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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Creating characters – an uncontrolled happening

Sometimes, people ask me how I create my characters. I never quite know how to answer, because I’m not sure I have a standardised process. Rephrase: I definitely don’t have a standardised process.

First of all, sometimes my characters sort of pop up all ready to go. That is the case with Matthew Graham, my first “complete” character. (And he looks very satisfies when I say that, all six feet and more of him lounging against a mental door. Sunlight seeps in, highlighting the odd touches of chestnut in his dark hair, his shirt strains over a broad chest, and…Get a grip of yourself, Anna! ) This 17th century man was inspired by a LOT of reading about the 17th century – specifically about the religious persecution that plagued Europe in the aftermath of the Reformation a century or so earlier. Anyway: in Matthew’s case, he just appeared one day, a serious man with strong convictions. A tad too goody-goody (And don’t frown at me, Matthew Graham) , a tad too dour, and I wasn’t quite sure what to do with him. Until a vision of a red bra had me sitting upright in bed one night.

Okay, okay: yes, I know a red bra is a serious anachronism if I’m writing about the 17th century. Thing is, the wearer wasn’t in the 17th century. She was in our time, humming along with something playing in the background. Well-shaped legs in tight jeans, dark, unruly hair cut short, and eyes like cornflowers in the sun.

the-letter-writer-surprised“Who is she?” Matthew asked, peering over my shoulders.
“No idea.” But I already knew she was called Alex, and the tall fair man standing by the cooker was her father.
“I want to meet her,” Matthew said.
“Fat chance. You’re like three centuries apart.”
Matthew fiddled with the worn linen of his shirt sleeve. “She belongs with me.”
“She does?” I looked at the laughing Alex, and I saw a shadow over her, a sadness similar to that which I sometimes saw in Matthew. So maybe he was right: maybe they did belong together, she a nice contrast to his serious disposition. Might liven things up a bit, to have her land in his life.
“Fix it.” Matthew nodded at my keyboard. “Put those magic fingers to good use and bring her to me.”
Which was how I ended up writing The Graham Saga about the rather reluctant time traveller Alex Lind (well, until she met Matthew) and her adventures in the 17th century.

Another of my characters is the consequence of repeated visions of a woman lying on a sheep’s fleece. She is cold, she is dirty and wet, and the man who has just saved her from certain death is also indirectly the man responsible for her recent suffering. This woman is as yet not fully formed, and the man who looks at her shivering form and weeps in silence, plagued by guilt, anger and fear in equal measures only has a name – Jon Crowne – and a face. Those two require a lot of work yet before they can be brought out into the light.

Very often, my characters start as voices. A low, insistent whispering, the odd laugh, a line or two of dialogue. The voice itself tells me little beyond the gender, but soon enough, these voices begin to tell me their story, their thoughts and their dreams, and as they do, the character takes shape and form.

At other times, it’s a gesture. I see someone walking down the street, and the way she whips round when someone calls her name, her hair lifting in the wind, has me smiling, while in my brain the entire little episode is planted into a mental pot, watered by my imagination until that gesture became a figure became a person who then starts to whisper of her dreams and hopes, her fears and past.

Now and then, it is something I see. A hand lifted to adjust an escaped curl. The muscles in a hairy forearm bunching when the owner grips a fork. I watch, entranced, as all those golden hairs move and shift, glistening where the sunlight catches them. And so, just like that, I have my first image of Adam de Guriande, medieval knight and protagonist of my series The King’s Greatest Enemy.
“I’m not that hairy,” he protests, flexing his arm. He is covered in golden fuzz, deliciously so. When I say as much, he flushes.

I guess the conclusion of all this is that I don’t really know how my characters are created. Sometimes, it seems to me they create themselves, with me the lucky beneficiary. Well, okay: not always so lucky, because some of the people who pop up in my head are not exactly the kind of peeps I’d invite over for tea and cake. In any case, whatever it is that sparks these creative bursts, it is not a process. Bummer. I can’t apply for an Author ISO 9001 certification, seeing as ISO requires the process to be repeatable and measurable.  Instead, I embrace those flashes of inspiration that result in a brand new character – even if sometimes this has a very disruptive effect on my sleep!

In my very own bubble

reading-franz-eyblThe other day, I was feeling a bit wilted around the edges. Best cure for that is to curl up somewhere and escape into a book. Quite often, I’ll opt for a book set in the past, one of those books that combines blood and gore with courtly love and honourable men (like my own books, come to think of it. But I cannot read my own books to escape: I end up using a red pen and doing further corrections…)

When I am feeling very, very low, I prefer it if the book in question is one I’ve read before – I need the warmth of familiarity rather than the suspense of new adventures. In these situations, my go-to books are rarely any literary pearls. I’m not in the mood to savour carefully constructed sentences – I need love, and preferably steamy love. So I read Sylvia Day. Or Amanda Quick. Or (yup: I do) E.L. James.

