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My Best Books of 2022

Inexplicably, we’re once again trundling towards the end of the year so it’s time for my annual books post. Goodreads tells me I’ve read 248 books, although that omits the rereads: the Agatha Christies and Georgette Heyers that were all I could manage during the worst weeks of Covid, the Murderbot and Kate Griffin reread in Covid recovery, and the huge Terry Pratchett glom after reading the bio.

My romance list is very sparse. This is because, with deep regret, I am excluding all HarperCollins books (which includes Mills & Boon and Avon) since the union, currently on strike with incredibly reasonable demands that the company is ignoring, have asked that people don’t review/promo HarperCollins titles for the duration of the strike. HarperCollins: start negotiating and pay your staff properly because this sucks for staff and authors alike. (I think I caught all the imprints but if I’ve messed up let me know in the comments.)

(It is absolutely fine to buy HC books, the union has just asked for a hold on reviews and promo, btw. Do not boycott.)

Romance

Delilah Green Doesn’t Care by Ashley Herring Blake. Wonderfully real contemporary f/f, messy characters, super queer, with glorious female friendships as well as the central romance. And very well written, too. A fabulous and hugely enjoyable story of people finding their place and each other. Enormously recommended.

Red Blossom in Snow by Jeannie Lin. M/f romance with a melancholy feel–a magistrate and a courtesan, both of them haunted by their pasts. Low-key a lot of the time but no less passionate and intense for that. The historical detail rings wonderfully true while never overwhelming the story, and it’s a gorgeous understated romance between two hurt people who can stand for themselves but still need each other. The Pingkang li series has got better with every book, and this one is a triumph.

What a Match by Mimi Grace. Absolutely delightful contemporary m/f romance. The tropes are deployed cleverly and enjoyably, the characters are real and terrifically likeable, and the romance feels really well developed. Most of all, the writing is funny, assured, with a light touch and a great line in dialogue, and the editing is top notch (rare and precious). And the cover is gorgeous.

Honey and Pepper by AJ Demas. A new AJ Demas book is always a delight. I adore the alt-ancient Mediterranean world with its cats-in-a-sack politics, sexual fluidity, very dark elements, and wonderfully realised setting. This is the very sweet and tender m/m love story of a cinnamon roll cook and a twisty lawyer-type finding one another, while both coping with their recent freedom from enslavement (very sensitively handled).

A Lady for a Duke by Alexis Hall. Lovely m/f Regency with a trans woman lead. Starts with a certain amount of angst, none of it centred on the heroine’s transness but rather on the hero’s war trauma and bereavement, then morphs into a delightfully fluffy romp with a delicious secondary cast.

SF / Fantasy

She Who Became The Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan. I actually read this last December but after my books of the year post, and it’s too good to miss out. Absolutely tremendous alt-historical epic with a touch of magic. A nameless unwanted peasant girl takes on her dead brother’s name to become a monk, a warrior, a leader. Terrific sweep and narrative drive with a beautifully drawn cast.

Kundo Wakes Up by Saad Z. Hossain. A wonderful, strange addition to Hossain’s climate-collapsed world of djinn and nanotech. A strikingly moving story of loss, love, friendship, and building something real in a broken world. Can be read as a standalone, but read the whole lot anyway (start with Djinn City, thank me later).

The Devourers by Indra Das. Proper werewolves. Very intense writing, lush and horrific and physical, about love and exploitation, colonialism and queerness, myth and culture. Magical, compelling, tremendous stuff. I loved it. CWs for on page rape, violence, and body horror.

Dust-Up At The Crater School by Chaz Brenchley. Think the Chalet School on Mars, with schoolgirl hijinks aplenty, including here a couple of pupils quietly but determinedly pursuing their own genders. Also, Russian spies, dust storms, midnight feasts, and aliens. Huge fun.

The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older. SFF f/f (say that after a drink) with a gaslamp Holmes and Watson on a planet spanned by rails. A magnificently imaginative setting, a nicely developed and satisfyingly resolved mystery, a beautifully understated central romance, and a lot of thought-provoking ideas make this an immensely satisfying read. Does more at novella length than many books manage in three times as much.  

The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi. Absurdly, gloriously entertaining. A story that hits all the beats and tropes you might think, and that’s not a criticism: you read this book with a knowing expectation of what will happen, plus gleeful anticipation for how you’re going to get there. Diverse cast, entertaining banter, lots of good swearing, cathartic dealing with 2020, and just massive enormous-monster-based fun.

The Scar by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko. A wonderful read. Intense, slightly dreamlike story structure with marvellous characters, telling a fable about toxic masculinity and how it could just not. It’s a classic fantasy plotwise, and the anti/hero becoming a decent person through his magically enforced cowardice is a profound pleasure to watch. Hugely readable, excellent translation.

Under Fortunate Stars by Ren Hutchings. A crappy and chaotic set of space bums and criminals on a junk ship in the middle of a terrible war find themselves 150 years in the future … where they are the sanctified heroes who ended the war. Beautiful world-building and terrific construction of the time travel plot plus a wonderfully human story. This is very much a book about allowing people nuance and failings and redemption: lovely.

Nettle & Bone by T Kingfisher. Classic T Kingfisher – a fairy tale that delves deep into the darkness and horror that underlies those stories, both in sinister magic and in human cruelty. But there is also kindness, and friendship, and love, and hope. A magical tale with high stakes and a lot of humour.

Literature, basically

Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley. A glorious translation that hits a perfect balance between modern language (“bro!”) and archaisms. Brings gender to the forefront, including the less and more toxic varieties of masculinity, making it feel very much in the vein of the cowboy poet or pub storyteller. Triumphant.

Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo. I enjoyed this enormously. A disparate group of deserters, criminals and people escaping violence stick together to survive homelessness in unfamiliar, desperate Lagos. It’s a scary world where terrible things happen, but also a place where people can be kind, and loyal, and loving. A hugely engaging read with characters about whom we care intensely, and a really satisfying plot.

The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Machado de Assis. Brilliant in the full meaning of the word. Structurally clever and adventurous–two chapters composed entirely of ellipses, which works perfectly. Staggeringly good characterisation of the self-centred, self-regarding, worthless Brás Cubas. Really funny observations. Massive moral heft in the casual asides regarding poverty, slavery, inhumanity. Intensely readable and just so good.

The Movement by Ayisha Malik. Woman inadvertently starts the #ShutTheFuckUp movement, and Non-Verbalism sweeps the globe. In the olden days this would have been called a Novel of Ideas: it’s an intriguing concept, brilliantly explored from multiple angles, with a gloriously sour view of people underpinned by a profound need for improvement and justice. Also highly entertaining on book-publishing bullshit. Funny, absorbing, and thought-provoking.

Vetaal and Vikram by Gayathri Prabhu. Retelling/reframing of a set of Indian stories that have been retold and reframed for centuries by Indian writers, and were then retold and reframed by Richard Burton. The stories are excellently told, with a strong queer sensibility (including trans and queer protagonists, most of them misbehaving because most people in these stories are misbehaving, but with a couple of achingly lovely moments of hope and yearning too) and a powerful feminist feel.

Non Fiction

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou. Excellent reportage account of the Theranos startup, aka massive scam. Reads like a thriller, and genuinely shocking.

Vagabonds by Oskar Jensen. Fascinating look at London street life and how the poor survived in the late 18th to late 19th centuries. Social history as it should be: fascinating, inclusive, well-written, passionate, revelatory, and deeply humane. A necessary read if you’re at all into London history.

Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham. Truly horrifying account of the nuclear disaster. There’s a lot of backstory here which is vital in depicting the wider context, and the details of the explosion and its aftermath are compelling, but the book never loses sight of the individual human stories, of people, mostly trying to do their jobs well, who did not deserve this.

The Dark Queens by Shelley Puhak. Extremely interesting book on two Merovingian queens. If you don’t have a clue what a Merovingian might be, don’t worry about it, nor did I. Nasty and brutish story of two powerful women scrabbling for supremacy, and very well told with loads of atmosphere and world-building. Fascinating stuff.

The Devil is a Gentleman by Phil Baker. Excellent bio of a hack writer. Dennis Wheatley was a towering figure of popular writing, and pretty much invented the British occult. This is a fascinating deep dive into his life, British publishing, the wine trade, implausible true crime, wartime shenanigans including being part of the deception teams that helped D-Day happen, and the business of being a mega-author. Wheatley himself kind of sucked but this is great.

