Sometimes inspiration in writing comes completely by surprise. Such was the case for me while working on my newest release (which launches today!), In the Heart of Darkness. Because the main characters in the story are both vampires, each of whom has lived around 240+ years, parts of the story take place at various points in the past, as well as in the present. For example, Mason and Julien first meet in the late 1700s, and reunite in 1818 in Boston, Massachusetts. Mason is attending Harvard Medical School, which was relatively new at that time. I wanted him to have something to talk about in terms of his life on campus, his classes, and started researching Harvard in the year 1818.

To my surprise, I discovered something quite relevant that I wound up including in the plot. In 1818, the entire sophomore class at Harvard was summarily expelled following several incidents on campus that marked the first organized student protest activities in the United States. The first such incident was a food fight. Really. While the food fight itself was probably more in fun than anything, when instigators were admonished for it, the student body rebelled, considering the punishment unfair. Teachers were heckled, administrators publicly ridiculed and mocked. Protests were organized. Mayhem ensued. And the rest, as they say, was history.

You can read more about the “Harvard Student Rebellion of 1818” here. But you can also read about it in the pages of In the Heart of Darkness:

“Have you tendered your letter of resignation yet, Morin?”

Mason glanced at his friend and fellow classmate at Harvard, David Gorham, as they tromped side by side along the snow-slickened cobbled sidewalk. They walked with their shoulders hunched, their gloved hands stuffed deeply into their coat pockets, and their breath frosted the air around their heads in dim, hazy clouds.

“I’ve yet to figure out a way to explain to my father why I’d do such a thing,” Mason said.

David laughed, his cheeks bright red, chafed with the cold. “Because the college’s treatment of their student body is nothing short of bloody tyranny,” he proclaimed. “The very same sort against which our fathers fought so valiantly to be freed from. A college should promote free and independent thought and self-expression—not seek to stifle it, or persecute those who would express it.”

Mason rolled his eyes. It all seemed rather ridiculous to him—circumstances that had, without question, been blown out of proportion. What had started as an innocent-enough, if not somewhat destructive, food fight in University Hall involving a majority of sophomore class had swelled to melodramatic proportions. Two of the school’s more venerable and influential instructors had been publicly ridiculed by the student body during a protest in defense of those suspended as a result. David—who had played a fairly instrumental role in the food fight that had instigated all of the trouble—seemed to be enjoying the entire debacle immensely, but to Mason—who hadn’t taken part—it all seemed a bit childish.

“Besides, what’s the point of resigning?” Mason asked. “They’ve already deemed we’re all to be expelled anyway—the entire class.”

And how the hell he was going to explain that to Michel was a more pressing concern than any pretentious and meaningless resignation. He’d pleaded for nearly a year before his father had agreed to let him travel on his own to Boston in order to attend Harvard Medical School. Three years had passed since the horrific fires that had destroyed their clan’s great house and left them living in exile, secreted from their fellow Brethren. Three years had passed since he’d last seen Julien and he had been forbidden to send as much as a postcard, not even a note, to let him know of his survival. In the aftermath, his heart had seemingly crumbled beneath the overwhelming weight of his loss.

“Yes, but they’ll let you reapply next term,” David said. “And you’ll be back in for sure, Morin. You’re not one for causing trouble. And your grades have been splendid for sure. Just rent a flat and bide your time until enrollment comes around again. Trust me—your father will never know.” He clapped his hand against Mason’s shoulder. “Come on, don’t look so glum. I’ll hire us a hackney and we’ll ride out to Beacon Hill. That should cheer you up.”

“What’s at Beacon Hill?” Mason asked. He knew of the area, of course. On one hand, it was home of the Massachusetts State House. But on the other, it was an area where many of the city’s poorer populace resided, one notorious for its taverns, inns, and other establishments of ill or illegal repute. He wasn’t about to admit this aloud, however, and especially to David, whom he knew only casually, and thus feigned innocent obliviousness as he spoke.

