Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Back To School: Dr. Charley Ferrer's BDSM For Writers Workshop

I have always loved school, but let me tell you, school was NEVER like this! Last Friday through Sunday I had the immense pleasure to attend BDSM FOR WRITERS, a workshop opportunity provided by Dr. Charley Ferrer, sex expert and BDSM lifestyler.

I write erotic romance and more and more kinky business is finding its way into my torrid tales. What can I say? My heroes and heroines just like it edgy! SO I found this a great opportunity to make sure that I am depicting these characters fairly, realistically and with humanity and complexity. But unlike college with its textbooks and ivy laden campuses, we met in a building on the West Side of NYC in the heart of the garment district. We came with our pens and notebooks at the ready, and our “homework” assignment – print out the manual – in hand, but here is where any similarity ended.

9 of us introduced ourselves and got comfy in a small room where “educational aids” were displayed - including floggers, whips, heavy metal collars, and fetish “intro” kits. We ladies came from all around – from Virginia, Boston, New Jersey and Rhode Island, among other locales. Young, older, some in the lifestyle, some not, we had the one thing in common that brought us together: Writing kinky erotic romance. Paranormal, contemporary, historical and everything in between. And what we wanted to know about BDSM was – well, everything!

Dr. Charley herself provided massive amounts of information on the lifestyle. A sex expert, worldwide speaker and presenter, she had us oohing and ahhing, and laughing. She explained the roles, the kinks, the fetishes and the psychology. She gave us the opportunity to try out the implements on one another, which we did with much giggling. I got to try on a collar and it was a curious experience to feel that heavy metal being locked around my throat. I had a few licks with a deceptively benign looking whip. We even had exercises to get us into the heads of submissives, and masters (though the kneeling was hell on my knees!) which was perfect for this “method writer” as I can now rekindle some of those sensations when crafting my characters. The “never-know-til-you-try” adage was a marvel in this regard because I, and the other ladies, were open-minded and willing.

We shared some of our own personal experiences, and got to know one another the first day, lunching together and chatting about our writing, social media, families and more.

Unfortunately I was unable to take advantage with the other gals when they trekked on down with Dr. Charley to Paddles S&M club. DomSub Friends was celebrating an end of summer party and the reports the next day by the bleary-eyed ladies were eye-opening, and hilarious. Suffice it to say they all had a blast and got into the swing of things with vigor.

In addition to Dr. Charley’s talks, she also arranged for a great group of guest speakers. Electrical play expert Jay presented a mind-blowing presentation on electricity in his “sensual” role. The discovery that Michael’s craft stores, my local supermarket and Home Depot can provide many naughty & fun enhancements to this play was a kinky kick. I’ll never look at Christmas decorations the same way again! Being able to play “hands on” with volunteers and get a sense of this play was really cool. His partner, volunteer and “sweet sadist” MaryAnn was likewise filled with great information about BDSM play and the lifestyle. They also generously shared information about organizations and play in other cities and Jay took names for his “dance card”, promising those ladies one “electric” experience that night at Paddles!

There were also several other speakers, members of the BDSM community, but writers too, which provided a wonderful parallel to the discussions on BDSM. Cassandra Park spoke about spanking and discipline play, and how it infuses her own erotica writings. The amazing Laura Antoniou, author of the cult Master/slave cult favorite series, The Marketplace, among other titles, was insightful, informative and wildly, hysterically funny. And I was thoroughly thrilled to have an opportunity to meet, and listen to, DL King, She is the award-winning editor who acquired my erotica short story “My Master’s Mark” (under my erotica pseudonym, Lydia Hill) which will be the finale in her upcoming Cleis Press anthology SLAVE GIRLS (2014).. She talked about her role in the community, and how her knowledge – and our research into this lifestyle – imbues her writing and will raise ours to a realistic level that will fascinate readers.

A second night at Paddles included game participation by two of the ladies’ husbands, and what was clearly an incredible demo of fire play, by Dr. Charley herself, with the assistance of one of our group who volunteered to be the flammable playee.

Our terrific workshop was rounded out with a discussion on psychological pathologies, including Dr. Charley stressing the distinction consensual BDSM players, sharing the power exchange and a mutual intent, and those who are sadistic and/or abusive outside this structure.

Having a chance to gain some understanding into this socially provocative community, to meet some authors intent on rendering this lifestyle with honesty and realistic depictions, to meet these lifestyle participants who gave so generously of their time, expertise, knowledge and humor, as well as to just make new friends, was simply a delight.

And as I made my way home on the LIRR, my head was filled with wonderful research, newfound respect, as well as great ideas, and a terrific base on which to build my BDSM erotic romance. Where my heroes and heroines play - safely, sanely and consensually - and find their happy, kinkilly ever afters.

