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.

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.

When Not to Write

There are many blog posts, tweets, memes etc out there telling you to get writing. Far fewer will tell you to stop. What can I say, I’m a rebel.

The other day I saw a couple of tweets from the marvellous EE Ottoman (whose delightful post-WW2 cottagecore historical romance The Companion you should read now, or at least once you’ve finished this post). EE said:

I meant to start working on a new project a few weeks ago but I just didn’t … and I felt really bad about that until yesterday morning when I realized I’d been thinking about the book from the wrong POV this entire time.

and if I had started when I’d meant to I probably would have ended up writing words I probably would have ended up scrapping anyway.

This really struck a chord with me. I have a delightful Protestant work ethic/Catholic guilt combo so I basically feel terrible about myself whenever I’m not actively writing. But hurling yourself into a book before you’re ready can be at best a waste of time, probably disheartening, and sometimes a project killer. I have an elephant’s graveyard of partials that foundered because I started writing them without XXX.

You: Sorry? What do you mean, XXX?

Me: Yes, well, that’s the tricky bit.

XXX is whatever the hell you need to get going on the book. It might be obvious and fixable. (You haven’t done enough research. You don’t actually have any idea what’s going to happen after the first meeting. You’ve created a situation where it’s impossible for them to be together, but you haven’t thought of the brilliant solution.)

Or it may be less obvious, more complicated. (You’ve got a great secondary plot worked out, but the main storyline is perhaps underpowered. Maybe you’re wrong about which one ought to be the main storyline? Maybe you thought it was one genre but it’s another. You want the plot to go this way but something is tugging it that way.)

Or it may even be that evil thing, the unknown unknown. The thing you can’t pin down or, even worse, aren’t aware of. When it just isn’t quite…you know, there, and you don’t know why. When you have no idea where to go next and the blank page is an unsubtle metaphor for your brain.

I just finished book 1 of my Doomsday Books (working title) duo. I had a couple of things in book 2 I absolutely needed to sort out before I started, primarily a plot issue that needed pinning down because it might require tweaking #1. I worked them out triumphantly in my head, which meant I had it nailed and could get going, right?

Ha. I wrote 5000 words of #2, and now I’m right here writing a blog post about not writing a book too soon because guess what: I wasn’t ready.

The warning signs I’ve picked up and, for once, paid attention to:

  • I wrote the opening chapter and it was just scene setting. I thought, fine, I’ll jump to the interesting bit and go back later. WARNING KLAXON: if you the author aren’t interested, I assure you no reader will be. This might be an easy fix, just me starting in the wrong place, or it might signal that my entire set-up is boring and I don’t want to write it. I’d better work on that one.
  • Point of view. (Looking at EE’s tweet, I swear this might be the greatest unacknowledged stumbling block for writers.) I assumed it was going to be dual third person like book 1, but now it’s pulling to single person, only I’m not entirely happy about that because it feels like a cop-out. I need to work through what that’s going to do to my narrative either way before I make my mind up.  
  • I literally only just finished the last book. Maybe I need a bit more time for the well to refill. (No, really, KJ? /rolleyes/)

I don’t have any major doubts about this book. I wrote the MCs’ first meeting yesterday and it went great. But there’s something not-ready-to-go here, and I’d be a fool to force the words down when I know it’s not working.

[dramatic music] Or would I?

I was definitely not ready to write Subtle Blood, the final part of the Will Darling Adventures. I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t felt morally obliged to (it’s book three of a same-couple series with no HEA till the end so I would have been abandoning my readers). It took me ten agonising months to bang the bastard out. I wrote an entire blog post on how I managed to wrench the damn thing out of my head and onto the page, if you want the gory details. And, not to brag, but it’s got a 4.52 on Goodreads over more than 2100 ratings and some stunning reviews. It honestly came out good.

So does that mean I should just push on through with Doomsday #2?

I don’t think so. First, I never again want to write a book like I wrote Subtle Blood because wow, that experience sucked. I think I could do it only because I’d already written two books about Will and Kim, so I had a massive head start on the world and their relationship and loads of material to work with. Second, forcing it ends up, as EE’s tweets suggest, with huge word wastage. (I binned in the region of 50K on Subtle Blood false starts. That’s a short novel.) Third and most important, as I have discovered on several projects, if you spend too much time writing fragments that turn into dead ends, you won’t just run out of spoons for the idea, you’ll also exhaust the knives, forks, and weird twiddly thing in the miscellaneous section that might be a fish scaler.

I’ve killed too many ideas by trying to force them. I’m not killing this one.

So when should you be writing, and when deliberately Not Writing? This is a hard one to judge because the default state of being a writer is not wanting to write and doing almost anything to avoid it, hence why we’re always on Twitter. 90% of the time, “bum in chair [or feet on treadmill], hands on keyboard” is the best writing advice.

But sometimes the bit of your brain telling you nope, nope, no writey is correct. Sometimes you need to give yourself space not to write because you’re doing that even more valuable and useful thing, thinking.

To quote EE again:

learning when a book is ready to be written is so tough. Particularly for me because it’s more about a feeling and not a certain number of hours spent researching, notes taken, etc.

My best advice is, when you find you’re not writing, find out why. Ask yourself why you’re reluctant, why it doesn’t feel right. Find the XXX. Pin down the problem, think round the options, step away from the keyboard while your mind works, and you might save yourself a lot of blood, toil, tears, sweat, and typing.

The Art of Fudge: when the devil’s in the detail

Follow 100 historical novelists on Twitter. Set a timer. Wait for one of them to post along the lines of “I spent an entire morning in a research rabbit hole that ended up giving me one lousy sentence in the MS, and I just cut it.” Check the timer. Less than 12 hours? Thought so.

A friend who’s writing a historical was wailing to me the other day:

My characters have gone to a new location and now I have to stop everything and research it, and I don’t even know how long they’ll stay there until I write it, but I can’t write it till I do the research! How do I know what I need?!

As it happens, I have just hit The End on the first in my forthcoming Doomsday Books duo (working title, books to come 2022) and I was going through my piles of research books, checking all those post-its and scribbled notes, and remarking sourly just how many of them I didn’t use. It’s a thing.

Say you decide your MCs are going on a long journey. You have two basic options.

  1. Research it. Spend days digging into means of transport, travel times, and the relevant ports or stations, squinting at bad PDFs of timetables, googling “how fast does a horse and carriage go”, and otherwise plotting the exact route.
  2. Fudge it. “Two days later they were in Berlin.” [XX check time later]

(Note: XX is a great way to annotate your unchecked details for future search as you write, so you don’t break your flow. It also has the great advantage of leaving all the boring hours with an etymology dictionary and an atlas to Future You. The disadvantage is that eventually Future You becomes you.)

You may need option 1. My book Subtle Blood has a long sequence set on a 1920s steam yacht. I spent hours finding a diagram of an appropriate yacht, pictures, looking up accounts of trips, badgering my endlessly patient sailor brother-in-law to make it make sense to me (sorry again, JP), and generally making the steam yacht a real solid moving thing in my head. In the finished book there’s not very much of this on page at all: enough for the reader to understand the action, but far, far less detail (like, 90% less) than I ended up knowing.

This was not wasted research because it didn’t end up on the top of the page. I say top because it was there, just not visible. Research informs your writing, and it shows through the text like a backlight. Readers can tell when you have a good sense of what you’re talking about. They don’t want the full facts about a steam yacht or rail routes from London to Berlin in 1920 themselves, but they need to feel like the book’s not winging it.

