Ageism, Publishing, and the Notion of Reading Down

During the recent Romance Writers of Australia conference, this year titled Love in Isolation, I had to opportunity to ask Liz Pelletier, Editor and CEO of Entangled Publishing, how the company’s August imprint was going. August, if you are not aware, is an imprint aimed at Gen-Xers, with “older characters in their 40s”. It was launched in 2018. Kudos galore to Entangled for launching this line when other publishers outright ignore the consumer base of Gen-Xers, Boomers, and those beyond in favour of adhering to the stagnant tradition of keeping female leads young whilst courting younger readers. Hooray for an imprint that is specifically aimed at 40-somethings. Hooray for a publisher picking up on readers looking for Seasoned Romance. However, As happy as Entangled’s August made me when it launched, there were several troubling things that Liz mentioned in her reply to my question about how the line fared in 2020. The August imprint does not, as Liz said, “release many titles.” She also said that there “aren’t that many authors who want to write older characters,” but then she followed up that statement by emphasising that August books “don’t sell as well as predicted based on the number of authors who were begging for this genre because, it turns out, everybody still kind of reads down,” meaning readers read younger characters.

First, I’ll unpack the “everybody still kind of reads down” statement. Romance (and most genre fiction) readers read ‘down’ for one huge reason: the overwhelming number of lead characters in romance are in their twenties. The vast majority of romance novels produced and published every year feature heroines who are young, as in 39 and under. It’s hard to find a romance novel where this is not the norm. The norm means people are going to read down since the young heroine is what continues to be produced and published.

Next, any author will tell you discovery is hard. There are times discovery is tricky for readers too. Romance readers looking for older main characters often find it frustrating when there is no clear keyword to use when searching for the books they want. Search terms like older couples, older women and romance, middle-aged women and romance, and silver fox women seldom lead to romance novels with seasoned main characters. BISAC codes, that is the standard coding system used by many companies, such as Amazon, to categorise books based on topical content uses this classification for romance fiction with older main characters : FIC027380 FICTION / Romance / Later in Life, but that code seldom leads directly to wwhat you want or to what you expect, when you do a book search on Amazon. More vexing is how an imprint like August says it’s targeting Gen X readers, yet doesn’t release many titles. Since its 2018 launch, there have been 10 August titles, but only 9 are listed on the website, but are not easy to find if you aren’t aware of Entangled and its August line. Have you heard of August? I bet you haven’t. There hasn’t been much mention of the imprint anywhere since it’s launch, except for my occasional mention of it in various posts made here, and in comments after I did guest bits on review sites like All About Romance.

Finally, yes, I admit there are authors who have been begging, and continue to beg, for an imprint like August, authors, besides me, who have been pushing for Seasoned Romance, mature romance, later in life romance, whatever you want to call it, because we know there isn an audience. Many romance authors who “are begging” for more imprints like August are also romance READERS who are tired of not seeing themselves represented in fiction, tired of being shut out of a beloved genre, tired of reading down. What I really fail to understand is why a publisher would use the number of authors begging for the genre as a demographic for predicting how well an imprint would sell when it is the readers who matter?

Remember how I asked if you’ve heard of August? I ran a poll on the Seasoned Romance Facebook reader group, which has a 3K+ membership. I asked reader members if they were aware of the Entangled’s August line. The response was a rather resounding “nope.”

I am not a professional in market research and advertising, but I am not blind to the practice or blind to the population base that is trickle-fed crumbs, or more often completely overlooked as even being a demographic. Case in point, the readers of the Seasoned Romance Facebook group are a ready-made test group for market research, yet romance publishers do not appear to include the group in any sort of market research. Companies, tend to seek out the youth market. They see anything outside the young dollar as a risk. This is the mindset of marketing, of so much advertising, and why August releases so few titles with the excuse –-and it is an excuse—that readers read down.

I take umbrage with being told I read down. If you have read my posts before, I have suggested that publishers deceive themselves by only courting younger readers without realising those younger will one day be older readers. The belief in the tradition of presenting younger main characters is just that, a tradition. It is vital to note, that, whether you are a Millennial pushing 40, Gen X, a Boomer, or a Silent Gen reader, whether you read science fiction, crime, mystery, or romance novels it is readers who need to let publishers know what they want or else nothing will ever change. Cis, het, white romance with young heroines will remain the staple, the tradition. We can discuss how we need diverse romance, talk about inclusion, and still leave age representation and ageism out of the conversation since romance has a tradition of romance being a younger woman’s tale. Traditions can be lovely, but they can also be rabidly prescriptive and immeasurably narrow-minded. Some traditions, like keeping romance heroines young, can lead to and perpetuate age stereotypes and lack of representation, to the impression that people over the age of 40 do not have sex, that women over 40, especially women who happen to have grandchildren, do not have sex, and even if they did no one would want to read about them because granny sex is gross. Do you want to let a publisher decide for you, to allow a publisher cling to a notion that is set in stone and denies you representation? Is it really reasonable when a publisher suggests you read down,? Are you happy to accept the misconception that there are not many authors writing older lead couples in romance or writing older female leads in other genres?

