Celebrating BENEATH A SILENT MOON: An Interview with Tracy Grant
The task had taken shape thanks to the end of a war and the inconvenient way secrets had of bubbling to the surface. It went without saying that it was going to be difficult. But then murder always was…
London, 1817: Beneath a silent moon, a stranger steals into London, bound to complete a grim task that began in the shadows of the past….
On that same evening, amid the splendor of Glenister House, London’s haut ton celebrates, still flush with victory in the Napoleonic Wars. Among the revelers are Mélanie and Charles Fraser–he, a former spy connected to the most powerful families in Britain and she, his exquisite bride, who has charmed all of society.
That night, stunning revelations pull the couple back into the world of intrigue they thought they’d escaped, forcing them to untangle a web of lies that spans generations and threatens the fate of nations. But the truth is a deadly weapon that could lead to scandal, tragedy, and murder.
An assassination, a secret society, and the dangerous liasions of Charles’s own family lead the Frasers from the lamplit streets of the city to a castle on the Scottish coast. The stakes of this game are the lives of those Charles holds most dear and the trust of the enigmatic woman with whom he shares his name–and his bed.
“Plot twists, complex characters, and an exquisitely researched historical setting — who could ask for anything more?” — Lauren Willig, author of The Seduction of the Crimson Rose
What sparked this book? Was it a character? An historical event? A scene you just couldn't get out of your head?
Writing SECRETS OF A LADY (originally published as DAUGHTER OF THE GAME), I knew I wanted to write a series about Charles and Mélanie and the other characters. But I realized that I wanted to write a book in which I could explore the Fraser family further, particularly Charles's relationship with his father, Kenneth Fraser, and his sister, Gisèle (who are mentioned in SECRETS OF A LADY but don't appear). Kenneth Fraser dies before SECRETS begins, so that meant going back in time and writing a prequel, which would also allow me to set up some things I wanted in place as I moved forward in the series. I also liked the idea of being able to explore the early years of Charles and Mélanie's marriage, particularly Mélanie's adjustment to life as a political wife in the world of Britain's haut ton. From the very early stages of plotting the book, I had the final scene (which is an homage to the final scene of Dorothy Sayers' s BUSMAN'S HONEYMOON) in mind. I was then nervous about actually writing the scene, afraid it wouldn't live up to my expectations. I put it off through several drafts. Finally I wrote it in one sitting, late one night. It changed very little from that version. I think it's my favorite scene in any book I've written to date.
As always with my books, the historical context in which my characters would have lived deeply influenced the creation of the story. I knew that the tumultuous marriage of Charles's parents would have begun in the late eighteenth century, the era of LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES. The world of Mozart operas such as Così fan tutte, where best friends try to seduce each other’s fiancées for a bet, Don Giovanni with his endless list of conquests, Count Almaviva, quick to turn his eye from the wife he was so eager to marry in favor of the girl who is betrothed to his loyal valet. The world of Fragonard paintings in which carnality pulses just beneath a spun-sugar surface. A world in which marriage is to cement alliances and produce heirs, seduction is a sport, and love is a game. A historical world exemplified by the historical Devonshire House set. For BENEATH A SILENT MOON, I invented the Glenister House set, equally known for their free-wheeling sexuality (as the Marquis of Glenister's young ward Evie Mortimer says in the book, "When I first came to Glenister House, I'd hear the gossip and the whispers. I'd try to sort out the entanglements in the Glenister House set, who was sharing whose bed. It was years before I realized it didn't matter. Sooner or later everyone slept with everyone else.").
This is the world of Kenneth Fraser and his friend Lord Glenister and Charles's aunt, Lady Frances. Charles, Mélanie, Gisèle, Evie, and the rest of the younger generation in the book came of age in the era of Jane Austen’s novels, in which, for all their irony, love is real and can last. Of the romantic landscapes of Turner and Constable, of the vibrant emotion and daring innovation of Beethoven (whose one opera celebrates conjugal love). Romantic games were still a favorite pastime of the beau monde, but the games were played more subtly, with love holding greater weight in the equation. I loved exploring the contrast between the two generations and their attitudes toward romance and sex and marriage. Passion isn't the same as love or intimacy, as Charles knows to his cost, having grown up in the world of the Glenister House set, in which marriage is to cement alliances and produce heirs, love is a game, and seduction a sport. He can't define what lies between him and the woman he married out of honor and necessity. As he thinks at one point, "How poorly demarcated was the line between want and need, between lust and tenderness, between giving a lover pleasure and using her for it. When did desire become manipulation and honesty give way to deceit?"
