Throw out the smelling salts, rip off the corsets, the days of the swooning romance heroine are over. These days we might still read for escapism, but we want to be able to relate to, and empathise with, our characters. We’re in this together!
If my heroine swooned she’d fall off her horse. And believe me, she wouldn’t want to. It hurts. The first lesson any horsey girl learns is not to fall off. If there’s no other option, then lesson 2 is to hang onto the reins as you hit the floor. Let go and you’ve lost. At worst you get trampled, at best you could spend the rest of your life (well afternoon) trying to catch the damned horse again. And you need those reins, for lesson 3, which is to get right back into the saddle, however battered and bruised you feel.
Now there is always the risk that when you’re hanging on to those reins you get dragged along a bumpy path (ouch), so you do need to recognize that occasionally it’s better to let go. But you also need to know that there are times when it’s worth risking a few bruises and go for it – whatever the odds.
Okay, so I’ve come over a bit metaphorical, but you know what I mean. These days girls aren’t brought up to faint and swoon, but were they ever? Overtight corsets might have caused the odd topple, but in fiction strong romance heroines have always existed. Did the fainting and swooning cliché of a romance heroine emerge in the early days of Mills & Boon (which was founded by two men) when it was not deemed ‘nice’ to expose women to the nastier side of life? Let’s face it though, things have changed a lot since the 1930’s, even if that particular perception hasn’t been updated in the popular press. Girls are now expected to get a grip and take responsibility for their own futures.
I love writing strong heroines like Lottie (star of Stable Mates and Country Affairs), because I love HER. She can be scatty and daft, open and big-hearted, wavering between insecure one day and determined the next… but although she might shed a tear, she doesn’t crumble. She doesn’t swoon – she bounces back. She might want to have everybody on board, to please the world – but she knows that sometimes you have to be tough and draw a line. Steer the bolting horse onto a new path rather than just shutting the stable door after its gone and admitting defeat. And through it all she’s funny and loveable.
And life for her isn’t about big gestures, it’s about what’s in her heart. At times she’s worried she’ll fail, scared she might lose the man she loves, petrified of letting her family down – but strong enough to take a risk, learn from her mistakes, listen to her friends and at the end of the day trust her own convictions. Strong enough to go for it, even when it looks like she could lose everything along the way. And it’s not always about head over heart, sometimes real strength comes from being prepared to dig deep enough into your heart to discover what you really desire. Falling in lust can be easy, fighting attraction in the search for true love can take real guts – and Lottie has them.
Lottie gets back on her horse when she falls off, kicks on and dares to go for it. Riding into the unknown is never easy, literally or metaphorically, but isn’t it what we wish we had the guts to do? Strong girls don’t ride roughshod over other people, they take their friends with them along for the ride. The adventure doesn’t have to be big, in terms of distance, but it is always a huge emotional journey whether it’s about daring to be different, daring to trust, daring to believe in yourself, or daring to fall in love. The strength is there in all of us, but sometimes we aren’t ready to acknowledge it, but our strong romance heroines lead the way.
I reckon that although we’ve always liked to read about girls that have backbone, how they’re portrayed has changed. We’ve matured and grown more self-confident. There’s no need for the strident feminist, or a girl with the physique of Lara Croft. You don’t have to be different to be strong. Our romance heroine can be geek, girl-next-door, body-builder, or body-beautiful – she just needs to be real. A girl with heart. A girl we can relate to, believe in. And she’s not being strong just for her man, or her family, she’s doing it for herself (cue a song title), even though she may turn slightly squishy on the inside and wobbly on the outside when the man of her dreams finally kisses her. Because strong doesn’t mean you can’t be soft as well. And that’s my Lottie.
The hot horseman of my fictional town of Tippermere work hard and play hard, and so do the girls. And they’d prefer to cheer on the kick-ass heroine, than pass the smelling salts – real men like a challenge, and real women like real men. Not that my ladies actually need to get out there and raise a boot to the very attractive, toned derrieres that are definitely part of my romantic heroes (nobody likes a soggy bottom, do they Mary Berry?). No, being strong has always been about far more than that.
Country Affairs is now out in paperback! Needless to say I’m thrilled. My lovely heroine Lottie is out there on the shelves, being as strong and determined as she’s fun and scatty. She’s growing up, finding out just how deep her reserves are and how great she really is. And if you’re in the Cheshire area on August 15th, pop into Waterstone’s Knutsford to have a chat (and get a signed copy), or sidle along to the Cheshire Polo on August 16th where I will be presenting prizes and you can meet some really strong girls and guys.
Zara Stoneley spent the first 10 years of her career as an IT consultant, before following her heart to work with animals and write. For several years she ran a dog grooming business in the day, and wrote short stories and articles for pet magazines in the evenings, and is now a full time author, and columnist for Loveahappyending Lifestyle eMagazine.
Zara writes contemporary fiction for HarperCollins. Her latest novels, ‘Stable Mates’, and ‘Country Affairs’ are set in the Cheshire countryside and combine some of her greatest loves – horses, dogs, hot men and strong women (and not forgetting champagne and fast cars)! Her time is split between a cottage in the Cheshire countryside and an apartment in Barcelona.