When I first started reading romance, there was no such concept as sports romance. By the time I decided to start writing my own novel, authors such as Rachel Gibson had begun taking readers into fictional locker rooms to discover what sexy places they can be (if you plug your nose).
Playing It Close, the second book in my London Legends series about the world’s hottest rugby team, came out last month, so I asked a couple of my favorite sports romance authors and my amazing editor to join me in sharing tips to help you hit your sports romance out of the ball park.
1. What sport do I want to write about?
The right sport is probably the sport you love the most. Alison Packard, author of one of my favorite sports series—Feeling the Heat, about a San Francisco baseball team—says, “What was really helpful for me is that I have a genuine love of sports. I grew up going to football and baseball games with my dad, and he instilled in me a great appreciation for both of those sports, as well as a few others. Not to say that non-sports lovers can’t write a compelling story, but it makes it a lot easier when you’re writing about something you enjoy.”
But you might also make the decision based on something more practical than love, like marketability or because it suits the story you want to write. Some authors know very little about their sport until they have a story idea that won’t go away, so they research it the same way they would if they wrote about firefighters, fighter pilots or any other career that they’ve never had.
I chose to write about rugby players both because I love the sport and because I’d never heard of any rugby romance novels. (I now know of two series other than mine.) I figured that rugby romance is a niche of a niche, and that could either work for or against me. When I was querying agents and publishers with the first book in my London Legends series, lots of people told me I should change my hero from a British rugby player to an American football player. (The main reason was “American women will be your biggest audience, and they don’t know anything about rugby.”)
If your readership is mostly American, then choosing a sport like football means you’ll have an immediate audience of fans who already know that they love romance novels that feature that sport. Choosing a sport like rugby immediately narrows your audience. But the readers who love your books can become your most passionate supporters because they’ll feel like they’ve discovered something new—not just you, but the sport you write about.
In my experience, readers are crying out for new and unusual books. During my recent blog tour with five other Carina Press sports authors, we asked readers on different blogs what sports they would love to read about. Hockey seemed to be the biggest answer, but there was also a lot of diversity—from curling to tennis to cricket. Be realistic, though. A cricket romance is unlikely to make you loads of money, unless maybe you have a fantastic marketing plan that targets India, the UK and the Caribbean.
2. How well do readers know my sport?
Anyone know what a try is? Would you understand what I mean if I say that my hero kicked the ball into touch?
I’m sure some of you will be familiar with those rugby terms, but many more of you are probably scratching your heads. You have to be careful about helping your reader understand the world your professional sports stars live in without jarring them from the story and making them feel like they’re reading an encyclopedia entry. You also don’t want to patronize your readers who are fans of that sport.
Kate Willoughby, author of the In the Zone hockey series, says, “If you don’t know something, find out. Fans of the sport will read your book and they will find errors. Too many and you risk losing the fan reader. On the flipside, keep in mind that not everyone is a fan of your sport. Take the time to explain terms, traditions, rules of the game, etc. so everyone can enjoy your book to the fullest.”
One way I dealt with this in my debut novel, Knowing the Score, is by making my heroine an American who knows nothing about rugby. This not only gives the hero excuses to share his love and knowledge of the sport with the heroine—increasing their bond and their opportunities for body contact—but it also gives the reader a chance to learn more about the sport in ways that don’t feel like they’re reading a how-to book.
Another thing I do for my readers is include a glossary at the front of my books (this was my brilliant editor’s idea and one that many readers comment on positively—thanks, Deb!). I’m also in the process of creating an illustrated guide to rugby on my website for readers who want to find out more about the world’s sexiest sport.
3. Who can help me get details right?
I’m very lucky. My husband’s cousin is the doctor for a professional rugby team in Ireland. He’s been amazing about answering my questions about all of the details that I would otherwise have to scour the internet—or read dozens of autobiographies—to glean. From professional rugby players’ travel schedules to their diets to their training…there are hundreds of details that could trip you up.
For example, when I was writing my debut novel, I had a scene where my hero went out for a run to help clear his head. Fortunately, I emailed my cousin-in-law and asked him, “What kinds of things do rugby players do outside of formal training sessions to keep fit?” and he answered, “Nothing! They get all the fitness training they need in [the team he works for] and any additional unsupervised outside training is prohibited.”
It never occurred to me that players would be prohibited from training on their own—especially considering how many sports romance heroes go out running or do other exercise away from their teams—but it makes perfect sense when you’re talking about a career where the balance between peak fitness and debilitating injury is so fine.
If you don’t have a contact within the sport, make one. Call the public relations department of your local team. If you can’t do that, read a ton of autobiographies. Watch videos—either short ones on YouTube or longer “behind-the-scenes” videos made by teams or individual players. But nothing beats making personal contacts.
Why is it important to get these details right? Deb Nemeth, my amazing editor at Carina Press, explains: “A main character in a sports romance should be more than someone who plays sport as a day job. We need to believe that this character is a professional athlete, 24/7. The physicality, diet, attitudes, are all affected by their chosen profession. Readers want to see their training regimen, get into their headspace as they’re competing, feel their goals and struggles, experience the anticipation and nail-biting anxiety and excitement as they play their key game(s)/match(es). Show us what it is they love about the sport. Get the details and lingo right. Show us how it feels as the hero/heroine throws that perfect pitch or scores that game-winning goal.”
4. How can the sporting conflict affect the romantic conflict?
Deb Nemeth says, “In my favorite sports romances, the fact of the main character being a pro athlete will affect the romantic conflict, preferably in ways beyond the generic celebrity issues (fame/lack of privacy, easily available sexual partners) that crop up in any rock star/film star/famous hero romance.”
So what are some of those ways that a sporting career could affect a romantic relationship? When I was brainstorming for Playing It Close, I read a lot of the back cover copy for the books in this Listopia list of sports romances. It gave me a good idea of what romantic conflicts a lot of authors have used (bad-boy athlete butting heads with a public relations professional seems to be a very popular one). But I also discovered stories that weren’t being told, including stories about athletes and their sponsors. That helped me decide that my team captain would have a one-night stand with a woman who turns out to work for his team’s new sponsor. They both have to work closely together while trying to overcome the consequences of their one-night stand.
Think of the special challenges professional athletes face. Their careers are short, and they can become even shorter if the athlete is injured, burned out or simply not performing as well as in the past. They can be dropped by sponsors. In some sports, they work constantly and destroy their bodies without getting paid much (remember: not all athletes are paid like those in the NFL). When they fail, their humiliation is public. Now, how can these challenges affect their love life?
5. How many sports scenes should I include?
This is a tricky balance to get right, and I often depend on my editor to help me here. So let’s ask her what she likes. Deb says, “I love sports action scenes, provided they aren’t repetitive. Too few such scenes and the author risks disappointing sports fans by relegating the sports aspect to the background. Too many and the romance or story pacing will suffer, so it’s important to strike the right balance.”
Kate Willoughby agrees. “I’ve enjoyed sports romances that have minimal sport scenes, but my personal preference is to include scenes in the locker room, before/during/after a game, with coaches, trainers and teammates, etc. That’s what I like to read, so that’s what I write.”
Whatever you do, make sure the sports scenes build the plot and the characterization. Don’t think, “Well, this is a sports romance, so I need to add a game here.” Action scenes should always be germane to the story.
I hope that’s helpful in getting you started. Now it’s your turn—batter up!
Kat Latham is a California girl who moved to Europe the day after graduating from UCLA, ditching her tank tops for raincoats. She taught English in Prague and worked as an editor in London before she and her British husband moved to the Netherlands. Kat’s other career involves writing and editing for charities, and she’s traveled to Kenya, Ethiopia and India to meet heroic people helping their communities survive disasters. Find out more on her website (katlatham.com), Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads or Amazon.
Where do you go to escape everything when you’re one of the most famous rugby players in the world? For Liam Callaghan, that place is a remote lodge on Venezuela’s Caribbean coast. Perfect, except he doesn’t exactly want to be alone with his thoughts. Enter Tess Chambers, the ultimate distraction.
Still reeling from a professional disaster that’s made her all but unemployable, Tess understands the desire to move through life as somebody else. So when instantly recognizable Liam uses a fake name, she runs with it and creates a temporary new identity of her own.
Their time spent together in paradise is idyllic but brief—after one passionate night, Liam wakes up to find Tess gone. Returning to London, he’s shocked to learn she’s taken a job with his team’s new sponsor. As the Legends’ captain, he’ll have to not only figure out how to work with the one woman who ever left him wanting more, but also convince her that their feelings in the present mean more than any lies they’ve told in the past.