Sunday, 27 June 2010

Blowing the Curtains: The Changing Demarcation Lines of Sex in Fiction

A gentleman romance reader recently emailed to say how much he enjoyed the ‘blowing the curtains’ scenes in my story, ‘A Piece of My Heart.’ That’s to say, the love scenes. The term comes from film—the viewer follows the couple into their bedroom, then the camera pans to an open window, curtains billowing. Sex between the couple is implied but not shown.

I’ll start by defining the traditional differences between romance, erotica, and porn:

Romance – Romance is and has always been about the monogamous relationship between two people. The story follows the growth of the relationship and their love for each other; it’s in their hearts, in their words, in their actions. Their love is not necessarily exhibited sexually, but it has to be exhibited emotionally. And by the end, there must be an HEA...Happily Ever After.

Erotica – Erotica is about suggestion, titillation, and letting your imagination fill in where the author left off. It’s about arousal, sexual desire, the use of the human body in works of art, photography, film, sculpture and painting that’s erotically stimulating. The subject is usually posed naturally, but in the nude.

Pornography – The stakes are raised higher with this genre with crude words, advanced sexual positions, multiple partners, including graphic illustrations, photographs, etc. Models in images are posed nude, but in extreme positions to show off genitalia. Pornography’s sole purpose is to arouse sexually to the point of climax.

What we think of today as traditional has not always been so. The demarcation lines are constantly changing. This change is largely due to public perception and acceptability, the levels of which fall in and out of favor over the years. I could go back in time to the ‘Song of Solomon,' one of the five scrolls in the Hebrew Bible, where the relationship of a man and woman are followed from courtship to consummation. I could detail any number of medieval eroticas, including the 1353 ‘Decameron’ in which there are tales of lecherous monks and the seduction of nuns, or the 1423 bawdy tales of bed-hopping in ‘The Merchant’s Tale’ by Chaucer, or even the 1748 release of ‘Fanny Hill’ by John Cleland, which subsequently became one of the most prosecuted and banned books in history.

Rather than go too far back in history, let’s look at the 20th century.

Barbara Cartland

In 1923, Dame Barbara Cartland’s first novel, ‘Jigsaw,’ was published. It was a risqué society thriller, and was an immediate bestseller. In 1926, her play, ‘Blood Money,’ was banned by England’s Lord Chamberlain's Office, a department within the British Royal Household, citing the play was too racy. Ms. Cartland continued to publish her romances to an appreciative audience, but she was constantly criticized for writing about sex. In her long career, Dame Cartland published 723 romance novels, she sold ONE BILLION books worldwide, and was published in 36 countries. When she passed, left behind 160 unfinished manuscripts.

And while her narrative may have been racy, not ONE of her books included a sex scene. Not even in the 70s when a changed romance industry was demanding them. Her stories remained true from her origins. Her stories were about love and all the emotions that make us fall in love. Because of this, she remains the Dame of the Traditional Romance.

D.H. Lawrence

Cartland was an influential woman. Following her lead, D.H. Lawrence published his book ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ 1928. The book had to be published in Italy, as it was banned in Britain until 1960 for lewdness. The book was the story of an affair between an aristocratic woman and a working-class man. The story is explicit and used language otherwise unacceptable in print at the time, let alone mixed company. Yet this book became a classic.

Kathleen Winsor

In 1944, Kathleen Winsor published the now classic, ‘Forever Amber,' which tells the story of orphaned Amber St. Clare, who makes her way up through the ranks of 17th century English society by sleeping with and/or marrying successively richer and more important men, while keeping her love for the one man she could never have. The novel includes portrayals of Restoration fashion, politics, and public disasters, including the plague and the Great Fire of London. While many reviewers "praised the story for its relevance, comparing Amber's fortitude during the plague and fire to that of the women who held hearth and home together through the blitzes of World War II", others condemned it for its blatant sexual references. Fourteen U.S. states banned the book as pornography. The first was Massachusetts, whose attorney general cited 70 references to sexual intercourse, 39 illegitimate pregnancies, 7 abortions, and "10 descriptions of women undressing in front of men" as reasons for banning the novel.

I suppose at 972 pages, she had to fill the story with something! However, Winsor denied that the book contained any sex at publication, which her publisher had removed the two ‘sexy scenes’ she had written, and replaced them with ellipses . . .

Other classics of the 20th century include ‘Tropic of Cancer’(1934) and ‘Tropic of Capricorn’(1938) by Henry Miller, ‘The Story of O’(1954) by Anne Desclos under the pseudonym Pauline Réage, and ‘Little Birds’(1979) by Anaïs Nin.


