Concupiscence or lack of…

Writing a novel in a historical timeframe that is acceptable to readers is perhaps one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But even harder, both in my fantasy writing and in my hist.fict/hist romance writing, is the narrating of a credible love scene.

I’ve been known to roar with laughter at smutty jokes and at innuendo and I would never pass over a good book because it’s a touch raunchy. I own every one of Jilly Cooper’s bonkbusters!

But this is different. This is me the writer writing about something extremely sensual between two of my characters. When I write love scenes between them, I would prefer to write with subtlety. As I’ve said in other places, I prefer to titillate the reader’s imagination than have undiluted erotica pouring across the page.

In order to try and establish what I feel most comfortable with and what has the most extraordinary power, I took three books off my shelves at random and found sexual scenes.

Dorothy Dunnett: To Lie with Lions.

‘He could offer no genuine love but would not insult her by taking her lightly … in her heart she would demand excitement.

He made sure she had what she wanted, and at a pace that suited the voracious girl she had been rather than what she was now. And although he never for a moment forgot the pious saint high on the wall, he acted as if it were not there. He had obtained from Tobie, without explanation, the potion that would put her to sleep, but she hardly needed it, although her lifted her at length from the floor and laid her on the bed, her breath slowing, and helped her to drink.’

Judith Koll Healey: The Rebel Princess

“‘Wife, you are soaking wet and stark naked…’ He swept me up and carried me to the bed, providing his own laughing answer. ‘Yes, it is the proper way and you, as only you would, knew the truth.’

Tossing me on the bed, he stripped his own doublet and hose with expert speed. Soon he was on me, and dust and water, fatigue and desire, mingled as we had our fill of one another, like wild animals caged too long.”

Posie Graeme Evans: The Beloved (Part Three of the story of Anne de Bohun)

“‘Speak to me. Let me hear you voice,’ he whispered into her ear as he entered her body. The shock was piercing, centred, and she felt herself tremble and melt and open around and beneath him.

‘Ah Charles, I fall apart. I split like a willow wand.’

The building pleasure was intense and she dissolved into it. Molten. It gathered and hit, dark and urgent. He moved faster, faster. Pinning her arms apart … his full weight behind his pelvis. He felt himself harder than oak inside her and she was soft…”


Of those three, my preference without doubt is Dunnett. It is elegant and understated and the only clue that we are about to hear about copulation is a paragraph before the above, when Dunnett wrote:

‘She also painted the tips of her beasts. Or so it now seemed.’

Almost a throwaway line. But subtlety incarnate.

And thus it was that I wrote my own sex scene for Book One of the Gisborne Saga.

Gisborne: Book of Pawns –

‘As the moon passed across the heavens outside, the trees made intricate designs on the walls of the chamber and still we were silent, our breathing the only sign we were alive and aware. His fingers traced ancient patterns down to the well at the base of my spine and I tried to decipher them as if they were runes that spelled my future. Vaguely I remembered his Irish knife and his love of the Irish ballad and it all fitted together around me so that I stretched with languid ease as he slid over me.

They say the lovers’ knot has an unbroken shape in Ireland, that it simply winds in and out, over and under in perpetuity, and that is forever how I remember the intertwining shape of this night of nights as Guy of Gisborne and I, Ysabel of Moncrieff, made love.’


I’m now well into Book Two and Ysabel and Gisborne are together after a long absence. My dilemma is should they grab each other and do a Graeme-Evans? Or should they repeat the quietness of my own Book One? Anyone who has read the first book will know that neither Gisborne nor Ysabel are quiescent characters. So perhaps it’s a given that even if they make love in the Dunnett-esque style, their very natures imply the level of emotion escalating inside. So that by now it might be unnecessary for them to be depicted as thrashing and moaning.

In essence for me, the emphasis is sensuality rather than sexuality and thus far I have presaged the passage in question with one sentence:

‘He slid my kaftan open, untying the neck cord so that it could fall from my shoulder…’

To continue (first draft):

‘Nothing changed.

Gisborne and I loved in silence. My hands ran over his body, finding a livid scar at his rib and knowing it was Halsham’s mark without even asking. My greedy fingers slipped across taut sinew, tracing lower. I had become bolder with age and he made no comment, re-tying the Celtic knot of almost a year before. In and out, over and under – breathing in unison, but this time eyes burning into each other’s souls until he arched and I sighed and our eyes closed simultaneously.’


I find it as hard to write as I did the first time. I don’t want to push the point, to labour the description, to be overtly florid, and just reading it back to myself I’m wondering if it is already too much.

Trust me, this is extremely difficult…