Just a few years ago in this space a much missed friend and extraordinary writer made her farewell to erotica. Remittance Girl wrote of vulnerable, sometimes wounded characters, mostly in Asian settings so startlingly sensual as to evoke in one’s mind all the aromas, tastes and even the feel of the air that set the place and the time. I used to tell RG that while she was a hell of a writer, she was an amazing cinematographer.
Her stores weren’t so much about sex as they were about how the sexual drive, a human’s sexual needs drove their lives and their choices, even if they themselves weren’t aware of it. Her stories did not have happy endings, and loose ends were never tied up. They were far removed from what one would consider a stroke piece or romance.
And about the time Fifty Shades of Gray was moving through the genre like a tsunami of crassness, she refused to give an inch and fall in line with many who were saying maybe this wasn’t such a bad thing for the genre and its writers, since a rising tide lifts everyone’s boat after all.
So she penned a final blog post here in which she said her kind of story had become irrelevant as the genre became inundated with romance, with all its expectations and requirements and never-stray-from-the-path structures. So she said goodbye to all that.
Like RG, I’m feeling a bit irrelevant these days, too, for reasons similar to those cited by RG, but also by a general sense of feeling passed by.
I’ve never written the sort of story one chose as a masturbatory aid. While sex was always important it was not the whole story. At the time I wrote them, though, they were well received by folks I respected who found them erotic nonetheless. The only time I was nominated for a genre honor (a Silver Clitoride – seriously, you can’t make this stuff up) it was for a story that didn’t have a single sex scene. Some three years since RG took her leave, I’m beginning to see such stories have lost what allure they had and are even dismissed as not erotica at all.
I used to think erotica was a big tent, but there seem to be so many more gatekeepers these days who insist if it isn’t aimed straight at the genitalia it doesn’t belong.
Well, that’s one thing. Another is that I’m afraid I’ve made myself irrelevant in another way, by remaining in place. I’ve never embraced social media. I have no Facebook page. I don’t tweet. Instagram? I’m not even sure what that is. The greatest thing since sliced bread for me was email; that should tell you something. I don’t own a smartphone, so have never downloaded an app. And though I have a simple cell phone I rely mainly on my land line.
I am so far behind the times, I don’t think I could accurately write a contemporary story. There is another language at work, a truncated language full of abbreviations and acronyms and I have no idea what they stand for.
This feeling really hit home for me recently while I was riding on a commuter train. I love mass transportation. I used to get a lot of my inspiration watching people on trains and buses, reading their faces, putting stories to their expressions.
Now people don’t have expressions. They stare trancelike at their gadgets, faces frozen. Being on that train was like being in a coma ward.
Still, I’m not lamenting the brave new world. It’s nobody’s fault but my own that I haven’t kept up with technology and all its benefits that even my four- and seven-year-old grandsons master as second nature. It’s just, at this stage, it’s just too tiring to catch up. Or maybe I’m just lazy.
But if I can’t accurately depict the world I live in, I wonder if I should even try.
First paragraphs demand a lot. Personality and clear perspective management. Unique visuals. A sense of setting and mood. A strong hook. Little wonder so many people either:
Back in 2016, I wrote a short story called “The Way, the Truth and the Lifer”, which opens in a care home from which our intrepid hero, encumbered by early-onset Alzheimer’s, is trying to escape for the day. I posted it on our Storytime emailing list for feedback and I’m so glad I did, because my opening three paragraphs caused untold levels of bafflement. I thought I’d seeded multiple clues that Carlsbad House was a care home, but it was only my fellow Brit readers and writers who could visualise the opening scene without trouble. The feedback on the opening to my story gave me a golden opportunity to recast the order in which I presented the information about my hero’s environment, and to choose images which worked better for a transatlantic audience.
I think, up to a point, we all describe what we’re subconsciously familiar with when we’re deep in the flow of the story, or the perspective character’s mindset. As a professional editor, I have several US clients who base their stories in England, and find myself having to amend scenes where the perspective character performs all road manoeuvres as if in charge of a left-hand drive (but without all the conspicuous stress that this entails). I’ve made the same mistake, writing struggles with roundabouts (and other blatant Britishisms) into States-based stories. It’s extremely hard to avoid.
I must confess that until that valuable feedback on my “Lifer” story, setting had always been fairly low on my list of things to worry about when writing. Dialogue, POV management, choreography and emotional journeys seemed to fill my intellectual working space. I’d have to go back and fill in the details of where they were, and how that affected the atmosphere. Because I can’t hear, I often need help writing in the sound effects. I forget those, too.
These days, before sharing a story for critique, I add two more things to my self-editing list:
With a little help from0 my peer editors, a collection of fine books, and a little personal experience, I thought I’d provide a wee list of techniques for setting up your environment while keeping the action moving. Towards the end (for a little light relief), I’ve provided a few examples of what to avoid.
If you’re not American, use your mother tongue conspicuously.
