Writing is hard enough when you’re writing action scenes and plot twists. It’s even harder when you have to write an emotional scene, especially if it’s one that comes from your own experiences. We’re talking with romance writer Michelle Dalton to find out how she deals with choosing to write from the heart.
Whether you love the genre or loathe it, romance novels can teach you how to connect emotionally with your reader.
The old adage: Write what you know
Whether you’re writing a heart-pounding chase scene or a first heartbreak, your job as a writer is to make your readers feel what your character is feeling. That often requires digging into some not-so-nice memories and pain that you possibly wanted to forget about.
Epona author Michelle Dalton talked with me about why she writes romance and offers up some stereotype-busting tips for writers just getting started in the genre. This isn’t a genre to shy away from, folks!
Originally from Pretoria, South Africa, Michelle Dalton and her family fled the rising violence taking over her beloved country. She now lives near Brisbane, Australia, with her husband and triplet sons.
While also juggling a nursing career and teenage sons, she loves to escape into her fictional world. Michelle has a deep love of horses and enjoys weaving them into dramatic stories with honourable men and strong women.
Now, here’s what Michelle has to say about how to write from the heart.
You have triplet boys (teens now!), you’re an activist, a nurse, and a writer. How do you manage to juggle all that and still find time to write?
Yep! Three thirteen-year-old BOYS are more of a handful now than when they were bubs! But having three kids at once has taught me the magnificent art of time management. Early mornings are for writing and editing, days for work (I nurse) and family, nights are more writing and volunteer hours for Romance Writers of Australia.
If you want to be a successful writer, trust me you will find the time! I’m not a nice person when I don’t get to write.
You just released your first novel, Epona. Tell me a little about the book.
Epona comes from a dream I had. And then my dream grew and allowed me to breathe life into it.
Sadie Munro is a young South African woman with a special gift. She’s more than your average horse whisperer. But then, tragedy strikes. A tragedy that is all too real in South Africa today.
Orphaned and badly scarred both mentally and physically Sadie decides to move to her only living relatives in the highlands of Scotland. This is where the bulk of the story takes place. Here the reader will be swept away on an adventure which includes redemption, forgiveness, love and magic!
Epona takes place in Scotland, on the other side of the world from where you currently reside. How did you go about researching the setting?
Well, I’d traveled extensively before I got married and all that . . . Scotland, especially the highlands, has a very special place in my heart. I’ve never forgotten how the land moves, the smell of the air, the way of her people . . . but that said, I did have to do some reading up and scanned loads of travel sites.
I also wanted to be able to convey the beauty of their brogue accent, so I listened to hours of YouTube videos and taught myself to read Gaelic. That was fun, but a lot of work too!
Sadie, your main character, flees her homeland of South Africa due to violence—something you and your family did as well. How did you deal with writing something so close to your heart?
Just reading your question brings me to tears. I cry a lot when I write about South Africa and my people. (And understand that when a South African says my people, we mean all South Africans, regardless of race and culture.)
How do I deal with it? By praying that my readers will seek and find the truth about the horrors which take place there.
Can you tell me what attracts you to the romance genre?
Oh boy, what doesn’t!
What in this world is more volatile than the human heart at stake? My introduction to the world of romance was as a little girl watching or reading the greats. Anna Karenina was one of the first. Thinking back now, it wasn’t the grandeur or the drama of the Russian court or the lovers which carried me away, but the fact that they were prepared to risk so much to be together.
In Fiddler on the Roof you have three strong-willed young women who push the boundaries of their religion and culture to marry for love. Fiddler isn’t a romantic musical, but there is enough romance written into it to break the toughest heart.
And then there’s poor old Gatsby. While his love was never really reciprocated, look at the lengths he went to to win her heart.
Have you read Stephen King’s Lisey’s Story? Yup, I classify that as a romance. Why? Romance is sacrifice. While this story has his usual thriller/horror edge, it tells the story of a woman who loved her husband so much she risked her own sanity — that, my friends, is romance also!
Romance is not only about the steamy hot scenes. It is about the sacrifices humans are willing to make, the risks they are willing to take and the inner growth they are prepared to undergo. It is about how far humans will go to find the one connection in life which surpasses all others.
There are a lot of assumptions associated with the romance genre, whether it be the physical appearance of characters or the damsel in distress trope. What do you do to try to break these stereotypes?