“Any manner of debauchery and impropriety you can imagine,” David promised with a grin. “Some even call it Satan’s seat. The ale flows like water, and the whores are always welcoming. It’s the perfect place to celebrate a successful rebellion!”

(And for the record, Mason’s friend, David Wood Gorham was an actual historical figure, who was indeed involved in the food fight rebellion and who went on to become a prominent New England physician. I like to throw these sorts of Easter eggs into my books.)

Fair use & song lyrics just don’t mix

I guess you’re never too old to learn a new trick. For example, did you know that song lyrics don’t fall under the terms of “fair use?” I didn’t, but as I’m putting the final touches on In the Heart of Darkness, getting it ready for it’s big commercial debut, I discovered this little tidbit of knowledge and thought it was worth passing along.

What is “fair use?” Stanford University defines it as “any copying of copyrighted material done for a limited and ‘transformative’ purpose, such as to comment upon, criticize, or parody a copyrighted work. Such uses can be done without permission from the copyright owner.”

Generally speaking, you find fair use applying mostly to nonfiction works, which may require the frequent quotation or use of other sources to support their material. It’s utilized less often in works of fiction, and most times, it is applied incorrectly, as is the case with the use of song lyrics without permission.

I researched song lyrics specifically because my first chapter opens with one line from the Lady Gaga song, “Born This Way.” During the introductory scenes, I quoted a couple of other lines, no more than 25 words total from the song. From my limited experience with fair use, I thought this was well under the 300-word limit for fair use, and would have no problems. However, with publication underway, I wanted to make sure, and I wanted to appropriately attribute the lyrics to Mama Monster in the book.

Imagine my surprise to learn that not only does the actual fair use doctrine not specify a word count limit, but also doesn’t apply to songs. That’s because song lyrics generally don’t contain a lot of words (unless you’re Meatloaf, and then all of your songs are as long, word-wise, as War and Peace). If you were to excerpt 300 words from most songs, you’d wind up using a majority of the lyrics.

Additionally, song lyrics aren’t just copyrighted. They’re licensed, which means you not only have to obtain permission to use them, but you will also most likely have to pay a licensing fee for that use.

Publishing houses will usually try to take care of this for authors, but for us indie authors, we need to be especially mindful. Ignorance of the law doesn’t excuse us from it, and no one really wants to get a cease-and-desist letter from Lady Gaga’s lawyers.

So there you go. You can’t use song lyrics, even a few of them, without first getting permission, and paying for the use. What, then, is an author supposed to do? Take me, for example. Those lines from “Born This Way” had been included in my opening scene from the initial inception of this book. Hell, it was the song that gave me the inspiration for both the scene itself, and the book as a whole!

The best solution, barring jumping through all of the hoops and red tape it would take to legally use the lyrics, is simply to omit them (which I wound up doing). You can use the title of the song without permission, so you can write that your characters are dancing to “Born This Way.” You can have them reference the song, such as by squeeing, “Oh my God, Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way.’ I love this song!” Or, as I also ended up doing:

I wasn’t ‘born this way,’ Mason thought miserably, blinking down at the thin puddle of frothy emesis he’d managed to choke up. He felt ashamed of himself, his drunken stupor, his inebriated clumsiness, the entire disgrace of his attire, his smeared makeup and puke breath. I was not born to wear high-heeled boots and a G-string. Jesus Christ, I’m two hundred and forty-seven years old. What the fuck was I thinking?

Happy writing, gang!

The art of the kiss

One of my favorite things to write about is the kiss. And not just any kiss –the first one. The culmination of all of the mutual attraction you’ve been hinting at and building up to, that first kiss between your main characters can be tantamount to lip-smacking magic if done right.

Maybe that’s because we all attach a certain sentimentality to the first kiss. Who doesn’t remember their own? And not just their first kiss in general, but their first kiss specifically with someone they’d been wanting to kiss, waiting for that moment with bated breath? I’ll never forget the night my husband asked if he could kiss me for the first time. (Yeah, he asked first, all romantic and proper-like — how sweet is that?)

