The protagonists in K.L. Walther’s 2021 romance novel The Summer of Broken Rules have two hard stops: Wit doesn’t want to be called “kid,” and Meredith doesn’t want to be called “baby.” If you’re a Swiftie, these traits jump off the page. Specifically, they call to mind the narration of the Folklore deep cut “Illicit Affairs,” where Taylor Swift sings, “Don’t call me ‘kid,’ don’t call me ‘baby’/Look at this idiotic fool that you made me/You taught me a secret language I can’t speak with anyone else.”
It’s a remarkable coincidence: Folklore hadn’t yet been released when Walther wrote The Summer of Broken Rules, so she couldn’t have known about the parallels that would eventually form between the album and her book. But similarities between the novel and other parts of Swift’s catalog were intentional. Wit, for example, was created in the image of the man Walther envisioned while listening to “Hey Stephen” from Fearless. The novel, which follows an intense game of “Assassin” at Martha’s Vineyard during a wedding weekend, also nods subtly to “Bad Blood” and has a self-proclaimed Swiftie for a bride. The reader doesn’t need to be well-versed in all things Swift to enjoy the story, but there’s a kind of secret language there for the ones who are.
Hiding Easter eggs in character names, dialogue, and story arcs tends to come easily to authors who are also Swifties. Their grasp on storytelling allows them to do in 100,000 words what Swift does in a song, often with her own layered hidden messages. “I think she really gives full stories in those five minutes,” Walther says. “But I do love to find gaps in earlier songs where I can think to myself, ‘OK, even if this is just a writing exercise, expand upon what’s going on here.’” Within the worlds of Swift’s songs, these authors find and build parallels to their own. Like hers, their stories build around romantic highs and lows, but also around unsettled grief, coming-of-age experiences, and occasionally spine-chilling thrillers.
“My writing always starts out with a Spotify playlist. And it’s not intentional, but Taylor Swift always has a lot of real estate in my playlists,” Walther explains. On songs like “Blank Space” and “Anti-Hero,” Swift creates characters that are a version of herself, but make use of the exaggerated emotions and narratives around her public life — and speculation about her private one. On others, like “Last Great American Dynasty” (about millionaire socialite Rebekah Harkness) and “No Body, No Crime” (about a fictional murder wrapped up in infidelity), she creates new worlds from scratch. Swift’s songs often drop listeners into the middle of a story, building suspense through character development and plot twists before she enacts a grand reveal. “It’s pretty amazing what her storytelling can do,” Walther adds. “When I listen to her, it’s for pleasure — but I’m also studying and taking mental notes about how she does that.”
Like many young-adult and adult-contemporary romance novels, Swift’s music sometimes relies on classic tropes. The plot of “Wildest Dreams” centers around a secret romance, while “You Belong With Me” is a classic case of a girl-next-door’s unrequited love. Enemies-to-lovers emerges on “Cowboy Like Me,” and “Delicate” finds a coldhearted cynic warming up to love. Swift even mapped out a love triangle across three songs on Folklore.
The New York Times bestselling author Emily Henry uses romance tropes to untangle the lives of her characters, too. There’s friends-to-lovers in People We Meet on Vacation, small-town romance in Book Lovers, and close proximity in Beach Read. The tropes build a foundation broad enough to maintain a sense of universality, but the hyperspecific details within these stories keep them from feeling too formulaic. It’s the same strategy Swift uses to create a diaristic sense of proximity while leaving enough space within her lyrics for listeners to fill in the gaps with their own experiences.
“The details feel really significant, the emotion feels really intense, and there’s so much pining and nostalgia and achiness in [Swift’s] lyrics,” Henry explains. “In readers, in fiction, we’re seeing this huge resurgence of an appreciation for earnestness and ardor after what felt like forever of irony.” Henry points to the overflow of details on Swift’s haunting “All Too Well” as a perfect example: “You might not have had a red scarf, but you maybe lent a favorite book or album to someone or left a sweatshirt over at their house. It’s like everybody knows that feeling of giving a piece of yourself, or something really important, to another person. That feeling of wanting it back but also wanting it to haunt them a little bit.”
That push and pull is the most realistic part of any of these characters. Their decision-making, at times, is so antithetical to their happy ending that each page turn produces more frustration than the last. But that sense of not being able to stop a good thing from devolving into chaos and self-sabotage is a universal truth, even if it makes the protagonist unlikable at times. In her fictional and autobiographical creations, Swift has walked this line. “She is the main character, so she’s both imperfect and extremely worthy of love. She’s sometimes very selfish, but also very self-aware. She is the romantic, but she’s also the cynic. She’s the archer, and she’s the prey,” Henry explains. “I think the thing that calls to so many of us from her as a ‘character’ is the idea that she is all of those things and all of us.”
Swift’s work makes for great source material because each of her 10 albums capture such specific points in her life. For Walther, staying within the realm of Fearless and Speak Now’s teenage melodrama is crucial to writing a teen love story like The Summer of Broken Rules. And a storyline in the book about the death of the protagonist’s sister also connects to the grief on Evermore’s “Marjorie,” written about Swift’s late grandmother. Walther was inspired by the death of her own father when writing, but both capture the way we’re inescapably reminded of loss. There’s a little bit of everything, everywhere.
