Of stereotypes and heroes

The men in my brain have a tendency to ambush me at the most inappropriate moments. Note the men in my brain: in real life, I have only one man, and he is not much given to ambushing me—and when he does, he calls it a surprise, ergo the ambush is a (supposedly) pleasant experience. Which it mostly is.

Anyway: while hubby (in singular) is a singularly one-of-a-kind gift to womankind (well, to me, at any rate), the men that populate my brain come in all kinds and shapes, and they’re not always warm and cuddly. Especially not when I am planning to put them through their emotional paces. For some odd reason, neither Matthew nor Adam nor Jason nor—OK, won’t bore you with this never-ending list—appreciate it when I place the lives of their beloved in jeopardy. Hence the ambush, with me being crowded back in one mental corner while facing three glowering males.

“Hey, it’s an opportunity for you to show off your hero qualities,” I tell them.
“So stereotypical,” Jason replies. “The damsel in distress saved by her white knight.” He claps Adam de Guirande on the shoulder. “Problem is, only one of us is a knight.”
“But you’re all heroes,” I try, fluttering my eyelashes at them. “Besides,” I add in view of their icy silence, “your damsels do a pretty good job of saving themselves—and you.”
“They do,” Adam says. His mouth tugs into a smile. “Without Kit, I’d be…” He drags a finger over his throat, making me shudder. Yes, had Kit not risked her own life, he’d have been feeding the crows since seven centuries or so.
“I don’t like it,” Matthew mutters. “And this new book of yours, what will you put us through this time?”
I’m about to say that he doesn’t need to worry, this time his Alex is safe and no one will die. Until I remember that isn’t the case. So I hem and haw and say something vague about hoping he’ll like his new adventure. He gives me a penetrating look. I pretend a major interest in my nails.

Once I’m alone again in my mental space, I spend some time considering the stereotyping accusation.  And yes, I’m guilty as charged in that all my male protagonists are strong and reliable men who will go to whatever lengths necessary to protect their loved ones. This does not necessarily make them a stereotype, though. Matthew Graham, Adam de Guirande and Jason Morris are all very different men, shaped by their experiences and their times. Are they all a tad possessive when it comes to their women? Yes. Are they all very protective of their lady love? Absolutely. Are they all good-looking? To me, yes. (And here I must admit to teetering on the edge of stereotyping in that they’re all tall and well-built, but one of the benefits of being a writer is that I can please myself in these matters) Are they stereotypes? Nope. Adam, Jason and Matthew all agree: they’re quite unique, thank you very much.

Likewise, my female protagonists are no stereotypical damsels in distress – I don’t believe all that many women are. Instead, they are as strong as their men, albeit at times restricted by their gender. Accordingly, my 14th century female lead, Kit de Guirande, is no atypical sword-swinging female.
“Thank the Lord for that,” Adam mutters. (See? They’re always there, eavesdropping on my thoughts)
No, Kit is strong and determined, but she is also very often pregnant which sort of puts paid to any Wonder Woman aspirations she might have. On the other hand, strength comes in many forms, and sometimes it is our lot—whether we be women or men—to just bear things, survive despite the obstacles along our way.

In difference to Kit, both Alex and Helle are capable of fighting to defend their man. Both are modern women, albeit that I’ve sent Alex falling through time to live out the rest of her existence in the 17th century. Very much fun, that, even if Alex doesn’t always agree. The challenge when it comes to Alex is that she must reasonably change from the out-spoken and very independent woman she is when she first crash-lands at Matthew’s feet to a woman more in sync with her times. After all, no person is ever written in stone, we evolve throughout our lives this due to our experiences and the expectations on us. And so Alex Lind learns (and slowly accepts) that in this new world of hers she has no legal status. She is only an extension of her husband and has no choice but to accept his decisions. A hard road to travel for one as independent as she is. Fortunately, Matthew is an intelligent man who loves his wife dearly and therefore involves her in the decision-making—as long as they agree…

“As it should be,” Adam says.
“Aye,” Matthew agrees. “My wife is mine to care for, mine to cherish, mine to discipline as she might need it.” His eyes twinkle. “Mind you, disciplining Alex is a tad dangerous: she may very well end up kicking me to the ground.”
“Too right,” Alex says. My time-travelling lady has a black belt in Karate. Has come in quite handy when she’s had to save Matthew from all sorts. Not something Matthew likes to discuss, though: in his book, he’s the one supposed to do the protecting.

