Guest post: Writing sex scenes by crime novelist Quentin Bates

Tonight’s guest blog post, on the topic of writing sex scenes, is brought to you by crime novelist Quentin Bates. You can read my interview with, and spotlight on, Quentin and his previous guest post (on the topic of incorporating food into your writing) here.


There. I thought that would grab your jaded attention. What’s there to say about sex? To start with, I’m given to understand there’s a lot of it about. We humans (men, anyway) are supposedly hardwired to think about it every nine seconds, and something like seven-eighths of the internet seems to be devoted to various aspects of it. Sex, and its more respectable sidekicks, love and romance, are fairly central themes of fiction all round. There’s not much these days that doesn’t feature one or the other, or both, or all three.

It’s a good while since I came to the decision that too much sex is normally best left out of the work in progress. It’s not that I have a problem with a bit of horizontal jogging in my fiction, I’m no prude in that department. It’s more that it’s just so hellishly tough to strike the right balance and write about sex in a way that doesn’t raise a laugh or an embarrassed groan – or both. One reader’s sizzling seduction scene is another’s custard pie slapstick, and there’s a difficult line to tread between the two. There’s a lot to be said for those three dots indicating it’s time for the reader’s imagination to take up the slack.

My arrival at crime fiction was by a roundabout route that certainly wasn’t headed that way to start with and I’d looked carefully at other things on the way before deciding to head for the then relatively sparse uplands of Gloomy Nordic Crime Fiction. Fortunately, or unfortunately, whichever way you want to look at it, I was tapping out my first (published) novel just around the time that Stieg Larsson’s was making its arrival in Sweden, so my arrival on the bookshelves was somewhat behind his – and since then Nordic Crime Fiction is everywhere. That’s no bad thing, as far as I’m concerned, the more the better.

A couple of years ago I asked an editor what I should be writing, wondering what the next big thing would be. Scandi crime fiction was already here (hopefully, to stay) by then and vampires were starting to take over the world, not for the first time – so it was already too late to join that particular party.

‘Not sure, darling,’ this editor mused, describing the forays into gay erotic vampire fiction that she had been working with and unexpectedly predicting the return of the old-fashioned bodice-ripper as the coming thing.

Well, she was partly right. Bodice ripping appears to be back with a vengeance, but not in a way that anyone suggested. Three bodice-shredding volumes of Fifty Shades of Grey are all over every airport bookstall after a new twist on rumpy-pumpy (as British tabloids so coyly refer to sex) is here, spiced up with some spanking and made commuter friendly by your e-reader and branded as erotica rather than whatever you might want to call it.

Other publishers are tripping over themselves in indecent haste to join the party. It’s remarkable that the publishing business as a whole that really doesn’t like to be taken by surprise, and which likes lead-in times on a practically geological scale between a writer handing over a manuscript and the finished article appearing on a bookstore shelf can actually do things quickly when it’s time to keep up with the Joneses.

Fifty Shades of Grey appeared from nowhere, taking mainstream publishing by surprise by sneaking unnoticed along the wing and becoming one of those word-of-mouth successes that come along every few years. It’s already been dismissed as badly-written mummy-porn. I haven’t read it and I’m not going to judge it, but there have been plenty of unfriendly pastiches and sour criticisms. In fact, it’s always easy to sneer at something that becomes a money-spinning mainstream success; Dan Brown’s stuff, the overblown later Harry Potter books, Jeffrey Archer’s clunky stories.

But the fact remains that EL James’s much derided venture has made something hugely successful out of good ol’ fashioned sex. It’s at #1 in the Kindle chart and has spawned a publishing boom of its own, complete with detractors and imitations. ELJ has managed to snaffle the jackpot by doing the right thing at the right time, tapping into a demand for erotica of a kind that appears to be aimed squarely at the ladies.

It’s a bizarre business and getting lucky in the way that EL James and JK Rowling did is largely down to chance. While it’s possible to sell ice cream to Inuits with the right kind of smart marketing, runaway success on this scale isn’t something that can be engineered.

Or can it? Is there a market there for a series featuring an irresistible Nordic crime-fighting vampire who pings the buttons off well-filled bodices with a single smouldering glance? Do bodices have buttons?

I may be some time. There’s some bodice-related research that needs doing and then I may have a proposal and some sample chapters to write.

Why shouldn’t we have fun while we’re working. 🙂 Thank you, Quentin!

