Anne here. Today I am delighted to present Carla Kelly, a beloved, award-winning and bestselling author of fine historical romance, as well as non-fiction and journalism. Carla has won the Romantic Times Career Achievement award, has twice won Romance Writers of America RITA award, and her readers regularly vote her books into top position in readers polls of favorite or beloved books. She's published nineteen (?) Regency novels, and many novellas. She has also published a collection of short stories set in the American Frontier, and has worked on historical non-fiction as well as working as a journalist. Carla, welcome to WordWenches.
Carla: Gee, when you mentioned 19 novels, I had to look me up on Wikipedia (who put this entry in, I have no idea. My sisters deny any culpability, and I trust them). Here’s the butcher’s bill:
18 novels, plus two coming out in 2010: the third sister’s story in my Channel Fleet trilogy, out June 2010; a 4th novel just finished.
One anthology – Here’s to the Ladies: Stories of the Frontier Army – which is a collection of my Indian Wars short stories. TCU Press. This remains my personal favorite work.
11 Regency short stories, most of them Christmas stories.
1 edited fur trade 1851 journal: On the Upper Missouri, by Oklahoma Press
Several history monographs.
Too many to count: news articles, feature articles and columns for the Valley City Times Record, written between 2005-2009.
H’mm. This list wears me out. I think I’ll go lie down.
Anne: It's an impressive list. After many years at Signet, with the demise of the traditional regency, many people mourned what they thought would be the end of Carla Kelly books. I was delighted to see you'd moved to Harlequin Historicals, which then went through a turbulent period itself, though it settled down. Did this change the way you approach your writing at all?
Carla: It’s made me more cynical about writing fiction. I just went through a real kerfluffle over an editor, which I think ended well for me. I’m now with the London office. Time will tell. On the other hand, I write the way I always do. Once I’m writing, I’m happy as if I had good sense.
Anne: Your novellas are much loved, especially your Christmas stories. You have one in the anthology, A Regency Christmas that's out now. Could you tell us about your story?
Carla: Oh, it’s the classic dilemma of a Navy man who has been at war almost since he received a commission: What do you do when – horrors – peace breaks out? Our hero has some lives to check in on, which he was given to watch over by a dying shipmate. Since it is a Christmas story and I gave it the perfect, most apropos title, “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks.” My former editor vetoed the title, so we went with “Christmas Promise.” (Also, A Christmas Promise owes a tip of the hat to Cyrano de Bergerac)
Anne: It sounds fascinating – the Cyrano reference is intriguing. I have my copy on order; it's presumably somewhere over the ocean. I'm often overruled on the matter of titles, also.
Carla, one of the unique features of your books is that you often don't write about the aristocracy, but about relatively ordinary men and women existing in a period of great change. What appeals to you about this period and type of character?
Carla: As Abraham Lincoln so wisely pointed out, “The Lord must have loved the poor, because he made so many of them.” I’m an ordinary person, and I understand ordinary people. That’s why I write about them. Besides, am I the only author who thinks it’s a tad ridiculous to find dukes, earls, viscounts, and baronets under every bush? I mean, really. Also, I’m forever getting titles mixed up. Eliminating them from the mix makes my life easier.
Writing about times of great change works for me. Was it Confucius who said, “May you be cursed to live in interesting times.”? This is greatly simplified, I realize, but to me, the best stories are those where someone has been handed a mess, and that person has to get out of the mess he/she is in. (Well, you can tell from that illustration that I was not an English major.) But isn’t it true? From Hamlet to The Time Traveler’s Wife, we’re handed a mess, and the story is how we deal with it.
Anne: I like tossing my characters into a mess, too. One of the compelling features of your stories is the way your characters grow and change along the way. Which of your characters had the hardest row to hoe, do you think? Which was the most satisfying to write?
Carla: Characters grow and change because real people do (or should). I think Dr. Pierce in “Casually at Post” (the Indian Wars anthology) grew and changed. He was also enormously fun to write. So was Admiral Bright, in the novel I just completed. He had to change or lose his dear wife. Probably the woman with the hardest row to hoe was the heroine in “One Good Turn.” She had a tough life, but it was true to the period. My favorite man was Surgeon Philemon Brittle in The Surgeon’s Lady: a brilliant surgeon, low class, and wit
h arrogance that gets him in trouble, now and then. We get to see a good, talented man struggle, because no matter how brilliant, he's the grandson of a pig farmer.
