Thursday, March 4, 2021

Romances: The Travelogue

Re-post from Votaries (2014)

Romance novels have basically three plot structures:

1. The character-based plot structure.
2. The comedy-of-errors plot structure.
3. The travelogue plot structure.
The character-based plot structure is all about the characters--naturally! Of Georgette Heyer's books, Devil's Cub and Venetia come the closest. Other characters are incidental to the growing relationship between the hero and heroine. This is my favorite type of plot structure. Richardson's Pamela--despite its polemics--falls into this category. Amongst the sensual writers, Kleypas uses a character-based approach.

The comedy-of-errors plot structure usually entails what I also call world-based romance. The story is less about the growing relationship and more about the complex relationships and confusions between multiple characters. A lot of romance manga will start out as character-based and evolve into comedy-of-errors, simply out of necessity (as do many television shows). Comedy-of-errors plots can be extremely amusing when well done. At their best, they look easy, like making meringues (light, frothy, hilarious). Writers be warned: they aren't easy!

Of Georgette Heyer's books, The Grand Sophy is a good example of a comedy-of-errors that doesn't skimp on character. The Quiet Gentleman is another good example (and actually doubles as a mystery!) as is Arabella. Amongst the sensual writers, Eloisa James and Loretta Chase are masters at this type of plot structure.

Comedy-of-errors plot structures are hard to pull off (another reason I think romance writers are some of the most skilled writers on the planet!). Unfortunately, far too many writers (including romance writers but also a massive number of literary writers), overwhelmed by the comedy-of-errors' demands, will fall back on the travelogue.

The travelogue plot structure works as follows: the hero and heroine are going somewhere for some reason, and all kinds of crazy events occur to them in the meantime. Hey, it's a novel! 

Don't get me wrong: the travelogue can be well-done, even amusing. Think: The Muppet Movie. Heyers' The Foundling is a good example. One of my favorites from the sensual writers is Mr. Impossible by Loretta Chase, which is made even better by taking place in Egypt! (Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody-in-Egypt books fall into this category, a series that highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of this type of plot structure.) I tackle a M/M travelogue example here.

Far too often, the travelogue is used as an easy solution, a way to avoid character growth and tightly plotted resolutions. The loose travelogue is not that different from the kind of mystery novel where every chapter is simply another interview with a suspect; the chapters don't build on each other.

A classic plot involves a problem/conflict followed by rising action, then a denouement/climax/epiphany that confront the problem/conflict, and finally, a resolution. But if the storyline doesn't rise--if it is just one set of circumstances after another--the story becomes, well, rather like a home movie.  (The literary version of this is the Journey-Across-Some-Continent tale; supposedly, the main character learns about life during the trek. In literary novels, most of the time, the main character is simply suffering for the sake of angst in general.)

The travelogue can work! But only if the "next incident" proves or shows the reader something about the characters or about the plot problem.  "And then this happened" does not a novel make.

Hence my love for genre literature in general: a problem that must be dealt with/solved in some way--often happily--is a requirement! The blessings of paperback readers on all genre writers!!

The Incomparable Travelogue:

Sunday, February 28, 2021

What Constitutes Weakness? Archetypes in Manga

Yukari to the left.
In a prior post, I reference the strong partner with the weak-willed significant other. 

I point out how rare this pairing is in romance. Generally speaking, people want their significant others to at least be competent. 

But it does depend, in part, on what it means to be "weak." 

In Caste Heaven, which I review in an earlier post, the characters run a range from domineering to unorthodox to indifferent to gentle and sweet. The author allows all these characters to be their own complicated selves--all of them are salvageable.

However, the one character that she (appears) to perceive as non-salvageable (but the series isn't over yet) is the student who is jealous of everyone else, Yukari. 

Akusa, the protagonist, desires the position of king, but then, he already sees himself that way. Other characters inhabit their roles by fiat--This is what I've always done. Some people like their roles. Some people hate them. 

But to always be whining because one didn't get that role or that role or that role or that role out of a "raging inferiority complex"--that is the ultimate weakness. 

Western literature criticizes this character type as well but tends to focus more on the "not taking advantage of opportunities" aspect of this unhappy type rather than on the "having a really bad attitude" aspect. Japanese manga, rather like British sitcoms, dwells more on the bad attitude (British sitcoms do it for the joke). 

It's an interesting distinction regarding what constitutes "weak." The bad attitude doesn't just bring down the individual--it brings down the group. 

Which places the whole "teens need self-esteem" issue into a wildly different context, as in "your need for self-esteem is ruining my self-esteem, so cut it out."

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

New Mystery Novel! Clasp: A Donna Howard Mystery

Thanks to Eugene for the excellent cover!
Clasp

Buried inside a cache of relics from Medieval England, the ghost of a young boy knows only that he must protect these holy treasures. But as his era recedes into history and the relics scatter hither and yon, all he can do is rage against the collectors of the last remaining object, a silver spoon.

