Rakes, Rogues, Parties and Princes

AP-avatar Cara/Andrea here,
TTAR The new year is barely into its first chapter, but I’m delighted to announce that tomorrow kicks off my first new release of 2011. (I hope you will all polish up your reading spectacles because you’ll be seeing a lot from me in the coming months—including a Big Announcement as we head into April) Yes, I’m popping the bubbly for To Tempt A Rake, but it’s also a tiny bit sad because as I toast the pristine new pages that are hot off the presses, I am also closing the final chapter on my “Circle of Sin” trilogy.

Russia&Prussia Hail &  Farewell
It’s particularly hard to say goodbye to the hero, Marco, He actually came to life in my Andrea Pickens “Spy” trilogy and had a lot of fun raising hell in those books. Indeed, he was such a swashbuckling character that I couldn’t resist introducing him to the circle of my scientific women when I started my current Cara Elliott series. (Some of you may already know that he tuned out to be Alessandra’s cousin . . . something that took me by surprise. ) Well, he finally got tired of playing a secondary role and demanded his own book. So it was a Good Thing that Kate, the hellion of the Circle, was worldly enough and gritty enough match his devil-may-care bravado. 

Talleyrand_devil Continental Intrigue
Given that they are adventurous and international (Kate is half American and Marco is all Italian) I decided to set part of their story outside of England. They are caught up in a deadly web of Continental intrigue when a foreign diplomat is murdered at a country house party, and Kate finds herself the prime suspect. Marco suspects she is hiding a dark secret, but has his own clandestine reasons for offering to help prove her innocence. And so their investigation leads them from England to Austria, and the famous Congress of Vienna, which convened in the fall of 1814 in order to reorganize Europe after Napoleon’s exile to Elba . . .

But enough of my fictional story—let’s take a quick look at one of the influential—and fascinating—gatherings of the 19th century.

Peace-Festival-Vienna A Waltz To Remember
The Congress of Vienna was also meant to be a grand ending of sorts—the rulers and diplomats from all over Europe were looking to close the book on the strife and upheavals of the Napoleonic Wars and begin a new chapter of world peace. (In many ways, it was the precursor to the United Nations.) Countless books have been written on the complex negotiations and their ramifications (Henry Kissinger wrote his PhD thesis on the Congress) so I won’t attempt to delve into its nuances. Suffice it to say, it was an extraordinary attempt to consider a vast range of issues, both political and social, and to structure a  “balance of power” to ensure that there would not be another world war.

Ball Politics and Parties
Some of the major issues had to do with East Europe—what to do with the various pieces of Poland that had been carved up during the wars; how to deal with Saxony and Prussia; how to keep Russia from becoming too powerful. And then there was the rising nationalism in the Italian peninsula and the Balkans to consider. All these questions of borders and national identity were incredibly important, of course. But what I found fascinating was that the leaders of Europe also understood that issues such as religious freedom, free press and individual rights were very critical in establishing stability and peace throughout the regions. And so there were delegations not just from countries, but from “special interest” groups (much like our modern day lobbyists) ranging from prominent Jewish leaders and anti–slavery organizations to a group of publishers who wanted laws passed to protect intellectual property!

MetternichsOffice Making Peace . . .and Love
Now, as you might know from my previous posts, I love doing research on little arcane details about an era, as well as the “big” picture. For me, those things—the fashion and furnishings, the people and places or the arts and ideas—are what help make a story come alive.

Well, trust me, there probably wasn’t a more “alive” spot
on the planet than Vienna during that time. Yes, the emperors, kings, princes, margraves, powerful government ministers and their entourages had come to the Austrian capital to make peace . . . but they had also come to make love (not necessarily in that order!) In other words, they had come not just to work but to play! And play they did! Glittering balls, sumptuous banquets, fanciful medieval jousts, spectacular fireworks—the daily list of extravagant entertainments for the participants was mind-boggling. (Ah well, what better way to end my trilogy than to go out with a bang. Quite literally!)

Metternich Real-Life Rakes
The cast of colorful real-life characters at the Congress of Vienna makes fiction appear, well, awfully tame. Prince Metternich, the powerful Austrian Foreign Minister who was a guiding force of the Congress of Vienna, was a savvy negotiator, a polished diplomat—and a rakish lady’s man. He was madly in love with the Duchess of Sagan, who had come to the city in order to court favor with the Tsar of Russia . . . (warning: get out your notebooks, for the tangle of love affairs and dalliances gets quite complicated.) Alas, poor Metternich. He spent much of his time writing passionate love letters to the Duchess when he should have been reading treaties and aligning borders . . . a fact that his canny rivals took advantage of.

