On Escapism in Historical Romance, Part II

So I am having this epiphany about escapism and wonkomance — about what I most want to read, and what I most want to write — and it’s all Erin Satie and Courtney Milan’s fault. Blame them for all these paragraphs I’m about to vomit at you, okay?

Duchess WarI don’t know quite where to begin, so I guess I’ll begin here: I loved Courtney Milan’s most recent novel, The Duchess War, which I read last weekend. Loved it absolutely, without reservation, with my whole heart.

But some people haven’t. Some people have found it uninteresting, or unromantic, or just . . . not quite up to par.

Which is fine. I’m not about to go around telling people they’re wrong for feeling that way. I feel that way about books all the time. Taste is subjective. But it did start me thinking about what I want from historical romance, versus what other people want, and that led me down a twisty path that goes something like this . . .

I noticed that many of the same people who didn’t enjoy The Duchess War as much as I did absolutely loved Tessa Dare’s Spindle Cove books. I did not. And I hate saying that — I really do — because Tessa Dare is a very talented writer, and she also seems like a nice person. I enjoyed her debut. I think the Spindle Cove books are excellent, in fact. (I read two of them.) They’re just not what I want in a historical romance novel.

So what is that? And what is it about the version of the past presented in the Spindle Cove books that galls me, even as I’m enjoying Dare’s characters and love scenes and dialogue and craft?

It has to do with escapism. Spindle Cove is itself an escape: a town where unusual women can safely be unusual. In Spindle Cove (which outsiders sometimes jokingly call “Spinster Cove”) these women can live free from opprobrium or consequence among a sisterhood of likeminded others. Spindle Cove is an upper-class radical white Englishwoman’s utopia, tucked away in a picturesque seaside location and populated by hunky soldiers conveniently garrisoned in the vicinity.

I think my inability to enjoy the books comes down to the fact that this is not a version of the past that I recognize.

When I read Courtney Milan’s The Duchess War, by contrast, I had countless moments of recognition. Ah, yes. This dilemma. This constraint. This feeling of pressure, of powerlessness. This is the Victorian era that I studied, in all its suffocating subtleties. This is the airless, difficult, wide-open, ever-changing, complicated past that I gave myself over to for five years of grad school. This is the past I want to read about.

The Duchess War is preoccupied with the constraints of Victorian life — constraints of expectation, of possibility, of class and gender, of power; constraints on hope; constraints of survival — and Milan gives us a romance that does not overcome them so much as it promises the possibility of mutual understanding, mutual transformation, and mutual transcendence within them.

The story goes something like this (spoilers, ahoy!):

Minnie spent her childhood trailing her feckless minor aristocrat father around the Continent. He disguised her as a boy because he wanted to bring her along with him. He taught her to play chess because it was the only thing he was good at. He turned her into a parlor trick, then a chess champion, and then he betrayed her in the worst way at the worst possible time. When she was twelve years old, Minnie’s father went to prison, and she was attacked by an angry mob that threw rocks at her. Rescued by her great-aunt (actually her great-aunt and her aunt’s in-the-closet lesbian lover), she was taken away to Leicester and given a new name and a new life.

Minnie has spent twelve years learning to be invisible. She is not allowed to speak her old name aloud. This, her aunts have taught her, is what it means to be a woman. You make yourself small. You follow the rules, and if you do it right and you’re lucky, they stop throwing stones at you.

Enter the duke. His father was an evil bastard; he wants to be better. He’s a duke, so he ought to be able to make sure his workers are treated well and put his father’s sins to rights. It’s more difficult than he’d anticipated, but it’s still not all that difficult. Everything is easy for a duke. The power sits uncomfortably on his shoulders. He wields it as best he can. He’s kind. He wants to put the world into better order.

When he meets Minnie, her guard is down, and she forgets to be invisible. He sees her. He wants to help her. She tries to blackmail him, and he tries to woo her. She’s smarter than him, and he knows it. He likes that about her — that she’s a strategist, that she’s so much more than she appears. But she doesn’t want him to see, and she doesn’t want him to know. They keep grappling with each other, and Minnie keeps trying not to hope. Hope brings rocks with it.

