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Handling the Risqué Parts of Writing Romance

Sara Alexander explains how talking speaking to her agent about sex scenes in her romance novel allowed her to create vivid, real love scenes in her novel, Under a Sardinian Sky.

I’m a Sardinian-Brit author born and bred in London. When it comes to food and all things family I am a thoroughbred Sardinian; I over feed and am fiercely protective. I love a table heaving with people and conversations zapping at oblique interjections across vats of homemade pasta and farm fresh cheese.

This guest post is by Sara Alexander. Alexander graduated from Hampstead School in London and went on to attend the University of Bristol, graduating with a BA hons. in Theater, Film & TV. She followed on to complete her graduate diploma in acting from Drama Studio London. She has worked extensively in the theatre, film, and television industries, including roles in much loved productions such as Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, Dr. Who, and Franco Zeffirelli’s Sparrow. UNDER A SARDINIAN SKY is her first novel.

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When it comes to matters of a more intimate nature, my British upbringing rears its ever so polite head. Approaching the explicit scenes in my novel, Under a Sardinian Sky, took some work. I had to stop myself circumnavigating the more graphic content. Neither are Sardinians known for their demonstrative natures, nor are they particularly open about sex and the rudimentary mechanics of it. They sing about lost loves—passionate, ancient songs that are featured in the book, which are an important part of the culture. This acapella music is performed by male choirs. Their deep voices never fail to bring me to tears at about measure two.

I remember sending a chapter by my agent for some incisive feedback. I won’t pretend I’d hidden in a Sardinian cave emerging with a written masterpiece in hand. I won’t forget my agent’s direct advice: Be more explicit. When it came to the sex scenes, I first grasped at every flowery word in the book. I baulked at describing the scene with plain honesty. I was so fearful of descending into smutty porn that I threw myself in a weak direction. Some weeks later, tangled with words and possibilities, I realized readers would rejoice in the lovers consummating their feelings if I was open about how the main character was feeling too. I tried to strip down the language so that their physical interaction was not over layered. When the focus shifts inwards—on the characters’ feelings—that was my chance to expand toward the more poetic.

I didn’t shirk explicit scenes. The pivot for a love story is complicit intimacy between two people. I don’t think there’s anything sexier on the planet than the quiet centre of passion, that peaceful nothingness, the silence within the spark, a place where the bodies cease to be only physical, but become a gateway into sensations beyond our frame. You can roll your eyes at my flight of fancy (many do, especially the more pragmatic in my circle), but when tackling the deep interaction between two people, their emotional states must lift them and the readers.

When my husband read the more explicit scenes he was surprised at how openly I had dealt with them. He felt a twinge of embarrassment at the idea of his mother reading it, or her contemporaries (other octogenarians). This preceded a passionate debate about the notion of female sexuality as a quiet act of subversion on some bizarre level; the opposite of the appearance a woman upholds, within a small town, say, or at a certain age. An idea that makes me want to shout and weep.

My story is about a woman growing into herself. A woman’s developing sexuality over the course of her life, the time she devotes to getting to know herself, whilst becoming freer in expressing that with a partner(s), is something I’m a passionate advocate of. It was important to describe my character, Carmela, growing in this way.

Stripping the writing down to the bare minimum has a strong impact in scenes of a less pleasurable nature. When sex becomes an act of aggression, I made a conscious choice to use very plain language. In this way the act speaks volumes, rather than the narrator. I wanted to place the scene before the readers and allow them to feel the horror of the situation without becoming over bearing with language.

It’s such a fine line to tight rope, in a romantic story, when describing sexual encounters. In Under a Sardinian Sky, these scenes are the apex of the love story. Without a depiction, which allows the readers to indulge in the same feelings and physical sensations as the characters, there’s no longer a story, in my opinion. It was a challenge to tread that narrow strait between porn and romance. I did not want to be opaque, evasive, make their passion a fairy tale of the intensity the characters feel for one another, nor did I want it to be titillating for its own sake.

Once I had discovered a gentle, but honest midpoint between the two, I felt free to explore and unfold the scenes. I recorded the audiobook, and I can say I’ve never felt quite so bare before a stranger. I sat alone in a small recording studio, with a male engineer on the other side of the glass. If my British-Sardinian boundaries had not been pushed till then, they were bludgeoned at this point. Beyond the smart of embarrassment (I hadn’t envisaged me ever reading out a sex scene I had created in front of a stranger), there was the tingle of liberation.

To sweep these things under the carpet in a romantic story would weaken the power that draws people to one another. And if the intimate descriptions focus on the deepest levels of the character’s connection to one another, not only on describing body parts and what they do, but how they change the other person in some way, then I think explicit scenes have enormous power. It’s a writer’s duty to delve into the deepest crevices (almost no pun intended) of their characters. Then it’s up to the readers to decide if they will fall in love with them too.

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