Genre is a technique for shelving books

Revealed in Mist is entered in the contest for New Zealand’s prestigious Ngaio Marsh Award. Ngaio Marsh, for those who don’t read mystery, was a New Zealand crime writer and theatre director, and a favourite author of mine, so I’m delighted to be in the mix, and greatly enjoyed the panel discussion on Saturday. Three of us sat in the Greytown Library, answered questions, and talked about characterisation, plotting, and murder.

Some of the discussion set me thinking about genre. Crime fiction, according to a definition I found, is the literary genre that fictionalises crimes, their detection, criminals, and their motives. By that definition, Revealed in Mist fits, though I generally call it historical suspense. The other panelists were Paul Thomas, author of the Ihaka crime novels (starring a detective in Auckland), and Cat Connor, whose The_byte series are FBI thrillers.

My Redepenning novels also have strong suspense elements, with one or more mysteries to solve and real danger threatening my hero and heroine.

So am I a romance writer, a crime writer, an historical writer, or a suspense writer?

And does it matter?

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Rakes, Rapists and Alpha-jerks

This is the flip side of my ‘In praise of decent men‘ post. In this post, I’m going to talk about ‘heroes’ you won’t find in my stories (and a little about heroines that I won’t write, too).

You can’t reform a rake

One enduring trope of romantic fiction is that reformed rakes make the best husbands. Nothing wrong with that. It ignores inconveniences like illegitimate children and sexually transmitted diseases, and embarrassments like knowing your husband has slept with half the women you meet at any given social occasion, but this is, after all, romantic fiction.

It also makes the possibly erroneous assumption that said rake’s conquests depended on an application of charm and technique that could later be applied to the lucky wife. I’ve written comparing the rake of fiction with the real rakes of history, but again, let it pass. Undoubtedly, some rakes were both charming and skilled, so why not the hero?

I don’t object to heroes who have been rakes and who reform to become devoted husbands. Some of my favourite novels have ex-rake heroes.

What I don’t like and won’t write is the concept that all the rake needed to reform was the love of a good woman. I mean, I know this is fiction, so I’m not looking for fact, but I am looking for truth. We all know what happens to any female who takes this trope seriously and tries to apply it in real life. Maybe he’ll behave for a few weeks, or even a few months. But soon enough someone else’s perfume lingers around his shirts, and he spends more nights out than home (working late again? Yeah, right.)

You can’t reform a rake. The rake can choose to reform, and falling in love may be the impetus for the final shift in behaviours. But I’m looking for signs that he was already changing his way of life before the heroine came along, or the book goes.

At the worst end of the scale is the guy who falls in lust with the woman, seeks to seduce her thinking that will get her out of his system, and then is converted to true love by the power of her Magic Vagina.

Do Not Finish. Hate that Hero. Don’t much like that Heroine.

No doesn’t mean try harder

Rape was purportedly popular in romantic fiction decades ago. The heroine is in the hero’s power, and he uses that power to coerce her into sex, which she absolutely loves. She then goes on to fall in love with him, thanks to the potency of his Magic Penis.

I’m okay with seduction, and it is even more fun when it’s a game two people are playing, neither one aware of the intentions of the other. I absolutely abhor forced seduction, of any kind.

An arranged marriage story can be beautiful, if carefully handled. I’ve even read a story or two that I really liked where the heroine is in the hero’s power. If he’s the right kind of hero, he will leave her room to give true consent, and if he doesn’t, he’s no hero.

If one of the sexual partners has not consented, then it isn’t intercourse, it’s rape. Simple. Doesn’t matter if the unwilling partner then enjoys the physical sensations. In fact, the betrayal of one’s own body probably makes it worse.

Do Not Finish That Book. Throw At Wall.

Alpha-jerks are still jerks

Woman who trusted an Alpha-jerk

The Alpha, Beta, Gamma classifications have fallen out of favour in animal psychology, so I’m told. Pack dynamics are more complex than people thought. But they still have some useful application in writing romantic fiction, as I’ve discussed in a post called ‘Alpha and Omega‘.

An alpha hero is a natural leader; the man everyone turns to when things go wrong, the man who makes the decisions and keeps the group strong and together.

That doesn’t make him a good man or a good hero. It just makes him the boss.

Is he bossy, domineering, unwilling to listen to anyone else or to give credit to others? He’s not a hero; he’s an alpha-jerk. Stand clear. Do Not Breed From This Man.

