romantic novels Katie Fforde interview

The standard image of a fictional romantic heroine is of a beautiful, innocent virgin who, after many trials and tribulations, is finally rescued by the tall, dark, handsome and inevitably rich man of her dreams. 

That, at any rate, is how it used to be. Today’s romantic heroine, by contrast, could just as easily be a struggling single parent, or a divorced or widowed woman who falls for her local plumber or computer expert. He may be younger than she is and not particularly good looking. These days, he does not even have to be tall or the owner of a great estate.

But however up to date the story, however contemporary the plot, one thing will never change in romantic fiction, and that is, by the end of the story, the heroine and hero will have found true and lasting love with each other.

And as heroines nudge up to, and beyond, 50 years old, the Romantic Novelists’ Association also celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Its chairman, Katie Fforde, herself a hugely successful romantic novelist, explains how things have moved forward in the half-century of the Association’s history.

“Nowadays, the only thing that defines a romantic novel is that eventually, love, or romance, must be the most important part of the story. In the old days the heroine was inevitably weaker, younger and poorer than the hero, but now they can be completely equal. But even in contemporary romantic fiction, the man does still have to be able to rescue the heroine from a burning building, if need be, so he must have physical strength, be a real man if you like.

“But it’s never a case, these days, of a silly little girl being rescued by the superman hero. There’s none of this, ‘marry me, you little fool.’ The education of women has made a vast difference to the romantic novel, and our readers would no longer stand for that sort of story. Men and woman are now equally well educated and career-minded, although the traditional Cinderella situation can still apply with historical fiction.

“As writers of romantic fiction, above all we cater for that overwhelming desire for love, whatever the situations of our characters. And we must be doing something right because romance continues to be the most popular fiction genre of all time.”

Katie feels she has certainly redefined the concept of a romantic heroine in her own novels. “My women are ordinary, and they could live across the road. They all have careers and I put them in a completely modern setting. I write about women who are not perfect, and who make mistakes. There is always some big problem in their lives, something they have to overcome, and they are never drop-dead gorgeous. They are not even always thin!

“During the course of the novel, the heroine has to grow and develop, and achieve something by her own efforts.”  In one of Katie’s recent novels, for instance, the heroine was an interior designer. “I wanted to show that interior design wasn’t just poncing about with scatter cushions, so I have my heroine building and putting in her own staircase, all by herself and working to a tiny budget.”

Katie, herself approaching 60, says that so far, her heroines have not been in her own age group, but doesn’t rule it out for the future. “The thing about older heroines is that they will have baggage. They might have positive or negative experiences of marriage, they will probably have children, so the stepfather dilemma will present itself, and then there will be the problem of taking their clothes off to go to bed with a new man at that age, when they don’t have the slim, trim figures of their youth.

“Older heroines are women with more going on in their lives than the traditional 18-year old blank slate, and therefore, vastly more interesting. They have to be realistic, believable women who manage to sort out their difficulties. And yes, they will definitely find love.”  So far as taking clothes off, Katie says: “If they really loved each other, I don’t think they would care what they looked like naked, and in romantic fiction, we have to create characters who do care desperately about each other.

“Society has changed, people are younger for longer, there is no cut-off age for a heroine, and romantic fiction has adapted. Some novelists, for instance are now writing about people in care homes falling for each other – and it can still be a romantic story.”

Katie’s own path to fiction success did not come easily. “I was never the typical writing child,” she says. “It was my sister, Jane Gordon-Cumming, also a novelist, who was the writer in the family when we were growing up. I only started thinking about writing when my husband Des Fforde and myself were running a boat business, a kind of floating hotel, and I discovered Mills and Boon. I became totally addicted to them, read one every day and used to keep having to send Des out for more, as I finished them so quickly.

“We were having severe problems with our business and I loved the idea of the strong man taking away my troubles, especially when Des was at sea and I was at home being a single parent. I then thought: I must be able to write these stories myself, and so I started, thinking it would be easy.

“How wrong I was! For eight long years I tried to write romantic fiction and I sent my novels to Mills and Boon. They were very encouraging, very supportive, but nothing quite saw the light of day. I completely gave up with M and B when an editor said of one of my books that it ‘lacked sparkle’.

“I then had a stroke of luck. The editor who had been reading and commenting on my books left to become an agent, and she submitted a novel to Penguin. That was Living Dangerously, and they accepted it. Although that was tremendously exciting in itself, it didn’t end there. The book was picked up by W.H. Smith and marketed as a ‘fresh talent’. That was in 1995, and Marian Keyes, a phenomenally successful novelist, also came out of this fresh talent promotion. Not everybody has this same luck, but it got me going.” In 15 years, Katie has written 17 novels, all bestsellers. “I was 32 when I started writing,” she says, “and 42 when my first novel came out.”

Now, as Chairman of the RNA, she is encouraging other new or unpublished writers. “I was enormously helped by the RNA’s new writers’ scheme and they kept me going when otherwise I would have given up. As an unpublished, or pre-published, writer, you can join the RNA and for another £50, have your novel read by a successful novelist who will comment honestly on the manuscript. It takes two days to read a novel properly, so our members are working for £25 a day but they always feel they want to pay something back for the help they received themselves as struggling authors.

“At the RNA, we have contacts and friendly agents, and we can suggest suitable outlets if we feel that a novel has promise. We persist in reading,” says Katie, “because very often, a novel improves and picks up as it goes along.  A busy editor at a publishing house probably wouldn’t bother to do that. We also have amazing residential conferences and speakers, and the existence of the RNA has helped so many writers who otherwise would never have been published.”

And romantic fiction remains one of the few writing genres where women are pre-eminent. It’s easier to get published if you are female, as Emma Blair and Jessica Stirling, two successful and busy romantic writers, have discovered. They are both actually men. “Of our 700 members, possibly less than half a dozen are men, although numbers are creeping up slightly, and there is now a market for bloke lit which is also romantic.

“Romantic fiction must, of course, change and adapt with the times, but the genre itself will never die. The success of dating sites among all age groups has shown that what people want most of all in life, above anything else, is to find everlasting love with a fantastic partner.”


Katie Fforde’s new novel, A Perfect Proposal, is published in June 2010 by Century.

The Romantic Novelists’ Association is at: The website includes details of the New Writers’ Scheme.

The Lady magazine