History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

26 May 2010

The Hoydens welcome Cara Elliott

It’s my great pleasure to welcome Cara Elliott back to the History Hoydens! Some of you may already know Cara Elliott as Andrea Pickens. Under either name, she’s earned a reputation for fast-paced, meticulously researched Regency-set romance, from her Pickens “Spy” trilogy to the current Circle of Sin series under the Elliott nom de plume. Her latest in the Circle of Sin series, To Surrender to a Rogue, has already been hailed as a “dazzling book with fiery characters and a mystery to keep you guessing”.

Thanks so much, Cara, for taking the time to be with us today!

Q. You’ve written numerous books now, under multiple names, but always in this time period. What is it that draws you to the Regency? As a related question, do you think you might ever dip into another time period?

The quick answer is Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer! I was captivated early on by the world they created—it seemed a magical blend of romance and reality. I mean, what girl can resist elegant ballgowns, high- perch phaetons and suave heroes tempered by smart, strong-willed heroines.

Then the more I learned about the actual history of the era, the more I became utterly fascinated by the Regency. It was a world aswirl in silks, seduction and the intrigue of the Napoleonic Wars. Radical new ideas were clashing with the conventional thinking of the past—many historians consider it the birth of the “modern” era, as people were questioning the fundamentals of society, and fomenting changes in every aspect of life. For example, you had Beethoven composing emotional symphonies, Byron composing wildly romantic poetry about individual angst, J.M.W. Turner dabbling in impressionistic watercolors and Mary Wollstonecraft writing the first feminist manifestos.

I find the parallel to our own times incredibly intriguing. And as a writer, I feel that allows me to create core conflicts in my fictional characters that can really resonate with today’s readers . . . while still drooling over men in tight leather breeches and boots!

Now, funny you should ask about other time periods! I’ve recently been reading a lot about the late Victorian/Edwardian era and find that an amazingly interesting era as well. (I’m a huge fan of Tasha Alexander and Deanna Raybourn’s books) I’ve got a synopsis and sample chapters that I’m working on . . . so we’ll see where that takes me.

Q. All of your Circle of Sin books involve women with a passionate interest in a
particular scholarly field, first science, now antiquities. What was your inspiration for these heroines and their (scholarly) passions?

The inspiration for the series came a few years ago when I saw a couple of exhibits on extraordinary women of the Romantic era. They showcased a wonderful array of real-life females, from scientists and writers to artists and explorers. Their stories and accomplishments were truly amazing, and it brought home to me how much courage and conviction these women had to dare to defy the conventions of their time in order to pursue their passions.

For example, you had Mary Shelly, who eloped to Europe at age sixteen with the married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley—and then went on to become a famous writer of her own. (We owe the legendary Frankenstein to her pen.) And then there was Augusta Ada Byron King, the daughter of Lord Byron, who was a mathematical genius. She survived an abusive childhood and went on to work with Charles Babbage, helping to develop the precursor to the modern computer.

So I knew right then that I wanted to write a series that celebrated the spirit of these smart, brave women.

Q. What was the most surprising thing you came across in your research for this book?

Alas, I didn’t discover anything half so fun as your mad young ruler, Sikunder Jah, who liked to strangle his concubines with a silk handkerchief. However, I did find myself a little surprised at just how sophisticated a presence the ancient Romans had established in Britain. Of course, I knew of Hadrian’s Wall and had a vague concept of the occupying legions. But the scope and complexity of the Roman temple/baths in Bath, and the vast fortress at Caerleon, which is also rumored to be the site of King Arthur’s Camelot, was something new to me.

Q. In your other, non-Regency life, you have a degree in graphic design. Do you find that your design background influences or informs your writing?

Absolutely. Graphic design is all about communicating a message and evoking a response. For example, a book jacket design should convey some feeling of what the book is about, and be striking enough to catch the eye and make a reader intrigued enough to pick it up. So, some of essential elements of good design are clarity and creativity. How you strike a balance between the two is a constant challenge—in some ways you have to think inside the box and outside the box. You have to deliver a core message, but you want to let your imagination have free rein in doing so. For me, good design requires discipline and analytical thinking, while at the same times it also demands flights of fancy. I think that perspective has actually been wonderful training for writing.

