Just what does The Box look like?
When people say, “write out of the box” what do they mean? Especially if you’re like me, and write gay romance, which by its very definition is out of the box for traditional romance.
How do you write out of the box out of the box? It’s not as easy as it sounds. Sometimes, it’s like taking a subject, perhaps two 70 year old gay men falling in love, and thinking, who’s going to buy this book and read it? Then not caring and writing it anyway.
Writing out of the box is inherently taking chances. And a good writer should take chances, provided you can pull it off. If you don’t, then you’ll crash and burn and everyone around you will let you know about it. Story bombs. News at eleven.
But when I first wrote the character of Sebastian in a novella called Pinky Swear, I had no idea what a huge reader favorite he’d become, or that more people would email me and ask for more of him.
Excerpt from Pinky Swear….
New Orleans, French Quarter
August 27, 2005
August 27, 2005
"Dear boy, I told you before, I'm not leaving." Sebastian sniffed and dabbed at his forehead with his white cotton hanky. "I've lived in this house for almost fifty years and I've never once run from a hurricane." He glared at Lane down the long length of his nose. "And I'm not going to do it now."
Lane leaned back in his chair and shook his head. There was no way he could leave Sebastian alone. The man could barely walk, much less deal with the hurricane bearing down on them.
"Besides, dear boy, the French Quarter is the highest point in the city, bar the levees and Monkey Hill in Audubon Park." He chuckled. "I'm safer here than on the highway in your car."
Exhaling, Lane knew the old gentleman wasn't going to budge. He might have been eighty, but he could dig in his heels better than the most determined debutante could.
"Okay. Fine. We'll stay." Lane threw up his hands and stood.
"You don't have to stay, Lane." He smiled at Lane with watery ice blue eyes. Even at his age, Sebastian could still turn a man's head, always immaculately dressed, with his thick silver hair and blue eyes. In his youth, when his hair was jet black and his skin was tight, tanned, and smooth, he had been the most sought after lover in the French Quarter.
"I'm not leaving you alone." Lane shook his head.
"You're such a dear lamb." Sebastian patted Lane's hand. "If only I were twenty years younger."
Lane snorted. "Twenty? I'm not even thirty and you'd be--what? Sixty?"
"Hush, child. Don't disrespect your elders. It isn't a good look. Makes your mouth all wrinkled and pruney." Sebastian pursed his lips to show Lane.
"I'll go make preparations." Lane walked to the back door.
"You do that. I've already filled my tub with water and I still have twenty plastic jugs of water to fill." He waved at his mudroom at the back of the Creole bungalow he lived in. "I have flashlights, batteries, candles, matches, and canned tuna. I'm set." He nodded at the kitchen table where his supplies lay.
Lane rolled his eyes. "Right. I'm going to the store in a bit, so do you need anything?" He opened the French door and hung on the edge of the steps.
"Well, pick up a few bottles for me. Bring back the boys."
"Boys?" Lane cocked an eyebrow.
"Johnny Walker, Jim Beam, Jose Cuervo." He waved his hand. "And don't forget my favorite, Jack Daniels."
"You know, with the city emptying, there won't be any hurricane parties."
"Of course there will be! This is the French Quarter, Lane. There's always a party somewhere." He cocked an eyebrow at Lane, then waved him out.
See, Sebastian is 70something, old-school queen, sort of like a Christopher Plummer, or Michael York. He’s seen a lot, done a lot, and at this stage in his life, he’d perfectly happy to watch love from the chaise on his French Quarter patio giving life advice to his two young tenants, Matt and Lane.
I had to give him another story, Pioneers, where Matt interviews him for a documentary he’s making about being gay in New Orleans in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. I wanted to show to the readers how a man like Sebastian grows from young buck just discovering his sexuality to distinguished older gentleman.
Matt adjusted the camera so the old gentleman filled the frame. Matt and his partner Lane rented the small slave quarters behind Sebastian's Creole cottage in the French Quarter and Matt had finally talked the older man into an interview. Sebastian would be the first of the many gay men Matt planned to film for a documentary about gays living in New Orleans over the last fifty years.
"How young were you when you realized you were gay?" Matt asked. There, he'd gotten the perfect shot of the seventy-something-year-old. Wearing his favorite smoking jacket, the burgundy velvet with black satin lapels, Sebastian lounged in the leather wingback chair in front of a packed bookcase, as dapper a figure as he'd ever been.
