Category Archives: Characterisation

punch an asshole in the face

It took me an age to realise something obvious about sex. Sex on the page, sex between characters.

I’ve thought a lot about how to make sex hot again. God, is there a new position on the face of this green planet? We have seen it all, read it all.

We experience something new to us differently, because our brains are processing information for the first time – it’s more intense, slower, more deeply felt. So how do we make the sexual encounter between two characters feel like something new, something that has only ever happened between these two people?

My go-to method is to sink deep into the romance and write from there: write pain, hurt, disruption, vulnerability, bliss and oh shit did I just realise I’m in love. It’s a pretty good method, on a pure-id level.

But for putting your critical brain to work on making what your id gave you ten times better, here’s the obvious: the characters aren’t having the sexual experience. The reader is.

It clicked when I was reading a romance with a tense sexual premise. The hero has a sexual kink that is the source of shame and self-loathing to him. He’s tried and failed to cut it out of himself. The heroine is sunny and somewhat naïve. The longer they spend together the more his sexual desires reach out to her, the more he loathes himself.

About half way through the book he finally confesses everything to her – and she is a wonderful person who listens and asks questions, admits when she’s confronted but takes it in her stride. Then expresses some curiosity in exploring the kink with him.

An amazing woman, and a total buzzkill.

I had been experiencing the hero’s emotional agony (which, up front, I love) – but more than that, I’d been experiencing this building sexual tension that was all wrapped up in his shame and his raging need. The self-loathing that came from wanting what he did only fuelled the desire, because it made it that much more unattainable. He himself was aware how the shame was part of the sex, for him.

So when the heroine ‘absolved’ him, I no longer experienced/read the desire as shameful and therefore I no longer felt caught up in the sexual heat. I was no longer experiencing the kink.

It’s a good distinction to make, between character arousal and reader arousal. Oh man, is that suddenly a bit confronting to talk about actively arousing the reader? No? Ok, get on with it, Anna.

Understanding the distinction means you can write a scene like, She gave him a blowjob and he was very aroused and he came, which leaves the reader unmoved, or you can write a conversation that works on the reader like sex, because all the elements of the relationship, the kink, the arousal are there.

This is so useful! Sex shouldn’t always be arousing, and if romance is really going to hit the reader in the feelings, conversations should be. It’s easier to manipulate these effects once you understand that the reader is the one having the sexual experience.

I’ve been reading a lot of Charlotte Stein recently, because she brings the id like whoa. I love this description of an orgasm in Curveball: It’s unbelievably good. Like squeezing a stress ball or punching an asshole in the face.

A lot of the time we rely on shared physical experience to arouse the reader. We describe licked nipples and pulled hair and the erotic associations the reader has with the acts trigger arousal. What I love about Stein’s description is that she adds to base physical arousal; she creates two distinct effects in the reader’s mind and body. Squeezing a stress ball has associations of release and pressure, and punching an asshole in the face conjures pure satisfaction, violence, disruption.

Another example of how this works is dirty talk. I love the idea of dirty talk. I always get excited when a character threatens another character with dirty talk. But it rarely pays off for me when it actually happens. Unfortunately, just like sex positions/acts, dirty talk is well worn. Pretty generic, really, when you read it on the page. So it’s exciting for the character who’s experiencing it, but not for me, the reader experiencing it.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to do dirty talk in a way that really works. I considered my expectations – what makes the idea of it exciting to me? What I want is for it to shock me, for it to be a pin prick, a cut with a knife. I want it to disrupt the narrative and reveal something hidden and unsafe about the characters.

So one answer to how to do dirty talk is to achieve this effect on readers through other means. I think this is what I was reaching for in Untamed when I had Jude say shocking, exposing things to Katherine in a way that was erotically fraught.

‘You’re here,’ he said, and covered her hand with his palm. The sensation touched him – his hand like a lover taking hers from behind. He pushed his fingers between hers, and they lay like that without speaking for a couple of minutes.

Then he said, ‘I miscalculated in so many ways, when I asked to come with you to the country. I didn’t understand how dark it would be, or how quiet. But the worst of my errors was not allowing for these hands.’ His hand flexed around hers, the only movement in the room. ‘I didn’t know you’d go without gloves in the country. And you don’t have easy hands, Katherine. At first they repulsed me.’ He was ready, and didn’t let her pull away.

‘When you handed me that first plate of food, and I knew these hands had made it, I could barely swallow it down. But the more I watched you, the clearer it became that your hands cannot be separated out from who you are. The parts of the world that fascinate you pass through your hands first. I thought at first it was childlike, before I suspected what wisdom was in touch. And then I thought about touching. And then I could not stop myself from imagining the rasp of your hands on my skin – those rough, truthful things rubbing me until I was uncomfortable and tender with it. Testing and tasting me in order to understand me. I began to long for you to understand me.’

There was a long silence, and their harsh breathing, and then she said, ‘You shouldn’t talk to people like that.’

