Flash Fiction – Organized Crime

Public domain clipboard icon.

This story was written for a contest. I was given the genre, crime caper; the location, a comic book shop ; and an object that had to be mentioned, a clipboard. The story had to be 1000 words maximum, and submitted within 48 hours. Posted here as submitted. This submission placed first in the group of stories with these requirements.

Synopsis [part of the submission]: The mastermind of a perfect crime reflects on what went right, and struggles with why things went wrong.

The key to the perfect crime is organization, and I was organized. I’d had eight months to prepare. It started with the two weeks I invested in dating Julia, the building department clerk. We kept dating after that, but then it was pleasure, not work. Eight months was more time than I’d prepared for any previous job, but this wasn’t just gold. I was going for a hat trick: gold, rare Scotch, data, and rare comics. I know, a hat trick is three, but since I worked part time at the comic book shop, stealing from there didn’t count. Just to get that job took a month learning about comics, and then three months playing the free-spending fanboy. Meanwhile, I assembled my team — my regulars, and a bunch of new folks.

Julia helped, not just by finding new team members, but also by preparing checklists to keep me organized. She gave me a translucent pink plastic clipboard. “Don’t use your phone or your computer,” she said. “It’s easily monitored and leaves a record. Use a checklist and keep it on the clipboard so it is handy. Shred the paper after, and there’s no record.”

So, there I was, Saturday night, or, more accurately, Sunday morning, clipboard in hand, starting with step one on the checklist: “Use my employee key to enter Crazy Cal’s Comics” (check). Julia had recommended that as step one, since that was the official beginning of the crime. I was lucky to have met her — fantastic in bed and almost as obsessive as me. We got along great.

The next step was admitting Garry (check). He attached his phone to the alarm and gave me a thumbs up seconds later. My entry and recent video had been removed from the alarm log. Nothing would be recorded while we worked.

“How are things on the buses?”

“Everyone’s fine, and no one is paying attention to the buses.” I checked the appropriate lines. I’d hired two tour buses and had them parked in the lot behind the building, such that no one could see people walking between them and the back door. This was the fourth weekend I’d hired the buses and parked them there, so the patrolling cops didn’t give them a second glance.

I opened the back door, and flashed the cat toy laser, signaling all clear (check). People streamed silently out of both buses. My people were well trained. Everyone moved to their positions. Alpha team removed the posters (check), and they started cutting the side wall to the jewelry store (check). Beta team worked the other side wall (check), leading to the hosting company, and the gamma team set up the rig (check), for getting to the artisanal Scotch bar upstairs. Delta team stayed in the book shop.

Of the four businesses, the comic book shop had the weakest security, and offered easy access to the others. Gold was my game, but when Julia pointed out the possibilities here, and encouraged me to go for it, I decided to enter the big leagues. It was the most complex and costly job I’d organized, but it was going to set me up for life.

My teams moved between the racks, more heroic than the illustrated crusaders behind them, more stealthy than the villain action figures on the shelves overhead. I was the director of a well-choreographed ballet. I was tempted to run the security cameras for a few minutes, to show off my work, but of course that was not on the checklist.

 If I was the director — or was it the choreographer? — Julia was the producer. In the movies, they never show anyone paying the bills to rent rehearsal space for the crime, organizing health insurance payroll deductions for the phony businesses to ensure team members are cared for, or creating phony tour companies to charter buses. She looked after all the paperwork. I wish she had come tonight, to witness my success at organizing the troops. But, as she said, “Your strength is the hands-on work. Mine’s support.” It was amazing how well she took to criminal activities, but I suspect pleasing me was a big motivator. It’s nice to have made a difference in someone’s life.

All teams had access. Three check marks and I started the next page.

As some team members removed items, others left phony replacements. The gold bars were replaced with gold plated steel. Replica bottles of rare scotches, filled with Johnnie Walker Red, went into the Scotch bar. Delta team members placed photocopies of rare comics, sealed in Mylar bags, into the display case. The data was only copied. It might be months before anyone knew there had been a crime. Julia assured me the materials would be out of state within six hours, and out of the country in twelve. She and my gold guy had worked together on how to get the loot sold. The advances they’d arranged covered expenses, and a lot more was promised.