She won’t meet his eyes most of the time. He keeps asking her to look up.

Minnie is hoping to marry. The man she intends to engage herself to doesn’t like or respect her, but he wants a quiet, malleable wife, and she appears to be a quiet, malleable woman. Minnie thinks she’ll be safe with him — that she won’t have to worry about keeping herself or her aunts alive, that she’ll be able to keep her secret, scandalous past under wraps and achieve an endpoint to the terror that’s followed her around for twelve years. But the problem is that she’s met the duke, see. And she’s begun to hope. She’s begun to look up. When the suitor proposes, his proposal is so casually cruel that she can no longer ignore the truth: with this man she’s hoped to marry, she will never be safe. There is no such thing as safety for a woman in her circumstances.

Here is Minnie, speaking to her Aunt Eliza, coming to understand how trapped she is:

“List the things you are,” Eliza said, “and ask yourself what man would want them.”

I want you. But Clermont didn’t know her, either.

“Your choices are yours,” Eliza intoned. “We won’t steal them from you.”

No. They never stole her choices. They only pointed out — kindly, sweetly, implacably — that she had few to begin with. Minnie’s hands shook. The only thing they had done wrong was to allow her to believe that she had one choice, instead of zero.

Minnie didn’t see any way forward. She couldn’t see a future at all. She felt chokingly blind.

When Minnie gives up the terrible suitor and begins to believe she might have a future with Clermont, her terror reaches a fever pitch. She flings a fork at the wall and indulges in a rare outburst, telling her aunts how angry she is with them for giving her this choiceless life. And she thinks of Clermont, because she can’t stop herself.

You could have had this, the memory taunted, if only you were someone else.

You could have had him if you were yourself. But you aren’t. You aren’t.

Eliza crossed the distance to her and set her hand on her shoulder. “You should never have known,” she repeated.

It is a beautifully subtle moment, because Eliza doesn’t come right and say that what Minnie should never have known is hope. She should never have known what it was like to be a boy for twelve years. What it was like, with her father, to feel as though she could achieve anything, win any chess game, dazzle any new acquaintance. She should never have known that feeling of infinite possibility, because it isn’t hers. She is a poor woman with a scandalous past, and invisibility — freedom from harm — is the best she ought to hope for. She ought never look up.

(The theme of constraints on women is not a new one for Courtney Milan. I noticed it particularly in What Happened at Midnight, a novella about a woman who flees a scandal caused by her father only to inadvertently put herself in the power of a man whose evil is subtle and nonviolent, but inescapable. He doesn’t even have to try hard to overmaster her. It’s takes almost no effort at all.)

The Duke of Clermont (his name is Robert) does not understand Minnie’s situation, of course. How could he? She hasn’t told him about her childhood, and more to the point, he’s a duke. He has never known love — his father was an evil sonofabitch who forced his mother to choose between her sanity and her son — but he is so steeped in privilege that he can’t imagine himself into Minnie’s shoes. Much of the romance in the middle of the book involves his attempts to do so. In one of my favorite moments in Robert’s progress toward understanding, he tells her, “I know you’re worried. I know I can be thoughtless. But I don’t stay thoughtless, Miss Pursling.” And indeed, he doesn’t — much to Minnie’s dismay. She’s eventually forced to accept that she can’t prevent herself from falling in love with him. He won’t stop trying, and she can’t stop hoping.

And so The Duchess War is soaked in questions of power and its exercise, as well as how it’s intertwined with class and individual will. Minnie and Robert are twinned characters, halves of a whole: a hero who has more power than he wants and plenty of confidence in his capability but no experience of being loved, no family; a heroine who has no power, no hope, and a terror of public life, but who has known love and knows how to love. Minnie has quashed her true self, her aspiration, in order to survive. She is entirely inward-focused, whereas Robert is all outward — all searching for approval, seeking love, trying to right wrongs. She fears her connection to him because he can destroy her, and he can do it almost by accident.

It is, in this sense, a romance of learning to understand. Of learning to hope. Of two people figuring out how to support each other, how not to disappoint each other, even as they figure out how to get better at living within the constraints life has handed them.

