Lauren's blog posts on AccessRomance's All A-Blog.
On Foreign Shores
Thursday, January 14th, 2010
Outside, rain pounded against the roof of the carriage, not the gentle tippety tap of an English drizzle, but the full-out deluge of an Oriental monsoon. They had sailed up the Hooghly into Calcutta that morning after five endless months on a creaking, pitching vessel, replacing water beneath them with water all around them, rain crashing against the esplanade, grinding the carefully planted English flowers that lined the sides into the muck, all but obscuring the conveyance that had been sent for them by the Governor General himself, with its attendant clutter of soaked and chattering servants, proffering umbrellas, squabbling over luggage, pulling and propelling them into a very large, very heavy carriage.
If she had thought about it at all, Penelope would have expected Calcutta to be sunny.
But then, she hadn't given it much thought, not any of it. It had all happened too quickly for thought, ruined in January, married in February, on a boat to the tropics by March. The future had seemed unimportant compared to the exigencies of the present. Penelope had been too busy brazening it out to wonder about little things like where they were to go and how they were to live. India was away and that was enough.
– from The Betrayal of the Blood Lily
My latest book, The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, takes place in India in 1804. When my heroine comments that India is "away", she doesn't know the half of it. In preparing to write a book set in India during the Napoleonic Wars, I was sending my heroine not only six months away from England by boat, but into a set of cultural, social, and political situations about which she had no clue (and, as you can tell from the brief excerpt above, hadn't bothered to inquire into).
Someone asked me recently whether I thought unusual (i.e. non-London) settings were making a come-back in historical romance novels. One of the great advantages of an unusual setting is getting to learn about a whole new world. In researching The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, I found mad rulers, French chefs turned military generals, poetry-writing courtesans, and an elite guard of female warriors (no, seriously). The drawback of unusual settings is the flip side of the same coin. In reading about London, we have a whole lexicon already at our disposal. We know what Almack's is; no one needs to explain. In less familiar settings, key characters, places, and customs have to be identified in a clear enough way to convey the proper image to the reader's head without slowing down the narrative. It's a tough balancing act. In writing this book, it helped that I was telling my story through the eyes of an Englishwoman newly arrived in India. All the details were as new to Penelope as they were to me and, presumably, to the reader.
Right now, I'm working on a book set in Paris in 1804, in which I'm encountering some of the same challenges. Many of the landmarks of modern Paris didn't exist yet—including many of the major thoroughfares. It's an interesting exercise trying to recreate the older Paris, with its colorful cast of Napoleonic characters, over our preconceptions of the present one.
And after that—well, I've decided I rather like writing about less traveled places. Latin America, Egypt, Portugal, New York…fortunately, the Napoleonic Wars touched just about everywhere.
Where would you like to see more books set?
Monday, October 19th, 2009
I hate packing for trips. It isn't just the trying to figure out what the weather will be ten days in advance and whether that just-in-case dress (you can fill in the just-in-case to suit your mood) is really worth toting back and forth, although there is all that. No. What really drives me crazy is figuring out which novels to bring.
Sometimes, I like to use long plane rides to force myself to read books I've bought but haven't gotten around to yet. (Don't you find that the longer a book sits in your living room, the less likely you are to read it?). Other times, I go for theme reading. When I went to Greece a few years ago, I brought Mary Stewart's Moonspinners and My Brother Michael. M.M. Kaye's Trade Wind came to Oman with me, while Alexandra Ripley's New Orleans Legacy followed me to, well, New Orleans. I've read Captain Blood in the Caribbean and Mary, Queen of Scots in Edinburgh.
Right now, I'm packing for Paris. Last time I was there, I brought well-worn copies of Diane Haeger's Courtesan (Diane de Poitier), Judith Merkle Riley's Oracle Glass (set in Paris during the reign of Louis XIV) and Jennifer Blake's Royal Passion (the 1848 revolution). My copy of Desiree is hardcover, too heavy to tote along on the plane. I've just re-read Nancy Mitford's two Paris-set books, The Blessing and Don't Tell Alfred. With so many of my favorites out of commission, I’m at a bit of a loss.
So here's my question: what to read? Do you have any favorite Paris-set novels?
Process and Peanut Butter
Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009
At a cocktail party the other night, someone asked me about my writing "process". I put the word in quotation marks because it seems far too organized to apply to anything I actually do. My process? Eat peanut butter from the jar, pace in circles, scribble illegible notes on sheets of loose-leaf paper. The lack of legibility isn't really a problem, because it's not as though I'm really going to consult them later, other than to make hollow laughing noises over how the plot changed on me in the interim. Those pesky characters—it's as if they think the book is about them. Or something like that.
Put all these dysfunctional aspects together, along with trips to Starbucks and writing at my dining room table rather than my desk so that my internet cord won't reach to my modem, and I suppose you might get something one would term a process, tortured and bizarre as it is. I certainly get a book at the end of it, although I'm not quite sure what that proves, other than that, as a friend of mine succinctly described the last month of my life, in which four hundred pages were produced in under a month, "peanut putter + coffee x unreasonable deadline =super-human productivity!"
Many famous writers had processes even more bizarre than my peanut butter jar dependency. Thomas Wolfe wrote Look Homeward Angel while balancing his manuscript on top of a refrigerator. (Note: this would not work for me. I am a little person. My fridge is taller than I am. Plus, it would impede opening the fridge for purposes of peanut butter extraction.) Lytton Strachey, the eminent Bloomsburian who wrote about even more eminent Victorians, reputedly preferred to dictate prose from his bath. Bubble bath? One can only wonder. Gertrude Stein was at her best in the driver's seat of a parked car. One notable historian is rumored to write in the buff. (Having known many historians, I deemed it wiser not to do too much investigative research on that one—historians are many wonderful things, but one generally prefers them clothed, ideally in tweed).
When I broached the question of process to a college roommate who was visiting me at the time, she opined that people fall into roughly two categories. (She's a scientist, so she likes to categorize). According to her, you have (1) the slow and steady people, who peg away at a measured pace, and (2) the adrenaline people, who produce scads of work in short order and then turn into barely sentient slugs for weeks at a time. She's the former; I'm the latter. I've tried from time to time to cut down on my peanut butter consumption and spread out my workload, but my natural rhythm for work is two months of intensive whining followed by a month of intensive productivity followed by another month of intensive sleeping. (The exact timing varies, but that's the general idea.) I tend to work in fits and starts. It's not exactly restful, but it is productive, in its own weird way.
As my college roommate put it, she's a tortoise and I'm a hare.
From what I remember of that particular fable, I believe the tortoise got the best of it. And I'd bet he ate less peanut butter.
Are you a tortoise or a hare? Or some other sort of beast entirely?
Monday, August 31st, 2009
The other day, I was at the gym, bopping along on the elliptical machine to the 80's pop channel (I used to try to make myself watch news and other responsible things, but making oneself work out is hard enough without adding gratuitous layers of extraneous virtue—virtue can be very tiring) when "I Ran" by Flock of Seagulls came on.
Does anyone else remember this song? The lyrics—at least the pertinent ones—are:
“I never thought I’d meet a girl like you/… With auburn hair and tawny eyes/ The kind of eyes that hypnotize me through/…And I ran, I ran so far away/ I just ran, I ran all night and day/ I couldn't get away."
This had an electric effect on me, not because of the profundity of the poetry, but because my next book, The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, features an auburn-haired tawny eyed heroine with a mesmeric effect on men. She's also run pretty far away. Lady Frederick Staines, nee Miss Penelope Deveraux, has just been exiled to India to give the folks back in London time to get over her scandalous and precipitous marriage.
Penelope isn't a happy camper; uncomfortable in her own skin, she makes life pretty difficult for the folks around her. Life is never dull when she's around, but it's never comfortable either. She's both fascinating and dangerous. The hero of the book—who, for the record, is not her husband—likens her to a tiger, beautiful but deadly. Bound by the conventions of a society that chafe against her own natural instincts and inclinations, Penelope is locked in a perpetual battle with herself.
I nearly fell off the ellipticals when "I Ran" came on because the lyrics were so spot on for Penelope.