I have a crush on Gideon Cross (Sylvia Day’s very hot, very powerful, male protagonist) I have less of a crush on Mr Grey, but both these men hide scars under polished exteriors, and I like that. In Amanda Quick’s case, her heroes are less scarred, less powerful, just as hot – and seriously, peeking as a Regency hero undresses is something else, starting with those tight, tight Hessians.

Now, when I’m re-reading Ms Day or Ms Quick, I can always argue I am doing it to hone my writing skills. These two ladies are accomplished writers, delivering well-wrought characters and (especially in the case of Ms Quick) delicious dialogue. I read Ms Quick to laugh. I read Ms Day to fan myself.

Ms Quick writes romances set in the 19th century (all through the century) and has a preference for male heroes with green, grey or amber eyes. Her heroines are determined young ladies who set out to sort whatever problem they might have all on their own, and invariably the hero comes to their aid – well, except for when the hero is the problem. Excellent historical context, vivid descriptions and intelligent plotlines make Ms Quick’s books fun to read – several times.

readers-jean-jacques-hennerMs Day does write historical romances – quite adeptly, I might add – but it is her Crossfire books that I return to time and time again. A male protagonist burdened by his past encounters an equally scarred young woman. Sparks fly, and just like that, Eva and Gideon grow into my heart. Eva is no retiring violet – but her past haunts her. It is Gideon who saves her from her past, and she in turn takes on the task of freeing this man from the shadows of his childhood. Two damaged people trying to heal each other – a somewhat combustible combo, all of it delivered in well-paced prose, generously laced with hot, steamy sex scenes.

In comparison with Ms Day, Ms James delivers clunky and tedious sex scenes. So boring, in fact, that I rarely read them. The dialogue is awful, cliché stacked upon cliché. Anastasia Steele is an anachronism: here we have a young, pretty woman in the 21st century who does not have a laptop (seriously?) who is unused to smartphones (err…) and is also a virgin – a total innocent when it comes to sex. Which makes it sort of incredible when she accepts Grey’s proposal to enter into a Dom-Sub relationship with him.

The writing is generally awful. The supporting characters are caricatures. And despite all this, Ms James’ books have sold millions and millions. Why? Well, that is what I try to work out as I re-read them. Pure research, people…Ha! Who am I trying to fool? I read them because I like them, and I know why I like them: Ms James offers a new take on the oldest story around, that of love as a healing force. Like The Beauty and the Beast, Anastasia saves Christian. From himself, from his self-imposed loneliness, from his past, from his self-hatred. Come to think of it, all good romances are variations on this old chestnut. The interesting thing about Fifty Shades is that it’s not a good romance, in the sense that the writing is sub-standard. And still it sells. Obviously, Ms James has succeeded where it truly counts: she has given the readers protagonists they truly care about.

reader-fragonard_the_readerNone of the above crosses my mind when I retreat into my escapist bubble. In my bubble, all I want is to be entertained, dragged out of my reality which, at present, sucks. Any writer who can create an illusion strong enough to yank me out of the here and now has, IMO, done their job. Kudos to them, I say.

It’s all about people, people

Sometimes, people ask me why I write historical fiction. “Why such a difficult genre?” they ask, which in itself makes me a tad irritated, as historical fiction, IMO, is not a genre – it’s an umbrella under which all other genres coexist. In essence, the “historical” in historical fiction merely indicates that the story is set in a non-contemporary time.It says nothing about the content as such, albeit that many people seem to think historical fiction is defined by blood and gore and thousands upon thousands dying in one battle or other. 

Yes, that stuff happens in historical novels. It also happens in contemporary novels – it happens in real life around us on a daily basis. There are historical novels that are essentially love stories, there are others that are coming-of-age stories, yet another author delivers a well-crafted thriller set in distant times, and quite a few produce so called cosy mysteries a la Miss Marple. As long as all these very different books are set in the past, they end up labelled as historical fiction – and considered comparable. Obviously, they are not.

I write books set in the past because I am something of a history geek. Since I was old enough to read for myself, I have submerged myself in stories set in the past – no matter genre – because I wanted to pretend I was there, in an era very distant from my own. Escapism in its purest form, one could say.

And yes, I spend very many happy hours researching my chosen setting – at times resulting in tangential excursions that bring no value whatsoever to my WIP, but expand my soul and enrich my life in general. After all, who doesn’t want to know that Peter the Great married a low-born, illiterate commoner? Or that Eleanor of Castile had a half-brother, Felipe, already a bishop when he threw his ecclesiastic career out of the window to marry a Norwegian princess?