I write older leads; my books have female protagonists who are aged 40+ and they are paired with men of a similar age. My romantic suspense spy thriller mystery In Service series, is indie published. I chose to go indie for several reasons, but what really kicked me into deciding to go indie with the books was an agent rejection I received saying the forty-something hero was great, but a heroine just 5 years older than the hero, wasn’t ideal for romantic suspense, ideal meaning she was ‘too old’. I had enough of the sexist ageism. Authors struggle with embedded ageism when they submit seasoned romance novels to publishers of romance, they are turned away, told to make their heroines younger, told they won’t sell well. How can they sell well. or sell at all, when It’s a struggle to get released even by an imprint which is aimed 40-somethings, an imprint that gets little to no marketing push because most readers “read down” meaning it’s not worth the attention. The International Institute for Analytics’ Robert Morison talks about the need to keep ageism out of analytics. Morison states:

Ageist stereotypes hold that older Americans don’t spend their money, they’re brand loyal, and they’re interested in a limited number of products, services, and experiences…

The point of mentioning this is that readers read down because romance has always been about younger people, especially younger women, and there is a misconception that no one wants to read about older women with an array of life experiences. Except they do, and publishers need to tune into in remembering, and understanding, that older romance readers are still consumers who want to see themselves reflected in the books they read. If it seems like I am picking on Entangled’s August imprint, I most certainly am. There is such exciting potential being squandered. Morison goes on to say,

“Brands need to be talking to them authentically and, insofar as possible, individually. Cursory attempts to reach the older market, and to reach it en masse, are guaranteed to fail.”

As a reader, and as an author, August feels like an absolute cursory attempt. As I mentioned, since its launch in 2018, there have been a total of 10 books released (although only 9 show on the August website), with little or no fanfare, and a modicum of advertising and promotion that stemmed from what individual authors have done themselves. August, with its 10 titles, appears doomed, which is tragic because its failure will be seen as just one more reason to say that romance fiction with older leads won’t sell, that older heroines won’t sell, that readers read down, that younger is better and more lucrative. Sadly, the pursuit of the youth market has become a fixed mindset. It’s risk aversion; a bit of the old if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, a little of the we’ve always done it this way, a whole lot of the is the standard practice. This is, as Morrison notes,

ageism by omission. The antidote is to have more age diversity across the board: on product and service development teams, marketing teams, and focus and test-market groups. Older consumers may be much more interested in your offerings than you imagine, and new offerings aimed at them can drive business growth.”

Part of doing what Morison suggests means that, once you have an offering that can drive business growth, make the product visible. I am here to tell you, as a reader, as a consumer, as a women over 40 who wants to see women like me reflected in advertising, film and all kinds of genre fiction, especially romance, older consumers are interested in more than a cursory attempt to gain our custom. Prove that you see us. Be authentic. Don’t hide your product away or tell us the same old bullshit about how we’re supposed to think that younger is better and older won’t sell.

Are you listening, Entangled?

If you’re keen on reading romance novels with older, ‘seasoned’ main characters, aside from my books, try The July Guy by Natasha Moore, (an August author), Karen Booth’s Bring Me Back, and The Love Game by Maggie Wells.

 

References

Morison, R. (2020). Keep ageism out of your analytics. The International Institute for Analytics. https://www.iianalytics.com/blog/2020/8/19/keep-ageism-out-of-your-analytics?fbclid=IwAR1-SAmzcBX-1yXvCtIQHP-FRZzpUjKjSNv7AQE3Xdp6ZXBY28sKGq4_MMI

 

 

Visibility, Invisibility: Grey Hair Breaking Down the Wall

Karen Booth, the author, advocate for Seasoned Romance, and co-founder of the Seasoned Romance Facebook group has a new book coming out in February, and it is an important book. Have a look as the title and cover and you may understand why—if you are over the age of 40, you may, at last, feel seen.

Visibility and invisibility slot together with discussions about inclusion and diversity, which boil down to the need to be seen. In Karen’s upcoming seasoned romance, Gray Hair Don’t Care, visibility and invisibility hinge upon a full head of hair. For some women, grey hair is fraught with meaning that is usually not positive. In our society, many equate grey hair with with decline, particularly if you’re female. Women are told in subtle and not so subtle ways that grey hair signals the decline of not merely youth, but of desirability, of their worth as a human being.

Grey hair is a human being’s badge of successful living, a sure sign of age and ageing well. I say ‘ageing well’ because growing older, that is, not dying at a young age, is what humans seek. We search for ways we can exercise better to maintain our bodies, eat foods that may help us live longer. If you are female living longer, going grey, a perfectly natural aspect that comes with bypassing that early grave, is signposted as something ugly, as something shameful, as something to deny, cover up, to erase. I don’t know about you, but  I’m sick of that directive. While there is a growing backlash against covering one’s grey, the message that grey hair must be denied and dyed is powerful, deeply embedded in our culture, and it continues to, along with the plethora of anti-ageing products aimed at women, reinforce the notion that women and ageing do not go together. Sexism, ageism, and sexist, ageist practice is embedded in society and runs deep, so deep may people fail to notice it at all. This is why seeing a cover like Karen’s is so important. Many women will, at last, feel seen.

If you haven’t noticed how deep ageist practices go when it comes to women and grey hair, allow me to point out that you have most likely been indoctrinated to accept that a woman who has managed not to die and continues to live a long life is not a necessary depiction in advertising, on screen, or between the pages of a novel. Especially if she has grey or white hair. When an older ‘grey’ woman is represented it is in roles that cast her as secondary character, such as mother or grandmother, or, more often than not, as an ageist stereotype, such as cougar, lunatic, harpy, menopausal comic relief, or as sexless crone. Without realising, you have witnessed the regular ageist practice against women in advertising, film, and fiction, especially in romance fiction where older women are seldom seen, or not seen at all. You may not even notice that a male lead, the hero, is allowed to be the silver or grey fox, with distinguished grey temples, while a woman the same age, combined with the perceived ugliness of her grey hair, leads to devaluing and outright erasure.

