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A Tip on Writing Romance Heroes

By Laura Vivanco on Thursday, 30 October, 2014

One of the sections in Kate Walker's 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance stresses the importance of

Vulnerability

Perfection isn't totally appealing. It can be scary. It can be unbelievable. It can seem inhuman. It can be just too much. [...]

Why especially for the hero?

So why is that vulnerability so vital - especially in a hero? As I've said, the alpha male is strong, powerful, forceful, dynamic and successful  [...]. But at heart he's just a human being. (109)

One of Sally Wentworth's heroines throws a bit more light on the topic:

she would probably never have fallen in love with him if she hadn't seen his bad leg and realised his vulnerability. Before she had been half afraid of him; he was so different from herself that he might almost have come from another world, not only of class and background, but of confidence and experience; he was a man in every sense of the word [...]. But the fact that he was vulnerable to pain, to frustration, to life, had brought him down to a level where she could fall head over heels in love with him. (146)

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Walker, Kate. Kate Walker's 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance. Abergele: Studymates, 2008.

Wentworth, Sally. Man for Hire. Don Mills, Ontario: Harlequin, 1982.

The illustration is of Achilles, from The World's Famous Orations, Vol. 1 (via Wikimedia Commons).

They voted no

By Laura Vivanco on Friday, 19 September, 2014

Scotland has voted "no" to independence and I agree with Euan Bennet that this seems a likely outlook:

  • No new powers for the Scottish Parliament. Or worse, the Labour proposals for further devolution are brought in, featuring no new powers, but new responsibilities without the means to fund them.
  • A Tory Government or a Labour Government at Westminster come 2015. Both have pledged that they will continue planned public spending cuts, austerity measures, punitive welfare reform, and confrontational foreign and immigration policy. Add UKIP to a coalition with the Tories for extra racism, sexism, and every other ‘-ism’ in your worst-case scenario!
  • An EU exit following the proposed referendum in 2017.
  • The TTIP opens up the NHS in Scotland to marketisation just like it already is in England.
  • 100,000 more children in poverty by 2020.
  • Another banking crash fuelled by the housing bubble that economic policy is currently reinflating.
  • More austerity, forever.
  • BUT enough money to build a new generation of nuclear weapons stored 30 miles from our biggest city.
  • Scotland’s renewable energy potential left to one side while fracking poisons our soil and water.

That so many people have voted for this has fundamentally affected how I feel about participation with other people, both on and offline. I'm putting this blog on hiatus and only expect to update it if I publish any new work (and I'm considering cutting down on that too).

Stereotypes Dogging Scotland

By Laura Vivanco on Tuesday, 9 September, 2014

Euan Hague sent me his latest article on Scotland, in which he notes that in romance novels set in Scotland (but written by US authors)

the idea of Scottish adversity, typically in relation to England, produces an 'underdog' theme which researcher Jody Allen [...] finds appealing: 'Scotland as the underdog, always fighting back, still today with the "yes" vote campaign for independence.' The idea of fighting against a superior political power resonates with US readers reminded every Fourth of July about their nation's struggle for independence. A reader of romances who posted on Word Wenches (2013) concurs: 'I think we like to read about the "underdogs. Scotland is loaded with "underdogs" in history ... I read a lot of English-set novels - but for them I am usually reading for the heroine, who is the underdog. When I'm reading a Scottish one, the hero is just as important because usually he's as much of an underdog - the stakes are greater! Freedom for your entire country - a huge stake!' (188)

These novels are not, however, necessarily ideal entry points to understanding either modern Scotland or its independence referendum. The kind of Scotland to be found in US romance novels can generally be described as

Tartanry, replete with kilt-wearing, sword-wielding, bagpipe-playing Highlanders wandering across treeless mountains and along scenic lochsides among the purple flowers of heather and thistles, remains the dominant representation of Scotland internationally. (173)

and

key themes include genealogy, family and heredity, which raise associated plot lines of the legitimacy of heirs and competing claims to land, power and leadership positions in both clans and royal families. Brooding, passionate, feisty Scots are often drawn in contrast to more prosaic English or American protagonists. (176)

It would be very wrong, for instance, to assume that those campaigning for Scottish independence are motivated primarily by "genealogy, family and heredity":

