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


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.


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.


Sunday retrospective

time-machineToday’s Sunday retrospective reaches back to the second half of October 2014, when I was writing the last third of Farewell to Kindness. I was reporting progress—and hiccups—as I went. I finished the month with a photo of the printed first draft of Farewell to Kindness and the heading #amediting. A couple of days before that, I posted a list called ‘Editing the book’ — everything I needed to do between finishing the first draft and sending the book for beta reading.

Criminal injustice was the post I wrote when I found out about the sea change in the British criminal justice system, and how this affected my plot. In 1807,  the old system was no longer working and the new system had not been invented.

Our modern view is that one law should apply to all. It doesn’t always work. Money buys better lawyers, for a start. But the basic principle is that we have laws that lay down the crime and the range of punishments, and judges who look at the circumstances and apply penalties without fear or favour.

The pre-19th century situation in England was far, far different.

I also posted on why I changed the name of my heroine in Farewell to Kindness in a blog post with the longest titleI have ever written: Ewww, just ewww: or the cautionary tale of the perils of naming characters in a whole lot of books at once and then starting one without reference to the real world.

I waxed philosophical about romance writing as a genre in a couple of posts that largely picked up what other people were saying:

  • Fear of vulnerability reports on research that suggests fear of vulnerability underpins the common dismissal of the romance genre by readers of other types of fiction
  • Romance novels are feminist novels has excerpts from a much longer article that directly confronts the view that all romance novels are trivial, and turns it on its head.

The first review I published on my website was for the wonderful Lady Beauchamp’s Proposal. Four months later, I was thrilled to find author Amy Rose Bennett as another potential Bluestocking Belle, and we’ve been colleagues and allies ever since.

And I also published a review of Darling Beast by Elizabeth Hoyt. In less than a fortnight, I’m hosting a Belles’ Book Club discussing another of the Maiden Lane series, Scandalous Desires. Elizabeth has agreed to pop in for an hour, so don’t miss it. You can join the event here:


An fan-tastic habit

fan3I’m fascinated by the idea of a secret language of fans. I can’t quite see how it would work. Don’t get me wrong; I’m quite prepared to believe that fans were used to flirt with, and that certain gestures meant certain things. I just don’t see how coded signals could be both effective and secret. After all, if everyone knew that a half-opened fan pressed to the lips meant ‘I want your kiss’, no lady would dare press the handle of her fan to her lips in the middle of a crowded ballroom. (And if she and her swain were unobserved, then fan signals were surely unnecessary.)

For what it is worth, though, here are signals that every chaperon worth her salt should have been looking for, according to a pamphlet published in 1827 by fan-maker Jean-Pierre Duvelleroy:

  • Twirling the fan in the left hand means “we are watched.”
  • Carrying the fan in the right hand in front of her face means “follow me.”
  • Covering the left ear with the open fan means “do not betray our secret.”
  • Drawing the fan through the hand means “I hate you.”
  • Drawing the fan across the cheek means “I love you.”
  • Touching the tip of the fan with the finger means “I wish to speak to you.”
  • Letting the fan rest on the right cheek means “yes.”
  • (c) Bruce Castle Museum (Haringey Culture, Libraries and Learning); Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

    (c) Bruce Castle Museum (Haringey Culture, Libraries and Learning); Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

    Letting the fan rest on the left cheek means “no.”

  • Opening and shutting the fan means “you are cruel.”
  • Dropping the fan means “we will be friends.”
  • Fanning slowly means “I am married.”
  • Fanning rapidly means “I am engaged.”
  • Touching the handle of the fan to the lips means “kiss me.”

Whether they used them to signal to others or not, ladies—and gentlemen, too, in the regency—found the surface of fans a useful place to write memory joggers: dance steps, song lyrics, rules for card games.