This got me thinking about theme songs for my characters in general. "Accidentally in Love", from the "Shrek 2" soundtrack belongs to Miles Dorrington, the hero of my second book, The Masque of the Black Tulip, both because I listened to that soundtrack over and over again while I was writing it, but also because Miles, well, found himself accidentally in love. The song also has a native exuberance that's very much in keeping with Miles' own enthusiastic, larger-than-life personality. He's so exuberant that even the hair on his head keeps flopping around.
Are there songs that make you think of specific books or characters?
The Conference to End All Conferences
Thursday, July 9th, 2009
Every professional group has its own rite of passage in the form of a conference. There appears to be a rule that they all have to end in “A”. Back in my academic days, it was the AHA (that’s the American Historical Association for the uninitiated); in my lawyer incarnation, it was the ABA; and now, as the ides of July approach, I have reached the heights of conference-dom in the form of that bliss and bane of romance writers, the RWA.
I’ve never been to a national RWA conference, but I’ve read about them– primarily in mystery novels. Both Kasey Michael’s Maggie By the Book and Elizabeth Peter’s Die For Love, long-time favorite reads of mine, feature thinly veiled versions of the romance mega-conference. I assume that the reality involves more books but fewer dead bodies. At least, I hope so. Given the hectic schedule of workshops, signings and panels, I don’t think there’s much time for crime, unless it was wedged somewhere in the schedule between meals and book signings.
For those of you who have been to RWA National before, do you have any advice for a newbie?
For those of you in the DC area, I and about five hundred of my peers will be signing books from 5:30 to 7:30 on July 15th at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel Exhibit Hall (which does rather make me feel like something out of a Victorian curio cabinet, but there you go). It should be utter mayhem and absolutely fabulous. Click here for details.
Looking forward to seeing you there!
Of Guppies and Groupies
Tuesday, June 16th, 2009
This weekend, I had the extreme pleasure of attending my first ever Historical Novel Society conference. There were books, books everywhere and all sorts of intriguing panels, on topics ranging from theoretical musings on the nature of that murky border line between historical fiction and historical romance (a topic of particular interest to me) to more practical inquiries, such as how to conduct one's research on a budget. I got to hang out with wonderful writers and readers, discuss 16th century Scottish politics with one of the only other three people in the world who actually cares about James V, and had the ultimate ego trip of being told, “You look just like your author photo!” Pause. Lowered voice. “Not everyone does, you know.”
But the main thrill of the weekend (aside from the costume competition and, yes, the Late Night Sex Scene Reading) was getting to meet authors whom I had hitherto known only as names on my bookshelf.
(The picture is of me and fellow authors Michele Moran, and Christine Trent. Note the very, very large pile of books behind us. The people at the airport checkpoints thought I was some sort of deranged book smuggler, since my bag on the way back contained three changes of clothes and thirty-two books. As a side note, books are heavy. Thirty-two books are very heavy. Note to self: buy bag with wheels before next HNS conference.)
There is something thrilling about a name on your bookshelf turning into a real live person. It’s like witnessing a text and ink version of Galatea, paper turned to flesh. I admit it, I'm a book groupie. One of the other authors at the conference confided to me that she had never worked up much of a froth about rock stars or actors (with the possible exception of Sean Bean, but that was another conversation), but that she turned into a drooling teenager at the prospect of meeting a favorite author. Join the club, sister. Some of the authors at the conference, like Kathy Lynn Emerson and Diana Gabaldon, had been favorites since I was in my teens; others were new discoveries, like Susan Holloway Scott, Michele Moran, and Laurel Corona. All were incredibly nice about inane comments along the lines of, "Oh my God! It's you! I have your books!"
I had never realized before how much the word "groupie" looks like "guppie". There's a reason for that. A lot of flapping mouth motions; not much of sense coming out. At least, in my case.
If you could meet any author, which one would it be and why?
Romancing History, Historicizing Romance
Wednesday, April 1st, 2009
Earlier today, I posted on History Hoydens about the uses of fiction for the practice of history. Since I have not one, but two soap boxes at my disposal today, I'd like to use this post to examine the flip side of that argument—what does fiction, and particularly romance fiction, get out of history?
What is it about the historical romance? We hear over and over that the historical romance is dead (cue Monty Python jokes here), but the shelves are still stocked with row after row of Regency ladies popping out of their improbably low-cut gowns, while men who seem to have lost all their shirt buttons in a freak haberdashery accident loom behind them, linen billowing in the wind. If these covers were anything to go by, most of the population of England (all of whom were dukes) went about half-naked three quarters of the time. You would never know it was the little ice age.
Why is it that we're so drawn to these kilted Highlanders, these supercilious (and underdressed) dukes, these marauding Norman knights? What is it that the historical setting adds to the narrative? A love story is a love story. Why tart it up in cape and knee breeches?
The prim and proper lapsed academic in me very quickly replies that it's all because we're learning something. (It's like eating candy enhanced with vitamin C—so tasty and good for you, too!). Every time the author plops a historical character into the narrative or references a specific event, we can chalk one up for historical literacy. Beau Brummell would have been a blip in the history books but for the battery of Regency novels through which he has quizzed his way, passing judgment on cravats near and far.
But let's face it. We don't buy the candy because it has vitamin C added. We buy the candy because it tastes good. There is something viscerally satisfying about vacationing in another century. Knee breeches trump jeans any day.
Perhaps it's a variant of rose colored glasses. A few hundred years removed, we can ignore the dust, the dirt, the diseases (what's a little bubonic plague among friends?), the lack of contact lenses, and use the past as a corrective for our modern discontents, focusing in on a time when an enterprising hero could turn both a sword and a phrase and had never heard of such a thing as a channel changer. These heroes pursue Causes (even if they are, as 1066 and All That likes to put it, Wrong but Wromatic) that involve Honour and Loyalty and big floppy hats with feathers in them. By importing our love stories to a historical setting, we get to ignore the workaday world and focus on a grand canvas where all entrances are accomplished dramatically on horseback and no one ever has to deal with cooking dinner.
Although I believe all that is true as far as it goes, there has to be more to it than that. One of my pet theories is that, in a world where courtship rituals have all but vanished, it's very comforting to journey into a time where the rules seem clearer—at least in the context of the fictional historical worlds we have built for ourselves, genre by genre. If reading is escapism, then historical fiction provides double that escape; not only do we get away from ourselves, we get away from our world as well. A Norman invasion makes a very nice distraction from the plunging stock market. No matter how low the Dow may drop, at least it won't ravish your castle—er, plunder your castle. You know what I mean.
If you're a historical fiction reader, what is it that draws you to the genre? Do you find that some time periods grab your imagination more than others?
Anatomy of a Series
Monday, March 9th, 2009
I stumbled into series writing by accident. When I began my first book, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, I intended it as a one-off. Once immersed in that world, it seemed logical to pick up story lines and run with them. After all, I wanted to know how it all turned out. Six books later, I still want to know how it all turns out and story lines keep proliferating like hydra heads.
This all leads to my current existential crisis: What is a series, Alcibiades?
Needing guidance, I called one of the brightest people I know, my college roommate. We had a rather rambling discussion in which we came up with a loose typology of different types of series:
1. Sci Fi: Sci fi series, broadly generalizing, seem like the most closely interconnected of the lot, often weaving many books into one plot, such as the Lord of the Rings series, in which the action of all of the books pertains to the same quest. The characters remain the same and the books progress chronologically forward in the accomplishment of one overarching denouement.
2. Mystery: The main character, the detective, generally remains the same. Unlike the "one plot/many books" approach, a unique mystery is resolved each time, and the books do not necessarily need to move linearly forward in time. One might have overarching character development and continuing plot threads related to the detective's personal life (for example, the ongoing relationship between Harriet and Peter in the Dorothy Sayers books), but as far as they mystery component is concerned, each book is a self-contained unit. Even though the main character remains the same, the stories are all stand-alones.
3. Romance: The romance series is linked by the relationships among the larger group of characters. Even though some plot threads can carry over from book to book, such as family feuds or quests, each individual romance must be resolved within its specified book. Unlike the mystery, the romance series relies upon a new protagonist in each book. Often these do move linearly forward through time, marrying off whole groups (for example, Julia Quinn's Bridgertons), but they do not necessarily need to be read linearly to make sense.