In Scotland, both the devolutionists of the Constitutional Convention and the independence-minded SNP (which stood outside the Convention) have proclaimed a non-ethnic, inclusive, ‘civic’ concept of nationalism.(SA 29:138) Ethnic nationalism ‘is in essence exclusive’, stressing the ethnic group and common descent. Civic nationalism ‘is inclusive in the sense that anyone can adopt the culture and join the nation’. (Kellas p.65) (Miller and Hussain 1)

 

As for being an underdog, well

Dr Nasar Meer, an Edinburgh-based social sciences academic at the University of Strathclyde who has studied the support for independence among minorities, agreed that minorities "identify with the narrative" of Scotland.

"They understand what it feels like to be oppressed, and that's the Scottish version of their history too," he said. "Though, of course, it's not necessarily true that Scots have always been oppressed. Scots ran the British Empire, practically. The Indian military has a Scottish tartan in its formal regalia." (Elgot)

If that sounds like a bit of a paradox, try this, from Professor Tom Devine:

the Scottish people seem to be wedded to a social democratic agenda and the kind of political values which sustained and were embedded in the welfare state of the 1950s. In fact, you could argue that it is the Scots who have tried to preserve the idea of Britishness in terms of state support and intervention, and that it is England that has chosen to go on a separate journey since the 1980s.

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Devine, Tom. "Tom Devine: why I now say yes to Independence for Scotland." Bella Caledonia, 22 August 2014.

Elgot, Jessica. "Why Are So Many Scots From Ethnic Minorities Voting Yes?" Huffington Post, 14 June 2014.

Hague, Euan. “Mass Market Romance Fiction and the Representation of Scotland in the United States.” The Modern Scottish Diaspora: Contemporary Debates and Perspectives. Ed. Murray Stewart Leith and Duncan Sim. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2014. 171-190.

Miller, William L. and Asifa M. Hussain. "Devolution, Nationalism and Ethnic Minorities: The Civility of Civic Nationalism."

 

The image of the Scotch Terrier came from Wikimedia Commons and was created by Pearson Scott Foresman.

A Sermon on the Scottish Independence Referendum

By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 31 August, 2014

I've written in a somewhat comical vein about the referendum in the past. It's not because I take the subject lightly, though. This week I'm choosing a rather more serious template for my post because I was filled with righteous indignation by Alistair Darling's attitude in the second televised debate between him and Alex Salmond. In his summing up, Darling stated that "any country's starting point is currency, money." Let that sink in. It's not the people of the country, the communities they build, the respect and love they show one another, or the talents and skills they have. No, for Alistair Darling it apparently all starts with money. And that's what the No campaign's been about: money.

Since this is supposed to be a sermon, can I just point out that

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. (Matthew 6:24)

The No campaign's been focussed on Mammon: its priority seems to be to frighten people that they'd lose the pound, and make older people fear for their pensions. So, let's clear those things up:

Last Sunday, over 30 ordained ministers of the Church of Scotland declared "We believe that a Yes vote in the forthcoming referendum makes possible a more socially just Scotland" and they quoted Matthew 23:45

Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.

The Yes campaign have been saying quite a lot about social justice and about the need to end inequality. These are pressing issues because

Recently released research has revealed increasing levels of poverty in Scotland. Over the last year a further 110,000 people fell below the poverty line, under which affording the basic essentials of life is often a struggle. The fact that women, men and children are turning to food banks to get enough to eat is just one sign that the system isn't working.

In a wealthy country like Scotland, it's scandalous that some 820,000 people now live in poverty, including 180,000 children.

But alongside increasing poverty, there's another major issue: inequality.

Across the UK the five richest families own the same as the poorest 20% of the population put together. Here in Scotland, the richest 10% of households have 900 times more wealth than the poorest 10%.

