Have you guys found out about Intersect yet? It's a lovely idea for a social space: you write a story from your life, and mark the time and place. Then you can browse around chronologically, geographically, or both—to see what other stories have happened in that place, or what other stories were happening around the same time. It's engaging, encouraging, and totally addictive. Here's a map of my stories so far—I've been meaning to add more, when deadlines are not breathing like dragons down my neck.
I've been going strong on my RITA reading, but somehow or other (wedding, honeymoon) have fallen behind on the actual writing-up of my thoughts. So this post is going to tackle two RITA winners -- plus, a bonus book! -- for reasons that should become obvious. Ultimately, what I've taken away from these three books is: location, location, location.
First up: The Sandalwood Princess, by Loretta Chase. Brief admission: Loretta Chase is currently my number-one favorite romance author, and for the past year and a half I've been reading everything of hers I could get my hands on. This one was a new one, and unlike many of her others it moved around a lot from place to place: India, onboard ship, a country manor house, and India again.
From a writers' craft standpoint, each of these locations provided a framework for a different part of the story:
- India holds the initial moment of contact, where the thief-hero steals the titular princess statue from our heroine. But it is also the home of the sly, elderly whose failed long-ago romance is the impetus for the plot, and a foil to our hero and heroine.
- On the ship back to England, our hero masquerades as a servant, a deception which succeeds but which does not prevent the heroine from stealing the statue back from the false master she believes to be the real thief. It is also a space where neither the hero or heroine is entirely at home, and being jarred out of a familiar setting leads to more intimate conversation than each might otherwise have permitted.
- Once in England, the heroine realizes the statue is missing and follows the heroine north to find an opportunity of stealing it back -- which means convincing the heroine he was fired by his master once the statue disappeared from the ship. She hires him as a secretary/butler, which allows them to spend hours together in a cozy domestic setting, enjoying one another's company and falling even more deeply in love.
- The thief ultimately has to steal the statue back, for some reason, and everybody goes back to India, where the final twist is revealed and both romance plotlines find a resolution.
Ultimately, the locations are a shorthand for the developing relationship, as often happens in romances (I'm looking at you, Pemberley, and every manor house descriptive passage you've inspired in two hundred years). It's usually a pretty good trick, even when the seams show.
But it has a downside: it can make your hero and heroine seem like they are an entirely different person when they are in a different location. Sometimes this is important, and can shake up a complacent character -- again, PEMBERLEY -- but sometimes it just starts to feel a bit whiplash-y for the reader. "Wait -- who the hell is this person with the same name as that person I was just getting to know? That person would never do this. What's going on?"
Unfortunately, this is what happened in The Prince of Midnight by Laura Kinsale, which was absolutely jam-packed full of things. Anything that could be made interesting was interest-ified within an inch of its life.
The hero is a half-deaf hermit and former highwayman still wanted in England, whose best friend is a tame wolf. The heroine is the only survivor of a family wiped out by a malicious pastor's oppressive cult in her home village. (No, really.) They meet the totally squicky Marquis de Sade, and later a group of aristocratic snuff enthusiasts -- and, to clarify, not the "Oh look at my tiny dandyish habit" snuff. The "Oh look at me choke a woman to death during sex" snuff.
But I'm getting off-track.
I stumbled upon another Kinsale romance, An Uncertain Magic, which had the same rampant busyness. (Psychics! Repressed memories! Revolution in Ireland! The Sidhe! An adorable brandy-drinking pig!) What's more, it had the same unconcern with locations as the first one. Kinsale's places feel ephemeral, as though the characters are only tangentially rooted there. Perhaps this is because the couples in both novels are somewhat unrooted themselves: there's a lot of things that happen on the road, or in houses being falling down or being rebuilt, or in inns and waystations and the like. And I have to admit to being really, really fond of the hero from Prince of Midnight, mostly on account of how different he is from the usual alpha hero. (Very broken, and more than a little sad, and very aware that his desperation is not attractive, which paradoxically makes him quite attractive as a character.)
And maybe it's something about the way the two authors (Chase and Kinsale) think of characters. Chase's style is a much more invisible thing, a mostly realistic narrative voice. Kinsale, though, is a little more fluid and suggestive, a little more poetic, which can be very effective but which always kind of reminds me of Terry Pratchett's description of reading the human mind as "trying to nail fog to the wall." You get all these rich and evocative phrases, but the thread of a specific character's personality tends to wax and wane, disappear and reappear.
Frankly, much as I love an evocative phrase, I want to keep my writing as rooted as possible. Maybe when I make it through all the relevant RITAs I'll start by taking apart a particularly admirable scene or two from some of my favorite novels. Hey, who ever said a comparative literature degree couldn't be useful?
Our third day in Helsinki, and my body has adjusted enough that I am not having random spells of dizziness from sleep deprivation. Plus, I am still sleeping incredibly soundly on this impossibly comfy hotel bed. Hooray! What's more, today's weather looked beautiful, so we put on sunscreen before we left the hotel. This turned out to be smart.
From the waterfront you can take a short ferry ride to Suomenlinna, the island fortress that once defended Helsinki against the Russians, the English and French (oh, Crimean War, with your slippery unremembered facts), and the Russians again during World War II. We meandered down to the dock, sampling free buy-our-food bribes from market stalls all the way. Finnish sweet peas are practically a dessert item, they are so lush and tasty. I was mesmerized by the beauty of vegetables.