The little ‘s’ that I stuck on the end of ‘Towards’ in that last sentence would probably have made some of you flinch. This is how Brits say it, in the same way we say ‘sideways’. It’s not incorrect—just a case of using UK English.
If US English is not your mother tongue, then word choice can be a weapon in your setting arsenal, along with your Anglican spellings (organise, favour, dialogue, manoeuvre, and travelling). This provides thousands of opportunities to establish the use of UK English (and indeed dialect, where appropriate) into the perspective character’s or narrator’s opening lines. Establishing nationality can help to set location expectations. Here is a really handy link to summarise key US vs UK differences:
You won’t have this option with all publishers, of course, many of whom insist on US English being used, regardless of the characters’ nationalities. And this doesn’t help our Antipodean pals, whose spelling and punctuation rules have more in common with UK English than US English.
So, other means of establishing place (right down to country and continent), wherever you’re from, are:
Often a nifty way of declaring a character’s location and his origins in one fell swoop:
They called Grab a ‘good-sized’ village, but you could’ve fitted four Grabs into the ‘one-horse town’ he called home.
Harking back to the past when describing an unmoving/unchanging environment can be a succinct way of giving away location:
The ruin loomed in all its Northumbrian glory, the stark landscape giving the impression that the surrounding lands hadn’t been tended any more vigilantly back in the dark ages than they were now.
Hyperbole, exaggeration and other satire
Deliberately creating the most extreme version of the environment, and allowing the reader to recognise sarcasm (and subconsciously turn things down a notch), can be an effective way of getting your setting across succinctly. This is done a great deal in fantasy comedy, but if you remove the surreal element of the humour, you can apply the strategy across genres:
Cosy corners and gorgeous beams aside, Regan doubted that any part of the castle had ever been welcoming. He could imagine an unenthused Scottish Monarch trailing from room to room after a latter-day estate agent, reassuring him that the hills and ramparts kept the smellier of the Picts away, and that the tiny, north-facing dungeons kept prisoners nicely cold over winter.
Use the gift of environmental interaction
Make the topographical detail relevant to what the character’s doing in the action of the scene:
The cold almost cut through the car. Regan’s left thigh and calf were beginning to punish him for making his getaway in Missy’s stick-shift instead of heading for a garage to hire an automatic with cruise control. He tried not to think about the many miles of I94 between him and the next bathroom stop, the endless fields that would provide no windbreak when he finally had to pull over and rest, or the expression on David’s face when Dave caught him balls-deep in Missy. It was official: Bismarck could now be added to the list of places he couldn’t go without being shot at.
From here, the reader can add a little more history, linking it with the weather, the relentlessness of the journey, and the destination. But there’s a hell of a lot of information already in the paragraph above.
Bind the environmental details into the character’s state of mind
You can get an awful lot of information across when your perspective character is in a temper. This is used to great effect in Peter Mayle’s ‘A Year in Provence’, and pretty much most of Bill Bryson’s travel diaries from ‘Down Under’ onwards. The following snippet has been bastardised (with kind permission) from a friend’s fairly long messenger rant about the joys of finding his way to London from ‘London Luton airport’:
I didn’t want to spend my first night bitching, but a little more travel information would’ve been good. Like, ‘London Luton’ is nowhere near f**king London. The airport’s barely in Luton. It’s like saying ‘San Diego, Hollywood’. Not accurate! So I dive on this train which goes to London via Tanzania, because a direct service at short notice apparently requires a second mortgage to be arranged, and then I get the Spanish Inquisition from the guards at the ticket gate about undershooting my stop. How is it a crime to not stay on the train as long as I’m entitled to remain on the f**king train?
Using character mood to colour the experience of the surroundings is the inverse of the Thomas Hardy Principle/Malaise, where the landscape is relentlessly used as a mirror for character mood. Given that Thomas Hardy wasn’t famed for his light-hearted scenarios or uplifted characters, just a little of that technique went a very long way.
And on that note, some setting-relating phenomena to avoid
Countryfile Syndrome: wherein the author over-relies on lengthy strolls through the landscape while their hero mulls upon life’s little problems. There is a limit to which the perspective character’s life choices can be influenced by the pattern of bleak, chilly sheep gathering in the far field, whether or not that pattern is analogous to the cliquey behaviour of the perspective character’s family and friends.
Crap conversationalist syndrome: related to the issue above, except that the writer has forgotten that her perspective character was having a chat with a fellow character at the point where they lapsed into a moody silence in contemplation of the scenery whipping past the car window.
More IKEA, dear: scenes which take place in a relative vacuum, to the point that the reader has no idea if there’s even furniture in the room. This can make sexual choreography rather difficult to visualise.
The key point with setting is to keep the details as relevant to what’s going on within the action of the scene as possible. You can layer the details in those quiet, reactive moments where options are being reviewed and decisions made. So long as you don’t take your reader for too many detailed, brooding walks in the process.
by Ashley Lister
Rene Descartes said, “I think; therefore I am.” And, whilst he wasn’t talking about the construction of characters in fiction, it’s fair to say that describing a character through their thoughts is one of the most effective ways of letting your reader know all about a story’s protagonist.
