frosty bitches and sunshiney sweethearts

ANNA

I sort of jumped the gun with my praise of Cara McKenna when I posted recently about writing characters who are conscious of their own constructed desires. It’s a huge part of what makes her writing so thrilling to me. But there’s also a quality of unrestrained fantasy to her stories – like she doesn’t, ever, shy away. It means the ones that work for me really, really work for me; and the ones that don’t, don’t. There’s no middle ground, because she hasn’t ever gone, Meh, that’ll do.

The writing itself always sucks me right in. It’s like a warm invitation. Like going into a relationship with the book. Her stories are sexy as hell and full of the kind of angst you feel physically, in your chest and stomach. She’s also hilarious. (I immediately think of Shane in her Shivaree series – this tough, cynical, straight mechanic who’s in his flat with a man he’s crazy attracted to. He goes to get wine glasses for them to drink from, then thinks, “Too romantic,” and they drink from the bottle instead.)

Cara’s post made my brain kick into gear. There’s this line in my novel when my hero is unsettling my heroine so she’s short with him and she thinks, There. She was curt and spare, like the countryside where she had carved herself a home.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

***

CARA

When Anna invited me to post, she suggested I might write on “selfish heroines.” I mulled it over, but couldn’t decide how I felt about the topic. I won’t deny that my heroines are likely a self-serving bunch—it may be a reflection of who I am, at this point in my life. I’ve always been someone who requires a healthy sense of autonomy, and given that I don’t have kids yet, I admit that I can frequently be found at the center of my own universe. I won’t be shocked if my heroines soften after I become a mother, once my stint as the naive star of The Cara Show is over.

But the more I thought about this topic, the more it began to feel like a regional issue, rather than some autobiographical bias.

The majority of my heroines are like me—their default lens is somewhat skeptical. Nearly all are also New Englanders, as I am. I was born in Vermont, grew up in Maine, and have been living in and around Boston since I was nineteen, and I think I have a decent read on my fellow Northeasterners; I also married an Oregonian, and he is not stingy in sharing his PNW opinions about what miserable, me-first bastards we can sometimes be. I’m going to generalize wildly and say that, overall, New Englanders are a bit of a slow thaw. We like to take the temperature of a new acquaintance before we get too cozy. It’s not distrust—not quite. It’s just a short period we require to determine whether or not you’re a time-waster or a drama queen or a salesman or a conservative or a Giants fan. It’s just how we are. It’s cold up here, and we walk quickly. We shiver and curse as we scrape the ice from our salt-rusted cars for three months straight, yet we can’t comprehend why anyone would choose to live in Los Angeles.

All of my heroines from New England are prickly (except maybe Robin from Ruin Me—she’s morally spurious but generally kind, but then again she’s from Vermont and they’re the sanest and nicest of all New Englanders.) In addition, probably my two most selfish heroines, Natalie from the Shivaree books and Sarah from Trespass*  are both from extra-frosty Upstate New York—Rochester and Buffalo, respectively. Michigan heroine—uptight. Montreal heroine—downright cold. There are likely half a dozen deeply skeptical Bostonian heroines. The more snow, the more callous or cagey the woman, my subconscious seems to have decided.

On the flip-side, my few non-icy-climate heroines are rather sweet (by my standards.) The sweetest by far (despite her rather dark kinks) is Emily from Don’t Call Her Angel, who’s from Georgia. Also sweet, Leigh from my Blaze The Wedding Fling*, a San Francisco native. Mac from Skin Game is competitive but also exceedingly kind, and she’s from New Mexico. Margie in Dirty Thirtys from the Pacific Northwest and she’s sweeter than most, ditto Caitlin from my next Samhain release, Thank You for Riding*. The warmer the weather, the warmer the heroine. Without exception. I tried to think of a single truly sweet and selfless heroine I’ve written who’s from New England, but there just hasn’t been one.

