Posted On April 13, 2012 by Print This Post

Humanity, Cheating and the Writer’s Gift with Harper Fox

Harper Fox is one of my favorite authors and a huge influence for me and my work – excuse me while I have a fangirl moment.  I first experienced her work in an amazing book entitled, “Life After Joe” and I was hooked by the end of the first chapter. She has a knack for deep emotion and creating characters and setttings that are fresh, original, and turning the usual romance tropes on their ears. I selfishly asked her to answer my most pressing questions and she graciously agreed.  Welcome Harper!

Hi, everyone. It’s a very great pleasure to be talking to you here at the Romance University today.

When Robin invited me to write an article, I really had to scratch my head for a topic. It’s not that I’m not brimming over with thoughts, but I was aware that RU is a forum where authors – very erudite and successful ones – offer insights to readers and writers into the process of writing romance, and although over the past couple of years I’ve thought more about technique and method than I ever did when I was only writing for myself, I do remain a very seat-of-the-pants sort of author. Not so much in terms of plot – selling books on proposal means you do have to come up with one and stick with it – but when it comes to the daily business of making places and people come alive on the page.

Eventually I gave up and asked Robin what she thought a good topic would be. She was kind enough to say that my work engages readers emotionally whilst avoiding melodrama, and that my books offer fresh, original characters, settings and storylines. (Thank you, Robin.) She suggested I share with you some ideas about how I provide that emotional connection and come up with those protags, places and plots. That idea appealed to me a lot because, although the process to me is very organic, obviously there is some conscious thought going on! “I just do it” is not a helpful answer, and not a true one either – ultimately I want and need to create a saleable book for the romance market, and that immediately provides me with a set of guidelines, a target audience and a plot dynamic.

What I’d like to say first of all is – what an amazing amount of room for manoeuvre there is within those romance guidelines! When I started the first book I intended to try and publish, I did wonder if my M/M heroes had to be just that – leanly muscled semi-divinities who strode about solving their problems and everyone else’s, falling into bed together to an accompaniment of orchestral music and fireworks after just the right amount of angst. I’m a bit ashamed of myself over those fears now. Over the course of eight books, my publishers have accepted, and readers taken to their hearts, an enormous range of seriously flawed and struggling men, including a middle-aged Edinburgh copper with a drink problem, an army doctor racked with PTSD, an illegal immigrant and, in Scrap Metal, a Glasgow runaway who may or may not have committed a terrible crime. I haven’t felt trammelled in any way when creating these guys, and the happy-ever-after requirement hasn’t felt restrictive either. No-one wanted an HEA for McBride, Tom, Sasha and Cameron more than I did. I’m pretty optimistic about the chances of love, redemption and happiness in life, and for me it’s been a matter of harnessing redemptive potential within my protags to carry the story through to a satisfactory and realistic conclusion. I don’t deploy miracles. The road to love can be a tough and dirty one, and maybe it should be. There’s hard work and a big effort of self-realisation involved, and often a leap in the dark. One form of believable magic I do enjoy is placing someone there to catch.

With regard to forging emotional connections between my men and my readers – for me that’s the easy part. No matter how bad a day I’m having, how uninspired I’m feeling, I still have my basic qualification to do that, which is that I’m human. (Some days it takes a coffee or two, but still.) That means I can write a believable rescue pilot or a doctor. I haven’t been either of those things but I know how it feels to fail to help or save someone, or to succeed in doing something good for someone, and I bet you do too. Obviously I research the technical stuff, but the basic connection I need is right there.

I know that the enormous majority of my readers will share the same base palette of emotions and reactions, and the very ordinariness of those feelings is what makes them so precious. We most of us know what it’s like to be lonely, heart-thumping scared, teetering like an idiot on the brink of falling crazy in love. I’m not reaching far for these driving forces in my prose. Melodrama isn’t necessary. The ordinary forces in our lives are enough to sling us down into the mud or upward into heaven. So for me it’s a matter of getting inside my own skin, remembering how it felt for me, then getting inside of Tom’s skin, or Cam’s or Flynn’s, and showing – not telling – how it feels for them. (That’s an important distinction. You can inform your readers till the cows come home how awful or how ecstatic a character is feeling, but you bull’s-eye the target when you make the guy get up and do whatever it is these emotions are compelling him to do.)