Or you may need option 2. If you need your MCs to be in (rather than get to) Berlin, put them in Berlin. Paragraphs of detail about how they get there are not going to grab anyone at all: the only reason we care is if something interesting happens on the journey.

Research it or fudge it. So far, so obvious. However, because writing books is always more complicated than that, we need to throw something else into the mix. Follow some more authors on Twitter and set a timer for this one:

I dropped in a casual reference to an obscure fact for no reason in book 1 and it’s become the cornerstone of the whole trilogy! Thank you subconscious! #WritingGods #Blessed

Then unfollow that #Person immediately, but you get my gist.

Every author has a ‘random detail changes everything’ story. I’ve just had one myself. My hero in Doomsday Book 1 has just moved to Romney Marsh, an isolated and sparsely populated area. I had an entire job for him in the synopsis that I had to jettison because let’s not talk about my inability to stick to a synopsis, so I was casting around for something for him to do all day. I decided he was an amateur naturalist because I’d read something that reminded me that was something gentlemen did in 1810, and frankly, I’ve already done heroes who are artists and classicists and merchants and I couldn’t think of anything else.

The naturalist thing is now not just a detail. It’s a key element in developing his character and his relationships with two other people, it’s specifically plot-crucial in three separate ways, and it will be a nifty moment in book 2. I cannot overstate how much this decision unlocked for me.

I didn’t plan any of that ahead of time. I used it because it was there. It was there because I put it there. Why did I put it there? No idea.

And this is where starting with “Two days later they were in Berlin” falls down. Because maybe if you actually looked into getting there, it might turn out there was a night train perfect for sex, espionage, murder, or all of the above. Maybe there’s an amazing place they go through with an old town square or church or mountain range begging for an action sequence, or a secret meeting, or a bandit attack. Maybe there was absolutely no way to get to Berlin in two days, it’s a minimum of five, and now you’ve borked the timetable of another plot strand, you idiot. You’ll never know if you don’t look.

Which sounds great. But let us just refer back to the first tweet, and the hours of research that went absolutely nowhere or led to irrelevant detail that got binned in the second draft…

I was going through the MS the other day, and I came across a single line that needed filling in. Let’s say it was identifying a minor character.

John Bloggs was the Earl of Blankshire’s brother. XX CHECK LATER

When I wrote this I didn’t know or care how he fits into the Bloggs family. For book 1 it doesn’t matter.

However, book 2 is all about the sprawling, weird, Gothic, and possibly homicidal Bloggs family. I know this much, but have I done the family tree and synopsis? Have I hell. I am not ready to identify John, with his particular knowledge, presence at a certain crucial book 1 scene, age, and personal characteristics, as the old Earl’s brother and thus uncle to the new Earl, our hero. I might very well need him to have a very different position in the family–married in, say, or not in the line of inheritance at all.

And the stakes are high with linked books. If you’ve written a trilogy, you know the pain of that one damn line in the published book 1 that’s completely screwing the thing you now want to do in book 3. Because a detail might open the whole book up for you (my naturalist) or it might close it down (NOO I said he was the Earl’s brother, I’ve ruined everything!) This is why they say the devil is in the detail.

In this case, I can leave him as the brother, and have that as a fixed point, which might well act as a spur for me to develop the plot. I can sit down and work out the family tree and the synopsis of book 2 now (but see above for me and synopses). Or I can fudge it:

John Bloggs was one of the more eccentric members of the Earl’s highly eccentric family. (Two days later, he was in Berlin…)

Going for the fudge is the right thing in this instance, probably. I’ve chewed it over and I can’t see any book-enhancing reason to specify the relationship at this point. And the fudge will cover, I think, more or less any choice I make. I think. We’ll come back to this post when this bites me in the arse.

There’s an old saying that 90% of advertising spending is wasted, but nobody knows which 90%. You could say much the same of research. I wish I could tell you how to distinguish between the throwaway detail that will become the solution to all your plot woes, the throwaway detail that helps anchor the book in reality, and the throwaway detail you throw away. Sadly, I can’t. You’ll find out when you write it.

How to Write A Book When You Can’t Write A Book

This one’s about getting very, very stuck on a book and how I got it written. I can’t promise it’ll help anyone else, but it’s what I did. Warning: epic length. If you don’t want to know how the sausage is made, look away now.

Cover of Slippery Creatures: Kim, dark man in evening dress, standing with book; Will, fair man in casual suit, holding a knife.

So. Back in the Before Times, I decided to write a trilogy: the Will Darling Adventures. 1920s pulp adventure romance, with a ‘difficult’ love interest who was in fact so difficult that the romance arc would take place over three books and there wouldn’t be a full Happy Ever After (HEA) till book 3. I wrote book 1, set the self publishing in motion, started work on book 2, and–oops! Covid!

I got book 1 out. I even managed to finish book 2, though I had to delay publication by two months. And then I went into book 3, Subtle Blood, like a LandRover driving into a tar pit, and like that LandRover, I stuck.

I wasn’t the only one. Twitter was full of writers screaming that their average writing speed had dropped to twelve words an hour, that their characters had become plastic mannequins, plots withered on the vine, inspiration turned to dust. The only creative boom was in people writing articles about how the pandemic was destroying creativity. Apparently when the world is going to shit and people are dying and you’re scared for yourself and your loved ones, your brain diverts resources away from inventing stories and towards survival.

Note to brain: That doesn’t help when you make your living inventing stories.

I created the Subtle Blood Scrivener folder in July 2020. By January 2021 I had four folders of false starts for the damn thing, none of which were going anywhere.

Image of four folders labelled: Subtle Blood, Subtle Blood v2, Subtle Blood 3 the Resubtlening, and Subtle Blood 4 JFC

I also had an entirely separate book that I’d written in the hope of loosening up my writing muscles. That book was a doddle. I still couldn’t write this one.

I’d plot it out, sit down, dig in, write a chapter, and feel myself thinking, No, wait, this isn’t it, start again. Over, and over, and over. None of my multiple versions got past chapter 7. Every word I wrote, every path I took, immediately seemed worse than all the other possible ones, like the supermarket trolley queue choice from hell. I wrote and rewrote and flailed.

Cover of The Sugared Game. Will and Kim toast each other against a 1920s pulp backdrop. Will has a knife. Maisie and Phoebe are silhouettes in the background.

I couldn’t write the book. I had to write the book. Readers had bought the first two of the series on the promise that Kim and Will would get their HEA in book 3, and in the romance world, that promise is the kind you sign in your own blood at a crossroads at midnight. I had to write the book. I couldn’t write the book.

OK, so on to the part you’ve been waiting for: What did I do about it?

Well, first I sat down and tried to work out what my problems actually were.

  • Global pandemic: pervasive terror, existential threat to way of life, homeschooling. Not much to be done about that.
  • Sequel panic: the incapacitating fear that if the third book isn’t good enough I’ll ruin everything and disappoint everyone like a terrible person. Solution: to have started therapy years ago. Also on the Not Much To Be Done About That pile.
  • Indecision.

That was the big one. I knew what the romance arc would be, that was easy. I had an inciting incident for the suspense plot: a murder in a gentleman’s club. But I could not work out how the suspense plot should develop. Every time I tried to write it, it fell apart in my hands like too-short pastry. To convey how bad this got: I wrote the first five chapters three times over with the same character as, respectively, the murderer, the victim, and the key witness. I’m only astonished he was never the detective. I tried, I really did. I just couldn’t make it work.

