DrakenHowdy from the snow-dusted mountain of Joanna.
The Ask A Wench question for November is:

"If you were writing a Historical Romance set in an unusual place and time — and you didn't have to worry about sales — where would you choose and when and why?"


Mary Jo has not only thought of writing about some of these exotic places. She's done it.

 As a kid in the classroom, I used to gaze at the map racks hanging from the blackboard, and I was particularly interested in the vast, empty tracts of Central Asia.  What was there?  How interesting it would be to visit!  So when I started to write, I thought it would be really cool to write a book set in Central Asia.

Oh, wait!  I did.  The book is called Silk and Secrets, and it was loosely based on a real rescue mission to Bokhara in the 1840s by Dr. Joseph Wolff, an eccentric Anglican missionary.  Wonderful material in his memoirs.  The last in that trilogy, Veils of Silk, was set in India, with adventure and mystery and romance.  But India isn't quite so far off the beaten path, historical romance wise.

Well, China could be interesting.  So very different from Western Europe, with an ancient civilization and an aura of mystery. Err…, I wrote that in The China Bride,  with a Chinese/Scottish heroine and an English hero with an explorer's heart. 

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Veils of Silk: the Long Road Home

Cat 243 Doverby Mary Jo

If you’ve been following the modest saga of the book I’ve been working on and my series of “how I wrote what I wrote” posts about my Silk Trilogy, you will not be surprised to learn that A) Sometimes a Rogue, (Lost Lords #5, September 2013) went into my editor yesterday, so B) This is a good time to write about Veils of Silk, last of the Silk Trilogy. 

For me, a series will usually start with a plot premise, and then I create MaryJoPutney_VeilofSilk_400pxcharacters to work with that.  But as a series progress, I find that the characters get the upper hand as I develop stories to maximize their individuality.  And so it was here.

Silk and Secrets, second book in the trilogy, was based on a real rescue mission to Bokhara.  Being a romance writer to the core, in my fictional version of the rescue, the prisoner escaped alive from the Black Well of Bokhara, a horrific oubliette where the Amir of Bohkara dumped enemies he particularly wanted to suffer.

The prisoner, Major Ian Cameron, is a brother of Juliet Cameron, heroine of Silk and Secrets.  An officer in the East India Company’s Army, he was successful, popular, capable, and betrothed to his colonel’s beautiful daughter before he left on his mission to Bokhara. 

He emerges from more than a year’s captivity filthy, barely alive, and broken in many ways.  In the fiercely competitive stakes for my most tortured hero, I think Ian is the winner.  When he returns to his post in India, he finds that the life he’d planned is gone beyond hope of retrieval. 

A few suicidal thoughts float through hMaryJoPutney_SilkandSecrets_200pxis mind, but he can’t throw away the gift of life when Juliet and Ross risked so much to rescue him.  So he’ll take the long journey back to his ancestral home in Scotland.  But first, he must deliver the journal of the dead Russian officer who had shared his imprisonment to the officer’s niece, who is living in India with her stepfather.

And so he meets Laura.  Born Larissa Alexandrovna Karelian, she has become very British since her widowed mother married a British district officer.  Newly orphaned, alone in the world, she needs Ian as much as he needs her.  It’s a marriage of convenience and friendship. 

But Laura’s Russian uncle left her an inheritance in the far northwest of India, and together they journey north to retrieve his legacy, and to make their farewells to the sub-continent.  Naturally, all kinds of things happen along the way, including a planned invasion, a secondary romance between a Hindu widow and a Muslim soldier, and a lot of changes in the relationship between Ian and Laura.

VEILS is the longest novel I’ve ever written, and possibly the most research intensive.  It also comes closest to being a mainstream historical, though the core is pure romance.   

Having Ian share a cell with a Russian officer puts the Great Game, the struggle between Britain and Russia for possession of Central Asia, squarely in the middle of the plot.  Lots of adventure, oh, yes!  I’m proud of the book and the way the characters grew and healed—and at the end, I was so tired that I went back to Regency England for the Fallen Angels series.  <G> 

NoLongerAGentlemanObviously I have a thing about imprisonment since my most recent Lost Lords book, No Longer a Gentleman, had a hero emerging from ten years of French solitary confinement. 