I’m glad my characters come across as fresh. I’m glad the storylines do too, because I’m sure that my tales of love, loss and redemption have been told in their essence a billion times before, and that’s no bad thing. I don’t believe there are many “original” stories, not when it comes to romance and the motivations of the human heart. But if as an author you can truly get inside a protag’s head, wrap yourself up in his hide, whatever story he tells is going to come across as fresh because although we share common feelings, our individual way of experiencing those feelings is unique. Perhaps that’s the writer’s gift – to make a string of different protagonists out of her sole self, to get inside different skins.

Having said all that, I do absolutely cheat with settings. Man, settings are a gift! The world is full of the most fantastic backdrops against which to tell a story. A tower on a Cornish cliff! Great stuff. An ancient Roman wall, or a priory besieged by Vikings, or Edinburgh in winter – bring ’em on. Even if I’m struggling to give a protagonist an individual voice, I can take him and his lover and set the pair of them loose in one of these environments, and they’ll start to react for me as no-one has ever reacted before. Or, okay, never mind the exotics – give me a lonely teenager’s attic room, or just a street in my own home town where I’ve walked a million times before. Now I’m sitting up there as Laurie in A Midwinter Prince, wondering how the hell I’m ever going to escape my wealthy, stifling background. Or I’m Matthew in Life After Joe, and the boring street has just become riveting to me because I’ve got a skinful of nightclub drugs and I’m running down it for my life with a gang of murderous thugs in pursuit. I am, by the way, a woman in her mid-forties, of very staid daily habits, and I’ve never had much to do with drugs, thugs or (unfortunately) wealth. It just isn’t necessary. I just need to feel the basic emotion, and switch skins. That’s what I’d say to anyone struggling for a fresh scene, story, character – just feel. How would it be for you? See the environment. Smell it. Plonk down on a wooden bench on the promenade and promptly get a splinter in your bum. Detail, detail, visceral physical detail. You wouldn’t be in this writing game if you weren’t already empathetic, imaginative and simply dying to tell your story. I’m pretty sure that for most of us, the tools for that fresh magic, that original way of serving up even the oldest of tales, are right there at hand.

I’ve really enjoyed this. If you’d like to comment and/or discuss with me any of the things I’ve been talking about, or indeed anything else, I’ll be around to answer all today. Anyone who leaves a comment has a chance of winning a nice little prize – I’ll random-pick three of you, and you can each choose either a copy of my latest release, Scrap Metal, or two ebooks from my backlist, details on my website. Thanks to Robin, and the Romance University, for the opportunity of blogging here today!

***

Whew!  What is your organic process to touch your readers, create memorable characters, and fresh settings?  As a reader – what touches you and makes a book one you can’t put down?

Emmie Dark, debut Harlequin Superomance author is here on Monday. Don’t miss it!

***

Scrap Metal
On a rainy Scottish island, Nichol is struggling to save his grandfather’s farm. Lonely and nearing the end of his rope, he almost shoots the intruder who breaks into his barn one stormy night. But Cameron, on the run from a Glasgow gang, quickly charms his way through Nichol’s defences and into his heart. Even Nichol’s curmudgeonly old grandfather takes to Cam, whose hard work and good head for figures help set the business back on its feet.

Nichol is grieving for lost family and the academic life he’s had to leave behind him in Edinburgh. As a cold Arran springtime melts into summer, Cam’s presence restores all his love of the island and his joy in life. He’s falling in love – with a young man whose heart is full of secrets and who stays resolutely silent about his past.

When tragedy strikes the farm, Cam’s secret is finally revealed. Now Nichol has to face the truth. He’s given his heart to a stranger, and it’s time to pay the price. Is their bond strong enough for love to survive – no matter what Cam has done?

 

Bio:

Bio: Harper Fox is a UK-based author of M/M romance fiction. She’s had eight novels published in the last two years and is living in a scary abyss between her day job and full-time writing. Find out more about Harper’s books, inspiration and ongoing projects at www.harperfox.net

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27 Responses to “Humanity, Cheating and the Writer’s Gift with Harper Fox”

  1. Harper – Thank you so much for being here today. I love this post.

    Since I have you captive, I’d love to know if your are a plotter or a pantser? What is your process?