Perhaps you are aware of this all because you are a woman who’s wondered why you no longer see other women like you in films, on TV, or in books. You may be a person of colour, or Muslim, or disabled, or fat and you want to see women who are like you, and you long to be represented. In this case, representation, visibility and invisibility comes down to the few hairs I’m splitting here, as you, if you read my pieces on ageism and romance fiction, would expect me to.

Karen and I share a few things. We are advocates for seasoned romance and women over the age of 40, and we have both written books that feature older women with grey or white hair as leads in romance fiction. The older female protagonist, or, as the genre prefers to call her, an older heroine, remains an anomaly in the genre. Still. I’ve been writing and studying older heroines in romance fiction for nearly two decades. Seven years ago, my second book, For Your Eyes Only, was published. It had taken me close to ten years to find a publisher who didn’t tell me I had to make my heroine younger. I was thrilled and so grateful that I had found an editor and a publishing house who were open to the idea of an older woman positioned as the heroine rather than as a secondary character or as a stereotype of a woman of a ‘certain age’. The silver foxy heroine in Karen’s Gray Hair Don’t Care is 47. The heroine in For Your Eyes Only is 50 and had white hair. Karen’s cover is gloriously representative of her heroine’s age. My cover is…well, as you can see, the victim of my publisher’s concern about my heroine’s advanced age. The cover model is 15 years younger and blonde rather than white-haired.

I should have fought harder for a different cover. I should have pushed and clawed for an image that conveyed that a white-haired, middle-aged woman was worthy of being a heroine on the cover, but there were a few things happening that prevented me from doing so. I was a new author, I had no clout, and, as I mentioned, my publisher was the only publisher willing to take a risk on a new author writing a heroine who sat outside the age norms of romance fiction.

Karen and I, as well as many other authors who have submitted books to romance fiction publishers, have faced the ageism and the ageist brick wall that exists within the industry. The brick wall often came—and still comes—in the form of statements such as, ‘we’re not sure how to market this book’ or ‘we don’t think there’s an audience for this book’ or ‘this book won’t sell unless you make the heroine younger’ or my favourite, ‘no one wants to read granny sex’. The way our culture has been conditioned to accept ageist practices as normal, feeds ongoing publishing concerns that putting a more ‘mature-aged’ woman on the cover would turn off readers, that a book featuring an image of woman with grey or white hair would not sell. Of course, any business would be apprehensive about a product that might not sell. No one wants to lose money. As I have said so many times before, film and fiction are actually losing out on making money by ignoring a specific population with money to spend. Being ignored as a consumer is one more form of invisibility.

Visibility and invisibility. Cover art comes and goes, from Fabio’s flowing tresses and drooping bodices to the current illustrated trend in romance fiction. If you didn’t know, many publishes use stock images to create cover designs, and this is where I admit I am not a huge fan of the illustrated cover. I’m also not a fan of a bare chest, the floating head shot over a country background, or the genre’s iconic clinch cover, yet it is obvious the illustrated cover solves issues that publishers find insurmountable, such as finding stock cover images to present curvy or fat heroines, disabled heroines, heroines of colour, heroines from non-western cultures, older heroines. It’s sad. It’s shameful in the way grey hair is not. It’s exasperating as hell. Things have changed a little in the last 2 years, but what’s out there is merely OK. It needs to be better. While silver foxy men are a cinch to find, peruse stock image companies for older women and you’ll find lots of attractive middle-aged women touching their faces. Search for mature couples and you’ll see lots of picnics.

As Karen notes in her cover reveal for Gray Hair, Don’t Care, rather than face the frustration of wrestling with the ingrained preconception romance fiction editors and CEOs have about grey-haired women, or trying to find a decent stock image, she decided to indie publish Gray Hair Don’t Care and commission a cover artist. That was one smart move. While Karen addresses, directly, the embedded ageist notions represented by a woman with grey hair, I went in a different direction when it came to choosing cover images for my indie releases, the In Service series about a middle-aged female butler and the spy who loves her. I decided to lean into the vector silhouette images one might find in spy fiction because of how incredibly difficult it is to find stock images of middle-aged women. I knew what I was up against. Then again, so did indie author Maggie Christensen. Publishers who adhere to the notion that a woman aged 40+ has no business being on a cover have their arses squarely kicked by Maggie, a Scotswoman living in Australia. When it comes to her seasoned romance covers and heroines, she knows her audience, writes fabulous romance fiction featuring women 40+, and Maggie puts those more grown-up women on her book covers, using the same style as romance novels featuring women in their 20s.

Maggie, like Karen, Natasha Moore, Maggie Wells, Kristen Ashley and I sell books and garner great reviews from readers who have sought out seasoned romance with more grown up heroines, older female leads, mature female protagonists whatever you want to call women over 40 who are the main characters.

