Monthly Archives: June 2013

Garden Variety

by | Jun 30, 2013 | General | 3 comments

By K D Grace

Some people write in coffee shops, some people write in
libraries, some people write in their studies. But how much does where we write
matter? I’ve always prided myself in being able to write anywhere, but the
allotment is in full-swing right now. There aren’t really enough hours in the
day to be out there and do what I’d like to do to make our veg plot live up to the Gardener’s
veg plot that exists only in my fantasies. It was only a couple of
days ago – one of those few sunny days in the UK of which a gardener absolutely
HAS to take advantage. With sweat dripping down my back and more than a potted
plant’s worth of good rich soil beneath my fingernails, I sat myself down on
the grass near our allotment garden shed, pulled out my notebook and pen and
began to write. We have a delicious spot of movable shade that works its way
along the back of our plot during the course of the day, so on those few days
when the weather is roasting –ish, we can sit and have a break in the shade.

I’d brought biscuits and cheese and for my lunch and a
bottle of iced tea I’d frozen in the freezer earlier. I seldom mind eating with
the allotment all over my hands. It’s just good, clean earth. As I sat down to
scribble a few paragraphs for The
, my WIP, the resident black bird was already busy hunting worms and
unfortunate invertebrates in the patch I’d just dug. By the time I was on the
second slice of cheese, he was sitting in the tree above the garden shed
singing at the top of his lungs. Just a little reminder that this was his patch – especially now with the
birdie feast I’d uncovered and with the hungry mouths he, no doubt, had to

I listened, I watched and I wrote. I seldom write long-hand
anymore. I’m way more comfortable at the keyboard of a laptop, which allows me
the luxury of editing as I work, and insures me that I never have trouble
reading my own handwriting. But in the allotment, low tech’s the way forward.
It doesn’t matter to me if there are smudges of compost on the pristine page.
It doesn’t even matter to me if a spider decided to make a path across the
centre of the page I’m working on as long as he doesn’t linger where I want to

Paper and ink, or even more to the point, writing down
words, though not quite as old as agriculture, is certainly not too far behind.
I mean if you think about it, the two go hand in hand really. Once feeding
ourselves became a little less of a crap shoot and a little less of a full-time
job and leisure became, at least occasionally a possibility, then it would seem
natural for story-telling to evolve to a way of permanently preserving those
stories. And once that happened, writing couldn’t be too far behind.

Okay, so that’s K D’s version of pre-history, something
you’ll not find on the History Channel, but definitely something I feel a little
bit closer too when I’m sitting comfortably on the grass listening to the birds
and the buzz of the insects, when I’m taking a break from the arduous efforts
of the veg plot to record events straight from my imagination. It feels pretty
primal when the young sweet corn plants and the words unfolding on the page are
linked by the callous and the earth on my hands.

Does the fact that I’m writing in my veg patch change what I
write? Does that particular location make what I write any more powerful, even
any more earthy? I suppose there’s no real way of knowing, no double blind test
I can do. And really, what difference does it make? The words were flowing that
day, and I was sitting in the sunshine listening to the bird song, and the
slightest whisper of a breeze in the trees. Does it make a difference to be
writing in a place where something more concrete than ideas has been planted,
where there’s the promise of more to come than just food for thought, along with
the reminder that life doesn’t always come sanitized and shrink-wrapped; that sometimes
being off-line and well-earthed is just the right place to be. And of course
I’m writing sex. Al fresco. I’d say it’s a win-win for the black bird, for the veg
plants and for the writer. Next sunny warmish day, I’m SO doing this again! 

Elizabeth Black writes in a wide variety of
genres including erotica, erotic romance, and dark fiction. She lives on the
Massachusetts coast with her husband, son, and four cats.

Pseudonyms, pen
names, noms de plume. Regardless of what you wish to call them, writers have
chosen fake names for as long as they’ve been transferring their thoughts to the
written word. I interviewed some of my writer friends to learn why they chose
the pen names they chose. Everyone gave sensible and even fascinating answers.

I’ll start with
myself. Elizabeth Black is not my real name. It is one of my pen names. I chose
Elizabeth Black for my erotic fiction to differentiate it from the political
and feminist non-fiction I had written under my real name. Elizabeth is
my favorite woman’s name. I chose “Black” because the “Bs”
would be at eye level or above in a bookstore. Black is also a classy name and
it’s one of my favorite colors. My horror, fantasy, and speculative fiction pen
name is E. A. Black, and I created it to separate those works from my erotic
works. I liked the idea of using initials and a surname because I thought it
was cool. “E” for Elizabeth, obviously. Black is already my fake
surname. “A” is my fake middle name – Alexia. I first saw that name
on the game “Resident Evil: Code Veronica”. I’m a fan. I later learned
that “alexia” is the name of an acquired reading disability. That
didn’t cause me to waver in my choice at all, but it did make me giggle.

Authors choose pen
names for a wide variety of mundane and interesting reasons. Here are a few
examples of famous pen names:

J. K. Rowling –
Joanne Rowling’s publishers feared that pre-adolescent boys (her target market
for her Harry Potter books) would not want to read stories about a boy wizard
written by a woman. So, they asked her to use her initials. She has no middle
name so she used the initial of her grandmother Kathleen. The interesting thing
about this is that these days, it’s largely assumed that anyone whose pen name
includes initials is a woman.

Nathaniel Hawthorne
was born Nathaniel Hathorne. He was a direct descendent of one of the hanging
judges of the Salem witch trials. Hawthorne may have added the “W” to
his last name as a means of distancing himself from his personal history.

George Orwell – Eric
Arthur Blair chose a pen name so his family wouldn’t be embarrassed by his time
living in poverty. He chose the name George after the patron saint of England.
He chose the name Orwell from the River Orwell, a popular sailing spot he loved
to visit.

Stan Lee – Stanley
Martin Lieber wanted to save his real name for the more serious literary work
he hoped to someday write. He got his start writing comic books, so he chose
the name Stan Lee. He legally changed his name to Stan Lee after making it big
in the kid’s market as a comic book writer.

Lewis Carroll –
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson wanted a simpler, less snooty name and he wanted to
keep his privacy. He changed Charles Ludwidge into Carolus Lusovicus, changed
that to Carroll Lewis, and then switched the words, resulting in Lewis Carroll.

William Makepeace
Thackeray – He wrote under pen names that were just plain silly, since he was a
satirist. His pen names included C. J. Yellowplush, Esq., George Savage
Fitz-Boodle, and Théophile Wagstaff.

Harry Turtledove –
(from Dear
Readers: A Letter From Harry Turtledove
) “When
I sold my first fantasy novel, the publisher renamed me Eric Iverson. 
They said no one would believe Harry Turtledove, which is my real name.  I
decided to live with it, though I gave myself a middle initial, G., which stood
for Goddam.  The pen name had certain uses:  I could use it for my
fiction and my own name for academic nonfiction, which I still published
then.  But when Lester bought The Videssos Cycle, he named me Turtledove
again–people would remember it, he declared.  I objected that I was just
starting to get known as Iverson.  He said he wouldn’t buy the books if I
wanted to stay Scandinavian.  I stopped objecting.  But I may be the
only writer in captivity who’s had both his pen-name and his own name imposed
on him by force!  I hope you will remember my name–that’s Harry
Turtledove–and look for the reprint of The Videssos Cycle (and maybe even some
other things I’ve done).”

friends who write erotic fiction had many sensible reasons for choosing their
pen names. Here are the most common reasons:

writers simply wanted to create a new identity for their writing, and the way
they chose their pen names was rather creative. Julez S. Morbius told me:
“The first two initials are
my real name initials and Morbius because of my love for vampires and Marvel
Comics.” Angelica Dawson’s pen name is derived from Angelica dawsonii, a
yellow flower in the carrot family native to her province. She’s a botanist and
environmental consultant in her day job.

