Category Archives: Guest

some of the world is fetched back from the nevernever

ANNA

Earlier this year I read The Black Hawk by Jo Bourne. It was at a point when I was starting to feel confident in my own book. I felt I was putting the final stitches in, that make stitching invisible; I felt it had become a complex narrative told in pretty serviceable writing. Then I read The Black Hawk.

I remember so clearly that feeling, part joy, part despair. Joy, because writing at that level is always a joy to read. Despair, because reading Jo’s writing was like realising that moon I’d thought was so close I could touch it was on the other side of a window and a couple of hundred thousand kilometres away.

My post about writing inside a genre tradition sparked an excellent conversation on twitter about historical accuracy. (This is something historical writers love to talk about on twitter, I am coming to realise.) Jo made this one comment that set off lightbulbs. “If you’re going to describe Almack’s,” she said, “describe the moth on the window.”

In an attempt to discover all of her secrets, I asked her to elaborate on that thought.

***

JO

One of the Really Hard Bits of writing historicals is that we can’t just go visit the past and see what it looks like.  There’s no bus tour to Regency London.  I can’t catch the next plane to Revolutionary Paris.

We want the sounds, the smells, the colors and the gritty reality of 1802 beneath our characters’ feet and under their hands. So what do we do?

– We visit what’s left.  The Marais quarter in Paris has survived the mischances and ‘improvements’ of centuries.  I can walk those stone streets and put my hand on walls three centuries old, everywhere.  This is what the Paris of 1789 looked like.

– We study art — always a good idea for its own sake, of course, but I’m talking about taking a magnifying glass to a Cruikshank print or a Hogarth painting.  (Oh how I wish they’d invented photography earlier than they did.)

– We gather in universal human experience.  I once had a character staring up at the sky, watching a meteor shower.  There are these great falls of meteors that come back every year.  The Leonids. The Perseids.  I’ve lain back on the hood of my car, rested my head on the windshield, and watched meteors draw white lines across the sky.  So I set my man in 1802 to do the same thing, minus the car hood of course.

I remember once, lighting a candle and seeing it reflected in the window glass, with my own self holding the light and night outside seeming to be all around me.  So I make my character do the same.   How many women have stood at how many other windows through the centuries.  Maybe somebody who’s reading my story remembers doing that same thing.

– And finally, of course, we cheat.

We make stuff up.  We guess.  We extrapolate — that’s a kinder word than cheating.  If I need a public house on a square in the city of London, I don’t wait for history to spawn me a pub.  I invent the square.  I create the tavern, with its long benches and scarred tables.  I select a view to see from the window.  I decide how their beer tastes.

(After a while, the pub and that square, or the parlor of a townhouse, or a cottage in the countryside take on a life of their own.  Now I’d find it hard to change them.  Weird.)

When you first become a writer, they issue you a laminated card that says, ‘Literary Permit, Licensed To Make Things Up.’  That’s this Literary License you hear about.

The fine print on the back goes into detail about ‘shall hold harmless’ and ‘may cause damage in an academic setting’ and ‘not for use as a flotation device’.  But basically this gives writers a Get Out Of Jail Card when it comes to telling tales.

Our fictional world is more than period literature and pictures.  More than the remnants left behind by time and the life we share with everyman and everywoman. Some of the world we create is fetched back from the nevernever.  It’s spun from whole cloth.

It’s pure fiction.

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the immortal and the immoral: the romance, the novel, and the romance novel

ANNA

I met Jodi McAlister when I flew to Sydney to have high tea with Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches. I was lucky enough to sit at a table with her and hear tantalising snatches about her PhD thesis on virgin heroines in romance novels.

The conversation turned that way at one point and she said, “Don’t ask me about it, though, or I’ll be talking for hours!” All I could think was, Please start talking. I think and talk about romance in a casual way on here and with my writing peeps, but Jodi has studied this stuff for years. I wanted to crack into her brain and bask in it.

As that is, um, not a thing you do, I did the next best thing and asked her to write me a post about it. Then Sarah Wendell beat me to it. If you haven’t yet, you should head over and read the interview – it really is fascinating stuff.

This paragraph in particular grabbed my attention:

(One thing I think is really interesting is that you’ll often read that Samuel Richardson invented the novel when he wrote Pamela, or maybe Daniel Defoe, but this is doing a great disservice to the ladies who were writing it first: people like Aphra BehnEliza Haywood, and Delarivier Manley, who has one of my favourite author names of all time. These authors – Manley in particular – implictly rejected the idea that if you lost your virginity in the wrong way, you were automatically a bad person. They’re really fascinating works, and it bums me out that a bunch of dudes get the credit for inventing the novel when the ladies pretty clearly got there first.)

so I asked Jodi to write about this instead, and it’s absolutely fascinating. I’m thrilled to have her on the blog!