Interested in attending next year’s bigger, better conference? Check out:

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Floggers and Ball Gags & Cuffs – Oh My, My. My

The sub-genre of erotic romance now in the spotlight (thanks to Fifty Shades) is BDSM. Bondage – Dominance/Submission-Sado-Masochism. Kink, power exchange, Master/slave dynamic, Safe, Sane & Consensual rules. It works in historical, contemporary and paranormal. I’ve even seen Steampunk BDSM Erotic Romance! In other words, something for every kinky reader out there.

Of course, there have been incredible authors of this smoking hot sub-genre writing great BDSM romances for years. Some write what I lovingly call raunch romance. Gritty, graphic and hot. Others, like Eden Bradley, write more psychologically intense and sensual BDSM erotic romance. But what the best have in common, regardless of the tone of their tales, or the depth of their delightful depravity, is a great understanding of their sexual subject matter. Some of these authors live the lifestyle openly. Others may not, but have done in-depth study and research to make sure they are getting the details right and avoiding the criticism so many have leveled at EL James’ trilogy, calling it “BDSM lite”.

Short of putting yourself up for auction to the highest bidding Master, though, how can YOU educate yourself and enjoy writing this kind of erotic romance? What resources are at your disposal to help you understand the – ahem – ins & outs, and craft stories that rivet those readers, the ones who’ve been reading these tales for years, along with the millions of newly converted fans to the genre?

Here are a few that I have taken advantage of:


The Eulenspiegel Society. Self-proclaimed as the “oldest and largest BDSM support group in the USA”, they can be found at They sponsor many events, including their first annual festival that was held this July.

Dom/sub Friends. They hold monthly “munches” where novices are welcome, with a dinner and chat at a restaurant, and then you can accompany members to Paddles for an evening of – education.

Paddles. This club is for folks in the scene. Why not take a friend and check them out? Be prepared to throw aside your preconceptions and your inhibitions!

FetLife. This is an on-line social community for participants in BDSM. You have to join, but it is recommended by everyone “in the know” as a great place for respectful interaction.

Dr. Charley Ferrer’s Annual BDSM for Writers 3 Day Workshop. In addition to this workshop, check out her website for on-line workshops on various topics. She also has published BDSM for Writers which is available as an e-book.

House of Scorpio Kinky Salon NYC. This is a kinky costume event.

ON-LINE RESOURCES This site is porn. Yep. In addition to a variety of other fetishes that you would never be able to use in erotic romance, they also have submission videos, bondage and restraint videos, from which you can get a real handle on some of the physical logistics.

Websites. These websites abound. You can find hundreds of them. But be very careful. My advice would be to go to sites that are listed in the other organizations, like Eulenspiegel which has a number of them. Many others out there are porn sites or riddles with viruses.

MOVIES: Films like “9 ½ Weeks”, “Secretary”, “Blue Velvet” and “Body of Evidence” explore BDSM psychology.

And CineKink NYC film festival is exactly that, including their 2013 festival opener, “Remedy”.

FACEBOOK: There are dozens, if not hundreds of BDSM Facebook pages. I have “liked” and many of the ones I’ve found, I’ve surprisingly gotten a lot of information from them. You need to be respectful, and understand that there are lots and lots of kinky photos posted that you may be taken aback by. But there are also lots of discussions, questions, comments, and postings on thoughts, situations, etc., that can really give you details and background that can infuse your writing. Everything from BDSM Education FB pages to Daddies Love Their Little Girls (for the Daddy/little girl role fetish, not for pedophilia or incest!). If you try a page or 2, however, and find they aren’t for you, just “unlike”!

BOOKS: Shy? Want to study up on your spanking techniques in the privacy of your own home? Books abound. They have many classics on the lifestyle, as well as titles addressing specific kinks. There are even titles on how to deal with BDSM safety, emergencies and accidents. Then there are memoirs and non-fiction accounts by folks in the life. And there are hundreds of BDSM erotic romances and tons of BDSM erotica available to see how the other folks are writing about this subject. Here are just a few non-fiction titles that I have used that are honest, funny, and give great information about all the aspects of the lifestyle:

BDSM For Writers; BDSM The Naked Truth by Dr. Charley Ferrer
Screw the Roses, Send Me the Thorns by Philip Miller (it includes a Master/slave contract)
Different Loving: The World of Sexual Dominance and Submission by Gloria Brame, et al
SM101 by Jay Wiseman
The New Bottoming Book; The New Topping Book by Dossie Easton
The Loving Dominant by John Warren
Consensual Sadomasochism by William A. Henkin
Flogging by Joseph W. Bean
Partners in Power: Living in Kinky Relationships by Jack Rinella

Many of these titles are available through Greenery Press if you can’t find them elsewhere, including their [eye-opening] Toybag Guides for every kink, which I definitely recommend to get those exact technical details – they have illustrations! They include the “Dungeon Emergencies and Supplies” I bought at The Museum of Sex.

