This month, my recommendation is historical romance (and occasional contemporary romance) author Elizabeth Hoyt. I mentioned her Maiden Lane series on last week’s Feminist Romantic podcast, and if you have any interest in historical romance, you should definitely read that series. Her other books are good, too, but Maiden Lane is her magnum opus (so far, anyway!).
One of the things Hoyt does better than almost any author I’ve ever read is crafting real, vulnerable heroes and heroines. She takes what should be completely unlikable heroes and makes readers fall in love with them along with her heroines. I didn’t think it was possible for one particular character later in the series to be redeemed, and she somehow pulled it off–in spades.
The first book in the Maiden Lane series is Wicked Intentions, and I absolutely recommend starting there and reading the series in order. Sometimes with romance series it’s possible to start on book four or ten, but with this one, you’d miss something if you pick up midway through. Hoyt layers characters throughout the earlier books in the series who later become main characters in their own stories, and although Hoyt gives the essential details of backstory in each book, there are nuances and layers that are best peeled away and revealed by reading in order.
But if the thought of twelve books and a few novellas is daunting, she also has two shorter series: the Princes Trilogy (three books and a novella) and the Legend of the Four soldiers (four books). They are also great reads, starting with The Raven Prince and To Taste Temptation respectively.
Hoyt also has a few contemporary romance books written under the name Julia Harper. I’ve only read Hot, but it was rollicking good fun and I’m looking forward to reading the other two books, For the Love of Pete and Once and Always once I finish the new (and sadly, last) book in the Maiden Lane series, Duke of Desire.
Have you read the Maiden Lane series? Tell me your favorite character in the comments. And if you haven’t read Hoyt yet, happy reading!
This year has been a terrible year for me as a writer, and I know I’m not alone. It’s so hard to concentrate on a fictional world when the real world feels like it’s spinning out of control.
I deliberately scheduled my year to shift most of the writing into the spring and summer this year, leaving editorial and research for the rest of the year because I’ve learned that I have trouble writing in the fall and winter due to seasonal depression. Unfortunately, real life and my other jobs got in the way of writing in the spring and summer this year. Now that I have time to write, it’s like something has atrophied inside of me. My depression and anxiety is worse than it has been in years. I am writing, but very slowly. What used to be 2000-3000 word days are now 200-300 words. A thousand word day feels like a victory.
This year has taught me much about myself as a writer and as a business person. I tried to balance the business of my publishing company with the creative act of being a writer, and I’m failing at doing both. I have a different plan for next year and how it will go, but I know that I need to back away a bit from publishing, promotion, and advertising if I’m ever going to finish another book. And that’s what really brings readers back–more good books.
I’m still trying to finish Secret Magic by mid-December, but the going is tough. Sometimes I want to throw my computer across the room, like in the picture above. But I don’t, and I won’t.
I won’t give up.
This romance pet peeve falls under the bigger heading of False Conflict. Some of my other pet peeves belong here, too, like forced separation, and the worst sorts of love triangles.
But this is a particularly egregious sin in any story: creating conflict that would be easily resolved if your characters would just talk to each other.
Note here that I don’t mean situations where there are good, character-driven reasons why there’s a lack of communication. Because if there’s a reason not to tell the truth or to deliberately mislead the other character then that’s the conflict. The misconception arises from the conflict and then creates more conflict. That’s a perfect way to escalate the stakes in a story.
The problem I have is when lies/miscommunication/etc. are not properly motivated. For example, the cliche scene when one of the protagonists sees the other with a possible love interest and gets jealous/angry/withdrawn and refuses to talk to the other one. But, of course, it turns out to be just a friend, or a sibling, or something else innocuous, and if they’d just asked, there would be no conflict. If the failure to communicate becomes the only source of conflict, that’s false conflict.
I tried to set up something like this in my book A Theft of Magic, where it would look (on the surface) like that cliche form of false conflict, but would actually be motivated by deeper issues with both characters. Those deeper problems would then come out when they talked about the misconception. Heroine Sorcha sees hero Ronan interacting with another woman named Evie, and Sorcha recognizes that there is deep feeling and caring between them. She isn’t sure if they’re old lovers or best friends, but she is certain that they love each other. Up until that point, Sorcha had believed Ronan to be a total loner, with no close relationships. She’d justified his lack of emotional involvement with her (Sorcha) by telling herself he just didn’t understand how to express those emotions. But then she sees him with Evie and knows that’s a lie. He is capable of loving. He just might not love Sorcha.
A few scenes later, they talk about his relationship with Evie, and he explains that they’re as close as brother and sister. Sorcha tells him what she’s feeling and what she wants, and he can’t give her what she wants. In a false conflict situation, the revelation that Evie and Ronan weren’t lovers would have resolved the conflict. In this situation, it just makes things worse.
I don’t know how well I succeeded–I’ve had readers respond by saying they didn’t like it–but that was my intention, anyway.
Contrast that with a book I recently DNF (Did Not Finish). The hero and heroine slept together as teenagers and their fathers found out and had the boy sent away. Girl believes she’s been abandoned, boy believes girl sent him away. Girl, at least, has no idea where boy is and no way of contacting him. Boy could have contacted her at any time to resolve the problem. When boy comes back, they both refuse to talk about what happened for almost half of the book, and of course as soon as they talk about it, they immediately fall back into bed/love/etc.
