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Should You? Using Song Lyrics in Fiction

Karin Kallmaker Craft of Writing


Song lyrics, combined with music, have the power to move our booties, exorcise demons, uplift our spirit and add poetry into any moment of our daily lives.

It’s a natural inclination to refer to, quote from and honor words of others that move us. Frequently, then, the question comes up: can I quote song lyrics in my story? This question is usually spurred by concerns over legalities, but to me the legal issues are secondary to the artistic concerns.

Not CAN You, But SHOULD You

The real question is not can you, but should you quote song lyrics in your story. My opinion is no, but with acknowledgment that there are exceptions. I’ll address those at the end of this article.

Saying that the legal issues are secondary isn’t meant to imply they don’t matter. Nearly all modern song lyrics are copyrighted. As someone else’s copyrighted material, they cannot be copied into another work without the legal right to do so. I’m a pragmatist and all the time and energy I could spend getting permission to use someone else’s work is time and energy I’d much rather spend writing.

There are fabulous lyrics out there, but it’s far simpler to let them inspire my own creative muses. Ultimately, given that permissions are a royal pain in the hinder, I think living without lyrics is simply a better use of my time. Add that a license to reproduce a song lyric can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars — heck, I can evoke that mood myself for free.

Rationalizations for Copyright Infringement

What if I really love a song and want to honor the songwriter by quoting those lyrics in my work? What if I won’t make any money from my work? What if I’m only posting it online?
You still must get permission or risk having to deal with legal complications — copyright infringement is not about making money off another’s work, but about making use of it. For a general introduction to the legal aspects of copyright — both protecting your own and not violating other people’s — search for these articles about intellectual property by Lori Lake:

  1. Intellectual Property and Its Uses,
  2. Part Two: Copyright and Intellectual Property and Its Uses,
  3. Part Three: Lyric Reprint Permissions.

In addition, you might want to understand the legal meanings of words like plagiarism, copyright and permission. A plain-English glossary of legal terms is available at and using their “Search Glossary” feature makes looking up particular issues simple.

This Stuff is Complex!

No matter how thorough a web site or how learned any layperson may be, these issues can be extremely complex; none of these resources is a substitute for legal advice tailored to your specific situation. I prefer to leave legal issues to lawyers, and focus my energy on writing. There are critical artistic elements that, in my experience, are truly compelling reasons to avoid song lyrics in fiction.

First, Consider the Reader

When I’m zooming along in a good story, it can stop me cold to be required to absorb a new cadence from an outside source. I wonder if I know the song or the performers. If I don’t, I’m frustrated and the lyrics become unwelcome noise in my reading experience. I skip them. I expect the writer to provide all the information, imagery and mood anyway. If she doesn’t, I’m even more at a loss.

If I do know the song, I think about the words. I hear the music. I struggle to read the lyrics at the pace to match the music. Maybe I go get the CD.

Whatever the result, I’m no longer reading the writer’s wonderfully paced work, that’s for sure. I’m now confronted with yet another person’s world, not that of the author. The bond between the author, the characters and the reader is snapped.

Second, Consider the Shortcut You Want to Take

When a writer says she wants to use a few lines form a song, what she usually wants to evoke is the entire song – music, performance and all. The lyrics alone don’t substitute for Janis Joplin’s grinding energy, the curl of Elvis’s lip or the melting rip in k.d. lang’s voice. They can’t replace a smoke-filled dive, a sweaty mosh pit or the cool refinement of a piano bar.

To fully realize the song’s impact, the writer has to invest energy in describing the music, performers, setting, style, rhythm, volume and so forth. If that effort isn’t put into the story, then the lyrics are being used not to augment but to substitute for what the writer isn’t evoking with her own words.

To say that another way, if song lyrics are vital to the reader’s comprehension and enjoyment, then in my opinion the writer isn’t doing her job as completely as she ought: someone else’s creativity is being used instead of her own.

If the writer has done her job with mood, setting, character reactions and imagery, the reader will feel the essence of the song without more than a passing reference to the lyrics. The song inspired the writer, and the reader no longer needs someone else’s verbatim words to bond with the story as the writer intends.