For the past few months I’ve been looking at the different ways we can represent characters in fiction. We’ve looked at speech, action and physical description. This month we’re looking at thought. I’m going to start by sharing the opening page to a short story I’ve written called, ‘Here Comes Orgasm Girl.’
Betty Swolenski was startled by the faraway clatter of breaking glass. Immediately she knew a robbery was taking place. She stiffened in her chair and glanced toward the closed office door. A robbery? Here at Dildo & Son? Who in their right mind would rob a factory that met orders for sex toys and sundry adult novelties?
She supposed the answers to those questions were self-evident.
Here I’m allowing the main character to give narrative information, but I’m trying to constantly do it so the reader learns more about who she is and how she is motivated. Betty is startled by the noise. She stiffens in her chair. These are, in fairness, physical reactions. However, with the next sentence, we move directly into her thoughts. A robbery? Here…? Who in their right mind would…?
These three questions give the suggestion that Betty is panicked by her situation, which tells your reader that Betty is in a state of panic. This is not to suggest she is someone who is always in a state of panic. But it tells your reader that she is panicking in this situation – and with short fiction we only care about the character in that particular situation. The opening to, ‘Here Comes Orgasm Girl’ continues with:
Times were hard. On an industrial estate where most of the factories were boarded and abandoned, and the remaining warehouses were decorated with battered signs notifying creditors of liquidations and bankruptcy orders, the success of Dildo & Son was proving to be something of a local anomaly.
An enviable anomaly.
Again, this is from Betty’s perspective. This is her interpretation of the local economy. This is her paranoia colouring the interpretation of local business owners being envious. We’re already getting a sharp picture of Betty, and none of this has come from blatant exposition. All we’re reading are Betty’s thoughts. This passage concludes as follows:
The Dildo & Son workforce were only a small number. But they each took annual holidays and most of them met their personal bills and none of them, to the best of Betty’s knowledge, had to run a second job to cover life’s additional expenses. Big Eric, the owner, was currently driving a fairly new Mercedes. And although Betty figured this added to the truth of what she believed about Mercedes owners, she knew for a fact that he’d managed to acquire the car without having to employ some shyster accountant to fiddle figures or cook books.
As readers, we’re privy to Betty’s thoughts and get a shrewd understanding of who she is. There has been no physical description of her so far, but we already have some small sympathy for her and her plight (because we’ve all been in situations where we were a little bit scared). We’re aware of enough background for the story to begin, and this has been delivered through a nervous character’s iteration of facts, rather than narrative exposition. We’ve been given no dialogue up to this point but still, I think, we already feel as though we know Betty.
I’m not trying to suggest this is an exemplar for how quality fiction should be written. I’m not that arrogant. But I do think the opening to this story shows how easy it is develop a character by just using their thoughts.
As always, if you have examples of your own characters being portrayed through their thoughts, I’d love to see them in the comments box below.
Elizabeth Black writes in a wide variety of genres including erotica, erotic romance, horror, and dark fiction. She lives on the Massachusetts coast with her husband, son, and her two cats.
Web site: http://elizabethablack.blogspot.com
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/author/elizabethblack
What do you write when you have nothing to say? Sometimes it helps to get out of your head. Step. Away. From. The. Computer. Go outdoors. Visit friends. Recharge your internal batteries so your writing will improve.
I don’t get writer’s block. One of my favorite writers of all time is mojo storyteller Joe Lansdale. He believes that writer’s block is largely a myth. I know plenty of people disagree with that, and that’s fine. I have my own issues with his view but I largely agree with him.
Lansdale says a major rule of writing is to stop making excuses. If you wait for your muse to inspire you you’ll wait forever. Establish a routine. Write a set amount of words each time you sit down – even if they are crap. You can edit later. Just get your thoughts out. You may surprise yourself.
I’ve recently tried my hand at crime writing for the first time. This is a brand new experience for me since I’m not familiar with the genre except for my love for cozy mysteries, whodunnits, and crime dramas. I’m not familiar with the markets, but I will be soon enough. I love Agatha Christie, Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, Jonathan Kellerman, and many more writers in those genres. I figured it was about time I wrote something criminal. Not criminally bad, just criminal. 🙂
At first, I didn’t know what to write. I had some ideas, though. I found one of my Sisters In Crime books and read some of the short stories to engage myself. I highly recommend reading good fiction in your chosen genre if you feel stuck. Sometimes seeing things from another writer’s perspective can help you find your own way.
Lansale recommends reading when you feel a need to take time off. He wrote when you read, “you put fuel in the tank and you begin to better understand how stories are constructed.” I often read erotic short stories to inspire my own erotic writing. I’ve read erotic versions of fairy tales to prepare myself for my own upcoming collection of erotic fairy tales. It’s fun to read the usual stories from other character’s points of view. Reading a book that makes me go “Hmmm” always elicits a fun response from me.
