her own cheeks and dripping onto the page.

That roller-coaster emotional thrill is what she demands in return for her trust in choosing your book out of the dozens laid out before her in the shop, library, on the internet.

That’s the promise you have to deliver on.

As human beings, we're bombarded by emotion. These are the most simple and complex of feelings we ever experience. They colour the way we see the world. They drive our actions for good or ill. They provoke tenderness or violence. Fight or flight.

They are simple because they are instinctive, intuitive, straight from the gut. You do not think, rationalise your reactions. You are overpowered, swept up by something raw, atavistic, beyond your control. True emotion is without artifice, deceit. It is pure. Honest.

Don’t stop to think just write down one emotion. The first that comes into your head. Now.

Now write the opposite.

How many of you didn’t write a four letter word?

How many of you wrote two four letter words?

Love and its opposite, hate. The two most powerful emotions we ever experience. They drive the best and the worst in us. Pick up your pen and show love or hate in a sentence.

Not the obvious, the easy. I love my children, or I hate cruelty is a given. Stretch yourself.

Make it something real, honest, something that gives you that little stomach clench of love, dries your throat with fear.

Surprise me. Enchant me. Terrify me.

Make me feel what you feel…

While emotion is simple, our response to it is as complex and individual as the person feeling it. Your reaction to loss, joy, grief is the result of everything that has happened to you. Your feelings at the death of a much loved pet will be very different at the age of seven to those when you’re seventy-seven. No less acute, but coloured by experience, by the different place you are in your life. By the acceptance, perhaps, that there will be no more pets, a recognition of your own mortality.

Emotion is what makes us human and as a writer, your history will give you the tools you need to write. Those moments that stay with you. Incidents – often small in themselves – that leave a lingering sense of outrage or pleasure. Of resentment, excitement, helplessness, warmth, betrayal, injustice, embarrassment that lodge in the mind and years later surface without warning, the feelings so vivid that you can still feel the hot blush.

Even in middle age my mother still talked about the moment when a teacher she loved accused her of something she hadn’t done, refused to listen to her. He was behaving outside his normal character and even though, as a adult, she understood that he was having a bad day – maybe distracted by some personal problem – her emotional reaction fixed the moment in her memory. She felt as betrayed at forty, as she had at ten years old. We all have those moments in our lives. Use them.

The writer may not have been through the same experience as her characters, but we have all felt those moments of joy, of tenderness. We all know loss, heartbreak, the death of a loved one, the hollowness of disappointment. Search your memory. Relive a moment you’d rather forget. Bring your own experience to the table, use it to colour your writing, give power to your character’s feelings.

We’ve all read those skim over the surface sentences.

She hurt.

Her heart was breaking.

It was like nothing she’d felt before.

I want to know how she’s hurting. I want to feel her heart break. As for that unique experience, I want her to share it with me.

I don’t want it in black and white, and I don’t want it purple. I want it in 3D technicolour but most of all I want it honest.

Put yourself in your heroine’s shoes, dig deep, live what she’s experiencing. Make the reader feel it, too.

Humour, like angst, taps into the reader’s emotions.

If you can make her feel, you can make her smile.

And if you can make her smile, you can make her cry.



Molly Blake's Writing Workshop Notes...

Back in 2000, when eHarlequin launched their online stories, I was asked to contribute a 10,000 word story in eight weekly instalments and offered them THE SECRET WEDDING.

I took as my heroine historical novelist, Molly Blake who had agreed, under pressure from her publisher, to give a weekend workshop at a country hotel about an hour’s drive from London.

My hero was Tom Garrick, a successful writer of thrillers for a largely male audience.  His publisher, desperate to tap into the cross-over market and bring on board all those book-buying women, insisted he go along to Molly Blake’s workshop and, as he put it, “get in touch with his feminine side”. 

I started each episode with a quote from Molly’s workshop notes and then used the following scenes to demonstrate that quote in action.   I had enormous fun taking some of the romance “clichés” and giving them – I hope -- a fresh and funny twist and since they offer the basic truths of romance writing, I’m including them on this page.