Well, I think I’ve done that with Sadie. Even Blane isn’t your typical alpha male romance hero. I show his weakness in character, but I also show his growth which is what we want in all love interests.
In Iron Heart, we have a heroine who saves the hero’s life in a time when women are deemed not worthy of an education or equal rights. Here we portray the heroine as the alpha while managing to present a hero who is physically weaker but grows emotionally.
Not all couples have to be rich, famous, and magazine cover worthy. I love romances when the couples are everyday people with dents, scars, and baggage, just like me.
Do you remember the Christmas tale of the young couple who each sell their most prosed possession to buy their loved one a Christmas gift? The woman sells her hair to buy her husband a golden chain for his pocket watch and the husband sells his pocket watch to buy his wife a set of beautiful combs for her long her. Romance!
When your reader can relate to your main characters, that’s when they fall in love with your story, and that is romance.
When you’re writing an emotional scene (sexy, sad, etc.), how do you get in the mood?
For an emotional scene — music and sometimes memory/past experiences. I write those when I am alone at home. I have always been the sort to feel too much and it is not a part of myself that I want to come in contact with my family.
Sexy . . . MUSIC! And I know this sounds very distasteful, but I usually YouTube my fave intimate movie scenes for inspiration.
Do you ever need to take a moment alone to come out of it before reentering society?
With an emotional scene — yes! In my mind, and heart, the line between reality and my writing is a fine one, so giving myself a time out after having written an emotional scene is always the best idea.
When I wrote the scene in Epona where the villain returns, it took me back to a similar situation I’d experienced in South Africa. I had to tread carefully around my brittle emotions and memories as I wrote, and it took me a couple of days to resurface from that dark space. But in saying that, I also found it healed a huge part of me. Might sound a little cray cray, but it’s just the way it works.
Are there ever days you just can’t get into a deep emotional headspace? Do you not write that day, or just write something not so emotionally taxing?
I am by nature an incredibly emotional person. I feel too much. I give too much. I expect too much.
But yeah, there are days when it is safer for me to not to get into a deep emotional headspace, rather than not being able to. What do I do? I read, watch television, garden, or I sit down and connect with my creator.
Never feel guilty if you can’t put down words on paper because your heart or mind are a little fragile on the day. We are all human. Look after yourself!
Do you have any tips for someone wanting to start writing romance?
Be realistic, even if you’re writing a fantasy or paranormal romance. There’s a certain path love takes regardless of who your main characters are.
Always make sure there are high stakes involved. Make sure your reader falls in love with your couple so that they too fight for the lovers to find their happy ever after.
Do you ever develop a crush on your characters?
Yup! In the steampunk books I am co-authoring with Melanie Page (Iron Heart will be re-released though Vulpine Press in June/July 2019), I was besotted with our hero, Beauden Somerton!
Though I do love every single character I write, even my villains!
What’s one writing struggle you’re proudest of overcoming?
My dyslexia! In year seven one of my teachers refused to teach me because she considered me too stupid . . . well, I showed her, didn’t I!
What’s next for you?
Plenty Baie Much! (hehehe a lot!)
I’m editing my second contemporary romance, which plays off in Cape Town, South Africa. It touches on racial and religious issue as well as the ever-present and very real problem of human trafficking.
I’m half way through our second novel in The Iron Universe, a steampunk collaboration. Starting on another small novel collaboration with a bestselling Australian author Sarah Williams, and I’m half way through the first of two contemporary romance books (in a series) highlighting the struggles of Outback Australian farmers in the current drought.
I’ve signed with two publishers, Serenade Publishing as Michelle Dalton and Vulpine Press under MC D’Alton — which is simply AWESOME!
It’s worth it
Writing emotional scenes may be taxing, but it’s worth it to connect more fully with your readers. Use your emotions to write from the heart and fully realize your characters’ situations, and your readers will love them (and you!).
Remember to take some “you” time whenever you need to recover!
How do you get in the mood to write an emotional scene? Let me know in the comments!
In honor of Valentine’s Day, I want you to take fifteen minutes to write a love scene.
Note: This does not have to be romantic love. It could be love between a parent and child, siblings, a dog and a cat. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you sink into your emotions in order to write the scene. Challenge yourself to write from the heart. Don’t be afraid to go there.
Share your writing in the comments and don’t forget to comment on your fellow writers’ work!