History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

24 July 2008

Welcome, Susan Holloway Scott!

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Susan is one of the members of Word Wenches (a favorte blog of mine) and she's been kind enough to have me over to visit on multiple occasions. Today she joins us to talk about her newest novel about the many mistresses of Charles II.

Nell Gwyn was never a lady, nor did she pretend to be one. The illegitimate daughter of a royalist soldier, she is taken to London by her widowed mother to work in a bawdy-house. At fourteen, she becomes the mistress of a wealthy merchant who introduces her to the world of the theater. Blessed with impudent wit and saucy beauty, she swiftly rises from an orange-seller to a leading lady. She is still in her teens when she catches the eye of King Charles II, and trades the stage for Whitehall Palace and the glorious role of a royal mistress.

The King’s Favorite: A Novel of Nell Gwyn & Charles II (NAL/Penguin) is a fictionalized biography of the famous 17th century actress and royal mistress. How did you become interested in her?

My last three books have grown from one another. When I wrote Duchess, about Sarah Churchill, the first Duchess of Marlborough, I became intrigued with Barbara Palmer, Duchess of Cleveland, who was the lover of John Churchill before he married Sarah. Barbara was also the lover of a great many other men as well (to put it mildly!), and the most infamous of Charles II’s mistresses. Barbara was such a notoriously fascinating “bad girl” that I had to write her story next, in Royal Harlot. While researching and reading about Barbara, I kept coming across Nell Gwyn, another of Charles’s mistresses, but Barbara’s complete opposite in appearance, background, and temperament. I hadn’t even written half of Royal Harlot before I’d begun sketching out King’s Favorite. Like many writers, I don’t find my ideas so much as they find me.

Nell is a pretty irresistible heroine. She a real-life Cinderella, a small woman with a huge personality and boundless charm that climbed from appalling poverty to become one of the most popular actresses of her time, and, finally the most popular of the king’s mistresses. To this day, she remains a kind of folk-heroine in England, and her name still graces bath-soap, pubs, and hotels.

There have been many books about Nell Gwyn, both fiction and non-fiction. Why did you write another one?

Every generation interprets the past through their own eyes and attitudes. Nell’s “story” began evolving even during her own lifetime. Because she was for the most part illiterate, she left no journals or diaries, no version of her life in her own words. Everything was up for grabs, and throughout the next three hundred years or so, she has been both vilified as a whore and a guttersnipe who didn’t deserve to be loved by a king, and practically turned into a Protestant saint for her legendary kindness and generosity to the poor.

I tried to sift through the folklore and repeated hearsay to try to find the girl and woman Nell must have been, within the context of her time. While the king was the great love of her life, I wanted to show the other men in her life, too. I also wanted to include her long-standing friendship with the notorious (and notoriously charming) Earl of Rochester (played by Johnny Depp in the recent movie “The Libertine”). Most of all, I wanted to try to show Nell as a real woman, with real joys and sorrows, and not just the plucky stereotype.

What did you like about the era in which Nell lived?

I love Restoration England, the reign of King Charles II (1660-1685.) Following the grim puritan rule of Oliver Cromwell and the Protectorate, an ecstatic London welcomed Charles back from exile with giddy celebration. It’s a delicious time in English history, straddling as it does the end of the middle ages and the beginning of the age of enlightenment. Traitors are still drawn and quartered, their heads stuck on spikes on London Bridge, yet Christopher Wren is rebuilding London into a modern city and Isaac Newton is making revolutionary scientific discoveries. Much like the Regency, the Roaring Twenties, and the Swinging Sixties (every era needs a snappy nickname doesn’t it?), the Restoration is a time of tremendous social instability and change, with youth ruling the day and traditional moral standards being questioned. The mercantile middle class is increasing its power while the aristocracy is feeling the first pinch of waning influence. Add to this the “big events” of the Restoration like the Plague and the Great Fire of London, and the wealth of fascinating people, and it’s a fantastic setting for a novel.

What do you like least about this period? Anything that constrained you or that you had to plot carefully around (besides being true to her real life)?