In addition to Charles and Mélanie struggling with the elusive emotional truth at the heart of their marriage, BENEATH A SILENT MOON has several other pairs of lovers. Confused, young love, illicit love, a governess who may be undone by her inability to live without passion, two men who are more faithful to each other than most married couples in their set, save that one is being pressured to marry and produce an heir. Though like all my Charles and Mélanie books, BENEATH A SILENT MOON is a spy story with lots adventure and intrigue, at the thematic core of the book are a variety of romantic and sexual entanglements, and how they play out against the manners and mores of Regency society. Or, as my friend and critique partner Penelope Williamson put it, it's "all about sex." J
BENEATH A SILENT MOON takes place before the revelations of SECRETS OF A LADY. Was it difficult to write the book without revealing those secrets, particularly when it comes to Mélanie?
One of the things I liked about writing a prequel for the second book in the series is that neither of the first two books has major spoilers for the other. This lets the reader find the series through either book. I wanted the books to work read in either order, and I think they do (though I think the effect is subtly different depending on the order in which one reads them--I love hearing reactions from readers who've read them in one order versus the other). It was a bit of a challenge in BENEATH A SILENT MOON to write from Mélanie's point of view and be honest but not spoil revelations in SECRETS OF A LADY. But it was a fun challenge. I do think she comes across a bit differently in BENEATH A SILENT MOON if one has already read SECRETS OF A LADY. But I also think there are things one learns about Charles in BENEATH that enhance one's reading of him in SECRETS.
What changes did you make for the new edition of BENEATH A SILENT MOON?
As with SECRETS OF A LADY, I did a light edit of the whole book (it's such a treat to be able to go back and tweak things!). I wrote a new epilogue and a series of letters between the characters for the A+ extras section. But while with SECRETS OF A LADY, I wrote letters that fleshed out the back story, for BENEATH A SILENT MOON I wrote letters that deal with what happens after the end of the book. Which meant I had to figure out for myself precisely how events did play out. I knew in broad brush strokes, but I hadn't worked out the details of how and where and when. Some frantic emails to my writer friends ensued, with questions like "where would Charles go first?" "how would Mélanie react to that?" "how on earth would they explain this?" Barbara Freethy, Candice Hern, Monica McCarty, and Penny Williamson were as always wonderful in helping me sort it out.
Even though I've been writing books set in the Regency for twenty years, there are always new things for each book. BENEATH A SILENT MOON begins in London, but then moves to Scotland. I went to Scotland when I was starting to work on the book, which was fabulous. My good friend and critique partner Penny Williamson went with me, and we had a great time "location scouting." I based Dunmykel, the Fraser family house in the book, primarily on two castle we visited, Drum Castle and Dunrobin Castle. The Griffin & Dragon in Dunmykel village is based on the George in Inveraray. (There are a lot of pictures of locations we found on the trip in the Gallery section of my website). I set the book at the time of year we were there (late June-early July) so I was able to take notes on things like the weather and when the sun and moon rose and set. Penny and I dreamed up the name Dunmykel one night over dinner in a lovely country house hotel (inspired, I think, by the excellent whisky J).
I also did research into the Hellfire Clubs in order to invent my fictional Elsinore League. Even though BENEATH A SILENT MOON is set in 1817, the secrets uncovered in the course of the story go back to the French Revolution, which led to me to research the rebellion in the Vendée, a particularly bloody episode in the Revolution.
And because Mélanie and Charles's daughter Jessica is a baby in the book, I had to figure out how Mélanie would cope with many of the challenges faced by any working mother of an infant. I kept having to keep track of how long it had been since she had nursed Jessica. I learned about book nursing bodices and breast exhausters (breast pumps).
BENEATH A SILENT MOON is set in 1817. Is there a particular reason you chose that year?
