This month’s Fantasy Focus is on the romantic fantasy, a subgenre that seamlessly combines magic, wonder, and romance. Today I’m happy to have Emmaline Strange, author of Crown of Aster, talk about her journey into writing romantic fantasy.
My journey toward fantasy romance was a weird one. It began, like many weird journeys have of late, in the dark days of 2020. Without going into the whole thing, because we all know how that year went, let’s just say it was rough.
I was home, out of work, scared in that vague “is the world going to end or am I just going to get used to it” sort of way, and scared in the much more acute way that came from several family members being hospitalized, and me suddenly in charge of everyone’s finances. Trust, anyone with me in charge of their finances—also terrified.
With not a lot to fill my days except a crushing sense of dread, a friend in a similar position suggested we make a writing challenge for ourselves. Both of us had advanced degrees in creative writing, and had spent a while doing precisely bupkiss with them. So we came up with a list of prompts, and pushed each other to write at least one thousand words per day, and fill one of the prompts.
When I first began to write Crown of Aster—then known as The Aster Queen’s Court—I’d envisioned a set of loosely interconnected erotic shorts, each with a dreamy, faerie-tale like quality, with different couplings (or throuplings or…group…lings) in each segment. However, the first short I began with a guileless young human man stumbling upon the drunken bacchanal that passed for the fae court, I became hopelessly, irretrievably, ensnared.
Just like my character Nathaniel when he set eyes his faun prince. These two characters came together and gripped me in a way that I truthfully had never felt. The words flew, and soon the focus shifted from the Aster Queen to her son, Adair, and his love for a sweet and innocent human he encountered in his forest. Exploring their love story let writing become again a place of joy for me, one of the only ones in a very dreary time.
As the story began to take shape, and Adair and Nathaniel’s love story at its heart, I began to wonder what this final piece would really look like. So, I tried to guide these two boys into something resembling a plot. I Saved the Cat! , I Romanced the Beat, and found myself stuck.
I had about seventy thousand words of love, of sex, and yes, of magic. Seventy thousand words of two people coming from vastly different worlds and finding each other—and now that they had each other they wouldn’t let go. Based on my knowledge of the romance genre (very limited, at that time), I knew I had to give them some kind of Dark Night of the Soul ™, but Adair and Nathaniel really and truly would not budge from each other’s side.
I tried dozens of ways to break them up, and every attempt, every argument, every scene, every misunderstanding fell horribly flat. None of it felt believable—not for them. A few times I tried to make them discuss the challenges facing their relationship and they ended up taking each other’s clothes off and doing other things instead.
I truly don’t know how that kept happening!
So, I went back to the proverbial drawing board. What else could go wrong? What could test their love, put their relationship under serious, gut-wrenching strain and allow their Happy Ever After to feel earned, in the end.
I also went back to my roots. Like many of us, I cut my teeth on fanfiction. A lot of queer love stories took shape in the fan fiction world with some truly gorgeous prose (don’t hate). I don’t want to speak for others of course, but in my own exploration, I’ve found a lot of fantastic stories told that way because those beloved characters weren’t allowed that HEA in canon (See TV tropes “bury your gays,” for examples). They were killed off, broken up, vilified, or the actors baited us with their natural chemistry and the creators fanned the flames without actually committing to getting them together, only to slam dunk one of the lovers right into super hell right after his big confession in the show’s final season (Yes, Supernatural, I’m looking at you).
So a lot of heartsick fans took to online communities to write and read the stories these characters never got, for one reason or another. The stories had a lot of the “Plot” action of the original canon, but opened windows we did not originally get a chance to peer into. That really resonated with me, and when I started branching out and reading more original romance by queer authors, I found that they didn’t always follow the genre rules. In fact, more often than not, they didn’t follow the rules at all.
That’s when things really began to click with me. There was a whole scary world in that fae forest full of tragedies that would test them, full of other characters with their own agendas, magic and danger and grief and loss. A whole entire fantasy plot sprung up around this simple tale of two lovers from different walks of life, and how they bridged that gap to save their shared world.
If my characters didn’t want to follow the rules, why should I force them to? I didn’t want to follow the rules either! I’d sought some advice from more experienced authors, who said I needed to pick romance, or pick fantasy. Crown of Aster had too much romance for fantasy fans, and too much fantasy for romance fans.
Honestly before becoming so stuck like that, I’d literally never heard of the genre Fantasy Romance (or romantic fantasy) before.
There’s a lot of reasons I could go into for why self-publishing made sense for me, but I think that’s one of the biggest ones.
Like Adair when he found a sweet, neurotic human wandering through his forest and thought “Huh. That’s a whole-ass husband!” I simply did not want to let go, to surrender, I didn’t want to go with the bland expectations of the genre (or, what I understood at the time to be expectations of the genre. I have learned a lot since then. And by that I mean, found some amazing authors telling some truly beautiful and unique love stories).
In the end, I was truly just as stubborn as the characters I had been cursing for months. I kept all the sex, all the mushy gushy stuff, and the sweet kisses on forest hilltops. But I kept the sorceress nursing a four-hundred-year grudge, the undead shade, and the grizzly injuries too. Trying to wrangle characters can sometimes feel like herding cats, and I think sometimes, it takes a stubborn cat to get that job done.
Stumbling into this strange little niche genre was how I found my way back to writing. It’s how I found my way into the indie author community, how I re discovered my love of reading—I devoured over one hundred books in 2021, compared with less than five in each recent year leading up to it.
Where I hadn’t created work in years, I suddenly found myself with more ideas than I knew what to do with.
So, Adair, Nathaniel and I got there in the end, finding our own way through fantasy, through romance, to an HEA that worked for all of us.
Check out Crown of Aster, available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08W8MH38Y
About the author:
Emmaline Strange is the author of Crown of Aster, A Walrus & A Gentleman, and the upcoming Mighty Quill. She loves to write and read about smooching. She lives in Boston with her husband, dog, and cat, all of whom she loves to smooch. When not smooching, she can usually be found doting on her plants, baking, or watching far too much television. Ms. Strange is a lover of all things nerdy, from Dungeons & Dragons to Lord of the Rings, to the MCU. She enjoys iced coffee, long walks on the beach, complaining about her feet after long walks on the beach, and long sits on the couch to recover from long walks on the beach. For updates on upcoming projects, come say hello on Twitter (@EmmalineStrange) where she’s always talking about writin’, readin’, and… well, not so much ‘rithmetic.
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