Ellen Holiday on characters always getting their way and lots more, and a so-fine excerpt from *Inside the Beltway*

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Senator Davis Hudson has a silver tongue that has so far kept the stress off those lesser political organs, the heart and the brain. But he’s just made a political speech that will transform him from a Senate back-bencher to a public figure and presidential contender—whether he’s ready or not—and suddenly he wants his words and actions to mean something. It’s a crucial time in his political career, and Davis needs all the publicity he can get. He just doesn’t expect the highlight of his first CNN interview to be the conversation he has with makeup artist Kurt Lamb.

Kurt is smart, politically savvy, and uninterested in being part of a congressional sex scandal, which is why he tolerates being Davis’s dirty little secret. Despite the poor timing, Davis falls for him hard.

But Kurt isn’t the only skeleton in Davis’s closet. Davis’s ex-wife isn’t happy that he’s pursuing the presidency now, after all her years of hard work, and he has at least one more enemy on the Hill. Between them, they have all the tools they need to ruin a presidential candidate—and maybe his shot at happiness too.

Ellen Holiday started writing at the age of five and never stopped. Her passion has always been for romance, for the magic moment when words are no longer needed, breath stops, and the whole world consists of two souls connecting. Writing that moment, and all the madness surrounding it in every situation, remains her passion every day of her life.

She works in Washington, D.C., where the mix of history, beauty, and politics keeps her constantly intrigued, and lives just west of the city with her husband, with whom she shares a love of science fiction, gaming, and all things geeky. They also share plenty of romantic moments of their own.

Ellen Holiday can be contacted at ellenholidayz(at>gmail(dot)com.

The Interview

Q: How important are character names, to you, and how do you go about naming them? What about titles?
A: Most of my character names come to me, I don’t go searching for them. I can go from a face to a name, or just listen to another character all my new character by name, and I know who they are. Occasionally I have to go in and tweak them, but I don’t do a lot o research into finding the appropriate character name. They are who they are; I just write their stories.

Titles are very, very tricky beasts! I have a terrible time with them, and sometimes I have an easier time writing a story to go with a title than vice versa. The short stories I’ve published for Dreamspinner — “Touched by the West Wind” (for the Cross Bones anthology) and “Rainy Days and Star Charts” (for Higher Learning) are my favorite titles; my least favorite right now is the working title for the novel I’m currently writing, as it doesn’t quite convey what I’m going for, but it’s close enough for now.

Q: In what locale is your most recent book set? How compelling was it to set a story there? Do you choose location the same way every time? How?
A: “Inside the Beltway” is set in Washington, D.C., which is where I work; I was so happy to be able to write a political novel and to have it read realistically for the world I encounter every day. D.C. is like a different planet sometimes, but it’s such a fantastically layered and interesting place, and there’s so much going on here that I want to be able to convey. Both my current projects are also set in D.C., but I’d also really like to set a story or two in the Boston area, where I grew up and went to college. My other hope is to set a story in Japan, where I lived for a year. I’m fluent in the language and very interested in the society there, so I am hoping I can come up with a story that rings true to that country, as well. It’s incredibly important for me to be able to see the locales I’m writing about, and it’s also really fun for me to revisit places I’ve been with my stories. When I was a kid I did a lot of imagining love stories set in various places I visited and vacationed. So in a way I’ve been doing this my whole life.

Q: How much power do you give your characters in steering the story line?
A: They can do whatever they want, but I’ll go back and mess with them later if they’re not moving the story along. The most frustrating thing for me is how very much my characters want to be happy, and I just can’t let them be totally happy if I’m going to write a good story, no matter how much I may personally want to see them do well.