***

JODI

When people ask me what I study, I usually tell them “romance novels”. However, if I’d said those two words together in the eighteenth century, people would definitely have looked at me funny. “But a romance and a novel are the same thing!” some might have said. “But they’re completely different things – you can’t just put them together like that!” others might have said. (I am totally paraphrasing my hypothetical eighteenth century people: language, like genre, has changed profoundly from then to now!)

The terms “romance” and “novel” have a very complicated history. The novel became an increasingly popular form in the eighteenth century, at which point the romance had been around for a very long time. Both were works of extended prose: what, then, was the difference? what made the novel a new form? Maybe it was the length, or the characters, or the morals. Maybe it was the setting, or the titles, the poetic vs prosaic focus, or any number of things. In reality, the line between the two could be very, very blurry. As the meaning of the two terms evolved, they often came to be applied retroactively. There is a lot of debate out there as to what the first novel in the English language actually is. The reality is that there isn’t an easy answer, because the boundary between the novel and the romance is not clearcut.

To make something complicated simple, the most common trope used to (retroactively) separate the novel from the romance was realism. In her 1785 work The Progress of Romance, Clara Reeve argued that the romance portrays “what never happened nor is likely to happen”, while the novel “gives a familiar relation of such things, as pass every day before our eyes, such as may happen to our friend, or to ourselves.” We might also tie this to the growing separation between “high” and “low” (or popular) culture – Bradford K Mudge talks about this in terms of “immortal” and “immoral” works of literature. For the novel to become a literary or immortal form, he argues, it needed another immoral form against whom its merits could be judged. For Mudge, this other form is pornography, but I think it can be argued that the “romance” was also othered in this way. Indeed, for some cultural commentators, there was not a lot of difference between romance and pornography as far as the effect on the (female) reader was concerned: a letter to the editor in a 1730 edition of The Universal Spectator read:

“And now, as to the Ladies favourite Collection, Romances. It grieves me to say it, they ruin more Virgins than Masquerades or Brothels. They strike at the very Root of all Virtue, by corrupting the Mind.”

We can see here just how very dangerous female fantasy was considered to be – the romance, an explicitly fantastical genre, ruins more virgins than brothels? This particular letter is decrying the “lewd Inventions of H—–d and M—-y”: Eliza Haywood and Delarivier Manley. And yet did these two authors really write “romances”?

Haywood and Manley are not names that come up a lot in discussions about what the first novel was. They are two of the three female writers that make up “the fair triumvirate of wit”: the third, Aphra Behn, sometimes gets a mention, but usually, the first novel badge is usually pinned on Daniel Defoe or Samuel Richardson, shunting the works of these three authors into the pre/non-literary “immoral” category. But if we use the idea of realism to distinguish between the immortal and the immoral, which is really more realistic? In Richardson’s Pamela, a penniless servant girl marries her aristocratic master, basically as a reward for her not succumbing to his aggressive physical, financial, and psychological attempts to seduce/rape her previously. Compare this to what Manley says in the preface to The Secret History of Queen Zarah and the Zarazinians:

“It wou’d in no wise be probable that a Young Woman fondly beloved by a Man of great Merit, and for whom she had Reciprocal Tenderness, finding herself at all Times alone with him… cou’d always resist his addresses.”

Manley argued in this preface that female readers wanted to see characters more like themselves represented on the page: more realistic heroines, we might say. (Certainly more realistic than Richardson’s Pamela!) And she was certainly not averse to representing real(istic) people on the page – at least one of her books was noticeably based on real people, something for which she stood trial. What is noticeable in her books are her passionate female characters: for example, in the novella ‘The Wife’s Resentment’ in The Power of Love,  Violenta is seduced and then discarded, so she stabs her seducer to death, dismembers him, and tears out his tongue (so he can no longer use it to seduce young women) and his heart. There is an implicit protest against the virgin/whore dichotomy in a lot of her work, and a recognition that the world is not fair for women: Violenta’s story ends with her recounting the events leading up to her violent crimes at her trial, with everyone in the court “Amazed at [her] Courage and Magnanimity”.

Manley is not alone in her portrayal of strong, passionate, unconventional female characters who break both laws and social norms. The following passage is from Eliza Haywood’s Life’s Progress Through The Passions Or, The Adventures of Natura. (For context, Natura is the main character, and, intending to marry, he has been courting a girl named Maria. Someone has just tried to kill him, and it is very strongly suggested that Maria was behind it.)