What makes me most cranky about this ongoing struggle with sexist ageism is that publishers are ignoring readers. Readers responding to Karen’s cover reveal ought to be evidence enough that older women want to see themselves reflected in the books they read. Visibility and invisibility. There are two things at stake here: the inclusion and representation of women of all ages on book covers and between the pages, whatever colour their hair might be, and instead of publishers telling authors that books with grey-haired women on the cover won’t sell, perhaps it’s time to take note of how readers have been ignored for far too long. I say this because, at the online Romance Writers of Australia (RWAus) conference I attended last weekend, the same editor who once told me that no one wanted to read granny sex also stated that authors were the ones pushing for seasoned romance. I believe, wholeheartedly, that this editor is wrong. As an author and as a reader, I’d like to point out that readers are driving the call for older heroines, for seasoned romance. Readers make up the overwhelming majority of the 3K+ Seasoned Romance Facebook group, as well as the nearly 2K membership of Romance In Her Prime. It is readers who are searching for heroines who look like they do—women with greying or grey hair, crow’s feet, with lines on their faces, life experience and the baggage that comes with it. It comes down to visibility and invisibility, to representation and inclusion. It’s obvious that publisher demographic studies, like so much advertising market research, fails to include older people, especially older women in their investigations or even take them into account as consumers—unless it’s for cruises, funeral insurance, or osteoarthritis relief. In their endeavour to make money, companies seek out the next generation of consumers, dropping the consumers they may already have, which in this case are readers. Romance readers, the editor at last weekend’s RWAus conference said, read down, meaning they read about younger characters, but this is only so because there are so few books like Karen’s, like mine, that offer older readers, grey-haired or not, the visibility they crave.

My books with silver, white, & grey haired heroines are available here and here. Karen Booth’s Gray Hair Don’t Care is out in February 2021. It’s now available for preorder. It’s going to be huge, the book that breaks through and breaks down the wall for seasoned romance.

And it’ll be because of flowing grey hair.

Value Judgement: AGE IS NOT an Indication of a Person’s Worth

There is something I have been stewing over, trying find to a way to deal with my rage and put it into words without, well, simply ranting. I really, really want to rant. The suggestion one ought to give up their life for the good of a country’s economy is disturbing, like this pandemic is, but I realised the vile idea serves to underscore the ageism I often discuss. Sometimes hashing out an issue in writing helps to quell my urge to rant. At least that is what I am hoping. Like ageism crusader Ashton Applewhite, I’m going to use the term olders instead older people or elderly, which often conjures an automatic inference of infirmity. And yes, eventually I’ll relate this to how the media, that is film and fiction continue to portray olders as stereotypes, especially when it comes to women.

Strap in. These are weird times and it may get a little weird in here.

As we’ve witnessed with this pandemic, there are those who are fine with allowing olders to die, some even going as far as saying olders should be willing to give up their lives for the good of a country’s economy. The reasoning is, older individuals have lived a full life and ought to move over, or on, for the people who are making a contribution to society. Boomers, retirees, elderly in assisted living communities, olders sponging off taxpayers need to give up using the ventilators and consent let someone younger and probably in better health, with a higher probability of survival, use them. Olders are already ‘on their way out’ so they should be willing to just lie down and die for the good of others.

If you have been lucky enough to not hear about this, here is a sample of what I mean. An Article in The Telegraph mentions that the death of older people could actually be beneficial by “culling elderly dependents.” As if that isn’t horrifying enough, the Human Rights Watch article Rights Risks to Older People in COVID-19 Response: Combat Ageism; Ensure Access to Health Care, Services, Human Rights Watch reports that Ukraine’s former health minister suggested people aged 65+ were already “corpses” and the government need to focus all COVID-19 efforts on people “who are still alive.” This blatant ageism devalues human beings, is basically eugenics, and I don’t know about you, but it sounds a lot like something a Nazi would say. Nazis were big into eugenics.

Eugenics, by the way, is, judging a group to be inferior and excluding them while nurturing others judged to be superior, all to improve the quality of life, but in this case, instead of a selective ‘breeding out’ of undesirable genetic traits, it’s a ‘weeding out’ of an undesirable portion of the population for the ‘good of others.’ The undesirables here are olders.

Older. Undesirable. You can set the practice of ‘weeding out’ against the sexism and ageism women face as they move through life. If you are a middle-aged woman, you probably have noticed the ‘you are already on your way out’ notion. Maybe you started to see—or felt—your undesirability around the time you turned 40 or 45. Western society asserts 40 is an age when a woman’s value suddenly diminishes; it’s time for her to suddenly shrivel up, dry up, and tumble downhill all the way to nothingness, invisibility. The devaluing is often attached to the warped idea that a woman who is no longer fertile has nothing to offer to society, beyond being a caregiver or looking after grandchildren. Evolutionary biologists do research into why post-menopausal women live, and it’s a conundrum wrapped up in the concept of reproductive purpose and the contribution these women make in their later years. There’s the occasional scientific mention of post-fertile female killer whales who lead their pods, but unlike matriarchal older non-reproductive female whales, non-productive human females who lead are still an anomaly. Older and older woman are wrapped up in sexist, ageist practices and images we have been exposed to since birth. You’ve seen them over and over. Familiar stereotypes of harpy, dried-up, sexless, middle-aged hag with saggy breasts go hand in hand with the dottery, hard-of hearing, sexless, grumpy, olders with canes and walkers.

Thankfully, there has been a very small shift in the presentation and portrayal of women who have crossed the It’s Over at 40 line, a number of women have risen to leadership positions, and there has been some representation not wrapped up in an older woman’s fertility or, let’s face it, fuckability. It is a start, but there remains this persistent thought that chronological age equals undesirability, decline, and infirmity across the board, and it is devaluing. It hinders our ability to envision our future selves in realistic, positive ways. While it is true that olders are more susceptible to illness, AGE IS NOT an indication of a person’s worth any more than being a woman over the age of 40 is.