Fans could be made of all sorts of things. Some were of feathers. Some were of flat sticks of bone, ivory,  wood, tortoiseshell, or mother of pearl, joined at one end, and strung on ribbon or cord so that the other end flared into the fan shape. Others had ribs of such material and a pleated skin of paper, lace, silk, or fine leather. (Here’s a quiz question. What were chicken-skin fans made from?) They were often exquisitely painted. Whether our regency heroes and heroines signaled with them or not, they would not wish to enter a stuffy crowded ballroom without one.

3-regency-fans3Just for fun, here’s an encounter between the Duke of Roxton and his loathsome cousin, The Comte de Salvan, from Lucinda Brant’s wonderful Noble Satyr.

“You will not find what you are looking for,” drawled the Duke of Roxton, quizzing glass fixed on Madame de La Tournelle. “That which you desire is not here.”

Salvan spun about and stared up at the impassive aquiline profile.

“Continue to gawp and I will go elsewhere,” murmured the Duke. “Mademoiselle Claude has been beckoning with her fan this past half hour. Sitting next to that frost-piece is preferable to being scrutinized by you, dearest cousin.”

Salvan snapped open a fan of painted chicken skin and fluttered it like a woman, searching gaze returning to the sea of silk and lace.

“To be abandoned for that hag would be an insult I could not endure, mon cousin. You merely startled me.”

“I repeat, your search is fruitless.”

“Ah! You see me scanning faces. I always do so. It is nothing,” Salvan said lightly. “Did you think me looking for someone in particular? No! Who—Who did you think I was looking for?”

(Answer: not chicken-skin.)


The top ten reasons I read (and write) write historical romance

I read to learn

  1. textile-mill-cotton-1834-granger“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana)
    Through the lens of history, we can more clearly see our own times. The Regency and Georgian eras fascinate me. There was a growing disparity between rich and poor, privatisation of public good properties, wars and rumours of wars, rapid technological changes with unpredictable outcomes. Sound familiar?
    Although I write to entertain, I also write to inform, and in doing so to hold up a mirror to our own times.
  2. “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” (L.P. Hartley)
    The similarities are challenging; the differences are fascinating.
    I continually trip over things in my reading and my research for writing that astound, horrify, or delight me. Did you know that between a quarter and a half of all women in the early 19th century had ‘Mary’ as one of their first names? That an estimated one in five women in London made income from the sex trade? That the man who invented one of the world’s earliest self-propelled wheelchairs did so after demonstrating another invention: the world’s first roller skates?
    I love to read about history, and now I’m not wasting time, I’m doing research.
  3. “I like reading novels because it provides insight into human behaviour.” (Claire Danes)
    We learn about people by meeting them; by watching them. In historical novels, the people we meet face different challenges to our own, have been moulded by a different culture, must react to a different context.
    But they are still people. I want to read about people who are real to me while I’m in the book, and stay with me when I close it.
    I know I’ve captured a character when my readers discuss their motives and their beliefs. It’s enormously thrilling when someone explains to me why one of my characters thought, felt, or did something, and I have an ‘Aha’ moment because the thought is new to me but they’re right.

I read to be entertained

  1. lovecouplegfairy003b“These boys in books are better.” (Carrie Hope Fletcher)
    Knights, Dukes, Earls, handsome rogues and pirates; what’s not to like? Let’s face it; gorgeous men in cravats and knit pantaloons are hot. And hot men who are considerate and respectful are even hotter.
    Fletcher’s song points out that real life men can’t live up to the standard set in Twilight, Deadly Instruments, and the like. And any girl who stays single till she finds someone as good as her book boyfriend is in for a long wait.
  2. “I read for pleasure and that is the moment I learn the most.” (Margaret Atwood)
    Reading taught me that the kind are rewarded, that perseverance will win in the end, that love is worth striving for. That you can start a fire with spectacles and that sharks can’t swim backwards. That lying on a frozen over pond spreads your weight so you are less likely to break through.
    Ideas; concepts; principles; facts. I’ve learned all of those from reading. I read for pleasure. And I write books that I hope others will read for pleasure; books with strong determined heroines, loving heroes, compelling story lines, and convincing challenges.

