Thursday, December 29, 2016

Not a Random Bedroom in America ( #WritingTechniques #Setting #Characterization )

By Annabeth Leong

I’ve read so much erotica that seems to take place in “a random bedroom in America.” Unless the anthology topic is something like “al fresco” or the sexual partners in question have a particular kink for unusual locations, the place where they’re doing whatever they’re doing is often treated as an afterthought.

I’m not going to pretend I’m innocent of this phenomenon. I suspect that if I counted up my “random bedroom” stories, they’d represent an alarming percentage of my work. Despite that hypocrisy, knowing where characters are in the world—even and especially when they’re in the bedroom—makes for better stories.

To me stories always come back to character. I write erotica in part because I love what sex can say about who people are. What we do when we’re literally naked, how we talk and think about it, how that vulnerability makes us feel—for a person addicted to the rush of knowing things about people, there’s no substitute. When I teach writing workshops, I often argue that this is a good way to think about what you’re doing in a sex scene. You’re revealing something about who these people are and how they relate to each other. What happens in your scene should advance what your reader knows about your characters, and what they know about themselves. That means that even if you’re writing your 200th cunnilingus scene, it’s unique because you’ve never written about these people in this particular cunnilingus situation before.

I’d argue that bedrooms have a lot of similar qualities. Lots of people work to make their bedrooms their own, and even if they don’t, that says something about them.

I had a girlfriend who had plastered every inch of her walls and ceiling with pictures cut from magazines, often in artful shapes. The majority were of women, and I remember being fascinated by the statement being made about femininity inside her bedroom, and the way that made me feel about her and myself whenever we made out in there. She had so many icons of femininity on display, so many women who knew how to wear makeup and heels, how to pluck their eyebrows. I was trying to default out of that sort of gender consideration, and the result was that I dressed in whatever people gave me. I’d be there in my shapeless outfits, surrounded by these impeccably styled women, wondering what they had to do with me, with us. It represented a world I’d never understood, and I remember kissing her, fearing I didn’t know how to do it, maybe fearing even more that I didn’t even know what I was doing at all. Those perfect women watched me, and I didn’t know if the complicated feelings they aroused meant I was definitely a lesbian or that I definitely wasn’t.

That bedroom, though, inspired my own. I loved the effect of the powerful statement, and I tried to create the same effect. Starting at the top of one wall, I began collecting images. Most of them were of Trent Reznor, Tori Amos, Courtney Love, and Charlize Theron, and no one could have sorted out the complicated mixture of wanting to be them or wanting to fuck them—least of all me. However, not having the same level of motivation as that girlfriend, I only made it a foot down the wall. Many other signs of the unfinished appeared. The books I hadn’t read stacked up beside the bed. The candles I had burned and left to drip, and the soot marks above them. A hurricane warning came through Florida, and I boarded my windows but then left the blockage up. I liked to sit in the dark in silk nightclothes that had belonged to my mother, smoking cigarettes and putting them out in the trophy I’d been given for being valedictorian of my high school. When lovers came to my room, they found it dark, smoky, musky. It was likely impossible to lie to yourself about the fact I was fucking other people. I kept condoms in the same drawer as a ritual knife I’d bought before I got too scared of witchcraft. Someone had left porn in my room at some point, and I kept it around the way some people keep guest towels.

Or how about another bedroom I saw, later in life, while I was in the process of getting divorced? This one belonged to a guy who was trying to date me before I was quite ready to date anyone. My general sensation at the time was of bewilderment. The title “married” bestows a certain quality of adulthood, and I’d just been stripped of that title, and I didn’t feel like I had much else that made me seem grown up. This guy owned an apartment not far from the one where I lived, but it was full of electronics I couldn’t have bought for myself. It was clean, put together. Everything matched. I played video games with him on a modern console and he laughed at me for the way I moved—but I couldn’t help thinking about how I only had hand me down consoles I’d kept running through a combination of hacking and prayer. I went into his bedroom, caught in some combination of fascination, fear, arousal, and repulsion. I looked at his bookshelf, like I always do, and there were only a few books there. About half were about business and the others had names like The Art of Seduction and The Game. I don’t remember much else of the setting except the darkness of the room, the way it felt expensive. When I noticed the books, though, the place began to seem like the sort of performance that comes before a trap. I kissed him to see what it would feel like, and then I left. If not for the books, I think I’d have slept with him.