Another thing I do when I write is to plan first. I’m primarily a pantser but when it comes to writing mysteries I need to plot. Mysteries are puzzles and I can’t just wing one. I need to know everyone’s story and who the guilty person it right out the gate before I begin writing. So outlining helps me. If you feel you are stuck, try writing a vague outline depicting where you want your story to go. You can always change things as you write. Don’t feel you need to stick strictly to your outline. Half the fun of writing is not knowing where things are going until you get to them. Some of my best work came from ideas out of left field – stuff I wasn’t expecting.
I love the feeling of accomplishment I get when I finish the first draft of a story or novel. I celebrate by sharing a bottle of Mumm champagne with my husband. We drink champagne all the time, but I get out the more expensive bubbly for these occasions. Mumm is special and therefore I drink it following writing milestones. Do you celebrate your accomplishments, no matter how small? Remember Stephen King’s novel Misery? Paul Sheldon drank one glass of champagne and enjoyed a cigarette after finishing each novel. I like that idea – celebrate your wins. Give yourself a pat on the back. You deserve it. Lots of people say they will write a novel or a short story. Lots of people never get any farther than that. Don’t give in to writer’s block. Find a way to turn the tables on it and own your writing and especially your accomplishments.
The cuckold, Hotwife, and Bull relationship is an interesting variant of swinging and sometimes is not even thought of as swinging. The wife is known as a Hotwife (upper case), who likes to have NSA (no strings attached) sex with men, who are typically well hung and known as Bulls (upper case). The husband is known as the cuckold (lower case to show subservience) and is often not well endowed or unable to satisfy his wife.
The 1950’s definition of a cuckold is a guy, who was often restrained and forced to watch his Hotwife have sex with other men. The husband is degraded and humiliated as his Hotwife takes on big cocked guys. The bigger their dicks are, the more it reinforces how inferior he is and is unable to satisfy his wife like her Bulls can.
The 50’s type of cuckold – Hotwife relationship has changed over the years to a somewhat different form. I can only speak to what I see as a swinger and the couples we know or have met who enjoy this type of play.
In my experience, you can’t easily pick out a cuckold – Hotwife couple until you get to know them. Often the Hotwife is in her late thirties or forties and generally has an extremely sexy appearance, but as many women in swinging are exhibitionists, this is not always a tell.
Off the top of my head, I can name about half-dozen cuckold – Hotwife couples that I know for sure. There are also variations of cuckold behavior, which is probably the biggest variant.
The common type is a husband who enjoys watching his wife have sex with her Bull(s). Often he will stand or sit by the bed and watch his wife taking care of her lovers, while often jerking off.
Our best friends, Pam and Jack, are a hardcore cuckold – Hotwife couple. Pam is a medium height blonde with shoulder-length curls, about a D-cup, shapely body, and is in her late forties. Her husband Jack is about five years older, nice looking guy, tall, and in good shape.
At a party, Pam is usually the first one naked and is a textbook definition of a nymphomaniac. Her husband generally likes to hide or stand somewhere where he can spy on his wife. They are honest and above board on how they enjoy having his wife take care of her boy toys. At our house, we have a large closet in the master bedroom, and he likes to hide in the closet and watch his wife with her Bull(s).
He loves to watch and will often do things like suggesting that her Bull take her to bed if the action doesn’t start quickly enough. He loves to video us with his wife so that he can watch and jerk off later.
He has never touched my wife or made any attempt to do so. To my knowledge, my wife has never had sex with any cuckold that we know. For them, they enjoy watching their wife with another man and are not really interested in sex with other women.
We met a very attractive thirties couple at a swinger’s convention out of state, well actually our wives met for girl-on-girl fun. They are both extremely good looking, the wife is a fitness instructor, and the hubby was well built. We invited them to one of our New Year’s Eve Pajama Parties, and they drove in from out of state a couple of days early.
The first night, we were in bed together with the girls in the middle and making out while facing each other. I was banging his wife from the back while spooning her. He was behind my wife and only played with her boobs. To my knowledge, he has never touched her beyond that.
The several other couples we know are all variants of that typical scenario. In all the cases, the Hotwife is thirties to forties, with a decent to great figure, and very sexy in appearance and attitude.
This is all honest and above board, with both the cuckold and Hotwife being open in their relationship with others. For those in the Lifestyle, attitudes about sex are open and casual, which is difficult for “straights” to probably understand.
The husbands, who are cuckolds, are not stigmatized in any way or treated differently. Just as their Hotwives would be called sluts in any other context, they are no different, and no one thinks differently if they enjoy sex with other men or gangbangs while hubby watches.
For those who are interested, it is extremely popular and fairly common to find these couples in the Lifestyle.
For more on this, visit my blog at LarryArcher.blog. See you next month!
