Timey-wimey Wonk: A Rabbit Trail of Serendipitous Thought


One of the questions on our group interview for the HEA blog was whether historical romance is particularly suited to wonk. To which , of course, I answered yes, because the realities of the past were often so absurd by our modern standards that it’s all too easy to believe people were driven slightly insane by them. How could they not be? At the very least, some of the realities of even fairly recent history were frankly unpleasant to our modern sensibilities. The plumbing, or lack thereof, is but one example.


The fact that all this hot historical smexin’ was probably taking place in beds infested with bedbugs or at least fleas and lice is another. We’d look at that today, at that Georgian couple going at it in the bed, stopping to smack at a bug, and think, “You are fuckin’ nuts! Get the hell out of there! Take a hot shower!” But where would they go? Because all the beds had bedbugs, and most of the houses had no plumbing. So.

This got me to thinking (as is so often the case) about actual historical figures, and how some of their actual responses to life in the wonktastic past make for the best character studies ever. I’m going to follow a rabbit-trail of serendipity, here, so bear with me while I amble toward my point.

Om nom nom.

When I answered that HEA blog question, I was mostly recalling my first impression of Carla Kelly’s seminal wonkomance Beau Crusoe, which was indelibly colored by the fact that I read it hard on the heels of Richard Holmes’ fascinating book The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of ScienceOne of the folks profiled at length in Holmes’ book is, of course, Sir Joseph Banks…who turns out to be an important secondary character in Beau Crusoe. This tickled the hell outta me, because as I’d been reading up to the point at which he was introduced in Kelly’s book, I kept thinking that the hero reminded me of Joseph Banks. In fact I suspected that Kelly might’ve started with Banks as inspiration.

Joseph Banks: the early years

Banks himself is definitely worth basing a wonky romance hero on. He was wealthy, unconventional, brilliant, by many accounts not too hard on the eyes, and just generally an interesting albeit weird guy. A great character…except he was a real person. Which was why, shortly before reading Beau Crusoe, I’d started taking notes on an idea for a hero based on Banks. I thought he was a perfect candidate for this, just famous enough to be well-documented, just obscure enough that I wouldn’t have people jumping all over the details I’d gotten wrong.

At RT this year I sat next to Stephanie Dray (Stephanie Draven) at one of the signings, and was fascinated to learn more about her series based on Cleopatra’s daughter. The bones of her stories are historical, but she layers in magical realism to create these novels, so I count it as fictionalization in a sense. It was just another great example, to me, of using a real person as a springboard for character development. I’m sure other examples abound, in and out of the romance genre.

The Ptolemies were not caring nurturers.

The benefit here is obvious; you get a “character” who is already developed, has a backstory, has a known arc. Your plot may be built in, at least the highlights of it. You may even have some historical dialogue or writings to work with. The downside? The more you make your character recognizable as that historical figure, the more bound you are by their history. And history, as I mentioned, was full of eras in which people were batshit crazy by our modern standards, because fleas will do that to a person. So will differing cultural attitudes, of course. Stephanie mentioned that she’s had the occasional piece of negative feedback from fans disturbed by some of her character’s historically accurate/time-appropriate behavior…after all the Ptolemies were far from “nice”, and they believed they were gods. That doesn’t tend to make them relatable.

Maybe someday, Hannah.

The whole “I’m a God” thing, then, makes Cleopatra’s daughter a risky choice for a heroine (though Stephanie Dray pulls it off). So does the sheer remoteness, in both time and cultural expectation, of the ancient Egyptian history. But even with something as recent and relatively familiar to most of us as, say, Victorian England, there’s a tremendous cultural divide. If you’re writing a romance, and basing your hero or heroine on a real person, I think you have to be very careful to strike a balance between the reality of that person’s life which probably included things about outhouses and institutionalized racism that none of us want to know, and the version of that reality your reader can tolerate while still accepting the character as heroic. Not an easy thing to do. This is probably why I’ve never gotten around to writing that erotic romance masterpiece loosely based on the life of Hannah Cullwick…hmm. Joseph Banks/Hannah Cullwick RPcrossover fic? Yes please!

So those are mine, Joseph Banks and Hannah Cullwick…now show me yours! What famous/infamous/obscure-but-fascinating historical figure would you like to read/write as a fictionalized hero/heroine?