You can get a great deal of insight from memoirs, as well, especially about psychology and emotions. I’ve read these and can recommend them (for the not-faint-of-heart):

Dangerous Games: Sex and Slavery by Damian Swiss & Daphne Simons
Surrender by Toni Bentley
The Sexual Life of Catherine M. by Catherine Millet
100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed by Melissa P.
The Pleasure’s All Mine by Joan Kelly
Diary of a Submissive by Sophie Morgan

And if you want my recommendation on other BDSM erotic novels, BDSM erotic romances and BDSM erotica, give me a holler.

DO-IT-YOURSELF: While you certainly can’t explore serious BDSM power exchange by yourself, you can try a few things, just to get some sense of the feel of things. Ever felt a flogger? How about a cane or paddle or belt? You can buy some and give yourself a whack. Don’t forget to check out the marks afterwards! See how you’d describe the sensation – and the differences. Nipple clamps (clothespins work fine)? Safely try wax play. And if you’re lucky enough to have a partner who’s willing to indulge you, perhaps try some of the fun things like handcuffs or restraints, blindfolds, or spanking (or all three)!

So, depending on how far you want to push the envelope, these resources can help you get started.

And if you discover that the entire scene doesn’t do anything for you or, worse, yet, upsets you, turns you off or dismays you? Then writing BDSM erotic romance is not for you. Fortunately – if you don’t want a red room of pain in your novel, there’s plain old vanilla erotic romance and it can be just as satisfying!

Now get out there and write hot!

You don’t want a spanking do you?

Thursday, May 30, 2013

A MUSE OF FIRE: Something Wicked This Way Comes – The Power of Villains

Thus do I ever make my fool my purse;
For I mine own gained knowledge should profane,
If I would time expend with such a snipe
But for my sport and profit. I hate the Moor,
And it is thought abroad that 'twixt my sheets
H'as done my office. I know not if't be true,
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do, as if for surety. He holds me well;
The better shall my purpose work on him.
Cassio's a proper man. Let me see now:
To get his place, and to plume up my will
In double knavery. How? How? Let's see.
After some time, to abuse Othello's ears
That he is too familiar with his wife.
He hath a person and a smooth dispose
To be suspected--framed to make women false.
The Moor is of a free and open nature
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so;
And will as tenderly be led by th' nose
As asses are.
I have't! It is engendered! Hell and night
Must bring this monstrous birth to the world's light.

(Iago's soliloquy, "Othello," Act 1, Scene 3)

Where cerebral or martial, man or woman, William Shakespeare unleashed upon the world some of literatures most complex and chilling villains. As I discussed in my earlier column on crafting strong adversaries/antagonists, villains are a particular subset. An adversary of a different color if you will. An action of fate can be adverse to your hero, but the action is benign. A villain – black-hearted, black-souled, sociopathic, homicidal or psychopathic – acts out of personal motivation to damage, harm, kill, destroy.

Shakespeare’s villains may wound with a word or a sword. They may take action themselves or set in motion a deadly intrigue; and then sit back with a self-satisfied smirk as the blood flows.

Motivations vary, but to me the most dark and chilling villains are the ones not driven by flawed human frailties, by need, or greed, or hatred, but the ones driven by a Machiavellian need to destroy. Iago fits that bill and his cold calculation makes him a deadly adversary for Othello, whose fiery and impetuous, passionate personality serves Iago well. In the end, Othello’s beloved Desdemona is dead at his hand and he is crazed with the guilt of what he’s done.

Creating a great villain requires finesse. A villain must be a worthy adversary for your protagonist: Smart and dangerous enough to challenge, but not superior enough to best your protagonist(s).

The best villains are crafted with enough complexity to intrigue the reader, but to avoid caricature or stereotype. Surprise your reader: The baby-faced torturer, the suave serial killer, the grandmotherly ax murder. Likewise, their psychological makeup must be a canny blend of psychology and motivation. We must understand what drives them, what their triggers are (the better to create an atmosphere of suspense as we see them driven forward on their evil journey, just as we see our hero and heroine compelled on their heroic and romantic journey), what their motivations are, and what conflicts may thwart them.

The caliber of villain you craft will depend on your story. Do you want the blackest-hearted blackguard ever written – whose demise will leave your reader standing and cheering? Or a tortured soul for whom the reader may feel a bit of pity? Is your villain the MacBeth type, or the Iago type? The first driven by human emotion, the other enjoying the murderous outcome with cold satisfaction?