And yet, figures from the Trussell Trust in Scotland show the amount of food aid distributed has risen sharply, with over 71,000 people using their food banks last year - a five-fold increase over the previous 12 months. (Oxfam)

The Yes campaign isn't promising that independence will transform Scotland into a utopia, but it is confident that after independence

we’ll be able to vote for policies such as the following:

  • abolishing the “Bedroom Tax” cut to housing benefit and increasing support for carers
  • introducing a “triple lock” on pensions and ensuring tax credits and benefits rise with living costs
  • transforming provision of childcare to help tackle gender inequalities
  • ensuring the minimum wage rises at least in line with living costs
  • an industrial strategy to revive Scotland’s manufacturing sector, creating good quality jobs
  • a tax on bankers’ bonuses, an end to tax cuts for hedge funds and the reintroduction of the 50p top rate of tax.
  • promoting and incentivising companies to pay the living wage and wage ratios, and support for collective bargaining to boost wages. (Yes Scotland)

Internationally, a Yes vote could also be a force for good. The Yes campaign is committed to removing the UK's Trident nuclear submarines from the Clyde and Scottish CND is therefore of the opinion that "The independence referendum provides a great opportunity not just to remove Trident from Scotland, but to achieve nuclear disarmament in Britain" (Yes Scotland). The Churches' position on this would seem to be clear:

“We believe that nuclear weapons are inherently evil .” (General Assembly of the Church of Scotland May 2009)

“This point of view, that nuclear weapons have any place in a civilized society, is not only baneful but also completely fallacious. In a nuclear war there would be no victors, only victims.” (Pope Benedict XVI, 2007)

“ All people of faith are needed in our day to expose the fallacies of nuclear doctrine. These hold for example that there is a role in the human affairs of this small planet for a bomb more powerful than all the weapons ever used. We are bound to confront these follies before it is too late”. (World Council of Churches 2006) (Church and Society Council, Church of Scotland)

Scottish Independence Referendum: The Musical

By Laura Vivanco on Monday, 25 August, 2014

Tonight sees the second debate between Scotland's First Minister, Alex Salmond, and Alistair Darling, the head of the "Better Together" campaign. In the first debate

Alistair Darling pressed Alex Salmond repeatedly about which currency he would use if the rest of the UK refused to enter a currency union.

For his part, Alex Salmond urged Mr Darling to accept that Scotland could be a prosperous independent country. Again and again he asked him to say if he agreed. (BBC)

The fact is, though, that a Fiscal Commission outlined various currency options many months ago.  So if I were writing a musical about the referendum, I'd give myself a little bit of poetic license and adapt the folk song about a soldier who implies he'll consider marriage, if his demands are met, only to turn around at the end and say he's already got a wife:

"O Darling, Darling, will you not agree,
we'd be a "successful independent country"?"
"Oh, no, Salmond, I really can't agree,
For I have no currency clarity."

Then off Salmond went to his Fiscal Commission,
And brought back a report from the very, very best:
He brought back a report from the very, very best,
And the Darling took a look.

 

"O Darling, Darling, will you not agree,
we'd be a "successful independent country"?"
Ah, no! Salmond, I really can't agree,
For you have no currency Plan B."

Then back Salmond went to his Fiscal Commission,
And brought him Annex A of the many, many options:
He brought him Annex A of the many, many options,
And the Darling took a look.

 

"Now, Darling, Darling, will you not agree,
we'd be a "successful independent country"?"
"Ah, no! Salmond, I really can't agree,
For I've a Project Fear I can't disown!"

Yes, yes, yes!

By Laura Vivanco on Wednesday, 6 August, 2014

So, having tried my hand at writing fiction about the Scottish referendum last week, I thought I'd move quickly on to graphic design.

I thought this would be ideal if there were a "Romance Readers for Yes" group

On second thoughts, if a Romance Readers for Yes group existed and we used this on our T-shirts, we'd probably get hassled by people wanting to know which currency we'd be accepting.

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Of course, I had to borrow all the elements because I'm not much good at drawing. And then I needed a bit of help with resizing and positioning the various elements, but at least I cropped them myself!

The woman came from the cover of a 1949 comic. The "Yes"es were provided by Yes Scotland.

Once Upon a Referendum

By Laura Vivanco on Tuesday, 29 July, 2014

magical realism provides a perfect means for children to explore the world through their imaginations without losing a connection to what they recognize as the 'real world'. (Bowers 100)

YessieIt can be quite helpful for, and popular with, adults, too. So, with a bit of help from Diana Wynne Jones's The Dark Lord of Derkholm, let me tell you a story:

Once upon a time, in a land not so very far away, there was heather and tartan, plenty of ancient castles and a loch inhabited by a very strange monster. The inhabitants lived on a diet of oatcakes, shortbread and haggis and the water of life flowed plentifully. From below its seas could be extracted a substance which, although

it doesn't endure very long in the world it goes to [...] does marvels while it does last, of course. [...] they [...] use it to run all their machines, but they have to keep getting more" (438).