As I said, these are wild generalizations—people are nice and mean and selfish and giving and open and distrustful all over. One of the kindest and most welcoming people I’ve ever known is my good friend from snowy, icy Minnesota, and one of my cagiest friends is from sultry Louisiana. I know a deeply cynical Texan, and just about all my relatives in blizzardy Rochester are sweet as pie. But in my books, looking at my heroines… Yeah, not so much.

Is this some kind of cultural shorthand, or a personal, deeply ingrained bias? And am I alone in this typecasting, or has anyone else noticed such trends—in books or films, in life, in their own fictional characters?

It makes me wonder, chicken or egg? Do I determine the heroine’s personality then choose her region to reflect that? Or do I decide where she’s from and then subconsciously let her evolve to reflect that upbringing? I’m honestly not sure, but I suspect it’s the former. And it’s not something I’d ever noticed—not until I started analyzing my crotchety-ass heroines for this post. But now that I have, I can’t stop thinking about it. What percentage of our disposition is informed by our native region or climate? Or are these perceptions about what people-from-X are like simply widespread cultural myths?

It makes me want to write a widely smiling Bostonian heroine with a heart of gold. Or a real turbo-bitch out of Peachtree, Georgia.

*By my conjoined romance-writing twin Meg Maguire.

Note: every comment puts your name in the hat for an accidental housewife e-reader cover.

Comments 30 Responses

  1. Jessi Gage

    I’m from NH and somehow missed out on the New England frostiness. Maybe that’s why I feel so at home amidst the warm, nature-loving, accepting social climate of the Pacific Northwest.

    Cara, I find your characters, male and femal alike, sometimes jaded, sometimes wounded, and sometimes prickly as a result, but always enthralling. They’re real, and even at their worst, they hold me spellbound.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      I agree Jessi – Cara’s characters are enthralling whatever, and however they are. She doesn’t let them be bound what they should and shouldn’t be/think/feel. It’s risky and thrilling and has a huge emotional pay-off.

  2. Brie

    You’re not alone. Environmental determinism is an old, slightly racist and very simplistic, archaeological theory used to explain, among other things, why the Amazonian tribes never developed a more complex social organization like chiefdoms or even states (of course those theories blatantly ignored the Maya, a state that albeit not in the Amazon, was situated in a similar environment). But you don’t want to hear about that. In college I had a psychology professor who used to say something similar — that people from cold places, especially places enclosed by mountains, aren’t as open and warm as people from warmer or coastal towns. Reality is more complex than that, but going back to the environmental determinism, it could be that certain cultural traits develop in some places as a response to the environment. What I’m trying to say is that you’re not the only who’s heard or has similar bias and stereotypes.

    This is an interesting post. I don’t pay attention to characters’ personalities in relation or as consequence of their hometowns, but now I’m sure I’ll start noticing. Can I just say, though, that although I haven’t read all your books, your heroines are all so different from each other, at least to me. I wouldn’t even be able to separate them into selfish and selfless. I do love the idea of selfish heroines, and I think that it’s a bit of a transgression in a genre where heroines are supposed to be self-sacrificing and non-demanding, especially in the bedroom. I read the wedding night scene in Milan’s The Duchess Wars, and what I loved about it, besides the bad sex, was that the heroine just tells him what she likes and what to do in such a confident, uncomplicated way. I wouldn’t call that heroine exactly selfish, but she sure doesn’t sit there and take everything like a martyr.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      Your comment made me think about how all cultures *are* to some degree determined by their climate/environment. And then I started thinking about how that may or may not be changing now that we can distance ourselves from the impact of climate/environment. Like LA, in the middle of a desert.

  3. Mary Ann Vadnais

    Regionalism is a long discussion in literature, and I think that how characters interact with both the truisms and stereotypes of their native region goes a long way to build the world of the piece. Another way, I always think of place in a story as another protagonist that the other primaries should have some kind of relationship with–even if place is otherwise unseen.

    Where a protagonist hails from will mean that a story is either, at least in part, a story about how the protagonist does or does not represent their home, or the story is a fish out of water story (the fast-talking urbanite experiencing forced or welcome rusticating). Again, place is that “other protagonist” who is uniquely qualified to hold up a mirror to both the place and the other primary characters.