This is the year the modern romance was born. In a daring move, romance publisher Avon released ‘The Flame and the Flower’ by Katherine Woodiwiss. Romance and erotica were very popular before 1972, as we see above, but this was the first romance novel that followed the characters into their bedroom. ‘The Flame and the Flower’ was also the first single-title romance novel to be published as an original paperback, and with a cheaper cover price and its daring theme, the book was an instant hit and readers cried out for more...even at 600 pages! And it sparked off a new revolution in romance.

The 1960s had been a major turning point on how people viewed themselves and the world around them. It was a decade of drastic change. Rock and roll was an unstoppable force and was as much a driving force as a backdrop to everything else that happened in that decade. The Beatles invaded American in 1964, San Francisco gave birth to the Sexual Revolution in the Summer of Love, 1967 had the Monterey Pop Festival, and 1969 gave us Woodstock. Music of that era defined the Vietnam War and helped fuel anti-war protests. In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, and America put a man on the moon in 1969. We also saw the release of the first oral contraceptive, the original prototype for the internet was created called ARPAnet, and the first heart transplant was performed. The 1960s gave us today’s cult icons in Clint Eastwood, Doris Day, Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon...the list goes on.

While other decades, even centuries, saw many changes that propelled our lives, there’s no disputing that the 1960s was like an explosion of psychedelic pun intended. We didn’t just move into the 60s when 1959 came to a close. We were catapulted at colossal speed. So by 1972 when ‘The Flame and the Flower’ was published, it represented everything we’d lived through in the 60s, particularly freedom of speech and freedom of expression, including and especially freedom of sexual expression. Avon’s foresight and ballsy gamble paid off in ways they hadn’t imagined.

What this did for the romance game was change the playing field. Romance was now allowing the reader into the character’s bedroom where we were previously either left at the door or before billowing curtains. Yet, romance still wasn’t considered erotica. The language changed too. Flowery prose took on a whole new dimension, taking on the phrase purple prose.

According to Wikipedia on romance novels, “The success of these novels prompted a new style of writing romance, concentrating primarily on historical fiction tracking the monogamous relationship between a helpless heroine and the hero who rescued her, even if he had been the one to place her in danger. The covers of these novels tended to feature scantily clad women being grabbed by the hero, and caused the novels to be referred to as "bodice-rippers."

A quick note on bodice-rippers and purple prose. As you can see by the image here, the traditional ‘clinch cover’ included a strapping hero embracing the heroine, her hair (and probably his too) billowing in the wind and possibly mocking the old billowing curtains. Historical romances dominated the market so characters wore traditional costume to match the era of the story. This included the low neck bodice of the heroine which was either falling off the heroine’s creamy shoulders, or the hero had ripped off same said shoulders, and her voluptuous breasts threatening to spill out. The term and the covers stem from scenes popular in books of the time where the hero is so overcome with lust for the heroine that he has to practically rip the clothes off her body to make love with her. Rip the bodice to expose a breast, lift the skirts to perform the deed. What else do you need?

Bodice-ripping is considered a dirty word in the industry today, as publishers strive to provide more tasteful artwork to represent their stories. Even the racier historicals.

Deb Stover wrote a piece for ‘How to Write a Romance For The New Markets’ (OOP) in which she writes, “The main area where romance writers in particular are accused of inflicting the reader with purple prose is in love scenes. Why? In the seventies, when authors first threw open the bedroom doors on love scenes in romance novels, writers had to devise creative ways to describe human anatomy. Apparently, the powers-that-be felt the reading public could only handle one shock at a time, so we formulated all sorts of interesting words and phrases to substitute for more clinical terms.”

If you've ever read a romance that included phrases such as his tumescent tube of fire, the bald avenger, the heat of her femininity, or anything similar that may also have included quivering, mounds, pulsating, throbbing, staff, sword, etc. to describe a person's state of arousal or bodily part then you're familiar with purple prose.

Bodice-ripping and purple prose aside, the 1970s saw a boom in the trade of romance novels which were now released as mass market paperbacks and widely available. Long time novelists Jude Deveraux and LaVeyrle Spencer were directly influenced by Woodiwiss’s ‘The Flame and The Flower.’ Deveraux said she started her first novel The Enchanted Land the day after finishing ‘The Flame and the Flower.’

Jump forward to the 21st century and things have taken another drastic change. Romance now takes readers into the bedrooms with characters. Not only that, we’ve become voyeurs as characters participate in things we only read about in eroticas. We also now have stories about vampires, aliens, shape-shifters, and celestial beings, and they’re all engaging in intimate relationships.

