A Writer Goes Under the Covers

MaryMcCarthycollageToday’s post comes from Mary T. McCarthy, author of The Scarlet Letter Society. Mary is a seasoned nonfiction writer who, like many, heard the call of the novel and in changing paths found some bumps along the way.

Here she shares one of her funnier challenges: going under the covers to reveal how she learned to write her first sex scene.


Sex Scenes Are Hard

I know, it would have been better to say “difficult,” but I couldn’t resist.

I’ve been a nonfiction writer for over 20 years. Thousands of newspaper, magazine and online stories later, I decided to write a novel. How hard could it be? I thought, and that’s funny actually, because it turns out it could be quite challenging. In nonfiction, I write about something real–a movie, a book, an opinion piece about a news story, a personal humor essay. All of the sudden, I found myself with a blank page where you had to make everything up.

The tired old “write what you know” advice came back to me from long-ago writing professors, so when it was time to create a setting, I fictionalized a town I used to live in and love much. I put 80s décor in the coffee shop, because I went to high school in the 80s and can drop John Hughes movie references like it’s my job. I took real women I’ve known in the world, put them into imaginary literary blenders, and created fictional characters from them. Pop Rocks were my favorite childhood candy, so they’re used in a very creative way in my first novel The Scarlet Letter Society. I did what I was told, and I wrote what I knew, even if a lot of it had to be made up.

Erica Jong said, “It’s hard to do fiction and nonfiction simultaneously.” (I love Erica Jong, so her work figures prominently in my novel).

During the novel writing process when I first set out to write a sex scene, I thought I’d better read a bunch of sex scenes to see what I liked and what I didn’t. Harlequins, popular romance authors, erotica short stories: I dove in. I figured out what I liked–that sweet spot of hot and subtle, but direct–and what I didn’t. One romance writer told me she used Ken and Barbie dolls to help her write sex scenes: you position them however you envision and then it’s easier to write about where left hands and right shoulders would be, etc. I thought having an excuse to randomly have naked Barbie and Ken dolls lying on your desk (research!) was pretty hilarious, but I never did get around to that. Great conversation starter. And needless to say, having actual sex is also a great idea when you’re writing a sex scene (before or after, not during: is anyone that good of a multitasker?).

I’ve been teaching classes at a fantastic place called The Writer’s Center in Washington DC. You have to pitch class ideas, and when no one signed up for my “Blogging and Social Media” class, I pitched “How to Write a Sex Scene” on a whim. The class sold out, and suddenly I was facing a room full of people who were all the ages of my parents. Holy awkward. We talked through the elements of a good sex scene–showing not telling, not skipping the good parts, what vocabulary terms were reasonable versus horrible for referring to body parts on men and women: probably the hardest (sorry) thing we do when writing sex. I gently explained to one gentleman that cantaloupes should be left at the produce stand when referring to a woman’s breasts. I helped one woman work through a scene in her novel in which a couple who was having an affair had taken several “naps” in the course of the day– she figured readers would know that meant they were having sex.

Did I mention I love Erica Jong? Yes, I think I did. So of course I read my class a scene or two from the revolutionary Fear of Flying and we also discussed Jong’s new anthology of women’s sex essays Sugar in My Bowl, which I love. I had not been a huge reader of romance novels, but I know women who read them are passionate about the genre: my pedicurist absolutely insisted that I read Long Hard Ride by Lorelei James (I’m planning to read it at the beach. Or maybe a ranch?). Having read a few of these types of books for research, I think I get it now. It’s fun to be turned on when you’re reading something. It’s as simple as that.

In writing the sex scenes for The Scarlet Letter Society, I wanted the scenes to be hot. Heck, I will admit I was aroused when writing them. I signed a two-book deal and am working now on the sequel, tentatively titled The Scarlet Letter Scandal, which delves into the sometimes-scandalous secrets of bedrooms in suburbia and the women who keep (or don’t keep) them. So after 20 years writing non-fiction, I’m excited for this change to sexy fiction. Literally.


Mary McCarthy is the author of The Scarlet Letter Society and Senior Editor of Splice Today. Find her on Twitter, Facebook or her personal blog Pajamas and Coffee.