Africa is Not a Country by Dipo Faloyin. Very well written set of essays covering different aspects of Africa and its relationship with the West. Evocative, vivid, often extremely funny, with biting sarcasm but also immense generosity of spirit, which really makes you read with a sense of hope as well as fury. Compelling reading, highly informative, and highly recommended.

Terry Pratchett: A Life with Footnotes by Rob Wilkins. A great biography and discussion of the books, but also a dreadful account of what dementia did to a wonderful brain. Intensely moving and deeply upsetting. A great tribute to a marvellous author and very kind/grumpy man.

Index, a history of the by Dennis Duncan. A much-more-interesting-than-you’d-think history of the index. Fascinating book stuff, and hands down the best title ever.

Glomming of Obscure Authors

I read a somewhat bonkers ten books by DE Stevenson this year, all of them feelgood, gentle-but-with-an-edge stories set in the 30s to 50s. If you need a place of safety, these are great. Start with the utterly delightful Miss Buncle’s Book, in which a woman of no importance writes a roman a clef about her English village, causing total mayhem but also significant improvements. One of those books you just hide in for a while.

I also read, and I am struggling to believe this myself, eighteen Tommy Hambledon thrillers by Manning Coles, including three I had to order second hand in print (and I have three more in my TBR pile right now). I have no excuses. Spyish stories starting in WW1 and going on till the 1960s with a bit of sleight-of-hand on the main character’s age. If you too have lost your marbles, try the delightful Without Lawful Authority, the story of a disgraced Army officer who meets a burglar (officer class but down on his luck), as they form a dynamic duo who go after Nazi spies in the run up to war. A bit of regrettable period-typical bigotry, sadly, but 97% fun.  

I would also commend Now or Never, a bonkers post-war one which is not such a good book overall but which does have the spectacular recurring secondary characters Campbell and Forgan, a heftily coded gay couple who make model trains for a living and annoy Nazis/bad guys/the police for a hobby. They’re introduced in the fantastic A Brother for Hugh/An Intent to Deceive but that hasn’t been digitised, inexplicably. I’m going to stop talking about this now.

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If that isn’t enough books for you, try Masters In this Hall, by me, out now!

Masters In This Hall: New book out now!

So I wrote a surprise book, as you do. (I didn’t announce it because I wasn’t sure I’d have time to do it. Then I realised I absolutely didn’t have time to do it. So I did it. Huge thanks to Kanaxa, who created the lovely cover in an afternoon to make this possible!)

Cover has a sepia look and Victorian-medievalist text, plus flower and greenery garlands in deep reds, greens, gold. two newspaper-sketch style Victorian gentlemen with somewhat shifty expressions in the foreground, an old house in the background. General look of a Victorian illustrated paper or possibly Christmas card.

Masters In This Hall is a 30K story set in England, December 1899. John Garland is a disgraced hotel detective, sacked from his job because of the callous actions of stage designer/jewel thief Barnaby Littimer. Now Barnaby has a job managing the Christmas celebrations at John’s millionaire uncle’s home. And John intends to stop whatever he’s up to…

This is set in the world of the Lilywhite Boys, some four years after the end of Gilded Cage. It’s a standalone story so you don’t need to have read that series, but if you have, you may see cameos.

I’m not religious, but I like carols (not the ‘sweet baby Jesus’ ones, the ‘It’s very cold outside and we’re going medieval on your arse’ ones). Masters In This Hall is named after my favourite carol and I made a Spotify playlist with all the carols mentioned in the book, for your enhanced reading experience.

There are many Dickens references, and I am waiting with anticipation for the first person to complain about the particularly inexcusable pun.  

It’s out now on all the usual e-stores (some are taking a bit longer to come through). Enjoy!

Seven for a secret: a covers gallery

I was overjoyed this week when I got the Japanese cover of The Magpie Lord. This is my most-translated book and one of my chat group commented it would be a good idea to do a gallery. Which, clearly, it is. Herewith the various incarnations of the Charm of Magpies series: six full versions plus the first in the Japanese series.

The first are my Samhain covers from the original edition; the second are by Lexiconic Design for my self pubbed edition. We then have the wonderfully moody Hebrew (compare to the self pubs: super ingenious), the even moodier French, the Thai set for which I would quite literally die, and the abstract and swoony Taiwanese. At the bottom you can see the first of the Japanese ones, and it is worth waiting for.

And finally the new Japanese cover. If the other ones are going to look this good, it may edge out the Thai versions.

Amazing. I have always felt blessed in my covers for this series, but seeing them together is…yeah, I’m a jammy cow.

Law: what is it good for?

So, as is now my habit, I was soliciting on Twitter for blog post ideas and the following question was raised by @podcastled:

Do you have to learn the rules (“rules”) to break them? I think a post about resisting being super rule-bound would be interesting.

This is extremely interesting, especially to me because I was an editor before I was a writer. Let’s talk about ‘rules’!

When someone says, “I’m tearing up the rulebook” they may mean “I am coming from a tradition with a different set of rules entirely,” which can be hugely exciting, or “I have examined these rules and concluded they would benefit from change,” which is a vital process to keep any way of thinking healthy, or “I don’t care about your stupid rules, nobody tells me what to do, and by the way my daddy has a lot of money,” which tends to indicate a massive jerk who thinks health and safety is just red tape.

Some rules are good (don’t stick a fork in the light socket). Some rules are bad (don’t use split infinitives in English, as if ‘boldly to go where no man has gone before’ sounds like anything a human would say). Some rules are fossils. (When Gerald Durrell got his first job in a zoo, one of his tasks was heating up the giraffe’s drinking water. Several times a day, buckets of hot water for the giraffe had to be lugged out. Eventually he asked why. Turns out the giraffe had had a cold when it arrived several years earlier so the vet had recommended heating the water, and nobody had ever rescinded the order.)

In my view, and this is my blog so suck it up, if you’re going to intentionally screw with How Things Are Done, you are well advised to first consider Why They Are Done Like That. I am bang alongside messing about with form, or punctuation, or narrative voice, or structure, or most things, as long as you know why you are doing it and consider what effect it has.

Let’s take three oft-repeated Rules of Writing on which I have already written, to make my life easier. (Here I will point out that most Rules of Writing are not, in fact, actual rules.)

Image of the pirate Barbosa from Pirates of the Caribbean. Text over image reads, "They're more what you'd call guidelines"

Dangling participles

Or when a subordinate clause that precedes the main clause has come adrift from its referent, as in:

Jogging down the canal, a swan attacked me.

(If you don’t see a problem with that or need a refresher, read the blog post I did on the subject and I’ll see you back here in a minute.)

The rule is, don’t leave your participles dangling. But why are dangling participles bad? If your answer is “because they’re grammatically incorrect”, go to the back of the class. That’s the very definition of begging the question: bad grammar is bad because it is bad, which is bad.

The actual reason they are bad is that the words/grammar used don’t convey what the author means, and risk jarring or confusing the reader. Look at this:

Now the first woman president of the US, he was astonished at how far his ex-wife had progressed.

Who is the president in this sentence, grammatically? Who do you think the author actually means it to be?

Having invaded without serious opposition, the Channel Islands were then occupied by the German forces.

Who invaded who?

If you’re thinking, “oh come on, you know what the writer means”, join the other guy at the back of the class. The actual meaning of the sentence diverges from the intended meaning of the author, and making the reader stop and go back and pick through the wreckage of your grammar to dig out your meaning is poor writing.

I have tried for some time to think of an example of anyone using a dangling participle to good literary effect. (As in, an adrift one, not a correctly used subordinate clause. Do not reply to this with correctly used subordinate clauses or I will tut irritably at you, and that’s not an idle threat: I’m British.) The only cases I can think of are when it’s being used as a joke about the comic effects of bad grammar. Absent a good reason to deliberately break the rule, you should follow it.

Does that apply to all grammar issues? You tell me. What’s the rule you want to break, and why, and what will you achieve by breaking it, and would the upsides outweigh the downsides? An obvious reason to break grammatical rules in dialogue or deep narrative voice is character. Or you might be making an excellent joke in the narrative. Have at it.

Or you might simply think it sounds better that way, in which case, you will have to take the consequences, including criticism that you did it wrong. I don’t usually split infinitives in my novels even though that rule is bullshit because I don’t want to deal with the legion of self-appointed copy editors who will tweet me, email me, or report me to Amazon. Sometimes, it’s just not worth it.

Wandering point of view, aka head hopping.

I wrote an entire blog post on why this is a bad thing and I stand by it. I once read a m/m romance that switched heads without warning midway during a penetrative sex scene and I swear I felt my neck crick. It’s bad style. Right?

