Month: July 2019

The Fantasy Wave

My writers group held it’s annual picnic last week. As usual there was a fair mix of old members and newcomers. After a delicious pot luck lunch we did a read and critique. Once again I was impressed by the quality of the writing but what struck me in particular was the number of newer writers working in the fantasy genre.

“Fantasy” is too broad a term to describe what’s happening with the genre today. One can choose romantic fantasy, mystery fantasy, thriller fantasy, urban fantasy, space fantasy. . . Pretty well an story you want to write can have a fantasy element to it.

We used to say that about romance. Back in the day “Romance” meant Harlequin category. Then writers flexed their imaginations and our love stories began to include elements of women’s fiction, mystery, thriller, erotica, inspirational. . . Again, any  type of story the writer could imagine might include a love story.

Because romance led the industry in sales, other writers jumped on the bandwagon and added romance to their books. Some didn’t do it very well. There are  websites devoted to awful romance scenes written by non-romance authors.

Is fantasy set to take over from romance in the “anyone can to it” department? The incentive is surely there as sales in fantasy have taken off, particularly in the self-published industry. Forbes reports a 100% rise in sales of fantasy novels since 2010. Interestingly, traditional publishers have not seen a similar rise. Is that because they are not investing in fantasy or because authors aren’t submitting ms in this genre? Given the success of Harry Potter, the Hunger Games and Game of Thrones, why wouldn’t a publisher be eager to pick up the next big thing?

The Marvel comic superheroes are another manifestation of the genre. Buck Rogers, Mandrake the Magician, Star Trek, Star Wars and the many spin offs have increased the genre’s appeal.

While it seems as though the bourgeoning of fantasy is a recent phenomenon, the genre is as old as literature itself. The Iliad, Greek and Norse myths, and children’s fairy tales all contained elements of the supernatural. Shakespeare’s “Tempest,” Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, fit some definitions of fantasy. C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Tales fall into the genre. But the real impetus for the modern fantasy popularity probably began with JRR Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings.” Legions of young readers became hooked on literature when they met Frodo.

With so many varied examples to chose from, small wonder that romance authors, among others have embraced the genre. But why is it so popular?

We live in a complicated and rational world. For many, work days consist of sitting in front of a computer screen where every key stroke is governed by the rules of logic. We politely queue up at the coffee bar. We live in regulated housing complexes. We hover over our kids lest something terrible befall them. We buy toys that have received the good housekeeping seal of approval. In short, we do everything possible to make our world safe and predictable – and boring.

I think Fantasy offers the ultimate in escape literature. Here we can play on a cosmic stage. Our opponents are formidable on a mythical scale. Battles are epic. The stakes are high – maybe even the survival of the human race. As an antidote to a constrained life, fantasy offers unbeatable adventure.

As a writer and reader of romance, I find the epic proportions of fantasy a bit too over the top for me. Although I’ll admit to enjoying a long ago romance novel that had a ghost living in the attic, the hero/heroine were regular humans and it was their love story I followed.

I write Western Historicals and part of their appeal is the larger than life characters. Somehow it’s easier to give a cowboy physical prowess, a hidden wound, and a big heart combined with tenderness and toughness, than it is to assign the same character traits to an office worker—apologies to all romantic hero office workers. Still, at the heart of the story are real human beings with longings and failings I can relate to. If my hero were a superman, he wouldn’t have to struggle to overcome obstacles the way my wilderness hero must.

What about you, dear reader? Do you like your romance spiced with mythical creatures, or do you like the love story rooted on our earth?

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Summer Time and . . .

the livin’ is easy or it’s full steam ahead. 

I’ve just been listening to CBC radio two and both Julie Nesrallah and Tom Allen have remarked on W.A. Mozart’s remarkable productivity during the summer of 1788. In a matter of weeks, Mozart completed three symphonies, two operas, a significant number of chamber works and gave numerous performances in various European capitals.  He accomplished  all this while in desperate financial straits and while his infant daughter took ill and died. Truly an incredible burst of creativity.

