Monday, October 6, 2014

Sex and the Single Sleuth

RHYS BOWEN: When I first started writing my Molly Murphy mysteries, which was almost 15 years ago now, my editor was insistent that I cut out a sexy scene.  She felt it detracted from a serious mystery and I shouldn’t be crossing into romance.I was told that mystery readers didn't want romance. I disagreed and felt the scene was important to my characters and the plot. We compromised and I was allowed a toned-down scene.

 Things have changed a little since then and I also started writing a second series with a wild and wicked Irish hero called Darcy O’Mara.  When I first created him as a love interest I didn’t realize how obsessed some of my readers would be with him—including my current editor. We were having a serious editorial discussion once when she said, “Do you think that Darcy could take off his shirt more often?”
    I get emails that say “More Darcy please.” Whether I like it or not I have crossed over to a certain extent into the realm of romance. Or is that mysteries are just getting more sexy?
    A plot thread running through my Royal Spyness series has been that my heroine, Lady Georgie, is a virgin and we’ve had that ongoing will they/won’t they tension. It’s the Moonlighting syndrome, I suppose, but I happen to love a touch of romance and that sexual tension (and of course it adds to the humor, as they are lighthearted novels).
  Recently I’ve been getting pressure from fans that it’s finally about time that they DID IT.  So I thought I’d try a social experiment and ask my  Facebook fans whether they should get on with it or wait until they might marry in the future. And I’d abide by their decision.  Well, they were overwhelmingly in favor of waiting until they get married, which surprised me. What also surprised me was the way they wrote as if my characters were real and dear to them.  “She won’t feel comfortable with herself. It goes against the way she’s been raised.”
I think my own take on sex in mysteries, or in any novel , is that it has to be relevant, to further character development or relationship, or create a plot twist. No sexy scenes just to titillate. I’ve read books in which I can almost hear the writer thinking “It’s sort of slow right now. How about they take their clothes off?” I'm not a fan of graphic sex, in fact the sexiest scenes for me are when nothing happens on camera--think of Robert Redford washing Meryl Streep's hair in Out of Africa.

    So I’m curious, dear Reds—what do you feel about sex in mysteries? How do you handle it?  We are certainly not lacking in sexual tension and steamy relationships in Red’s mystery series—Russ and Clare,  Jake and Jane, and of course Duncan and Gemma have had their moments.  Do you think that romantic relationships detract from the mystery? Do you think sexy scenes have a place outside romance novels? Have you had soul searching about whether to further your characters’ relationships? Are you happy with where they are now and where they are going?


LUCY BURDETTE: It's like everything else the characters do--eat, travel, work--if the steamy romance shows character or becomes important to the plot, bring it on! I unfortunately don't seem capable of writing scenes like those. I had my characters kiss in a recent scene, and all of us became embarrassed--from Miss Gloria to Hayley to me. Maybe I feel too much like Hayley's mom?

HALLIE EPHRON: In our discussion of this topic week before last, it was so interesting that the general agreement was: sex and romance in a mystery work when they're integral to the story. Nevertheless, Lady Georgie is a grownup - sounds as if she's going to have to "do it." But then what??

When I read a mystery I usually skip over explicit sex. Yup, I do. TMI. Love my ROKU because when I'm watching a show like Scandal which I sort of love, I can fast forward through the steamy parts. But that's me, and fortunately the world is full of all kinds of readers who love and detest books for identical reasons!

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I have no objection to writing (or reading) explicit sex scenes when those scenes further the plot. But how often does that actually happen? Only if something that happened changed the character's motivation or precipitated something integral to the story. And with my main characters, I think sexual tension is always more fun than play-by-play descriptions. I know how it's done--I assume my readers do, too.

As for Georgie, I agree with your readers.  Women of Georgie's class and time period may have been quite promiscuous AFTER marriage, but not before. Imagine Georgie's difficulties if she got pregnant! On the other hand, you can't keep up the will they/won't they forever, and I'd love to see them get married at some point and become a sleuthing team!

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I agree that for Georgie, it would be out of character for her to give her all before marriage - the time, her class, and the bad example of her mother, the Bolter, argue against it. Of course, repression can lead to some amazingly steamy moments without the characters hitting the sack.

Any action fictional characters take should, I believe, reveal the character or advance the plot. If you're writing about two people falling in love, or resisting falling in love, or simply working around having the hots for one another, their moments together are going to reveal character and advance the plot. Of course, that doesn't mean the author has to get explicit. When Scarlett wakes up humming and stretching in bed, we all know what happened after Rhett swept her up the stairs the night before.