The excellent political SF Infomocracy by Malka Older switches point of view literally from paragraph to paragraph. Why? Because the book is based in a world where everyone has in-head access to The Information, a global feed. This has turned the world into a constantly scrolling present, with people switching non stop between vids, newsfeeds, actual conversations, data, so the manner of telling the story as if flipping from tab to tab is exactly right. It gives us a disconcerting feeling of the nonstop barrage of information with which the characters cope. (This is also one of exactly two books I can think of where the use of present tense narration makes a positive stylistic contribution, and it wouldn‘t work just as well in perfect tense.) The style supports the meaning of the book. An editor who told Older not to head hop here would deserve to have his red pen ritually broken.

Does that mean you can gaily switch POV in your sex scene which is not set in an information-overload tech future? Sure. Just put in a line break or row of asterisks to clue the reader in, so it is a transferred POV not ‘head hopping’. Do you think that looks weird and clunky or jarring? Then ask yourself why doing it without flagging it is better. While you’re at it, consider a flashback, or using the other person’s POV in a different scene instead.

Or maybe you’ve reinvented the sex scene, I’m not ruling that out.* But, given the reader issues that head-hopping causes, the onus is on the writer to mediate those problems and make it work.

*This sentence breaches the ‘rule’ against comma splices, and it does so with intent. I’m writing in a colloquial voice and this punctuation deliberately expresses the way I’d say it: a semi colon would be excessively formal.   

Simultaneous action

Ah, my favourite editorial fad, we meet again. I wrote extensively on it here. The premise of this ‘rule’ is that non-simultaneous actions cannot be presented as simultaneous.

He walked into the room, sitting down on the sofa.

Fair enough. That’s very awkward writing. Unfortunately, this concept is then over-applied by editors who should know better, and we end up with the red-penning of totally reasonable action flows such as

Bob drew the gun, pointing it at Janey.

The actual reason for this rule is that action flows can create an absurd effect when badly done. Unfortunately, some idiot decided to extend this into saying that you can’t do them at all, which is nonsense. This fossilised rule is a coprolite.

The question is not, “Can I break the rule?” or indeed, “Must I obey the rule?” The question is, “Is this a meaningful rule, and will the book be better for breaking it or obeying it?”

This applies just as much on the macro level. One of my least favourite romance tropes is the third-act break-up. There’s a pretty common idea that it’s required to keep the drama levels up and test the relationship. Can you break that rule?

Hell yes, because it’s not a goddamn rule, it’s just a thing a lot of people do, often because they’re told it’s a required ‘beat’ by other people, thus creating a vicious cycle of unnecessary third-act break ups. (Do not start me on the concept of ‘beats’, which has been inexplicably elevated from a basic structural analysis of one type of plot arc into some kind of bible.)

Please, I implore you, burn it down. Put your emotional climax elsewhere. Never have a break up at all. Locate all the conflict externally and let the MCs stand against it, or don’t even have them get together till the last chapter. Do whatever you like–as long as it works.

As author and editor, I have always felt that “Is it correct?” is a less important question than “Does it work?” I am still irritated by an editorial note on a line of mine about someone’s “breath dragoning in the frosty air”. The editor noted the word ‘dragoning’ wasn’t in Merriam Webster but said they were going to let it pass because the meaning was clear. Yes, I know the meaning is clear, thank you. It’s clear because I chose the word very specifically to create a mental picture, and I felt free to do so because English was not actually formed by copies of Merriam Webster being dropped by God from the sky.

All that said, “Do what thou wilt” is very much not the whole of the Law. There are always consequences. If the rule is “a romance novel must have some form of happy romantic resolution for the characters”, and you decide you want your MCs to die, then breaking the rule means you will either need to market your book as something other than a romance novel, or take the consequences of enraged readers to whom you’ve sold a pup.

Knowledge, mindfulness, and accountability are the watchwords here. Use those as your rules and you’re unlikely to go wrong.

(If you want a reasonably comprehensive list of damn fool ‘writing rules’ you can absolutely ignore, such as “don’t use was, don’t use passives, don’t use said”, here you are. Don’t say I never do anything for you.)


Many thanks to @podcastled for the inspiration!

Newest release: A Thief in the Night, an Audible Original.

A Thief in the Night is out!

I have a release day, for the first time in a very long while. (This is basically because I’ve started going with publishers instead of self publishing. When you finish a book that you’re doing yourself you can get it out in a very short time: I had Subtle Blood out in less than a month after I finally signed off the MS. Publishers take the best part of 18 months for print. You see the problem.)

Anyway, we’re slowly getting back into a schedule, and here’s the first: A Thief in the Night, a Regency romance starring Toby, who you may remember as Robin’s long-vanished brother from The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting.

“Toby left us. Up and vanished one day. He was our big brother, our best friend, the one who stood in front of us when Lordship was free with his fists, but he didn’t even say goodbye, and we have never heard from him again. He’d fought with Lordship every day of the five years before that, you’d have thought they hated each other, but Lordship was never the same once he’d gone. Well, he was worse.”

I always wanted to know what happened to Toby. Now I do, and you can find out too, simply by reading this!

Cover, in cartoon style. Old house with peeling wallpaper, a leaded window outside which we see a night sky with stars, a table covered in old books and a chipped cup. Toby has his back to the table. Miles (dark hair, smart Regency clothes, taller) is leaning over Toby looking menacing. Toby (sandy hair, no coat or cravat) does not look menaced. He's got one hand on Miles's hip in a trusting way. The other, behind his back, is concealing a gentleman's expensive fob watch.

You will have to read it with your ears initially because this is an Audible Original, ie an audio exclusive. The ebook will be out in April 2023, and I’m doing a print version in a short story bind-up then, but for now it’s only audio, ably read by Ryan Laughton and James Joseph. The lovely cover is Elizabeth Turner Stokes!

Here’s the link: I hope you enjoy it.

KJ Charles logo

Let’s talk about sex (scenes)

Sex scenes tend to loom large in romance. So let me first note that they don’t have to. Romances can be closed-door (sex happens off page) or entirely sex-free (asexual romances, books that lead up to a marriage with no shenanigans in advance) and work brilliantly.

Don’t believe anyone who says you have to have on-page sex. Don’t believe anyone who says it has to happen at certain “beats” in the story, or by a certain percentage of the MS. Don’t believe anyone who says that sex has to follow a progression of escalating acts in a particular order. Ignore everyone. Listen to me, and only me. Send your credit card details to—

Sorry, got carried away there.

Okay. Let’s assume you want sex scenes. So, how to go about it?

The received wisdom is that in romance (not erotica or erotic romance, which are separate beasts to which this blog post does not apply), every sex scene needs to advance the plot on some level. A sex scene should not be skippable.  Remember here that plot is character in action. A sex scene might have any of the following effects:

  • MCs who don’t know each other well create a tentative connection, so MC 1 feels able to flee to MC 2’s home when disaster strikes
  • MCs who click/laugh/otherwise develop their emotional relationship in a way they have not before now
  • MCs reveal insecurities, fears, vulnerabilities, or past trauma
  • MCs reveal a quality that hasn’t been apparent before, whether unexpected kindness and consideration, humour, passion, or a more alarming side
  • MC says something stupid in the aftermath and borks everything
  • MCs are seen shagging, setting off plot repercussions
  • MC1 develops trust and feelings that will be catastrophically let down when they learn that MC2 is a lying liar
  • MC lets something slip in the throes of passion that alters their partner’s opinion of things, whether “I love you” or “[ex girlfriend’s name]” or “okay, the double agent is…”
  • Bonking sets off magical effects eg moving tattoos, prophecy, visions, portals to other universe
  • The desk on which they’re shagging breaks, and MCs discover the long lost will in the wreckage.

I have written most of those, if not the last one, though I am keeping it in my back pocket.

You will note I’m not including “MCs fall deeper in love”, although that is perhaps the most popular sex-scene outcome. That’s because it’s not enough to say “they bonked and the rush of endorphins did its thing.” I want to see them falling more in love, not because the sex was good, but because of exactly why it was good, and how that springs from and affects character.  

A few questions to ask yourself:

Are they going to end the sex scene in a different place to where they started?

Not physically (unless you’re doing the portal thing), but mentally/emotionally. Who’s going to regret it? Feel stupid? Wish they’d clarified relationship terms beforehand? Blurt out I love you? Fail to say I love you when it’s called for? Has this moved their relationship forward, or sent it off in a different direction? Have they had a useful conversation? If they are in exactly the same mental/emotional place at the end except sweatier, what have you added to the romance or the plot? Possibly they broke the desk and found the will, and that’s fine. But make it something.

What are we learning about the MCs by what they do in bed?

