October 9, 2012

Small-Town Romances: How Many is Too Many?



LOL by Lilyofthevalley

I’m a fan of Small-Town Romances. The main reason why I like them is because they tend to be character-oriented stories that mostly focus on the romance. They deal with a variety of subjects that go from the hilarious to the dramatic. The secondary characters are interesting, as they should be considering their main role is to keep us interested to read the next book. And overall they feel like comfort food; they make me feel good and, well, comforted. 

However, the same reasons why I love Small-Town Romances are the reasons why I dislike them: the characters can be repetitive; the lighter tone means that the subject remains underdeveloped; the secondary characters overtake the story; and comfort food becomes boring after eating it repeatedly. I've noticed that these issues tend to develop when the series extends beyond the third book. What starts as a trilogy, becomes a sextet, and in Robyn Carr’s case, twenty books and counting

One example of this is the Fool’s Gold series by Susan Mallery. The first book was fantastic, and even though the next two weren't as good, they had fully developed characters and interesting, albeit incredible, stories. But the series kept growing and the stories and characters started to blend in together. And the last set of books was so appalling that I decided to quit the series

After reading all of Robyn Carr’s Virgin River books, I've come to the conclusion that I have a love/hate relationship with them. Some I loved, some I hated. But Ms. Carr knows how to deliver a surprise outstanding book form time to time, which makes it impossible for me to say goodbye to the series. She infused it with a much needed new blood when she introduced a whole different set of characters and took the limelight away from the original cast. She reinvented the series, refreshed it and allowed new readers to jump right in without having to go back and read more than 15 books to catch up. The stories still feel familiar, but the characters are (slightly) different. But then again, the extreme familiarity doesn't come only from characters and plotlines.

One of the problems I have with long series is that the author’s voice becomes more and more recognizable until all I hear is the author instead of the different characters. The heroes and heroines become interchangeable. They all sound the same but with a different background or profession. The storylines blend in together -- how many times can a commitment-phobe hero and a perky, hopeful heroine, engage in a no-strings-attached temporal relationship, just to have the heroine fall in love and be brokenhearted throughout half the chapter that it takes for the hero to realize that he loves her and is ready to commit?  I've seen it here, here, and, oh yes, here

However, these series increase their popularity the longer they get. Jill Shalvis just announced that she’s not done with Lucky Harbor. Her next trilogy will feature a cop and a fireman; just as the previous books were about a forest ranger, a doctor and a SEAL. As much as I love the Lucky Harbor books, this announcement makes me worry about the future of a series that is very good, but it also begins to show the first signs of decline. I have a feeling that the new series will be just more of the same: manly men finding love in the arms of a sweet woman without much effort or real conflict. A new set of stories filled with interchangeable characters that feel like I've read them before.

Ms. Shalvis isn't alone. Susan Mallery plans to continue with Fool's Gold, there's no end in sight for the Virgin River books and Shannon Stacey is writing more Kowalski books. But success comes with a price, and its name is pressure. Simply Irresistible was published in October, 2010; the second book, The Sweetest Thing, in April 2011; and Head Over Heels in December, 2011. That’s over six months between release. The books in her latest trilogy were released in May, June and July of this year. You do the math. With so much pressure to deliver on time, it shouldn't come as a surprise the fact that the author takes shortcuts, and that the final product lacks the quality we have come to expect from the author. Using a popular formula and stock characters takes less time than creating brand-new stories with layered characters. 

What I can’t deny is that Small-Town Romances are beloved parts of the genre. I keep coming back for more, so the magic works for me as well. As I said, these books are comforting, entertaining and, when done right, part of the reason why I love Contemporaries. But I feel like we should demand better quality, new characters and stories that rely on reality and authenticity instead of fluffiness and fantasy (or at least more balance between the two). To me, it all comes down to moderation because as much as I love these stories, we shouldn't exploit them. When it comes to small towns, the magic number should be closer to three than to twenty. As nath says, maybe it's time to say hello to big city romances and take a vacation from small towns.

LOL by d.incantalupo
How about you? Are you a fan of Small-Town Romances? Have you noticed a decline in your favorite series the longer it gets? Or on the contrary, do you feel like they get better and better with each new book? What is it about these books that make them so popular? I would love to hear your thoughts.

13 comments:

  1. I LOOOOOVE me a good small town romance book. I do. Like you I find it comforting and enjoyable in an almost predictable kind of way. I'm almost sure of what I'm going to get out of the story.

    However I also agree with you about the longevity of such romances. I think three to five books should come out of such a setting and no more. After that everything that you said just becomes more and more apparent.

    There is no originality, and the characters eventually become mirror images of the other. So all the things you loved about the first few books, you begin to resent about the last dozen.