Last Reason for “No, You Shouldn’t use Lyrics”

While it’s harder to capture the mood and impact of a song without citing the lyrics, I think describing music is an excellent skill for any writer to fine tune. Using words to capture one of the five senses in its pure form is definitely challenging. Bringing a reader to appreciate a song’s meaning, musical qualities and emotional content without citing the lyrics is a creative workout that strengthens a writer’s skills.

To me, the harder I work as a writer, the easier my work will be for the reader to enjoy and absorb. So while I may want to quote the words from “Fields of Gold” because thirty of them do what is going to take me three paragraphs, I put my effort into making those three paragraphs as meaningful and powerful as I find the song to be. A scene that began with a reference to the lyrical Sting ballad eventually needed no reference to the song at all; I felt I had captured its melting sensuality, warmth and simplicity. The scene was definitely the better for the inspiration and so were my descriptive skills.

None of the above means that referring to a performer, a song or the lyrics isn’t possible and even enjoyable for the reader.

Done with precision and care, a reference can resonate with the reader and not distract. For example,

A spaghetti strap of Jane’s cocktail dress slipped off her shoulder. Eyes sparkling, she leaned forward to accept Nancy’s kiss
It was too chaste for Nancy’s liking. Inside her head she could hear sultry encouragement from Bonnie Raitt, so Nancy decided to go for it. Whispering suggestively against Jane’s lips, she said, “Let’s give them everything to talk about.”

Those who know Raitt’s “Something to Talk About” will glide over the reference with a little extra zing. But those who don’t know the song get every piece of information they need to go right on with the story. In both cases, the reader builds an impression of Nancy: she likes Bonnie Raitt, she’d like to make out with Jane and doesn’t care who’s watching. A nuance here or there could paint Nancy as a shy suitor or an aggressive Don Juana. Instead of Bonnie Raitt, change the example to a reference to the Sex Pistols. What would the reader know about Nancy then?

Certainly, when penning a story set within a community — say, the lesbian community — or appealing to certain kinds of readers — say, lesbians — an author’s well-chosen references to “our own” performers and songs can both illuminate and celebrate by creating a familiar, welcome bond.

These kinds of references can enrich characterization and background, but they need to be done for conscious and deliberate effect. A character that has stated she doesn’t like country music, for example, wouldn’t be likely to refer to Johnny Cash lyrics. A character that adores opera might often refer to themes or motifs in specific operas as she confronts issues in her life.

Of Course There is an Exception

Quoting something unprotected by copyright, that is in the public domain means that copyright cautions don’t apply. In that case, while one may be free to quote the lyrics in question, the real test is still whether that’s truly necessary. Do these lyrics add to characterization and mood? Sometimes the answer is yes, in particular when the lyrics may be unknown to the reader.

As an example, in my Tunnel of Light series, the characters are deeply influenced by the religious music of Hildegard von Bingen, who died in the twelfth century. Her repeated imagery of blooming flowers, verdant gardens, dripping honeycombs, sacrificial blood, sacred love, unbearable yearning for another, and the uplifted voices of fervent virgins have all influenced the series. In a few cases I’ve quoted the original Latin and provided my translation. The actual quotations are sparing; I tried to live with the bare minimum and used what I did to evoke the medieval phrasing of that time period.

The themes of sacrifice, higher love and women in community I’ve used heavily, as well as the imagery of flowers, blood and unrequited desire. In some cases I wrote new lyrics for my pre- and re-incarnations of “Hildegard” that emphasize the mythic lesbian subtext I find in her work. I share that information as proof that every rule was meant to be reflected on and, perhaps, carefully and consciously broken. I’ve tried not to use more of my own “Hildegard” lyrics than I have of the real ones.

I still want the reader deeply bonded with the characters and not a handful of phrases that could break the mood. The lyrics are just a small part of a larger background canvas on which my story is painted.