So how to tackle this?

Planning stage: Visual change

Clearly I needed to sit down and plan the bastard. I had tried to do this once or twice already (*Herbert Lom eye twitch*) but what I did now was to take a different visual approach.

You may be familiar with the advice to proofread your work in a different format–print out the text or proofread on your ereader, or even just change the font dramatically (people often say to Comic Sans, but let’s not go overboard). The idea is that the visual change makes your brain see the text as new and therefore pick up errors you previously skimmed over. This is why you get your finished print copy, open it at random, and instantly see a typo.

To achieve my different format, I bought a piece of mind mapping software called Scapple. This is in effect an infinitely scrolling piece of paper so you can keep on going as long as you like, in as much detail as you need, as well as off at tangents in all directions. (The lack of infinity, I now realise, is why mind mapping on paper has never worked for me.) It has bells and whistles I didn’t explore, but what it gave me was that open space, on–let me stress the importance of this–a different coloured background.

I feel quite embarrassed typing that. But the fact is, it looked proper different, and that helped.

Planning stage: Make decisions

I had to make a couple of big decisions even to start putting the mind map thing down. Part of this, not going to lie, was saying “Just pick one” to myself and sticking to it. This is because there is not one single Platonic ideal shape for a book to be. Every decision you make takes you off at a different tangent and makes the plot a different shape. Some of those decisions would be actually wrong (“Kim drinks an oddly coloured cocktail and turns into a velociraptor”) and others not great, but there will always be several paths that could lead to perfectly satisfactory outcomes.

Every novel you read is a Choose Your Own Adventure book that someone else has played. Every book is a series of authorial choices, and any of those choices could have been made differently and resulted in a different book. There’s no destiny; there’s just me, playing World’s Worst God.

So I opened Scapple. I picked the suspense plot path that I hoped would take me to the best place, and stuck to it, resisting every temptation (there were many) to jack it in and go back to the start with a different one. I bunged it down in note form, with all my questions and plot holes and options. I mucked about with that till I had a rough shape, adding and pruning as seemed good, exploring options if I felt compelled to, and dumping them if they didn’t work. If I didn’t have a specific event in mind, I put in what plot effects it needed to have (VILLAIN DISCOVERS PLAN SOMEHOW, BAD THING RESULTS) and came back later to work out how.

Once I had a rough outline most of the way (up to the climatic drama point of the third act, as I wasn’t sure how to play the ending), I put another set of notes above the main plot in red, giving the events from the villain’s perspective, i.e. what was happening behind the scenes at the same time. That let me make sure events made sense, and start to shape the ending. It meant going back to the main plot, answering questions, fiddling events to make them fit, getting things in logical order. By this point I was beginning to believe in the plot course I’d chosen. That helped a lot.

Next, I added in the romance arc as a set of notes below the suspense plot, this time in blue, again lined up with the timescheme.

Can you see the problem here?

This was the point I realised I’d been incredibly, catastrophically wrong about having the romance plot under control.

Laid out in this format, it was glaringly obvious that something huge was missing. There was not nearly enough blue because nothing was really changing or developing in my heroes’ relationship, and what the hell good is that in a romance? No wonder I hadn’t felt like my early efforts were working: they weren’t. I hadn’t dug into the romance at all because I’d got so obsessed with fixing the suspense plot. What a pillock. (It’s fine, this is only my literal job.)

Specifically, what was missing was the conflict I had been building up to in the first two books but had somehow not followed through here. And, in fact, this conflict was starting to emerge organically now I’d nailed the suspense plot, because the events of the one set off emotional bombs in the other. Which is pretty much exactly what you want to happen.

And–you will be way ahead of me–once I started digging into the issues and interweaving the romance and the suspense plots properly, the damn thing really began to come together.

Looking at a different picture on the screen, laying it out a different way, helped me identify problems and see the job anew, as well as letting me regain a sense that I controlled it.

Writing stage: Don’t go back

So I made my mind map thing, worked out my plot strands, made decisions as I went, and I ended up with an outline.

Unfortunately, I don’t work well with outlines. I have form for coming up with a detailed synopsis, selling it to a publisher, and then delivering something completely different. (For example: an enemies to lovers romance with a pornographer and a crusading lawyer became a fluff-fest with a taxidermist and a gentle lodging house keeper. Whoops.)

I knew I was going to change things as I went along. And here we were going to hit the rocks, because I’m a looper.

What’s that? Well, some authors are plotters (get it all planned first) and some are what people insist on calling pantsers (flying by the seat of your pants, i.e. deciding what happens next as you go). I define myself as a looper because my writing process basically goes:

  • Have a loose idea of the opening, the main plot, and the ending
  • Write the first two chapters. Realise the main plot isn’t quite what I thought. Loop back through the first two chapters tweaking them to fit.
  • Write the next two chapters. Discover that actually the character needs to do X earlier for it to work. Loop back through the first four chapters tweaking them to fit.
  • Get to chapter six. Decide that a lot of what I’ve done is unnecessary scaffolding. Loop back to chapter one and start cutting…

And so on. What this usually means is I get to 70% pretty slowly, but with an MS in excellent shape and a clear path to the end, which I then write at white heat. It works for me.

Until it didn’t. Because the looping had broken with Subtle Blood. I’d got trapped: going over the same five chapters again and again and again, like someone in a bad time-travel movie. Possibly one called Looper.

I didn’t want to start that again. So I vowed: no fixing, no checking. If I tweaked the plot as I went along, I would write XX FIX THIS at the point it diverged from the previous text, and carry on in the new direction. I would not go back and change anything until I’d reached the end. I would fill the MS with XX CHECK and XX REPETITION?? and any amount of work for Future Me, but I would have a finished draft before I tried to tidy up anything in it.

(XX is simply an easy way to pick these things up in search. You need to make them searchable or you end up with SEX SCENE HERE going off to your editor and then you’ll feel stupid.)

I decided this, and I wrote. I wrote plot scaffolding, and left it there. I wrote scenes that were completely incompatible with earlier scenes. I wrote lines that required foreshadowing to be laid down, and left it undone. I wrote jarring transitions and clunky dialogue and lacklustre scenes and truncated bits to fill in later. It was a mess, and every word felt forced and dead and awful, but I wrote the forced, dead, awful bastards down.

We used to do a challenge at school where you had to eat a jam doughnut with sugar on the outside without licking your lips. This felt like that. It goes against everything that I stand for as an editor, writer, and human to knowingly ignore errors and plot holes and crap writing. But I had to get out of the loop, and that meant pointing my face to The End and not changing direction till I got there.

And, very slowly, I started to feel like the book was becoming mine. The plot clicked into place. There were ‘oh, of course it’s like this!’ moments. The characters stirred into life; the words started to flow; I woke up in the morning with new exciting ideas. I whipped through the last two chapters like…well, like a writer who was enjoying her book. And by the time I reached The End, I knew three things:

  1. I had a terrible book.
  2. I had a book.
  3. I can edit books.

Editing stage: Oh my God

Shall we just not talk about this, okay.

All right, fine. I went through it slooooowly and fixed all the dangling horrors and inconsistencies. That took, approximately, forever. I went through it again to pick up everything I’d missed the first time and build up the things I’d skimped and work the scene transitions and all that. Then again, taking thinning scissors to the parts where I was explaining the plot to myself, and again, and again, till it began to read like it was written by a competent professional, and not some illiterate Phantom of the Opera hammering at the keyboard.