In some books, an MC’s sexual urges are plot drivers. A Seditious Affair has an upstanding Conservative government official who is secretly a gay submissive with a pretty extreme humiliation kink, and has been fairly badly traumatised by a previous lover’s inability to understand his desires. The sex scenes in this book are numerous because that’s initially the lovers’ only means of connection, and because we the reader have to understand quite how poorly matched his desires are to the rest of his life, and how wretched and ashamed he feels about it, and the extremity of those desires, and the kindness and consideration shown by his lover, and their growing mutual understanding/trust, and the fact that their idea of post-coital pillow talk is arguing about books. The conflict, internal and external, of this book boils down to sex and politics, so there’s a lot of sex on page (and also a lot of politics, sorry).

In other books, the MCs’ conflicts have nothing to do with sex, and all of the plot and relationship progression happens elsewhere. That’s absolutely fine: it’s not all about bonking. But in that case, you’ll want to consider writing fewer/less detailed/no sex scenes. Or if you feel you need explicit scenes on page, identify why that is, and see if you can, eg, shift some of the emotional progression to within a sex scene. Don’t just stick one in because romances have to have sex: a) they do not and b) it will be skippable.

Let me here beg you not to have the MCs do super-sexy things just because it’s a sex scene. The kind of sex they have and things they say will still be rooted in character. Some people don’t like to talk, are perfectly happy with affectionate vanilla sex, don’t enjoy penetration, have no idea what they’re doing, or are otherwise not classic Romance Sex Gods in any of a million ways. They are entitled to that, and those scenes can be just as hot and satisfying as any other.

What happens if it’s lousy sex?

Most romance sex is orgasms all the way, as it should be, but why not try negotiating failures, not liking stuff, when someone asks to stop, or the need for improvement? If a hero who comes in thirty seconds and rolls over to go to sleep is good enough for the great Beverly Jenkins, it’s good enough for you. (A Chance at Love, and obviously he gets better, but this scene is magnificent.)

One of my most important sex scenes comes in Subtle Blood, a m/m romance and book 3 of a trilogy. So far Will has always been on top in penetrative sex. He asks his lover Kim to switch things around. It goes super badly and Will hates it, so they stop. This triggers a conversation where he’s forced to explain himself (a thing he is also incredibly bad at) and thus leads to the big love declaration.

Will took a deep breath. “I wanted to give it up to you, the way you do to me. The way you make me feel when I have you, the things you say when I do it. I wanted to do that for you. I thought I could show you that way.”

Kim’s eyes widened. “Oh.”

“I wanted to,” Will said, wretchedly. “Only, it didn’t feel—”

“Hold on a moment. I would also like to have you give yourself to me. I would like that more than anything. I’m not sure why you think it needs to be physical.”

Physical would be easier, or at least he’d assumed it would be. “Doesn’t it?” he said, knowing he was stalling.

Kim brushed a thumb over his eyebrow, down the side of his face. “I love you, Will. I’ve told you that, knowing you weren’t ready or able to answer. But it isn’t the easiest thing to repeat I love you and I want you to a man whose idea of the future is ‘we’ll see where we go’.”

“Kim—”

“You were always welcome to my body,” Kim went on steadily. “Making you free of my soul was a great deal harder. I am unsure of your intentions, and unsure I have any right to ask for them, and I told you how I felt anyway because I promised not to lie any more. That’s giving it up to you, and it’s really not the same thing as a spot of recreational sodomy.” He gave Will a half-smile that wasn’t happy. “You’re confusing truth with acts, my love. If you’re offering, I’d rather have truth.”

I wrote it this way because we already know they’re terrific in bed, so another great shag wouldn’t actually move the dial on their relationship at all. Whereas the awkward failure to launch forces Will to confront and vocalise the feelings he was trying to avoid talking about.

How much detail and at what point?

You don’t need to make every scene blow-by-blow-job. It may be that you concentrate on the dancing around, heated glances, slow undressing, discussion of what they both want, and then pretty much skim over the actual Insert Tab A Into Slot B. Or perhaps you want to make it super physical which means getting down quick to the nitty-gritty of thrusting. You might need just a few lines of lovemaking to establish that they’re clinging to one another, or an extended X-rated sequence, or an entire chapter that’s mostly negotiation and discussion. You can play it any way you like, as long as you consider what you’re trying to convey. But don’t feel compelled to write any more detail than the scene actually needs.

***

I was considering writing about the mechanics of writing sex scenes here but this is already too long plus I have reached a conclusion on my way, which is: once you work out what a sex scene is for, in the plot, you’ll know what sort of sex should be on the page. If it’s an intense exploration of kink, then there’s going to be issues of power and vulnerability and trust and a lot of physicality. If it’s hatesex in an enemies to lovers, you’ll need to make it wild. If it’s about making an emotional connection, you’ll need to focus on dialogue and feelings–the warm fuzzy kind as well as the knickers kind. If the sex is just underpinning how great everything is, there may not be a lot more to say than that it happened.

A few mechanics

  • Do think about your characters’ actual bodies, relative heights, number of limbs (unlikely to be more than four each except in certain subgenres), etc, and make sure whatever’s happening is physically possible. You don’t want the reader breaking off to find a couple of Barbie and/or Ken dolls in order to check if something works.
  • Use the level of language suitable for the people and their experience (and, in a historical, the time period. Here I highly recommend the work of Jonathon Green whose Dictionary of Slang gives dates of first use.)
  • Silken sheaths, quivering cores, pebbled nubbins etc are so last century. “His manhood” and “her feminine core” are uncomfortably gender essentialist as terms for body parts and also somewhat ew. There is nothing wrong with the word ‘cock’.

The interesting part isn’t what MCs do with their genitals: it’s how the people involved feel about it. Smells, shudders, sensations, touch and taste. Emotional needs and responses along with (or at odds to) physical ones. Something in the world shifting, a little or a lot, because of what they do. That’s what makes an impact on the reader, which is what it’s all about.  

Thanks to Iona for the inspiration for this one!

Know Your Place

I have taken to soliciting on Twitter for blog post ideas, and today’s is an excellent one from @kilerkki.

Your books often have a really strong sense of place—how do you build the setting? (How do you keep yourself from getting lost in blueprints while your characters are wandering London’s back alleys/some fancy manor’s corridors?)

First things first: if you want the reader to feel a sense of place, you have to have it yourself. Seems obvious, but it’s very easy to plonk your characters into Generic Village or Generic Stately Home without really thinking about it beyond “there were some houses” or “there were some rooms”.

The easiest way to get your own sense of place is of course to visit a real location, so you actually understand what the landscape looks like, how much sky there is, how it feels. I like to steal stately homes from reality because it means I have mental and actual pictures, a ready-made floor plan to adapt, and a general sense of “this is the right age, right sort of place for this area”, plus there’s usually some delightful quirk that triggers a plot idea. Peakholme in Think of England is based on Cragside, an incredibly technologically advanced house for its time, and its special phone system and electric wiring were plot crucial. Crowmarsh in An Unsuitable Heir is based on Baddesley Clinton because it has a moat, dammit.

Of course, it’s not always feasible to make a trip. If you’re an American writing Tudor England, that’s a long way to travel in time as well as place. So use maps and, importantly pictures. There are a quite staggering number of resources online with searchable collections of watercolours and engravings, and loads of old maps available online/as reproductions.

These things are important because they will give you a sense of place which you can then convey to the reader. This does not mean you should write paragraphs of detailed setting: nobody cares about your research. You need to know because that means you’ll write with confidence, and also there won’t be snafus of the kind that readers inevitably pick up. But accuracy is worthless if it’s not conveyed in good, effective writing, and nobody’s romance-reading experience was ever enhanced by a paraphrase of the Wiki entry on Chatsworth House.

Obviously you can make up a fictional town, or house, or battleship. But you do need to make it up in enough detail that your characters aren’t just walking through a vague indeterminate fog.

So how to create a sense of place without fly-tipping your notes onto the page?

Practical details: what do you need?

Consider what the reader actually needs to know about the place on a practical level, and think very hard before supplying much in excess of that. Take stately homes. In Proper English, the layout of the house is crucial to the murder mystery and the reader’s understanding. In Any Old Diamonds, the actual layout is almost completely irrelevant. I’d hazard that a reader could sketch much of the floorplan from Proper English accurately because of the level of detail I put in, whereas for Any Old Diamonds the most you could say is “there’s a dining room, a drawing room, a billiard room, and several bedrooms.” I knew what the house layout was, at least enough to ensure that the billiard room doesn’t migrate around the building, but I couldn’t find a reason to trouble the reader with those specifics. (We do however know a lot about how the Any Old Diamonds house is decorated, and also about the exterior, because those were important.)