As authors, we’re free to write our own song lyrics and put them in the mouths of our characters. In those situations, the same concerns (distraction to the reader, broken pacing and substituting only lyrics when an entire performance is what’s needed) should be considered.

Ultimately, Less is More

My own inclination remains that less is more.There can be circumstances where either legal issues may be moot or the motif of a song you can get permission to quote from is so tied to the story that presenting the lyrics would actually help the reader. If either of these instances is the case, be prepared to stand your ground with documented proof of your right to use the work. Publishers do not want to print a work only to have to destroy it because it contains copyrighted material used without permission. Frankly, the presence of lyrics in your manuscript may make a publisher reject it out of hand — why begin your quest to publish your work with a significant strike against it?

Fertile Creative Sources are All Around Us

The glory of sunrise on a grove of goldenrods, the sensual softness of a freshly washed baby or the passion of a ballad that rips our hearts to bits. Songs, or any work by someone else, for that matter, can be creativity-provoking. Why be distracted by legalities when channeling that inspiration into our own words is far more rewarding? Delighting, intriguing and ensnaring the reader into our stories is the point of our hard work, isn’t it?

Allowing inspiration from all sources to blossom in our work is worth the creative struggle; it’s where a writer’s focus belongs.

Follow-up Blog: Asked and Answered

© 2006 Karin Kallmaker
Appeared at May 2006
Copyrighted material.

Based on Actual Events or People – Are There Issues?

Karin Kallmaker Craft of Writing, Just Like That

cover Just Like That by Karin Kallmaker

Question from a New Writer

How careful does a writer have to be when using real people or events in their lives in a story?

There are, I’m quite sure, legal realities that answer this question, but it’s easier to wrap my mind around the ethical issues. I am usually upfront with people over small stuff, e.g. “That’s a great line, I’m going to steal it” or “gorgeous photo of an alpine meadow–I think I’d like to set a scene some place like that so tell me all about where this is, how you got there…”

Over something larger, like a significant life event, I guess I’d first say I don’t think anything I’ve ever written wasn’t inspired by true events as my usual genre (romance) is grounded in reality.

When I hear a moving personal account of something in someone’s life I can’t help it – it gets sucked into the creative soup. The story (abuse, grief, guilt, survival challenge, whatever) gets mixed around with everything else that ends up in there. It may or may not surface again.

If it does, then I try to match the issue with the character I’d like to write about–to match up two creative impulses into a single character, and a single story.

Stirring the Creative Soup

For example, stories I’d read about the drought and struggling grape crops in Europe and the casual comment about the state of business from a guy who poured wine tastes in Napa, met up with wanting to tell a tale about a woman whose business is failing because of her adorable but absolutely feckless parent. Scraping hard, parts of the novel are based on actual events (and an homage to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice), but the final result, Just Like That, was a long way from where those impulses began.

There’s Real and then there’s Authentic

That being my creative process, I work hard to make sure none of my characters resemble friends and family except perhaps in the odd trait or quirky pattern of speech. When a friend offers up a habit of dipping her fries into her strawberry shake…you gotta use something like that.

I want my characters to be real to me, as her own person. And while a single event in the life of someone I know might intrigue me, I usually take it from there by generalizing the experience to lesbians, to women, to human beings, and look at whatever those events were in larger contexts.

I research other actual events (never fiction) of a similar nature. I learn more about whatever it is. Shake it up, then pour into my character what makes sense to her life given the background and personality I’ve given her. She is fictional, but she is an authentic representation of a person who could exist.

It’s Still My Own Creation

If I know the original source of inspiration, I will generally let whomever know that they were inspiring, but make it clear that while they might see touches of their experiences here and there it is still fiction, and I’ve taken care so that no one can say “Oh that’s so-and-so.”

Reflecting on my process, I think it’s ethical , but I can’t say I set out to make it so. It just feels right to me. I like to write characters who are both specifically real and universally meaningful, and who are my own creation.

