Romancing Suspenseful Maine

Please welcome Maine writer Susan Vaughan to Maine Crime Writers today. Susan has generously agreed to be our guest and talk a bit about the wonderful world of romantic suspense.


By Susan Vaughan

I’d like to thank Kaitlyn Dunnett for inviting me. We go way back, to when she and Tess Gerritsen, with other writers, founded The Maine Chapter of the Romance Writers of America™. MERWA ( is still a vibrant group, with 39 members. At the time of its founding, Kaitlyn and Tess wrote romantic suspense for Harlequin, which also published some of my romantic suspense novels.

Kaitlyn’s and Tess’s moves to other genres don’t constitute a great leap from romantic suspense. Mystery/crime novels and romantic suspense novels have stories in which lives are in jeopardy and in which the reader expects the villain(s) to be caught and/or killed. Both require strong characters with to carry the plot. Beyond that, readers can find wide variations in both.

So if the two genres have danger and villains, how is romantic suspense different from mystery/crime fiction? Get ready for sweeping generalizations.

In a mystery/crime novel, the detective–whether law enforcement, a private investigator, or an amateur sleuth–investigates a crime, usually murder. The focus is on the puzzle–whodunit, whydunit, howdunit. There may be other murders/crimes along the way to the solution, and the sleuth may face danger toward the end. Romance may be a minor or secondary part of the plot.

Romantic suspense novels are typically about preventing rather than solving a crime. The hero’s and heroine’s lives are in danger, and often also the lives of others they care about. Romantic suspense is emotional–surprise and fear and anticipated danger. The romance and suspense plots are so intertwined that if either was removed, the story would fall apart. Writers create endless variations on the percentage of romance to suspense and on the level of sensuality (read, sex).

To further confuse the issue, a mystery/crime novel can contain suspense, and a romantic suspense novel can contain mystery.

In my first romantic suspense for Harlequin, Dangerous Attraction, the heroine wants her name cleared in the death of her husband. The DEA agent hero goes undercover as the P.I. she hires so he can investigate the husband’s drug connections. Attempts are made on the heroine’s life as the hero is drawn to her, and the villain’s identity isn’t revealed until the climax on a Maine ski slope. The book has both mystery and suspense, and the romance plays an equal part in the story.

Sometimes in romantic suspense, the reader and even the characters know the villain’s identity, in which case the thrill is in the chase. MERWA member Joyce Lamb’s RITA-nominated True Shot is one such book. In this case, the heroine is the secret agent and the hero an ordinary citizen, a journalist from her hometown, caught up in the fast-paced chase. Because the heroine is wounded, the hero must learn fast to protect her from the rogue agents who want to use her talents.

In my book Primal Obsession, the reader knows the villain is stalking the heroine but the characters do not. My heroine, an investigative reporter covering a serial killer dubbed The Hunter, embarks on a canoe and camping trip to keep a promise to her murdered friend. When the killer follows her into the Maine woods, she and the guide must use wilderness skills to defeat him. The story contains mystery and suspense, detection and the chase.

MERWA member Pam Champagne’s latest release, Missing in Action, combines romantic suspense and mystery with the paranormal. The heroine’s psychic ability leads her in a search for her father, a pilot missing in action during the Vietnam War. The hero, a private investigator and former CIA agent, could be leading her to her father or into a trap set by other agents deep in the Vietnam jungle.

All things eventually end. In a mystery/crime novel, the villain is identified and either captured or killed in the exciting climax. In a romantic suspense novel, the suspense plot is concluded in much the same way, and the romance plot finds the hero and heroine achieving their happy ending. In both genres, drama, elements of the unknown, and anticipation of the showdown with evil keep readers turning pages. I read–no, devour both and can’t wait to pick up the next.

Probably one by a Maine writer.

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20 Responses to Romancing Suspenseful Maine

  1. Deanna says:

    Thanks to Maine Crime Writers for introducing a new author and thanks to that author for all the new to me writers I’m putting on my ever lengthening t-b-r list. Dee

  2. Lea Wait says:

    Good to see you here, Susan! I’ve had the honor (and fun!) of speaking to both the Maine and New Hampshire RWA groups: both dedicated and very focused groups of writers seriously interested in improving their craft and their genre. As you point out, a lot of current “mystery writers” have crossed the genre line from romance …and some make the journey often. The traditional publishing world, in which lines between genres are rigidly drawn, is changinging .. but slowly. But genre crossing is something authors (sometimes with different names for different genres) have been doing for a long time.