4. Finally, there's what I think of as a Barsetshire series (based on Angela Thirkell's Barsetshire novels), in which the individual books in the series are linked only by virtue of the characters inhabiting the same geographical and chronological space, i.e. all living in the same county or town. Characters may overlap from book to book, but they needn’t necessarily have anything to do with each other. There is no overarching story arc at all, which means that the books can be picked up and read in any order.
So that's my very rough typology of the series. Can you think of anything to add to that? What do you like about series reading and what bothers you about it? Do you prefer series that carry you along one main story from book to book, or series that are very loosely related?
“You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you….”
Tuesday, February 10th, 2009
They do say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. With that as my excuse, I plan to shamelessly imitate one of my favorite authors, Tracy Grant, who came up with the genius idea of compiling a list of her favorite fictional declarations of love in honor of Valentine's Day.
Like Tracy, I tend to admire those hard-won resolutions where the hero and heroine have been kept apart by either internal or external impediments. Mr. Darcy (whose well-worn declaration heads this post), has to fight against his own, er, pride and prejudice before he can blurt out those famous lines to Elizabeth. In the case of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, discussed at length by Tracy, the impediment lies in Harriet's psyche, in her fear of what dreadful changes giving in to emotion might work on them both (to be fair, she had just been accused of murdering her ex-lover, so one could appreciate why she was gun shy). It takes three books for Lord Peter to win her over, and when he does, the resolution is all the meaningful for being so hard fought.
Here are two of my other favorites. On one end, we have those sardonic heroes, in the model of Rhett Butler, who mock themselves even as they declare their affections:
"Would it take your mind off your unpleasant memories to know that I love you? That I am, as the novelists put it, 'in love' with you?"
The hero and heroine of Valerie Fitzgerald's Zemindar are on the run through India in the midst of the mutiny of 1857. The hero's estate has just been burned and looted, the heroine has come across the hideously mutilated bodies of close acquaintances, they have a dependent woman and baby on their hands, and they have no idea whether they'll make it out alive. Even so, the hero couches his declaration in inverted commas. The fact that it took mutiny, murder and massacre to get him even to that point tells you an awful lot about what voicing those words cost him.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have the fulsome declaration—with a twist:
"Love you! Girl, you're in the very core of my heart. I hold you there like a jewel. Didn't I promise you I'd never tell you a lie? Love you! I love you with all there is of me to love. Heart, soul, brain. Every fibre of body and spirit thrilling to the sweetness of you. There's nobody in the world for me but you, Valency."
No one writes it quite like L.M. Montgomery. The heroine of The Blue Castle was the one who did the proposing, on the understanding that she only had a year to live. When she finds out that she was misdiagnosed, she runs back home, convinced Barney will hate her for trapping him. Barney comes running after her, uttering the declaration above—which Valency doesn't believe. It takes his losing his temper to convince her, which leads to my favorite line of that scene: "You darling!" [Valency] said. "You do mean it! You do really love me! You wouldn't be so enraged if you didn't!" High romance gives way to practical psychology.
(I'd never stopped to think about it before, but I've written variants on both those scenes. The hero and heroine of my fourth book, The Seduction of Crimson Rose, belong to the Rhett Butler/Zemindar camp (Tracy discusses them in her post). My recent release, The Temptation of the Night Jasmine, follows the Blue Castle pattern. When it comes down to it, the heroine is convinced of the sincerity of the hero's affections not by his pretty speeches, but by the awkward honesty that comes later.)
I have so many other favorite scenes—Rhett's marriage proposal to Scarlett in Gone With the Wind, the final scene of Mary Stewart's Nine Coaches Waiting, M.M. Kaye's Trade Wind, Georgette Heyer's Arabella—but this post has already reached absurd proportions.
What are your favorite literary declarations of love?
Happy almost Valentine's Day!
After the Happily Ever After
Tuesday, January 13th, 2009
Do you ever wonder what happens to the characters of your favorite books after that last page of that very last epilogue?
I always do, but it can be a mixed blessing. People don't always stay happy happily ever after (just look at Sondheim's Into the Woods!), and, even when they do, the nature of that happiness is bound to change with time. Life happens. Things go up, things go down. Just when you think everything is settled– poof!– there it goes.
As an author, I have a good sense of how things are going to go for my characters once the final chapter is written. I know that some of my couples are good to go from the get go. The hero and heroine of my second book, The Masque of the Black Tulip, lived in each others' pockets since childhood, so they knew each other through and through. The protagonists of my third book, The Deception of the Emerald Ring, although married under far more dramatic circumstances on far shorter acquaintance (and against their own choice) were both sensible souls who were bound to make the best of things.
But the hero and heroine of my first book, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, worried me. Sure, they were happy enough in the first flush of happily ever after, but how were they going to fare in the long run? They met, wooed, and wed under exceptional circumstances. What was going to happen to them once they were at home in Sussex, with all the excitement gone? It wasn't all going to be hearts and roses. The very things that drew them together in the heat of the moment—their penchant for adventure, their bravado, their mutual interest in bedeviling Bonaparte—were the same things destined to cause friction later on.
As they popped up as side characters in my subsequent novels, I watched the situation deteriorate. Richard, the hero of Pink Carnation, became ever more touchy and cranky. Amy, the heroine, reacted by becoming even more determinedly perky (and she was pretty perky to begin with). What to do? One can't very well put fictional early nineteenth century characters into marriage counseling (although, as a side note, I would pay good money to see marriage counseling run by Mr. Bennett—or Miss Havisham).
So I wrote a short story about them. Well, a novella, really, since it hit the hundred page mark. The novella, cleverly titled That Still Untitled Christmas Novella, is being made available on my website a chapter at a time (I wish I could claim that as a clever publicity gimmick, but it was really to give me time to finish writing it). I had some qualms about releasing the novella. Amy and Richard had some tough issue to work out. Would people want to see that? Or would they prefer to remember them just as they had been, dewy-eyed and hand-holding in the first flush of happily ever after?
In my upcoming release, The Temptation of the Night Jasmine, two of my characters have a debate on just this topic:
"They lived and loved and died," said Colin briskly. "They lost money, they died in wars, they suffered broken hearts. It isn't all trumpets and glory."
"I know, I know… I think that's why one sees more happily ever afters in fiction than biographies. It's not that the two trajectories are necessarily so different, but in fiction you can take the moment when everyone is happy and just clip off the thread of the narrative there, right at that trumpets and glory moment."
"Even in fiction, isn't it more interesting when you look at the whole picture, with the bad as well as the good?" argued Colin. "I'd rather know the whole story, even if it ends on a low note."
"Warts and all?" I said, quoting the famous phrase about Cromwell. "Perhaps. It may be more interesting. But sometimes it's less satisfying."
Every now and then, you just need to believe that everything can be frozen in that one moment where everything is going right.
I adore having a modern framing story in my books. It means I get to put topics that interest me in my characters' mouths and argue both sides of the issue while I'm at it.
Where do you come out on this question? Are you with Colin or with Eloise? How do you feel about seeing into the after the happily ever after– even when it’s not so happy?
That Still Untitled Christmas Novella can be found in installments on the News page of my website (did I mention that it's free?) and The Temptation of the Night Jasmine will be available in stores on January 22nd.
Tuesday, November 11th, 2008
Those of you who have emailed me or met me at conferences may have noticed that, when asked about my books, I have an odd tendency to babble about events that haven't happened or characters that don't exist. You might have wondered whether you were talking to the wrong author—or if I was just delusional. (All authors are a little delusional, but that's a whole other post). You are talking to the right author, really. And I'm not mad, or at least not that mad. I'm just suffering from author lag.
Everyone's heard of jet lag, but it has a first cousin, author lag, an undiagnosed syndrome that affects authors everywhere (and explains why we sometimes sound a bit, well, odd.) It's just because we're a book zone ahead, or sometimes even two book zones ahead.
Let's take an example. In January, the paperback of my fourth book, The Seduction of the Crimson Rose, comes out. That's January of 2009. I began writing Crimson Rose in September of 2006, right around the same time I began work as a litigator at a law firm. After a hectic nine months of juggling the job and book deadlines, I set the final lines on the final page of the manuscript in May of 2007. However you look at it, that's a rather long time ago. By the time Crimson Rose hits the shelves in paperback, I will have completed two other books and started a third.