Talleyrand Prince Talleyrand, the worldly and sybaritic French Foreign Minister, was perhaps the most brilliant—and cunning—statesman of the era. The consummate survivor, he had served King Louis XVI, the radical Revolutionary government and Napoleon (who called him ‘shit in silk stockings’ after the prince betrayed him in secret negotiations with the Allies in ’08.) Called by some le diable boiteux because of a congenital limp, Talleyrand loved the finer things in life (he always dressed in the elegantly old-fashioned velvet-and-lace style of the previous century) and brought the famous chef Antoine Careme with him to Vienna, not only for his own pleasure but to  butter up potential supporters of French interests over the sumptuous dinners and desserts. (At one point he wrote to Paris and wryly said he needed more saucepans, not more secretaries.)

TsarAlexanderOnHorse And then there was Tsar Alexander I of Russia. Charismatic, complex and  mercurial, Alexander was determined to make Russia a force to be reckoned with on the European stage. It seems he was also determined to seduce every female within arm’s reach. One of my favorite anecdotes involves him seeing the wife of a prominent diplomat at a party. As she was alone, he sidled up and asked if he could occupy her husband’s place for the evening—to which she replied coolly, “Does Your Majesty take me for a province?” In addition to the opposite sex, Alexander also loved the rich food and wines of Vienna—he had to have a whole new wardrobe sent from St. Petersburg because he gained so much weight partying every night!

DuchessofSagan And the Ladies Who Loved Them
The ladies were equally interesting. A noted beauty, the Duchess of Sagan attracted an impressive array of influential men to her weekly salons. As did her rival, Princess Bagration, a Russian who was known as the Naked Angel of the North because she wore only white muslin, well damped to cling to her shapely curves. The Duchess’s younger sister Dorothee—who was Talleyrand’s niece by marriage—served as the prince’s hostess, stirring rumors as to what else was cooking inside the Kaunitz Palace beside Careme's delicious desserts . . .

 And I haven’t even begun to talk about the parties, but I’m running out of space! (My favorite is the Carousel, a recreation of a medieval joust which took place in the indoor arena of  the famed Spanish Riding School. However, I promise you will hear about that at a later date!)

Riding-School So, to end this, let me ask a question that brings us back to books. How do you feel about linked books? Are you sad to see a series end after three books? (trilogies seem to be the favorite number with publishers these days) Or are you just as happy to move on to new things? I confess to being a big fan of some long-running series, like the Amelia Peabody books by Elizabeth Peters. Have you any favorites? I’ll be giving away a copy of To Tempt A Rake to one lucky person who leaves a comment here between now and Tuesday night. So be sure to chime in!

ASK A WENCH—”Writing Under the Influence . . .”

With the holidays in full swing, the frenetic rush of shopping and partying can make the days feel a little hectic. If you’re like me, you want to steal away and curl up with a good read. (I hope you are all putting lots of books on your gift list—remember, they make great stocking stuffers!)

BookStack But then, I’m an avid reader whatever the season. I’ve always got a book going, and take great delight in losing myself in another author’s story. So when one of our readers recently asked the Wenches how what we read influences us, we thought it made a great question for our monthly “Ask A Wench” feature. So thank you Jean Merriott for posing this query:

How are the Wenches influenced by what they read? Or do they consciously try NOT to be influenced?

Curious? Please read on to get the inside story!

Many authors worry about being over-influenced, perhaps to the point of imitation, but I never have. I think it's because my creative mind is so quirky
it seems unlikely to follow anyone else's.

Heyer   However, I was inspired by Georgette Heyer and wanted to grow up to write books that gave readers pleasure, and by Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond books toward drama and pushing my characters into tortuous situations. But there, I mostly wimp out.

Creativity-2 I read voraciously, across the board, never in just one genre. And I have No Memory. Everything seeps into my subconscious. Since I can't give up reading, I'm as likely to be influenced by a milk carton as by a book. To make life simpler, I just don't worry about what influences what I write. Yes, if I start glomming urban fantasy, I'm going to have urban fantasy ideas, but I'm quite certain my ideas aren't like anyone else's because I have a strange brain that rushes off on tangents that have nothing to do with the market, the genre, or anything else. Which makes it very hard to market books, admittedly!

I'm far more likely to be influenced by real life stories I hear or read about, or research I'm doing, or by song lyrics, than by anything I read for pleasure.

I have found that it is possible for my writing style to be directly influenced by what I read by a sort of unconscious writerly osmosis.  I try very hard to avoid this ever since the time I wrote a beautifully crafted paragraph and realized to my horror upon re-reading it that it was someone else’s beautifully crafted paragraph and I had unconsciously absorbed and reproduced it.

When I was starting out writing I think I was very heavily influenced by Georgette Heyer and I suspect I’m not alone in that. As my own voice developed I hope that changed and that I found my own style. These days I avoid being influenced by reading no romance books at all whilst I am writing. I read crime, thrillers and non-fiction and save romance and historical fiction as my treat for when I am between books or on holiday.

