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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

28 January 2013

Welcome, Andrea Penrose!


For my post this week, I had the treat and privilege of interviewing a good friend and wonderful writer, Andrea Penrose, who writes the Lady Arianna Regency mystery series (Andrea also writes historical romance as Cara Elliott). Arianna is a fabulous and intrepid heroine. Forced by circumstances to seek her fortune and hide her identity, she puts her talents to use and finds employment as a chef (with a particular affinity for chocolate). Arianna is tough and resourceful, with an outsider's take on Regency society. Throw in mystery in her background and her evolving relationship with her fellow investigator (now her husband), Lord Saybrook, and you have my favorite ingredients for a great mystery series.

Andrea and I sat down to chat about the series and recently published third book, Recipe for Treason.

I know we both love the Regency era and you have found such a fresh take on it. How did you get the idea to make Arianna a chef? Was Arianna's character and her cooking the genesis of the series?
Ha—funny you should ask! Writing can sometimes be like cooking in that you simply toss some interesting ingredients in a pot, and then keep stirring and adjusting the seasonings and spices, hoping it will turn into some tasty. Through a fortuitous meeting with a senior executive of a boutique French chocolate company, whose origins date back to 1800, I learned some fascinating facts about the history of edible chocolate and was determined to find a way to work it into a book. At first I played around with the idea of a historical novel revolving around Josephine and Napoleon (the real heroine was going to be a childhood friend of Josephine’s from the West Indies who would be the chocolate expert.) But alas, I couldn’t get any publisher to bite.

I’ve always loved mysteries—especially historical mysteries—and was also exploring with some ideas for a series set in the Regency. One day I happened to be chatting with my agent about something else and as we finished, she casually added, “This may be an off the wall thought, but have you ever considered making your historical mystery protagonist an expert in chocolate? That way you could weave in all your research.”

Well, I chewed on the idea a bit and really saw some fun possibilities, so I wrote up a proposal and sample chapters. My agent read them—and was surprised because she had envisioned something very different, more of a “cozy” series. I, on the other hand, wanted to do something grittier. Nonetheless, she said she really loved what I had come up with and showed it to NAL, who was very interested. The thing was, I had written it from Saybrook’s POV and they wanted a female lead. And so they asked whether I would consider rewriting it from Arianna’s POV, in effect making her the star of the series.

Hmmm. Back to the kitchen. As I began to figure out the nuances of her persona, it seemed to work in many ways to have her possess an expertise in cooking. I have to say, I’m quite happy with how it all turned out, so I guess it just goes to show that sometimes you can improvise instead of following a set recipe.

In addition to great individual mysteries, your series has a wonderful evolving story arc for the central characters. How much of that did you have in mind when you began the series and how much is evolving as you write the books? And do you plot your books in advance or make it up as you go along? 
As you may have gathered from the above, I’m a total pantser. I’d love to be able to plot several books at a time, but my brain simply doesn’t work that way. (Which can sometimes lead me to tie myself in plot knots that take some twisting and turning to untangle. I will indulge here in a fan girl moment and say how in awe I am of how wonderfully you plot, and how the many complex threads you weave together just pull a reader along so beautifully!) Most days I sit back at the end of a writing session and think, “I didn’t know they were going to do THAT!” So for me, character as well as the mystery itself is a constantly evolving process.

It’s been really interesting to work on developing the relationship between Arianna and Saybrook as they come to know each other more intimately. And it’s also been fun to see the secondary characters take on a life of their own. When I began, I intended Grentham to be a fairly one-dimensional man—a ruthless foil for the main protagonists. But he sort-of grew on me and started to become complex in his own right. So when he kept asking for a larger role, I acceded to his wishes. Sophia, who makes her first appearance in this book, was vaguely hinted at in the previous two books and I wasn’t sure quite where she would ever fit in. But suddenly the plot took a turn that called for her to join in . . .

Though it can be challenging at time—and a little frightening—I rather like this sort of spontaneous creativity. (I had better because I fear my hardwiring isn’t going to change.) I’m constantly reading snippets in a research book or seeing museum exhibits that inspire a new plot idea for the WIP.