Cover of Subtle Blood

Then I sent it to my first trusted reader. She promptly identified several gigantic structural flaws I had been hoping were my imagination. I hate that.

I did some large-scale rewriting. Then I sent it to my second trusted reader. She identified more flaws, but at a more zoomed-in level, which was promising. Same for the third. (I sent these in succession, fixing the identified problems before passing the Death Spot to the next person.)

I spent weeks of eight-hour days doing nothing but edit. I switched fonts twice to refresh my vision. (Courier to Times New Roman to Calibri, since you ask. I was never quite desperate enough for Comic Sans.)

Now, over-editing is a thing. It is entirely possible to go through a MS so much that you kill whatever zizz it had, and create something that’s well-formed but lifeless. I suspect that’s a thing that happens with MSS that start off with loads of vigour but lack polish–whereas what I had here was a MS with the bare bones in place but lacking the animating spark. (If you’re thinking about Frankenstein’s monster at this point, you aren’t the only one.)

Because as I went through and tidied up and pulled it together and rewrote, rewrote, rewrote…

…it came to life. I had dug deep enough into the characters and motivations and done enough of the scut work that I could actually get into the fun parts, and it finally goddamn well came to life under my hands. Kim and Will sparked in my imagination, ideas bubbled out to refine and improve it, the hidden motivations and links and feelings revealed themselves, and the whole thing began to sing. It was glorious. And when I sent it to the last trusted reader, she told me it worked, and I very nearly cried.

So after ten months, multiple false starts, and and maybe thirty editing passes, my trilogy is complete. Kim and Will get their stroll into the sunset together, and I haven’t torpedoed my romance reputation quite yet. Talk about a happy ending.

***

I realise that my answer to “How do I write the book?” boils down to, basically, “Write the book”. Unfortunately, I have so far not identified any way of achieving a finished book that doesn’t involve writing it. If you have one, let me know. But I hope this post might at least promise a glimmer of light in what can feel like an endless tunnel.

Because the first draft doesn’t have to be good, or even okay: it just has to exist. Once it exists you can make it better. Granted, writing like this isn’t fun, and editing it is chew-your-hand-off stuff, and you need good people who will tell you what’s wrong with it when you can’t see the wood for the trees.

But it’s still a lot easier than editing a blank page.


I didn’t spend ten months writing this bloody thing for people not to buy it, okay?

Slippery Creatures #1

The Sugared Game #2

Subtle Blood #3

Content warnings for the series

Goodreads reviews so you don’t have to take my word for it

Where Do you Get Your Ideas: a snapshot

This is almost certainly completely useless to aspiring writers and how-do-you-get-your-ideas questioners out there, but I find it fascinating how books emerge from seeds, so here you go.

For much of the last year I have been trying to write Subtle Blood (Will Darling 3). This has been gnarly because pandemic brain, and I’ve been doing a fair bit of displacement activity when I got stuck. For example, I wrote and published a completely different novel. That’s what I call Pro Crastination.

(Sorry.)

I have another idea that’s been bubbling away in a slow-cooker sort of way for a while (add ingredients, simmer for two years). In pursuance of this, among much else, I’ve been collecting good names when I come across them and adding them to my name file. I was planning in a vague sort of way to write this book next, but then it as happened, I found myself with an opportunity to pitch a two-book Regency romance project to a publisher. Which was great, except I didn’t have a two-book Regency romance project. Whoops.

I chewed a pencil, went for a walk, and stared into the middle distance a bit. Eventually a name popped into my head. Doomsday. (That’s not an epithet like ‘bingo!’ but gloomier. I mean that Doomsday was the name.)

My mental process then went approximately like this:

–That’s a stupid name.

–No it’s not. He could be John Doomsday. No, more biblical. Ezekiel Doomsday? No, too biblical. Ooh, I’ve got it: Josiah Doomsday, Joss for short.

–Joss Doomsday, right. Not posh, then. And who’s he?

–Well, I don’t know but he’s got to be Gothic, right? Or at least in a Gothicish setting. Something Poldarky. Highwayman. Pirate. Smuggler. Smuggler?

–Smuggler. ‘Watch the wall my darling while the gentlemen go by’ and lurking in the dark. Okay, maybe, but Doomsday is still a bit ridiculous, isn’t it?

–If we’re going Gothic we’re doing it properly. Oooh, no, I know what it is! It’s a Tess of the d’Urbervilles thing!

–Toxic masculinity and everyone dies? Sounds really romantic. I’m sure the publisher will bite our hand off.

–No, you div. Remember the inciting event of Tess, when her common-as-muck father Mr. Durbeyfield learns that his name is a corruption of d’Urberville?

–Yes, because I am you and therefore also did that English degree.

–So Joss Doomsday is a distant cousin many times removed from the noble family d’Aumesty. Which sounds like Doomsday if you squint, see? That’s what links the books. Both set in smuggling country—Romney Marsh in Kent would do nicely, lots of Norman history down there—during the Napoleonic wars so there’s good smugglers and bad smugglers. One book about Someone d’Aumesty, the noble inheritor of a decaying house full of Gothic loons probably mixed up in bad things, and one about Joss Doomsday the Robin Hoody smuggler, with overlapping cast and setting. Hmm?

–Mmm. Okay. Fair enough. Yes, we can do something with this.

–Told you so.

–Don’t get cocky, sunshine.

So my agent pitched The Doomsday Books (two gay romances featuring aristocrats, smugglers, and spies on the Kent coast) and I’m delighted to say they’ll be coming from Sourcebooks starting 2022.

So far so good. With that done, I went off and wrestled Subtle Blood into a complete first draft, which took another two very long months. It’s settling in my head as I write, and I didn’t want to start The Doomsday Books till I’m finished with Will and Kim, so I thought while I was killing time (which brings us up to half an hour ago) I’d have a shufti at my back burner project.

And who did I see in my list of names but Sophia Doomsday.

What the heck.

I stared at it, then realised it rang a vague bell. I went and searched on Twitter, and realised that back in January I’d read Charles Dickens’ own list of good names—including Rosetta Dust, Miriam Denial, and Sophia Doomsday sitting together like the world’s greatest firm of solicitors. I’d read it, tweeted it, added a few to my name list, and promptly forgotten the whole thing. Until my subconscious kicked it back up, and a single surname became the kernel for a two-book deal.

So here’s the question: If the name that had popped into my head at that random moment was one of the others from that Dickens list—say, William Why or Walter Ashes or Ambrosina Events—would I have that book deal now? And what, I wonder, would the books be about?


The Doomsday Books will be coming next year from Sourcebooks.

Subtle Blood publishes 23rd June. Preorder links will be coming soon.

The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting (displacement book) is out now.

Cover of Gilded Cage

Writer’s Block And Why You Shouldn’t

I read an interview with Booker Prize winner Bernadine Evaristo that got me thinking. (Evaristo is one of the UK’s most exciting writers, and if you haven’t discovered her yet, RUN DO NOT WALK. Mr Loverman is an absolutely cracking story of an elderly British Caribbean gentleman—married but with a long-term male lover—finally facing up to his sexuality in public as well as private, and the family chaos that ensues. The Emperor’s Babe is a verse novel set in Roman London. It’s like nothing you’ve ever read, and honestly fantastic. I haven’t read her Booker winner yet but I’m looking forward.)

