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Dark Days and Birdies

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The darkest day of the year has come and gone. From now on it’s a slow, teasing progression toward spring and glorious sun-filled days. But even the dark days bring their own pleasures.

Every year in early December, something wonderful happens in our back garden. The wagtails return! We’ve had a pair of pied wagtails over-wintering with us for the past four years now. I’d like to think they come because they’ve developed a warm spot in their little birdie hearts for us, but I know they really come for the shredded cheese.

 

Wagtails are insectivores, and these two lovelies, whether they are the original pair who first visited us on that dreadful winter four years ago or some of their descendants, have probably come down from Scandinavia to winter here in South England. They come here because there are certain kinds of insects that survive in the moss on the roofs of the houses and every time the temperature warms slightly, they come out briefly. It’s a day to day existence for the wagtails, and I can’t imagine how any of them actually survive, so I put out shredded cheese, which they love.

 

I associate Christmas with a huge influx of birds in our back garden, and it’s a time when I feel closer them and am more sensitive to their needs. Though food is the obvious need – fat balls for the general population, mixed seeds and nuts for the tits and doves, currants for the blackbirds and of course shredded cheese for the wagtails (though the starlings and the magpies also love the cheese and currants) the big draw during the coldest days of winter is the birdbaths. People might not realise birds have no source of fresh water when everything is frozen. Imagine nothing to drink when the weather is cold, no place to bathe.

 

Every morning, as soon as it’s light enough to see, we go out and fill all the feeders, spread currants and cheese for the blackbird and the wagtails and then we tend to the two birdbaths, clearing out the ice with hot water. When that’s done we go in to have our own breakfast. Our dining table is in front of sliding glass doors that look out into the back garden, so every morning during the bleakest days of winter, we are rewarded with an feeding frenzy and a pool party.

 

We live in a wonderful symbiosis with our avian friends. We keep food and water available for them throughout the coldest darkest times and in turn we’re rewarded with a close-up and personal view of the natural world we wouldn’t otherwise get. The blackbird perches on the retaining wall and stares in the window at us if there are no currants for him. The wagtails show up out of nowhere when they hear us filling feeders. They’ve learned there’ll be cheese.

 

Through December, we’re all waiting for the daylight, waiting for the sun to return. We’re all waiting and longing for light and warmth and new beginnings. Through those darkest months, I marvel at how the birds survive the bleak harsh days when there seems to be nothing for them to eat, nothing for them to drink. I know that lots of them don’t survive. I know that when the temperature dips below zero, whether or not they survive the night can depend upon how much they’ve been able to forage the day before. The difference between survival and death is such a fine line. And every year I’m astounded and amazed by their tenacity, by their will to survive the dark days.

 

In the spring, the wagtails go back to Scandinavia to breed and the bird population in our back garden changes, and the dynamic changes. We get fledgling starlings and blackbirds and the whole garden becomes a nursery for the next generation. But there’s something magical about those winter months, the dark cold days, the times when the closeness I feel is a deep admiration for the ebb and flow, for the push to hang on one more season, for the deep powerful urge to survive and bring forth the next generation. I watch the starlings fluttering in wild abandon in the birdbaths, the water freezing on the edges even as they bathe. I watch the wagtails and the blackbirds treading frozen ground, eating cheese and currants, their feathers fluffed to nearly twice their body size to keep warm, and I feel that somehow, I’ve become a part of something so much greater than myself and my little understanding of the world. This is the gift I receive every year in the dead of winter, and it’s a gift that I treasure long after the sun has returned and the Dawn Chorus has begun in earnest and the wagtails have flown north.

 

Happy Solstice, everyone! May all the gifts you give and receive be gifts that touch the heart.

 

Thoughts on Cinderella and Being Our Own Hero

From the Archives

I’m thinking about Cinderella today, oh I know there’ve been lots of face-lifts to the story to make it more modern, and I know the original fairy tale had some seriously dark stuff in it. The old Russian version has the evil step sisters cutting off their toes to try and fit their enormous feet into the dainty glass slipper! And the evil toe-cutters are exactly my point.

 

I’m thinking about how often women are portrayed in pop-culture as either wanting to or NEEDING to be willing to cut off their toes to spite their feet in order to be worthy of a Prince Charming to come and rescue them. I’m also thinking about how often that perfect beauty of tiny feet, tiny waists, big tits and gorgeous face are the main characteristics of the damsel Prince Charming rescues. In fact, they’re quite often the ONLY characteristics of the damsel in need of a romantic rescue. Sadly, we’re encouraged not only to read about that vacuous blank canvas of a damsel, but we’re expected, likewise, to want to BE her. That dream of being rescued by the prince on the white horse will surely become our reality if we can only cut off out toes and be Cinderella!