    I also think continuing withe a series when it has been sucked dry kind of speaks to the integrity of the author. At what point does it no longer become about the stories and the characters and becomes about the popularity and the money?

    Anyways, I agree with you on this. While a small town romance is sometimes just what I'm looking for, I get weary when too many stories come of one setting and they all begin to blend together

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  2. Awesome post! I've been having the same issues with contemporary romances taking place in small towns. I just read one that was really good except the nosey, small town citizens were so overzealous in being in the h/h's business, that it got on my nerves. My focus shifted from the main characters to the townspeople. They annoyed me and took away from the overall plot and romance. There needs to be some balance.

    I LOVED the first 3 books of Shalvis's Lucky Harbor series. When I heard that there was going to be 3 more books, my first response was 'Uh-oh'. I read the "spin-off" books and they did not rock my socks off like the original 3 of the series. And now there's going to be three more? I love Shalvis but Lucky Harbor is not THAT interesting of a town! And the citizens of Lucky Harbor are starting to get on my nerves. Their quirkiness has gone from cute to irritating. It's time to move to a new town.

    Carly Phillips is also writing a spin-off of her Serendipity series featuring the cops of Serendipity.

    Like you said, as a series continues, the characters, the plot, everything starts blurring together and it no longer stands out. And you forget why you liked the series to begin with.

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  3. Janet W here. Excellent post. Ix*nay from me on Shalvis and Mallery. It's money-making time now. Never really read Phillips or the author of the Kowalski books. The only small town books I keep reading are the Virgin River series and that's because the author knows how to keep things fresh. When she doesn't/if she doesn't, I'll stop reading them too.

    Why don't authors and their publishers stop trying to flog the dead reader horse and move on? An author who pleased herself and her readers is Debbie Macomber. She had had enough of her series set in a small town near Seattle and closed the series with a Christmas tale. Her compromise has been to have a widow open a B&B in the same town -- the stories are original, the continuity will come through the widow's personal story and the characters of the town weave in and out a little bit.

    I am a huge fan of well-done series but I'm nobody's fool. I am thisclose to not even reading any more In Death books because J.D. Robb is phoning it in. Phone it in on someone else's watch says me.

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  4. I think this is true of any subgenre, not just small town. I don't mind a series going beyond 3 books, but I do mind it migrating on and on beyond the original cast (the Cynster books have jumped the shark for me, and the endlessness of some PNR series does not appeal to me). I don’t mind a new series in the same setting/town/world though.

    I *have* head from numerous authors that sales really pick up once you hit six books in the same series, so I get why so many series are growing like weeds.

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  5. I haven't read that many small town romances (though I have read the Lucky Harbor books and agree with you completely) but I think this is a failing symptom of series books in general. Once they go beyond book three it's the rare author who can keep the tension and complexity going. And I hate that sinking feeling in relation to a series, town, and/or characters you previously were enamored of.

    I feel your pain.

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  6. I don't read small town romances, though my quibble is different. For some reason I don't find it believable that the h/h can successfully live there long term. Sure the police and fire chief will always have a job, but after that . . . How many wedding planners, boutique owners, etc., can thrive in small town America.

    I'll just assume this is my big city bias, though. (I'm from NYC, and live in LA). It's just that I meet so many transplants to the big city who tell me how hard it is for young people to survive. The work just isn't there. This is all to say that I sometimes have difficulty suspending disbelief to read these books. Although I did enjoy Victoria Dahl's Tumble Creek books.

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  7. Personally, I don't mind small town romances. Like you, I enjoy them. My problem is the over-saturation of the subgenre. Having one long-standing series or two of small town romances is fine... but when 80% of the contemporary romance books are small town romances, this doesn't work for me anymore. I want variety and there's just so much that can be done in a setting.

    As for interchangeable characters, I think like someone mentioned, is true for any authors in any genres given the length of a series. Very few authors can pull it off in my opinion.

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  8. Great comments!

    @Jade: Popularity and money is always a part of it, and I don't blame them for writing what sells. But I think quality shouldn't be compromised in the process.

    @Marq: I liked the first Lucky Harbor books so much that I was happy when the sequels were announced. But they weren't as good, and I do think the magic number is three and they should leave it at that.

    The townspeople are always a problem. I tolerate them at first, but their cuteness and interference gets old fast. One of the reasons why I like Shannon Stacey’s books is because the town isn’t a big part of it. She keeps is in the family, and because the family members are usually sequel bait, they aren't as annoying and have more depth.

    @Janet: I haven’t read Debbie Macomber books. That’s another long series, right? I wonder how long it will take for that new series to become just more of the old one. If the town and the characters are still the same, then it doesn’t seem like quitting the series. But again, I haven’t read it so don’t have an informed decision. Isn’t that how the Virgin River originated, though? As a spinoff of the Grace Valley books?

