What Women Like (To Read)

Over Sunday lunch with my parents, as we somehow ended up talking about the often vulgar way sex is portrayed on House of Cards (yes, really; and I have no idea how we got on that topic either), my mother declared nonchalantly:

Your father and I aren’t embarrassed to see sex on TV. We’ve had sex.

After we all stopped laughing at that inadvertent motherly masterpiece (my wife was reduced almost to tears), I found myself thinking again on the issue of sex and romance in novels. Which is no shock really. I think about aspects of my writing seemingly most of my waking hours.

Over the next couple of days, I considered the bigger picture. I also remembered a bit I’d written in Passports. I feel this is accidentally useful to illustrate this post:

Joanne realized someone was missing and asked Isabelle, “Where is my Foreign Service dreaming son anyway?”

“I think he is upstairs,” Isabelle replied.

“Oh, find something,” Joanne urged her husband as she walked around to the sofa to sit down next to him.

“I’m looking,” Jim replied. “Hey, what’s this?” He had stopped on a film channel.

“No idea,” Joanne answered. “What’s it called?”

The film was fading in.

“It’s French,” he observed. “Isabelle’s here tonight.”

Isabelle watched the screen with them, and what James’s father had chosen hit her as he began to read out the title. “Change it! Turn over the channel! Now!” she laughed.

Jim sat frozen momentarily. “What?”

James’s mother grasped quicker why Isabelle was demanding that. Joanne derided him. “You blind?”

At the sight of the increasingly explicit sex, [James's grandmother] Lucy roared, “Mamma mia! That’s French alright!”

Jim jumped stations and ended up landing on a home shopping channel for a safe haven.

“I did not mean to sound rude, Joanne,” Isabelle giggled as she explained her adamancy. “That is a film that is, uh, it is a very French film. I don’t know if that is for us tonight.”

“I swear Pilgrim State’s next,” Joanne assailed her husband. “What would her mother think? I’m going to have you committed!”

I had recently also posted on my struggling to not write “cringeworthy” sex scenes. That brought forth this comment from Sandra Wheeler, who’s authoring the online, erotic novel Falling In Cascades:

I love this post, and I feel your pain. I cringe at myself all the time, but one needs to make start. I also tend to overtweak, and that usually makes it worse ;)

A few weeks ago, I also discussed with a (male) friend, who is writing what I would rate as a seriousguy book,” that I have by now become comfortable with writing novels which may by default, yes, appeal more to women than to men. Yet I’ve not given up on constructing them to appeal to men too. It is just extremely difficult to hit both audiences.

Free Stock Photo: A long stem red rose on a white background.

Free Stock Photo: A long stem red rose on a white background.

I admit as man that writing for women characters is a challenge. But we men are not without romance in our souls too. That latter contention is, of course, an assertion my wife never fails to (smilingly) remind me of every chance she gets:

You seem to know quite a bit about what certain French girls think…. and I know why.

Uh, and moving swiftly along, I don’t consider my tale “romance.” It is as much about culture, travel, life abroad, diverse relationships and companionship. But it naturally does have substantial romance woven into that, so “what women like” in that regard is absolutely vital to me.

I get a mishmash of answers to this query from every woman I ask, so I figured I would toss this out there into the WordPress world and see if any of you care to share your literary opinion too? 1) Do women steer away from “romance” when they know it’s written by a man? 2) And if they don’t, would they nevertheless still see “romance” composed by a man differently than that authored by a woman? :-)

“Natalie” Meet “Stéphane”

English Natalie and French Stéphane have been mentioned here just once before, and then only while discussing someone else. I’d not included them in my characters’ summaries. They deserve further explanation.

“Stéphane” is a cobbling together of views I’ve heard out of a variety of Frenchmen over the years. One example:

As Natalie focused on Isabelle briefly, Stéphane observed, smiling, “You know, James, a friend of mine works in a big medical research place. You know the language the Germans and Japanese and French and Americans and others speak at work? English! In Paris!” He laughed.