Tackling the age discrimination—the widely, most practiced and acceptable prejudice that crosses all boundaries of culture, race, gender, and sex—early on is the one way we can begin to combat all forms of discrimination. While skin colour, your ethnic background, the gender you embrace vary, all of us age; it is our commonality, something we can relate to as we move through life. If we are lucky enough, we will live a long life. Long life is what most of us strive for, hope for, but quite bizarrely, we deny the fact that to have a long life one ages, and we ridicule ourselves for daring to ‘get old,’ we deride and punish others who get old or have lived a long life and are old, and suggest that it’s better sacrifice themselves for being old. We, from governments, film, fiction, advertising, to young children, need to rethink, re-educate, recognise and respond to intersecting types of discrimination. These months may push us apart, yet this is the time for us to come together to change the way we choose to value human beings, and we must not base this on a procreative, economic contribution to society, or any other discriminatory habit. We must change the way we choose to value human beings, and we must not base this on a procreative, economic contribution to society, or any other discriminatory habit we have come to accept without question.

Stamping out and calling out ageism, especially when it comes to women, is my mission. I try to fight and challenge ageist stereotypes with the older-than-the-standard characters I create in the books I write. I try to defy the sexist and ageist practice that exists within the romance fiction publishing industry. Diversity is the battle cry, but age is a diversity issue too often left out of the call. It’s a small thing, and it may seem silly to some of you, but I am passionate about presenting and representing women over 40 as lead characters, rather than as the cockamamie stereotypes we have had forced down our throats decade after decade after decade.

I have a new book out, the third of my In Service series. True to Your Service is a gritty, occasionally witty romantic suspense cosy spy thriller mystery about a middle-aged female butler and the spy who loves her. It’s available as an ebook from all e-tailers here and paperback here. It’s had a few very nice reviews.

I’ve stewed on things long enough. I’m mostly done ranting. I have another book in the series to write. I’m doing my part in kicking ageism arse.

Won’t you do yours?

Wanna Sneak Peek a Chapter?

Perhaps you’re after a break from the incessant VIRUS and other glum news and you’re looking for a bit of a European springtime getaway, one bursting with new season colour. Maybe you’re wanting a bit of romance, mystery, and thrilling adventure, the sort spies and the middle-aged Irish butlers they love seem to have, except flying is out of the question, you know, with borders being closed, social distancing, and no one but hoarders having toilet paper.

This is why reading is SO AWESOME. Reading transports you to other seasons, to other places, and gives you the opportunity to step into a seasoned romance full of suspense, mystery and spies, where toilet paper isn’t really an issue–unless it’s used as a weapon, which, in the case of True to Your Service, I can assure it is not. But other things are, and they are jungle green.

Allow me to transport you to London’s Regents Park in early May. And if you like London, maybe you’ll want to snag a copy of True to Your Service and travel on to beautiful gardens in Amsterdam and the countryside of the Netherlands. Or perhaps a sex shop in Amsterdam tickles your, uh, fancy and you’d enjoy reading about a seasoned butler and the equally seasoned spy who are very much in love, secretly married, and willing to risk life and fingers to keep that love–and each other–alive.

Get ready for mystery, thrills, true love, sex, spies, scrambled eggs, and bar full of monkeys!

Amazon, Apple, Kobo, and Nook 

Chapter One

A dog and a wife, two things one didn’t typically associate with a man in his profession. Married spies in fiction or on screen were few and far between—unless one counted tales of Russian sleeper agents living in plain sight. Married spies with smallish dogs best known for being the favourite companion to noblewomen in the Middle Ages were also an anomaly.

As the dog in the back seat nudged his snout between the headrests, Kitt glanced at the woman driving his car, and joy, unanticipated, vast joy enveloped him. He smiled. The last few months with Mae had been filled with moments of joy, joy that was as unexpected as having a wife and a dog, but with unexpected happiness also came an immeasurable sense of responsibility that stretched beyond his own self-preservation. It was a sober counterbalance to the giddiness of his joy and he frowned until his wife’s sniff of disdain brought another smile to his face.

He watched Mae give the Bentley’s ash veneer dashboard a once-over full of scorn. At the traffic lights, she looked at him in the passenger seat, picked a wad of fluff from the shoulder of his jacket, her mouth pursing, lips bunching like the white spring clouds over London. “Three months,” she said, hazel eyes crinkling at the corners.

“Three months?”

Mae adjusted her grip on the steering wheel and accelerated through the intersection. “Three months is when the restlessness typically begins, when the inactivity of office-based work has burrowed beneath your skin, and it becomes evident, in subtle ways, that you believe the sedentariness of desk work is turning you soft in mind and body. I worked for you long enough to know the pattern. The occasional pulse in your jaw, the long sigh when you finish your scrambled eggs, the tension in your shoulders every time I turn onto the Outer Circle. You’ve been out of the field and in an office since mid-February. Three months is your limit.”

“Valentine’s Day to the first week of May is only two months and three weeks, and my mind turned to mush the day I confessed my feelings for you, which was nearly a year ago.”

“My, how time flies when you’re soft and in love.” She gave him a quick, sidelong look and blew a tendril of blonde hair from her eye.

His transition from field agent to station-based intelligence officer had happened a little earlier than he had planned. He had actually been reassigned to Section SOST—Special Operations Selection and Training—as a result of breaking protocol in an unauthorised, yet successful action, where he lost bits of two fingers, nearly died, and uncovered ties funding terrorism through the sale of stolen cultural artefacts and counterfeit luxury goods. Most intelligence officers departed the harshest field work at fifty-five, leaving the more hazardous postings to younger women and men. The Consortium viewed all intelligence officers as assets to be utilised, it was ‘once a field officer, always a field officer’, regardless of age. How very broadminded of them.