 

Okay, if I’m honest, at every single one of the difficult points in my life I would have been more than willing to be rescued from the struggles, or even at times I would love to be rescued from my ordinary life and brought into something more exciting. (That’s always a very dangerous thing to wish for!) And who hasn’t spent serious time ‘looking for a hero,’ even if it’s just in a really juicy fantasy.

 

Most of the time, though, we don’t get rescued. We have to do that ourselves, and we’re all the better for it. In the best situations, and in the best stories I’ve read, the hero and the heroine rescue each other, and they’re both worthy of the rescue.

 

I suppose the need to be rescued is archetypal, just as is the need to go on a quest, which is often only an elaborate way of rescuing ourselves. But the makings of a fictional hero and a heroine these days seem to have more to do with fat bank accounts and chaining virgins to the bed in an expensive dungeon and less about the journey that risks everything.

 

Oh, did I mention the journey? Right! The rescue, the quest, they always go hand in hand with the journey. And this is why, for me, Cinderella is one of the weakest tales. The journey is the leaving of our comfort zone – quite often screaming and kicking every step of the way. In that respect, no doubt Cinderella was outside her comfort zone at the ball, but in most journeys, there’s no glass slipper, no prince charming, and no fairy godmother dashing to the rescue. There’s much fear and trembling and digging deep. THAT’S what makes a book nail-biting and un-put-downable (there! A new word) It’s when chaos springs from the mundanity of order that heroes are made. And the resulting quest, the resulting journey is usually at least as painful as having toes severed to fit into glass slippers.

 

We rescue ourselves on a daily basis. We find within ourselves the makings of the hero, and we push forward. That little seed of the hero’s journey exists in all of us, and it’s never a matter of sitting in the ashes by the fireplace and waiting to be rescued. It’s a matter of getting muddy and mucky and taking risks and moving into the places inside us that terrify us, but that pull us like magnates, nonetheless. We are our own heroes, and our stories – those of us who write stories, come from the deeper places in our selves – or at least they should if they’re ever to matter much.

 

Am I being judgmental? Quite possibly. I never claimed not to be. But I know my own journey, and I know when I sit in front of the computer and break into a cold sweat because I fear the place I see myself heading, because I know I have no choice but to go there if this story is to be born, then I know that no one will rescue me but me, and I have to go deep into chaos to come out the other side as my own hero.

 

Tips on Writing Good Sex

As a writer of erotic romance, I’m always trying to analyze the ways in which sex strengthens story. I’ve been very vocal in my belief that a story without sex is like a story without eating or breathing. Sex is a major driving force in our lives on many levels that I’ve dealt with in many blog posts. Because it is a major driving force in our lives it must also be a major driving force in story. Sex is a powerful way to create conflict and chaos in a story. It’s a way of allowing our characters to interact on an intimate level. And it’s one of the very best ways to cut through our characters’ facades and get an honest look at who they are when their guard is down and they’re at their most vulnerable. With that in mind, I’ve decided to share a few points that I always find helpful when I write sex scenes. For me, going back to the basics is always a great way to sharpen my skills. And I love to share the things that work for me.

 

Three occasions not to write sex

  1. While writing children’s books
  2. While writing the definitive work on antique saltcellars.
  3. When you’re not a writer, you’re a bricklayer. Even then …

 

Three important reasons to incorporate sex in your writing

  1. Sex adds tension.
  2. Sex adds depth and dimension to a story, and gives it more humanity.
  3. Sex adds intimacy and transparency to the story and helps the reader better know the characters.

 

Three big no-nos in writing sex

  1. Sex should never be gratuitous. If it doesn’t further the story, don’t put it in.
  2. Sex shouldn’t be a trip to the gyno office. Technical is NOT sexy.
  3. Sex should never be clichéd or OTT. (unless it suits the story)

 

Four suggestions for writing better sex scenes

  1. Write sex unselfconsciously. No one is going to believe it’s you any more than they believe Thomas Harris is a cannibal.
  2. Sex scenes should always be pacey. Too much detail is worse than not enough. Sex should neither slow nor speed up the pace of the novel. It shouldn’t be used like an interval in a play. It should not serve as filler to bolster word count. It should always keep pace with the story being told.
  3. Approach sex in your writing voyeuristically by watching and learning from your characters. Their personalities, emotional baggage and behavior traits will dictate how they have sex and how you write it.
  4. You should always be able to feel a good sex scene in your gut. I’m not talking about wank material, I’m talking about The Clench. It’s a different animal. The Clench below the navel is for the sex scene what the tightness in the chest and shoulders is for the suspense scene.

