Saturday, April 5, 2014

Anatomy of Highland Romance

As my friend Amy Jarecki holds her official Blastoff Party on facebook for the latest in her Highland Force series, I found myself contemplating what it is that makes this genre so incredibly fertile and eternally popular. 

I admit to this genre being a guilty pleasure of mine.  And certainly, if you are looking for cold-weather, kilt-infested bodice-rippers there are plenty to choose from.  I think I read nearly every title Arnette Lamb ever published.  So what makes a Highland romance successful, and why are they popular? 

Well, there is a pretty well-tried form to them, the variation and theme similar to most successful romances:
  1. Boy meets Girl
  2. Boy gets unsettled/annoyed followed by much furrowing of brows
  3. Girl is overwhelmed by his personality/power/good-looks, but in pretty short order wants to slap him, and often does
  4. Despite his stoicism, and her temper, they find themselves drawn to each other, but have too much honor to just go for it.
  5. Conflict ensues ….
  6. Boy and Girl become unintentionally indispensible to each other (i.e. her industry, his bravery, OR her bravery, his industry or some combination, etc) and more importantly to THE CLAN. (always important to the plot: turbo charged family responsibilities!)
  7. Boy and Girl continue their litany of denial, despite all reasonable evidence to the contrary: he’s stoic and the clan comes first, she doesn’t understand his rigid devotion to his people despite the fact that she’s coming to like them.
  8. Something threatens THE CLAN and therefore the relationship – will they survive it, or will they be separated forever?

The really good authors in this genre find ways to work humor in: comic characters, foibles of the hero and heroine, the ever popular embarrassing situations that they have to work together to get out of (nothing is sexier than laughing together!).  They also find a way to twist the ending that adds something unexpected.  Let’s be clear: no one writes romance novels where item #8 goes badly.  It’s just not done.  You want that, a little Anna Karenina will suit you fine, but not a romance of any kind, certainly not a Highland romance.  So “the twist” has to be something else.

So what in this list makes Highland romances unique?  I think it is the characters.  There are no “wilting flowers” or “tragic anti-heroes” in Highland romance.  The heroines are always intelligent, impassioned women who just want to get control of the circumstances of their lives.  The heroes are always honorable, self-sacrificing, and struggling to maintain control of themselves for the good of others (i.e. THE CLAN). It’s a recipe for romance, intrigue, high adventure, and success - probably with some feasting and dancing thrown in, and more than one claymore for good measure.  Cold Scottish castles mean plenty of roaring fires and fur rugs/blankets/cloaks.  The people are always good hearted, generous and loyal.  EVERYONE wears a skirt! What’s not to like?

Not meaning to go too in depth, or take on pretensions of scholarship that I don’t deserve, I share this whimsy with you.

I found Amy’s Highland Force books to be a delight: fully accomplishing every item on the list; imbued with humor and humanity in a genre whose very formula oft takes itself too seriously; and with a killer “final Act” that is brimming with surprises, yet completely satisfies.  I thoroughly enjoyed Captured by the Pirate Laird and I am honored to be reading from book two The Highland Henchman today.  Brava Amy!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


If there is one thing I have learned in the past year, it's that there is no "season" for Irish stories. True, they may seem more topical this month, but the genre is one of those that is popular all year round.  So it is that I am pleased to be back at Mason United Methodist Church in Tacoma this week, to share more of my stories from A TRIO OF IRISH TALES, and the upcoming A TRIO OF IRISH TALES II.

These gatherings are free (with a goodwill donation accepted) and Denny's cooking is out of this world!  come on by for excellent company, great food, and a story or two

High Noon!  
Wednesday, March 19th

Mason United Methodist Church
2710 North Madison Street
In Tacoma Proctor District

Click Here for a Google Map

Monday, March 17, 2014


Why do I love St Patrick's Day?  Why is it as essential as Christmas in my annual pantheon of celebration?

It has never been about the green-beer-pub-crawling sort of revelry.  And I assure you, MY corned beef
Cardinal Paul Cullen, related on the green side 
and cabbage is not the washed out sort of mess that often comes out of other stew pots.  In fact this year I am not even going to have a chance to make "my" corned beef as my new housemate is not a fan of it (baked in Guinness and served over al dente steamed cabbage).  It will be all I can do to manage some colcannon tomorrow, after a big project is delivered.  So again, why?

I think the answer lies in my father, passed these twenty five years or more.  Somehow, in celebrating my very Irish heritage I am celebrating him.  I share his deep longing to travel to Ireland and visit the the places told of in family stories, learn about our ancestors.  It's a hope I haven't given up on.

So yeah, maybe my Saint Patrick's Day, and my writing of Irish tales, has a bit of the yearning that all children of the diaspora reflect. Or maybe I just loved my Dad, and I miss him.