This can lead to embarrassing situations. Someone will ask me a question about one of the earlier books and I'll find myself scrabbling to remember what they're talking about. Lord Vaughn? Who? (Just kidding—I could never forget Lord Vaughn. He would probably hijack another book, just to get back at me. Or show up in my living room, a la Kasey Michaels' Viscount St. Just). Or I'll start babbling about events and people that haven't happened yet. That's when people start to edge away and make noises about needing to refill their drinks.
Authors, do you have this problem, too? How do you cope with it?
Readers, when you read authors' blogs or run into them in person, do you like hearing about what's going on two books ahead, or do you find it jarring?
In the interest of narrowing my current author lag gap, one poster, chosen at random, will receive a copy of the hardcover version of Crimson Rose.
A Not So Fine Romance
Thursday, September 11th, 2008
I just finished re-reading a book that has become one of my favorite romances: Georgette Heyer's A Civil Contract. This is not an opinion that is universally shared. Many people, including some rather good friends of mine, can't stand it and compare it unfavorably to Heyer's other works.
A Civil Contract is, to say the least, unconventional. The hero, at the start of the book, is in love with a Society beauty, an old schoolfellow of the heroine's. The hero remains in love with the Beauty for a good three-quarters of the book, well after he is forced by pecuniary necessity to marry Jenny, our heroine, the daughter of a wealthy Cit (that's city merchant for you non-Regency readers). Jenny isn't strikingly beautiful or even winsomely pretty, in the way of most heroines of arranged marriage plots. She is, not to put too fine a point on it, plain. Her eyes narrow to slits when she smiles, her face is too round, her figure is squat, her hair is mouse-colored, and she goes an unbecoming crimson when flustered. Nor does she have the social graces to make up for it. She's as plain-spoken as she is plain.
In many of these arranged marriage plots, the hero and heroine discover an instant affinity of mind. Not so Adam and Jenny. Adam has a rather wry sense of humor; Jenny is slow to recognize a joke. Adam comes from a world of old titles and older upholstery; Jenny comes from new money and newer fashions, where everything is all that is expensive, flashy, and abhorrent to Adam and his world. Jenny isn't a natural with servants or tenants; she hasn't been to the manor born and they know it. She knows it, too, which makes her gruff and uncomfortable with them (ever get bored reading about those heroines who effortlessly excite the devotion of everyone in the household, from the Cockney bootblack to the aged Nanny?).
So how does this work? The book covers the entire first year of their marriage, through the birth of their first child. Bit by bit, we see how two genuinely disparate people find commonalities. Jenny's sturdy common sense comes to Adam's aid time and again—usual when his former love is on the verge of embarrassing them. City bred, she discovers a love of the countryside. She comes to love his family estate as fiercely as he does, taking an interest in the farming projects which are the focus of Adam's attention.
But it doesn't come easily to either of them. Heyer makes no bones about it: their marriage takes work for both of them, real, hard work. Jenny deliberately studies up on Adam's tastes, determined to make him comfortable, on the theory that love may go but comfort lasts, while Adam strives to treat his wife with every courtesy and consideration, trying hard to hide how much he truly resents having been forced to marry for money rather than love.
In the end, it works. Adam, seeing how much Jenny gives to him, is abashed and starts to study how to please her. Over time, they develop mutual interests and even mutual jokes. One of my favorite scenes is one in which Adam and Jenny crack up over a shared domestic joke, while Adam's former love looks on, baffled and cross. By the end, Adam no longer thinks of her as Jenny, but as his Jenny.
It is, I think, much easier to write a book where the characters are clearly Meant For Each Other, and far harder to write one where none of the commonalities are readily apparent (especially to the characters!). I also know I would have despised it had I first read it in my teens rather than in my late twenties.
Do you have any unconventional romance novels that call to you? Do you think that this scenario can be deemed True Love in the end—or merely bowing to circumstance?
The One That Got Away
Thursday, July 17th, 2008
Oh, the bittersweet memories. The sweet nothings, the cuddling in corners, that endearing bit of broken binding. Somewhere out there lives the book of your memories, a book you once loved but that escaped your grasp and now exists only in memory as… the Book That Got Away.
I went through scads of books in my youth, many of them with interchangeable titles. You remember some; you forget others. But every now and then, you encounter a book that lingers in your imagination—except for the title. And the author's name. Little details like that. You may be able to recount the plot point by point, you may be able to describe the cover down to the last bulging thew, but neither of those are searchable on Amazon.
My very own Book That Got Away dates back to seventh grade. Picture it: 1989. Hair is fluffy, stirrup leggings are in, and my best friend has been raiding her big sister's bookshelf again. Under cover of our desks, she passes the latest over to me while our Latin teacher is singing the lunch menu in the manner of a tenor at the Met (no, seriously, he did that—he also sang out our names when he called on us. I was always "Laur-laur-laur-laur-laur…laur-laur-laur-laur-laur… LAUR!" But I digress.) He's still on the entrée, so I check out the back. A handicapped American spinster… an Austrian count… a marriage of convenience and assorted Eastern European revolutions. Brilliant! I wasn't so keen on Eastern European revolutions, which generally ended in burning castles and emigrations, but I adored marriage of convenience plots and Austrian noblemen (in my head, they all looked a lot like Christopher Plummer). I dropped my prize into my Chocolate Soup messenger bag, nudging it occasionally with my toe so I could check out the cover and gloat. The hero, Nancy assured me as we made our way to English class, was exceptionally dashing, very Judith McNaught. I gave a little bounce up and down in token of my anticipation and wondered, a trifle uneasily, why the contents of my stomach seemed to keep on bouncing even after I had stopped.
And that's when I threw up right across the threshold of the seventh grade English classroom.
I gather they didn't have English class in that room that day. I couldn't vouch for that, since I wasn't there. I was at home, in bed, hiding from my seventh grade shame in a pre-World War I world of hunting lodges, heiresses, and tormented heroes with mysterious first marriages. Queasy but contented, I lay propped against my pillows, imagining myself in a bustled gown, whisking across the garden of an Austrian estate, while a golden-haired count hurried in my wake. Woozy with flu, I finished the entire book in one go and fell into a medicated sleep peopled with limping Austrian noblemen who summoned me across the waters for marriages of convenience.
Both I and the book went back to school the next day, and the book, no worse for wear (although the same couldn't be said for the carpet in the English classroom) went back to Nancy's sister. And that was that. Until years later when the memories of the book that got away nagged at me and nagged at me until I had to track it down. Fortunately, I remembered that the heroine's name was Eliza and that the title had "Night" in the cover. An afternoon of concerted googling finally revealed my Book That Got Away as Surrender the Night by Christine Monson. Within the hour a used copy was wending its way Cambridge-wards. And we all lived happily ever after.
Do you have a Book That Got Away?
[N.B. For anyone pining after a hard-to-track-down book, Smart Bitches Trashy Books has a marvelous feature where you can write in a description of a plot and they'll post it for the readership to identify. Huzzah for SBTB!]
A Little Bit of Swash and Buckle
Wednesday, June 18th, 2008
This past Sunday, two friends and I went to see the new Indiana Jones movie. Afterwards, we got to talking about the iconic movies of our childhood. The funny thing was, there was a fair amount of overlap. Two of us, who had both been born in 1977, remembered The Empire Strikes Back as one of our earliest movie-in-the-theatre experiences. All three of us remembered seeing E.T. And we all agreed that Raiders of the Lost Ark had been absolutely key, even though not one of us could remember if we’d seen it on the big screen or a small one.
Looking back, my imagination was powerfully shaped by those early cinematic experiences. Like so many authors, I was a daydreamer from an early age and any powerful plotline that fell into my lap was grist for the imaginative mill. I remember spinning daydreams from the Star Wars movies, imagining myself into a role as Princess Leia’s best friend (I wound up with Luke, of course, after dashing the schemes of several villainous droids and besting Darth Vater in saber to saber combat without ever mussing my elaborately coiled hair). And then there were the Indiana Jones movies, with all their swash and buckle and inventive chase scenes. The book I just finished writing, The Temptation of the Night Jasmine (on shelves in February of ‘09!) contains an Indian-inflected Hellfire Club that owes its original inspiration to the completely over the top Cult of Kali in the second Indiana Jones movie, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which made a lasting impression on my childhood brain, an impression which finally found an outlet in my own secret cult type scene a good two decades later.