 

The power of good sex can drive a story in ways that almost nothing else can. Good sex can be the pay-off for a hundred pages of sexual chemistry and tension, but the pay-off is even better if it’s also the cause of more chaos, sling-shotting the reader breathlessly on to the next hundred pages and the next.

 

Inspiration, Take Me! I’m Yours

(archives)

It’s elusive, it’s mysterious, it’s exhilarating, and we erotic writers crave it more than the sex we write about. We chase it shamelessly, we long for it passionately, we would gladly make ourselves slaves to its every whim and, no matter how fickle it is, we always welcome it back with open arms. When it’s with us, it’s at least as good as the best sex. And when it’s not, we mourn its loss like a lover. I’m talking about inspiration, of course. It’s the breath of life for every story ever written and the coveted ethereal presence that every writer yearns for.

 

The mythological link to inspiration is especially interesting to me in the light of a life-long fascination with mythology. From my very first novel novel, The Initiation of Ms Holly, which is a retelling of the Psyche and Eros myth, to The Medusa’s Consortium Tales,  and the reframing of Medusa’s story, the Greek myths have inspired me.

 

Greek mythology – mythology oany kind, really — is fabulous inspiration for smutters. The gods are always dipping their wicks where they don’t belong and finding ever more creative ways to do so. Nine months later, viola! A magical child is born, a child with gifts that will be needed to save the world, or at least a little part of it. But there’s one story where the lovely virgin resists, and no wick-dipping occurs. That’s the story of Apollo and Daphne.

 

The Muses serve Apollo, so of course this myth interests me. Apollo is the god oflight and the sun; truth and prophecy; medicine, healing, and plague. He is the god of music, poetry, and the arts; and all intellectual pursuit. Daphne is a mountain nymph and not interested in giving up her virginity to some randy god. While Apollo is pursuing her, she prays to her father, who is a river god, and he turns her into a laurel tree. Ovid claims it’s not Daphne’s fault that she’s not hot for Apollo right back. He claims that Cupid, who is angry at Apollo shoots Daphne with a leaden arrow, which prevents her from returning Apollo’s feelings. But what matters is that she misses out on Apollo’s inspiration.

 

My theory is that the whole mythology of gods coming down from Olympus, or wherever else gods come down from, to seduce humans is really nothing more than a metaphor for inspiration.

 

Consider all the different forms in which Zeus visits his paramours. He takes the form of a swan with Leta, he visits Danae in a shower of gold coins, he approaches Europa as a white bull. Writers understand that inspiration can take absolutely any shape, and often the very shape we least expect.

 

The gods aren’t always gentle in their seductions. Hades drags Persephone off to the underworld screaming and kicking all the way. Zeus turns Io into a white cow, who is tortured and tormented by Hera. In the form of an eagle, he abducts Ganymede and drags him away to Mount Olympus. Writers know well that inspiration doesn’t always come in a gentle form. In fact one of my creative writing teachers used to advise her students to go to the place inside themselves that most frightened them, most disgusted them, most disturbed them, and that’s the place where they would find inspiration, that’s the place from which their writing would be the most powerful.

 

Finally, whether inspiration comes in gentle, beautiful forms or whether it drags us kicking and screaming and tears us from limb to limb, the result will be something greater than what it sprang from. From the seductions of the gods, the children born were always larger than life. They were heroes and monsters and fantastical creatures, but they were all born of that joining of divinity and humanity, they were all the result of what happens when something greater penetrates the blood and the bone and the grey matter that is our humanity. What comes from that inspiration may indeed be monstrous or fantastical, but it will always be, in the mythical sense, born of the gods.

 

Which leads me back to Daphne and Apollo. The cost of inspiration is the loss of innocence. We are seduced, we are penetrated, we are impregnated with something new, something fresh, something possibly even frightening, something that we, as writers must carry to term and give birth to. But none of that can happen without yielding to the seduction. Daphne became a tree, unable to move, unable to think, unable to ever be penetrated or inspired. One can only imagine what may have resulted from the willing union with the god of light and truth and poetry and the arts and all the things we writers crave. I’ll be honest, I fantasize about Apollo. I fantasize about inviting him right on in and saying I’m yours. I’ll take all you can give me, and please, feel free to stay as long as you like. Though, in truth, in my fantasy, I skip the dangerous and scary bits. And encounters with inspiration can often be dangerous and scary.