In many ways, it’s not a great time for women. Men are overwhelming in charge, socially, legally, and financially. There’s a casual, misogynistic attitude that women-are-only-good-for-one-thing that’s hard for modern-day me to swallow. I’m sure that’s why I’ve written about the women I have, intelligent women who found a way to leave their mark and succeed within a challenging society. In that context, some of the choices that Nell was forced to make to survive (and at a very young age, too) weren’t easy for me to write, but they were important to show the kind of strength and spirit she must have possessed.

Did you have to do any major research for this book?

Because I’d already written two big historical novels in this time and setting, and with many of the same people as characters, I had much of my background research already done. But I always try to read as many original sources from the period as I can, not only for facts, but to get the flavor and vocabulary of the speech, always important when writing in first person. For this book, I also read all the plays in which Nell appeared or attended, and I also read a good deal of Lord Rochester’s scandalous libertine poetry (not for the faint of heart, believe me!) Thanks to the internet, it’s become so much easier to find original sources that would once have been locked away in distant libraries.

Care to share a bit about your writing process? Are you a pantser or a plotter? Do you write multiple drafts or clean up as you go?

Oh, I’m a total pantser. I know my opening scene, and my ending, and between the two, it’s a hundred and fifty thousand words of flying blind. *g* Well, that’s (fortunately) an exaggeration, but not by much. I have a rough idea of where I’m going, especially with the historical novels, since the plot is dictated by historical fact, but it’s still pretty free-wheeling. I don’t outline, or make notes. I just sit down each day and write, with a goal of about 3,000 words or so that I may or may not reach. I don’t beat myself up about that; some days the words are there, some days they’re not. But I do write seven days a week. I’m much too easily distracted otherwise, and if I take the weekend off, then it’s really hard for me to get going again on Monday (or Tuesday, or Wednesday…you get the idea.)

I’m also a single-draft-writer, and now that my publisher has shifted to on-line editing, I never do print out a hard-copy manuscript. It’s been my sorrowful experience that I’m much better off with my first version, and that, for me, rewriting is a fiery pit of despair and adjectival excess that I do well to avoid.

What are you planning to work on next?

My next book is The French Mistress, scheduled to be released next summer. This is the story of Charles II’s last mistress, Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, and in many ways his most interesting. She was sent as a “gift” to Charles by his cousin King Louis XIV of France, a beautiful, well-bred girl who may or may not have been a spy for France. Though Charles adored her, she was despised for her religion and her nationality by the English, and no one ever expected her to find such a lasting place in Charles’s heart, or in history. I’m particularly enjoying writing about her as an outsider in a notoriously cliquish court, where she’s safe as long as she pleases the king, but is always aware that if she fails, she’d end up in the Tower as a spy. I do like a challenge!

Many thanks to the Hoydens for having me as their guest! For more about The King’s Favorite and my other books, please visit my website: www.susanhollowayscott.com


Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Hi Susan,
I love your books! You were one of the inspirations for my starting my blog Scandalous Women. I was lucky enough to win an arc of The King's Favorite over at the Word Wenches. Like you, Nell Gwyn has always been one of my favorite of Charles II's mistresses. What I love about her is that she wasn't a pushover. She fought,not for herself, but for her sons to have titles just as the King's other bastards were given. I also believe that like Catherine of Braganza, she loved Charles for himself, not just for what he could give her.

9:03 AM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Ditto, here! I loved your two previous books. Both Castlemaine and Sarah Churchill are such difficult and controversial women, and yet you managed to draw the reader's sympathy without watering them down or apologizing for them. I was so impressed. Did writing about Nell Gwyn feel very different from those two?

9:44 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

And I'm really curious about your thoughts on getting books published about women who aren't famous at the same level as say, Ann Boleyn or Marie Antoinette. We were having a discussion here the other day about just how difficult this can be, trying to plot out ways of pitching these books to editors.

Any thoughts or advice about how you did it?

10:08 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Welcome, Susan! Nell Gwyn has always been one of my personal favorites, as a royal mistress and as a human being. I had great fun writing about her relationship with Charles II in my nonfiction debut, ROYAL AFFAIRS. In fact, it was one of the few entries that ended up bringing me to tears as I wrote it because Nell never did get her due, even from Charles. And of course she died quite young.

10:27 AM  
Blogger Susan Holloway Scott said...

