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Saturday, March 3, 2018

The DNA of Military Romantic Suspense

by M. L. Buchman

I didn't set out to write MRS (Military Romantic Suspense). After over seventy titles I'm still surprised that its half of my total works and 2/3s of my income! (I also have a big swath of contemporary romance and a nice little starter kit on SF/F and Thrillers.)

The fact that I arrived her completely by accident is simply part of the punchline. I was working on my foodie thriller Swap Out! and needed a cool military helicopter to rescue my hero from the top of Chicago's tallest building. I researched around and found my helo. I also found the military team called The Night Stalkers, the helicopter pilots of the US Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, SOAR. I often end the story with how I opened up their job application out of curiosity to see if I would have qualified back in the day (so not!) and discovered the second line on the form: "Women may not apply." That was 2008 and the application was changed in 2012. There are now women who fly with Emily Beale, but I still like to think that she was the one who kicked down the doors (even if the publisher insisted on putting her in a nightie—I can't begin to describe the fight I had to give her the bit chain for her dog tags).

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Anyway, that's my usual story. But it has much deeper origins that I think are absolutely essential to writing successful military romantic suspense. I'll gladly admit that I've become a total snob about who I'll read versus who I chuck against the wall. Here's why.

My first military hero was laughed out of the critique group back in 1997. The men just thought the poor guy was absolutely hilarious. (On the other hand, I got them back when I wrote a birth scene from the women's point of view. They went green...and the women laughed me out of the room.) (Eventually I got the guy to a point where my male critique partners conceded that he was at least male. And the women, after six complete rewrites, admitted I'd come pretty close—by which time the guy's weren't aghast, they were stone silent.) Anyway, I knew that writing strong alpha heroes was a challenge for me. So I started reading.

I read military memoir, especially from retired SEALs and Special Operations. I read about amazing men (and a few women). I also read very much for how they felt, acted, and viewed the world. My favorite single piece of fan mail ever was from a woman who had served as a helo pilot for years. When she read my first Delta Force novel, Target Engaged, she wrote to say: "I know your hero. He's exactly like my Delta pal."

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My point? If you don't have the voice're nowhere. And readers like me will be heaving the book at the wall—just sayin'.

But even if the voice is right, and the tech is right, and the weapons are right (an extremely critical step), if you miss the DNA...fuggedaboutit!

I heard a brilliant description of what makes a cross-genre title a romance (this was back in the days when romance was still six or seven genres, not 21 or whatever it has grown to since I last checked). She said:
If you can peel the romance out of the book and it still stands, then it isn't a romance. If you peel out the romance and the book collapses, then it is a romance.
I've given this a lot of thought and I think that she only scratched the surface. What really makes a story a military romantic suspense is that all three elements—military, romance, and suspense—must be present.

But what makes it a satisfying MRS?

Let's go back to that speaker (who's name I've long since lost). The way I write, if you pull ANY of those three elements out and the story DOESN'T collapse then you don't have a military romantic suspense.

And it's a full web:

  • The suspense must be driven by the military action.
  • The military aspect absolutely controls the type of suspense that is used.
  • The attitudes and personalities of the military will uniquely shape the romance.
  • The suspense impacts the course of the romance.
These are in most good MRS stories, but there are still some other elements that I just don't find that often:
  • The romance must be of a type that couldn't happen anywhere except in the military or involving military people.
  • And the suspense is also driven and shaped by the romance.
Another way to say this:
  • The suspense must both require military skills to solve it and be only soluble by the H&H (hero/heroine, hero/hero, heroine/heroine, heroine/pretty alien, whatever). Further that military and suspense must slam the pressure onto the relationship at precisely the worst moment or in the worst way.
For me, a rocking Military Romantic Suspense is a perfect storm of the three elements all so tightly wound together that to remove on doesn't destroy the story, it destroys both the stories. Pull out military, and the romance and the suspense stories don't work. And so on.

Do I achieve this in every book? OMG, NO! Do I try? Every single time.

Check out my latest MRS and tell me how I did.

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Or, if you prefer a lighter tone, you can try out my brand new release from just this week (the explosives-sniffing dog handler and the new driver of the Presidential motorcade:

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Booklist has selected his military and firefighter series(es) as 3-time “Top 10 Romance of the Year.” NPR and Barnes & Noble have named other titles “Top 5 Romance of the Year.” In 2016 he was a finalist for RWA's RITA award. He has flown and jumped out of airplanes, can single-hand a fifty-foot sailboat, and has designed and built two houses. In between writing, he also quilts. M.L. is constantly amazed at what can be done with a degree in geophysics. He also writes: contemporary romance, thrillers, and SF. More info at:


Judith Ashley said...

Your new series sounds awesome. Have you personally been in the White House?

Sarah Raplee said...

Matt, this is the best 'how-to' post on Military Romantic Suspense I've ever read! Thank you!

Paty Jager said...

Sounds like you have hit on another good series. Thanks for the pointers on writing Military Romantic Suspense. I doubt I'll ever write it, but I do enjoy reading it. Good post!

Barbara Rae Robinson said...

I love your description of the elements wound tightly together. The braiding of the strands that can't be separated. In my romantic suspense, I have the two strands, but they have to have that cause and effect relationship. Very good article.

M. L. Buchman said...

Yes, I've been to the White House, watched a couple kajillion specials on it, read books (including by the Secret Service, by White House chefs, about the dog handlers, etc. etc), and spent way too much time on-line. And that's not counting the time my former research librarian/now my assistant wife has spent on it as well. I also have the 6 book Night Stalkers White House Holiday military romantic suspense series (so in a way, I've been there before [grin!]). Just makes it more fun to go back.

I think that it is true of any genre. Contemporary rom: the characters, the problem, and the setting need to have the unshakeable interconnection. In Science Fiction it's the character and the setting. In Thrillers the character and the plot (actually, even more, the character and the break-neck pacing). And so on. It's a key to how I view all of my writing.

Cheers, Matt