I think how much the author should show depends on a few things. How explicit action is in the rest of the book? You can't give a detailed description of a bullet bouncing around a victim's brain and then pretend to be too delicate for sex. What's the style and genre? Hardboiled readers expect and accept different things in their fiction than cozy readers, for example. Finally, to what degree does the story hinge on the H/H relationship? If your heroine has a cop boyfriend who pops in every chapter or two to help out, I suspect the readers are perfectly fine with keeping the bedroom door closed. If the love story has been front-burner, driving-the-plot stuff (let's face it, I'm talking about my books, here) readers will be disappointed if they don't get the big payoff they've been waiting for.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  Anticipation, aftermath, imagination, longing.  That's what I think is compelling. (Will Jake and Jane get together? On the PAGE? What do you vote?)



SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Dealing with this very subject in the novel I'm right now finishing up, MRS. ROOSEVELT'S CONFIDANTE. Maggie Hope and John Sterling have made it through four books without much more than a smooch, but how long can I keep this up? On the one hand, good girls of that era didn't. And yet, on the other hand, quite a few good girls of that era certainly did — especially with the World War II as a backdrop and everything uncertain. in terms of sex between other characters, I like to do the "fade out" and "fade in" that Julia refers to.

I don't mind reading sex scenes if they're important to the novel, but Miss Edna says she skips them. "I know what goes where," she says, "so let's get on with the story."

RHYS: I agree with Miss Edna (as usual). But we want to hear from you! Does sex belong in mystery novels? Detract from the plot? Annoy you? Let your voices be heard!

35 comments:

Joan Emerson said...

At the risk of repeating . . . I don’t mind the sexy scenes and I don’t think they detract from the mystery as long as they keep the characters behaving in a believable way that is in keeping with what the reader has come to expect from them. They need to be important to the telling of the story, not just something thrown in for the sake of having a sexy scene. And they shouldn’t be too explicit because then they do become distracting form the story. [And I really do like having something left to my imagination.]
As for Lady Georgie, I’m with those who voted on the side of waiting until they’ve married because that feels like the right kind of choice for a lady like Georgie living in that time period . . . .

Sandi@Piecemeal Quilts said...

For me, for the sake of this conversation, there are two kinds of books: mysteries with a romantic element and romance novels with a mystery or thriller element. The first kind is what most of you write, and for those I prefer a softer approach to the relationships. Only as much as could be shown on network tv during prime time, let's say. Even then it has to be relevant and it should be part of an ongoing relationship.
That said, I like romance novels with explicit sex scenes, but I expect them-both the sex scenes and the novels-to be well written.

Hallie Ephron said...

Lady Mary did it... and it just made things more interesting. Still I can understand why the plotmeister killed the lover.

Karen in Ohio said...

This is such a fascinating discussion, drawing away the curtain of how writers create the characters and situations they get into. Keeping the tension going without tipping it into either too much or too little has to have inherent tension of its own for the author.

Thank you for sharing your own dialogue with us, Reds.

Mary Sutton said...

Like Joan - at the risk of repeating, I don't mind romance in mystery. Either between two single people trying to decide how they feel about each other, or married people. Romance, love, relationships - that's what makes the world go around.

If you're going to write explicit sex, yes, have it mean something. I would write it if I had to, but I think the tension, "almost" scenes are more fun, and then Julia's fade-in/fade-out. As Miss Edna says, I know what's going on. I don't need to read about it.

Ray Daniel said...

I guess I pretty much tipped my hand on this one when Hank interviewed me.

Does it surprise anyone that the only guy in this thread so far likes writing sex scenes?

Libby Dodd said...

To the extent it adds to the plot line, yes.
But please, I don't need an anatomy lesson. OK?

Kathy Reel said...

Rhys, I do think that mystery novels are getting sexier, or they are at least having more romance in them. The first series as an adult that hooked me on mysteries was Agatha Christie's Miss Marple. So, I know that I didn't always require or need intimacy in my mystery reading. It seems now, though, that I quite like it, as I read so many series with couples in them. I don't have to have graphic sex scenes, just some intimate touching or bed cuddling or the such is nice. As with the Jungle Reds' characters, it cements their love and commitment to one another. And, it shows a soft side to the hard-working characters in an often stressful life. There is that special someone with whom the characters have a unique connection and vulnerability, and the intimacy demonstrates the trust between them.

