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I grew up in Colorado at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, then lived in Denmark and traveled throughout Europe before coming back to Colorado. I have two adult sons, whom I cherish. I started my writing career as a columnist and investigative reporter and eventually became the first woman editor of two different papers. Along the way, my team and I won numerous state and several national awards, including the National Journalism Award for Public Service. In 2011, I was awarded the Keeper of the Flame Lifetime Achievement Award for Journalism. Now I write historical romance and contemporary romantic suspense.

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Seductive Musings

Friday, April 20, 2007

Reality in romance




Yesterday's post got me thinking about the ways in which real life has influenced my fiction and thinking about my tendency to want to bits of real life in romance. A lot of my stories start with a real-world concept or challenge the real world in some way.

I am a history geek. That's why I studied archaeology. I love connecting with people from the past and knowing what their lives are like. That's easiest for me to do when I'm holding something that's from the past—a pot shard, a piece of cloth, a medieval manuscript. I've been lucky in that, during my time at the university, I was able to touch everything from ancient bones to a 13th-century Parisian pocket Bible. I touch it, and I feel like I'm channeling. The past comes flowing through.

Ride the Fire started in a history class when a professor described "The First American Revolution," i.e., the Paxton Boys Rebellion. In 1763, tired of being used as a barrier between the townspeople and the Indians, frontiersmen, most of them Scots-Irish, like Bethie's family, rose up and attacked the cities to the east. In the south, people actually died. In Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin went out, unarmed, and faced down a mob from Paxton bent on attacking Philadelphia to get at and kill a small tribe of Christianized Indians that were under the protection of the Britsh garrison at Philly.

I found this fascinating because I'd never heard of it before. So when I sat down to write my first romance, I thought I'd focus one book on the Paxton Boys' Rebellion. But I wanted to have a trilogy, so I mapped backwards, counting out time for three generations, and that landed me in the 1730s. I very methodically researched that period — for two and a half years — and constructed my first novel. The idea that I liked so much was flipping the power paradigm so that the heroine had power over the hero and not visa versa.

Of course, what you write is very different from what you think you're going to write. I learned over a period of seven painstaking years that my characters, once brought to life, had other plans. And so Cassie ended up with a father who was living in a swamp, and Alec didn't let anyone have power over him, unless she was carrying shackles. ;-)

I wanted to set Carnal Gift in North America, but I was under no small amount of pressure to set something in Scotland. Naturally, I can never do what I'm told, and so Jamie ended up in Ireland. Still the book I'm least fond of, in part because 100 pages was hacked out of it to make it fit the already-printed covers. Shoot me.

And while writing Carnal Gift, Nicholas popped into my head so strongly that I almost couldn't focus on Jamie. He arrived tortured and emotionally wounded, a man who lived not with his parents on a big estate but in the wilds. Strangely, the historical event that inspired the entire trilogy got shoved to the background, as I followed Nicholas and Bethie across the frontier. Fort Pitt became the focus instead, and while the seige of Fort Pitt and the events surrounding Pontiac's Rebellion are rendered with painstaking accuracy, the Paxton Boys' Rebellion isn't. Weird, huh?

Ok, I'm drifting... Reality in romance. In Cassie's story, it was my strong sense of feminism, of women needing to seize their rights however and wherever they could. I was a newly published columnist at that time, one of very few women at the newspaper. I covered women's issues almost exclusively. So Cassie's proto-feminist attitude is very much a reflection of that.

Carnal Gift is the book that was written to fit my publisher's wishes (Europe) and not mine. Still, I think it holds my love for my own Irish heritage and my passion for all things ancient and Celtic.


Ride the Fire is where I feel I finally began to come into my own as a writer. I dug deep into my own past as a child rape victim for that novel, leaving myself emotionally shredded afterwards. There are so many aspects of Bethie and even Nicholas (in his traumatized state) that come from my own experience. When I finished that book, I couldn't even speak about the story without crying. For me it was a real turning point. I crossed a threshold where I was able to use my own emotional experience to power the emotions of the characters.