* * *

1.    Begin your story at a moment of crisis, a point in time when your character's life is about to change for ever.

2.    Keep the conflict simple.  Make sure the reader knows what’s going on.  Ask yourself…  Is the conflict strong enough to sustain the length of the story?

3.    Use dialogue to move the story along.  Use it to create tension, misunderstanding, to reveal character to the reader.

4.    A hero has to be strong, tender, a man who would never let down the woman he loves.  But he has to be flawed, too.  If he were perfect there would be no story.  (And he’d be impossible live with.  LF)

5.    Sexual tension is not just about getting naked.  It’s about wanting something and knowing it’s out of reach.  It can be a look instead of a touch.

6.    Every story will have a moment when explanations, an air-clearing talk, will offer the way to a happy ending.  Never let this happen.

7.    The romance reader is looking for warmly observed characters and deeply felt emotion.

8.    A satisfying ending provides a final moment of discord before all the loose ends are gathered in, with reassurance that the hero and heroine will live happily ever after.





Help...my mind's gone blank!


(Or, Where do you get your ideas from?)


Writers get asked this question all the time and to be honest it embarrasses them a little. The answer is we don't really know and we're not keen to examine the process too closely in case the plot fairies don't like being stared at and fly away.

Basically, I suspect, writers have a slightly different way of looking at the world. We all have images, conversations, memories - the ingredients of Story -- swilling around inside our heads. It's why we all think we have a story inside us.

Inside the writer's brain, however, incidents and memory combine, mingle with overheard comments and gather momentum, finally becoming someone else's story. Someone more interesting than the writer who, after all, just sits at a computer all day writing down the words.

I have to confess, however, that sometimes the "magic" needs a bit of a prompt. Chocolate, obviously is essential at times like this, but is probably best used in fairly small quantities.

A lot of writers walk. If you like to walk, well, go for it. I live in a place where it rains a lot and getting wet doesn't inspire me; it just makes me wish I'd stayed indoors.

So what else can you do?

You could phone a friend or maybe your sister or cousin. A major session of "remember when" with someone who's known you from infancy will probably throw up a number of incidents you'd much rather gloss over. You can bet your heroine would feel the same way.

Go fifty/fifty and brainstorm with a writing friend. I once tried this with my husband but romantic man that he is, he just doesn't get "romance". We stopped before I murdered him. And that's just given me an idea for a story ... but it's not a romance...

Ask the audience. Ask visitors to your website, or your librarian, or friends who read as voraciously as you to tell you what kind of books they like most. And what they haven't been able to find.

Closer to home, try opening your wardrobe, get down on your knees and dig out something that's fallen from its hanger. When did you last wear it? At work? On a beach? In the supermarket? Lying on damp grass? And were you happy or sad?

Go and sit in a café, burger bar, wine bar... Watch the other customers. Who are they? Harassed mothers, illicit lovers, business contacts? Look for the details that mark them as individuals, make up their life stories. Or imagine that you're waiting for someone ... a blind date, or the married man who you know is never going to leave his wife for you. Who turns up?

We've all got a cupboard in our home that we wouldn't want anyone to open. Who, in your worst nightmare, opens yours and what falls at his or her feet?

You're waiting for a train, suitcase at your feet. The train pulls up. The door in front of you opens. Who is standing there? The person you most want to see? The person to least want to see? Someone you thought you'd never see again?

We've all been woken by a noise that we can't place. Cat? Burglar? Cat burglar? If you can find a copy of my book His Little Girl check out what my heroine found...

How often have you found a note tucked under your windscreen wipers. Was it the telephone number of someone who's scratched your car? A letter from a secret admirer? A poison pen letter? Or just another advertising flyer that promises to "change your life"?


Grabbing the reader on the first page...


A great opening to a romance sets up questions in the reader's mind; questions that only the writer can answer.