Also, what is the villain’s ROLE in your story? How is he to be the foil, the human embodiment of conflict, for your heroic pair? That question, too, will determine how you need to mold him or her with greatest effectiveness.

To help you craft these characters, you have a wonderful array of resources: Study contemporary villains – sadly, the news on any given day provides a despicable perp walk of villainous types, all of whose characters, backgrounds, motivations and actions are dissected in minute detail.

There are also innumerable non-fiction titles written about every high profile villain, from Jack the Ripper to Charlie Starkweather to Bernie Madoff. Written by forensic specialists, law enforcement, psychiatric professionals and reporters.

There are, too, countless research titles available. You can research abnormal psychology and crime scene investigations. Types of killing and murder, and overviews of demographics of who murders who, how and why (One reason why the Aileen Wournos case was so sensational? Women were not expected to be serial killers, and when the “black widow” murderess invariably showed up, they used not guns or weapons of overt violence, but the “kinder, gentler” weapon of poison.)

And there are books specific for writers: Some simply help you understand different character types. Some help you understand the purpose of your villainous character in the context of your story and how he or she plays against your hero/heroine. Some go into the details about writing different kinds of villainous characters in fiction.

Once you have chosen your villain, read enough to understand the psychology so you can create an intense villain, with layers of human complexity. Set up the character biography so you are clear on what has set them on this path, what their motivation is; what they seek to gain by committing their criminal act, and how they feel in the aftermath. And do enough forensic research that the acts they commit ring true and your reader will shiver at the thought of being prey to the heinous character. Of course, read the best in the genre to see how other capable authors handle these subjects.

As always, there are legions of films and television shows with great evil doers to study. And likewise, in dramatic literature, there are some great villains: Ms. Venable in “Suddenly Last Summer” is a chilling character who’d give Iago a run for his money. Regina, in Lillian Hellman’s “Little Foxes”, Mme de Merteuil in "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" by Christopher Hampton, and of course Sondheim’s bloody “demon barber of Fleet Street”, Sweeney Todd in the play of the same name.

In point of fact, there is no end to the number of dastardly types you can study in order to give your readers the fright of their life: The fear that the hero and heroine may succumb to the marvelously complex and dangerous villain in their midst.

“Do it not with poison, strangle her in her bed, even
the bed she hath contaminated.”

Iago, “Othello”, Act IV, Scene 1

Friday, April 19, 2013

Lust Scenes?

I write super-hot love scenes. I especially like writing kink like ménage and BDSM, and the hotter and more graphic, the better. During a recent discussion a fellow author said that “sex scenes aren’t love scenes”. I feel I must respectfully – and strongly – disagree. Admittedly, what is “romantic”, or “sexy” to one reader, is not to another, so bottom line is to each her own! (And isn’t it great? Plenty of readers for everyone!)

For those who do not read erotic romance, with its full-contact, graphic sex scenes, they may not immediately appear to be all about love. In some cases in fact, the story may NOT begin with a couple (or more) who are already “in love”, or already falling emotionally, before they indulge in the physical; one difference from less steamy romances. But they are always people who are embarking on a relationship because of an immediate attraction or growing into a committed love relationship, even if it may stem from an initially sexual relationship. I think it’s important to note this initial attraction is unlike anything they’ve ever known – there’s chemistry, but also something “more”. This lets a reader know which way the wind WILL soon be blowing, emotionally.

I strive in my stories - complete with HEAs – to illustrate just how romantic, emotional and psychologically satisfying a sexually graphic love scene can be. In order to convey this truth, I need to make sure my characters – and their actions - are immediate and believable. So I do tons of research about providing emotional and psychological detail in my characters and their love scenes.
For example, using kink means showing why my characters are kinky. How that sexual preference evolved, and how it ties into their emotional make-up. I have read a lot of kinky erotic romance that contains things I would not personally want to participate in. However, that doesn’t mean the author was not successful in making those scenes really hot and erotic for me! (I’m one of those whatever-blows-your-skirt-up kind of gals, after all.)

