Thursday, September 17, 2009

Writing About Real-Life Relationships

Elizabeth Zelvin

As a reader, I’m a sucker for romance. No, not romance novels. Romance. I want to fall in love with series protagonists and sigh with satisfaction when they find true love. In mysteries, my favorite books tend to be the ones where things work out. I was delighted when Margaret Maron’s Judge Deborah Knott got married to her buddy Dwight and finally figured out he’d been in love with her all along. My favorite Sharon McCone book from Marcia Muller is the one where her friend Rae and her country music star ex-brother-in-law fall in love. In other genres, I gravitate to Big Love: historical, Diana Gabaldon’s Claire and Jamie, Sara Donati’s Elizabeth and Nathaniel; fantasy and science fiction, all the angel/human couples in Sharon Shinn’s Samaria novels. So why don’t I write that way myself?

For one thing, the authors I’ve mentioned are all masters. Without sitting down to write a pure romance, they deftly blend attraction, conflict, and eventual resolution in perfect proportions, played out by characters who are rounded and complex and endearing. Also, the ones who write sex scenes are very good at it. I’m not crazy about sex scenes. In fact, I tend to start skimming when the clothes come off. I feel like Diana Gabaldon’s kids, or was it her husband, who she says complained, “Nipples again?” Maybe that’s why I have trouble writing them.

But the real reason is that, as both a mental health professional and a veteran of two marriages (the second still going strong), I believe the kind of Big Love I adore in novels requires as much suspension of disbelief as the mystery convention that an amateur sleuth can solve a murder when the cops are baffled.

So there’s Bruce, my recovering alcoholic protagonist. In his first appearance, Death Will Get You Sober, the poor guy had to give up drinking. That painful process—and solving several murders—took up all his attention. There’s a good reason that newcomers to Alcoholics Anonymous are advised not to embark on any relationships in the first year. The chances of screwing up the relationship and losing hard-won sobriety in the process are high. So Bruce abstains, except for sleeping with his ex-wife Laura when he gets out of detox for 24 hours—and ex-wives, as he points out, hardly count.

In the new book, Death Will Help You Leave Him, he’s still sober, but the relationship stuff is starting to demand his attention. Laura is still around, now a major character who keeps him on a string as she pursues a new relationship with an abusive lover. And Bruce has what amounts to a crush with a nice woman whose abusive boyfriend has been killed, freeing her from his lies and manipulations but putting her in the frame for his murder. Laura, with her mood swings, easy sex, and middle-of-the-night suicide threats, offers a dysfunctional relationship that could lead him back to drinking. And Luz, the victim’s girlfriend, is still emotionally unavailable.

I’d be doing real-life couples a disservice if I used my therapist’s authority and writer’s plausibility to insist Big Love is the way things are if you get it right. In real life, you do have to say you’re sorry. In fact, owning your part in a quarrel is a key to emotional maturity. In real life, your partner doesn’t read your mind and say just the right thing every time. In real life, few women have mile-long legs and slender waists (and some of those who do are bulimics). In real life, few men past forty are sexual athletes with endless stamina (and some of those who are are sexual compulsives). Is true love possible, beyond the first burst of passion? Of course it is. But it takes work and honesty and a capacity for tolerating imperfections, both your own and your partner’s.


kathy d. said...

Big Love is very wonderful when it happens, but it also can not be eternally-lasting, so it's a good chapter(s) in one's life. And it can be put in perspective that it was chapters rather than decades-long or forever.
I never thought before about the relationships in these series. Of course, I like the successful romances in mysteries but it's not a requirement nor a favorite. It's still the plot, characters and the writing. Some of the best I've been reading don't have successful relationships but lots of Sturm und Drang as my mother would say. Am glad V.I. Warshawshi has a partner, Sharon McCone has a good marriage, but good books by Tana French, Denise Mina, Fred Vargas, Harry Dolan, Arnaldur Indridason, other writers I can't think of now, don't really need it.
This is personal taste, I think, and in books it is that and it varies so much.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Interesting you mentioned Tana French, Kathy. She's a writer who does something I find remarkable. She writes friendships--in one book, about two cops who are partners; in another, about a group of friends--that are as achingly romantic as the love affairs of Jamie and Claire or Lord Peter and Harriet. But there's no happily ever after. A novel needs conflict, and she upsets the applecart: something happens to destroy that glowing idyll. But imho, her books sure are about relationships.

Sheila Connolly said...

It is certainly a challenge to balance a mystery and romance (or relationships, if you prefer) in a story, much less have the relationship evolve over time. Just as it's difficult to balance fiction and reality in crafting a compelling story.

But I think that if we want our characters to be fully realized, we need to give them some sort of romantic life. Otherwise they're not convincing.

Love Tana French!

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

If I'm reading a book that doesn't have some sort of successful relationship - be it romantic, or very close friendships - I'm probably not going to finish the book. If there's conflict within the relationship(s), that's fine - but without that successful and loving human action/reaction I'm not drawn in enough to the story to really care about the characters.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Kaye, I know you finished Death Will Get You Sober, which on one level is really about the friendship between Bruce and Barbara and Jimmy. I'll be interested to hear what you think of Death Will Help You Leave Him, which includes several bad relationships. :)

Sandra Parshall said...

A relationship is a good thing in a mystery novel IF it doesn't overwhelm the mystery. When the story is about the relationship more than the crime-solving, I start skipping pages -- or I stop reading. Diana Gabaldon's Outlander adventure stories have external plots, but they're really about the characters' relationships, so that's a whole 'nother thing.

As for Deborah Knott and Dwight, I worry about him because it's so obvious that he loves her much more than she loves him.

Terry Odell said...

I love relationships in mystery series. I usually get two reads per book; one for the relationship progression and then another to pay attention to the mystery itself. Faye and Jonathan Kellerman, Robert B. Parker, Diane Mott Davidson, Marcia Muller, and John Sandford keep me coming back. So do Michael Crais and Connelly, and JA Jance, although their protagonists have been through more than one relationship through their series.

My books are technically romances according to the publisher, but I prefer to think of them as mysteries entwined with romance.

As for Big Love -- I'm starting my 41st year with hubby #1, but yeah, it's not a given, it's not easy, and sometimes I wonder why we're still together. But we are, and there's still plenty of fire in the furnace.

kathy d. said...

This is so interesting. I do think so many mysteries are about relationships, not necessarily romances but friendships. I liked the friendships in Death Can Get You Sober; it was a big part of why I liked the book--the characters and the friendships and for me, insights on the struggle for sobriety.
Some murders happen because of problems in relationships or past hurts or anger or jealousy which involves relationships.
I think I agree that romance is okay in mysteries as long as it doesn't overpower them.
When speaking about Big Love, one can be all for it but things do happen in lives--unforeseen illnesses, bad breakups but where friendships remain. Nothing in life is a straight line. It's complicated. That's why fiction is so great, including mysteries. It can delve into all of this.

kathy d. said...

What I was trying to say is that fiction, including mysteries, can delve into all aspects of the human condition,and all variations on how human beings live, and the complexities of human interactions, emotions, etc., which makes it so fascinating.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I'm so happy to hear you liked Death Will Get You Sober, Kathy--and thanks for coming back to Poe's Deadly Daughters to continue the conversation over the course of the day. We love comments!