In writing, as in real life, a kiss is the first physical contact between lovers. Yeah, you’ve got your hand-holding and all of that, but for true displays of desire, it boils down to the old smoocheroo. More so even than love scenes, I think kissing is a wonderfully intimate act, one that can reveal not only a character’s passion, but also their vulnerability.

For example, here’s an excerpt from my upcoming release In The Heart of Darkness, from the Brethren Series (available 10/31/14), in which my main characters, Mason Morin and Julien Davenant, vampires from rival clans, kiss for the first time:

Mason touched Julien’s face, hesitantly at first, and then when this went unprotested, he slowly uncurled his fingers to cradle his cheek. He waited for Julien to tell him to stop, to ask what the hell he was doing, because he’d never told anyone—not even his own father—about his desires. Although he’d met a handful of humans who had shared his predilections, he’d never found another Brethren like himself, none among any of the other clans.

But Julien’s heart rate quickened at Mason’s caress, his body responding with a sudden surge of adrenaline as if he liked the sensation, as if Mason’s touch had pleased him. Still, just before their lips met, Mason froze, so sure this was a dream, a fantasy born of his newly discovered lust for his brother’s friend, that at any moment, he expected to sit upright in bed, wide awake, his cock throbbing with unfulfilled need.

Wide-eyed, nearly ingenuous in his anticipation, Julien trembled, his breath fluttering against Mason’s mouth, his heart racing. Mason leaned in, his lips lighting against Julien’s, briefly at first, and then settling gently. Julien uttered a soft, pleading sound, and as Mason slid his tongue along the seam of his mouth, he opened his lips and let him pass. Mason cradled his face between his hands, pulling him near. He tasted the sweetness of the brandy on Julien’s tongue, felt the warmth of his breath tangling with his own, the eagerness and urgency in his fingers as he clutched at Mason’s arms.

When at last Mason pulled away, Julien smiled, breathless and flushed with excitement—not just the sexual sort, but emotional, as well; the eagerness that came from discovering you were not alone, that another like you—a kindred spirit—had just arrived rather unexpectedly into your world.  It was perhaps in that moment that Mason fell in love with him. Any resistance or caution he might have felt had dissolved completely at the sight of Julien’s radiant smile, those incredible eyes; Mason’s heart, it would seem, had been forever lost to him.

I included that last paragraph with this post even though it’s not part of the kiss, per se, because it sums up the point: it’s not the act of the kiss as much as all of the feelings that come along with it, tied up in that one single act. First kisses should be memorable, an emotional experience for the characters and readers. You want your readers to remember the moments when your characters kiss for the first time because those moments are special and worth savoring, cherishing — just like first kisses in real life.

Visually, I think this scene from the 2005 movie Closer, featuring Jude Law and Julia Roberts is about as hot and passionate a first kiss/first connection between characters as I’ve ever seen. (Yeah, the movie itself sucked, and the characters wind up being ass-hats, but put that aside for now…):

I’ve also recently gotten hooked on the TV show Outlander (and don’t even get me started on how pissed I am about the “midseason hiatus” the show is currently on!). I love lots of things about the show, but the chemistry between the actors portraying Claire and Jamie is one of the top. Their wedding night, when they kiss for the first time, was a wonderfully written, acted, and filmed episode. One of my favorite moments appears in the promo below (sorry – I couldn’t find it on its own) — not because it’s their first kiss, but because it’s their aborted first attempt at kissing, and all of the emotions that make a first kiss so memorable are perfectly captured: anticipation, anxiety, desire, etc. (And Jamie’s laugh when she hedges in the end — perfect!)

Just goes to show sometimes you don’t even have to actually have physical contact to have a memorable first kiss…

Just food for thought, and some moments of visual inspiration, the next time you’re writing a kiss. Especially that magic moment of the first one.