MJP: It’s such a pleasure to have you as a guest, Carola! Like many of the Word Wenches, you started out writing traditional Regencies. (Though 32 Regencies counts as a full fledged career, not just a start up!) Your hardcover Walker Regencies from the library helped me realize that there were modern authors doing Georgette Heyer books, and that certainly had long term effects on my life. <g>
However, when you decided to move into another arena, you chose not historical romance, but historical mystery. Your Daisy Dalrymple series now runs to 18 titles, most recently Sheer Folly in September, and shows no sign of flagging, Set in England in the 1920s, the series has been called “effervescent and a real page-turner.” Could you tell us why you chose this particular time period and these characters?
How Mystery Meets Romance
CD: The fact that I'd been writing Regencies had a lot to do with my choices. I'd been writing about lords and ladies for a good many years (though not all my Regency heroes and heroines are aristocratic), so Daisy turned out to be the daughter of a viscount.
However, I didn't want her to be a spoiled "bright young thing" with no cares in the world, so I killed off her father (1918-19 flu–now once again topical!), as well as her brother and fiance in WWI. She has to work for her living. However, another reason for giving her an aristocratic background was that I find it very hard to picture a housemaid asking the Duke where he was at 5 pm on Sunday (in the library, of course), whereas a "Hon" wouldn't have half the trouble. I made her a magazine writer because I figured it would let her go places and talk to people she otherwise wouldn't.
Alec Fletcher, the Scotland Yard detective, came about for a similar mix of reasons. Amateur sleuths are really pretty unbelievable. If they can team up with a policeman, they have a far better chance of contributing to the solution of a crime. Alec is also a foil for Daisy–they disagree about lots of things even as they fall in love. In the very first book in the series, Death at Wentwater Court, Daisy starts by bringing to his attention the signs of murder when it's nearly written off as an accident, but then she acts to see her own version of justice accomplished, with no regard for the dictates of the Law. Then, the relationship of the two knits the series together in a continuing narrative, even as each book completes the solving of a crime
Why the 1920s?
The choice of time period was very much influenced by my long immersion in the Regency. I see all sorts of parallels between those times and the 1920s. For instance, both have war in the background, in distant lands or in the recent past. Plus, I’ve always really enjoyed reading mysteries set in the 1920s.
More immediately, new freedoms for women link the two. In the Regency, women were liberated from earlier Georgian hoops and extreme corsetting. There's a picture from the period that I love, of young ladies playing shuttlecock and battledore, their arms raised above their heads, practically impossible in 18th century clothes. The Victorians brought back hoops, not to mention bustles, and worse followed–the Grecian Bend of the Edwardian era.
Then the stringencies of WWI, when girls from all backgrounds went to work in factories, on the land, and as VAD nurses, made restrictive clothing completely impractical. 80,000 women served in the UK armed forces in WWI, mostly but not entirely in non-combatant roles, and many were hired to train Local Defence Volunteers (predecessors of the Home Guard), though they were not allowed to join. So far, in spite of fads and fashions, we haven't returned to the worst excesses.
Freedom to Travel
The other connecting freedom is the freedom to travel. Reading Tom Jones or Humphrey Clinker will enlighten you about the exigencies of travel during the 18th century. In comparison, Miss Weeton's Journal of a Governess, a few decades later, shows her taking jaunts for pleasure all over the country. The Regency, though not comfortable by our standards, brought improved roads, fewer highwaymen and footpads, and best of all the invention of springs for carriages.
Instead of gentlemen going off alone to court and parliament, they had no excuse not to take their wives and daughters along. Then the railways appeared in Victorian times, but still a young lady couldn't travel freely by herself, without a chaperone. By the 1920s, girls had learnt independence in the war, cheap cars were available, and it became very difficult to restrict free movement.
This is a simplification, of course, but it's what attracted me to the period.
MJP: Your books are considered “cozy” mysteries, which are about the only type I read. (I’m way too wimpy for forensic mysteries!) Could you explain the different types of mystery for us?
CD: I'm wimpy too. I don't like explicit descriptions of violence, which give me nightmares, as most of my reading is done in the evening. The different types of mystery, however, is a gigantic subject on which there is no general agreement. There's also endless crossover between different kinds–my Daisy books are also known as historical mysteries, for instance, and historicals come in all varieties. There's even some argument about whether my new series (Manna from Hades), set in Cornwall in the 1960s, is historical or not. So I won't venture on that sea of confusion!