Or if I am using Dominance and submission elements (D/s) (I’m not a creative “switch” – my heroes are always the dominant ones, my heroines always submissives) I need to do a psychological study of my characters to show why they are the way they are. In particular, with a heroine who is a submissive (which can mean many different things, but it doesn’t mean that she is not a strong, independent character): Is she a submissive only in the boudoir? That means she can be a total take-charge woman in other aspects of her life. I love the dichotomy of a female who loves being controlled in bed, but woe betide the man who tries it any other time! Or is she a submissive personality 24/7, meaning that her hero will dominate her both in bed, as well as be her protector in life? I have a character in a current WIP that is a 24/7 submissive personality. She has been physically wounded, emotionally tormented, and is adrift and alone. Finding a masterful man who takes care of her and helps her regain her stability is a relief and a blessing for her. It is a big plus that he is a wonderful, caring lover who helps her understand her feelings in bed, allowing her to blossom and enjoy her true sexual nature. But my hero’s proclivities and motivations must also be made crystal clear. He is not simply a megalomaniac out to control a woman’s life. He will be the masterful man she needs, within the context of his dominant, protective nature, especially when it comes to their sex life. He is compassionate about her desires and dreams, and helps her achieve them. He doesn’t use force or coercion to make her do what HE wants!

I do a lot of research. I read BDSM lifestyle books. I read books on alternative sexualities and their psychological aspects. I also read a wide selection of erotic romance for tips, and to see how far others push the envelope of kinkiness, and to see if other authors successfully (to me) create emotionally gripping, kinky characters.

Before writing, I create a character sexual biography for each protagonist. It contains every single element of my characters’ sex life, from family teachings, to religion, first lovers, as well as all the negatives – bad experiences, fears, taboos. I include “worldbuilding” elements which impact their belief systems, or dictate sexual development. When I get to “present” circumstances I clarify their likes, dislikes, desires, and their own feelings (Curious? Scared? Embarrassed?). I log possible reactions to new lover(s) and new sexual experiences. I catalogue how these events will change them, emotionally and psychologically – filling unfilled needs, resolving old issues, revealing new sides of their sexual selves. And I go in depth clarifying their motivation and conflicts as they apply to the sexual plot, as well as how they tie into the overall plot: Her growth and how she’ll be helped to surmount these conflicts to achieve happiness on all fronts.

Once I have a clear picture of exactly what the character is like I can make appropriate plot choices and/or appropriate choices for characteristics, and actions & reactions in sexual situations. My goal is to have honest, believable, understandable characters who a reader can travel along with on the sexual journey - a journey entwined with the emotional and romantic one.

Then I ramp up the fun and make sure everything is hot hot hot! Because, after all, as a famous hedonist once said, “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful!”

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A MUSE OF FIRE: All The World’s A Stage – Setting & Description

. . . And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide on man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth;
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o'er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass . . .
(Excerpt, Act I Prologue, Henry V, by William Shakespeare)

In theatre, a play’s author gives bare setting descriptions. Then the director and set designer work together to create the living set on which the play will be enacted. Whether it includes a falling chandelier, rotating sets and waterfalls or a spare, single room presentation, it takes an entire team to create the effective setting so the audience can see the visual rendering of the world of the play’s creator.
As writers of fiction, there is a good side, and a bad side, to our job as the sole designer of setting and our use of description. The upside: Our readers will imagine, based on our words, the place, and the setting that fits perfectly for them within the context of the story. No risk of disappointment as happens in theatre, or film, where the end result does not match the visual the readers had already created from the books. But the same plus, is also the downside. Because YOU are the sole creator of the setting. If you skimp on it, or if your description fails to captivate and conjure a sense of place for your story – then there’s no THERE there for your audience: The Reader.

Shakespeare gave his audience tremendous setting and atmosphere hints via his chorus speeches and prologues (such as I opened this piece with). His words allowed his audiences to fill in the blanks and augment the stage set with the grand world and events amid which his plays were to transpire.

He utilizes dialogue, as well, to enhance the sense of time and place, as in the first words of King Lear in Act III, Scene II, as he enters with the Fool in the midst of a storm:

“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once
That make ingrateful man!”

You have the opportunity to do this task utilizing both narrative as well as characters’ own description in thought or dialogue.

But how many elements go into crafting an effective setting?

Some major ones would be time, place, era, season, weather, temperature. What are they and how are you conveying this information? What impact or effect do these elements have on the narrative/action? Is it backdrop? Does it enhance the mood? Is it part of the challenge to the characters in the context of forward action?

Then there are the subtleties that more specific description adds to your setting. Like a set designer your eye must fall on every single nook and cranny of your setting. Then decide what is vital, and what is unimportant for your scenic design and what details would be innocuous, and can be ignored. How does describing the important elements help make your setting richer, bolder and more conducive to drawing your reader into your world – so that it runs like a film in their head as they read.

Take for example a set piece – a clock, which can be utilized both as a set design element and as a detail to help establish time frame, perhaps, or passage of time, as it ticks away the minutes. How can this element be adding to your atmosphere. Does it toll the ominous passing of time as the heroine desperately attempts to escape her bonds and flee the killer coming for her? Does it register the mounting excitement as a bride awaits her bridegroom on their honeymoon night? The frustration of a woman awaiting her lover who is late, or the trepidation of a character awaiting news of a job interview, the angst of a parent awaiting word on a sick child? Or does it notch up the erotic tension as a man watches his lover coming towards him to begin their tryst?

