Thursday, November 26, 2009

Suddenly, They're Everywhere

When I was in fifth grade, I had a crush on my teacher, Mr. D.  (No, I'm not trying to protect his identity -- I can't remember his name.  I think it started with a D . . .)  This was, of course, an early production at my personal Magical Thinking Romance Theater.  You know that hallowed auditorium where all the longings, fantasies and what-ifs come to life, often in frequently rotation (matinees on Wednesdays and Saturdays!).  With maturity, of course, we cancel our Magical Thinking Romance Theater productions and start dealing with our romantic yearnings with a more realistic approach.

  -- Incidentally, I saw a Magical Thinking Romance Theater t-shirt once.  It read
Before he wines and dines you
Before he falls madly in love with you
Before he marries you
Before you have his children
Before you grow old together
He actually has to call you.

Anyway, back to fifth grade.  Mr. D. had a yellow Corvair with a black roof.  I knew this because it is a pretty basic production value of Magical Thinking Romance Theater to know what color car the hero drives.  And it seemed so exotic in 1966, such an exotic color scheme.  But then suddenly, I was seeing them everywhere.

That's a not-unfamiliar phenomenon -- you never notice some specific thing, and then suddenly, they're everywhere.

Well, here's the equivalent phenomenon in romance novels.  If you're reading all of a specific author -- in my case, Lynn Kerstan, whom I love -- you may notice something that is in every book.  It could be an expression that a character in each book uses, or a description of the geography that recurs.  Or, in the case of Ms. Kerstan, it is a gesture that every heroine makes.  In every single one of Ms. Kerstan's short-form Regencies (for Signet, I believe), there comes a point of high drama in the dealings between the hero and heroine when she will grab her skirt in both fists.  And the gesture is always described the same exact way.  And once you see the trend, you can't help looking for it to recur in every single book.  It becomes a bit like spotting Waldo!

You know how that could happen.  For the author, it's an almost-Pavlovian response:  Protagonists having tense discussion?  Heroine grabs skirt in both fists . . . . NOW.  I would imagine it's hard to spot for the author, who may be the last person to read her own works in order, one right after the other.  On the contrary, she reads them with a year or so between each book -- and may never re-read them after publication.

The moral is not that authors should re-read their books to look for the Yellow Corvair phenomenon.  No, I think the answer is more simple:  Any reader devouring an author's backlist in quick succession assumes the risk of seeing the Yellow Corvair in that author's work.  It's the downside of reading one author too fast, a bit like getting brain freeze when eating ice cream.


  1. Yet another excellent post.

    I often notice the Yellow Corvair phenomenon if I read a few books by the same author back-to-back. Certain authors use particular phrases in similar situations, or have recurring themes in their stories. It's one of the reasons why I try to space books in a series, even if I'm really enjoying them.

  2. Supposedly there's an entire study to this -- which is how they could identify Joe Klein as the author of Primary Colors -- an anonymous "novel" based on the Clinton presidential campaign in 1992. Someone plugged key phrases from the book into a computer and came up with Klein's columns as the best match. And the computer was right.

    I think this isn't really a problem until the repetitions are either too obvious or too lazy. Not like any authors I actually know, but theoretically possible!

  3. Yup. Stephanie Laurens' heroines' nipples always "ruch" or become "ruched" at least once, LOL.

  4. @Nicola -- Yes, I have to admit that would make me laugh every time I saw a reference to ruched nipples! And, frankly, I'll laugh every time I see a reference to ruching elsewhere, like my (currently on-hold) applique project, which has ruched ("nippled"?) flowers in the bouquets!


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