14 April 2023
Writing romantic fiction is a bit like baking a cake, says leading author Veronica Henry
You have the basic ingredients – flour, butter, sugar, eggs – the foundation on which everything is built. These are the equivalent of your plot, your characters and your setting.
There are recipes you can refer to – all those masterclasses and writing guides you have read over the years – but they won’t make the cake for you. You have to get out your mixing bowl and your wooden spoon, roll up your sleeves and crack on.
The proportions you choose will produce a different result. Lots of eggs and sugar and only a drift of flour will give you a light and airy Genoese sponge like a frothy romantic comedy, whilst the addition of butter will give you something weightier, perhaps a family drama. It’s a good idea to decide on what you want before you start, so you have a clear idea of what you are aiming for.
Then you add the flavour – vanilla, chocolate, lemon – and this represents your voice, which will give your book its identity and make it stand out, make it the story only you can tell. Will you go for a tried and tested Victoria sponge, or something more adventurous like an exotic red velvet? Are you a crowd-pleaser or something a little more niche? Would your cake be at home at the village fete, or would it be the centrepiece at a celebrity wedding? How does it make people feel when they devour it? They can be comforted, or scintillated, or scandalised, but the one thing they must always feel is satisfied.
Some cakes are full of additives and air. A little bit fake and somewhat disappointing, a ready-mix thrown together with little skill. These mimic the formulaic books that jump on the bandwagon and are churned out to provide a quick fix. Others are reassuring – a rich fruit cake you can rely on time and again. These are the books that are written with confidence and capability, with technical knowhow and experience. And then you have the showstoppers that elicit gasps of delight, a combination of talent and ingenuity and perhaps luck. The book we all long to write but suspect may be beyond our capabilities. Unless we keep on trying . . .
At the end, when the cake is finally assembled, you decorate. Sometimes you just need a light dusting of icing sugar; other times there is frosting and glitter and blazing candles. This is where you go through your book and make sure it is as tantalising and appealing as it can be, polishing every word, tightening every chapter, sharpening every hook until the reader’s mouth is watering with anticipation.
Just as in baking, there is a science at the heart of writing romantic fiction which can’t be messed with. Yet sometimes, despite following the rules, the cake comes out flat, or gets burned, and you have to start again. Same ingredients, but perhaps the proportions will be a little different, or you need to fold in the flour more lightly, or turn your oven down. Maybe you need to improve your technical skills, be more daring with your flavour, or less heavy handed in your decoration? It’s trial and error. It’s practice. It’s being brave enough to throw your cake in the bin when it’s not fit for consumption – there’s no point in covering it up with icing if it’s fundamentally flawed. Although sometimes you can slice off a burnt edge and cover it up with a bit of buttercream. It comes with experience.
Of course, writing a book takes considerably longer than baking a cake. But it’s important to know when to stop. Your book will never be perfect. There is always a way to make it better. You could add more sprinkles until the end of time, but at some point you have to put it on a plate, let your reader take a slice and hope they come back for more.
PS Thirty Days in Paris is, of course, a French chocolate cake: perfect for any occasion, a little bit naughty and completely indulgent!
Thirty Days in Paris by Veronica Henry was published in hardback on 13 April (Orion Fiction, £14.99)
Want to write a love story? Read this lovely piece by novelist Andrew Meehan on creating romantic realtionships in fiction.