Not quite ‘I’m gonna come in your hot little hole’, but it sort of made me catch my breath, to write something so exposed.

the fetish object

Most romance has explicit sex in it, but where “explicit” sounds – I don’t know, naughty? sexy? breathless? the sheer volume actually strips sex of its appeal. Nowadays when I read about a hero sucking a heroine’s nipple, it’s as bland as drinking milk. (Wait – milk is delicious.) It doesn’t move me in the slightest.

Nipples are quite amazing in real life. Nipples, as a body part to be checked off some foreplay list – not so amazing.

Some writers, of course, can make the same sex acts feel new and thrilling and touch some nerve of recognition. I just read The Luckiest Lady in London by Sherry Thomas – a seriously freaking amazing book – and she has this particular superpower. For the rest of us, I think we should take a step away from the naked human body and look at other ways to bring sex in.

A fetish object is something that’s imbued with power – often power displaced from something else. A sexual fetish object is something that’s imbued with sexual power, again often displaced from the more common, everyday fetishisation of the body (although it can itself be a body part, of course). According to Freud, a fetish object is the mother’s castrated penis so that dudes don’t have to deal with vaginas or something.

In the narrative examples I’m thinking of, the fetish object has some sexual power for the characters, but acts far more strongly on the reader. The sexual narrative that’s drawing the reader in is redirected through this object, which makes it more powerful than if it had remained in the everyday body.

Here are the ways this method’s really worked for me as a reader:

The first is from Ember by Bettie Sharp. The story is a retelling of Cinderella, where Cinderella is Ember, the wicked witch and her sisters and stepmother are courtesans, dearly loved by her. Prince Charming has been cursed/blessed that all who see him love him. The first time Ember sees him is at a parade when she’s nineteen. She’s destroyed by lust. Charming smiles and throws coins into the crowd that are stamped with his likeness; Ember finds one between two cobblestones once he’s passed.

His profile winked sunlight at me from the silver surface of the coin. I raised it to my lips and kissed his likeness’s metal cheek. Licked it. I slid the coin into my mouth, tasting the tannic flavour of his glove above the metal and beneath the grime.

With the silver likeness of the prince clamped between my lips, I turned and hurried back inside. I could not close the door fast enough to suit the drumbeat of desire in my blood. I hadn’t the patience to climb to my chamber and dream of him in private. Indeed, I barely managed to squeeze into a broom closet and shut the door before my hands were pulling up my skirts and parting the hot, slick folds of my sex.

I ran my tongue across his likeness on the coin as I thought of him. I thought of his eyes on me, his hands on me. I imagined the sublime joys of his touch, the taste of his skin, the feel of his cock between my lips.

She goes on to imagine dying from the force of having her maidenhead taken, and him weeping over her because he’ll never love another. (She gives the reader permission to laugh at her youthful fantasies.)

As sad as it is to admit it, I must tell you this melodramatic imagining was the thought that gave me my first taste of womanly pleasure. My body seized, climaxing with a ferocity that made me stumble to the floor. I gasped for air, only to feel the cold bite of the silver coin lodging in my throat.

I panicked, coughing and gagging, trying to force a decent breath around the silver barrier imprinted with the prince’s face. My death flashed before my eyes and in this scenario, I was not a noble virgin sacrifice, but a silly girl, crumpled on the floor of a broom closet with her skirts rumpled and her hands stinking of sex.

There are a couple of reasons this worked so well for me that it’s stuck in my mind ever since. The prince’s curse has already powerfully disrupted the sexual narrative. Ember doesn’t look at him and feel a natural response which she can choose to act on or not; his sexuality is a force that makes objects of everyone who sees him – it is already displaced.

This sexual power is then concentrated in one small object: the coin. For me as a reader, there’s something so much more unexpected and exciting about Ember pressing her tongue against a likeness of his face and experiencing the full force of her desire, than if she’d had access to his person.

Maybe it’s because he can be fully “objectified” – it’s a purely sexual transaction. Charming is present, but the scene isn’t really about him. There’s something powerful about the coin generating her florid sexual fantasy – and then choking her at its climax, which utterly changes how she perceives herself in that moment. Both feel sexual to me, the arousal and the shame.

Probably the crux of why the coin works for me, actually, is that it means Charming is so freaking hot an inanimate imprint is enough to bring Ember to her knees. Is that bad?

The second example comes from a real source: the diaries of Maud Rittenhouse in the late 19th century. I haven’t read her diaries in full, just Jodie McAlister’s wonderful recaps at Momentum Moonlight. Maud chronicles her romantic adventures and disasters and refuses to let romance define her. Her thoughts are almost hypnotically charming.

In the penultimate volume she’s just met Earl Mayne who – well, in her own words:

Mr Mayne. Everybody in town knew him but me. He is deliciously bright and well read and talks like a fairy story set to music…

He’s younger than her and you get the feeling he’s a bit rough around the edges. Her infatuation burns up the page, and then there’s this:

Well and the Adorable came, and dined with us, and oh! oh!! he eats with his knife. Positively it gave me a queer feeling way into my hair. I was so afraid he’d cut his lovely mouth or jam one of his white teeth. His knife! The “one altogether lovely”, eating with his knife! I know he must have some real good scientific reason for doing it, but it made me look the other way. How can such an Adonis do anything so plebeian even with reason.

