Pondering the Pandemic

So far, the COVID-19 pandemic has had little impact on my daily routine. I’ve worked from home for years, and my day job continues unchanged, as does my work as a freelance editor. I’m preparing a journal article for publication, and the journal contacted me three times in the past two weeks to remind me that the deadline for requested reference formattings had not changed.

Social media is full of suggestions for things I can do at home or online. I’m happy not to have the time to take advantage of these. I’ve had precarious employment often enough to be grateful for good work at any time, and especially now. I spend most of the day in my room, at my computer, as usual. The only thing I miss is almost daily trips to a food court or coffee shop for dedicated creative writing time, but I’d been trying to reduce that anyway (the going out, not the writing).

Photo of typewriter with sheet of paper in it. "Pondering the Pandemic has been typed on the paper."
Testing backup blogging.

Movies about a disease sweeping through the population feature cinematic demises – people stricken and collapsing in the street. Science-fiction stories promise mass chaos and/or orgies. Instead, we have a disease that spreads silently, appears at first not much different than a cold, and results in people dying in hospitals. People are staying at home, largely following public health department guidelines when venturing out, and generally aware that mass activities of any kind are a bad idea. It’s easy to underestimate how serious this is.

It will be weeks or months before we know the full extent of this disease, but preventive steps are necessary now. Hopefully the steps taken and preparations are sufficient that governments are accused of over-reacting, though thousands have already died, and the numbers may be under-reporting. As for the long-term impact, some are predicting a return to business as usual, while others are suggesting we may see permanent changes in how governments and society operate. My guess is that this will be like the oil price hikes in the early 1970s. At first, there will be support for better public and social health, just as there was a interest in reducing energy use in the 1970s. And after a decade, people will have forgotten what they were concerned about, and vote for anyone who promises lowers taxes and fewer regulations.

Meanwhile, since current events have dated my contemporary romance work-in-progress, I may have to give a specific date setting of a few years ago, to make clear it describes life before COVID-19. How can I think of writing at a time like this? It’s not easy, but the world still needs positive stories – and writing gives me something do beside read the news and worry.

Sandcastle Rock Beach – Chapter 4

Revisions are never-ending. Since I posted Chapter 1, I’ve added over three thousand words while making plot and character fixes. Now I’m working on style, replacing passive verbs and reducing wordiness. It’s a slow process, but the story is improving, if I do say so myself.

This is short chapter, taking place at the end of the first day, after my couple have had some close time together. It is intended as a break between two longer and more dramatic chapters. Comments appreciated.

Marianna sat at her desk, waiting for the slow internet connection to retrieve email. He had seemed interested. She’d noticed his pupils enlarging as he spoke to her in the kitchen, and she’d caught him checking her out more than once, his eyes wandering over her body. She’d had a few good looks herself. But after the dishes were done, he had turned down her invitation to stay for a drink, claiming fatigue. She reminded him that WiFi was only available by the house, and added that it might be slow if he was planning to facetime a sweetheart back in Toronto. It worked. He mentioned that he’d broken up with his girlfriend. Before she could offer sympathy, he added that it had been almost a year ago. So, he was straight and single, though if he wasn’t over someone from a year ago, maybe she’d be wise to keep her distance.

The computer beeped, an unhappy tone alerting her to a send/receive error. The internet connection seemed okay. She tried again, and went to brush her teeth while waiting. Heading back to the computer, she stopped to look out the window. Darwin’s tent was dark. “Should we do a little searching,” she asked Cerebus, “and see if we can find out more about Darwin?” The dog looked up from his bed in the corner, yawned, and settled down again.

“I’d take that as a yes, but the internet is lousy tonight.” The send/receive failed again. “We’ll check him out tomorrow.”

***

Darwin could not sleep. He considered going for a walk, but a glance out the tent flap let him see a light on upstairs at the house. It was absurd, but he did not want her seeing that he could not sleep. She already knew too much about him, and he had learned little of about her. Except that she was smart, hardworking, and attractive, and the latter did not have anything do with her ability to fight the loan demand. He picked up his book, read a few pages, and put it down again. Weren’t books sold in airport bookstores supposed to be light and entertaining reading? The third chapter had nothing to do with the bank robbery in chapter one, or the sex scene in chapter two. It introduced a family with small children, going on a picnic in a park. There was far too much description of the wicker basket and  melamine plates.

Darwin’s family had never gone on a formal picnic, but they’d had dinner on the beach several times most summers. It was fun, though less fancy than tonight’s dinner had been. The plates had been paper, not melamine or fine china. His dad and some of the neighbours would build a bonfire, and everyone would roast hot dogs over the flames. He wondered if his sister took her children to dinners on the beach.  

He hadn’t bothered telling his sister he would be in Nova Scotia. There did not seem to be any point. She still lived on the south shore, five hours out of the way. They weren’t close. He’d never seen her kids or met her partner. They all signed the dollar store cards they sent for his birthday and Christmas, but for the money he sent every holiday, that was the least they could do.

Wondering about beach dinners gave him the urge to let his sister know he was in the province. He picked up his phone and checked the time. Too late to call. A text might have an alert tone, unless she silenced them, but he did not want to risk that. He could use data, and connect to email, but the cell service, at least in his tent, was weak. He’d call in the morning or use the campground Wi-Fi then.

A gust of wind pushed in the side of tent. The poles sagged and rebounded. Hope it doesn’t rain, thought Darwin.

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.

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.