I found this interesting to write because the characters react so differently.  Ian’s captivity is much shorter but much uglier, and he emerges profoundly depressed.  Grey in NLAG is also changed greatly, but he emerges semi-feral and hungry for life.  Different men, different reactions.  Very different heroines, too. 

Here’s an excerpt of Veils of Silk:

Ian Cameron has delivered her uncle’s journal to Laura Stephenson, born Larissa Alexandrovna Karelian, and finds himself charmed by the young woman’s kindness, beauty, and good sense.  Though he had thought marriage impossible, Laura is uniquely suited to be his wife.  This scene is when he has proposed to her in the ruins of an Indian temple to Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of fortune.

    “If I had common sense,” Laura said tartly, “I would not be considering your proposal.”
    “Then I must hope that sometimes you’ll have sense, and other times you’ll have none at all.”  Ian sighed.  “As I said earlier, I want to be honest with you, Laura.  I can provide for you in a material sense, but I’ve changed for the worse in more ways than one.  Though I used to have an amiable disposition, I’ve been living in a black fog for months.  On a bad day it takes every shred of will I have to just get out of bed, and the good days aren’t much better.  Sometimes I feel like a dried husk that will blow away in the next strong wind.”  
    She considered his words calmly, her slanted golden eyes thoughtful, then said simply, “Melancholia.”
     Startled, he said, “I’ve never been melancholic.”
     “You were never imprisoned and tortured before, either,” she pointed out.  “Melancholia is not uncommon, you know.  My father’s father suffered from terrible spells of it.  He would stay in bed for days on end.  When he did get up, he drifted about like a body searching for its lost soul.  But always the darkness passed, and then no one could match his high spirits.  In your case, the melancholy was surely brought on by your experiences.  When it lifts, you may never suffer from it again.”
    Ian thought about that.  Both Juliet and David had counseled patience, saying that things would improve.  Laura went one step further; by matter-of-factly naming his condition, she had made it easier to understand.  Perhaps he wasn’t uniquely cursed.  “I hope you’re right.  But if you are and I improve much in the future, I might become very different from the man you would be marrying.”
     “Everyone changes with time, Ian.  I like you very well the way you are—if you learn to laugh again, I think I would like you even better.  So much for melancholia.”  She made a dismissive gesture with her hand.  “Are you an agreeable man?”
    Startled by her abrupt change of direction, he said cautiously, “Probably not.  How do you define agreeable?”
     “In the literal sense of being willing to accommodate the wishes of others,” she explained.  “My mother once said that the most comfortable marriages are between two people who are both easygoing, who do not always insist on having their own way.  When two such people do disagree about what to do, the one who cares most about the result will get his or her way, and the other accepts it good-naturedly.”
 Intrigued, he said “Your mother sounds like a wise woman.  But what if there is a difference of opinion and both parties care greatly about how the issue is decided?” 
     “Then they fight,” she said, eyes twinkling.  “But I am an agreeable person—most of the time—and you seem to be also.  I don’t think we would fight often.”  
     “I think I’m agreeable in the sense you mean, if not always in other ways.”
    “Very good.”  She cocked her head to one side.  “Do you have any other dark secrets to reveal?”
    “One more, and this may be the worst,” he said with wry humor.  “The lords of Falkirk were border bandits for centuries, so the family seat is built for defense, not comfort.  It’s one of those frightful medieval castles with twelve-foot thick walls, smoking chimneys, and ancient weapons lurking in dark corners.”  
     “Ghosts?” she said hopefully.
     “Three or four, but they’re a harmless lot.  Far worse are the drafts.  When the wind blows from the North Sea, it could freeze the ears off a stone elephant.”
     “You should not say such a thing in front of our friend Ganesha,” she said with mock reproval.  “And don’t think you can frighten a Russian with tales of cold.  Compared to St. Petersburg, your Falkirk will seem like Calcutta.  We Russkis are very good at creating warmth in a frozen land.”  
     Though her words were teasing, they were also absolutely true, for Laura had already created warmth in Ian’s frozen heart.  “I think I’ve covered the worst of my dark secrets,” he said.  “Do you have any to confess?”
    Her levity faded and she glanced away, her absent gaze falling on the bas relief next to her.  “I haven’t your ability to be honest about things that are deeply painful, Ian.  That isn’t a dark secret, but it certainly is a flaw in my character.”
     “If that’s your worst failing, I’ll be a lucky man.”  He smiled a little.  “Are you ready to make a decision, or will you need more time?”
     Laura reached out and rubbed Ganesha’s round, jolly belly with her palm.  Ganesha, the happy god, who removed obstacles from the paths of mortals.  “Laura Stephenson is a calm, rational Englishwoman who thinks that what you are proposing is mad,” she said slowly.  “But Larissa Alexandrovna is a demented Russian, and she says I should grab this opportunity with both hands, for I’ll never have another like it.”
    Hope welling in his heart, he rose to his feet and walked toward her.  “Then by all means remember that you are Russian.”

