The Darker Side of the Street

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I see things at work that would shock the average person. I sign on to my shift, accept the first job that comes through to the ambulance and within minutes could be kneeling beside a cardiac arrest, or holding a broken limb in position, or trying not to breathe the stink arising from the filth in which someone chooses to live. Twelve (if I’m lucky) hours later, I sign off again. More often than not, I don’t remember that first call, nor most of the ones that followed. I have a shower, eat my tea and watch a bit of telly. By 9.30 pm, I’m usually dozing on the couch with my wife and my cats. Over the last eleven years, I’ve perfected the art of not bringing my job home with me. I know without a doubt, however, that it leaves its mark on the way I write.

snowbound for blogMy first novel, Snowbound, centred around a hostage situation in which a police officer is severely injured and a local doctor volunteers to risk her own life to try to save that of a stranger. The two men responsible for the crisis are blokes straight off the back of my ambulance, those Saturday Night Specials who spend half their time bleeding onto the floor and the other half raging and plotting their revenge. They used to scare me and occasionally they still do; they’re unpredictable and potentially aggressive, full of adrenaline and alcohol and wounded ego. In Snowbound, I wanted to portray that mix in Steve and his cousin Tony. These men were never master criminals, nor the creative serial killers beloved of so many modern crime novels. Their plans are poorly thought out and soon go wrong, and at no point do they adorn their violence with cryptic literary quotations. Instead, they lash out with their fists or their weapons because it is something they are good at, the quickest, easiest way that they can achieve their goals and obtain a sense of status.

dpcoverIn my second novel, Desolation Point, Alex and Sarah come up against more sophisticated opposition, but the end result is the same: both women suffer vicious attacks and they are both badly injured. Although the violence occurs in relatively infrequent, short, sharp bursts, quite a few readers have mentioned it in feedback as an aspect that stood out for them. Somewhat surprisingly, the comments have still been positive, but I’ve been thinking about this issue for a long time and it will probably come up again when Tumbledown – the follow-up to Desolation Point – is released in February. So, why do I persist in putting my characters “through the wringer”? And, as a female author, shouldn’t I be more responsible in terms of depicting violence against women?

As previously discussed, I can’t write hearts-and-flowers romances. My main handicap is that I don’t enjoy reading them; if I’m going to be working on a novel for twelve months or so, I have to be interested in its characters and entertained by its plot. I like a good bit of crime and intrigue thrown in to spice up my romance, but more than anything else I like a generous dollop of hurt/comfort. I’m showing my fanfiction stripes now, because H/C has been an established and popular fanfic genre for years and yet it is almost never mentioned in relation to published, original fiction. H/C covers many bases for me as a writer. It allows for plenty of tension and action and provides me with an excuse to write juicy medical scenes (something else I love doing.) It does, however, lead me towards my second, more troubling question, because if you want the “comfort”, it comes hand-in-hand with the “hurt”, and in lesbian fiction the protagonists are pretty much guaranteed to be female.

tumbledownforblogIn my experience, women who have been assaulted do not stand up, shake off the wounds and return to normal minutes later. In my opinion, someone who decides to write like that has the potential to do more damage than an author who chooses to write in a more graphic style. Depicting the act of violence and then negating its effect creates a cartoon-like unreality where someone can fall off a cliff, land on her feet and walk away without suffering so much as a scratch. The villains in my books do terrible things because they are terrible people, and shying away from the detail would blunt an edge that should be sharp. There’s something inherently dishonest in a punch that doesn’t leave a bruise, or a violent attack that doesn’t leave its victim traumatised. When Merrick has finished with Sarah in Desolation Point, the smell of him on her clothing makes her physically sick. Guilt eats away at Kate and Sam in Snowbound and they suffer nightmares for months. All four of my heroines are fundamentally changed by what they survive and what they have had to do to survive, and each carries new scars, some more apparent than others.

While I never, ever want to stray into writing “torture porn”, there is a fine and debatable line between wanting to write realistic violence and becoming gratuitous in its depiction. Everyone has their own standards and limits, and I would be neither surprised nor offended to learn that I had gone beyond those of some readers. Like its predecessors, Tumbledown is brutal in places, possibly more so because its overriding tone is a little darker and a new central character is a woman trapped in an abusive relationship. The novel hasn’t yet been through the editing process, and on occasion I have toyed with the idea of making changes, of dulling that sharp edge, but I think I’ll wait and see what my Valentines-Day-flower-deliveryeditor has to say. Personally I would rather leave things as they are, not because I’m a stubborn bugger and certainly not because I want to cause a fuss or uphold some jokey reputation as a serial-maimer, but because I genuinely think the violence serves a narrative purpose. There are plenty of hearts and flowers out there if that’s what readers prefer, but I hope that a few people will want to walk with me on the darker side of the street.