The year came from the chronology I'd worked out for Mélanie and Charles. But it's very important that the story is set fairly soon after the Battle of Waterloo. Long enough after for the political chessboard to have re-formed, but not long enough for the players to have adjusted to the new positions in which they find themselves. Charles and Mélanie and a couple of other characters have all been intelligence agents during the war, and they're all adjusting to what to do with themselves in peace time. It's a time when many of the leaders of the countries victorious at Waterloo see stifling dissent and reform and preserving the status quo as the best guarantee of stability. In France, now governed by the restored Bourbon monarchy, the zeal of the Ultra Royalists has led to the White Terror in which scores of Republicans and Bonapartists are imprisoned or executed. And then there's the industrial unrest in Britain in 1817 that you (Pam Rosenthal, who was nice enough to do this interview with me) wrote about so well in THE SLIGHTEST PROVOCATION. All of which made 1817 a good year in which to set the book.
Can you talk a little about your trajectory as a writer --you've gone from traditional Regencies to historicals to historicals with political and whodunit elements, or have I gotten that quite right?
Yes, that's a very good description of course of my writing career! I started out co-writing traditional Regencies with my mom as Anthea Malcolm. Our first book was a romantic comedy centered round the London season, with lots of Almack's and shopping and balls and ices at Gunter's. But it had a subplot involving blackmail over a Parliamentary vote, so even then we were including political intrigue. And even with the London season setting, it had some scenes set in the darker side of Regency London.
Our books had more and more suspense an intrigue as we went on and the tone of the books got darker (one was an actual murder mystery, one had tormented ex-lovers and intrigue over the East India Company’s charter). Eventually we wrote an historical romance (under the name Anna Grant), DARK ANGEL, set during the Peninsular War, with an intrigue and adventure driven plot. After my mom died, I wrote three more Regency-set historical romances on my own, under my own name. I put more and more intrigue and historical details and events into the books (one centers round the Battle of Waterloo). I had a lamentable tendency to lose focus on the romance. Finally I realized what I really wanted to write was historical suspense fiction, still including love stories but with room for lots of political intrigue and suspense and historical detail and texture. That's when I began the Charles & Mélanie series with SECRETS OF A LADY (originally DAUGHTER OF THE GAME) and then BENEATH A SILENT MOON.
So essentially, my books have always contained the same elements--political intrigue, suspense, romance, a glimpse into the darker side of the Regency. But the balance of the elements has shifted.
What are you planning to work on next?
I have the third Charles and Melanie book, THE MASK OF NIGHT, finished, and I'm working on the fourth. THE MASK OF NIGHT picks up on some threads from BENEATH A SILENT MOON. David and Simon play an important role, and Mélanie and Charles learn more about the Elsinore League It begins in early January 1820, about two months after the end of SECRETS OF A LADY. Their marriage still fragile in the wake of recent revelations, Charles and Mélanie attend a Twelfth Night masquerade ball at the home of their friends Oliver and Isobel Lydgate. A masked man is found stabbed to death, floating in the garden fountain. No one seems to know who he is or what he was doing at the ball. But the Foreign Secretary and the Chief of Intelligence know more than they let on and pressure Charles to investigate. Meanwhile, an old friend has sought Mélanie out at the ball–Hortense Bonaparte, daughter of the Empress Josephine, stepdaughter of Napoleon. Hortense comes to Mélanie with a desperate plea which Mélanie doesn’t dare reveal to Charles. The search for the killer takes Charles and Mélanie from Mayfair to Seven Dials, from glittering ballrooms to viperous thieves’ dens, and uncovers a conspiracy that involves both members of the Bonaparte family and the British government, as well as the enigmatic Raoul O’Roarke.
Book #4, which I'm just starting to write, begins when Laura Dudley, the Fraser children’s governess, is found in a Mayfair bedchamber with the dead body of one of Britain ’s most powerful peers. Laura refuses to give any explanation, even to Charles and Mélanie. But even as the evidence mounts against Laura, the Frasers can’t believe her guilty of murder. As they race against time to prove Laura innocent Mélanie and Charles learn that they are not the only ones in their household with secrets. And that old enemies and new ones are more closely connected than they would have dreamed possible. Raoul O'Roarke also plays an important role in this book. Raoul and Laura's relationship takes an interesting turn--one that even surprised me, when I was plotting. It caused me to rethink some things, but I'm very happy with the direction it's gone.