History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

22 June 2011

Writing Sex : Passion ...? or Purple Prose?

So I have finally reached the point in the manuscript of my novel-in-progress where the heroine and her about-to-be-lover are going to consummate their star-crossed romance. It's 300 pages into the narrative (much else is going on, as it is based on historical events) and as I search for all the right words I also began to second-guess myself. Have the characters earned this? Have I shown them earning it in their previous scenes? And what about the words themselves? Am I being overly lyrical? Too overtly graphic for a historical setting? Are my sentences reading mawkish or maudlin? Am I feeling what my characters are feeling?

Some of the hoydens are masters (mistresses?) of the powerfully erotic sex scene (I'm talking to you, Pam and Isobel). Do you (and the other hoydens, and our visiting authors) ever struggle with the words, or do you find writing sex scenes one of the easier aspects of crafting your novels?

From a craft standpoint, do you have any rules you apply to your scenes (e.g., if they make you giggle when you read them aloud, you start rewriting?) Do you tend to go for the graphic, or employ euphemisms? Given the fact that there are a limited number of body parts and names for them, and unless your characters are well versed in the Kama Sutra, a fairly narrow repertoire of positions they'd be familiar with, how do you keep these scenes fresh, even when they are character-driven?

And to both authors and readers ... what makes a sex scene in a novel work for you?


Blogger Meg McNulty said...

Always a great topic this! I was blogging about it a while ago and someone recommended Stacia Kane's Be a Sex Writing Strumpet (series of blog posts). They were so helpful!

I'm ever in awe of people who are good at this. I think I write them in layers - first is like the anatomy of it (what's happening and with what), next is the beautifying it and then the building the layer of emotion.

I think they have to do something - further the plot, develop the character or they don't have that heart squeezing impact!

4:28 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

Wow, I think I might have to use “master of the powerfully erotic sex scene” as a quote, LOL!

What I find difficult about writing sex scenes is that most of the words we use today simply aren’t period (for example, “sex” is not an 18th century verb; people did not “have sex” then). When I’m in the hero’s POV I have less problems, because I assume (perhaps incorrectly) that he’d at least have a vocabulary for body parts and acts, limited and crass as it might be. Writing a courtesan is likewise somewhat easier, but my next book has a virgin heroine (never want to do that again!). How does a women without the vocab *think* about the act? How do you write about body secret, unnamed, possibly unknown body parts and not end up with wildly purple prose?

8:53 AM  
Blogger Meg McNulty said...

I enjoy a bit of historical lingo in a sex scene. Just read a really well written scene in Laura Kinsale's 'For My Lady's Heart' which uses the word 'quaint' for Melanthe's lady parts (in her POV) e.g. "he pressed his mouth to her quaint". The book's really heavy in its usage of medieval language throughout, not just in dialogue, but because it's so well contextualised it works perfectly well and adds to the world-building and atmosphere of the novel.

I thought it was interesting, because I'd been thinking in terms of work around euphemisms for the historical romance heroine, but that showed me that context is all.

I love sex scenes that are deep in a POV and reveal something about the characters. The most memorable ones do that really well. I've been on a Kinsale splurge so she's my main point of reference today but in 'My Sweet Folly' I liked the fact that the whole way through the hero refused to finish the act and the heroine was left confused and frustrated. It was obvious Something Was Up - he wasn't doing it as some sort of Sting-esque extended tantric sex. As it turns out, his behaviour related to a crucial plot point which was revealed at the end. It foreshadowed what was to come (no pun intended) and when the act was consummated, it was hugely meaningful on a number of levels and thus hugely satisfying.

I love this subject - it's such an under-appreciated piece of craftsmanship being able to do this well. A real gift!

If you're interested, here's the post I did on my traumas in approaching it: http://bit.ly/kuh75V

10:32 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I find a lot of the period words very off-putting in love scenes (e.g. cunny and quim) and simply would never use them (cunny is a version of cunt and reminds me of a rabbit [coney] and quim just sounds gelatinous, like blancmange *shudder*). Quaint, being another euphemistic version of cunt, also makes my list of words to avoid (plus, it sounds purple and cutesy).

10:48 AM  
Blogger Meg McNulty said...

LOL, that just made me choke on my tea.

Normally I'm with you, but I think the reason it works in this context is because the whole novel is written in this style, not just the sex scenes - it flows naturally, rather than jarring. By the time you get to this point, you're two thirds through and have become acclimatised to the language. It therefore doesn't distract in a purple-hued fashion.

11:06 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

I'm loving this discussion, ladies. I have never heard the word "quaint" as a euphemism. I would probably (and evidently incorrectly) think that either the author had invented the word in her character's POV or that she meant "quim." Isobel, I've used both "cunny" and "quim," but in the specific context of it being used by a sexually experienced person of low birth and breeding. And in that context, the words felt appropriate. But I also didn't use them in a sex scene that was a love scene. For some reason it would seem to vulgarize the beauty of the act, even though the same lowbred lady was the one making love.

