Any relationship expert will tell you that one of the most important elements in a relationship is communication. However, often in romance novels this is sorely missing between the heroine and hero. Thankfully this is not the case in new author Ruthie Knox’s exciting tales of contemporary love. In her digital-first debut, Ride With Me, Knox wowed readers with amazing dialogue between opposites Alex and Tom. Now Knox’s outstanding way with witty back-and-forths is on full display in her second e-book, About Last Night. So how does Knox go about writing these deliciously romantic scenes of good old-fashioned conversation between her characters? The author reveals her secrets in today’s guest post.
When I was in middle school, I read a lot of teen magazines, and I decided I would never flirt. “Ten Top Tips for Flirting,” “Seven Ways To Catch His Eye” — the whole notion offended me. Why should I slick on lipstick and bat my eyelashes to make some boy like me? It was trickery!
But as I eventually discovered, the magazines had misled me. Flirting isn’t about how you look or what you do when you’re talking — not really. It’s about subtext. It’s about what’s going on underneath.
Think about how it works. A woman meets a man at a party, and they start to chat about whatever it is that people chat about. But below all that, they’re asking and answering important questions. Do you like me? Do I like you? Are you smart? Are you kind? Do you think I’m attractive? What kind of person are you?
This is how humans communicate most of the time. Not directly, not openly — because open communication is risky. Flirtation is far less dangerous, not to mention a heck of a lot of fun. More fun to do, more fun to read, and oh my yes, more fun to write.
Here are the heroine and hero of my novel About Last Night, flirting like crazy while talking about the prawn crisps (shrimp-flavored potato chips) Nev has given Cath as a gift ...
“These are loathsome,” she observed.
Nev reached over and fished one out of her bag. His fingers brushed hers, and she liked it. “You don’t have to eat them.”
“I know, but they’re irresistible. Loathsome and irresistible is a perfect combination in junk food. Have you ever had an Oreo?” She reached for one of his chips. She didn’t even really like salt-and-vinegar, but she wanted an excuse to touch him again. She’d been reduced to flirting like a thirteen-year-old.
“I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.”
“I can’t find them here. They’re these hard chocolate sandwich cookies—biscuits,” she corrected.
“I know what a cookie is, Mary Catherine.”
She hated her name, but she loved the way he said it. Like an endearment. Oh, she had it bad.
“And in between there’s a layer of white . . . frosting, I guess, though it’s a stretch to call it that. It’s a sort of sweetened, whipped hydrogenated oil paste that the good people of Nabisco refer to as ‘Stuf.’ That’s Stuf with one f, City, if that gives you any idea of what I’m talking about. Anyway, they’re really gross. I love them.”
Nev smiled. Reaching up, he tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear, his eyes never leaving her face. “Have dinner with me.”
Ask Cath what she was talking to City about, and she’d have told you, “Oreos! We’re talking about Oreos!”
But of course they weren’t. And both of them knew it.
As a writer, what I love about dialogue is that it offers endless opportunities for subtext — underground messages that the characters are aware of, and even secret communiqués they have no idea they’re sending. Because real people are conversationally nimble, but we’re guarded, too. I know my own life has been remarkably short on heartfelt declarations of passionate adoration, but rich with gestures of love and ostensibly neutral comments that are packed with meaning. So I try to get as much of that nuance into dialogue as I possibly can.
Here are Cath and Nev again, declaring their intention to have sex with each other, though not precisely in those words ...
“I was much more impolite than you,” Cath said. “What with the passing out and all. You’re being very nice about it.”
City scrubbed his hand over his jawline, pensive now. “I would appreciate it,” he said after a moment, “if you would stop calling me ‘nice.’”
He took a step closer, and her heart rate spiked.
“You are nice.” Her voice came out all weak and wavery. This was how Little Red Riding Hood had felt when she’d discovered the Big Bad Wolf wearing Grandma’s bonnet.
“No,” he replied. “I’m not.”
Another step, and his eyes traced a path over her arms, down her stomach to her hips. The brightly lit art studio made her purple underwear visible through the white T-shirt. She could tell that City noticed, and that he was enjoying the view.
She sat down on the edge of the table. “You brought me here with impure motives?” The idea gave her a stupid thrill.
He shook his head. “No. I developed them after you arrived.”
Cath fingered the hem of the shirt where it hit her mid-thigh. “You shouldn’t admit to that sort of thing. It’s perverted to lust after half-naked drunk girls.”
“Not perverted.” He stepped closer until his thighs brushed her knees. “Only male. And at any rate, you didn’t get me lusting with the strip show. Though it was . . . fetching.”
“No?” It was a wonder she could speak at all, considering there was a tall, hard, hot man crowding her and using up all the oxygen. “What irresistibly attractive thing did I do, then?”
One more step, and he was between her legs. “You talked. Rather a lot.”
“All sorts of nonsense. You’re not very fond of my country, I gather.”
Cath shrugged, sheepish. “Sometimes I miss Chicago.”
“I’d never heard you talk before. You ought to do it more. It’s charming.”
“People who talk to themselves at the train station are generally understood to be crazy. Especially in your country.”
“You could talk to me.”
“I hardly know you.”
“I’m superb,” he said. “You’re going to like me.” Big, warm hands covered her bare thighs, and she shivered. “Though I should probably reiterate, I’m not at all nice.”
(For the record: yes, he is.)
The trouble with subtext, of course, is that it will only take you so far. Sometimes, you have to say what you actually mean. And that’s a problem for Cath, who has been so deeply wounded by the events of her past that she has an extraordinarily difficult time with trust. For Cath and Nev, sex itself becomes a form of conversation — in fact, it becomes the only honest form of conversation the two of them possess through the middle part of the book.
This makes About Last Night a very sexy story, but I hope one in which the love scenes serve a greater narrative purpose. This passage comes from later in the book, when Cath and Nev are very much in love, and Cath is having a difficult time coping with it.
She turned in his arms, putting them face-to-face in the blackness. “Kiss me.”
He cradled her head in his hand as he brought his lips to hers, smoothing the other hand down her back to rest at her tailbone, where her daughter spread her wings. There was no urgency in his mouth, but their bodies touched in a dozen places, and all of them ignited.
Her fingertips didn’t need the light to find their way along the familiar path to his shoulder blades, down the column of his spine, tracing the shape of his collarbone, seeking out the hollow of his throat. She knew this body. She loved this man.
They breathed together, moved together, skin sliding over skin that soon became slick and hot and combustible. Everything was the same, but it wasn’t. Each time his mouth met hers, in every movement of his hands, she could feel it. He loved her. He’d loved her for a long time. Maybe from the beginning.
Knowing that what they had was a mistake didn’t make it any less real or any less beautiful.
Cath spread her legs and pressed her hips up, inviting him in. Patiently, he kissed her neck, her throat. His hands wandered, fingers lingering at her nipples and catching on her hipbones. Cupping her breasts. Counting her ribs. Slowly, thoroughly, he claimed every inch of her, branding her with lips, tongue, palms. Mine.
In the end, of course, Cath and Nev do talk frankly, as they must, but it’s not words that bring them together in the final scene — words wouldn’t have done. Cath is too willing to discount them. Instead, Nev makes a gesture so grand, so public, and so risky, Cath can only interpret it one way. She has to hear what he’s been trying to tell her all along, to see how he feels, and once she does, to accept her own feelings, as well.
And no, I’m not going to tell you anything more than that. You’ll have to read the book. :)
- Ruthie Knox