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In praise of decent men

“All your heroes are too decent,” a friend told me. “You need someone different. A real scoundrel.”

So here’s the thing. I like decent men, and I’m none too fond of scoundrels.

Let’s define our terms

A decent man may have his problems. But he won’t deliberately pursue his own needs and desires careless of the consequences. He will make sacrifices without expecting a reward, because the happiness of someone else is important to him.

To a scoundrel, on the other hand, other people are not fully real. They exist as background, tools, playthings, or obstacles, but not as people. Even when he loves, he loves himself first. If he makes sacrifices, it is in full expectation that he is surrendering one thing to win another.

In fiction, as in real life, people sit somewhere on the continuum, from thoroughly decent to entirely scoundrelly. Scoundrelous? Scoundrelish? And my friend is suggesting that heroes too close to the decent end are both boring and unlikely.

It’s all about the journey

I’m looking for two things in a story I read, and both are to do with what changes for the main protagonists between the front page and the last.

The first is the external journey. Each main character has an external challenge to face and overcome. This is the plot, and it needs to keep my interest or I won’t finish the book.

The second is the internal journey. I am looking for my main characters to grow, mature and learn from their experiences, and above all from their interactions with the other characters. It’s one of the reasons I read and write romance. People in love are willing to put aside their fears and their habits for the sake of the other, so romances are a prime opportunity for internal journeys.

A well written internal journey shows in what a person says and does, and requires a deep understanding of human nature and of the characters who need to respond to outside pressures and personal yearnings according to their personalities and experiences. What might drive one man out into brothels and bars might set another into a hermitage and a third onto a battlefield. And what will bring each of them out of their despair will likewise be different.

I want to see the hero grow

So to me, a decent man needs to change to make the story interesting. He might be nursing a broken heart, obsessed with a goal to the exclusion of all else, fighting personal demons, even convinced the world revolves around him. If he is able to get out of the beam of his own sunshine to care about the needs of someone else, he is fundamentally decent.

A scoundrel is not ever to be trusted. When he makes choices, he will always have himself and what he wants as his deciding factor.

But I have to believe in the change

Continuum again. I can think of many books in which the scoundrel has a core of decency that the heroine is able to reach. But the ones that convince me show evidence of that core. The scoundrel saves an inconsequential child from a bully. Or is kind to an elderly widow. Or sends the heroine away because he is afraid of hurting her. In Elizabeth Hoyt’s Scandalous Desires, the river pirate king has been building a second secret life where he doesn’t have to be a scoundrel, and Darcy Burke uses the same device in Scoundrel Ever After.

By contrast, I’ve read a few stories in which the scoundrel hero is bad (or perhaps broken) to the core, but makes an exception for the heroine, and I don’t believe them. Not for one minute. Anna Campbell’s Duke of Kylemore walked very close to the line, but in the end Campbell convinced me that he has really made the transition from scoundrel to decent man. Lucinda Brant’s Duke of Roxton claims to care for no-one but himself, until he meets his Antonia. But the reader knows he is kind to his friend and his sister. Others remain scoundrels, and through-and-through scoundrels can’t love anyone but themselves, whatever their current emotional state.

If the hero decides what is best for the heroine based on what he believes to be best for him, the hero is a scoundrel. If the hero’s new respect for and decency towards the heroine doesn’t affect how he feels about anyone else, then the hero is a scoundrel. The change will reverse as soon as their relationship hits a dry patch (and all relationships hit dry patches). Either way, book, meet wall.

Non-fiction should be factual; fiction should be truthful

It matters because fiction matters. Yes, the stories we tell are fiction and fantasy. But they also reflect and in some ways shape people’s expectations. I write fiction, not fact. But fiction should, whatever it else does, tell the truth about people. I write romance, which means I have a responsibility to be honest about the places where love can thrive. And love with a scoundrel is not a place where love can thrive.

Rakes rarely reform. Bad boys remain both boys and bad. Love can go tragically wrong and end in abuse, even death. Or it can wound rather than kill, leaving its victims with broken hearts, low self-esteem, unwanted pregnancy and disease. Women are better off alone than stuck with a scoundrel. This is truth, and telling the truth is my job.

And that’s why my heroes are decent men.

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Why do I write what I write?

This is a question I addressed during a talk at the Kiwi Book Feast event on Saturday, and here is my reply.

I write suspense because I love puzzles.

I write historical because I am a research geek, and my version of catnip is chasing the clues to obscure facts through articles, contemporary accounts, and scholarly research papers.