My teams were repairing the damage to the walls and ceiling, and we were still on schedule (check). The paint would dry within an hour.

“Garry, confirm continuity.” He compared the store to photos he’d taken on arrival. He moved a poster two inches to the right. No one would know we’d been here.

“All good, boss.”

Check.

“You got the data USB from the beta team lead?” Julia had been particularly worried about the data USB, since it was small and easily lost.

He patted his pocket. “Yes.”

Check.

“Reactivate alarm.” Garry reactivated the alarm, with a thirty second delay, and left. I heard the buses pull away. Check, check and last item check. I put the clipboard down, looked around the shop, and congratulated myself. Well done. I left, locked the door behind me, and slipped into the darkness. If only I hadn’t left the clipboard behind. I wonder why Julia didn’t add that to the checklist. If she ever comes to visit, I’ll ask her.

Ontario Film Authority Gone – Now What?

BC Film Classification film tags, from the early 1970s.

The Ontario government announced last Friday that it is shutting down the Ontario Film Authority. This is the provincial government agency that classifies films and home video distributed in Ontario. The plan is to create “a modern framework for film classification.” Meanwhile, films still require classifications. Ontario will temporarily use the classifications from British Columbia. The closure is intended to save the film industry money.

It’s no secret that the film industry does not like classification, though cost is not the issue. Large distributors want non-restrictive ratings to maximize their audience. It is small distributors who find the costs difficult. At $4.20 a minute, it can cost $300 to $500 to classify a film in Ontario (and there are five other classification agencies for other jurisdictions in Canada, all charging similar rates). This is nothing to a major company, but prohibitive to a small distributor, such as local video store considering importing a foreign film to offer for sale. However, the rise of streaming has reduced demand for DVDs and given new markets for independents, most film festivals do not require classification (unless children attend), and home video stores are mostly memories.

Despite disliking classification, large American film distributors have long tolerated it as it allows them to avoid complaints about content and appear to be responsible product manufacturers. Their preferred system of classification is industry controlled – the MPAA. The MPAA members are Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Netflix Studios LLC, Paramount Pictures Corporation, Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc., Universal City Studios LLC, and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Among other benefits, the MPAA helps their members maintain their oligopoly by giving more restrictive ratings to independent and foreign films. The MPAA treats Canada as part of the United States for distribution purposes – it’s considered the domestic market – so the need to deal with six classification agencies is Canada is a nuisance.

One of the MPAA arguments for maintaining control of classification is that industry classification prevents government censorship. Ironically, my comparative studies of film ratings in Canada and the United States (my MA thesis, and a forthcoming paper) show that industry ratings, although favouring some distributors, are on average more restrictive than government ratings. MPAA film classifications are more restrictive than the Canadian provincial average for 80% of all films. In their zeal to self-police and manage film content, the MPAA errs on the side of caution. However, there is some evidence that the higher MPAA ratings are due to Americans being more concerned than Canadians about portrayals of sexuality and drug use. Conversely, Canadian classification agencies are often more concerned about portrayals of violence than the MPAA.

If the end result of the Ontario government’s shut down of the Film Authority is to adopt MPAA ratings, a suggestion that has come up before, we will have ratings that are on average more restrictive than they are now, and do not reflect the concerns and sensibilities of Ontario residents. Meanwhile, the government has chosen to use the ratings of British Columbia – the most liberal of the agencies in Canada.

Canada’s system of rating films is unusual. In the earliest days of the film industry, censorship was local. As the industry grew and consolidated, national systems became common, usually run by or for the government (except in the United States), with the actual classifications performed by government employees, an appointed board, a non-profit corporation, or a film industry association. The provincial agencies in Canada rejected a national system in 1921, “as each province has a different class of people to deal with.” However, there have been some movements to shared systems.

Newfoundland abandoned film classification before joining Confederation, though ratings from Nova Scotia are used informally. The Yukon Territory has never had film classification, but ratings from BC are used informally. Nunavut and the Northwest Territories use classifications from other jurisdictions, typically Alberta. In the 1980s, New Brunswick shut down their agency, and started using classifications from Nova Scotia (for English films) and Quebec (for French films). In the 1990s, Prince Edward Island started using the Nova Scotia classifications, and Saskatchewan started using the BC classifications.

