Tag Archives: An American in Scotland

An Interview with Karen Ranney

24 Mar
Karen Ranney is the bestselling author romance novels. Her most recent book is An American in Scotland.

Karen Ranney is the bestselling romance author whose most recent book, An American in Scotlandtakes place during the American Civil War.

Karen Ranney wanted to be a writer from the time she was five years old and filled her Big Chief tablet with stories. People in stories did amazing things and she was too shy to do anything amazing. Years spent in Japan, Paris, and Italy, however, not only fueled her imagination but proved she wasn’t that shy after all. Now a New York Times and USA Today bestseller, she lives in San Antonio, Texas.

To read an exercise on giving characters the opportunity to change and act dramatically and an excerpt from An American in Scotland, click here.

In this interview, Ranney discusses setting as character, the difference between love and sex scenes, and straddling the needs of historical narratives and contemporary readers.

Michael Noll

I want to say up front that Romance isn’t a genre I know very well, and so I was excited to read your novel because I wanted to learn how it works. To that end, I was surprised at how much the novel contained beyond what the cover might suggest: shirtless guy and beautiful woman. Or, to put it another way, the term romance is a lot bigger than I imagined. Setting is as important as love. For lack of a better word, there is something romantic about place, which I guess should make sense given that the title suggests more about place than anything else. What’s your approach to the setting and world of your novels? Are you trying to make readers fall in love with them as much as with the characters?

Karen Ranney

Place is very important to me. In some books it has a greater impact on me than on others. For example, A Scotsman in Love was set in a once deserted manor house that intrigued me. Another example is the MacIain trilogy that revolves around a house outside Edinburgh. In those books the setting was almost another character.

I enjoy placing my books in Victorian Scotland because, to me, it was the era of inventions and scientific achievement.

In An American in Scotland, I had to give readers a flavor of each locale, but I had three major settings, so I couldn’t linger too long in any one place. (Why make it easy on myself when I could visit Scotland, Nassau, and America all in one book?)

Michael Noll

The novel is quite chaste. The prelude to the kiss seems to be much more important than the kiss itself—and it takes up a great many pages. How do you maintain and gradually increase the tension between two characters who we know will eventually fall into each other’s arms?

Karen Ranney

I have always maintained that it’s easier to write a sex scene than it is a love scene. I always try to have the characters fall in love with each other before they actually consummate that love. It seems to me that emotions are more important than physical activity.

Also, putting sex in the context of 19th century mores, even kissing someone was a great moral leap. Each step toward the journey to bed is a form of commitment.

Michael Noll

Along those same lines, I admire the way that the novel draws out its sex scenes. For example, there’s a scene when Rose and Duncan bathe together, which leads toward what such baths tend to lead to, but then something interrupts them—Duncan sees something that distracts him. How do you know how much you can draw out such as scene before readers begin skimming to get to the stuff they know is coming and really want to read?

Karen Ranney

Again, it’s a love scene as opposed to a sex scene—or at least that’s how I hope the reader interprets it. Everything that goes on in that scene is both an act of revelation and one of commitment. The characters give of themselves not just physically but emotionally. Maybe even spiritually if I write it correctly. You can’t skip through the scene because it’s pivotal in the give and take between the characters. It shows why they’re falling in love and how.

Michael Noll

Karen Ranney's novel An American in Scotland follows an American woman who sails through the Union blockade of Charleston in order to pursue a sale and romance in Scotland.

Karen Ranney’s novel An American in Scotland follows an American woman who sails through the Union blockade of Charleston in order to pursue a sale and romance in Scotland.

The novel contains a fair bit of language about sin and virtue, and because it’s set in the mid-1800s, there are some time-appropriate ideas about gender. I bring this up because I heard a review the other day of the Downton Abbey finale, and the reviewer said that historical dramas are always more about the audience than the age and characters they’re portraying. Do you think this is true of your novel as well?

Karen Ranney

If I understand what you’re asking, let me answer this way: Robert Burns wrote poetry in the vernacular Scots. If I wrote a book like that today no one could understand it. Consequently, I interpret Scottish English with an ear/eye toward my readers. They’re 21st century women. Similarly, interpreting the mores of the 19th century means I have to straddle a line. I have to correctly depict the customs/manners/thinking of the day while interjecting some viewpoints that might be more acceptable to a 21st century reader.

For example, in An American in Scotland, Rose does a lot of things that would have horrified her neighbors in New York and scandalized her neighbors in South Carolina. She would probably have been ostracized in both communities for her abolitionist views. Yet we, being 21st century people, wish she went farther to oppose slavery.

A reviewer chided me for writing about mills in Scotland that were pro-slavery. No, they weren’t pro-slavery. It’s that American slavery was “just business”. They might have personally abhorred it, but they tolerated doing business with the American South because they needed their cotton. That review was a case of our 21st century values colliding with history.

March 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Create a Window of Opportunity

22 Mar
Karen Ranney's novel An American in Scotland follows an American woman who sails through the Union blockade of Charleston in order to pursue a sale and romance in Scotland.

Karen Ranney’s novel An American in Scotland follows an American woman with a secret who sails through a Union blockade during the Civil War in order to pursue business and romance in Scotland.

