Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Romance Unlaced: Let's Talk About Sex, Baby

(from usatoday.com
by Madeline Hunter)


SEX.

Do I have your attention?

As Joan Rivers would say, Can we talk? In particular, let's talk about the heat of love scenes in historical romance. It is no secret that hot has gotten hotter. Has it gotten hot enough to cross the line into erotic romance, however? And where is that line, anyway?

With erotic romance all the rage now, I was curious whether historicals were following suit. In particular, I wondered how historical authors handled some of the challenges in writing erotic romance. By erotic I mean out of the mainstream. Not just hot, or hot hot, or even hotter than most. Really erotic, as the term is used today in the industry.

True erotic is not just moreso. It involves elements not normally found in non-erotic love scenes — threesomes, homoerotic content, stronger language, BDSM — the kinds of activities that were not exactly the norm for couples historically (but not unheard of either). The descriptions of "vanilla" love scenes are also more explicit than in hot historical romance.

The obvious challenge for a writer is creating a plausible story for introducing such elements without it appearing contrived. It is not surprising that erotic historical romance is not as plentiful as erotic contemporary romance. Overcoming the built-in expectations of character types and settings is difficult.

If you want to try honest-to-goodness erotic historical romance, you can read a book by Kate Pearce. She has a whole series that uses as its hub a pleasure house, which opens many possibilities. The aristocracy come and go, but so do characters with more varied backgrounds. Her books are published by Kensington's Aphrodisia imprint, and some are being re-released now in mass market paperback, not only as Aphrodisia's normal trade paperbacks.

I asked Kate if she found writing erotic historical romances a challenge: "I don't actually find it a challenge at all. The Regency was a time of war, revolution and extremely bad behavior by the royal family, so there is plenty of historical evidence to support what I write about. It's not all Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer. I'm reading a really good book about sex and the history of London at the moment, and there is a record of a house very similarly set up to the one I imagined in the House of Pleasure series.

"The only challenge I had was whether to use the highly amusing terms for sexual equipment that abounded in the Regency, which when I read them brought me right out of the story or made me laugh out loud. I decided to go with more contemporary words which readers can read over. Sometimes that doesn't go down well."

How erotic are her books? They include most of the "officially erotic" activities mentioned above. She speaks of her heroes having "fluid sexuality" that defies labels. As with all good erotic romance, the books are not only about sex, with only a passing nod to character development. Her heroes bring experiences and at times baggage to the story. "I've been told that sometimes reading my books is more of an emotional experience than the reader anticipated going into an erotic romance," Kate says. "That's important to me. That the sex is appropriate to the characters and the plot and never gratuitous."

Kate has begun a new series, The Sinner's Club. It is based around a club which is a safe place for those who have served their country in various secret ways that the government cannot acknowledge. Each book features a main couple, a slight mystery and lots of erotic sex.

Book No. 2 is Tempting a Sinner. In it one meets Benedict, Lord Keyes, who is known for his cold brilliance and ability to get results at any cost — except when he encounters Malinda Keyes, who enjoys a good battle of wills as much as he does and has no compunction in using every weapon in her arsenal to bring him to his knees — quite literally.

What if you are not into reading erotic romance, but you do like your books very, very hot? An author who is exploring the "moreso" is Darcie Wilde. She is not writing erotic romance per the definition I gave above, but her books are very hot romances where the love scenes are extended, more explicit, and have allusions to future explorations of creative sex play.

Her Lord of the Rakes would probably not shock anyone who reads historicals on a regular basis. There are very few frank terms. Even the use of dominance/submission is more a game than reflective of the true dynamics between the couple, although it carries symbolic meaning for the hero.

Like Kate, Darcie draws on historical research to center her stories and make them believable. "Certainly if you go back and look at primary sources, newspaper accounts, etc., the English Regency, which is where my books are set, was quite racy, even by today's standards," she says. "Technique and practice were also ... well, let's say they were pretty elaborate and well-developed."

The biggest challenge, she says, is dealing with the reader expectations that are not based on history, but on romance novel morality. "Despite the history, from our modern perspective, we've come to think of the Regency as very sexually reserved, even repressed. This means the trick for a writer like me who creates explicit historical romances, is to start where the reader is, and lead them into the more adventurous territory with a good story and interesting characters."

The romance and characters need to be front and center, and their emotional development needs to resonate with the reader, she explains. "I think with the right characters, you can do anything. But you have to establish those characters well and you as the writer have to be interested in their individual stories. You also have to connect the reader tightly enough to those characters that they will care about the risks being run, and participate emotionally in the eventual happy endings."

Darcie has a new book coming out in September, The Accidental Abduction. In it, Leannah Wakefield's sister has gone missing, and Harold Rayburn is about to be taken for the ride of his life, straight into scandal and secrets and just maybe, the truest kind of love.

Caroline Linden has a non-erotic historical series, but it revolves around an erotic serial (fictional) written in 1822 that is discovered by the heroines of the books. The love scenes in her stories echo some of the activities in the erotica serial without crossing from hot to erotic. She is also writing that erotic serial. Not a romance — the woman has different partners for each episode — it is a fun and well-done example of historical erotica. It is not for sale at this time, but exclusively for readers of this blog, she has posted one "chapter" at this link. It will remain available until my next column, on May 28.

Neither hotter than hot nor outright erotic historicals are completely new, of course. If you like to rediscover famous books from the past, or browse for new ones, check out the following:

• Robin Schone took the romance world by storm with her first book, The Lady's Tutor. I remember the buzz well, along with the fantastic cover of a closeup of a man's hands unlacing a corset. She has written others since then.

• Lisa Valdez wrote two exquisite historical romances that dwelled on highly sensual elements of love scenes. She is at work on a new one.

• Sylvia Day — yes, that Sylvia Day — wrote some erotic historicals for Kensington that are still available. They are also being rereleased in mass market paperback editions, with Seven Years to Sin available in mass market now.

• Before there was erotic romance as a sub-genre, there was Thea Devine. You can read excerpts on her website of her historical novels and novellas, and decide if her books are hot enough for you.

• While historical romances are not the major part of Ellora's Cave's catalog, that publisher did/does publish some. Gem Sivad has a series of Western historical erotic novels (m/f) with EC. Browsing online at EC's website will present other options, as will doing searches for "erotic historical romance" at the sites of other online booksellers.

TIDBITS FROM HISTORY

From the Middle Ages into the 19th century, many physicians believed that a woman could not get pregnant unless she had an orgasm. The assumption was still widely held at the beginning of the 19th century, if the results of a Google Books search reflects the state of medical thinking. By the middle of the 19th century, however, this belief was being discarded due to a more advanced scientific understanding of the step-by-step process by which fertilization occurs. Which means the long assumed, if erroneous, connection between female pleasure and procreation underwent revision just in time for the Victorian era.

USA TODAY and New York Times bestseller Madeline Hunter is the two-time RITA winning author of 24 historical romances. Her next romance, The Accidental Duchess, will be published on June 3. You can find her at www.MadelineHunter.com.