I read to escape, to take a micro-holiday

  1. discountticket“I have never known any distress that an hour’s reading did not relieve.” (Charles de Montesquieu)
    I lived more than 50 years with an undiagnosed condition that gave me chronic tiredness and constant pain. In that time, I raised four children, two with serious health conditions, and fostered two others. We entered adolescent hell with one of them and didn’t emerge for ten years. Reading allowed me the break I needed.
    When people say that historical romance (or science fiction, or fantasy, or mystery novels) are escapism, I agree. Any book that captures your imagination allows you to escape whatever distress you may be in. The best books strengthen and inform you, sending you back into reality better able to deal with your challenges. But even the most flagrant chewing gum for the mind gives you time to recharge.
  2. “You can travel the world and never leave your chair when you read a book.” (Sherry K. Plummer)
    And not just the world! I want to go somewhen else for my book holiday. Travel, so we are told, broadens the mind. In historical romances, I am able to travel to another time. In the hands of a good writer, I experience the sights, the sounds, the smells, and the stories, and all without the risk of plague, pressganging, or death by tooth infection.
  3. “Reading is a discount ticket to everywhere.” (Elizabeth Hardwick)
    I dream of a life of leisure, with nothing to do but flirt with rakes and dance at balls. I’d undoubtedly hate it in practice. I like being busy and useful. But I can have that in a book, and then walk away, back to my real life.
  4. “There’s no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.” (Frank Herbert)
    I like happy endings. Some other writers like tragic endings, or even no ending at all. In my view, happy endings are better. Every writer has to choose where to start and where to stop the story, so why not choose the bit that feels good?
    The romance novel’s ‘happily ever after’ is not about perfect resolution of all problems; it’s about convincing the reader that the protagonists will support each other through whatever problems arise.

I read to learn to write better

  1. how_to_read_a_pile_of_books“I believe that writing is derivative. I think good writing comes from good reading.” (Charles Kuralt)
    Reading good books gives us the sound of good language. It teaches us how plots work, how to show character rather than telling it, how to make choices that show the theme of the book, how to use words to create atmosphere, how to write dialogue that sizzles.I believe I need to do two things to be a good writer. Read a lot. Write a lot. That’s all.

(Originally written for Nicole Zoltack’s blog)


Writing realistic rakes in romantic fiction

This post was first published on Quenby Olsen Eisenacher’s blog as part of my blog tour for A Baron for Becky.


In modern historical romantic fiction, the hero is often a rake who sees the error of his ways when he falls in love with the heroine, and—after undergoing various trials—becomes a faithful husband and devoted family man.

Most of those rakes, I suggest, are not rakes at all. They’re what we today would call womanisers or players, but they’re not rakes in the sense that the term was used in Georgian and Regency England. Our rake heroes sleep with multiple lovers (either sequentially or concurrently) or keep a series of mistresses, or both. But back then, the term signified a much more disreputable character. It needed to. Otherwise, most of the male half of Polite Society would have been defined as rakes. And a fair percentage of the female half.

We are talking of a time when one in five women in London earned their living from the sex trade, guide books to the charms, locations, and prices of various sex workers were best-selling publications, men vied for the attention of the reigning courtesans of the day and of leading actresses, and both men and women chose their spouses for pedigree and social advantage then sought love elsewhere.

In those days, a rakehell was defined as a person who was lewd, debauched, and womanising. Rakes gambled, partied and drank hard, and they pursued their pleasures with cold calculation. To earn the name of rake or rakehell meant doing something outrageous—seducing innocence, conducting orgies in public, waving a public flag of corrupt behaviour under the noses of the keepers of moral outrage. For example, two of those who defined the term simulated sex with one another while preaching naked to the crowd from an alehouse balcony.

Drunkenness certainly didn’t make a man a rake—the consumption of alcohol recorded in diaries of the time is staggering. Fornication and adultery weren’t enough either, at least when conducted with a modicum of discretion (which meant in private or, if in public, then with other people who were doing the same thing).

