Hearts and Crafts

Hearts and Crafts: Writing Tension

Tension.

I’m going to go ahead and say that this is my absolute favorite thing to discuss about good writing. In fact, I’m going to assert that 76% of the time a book is described as “bad”, it’s because of tension issues.1

The actual word “tension” comes from the Latin word tensio(n- ), and from the French word tendere, meaning “stretch.” I normally shudder when I see someone starting a paper with a definition, but here is my exception, because it’s just so COOL. When we experience good tension, we feel it physically—our throats tighten, our stomachs clench, we feel the muscles and ligaments in our joints stiffen and “stretch” taut—all from words on a page. It’s a visceral response,  and here’s the best part—when we experience tension, we’re not responding to what an author is saying. We’re responding to what isn’t being said.

That’s right—tension comes from deliberate space. It’s the shadows, the negative space, the darkness. We’re scared of the night when we’re little because of what we can’t see. And tension in writing is the same. When we read, we physically tense up because we can sense that there is something being left unsaid.

Now, we’re talking about romance here, right? Not murder mysteries. But guess what, same principal applies to sexual tension. We physically respond to what COULD happen between the characters we’ve become emotionally invested in, and the author executes that the exact same way—by creating tension through what isn’t said. 

Here’s why I think analyzing tension is so cool: good writing adds tension in a lot of sneaky ways. 

First off, let’s discuss the obvious. Crafty information gaps in the plot. This one will smack you right in the face if it’s done poorly. The reader doesn’t want to be told exactly what’s going to happen and why in a straightforward and no nonsense way. We love nonsense. We LIVE for nonsense. The hero has a dark and sordid past? Leave me little clues and make me guess. The heroine is secretly in love with her brother’s best friend and it can never ever happen? You better let me see some serious pining, but don’t you dare just spill those beans. 

But here’s the thing–it’s harder than it looks. An author can’t withhold too much of the plot and just dump it all at once, or the reader will feel duped. It’s a mutual relationship the author and the reader have, and the reader wants to be involved in the unfolding. An author also can’t drop too many hints, or the reader will feel bored and unsatisfied. They can’t just throw in some sneaky plot twists and call it good. Essentially–tension is a lot harder to execute than it might look.

Continue reading “Hearts and Crafts: Writing Tension”
Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Settings: Between the Wars

Normally we do a buddy read focusing on a trope or archetype, but when we were talking about our goals for the year, Erin wanted to explore the setting of the 1920s. This (mostly) aligned with the TBR Challenge prompt for June: After the War, so we decided to do a “Between the Wars” week for our buddy read and discussion this month. 

(We note that Holly and Ingrid may not, in fact, choose to read a book set between WWI and WWII for the TBR Challenge, to which notice Erin offered a disappointed pouty face.)

This is a historical romance setting where we haven’t read a lot, so if you have some that we shouldn’t miss, drop the titles below!


Bottom line: Do you like the 1920s-1930s setting?

Holly: With the caveat that I’ve only read, like, three romance novels set in the Interwar Period, I’m going to say yes. 

Erin: You know, I do. I don’t know why I find this somewhat surprising considering this time period formed the basis for my college thesis.

Ingrid: I have read very few of these books, but the ones I read were very good. 


Beyond the datestamp, what would you expect to see in a book set in this period?

Holly: I expect that the characters are probably processing some trauma, either from World War I (see, for example, The Quid Pro Quo by A.L. Lester) or the financial insecurity of the Great Depression. 

I also expect there to be some social upheaval going on in the background. This period was incredibly politically turbulent in both the US and Europe. 

Erin: What I would first expect is Prohibition with some Jazz Age Gatsby-type imagery (art deco covers, amiright?), and then the Depression with its job shortages and increases in legitimized radical movements (I’m talking about Communism, but also this is the period of the Catholic Worker Movement, so socialist ideas are everywhere), plus Jim Crow…but actually this is an extremely rich period in terms of post-war recovery (that doesn’t go very well), shifting wealth (wealth disparities), and the resultant social movements. Also, Prohibition is only in the U.S. so that’s very limited. Also, also, WWI marked a significant shift in how warfare was conducted between nation-states, including who was involved, so I do expect to see repercussions of that as society shifts back into a non-wartime lifestyle but with the mental specters of the war still present.

Ingrid: I think I’d say an undercurrent of upheaval simply from the time…plus, the presence of some opulence v poverty. Maybe a few references to “progress” and “change”. 


What do you think is fun about the setting?

Holly: This setting is incredibly rich, creating tons of opportunity for authors to tap into historical events. In the US, we’ve got Prohibition and the rise of organized crime; we’ve got the Harlem Renaissance; we’ve got the Great Migration. 

Erin: Politically and socially it’s an interesting period, with more modern elements than Gilded Age or Victorian settings, but also it predates most of our modern social and political markers that occurred after WWII. There are cars and airplanes, but no computers. Social movements that we might have studied in 20th C. history are present but not in the context of today. There are still class divides, but the Industrial Revolution and the rise of New Money industrialists presents a different cast than does a landowning aristocracy and a sociopolitical landscape centered in monarchy or landed gentry. 