From ensuring that your description is specific: Is your heroine’s hair blown by a wind? Or is it a zephyr, a gale, an icy gust? Here’s where your word selection will come into play, and remember that action words convey more than non-action descriptors, details that bring to mind sense responses – especially touch and smell – can ramp up the depth of your setting. When elaborating on your setting include specific details that help anchor the time and place in your readers’ minds. Not just a city – is the city more like New York? Or Paris? Moscow, Shanghai or Casablanca? Kalamazoo or Kingston? Does the character live in a house surrounded by a garden? Or by a wild cacophony of wildflowers, daisies with bright faces, and nodding sunflowers? Is the smell permeating the room simply “food cooking”? OR is it the smell of old bacon grease and stale coffee, the pungent aroma of garlic and herbs, or the homey scent of meatloaf and cornbread? Is it raining? Or is it a typhoon, a sun shower, a nourishing spring rain, or a thundering downpour? Is the house just a house? Or a hobbit hole? A magical Weasley oddity or a dreary Kansas farmhouse?

What tiny elements can add atmosphere and mood to a set? What can help convey the tone and emotion of the characters in a given situation? What aspects of your setting and description round out and complete the world your characters inhabit so that – whether the setting is a space ship headed for Alpha Centauri in the year 2525, a Scottish castle in the highlands, or an upper West Side Manhattan one-bedroom apartment – it is a rich, vital, immediate and REAL world for your readers?

Like a combination playwright/set designer/director you must use all of your skills to build a perfect world – setting – and illuminate the place in which your novel’s action proceeds. From first page to last, in every chapter, scene, paragraph – your descriptive detail of the surroundings must be gripping, evocative, enlightening, compelling and they must sweep your reader away into a world so real that there IS a THERE there!

P.S: For some additional plays where marvelous “worlds” are created, try “The Iceman Cometh” by Eugene O’Neill, “The Hot L Baltimore” by Lanford Wilson, Sam Shepard’s “True West”, “Bus Stop” by William Inge, “Ghosts” by Henrik Ibsen, “Steel Magnolias” by Robert Harding or “The Skin of Our Teeth” by Thornton Wilder.

And for incredible setting and descriptive detail – within a story that runs from modern-day London, to the English countryside, as well as back into Victorian England and Italy, there is no more wonderful novel I have ever read than A. S. Byatt’s Booker Prize winning Possession. It is like a wonderful creative writing class all by itself!

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull'd in these flowers with dances and delight;

Oberon, Act II, Sc. I “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
William Shakespeare

Wednesday, March 6, 2013


By Lise Horton

The series of World War II women’s fiction novels I continue to work on have fostered an even deeper appreciation of the era than I already had. As the niece of a Marine medic who landed on Iwo Jima, the great niece of an aunt who served as a nurse in Africa, and as the daughter of a woman who well remembers the home front life of Victory Gardens, food and gas rationing, black outs and civil patrols, it is not a time in our history very far removed from me (having been born in 1955 – a scant 10 years after VJ Day). First hand recollections instilled a feverish desire to know everything I can about the time, the world, how it began, how we rallied, and how the events changed us.

Since I’ve become a writer, it is not surprising that I gravitated to the period. When contemplating my series of novels, I decided that each book would have as its protagonist/heroine, a woman fulfilling a role that women took on in real life. I came to this decision for a specific reason. All through my life, reading WWII histories, I was continually frustrated by the lack of information on women. A mention here or there, very briefly, of nurses, and occasional references to women in the USO. Aside from the Rosie the Riveter coverage, presented mostly as novelty to break up the important stuff, the most frequent mention of women in wartime was coverage of prostitution.

I started searching because one day my Mother mentioned that her chemistry professor at Skidmore in the early 1950’s had been a chemist working on the atomic bomb at the Los Alamos location of the Manhattan Project – along with some of the most famous scientists in the world. That got me determined to find out more about the other women involved.

Mom also regaled me with stories about her youth during the war. She and my grandparents had a hefty Victory garden and we still have a ration book that my grandmother used. My grandfather was a foreman in the Scranton coal mines and, as such, got additional gas rations because he was employed in the war effort. Neighbors volunteered to be members of the civil patrols. All the kids participated in gathering tin, rubber and the ladies donated silk for parachutes, doing without stockings for the duration so that paratroopers and flight crews could be saved. Women at home scrimped, saved, sacrificed and sent care packages that kept their men in touch with home and what – and who – they were fighting for. No matter who they were, the folks at home did their part and have wonderful stories to be told.

