In Oscar Wilde’s play, 'The Importance of Being Earnest', Gwendolen quips, ‘I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.’
I love this line. It reminds me that real life can be an extraordinary experience. And I often need this reminder when I’m hyperventilating over whether the contemporary romance story I’m writing might be getting a little bit too ‘extraordinary’ for belief.
Writers within the contemporary romance genre know they have a narrower licence for diving into extraordinary possibilities than those in the paranormal, historical and suspense genres. But the really tricky part for contemporary authors can be knowing exactly when a plot or a character’s situation is falling beyond the parameters of possibility and toppling into awkward implausibility. One solution for keeping stories out of the realm of implausibility reflects the title of this blog series, The Story of My Book: if the story you're writing is to feel real, it helps to have a real story behind it.
At some stage I must have recognised this fact as each of my books was deliberately drawn from a real story inspiring it. But it’s Sara’s story in Copping It Sweet that comes from a particularly bittersweet story in my own life.
When I was in primary school I had a close buddy. I’ll call her Sally for the purposes of this post. Sally was kind and fiercely loyal, mischievous to the point of personal foolhardiness and outrageously funny. She also seemed to cherish our friendship in a way that I see now was beyond her years. We spent countless weekends and holidays together, the original odd couple with her hyperactive ‘Rebel Wilson’ personality an unlikely match for my quieter one. But Sally had a family secret she didn’t tell anyone, not even me.
To the outside world – at parent-teacher meetings, on the sidelines of netball courts, at birthday parties – Sally’s family looked like a regular family. But behind the respectable veneer, I would later discover, Sally’s father was a criminal underworld figure – in short, an all-round thug. I have no doubt at all that Sally had a good sense of what he was up to.
As so often happens, Sally moved away at the end of primary school and we lost touch. Something tells me though that despite her father’s career choice, Sally would have risen above that situation if anyone could.
Staggeringly, as the Australian TV Series Underbelly portrayed, underworld figures have always moved seamlessly in and out of the general community, adopting guises of law-abiding normality as Sally’s father did. Copping It Sweet is a story drawn directly from this extraordinary reality. At eighteen, my protagonist, Sara, unwittingly falls for and marries the charming Anthony Dennis without any clue about his underworld celebrity. By the time Sara’s path crosses with Detective Sergeant Cooper Halligan’s ten years later she’s been estranged from Anthony a long time. But Anthony has never accepted the end of his relationship with Sara and controls her from a distance the only way he can - through stalking and intimidation.
In contrast, Cooper’s family life is about as ‘normal’ as it could be - a foil for Sara’s predicament as she hides her post-marriage secrets from them as well as from her estranged husband. When Cooper is finally compelled by his boss to investigate Sara’s relationship with Anthony Dennis, the closer he approaches the truth the harder it is to keep his distance from her.
Copping It Sweet, inspired by Sally, is not only a story about the transformative powers of love and acceptance but about keeping your heart open to the possibilities offered by hope, wherever and whenever they may be found.