Tuesday, 28 February 2012

A Leap of Faith

Feb 29th. The one day in four years that a woman ‘can’ propose to her man. Yay.

Or February 24th in Denmark (the medieval leap year day). And some enlightened folks say women have the whole year to propose. Double Yay!

Or is it? Things have obviously improved for many women over the last hundred years. We get to vote, work, own property and make our own decisions. Marriage is no longer a commercial choice, but a mutual decision based on love and respect. Yet so many cherished traditions hark back to times when a woman’s worth was in her marriageability.

In fact, according to many gossip magazines it still is but that’s a rant for another day.

Most modern brides no longer say ‘I promise to obey...’ but they still get given away by their father (myself included). Many women are financially independent, hold down a job, share a home, a mortgage with the groom, have independently decided to make a life with him, yet often he still asks her father (not mother) for permission before they marry, sometimes even before he proposes. Nearly every married woman I know has changed her surname to her husband's. Ancient, patriarchal traditions holding strong even in the 21st century.

And then there’s the proposal. Still the man’s job, a male prerogative apart from one day every four years. It puts a lot of pressure on both sides. On him to do a good job, make sure the story is worth retelling, provokes the right kind of misty eyed response. On her while she waits, sure he is the one, only locked into a timetable not of her making, not of her choice, waiting...

It’s not that way for all of us. I got engaged on a hungover Saturday morning, outside the old Arsenal stadium; we came out of the tube station after a night spent at friends the other side of London, walked along the row of terraces that hid the football club. We were discussing various friends and their compatibility, our compatibility.  By the time we turned the corner we had decided to marry, neither of us are quite sure how to this day. A hungover decision but a mutual decision.

Romantic? Not really. But this was about the rest of our lives. It was a decision that affected us equally. To me, lovely as a beautiful story to tell the grandchildren would be, it was a decision that needed to be taken together. The rest of our lives is a big deal.

Romance novels are not usually about the big proposal either, although my favourite scene in Pride and Prejudice is Darcy's first, awkward, unsuccessful proposal. The happy ending in a romance novel is when two people take an equally big step, prepare to go out on a limb, take a risk, put the other one first. Resolve whatever is holding them back and do something that scares them, terrifies them, leaves them vulnerable. It goes beyond rings in ice-cream, announcements at football matches, the top of the Eiffel Tower. It's about two people doing whatever it takes to spend their lives together. 

And that is pretty darn romantic, whatever the date.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Giving up is so last year

One of the lovely things about February for an overworked worker/mother/writer/blogger/Twitter- addict is the nice amount of ready made topics perfect for the romance writing blog. This is a tried and trusted writing trick; when I worked on a local advertorial magazine our monthly editorial meetings were based on those handy marketing tricks. National bed week? Let’s do a feature on the perfect night’s sleep. National cupcake week? Recipe feature with obligatory tasting. Be nice to nettles week? Hmmnn, maybe not. However, February is a perfect smorgasboard of romance just waiting to be blogged about: Valentine’s Day? Tick. Feb 29th? Tick (not yet but scheduled). Lent. Lent?

Look at those cakes!
Okay, a month of abstaining from all that is good and tasty may not seem like the most romantic of topics but bear with me. In the past I have given up alcohol, cheese (that was hard), chocolate, pizza, ice cream. One particularly memorable and abstemious Lent I did a co-dare with a colleague and we both gave up chocolate, cake, crisps, pastries and biscuit, I lasted all the way to Easter because, as I may have mentioned once or twice, I love a deadline and I always get competitive where there is a challenge. I am not religious, nor do I live in a hunter-gatherer society with an early spring food shortage but I like testing my usual shaky self control.

Swedish apple cake
So, this year? I considered cake after a weekend which included a gluttonous afternoon tea, baking Swedish apple cake (with raspberries), a 60th birthday party with three different and amazing cakes (fruit, passion and chocolate, yum), and a mother-daughter baking session resulting in blueberry and apple muffins *looks ruefully at waistline*. I also considered – and quickly dismissed – wine, cheese and my daughter’s evil suggestion, Twitter.
But then I began to think about behaviours, something different but equally challenging. Maybe I could give up negative thoughts *coughs* or snapping at the daughter and husband? Or, turn it round, make Lent really positive. Exercise every day? Or how about writing every day?

Go on...
Every day. Stephen King of course makes that his number one rule. But there are days, like Tuesdays, when I work till 4, pick up the daughter, walk home, make her dinner, take her to swimming, bring her home, wash and dry her hair, read her a story, eat my dinner, collapse. Not only is there very little time to breathe in a Tuesday but by the time it has ended I am incapable of coherent thought or word. But no excuse. 1000 words a day minimum, even on a Tuesday. Take that WIP.

Right, who’s for a slice of cake?

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Romance by numbers.

Today is, of course, Valentine's Day.