    I think place can provide emotional underpinning, as well. There is a way that, for example, Jennifer Crusie’s midwestern characters wrestle with guilt that I don’t often see in non-midwestern writers or settings (and I refer to capital M, capital G Midwestern Guilt–different from the guilt of a murderer/adulterer/teen arsonist. This is the kind of guilt that is manufactured out of clean living and passive aggressive potluck dinners).

    Place provides authority, as well. I think this is evident in Cara McKenna’s work; for example, there is a way in which the working class Boston setting of WILLING VICTIM reassures the reader of both the authenticity of the hero and the authority the story has to take the reader to a very emotionally tight place. Without that setting and the characters who are *at ease* in it, WILLING VICTIM could make us uncomfortable instead of deliciously squirmy.

    Southern US writers have fought and embraced and railed against and celebrated what their place is or isn’t as a Southern writer. Writers from the South who don’t write about the South will still be asked about it, and those that do must answer to many forefathers and mothers and pain and tradition (whether they want to or not). I haven’t met a writer from the South who doesn’t have a great deal to say about regionalism and place–I’m certain their are other place traditions that are similar for the writers inside of them.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      I agree with Cara – this is a superb comment. I especially love: This is the kind of guilt that is manufactured out of clean living and passive aggressive potluck dinners. <3

      (Also, on a random note – I just saw on the German news that they’re filming a German version of Huckleberry Finn, which seemed like an interesting cultural exercise.)

  4. Cara McKenna

    I’m just going to start hiring Mary Ann to write my posts for me—her comments are always far more insightful than my rambling theories :-) Brie, that goes for you as well.

    Jessi—love to hear you welcome prickly protags. Those are typically my favorites to read. I especially love characters who make me want to shake them and scream, “Get out of your own way, you self-sabotaging idiot!” As long as you can peek under the crust and find a vulnerable person worthy of being loved, bring on the flaws.

    I feel as though “flaws” for heroines used to be in the vein of, “Her curly hair would simply never behave!” or “She couldn’t cook to save her life!” Adorable imperfections that did not call into question the heroine’s feminine goodness. Shortcomings that warranted no blame. But more and more, I’m seeing heroines with proper flaws, flaws of their own making, such as the ones every woman in the real world possesses. Issues worth examining and changing, if growing emotionally means they’ll be able to keep the hero in their life. Which really is a flip-flop of the old reform-the-rake formula. It’s exciting times in Romancelandia!

    1. anna cowan Post author

      Ugh, the “Oh poor me, my lips are so puffy and sensual, and I am so voluptuous,” Romance version of ugly. It’s so dumb.

      I love the idea of flawed heroines growing and changing as the new reformed rake! :-D

      1. Brie

        You know what I hate? The wide mouth. “She wasn’t pretty, her mouth was too wide, but she was beautiful in her own way.” Or when they are plain, but then smile and oh, look! She’s gorgeous! Ugh. Make it stop, please.

        I liked Molly O’Keefe’s new series because her first two heroines were far from perfect. One of them was so useless I was afraid redemption wasn’t possible (it was, and I loved it!). It’s easier for us to forgive (and romanticize) a flawed hero, than a flawed heroine.

          1. Laura Vivanco

            And there was me thinking it was a quick way of indicating that the heroine’s mouth looks like Julia Roberts’s but trying to make that sound like it’s a bad thing (which, obviously, it isn’t).

  5. Kaetrin

    I’m not sure that I’ve given the subject a lot of thought. As I’m in Australia I don’t have the same knowledge of regional diversity in the US as natives do. But, I have heard from native Bostonians (Ridley!) that the locals are generally gruffer, tougher and harder to get to know – there was something about not making eye contract? – (though I gather that once you’re in, you’re in). But, wasn’t Cheers set in Boston? Is someone going to tell me that wasn’t real? The horror!