To achieve this the writer has to:

    • Start with something happening
    • Get the hero and heroine on the page
    • Grab the reader's attention

The start of any book is a make or break minute. It is the minute when the writer has to convince the reader to buy the book. Not the reader in the bookstore, but the first reader. The acquiring editor at the publishing house where your manuscript will be just one among the thousands sent to them every year.

It will not have a glossy cover or a teasing blurb written by a marketing department skilled in selling fantasy to tempt her. It will be a simple typescript, exactly like dozens of others awaiting her attention. Typed on white paper, double spaced, with an elastic band around it to hold it together.

You have two pages, or maybe three if she's feeling generous, to convince her that your book is worth more than a minute of her time.

Asked, when giving a talk to hopeful authors, if she could really decide whether a book was worth publishing after reading the first chapter, the editor of a well known publishing house replied -

'Sometimes all it takes is the first line.'

A great opening to chapter four with a crisis of heart-rending proportions won't help if the reader doesn't get that far.

    • The opening is important. Start with the crisis.

More, the opening must raise expectations in the reader, set the mood, the style of the book.

    • Is it sharp and direct?
    • Is there a mystery?
    • Will it wrench the reader's heartstrings?


'Blackmail,' Faith muttered for perhaps the tenth time that day. Her aunt was an expert in the technique.

The reader of a romance will not be fooled by that word "blackmail". The word "aunt" qualifies it and promises a book in which the heroine is being manipulated by a strong willed female relative. The fact that she has allowed herself to be manipulated suggests any irritation will be firmly underpinned by affection. But she is still being manipulated. Why?


'Something woke Dora. One minute she was sleeping, the next wide awake, her ears straining through all the familiar night noises of the countryside for the out-of-place sound that had woken her.'

Here the opening suggests that something unexpected, maybe frightening, is about to happen. The danger may be unseen but the potential victim is right there, on the page, focussing the reader's attention, attracting her concern. Whatever happens is going to happen to Dora


'Lizzie French jumped involuntarily as the church door clanged noisily behind a latecomer. Had he come? She had almost given up hope, but now, heart-in-mouth, she turned.'

Lizzie is jumpy, waiting for someone special to arrive. Is it him? And will he be the hero? No. The hero is standing next to her and the reader is introduced to him before she can give the tardy wedding guest more than a passing thought. Having informed Lizzie that the late arrival is the vicar's wife --

'... Noah Jordan's dark brows were lifted just a fraction, his mouth turned down slightly at the corners in a mocking expression that might just have been an apology that he was the bearer of such disappointing news. But somehow she didn't think so.'

The latecomer is important. But the reader recognises the hero. He's right there on the first page.

    • The opening tells the reader who the story is about.
    • The opening asks questions.
    • The opening must intrigue the reader. Draw her in.


    • I don't understand how a publisher can make a decision on the first three chapters. My book is scarcely started then.
    • If I don't explain what happened in the past, the reader won't understand why this is happening now.
    • I need to set the scene first.
    • If I haven't described the characters first, the reader won't know who they are, or why they're acting this way.

Go to the library, grab an armful of modern bestsellers and check out your beliefs against the opening paragraphs.


The defining moment of a story is a point of crisis. For the romance writer there are certain major life changing moments which offer great opening moments. Death, birth, marriage, divorce.

The beginning of a book is a moment of change, the unexpected. Consider the wedding.

The expected, is that the bride and groom will say 'I do' and live happily ever after.

The unexpected is --

    • -- when someone burst into the church and says "yes!"

    • -- when the groom turns to the bride and says 'Smile sweetheart ... this is supposed to be the happiest day of your life.'

    • -- when the vicar asks the bride if she will take this man to be her lawfully wedded husband ... and in response, she picks up her skirts, dashes back down the aisle and hops on a number 38 bus which just happens to be passing.

There is clearly a crisis that has brought the heroine to this point, but given sufficient incentive to read on, the reader will be content to wait for the details.

Think of a major newspaper story. It doesn't start with ten years of backstory. It starts with a big headline.




These are stories everyone will want to read. Does your story start with a headline?