In this context, Ontario’s decision to use the BC classifications is part of a decades-long trend. And while provincial ratings do vary, my studies have shown they are the same about 75% of the time. Where Ontario and BC differ, BC is more liberal, and also more consistent. The latter may be a result of classifications performed by full-time employees instead of public board members working three or four days a month.

What does Ontario lose by using BC classifications? First, BC does not classify home video, except for adult sex films. For home video releases of theatrical films, the theatrical release rating can be used, but the content may be different. For straight to video films, there would be no classification.

Second, the Film Authority and its predecessor, the Ontario Film Review Board, answered to the Ontario government. If you had a concern about how a film was rated, you could take it up with your local member of the provincial parliament. People did, and in some cases the ratings of films were discussed in the legislature. The provincial classification agency increased the age rating of The Hunger Games a few weeks after release, in response to public complaints.

Third, the agency held regular public sessions to gather public input on film classification. Apart from the transparency, these sessions also allowed cable distributors and streaming companies to learn about the board’s approach to classification, and public concerns, and take those into consideration when classifying their content.

Finally, Ontario is a member of the Canadian Home Video Rating System (CHVRS). In the 1990s, with the rise of home video, and encouraged by a film industry challenged with selling videotapes in different Canadian jurisdictions with different classifications, the agencies largely (but not completely) harmonized their ratings (except Quebec). The industry created the Canadian Home Video Rating System (CHVRS), an average of the provincial ratings, except Quebec. With Ontario no longer rating films, their information is not considered for the CHRVS rating.

As noted above, ratings within Canada are largely similar, so the temporary use of BC ratings has minimal impact. However, if the government moves to adopt MPAA ratings, that would have significant impact, due to the more restrictive MPAA ratings. It’s unknown how the use of MPAA ratings in Ontario, if adopted, might affect the CHVRS.

It is likely that classification, in some form, will continue. Protection of children was long used to justify film censorship in the past. Protection of children is the rationale for classification, and the United Nations encourages jurisdictions to have film classification, in order to protect children from harmful film content (a right of children under Article 17 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child). Concerns about protecting children in the wake of Ontario’s decision are already being raised.

Speaking of children’s rights, the UN Convention also requires that children have input in decisions that affect them. This means, among many other things, that children should be involved in film classification systems. An international study I conducted found British Columbia was one of three jurisdictions in Canada that recognized this, and had some input from children. Ontario did not have any input from children. Again, this means using BC classifications is an improvement. The MPAA does not have any input from children.

Apart from protecting children, what difference does classification make? Does it matter who classifies a film, or what those classifications are? Yes. Classification is a subtle form of censorship. To maximize the audience, films must not contain material deemed inappropriate for teenagers. It is not unusual for distributors to quietly cut films, in pre or post production, in order to obtain a lower age rating in a country or province.

Classification is not the only tool for governments to limit film content. In Canada, every province has the right to ban films, for any reason. This was confirmed in the 1970s, when Nova Scotia banned Last Tango in Paris. The Ontario courts ruled in 2005 that prior restraint – mandatory classification – is not constitutional, but to date the Ontario government has ignored that decision. Ontario bans dozens of films every year. These films are usually adult sex films, but they have not been found criminally obscene, and any film can be banned, without any hearing.

The temporary decision to use BC Classifications is a small change, but one wonders what consultations will be done for the new system, and what the result will be. Adoption of the MPAA ratings would benefit no one except large film companies. We may also see more extensive use of the provincial right to ban films.

However, one tries to be optimistic. The Ontario government might follow the lead of Manitoba and Alberta, and declare no films will be banned. They might also consider agencies like the British Board of Film Classification. Though originally created by the film industry, it answers to the national government (and local councils may choose to overrule it in their area). It has good participation of children. Its extensive online information about classified films includes details on any cuts made to achieve a classification. In short, it is film classification that is transparent, open, participatory, and neutral. Ontario could become a model for film classification in Canada. Fingers crossed.

Flash Fiction – Social Night

Image of the ISS from NASA, nasa.gov

This story was written for a contest. I was given the genre, comedy; the location, a space station; and an object that had to be mentioned, a surgical mask. The story had to be 1000 words maximum, and submitted within 48 hours. Posted here as submitted. This submission placed first in the group of stories with these requirements.