Rhys, I was somewhat surprised by the FB survey about Georgie and Darcy. I recall voting for them to just do it, but I can see where that might not be in Georgie's character to do so, and Darcy has shown great restraint. So, I guess what I should have voted for was for them to get married ASAP. LOL!

Keenan Powell said...

I am no more interested in the intimate detail of a character's sex acts than I am of his or her toilet habits.

Mark Baker said...

Fade out and then back in, please. I get the idea. I don't want the details.

And I certainly agree it needs to add to the plot or characters. And if the characters sleep around too much (I'm talking outside marriage/serious relationship), it will not tell me good things about those characters.

FChurch said...

Oh, Rhys, the scene with your editor--what a hoot! It reminded me of Romancing the Stone.

Sex is okay, okay? It's part of life and should be believable in terms of the characters themselves. I don't skip it, if it feels like it belongs in the story. I'll skip a lot--including sex scenes--if I find the scenes don't advance the story, the characters.

At the same time,I'm also a big fan of less is more--for example, Deborah--I LOVED the scene with Melody and Andy--where the innocuous air-kissing suddenly became more and both characters reacted.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

SO what do you vote? Jake and Jane--together? Or not? I sure do wish I knew what happens...

PlumGaga said...

Debates on the question go back to the classic mysteries of the twenties and thirties. Dorothy L. Sayers dealt with the problem by calling Busman's Honeymoon "a love story with detective interruptions."

Rhys Bowen said...

Hank, I'm a great believer in letting the characters lead their own lives. If they want to get together one day, they will.

Mary Sutton said...

I would love to see Jane and Jake get together. But I'm with Rhys - they'll tell you if it's supposed to happen.

Grandma Cootie said...

As I think others have said, I don't mind the sexy scenes if they fit in with what we already know about the characters and don't detract from the story. Strong character development, some romance, and imagination are usually more interesting. If I know the book will be sexy when I start it it's fine, but if scenes are suddenly inserted in a series for no apparent reason I will skip it.

Jane and Jake - hmmm, the anticipation makes me want them to get on with it, but at the same time I am afraid I won't like where the relationship then has to go.

Deb in IL said...

Many of us listen to the Audible versions of books. If there are explicit scenes, it makes it difficult to listen to it while cooking or cleaning if others (especially children) are around. I would love to see Lady Georgie and Darcy wait until they are married then work together as a team solving the mysteries.

PK the Bookeemonster said...

Sex scenes in crime fiction depends on the *type* of crime fiction. I don't expect it when reading a golden age or cozy. I enjoy it it fits with the story and characters. So, yes, explicit with JD Robb between Eve and Roarke, who happen to be married and it's during a down time in the investigation. Yes, mostly off stage in a Teresa Grant historical mystery with romantic overtones. I will probably skim over it in an explicitly explicit whose purpose in general is graphic violence by someone like Chelsea Cain for violence purposes in the story.

Yes, sex is natural but some people even now wait until the commitment. But it also fun to to have them do everything *but* ... for all of us. :) The tantalizing foreplay can be very satisfying.

Lisa Alber said...

Rhys, seems to me mystery fiction has changed over the years. I just finished reading an Agatha Christie, which was great fun, but it felt a little hollow somehow. I realized that was because it was only about the mystery. I'm used to novels such as yours and the rest of the JRWs, in which we're also involved in the protagonists' personal lives.

I love the fullness over character over just having plot -- I agree with most here: no problem with sex if it's pertinent.

But, remember how Moonlighting got boring after they got together? (It did for me, at least.) How to prevent that from happening?

Melodie T. said...

Deborah has the best sentence in this post: "I'd love to see them (Georgie and Darcy) get married at some point and become a sleuthing team!" Yes! Yes, Please! Think of all the wonderful possibilities. Rhys, I have read all your books, Evan, Molly and Georgie and I think you have just the right touch of romance in your writing. Molly and Daniel's relationship develops in a natural way that is true to the time period. It hasn't detracted from the mystery at all, but enhanced it. I'm glad to see Georgie and Darcy will follow that example. As for sex, I skip that part when the writer gets too detailed. Fade out, fade in is the way to go.

Deborah Crombie said...

We used to have standing jokes in my writers' group about sex scenes. Once one of the guys really went over the top, and we never let him forget it. It was terrible! The truth is that good explicit sex scenes are really, really hard to write without sound either silly or cliched or both.

