Riding the crocodile

The bazillion book market is a puzzlement. Authors fret about how to be noticed in the huge flood of new releases every week (more than 370,000 in the past 30 days on Amazon alone). Readers complain that many books they pick up are not worth reading, and I’ve heard many say they’re trying no new authors because of disappointments.

Meanwhile, those who guard the paths by which we authors reach our readers are working for themselves, and not for us. I don’t blame them for that. It is the nature of business to wish to make money, and it is the nature of mega-business — such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google — to wish to remove any competition that prevents them from making more money. They are, as a series of New Zealand advertisements said about foreign-owned banks, rather large crocodiles doing what crocodiles do. Admirable creatures in their own way, precisely designed for their purpose. But uncomfortable and dangerous to keep in the house.

I need to ride those particular crocodiles in order to reach the readers who prefer those platforms, but I’m trying to avoid being swallowed, crunched, and spat out. (Which means I’m not joining KU or anything that requires exclusivity.)

On the plans for this year is a shop on my site, where you can buy my books directly. I am toying with some kind of a sponsorship model — a sort of a subscription, where people make one modest payment a year and then get sent anything I write, plus some kind of other recognition that they are sponsors of the author known as Jude Knight. Maybe a t-shirt? And a club card? Special sponsor events?

I’m also looking at making changes to the newsletter to make it more appealing. People are just so busy!

What else? The most effective way I’ve found to reach more readers is reader word of mouth, and that is very much in your hands. I’m open to ideas. How can I do more to help you help me?


The Jude Knight Manifesto

The classic bodice ripper cover shows the woman’s ambivalence about the situation she has landed in. Interestingly, some claim that these covers, whose artists were the same comic artists who had been creating superhero magazines, were actually designed to appeal to male booksellers.

At the day job this week, we had a workshop on personal branding, and did a number of exercises to find the authentic self we wanted to project when dealing with clients.

I had no trouble defining my essence: the core values and passions that define me. I’ve spent the past four years thinking about them as I created the brand for Jude Knight. They don’t change between Jude Knight the storyteller and Judy Knighton the plain English business consultant, because they are the real me.

I’m a storyteller with an abiding compassion for people and a deep desire to contribute to the wellbeing of individuals and communities.

This post results from mulling over the workshop and also several blogs and articles I’ve read this week.

Sherry Thomas, in an interview, talked about romance writing in the current political environment. She has received some flak for her views from people who seem to think she is planning to turn her novels into a political rant, but I didn’t take it that way.

To me, it seems inevitable that one’s values and attitudes will influence the themes we write about, the characters we glorify, and what we consider to be happy endings. Yes, and whether wealth and power are shown as corrupting or as virtuous, which is a very strong political statement indeed.

My values are informed by my life experiences and my Catholic faith, and I try to live by them in all I say and do. My books will always reward a passion for justice and community, and ultimately punish greed and selfishness. (Which life doesn’t always do, at least the bit of it we see, so I should, because in the world I create, I can.)

Laurie Penny, in the Unforgiving Minute, has produced one of the best #metoo articles I’ve read (and I’ve read lots). She challenges men to stop making the current post-Weinstein world about them and their desire to get laid.

In a world where men take their view of good sex from Hugh Hefner and women suffer the consequences, I firmly believe that writing bodice rippers is a degenerate act. I’m defining the term as a book set in the past, with a young, virginal heroine and a more powerful (because older, richer, or simply more brutal) hero who forces her to have non-consensual sex until they fall in love and live happily ever after. Rapist-turned-true-hero, and no-doesn’t-mean-no. For a man to write such a book is an act of violence. For a woman to do so is treachery.

My books will reward relationships founded on mutual respect. If that’s not where my couple start out, it is where they will end up. The most rakish of my heroes will need to face the emptiness in their souls where intimacy should be, and so will the heroine I have in mind for a series I’m involved with in 2019.

I strongly believe that the romance genre is feminist, in the sense that it is a genre in which women are subjects, not objects; in which women’s concerns and women’s actions are centre stage;  in which women’s sexual pleasure is based on female, not male experience.

Not all romances are feminist. I’ve dnfed* some shocking pieces of adolescent male fantasy masquerading as romance erotica, and I’ve read many stories with heroes who are controlling despots with heroines who like that in a man.