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Goldie Finalists Announced for 2006 Awards

Karin Kallmaker Awards and Reviews, Just Like That

Bell Book and Dyke cover
Hurrah! Bell, Book & Dyke: New Exploits of Magical Lesbians is among the finalists for the 2006 Goldie awards! The category is Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Speculative/Horror, but BBD also has a decided erotic edge in its quartet of novellas about lesbians and real magic in their lives.

cover Just Like That by Karin KallmakerMy collaborators and I are all thrilled at the reception the series has had so far; last year’s Once Upon a Dyke: New Exploits of Fairy Tale Lesbians was shortlisted in the Lambda Literary erotica category.

I feel an embarrassment of riches in that my own Just Like That is shortlisted this year in the Goldie romance category. Last year, Sugar was one of the winners, and I even got to hug Radclyffe.

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Society of Women

Karin Kallmaker Craft of Writing

Golden Crown Literary Society logo

I hope everyone will pardon a brief commercial for my absolutely most favorite lesbian event ever (okay, event with more than 2 women in the room) and that’s the Golden Crown Literary Society annual convention. This year it is in Atlanta, June 8-11, and already the list of attending writers, publishers and editors is lengthy and star-studded. And we’ve just been informed that Ann Bannon will be speaking!

Check out the list yourself — more names are added every day!

If you love lesbian fiction of all genres, this convention is for you! I’m proud to be a sponsor again this year, and spending time with readers and other writers is great.

Here are links to THE CONVENTION (check out the photos from last year!) and the Golden Crown Literary Society. You don’t have to be a member to attend, of course, but $10/year includes membership on the main discussion list for the Society, where I have learned more about what I do than any writing class I’ve ever taken.

End commercial. Think about it, though. Okay, I’ll stop now. It’s just so fun. Really.

Might I be so bold as to ask how much sex is enough?

Karin Kallmaker Craft of Writing

Happy smiling blonde

Every genre has its conventions and the sex should always be about the characters and the plot. I think it is possible, even in these days of explicit romances, to pen a lesbian romance that does not have a “sex scene” per se – but it must have lust and passion or the reader won’t buy that “love and happy ever after” premise you spent several hundred pages selling.

Whether it’s suds in the shower or yahoo-bucking-bronco sex is determined by the plot and characters. I know what doesn’t work, and I see it time-to-time in thrillers and mysteries mostly, both in novels and on screen. Roger Ebert dubbed it the SOLI: semi-obligatory lyrical interlude. That’s when our hero stops all thought and activity relevant to main story and has some soft-focused encounter with a hot babe during which personal thoughts and warm fuzziness are explored.

After which the encounter, personal thoughts and warm fuzzinesses are never referred to or experienced again except, perhaps, at the very end when the hot babe shows up for some epilogue activity (if she didn’t die after the encounter to provide some kind of cliched motivation for our hero’s blood thirsty destruction of everything in her/his path).

Not that the hero can’t have an SOLI – but it needs to tells something about the hero or in some way further the plot. I always think it demonstrates that the hero is easily distracted from the task at hand but it seems very rare that that was what the author meant.

So make it make sense. If none or Energizer Bunny makes sense, then go for it.

Copyrighted material.

About that nasty e-mail from a reader…

Karin Kallmaker Book News, Craft of Writing, Readers and Libraries

Happy smiling blondeOne of the things writers do when we gather is compare not just the good, but the bad side of putting our work into the public marketplace… so this was my answer to the question.

“What do you say when an e-mail is mean or vicious?”

Generally, I don’t argue with someone’s opinion. They’ve a right to it. If they are thoughtful, I draw them out because I want to understand why they feel that way. But it’s not my place to tell them they ought to like something they don’t or that it’s obvious they’ve only recently graduated from See Spot Run.

There are people who want to start a fight and I decline to engage unless for some reason I am cornered. I did not answer an e-mail from someone who accused me of being irresponsible to gay youth by presenting lesbians who had sex outside of relationships. (I suspected I was being baited by some fundie.) Nor did I respond to a hostile accusation that I had portrayed a family culture of incest in one of my books. At a reading someone made a disparaging remark about “trashy romances” which I answered with ever-so-much sweetness, channeling Julia Sugarbaker the whole time. I think I was a southern belle in a previous life.