Dawson also gives
another reason for her pen name: she writes Young Adult fiction under her real
name, Kimberly Gould. Many erotic writers like to differentiate their erotic
works from their other works by use of multiple pen names.

like Jacques Gerard chose pen names to protect their privacy, especially when
it comes to disapproval from family and religious people. Gemma Parkes also
wanted to protect herself from familial disapproval and she wanted to protect
her children from negative comments from her family in case any of them read
her books, hence her pen name. Vanessa de Sade feared her family would discover her erotic writing so she chose her pen name to protect her privacy. Obviously, de Sade is based on the Marquis de Sade. She wrote: “So I thought, well I don’t want to be Fluffy von Kitten, or Sweetcakes McGhee or anything like that. And then I thought about the Marquis de Sade, and all his weird shit, and I thought, yeah, that’s more like me.” She’s not sure where Vanessa came from. Might be an old girlfriend from years ago.

Huntington works with children in a very small town. She figured she’d save the
locals the trouble of running her out of town with pitchforks. Her concern over
small-minded townspeople lead her to create her pen name. Alysha Ellis voiced a
similar concern. She is also a teacher. Any connection between her real name
and erotica or even erotic romance would result in instant dismissal. Even if
it didn’t, the knowledge would be very disruptive to her ability to teach very
curious 15 – 18 year olds who would probably make a big deal of it.

having more than one pen name makes decisions difficult, even if you started
out creating them for good reasons. Sacchi Green said: I started out writing
science fiction and fantasy short stories under my real name, Connie Wilkins.
Eventually I published work in a couple of anthologies for kids, and enjoyed it
so much (plus it paid pretty well) that I thought that was the direction I’d
mostly go. When I wrote a lesbian erotica story and had it accepted at Best
Lesbian Erotica, I thought I should use a pen name in case I wrote so much for
kids that they might look me up online. Things didn’t work out that way,
though, and my pen name got a whole lot more mileage than my real one. I’ve
still used the real one sometimes for speculative fiction, and in cases where I
have more than one story in an anthology, but it gets to be hard to decide when
it comes to erotic speculative fiction. Right now I’m in the process of having
a mini-ebook published by Circlet Press, consisting of three stories I wrote
for their books previously and one more that’s about one of the same group of
characters. The problem is that two of the stories are under my real name, and
two under my pen name, so we’re having a hard time deciding which name to use
on the cover.

writers chose pen names to keep them safe. Phoenix Johnson had an online
stalker and she didn’t want that person following her and hurting her writing
career in any way. Phoenix to her means rebirth, and it represents her darker,
wilder side. Her surname was luck of the draw.

Townsend (real name K. T. Hicks) wanted a name that sounded more appropriate
for erotic romances. Her real name to her sounded like someone who should write
Tractor Romances, which were what her Russian Studies professor called “a
series of Stalin-era propaganda novels that were about farmers and farmers’
daughters who would sneak off to talk about Comrade Stalin behind haystacks.”

there you have it. Writers create pen names for a wide variety of very
interesting reasons. If you use a pen name, what’s your story behind it?


Elizabeth Black
writes erotica, erotic romance, speculative fiction, fantasy, and dark fiction.
She also enjoys writing erotic retellings of classic fairy tales. Born and bred
in Baltimore, she grew up under the influence of Edgar Allan Poe. Her erotic
fiction has been published by Xcite Books (U. K.), Circlet Press, Ravenous
Romance, Scarlet Magazine (U. K.), and other publishers. Her dark fiction has
appeared in “Kizuna: Fiction For Japan”, “Stupefying
Stories”, “Midnight Movie Creature Feature 2”, “Zippered
Flesh 2: More Tales Of Body Enhancements Gone Bad”, and “Mirages:
Tales From Authors Of The Macabre”. An accomplished essayist, she was the
sex columnist for the pop culture e-zine nuts4chic (also U. K.) until it folded
in 2008. Her articles about sex, erotica, and relationships have appeared in
Good Vibrations Magazine, Alternet, CarnalNation, the Ms. Magazine Blog, Sexis
Magazine, On The Issues, Sexy Mama Magazine, and Circlet blog. She also writes
sex toys reviews for several sex toys companies.

In addition to
writing, she has also worked as a gaffer (lighting), scenic artist, and make-up
artist (including prosthetics) for movies, television, stage, and concerts. She
worked as a gaffer for “Die Hard With A Vengeance” and “12
Monkeys”. She did make-up, including prosthetics, for “Homicide: Life
On The Street”. She is especially proud of the gunshot wound to the head
she had created with makeup for that particular episode. She also worked as a
prosthetic makeup artist specializing in cyanotic blue, bruises, and buckets of
blood for a test of Maryland’s fire departments at the Baltimore/Washington
International Airport plane crash simulation test. Yes, her jobs are fun.

She lives in
Lovecraft country on the Massachusetts coast with her husband, son, and four
cats. The ocean calls her every day, and she always listens. She has yet to run
into Cthulhu.

Visit her web
site at

Her Facebook
page is

Follow her at

Sizzler Editions & Creative Sexuality
Education Presents

“Meet The Editors”

Free Live Interactive Web Event
Sat. June 29, 2013
5:00–6:30 pm East Coast time
2:00-3:30 West Coast time

M. Christian
Sascha Illyvich
Jean Marie Stine

Anyone with web access can join-in free from anywhere in the world and participate through microphone, webcam, or text chat. Participants can get expert guidance from writing professionals – without having to drive to and from a crowded, noisy event facility and with no costly fees.

Current and aspiring writers of erotica, erotic romance, and sexuality-themed nonfiction won’t want to miss this live, interactive, online discussion and Q & A with three highly successful editors/authors, hosted by Sizzler Editions and Creative Sexuality.

Editors M.Christian, Sascha Illyvich, and publisher Jean Marie Stine will provide insight into trends and taboos in the field. They will offer writing tips and tricks, and advice on marketing and promotion of books. In a live, interactive session, they will take and answer questions from those who have logged in for the event.

Participants will:

  • Hear expert advice on formatting, submitting, and publishing your book; Develop and strengthen writing, plot development, and characterization;
  • Learn the most effective ways to market and publicize a book;
  • Have the opportunity to ask questions about the writing and publishing process;
  • Be able to pitch their own erotic story, novel or nonfiction.

All three panelists are writers as well as editors/publishers, with several decades of experience to their credit, and are well-versed in the craft and business of writing. They will address topics and questions such as:

  • Trends in Erotic Romance and Erotica
  • Writing your book
  • Covers
  • Promoting and Publicizing
  • Publishing

…and it these are only some of the issues to be covered in this multifaceted opportunity to interact live over the web with professional editors.

