When Good Characters Behave Badly

baddog3I’ve been waiting to do this post. I mean REALLY waiting. I wasn’t sure how long it would be before someone made mention of a lead character’s less-than-stellar behavior in Driving in Neutral once it was published.

It only took a week (Thank you, Dear Author!).

I’ve been waiting because this book has a history, and not just a 75 days long blog series on fear history. Yes, kids, I spent 75 days focused on phobias. As a lead-in to the release of Driving in Neutral, the romcom I call my ‘love story about claustrophobia,’ guests dropped by to talk about their fears. For 75 days.

Bear with me. I’ll get to the history bit soon.

The 75 Days Series should have highlighted that I like writing about fear. I like using fear as the key to hindering or unraveling a relationship, but I also like that a character eventually triumphs over fear, after all, I write romance where love triumphs over all. Love is a scary thing. Love can make a person feel vulnerable. Love can make a person act impulsively, and do dumb things. Love is primitive, emotional. People may be unable to filter their actions because love has jacked up their hormonal system. Everything is overloaded. So, let’s backtrack to the bit about vulnerability because like love, fear has a similar effect on a person. Fear is primitive, emotional. A person may be unable to filter their actions because fear has jacked up their hormonal system. In both cases, the amygdala, the centre of emotional behaviour, is doing all the work, while the Baddog2pre-fontal cortex, the part of the brain that regulates behavior, that is, the part of the brain that tells you what is right and what is wrong, is sort of on hold.

Fear can make people act in ways that seem out of character, can make a good person do something bad. When it comes to a character pushing the boundaries of behavior, what crosses the line between an acceptable response and a reprehensible response to fear? Is retribution ever justifiable, or understandable within a character’s behaviour? Or is revenge always just plain wrong? This is what I wanted to explore.

Lead characters in romance fiction are often held to a higher standard of behavior; they are perceived by many readers to be a ‘better’ form of a human being, one who frequently rises above petty or malicious behavior. As a result of this, when a romance hero or heroine acts in a primitive way, when impulsivity gets the better of them and these good people do bad things, some readers will protest and deem that character to be unlikable, un-heroic, and unworthy of baddog1being a romantic lead. Other readers don’t care.

I wasn’t sure which lead character would push the boundary for some readers, since both the hero and heroine in Driving in Neutral behave quite badly. Getting trapped in an elevator brings out the worst in claustrophobic Maxwell. He raves and verbally abuses Olivia, the woman trapped with him. His reaction is completely childish and base. He is overwhelmed by his fear, is unable to filter, and works from a primitive space. He’s all amygdala function.

When Olivia’s fear surfaces she, too, is in amygdala overdrive. So jacked up is her response to her fear she misbehaves. Terribly. There are 4 reasons for misbehaving: attention, power, inadequacy, revenge.

Olivia feels aggrieved, exposed, and acts impulsively, which, at that moment when it all spins out of control, is her best way of coping with being vulnerable. Her reaction is completely childish, and base. What she does to Emerson is cruel, and, just as he feels remorse for abusing her, she feels remorse for her behaviour…eventually, once her hormonal system is back at a normal operating level.baddog5

Now the history bit. A while back, I entered Driving in Neutral in a writing contest. A judge took issue with Emerson Maxwell’s verbal abuse of Olivia, particularly with name-calling. I was scolded with, “A hero would never call a heroine names.”  In case you’re wondering, those names were ‘wet rodent’ and ‘waterlogged hamster.’ Not exactly ear-scorching or profane, but I knew, based on that reaction, that Maxwell and my writing had crossed the line for that reader-judge.

What I want to know is this: Does the context for a character’s bad behaviour matter to you, or is bad behaviour always a no-go zone for romance leads, because romance heroes and heroines must maintain that ‘better’ form?

Fear can make a person act in ways that seem out of character, can make a good person do something bad. When it comes to a romance hero or heroine pushing the boundaries of behavior, what, to you, crosses the line between an acceptable response and a reprehensible behaviour? Is retribution ever justifiable, or understandable within the circumstances of a character’s behaviour? Or is name-calling and revenge always just plain wrong?

baddog6So what do I think, where do I stand on all this behaving badly stuff? My friend Swell, a longtime romance reader, sums up how I feel about lead characters behaving badly in a romance novel. Swell says that if the “reaction is realistic and a part of the character, and the reaction is used to complete the relationship between the hero and heroine, then I will feel that the response was appropriate for the character.” Amen sister.