I have a protective umbrella called “inappropriate boundaries” that opens right up under certain circumstances, and I will not answer some e-mails, regardless of their other content. Outright hostilityand disrespect are two of the triggers. Malice and spite speak for themselves – they deserve no answer.

The other trigger is “uh oh.” I didn’t answer the e-mail from someone who said “she” had read all my books and probably knew me better than my partner, and went on to speculate how I liked sex. I kept it but didn’t answer it and fortunately have never gotten anything like that again. Ewwww. The least someone could do is chat me up for awhile before going to that level.

I’ve never had to deal with a reader being inappropriate in person, thank goodness. And there have been times for no reason I could specifically point to, I felt that the writer was inauthentic. They said they’d read my books and asked a question that didn’t seem quite right if they had indeed read my work. Maybe it was the precision of their questions that seemed to prompt a knee-jerk reaction that if I responded, the exchange would end up in some public forum on the Internet. I realize that sounds paranoid, but I got that “uh oh” feeling and chose not to answer.

One thing I have learned: there is no such thing as privacy on the Internet. Expect anything you say in e-mail or on a list to be forwarded. I know that everyone must have had at least one experience with a real live person who violated their trust and repeated something private, so why would you expect better behavior from strangers, especially those who can wreak havoc in anonymity?

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golen pens and ink on notebook

Creating a Character of “Age”

Karin Kallmaker Craft of Writing, Touchwood

writing-gold-pensPrompted by the observation on the GCLS Discussion List that began with “Why aren’t there more characters over the age of 50?”

One of the first questions a romance writer has to answer is “Why is this character single?” The older the character, the more complicated the answer to that question can be. To me, developing a character at the opening of a romance is bringing the reader to believing why she is the way she is at this moment in her life.

This explanation (the “heavy lifting”, as I think of it) is logically twice as long for a 50-year old than for a 25-year old. She has probably made twice as many mistakes, had twice as many romantic entanglements, and has – in most cases – done a lot of the hard work in sorting out who she is. In sheer biographical detail, her backstory is twice as long.

I’m not saying that’s why writers may avoid older characters, but it can play into the writer’s decision about what age to make her primary characters. I know that if I’m intent on a certain theme, one of the first things I ask myself is if exploring this theme makes sense for the life history of the character I have in mind. Where she is at that moment must make sense for the plot that is about to unfold for her.

For example, if one big theme is a crisis in her work place where she has to find her backbone and stand up for herself, does this theme play realistically for a woman of 30? Yeah, that seems not a far stretch; she hasn’t had to stare down a jerk on the job before. Could she be a woman of 50, though? Hmmm, to be that mature and yet to experience that moment of personal growth…a perhaps harder thing for the reader to believe. Ah, but if it’s her first job outside of the home, or her first job when she’s an out lesbian, the theme might work for a woman of that age…and so I would have to explain a lot more without bogging down the story.

It’s not a barrier that would turn me away from making a character 50 – it’s just an example of the challenge I would face.

Another reality is lack of confidence in the character’s voice. By that I mean I prefer character voices that ring true and if I lack the necessary empathy/life experiences to create a true voice I won’t give that character a point of view. I don’t think I’m very good at creating a character based solely on research or other writers’ perceptions – I fear being derivative and unrealistic. (If I attempted a forensic scientist I have a feeling she’d look, sound and act just like Kay Scarpetta, know what I mean?)

Those of you who have read Touchwood will notice that 56-year old Louisa has no point of view. I was 30 at the time I wrote it, and knew I could not write Louisa in her own voice. What I could do was write a 29-year old slowly opening her eyes to the reality of who Louisa was and the complexity of Louisa’s life story and personal character. So I think, for me at least, a certain amount of self-censorship comes into play.