Not surprisingly, a lot of readers said it wasn't romance. Too violent. Too graphic. Too gory. Too brutal. (You can see this in the reviews on B&N and Amazon.)

Extreme Exposure was a more obvious use of my own life. I really did investigate a cement plant for major pollution crimes. I really did sneak behind the razor wire. I really did say those things to a politician in a bar after having too many margs... The whole book is full of references to my own life. I refused to make Kara one of those sweet, unbelievable contemporary heroines who don't cuss and don't want sex and don't make mistakes. The most important thing I included were the real-life death threats I've received and the break-in, during which I narrowly escaped being raped at knife-point.


Surrender was again inspired by my own historical geekiness, focusing on my fascination with the French and Indian War (Seven Years War to Brits, Canucks and Aussies). I put some of my familiarity with Celtic and Indian cultures in that book, trying to make the setting real. Frontier. Wartime. The response was just as vehement against the book — this isn't romance; it's gore.


Hard Evidence is much more fictional than Extreme Exposure, but there are emotions in that story that again are derived from real life. I lived for a short time in a small redneck town and hated it. I left as quickly as I could (before finishing high school) and tried never to look back. But more importantly, it contains my very worst memory as a journalist — seeing a teenage boy with his head shot off. Head. Shot. Off. But not his face. Just his head.

Things I wish I didn't know:

1. What happens to human brains when they dry on the wall.
2. What a teenage boy looks like with his head shot off.

And now you see why yesterday's post made my mind drift in this direction.

I toned these two things down when I write Hard Evidence. Those of you who've read the book might not immediately think of the scene I'm thinking of when you read this. But it's not the sort of thing you can describe without feeling ill. Or at least I can't because I saw it. I've never described it to another living soul. Writing Hard Evidence was really therapeutic in that sense because I no longer feel like I'm falling or that my stomach is sinking when I get that image in my head.

But what I'm getting at here is that my books tend to be a bit violent at times. And they're filled with a lot of real life, not just my real life, but historical reality, too. I'm a slave to it, and I believe it benefits the stories. But there are lots of readers who prefer a more sanitized look at the world. Not me. I need the grittiness for the romance to really shine. I love the meat that reality puts on the bones of a story. I love the depth real facts lend to fiction.

What do you all think? Should romance be untouched by the gruesome realities of history and the present?

12 comments:

Ronlyn said...

I think touches of reality (and the gruesomeness of it) are what make a book great. Granted, I don't need gory details, but enough info to let me know that it's not a romanticized, glossed over fact. There's nothing I dislike more than having violence romanticized and treated with less seriousness than it deserves. I guess it's a thin line, or can be, to give the reality of an event enough of a punch, but not *too much* to turn someone off.
Or, maybe it's just because I'm a bit of a history geek too that I'd much rather know the "realness" of an event rather than a minimalist version of it. :)
Happy Weekend!!

Debbie H said...

If I want fluff and niceness, I would read the vanilla romances. I don't need the blow by blow but reality makes the characters REAL to me. Knowing they have gone through real things makes me connect with them and love them all the more.

I too, love the history part of your romances. Sometimes I wish I could go back in those times (time travel) and experience some of it. I am too much of feminist to put up with some of the attitudes (which would get me flogged or burned at the stake LOL).

You keep writing the way you do and to heck with what some think! We love you and your writing!

Have a great weekend and enjoy some of the great weather.

Joanie said...

I think that it is different strokes for different folks. I personally enjoyed both of your books that I have read so much as you didn't coddle me.

Sex trafficking happens, rape happens, murder happens. While I don't want to read a detailed account of a rape scene, I don't want it to be exorcised from a plot because it is 'not nice'.

However, many people read romance for escapism and for them, sure they want to slip on the rose tinted shades and drift off for awhile. I can see that, and hey, maybe your writing is not for them.

That is not a reflection on your writing though and you must focus on that when you read such reviews as you mentioned.

Of course your writing reflects who you are and what you have seen, it is your creation. Conceived, nurtured and brought forth with tears, joy, pain and laughter. Much along the lines of bringing a child into the world, I imagine.

