Writing feminist fiction

Signing books for Rosie, who came to hear me speak.

I launched the print version of my latest historical romance earlier this month. A local bookshop, Almo’s Books, hosted me, and laid on the supper. The photo above shows me, the book (Unkept Promises), and earlier books in the same series.

I really enjoyed meeting fans, and talking about my writing and the romance genre in general. One thing I said struck a chord with several of the people there. Romance, I told them, is inherently feminist. Here’s my logic.

Most of the people who write romance are women.

Most of the people who read romance are women.

Last, but by no means least, a romance story isn’t over until the woman in it gets what she wants.

The final point is probably the reason why the patriarchy has been putting romance down and trying to prevent women from reading it since before Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters. Romance acts as if men are not the most important people in the world. Romance thinks that what women want is an important plot point–no, more! THE important plot point.

Does that mean that romance is necessary to be a fulfilled woman? Of course not. I know many single women who lead interesting, productive and happy lives. But neither is romance a second best, a sell-out, a retreat from feminist values. If women can do anything, falling in love is one of those things.

I don’t write chick lit, or Mommy porn, or bodice rippers. I don’t buy into any of those demeaning labels. I write romance, and I’m proud of it. I write stories about two people who find one another, and in doing so, find a helpmate with whom to walk through life.

They face problems (which is what makes it a story), but they solve them together. They respect one another. They co-operate. Truly, what’s not to like?

I write capable women, and men who are strong enough to respect them. What could be more feminist than that?

Ask a busy person

You’ve probably heard the saying: “If you want something done, ask a busy person.”

Here’s some of my job list from today:

  • finishing my story for the Authors of Main Street box set
  • getting ready to go spend a week at our daughter’s place looking after her three children while she takes a much needed holiday
  • meeting realtors to choose a new one after the house has sat on the market for far too long (and it’s Spring, so a great time to sell, with all the fruit trees in blossom)
  • having coffee with the person who runs Featherston Booktown about my ideas for events in the next two years
  • finalising plans for the physical book launch of my novel at a local shop in two weeks
  • sending my three most recent books for deposit at our National Library
  • organising transport for our disabled son to take him too and from his national camp at the end of the month
  • fixing a mistake on the cover of the Bluestocking Belles’ box set that has just gone on pre-release
  • updating my books on Nielsen’s book table.

So by all means, ask a busy person. But the answer is no.

Here’s a wee bit from my Authors of Main Street story, The Gingerbread Caper.

Meg climbed the stairs, fishing for the keys she’d tucked into her jeans pocket.

Patrick was good-looking in a geeky kind of a way—tall, dark hair that needed a trim, earnest blue-grey eyes. He was lean to gauntness, but that would be the glandular fever. According to Aunt Margaret, he’d gone back to work before he was well enough, and suffered a relapse, so he was leaving Wellington so he wouldn’t be able to overdo things again.

Damn Aunt Margaret. When she told Meg about the lodger, she managed to make him sound old, feeble, and innocuous. “He’s something in government, sweetie,” she said. “A clerk. Something like that. He has had glandular fever, poor thing, which is difficult at his age. He needs somewhere to finish convalescing. He lives with a family who have children, and he isn’t finding it restful.”

At his age, my bony left foot. Patrick was no older than her, late twenties or early thirties. Even gaunt from his illness, even standoffish, he was hot. A clerk? Aunt Margaret’s ‘Something like that’ translated as senior policy analyst. He was cagey about what that actually meant. As if I was being nosey! She was, of course. Old journalist habits die hard.

He stumbled on the top step, and caught himself with a hand on her hip, snatching it away with a muttered apology as even the tips of his ears turned red. In another guy, she’d suspect a pass, but Patrick had already proved a klutz. Was that a result of the illness, too?

“No problem,” she told him. “This door is yours. Mine—or, rather, Aunt Margaret’s—is on the other side of the landing.” She turned the key while she spoke, and swung the door open onto the small flat—an open-plan living area and kitchen, a pocket-handkerchief bathroom, and a bedroom just big enough for a Queen-sized bed and a couple of bedside cabinets.