Descriptive detail: where the devil is

I mentioned needing a reason to tell the reader stuff. Practical information is one reason to put information in. Atmosphere—the sense of place—is another. So let’s look at that.

In my 1920s Will Darling Adventures, Will owns an antiquarian and second-hand bookshop in an easily ignored side street off Charing Cross Road called May’s Buildings. Here’s more or less everything we learn about May’s Buildings across three books:

  • It’s only accessible to cars at one end and it’s not yet lit with electric (important practical details for plot)
  • There’s a pub at the Charing Cross end (practical detail for plot) called the Black Horse (actual historical fact, which matters to literally nobody but me)
  • The next-door shop sells umbrellas and walking sticks.

This last point is not plot relevant (though I am now kind of wishing I’d done a fight in a walking stick shop). We learn it in the following sentence:

Will went next door, demanding, “Can I use your telephone?” His neighbour, Norris, purveyor of umbrellas and walking sticks, waved an uninterested hand.

I could have said “the shop next door” to the same practical effect (it’s just there to give Will access to a phone). What do walking sticks and umbrellas add? Why put that in?

Well, a walking-stick-and-brolly shop is very niche. It’s not going to have high footfall or attract customers from miles around: people buy them, but they don’t buy many, or often. It’s exceedingly British, with a rather musty and dusty feel and there’s a delightful class marker in ‘purveyor’ rather than ‘seller’.

“A little alley with an antiquarian bookshop next to a purveyor of walking sticks and umbrellas” gives you a vibe. You know what it feels like, if not exactly what it looks like. If asked what the shop on the other side might be, you might speculate a very old-fashioned toyshop, or a place that sells clocks, or a specialist in cake pans. You would not say a fishmonger, or a trendy dress shop buzzing with Bright Young Things.

That’s a fair bit of atmosphere, dropped in not as part of a descriptive paragraph (face it, people skip descriptive paragraphs unless you make them read), but on the fly. It keeps the reader conscious of Will’s surroundings without labouring the point. We don’t get an actual description of Norris’s shop; we don’t need one. But its existence adds to the sense of place.

Because sense of place is more than physical description of geographical features. You can build it up with references to much more—smells, how crowded/empty it is, what people wear or do, how they look, the food you can buy.

Here’s another from Slippery Creatures, since I’m on a shop roll.

Maisie worked at a milliner’s on Lexington Street, which had a fancy French name and served women who, she said, needed to look at exciting hats while they bought boring ones.

I could have gone into detail about what sort of street Lexington Street is, what’s the nearest Tube, what the shop looks like—the rows of hats, how the exciting and boring ones are displayed, the way the staff dress, the level of snootiness. I didn’t, for three reasons:

  • The reader doesn’t need to know. (Crucial)
  • Will, our viewpoint, doesn’t know anything about hats. (Important for character)
  • I don’t know anything about hats. (And am too lazy to learn)

But you can tell the kind of shop it is—expensive, fancy but not with cutting edge clientele. You don’t have to know where Lexington Street is to guess that it’s in the right area, but not on the really fashionable circuit. It’s a little detail that lightly sketches in a bit of Will Darling’s London. But frankly, what we really learn here is that Maisie is a shrewd woman who has more to offer than her current employer is using. I’m just slipping a bit of place in with that.

This is important. Because remember how I said that readers skim description? Well, they really do, unless you make them need to read it. And a great way to do that is to couple your descriptive parts with other things–character-building, or plot-establishment, or building atmosphere in a way that snags the attention.

God, That’s Pathetic

The pathetic fallacy is a literary term for the attribution of human feeling to things found in nature. Mountains are cruelly indifferent, summer rain is kindly, an old house frowns. (Pathetic here means ‘having to do with feelings’ as in sympathy or empathy, not ‘pitiful and ridiculous’, btw.)

Here’s Piper, the house in The Magpie Lord.

Piper was a substantial Jacobean building in grey stone, with small panelled windows sitting in the thick walls like deep-set eyes. The front was covered with ivy, and the woods encroached too closely on what had once been elegant gardens. The gravelled drive was pierced by weeds. Magpies screeched and cawed in the trees, and a trio of the birds strutted in front of the three men.

Practically speaking, it’s an old house in poor repair. But emotionally speaking, what do we get?

  • The scary house is looking at us in a sinister fashion
  • The scary plants are surrounding us and pushing in (‘encroaching’, ‘pierced’)
  • The scary birds are pushy, even aggressive (‘screeched’, ‘strutted’).

The description gives us a strong sense something is wrong with the house, and it’s wrong in a menacing way.

The sense of place here comes as much from the pathetic fallacy as from the practical description. Let’s try it without.

Piper was a substantial Jacobean building in grey stone, with small panelled windows sitting in the thick walls. The front was covered with ivy, and the woods were growing up around what had once been elegant gardens. The gravelled drive was full of weeds. Magpies called in the trees, and a trio of the birds hopped in front of the three men.

That’s a perfectly adequate description, but it doesn’t have what I’d call the sense of place. You could skim that without missing anything.

(For a laugh, let’s run it again with a different set of feelz.

Piper was a substantial Jacobean building in grey stone, with small panelled windows sitting in the thick walls, catching the sunlight in friendly winks. The front was lush with ivy, and the vibrant sprawl of the woods was reclaiming what had once been strict formal gardens. The gravelled drive sang with wild flowers. Magpies called greetings from the trees, and a trio of the birds danced in front of the three men.

Aw. Let’s hire it for a holiday home!)

The pathetic fallacy—loading your description with your character’s feelings—can do a ton of work in character development, and is more engaging to read as description than purely factual. It can however be overdone very easily so watch yourself.

Figures in a Landscape

As noted, it’s ideal if your writing is trying to do two for the price of one. If your description both conveys the surroundings/place and reflects the viewpoint character’s mood, you’ve got a better chance of keeping the description-skippers engaged while saying what you need to convey.

Here’s a longish bit from The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen (the first of my Doomsday Books duo, coming from Sourcebooks in 2023). It’s the opening chapter after a somewhat turbulent prologue that’s established Gareth is both highly strung and very wound up.

Gareth arrived on Romney Marsh four days after that. It was bleak beyond words.

The stage stopped at a coaching inn, the Walnut Tree, high on a ridge. The land stretched out before them, grey-green, blotched with black scrubby trees, and cut with silvery lines that looked for all the world like streams except that many were unnervingly straight. He couldn’t see much in the way of houses on the flat land below, or of anything except the sea beyond. An icy wind whipped up the ridge. He shivered.

The road from the ridge took a steep descent to the unfathomably flat land of the Marsh. There were a lot of sheep, Gareth noticed. And there was a lot of water, because the straight lines were indeed streams, except they had to be man-made. Canals? The channels looked steel grey as he passed, like blades cutting through scrubby grass, and scrubby trees, and scrub.

Why had his father wanted to live here? Why would anyone?

The coach traversed a wearisome six miles through nothing, emptiness dotted with sheep and the occasional flurry of cottages huddled against the wind. At last it came to a halt at Dymchurch, his destination. This was a town, though only just, with a squat Norman church and a long high street. The stage passed an alehouse called the Ship and then stopped at a public house halfway down, one that was adorned with a ship’s figurehead on its wall but was called the City of London. Someone should have thought harder about that, in Gareth’s opinion.

He got out, stretched his aching legs, and looked around. It didn’t take long: there wasn’t much to see. He was used to bustling crowds, dotted with bright bonnets and smart coats. Here there was just a handful of drably-clad people who looked like they had hunched up against the weather at birth and never quite uncurled again. Farmers and shopkeepers, he vaguely supposed. An elderly gentleman wearing an old-fashioned periwig was speaking to a pretty young woman in a brown skirt and mannish black coat.

What have we got here?

Well, we’ve got factual description of Romney Marsh including your actual pubs and town, and the important fact that this isn’t wild or waste land: it’s a man-made working environment. We establish that it’s very flat and not highly populated, and the people it does have are provincial, a bit old-fashioned, not rich or visibly exciting.

But it all comes with feelings. Everything is dismally low: flat, hunched, squat, huddled, scrubby (for trees). It’s featureless: bleak, drab, nothing, emptiness, scrub again. It’s miserable.

Or is it? Because we’ve also established that Gareth is uncertain, even fearful (unnervingly, shivered, unfathomably). He’s tired (wearisome, aching). He’s snarky, too, with very much a city-boy-comes-to-the-country vibe. All of this description of Romney Marsh is coming through the eyes of a nervous exhausted man with a tendency to snipe. We’ve learned about the place, but we’ve learned a fair bit about Gareth from how he views the place.

