Rhiannon Held: Five Things I Learned Writing Reflected
The Were have lived among humans for centuries, secretly, carefully. They came to America with the earliest European colonists, seeking a land where their packs could run free. Andrew Dare is a descendant of those colonists, and he and his mate, Silver, have become alphas of the Roanoke pack, the largest in North America.
But they have enemies, both within their territory and beyond the sea. Andrew is drawn away to deal with the problem of a half-human child in Alaska, leaving Silver to handle the pack and his rebellious daughter just as a troublemaker from Spain arrives on the scene.
1. Sex scenes are complex
I thought about making this title “Sex scenes are hard” but besides the potential puns, what I learned about sex scenes while writing Reflected was actually back one step in the process. Sure, the actual scene may be difficult to write, but first you have to decide whether to write one at all. My position is that if you want to make your readers hot and bothered, the best way is to show how hot and bothered your characters are, not to catalog the actual sex acts. A list of sex acts is certainly sometimes hot and bothersome (Erotica? Yes please! But separate from a novel) but not equally to every reader. What turns one person on might turn off or bore another. If, however, you instead establish how turned on your characters are and fade back, leaving a sex-act-shaped blank, the reader’s imagination eagerly rushes in and fills that blank with what turns them on down to the tiniest detail. And you didn’t even have to use mighty author powers of clairvoyance to predict every single reader’s kinks!
That’s what I did with the first two books in my series. There’s plenty of sex had by the characters, but few explicit sex scenes. Reflected was different. Felicia, the rebellious daughter mentioned above, gets it on with her crush in chapter one. It’s their first time with each other, so in the end I decided to write much more of the scene. Why? Because her emotions were complicated and changed throughout the sex. Because it was their first time together, and seeing how they learned each other (or didn’t) illustrated their relationship. And because I wanted to make it clear that even though she was a teen, they weren’t having birds-and-bees sex.
Remember the first line of the proverbial Talk? “When two people really love each other…” Adult characters can have no-strings-attached sex, or friends-with-benefits sex, or a fling simply for the intimacy of it. But so often teen characters either really love each other, or it’s a Bad Choice that leads to Bad Consequences. Why can’t a teen be intimate just to be intimate? So I decided to follow the sex scene to explore that idea. But it was a decision I had to come to, based on complex factors.
2. When you can, find an informant
Reflected was a research heavy book—the characters deal with police, law, and therapy professionals all in one book. Even one of those arenas has a whole pile of jargon, rules, and details involved in portraying it properly. I quickly realized I needed knowledge organized for problem-solving, something Google, or your preliminary source of choice, isn’t set up to do. It all depends on whether your plot turns on the cause or effect of a character’s actions. Does your character need to set something on fire, and you want to find out the consequences should the police arrive? Or do you want the character arrested but you don’t know for what? Google can help you with “maximum penalty for arson” but type in “what can someone be arrested for that is serious, but not too serious?” and you’re not going to get much in the way of helpful results. Finding causes for plot-fixed effects is tricksy to the extreme and—probably needless to say—was the situation I found myself in for Reflected.
Of course, you can certainly read everything about a subject until you’ve found every single possible cause and can choose among them. But that’s assuming you have that much time to spare and have a love of research for its own sake (I don’t). Or you can ask the right person.
When it came to police procedure, I was aware of things like citizen’s academies that could give one a good general grounding in police procedure, but I wasn’t sure who to ask specific questions. I didn’t know anyone personally, and of course I didn’t want to bother anyone who was busy keeping me and others safe. I contacted the local department’s public information officer, though, and she pointed me to the police training academy. The commander himself invited me to visit and talk to him, and it was one of the most fun, friendly research interview experiences I’ve ever had. I came away with not only correct information, but exactly the kind of situation I needed for my plot!
3. Reality isn’t exciting enough
When it came to the therapist scene in the novel, I thought I was good to go. I found my informant, wrote the scene, and felt pretty confident. What did my beta readers think of my impeccably researched scene where the therapist does a mental competency evaluation on my character?