This moment gets at me viscerally the way any amount of “he’s so wonderful” doesn’t. She’s repulsed by him eating with the knife, but as a reader I feel the depth of her sexual attraction within her repulsion. Like Ember’s shame on swallowing the coin, the shame and fascination around this object feels decidedly sexual.

His “lovely mouth” feels so much more significant when it’s threatened by his knife.

It also happens to be one of my favourite romantic mechanisms: his action breaks the social mould through which she perceives everybody and everything. This sets off an overwhelming sensation in her that she doesn’t know how to interpret. She interprets it as embarrassment; I don’t.

The last example is from The Luckiest Lady in London. My favourite part of this book was how explicitly honest the hero and heroine were with each other – and how that didn’t leech the tension at all. It’s an electrifying, exciting kind of honesty.

But – ahem. Before I get carried away fangirling all over the place, I’ll get back to my point. Felix has asked Louisa to be his mistress, and they’re playing a kind of game of chicken with their attraction and what they each want. In this scene they’re alone in a carriage.

He lifted his straight rod of a walking stick and, holding it near the base, set its handle on her lap, a frightfully intimate, invasive gesture that made flame leap through her.

The terrible thing was, the more he revealed himself to be dangerous and warped, the more she fell under his spell. And the more she fell under his spell, the freer he felt to reveal even more of his true nature.

His eyes met hers again. “Let me give you everything you’ve ever dreamed of.”

But he couldn’t. Or at least, he wouldn’t.

For she could no longer be satisfied with an expensive telescope, an exemplary spinsterhood, or his sure-to-be-magnificent body – or even all three together.

She was a woman in love and she wanted nothing less than his unscrupulous and very possibly unprincipled heart, proffered to her in slavish devotion.

She set her fingers on the handle of the walking stick, still warm with the heat of his hand. At first she thought it was but a knob made of heavy, smooth-grained ebony, but as she traced its curve with her hand, she looked down and realized that the handle was actually in the shape of the head of a black jaguar.

“Very fine specimen you have here,” she said, a little shocked at both her words and her action.

She was *caressing* the part of him that he had chosen to extend to her person, her fingertips exploring every nook and cranny of the handle. His gaze, intense and heavy lidded, traveled from her face to her uninhibited hand and back again.

“You like it?”

They throw some double entendres back and forth and get extremely lustful about each other. Then:

…she raised the handle of his walking stick, leaned forward, and kissed it on the tip.

“You make me do such unspeakable things,” she murmured, looking at the jaguar’s head.

Slowly, he pulled the stick from her grasp. He examined the handle closely, then glanced back at her, his gaze heated yet inscrutable.

The walking stick is quite obviously standing in for his man bits in this scene, but that’s not where I think the sexiness of it comes from. In fact, I would find it even sexier if the parallel weren’t drawn at all.

What I love is the “intimate, invasive gesture,” and the “part of himself he’d chosen to extend to her”. It’s in his character that he wouldn’t just give himself over to her, so instead he does something he thinks will be safe – he touches her with an inanimate object. But she makes that object part of him, and so he can’t remain unaffected by her touch. It becomes incredibly exposing.

Gah, it’s awesome.

This method is more about the reader than it is about the characters themselves. I’ve become somewhat desensitised to sex as a reader, but diverting it through an object makes me feel it again – it becomes unexpected, a pleasure.

It also happens to be a powerful tool for writers; it means we can bring sex into any scene, without being explicit. If Maud were a romance heroine, watching her hero eat from a knife, I would believe her when she kissed him later.

narrative, backwards

My favourite literary device is the Rosetta Stone moment: the piece of information that illuminates the story, backwards. You realise there has been a second narrative running under the first the whole time, and while you haven’t consciously been reading it, part of your brain has been picking up the cues, so that when that last piece of information clicks into place you don’t have to laboriously piece the whole thing together – all it needs is illumination.

I recently watched The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and while the tone of the film wasn’t so much my thing, it had a perfect, spine-tingling Rosetta Stone moment. I’m going to go through how it was done, complete with spoilers. It was by far the best part of the film, so if you intend to watch it, don’t read on!

The sub-narrative is all about Charlie’s relationship with his Aunt Helen. These are all the cues we’re given throughout the film:

Charlie is a troubled kid who has been in hospital. He’s going to high school for the first time, and he wishes he could talk to his Aunt Helen. She would understand.

Later, he remembers his Aunt Helen coming home to their house, with a Welcome Home banner and everything. She looks up at him, on the stairs, and they share a smile. They are special to each other.

When he sees his older sister’s boyfriend hitting her, he tries to intervene. She tells him not to get involved. “How could you,” he says, “after Aunt Helen?”

He goes to sit in the park, and remembers being there at Christmas with Aunt Helen. The pathway was lit up with lanterns, and she bent down and told him it was Santa’s runway. She told him to stay just where he was, while she went and got his birthday present.