That said, there are authors who I would very happily claim have influenced me in the wider sense: Mary Stewart and Daphne Du Maurier are two examples of authors who have influenced me to try to create strong characters and beautifully realized settings. Any book I read that is an inspiring example of its craft encourages me to raise my game so that can only be a good thing!

Creativity I worried a lot more about unconscious copying when I first started out.  Now, not so much.  For one thing, I have a good memory and will usually (well, often <g>) remember something that's distinctive so I can avoid using it.  But more importantly, now I better appreciate how different we are in the way we put the elements together.
Take, for example, my book, LOVING A LOST LORD, and Anne Gracie's recent THE ACCIDENTAL WEDDING.  Both features injured amnesiac heroes and the women who rescue them.  Some would say they must be similar.  If so, Some would be wrong. <G>  The books are nothing alike.  LALL is unmistakably an MJP book, and TAW is unmistakably an Anne Gracie.  (I could list the points of difference, but that would take days. <G>)

Influence is a different matter.  Everything I've read and experienced influences me, so no one book or writer is apt to overwhelm my own voice.

When I'm engaged in the first bout of creative work on a manuscript I have to stop reading Romance fiction altogether.

I don't know why this is, but Romance books mess with my voice.  It's not that I start to sound like the other authors, but I start to 'think' about how I sound.  I get self-conscious.

Milkcarton So I read Science Fiction and Nonfiction and Historical Fiction and the backs of cereal cartons and the small print that comes with common household appliances and none of that seems to bother me any.  Eventually I get to the 'editing' part of a manuscript and I can read anything I want, which is a relief.

I discuss stories with other writers all the time but I'm not worried about taking their ideas (or vice versa) because even if all my writer friends took an identical story, with identical events, the stories would come out differently and each one, I'm sure would contain small surprises. That's the magic of "voice," where each author's individual approach — their attitudes, their personality, their concerns, as well as their style — flavor and build the story differently.  It's like if you handed a dozen different cooks the same ingredients, they'd serve up a dozen different dishes.

Sometimes I admire aspects of other people's writing, and that influences me, but usually in a "must do better" sense, rather than any imitative sense. I think all good writing I read has a subtle influence on my own craft, and has all my reading life.

I get ideas while I'm reading other people's books, too, but usually they bear no relation to what I've just read. Often it's that some scene from my story isn't quite working and reading helps me stop fretting at it. And freed from my pecking at it, the muse throws up the solution. Sometimes it's just the simple realization that I was writing the scene from the wrong person's point of view. Or I'd set it in the wrong place. Or that it's rubbish and needs to be dropped.

Rowlandson-drawing I also admit to being influenced by Georgette Heyer. In a way, I grew up in the regency world she created — I've been reading and rereading her books since I was eleven — and so I cannot help but inhabit my characters in a somewhat similar world. And we have a similar sense of humor.  But I don't try to copy her — in fact I try not to copy her — though I daresay I sometimes unconsciously echo her. I catch myself using phrases in everyday speech that I know I picked up from Heyer. But even if I wanted to imitate Heyer or anyone else –which I don't — I've never been able to stick to a recipe or follow a set of instructions exactly. I've always danced to my own tune. There's no joy in writing, otherwise.

I’m reading all the time, with several books in play all at once – fiction, nonfiction, historical, contemporary, mystery, romance, paranormal, cereal boxes, catalogues – and at the same time I’m writing something of my own. So the question of influence is a good one.  Writers are always reading, absorbing, learning, thinking, and I learn a lot from reading. Yet there are inherent filters in the writing psyche, I think, and if there’s a strong sense of your own voice and story, undue influence isn’t a problem. Personally I can’t read in the same genre in which I’m actively writing, especially if the other book is good – suddenly what I’m doing seems stupid, and that unplugs the writing energy quickly.  So I don’t read much when I’m writing, or else I read something completely different.
But sometimes I want to be influenced by someone’s writing. I’ll haul out something I love, like a Mary Stewart novel or some Dylan Thomas or one of my keepers. Then the creative well fills up a little, and I get inspired and impatient to go off and do my own work, in my own way. 

Writing I’ve been a voracious reader since I first learned the alphabet, and always have a book that I’m engrossed in—sometimes two or three, depending on my mood. Non-fiction, romance, mystery, historical fiction, arcane research . . . you name it, I’ll read it. Am I influenced by all those words? Absolutely! But not in a literal, linear way. The effect of other stories and other styles of writing is hard to define. From some books I get my own quirky ideas of a plot or character, and from others I see ways in which the prose is crafted that help me to see things I’d like to improve in my own writing.

The authors who have influenced me are too numerous to list—Austen, Heyer,
Dorothy Sayers are just a few of the people who have shown me what magic cam be made through the use of words, To transport a reader to a world of the imagination is a wondrous thing, and that’s what makes me passionate about what I do.