They thought it was completely unrealistic.
Most of my readers thought the therapist was too “nice” and that the scene felt more like he was giving the character therapy rather than evaluating her. I went back my informant and relayed the readers’ comments in confusion. She said, “Often, an evaluation would be like the beginning of therapy.” So I was completely correct, just not narratively gripping enough.
If you’ve never been in that situation before, let me assure you, it’s incredibly frustrating. In the end, I returned to the problem-solving brainstorming I had to do above, looking for things that were also realistic, but were a little bit more exciting. My breakthrough came from a friend who told me stories about a therapist she really hadn’t clicked with. She said he’d gotten an idea in his head, and refused to let it go even when she repeatedly assured him she didn’t feel that way. Once I started thinking of my therapist character as a fallible human being, likely to have a misconception or two, the whole scene snapped into focus and readers declared it plenty exciting.
4. Many people don’t conceptualize gender like an anthropologist
You probably read that title and frowned a little suspiciously. Possibly you said, “duh?” It’s a thing I had to learn, though. After years of academia and anthropological theory for my day job as an archaeologist, I take my gender conceptualizations for granted. The number of gender categories we have, where we draw the lines between, and how fluid they are, are all culturally influenced. I mean, obviously, right? That’s why some cultures have a third gender, others allow people to choose one of two despite whatever their biological sex might be, some allow people to take on some characteristics of other genders, but not others…all kinds of variety! If you think it’s a continuum, if you think it’s neat boxes, that’s all influenced by your culture.
Knowing that, in Reflected, I gave the werewolves—since they’re a species, with their own culture from birth—a conception of sexual orientation slightly different from the Western norm. In one scene, a Were explains to a human that the Were differentiate between sexual encounters and long-term relationships. Or as someone once said pithily on a sex advice podcast: “My heart wants one thing, but my genitals sometimes want something different.” Most Were, in Western terms, would be bisexual, except for in long-term relationships when they’re gay or straight (and sometimes bisexual) instead.
When I sent the novel out to beta readers, one reader looked at me in critique session and said, “I don’t get it.”
I flipped to that paragraph and reread it. “What don’t you get? They mentally split between sex and relationships.”
She shook her head. “I didn’t get it. I guess I kind of do now, listening to you talk about it. But it didn’t make sense.”
And that’s when I thought (and did not say) Sorry, I don’t get what you don’t get.
But I did rephrase the explanation in that scene to try to clarify. Since not everyone has a degree in anthropology.
5. Proto-adults are hard to write
So fictional teenagers, right? Plenty of fiction dives straight into the sheer emotional intensity of that period in our lives. But I’ve always been much more interested in the rise of emotional maturity. Not a teen taking on adult responsibilities, but the fundamental mental change that takes place, perhaps later than the advent of those responsibilities. It’s a change formed of learning at least some part of better delayed gratification, empathy, bullshit detection, and an ability to game out consequences far into the future, as the tide of emotional intensity finally ebbs.
I knew I wanted to place a character right on the cusp, when instincts have formed, but the character doesn’t know what they are yet. It’s the point between “What you’re offering sounds dangerous and FUN. WHEEEEEE,” and, “Woah, I call bullshit. Back off,” when maturity taps you on the shoulder and you think, “That sounds like fun, but something seems…off. I’m totally uncomfortable. Why am I uncomfortable? Maybe I better not.”
The trouble was, that’s a teetery sort of cusp to be living, much less to write. I worried that Felicia would seem older than her eighteen years, but early readers mentioned she sometimes seemed young. As near as I can tell, that’s because she read as mature enough they started to hold her to adult standards of sensible behavior, when she still had plenty of emotional intensity left. In the end, I let her be more sensible, and used the plot to close some of the sensible avenues once available to her. I wrote her using the memory of my own time teetering on that cusp of maturity, and hopefully it will resonate with others’ memory of that time as well.