Lord Byron earned the name with many sexual escapades, including—so rumour had it—an affair with his sister. His drinking and gambling didn’t help, either. But none of these would have been particularly notable if they had not been carried out in public.

The Italian adventurer Giacomo Casanova mixed in the highest circles, and did not become notorious until he wrote the story of his life.

On the other hand, William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire, lived with his wife and his mistress, who was his wife’s best friend. The three did not share the details of their relationship with the wider world, so there was gossip, but not condemnation. Devonshire is also rumoured to have been one of Lady Jersey’s lovers (the mother of the Lady Jersey of Almack fame).

I planned for my Marquis of Aldridge to be a real rake: a person whose behaviour, despite his social status as the heir to a duke, causes mothers to warn their daughters about him. On the other hand, I didn’t want him to be a totally unsympathetic character. After all, not only is he the only hero on the scene for the first half of the book; he’s also going to be the hero of his own book after he has been through a few more trials and tribulations.

He has had mixed reviews since A Baron for Becky was published. Most reviewers like the rogue, and are asking for his story, while still acknowledging that he is a libertine. One or two dislike him heartily, and one said:

Note to author: your main characters were very interesting but you hinted at some type of redemption for one particular character that I just cannot fathom. I challenge you to make me like him better because I disliked him throughout the story.

Now there’s a challenge I can’t refuse!


Romantic fiction is feminist

Now there’s a large claim for you. I had a five minute spot at the local book fair on Sunday, and I chose that as my topic, and my blog post today repeats the main points I made.

Walking into sunset

Romantic fiction is feminist almost by definition

Romantic fiction is that genre of fiction where one of the major plot lines is the growing romantic attachment between two of the main protagonists, ending in the hope of a happy future together.

And I’m defining feminism as the belief that women should have the right to the same social, economic, educational, and other opportunities as men, and should be as free as men to make choices about them.

When a genre is written largely by women (80% of romantic fiction authors are women), largely for women (90% of readers), and almost always about women, it has to be about the choices of women.

In other other genres, women are plot devices. In all romantic novels (except in the subgenre of gay fiction with two male protagonists) a women is one of the key protagonists, if not the main protagonist.

And even in the books we all love to hate, when the heroine is TDTL (genre initialism meaning ‘too dumb to live’) and the hero is a creep with a particularly fine set of abs, the plot hinges on the choices made by women. However constrained her rights may be, however constrained her opportunities, the novel exists because of the choices of the heroine. And the novel isn’t over until the heroine gets what she wants.

Today’s romantic heroines are often strong women

Twenty-first century writers create stories for twenty-first century women. While not all readers want to read about strong-minded independent women, I like to write them. I think they’re more interesting, and I think the men who can appreciate them are more interesting, too.

My first book, Candle’s Christmas Chair, features a tradesman’s daughter who is put out that she cannot inherit her father’s business, but who has grown her own, making invalid chairs, and has no intention of giving that up for marriage.

“Papa, have you thought about where you and Mama will go when you retire?”

“After Christmas we will decide a place and a date. Do you have a place you would like, daughter?”

“I do not mind, Papa. As long as it has a workshop big enough for me to make my chairs.”

“You should be making babies, not chairs,” Papa grumbled. “Marry your viscount or choose another man, and give me and Mama grand-babies.”

“I would marry a man who would let me make my chairs,” Min said.

“Ah Min. Your Mama was right. She told me that if I encouraged you I would end up breaking your heart. Min. Little Owl. Face facts. Women aren’t meant to make carriages, even your little ones. I’ve let you make your chairs and sell them, and a very good job you have done of it too. I’ve been very proud of you. But a man doesn’t want his wife to go out to work.”

“You let Mama work in the harness shop,” Min protested.