For me, creativity is at odds with copying. I want to tell a story in my own way, and with my own vision. For that reason, copying would be no fun at all! As my brain whirs and churns, all sorts of offbeat things get stirred up, and trying to mold them into a coherent story is part of the pleasure and pain of the writing process. I swear, I’ve stuffed so many odd things into my head over the years, I don’t think that I could mimic someone else’s style if I tried.

BookStack2 However, like Joanna, I usually avoid reading romance when I am in the middle of writing one. Not because I am afraid of being influences, but because it makes me squirrelly and doubtful about my own writing. I’ll sit there and whimper, “Oh, that’s SO much better than what I’m putting on paper.” There are enough doubts and fears in bringing a story to life, so I find that it’s too stressful to add another. And while I used to worry about subconsciously picking up a similar plot from some other author, I don’t fret about it so much now. Most plots have been done many times over—it’s the author’s voice and characters that make a story unique. So I try to trust myself that I can give an idea my own special spin.  


Now it's your turn to share. Please tell us a little about how reading has influenced your life.

Reading the Fine Print

CE-avatar Cara/Andrea here,

In that strange synchronicity of thought that sometimes swirls through the ether, it appears that Susan and I both decided to talk about books and why we love them this week. In the spirit of “there can never be too much of a good thing,” I shall, however, stick to my inkly guns, for I intend to a more “hands-on” approach.


LetterpressslugsConsider Susan’s lovely words and pictures on the beauty of a room filled with books as a prologue to my post, so to speak. Her waxing poetic on the look, the feel, the smell and the texture of real books echoes my own elemental affinity for ink and paper.

Now, that said, allow me to give you a little backstory on how those lovely library shelves come to be filled with bibliographic treasures . . .

Gutenberg I love the printed page. For me, it’s the aesthetics—though in truth, much of the subtle nuances have been lost these days in the blur of cheap newsprint and mechanized speed-demon presses that spit out zillions of copies per hour. So what I really mean is, I love the printed page from the centuries when its creation was a labor of love as well as profit.

From the mid 15th century, when Gutenberg set his eponymous Bible in moveable type, to the late 19th century when Ottmar Mergenthaler invented the revolutionary linotype machine, printers were artists of a sort, painstakingly creating each word out of individual letters cast in lead. (Equipped with a typewriter-style keyboard, the linotype machine allowed a typesetter to compose an entire line of text, which was then cast in one piece of metal—thus it’s called “hot type” as opposed to traditional “cold type” where each word is composed of individual lead letters.) A printer’s workshop—the sort of which I speak—was a whole little world unto itself, with its own arcane language and its own quirky traditions.

So now, let’s roll up our sleeves (warning—in printing, you have to be willing to get your hands dirty!) and take a quick primer course on how a “real” printed page is created.

Type 2 These are pieces of type, cast out of lead. They are called "sorts" in printer's lingo—hence the term "out of sorts" because when a printer ran out of type while setting a page, it was not a happy moment. There are hundreds—no, thousands—of different typeface designs, from elegant serifs  to flowery scripts to austere sans serifs. A printer usually tries to match the type to the “feel” of the text. In other words, Lord Byron’s poetry would, to my eye,  look awkward set in Helvetica bold. Once a typeface is chosen, the printer decides on the size of the page, the width of the text, and the size of the actual type. Another variable is leading, which as the name implies, consists of actual strips of lead that are inserted between the lines of type. They range in thickness from a hairline (yes, this is an actual measure) to a wide variety of  “points,” i.e 3 pts. of leading, 6 pts. of leading, etc.

Type-3 What’s a point? I did warn you that printing has its own language and customs. Traditionally, printers use a measuring system based on picas rather than inches. There are roughly 6 picas to an inch, and 12 points to a pica. Type sizes are also measured this way—you are probably all familiar with 12 pt. Times Roman on your computer, right? Well, even in this digital age, points and picas remain the standard for designers and printers. 

As you can imagine, print workshops are filled with cabinets full of leading in a vast array of lengths and widths. They are also filled with drawers of lead “spacers” Em spacers, en spacers, word spacers, hairline spacers . . . okay, you get the point.

Composing-stick Once all these decisions are made, the work begins! A composing stick, which has a moveable locking end that can be adjusted to various widths, is used to hold the letters. The type is set upside down and right to left, so the page can be built on top of itself. (printers develop an uncanny ability for reading this way.) A printer takes his letters from a type case, which holds one size and style of type. Is it arranged alphabetically? Oh no, that would be far too easy. It’s arranged by the frequency of use—the vowels are closest to the center, and range outward, with Zs and Qs toward the outer edges. Again, printers and their assistants—or “monkeys”—must memorize the arcane arrangement, for when a page is finished, the type must be ‘distributed” back to its proper place. And nothing makes a printer curse more than finding the wrong letter in the wrong compartment!