Who will benefit? Anyone who:

  • Is thinking of writing hot romance or erotica.
  • Is writing their first erotic novel, story or work of sexuality-related nonfiction.
  • Has finished writing one or more erotic books, but doesn’t know what to do next.
  • Has questions about the writing process.
  • Has questions about the publishing process (including self-publishing).
  • Is seeking effective ways to publicize and grow readership for their books.
  • Is already published or self-published, but wants to know more about the business and craft of writing erotica.

For further details visit:
Or contact:

by Jean Roberta

There has been much on-line discussion about the differences between literary erotica and erotic romance, whether one genre can be folded into the other, whether romance always requires a happy ending, and whether erotic writers who want to make a profit from their writing must sacrifice their integrity by writing fluff or mush.

Here are some things I have learned simply by living among other human beings: humans are social animals who need companionship as well as physical pleasure. Even in the sex trade (I’ve been there), men pay temporary companions (dancers, “models,” escorts, streetwalkers, pro Dommes, etc.) for more than the brief pleasure of skin-to-skin contact. Human beings want to feel understood, admired, and forgiven for our faults. The assumption that men with official secrets tend to whisper them to the call girls they party with is not simply a myth.

So if “romance” per se is that genre of fiction that focuses on “relationships,” broadly speaking, an erotic writer who does not want to go there must make a strenuous effort to eliminate all traces of “romance” from his or her descriptions of “sex,” whatever that means to the writer or the reader. (I’m imagining a story along the lines of The Stranger by Albert Camus, a widely-translated French novel in which the central character is almost completely emotionless.)

Even a comedy about sexual disappointment or a dark and gothic tale of sexual compulsion, sex that leaves marks, or sex that reveals the ultimate truth that each of us is alone must incorporate the other truth that each of us wants to connect with someone else, and not just physically.

Consider a case in point. I wrote a story that I considered erotic, not romantic. The occasional incompetence of Canadian mail carriers is the plot premise that results in the misdelivery of mail. The narrator, Woman A, receives letters intended for Woman B. A wonders if the same thing is happening in reverse: OMG! What am I missing? A (an “out” lesbian) knows that B receives handwritten letters from someone in New York with a masculine name. Is this B’s boyfriend? Over a period of months, A speculates about B’s life, and watches her on the sly. A doesn’t think she has the right to simply discard personal mail intended for B. So A rings B’s doorbell, a bundle of mail in her hand.

This is a variation on the theme of the wrong-number telephone call that enables two strangers to hear each other’s voices, develop a mutual curiosity and eventually meet in the real world, rip each other’s clothes off and agree that the dialling the wrong number was the best thing one of them could have done.

In my story, A is delighted to learn that B (a local artist) is also a lesbian who has learned all about A’s previous relationship via A’s misdelivered mail. B knows that during the past year, A has experienced a messy breakup. B has gone through a long dry spell of no sex. B gives A an experimental kiss, and when that bold move is accepted, B invites A into her bedroom for a good time. Neither of these women is offering each other a “relationship” at this point. It is too soon for either of them to know whether they have enough in common to share their lives. Both of them are willing to continue getting to know each other (in the Biblical sense and in other ways) to find out where this process will lead.

The climax of this story is an explicit sex scene, so I sent this story to the editor of an erotic lesbian anthology. The story was rejected. I wondered whether the editor was looking for more detailed sexual description as distinct from backstory and emotions other than lust.

This year, I sent the story to a lesbian romance anthology, and it was chosen for the shortlist. Whether or not my story finds its way into the book, the editor clearly thinks it fits into the genre. Never mind that the two characters are more-or-less strangers when they first meet in person, and they carefully avoid making any premature promises. They live in a country where two women could legally marry each other, but these characters are a long way from moving in together, let alone exchanging vows, even by the end of the story. The “happy for now” ending simply involves hope on both sides, and a certain amount of faith that their intimacy could deepen in the future. (“Faith,” in fact, is the title of the story.)

So apparently this is romance. And even if at least one central character in an erotic story is a man, the writer has to acknowledge the fact that men, too, crave love. The widespread belief that men just want to fuck, and that an artificial orifice in a plastic doll would provide the protagonist with the friction he needs is less of a myth, IMO, than a half-truth. If Captain Manpants just wants to fuck the available “girl,” he probably has more complex feelings about the wife he argued with in the morning, or he is wrestling with his secret crush on his male buddy, or he can’t forget the former classmate or coworker he left behind. In fact, he might be hoping to use the “girl” as a substitute for any of the people who have real significance in his life. Trust me. I’ve been the “girl,” and I’ve seen this process in action.

One line that sex workers hear over and over is: “If we had met some other way, we could have had a beautiful relationship.” This is when an honest sex worker gently reminds her customer of how they actually met, and for what purpose.

So do relationships, as distinct from sexual encounters, satisfy the needs of all the participants? In many cases, no. Breakups and divorce are a fact of modern life. Human beings disappoint each other over and over, but human beings reach out to each other over and over. The general advice given to the lovelorn or to those who lost everything in the interpersonal wars is that one must get up, get out, meet new people and climb back on that horse.

Even if a willingness to try once more to establish emotional intimacy with another person looks like the triumph of naïve hope over bitter experience, the only alternative looks like death in some form. So if an erotic story is to exude life, it must also include room for hope that the characters can or do connect on some level beyond the physical. I hesitate to suggest that the most hard-boiled stories about fucking must include spirituality in some form, but I’m not sure what other term would work better.

Most erotic writers of a certain age – I should probably speak for myself – can make sarcastic references to the temporary insanity that caused us to assume that our past relationships would work. Hindsight is perfect. Yet to summon up the desire and the curiosity that motivates one person to seek carnal knowledge of others is to enter a state of mind, heart and loins in which all things seem possible. Even a noir tone suggests that innocent hope and tentative trust existed before they were destroyed.

So am I advocating for romance in literary erotica? Apparently so. “Romance” is certainly not what I wanted to write when I rolled my eyes at my teenage friends’ favorite paperback novels of boy-meets-girl. Yet there it is.

So now you know: in any war between Romance and the kind of literary erotica that features epiphanies about Truth, I’m the traitor to both sides who huddles in a trench somewhere in the middle.

by Kathleen Bradean

I watched the premier episode of Da Vinci’s Demons last night. The
historical inaccuracies drove me a bit bonkers, and I’m no history
student, so you know they were obvious and bad. Don’t even get me started on the bare chests and women’s
clothes that were about as period as a Klingon at Ren Faire. But if I
approach the show as alternate history/ steampunk renaissance, I suppose
I can forgive how sloppy it is. What I can’t forgive are the multitude
of “As you know, Jim” speeches. Whether its television or a novel,
writers should do everything they can to avoid them.

what’s an “As you know, Jim,” speech? If you’ve watched any of the CSI
shows, you’ve heard these. It’s when a character says something along
the lines of “As you know, Jim, I’m going to take this piece of crime
scene evidence and try to find latent prints on it. I will do this
by…”  But Jim isn’t a sentient squid from outer space who has never heard of a finger, much less a finger print. He’s another CSI tech
and he knows damn well how evidence is processed because it’s his job.
So why is it being explained to him as if he knows nothing about it? 
Because the other character isn’t explaining it to Jim. He’s really explaining
it to the viewer/reader who presumably doesn’t know (although, after how many seasons of CSI? if you’re a fan, I would hope you know). On CSI, “Jim” usually responds with
“Yes, and then you’ll match any latent prints you find against our
suspects, thus hopefully linking one to the scene of the crime,” while in
real life, Jim would say, “No shit, Sherlock. Want to explain breathing
to me next?”