Q: What is the most satisfying element for you in writing gay relationships, and why?
A: I absolutely adore writing the self-discovery aspect of relationships. Questions of identity — who am I, how much of myself is immutable, what of myself do I show the world, etc. — hold enormous fascination for me, and for a person to fall in love requires a leap of faith, to show to another person his secret heart and hope that the feelings are returned. As each of my characters falls in love, he discovers something about himself that he didn’t know. Sometimes that’s “I can fall in love with a man,” sometimes it’s “I see myself as belonging to this or that group,” or “the boundary between my public and private selves lies in a different place than I thought.” These questions are ones all of us, not just gay people, struggles with, but I think writing gay relationships gives me a framework as a writer to deal with them directly and overtly. So that’s what I find satisfying. That, and all the inherent hotness of gorgeous men together — which contains elements of power dynamics and gender roles, which are also questions of identity, but they become more accessible because they’re, ahem, packaged in such an appealing way.

Q: Are readers involved in making your fiction–do they suggest stories or say what they’d like to read?
A: I absolutely love hearing from readers! I’m relatively new on the scene, so I have yet to build up a lot of fans, but absolutely everything I hear from readers is taken to heart. I’m not one of those people who shuns reviews (though perhaps I should) — reviews have taught me a lot about what readers are looking for, what aspects of my writing they find appealing and what they don’t. And I learn from them, above and beyond the boost or injury to my ego.

As for more direct suggestions, one of the ways I’ve been able to draw some people to my blog is by asking for direct writing challenges. I encourage anyone and everyone reading this to visit ellenholiday.wordpress.com and look for my writing challenge posts!

Q: Describe the ideal relationship between author and readers.
A: I don’t know that I can speak to an ideal, but I can certainly say that I’m so delighted when readers take the time to leave a review or a rating or drop me a line or a tweet (@ellen_holiday!). I’m always so glad to hear from folks and have had some wonderful conversations with readers. There was a gentleman from England who emailed me, saying he wished he could vote for a politician like Davis Hudson (the protagonist of “Inside the Beltway”) – that was a great compliment! So readers, if you like what an author has to say, don’t hesitate to drop them a line. They may not all respond — they might be too busy writing the next book you’ll love — but it will give them great validation and motivation to keep writing.

Q: What do you find useful about reviews?
A: Oh, everything! As I mentioned above, I am happy to read both good and bad reviews of my work. Among other things, it gives me a snapshot of what people are looking for in their stories. And sometimes that’s different things. I have had reviews that have said Davis was a truly good politician and good man, and those that said he was smarmy and unlikeable. So sometimes it’s a wash, but when there is a trend among reviews, it’s definitely something to keep in mind for next time. Do I want to craft a story absolutely everyone will love? Of course. Am I likely to do that in this life or the next? Probably not. So I take reviews as a general idea of what at least part of the reading public is thinking. And it’s good stuff to know when I’m crafting plots.

Q: I’m well known for demanding to know an author’s opinion about which of their characters is the sexiest, and I’m making no exception for this group. Who, how, and why?

A: Oh, it’s so hard for me to decide! I have a thing about writing “real” men, not underwear model types, so for each of my characters I can tell you at least one of their physical “flaws.” If I have to choose a character that’s already been published, I will say Kurt Lamb, Davis’s love interest in “Inside the Beltway.” He’s tremendously smart and self-assured, but he has this dry wit and this way of smiling that is just brain-meltingly hot. I describe it as “wolflike” in the book. He’s like this lean, sexy wolfman who keeps making Davis’ heart skip a beat, and he does the same for me.

For the stories I’m currently working on, the hero of my next novel, Ryan Ryder, is a bit of a challenge for me. He holds opposite political views to my own, which makes him annoy me no end, but he’s incredibly funny and sarcastic and a joy to write. So I have a bit of a crush on him too, despite the fact that if he were real, I think I would want to smack him silly. Well. I’d want to do something to him.

Q: What are the fifty hottest words (approximate the word count) you’ve ever written, in your opinion. (Be sure to include citation).
A: Oh, dear lord! I’m sure I haven’t the slightest. Every time I write a love scene it’s the hottest thing I’ve ever written. The sex you’re having now is always the hottest sex ever. (LBS shakes her head sadly and responds to Ellen’s last sentence, “‘taint necessarily so.”)

Q: What are you doing now, what do plan to write next?
A: I’ve just completed the manuscript to a novella called “Small Miracles” that I’ve sent to my beta and am hoping to submit soon. It’s about a runaway who is living on the streets. He has a chance encounter with a man at a bar that turns into a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but after what he’s been through, he has trouble believing something good could ever happen to him. It’s a bit of a fairy tale, but a very romantic one.