“Remember that, do you? I had no choice, Min. We didn’t have the money, when we started out, to hire a good harness maker. Mama was the best. But as soon as I could, I replaced her so she could stay home. A man doesn’t want his wife to go out to work. Looking after the home, visiting her friends. That’s enough.”

Not for me, Min wanted to say.

In Farewell to Kindness, the heroine is more traditional in her dreams (and that, too, is a choice). But she is also a champion archer, and uses that ability to save those she loves.

“Who are you? What do you want?” The drink thickened his voice. “If I shout, I’ll wake the whole household.”

“The household are all either below stairs or well above. And you will have, at most, one shout before I put this arrow between your eyes. I have demonstrated I can.” It was a woman’s voice, low and determined.

George glanced back at the arrow, and swallowed.

“You won’t shoot me. You’re a woman.”

“I will shoot you with pleasure, if I must,” the woman said. “But shooting you is not my first choice.”

He pulled himself straight, glaring. “You won’t get away with this. Don’t you know who I am?”

“Do you not know who I am? I am the woman you owe a future to. And I mean to collect. You will give me either my future or my revenge.”

The heroine of A Baron for Becky may be the toughest of the lot. Most of her choices were taken from her a few days after her 15th birthday. She has chosen to endure, and the main plot hinge of the book is the choice she makes about the best path for her and her children

“What do you want for your daughter, Mrs Darling?”

“A better life,” Rose said immediately, suddenly fierce. “A chance to be respectable. A life that does not depend on the whims of a man.”

“The first two may be achievable,” the duchess said, dryly. “The third is highly unlikely for any woman of any station. You expect my son to help you to these goals, I take it.”

Rose was suddenly tired of polite circling. “I was saving so that I could leave this life, start again in another place under another name. But my last protector cheated me and stole from me.

“I do what I must, Your Grace. Should I have killed myself when I was disgraced? I had no skills anyone wanted to buy. I could play the piano, a little; sew, but others were faster and better; paint, but indifferently; parse a Latin sentence, but of what use was that in my circumstances? Should I have starved in the gutter where they threw me?

“Well, I was not given that choice. Those who took me from the gutter knew precisely what I had that others would pay for. As soon as I could, I began selling it for myself, and I. Will. Not. Be. Ashamed.”

Romantic fiction is feminist because it is about choice.

Romantic fiction is also romantic by definition

I’ve heard one feminist critique of romantic fiction that flabbergasts me. Romantic fiction, they say, is anti-feminist because it teaches women to believe that happiness lies in a successful love affair.

Um. Excuse me? Read the label on the box, people. This. Is. Romance. A fictional account of a love affair with a happy ending. Criticising it for having a happy ending is like criticising a cornflakes packet for containing cornflakes.

Different genres have different conventions. In murder mysteries, the killer is always caught and brought to justice. Science fiction novels are predicated on technology that does not exist yet. Neither reflect reality, and readers do not believe that they do.

Do we stop reading thrillers because they teach people not to fight against injustice until the lone hero strolls into town, emotionally scarred and weather-beaten, to throw his exceptional skills into the cause and win against all the odds? Do we stop reading literary novels because they almost universally end unhappily, thus teaching people that happiness is not achievable?

That said, I see many plots that include secondary characters who are successfully single, and I’d like to see more. I have a personal ambition to write a book with a strong secondary plot where the heroine’s best friend decides against marriage because something else brings her more satisfaction. (Of course, in the time period I’m writing about, that means she decides against sex, and yes, people, it is possible.)

Reading romantic fiction is an affirmative action

 No other genre attracts the same level of scorn as romantic fiction. Every writer has heard the derogatory names. Mommie-porn. Chick-lit. Bodice-ripper. Or The Sneer. And boy do we know The Sneer! So you write Mills and Boon? Sneer. Oh, like Fifty Shades of Grey? Sneer. Like Barbara Cartland? Sneer. Why three of the most financially successful brands in the history of publishing should attract a sneer is an interesting question.

