If there's one thing a reader can count on in a Harlequin romance, it's that the heroine will find true love, right?
Well, in Harlequin Enterprises' new imprint, Red Dress Ink, there are no heroes with carved pectorals and flowing locks, no Greek shipping tycoons, no knights in shining armor. And definitely no ride-off-into-the-sunset endings.
Instead, in Red Dress Ink books such as Sarah Mlynowski's "Milkrun," due out in December, there are two-timing boyfriends, safe sex and handcuffs, flashers and dud dates who sing along at Broadway musicals. And rather than rhapsodies of earthshaking lovemaking, the passion can end all too anticlimactically.
"That's it? That's what I've been pining for? That's why I cooked him dinner?" the 24-year-old heroine, Jackie Norris, laments while her new boyfriend snores after an abrupt finish to their much-anticipated hookup. "What about my hours of passion?"
This is Harlequin's new line of, um, romances. Designed to appeal to a new generation of 18-to 34-year-old readers as their original audience matures, the stories are inspired by tales like the British bestseller "Bridget Jones's Diary" or the more recent "Good in Bed" and HBO's hit series "Sex and the City." And they're so different from the traditional Harlequin format, the Toronto-based publisher isn't even sure what to call them.
"We're torn between 'modern-day romance' or 'women's fiction,"' said Laura Morris, the project manager for Red Dress Ink. In Britain, the single-girl-in-the-city genre exemplified by "Bridget Jones" has become known as "chick lit."
The biggest difference from Harlequin heroines: In Red Dress Ink books, there may be a happy ending, but it doesn't necessarily involve a man.
"The heroines are not candy-coated," Morris said. "There's swearing and sex and a lot of drinking. They're not always the most lovable characters in the world, but they do redeem themselves. And they usually do it without the help of a guy."
The idea, Morris said, is to reflect reality, although there is still some debate about how gritty or pioneering that reality should be. A once-floated suggestion of same-sex romances remains just an idea. "We have to investigate that pretty closely," she said.
For now, pushing the envelope for Harlequin means characters who have sex without a commitment, or women whose ultimate goal isn't marriage.
Red Dress Ink will debut in November with "See Jane Date," by Melissa Senate, about the crazy love life of a 28-year-old assistant editor, followed by "Milkrun" in December. February 2002's offering, "Dating Without Novocaine," by Lisa Cach, explores the 30-something horror of the biological clock. The heroine is a 30-year-old who is beginning to feel pressure to settle down after a decade of wild dating. And she does find love where she least expects it (in a dentist's chair), but on her own terms.
In "Milkrun," the 24-year-old heroine, Jackie, is, as she would say, so not thinking of settling down. She just wants to find a guy who knows that bringing roses is better than tulips, doesn't have back acne and remembers to call once in a while.
"Biological clock?" Jackie says. "I don't even own a watch."
For "Milkrun" author Mlynowski, the challenge to reflect a 20-something's reality in her writing wasn't the hard part. Like the heroine, she's 24, works for a romance publisher (Harlequin), has a belly-button ring, thinks knee-high boots are the perfect antidote to a bad breakup and boasts a green belt in taekwondo.
The challenge, rather, was trying to convince people--especially boyfriends--that the book is not purely autobiographical. "Jackie is a character. She is not me," she said. "But I admit that a lot of the scenes in the book are embellishments or distortions of experiences my friends and I have had."
But while working in marketing at Harlequin Silhouettes, Mlynowski was struck by the contrast between the heroines' rapturous love affairs and her actual life--an irony she works into the book.
After Jackie's boyfriend tells her he's going to Thailand to find himself, she compares her plight with the ideal romantic sagas she's immersed in at work.
"They've all found their soul mates. Where is my everlasting love? Where is my Prince Charming? Where is my incredibly handsome, brilliant, stoic, romantic hero? ... Thailand."
Mlynowski conceded she made her boyfriend wait until they had been going out for three months before she let him read the manuscript. "The book is like a blueprint to my mind," she said. "If you read it, you know all my tricks."
That is, tricks like "the fake grab," a halfhearted attempt to split the check on the first date, or counting the condoms left in your boyfriend's box, making sure the number corresponds to the times he's been with you .
For readers who find Red Dress Ink a bit too much, Toronto-based Harlequin has 12 other lines, ranging from traditional romance to racier fantasy, formats where love blooms against the backdrop of mystery, history or even Christian values. But Harlequin's sales dropped in the last quarter of 2000 by 3%, to $142 million, and they looked to conquer other niches.
"We never really nailed down the 18-to-34 market," Morris said. "Or if we had, those readers have grown along with us. We're a 50-year-old company, and this is breaking new ground for us."
While some trade publishers also put out "chick lit" romances, no other romance publishers have developed imprints targeting this market, according to the Romance Writers of America. Harlequin's Red Dress Ink is the only imprint focused on "20-something single girls in search of Mr. Right Now, not Mr. Right," said Charis Calhoon, a spokeswoman for the Houston-based group. Fourteen percent of romance readers are between 25 and 35, she estimated.
Harlequin aims to establish Red Dress Ink as a stand-alone brand--like its heroines, to be independent, untraditional--and fun.
Mlynowski, who did not use a pen name like many of the Harlequin writers, is already working on her second novel for the imprint. Titled "Fishbowl," it's a tale of three roommates who know way too much about one another's private lives. And she has a contract to write at least one more--after hours. Her retail marketing duties at Harlequin include selling her books, but not writing them.