Despite it's usefulness, however, there were those who insisted it was not worth much: "It's just earth" (438). And all was not well in the land, for fear stalked the kingdom.

Admittedly those spreading the frightening rumours were not able to order that Edinburgh castle be transformed into a "Dark Lord's Citadel [...] with a labyrinthine interior lit by baleful fires" (Jones 47) but they could warn all the inhabitants that if they made the wrong choices, the “forces of darkness” would gather strength, with "cataclysmic" consequences (Scotsman). They couldn't insist that "one of your gods must manifest at least once to every party" (Jones 48) of tourists: instead they rustled up a wide range of celebrities (and some heads of state).

A rather motley band, including some griffin-like creatures who flew overhead, spreading their wings over Scotland, remained undaunted even when told that if they persisted they might be "fined [...] a sum not exceeding one hundred gold coins" (Jones 49) or, rather, £2.7 billion.

Did they all live happily ever after? I don't know. Maybe they'll ask

"[...] to be able to rule their own affairs. [...] We give the wizard Querida the task of making this world into its own place."

"But," Querida whispered, "won't that take ages?" [...]

"At least another forty years [...] And, as the Oracles warned you, [...] it will not be easy. Slaves have to learn freedom [...]." (Jones 504)

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Bowers, Maggie Ann. Magic(al) Realism. 2004. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2005.

Jones, Diana Wynne. The Dark Lord of Derkholm. 1998. London: Harper Collins, 2013.

 

Yessie (a relative of Nessie) was created by Stewart Bremner and prints of the poster are available for purchase. The lion with wings is the logo of "Wings Over Scotland." I don't know who created the "Will it be easy? Nope. Worth it? Absolutely" poster.

Conventional Criticisms of the Happy Ending

By Laura Vivanco on Thursday, 24 July, 2014

Given how often criticisms of romance are interpreted as being, at their core, the result of the denigration of a genre associated with women, I was intrigued to discover that many of the negative responses to popular romance can also be found in the critical work on Hollywood movies. The common factor would seem to be happy endings, which are, apparently, commonly supposed by critics to be "a ubiquitous feature of Hollywood cinema" (MacDowell 1).

Here are some of the critiques made of Hollywood movies which sound rather familiar:

  • "Probably the second most common scholarly assumption about the ‘happy ending’ is that it is inherently ideologically conservative" (3).
  • Some critics have resorted to "Freudian psychoanalysis" (4) to understand their appeal.
  • "narrative ‘closure’ is in itself ideologically suspect – a view rehearsed many times in both literary and film scholarship since at least the 1960s" (4).
  • "the ‘happy ending’ is in some sense ‘unrealistic’" (15)

All these quotes are from the introduction to James MacDowell's Happy Endings in Hollywood Cinema and I think I may have to get hold of the rest of his book because he aimed

to broaden our conception of what ‘happy endings’ clearly have the potential to do, and to explore some of the implications of that potential. While I do not in the least intend to imply that ‘happy endings’ never function in the ways they have so frequently been assumed to function, I am nevertheless keen to convince the reader that, at the very least, there is little in the convention that ensures they must always do so. Demonstrating this is the necessary first step towards a much-needed reconsideration of this most famous and maligned of conventions. (15)

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MacDowell, James. Happy Endings in Hollywood Cinema: Cliché, Convention and the Final Couple. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2013. [Introduction available in full here.]

Circle Time!

When I come across articles I can't read in full, I'm tempted to speculate. That's what happened when I came across Sara Petersson and Daniel Söderberg's study about shapes and different types of genre fiction. It's available in full online but unfortunately I don't understand Swedish. Tantalisingly, I was able to read the abstract:

This study aims to explore whether there are any connections between geometric shapes and popular literary genres and, if so, how they are justified. The geometric shapes included in the study are circle, square, rhombus and two types of triangles (one peaking upwards and one peaking downwards), while the included popular literary genres are romance, mystery, science fiction, fantasy and horror. [...] It emerged that not all genres had substantiated connections to a geometric shape, but that there were two distinct, positive results. One of them was the distinct connection between the circle and romance and the other one was an equally distinct connection between the two triangles and the genre science fiction. The connection between the circle and romance was justified with the circle’s perceived softness, positivity and warmth and its symbolic eternal value. The connection between the triangles and science fiction was explained with how the triangles were perceived as hard, cold and metallic together with the respondents’ cultural references to triangles in science fiction.