Which (I hope) means that later in the book, when Gareth finds his feet and indeed his love interest in the Marsh, the change in tenor of the descriptions will give the reader an entirely new view, both of who he is and of where he is. We learn about Gareth by seeing him as a figure interacting with his landscape.


Don’t think about sense of place as requiring detailed on-page description for its own sake. Think about a place’s vibe, and about how your characters interact with their world. Because if you can convey that, your settings will be, not background, but a living part of the book.

Characters, Politics, Fish, and You

Let’s talk about politics. Specifically, your characters’ politics, how you position them, and how they/you express them.

If your immediate thought was “My characters don’t have politics”, you’re wrong. Your character, if in a contemporary, votes, and if they don’t vote, they’re making a decision not to participate. They will have a view on how much tax they want to pay and what it should go to. They will have an opinion on gun control or Brexit or parking restrictions on their street or how much they pay for health care. As for historicals…well, the Regency was one of the most turbulent political periods of Britain’s history, a prime minister got assassinated, there was ongoing popular revolt and incredibly severe laws against sedition, and absolutely everyone had Views about the Prince Regent. No politics? Don’t kid yourself.

 And I haven’t even touched on issues of race, class, gender, religious freedom, disability, and sexuality. Name me a human society in which those aren’t relevant.  

All of that is politics. Everyone has politics. If you think you “don’t have politics” that probably means the politics happening around you are the sort that suit you, in which case you’re a fish not noticing water.

“Okay, my characters probably have politics, but I don’t want to get into that,” you might say. Fine, but politics are a facet of character just like everything else. They might not be at the forefront of your plot, or a topic of conversation. But you’d struggle to write an entire novel about fish in which water played no part at all in informing the plot, character, or setting.

Politics can affect character implicitly or explicitly. You can show us what the MCs think and how their histories inform their attitudes which inform their personalities. You can show us how they interact, especially from positions of difference: how ready they are to challenge themselves or hear new views.

This can be explicit. My Society of Gentlemen Regency series is exceedingly and overtly political, in settings and dialogue and plot. But the reason it worked as a romance series rather than a lecture tour is that the politics made for some hellacious conflicts.

In A Seditious Affair, Silas Mason is a working class seditionist while Dominic Frey is a committed Tory who works for the Home Office, and their book is set around a (real) conspiracy to assassinate the Cabinet, because let’s not muck about. Dominic and Silas in particular are about as impossible a pair to get to the HEA as I have written. Because of the huge political gulf between them, I had to dive deep into their personalities to show what did work between them, what brought and held them together. I used the politics to drive the love story and the external plot together: you could not take out the political bits because the political bits are all about the romance.

But that’s far from the only approach. Compare, say, this from Band Sinister. Guy, a fearful and sheltered country gentleman, has just been introduced the Murder, a hellfire club.

Raven opened his mouth. Penn said, mildly, “Every man is entitled to his beliefs.”

“Yes, any man has a right to his beliefs, and a duty to question them too,” Raven retorted. “If you don’t take out your beliefs for washing now and again, they’re just bad habits.”

That started a discussion among the company in general, greatly to Guy’s relief. He ate and drank and watched his tablemates as the conversation swerved like a drunkard in the road. They went from the need to abolish the offence of blasphemous libel and separate church from State into a discussion on the system of elections. Martelo and Salcombe argued that every man over the age of twenty-one should be entitled to a vote and representation in the House; Raven and Street suggested women’s opinions should be canvassed equally; and Corvin spoke, with languid wit that might even have been seriously meant, about the desirability of abolishing the House of Lords. “After all,” he said, “I have a seat and a voice there, and you wouldn’t put me in charge of the country, would you?”

It was beyond argument, for Guy: he couldn’t begin to formulate answers to questions he’d never even considered asking. He just listened, in a slightly wine-flown haze, to a debate that felt like some sort of lengthy hallucination, each proposition more destructive and extreme and simply not done than the last.

This, then, was a hellfire club: a debating society for alarming ideas. Guy could well understand why one would need a private room; a zealous magistrate could prosecute some of these opinions if aired at a public meeting. But this was Rookwood’s home and thus, since he was an Englishman, his castle. The Murder could say what they wanted in their own company, and Guy, who hardly ever said what he wanted, had nothing at all to offer this meeting of lively, informed, well-travelled people saying unimaginably bizarre things. He simply watched and listened, with the sense of being caught in one of those fiery upheavals that Salcombe said had made the world.

The point here isn’t what Guy or indeed his love interest Philip Rookwood think about any of these specific propositions: we don’t find out. The point is that he’s being submerged in a tsunami of new information and thought and also ways of thinking that he finds at first terrifying and them world-expanding. Which is a foreshadowing of the sexual awakening he’s about to have (albeit in rather more detail because romance, ahaha). The political discussion here serves to tell us the kind of person Guy is at the start of the book, and hint to us that he’s yearning for more; it also indicates the deep divide between him and Philip in terms of attitude to life, experience, willingness to conform. Guy is unthinkingly conservative; Philip is consciously (self-consciously) radical. Their romance is among other things a process by which Guy opens his mind, and Philip comes to understand and respect the values Guy does hold on to.  

Politics, like everything else, is character. But it’s also potentially a wonderful source of worldbuilding. I set my Will Darling Adventures in the early 1920s. You can populate that world with flappers and nightclubs and Bright Young People, and indeed I put in a lot of that. But it gets a lot chewier if you put in the context too. (The Bright Young People were unquestionably a bunch of privileged twats who should have been first against the wall at the revolution, but they were also a specific reaction to a political situation: an entire generation of young people with heroically dead older siblings they couldn’t live up to, facing a world their elders had made a bloody mess of and opting out.)

The politics of the time inform the world and the characters, main and minor. The upper classes have been hit by death duties, often several times in a few years, and their power is slipping, which drives a lot of the plot. The country is full of resentfully jobless demobbed soldiers like Will, who would probably be quite small-c conservative if people didn’t keep pushing him into extreme situations (whistles innocently). Women are holding on to the opportunities they had in the war and looking for new ones: Maisie, a black working class Welshwoman, is doggedly claiming a place in a white privileged men’s world, while Phoebe, a Bright Young Person, is solidly upper class but probably the most radical character in the book as she skips gaily over boundaries of class and gender that Will smacks into face first. And the extreme politics of the time leave real scars: Kim, an aristocrat, had a catastrophic flirtation with Bolshevism followed by a ghastly disillusionment post Revolution, all of which is character and plot crucial.


A delve into politics—which we could also call ‘what’s going on and what the characters think about it’—provides huge opportunity for building character and world alike. It doesn’t mean MCs delivering lectures or undigested infodumps. It just means thinking about how your characters exist in the context of their place and time, and showing that.

Consider the water your fish swim in. Then you can decide how clear or turbulent you want it to be.

No, *You’re* Wrong: writing arguments

I wrote a while ago about conflict in romance. My main point was that ‘conflict’ doesn’t have to mean ‘argument’. The MCs can be in deep conflict with a situation or third party, or even profound disagreement with each other, without ever raising their voices or even having an angry feeling. This set-up can produce some of the most heart-wrenching romances precisely because the conflict isn’t about argument or clashing.

Which is great. But today, we’re forgetting about lovers who are star-crossed, and concentrating on ones who are just plain cross. Let’s talk about blazing rows!

I love a good blazing row in a romance. People in a temper blurt out truths or, even worse, real subjective feelings and resentments that Calm Them would never have voiced. They say things that are grossly unfair and just accurate enough to get under the skin and stick there; things that hurt, and have to be apologised for and discussed. This can be a fantastic way to raise the stakes of a story, put a whacking obstacle in our lovers’ path, and dig right into the heart of the problems.

That’s argument done right. Done wrong, it’s one of the quickest ways to get readers to hurl the book across the room. You can torpedo your entire book with a badly done argument, for reasons we’ll cover.

Before we start, it’s as well to note that a well-written blazing row is liable to be raw, stressful, and even potentially painful for many readers. Some people may consider that a MC who raises their voice in anger is abusive. There is certainly no compulsory requirement for a romance to contain an argument, and if your story doesn’t need one, don’t have one. A lot of people will actively seek that out.

With that said, and assuming you’re going for Full Metal Racket, let’s start with the obvious ways to do this badly.