And I write romance because I want to show characters grappling with who they are, and nothing brings out the essence of a person faster than a developing intimate relationship.

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What is Waitangi Day?

Today, Aotearoa (better known in the rest of the world as New Zealand) acknowledges that this nation began with a treaty. A treaty that was misunderstood by both sides in the beginning, and thereafter frequently broken or ignored. But a treaty that, nonetheless, we have returned to again and again, to work out what our country means. It is not just an historic document, it is part of Aotearoa’s unwritten constitution; by law, government legislation and actions need to be measured against the principles of the Treaty.

On 6th February 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed. The video below, first in a series of four, dramatises the lead up and the occasion.

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I write refreshment fiction

I have a few friends who say they’re backing away from writing, reading, or posting about what they call escapist fiction, because they feel world events are such that they have no right to be indulging in, or promoting, anything so frivolous.

They have a right to their view and their feelings. For my part, I don’t feel that way.

Why is it bad to escape?

We know, from the tone and context in which the term is used, that escapist fiction is a bad thing. But we don’t know why. Fiction, by its nature, permits the reader to leave their everyday world and enter a different reality, a world where events have some kind of structure and resolution. The qualifier ‘escapist’ at least implies that the fictional world will be different from the real world in that the resolution will be pleasing to the reader.

Escape has social, emotional, and health benefits, which is why we take weekends and holidays; why we go for a walk in a park or along a beach. If we need a break, we tend to do something that we find refreshing. Escape helps us return fit and ready for whatever life throws at us.

I have spent much of my life with ill health, and have at the same time been through the usual curve balls life throws at us (children with disabilities, financial downturns, betrayals by friends and family). Yes, fiction has always been my escape—an opportunity for a micro holiday someplace where whatever was happening wasn’t real, and I wasn’t the one who had to fix it.

No. Escape in itself is not a bad thing.

Is escapist fiction fundamentally bad fiction?

I was one of those young people told to stop reading rubbish and spend my time with worthwhile books, by which my mentors meant the classics or the earnest works of the current literary mavens. Leaving aside the fact that many of the classics were regarded as escapist in their day, what exactly do the critics consider escapist?

The following table is adapted from a university source.

Escapist fiction Literary fiction
Designed to entertain Designed to make the reader think
Simplistic, predictable, and often linear plots More complicated plots, often non-linear
Clear unambiguous endings, usually happy Ambiguous or unhappy endings
Simplistic, predicatable, flat characters Characters are more rounded, and neither wholly good nor wholly bad
Moral to the story is obvious and often cliched Moral may be non-existent
Plot driven, that is, the emphasis is on action rather than character Character driven, that is, the emphasis is on character development rather than action
Plot is the primary focus, with characters merely players in the action Plot is merely an aid to showing character

It’s a continuum, with books defined by these two columns at opposite ends. It should be easy to see that much genre fiction fits more to the literary end of the scale than the escapist. Some of the great works of the 20th Century were speculative fiction works like The Word for World is Forest and The Handmaid’s Tale. No open-minded person reading Grace Burrowes’ Captive Hearts series would deny that it ticks most of the boxes on the right side.

And the fact that a happy ending is regarded as more escapist than an unhappy one lights all kinds of fires for me, as I’ve discussed before.

But leaving that all aside, what in any of that list makes one book less escapist than another? I just don’t buy the basic idea that a book that shows ‘realism’ (by which the critics appear to mean one that mirrors the worst of the world) is somehow less worthy than one offering an adventure or a romance.

Is literary fiction better for us?

But, we are told, we should be reading fiction that makes us think, that improves us, that deals with real life issues.

You can keep your ‘shoulds’, but even if I admitted the point (which I don’t), the great writers of genre fiction show us that escape doesn’t mean denying or avoiding real life issues. Rather, it means packaging them in a way that helps readers to understand them. In fiction, we walk a mile in another person’s shoes, see the world through their eyes, feel what they feel, and come back into our own lives changed by the experience.

Fiction at its best provides both an escape and a way to understand, and perhaps improve, our reality.

Of all the genres, romance attracts the most censure. I’ve written about why I think this might be, and I think it a shame. Jane Austen’s books are widely recognised as literary (though not in her day), yet her modern successors, who also write about human character as developed in the crucible of a developing intimate relationship, are derided.

