Writing Romantic Suspense: Sugar and Spice and Things Not So Nice

Happy Valentine’s Day!! This seemed like an appropriate time to do an encore presentation of a post Kirsten Weiss and I wrote a few years ago, about the challenges and joys of writing romantic suspense.

by Kassandra Lamb and Kirsten Weiss ~ Both of us have ventured a bit into the realm of romantic suspense lately. Since we already had romances as subplots in many of our mysteries, we thought it shouldn’t be that hard to make the romance a bit more central and call it romantic suspense.

spirit on fire book cover

The first of the romantic suspense novellas “written” by Karin Bonheim, Kirsten’s fictional character.

It’s turned out to be a little more complicated than that. So we thought we’d explore for you, our readers, and also for ourselves, our motives and challenges as we’ve ventured into this cross-over genre.

So first up, Kirsten answering the question:

What motivated you to try your hand at romantic suspense?

Kirsten:  Crass commercialism! But seriously, I’m in the Romance Writers of America and have been slowly improving my romance writing chops. So I thought I’d try my hand at some novellas, ostensibly written by Karin Bonheim, a character in my Witches of Doyle cozy mysteries.

Then of course, I had to go and complicate everything by adding in a second story about Karin, woven between the chapters…

Payback book cover

First story in Kass’s, uh, Jess’s Unintended Consequences trilogy.

Kass: I also have to admit to a monetary motive. Mystery is the second largest genre, but romance is number one, with many avid readers who devour several books a week. What I didn’t realize is that the readership of romantic suspense is a somewhat different group (with a good bit of overlap from romance and mystery readers).

But now I’m hooked, with multiple story ideas buzzing around in my head. So Jessica Dale (my romance-writing alter ego) will be continuing to produce romantic suspense stories for the foreseeable future.

What surprised you the most about this cross-over genre?

Kirsten: A lot of people sneer at romance, but writing good romance ain’t easy. I have huge respect for the romance writers I know. They tend to start their books from the perspective of emotion and character. As a mystery writer, who looks first at character and plot and then figures out the emotion later, this “emotion-based” approach has been a useful way of developing my plot outline.

Kass: I’ve never particularly cared for straight romance stories, because they all seem to follow the same formula. Girl meets boy, they are attracted to each other but there is tension between them—often due to some misunderstanding that seems a little artificial to me. The tension eventually reaches a climax (no pun intended), and boy and girl finally get together.

Backlash cover

Book 2 in the Unintended Consequences series.

What I found pleasantly surprising when writing romantic suspense is that the conflict in the story doesn’t have to be BETWEEN the hero and heroine. The conflict can come from the mystery component. Something bad has happened and/or is going to happen, and the hero and heroine must work together to come through the other end intact.

Certainly the early stages of the relationship won’t be all sweetness and light, but the tension doesn’t have to be sustained or exaggerated in an unnatural way. The mystery component of the story provides plenty of tension and obstacles for them to overcome, and also opportunities to cement their love.

What have you found most challenging writing romantic suspense?

Kirsten: There’s a lot more romance to deal with! In my mysteries, the romances tend to be a slow burn. Especially in novella format, you have to get to it much more quickly, and still make it seem realistic. I hope I succeeded.

Kass: Having read some of “Karin’s” stories, I’d say you have, Kirsten!

My biggest challenge is similar. Pacing is always tough for me, especially at the beginning of a story when I’m setting things up. But in mysteries with a romantic subplot, one just has to set up the mystery initially. You can bring in the attraction between the hero and heroine later.

But in romantic suspense, you’ve got to get the hero and heroine feeling things toward and about each other more quickly. The sparks have to fly pretty early on. And yet not slow down the story and kill the suspense about the mystery component.

shaman's bane cover

The 2nd Witches of Doyle In-Between romantic suspense

How do you maintain the balance between the romance and the mysterious elements? Do your stories lean more toward one or the other?

Kirsten: In the Witches of Doyle In-Betweens, the paranormal romances that “Karin” writes, romance and mystery are woven together. So I think those elements get fairly equal play. The hero and heroine generally start out with mutual suspicion battling mutual attraction, and then moving toward cooperation and mutual respect as they work together to stop the bad guy.

Because they’re working together to solve the crime, and when they’re apart, they’re thinking of each other (and the crime), there’s always some romantic tension on the page. Or at least, that’s what I try to create. But for me, mystery still comes first!

Kass: I’d say in terms of space on the page, the two components get equal time. The romance maybe a little more initially as the suspenseful events build up to a realization that something really bad is going on. Then as things start to break loose in the mystery component, it gets more page time, and the couple is mostly hanging on for dear life. But also the negative events are exposing flaws in each other and challenges between them.

The tricky part is trying to portray those quick flashes of insight and the fears that go along with them, without distracting from the build-up of the suspense toward the grand reveal.

Like Kirsten, I hope I’ve met that challenge well. And yes, if I have to choose, the mystery takes precedence.

How do you feel about romantic suspense? Who’s your favorite author in that genre?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb and Kirsten Weiss ~

Kirsten Weiss writes laugh-out-loud, page-turning mysteries. Her heroines aren’t perfect, but they’re smart, they struggle, and they succeed. Kirsten writes in a house high on a hill in the Colorado woods and occasionally ventures out for wine and chocolate. Or for a visit to the local pie shop.

Her series include the Paranormal Museum cozies, the Wits’ End Doyle cozies, the Witches of Doyle cozies, the Riga Hayworth Metaphysical Detective series, the Sensibility Grey steampunk suspense series, and the Tea and Tarot cozy series.

Kassandra Lamb is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida. Plus she has started a new police procedural series, also set in Florida—The C.o.P. on the Scene mysteries. And she writes romantic suspense under the pen name of Jessica Dale.

Misterio press produces an array of quality crime fiction. We post here twice a month, usually on Tuesdays, to alert you to new releases, to entertain, and to inform.

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  • Reply
    Pamela Meyer
    February 23, 2022 at 10:48 am

    Love this! Thank you.
    I was wondering…
    It seems “romantic suspense” requires that one or both of the love interests must face life and death peril. Do you believe this is true? If so, is there any room for something like “romantic mysteries?” I’m thinking the love interests solve a murder mystery together but do not have their lives in danger in the process. Is this a thing? Does it fall under the umbrella of “romantic suspense,” or is it simply “mystery with strong romantic elements,” even if the romantic plot occupies 50% of the story?
    Inquiring minds (and aspiring authors) long to know.
    Thanks again,

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      February 24, 2022 at 1:38 am

      An excellent point, Pam! In “Romantic Suspense” there is definitely some threat to one or both parties in the romantic couple.

      But there is a long history of romantic couples solving mysteries together, such as Nick and Nora Charles. Indeed, they might have been the first, but I know a lot of couples have come after them. I’m blanking on their names…wait, it was Hart to Hart…they solved mysteries while keeping romance alive in the 1980s.

      We should come up with a name for that subgenre!

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