But mostly the radical movements of the early 20th century are the most fun. I mean, we all like our weekends, right?! 

Ingrid: I agree with Holly—there are a lot of perspectives that could come from this time period with wildly different feelings and outcomes. There’s just so much going on!


What do you find problematic about the setting?

Holly: This is the flip side of the fun part of the setting—we also see the rise of the Nazi party in Germany and the whole Communism thing in Russia. Let’s not fall into the trap of romanticizing mass murderers, mkay?

Erin: In and of itself, nothing. Depending on the author’s background and understanding of the historical landscape, however, it would be really easy to neglect to acknowledge what’s going on in the landscape. A story about a Dupont-type character could very easily overlook everything that’s going on with race and class and money in this period. A story with an exclusively white cast would probably overlook a lot of the legalized racism occurring. Etc. So basically it’s the same as other historical romance? 

Ingrid: That’s all very, very true. And in today’s climate, that could hit a bit differently than it might have years ago.


What’s one book you loved that features this setting? What’s so great about this book and the way it handles the setting?

Holly: “Let Us Dream” by Alyssa Cole is a novella set in 1917 New York (so I guess it’s technically not the Interwar Period, but it’s close) and it’s fabulous. The problems and triumphs of the characters are really specific to their time and place. (I talk about it in more detail in my review of the anthology Daughters of the Nation.) 

I also enjoyed Trouble and Strife by Laura Kinsey. Unlike basically everything I’ve talked about in my discussion of the time period, this book is very quiet and domestic. There’s not a lot of political or social upheaval going on, but there’s still a very strong sense of place (Birmingham, 1931).

Erin: In my attempt to prep for the TBR Challenge this month, I found that I actually have several on my TBR list that I’ll just have to bump forward, because I haven’t actually read that many, and I really like what authors are doing with the setting. So I might have more to say later.

To answer the question, it wasn’t the first I read, but Spellbound by Allie Therin (and the whole Magic in Manhattan trilogy) managed to ensorcel me (see what I did there?) not only with the magical intrigue but also because Therin really did consider so many different identities—class, race, sexuality, and their intersectionality—in such a wonderful way as she also unpacked other trauma, including Arthur’s post-war recovery and Rory’s childhood of abuse and abandonment. I really appreciate that many of the authors I’ve been reading who have published in the past couple years have been conscious of the great scope of what was happening during this period (which I will also discuss in my K.J. Charles and Jordan L. Hawk reviews this week).

Ingrid: Forever Eve and After Eve by JB Lexington was pretty trippy feeling and interesting! 


Books we mentioned in our discussion:

Between the Sheets

Erectile Dysfunction

Okay, so, I have been listening to Esther Perel’s podcast Where Should We Begin because after we posted my Musings on Monogamy piece, Laura Gonzalez recommended it. (Thank you!) It is such an interesting, informative, and engaging podcast, I would absolutely recommend it to podcast listeners (or anyone, but podcasts aren’t for everyone, fine fine).

I could probably talk about each of these podcasts with another human for hours, but I bring it up today because I was reading Aftermath by L.A. Witt (part of the Vino & Veritas series), which features a hero who discovers that, in addition to other trauma he experienced from a near-fatal car crash, he has erectile dysfunction, and that brought to mind an episode of the podcast from season 1: “Impotent Is No Way To Define A Man,” in which the couple in the session has been struggling because erectile dysfunction is impacting their sex life. What struck me as I listened, and what struck me again as I read yet another book featuring a protagonist with ED, was how romance allows for protagonists to find the matches that really see them. Patient, kind, and affirming partners who don’t see the protagonist’s struggles as a problem, even as the protagonist struggles emotionally and/or physically with their abilities.

In the podcast, the M/F couple has been unsuccessfully coping with the man’s ED for a really long time. Like more than a decade. And I can understand that sometimes people want what they want and even if everything else is great, bedroom mismatches can be a dealbreaker…

…but I was completely floored when the woman said that they would play, and he would give her an orgasm, but the fact that he couldn’t do penetrative sex (or if he could, not long enough for them to orgasm) made the whole experience a failure. And I think my shock was in part because I personally wouldn’t define a successful sexual encounter by P-in-V sex, but also…romance novels. 

I think I’ve read three? romance novels that feature a protagonist with some variation of ED (I’ve also read a few others that involve bedroom challenges that are similar but aren’t specifically ED-related), and they’re all M/M. (I would really like to see some other couplings that allow for men not to have a giant boner that’s constantly hard enough to cut glass, but that’s a tangent I won’t go down today.) (Feel free to read Holly’s Hot Take about penis size.) In each of these books, part of the draw is the gentleness and sense of safety we get as the protagonist who is living with this condition shares their vulnerability with a partner who says, “That matters only insofar as it hurts you. We can find ways to be together that satisfy us both, and I don’t need anything but that.”

