Saturday, August 22 2015
Do you feel certain genres stereotype men and women? Why do you think that happens? How do you prevent it in your writing?
Some genres do stereotype both men and women. Sometimes, especially in the case of books with a historical setting, it’s hard not to stereotype because it is the stereotypical man or woman of that era that gives the story its historical flavor. In real life, Deborah Sampson, who disguised herself as a man in order to join the army and fight in the Revolutionary War is an exciting exception to what women were like in the late seventeen hundreds and while it’s within reason to write about a heroine in her mold, it doesn’t show what society was really like at the time. So most authors stick to creating heroines more like Abigail Adams. The same goes for their heroes. A man who bathes the children and reads them stories might be typical of fathers in today’s world but he would have been an oddity in, say, Regency England.
But beyond the need to make a time and place believable, breaking out of the stereotype makes a hero or heroine more memorable and sets the story apart from hundreds or thousands of others. Action/Adventures nearly always involve an Alpha male, short on introspection and long on smarts, courage and physical prowess. While I’m a huge fan of Jack Reacher and Mitch Rapp (Lee Child and Vince Flynn) how much more impressive and memorable would be a man who not only doubts himself, but whose friends and colleagues see as a Beta personality, more likely to follow than to lead. And suddenly this man is faced with the unthinkable and he rises to the occasion. He possesses more ability than he knew, more determination to get the job done in spite of his self-doubts, and triumphs against all odds. Wouldn’t this hero stand out in the crowd?
As for romance – stereotypes have been and still for the most part, are the norm. How many slightly overweight, less than drop-dead gorgeous or over 40 heroines have you seen in a contemporary romance? Most heroines are spunky, smart, brave, slender and beautiful. And how many heroes are not Alpha males? Most often wealthy, or titled, or wildly successful in their careers? And tall, muscled, and handsome? They are CEOs not salesmen, Navy SEALS not Navy cooks, cowboys rather than clerks at the feed and grain store.
In my lifetime I’ve read hundreds of romances and of all of them one of the few heroes I have never been able to forget is Jesse Best, from Simple Jess, by Pamela Morsi. I’ve fallen in love with dozens of wonderful heroes in books by so many different authors, but days, or weeks or sometimes months after I’ve put the book away, I can’t even remember the hero’s name any more, never mind the plot. But Jess stands out. He’s not smart, or wealthy or accomplished. An accident of birth has left him with less than average intelligence, but he has been blessed with good instincts, pure intentions, excellent work ethics, enduring patience, and gentleness. As the story begins, his most pressing need is to prove that he is a man worthy of being called a man. He has the desires and dreams of a man, to have a wife and a farm and a family, but no one in his community believes that’s in his future. And that is what makes him stand out in my memory. Ms. Morsi colored so far outside the lines that I’m convinced only her reputation got this book into print back when it first came out, but by deviating from the stereotypical, alpha male in the romance genre, she created a totally wonderful hero. Check out the reviews now that the book has been re-released. I’m not the only one who holds this opinion. Which leads me to believe that other readers are just as eager for heroes and heroines that don’t fit any stereotype, who finagle their way into our hearts and memories because of they are different.
I’d like to believe I might one day create a hero or a heroine as unforgettable as Jesse Best, but in the meantime, I strive to fashion my characters from the bits and pieces of ordinary people. I admit to devouring all of Suzanne Brockmann’s books featuring Navy SEALS – all of them brave, strong men who loved the heroine the way all women want to be loved - but today I cannot recall a single one of those bigger-than-life heroes’ names, or any of the storylines. They were all stereotypical Alpha male romance heroes, but they were not memorable. The more authors think outside of the stereotypical box, the better and more lasting the impression their characters will leave in our hearts. In my efforts to create this kind of character, I consider people I know and like. Men who may be attractive, but not handsome, strong but don’t sport six-pack abs, men who have ordinary jobs that they do well and faithfully and women who aren’t all legs and slender bodies, but who manage to juggle motherhood and careers with humor and success. And I ask myself, what is it about these people I admire? What makes them special? Then I start building my characters and pray that someday someone will tell me they loved one of my characters the way I love Jesse Best.
