men & death


When I was thinking about who I wanted to invite to post as part of my blog launch, I immediately thought of three classmates from my writing school days. One reason is that they write in completely different genres to me, but still contributed so much to me during those two formative years. The other reason is that I believe they will all be super-stars of the literary world, and I wanted their voices to be part of this conversation.

Scott Pearse writes the opposite of what I do, in the sense that one side of a coin is the opposite of the other. He’s consumed by the question of what it means to be a man in an age when the traditional signs of male competence are no longer valued, or even necessary. He asks this question with humour and wisdom and heart-wrenching clarity – as well as being a bit of a smart-arse sometimes.

I talk a lot about Female Stuff. (*gasp*) That’s cool, I write for a predominantly female audience, and I am female. (I know, right?) I’m so excited to have Scott’s post, which asks questions about masculinity in a way I couldn’t.

Scott and his wife Jo-Roxy recently cycled across the US and documented their trip in all its gorgeous, awful, honest detail on their blog Bike Gang (also, photos of weird tan lines). My favourite post is Scott’s letter to Jo-Roxy on their second wedding anniversary, because we all know I’m a big romantic softy.



 I’m truly elated to be asked to contribute to this fancy-looking new blog. Anna and I were novel classmates for two years in the RMIT Professional Writing and Editing program. I entered the program as a confident middle-twenties know-it-all and was paired with Anna in our first class. I can’t recall the exact nature of our task, but it was writing a reaction to something that our instructor had written on the board. Of course, my response was mostly forced comedy and attempted insight and I thought I’d done some pretty creative and zany stuff. I’m grateful still that I chose to read my piece to Anna before she read hers because that was the first time, of many, during the two years that it became evident Anna is an exceptional writer. I doubt I would I have had the courage to read my flippant musing after hearing her competent and honest prose. Our Novel instructor told the class at the beginning of our course that only one of us would have our book published, and I’m glad that it is Anna’s work that has beaten the odds.


My father was the first person at the scene of a cycling fatality. The man who died was near to my father’s age, had small children and was struck by a bus on the straight highway that runs between Geelong and my hometown, Drysdale. An investigation, or perhaps local conjecture, suggested the cyclist had been holding a straight line along the narrow shoulder of the highway during his usual Friday morning training ride, when his wheel must have struck a rock or debris which caused him to veer unexpectedly into the road. It was awful luck that a bus happened to be passing at highway speed at the same time.

My father was returning from night shift, it was 7:30am. The highway leaving Geelong was mostly empty; the other side was only beginning to see the daily stream of commuters headed for the city. My father was distantly following the bus when he saw the cloud of smoke caused by the pointless locking of brakes and tires. When the bus came to an askew stop on the side of the highway, he knew something was wrong. My father was driving an awful car at the time, an Orange Datsun 120Y, a car so bad only my father, who has always had a fondness for vehicles others believed ugly or undesirable, could love. When he pulled over he saw the outline of the bicycle in the knee length grass beside the road, a mangled wheel pointing skyward. My father took a towel from the boot of the Datsun, walked over to the cyclist’s body, saw there was nothing he could do and placed the towel over the man’s face. My father waited with him until the ambulance arrived.

I was probably ten when this happened; I remember it being a school day. It wasn’t unusual for my father to be returning from work as the rest of us would be beginning our day. I spent much of my childhood sneaking around the house being careful to not wake my father who slept until 3pm after a night shift–the sneaking was mostly pointless, my father could have slept through a tsunami.

Even after a night shift my father is affable nearly to a fault. Shift work was never a crutch he leant on, he would never complain, he was always excited to see us and besides being a little absent-minded, you would hardly know he had been awake all night. My father is as constant and dependable a man as I have ever known. He grew up on a large farm in rural north-west Victoria, leaving almost as soon as he could to move to Melbourne where he became a 16-year-old apprentice mechanic. He spent time in the Army reserve eventually becoming a commando and earning his wings for completing fourteen airbourne training insertions, including six in one day (not that I’m boasting or anything, but my Dad might be tougher than yours). Luckily for me, my mother and sisters, he was enlisted in a time of peace and was never deployed overseas, although I’m sure he would have found a way out of going anyway. My mother, who was in the reserve at same time, recollected, ‘every time my group passed Andy’s, he would be on the ground doing push-ups with a sergeant standing over him berating him for his insolence.’ My father still benefits from oversized shoulders to this day.