“The assassin was soon after brought to a public trial, where tortures making him confess the truth, he acknowledged, that having been a servant in the family, the beauty of Maria had inspired him with desires, unbefitting the disparity between them; – that emboldened by an extraordinary goodness she shewed to him, he had declared his passion, and met with all the returns he wished; – that she became pregnant by him, and had made a vow to keep herself single, till the death of her father should leave her at liberty to marry him; but that an unlucky accident having discovered their amour, he was turned out of the house, and the grief Maria conceived at it occasioned an abortion; but that after her recovery she contrived means to meet him privately, and to support him with money, that he might not be obligated to go to service any more… and he learned from her the addresses of Natura, and the positive commands laid on her by her parents of marrying him, in order to retrieve her honour and reputation; that as besides the extreme love he had for her, his own interest obliged him to hinder the match, if by any means he could; and finding no other than the death of his rival, he had attempted it by the way already mentioned…”Maria’s lover is executed, and Maria herself descends into madness and is sent away to live in a convent. However, Natura, the protagonist, finds that he “could not avoid feeling a very tender commiseration for her”. This illicit love affair, taking place across class differences and definitely counter to popular morality, is portrayed sympathetically.

The reason that the books of Manley, Haywood and Behn got thrown in the immoral rather than the immortal basket was not because of some arbitrary distinction between the romance and the novel but because they were dangerous. Their literary form is the form Richardson was trying to remake in a moral form when he wrote Pamela. Social anxieties about what women read and what they took from it were rife, as demonstrated in that letter to the editor quoted above. Female fantasy, whether or sex or violence or revenge or passion, taking place as it did outside the controlled bounds of patriarchal society, was considered frightening and perilous.

Modern romance fiction are also repositories of female fantasies, and when thinking of the way the genre is often treated by cultural commentators, it’s not difficult to see parallels. What if romances give women unrealistic expectations? What if women can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality? We’ve all read this before. ‘Romance’, as a generic term, is often still a dirty word.

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how deep do you go, and what do you find, when you go so deep?

ANNA

I first came across Rose Lerner in AnimeJune’s review of A Lily Among Thorns. (I defy anyone to read that review and not want to read the book immediately.) I started following Rose on twitter, which is evidently my default response to discovering authors I admire. Rose wrote in an interview about what makes a couple romantic, and being deep in Harry Potter fandom at the time, I piped up to say that Harry and Draco were the most romantic pairing ever.

I wasn’t sure this was a thing I should be saying aloud, but I couldn’t help letting my love of them spill over. And Rose’s reply was something like, “Right? RIGHT? Let’s talk about this sometime.”

So we did.

Then I read Rose’s books, one directly after the other. Her writing is a delight – something cool and lovely to the brain. (Highlighted in my Kindle: ‘She felt as if she were a neat page in a ledger and he’d spilled ink across her. She could feel it spreading over her skin, soaking in, making her messy and vivid and irrevocably destroyed.’)

The thing I love most about Rose’s books, though, is how real her characters are. The middle-class mother who wants her daughter to marry well but, good lord, isn’t going to force her into an unhappy marriage. The gentleman-chemist whose uncle will not understand his aspirations to work in trade. And Rose’s post today goes some way to explaining why her characters have this quality.

I should also note quickly that Rose’s books were previously published through Dorchester, who are no longer operating. The bad news is, this means you can’t access her books for the moment. The very good news is that Rose is writing a new book, and is looking for a home for her backlist with a new publisher. I’ll be tweeting about it as soon as there’s more news.

***

ROSE

Anna asked me to talk about being fannish, and how that affects my writing process.

That isn’t exactly what she said. She said “how deeply you go into the things that appeal to you–characters and people and ideas.” To me, though, that’s inextricably tied up with being fannish.

Here’s how Wikipedia defines “fandom”:

Fandom is a term used to refer to a subculture composed of fans characterized by a feeling of sympathy and camaraderie with others who share a common interest. Fans typically are interested in even minor details of the object(s) of their fandom and spend a significant portion of their time and energy involved with their interest, often as a part of a social network with particular practices (a fandom); this is what differentiates “fannish” (fandom-affiliated) fans from those with only a casual interest.

To me, fannishness is a personality type more than anything else. The essence of fannishness is a certain type of bottomless enthusiasm. When I am interested in something, there are no limits to my interest. The deeper I go, the more fascinated I become, whether it’s watching twenty Tom Hiddleston interviews in a row, researching a novel, or spending an entire hour with a friend casting Sunset Boulevard remakes.