He owes his looks mostly to a one man I’d met a couple of times in Paris. His confident, friendly, outgoing demeanor, and excellent English, come largely from that real man as well. Here’s another bit from an exchange with James:

“My parents used to bring us on holidays to France,” Natalie explained. “Isabelle probably told you I met Stéphane in London. I thought, ‘Oh, not bad for a Frenchman!’”

Stéphane kidded Natalie in turn. “And I thought you were attractive for an English girl!”

“Natalie” comes to us primarily owing to inspiration provided by an English undergrad I knew while working in a Long Island college in the 1990s. Stick thin, thin blonde hair, huge blue eyes, and seemingly always smiling, she greatly enjoyed studying in the U.S. She knew she was exaggerating about England, yet joked to me once in her rather Sloaney accent, “Oh, it’s always raining, and everyone always has a cold.”

She was also a Francophile. And she spoke French well; but she voiced frustration French people she knew were always on at her to speak with them in English because they wanted to work on their own English with a native English speaker. I get that point in too, when Natalie greets Isabelle and Virginie at Isabelle’s fourth floor apartment door:

“That’s some walk up,” Natalie replied, breathing heavily. “May we speak French? I always need the practice.”

“I was hoping we could speak English,” Virginie answered in English. “I need the practice. Isa does too!”

I once asked her, “Why are you here in New York and not Paris?”

She replied, “My father’s company sent him here. Ah, but if they’d sent him to Paris?” [A broad grin and mischievous wink followed.]

A certain “class” of the English tend not raise their voice during an argument, or when angered; instead they become cooler and cooler. She fit that stereotype. Here’s one sample of how I portrayed and fictionalized that aspect of the character: Natalie quietly complains to Isabelle about her cousin Maddie’s American roommate’s appalling behavior during summer school in Italy:

“She managed to get a part-time job in a club,” Natalie continued. “Maddie says she’s sure the girl’s got no work visa, so it must be an illegal cash job. She comes home with losers and smokes cannabis with them too. Bible-waving Americans think Europeans have no morals? A load of old tosh.”

Fictionalizing an Anglo-French couple having met in London and now living in Paris was aided by my encounters with several French in Britain. One person in particular unwittingly helped: a Frenchwoman in an Anglo-French marriage. “Simone” and I worked together in London for over five years.

Flags of France (l) and England.

Flags of France (l) and England.

We had lunch a few times only the two of us. (It was normally a small mob.) I always hate talking shop over lunches. So when provided with any one-on-one opportunity, I usually sought to get her to share a bit about her life in France.

In turn, she’d sit in the pub with her glass of red wine (seriously; but never mind about that), and angle instead to talk with me mostly about England and us foreigners living in the country. She once observed wryly, “I came to London to get a Ph.D. I ended up with an English husband, and no Ph.D.”

Unsurprisingly the U.S. normally also came up. She had visited America – Florida – only once, and had never been to New York. Nevertheless, she knew a great deal about the country, and was intensely interested in it. Maybe that was why hearing details about my life back in New York was also of interest to her?

Take a wild guess. Which of us regularly prevailed when it came to the choice of pub lunch conversational topics? Hint: it sure as heck wasn’t me.

In writing these novels, I’ve come to feel the entire concept of “fiction” could itself be termed “fictional.” F. Scott FitzgeraldErnest HemingwayHow many others? Locales may be altered, names are changed, individuals blended together, facts rearranged and repositioned so they best suit a narrative, but novelists certainly derive characters and plots from their own real life experiences.

I readily admit, I have. ;-)

__________
See related:
Quick Take 8: (Our Leading Lady) “Isabelle”
Quick Take 7: “Maki”
Quick Take 6: “Mark”
Quick Take 5: “James” (Where It All Starts)
Russians
Quick Take 4: “Béatrice”
Quick Take 3: “Uncle Bill”
Quick Take 2: “Valérie”
Quick Take: “Virginie”

Why I’d Never Be President

My wife once asked me, “Why don’t you stand (meaning run) for office sometime?” No way. Not when stuff like this is floating around out there:

University of Alaska, late 1980s. Dorm photo. [Copyright, Me.]