About a week ago, I had an “aha!” moment. I’d been feeling terribly stressed due to increased demands at my job and my author commitments, plus some impending travel that will make it all the more difficult to fulfill my obligations. I was obsessing about everything, when it hit me: even though I have way too much to do, I enjoy almost all of the tasks on my long list —writing, teaching, research, making covers, reading, writing reviews, creating blog posts, entertaining friends, sending birthday cards, cooking, even exercising. When I asked myself what I’d give up, if I had to make a choice, I really didn’t have a good answer.
That realization flipped my thinking and drained some of the stress. First, I felt a surge of gratitude that my life is so full of meaningful activity and so rich in joy. Second, I understood that joy is a reliable signal as to whether you’re on the right path.
If it’s not fun, you’re doing it wrong.
Am I talking about sex? Yes. Writing? Yes. Keeping fit? That too.
The Calvinistic/Puritan tradition views life as bitter and hard, an exercise in self-denial, a continuous series of trials one must endure in order to reach the promise of Paradise in the hereafter. I just don’t buy that. It doesn’t make sense, and it doesn’t match my personal experience.
For me, life is something to celebrate, a continuous unfolding, a twisting and often surprising path. And when I’m wondering which branch to follow, I’ve learned to turn within first, to ask myself how the path feels. Does it feel right? Does it generate joy?
I remember when I got my first job in my second career. (I’ve had several since.) I had no prior professional experience in this field, just a couple of university courses. I got hired on the strength of my academic credentials. When I started working, though, something clicked. I really “got” the concepts. I found I had an aptitude that I would not have expected. The job tapped into my creativity and developed my interpersonal skills. It was definitely the right path at that time.
When I met my husband (at a technical conference), I tried to give him the brush-off. We lived on different coasts and I didn’t want a long-distance relationship. Besides, I was already juggling four lovers. When he persisted, however, I discovered that being with him felt inexplicably comfortable. We spent the first three weeks of our life together driving across the US, a trip that could strain even a well-established couple. We had a fantastic time—and despite the newness of our relationship, the whole process turned out to be incredibly easy and natural.
Thirty nine years later, I understand: it was so much fun because we were obviously doing it right.
Note that joy is not exactly the same as happiness. It’s not about pleasure or entertainment. Joy is something deeper, a spiritual quality, a sense of satisfaction, order and symmetry. Sometimes it’s a quiet, soothing warmth humming under your solar plexus. Sometimes it’s laughter bubbling up out of nowhere, an urge to sing or to dance. Joy can be wordless, or it can spill out in poetry or paint.
I believe we are meant to feel joy and that when we do, we can trust we’re being our best and truest selves.
The fact that something kindles your joy doesn’t mean it will be easy. Climbing a mountain, running a marathon, getting a degree, raising a child, or writing a book all take a huge amount of effort, but joy is the ultimate reward. And of course every life has its pain and its tragedies. But joy makes you more resilient.
Writing can be tough, frustrating work. We all complain when the words don’t flow or the characters don’t obey. We fight with incompetent editors, flinch at poor reviews, feel discouraged when our royalties don’t even begin to reach the level of minimum wage. In the face of all these negatives, why do we—why do I—keep writing? Out of love. Because of the joy.
Almost nothing compares to the sense of delight when I am in the groove, the words are flowing and the story is unfolding just as I’d imagined. It’s worth every bit of aggravation and every ounce of effort.
At least that’s how I feel. Your mileage may differ. But if you are truly suffering for your art, why bother? If what you’re doing doesn’t fundamentally satisfy you, give you that deep level feeling of rightness, maybe you are doing the wrong thing.
Not that I’m counseling my fellow authors to give up. Just stop and ask yourself: is it fun? And if not, what can you change so that it will be?
There are two main flavors of historical fiction writer: those who are thrilled to research every last detail of life in the past and those who are more easy-going and romantic about evoking the spirit of the time. I tend more toward the latter, but when writing about the erotic life, a researcher-type faces some serious obstacles to getting those specifics down right.
There simply isn’t that much information about what really happened behind closed doors before the Sexual Revolution made these things acceptable to discuss publicly.
However, there is one area of sexual expression that is fairly well researched: prostitution. Accounts of prostitutes provide one of the few windows we have into sexual practices in centuries past—give or take a few daring amateur lovers who shared explicit love letters or confessed to carefully preserved diaries.
Prostitutes are “public women” after all, so the men of earlier days may have felt the institution was suited to a relatively open discussion both as a “social evil” and in the form of guidebooks to the red-light districts that thrived in cities large and small until the early twentieth century in America.
This month, I introduce a series of columns about prostitution in 1910 and what several fascinating publications reveal about sexuality a hundred years ago. I’ll take you on a gaslit journey of New York, New Orleans and San Francisco, from sumptuous parlor houses to assembly-line “cribs” where working men sated their lust on Saturday night.
This buffet of after-dark indulgence is brought to you by scholars and journalists who guided me on my journey of historical discovery. I’d like to introduce them to you.
