Once Upon a Place

In what city does Fifty Shades of Grey take place?

I had to look this up. The answer is Vancouver, Washington, but does anyone care? Does the setting matter at all in erotic fiction?

Many authors (and I suppose readers) might argue that it does not. Certainly quite a lot of the erotica and erotic romance I encounter is set in a generic urban or surburban environment without any distinctive geographic or cultural features. These tales focus entirely on the characters and the action, which apparently could be happening anywhere. The background is an undifferentiated blur.

Personally, I prefer stories that provide a strong sense of place. I guess that’s because I read erotica for the total emotional experience, not just for the sex. However, I also find that a specific, vividly depicted setting can heighten the erotic charge.

One time-honored technique in writing erotica is to use all the five senses. Our bodies are located in space, and our senses bring us messages from that space. So the roughness of the cheap blanket in the seedy hotel room—the fragrant fresh-mown grass clinging to our sweaty bodies—jazz, drifting in the window from Bourbon Street—the sticky sweetness of the ice cream we shared, before you dragged me into the cool shadows under the pier (which smells of rust and seaweed)—the distant orb of the full moon sailing above as I lie on my back with you pounding into my cunt— all these sights, sounds, scents, tastes and textures combine to bring an erotic interlude to life in the imagination.

Of course, you can provide sensory details without specifying exactly where it’s all happening. As an author, though, it’s easier to conjure these details if you have a particular setting in mind.

Setting complements and enhances both character and plot. Where you come from, where you live, strongly influences who you are. A person from Boston thinks, speaks and acts quite differently from someone who comes from Los Angeles (not to mention Marseille or Singapore). Even when I don’t mention it, I almost always know my characters’ geographic histories. Not infrequently in my stories the major conflict flows from background or cultural differences between the protagonists.

Meanwhile, certain events can occur only in certain places. For instance, a devastating landslide is pivotal in my MMF tale Monsoon Fever, providing a catharsis that pulls the characters into three-way sex. That story is set in hilly Assam, India. It just wouldn’t work in Bangkok, or Venice, or Minneapolis.

I guess I’m known for my evocative and varied settings. My novels take place in Thailand, in Boston, in London and LA, in Pittsburgh, in rural Guatemala, in Paris, in Rajasthan, in Manhattan, in Worcester MA, and in northern California. I’ve written stories set in Provence, in Newport RI, in Nebraska, and in Amsterdam. I do tend to return in my writing to places I’ve lived or visited often, as I can describe them with greater ease, but I certainly haven’t been to every location that shows up in my fiction.

I wonder if readers can tell which of my settings are based on real experience, which on research and imagination.

For me, the joy of reading is being pulled into a new world, rich in detail, intense and believable. So I want to know where a story is happening—even if that location is totally fictional. George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series has the strongest sense of place I’ve ever encountered in a book. That’s one reason why I love it.

I try to offer my readers the same joy. I know some of you don’t care. I’m writing for those of you who do.

(If you’re one of those people, check out my new Asian Adventures series—short erotic pieces set in different Asian locales. The most recent title, set in Thailand, is Butterfly.)


The Space To Write – Having A Room Of One's Own

Elizabeth Black
writes in a wide variety of genres including erotica, erotic romance, and dark
fiction. She lives on the Massachusetts coast with her husband, son, and three
cats. Visit her web site, her Facebook
page, and her Amazon Author Page.


Virginia Woolf famously wrote in her essay “A Room Of
One’s Own” that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she
is to write fiction”. While that premise has been criticized most notably
by Alice Walker for not recognizing class and women of color, it does provide
much insight into the conditions that may be necessary for a woman to have the
peace of mind to write in her own space.

When I was 24, I looked for my first apartment and I found
one in Laurel, Maryland, equidistant between Baltimore and Washington, D. C.
The layout of the apartment as well as the grounds in which it was situated were
important to me. I ended up getting a third floor apartment with one bedroom
and a den, which was not common in this complex. My balcony faced a lovely
courtyard full of trees. I was also directly across from the swimming pool.
After I moved in, I used to sit on the balcony after getting home from work at
dusk to watch the bats fly around the courtyard. It was a great way to enjoy a
glass of wine after a long day and relax in my surroundings.