Which is the very first movie that you remember seeing? And which movies do you feel made the deepest impression on your imagination?
Deconstructing the Duke
Tuesday, May 20th, 2008
Between military men and cowboys, we seem to be on an alpha hero kick on Access Romance this week. In keeping with the theme (and because I intended to blog about this anyway), I bring you… the Duke.
Or marquess or earl or even, very occasionally, baron.
The number of titled heroes dashing about Regency romance novels probably equals that of the entire population of Britain by now. You can't go to Almack's without tripping over a rakish duke just waiting to be reformed into marriage. We will ignore the fact that the peerage was actually a very finite number. Why spoil a good fantasy with reality?
What is it about these titled heroes that makes them so irresistible to novelists? As someone very sensibly pointed out on my website the other day, there were certainly plenty of eligible gentlemen without titles—to wit, Mr. Darcy. A member of the upper strata of the landed gentry might well own as large an estate, possess as distinguished a lineage, and move in the same society as any of our imaginary members of the peerage. And yet lords (and particularly dukes) continue to sell. Why does that one word make such a difference?
Part of it is the fairy tale aspect. All of us grew up knowing that the goose girl is supposed to go for the Prince (and if she goes for that impecunious goat herder, he'd better turn out to be a prince in disguise). Part of it is the whiff of celebrity that comes with being a member of the rarified few. Before there was People magazine, there was Debrett's Peerage. Then there's the allure of cold, hard cash—the land and jewels we tend to assume come with the title (even if many of them would have been in debt from their shiny Hessian boots up to their diamond stickpins).
Last, but far from least, there's the unmistakable attraction of pure power. A title, after all, didn't begin as a mere status symbol in the modern sense. All those dukes and earls and barons were lords of somewhere; they ruled supreme in their own demesnes, controlling land, courts, men. Even though that had been extremely watered down by the nineteenth century, aspects of that absolute power still lingered. Power, as we all know, is very attractive. Otherwise, why would there be all those novels about sheiks and tycoons?
What fascinates me isn't the social glamour of titles or even the exercise of power, but the ways in which the responsibilities and expectations attendant upon titles (or their lack) shape the creation of a character. In my first book, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, the hero was a younger son. He had a courtesy title, but that courtesy title brought with it no corresponding responsibility. As a result, that hero, Lord Richard, felt the need to go off and prove himself by essaying daring deeds against the French Revolutionary regime. In contrast, one of his closest friends, the hero of my third book, inherited his title very young and with the title the management of a vast quantity of land. Burdened very early with great responsibility, he grew into a much more serious-minded soul.
I will confess—although I feel rather sheepish about it—that I have added to the glut of imaginary dukes in Romance-Land with the hero of my next book, The Temptation of the Night Jasmine (but I'm making up for it by having the hero of the book after that be entirely unaristocratic, I promise). In his case, his entire life has been shaped by his feelings of inadequacy and illegitimacy in regards to the title he never expected to inherit. In fact, he ran half a world away to try to avoid it. As my hero grouses to himself in the second chapter, "If he had any sense, he would  make his pretended return to Girdings a real one, settle the ducal mantle around his shoulders, and… what? He hadn't the foggiest notion of what a duke was supposed to do. He wasn't even sure if dukes wore mantles. He was a mistake, a fluke, a duke by accident, and when it came down to it, he'd rather face an oncoming Maharatta army. At least he would know what to do with the army."
How do you feel about titled heroes in historical romance? Do they attract or annoy you?
On a related question, does having a title make a hero more or less alpha? This is one I’ve been wrestling with myself…. On the one hand, there’s the trope of the effete aristocrat; on the other, the exercise of power that comes of having land, money and connections. There are certainly titled beta heroes (like Georgette Heyer’s duke in The Foundling) as well as untitled alpha heroes (Lisa Kleypas’ Derek Craven comes to mind). Does “duke” make you think alpha?
Friday, April 18th, 2008
I had a French teacher who used to like to proclaim that all teachers are really frustrated actors. Sometimes, I wonder if all romance novelists are really frustrated matchmakers. There's a reason one of my college friends nicknamed me "Emma". In real life, one's set-ups have an irritating habit of fizzling, due to pesky little things like geographic constraints, timing, and the infinite variability of human character. One of the joys of being an author is that you can put your characters exactly where you want them, when you want them there, and watch them go.
The basic principle, however, is the same. Part of what I love about matchmaking is the psychological challenge it presents. It's like sorting out an LSAT logic problem. You try to puzzle out exactly which aspects of a person's character will make him mesh with the confusing kaleidoscope of attributes inherent to another human being. This was particularly true of the hero of my last book, The Seduction of the Crimson Rose, the ubiquitous Lord Vaughn.
Ever have those friends you keep trying to set up but keep failing? That was Lord Vaughn for me. When Lord Vaughn first plunged onto the page in The Masque of the Black Tulip, he was dallying with the idea of espousing the youngest child of the Marquess of Uppington, Lady Henrietta Dorrington. He was really dallying with the idea rather than the lady. It was clear that while he was intrigued, his affections weren't strongly engaged. It struck me, though, that some of the aspects that drew him to Lady Henrietta—her plain speaking, her refusal to be intimidated by either his title or his supercilious manner—might also lead him to take an interest in her friend, Miss Penelope Deveraux, an outspoken redhead with a complete contempt for all the rules of decorum.
Ah, yes. I had great plans for Lord Vaughn and Penelope.
Wrong, wrong, all wrong. All my plot ideas for a Penelope-Lord Vaughn book stalled out after about the third chapter. The two, quite simply, had nothing to say to one another. Lord Vaughn might appreciate Penelope's looks, but he had no respect for her—well, her anything else. His feelings towards Penelope began and ended with casual contempt.
It made me realize two important things about Lord Vaughn. First, while he himself might have deliberately flirted with the bounds of society, he still played by its rules, even as he transgressed them. He might toy with the illicit, but he had no interest in the unconventional. Second, everything about him, from his carefully coordinated attire to his double and triple entendres was rigorously controlled. Even his hedonism was played to a pattern and planned to perfection. Penelope's complete lack of discipline would arouse Vaughn's contempt, not his affection.
By then, I had moved on to the third book in the Pink Carnation series, The Deception of the Emerald Ring, where Lord Vaughn delighted my matchmaking soul by striking sparks with the equally rigorously self-possessed Miss Jane Wooliston. It seemed so perfect. Until it wasn't. I had ignored one crucial factor. Jane might be as self-controlled, as clever, as calculating as Vaughn, but she had one crucial attribute that would never, ever mesh with Vaughn: a conscience.
In the end, I did find the perfect heroine for Vaughn (at least, I think I did—if you've read Seduction of the Crimson Rose, you can tell me whether or not you agree) but it took me three books to do it, three books of trial and error and process of elimination. The marvelous thing about it, though, was that it taught me so much, not only about Vaughn, but about the various characters with whom I tried to set him up.
Are you a matchmaker? Do you try to set up your friends? Do you speculate about pairing off the side characters in the books you read? Which characters would you pair off if you had the chance?
Writing Against the Grain
Tuesday, March 18th, 2008
Let's be honest. We all have plot tropes and character types that annoy us silly. It doesn't matter how beautifully the prose might flow; it doesn't matter how true to life the characterizations might be, you still want to fling the book against the wall. Just because. In the thousands and thousands of romances I've read, there are two things that really push my buttons: hyperactive heroines and mistaken identity plots.
Back in 2001, when I was just beginning the manuscript that became The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, there seemed to be a particular plague of hyperactive heroines. Most people would probably call them TSTL, but I still hadn't really figured out the internet at that point (yes, I'm slow when it comes to technology), so my little sister and I coined our own term for those intrepid young misses who flounced their way through the pages of countless Regency novels, stamping their little feet, shooting off their little mouths, and catapulting themselves straight into danger, usually bowling the hero over along the way. We called the type the Hyper-Active Heroine or "HAH!" for short (the extra exclamation mark is for extra hyperactivity!). With all those HAH! heroines on the loose, dressing up as highwaymen, making out with the hero in the middle of Assemblies, and generally prancing gleefully straight into implausibility, one couldn't help but feel that Regency-Land could only benefit by a major distribution of Prozac. No wonder so many heroes proposed. They were all exhausted by the end of the book.