This type of gentle romance dynamic is not specific to these four books. In fact, I think that dynamic is exactly what led me to binge most of Annabeth Albert’s backlist last year. Earlier this year, for example, I noted that one of my favorite aspects of Sink or Swim was that Calder struggles to orgasm, and the stress over being the “problematic” sexual partner made that even worse; but Felix’s calm, consistent reassurance and lack of pressure allowed them to come together in a really lovely way. Albert also wrote one of the books I’ve read featuring a protagonist with ED (plus others involving those non-ED bedroom concerns I mentioned earlier). 


The first book I read featuring a protagonist who struggled to have or maintain an erection was Strong Enough by Cardeno C., and my first thought was “YES! I’m so glad that here’s a man who seems normal and, more than that, that he’s found a partner who is 100% supporting him!” Since then, I’ve read even more widely, so I’ve seen more variety, but the norm is still huge penises that never flag once during marathon sexytimes. (Again, see Holly’s post.) 

I think the reason that reading Aftermath was finally the impetus for me sitting down and punching this out is that 1) I’ve read, like, 700 books since reading Strong Enough and I’ve only read three featuring a character with ED, but it’s widely agreed that approximately 10% of men are affected by it, with some studies indicating at least ¼ to ⅓ of the population, and a 1994 aging study indicating a whopping 52% (the variability is in part because there’s not a consensus on how much difficulty having/maintaining an erection actually constitutes ED, plus age is a factor). In case math is not your strength, 3/700 is nowhere close to 10%. Also 2) part of the protagonists’ struggles in Aftermath are that the man who discovers he has ED, Brent, isn’t even 30, and he’s convinced that his silver fox partner who’s 40 doesn’t want to sign up for the medical mess that is the rest of Brent’s life, especially when they’ll never be able to have a “normal” sex life. 

Brent was really struggling with the ways his life had changed, and then when he finally decided to put himself out there again, he discovered that he couldn’t even have the sex he used to have. He felt terrible about it, and the only reason he opened up to Jon about it was because he also felt terrible about leaving Jon high and dry after realizing how his night was turning out (or not) and running away in a panic. And what is the likelihood that Jon wouldn’t react like something was wrong with Brent, like the wife in the Esther Perel podcast did? But of all the people in all the world, Brent found Jon, and he found support and love and someone he felt safe experimenting with and who didn’t ask for anything that he was unwilling or unable to give. Now, in all fairness, these two didn’t really discuss self-pleasure, but because of Jon’s custody schedule and also because of some of Brent’s medical recommendations, they do engage in self-pleasure. Being on the same page here is important and can prevent miscommunication or bad feelings about what’s happening in the bedroom, but in the context of the novel it wasn’t an issue. (And if you’re wondering about whether I’m thinking of that Reddit relationship advice wife whose husband with low sex drive kept interrupting her, er, “me” time, I am.) (Thanks, Ingrid.)

The notion that one can be not only accepted but loved exactly as one is, that one can find a partner who’ll protect all those vulnerable spots, that the pleasure of finding pleasure together is the sweet spot, that mutual simultaneous orgasms isn’t the ideal (or the lack thereof isn’t a threat), it’s heady stuff. Everybody (who wants one) deserves a partner who is this kind of romance novel loving and supportive. And I love that romance novels are out there that show such relationships, all the way down to the non-erect, dry orgasm.

Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Tropes: Accidental Pregnancy

When we were discussing our goals for this year, Holly said she wanted to talk about the accidental pregnancy trope even though she hates it. So here we are! 

As usual, we’re starting the month with a discussion of the trope, but we have to say in advance…none of us is super pumped about it. If you’re an accidental pregnancy trope lover, we’d love to hear from you about your faves and why you love them!

Accidental Pregnancy

Covers of romance novels:
Make Me Yours by Katee Robert
I Think I might Need You by Christina C. Jones
Scoring the Player's Baby by Naima Simone
Books we’ll be reviewing this week
Continue reading “Let’s Talk Tropes: Accidental Pregnancy”
The Great Smut Debate (with debate inked in cursive by a fountain pen)
The Great Smut Debate

The Great Smut Debate: HEA vs HFN

Note: Since we’re talking about endings, this post may contain spoilers.

There are so many feelings you have when you close a book for the last time. And a big part of that feeling for romance novels is about the ending. We in romance know that the end is going to be happy (or vengeance will be in our very angry reviews), so oftentimes the community expresses to outsiders or newbies who ask how we can read something so predictable: “It’s about the journey, not the destination.” That’s very true. BUT, dear readers, BUT it’s about the ending, too. It’s about the author’s choice to use a HEA (Happily Ever After) rather than a HFN (Happily For Now) resolution to the story. Or vice versa. Did it match the rest of the story? Is it a satisfying ending for the struggles our protagonists overcame? What about a realistic ending? Do we like certain endings because they’re OUR preference or because they match the narrative we’ve just concluded?

Well. We’re going to talk about all of that. 

Continue reading “The Great Smut Debate: HEA vs HFN”