That den was of vital importance to me because it became
my writing room. It also faced the courtyard so I could see the trees from my
window. Most mornings and at least for an hour every evening, I sat down at my
Brother typewriter and retreated into my own world. I was in a writer’s group
so I always had something to prepare. I was the sole horror writer in a sea of
romance writers, which is ironic considering today I write romances and erotic
fiction as well as horror and dark fiction. I never published anything mainly
since I had no idea where to send my stories. I merely enjoyed the art of
writing and sharing with the group.

I took the lessons I learned from having my own room and
money and applied them since. Today, I don’t have a writing room but I do have
space of my own and the means to write unencumbered because my husband is the
primary breadwinner in our household. I’m aware many women do not have that luxury.
I’m grateful that I do. Woolf might have underestimated the amount of money a
woman needed to have the freedom to write, but I recognize that she’s talking
about having the freedom to write without having to endlessly worry about day
to day troubles such as putting food on the table or paying the electric bill. It’s
hard to write when your children are going hungry. I’m also aware many women
write under such conditions and do a wonderful job at it. I don’t earn enough
to support myself on my writing. I don’t know many writers who do. They need to
either have financial support from elsewhere like parents or a spouse or they
hold day jobs.

My point is that women somehow need some sort of space where
they can go to get in “the zone” to write. We’re in the process of
moving, and the apartments we’re looking at will continue to give me the
freedom to write. We live in Rockport, Massachusetts, which is on the
Massachusetts coast. I’m a five minute drive to the beach. It’s fairly
expensive to live here, and I’ve been looking for a reasonably-priced place
that isn’t a summer rental that also accepts cats. We did find a gem that would
be perfect for us, but it’s in a city nearly a half hour away from here. The
price and space were very hard to turn down, but we realized we’d give up far
too much to move out of the small town we’ve lived in for 17 years. I’d have to
give up my daily walks on the beach with my first mug of coffee for the day.
I’d give up drives along the coast. My favorite beach chocolate and ice cream
shop. Our favorite family-run eateries. The Fourth of July bonfire on the
beach. The lighting of the Christmas tree downtown complete with free cups of
hot cocoa. Santa Claus arriving in Rockport harbor on a lobster boat to greet
the town for the holiday season. I might have had a room of my own in the house
out of town, but I’d have been miserable. I can’t write when I’m miserable.

I don’t like where we now live. The entire apartment complex
is run down and the apartment itself is in dire need of repair. This new place
gives us hope. An example of it is pictured above. The grounds are lovely. I need a beautiful view. I would have difficulty feeling inspired with a view of a parking lot to the local supermarket. I can have an
outdoor garden to grow my herbs, peppers, and flowers. We might even be able to
have a smoker outside. During the warmer months, the patio or deck (depending
on whether we get a ground or second floor apartment) will become another room
where we will enjoy meals and drinks on lazy days. I can even get a laptop and
write outside if I wish.

Having the peace of mind to write is as important as the
stories I write. Although I hate where we live now, I am fortunate enough to be
in a position to write without disturbance. While I don’t have a room of my
own, I do have headphones I put on to listen to music while writing. I go
inside my head to find the inspiration I need. Once we move to a much nicer
place, I will have more freedom and more ease to write. I need that since I’ve
had a bad case of writer’s block since January, when my mother and one of my cats died one day apart from each other. I can
occasionally write, but not as frequently as I had before January. In fact, I
just finished and handed in an erotic romance fantasy story for an anthology.
So the drive is still there. It’s just hard to come by.

Virginia Woolf was on the right track when she said women
need money and a room of their own to write. I’ve found that room doesn’t have
to be a physically space for her alone. It can be a state of mind. Many women
write while living in dire circumstances such as poverty or a bad marriage, but
it is much more difficult for them than it is for a woman with enough money to
live comfortably and with support from friends and family. I’m fortunate to
have both, and I know that.