Also, in design, we are usually combining words and visual images—colors, textures and hues are very important. Again I feel that shapes my storytelling. Since I’ve been trained to “see” and “sense” in a medium other than words I feel strongly about trying to create a vivid feel for my settings—the smell of the smoke in the air, the color of candlelight on a face, the look of filigree gold and garnets against silk.

Q. We had a splendid time teaching a class on the Regency romance at Yale this spring. What would you say was the biggest take-away from the class for you?

You mean other than giving thanks to the heavens that I didn’t have to compete against our students when I was applying for admission?

In all seriousness, aside from how smart and thoughtful the kids were, what struck me the most was how strongly romance resonates with this generation of readers. I loved watching their faces as they discussed the different books we read for class, and talked about their feelings on what makes a great hero and heroine. No matter what the specific plot or point of view was, they all reacted so passionately to the basic conflicts and characters. And they took such joy in celebrating the redemptive power of love.

As we created this course, you and I talked a lot about how romance in all its glorious guises has been at the core of human storytelling since the first cuniform letters were pressed into clay tablets and the first raconteurs passed on ancient myths or epic poems from generation to generation. For me, it’s really heartening to see that despite all the high tech developments of the digital age, this elemental connection is as strong as ever.

Q. I’ve heard that you’re writing historical mysteries right now as well as the Circle of Sin books. Can you tell us a bit about them? Does writing in the mystery genre feel very different?

The new books are going to be a Regency-set series featuring a very unconventional lady and lord of the ton who join forces to serve as “unofficial” government sleuths. I’m really excited about branching into a new genre, but in a way, it’s a natural progression for me, as many of my romance books feature a mystery element. The main difference will be a matter of nuance. The development of character and relationships is still incredibly important to me, however, I’m looking forward to weaving in more of the history and culture of the times into the plots, using elements like international trade, politics or the arts as the basis for the mystery. I plan to have my hero and heroine traveling to the Continent and beyond, so it will also be fun to introduce readers to some exotic locales.

Q. Right now, you’re juggling an amazing number of projects. Do you have any advice for the rest of us struggling authors on time management?

I think most people have a lot of the balls in the air these days. I’m a slow writer who needs large chunks of uninterrupted time to get into a story. (I am in awe of people who announce that they’ve written five pages while sitting in the car waiting for a child to finish soccer practice.) So I need to very disciplined about structuring my day. I make up a little sticky note at the start of each morning with a list of the things I want to accomplish. (The residue of my Swiss mother, who had a high regard for order and precision.) As the day progresses, glancing at what isn’t crossed off is a very tangible reminder that I need to get cracking!

I think the biggest thing for any writer to remember is you can’t wait for the Muse to be in a good mood. Sometimes she has to be dragged kicking and screaming to her seat at the keyboard. (Whips and chains are permissible under extreme circumstances, like approaching deadlines.) It also helps to keep a big stash of chocolate in the desk drawer. Sugar and butterfat content can sometimes work miracles.

Q. Your books are all meticulously researched. Do you have any research tips to share?

Actually, I got my best ones from you! That said, I do think that special interest groups, be they historical societies or people who have a passion for something, like fencing or Elizabethan fashion, are wonderful resources. Many of them have good websites that offer a wealth of detail about a specific topic. And there is usually a contact e-mail for questions. My experience is that people are very generous in sharing their knowledge.

Another good source of information is are small specialty museums and traveling exhibitions. The write-ups for the displays are usually very informative, and one can learns all sorts of fascinating facts. I recently spent hours in the Guards Museum in London where I learned, among other things, how to tell what regiment a Guardsman is in by the arrangement of the buttons on his tunic, and why a knitted “ski” cap has a pom-pom on top. (During the Crimean War, British soldiers wore hats to keep warm and the pom-pom provided a cushion for their steel helmets.) I’m a hopeless history geek because I love collecting arcane facts like that.

Q. Can you give us a hint as to what Book 3 in the Circle of Sin series is going to be about?

Kate, the heroine of To Tempt A Rake, is the most unorthodox member of the Circle. She’s spent most of her life sailing around the world, acquiring an expertise in botany . . . along with a number of less ladylike skills. Life in London Society doesn’t hold much appeal for her. And neither does the arrogant Conte of Como. But when all hell break out at her grandfather’s country house party, she has no choice but to team up with The Rake in order to solve a diabolical mystery. Their travels take them to the Congress of Vienna, which was a really fun part of the story to write. Talk about pomp, pageantry and profligate parties! The royals of Europe certainly knew how to have a good time. I hope readers enjoy journeying to a colorful locale outside of England.

