When I start figuring out a book, there are a lot of things I take into consideration for plots, characters, points of view, grammar, theme, setting, etc. One that is always there will be my personal ethics. Every book I have ever written is impacted by my own view point as to what is moral, what is wise, and what do I owe as a responsibility to readers even as they know these stories are fiction.
There are several examples of the kinds of things I wrestle with before the writing begins. One is the use of cigarettes. To some nobody should be portrayed smoking in a book or film. Reality is some people do smoke, and they do it for various reasons. When I am putting together these characters, their persona, I think about whether they would smoke.
As part of this piece, I went looking for how often my characters smoked-- five of the contemporaries. The heroine never smokes, and disapproves of the hero smoking and tells him so expressing her reasons. The heroes who are doing it know it's bad for them, but they are in high stress positions and do it anyway. They do not smoke around children as part of their responsibility to others while being irresponsible for themselves.
In Luck of the Draw, set in the '70s, it was more common that cowboys, really many men, smoked; so it's less questionable. Political correctness police won't like the idea anyway. My cowboy hero doesn't smoke a lot, but he's not talking of giving it up either. Even though it's set before so much information was available on the dangers of smoking, my heroine does express her distaste for it.
In both From Here to There and Evening Star, the hero has quit smoking when the reader comes across him in the story, but as he moves into a more high pressure situation, he takes the habit back up. In From Here to There, the hero quits again as he realizes it's not going to help him in dealing with his drug using brother. When he appears again three years later in A Montana Christmas, he is not smoking.
Her Dark Angel has a hero who is smoking to begin as part of his life but quits and stays quit through the book. He doesn't quit for himself but rather because he's going to be around the heroine's small children. If their relationship doesn't work out, it's hard to say if he'd go back to cigarettes in the future, but for now he knows he's kicked a habit that is hard to kick.
Desert Inferno has a hero who smokes, and it's not clear he'll ever quit although he off and on has given it a try. The heroine again admonishes him but she doesn't make it into a me or them issue.
No smoking would be acceptable for someone who hates cigarettes, and they have a point. It is estimated in the United States smoking kills 443,000 people a year including from secondhand smoke. My heroes are young men though, and my belief is they will all quit before they get out of their 30s. I cannot bring myself to write about a woman smoking because it just seems wrong for their characters.
My family had a lot of smokers in it. One grandfather smoked cigars. The other pipes. My father smoked cigarettes until he finally quit after I got married... what was that about? I had female cousins who always smoked. After we got married, we didn't allow cigarettes to be smoked in our house; and when the bigger family came for a holiday dinner, it caused some hard feelings. We valued our small children's health more than their irritated feelings.
When I put a cigarette in one of my character's hands I think about it for the story but also the ethics of it.
There is another issue, currently an even hotter button than cigarettes-- guns. After the most recent shootings and my reading here and there how guns, all guns, were at fault, I thought about this a bit more than maybe I had when writing the stories. From a few people, hard to say how many, there is a sense of near hysteria that all guns must be eliminated in the hands of private citizens because they are too dangerous.
Statistics say that there were 32,367 deaths in auto accidents in 2011. There were 12,664 murders of which 8,583 were with a gun. I don't look up the deaths from suicide with guns because if someone wants to kill themselves, there are many ways. I don't see them in the same category as being murdered when you didn't choose.
Such statistics and those from countries with less guns and gun fatalities have led to our culture re-evaluating the use of guns period. The anti-gun crowd would argue higher death rates from autos don't figure in as autos have a purpose beyond killing-- even though you are far greater risk of being killed in a vehicle than by a gun. People fearing guns will not be convinced by those statistics.
Most likely such rabid dislike of guns would cause someone to not want to read at least some of my books, maybe avoid me as an author since I have guns in any of them. It has made me think perhaps I need warnings on the books regarding both the gun and cigarette use so that those who dislike such won't be making the mistake of buying the books.
Since I write adventure, suspense, western romances, six of my contemporaries had a gun owned by hero or heroine although not routinely carried and no assault rifles of any sort. In my as-yet-unpublished historical novels the men all owned and used guns but not all carried them on their hips-- that depended on the cultural aspect of where and why. Knives are used also-- as they are in some of the contemporaries. Hey, adventure/suspense implies danger, right?
There were guns fired in all but three of my contemporaries, sometimes owned by villains and used by hero or heroine. With three of the heroes (Desert Inferno, Bannister's Way, Evening Star) the men were in law enforcement-- one branch or another. They all fired those guns in the stories, but I considered in what to me were responsible ways.
A few times my heroines use a gun. One is given a gun by her father-in-law which considering the dangerous situation she and the hero are facing, she takes it as she was given a gun safety course as a teenager by her wealthy father. In the end she uses that gun to save the hero's life.
None of my heroines end up killing with a gun which I cannot say the same thing for the heroes. In all cases the shootings are with hand guns and in self-defense. As to caliber of each-- right now I am clueless as I am not into guns that way and receive all that info from a repository-- my husband.
In one book, the heroine uses a gun in what she considers self-defense, but she uses it poorly when she really should not have which the story makes clear.
Okay, leaving that, there is another ethical aspect I think about when writing. I don't write about heroes who are brutes but become sweethearts through the love of a good woman. My men might be wild ones, those who don't want relationships, they might be tough, but they never brutalize anybody emotionally or physically.
That one is critical to me because I think women too often have romanticized the love of a good woman changing a man. To me, that's bunk. When one of my heroes changes, it's because he wants a different life and he changes himself (personal examples come from my father and father-in-law). He doesn't change his basic character which was always what it is but maybe turning some of his qualities in new directions. I don't think it's healthy for women to think that a mean man will change for her. Too many women get killed that way.
The other ethical aspect for me is regarding rapes. None of my heroines say no when she means yes. To me that is despicable of a woman to play that kind of emotional game. Yes means yes. No means no. I am not about to write about a woman who likes to tease with no intention of following through. Likewise I won't write about a man who won't accept no. It's her loss if she wanted it but didn't want to admit it. Although romances are a bit of fantasy, there are some things that I think are damaging emotionally for us to expect.
While I recognize authors write stories that are not about their own personal ethics and tell stories of people doing things they'd never do, I think it's important that the ethics in any book tell the truth about life in a way that benefits the reader. I like my stories to have an overall theme of empowerment which comes through the actions and events. It's not empowering to have someone, we're supposed to admire, acting unethically.
Photos from Tucson, Arizona