Quoins When the stick is filled, the  lines tied off with a length of twine to keep from spilling helter-skelter, and moved to a composing tray. Once a page is complete, it’s time to go to press. There are a variety of press styles, but let’s stick with a flat bed proofing press. The type, which is all cast to a standard height, is locked into place with wooden “furniture,” which are blocks of wood that are tightened with a printer’s quoin and key. The pressure is key. Too little and the type will wobble under the pressure of the print cylinder, causing a smeared impression, or actually breaking the type. Too much and the type will be squeezed up, with the same results.


Typefaces The printer is now ready for paper . . . oh, don’t get me started on paper! Like typefaces, paper comes in an infinite variety of textures, colors and weights. Plain white? No such thing. There are warm whites (undertones of yellow), cool whites (undertones of blue), pearl whites, cream whites . . .you get the picture. And then there is grain. It’s important to print with the grain going parallel to the binding, otherwise a finished book may warp in a weird way. All paper has a grain, which is determined by the way the paper fibers are aligned during the papermaking process. Take a sheet, curl it up as if you were going to fold it in half (but don’t) and test the pressure against you palm. Do it in both directions. One way will have more resistance than the other. This is ‘going against the grain.” It’s a real no-no to mix  the direction of the grain—pages always be printed with the grain going the same way. If the paper is dampened very slightly, it takes a better impression. But the process is very time-consuming. Today, some artisan printers still follow the tradition, however it is becoming a lost art.

Press1 Now, back to the press . . . a sheet of paper is clipped into place on the cylinder, which rolls over the inked type (on a flat bed press, there are soft gelatin rollers below the paper cylinder, which lay a light layer of ink over the lead.) A printer will adjust the pressure of the paper against the type by adding or subtracting thin sheets of paper, calling packing, beneath the actual printing paper. Connoisseurs of fine printing consider a “perfect” impression is one where you can feel just a ghost of embossing from the lead letters.  Again, too much pressure and the type will look heavy and distorted. Too little pressure and the type will be faint and uneven. And then there is the subject of adding illustration to the text. However that is a whole other can of worms (or block of wood, as the case may be!)

This is, admittedly a very basic explanation of the process. There are many nuances of printing left unsaid, but I hope you begin to see why I consider a printer of real books to be an artist.


KelmscottPress2 I could go on and on and on about the books I consider beautiful. But that would take up far too much space, so I’ll leave you with just a few parting images. Here are two examples that I love from the Kelmscott Press, the magnificent workshop founded by William Morris, a leader of the Arts & Crafts movement in the late 19th century. (top and left) And here is a special treasure from my own library—a handmade book with original etchings by Lance Hidy.  (bottom)

How about you? What do your feel about paper vs. digital? And do you have a favorite “aesthetic” book—one that you love for its look and feel, regardless of the subject matter?


In the Pink with Lauren Willig

Lauren Cara/Andrea here. Today my good friend Lauren Willig has kindly consented to stop by and chat about books and history with us. Lauren is a real Renaissance Woman (and I don’t say that lightly, as you will soon see!) She’s a bestselling author, a historical scholar, a litigation lawyer, and—starting today!—a Instructor at Yale University, where she and I will be teaching a seminar on Historical Romance.

She has a new release coming out tomorrow, the sixth book in her NYT bestselling “Pink Carnation” series, a wonderful, witty set of novels revolving around a group of dashing Napoleonic-era spies (and the delightfully quirky modern grad student who is determined to make history by solving the mystery of their true identities.) So without further ado . . .


Bloodlily CE: Your new book, The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, takes us from your usual settings of England and France to India. What made you decide to set the story there?

LW: Six years ago, two unsuspecting professors hired me as a teaching fellow for a class on the Second British Empire.  At the time, I was working on the first book in the Pink series, which was set in 1803.  I was very struck by the fact that the Battle of Assaye took place that same year.  Hmm, I thought, that would make a good basis for a sequel (because, clearly, history arranged itself that way just for my convenience).  I made a note of it and then promptly forgot about it until two years ago, as I was trying to figure out what was going to happen to my wild child heroine, Penelope Deveraux, constantly in disgrace, constantly pushing the boundaries.  Why not have her push some geographic boundaries as well?  (To be honest, I was getting a little bored with Almack’s Assembly Rooms.  It’s not that I don’t like ratafia, but, well, you know….)

Jasmine In the previous book, The Temptation of the Night Jasmine, Penelope got caught canoodling one time too many and found herself packed off to India to give the scandal of her marriage time to die down.  The Betrayal of the Blood Lily opens with Penelope’s arrival in Calcutta with her ne’er do well husband, Freddy Staines, who has been appointed Special Envoy to the Court of Hyderabad.  Between the Maratha war raging in the north, political complications at the court of Hyderabad, a spy known only as the Marigold, and the fascinating and infuriating presence of one Captain Alex Reid, Penelope has no idea what she’s gotten into….

India-map CE: Were there any special challenges in researching such a different world?