Check out how these authors view the stereotyping of characters in today's world of publishing:
Beverley Bateman http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/
Connie Vines http://connievines.blogspot.com/
Rachael Kosinski http://rachaelkosinski.weebly.com/
Anne Stenhouse http://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com/
Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/
Helena Fairfax http://helenafairfax.com/
Rhobin Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com/
Tuesday, August 18 2015
When I was really little, my mom’s mother was cleaning houses for two wealthy families. I never accompanied her, but I knew some things about her job: that she liked and admired her employers and that she had once been a secretary, but during the depression had gotten laid off and in order to feed her four children with her husband gone, had ended up cleaning houses. Usually she walked down the hill to catch the bus to work, but during lent she walked in order to save the bus fare as her Easter offering at church. I don’t recall exactly when she retired, but as an adult, I remember visiting and finding her puttering about what was left of her WWII victory garden or busy in her kitchen, but never too busy to play with her great grandchildren. Retirement for her was truly a retirement from a life of hard work to one of leisure.
All three of my grandparents lived a long life, to 89, 93 and 102 and what I remember most clearly was lives spent reading, watching television and puttering. When my father-in-law retired my mother-in-law complained constantly that his games of solitaire were always in the way of whatever she was working on. He got active in his lodge, but other than that, he, too, puttered a lot. My father was the exception. He went from a lifetime of drafting and machine design to a pastime of building boats, furniture and dozens of other projects in his extensive shop. He enjoyed sailing and we went on some really neat week-long sailing adventures over the years, but I think he enjoyed the actual building of the boats even more than sailing them.
But now I’m retired, and my life looks nothing like that of my grandparents or even my own father. I was eager to be free of the nine to five rat race so I could spend more time pursuing my goal to become a published author. I spend at least as much time as I did working for someone else, sitting at my desk hard at work on my next novel. And loving it. A high school friend retired to Arizona, giving up his job with the US Customs Service, to end up delivering newspapers before the sun is even up. My cousin recently wound up her long time career with the US government and turned right around to become docent with the US Park service. I met a man on the beach the other day who introduced himself as the owner of a well known downtown restaurant and confided that he'd turned over the running of it to his daughter. But in the next moment he told me he'd just bought another long time landmark of St Augustine and was now rehabbing that before reopening it. So much for retirement! Half the baggers at the grocery store are my age and retirees everywhere are jumping right back into the working world in whole new careers. Some with paychecks attached but many as volunteers, sharing their time and their enthusiasm in new venues. Some of my friends have turned a life-long hobby into a whole new commercial adventure. And others, like me, have joined the Peace Corps for an unmatchable adventure in a far away place working harder than ever.
So, I’m wondering – does anyone ever just retire any more? Or does our better health and longer lives just give us a second chance at life and new adventures?
Tuesday, August 11 2015
Saturday was one of those rare days that end up standing out in memory as special. Not that anything particularly different was happening on this specific Saturday. I guess it was just an accumulation of little things and the sudden, quiet realization that it was a beautiful day, and I was here to enjoy it.
For the six weeks previous, I’d been on the road: two weeks in a cottage perched on the ocean’s edge in Maine, two weeks on an island in a lake in New Hampshire, two weeks visiting my kids and friends. But now I was home again. Home in my little bungalow by the sea in St Augustine, Florida. I’d unpacked the car, stowed all my stuff where it belonged, gotten caught up on the laundry and the errands. And here it was: Saturday with absolutely nothing on the agenda. No where I needed to be. Nothing I needed to be doing. No one expecting anything from me.
When I woke and took Duff for his morning walk, the tide was out so we continued right on down to the beach and walked more than half way to Marineland before turning back. Considering it was a Saturday – the last Saturday before school begins again in St. John’s County – it seemed amazing that we were the only two beings on the beach – well, us and the sandpipers and terns. By the time we got home, the temps had climbed, but there was still a breeze that made the day feel just right. I gathered up the Wall Street Journal weekender edition and settled into my chair on the deck to read while I ate my delayed breakfast.