Veils of SilkWhen going through the manuscript to prepare Veils of Silk for the e-edition, I remembered just how much I like the characters and the story.  I don't know if I ever want to work so hard on a book again–but I've very glad I did for Veils!

I've asked about exotic settings before.  Is India too exotic?  Or are Russians, for that matter? 

Mary Jo

Silk and Secrets: Into the Great Unknown

Cat 243 Doverby Mary Jo

Two weeks ago, drowning in deadline madness, I blogged about Silk and Shadows, a backlist book that was first of my Silk Trilogy, and which is now available in an edition.  I told you some of the story-behind-the-story, and threatened to do more such posts in the future.

That threat is being fulfilled very quickly!  I’m still slogging through Lost Lords #5, though I think I’ve found a plot thread that will take me to the grand finale.  And I still enjoy talking about some of the elements that went into spinning a particular tale.  Hence, here’s some of the background of Silk and Secrets, book II of my Silk Trilogy. (This is the new Kim Killion e-book cover.)

MaryJoPutney_SilkandSecrets_400pxThe inspiration for the story came when I was researching the background of the exotic hero of the first book of the trilogy.  Here’s an excerpt from the Author’s Note in Silk and Secrets which briefly describes what I found:

During the nineteenth century the expanding empires of Britain and Russia confronted each other across the broad wastelands of Central Asia, constantly skirmishing and scheming for advantage in a conflict that came to be called the Great Game. The British spread northwest from India while the Russians moved south, eventually annexing the independent Central Asian khanates of Khiva, Bokhara, and Kokand into what came to be called Soviet Central Asia.
    The Great Game produced many true stories of high adventure. Silk and Secrets was inspired by a real rescue mission that took place in 1844, after the Amir of Bokhara had imprisoned two British army officers, Colonel Charles Stoddart and Lieutenant Arthur Conolly. The British government believed that both men had been executed, but reports were confused and contradictory and a group of army officers decided that something more should be done for their fellows.
    An eccentric Anglican clergyman, Dr. Joseph Wolff, volunteered to go to Turkestan to ask for the release of Stoddart and Conolly. As a former missionary to the Middle East and Central Asia, Wolff was uniquely qualified for the journey, so the concerned officers raised money to pay his expenses."

Dr. Joseph Wolff, who made the real rescue mission to Bokhara, was a fabulous character.  Son of a German rabbi, he became a fervent Anglican and was known as the Eccentric Missionary because of his travels through the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. 