    I’ve put the song in your head now haven’t I? *evil grin*

    1. anna cowan Post author

      I think almost all of Australian culture is based on ideas of place, though. The Aussie Battler is someone who forged into the Great Australian Outback and was beaten flat, had everything but an essential will to survive beaten from him. His words were flattened by the sun and the enormity of space. Australians are at war with their country – or they choose to live right on those green borders, in a city.

    2. Cara McKenna

      No, no eye contact—especially not on public transportation. It’s nearly considered rude here—at worst threatening and at best nosy—whereas in other parts of the country, it’s considered rude NOT to make eye contact. My husband’s a total rubbernecker, forever eyeballing strangers and turning to find the source of shouting or a honking horn, but I’ve very much in the frosty do-not-engage, keep-me-out-of-it camp (unless of course it sounds as though someone’s been hurt.)

      But I think that may be a trait of city-dwellers versus people who live in smaller towns, rather than regional. You hit a certain population threshold, and you can be fairly certain that anyone you pass will be a total stranger, and not engaging is just easier. Plus they might be nuts! Don’t make eye contact, or they’ll try to talk to you! Or ask for money! Or want you to join their cult! Or try to sell you something! Do not engage. Just jam your earbuds in place and stare blankly at an inoffensive point in the distance until you’ve reached your destination.

      1. bleu

        Oh, I totally agree! About the village – town disparity, I mean.
        Being a villager I have had the strangest encounters in cities. Though, truthfully, people think *you* are the nutter when you behave like you would in your home village.
        From scenes such as asking an old couple for the way while holding cheese straw so that they get scared of your smile (and the cheese straw) and back away saying ‘no, no’ – to a greeting to someone who (accidentally) made eye contact with you resulting in extended staring and ‘do we know each other?’ to builders exclaiming, ‘Look! She is young and willing!” anything can happen in a city if you don’t sport this slightly vacant stare.
        Then again, there is a point of familiarity that allows to forgo greetings completely, sit down and share the moment.

  6. anna cowan Post author

    Every comment in this stream gave me new and interesting thoughts. And then my brain shorted out because I suddenly realised – NORTH AND SOUTH!!!! (I’m talking the adaptation, because it’s better than the book for lots of reasons that aren’t Richard Armitage. But also Richard Armitage. And, “Are you coming home with me?”)

    That whole story is formed around the idea of the soft South and the harsh North. I love the way they filmed them so differently, and the way that made the characters out of place when they weren’t in their natural environment.

    It’s a simplistic view of England – but it also has a strong cultural basis. The warmer, more fertile South allowed for slower agriculture, whereas the harsher North was full of mineral deposits and remote towns that were perfect for manufacture. That gives rise to different cultural expectations, and a different personality type.

  7. Shelley Hughes-Mills

    Fascinating stuff here. As a Southerner who now lives in a large Midwestern city, I find that most of my writing takes place in the South–and the setting became far, far more important to me when I moved North. Although I never really felt at home in the South (I suppose my story would be a fish out of water), I find that I don’t have a full and complete understanding of what it’s like to grow up anywhere else.

    Setting *does* shape our characters to a degree, although we have to be careful to avoid regionalism as shorthand–especially when we’re writing about characters from places we’re not. I’m especially sensitive to this as a Southerner from a state that’s the butt of many jokes. I can smell lack of authenticity 100 miles away and hate it when there’s a character from my region who is anything less than fully human/developed. On the other hand, growing up in a largely Southern Baptist region where people spend a lot of time on their front porches really does shape who you become and how you think about those around you. And yes, hot weather and high humidity makes us walk slower, take our time, spend more time outside where our lives can be seen by others.

    I’ve made the distinction since moving to this city that people in the South, in general, learn to be polite but not necessarily friendly. Here, in the Midwest, people are friendly but not always polite. That difference can shape a LOT about a character, especially when it comes to accepting/trusting love.

