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.
My 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.
In 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.
In 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 editor 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.