Reality in romance

    Yesterday's post got me thinking about the ways in which real life has influenced my fiction and thinking about my tendency to want to bits of real life in romance. A lot of my stories start with a real-world concept or challenge the real world in some way.

    I am a history geek. That's why I studied archaeology. I love connecting with people from the past and knowing what their lives are like. That's easiest for me to do when I'm holding something that's from the past—a pot shard, a piece of cloth, a medieval manuscript. I've been lucky in that, during my time at the university, I was able to touch everything from ancient bones to a 13th-century Parisian pocket Bible. I touch it, and I feel like I'm channeling. The past comes flowing through.

    Ride the Fire started in a history class when a professor described "The First American Revolution," i.e., the Paxton Boys Rebellion. In 1763, tired of being used as a barrier between the townspeople and the Indians, frontiersmen, most of them Scots-Irish, like Bethie's family, rose up and attacked the cities to the east. In the south, people actually died. In Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin went out, unarmed, and faced down a mob from Paxton bent on attacking Philadelphia to get at and kill a small tribe of Christianized Indians that were under the protection of the Britsh garrison at Philly.

    I found this fascinating because I'd never heard of it before. So when I sat down to write my first romance, I thought I'd focus one book on the Paxton Boys' Rebellion. But I wanted to have a trilogy, so I mapped backwards, counting out time for three generations, and that landed me in the 1730s. I very methodically researched that period — for two and a half years — and constructed my first novel. The idea that I liked so much was flipping the power paradigm so that the heroine had power over the hero and not visa versa.

    Of course, what you write is very different from what you think you're going to write. I learned over a period of seven painstaking years that my characters, once brought to life, had other plans. And so Cassie ended up with a father who was living in a swamp, and Alec didn't let anyone have power over him, unless she was carrying shackles. ;-)

    I wanted to set Carnal Gift in North America, but I was under no small amount of pressure to set something in Scotland. Naturally, I can never do what I'm told, and so Jamie ended up in Ireland. Still the book I'm least fond of, in part because 100 pages was hacked out of it to make it fit the already-printed covers. Shoot me.

    And while writing Carnal Gift, Nicholas popped into my head so strongly that I almost couldn't focus on Jamie. He arrived tortured and emotionally wounded, a man who lived not with his parents on a big estate but in the wilds. Strangely, the historical event that inspired the entire trilogy got shoved to the background, as I followed Nicholas and Bethie across the frontier. Fort Pitt became the focus instead, and while the seige of Fort Pitt and the events surrounding Pontiac's Rebellion are rendered with painstaking accuracy, the Paxton Boys' Rebellion isn't. Weird, huh?

    Ok, I'm drifting... Reality in romance. In Cassie's story, it was my strong sense of feminism, of women needing to seize their rights however and wherever they could. I was a newly published columnist at that time, one of very few women at the newspaper. I covered women's issues almost exclusively. So Cassie's proto-feminist attitude is very much a reflection of that.

    Carnal Gift is the book that was written to fit my publisher's wishes (Europe) and not mine. Still, I think it holds my love for my own Irish heritage and my passion for all things ancient and Celtic.

    Ride the Fire is where I feel I finally began to come into my own as a writer. I dug deep into my own past as a child rape victim for that novel, leaving myself emotionally shredded afterwards. There are so many aspects of Bethie and even Nicholas (in his traumatized state) that come from my own experience. When I finished that book, I couldn't even speak about the story without crying. For me it was a real turning point. I crossed a threshold where I was able to use my own emotional experience to power the emotions of the characters.

    Not surprisingly, a lot of readers said it wasn't romance. Too violent. Too graphic. Too gory. Too brutal. (You can see this in the reviews on B&N and Amazon.)

    Extreme Exposure was a more obvious use of my own life. I really did investigate a cement plant for major pollution crimes. I really did sneak behind the razor wire. I really did say those things to a politician in a bar after having too many margs... The whole book is full of references to my own life. I refused to make Kara one of those sweet, unbelievable contemporary heroines who don't cuss and don't want sex and don't make mistakes. The most important thing I included were the real-life death threats I've received and the break-in, during which I narrowly escaped being raped at knife-point.

    Surrender was again inspired by my own historical geekiness, focusing on my fascination with the French and Indian War (Seven Years War to Brits, Canucks and Aussies). I put some of my familiarity with Celtic and Indian cultures in that book, trying to make the setting real. Frontier. Wartime. The response was just as vehement against the book — this isn't romance; it's gore.

    Hard Evidence is much more fictional than Extreme Exposure, but there are emotions in that story that again are derived from real life. I lived for a short time in a small redneck town and hated it. I left as quickly as I could (before finishing high school) and tried never to look back. But more importantly, it contains my very worst memory as a journalist — seeing a teenage boy with his head shot off. Head. Shot. Off. But not his face. Just his head.

    Things I wish I didn't know:

    1. What happens to human brains when they dry on the wall.
    2. What a teenage boy looks like with his head shot off.

    And now you see why yesterday's post made my mind drift in this direction.

    I toned these two things down when I write Hard Evidence. Those of you who've read the book might not immediately think of the scene I'm thinking of when you read this. But it's not the sort of thing you can describe without feeling ill. Or at least I can't because I saw it. I've never described it to another living soul. Writing Hard Evidence was really therapeutic in that sense because I no longer feel like I'm falling or that my stomach is sinking when I get that image in my head.

    But what I'm getting at here is that my books tend to be a bit violent at times. And they're filled with a lot of real life, not just my real life, but historical reality, too. I'm a slave to it, and I believe it benefits the stories. But there are lots of readers who prefer a more sanitized look at the world. Not me. I need the grittiness for the romance to really shine. I love the meat that reality puts on the bones of a story. I love the depth real facts lend to fiction.

    What do you all think? Should romance be untouched by the gruesome realities of history and the present?

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