Charlie loves a girl called Sam. She throws a Christmas party just for their close friends. Charlie gives her an old record of the Beatles song ‘Something’ and afterwards they sit on her bed together. She asks if he’s ever kissed anyone, and he shakes his head, bashful. “What about your first kiss?” he asks. “I was eleven,” she says. “His name was Robert. He used to come over to the house all the time.” “Was he your first boyfriend?” “He way my – he was my dad’s boss.” Charlie, who is so innocent and naïve, listens without judgement, but we see it hit him. Sam doesn’t know if she can become more than she is – get into a good school, make something of herself. Charlie tells her she can. “My aunt,” he says, “had that same thing done to her. And she turned her life around.” “She must have been great.” “She was my favourite person in the world,” Charlie says, “until now.” Then Sam tells Charlie she wants his first kiss to be with someone who loves him, and she kisses him.

While they’re kissing, Charlie strokes Sam’s back, down to her bottom. He stops. She asks if everything’s okay, and he says it is, and they keep kissing.

Later, Charlie remembers more of that Christmas scene from his childhood: Aunt Helen tells him to stay where he is while she goes to get his birthday present. She whispers in his ear, “It’ll be our little secret.” We see her driving, a record of the Beatles song ‘Something’ on the passenger seat. A truck hits her car, straight into the drivers side.

Charlie starts going out with the wrong girl, and he does the wrong thing. His friends – the first real friends he’s ever belonged to – disown him. His mental state deteriorates. He has no-one to talk to. He’s seeing things again. He’s at home alone, and he can’t stop seeing things.

He’s back kissing Sam on her bed, and his hand slides down her back, to her bottom. He’s remembering a hand touching his leg that way, and he’s a small boy, and the hand belongs to his Aunt Helen. She’s giving him that special you-and-me smile. He remembers finding her at the kitchen table, crying, and touching the long scars on her wrist. Then he’s back where she’s touching him, and whispering that they shouldn’t wake his sister, who’s asleep on the rug. He can’t stop thinking: What if it’s his fault she died, because he wanted her to die?

Charlie ends up in hospital again, and we never see it onscreen, but he finally tells someone what his aunt did to him.

Every memory leading up to the revelation is recast. Everything she said to him, every way she looked at him. His wilful innocence in that conversation with Sam. The way he can’t own his own experience.

Casting their relationship as special and important gives this sub-narrative so much more power than if it had just been couched in mystery. There’s a deep emotional truth in Charlie processing it that way. It’s also impressive from a storytelling stand-point, because there were enough cues that something wasn’t right, that it made complete, stunning sense when the truth came out. The way Charlie deals with Sam’s story of abuse, and the way he reacts to physical intimacy create an emotional resonance for his own experience, once it comes out. We’ve actually been reading that story the whole time, just without realising it.

It’s clear to us that Charlie loves and misses Aunt Helen, and that she was incredibly important to him. But we instinctively feel some piece of information missing from the core of their relationship: What binds them so tightly together? There’s an element of obsession about how he always thinks of her that is low-level creepy, but easy to dismiss because the narrative is telling you this was a good, special relationship.

There are more obvious cues, such as her saying, “This will be our little secret.” That phrase is so coded as abusive that I even thought of abuse outright at that moment, and then uneasily dismissed it.

Charlie’s denial recasts their relationship into something impossible. As his vision of things sits more and more uneasily alongside reality we begin to see how it is impossible.

There’s a powerful narrative lesson here. He doesn’t express blank denial, or bottled up rage. He feels something that’s emotionally true, the way dream logic is true, and it’s heartbreaking.

I had no thought for your reputation

Sandy Welch can do no wrong. She wrote the screenplay for the playful 2009 adaptation of Emma and the gorgeous 2006 adaptation of Jane Eyre. And, of course, the 2004 adaptation of North and South. Ah, North and South.

I recently sent special k out in 40-degree heat to buy it for me because I had to watch it again. Immediately. I’ve also read the book, and for me Welch screwed all the relationships that bit tighter, and made what is an extremely polemic book slightly less so. Or slightly more human, at least.

I want to talk about the proposal scene, because it is so, so wonderful. I can’t help but compare it to the Pride and Prejudice proposal scene: they both occur about half way through the book, and both turn into a hot mess and alienate the hero and heroine from one another. But they function completely differently.

As I put it recently on twitter: Darcy’s feelings drive him to propose, against all logic. Circumstances drive Thornton to act in concert with his feelings, though it terrifies him to do so.

Darcy is genuinely horrified by the idea of marrying into the Bennett family – and Elizabeth is genuinely offended by what he says. Each is secure in their own world, and cannot meet the other on common ground.

John Thornton and Margaret Hale are trying to understand each other, but their worlds are so different that it’s almost impossible. Their misunderstanding is more subtle and more heartbreaking, because it’s all in their characterisation.

Here’s the scene, so that you can get the full impact of Richard Armitage laying his heart on the chopping block:

And here’s my breakdown of why I love it so much:

J: I’d not noticed the colour of this fruit. [A brilliant opener. What he has to say is too terrifying to just say. So instead he talks about fruit.] Miss Hale, I’m afraid I was very ungrateful yesterday.

M: You’ve nothing to be grateful for.

J: I think that I do.