Your historical romances have great suspense subplots and your historical mysteries have a lovely ongoing love story. What do you find different in writing historical romantic suspense versus historical mysteries? Is it difficult to find the balance of mystery and romance when you switch between the two?
Actually switching between the two is great because the different perspectives keeps me feeling fresh as a writer. I just seem naturally to want to have an element of mystery in whatever genre I write, but in the romance books, the main story is meant to be the relationship between the hero and heroine, so that takes center stage. And these days, the sexual chemistry is important to develop as you create the love story. So the corset strings are constantly coming undone.

In the mystery series, the plot—in other words the mystery—is what drives the story in each book. And the fact that the main characters appear in every book gives me a chance to develop character in a very different way. How they relate can be done in a more complex, cerebral way, and develop slowly. And while sexual tension does come into play, it’s much more oblique—the bedroom door is never open.

Each has great challenges and I really enjoy doing both.

We've both had the fun and challenge of writing about the Congress of Vienna. I have to ask - what was your favorite real life event at the Congress to dramatize and who was your favorite real life historical figure to write about? 
Oh, that’s an impossibly hard question! Wasn’t it an amazing gathering? There were so many fascinating people, I’m having a tough time choosing! I think it’s a toss up between Tsar Alexander and Talleyrand. (But Metternich, and the Duchess of Sagan are right up there too!)

The events were also such fabulous spectacles. I would have to say The Carrousel, the mock-medieval joust and the outdoor Peace Ball at Metternich’s villa, complete with the spectacular pageantry and fireworks are probably my favorite events. But again, there were so many mind-boggling parties, so many influential movers and shakers and so many sexual shenanigans going on that the event was truly a unique moment in history.

Recipe for Treason takes Arianna and Saybrook to Scotland and involves chemistry and early aviation. What was the origin of the idea for this particular adventure?
I read an amazing book called The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, and was absolutely entranced by his descriptions of science—and scientists—in the Romantic Era. Now, my expertise is definitely not science (the last formal training I had was ninth grade biology) but he really conveyed the excitement and creativity of the early pioneers in chemistry, aeronautics and astronomy, to name just a few of the disciplines.

And as the momentous discoveries in these fields were an integral part of the birth of the modern world, it seemed only natural that they should somehow be part of a mystery. The section on early ballooning had so much fun information, that I wanted to work it into a story—and so that how the plot of Recipe For Treason got off the ground! 

Do you test out the recipes Arianna concocts yourself?
Um, I confess that I have tried most of them—hey, it’s research, right?

Is there a wonderful research fact you discovered while working on the series that you weren't able to include in the final book?
Yes, and I’ve already jotted down some ideas of how to work it into a future book. In chemistry they were doing a lot of experimenting with electrical charges and voltaic batteries, which led to some really creative thinking . . .

What's next after Recipe for Treason?
At the moment, I’m working a mystery idea set in the Edwardian era, and a new romance series involving three sisters who each have a secret passion for writing. And of course thinking of the next adventure for Arianna and Saybrook!

Hoping to fix this ...


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21 January 2013

Disastrous Marriages and Other Sources of Inspiration



When I see a book about the ruin of a Georgian marriage, I can’t resist adding it to my shelves, not because I enjoy reading about unhappy people, but because those real life disasters inspire me to create alternate fictional endings. I’m a sucker for second chances (as you may well have guessed if you’ve read my books, since at least one of the two main characters in every book is getting one).

My current release, RIPE FOR SEDUCTION, was inspired by a snippet of a story in A. Calder-Marshall’s The Grand Century of the Lady. Poor Lady Mary Coke married a rake and almost immediately repented it. Their marriage was violent. When she ran away, he dragged her back and imprisoned her. Eventually, her family managed to secure a legal separation for her, and then her husband did her the curtsey of dying young. But of course such an infamous young woman would inspire men very like her unlamented husband to see if they could seduce her. One such young rake, was fool enough to put his offer into writing, and Lady Mary, in high dudgeon, took her revenge by announcing to his parents that he had made her an offer of marriage and daring him to call her a liar. 

Lady Mary let the rake off the hook, and went on to have a sad, somewhat horrid sounding life.  But the idea of using that story as a jumping off place was irresistible. Other books I find indispensible in understanding life, marriage and divorce in my chosen era include Lawrence Stone’s Road to Divorce, Broken Lives, and The Family, Sex, Marriage (he’s quite prolific on the subject). Stone’s books detail rotten husbands, licentious wives, and the means by which they sought to escape and punish one another. 