The Ark--Fortress in BokharaWolff made the very dangerous trip to Bokhara only to find that the British officers had indeed been executed, and claimed that the only reason he wasn’t executed himself was because the Amir of Bokhara (a crazed and brutal ruler) burst into uncontrollable laughter when Dr. Wolff presented himself to the Amir in his full canonical dress.  He made it safely back to England—barely—and wrote a bestselling memoir of his heroic, if unsuccessful, journey. (The picture of the central fortress above is a Creative Commons photo by Stanislav Kozlovskiy)

Lord Ross Carlisle, my hero for Silk and Secrets, is in that same adventurous mode, SirRichardFrancisBurtonand also has more than a dash of Sir Richard Burton, the famous Orientalist, traveler, and writer.  Like Burton, Ross is a scholar, traveler, and writer, but he has another reason for traveling: to forget the wife he’d married too young, and whose abandonment left him with a hole in his heart that has never healed.  (On one of those journeys, he found Peregrine, hero of Silk and Shadows.)

468px-Hester_StanhopeIf Ross resembles Burton, his wife, Juliet Cameron, is more like Lady Hester Stanhope.   The daughter of a diplomat, Juliet had grown up living the exotic life Ross yearned for, so when they met, it was love at first sight.  She had her reasons for leaving him, and knows she can never go back.  Here’s the prologue, which shows her state of mind:

"Night was falling rapidly, and a slim crescent moon hung low in the cloudless indigo sky.  In the village the muezzin called the faithful to prayers, and the haunting notes twined with the tantalizing aroma of baking bread and the more acrid scent of smoke.  It was a homey, peaceful scene such as the woman had observed countless times before, yet as she paused by the window, she experienced a curious moment of dislocation, an inability to accept the strange fate that had led her to this alien land.
    Usually she kept herself so busy that there was no time to think of the past, but now a wave of piercing sorrow swept through her.  She missed the wild green hills of her childhood, and though she had made new friends and would soon dine with a surrogate family that she loved, she missed her own blood kin and the friends who were now forever lost to her.
     Most of all, she missed the man who had been more than a friend.  She wondered if he ever thought of her, and if he did, whether it was with hatred, anger, or cool indifference.  For his sake, she hoped it was indifference.
     It would be easier if she felt nothing, yet she could not regret the pain that was still, even after so many years, a silent undercurrent to her daily life.  Pain was the last vestige of love and she was not yet willing to forget love; she doubted that she ever would be.
     Her life could, and should, have been so different.  She had had so much, more than most women ever dreamed of.  If only she had been wiser, or at least less impulsive.  If only she had not succumbed to despair.  If only…
     Realizing that her mind was sliding into a familiar, futile litany of regrets, she took a deep breath and forced herself to think of the responsibilities that gave her life meaning.  The first lesson of survival that she had learned was that nothing could change the past.
     For just a moment she touched the pendant that hung suspended around her neck, under her robe.  Then she turned her back on the empty window and the darkening sky.  She had made her bed and now she must lie in it.

Silk and Secrets cover, first editionRoss travels not only to learn and test himself against dangerous challenges, but also with the deep, never acknowledged hope that someday he might discover his long lost wife and at the least, learn why she left him. 

His fictional rescue mission to the heart of Central Asia begins in the British embassy in Constantinople when he meets with his mother-in-law.  Juliet’s mother is trying to persuade the British ambassador to send someone to Bokhara to learn the fate of her son, Major Ian Cameron, an imprisoned Indian army officer. 

Even though Ross is on the verge of returning to England to take up his responsibilities, he lets her twist his arm because he’s also fond of Ian.  If Ian is dead, as seems likely, perhaps Ross can at least bring his bones back to Scotland. 

This being a romance, on the journey he does find his long lost Juliet.  She insists on accompanying him, partly because she’s also concerned about her brother, and moreMadressah in Bokhara because she figures her presence gives Ross a better chance of survival. (She’s right.)

As they face deserts, danger, and desire, Ross and Juliet peel away the layers of pain, guilt, and regret to arrive at the core truth: that they still love each other desperately.  But is there enough redemption and reconciliation in the world for them to build a new life together?

I love reconciliation stories because the intensity of the emotions heightens the power of the romantic payoff.  I tend to do at least one reconciliation story per series, and in the case of my contemporary Circle of Friends series, I did two. 