And I loved it. I believed it.

I don’t mean to suggest with this comparison that Milan’s romance — which features the unlikely pairing of a duke with a scandal-ridden, not-all-that-attractive almost-spinster — is not escapist, nor am I trying to suggest that there were no liberal-minded Englishwomen like the ones who populate Dare’s Spindle Cove. The past contained any number of women who did radical, unconventional things.

But it is to say that when I read historical romance, I don’t want it to be utopian in the Spindle Cove sort of way. I want it to be transcendent, but I need that transcendence be anchored in the real. I want characters who suffer under the constraints of their social class, their gender, their time.

To borrow the terms of Erin Satie’s amazing post on Escapism(s) (which, if you haven’t read it yet, you must), I want “Escape into a Better World,” but not “Escape from Burdens.” The burdens are a large part of the point, for me. The characters can be ordinary or extraordinary — they can be politically radical dukes and former cross-dressing chess champions — but I only want to see them benefit from their unconventionality if they also have to suffer the consequences of being extraordinary. I want to see them grapple with life. Because there are, and always have been, constraints that we can’t escape. And it is in seeing how one might find a way, through love, through mutual understanding, to live with those constraints — to bear them more easily or make them not matter — that I am buoyed up by the power of the romance and left satisfied, in the end.

And — here is my personal epiphany — that’s not just what I want to read in historical romance. It’s what I want to read, period. And it’s what I want to write. It is the only version of escapism that works for me.

Posted in Historical Wonktastical, Writing Wonkomance | 29 Comments

McKenna’s Field Guide to Heroes of North America

I’ve been thinking a lot about hero archetypes. I just wrapped revisions on a book starring an abrasive, larger-than-life showman; I’ve got two works-in-progress, one featuring a broody, damaged loner and the other a big, lovable, hapless clod; I’m editing a literary fiction manuscript for my agent whose anti-hero is very nearly a sociopath. My last release featured a warm, seductive recluse, and the one on deck (Making Him Sweat, one of Meg’s Blazes) has what Ruthie Knox and I decided could be called a “balpha”—an alpha / beta hybrid. A Golden-Retriever heart beating inside a deceptively Rottweiler-looking body—that’s Mercer.

Hero types go far beyond alpha and beta. I suspect some readers who fell in love with Willing Victim wish I’d just write nothing but Flynns, but when the chocolate sampler’s this packed with variety, I want to taste them all. I sometimes try to pinpoint a hero’s nature by musing on what animal he’d be—a social one, an opportunist? Trusting, protective, adaptable, cuddly, cunning? Here are but a few species of hero I’ve pinpointed in my musings.

(Please note, the distinction “of North America” doesn’t apply to any of this—it only served to make the title sound more Petersonian.)

grey-wolf_565_600x450The alpha wolf. Of course, we must start here. I feel “alpha” has become shorthand for any huge, domineering hero stomping across the hills of Romancelandia, but I believe there are subtleties we’ve lost. It may feel lonely at the top, but an alpha wolf is not a loner. He’s also a leader, not a bully. He should be the physical stand-out in a group, ruthless and smart, but fundamentally distrustful, even of his brothers—after all, no one stays the alpha forever, and plenty of today’s followers are biding their time, awaiting their leader’s inevitable decline. Alphas should run to the rhythm of a ticking clock, always aware their primacy is fleeting; always straining, scanning for the hot breath of treachery on their necks. I like an alpha hero with deep, internal anxiety. If he refuses to show weakness, it’s because his very life—and identity—depends on it.

