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How to write real sex scenes

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Stef Penney’s epic new novel Under a Pole Star includes a passionate love affair between her explorer heroine Flora Mackie and American geologist Jakob de Beyn. Here, Stef tells Writers Online how she went about researching and crafting some graphic, and very detailed, sex scenes.

“Writing sex scenes was also an interesting journey. Again, I didn’t set out to write an explicit and detailed love story, but as the writing progressed, I came to feel that not to precisely describe the affair between the two main characters would be a cop-out (no pun intended).

‘”Perhaps I’m a pedant, but I get really annoyed by love scenes – in books or films – where you’re left with questions like, Sorry, did she have an orgasm? How? And what exactly were they using for contraception? (Particularly pertinent, perhaps, in historical fiction.) And if you’re writing about the difference between good, bad and indifferent sex – well, you have to be specific.

“When I was researching this (I’m thorough), I was horrified by the confusion that still prevails around female sexuality – look it up online: even so-called “experts” can’t agree whether the vaginal orgasm exists, or the G-spot. The myths prevail, and not just in on-line porn.

“The whole book was a huge challenge in the research sense – because I had to learn about so many different places and times: like the Dundee whaling industry, the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, Inuit life in pre-Danish Greenland… then there was celestial navigation, basic geology, early meteorology (still quite clueless); all the way through to underwear of the 1890s (very important, that). I wish I could remember it all. My research covers everything from books, documentaries, web logs, talking to people who’d been to Greenland (so I didn’t have to) and of course, bottom-trawling the internet. The most revealing question I asked it was “What does it feel like for a man to be inside a woman?” Some people really go into detail…

“I read as much as I could. I was stunned by the machismo of James Salter, DH Lawrence, Harold Brodkey, and impressed by few authors’ attempts, with honourable exceptions like Sarah Waters. I read science books, some very niche research, erotic poetry, internet forums… And then rewrote and rewrote, and rewrote again.

“How do you make it not embarrassing? I’m not sure ‘embarrassing’ is the right word. It’s difficult and exposing, because we’re all aware of the Bad Sex Award, the clichés, and the rubbish sex we’ve read (and, perhaps, had).

“As with writing about anything else, I tried to be precise, truthful, economical; to try and avoid cliché, not to repeat myself… This is the book I got most people to read when I was finished, mainly out of fear – I wanted to test responses to the material before committing it to permanence. And after all that, I’m not embarrassed. I’m sure some people will hate it, but that’s the nature of fiction – you’re not going to please everyone!”

Read our full interview with Stef Penney in the December issue of Writing Magazine, out today.

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