Hi, Elizabeth,
I love your blog –– Scandalous Women deserve their place on the internet! – and I’m glad to hear that you liked “King’s Favorite.” I agree that it certainly seems as if Nell did love Charles for himself, and I think she might well have loved him even if he weren’t the king. I found it particularly fascinating that she didn’t tumble immediately into bed with him, and that she and Charles were friends long before they were lovers. That’s not usually the case with kings in general, and certainly not with Charles. Because of her humble beginnings, Nell was the royal mistress who was most often casually dismissed as a whore (and she herself cheerfully referred to herself that way), yet in many ways she was the one who behaved the most honorably towards Charles. She was certainly the only one of the lot who was faithful to him, and at that court, that’s saying something!

11:04 AM  
Blogger Susan Holloway Scott said...

Hi, Lauren,
Thank you for your kind words for DUCHESS and ROYAL HARLOT!
You’re right, both Sarah Churchill and Barbara Palmer were “difficult” women, which was much of their attraction to me. Fool I may be, but I like a challenge.

Here at the Hoydens, you don’t need me to point out how women have too often been neglected in the telling of European and American history. But while both Sarah and Barbara have their place in history books, they’re too often reviled by the (mostly male) historians for being “unfeminine” or worse, even “unnatura” women. Women with power often seem to have that effect on many men, and when those powerful women are also unapologetically aware of their sexuality –– let’s just say it makes for a lot of good conflict in the story. (I know you’ve already touched on this with your recent discussion of Loretta Chase’s “Your Scandalous Ways.”)

But Nell was different. Her power was much more intangible: she could make people laugh, both at themselves and others. That boyant, optimistic, look-at-me personality was quite a change from Sarah and Barbara, both of whom loved to scheme and intrigue as much for the sport of it as for what they’d gain in return. No one considered Nell a threat. Perhaps that’s why she is generally portrayed in a much more flattering light by history, where she’s become almost a folk-heroine.

So at last, there’s my roundabout answer: yes, Nell Gwyn was a different kind of heroine for me to write.

6:14 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Hello, Susan! The books sound fascinating. More to add to me TBR pile!! I love reading about real people in history. And Rochester's poetry happens to be a favorite of mine behind Byron.

I can't help but think that being a powerful woman, like Nell Gwyn, had to have been more difficult because of the time in which she lived. And from everything I have read about her she WAS a powerful woman, although perhaps not in a tangible, conventional way. I think the many things she did for Charles and was to him did make a difference in history. That is a very real and unique sort of power in my opinion.

7:25 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Welcome, Susan! Thanks so much for joining us! Your books are wonderful--I love the way you shed light on fascinating (and scandalous :-) women, and the eras in which they lived. I've been intrigued by Nell Gwyn ever since I wrote a paper about her in 8th grade (yes, I chose the topic myself). Writing about real people, do you find it frustrating or helpful or both to be constrained by real events?

8:30 PM  
Blogger Susan Holloway Scott said...

Hi, Kalen (and thanks again for inviting me here),
Sorry I’m slow replying – we had thunderstorms rip through the Philadelphia area the other night, taking out our power, and my wireless ‘net is only today finally back to normal.

I totally agree about how hard it can be pitching the lesser-known or (::shudder:: ) unknown women as the subjects of the current crop of historical novels. It’s especially hard given that most editors and agents aren’t especially familiar with history beyond the “all-stars”, such as Anne Boleyn and Marie Antoinette. My own agent (whom I love dearly!) blithely asks if the Restoration is before or after Queen Victoria. Meanwhile, my editor would like me to come up with more women “just like Sarah Churchill”, but women like Sarah are very few and far between in the 17th century. I’ve had a couple of fascinating yet little-known ladies in history rejected myself, so I’m not sure I can offer too much advice on how to buck the trend.

The requirements seem pretty inflexible: the woman has to be familiar to modern readers, be closely tied to men in power, preferably a king, have enough of a life-story to fill a 130,000 word manuscript, and not do anything that might be a turn-off to the twenty-first century. Sex is great; religion and the arts are iffy. Oh, and it really helps if there’s a dandy portrait for the cover-art.

Though if you’ve been discussing this already, it’s likely you’ve already figured out all this by yourselves….

