It never fails. At some point in every conference, some writer will ask a variation of this question.
"Can I ::insert controversial plot device here::?"
Can I have a lesbian sex scene in a straight romance?
Can I let my shifters mate in animal form?
Can I cover fifty years in a 60,000 word story?
And so on.
Every time I hear one of these questions, there's a suspended moment in which I want so badly to answer the question with one of my own.
"I don't know. Can you?"
Because, really, it all comes back to you. Do you have the writing chops to pull it off? Do you understand the pitfalls of the plot device, and do you know how to write around it?
Of course, I never answer that way, though I do frequently answer with references to authors who could, who did, and who might show you the way if you pay attention to their tactics. I offer that knowing that the real answer has little to do with who already "got away with it," and everything to do with whether you understand the mechanics behind your own question and whether you have the writing skills to make it work. Luckily, both of those things are within your grasp.
To begin, we must understand why the plot device is controversial or forbidden. Let's start with an example, one of the oldest rules in romance: Never kill the pet.
The stories behind this rule have taken on an almost urban-legend flavor.
I heard about this one book where the cat died in a fire/car wreck/hail of bullets, and the author got hundreds of hate letters over it.
But the thing is, behind those legends, there's a real author (or authors) with a pack of letters complaining about the damned cat (as she's inevitably come to think of it) -- which isn't even a real cat, but an imaginary cat in a made-up fiction book about people who don't even exist. Should she be flattered that her books seem real enough that people are angry about the damned cat? Hard to feel flattered when everyone's yelling at her. One thing's for sure. She'll never write a book where the pet dies again!
And now you want to write a book where Hester Heroine has a most beloved little chihuahua with a complete wardrobe of tiny little sweaters and booties. And you need an event in chapter 9 that will break down Hester's snarky exterior and let her warm woman's heart shine through, preferably also providing an opportunity for Horatio Hero to wrap his arms around her. Aha! you think. I'll have the bad guys feed poisoned steak to the dog! The Hester can weep and Horatio can squeeze and, what the heck, it's not like the chihuahua has a real role in the plot, anyway. No great loss.
Why is this a bad idea? Why do romance writers adopt the rule to never kill the pet?
It's because of the hero. On some deep primal level, chicks dig guys who can keep us alive. In fact, it's one of the two sociobiological purposes of the human male (the other being to father children). Men are supposed to fight off predators and thereby keep us from becoming dead. Are you surprised by that? Do you tend to think that hunting meat is the true male job? That's really just an ancillary benefit to a much deeper and broader purpose, most of which doesn't come up very often in modern life. Most of our natural predators are well in hand these days.
But the purpose itself lives on, hardwired into the male body and psyche. This isn't a bad thing. In fact, it's part of why women love men. Underlying many popular romance stories will be the notion that the female has to make sure that the man is willing to protect her. This is why heroes are so often cops and SEALs and soldiers. She has to believe she can trust him, that her life and the lives of their future children are safe with him. And if his job is to fight bad guys, well, then, we can bet he's tapped right into that lovely primal dynamic.
Enter the pet.
The pet, in this context, is symbolic of both the weaker creature admitted to the home's center (like children) and the tamed male (the guard dog, you might say, whose potentially harmful instincts are being channeled for good).
In other words, killing a pet causes two problems way down deep in our lizard brains. Because on that level, killing a pet is no different from killing a baby. AND killing a pet is the symbolic equivalent of killing off the male's better nature, the part of him that uses his wildness and strength for the greater good.
On a much more immediate level, we just don't like to see cute little chihuahuas in perky sweaters and matching boots get killed off by the bad guys. Not even imaginary chihuahuas in made-up fiction books about people who don't even exist. That's true, but that's also not enough to explain the depth of outrage when someone actually does kill a pet in a romance novel.
OK. Now, after we've thought all the way through the deeper reasons behind the rule, the next step is to try to understand when or if it would be okay to kill the pet. I'm going to pose this as a question to Team Comments now. Working with the example of Horatio and Hester and the chihuahua, is there a way to write that so that the dog can be offed and the reader's lizard brain won't go into seizures? What details might you introduce to make it work? These are hard questions, but if you can get through this, you can probably figure out the problems of shifter sex, lesbian sex, and enormous time gaps with ease.