Tuesday, August 13, 2002

Scots sweep romance readers
off their feet


What makes them so exceptionally appealing?

By Michele Day
Enquirer contributor

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Karen Marie Moning is known as the reigning queen of the Scottish romance subgenre.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
| ZOOM |
        In Karen Marie Moning's Kiss of the Highlander, the contemporary heroine must travel back to 16th century Scotland to find a man worthy of her love.

        If that plot line sounds implausible to you, then, obviously, you're not one of the nation's 41.4 million romance novel readers.

        Romance fans know that the rugged, lore-filled Scotland of yore is a logical place to search for love. The Highlands are teeming with the heroic men of women's dreams.

        Granted, these men initially tend to be brusque, self-centered, arrogant lairds, albeit with bodies of gods. But the right, smart, independent-minded lass can cast a spell that melds them into ideal mating material.

        The definition of a romance novel requires it to have two elements: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying ending, according to the Romance Writers of America, which represents more than 8,400 writers across the country.

        The rules place no limitations on setting. Heroes and heroines meet their fates in contemporary Middle East war zones, the wild American West and medieval European palaces.

        But those who quest for love behind the high, stone walls of an ancient Highland castle are the most popular with members of the Rhapsody Book Club, which deals exclusively in the romance genre, according to Editor Laurie Balut.

        Novels such as Jacyln Reding's The Pretender, (Signet; $6.50) the first of a Highlands trilogy, are the club's top sellers, she says. And she's looking for more books with heroes who wear kilts and know how to handle a sword.

        In November, the club will feature Ms. Moning's next book, The Dark Highlander, as its main selection.

        In fact, Ms. Moning, who recently moved from Cincinnati to rural Indiana, is “the reigning queen” of the Scottish romance subgenre, according to Charis Calhoon, communication manager for Romance Writers of America.

        Ms. Moning's fourth book, Kiss of the Highlander, (Dell; $5.99) won several awards and reached No. 29 on the New York Times best-seller list in 2001.

FANS FAVORITES
  All the romance fans interviewed shared favorite novels set in Scotland. Some of the books cited most frequently were:
  • The Bride by Julie Garwood (Pocket Books; $7.99)
  • The McClairen's Isle trilogy — The Passionate One, The Reckless One and The Ravishing One — by Connie Brockway (Dell; $6.50 each)
  • The Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon (Delta)
WRITERS MEETINGS
  The Ohio Valley Romance Writers of America group meets noon-3 p.m. on the second Saturday of each month at the Tri-County Barnes & Noble store on Kemper Road.
  The group Web site is www.ovrwa.com. For information on the national Romance Writers of America organization, visit www.rwanational.org.
  The Romance Readers Book Club generally meets at 7 p.m. on the second Wednesday of every month at the Barnes & Noble in Newport. Call the store at (859) 581-2000 for more information.
        The sequel Dark Highlander, which will enjoy much stronger promotion and a dramatically increased press run when it's released in October, is expected to fare even better. The publisher already is distributing an excerpt booklet containing the first three chapters to arouse interest in the novel.

        “It's a book we really believe in,” says Wendy McCurdy, the senior editor who handles Ms. Moning's books for Bantam Dell Publishing Group. “It's much anticipated at this point.”

        All the hype and interest in Scottish romances got us to wondering: What makes Scotland such a seductive setting for romance?

        When we put that question to romance readers, writers, editors and promoters, we found several interesting theories:

        1. Mayhap, it's the Highland landscape.

        “It's a very beautiful part of the world,” explains Laurie Gold, publisher of the allaboutromance.com Web site. “But it's beautiful in a stark way.”

        The harsh climate and rugged mountains make an ideal backdrop for adventure, she says.

        “There's just something inherently romantic about Scotland,” adds Maggie Crawford, editorial director for Pocket Books. “It's the untamed land of the Highlands, and that sets it apart from the rest of the world.”

        Readers say the stark contrast between the Scottish environment and their own surroundings also is appealing.

        The steep, rugged mountains are nothing like “flat, old Ohio,” says Christie Slaughter of Colerain Township, a member of the Romance Readers Book Club at Barnes & Noble in Newport.

        “It's a beautiful time period. It's rustic and the men were protective and caring. . . . It's not reality; it's something better.”

        “It's an escape,” explains Pamela McClain of Kenwood, another member of the romance group. “I love to get lost in a book.”

        2. Och, it's the ancient folklore.

        Scotland is blessed with an abundance of myths about Druids with dark secrets and stones with magical powers. Those were big draws for Ms. Moning, who spent more than a year researching the country before writing her first book, Beyond the Highland Mist (Dell; $6.50) in 1999.

        “It really was just instinctive,” she says. “I fell in love with Scotland's history.