My hat is off to Julia for her Russ and Clare scenes. They are steamy AND believable AND true to the characters.

FChurch, thanks for the mention. I loved that scene between Andy and Melody. Another favorite is a scene between Duncan and Gemma back in A Finer End. They are sitting on his balcony in Hampstead after being apart for several awkward moments, and she touches her bare foot against his. We all know where that led!

Kristi said...

I agree with Deborah above, really good sex scenes are tough to write, usually the reader's imagination can top anything you put on paper so I also agree with the fade in, fade out way.
That's what seems to work for me so far, even though in this third book in my series there is MORE SEX it is not more explicit. I also love the advice that it should be there as a way to reveal character, which applies to most things in a novel anyway, right?

Kathy Reel said...

Hank, part of me really wants Jane and Jake to get together, and then, part of me thinks that their careers are always going to be a problem and prevent true intimacy, which as I said in my first post is intertwined in trust. I have to say that I liked this new Peter character in spite of being a fan of Jake's.

Ramona said...

If it fits the premise and adds to the interest, I am all for a romantic storyline. I don't know that I *need* to read sex scenes, but I'm not opposed to them. I will if they are there, I don't miss them if they are not included, but the sex scene--like any scene--needs to have a goal and purpose.

Just like in real life, normal people in normal relationships have sex and I think that should be reflected in fiction. As a reader, I find it really annoying when authors go to convoluted lengths to keep characters "chaste." Just let them do it, for heaven's sake, before someone explodes.

Susan Elia MacNeal said...

Also, I think that in historical fiction (like Rhy's and mine) you need to deal realistically with the possibility of resulting pregnancy and what that would mean if the characters aren't married. The consequences of sex before marriage for women were enormous.

Anonymous said...

Not much, stick to mystery and relationships, leave out sex scenes, I can use my own imagination there.

Diane Giese said...

Please concentrate on mystery, not sex. A relationship, such as Gemma and Duncan, leave out sex, I can use my own imagination for that.

Unknown said...

I'm not a prude but like Hallie, I skip over the explicit sex scenes. Part of the mystery is the Georgie/Darcy will they/won't they. I hope they won't and that they will marry some day. I do enjoy a good romantic mystery or story but it doesn't need all the overly intimate details.

Reine said...

Here's what I think and feel about sex scenes in books with a good storyline.

ElaineCharton said...

I like romance in my mysteries but not explicit sex. I've had romances in both my mysteries and one got to the bedroom door and that was it. The second one has a blossoming romance but that's it.
That's the way I like to read it. If they did it before marriage now, I would think they would both start to feel guilty. Just my 2cents worth.

RL Anderson said...

I like the way Deb Crombie writes it between Duncan and Gemma. I think we all know how it works, we don't need graphic descriptions. If we did, then Laura Maestro would need to do charts, graphs, arrows, and illustrations on THAT! Just kidding.

Susan D said...

Well. For me, the question would not be Does sex belong in a mstery novel? but Does sex belong in this novel? Between these two characters, at this point in their relationship.

I'd go for Georgie waiting for marriage. Or Darcy waiting, and thus making Georgie wait too. I think, Rhys, they could marry (once D stops insisting on being able to support her first) and then he could still dash away to far-off trouble spots, leaving Georgie to cope and worry over him.

Kimberly Bristol said...

I'm tired of Darcy dashing off and leaving Georgie to worry about him. I think it would be great if one of them could suddenly come into some kind of windfall--not necessarily a fortune, but enough so that they could marry. Maybe Darcy could get a promotion that paid well. And then how fun would it be for the two of them to dash off together to solve a mystery?

As to sex scenes, I don't mind reading graphic sex scenes as long as they are well-written, but I do think that it would be out of place in a series like this one. For me, the sweet, intimate things that Darcy says and does to Georgie is enough for me.

Hank--I want to see Jane and Jake get to together. Not graphic, but not fading to black, either. A happy medium. :)

Anonymous said...

Mystery not sex for me also. It detracts from the story..I still think Agatha Christie wrote great mysteries and if there is a love angle let it be from the mystery end.

Sara-kaitlyn miller said...

I can't imagine Georgie not waiting until marriage. I hope she does. I don't mind some intimate scenes, not necessarily detailed, as long as they are believable to the characters. I do get anxiety that Darcy just up and leaves so much and was glad in the 12 clues of Christmas that he was around more.