Synopsis [part of the submission]: Susan, a member of the female crew at a space station in a slightly twisted future, has high hopes for the evening when a mission crew of men arrive.

Honor among thieves? Not when a mission arrives. Then it’s every woman for herself and devil take the hindmost.

Rachel announced the mission at breakfast. “Out bound. Ten men. One social night, one rest night.” There were groans at the number, and just one social night, but it was still good news. For eight months, we only had each other’s company for the weekly social night. More action than I got before my arrest, but it would be nice to score a man.

Rachel posted their bios on the wall, along with details we didn’t care about, like which system they were exploring. Thanks to relativity, if they even came back, it would be long after we died. Health details were the usual – fit, sterile, and healthy, like us, and mid-twenties. Our ages varied, depending when we were sent and how long we’d been here, but thanks to good care and no sun, none of us looked our age.

The details that mattered were looks and rank. Captain Ninguno was the hottest – highest ranked, ebony skin, blue eyes. Rachel would go for him. As the lowest ranked crew, I’d be lucky to get any of them. But in for a penny, in for a pound. Cleaning wasn’t all bad. I listened to books while working. I learned proverbs and other things.

The shuttle docked right at 1500, and we lined up for the welcome. They looked surprised to see us, as usual. Everyone knew station crews were similar short, thin women, with short hair and identical uniforms, but ship crews reacted as if we were twenty identical twins. The men were oblivious to our different hair and skin colors, though not the different numbers and colors of our rank stripes.

Rachel stepped forward and shook Ninguno’s hand. “Welcome aboard ICQ 17.” He looked as handsome in person as he did in his image, but he was wearing a surgical mask. Odd, but the blue brought out his eyes.

“Thank you, Station Leader Rachel.” Introductions were made as per protocol. It was always pleasing how big the men were, and how obviously happy they were to see us. It was a long trip from Earth, although apparently men did not tire of each other the way women did. Ninguno ended his introductions with an explanation about his mask – not protocol, but neither was wearing one. “I have acquired a rare infection of the upper respiratory tract. Control is investigating, but meanwhile I must wear this, to prevent spread. My apologies.” Rachel tried not to frown, and I was disappointed myself. Even if my plans worked, that would limit our pleasure on social night.

Social night started with dinner, in three hours. Meanwhile, the men unloaded their equipment and our supplies. As we prepared for the evening, the others called me to one emergency after another. The soap dispenser in the shower stopped working. After I fixed that, the hot water ran out. The crew toilets clogged. The clean uniforms were covered with lint. Fortunately, I’d bathed and set aside a clean uniform earlier, and even bleached my hair.

Ninguno proposed the first toast, as per protocol. “Yonder all before us lie deserts of vast eternity. To the crew of ICQ 17, who make the departure so pleasant.” He didn’t look at me, sitting at the furthest table with the other one-stripers, but by his toast I knew he’d seen my note in his linens.

“Anyone going to try?” said Anna, to the table.

“I’ve made cookies for Derrick,” said Lori. “Just need to slip them to him.”

“Good luck,” said Stella. “Beatrice has her eye on him.”

“The cookies haven’t failed me yet.”

Regardless of how or if we paired, the two hours of dancing were when everyone got some contact. I hoped Lori succeeded with Derrick – he was a decent kisser. There was no kissing when I had my turn with Ninguno, as he still wore the mask, but we danced close.

“You were right,” he whispered in my ear. “The smartest, most beautiful, and most confident woman in the room, as I always expected. May I have you tonight?”

Rachel, nearby, tolerating Hogaza kissing her neck, glared at me.

“Yes.” Success! Though I was not sure why he’d always expected anything of me.

“Thank you, Angelica.”

“Who?” I said, but the bell sounded to switch partners, and he didn’t hear me.

At 2200, the unpaired women returned to the bunk room, Beatrice among them. Derrick held Lori’s hand, a foolish grin on his reddened face. He’d started on the cookies. Ninguno came to me.

“Where should we go?”

There were no private rooms, but we always found spaces. Mine was the cleaning closet, already prepared with a bed made of spare linens on crates of cleaning supplies. I led him to it, and the space impressed him. “Always a resourceful woman, Angelica. I’m looking forward to the honor of being with you and making love in half-gee.”