You can research your setting and the era you’ve chosen until you’re blue in the face. That in itself will not result in a page-turning novel. In fact, sometimes too much research produces a major info-dump instead – you know, books in which the author expends pages and pages on showcasing their own knowledge of the period, thereby effectively killing pace.

A skilled writer of historical fiction inserts DETAILS, not paragraphs. A skilled writer – no matter genre – also knows that if you want the story you write to resonate with the reader, your novel must deliver some sort of insight into the commonalities of being human.Therefore, for a novel to come alive, it requires characters that are vibrant and complex, real enough to step out of the pages, no matter if they ever existed or not. 

People have not changed all that much through the centuries. We are still needy creatures, both on a physical and emotional level. Think Maslow, and I guess we all agree humans have physiological needs, a desire to feel safe, to belong. We do in this day and age, they did back in historic (and pre-historic) times as well.

It is therefore a safe bet to assume human emotions and reactions are relatively constant throughout the ages. Someone betrays you, the visceral rage you feel is probably identical to the one your 12th century ancestor felt when he realised he’d been set up. Loving someone probably feels the same – maybe with the caveat that these days, we consider it a borderline human right to be loved and love. Back in the darker and grimmer eras that precede ours, love was something of a luxury: if you had food and a roof over your head, if you were safe and your children set up for surviving, you could live with not falling into throes of passion at the sight of your husband/wife. Truth is, you didn’t EXPECT to love your spouse – you married for reasons on the lower lever of the Maslow pyramid. But this doesn’t preclude that IF you fell in love, it would feel exactly the same way as it feels today.

All of us have personal experience of feelings and emotions. As these are the most important aspects to convey in a novel, we could all, potentially, carry a budding writer within. There is, however, a major difference between experiencing an emotion and describing it – plus, once again, it is a fine balancing act between describing too much and too little. Readers enjoy filling in the blanks. Writers don’t want them to fill in the blanks with the wrong stuff, so writers have to leave enough hints to steer the reader in the right direction. This is the major difference between “show” and “tell” writing – as in “She was so devastated and confused she had no idea what to do next” (the writer informs – tells – the reader of what the protagonist is experiencing) or “She couldn’t quite focus: her hands shook, her mouth was the texture of paper, her brain a total blank” (the writers presents the protagonist’s reactions which the reader analyses before concluding she is in a bad way, probably in some sort of shock).

Whatever the case, it is my opinion that to write a novel one must be fascinated by humanity, in all its diverse forms. It is only by presenting the reader with a mirror in which they can recognise their own emotions that a writer succeeds in hooking them. And once the reader has swallowed the bait, it doesn’t really matter if the book is set in the future, the past or the present. What matters is that the reader is willing to take a ride through the imagined landscapes produced by the writer, hand in hand with the protagonist.

This post was written for IndieBrag, albeit in a somewhat different form

The art of description – better too little than too much!

Whenever summer comes around, chances are I’ll be slouching in the shade reading a Lee Child novel. There is something very comforting about reading his books. Jack Reacher always survives, is always on the side of good, and the pace is fast and gripping. It is also a relief to read something outside my own genre, as the reading experience becomes more relaxed when I don’t go “Ooooo, that was an elegant insertion of historical detail” or “OMG: I wish I had written that!” or “That can’t be right, can it? A match in the 18th century?” (turns out it was – sort of).

So I read Lee Child to relax – except I don’t, because Mr Child is an expert at succinct descriptions, a few word sufficing to paint a person, a location, a situation, and I read and reread, because seriously, to describe your characters is an art. As a writer, I have a very clear picture of what my protagonists look like – but the moment I turn them over to the public in a published book, I’m also inviting the readers to form their own images, and to do so I must describe some things but not all things.

Take, for example, Adam de Guirande, tall and rugged 14th century knight. Now I know exactly what he looks like – all over.
“No you don’t,” Adam objects. “It’s not as if you’ve seen me stark naked.”
Umm…I sure have. I’ve seen him in the bath, I’ve seen him curled up in a dungeon, I’ve seen him hoisting his little son up in the air, I’ve seen him kissing his wife. More importantly, I’ve experienced his fears and hopes, lived through his rushes of adrenaline, felt the indescribable pain of having a mallet slammed through his foot (my toes curl) felt his heart beat faster when he sees his Kit, cried with him for Roger Mortimer when he’s dragged off in chains, hated Hugh Despenser as fervently as Adam does – the whole gamut of emotions experienced by an adult man torn apart by his loyalties in a time of severe unrest.