My next novel is about a talk radio host whose political and personal views are thrown upside down when one of his callers challenges him to meet face-to-face. It’s a really intimate love story with a bit of a political edge, which is one of my favorite things to write (as you might have guessed!) It’s about two-thirds done and I’ll probably finish it early next year.

An Excerpt from Inside the Beltway

Kurt laid his bag on the kitchen table and strode into the kitchen area. Leaning backward against the rim of the sink, he raised his eyes to meet Davis’s. “Look,” he said, “I didn’t want to say anything in front of your driver, but I thought that I ought to apologize.”

Thrown for a loop, Davis frowned. “Apologize? You don’t have anything to be sorry for.”

“Yeah, I do.” Kurt sighed. “I shouldn’t have sent that text. I shouldn’t have told you I thought about you. It was a stupid thing to do. I got the feeling I made you uncomfortable, and that wasn’t my intention.”

Davis kept watching the flex of his elbows, the way his wrists wrapped neatly around the edge of the counter and extended into those long, nimble hands.

Kurt was still talking. “I honestly like you, Davis. You’re just an amazing man, and I do have to admit that if things were different I might not hesitate to be a little more forward.”

The way those hands had felt, familiar and warm, against Davis’s face….

“But I’m aware that things are the way they are, and I don’t want you to think that I’d do anything to jeopardize our friendship or to make you feel like I was making a move that wasn’t welcome—”

Davis strode across the kitchen. Kurt’s breath, mid inhalation, became a quick gasp. Davis tipped his chin up quickly and brought Kurt’s still open mouth to his.

His lips on Kurt’s were a revelation, and Davis was hungry all of a sudden, drowning all of a sudden. He couldn’t breathe, didn’t ever want to break the surface. Kurt’s eyes closed sometime before Davis’s did, because Davis remembered seeing his eyelashes bob and droop. But then the world was dark, and all he knew was that there was a chest against his, strong hands on his arms, the counter a cold bite against his own hands. And Kurt was opening up to him, lips sliding apart beneath his, a small sound slipping out from his throat in the sudden devastating quiet of the small kitchen.

Kurt had been the one to gasp, but now Davis couldn’t breathe. He was taking in little sniffs of air through his nose, but they weren’t enough to fill up his lungs. Nothing was. Kurt’s lips were drawing out every inch of breath and life from him.

I’m going to die, he thought wildly. This man is going to kill me.

His fingers scrabbled hard for a place to hang on and found it in the collar of Kurt’s shirt, green and still damp and smelling of makeup. Kurt’s lips were warm and giving, utterly selfless. They didn’t demand a single thing of Davis, just gave and gave, and Davis was sure no one had ever been so generous to him in his life.

He broke off, staring at Kurt, lips swollen, eyes wide. “Oh my God,” he heard himself say briefly before his lips found Kurt’s again.

Kurt lifted his hands to Davis’s hair, brushed fingernails over his scalp. “It’s okay,” he whispered, words breaking against the assault of Davis’s mouth. “It’s okay. I’m right here.”

“Why—” Davis fought for breath. “Why are you saying that? Why—” He couldn’t stop kissing him, couldn’t stop taking in those lips, the lips that always gave.

“Shh.” Kurt’s hands tightened, held him still. He brushed his mouth against Davis’s once more. “You’re kissing me like I’m going to disappear. I’m not. I’m staying right here. Relax.”

“You don’t understand.” Deprived of the oxygen of Kurt’s touch, Davis wheezed. “You don’t. Once this stops, it can never happen again.”

“Sure it can.” Kurt was grinning, redness painting his cheekbones. He ran his hands across Davis’s neck to his jaw, dancing them across the subtle fuzz of his five o’clock shadow.

It felt good, too good. Davis shuddered head to toe. A sick feeling lurched in his stomach, and reality broke over him like a wave. He pushed away. “No, it can’t,” he said loudly, very nearly shouting. “This is a one-time mistake, and that’s all it can ever be.”

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