“I’ll leave you to it. There’s tea and coffee on the bench, and milk in the fridge.” She waved towards the kitchen, where a welcome basket of baking and another of fruit waited by the kettle, coffee plunger, and teapot. Canisters of tea and coffee bags lined the shelf above the bench. “Come down whenever you like. Dinner is at 6.30pm, if that’s okay. Aunt has a folder of ‘Things to Do’. It’s on the coffee table.” Another wave.

“Thank you. I’ll be fine, I’m sure.”

He had a sexy American accent: Canadian or US—she had trouble guessing, sometimes. Probably the States. They had a reputation for good manners.

Did she need to tell him anything else? She thought about it while he waited, watching her with just a hint of apprehension, as if she might suddenly do something alarming.

“Okay, then,” she said, breaking the silence. “See you later.”

As she turned to leave, Mr. Major slipped past her ankles and streaked across the room to disappear into the bedroom.

“Drafted cat! Sorry about that. I’ll just get rid of him for you.”

“You can leave him if you want,” Patrick said. “I like cats.”

“No one likes Mr. Major,” Meg warned. “Mr. Major is a fiend from hell.” The counter bell rang—someone was in the shop and young Emma was 30 minutes late getting back from lunch. “I have to go,” she said. The man was a grown-up. She left him to the tender mercies of Mr. Major, the cat-monster, and hurried back downstairs.

Retelling my author story

Conferences rock. There I am in the purple Regency duchess outfit, complete with ostrich feathers, holding the certificate for one of the 4th places I won in the Koru Awards at the Romance Writers of New Zealand Conference. The Awards dinner, and all the other socialising, was great. I had a fabulous time. But the real gold of the weekend was in the workshops, and I’ll be mining it for months, if not years.

One workshop set me retelling my author origin story in a way that tells more of a universal tale, harnessing the tropes my life has followed. Mine is a reinvention story. What’s yours?

scene break

Have you ever wanted something so much you were afraid to even try? That was me ten years ago.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a novelist. I even started dozens of stories, over the years.

But life kept getting in the way. A seriously ill child who required years of therapy; a rising mortgage that led to a full-time job; six children, my own chronic illness… the writing took a back seat.

As the years passed, the fear grew. If I didn’t put my stories out there in the market, I wouldn’t risk making a fool of myself. I could keep the dream alive if I never put it to the test.

Then my mother died. That great lady had waited her whole life to read a novel of mine, and now it would never happen.

So I faced my fear and changed it–told everyone I knew I was writing a novel. Now I’d make a fool of myself for certain if I didn’t finish.

My first book came out to excellent reviews in December 2014, and the rest is history. Many books, lots of positive reviews, and a few awards later, I feel foolish for not starting earlier.

I write historical fiction with a large helping of romance, a splash of Regency, and a twist of suspense. I then try to figure out how to slot the story into a genre category. I’m mad keen on history, enjoy what happens to people in the crucible of a passionate relationship, and love to use a good mystery and some real danger as mechanisms to torture my characters.

Dip your toe into my world with one of my lunch-time reads collections or a novella, or dive into a novel. And let me know what you think.

scene break

I have an origin story for my imprint, too.

I wanted to call my imprint Olive Press, since my mum’s name was Olive. But a bit of research convinced me it was a bad idea: already used, and all for Christian self-help books and Bible study guides. I don’t want to go misleading readers!

So I named it after my mother’s childhood home, which in turn was named after her family’s ancestral village, and I chose an olive tree for the symbol.


Doing something small for love

My goodness, weren’t we young, then?

When asked her favourite story theme, a friend of mine always says that she wants to read about people who do great things for love. My answer is the opposite. I want to read about people who persistently do the little things for love.

A few days ago was the fiftieth anniversary of the date on which my personal romantic hero and I first began to talk about marriage. I remember that Christmas we joined a group to go carol-singing around for the old-folks, and we were both struck by the elderly couples who listened, holding hands. That could be us, one day.

