The Books That Taught Me How to Write Sex
One of the most fun compliments I get from readers is, “Your sex scenes are so hot!” Or “romantic,” or “steamy,” or whatever. I’m sure Shakespeare used to love hearing the same thing, and I understand Jonathan Franzen freakin’ LIVES for it.
Seriously, I love hearing that a love scene that I wrote worked for a reader. I know that’s one of the big reasons I love reading romance. Friends of ours dearly love teasing Max and me about the “research” I must be doing at home, and I happily admit that being in a happy, healthy relationship with the hub-unit helps a lot when getting inspired to write the big hoopty sex for my characters. But strangely enough, in the moment, I don’t really think that much about how to translate the experience into fictionalized text.
Thankfully, I’ve been training to write about sex a lot longer than I’ve been having it, by reading romance.
My first sneaky forays into steamy literature were stolen from my mom and my aunts – paperbacks left unattended at the beach house or next to the bathtub or on the bottom shelf of the coffee table in my grandmother’s living room. About the time I was entering puberty and wondering when my own bodice might invite a little ripping, all the women in the family, like most female readers in the world, went crazy for the hot romances of people like Rosemary Rogers and Kathleen Woodiwiss. My cousin and best friend and I managed to get our sweaty little hands on all of these sagas of boy meets girl, boy rapes girl but she likes it, boy loses girl to hideous villain, boy kills everybody in his way to rescue girl, boy and girl get married, and I devoured them with swoony delight. But I never really wanted to keep and reread one forever until I found Woodiwiss’ The Wolf and the Dove.
Notice, please, the dark knight on the cover. My two favorite “real” books at that time were The Once and Future King by T.H. White and Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. So you can imagine my delight at finding a sex-soaked, no-holds-barred story about a spirited brat being tamed with orgasms by a conquering Norman with a big black horse and a bad attitude. The sexual politics are just appalling; I read it now and cringe. But I won’t even try to deny that the subject matter and the way it was written had a profound influence on my reading and my writing right up to today.
By my mid-teens, I knew that I wanted to be a writer and that I wanted to major in English literature in college. I had gone to the Governor’s School for the Arts; I had learned to pretend to like John Fowles. I still read romance, but I couldn’t throw myself into it as wholeheartedly as I had before. I was old enough to know a rape when I read one, no matter how prettily the victim swooned. And the books had started to repeat themselves, at least for me – it had started to feel like the same story over and over again with different costumes. The only romance writer I read consistently during that period was Bertrice Small, and quite frankly, I read her like porn. If you want a neat encapsulation of what the bodice ripper became near the end of its heydey, I direct you to The Kadin.
Like most of Small’s novels, The Kadin concerns a lovely young Englishwoman who at some point is kidnapped and sold into slavery in a foreign land where she becomes absolute ruler of all she surveys just by being so freakin’ awesome in the sack. It wasn’t a new book when I read it, and it hasn’t aged particularly well for me since – the sex scenes that seemed so detailed and shocking the first time I read them seem rushed and almost quaint to me now. Basically in a Small book, lovers do an awful lot of crazy stuff, but they don’t do any of it for very long. But I have to admit, there’s an awful lot of purely mechanical stuff that I might never have picked up if I hadn’t picked up Bertrice Small. I think my husband at least owes her a nice note. And one great thing about her heroines – they weren’t prissy. They weren’t ashamed – in fact, the over-arching plotline of each book is a woman learning to own her sexuality. Granted, she does it while being kept a captive slave, but hey, the BDSM community would probably tell me “well, duh.”
Jong was already famous for her first blockbuster, Fear of Flying, a contemporary novel that defined the “zipless fuck” and a woman’s right to have one. (Yes, kittens, it’s true – feminism actually used to be considered sexy.) Fanny is actually an expansion of her MFA thesis, a historical novel written in the style of its period but from the point of view of a female protagonist – a girl’s own Tom Jones. I had never read Tom Jones (or Fear of Flying, for that matter), and I hadn’t much liked Moll Flanders or Fanny Hill. But I fell completely in love with this book, not as an exercise in literary style or a feminist tract but as a romance. The central love story between Fanny, the hot girl who longs more than anything to write, and Lancelot Jones, the bisexual highwayman who loves her, is insane, hilarious, completely over the top – and hit home with me in a way none of my mom’s romances ever had. A whole lot of people loathe this book, but I still absolutely love it and highly recommend it. The freedom of it, the confidence of the heroine, the way sex and sexual connection mean everything in the story without ever turning it sappy – all of these things influenced me hugely as a writer and hopefully come through in the romances I write.
In college, my pleasure reading habits wandered away from romance and more into gothic horror–I would blame my college boyfriend, but heaven knows, he’s suffered enough. Anne Rice became my new favorite contemporary author. But I found myself poring through all those sad, sad tales of fangy boys in love with one another wishing for a girl vamp who was even half as sexy – Claudia the perpetual five-year-old just didn’t do it for me as a relatable heroine. (My all-time favorite Rice novel so far is still The Witching Hour, which is quite sexy but hardly a romance.) In due course, I discovered the Sleeping Beauty Trilogy, and I did love it, and the style and bravery of it did inspire me a lot and make me braver when I started writing my own erotic scenes. But as with Bertrice Small’s books, the relationships felt like nothing more important than a framework to connect the sex scenes – nothing in the world wrong with that, but it’s not what I write.
By today’s standards, Belinda is a sicko book. The heroine is a sixteen-year-old girl; the hero is an admitted pedophile. If I found out any girl that age I knew was having this kind of relationship with a man in his thirties, I’d call the cops, I don’t care how much they said they loved one another or how beautiful his paintings of her were. But for all its queasy perversion, Belinda is a romance. It’s not Lolita, a character study of a broken psyche and the baby slut who exploits it. It’s not porn; the love relationship is everything, and the sex, hot and weird as it is, is fully an expression of that love. Rice applied all her considerable gifts as a stylist and storyteller to making the reader fall in love with these people, and for me at least, it totally worked. I got caught up in it against my better judgment the same way I had once lost myself in The Wolf and the Dove. It moved me; it turned me on; it made me feel better about my own instincts as a writer. I knew I wanted to write romance, in spite of everything my professors could do to shame me out of it. Books like Fanny and Belinda showed me that romance didn’t have to follow a set pattern, didn’t have to always be pretty, didn’t have to be sappy or sentimental. I could write my own special kind of romance, and I could make them as hot as I wanted.
Two unpublished novels, one collaboration, six full-length historical paranormals, and one collection of sexy vampire short stories later, I still believe it. Since I stopped fighting my instinct for romance, I’ve found so many other writers who have found their own ways to break the mold within the genre – I defy anybody to find a writer who understands the dynamics between real men and women in love better than Julie Garwood, whether she’s writing my beloved medievals or her newer contemporary books, and her sex scenes have always been hotter than hell. Indie publishing is overflowing these days with swoon-worthy romances for every taste and proclivity–even now, you don’t have to love regencies to read romance. If you want to make a living, it helps if you write them, but that’s a whole other blog post . . . .
The point is, if you want to write good sex, having it is great, but reading it is better. I’m still constantly on the lookout for a good romantic smut book (paging Alexandra Christian), but these are where I started.