The selection and training of new intelligence recruits was a challenge, and not the sort of challenge that stirred more than a generic enthusiasm in him. He lacked the patience for instructing officers who had some experience, yet were basically still novices, like Eaton, his current field trainee. Bryce had suggested his making an application to become head of Section SOST—an attractive prospect if it hadn’t been for all the bloody paperwork Section Heads necessitated. At the moment, what he’d envisioned, and what Bryce had suggested, didn’t matter, seeing as his reassignment was temporary and held him in limbo at HRM’s—or more rightly, Llewelyn’s—pleasure. His transition had yet to move from cocoon to chrysalis.

Kitt sighed exactly the way he had when he had finished his scrambled eggs this morning. “I admit I’m a bit bored, a bit impatient. I’ll grow accustomed to it, as one does any change, but how do you think I’m soft?”

“Shall I start with this car?”

“You’ve never liked my car.”

“Yes, because it’s soft. For example,” she gave another disdainful sniff, “it has a heated steering wheel.”

“It’s designed to warm the hands of a man with a cold heart.”

“Your heart’s not as cold as you think it is.”

“And I’m not as soft as you think I am, but my hands are certainly like ice in winter.”

“You could wear gloves when driving in the cold.”

“The steering wheel is heated, so there’s no need for gloves.” A cool nose poked into the side of his neck again, this time, a little tongue licked his ear. Kitt pushed Felix’s snout away. The Italian greyhound strained against his harness and set his narrow, ginger head between the front seats again. Somewhat absently, Kitt scratched beneath the dog’s white chin.

Mae shook her head and continued her critique, eyes on the road as she passed York Bridge at the edge of Regent’s Park. “There’s also the matter of the wooden dash.”

“It looks pretty.”

“Yes. Your car is very pretty, very soft and pretty.”

“That little Sunbeam Alpine Julius Taittinger had in New Mexico, the one you said was the perfect car for me, had a walnut dash.”

“That car was hot pink.”

“Yet you said it was the car I ought to be driving instead of my Bentley.”

“Which, I’d like to point out, you haven’t driven in over a month.”

“One must keep up appearances, Mae. That aside, I think, in embracing my soft life, I’ve come to enjoy your chauffeuring me about.”

A loud ha burst from her mouth. “Did you learn nothing about how to lie when you were a young lad at spy school?”

“What should I have said?”

“Driving is difficult with my stubby fingerlings, Mae,” she said, voice low and plummy.

“Yes, I sound just like that. I am always amazed by your uncanny talent with mimicry.”

“And mockery.” Eyes on the road, she caught the wiggling of stunted fingers on Kitt’s left hand. He’d lost the tops of his fingers in a fight last year, and lived to tell the tale.

“Is there anything about this car you like?”

Her mouth pursed again. “It’s a nice colour.”

“It matches the green in your eyes,” Kitt said as Felix licked his ear. Mae laughed and the Bentley skirted Regents Park, along the Outer Circle.

The muscles in his shoulders began to bunch and Kitt forced himself to relax as Mae chuckled. “Oh, stop it,” he said, chuckling too. The mobile in his jacket buzzed. He pulled out the device. Morland, his superior’s chief assistant, had sent a message—Review relocated to Gray, 7:30.

Kitt tapped out a reply: Received. He shoved the phone back in his jacket pocket and gazed out the window, watching bright green spring leaves flutter in the breeze, scratching Felix under the chin as Mae turned off the Outer Circle onto Chester Road, the street lined by fresh, new green leaves, an explosion of tulips, and pink cherry blossoms. “There,” he said pointing to a parking space that had been vacated. “You can drop me there.”

She pulled into the spot not far from the Broad Walk and The Espresso Bar café, shut off the engine, and released her seatbelt. For a moment, she rummaged in the centre console’s cubbyhole and drew out the dog’s lead. “Not to sound like a wife, but when do you think you’ll be home tonight?”

“Not to sound like a husband, but after six.” Felix nuzzled into Kitt’s neck again. Gently, he pushed the eager-for-a-walk dog back and looked up at the parking signs, unlit streetlamps, and the open iron gate near the corner of the Broad Walk entrance. Yes, a wife and a dog, two things he never thought he’d want or have. “I like when you sound like a wife,” he said, his tone idiotically earnest, and not any way corny.

“That’s the benefit of being married to you rather than being your employee.”

“Yes, I no longer pay you and you still care.” He turned in his seat to face her. “Have you planned something for this evening?”

“Sean’s invited us for dinner. He has something he wants to show us.”

“Oh, goody.”

“He’s trying.”

“Yes, you brother is quite trying—and judgemental.”

“You can’t blame him. His baby sister married a spy. He’s being protective.”

“No, no, he’s being judgemental.”

“It’s taken years for him to step outside his comfort zone and make a change. He’s worried about relapsing, slipping into old patterns of thoughts and behaviours. It’s a challenge to start again in a new place, away from the support system he had.”

“Ah, the cloistered brotherhood of priests keeping each other’s secrets.”

“You do realise how absurd that is for you to say, don’t you?”

“I’m crushed by the irony.” He opened the door and paused. “I understand the complexities of combat exposure PTSD, symptoms relapsing, and the previous government’s inadequate support of veterans with mental health issues, but sometimes…”

“Sean is just a prick?”

“I was thinking misanthropic arse, but prick works well for Padre Sean Vincenzo.”

Mae chuckled and watched a white sedan pass. The dog strained forward between the seats, but the harness he was belted into kept him from getting in front and into anyone’s lap. Kitt glanced at the street lights and parking signs again. “Come here to the boot for a minute.” He got out of the Bentley and shut the door.