Insert Row Here: the third act break-up

We’ve all seen this one. The synopsis or “beat list” or whatever demands that there should be a row, so the author writes a row. All too often, this is done to provoke the dreaded Third Act Break-Up. Eyeroll emoji.

Two problems with that. First, a good blazing row needs to come from somewhere. Hurt; fear; a sense that the other person is treating you badly; a deep-seated resentment. These are very real emotions, but they are not positive ones, and if your couple feel like that about one another even temporarily, you’ll need to put in the work to show us how they fix it. Do it in the third act of a romance, and you’ve got a mountain to climb for a plausible HEA. You will have to persuade the reader that these difficult issues—very often coming down to lack of trust—can be resolved, and you’ve only got a couple of chapters to do it.

(Here I observe that Adriana Herrera’s American Love Story has two characters who have a lot of very big, serious arguments which are deeply rooted in their characters and situations, and the book ends with them together in couples therapy. It’s absolutely spot on: they clearly have a shedload more work to do on their relationship, and we’re left believing they’re both profoundly committed to making it happen. It’s a lot more convincing than a glib declaration of love would have been.)

This brings us to the alternative problem, when the author doesn’t dig into deep-rooted issues, but instead goes for that old favourite, the completely manufactured nonsense row. Extra points if it could have been resolved in two lines with basic communication.

“I saw you kissing a man on the street! I will never speak to you again and have blocked you on all channels to prevent you explaining yourself!”

[three chapters later]

“Oh, it was your brother, my bad.”

Toxic Avenger

The thing about blazing rows is, they are not the pinnacle of good human behaviour. When we argue, we are all liable to display anger, resentment, defensiveness, lashing out, irrationality, spite. I am bang alongside realistic characters who behave badly on occasion and say things they regret—up to a point. The tricky part is judging that point.

For me, a blazing row has an in vino veritas quality: people lose their inhibitions temporarily and speak their truth (which is not the same as the truth, or indeed their only truth). It’s a moment for the character to be their authentically worst self. But think carefully how bad that worst self should be. There are countless m/f romances where the hero is provoked by rage into misogynist slurs, for example, and as far as I’m concerned, that hero can get in the bin immediately because he’s shown his true colours.

It’s not necessary. You can work up a fantastic row based on someone’s actions, and what those actions reveal/imply about their character. Specificity is what you want, not some generic insult, and especially not a personal one, still less a slur. I love swearing as much as the next foul-mouthed Brit, but if ever there’s a time to watch your swearing, it’s in a blazing row.

Let’s say the heroine’s father owns a dinosaur-meat company that’s planning a takeover of the hero’s cupcake factory. She doesn’t tell the hero because she knows he’ll want nothing to do with her. When he finds out, well into their love affair, he incorrectly concludes that she was manipulating him to fish for information about cupcake production methods. (What, I could totally write this.)

If the enraged hero calls the heroine a bitch, the reader’s misogyny klaxon may well go off. If he uses sexual insults (slut, etc), that’s a level of intended insult and misogynist attitude that many readers will find repugnant. And on a technical level it will completely muddy the waters, because I’m now siding with the heroine even if she behaved appallingly, plus I hope his cupcake factory gets bulldozed.

Whereas suppose he calls her a conniving shit? Well, the reader will have to admit he’s got a point. If his angry language is accurate and specific, the reader can sympathise with his sense of betrayal as well as the heroine’s hurt at his misjudgement. The focus of the argument stays where it should be, on what someone actually did wrong. It remains an argument, not a tirade of abuse. And if you want to keep the reader on side with the eventual HEA, that makes a difference.

To put it another way: if you call me a bitch, that merely tells me something about you. If you call me a conniving shit, there’s a chance you’ve nailed something about me.

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

So what does a good blazing row look like?

It’s based at the root in character. A useful tip is to consider a character’s deep fears or hurts, and attack them there, because that’s what triggers the defensive reaction and the uncontrolled emotion. If an MC is used to being overlooked or ignored by their family, it will hurt disproportionately from their lover.

Specific and accurate language is by far the most effective. I’m not a fan of manufactured conflict and especially not the type where one person doesn’t say what they’re angry about (at least on the surface).  

That said, remember the surface reason for the row may well not be what (or all) the row is actually about. In my Will Darling Adventures, there are multiple rows based on Kim Secretan telling lies to his lover Will. Actually (and this is what I mean about rows being based in character), the problem is that Will is in unacknowledged love with Kim but feels on the back foot with Kim’s poise and superior class status, none of which he’d admit at gunpoint. “Why are you lying to me?” is a proxy for “Why can’t I be an equal and a partner?” which is not a conversation Will is ready to have. With that as the hidden emotional motor, the surface arguments about Kim being a conniving shit speed along nicely.

See both sides. It’s entirely possible that both participants in the row have a point, or a sincerely held belief (character again). Even if one has flagrantly wronged the other, they surely have a justification of why they needed to do it. The author needs to hold both those conflicting realities in mind in order to make the reader believe in the argument. AKA: the character needs to believe what they’re saying, even if only at the second they say it.

And, here’s the big one for me: Don’t lose sight of the other emotions. If you’re well into the relationship, a blazing row isn’t just angry. It’s hurtful (I love this person, why did she say that?) and scary (Christ, are we breaking up?) and there might be a frightening sense of things running out of control. Convey those and the reader will very much feel the argument.

Example time! I am going to include a long quote from one of my books, and I expect many of my readers will already have guessed which scene this is going to be. It’s from Flight of Magpies, the third of a same-couple trilogy, and it’s in chapter 5 of 13 because it needed a lot of dealing with.  There are various stressors on the lovers which I won’t bother to detail, but, looking at the points above:

  • Character. Stephen is torn between his love life and his duties, and terrified of failing at either. Crane is very much in love with him and finding it increasingly hurtful that he might come second in Stephen’s mind. Stephen feels his life is running out of his control; Crane verges on controlling. Stephen has very definitely let Crane down. All of this comes together as we kick off.
  • Specific language. Two whole pages before we degenerate into vulgar abuse! Go me. Note that many of the flying accusations aren’t entirely accurate or fair, but all have a grain of truth to make them hurt.  
  • Surface reasons: The passage is stuffed with ‘em, several of them pointed up as such. But this is actually about the fact that Stephen’s life is out of control and he’s terrified. He’s failing and flailing. Crane spells that out to him, and Stephen’s defensive response is to lash out, and that’s what’s really happening here.
  • Both sides: Stephen really is letting people down. Crane really is excessively demanding of someone who’s at breaking point. They both need the other to do better.
  • Other emotions: This is a big old row, one to which we’ve been building for a couple of chapters and indeed three books, but it’s rooted in love and fear for one another, even if those emotions aren’t coming out in a very therapist-approved manner.

Have a look and see what you’d do better:


“God damn you, Stephen.” Crane pushed himself to his feet so hard the chair toppled backwards. “When are you going to stop lying to me?”

“That was months ago,” Stephen protested. “I thought I’d get her. I put the word out among the justiciary—”

“Which has done precisely how much good?”

“Well, what should I have done?” Stephen demanded, jumping up in turn. “You know blasted well I can’t let the Council know you’re a source. I don’t trust them. I don’t trust practitioners, and nor should you.”

“Not on the evidence of this conversation, certainly.”

Stephen’s cheeks flamed. “That’s not fair. I was trying to protect you.”

“By lying to me. Again.”

“What good would it have done to tell you?” Stephen’s voice was rising. “Make you sick with worry, for what? I was going to go after her—”

“But you didn’t,” Crane said icily. “Because you were busy. With your job.”

Stephen apparently couldn’t find anything to say to that. Crane felt the anger pulsing savagely through him and made no effort at all to hold it back. He had been so fucking patient, he had put up with so much, let the twisting little bastard rule him in every way imaginable, but this was one more kick in the teeth than any man could stand. “I quite understand that you can barely spare the time for us, to see each other, or wake up together, or take a few days at Christmas. I understand that you’re too preoccupied with your daily agenda to deal with a murderer who wants me dead. However, I struggle to see how you were too busy to even mention a significant threat to my continued existence instead of letting me believe it was under control!”

“Well, what would you have done if I’d said anything?” Stephen demanded. “What do you imagine you can do? Do you really think your money, or your personal killer, would be any use against a practitioner who wanted you dead?”

“We’ll never know. Because I haven’t had the chance. Is this what being short is like?”

“What?”

“Having your loved ones treat you like a fucking child.”

“Don’t give me that,” Stephen said savagely. “I am trying my best to do everything I have to do—”

“And it’s not good enough. You’re not doing all these things, and nor is anyone else.”