When I was a kid, my dad liked to joke that the devil came out after midnight, which is actually good advice for writers. Crucial moments (positive and negative) in life and in writing often require a window of opportunity. Under normal circumstances, we simply go about our lives; drama occurs only when our routine has been upended. After midnight, in other words, we have the opportunity to make decisions that aren’t open to us at other times.

In stories, whether they’re fiction or nonfiction, we need to find those windows of opportunity when the devil can show his face, when characters can act in ways they otherwise wouldn’t. A great place to study such moments is in romance novels, and there’s no better place to look than in Karen Ranney’s latest novel An American in Scotland. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

An American in Scotland is a romance novel, and like most genre novels, it has a fairly predictable plot when boiled down to basics: two people will fall in love, and that love will eventually be consummated. Before the consummation, though, the characters must overcome obstacles, and it is this overcoming that gives the novel its appeal. (It’s the same with detective and espionage novels and certain kinds of monster novels: the reader knows the basic plot arc before reading a single page, and so it’s the particular obstacles that provide pleasure.) In this case, there are a variety of obstacles that would normally prevent Duncan and Rose from falling into each other’s arms. Or, as the back cover puts it: “Rose MacIain is a beautiful woman with a secret. Desperate and at her wits’ end, she crafts  a fake identity for herself, one that Duncan MacIain will be unable to resist…Duncan is determined to resist the tempting Rose, no matter how much he admires her arresting beauty and headstrong spirit.”

So, it’s clear that, first, Duncan will resist, but then he’ll give in. Then, the secret identity will be revealed and that will drive them apart—until they find a way to be together again. With each major obstacle (resisting, revelation of secret), the characters are set onto tracks that do not converge. Duncan can resist Rose’s charms forever unless something happens to knock him off his routine. In short, he needs a moment when the devil comes out, a window of opportunity to act in ways that he normally would resist.

One of those moments comes aboard a ship. Duncan and Rose are sailing to the Bahamas for a business deal. There’s tension between them, but Duncan tells himself, “She was simply his relative who was accompanying him to Nassau.”  But then the merchant ship gets caught in a storm off the coast of Ireland:

He clamped his hands on the end of the chair arms and stared at the door leading to the stateroom. He hadn’t heard anything from Rose since they separated after dinner. He sincerely hoped he hadn’t agreed to take her to Nassau only to have her drown on the voyage there. Perhaps she would have been safer on a commercial vessel, something designed to handle passengers. No doubt they would have stewards running throughout the ship, reassuring passengers that all was well, they weren’t in danger of plunging to the bottom of the ocean.

He couldn’t reassure anyone right at the moment.

That final line highlights the window of opportunity: He’s been determined to resist her, but now he fears for her safety and fears that he is the one who’s put her in danger. His self-confidence has been shaken. It’s not so different from the half hour before closing time at a bar; people’s usual logic has been diminished, and so they make decisions they normally wouldn’t. Duncan’s logic (I’m in charge, my will is strong) has been diminished.

As a result, he begins thinking dangerous thoughts:

What a pity he hadn’t taken advantage of the moment in the garden when she’d been reading Burns. He could have gently put the book aside, leaned over and kissed her.

As most readers will guess, the kissing isn’t long to come. The window of opportunity has opened, and he’s going to jump through it.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s open a window of opportunity, using An American in Scotland by Karen Ranney as a model:

  1. Create the temptation. In a romance novel like An American in Scotland, the temptation is clear: love and sex. But there are many other temptations available to characters: money, power, attention, security, or any object that offers or symbolizes those things. What drives your character? What occupies your character’s mind while doing other things?
  2. Put the character on a track that leads away from it. The track can simply be a character’s intention, like when I tell myself that I’m not going to eat jelly beans this year. Life is full of such intentions: we’re not going to call that person, go to that place, consume that substance. The track can also be anything that keeps a character otherwise occupied: work, friends, family. Or it can be some convention (sense of propriety, rules) that doesn’t allow certain activities. You can also use geography (the temptation is kept physically distant).
  3. Find the character’s weakness. In An American in Scotland, part of Duncan’s weakness is his sense of his own power and will. Many famous characters contain such weaknesses: Achilles in The Iliad, Sampson in the Old Testament. The weakness doesn’t need to be a fatal flaw, as with Achilles. It only needs to make the character susceptible to the temptation, the way that going outside on a winter day without a hat (according to some) makes you susceptible to catching cold. What weakens your character, even a little?
  4. Create the window of opportunity. Find a set of circumstances that does two things: weakens the character and brings the temptation close. In An American in Scotland, the ship/storm confines the characters together in a limited space and also frightens Duncan, weakening him. Very often, the window of opportunity is a literal disruption: a storm, a power outage, a natural disaster, a flat tire, a missed connection. So, figure out your character’s routine. What would disrupt it? What unexpected delay or interruption would knock the character off his or her track? The disruption can be catastrophic, but it can also be something subtle that doesn’t at first even seem like a problem.
  5. Let your character act. Once the character is weakened and the temptation has been brought near, let the character think about the temptation. And, of course, once the thought enters the character’s head, action is soon to follow.

The goal is to create drama by giving a character the opportunity to do something he or she normally wouldn’t.

Good luck.

%d bloggers like this: