For many of us, the holiday season is a time of extremes. Extreme joy. Extreme stress. Extreme cold. Extreme stress. Extreme food. Extreme stress.
For romance readers, it’s a time of extreme reading, and many love to escape the stress of the holidays by immersing themselves in someone else’s family and love life.
My first Christmas novella, Mine Under The Mistletoe, came out on December 5. It’s also part of a contemporary romance anthology, All I’m Asking For, published by Carina Press. I’ve learned a heck of a lot about writing a holiday novella, and I also asked my fellow anthology authors Christi Barth and Brighton Walsh for their tips, as well as the three authors in Carina Press’s small-town holiday anthology For My Own: Alison Packard, Shari Mikels and Kinley Cade.
Here are our top tips for writing shiny, bright holiday romances.
1. Choose a super-romantic setting.
It doesn’t have to be one that your characters think is romantic…at least, not at first. It could be a place they’re desperate to escape. But they—and your readers—should feel the magic by the time you wrap up your story.
In my novella, the hero, Ollie, is a Londoner who can’t stand the thought of being in Blighty for Christmas. He wants to go somewhere warm, sunny, beachy, so he can forget it’s the holiday season at all. For him, London is a dreary place full of tragic memories.
My heroine, however, is a San Diegan who’s always wanted to have a traditional Christmas with crunchy snow, and cute sweaters and mittens. She sees the city’s beauty, and I hope that will rub off on my readers.
2. Dig into your personal experiences for inspiration.
Christi Barth, author of Tinsel My Heart, has this advice: “Have you ever checked out how many books there are about how to ‘do’ Christmas? More traditions—big and small, regional and personal—exist than most people are aware of. So pull from your personal experience. I did it in Tinsel My Heart, by revolving the story around a Christmas show I performed in for years.
“Why make it personal? Because that’s always how to connect to readers. Making it personal will make your words more passionate, and readers will feel the difference.”
3. Explore new holiday traditions.
Most people love fish-out-of-water stories, and many people have real-life experience of spending the holidays with someone else’s family, a family with different (okay, let’s say it: bizarre) traditions. How can you use that uncomfortable I-don’t-belong-here feeling to crank up your characters’ emotions?
My novella is partly inspired by the Christmases I’ve spent with my husband’s family in England. They’ve taught me about so many new things (like patience ;)). Did you know that it’s traditional for Brits to go to a pantomime during the holiday season? If you’re not familiar with pantos, they’re raucous plays based on classic fairy tales but with grown-up jokes, cross-dressing celebrity actors, and sometimes very impressive special effects. They’re so much fun and so crazy that I set a pivotal scene in Mine Under The Mistletoe at a panto.
4. Use something holiday-related to force your characters together.
Although I grew up in San Diego, I’ve spent most of my adulthood living in places where winter must’ve been specially designed by the devil himself. It has a perverse way of destroying the best-laid holiday plans, whether by grounding planes or bringing entire transport systems to a standstill.
For example, in Brighton Walsh’s Season of Second Chances, being stranded in a snowstorm offers a couple a second chance at a future together. They used to be engaged and they broke up years ago. Nothing could get them to spend time with each other again—except a force of nature.
But snow, ice and (in the UK, at least,) leaves on train tracks are not the only things that can force your characters to spend time with each other. In Britain, the trains don’t operate on Christmas and Boxing Day. If you visit family and you don’t have a car, you’re stuck for at least two days. Learned that lesson the hard way, let me tell you.
5. Incorporate holiday items into your story.
Be careful with this one because it’s easily overdone (though Christi Barth disagrees: “I pile them on with gleeful abandon,” she says). I tried to include a few Christmassy things, like hot chocolate stirred with a candy cane, into my story as a special treat for my heroine. When my hero realizes that Ashley loves this simple-yet-luxurious treat, he makes her a mug of it to show he’s paying attention to her.
Referencing things we usually only see at the holidays can evoke strong feelings in readers, from comforting familiarity to longing.
6. Use holiday imagery in your descriptions.
Find more ways to sneak in references to the holiday season. “Her cheeks turned peppermint pink.” “He smelled of cinnamon and cloves.” This helps build the special atmosphere that surrounds the holidays.
7. Evoke well-known holiday stories.
There are certain stories that are almost universal. Even if someone hasn’t seen a film like Miracle on 34th Street, he or she likely knows the gist of the story. Putting your own twist on the story can give people a wonderful sense of familiarity while also surprising them.
My heroine Ashley is an English teacher, and she grew up reading A Christmas Carol with her mom. It made her want to experience a real English Christmas, and I mined that classic tale for references I hoped everyone could understand. I even have a ghost of Christmas past!
8. Make your characters’ emotions a little bigger than they would be at other times.
Like I said earlier, the holiday season seems to be a time of extremes. If people are grieving, their grief will probably feel all the more acute when everyone around them is filled with holiday spirit.
Be careful not to leap overboard into melodrama, though. Keep your characters’ emotions organic and natural to their personal story.
9. Take beloved tropes and turn them into beloved holiday stories.
Not quite sure what a trope is? They tend to be the backbone of many stories. Here’s advice from Shari Mikels, author of Christmas Curveball: “Best friend’s little sister. Friends to lovers. Second chance—or the one who got away. What’s your favorite trope and how can you turn it into something magical at the holidays?”
In A Christmas for Carrie, for example, Alison Packard uses the beloved trope of former high school friends running into each other after several years apart. Carrie was Nick’s math tutor and had a huge crush on him, but he only had eyes for the most popular girl in school. Now, fourteen years later, Nick bumps into Carrie while home to spend Christmas with his family and is stunned to find she’s morphed into a drop-dead gorgeous woman. It’s a reunion story coupled with an ugly duckling, and—most importantly—at all happens because Christmas brings them together.
10. Write when you’re in the holiday spirit.
‘Tis the season to write your holiday romances for next year. Right now you’ll be noticing little details about the collision between life, love and family at the holidays, and all of those details will enrich your stories.
So what are you waiting for? Get writing!
Kat Latham writes sexy contemporary romance set all around the world. She’s a California girl who moved to Europe the day after graduating from UCLA, ditching her tank tops for raincoats. She spent several years teaching English in Prague followed by several more working for a humanitarian organization in London. She now lives with her British husband and baby girl in a small town in the rural Netherlands surrounded by miles and miles of green pasture, canals and Shetland ponies. Kat’s slowly adjusting to life in a place where bicycles and cows seem to outnumber people.
With degrees in English lit and human rights, she loves stories that reflect the humor and emotion of real life. Kat’s other career involves writing and editing for charities, and she’s had the privilege of traveling to Kenya, Ethiopia and India to write about the heroic people helping their communities survive disasters.
Thanks to a transatlantic house swap, California girl Ashley Turner is finally going to fulfill her lifelong dream of a proper English Christmas. Her holiday plans did not include a sexy stranger climbing into her borrowed bed in the middle of the night. But in the light of day, Ashley can’t help but wonder if Santa has delivered early…
Game designer Oliver Stansfeld can’t wait to leave dreary London—and all its difficult holiday memories—for sunny San Diego. But a freak ice storm and a grounded plane have forced him back to his already-occupied flat. To make up for the mix-up, the least he can do is show his pretty houseguest where to get the perfect Christmas tree before he leaves.
The more time they spend together, the more their attraction grows, and soon Ashley is tempting Oliver to give in to the spirit of the season and snuggle up for the rest of the winter. As the ice melts and flights start taking off again, he must choose between giving in to the past or risking his heart on a chance at love.
Buy ‘Mine Under the Mistletoe’ here.