Driving in Neutral, A Basic Renovation and For Your Eyes Only on sale now!

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What’s In A Name? It’s All Geek (and Greek) To Me.

0913 Eyes Only_Final[1]There are those writers who have a purpose in mind when they name characters. Ray Bradbury’s tattooed and mysterious “Mr Dark” in Something Wicked This Way Comes, for example, is a fitting name for someone who personifies evil. I had a reason for the name I chose for the heroine in my upcoming release For Your Eyes Only. Willa Heston, a physicist, is named after the author Willa Cather, mainly because I love her books O Pioneers, My Antonia, and Death Comes For The Archbishop, which, like For Your Eyes Only and A Basic Renovation, takes place in New Mexico. See that connection?

Using Heston for Willa’s last name was also deliberate choice; it’s my nod to the actor Charlton Heston. chuck1However, I did not know this would be the source of some trouble. No, I don’t mean the issue stems from Mr Heston’s work as a political activist or his 5 terms as president of the National Rifle Association. I picked Heston because, as a very young child, Chuck H seemed to be in EVERY movie I saw on TV. I understood nothing about his “Cold Dead Hands” NRA gun rights activism, but what I did know from those movies, the ones where Chuck was Moses, or fought off Apes, or rode in a chariot race, was Chuck was THE MAN, the HERO. As some of you may recall from earlier post (see Bondage of Another Sort), Heroic Chuck had a such huge influence on me that when it came time to picking a name for a woman who makes calm, deliberate choices I automatically, and quite geekily, reached for the Heston. This is where my geekiness backfired. In the novel, the name Heston becomes a bit of a joke, a play on the name, a gee, aren’t I so clever to do what people do in real life kinda thing. My cleverness backfired into a different meaning altogether, one I find absolutely hilarious.

My very dear Greek friend, Vassiliki, pointed out that in GREEK, Heston, or rather, χέστον, means “shit on him.” Willa Heston is actually Willa Shit on him.

alienYeah, kids, I’m having a real life Alien Nation moment. You ever see that movie? It’s a bitchin’ ’80s science fiction film that stars Mandy Patinkin and James Caan. Patinkin plays the Newcomer alien, Samuel Francisco. Get it? Funny name, right? Yeah, ha-ha. But Caan is Matthew Sykes. Not so funny in English, but in the Newcomer language Sykes means shithead.

Thanks to Vassiliki @vaveros and Steven Moschidis, aka “@TheBeardedLlama” for this morning’s Greek lesson and revelation!

A Shoe In?

You might think, because I have a row of red cowboy boots across the top of my website,and a book cover (A Basic Renovation) featuring red cowboy boots, that I have a thing for footwear.

The reality is I have small feet that are difficult to fit. For me shoes are hard to come by. I have a closet full of size 2 and 3 kids shoes and a few pairs of ladies size 5’s–my grown up shoes. The grown up shoes took ages to find. Typically, a shop will only stock ONE five. Lately I’ve discovered the smallest size starts at 6. It is as if feet are getting bigger across the globe because this can’t-find-a-shoe-my-size situation has happened to be on three continents. So those red cowboy boots you see. They took me over a decade to find.

Meanwhile, it took me 15 minutes to find a pair of white Converse Chuck Taylor All Star low tops, size 3.

pinkI like having my feet covered, protected from the elements. When I find a shoe my size, one that I like, one that is comfortable, I buy it. As a result, I have five pairs of Chucks, all size 3. There are the aforementioned white, as well as black, olive, brown and hot pink. The size five I’m-a-big-girl-playing-dress-up shoes I own I have amassed over two decades. This means everything old is new again and I’m in fashion!

As fashionable as I am, the publication of A Basic Renovation made me notice something about my shoes. While I don’t have a shoe fetish, I clearly have something deeply psychological, far down in my subconscious about the shoes in my life because in everything I ‘ve written I’ve described how characters are shod.

Is that shoe envy?

Is it what Dr Shrinky types call projection? Do I want to WEAR the same shoes as my characters?

Or is it that I already do?

Case in point: my next novel, For Your Eyes Only (due out in September from Escape!!), Willa the superhero wannabe who tries to save the day, wears Hot Pink Converse Low Top Chuck Taylor All Stars. In one draft I changed the Hot Pink to Green, but then I changed it back again because I don’t own green Converse Low Top Chucks.  I did not realise I had changed the colour of the Chucks until I began going though the novel again, after it was accepted for publication. That was my Shoe A-ha light bulb WTF Moment.