He removed the mask and leaned down to kiss me.

“Wait.” He stopped. “Your infection?”

“A lie to save myself for you, Angelica.”

A lie to Control made him brave or stupid. I was starting to suspect the latter.

“I’m Susan. Why are you calling me Angelica?”

“Are you not Angelica, leader of the resistance? You used the poem.”

“To seduce you. I don’t know about any resistance, and don’t care.”

“You’re just a one-striper crew, a cleaner?”

“Yes.”

“This is awkward.”

I slapped him. He put the mask back on and left. I slammed the door behind him.

A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door. I opened it, expecting Ninguno’s apology, or Rachel announcing demerits. Hogaza stood there, half-dressed and looking like a bashful Norse god.

“Yes?”

“If you spend what’s left of the night with me, you will forget everything between you and Ninguno.”

“I will?”

“I shall endeavor to accomplish that.”

“Come in. I guess half a loaf is better than none.”

[To fully appreciate the comedy, such as it is, note that ninguno is Spanish for none, and hogaza is Spanish for loaf.]

RWA – One Year Anniversary

‘Heart Loves the Ocean,’ by Jan Hull, at White Point in 2018. The artwork is now installed in Mahone Bay. https://www.thestoneist.com/ Photo by Tim Covell.

It’s been a year since I joined the Romance Writers of America. As with any subscription, it’s time to consider if it’s worth the money.

I joined to encourage myself to finish a romance novel I started in 2012. I had a completed draft of about 22,000 words, but it needed a rewrite to flesh it out and resolve plot problems. I was working on it periodically, and considered an hour a week good progress. I thought joining RWA would give me the incentive and tools to finish the work – if I acted like a romance writer, I’d be a romance writer: Fake it ’til you make it.

The bad new is that a year later, I’m still not finished.

The good news is that I’ve been working more on that novel, getting up to about five hours a week for the past month. It’s taken a long time to get there, but regular social media and email check-ins with other local romance writers has helped me achieve that.

Hanging out with people who have published 2 or 3 or 50 romances, or who see regular income from their writing, is enough to bring on imposter syndrome. Fortunately, there are other unpublished writers in the local group and the RWA, and I feel welcome there.

For all that writing is a solitary activity, a supportive group, like a writing partner, is valuable. I’m renewing my RWA membership, and hope to have the novel finished by this time next year.

Stealing Time to Write

Note 1: This is based on my final essay for a writing course. Modified to take advantage of no word count restriction on my posts.

Note 2: The author does not advocate stealing time from work, and has never ever used quiet time in a call centre to work on anything other than considering how best to respond to customer calls. The author believes a liberal arts education is essential to developing the soft skills required to provide good responses to customer calls. As always, readers are asked not to confuse the author with the narrator.

Picture of old manual typewriter
No power? No internet? No penmanship? No problem.

We’ve all read articles, online or in writing magazines, about finding the time to write. Finding the time, as if hours are scattered around the house, and all you need to do is look under the couch cushions to find four hours a week. Or get up an hour earlier, because that hour you spend sleeping is apparently totally wasted.

Do you have an hour or two everyday where you stare at walls, wondering what to do? Probably not. All the hours in the day are already occupied with some activity or another. To start writing, you must stop doing something else.

You’re not going to find time. You’re going to have to steal it. You must become sneaky and underhanded. Treat writing like the lover you meet mid-day while telling your boss you are at a client meeting. Not prepared to lie, cheat, and steal to write? You’re reading this because finding time hasn’t worked. Time to try something new.

Most of us work, because we need money to survive. Working less to write is rarely an option, because writing doesn’t make money. Sure, a few people make money writing. A few people win the lottery, too, but that’s not something you can rely on. I know writers who have a backlist of several books, and happily earn a thousand a month on their sales. Those of us who were proud to sell a magazine article, five years ago, for three hundred dollars, or anyone who knows how little an author gets when a copy of their book sells, are impressed that someone could make a thousand a month writing. But that’s before taxes, has no benefits, no security, and is less than minimum wage. We need to work.