University of Alaska, late 1980s. Dorm photo. [Copyright, Me.]

I’ll stick to writing books. I’d (mercifully) forgotten about that picture. Yep, that is me, on the right side of the photo, wearing the white cap.

It’s an informal floor photo we’d taken at our dorm at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks in the late 1980s. An old floor-mate (now a very responsible, mature resident of that august and beautiful state) emailed me a copy the other day.

Seeing it on Facebook, my uncle wrote that I was so “cute.” Apparently struck by the long hair, beards, and what she considered a generally “hippie” appearance, a friend in England kidded that she thought it looked like we were doing a production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

Everyone’s a flippin’ comedian nowadays.

I hope you’re having a good weekend. That post is perfect for a Sunday morning. I know so few of you will probably see it. ;-)

“How was your day, dear?” (I Wish I Could Tell You)

In an early post – when I had so few popping by, I suppose I was posting then mostly to myself ;-) – I had written that I did not really feel lonely or isolated while writing. In other jobs, I had long been used to working without close supervision. I had also often worked from home too, so the lack of an outside office and colleagues was not unusual for me.

What has become an issue in the last year is I’m realizing I spend a great deal of time alone in my head with my story in a way that no one – not even my wife – fully understands. I find that at the end of a day I can’t really offload about what I’ve done, or what’s proving a challenge. Others aren’t really all that interested (and that’s not unreasonable of them) in listening to me recount it.

Free Stock Photo: Red F1 help key on a keyboard.

Free Stock Photo: Red F1 help key on a keyboard.

Example: I spent much of yesterday working quietly at my desk. I was satisfied with what I had achieved by the time I’d called it quits. Yet sharing that in any depth was simply not possible.

“How was your day, dear?”

“Fine. I got lots done. I think I’ll pour myself a Vodka and Coke.”

[What I'd give to sit down with that drink for a while and really tell you. I'd explain I wrote more of that strange love scene that's been driving me bonkers. I also came up with what I believe is a telling (and in its way amusing) exchange at U.S. immigration, and then at baggage reclaim, at JFK. I'm thinking a Gulf princess could be involved too. Much tougher was I also got more written on characters' reactions to an illness, which I'd drawn from the true death of a relative, and which is also why I found myself fighting back real tears as I wrote.... and which is also why I seemed a bit grouchy when you'd asked me something totally unrelated to that which I was immersed in at that very instant. I'm sorry. And, God, there's always Kam. Straining to produce something worth unexpectedly dedicating to her memory is wearing me down emotionally. I get one shot at this. If I screw it up, I don't get another chance.]

If you write, you have your own personal burdens and perhaps similar feelings. So I’m finding this blog useful. After all, I just told you that…. which I’d told to no one I see in person.

A finished product may eventually impress readers, but it can be difficult to share the in-progress ups and downs that are inevitable in actually getting there. I believe I would’ve benefited from having a site like this during the writing of the first book in 2013. For this year, for its sequel, I know it’s an invaluable outlet on which I can blow off some “How was your day, dear?” steam: no matter what, I can at least tell you.

Thanks for following and reading. :-)

The “Fifty Shades” Universal Trailer

Get ready. Uh, brace yourself. Variety:

On Thursday morning, Universal Studios debuted its first trailer for “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the highly anticipated film based on the erotic novels by E.L. James.

The movie stars Jamie Dornan (who appears san [sic] shirt) as Christian Grey and Dakota Johnson as his inexperienced lover Anastasia Steele….

We don’t know yet if the film will be “decent.” (If that’s the right word?) But the quality of the book and its film adaptation are not really the concern here; those are for others to argue about. I’ve not read the book and have no plans to see the film.

