It's Ask-a-Wench time! We have a great question from Molly Wilsbacher:
Molly: I'm curious what inspires authors, not in the traditional sense, but how do they choose what they write about. For example, I once heard Linda Howard say that she writes to get the characters to be quiet in her head, to paraphrase. Also, how do you choose in which era to write historicals?
I've always had an affinity for certain time periods and places, perhaps because of the literature I read while growing up. Georgian and Regency England are always favorites, and of course, I have an extensive research background in those eras which makes it much simpler to “see” a character in those settings.
I also have a love for the simpler setting of post-Civil War western United States. I’d much rather write rough, tough alpha males in a setting that requires an extra dose of testosterone just for survival. Contrasting them with women in frothy petticoats… Sigh, I miss the western historicals, but market limitations keep me from writing them now.
For me, ideas for stories pop up all the time and I write them down in a notebook because otherwise I'd probably forget them. But some ideas are stronger than others and refuse to wait politely in the notebook until I'm ready for them — they keep throwing up additional ideas, and characters for that story pop up and images and scenes, and that's when I know the story really has legs. This can happen over a month or two but sometimes it's a matter of years. But not all stories are commercially viable.
For instance years ago, before I was published, I had an idea for an Australian set historical. It kept coming to me, from the opening image of a girl sitting on the back of an ox-cart churning its muddy way through the dripping Gippsland rainforest, to the hero and his problems, the heroine and her backstory. I loved that idea, but I couldn't find an editor who'd even consider an Australian set historical novel, let alone read my partial. So it went into the bottom drawer… and should have been forgotten. But over the years an image or a scene would pop up that clearly belonged to that heroine, so I kept adding to the notes, thinking one day I'd write it, just for myself. And then, when I was considering the heroine for Harry, the second hero in my devil riders series, I realized that not only would this heroine be perfect for him but with a few changes, I could even use the opening scene. So I took the story into England, set it some fifty years earlier, in the Regency era and voila! Publishable. So it's a balancing act — some stories insist on being written and nag you until you do, but they still have to be commercially viable and appeal to an editor.
As for why I write in the Regency era, I fell for Georgette Heyer's version of the regency era when I was young and impressionable and it made a huge impact, so writing stories set in that period feels very natural to me. That said, I'd love to write a few medievals one day — I have several stories that gently nag, and they wouldn't suit any other period. And I have some stories that are very much contemporaries. I could jump around and write a regency a medieval, a contemporary, as the whim took me, but I suspect I'd be risking my writing career. Editors and readers like to know what sort of story they can expect from an author, and really, it's no hardship sticking to the Regency period because I love it and my mind is constantly throwing up ideas for new Regency-era stories.
Usually an idea will grab me out of nowhere and demand to be written. I suspect that it has been fermenting away in my head unnoticed whilst I’ve been working on something else. It then tends to obsess me so that I think about it for a lot of the time until I start to write it down. It could be a character or a situation or a setting… Sometimes it will work when I scale it up into a book, sometimes not. Sometimes it will be saleable, sometimes not!
I don’t consciously remember choosing which era I was going to write in. It’s odd in a way for me to write the Regency period because I’ve never studied it. My history degree finished at 1750. I love the Tudor and Stuart eras and could see myself writing books set in those periods but the Regency has a sparkle and an appeal that is all its own.
I think we all write to flow through what's in our heads, but if we're lucky the stories there have some connection to what publishers are keen to pay for. I've had a few occasions when that was marginal, plus others that proved unsaleable. But I don't regret writing any of them.
Eras is an interesting one, as some appeal to me and others don't. I know quite a lot about the Tudor period, and did a part of my history degree on the reign of Queen Anne, but stories from those periods never come to me. They are only of academic interest.The Regency has always interested me, but the Georgian has always fascinated me and I was carried into the 1760s willy-nilly even though the market at the time didn't exist.
Past lives? Who knows?
Mary Jo Putney …
the one that best suits whatever series I'm currently writing. With luck, the two coincide. <G> Sometimes an idea comes out of left field that is so exciting that I want to do it RIGHT NOW. When that happens–the idea is invariably more complicated than anticipated!
As for the era–no brainer. I have a degree in 18th century British literature because I loved the language and wit so much. Discovered Georgette Heyer in college. (Stripped copies that sold for a nickel each, but I didn't know better, alas.) It was a perfect fit. Drama, romance, war, love, comfortable clothes! The only times I've ever left the period was when a different time fit the story better.
My first Heyer was SYLVESTER: OR, THE WICKED UNCLE. (All true Regency cultists can tell you the title of their first Heyer. <G>)
Where does the writing come from?
For me, the female protagonist shapes the story. She's the seed of imagination. I ask myself, Who is she? How will she change? What does she desperately need?
(Generally she needs something the hero can help her find.)
I lie on the edge of sleep and dream of the heroine becoming.
As to the era —
Okay, call me shallow. I write Regency because of the clothing. I love the soft, easy, comfortable clothing of the 1780 to 1830 period. Comfortable to wear, beautiful to look at, essentially democratic.
Easy to get the heroine out of, too, which is me doing a favor to the heroes.
Cara Elliott/Andrea Pickens…
Often, it’s the oddest little snippet that takes force and demands a story. One of my earlier Signet Regencies was inspired by a single sentence in a history book about an aristocratic marriage where the bride and groom were twelve and had never met before. Immediately after the ceremony, they were separated and returned to live with their families until they were “old enough” to live together. That got me thinking of what intriguing possibilities could result from that scenario . . .
There have also been times when a rare book or some other object at a museum exhibition suddenly took on a life of its own in my imagination. So I guess that for me, it’s those serendipitous moments—those unexpected flights of fancy— that are at the heart of my story ideas. I love that “Ahah!” moment, and the fact that I never know when they are going to happen.
As for what historical era to write in, that’s a less spontaneous decision. I’ve loved the Regency era for a long time and so have spent years learning about its people, customs, and history. I wouldn’t attempt to write an Elizabethan story because I know virtually nothing about the era, and thus feel I couldn’t create a compelling world. Thatt said, I’ve become fascinated by the Edwardian rea, and am now doing a lot a background reading on it so that some time in the future I might attempt a story set during that time.
Susan Fraser King…
Sometimes a character pops up and won't be quiet until he or she gets a story. Sometimes it's a setting–I've visited places that have stirred up so many ideas that I had to start writing them down, though it could even be just a photo or an article about a certain place. Sometimes it's reading a bit of history that intrigues and fascinates me so that ideas immediately start to bubble. I keep files and notebooks of ideas, as it's not always possible to jump right into a story when the inspiration is new.
My grad school training concentrated on medieval through baroque, so I gravitated there for my first historical romances, then went on to write several set in Jacobite, Regency and Victorian Scotland. For the mainstream historicals, I returned to my academic medieval roots to write about two women–Lady Macbeth and Queen Margaret of Scotland — who were totally fascinating and different within their times. I tend toward Scottish settings out of sheer love and an accumulated knowledge base. There are so many stories to write about in Scotland — and everywhere!
Thanks for a fun question, Molly! And congratulations–you win a signed copy of one of my books! (If anyone else has a question for Ask-a-Wench, please email us–if your question is chosen for answering, you'll win a signed copy of a Wench book!)