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About Cari Hunter

Cari Hunter is the author of "Snowbound", "Desolation Point" and "Tumbledown", and the Dark Peak series of crime thrillers - "No Good Reason", "Cold to the Touch", and "A Quiet Death" - all published by Bold Strokes Books.
This entry was posted in Desolation Point, Novels, Snowbound, Tumbledown and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

35 Responses to The Darker Side of the Street

  1. Michelle says:

    Maiming is just who you are.

    • Cari Hunter says:

      I do have a distinct tendency. But then, the story I’m writing at the moment doesn’t have much in it at all, so it does seem that I prefer plot-driven maiming as opposed to for-the-hell-of-it maiming.

  2. I’m of the same opinion with regards to violence and H/C in stories. It’s there for a reason and how it goes on to affect characters afterwards is really important. I think I’ll be in the same boat as you, when Secret Lies is out. It’s going to be like Marmite–people will love it or hate it.
    At this moment in time I don’t have a hearts-and-flowers romance story in me. I do however have another story with some dark, gritty scenes and a generous dollop of H/C. So count me in for a walk down the darker side of the street. 🙂

    • Cari Hunter says:

      I will happily walk down it with you, Ms Dunne. It’s not that I’m not romantic (sharing your last piece of Kendal Mint Cake is VERY romantic *g*) I just think I have a slightly skewed version of what constitutes romance and a slightly livelier, more bruise-ridden way of getting to the end result.

  3. Sue Robinson says:

    Very thoughtful and thought-provoking piece.

  4. Anita says:

    I think the fact that you are aware of the violence level (which I don’t consider high compared to some books I have read) and wonder about its effect says a lot and raises my, already high, opinion of your writing. I read lesfic for entertainment and also enjoy a hurt/comfort story line but have stopped reading books where I felt violence to the main characters was gratuitous or as you put it torture porn (usually coupled with poor writing) but have never found that with any of your work. I have found your violent scenes realistic, if someone hits you it hurts and nobody hobbles along with a broken leg and nobody gets far with broken ribs! or a bullet in them in real life. I feel the violence you depict is part of the story and necessary to carry it and you show its effects, otherwise you would be writing Nancy Drew with a twist 🙂

    • Cari Hunter says:

      Cheers, Anita. I do my utmost not to cross that line but it’s difficult when everyone has their own limit/level. I can guarantee that, having seen grown men reduced to tears at the pain of a broken tib/fib, none of my characters will ever be attempting to run around on one (you can’t anyway, the bones would just wobble!) Compared to mainstream crime thrillers (of which I read quite a lot) my books are pretty damn tame but I think it’s healthy to step back and just make sure what I’m writing has a reason behind it.

      Thanks for taking the time to leave such a thoughtful comment, I appreciate it.

  5. Sue Flynn says:

    When I first ‘found’ lesbian fiction I read so many romance stories, which were sweet but ended up predictable that I couldnt bear to read yet another so went searching out ones that were different. I found Kim Baldwins Elite Operative series and enjoyed it and decided they were the kind of books I liked. Something with grit. I came across Snowbound and thought okaaay and loved it from the start and couldnt wait to turn the pages. Desolation Point came and again couldnt put it down. Like you questioning your writing of violence, I questioned my reading of it and was a little disturbed about enjoying the stories which women got beaten, kidnapped, kicked, shot etc. Then I decided that it wasnt the violence it was the recovery that kept me hooked. Everyone goes through life having something to heal from. Maybe not as extreme as getting shot etc but pain takes many forms and while its not nice seeing people so down and broken, their journey of recovery is facinating and produces hope that it is possible. If your characters can go through all of that and come out the other side well there is hope. I know its fiction but you pull out of any story what you need.
    Cari, don’t change a thing. Your books are popular so they obviously strike a cord with your fan’s. Violence is a part of life, unfortunatly, and is easy. The recovery is the hard part 🙂

    • Cari Hunter says:

      It’s been fascinating reading people’s responses to this piece. I wrote it as a sort of catharsis but it’s given me some great insights into the reader’s perspective. I think you’ve nailed the appeal of the H/C genre – the recovery and response to the hurt is far more interesting than the act of violence itself. I think the strength of bond that then develops between the characters is deeper than if your characters meet up over ice cream and a movie 🙂

      Many thanks for sharing your thoughts, Sue.