MaryJoPutney_SilkandSecrets_400pxNot everyone shares that taste, of course.  What about you?  Do you like stories where characters come together with a great clash of history and baggage?  Or do you prefer the hero and the heroine to start their relationship with blank slates?

Mary Jo, already plotting her reconciliation story for the Lost Lords series

 PS: If you have time, I recommend clicking on some of the links about the real people.  They were amazing characters!

Silk & Shadows

Cat 243 Doverby Mary Jo

I’m in crazy deadline madness, so I don’t have a lot of time for writing a deeply scintillating blog, but instead of pulling a classic, it occurred to me that I could do something fun: tell you about how I wrote one of books!  Is that great or what?  <G>

(I’m reminded of a cartoon I once saw, probably from The New Yorker, which showed a couple on a first date.  The guy, a pretentious literary looking sort, is saying, “But that’s enough about me.  Now let me tell you about my book.”  <G>)

AMaryJoPutney_SilkandShadows_400pxt any rate, some people enjoy hearing the story behind the story, so here it is for Silk and Shadows, book 1 in my Silk trilogy.  (That's the new e-book version with its wonderful Kimberly Killion cover.)

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact genesis of most books, but as a kid, I used to study the maps on the rack on the classroom blackboards when I was bored.  I particularly liked the map of the world, which showed great, empty spaces in the center of Asia.  What was there?  What mysteries lurked in the vastness?  It’s not surprising that I’ve written several books with Asian settings.

In terms of plot, I was intrigued by the idea of revenge, and a man who has lived for a justified vengeance.  His fury kept him alive and shaped his life.  But ultimately, if he is to have any kind of future, he must relinquish his vengeance.  Yes, the hero of S&S was one of the long line of my tortured heroes. <G> 

By its nature, the story became my version of Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo.   A Count of Monte Cristo Bookmysterious, enigmatic man from the east enters civilized society.  He is charming and charismatic and has wealth beyond imagining.  He is also ruthless, and nothing will stop him from accomplishing his secret agenda.

Nothing except, perhaps, love. 

Since I’m a great believer in laying everything out, the book has one of my favorite first lines:  “He called himself Peregrine, the wanderer, and he came to London for revenge.”

The story is set in 1839, the very early Victorian era, because the world was opening up.  Bold explorers were charting unknown lands and the Industrial Revolution was changing the nature of society.  Mikahl Kahnauri, known as Prince Peregrine of Kafiristan, has an entrée into London society because he saved the life of Lord Ross Carlisle, an aristocratic explorer and travel writer.  They had become friends—and Ross is now an unwitting tool of Peregrine’s revenge. 

-Sir_Alexander_BurnesI had a fabulous time researching this book.  While looking for a plausibly mysterious background for my hero, I came across the chronicles of real British explorers like Sir Alexander Burnes (left) who crossed the vast and empty tracts of Central Asia.  (Left)

A real rescue mission to Bokhara fascinated me so much it became the inspiration for Silk and Secrets, second in the trilogy, and the story of Lord Ross Carlisle.  I had to force myself to go back to my original story of Peregrine—and Lady Sara St. James. 

Lady Sara is Ross’s cousin, and the complete antithesis of Peregrine.  She is gentle and blond and kind, the fiancée of Peregrine’s enemy—and she has a core of pure steel.  Here’s an excerpt from when they first meet:

    As soon as Sara saw the tall, black-haired man, she knew that he was Ross’s newly arrived friend. Then she questioned her conclusion, wondering why she was so certain. His skin was dark, but no more than that of a weathered farmer, his craggy features were not noticeably foreign, and his superbly tailored black clothing was quintessentially British. Nonetheless, she was sure that he could only be Prince Peregrine of Kafiristan.
    It was the way he moved, she decided, fluid and feral as a predator, wholly unlike the way a European walked. She saw how women watched him covertly and was not surprised, for there was something about the Kafir that would make women spin foolish fantasies about sensuous savages who were really nature’s noblemen, untrammeled by civilization. Sara smiled at her own foolishness, then lost sight of the prince as she talked to one of her father’s elderly cousins.
    Quite suddenly the currents of the party brought her face-to-face with Prince Peregrine. Sara tilted her head up as she opened her mouth to welcome her guest, but her voice died unborn as his intense gaze caught and held hers. The prince’s eyes were a clear, startling green, a color unlike any other she had ever seen, a wild, exotic reminder that this was a man raised under different skies, by different rules. The unknowable green depths beckoned, promising…promising what?
It would be easy to drown in those eyes, to throw propriety and honor aside, and count the world well lost…. 
    Shocked and disoriented by her thoughts, Sara swallowed and forced her mind back to reality. Extending her hand, she said, “I am your hostess, Sara St. James. Surely you are Prince Peregrine?”
    His black slashing brows rose in mock despair. Taking her hand, he said in a deep resonant voice, “It is so obvious? And here I thought I was wearing correct native dress. Perhaps I should sell the tailor to the tin mines for failing me.” He had a faint, husky accent, and his pronunciation was slightly over-precise, but otherwise his English was flawless.
    Sara laughed. “It is not British custom to sell people to the mines, as I’m sure you know. Besides, your tailor is not at fault. There is an old proverb that clothes make the man, but that is only a partial truth. What really makes a man is his experiences, and your face was not formed by an English life.”
    “Very true.” The prince still clasped Sara’s hand. His own hand was well shaped and well groomed, but had the hardness that resulted from physical labor.
Sara remembered a demonstration of electricity she had once seen, for she felt as if a powerful current was flowing from him to her. It radiated from his warm clasp and those unnerving green eyes, and made her disturbingly aware of his sheer maleness. Perhaps an arduous mountain life had made the prince so lithe and strong, so attractive that she wanted to run her hands over his body, feel his muscles, draw him close….
    It took all of Sara’s training in graciousness not to snatch her hand back. The blasted man must be a mesmerist! Or perhaps the resemblance was to a cobra hypnotizing a rabbit. 
    She took a deep breath, telling herself not to be fanciful, the prince was merely different from what she was used to. Ross had once told her that Asiatics stood closer together than Europeans when they conversed. That was why she was so aware of the man’s nearness. 
    Disengaging her hand from his, she took a step back. “Local custom permits kissing a woman’s hand, or perhaps shaking it, but the rule is that the hand must be returned promptly.’’
    His mobile features fell into lines of profound regret. “A thousand apologies, Lady Sara. I knew that, but forgot. So many things to remember. You will forgive my occasional lapses?”
    “I can see that you are going to be a severe trial, Your Highness.” Sara hoped her voice sounded normal. Her hand still tingled where they had touched, and she felt abnormally sensitive, like a butterfly newly emerged from its cocoon. The flowers smelled sweeter, the music sounded brighter, the air itself pulsed with promise.

 I loved the darkness and passion of the hero, and the profound moral choice at the heart of the story.  I was also tickled when a writer friend told me that when she hit a particular point in the book, she thought she knew what was going to happen, and she was so upset that she put the book down and walked away.

S&S, original coverThen she resumed rereading, and found I’d done something quite different.  Music to an author’s ears. <G>  

I love the stories and characters of the Silk Trilogy, and I’m really happy that the books are now available in e-editions. One of the pluses of e-booking was reading through the whole scanned manuscript, looking for errors and possible changes.  It gave me a plausible excuse to fall in love with my characters all over again. <G>

Not all readers like exotic settings and backgrounds, and I can understand why.  Reading them requires a greater investment of time and energy, resources which are often in short supply.  But people who like them tend to really like them. 

MaryJoPutney_SilkandSecrets_200pxSo what about you?  Do you like exotic settings?  If so, what books have particularly charmed you?  Are there any settings that you’d like to see? 

Mary Jo, warning that sooner or later she'll be talking about Silk and Secrets and Veils of Silk, the other books in the trilogy.