    1. Cara McKenna

      Yes, “shorthand” is great way to put it. Shorthand implies a certain laziness, which troubles me, given my recent discovery that I’ve employed said shorthand in ALL of my books. But I’ll cut myself some slack, considering I didn’t realize I was doing this until yesterday. Still, I’ve always thought if I offer readers anything, it’s non-standard characters (whether I mean to or not) so realizing I’ve been blinding grabbing New England- or West Coast-shaped cookie cutters out of my subconscious writer’s drawer does leave me feeling a bit cheap.

      I’m currently working on a WIP with a heroine from San Francisco, and I may just be more mindful of whether or not I catch myself thinking, “Now how would a Californian react to this?”

  8. Delphine Dryden

    As a Texan, I can assure you there are no shortage of turbo-bitches in the south. Just in case you wanted to know, for research purposes.

    I tend to think there is a cultural shorthand here, and it’s wrapped up with the concept of authority of place that Mary Ann so brilliantly articulated. Nobody likes to think they’re using stereotypes, but I think the human mind is just designed to create those kinds of categories and, as writers, we know we can convey a great deal of information to our reader by employing those signals. A reader’s baseline assumptions about a Bostonian character will differ in so many ways from those about a character from New Orleans: accent, hair styles, fashion, manners. The hard work is in the finer details, of course, but place is a way to sort of guide your reader in a general direction, get them through the gate. Once they’re in, you can subtly nudge them through the character maze until they arrive at the central turbo-bitch or what-have-you.

  9. Erin Satie

    These sorts of discussions always make me a little uncomfortable – they’ve been used as justifications for faith in racial superiority too often Western history. (Cold, virtuous Europe vs. the warm, lazy brown folk to the south)

    And the strangest part is how often this North/South rivalry repeats itself – the virtuous, hard-working North vs. the lazy, dumb south in the US but also in Italy, in France, in Germany. Lots of other places as well, from what I understand, though I can’t speak to it. It’s a really persistent prejudice.

    More personally – I’m from Southern California & when I grew up I always felt very much out of place, at odds with the surrounding culture. I went to college in New York City, bound and determined to put as much distance between myself and California as possible, and was often told by New Yorkers that I was “so Californian.” An all-around alienating experience.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      My uncle was just telling the husband and me about going to India in the 90s to start a tennis tournament. One of the biggest difficulties was the North/South divide.

      This conversation does skirt an uncomfortable line, but that’s why I think it’s important. As Cara said above, once you realise you’re using cultural shorthand you can begin to transform it. Something I love about her characters is how they often push the line of what’s allowable – and I’ve noticed these conversations tend to happen around Cara, too! :-) (I loved the discussion about race on her Wish List post over on Wonkomance.)

  10. Ruthie

    Great comments! I just want to say, for the sake of authenticating Cara’s post, that I met her via e-mail stalking, and she totally took my temperature before befriending me. I just battered at her with my faux-oblivious Midwestern friendliness until she gave in.

    1. Cara McKenna

      Ha! I can’t remember where I heard this recently, maybe on This American Life or somewhere, but another Midwesterner had mentioned that the Midwest friendliness (or perhaps they’d nuanced it as something akin to “down-home-iness”) is actually a clever and manipulative affectation used to lull outsiders into a false sense of security.

      I guess we all have concepts of “how people are” and “how outsiders assume people from here are.” For example, when I go to Maine to visit my parents, I’m always extra polite on the highway. Massachusetts drivers (Massholes) have a reputation for being aggressive and pushy behind the wheel, and as I now consider myself a born-again Bostonian after fourteen years here, I’m super careful to contradict the behavior that a Mainer might expect of someone driving around with Mass plates.

      These are almost like myths we’ve all agreed to believe in, for the sake of feeling as though we understand one another’s experiences, or a sense that we’ve got The Other pegged. Some tribal distinction? To feel superior or to feel worldly? Depends on the individual.