Q. And because I have Austen on the brain right now…. Which is your favorite Austen work and why?

Oh, tough question! P&P is really near and dear to my heart, but Persuasion is a close second. Lizzie Bennett and Anne Elliot are by far my favorite Austen heroines. Both are beautifully realized characters who are very real to me—smart, strong, and a little stubborn, yet loyal, vulnerable and capable of admitting they have made mistakes. The nuanced depiction of family and friendships is also wonderfully rendered. I’ve re-read them countless times and still delight in the wit and insight contained within their pages.


Blogger Sarah MacLean said...

Hey Cara & Lauren!
Love this interview...particularly as someone who just this morning gave her muse a good talking to!

7:08 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wonderful interview, Cara and Lauren! Cara, you so beautifully articulated what I love about the Regency era as well. I'm so excited that you're writing a mystery series! The mysteries in your romances are always great, so as you say this seems like a natural progression for you. And that's very cool your next book takes place (partly?) at the Congress of Vienna. In the setting for my new book (which I'm currently finishing up revisions on) as well. It was so much fun to research and write.

10:11 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Welcome to the blog!!!

Oooo, love the idea of more Regency mysteries! And I'm all about smart heroines. The new books sound wonderful.

11:28 AM  
Blogger cara elliott said...

Thanks, Sarah! Just got back from a whirlwind visit to BEA this morning, so my muse is feeling a little intimidated by all the amazing books out there. Need to duct tape myself in my chair for the rest of the week.

1:01 PM  
Blogger cara elliott said...

Thanks, Tracy! The Congress of Vienna really was amazingly fun to research. Can't wait to compare notes!

1:02 PM  
Blogger cara elliott said...

Hey, Kalen (or Izzy) looking forward to welcoming you to the GCP family at RWA!

1:03 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

What a great interview and some real insight into the workings of one of my favorite writers under any name. I just love the smart romance in your books, but I also love all of the fascinating things I learn along the way. Your depiction of the Regency world and your unique characters are always a great read!

5:10 PM  
Blogger cara elliott said...

Louisa, what incredible nice compliments. I'm truly honored, and delighted that my books bring you enjoyment. Hearing words like yours makes all those hard, lonely hours all worthwhile. Thank you!

5:22 PM  
Blogger Kim in Baltimore said...

Thanks, Lauren, for interviewing Cara! As always, Cara tantalizes with the interesting facets of Regency life. I enjoy her strong heroines and looking forward to Kate in the 3rd book since I've already read an advance copy of To Surrender to a Rogue (exceeded expectations - could not put down). I am going to throw out an oddball question for Cara. I know you are an avid golfer - does the game, fairways, foursomes n the game offer any inspirations for characters, settings, plots? Will golf make an appearance in your future books?

6:42 PM  
Blogger cara elliott said...

Hi Kim, thanks for stopping by!

Funny you should ask about golf! I did do a "golf romance" for the old Signet Regency line called Diamond in the Rough. It's set in St. Andrews, and the story line is an English lord is playing a match to win back the ancestral estate that his father has gambled away . . . he must learn to play and is set up with the best caddie in the town . . . who of course is a lady in disguise It was really fun to write, as I had a lot of great research on old clubs, etc to weave into the story. It's still a favorite of mine.

7:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great interview. You covered a lot of interesting territory. Thanks for the information about the pom poms on ski hats. I'm another one who enjoys interesting little tid bits like that. Like the picture you included of your class with Fabio.
Will be looking for your mysteries. I like romances to have suspense and intrigue, so Regency mysteries should be great.

9:13 PM  
Blogger cara elliott said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Librarypat. And glad to hear there are others who have fun discovering odd little bits of history trivia!

5:11 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Terrific interview, ladies!! I'm getting a sense of what the professorial rapport must be like in your classes! Cara, I can't wait to read everything

12:16 PM  
Blogger cara elliott said...

Thanks, Leslie! Lauren and I had such fun together!

5:31 PM  

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