We’ve also seen the creation of many subgenre, including fantasy romance, sci-fi romance, romantic suspense, gothic romance, futuristic romance, paranormal romance, and gay romance. Traditional contemporary romance includes time-travel romance to marry the story within a historical romance. Even traditional historical romance has evolved into subgenres, including western romance and Regency romance, as well as retaining traditional historical romance...those plots set any time before World War II. But that soon will change, as those demarcation lines will shift once WWII reaches its hundredth anniversary.

Whatever the subgenre, the base of romance is still the same. The story is about the relationship and the emotional journey from meeting to falling in love. Sex scenes in romance must, at all times, be an integral part of the story. And in some of the best romances out there, the author waits until the end of the story before the consummation.

The 21st century has also given birth to the new Romantica. This is a blend of romance and erotica, the term first coined by erotica publisher Ellora’s Cave: "... any work of literature that is both romantic and sexually explicit in nature." The couple is still monogamous, but the author is allowed many more liberties for their characters to discover sex together, which includes using adult toys and the use of graphic descriptions. Romantica also has room for three-way relationships, but each character must be monogamous to the other two. If romance is 90% emotion and 10% physical, then Romantica is 70% emotion and 30% physical.

Traditional erotica is no longer just about titillation and suggestion. Today, the genre has grown to include erotic romance. These stories now include the use of crude words, advanced sexual positions, multiple partners, and anything else deemed racy or unexplored in the past. But erotica has taken on a new life beyond this. Erotic romances are also romance driven, but the sex must play an equal part as the story itself. As above, erotica is generally 50-60% emotion and 50-40% physical.

Erotic romance also allows same sex partners, advanced sexual experimentation, S&M, bondage and other fetishes, even self-pleasuring. There seems to be few limits, but they do exist. Rape is still a BIG no-no, as is incest, beastiality, choke games, and urolagnia (aka golden showers). I won’t link those. If you’re interested you can Google them yourself. For those saying ‘The Story of O’ was about the multiple rapes of O, remember she still had to give permission to her lovers before they could lay with her. She may have been a love slave, but she still had the power to refuse a lover. Does this sound like 50 Shades of Grey bye E.L. James? It should.

With the popularity of the new erotic romance, dozens of new small presses have started up to satisfy the influx of story submissions. Ellora’s Cave was one of the first on the scene in 2000, and while others have come and gone, EC has risen to the top of the list and has influenced how traditional print publishers operate.

Small press doesn’t mean books are only available online. These days many small presses offer both downloads and print books. Some of the top small presses include Tirgearr PublishingTotally Bound, Samhain Publishing, Siren Publishing,  . . . the list goes on.

There’s no denying it. Erotic romance is big business. There’s definitely a market for the more explicit romance. Anyone who read romance in the 80s will probably still have some of the fears of being found out reading erotica, but today, by and large, most women admit they read romance. And a HUGE number of them admit they read erotica and erotic romance and really enjoy it.

Part of what's driving the increase in popularity of more graphically written stories is the advent of the ereader -- Kindle, Kobo, Nook, etc. These devices lend a great deal of privacy where reading preferences are concerned.

The tag line for publisher Black Lace Books in the UK is "written for women by women"...because women know what women want. Men can learn a lot about their partner’s fantasies and what they want at home. A man paying attention while reading erotica and erotic romance can hopefully put it into practice with his partner.

One can always tell erotica written by women and that written by men. Women's erotica is 80% emotion and 20% graphic detail, as with men, it's 80% graphic detail and 20% emotion. Woman want to know how it feels emotionally and men want to know how it feels physically. I know I’ll get slaughtered for saying this, but this is why women are generally better at writing romance and erotica, and men are so much better writing thrillers.

Where does this leave pornography? Well, porn is mainly driven today through graphic novels, magazines, films, and illustrations. If it can be drawn or photographed, printed or publish in any medium, it’s included here. Unfortunately, those taboo things not allowed in romance or erotica tend to make it onto these pages, which are found “underground.”

So, how much sex should go into a romance before it becomes erotica? Well, after all I've said, it's really up to the writer and reader to determine. But I will say that there are a LOT of great stories out there that cater to all tastes.

I’ll leave you with this. In 2004, romance novels sold 55% of all mass-market paperbacks. In 2008, romance had 13.5% of the fiction consumer market. In 2013, the romance industry was worth $1.08 billion and had 13% of the fiction market share.

Looks like romance in all its forms is here to stay for a very long time.