Of course the older I get, the older some of my characters are getting. I could write Louisa now that I’m 45. I find it interesting that there are moving and credible secondary characters we can all name – secondary characters don’t get the same kind of expository devotion as main characters do. However, they can be incredibly rich because they, unlike a main character, can sit down in a sensible scene and tell their story, all at once. You can do things with secondary characters that you shouldn’t with main ones; perhaps that’s why more than one of us has chosen to create older secondary characters. The heavy lifting is there, but the way you bring it into the story is so much easier.

Copyrighted material.

Why the Racier Content After All These Years?

Karin Kallmaker All the Wrong Places, Craft of Writing


What’s racier? Who determines that?

When I first started writing, my “rules” for what could and couldn’t be done between the sheets, err, pages of a romance novel were distilled from what I read, which was primarily lesbian romance and mystery. I wrote within those limitations for the first half dozen books or so because I was sure they were acceptable to the publisher (Naiad Press). Over time I broke a few of the rules, but in very subtle ways.

Fast forward from the mid-80s to the mid- to late 90s and sex writing for, by, about lesbians had come into its own as a genre. It was clearly not to be confused with romance. The “rules” I discerned from that genre were quite different, and they were much more fluid.

So, for me, my “racier” is whatever wasn’t on the original list of “rules” I wrote for myself years ago. And that includes a whole lot of verbs and certain nouns. What’s “racy” to me isn’t necessarily what would be “racy” to anyone else.

I didn’t start writing explicit erotica until the last few years, and published several short stories with various publishers. I realized that to me it felt as if there was a literal chasm between romance and erotica that could be bridged. For example, very few erotica stories are about long-term couples where romance is an essential ingredient to the passion. The creation of the Bella After Dark imprint was Linda Hill’s response to both writers and readers who were asking for edgier sex without abandoning the kind of characters and quality they expected from Bella writers.

Bed New Lesbian EroticaSo when I decide it’s time to write erotica I’m only thinking of sending it to BAD; it’s my home and I got to be around when it was built.

Some writers, especially new ones, are wary of being “branded” by a label that excludes her from one market or the other (ala the erotica reader who won’t touch romance and vice versa). To them, my advice is write LOTS. Being labeled is just about unavoidable. Not only will publishers and bookstores want to label you for ease of marketing, but so do readers so they can talk about your work. The more you write, the more opportunities you will have to stretch the labels, move around them, tweak and transcend them.

When I began writing explicit erotica one of my goals was to get my name into the reader’s head under the “hot sex stuff” heading regardless of whether they had read any of my sci-fi, fantasy or romance novels. I want multiple entries in the relational database of the reader’s mind. But I also understand that there are readers who will not cross genres. After all, it’s their time and money. After All the Wrong Places came out I got emails that said they didn’t like the sex or the raw language (and a review from a lesbian who said it was “depraved”!) and others that said they didn’t like the smarmy relationship thing. Fortunately, however, most people said that in spite of that thing they didn’t like, they still enjoyed the read.

Since I strive to please myself (and I did with that book) and to please “most” of my readers, I’m happy with the response. Know, too, that I am an out and proud genre fiction writer. It’s what I do. All of my experience and advice revolves around that truth.

There is one other aspect about writing “racy” content that I won’t ignore, mostly to let other writers know they aren’t alone. There’s actually research into the dynamics of creativity and the link between creative arousal and sexual arousal (as in, yes, there is a link) is real. They both work the pleasure center when all goes well.

I think since each person experiences pleasure differently, the way we physically react to the Joy of Writing is going to be different, too. I will own that, when I made my faux pas with the Queen’s English and said I often broke writer’s block by “tossing off” some erotica it wasn’t that far from the truth! From time to time I’ve been known to ask the keyboard “was it good for you?”

Copyrighted material.

golen pens and ink on notebook

New Orleans

Karin Kallmaker Craft of Writing, Tunnel of Light

writing-gold-pensThis afternoon I was thinking of all the characters we know and love who will never walk the same streets of New Orleans again.

As assessments of “months, years, decades” begin to flow in I have to ask myself where Mickey Knight will go to live? And what will JM Redmann do, not just about her own home but about something probably nearly as dear – her creative wellspring? What will all the writers do who have used the mystique of New Orleans for creative fodder? And what about the musicians for whom those streets were like no other?