How will I be celebrating?  It might not be all the corniness of "faith and beegorah", but I will be managing Corned beef and cabbage for lunch, and I will be reading Maurice Walsh's THE QUIET MAN in Second Life this evening, and watching the film with Mom (probably tomorrow).  My celebration might be a little like Sean Thornton's cottage in the 1951 film - with roses all around, the paintwork trimmed in emerald green and not the more durable red, and an Irishness that only comes from America. But my parents loved the John Ford film, and I have since fallen in love with the Walsh's short story - indeed with all his short stories.

Alas I cannot stream my reading tonight and share it, much as I would dearly love to - copyright still forbids. So I share these links with you who also yearn for a land beyond green, where the wee folk still dance around the oaks, and the air is ancient and fresh with heather.  ~ Slainte'

The Quiet Man - a short story by Maurice Walsh

The Quiet Man - an award winning motion Picture Directed by John Ford

Monday, March 10, 2014


With one book in review and one about to release, it is time to share previews of the newest story collections! I will be streaming live not once, not twice, but FOUR times in the next week.

On Wednesday, March 12th at 7pm Pacific, I will be sharing selections from A YEAR IN TULFARRIS by friend Caitlin Walsh with excellent photos by her husband, Alfred Hellstern.  Cait and her family celebrate Saint Patrick's Day in Ireland, enjoying the delights of March on the Emerald Isle.

I will be streaming selections from  A TRIO OF IRISH TALES II, at two different times this week Check out the Judy's Stories Live! tab for dates, times, and how to access the stream from YOUR computer.

What adventures await in A TRIO OF IRISH TALES II ?

Two Houses - a newlywed couple on their honeymoon in Ireland discover a mystery: two houses incredibly alike but one thrives while the other is in ruins.  They are drawn to and connected with this very Irish puzzle in a way they could not have foreseen.

The Fairy Tree - Young Liam is back! (from The Shadow by the Gate) Armed with a new sense of belief in the unseen, he confidently goes back into the Wicklow countryside and discovers the power and the danger of getting what you wished for.

A Rock Beyond - Patrick is always left behind, or so it seems.  Eager to prove himself, he vows to spend the night at Teach Duinn, the gathering place of the dead on the most western crag of Irish soil.  What will Pat find beneath the rocks, among the waves, and beneath the cliffs?  Will he find himself?  Or perhaps he'll discover more than he bargained for!
Tune in and check out these emerging adventures!

Monday, February 24, 2014


I had a dream almost a week ago - powerful, vivid.  It surprised and annoyed me.  I wrote this poem several times as a result, mostly in the car driving to work.  Unfortunately, those "commuter editions" are lost forever, and I think they were better than this version, in some ways.  But such are the transient nature of dreams.

Another One
By Judith Cullen  (c) 2014

My dream was filled with him
Unexpectedly saturated with
Good Company
And the comforting tambor
Of his voice.

It was held firmly, my hand
Wrapped in his as we
Every way
Surrounded with the vigorous intoxication
Of his presence.

The inevitable moment, for me
Pulling so close
Speaking with my heart
“I love you.”

A pause whose silence echoes
The break between
And conscience
An infernal gambit between
“yes” and “I’m sorry.”

They would not release, his arms
When I pushed away
Firmly they restrained, prevented
My escape from his regrets.

Not enough in waking moments
To know the truth of that pause
“I love you”
“I know”
“I’m sorry”
Why did it have to infect
My dreams as well?

Friday, February 14, 2014


I am the Ebenezer Scrooge of Valentine's Day!  That is, until about 24 hours before the arrival of the day, when I frantically "go all hallmark" just like most of the western world.  It is an annual microcosmic reflection of my own inner conflict/confusion over the word and the concept of  "love."

This year, it came out in an essay.

To “Love,” or not to “Love”?
by Judith Cullen (c) 2014

The Greeks got it right.  The language has four distinct words to distinguish the different types of “love”.  We American-English speakers don’t manage it quite so well.  We get confused.

It’s easy to get confused!  Depending on your nature depends on how confused you are, or how much confusion you create.  Let’s not delve into suppositions of what is inside individual hearts, that only makes the conflict more complicated.

The Greeks identify Agape – a spiritual, unconditional love that gives and expects nothing; Eros – the physical, passionate, sensual longing that is the source of so many romantic misadventures; Philia – a mental love applied to affectionate regard or friendship; and Storge – possibly the least “love-like” sounding of the lot, it refers to simple “affection” and is usually applied to family or just acceptance of a relational situation.

One can reason that there is an evolution inherent in these words, while each type is capable of standing on its own.  One might move from philia to eros, though in my experience eros tends to flare up without preamble most of the time.  The next step might be from either philia or eros to agape. While modern Christians like to use the word agape to describe their relationship with the divine, amongst the more mundane creatures agape takes time, and shared history to build.  I use the term "build" because, unlike the popular use of the word “grow,” building agape takes personal commitment, engagement, and plain old-fashioned  hard work.  You can’t just water it and pray.

