By Jayne Fresina
I have a lot in common with Paddington Bear. I'm furry (especially in winter), roundish, shortish, unfashionably fond of duffle coats, and would ideally prefer to spend the snowy months in hibernation. Most of all, like Paddington Bear, I love marmalade. But it has to be just the right kind. I don't like it too sweet. I prefer my marmalade to have bite, to actually taste like fruit, not sugary mush. The taste certainly matters to me more than how it looks in the package.
I'm the same way when it comes to romance. I don't care for cutesy or sappy. For me, even in childhood, Disney heroines were dire creatures with eyes bigger than their hands (Ouch. That really "icks" me out!) and untangled hair thicker than their waists. I had no interest in their romances with similarly unrealistic, cardboard princes. Today, the adult version of Disney cartoon romances— Hallmark movies and Hollywood Rom-Coms— just leave me, as a woman, feeling hacked-off, condescended to, deceived, abused and belittled.
Before their fans pelt me with fluffy truncheons, perhaps I should explain.
Look, I know I'm far from perfect. I've made mistakes in my life. I can be insensitive and harsh (see above). I am stubborn and anti-social. I can be sulky if I don't get my own way, and pessimistic when everything seems to be going well for me. Sometimes I'm certain I'm right, when I turn out to be wrong. Sometimes, when I think I'm wrong, I turn out to be right, because I lack self-confidence in almost everything I do. I procrastinate. I judge— probably unfairly.
I worry too much at times about things I can't change. I've secretly put wicked curses on people (so far they haven't worked - I swear, officer). I resort to starving myself when I need to lose weight, because I have no patience or faith in diets - and I still see a person who is too fat in the mirror. I'm lazy. I have zero willpower when it comes to espresso martinis and coconut cream pie. I avoid housework until the last possible moment before someone comes over and then I act as if it's their fault that my house is a mess. Why did they want to come over anyway? Who the hell do they think they are??
I've cried at stupid commercials, but laughed at the most inappropriate moments in life. I've been resentful and ungrateful at times. Occasionally the world seems like a very dark place that I don't particularly want to live in and then I'm a real pain to everybody around me.
See, I know I have faults and I'm the first to admit what they are. But nobody is perfect. Nobody is right all the time, just as nobody is always wrong. Nobody wakes up looking naturally beautiful— even Victoria's Secret models are photo-shopped. And yes, they fart. The poor things are gassy from lack of food. It happens.
Everybody sometimes puts the wrong leg in their jeans first. Thank goodness.
In the words of Jane Austen, "Pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked". (Fist bump to that, Miss Austen.)
Failure is a part of being human and, to be honest, failure is often more interesting than success. In a comedy it's certainly funnier, right?
For me, it makes a better romance, too.
But there is no humor and truth in a woman waking up with a full face of make-up, ten foot eyelashes and hot-iron curls. Just as there is no humor and truth in a medieval warrior with glowing white teeth, a waxed chest and even a minor understanding of the term "women's rights". I get the concept of fantasy, but I also like realism in my romances. I don't want my characters airbrushed. I want faulty, funny people who, when they fall down, get a full face of mud, not just an artfully placed smear on one cheek. I want to watch or read about a love that is at least 80% possible in real life. Something that's not making me roll my eyes and suspend disbelief every other page or frame.
If I see two actors skipping off into the sunset holding hands, I'm waiting for one to fall and the other to trip over them. Then I might believe it.
But here I am, writing romances. As you might expect, after that introduction, they're not your grandmother's romances. I think I must have slipped through the door to an alternate universe when I found myself writing in this genre. I'm quite sure I wasn't wanted here. It certainly took long enough for any publisher to even consider my work, but some unknowing innocent let me in to the party and now, like a stray pizza delivery boy with acne and greasy fingers, I'm rummaging about in their frilly underwear drawer, horrifying the community of Organized Romance on a regular basis.
So now that I'm here in happy-ever-after land, how do I prevent my love stories from veering off into soggy sentimentality? And writing historical romance in particular, how do I keep a touch of realism in the rumpy-pumpy, without turning it into a horror story about the poor state of hygiene and the fact that somebody had to empty the chamber pots on a hot day. Eventually.
First, I like to give my characters an in-depth profile to make certain they have many dimensions more than two. I try to make them as fleshed-out and fallible as possible. I make sure that I like them, that I find them flawed and funny and good company. Sometimes they're just awful wretches that nobody but me would ever have any time for. But that's my perverse sense of humor (see above).
Then I type them onto my little glowing screen and begin building a world around them. A world that is often crazy, but always honest. And full of banana skins, because if nobody falls over, what's the point?
I suppose it all boils down to this—I try to make my characters unremarkable people who find themselves in a remarkable predicament. And that, when you think about it, is what love and real life is all about. It's about surviving pandemonium together, seeing beneath the surface and appreciating all the many dimensions of the person in front of you. Especially the quirks and foibles, the bits they try to hide because they might not meet with factory packaging standards.
In my new release Slowly Fell, the hero and heroine are, at first sight, two of the most "ordinary" characters on my page. But they're both hiding a lot of secrets and, like real life, their story is about to get messy, complicated and chaotic.
The obstacles surrounding my leading players in this story are: a scandalous family of accused witches, some of whom may or may not be dead; a missing housemaid with a fondness for cake; a cursed village; a set of thumbscrews; a busy-body dowager chasing her husband's ghost; a solicitor in possession of a sealed, secret letter; a mad admiral who thinks he's doomed— oh, and some marmalade, which is really where it all begins. Every good story ought to have marmalade. And not the too-sweet, mushy, photo-shopped, mass-produced kind.
I am glad to say there are no perfect people in Slowly Fell, but I like them all.
Not sure how they feel about me though, after everything I put them through.
They'd probably rather be in a Hallmark movie. Ingrates.
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Publisher's Note: Jayne has many unlikely romances available from TEP. Check out all of her many works HERE.