Tag Archives: what i did for a duke

eyes open is better

I wrote a while ago about the Big Misunderstanding – that romance trope by which identities are mistaken, kisses are seen and misunderstood, words are overheard out of context, etc. Any circumstance, basically, which could be rectified with a conversation, and isn’t.

I’ve thought more about it since then, and decided unequivocally: Give me characters who talk, any day.

That’s kinda an obvious thing to say – the whole romance community groans when a Big Mis just makes the characters look stupid. But I also mean – give me characters who go into a difficult circumstance, eyes open, and come out the other end changed.

The idea that birthed my novel was this: imagine a man hidden in a gaggle of women – made to sleep in their beds and gossip with them and become intimately acquainted with their female world. Not an entirely traditional Big Mis, because my hero was doing it on purpose, but certainly a circumstance that could have been rectified with one (very embarrassing) conversation.

In my original draft the big reveal – “I was the woman who shared your bed!” – was the thing that broke my couple apart, before they had to make their way back to each other. The closer I came to this moment in my second draft the worse I felt about it. It felt so disingenuous somehow – not to mention, as a reader I could feel it coming from miles off, which is a particular kind of awful. It made my hero look like a dick, and my heroine had to forgive a lot, for their Happily Ever After to be convincing.

Around the time I was considering getting rid of the big reveal, I read Julie Anne Long’s amazing What I Did For a Duke. It starts out with a revenge plot, then about a third of the way in the hero and heroine have a really honest discussion that not only outs the revenge plot, but makes their relationship about a hundred times more interesting.

I went well into despair, and started rewriting the whole book without the cross-dressing. Then Valerie, fairy-godmother extraordinaire, suggested my heroine could be in on my hero’s secret the whole time.

It left me without that one central source of angst between them – and gave them a whole world of crazy to navigate together. In draft one, my heroine captures a duke’s heart by accident, because she doesn’t know his real identity and can therefore be honest and genuine with him. How much more interesting is it though, to have a woman who knows exactly what he is, and speaks directly anyway? Who sees clearly the kind of man she’s dealing with – the kind of man who would shatter himself just to get what he wants from her – and finds her way to understanding him anyway?

The answer you’re looking for is “much”.

The best, most concise illustration I’ve seen of this idea was in a Vampire Diaries episode recap on iO9. One of the only solid, dependable adult characters on the show had just begun manifesting a dark side. He has no control over it, and it wants to kill the vampires who have become like family to him.

Charlie Jane Anders pin-points exactly why this isn’t interesting:

Alaric didn’t get to decide to start taking matters into his own hands, which would have been an interesting character arc. Instead, he just got controlled/possessed by a magic ring that already turned Elena’s ancestor into a serial killer. Seeing Alaric actually make a choice would have been way more interesting.

If someone chooses the difficult path, eyes open, there’s a whole internal world of choice and consequence that is endlessly fascinating. If someone is walking a difficult path unaware that they’re doing so, all you get is the annoyance of waiting for them to fall, and the one heart-stopping moment when they do.

the book that cured all ills (ill-thoughts, at least)

Okay, I forgive Julie Anne Long everything. You’re in for another (much longer) rant, but at least this one’s almost all joy.

Yesterday I read the fifth book in the Pennyroyal Green series, What I Did For a Duke. I will use every adjective in my vocabulary (okay, I probably won’t, but superlatives will be thick on the ground, too) to try and express how much I loved this book.

It has been a long, long time since a historical romance got me like this.

Let’s get the premise out of the way first: The Duke of Moncrieffe has a bad reputation for serving revenge cold, even years after the fact. He has just found his fiancee in bed with Ian Eversea. He’s not happy. He’s also almost forty (this is often expressed in italics in the characters’ thoughts. I’m not entirely sure what the emphasis is getting at, but it feels cheeky, and I like it). He decides to seduce Ian’s youngest sister, then break her heart and leave her.