    • Genre crossing, indeed, Lea. I’m dipping my toes in that water by writing a mystery. The basic plotting and characterization aren’t that much different, but I have to stop myself from veering off into romance.

  3. Great rundown of RS and mystery, Susan. I love both and especially love the variations different authors bring to each genre. Both RS and mystery have so much “wiggle room” in the way the stories are told that each is a wonderful surprise, like opening a gift, not knowing what to expect.

    Your Dangerous Attraction and Primal Obsession are on my keeper shelf. Looking forward to more. 🙂

  4. Diane Amos says:

    Susan, I’ve read all three of the books you mentioned. I held my breath until I reached the end of these books. Love ’em!


  5. Diane Amos says:

    Susan, loved all three books you mention in your article. Each one is a pulse-pounding read!


  6. Great read, Susan! I think a lot of people would be surprised to know they’re actually reading a “romance” when they’re reading Romantic Suspense. That amuses me when they still try to claim they don’t read Romace novels.

    Four of my five novels are Romantic Suspense – it’s a great genre. I love a good Mystery, but there’s just something about RS that really hits home.

  7. Diane, you know why I chose the other authors’ books; they’re faves of mine too.
    Sharon, great point. I know readers who think they don’t read romance although they’re reading RS.

  8. Brenna Ash says:

    Great post Susan! RS is one of my favorite genres to read. The fast pace is what keeps me reading and not wanting to put the book down.

  9. Great point, Brenna. Today’s readers appreciate a fast-paced story. Romance and danger, hard to put down. Thanks for the comment.

  10. Genre labels are often confusing and overlap, making it difficult for writers to figure out where in that proverbial bookstore their work belongs. Susan Vaughan’s thorough explanation helped to clarify the line between mystery/thriller and romantic suspense. My own novel, Legacy of the Highlands, was first a romance, then romantic suspense, suspense with romantic elements and, surprisingly, it even spent some time on Amazon’s bestselling thriller list. The key, as Vaughan points out, is whether the story could exist without the romance. If the answer is no, it’s romantic suspense.

  11. Hi Susan,

    One of my favorite type of books to read is romantic suspense. It always amazes me how different each book is, even when the suspense elements are the same. For me, it’s all about the characterization. If the author goes deep into their characters, I’m hooked on the story. 🙂

  12. Nina Pierce says:

    I think it was Sandra Brown who first lured me into the romantic suspense genre. I was totally hooked! I just love the whole mystery wrapping around a wonderful love story. I find most of the books I write lean that way. (And I have enjoyed the books of both you and Pam!)

  13. Excellent post, Susan! It’s interesting how the different genres intertwine and what makes the difference in the way a book is categorized. I know Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” series isn’t categorized as a romance, but I beg to differ. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing.

  14. Liz Flaherty says:

    Great post, and I must admit to not having known the difference–though I like one better than the other–maybe that should have been a clue.

  15. Harriet, thanks for pointing out the bookstore’s problem with where to shelve books that don’t easily fit a familiar category.
    Sheila, you make an excellent point about the characterization–for both genres.
    Nina, I too love Sandra Brown’s books. Thanks for the book plug, too.
    Liz, I’m so glad my post helped you grasp the difference.
    Thanks for commenting, everyone.

  16. Linda Style says:

    Hi Susan,
    Excellent blog post. Great explanation. Like Sheila, I think deep characterization is what makes a good story a great story. As a visual person, I sometimes use TV to show the illustrate the differences between mystery and suspense. I see mystery as “Columbo” type stories…it’s all about solving the crime…after the fact. Slow and methodical. I see suspense more like “24”…where it’s all about danger and stopping something terrible from happening in which one or thousands of lives might be lost…and there’s a ticking clock. A romantic suspense (with a comic tone) might be “Castle”…a fun representation in which a puzzle is solved while trying to stay alive…and trying “not” to fall in love….but they’re having difficulty with the “not” part. 😉

    As you say, there’s lots of crossover now and the genres are becoming more skewed, especially with the advent of self-publishing being so huge right now.

    Love your books, of course. 🙂


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