My stories won’t always have strong heroines. They won’t always have heroes who, at the beginning of the story, honour the identity of their love interest and partner with them. But that’s always going to be my goal: a true abiding love based on mutual understanding and respect.

If I am to be true to myself, I can do no other.

(More on the covers that gave a genre a bad name here and here.)

*dnf = do not finish


All You Need Is Love

Today, I want to talk about love, sex, and writing romances.

I’ve been trying, in my own romances, to lead my hero and heroine in the direction of consummate love, which I’ll talk more about soon, but I’ve also been reading a few romances recently in which the couple seem to have little between them except lust, or when the success of the relationship depends on one of the pair subsuming their will to the other. That bothers me. It bothers me a lot.

Then, during the week, I was in a Facebook writers workshop event where the topic was clean romance, which meant (of course) that we talked about sex. And someone astounded me by asking how you could stop the story from being boring if there wasn’t any. (Any sex, I mean.)

And the third factor triggering this post was the conversations I’ve been in since the #metoo campaign went viral across the Internet. I’m not going to repeat any of them here, but let the following four worrying threads of argument suffice.

  1. Men do this sort of thing. You shouldn’t take it seriously.
  2. What was she wearing? Doing? Why was she there?
  3. Yes it’s bad, but not as bad as (pick the victim group of your choice).
  4. Only monsters do such things.

In other words, excuse the abusers, blame the victims, set one group of victims against another, and reject responsibility for making a change. And if we want change, then everyone of us is responsible for changing ourselves first, and then for challenging those around us.

The need for intimacy

Which brings me back to writing romances.

We’re occasionally told that sex is a basic human need. It is certainly a basic biological need, or we wouldn’t be here. But we can choose what to do with our appetites in a way that has not been observed in animals. Animals in the grip of the mating urge cannot resist it but must be physically confined. We can go and have a cold shower and a cup of tea. We are capable of crimes of lust, but also of celibacy. Animals who pair bond, as humans tend to do, are unable to pair elsewhere. We are capable of betrayal (but also of faithfulness).

So sex is a physical urge for an individual and a biological imperative for the species. But our driving need as humans is not sex, but intimacy, of which physical intimacy is just one of five aspects, and sex just a small element of that aspect. The other aspects are emotional intimacy, mental intimacy, experiential intimacy, and spiritual intimacy.

Babies denied intimacy will die. Children denied intimacy grow up wounded. Adults denied intimacy spiral into despair.

Those who think sex with strangers will fill their emptiness are doomed to disappointment. They mistake sexual intimacy for physical intimacy, and leap from there to assuming emotional intimacy. They are climbing a ladder, but it is leaning against the wrong wall.

I will never write a romance that has the couple in bed at first meeting, and from then they know they have found The One, and all the obstacles are external. Certainly, love can grow in such an unlikely seed bed. But I strongly believe that having sex before true intimacy in other aspects is more likely to be a barrier to developing a real love than to promote it. If my lovers start off in that way, their biggest obstacles to true intimacy will be internal.

The five aspects of intimacy

And I will write romances that look at couples who, in their journey towards intimacy, are progressing in all five aspects.

So what do I mean by that?

In a real romance, the hero and heroine support one another.

They are, of course, because this is a romance, physically intimate. This doesn’t necessarily mean they have sex all the time, or on the page. They express their feelings for one another by touching, hugging, holding hands, or whatever other physical expressions are appropriate to their culture. They are each aware of the other’s body, and they understand how to give pleasure each to the other. They know the shape of one another’s hands and ears. They are at ease in one another’s arms. They each know how the other will react to particular touches, and they know the taste and smell of one another.

They are emotionally intimate. They have shared their darkest and dearest secrets, their most terrible and precious memories. They are honest about their feelings, their desires, the instincts and experiences that drive them. They have bared themselves, each to the other, and have found acceptance.

They are mentally intimate. They share their thoughts and ideas. They can discuss anything with one another, not always agreeing, but always respecting and listening, and working together to agree at least an armistice on issues that might otherwise divide them.

They have experiential intimacy, which means they spend time together doing things together. They build memories. They are friends who enjoy being with one another.

And they are spiritually intimate. What that means depends on the couple. If they share a religion, they might worship and pray together. Non-believers might make time as a couple to open themselves to the awe-inspiring, because spirituality is not just for the religious.