{note: this article has been updated}

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Researching A Setting-Specific Story

One of the great lessons I’ve learned while living in Ireland has been the importance of research when writing a setting-specific story. While most people won’t have the opportunities I have by living in another country, it doesn’t mean stories can’t have a rich setting. Here are the top five things every writer should make sure to think about when writing a setting-specific story. Forgive me if I use Ireland a lot here. I’m a bit biased!

Location – It doesn’t matter if a story is historical or contemporary, it has to have a setting. Without a location, the story won’t have legs to stand on. One doesn’t have to go into huge detail about where the story is set either, as we already heave preset ideas in our heads thanks to Hollywood. Suggest Ireland and one thinks of patchwork hillsides and forty shades of green. Say Scotland and automatically we think of men in kilts. Japan and we think of cherry trees and Geisha. Little things sprinkled throughout a story enhance the setting without making the setting the story.

We already know my story, A Piece of My Heart, is set in Ireland. But by adding in some little things, such as a pub, a stone circle, some sheep, and a flat cap, readers are pulled into the story through enhancing the location.

The sun was high in the sky when Mick and Molly crossed the hillside with his flock. Molly circled the flock to keep them together, keeping pace with his rambling stroll. It was a beautiful day and he was enjoying it. The days were chilly and short as Christmas time was approaching, but today was idyllic. And he was a man very happy in himself.

Once the sheep had passed through the gates onto his land, he began to relax. He’d never walked a flock between the farms before, but with Molly’s help the job had been an easy one. Truth, she did most of the work. He just opened and closed the gates and kept the dog company on the walk.

After he’d settled the sheep into the near pasture, he and Molly headed to a small rocky rise to rest. He was beat—after being up most of the night listening to Kate tell more of his father’s stories, and the task of moving the flock—and fancied himself a short break. He thought Molly could use one too, but by the looks of her, she was ready and primed to leap into action should even one of her flock wander off without her permission.

History – History isn’t just about dates, times, and places. It can be defined as experience, background and things that happen to make us who we are, or what a place has become over time. Everything and everyone has history. Ireland’s history, while respectively a tiny country, is steeped in history, from the earliest known peoples often referred to as Celts, to the Viking raiders who settled here, the Norman invasion, British suppression, Religious oppression, the War of Independence, the Irish Free State, and peace with Northern Ireland. And every person in Ireland is part of that history.

In A Piece of My Heart, Mick’s father told Kate stories from his family so she could pass along the Spillane family history to Mick. Some of those stories revolved around Ireland’s history, including traditional matchmaking. The quick mention of the matchmaking festival, along with the stone circle, brief descriptions of pubs and street scenes fleshes out not just the setting, but also the history of place and people.

“Did you know your parents met at the Lisdoonvarna Festival?” Kate hoped to lighten the mood. “I’ll bet there are dozens of things about your parents you don’t know. Now that we’re talking to each other again, I want to tell you everything I can.” Her diary of stories would be a gift to him later.

There was no hiding the surprise in his voice. “You mean the Matchmaker’s Festival?”

"The very one.”

“I’ll be.” He chuckled lightly.

“Because Donal spent so much time on the farm there was little time for courting. Your grandda took him down to Clare for the month-long festival.” Kate snickered, remembering the story Donal had told her. “He told me he had just registered with the matchmaker and as he was leaving the pub, Mary walked in with her father to register. It was love at first sight and they were inseparable for the whole festival.

“They very nearly didn’t get married, you know. Mary’s father didn’t have a big enough dowry to satisfy your grandda.”

“How did they get around that?”

Kate grinned. “Donal told their fathers he’d slept with Mary.”

“I bet that went over well,” he exclaimed with as much sarcasm as was meant by the statement itself. “Mum must have been mortified.”

“It was your mum’s idea. Donal claimed she was still a virgin on their wedding night. It had all been a ploy, you see.”

Culture and Tradition – Culture can be defined as the society in which we live, its social acceptabilities and societal attitudes. The culture in Ireland today is very similar to the American culture, but is still vastly different. Part of Ireland’s culture is its religion—going to church every Sunday, to the priest for confession, and crossing ones self every time one passes a church or graveyard. While Ireland is quite modern today, it’s a fact that divorce was legalized in 1995, and until the early 1990s, condoms were only available by prescription! They were illegal until 1978.

In A Piece of My Heart, Kate’s religious beliefs tangle with womanly desires. While Mick was brought up the same as Kate, many years of Dublin’s influence has changed his perspective. Women are freer in the big city than in the country, so he struggles between manly lusts and respecting Kate for her morals taught by cultural teachings.

