Shipping Up to Romancelandia: How TV Made Me a Better Romance Writer

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Romancelandia. When I started my writing career, I never thought I’d end up here. I wanted to be a horror writer, maybe some historical fiction—I was a history major after all—but romance? I didn’t even read it. Don’t get me wrong, I had no ill-will toward the genre, it’s just that my only exposure to it was glancing at the shelves at the supermarket where shirtless men gazed scandalously back at me. I didn’t really have a clue what was under those covers, but I had the vague understanding I wasn’t supposed to look at it. I’d throw a sneaky peek out of the corner of my eye, then move to the snacks aisle and pick out some popcorn for a movie.

See, film was more my thing. Though I loved writing fiction, because I had a minor in English, most of my reading was in the literary world. I didn’t have time for commercial fiction in the early part of adulthood, so I started consuming stories in the quicker, less-demanding-of-my-brain medium of television. Luckily for me, as my TV and movie binging grew, so did the quality of content available. You could find some amazing drama on Netflix and cable stations. Most of the more meaty drama was found in the darker genres—mystery, horror, tragedy, so that’s where I stayed. TV fangirl; reader not so much.

Like my interest in reading, my goals of becoming any kind of writer just sort of fizzled. The real world makes it hard to focus on art. It’s constantly screaming at us that art and creative endeavors are frivolous and, oh by the way, you can’t live off of them. So I packed that plan away with some of my other college experiences, like Arbor Mist  and wearing pajamas to dinner, and set about a rather productive, though creatively unfulfilling, adulthood.

Though I loved drama on screen, my own life wasn’t movie-esque. I dated a bit, eventually met my husband, got married, had kids. I’d like to say meeting my husband, the love of my life, was the serendipitous moment where I found my calling of writing love stories… but, like I said, I took the long way around. Baby, I love you, I really do, but it wasn’t until I met my OTP that a light shone down from heaven and flicked on my creative switch yelling “Wake up! Your life is about to begin.”

Maybe that’s hyperbolic, but I’m using my writer card here, because that’s what it felt like. The one thing I’ve always been drawn to in stories is the beauty in pain. It’s why I’ve always focused on drama and tragedy. I loved a good romance side-plot, but, again, straight up romance? I never sought that out. And it was exactly by not seeking it out that I happened to stumble upon it—while watching a show about zombies.

Let’s back up. One day my husband was watching a show called The Walking Dead and oh my god, Rick Grimes, you guys! Here I was watching one of the most gory and violent shows I’d ever seen, and I looked a little (a lot) like that Alicia Silverstone swooning gif.

I hadn’t had a crush like that since high school, and as luck would have it, I could watch this crush strut around any time I wanted to, and I didn’t even have to hide behind a locker staring at him in secret. I’d heard the term book boyfriend before, and Rick became my TV boyfriend. With multiple seasons to binge, I was in heaven. Was this what it was like to be in love? (I swear my husband knows. It’s fine.)

But the thing was, in addition to dealing with zombies, this man of my dreams was in this awful, toxic relationship. It was heartbreaking. I know, I know, the show takes place at the end of the world, hierarchy of needs and all, but all I could focus on was how much this new love of mine deserved better! The romantic subplot was reaching through the gore and bullets and grabbing me by the throat like the undead on screen.

Fast forward multiple seasons of me screaming at my television for someone to please love Rick Grimes like I did, and then it happened. He met the love of his life. Gorgeous, smart, capable, compassionate Michonne. Zombies? What zombies? The Walking Dead was the most beautiful love story I had ever seen.

I didn’t know it at the time, but there was a classic slow-burn, friends to lovers trope building before my eyes. Every night I binged, I found myself scouring episodes for just a little crumb of this budding romance between Rick Grimes and this amazing woman he had found. I couldn’t look away. It consumed me—zombie pun intended. What was this obsession? Was there a name for what I was feeling? Turns out there was. It’s called fandom and this is where the life changing started. I learned the term ‘shipper’ and immediately became one, jumping head first into my new tribe. Here, all the crumbs from the show led to a veritable feast of Richonne (their proper shipping name) content.

This new world was magic. That moment in season four when I really, really thought Rick and Michonne were finally going to kiss on screen and then they DIDN’T? Here my disappointment turned to rejoicing when not only could I find fan fiction where that moment was rewritten with a happier ending, but I found iterations of all the moments! And new moments were being created daily out of the amazing imaginations of these other fans.

Now here’s where fandom really got me. The A.U., you guys! Not only could I see these characters play out their scenes in all different ways, but I could also just pluck the love story out of the confines of the canon world and see it blossom any and everywhere writers could imagine! I. Was. Hooked.

Now, remember, writing had always been a love of mine. Once I saw the possibilities, I had to get in on this action. I penned my own fanfic, and it went surprisingly well. Hey, maybe I still had this little talent, even though I hadn’t used it in years. Over the course of about eighteen months, I wrote twenty fan fics for Richonne. Sure, I was creating a form of fan art, but I realized after a while that what I was doing was writing romance novels Yes, novels. Some of these fics were a hundred thousand words! Here I was creating new and exciting meet-cutes, crafting swoony dialogue and imagining awkward scenarios where the characters were forced to deny and then pledge allegiance to their undying love, and it was a freaking blast.

Those of you who follow the show know that (no spoilers) Richonne isn’t something I can obsess over on screen anymore, and being a fan who never heeded the spoiler warnings myself, I saw it coming quite a while ago. Coincidentally, right around that time when my OTP was coming to an end, I happened upon a book recommendation on Tumblr, a place I was only habitating because it fed my fandom addiction. All roads really do lead home. Anyway, this book was called The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory. Now a lot has already been written about how the new contemporary romance covers are driving sales to a previously untouched demographic. I won’t expound on that, except to say: that was me! If the cover of this book had rippling abs and clutched bosoms I never would have picked it up. Again, no judgment. One of the best things about Romancelandia, I quickly realized, is there’s room for every taste imaginable. So keep buying those abs if that’s your thing. But for me, I decided to give this book a go because the cover was cute and gave no indication as to the material inside, something that I coveted as a screen name branded, no one in my real life knows, secret fic reader.

I bought the book, devoured it, and immediately yelled for more! Since then, I’ve read something like a hundred plus romance novels—traditionally published, self-published, steamy to sweet, mostly contemporary, but an occasional historical or suspense—and just like fanfic, I wanted in. I’d been honing my skills online for a couple of years at that point, and no way was I ever giving up writing again, but more importantly, I had found my genre. I was a romance writer. I tried the title on, wiggled around in it for a bit until it fit, and now it’s like a second skin.

I wrote my first romance novel this year from a meet cute I had used in a fic. Actually, it was a meet cute from my own life that I had given to the fandom first. That idea turned into a whole plot and then I got to do my favorite part of this writing process—character building. I love you, Rick and Michonne. You’ll always be my OTP, but I wanted to break free of the constraints of someone else’s characters and create my own heroes and heroines. I wanted to give them hopes and fears and a rich backstory. And of course craft a deep and effective emotional wound (my personal favorite part). Hey, if you know my OTP, fictional characters don’t get much more tragically wounded than that. But I’m gonna try.

So here I am, manuscript in hand, ready to apply for full citizenship. I sailed this ship all the way to a place called Romancelandia, and the weather is fine. All those years I spent not writing was the real tragedy, and thanks to shipping, I finally found my happy ever after.

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