First there is Ruth Rosen who gives us The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918, published in 1982. Rosen approaches her subject with the enthusiastic sense of discovery that animated feminist scholars in the early days of second-wave feminism. Until that time, prostitution had rarely been presented at all sympathetically from the viewpoint of women. Rosen introduces us to the voices of both prostitutes themselves and the respectable ladies who tried to “save” them. Alas, the latter’s effort to enforce a single sexual standard where men would be expected to be as chaste as women was a failure.
Next is a volume that has long been in my library: Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red-Light District by Al Rose. This book is lavishly illustrated with photographs of courtesans of the time by Ernest Bellocq. Rose conducted interviews in the 1960s, when many prostitutes and clients who gave Storyville its sparkle were still alive to tell the tale. Rose’s book is a true gift, a glimpse into the complex dreams and disappointments of real people. I want to thank those folks for sharing! One of his informants, “Violet,” provided the outlines for Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby, starring a very young Brooke Shields as the child prostitute. But the interview with the real Violet is actually more interesting.
The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld by Herbert Asbury, who also brought you The Gangs of New York, is a raunchy tell-all about the sin city of the West Coast. Asbury makes San Francisco sound like one big, depraved, drunken debauch—and asserts that even the respectable citizens were secretly proud to live in the wickedest city on the continent (but don’t tell New Orleans). He is a bit cold-blooded in his descriptions of vice and exploitation—reminding you that Rosen’s attention to female subjectivity was much needed–but you learn a lot about human nature.
Finally, Timothy Gilfoyle’s City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920 immerses the reader in our cultural capital city’s pleasure districts. The author describes how Gotham’s thriving commercial sex trade gradually became increasingly invisible, thanks to the campaigns of religious reformers early in the century and urban renewal in our time. Every cigar store used to a have a girl behind a curtain, ready for a quick encounter with a customer who was so inclined. The cigar stores are fewer and the girls in their shifts long gone. Or at least as far as I’m aware.
In casting my gaze over this repast of erotic history, I notice one interesting commonality. Each book begins with a tour of the most luxurious bordellos frequented by rich men then gradually descends to the functional cubicles of the low-end trade, the descriptions of which are oddly compelling in their pathos. It occurred to me that this tour of the different levels of sex for sale offers the American audience a double obscenity. Just as prostitution is a bald revelation of sexual need that polite society prefers not to see, the blatant class differences of the commercial sex trade likewise expose another part of human behavior our democratic society regards as unmentionable.
Yet in one respect, both the fancy bordello and the miserable crib had one thing in common for a man on the town—at the end of the evening your wallet would be empty, no matter how much or how little you had at the start.
I promise, however, that you will feel richer in the end after our many nights on the town in America 1910. Join me in October for an evening in a rich man’s paradise!
Recently, over on the Oh Get A Grip blog, Lisabet Sarai noted a preponderance of famous artists who suffered from some sort of mental illness, and wondered if suffering for your art was essential to creativity.
I was reminded of that as I underwent the new protocol for screening for depression. If you haven’t had your annual checkup, be prepared to be asked a series of questions ranging from the softball – have you been feeling down lately? – to the startlingly hardball: have you tried to kill yourself?
My interrogator was a bit taken aback at my response when she asked me if I’d felt depressed anytime during the past few months. First I said yes. Then I laughed, out loud and heartily.
I quickly assured her I wasn’t off my rocker.
“C’mon,” I said. “You know what I’ve been through. If I wasn’t depressed, I’d be afraid there was something wrong with me.”
This time she laughed; after all, she had my recent medical history in her hand.
As the end of last year approached I was contemplating an easy slide into retirement, which was to include a nice chunk of change in the form of a $50,000 severance. Around Christmas time, the place I worked for declared Chapter 11. Kiss that severance goodbye. Not to worry, though, as I had squirreled away enough for a decent nest egg. But damn, that 50 grand was going to be my European river cruise money.
About five weeks after that great news I was hospitalized for seven days and diagnosed with a scary auto-immune disease. Today I’m taking about 15 pills for breakfast, some of which come with vexing side effects.
Then, just to drop the hammer on the bump left from the last brick that fell out of the sky, I came out of the hospital with a crippling sciatica that I blame on the bed and which I still haven’t shed entirely.
By that time, I was beginning to understand how easily people came to believe in witchcraft and such, because I was convinced someone was going bat-shit crazy with a voodoo doll of me. Talk about a series of unfortunate events.
So, yeah, I was depressed. But I had reasons to be depressed. And I wasn’t at all uncomfortable about being depressed.
In fact, I embraced my depression, got crabby and enthusiastically vented my irritation. And while I cursed my fate with gusto, in no way was I going to trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries. After all, I am the son of an Irish mother who often advised, “Might as well go ahead and feel sorry for yourself, because no one else is going to.”
Yup, just a waste of time.
Meanwhile, I had come to detest th0se awful pharma commercials where they list all the god-awful side effects of whatever overpriced miracle drug they are trying to flog. Don’t talk to me about goddamned side effects.