He just happens to catch her at a really bad time.

Genevieve’s best friend, Harry, has just told her that he plans to propose to her other best friend, Millicent. This breaks her heart rather severely, as she’d always assumed she would marry Harry. So when the Duke comes along, demanding her attention, she’s really not in the mood. She does everything she can to get rid of him, he does everything he can to get a response from her, and pretty soon they’re head-over-heels in fascination with each other.

The things I love about this book:

1. The Duke is an amazing hero. Ten out of ten.

He gradually unfolds as a character, so that we get to know him as Genevieve does. This is such a difficult, subtle piece of craft, and I applaud JAL for having the trust and patience to do it. He’s certainly magnetic right from the get-go, but he’s not an obvious choice. Characters are very often represented in this light, but only in-so-far as we’re told “He wasn’t an obvious choice” whilst seeing all the ways he obviously is. The slow reveal meant I could get to know him and fall in love with him piece by piece, too.

He’s also truly smart. The “hypothesis” of the book seems to be Experience Makes For Interesting People (you have to break eggs to make an omelet), and the Duke proves it every step of the way. He’s not just smart in the wordy way of Regency heroes – his conversation is challenging, and tough, and he doesn’t let up. He’s mature and experienced enough to push for answers even when Genevieve’s hugely reluctant, or embarrassed, or defensive. He allows those feelings to be present and demands something of her anyway. Which is how transformation really does happen, in my experience.

2. Genevieve is a gorgeous heroine – very much in the same vein as Beatrix Hathaway. A truly likeable heroine, which is a hard thing to pull off.

This is, in a sense, an ugly duckling story. Genevieve is “the quiet, sensible one” of the reckless Eversea family, but that’s not what she thinks she is, and that’s not what the Duke sees. But JAL – thank God! – never gave her a look-where-being-good-got-me,-I’m-going-to-do-something-crazy moment. No matter how well those moments are constructed, something always rings false about them to me. Genevieve never breaks character because she doesn’t perceive herself as others see her, so she continues to act according to her own nature – the difference being that she now has an audience and antagonist who also sees her truly. This is, again, fantastic writing.

3. The characters’ physicality is built over time as well, as an expression of how they come to see each other. One of my favourite moments in the whole book is when the Duke thinks: He’d never known a more clawing hunger for a woman’s body, and it shocked him, and he was clever enough to know it had only a little to do with her body.

Yes! Finally! I think so few romance writers think this connection through deeply enough – that all the heaving bosoms and luscious curves and pillow-like lips are an expression of attraction to a person, not a body.

4. I can’t say too much on this point without spoilers, and as I encourage all of you to read this book, I don’t want to indulge in those. All I’ll say is: JAL deals with the Big Misunderstanding that gets the plot rolling (i.e. the Duke is out to seduce Genevieve for his own, bad reasons) in such a brilliant way. She makes the BM work a lot harder than it would if she had dealt with it in a traditional “I’m keeping a secret that could destroy you” way.

What didn’t work for me:

1. By two-thirds of the way through, the plot rested too heavily on Harry’s thin shoulders. We’re reminded over and over how much Genevieve loves him – even when it’s become jarringly evident she doesn’t. That works. We can see the trajectory of her self-discovery through it. But there wasn’t enough of why she loved him in the first place – he was too thin and insubstantial – for this to hold up its end of Genevieve’s motivations for as long as it had to. She’s a smart chicken. She would have figured it out before then.

2. JAL really needs to get a new editor. Whenever I read her stuff my enjoyment is continually interrupted by bad grammatical errors and bad word repetitions (by this I mean: the repetition isn’t there to create a lyrical effect, it’s just lazy writing. A relief that was hugely relieving, for example). She also has a tendency to overwrite, which mostly pays off and occasionally doesn’t. A good editor should be on the lookout for all these things.

This Julie Anne Long book makes my top five. Go read it.

End rant.