On the day of the accident my father came home and looked as blank and white as a bleached towel. This was before the days of mobile telecommunication and my mother had no idea what had happened, but it was obvious something was wrong. Without saying a word my father ran into the toilet and started vomiting, my mother followed him and when he was done took him into the bedroom from where he didn’t emerge. My mother and father stayed in their room a long time, dealing with the complexities of marriage as they always did, behind the curtain of their closed bedroom door. Being ten, I was sure my father had discovered one of my many innocent wrongdoings and it had made him violently ill. I racked my brain for all the bad things I had done, wishing I could undo them. My mother came out and told me Dad had seen an accident, someone had died and Dad didn’t feel too good about it.

It is sad that most of us these days seem to have had some experience with a road fatality and whenever such a story is recounted the incident of my father and the cyclist comes flooding back to me. I recall my own ten-year-old reaction quite vividly. I suppose I was beginning to understand what is required or expected of men, and this was the first time I had seen my father react to anything so viscerally. I would never call him emotionally reticent but he does have an awkward matter-of-fact way of doing things. He was always strong in every situation; he is our family’s rock. My reaction was to be equally confused and amazed that my father could show how deeply affected he was by trauma. He broke down, and thus, as my reasoning went, all men could break down. This experience was completely outside my emotional vocabulary.

Coming to understand the expectations placed on men has been an interest in my writing from the beginning. My simple realisation is that mostly the individual is responsible for the expectations placed upon themselves; without doubt, societal pressures dictate certain behaviours, but mostly it is personal choice to be the man I want to be. My own father is as complex a role-model as any, because people change, things happen, and we live on the edge of control attempting to preserve the facade that we know what we’re doing. This is as true of men as it is of women.

In hindsight my ten-year-old reaction was naive. This incident stands out in my memories as every small change in my perception of what I was supposed to grow up to be was monumental, and death is the one awful thing parents cannot shield their children from. My father was grieving: even though he had no connection to the cyclist, his connection to his death caused him grief. Now as an adult I know death is shared equally among both men and women, while grief is as varied within each sex as it is different between them. My father wasn’t exposing an aspect of masculinity, he was exposing something human. I simply wasn’t old enough to distinguish between the two.

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another not so so-so sunday

How cool was this week?

Jodi introduced us to the early (female) novelists; Jo talked about writing personal experience into historical fiction – as well as Just Making Stuff Up; Liz described the process of reading and reading for pleasure; I asked why sex always hurts the first time in romance; and Cat gave a master-class in creating and sustaining tension.

Also the accidental housewife was referred to as both a salon and an orgy on twitter. Success!

Next week we have three future super-stars stepping up to the plate, and a post by Cecilia Grant (fangirl moment!).

Interesting things around the internet this week are all on Radish Review’s Linkspam. Is that internet-cannibalism, if my only link is a link to another links page? This is how information works! Information is a cannibal!

Although I will pull one out as a definite highlight:

This post in which Kristin Cashore bares her book-writing process to the world. She writes by hand, so you can see every painful step, as well as the helpful little notes she writes herself, like, Don’t freak out and Terrible, horrible, no good, very bad. It’s terrifying but also inspiring. I was especially glad I’d seen it today when I realised I have to rewrite my whole teen romance.

And now to prizes! Also, fun things have arrived in the mail. Let me show you:

UPDATE: Isobel requested that I redraw in favour of a reader, and I picked Willaful’s name out of the hat. Congratulations Willaful! An accidental housewife e-reader cover will be winging its way to you in the new year.

The best way to keep up with the conversation is to subscribe. You can do this by clicking the follow button on the bottom right corner of the screen and inputting your email address, by following with your own WordPress blog, or by subscribing to the RSS feed.



Those of you who’ve been reading my blog for a while will have noticed I talk about Cat a lot. (It’s usually when I’m struggling though an idea and she’s said something illuminating.) She is my writing buddy and crit partner extraordinaire, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be where I am today without her.

We met in a poetry class at uni. Cat thought much more of my poems than I did, and her terse, hilarious, clever poetry wasn’t what I’d expected this very friendly woman to write. We both gave up poetry, which is likely a good thing.

She was the first person to read the first draft of My Lady Untamed, back when it was called The Three Loves of Miss Beatrice Sutherland and Miss Beatrice Sutherland was kind of a snivelling doormat. She encouraged me, even then. And then she introduced me to Lymond.

These days we write together three days a week, 10-5. We know each other’s work inside-out, and have gotten pretty damn good at feeling out when our brainstorming is sparking something and when the other person’s just drawing a blank. Our coffee breaks are full of writing conversation; our particular loves are Dunnett and Vampire Diaries.