Mae checked that no traffic was coming and climbed out of the car too pretty for an ugly-handsome man like her husband. Felix scampered about in the car, barking at two passing young men playing with a football. Mae went to the rear where the boot sat open, Kitt leaned into the space where she’d put her handbag and he’d tossed his sports bag and a shabby, old leather satchel. Dark, ginger-blond head bent, he stood with his arms inside the grey-lined gap, head hidden by the boot’s lid. When he didn’t straighten, she said, “What is it, have you become so soft that bending over to fetch your bags has made you slip a disc?”

“Come here.”

She moved nearer. “Oh, you have hurt your back. Poor diddums.”

Diddums?”

“Would you prefer schnookums?”

“I would not.” He motioned with his chin. “Come closer. I want you to have a look at something.” The transit van behind them had its side door open, the driver unloading and stacking boxes onto an upright hand trolley on the footpath at the rear of the Bentley. Across the road, a mud-spattered Land Rover Defender, one that looked like it had come fresh from an expedition in the Amazon, had parked in the front of the bollards.

At his side, Mae bent forward, hands on the rim of the boot as she looked into it. “Yes, I see. You need a new car and a new satchel.”

“I’d no sooner replace either one of them than I would replace you. Now, look.” His eyes darted to the Land Rover and the bollards.

Felix let out a little half-whine of a bark. “What is it you want me to see? Felix is doing his little need-to-pee dance.”

Blue-grey eyes met hers and he turned slightly. “Did you notice the street lights and bollards on either side of the Broad Walk?”

She shifted to straighten and look, but his swift hand kept her in place. He smiled softly, his fingers brushing over the top of hers. “The lights are there. Trust me.

“And you’re telling me because…”

“There are digital video cameras hidden inside. CCTV cameras in the bollards across the footpath too, and the cameras see everything.”

“As one hopes they would.”

“One must keep up appearances and away from prying eyes, yet, like most husbands, I’d like to kiss my wife goodbye before I toddle off to work to deal with people and,” he winced, “paperwork, but the cameras can see everything, Mae.”

“You are ridiculously melodramatic,” she said.

“Perhaps.” He brushed the two normal-sized fingers of his left hand over his lips then touched them to the hand she’d rested on the inside rim of the boot.

She laughed and straightened, patting the dog’s tennis ball bulging the pocket of her sporty pale-blue jacket and pulled at the waistband of cropped, black leggings. She was dressed for a run with the dog. Kitt’s eyes travelled over her as she pushed back a strand of silver-shot blonde hair loosened from a ponytail. These days, she seldom wore her old uniform of navy-blue shirt dress and apron, and, unless working on a renovation project, her hair was rarely in a French braid. Kitt looked down at her hot pink joggers. He smiled, chuckling. “I miss your Doc Marten Mary-Janes—and your apron. You don’t wear your apron anymore.”

“I’ll be sure to have it on when you get home.” She took his satchel and an umbrella with a curved handle from inside the boot. “Here,” she said, thrusting out the black, quintessentially British-looking object.

“It’s not raining,” he said, casting an eye at the blue sky.

She thrust the brolly closer. “Keeping up appearances?”

“Ah. Yes. The cameras.” He took the old briefcase and umbrella.

“I know. You think about my apron and it addles your brain, makes you so sloppy you forget about cameras that see everything.”

“You’re a nuisance and I love you.” He stepped away from the back of the car and their curtailed moment of marital normalcy. The transit van driver came back and shut the rear door, a small group of Lycra-clad men on bicycles hummed by, a woman wheeled along a baby in a pram.

Mae closed the boot and took Felix from the car. He’d pressed his nose and paws all over the rear-side windows, leaving damp smears all over the glass she’d polish clean later. She clipped on his lead, handed it to Kitt, and took his battered briefcase.

Umbrella in one hand, dog’s leash in the other, Kitt walked around boxes and the hand trolley. Mae fell into step alongside him on the footpath, Felix sniffing, stopping to pee, prancing along and sniffing again. At the mouth of the Broad Walk, just near The Espresso Bar café, Felix peed on a black bollard and Kitt exhaled in annoyance at the unexpected sight of his colleagues. Three men rose from a table at the café and began to approach. By the time the dog had moved on to the next bollard to continue his business, Bryce had joined them, the others a few steps behind.

“Morning, Kitty,” Bryce said brightly. He looked at Mae and peeing Felix.

Kitt wore no expression. “What are you doing here?”

“I’ve been reassigned from Shaw. I haven’t been informed to whom as of yet, but I can guess. I see you brought your entourage.”

“Ah, and you’ve brought Morland and Llewelyn.”

“They followed me here. Good morning, Mrs Valentine.” Bryce gave her a wink before Division Chief Brigadier Roger Llewelyn, and a stout bald man with a round, immobile face arrived to stand beside them. “Morland,” Bryce said, “this is Mrs Valentine, Kitty’s butler, and his dog, Felix. Morland is the administrative equivalent of you, Mrs Valentine.”

Ah-huh-huh,” the Brigadier cleared his throat. “A very good morning to you, Mrs Valentine,” Llewelyn said, his tone rousingly cheerful.

“Good morning, Brigadier.” Mae said, her tone pleasantly professional, “Sergeant Bryce, Mr Morland.”

Llewelyn looked like an older version of an actor many saw as a contender to play the ‘new James Bond’. He had a rich, melodious voice and he watched Felix trot about on his lead, saying, “This is your dog, Major?”

Felix sniffed at his trouser leg.

Llewelyn chortled. “Hm. Not quite what I was expecting when Bryce said you had a sighthound. Now then, shall we carry on, gentlemen?”

Kitt handed Mae the lead and umbrella, and took his satchel. “Thank you, Valentine. If you get the chance today, Valentine, he needs his nails clipped.” He turned away to face his superior, ignoring the stout man beside him.