CoyoteThe coyote. Now, let’s get nuanced. I think Delaney Crawford from Edie Harris’s excellent historical romance Wild Burn (out next week from Samhain—read it) is a coyote hero. He’s more raggedy than a wolf, more banged up, less respected and trusted, making his path along the edges of society. His pack is more loose, and its pecking order is tenuous. Coyotes often break from the group, preferring to operate in pairs, which I suspect would be Delaney’s preference. He’s the type to tolerate authority and societal law for the sake of employment, but happiest when it’s just him and his woman. Strider from The Fellowship of the Ring is a coyote when the story opens. Jon Snow begins Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books as a coyote. Fringe dwellers.

crowThe crow. I’m writing a quasi-crow hero now (for Penguin, semironically), and I’d say Ian Kilpatrick from Skin Game is one…if you can call Ian a hero. Dark, obviously. Secretive, bright, opportunistic, curious, antagonistic, unsettling, unafraid to dig through the trash and carrion and exploit the seedier sides of life and death. A coveter, perhaps. A crow hero doesn’t exude an overt, self-conscious sexuality—his beauty’s likely something the heroine comes to discover once she’s peeked behind the ominous outer shell. I think the broody, damaged loner in my current WIP lies somewhere between crow and owl—resourceful and bright, but eager to go undetected, to move through the world unknown, a singularity.

catThe cat. Like a crow hero, but more languid. More sensual, and aware and in control of his sexual charisma. Not as conniving as a crow, perhaps more alluring than brilliant. He’s calculating, and can use his sexuality to get what he wants—why scavenge or thieve when seducing is so much more fun? He may be a fine stalker—Gabriel from my Shivaree books is a cat hero—targeting a lover, toying, feasting, licking his fingers clean. A cat will spring into action if the prize is worthy, but otherwise he’d prefer to loll around in lazy luxury. Or he may simply be a louche, elegant companion, content to prowl in a known realm—Didier Pedra is no doubt a cat hero. An indoor cat, whereas Gabriel’s a stray.

13446187-yellow-lab-smilingThe yellow lab. To a completely different breed of hero, now. Loyal, loving, guileless, physical. A galoot. I’m writing one now for Blaze, and “beta” is too broad a term. I’ve written betas before—in Romancelandia it simply boils down to a reliable, hardworking hero, likely standing less than six-and-a-half feet tall, who does not “grit” or “bite out” throaty demands to his spunky and recalcitrant heroine. But the yellow lab hero is a step beyond, exhibiting a cheerful, nearly oblivious worldview, just happy to be around people, excited by the simple things—delicious food and physical affection and familiar faces. He gives people the benefit of the doubt, not snapping unless an occasion truly warrants it. He may be clumsy and excitable and a bit dopey from time to time, but you won’t find a more accessible heart. I believe he may be the type Charlotte Stein coined the term Big Dumb Tons o’ Fun to describe. Cross a yellow lab hero with a crow and you’ll get Jayne Cobb from Firefly—an opportunistic dolt.

Let’s do one more—I could go on and on, but this post is getting long.

RoosterSF1The rooster. This is the one that got me thinking about the animals-as-hero-types taxonomy in the first place. I just handed in the manuscript for Taking Him Down, the second of my MMA-themed Blazes, and I thought, “If Mercer [from the first book] is a so-called balpha, then Rich is obviously the alpha-alpha.” He’s huge, and loud, and advertises as fearless. And yet…he’s not an alpha wolf. A provider, but not a leader. He keeps men at arm’s length, not willing to feel he relies on others or owes them anything, only truly as ease with the women in his life. If he had his way, it’d just be him strutting around, looking flashy, surrounded by adoring females. And if another male came crowing, he’d happily beat him bloody.

So those are my six. Has anyone else recently read (or written) a romance featuring a hybrid of these basic types? A rooster-cat? A lab-wolf mutt? Or a different species entirely—shark, vulture, Great Dane, weasel, cobra, chameleon? I actually find this exercise very helpful for fleshing out the nature of a new hero. Know your beast—what he needs to thrive, how he fights and what for, what threatens him and what soothes him.

I’ve been trying for days to pinpoint what sort of animal Ivan is, from Charlotte Stein’s Deep Desires…but I’m only halfway through, and he’s one of those fascinating heroes you have to dig deep to get at. Oh, here’s a dull claw! Probably a dog. No wait, it’s not a claw, it’s the tip of a horn. He must be a steer. No wait—dig dig dig—maybe it’s a rhino! Hang on—dig dig dig—it’s not a horn, it’s the business end of a tusk! Elephant or triceratops? Who in the fuck is this guy?!