    • A romance starts with a moment of crisis - a moment of change.
    • Write the newspaper headline for your story and start from that point.


In each of the wedding scenarios the heroine is front and centre of the action, the star of her own story. Her co-star, with equal billing, is the hero.

These are the most important characters in a short romance. The sooner you can introduce them the better.

On the first page is good. In the first paragraph is better. In the first line if at all possible.

'Lukas?' Georgette Bainbridge felt her mouth go dry at her father's suggestion. 'You want me to work for Lukas?' The day which had begun so badly suddenly became a disaster.

Lukas, the hero, does not appear in person until the end of the first chapter. But his presence is there from the opening line of the book and the reader will recognise his status instantly.

'Got you, Chay Buchanan!' Sophie Nash's triumphant exclamation was a tightly contained whisper.

Chay Buchanan is being watched through the viewfinder of a camera. The reader is there, looking through it, along with the heroine. Seeing what she's seeing, feeling the same emotional turmoil. There is no doubt whose story this is.

The reader is like a newly hatched chick, programmed to bond with the first likely character she meets. Ensure that it is the hero or heroine.

    • 'Cassandra Cornwell had a problem ...'
    • 'Tom Brodie regarded the man sitting behind the ornate desk ...'
    • '"Miss Carpenter?" The enquiry was simply a formality ...'

And keep the action moving during that important first scene. Novice writers always use too much description. Characters come alive on the page through their actions, not through a detailed inventory of their looks, or their clothes.

    • Description of any kind slows down the action.

Read the first page of any volume of popular fiction and see just how much information the writer has crammed into those twenty or so lines. Not description, but set-up; the information that will draw the reader into the book and make her want to read on. This is the first page of my Mills & Boon romance, A POINT OF PRIDE.

'Smile, sweetheart ... this is supposed to be the happiest day of your life.'

What is the most important word in that line? '… supposed …'

'Not by one flicker of her lashes did Casey O'Connor acknowledge that she had heard the words murmured by the tall grey-clad figure of Gil Blake, as he took her right hand firmly in his own.

'She stared resolutely ahead, her face almost the colour of her exquisitely simple ivory silk dress. The vicar smiled reassuringly and then turned to Gil. The wedding service moved inexorably on.'

He is wearing a morning coat, she is in ivory silk. Those few words inform the reader that this is not some ramshackle, hole-in-wall wedding. It is a full-dress occasion. A major social event.

He takes her hand firmly in his. He is in control. 'The wedding service moved inexorably on.' The words are doom laden, reinforcing the conviction that this wedding is not the normal happy-ever-event.

Happy people do not make for exciting reading.

'I Gilliam Edward Blake take thee Catherine Mary O'Connor ...' Gil's firm voice rang firmly through the church, every word clearly heard by the congregation come to witness the shockingly sudden marriage of Casey O'Connor to the tall, tanned stranger who had snatched her from under the very nose of the most eligible bachelor in Melchester.'

Shockingly sudden. Stranger. Snatched. Those words hammer home the message. But there is a lot more information in that paragraph. Casey may not be happy, but Gil Blake's 'firm voice' tells the reader that he's well satisfied with events.

Tall, tanned stranger. Where has he come from? The tan suggests somewhere warm. And he's snatched her from '... under the very nose of the most eligible bachelor in Melchester.' What hold does he have over her, that she would desert such a man and agree to a marriage that she clearly does not want?

'The minister, satisfied with the groom's response, turned to her. "I Catherine Mary O'Connor take thee Gilliam ...' he prompted.

As she heard the words that would bind them together the temptation to flee was so strong that she was uncertain whether she had in fact stepped back, or if it was just her imagination that Gil's fingers tightened possessively over hers.

She glanced nervously at him from under her lashes. His grey eyes regarded her steadily, but there was no warmth to encourage her response. He was demanding her total surrender.'

The way characters are feeling is more important than what they are wearing. He is in control and knows it. She is unhappy and that raises a question. He knows she's unhappy and he doesn't appear to care. That makes it a story.