  6. Carol Bailey says:

    Just my two cents and I’m sure it’s been said before. It’s obvious when we read your books that the violence or as we lovingly refer to it “The Maiming” isn’t written in gratuitously, nor does it feel as if it’s just there for shock value. It correlates to the plot and the characters. Not to knock you Cari but you have a bit of a way to go on the violence side of things before you hit Stephen King level and his violence adds to the plot as well. You just keep writing well thought out stories and if I’ll happily read them, maiming and all. Besides I like to think of your characters as being tough women “survivors” who may get their asses kicked but still come through in the end. Better, Stronger… Bionic.

    • Cari Hunter says:

      Oh in terms of mainstream thrillers, my novels are a happy walk in the park beside a scenic little lake! I think that genre has developed into some kind of One Up competition to see who can think of the most outrageous way to torture and hurt their Victim of the Month. IMHO the very best of those writers are the ones who can make their recurring characters compelling despite the carnage in the background. I gave up on the likes of Cornwell and Reichs (and could barely get started on Gerritsen) because their lead characters were so bloody awful.

      LesFic OTOH is a genre dominated by more traditional romances and enjoyed by a largely female audience. I wondered whether this might make readers a little more adverse to the inclusion of blood and gore especially aimed against female protagonists. I still wish Snowbound hadn’t been listed solely as a Romance but from the sound of it, there is a place for a bit of mayhem and variation in the genre.

      As for “bionic”, let’s just say that Sarah’s halfway there!

  7. Devlyn says:

    Thanks for sharing such an honest insight into your writing.

  8. Diana Simmonds says:

    You write: “as a female author, shouldn’t I be more responsible in terms of depicting violence against women?” And I’d say – you are responsible for writing a good story with appropriate events that propel it forward and engross the reader. You don’t do gratuitous violence – as in violence that doesn’t belong in the plot or within the characters but is there to titillate – and the nature of both Snowbound and Desolation Point is that bad things happen – and as the protagonists/heroines are women, then ergo – bad things will happen to them.
    The day you start writing snuff or sadism is the day we start having a conversation about your responsibility to women!

    • Cari Hunter says:

      Yes boss 😉

      It’s difficult sometimes to try to decide: do I want to write what I want, in the way I tend to write? Or do I want to toe the line a little more closely? So like I’ve said, I think this was my moment of cold feet before Tumbledown comes out (I actually wrote this piece about ten weeks ago and then WordPress and my ISP started to have major issues so I had to delay posting it.) I reread the story over this last week of holiday and the bits that are supposed to make you wince duly made me wince, but I do think it’s a damn good story and I hope we won’t be having that conversation you mentioned any time soon.

      • Diana Simmonds says:

        Looking forward to it. I can understand your cold feet as there are some truly ridiculous snivelling nellies out there! I am gobsmacked when I read comments along the lines of “ooh, how horrid, how can she write such beastly stuff? – surely, as a woman, she should have the victim beaten to death nicely with a stick of candy floss and she should WARN us when there is something nasty about to happen. And it shouldn’t be too nasty.”
        I know I’m exaggerating – a bit – but really and truly, nice, tasteful murders and sweetly pleasant psychopaths have no place in modern fiction – certainly not fiction like yours which is immensely readable and in the here and now. Go for it!!

        • Cari Hunter says:

          I do try to ground my stories in reality; shit things happen, stuff goes wrong, the heroines aren’t drop dead gorgeous and they make mistakes, the weather isn’t always sunny, small towns aren’t always full of happy, welcoming people, and if you get punched in the nose blood tends to run down your throat and make you puke. To be honest, I can’t see me writing in any other way and I guess I’ll lose the readers who aren’t happy with that and keep those that are.

          And I promise now that I will never, ever beat anyone to death with a stick of candy floss.

  9. Mags Dixon says:

    I love walking with you on the darker side of the street. What differentiates your writing from the hearts and flowers romance (which I also enjoy for the pure escapism) is the sense of reality, there are no moments in your books where my “bullshit” alarm goes off. As you say, broken ribs really hurt, falling down a cliff is very unlikely to leave you able to walk away unblemished and 99.99% of the violent criminals are not capaciously intelligent masterminds but “Saturday Night Specials”. Don’t change your style of writing, as long as the plot justifies the action I enjoy the visceral crunch that you provide and we need authors to provide the refreshing splash of cold water that is reality.

    • Cari Hunter says:

      I do love that I’m not setting off people’s “bullshit alarms” (you’re not the first to have said this, Mags and it makes me very happy.) I hope to keep on this side of the street, it looks like I’ll have some great company 🙂

      Thanks for reading and replying.

  10. Lynda says:

    Plain and Simple, I just love your books! I like your writing just the way it is.

  11. Reese says:

    I have really enjoyed both of your books so far and I look forward to reading your third. I think that you have the balance right & the violence is certainly not gratuitus.