    Robin

    Posted by Robin Covington | April 13, 2012, 4:49 am
  2. Hi Harper, thanks so much for being with us! I have to somehow immediately connect with the protagonist and care about what they’re currently trying to overcome. As for my own writing, I go for the heart.

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | April 13, 2012, 4:52 am
  3. Hi, Robin. I’m delighted to be chained up in your basement. I’m a plotter *and* a pantser – it’s all part of my patented super-secret writing formula called “cheating”. :) I do plot out a book in detail before I start writing it. I have to – targets to hit, rent to pay, that kind of thing. But within that framework, once I see my protags fleshing themselves out and starting to talk with their own idiolect, all kinds of unexpected side routes can open. They need to reconverge with Main Plot at some point, but the scenery en route can be spectacular and a complete surprise to me. Is that helpful? Probably not. But this is fun!

    Posted by Harper Fox | April 13, 2012, 5:04 am
    • Harper – That is a little bit like my process. I don’t like being surprised by a plot point but I do like may characters to have room to grow naturally.

      Posted by Robin Covington | April 13, 2012, 8:45 am
      • Yes – it’s a matter of creating the right kind of organic scaffold, I think. Strong enough to support the plot but alive and flexible enough to allow for vigorous growth. (And huge bizarre cannibalistic flowers that eat you, of course! :-D )

        Posted by Harper Fox | April 13, 2012, 8:57 am
  4. Hi Harper. Thank you for being with us today. For me, I love when I can feel what a character is going through on a visceral level. If I get all tingly, I know the writer has done their job!

    Posted by AdrienneGiordano | April 13, 2012, 7:06 am
  5. Hi, Harper -

    Thanks so much for being at RU today.

    Any thoughts on emotions that are particularly powerful for making a connection between the reader and the story? Do you find your heroes in different books often face a similar emotional journey, meaning do you lean toward using a core sets of emotions for internal growth?

    Thanks!
    Kelsey

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | April 13, 2012, 7:16 am
  6. Hi Harper,

    When you write about a flawed character, do you seek to redeem him or explain him? Characters can change, but not completely.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | April 13, 2012, 7:33 am
    • Hi,Mary Jo. Another great question. I do leave doors open. Romance and redemption are great but some wounds can’t be healed and probably shouldn’t be. I think for me it’s a case of getting my protags to work through, around, past their damage in a realistic way. Matthew in Life After Joe is *always* going to struggle with trust. He’ll never look at Aaron’s emails again but that doesn’t mean he won’t be tempted. If one of my guys struggles with addiction, I know for a fact he can’t be cured – but I believe that love can make him try, can bring him to the place where he’ll be cured “just for today”. And I like my readers to decide whether redemption is possible, too – I always try to offer a choice, extend potential pathways beyond the end of a story. Happy ever after – yes, 99.9% sure, but it’s a dangerous and difficult old world, and love requires constant hard work and renewal to deal with it.

      Posted by Harper Fox | April 13, 2012, 7:58 am
    • Kelsey, sorry – I missed the “reply” button when I answered your question! D’oh… I have replied in a separate comment a little way down the page. :)

      Posted by Harper Fox | April 13, 2012, 8:23 am
  7. That’s a great question, Kelsey! I think if you’re writing to a romance market, a romance readership, a fair part of the emotional journey is – well, not exactly mapped out in advance, but you can see Shangri La up there in the far distance and you know that’s where you’re headed! In that mystical city lies the place, the gorgeous bedroom or the grim back alley, where your protags find each other and claim each other’s heart. The key emotion is love – needing it, lacking it, finding someone who awakens it and beginning the journey. Within that framework there are a billion routes up the mountain! (I’m mixing up my metaphors in my excitement – forgive me.:) I do have favoured pathways. I’m painfully drawn in by the struggle that can happen after a relationship breaks up – death, divorce, whatever; the ways in which people survive after that. And I know that even happily partnered readers will be able to identify with that sense of loss in some way; I don’t think many of us get a very long way through life without experiencing it. And I love to see a beautiful, successful guy flailing around cluelessly because he has no idea of his own worth, and at that point to introduce his “other half in waiting”, who will provide to him a truthful mirror, if he can only learn to see. I’m pretty sure that even the best of us struggles with feelings of unworthiness from time to time. Those are just a couple of examples, but thinking about Daniel’s loss in The Salisbury Key, Matthew’s in Life After Joe, and both Tom and Flynn in Driftwood who are both outwardly brilliant at what they do but racked with guilt and self-doubt beneath it, I’d say they’re important to me. So big, easy deposits of human emotion that can be tapped, but create a character whose situation and personality can embody and channel those emotions in a new or poignant way… Does that make sense? :)