One page in and the reader knows a lot about these characters. The least important things are their names and the colour of Gil Blake's eyes.


    • Show the reader the characters
    • Use action
    • Introduce conflict

Consider how they do it in the movies. First they show you the character. Walking down the street in her neighbourhood, maybe.

    • 'Hi, Grace! How're the wedding plans coming along?' Grace Darling smiled at her neighbour ...

Or working in her office.

    • 'Grace, you coming for lunch?' Grace Darling grabbed her jacket ...

Perhaps having dinner in a restaurant with her husband, celebrating their first wedding anniversary.

    • 'John, I'm so happy.' Grace Darling reached for her husband's hand ...

Then they introduce action.

    • Grace, still laughing and talking with her neighbour, steps off the kerb and is mown down by a speeding car.
    • The phone in the office rings. Grace glances at it, hesitates, goes back to answer it.
    • In the restaurant Grace looks up as a woman approaches the table.

A story has begun.

What happens next? Next comes the point on which the story turns.

    • The man sitting beside Grace's hospital bed says that he's her fiance. She does not recognise him.
    • Grace answers the phone and is told by the caller that he has taken her child.
    • The woman produces a gun, shoots Grace's husband, then walks out of the restaurant.

At this point anything can happen. What you see is not necessarily what you get but in each case, Grace has been tossed into the maelstrom of her story.

The beginning is written. The reader is hooked.

For further guidelines on writing romance for Harlequin and for Harlequin Mills & Boon, surf to www.millsandboon.co.uk and click on "Help for Aspiring Authors"

All extracts are taken from books written by Liz Fielding and published by Harlequin Mills & Boon Ltd.


The following books have been quoted in this article –


Conflict of Hearts

Prisoner of the Heart

A Point of Pride

His Little Girl

Gentlemen Prefer … Brunettes

Eloping With Emmy

Old Desires



Some of my favourite first lines...


MY sins caught up with me outside the deli, on one of those January afternoons we hardly ever get in London.

Fair Game, Elizabeth Young


ONE hot August Thursday afternoon, Maddie Farraday reached under the front seat of her husband's Cadillac and pulled out a pair of black lace underpants. They weren't hers.

Tell Me Lies, Jennifer Crusie


IT was the egret, flying out of the lemon-grove, that started it.

The Moon-Spinners, Mary Stewart


"PROMISE!' The dying man grabbed her arm in a hard-fingered grip. "Promise me, damn you, girl!"

An Honourable Thief, Anne Gracie


THE day Kevin Tucker nearly killed her, Molly Somerville swore off unrequited love forever.

This Heart of Mine, Susan Elizabeth Phillips


"IT'S Cinderella, all over again. Who says fairy tales don't come true? The only difference is, I'm a mite short of fairy godmothers."

A Penniless Prospect, Joanna Maitland


DAISY Deveraux had forgotten her bridegroom's name.

Kiss An Angel, Susan Elizabeth Phillips


OKAY, so here's the thing. My mother's worst fear has come true. I'm a nymphomaniac.

Hot Six, Janet Evanovitch


THE last of Rachel Stone's luck ran out in front of the Pride of Caroline Drive-In.

Dream a Little Dream, Susan Elizabeth Phillips


ON a gloomy March afternoon, sitting in the same high school classroom she'd been sitting in for thirteen years, gritting her teeth as she told her significant other for the seventy-second time since they'd met that she'd be home at six because it was Wednesday and she was always home on six on Wednesdays, Quinn McKenzie lifted her eyes from the watercolour assignments on the desk in front of her and met her destiny.

Crazy For You, Jennifer Crusie


PHOEBE Somerville outraged everyone by bringing a French poodle and a Hungarian lover to her father's funeral.

It Had To Be You, Susan Elizabeth Phillips


THE man behind the cluttered desk looked like the devil, and Nell Dysart figured that was par for her course since she'd been going to hell for a year and a half anyway.

Fast Women, Jennifer Crusie



The Sheikh as hero...



