Monday, September 28, 2020

How Much Scary do You Like in a Story?

Romance novels typically have a heat level rating that may be named differently depending on which author, reader, or blogger you're talking to, but essentially mean the same thing. There's sweet (sweet kisses only, no sex on the page) and steamy (open door sex scenes). And a few others that are in-between and some that go beyond that.(These are the kind I stay away from.)

If we have such a rating for heat levels on books, why haven't we any rating on scary stuff? The only website I know that uses such ratings is My Book Cave, where authors who add their books to their site are required to list by rating how much violence and/or gore is portrayed. (Of course, there may be more, but I'm not aware of them.) As a reader, I appreciate knowing the level of "scary" that I should expect when I settle in to read a novel. For instance, I know that I can't read a Harry Potter or even a Love Inspired Suspense book at night or else I'll dream about them. But I can read a romantic story with a lower level of suspense at night and be just fine.

The other part of this equation is that fictional stories need to have some kind of outer conflict, along with the main character's inner struggle, in order to move the action along. And for romantic stories, the outer conflict needs to involve more than just a misunderstanding between the couple that could be fixed in chapter five if they just talked things out. So, in an effort to present an interesting love story while keeping the content sweet or clean, most romance authors incorporate suspenseful elements. Again, the level of suspense may vary from author to author, or even from book to book.


About a year ago, I wrote An Agent for Meg, as part of the Pinkerton Matchmaker series, which I based off of the real-life experience of female investigative reporter Nellie Bly. Reading about the time she spent in an insane asylum on Blackwell's Island just about broke my heart. What a brave woman. Her job was to pretend to be mentally ill so she could be thrown into the asylum. There, she was able to expose the horrendous conditions under which the residents were living. Poorly prepared, moldy food, having to put on wet clothing right after taking a cold bath, and not being allowed to speak to each other--well, you can probably see where these horrible rules led. Of course the residents would be deemed insane after being subjected to such atrocities! I have no doubt that I would, too.

As a fiction writer, it's difficult to describe such demoralizing conditions without bogging down the reader emotionally, so I chose to keep that aspect on the lighter side while adding a sinister matron who wanted another woman's husband for herself, so she connived with him and the director at the asylum to declare this woman insane and lock her inside. She eventually planned this woman's demise, and might have gotten away with it had not Pinkerton agents Carl and Meg Porter found the woman just in time. To make this book even more suspenseful, I also decided to add a subtle yet effective snippet from Edgar Allan Poe's poem, "The Raven." He, of course, is known as the king of horror in his day.

I, myself, have never been in an asylum before, but I have a vivid memory from my childhood of going on a school field trip to the county jail. (Why we went there, I have no clue. Why would any teacher choose that particular place as a positive learning experience?) Anyway, I remember walking past a cell and having the prisoner--a female--stick her hand out, and in my 8-year-old mind I imagined that she was calling out for someone to get her out of there. It was a scary experience.

As one reader said in a review, "[An Agent for Meg] has some anxious moments, and some very anxious moments". (Love that!) Another reviewer said, "That tree branch scraping on the window still has me on edge." So suffice it to say that this particular Pinkerton Matchmaker story is a little more intense than some of the others, including most of mine. But there are lighter moments, too, one of which gives a nod to another Meg in literature--from Little Women. And since Meg appeared in an earlier story (An Agent for Hallie) as a spoiled young lady, I had fun humbling her a bit. She and Carl had a few earlier run-ins that made their interactions in this story enjoyable to write. Yet he was very tender to her as he realized all the struggles she had gone through with her family and was going through in the difficult circumstances in which they'd been placed. If you haven't read this story yet, I hope you will give it a try, especially since Halloween is coming up and it's time to put your spook on!

Here is where you can find An Agent for Meg:

Or, click on the cover to go to the product page.


  1. Julia, I loved learning about Nellie Bly, too. So many women were sent to an asylum by family members who wanted then out of the way. Your book sounds intriguing and I'll be buying it ASAP. Best wishes for many sales.

  2. You have brought up some good points about rating stories in addition to their "heat level." Telling readers how "scary or gory" they are would help add to their description for sure. I even have trouble with qualifying my recent fictional book, Yesteryear's Destiny, into which genre. Being a time travel, it's science fiction, but it's also a western and historical. Think I'll head over to Amazon and pick up a copy of An Agent for Meg! Good Luck with your sales.


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