We’ve all discussed at some point that pocket novel world is a rose-coloured world where nothing really bad ever happens. Even in my romantic intrigue where a murder takes place, it is all done ‘offstage’ and no one the reader may have come to like dies. I’ve heard that People’s Friend are looking for crime stories, but have no idea whether murder might be included in that. I suspect not, and that we’re looking more at cosy, victimless crimes.
It goes without saying that neither the hero or the heroine can be promiscuous, or ever have been, and neither should either be married or involved in a relationship with someone else during the course of their romance. I have to say I don’t like virgin heroes (preferring a man who knows what he’s doing), so I may hint that my hero is not inexperienced in matters of the bedroom … ahem. On the other hand, I don’t like a male slut either, so I also make it clear that he respects women and hasn’t slept around. Other times I don’t bother explaining it at all, and let the reader make up their own minds.
Of course he's a virgin ...
(apologies for the lack of vest, fellow 'Bruce in his vest' lovers, but I think the chest more than makes up for it)
Sex should always remain behind closed doors in My Weekly novels. In People’s Friend novels, don’t mention it at all, especially outside of marriage. Think waves crashing on the sand, or trains going into tunnels (okay, perhaps not the latter if you’re prone to the vapours). Kisses can be ‘passionate’, but don’t include tongues, and never overtly mention sexual arousal or use sexual language, not even euphemism.
Well I never...
I was asked whether the heroine could be an unmarried mother. In this instance, I would always err on the side of caution. It takes only a couple of sentences to turn her into a young widow, and she is still coping with the demands of single parenthood, plus you have that extra bit of depth to her character.
Can the hero or heroine be illegitimate? I think this could be done in a subtle way. If you have them brought up in an orphanage or a children’s home (or with relatives) you don’t have to explain their parentage at all. Leave it to the reader to fill in the gaps. A lot of my heroines are orphans, though mainly because it saves me having to create a family for them, and also gives her a certain pathos as she sets out alone in the world.
I was also asked whether one character (not a main character) could be an alcoholic. I don’t think there’s a problem with My Weekly Pocket Novels as long as it is again done with subtlety and it’s made plain that the behaviour is frowned upon.
As the novels are meant to be warm-hearted and rose-tinted, it’s really best to leave things like drugs and alcohol out if you can. This doesn’t mean that your hero and heroine can’t go out for a meal and a glass of wine. Just don’t show them overindulging.
Maggie at My Weekly doesn’t mind a paranormal romance, but prefers there to be a rational explanation, and also that the story is historical. I’d avoid paranormal completely for People’s Friend. They don’t like spooky stories in their weekly magazine and I’m pretty sure they won’t like them in their pocket novels (unless anyone can tell me any different?)
One good source of guidance is the Hays Code, which used to govern film-making. It’s an old joke about the hero having to keep one foot on the floor during a love scene, and I’m sure we’ve all seen films set in the 40s and 50s, where husbands and wives sleep in twin beds.
The details of the Motion Picture Production Code (to give it its official name) are on Wikipedia and are a useful guide to what the readership of MW or PF pocket novels are comfortable with. I am very relieved to say that the rules governing interracial romances don’t have any place in pocket novel world. One of my heroes was part-Cherokee and I was delighted last year when I saw a People’s Friend Pocket Novel with a very pretty black heroine on the front cover. More recently the heroine on the cover of a My Weekly novella set in the civil war was mixed race, and I have an idea for a story featuring my own mixed race heroine, Rachel Jensen who starred briefly in Mistletoe Mystery.
Whilst the Hays Rules may sound Draconian, they can actually lead to some very subtle writing. It’s well known, I think, that I am a big Hitchcock fan. But I always contend that Hitchcock’s films were much better when he had to stick to censorship rules. You only have to compare a film like Psycho (where you only think Janet Leigh is naked in the shower) with the dreadful 1970s film, Frenzy, (which has a gratuitous and almost titillating rape scene), to see why. When the Hays Code was in force, writers had to be more creative about dealing with sensitive subjects. This subtlety can actually add to your writing, rather than detract from it. I actively encourage my workshop participants to watch films from the 30s, 40s and 50s to see how this is done. As it says on the Wikipedia page, Casablanca would have been a completely different film had Rick and Ilsa and run off together, instead of him doing the noble thing and giving her up to the greater good.
Besides, the brims of their hats would soon stop any shenanigans in the kissing department.
Much depends on the imprint you’re writing for. I think my fellow Pocketeers would agree that People’s Friend tend to be far stricter about morals than My Weekly. And if any of them know any different, I’d like to hear it. A fellow writer told me that her 90 year old grandmother loves the novels because of the world they present. There’s enough nastiness in the real world, without it turning up in the books that people of her generation love.However, things they are a-changing and I've heard that the My Weekly Pocket Novel editor is asking for slightly stronger storylines, with lost babies etc. My advice, however, would be to err on the side of caution, and let the editor be the one to ask for changes. That way she can advise you how to pitch it correctly, and you won't make any mistakes.