“As you know, Jim” conversations
unfortunately happen a lot in science fiction and fantasy because
there’s a whole world with different rules, technology, politics,
religion, flora and fauna, etc. that the reader needs to know about. A
common way around this is to drop an outsider into the world so they can
ask “What’s that animal?” or “Why are those dudes in red livery
shooting arrows at us?” without seeming like an idiot.

In Harry
Potter, he’s raised in a muggle household, so everything about the
wizarding world must be explained to him. He has a muggle’s reaction to
the things he sees and frames them in a muggle POV  in the
first few books. Later, as Hogwarts becomes his world (and the reader is
just as familiar with it) the explanations drop away except when
something extraordinary happens. (such as the tri-wizarding tournament).
Hermione, in almost every situation, serves as Harry’s interpreter. She
understands his muggle POV since she comes from the same place, but
because she’s made a huge effort to understand everything about the
world around her, she knows what’s happening and why. Someone raised in
the wizarding world wouldn’t think of such things as extraordinary so
they wouldn’t know that Harry was unfamiliar with it, nor would they
know how to explain it in terms he’d immediately understand. Hermione

But what do
you do if your characters are all from that world? How are you going to
explain things without resorting to awkward “As you know, Jim,”
speeches like CSI? How do you stop your reader from shouting “Why are you telling him something he already knows?”

A great example of how to deal with a character who isn’t an outsider is Doctor Watson from the Sherlock Holmes novels. He only explains the extraordinary, but the rest of the story he tells as someone familiar with his world and he seems to expect the reader to also understand it. He never explains what a hansom cab is, or what India has to do with England. But when Sherlock analyzes a chemical clue, Watson asks the same questions the reader would and reports the answers to the reader. Not everyone in a world knows everything, so an “As you don’t
know, Jim” explanation is fine if the information isn’t common

If the information is common knowledge among the characters (two CSI lab techs, for example), the best way to inform the reader
is to show the character lifting prints from crime scene evidence and
comparing them to the suspects’ prints. (Everyone sing with me: “We need a montage”) Show your world’s second sun, the cryochambers on your spaceship, the dragons, or the elves. Show someone breaking a taboo and how
the other characters react. Show the magic of technology and what it
does. You don’t have to explain how it works (unless that’s part of the
plot) since most readers are willing to suspend disbelief and trust that
it does work if you show that it does.

But how does this
tie to erotica? Instead of Hogwarts or the crime labs of CSI, imagine a
story about bondage. (and yes, I’m aware of the amount of HP fanfiction
that includes bondage.)

Case 1 –
someone is doing a shibari (rope bondage) demonstration. This is the
‘drop an outside into the world’ scenario where it’s cool to have the
basics explained, but you don’t want to write a how-to manual either.
Show a few details, explain a few basics, but dwell on the emotional and physical reaction of
your MC to the bondage. 

Case 2 – an experienced
practitioner is using rope bondage on an experienced fetish model or sub
and the scene is between them. Show the MC tying knots but focus on the
emotional and physical reaction to it. You might be tempted to
‘educate’ your readers about the history of shibari in the story, but
you’ll probably end up writing dialog such as: “As you know, Jim, rope
bondage in Japan is known as…” And you really, really don’t want to go

The real problem with “As you know, Jim,” isn’t
just that it’s lazy writing. No. Its worse sin is that it’s a lecture. A paragraph or two is the most any reader will tolerate of off-topic chat
forced into a story. And as you know, Jim, in erotica, anything that isn’t about sex is off-topic.

by Lucy Felthouse

The first ever erotic story I wrote was about a young man and his teacher. But that was because I’d been dared to write an erotic story, and the “darer” gave me names and a plot. So I don’t include that one because  the plot was from my friend’s imagination, not me.

After that, though, I wrote a story fully from my own head, which was about a couple that end up getting down to it on a balcony in the pouring rain. So, pretty vanilla by some standards, but still, outdoor sex! Following that, I penned military erotica, more outdoor erotica, rubenesque, classroom sex (between consenting adults), vampire sex and first-time lesbian sex. Which, thinking about it, isn’t too bad for a beginner. Looking at my past publications, alfresco sex and military sex is a recurring theme… I can’t think why 😉

Now, though, I’ve definitely branched out. For a long time, I wouldn’t even attempt to write BDSM. There was no particular reason behind it, other than I didn’t fancy writing it. But I eventually caved in and answered a call for submissions for sex toy erotica, which also ended up including bondage and spanking. That seemed to open the floodgates. I’ve now had between ten and fifteen BDSM stories published, with lots more written, submitted, contracted and waiting for release dates. I’m not quite sure how it happened. It certainly hasn’t been a conscious decision (except when answering calls for submission, of course), but I find it much easier to write BDSM now, to the extent that I’m coming up with some seriously wild and wacky scenes (see one of my future releases!) that even make me wonder where it’s coming from as I’m writing.

I’m definitely glad I’ve branched out. My author tagline is “Erotic and Romantic Fiction… Whatever Your Fancy!” because there’s so much variety in my work. From straight, to lesbian, to gay. Vanilla to medium and hardcore kink, indoors, outdoors, military, at home, abroad, second chances, paranormal… the list goes on. I love that there are so many topics, likes, dislikes and kinks I can write about as I’ve gotten over my fear and always push myself to write something new, something that may involve lots of research, or even something I don’t agree with. There are quite a lot more things on my mental list that I want to cover, but hopefully I’ve got plenty of time yet.


Lucy Felthouse is a very busy woman! She writes erotica and
erotic romance in a variety of subgenres and pairings, and has over seventy
publications to her name, with many more in the pipeline. These include Best
Bondage Erotica 2012 and 2013, and Best Women’s Erotica 2013. Another string to
her bow is editing, and she has edited and co-edited a number of anthologies.
She owns Erotica For All, and is book
editor for Cliterati. Find out more at Join
her on Facebook and Twitter, and subscribe to her
newsletter at:

By Lisabet Sarai

I’ve been reading since I was four
years old – a total of fifty six years. I still marvel at the power
of fiction to create visible, tangible worlds. Outwardly, as we read,
we look at the words, the sentences, the paragraphs. Blindly, we turn
the pages. All the while our inner eyes gaze upon the scenes we
construct in response to the author’s prose.

A skilled writer can evoke times,
places and people with such vividness that, at least while we read,
they feel more real than the surrounding environment. As the words
penetrate my brain, I see the glare of the sun upon the looming
pyramids. I feel the baking heat reflected from the stone, taste the
dust kicked up from the bare feet of the passing farmer, smell the
steaming dung his donkey leaves in my path. I squirm as the lash
scores my bare buttocks, shiver as a fingertip traces the line of my
spine, sweat as the girl opposite me on the subway crosses one knee
over the other to reveal red lace and tempting shadow. Reading is a
sort of miracle that dissolves the here-and-now and crystallizes a
totally new universe in its place.

What we see when we read is born of a
collaboration between the author and our selves. We bring our
histories, expectations and preferences to the act of reading, making
the process deeply personal. My images of Catherine Earnshaw in
Wuthering Heights, of Anna in
Anna Karenina, of
Humbert in Lolita, are
unlikely to match yours. The author sketches the setting and the
characters, but allows us to fill in the details. Even the most
meticulous and elaborate descriptions cannot capture the full
richness of sensory experience, but imagination embroiders upon the
framework of the text and embeds us deep into the world of the story.