For most of us though, summer is a time to relax, read for pleasure only, visit with friends and relatives and smell the roses. When I was a kid, the end of school signalled summer vacation. The days seemed to stretch into forever. Routines and schedules vanished. We showed up at mealtimes, but the rest of the time was for entertaining ourselves.

We crawled through the long grass playing “cowboys and outlaws.” We built hay forts in the barn. We lay on our backs gazing at the sky and finding pictures in the clouds. We bombarded any available adult with requests to take us to the lake for a swim. On the way home, ice cream cones were essential. There was always a dog for companionship. Usually we could find kittens in the barn. As I remember, those summers were a sunny idyll.

One of the first bits of advice given a beginning writer is “write what you know.” There are many who will argue with that maxim. After all, you don’t have to be a murderer to write a thriller. You don’t have to be an astronaut to write a space fantasy. I didn’t experience the gold rush first hand, but I’ve set my Prospect series in that era. Still, “what I know” from those childhood summers has crept into the story. In The Man for Her, Sean, afraid of heights, has to climb to the top of the hay mow. The barn of my childhood helped me write that scene. When Michael brings a box of kittens into the kitchen at Pine Creek Farm, bits of myself play into the scene.

As a grown up, I miss those summers. Mostly, I miss the promise of those summers. At the beginning of July, everything and anything seemed possible. September and a return to school were too far in the future to even contemplate.

Some years ago, I decided to recapture some of that summertime magic. I made a list of ten things that mean summer to me and set out to experience them all before Labour Day rolled around. My list included the scent of new mown hay, evenings on the swing outside, impromptu visits over the back fence and a swim in the lake. The lake trip required a picnic with egg salad sandwiches and chocolate brownies to make it complete. My friend and I often remark that that was a great summer even though we were both working full time.

Now that I’ve given up my day job, a lack of routine is “routine.” Still, the smell of fresh hay, an unexpected visit from a long-lost relative and an evening watching the sun go down, still capture the sense of summer for me.

What about you? Are your summer days “lazy, hazy?” Do you experience an outpouring of creativity? Do you feel the joy of that first day without school? What’s on your list of perfect summertime moments?

 

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Stock Characters–Good or Bad?

One of the joys of being a writer is the excuse to people-watch. Where others might be considered nosy, we writers are doing “research.”

I came upon a piece of serendipity research the other day. Two older ladies were having lunch at a table close to mine. I found myself smiling at the sight of them. Both wore modest blouses and skirts– hemlines on the longish side–and flat shoes. Their grey hair was worn in a bun and their faces had only a little powder as a finishing touch. They looked perfect. They seemed familiar, but I couldn’t place them, until it came to me. They were archetypes of the Miss Marple variety. In fact, either of them could have stepped into the Joan Hickson role without a ripple.

Across the room was another woman or a similar age, but very different appearance. Long blonde hair curled over her shoulders. False lashes, foundation, rouge, highlighter, mascara, heavy eyeliner and bright lipstick accented her features. Her blouse was low-cut and she cast flirtatious glances at her male companion.  She reminded me a bit of “our Rose” on “Keeping Up Appearances.”

Then at an outdoor concert, I encountered yet another prototype–this time of the patrician lady. Again she was older, white hair swept into a French roll, erect carriage, well-cut clothes, even if they were just slacks and a sweater, high cheekbones, small chin. Once more I felt as though I recognized her, even though I hadn’t. She could have played the dowager countess on any number of period plays.

As writers, we want to create unique, memorable characters, but as I considered these women, I wondered about the usefulness of stock characters. Should an author keep a number of these prototypes in her tool box? I don’t call them stereotypes because that implies a flat personality as well as a recognizable appearance. My dowager countess could be kind, or critical, generous or mean. My ‘Miss Marple’ could be nosy and nasty, or she could be knowledgeable and helpful. Just because she sports a certain look, doesn’t mean her character is uninteresting.