But wait–there’s more!
Girl is betrothed to someone else. Rather than tell the other person immediately that she’s getting back together with her previous lover, she puts it off, despite having many, many opportunities. The author realized what she was doing, because within the text she keeps making up excuses for why the girl doesn’t say anything. But they are so obviously just excuses that it was at that point that I put the book down and stopped reading. I could see what was going to happen–lots of misunderstandings, anger, etc., based on the girl not breaking off the engagement, and I just didn’t care that much. The conflict wasn’t real.
If you’re a writer, make sure your conflict is properly motivated. If you’re a reader, you may now understand why you just couldn’t get into a particular story. False conflict is never fun, but especially not when a story would have lasted about five pages without it.
Do you have a favorite (or least favorite!) example of a failure to communicate creating false conflict in a story? Let me know in the comments. (And no, I won’t tell you which one I’m talking about in my example. It’s a very common trope).
I couldn’t be more pleased to reveal this new cover.
You’ll notice that it is different from the previous three covers in style and design. That’s a conscious choice. With this book, the series is moving in a new direction, both geographically and historically.
(Some spoilers for the first three books will follow)
After the events of Memories of Magic, Percy Seward, youngest son of the Marquess of Hazelby, and Evie Finn, adopted sister of Ronan McCarrick, head to the Continent in search of proof of who currently holds the Aegis Spell–and who is receiving the power the spell is draining from England.
Their search will lead them from the mountains of Austria to the glittering world of turn-of-the-century Berlin–and then into unexpected territory: the Realm of Faerie, where Evie’s past–and her future–will be fully revealed.
Secret Magic will be available in time for the holidays, on December 12, 2017. Pre-order is coming soon!
Most of the time, I make my recommendations with few, if any, reservations. This one comes with a few caveats.
Outlander (book series and television show) has its faults. The series as a whole relies heavily on rape as a source of conflict and character motivation, and I don’t blame anyone for wanting to take a pass on the series for that reason alone. There are also some problematic stereotypes, abuse that is treated as normal and justified, and the later books in the series have started to ramble about a bit and become more episodic than exhibiting a strong plot-thrust and arc. So it’s not a perfect series by any means.
But with that said, Diana Gabaldon’s writing is engrossing and the characters are fantastic. I’m a particular fan of the audiobooks narrated by Davina Porter. She brings what could be meandering and dry prose to full, rich life. She handles the accents with aplomb, only really “whiffing” on the American accents (particularly Brianna/Boston). Her interpretation of Jamie and Claire’s voices is still what I think of first, even though Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe are fantastic. The Starz adaptation is good in general, although they’ve made some adaptive choices that I find questionable. If you really want to read what I think about that, I’ve written quite a bit on the subject over at outlanderspoilers.com.
In general, what I love about the Outlander series is the characters. Gabaldon does an excellent job of getting us deeply into a character’s point of view, and making them achingly vulnerable. Although I fell in love with Jamie and Claire just like everyone else in the first book, my favorite characters now are Roger MacKenzie and Lord John Grey. I highly recommend reading the “side” stories involving Grey’s adventures in the 1750s and 1760s as well as the main series books.
If you aren’t sure, start by watching the first three or four episodes of the Outlander television show (or the whole first season). If you love it, go read the whole book series before you come back to finish watching the show. I recommend the show first in this case because the first book has a very slow start, but the show moves a little faster, so you’ll know when you get to the book that it does get better. I find that both are better enjoyed together–there are aspects of the show that “fix” some of the problems of the book (although not as many as I would like!), and the books allow time for more character development, quiet moments, and details.
Are you already a fan of Outlander? What do you think about it? Let me know in the comments or come visit my blog and strike up a conversation!
My kids are finally back in school, huzzah!
That means it’s time to start the serious business of writing the fourth book in the Fay of Skye series, Secret Magic.
I hope to finish the bulk of the book this month, with mid-October as my deadline to have it to my editor. Since I also have an anthology coming out in November to write a short story for, that’s on my plate as well.
If you’re subscribed to my newsletter, you know that I’m asking for help to pick a title for that story. Subscribe here and I’ll send you the choices so you can help me decide!
I will also be revealing the cover to Secret Magic later this month, so keep an eye out for that. But I will otherwise be going “dark” on social media while I write, so other than my scheduled blog posts here (which are already written) and live-tweeting episodes of Outlander season three, I’ll see you all sometime in October!
Tessa Dare has a new book and it is AMAZING.
Her last book, Do You Want to Start a Scandal, blew my mind, and I honestly didn’t think she could top it. I’ve read it four times since it came out and each time I find something new to love and adore. But this one is really something.
One of the things that Dare does very well is combine sometimes gut-wrenching vulnerabilities in her characters with humor and slapstick. She’s brilliant at manipulating reader emotions, taking you from laughter to arousal to tears–sometimes in the same scene! If you love having your heartstrings plucked by a master, you’ll get your money’s worth.