So you tell me. If you’re a writer, what part of you makes it into your work?

If you’re a reader, do you wonder how much of the author is revealed in the characters? Do you rush out and buy red cowboy boots because Lesley has a pair In A Basic Renovation? Will you hunt down a pair of hot pink canvas Converse Chuck Taylor All Star Low tops because Willa laces up a pair in For Your Eyes Only?

Escape…Way cooler than The Pina Colada Song

Yesterday, I was in Sydney (yeah, that big city with the big harbour bridge and opera house in the southern hemisphere) for the Launch of Harlequin Escape. Quite frankly, it was the most amazing party I have ever been to. For years I’ve been told, “Harlequin sure knows how to throw a party.” That was no lie. This party was huge. It was wall-to-wall people and authors and food and drinks and noise and high heels and handsome goateed men in suits… It was like the sort of party you read about or see in a movie. And I was  a deer in the headlights of an oncoming a eighteen-wheeler of holy-crap-this-is-really-happening and… stayed tuned for more about Harlequin Escape, Kids, because I have exciting news that makes me wanna ‘esplode like Ricky Ricardo.

Look at their Pretty logo!

Ten Things to Love About Being A Writer

Hey, kids! It’s Fun Fact time!

The Ten Top Things I Love About Being A Writer

  1. I can work all day in ultra-dag*wear (think lazy pants) and imagine I look good;
  2. Coffee can be a food group of its own;
  3. When it’s cold outside, it’s warm in my novel;
  4. People think I’m smart because I know how to use a semicolon;
  5. Spending huge amounts of money on books I want to read is called research;
  6. Traveling overseas becomes tax deductible as it too is research;
  7. Its fat-free
  8. Napping is a tool for sorting out pesky plotting issues;
  9. My brain is constantly engaged in a puzzle, which will keep me active into my 90s;
  10. It’s introduced me to some wonderful, wonderful friends.



*Dag is Australian English for slob, but it’s true origin comes from sheep shearing, specifically, the little bits of, ahem poo, stuck on the back of a sheep’s bottom.

Your $0.7 Cent Royalty Does Not Come With A Lubricant

You may be interested in this lovely explanation of a book contract from Pitch University (with Jeffery V M. Mehalic, the Write Lawyer). The contract’s legalese is broken down and explained and it’s rather eye opening. I was utterly fascinated.

Then I was outraged. Then I was all scared. Then I was all downtrodden. Then I was all determined. Then I was all, damn, a $0.7 cent royalty is no where near minimum wage!

Then I began to wonder a few things, things like what’s the historical background to the set up of the publishing industry?  Why is it the publisher benefits far more than the writer, who’s poured in time, imagination, talent, blood, sweat and you know the rest? Who was it that decided that the AUTHOR, the very reason for the existence of a book, comes last? Is there some kind of secret society, a brother or sisterhood of publishers who meet on a weekly basis to discuss the various legal ways to screw an author?

Going by this contract, it sure seems like there might be.

When Doing the Right Thing Goes Wrong-ish

While on my way to Shrinkytown this morning I stopped by my local Giant Green Swirl SuperMarket Chain. I was after one thing and one thing only: Deli-sliced turkey breast for Shrinky's lunch. So you know I ended up with a hulargeous bag of "eat in moderation" type items, that I will not eat in moderation and some beautiful red peppers, which, instead of being last week's WTF price of $18 a kilo were now an Oh-Yeah-Mama  $4.89 a kilo.

Anyhow, the grocery store was empty, I was the lone shopper, and I was able to shop quickly. I watched the Deli kid wrap my 1/2 kilo of turkey in nice white deli paper. I put the little white bundle in my shopping basket, right on top of the 2 packages of freshly-baked, still-warm oatmeal-raisin cookies, the Chips Ahoy, the bag of Dark Chocolate Chunk cookies–for Shirnky–and milk because with all those cookies there has to be milk to drink in between the pot of coffee I'll comsume with the first 2 oatmeal raisin beauties. I went to the self checkout with my basket of cookie shame and began to scan my items. I scanned the Chips Ahoy, the Dark Chocolate Chunks, the Red peppers and then the 1/2 kilo of slicked turkey, which rang up as Middle Rasher Bacon (like Canadian Bacon for you USA-ians), for the low, low, low price of $7.59. That stopped me dead. I stared at the touch screen readout, a little confused. The price was all wrong. Half a kilo of turkey should have been $12. Then my eye zoomed in on the word Bacon. BACON? For some reason, Vegetarian Bitey has no issue with buying or handling poultry products in the name of Shrinky, but I draw the line at Babe products. I was not about to pay $7.59 for a) something marked BACON; b) feel responsible for the kid behind the deli counter getting chewed out for marking Turkey as Bacon; and c) steal $4.49 from the Giant Green Swirl SuperMarket Chain, even though they have a stranglehold near monopoly on grocery stores in this country. 