Those particular brands are used as a dismissal, I suggest, because the speaker believes them to be of poor quality. I’m not going to comment on that, beyond saying that the genre is much much broader than the brands mentioned. Science fiction includes Star Wars rip-off fiction as well as the wonderful The Word for World is Forest. Romantic fiction includes pulp as well as the marvellous The Captive.

A genre is not a description of quality. It is just a convenient way of sorting books so that book sellers and libraries can give readers the type of story they want. Genre and literary novels come in good, bad, and indifferent—as most readers and writers nowadays know, with the exception of a few unregenerate literary snobs.

But somehow, it is still open season on romance. Why? When you look at the insulting labels, all of which call attention to the gender of the writers and readers, it is hard not to draw the conclusion that this unthinking dismissal of romance is an anti-feminist act, and challenging such bigotry is an affirmative action.

So read romantic fiction proudly. By doing so, you are supporting a writer who believes that women should have the same freedom as men to make choices.


Danger threatens on WIP Wednesday

Tntallon castleA story is not complete without a threat of some kind, whether physical, emotional, or financial; whether to our hero, our heroine, or someone they love; whether the danger is current and real, or remembered, or we readers simply fear it is possible.

This is certainly true of each of my Hand-Turned Tales stories. In The Raven’s Lady, my protagonists face smugglers. In Kidnapped to Freedom, the heroine comes from a life of constant threat, and has no idea what the future holds in store for her—or the identity of the man who has carried her off. In All that Glisters, the heroine’s bullying uncle beats her if she does not comply with his wishes, and he wishes her to marry his bullying friend. And in The Prisoners of Wyvern Castle, my hero and heroine face a stark future. In the passage that follows, they realise why her brother and his sister have forced them to marry.

“She is your sister. Surely she does not mean you harm?”

Rupert’s laugh was bitter. “Half-sister. And she has hated me all my life. She would harm me if it were to her advantage, but while I live—and with Lord Wyvern absent—she has the whole earldom at her command.”

The thought that flashed into Madeline’s mind was so gothic, she hesitated to give voice to it, but Rupert’s mind had clearly gone in the same direction. “While I live…” he repeated.

“If we have a child…”

“If he is a son…”

Madeline turned into him, stretching her arm across his chest to hug herself into his side, as if she could shield him from the malice of their relatives. “Then we must avoid making a child.”

He returned the hug, kissing her hair. “It will not answer, Madeline. Perhaps Graviton might hesitate to carry out his threat; his own sister, after all. But the Ice Dragon will not care who fathers my heir, as long as someone does. We cannot trust your brother to protect you.”

She shivered. “Half-brother. And he has hated me all his life.”

As always, post your own excerpt in the comments, and don’t forget to share so that others may enjoy your work in progress.


WIP Wednesdays

I love how several authors offer an opportunity on their blogs for other authors to strut their stuff. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, I figured I’d give it a go, so look for me to post a Work-In-Progress Wednesday every week. I’ll set a theme and show you one of mine, and you give me five to seven sentences in the comments.

This week, since it’s the first, how about first meetings? Don’t forget to share once you’re done!

Here’s mine, from the made-to-order story I’m writing for Mary Anne Landers.

As she turned the corner into Frederick Street, a particularly sharp gust skittered a broken branch across her path, tangling it into her skirts.

She stumbled, and would have landed in the mud if firm hands had not suddenly caught her. As it was, in putting out her hands to break the expected fall, she had dropped her burdens. The shopping basket fell sideways, tumbling fruit, vegetables, and the wrapped parcel of meat into a waiting puddle. The parcel from the haberdashers that she carried on her other arm thankfully stayed intact and landed on a relatively dry spot.

She took all this in at a glance, most of her attention on her rescuer. A craggy face bronzed by the sun, amused brown eyes under thick level brows, a mouth that looked made for laughter. He was bundled against the cold wind in a greatcoat, muffler, and cloth cap.

The image is of Dunedin in the mid 1860s, the setting for my story.

Dunedin Farley's Arcade