Challenge: accepted!

[Oh, and no fair calling Tesla, I’ve got dibs on him too. He was celibate his whole life, by choice. But I’m confident I can work around that. Expect my novel featuring the hot genius inventor hero “Mikola Smesla” to release soon!


I’d never call him Mikola Smesla.]

Posted in Historical Wonktastical, Writing Wonkomance | 6 Comments

A Post Wherein Cara Apologizes for Killing People’s Moms

With Mother’s Day fast approaching here in the States, I’d like to use this post to apologize to moms.

Firstly to my own mom, for any stretch marks she’s suffered on my behalf, and for the hormone-spurred grief I caused her during my teenage years. Secondly, apologies to the mothers of childhood friends, whose fancy seashell-shaped soaps I did not realize were only for show, and into whose rec room carpets my Keds ground the staining orange dust of a hundred dropped Cheez Balls.

But perhaps most of all, I’d like to apologize to my characters’ mothers, whom I’ve mistreated so egregiously it boggles the mind.

I have fashioned them into lamentable shrews and saddled them with a shocking proliferation of emotional disorders and substance abuse issues. I’ve even killed them, with diseases both common and rare, with accidents, even with murder. (We authors do love to off our characters’ mothers, don’t we? We have that in common with Disney films.)

I’ll preface this by saying my own mom is the balls. Mama McKenna is kind, brilliant, calm, intuitive, fun, fit, brave, and one of the most functional people I’ve ever known. And psychic! She’s also a psychotherapist, but she’s never once made me feel analyzed when I’ve come to her in the midst of a breakdown (and I’ve had my share). She’s soft-spoken and about a hundred and ten pounds, but she’s counseled violent prisoners, parolees, addicts and recovering addicts, kids and grandmas and teen moms and the whole gamut of folks who seek social services (sometimes freely, sometimes ordered to by a judge.) As I said—the balls.

So I’ve got nothing against moms. I hit the mom jackpot. So why do my books seem to suggest that I believe motherhood is synonymous with dysfunction and tragedy? I did some list-making, and of the twenty books I’ve completed (not counting sequels with recurring characters) I’ve got the following crimes against protagonists’ mother figures to confess…

Four counts of making them plain old lousy—abusive, neglectful, or complicit in abuse perpetrated by their shady boyfriends.

One count of making them cheat on their husband.

One count of making them walk out on their family.

One count of making them a crack-whore.

One count of making them a rape victim.

One count of making them lose their arm in a car accident.

Six counts of saddling them with an emotional or behavioral issue—clinical depression (times two), bi-polar disorder, agoraphobia, compulsive hoarding, and whatever the fuck was wrong with Gabriel’s spooky-ass grandma.

Two counts of making them drug addicts—one cocaine, one undisclosed.

And EIGHT counts of making them dead—cancer, car crash, overdose (times two), consumptive neurological disease I made up, old age (she was an adoptive mother), suicide, and shot in cold blood (sorry, Ian.)

That’s twenty-five crimes against maternal character in not even as many books! All told, those crimes make me a pusher, a pimp, an enabler, a murderer…all manner of shoulder-dwelling devilry. Worse even than that? Of all the mothers I created who knowingly did harm to their children…I don’t think I redeemed a single one.

So do I feel bad? Kind of. But I also know I’m not the only guilty party. Fiction writers have been creating messed up moms for as long as stories have been told. Ask yourself, why are so many fictional protagonists orphans? Or saddled with cruel mothers and stepmothers?

It’s not that we hate moms. If anything we exhalt them too much, suggesting they forfeit their rights to imperfect humanhood when they take on the monumental task of nurturing a child. So why, then? Well, I’ve got a couple of theories.

The first is that it’s easy. Characters need layers, and layers require damage. Giving a character a dysfunctional or absent mother figure scores you instant underdog points. It gives you a hero betrayed or deserted by the person who was supposed to love them most and shield them from harm when they were most vulnerable. And in the case of male heroes, the person who would set the tone for their relationships with women for the rest of their lives. Blammo, insta-angst!