“I’ve never disciplined my wife,” Adam says. “For a man to bear hand on a woman…” His voice trails off, his cheeks going a dull red when Kit just looks at him. “Once,” he says quietly. “I did it once and was immediately ashamed.”

“Well, anyone tries to discipline me and they won’t know what hit them,” Helle says. In tight jeans showing off her strong legs she looks extremely self-sufficient, especially standing the way she does, arms crossed over her chest.
“My lioness has quite the bite,” Jason says proudly, ruffling her blonde curls. And he’s right. Helle saves his life on a number of occasions no matter the cost to her. As I think it, Jason’s face clouds. No doubt he’s recalling just how much it cost her the first time round…

I guess if there’s any stereotype I’m guilty of it’s believing in love. Not your romantic pink-flushed love, more the gritty lasts-for-a-lifetime love that somehow manages to overcome everything from the loss of a child to the loss of your dignity and pride. That’s how my male protagonists love their women, that’s how they’re loved in return. They stand and fall together, my Adam and his Kit, Matthew and Alex, Jason and Helle. A bit like hubby and me if I may say so—albeit that so far our lives are rather ordinary and humdrum compared to the exciting times my poor characters live through.
“Good. Keep it that way,” hubby says, stooping to kiss my brow. “I’m not sure I’m made for all that hero stuff.”
Silly man. He is a hero. My hero.

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No discipline, no output

Writing is a very creative process. In the initial stages, there’s not much discipline around as I’m so caught up in developing the story I often forget both to cook and shop, causing me to survive on copious amounts of tea and too much chocolate. This stage is exhausting – productivity is at an all-time high and I am burning energy as if there is no tomorrow, especially as I also have a pretty demanding day-job.

Some writers love this part of the process. I don’t, uncomfortable with the way I am engulfed by the creative side in me. You see, in all other aspects of my life I am VERY disciplined. I write lists. I plan dinners a week at the time. I am a structural fascist. Having my brain taken over by my characters—and a loud and opinionated lot they are—is way out of my comfort zone, however exhilarating it is.

Fortunately, once the first draft is in place, I can resort to structure. This is when I rewrite and revise. Historical fiction authors come in all sizes. For some, the human-interest angle overshadows everything else, and a couple of historical errors is neither here nor there. For others, the historical facts must be as correct as they can be. I belong to the latter category, and my penchant for lists and structure—discipline—come in handy when I double-check my facts. Or when I chase up little details such as on what day exactly was there a full moon in April of 1328. Or spend hours studying what medieval maps I can find of the various towns in which my story takes place.

I think this is my favourite phase of the writing process, lovely hours spent organising my work, comparing my research notes with the story and the settings. This is also when I discover that perfect scene in which my heroine is staring out towards the west and the setting sun has to go as the castle she is in would not offer all that much of a view to the west. I sigh mightily at having to cut the scene—but pat myself on the back for having the fortitude to do so. After all, facts are facts.

Mind you, a historical novel without human-interest would be pretty boring. Especially, if like me, you’re into searing love stories, intense love scenes and some sort of HEA (Happily Ever After). So while the discipline—fact-checking, plot-structure, realistic character arcs, revised grammar & spelling—build the foundations, it is the creative whimsy, the actual people, their lives and loves, which make up the icing. And who wants cake without icing, hey? Not me, at any rate!

My latest release is set in 14th century England: An inept king is forcibly deposed and replaced by his young son; the queen mother and her lover Roger Mortimer take over the actual ruling and the barons of England don’t like it one bit, to be lorded over by an adulterous wife and her bit on the side. This is all historical fact, hours of research laying the framework for the story. A story with plenty of human-interest as it stands, but to really spice things up I’ve added the fictional character Adam de Guirande, torn between his love for his young king, his former lord Mortimer—and his wife.

