Thursday, April 4, 2013

Romancing The Wild: From the "bodice rippers" of the 1980's to 50 Shades of you-know-what.

Romance and an accidental collision.

Romance as a category has shown its strength over the decades as it evolved from the early days of the nurse romance—pretty nurse Patricia wins handsome Dr. Phillips—through the “bodice rippers” of the Eighties to the many sub-genres that exist today including, of course, the steamy erotic romances descending from 50 Shades.

No matter the sub-genre, there always seems to be room for further expansion and an eager audience willing to follow writers wherever our imaginations take us. To pirates and pirate ships, to the Middle Ages, Regency England, and the settling of the American West. Wherever there are people, people can—and will—fall in love.  We want to write about them and readers love to read about them.

ZURI—the word means "beautiful" in Swahili—is a romance with an unusual setting: an animal orphanage named Kihali located in Africa. The initial idea for the book was the product of an accidental collision.

Out Of Africa, set in Kenya in the early 1920’s and starring Meryl Streep as the Danish writer Isaak Dinesen, and the young, golden Robert Redford as a white hunter, is a grand romance—and one of my favorite movies. I watch it every now and then and had just seen it again when, while casually flipping thru TV channels one evening, I happened to see a clip of a baby rhino. I was blown away by the little rhino’s appeal and gracefulness.

Baby animals never fail but a rhino? Could a baby rhino actually be adorable? Yes, indeed. Very much so.

Pinned Image
Baby rhino enjoying a handout.

I was also aware via newspaper and internet articles that poaching had become an extremely lucrative international crime. The slaughter of rhinos and elephants was decimating the wildlife populations of Africa to the point where they are now endangered species. Between the glamor of Africa, the vulnerability and appeal of helpless animals and the sweeping Streep-Redford romance, the germ for the book was firmly planted.

The need for research was obvious. I had to find out about the people involved in the dangerous work of animal rescue and protection, the newest scientific discoveries in animal communication as more and more is learned about their high intelligence, the gory reality of poaching and the ruthless criminal gangs who profit from its bloody endeavors.

Then there were the details of rhino husbandry and veterinary, the amazing work being done by African animal orphanages, the risks involved in wildlife care, the details of rhino and elephant behavior—Zuri, the orphaned baby rhino who is the story’s heroine, meets elephant and other animal friends at Kihali. I also needed to find out about the local language, Swahili, Kenyan cuisine & wedding rituals—and I needed to use my research in a way that fit in naturally with the narrative flow of the book.

The research was fascinating. Did you know that the illicit trade in wild animals is third only to the illegal trades in drugs & weapons? Or that rhino horn—it’s actually keratin, the same material found in feathers and nails—is thought to cure cancer, maintain sexual vigor and is considered a miracle medicine in Asia, although it is, in fact, of zero medical value? The price of rhino horn, driven by demand in booming Asian economies, is now more expensive than gold as is the ivory from elephant tusks, used not for “medicinal” purposes but to make carved trinkets.

Of course, in a romance, a love story is crucial. Therefore: Renny Kudrow, the sexy scientist and expert in animal communication, who is the moody Alpha hero. Renny is the Director of Kihali and Starlite Higgins is his newly-hired vet, a talented doctor who hides a horrifying secret. Their relationship gets off to a rocky start when Starlite panics and almost causes Zuri's rescue to fail. The two who must work together to save Zuri and the other animals in their care must also work their way through their initial very rough beginning to a much-deserved Happily Ever After ending.

 By the time I finished writing ZURI, I thought of the book as romance in its broadest sense, meaning love of beauty, love of nature, love of animals, and, of course, the romantic and transformative power of human love.

Readers, do you enjoy romances with off-beat backgrounds and unusual settings? Or do you prefer your romance with backgrounds that seem familiar?


  1. What a clever quick retrospective of the romance genre. I especially like that you said romances are "descending" from 50 Shades. Pulp romance does seem to have reached a new low. I find it interesting that they've gone from cover images of semi-naked female chests (bodices having been ripped) to shirtless men on romance covers. Often women aren't even in the picture.

    Zuri sounds like romance at its best--a real love story. And as far as setting--I only read romance if its in an interesting time or place. So your exotic setting is a big plus for me!

    BTW, do you know you're featured on the newly resurfaced Mark Williams International blog today?

  2. Anne—thanks for the nice words about my speedy History of Romance.

    Zuri is a love story as opposed to romance, Harlequin-style. No shirtless male models, no ripped bodices, just a sweet, sad orphaned baby rhino who needs—and gets—a lot of help. As do the people who care for her and, in the process, confront the difficult pasts that have stopped them from getting on with their lives.

    Thanks for the heads-up on Mark's blog. Glad to see him back!

  3. I love books that teach me about something going on in the world, and it sounds like Zuri does exactly that. The premise and setting are compelling, who doesn't want to read a book with a baby rhino as the heroine?

  4. Meghan—I loved writing Zuri and not the least of its pleasures was learning about a world foreign to my own. Probably about 10% of my research ended up in the book because I was intent on keeping a light hand on the throttle.

    Heroines, baby rhinos definitely included, must earn their HEA endings!