Not that it’s a conscious process. I’ve never sat down and thought, “Okay, got the hair color, eye color, height…what else? Oh right! Life-long maternal scarring! Let’s just throw a dart at the Mom Trauma map and we’ll go with…oh sweet, alcoholism!” For me, I think it’s more that I write a lot of effed up characters, because they’re the most interesting kind, and effed up characters are usually effed up from something terrible that happened to them as kids. And who are your God figures as a kid? Who can let you down the worst? Mom and Dad. You’ve got the culprit, now all you need is a parental crime or shortcoming that’ll scar little Billy for life.

My second theory is that when writing romance or one of its sub-genres, very often what your characters must crave above all is love. Denying them that most primal and formative mom-love creates a gigantic (and yes, convenient) hole in their soul, which a) often makes them cagey, which leads to romantic conflict and b) makes their eventual ability to feel unconditionally valued all the more essential and satisfying.

A third theory, the one I’m leaning toward, is simply that authors are punitive and cruel, gods testing our poor little literary Jobs. We delight in putting our heroes through hell. In that respect, we’re the sadistic mothers, torturing the people we’ve brought into the world. Again, sorry Ian. Sorry Shane, sorry Sarah, sorry Didier, sorry Fallon, sorry Emily, sorry Colin, and dear God, I’m sorry, Badger.

But above all, let me reiterate my apologies, O fictional mothers I’ve slandered so selfishly.

And to my own amazing mom, a gigantic thank you for raising me in a home with both a DSM-IV-TR and a Kama Sutra (if one knew where on the shelf to look, which I did). Reading is fundamental. Happy Mother’s Day.

Posted in Talking Wonkomance, Writing Wonkomance | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

When Kinky is Wonky, and When It’s Not

I’ve been thinking lately about whether you can say a romance is wonky just because the central sexual relationship is unconventional, non-vanilla, or kinky. I’m leaning towards no.

Ah, Patrick. Or Brandon. Or Both.

Take Samantha Wayland’s Destiny Calls, from Ellora’s Cave. It’s an erotic ménage romance about two cops, one straight and one gay, and their best friend, Destiny. The story kicks off when the straight cop kisses the gay one (to get out of an awkward and potentially dangerous situation) and is totally unprepared for his out-of-control attraction to his friend. Destiny sees her two best friends together and wants to join in the action.

That’s not a conventional setup for an HEA. And yet, by a number of measures, Destiny Calls is not a particularly wonky book. The players are loving, reasonably undamaged, and emotionally available. The sex is hot and well-written, but also, by erotic romance standards, relatively vanilla—beyond the thorough use of all available orifices, there’s not much boundary-pushing. The heroes are alpha and the heroine is not too effed up—she’s best-friend material. If the book weren’t pushing conventional notions about numbers and groupings, it would be, well, “just” a romance.

To me, a romance is wonky because it breaks genre conventions and violates readers’ ideas of what can get published and widely read. A romance is kinky because it violates sexual and social conventions—society’s ideas of what people should and do do in bed. A book can be both, of course. But just because society loosens up about a particular more doesn’t mean the genre will immediately follow. I know many strong women who happily love beta men (that kind of couple may even dominate my landscape), but the genre still doesn’t embrace beta men.

Both wonkiness and kinkiness are moving targets. Theresa Weir has noted that in the nineties, when she released the archetypically wonky Amazon Lily, there were virtually no books with male POV. Now it’s commonplace. Likewise, a couple of years ago, no one would have been able to foresee how much in stride readers would take Fifty Shade’s BDSM.

I do believe it’s part of Wonkomance’s job to help transport ideas from the margins to the center, from the minority’s fantasies into the majority’s consciousness. And sometimes that means being an advocate for the kinky or taboo. But I don’t think it’s Wonkomance’s primary job. Wonkomance’s primary job is to push the limits of the genre. And to do that, it has to push the limits of what we can accept about love, not just what we can accept about sex.

What’s unusual about Destiny Calls is not what its characters do in bed (or out). What blows me away is how deeply and profoundly romantic it is. The three characters don’t just screw around—they love each other, fully and fearlessly—and they do it in all three pairings and, somehow, even more than that, as a group. No one feels left out, no pairing overbalances the others. It takes a great deal of authorial skill to manage that, and a brave, wonky optimism.

I believe in Destiny and Brandon and Patrick’s HEA more than I believe in the happy futures of most m/f marriages I’ve witnessed in operation. Wayland changed my preconceptions about the reach and depth of love, and that, as far as I’m concerned, is a wonktastical act.

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 25 Comments