I love your writing, well the contemps I have read. I am kinda off historicals for the same reasons you have outlined, lack of realism and the heroines not being rounded characters.

I will definitely give yours a go though...as soon as I can get my hands on some more Tim Tams!
I reckon I'll have to include a pack for Evil Libby too. I adore reading her blog and I am sure she needs them coming off 'the homestretch'!

You take care, J xx

Kristi said...

I personally LOVE the reality that you weave into your books, P. I do not read sweet, syrupy romance novels and truly -- I have a hard time reading many contemps because they are TOO unrealistic. I really am fascinated by how you work your own life experiences and interests into your books. Much of it, therapeutic for you -- but as for EE and HE - I love the journalistic elements that you share - that semi-part of your life that you share with us in a creative way. THANKS for all of your books, my friend -- you make escaping from our own realities very enjoyable... Love & Kisses, K

Karen said...

One of the reasons I love your books is the realism of the time periods. The fact that it is so well researched says a lot about your gift.

I read many different kinds of books, but the books that always stay with me have a great story and characters. And the realism in your books (whether historical or contemp), for me, make a great story. And as long as I like it, that's all that really matters!

Sheila said...

I like that you use real situations in your stories and real people. I feel I connect better to the characters when I would react the same way in a situation. I can totally see me saying things like that in a bar after three margaritas! (I may have in my past) I hate it when I read a story and the thought runs through my mind "I wish someone would write a story about a heroine that was a size 12 and not perfect". I guess I like the story to be plausible. Wether it be a historical or contemporary, it needs to be something that could or did really happen to real people.

I read alot of books and not too many of them make me resopnd in a physical manner without thought. I read Extreme Exposure Saturday and twice Laughed Out Loud!! That doesn't happen to me very often. I loved it and have already started on Hard Evidence. You are a true master and I thank you for writing.

Bo said...

I ADORE the way you use history in your books,gore and all.You and Diana Gabaldon,and sometimes Marsha Canham,are the ONLY ones that come to mind where I was put IN the story so deep that it was as if I was there.I hope that never,EVER changes.I don't want a sanitized version-a book that is historical yet does nothing to weave the characters into that history bores me to tears and rarely makes my keeper shelf or even stays in my head past the first two days after finishing it.
Under no circumstances do I want a history lesson-I want to LIVE the history of what happened,and you absolutely SHINE at doing this.It breathes life & depth into the story overall and the characters for me to see their wounds,physical as well as emotional,and to see the risks they take to their very lives as a result of living in that era.I like to see the danger,to feel what happens when the hero or heroine is seriously hurt or in danger,because of several reasons:

1.I get to see the depth of feeling that the main characs. have for each other
2.I get a better sense of that person's survival skills,their will to live,determination,etc.-and if I didn't already love them by the time this situation happened,this might be the turning point that molds a likable,good character into that awesome,drop dead hero you lust for,would die for,would fight to the death for because he is everything a man should be and more (EX. Iain!!! *G*)
Or in the case of the heroine,it makes you fiercely loyal to her,someone you admire and respect,someone you think is absolutely worthy of the great hero that she shares the story with,someone you WANT TO BE!!!(Annie & Brighid)

But I DO LOVE ALL your characters.

3.It brings the villain(s) to rich,detailed life,allowing me to loathe them even more,jonesing for that final scene where the comeuppance is delivered with style and total satisfaction after you've read it.

To me,reading a DETAILED historical without putting me there is just a history lesson that I'll hate,or an action movie that somehow forgot to include a car chase,gunfight,explosion,etc. It's like telling me what happened without showing me,and that just bores me to tears and I could care less about what happened to the people.Thankfully,you have NEVER done this.

Hi, y'all

I can barely type. Too many hours writing at home and at the ofiice. My hands and arms feel like painful dead things from carpel tunnel. I wake up aching and tingling from my biceps to my fingertips so many times each night...

So this will be quick.

Ronlyn, it's good to know a fellow history geek! And I think you're right -- there's a thin line between showing violence and romanticizing it. There's a thin line between being grisly and being realistic. I guess the author has to tread that line.