The fact that I felt a recognition for these strangers, suggests to me that readers might relate to characters they feel they already know. Or maybe I just watch too much British television. What do you think? Do you enjoy recognizable types of characters in a novel or does their appearance make you toss it aside as too predictable?

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Calico Kitten vs Bathroom Scale

Exploring her new domain, a calico kitten jumped on the bathroom scales. The needle moved. Kitten reared back, raised her front paw and gave that needle a good smack.

I applauded. I’ve often wanted to smack the scales. Being a writer, I started to wonder if I could use the incident in a book. Since I write historicals  and bathroom scales are a modern invention, the answer is probably not, but I’ll store the idea away for future reference.

Then I got to thinking about body shape in romance novels. Harlequin novels of a certain era used to spend a lot of words describing the heroine in minute detail from tiny waist to slim hips to curvy bosom. She had fine eyes and a cupid’s bow mouth, porcelain (or sun-touched) skin. Always slight enough for the hero to carry her in his arms.

Corsetry through the ages pinched and prodded women’s forms into many shapes to suit the taste of the day. Small waist, no waist, round hips, flat hips. It seems the female form always had to be constrained and manipulated.

Clothing too played a role in our view of the ideal feminine shape. From Jane Austen’s heroine with the waist right below the bust and slim body, to Victorian panniers and enormous sleeves, women’s forms have been hidden by clothing. However, a look at nude paintings of various eras will show that in the 16th century, the ideal woman was full figured with rounded hips and thighs and an obvious belly.

By the eighteenth century she was shown with small breasts and a flatter stomach. Raphael’s “Three Graces” is an example.

By the mid-nineteenth century, tiny waists were de rigueur. Scarlett O’Hara boasted of  a seventeen inch waist. Later in the century, Edward VII’s mistress Lillie Langtry’,  measured 18 inches about the waist.

Moving into the 20th Century we see women of the flapper era going for a boyish silhouette, even binding their breasts to appear flat-chested. After the privations of the Great Depression and WWII, Christian Dior brought out his “New Look.” Once again, women were curvy. Liz Taylor’s 36-21-36 figure was the ideal. Skirts swirled wide at the hem, tight bodices showed off full breasts.

But fashion is fickle. By the 1960’s we had Twiggy and ulta-skinny was the shape du jour. By the 1980’s women were on the fitness bandwagon. Remember Jane Fonda’s workout video? Remember when Jane Fonda was a sex kitten?

Today’s woman is any shape she wants to be, although, in general, today’s twenty-something is larger than her grandmother at the same age. Better diet, in childhood is the most likely cause.

All of which brings us to the question of how historical romance writers should treat the depiction of women’s figures. Do we go with the style of the day and describe them as wasp-waisted. Do we dwell on their high, round bosom? Do we denigrate those who don’t fit the mores of the day?

In my own books, I don’t spend too many words of physical descriptions of the heroine. I’m more likely to pick one feature and use that as a touchstone throughout the novel. i.e. red hair is symbolic of temper and impulsiveness, so those character traits will be emphasized in the action of the story and be referenced to the hair colour.

In my latest book, Her One True Love, the heroine is a photographer. Portrait photos are usually meant to flatter the subject, often wearing her best clothes and posed before a pretty backdrop. My heroine, Louisa, says “Maybe I can make my career photographing women as they really are, strong, stubborn and hard-working.”

I think the modern romance reader has outgrown those dainty Harlequin heroines of a bygone era and would rather see their female protagonists as “strong, stubborn and hard-working.”

What about you, dear reader? Do you want a lot of detail about physical appearance? Do you want your heroines to come in many shapes and sizes? Can too much “reality” spoil the romance?

Leave a comment and your name will be entered in a draw for a free copy of “Her One True Love.

 

 

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