In the intervening years, we’ve had our sorrows and our joys. We’ve been through times of colliding and others of drifting apart. Always, we’ve found our way through to a renewed commitment, a deeper love.

Looking back, I can count some real crises, when one or both of us was called upon to do something great for love–to leave a cherished job, to move the length of the country, to believe in one another and our love when everything around us tried to pull us apart.

What allowed us to keep going was a habit of looking after one other, of showing our love every day in little, even hidden, ways. Doing the little things, even when we didn’t want to.

As a writer, I am often emotionally and mentally absent even when I’m physically present. My personal romantic hero reminds me to eat, brings me coffee, reads a great review when asked, takes on most of the cooking so I have more time for writing, brings me flowers, does all the shopping (including spending the time needed to read all the labels to cope with my food allergies).

He loves me, and he shows me he loves me every day.

And I love him. I take a break to watch silly videos he has found on YouTube, laugh at his jokes (even if I’ve heard them before), make him a drink when he comes in from the garden, admire the newly mown lawns, send him text messages during the day to say I love him.

Doing the little things every day, even when you don’t feel like it, isn’t always easy. It should become a habit, and that helps. But it’s easy to forget, which is why it matters. Being loving to the one you love, every day of every week, month after month, year after year–come to think of it, that is doing something great for love.

Now, we are old. And when we walk, when we sit together in church, when we go to the movies or listen to carol singing, we hold hands.

Now is the winter of our discontent

Winter snow on the Tararua Ranges, which bound my valley on the west. Over the hills to the east is the coast on which I’ve set my fictional Valentine Bay

Here in New Zealand, we’re waking to frosty morning and chilly days. I’d like to hibernate my way through winter, but that’s not about to happen.

Instead, I’ve finished my novel Unkept Promises and put it up on preorder, nearly completed To Wed a Proper Lady, and made a good start on The Granite Earl and the Ice Princess.

More about Unkept Promises in a minute, but first, here’s the start of another project — next to get my full focus. It’s the as-yet-unnamed novella for the next Authors of Main Street Christmas project, due out in November. I’m returning to Valentines Bay for this one, in which a professor on sabbatical to finish writing up some important research finds himself intolerably distracted by the local baker, and an author who is helping out her injured aunt by looking after the bakery can’t get any of her real work done because of an irritating academic.

Patrick had read the same paragraph at least four times, and still could not make head nor tail of it. Worse, he’d written it himself, and reviewed it in the last two edits.

It was all Her fault. Even when She was being relatively quiet, as she was now, he was intolerably aware of Her. She irritated him so much, that even breathing the same air, She left him without enough to fill his lungs. And when She forgot herself and began singing to whatever infernal noise She had playing through Her headphones! Well! He’d defy a saint not to turn murderous.

When he found out that the nice old duck who owned the place was laid up with a broken hip, Patrick should have cancelled his booking. Or demanded his meals delivered to the little flat he’d rented above the bakery. Or any arrangement that would have allowed him to escape this torture.

He gave up on the page and took a sip of his tea. Cold. That was all of a piece, though — he looked at the clock above the bakery counter to check — it had been one hour since She bought it.

She was watching him. Glaring, really. Before glaring back, Patrick quickly checked his reflection in the shop window alongside. Hair tidy. Shirt collar and glasses straight. No. Nothing there to arouse Her animosity.

I’m trying for a romantic comedy this time, rather than romantic suspense. I’ll let you know how I get on.

Now. Unkept Promises. If you read historical, and like stories with slightly darker shadows than the frothy ball dress style of story, give my Golden Redepennings a try. Unkept Promises is the 4th book in the series.

Which brings me to the next part of the quote in the title of this post: Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer. That’s how I feel about finally getting Unkept Promises up on pre-release and away to the proofreader.

Unkept Promises

Book 4 in The Golden Redepennings series

She wants to negotiate a comfortable marriage; he wants her in his bed

… oaths and anchors equally will drag: naught else abides on fickle earth but unkept promises of joy.” Herman Melville

Naval captain Jules Redepenning has spent his adult life away from England, and at war. He rarely thinks of the bride he married for her own protection, and if he does, he remembers the child he left after their wedding seven years ago. He doesn’t expect to find her in his Cape Town home, a woman grown and a lovely one, too.