MJP: One thing that intrigues me about the Dalrymple books is that even though they’re drawing room comedy/mystery on the surface, there are dark currents from the way World War I (“the Great War”) has devastated British society. Daisy has suffered personal losses that dramatically changed her life, but she is adapting to a different world and a different status. Could you talk more about that?
CD: That's one reason I prefer to call them "traditional" rather than cosy. I'm no good at grim drama, melodrama, or psychological suspense, but I don't want to write nothing but pure froth, either. I was a child in England right after the second world war, and I remember very well the bombsites in London, having to lie down on the ground on the Norfolk coast while landmines were detonated, my mother and godmother talking about living and working in London during the Blitz and the rest of the war. My mother was a medical social worker at St Thomas's Hospital and lost her doctor fiance when it was bombed. She also lost a favourite cousin. My father, a German Jew, left his home in 1938 and never saw his parents again. As the US is at last beginning to understand, the wounds of war are long-lasting and not necessarily visible. The aftermath of WWI is not something I can ignore.
Though I didn't realize it at the time, my mother influenced Daisy in other ways (though, interestingly, she didn't much like Daisy and preferred many of my Regency characters). Thoroughly professional-middle-class by upbringing, she was interested in everyone, always expected to like people, and was equally at ease talking to a duchess or a charlady, like Daisy. She got through a difficult life by being adaptable and finding the silver lining of humour.
Murder is in essence a nasty subject, but Daisy tends to look on the bright side. Having fallen in love with and married Alec, she's not going to sit about bemoaning her demotion from the aristocracy. She does her best to fit into the new world she has entered–despite the disapproval of both her mother and Alec's. Her personal difficulties add a dimension to my stories that wouldn't be there if all–apart from her frequent encounters with murder!–was smooth sailing. But at the same time, her optimistic outlook allows me to write basically light-hearted books even in the face of the grim realities of violent death.
Researching the Setting
MJP: Each story tend to be built around some aspect of British society: The Flying Scotsman, opera, rowing regattas, and more. Which are your favorites? And what settings do you have in store for the future?
CD: These are my children; you expect me to choose favourites? They're all fun, for one reason or another. I love research, and each new setting gives me a chance to find out far more about some place or subject than I need to know. The Natural History Museum (Rattle His Bones) was fascinating. So were the details of flying by biplane across the US (The Case of the Murdered Muckraker), not to mention my investigation of rum-running in the North Atlantic (Black Ship; see my article on the Trials of Rum-runners for a laugh: http://blog.thejurorinvestigates.com/2008/09/03/rumrunners-on-trial.aspx). I very much enjoyed researching the Tower of London and the relationships between garrison, Yeomen, and police for The Bloody Tower. No favourites.
I like variety: Sheer Folly is much lighter than the book I'm working on now, Anthem for Doomed Youth, which is set in several places including my old school in Saffron Walden. As the title (borrowed from a Wilfred Owen poem) suggests, the latter is very much concerned with some of the late-blooming results of the war. But Daisy being Daisy, it's by no means all gloom and doom.
The Road to Writing
MJP: On a more general note, how did you start writing? Where you making up stories in kindergarten with a pencil clutched in one chubby fist, or did you come to the trade later?
CD: I used to make up stories to tell my sister in bed, and I always got good marks for writing at school, but I hated it. The only thing I wrote outside class was a few juvenile poems. Between the history essays (all A's, though I failed history at school!) I produced for my (ex) husband and sitting down to write my first book, 11 years, I wrote nothing but letters. While my son was young and we moved every year or less, I had various part-time and temp jobs–everything from construction labour to composing definitions for a dictionary of science and technology. Then we settled down. My husband started making "how about looking for a proper job" noises. I remembered how, after those essays, he had said I ought to write a book.
And at the same time, I'd read all of Georgette Heyer so many times I knew what was coming on the next page. I tried a few late '70s Regency authors, and decided I could do just as well. So I sat down at the kitchen table with a ballpoint and an exercise book, and I wrote Toblethorpe Manor. I was incredibly lucky–once it was typed up I sold it to Warner, and it's still going strong. As well as being available as an e-book (www.RegencyReads.com), it came out in a large print edition a couple of years ago.
