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Posted on Oct 27, 2017

How I Established My Romance Novel's Subgenres

Barbara James lives in New York, and is an avid romance reader and a former academic writer. In this article, she breaks down her latest romance novel's subgenres — sweet, contemporary, new adult — and explains the characteristics and importance of each one.

Barbara James

Those not steeped in reading and writing romance often presume that all romance novels are about bodice ripping and steamy sex. But there is a continuum that includes the non-racy. A romance novel with the same characters can take different forms, through the perspectives of different subgenres. Inspirational novels, for instance, are those that focus upon the couple's relationship in the context of their religious faith — they grow in faith together. On the other hand, erotic novels focus upon immediate sexual attraction and sexual activity as the foundation for the characters' connection and developing relationship. Then there's paranormal romance, which brings in supernatural creatures to add a whole new dimension to romance. But even within those subgenres, there are more categories to be found!

What my latest novel, Starting Over, boils down to is a: sweet, contemporary, new adult romance novel. Let’s take a brief look at each of these components and how they are present in my novel.

Writing “closed-door” sex scenes

I read novels that fall into all sorts of romance subgenres. But my personal preference for writing is in the middle-ground of the erotic-clean pendulum: the "sweet" genre. Josie Riviera, a bestselling novelist who also writes within the genre, once described sweet romances as reading like a Hallmark movie: the focus is on emotional intimacy as the foundation for a long-term relationship.

I'm particularly interested in what the characters are experiencing from their first interaction: what are their needs and vulnerabilities that underpin their interest in connecting? How will they work through these as they get to know one another and as their relationship develops?

Sexual attraction is still important for sweet romances, as is sexual intimacy — but it is not of the main priority of the story, so it doesn't happen immediately. More importantly, the sex takes place behind closed doors. The reader knows it occurs, but doesn't need to know what occurs. It is alluded to, and the reader's imagination provides the rest. Here is an example of closed-door sex from my latest novel, Starting Over:

The last tune he put on was by Ludacris. Once it ended, he came up behind her and whispered into her ear. “So Annelise, that is the question of the night. What is your fantasy?” Peering carefully into her face, he took her hand and led her into his bedroom.


Annelise woke up late Saturday morning to see Rick grinning at her. When he moved on top of her, she looked into his eyes and said, “Wow.”

He laughed. “So how are you feeling, sweetie?” Moving gingerly, she reached up to kiss him. “Like I’ve been mauled, but in a good way.”

An aspect integral to the intimacy between two characters and the way they interact with each other is the novel’s setting.

Establishing my novel’s contemporary setting

Time and place are like secondary characters in a novel, and just as important to develop: When does the story take place? Where? How does the time and place of the novel shape the characters' interaction with each other, their environments, and the people with whom they come into contact?

In regards to my novel, the protagonists Annelise and Rick, are students in a modern-day college town. Their social interactions therefore initially take place in an academic environment. Annelise is fresh out of high school, starting her first year at university and therefore a large part of her experiences are shaped by trying to see where she fits in. Rick is also in his first year of university — however, he has spent ten years in the Coast Guard and is in his late twenties. He is therefore also seeking to find his place but struggles with his environment in a very different way than Annelise.

Furthermore, Annelise is African American and Rick is Italian American. So I wanted to incorporate some of the political controversies we’re currently seeing, in particular against minorities, into their college experience.

A good exercise for clarifying how your setting and characters interact with one another is by taking a leaf out of Octavia Butler’s book. In her novel, Kindred, we witness a young African-American woman being carried back and forth in time between her home in 1976 California, and a pre-Civil War Maryland plantation. She of course has very different experiences in both settings, and both points in time shape her as a person. I think this is a great tool for any writer: detailing the way your character interacts with your novel’s setting, and then putting them into a vastly different setting and seeing how it changes their context.

Setting is also important to the marketing of your book — labeling it as contemporary romance will draw different readers than labeling it as historical romance. To further establish who my novel is for, I added “new adult” onto the list of descriptors.

How my novel is “new adult”

New adult is for readers who have graduated from the young adult category, but who face different conflicts and questions than the rest of the 30+ adult group. They are still in the early stages of their lives, grappling with identity, relationships, and career.

In Starting Over, Annelise is more conservative than most of her peers: she hopes to be married by the time she graduates university, and to become a stay-at-home mom by the time she’s in her mid-twenties. This is a more “old-fashioned” life plan than many people in their early-twenties have today, so Annelise struggles with how to fit in with her peers and is constantly questioning her life plans and decisions.

When my novel was finished and I was ready to start working with a professional editor, I knew I wanted someone who was a clear fan of the romance genre.

Working with a development editor who also loves romance novels

A developmental editor can be instrumental in either helping you define your genre or tailoring your novel more to your chosen genre. And this was absolutely the case with my editor, Mary-Theresa Hussey. She worked for over 25 years as an executive editor at Harlequin, so she really knew her stuff.

One way she challenged me fairly early on was with respect to age differences. Annelise could have been older, a graduate student, about 22–24 years old, or Rick could have been younger, 24–25 years old. Ultimately, I made Rick ten years older — 28 to Annelise’s 18 — because I wanted him to be ready to handle the responsibility of being the husband of a younger, stay-at-home-wife. But Mary-Theresa’s suggestion that I re-think their age difference helped me more firmly establish why the ten-year age gap was important to the story, strengthening each character in my mind.

As her work history clearly suggests, Mary-Theresa is a fan of romance novels herself. Working with an editor who has a preference for romance novels was as important to me as their professional backgrounds, which is why I was so happy Reedsy permitted me to search for editors with specific keywords.

Starting Over is available in paperback and on Amazon Kindle.

Please share your thoughts, experiences, or any questions for Barbara James in the comments below!