    I have to ask though, was it your own choice to Americanise the language and spelling in Desolation Point or were you forced by your American publisher? It was rather disappointing to find that this had happened because I was looking forward to your book two fold – first snowbound was a stonking good read – and second reading a book by a British author and not being constantly irritated by Americanised spelling is so very relaxing & comforting. Except it wasn’t. What’s the crack?

    • Cari Hunter says:

      Glad I’m hitting the right balance for you in terms of the violence, Reese. I’ll have to hold my hands up though, and accept full responsibility for writing DP in American-English. BSB had absolutely nothing to do with that, it was my choice. Believe it or not, it had nothing to do with broadening appeal or trying to snag US readers (I think a lot of Snowbound’s popularity actually stemmed from its UK setting and language!) It just came down to needing a big wilderness for the plot and a lead character who knew her way around a firearm. Once I’d decided to set it in the Cascades, I couldn’t really write it in English-English, that’d be weird in an American setting, so I had to make the switch.Tumbledown is largely set in Maine, so we’re in A-E for that one as well but the story I’m writing at the moment is back in the Peak District, and back to biscuit dunking, chips ‘n’ gravy eating, actual English 😉 To be honest, it’s so much easier writing in English-English that that’s where I’ll probably stay.

  12. I would hate it if you took away my maiming. I’d never forgive you, Cari

  13. Lori Janos says:

    Please don’t ever take away the hurt, because then the comfort wouldn’t be the same. I thought for a long time that the maiming/hurt/pain, was what attracted me to books, but it is the comfort and healing afterwards that I adore. It is something I try to look for when choosing a book. Keep writing them just as is.

    • Cari Hunter says:

      Hey Lori, thanks for reading (the books and the blog!) I reckon you’re right on the money with the H/C balance; I hate it when books gloss over the recovery – “three weeks later my bones were all fixed. The End” – that’s the most interesting part! I love the quiet moments in DP when Alex and Sarah are just taking care of each other, it’s so easy to dig deeper into your characters when they’re in a situation like that. I reckon if you’ve gone through the pain, you’ve earned the right to linger a little with the recovery 🙂

  14. MLCook says:

    I must admit, I am a tad surprised at people’s alarm and use of the term violence. You shouldn’t, in any way, feel that you should have to define or justify your style of writing. As many have said previously, what is portrayed is realistic. The realism should not be misinterpreted as a gratuitous use of violence or a negative portrayal or reflection on a woman’s place in the world.
    As each and everyone of us goes through life, we incur bumps, bruising, injuries, scars. Some will have more extreme experiences than others. Naturally, the more extreme a situation an individual incurs, the more likely the outcome will also be on the dramatic end of the spectrum.
    Your characters are finding themselves in extreme circumstances. What you offer is not violence, but rather you have the talent to describe, in detail, what has happened… the lead up, the cause, the event, the aftermath…you portray everything in its context.
    Perhaps the reason some people have such a reaction to the descriptions, is because they are so damn realistic that they, as a reader, can sense, smell, and almost feel or imagine the discomfort the character is in.
    Sometimes life is great, sweet, peaceful….sometimes it’s rough, tough, dirty, mean, scarey and down right shitty. Your books and characters touch on all of the spectrums of life, the good bits and the owies.
    If readers feel desperately uncomfortable, perhaps they are reading the wrong genre…or perhaps it is because, as an artist, you have encapsulated and created such a powerful image, that (as an author), you have perfectly hit the head of the nail smack bang on it’s metallic head!

    • Cari Hunter says:

      Eloquent as ever, Ms Cook *g* To be honest, this wasn’t really a response to any specific feedback, it was more me exploring the whys and wherefores, and trying to get my head around what I wanted Tumbledown to turn out like. I’m really not a fan of self-censorship so I have no idea what I would’ve done had this blog prompted a flurry of “arrgh, tone it down!”-type responses (curled up in a corner and rocked gently?) But the feedback has been fascinating and reassuring in equal measure. So, thank you for yours 🙂

  15. ML COOK says:

    Good to hear…one glass of wine = wordy bollocks. Still, it’s my (crapping on) way of saying you are doing a great job. Now stop wasting good brain time on analysing what is coming naturally you goose – you’re good, so just keep doing what feels natural and keep enjoying the journey. 🙂

    • Cari Hunter says:

      Hell, I reckon you should keep drinking 🙂 And I am enjoying the journey. I can’t wait for Tumbledown to come out (I’m shitting bricks about it, but that’s par for the course!) and I’m loving the story I’m writing at the moment.

  16. Pingback: News Roundup: Kiki Archer Teases, New Books from Sky Croft & Mari Hannah, Interviews, Blogs, and more! | UK Lesbian Fiction

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