Sunday, September 18, 2011

Rogues' Gallery

By Lisabet Sarai

Kathleen is responsible for this week's topic, “Nuggets of the Good Stuff”. Her explanation follows:

Every author in some way portrays himself in his works, even if it be against his will. ~Goethe

But what about the world around you? What about your partners, your history, your setting, etc. do you mine for your stories? And how do they feel about being your muse, or fodder?

Oh, where to begin?

Practically every story I've ever written uses details from my personal experience. I have a reputation for tales set in exotic settings, and yes, I've spent time in Bangkok, London, Prague, Luang Prabang, Provence, and Amsterdam. The distinctive atmosphere of those locales can't help but seep into my writing. For the rare stories I write that are set in locations I haven't visited (Guatemala in Serpent's Kiss; Assam in Monsoon Fever), I tend to work by analogy, importing material from places about which I do have first hand knowledge, to make the results of my research more convincing.

I spent the first quarter decade of my life in school, college and grad school, and ten plus years working in universities since. It's no surprise that I count more than a few graduate students and professors among my characters. I find the superficially formal, conformist academic environment to be a supremely appropriate backdrop for outrageously kinky behavior.

The area where I borrow most intensively from my history, though, is in the creation of my male characters. I've had a rather diverse and colorful love life. It's pretty common for me to base my heroes on one or another of my past partners.

Of all my lovers, my poor Master has suffered most from my literary exploitation. Aspects of his personality and his physique show up in dozens of my stories, starting with my very first book. Raw Silk was partially dedicated to him, “My master, mentor and muse”. I even borrowed some quotes from his epistolary seduction of a D/s virgin (me, that is) to use in the novel.

How does he feel about appearing (in various disguises) in so many of my salacious tales? Simultaneously flattered and annoyed, I believe. As I've noted before, he's a very private person, and I'm sure he's somewhat concerned about his identity being compromised. This didn't stop him from bragging to his close friends about Raw Silk, though!

Another rogue who looms large in my fiction is D., the man whom I've referred to here as the “dark poet”. We had a sometimes exhilarating, sometimes depressing, relationship for a number of years while I was in grad school. Intellectual, creative, moody and passionate, intensely sexual but suspicious of his own carnal desires – lean and disheveled, with unruly dark hair and a droopy mustache – D. was the physical model for Rick Martell in Ruby's Rules, and has shown up in a range of other tales, most notably Truce of Trust, where I imagined him as my (that is, my heroine's) husband. (My master also shows up in that ménage tale.)

Then there's M. I met him at a friend's wedding and fell instantly in lust. The chemistry was mutual, even though at the time our lives and our values could hardly have been more disparate. M. was short, like me, with a strong, compact body and an infectious smile. He makes an appearance in my short story “Something Borrowed”, loosely based on that wedding, and also influenced the physique of Mark, my hero in Incognito. I'm still in touch with M., but like most of my friends and acquaintances he doesn't know about my literary endeavors. I plan to keep it that way – just in case he's uncomfortable with the liberties I've taken, making him bisexual and a BDSM switch!

In mining my history, I've gone back as far as high school. Gino in Almost Home bears a close resemblance to a guy who teased me relentlessly from the eighth through the twelfth grades and who I later realized was as attracted to me as I was to him. There's a lot of my past in that story, including the story about how “Gino” shamed my then-boyfriend, Gino's closest buddy, into taking me to the prom. I understand now how generous a gesture that was; I strongly suspect he wanted to ask me himself.

Then there's DD., my Indian lover who partially shaped Anil in Monsoon Fever; M., the first man (or perhaps I should say boy) I ever kissed, who was the model for Ray in Incognito; and the guy who's name I can't remember, who seduced and then abandoned me when I was a shy, naïve college junior. That experience appears (with some embroidery) in Incognito, as the justification for Miranda's fear of intimacy. The fact that I've forgotten his name is probably a good thing!

As I wander through the rogues' gallery of my past loves, I'm struck by the fact that I've never used any of my husband's traits to fashion a character. Perhaps one needs a bit of distance to stimulate the imagination. I doubt that K. would really mind, as long as I distorted enough details to preserve his anonymity.

Writing this post has also reminded me of all the other men I've known who haven't shown up yet in any of my stories, but who might contribute to future heroes. Let me reassure you, though, that not all my characters have a basis in fact. Indeed, as I become a more practiced and skillful writer, I find my characters becoming more diverse and more independent of my personal experience. My most recent release, Wild About That Thing, features two heroes who have little or nothing in common with any man I've ever known. Zeke is a blond, burly blues guitarist from Mississippi, a bearish type quick to smile but dangerous to cross. Remy is a slender, elegant, shaven-headed black man from New Orleans, equally passionate about the blues. The physical inspiration for Remy (and the germ of the story) came from a guy I noticed at a blues concert, so focused on the music that I doubt he was aware of anything else. His personality, though, flows entirely from my imagination.

I also notice that I can't think of a single female character who borrows much from anyone in my life – other than from me, that is. Some of my heroines are more like me than others, but I dare say that all of them, even the ones who are the most different, share some of my traits – whether I intend them to or not. I guess that this is what Goethe means. For the most part, my borrowings from the rogues' gallery are deliberate acts of literary license. In contrast, when I insert myself into a female character, I might not even realize that's what I'm doing.


  1. I imagine that you mine your reactions and physical responses more than you think. While your female characters might not be you, they have a connection to you or they wouldn't seem real.

  2. Hi Lisabet!

    I find it interesting that you don't have characters based on yoru husband. That's not a bad thing, but I think it's like Freud observed that we don't usually fantasize about what we have but instead what we don't have. We fantasize about the lovers who have drifted downstream from us forever, or the lovers we coveted but never knew. But not the partner who is at hand. Somehow that's how the mind works.


  3. Hi, Kathleen,

    Oh, I agree. But I don't seem to import traits from the women I've known, even though I count myself as bisexual. Of course, my sexual experiences with women are extremely limited. But I have fallen in love with a number of them. Somehow they don't tend to show up in my fiction, though.

  4. Hey Garce,

    You're right, it's interesting and kind of embarrassing, actually. I think the key point may be accessibility. I'm too close to him to make him an object of fantasy.

    The other factor is that we got together at the tail end of what I call my "wild period". Maybe my hormonal furor was winding down.

    Finally, another explanation also occurs. Most of the relationships I've used in my fiction embodied some sort of conflict. I had a three year relationship with a wonderful, sexy guy when I was in grad school - but when I was writing this post, I realized I'd never incorporated him into my stories either. Maybe it's only the twisted connections that get mined.


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