Cat published the first two books of Captive Prince as an online serial (it’s still live), and she’s been working the past couple of months on getting them ready for self-publication as e- and paper books. The amount of work and self will that has gone into the process is incredible and very inspiring.

I would tell you about why I love her books, but her post is going to do it for me. It’s a master class in tension. It’s the kind of insight I get every week. And no, you can’t have her.



I love tension. I love long scenes between characters in which the tension rises and rises. My favourite author is Dorothy Dunnett, and she is the master of tension, especially in her later books, with scenes that run for twenty pages or more, in which the tension is not only sustained, it is also continually escalated–the holy grail of tension.

“How do you create tension in your writing?” is a question I am continually investigating. I’m not certain there is a simple formula, but there is certainly a single, unavoidable truth:

If you want tension in your story you have to 1) create it and 2) sustain it.

Creating it is easier than sustaining it. Sustaining tension for me becomes exponentially more difficult the longer I try to sustain it, and the stronger the tension that I am trying to sustain. I am often wrestling with a variety of techniques in order to try to push my tension higher or sustain tension through a longer scene.

I feel like I’m only at the beginning of my understanding of tension, and I still have many secrets to unlock. But for what it’s worth, here’s my take on how tension works, and some of the ways to create it and sustain it in writing.

Creating tension

Tension is something that exists between, usually between two forces, usually between two forces that are in opposition. I think of tension as either ‘push’ tension, like the tension in two bodies that are straining against one another until one of them gives ground, or ‘pull’ tension, like the tension in a rope that is being pulled at each end in a tug of war.

These forces might be two characters with opposing goals (external tension), they might be two opposing desires within one character (internal tension), they might be a character’s desire for a goal and the barrier to that goal. There are multiple possible forces, multiple forms of tension. The goodie versus baddie fight is tense because the force of survival is pitted against the force of annihilation. Sexual tension exists when the force of sexual desire pushes against the force of restraint and/or the obstacle to that desire: we want to but we can’t, or won’t, or musn’t, yet, for some reason. The stronger those forces, the more powerful the tension.

Because tension requires two forces to exist, creating tension means constructing and establishing those forces, then clearly expressing them to the reader. Once the forces are constructed, and the stakes made plain, tension will result. The more clearly the forces are drawn, and the higher the stakes are for the characters, the higher the tension.

One of the ways that I often see this done is by embedding the opposing forces into the characters themselves. That is probably one reason why opposites work so well in fiction: the rule follower and the loose canon, the fighter and the scholar, the Machiavel and the Alexander slicing through the Gordian knot. The hero and the villain. The character who sees things in black and white versus the character who sees things in shades of grey. Opposing archetypes are immediately in tension and have the potential to push or pull forever. One or the other must give way, and yet neither will give way, resulting in tension.

Another way I often see tension created is via the drawing of a boundary (as one force) and an opposing force that can then push against it. I’m going to use a big overblown example from a story that I read recently–

“If you touch me, I’ll kill you,” the character says. *  Tension is created because a clear boundary has been set, as well as clear stakes–life and death, but also pride, if the character backs down.

This is the same technique at work when Elizabeth Bennett says, “You are the last man on earth I would ever marry.” The boundary is clear, and the nature of the force pushing against the boundary, and the stakes–again pride, which is in tension with personal desire and happiness.

Another iteration of the boundary technique, used in an adventure setting, is one Anna discussed with me:  Haymitch telling Katniss never, ever to go to the cornucopia, because she’ll be slaughtered if she does. As soon as necessity forces Katniss to go to the cornucopia, the scene is tense, because she is pushing against a well-defined boundary, with clear stakes. Goal and threat are in tension.

Tension can also be created by the writing itself. That is, the writing can act as a force on the emotions of the scene, holding it back. “I’ll kill you,” he said steadily is more tense than, “I’ll kill you,” he screamed wildly, because the word choice restrains the (obviously) strident emotional content. Calm, strapped-down language acts as a force restraining the force of the emotion, creating tension.

Sustaining tension

There are lots of things that will cause tension to break or drop out, but for my money the three biggest tension-killers are 1) collapsing one of the opposing forces 2) catharsis, and 3) repetition.

Collapsing one of the forces is easy to understand: it’s capitulation, one of the forces giving in to the other. I think it can also happen by accident if one of the forces becomes less clear, less well drawn than the other, so that maintaining forces over time is important for sustaining tension.