The Sheikh, as hero, burst onto feminine consciousness when, in 1919, E M Hull’s bestselling novel, The Sheik seized the imagination of a generation of women. 


Sheik Ahmed ben Hassan is portrayed as the archetypal alpha male.  Commanding, driven, set apart from society by his role as leader.  Putting himself outside of civilisation when he kidnaps the boyish,  aristocratic English girl, Diana Mayo – a symbol of everything he most hates -- raping her, keeping her his prisoner.


What then, for the millions of women who were swept away by Hull’s book, could possibly be the attraction in this character?  What was the power of The Sheik?


At the beginning of the twenty century society deemed that sex was something that “nice” women did out of duty, on their back, with their eyes closed and the light off.  In The Sheik, Hull gave them – without ever lifting the tent flap -- the fantasy of the forbidden;  guiltless, white-hot sex.    Diana struggles, screams, declares she would kill herself if Sheik Ahmed had not taken her pistol and, having resisted with every fibre of her being, she is morally off the hook, free from the censure of society.  And what happens next, of course, is that the stunningly virile Sheik Ahmed awakens the sensuality in this almost asexual young woman, but awakens it for him alone. 


Sheik Ahmed never admits to feeling anything for Diana.  Only when she is kidnapped by his enemy does he reveal the strength of his passion, putting his life on the line to save her.  Only in delirium, hovering between life and death, are his feelings revealed and, all but destroyed by what he’s done to her, it is Diana who redeems him with her love.  


It’s a powerful story and one that romance writers have been revisiting ever since;  the Greek ship owner, the ruthless Sicilian, the Italian count are versions of “The Sheik” in an Armani suit.  Powerful men brought to their knees by love. Yet of all these mythic heroes, the Sheikh alone carries an air of mystery and romance that was once the prerogative of royalty, the rich. 


He is different.  Exotic in manner and in dress.  Unfathomable.  Not just able to live in the desert, but most happy in its empty spaces.   Even though the Sheikh may own a penthouse, wear fine broadcloth when the occasion demands, he retains the aura of man not just in command of, but at one with his environment.   He is the cowboy in robes and when danger threatens, his strength and protection are absolute. 


These are the characteristics that make him, still, a powerful, a compelling hero in the romance genre. 


I have had two Sheikh stories published – with two more in production.  In my first, HIS DESERT ROSE, published in 2000, I took as my model the classic story.   When Prince Hassan al Rachid kidnaps beautiful international journalist Rose Fenton, she shows all the spirit of Diana Mayo, even attempts escape.   But Prince Hassan’s motives are political, and Rose has her own agenda.   It’s his story that she wants and by kidnapping her, concealing her at his desert oasis, he has played straight into her hands.   Despite the fact that this is a complete switch on E M Hull’s The Sheik, as with the beginning, the end has echoes of the original.   Hassan kidnaps her, but then Rose, in enslaving him, becomes the hero of her own story. 


And that, I suspect, is the secret of  the Sheikh romance.  The heroine has to be as strong as the hero.  Not necessarily one of those feisty females, who gives as good as she gets, but a woman who is strong to the core.   Lucy Forrester, the heroine of THE SHEIKH’S GUARDED HEART, is not, at first glance, strong.  Her entire life has been dictated by the whims of others and yet, when confronted by difficult choices she never hesitates to do what is right.  Even confronted with treachery and betrayal, her only thought is of the innocent.   It’s a thought that nearly costs Lucy her life.


Sheikh Hanif al-Khatib, a man mired in guilt and grief, who has put himself out of society, exiling himself in the desert, rescues her in a classic “sheikh” moment, lifting her onto his horse, carrying her away from danger.   But this is the twenty-first century and he’s still holding her, keeping her safe, on the helicopter he summons to ferry her to the nearest hospital.  At this point he should be able to walk away, hero stuff done.  Except that she’s alone, with no one to take care of her and honour demands more. 


The hero is, once again, held captive by the heroine, who as her wounds heal, sets about healing his soul. 


And, yes, she enslaves him.