Obtuse Angles of Desire: Disorienting the Reader

Photo: Alejandro Hernandez

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Marcel Proust

Writing erotica is something of a paradox. Unlike mystery, horror, or sci-fi, erotica seldom takes the reader to wholly alien places. Unless you’re writing extreme BDSM, or Queer erotica aimed at a hetero reader, the sexual core of a story is something the reader has usually already experienced. At the very least, it’s something they’ve fantasized about. In a way, this is why so many people who haven’t written fiction before opt for writing erotica. Desire is something we’re all pretty familiar with. That should make it easy to write. But for that very reason, it’s also why a lot of erotica can seem stale and recycled. How many new ways are there to get your characters into bed? And how extreme do you have to make the sex to come up with something that doesn’t read like a thousand other stories out there? At some point, it can feel like diminishing returns on your efforts – as a writer or as a reader.

I’d like to talk about voice and narrators. When we start off writing, we tend to pick narrators who are very familiar to us. Often they are, at least partly, us. I have ceased to read much erotica these days, and I think partly it is because I seldom come across startling narrators or fresh voices or invitations to look at the erotic in new ways. I thought it might be helpful to look at a few strategies writers have used to pick up a reader and set them down in a truly unfamiliar narrative space.

Despite all the criticisms of Fifty Shade of Grey’s main character Anna, I think one of the reasons the story was so successful is that she is, improbably, a 22 year old virgin who never masturbated, never orgasmed, and never owned a laptop. For all the suspension of disbelief that demanded off the reader, it did allow James to frame the protagonist’s experiences as wholly new. And, I suspect, for a lot of readers, it allowed them to revisit a kind of innocence most of us, at least in my generation, lost around the age of 16.

I recently finished a zombie apocalypse novel binge. I was trying to figure out what the allure of the meme was. By accident, I ran across an extraordinary novel called “The Reapers are the Angels.” It’s going to sound insane, but it’s a cross between William Faulkner and George A. Romero. Part horror novel, part mystical road-trip, part literary masterpiece, the book tells the story of a young woman who has spent all her life in the post-apocalyptic world. She’s had no formal education and is completely illiterate. This allows the reader, through her narrative, to interpret reality in an incredibly different way.  She is a strange mix of innocent savant and pragmatic brutalist. Consequently, what should be a very run of the mill zombie apocalypse novel is transformed into a poetic and deeply philosophical literary text that uses the genre to probe questions of history, memory, human relationships and guilt.

A narrator’s ignorance (hopefully more skillfully established than Anna Steele’s) offers the reader a new way in to familiar spaces. And crafting a unique and somewhat difficult voice with which to lead the reader in also helps to destabilize their assumptions.

Beloved is another breathtaking novel that presents the reader with a history they think they know, but purposefully uses disorienting narrative voices to force the reader to reconsider what they think they know. On the surface, Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a horror story. It has ghosts and terrible secrets, supernatural events and eerie synchronicities. But beneath the clever structure and the lyrical language is a deeply serious examination of how we construct identity and how the tragedy of belonging to someone other than oneself puts all relationships under erasure. There are many narrators and many voices in Beloved, but they all have one thing in common. They are all haunted by the past. This fundamentally changes the way they read the present and, consequently forces the reader to also do the same.

It doesn’t matter whether you set your story in the past, the present or the future, as long as you create narrators who navigate the world differently to the way we normally do. Give them a believable reason to have to use a different interior map, and you create radically alien points of view. It gives you the opportunity to examine the familiar with new eyes, from strange tangents. To deconstruct commonly held assumptions of the way the world works – especially when it comes to experiences we believe we feel at home with like sex and desire – and offer them to your readers as almost unnatural experiences.

Language can also play a big role in disorienting your reader. It seems counter-intuitive – to make your writing harder to read – but when done well, it’s a devastatingly effective device for taking your reader to a familiar place and making it feel like somewhere new. Novels like Trainspotting, The Road and Beloved all use challenging dialects and really strange turns of phrase to immerse the reader in what feels like a new world.

Even something as simple as going through your text and consciously tweaking every adjective, adverb or metaphor into one you’ve never read or used before can have a radical effect. You might end up with jarring, uncomfortable language, but if your plot is strong enough, you can pull the reader through it. Much like stroking a cat backwards, you may not produce a comfortable piece for your reader, but I promise you, you’ll produce something different to anything you’ve written before and take your reader on an unexpected adventure.

Hot Chilli Erotica

Hot Chilli Erotica


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