(Some people put financial initimacy in as an extra aspect. I think it is just one more issue, about which the couple need to be honest. Like many issues, it has mental and emotional implications, so comes into both of those aspects.)

So that’s my challenge as a writer. How do I write a realistic journey that allows my characters to challenge one another, trip and fall, and pick themselves up and learn?

Respect is key

I write men and women who respect one another, and who suffer consequences when they don’t. A character who seeks to get his intimacy needs met at the expense of another is doomed to fail in my stories, and will either learn from the experience before he gets his happy ending, or will become a villain and get his just desserts.

I love fiction. Real life villains are harder to dispose of, and impossible to reform. (They may reform themselves, but that’s a different kettle of fish entirely than being saved by the love of a good woman, which is a terrible and dangerous myth.)

Consummate love is the ultimate goal

Let’s get real. I’m talking a lifelong journey. By the end of my story, all I can promise is that the hero and heroine will have made sufficient progress on all five types of intimacy for you to feel confident of their destination. Happy Ever After means the reader’s sense that even if life goes to hell in a handcart, they’ll be okay as long as they’re together.

The real achievement is consummate love, that special kind of love described in Robert Sternberg’s Triangle.

So take no substitutes. As a writer, give me characters who build one another up and create a love to last a lifetime. As a reader, measure the books you read against Sternberg’s triangle and ask yourself if this book boyfriend is worthy of the special person that you are.


In which I deride labels and explain why.

Today, I’m inviting you to join a celebration. I’ve talked frequently about the Speakeasy Scribe box set to which I’ve contributed a story. Tomorrow, the authors and others from the Speakeasy Scribes are going to be hanging out on Facebook to chat about their books, their lives, and their ideas. They’re neat people, and we’ll have fun. I hope you can join us.

If you don’t want my philosophical meanderings, and just want to read about the wonderful book and its journey through time with the denizens of the Final Draft Tavern, then go to my second post for Sunday, here.

If you’d like to know why the label of the party bothers me, read on.

The party is called ‘Leftist Literature and Libations’, which is a clever piece of alliteration. But the term leftist gets up my left nostril, and I want to explain why.

I have a deep distaste for language that divides people along a single dimension. When we call a person left or right, liberal or conservative—or even (in some contexts) black or white, male or female—we speak as if we can predict the full complexity of a human being from a single label. We are, all of us, more than the few attitudes and opinions that we share with others in any one of the multiple overlapping groups into which we could be directed according to such labels.

If I accepted any label, it would be centrist, but even that would be misleading. Many of my ideas and views count as radical. Others would be pigeonholed as deeply conservative. So centrist is not a description but a default; an average of all the positions I might take on all the many issues that face us.

I am, however, more or less centrist on a scale a two dimensional scale of my own invention: a four cell scattergraph matrix that I think more nearly represents the differences between us. For lack of a better name, Let’s call it the Fear matrix.


The matrix has two axes.

The vertical axis is Our attitude to resources, and it runs from Scarcity through Sufficiency to Plentitude. An attitude of scarcity is one that says ‘there is not enough, there will never be enough, and if you have it, I won’t.

The horizontal axis is the Spectrum of confidence. It runs from Despair through Cautious hope to Reckless optimism. An attitude of despair expects the worst.

I suggest calling it the fear matrix, because people (left-leaning or right-leaning) in the bottom left quadrant are reacting out of fear (of loss, of death, of the Unknown) when they withdraw into a mental or actual bunker, guns facing towards those not in their inner circle.

The inner circles concept is the third dimension of the scatter graph. Rather than placing yourself on matrix as a dot, place the circle of the people you would trust and protect without question, and make the circle the size of that group.

We naturally define the world into ‘Them’ and ‘Us’. Everyone does it. Some of us fight it, some of us embrace it, some of us are utterly unaware of it. But the ‘Us’ concept differs, and since we define ‘Them’ in relation to ‘Not Us’, the consequences are huge.

For some poor souls, ‘Us’ is a single person. They may have disciples, or family members, or servants, but those people are adjuncts to the ‘Us’ that is, in fact, the single individual at the centre. A failing adjunct can expect to be amputated without compunction.

For others, ‘Us’ is a small group, defined by shared ideals or beliefs or interests, or by family connections, or by some other criteria that makes sense to a person with our family of origin, experiences, and personal circumstances.