Named after a Roman martyr of dubious authenticity who may or may not have performed illegal Christian marriages and was martyred by Claudius if he did exist. Romantic, huh? Regardless of the bloodthirsty origins of the saint his day is now, for the cynical, an exploitative day of tack. The price of roses quadruples, the shops are filled with heart-shaped tat and, hard as we try to avoid it, anyone in a relationship ends up spending £20 on something fizzy to drink, chocolates and a card. Meanwhile singletons may feel glad they don't have to participate but still feel an urge to wipe that smug look off Carol-in-finance's face as she sits smirking at her bouquet of roses.

Don't get me wrong, it's not that I don't believe in romance, in showing that you love somebody.Of course I do! I'm a wannabe romance writer for goodness sake. I just don't see the romance in acting like a sheep because the marketing calender tells me too. Cups of coffee left on my bedside table, coming home to find the ironing done, an unexpected Monday night bottle of prosecco - these are the small, domestic yet romantic gestures I love, because they are about me, about us. They are real.

All the romantic traditions seem to try and mould couples into a predetermined, Disneyfied idea of what love should be. There is so little room for the quirky, the unique, the things that make you, you. Personally I dislike roses, I would rather have tulips, lilies, lily of the valley. I prefer amethysts to diamonds, noodles to fine dining and pyjamas to lingerie. Of course we're all different and figuring just what pushes my heroine's buttons is part of what makes writing fiction so much fun.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

A born storyteller

Beautiful Nefyn bay, This was our view
Today I went to visit my grandfather, Papa. He lives in a home and has dementia and it breaks my heart.

When I was a child he seemed preternaturally strong despite his short stature; if I linked my hands around his forearms he could flex his arms and lift me right off the ground. He could lift two grandchildren at once. His appetite was legendary, plates piled sky-high to be masticated slowly and thoroughly before equally massive second helpings. And then pudding.

 As I grew older I realised we approached things from a very different direction. He was a small town business man with conservative views (big and small c) who enjoyed country sports and belonged to all those men-only clubs that small town business men belong to. I have only rarely seen him without a tie and tweed jacket. I was (am) a grungy, vegetarian, left wing feminist. But he was my Papa and I loved visiting him, especially at his summer home in Nefyn, on the Lleyn Peninsula, where we would eat macaroons, go for long mountain walks and play scrabble long into the evening. And he would talk.

My Papa was a born storyteller. He always told us that he married Nana because she dug a pit in the woods and wouldn't let him out until he agreed to marry her; as a gullible six year old I reported this story as fact in a school report. During those long nights in Nefyn, or at the family home in Lincolnshire, he would tell me ghost stories. All true, he insisted, he may have been a keen walker and naturalist but he had a real belief in the spiritual world. Thirty years younger and I am sure he'd have been on Most Haunted. Or he'd tell me about his youth, cycling from Lincolnshire to Nefyn, sleeping in haystacks on the way, his post-war days in Germany working in the army stores where he met a beautiful, auburn haired German girl (my Nana) who he promptly married and brought home to Wandsworth. Tales of a boyhood roaming the Lincolnshire countryside. He brought the past alive.

His real flair though was for storytelling. His bedtime stories were fantastic. My family moved to Kent when I was 13, my sister 12. It was the first time I hadn't lived in the same town as my grandparents and I missed them horribly so when they came to stay it was really special. And Papa told us bed time stories even when I was 16 and my sister 15, we wouldn't let him stop. Quite unashamed and unabashed we demanded the next instalment of his Romney Marsh saga that starred us, our cottage and our cats, stories that combined adventure, magic and heroism like all the best children's' stories do. I still love childrens' and YA literature, done well story telling at its best.

He never wrote them down. He wrote poems - rhyming, scanning doggerel, he painted pretty landscapes, he  answered every circular or invite with a letter like the gentleman he was, but he never wrote down his stories. And that's a shame and a real loss. Now he never will, dementia is a horrible, horrible thing.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

After the HEA

Alert – Borgen Spoilers

Look at those cheekbones!
It’s no secret that I have recently become addicted to Danish drama.  I’m not alone in this; a fair number of the UK population secretly and not so secretly thinks that watching Borgen and The Killing makes them semi-fluent in Danish, and that they too can carry off a Sarah Lund style jumper (sweater to my American friends). Is it the strong, confident female leads? Is it the sexy men with their incredible cheekbones? Or is it a bit of both plus a liberal dose of incredible story telling that doesn’t talk down to its viewers?

At the heart of Borgen are four incredibly strong Alpha characters. Birgitte Nyborg, leader of a small political party who finds herself  Prime Minister; Phillip Christensen, her gorgeous businessman husband playing stay-at-home-dad; spin doctor Kasper Jull, born Kenneth, who has totally reinvented his past and his ex-girlfriend fiercely ambitious reporter, Katrine. As much as the politics and the intrigue it is the relationships between these four characters that provided a great deal of the conflict.

A lot of romances have an alpha male as their hero; they’re not alone, many genres do whether films, novels or television series: thrillers, westerns, paranormals. Very few have a real alpha female and these characters, like Buffy, struggle to find a partner who can easily accept her strength and leadership (I’m looking at you, Riley Finn). Part of what makes Borgen so intriguing is the power play at home between these alpha couples. Katrine and Kasper, for instance, are bound together by their past, by loyalty and by love but kept apart by distrust; their jobs, his lies. Yet when it comes down to it, they can only really depend on each other.

