I think of it as ‘fizzle,’ mostly because I like the onomatopoeia of the word, the hint of sizzling heat and quick fizzing reactions. I’ve heard it called other things: spark, frisson, attraction, the click. It’s the magic ingredient that makes a romance work, that little extra that draws characters together and keeps their interactions fascinating. I’m sure there are romance writers out there who can write it into every story, but I’m not one of them and I suspect I’m not the only one.
In every story I write, there’s a period of nervous expectation before that moment, usually somewhere in the first few thousand words, where the characters come face to face for the first time. No matter how carefully I outline the plot, design the characters around a common need and conflicting ambitions or desires, or how much pressure I put on them from the outside, I can never be certain what will happen as the scene plays out.
When it goes well, it’s exhilarating, and you know that you have a story worth telling, whether they’re snapping, snarking, or just terribly, terribly flustered (or, in the case of Lord Heliodor’s Retirement, one getting fired by the other for dropping a book on his head). That perfect click happens about 80% of the time, and I love it, to the point that once I have it I go dancing around my flat on the way to the kettle for more tea to fuel me through the night. Even when the rest of the book is hard work, knowing that initial fizz and spark was there is the reassurance that this story will work.
Of course, sometimes it fizzles out instead.
That was what happened to my first attempt to write a Regency. As soon as I saw the call for Dreamspinner’s 2015 June Daily Dose, I wanted to write for it. The theme was older men, and I’d had a wonderful time writing for their earlier anthology on the same topic, Snow on the Roof. I decided to get as far away from my story in that collection as possible and so avoid a contemporary setting. Why not, I thought, write a Regency? I love reading them, have always fancied having a go, and hadn’t tackled a historical since Aunt Adeline’s Bequest.
Within a day, I had my lead: a soldier home after Waterloo, reluctantly retired, seeing his beloved only daughter through a London season. I had an idea for his match: the dancing master hired to teach hopelessly tomboyish Thomasina how to behave at a London ball. I threw myself into research with glee (Regency dances are complicated), and not long after started writing. All was going well, until I finally got Colonel Fleet and the very proper Mr Cody in a room together.
And they nodded politely at one another. Fleet picked up the paper. Cody started his lesson.
And that was that. No fizzle.
I kept trying. I rewrote the scene, forced Fleet out of his chair, inflicted poor Tommy with mishaps to draw her father’s attention, tried and tried and tried.
But nothing worked. These two perfectly good characters simply weren’t interested in one another.
So I gave up and went back to the drawing board. I liked the idea of someone retiring reluctantly, but this time backed away from a historical setting and a military hero. What about a civil servant, I thought, someone who has quietly and competently done his duty for his entire life and now discovers that duty has become his life and he doesn’t know how to live without it? What would push a man like that into retirement? What happened to him?
What happened to Lord Heliodor was the Screaming, a lethal curse which killed several of his friends in front of him, made him risk his own life to save his queen, and left him with what modern readers will hopefully recognise as PTSD. I wanted to explore how a pre-modern society would deal with that, and see how Heliodor healed and found his way again, with a little help from the long-lost lover now working as his librarian (see comment about dropping books above).
This time, the fizzle, well, fizzed. Heliodor had a second chance with Corun, the soldier he’d loved and thought dead years ago, and I had another shot at a story about, ironically enough, second chances.
You can find out more about Lord Heliodor’s Retirement from Dreamspinner here. If you fancy reading the story that never was, I’ve put up what I did write of Colonel Fleet’s Dancing Master Thingy (it never got past a working title) over here.
Lord Heliodor’s Retirement
IT WAS not the Screaming itself that forced Lord Adem Heliodor into early retirement. Indeed everyone in the court was in full agreement that his lordship had acted with extraordinary and unexpected courage during the incident. After all, it was no common occurrence for a mere minister of ports and customs to be called upon to save the life of the queen, let alone in the face of a horror such as the Screaming.
No, Lord Heliodor’s retirement came two months later, in the wake of a council meeting where a passing remark of blinding stupidity drove him to his feet to shout, spittle flying and fists clenching, at the lackwitted, mealymouthed, porridge-brained imbecile who had made it.
And then, when the red mist cleared from his eyes and the rage stopped clutching in his throat, he found himself surrounded by silence, staring into the young, troubled face of the queen he had just insulted. Around the table, the rest of the cabinet were staring at him in wide-eyed shock, his old familiar colleagues and adversaries looking at him as if he was a stranger and the young, newly appointed councilors clearly wondering if the old man was mad.
“Give us the room, friends,” the queen said softly.
Heliodor stood there as they filed out, shaking harder and harder. He could feel a scream rising in his throat, and that in itself made him feel sick with fear. Had it caught up with him at last?
The queen closed the door behind the last of the council, poured a cup of tea, and brought it over to Heliodor. “Sit down, my lord, please. Here.” Her hand was warm and steady on Heliodor’s shoulder, pressing him gently into his seat, and Heliodor did as he was told, taking the cup with a shaking hand and sipping at the tea mechanically.
He had already been at court when the queen was born. He could even remember the royal baby’s naming feast, how he had spent it flirting with a certain golden-haired guardsman with merry eyes and a mouth as sweet as sparkling wine (for Heliodor had been young then, and wild, before he had spent his life in quiet service). Now his laughing guardsman was thirty-five years dead, and that baby was queen and had a husband and young son of her own, and Heliodor was… was just….
Heliodor was crying.
The queen waited patiently until he managed to choke back his tears. Then she said, her voice very kind, “You seem tired, my lord. If anyone in this kingdom has earned a chance to rest awhile, it is you.”
“Perhaps,” Heliodor said, and winced to hear how old and dry his voice sounded, “I could be excused from your council until tomorrow.”
The queen was quiet for a few moments. Then she said, “When did you last spend any significant time at home, Heliodor? In Worldham, I mean.”
Heliodor lifted his face with a mixture of shame and dismay. No. Surely she couldn’t just dismiss him to his country estate, to retirement. He swallowed hard and said, “My ministry?”
“Zircon!” Heliodor flared up, anger blazing through him again. “That jumped-up little piece of—” Then he realized that he was bellowing at his sovereign for the second time in minutes and stopped, biting his lip hard enough that he could taste blood (blood on their mouths, running like tears from their eyes, and all the while the screaming, the endless shrill screaming….)
The queen’s voice recalled him, and he bowed his head, hunching his shoulders up. He said, “I’m sorry.”
“You have served your country so well,” the queen told him. “Take your reward, my lord. Go home. Rest, and let us remove the burdens of your office from your shoulders.”
But they are my burdens, Heliodor wanted to say. He refrained, though. He had done enough damage today.
By the end of the week, he was on his way out of the city, being driven back toward the country estate he had not visited in decades.
Worldham was relentlessly green. As his coach slowed down on the fifth morning of his journey, his city-bred driver cursing at the narrow rutted lanes that made even the most well-sprung of modern carriages jolt across the road, Heliodor stared out of the window at hedgerows, orchards, and fields full of grazing livestock. The valley was too low and damp for vineyards, but hops grew here by the row, and the air smelled thick, green, and faintly sour.
It felt like he had stepped back in time as he had passed over the leagues between here and the crown city. Where were the coffeehouses and salons, the theaters and concert halls? Where were the bustling streets full of merchants, sailors, beggars, and fine lords and ladies? How was he supposed to endure the soft twitter of hedgerow birds when he was accustomed to the squall of seagulls?
He had spent much of his childhood dreaming of escaping the tedium of the countryside. How awful to be sent here to end his days.
For this was an ending, no matter how kindly it had been phrased. It was a much gentler one than others had been granted, but it was still an end.