Traditions are practices we’ve inherited through our family and/or culture/society. How many things in our own lives do we consider traditions...things we do a certain way because “it’s tradition”? What are the social values of our communities, family expectations, traditions of our heritage... What are things we take for granted every day that are different to someone else?

“Kate, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. While I’m glad you waited through your teen years to sleep with someone, I do recognize the fact that you’ve grown up. You’re quite a woman, and one of her own mind.” She reached up and cupped Kate’s face in her hand and smiled. “You’ll know when it’s right. I’ve told you that before. But don’t be thinkin’ it will be the wedding night. It’s not always.”

Kate looked into her mother’s eyes and realization hit her. Her parents had had s-e-x before marriage. Her mouth dropped open into an O of surprise, her eyes snapping wide.

“Mam! You and Da—you two—” She couldn’t finish her sentence when her mother nodded and continued laughing.

“That surprises you? I’m a woman, too, you know.” Her mother blushed at her confession.

“But, Mam—”

“But, what? I had to test him out. Make sure he was worth spending the rest of my life with.” She said this matter-of-factly. Kate knew her mother was having trouble keeping a straight face. Before they knew it, they were laughing together.

“Well,” said Kate between giggles, “I guess we know the consensus, don’t we.”

“Aye, we do. Never mind the fact that we had to get married rather quickly afterwards.”

“Did Granddad find out and get out the shotgun?”

Her mother shook her head. “No, pet. It was so your brother could have a last name.” Kate’s mouth dropped open again in astonishment. “Fortunately for everyone involved, I loved your father with all my heart and he loved me the same in return.”
Kate started giggling again at the thought that her brother was the cause of their parents’ hasty marriage.

“What are you laughing at now?”

“Just at all the times I thought Connor was such a bastard. Now you’re telling me he really could have been!”

In A Piece of My Heart, Kate is a traditional Irish woman. She goes to church on Sunday, she doesn’t believe in sex before marriage, and she crosses herself when she swears. And she’s shocked when her mother speaks to her of antiquated traditions regarding love and sex. Every tradition and belief Kate was raised with is suddenly called into question.

Her announcement that sex meant something to her shouldn’t have shocked him. She was raised in a traditional Irish family. Sex before marriage was a sin. For all he knew, she had probably rushed right to church to confess what happened today.

He probably should be confessing right alongside her. In a manner of speaking he was. He was telling his tale of woe to a glass of John Jameson at this very moment.

Language – Language is more than just what we speak, it’s also how we speak it. When writing a story set in another place, we must remember the language those people speak, their inflection, slang, how they phrase sentences. Even the differences in words, such as trunk vs. boot, elevator vs. lift, pants vs. trousers, panties vs. knickers, etc can enrich a story.

He grinned. “I always have loved you, even when I was too stupid to admit it. Marry me. Share my life, my love, my soul. Everything I am or have is yours. Just as it always has been. Tá tú grá mo chroí. Tá mé chomh mór sin i ngrá leat,” he whispered in Irish. His words of love came between kisses. “You are the love of my heart. I love you so much,” he’d told her.

Dialects and accents are also part of regional language. Even slang will enrich a story. In A Piece of My Heart, Gobnait is an excellent example. She comes from the north innercity of Dublin where accents are so thick they’re almost another language.

Part of Ireland’s charm is in her language. Just as Mick and Kate share some intimate words in the Irish language (with English translation), so we also get the pleasure of Gobnait’s special accent. While we’d never want to write a whole book where the lead character has a hard accent to follow, they can make incredible secondary characters.

“I’m only great. Is A1 I’yam.” Mick grimaced at her north inner city accent. He thought he’d gotten used to it, but a few days back in the west and he now found it grating. “When did yous get in?”

“A bit ago,” he replied, staring at the sitting room window. The sun had gone down. The darkened window reflected the apartment back at him and aloneness settled on him with the sight.

“Mustn’ta bin too long ago. I bin drivin’ by awl day and only jes saw da car. I’ll be righ’ up, yeah?” Before Mick could tell her not to bother she’d disconnected her mobile phone and left him standing with the handset in his hand beeping with the disconnect tone.

People – People watching is tantamount to writing a great story. One of the greatest assets any writer can have is observation. Go to malls, busy downtown streets, festivals...anywhere where people gather in large groups. Watch their body movements, how they interact with others, inflections, listen to accents and speech patterns, watch everything about them, and use what you’ve learned to create memorable characters.

So the next time you’re considering writing a story with a specific setting, be it Ireland or in your own hometown, remember that research is the key to a great story. Make your story fun and make it come alive by researching everything that makes up your chosen setting.

I love to hear from readers, so please, drop me an email and let me know how you research your own setting-specific story.