I called over the Self-checkout attendant, showed her the error, and told her I wanted to make sure no one got in trouble. The little squint rolled her eyes at me. She ROLLED her eyes, like my fwiggin' gawd what a CHORE to serve the customer, the customer who was, I should point out again, THE ONLY ONE in the store!  Skinny McSquit took her time getting someone from the Deli to come to the front of the store. She passed the little white turkey-disguised-as-Bacon Baton to Slug-moving Deli Chick. Slug-moving Deli Chick snail-paced her way to the back of the store. I waited six minutes for her to return.

I know six minutes isn't much, but when you're the only customer in the establishment, and you're on your way to work six minutes IS a long time. Plus, by this point, for me it was about the principle of doing what I saw as the right thing. When Slug-moving Deli Chick returned she handed me the re-wrapped- re-priced turkey and huffed. You know, I almost got grumpy. I had that flash of sarcasm, that little bitchy barb ready to fire, but I refrained. Instead, I thanked her, satisfied in the knowledge that I did the right thing and that I'd use the shopping experience as a scene in something I write because it's perfection for a romantic comedy.

But I have to be really honest here. While I have scruples when it comes to Bacon-wrapped Turkey with the wrong price, and paying the correct amount, if a bag of money fell out of the Brinks Truck and landed on the highway in front of me I'd be all over the cash like Me on an Oatmeal-raisin cookie.

“research” With A Little ‘r’ (cross-posted from Oldbitey Bites tumblr)

I know  when you write about romance fiction romance is supposed to get a little r. The capital R is reserved for use when referring that literary genre of high culture with quests, brave knights, ladies, courtly love, and all that jazz.  I think the use of a small r for romance fiction (and pink and hearts and clinch covers) is a reason modern romance novels are denigrated. Well, here’s another. Some of us romance writers are up in arms today over this little story about how romance fiction poses a threat to women’s sexual health.

Read it and you might agree we’re our own worst enemy when it comes to romance novels and research. Annie, Aretha and Oldbitey are cheesed off because “research” like Susan Quilliam’s, says, women who read romance novels are getting life and love and sex all wrong. Romance readers are making a mess of their lives because romance novels are not good role models. Sisters are not doing it for themselves, they’re doing it to themselves.

Hang on. Didn’t I blog about something “to ourselves” yesterday (See What Do We Want)

Here’s an idea. Can we stand up for one another rather than knock down and reduce romance readers to little r’s again and again?  How about showing some respect for your fellow sex? If you can’t, at least wear a condom or a dental dam-like device when you undertake this sort of poorly investigated research. And crack open a 21st Century contemporary Romance novel before you start typing up your notes.

Ye Gods.

What Do We Want? Uh…um…Feminism?

We can argue about this if you like, but I do not identify with the female protagonist when I read novels. The female lead is not my placeholder. I don’t have a vicarious experience of her life. I know I’m not walking in her shoes. I am aware I am reading about someone other than myself. I’ll admit I do respond to the protagonist, but my response is akin to the protagonist being someone I know. That protagonist, that person is telling me their story. I am, as they say, but a witness.

You know on occasions I climb up on a soapbox and, in suffrage-esque-i-ness sort of way, bellow about representing and supporting romance heroines over the age of 40. So if I claim I don’t identify the lady protagonist, then why is it so important to me, when I am reading contemporary romance fiction, that the romance heroine is represented across a broader age spectrum? My reading tastes may be varied and spread across genres, but, irrespective of the genre, I’ve always been put off by virgins and inexperienced twentysomethings who come across dumber than a slice of toast, even when I was a virginal twentysomething dumber than a slice of toast. For me, in whatever genre I’ve chosen, it’s always been more interesting to read about someone who knows stuff, who’s been places, who’s done things, who’s experienced life beyond high school and a few years of college. Why on earth would I want to read about some just like me? I know my life. I live my life. I learn from my life. I like to see how someone else lives theirs. Older women are so much more interesting, incredibly complex. They have more to say, better stories to tell. In all honesty, the simple explanation for my support mature women routine comes down to one word: Inequality.


