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 ...
Labels: Andrea Penrose, Cara Elliott, Lady Arianna Mysteries, Recipe for Treason, Teresa Grant, Tracy Grant