 

There is a cost to inspiration. It’s the obsession we all know as writers, the one that won’t allow us to think about anything else in the waking world and sometimes even in the dream world until we get the very last word down, until we make it shine exactly the way we conceived it, exactly the way it penetrated us. My heart is racing just writing this because every writer knows what it feels like, and every writer lives for it to happen again and again and again. So yeah, forget the tree rubbish, laurel or otherwise. Inspiration, take me, I’m yours. Have your way with me. I couldn’t be more willing if I tried.

 

Small Flashlight, Big Darkness

Today’s post is a hard one for me to settle into because it could so easily devolve into navel gazing, and one of the promises I made to myself and to my readers back when I wrote my very first ever blog post was that I would keep the navel gazing to a minimum. There must be a gazillion writer and write-hopefuls blogging, and each one is convinced that their journey to writing success is totally unique and must be shared. Well maybe not each one, maybe I’m only speaking for myself, in which case, I blush heartily and apologise.

 

My point is that all of the energy, angst, fear, adrenaline, exploration of dark places, exploration of forbidden places that used to go into the pages and pages of that gargantuan navel-gaze that was my journal now go through that strange internal filtering process that takes all my many neuroses and insecurities, all my deep-seated fears, all my misplaced teenage angst and magically transforms them into story.

 

That was sort of my little secret — that I alone, in all the world, suffered uniquely and exquisitely for my art. I took all the flawed and wounded parts of myself, parts I wasn’t comfortable facing, examined them reflected through the medium of story and found a place where I could view them and not run away screaming.

 

Originally it was a BBC article which asked the question, is creativity ‘closely entwined with mental illness?’that brought on all this borderline navel-gazing. At the time I shared it on Facebook and Twitter to find that lots of other writers had shared it as well and the general response was simply that it sounded about right. There were some very moving conversations that came out of those sharings of that article along with the realization — something I’ve long suspected — that I am not all alone out there in my vibrant unique neurotic bubble. And really, it comes as no surprise that one has to be at least a little neurotic to be ballsy enough to try to bring, in one form or another, what lives in our imagination into the real world and to attempt to put it out there for everyone to see.

 

As the article was shared around and the responses mounted, I found myself thinking of C.G. Jung’s archetype of the Wounded Healer. The healer can only ever heal in others what she herself is suffering from. Empathy goes much deeper than sympathy. The human capacity for story is as old as we are. Before the written word, story was the community archive. It was our memory of who we are, our history, our continuity, our triumphs, trials, sufferings, joys, all memorised, filed away, and kept safely in the mind of the story teller. That had to do something to your head, knowing that you were the keeper of the story of your people! How could storytellers be anything other than neurotic?

 

It’s a lot more personal now that we have the written word. No one has to dedicate their lives to memorising the story of their people. Now we tell our own story, the story of the internal battles that wound us, the story of those wounds transformed. We all tell our stories in our own personal code. What may well start out as a navel gaze into the deep dark wilderness of Self can be transformed into powerful, vibrant story, and we’re healed! At least temporarily, or at least we’re comforted. And hopefully so are those with whom we share our stories. When I journalled my navel-gazes, I wasn’t interested in anyone else seeing what was on those pages. It was a one-sided attempt at a neurotic house-cleaning. Sharing the story is a part of the healing; sharing the story is a part of the journey. The Storyteller had no purpose if she didn’t share the story with her people.

 

As a neurotic living among other neurotics, I doubt that there’s anything we’re more neurotic about as a people than sexuality. I don’t think it’s any real surprise that there’s suddenly a huge market for erotica. Last night I sat on a panel of erotica authors, editors and publishers at the Guildford Book Fair – something that would have never happened before Fifty Shades of Grey, and even at 9:00 in the evening, we played to a full house. Each of us had a story of how we came to write erotica. We shared our stories with a roomful of people, who then took those stories away with them to possibly be shared with others. The archetype of the storyteller is alive and well. And I believe writers live out the archetype of the wounded healer on a daily basis.

 

Most of the time I write my stories because it’s just too much fun not to. That’s the truth of it. I seldom consciously dig deep to find those wounded, neurotic places. Really, who would want to do that deliberately? But the wounded places find me, and they end up finding their way into the story. And what surfaces is never quite what I expected, always more somehow, even if starts out to be nothing more than a passing dream I can’t get out of my head.

 
© 2018 K D Grace
The Romance Reviews

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