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Understanding the Genres

By way of introduction, the word “genre” just means category. All novels are divided into one category or another. If you pick up a cozy mystery, for example, you know what you’re going to get. Same with romantic comedy. If you know the genre, you know the “type/kind” of book you’re about to read.

If you’re a new writer, just setting off on your journey, you might want to consider creating a tagline for yourself that hints at the genres you plan to write in. For instance, my tagline: “Love, Laughter and Happily Ever Afters” lets people know that I write (mostly) light-hearted romantic comedies. Books with happy endings.

What genres are you drawn to? Spend some time studying that particular one and then write in the genre that most appeals to you.

Here are some of the most common fiction categories:


The term “historical fiction” most often refers to books that are set prior to 1950. My book Hurricane is a “true” historical, meaning it’s more historical than romance. When writing a historical, you have to pay particular attention to the little things— what items were called, the way buildings were built, transportation, phrases, dialect, etc. Sometimes the research for a historical is so much fun that you get caught up in it and almost forget to write. Here’s a great quote from best-selling historical author, Kathleen Y’Barbo: “The best historicals are those that can only be set in that time and told by those characters. If you can remove your characters and story from the current setting and time period, then your plot’s not ready. You need to refine it.”


A contemporary novel is one that takes place sometime in the last twenty to thirty years. The term “contemporary” often appears as an adjective. For example, you might see, Contemporary Romantic Comedy or Contemporary Women’s Fiction. In either case, you can expect the action to take place in modern-day times, certainly no further back than the ‘70s or ‘80s. My Weddings by Bella books are contemporaries.


Romances (both historical and contemporary) will always be popular with readers. They are always among the top sellers. I particularly enjoy writing in this genre. Maybe you’re interested in it too, but don’t know how far you want to go with it. Steamy or sweet? If you’ve been following my career for any length of time you know that I write for the inspirational market, so mine are tame. One of the blissful things about romance novels is that you’re not limited to contemporary or historical. Romances transcend time, so, write your historical romance. . .or write a contemporary. You’ll find publishers interested in both.

Here are some “standard” things true of all romances:

The hero and heroine each appear as POV (point of view) characters. There’s a “he said/she said” feel to the book, because it goes back and forth between the hero and the heroine.

The two love interests usually meet by chapter two and there’s a continual potential relationship blooming from that point on. Romantic tension between hero and heroine lasts from beginning till end, even if they don’t get along at first. And by the way, the more tension, the better.

The hero and heroine are usually the least likely match or pair.

If you’re writing for the inspirational market (as I do) there are no sexual encounters, even between married couples. (In the case of married couples, an inference to an off-stage love scene can be made, but it must be done tastefully.)

If you’re not writing for the inspirational market, check with the publisher you’re targeting to understand their various lines. (Yes, there are multiple sub-genres!)

You’ll want to write to the line. For instance, teen romance is completely different from the “blaze” (hot) line. Keep your reader in mind.

In a romance, there’s always a point where the reader thinks things couldn’t possibly work out.

The hero and heroine both have to be flawed, and yet (eventually) endearing— both to the reader and each other.


Women’s fiction is a popular genre. Most women’s fiction pieces address heartfelt issues women of today can relate to: Marriage, friendships, raising kids, working outside the home, depression, temptation, unforgiveness, release from childhood abuse, etc. These books are more poignant than, say, chick-lit. This is not to say that women’s fiction has to be serious. However, these novels do tend to run more on the thought-provoking side. I’ve only dabbled in this genre on one occasion, with my novel Fill These Empty Arms.


The movie Bridget Jones’s Diary ushered in the age of the chick lit novel. These stories are intended for women, and are usually light-hearted and a bit off-kilter at times. Most are written in first-person and are “chatty” in style, tone and voice. The primary character is usually in her late 20’s or early 30’s and still single. (Mom-Lit, a similar genre, would feature a middle-aged heroine). The major issues of a chick lit novel might not seem like real “issues” to some, but they’re important to the character: “Will I ever get married?” “Can I really find fulfillment in my career?” “Do these shoes match my purse?”

You can see why chick-lit would appeal to some and not others. The “voice” in chick- lit novels is usually lighthearted and quirky, and the story might contain “mental notes” that take the reader inside the head/thoughts of the heroine. Here’s a list of some of my favorite chick-lit/mom-lit authors: Kristin Billerbeck, Rachel Hauck and Robin Jones Gunn (author of the Sister Chicks books). My Weddings by Bella books are contemporary, as I mentioned above, but they are chick-lit in nature. They focus on a 20-something wedding planner from an eccentric Italian family.

Here’s a great quote about the genre from

Chick lit is a genre comprised of books that are mainly written by women for women. The books range from having main characters in their early 20’s to their late 60’s. There is usually a personal, light, and humorous tone to the books. Sometimes they are written in first-person narrative; other times they are written from multiple viewpoints. The plots usually consist of women experiencing usual life issues, such as love, marriage, dating, relationships, friendships, roommates, corporate environments, weight issues, addiction, and much more. So how does that differ from regular women’s fiction, you might be wondering? Well, it’s all in the tone. Chick lit is told in a more confiding, personal tone. It’s like having a best friend tell you about her life. Or watching various characters go through things that you have gone through yourself, or witnessed others going through. Humor is a strong point in chick lit, too.