It was around this time that I took my favorite photo of the trip so far: a closeup shot of the Havis Amanda statue on the Helsinki waterfront. I cannot seem to stop taking photos of this statue, from whatever angle the light allows, no matter how many times it tests the limits of Charles' patience and causes him to gently cough and remind me of time's inexorable passage:
The last time I visited Suomenlinna, the entire ocean was a bleak expanse of treacherous and impassable ice, with a heavy blanket of undisturbed snow and a lone swan winging over the silent sea. Today it was thronged with people, having picnics and swimming and drawing and playing with puppies and herding small children through sprinklers and kayaking and generally making the most of a perfect summer afternoon by the water. The soft breeze did its best but the sunlight was fierce, and our greatest relief came from finding a rocky beach and dipping our feet in the Baltic Sea. (Or Gulf of Finland, if we're being technical.) You'll be shocked to hear that the Baltic Sea is really cold, even in the height of summer.
Once we had lunch and returned, we were astonished to note the dark and ominous clouds looming up behind the city, and were glad we'd gone out adventuring while the day was young. Little did we know that the first thing to fall from the sky would not be raindrops, but a small and still temporarily alive fish.
He plopped down in front of us, still twitching and panicked, when we were crossing the street two blocks from the harbor. It might have seemed more of an omen if we hadn't also noticed the loud cry of disappointment from the seagull who had dropped him. But it was still pretty weird.
Now it is dinnertime, the heavens have opened, and the great thunder god Ukko is throwing rocks in that great bowling alley in the sky. Good thing the restaurant in this hotel is delicious.
Upcoming: museums, architecture, and a Finnish karaoke palace.
There are ten-hour plane flights, and there are ten-hour plane flights. This, thankfully, was the former. I spent at least half of it watching Clash of the Titans and then Percy Jackson and the Olympians and crafting a messy and unreasoned analysis of the films' different interpretations of Greek mythology and its pertinent themes, because that is what my brain does on vacation. Charles plowed through the first two Harry Potter books and Zamyatin's dystopian We, all before the wheels touched down in Amsterdam.
Confidential to the waiter in the ridiculously upscale bistro on the second floor of the Amsterdam airport lounge: Despite the "Please Wait to Be Seated" sign, you work in an airport. If I'm ordering a Sauternes in an airport, it's a good bet I'm not really that picky about my Sauternes. You do not really need to warn me in hushed tones that the Sauternes is "far too sweet." I mean, as opposed to every other Sauternes, everywhere? It's a dessert wine! Sweetness is a desirable characteristic! Also, when you have a couple unfamiliar Dutch and Belgian beers on the list, and we ask you for a good beer recommendation, it is not acceptable to say, "Heineken, of course!" simply because you have cleverly deduced we are Americans. We are from Seattle. We know Heineken is not the best you can do.
The pumpkin soup, however, was delicious.
We went on to Helsinki. Our luggage, we discovered much later, decided to hang around the Netherlands for a bit longer. Probably getting irresponsibly stoned in a hash bar somewhere. Our luggage knows nothing about moderation.
So there we were, Charles and I, sans clothes, sans toothbrush, sans spare pair of underwear even though I knew I should have packed an extra in my carry-on like a smart and prepared adventurer. I reminded myself that we were newlyweds on our honeymoon and the underwear was probably mostly optional. To make change for the bus, we bought some surprising chocolates, chocolates that looked dark and delectable but which shattered as soon as you lay tooth to them and rained cloudberry liqueur over your entire hand. Sticky-fingered and now awake for upward of 20 hours, we took the bus to the central railway station and decided to find our hotel by means of our two sets of unshared, four-year-old memories.
Shockingly, it worked.
Now all we had to do was stay up until our luggage arrived. It was 3:30 Helsinki time. Our bags were supposed to be on the 5:00 flight from Amsterdam, which would mean they'd be landing at 8:30, and certainly, the girl at the help counter assured us, delivered to our hotel before 11:00 in the evening. In between, we had a whole city to explore and a thousand possible options for dinner and entertainment.
We passed out cold at 6. The phone woke us at 10:45, groggily and gladly we greeted our errant bags, and returned to our ludicrously comfortable bed. (Though what is up with the two twin comforters on a queen-sized bed thing?) At 4 in the morning, Finland time -- that'd be 2 in the afternoon for Seattle folk -- we woke up, much refreshed, wide awake, and with three solid hours of quiet to kill until breakfast was served. The time change, she be a fickle mistress.
Helsinki is a town full of fiddly façades, unexpected parks, and statues. Sometimes these elements combine themselves, like so:
Today was a reconnaissance day, where we mostly just wandered blithely around until our feet hurt, then ate some things, then wandered some more, then ate some more things. We tried reindeer sausage, and some kind of tiny breaded whole fish, both of which were tasty, though the former made Charles feel evil. Soon it will be time for dinner, which will be fancy, because I insisted on doing the fancy dinner earlier in the week while my clothes were still in decent shape and not all sweaty from the heat.
Because, and this shouldn't have surprised me, it is fairly warm here. It rained in the morning, quite hard at one point, but now there is a wash of blue sky that looks like it's here to stay until the sun goes down at, I don't know, midnight, or whenever the hell it feels like it. Finland is balmy -- who knew? I am grateful for the dozen jewel-toned tank tops I packed, and might pick up another dozen at the H&M next door while we're here.
Up and coming: the Lutheran cathedral, the Russian cathedral, maybe Suomenlinna and fortress cannons, the waterfront park, a purported Lenin statue that I may have dreamed on the plane ride back my first trip, and any one of a hundred different museums.