Centuries later, he encounters Donna Howard, an antique appraiser who can speak with spirits. Donna's research convinces her that a sixteenth-century skeleton recently discovered in England is the boy's remains. Now, in order to free himself from the spoon, the boy must confront his own murder.

The fourth novel in the Donna Howard mystery series again brings the past into the present, with themes of identity and choice playing out alongside the problems of messy history and tangled human relationships. Even when the crime is five hundred years old, Donna is determined to solve the case. 

Clasp is a romance in the oldest sense of the word: adventure, medieval arguments and accessories, ne'er-do-wells, polite ghosts--as well as less polite ones.

The Donna Howard Series 

Sensible Donna Howard researches the provenances of art and antiques. Unfortunately, she occasionally also stumbles across a murder that can only be solved with her unique (and sometimes regrettable) ability to see dead people from the past. Aided by opinionated friends and secretive family members (not to mention demanding significant others), Donna Howard coolly uncovers solutions to historical and contemporary mysteries, no matter how daunting or vexatious.  

The books in the Donna Howard series proceed in chronological order, but each novel can be read on its own.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

The Final Straw: Honor in Relationships

In Dorothy Sayers' novel Gaudy Night, a group of academics and Wimsey discuss whether wives care about their husband's scholarly integrity. The reluctant attitude of most of the academics is that the wives mostly care about their husband's jobs and their kids. But a few women, Harriet included, argue otherwise: equality encompasses an alignment of belief and behavior. 

It may seem a particularly Sayers' stance, reserved for overly intellectual women and readers who love Jane Austen. But Agatha Christie makes a similar argument in her short story "Magnolia Blossom." 

In "Magnolia Blossom," a husband breaks the law by committing financial fraud. His wife was intending to leave him since, well, he's kind of a pompous crook. However, out of a sense of loyalty, she decides to stay. He then asks her to visit a man who holds papers that could possibly implicate him. Although she finds the task distasteful, she follows through. The man--Vincent--has a high opinion of the wife and gives her the papers as soon as she asks. When she returns home, she realizes that her husband not only assumed she would need to sleep with Vincent to get the papers, he sent her off to Vincent with that very maneuver in mind. 

"You wanted to save your skin--save it at any cost--even at the cost of my honour," she says.

It is the final straw, and she leaves. Interesting enough, the final straw is not infidelity. (The husband has not always be faithful.) It is, rather, the absence of confidence, of being "straight" with her. And it is a good reminder that although women may not have a literary history of chivalry and knights pledging faith to each other, they yet have a literary history of honor within relationships.

Of course, Hollywood took this plot device to the extreme with Indecent Proposal, the movie where a rich tycoon buys a night with another man's wife for $1,000,000. It's kind of a McGuffin (hey, let's provide a scenario which results in a husband and wife yelling at each other in scene after scene after scene!) but at the time (1990s), it resulted in a few articles here and there where people questioned, What would a couple sacrifice for money?

However, money disguises the real issue. A great deal of television declares that the real issue is "deceit!" But the issue is truly more fundamental. It's about investment. The willingness of the husband to abandon--and the wife to agree--indicates that the relationship has already been defined by a loss of fealty. As Eleanor states in Love Boat (in summary), "There's no marriage left to protect."

Of course, determining when loss of faith has occurred is entirely up to the individual. There are no absolute rules in relationships.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Captains & Their Mates: Elementary and Monk

A friend of mine once grouched about television wives who decide they no longer want to be married to a policeman/fireman/spy. 

"They knew what they signed up for!" she said.

I agree even though I can understand, from a purely human viewpoint, why a spouse would find that the lifestyle, which appeared manageable years earlier, has become more and more wearing over the years. 

However, I like the second wives for both Captain Gregson and Captain Stottlemeyer: Paige and Trudy (T.J).

In both cases, they end up with wives who are willing to take the "captain" alongside the man. They marry the profession. Paige was a police officer herself and knows what she is getting into--as does Gregson who willingly marries a woman with ALS. At the wedding of Trudy and Stottlemeyer, she pins his badge on him.

In all fairness, age is a factor here, which is why second marriages are quite often successful. Both women enter into the marriages with a clear focus. And both men have reached the pinnacles of their career and have no desire to go further. 

*Interesting side-note about second marriages. Much criticism is leveled at Hollywood divorces but in truth, many second marriages in Hollywood are quite long-lasting. There are more outliers, like Elizabeth Taylor, but there are just as many committed relationships. (There are also a large number of successfully unmarried, which also reflects non-Hollywood-life, but that's a post for another time...)

Friday, February 12, 2021

Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer

Since I'm posting about Georgette Heyer these days, I decided to re-post an edited 2005 Votaries post about Heyer and Austen, specifically how they differ from each other. Both are very good.