The juvenile fiction genre is primarily for ages eight through twelve, (basically, second through sixth grade). Before you set out to write for kids, it’s important to know the issues they’re facing in today’s world. Then, if you do write for them, guard your vocabulary. This will give your age away quicker than almost anything. Write about issues that are important to today’s eight to twelve-year-olds, and be careful not to write about childhood like it was when you were a kid. Times, they are a’changin! To make sure you’ve got it right, have a youngster read your manuscript before sending it to an editor.


Fiction for teens would be called Y.A. (Young Adult) fiction. As mentioned in the section on juvenile fiction, it’s vital to know the real issues contemporary teens are facing. Write in a way that appeals to a modern teen, addressing issues they face in the real world: temptation, jealousy, love, school issues, friendship, authority issues, spiritual growth and so on.


Suspense/thrillers will always be popular. There’s something about an “edge of the seat” story that keeps folks turning pages. Perhaps it has something to do with the ever-tightening coil, the tight writing of the story, or the intensity of the characters. After all, the key to a well-written suspense is tension, tension, tension. The stakes get higher as the story moves forward. My first novel, Duty to Die, is a suspense thriller based on the premise that the so-called “right” to die could (very well) become the “duty” to die. I thoroughly enjoyed writing it, even though suspense writing is tough work!


Action/Adventure stories are much like thriller/suspense, but don’t always include suspense elements. Readers can appreciate a hero on a mission. So, take that hero to an exotic place. The jungle. A mountaintop. A major crime scene at the top of the Empire State Building. Throw in a few weapons, a fast-paced story, a huge amount of conflict, then continue to up the ante throughout. Voila! You’ve got an action/adventure story!


Crime novels and action/adventure novels are often lumped together. I won’t spend a lot of time differentiating between the two, except to say that crime novels are specifically about crime solving and usually involve detectives/police/attorneys, etc.


Cozies involve an off-stage crime that usually happens near the beginning of the story. By off-stage, I mean that the reader doesn’t see it. There’s no blood and gore. After all, this is a “cozy.” You don’t want to upset your reader—not really.

Cozies often have a “small town” feel about them, meaning the folks in the story usually know one another fairly well. These books often involve the least-likely type of sleuth—someone who is not qualified to solve a crime, but feels “called,” regardless. There are usually a host of suspects (four or more) and plenty of red herrings (false leads/rabbit trails) along the way.

Writing a cozy mystery is tough stuff. I enjoyed writing The Wedding Caper and Gone with the Groom, my first two cozies. Here’s a special note about writing cozies: Your suspects have to be logical to the plotline you’ve chosen, and you have to play fair with the ending of the story. No cheating the readers! And trust me, if they feel cheated, they won’t read your next story.


As the name implies, westerns are novels that take place in the “Old West,” and are usually set back in time with strong heroes and anti-heroes (good guy vs. bad guy/white hat vs. black hat).


This genre includes near-future fiction, and “what if” fiction. For example, “If this (imagine an unusual scenario) happened, how would the world respond? Would people live or die? Would planet earth—as we know it—go on?” Often in these novels, the writer projects into the future. Sci-fi actually traces its roots back to Mary Shelley’s book, Frankenstein. You can see that Shelley took a “what if” scenario and played it out—all the way out. “What if science could create a human being. . .what would happen—to the people, to the community, to the world?” Scary stuff, eh? In this classic sci-fi novel, she raises the question: “Is it possible that science might turn on us, becoming evil and oppressive?” The reader is called on to speculate, and, in doing so, to think outside the box. Sci-Fi is unique, both in approach and design, and it often sends a little shiver down the spine!


Ah, the allegory—the story buried within the story. I’ve loved these, ever since I read Franz Kafka’s book Metamorphosis in college. I’m always looking for the story inside the story. Many inspirational authors use allegorical elements in their mainstream novels, but a “true” allegory is a clear “story inside the story.” The best example would be John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the classic tale of a man on a journey (representing a person of faith walking toward heaven). You don’t have to stretch very far to find the story in a true allegory. Movies are often allegorical in nature, as well, (especially animated ones). A few examples of allegorical movies: Babe, the Gallant Pig, The Matrix, Monsters, Inc. and The Lion King. The next time you watch a children’s movie, look for the story inside the story. (I should add that selling an allegory is tough in today’s market.)


Fantasies traditionally rely on magic or other supernatural events to move the story forward. Here’s an interesting thing about this genre, too: fantasy novels often pull from other stories, merging myths, fables, and other well-known tales to create an out-of-this world type experience for the reader. It isn’t necessarily believable, but it’s still quite a ride.


Literary fiction is the antithesis of genre fiction. It is what many would call “high- brow fiction” in that the style, tone and vocabulary are usually a cut above, from a pure literary standpoint. These books contain beautiful flowing sentences, and breath- taking word choices. Many literary novels make the writer feel like a poetic thread has been woven throughout the story. Clearly, not everyone is called to write literary fiction. To put out words/paragraphs/scenes of such great beauty is truly an art. If you

find yourself drawn to the deeper things (richer word choices, etc.) ask someone to read your story to see if it might be literary in nature.

You’re a genre genius!

That’s it, folks! You’ve just been thoroughly introduced to the world of fiction genres. The list is growing, too. Who knows what the future holds for fiction writers!

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