Under the covers

There’s more to steamy romance novels than bare-chested men rescuing voluptuous heroines (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). Read on for nine surprising lessons you can use in real life.

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Chocolate caramels. Macaroni and cheese, gooey with extra cheddar. And gloriously trashy romance novels, thick enough to keep me up late. These are a few of my favourite things. Between caring for my toddler son, working full time and keeping my friendships and marriage fired up, I figure I deserve a little junk food – mental and edible. And that’s where romance novels deliver, with satisfyingly formulaic plots, unintentionally hilarious dialogue and smutty scenes with buckskin-clad men. What’s not to like? Although they didn’t count toward my degree – and, er, might have pre-empted a class or two – romance novels have actually taught me a few things. I suspect the women who buy the 160 million Harlequin books sold annually might agree. After all, romance heroines are no whimpering ninnies. They’ve got plenty to share about building passionate relationships and sticking up for yourself. Skeptical? Just check out how these romance rules can help you at work, at play or in love:

Consider author Rosemary Rogers’ heroine Ginny Brandon in Sweet Savage Love (Mira). She fights a swarm of bandits with only a pistol, her heaving bosom and these menacing words: “If you do not untie those soldiers immediately, then you, señor bandit, will be a very dead man.” Although Ginny still gets carried off – no bad thing given the brooding good looks of her captor – her moxie prompts the remark, “Such courage, such spirit…what magnificent savage beauty!”

Take passion to the office It’s unlikely you’ll be fending off sexy kidnappers any time soon, other than in a saucy daydream. But while you’re fantasizing, why not consider applying Ginny’s spirit to your career? “No one’s going to knock on your door and say, ‘Here’s your dream job,'” says Barbara Quinn, Chatelaine’s Ask an expert career columnist and author of Snap, Crackle or Stop: Change Careers and Create Your Own Destiny (Perseus Books). “The foundation of a good romance novel is the happily-ever-after ending, and when we change jobs, we need that same passion.”

Make it happen Invest time to dream about the future you want. Imagine your ideal career: what does it look like? Are you alone or in a team? What did you really want to do when you were younger but were afraid to try? These kinds of questions will help you explore new directions, says Quinn.

Romance novels are teeming with hardened bachelors and ne’er-do-wells – all steely-eyed and strong-jawed, of course. But love inevitably reveals their tender side (as well as untold riches, a vindictive ex and the ability to speak six languages). In Morning Glory (Jove) by LaVyrle Spencer, ex-con Will Parker practically melts when he tucks in Elly Dinsmore’s kids for the first time (after responding to Elly’s ad seeking a husband, posted at the local sawmill). “To an orphan turned drifter, a drifter turned prisoner, a prisoner turned hired hand, a hired hand turned stand-in daddy, there was no way to express what the last five minutes had meant to him.”

Learn more about your man Could he be more than you give him credit for – like not being an ex-con, for starters? “We get lazy because we see our partners every day,” says Monica Mendez Leahy, author of 1,001 Questions to Ask Before You Get Married (McGraw-Hill). “If you started to ask questions, you’d find out things you never knew.”

Make it happen Next time you’re on a date, ask whether he imagines pursuing another type of work, or what his favourite time of day is. “But ask to hear an answer, not to judge him or tell him how he should think,” says Leahy. Too schmaltzy for you? Shake things up by going to a place you’ve never been or having a picnic in the living room.

Maggie Concannon, heroine of Born in Fire (Jove) by Nora Roberts, couldn’t have predicted her physical response to art dealer Rogan Sweeney: “She’d never believed, never, that hunger could swallow her up and leave her trembling. But she shook under his hands, under the wild demand of his mouth….”

Give your nightlife a boost If you’re like me, the only wild demands you’ve experienced lately have come from your boss or bank. So, why not read a steamy novel and get reacquainted with your sensual side? Chanelle Gallant, Chatelaine’s Ask an expert sex columnist and a psychotherapist based in Toronto, says, “A lot of us discovered sex through scenes in trashy Jackie Collins novels.” (Guilty as charged!) Such titillating novels are fine, she says. In fact, they may rev up your sex life.

Make it happen “Relaxation and awareness of our bodies are keys to freeing ourselves sexually,” says Gallant. Try this: slowly tense each body part for 10 seconds, then relax, starting with your toes, working up to your thighs, then upward to your face. Do this in bed a few minutes before your sweetie joins you!

That’s what matrons call Alys Weston, heroine of The Rake (Signet) by Mary Jo Putney. While they languish in drawing rooms sipping sherry, Alys runs away from a greedy fiancé and staggering inheritance (natch) and becomes female steward of Reggie Davenport’s estate. Thanks to her efficient estate management, sheep-inspecting skills and habit of wearing men’s clothing – revealing that she’s “splendidly curved in all the right places” – she wins the devilishly handsome Reggie as a husband.