M: Well I did only the least that anyone would’ve. [This is where Margaret starts subtly lying. She believes every word she’s saying, but it’s clear to us, because we’ve seen their relationship developing, that this can’t be true.]

J: That can’t be true. [Well said, John.]

M: I was, after all, responsible for placing you in danger. I would’ve done the same for any man there.

J: Any man? So you approve of that violence – you think I got what I deserved.

M: No of course not. But they were desperate. I know if you were to talk—

J: I forgot. You imagine them to be your friends.

M: Oh but if you were to be reasonable. [Margaret is hopelessly naïve – but there is some truth in what she’s saying, so we can’t just dismiss her for it. Margaret and John see the world through completely different lenses, and it makes it almost impossible for them to understand each other, even though they want to.]

J: Me? Are you saying that I’m unreasonable? [John’s pride and quick temper start to take over, which will only skew the conversation further.]

M: If you would talk with them, and not set the soldiers on them, I know they would—

J: They will get what they deserve. [John does shift from this position eventually – but I can’t help loving how certain and uncompromising he is. He’s here, trying to tell the woman he loves that he loves her, and still he won’t be anything other than what he is.]

*Pause. How did the conversation get here?*

J: Miss Hale, I didn’t just come here to thank you. I came because. I think it very likely. I know I’ve never found myself in this position before. [With this line, John becomes the naïve one. We know Margaret has been proposed to before. John’s doing something completely terrifying and unrehearsed. This is utterly unique for him. It’s not for Margaret.] It’s difficult to find the words. Miss Hale, my feelings for you are very strong—

M: Please. Stop. Please don’t go any further. [This is more or less what she said to the other guy who tried to propose, and he backed right off, apologising for having misunderstood and staying silent about his hurt.]

J: Excuse me? [Best line ever. John is his own man, and is not just going to be fobbed off with some polite dance that everyone is supposed to understand. As I said, this is unrehearsed, for him.]

M: Please don’t continue in that way. It’s not the way of a gentleman. [Margaret’s retreating into the world of manners, rather than being emotionally true with John. I don’t think she loves him enough to actually accept him right now, but she’s not paying him the respect of being honest, when he’s been so heartbreakingly honest in turn.]

J: I’m well aware that in your eyes at least, I’m not a gentleman. But I think I deserve to know why I am offensive. [He calls her on it. Demands something true.]

M: It offends me that you would speak to me as if it were your – duty to rescue my reputation! [Another brilliant line. She is wilfully misunderstanding him. She’s decided what his proposal means, and is playing that scene out in her head.]

J: I spoke to you about my feelings because I love you – I had no thought for your reputation. [Right on!]

M: You think because you are rich, and my father is in reduced circumstances, that you can have me for your possession. Well I suppose I should expect no less from someone in trade! [Again, she’s ascribing intentions to him that he simply doesn’t have. The narrative has positioned him in this way – you can understand why she draws the conclusions she does. But she’s reacting to those conclusions, not to the man standing in front of her.]

J: I don’t want to possess you – I wish to marry you because I love you! [His vulnerability and honesty are so amazing. Especially because we know he isn’t confident he could deserve someone like her.]

M: You shouldn’t, because I do not like you. And never have. [Lying to protect herself from scary, adult feelings. There’s a subtle immaturity about Margaret in this scene that I love.]

J *shot through the chest*: One minute we talk of the colour of fruit. The next of love. How does that happen? [Again, the fruit adds something to this scene that it wouldn't have if it were all just straight emotion.]

M: My friend. Bessy Higgins. She died. [This line is so wonderful – it has nothing to do with what they’ve been talking about, but it suddenly recasts what Margaret must have been feeling, coming into this scene.]

J: And that of course is my fault too. [Also wonderful that John doesn’t let her get away with emotional diversion. (And because this dialogue is so layered, also John reacting in pride, and not listening to what she’s trying to tell him.)]

M: I’m sorry—

J: For what? That you find my feelings for you offensive? Or that you assume because I’m in trade I’m only capable of thinking in terms of buying and selling? Or that I take pleasure in sending my employees to an early grave?

M: No! No, no, of course not! I – I’m sorry to be so blunt. I’ve not learnt how to – how to refuse. How to respond when a man talks to me as you just have.

J: Oh, there are others? [John begins to see that while he’s been completely open and put his heart on the line, she’s been trying to keep to some mannerly script, just as she would with any other man.] This happens to you every day? Of course. You must have to disappoint so many men that offer you their heart.

M: Please understand, Mr Thornton—

J: I do understand. I understand you completely. [Haha, he doesn’t really. Well, in some ways he understands her better than she understands herself – she believes the things she was saying, even though they’re untrue. But he’s never fully put aside his pride and his point of view to understand where she’s coming from.]

It’s difficult to write two people at odds, who want to love each other. Most often it produces the kind of annoying bickering or unfounded antagonism found in so many romance novels. This scene is a study in the layering of character that creates believable, heart-breaking misunderstanding. Their world views are each valid, and each flawed. His pride, and her immaturity don’t allow them to have a completely honest conversation.

I will now go and think about how to become Sandy Welch.

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.

yes, but do you *like* me?