      It’s funny how these regional stereotypes are still generally tolerated…considering how upset the average person would be if you said, “Such and such ethnic group are cheap,” or “People of such and such religion are all terrible drivers,” or “All women care about is such and such.” Maybe because a statement such as, “New Yorkers are so aggressive and rude!” encompasses too many types of people—many races, both genders, all sexual orientations, all political flavors, all ages, all classes, multiple faiths—to strike that ugly chord that racism or classism or sexism or religious discrimination does. Perhaps because it’s not personal enough, or it doesn’t target an under-empowered demographic. Or, who knows—maybe regionalism will be the next sector of bias in line to get stigmatized.

  11. Nicole

    I think even within a region, stereotypes are made. I remember when we moved to one town, my dad always complained that people who lived south of this one road were all basically dumb hicks. And god forbid if you crossed the bridge to go to the neighboring county.

    I think, in a weird way, these regionalisms come more from trying to determine who we are in a place, than how the people are themselves. By labeling this one place we didn’t live dumb, my dad could feel he wasn’t. And since we got a lot of grief for moving from a suburb of Chicago to a suburb of St. Louis, which was viewed as such a step down, I can see why my dad wanted to feel somehow superior in this new place.

    I think every author would find a shorthand they use for character. I noticed recently that any time I have a cheerful, happy character, they tend to be blonde. Not every blonde character is cheerful, but if a character is cheerful, they’re probably going to be blonde and blue eyed in my fictional world.

    I never set out to do this, and I definitely don’t see all blondes as being cheerful. I know some perfectly awful, mean blonde people. But somehow, as characters form in my head, blonde equals shortcut to cheerfulness without me ever thinking about it.

    1. Shelley Hughes-Mills

      Yes to the idea of using The Other as a way of defining ourselves. My husband is a therapist/social worker who has some kind of fancy psych term for that (that I, of course, can’t remember right now). It’s the same reason you find more racism in more diverse areas–kind of the opposite of what you’d expect, but it’s because people are trying to define which group they belong to by placing themselves opposite other groups.

      This isn’t to criticize Cara at all. I’ve read almost all of her books and find her characters all compelling and vivid and real, so she’s obviously not falling into the stereotype trap. It’s a big question– how to acknowledge some of those regional distinctions without turning characters into caricatures. It’s unfair to say that only Southern writers can write about the South, for instance, but I’ve said it out of frustration before. I think our biggest challenge as writers is to be aware of the pitfalls we can fall into. Once we know they’re there, we can work a little harder to avoid them.

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  13. bleu

    This was a really interesting discussion!
    Thanks again, Anna, for thinking up this marvellous present for us :)

    I cannot really talk about regionalism from a romance point of view, since (so far) most of my experience in regards to this genre stems from fanfiction.
    However, from the comments I get the feeling that regionalism is relatively seldomly used as a defining trait of character, at least if you compare it to the fantasy genre, especially the epic high-fantasy. Maybe that’s because writers of such stories have to make up a whole world – culture, architecture, tradition, geography and all – but I often feel the reagion, the homeland of the characters make up too big a part of their personality.
    Also – and I only noticed this when I read a book that did not fit the scheme – it’s mostly the north where it is cold and where the mountens are and there is almost always a sea or desert in the south. And mostly there is some strech of land to the east, but not the west.
    My own map is no different. It just feels wrong if I turn it around (and I tried).
    An other funny thing is, that if you look closer at these maps, you are bound to find that they are mostly heart shaped – vertically streched hearts, horizontally streched hearts – but like real hearts: rather triangularely rounded than the ‘heart symbol’. Surprisingly tough, most their tips seem to point left (from the reader’s perspective) not right as should be expected from a real heart. Then again, maybe it is supposed to be the reader’s heart and the tip points in the right direction? I don’t know. But it’s funny. Maybe it’s just that this shape meets most peoples’ sense of pleasent proportion, kind of like the golden ratio, or, maybe triangles are just such an easy form to choose, present as they are all over the map of the world.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      That’s such a great point about high fantasy – the boy from the small town is pretty much THE trope. I have never noticed the heart-like shape of fantasy maps, but it’s certainly something I’ll be on the look-out for. How fascinating!

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