"Gay?" Sebastian sniffed. "We weren't gay back then, my boy. We were queer. Faggots. Perverts and degenerates." He rolled his eyes. "All I knew was I was wrong."
"Wrong? What do you mean?" Matt had thought interviewing Sebastian would be easy--get him started and figure out which questions to ask, but now he wasn't so sure. There were times when Sebastian could be so obtuse.
"Well, I wasn't right. I didn't want to look at the magazines the other boys did. I wasn't interested in cars and girls and sports. I spent most of my time in the antique stores and art galleries on Royal Street." He leaned forward as if to impart a secret. "I lusted after other boys."
"But how old were you?" Matt pressed.
"Ten. Twelve." Sebastian sighed. "Oh, lamb, I suppose I just knew. And attending Catholic boys' school didn't help, did it?"
"How do you mean?" Matt had attended Catholic school himself, so he knew what Sebastian spoke about, but he wanted it explained for the people who didn't know.
"All those boys." He gave an exaggerated delightful shiver. "Not to mention the priests. Today, it would be a gay boy's paradise. But back then, there was a thrilling element, overshadowed by fear and terror." He waved his hand again. "I often envied the other boys who went to public schools with girls. At least you had an excuse for sporting an erection all day." He winked at Matt. "In an all boys' school, there's no one to blame, is there?"
"I suppose not." Matt laughed. "So, you were having these..."
"Right. Urges. Tell me about the first time you kissed a boy."
"The first time? Oh, my. That would be Charles Freiberg." Later Matt would blank out the name in the edits to protect those not out. "He lived a few streets away with his family, but didn't study with the brothers. They were Jewish."
"You were how old?"
"I was..." Sebastian closed his eyes and thought. "Fifteen? It happened the summer I was fifteen. He was Jewish, I was Catholic and it was very taboo." He smiled and wiggled his eyebrows. "We weren't in love, mind you. Just curious."
"What always happens on a steamy New Orleans afternoon when two gay boys find each other alone in the back of the grocery store?" He chuckled. "We'd been looking at each other for weeks. He'd pass by my house; I'd pass by his. We were all hot, smoldering looks and hard-ons. One day, he followed me to the grocery store. I'd gone to get a pound of hogshead cheese and a bottle of wine for my father."
"He kissed you in the grocery store?"
"Right in front of the meat counter. No pun intended. I'd placed my order for the hogshead."
Matt made a face at the thought of anything you eat sounding as if it came from the head of a hog.
"Don't look at me that way, my boy. When done right, it's frightfully good stuff. Anyway, the butcher went into the meat locker. In those days, all the stores cut your meat and cheese to order. Steaks, chops, even ground it to order. I could see Charles from the corner of my eye, lingering around the back of the shelves. I turned toward him, and he rushed to me, pushed me against the glass case, and kissed me." Sebastian slapped his leg for emphasis.
"No kidding!" Matt chuckled.
"I remember being cold and hot all at the same time. And his kiss"--Sebastian's eyes closed for a moment--"tasted of Bazooka bubble gum."
But the readers wanted even more. Damn, I just hate when that happens. No, not really, but I did think to myself, okay, now you’ve done it. You have to write a romance about a 70 yr old gay man, and how the hell do you plan on doing that, smarty pants?
First, I had to decide C’est La Vie had to fit Sebastian as he was now. It had to be gentle and sweet, loving and kind, and a complete surprise to Sebastian. The man had shut himself off from the notion of finding love ever again, until Raymond Chou walked into his life. Now, he’s giddy as a schoolgirl with her first crush, uncertain, unsure, and completely perplexed, or as he says, “at sixes and sevens” with the entire idea of late life love.
Excerpt from C’est La Vie….
"Two dates in one weekend. Impressive. This man really likes you."
"Do you think?" Sebastian stared at his reflection in the dressing table mirror. "I like him also." He ran a brush over his hair, still thick and lustrous, even if it was silver.
"You should either wear the hat you bought or put on sunscreen."
"I'll do both."
Lane squirted a dab of lotion into his hands and applied it to Sebastian's face, then added more to his palm and spread it over the older man's neck and arms. "There, that should do it. If you sweat too much, you need to reapply."
"Sweat?" Sebastian stared at Lane. In his best southern drawl he said, "I don't sweat. I mist."
"Well, you should take it with you, just in case."
Matt, who'd been lying on Sebastian's bed with his eyes closed, added, "It can double as lube."