 LW: This is the first time I’ve researched a book where I don’t speak the key languages and where I haven’t been able to personally visit the site of the story.  For all my previous books, I’ve done on the ground primary source research.  Due to the timing of monsoon season and my own linguistic limitations, that was barred to me.  On the other hand, this wound up working rather well.  The story I was telling is seen through the eyes of an Englishwoman recently arrived in India.  Since I can’t speak Farsi, Urdu, or Hindi, the documents that were available to me were the journals, memoirs and travel narratives of those Englishmen and woman who lived there during the period, who would have had experiences similar to those of my heroine.  For Penelope’s viewpoint, what I needed to find wasn’t the reality of Indian culture at the time, but Indian culture as an English visitor would have perceived it.  I relied heavily on journals, such as that of Maria Graham, who traveled through India in 1809.  Her reactions provided an excellent guide for Penelope’s.  Likewise, my other viewpoint character, my hero, is an Englishman raised in India, sent off to be educated in England, and then returned to England to work in East India Company’s arm and then diplomatic corps.  For him, I had the memoirs of James Skinner and the correspondence of men like James Kirkpatrick, Resident of Hyderabad, who were similarly situated between two worlds.  I was also fortunate in having very detailed secondary works about the interactions between British and Indian culture at my disposal, most notably William Dalrymple’s White Moghuls and Maya Jasanoff’s Edge of Empire.

Shivaji_and_Marathas CE: Were there any historical discoveries that surprised you?

LW: I was also amazed to discover that there was, in fact, an active French presence in India at the time.  French generals throughout India planted liberty trees, led troops into battle under the tricolore, and cooked up elaborate schemes to unite the French forces in India against the British so that the French influence might reign supreme in the East.  In 1802, General Perron, in the nominal employ of the Maratha chieftan, Scindia, went so far as to write Bonaparte for French troops to deploy against the British.  He got them, too, a whole boatload of them, although they were sent packing before they reached their destination.  Lord Wellesley, the Governor-General (Arthur Wellesley’s older brother) used the French threat as part of his rationale for incursions against local rulers, radically expanding the scope of British oversight in India, which, until then, had been largely limited to the three Presidency towns: Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay.  Although I did know that the Duke of Wellington had begun his career soldiering in Ind
ia, I had never realized before that the Napoleonic Wars had been instrumental in the creation of the Raj.

Sikandar_Jah_Nizam_III CE: Did you meet any new (or not so new) historical figures who tickled your fancy?

LW: Oh, goodness, where to begin?  This book bristles with characters who would be impossible to believe if they weren’t true.  Among others, there’s the Begum Sumroo, a former dancing girl who rose to be ruler of her own principality.  She led her own troops into battle and continued to exert her fascination over men well into her declining years.  At the court of Hyderabad, where the bulk of the story takes place, we meet the mad young ruler, Sikunder Jah, who entertained himself by strangling his concubines with silk handkerchiefs; the courtesan, Mah Laqa Bai, who was considered one of the foremost poets of her day, and so renowned for her wisdom that she was awarded a seat on the ruler’s council of advisors; Mir Alam, a Machiavellian prime minister, once buddy buddy with Wellesley, but now slowly rotting away with leprosy and intent on revenge; and an English resident (basically ambassador), James Kirkpatrick, who had “gone native”, secretly contracting a marriage with a Hyderabadi noblewoman, a fact that pleased neither the Hyderabadi court nor Lord Wellesley, who launched an extremely detailed investigation into the love affair.  All of them play large roles in the book.  You just can’t make this stuff up. 


Charles_II_of_England CE: Speaking of research, you have an amazingly impressive academic background. Tell us a little about what attracted you to study history?

LW: My father is a lapsed historian, so I grew up on bedtime stories about Eleanor of Aquitaine and Sunday afternoons watching old Errol Flynn swashbucklers—with the appropriate scholarly interpolations, of course.  I quickly graduated to historical romance novels and the fat, historical epics so popular in the mid-80’s.  I longed to sweep through the corridors of Whitehall with Elizabeth I, to indulge in conspiracies to save King Charles from the scaffold, to whap importunate gentlemen on the wrist with my fan at the court of George II.  In short, I wanted to live in any century but the one I inhabited.  Leg warmers were just so… unromantic.  I wanted to bring these worlds that I loved so much to life—and what better way to do that than to write historical fiction? 

As an undergraduate at Yale, I majored in Renaissance Studies, on the theory that immersion in the history, art history, literature and political philosophy of a culture was the best training for writing about it.  But I still didn’t feel quite steeped in history enough, so off I toddled to the Harvard history department to pursue a PhD in English history, on the theory that graduate school would truly prepare me to write Absolutely Accurate historical fiction.  It didn’t work out quite that way (I made the disillusioning discovery in grad school that, if historians agree on anything, it’s that there’s no such thing as Absolutely Accurate anything), but it was certainly an interesting journey….  

Caroline_of_Anspach CE: You write wonderfully entertaining books set in the Regency era. However your expertise is in other periods as well. Give us an idea of what other eras appeal to you.