Get noticed at work Originality is always an asset, especially when the guy who appreciates it has “an intensely masculine swagger that reminded [Alys] of a stallion.” But you might be surprised how it can help at work, too. (No, you don’t have to start inspecting sheep – just stop thinking like one.) “Innovative companies need unconventional thinkers,” says Quinn. “But women find it harder to assert themselves – we get more emotional.”

Make it happen Can’t get your one-of-a-kind proposals heard? Quinn suggests sending an e-mail to your boss or asking for a one-on-one meeting. No need to be strident, she says. Just say, “I have a different idea.”

Ah, unspoken love – fodder for countless romance novels and Three’s Company episodes. Sweet Savage Love’s Ginny, for instance, doesn’t own up to her feelings for Steve Morgan, her captor-turned-husband, until he’s whipped, branded and left for dead. “Why couldn’t she have admitted it to herself before? She had loved him from the very first time he had kissed her so ruthlessly….”

Open up to him OK, so Ginny and Steve’s situation is a little extreme. Still, holding your feelings back can take a toll on your relationships. It builds romantic suspense but also stress, says Leahy. “Most people let great opportunities to be open go by.”

Make it happen Longtime couples may hold back from complimenting each other for fear of sarcastic comebacks, says Leahy. Stop the cycle by rewarding compliments with a simple thank you and praising and touching your partner more often, too. “Never underestimate the power of touch,” says Leahy.

And ravish him in return. There probably isn’t a woman alive who hasn’t longed to shake her ponytail free and offer herself to a muscle-bound public health officer…or, um, maybe that’s just me. And romance novels tap into that fantasy. Consider Rogan Sweeney’s thoughts in Born in Fire: “She tasted dark, dangerous…His mind veered toward taking, toward conquering, toward ravishing…His imagination had drawn erotic and vivid pictures of throwing her to the floor and tearing away flannel and denim.”

Give up control Make this fantasy a reality without losing your self-respect (or your favourite jeans). “Now and then, all of us enjoy not being in control sexually,” says Gallant. “One of the most common male fantasies is being ravished.” Why not take turns?

Make it happen If you’re shy, try sharing the gist of your fantasy with your partner without being too literal, says Gallant. You don’t have to say that you have a secretary fantasy, for instance – just wear some glasses and an unbuttoned white shirt. Suss out and fulfil his fantasies, too, perhaps by repeating things he says while making love.

Ginny dances with abandon and fights like a soldier in Sweet Savage Love – everything a senator’s daughter in the 1800s shouldn’t do. But she makes her mark on people, as her husband, Steve, muses: “The little green-eyed hellcat…even when she wasn’t conscious of it, she was a seductress – teasing, tempting… fighting, screaming her hate and contempt, and then turning into a hungry tigress.”

Get mad! If someone lets you down, acknowledge your anger and move on, like Ginny. “That’s what men do well and women need to learn,” says Quinn. You may want to tame the hungry feline act a bit if you’re getting into regular cat fights, though (especially if mud is involved).

Make it happen Next time you’re afraid to express your concerns, consider Quinn’s mantra: “I want to be loved and respected, but if I have to choose, I’ll take respect.”

Sure, these novels are escapist. But when you’re drowning in bills, it’s nice to imagine someone picking them up or treating you to hours of pleasurable distraction. When Nicholas Stafford, the 16th-century Earl of Thornwyck, lands in the arms of Dougless Montgomery in Jude Deveraux’s A Knight in Shining Armor (Pocket Books), he insists on buying her a new wardrobe (though with a name like Dougless Montgomery, who cares what you’re wearing?).

Ask for it Both men and women want to be taken care of, but because women often take on more of the household chores, they particularly crave recognition and appreciation, says Leahy. Why not ask for a foot rub and promise one in return?

Make it happen Strategize about what you really want and what you think your partner won’t mind doing, says Leahy. What strengths of his – cooking, negotiating lower payments, oral sex – could make your day a little easier? Then ask nicely and be specific – and grateful!

Yes, romance novels are overripe with purple prose, such as when Alys and Reggie finally get it on in The Rake: “Flame and sweetness, gift and demand, they joined with a searing emotional resonance that spiralled them up to new heights and depths and widths of loving.” So maybe hooking up after watching The Apprentice won’t reach these dizzying heights, but it’s a start. And as this romance reader can attest, believing in that kind of lusty love may be the first step to actually getting it.