Like exists in a sort of sub-category of romantic love. When you are in love with someone, it’s assumed that you also like them. It’s assumed so unconsciously that we almost never think of it, much less question it.

I decided to question it last week. I can’t remember why, exactly. I suspect I was having one of those hopeless personal moments of thinking, Why on earth is special k so sure he wants to be with me forever? I could imagine that it’s mostly easy, that it’s habit to spend a lot of time with me. But I was suddenly curious whether there was more than habit and ease and – yes, and more than love and the kind of loyalty that love breeds. Whether there was an active desire to spend time with me.

So I asked him, “What do you like about me?”

It’s an exposing question. Surprisingly exposing. And of course it’s a difficult thing to quantify. The things you can say – the words you can put to your feelings – are more like roadsigns or clues to feelings than feelings themselves. I tried to answer the question back, and could feel a whole world of feelings that were frustratingly unexpressed. I could see special k’s answers were the same, like suddenly looking at each other across a wide space of things unsayable, but trusting and loving and smiling all the same.

Liking, I discovered, is sometimes more romantic than loving.

Love has a kind of “no matter what you do, no matter who you are” quality about it. It’s what makes families to fraught and so wonderful. But like is specific. It means, “only you, in all the world”. 

In romance, we don’t see people liking each other nearly often enough. There’s quite a lot of admiring or being confronted by qualities in each other. There’s more than a lot of loving no matter how painful love becomes. But hardly any sitting and watching the other person make tea because the particular way they make tea makes you happy inside; hardly any conversations that wind the other person out, then an admission of how very much you like talking to them.

After sketching out the ideas for this post I started reading Cecilia Grant’s A Gentleman Undone. It shouldn’t have surprised me that her characters really like each other – and not only that, but we see them come to like each other. It’s not surprising because Grant’s interested in the personal qualities that make sex important. That is, the physical, animal urge for sex has a short-lived kind of meaning and most mature adults can resist it; when you come to know someone and admire and respect and like them – well, then sex becomes a much more complex thing.

Will and Lydia become friends over a scheme to earn money at the card tables of London. Lydia is a mathematical genius and a card shark – and she tries to teach Will to calculate probabilities.

He surprises her by being quick and intelligent in conversation; she doesn’t have to explain herself to him. He is also respectful and trustworthy despite, by his own admission, being quite desperate to sleep with her.

She dazzles him by being ruthless – by being able to calculate the odds of five hands at a time while cleverly incorporating signals for him into general conversation and flirting ineptly – on purpose – with the gentleman on her other side.

It is such a joy to watch them open more to each other with each conversation. To watch Lydia unfold herself under Will’s attention, because here is a man who actively likes who she is. When they are coming to know each other better, Lydia says:

“Why should you care at all what I think of you?” She all but squirmed in her skin at the notion, and one more fact about her became clear: I want you didn’t discompose her nearly so much as I like you and I want to you to think well of me.

4 more things to adore about Miss Marple

Special k and I watch a lot of who-dunnits. Sherlock (Holmes), Poirot, Whitechapel, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. But my very favourite is Miss Marple.

The show, for one thing, is ridiculously well made. Sharp scripts, beautiful sets, well-shot and chock-full of Britain’s best actors. There’s something about Miss Marple, too, that sets her apart from other detectives. She’s unassuming (she doesn’t, like Poirot, introduce herself as The Best Detective Alive) but never submissive. I love watching the people around her underestimate her and then gradually change their minds – though her behaviour remains constant. I love the melancholy wrapped up in this woman people assume is doddering or numb, because she’s old.

The latest episode to air on the ABC was ‘At Bertram’s Hotel’. Here are four things I adored about it:

1) Miss Marple’s assistant for the episode is one of the hotel’s maids, a woman called Jane. The first time she talks alone to the war-stricken detective she says to him, “Just because I’m in a pinny, don’t make me stupid.” “Well,” he says. “That’s me told.” Her sister worked in munitions during the war, and told her that women’s equality had arrived. Then the war ended and Jane found herself in service. Like nothing had changed at all.

Working with Miss Marple to solve the murder she proves herself to be quick and clever – catching on about ten times faster than the detective to everything that’s going on. At the end of the episode she quits her job at the hotel, because she figures the police force will be recruiting women soon. “What do you think?” she asks Miss Marple. “I think,” Miss Marple replies, “it sounds exactly the sort of thing I’d never have done at your age. And always wish I had.”

Oh, and this conversation begins with Jane telling Miss Marple that Detective Bird has asked her to go away with him – not to get married though, no, just to live together for a while and see they get on. Her idea.

2) Which brings me to the romance. Detective Bird is a disillusioned soldier who seems to have been exhausted by the war. His declaration of love is the very best kind.

“Miss Cooper. Jane. Um. I wondered if I could. If you would be so good as to, er. If you would maybe like to consider.” *long, nervous pause* “You’re the most wonderful, intelligent, beautiful woman I’ve ever met. When I first saw you, you took my breath away. And it hasn’t come back yet. When I’m near you I feel drunk. Or dizzy. Or drunk and dizzy. And like I’m walking on air.”