In each and every one of these situations, I know exactly what my fair-haired knight looks like. I know if he’s unshaven, if he has bags under his eyes, if there’s egg-yolk on his tunic (“Never,” Adam says, sounding quite offended. He’s wrong. A weakened man does not always eat as neatly as he’d like.) But I don’t impose all these visuals on my readers. I just drop some details – his scruffy hair in one scene, a vulnerable set to his mouth in another, a narrowing of his grey eyes in a third.

Other than Adam being tall, fair, grey-eyed and with a thin scar running down his face, I leave the rest of him up to my readers’ imagination. Does he have a long nose? Is there a dimple on his chin? Do his brows grow bushier towards the temples? I know, obviously, but I’ll allow each and every person who develops a relationship with Adam to decide those things for themselves. That way, they can make Adam their own. Well: He’s mine, but I can share him. (So as to avoid having my eyes scratched out by Adam’s wife, Kit, I hasten to add that ultimately he is her man, not mine. Of course.)

Lee Child has perfected a similar approach. After twenty odd Jack Reacher books, I dare say all readers have their own impression of what he might look like, and the only thing the avid Lee Child readers will agree on is that he does not look like Tom Cruise. At all. For starters, Jack Reacher is big – like very, very big. And then…Ah: that’s right, we don’t know much more than that, do we? More to the point, we don’t need to – we all have the imagination required to fill in the details.

Right: and with this I must leave you. Jack Reacher calls, and I just know that unless I keep an eye on him, he might end up in trouble. Come to think of it, Jack Reacher is ALWAYS in trouble.

As to Adam de Guirande, Timelight Press has published two out of four books in the series featuring him. The King’s Greatest Enemy is set in the 1320s and is the story of Adam, his wife Kit, and their adventures during Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. The first book, In the Shadow of the Storm, was published in 2015. The second book, Days of Sun and Glory, has just come out. Both books have been awarded Readers’ Favourite Five Star Seals, and Days has been selected an Editor’s Choice by Historical Novel Society. So, if you’re a fan of historical fiction (and selective descriptions) I urge  to enter a world of political intrigue, watch my protagonists navigate a world in which loss is certain and life is not.

A light in the dark

IMG_0323Wandering through the past has similarities to walking through the forest on a summer night. There is enough light to make out the general shape of things, the odd boulder, the stand of rustling oaks. The water of the distant lake shimmers in the ambient light, and a streak of orange hovers to the west – enough to illuminate the general contours that surround you.

The details, however, hide in the shadows. Something crunches benath your foot, and in the dark you have no idea whether it was a twig or the fragile shell of a bird’s egg. All you know is that something broke.

Writing historical fiction requires dragging those hidden details out into the light. In some cases, the author will fill in the gaps with plausible events – at least according to that author. But what is plausible for one author, is impossible for another, and so we can have two equally competent writers writing about the same historical person and depicting that person very differently. The classic example is Richard III, elevated to the heroic victim of whispered calumnies by some, presented as a ruthless murderer of innocents by others.

Some writers allow themselves the pleasure of presenting the same historical character differently in different books. One such example is Tony Riches, who in his book about Eleanor Cobham presents her husband, Humphrey of Gloucester, in a far more favourable light than he does in his book Owen, which features Owen Tudor and his secret marriage to Catherine Valois, Henry V’s widow (and Humphrey’s sister-in-law). Of course, neither of these depictions is correct – should Humphrey materialise before us, he’d probably be quite surprised by how he has been represented, as would Richard III. And Henry VII. Maybe not so much Henry VIII – although I suspect he would loudly claim he was the victim of a character assassination. From Henry VIII’s perspective, it is unfortunate that so much documentation from his reign has survived. Richard III, however, can give us a toothy grin and ask us just what sources we would base our assertion that he murdered his nephews on.

Things become even more diffuse if you choose to write about people who did not figure on the central stage – maybe who did not exist at all. Obviously, in this latter case you can ignore all need to research the individual’s timeline – you make it up as you go – but for the sake of plausibility, there is no getting away from the need to shed some light on the historical darkness. You need context. You need details. You need a setting that comes to life, whether through the draught that filters through the slats in the shutters or the endless sequence of meals that consist of pottage.

Actually, an author ALWAYS has to illuminate the setting. Whether contemporary or historical, sci-fi or dystopian, a writer aspires to anchor the reader in his/her world, with his/her characters. Readers can forgive a sloppy setting if the characters live and breathe. (The other way around doesn’t work – ever). But readers remember the books that transport them to whatever corner of the universe, in whatever time the writer has chosen to set the story in.

All of the above influenced me as I considered what to name my imprint. Yup. MY imprint.  Allow me to introduce Timelight Press – a little light in the endless oceans of time – and space 🙂

TimeLight-Press-logo_05 light