My rule of thumb is that sex and violence should not be gratuitous. It should be a natural part of the story being told and the characters involved. If it’s added simply for titillation or shock value, then it doesn’t belong and cheapens the story. I feel this way about my reading also. If I’m chugging along reading a book and suddenly naked bodies are writhing in a pile or heads are being lopped off willy-nilly and I go “huh?” then those scenes usually ruin the story for me. Now if naked bodies are entwined and heads are flying through the air and it doesn’t elicit a “huh?” then those scenes probably felt natural to the story line and the characters and won’t bother me a bit.
When it comes to writing my own books, I have to remember my audience and my “brand.” Most of my readers expect funny amateur sleuthing from my books. They do not expect to encounter overt violence and sex while reading about the adventures of Odelia Grey or Granny Apples. They expect good clean fun. And no matter how much I may be tempted to insert something a little grittier, I have to remember the path I have carved and stick to it. In my Madison Rose Vampire Mysteries I added more violence and sex and it was received well by my readers, but then the main characters are vampires and, well, hot.
That doesn’t mean there is no sex and violence in the Odelia and Granny books, just that it’s tempered with my understanding of what my readers expect. When Odelia and her husband snuggle in bed and start to get frisky, there might be some fun slap and tickle to let readers know what’s about to happen, then it’s a fade to the next chapter or scene. There is violence in the books, but it’s not graphic. People get shot or assaulted on the page, but I leave out the gritty details. And that’s the way my readers, and my publishers, like it.
The same goes for Emma Whitecastle in the Granny books. When Emma and Phil Bowers are off on a romantic weekend, readers will be treated to some fun, but most is left to their imagination. However, in my last Granny Apples novel, Gem of a Ghost, Emma kissed a man who was not Phil and I received all kinds of e-mails and messages about how awful Emma was behaving. Several readers threatened to not read any more books in the series. One reader actually called Emma “a tramp” for the kiss and for her attraction to the sexy archaeologist Quinn Keenan.
Yeah, readers do take it that seriously. Does that mean Emma will never be tempted in future books? No! First of all, it was just a kiss, folks! Secondly, temptations not only make for fun reading, but it's part of real life. So put on your big girl reading panties and get ready for some excitement.
Establishing a cozy or solf-boil brand also doesn’t mean I will never write a sexy, gritty novel (I’m actually itching to do one), just that it will not be part of the franchises I currently write. And it will probably be published using a pseudonym. Not that I would be ashamed of the books and would hide that it is me behind the words, but to alert readers that this is a different kind of book from a usual “Sue Ann Jaffarian novel.” Using the pseudonym would be me waving a flag saying, “Hey folks, be warned, this is me forging a different brand, not to be confused with my others.”
Will that work? Probably not. And most likely I’ll receive tons of mail, some in favor, some not. But they will be warned.