The end result is (I hope) quite the heady brew of medieval intrigue, treachery and passion. But it is the disciplined approach to historical facts and trivia that help build the setting and atmosphere. It is through discipline that I build my medieval world, lacing it with sufficient details to transport the readers right into the draughty guest hall of the Priory of St Mary, one very cold December day in 1327.

It had been decided that the former king was to be buried at St Peter’s Abbey in Gloucester. Some days into December, the court was slowly making its way across a sodden and gloomy England, the king preferring to ride apart with his young companions.

They arrived in Worcester in a squall of rain and sleet. Kit had never entered Worcester from the east before, having always approached from the west and over the bridge spanning the Severn, but once through the gate, the town was very much as she remembered it—albeit surprisingly empty of people, which she took to be due to the freezing weather. They made their way towards the river and the huge whitewashed church of the priory of St Mary’s, stark against the grey skies beyond. By the time they were ushered inside the priory’s guest hall, they were muddy and cold to the bone.

Kit settled herself in a corner, waiting for the bustle to settle. The queen insisted on private accommodation, and the little prior bowed and scraped, hands twisting nervously as he assured his lady queen he would do everything to fulfil her wishes.
Kit pulled her damp cloak closer and suppressed a shiver.
“Cold?” King Edward sat down beside her.
“And wet.”
So was he, his hair plastered to his head. A day of constant wind and rain had left him with windburn, he had a streak of mud under his right eye, and his boots squelched when he moved. And yet it wasn’t that which moved her to place a hand on his face—it was the shadows under his eyes, the uncertain set to his mouth.
“It will be over soon, my lord.”
“Will it?” He pulled off his gloves, rubbing his hands. “I am not so sure, Lady Kit.” He scraped at a scab on his hand, studying the little beads of blood intently.
“Once he is laid at rest, things will be easier.” She used her sleeve to wipe his hand clean of blood.
Edward grunted, no more, sinking into a heavy silence. Kit cast about for a somewhat cheerier subject.
“Looking forward to your wedding, my lord?”
The king blinked. “My wedding?” His mouth curved into a soft smile, and he nodded. “She will be on her way soon.” He gnawed his lip, throwing Kit a look from under long, fair lashes. “I hope she is as pleased as I am.”
“Oh, I am sure she is.”
“Truly?” He smiled again, briefly. He made as if to say something, broke off. Kit waited. “I…” He turned troubled eyes on Kit. “I have never…er…deflowered a maid.”
“I am glad to hear that,” Kit said, laughing silently at his discomfited expression.
“Will I hurt her? I don’t want to, but Montagu says it always hurts the first time for a woman.” He leaned back against the wall, long legs extended before him.
“It doesn’t have to.” Kit recalled her own wedding night. It had been uncomfortable as Adam had been convinced she was no virgin. But he had made amends, loving her with far more tenderness the second time around.
“Lady Philippa will have been told two things: that it may hurt, and that she must lay back and bear it—as any good wife must.” She rubbed at her belly. In response, the child within kicked. “If you want a happy marriage, you don’t want her to lay back and bear it, my lord. You want her to enjoy it.” From the amused look in the king’s eyes and the heat in her cheeks, Kit suspected she was presently the bright red of rowan berries, but she pushed on. “You must…well, I suppose you have to…” She glared at him. “Why don’t you ask Adam instead?”
“He’s not a woman.” The king studied his hands. “I have to touch her, don’t I?” He cleared his throat. “Everywhere.”
“Yes.” Kit fiddled with the clasps of her cloak. “Touch her and kiss her until she strains towards you.”
“What if she doesn’t?”
“Then you’re not touching her boldly enough.”
The king grinned. “Can I hope for some demonstrations, Lady Kit?”
“Most certainly not!” She stood. “If you want further guidance, I suggest you ask someone else.”
“Like Adam.” Yet again that broad grin. “He must do everything right, to judge from your bright face, my lady.”
Kit grinned back, patting her belly. “As a matter of fact, my lord, he does.”