But if there was one thing that irritated me more than even the most overly energetic of HAH!'s, it was a mistaken identity plot. Admittedly, I adore Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel, but that was different. I knew how they ended. At this point, those two are so iconic that one can only marvel that the other characters don't know who they are by now. But any other mistaken identity stories drove me batty, whether it was the duchess pretending to be a milkmaid, the duke pretending to be a humble estate agent, or the estate agent pretending to be a playful sheep. Invariably, no matter how well the book is written, I have to flip ahead to find out when the other characters will finally figure it out who’s who. I just have to. Mistaken identities make me irritable and twitchy.
In 2001, I sat down to write a book. With an extremely hyperactive heroine. And the mother of all mistaken identity plots.
Yep, that's right. A HAH! and a mistaken identity. To this day, I have no idea why I picked not one, but both of the tropes most likely to give me hives and made them the centerpiece of my own maiden effort. Having wracked my brains over it, I've come up with two potential reasons for my seeming insanity (other than actual insanity, although that is always also an option). First, there's the potential for satire. My first book, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, was written somewhat tongue in cheek—and there's no point in spoofing plots that already make sense. The over the top makes much better fodder for satire. What's not to mock about a hero in a black mask and a heroine who doesn't see why she shouldn't single-handedly defeat Napoleon? But, second, and more importantly, there's an incredible rush that comes of taking something you don't like and trying to make it into something you do. Now that's a challenge.
Or I could just be crazy.
Are there character types or particular plots that drive YOU batty?
Sea to Shining Sea
Monday, February 18th, 2008
It does seem very appropriate, on Presidents’ Day, to be writing about my travels across this great nation of ours, as I zigzagged from sea to shining sea with a lot of stops in land-locked locations along the way. My author tour started in Boston and looped through San Francisco, Houston, Dallas, and Nashville before finishing in New Haven.
In all honesty, I didn’t really see the sea on either end (except for a very brief view of San Francisco’s bay, pointed out by my best friend from her car as she drove me in from the airport). My trip might more aptly be described as having been from airport to shining airport. When you’re visiting a city a day, you don’t have terribly much time for sight-seeing, but you do become a connoisseur of airports.
Someone, someday, should write a dissertation on the cultural connotations of airport coffee shops. In New York there was Starbucks, in San Francisco there was Peet’s. In Houston, at the crack of dawn, there was no coffee shop at all, but there was a Mexican restaurant open offering a fascinating concoction called a breakfast taco. It didn’t have caffeine in it, so I moved on. Dallas offered the strongest caramel macchiato it has ever been my good fortune to drink (and when you’re on your fourth city in four days, you appreciate it even more). And they wished me a good day. My departure gate at Nashville had a coffee shop named after– what else?– something to do with country music. Right next to the “achy breaky heart” defribulator on the wall. After several days of this sociological study of mine, any vampire who made the mistake of sinking his fangs into my neck would come away with a serious caffeine buzz, since my veins are running more coffee than blood.
Other highlights of my author tour included:
– Meeting four amazing authors: Tracy Grant, Dean James, Tasha Alexander, and J.T. Ellison, all of whom are as much fun in person as in print. (Whose books everyone should buy! Right away!).
– Dinner at the Cheesecake Factory with the Dallas Fort Worth Tea Readers Group. (People who have read all the same books you have AND cheesecake. Who can ask for anything more?).
– The plane that was delayed two hours because someone brought a snake on board (no, really! you can’t make this stuff up). I’m assuming it must have been a pretty big snake because, after that, we were delayed even more while they repaired the lock on the cargo hold. Coincidence? I think not.
– Changing in a very small airport bathroom while a line of people with even smaller bladders began to bang at the door.
– Changing in the back of a cab with my coat spread out over me while exchanging pleasantries about the weather with the cab driver who either really didn’t notice the strange wiggling going on in the back or politely pretended not to.
– Finally getting to change in my hotel room and managing to rip my last pair of tights in three places.
– And, most important of all, meeting a whole bunch of people who get as worked up about my characters as I do. That is a prize above coffee.
Huge thanks to everyone who came out for the various readings (and who didn’t comment on the holes in my tights!). Despite the ten pounds I’ve gained and the huge pile of laundry waiting to be done, I’m already looking forward to doing this again next year. But next year, I’ll bring more tights.
Happy President’s Day!
How to Lose an Author in Ten Days
Monday, January 21st, 2008
In every author’s life, there comes a time when her fortitude is put to the test in the most grueling challenge the literary life has to offer. No, I don’t refer to scrambling to write the last three hundred pages of your manuscript in about three weeks flat because that pesky scoundrel of a deadline went and snuck up on you. Nor do I refer to the reading of Amazon reviews (although that does require great fortitude). Ladies and gentleman, I give you… the author tour.
Picture it. Ten days. Seven cities. One author. It would make a brilliant sort of reality television show. We could call it “Last Author Standing”, or, perhaps, “How to Lose an Author in Ten Days.” Facetiousness aside, I adore author tours. It’s absolutely fascinating to see cities you might never have otherwise visited, meet people as batty about books as you are, and get lost in airports all across America. Trust me, I can get lost anywhere. But I can always find my way to the nearest Starbucks. Everyone has her own talents.
The last author tour I went on was all of three days long– at least, that’s what my calendar claimed. I was in law school at the time, so three days was all I could steal away. In those three days I (a) got lost in no fewer than four different airports, (b) spoke to a group of historians who asked more questions about my stalled doctoral dissertation than about my novels (hmm, must really get back to that dissertation one of these days), (c) sat in front of a display of my books at a supermarket where I ate my weight in ice cream (brought to me by the extremely lovely and kind staff) and signed all of two books, and (d) drank about fifteen grande toffee nut lattes in three days, a new personal record. After three appearances on the last day, I rounded off my tour by sprawling amoeba-like across the bed in my Houston hotel room, gorging on room service chocolate cake and watching “Pretty Woman” on TBS. I can’t wait to do it again.
In a week and a half, my latest book, The Seduction of the Crimson Rose, hits the shelves and I hit the road. This time, my author tour is rather longer than three days, which raises the fascinating question of how many lattes can one author drink?
Before I embark on my grand adventure, do you have any crazy travel stories to share?
For those who are interested, here are the details of my transcontinental journey:
Wednesday, February 6, 7:00 p.m.
The Harvard Coop
1400 Massachusetts Avenue
San Francisco, CA
Monday, February 11, 7:00 p.m.
M is for Mystery
86 East Third Avenue
Tuesday, February 12, 6:30 p.m.
Murder by the Book
2342 Bissonett Street
Wednesday, February 13, 7:30 p.m.
North Park Barnes & Noble
7700 West Northwest Highway
Valentine’s Day! 7:00 p.m.
2121 Green Hills Village Drive
New Haven, CT
Saturday, February 16, 2:00 p.m.
Wednesday, November 21st, 2007
Thanksgiving is one of those holidays that always makes me nostalgic. Perhaps it’s all that turkey; perhaps it’s the family gathering together; perhaps it’s that extra day off to read lots of novels. Whatever the reason, as Thanksgiving day approaches, my thoughts turn lightly to romance novels past.
I have all sorts of first when it comes to romance novels. There’s my very first romance novel (Mary Lide’s “Ann of Cambray”), my very first Kathleen E. Woodiwiss (“A Rose in Winter”), and my very first family saga (Jude Deveraux’s “Velvet Series”). But all of those were as infatuations as compared to true love. When I think back upon the seminal moments in my romance reading career, the book that comes to mind is always Judith McNaught’s “Almost Heaven.”
I was twelve when I read “Almost Heaven,” and it changed the trajectory of my writing career. Before “Almost Heaven,” I read mostly medievals and those sweeping family sagas that were so popular in the eighties. I had visions of writing a thousand page epic based on my own family history, called “Griffenclau” (catchy, no?). And then came “Almost Heaven.” Suddenly, I was in a world of witty banter and ballrooms stuffed with hothouse flowers, heroines as naive as I was and dashing heroes who loved them for it. There was no going back. Despite spending years in grad school studying the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, I write books set in the early nineteenth century– largely thanks to “Almost Heaven”. And my paradigm of romance will always be shaped by the relationship between Elizabeth and Ian.