You can’t give up work, but you can steal from it. Not in the sense of taking pens and paper (helpful as that is), but does your job have any downtime? I once worked in a call centre. Some days there were non-stop calls. Other days, there might be fifteen or twenty minutes between calls. I drafted several articles on my phone, between calls. What do you do during lunch, or breaks? Does your work offer time for personal development courses or open training? If so, take a writing course. Use your personal projects to complete exercises in the course. This is what the business types call win-win. You get writing done, and you get to check off the self-training box on your personal development plan.

You might also consider work that comes with available writing time. Spider Robinson starting writing science-fiction while working as a night watchman for sewer systems. Airport limo drivers and tour bus drivers spend hours waiting for passengers.

No time available at work? Do you volunteer? You don’t need to give up volunteer time to find writing time. Choose volunteer work that includes downtime, such as ticket taker, or standby driver. You might have hours between shows or waiting for passengers. Bonuses include looking civic-minded, being unavailable for social events, and a free t-shirt.

Household chores take a lot of time. Are you vacuuming or laundering once a week? Emptying the litter box daily? Spend less time cleaning, and more time writing. The resulting mess will discourage people dropping by – gaining more time. Think about everything you do during the week, including intimate activities (alone or with others), and decide if writing is more important than that. If it is, stop or reduce that non-writing activity. 

Stealing time to write is like robbing a bank. It takes planning and cunning – and, ideally, no one gets hurt. Stealing time to write is not easy, but the rewards are great. Money isn’t sitting around waiting to be found, and neither is time. Get greedy, steal some time to write.

Romantic Revelations: Unmasked by the Marquess

One of the reasons I enjoy romance novels is their consistent happy endings. It’s not just the central romantic relationship that ends well – subplot relationships progress, siblings reconcile, estranged parents and children re-connect, small businesses succeed, and rural towns thrive. Is this realistic? Of course not. Does it show us what is possible, and encourage optimism? Yes.

I don’t need books to tell me how bad things are, or to explore man’s capacity for cruelty. I can read the news for that. This does not mean romance novels are an escape from reality – they are tips on how to improve reality.

In broad terms, until the mid-1970s, the limit of romance novel optimism was that women’s stories mattered. Then the novels started to demonstrate female agency. Female characters not only worked, but had more challenging and non-traditional jobs or ran their own businesses, and might continue to do so after marriage. In other words, women had goals and pleasures apart from marriage. In newer books, regardless of when they are set, it is not unusual for a woman to be the main wage-earner or provider, or for her career and interests to take priority when the couple finally get together. This is both a reflection of changing attitudes, and a recognition that women and marriages have always been more complex than they have sometimes been portrayed.

In recent years, thanks partly to the growth of e-books and print on demand publishing, non-heterosexual relationships have flourished in romance novels. In contemporary and historical settings, and with varying levels of heat, there are romances featuring gay couples, lesbian couples, bisexual characters, threesomes (of various kinds), and larger groups. What is particularly cheering is that in most of these books, the sexuality of the characters is largely accepted by themselves, other characters and their communities. Realistic? Sadly, no. As with women and marriage, love has always taken many forms and been more complex than often portrayed, but acceptance of this is rare. However, these portrayals are definitely optimistic. And Cat’s Sebastian’s Unmasked by the Marquess (from a major publisher) is among the most optimistic I have read.

There are spoilers below, so stop here if you avoid those.

Cover of Unmasked by the Marquess.
At first glance, a typical romance cover, but look carefully at clothing and character positions.

Alistair, the titular Marquess, is bisexual. Not openly, as he is conscious of duty and image, but he has no concerns over his sexuality beyond keeping it discreet. The other main character (heroine does not seem right) goes by Robert, was previously named Charity, and is given the nickname Robin by Alistair. Charity dressed as man to attend university, but found herself more comfortable living as a man than as a woman, and became Robert.

Some reviewers have questioned whether Robin is truly non-binary, or simply a woman dressing as a man to survive in a society with gender roles more rigid than they are now. I feel this is worrying too much over labels. While a woman dressed as a man is an old plot device, the typical story arc has her presenting female at the end. (In Dragonslayer, the gorgeous Caitlin Clarke is initially a male character. Once she is revealed as a woman, her father proudly announces, “She was twice the man of any of them, and now she’s twice the woman.”) In Unmasked, this change does not happen. Sebastian has also been criticized for using the pronoun she to refer to Robin, but in the author’s note Sebastian explains this decision (and I am following the author’s lead).