At the 2011 Beau Monde (the Regency RWA chapter) Conference, Mary Jo Putney said that, “Regency England is a shared world fantasy, like Star Wars or Star Trek.” I am in love with that quote because Regency England is probably my longest running continuous fandom: I started reading stacks and stacks of Regency romances at age 12 and I haven’t stopped since. I started writing them at 17 and I love them more every day.

That’s the thing about fannishness: the love builds and builds on itself, and the more I think about it and read about it and talk to fellow fans about it, the bigger it grows and the bigger it wants to grow, the hungrier it is. The best part of fannishness is that moment when I’ve built up my love so high, I don’t understand how it can physically fit inside my body…but I know that soon it will be even bigger. Fannishness is like getting to fall in love, over and over again–sometimes with a celebrity or a character, sometimes with a story or a world or an idea or an author.

I want people to feel that way about my books. I want to write books that someone could feel that way about. And I want to write books that stand up to that kind of intense scrutiny.

Because fannishness is about love, but there’s a corollary: when you think about a story that much, you notice things about it that a non-fannish reader or viewer might not. And if you’re part of a community centered around your fandom, you talk to other people who also notice things, and you all share what you notice. Some of those things are amazing hidden treasures. Some are horrible hidden flaws.

All fans have seen what can happen when the creator of a show or a book puts less thought into world-building, plot construction, or character arcs than the fannish audience does. All fans carry rage in their hearts from stories that hurt them, stories that destroyed characters or worlds or narratives they loved, without giving that destruction the weight it deserved. I am still angry, Smallville! I am still angry, J.K. Rowling, Joss Whedon, the Battlestar Galactica finale.

It isn’t even that I wasn’t happy with where those stories went. It’s that I don’t believe those stories were constructed in a way that respected how incredibly emotionally invested many people were in them, or respected that those people were not always invested in exactly the same aspects of them as their writers. Deathly Hallows was not constructed to be entirely satisfying if, for example, you related to Pansy Parkinson personally rather than symbolically, if you thought of her as a complete personality behind the page rather than a construct representing “girls who were mean to me in high school.”

Obviously there are fans who do not feel this way about the stories I’ve named! Some fans loved the Battlestar Galactica finale! My friends, though, went into a rage-filled, ranting mourning that lasted about a week.

Being in fandom and talking to other fans made me aware in a way I never was before that everyone reads a story differently. Everyone focuses on something different. Everyone has a favorite character and every character is someone’s favorite. Many someones, in fact.

(It’s funny and a little sad to me how sometimes, people who aren’t active participants in fandom don’t realize this. I once skimmed a book of Harry Potter fan letters from children in a bookstore and saw variants on this theme over and over again: “Dear Professor Snape/Tom Riddle/Seamus Finnegan, I am your only fan.” I PROMISE YOU, KID, YOU ARE NOT.)

I’m not saying I want every character I love to have a happy ending. But I do want every character I love to have a story that means something.

I don’t love every character in stories that I read, of course. But I try my best to love every last character I write, and for the most part, I do. (The few characters I’ve written that I dislike as people, I regard as not-quite-successful artistically.) I try my best to write so that no matter which character is your favorite, even if you’ve fallen hopelessly in love with the hero’s little sister or the sweet-shop salesgirl or the villain, you’ll feel that I gave them a fair shake.

It’s a conscious priority for me to write so that no matter where in the story the reader emotionally invests, she’ll feel satisfied at the end of the book. I really, really hope that on closer examination, my books yield more treasures than flaws.

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define normal

ANNA

It took me a while to read Ruthie Knox’s Ride with Me, even though all of the internet loved it. Something about the bike-riding premise made me think lycra and bike helmets, and I just couldn’t get on board. I finally caved, because all of the internet.

I’m trying to think what I loved so much about it, and more than anything there’s a feeling about Ruthie’s books. Like her characters get inside your chest and are all warm and painful. She’s clever. And she can write.

I immediately started following her on twitter, and when one day she posted “Anyone want to read a first chapter for me?” I jumped at the chance. It was a happy day when Ruthie emailed me back to say, “Um, you’re going to have to get really good at saying no to me.”

My favourite thing about the writing community is its generosity. I love contributing to other writers, and I’m amazed at how willing other writers are to contribute to me. Ruthie is the embodiment of this quality. You wouldn’t believe the crazy hour she gets out of bed just to accomplish everything on her plate – and still she gives her time freely to so many other writers (and believe me we/they all appreciate the hell out of it).

