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Elliot Fletcher on anxiety representation in romantic fiction

Elliot Fletcher on anxiety representation in romantic fiction

I can clearly recall my first panic attack, (I know, not the cutest place to begin an article on a romance novel, but bear with me). A sense of dread pulled me from sleep in the middle of the night. Confused, sweating and uncomfortable, I slipped quietly from the bed so as not to wake my partner who found me five minutes later on the bathroom floor, face clutched between my hands.

‘I think I’m dying,’ I manged to whisper to him between breaths, the only words I was capable of. Though by then, I knew what was happening due to a segment I’d seen on daytime tv one time. Thankfully, my level-headed husband quickly figured it out too and managed to calm me with the box breathing technique.

My first panic attack, but not the last. From then on, they hit me at the oddest times with no clear rhyme or reason, the feeling like being struck in the chest before the dread set in. Some lasted minutes, others far longer. The result was a state of constant anxiety. What if I had one in public without my partner to talk me through it? What if I passed out? What would people think?

Through all of that, I found a safe space here, between the strike of my laptop keys, mind lost in whatever imaginary world I was creating. So, when the time came to write my new romance novel Whisky Business, I knew from the offset I wanted to explore my own experiences with anxiety. As the bones of a first draft began to take form, my characters surprised even me when that mental health journey came not in the form of my plucky heroine, April, as I’d originally expected, but in the shy yet gruff Whisky Distiller, Malcolm, living a reclusive life on the Isle of Skye, with only his dog for company.

Mal’s undiagnosed anxiety effects many areas of his life, from the strained relationship with his family, to professional opportunities, and most importantly, the ability to forge the romantic connections he so desperately wants.

I often tell readers that Malcolm is the most important character I will ever write (this may change as my career progresses) because through him came not only a vessel to channel my own experiences but write a new kind of romantic hero. A diversion from the norm of brief cased lotharios, who’s confidence and sex appeal stacks higher than his dollar bills.

In romance novels of old, the untouchable hero performed one singular job; fall in love with the heroine on her journey to self-discovery and look hot doing it. And as I eat up these stories every time, they will always have their place in readers hearts.

But as we move into a new era of romance, I can’t help thinking readers are also looking for something new. A romantic connection built on the foundation of support both characters bring to the table. Not the billionaire love interest set to sweep the clumsy heroine off her feet, but a man who isn’t afraid to struggle, is honest with his emotions, open to discussing his mental health and putting in the work to come out the other side. I hope this is a sign we are one step closer to ending the stigma around mental health.

Whisky Business by Elliot Fletcher (published by Harper Collins) is out now

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