“Inspector Bird–”

“And if whatever you may think of me is a fraction of what I feel for you–”

“Inspector Bird!”

“If there’s any hope you could in your heart–”

“Inspector Bird!”

“Yes?”

“What’s your first name?”

My favourite thing about this gorgeous declaration is that when he says “And like I’m walking on air” he’s uneasy, unsettled, like walking on air is terrifying.

3) ***SPOILERS FOR THE MYSTERY***

This is just one example of Agatha Christie’s mastery of her genre.

A set of identical twins are staying at the hotel, and early on Miss Marple notes that she can tell them apart because one of them is left-handed, one right-handed. The twin she’s talking to thinks she observed his left-handedness because he held his paper under his left arm. It feels like a fairly obvious set-up for a case of mistaken identity.

Indeed, during a critical scene one of the twins appears looking for the other, with a book tucked very definitely under one arm. The other twin arrives soon after, with a hat in his other hand. It felt a little deflating, because it was so obviously the same twin.

During the “all-is-revealed” scene Miss Marple calls them out on it – but absolves them of the murder. They were off stealing jewellery.

The actual murder is much more complex, and involves two girls passing themselves off as one girl, so as to be in two places at once. And what gave them away? One shoots with her left hand, the other with her right.

***END SPOILERS***

4) Miss Marple’s first name is also Jane. Jane-the-maid is quite clearly a girl after her own heart – one who will take after her in a new era. Sharing a name signifies all the other qualities they share. It also allows for a subtle, heart-breaking moment at the end.

The two Janes are talking, and then a man calls out, “Jane!” in a passionate, joyful way. The camera is on Miss Marple as she looks up, a kind of wonder in her face. Then pain. The man is Detective Bird, and he’s calling the younger Jane who goes blithely to him, to embrace him, to walk into the future with him. Jane the elder, whose love was killed in the First World War, remembers that she is an old woman, and her time for young love has passed.

For any Aussies who want to watch it, it’s up on iView at the moment.

The Regency: when men were men

One of my favourite historical details about the Regency is that men used to cry in Parliament to express their sensitivity.

But I digress. Earlier this year I entered a whole bunch of the American contests, just to get my MS out there when it still wasn’t quite ready for agent submissions. The scoresheets have been coming back in dribs and drabs and giving me a pretty good cross-section of what reader reactions might be to my novel. A few mornings ago I received this:

Your Hero, and please do not take this the wrong way but use this as constructive criticism.  At points in your story I had to re-read some paragraphs.  Example When the Dukes friends were over after whites it sounded more like a group of women talking to each other call them by pet names.  My impression at that time was that the Duke was bi-sexual, not that I have a problem with that, but this is a Historical Romance Category.  I’m not impressed with his image at all for a Hero.[Note to self: bi-sexuals ok, just not in Historical Romance.]  Although the Duke suffers Panic attacks does not make a man weak.  His character or what I’ve read of it sounds like a weak, selfish and insecure Duke who thinks he is in love with one sister who is not the Heroine.  I would focus on a better Character for this Duke. [So what you're saying is - that Really Average Character I've given him isn't working?] I would not have him thinking he is in love and I would not have him sleeping with a married women who is your Heroines sister.  I would also not have him calling other men pet names.  He needs to be a little tougher like you had him acting at Whites, when the Earl of Benruin confronted him.

You also mentioned in your synopsis how he and Kit your Heroine had sex.  They should be making Love and Sex should be with the other women who shouldn’t be her sister….[I shall have to look into this "making love".]

Confusing once again due to the amount of characters introduced in the first few chapters.  Example all the dandies sounded the same with calling each other by pet names.  Try to maybe have one dandy and one who is Mr. Serious and the other a jokester. [Then the jokester can come out with lines like, "I don't know why they call him Mr Serious. They should call him Mr Seriously Can't Tie A Cravat. Because look at his cravat." Comic gold. I see where you're going with this...] This way your characters will all have a distinctive voice. [If by distinctive you mean hilarious.] Try and match a voice to your Duke.  Make him a man most girls would fall for.  Hansom, tough looking and can melt butter when he entertains the ladies and a mouth that shots bullets when talking with a man.  Distinctive. [Hmm, my husband doesn't really look tough, so I guess that counts against him. But on the upside he's very handsome and does occasionally melt butter while entertaining me. I haven't noticed any bullets shooting from his mouth, but who knows what he gets up to when I'm not around? Manly things, I suspect.]

Okay, so it’s a bit mean to pick this apart – and the truth is that I really appreciate the time and consideration this judge put into reading my entry. Nothing obliged her to read it but her good will and desire to support aspiring authors. And the other truth is that, should this book ever see the light of day, a large chunk of readers are going to react in exactly this way to my hero.

He is not, as the judge went on to say, A Hero.

He’s slight, and effeminate. He calls other men by pet names. He has sex with them. He’s having an affair with my heroine’s sister (though he never is in love with her – I think this judge read love where there is only respect and affection). He’s so clever he tangles himself up in it, and because he has no idea how to express intimacy like a normal human being he tends to be vicious to the people he loves the most. Oh, and he wears a dress – and not only that, he wears the whole persona of a gorgeous, charismatic, powerful Georgian woman.