Catharsis is the release of strong emotions, which also releases tension. Cathartic acts, such as violence or sex, will let all the tension out of the scene–or even the story–unless you manage to hold the emotion back, somehow, during those scenes. It’s hard, although not impossible, to have your character punch someone in the face in a tense way. The tension exists in the moment before the punch, and rises as the punch is delayed, but is released in the cathartic act, the punch itself. The reason why delaying catharsis increases tension is because the force of emotional release is set against the force of restraint, and those forces increase as the cathartic moment approaches.

Romance writers will know that it is equally hard, though not impossible, to have your characters have sex in a tense way–or, I should say, in a way that maintains sexual tension throughout and after the scene–unless something is held back, some type of catharsis avoided. In both sexual and dramatic contexts, sometimes even cathartic words will let out tension–screamed, wailed, flailed, sobbed, exploded, screeched–any words in which emotional release is implied will release tension from the scene.

Finally, repetition kills tension. “If you touch me I’ll kill you,” is tense, but the second time the character says it, whether to the same person or someone else, it’s a fizzle. In romance parlance, a first kiss has more tension in it than a second kiss, unless there is something new about the second kiss.

Romance provides a good case study here because readers are familiar with the way that the romantic narrative is often written as a series of firsts: first touch, first kiss, first oral sex, first penetrative sex, first whichever act remains that we haven’t got around to yet. The acts can occur in any order, but repetition will cause a drop in tension, unless there is some other tension in play, some emotional first to substitute for the physical first.

Emotional repetition is an easier trap to fall into than physical repetition, but even deadlier to tension. The second time the emotional note is played it will lack the tension of the first, a reheated dinner. This is the reason why love triangles fall flat when the character oscillates between suitors one too many times, “it’s him, no it’s him, no it’s him, no it’s him.” It’s the reason why unresolved sexual tension goes stale if characters repeat the same moves in the forwards-backwards dance, or rehash an objection when it has already played out the first time.

Because books are usually structured around a character arc or progression from ‘beginning self’ to ‘end self’, to hold tension the writer must order every step in the evolution, a series of notes played one after the other, in the correct sequence, with nothing repeated.

In my own writing, I often ask myself: Can I play this moment later? If the answer is yes, then I reserve the moment for later. If the answer is no, then I know that I’ve found the right moment to play the note. I have a Shakespeare quote inappropriately in my head, If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now. Sorry Hamlet.

Because repetition kills tension, one unexpected side-effect is that tense scenes burn through material, fast. A tense face off between characters will burn through backstory like nothing else.  And once the material is burned, it can never be used again. So sustaining tension also means creating enough material to sustain that tension.

Probably the best example that I can think of is one that only 0.001% of people reading this will be familiar with, nevertheless: the “salt pans” scene in book five of Dunnett’s Niccolo series, in which the books’ primary antagonists face off for the first time. Because it is the first time, the antagonists have five books worth of material to burn through and can hurl increasingly tense verbal exchanges at one another for unbelievable lengths of time. The scene incredibly sustains at defcon one tension levels for three chapters, a tour-de-force that I have never seen another author replicate. It was only because Dunnett saved all her material for that one scene that it was even possible.

I remember setting myself the “Dunnett challenge” of extending my tense face off as long as possible towards the end of book two of Captive Prince. In that scene, my hero faces down a traitor, and the two have a verbal drag-down match that I wanted to run for pages and pages, and be as tense as possible. I made it to eight pages, at which point I had burned through all the usable material that I had, including a twist I had reserved just for that scene, and some huge chunks of backstory. In the end, I just didn’t have enough to sustain any more than that, and I was done.

In this way, it’s much easier to write, say, fan fiction, where if Harry and Draco have a stand off, you have seven books worth of Rowling’s material to burn, everything from, “You imprisoned my family” to “You didn’t shake my hand on the train.” In original fiction, you have to build before you burn.

I think this also shows one of the ways in which tension requires an effort of imagination—the stronger the tension, the stronger the effort of imagination required. It’s not only thinking up burnable material, but also what I think of as “pathfinding”.  Pathfinding works something like this:

Once tension is created, there are three choices: break it, sustain it, or escalate it. Breaking it is easy. Sustaining it is harder. Escalating it is harder still. To use an earlier example, the escalating move on hearing, “If you touch me I’ll kill you,” is to have the other character calmly reach out to touch. ** But once that is done, what happens next? It’s imaginatively very hard work to think of something that doesn’t involve catharsis by violence, collapsing one of the forces by backing down, or repetition.