“That’s not—”

“You haven’t got the ring back,” Crane said over him. “You’ve done nothing to help Miss Saint. There’s this murderer you’re supposed to be catching, Lady Bruton to deal with, let alone fitting me into your demanding schedule—”

“Stop it!”

“No, you stop it. Stop lying to me, and stop clutching on to every job that comes your way as if you’re the only man in the bloody world who can do anything.”

“Well, I’m quite sure you can find someone else to suck you off,” Stephen snarled. His face was patched red and white with angry misery. “You seemed to be doing a damned good job of that earlier.”

“What? Oh, go to the devil. I turned him down.”

“Your restraint is amazing. Congratulations. What a pity Mr. Merrick doesn’t have the same self-control.”

That transparent effort to change the subject made Crane angrier than anything yet, far too angry to prevent himself rising to the bait. “Don’t even start. We talked about that.”

“No, you talked about it. You told me that it was perfectly reasonable for your manservant to prey on my student, and I listened to you—”

Prey?” Crane repeated furiously.

“Oh, whatever you choose to call it. The fact is, she’s miserable, inexperienced and lonely. It’s amazingly easy to be seduced when you feel that way.”

“What did that mean?” Crane demanded, startled by how much it hurt. “Are you talking about us? What the fuck did that mean?”

Stephen looked slightly shocked by his own words. He hesitated for a second, then shook his head violently, taking refuge in anger. “I don’t have time for this.”

“You don’t have time for us?”

“I don’t have time to argue about what Mr. Merrick could possibly do that you wouldn’t defend, or who I’m supposed to let down out of the wide range of people who want something from me. I’m going.” He marched to the door, pushing past Crane. “Going to do some of those things that I haven’t done yet because I don’t work hard enough.”

“Oh, for— That is the precise opposite of what I was trying to point out to you.”

“Thank you for the insight.” Stephen stalked out of the room, into the hallway.

Crane thumped a furious fist against the wall. He had rarely wanted to hit anyone so much, the bloody stupid obstinate lying little shit, and the unhappiness boiling off Stephen’s set shoulders made everything ten times worse.

Stephen was shoving his feet into his boots. Crane stalked into the hall after him. “Stop this, for Christ’s sake. Have some sense.”

“Stop telling me what to do, blast you!” Stephen wrenched the front door open.

“Fine!” Crane shouted, exasperated beyond bearing. “Fine. Fuck off, then, fuck you, and fuck your ancestors.”

“And yours!” Stephen shouted back, and slammed the door behind him.


I have only one more thing to add, which is: If you make the mess, clean it up. A big argument needs a resolution. Not just an apology, or even a grovel, but the MCs realising where they went wrong, looking at what the problem was, and unpicking it so that we can believe it won’t fester. Even, that next time it comes up, they’ll behave differently because they’ve learned something.

It is very tempting to resolve a row by adding a dramatic event, where the MCs have to set aside their anger in order to cooperate on something bigger. I do this a lot because, frankly, it’s fun.

Hart stared into Robin’s face. “Why are you staying? Why haven’t you gone?”

“That was an argument. This is a crisis. When we’ve dealt with the crisis, we’ll go back to the argument.”

(The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting, on sale through March!)

But if you use this, don’t handwave the argument away with “When I saw you in the hospital, I realised none of that mattered.” If it mattered enough to have a blazing row about, it needs resolving. Otherwise both characters and readers will remain unsatisfied, and in a romance novel, that just won’t do.

Thanks to Kathleen Jennings for the spur to write this!

Twelve Random Books (a trip report)

There was a Twitter challenge going round at the end of 2021: get random scrollers-by to recommend books, pick 12, read them in 2022. The idea was to read something you wouldn’t otherwise have picked up, whether because it hadn’t crossed your path or because it didn’t sound like your thing, or even just because your TBR is 900 books and you hadn’t got round to it.

Well, I have never knowingly turned down an opportunity to add to Mount TBR. I put in some basic specifications of stuff I absolutely would not read, e.g. vampires, YA/NA, or anything blurbed as ‘heartbreaking’, and let the recs flood in. I sifted them to remove the vast numbers of recs for vampires, YA/NA, and books blurbed as ‘heartbreaking’ (as night follows day, honestly). From the remainder, I picked out the ones that struck me as interesting. And here we are.

Out of the 12 books, I had already meant to read four. Possibly this was cheating, but when you have a TBR like mine it’s “by any means necessary”. The others were unfamiliar to me. I picked six SFF (I was clearly in a mood), one romance, two litfic, three non fiction. I wasn’t trying to push my comfort zone here: I just wanted to see what happened.

The results

Three of the books were overwhelmingly not for me. I finished two in a grudging way and DNF’d the third because I did not even slightly click. Not bad books, but not books that I was ever going to like. Bearing in mind I hand-picked these from recs and looking at the blurbs, that’s quite a high nope rate. Good work by Marketing, or do I lie to myself about what I want to read? (I suspect both.)

I DNFed two more books–interestingly, both of them books that I had been meaning to read. Regrettably, they just weren’t very well executed to my mind. Rambling plotting, too many characters, inconsistent characterisation, writing that really needed a firm editorial hand.

Three more were that deeply frustrating thing: books that I almost loved but not quite. One had a random misogynistic stereotype that borked the end of the book, one had a nonsensical plot point that borked the end of the book, and one had a total plot collapse that, wait for it, borked the end of the book. I realise everyone works hardest on the first chapters because they sell the book, but it’s worth remembering that the last chapters sell the next book.

So of the eight books I didn’t feel impressed by, five really needed better editing, and in every case it was developmental editing that was most lacking. All these were from trad publishers, let it be noted.

Developmental editing is hard, and it’s particularly hard to freelance out because it’s such a crapshoot in what needs doing and how long it can take. What looks like a small problem of inconsistent characterisation can reveal itself to be dry rot, weakening the entire structure. The thing the author bodged? They might have bodged it because fixing it means replotting and rewriting the entire second half, whoops. The development editor needs to have the skill to identify problems, the authority to ask for them to be changed, and the time to work through as many revisions as it takes. An awful lot of publishers no longer want to pay for that. It shows.

***

Okay, let’s get on to the happy bit: The remaining four books were absolute blinders. I had been meaning to read The Devourers but had been putting it off because it looked too scary and might have gone on doing so indefinitely; the other three I had never even heard of. Please take these recommendations:

The Riddle of the Labyrinth Margalit Fox

A terrific example of narrative history, exploring the deciphering of Linear B with tremendous character, humanity, social context, and the bravura of a detective story.

The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas Machado de Assis

Only went and introduced me to the author generally regarded as Brazil’s greatest. Where has he been all my life? I went off and read two more novels and a collection of short stories without loss of time. This was worth the entire challenge on its own. Honestly, read it.

The Devourers Indra Das

Dark, queer, bloody, horribly physical story of werewolves and love in the Moghul era. Greed and colonialism and toxic masculinity all over. Wonderfully intense. Granted, not for the fainthearted and not a feelgood read, but my goodness it’s a cracker.

How to Hide an Empire Daniel Immerwarh

A fantastic deep dive into the greater United States, and the mainland’s history of invasion, colonialism, and empire building, plus denial of being an empire. A huge amount of history I didn’t know and should have, plus really interesting looks at other means of imperialism (language, standardisation). One of those revelatory books that makes you see the world that bit more clearly.

***

So. I had 12 books recommended to me. I DNF’d three, didn’t click with two, was not wholly on board with three, and adored four. (I came very close to doing a pie chart at this point, and hope you admire my restraint.) I’d say six of the twelve counted as ‘books I’m glad I read’, even if I didn’t love two of them.

Is 50% a good strike rate, given it was my Twitter followers (in many cases people I often talk about books with) offering heartfelt recommendations?

I think so. Because, thinking about the six books I didn’t like, I have no trouble at all identifying what made someone else love and recommend them. The representation, or the exuberance, or the philosophy, or the kindness, or any of a dozen things. Nobody recommended me a bad book: in four of the six cases, better editing could well have turned them into books I’d have loved. And the thing about ‘better’ in that sentence is, I was an editor for two decades. Of course I think my editorial standards are the boss. But other people read through different lenses with different priorities. They found and loved things in those books that weren’t so important to me, just as they might well find problems that I disregard in my favourite books.

The four winners made the whole exercise worthwhile on their own. But the experience of reading books that other people loved even when I didn’t? Being reminded how very differently we all see things, how no two readers ever read the same book, how easy it is to assume other people are wrong in what they like rather than simply different to me? In these divided days, that’s priceless.


If you’re looking for a new book, The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting is on sale throughout March 22. Just saying.

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