Nor could I stomach any more of those uplifting and inspiring stories news shows feel obligated to feature these days about folks who have overcome some debilitating disease.
The commentator would always gush at the conclusion, “Oh, that’s so inspiring.” To which I would grumble, “Aw, fuck you.”
See, when I’m hurting and miserable, I don’t need to be faulted for not founding a university.
On the other hand, I recalled the sage words of a lonely but brilliant man, an outstanding grammarian whom I considered a mentor at a Connecticut newspaper I worked at a century or so ago. In a voice that made you wonder if he gargled with gravel, he’d lament, “No matter how bad things are, no matter how fucked up you might be, some asshole will always come along and say, ‘Well, things could be worse.'” Amen.
I know there are people more afflicted than I; so what? Geesh, don’t turn it into a competition. Is there such a thing as suffer-shaming?
Don’t misunderstand me. I would never diminish another human being’s ordeals or sufferings. Particularly, folks who suffer from clinical depression. I have lost friends to that accursed ailment.
Maybe some writers and artists have been able to channel their suffering into their art. I did attempt to get my mind off my woes by plopping myself in front of a keyboard and managed to eke out one story. But practically speaking, when you’re hurting, and you’re a normal human being, you can’t really think of anything else.
Any advice to the contrary brings me back to some bad old days of my childhood when fat nuns who looked like they never wanted for anything in their lives would tell us poor kids, “Offer your suffering up to God.”
As for just being crazy, and not even realizing you’re suffering, I have no experience with that … yet.
So, don’t bother me about suffering artists. And when the storm of slings and arrows blows your way, remember it’s your right as a human being to gripe and get crabby. You’re not obligated to inspire anybody. Piss, moan, and persevere … the art will take care of itself.
…and the other one is playing a piano.
Alanis Morissette gets beaten up a lot over her 1995 hit, Ironic, which lists several ironic things (like a black fly in your Chardonnay, or the good advice that you just didn’t take) which just… well, aren’t. Ironic, that is. I’m going to give Alanis a pass on Ironic, though. (She’ll be pleased to hear that, no doubt). She nailed the one about the guy who was afraid to fly and died in a plane crash, and a few others were pretty close. That’s good enough for me.
Where we come to blows, though, is in another song from the same Jagged Little Pill album called Hand in My Pocket. Let’s check some more of those lyrics:
And what it all comes down to my friends, yeah
Is that everything is just fine, fine, fine
‘Cause I’ve got one hand in my pocket
And the other one is hailing a taxi cab
I don’t think everything is going to be fine, fine, fine.
“Hop in, lady. Where ya goin?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t want a cab.”
“Well why’d ya’ hail me down?”
“I didn’t hail you, it was my hand.”
“Crazy bitch.” The cab’s tires squeal as it peels away from the curb.
Do you see my problem? Alanis’s hand was acting autonomously. Right now all it’s doing is playing pianos and hailing taxis, but before long it’ll be pulling puppy dog tails and tripping grannies, and mark my words, all hell’s gonna break loose.
You might say I’m being pedantic (“Belinda, you’re being pedantic”), but this lyric and the one about playing a piano never sat well with me, and that was long before I learned about Autonomous Body Parts in fiction.
It just sounds wrong. Hands don’t play the piano, people do, and it sounds weird when you attribute those actions to a body part.
What does this have to with erotica?
In erotica and erotic romance, we talk about body parts and their myriad delectable actions a lot. Kissing, licking, stroking, fingering, spanking, fisting—our body parts get busy, my friends, and we’re not always completely in control. We’re wont to see a lot of involuntary or reflexive actions, such as:
Her lower lip trembled.
Her pupils dilated.
His cock bucked and throbbed and exploded inside her.
And these are all fine. We would never say, ‘She trembled her lower lip.’
Indeed, it’s the conscious actions we need to watch out for.
Brittany’s hand reached for his cock.
His fingers clutched at her ample ass.
Her lips kissed his turgid member.
Sorry about that last one. I can’t bring myself to put prose that purple into my stories, so this blog is my only outlet. On their own, you might not notice one of these rogue body parts, but our erotic writings don’t contain single, isolated actions—they contain lots of them, strung together pages on end. Put three or more of these together and people will notice.
Voluntary, involuntary, autonomous…I’m confused. How can I tell when it’s okay to attribute an action to a body part?
Brittany’s back arched, and with a piercing scream, she came.
Should this be, ‘Brittany arched her back’? If she’s in the throes of orgasm, is it involuntary, or is she doing it deliberately to increase the pressure on her clit? God, this is so hard! (said the nun to the vicar)
Blinking is involuntary! Should that be ‘Brittany’s eyes blinked?’ And how about this one?
Todd’s tongue slid into her mouth.
We can be pretty sure that Todd’s tongue wasn’t acting alone, here, but the alternative, (Todd slid his tongue into her mouth), whilst not wrong, is not an improvement. In fact, the original for all three of these cases sounds just fine.