Escalating in this example might be a dead end, something that you can’t think your way out of as the author, in which case better to go sideways and choose a path that instead sustains the tension at its current level.  “Will you?” is one tension-sustaining rejoinder that springs randomly to mind and so on, picking a path carefully through the dead ends and tension drops.

So, these are my thoughts on tension. I’m curious to hear from other writers about techniques that they use, and from readers, about which books or authors they find do tension well. Or which books are tensionless! Recommendations for books with stellar unresolved sexual tension are always welcome.

* This line did not occur in a sexual context, just FYI—although even as I type this I realise that “If you touch me, I’ll kill you” is embedded into one of my characters (Laurent) as a fundamental romantic character premise, despite him never saying the words aloud

** LOL what even is this example

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the “first time” fallacy

I’m sneaking into this gap in the guest posts, to address something that bugs me: Why does it always hurt, the first time a woman has sex in a romance novel?

I know that for a lot of women it is an uncomfortable experience, for one reason or another, but losing your virginity isn’t inherently uncomfortable. But in all virgin-romances there’s this moment –  whether she’s into the sex or not, as soon as he’s “fully sheathed” it suddenly stops feeling good, and goes on being painful until he moves in just the right way.

I have two problems with this:

1) The first time I had sex was transcendental. Nothing had ever felt that good. Sex has been a lot more interesting since that chaste, naive thing, but almost never so completely good, so completely transporting, so completely free of anything but sensation and wonder. And I was 16, so it’s not like I was experienced, or even understood my own body or all the mechanics of sex;

and 2) When sex is uncomfortable, the man moving around all up in there rarely makes it less so.

Of course, sex is a highly subjective thing, so that could just be me. But as it’s highly subjective, I wish more female characters got to have more varied experiences. (And I’m not even touching on the Unalterable Truth that sex is always, always amazing for men.)

Why always this moment of discomfort? Is it to mark the transition from virgin to not-virgin? The pang innocence makes on its way out of the body? Is it because sex should never, ever be a purely pleasurable thing, and we must first pay the price for it?

Also – do you have any idea how hard it was not to put the ‘ph’ into that heading?

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reading while academic: or id, ego, superego


I can’t remember how exactly Liz McCausland and I came to be in touch, but she’s one of the people I most enjoy talking with on twitter. She also writes a fantastic blog, My Extensive Reading (“to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”). On its face it’s a review blog, but Liz talks more about how she reads than what she reads, which is what I love about it.

I was trying to pin down why exactly I knew I wanted Liz to write a post. Then I realised there’s something in the way she reads I recognise: She approaches reading with a cynical, critical attitude, while at the same time filled with this fierce, desperate desire to love what she reads. Like she wants to applaud this genre she loves, but is unflinchingly honest about what she sees.



Thinking about Anna’s wonderful post on “id writing,” I realized that most of the books I’d put on the top of my personal Greatest Books Ever list are “super-ego” books.

Take Jane Austen, for instance. She’s deeply suspicious of the impulses of the id. Her characters are punished for impulsive, id-driven acts, whether it’s Emma’s verbal aggression towards Miss Bates at Box Hill or Lydia’s elopement with Wickham. Id-driven men, however initially appealing, are not  heroes but the men her heroines learn to reject. There are emotional gut-punches in her books, but perhaps their strongest emotions are shame and mortification, the penalties of transgressing the Law.

Mystery, my first genre fiction love, is a super-ego genre: outbreaks of murderous aggression are safely re-contained within the Law, evil-doers brought to justice. Romance, which I discovered more recently, I think of as an “ego” genre: while the disruptive desires of hero and heroine are safely contained within marriage (at least in the traditional version), readers are assured that in the happy-ever-after the lovers will go on indulging them. Like the ego, romance mediates between the demands of id (lust) and super-ego (Law), offering the promise that both can be satisfied; in the happy ending that reconciles these conflicting demands, readers too find satisfaction.

When Anna asked if I wanted to write a post about the connection between literary criticism and romance, I thought of this id/ego/super-ego paradigm, because one of the questions she asked was “Can we just not help reading critically, even when it’s such pleasure reading?” There’s an implicit opposition in this question between academic reading and pleasure.

Many people firmly believe critical reading and pleasure reading are opposed (though Anna is clearly not one of them). They talk about how studying a book in English class ruined it for them or say others are reading too much into a book or taking it too seriously. For these readers, critical reading is super-ego reading, reading according to rules, reading where you can get it wrong and be shamed for your errors, reading that inhibits emotional pleasure.