Right now, I’m working on the fifth book of my Pink Carnation series, a book I think of as my “Almost Heaven” book, since the heroine, Charlotte, is based off, well, me. Me at sixteen or so, that is, back when I was more Almost Heaven-ish than I am now. But when I gave my little sister the first hundred pages of the manuscript, her verdict was that it was only half an “Almost Heaven”– the heroine was Judith McNaught-ish, but the hero wasn’t. And she’s right (my little sister has a very annoying habit of being right).
Naturally, this got me thinking– how much have heroes changed since my early days of romance reading? Have Julia Quinn heroes surplanted Judith McNaught heroes? Is it a matter of changing cultural mores? And has the old fashioned heroine (naive but plucky) held up any better than the old fashioned hero (tortured, enigmatic, and all powerful)?
I’d welcome any thoughts you might have on the changing nature of heroes and heroines. I’d also love to know, which was your defining romance novel?
The Costume Less Traveled
Wednesday, October 24th, 2007
The genius girls in the office next to mine have come up with a new way to wile away the hours: a Quiz of the Week. Every week, a new question appears on their dry-erase board. Last week, the question was “What Would You Be If You Weren’t a Lawyer?” The answer to that one is easy. A princess. Duh. Someone else put “a frog”, which struck me as going for the wrong end of the fairy tale. But I suppose frogs are always being tossed golden balls and other trinkets by princesses on the lookout for princes in disguise, so it can’t be all that bad, even if you are stuck croaking on a lily pad all day and have to deal with all those snide comments about warts.
But I digress, as usual. This week’s question, appropriately enough, was “What Was Your Weirdest Halloween Costume?” Someone put “a frog”. We seem to have an amphibian leitmotif running– or rather, hopping– through our office.
My Halloween costumes always tended towards the esoteric rather than the amphibian. In college, I belonged to a group which held a “Come as your favorite literary character” party every Halloween. As you can imagine, there was usually a plethora of Scarlett O’Haras in big, hooped skirts (it’s amazing what you can do with three hoola hoops and a roll of duct tape), a few Daisys from The Great Gatsby, and generally at least one Phantom of the Opera lurking in the general vicinity of the punch bowl, searching for a susceptible Christine Daae. The very best costume was that of my friend Evan, who borrowed a burka from a Middle Eastern friend and went as an ink blot.
As for me? Well, let’s just say my costumes were usually greeted with, “Who?” One year, I went as the Belle Dame Sans Merci, complete with a friend dressed in tin foil who was meant to be my “knight at arms, alone and palely loitering”. (There’s nothing like a human prop– among other things, they fetch you drinks.) I got a lot of “the Belle Dame sans WHAT?” Another year, I was Catherine Morland from Northanger Abbey (yep, you guessed it, “Catherine WHO?”). For my crowning achievement, I made myself an elaborate eighteenth century gown with panniers so wide I had to sidle sideways through doorways and went as Evelina from Fanny Burney’s novel of that name. Find me someone else who has read Evelina and I will be their friend for life.
As for this year? I think I’m going as a Tired Author, complete with unfinished manuscript pages heavily scored with red ink.
What about you? Do you have Halloween costumes of which you’re particularly proud– or embarassed? Any plans for this year’s costume?
On a completely unrelated note, I’m thrilled to announce that I’ve just received a very large pile of advance copies of my new book, The Seduction of the Crimson Rose. Well, maybe it’s not so unrelated after all, since most of the characters are wearing disguises of one sort or another, some masking their identities, others their emotions. One person posting (one posting person? I can’t bring myself to write “poster– it sounds too much like a wall-hanging) will receive an advance copy of Crimson Rose. For more chances to win a copy of Crimson Rose, stop by my website for this month’s contest!
EDITED TO ADD:
Hi, all! I couldn’t resist adding a little note. Right after this post went up on Wednesday, I discovered that my very best friend in the whole world, who is a crafting genius, designed a Halloween costume so clever that it’s going to be featured on this Saturday’s CBS Early Show! Not only that, but it’s going to be modeled by her absolutely adorable niece. So, if you’re an early riser, tune in to CBS at 7:45 a.m. Eastern Time to see Nancy’s amazing Halloween costume! The details are on her website: http://belleepoquewhimsy.com.
The Ubiquitous Author
Wednesday, September 26th, 2007
There’s been a lot of brouhaha recently about authors self-promoting on the internet. If you go to the discussions section on Amazon, the thread about intrusive authors has garnered far more commentary than any other topic. Authors are everywhere these days: posting on websites, promoting their own books on Amazon, writing blogs.
I have mixed feelings about Ubiquitous Author Syndrome. I grew up in the days when the author was an elusive presence in black and white on the inner cover of the book jacket, the only information about the author’s life a brief three line bio. To a certain extent, that absence of the author gave me the freedom to evaluate books on their own merits, to enjoy the prose without the personality of the author– the non-authorial personality of the author– intruding. At the same time, I’ll admit that I did thrill whenever I saw an article by Elizabeth Peters or Jude Deveraux in Writer’s Digest or The Writer, going all fluttery at the prospect of getting the inner scoop on how they thought and wrote.
Then there’s author appearances on sites dedicated to other peoples’ books or books in general. Again, I’m torn. Most of us writers are readers first, so it’s the most natural thing in the world to be drawn to discussions of our favorite topic– romance novels in all their splendor and subgenres. As a reader, I do go to message boards in hopes of picking up book recommendations and can never resist sharing the names of my own favorite authors. But I do wonder whether having authors posting– even if they have their reader hats on– might seem intrusive or have a chilling effect on what otherwise might be frank discussions of both their works and those of others.
As you can see, I’m all in a muddle on this topic. What I want to know is how you feel about this phenomenon. Does it affect the way you read a book when you know too much about the author? Does it bother you when you see authors posting on Amazon or other sites designed for readers? Or do you think it’s nice to have authors around?
Friday, August 31st, 2007
This is a big week for me. Today my little sister goes off to college. (Since she was just starting first grade when I went off to college, this makes me feel very, very old). And on Tuesday, my third book, The Deception of the Emerald Ring, comes out in paperback. These events aren’t quite so unrelated as you might think. The relationship between the heroine and her sister plays a crucial role in Emerald Ring.
In the book, the heroine, Letty, has spent a lifetime trying to distinguish herself from her beautiful and poised older sister. She knows she’ll never be able to compete with Mary in terms of looks, so she’s made up for it by making herself useful, taking over the running of the household from her dotty parents and generally managing everything and everyone– except her sister Mary. There’s a useful irony in the fact that it’s the way her character has developed through her interactions with Mary that leads Letty to interfere when she finds out that Mary plans to elope. Naturally, Letty’s interference backfires, and she winds up married to her sister’s suitor before you can say “compromised”.
Even though Emerald Ring is primarily about Letty and her accidental husband, I found myself unexpectedly fascinated by the dynamic between Mary and Letty. For all her complaints about Mary’s selfishness and shallowness, Letty still secretly longs for the attention and affection of her big sister. Under her haughty facade, Mary (although she would never admit it) misses the uncritical adoration of the little sister who used to be so endearingly grateful when Mary would deign to do her hair. But because neither of them will admit it, they becomes their worst selves with each other, unconsciously exaggerating the very traits bound to needle the other most. When Letty, trying to get Mary’s attention, adopts a bossy, hectoring tone, Mary responds by slapping on a glacial facade– which, of course, just makes Letty hector more. You get the idea. I was so fascinated by watching the interplay between the sisters that I decided on the spur of the moment to write a companion book to Emerald Ring, all about Mary and her reaction to her betrothed winding up head over heels in love with her freckled, bossy little sister. (That book, The Seduction of the Crimson Rose, will be coming out in February– so stay tuned!).
Thursday, August 9th, 2007
Why is it that no matter how much you pack, you’re always missing something you need?
Like the kitchen sink, which is all that isn’t in my very wheel-less satchel at the moment. I know I’m going to be regretting that lack of wheels quite soon. As well as the five extra skirts, six books that seem to want to be bricks when they grow up, and more contact lens solution than anyone needs for just nine days away.