1:17 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I suppose that would make Athenais Montespan a good subject for a novel. Tied to a King, yup! (Louis XIV), lots of sex, yup! Portrait, yup! Oh, and she might possibly have been involved in the black arts to keep the King in her thrall. Oops!

1:47 PM  
Blogger Susan Holloway Scott said...

Hi, Amanda,
You know I’m already a fan of your books. J It’s interesting to compare how much had changed for English actresses between Nell’s time and Mary Robinson’s –– and how much hadn’t changed at all.

Like you, I had a hard time with how Charles treated Nell. Though I don’t doubt that he loved her after some fashion, it seemed to be more fondness, amusement, and friendship, and it certainly was no match for the over-the-top devotion she felt for him. His nonchalance occasionally bordered on unthinking cruelty, and in ways that he’d never show to his higher-ranking mistresses. I think it’s Antonia Fraser who described Nell as more a favorite court jester than a royal mistress, and that’s pretty apt.

And yes, I also cried over some of those scenes between Nell and Charles. Theirs is a love story, but a love story where the hero doesn’t always behave very heroically.

5:00 PM  
Blogger Susan Holloway Scott said...

Hi, Louisa,
Bryon and Rochester! You do have excellent taste!

When I said earlier that Nell wasn’t powerful, I meant it in the context of the times. She didn’t have much interest in politics. Unlike the other mistresses like Castlemaine and Portsmouth, she didn’t take bribes from foreign diplomats and politicians to influence the king, and the king (to his relief) was much more likely to find jugglers and acrobats performing in her parlor than politicial discussions. She didn’t have the financial resources or estates to give her any clout in her own right, either. But as you say, she often selflessly represented the “common folk” to Charles, a position that makes her seem much more appealing over the centuries than her greedier peers.

5:15 PM  
Blogger Susan Holloway Scott said...

Hi, Tracy,
A paper on Nell Gwyn in eighth grade! Sheesh, how come I always got stuck with women like Clara Barton and Martha Washington? But I have to confess that my “initiation” into the more thrilling aspects of Charles II’s reign came in middle school, by way of a well-worn copy of “Forever Amber” that I found in my local library. Don’t know how acurate Amber St. Claire’s story was, but I certainly did find it INFORMATIVE!! Bet it must seem pretty tame now. *g*

I’ve enjoyed writing about real people and events. It’s a different way of constructing a story, a chicken or the egg scenario. Instead of creating characters and setting them into believable motion, the way I would do in a historical romance, the plot has to come first. There’s no fiddling around with history! I have to visualize the past/plot from the character’s point of view, and then decide how and why they did what they did.

5:45 PM  
Blogger Susan Holloway Scott said...

Elizabeth, I think Athenais de Montespan would make for a wonderful heroine. Yeah, there was that little business about the black magic and the poison, but hey, witchcraft’s paranormal, right?

Have you read the new Sandra Gulland novel yet? “Mistress of the Sun” is about another of Louis’s mistresses, Louise de la Valliere. But I don’t believe Sandra’s following up with Athenais, at least not that I’ve heard.

Athenais…I’ve always thought that name sounded so much better in French than the plain old Athena. J

5:51 PM  
Blogger La Belle Americaine said...

Barbara and Louise are my favorite of Charles's many mistresses.

2:43 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Thanks, Susan, for the compliment -- and also for the fabulous cover quote you gave TOO GREAT A LADY. From my own experience, what you list as the criteria for the sort of real-life historical fiction heroine that is considered marketable is 100% dead-on. I've been told the same thing in about as many words. We all thought Emma Hamilton was enough of a household name, being Lord Nelson's lover -- but most American readers go "who??" Mary Robinson's story was just ripe to be fictionalized, but like you say, she was in the arts (iffy, to be sure, in terms of commercial marketability). And most people never heard of her at all. If you Google the name you get a lot more hits for the former President of Ireland!

The French royal mistresses are perfect for fictionalization in my view, too, but I was told they were a tough sell. "People don't like the French," according to my agent. "Unless it's Marie Antoinette or Josephine. No one else is enough of a marquee name."

Bravissima to you for convincing them that Louise de Keroualle was a perfect subject. As you've already written about 2 of Charles II's other mistresses, was it an easier "sell"?

8:17 AM  

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