Maybe Ivan’s a cuttlefish, a contrarily stealthy exhibitionist. Whatever he is, I’ll happily keep digging until I find out. It’s so much more fun than thumping a hero with the alpha stamp and calling him known.

Posted in Talking Wonkomance, Writing Wonkomance | Tagged , , , , , | 43 Comments

Happy Wonkoversary To Us!

And the winner is . . . Sarah Wynde! Thanks to everyone who commented, and to all of you who read, whether erratically or faithfully. We’re so grateful for your visits.


One year ago today, Wonkomance launched with an introductory post in which we revealed our manifesto to the world. Or, at least, the part of the world that was paying attention. Somehow, three hundred sixty-five days have passed, and we’ve published eighty-three posts on everything from whether it’s okay to use the word “labia” in romance (yes) to thinky meta- posts comparing genre fiction to blues music — and rather a lot of in-between. We have a community of truly awesome regular readers and commenters, and we’re still amusing the heck out of ourselves. Which is the main thing, really.

In the interest of enriching our ability to wave the banner of wonk for another year and beyond, we’re adding a new contributor! Mary Ann Vadnais will be joining our stable of wonksters. She’s left so many scary-awesome comments, we really had no choice. If you don’t know Mary Ann, feel free to mosey over to her bio to get to know her better — or visit the comment section on recent posts to get a feel for her twisty-turny brain!

And now for a roundup of favorite Wonkomance moments in the first year, kicked off by Mary Ann. Every Wonkomance contributor will be throwing in a prize for one lucky commenter — more details at the end of the post.

Mary Ann Vadnais

My favorite wonkomance moment is Ruthie’s post, “Realism, Romance, and Wonkomance,” which I’ve had bookmarked on my laptop since last January. It’s interesting, because I didn’t put together, until recently, that Ruthie wrote it. I had not read Ride with Me, and I found wonkomance after googling something like “realism in romance” because I was pretty sure what I was writing, and the manuscript I had just finished, wasn’t at all marketable, and sometimes when I’m musing about why I’ve spent my writing life writing things no one reads I attempt to use the internet like an oracle. That time, an answer actually bounced up from the murky depths.

I had read many of the books Ruthie cited in the post, and her citation of them with her reasoned argument about what wonkomance actually was, contextualized by the genre, was terribly encouraging. Terrible, because I kept writing, and everyone knows how miserable writing is.  The idea that I’ve been given the opportunity to join this conversation, a year after I found that piece and tucked it away to think about now and again, is a dear thing. A wonky thing, if you will.

11431943I am so happy to contribute to the prize pool as a thank-you-for-including-me-and-possibly-making-it-all-the-way-through-future-wordy-posts-of-mine. I’m tossing in something that would require the real mail: a paperback of the winner’s choice of any of the books cited in Ruthie’s post (choose from Meg Maguire’s Headstrong; Theresa Weir’s Amazon Lily, Long Night Moon, or Cool Shade; Isabel Sharpe’s Turn Up the Heat, Long, Slow Burn, or Hot To the Touch), which I would send in a book tote, handmade by moi, in a fabric silkscreened with bikes. Because bikes are awesome. If the winner would prefer digital booty, choose any two ebooks cited in Ruthie’s 1/2012 post.


Serena Bell

TicketHome200x300Probably my two favorite personal moments were interviewing Theresa Weir and having Vicki Lewis Thompson chime in on my post on Nerd in Shining Armor. Favorite posts, though? Soooo many … two that jump out: Jondalar: The Father of All Alphaholes (Ruthie), because I’ve always felt that it was unjust that Ayla got credit for inventing everything, and Jondalar deserves credit for inventing the orgasm, and Romance Noveltron 5000 (Meg/Cara), because the creations it churns out are so convincingly like actual romance premises that I briefly considered turning that portion of my job over to it.

I’m happy to offer an ARC of my debut novella, Ticket Home (ebook, any format), for the giveaway, as well as a $10 gift certificate to B&N or Amazon, winner’s choice.