I have often thought that a person can be judged more or less civilised according to the width and breadth of their ‘Us’ circle.

What we do with ‘Not Us’ depends entirely on where we sit on the Fear matrix.


The dangerous pen

David Skinner’s ‘Terry Pratchett Tribute Graffiti’, installed at Code Street, near Brick Lane, London

I write, at least in part, as a way to explore ideas and feelings that are bothering me. Once, being bothered, unhappy, sick or grieved would send me into books written by other people. Today, in a world riven by strife and fear, at whom and abroad, I am just as likely to transmute those feelings into a world I create myself.

When I write, I see things more clearly. I can also rewrite reality to give me a better result, which can be easing to the soul. I do like happy endings.

Which is all by way of introducing a book I’ve been reading. I have been a fan of Sir Terry Pratchett’s since Strata, one of his first books. I have just been reading Raising Postal, his second to last Discworld novel.

On one level, it is the story of the coming of the railway to Discworld. On another, it continues Pratchett’s burning indictment of the stupidity of prejudice based on racism, sexism, or any other ism. And it eviscerates the mindset behind terrorism that results from such prejudice.

Here’s a typical footnote:

Scouting for trolls, dwarfs and humans was brought in shortly after the Koom Valley Accord had been signed, on the suggestion of Lord Vetinari, to allow the young of the three dominant species to meet and hopefully get along together. Naturally the young of all species, when thrown together, instead of turning against one another would join forces against the real enemy, that is to say their parents, teachers and miscellaneous authority which was so old-fashioned. And up to a point, and amazingly, it had worked and that was Ankh-Morpork, wasn’t it? Mostly, nobody cared what shape you were, although they might be very interested in how much money you had.

And here are the terrorists, recruiting:

‘Nobody has to be hurt,’ they said, and it may have been too that people would murmur, ‘After all, it’s in his own interests,’ and there were other little giveaways such as ‘It’s time for fresh blood,’ and such things as ‘We must preserve our most hallowed ordinances,’ and if you were susceptible to atmospheres, you could see that dwarfs, perfectly sensible dwarfs, dwarfs who would consider themselves dwarfs of repute and fair dealing, were nevertheless slowly betraying allegiances they had formerly undertaken with great solemnity, because the hive was buzzing and they didn’t want to be the ones that got stung. The watchwords were ‘restoring order’ and ‘going back to the basics of true dwarfishness’.

To kill innocents in the name of politics is very warped. To kill innocents in the name of God is, in my view, both warped and risky, as Pratchett points out in this brief passage:

… and in the gloom the locomotive spat live steam, instantly filling the air with a pink fog . . . The dwarf waited, unable to move, and a sombre voice said, PLEASE DO NOT PANIC. YOU ARE MERELY DEAD. The vandal stared at the skeletal figure, managed to get himself in order and said to Death, ‘Oh . . . I don’t regret it, you know. I was doing the work of Tak, who will now welcome me into paradise with open arms!’ For a person who didn’t have a larynx Death made a good try at clearing his throat. WELL, YOU CAN HOPE, BUT CONSIDERING WHAT YOU INTENDED, IF I WERE YOU I WOULD START HOPING HARDER RIGHT NOW AND, PERHAPS, VERY QUICKLY INDEED. Death continued, in tones as dry as granite, TAK MIGHT INDEED BE GENTLE. STRIVE AS YOU HAVE NEVER STRIVEN. YES, TAK MIGHT BE GENTLE, OR . . . The vandal listened to the sound of silence, the sound like a bell with, alas, no clapper, but finally the dreadful silence ended in . . . NOT. [Tak being the deity of the dwarves]

Pratchett’s great genius was in making us laugh while making us think. Rest in peace, Sir Terry.


Ruminations on world-building, after an orgy of reading

As I may have mentioned, I’ve been a bit slowed recently by a shoulder injury and a repeating winter cold. The shoulder is finally responding to treatment, but being limited in the number of hours I can type has been a real nuisance. The demands of the day job have to take priority so the bills get paid, with the novellas for anthologies coming next. So I’m way behind on The Realm of Silence, and will need to really buckle down if release is not to be postponed until next year.