LW: If I had to pick a century to live in, it wouldn’t be the Regency, much as I love it (sorry, folks).  My scholarly work was in the seventeenth century, my books are set in the early nineteenth, but, at heart, I’m an eighteenth century kind of girl.  I particularly love the early eighteenth century, amid all the intrigue directly before and immediately following the Hanoverian succession, as politicians conduct vigorous debates in the new coffeehouses, dissolute rakes form Hellfire Clubs, Alexander Pope writes his Rape of the Lock, Jacobite pretenders hatch conspiracies, fortunes rise and plummet in stock market bubbles, and clever women swish about court in wide-skirted gowns, directing policy behind the leaves of their fans.  It’s a rich, tumultuous, bawdy period, with so much going on in politics, in literature, in philosophy.  Not to mention that I’ve always wanted to be best buddies with Caroline of Ansbach, wife of George II, who is one of my absolute favorite historical characters.  You know you’re a history nerd when….

CE: Any plans to write in those time periods?

LW: My undergrad work was primarily on mid-sixteenth century Scotland (I wrote my senior thesis on the Queen-Regent, Marie de Guise, mother of Mary, Queen of Scots), and that’s an area I’ve always planned to revisit.  I still find Marie de Guise a fascinating and canny character, and, having spent some time living in Edinburgh, I’d love to go back.  My doctoral work is on the English Civil Wars, which is another period I’d like to write about some day.  Talk about swashbuckling and deeds of daring-do!  Um, and, yes, I do have rather a crush on Charles II, so the Restoration is also on the agenda for a book one of these days.  Part of the problem, though, is that I’m still too close to all of those periods academically, so it’s hard for me to get away from the footnotes and let the characters take over. 

CE: Is that doctoral dissertation on your list of future writing projects. What is it about?

LW: My dissertation, grandly titled, “Give Caesar his Due: Royalist Conspiracies during the English Civil Wars, 1646-1649” tracked the machinations of the displaced partisans of King Charles following his imprisonment in 1646 up through his decapitation in January of 1649.  I do seem to have a thing about Royalist spies, whether they’re wearing knee breeches or plumed hats.  There’s just something about men in cloaks and spurs clustered in the back room of a tavern, raising their tankards in a clandestine toast, “For the King!” 


Writing CE: In addition to your Masters degree and dissertation work, you also have a law degree from Harvard—any similarities between law and creative writing? (she asks with an evil smile.)

LW: My first week at the firm, the partner for whom I was working (I was in the litigation department) sat me down and said, “We write stories; you write stories; now you will write stories for us.”  I’m not sure I’d quite agree with that—there was a lot less dialogue in my briefs than in my books—but there are some surprising overlaps between practicing law and writing historical fiction.  A lot of what goes into writing a brief is historical reconstruction, going through piles of documents, taking limited pieces of evidence, and trying to spin them into a convincing and persuasive story.  That’s just what we do when we write historical fiction.  We’re reconstructing a narrative from limited sources.  It’s also all about persuasion, about pulling the reader in and drawing her along with you.  In both cases, if you strike a false note and lose the reader’s trust, it’s all over.  The nice thing about writing fiction?  No more Westlaw! 

CE: I think all of us who write face the difficult task of balancing all our different roles in life and figuring out how to manage our time. Obviously, you’ve been tremendously successful in that department. Any hints you can give us?

LW: Time management is one of those things I still wrestle with, but I think what it comes down to in the end is being aware of your own work patterns.  When I started at the law firm, people gave me all sorts of earnest and well-meaning advice about waking up early every morning and writing for two hours a day.  Two problems: (1) my brain refuses to kick in until sometime after noon, and (2) I am incapable of writing in two hour chunks.  I made myself miserable for about a month, wrote the worst prose I’ve ever produced (and, yes, that includes the imitation Barbara Taylor Bradford novel I tried to write in eleventh grade) and then came to the blinding realization that, hey, I’m a fits-and-starts writer; I’ve always been a fits-and-starts writer.  Therefore, I was better off giving up on the two hour a day plan and locking myself up at home on weekends when I could write for forty-eight hours straight.  Learning how you work most productively and finding creative ways to implement that around your other obligations—without beating yourself up about what you could, would, should be doing—is about fifty per cent of the battle.

Hyderabad_india_ CE: At the RWA Conference last summer, you gave a great talk about making historical stories come to life. One of the things you mentioned was how an author can take advantage of all the specialized knowledge out there without becoming a doctoral candidate. We have a lot of readers who are just embarking on writing careers, so it would be great if you would offer some of you “inside tips.”