    Posted by Harper Fox | April 13, 2012, 7:50 am
  8. Morning Harper!

    Great post! When writing I tend to visualize the scene and be the character in it…but forget other people can’t see what’s in my head! lol….occasionally my characters seem to be running around naked in the middle of nowhere, because what’s so obvious to ME as to where they are and what they’re wearing, still needs to be told to the reader! =)

    Thanks for posting with us today!

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | April 13, 2012, 7:56 am
    • Hi Carrie! Thanks – it’s a pleasure to be here. And I completely identify with your “naked in the middle of nowhere” problem. That definition of it made me smile. It’s the downside, if there is one, of having that total inner identification with a character – why on earth would you be describing what’s going on around him if it’s all so vivid in his/your head? This will sound obvious, but I do find sometimes that if I’m starting to lose my grip on a protag’s clothing and surroundings :-D, it helps to do a kind of “sense” check to stitch him back in. Is he scared? Excellent – fear has a taste, and often an amazing smell, too. Of course he can *see* the giant wave heaping up to swallow his lifeboat, but what is he hearing? Is he cold? Having an all-over hot flash of terror? We’re such *visual* primates – it can really shake things up to throw in a splash of unexpected sensory colour from another source. Not to overwhelm the reader with smells and tastes and prickles, of course, but just that brief passing touch. I love to do that. “Naked in the middle of nowhere”… LOL! I really do like that!

      Posted by Harper Fox | April 13, 2012, 8:21 am
  9. Harper – Thanks for such an insightful post! I don’t know why, but I’m a sucker for wounded heroes. The list of flawed heroes you mentioned has made me eager to check out your books!

    Posted by Becke Martin/Davis | April 13, 2012, 9:07 am
    • My pleasure, Becke. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Hmm, I’m wondering which of my wounded boys you might like best. I have a *very* elegant and noble one in Winter Knights, just a shortie novella but one I really loved writing. Piers, struggling to reconcile his sexuality with his Catholic beliefs… Anyway, if you do decide to check out my work, I hope you have a terrific time reading. :)

      Posted by Harper Fox | April 13, 2012, 9:20 am
  10. Hi Harper,

    This was great, your words sing, I have to run out and get me one of your books.

    When you were first starting out did you ever find that editing (and overediting) sucked the magic and the emotion out of your words?

    I’m sure there’s no magic formula to undoing the damage, but this post has inspired me to run back and find the emotion which I’ve lost in trying to perfect the telling.

    Thanks!

    Sonali

    Posted by Sonali | April 13, 2012, 9:16 am
    • Sonali, it makes me really happy to hear this, because the one thing I’d really love to do is pass on some of the inspiration and help I’ve had from other authors. Go run! Rediscover that emotion! Yes, easier said than done, and you’re right, there is no magic formula. Yes, I have most definitely experienced that loss of momentum (and indeed interest) in a work when I’ve had to tackle painful, deep-digging edits, and it’s just not nice. I once had to recast a whole story into a first-person POV, and let me tell you, by the time I was done, I was ready to pitch the whole damn thing out of the window. But that story became Driftwood, and was a better tale for the recast. I don’t know if this would ever work for you, but – maybe, if the spirit is moving you, go write something fresh and new right now. Throw yourself at it – all the love and the feeling you can. That’s the beautiful fun part where you feel like the magical blacksmith at the red-hot forge. Yay! And then – agh, it hurts, but once it’s done, maybe resign yourself to the slog of the edits and accept that this bit is going to be grim. What I’m hoping is that you’ll have sculpted the emotions so deep into your story’s metal during that molten “first pass” that they’ll survive the revision process, even if you can’t see it at the time. I certainly couldn’t with Driftwood. I hope that helps. Anyway, you have my every sympathy, and very, very best of luck!