Actually, her statement about what girls (and here let me say, mine is definitely a novel for women) really like in a man made me feel a bit sheepish, because this happens in my book:

“Wife!”

The single word was violent as a bullet shot through the house…

That’s BenRuin speaking – the cuckolded husband of my heroine’s sister (my hero’s lover. Keeping up?). He is big and tough. He’s handsome. He comes straight from the Alpha mould.

A lot of readers are also confounded by the fact that the book starts in his POV – and through his eyes the reader sees my hero as a frippery. The readers who are confounded by it tend to be the readers who would prefer to read BenRuin’s book.

I did that on purpose. BenRuin is A Hero. Darlington is not.

In a recent podcast, Dan Savage gave this advice to a young bisexual dude: Be confident in your sexuality and the ladies will flock to you to get some of that. (More or less.) I agree. I find the idea of a bisexual man really hot. And I get that some women don’t.

I’ve always known that as a fairly queer book (there’s a tertiary gay romance, too, that’s boiling away in the background) My Lady Untamed won’t be for everyone. But when I only knew that theoretically, I kind of couldn’t imagine how anyone would not just fall for Darlington completely. To me he’s heaven. So it’s great to have proof and be able to put a shape to how some people will read it.

But it also solidifies for me that the kinds of heroes I fall for aren’t what the judge described. And that’s really why I start my novel with BenRuin. He’s the old guard. He’s A Romance Hero. I wanted him to see and dismiss my hero, because my hero is something else.

In the most recent Dear Bitches Smart Authors podcast, Sarah Wendell, Molly O’Keefe and Stephanie Doyle talk about the women who are pushing historical romance to its limits: Cecelia Grant, Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran. They’re writing complex characters and redefining what sex is in romance. They are, without hesitation, the authors I aspire to stand beside.

I met my husband like this:

I’m a massive fan of birthdays. I believe in broadcasting it to everyone for a good two weeks beforehand, and spoiling myself silly on the day. That doesn’t mean spending lots of money – it means on this one day I do whatever the hell I feel like. Mostly I feel like pancakes.

When I turned twenty-three I had a nuclear group of friends who were like family to me. They also liked drinking beer at the park in the afternoon. Twas a golden era.

The boy I’d been breaking up with for about nine months threw me a birthday party – and by party I mean small, intimate dinner with my ten closest friends. There were homemade pizzas. I didn’t find out until I was there, that one of my friends was bringing her boyfriend’s friend who’d come over from Glasgow, Scotland. (I’ll give you a second to get that one straight.)

This did not make me happy.

I remember very particularly thinking: At least if he’s big and ginger with a thick Scottish accent there’ll be some novelty value.

Special k looks like this:

(Heh. He’s so cute.)

And like this:

And also this:

Big and ginger, he is not. Also, his accent could pass for American. Or Irish. Or maybe Danish, on a bad day.

I think all I said to him the whole night was “Hello”, and I don’t think I said it in a nice, welcoming sort of way.

The next time we met the first thing I saw were his boxing boots, which were just like mine. Then I heard him beatbox. And then I tackled him to the ground in a game of footy and cut him open with my fingernail.

The first time he hugged me, I felt this shock of surprise, like, “Huh. He’s so human.”

I was reading a review on Dear Author the other day that got me thinking about the way love interests tend to “hate” each other when they first meet. The first two thirds-or-so of a romance is taken up with bickering and insults and arguments. And kissing, of course.

In the context of a whole life together, my period of conflict with special k is pretty tiny. But it goes to show there’s something to the idea that dislike can be the earliest incarnation of really-like.

It’s the way we express attraction as kids, isn’t it? Hair-pulling. Seaweed throwing. I once called a very pretty boy a dickhead, for not logical reason. Why do we express attraction through insult? WHY???

(That’s a serious question, by the way. I’m stumped.)

The review made me think of it, because the bickering of the hero and heroine just sounded pretty odious. The hero won’t leave the heroine’s restaurant until she agrees to hook up with him, even though she’s asked him to leave many times. He spouts clunky innuendo at her while she’s serving cake to some old women. Ugh.

A couple in a romance have to challenge each other. They have to expect unreasonable things, and unsettle and push each other. Romance and love couldn’t happen without it.

But I can’t help feeling we get so used to reading “bickering” as “attraction” that we lose track of what’s beneath it – what it actually means. What drives a person to be awful when they most want to be lovely?

(Again – no answers here.)

I was cold to special k because I was immature, and I thought I knew all there was to know about him sixty seconds after I met him. Falling in love was a bit like following lanterns down a dark path. Piece by piece he surprised and delighted me as my expectations were overturned.

I watched him eat ice cream. (There’s an ice cream cone engraved on the inside of my wedding ring.) I watched the sun rise with him from the roof of the Pascoe Vale swimming pool, and he looked at me from under the brim of his blue Glasgow cap. He hid from me at Heathrow until I was forlorn then hugged me for twenty whole minutes without letting go.

Maybe people are just better, when you have misunderstood them entirely.