One mark of a great writer is knowing
what to express and what to leave unsaid. Sometimes the simplest
prose is the most evocative.

When I write erotica, I rarely describe
my characters’ overall appearance. I may focus on some particular
physical characteristic – the elegant curve of a woman’s hip, the
scatter of curls leading down from a man’s navel toward his cock –
but for the most part I allow the reader to create his or her own
pictures. Instead of dwelling on what can be seen, I spend most of my
time on what can be felt – the characters’ internal states.

Erotic romance is a different kettle of
fish. I’ve learned that readers of this genre like to have fairly
complete descriptions of each major character. They want to know
about stature, body type, hair color and style, skin color, eye
color, typical clothing… The first time I filled out a cover
information sheet for a romance book, I was stuck. The publisher
wanted full details about the appearance of the hero and heroine. I
hadn’t thought much about the question.

Lots of ER authors I know use actual
photographs of characters to inspire them. I’ve adopted this strategy
too, in some cases. It’s easier to describe a picture than to
manufacture a complete physical creation from scratch.

Overall, it seems to me that Western
culture is moving away from the imagined to the explicit, and that
the written word is losing ground to the visual. These days, video
appears to be the preferred medium of communication. If you buy some
equipment, you don’t receive a user manual any more – you get links
to YouTube. My students seem unable to concentrate on any text that
does not include lots of pictures, preferably animated. Graphical
icons (often obscure to me) have replaced verbal instructions. I
really wonder how the blind survive.

Suspense in film – that overwhelming,
oppressive sense of imminent danger – has been supplanted by fiery
explosions and bloody dismemberings. I personally find the old movies
more frightening and more effective. Sex has followed the same trend,
in mainstream movies, in advertising and in porn. Everything is out
there to be seen, in your face. Nothing is left for the viewer to
create. Common visions overwhelm individual interpretations.

High definition television. 3D movies.
The thrust of modern technology is to externalize every detail,
making everything visible. The inner eye atrophies as imagination
becomes superfluous.

When I heard Baz Luhrmann had directed
a 3D version of The Great Gatsby, I felt slightly nauseous. 3D
dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park” I can accept, but if there was ever
a story that needed a light touch, a judicious selection of detail,
it’s Jay Gatsby’s tale. True, Fitzgerald’s novel describes at
considerable length the wild excesses of the Roaring Twenties, the
booze and the jazz, the extravagant parties and casual love affairs.
However, all that is just a backdrop to the lonely delusions of the
title character and the vacant lives of the people who surround him.
You could tell Gatsby’s story on an empty stage, with a couple of
bottles of champagne as props and a single sax as the sound track.

The result of Luhrmann’s misguided (in
my opinion) effort is an impressive spectacle with no substance. The
film lavishes its attention on the crazy parties and drunken orgies.
Meanwhile, Gatsby, Daisy, Jordan and Nick remain ciphers, cardboard
characters one can’t really care about. You see it all, but feel

I sometimes worry that reading will
become obsolete, despite the surge in book buying due to ebooks. I’m
glad I don’t have children growing up in this increasingly literal,
visually-oriented world. I’d hate to see them struggling to keep the
magic of imagination alive.

Meanwhile, the Luhrmann film had one
positive effect. It has motivated me to reread the original book.

by Donna George Storey

Back in 1983, when I’d just finished writing a novella as part of my creative writing certificate in college, my older sister (who knows everything and more specifically everything I should do to be a true success in life) told me with confidence that what I now needed to make real progress in my writing was a mentor.

My resistance to the idea was practical rather than philosophical. There wasn’t anyone around who seemed at all interested in becoming my mentor. My thesis adviser, Stephen Koch, was a pleasant enough fellow. He’d been assigned six of us creative writing seniors to shepherd through a year of independent literary effort, but he didn’t show any desire to go above and beyond his professional duty, at least as far as I was concerned. I assumed that I wasn’t talented or special enough to merit a mentor. Convinced I had nothing interesting to say, I stopped writing for thirteen years after graduation. When I took it up again, I relied on the help of a writing group of peers to improve my craft (see Garce’s very useful post on peer critiques, which are indeed invaluable to a writer).

Still, I was mildly envious whenever I heard of anyone with the good luck to connect with a mentor. It seemed the easiest way to realize the greatest dream of every aspiring writer—the literary establishment’s crown of “exciting new American voice,” which meant of course that one would be worshipped unconditionally and live happily ever after.

I am envious no longer.

That’s because I just finished reading Mentor: A Memoir by Tom Grimes. In the spring of 1989, thirty-two-year-old Grimes was your typical romantic starving artist, working as a waiter in Key West, when he got a phone call from Frank Conroy, director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Conroy adored the novel excerpt Grimes had sent with his application and said he would do anything to entice him to join the program. Not that Grimes needed enticement. All the other programs he’d applied to, including his local safety school, had rejected him flat.

When he arrived in Iowa, Grimes found that he was already famous as the “guy who was writing the baseball novel.” Conroy had raved about it to anyone who would listen, although it meant most students kept their distance from the rising literary genius. The first day of class, Conroy invited Grimes to his office and offered to introduce him to his agent, New York’s best, Candida Donadio, with the implication that Donadio would snap him up (ah, how often have aspiring writers emailed me asking me to introduce them to my agent—alas, I have none). Grimes asked for a rain check, but he did come to rely on Conroy’s support and favor in class and out, for example, accepting a chance to observe the Mets’ spring training as research for his novel thanks to Conroy’s friendship with the manager. When the long-awaited baseball novel was finished, Donadio passed the project to her assistant, but the novel received bids from every major literary publisher in New York. Grimes’ novel had gone to auction—every writer’s wet dream.

Unfortunately, any published writer of modest experience will recognize the cruel realities that soon brought the dream crashing back to earth. Grimes’ agent pressured him to make a decision on his publishing house in fifteen minutes on a Friday afternoon to be polite to the editors—unfortunately Conroy was not available to give his mentorly advice at the time, which doubtless would have been to resist the agent’s pressure and think things through. Grimes went with the editor who seemed most genuinely enthusiastic about his book, not a bad choice in any case, but a better one still because it was clear that some of the other editors were more excited about Conroy’s sponsorship than the work itself.

Predictably, the enthusiastic editor soon changed houses and the next editor assigned to the book also left during a merger. The orphaned book languished, got tepid reviews and didn’t even rate a paperback edition. The world apparently did not share Conroy’s opinion of Grimes’ talent—or was it just bad luck and bad marketing? Determined to soldier on, Grimes had a standing offer for his next book from one of the other prestigious publishers he’d turned down but the man died before the novel was ready. That book, too, was published with disappointing results. In the meantime, Grimes was hired to direct Texas State University’s creative writing program, again with strong recommendation from Conroy. Despite his initial reluctance to follow his mentor on this path, the program flourished and now hires some of America’s most acclaimed writers like Tim O’Brien (although Grimes still has to shore up O’Brien’s confidence at times by reminding him he wrote one of America’s greatest books, The Things They Carried, which makes me wonder if any writer is truly at peace with his achievement). But in spite of those impressive credentials, Grimes feels like a failure as a writer and is much humbled by his experiences since he arrived full of hope at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Yet the literary establishment is ever full of irony. Denied his dream of a starred Publisher’s Weekly review for his first three novels, Grimes’ memoir about his relationship with Conroy finally earned him that coveted honor.

