In my first romance novel The Love Asana, my hero meets the heroine when he walks into her yoga studio to take a class. They start off on the wrong note, but she is his teacher, and has to correct his posture. There’s bound to be some physical contact and touch involved, in a professional way of course.
Many years later, Our Song, my most recent book, opens with a scene where the heroine is stranded on a scorching hot road on an elevated highway. She is leaning over a parapet wall, balancing on her broken, flimsy footwear to save her feet from burning on the hot tar, when a man comes up from behind her and literally sweeps her off her feet. That was my hero, Andrew, who thought Ragini was about to take her life.
To write good romance novels, building convincing chemistry between the protagonists is a must. Sparks must fly, and soon. In both The Love Asana and Our Song, I had fun thinking up a dramatic first meeting for my protagonists, and then slowly building up the tension, which included letting them have physical contact with each other, albeit fleetingly.
Then came March 2020, when it slowly became clear that there would be no escaping the realities of Covid-19. Of life with social distancing, sanitisers, masks, looking at people through pigeon holes on screens, no deliveries and often, no deliverance from the drudgeries of daily life. How can a contemporary romance writer like myself, who likes to plan out storylines in detail, possibly navigate how much the world will change six months from now? In a world where spontaneous meetings and even the slightest casual touch are a no-no, how would my characters begin to fall in love??
I briefly wished I wrote fantasy or speculative fiction, even within the romance genre, which I haven’t tried yet (but never say never). Instead, I hit pause on the writing, and began thinking about how romance writing may change because of the constraints imposed by this pandemic.
Even BC (Before Corona), relationships could be complicated and writing romances was by no means easy, but at least it was a manageable sort of complication. Dating apps, open marriages, polygamy, polyamory—there are romance novels that deal with all of these and more.
One of the better romance books I read recently was The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary, where the protagonists are in a situation where they need to share a flat which has just one bedroom. Since they work different shifts through the day, they work out an arrangement where they use the same bed, just not at the same time. Leon and Tiffy don’t meet until halfway through the book, but right from the beginning we enjoy the relationship building up through notes they leave for each other, and the delicious intimacy of two strangers sharing a bed.
In books that are published a few years from now, would this scenario work as well with readers used to constantly sanitising surfaces and staying away from strangers?
‘Is this what you really want?’
One of the changes I believe this pandemic has brought is that all relationships are now under a magnifying glass. Be it with a spouse, a significant other, or even roommates and other family members, it’s difficult to escape your current reality. No amount of chatting with strangers on apps from the privacy of your washroom will allow for the fact that in this situation, in these times, you may well find yourself deciding finally, whether you want to take it or just leave it.
“If you’re forced to stay home all the time, unable to step out without having to answer a zillion questions how do you grasp those stolen moments that may allow you to make a phone call or indulge in uninterrupted flirty texting?”
One of the most beautiful, and oft-quoted, lines in Frank O’Hara’s 1957 poem, The Film Industry In Crisis, is, “In times of crisis we must decide again and again, whom we love.” Maybe you will discover that a love you thought had died out a long time ago is still alive and throbbing right beside you (pun fully intended). Or you discover that the person you love is yourself. For single people too, my feeling is that when you are looking at your own mortality up close, as we are these days, casual may no longer be cool. We may well see a longer period of just getting to know the other person, an older style of courtship where people talk more, build trust and a yearning just to be able to get close enough to smell the fragrance on someone.
I’m also trying to wrap my head around how the agency displayed by characters in romance novels, especially women, may be affected. One of the pleasures of reading new-age romance novels is watching young women negotiate their way around—or sometimes blast their way through—patriarchal relationships, whether it is by moving away for work or shouting at an interfering landlord. But if you’re forced to stay home all the time, unable to step out even for a while—without having to answer a zillion questions about where you’re going and whether it’s absolutely essential—how do you grasp those stolen moments that may allow you to make a phone call or indulge in uninterrupted flirty texting?
No takers for Covid romances?
Sidharth Jain, Chief Storyteller at book-to-screen company The Story Ink, believes, however, that things may not be that different AC (After Corona).
“People’s imaginations always want to surpass reality. If the pandemic passes soon, in 6-12 months, we could be back to normal life. That’s short. Writing anything is at least a 2-3 year journey. Then, for it to come to screen is another 2 years. By then something like this period may be history,” he points out, while musing on the books he helps find their way to the screen.
Roshini Dadlani, Associate Commissioning Editor and Foreign Rights Manager at Penguin Random House India, also doesn’t see the pandemic being reflected in a major way in romance novels to come.
“Maybe the pandemic can trigger certain feelings like romances stemming from the loneliness of these months. But I would not enjoy something with an overarching theme of the pandemic.” She adds that if one considers that books have a life cycle of at least a year, it’s likely that readers would have ‘corona fatigue’ by that time.
I am, however, still mulling over this problem. One of my favourite authors, Joyce Carol Oates, wrote: “In love there are two things. Bodies and words.” But if the pandemic lasts much longer, how does one create a love story that sustains itself without the thrill of the physical?
I am often asked if I am a die-hard romantic, writing stories that end with a ‘Happily Ever After’. I believe that the desire to build your world, your own little cocoon of happiness with someone, is quite fundamental. Our lives may or may not turn out that way, which is precisely why we turn to romance novels. To me, they are a representation of a world that is somewhat perfect, rather than one that is not.
“People read romance novels because they present wonderful scenarios that we hope we can replicate in our own lives. We don’t want to be reminded of these times”
Dadlani seems to agree with me on this, for she says that this is why she would not like to see storylines built around this period in time.
“People read romance novels because they present wonderful scenarios that we hope we can replicate in our own lives. We don’t want to be reminded of these times,” she insists.
But whether the pandemic lasts six months or a year, the aftermath is bound to affect people’s behaviour. When that happens, it will be reflected in the books and content that represent this period.
The need for human contact, to be held, to believe that someone cares for you, especially after living in limbo like this will, I believe, drive people to take higher risks. We may well see bigger emotional highs and lows in our books, because the two people in love are ready to risk a lot more in order to be together.
In the early 90s, in my other avatar as an advertising writer, I wrote extensively on campaigns for HIV-AIDS awareness—the pandemic that was so close and threatening then. The risk of having unprotected sex became so much more than just an unwanted pregnancy. While the anxiety of living through that time faded, it surely impacted romance writers around the world, who would have wanted to write in safe sex as part of a great sex scene. This deliberate awareness of writing scenes where the characters pause for a few seconds to use a condom in the throes of passion happened so gradually that in most romance novels, mentioning condoms has almost become commonplace.
Maybe some years from now, the ‘new normal’ will be to have lovers in romances quickly lift their sleeves to first show each other their Covid-19 vaccine marks. And then they can get on with their first kiss.
Milan Vohra (@milanvohra) is an advertising professional, short story writer and novelist. Her first book The Love Asana ( Harlequin) made her the first Indian Mills & Boon author and her book Tick-tock we’re 30 ( Westland Amazon) is now being adapted for the screen. Her latest book is Our Song, published with HarperCollins.