Brought up in the south of England, Quentin Bates took the offer of a gap year to work in Iceland in 1979 and found himself spending a gap decade there. During the 1980s he acquired a family, a new language and a new profession, before returning to the UK in 1990. He has been, among other things, a trawlerman, truck driver, teacher, factory worker and a journalist.

Frozen Out and its sequel, Cold Comfort, are born of the author’s own intimate knowledge of Iceland and its people, along with the fascination of the recent upheaval in Iceland’s turbulent society. He and his wife regularly return to their friends, relatives and alternate home in the north of Iceland.

Frozen Out and Cold Comfort are published in the UK, US, Germany and Holland. And Quentin’s next book, Chilled to the Bone, is scheduled to be published in the UK in April 2013 and is already listed for pre-order on and



If you would like to write a writing-related guest post for my blog then feel free to email me with an outline of what you would like to write about. If it’s writing-related then it’s highly likely I’d email back and say “yes please”.

The blog interviews return as normal tomorrow morning with cosy murder mystery writer Sharon McGee – the five hundred and forty-second of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. And I enjoy hearing from readers of my blog; do either leave a comment on the relevant interview (the interviewees love to hear from you too!) and / or email me.

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Unfortunately, as I post an interview a day (amongst other things) I can’t review books but I have a feature called ‘Short Story Saturdays’ where I review stories of up to 2,500 words. Alternatively if you have a short story or self-contained novel extract / short chapter (ideally up to 1000 words) that you’d like critiqued and don’t mind me reading it / talking about and critiquing it (I send you the transcription afterwards so you can use the comments or ignore them) 🙂 on my ‘Bailey’s Writing Tips’ podcast, then do email me. They are fortnightly episodes, usually released on Sundays, interweaving the recordings between the red pen sessions with the hints & tips episodes. I am now also looking for flash fiction (<1000 words) for Flash Fiction Fridays and poetry for Post-weekend Poetry.

Guest post: ‘Getting up close and personal with food’ by crime novelist Quentin Bates

Tonight’s guest blog post, on the topic of incorporating food into your writing is brought to you by crime novelist and spotlightee Quentin Bates.

Getting up close and personal with food

Food is a hugely valuable device for a writer. There are few better ways than evoking those aromas and to nail down a sense of location. Writing about France, Spain or Italy? Then it’s sun-kissed tomatoes, fragrant herbs, olive oil, tarte au pommes, garlic and fresh, young red wine. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.

Anywhere on the southern side of the Mediterranean and it’s those subtle blends of elusive spices, mint tea, savoury and sweet, meat cooked tender in a tagine with fruit and honey. Try central Europe and those aromatic goulashes, monster schnitzels, sauerkraut and beer made by people who have been growing hops and practising their art to perfection for centuries.

Britain, well… there are chips, sausages and pies, spotted dick, custard, warm beer. That’s not quite true. We Brits do see decent food, contrary to what the rest of the world believes and laughs about, but you have to search it out.

You can understand why crime writers set their work in exotic locations; India, France, Italy, South Africa, Turkey, South-East Asia. It’s warm pretty much all year round and the food is great.

There are a very few of us who have been misguided enough to venture north. There are a couple of us Nordic Pretenders who have set our work in places north of Shetland for one reason or another, but it’s not because of the low prices, easy access in winter and the fantastic cuisine.

I went to Iceland first at the end of the seventies and it was the food rather than the weather that was hard to get used to, not to mention the bizarre drinking culture. Icelanders were pretty much cut off from the rest of the world for centuries while the Norwegian and Danish kings ruled the roost. A few ships sailed to Iceland with precious goods, taking away with them saltfish, ponies and the few other things that Icelanders were able to produce. But for centuries items such as flour and sugar were luxuries.

The two grocery shops in the town where I lived had identical ranges of onions, potatoes, green and red apples that tasted of paper, occasional bananas or oranges, and vegetables in tins – tinned peas, tinned carrots, tinned carrots and peas, or red cabbage. Fresh veg was swede. Oh, there was also tinned fruit, but ruinously expensive and only for special occasions.

The diet was meat and potatoes, or fish and potatoes; these being the mandatory potatoes that accompanied every meal. The meat was mutton, and normally laden with the fat that people working long hours in the cold need to keep themselves insulated, and fish was haddock, cut into steaks with skin, bones and the rest of it and boiled. Occasionally there’d be fried halibut or catfish, or boiled saltfish. The Nordic countries produce saltfish as part of a long tradition that goes back to the trade to supply Catholic Europe with something to eat on meatless Fridays. But saltfish in Iceland is nothing like the way it’s cooked in southern Europe with tomatoes, onions, garlic and all that good stuff. Icelanders have their saltfish de-salted and boiled, served with rendered lamb fat. I’m not kidding. I mentioned this in Frozen Out and it’s one of the things I received many questions about, but I assure you it’s entirely real.