Ruthie Knox

11938752So many awesome moments in the past year, how am I to choose one? I’m very fond of Meg’s Mother’s Day post apologizing to all the fictional mothers she’s offed in her writing, as well as the interviews with Theresa Weir, Bonnie Dee, and Carolyn Crane — all of which I found illuminating and inspirational. But many of my favorite Wonkomance posts have been Serena’s, because she’s the one who seems to keep taking our wonktacular thoughts and summarizing them in pithy little statements about what wonkomance is and how it relates to our selves as writers and readers. Her review of Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened, titled “The Best Bad Sex Ever,” beautifully captures many of my own vague, wordless thoughts about the book. But I think my very favorite is her discussion of Swamplandia, and particularly the ending paragraphs about why one writes Wonkomance — or, rather, why one can’t stop.

I’m going to fling a copy of Ride with Me into the prize pool, even though it’s only moderately wonky, and I’ll supplement it with a copy of either Grant’s Lady Awakened or Swamplandia — reader’s choice.


Amber Lin

10300050My favorite Wonkomance moment was the cannibal post. Really, what other romance-centric site but us would wax poetic about a hero who ate people? As Ruthie said in the post, “when it comes to the Damaged Hero, go big or go home, right?” And lo, Carla Kelly sets the bar for us all. Here is the passage Ruthie highlighted in her post:

He looked around to see the innkeeper bringing out a roast of beef, all steaming and cunningly sliced so the tender, moist pink interior winked at him like… Oh, God, and now he was thinking of Artemesia, Lady Audley, with her legs spread wide, eager to seduce him after they left the miserable fever harbor of Batavia, prepared to cross the Indian Ocean.

I’m contributing an ebook copy of my debut novel, Giving It Up, as well as an ebook copy of Carla Kelly’s Beau Crusoe to the prize kitty.


Cara McKenna

Favorite Wonkomance moment’s got to be the entire comments thread that accompanied my post A Dewy Pink Rose by Any Other Name, regarding what’s acceptable and what’s just gross when it comes to euphemisms and junk-slang in romance. Exhibit A:

Anything that compares an asshole to a flower gets my attention in a bad way. “Rosy bud” and whatnot—it’s a BUTTHOLE, people. —Ruthie Knox, 2012

50833I’ll toss the two most formative novels I’ve read (and read and read and read) as an adult into the prize mix—The Long Walk by Stephen King, and Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann. In paperback, because the e-version of Valley is RIDDLED with scanning errors. Unacceptable! Plus they’re both so crack-like, you’ll want paper copies to absorb the wine and coffee spills as you read in a lascivious frenzy! They’re both wonky in their own ways, though neither’s a romance (well, Valley‘s chock full of romances, but they’re all so…Valley.) I’ve read these books so many times, they can’t not have informed my own writing in subconscious ways. Oh, and I’ll throw in the paperback antho with Willing Victim and Curio in it, and a copy of Meg’s latest Harlequin Blaze.

Charlotte Stein

I hope I’m doing this right. I have to add my bit into this bit and I’m notorious for not knowing where my bits should go. So if I’ve done it wrong, ladies, I’m sorry! I am rubbish. So I guess one of my favourite Wonkomance moments for me was that I actually got to be a part of this blog at all, with such amazing people. Oh, and Cara’s post about moomins and winkies and the strange things they get called in the name of romance writing.

As for what I shall put into the pot…how about an ebook copy of Control, since it is without doubt my wonkiest book, and a $10 gift card for Amazon that I hope I can figure out how to buy and send. But don’t worry. If I fail, the ladies will sort me. Cos they are amazeballs!

The booty

Will you join us in celebrating this year of wonkiness? Tell us some of your memorable moments in the comments to be entered for the prize kitty, all of which will go to one very lucky, lovely commenter. Contest runs through Sunday, January 6, with winner to be announced on Monday. Leave your e-mail address in the appropriate line on the form to be contacted if you win; it won’t show up on the website.

Here is a recap of the prizes! In the cases with options, only one is shown.
11431943 10769785 TicketHome200x300 12991105 11938752 AmberLin-GivingItUp_200x300 10300050 Valley of the Dolls The Long Walk by Stephen King Lessons in Letting Go by Cara McKenna The Wedding Fling by Meg Maguire giftcard

Posted in About the blog, Talking Wonkomance | 31 Comments