I've been writing lately in the POV of a sexually inexperienced, very Catholic woman and neither she nor her husband really know what they're doing. I have my heroine using the French words -- obvious cognates: (vagin and penis -- spelled with an accent aigu over the "e") because her mother, who taught her about the birds and the bees, was not one to use cute words for things.

11:20 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

@Isobel, re: "sex" in the 18th c. True, not a verb, but was used as a noun. And as a noun it's fairly giggle-proof. "He placed her hand on his sex..." Not optimal, but depends on the circumstances. A man who was not a rake probably wouldn't say "yard," for example, about his own anatomy.

11:22 AM  
Blogger Meg McNulty said...

I think 'quaint' is a Chaucerism - it's in Partridge's Dictionary of Historical Slang, with variants queinte, queynte and quaynte.

Quim, or a variant of it(quine) is still knocking about in common usage in some parts of Scotland. My husband is from the North East of Scotland and quine simply means 'woman'. It's what he calls me when he wants to wind me up!

@Leslie I do like it when sex words reflect a person's history. Makes each scene more meaningful.

12:11 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I'd totally use them in a vulgar sense or in the POV of a vulgar character!

The OED gives “Sir Tristrem” c. 1300-1330 as the first reference for quaint. Chaucer, 60-90 years later is the second reference.

Glancing through the OED, I’m surprised to see that “jock” is 1790 (and can apply to the genitals of a man or woman) and that Johnson, John Thomas, and Dick are all Victorian! Great excuse to not use “dick”, which I also find kind of gross.

Wow, I’m awfully squeamish for someone who writes hot books, LOL!

12:55 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Dick doesn't work for me, though cock does, depending on the circumstances. For instances, I can see Emma Hamilton using the word, but not Lord Nelson (who never cursed -- so unusual for a sailor!)

It really does hit home how much of the vocabulary we choose is character-driven or informed.

3:14 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

So where do we go with breasts, bosom, jugs, dugs, dukkys (whichis really dugs; that one was used in a love letter from Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn), bubs, bubbies? (that last one reads too much like the plural of the Yiddish word for a bubbie, a Jewish grandmother).

3:17 PM  
Blogger Meg McNulty said...

I have a phobia of the word dugs for breasts. I remember studying a poem by Seamus Heaney that uses it and it sounded so shriveled and wrinkled. Uck!

Not a fan of dick either. It sounds too much like a teenager flicking the Vs to take at all seriously.

This debate has inspired me to compile a list of archaic terms for the male member:

Belly ruffian has got to rate quite highly, surely? Though beard-splitter wins on the absolute ick front.

I actually quite like the old english terms (when used in context) both male and female. They sound very earthy and a bit more dignified than some of the later euphemisms.

I shall have to compile the female version now!

3:28 PM  
Blogger Maryan said...

Hey! No Fair! This is the second time in as many years that a Hoyden has stolen my (stuffy) academic research topic. Darn.

Two considerations: First, what do the characters and plot circumstances demand for level of explicitness? Shouldn't the intensity and point of development of the relationship determine quantity of description? I mean, it's not just sex-for-sex's sake; in a well crafted narrative (a given here), the sex scene must add something to moving the plot along.

Second, part of the challenge (particularly US) is that women haven't developed a language for "it." Culturally, good girls don't, do they? Because the topic is so taboo we have no language nor comfort level for discussing or describing "the act." What we have is scientific (penis) or purple (Mighty Wang).

I'm thinkin' it's time to create a new lexicon.

7:49 PM  
Blogger Meg McNulty said...

Couldn't agree more! What's your research Maryan, sounds interesting?

4:52 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I don't think I've ever used anything other than "breast/breasts/chest" (though I might use "dugs" for someone OTHER than the heroine, LOL! And I pretty much stick to “cock/yard/member” (I quite like he word cock and don’t use anything else from hero’s POV).

8:08 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

LOL, Maryan. You'll have to steer us to your post when you revisit this subject! Good point about the level of description/intensity matching where the couple is in their relationship at that point in the narrative.

Isobel, with my French heroine I was using the word "poitrine" a lot, which literally translates to "chest," though it might as well mean "bosom area" -- but not breasts, specifically.

12:51 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Leslie, on a fascinating topic! As I've blogged about before, I went from being very prudish about writing sex scenes to quite liking the challenge to being relieved that in historical suspense I can fade to black. I agree the terminology is tricky. I find one can often do an amazing amount with verbs without needing nouns, which can get the point across without language that other sounds too purple, too crude, or too quaint.

11:21 AM  

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