In The Duchess Deal, Dare tackles two scarred protagonists. The hero has external scars (caused by a misfiring cannon at Waterloo) that have caused him to internalize his pain. The heroine has internal scars that sometimes dictate her actions, even when she doesn’t want them to. But in each other, they just might find someone who loves them, scars and all.
So where to start with Tessa Dare?
You could just jump in with Duchess Deal. It’s the first book in a new series, and I highly recommend it. But if you’re like me, you like to binge-read book series. And she has several already finished and waiting for you!
My favorites of her series are the two that she combines in Scandal–the Spindle Cove series and the Castles Ever After series. Both are fantastic in general, but my favorites (other than Scandal) are: A Week to Be Wicked (Spindle Cove) and When a Scot Ties the Knot (Castles).
Those are later entries in each series, however, so if you’re like me and have to start at the beginning, start with A Night to Surrender (Spindle Cove) and Romancing the Duke (Castles). All of the books in both series are funny, sexy, and heart-wrenching.
Her earlier series, the Stud Club and Wanton Dairymaid trilogies, are also fun reads. You really can’t go wrong with Tessa Dare!
(all covers sourced from tessadare.com)
I am on vacation! I’ll be back next week with a Cara Recommends and a new podcast on the Feminist Romantic. Have a great week!
Before I begin this blog, let me direct you to a few pieces of information:
- Sarah MacLean’s article about how she re-wrote Day of the Duchess after the 2016 election. She discusses the alpha male trope in romance, from a mostly positive perspective, and then how she had to do something different in light of the very toxic “alpha” male culture that is very real, and present, and damaging in our world right now.
- Adam Ruins Everything: Alpha Males
I’ve said this here and elsewhere on the internet–one of my “to be written” story ideas is about a wolf shifter pack that is based on actual science and studies of wolves. Pack structure would be familial, and the “alpha” (aka Dad) would be the one who plays with the young, makes sure the smallest members of the pack are fed, models good wolfly behaviors, accepts his mate and older children’s input on pack decisions, and exerts order through respect and assertion of boundaries, not threats of violence and subjugation of anyone not as strong as him. In situations where packs would need to combine for some purpose, duties would be shared according to ability and proximity, and while decisions are ultimately up to the alphas, they do what is best for the pack, and the alpha in larger packs isn’t always the biggest and strongest. Mating is generally monogamous (although situations can lead to changes in pairings, so they don’t always mate for life), but there are also polygamous groups.
Also they would be aligned with raven shifters who are their allies.
But I digress.
The point of this blog is to talk about the alpha male in romance.
In Sarah MacLean’s article for the Washington Post linked above, she writes about the kind of alpha I actually like–the one who was always good, caring, and compassionate, but was socialized not to show it. The one who was taught incorrectly and needs to find his mate to learn that he is wrong.
The pitfall there is that some authors treat his love interest as some sort of singular oddity among women, and so when he comes to respect her and treat her as an equal, he doesn’t have to extend that respect to other “less worthy” women. Not everyone falls into the trap, but I’ve seen it happen, and if you’re writing a story like this, make sure it doesn’t happen to you.
In general, though, I can live with that sort of alpha. I wouldn’t want to be in a relationship with him (MacLean’s assertion that he contributes to the culture of toxic masculinity is spot-on), and I don’t think he exists (or if he does, he’s very rare), but I can stand to read about him without throwing my tablet at the wall or wondering what in the hell his love interest sees in him.
Instead of an alpha male, however, some authors write an alphahole.
Alphahole is a mash-up of “alpha male” and “asshole” and it’s exactly what you’re thinking. Characters like Christian Grey live solidly in this category. Manipulative, gaslighting, controlling, abusive (physically, emotionally, etc.), jealous, obsessive…I could go on.
These are the characters who are supposed to make us swoon and want to be taken care of, but who are, in truth, terrible caretakers. They see their women as possessions, not people, and you can’t truly care for a person you consider an object to own.
I want to look at that last sentence a little more closely. I will admit that one thing that I like about romance is when characters claim a little bit of ownership over each other. I always want that to be equal–they belong to each other, not one owned by the other–but I do like it. And I recognize that as potentially problematic. But I think it’s a matter of degree. When people agree to be in a closed relationship, they are essentially giving ownership of some things over to the other person–usually including sexual activity (masturbation not included). But agreeing to only have sex with one person and allowing them to “own” that aspect of us, for whatever length of time, isn’t the same thing as being owned by that person. Sex isn’t the entirety of our lives, and in other areas, our mates shouldn’t rule us.
But that’s exactly what the alphahole wants. He wants to rule his lover and decide everything they do. Ostensibly, this is to keep them “safe,” but really it’s about control. Their lovers aren’t free, and if they aren’t free, that isn’t love.
Don’t blame the wolves for your alphahole. Wolves aren’t like that. They may (usually) mate for life, but they don’t control each other. Mated pairs work together for their packs. They survive because they are stronger as a team.
If you want to take something from the wolves and apply it to romance narratives, that’s what I would recommend: love is stronger when everyone is equal, contributing toward a mutual goal.
Please, no more alphaholes!