Although he probbly still isn’t living happily ever after. Just a hunch.

So what does this have to do with erotica writers?

Well, while my illusions about my life as a writer have been eroding for many years now, Mentor reminded me of the dangers of putting ambition and a belief in the importance of external validation before the pleasures and challenges of the writing itself. Apparently I still need to be reminded—not because I believe I will ever become the Chosen One, America’s first woman writer to be lauded as the greatest writer of our time—but because I still nurtured the fantasy that someone else might attain that lofty position with ease and grace due to her transcendent talent and possibly the help of a devoted mentor. Grimes also reminded me that a mentor serves his own needs as much as his protege’s. In spite of the best intentions, a mentor’s attention might well become a burden and a hindrance to the younger writer’s development. Lucky breaks and grand successes always come with a cost.

Besides, for all of us who do not have a mentor, we still have a wonderful option. We can immerse ourselves in the magic of telling a good story and explore all the ways the English language can help us in our cause just by sitting down at our computers and giving our imaginations free rein. With this simple act, we can live a dream no person or random twist of fate can destroy.

Donna George Storey is the author
of Amorous Woman (recently released as an ebook) and a new collection of short
stories, Mammoth
Presents the Best of Donna George Storey
. Learn more about her
work at

In this entry I propose to tie together the elements explained in the previous posts on narrative arc and character arc:

The Elements of Short Story Structure

The Exterior Elements of Character

The Interior Elements of Character

You’ll also discover that I like checklists very much:

Why Doing Crits at ERA-Storytime is good for the Soul

Norman Mailer once said that for beginning writers, and that’s pretty much who we are for the most part, reading the great writers, the giants, won’t do you much good.  They’re good to be aware of, but you won’t learn much from their technique because they’re over your head.  He said you’ll learn the most from writers on your own level, because you’ll understand them and the good and klutzy moments in their work will be clear to you and you’ll be able to observe and absorb it in your work, and I have found this to be true.  Studying the work of your peers, people who write better than you do, but not too much, and people who write worse than you do, but not too much, will help you see your own work more clearly and the elements of story craft better.

Rules are good for you, at least until you master them.  Great artists and story tellers like Picasso and Alfred Hitchcock, were famous for destroying the rules but first they mastered them.  They understood the rules intimately enough to break them artfully, not simply rebel against them.  If you write poetry, reading Ashley’s presentations here of traditional verse form and rhyme is very valuable, because playing within a tight frame work makes you think harder.  It’s cuts sloppiness which can lead to beauty.  Story craft is that way too, and your peers are the ones who will show it to you when its working well or falling apart for them.

First Do No Harm

One of ERWA’s most prolific and respected contributors was a guy named Mike Kimera.  His emails were always signed “What you read is not what I wrote.”  I didn’t know what that was supposed to mean until I started posting stories and discovered that some people read better than others.  Being a good reader is as demanding as being a good writer.  Not all stories bear close reading, but part of being a competent critter is about reading what has been actually written and not skimming over it.

As a general thing in Storytime I only critique short stories, because short stories are what I write and what I cherish and know a little about.   It’s my respect for local writers I don’t do crits on poems, or quickies, because I usually don’t write them and don’t feel competent to speak on them.  I don’t crit gay erotica for the same reason.  I wish I had a novel in me, because that’s where the money is, but short stories are what the story fairy gives me.

People advise against being intrusive, against saying how you would do the story if it were yours.  I disagree, you can be intrusive if you have something useful to say.  Just be respectful.  Everybody’s story is their baby.  If you’re reading:

  1. Show a helpful and respectful attitude.
  2. Read anything you intend to review in its entirety.
  3. Remember what Mike Kimera said.  It will help you to begin the crit with a small bare bones synopsis of the story to help you understand it and to prove that you’ve made the effort of reading what was presented.
  4. Make notes on a notebook or the back of the envelope that capture your immediate responses , or highlight sentences  to go back to.  Usually a nit or clumsy sentence I highlight in yellow, a sentence of beauty that is a gift to read I highlight in enthusiastic purple.  I comment on these sentences towards the end of my crit.
  5. Take your time with a crit, don’t rush.  When you rush you read badly which is disrespectful to the story.  Respect the story.
  6. If you can’t respect the story, if you think its truly awful, be kind and go crit something else.  It’s not meant for you.  Kindness and respect over all.
  7. Take your notes and impressions and shoot for a review of 250 – 800 words.
  8. If the author has a specific agenda, understand it and address your comments to it.  A good author should know what they’re trying to do by this stage anyway.

My Little Yellow Notebook

There’s this little hard bound yellow notebook I’ve been keeping with me for years.  I type stuff up and print it and paste it the pages.  It includes a lot of lists, from how to do crits, to how to clean the toilet.  These are lists written in a kind of verbal shorthand I wrote for myself without expecting to show them to anyone, but maybe you’ll find some of them useful.  Here is the list I keep handy when I do a crit for something in ERA Storytime:

ERWA  Standard Critique

  • Write a synopsis, show how characters interact with the plot, not just events.  Do this as a gesture of respect to prove you read and understand the story.
  • Is there a unique premise and a designing principle?  Could there be?
  • First the lather, then the razor.  What is good about the story? (If you can’t find anything, you’re not the one to review it)
  • What is flawed but improvable?
    • Plot / Story Arc
    • POV chosen, and voice
      1. If first person present is there a personality behind the voice?
    • Character Arc:
      1. What does deciding character want?
      2. Do we care?
      3. How does he/she go after it?
      4. What are the obstacles?
      5. Is there a moral change or revelation?  Could there be?
  • How is the description?  The unpacking of details?
  • Dialogue:  a natural sound with beats.  (a word about “beats”.  People don’t just talk, they do things while they talk and this enables you to break up the dialogue.  “I don’t get you,” he said.  He lit a cigarette and waved it at her.  “You keep changing your mind.”)
  • When told in First person;
    • Submerge the “I”
    • Give the narrator a unique voice
  • Does it begin at the strongest place?
  • Does it end at the strongest place?
  • Are there thought verbs or lazy descriptions of emotion or sensation?
  • Minimize attribution adverbs
  • Minimize expository dialogue and narrative.

One of the first things worth noticing after you’ve read it all the way through is if it begins at the right place.  Does the opening scene introduce you to the action, setting and maybe the protagonist quickly enough to catch your interest?  That’s why “hookers” or first lines are so important and often so memorable.  Ray Bradbury, one of my heroes, once said that he would routinely peel off the first page (he used paper and typewriter) and throw it away and begin the story from the top of the second page.  I’ve done that.  It works.

* * * * *

Deeper Critiques and the Treasure of a Good First (“Beta”) Reader

Stephen King’s first reader is his wife Tabby, a novelist also. She sees all of his stuff before anybody else does. He makes the case, which I think is true, that every writer writes for one person. Mark Twain claimed he wrote stories for his sister, even after she died. King writes stories to impress his wife Tabby. When he finished the first polished draft of the novel “From a Buick 8” he gave her the print out to read while they were driving cross country through Pennsylvania. He was driving and kept looking over at her while she read, watching anxiously, weaving around on the road, hungry for her every frown and chuckle. Finally she looked up and yelled at him “Watch the road before you get us all killed! Stop being so goddamned needy!”

