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 . . .
BEYOND THE BALLROOM—EXOTIC INDIA
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….)
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….
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.
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.
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.
A HISTORY HOYDEN
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….
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!”
THE JOB OF 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.
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.