I will say this, though. While you might dream a novel you write will one day find itself a film, if it were to do so that film’s actual quality is mostly out of your control. I suppose the bottom line is if you found yourself paid (especially if you were paid “big”) for film rights, I suspect as a writer you would be thrilled to take the money and run. ;-)

But, privately (between just us here…. and the internet), I’d hate to see my book(s) theatrically ruined.

Have a good day, wherever you are reading this….

Avoiding The Cringeworthy

Writing romance that fits properly into a tale? A relationship that comes across as genuine? One which doesn’t read as corny and silly, thus causing a reader to roll eyes? Especially where sex is involved?

Doing that is massively difficult.

Don’t believe me? Don’t you sit there guffawing. Try it. Go away and compose even a few paragraphs, come back to me and tell me you didn’t cringe in abject embarrassment at what you’d produced as a first sincere effort.

Given that reality, how in heaven’s name did someone else we’ve heard of ever seriously write, uh, uh…. Never mind. I digress. ;-)

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a red heart and I love you text.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a red heart and I love you text.

Yesterday I had one of those days. The literary agonizing (type, delete, think a bit, type feverishly again, alter, delete, type more, re-read, consider throwing the PC out the window, etc.) that stems from wanting to see two important characters have an intimate relationship? Yet in the gut also not really wanting to see that happen?

Okay, friends, what are we going to do today?” Yes, and what a headache I had by mid-afternoon from staring too long at the PC screen trying to figure that out. I needed Tylenol. I flicked through the pages and found myself thinking, “Not bad. It needs more tweaking. But, God, I just don’t know about this.”

Nothing like trying to seek to escape a novelistic corner into which you’ve willingly painted yourself. Welcome to the world of the writer. I must be nuts.

Then again, of course we all know romance is often a bit corny and silly in our real lives, isn’t it?

I’m back at it again. I posted this because I needed a break…. again. No sign of a headache again, though; but give it time. Today’s still young. :-)

The Independent Extols The Catskills, But….

….in its “quest” for “Catskills style,” the U.K. newspaper in my humble opinion omits some very “stylish” places:

Searching for style in the Catskills

I understand it seems to be a narrowly focused piece that showcases certain businesses. Still, it gives an unbalanced impression of the region. There is lots of “style” out there beyond hugging Route 28 towards Roxbury.

Places that Indy article plugs, such as Woodstock and Phoenicia, are definitely worth visiting. Head north as well. Windham and adjoining towns – Hunter, Jewett, Ashland and Prattsville* – should not be missed.

Windham has the prettiest Main Street in the Catskills. It also boasts a large ski resort. (There’s also another in Hunter.) It has the wonderful Bistro Brie & Bordeaux. (One wouldn’t have thought the Independent could’ve possibly overlooked something like, uh, that.) There’s also the well-regarded Windham Vineyards and Winery. And you haven’t eaten in a diner until you’ve tried (cash only) Michael’s. (My English brother-in-law – who visited last summer – still talks about how much he enjoyed it.) I could go on….

Next door Ashland – one of the smallest towns in New York state – even has a replica Partridge Family bus. (It’s on private property.) Does anything get more “stylish” than that?

The area has state forests and fantastic hiking trails. It’s also somewhere you can drive for tens of miles before bumping into a traffic light. (The hamlet of Tannersville – there’s “style” there too – in the town of Hunter, has the STOP light.) The vistas and serenity are second to none for the Catskills.

Rainbow over the Catskills. [Photo by me, 2012.]

Rainbow over the Catskills, looking toward Hunter Mountain. (Notice the deer accidentally in frame.) [Photo by me, 2012.]

Yes, I’m biased. Our house is outside of Windham. However, if you drive up from New York City and confine yourself only to what’s along Route 28 and don’t continue up from Phoenicia to Route 23, you haven’t really seen the Catskills.

Anyway, time to get back to work. Writing, writing, writing. Woodstock isn’t the only place in the Catskills with authors. ;-)

Have a good day, wherever you are reading this….
__________

NOTE: *For me, one of the few “lighthearted” moments of Tropical Storm Irene and the lousy late summer of 2011 was hearing CNN’s Anderson Cooper repeatedly say “Prattsville” to an audience of global viewers. The town and area have rebounded from the flooding. Prattsville still has a few ruined private dwellings marked for demolition, but most business locations have recovered, rebuilt, and, indeed, often been refurbished.