* * *

Everybody is On the Make

In Austen, everyone suffers from "on the make" syndrome. Listening to Pride & Prejudice, I was struck, moreso than I have been in the past, by the hardheadedness underlying all that sensibility. Elizabeth gets angry over Darcy's interference with Bingley & Jane, but her anger is undercut by the fact that everybody is interfering with everybody all the time. Her aunt gives her advice. Elizabeth gives her sister and Charlotte advice. Charlotte gives Elizabeth advice. It's just an orgy of opinion giving! What is comes down to is: everybody wants love but nobody wants to be poor (see my post Romance and the Weird Relationship to Money for why this makes sense).

The most respectable of historical romance novels, such as Georgette Heyer's work, try to capture this on-the-make quality of Regency life. Georgette Heyer, who did a large amount of research on the dress and setting of the periods she wrote in, never marries her lords to peasant girls. She's no more democratic than Austen, and there are some Austenish ziggers in her comedy, although in general her comedy is lighter and less consequential. 

In truth, Heyer's writing can be very funny, but she was less concerned with underlying causes and more concerned with writing a good story. Everyone is on the make but somehow that fact never rises entirely to the surface. Heyer keeps it carefully under control. Lovely young ladies turn out to be heiresses. Handsome young men turn out to her heirs. Supposed changelings turn out to have Viscounts for fathers. Don't worry. There's no angst here (thankfully).

Plot versus Story

Using established definitions, plot is a narrative arc. Story is a series of events: this happened, then this, now this. Plot is best described using a Stephen King image. He describes the process of writing as uncovering a skeleton. The narrative is already there, whole, intact. It just needs to be brought to the surface. With story, on the other hand, the end is always a twist, a change of fortune, the turn of the wheel. 

Austen is about plot. Heyer is more about story. In Heyer's These Old Shades, the non-changeling changeling gets captured by her despicable father, rescued by her saturnine lover, presented to all of Paris, confronted with the supposed fact of her illegitimacy at which she runs away to save her lover from her supposed bad reputation. She is finally recovered by her lover and restored to all her rights and privileges (I'm using lover in the old sense of the word; nobody sleeps with anybody until they are married, although the dandies and members of the ton sometimes have mistresses; all the sex occurs off-stage).

Now, in all honesty, These Old Shades and other Heyer books are a whole bunch of fun--and the books are not devoid of plot; there is always a conflict that gets paid-off. But they are not quite the same as plot-driven books. With plot, the ending is incipient in the beginning. There's an inevitability about it. No twist is necessary to bring about a particular denouement. It lies in wait, inviolate, known (although not necessarily unveiled yet to the reader). The parts of the narrative hold together like a statue or shape. As one reads, one gets a sense of an emerging totality.

Take Elizabeth and Darcy. Both undergo an enlightenment, a point when they reorganize their thoughts and feelings. Elizabeth is angered, then humiliated and aggrieved by Darcy's letter. Darcy is angered, then embarrassed by Elizabeth's accusations of "ungentlemanly" behavior. But the argument, letter, and realization are a long-time coming. The mutual feelings of attraction and irritation have been hovering since Day One (I side with those who argue that Elizabeth was always attracted or at least interested in Darcy since "slow burn" does not mean, "Oh, I had no real interest--now, I suddenly do!" which is why romances--despite stereotypes--rarely use the "I don't take lack-of-interest for an answer" hero). 

Elizabeth's visit to Pemberley isn't contrived. Darcy's intercession with Wickham & Lydia isn't a lucky chance. It is made necessary by Darcy's behavior at Netherfield Park, where he purchases reputation at the expense of Lydia's future (who might not matter but Elizabeth and Jane certainly do). This is behavior he must rectify.

Conclusion

I'll go so far as to say that all great works have plot, rather than just story. However, story is a good alternative to a lousy plot. Heyer's fun and roller-coaster-ride stories never fail to satisfy.

Monday, February 8, 2021

Fairytale Romance Problem: The Prince Doesn't Get to Know His Bride

The tale of Sleeping Beauty has a lot of problems. One of them: prince wins the princess with a kiss even though he doesn't know her. 

Historically-speaking, marriage is the tale's success. As I cover in a past post, security matters to both the unattached princess and the second or third or fourth son who needs a kingdom of his own. 

But even when Perrault and others were writing these tales down, romance as a personal connection (not an arrangement) was creeping over the horizon. 

Walt Disney rather cleverly solved the issue of "What if he wakes her up and they hate each other?" by having the prince meet Sleeping Beauty before she goes to sleep. A strong short story by, I believe, Vivian Vande Velde postulates that the prince can enter others' dreams. Presumably, he and the princess meet in dreams before he arrives to wake her. And I wrote a short story years ago in which I made Sleeping Beauty the villain and the witch the heroine (long before Angelina Jolie got in on the act).

Cinderella and the prince at least have the ball (although various versions of that tale also provide more contact between the protagonists), but a princess over 100 years old and a prince who purposefully fought his way through thorns begs the question, Does he want to settle down? Isn't he obviously really in this quest for the adventure? (The second video addresses Sleeping Beauty.)