We writers are a needy lot.  But praise doesn’t always take you where you need to go.  This is why reading well is so important, because it will give you credibility if you have to tell hard things.

My long suffering First Reader is and continues to be Lisabet Sarai, the George Martin to my erstwhile Paul McCartney.  I was reading her stories long before I ever tried my hand at writing them.  When I saw her name on ERWA I was writhing with shyness when I asked her privately if she could give me some pointers on something I’d written.  She did and I made my very first sale.  That’s what a good First Reader can do for you folks.  But you have to be willing to listen and at least hear them out.  That requires trust and a willingness to leave your ego at the door. That’s the part I was good at.  When I send her something, I bite my nails waiting to hear back from her about what a fantastic literary genius I am, and how the world has been waiting breathlessly, if not thanklessly for this, my latest heartbreakingly gorgeous work.  Is it a major or a minor masterpiece?

I keep thinking I’ve gotten over that stage, but I know I haven’t.  I don’t know if anybody ever does.  Then the response comes back from Lisabet, no, not quite at the minor masterpiece stage yet.  Far from it in fact.  The feeling for a needy writer can be a little bit like hearing a parent on your door step criticizing one of your kids, or maybe a cop.   But it’s important.  Wine and coffee tasters have a phrase “cleansing the palate”.  After tasting something so much, your tongue loses its sensitivity and then you need some space or a second opinion.  You don’t have to do everything your First Reader tells you, but you should definitely listen, especially if this is someone who understands what you’re trying to do.

Sometimes when I’m trying to understand a complex narrative arc, either my own or someone else’s, I make a “clothesline”, my invention.  I make a clothesline by drawing a line across a piece of paper and start pinning the scenes in sequential order to get a high level view of how this beast is supposed to hang together.

If someone trusts you enough with their stuff to ask you to be an early test reader, you should feel honored and be ready to read like a lit student.  Here is a general checklist that covers most points for a serious critique:

DEEP CRIT Standard:

Scene Critique

  • Does the scene pull you along with:
    • Character development
    • Increasing pressure on the hero
    • Set up for the next scene
    • Is it a scene and not narrative summary
    • Does the scene start and end in the strongest places
    • Would the story be any better or weaker without the scene?
    • Is the hero behaving actively or passively?

Character Arc Critique

  • The hero by definition is the deciding character
  • Present the character’s unique governing characteristic
  • We are interested in a character who wants something specific badly
  • A hero must be active towards his situation, not passive
  • His attack on obstacles should be associated with his governing characteristic
  • A character arc presents moral change based on response to obstacles of increasing tension.
  • Readers care about motives, not traits
  • What is the hero’s weakness?
  • Empathize, not sympathize
  • Who is the opponent?  How does the opponent mirror the hero?
  • If more than one character, hero should be an integrated part of a character web.
  • Does the hero connect to the world around him?
  • Is the character complex, multi layered or contradictory?
  • Avoid lazy descriptions of emotions

Description Critique

  • Avoid lazy descriptions of emotions or sensations
  • Resist the urge to explain
  • Are the scene details the ones your characters would most notice?
  • Are they in proportion to what is needed?
  • Watch out for excessive  – ing and – ly verbs, he said sagely.
  • Break up large narrative passages when possible

Voice and Dialogue Critique

  • At some point in your process read the dialogue out loud to yourself
  • Break up the dialogue with beats
  • Can you picture the conversation?
  • Does the dialogue reveal character or move the story along?
  • Can interior monologues be dropped into their own paragraphs without attributions?
  • Be conservative about “verb thoughts”  (Kenny wondered why nobody liked him)
  • Be conservative about a lot of expository dialogue
  • Point of view and Description Critique

    • Avoid lazy descriptions of emotions or sensations
    • Does the POV reveal character?
    • Does the first person point of view speak with a unique voice
    • Does the POV match the correct level of intimacy with the reader?
    • Is there excessive narrative summary that could be made into a scene?
    • Avoid lazy descriptions (“Her orgasm felt wonderful.”  No.  Describe what a wonderful orgasm feels like right when it’s happening to you.   If you’ve forgotten what a wonderful orgasm feels like, get your notebook and go find out.  When ordinary people have a headache they take aspirin.  When you have a headache – you take notes.)
    • If using first person present POV “bury the I”, that is don’t let the speaker go on drawing attention to himself.  “I drew on my cigarette and waved my left hand and then my right hand  helplessly as I contemplated my aching heart.”

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
J.P. Hartley, The Go-Between

Setting stories in the past is an interesting and sometimes strangely satisfying exercise in futility.  The past, like memory, is always partly fiction. We can do all the research we want, but because we are viewing the past from here and now, we will never see, never ‘read’ it like the people who lived in it when it was the present for them.  We can never unknow the fact that the earth goes around the sun, or that the world is four and a half billion years old.  We can never unlearn what it is like to experience communication that’s instant over great distances.  We will never be as brave as those who knew that a simple infection could kill them, or that losing a baby in childbirth was a regular occurrence, or that being unmarried and pregnant made you a social outcast. We can know those facts intellectually, but because we can’t unknow our current reality, our emotional understanding of the harsh reality of the past is always wrapped in the cotton wool of time’s comfortable distance.

Moreover, there are simply facts that are not at our disposal at all, because they didn’t seem important enough to record. Those things are lost in the sea of time. We have to make them up if we want to write into the past. We have to use our best guess, based on a belief that human nature doesn’t seem to change as fast as other things, like technology.

No matter how many facts you can accumulate, and no matter how sensitive you try to be to other points of view, and other ways of experiencing the world, if you want to write a story set in the past, you need to be brave, do the best research you can, and then just make some stuff up.

One scholar who is worth reading about how to interpret the past, and especially regarding sexuality, is Michel Foucault. Honestly, any erotic writer who writes stories set in the past and hasn’t read his masterful work The History of Sexuality, needs to get off their butts and read it. Particularly of interest is the part power has played in our understanding of sexuality in a cultural context through the ages. It has changed radically. Get all three volumes. Used. But read them.

On the bright side, the people reading your work are also not in the past. And, so although they too might be fascinated by it, presenting a reality that is too alien to them might very well make your story unreadable.

There are periods I like to think of as fictional pasts. So many romances have been set in the Regency period that there are now two of them: the one that actually took place, and the one that exists in most Regency romances and is familiar to their faithful readers. Most Regency heroines own more dresses than the female members of the monarchy did at the time. Those ball gowns were exorbitant. And no one bothers to mention the menstrual blood staining the floor of Elizabethan dancing galleries.  Readers often have limits to the amount of authenticity they’re willing to tolerate.

Most challenging of all is the writing of social attitudes of the time when then clash wildly with ours. When I wrote a story set during the Cowpore Uprising in India, a number of my readers commented on how racist the character Calum  and other members of his regiment were.  But the reality was that they were, by our standards, very racist. Not consciously, not maliciously but they were acculturated to believe that white Christians were superior to all other races.  And yes, there were extraordinary individuals who rejected that sort of prejudice, but those people were few and far between. I was torn between a need to write the characters in a way I felt would be historically accurate, and knowledge that my readers might not make allowances for the realities of historic racism and find him completely unlikable.  I’ll never know if I made the right decision. I just did my best.