Debbie H, we would burn at the stake together. I, too, get to know characters through their suffering. For me, I know I'm ready to write a character once I understand where their pain comes from and how that influences them.

And thanks, I will keep writing. BTW, I didn't mean this post to illicit comments about my writing so much as I hoped to usher in a discussion.

Joanie, I think you're right. That's why romantic fiction rocks. There are so many different styles/subgenres to appeal to everyone. I don't like light-hearted stuff myself. I have a pretty good idea why I don't (won't go into that) but other people do. So that's right for them.

I think sometimes what we want to read varies depending on mood, too.

And I am looking forward to more Tim Tams!!! YUM! Got books, will trade for Tim Tams. LOL! I'm so glad you enjoyed the two you read.

Kristi, I'm delighted that you enjoy the journalistic tidbits. When I wrote EE, I was really worried the procedural elements would bore readers to tears because I find it boring. My agent said, "That's because it's normal to you. It's normal to the rest of us." And you're welcome! XXOO back

Karen, you crack me up. I'm glad you enjoy them. For me, I love knowing that something I'm reading is real or based on reality. Then I get fascinated about which parts were fact. But that's the geek in me. :-)

Sheila, I am DELIGHTED to know you enjoyed EE. My first contemp. God, I remember writing that and feeling like I was going 90 mph down a mountain road at night without headlights. I had NO IDEA what I was doing. I hadn't even read a romantic suspense before that. I hope you enjoy Tess and Julian's story, too. And it's great to have you visiting!

Bo, you want exactly what I want from a book. I want to breathe with the characters. I want my world to fade and their world to take over. When I finish I want to feel like I've been far away from my own life, that I've spent time with real people. And thanks so much for your sweet words!!! I shine. Wow! I like that. :-)

And I think your analysis about character suffering is right on. It tests their strength and tells us who they really are and what they really feel.

My big beef with most contemps is the heroine -- so many times the women don't cuss, don't drink are prim about sex. I don't know any women like that. Not even my own mom.

OK, that's it. My fingers fill like aching ice. I want to blog tonight but I just can't!

HUGS to all.
P.C.

Ronlyn said...

Pam,
I hope you're home today and not out on the road. A friend in Colorado Springs just told me about another blizzard ripping through down there.
Stay warm and safe!

Thanks, Ronlyn. I wish I were home, too. We're in deadline hell at the paper, putting the first 64 pages of this monster paper to press.

It's pouring rain outside here, but they're saying up to 7 inches of snow. Could be it got blow south to CS and we're just going to get rain. I hope so!

Pamela

I so much prefer a bit of realism in my romance. I don't know if it comes with age and experience but light and fluffy just doesn't do it for me anymore. Although after reading the enire book the first time, I do tend to skim very quickly over the first chapter of Ride the Fire upon rereading. But - it's a very powerful chapter and although difficult to read, it just wouldn't be the same book without it. It helped propel that book into one of the best, most riveting, intense books I've ever read.

Sue Z said...

In order to make the story believable there has to be some truth to the accuracy of which the story takes place. If you don’t; that ruins the credibility of the story and to me credibility of the author too.

I really enjoy historicals. I have only been a serious reader for only about 9 months but I find them very intriguing. (I guess that I like to take my mind to a nice land far, far away). But there has to be the realties of the history to the era in which the story takes place.

In Surrender, we were given a good look at the harsh reality of the battle field. Those were just violent times. And can you even imagine what it was like living in the barracks under those conditions? Or what it was like to be running for your life and trying to survive in the wilderness with not much more than the clothes on your back?

I read this book not too long ago and I enjoyed the content of it more than the overall story. The book painted such a good picture in my mind of how harsh the living conditions were in 15th century Scotland. The hero spent more than half his young life in battle. And in that time period you fought your enemy face to face. They would fight a bloody battle, rest for the night and then had travel for days on horseback only to confront another gruesome battle.

So IMO…how could you leave out the gruesome reality and keep the story credible?? I have a choice in what I read. The only thing that I would not tolerate is glorifying violence against women.

I am glad that you write your own experiences into your stories

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"I am an artist. I am here to live out loud."
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