For example, did you know that it wasn’t enough for a man to simply accuse his wife of adultery; it wasn’t enough for him and everyone else to know she’d been unfaithful; he had to bring suit for criminal conversation. To do that, he had to be able to have her lover arrested. I’m sure you can see the loophole this provided to the wife…in at least one case, the woman’s family simply paid her lover a great deal of money to flee the country, thus preventing her husband from being able to divorce her. 

And then there’s the case of the lady who had an affair with her groom. Who was her husband’s star witness? The woman’s maid.  Lady’s maids were often called upon to testify about the most intimate details of the woman’s life. And who were they loyal to? The husband (who paid their wages and who could pay them for their testimony and give them a letter of reference). 

I also spend a good deal of time curled up with books like Sex in Georgian England by A.D. Harvey, Sex in History by Reay Tannahill, and The Origins of Sex by Framerz Dabhoiwala. Understanding how your characters would have thought about themselves as sexual beings, as well as how they would have viewed the act in general, as well as concepts of chastity, virtue, vice, and just how marriage fit into it all, also provides great fodder for storytelling and characterization. 

Next up for me is London’s Sinful Secret: The Bawdy History and Very Public Passions of London’s Georgian Age by Dan Cruickshank. I’m hoping that somewhere within its 500+ pages I’ll find the kernel of Anthony Thane’s story. Wish me luck!

14 January 2013

So many modern Muses

A few years ago, while researching a book whose first three chapters are currently under my bed, I stumbled across something that reminded me of an important point about writing historical fiction.

Researching, I think, In for a Penny, I had come across this quote by William Hazlitt (from a series of lectures he gave in 1818):

"I am a great admirer of the female writers of the present day; they appear to me like so many modern Muses."

What a patronizing jerk! I thought. Those women aren't there to inspire YOU, they're artists who do their own creating!

Then, while reading the essay "Representing Culture: 'The Nine Living Muses'" by Elizabeth Eger in Women, Writing, and the Public Sphere, 1700-1830, which discusses the 1779 painting this engraving is based on:


by Richard Samuel (this link takes you to a large version of the painting at the National Portrait Gallery website, and this link takes you to an explanation of each Bluestocking represented), I came across this passage:

"As Marina Warner has argued in her study of the allegory of female form, [the muses'] symbolic power is so universal that it seems that we are not meant to associate them with real women, let alone women artists. She is correct to make this point in a contemporary sense--we have for the large part lost a sense of the individual characters and functions of the muses, let alone the possibility that they might refer to real women. The muses form an allegory of ideas, in which the personification of abstract aesthetic categories is the primary device[...]Samuel, however, has painted his peers--living women who practiced the arts they represent[...]

Images of the muses or muse in the twentieth century have tended to be voiceless sources of male creativity rather than vivid practitioners of the arts. [...C]ertain male poets, such as Robert Graves, have been responsible for perpetrating the myth of the muse as an eternally feminine and passive figure of inspiration. The Romantic and modernist concentration on the individual act of literary creation has tended to focus on the poet's communication with the muse as an intimate and often highly sexualised relationship, obscuring the classical tradition of representing the muses as a group of independent, active, wilful and manipulative practitioners of the arts."

"The Whisper of the Muse: Portrait of G.F. Watts," by Julia Margaret Cameron, 

There are things I know are different about the Regency gentry: they talked differently and dressed differently, duels were a reasonable way to resolve an argument, a young woman who got caught having sex with someone she didn't plan to marry was "ruined," and not paying a gambling debt was worse than stiffing your grocer. I know those things because they're big things and I can't get away with not knowing them.

But it's not just the big things that shift over time. Little things were different too, even things that seem "instinctive" or "obvious" to me. The muses represent X to me, so they must have represented X to a Regency person, because that is just what the muses are! But no, the human mind is a wonderful and fascinating thing, and many ways of thinking about things that seem self-evident are really just a product of culture.

I still remember how shocked I was the first time I realized that "democracy" was a dirty word in mainstream society during the Regency! If I'd thought about it, I would have figured it out--but because positive associations with democracy are such a basic thing to me, I didn't think about it.

Culture changes, even the little things. And if I want to write historical romance that really pulls the reader into another time and another world, if I want to really do justice to my time period, then I need to be as aware of that as possible.