ANYWAY. In this piece, Evaristo says this pure brilliance:

I don’t believe in writer’s block. If there’s a problem with getting words on the page, it needs to be investigated. I think that the act of naming it as this thing called ‘writer’s block’ actually exacerbates the problem and makes the writer feel powerless and the issue insurmountable. What’s really going on? Lack of confidence? (Most likely). Lack of skills and understanding of the importance of structure when it comes to writing a novel or of form when it comes to poetry? Lack of informed constructive feedback? Lack of commitment or patience? Does the writer read books in their chosen genre, which is creative writing 101? And so on.

Ooooh boy, let’s talk about writer’s block.

First things first: I don’t believe in writer’s block either. That doesn’t mean the experience doesn’t exist. I have absolutely stared at a blank page without a thing to say, or found myself unable to turn the ideas in my head into remotely satisfactory words, or sat there wondering how the hell you write a book while 20-odd copies of my novels sit on a shelf two feet away. It happens, and it sucks tremendously. I feel slightly nauseous thinking about it.

But Evaristo is spot on about naming. When we call it ‘writer’s block’ we frame it as an external obstacle, a boulder in the road, a curse that has been laid on us. Authors talk about it like it’s some sort of malign mystical affliction, something to be spoken of with dread in case of tempting Fate. We have persuaded the whole world it exists, as is entirely to be expected from people who tell elaborate lies for a living.

It’s deeply unhelpful. In part because we’ve conjured up a sinister spectre looming over us, which is a bad thing for people with overactive imaginations to do, and mostly because as Evaristo makes clear, ‘writer’s block’ isn’t a single thing with a single cause. In fact, it isn’t a thing at all, any more than virginity is a thing. Virginity is an absence, not a possession: it means you have not done a particular act. ‘Writer’s block’ is an absence, not a set of chains: it’s you not currently feeling able to do a particular act. (Notice that Evaristo frames the problems not as obstacles but as a series of lacks, of absences. There’s a reason for that.)

So first off, let’s change the framing, because words matter. Absence of doing requires a verb, not a noun, and ‘block’ has a horribly final sound. We’re now talking about struggling to write.

So why do people who want to write, love to write (for a given value of love that involves a lot of time complaining about it on Twitter) and quite possibly depend on writing for a living find themselves struggling to write? After all, as my dad pointed out when I was being self-important about it, there is no such thing as plumber’s block. Electricians don’t turn up at your house and mumble about how they just can’t seem to wire a fusebox any more.

Well, there are a million reasons. Let’s start with two linked ones that really should go without saying before going back to Evaristo’s list.

You don’t have the spoons

You’re physically or mentally unwell, debilitated, run down. You don’t have bodily health and energy; all your mental energy is taken up with trying to cope. Your work, in or out of the home or both, is demanding. You’re in despair at the state of the world. You’re grieving. You’re tired.

Look, writing is hard work. It requires a massive time commitment, a lot of mental effort and absorption, a lot of self belief. It’s even physically tiring, because sitting at a keyboard for however many hours it takes to write and edit a 70K novel is crappy for your back and wrists and eyes. If you aren’t in a mental and physical place to write, for heaven’s sake don’t beat yourself up for it, and really don’t call it writer’s block. Maybe you need to take a total rest, or to dramatically change your expectations of how fast you can write, or to dedicate a fortnight’s writing time to self-care instead. Give yourself some kindness and acknowledge you’d have to be in a better place to write a book, just like you’d have to be in a better place to run a 10km race.

The well is dry

You just wrote a book, yet it seems completely impossible that you could ever write a book again.

I’m currently here (which is why I’m blogging). I wrote a book in less than two months, finished it last week. That was 70K in about six weeks; the thought of putting fingers to keyboard seems totally implausible right now. This means nothing more than that I used all the hot water and I have to wait for the boiler to refill. Yes, there are people who can write ten romances a year: there is no shame in not being one of them.

Lack of confidence

We all feel it, and if I could fix this in a blog post I’d make it a book instead and retire in luxury. I can tell you this: every writer who ever lived has sat there wondering how the hell to write a book, or why anyone would read this crap when there are so many better writers out there, or what possibly qualifies them to do it, or whether they’ll get eviscerated in reviews, or if they only ever had one book in them, or or or.

I can tell you this too, and sorry in advance: Nobody else, no reassurance or rave review or success, is going to fix this for you. I once escorted a multi-award winning household-name kids’ author to an event. There was one single big award he hadn’t won in his massively successful multi-decade career: he told me with trembling-voiced sincerity that he was fundamentally a failure because he’d never won it. And have you noticed how often the author going into a traumatised meltdown about a bad review is one with a huge following of adoring fans?

Every working author has a bag of tricks to get over self-doubt. Not reading reviews; telling themselves they won’t publish this one and it’s just for fun; compartmentalising the insecure self and the writing self in a psychologically dubious manner; being a mediocre white man; repeating “Don’t get it right, get it written!” until words lose all meaning; remembering that everything really can be fixed in editing; printing out the beginning of The Da Vinci Code and sticking it to the wall as a reminder that people like terrible books; just goddamn writing it with set teeth, word by painful word. Whatever does it for you.

NB: If you follow a lot of authors on social media, you’ll see a lot of posts that are barely disguised pleas for confidence boosts. (“I feel like such an untalented hack today, maybe I should just give up!”) Don’t do it. The dopamine high of a compliment is not going to fix the underlying issue for more than about twelve seconds.  

NB also: A lot of authors feel insecure because they read advice that tells them they’re doing it all wrong. However, a lot of writing advice is pig-ignorant, garbage, or pig-ignorant garbage.  Read this post please.

Lack of structure / skills

This one is fixable. Read some craft books. I am a big fan of Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit because he talks about his process in a way that makes you feel like writing is a doable job. I am not a fan of prescriptive books myself but they work for some people. Romance writers might find something like Romancing the Beat helps you develop an outline if that’s what you’re scrabbling for.

You can develop these skills. I’d suggest taking your three favourite books of your genre and deconstructing them. Read slowly, looking at what each exchange, each scene, each plot turn is doing. How are the main characters introduced? How is the conflict developed? Where are the nodes as storylines interact, or the change points in the relationship, both positive and negative? What does this scene add to the characters, the story, the world, or all three? Why is the author withholding this information and giving that? If something doesn’t work, why not?

You can learn to start thinking structurally, and once you can do that for someone else’s book, your own may become clear.

Lack of commitment / patience

Ouch. But the truth is, while we all know that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, it’s quite possible to get daunted by the million steps you have to do after that one. And when you work all day in a white hot blaze and then the word count at the end of it is 4,043 and you have another 90,000 words to write, it does feel like a very long haul indeed.

Here’s a thought. If you write 500 words 6 days a week, you’ll have a 70K novel in less than six months. 500 words is not so much. You can do 500 words.

Here’s another thought: if word counts aren’t psychologically useful to you, don’t look at them. The book will be the length it needs to be.

Are you reading?

If you don’t know where your romance is going, reading other romances may help. This doesn’t mean ‘steal the ideas’. It means look at other books, what other writers have done with the genre and the tropes, what you want to avoid, different paths their stories could have taken, different ones your story could take.