Mia Redepenning sails to Cape Town to nurse her husband’s dying mistress and adopt his children. She hopes to negotiate a comfortable married life with the man while she’s there. Falling in love is not on her to-do list.

Before they can do more than glimpse a possible future together, their duties force them apart. At home in England, Mia must fight for the safety of Jules’s children. Imprisoned in France, Jules must battle for his self-respect and his life.

Only by vanquishing their foes can they start to make their dreams come true.

Buy links:
Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/947394
Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07TXXK53N/

See my book page for the previous three books, and The Golden Redepennings web page for more about the series. And all my novels, including these, are on 50% discount at Smashwords this month.

Where have all the good men gone?

Somewhere in the cusp between several writing projects, the evening news, and every day life, I’ve been pondering heroes.

In part, I’m trying not to repeat myself. Maybe it’s just that I like a challenge, or perhaps that I’m easily bored, but I want each hero to be a unique individual, with his own personality, his own traumas and motivations, his own unique way of responding to his heroine and to the world.

Some writers, I know, produce a series of heroes who change in mannerisms and appearance, but not in their essence. A well-written series is no less enjoyable for every hero being an alpha male: strong, confident, protective, even domineering; but putty in the hands of the woman who is their match.

The scarred hero is a common archetype with some writers: the wounded body reflecting deeper wounds in heart and soul that he will only address when the love of the heroine gives him a motive to heal.

Others love to write about the bad boy, constantly taking risks and pushing boundaries, until someone comes along who matters more to him than his desire to thumb his nose at society.

I wrote a blog post recently about hero archetypes, and the challenge each type faces in winning their heroine. King, ladies man, bad boy, swashbuckler, best friend, protector, recluse, professor — they can all be fun to write and fun to read.

But a person is more than their archetype. As my heroes and heroines reveal themselves, I’m asking what makes them happy? What do they laugh at? What hurts them or reminds them of past pain? What arouses their anger or their joy?

My own personal romantic hero and I had a conversation about fundamental masculine and feminine traits, in response to an article we read about a man who felt that when his beloved asked to share the driving on a long trip, she was really saying she did not believe he could protect her.

Modern psychology tells us that men and women are more alike than they are different, and that all personality traits are on a continuum. On the other hand, I’ve raised both boys and girls, and they’ve been different from the cradle. On the other other hand, I’ve no idea how much the difference has been subtly imposed by our culture. I’m now up to three hands, so had better stop.

The scientific truth is useful for building my heroes. I can give them a variety of traits that are a little out of the norms for the culture they live in, and let them be ashamed or defiant or amused; secretive or flamboyant; accepting or tortured. I can then let them spark off a heroine who complements or challenges them.

Each couple will be different. Each story will be different.

Just for fun, here are the heroes I’m currently living with.

Jules Redepenning is a bad boy, but also a protector. His book, Unkept Promises, is about to go to the proofreader. In it, the wife he hasn’t seen in seven years comes to meet him in Cape Town.

Dear Heavens. The man was gorgeous. Even grumpy; even with most of his attention on another woman, even with all that she’d heard about him to his discredit, she wanted him.

James Winderfield in To Wed a Proper Lady is quite a different fellow. His strongest archetype is king. In his book, almost finished (four scenes to go), he must marry a proper English lady for the sake of his family’s reputation. And then he falls in love.

He was drowning in a pair brown-gray eyes, like a pond in the deep shelter of a nurturing forest. Did she feel it too? The Greeks said that true lovers had one soul, split at birth and placed in two bodies. He had thought it a nice conceit, until now.

I’m a little over 10% of the way through the first draft of To Mend the Broken Hearted. Valentine Monforte is a recluse, nursing his wounded heart and mind in a remote country manor. Until a woman doctor battling a typhus epidemic takes over a wing of his house and refuses to be kept out. In the first scene, he steers his plough around the nest of a lapwing.

