Christmas in July: Elements of a Great Holiday Romance Novel

Updates–Writing Progress & DEADlines

A couple blog posts back I wrote about how well I was doing during July’s Camp NaNoWriMo. I think I was even so cocky as to say something like, “July is hot, but my word count is hotter.” Well, folks, that productivity ship sailed shortly after those words, and I ended up writing not much more than what I had already typed.

And, as I watched the remaining days of July tick by, I did not care. “So what?” I asked myself. Just another Camp NaNoWriMo I’ve lost—no biggie. November NaNoWriMo is really the most important NaNo event, I told myself. Basically, I let myself off the hook as quickly as I was just praising myself for being such a prolific writer.

The problem is that I’ve now cost myself several weeks of progress that I really needed in order to meet my self-imposed deadlines in September. I should have utilized July more to my advantage, but it’s over and there’s no use crying about it now.

Onward and upward.

Christmas in “July”

Christmas in July is a real mood. (Edit: Yes, I know we’re technically into August now—it’s been a busy week, and I’m posting this a little later than expected. My apologies!) Anybody else feel that way? There have to be a few people at least. After all, the Hallmark Movie Channel runs a special during the month of July for those of us who like to get our Christmas movie fix started a little early (okay, a lot early) in the year. Christmastime is the most wonderful time of the year, and why not store that feeling in a movie or…a book…which you can pick up to recreate that special holiday magic at any time of year.

As I’m wont to do when in the midst of a current work-in-progress (or two), I’ve been contemplating new book ideas left and right. One of those ideas is for a Christmas romance novel. Problem is, I’ve never actually written a Christmas romance novel before. Why do I always feel the need to challenge myself in these new ways?!

As, I can’t seem to get the idea out of my head, for now, I thought it would be best to let my mind wander in that direction. I’ve had success with letting my brain roll with a new idea for a short time, so that I can temporarily satisfy that urge to start a new project before finishing my current project. Thus, I did some pondering on what makes a holiday romance novel a great holiday romance novel. More specifically, what makes a great Christmas novel?

First of all, have I read any good holiday romance novels that have really stuck with me? What do the critics and experts say makes for a fantastic Christmas romance?

I’m going to be entirely honest here. I reflected on my stockpile of have-read romance novels, and there’s actually not many holiday romance novels there. Why this is, I’m not entirely sure. I’m often very busy around the holidays which does mean that my time spent reading novels around that time is limited. I know that I read The Gift by Nora Roberts in the past, but I don’t recall much about it—it’s been so long ago.

If I can’t even remember the Christmas novels I’ve read, then it’s unlikely they held the magic that I’m looking to put into my own novel. (No offense to Nora Roberts—her expertise goes without saying, and she has written many novels which I dearly enjoyed.) I suppose, then, that I’m not going to be able to rely on my own experience with Christmas romance novels to point me in the right direction for writing my own.

I thought maybe I would have more success with searching for expert advice for writing a Christmas romance novel. Turns out, there’s a dearth of expert advice on the subject.

Now, Christmas romance novels do generally follow the same schema of the typical romance novel. Your typical romance novel will have two main characters who will form the main couple. Early on in the story, they will have a “meet cute” (when the protagonists meet—often for the first time and under cutesy, funny, or otherwise interesting circumstances—essentially establishing the beginnings of the relationship to follow). There will be some type of over-arching conflict, which is reinforced by the main characters’ own conflicting interests, goals, or flaws. Ultimately, the couple will overcome those barriers to their love, and we readers will get that fabulous happy ending always promised us by romance novels. To learn more about how to write a winning romance novel, I recommend reading Romancing the Beat: Story Structure for Romance Novels by Gwen Hayes.

At their heart, Christmas romance novels are essentially these core elements contained in every romance novel. But…there has to be a reason Debbie Macomber, Robyn Carr, and Jill Shalvis are so successful with, not just their everyday, any-time-of-the-year romance novels, but also with their Christmas romances. So here’s my very inexpert, totally subjective take on what, I think, makes Christmas romance novels so great:

Holiday Spirit

People genuinely love Christmas, so romance writers already have a leg up on creating a certain pervasive holiday spirit in their Christmas novels. Take advantage of our propensity to already feel lighter, happier, and more giving during Christmastime, and expound on that by making your characters demonstrate those same feelings in varied ways.

Your character may be gleefully ticking off their shopping list comprised of their dearest family and friends. Or maybe they’re traveling to a far-away city to see their sister and young niece, with whom they’re very close but are only able to see once a year. Even if your main character is a self-proclaimed Christmas curmudgeon (Scrooges are okay in my book), do yourself a favor and make those secondary characters around them irritatingly wrapped-up in Christmas. (No, I’m not going to apologize for fitting two puns into that last sentence!)

Winter Wonderland

If you’ve mastered that lovely, intrinsic feeling of holiday spirit for your readers, kick it up a notch by setting the scene.

I recently watched a Christmas romance movie that was set in San Francisco, and I definitely felt like I was missing out on something the entire time. SNOW! I was missing out on the snow!! I love San Francisco as much as the next person; I’ve even been there in December. I’d gladly eat In-N-Out any month of the year. For me, though, no snow does not a Christmas make.

So don’t be afraid to let loose a downy fluff of white upon your freshly-scented evergreens. Heck, why not make it a major plot point while you’re at it? Strand those lovely main characters in a cozy winter resort or an abandoned log cabin. Use the falling snow as a beautiful symbol of your characters’ second chance at love. Get creative!

Love a Little Warmer

Holidays, especially Christmas, are all about the time we spend with our loved ones—be that nuclear family, extended family, friends (the family we choose ourselves!), significant others, furry loved ones, or even our communities. You have my permission to cheese it up. Bring out the best, most loving and thoughtful natures of your characters. Even that rude cousin may share her own sweet moment with your main character.

It should be difficult to maintain grudges during Christmastime—this is a damn romance novel, after all, NOT a revenge thriller. Do you remember when you were 10 years old and fighting with your best friend at school? Then you went on a field trip, and you were so excited and happy in that shiny new environment and all your animosity toward one another was forgotten? That’s essentially how Christmas works for adults. Okay so maybe that’s not always the case in reality, but, I say again, THIS IS A DAMN ROMANCE NOVEL.

Because it’s Christmas and this is a (damn) romance novel, your characters—especially your main characters—will be forced to view their actions through that lens. A lens which happens to have a rather rose-colored hue at this time of year. Most importantly perhaps, your main characters’ hearts will be a little more open and receptive to one another.

What Else? Christmas Else.

What other elements separate a Christmas romance novel from non-Christmas romance novels and also separate the great Christmas novels from those that are just okay? All of the Christmas elements. The more the merrier. Literally. Santa, hot cocoa, eggnog, trimming the tree, caroling, presents, mistletoe, etc. These are the things that make Christmas so special, and you can bet that your readers will be looking for a healthy smattering of these elements throughout. Go wild, romance writers!

If you like to read or write romance novels that are set at Christmastime, what elements do you like to see in those novels? Are you one of those people who starts their Christmas plans in July, or are you ‘so over’ the hype and feel like Christmas should be confined to December only? Drop me a comment—I’d love to hear from you!


Music inspiring my writing this week: I’m continuing the trend of alternative listening while writing this week. Instead of songs, I’ve been enjoying old episodes of Mur Lafferty’s “I Should be Writing” Podcast. Mur has a calming voice, inspirational outlook, and lots of encouraging wisdom to give. If you’ve never given ISBW a listen, you should do it now! No, I’m not listening to Christmas music…yet.


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