I dread writing any kind of romantic scene – or, even worse, anything remotely sexy
Catherine Mangan on the mortification of leaving nothing to the imagination as a writer
Catherine Mangan: “while I write with a passion, I’m not about to share the depths of my own with you, not at this point at least.”
I literally dread having to write romantic scenes of any description. Of all the aspects of writing a book, for me, it is without a doubt the hardest thing I have to do. I’m not talking about the more extreme, bodice-ripping, “leave little to the imagination” type of scene – I could never even attempt that. I’m talking about a more pedestrian, everyday sort of romance.
But it doesn’t matter, I still dread writing any kind of romantic scene and even worse, if there is anything remotely sexy going on it’s absolutely mortifying!
As I sit and type, casting characters in some sort of embrace, or state of undress, I cringe inwardly as my fingers hit the keyboard, imagining people I know turning the pages and wondering if by any chance I’m describing myself or one of my previous misadventures. I will put off the inevitable for as long as physically possible, skipping over any romantic parts and leaving large gaps in the text, deferring the writing of those scenes until a later date, hoping that somehow, magically, I will be better able to rattle off those scenes without duress.
My granny was a voracious reader, and truth be told was a bit of a romance junkie with a penchant for the Mills & Boon type of (let’s call a spade a spade) erotic romance novel, but she died years ago, so I don’t have to worry about her turning the pages of my book in shock. I’m pretty sure that my dad won’t read any of my books, he’s more likely to read the cover and tell me that it looks lovely, but my uncle will read it, and if he looks at me differently the next time we meet, I’ll know that he’s wondering if I’ve done the things that the female characters in my books have done.
I thought perhaps I could get away with it, that maybe this story didn’t need to have a romantic element, so I shipped off the first draft of the manuscript to my publisher in eager anticipation of her feedback. It was completely devoid of anything even vaguely amorous. She very graciously heaped praise on my first draft, with one exception. I believe her exact words were “as a thirty-something-year-old single woman, the reader is going to expect a little more action”. There were no more excuses. I had to sit down and deal with the lack of romance.
There is one scene in particular in The Italian Escape that induced some real keyboard anxiety in me. Niamh, the protagonist, an Irish girl in her early thirties, wakes up on Italy’s Ligurian coast after a particularly big night out and has a sudden flashback to some uncharacteristically aggressive flirting. Far too much wine had fuelled her lamentable attempt to dance provocatively using the post of a four-poster bed as a prop. In her head at the time, she was akin to Demi Moore in the movie Striptease.
In my head, people would wonder if, at the other end of a bottle of wine, I believed that I suddenly looked less like a baby giraffe and magically, more like Shakira, and perhaps might be known to try on some seductive dance moves under the cover of darkness. It was wholly mortifying even as I sat there quietly tapping the keys of my laptop. In anticipation of the book being published one day, I considered deleting the scene, but it fit perfectly with Niamh’s state of mind at the time, so I sacrificed my own personal embarrassment and kept it in.
Much to my chagrin I have it on good authority that this is not merely a case of my imagination running rampant. Both of my sisters had read an early version of the manuscript and both of them wanted to know just how much of my own experiences influenced the book. One of them confessed that she was relieved to learn that I had made up “that scene”. Otherwise, she would have to try hypnotism to erase the mental images from her brain before next laying eyes on my husband.
I try to inject a little realism into the situation and console myself with the notion that people who write murder mysteries don’t actually project their own experiences onto the page. It’s their imagination at work. That usually works for a little while, but ultimately, it’s easier to reconcile the fact that people who write dark, menacing stories haven’t necessarily had to carry out the villainous actions on real people, in real life, in order to make it seem realistic.
In contrast, most of us have engaged in some flirtatious bustle at one point or another, so it’s much easier for the reader to wonder if the writer is drawing on some past experiences.
I once read an interview with EL James, the author of the über successful Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, in which she described how, as she was writing the book, she used to ask her husband to try out different positions on the floor with her while fully clothed. Credit where credit is due, she committed fully to the research and must have had clear boundaries about the delineation between fantasy and real life.
By comparison, as I nudge my characters over the precipice from platonic interactions to that first lustful embrace, I wonder how I’m ever again going to be able to walk into Miller’s butcher shop just off main street Caherciveen and have a conversation about lamb chops.
It’s not that I’m completely romance phobic but I’m certainly not the most sentimental person in the world. I despair of Valentine’s Day. It’s a Hallmark holiday for people with no imagination and it results in jam-packed restaurants and a surge in garage forecourts sales of bunches of basic, all-too-colourful flowers. I’d much rather a bunch of daisies on a random Tuesday, to be honest.
I know I need to get over the fear and figure out a way to separate my fantasy world and the characters’ lives in my head, from that of my own real life, if for no other reason than to preserve my sanity. All those motivational sayings and strong, fist-pumping people go flashing through my brain with chants of “Feel the fear and do it anyway”.
I’m sure they’re right, but I cling to my reluctance to let go of my inhibitions, because I’m Irish and we’re a contradiction of sorts. We’re a nation of storytellers, but we’re reluctant to show our true emotions, we’re polite to a point, but yet we hate to disappoint. So, while I write with a passion, I’m not about to share the depths of my own with you, not at this point at least.
My American friends are kind and encouraging, attesting to the fact that of course, no one will assume that I’m describing my own life, that it’s quite obviously fiction. My Irish friends, by contrast, are alarmingly honest and assure me that yes, without a doubt, everyone is going to wonder, but not to worry, because it makes for great reading.
The Italian Escape by Catherine Mangan is published by Sphere