LW: Thank you!  There are a wealth of resources out there for writers of historical fiction, all the more so now because of the advent of the internet.  My favorite way of getting into a time period is to start with biographies.  That way, you get an individual eye’s view of life at the time—and you can shamelessly follow up on that biographer’s footnotes to work your way back to secondary sources about the period as well as contemporary diaries, journals, and letters, many of which (depending on the time period in which you’re working) are available in print form and can be accessed on-line, purchased through a used bookseller, or ordered through inter-library loan.  While we’re still on books, it’s also useful to have a shelf of quick references next to the computer (or, if you prefer websites, bookmarked on your browser).  My go-to guides vary for each book, but my standard next-to-the-desk texts for quick reference are The Oxford Dictionary of British History, The Companion to 18th Century Britain, The Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars, and several books of historical maps, uniforms, and costume.

Museums, historic houses, and antique shops are a wonderful way of getting a sense of what your world would have looked like.  If you can visit in person, so much the better, but if you can’t make it there, many have photos from their collections on-line, or glossy catalogues that often seem to turn up nicely discounted at used bookstores.  There are also, I’ve discovered, societies for just about anything.  When I needed information of seventeenth century freemasons for my dissertation, I contacted a group that specializes in research on the freemasons.  They sent me back a five page long essay on the topic.  Not everyone will be quite so generous with their time, but I’ve found professors, specialist societies, other authors, and museum curators are extremely kind in sharing their expertise if emailed and asked nicely.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  All that being said, it’s also important to remember that we write fiction.  At some point, tempting as it is to track down just that one last detail, you have to press the “off” button on the research, sit down with that empty Word file, and just write.

CE: Your heroine Eloise has some very funny encounters in archives. Are there any humorous (or embarrassing, heh, heh, heh) real-life research incidents that have happened to you . .  . er, ones that you will share, that is.

LW: You mean other than spending forty-five minutes trying to figure out how to use the water cooler in the cafeteria of the Public Records Office?  Oh, embarrassment.  I did have some great moments, including getting hopelessly lost on the campus of the University of Nottingham, where I had been locked in the library all day with a seventeenth century journal.  Blundering around in the dark, looking for the bus stop (which was, of course, entirely in the opposite direction) I cleverly managed to lose my footing and roll down a hill.  The fact that I was wearing three inch heels and had somehow contrived to wander off the path onto a steep incline covered with wet and slippery leaves might have had something to do with it.  Fortunately, no one saw.  Or, if they did, I’ve blotted it out of my memory. 

Thanks so much, Word Wenches, for having me over!  It’s been a great pleasure to chat with you.

Note: Lauren has kindly consented to give away a copy of her new book to one lucky person who leaves a comment here between now and Wednesday.

The times, they are a’changin’


Pat here:

I’m writing this in the week prior to Thanksgiving so I may enjoy next week with my family. Given all the uproar and hysteria in the romance world this week, I’m expecting to return to an industry in complete disarray. Or perhaps over the next ten days, all publishing will decide to pull up roots and move to Nashville. Or everything will have settled back to normal. So I’ll refrain from commenting upon the gossip flying about and wait to see the results.  Cornucopia (photos of disarray are limited, so this is as close as I can get to fruit basket upset…)

But I will use the lesson of Change for today’s ramble. The world changes every day. We can’t stop it or we would stagnate and all life would die.  If people didn’t change, they’d never learn lessons, never grow, and from my perspective, if nothing changed, the future would look mighty bleak because this world is far from perfect. Admittedly, a lot of change happening quickly can be terrifying, but technology has a habit of creating change, for better or worse, so we may as well get used to it.

Couch It would take a doctoral thesis to relate how the changes of history have brought us out of caves into today’s world, but I’m not much interested in earning a PhD. What set off this train of thought was a book I recently finished reading.  I’d been looking forward to this story because it has all the wonderful topics I enjoy—ghosts and restoring lovely old houses and secrets hidden in the past. I was prepared to curl up in my chair before the fire and spend hours wallowing in delight.

Instead, I almost ended up heaving the book in the fire because the protagonist never changed. Never. Ever. She lived in a state of complete denial for three hundred wretched pages. She wasn’t that wonderful a person to start with, but I’m ready to accept flawed characters who grow and change and take their lessons gracefully. But this one never had an opportunity because she never asked questions. How can you have a mystery without asking questions? It’s insane! Is it possible to walk through life Denial never questioning why? Just accepting that this is how it is and moving on?  Denying the evidence before one’s eyes and believing what others tell you instead?  What kind of dense, thickheaded idiot is that? And even if the character has reason to live in denial, what is the point of writing a book about someone who never grows out of a major flaw? The mystery solved itself, whoopee. Or maybe the ghosts solved the mystery, because this protagonist was too thick to think for herself. By the end, I didn’t care.

Have you ever looked forward to a book and suffered immense disappointment? Go ahead, rant away. I just did. Can you enlighten us and tell why you were disappointed?

And I would relate this to the uproar about vanity press and self-publishing that’s currently searing the internet, but I’m a little afraid the subject is too immense to tackle. How will we find good books in the future if everyone publishes everything on their own? Scary change.