(Of course, in searching for that first quote for this post, I discovered that William Hazlitt goes on to say, "I could be in love with Mrs. Inchbald, romantic with Mrs. Radcliffe, and sarcastic with Madame D'Arblay"...so, I guess the women writers are just there to be his imaginary girlfriends. He then mocks a series of women poets with such zingers as:

"Miss Baillie['s] tragedies and comedies, one of each to illustrate each of the passions, separately from the rest, are heresies in the dramatic art. She is a Unitarian in poetry. With her the passions are, like the French republic, one and indivisible: they are not so in nature, or in Shakespeare."

Oh, snap! I'm now picturing his lecture as an irritating stand-up comedy routine. Probably that's another anachronism, but hey, the more things change, the more they stay the same, right? Clearly I should have trusted my instincts about Hazlitt.)

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07 January 2013

Of January and First Person Research






Happy January!  I love the holidays - I confess I still have a hard time getting to sleep on Christmas Eve and writing this post over a peppermint mocha with my baby on my lap I'm still in holiday mode. But I realized that when I think of January I don't think of post-holiday blues. I think of settling in with cozy fires and cups of tea and getting back to work. Those cool, often rainy January days are perfect for writing.

I've been easing back into my WIP this past week and enjoying it, both writing and researching. Looking up some research details today I was thinking about different types of research. Travel - so amazing if often logistically and financially impossible. Websites filled with images, maps, and other fascinating information. History books that give us the benefit of historians' research and expertise. And then there's what is probably my favorite type of research of all. Letters and diaries written by people who lived through the events and visited the places I'm writing about.

I remember sitting in this same Peet's Coffee & Tea reading Colonel Augustus Simon Frazer's account of the chapel of San Juan in the Church of St. Roque in Lisbon which became the setting for a key scene between Suzanne and Raoul in His Spanish Bride. Those details not only gave me the setting, they really informed the tone of the scene. Frazer was a fascinating man, keenly sensitive to the horrors of war, who would stop to take in local culture while in the midst of a campaign. His letters also inspired many scenes in Spain in Dark Angel (including one of my favorites in a war-ruined convent with a piano still standing amidst the wreckage) and around Waterloo in Imperial Scandal, from a beer garden along the canal where Malcolm and Harry Davenport interview a suspect to scenes of the battle itself. The journal of Cavalié Mercer has also given shape and substance to a number of scenes in my books, from Waterloo in Imperial Scandal and Shores of Desire to the boulevards of Paris in The Paris Affair. Details such as sausages sizzling in a pan, elderly, shabbily dressed men and women hiring out wooden chairs to fashionable shoppers, a girl of eight selling matches ("Dix sols seulement, mon pauvre père il est malade") spring to vivid life in first person accounts like this.

Writers, what are some of your favorite first person sources? Readers, do novels ever send you looking for letters and diaries the authors used in research

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04 January 2013

Historical Background

Back when my book The Garden Intrigue first came out last year, I tried to think of everything I, as a reader, would want to know about the historical background of the book.

What always niggles at me after reading historical fiction are questions about the real people and events. I always include a brief historical note at the end of each book, explaining what really happened, where I played fast and loose, and which characters were borrowed from real life, but it dawned on me that my website provided an opportunity to provide the sort of information that you can't squeeze into a three page historical note.

So I pulled together a compendium of all the real historical characters in the book, with mini-bios and contemporary portraits. These ranged from Napoleon himself to the inventor Robert Fulton. And then, since I could, I posted bios and portraits of characters who didn't appear, but were mentioned in the book.

I'd dealt with the people, but what about the background? This is where having a visual medium with (seemingly) infinite space really came in handy. The Garden Intrigue is set largely at Josephine Bonaparte's country house, Malmaison. I rounded up a bunch of contemporary paintings of Malmaison, interspersed with pictures from my own research trip. In this case, having the visuals really makes a difference-- when you see Malmaison, it becomes incredibly clear just how ill-suited the house was to being an imperial residence, how far and fast Napoleon climbed. In fact, they had to put guests in the servant rooms and put up tents on the grounds for the servants.

Then, of course, there were clothes and jewelry. Finally, I could show on screen what I had translated into words in the book, the diaphanous gowns and gaudy jewels that were de rigeur among fashionable Consular-- and then Imperial-- circles in 1804. My one big disappointment was that I couldn't find a good picture of the diamond and cameo toe rings women were reputed to have worn with their Grecian style sandals.

What sort of background information would you have liked to see? What are the background elements that you most want to follow up when reading historical fiction?

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