N THE SURFACE, Wicked, My Love is a romantic, comedic farce set in the Victorian era. But if you know me any little bit, you know my farce is laden with satire and subversive elements. Perhaps it’s a female, southern thing—the subtle art of humorously saying the opposite of what you mean to make your point with the words “bless your heart” tacked on.
Wicked, My Love is a mashup of what I read or thought about as I was writing, which includes Malcolm Gladwell’s books, The Confidence Code, articles on big data, and studies on women’s confidence and leadership roles in the workplace. At the same time, I was working through my child’s issues with dyslexia.
With such throughput, I created a heroine who possessed an amazing affinity for statistics and investing but was stymied by her sensory issues with a touch of Asperger’s tossed in. She clings to the logical, concrete things she could understand because she struggles with personal context and reading people’s underlying emotions. She prefers to remain tucked safely in her comfort zone of successfully running her late father’s small town bank. But then a series of portentous events occur which threaten her comfortable existence and call her to a higher adventure. The stuff of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.
Isabella’s feminist cousin asks Isabella to write a small volume on investment tips for women. Her cousin then takes Isabella’s cut and dried advice and adds what Isabella would consider pandering, sentimental tripe to connect to the readers’ emotions and experiences. The book is a wild success among English ladies. (Note: many women were investing money in the Victorian era, trying to improve their circumstances, but unfortunately not seeing much return on their penny investments. To learn more about Victorian investment scams and other financial fraud, read White-collar Crime in Modern England. My copy resembles a sort of rainbow-colored porcupine because there are so many neon sticky tabs poking out of it.)
Still, Isabella stubbornly resists the call to adventure until finally a partner in her bank—and the man she considered her last marital hope—runs off with the bank’s money in a phony investment scheme. In those days, bankers were considered shady characters; there were very few business regulations, and bank failures were commonplace. If bank customers picked up a mere whiff of trouble, they could quickly run the bank. So with Isabella’s reputation and her father’s legacy at stake, she reluctantly departs on her heroine’s journey with the help of her childhood enemy and bank partner, Lord Randall.
To create the hero, I simply inverted the heroine. I envisioned a charming man with amazing powers of personal intuition and persuasion. He possesses much more keen intelligence for human emotions and motives than cold logic. Here I ran into a bit of a plot snag: how do I create a real sense of pending doom for a man with a title and entailment? I could have him falsely accused of murder or treason, but that seemed a little overdone in my way of thinking. I’m a road-less-taken kind of chick. In the end, I made him a partner in Isabella’s bank and a Tory MP in an election year. Nothing like losing your clients’ money to make them not vote for you. His honor and reputation were on the line. (After I made this decision, I had to look up decisive British election years. The research just keeps going and going…)
Because I was writing a romance, I had to intertwine the story arc so that the plot, character transformations, and love all developed in tandem. Sometimes, these elements are in harmony; sometimes they painfully clash. I like to think of Aaron Copland’s music as an example of how I like my stories (please excuse my lack of musical theory knowledge in my following description). Copland weaves the same phrases through the music, at times creating a dissonance that can be quite painful to hear, but it gives a sense of tension to the music. I can’t stop listening until the dissonance is resolved, the themes united. That tension-to-resolution heightens the pleasure of the experience.
I know I freak out some readers because I inject dissonance into my plot and swerve too close to the dangerous edges. But I’m here for a wild emotional ride that sinks deep to the ugly places but rises higher in resolution. I’m not interested in assuring readers that the world is a sweet, gentle place that smells 24/7 of baking homemade chocolate chip cookies. And that’s not an insult to “comfort food” novels—they are fabulous, much needed creations, but they’re just not what I write.
By the end of the book, I had developed much stronger feelings for my hero’s predicament than for the heroine’s. Let me state the heroine’s arc: she becomes a powerful leader despite her perceived personal obstacles. I bet you didn’t see that coming. Clean and simple character arc stuff. But the hero’s journey was more intriguing, more Zen-like. He craved the fame and attention, which Isabella doesn’t want, but seems to garner without effort as if the universe loves her more than him. He craves it so badly that he is willing to compromise his core beliefs to row his political party’s boat to his prime minster-hood. By the last fourth of the book, Randall realizes that for the greater good, he must subvert his own primitive, selfish desires for success. He recognizes that Isabella possesses something society needs, in this case, the ability to empower downtrodden women. He must use his great talents to help her reach her potential. I think that is such a powerful and selfless realization. I adore the idea of a hero who is an altruistic, compassionate helper. I’m going to give a little spoiler here; in the final scenes, it’s my heroine who faces down the villain. The hero bolsters her confidence and cheers her on.