It’s such a pleasure to begin my guest posts with Ruthie Knox.

***

RUTHIE

When someone you like and admire sends you an email inviting you to write about masturbation, you have to say yes. It’s, like, a rule.

So here I am, hoping I won’t sully Anna’s beautiful new digs too much with my scandalous masturbatory musings. I mean, I don’t think I will, but sometimes it’s hard to tell where the lines are. I have issues with “normal.”

As a child, I was obsessed with being normal, but I never quite managed it. These days, I accept my not-normalness as a given—so much so that I sometimes forget about it until events conspire to remind me. I mention this because Anna’s lovely post about the masturbation scene in Ride with Me was one of those reminder moments.

See, at the time I wrote Ride with Me, I thought I was writing a Harlequin Blaze book. (This is also true for About Last Night, which I wrote before Ride with Me, though it was released second.) That was my goal: write a Blaze. I was reading a lot of Blaze at the time, I liked them, and I wanted to write one. But the Blaze editor passed on both books, Loveswept ended up taking them, and after they came out, people reviewed them and said things about how “fresh” and “different” and “not-at-all-category-romance-like” they were.

Oops.

When I wrote the tent-masturbation scene in Ride with Me, the book was about twenty thousand words long, and nothing sexy had happened yet except for some tire-licking. I knew Tom and Lexie weren’t going to be able to have sex for many, many more pages. This seemed like a problem, since Harlequin Blaze books are verrah sexy.

So I was thinking, you know, Must cram in something sexlike, and there was Tom, doing his bike-mechanic thing, and there was Lexie in her tent, alone, with idle time on her hands.

Have you ever seen a good-looking, shirtless guy in a baseball cap grease a bike chain? There’s all this standing and crouching, arm-bracing and pedal-turning, oily-rag-stroking and peering-frowning. There’s the smell of the chain oil and the click of the gears and the turn of the pedals, the skin glistening in the sun, the whole sweaty-working-male-outdoors thing…

It seemed, in short, like the obvious scene to write.

At the time, it didn’t occur to me that female masturbation rarely appears in romance, much less in category romance. Nor did it occur to me that when female masturbation does appear, it’s usually in a context of shame—and that even male masturbation is usually depicted as a shameful, last-ditch sort of activity when his blue-ball situation reaches critical levels. Although once Anna pointed all of that out, I thought, “Huh. Yes. That’s true.”

Again, oops.

I should probably mention, in defense of all the gatekeepers who are imagined to be keeping female-masturbation scenes out of romance, that I didn’t get any pushback from anybody—critique partners, agent, editors—on that scene. The only question I got was actually about the content of Lexie’s fantasy: would a woman masturbate to the idea of giving a man a blow job, or is that a male fantasy?

Interesting question, indeed. I got all het up about it for a while, and then I ended up revising the scene slightly to emphasize that what was getting Lexie off was the idea of making Tom powerless by giving him pleasure—which makes sense in the context of the book, because he has most of the power in their relationship at this stage, and that drives her up the wall.

So in that sense, Lexie is having a classic oral-sex-as-castration fantasy while bringing herself to orgasm in a hot tent in the middle of the day, somewhere in Idaho.

God. I can see, writing that, that it is kind of weird.

But also sexy!

I think.

The dynamics of sex require the negotiation of power and desire, fantasy and reality, control and intimacy. For all its multifaceted appeal, sex is a tricky, messy business, and I like to get at least some of that tricky messiness into my stories.

At the same time, however, I’m writing genre romance—and there’s an obligation inherent in the genre, I think, to celebrate fantasy sex, rather than the sort where you get elbowed in the eye or have to reach for the lube or whatnot.

So it’s complicated. And then there are all these additional complicating questions like the ones Anna posed in her response to Ride with Me—questions about feminism and desire, woman-as-object versus woman-as-subject of desire, about desire and ownership, passion and principle, gender conventions and gender roles and how we define what’s sexy, anyhow.

In the end, I have to ask myself, after I’ve blurted out a sex scene onto the page, both Is this sexy to me? and Will this be sexy to (many, if not all) of my imaginary, unknown, mostly female readers who are buying this book at least in part because they want a pleasurable experience?

The first question is always easy to answer, but the second one isn’t—and generally, the more interesting I find a scene, the more I wonder about Question Numero Dos. In the end, there’s no reliable yardstick—there’s just what I know I like to read, and what I want to put on the page. What’s normal? What’s sexy? Who knows?

Let’s just have fun with it, shall we?

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