And coming in on the party barge on the land of Denial, it was only this afternoon that there is no “present day New Orleans” any longer, and even when the city resurrects itself again, as it has several times in 300 years, it will not be the same Bourbon Street, the same bayous.

The effect on my outline for Forge of Virgins is profound. One of two Ursaline Convents in the U.S. is under about fifteen feet of water. Granted, it’s one of the better built structures in the Quarter, but the Quarter isn’t there anymore. Looking at the aerial shots of the city and knowing how precarious its hold on structural integrity already was, I can’t believe most of the structures in the Quarter (let alone the rest of the city) won’t be condemned and eventually demolished.

Perhaps I am being pessimistic. At a minimum, when things are rebuilt they will not be rebuilt the same way. They’re be structurally more sound, artistically less interesting, and vacant of that undeniable mystique of a haunted place. Even the new ghosts will lose ground when steel and glass replace wood and brick.

After taking in the enormous loss of life and property, it just occurred to me this afternoon that there are yet more layers of loss because New Orleans was not just any city. Any work of fiction featuring the city as it was 3 days ago is instantly dated, and I can’t fathom yet how a novel not yet written could feel undated to a reader who knows the place where the novel is set no longer exists. New Orleans has no parallel for music, sin, magic, counter culture and historical pastiche.

Maybe, as the water finally recedes in a couple of months, things won’t look so bleak – maybe we haven’t lost a major American city for decades. At a minimum we’ve lost the character of the old New Orleans and one of the richest sources of creative inspiration on the planet. This afternoon, as I thought about it all, the pen suddenly seemed very hard to pick up.

computer keyboard closeup

Point of View: What’s the Point?

Karin Kallmaker Craft of Writing


Question: Why do you use third person limited so much? Why don’t you vary the point of view more within scenes?

Obviously there are lots of opinions about point-of-view (POV) and its uses. General rule: if the reader stops even for a nanosecond to figure out who is speaking or thinking at that moment, something is wrong with your POV and that is always a bad thing. Clarity and smoothness are absolutely essential whenever you switch them.

Since I feel that reader connection to the character is the crucial element in the pleasure a reader gets from a romance novel, anything that snaps the connection is bad. I stay in a single POV in a scene for several reasons. First is that I’m comfortable with it. Second is that I feel it bonds the reader to that single character as tightly as possible. I’ve written entire novels from a single POV and often that feels comfortable as well, especially if the novel is concerned primarily with that woman’s transitions. But I’ve also found over the years it makes me work a little harder on the connection between the two characters in the scene, especially during a love scene.

If I’m using Jane’s POV and Nancy’s having a, um, really good time, how does Jane know? How can Jane (and the reader) get inside of Nancy’s head? It has to be through Jane’s emotions and reactions. So I work harder to bring the reader into Jane’s head and stretch her also to glimpses of Nancy’s thoughts and feelings as well. For example,

Jane ran her thumb over Nancy’s lower lip, feeling a responsive quiver at her touch. As she continued to gaze into Nancy’s dark eyes, she was amazed to see Nancy’s pupils dilate slightly as they leaned closer. Astonishment that this moment was leading to a kiss made Jane’s heart pound.

There’s a little bit of extra name/pronoun verbiage in there I’d edit out eventually, but you get the drift. So I would hope that Nancy’s reactions are vivid enough through Jane’s observations not to need to flip to Nancy’s point of view – Nancy wants to be kissed and Jane (with reader) are all for that.

In a later scene, I’ll likely switch the points of view (if the book has both points of view established), and probably validate that Jane was exactly right in her observations of Nancy’s reactions, knitting the two lovers’ bond even more tightly with something like,

It was like that first kiss all over again, Nancy thought. She would have never guessed that the gentle touch of another woman’s thumb on her mouth could bring such an avalanche of response inside her. Had her eyes been filled with as much amazement as she now saw in Jane’s? Damn her own incoherence — why was it so hard to find words? Her mouth was too dry to speak but not so dry that this second kiss, all these weeks later, wasn’t just as wonderful.