In fact, there used to be so much meat and fish in the diet that newcomers would occasionally come out in a rash and run to the doctor thinking they’d caught an obscure arctic disease, only to be told that they were suffering a reaction to the sheer volume of protein in their new diets.

Strong flavours weren’t appreciated. Food was pretty bland and the misguided efforts of the ship’s cook (me) who overdid the curry one day with what I thought was a perfectly reasonable dose of chilli powder is still talked about to this day in hushed tones.

‘My God, it was enough to make a blind man see,’ the mate groaned. But he still finished his plateful and asked for more, albeit with a litre of milk to wash it down.

These days, in spite of the ongoing financial crisis, shops carry everything you’d expect to see anywhere in Europe – from extra virgin olive oil to every exotic fruit. There are TV chefs extolling the virtues of every mysterious ingredient and there are restaurants and takeaways of every flavour and description.

But the traditional food Icelanders ate before freezers and supermarkets is still there. Christmas is traditionally smoked lamb, eaten on Christmas Eve, accompanied by boiled potatoes and white sauce. This delicacy now appears to be somewhat on the decline, as Icelanders are choosing smoked pork, ptarmigan or reindeer. The same can’t be said of the traditional skate dinner eaten on the 23rd of December, the feast of Saint Thorlákur. This is skate that has been allowed to putrefy as a means of getting the ammonia out of the meat that would otherwise be poisonous. The smell alone is an experience, and it carries.

Late winter is known as Thorri, when a festival of traditional foods is held in practically every village and town to feast on sour whalemeat, scourged sheep heads and a few other goodies – and shark. The ammonia-rich Greenland sharkmeat is allowed to putrefy in much the same way as skate, buried below the tideline. Whoever tried this stuff first must have been seriously ravenous, as it takes a strong man to get past the smell alone that rivals surströmming – Swedish fermented herring – in being so pungent and unappetising that just cracking open a jar of this stuff can clear a room in seconds.

After just thinking about that, my appetite has unaccountably vanished, and I haven’t even mentioned the pickled testicles yet. If you want to get under the skin of a place, and especially if you want to write about it, avoid the ubiquitous international cuisine of steaks, burgers and the rest of it, and eat where the locals eat, in snackbars and truckstops. Talk to the cook, the guy behind the counter and the girl clearing the tables, if they have time. Get yourself up close and intimate with the local food culture. It may be a challenge, but it’ll always be interesting.

This was wonderful (although I may give some of the food a miss). Thank you, Quentin! 🙂

Quentin Bates is a writer and journalist who has recently made the move into fiction with the first of a series of crime novels set in present-day Iceland:

Frozen Out (Constable & Robinson) 2011, published in the US by Soho Crime as Frozen Assets.

Also in German as In Eisigem Wasser (Lübbe, 2011) and in Dutch as Bevroren Tegoeden (Karakter, March 2012).

Cold Comfort, Soho Crime, 10th Jan 2102, Constable & Robinson, 15th March 2012.

Published in German as Kalter Troost (Lübbe, summer 2012) and in Dutch as Schrale Troost (Karakter, summer 2102).

A third book, tentatively titled Chilled to the Bone, is well on the way to completion and takes Gunnhildur right away from the city and into mountains, villages and farms of the rural western fjords.

You can find more about Quentin and his work via his website,,, Twitter and Facebook. Quentin returns for my interview on Thursday 29th March.

This article appeared previously on


If you would like to write a writing-related guest post for my blog then feel free to email me with an outline of what you would like to write about. If it’s writing-related then it’s highly likely I’d email back and say “yes please” (while quietly bouncing up and down in my seat with joy!).

The blog interviews return as normal tomorrow morning with romance / suspense novelist Nancy Clark Townsend – the three hundred and thirteenth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. And I enjoy hearing from readers of my blog; do either leave a comment on the relevant interview (the interviewees love to hear from you too!) and / or email me. You can also read / download my eBooks and free eShorts at Smashwords, Sony Reader Store, Barnes & Noble, iTunes Bookstore and Kobo. And I have a new forum at