If I’m not in a mood to read romance, that frequently means I’m not in a place to write it. Sometimes you need a break from a genre. Switch your reading, try writing something else. Or go explore authors from a demographic or subgenre you don’t normally read. You’ll probably discover a ton of amazing authors and a whole lot of new ways of telling stories.

Mindfully reading books in your genre is research, and counts as valid use of writing time. Do it instead of staring at a screen.

Need for feedback

I wrote about using a book doctor here. If you’re stuck, it may be because you’ve taken a wrong turn and your subconscious is digging its heels in. Paying someone to work through it could be the answer. I say pay because a) it is expert work and you want a professional and b) we tend not to appreciate advice that we’re given free. If you can’t afford a book doctor, and you’re lucky enough to know a really good critical reader who will do it for free or as a skills exchange, make sure you appreciate the effort.

It’s the wrong book

Sometimes we get stuck on a book because it’s not the story we should be writing, or it just doesn’t work. That happens: here is a post on when it happened to me. I could easily have believed I had writer’s block: actually I was telling the wrong story so it didn’t work. Be prepared to take a break, even to write something else, and come back to the first MS at a better time. (Sometimes the better time is ‘never’.)

I have more than once written a book to distract myself from the book I was supposed to be writing but couldn’t. I know ‘go with the flow’ doesn’t sound helpful when the words aren’t flowing, but at least stop banging your head against a rock.

***

When you’re struggling to write, that’s you sending yourself a message. The message may be “I’m too tired”, or “I’m scared” or “This isn’t any good” or “This secondary plotline is going to torpedo the entire book in the final third and you haven’t realised you dumbass, abort, abort.” The message may or may not be correct, which is irritating, but you need to listen to it in order to work out what your problem is, because only then can you fix it.

Ditch “I have writer’s block”: it never did anyone any good. Say “I’m struggling to write right now because…” and you might get somewhere.

______________________

My latest release is Gilded Cage. Get your lady detective/Victorian jewel thief romance here!

The Reluctant Author: Telling the Wrong Story

I’m warning you now, this is going to be the most niche post ever on this blog. However, I need to get it off my chest, at least three people want to hear it, and I think it has some wider resonances for writing as well.

Today, my friends, I am discussing Georgette Heyer’s 1946 romance The Reluctant Widow. Bear with me. Extensive spoilers will follow; wider conclusions will be drawn at the end.

The Reluctant Secret Agent: or, why Francis Cheviot is the hero of The Reluctant Widow

The Reluctant Widow is generally agreed to be one of Heyer’s less successful romances. It has a great premise—a woman married at midnight to a dying man she’s never met, a mouldering house, French spies—plus a great cast including the ingenuous teen Nicky, his comedy dog, and one of Heyer’s best effete-yet-deadly fops, the purring and catlike Francis Cheviot. Unfortunately, the hero and heroine don’t live up to their book. Eleanor, the heroine, is sadly disinclined to throw herself into the mystery—she is meant to be a sensible heroine like Sarah Thane in The Talisman Ring but she lacks Sarah’s gumption and has no enjoyment at all ofher situation. Ned, the hero, mostly stands around giving orders, and telling people to keep calm. Basically, Ned and Eleanor are boring, sensible people plunged into a completely bananas situation to which they react in a boring, sensible manner.

However, I think we can see why the central romance is such a dud if we look at what the plot of the book actually is.

Synopsis follows. I am going to put Eleanor and Ned’s plotline in bold for easy identification.

Backstory: Eustace is a wastrel drinking himself to death. His sensible cousin Ned (Lord Carlyon) is his heir. Eustace and Ned’s uncle Lord Bedlington has always accused Ned of hating Eustace and wanting his mostly ruined estate, Highnoons, even though Ned is rich. Ned intends to pay a random woman to marry Eustace so she will inherit the estate instead, just so he doesn’t have to deal with spiteful rumours. Lord Bedlington is selling secrets to a French spy, Louis de Castres, using Eustace as go between. Bedlington’s son Francis suspects him. Bedlington gives Eustace a vital memorandum that could alter the course of the war. However, before Eustace can pass it on, he is mortally wounded in a fight. The book starts here.

Ned pressures Eleanor, a passing governess, into marrying Eustace on his deathbed in order to avoid the unwanted inheritance. Eleanor goes to live in Highnoons.

Louis de Castres tries twice to search Highnoons for the memorandum, once as a break-in.

Ned and Eleanor search unsuccessfully for the thing that the intruder was looking for.

Bedlington invites himself to stay with Ned, and insists he will stay the night at Highnoons after Eustace’s funeral, in order to search for the memo. Francis realises he has to put a stop to this. He kills Louis de Castres, then comes down to the house, ostensibly for the funeral. He ruthlessly threatens his father with exposure and forces him to retire from his position in the Prince Regent’s court, putting an end to his access to information. He guesses where Eustace hid the memo and does his best to retrieve it despite interference from Eleanor and Nicky.

Ned finds the memorandum in a clock (but only because Francis knocks Eleanor out to stop her finding it, which gives Ned the clue). He gives it to Francis to put back in the War Office and leaves him to deal with any remaining issues.

I think you can see the problem. Once the brilliant setup of “married by midnight—widowed by morning!” is established, Ned and Eleanor don’t do anything. No, worse: they get in the way. Eleanor prevents Louis from getting the memo once, and purely by accident, after which her every intervention is an active nuisance to Francis—who, let us recall, knows where the memo is, and just needs them to stop impeding him. She achieves absolutely nothing herself.

And Ned? Well, Ned eventually works out that Francis is the hero. That’s it. That is Ned’s big I Am The Man moment: he realises that Francis has single-handedly foiled a French plot that could have damaged Britain, and decides not to be unhelpful any more. Go Ned.

They don’t even solve their own romantic conflict. Heyer sets up the rather flimsy premise that Ned cannot inherit Eustace’s estate because malicious tongues will wag. But the second Eleanor says “I do” to Ned, he gets Eustace’s estate via marriage. What’s happened to the wagging tongues which Ned is now ready to dismiss so casually? Well, Heyer doesn’t spell it out at the end, but the rumours were all set on by Bedlington. And who has drawn Bedlington’s fangs for good? Francis.

Let me now tell you the actual plot of The Reluctant Widow. It’s a story about a man who comes to realise his father and cousin are traitors. Who befriends a French emigre who he knows to be a daring spy in order to gather evidence; who needs to save his country, but is trying to save his family too. A man who plays a Scarlet Pimpernel-like role, maintaining his public image as an effete dandy despite the sneers, killing an enemy agent without compunction, and ruthlessly eliminating his treacherous father as a danger. (“I was obliged to point out to him that the state of his health demands that he should retire from public life. I really could not answer for his life if he were to continue in office.”) He finally retrieves the memo despite endless interference; he will put it back, prevent catastrophe, and save the family honour. He even stops his father from impeding his cousin’s marriage. He receives no credit and no thanks and doesn’t ask for them: he simply saves the day, without so much as disarranging his cravat.

Francis Cheviot is the hero of The Reluctant Widow, and Heyer knows it. That’s why Ned’s big moment is when he acknowledges Francis is the hero. That’s why Ned and Eleanor are ciphers: they only exist in the plot to be obstacles to Francis. That’s why most of the crucial plot-resolving Chapter 19 is a barely-interrupted Francis monologue; that’s why the ending falls so flat, because Ned and Eleanor haven’t lifted a finger to solve their own external conflict. And that’s why, despite him first appearing in chapter 13 (of 20), Francis is far and away the most memorable character. Because he’s the hero, and the narrative eye of the book spends most of its time focused in entirely the wrong place.