“Excuse me, sir,” Mae said.

Three sets of eyes shifted back to her. “There was a Chelsea bun left from breakfast,” she said. “I put it in your satchel. Have a pleasant day at work.” She watched Kitt’s hard face change from ugly to handsome as he flashed her a smile. She left the four men and took Felix across the inner circle and into Queen Mary’s Garden.

It was a lovely spring morning with a soft chill in the air. Green buds and tulips in full bloom showed their vibrant shades against the bright grass. After half an hour’s run through verdant, dew-dappled beauty and cascading cherry blossom petals, the dog grew tired and Mae turned about. There were things to tend to at home, errands to run.

She passed by The Espresso Bar café and a strapping man wearing black sunglasses and a grey pork-pie hat too big for his head. He fumbled with a tourist map and muttered in Spanish to his mate in orange sunglasses. His bulky body reminded her of a man she’d come across in Sicily, an Asian man who had been all muscle and no neck. When she reached the car, she wiped the dampness from the dog’s paws, shortened the lead of the travel harness, and secured him in the back seat. The Transit van remained in the parking spot behind the Bentley. Cyclists took advantage of the space to cross the street and head into the park. Mae got in the driver’s seat and shut the door. Felix settled down onto the rear seat and sighed.

She started the engine and looked out the windscreen. Up ahead, a small tipper lorry loaded with garden mulch turned onto Chester Road. More bicycles whizzed by alongside cars, cutting in front of the Bentley. On the other side of the road, the man in the orange sunglasses and his mate, the big man in the pork-pie hat asked two women waiting to cross for directions, showing them the map. The blonde in an expensive suit pointed to something, the thin brunette nodded and unbuttoned the front of an ice-blue jacket. Parents rolled along with prams on the footpath. A blur of man and bicycle flew past the dirty Land Rover still parked across the street.

Mae twisted slightly, and reached for the seatbelt. She pulled the metal buckle forward, across her shoulder, and the world exploded in a white-flashing thunderclap.

 

Flying By The Seat of One’s Puzzle

There are things that puzzle me. First, I’m always amazed by writers who plot things out to the tiniest detail, you know, those authors who storyboard and collage and outline their tales. I’m not like that. I try to put any structure in place and my story disintegrates. I’m not a seat of the pants writer either. I lack the pants one usually flies from.

Truth be told, I am not a fan of pants (as in trousers, not knickers/panties/ full-coverage briefs). They are restricting, twist and bind the way collages and storyboards and outlines do when I try to do them. When it comes to writing, I have a box box in my head. It’s full of puzzle pieces made up of dialogue like this:

“We’re onto disguises now, are we?”
“You don’t like my hat?”
“You look better in the cowboy hat you wore on New Year’s Eve than in that ugly baseball cap.”
“You miss my cowboy hat.”
“Go on and think that if it makes you feel better.”
“I feel just fine.”
“Which is why you took your time getting here.”
“I was being thorough.”
“Thorough. Is that what you call chatting up Ms Goedenacht?”
“She was doing the chatting up. Weren’t you listening?”
“No. The earpiece stopped working when the discussion turned to marital aids and splinters.”

No speech tags, no description, just the two leads talking. They are always talking. And probably eating. There’s always food involved somewhere. Perhaps that’s one reason why True to Your Service took so long for me to write; I was always eating, as one tends to when one has a house full of visitors, or when one was on holiday someplace that may or may not become the setting for the next book in the series I didn’t realise was a series when the two characters started talking way back in 2011.

The other thing that puzzles me is that women over 40 are treated as a conundrum by publishing and Hollywood, both puzzling over how to structure a story with a woman over 40 as the lead, and scratching their heads over what a woman over 40 looks like as the lead.

It’s not that hard to show a woman over 40 as a whole human being, but Hollywood and publishing are anxious about that and stick to the sexist, ageist structure that has, well, worked for them . Film and fiction are risk averse. Film and fiction will stick to what makes them money; franchises make them money, and something new (well, actually, something older)  scares them because it’s different, it’s not what’s been selling, and what’s selling is what gets replicated or rebooted, or remade. Repeat sexist ageism and a lack diversity across the board…

I will concede one thing. I applaud the way Hollywood has grabbed onto the empowered badass-ass-kickin’ older woman we’ve seen lately onscreen. However, there is more to being an older, empowered, ass-kicking woman than we’ve seen. Being an older empowered arse-kicking woman with life baggage can be even more complex and exciting in telling a story, and it doesn’t mean an older woman has to be superimposed onto a male action hero narrative to be ‘acceptable,’ or adhere to the ageist and sexist stereotypes we are so used to seeing. I want more. Maybe you do too.

I’m all for showing ass-kicking-badassery, only I’m gonna do it like a middle aged woman would–with all that empowering, complex baggage and life experience, possibly slower, or maybe faster and with more ass-shaking like J-Lo at the Superbowl. The point is, there is MORE THAN ONE WAY to portray a powerful, attractive, capable, intelligent, sensual, sexual woman over 40, and it’s not simply making her an action lead, which is a start, but

True to Your Service, the third of the In Service Series features a middle-aged female butler and the slightly younger middle-aged spy who loves her. It’s genre-blending and crossing with a good measure of meta, seasoned romance, sex, tulips, murder, danger, and true love.  It knocks ageist and sexist stereotypes on the head and places a woman well past 40 as the lead. It pokes fun at spies and mysteries and crime stories. And it all came from a box of puzzle pieces in my head.

You can pre-odrer True to Your Service from your favourite e-tailer here and from Amazon