Behind the scenes of a romantic comedy - how I wrote Growing Pains
I had to wait until my daughter was nearly thirteen to gain enough distance to write about being a new mother. Why? Well, that's an interesting question ...
Romantic comedies are supposed to be two things: romantic and, erm, funny. Now, comedy isn't always romantic, and in my experience, romance is rarely humorous! Not in real life, at least. But thankfully, rom coms are pure escapism, so the die is cast for me to write stories that stretch the realms of reality and push at the edges of experience.
When I sat down to plan the third novel in my Stella Hill series of romantic comedies, I had one question in my mind: how would Stella take to motherhood in her soon-to-be-forties? And how would that impact her relationships - with her new husband, with her adult daughter, and with her wider family and friends? Oh, and what could a rom com have to say about motherhood in general, and about older motherhood specifically?
OK, that's three questions, not one. But in essence they all ask the same thing: can a book about parenting be romantic and funny and a-little-bit-serious all at the same time?
Drawing On Your Own Experience
I had my first (and only) child a few days before my 38th birthday; Stella gives birth at the age of 39. It's the second time around for her, so perhaps she's not as terrified as I was - she thinks she knows it all, has done it all before. But of course, motherhood in your late thirties takes its toll, not only on your body but also on your sense of identity, your mental health, your anxiety levels, and your relationships.
It was the last of these areas I wanted to focus on in Growing Pains, effectively using Stella's quest to find a 'friendship group' where she felt accepted and understood as a lens through which to explore the various ways that her life was starting to fall apart. And as an 'older mother' myself, I had plenty of experience to draw upon.
From mum-and-tots groups through play dates and the inevitable school-gate cliques, making friends as a new mum was not easy for me. I'd always been a loner - or at least, I'd always preferred one-to-one friendships rather than groups. Groups terrified me, with their strange rules and politics and gossiping and power structures. I still think that a friendship dynamic of more than two is a strange and mystical thing.
So there I had a head start in giving Stella all these terribly complicated and fraught situations to navigate, and I'll admit it - I had fun with that part! I had fun with a lot of the writing of Growing Pains, especially the scenes where Stella messes up, trips up (sometimes literally) and generally dashes headlong into calamity. That's her nature, and one of her most endearing characteristics. The comedy grew quite naturally out of Stella's own personality and behaviour; the romance elements took a little more work.
Romancing The Series
As Growing Pains is book three in this series, most of the essential elements of a romantic comedy - or romance novels in general - had already been done, twice! The plot devices of cute ways for a couple to meet, while keeping them necessarily apart or at loggerheads in some way, and building to a satisfying resolution - the happy ending - just wouldn't work here. So I had to go out on a limb and be creative. Stella and Paul get married at the start of the book; their future happiness secured (in romantic novel code, at least). This is a 'what happens after the end' situation, and there aren't many examples of this being done well. In fact, there aren't many romantic comedy series at all, at least not ones that follow the same couple through various ups and downs in their relationship.
What I decided to do was keep Stella and Paul apart emotionally, through their different reactions to various situations, so that the distance between them grew quite naturally until the gulf threatened to be permanent. I did this by giving Paul his own viewpoint chapters, a technique I used in the first book in the series, Can't Live Without. This allows anticipation to build in the reader, who knows more than either character and can see disaster about to strike.
But where was the romance? Well, there was still space for a few touching scenes along the way, a lot of sexual tension and of course a happy ending! It wouldn't be a romance without a happy ending.
And Baby Makes Three
The final piece of the puzzle was finding a way to show Stella's all-consuming love for her new son, while at the same time exploring how becoming a mother had taken her very essence to pieces. And for this, I had to tap into my memories again.
When my daughter was a baby, I earned extra money writing the 'Diary of a New Mom' blog for a website called Activity Village. Now that enough time had passed for me to view my own fairly difficult experiences with equanimity, I worried that my memory would also have faded. So I dug out the old files on my laptop and revisited those early days. It was amazing, the details that came back to me: I'd recorded the minutiae of babyhood in graphic detail. It was these details that helped make Stella a believable new mother, but I think it went further than that. I feel, now that Growing Pains is finished, that it was my own difficulties navigating the world of older-motherhood that infused Stella's journey with genuine emotion. And that's why I'm glad I waited thirteen years to write about this topic. If I'd done it any sooner, I might have wanted to shy away from the subject, to dilute it in easy jokes and light banter.
Is there a rule that romantic comedies can't be a little bit dark as well as funny? Well, if there is, I think I just broke it. And I enjoyed every minute.
If you'd like to find out more about Growing Pains and the Stella Hill series you can check it out here: https://smarturl.it/growpains