***

This may sound pretty obvious as I’ve spelled it out. It isn’t obvious on the page because, as noted, we are two-thirds of the way through the book before Francis arrives to save us, and because his machinations only become clear in chapter 19. The main body of The Reluctant Widow is about Ned and Eleanor and their valiant supporting cast, including the wonderful dilapidated house which is conveyed with extraordinary vividness. Heyer wasn’t phoning this one in: she was throwing everything she could at the story to zizz it up. But she failed–because she was telling the wrong story.

And she knew it, I think. Francis lights the book up when he appears, and gets all the best dialogue and all the best description. Heyer plunges gleefully into portraying him as a villain with repeated scenes of Ned’s boring bumpkin brothers being appalled at Francis’s effeminacy, almost as if trying to show how stupid and judgemental they are. Francis is the point; Eleanor and Ned’s romance is merely the stage on which he performs.

Georgette Heyer knew how to structure a book. The plotting of Cotillion and the final scene of An Unknown Ajax are absolute masterpieces of craft, and I don’t say that lightly: Ajax leaves me slack-jawed every time. It’s staggering to see how well she can work a plot. But not this one: because she was trying to tell the wrong story, because she needed to write a Regency romance, and–possibly, maybe?–because there was no way in 1946 for Francis to have a mass market romance novel of his own.

So what can we learn? Well, for a start, if your characters are being pushed to the sides of the plot, notice and ask yourself why. Are they just reactive, like Ned and Eleanor, not taking a role in driving the plot? If you’re writing a romance with an important subplot, could the two story strands be taken apart without destroying either–and can you actually intertwine them? Are you more interested in writing a secondary character than your MCs? Any of that might indicate that your main characters, the ones taking up the page time, aren’t actually the centre of your story–and that is likely to be a serious problem.

Don’t feel bad, though. As Heyer shows, it happens to the best.

_________________

Yes, I am a Heyer fiend. My new book Band Sinister has been described as “Heyer but gayer,” which is something I’ll happily have on my gravestone.

Cover of Band Sinister

Sir Philip Rookwood is the disgrace of the county. He’s a rake and an atheist, and the rumours about his hellfire club, the Murder, can only be spoken in whispers. (Orgies. It’s orgies.)

Guy Frisby and his sister Amanda live in rural seclusion after a family scandal. But when Amanda breaks her leg in a riding accident, she’s forced to recuperate at Rookwood Hall, where Sir Philip is hosting the Murder.

Guy rushes to protect her, but the Murder aren’t what he expects. They’re educated, fascinating people, and the notorious Sir Philip turns out to be charming, kind—and dangerously attractive.

In this private space where anything goes, the longings Guy has stifled all his life are impossible to resist…and so is Philip. But all too soon the rural rumour mill threatens both Guy and Amanda. The innocent country gentleman has lost his heart to the bastard baronet—but does he dare lose his reputation too?

 

“I have read some great romance books this year, but this rises to the top. Entertaining, intricately peopled, tightly plotted and simply … perfect.”–HEA USA Today

“I loved that this couple was completely honest with each other about their feelings for each other, and their feelings for other characters who held important places in their lives. It made their HEA all the more delightful and believable. … this book is really, really good. Go one-click, you won’t be disappointed.”–Smexy Books

“A wonderfully entertaining read that, for all its light-heartedness, nonetheless manages to convey a number of important ideas about love, friendship, social responsibility and the importance of living according to one’s lights. It’s a sexy, warm, witty trope-fest and works brilliantly as an homage to the traditional regency and a tribute to those who dared to think enlightened ideas in a time of entrenched views.”–Caz’s Reading Room

All buy links

Historical Romance: Who Gets the HEA

Discussions of historical romance frequently break into two factions: those who want their histrom to align with modern values about things like consent, equality, and bigotry, and those who don’t because those weren’t the attitudes of the time and that’s part of historical accuracy.

I am of the former group, even though I bang on about historical accuracy when it comes to stuff like modes of address. I need to be able to see a romance hero as a good person by my standards. The fact that a slave-owner or a homophobe might have been considered a good person (by people he wasn’t maltreating) in 1810 is a matter of profound indifference to me: I’m reading it in 2018, and this guy sucks. I’ll take gritty depictions of the past in other genres, but if you want me to buy into a romance and a Happy-Ever-After, don’t give me heroes that I’d happily set on fire.

This doesn’t mean that I want the past erased. It doesn’t do to forget the vileness of which humans are so readily capable. People’s pain ought not to be lightly handwaved away. And the truths of history are not incompatible with romance, when approached from the right angle. There are histrom authors taking on America’s filthy history to magnificent effect—Alyssa Cole’s Loyal League series with black heroes and heroines during the Civil War is brutal; Piper Huguley and Beverly Jenkins don’t shy away from the corrosive effects of racism; Joanna Chambers’ Enlightenment series keeps the homophobia of Georgian Scotland front and centre. All of these are wonderful. It can be done.

But. Also.

You can’t throw a bun on Romance Twitter without hitting someone defending romance as the genre of hope, of the world as it should be, of escape and happiness and love. Romance creates a fantasy, and historical romance is pretty much always a fantasy no matter how much research we do into the top speed of a phaeton or the exact materials used for a ball dress, or what the hell a peignoir might be. The dukes with abs, the governess marrying a nobleman, the earls with a sideline in espionage: it’s all a fantasy, and that’s absolutely fine because, as I wrote last time, you will take my fluff from my cold dead hands.

And yet there is a powerful strand of opinion that holds that any m/m histrom must reflect the fear of legal persecution, that any romance starring a POC must be about racism and injustice, that marginalised people simply cannot have happy endings, let alone fluffy stories along the way, because history was too cruel.

I’ve been sustained for years by Georgette Heyer’s glorious fantasies of women finding love and respect in a glittering Regency that never was, and my knowledge of the actual period’s brutal politics, deep misogyny, and general nastiness doesn’t undermine that pleasure. That sort of fictional escape should not be denied to readers of colour and/or queer readers–and particularly not on grounds of accuracy or historical realism that are not applied elsewhere.

We know that m/f histrom heroes and heroines are immune to lice, syphilis, terrible dentistry, death in childbirth. We know that the heroine will be safe when the book ends: that her husband won’t use her total financial dependence against her or rape her at will as he could because he now owns her body and all her property. In the right kind of modern histrom, we know from the start that the hero won’t be infected by misogyny or toxic masculinity, and will understand the concept of enthusiastic consent without needing a Basic Human Decency 101 class. All that is part of the histrom fantasy—because wow, was none of that guaranteed to actual women in actual history.

So if someone insists historical romance featuring marginalised people must come with the full complement of historical misery–that nobody could possibly have had a happy life with loving family, friends like themselves, good allies, non-bigoted acquaintances, and avoided running foul of unjust law–I need to know that they are applying the same standards to white m/f.

Of course, many people do exactly that. Most histrom readers expect books to show the oppression of the time to some degree, whether light touch, partial engagement, or full-on harsh reality; some people simply don’t read the genre because the happy gloss doesn’t work for them. Some people find it impossible to let go of the exploitation and colonialism that probably underpin a rich aristocrat’s wealth and privilege (which is a real bummer if you just wanted to enjoy a relaxing escapist duke book). Those are all entirely valid stances and down to the individual.