In English, we don’t fare as well.  We have one word – “love.”  We dress it up for every possibility, and trot it out for everything from casual meetings to formal occasions.  If you are a cuddly person, you use it liberally in everyday conversation, tossing it about like so many candy sprinkles.  The very casualness of it identifies it as philia, you hope. 

I am just this sort of “sprinkly” person, and I sometimes pause to wonder if I am doing damage with my liberality.  Except, I do actually mean it.  I love people.  I want to love people.  I like to love people.  People are endlessly fascinating, marvelously diverse, and I learn so much from them. 

I also get into trouble this way.  Relating to people in a loving way does not always mean they reciprocate, and we all do tend to default to assuming everyone views through the same life lens as we do. Most frequently they don’t share your particular view, and admittedly there are some less worthy of love than others.  Still, I like who I am far better when I am loving people. So, while an occasional “proceed with caution” message may flash up in front of my eyes, continuing to fully embrace philia is simply who I am.

There’s more trouble lurking, and I have gone through more of that in the past few years than I would have anticipated.  It involves eros.  There’s a whole lot of emphasis put on eros in our 21st century society.  I’ll confess, as a cuddly person, eros provides certain tactile rewards that I need – scratches certain sensual itches that are part of being human.  Being snuggly and functioning at a snuggle deficit does not make for the sanest of mind sets. There’s no denying the romantic aspects of eros, because they excite: make your head spin with the thrill of it, and your whole being seems to tingle. The rush of dopamine when you see or connect with your lover can be incredibly addictive.  It is exhilarating, and dangerous.   You want to feel that way all the time - forever!

Eros can be deceiving.  There is a desire to blur the lines and assume that eros and agape are one, or that the shift from one to the other is a given.  After all, in English it is the same word – love:  “I love you,” “My love.” These easily lead one to believe in something that is more lasting and enduring than eros can typically deliver, and that it is possible to float on that sizzling romantic high always. We think it is “love” when it is really “desire,” “want," or “like an awful lot.”  But we still call it by the name of “love.” 

I have been in several relationships, in the past few years, that were eros driven only to become heartbroken when they fizzled.  You feel stupid, because you feel like somehow you should have known better.  Every time I ask myself, "am being smart, putting my heart out there so easily like that?"  I even went into one relationship carefully, cautious to not let myself believe it was the wrong kind of love.  I failed.  Up went my head over my heels at some point, and I was lost in the thrill again.

I keep hoping somehow I’ll become wise, even going so far as to write this essay.  But the truth?  The real truth?  The heart has the incredible ability to endure, overcome, and to heal: it doesn’t matter whether it is philia, eros, or agape.  The ability of our hearts to recover and fight another day - to charge back out into the fray again and make messes and mistakes just as big as the ones we made before - are part of what makes us uniquely human.  It is not a weakness, as some popular punditry suggests, but ennoblement.  Our capacity for loving, of all kinds, is endless. 

So, as with my “huggy philia,” will I accept that I am who I am, and keep on falling in love? Yes.  Am I foolish not to learn from previous misadventures?  Probably.  But love is like so many human conditions: it can’t be learned academically, intellectually, or from writing essays.  You have to go out there and do it: fieldwork, hands-on learning, engagement that might require copious amounts of soap and hot water.  So, I am going to keep smashing my nose, making a mess, and generally tripping over my own feet in the quest to learn to accurately identify the different types of love.

Or maybe, I’ll just start learning Greek.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

THOUGHTS FOR HEART DAY - Hope You Have a Happy One!

Made to Order

By Judith Cullen  (c) 2014

It happens on glittery screens
Those shiny moments
When perfect love comes
In an moment
In a breath
Made to order

Sometimes it happens
In not so elegant climes
The connection so instant
It is perfect
It is blissful
Exceptionally rare
Love takes hard work

It doesn’t come conveniently
Ready to wear, finished
Just the size
Just the color
Love needs time to grow

Often love just “seems” to be
And sometimes it is used
Liberally scattered freely
Casual garnishes
Candied sprinkles
Voicing a desire

Real love doesn’t come
In predestined excellence
It requires hard work
It takes time
It takes patience
You have to actually try

Listening for Love
By Judith Cullen  (c) 2014

Love doesn’t sound like
What you expected it to
It sneaks up on you
And takes various surprising forms

You want it to say,
“Let me move these things out of your way.”
But it ends up saying,
“I made tuna salad.  Want some for your lunch?”

You want it to say,
“You look tired, let me do the dishes”
But it ends up saying,
“There was a sale on strawberries. I bought five flats!”

You have to listen hard
And with your whole heart
The voice of love is cunning
It sneaks up where you aren’t listening