"Lube?" Sebastian sputtered. What did the boy think they were going to do? "We're going to the zoo. Where would we possibly use lube?"
"In the butt," Matt replied. "I thought you'd done this before."
Lane slapped Matt's foot.
"Hey!" Matt rubbed his foot as if it hurt.
"Behave. You're not helping, lover." Lane turned back to Sebastian. "Ignore the man behind the curtain."
Sebastian glanced at his image again. The new shirt looked wonderful. It was one of those casual white cotton short-sleeved shirts meant to be worn over pants. He'd found a pair of loose khaki cargo pants with pockets everywhere and a large-brimmed straw hat to block the sun.
"You look to die for. Elegantly rumpled. Raymond is going to eat you up." Matt licked his lips wickedly.
"I hope so; that would be nice," Sebastian muttered.
Lane giggled, and Sebastian looked back in the mirror. A wave of terror crashed over him. "Oh, lambs, what am I doing?" Tears filled his eyes and he blinked to fight them back. If he cried, he'd just look all puffy when Raymond picked him up.
"You're going out and spending some time with a man who finds you attractive." Lane put his arms around Sebastian's shoulders and gave him a hug. "You look wonderful."
"But I'm--" He almost admitted his age. "Old people aren't supposed to date."
"Of course they are. They can do whatever the hell they want to. Who told you that rubbish?" Matt sat up, frowning. "I hope when Lane and I are your age, we're still doing it."
Lane gave Matt a look filled with lust, desire and love. Sebastian's heart envied the two young men. Just at the beginning of their lives together. So in love. They had no idea of what could go wrong. What pain and heartache might lie ahead.
But he knew.
"I can't do this." He sat down on the chair.
"Do what?" Lane asked.
"Date. Go out. Hook up. Whatever they're calling it these days. I have to call Raymond and cancel." He reached for his cell phone.
Lane slapped his hand over the phone, keeping Sebastian from getting it. "Whoa! Where is this coming from?"
Sebastian couldn't meet Lane's gaze so he stared at his feet and shrugged.
"He's scared." Matt scooted to the edge of the bed and touched Sebastian's knee. "It's okay. This is really big. You're feeling things you haven't felt in a long time. And you know, don't you?"
Sebastian nodded. Matt could be a pill, but the boy had a way of knowing what Sebastian was thinking at times.
"True, it could go bad. You could get hurt."
Sebastian looked up and met Matt's gaze.
"But it could be wonderful and the best thing in the world. Isn't that worth the risk?"
The kid was right. Sebastian was being a silly goose. He took Matt's hand in his good one. "Oh, lamb, I don't know what I'd do without you. Without both you boys." He smiled at Lane. "You're right. It's wonderful. I'm lucky to have this chance. Lucky to feel this way again."
"If you play it right, you could really get lucky," Matt teased.
And yes, there is sex. Of course there is. Sex isn’t something that stops when you hit a certain age. Reports show our nursing homes are rife with the sexual escapades of senior citizens. Way to go, grandma and grandpa!! Don’t we all hope we’re still doing it at 70?
But writing that sex, that had to be just as sweet, tender and loving as the story around these two men. And for someone like me, who’s written a lot of down and dirty, explicit sex scenes, finding the right balance was so important to me. It couldn’t be rough, or acrobatic, because, hell, older bodies just can’t do that stuff anymore. Some realism had to be employed or else everyone would be calling “bullshit”.
Now, writing out of the box is all fine and dandy, but it has to be published also. I could have self-pubbed it, but the wonderful folks at Amber Quill Press, where the first two books were pubbed, said, hell, yeah! Bring it on! It sounds fantastic! So, you need someone, or several someones, behind you, having faith in your writing and talent, believing you could actually pull it off. I was lucky as hell to have the folks at AQP behind me.
Now, it might not be a best-seller, especially for those who want to read pages and pages of sex, but for those who love a good story, who became invested in this wonderful man, Sebastian LaGrange, it’s the completion of the circle, and they’re happy with it, as far as I can tell.
So I took a chance, wrote an out of the box out of the box story, and was damned lucky it paid off. I’ll tell you, it’s given me the confidence to push through side of the box and step outside.
It’s not so bad, outside the box. It takes a little getting used to, and telling yourself it’ll be okay, you can do this. I suggest everyone try it at least once in their writing career. Pick up that story, push your characters, and go there. Make them say, “Oh no she didn’t!”
Because if you do it right, they’ll keep reading.