Then I read a book by Janet Dailey, Silver Wings and Santiago Blue, which was a novel about the Women Airforce Service Pilots – the WASPS – who’d taken on the daunting task of plane ferry duty, anti-aircraft gunnery target towing, and the sometimes deadly job of test pilots for the various new aircraft being rolled out to beat the Germans and Japanese in the air wars above Europe and the Pacific. Investigating a bit I discovered a wealth of information.

Reading a biography of Ernest Hemingway, I encountered Martha Gelhorn, one of his wives who reported from many locales, including the front lines, during WWII. This discovery led me to uncover the cadre of female reporters and photographers who were right in the thick of things with the men – despite the battle they had to be permitted, and ultimately, accepted in that role.

Yet again, I was reading a book (I’ve been known to do that ….) called Shining Through by Susan Isaacs. The novel concerned a young Jewish woman who decides to help the war effort and ends up working for the US government and the OSS – the clandestine group that would become the CIA. As a German-speaker, she ultimately volunteers to become a spy in Germany, putting her own life in peril. Lo and behold, I discovered that, indeed, numerous intrepid American women were employed by the OSS (including Julia Child), and while most worked at desks or other, safer duties, many actually were trained and went into occupied territories, a number of them losing their lives.

Once I became enmeshed in the history of the female participants in WWII, and called to mind my aunt’s nursing service, that was another role I investigated. Sure enough, the role of the nurse was a vital one, and many perished in their duties working on the front lines. Early in the war when the generals let Guadalcanal surrender, a number of them were left behind caring for wounded prisoners and these nurses were subsequently captured, and spent the remainder of the war in Japanese POW camps such as Santo Tomaso, under horrific conditions – many of them, along with other internees, dying of disease and starvation.

Bette Midler’s film, “For The Boys” tells the story of a character some say was based on real-life singer Martha Raye and her USO tours during WWII. Lots of other women, famous and otherwise, toured with the USO. Marlene Dietrich for example, though German, was a fervent anti-Nazi and was a familiar USO performer. Soldiers recalled a particular instance in which she, clad in her ubiquitous slacks, helped soldiers get a rolled over Jeep back upright, wiping her hands and walking away afterwards.

Attempting to uncover more of the history of New York City during the War I came across “Over There” and “Helluva Town”, non-fiction titles that covered in great detail the City and surrounding areas during that time. Wouldn’t you know it? While I already knew of the most famous of the WWII female – the iconic Rosie the Riveter – when I read of the plot to sabotage the Long Island Grumman aircraft factory by an American Bund group, which was being funded by money coming in from the German Nazi party, a light bulb went off – how about a heroine Rosie who helps to thwart the plot?

An old movie from my (impressionable) youth, “The Yellow Rolls Royce”, a trilogy of romances involving the title auto. In one segment, a widowed American woman is trapped in Yugoslavia when war breaks out. With her car, her money, and her American fortitude, she aids the Yugoslav partisans in their battle against the Russian and German invaders (falling in love with one, natch). In fact, upon researching, there were many women caught behind enemy lines – including the wives and daughters of missionaries in the Far East. Yet another heroine’s story was born!

So. Why were the exploits of these women so casually dealt with in the histories? I guess because most of them were written by men. But in recent years numerous female historians have uncovered these courageous women and have begun telling their stories. And the self-publishing industry has allowed many, many women who participated to relate their own stories. These first-hand accounts are exceptionally valuable because you are getting the flavor of the times, and the people and details you cannot find as easily in current reports about those times.

It’s been a wonderfully educational experience studying all of the material, and learning of more and more roles American women played in the struggle, and victory, during this conflict. And it just goes to show that ideas come from innumerable sources. For me, I’m well on my way thanks to personal histories, film and fiction, and historical sources. All of this information also means that I can, with luck, help illuminate the history of women in wartime by virtue of my fiction.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Important Role of Secondary Characters

“His name is Romeo, and a Montegue;
The only son of your great enemy.”

Nurse warning Juliet, and illuminating the crux of the conflict for the audience
Act I, scene v

(Painting "The Storm", by Wlliam Dyce depicting King Lear and secondary character, The Fool)

Shakespeare’s plays are filled with secondary characters of every sort and variety. For every towering, iconic protagonist, there is a secondary character who aids and abets the action. Hamlet has Horatio; Prince Hal has Falstaff; Juliet has Nurse; Prospero has Caliban; Portia has Bassanio and the list goes on.

Secondary characters play many roles in fiction. Mentor, confessor, guardian, teacher, foil, sounding board, catalyst, muse: They may be present in the guise of friend or foe, parent or sibling, loved one, stranger or servant.