One more evidence of his madness, the tenants thought, and in his worst moments he thought they were right, when thunder set him shaking or nightmares woke him screaming defiance or approaching anywhere close to that cursed tower froze him in his tracks.

And I’m at the early stages of meeting three more heroes whose stories will find their way to paper before the end of the year:

The Earl of Hamner is a rules-bound gentleman. His archetype is best friend, but he’ll need to loosen up a bit.I have just the heroine for him.

Max, a former special forces assassin and most recently a gun for hire, is asked to investigate some disappearances in a cult. Serenity, his heroine, will touch a heart he thought long since calcified. He’s a swashbuckler.

And last, but not least, still unnamed and only just coming together, is my hero for this year’s Authors of Main Street anthology, which takes us back to Valentine Bay. He’s the professor type, this lad. He’ll find my lady baker worth studying.

Cat-astrophes and new beginnings

“Would you look after our cats until we move into the new apartment?” asked daughter 3. She thought living with us and our two cats for a few weeks might be less challenging than a cattery, especially for the elderly fellow, the ginger tom Wibbles, whose health was already frail.

We said yes, though we might have hesitated had we known what was in store.

They spent the first week in our garage. We left the car outside, moved our own cats to overnight in the laundry, provided them with food, water, and comfortable places to sit, and visited several times a day.

From the moment we opened the cat carriers, they faded away into the corners of cupboards, behind boxes, or under shelves. After a few days, Minnie, the cheerful black and white with the loud meow, would emerge to greet us, demanding a cuddle by weaving between our legs. We always had to hunt for Wibbles, who was fifteen years of age and who had been unwell for a while. He’d blink up at us from whichever refuge he’d squeezed himself into, and not come out unless we physically lifted him.

After the first week, we introduced our own cats, removing them each morning. Minnie was friendly. Ruby and Tiger less so. Wibbles slept. That second week, too, we brought the two guests into the house. Minnie slunk through the rooms, belly to the carpet, sniffing at everything. Wibbles hid under the coffee table, and slept.

In the third week, we left the garage door open for a few minutes, then an hour, then a whole afternoon. Minnie went exploring and came back. Wibbles hid and slept.

Then came the day we hunted high and low for Wibbles and couldn’t find him. We moved every box, looked under every shelf and inside every cupboard. No Wibbles. We walked the section, calling, though what we thought that might do I’m not sure. He’d not come to us at any point in the whole sorry saga.

“He has gone away to die,” said daughter 3, philosophically.

She was less philosophical three days later when Minnie disappeared. Again, the search, inside and out. We put a notice up at the supermarket, dropped leaflets in all the local letterboxes. We approached every black and white cat we saw making kissy noises and saying “Minnie, Minnie, Minnie,” in a high pitched voice. My beloved thought he saw Ruby chasing off a black and white cat, and I suspect he was probably right. Ruby has always been our timid cat, but she has suddenly developed a swagger.

Last week, we heading over to Wellington to see the new apartment (a five-bedroom penthouse much in need of renovation, but it’s going to be fabulous). We were part way over the hills (other countries might call them mountains) that separate us from the city to the south when my mobile phone rang. “I think I’ve seen your cat.” The description was right. Beloved turned the car and back we went, but to no avail. No Minnie to be seen. “I’ll keep an eye out for her, the neighbour promised, and we left again. We made the hour’s trip to Wellington, admired the apartment, had lunch with daughter and granddaughter, and drove home again.

As we came down out of the hills into our own town, the neighbour called again, bless him. “She was at my next door neighbour’s ten minutes ago.” It was Minnie, all right, and she was still there. Yes, and pleased to see us and come home.

You can be sure that the next morning I drove back to Wellington to deliver Minnie to her new home. Phew. I’m broken-hearted that we couldn’t find Wibbles, but so relieved that we managed to take Minnie back to her family.

If anyone would like us to provide a refuge for our cats, we probably can’t. We have a 50/50 success record, and we’re not going to be home that week.