Why Historical Novels?
MJP: What particularly draws you to historical novels?
CD: When I started writing, it was just a case of wanting to write a Regency. Over the years, I've continued to live in England in the past in my head, and I don't feel I could write convincingly about either contemporary England, which I don't know well, or contemporary America, which I probably don't know much better!
MJP: Do you feel there are similarities between your Regency romances and your historical mysteries?
CD: Yes, in that neither has explicit sex nor dwells on explicit violence, though some of my Regencies are on the adventure side of the genre (eg Miss Jacobson's Journey, just out in large print, and its sequels, and Black Sheep's Daughter and its sequels). Yes in that both tend to be lighthearted, whatever dark elements come in. Though the mysteries don't end in a romantic Happily Ever After, I do always end on an upbeat note.
And yes, in that I can't write about protagonists I don't like. One thing I constantly hear about Daisy is that readers consider her a friend and enjoy spending time with her.
MJP: What was the biggest mistake you made when you first began writing?
CD: I had no idea about anything. I didn't know I was supposed to write to a certain word length–it would have been virtually impossible to count, writing longhand, in any case. My editor at Warner said it was 20,000+ words too long and she'd have to cut it. I didn't say, hey, no, if it has to be cut I'll do it (which was just as well as she only found one page that could be cut without unravelling the story–they published it at $1 more than the usual price!).
I read in a friend's book about submitting mss, so I got the format more or less right when I typed it. However, the book said send a query letter, three chapters, and a synopsis. It didn't say send the first three chapters, so I sent off the ones I thought were best. As I said, I was lucky!
The '60s as History
MJP: Last year you began a new Cornish Mystery series set in the 1960s, a period well within living memory. <ahem> The first book was Manna from Hades, and A Colourful Death will be out next June. I’m sure the near-past setting provides a whole new set of challenges. Could you discuss that?
CD: I have a foreword in which I say (if anyone reads it) that the books are set "somewhere between my childhood memories of Cornwall and the present reality." After 30 years of checking endless details, historical and language (the compact OED is very good for the biceps), I wanted a bit of freedom. In fact, I spend almost as much time checking stuff (OED online, now; I have to lift hand-weights), but I do feel less need to stick to a specific year, while making the period vaguely '60s, in some details and in Zeitgeist. After all, I lived through the decade! And I enjoy reading mysteries set then.
My main character, Eleanor Trewynn, lives in a fictional fishing port that's a cross between Port Isaac and Boscastle, so I'm free to make it as I want it, without anyone saying oh, the bakery isn't there, it's at the top of the hill. As with all my books, Regency and mystery, I use some real places and some fictional. If for some reason I can't do in-depth research on a setting, I give it a fictional name. However, there are so many irresistible place-names in Cornwall, I've managed to fit a lot in in places where I don't have to describe them in depth.
MJP: Your traditional Regencies are now available from Belgrave House. (www.RegencyReads.com) Have you enjoyed being discovered by a new generation of Regency readers? Which of those books are your favorites?
CD: They're all available, even the novellas, which have been collected in anthologies with only my stories, under new titles. As I said before, they're my children and I don't have favourites. It's really wonderful that they're living on still, so long after they were written and went out of print (not to mention still providing royalties!). Not entirely out of print, as some are still coming out in large print, which are mostly library sales. Hey, these days the first place I head in the library is the large print shelves!
MJP: The book will be given to anyone who comments on this blog between now and Saturday midnight. Any last miscellaneous comments, Carola?
CD: I have 51 published books, not counting novellas, and a 52nd due out in June. My work has been translated into many languages, including French, German, Spanish, Norwegian, Czech, and Hebrew. Many of my mysteries have been IMBA (Independent Mystery Booksellers Association) bestsellers. One of my Regencies, The Frog Earl, won the Romantic Times Reviewer's Award for best Regency Comedy. I was nominated–but not, alas, chosen–for a Romantic Times Lifetime Achievement Award. Next year?
My website is http://CarolaDunn.Weebly.com. I blog there when the spirit moves me, and on Tuesdays at http://theladykillers.typepad.com/the_lady_killers/