I used to believe that these people just had bad English teachers, but now I recognize that readers simply have different tastes in pleasure. When I want an “id” experience, an unthinking emotional reaction, I turn to music. When I read, even when I’m reading for pleasure, I want pleasures of the head as well as those of the heart and the gut. I enjoy thinking about how a book works, about the choice of language, the use of tropes, the way the story is structured. But not everyone does.

And that’s why I can only answer Anna’s question, “Can we just not help reading critically?” for myself. My answer is no. Whether because of temperament or professional training, I analyze, ask questions, make mental notes as I read. This has its costs: for example, the Law in engrained enough in me that I can’t see past mechanical errors and sloppy sentence structure; there are some books others love for the pure emotional impact that I can’t enjoy. But my way of reading has rewards, too, those lightbulb moments when I think, “I see what you did there, author!” Reflective reading has its own emotional highs.

The best romances allow me to be an “ego reader.” They combine literally visceral thrills (the swoon, the suffering, the heat of love) with writing that repays careful attention. Some recent favorite “ego” books are Ruthie Knox’s Ride With Me and Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened.

In the online romance community, I’ve found a world of  “ego reading.” It’s a place where scholars and fans come together to talk about books—and where the scholar and the fan can come together in one person. The conversations are smart, informed, and impassioned. They move from “OMG that hero is so hot, swoon” to “I thought the author reversed gender roles to interesting effect” in a heartbeat.

I think these conversations have made me a better academic. Part of my job is to help my students move from personal, emotional responses to their assigned reading to more critical ones. I can do that better if I model it for them. Maybe “Mrs. Bennet is a crazy bitch” or “Darcy is so hot” can’t be the thesis for your paper, but it’s a place to start.

As a fledgling scholar, I was very much a super-ego reader: determined to follow the Law, prove I was good enough, please my teachers. As a newly minted college instructor, I tended to focus on teaching students the Laws of academic reading and writing. But readers and writers who are too rule-bound, afraid to take risks or be wrong, can’t achieve real insight. So I try to mediate my legalistic super-ego impulses and ensure there’s space for emotional engagement and gut responses—my own and my students’—in my classroom.

I hope my classroom is a place for ego reading, a place where my students and I can experience all the pleasures books have to offer, both the emotional gut-punch of an instinct explored and the intellectual thrill of critical attention to language, structure, and themes. It’s in the space where those two come together that the deepest insights into books emerge. And this is the way I read romance. It’s the only way I can.

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some of the world is fetched back from the nevernever


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.



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


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!



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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not such a so-so sunday

Thus ends the first week of new-blogdom, and it’s been so much fun! (If distracting. Must. Write. Book.) I revealed the Very Impressive List of guest bloggers; Ruthie Knox talked about writing *that* scene; and Rose Lerner explained that particular creative quality known as fannishness.

The posts are in for next week, and there’s so much fab stuff coming up, from the early female novelists to romance reading as ego-reading – and a massive fangirl moment when KA Mitchell steps up to the plate.

Thank you so much to everyone who visited the accidental housewife this week. I’ve gotten some great feedback on the new design, and I’ve had some useful suggestions for how I can still tweak it a bit to make it as user friendly as possible. All the input is greatly appreciated!

As promised, every comment put your name in the hat to win a hand-made e-reader cover. Special k will be picking the winner shortly, but first, here are some places I’ve enjoyed visiting this past week:

Every writer has to decide how much of themselves they’re going to share online. As the Personhood debate heats up in the US, Victoria Dahl wrote a fierce, deeply personal defence of birth control. It was one of those rare instances of baring the person behind the profession and I, along with so many others, appreciated it.

I’m coming really late to this party, but I’ve just discovered Dave Gaider has a lot of articulate stuff to say about the gaming industry, the collaborative process of creating games, and the way it engages with gender and sexuality. I particularly enjoyed his response to a Straight Male Gamer who felt his preferences weren’t being met in Dragon Age 2.

I love this critical review of SkyfallYou can tell the writer’s having an absolute ball breaking the film down in this really wanky, LitCrit way. Lots of interesting stuff, for all that.

And lastly – I look forward to the day when beauty isn’t the defining characteristic for women. But in the meantime, this woman’s approach moved and inspired me, and is going to make a huge difference in her daughter’s lives.

And now for the prizes! Take it away, special k:

Congratulations Catherine!!! A gorgeous new e-reader cover will be winging its way to you in the new year.

To subscribe by email, click on the follow button on the bottom right and enter your email address. WordPress users can follow in the usual way. Happy reading!

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


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.



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


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.



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.


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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