The point here is that each of these places has a specific feeling in my mind. It’s a big deal to let someone into your bedroom for the first time. I’ve met few people who are truly casual about doing that.

When I revise my work, I try to pay attention to these questions of setting, though I don’t know that I always do it well. I hope I’ve demonstrated here that there’s value in making a bedroom specific rather than generic. It’s another way of showing who these characters are, what it means for them to have sex, and why the reader and writer might care.

18 comments:

  1. This was really interesting for me to read and appreciate, despite or perhaps because of the fact that I have personally never had the patience or motivation to describe rooms in detail when writing the scenes set therein. Even as a reader, I confess I often gloss over those kinds of paragraphs. None of this should be construed as a lack of respect for the technique—on the contrary, I admire it the way I admire a lot of very worthwhile things that other people do that I myself would rarely or never want to do. (:v>

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    1. Ha, here's an exception from my oeuvre. I described a room for comic effect!

      Sippy furrowed her brow as she looked around the clutter of the Cavendish home. Piles of papers, magazines, sports equipment, kitchen utensils, unopened corrugated parcels, bags full of recyclable bottles, vitamins from the drugstore, correspondence in shoe boxes and shoes in tote bags, jewelry, canned goods, linens, record albums, library books, and automotive supplies flourished everywhere—and this was just the powder room we were peeking into.

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    2. Case in point. I guess we can assume whoever lived there was a hoarder. :>)

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    3. (:v> That is a good inference—though I sort of imagined I was describing an only slightly exaggerated version of the typical level of a clutter in a suburban middle-class house that had been occupied by the same family for a few decades! In any event, character development wasn't a goal in this case. The Cavendishes are incidental characters, and there's an object that's—possibly—in their house that Sippy wants to find. It was dramatically necessary that she not find it, hence the clutter ex machina.

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    4. Totally fair! I think there are times when describing certain things really does get in the way, and part of our job as writers is making decisions about what to do when. Try as we might, we can't do all the things all the time, nor should we.

      And thank you for the introduction of the delightful phrase "clutter ex machina." I'm now going to pretend that the clutter in my apartment serves similar lofty-sounding purposes. :P

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    1. Point taken, Annabeth. Looking back, I see that I do enjoy a sense of setting in a read. Atmosphere makes it all that more real. In the best hands, like watching a movie. Lisabet is a master at vivid settings.

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    2. :D I completely agree. The sense of setting has stood out to me in several of Lisabet's books—what first jumps to mind is The Witches of Gloucester, but when I think of any Lisabet stories I know exactly where the characters were, which is quite unusual.

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  3. hmm, I hadn't thought about it before, but I have a tendency to set sex scenes in other places than bedrooms, and describe the setting with considerable attention. When I do set them in bedrooms, I don't describe the setting much. I'm pretty sure that's because my bedroom is almost always a mess.

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    1. Maybe there's a subconscious desire to hide one's own bedroom mess? That would be funny if true.

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  4. Like Sacchi, my characters rarely seem to make it to the bedroom!

    But you've definitely made a valid point. Details about setting frequently do reveal a great deal about a character. This is particularly useful when the character is not the focus character. We often don't pay much attention to our own bedrooms (well, at least I don't), but we can learn a lot from penetrating someone else's inner sanctum.

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    1. A lot of people fantasize about having sex in places other than the bedroom, so it does make sense for an erotica writer to take characters out as much as possible :)

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  5. Oh, and I agree, that bookshelf you describe would have had me running.

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    1. Heh. Because I do like stories in all their forms, I've often wondered what would have happened if I didn't bail then, but as far as my actual life goes, I"m glad I did.

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  6. This got me thinking about my room in college. I had managed to get a single my junior year. It featured a life-sized poster of Magic Johnson, a few half naked women that I won at the state fair, a closet full of clothes arranged in no particular order, and a trash can mostly full of Dr Pepper and beer cans (I didn't recycle back then). When my girlfriend had issues with her roommate, she unofficially moved in. Slowly things changed, no empty beer cans were allowed in the trash, she made sure my cloths were hung at least semi neatly, and the women came down (not literally, unfortunately), though Magic made the cut. Strangely enough, once the bedroom was more to her standards, are sexual activity increased, and dare I say, improved.

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    1. To clarify, the half naked women were posters ;)

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    2. This is really interesting, and thanks for the peek into your past history! I also love that you had a poster of Magic Johnson. I have deep, abiding affection for him.

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