And man, does that piss me off.

A woman of a certain age can appear as the protagonist in any other genre, but once you toss a bit of lovin’ and such into the mix, call her the heroine and call the novel a romance, instead of a Mystery, Crime, or Sci-Fi novel, our female protagonist becomes the media’s representation of what the romance fantasy has to look like.

It’s a form of airbrushing.

And we, us women who read romance novels, do this to ourselves. Rather than stand up and demand romantic equality, we let the media, the publishers, dictate how we’ll be portrayed in our romantic fantasies. We let ourselves be airbrushed, or brainwashed, as I prefer, into thinking just because we’re 42, 48, 51 or 60, love, sex, and a happily ever after is out of our reach.  Yeah, Bitey-ites, I am talking true feminism. I’m talking Women’s Rights. We need to support each other and stand up to the ‘man,’ to the machine that tells us no, no, no, you don’t want that. You want this.

Well, you know what I want? You know what I want right now? A peanut butter sandwich.

The Chemical Compostion of Romance

I discovered two things in the last two days. The first thing involves drinking coffee (my lifeblood, as may of you know) and eating cheese, which, to my great surprise, is NOT a winning flavour sensation or delightful combination. Milk and butter go so well with coffee–hello cookies and croissants–but I was pretty startled that cheese does not. Man, I thought there was a milk product to go with everything. Turns out there isn’t. Naturally, I had to consume more coffee to wash out the astonishingly crappy oiliness left behind by mellow Bega Mild.

Next on my list of shocking discoveries was the realisation I don’t like Four Weddings and a Funeral (4WAAF). Well, that’s not exactly correct. I should say I saw it years ago and enjoyed it, but it is not a romantic comedy that works for me more than once.  I like Hugh Grant. Andie MacDowell is lovely, gorgeous in fact, but while I watched the movie I noticed that, despite some really awesome writing and bantery dialogue, their characters never really quite…spark. There’s no smoulder, no glint. There is a lot of Andie’s eye batting and Hugh, in his floppy haired stage, established his now trademarked and charming blinkety-blink-blink. For the most part, for me, the pair lack chemistry. And in a romance chemistry is everything. Although I’d seen the film before and knew what happened, I still found myself hoping it would end differently, like Hugh would wind up with Kristin Scott Thomas, who had better lines than Andie. The scenes with KST, Hugh seemed natural. With Andie, Hugh seemed extra blinky. After a while, with Andie’s eye batting and Hugh’s blinking, things started to seem like a silent movie. I had would not have been surprised if dialogue had shown up on black cards.
However, what I do like about 4WAAF is that, as a romance, the movie broke some romance genre "rules," and you know I’m all for knocking convention on its ass.

I like it when someone dares to remix romance elements. My vote for one of cinema’s best chemical reactions is The Cooler with William H. Macy, Maria Bello and Alec Baldwin. It’s got sleaze, it’s got guns, it’s got violence, it’s got gamblers, and pubic hair. Yes, my Bitey-ites, this dirty little foray into the crime underworld is actually a romance rather than a gangster movie, it’s even billed as a romance drama, and it shakes up a few romance tropes. Most importantly, The leads, William H. Macy and Maria Bello have totally believable chemistry, which may seem odd considering our hero, Bernie, is a lonely loser. Bernie loses at gambling and at love. In fact, Bernie is such a loser, he’s paid to sit at tables in Alec Baldwin’s casino because when Bernie’s around his loserly life seems to rub off on the other gamblers. His presence ‘cools’ winning streaks and turns winners to losers. Our heroine, Natalie, is a cocktail waitress. When Bernie falls for Natalie, his loserdom begins to change. Little does Bernie know Natalie has been paid to seduce him. However, Natalie actually does fall for Bernie and then all hell breaks loose. People get kneecapped and dead because that’s what happens in Vegas gangster movies. But unlike other ultra violent films that make you think of Joe Pesci and bodies being buried in the desert, and, despite a body count, The Cooler, like any romance, has a happy ending.

And I’m pretty sure there’s a scene where they drink coffee without eating cheese.