      Posted by Harper Fox | April 13, 2012, 9:29 am
    • LOL, I’m an idiot. Driftwood isn’t in first-person POV. Try “a tight third”. (sigh!) I’m losing track of my POVs – never a good sign! :-D

      Posted by Harper Fox | April 13, 2012, 9:32 am
  11. Hi Harper–so pleased you are chatting today! I love your comment about no real ‘new’ stories–I believe this as well, it is just a matter of perspective. I also have this small idea that (almost) all stories are really love stories. Even the goriest of murder mysteries. Maybe not romantic love but there is some kind of love involved. I have to say also that I really appreciate your take on HEA because it leaves a nice taste in ones mouth but also a sense of future unknown/uncertain, which I think is the reality for all of us. Sorry if the post is rambling I just had all sorts of ideas come to me at once. Cheers!

    Posted by Elise | April 13, 2012, 9:39 am
    • Hi, Elise – not rambling at all. Lovely to hear from you, and you really set me thinking with regard to love being an all-pervasive factor across the spectrum of fiction… Yes. People are usually motivated by love, of a person or a thing or an idea, and if they’re motivated by hate, you often find disappointed love at the bottom of that. Most of the beautiful and horrific things we do have that driving force behind them, so the field is really infinite for writers wanting to tap into that motivation. And yes, the basic themes are as old as Homer and Virgil (and much older, if we had the written record), but there’s no end of the wealth of originality we can bring to the retelling of those tales.

      Posted by Harper Fox | April 13, 2012, 9:52 am
  12. Thanks for the insight on the process of creating your wonderful stories. I was wondering if the you learned your magic with words from reading books or if you are a literary scholar. Thank you for the gift of words you’ve given us and I’m so looking forward to reading more of your work.

    Posted by Diana | April 13, 2012, 10:23 am
    • Hello, Diana! It’s my pleasure. And although I am delighted that the possibility of my being a literary scholar even flitted through your head, I have to say no. Well – my degree subject was English Lit, but that was long ago and far away and I wasn’t a stellar graduate by any means. If I do have a magic with words I’m on my knees in gratitude to whatever cosmic forces outside myself ordained this, because it’s hard for me to define the sources within my own brain and bosom. :-D I do read – constantly, inveterately, twitching with nerves if I don’t have a book within reach, or at any rate a ketchup bottle with an interesting label. Okay, I’m going to stand up now and admit I’m a giant cuckoo – I do feel sometimes as though I’m some kind of interface. That the writing *doesn’t* come solely from within me, that I’m sometimes just a conduit. I think that feeling might just spring from an incomplete understanding of how my creative process works, or maybe it’s an echo from my ancient primate bicameral brain, but… there it is. Thank *you* for being such an appreciative reader. x

      Posted by Harper Fox | April 13, 2012, 10:50 am
  13. Hi, Robin, and all the lovely people who’ve dropped by to talk to me today – it’s witching hour here in the UK, so I must hop aboard my broomstick and aim it for my duvet. :-D Just wanted to say good night, and thank you so much for a great visit here at RU. I’ve had a blast. Tomorrow I’ll random-name pick some winners for the giveaway. Love to all xxx

    Posted by Harper Fox | April 13, 2012, 5:20 pm
  14. Hello all! It was great spending time here yesterday. My winners are Becke, Mary Jo and Adrienne. Congrats! You each win your choice of Scrap Metal, or two ebooks from my backlist. I have pdfs, epubs and Kindle-compatible formats for most of them. Drop me a comment here with a note of your choice and your email addie, or email me at harperfox777@yahoo.co.uk, and I’ll send your prizes winging their way out to you.

    Best
    Harper x

    Posted by Harper Fox | April 14, 2012, 9:25 am

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