Sunday, May 11, 2008

Writers' Q&A

The first question this time comes from Rachel who asks:

As an aspiring writer, how would you suggest 'getting into' the character traits of particular nationalities? I know that Greeks, Spaniards and Italians are regarded as strong, passionate and proud men and that's what adds to their appeal but I have also read comments from readers on eharlequin that are critical when a writer maybe hasn't got it quite right and they state this as fact because they are/ are married to a Greek/Spaniard/Italian. Comments such as ' an italian man would never do this or say that etc'.

Should I be using my time and brain cells to consider this problem as I only have first hand experience of English, French, Antipodean and Welsh men? Or should I throw up my hands (in a mediterranean way obviously) and hope that the majority of readers are, like myself, happy to revel in the alpha male fantasy as presented?

I've read tons of M&B moderns with these fiery men (because I adore them) but I'm not sure I could tell an Italian from a Greek if all the obvious clues were taken away-perhaps I should be able to.

How did you learn to do this? Is this a justifiable case for a bit of overseas (tax deductible) research? (not that I'd be allowed!)

If you look at the comments by Executive Editor Tessa Shapcott some time ago on the I Heart Presents blog, you'll see that she says:

Every month in Presents guarantees a delicious new crop of heroes who hail from the Mediterranean. And whether they’re Greek, Spanish, Italian, French, or from a fictitious island, these Mediterranean men never fail to wow readers.

Mediterranean men in Harlequin Presents are a particular bunch; always passionate and proud, they ooze power, wealth, dark good looks and sensuality. In fact, often they are a touch more ruthless and quite a bit more vengeful than their British, North American or Australian counterparts (who possess other irresistible qualities – see Jenny Hutton’s blog about British billionaires)! Why is it that we’re all suckers for a Mediterranean hero?

I have a friend who is an academic – an historian. She believes that it’s in women’s DNA, a primeval thing, to feel excitement and anticipation about the dark invader, harking back to when alpha males arrived to pillage and conquer, bringing fresh genes to add to the pool and beef up the existing stock.

Or is it that our Mediterranean heroes are archetypes that give us licence to experience and enjoy the basic strong feelings which lie at the heart of all human relationships, but which perhaps have been ironed out of our emotional landscape by social necessity? What could be more sexy for a woman than to feel that her man wants her passionately and that he will go to the edge of reason to possess her?

Plus, we tend to hold on to the belief that traditional family structures and rituals remain solid in southern Europe – the fantasy is complete because the Presents Mediterranean man invariably offers marriage as a way of keeping the heroine close. And despite the fact that we may settle for less formal ties and arrangements in our real lives, ultimately many women still dream of becoming brides…

First and foremost the Mediterranean hero in a M&B Modern/Presnets novel, is not meant to be an deeply realistic creation. Just to take on example, so many of these heroes are of the 'tall dark and handsome' model, where the facts are that many of them are not particularly tall at all. I once received a lett of strong criticism from someone who berated me for creating talk and handsome Sicilian heroes when 'everyone knew' that they were small, swarthy and wore gold medallions on theirn hairy chests!

The Mediterranean (or Sheikh) hero comes from a warm country - in the past they would have seemed much more 'exotic' before easy and frequent travel abroad brough Spain, Italy, Greece etc into our holiday plans so frequently. Warm countries, so the belief is , create hot-blooded men, men who are passionate, sensual, more 'alpha', less inhibited, less 'stiff upper lip' than the average British male. They are also it is believed more likely to woo the heroine, to indulge in romantic gestures. I don't neccessarily think this is true - I think it maligns the poor British male - but it is in a way a sort of shorthand for the exotic passionate stranger who sweeps the heroine off her feet.

So a romance novelist isn't trying to create an absolutely perfectly realistic Spaniard or Greek or whatever. But neither do you want to create someone who is so much a stereotype that he appears almost a caricatures.

The thing I always remember above and beyond anything else is that my hero, whatever nationality he is, is a man. This sounds so obvious but it's important that he's a man first and then his nationality affects him second. There are certain characteristics that fit more strongly with certain nationalities than others - thinnk of Italy and you think of style, sophistication, families. But Sicily has more of an edge, a sense of dnager - you think of vendettas etc. Greece always bring with it the idea, for me, of that Greek word 'hubris' - that overweening excessive pride or self-confidence; arrogance. And the many Greek islands all have a character of their own, some busy, sophisticated, some rural, even wild in atmosphere. And that can give the hero a raw edge, a primitive streak that underlies his sophisticated veneer.

So when you create your Mediterranean hero you need to look at the places he would live - read up about them on the internet or in guide books etc. Thinking of my own books, my two Sicilian brothers who came from Syracusa on Sicily are very different from Domenico, in The Italian's Forced Bride who had a villa outside Pavia in Northern Italy. Be aware of national customs, of traditions in the area, the industries and jobs that are prevalent there.
Obviously, going to one of the places you want to set your book and seeing the people there, 'peoplewatching' is a great way to learn so very much - but we can;t always do that. It's not possible to visit a new place for every single book.

What else can you do? Watch films, see interviews with international stars, sportsmen - even politicians -see how subtly different they are from another nationality. Listen to how they speak. I once spent a concentrated time listening to an interview with the then Greek Prime Minister, not listening to what he was saying but how he was saying it. The word order can be very different for different nationalities. I often make my hero's speech slightly more formal - I cannot instead of I can't - because English is his second language .

Reading can help you. Books like Manwatching or People Watching by Desmond Morris will give you clues as to gestures used - or equally ones that are considered rude. And books that detail the adjustments UK people make when going to live abroad will give insight into the way of life - books like Driving over Lemons (Andalcuia) or its sequel A Parrot in the Pepper Tree by Chris Stewart. Two books the Babe Magnet introduced me to that have helped hugely with writing Italian heroes are Italian Neighbours: An Englishman in Verona by Tim Parks and his other book An Italian Education. I'm lucky in that I have friends who live in Spain, for eample, and they are invaluable sources of information.

Finally consider language. If you want to sprinkle words in your hero's native language through his dialogue, then that can give an added flavour - but please always make sure that you have the language right. If you're not sure, leave it out. After all, the sophisticated Presents hero usually speaks perfect or near perfect English!

But always remember, that as with the setting of your book, the nationality of you hero need to be sketched in with a light hand. Don't have him constantly referring to how things are in his home country, or lecturing the heroine on the artists or the politics of that place. To go back to where I started, the hero is always a man first and it is the problems that he faces as a man, the male/female conflict between him and his heroine that matters most. Just as you don't want to turn your book into a travelogue by describing the settings in far too much detail, you don't want to turn it into a lecture on the culture or history of Spain, or an Italian language primer.

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