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Tragedy in Romance

This is a view of Halifax in 1917, looking North toward where the Macdonald Bridge is today. The tall building in the background by the Narrows is the Acadia Sugar Refinery, then the tallest building in the Maritimes.

I’m only on Chapter 3 in Shattered, and I’m already dreading the inevitable: Someone has got to die. But how many, and who?

My characters live in St. Joseph’s Parish in Halifax’s North End, right in the middle of Richmond, the area hardest hit by the Explosion. St. Joseph’s lost 400 parishioners that day, roughly half its membership, not to mention the church itself. It wasn’t rebuilt for forty years. Not only would it be unrealistic to have every one of my characters miraculously survive, I’d feel somehow disrespectful to all the real folks who didn’t.

But who to kill? Not my hero or heroine. That isn’t the kind of book I want to write. Nolan, Liam’s older brother, with his black Irish good looks and deep love for his family? Nolan’s a harbour pilot, so he would have been out on the water that morning, right in the path of danger. His wife, Annie, with her easy smile? Their children, Drew and Emily? There were plenty of children lost, one only six days old. Then there’s Alice’s family, the O’Neills. What about Georgie, with her zest for life, or Carl, her troubled brother? He would be an easy choice, but why go with the easy choice?

You see my dilemma. One of the main reasons I read romance is the HEA, but the background of this story is all tragedy. That can make for some powerful, wrenching scenes, but it has to be balanced with a measure of hope at the end. No Cold Mountain for me! I know I’ll cry when I do the awful deed. I can only hope I do it well enough to make readers cry, too.

How do you feel about tragedy in romance?


  1. Michelle Helliwell
    July 24, 2010 at 7:50 pm

    I think you are right – to have a "miraculous" survival of all your characters would not be the tinest bit realistic, nor honour the history of the place. I am also with you – I am more a "Much Ado about Nothing" girl than a "Romeo and Juliet". I think of Harry Potter – there were, in my view the deaths of some incredibly important characters (including one of my favorites, who I won't name here), and yet it does have a satisfying, even happy ending. There is your challenge. It lends even more weight to Nora Robert's saying about "Kill your darlings."

  2. Julia Smith
    July 24, 2010 at 8:45 pm

    I'm the wrong person to ask about tragedy in romance. I'm a Romeo and Juliet person, a Wuthering Heights person. I love it when the hero reaches his breaking point and cries – but then gathers himself up again for a hard-fought HEA. 'Australia' is a good one. Crying Hugh Jackman but they end up together at the end.

  3. Ann Stewart
    July 25, 2010 at 12:16 pm

    That last scene from “Australia’ takes my breath away.

    Jennie, some of my favorite authors routinely kill off a main character. Of course they’re not writing romance, but the looming death always makes me wonder just how things are going to work out. You have an opportunity here to create a black moment that takes the reader to the brink—to really lose all hope, and then bring them back for a killer HEA.

    If anyone can pull it off, you can. You, the person who killed off a poor baby cow’s mother, yet still found a way for the mother to help the baby survive. (Albeit, A way I’d never heard of, but it’s stick in my mind forever :-))

  4. Jennie Marsland
    July 25, 2010 at 12:56 pm

    Hi, Michelle, you're right – the challenge is balance. I want to write stories that leave people feeling uplifted, not devastated. And honoring the history is important to me.

    Julia, I know how much you love the darkness, lol! I just hope I can pull this off.

    Ann, thank you for your faith. As always, these characters are leading me down sidepaths that could result in more books. Maybe a grandson of Trey's, who inherited his Acadian ancestors' yen for the ocean, could come to Nova Scotia in search of his roots. What a tangled web we weave.

  5. Janet
    July 27, 2010 at 11:20 am

    Tough decisions, Jennie – but, as you said, ones you have to make. And taking away one (or more) of the characters a reader has come to care for will give your book authenticity – all of the people who died that day were cared for by someone!

    This sounds a little more than a romance – you may wish to market it as historical with romantic elements?

    Can't wait to read it 🙂

  6. Jennie Marsland
    July 27, 2010 at 11:34 am

    Hi, Janet. I'm not sure yet what the balance will be between romance and history. The catch is, the Explosion was a moment in time, so I need plenty of other incidents to carry the plot along, many of which will involve the romantic plotline. So, it may end up as a romance with a historical background, with the Explosion as the black moment. As usual, I'm flying by the seat of my pants, so we'll see what comes out.