My Novel on the Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope

Tomorrow, The Diamond of London, my first foray into historical fiction, will release. And while creating a book is always a journey, this endeavor was particularly interesting one.

When my editor and I first began discussing the idea of a fictional biography on Lady Hester Stanhope, I had some reservations. A fictional biography? That seemed like such an oxymoron, and coming from the world of fiction, where I could happily scribble away, making things up as I went along, the thought of trying to piece together Truth and Imagination in one story seemed a little daunting . . .

Lady Hester Stanhope

And then there was Lady Hester Stanhope herself. I’ve written a number of books set in Regency England, so I’m fairly knowledgeable about the history and notable people of the era. Her name was familiar to me, but only for the later part of her life, when she was the most famous—and eccentric—adventurer of the early nineteenth century. From what little I had read, Lady Hester was considered opinionated, abrasive, headstrong, and emotionally unstable. That certainly gave me pause for thought. To write a book about her meant that the two of us would be spending a lot of time together. What if we didn’t get along?

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The Backstory as an Integral Part of a Novel

Andrea here, musing today about backstories. Now, as a fiction writer, I consider backstories an integral part of the writing process for my characters. I try to imagine basic things about them—vulnerabilities, issues from the past, surprise revelations about quirks or talents—that I can reveal to readers. It’s especially fun if the characters are part of an ongoing series, where I can slowly unpeel layers—like with an onion!—to show the hidden depths.

But in my upcoming book, THE DIAMOND OF LONDON, the idea of backstory takes a  little different twist. In this book I delve into a new genre of historical fiction and have penned a fictional biography. Yes, I know, that sounds like an oxymoron, and at first I wasn’t sure whether I felt comfortable taking it on. My publisher wanted to bring to life the stories of remarkable women in history whose achievements have been hidden for too long in the shadows of traditional historical narratives. I loved the idea so I decided to do delve into the challenge and see if I picture a way to combine fact and fiction, as I would be imagining my subject’s thoughts and feelings.

I chose Lady Hester Stanhope (above) as a possible subject. I knew a bit about her later life as one of the early 19th century’s most famous adventurer. She excavated ruins in the Levant, raised her own private army and brokered power-sharing with the warlords of the region, wore men’s clothing and rode astride . . . in other words, she said “convention be damned—I’m going to live exactly as I please!”

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History—and Heroes!

Lieutenant-general-sir-john-moore-allied-commanders-of-the-napoleonic-war-by-john-romneyAndrea here. As I’ve mentioned here before, along with my Wrexford & Sloane historical mystery series, I’m working on a new book project in a new-to-me genre within historical fiction— a biography “reimagining” the life of Lady Hester Stanhope, an extraordinary real-life woman from the Regency era.

I Engraving of Mooren other words, it’s a book that meant to stay accurate to her real life and personality, but requires an author’s imagination to create the story and dialogue that will make her come alive for readers. It’s been a fascinating challenge. I’ve done a lot of research, which I love, and am lucky that Lady Hester was a member of a very prominent family, so many of her letters have been saved, which give special window into her thoughts and feelings.

But I’m digressing from the main topic of this blog, which is how these deep-dive research forays, where one reads as much as possible about a person’s life can become “personal” in very unexpected ways. I have a confession to make! In looking at the three men who were Lady Hester’s love interests, I have come to have a “crush” on one of them— Lieutenant-General Sir John Moore

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Bringing Historical Women to Life

Lady Hester StanhopeAndrea here, musing on starting a new book project. I’m excited—and also a little nervous—because it’s a new genre. Now, writing never gets easier, but the genres of romance and mystery are a familiar landscape. And I while I always try try to find new path through the nuances with each book, the landmarks are familiar—I have a mental map and feel pretty confident of navigating my way from start to finish.

This new project takes me into historical fiction, and more specifically into a emerging sub-genre of fictional biographies inspired by remarkable women of the past who for too long have had their accomplishments hidden in the shadows of traditional narratives. I’ve occasionally mentioned in my previous blogs how exciting it is to me that so many hidden stories are emerging to broaden and enrich our understanding of the past. So many people and events that didn’t fit into a narrow view of what was deemed “important” or “true” are now getting the acknowledgment they deserve.

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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.
     Alone."

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!