        “My novels tend to revolve around the old legends . . . and treatises. I was just kind of sucked in by that. What I enjoy writing is a combination of science fiction and romance. By setting my novels in Scotland and working with the old Celtic legends, I was able to keep that kind of balance in my stories.”

        3. Nay, it's the brawny heroes.

        History, mountains and castles are all well and good. But the prevailing explanation of the Scottish appeal gives those factors minimal importance.

        Most romance lovers agree the setting is crucial only because of its impact on the man. In the romance business, they say, it's always about the man.

        “Some say that romances of any setting seek to tell the love story of a noble and great white knight on a black steed,” explains Ms. Calhoon in an e-mail response to our query. “He's strong, he's fair, and, with the love of the right woman, he's kind and devoted.

        “Medieval settings — the natural home of such a knight — are not, however, an overly romantic period in time. You've got the plague, deplorable treatment of women, poor hygiene and a lot of fighting. . . . It doesn't lend itself to the fairy-tale romances.”

        For that reason, many authors transplant the idea of a white knight into a more appropriate setting, she says.

        “The Scottish laird is a fine personification of the white knight of old.”

        The rugged and primitive Highland landscape lends itself to the strong alpha heroes who populate romance novels, adds Linda Keller, president of the Ohio Valley Romance Writers group. (For the uninitiated, she defines the alpha hero as the man who is “just short of dragging his woman into the cave.”)

        “Highland men have a bad-boy, need-to-be-redeemed image that a lot of us like.”

        But the ultimate redeeming of the bad boy is crucial, says Lori Foster of Ross, who has written a number of popular contemporary romances but is a voracious reader of historical novels.

        “In every Scottish historical I've ever read, they take these ultimate alpha heroes and give them beta characteristics — a deep-rooted sense of honor, pride and justice,” Ms. Foster says. “The men are extremely hard. They're warriors. But in romances, when they meet a woman they love, their perspective changes. They realize they have to protect their land, but the woman becomes the priority. For me, it's the ultimate alpha guy.”

        As a writer of modern stories, Ms. Foster can't create heroes who are as hard and warrior-like as historic Scottish lairds.

        In historical novels, “if someone offends them, they might kill them,” she says. “We would never do that in today's society.” Ancient time periods allow for heroes who are “larger than life.”

        On most best-seller lists, early 19th century England, known as the Regency Period, ranks as the most popular time frame for the alpha males of historical romances.

        But the difficult Scottish environment is actually more conducive to producing such strong, sexy men, says Ms. Gold of allaboutromance.com.

        “When you think about the stereotype of the English man and the stereotype of the Scottish man, it's not the same,” she says. “Although I love romances set in England, I can't totally remove that cold fish with a Victorian viewpoint from my mind. But when you think about Scotland, you think about warriors. That's very sexy.”

        Ms. Calhoon of Romance Writers of America takes a similar view.

        Regency writers have to stretch reality with their trademark characters — “30-something, exceedingly masculine, devil-may-care dukes, earls and viscount heroes,” she says.

        But the writers of Scottish romances — while still delving heavily into fiction and hyperbole — can develop characters with similar traits and remain believable.

        “Scottish romances take everything readers love about Regency historical heroes — but make them better,” she says. “They still have the sense of exotic dignity that American readers love about U.K.-born heroes. They still have an accent. They often still have a "title,' which plays into the fairy-tale fantasy. But — they are simply more rugged.

        “In many cases, the Scottish hero is a more perfect romance hero — one that has struggled more, one who has a better working knowledge of how to do "man things,' like handle a horse (noble steed) with expertise, change a broken carriage wheel, and fight off villains.”

        Of course the more rugged they are, the harder they fall in love, Ms. Calhoon adds.

        “That's often what romances are shooting for: Taking an unlovely man (in manner, in life experience, in attitude) and presenting him with a heroine with which he falls so deeply in love that he is transformed into a happy, complete, lovely guy.

        “What better raw material to work with than a Highland laird? He lives in a freezing, gray climate; he's been attacked on all sides from marauding English forces and neighboring clans; he lives in an area of exposed rock and steep cliffs. This is not a soft man . . . until he meets that perfect woman.”

        And that, you might think, is the perfect explanation for the appeal of Scottish romances.

        But Ms. Calhoon does have one more theory worth considering. She calls it the “Braveheart factor.”

        It seems she first noticed a surge of interest in Scottish romances after the 1995 release of the movie Braveheart — and she suspects there's a correlation.

        “Mel Gibson in a kilt, looking wounded but determined,” she muses. “Women can't resist it.”

Learn more about Karen Marie Moning at her Web site, www.kmoning.bizland.com/tartan

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