I also like a single point of view in a scene so that my characters can make flawed observations that more perceptive readers will get. For example,

Jane whispered, “Don’t you feel the way I do?” She focused on the drumming of Nancy’s fingers on the table top, then finally risked a glance at Nancy’s expression. Nancy wouldn’t meet her gaze. After all they’d shared, Nancy didn’t say a word. “I guess I was wrong.” She was out of the coffee shop in under three seconds, calling herself ten shades of a fool.

If I’ve done my work right along the way, most readers will know perfectly well that Nancy, very shy, is still trying to find words while impetuous Jane has jumped to the conclusion that silence means apathy or embarrassment. That can take a couple of chapters to work out as Nancy learns to speak and Jane learns to listen. The readers who don’t see that Jane jumped to a conclusion will get it later when Nancy says, “Sometimes it takes me a while to find words. You were gone before I could get I love you out of my mouth!”

Anyway, those are generally my reasons for staying in a single point of view for the length of a scene. It’s comfortable, I like how it ties the reader to a single character at a time, and I think it makes me work harder to express my character’s perceptions of the other woman in the scene, illuminating both characters.


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Interview: Golden Crown Newsletter

Karin Kallmaker Business of Books, Craft of Writing, Fish Out of Water, Just Like That, Sisters of the Pen, Sugar, Unbeliever

golden seal with GCLSTell us a little about yourself.

Let’s see, just looking at me, especially if my children are near, most people would assume I’m a 40-something matron whose chosen field is accounting. The accounting part used to be true. That was my career before my partner and I decided I’d work from home to provide the best possible environment for our children when they were born. I think I’m rather ordinary, all in all, if you don’t include that whole lesbian romance and erotica writing thing I do. Which I love, by the way. I think I have one of the best gigs on the planet. Thank goodness my partner works for a Very Big Bank, though, or we’d never be able to afford the Bay Area. I’ve been writing since forever, and my first book, In Every Port, was published in 1989.

Why did you choose romance as a genre?

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Lesbians Hate Women

Karin Kallmaker LIFE + STYLE

It was an odd thing when a new member of a club I belonged to suddenly announced that the club’s members and founders were women-hating because the club goal was the support of not women, but “just” lesbians. This restriction in focus was unsisterly; who did we think we were, failing to realize that women needed our support? The new member then proposed a boycott of the club. And so, I wrote…

If I prefer to spend my time and money reading lesbian lit am I boycotting John Grisham? If I’d rather roll on the floor laughing at Kate Clinton am I boycotting Chris Rock? When did matters of positive personal choice get transformed into negative actions?

I’m uncomfortable at having anyone suggest our preferences, orientations and dispositions must fall into “if you’re not for it, you must be against it” categories. The only time – and I can’t believe I’m admitting to this – I ever felt sympathy for Bush Senior was when he got crud from the broccoli growers because he admitted he doesn’t eat broccoli. Oh the outrage. If I have the power to live a swiss chard-free life then surely he can be free of broccoli. He never told anyone else not to eat it, nor did he deny its fine nutritional qualities. He just doesn’t like the stuff. It is a Free Country (something I wish he’d remind his offspring about, but that’s another rant).

I do understand that there is a difference between positive personal choices and a refusal to engage outside those choices based on prejudice and ignorance — and to encourage others to live in ignorance as well. I believe people should occasionally step outside their box. The further we travel from home the less likely we are to be fill-in-the-blank-phobic. At some point, though, we all are entitled to set our own boundaries.

I have, after attempts to broaden my horizon, forever given up on finding anything satisfying in the works of Ernest Hemingway and the I Heart Hemingway Society can come after me with pitchforks, but I’m not reading another word. It’s my choice for me. Such a choice, after due consideration of my options, is, to my mind, what being a thinking person is about.

While I’m sorry that someone seemed to misunderstand our purpose here, I refuse to be goaded into setting aside my positive choice and agenda about my lesbian identity and community in order to support hers.


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