I don’t write escapist fiction, but I do write refreshment fiction

Looking down the list above, I’d say my books ignore the two extremes, which is not surprising. I’ve been a fence-sitter all my life. My stories are designed to both entertain and make people think. They generally have complicated plots and happy endings (though not necessarily happy for everyone). The plot is full of action, but exists to show the characters of my protagonists, and the development of those characters is the key point of the story. The characters are neither wholly good nor wholly bad, and my stories do have a moral.

So not escapist according to the definition above, nor entirely literary. But it is what I do and what I will continue to do. And it is my devout hope that readers will escape into my worlds, take a holiday from their real life, and returned refreshed and maybe armed with some strategies and understandings that will serve them well in the future.

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Not all that wise, as it turns out

In the last few weeks, more than ever before, I am convinced that the scientific name for humankind lacks something as a descriptor. Homo sapiens. Wise (or rational) man. Yeah, right.

It was invented by the father of modern taxonomy, the man who invented our double-worded system of naming biological species, the Swedish zoologist Carl von Linne. He was one of Europe’s most acclaimed scientist in the mid 18th century, and his influence was such that the name has stuck despite all the evidence that we people keep providing that we are not all that wise.

As it happens, there are a number of other candidate descriptors – some serious; some not so much.

A species name should be something unique to the species; some identifying characteristic that sets that species apart from others. Felix domesticus is the domestic cat. Dendrobates azureus, a certain type of tree frog, is blue tree walker.

So what are our identifying characteristics as a species?

Creativity, aesthetics, language, and laughter all seem to be good candidates.

Creativity and a love of beauty

We have only to look around at the sheer joyful profligacy of the natural world to see that creativity seems to be built into us, showing up as soon as we are old enough to start decorating ourselves and our environment. Homo creator?

But other animals use tools, and other animals make things. It’s impossible to say whether they enjoy doing so, although some suggest they only do so when they have another end in view. An ape tears a stick to the right length in order to insert it in a termite mound and extract breakfast. A bower bird spends hours creating an ornate pattern in order to attract a mate.

People make things for the sheer pleasure of creation. The creative impulse seems to be more highly developed in our species; so highly developed that creation itself becomes a motivator. But undoubtedly the seeds of the impulse are found in other species.

Aesthetics is another suggested separator, which would make us homo aestheticus. We take pleasure in beautiful things to see, to hear, to taste, to smell, and to touch. Is this our unique characteristic? I think not. We see in other animals a pleasure in sights, sound, tastes, smells, and touch that we would call aesthetic if the perceiver were human. More highly developed in humans? Perhaps so. But again, not unique.

The hominid that talks?

For a long time, the ability to communicate was suggested as the strongest difference between us and the rest of creation. Communication is a powerful human drive. Are we homo loquens – talking man? But two types of research have narrowed the gap with the other animals. On the one hand, animals have been taught to understand human languages, and even to communicate in a human language (sign). On the other, animal studies have shown that complex messages are passed between animals of the same species, and some messages are even understood across species. We have a spoken language that is (mostly) under our voluntary control, but this is still a matter of degree rather than type.

laughing donkeyWhat about homo ridens, the animal that laughs? We have a sense of humour. But so do dogs and other domestic animals (ask anyone who owns donkeys).

Other contenders are homo amans – humans as loving agents, or homo generosus – generous man. Certainly these are defining characteristics of humans at their best. But unique? I don’t think so.

The meaning seekers

I like homo poetica – the hominid that searches for meaning and significance. This is certainly a strong identifier of humankind. The search for meaning and significance has built societies and civilisations. As a scientific name, it works. But I think there is one that is even more descriptive.

I have been in a conference for the past two days, listening to speaker after speaker. And the best of them, the ones who captured and held our attention, even at the end of two days after lots of coffee and little sleep, were those who offered beautiful presentations, interesting use of language, humour, generous sharing of their experience and knowledge in a way that helped us to make meaning out of our own—and one more thing. They told us stories.

That, I think, is the unique identifier. We are the animal – the only animal as far as we know – that tells stories. We use stories to build empathy, to share as knowledge, to explain meaning, to identify as a group.

I’m a Catholic Christian, and I see this pre-eminently in the public life of Jesus. He didn’t content himself with saying ‘do this,’ or ‘this means that’. Instead, he told stories that carried the message people needed to hear. We’re still mining those stories for meaning 2000 years later. But I also see it in the 2000 years following. Whenever the Church needed a new way of doing things, or a reminder of an old way, God sent us a saint to be a living story, showing us the lesson we needed to learn.

To my mind, we are homo narans, the storytelling hominid. What do you think?

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