It can depend on the verb. Every verb has a subject—the person or thing performing the action. In the case of Autonomous Body Parts, the subject is a thing—Todd’s tongue, Brittany’s hand—but for the non-autonomous version, the subject is a person—Todd, Brittany.
Here’s a useful trick: try using the verb in both a ‘who’ and a ‘what’ question to discover the subject.
If the sliding was happening on a ski slope, then option 1 would work fine, but we’re talking about tongues, so ‘what slid?’ is the more meaningful question, suggesting it’s okay for the tongue to be the subject when ‘slid’ is the verb.
What happens when we change the verb to ‘licked’?
Todd’s tongue licked between Brittany’s supple folds.
Well, let’s ask it as a question.
In this case, both might seem plausible at first, but look more closely. If you were given an obviously pre-licked ice cream, would you ask who licked it, or what licked it? So, when it comes to licking, the subject of the sentence should ideally be the individual who owns the tongue, not the tongue itself.
Let’s go back to our first example.
Brittany’s back arched, and with a piercing scream, she came.
Both seem to work. This suggests there are edge cases and they’re not uncommon. If you come across an edge case in your writing, use your gut, and perhaps fall back on the voluntary versus involuntary sub-rule above.
Whichever way those edge cases go, most people won’t notice and pedants like me will cut you some slack. The important thing is you’re finding the obvious ones which are more common and far more overt: kissed, licked, blinked, nuzzled, reached, stroked, fingered, touched—if you want your prose to sound in any way erotic, these all demand a human actor.
Or a tentacled alien. I’m not judging, just don’t make it an autonomous body part.
Back in June, I mentioned that characters can be built through four elements: appearance, speech, action and thought. We looked at appearance in June and I touched on dialogue in July and August, which means that it’s time to look at action.
In the ‘show don’t tell’ world in which we live, action is probably the best way to introduce a character. However, action in erotica doesn’t always have to be vigorous passion and Olympic sexual aerobics. In the opening to one of short stories below, the action is relatively static.
“He treats us like slaves,” Sarah hissed.
She had whispered the sentiment into her mobile phone but the words echoed around the haberdashery shop as though they had been bellowed through a megaphone.
Monica glanced at Sarah in surprise.
Old Mrs Higgins closed her eyes and shook her head in dismay.
Green, his eyes unreadable through his dark glasses, regarded Sarah with an expression that was thin-lipped, inscrutable and unsmiling. It was a moment that transformed the mood of the day into something lethargic and heavy with the threat of impending disaster. Each passing minute dragged like slow-motion footage of an inevitable car crash.
Monica’s chest was tight with the sense of anticipation.
An aeon later the church bell chimed six times to indicate it was the end of the working day. In the stillness of Greens’ Haberdashery the sound was like the champagne cork-popping promise of a long-awaited armistice.
Monica took a step back to watch developments. Old Mrs Higgins reached for her coat. Sarah was rushing to the doorway with unseemly haste.
“Wait!” Green snapped the single word as Sarah placed her fingers on the door handle.
Monica is our narrative perspective in this story and the tension builds from her perspective. She glances at Sarah in surprise. Her chest tightens with anticipation. She is giving the readers cues for how to respond to the action in the story. As a narrating character she is going to remain relatively undeveloped in this story but we’re already aware that she’s someone trapped in an uncomfortable situation and, as readers, we’re trying to work out whether it will be best if she simply observes the action or becomes a participant.
Admittedly, I’ve got a couple of pieces of dialogue in this, so the example isn’t all action. However, the majority of character development comes from the action.
Old Mrs Higgins, closing her eyes and shaking her head, is clearly a been-there-done-that individual who has seen it all. She’s not going to be surprised by any development in this narrative – and I think it’s fair to say we all know someone with similar collected composure. We’re not told that Old Mrs Higgins is cool under pressure. But we can see that’s how she’s responding to the situation.
Green, is motionless – the antithesis of action – yet we get a sense of his character. We’ve heard Sarah say, “He treats us like slaves”. If we associate that phrase with this inscrutable, unsmiling individual in the dark glasses, the individual who seems to be causing the tense atmosphere that’s tightened Monica’s chest, we have enough action from this inactive character to understand that he is a powerful and dominant individual.
And then there’s Sarah. Sarah is the one who made the remark that’s caused the tension. Sarah is the one who spoke more loudly than intended. Sarah is the one who breaks from the pack and runs for the door. Sarah is clearly in a state of panic and dread: but there was never any need to mention that to the reader. The use of action has told the reader all they need to know about this character, just like it is action that has defined each of the other characters at the start of this story.
Action in erotica doesn’t have to be overblown descriptions of passionate interludes. As the example above shows, it’s relatively easy to introduce characters through their actions, even when they’re relatively motionless and trying to avoid the impending perils of one character’s wrath.
As always, if you have your own examples of introducing characters through action, I’d love to see them in the comments box below.