The Nyborg-Christensens are a completely different proposition. Older, settled with two adorable children and living in an unostentatious but divine house (with the master bedroom weirdly just off the kitchen and fabulous shelving) they are the perfect power couple. They even have found a way to pursue two careers whilst raising kids, each gets five years to concentrate on their career and then they swap, Philip is working as an academic and raising the kids, Birgitte is an MP and leader of a small party hoping to get enough seats in the forthcoming election to make up a small percentage of the coalition.

Only she becomes PM and everything changes. It’s Philip’s turn to carry on with his career but with a wife who is never home that isn’t going to happen – and when he does insist a conflict of interest scuppers his dream job before he gets to pack his briefcase and scout out his new office. The loving, caring relationship descends into silence with Birgitte starts barking out orders as if he is one of her staff whilst Philip sulks. Her insistence he resign from his job is the last straw and it comes at a terrible price. As the series ends Birgitte is alone.

Some people think this terribly unfair, that male politicians fictional and real have spouses prepared to stay at home and forward their husband’s career, why should this female Prime Minister have to pay for being a strong woman, a working mother? They want to see an idealised world where she is supported by a husband who may have given up a six figure salary to unload the dishwasher (a lot, they get through a lot of dishes the Nyborg-Christensens) but is happy to do so – after all women do it all the time.
Sadly in a shirt not a vest
I think that’s missing the point. Yes he turns sulky and I am a romance writer for goodness sake, I am never going to condone an affair but this is what can happen after the Happy Ever After when one partner suddenly starts putting a lot less into the relationship. A successful HEA in category romance only happens after both hero and heroine open up, lay themselves bare, risk everything for the sake of the relationship. Philip risks the relationship physically through his infidelity but Birgitte risks it emotionally as she withdraws, rather than fix it she gives him carte blanche as long as he’s discreet. Philip is waiting for her to show that she needs him, wants him, she asks him to put on a façade for the camera. She can’t lay herself bare and he’s stopped trying.

There are two series to come so who knows how this will pan out. Despite everything I am hoping for a reconciliation – and not just because Philip is one of the very few men over forty who can carry off a vest. 

Friday, 3 February 2012

The darker side of Twitter

‘It’s not worth it, just ignore them.’

8yo has had a few problems at school over the last few weeks, friendship groups shifting, new alliances formed, the testing of bonds. It’s been really tough, especially for an over emotional mother-of-a-one-and-only. So I trot out the usual answers – play with someone else, hang out with the boys, walk away – and worry internally about how she’ll make it through this rite of passage. Because that’s what this is, right? Girls are mean, they divide and conquer, alienate, gang up, pair off. These are accepted facts, there’re books, movies, self-help manuals all about Queen Bees and how to parent your child to cope.
But is it only girls and is this just a school thing?

Borgen & The Killing's Mikael Birkkjær;
 Danish drama at its best
As documented last month I am a big fan of social media, especially Twitter. I adore Twitter and fritter far too many hours away hanging out commenting on my day, posting pictures of my baking (I know, but I don’t bake often, honest), chatting to people, documenting my Danish drama obsession, posting articles. There are lots of people I would consider closer than acquaintances whom I have never met, people with whom I discuss books, politics, Danish drama (I’m not the only one obsessed), shoes, children, education – everything.

But Twitter, like many things, has its dark side. Sometimes you can see vile, often misogynistic hashtags trending. There’s a lot of Justin Bieber craziness which it’s best never to click on, I’ll warn you. There is the shameful way some anonymous cowards use it to abuse others – just ask Stan Collymore.  And there’s the merciless mob mentality. One mistake, one misstep and the Twitter mob can roar down on you and insist you take it.

There’s someone on Twitter I am really fond of. I don’t know him in real life but he is passionate about a fairer society, his family and his interests. He cares. He has a blog. Had a blog. And he made a mistake. Those of us who write know about attribution, about plagiarism, about piracy but lots of people genuinely don’t and, in this world of millions of bloggers, information is passed round and shared at an alarming rate. People read something, think it's important and share it. the fact those words belong to someone else doesn't occur to them. More education on copyright and attributing needs to be done.

He made a mistake. We all make mistakes. He posted a blog that used material from an article that had been on a major newspaper's website. But, this is a small blog just like this one; he doesn’t get paid for it, any publicity, any recognition. And the paper tweeted about it. Yep, a national paper with international coverage named and shamed a tiny blog. So of course then other Tweeters with no connection to the newspaper or the blogger decide to get involved and they think it’s fine to send accusatory tweets. And when he doesn’t reply these tweets get more aggressive.

So he leaves Twitter.

Of course the paper and the original author of the words have a right to find out what has happened, to demand the words are correctly attributed or taken down. Of course. But why does anyone else feel the need to get involved? To retweet, to accuse, to demand answers when it has nothing to do with them?

I think people sometimes forget there is a person at the other end of an avatar. But words do have consequences and maybe, before joining a Twitter flash mob, we should all remember that.