This month, I’ve invited two other authors, both of whom write stories set in the past to discuss their process and their thinking. I felt we probably all went about it in different ways, for different projects and I thought having three people’s take on the task was more informative than having mine alone.

 * * *

My first guest is Aleksandr Voinov, who writes mainly m/m erotica, much of which is historical.  Here he reflects on his novel Skybound, published by Riptide Press.

On Skybound

When I had the idea for Skybound, I was in trouble. I had no idea about any of the things I was going to write about. Telling a WWII story from the German side, too, was a bit of a leap. Even Germans like me are used to seeing and reading about the other side, thanks to Hollywood, and what stories there are on the German side, they tend to be told from the heterosexual viewpoint. But the sources are all there, and even though I specialised in Medieval History at uni and gave Modern History a wide berth, I still had the “historical method” at my disposal. So I did what I loved to do at uni and started digging and accumulating material.

Above all, I wanted to get it “right”. I wanted to do justice to all sides and be as accurate as possible. Some of the people who lived through it are still alive, and their children and grandchildren, too, which I think adds an extra burden to be accurate and respectful.

I started by reading a history of the Luftwaffe (German air force), but that provided just the backdrop. I dug deeper, looking at fighter planes. My characters, a fighter ace and a mechanic (one of the so-called “Black Men”, thanks to his black coveralls) would care deeply about the planes, so I learned about the Messerschmitt Bf 109, how and why it was developed and how it was used. I spent time staring at the cockpit layout in one of the technical books, trying to transpose my mind into it. I dug deeper still and read a biography by a fighter ace; while lacking in grace in terms of prose, it did have the telling details that I needed, and a couple anecdotes that I took for my own use (I attributed the things I didn’t change). I’m blessed that there’s a the Imperial War Museum in London and there I exposed my Muse to the WWII fighter planes suspended from the ceiling there in the great hall–physical manifestations of memory, half warning, half forgotten nightmare. While they don’t have a Messerschmitt, the Focke-Wulf fighter-bomber still helped. I’m a total immersion kind of writer (I guess the equivalent of a method actor), I just gorge myself on impressions and details and generally soaked up the energy, filtering that one and all the WWII air warfare exhibits all through my rational mind as well as my emotions. What kind of man would fly those? And how would he be seen? How would propaganda make him look?

Now, German fighter pilots were heroes–as problematic as that term is–a very special breed, and while their record is distorted by years of easy victories against technically and tactically inferior forces, German fighter pilots had hundreds of kills and were the very top performers of WWII. Most came to grief, were lost, but some survived and entered German civilian aviation after the war. Knowing all this, my decorated fighter ace was easy, but I’m telling the story from the point of view of a mechanic. I couldn’t find any autobiographies of mechanics (nobody really cares about the small people, maybe?), though I did find something about the high regard of pilots for their ground crews in the pilot’s biography. All I had to do was “flip” that inside my head.

Felix is a romantic, a failed pilot (I researched how fighter pilots were trained and hence knew why he wouldn’t qualify), he’s even a bit of a poet. As a child of his time, in what terms would he express himself? What is his voice and what is it influenced by? The obvious choice is Karl May, a prolific German pulp adventure writer of the late 19th century who is still being read by children and adults. His work is overwrought, passionate, romantic, heart-felt, definitely kitschy, but it has a sense of adventure and honour and “for thee, brother, I shall die” homoeroticism that presses lots of buttons. Hitler loved May. Felix would have loved him, too, and I imbued some of his voice with a dash of May–a romantic hyper-reality that clashes with his job and the war situation in 1944/45, but it also clearly an escape from the drudgery and the hopelessness of the late war.

For his actual job, I watched lots of YouTube clips. There’s lots of German propaganda newsreels on there, and I got a few DVDs too that were using German footage of the time. The interesting thing about those was that while it was definitely propaganda and “rah-rah-rah, we’ll smash them!” and “look how awesome we are!” I also saw the actual work being done, which was a lot more useful–no source is just a source, often reading it against the grain opens up treasures a writer can use. I watched ground crews pushing planes into line, refuelling, loading the bombs and machine guns. It was hard physical work, for one, but watching them helped me understand Felix. Then I watched modern footage of air shows to get the sound of the historical engines right for the scene when my airfield is being attacked by the Allies–no plane sounds alike, and my characters would be able to tell the difference. I spent a happy half hour talking to a British plane geek to work out which planes would be attacking and in what strategy and how these would perform against the German planes.

All in all, the story doesn’t have one sentence that’s not deliberate and researched to the best of my ability. Lots of writers might find these weeks and months of research for a mere 13,000-word story excessive. In that time, I could have written a novel quite easily.

But what the research did was allow me to write with authority and confidence about a world I knew nothing about. I feel like I’ve done the actual historical people justice, and I learned a great deal–I ended up completely fascinated, true to what my professor said when I challenged him on a boring assignment. He said, “Drill down deep enough into anything, and it becomes its own amazing little world.” It’s a small little world I learned to move freely in, building my story around and inside that framework. It was a fun challenge, and I can’t wait to go back.

* * *

My second guest author is Justine Elyot, who has recently finished her novel Fallen, which will be published by Black Lace in early 2014.

On Fallen

History is a strange thing. It has happened – it is fact. And yet it’s also highly open to interpretation. It seems paradoxical, but how many times have we opened a newspaper to find that something we had long held to be true has been found to be false? One of the lessons of history is that lots of it is a pack of lies, or at least, a jolly old London pea-souper of misconceptions and misapprehensions.

Writing historical fiction opens up yet another hall of distorting mirrors. What I am really writing about is my perception of that time. It’s been sewn together, piecemeal, through years of absorbing material, both fictional and non-fictional, about that period. I am viewing the past through a lens, and that lens is unlikely to be clear.

A fear of getting it wrong put me off writing anything historical for years until one day I grew tired of all the Victorian-set stories taking up houseroom in my head with no signs of buggering off and decided to do something about it.

Ever since I walked through Madame Tussaud’s ‘Jack the Ripper’ street at the age of ten, I’d wanted to replicate that feeling of being there in the past – without the waxwork corpses, but with the sense of immersion. Historical fiction offered me that opportunity. My favourite books took me to another world where people spoke, dressed, acted, thought differently and made me feel that I was there. This was what I wanted to give the reader in my neo-Victorian erotic novel, Fallen.

In a way, the preparation for it began at Madame Tussaud’s. From there, I went on to read everything I could relating to the 19th century (I remember the librarian raising an eyebrow at my borrowing Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor at the age of 12). I’m still doing it now.

But in Fallen, I am not only writing a historical novel. I’m also writing an erotic romance, so I have to try and be as true as I can to the Victorian erotic sensibility as well. This isn’t always easy – my protagonist writes pornography and it’s of a standard Victorian type, full of flagellomania and characters with names like Lady Whippingham. Much of what I’d read, in The Pearl, or elsewhere, was so far from anything most of my contemporaries would find sexy that I had to tone it down.

It’s a balancing act as much as anything. Be convincing, but be sympathetic to a modern ear. Write in a style appropriate to the period, but don’t go overboard with the multi-clause sentences and lose your audience. I don’t know if I’ve got it right – but if you want to find out, Fallen is published by Black Lace in early 2014.

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