Alexandria Bellefleur, who littered Swift references throughout her sapphic marriage-of-convenience novel The Fiancée Farce, saw the overwhelming romantic feelings her characters were experiencing echoed in Red and 1989. “That feeling of romantic attraction, love and lust, those butterflies — it doesn’t matter your gender, it doesn’t matter who you’re attracted to. She writes songs and presents emotion to me in a way that is very universal,” Bellefleur explains. “I think that’s why it’s easy when you’re not writing straight romance to still capture that and find that inspiration in her songs.”
Author Chloe Gong deals in fantasy, and yet the Juliette in her Romeo and Juliet-inspired trilogy, These Violent Delights, isn’t all that different from the one in Swift’s “Love Story.” In her spinoff novel Foul Lady Fortune, a scientific experiment leaves Rosalind Lang cursed with immortality. She’s stuck in time in a more-literal sense, but her emotions aren’t unlike the ones Swift expresses on the Evermore deep cut “Right Where You Left Me” about the world moving on without her.
“If I add something supernatural, like a character stops aging, it’s like a metaphor for feeling stuck — everyone else has moved on and atoned for their mistakes, but this character is still so burdened by the past,” Gong explains. “And I feel like Taylor’s music, because she captures that emotion super well, even if there’s no straight pull from the romance arc or anything, it still hits at that really vulnerable part of being human that I think any good romance novel has and, of course, all good songs capture.”
“She’s not afraid to play the villain, like on ‘Blank Space,’ or half the songs on Reputation,” thriller novelist Riley Sager says of Swift. “There’s a bit of an edge to her sometimes, which is very appealing to crime writers.”
Really, there isn’t a genre of fiction that hasn’t been infiltrated by Swifties. Last year, thriller novelist Riley Sager published the murder mystery The House Across the Lake with the epigraph: “I think he did it, but I just can’t prove it. —Taylor Swift.” The singer’s team-up with HAIM on “No Body, No Crime” felt like a personal gift to Sager, who was already writing his novel when the song was released. “A lot of her stuff is storytelling. She’s making things up. She’s playing characters. And it took Folklore for people to realize that, but she’s been doing it all along,” he says. “She’s not afraid to play the villain, like on ‘Blank Space,’ or half the songs on Reputation. There’s a bit of an edge to her sometimes, which is very appealing to crime writers.”
Thrillers, Sager adds, “exist in a strange, heightened reality. So in order to buy into the plot, the readers need to buy into the characters.” This is where Swift’s suspense-building and plot twists excel the most. On “Getaway Car,” from Reputation, she depicts the fate of a doomed romance through a high-speed car chase — like Bonnie and Clyde with less murder and more betrayal. Some Swifties have even theorized that “Out of the Woods,” the 1989 single rumored to be about Harry Styles, recounts a late-night hit-and-run. To say they have a skill for reading between the lines would be an understatement.
Swifties who love to dissect Easter eggs in imaginative, if at times delusional, ways would appreciate the work of romance author Morgan Elizabeth. Earlier this year, she published The Playlist, a novel that builds itself around the completion of a “Love Story Bucket List.” As the book’s main character Zoe describes it, it’s “a list that took all of my favorite songs, pulled every romantic line I loved from them, and turned it into a checklist for what I wanted from whoever stole my heart.” And all of those favorite songs just so happened to be written and performed by Swift, from “Daylight” and “Paper Rings” to “Fearless” and “Sparks Fly.”
“It’s been so much fun to have people go through and annotate it and be like, ‘Oh, this is from Evermore.’ And they’ll highlight it in the [corresponding] era colors and they’ll have tabs with era colors,” Elizabeth explains. She’s referring to her more than 47,000 followers on TikTok, who comb through her books to mark each reference to Swift. “And really, I think that’s what I was going for when I was writing a book for Swifties. It’s like, ‘Hey, we all have this similar reaction to this music — let’s celebrate that and talk about what it would be like if there was a romance around it.’”
Her next book, aptly titled Cruel Summer, draws its inspiration not from the singer’s hit from Lover, but the old-money-versus-new-money drama in “The Last Great American Dynasty.” The references are deeply obvious to her readers, but she’s careful not to fly too close to the summer sun on the legal front. “How much trouble would I get? The word ‘Swiftie’ is trademarked, but am I allowed to use it in a book?’” Elizabeth recalls asking her lawyer. “I was really careful not to use full lyrics and also to not say anything bad about her — basically anything that would make her want to sue me.”
Walther, who came across similar concerns in her own writing process, adds, “It’s a very fine line between legally using her work and then needing to get lawyers involved and to pay for her words. But the fact that I was so closely inspired by some of her lines, I wanted them to hit in the book the way they hit in her songs.” The dedication page might just be the safest place for authors to pay homage to Swift and their fellow Swifties.
“To the Swifties who found themselves somewhere between the bridge and the chorus and let that shape how they see love and life,” Elizabeth writes in the opening pages of The Playlist, which features 53 chapters all named after Swift songs. “Long Live.”