Writing a Gothic Romance Story

I thought I'd share a few "behind the writer's desk" thoughts with this blog post and delve into my process on creating a gothic romance story.

First, let's make sure we define our terms; I love the definition found at The Free Dictionary, describing it as a "...type of novel that flourished in the late 18th and early 19th cent. in England. Gothic romances were mysteries, often involving the supernatural and heavily tinged with horror, and they were usually set against dark backgrounds of medieval ruins and haunted castles..."


Now, let's layer on to that 20th century examples, such as Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and the work of Victoria Holt, and we are getting a full picture of what makes a gothic romance - women unsteady in new surroundings, a brooding handsome hero with a mysterious past, peculiar characters, unsure brides, remote settings. Gothic romance is one of those genres that I know when I see it, but defining it can take awhile.


Okay, now that we are on the same page, let's get on to how I am tackling writing a short story in this style. I've read some of the classics in the genre before (as mentioned above, Rebecca, is a huge favorite, as is Turn of the Screw by Henry James), so I have familiarity with the tropes. For this story though, I needed to get in the mood, so to speak. The setting - both the literal setting and the atmosphere - is make or break for a gothic romance. You can't think of Rebecca without thinking of Manderley; you can't think of Turn of the Screw without thinking of Blythe. Those houses were characters equal to any others. Just as the placement of the story is key, the atmosphere too is a defining part of what makes a gothic romance delicious. Picture the stormy cliffs of Cornwall, a lonely ruined abbey where a ship from Transylvania lands, the moors of Wuthering Heights, a dilapidated mansion in the bayou. You get the picture - quite literally. A vivid picture of a place at the edge of the world, at the edge of reason.


With a location and a setting figured out, I moved on to coming up with the reasons why. Why is my heroine in this place? Why is there danger for her? Why are there secrets? Unlike a lot of my stories (which I usually loosely plot, leaving where the story goes to my mind as I go along), this one felt like it really needed the whys answered before I wrote the first sentence. For me, gothic romance has a mystery (or two) at the heart of it and without those very clearly in mind, I wouldn't be able to keep the story flowing.


Next, I did a bit of trickery while still working on development - I wrote down words I wanted to include in the draft. I never do this, but this list exists to keep me grounded in the genre. If I end up discarding the ideas, no big deal - this is all about experimentation and trying out ideas. Words that ended up my list for the story include: skeleton key, hidden drawer, old diary, a jewel.


With my setting, my "whys" and my key items identified, I was ready to write. Coming up with a good opening is always important but in gothic romance, I think it is ever more so. Great lines like "Last night, I dreamed I went to Manderley again" are quoted by fans decades later. So the pressure is on to get it right. My opening line reads: "Mother was dead. Part of me, the part that felt disloyal and a faithless daughter, knew this. The part of me that gnawed at hope, that fed my nightmares, that ate my peace. Mother was dead. And I was going to find her." It might get tweaked in edit mode, but I'm feeling pretty good about it right now. A mystery, a daughter feeling guilty, a journey. We're getting the story off on a good foot with those elements.

A mystery, a daughter feeling guilty, a journey. We're getting the story off on a good foot with those elements.

Lastly, the title. I'll be honest - I don't know what it is yet. That's unusual for me because I usually have a rough idea going in what I want the title to be. For this one, I think I need to step back from the drafting and see it from a distance. The story is still being written so I can't quite grab the vaporous ideas swirling around. Famous titles in the genre tend to be shorter - one or two words often. They are often proper names - the names of people or places or even things, such as Jane Eyre, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Jamaica Inn. Names as evocative as the settings themselves.


If you haven't sampled some of the classic and new work out there in the gothic romance genre, October is the perfect month to get swept away to a stormy moor or locked into a dusty old castle. Rebecca is a great introduction, but I'd consider Dracula or Northanger Abbey good for a foray as well. I'll be sure to update readers on the finished product of my own short story and when and how you can judge it for yourselves.

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