I’ve been reading instead of writing

On the other hand, being laid up has allowed me to voraciously reread entire series of novels by the authors who sucked me into the historical romance genre. Georgette Heyer, of course. Elizabeth Hoyt. Eloisa James. Grace Burrowes. Mary Jo Putney. Carla Kelly. Stephanie Laurens. Mary Balogh. Anne Gracie. Anna Campbell. (Others, too. That’s just off the top of my head.)

I’ve been rereading an entire series at a gulp, then another by quite a different author, just as I did five years ago when my eldest daughter loaned me the book Simply Perfect and I fell in love with the genre. (Though some of the series I’ve read in the past three months weren’t written at that time.)

This time, though, was different. This time, I was reading from the perspective of my own years of world and character building in historical romance writing.

And I know what I love!

All the authors I love provide the same things, to a greater or lesser extent. Engaging plots where I care about what happens. Well-rounded characters who seem like real people for the times, and who have something about them that makes me wish them success. Realistic and detailed background features that are true (as far as I can tell) to the history of the time and place.

Reading them the way I have, a whole series in sequence, is leading me to reexamine my own writing to see how well I’m performing in those areas.

I like my plots to surprise me

Plots? I can get a bit carried away, I think. I love a detailed and complex plot with lots of Byzantine twists and turns, with copious clues that are easy to miss and only obvious as the story draws to a close and all the bits are tied together with a bow. Expect me to keep doing this. Even in my short stories, where plots are simple, I try not to do the obvious.

I reckon good people come in lots of flavours

Characters? What I try to do is make each hero and each heroine into different people. It works the other way. Stephanie Laurens writes a brilliant Norman aristocrat: tall, stern, protective, outwardly impervious but inwardly vulnerable to the one woman on whom he sets his autocratic heart. We meet him in story after story, and have all the fun of watching her bold, unconventional, challenging heroine bring him to his knees.

Mary Jo Putney, on the other hand, peoples her books with individuals of many different stamps. Decent men and women, but formed by different influences (both nature and nurture). In the Fallen Angel series, she has one of these heroes describe himself and his friends.

“What are your friends like?” He smiled a little. “Imagine a great long wall blocking the path as far as one can see in both directions. If Nicholas came to it, he would shrug and decide he didn’t really need to go that way. Rafe would locate whoever was in charge of the wall and talk his way past it, and Lucien would find some stealthy way to go under or around without being seen.” “What about you?” His smile turned rueful. “Like a mad spring ram, I would bash my head into the wall until it fell down.”

Exactly. Four very different men, and she gave each of them a heroine alike in loyalty and love, and unlike in everything else.

So for me, that means more of the same. Each hero, each heroine, each villain, as unique as I can make them. I also want to watch that my secondary characters don’t fall into the Dickens mould. Not that there’s anything wrong with ‘enter, one cheerful landlady’ or ‘manservant for comic relief’, but I’ve got into the habit of knowing a little bit about everyone who crowds into my books, and even if surface characteristics are all I have time for on the page, something of their personality and history needs to sit beneath it.

And I need to like them in order to fully enjoy the book

And even if my readers don’t always like them and their behaviour, I need to. Many people find Aldridge unsympathetic, particularly in A Baron for Becky. And so they should. He behaved badly there and again, mostly, in Revealed in Mist (though not nearly as badly as Richport will in coming novels). Still, I know what motivates them and I hope you will forgive them by the time they reach their happily ever after.

I also have a couple of thoroughly unlikeable females to redeem. So watch this space.

Research is my catnip

Then there’s background: that weird amalgam of language usage and facts judiciously chosen to create a realistic environment for a story that could have happened only there, only then. I have read and enjoyed stories set against cardboard cutouts of historical backgrounds, when I’ve been in the mood. But they don’t sustain me. I’ve read stories with modern-thinking people in historical novels, and they irritate me exceedingly, unless they are time travel books and the people really are modern, or unless the writer gives a reason why this character is so out of step with their entire cultural milieu.

So research continues to be essential, and I agonise over detail. That doesn’t mean it is always correct—I make mistakes, usually something that seems so obviously true that I don’t check it. I’m always grateful for corrections. Indeed, reading to know what not to write is almost more important than reading for details that appear in the story. Not all research appears in the book, which is why I’ve got into the habit of posting research posts, so I can fool myself I did all that extraneous reading for a purpose.

Now your turn

So that’s what I’m trying to do. How well I emulate the writers I admire, and how much my own unique voice provides you with a different product, is for you to decide.


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?


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.


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.


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.