    @Isobel and @Angiegirl: You’re right. This is a problem with series in general. I love the Psy/Changeling books, but I’m at that point where I really want to know when they are going to end. Not because I want them to end, but because I want the reassurance that the author knows where the series is going and that it won’t extend indefinitely. I have high hopes that the next book will do just that, set up the resolution, but we’ll have to wait and see.

    @Sylvie: The Virgin River books often feature characters that have economic struggles. It all works out for them, but at least they aren't rich. I know exactly what your mean, though. In fact, when I talk about books grounded in reality, this is what I mean. I know it’s fiction and some read as escapism, but reality is a source of good stories and conflicts, why not use it?

    @nath: Great point! It seems like Small-Town Romance is everywhere. And if not Small-Town, contemporary trilogies. Everything must be a series, everything!

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  9. Janet W. Let me see if I can be more clear about the new Rose Harbor series by Debbie Macomber. Yes, it is the same setting and there will be walk-ons from characters we know from the earlier books. But their stories are done and in a way, they become the town, the community, the backdrop.

    The new owner of the B&B is a woman whose life is changing and evolving. The "stories" come from the guests -- they come to town, usually for a reason in their past, it all gets explored and then they're off to their HEA or HFN. So I see it as a departure from the previous series.

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    1. Ah! Now I get it. So it's a bit like leaving the town, without actually leaving it. The new setting and backdrop is the B&B and all the new characters are outsiders, yes?

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  10. "One of the problems I have with long series is that the author’s voice becomes more and more recognizable until all I hear is the author instead of the different characters. The heroes and heroines become interchangeable. They all sound the same but with a different background or profession."

    Yes. This. :)

    I like small town romances too - I have many Robyn Carr books on my TBR but I am woefully behind. I really enjoy Jill Shalvis but I didn't think the second trilogy had the strength of the first.

    I think the Kowalkskis are a little different - Shannon Stacey was a bit clever I think in using a different branch of the Kowalski family in a different state - (weren't the first set set mainly in a city? I could be remembering that wrong) and if she does that; moves things around a bit, I think there could be more life in the series.

    And, I totally get what you're saying about the commitment phobic guy who realises only at the last minute that his lady is "the one". I stopped reading Stephanie Laurens because she basically just recycled the same plots and tropes (and adjectives, oh, with the adjectives!) over and over again with only the names changing.

    I haven't read the latest 2 In Death books so I don't know (yet) whether I agree with Janet W about that series, but up til now, it has been one of the few which has held my interest over the long haul - that's at something like 35 books now. I can't think of another series which could do that.

    I'm loving the contemporaries though, but I'm just as happy to read big city as small towns.

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    1. You're right about the Kowalskis. I think I said this in my review of the latest book, but I thought Stacey was very clever when she focused the stories in the family and not the town. The new trilogy feels like a different series altogether, and in a way it is. And the "small town" plays almost no role whatsoever in the story, that helps a lot.

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  11. I am someone for whom small town romances often works. But I also really like contemporaries that are set in cities

    i am sold on a book if the H/h/story is reasonable…how the author convinces me that yes it is possible..i am not much in favour of those raw sex genres.. for me it has to involve a good story and with underlying emotions… and i hate romances with virgins h’s and super rakish H’s..though i can be bought if its written well and not much is made of it and the H feels previous experiences are nothing or kinda feels sorry for such paltry experiences…all depends.
    i hate stories with infidelity,wishy washy heroine or hero,way too alpha male etc…
    me i love sweet and cute as long as it isn’t saccharine..i also love contemporary with city stories,western both old and new,historicals – both medieval and regency,scottish, irish , paranormal ,classics etc (am eclectic) as long as i can get into thee authors style..the writing,the hero and heroine and the story also those parts where we have to switch of brains…as long as i feel it, its ok…

    i liked robyn carr’s virgin river series..did not read all the books but have read most and some i didnt like the review…esp brie’s and Luke’s..
    Sean’s, Vanni’s did not like the review so much(dint read)
    or jack’s (dont know why ,but dont like Mel much)

    am vary of second chance esp where H/h doesn’t beg properly/ where the h/H has to accept being second best

    i also like nora robert’s chesapeake bay series..loved it actually

    so also mariah stewrat’s home for the summer

    jayne anne kretz’s truth or dare/light in shadows, eclipse bay series , dreams part 1&2…

    shannon stacy’s kowalski books esp all he ever dreamed

    jill gregory’s lonesomeway series esp sage creek

    lisa kleypas’s christmas harbour series esp dream lake

    these are all that comes to mind at present..

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