If Only Liz Hadn’t Forgotten An Umbrella

We all know The Great Gatsby. It is rooted in a variety of its author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s experiences. Fitzgerald’s writing in general revolves mostly around the rich, decadence, and insanity.

“He wrote what he knew,” my wife noted as we discussed him. He had also lived for years in France, and had naturally once been an aspiring author. In Babylon Revisited we encounter essentially still more Fitzgerald autobiography wrapped up as fiction.

After his death, “Babylon” was adapted into the 1954 film, The Last Time I Saw Paris. We happen to have bought “The Last Time” among others in a DVD old film series, but had never actually watched the movie. Last night, on impulse, my wife suggested with a grin, “We need to, in honour of my mum and aunt.” So, at long last, we did.

A personal observation on U.S. expat stories. I find solid non-American characters are vital when a tale is set outside of the U.S. Otherwise what is the point?

Again, though, we have to remember this is based on Fitzgerald’s life, and I am not an authority on that. What we do see on screen is that this film is almost all Americans – except for brief appearances by Eva Gabor and Roger Moore (yes, really). Although it’s Paris, the French seem mostly for background. They hardly register as actual people, doing little other than uttering a few French words and providing necessary “local color” to remind us it isn’t London, or…. Sacramento. Save for George Dolenz, who plays the thoughtful, French brother-in-law, and the bartender (it’s a Fitzgerald adaptation so there is drinking throughout) and some individuals doing their jobs (doctors, nurses), there don’t seem all that many French in Paris.

So this film didn’t have to be set in Paris really. It could’ve been most anywhere. That said, here’s the crux of the tale, including certain of my own, uh, personal “margin notes.” Who needs Wikipedia?

***** WARNING: SPOILERS *****

Continue reading

Soooouper Geeeeenius

We’ve had three mice infestations during the last year. They love the inside of our boiler, which is down in our crawl space. Typical Catskills. Typically rural.

They slip inside it through the outside fresh air intake, which is about 12 inches off the ground and only a few inches above a naked pipe, from which we suspect they can easily reach up to get to the intake. After the first time, I put a window screen mesh over the intake; but they nibbled through that. After the second, I jammed steel mesh into the intake opening; and they wiggled around that.

After the third, the other day, the propane company technician who cleared them out suggested dryly, “Ya need a cat.”

The in-laws' cat, caught making himself comfortable on the cooker top. London. [Photo by me, 2013.]

The in-laws’ cat, caught making himself comfortable on the cooker top. London. [Photo by me, 2013.]

Now there’s a high-tech solution for you. Except we can’t have a cat. We are in the U.K. a lot, and my mother detests cats and would never visit us.

“Maybe we should get a cat,” my wife joked.

The mice have done no major damage thus far, but we suspect it’s only a matter of time. So I’ve finally had enough. No mice are going outsmart Wile E. Nello.

I’ve constructed a multilayer defensive system. Please don’t call it my personal Maginot Line. Just don’t:

My anti-mice effort. [Photo by me, 2014.]

My anti-mice effort. [Photo by me, 2014.]

Its basis is two layers of 1/4 inch gap steel mesh tacked to the house around the entire intake/out vent. (The opening you see is the out vent; the fresh air intake opens on the reverse side.) I jammed layers of gorilla tape into all gaps (no matter how small) between the mesh and the house siding (which is not flat of course). A board below blocks a horizontal pipe that the critters may use as a “step up.” I even placed a blocking piece of metal next to another pipe, to the left, from which they might be able to jump across.

When my wife saw the finished product – which took me a couple of hours to construct – she declared, “You’re wasted writing books!”

“Oh, yeh,” I replied, “and at some point an anvil will probably come down on my head.” 😏