Every now and then, I’d glance up, my eye caught by the vivid blue of the ocean. I found myself sighing at the beauty of this place and this day. Now and then my phone would chime to tell me I’d gotten a message or a photo from one of my kids. A neighbor stopped to welcome me home and I chatted with him and petted his dog for a bit before he moved on. By then there were surfers out catching waves and two paragliders buzzed along the shore. But still it seemed so peaceful and perfect. And it suddenly slipped into my consciousness how very blessed I was to be living in this place, to be alive to enjoy this beautiful day. To have color and sunshine, the ocean and the breeze. Neighbors to chat with and children who sent me pictures on my phone of what was happening on this day in their lives hundreds of miles away. It was a very special day, indeed.
Tuesday, August 04 2015
Years ago, before there were any grandkids, my children, and I spent a long weekend at the island cottage in New Hampshire. My son-in-law declared at the end of the three-day weekend that it just hadn’t been long enough and next year we should all come for a week. We’ve been doing it ever since. Of course that first weekend there were just a half dozen of us, but over the years spouses have been added, my sister and sister-in-law and their kids and now grandkids. This year there were twenty-eight of us but other years even more. Some come for the whole week and others who can’t get away for an entire week, still manage to show up for part of the time. This year we missed my two oldest granddaughters, one who married an Army Medic who is stationed in Maryland and the other moved to Florida and couldn’t get enough time off to come so far.
If you are picturing an “English” cottage – the kind with dozens of bedrooms, cozy fireplaces and vast manicured lawns - don’t. This cottage began life as the 14-foot square platform for a tent the year I was twelve, then became a “temporary camp” with a larger one to follow. But that was before my father got his first tax bill, which is outrageous since New Hampshire gains all its tax revenue via real estate taxes. The bigger camp with such lovely facilities as running water, warm showers and real beds never happened.
But that doesn’t stop us from having a fantastic time together. Everyone has their own tent. The cottage is treated like a clubhouse with a kitchen and we eat at a sisteen-foot table under a twenty-foot canopy. We take turns fixing dinner, there is always at least one waffle breakfast and one featuring crepes. My grandkids love spending a whole week with their cousins in and out of the water, playing dress-up, exploring in kayaks, doing crafts and just having fun. The adults play just as hard – in boats, in the water and at cards. And every night ends with a campfire and s’mores and sometimes ghost stories that have the kids begging to sleep with mom and dad instead of in their own tents.
This year was no different. A little over a week ago we all began to arrive. Three college age grandkids, eleven grandkids from one to thirteen, fourteen adults and three dogs. Tents popped up everywhere and the usually silent island became a hive of activity and the laughter of children. One nice thing about an island is the freedom the kids have that they don’t get at home. They can find hideouts and explore along the shore, and just be kids without adults watching every move. Sometimes one just has to laugh when they decide that dancing in the outhouse is fun – or something equally beyond the imagination of the adults.
We also celebrate a holiday every summer – a holiday we don’t usually get to see each other on. Last year was Easter and eggs were hidden all over the island. The year before everything was about fairies – fairy houses, fairy wings, fairy bubbles. Another year it was Halloween and the kids put on their costumes and went trick or treating to all the tents. This year was Valentines Day all week. Mail deliveries were made when no one was watching and the kids had a grand time checking their little red mailboxes every day. Sometimes there are birthday parties, and wedding or baby showers. Years from now some archeologist will have to wonder what all the tiny glittery things in the shape of hearts, wedding bells, baby rattles, pacifiers, stars and over the hill slogans mean. We aim to keep them guessing.
But now it’s hard to believe the week passed so quickly. One by one the families took down their tents, gathered their gear, and rowed it all back to shore to be packed away in their cars. And once again I woke up alone on an island that was a quiet sunny haven in the middle of the lake with just the gentle lapping of water along the shore. And we’re already looking forward to 2016. Happy Mutt’s Nuts!
P.S. Mutt’s Nuts, for anyone who is curious, is a slightly tamer version of a British expression that refers to something really great – The Dog’s Bollocks.