What is not valid is to be on board with duke/governess stories and all the rest of the glittering balls and yet simultaneously to assert that Regency fluff with POCs is unrealistic, or that m/m love stories must be played out under the shadow of the pillory and the gallows. That is to gatekeep who gets the fantasy and who gets the (worst of) reality. And it’s not only unjust: it’s also as historically inaccurate as it gets.

We can state as a matter of cold hard statistical fact that there were far more happy real-life queer people and people of colour in Regency England than there were handsome eligible dukes. This is simple mathematics, because queer people and people of colour actually existed, whereas the number of desirable dukes can be counted on the fingers of one foot. You want historical realism? Check out this babe.

That’s the fifth duke of Devonshire, a repeat adulterer who blamed his wife for having miscarriages, installed his mistress in the family home and made them both pregnant at the same time, and condemned his wife for having an affair while he was fathering numerous illegitimate children with multiple women. She was a writer, supporter of science, and early activist for women’s rights; he was a no-account hypocritical dullard who regarded her with utter indifference and made her life miserable. I don’t think a punny title is going to save this one. Also, those are not romance abs. And this portrait is probably flattering. Wow.

It is of course absolutely fine not to like stuff: modern values in historical romance, or fluff, or the basic concept of setting a romance in terrible unjust times, or anything else. But it’s not okay to support escapist fantasy for some people while denying it to others. And it is particuarly questionable to exclude anyone from a fantasy on grounds of realism. That just isn’t how fantasy works.

___________________

 

Cover of Band SinisterMy new book, Band Sinister, comes out 11th October and is pure Regency m/m fluff with a bastard baronet, an innocent country gentleman, a hellfire club, and a 100% happy ever after.

Sir Philip Rookwood is the disgrace of the county. He’s a rake and an atheist, and the rumours about his hellfire club, the Murder, can only be spoken in whispers. (Orgies. It’s orgies.)

Guy Frisby and his sister Amanda live in rural seclusion after a family scandal. But when Amanda breaks her leg in a riding accident, she’s forced to recuperate at Rookwood Hall, where Sir Philip is hosting the Murder.

Guy rushes to protect her, but the Murder aren’t what he expects. They’re educated, fascinating people, and the notorious Sir Philip turns out to be charming, kind—and dangerously attractive.

In this private space where anything goes, the longings Guy has stifled all his life are impossible to resist…and so is Philip. But all too soon the rural rumour mill threatens both Guy and Amanda. The innocent country gentleman has lost his heart to the bastard baronet—but does he dare lose his reputation too?

Out tomorrow at the time of writing, from the usual stores.

You Will Take My Fluff From My Cold Dead Hands

In these times when UK/US politics are best represented by a gif of fifteen killer clowns in a burning wheelie bin plummeting off a cliff, we need to hang on to our small joys. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the news, the fire-hose of human awfulness, bigotry, hate, cruelty and callousness. And it’s also easy to feel like we’re somehow cheating by turning away or taking time to enjoy anything. Something terrible happens, and Twitter will not only inform us in horrifying detail but also bring a chorus of people shouting HOW DARE YOU TALK ABOUT A TV PROGRAMME NOW? HOW DARE YOU PROMOTE A BOOK WITH THIS GOING ON? WHY AREN’T YOU SCREAMING?

The thing is, asking people to feel nothing but rage and misery is counterproductive. Let’s face it, we’re all screaming, and some kind of appalling ‘this’ is always going on somewhere. I strongly believe in being aware, and in acting meaningfully on that awareness. (PROTEST. CALL YOUR REPS. REGISTER TO VOTE. ACTUALLY VOTE.) But I also believe that we don’t help anyone by staring at the news till we’re driven to despair. We’re only human; we are not emotionally or mentally built to carry the pain of the world. Everyone needs time out to recharge, to catch the small joys as they fly, to take a break and remember why people are worth fighting for. Time with loved ones, time outside in the fresh air, knitting, jigsaws, cooking, clubbing, making soap: anything that centres you is great. Personally, I read romance novels, and so do a hell of a lot of people for a lot of reasons.

I want happiness and joy. I want and need to read about a world where a woman can get emotional support from a man who respects her, or a queer couple can have a happy ever after, and I know everything will work out absolutely fine. More than that: Sometimes I want stories where those things go without saying. I want books where a woman’s problems in the workplace don’t include misogyny or sexual harassment. Where the big obstacle to the gay romance isn’t homophobic relatives but the need to find the stolen diamonds. Where the trans spaceship captain’s gender is an aspect of the character, not the plot. Where black women wear the best floofy dresses to Regency balls; where the bad guy’s aim is to steal the family estate rather than rape; where women and POC and LGBT+ people and all the intersections thereof can exist without being harassed, bullied or hurt for their identity just like white cishet male characters can all the goddamned time.

/deep breath, count to ten/

I am in no way against romances that confront hard issues. I adore stories that show triumph over adversity, and love winning in a hostile world, and I entirely understand the concerns about erasing marginalised people’s real suffering by writing historical fluff. (This is a huge, complex, and valid argument that I’m not getting into here but my own feeling is, if historical fluff exists for white cishets, it can exist for everyone else, and if it can’t exist for everyone else, we need to ban all dukes, syphilis-free rakes etc right now.)

I sometimes want a fictional world where misogyny, homophobia, and racism aren’t an ever-present poisonous cloud. I certainly want that to be an option on the shelves. And I don’t want these books dismissed as silly and trivial, when for many readers they are profoundly emotionally restorative.

It is a radical act of imagination to make stories as friendly to women and marginalised people as they are to white cishet men. It is re-envisioning the entire world. It is staking a claim for our equal humanity: our right to drink at parties, our right to walk at night or hold hands with a lover, our right to fly dragons or spaceships. Our right to be carelessly happy, or at least to have problems that aren’t grounded in our identity (have you found those missing diamonds yet?). Our right to be loved and respected as equals.

Fluff may seem as sweet and light and insubstantial as candyfloss, but it is also a weapon, because it shows us a world that’s worth fighting for. (Think of that as the sharp stick running through the candyfloss. Poke it into someone’s eye.) If you want to rest in a fluffy world while gathering your strength for the next round out there, go for it. Take care of yourself exactly as you need to, and don’t let anyone shame you for doing so.

And then make sure you vote.

***

Here is a Twitter thread I did to recommend comfort reading. I strongly recommend the #romanceclass books in particular as an antidote to toxic masculinity.

My new book, Band Sinister, is the fluffiest thing I have yet written. I hope it helps.

Cover of Band SinisterSir Philip Rookwood is the disgrace of the county. He’s a rake and an atheist, and the rumours about his hellfire club, the Murder, can only be spoken in whispers. (Orgies. It’s orgies.)

Guy Frisby and his sister Amanda live in rural seclusion after a family scandal. But when Amanda breaks her leg in a riding accident, she’s forced to recuperate at Rookwood Hall, where Sir Philip is hosting the Murder.

Guy rushes to protect her, but the Murder aren’t what he expects. They’re educated, fascinating people, and the notorious Sir Philip turns out to be charming, kind—and dangerously attractive.

In this private space where anything goes, the longings Guy has stifled all his life are impossible to resist…and so is Philip. But all too soon the rural rumour mill threatens both Guy and Amanda. The innocent country gentleman has lost his heart to the bastard baronet—but does he dare lose his reputation too?

Out 11 October, from the usual stores.