Use of a secondary character offers an author a wealth of possibilities. Your hero’s best friend can be the voice of reason that helps the volatile hero work through a crisis. Your heroine’s big sister can act as confidant to help her make relationship decisions. In these roles they allow a further exploration and exposure of the protagonists’ thinking and emotions, without the “telling” worry. Perhaps an abusive parent allows the author to illustrate the difficult times our hero has risen above, illustrating his fortitude and strength without blatantly hammering the point. A teacher’s wisdom lets us be privy to a character’s struggle and growth. A secondary character’s predicament allows an opportunity for a hero or heroine to show their loyalty, bravery or willingness to put themselves in danger for a friend.

But while we can use these characters to great advantage, there are also pitfalls inherent in who you populate your stories with.

If you fill a story with a gallery of innocuous secondary characters who are little more than window dressing and are either duplicative of, or of no value to, a protagonist, it means they probably shouldn’t be there.

Certainly, too, the “chorus”, or tertiary background characters used to create a sense of time, and place and social background are valuable. But keeping their participation appropriate is important.

And the important role played by secondary characters brings up the flip side of the problem. Rather than ineffective secondary characters, you have the potential problem of a secondary character taking center stage and usurping the limelight from the protagonists. This effectively nullifies the importance of the hero or heroine as well as distracting the reader. There are many authors who very effectively straddle this fine line, creating secondary characters who both know their place, but who are rich, complex and human. They appeal to readers, and the author, even while they ultimately allow the primary characters their moment in the sun. We’ve seen this happen frequently enough when a character is so appealing he or she ultimately grows into the protagonist of their own story, bringing in those fans who enjoyed the character in a supporting role in a prior book.

A slightly different problem is creating secondary characters so strong or superior that the protagonist in question pales in comparison. An non-romance example might be Melanie and Scarlett. While Scarlett was admirably tenacious and determined, Melanie far outshone her in the admirable qualities we imbue our heroes and heroines with. Loyalty, gentle courage, honesty, morality are all Melanie traits but Scarlett? Well, not so much …

Look at any of the great stories and you will find examples of these vital characters and the authors’ deft use of them. Beyond Shakespeare’s own cadre of the good, the bad, the wise, funny, and ugly, and more accessible to us, would be the supporting actors in television and film.

Harry Potter is surrounded with classic secondary characters, from Dumbledore (mentor, guide) to Lucius Malfoy (catalyst). Likewise, Frodo in Lord of the Rings learns from Gandalf and he is provided (as are we, the audience) a glimpse of what might come to pass in the example of the obsessed, grotesque Gollum.

Buffy has her team of seconds, from clowns to BFF.

Antihero Dr. Gregory House has his conscience and voice of reason in the form of Dr. James Wilson, and takes on the role of mentor to the changing cast of residents.

Andy Griffith had Aunt Bea, Goober and Gomer, the classic sidekick Deputy Barney Fife, as well as Opie – his parental interactions with Opie allow us to see Andy’s sterling qualities as parent and teacher.

Superman had Perry White, and Lois and Jimmy Olsen were the frequent catalysts (read: victim needing rescue from heinous antagonists) in providing the superhero plenty of opportunities to exhibit his super-hero-ness.

Many actors today have honed the skill of playing the supporting cast member to the hero and as such frequently are seen in those roles. John Goodman, for example, supporting not only Dennis Quaid and Al Pacino, but Roseann herself.

TV, film, Shakespeare, other novels – all offer stellar opportunities to study the role these supporting characters play, and how to craft them effectively. How to make them rich, fully-fleshed, playing his or her role to perfection while not encroaching into the protagonists’ territory, can be learned from reading any good romance novel.

And, as always, from the dramatic canon of my fave, Tennessee Williams, I have a perfect example of the vital secondary character, whose presence effects all of the protagonists in one important way or another and leads them to decisions and actions that rock their world. He is not even given a name, but he is the human interjection that changes everything. He is The Gentleman Caller, and when he joins the action among Laura Wingfield, her brother Tom, and faded Southern Belle, Amanda, upheaval ensues.

So, next time you are reading a book, give the secondary characters some extra attention. What is their role in the story? How does the author utilize them to good effect to bolster how we see the hero and heroine, and how their presence impacts the storyline?

Oh, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!—
The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword,
Th' expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
Th' observed of all observers, quite, quite down!
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That sucked the honey of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh;
That unmatched form and feature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy. Oh, woe is me,
T' have seen what I have seen, see what I see!

Ophelia’s monologue following confrontation with Hamlet wherein she shares the dastardly change that has overtaken her beloved.

Act 3 scene 1