What appeals to me about characters is how people can take a mess that is handed to them, and work through it with diligence and grace. I see it done all the time in real life, and that’s why I write about it. Art should mirror life, or we don’t learn much, as readers.
Anne: You have a master’s degree in military history and your characters are often in the military. What draws you to military matters?
Carla: My dad was a naval officer (naval avionics, three wars), and I grew up on or around Navy bases in the U.S. and overseas. My first job as a seasonal park ranger was at Fort Laramie National Historic Site, which started me on a lifelong study of the Indian Wars. I like military matters because the best officers and enlisted men are frank, efficient, reliable and do not engage in overmuch bullshit. I like people like that, men and women.
Anne: I believe you are a historical free-lance guide in North Dakota. What do you enjoy about bringing history to life for modern audiences? Any disasters?
Carla: Historical freelance guide; I'm not familiar with that term. I’ve been a park ranger twice with the National Park Service, if that’s what you mean. I love sharing history with people who are truly interested. Hopefully, even some of my students on the university level caught some of that passion, too, when I taught them.
Disasters? Oh yes. I remember slogging in rain and sleet with the chief ranger to locate some Indians in one of the tipis just north of Fort Union Trading Post NHS. We were co-chairing a fur trade symposium, and we had to make sure the guys were there. The weather was simple awful. We found them, and all was well in the tipi. I was wet and muddy.
My personal favorite high-larious moment was when one visitor tried to convince a fellow ranger, Loren Yellow Bird (Arikara), that the Arikara were extinct. What made this such a side-splitter was that Loren and Marla were expecting triplets, and had two older boys. They’ve since added an adopted daughter to the mix. Gee, I love that super family. I think that tourist went away convinced that he was right, and that the Arikara are extinct. Tourists. You gotta love them. Their taxes help keep the lights on in America's historic treasures.
My favorite moment at Fort Union was when I asked a little boy which of the animal furs he had stroked in the visitor center was his favorite (We had a hands-on display of many types of fur and pelts.) “I liked the gorilla,” he told me. His dad just cracked up. I told the little guy that I think he meant the bison robe…
I could go on. Lots of favorite experiences. At Fort Laramie, it was telling an African American family about the stellar record of the Buffalo Soldiers, most of them former slaves, who served splendidly in the 19th century frontier army. Also at Fort Laramie, it was helping a blind woman “feel” my 19th century kitchen.
Anne: It sounds wonderful. Are there periods and settings you would love to write, but don't because of editorial preferences? Is there a book of the heart waiting to be written?
Carla: I currently have an Indian Wars novel, and a novel set in Spanish Florida – plus the usual regency – in front of my editors. Wish me luck. I’m right now finishing a novel for a Mormon audience which is set in SE Wyoming in 1911. Anyone would like the book, but it does have an LDS (Latter Day Saints) theme. I’m also tinkering with a fun idea for a mystery series about a juez de campo in South Texas in 1700s.
Anne: What books are coming up in the future?
Carla: See above. That's a proposed Regency set in England and Scotland during the darkest days of the War of 1812. I’m also planning a biography of an Indian Wars officer, Capt. Guy Henry, of the Third Cavalry. And that juez de campo (a gov’t employee who investigates cattle rustling, theft and burglary) keeps popping up. There never seems to be a drought of ideas.
You probably get this, too, Anne. People are forever asking, “How do you think up characters and ideas?” I’m always at a loss to explain it. I just, well, do it. So do you. Do any of you have any responses that might satisfy the interrogator?
Anne: Since I was a child I've had characters and stories happening in my head. All kinds of things can make a story sprout. I usually tell people I pick up story ideas like black clothes pick up fluff. Thanks so much, Carla, for joining us. It's been lovely.
Carla: Thanks. This was fun.
Let's chat — you're invited to share your thoughts on any aspect of this interview. So, have you ever been to a historical park? Tell us about it. Or do you have a favorite Carla Kelly book?
One commenter will receive a Carla Kelly book.