Alistair finds himself attracted to Robin, and the feeling is mutual. This leads to kissing (in a library – a frequent setting for romantic activities). A few days later, he learns Robin has lied to him about a family connection. When they discuss this, Robin reveals her not-quite-birth name is Charity. Significantly, there is no change in Alistair’s attraction to Robin, though he is angered by the family connection fib. He loves the person.

A part of him, the part he had failed to silence with brandy and righteous anger, shouted that he’d be willing to call this person by any name he or she wanted as long as he got to hear that laughter, see that welter of freckles.

Sebastian, Cat. Unmasked by the Marquess (The Regency Impostors) (p. 99). Avon Impulse. Kindle Edition.

As the relationship proceeds, Robin recognizes that part of Alistair’s attraction to her is her presentation as male, but she has no concerns about this. It has been claimed that Sebastian is not fairly portraying bisexuality, since Alistair falls for an androgynous figure (Robin is conveniently small-breasted), and bisexuality does not mean a preference for androgyny. But bisexuality does not preclude that. And though I am calling Alistair bisexual, the term never comes up in the book, and non-binary is used only in the author’s note. The sexuality of the characters is not labelled in the story.

As Robin and Alistair prepare to marry (on the understanding that she can continue to dress and otherwise act as a man while having the title Lady Pembroke), other characters accept her with ease. One says this explains Robert’s oddness, another says he always thought Robert was unusual, perhaps French. As for the staff:

“This is Mrs. Selby, soon to be Lady Pembroke. You’ve met her before as Mr. Robert Selby. Youthful pranks, you understand. She’ll stay in the green bedchamber until the wedding.” Hopkins, not even raising an eyebrow, merely replied, “Quite right, my lord,” and that had been the end of it. Alistair knew the rest of the staff would follow suit, and if they had a problem with the new marchioness, they were free to find other employment.

Sebastian, Cat. Unmasked by the Marquess (The Regency Impostors) (pp. 300-301). Avon Impulse. Kindle Edition.

As this passage and a few others make clear, it’s easier to live an unconventional lifestyle and have an unconventional marriage when you are very rich. Despite that, the comfortably queer identities of the main characters, and the widespread acceptance of them and their relationship, is wonderfully optimistic portrayal of love without labels.

The plot, incidentally, has the usual historical romance tropes – scandalous family histories, scheming relatives, inheritance challenges, secret marriages, frantic cross country horseback rides, stays in dubious inns – as well as more general romance tropes such as noble sacrifice for love and miscommunications. There is good character growth and contextually appropriate steaminess. In other words, this is a solid and entertaining romance, regardless of the characters’ genders. Cat Sebastian has become one of the authors I seek out.

My interest in this book was sufficient that I finally researched what a Marquess is, and how they fit into the nobility. The short answer is a type of Earl, or Count. A Marquess ranks below a Duke, but above an British Earl (equivalent to a Count in other European countries). A count’s land is a county (aha!), while a marquess’s land is a march. Marches were historically counties on the border of countries, so managing them was a greater responsibility than counties entirely within the country, and the title reflected that. I still don’t know how to pronounce Marquess.

Romance novels, and associated organizations and publishers, have rightly been criticized for under-representation of minority racial and sexual identities. I’ve been told my male name will make it difficult for me to sell romances, since readers expect the authors to be female. It’s not an equal world. But it’s important to recognize steps being made to promote equality, such as stories that show queer characters finding love and acceptance.

New Flash Fiction Story Posted

Public domain photo of Ottawa Transit bus. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Oc6136.jpg

I’ve never read Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, but it is the source of the expression “You’re either on the bus or off the bus.” I heard this expression at office meetings, where it was presented as some sort of encouragement to teamwork. The mind wandered, as it does, especially at office meetings, and I speculated on when this expression might be used literally.

I doodled a few paragraphs, and a couple of years later stretched that into a flash fiction story. Over the last year I revised it several times, still in ignorance of the original usage of the expression. Now that I know the expression is from a 1968 story of hippies, drug use and travelling by bus, they way I have used it seems appropriate, if coincidental.

Click here to read “Route on Detour.” Comments appreciated.