Whenever groups of romance authors in the UK get together and the conversation turns to favourite writers from the past, a name that almost invariably comes up is that of Mary Stewart – particularly if the writers concerned are penning romantic suspense. Her books – contemporary in the immediate post war period - are still loved and enjoyed today. Her first lines are legendary and are still quoted in seminars and workshops for aspiring writers. Her titles, many lifted from myths, or Shakespeare, including The Moonspinners, Airs Above the Ground, Wildfire at Midnight, This Rough Magic and Touch Not the Cat, are evocative of the magic world she managed to create. Often there is a supernatural tinge to the story that puts them alongside the paranormal romance of the present day.
Frequently set in what would then have been exotic locations in mainland Europe and particularly in Greece and her islands, they must have provided a window onto a very different world in the grey days of the late 1940s and 50s. Her heroines were modern and independent and possibly rather daring in the standards of the time.
But – when you read the novels now they are definitely period pieces. Often they contain lengthy and elegiac descriptions of places and scenery that these days would end on the cutting room floor, but which contribute vastly to the atmosphere of the story.
Contemporary novels are expected to move at a much faster pace. I presume this is dictated by the pace of the ‘real world’. But have we lost something along the way? How often have you opened a book that starts with a frantic action scene that leaves you confused? And possibly, quite cold towards the protagonists? You’ve had no time to make an emotional connection to these people, so why should you care about them?
Where do we go from here? Can the pace of novels get faster? Is flash fiction the way forward - literature, sound-bite size? Or could a more leisurely style of writing ever make a comeback?