I immediately wondered whether the associations of these shapes had in fact been formed by publisher and other logos, or whether those logos (and book covers in general) had been shaped by the perceptions of these shapes outlined by Petersson and Söderberg.

Here are a few triangles in science fiction:

Ace BooksAce Books StarfleetStarfleet Tor BooksTor Books BaenBaen

Tor and Baen are combining circles and triangles, but I thought the triangles were more dominant visually (the Tor logo is dominated by the bulk of the triangle and in the Baen logo the circle's being pierced by the triangular spaceship).

And what about romance? Well, Harlequin's logo features a rhombus so that doesn't fit either my theory or theirs but the covers of Harlequin Presents, which I think is their best-selling series, certainly do feature circles and, on occasion, they've taken the form of an engagement ring (which makes one association between circles and romance very clear):

Harlequin PresentsHarlequin Presents

 

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Petersson, Sara and Daniel Söderberg. En berättelse tar form - en studie i hur geometrisk form på bokomslag indikerar populärlitterär genre. Linköping University, 2014.

laura Tuesday, 15 July, 2014

Harlequin Mills & Boon's First Black Romance?

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 28 June, 2014

The first category romance to feature Black protagonists appeared in

1980, [when] journalist Elsie B. Washington, writing under the pseudonym of Rosalind Welles, published Entwined Destinies. Believed to be the first-known romance featuring African-American characters written by an African-American author, Entwined Destinies was published under the Dell Candlelight imprint with editor Vivian Stephens. (Gwendolyn Osborne, qtd in Vivanco)

All the same, I was quite intrigued to learn of a category romance with Black protagonists published the following year. In romance author Anne Weale's review of Juliet Flesch's book about Australian romance novels Weale writes that

In Chapter One, the author refers to an anecdote told in The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon. The then head of copy-editing at Mills & Boon was surprised when the editorial director, Alan Boon, said a certain book was the first M & B to have a black hero and heroine. Because their skin colour was not mentioned, she had not realised they were black.

Juliet Flesch writes : 'Sadly, the title of the book is not cited and we do not know whether it was published. It is significant, however, that the racial aspect was evidently not seen by Alan Boon as a bar to publication'.

I can solve this small mystery. Taking its title Blue Days at Sea from Robert Louis Stevenson's poem, the book was first published in 1981. I remember because I wrote it. But the couple on the jacket were a cop-out, neither black nor white. A number of readers twigged that the hero and heroine were black and wrote to me about this innovation, none of them disapprovingly.

Here's the UK cover:

It may have been a "cop-out," but it was better than the cover Harlequin gave it:

Blue Days 2

It would be interesting to know if Harlequin realised that the hero and heroine were supposed to be Black. It certainly wasn't apparent from the text of the book itself because according to jay Dixon,

Pat Cowley, head of copyediting at Mills & Boon until the early 1980s [...] went back to the text for confirmation. She discovered that, although both protagonists came from Barbados, skin colour as such was never mentioned. (53)

Harlequin were certainly aware of the skin colour of the hero and heroine of Sandra Kitt's Adam and Eva, which they published in 1984. It was their first romance featuring Black protagonists and written by an African-American author:

Adam and Eva

[Kitt's first published romance, mentioned in this "Time Line of Milestones in African-American Romance" seems to have had White protagonists, though I'm happy to be corrected if I'm wrong about that.]

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Dixon, jay. The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon 1909-1990s. London: UCL P, 1999.

Vivanco, Laura. "African-American Romances: A Short History." Teach Me Tonight. 1 Nov. 2006.

Weale, Anne. "Review: From Australia with Love: A History of Modern Australian Popular Romance Novels by Juliet Flesch." Network Review of Books (Perth, Australian Public Intellectual Network). October 2004.