By the time you read this post, I will have been on a Greek island for a good five days (at least, I hope they’re a good five days– I don’t want to jinx myself by presupposing), attempting to impersonate a Mary Stewart heroine, only without the English accent or the assorted World War II era villains. In the meantime, I’m packing. I am packing, I have been packing, and I will be packing. It’s one of those processes that goes on and on until ten minutes before departure for the airport, causing agonies of indecision, interspersed with fits of mad flinging. Flinging of clothes into the suitcase, that is. Or sometimes next to the suitcase, behind the suitcase, or over the suitcase. My aim isn’t terribly good. Neither were my gym grades in high school, which might have had something to do with the whole aiming problem.
As you can see, I’m really working quite hard to avoid this whole packing thing.
We all have our favorite delusions about ourselves. One of mine is that I’m a light packer. Hence the choice of a wheel-less suitcase, since, clearly, as a light packer, how heavy can my suitcase possibly be? I can haul that lil’ ol’ thing through the public transportation system all the way from Athens to Piraeus. No problem. Currently, that lil’ ol’ thing looks like one of the foundation stones for the Parthenon and weighs about the same. If I survive the trip without being crushed under the weight of my own bag, I’ll let you know.
One of my favorite tricks as a writer is to write about characters who are similarly deluded about their own capacities and characters, the sorts of characters who say one thing but do another, strong-willed termagants convinced they’re sweet and meek, heroes who declare they’ll never love while being secretly little blobs of sentimental goo waiting to happen. [My internal editor informs me that goo is not necessarily a positive attribute in a hero-- I would like to clarify that this is purely metaphorical emotional goo, not to be confused with Ghostbusters-type green slime. And now that we all have THAT image stuck in our heads.... I can promise you, all my heroes are goo-free. Really. As we all know, a rolling rogue gathers no goo.] Sometimes these delusions lead to painful awakenings for the characters; other times, they find themselves pleasantly surprised by the new things they learn about themselves, like Letty, the heroine of my third book (coming out in paperback next month!), who thinks of herself as a practical homebody, but discovers a hitherto unsuspected flair for adventure.
I do not think I will be pleasantly surprised by the weight of my bag tomorrow morning.
Who are your favorite deluded characters? Or your favorite Mary Stewart novels? Or your favorite ways to avoid packing? Any related topic, really– except goo. Even though it rhymes so nicely with “glue”. Which we all know is a very fun word to say. (And ten points to anyone who gets that romance novel reference!).
On a completely unrelated note, I’ve posted an excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Seduction of the Crimson Rose, on my website. I promise, it makes a lot more sense than this blog post!
Unless that’s just me deluding myself again….
The Queen is Dead
Thursday, July 12th, 2007
Do you remember your first Kathleen E. Woodiwiss? I do.
It was one of those endless summer days when even the dust motes seem sleepy. I had already read through my entire Jude Deveraux collection, played all the Barbies any eleven year old can be expected to play, and ascertained that there was nothing at all on television. In short, I was bored. Taking myself to the cool of the basement, I searched through the motley collection of books that had been exiled from the bookcases upstairs. I bypassed M.M. Kaye (it was hot enough out already without reading about India) and listlessly discarded Kristin Lavransdotter, which looked like it ought to be a romance, but wasn’t. And there it was, “A Rose in Winter.” It didn’t look like much to write home about. The cover was a dirty white, the spine was broken, the pages were already yellowing. Within ten minutes, none of that mattered. I was in 18th century Northern England, and I didn’t want to ever come back.
Kathleen E. Woodiwiss is one of those authors the critics love to hate. Her prose is purple, her plots improbable– and yet it all works, every last palpitating particle of prose, every heaving and throbbing plot twist. Her plot devices echo the great archetypes of fiction, from a heroine sold off to the hooded master of a ruined castle (Beauty and the Beast spiced up with a Woodiwiss twist) to the plucky young girl who masquerades as a scrappy lad while the man she loves courts her beautiful cousin (anyone recognize “Twelfth Night”?), and they appeal at that same visceral level.
In the Woodiwiss word, good is good and evil is evil and everyone gets their just desserts. You know who to root for. And you do. I remember spending a long afternoon in law school, breathlessly re-reading “The Wolf and the Dove,” aching to see the hero’s treacherous half-sister get her comeuppance. (Woodiwiss is especially brilliant at comeuppances.) Nearly two decades after reading my first Woodiwiss, her books still have the same power to hold me in thrall.
I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Kathleen E. Woodiwiss. I owe her hours of daydreams, free passes to half a dozen historical periods, and a large chunk of my vocabulary. But for that much-mocked multisyllabic prose, my SAT verbal score would have doubtless been a good deal lower. She wrote with passion and panache (or, as my little sister likes to say, with ganache). With her passing last week, the world lost one of the grande dames of romance.
In homage, I intend to spend the weekend re-reading my four favorite Woodiwiss works: “A Rose in Winter,” “The Wolf and the Dove,” “The Flame and the Flower,” and “Ashes in the Wind.”
Do you have a favorite Woodiwiss?
Happy Birthday, Nancy!
Friday, June 15th, 2007
Although I always like to claim that my books aren't based on my own life (at least, not mostly), it's almost impossible not to replicate bits of one's own experience. As I've started working on the fifth book in the Pink Carnation series, I've realized that one extremely important aspect of my life has woven its way into the fabric of my books. No, I'm not talking about all those handsome English noblemen constantly leaping from my bedroom window (since my apartment is on the fifth floor, they'd be in big trouble). I'm talking about best friends.
Did anyone else ever notice that the heroines of many romance novels back in the 80's seemed to be singularly adrift in the world? Not only were their parents always dead, killed off in convenient carriage crashes or immolated in suspicious fires, but they never seemed to have friends. Oh, they had devoted serving maids, either of the young and perky variety or the old and crusty variety, but never a proper friend of their own age. Once I started looking, I realized that Disney heroines seemed to suffer from the exact same problem. Talking mice are all very well and good, but you can't lean on their shoulder when you need a hug. If you did, you might squish them.
Looking back on my own books, female friendships are an integral part of the fabric of the story. Take away the best friend, and none of the plot makes sense. Amy, the heroine of my first book, wouldn't have gotten anywhere without the support, affection, and plain old common sense of her cousin Jane. And Henrietta, the heroine of my second book, would be a very different person without her two best friends, Penelope and Charlotte.
Coincidence? I think not. It all comes down to one very special person, whom I've known since ruffled ankle socks and crayons, through Middle School dances and A.P. anxiety, college dating dramas and (good heavens, when did we become grown ups?) her wedding.
By a happy coincidence (no, really! I'm not making it up!), today is my very best friend's birthday. There just aren't enough balloons in the world to celebrate the occasion properly, or enough ways to say just how blessed I've been to have such a friend. And I'm not just saying this because I forgot to send a present in time. Really. (Just to make it worse, click here to see the amazing present Nancy made me for my birthday). We’ve been friends for a quarter of a century, swapping romance novels and confidences, exchanging CDs and advice, sharing light movies and weighty events. Like the plots of my books, if you tried to take my best friend out of the picture, the whole story would cease to make sense.
There are a million memories I could share, but then this post would just go on forever, and I'd never get around to actually getting that birthday present to the post office. So, without further ado, I'd like to light a metaphorical birthday candle and send a great big birthday wish to the best of all possible best friends. Many happy returns of the day!
Back on Crushcon Five
Wednesday, May 23rd, 2007
Over the past few days, I've spent a lot of time staring off into space. I grin foolishly at inappropriate moments, babble to bored friends, and make stranges faces when nobody is looking or sometimes even when they are. In short, I have all the classic symptoms. I admit it. I am, as my best friend so charmingly put it, dwelling on the planet of Crushcon Five (why five, I don't know—you'll just have to ask Nancy.) I go hot and cold; I blaze with euphoria and droop with despair. I have a great, big, embarassing, giggling at odd moments… crush.
On a plot idea.
Yep, that's right folks. I have a plot crush. I get these every so often, usually when I don't want to be working on the book I'm actually under contract to write. This past winter, while avoiding working on my fourth book, "The Seduction of the Crimson Rose" (out in hardcover next February! Yes, my publisher has programmed to say that), I fell head over heels with a plot idea based on the life of an obscure seventeenth century woman and spent the better part of five days looking up books in the library that I then never got around to checking out. While I was writing my third book, "Deception of the Emerald Ring," I had a brief but intense affair with a mystery novel. I made feverish outlines on large pieces of blank paper; wrote a chapter and a half… and then the attraction faded, the idea fizzled, and I returned home, chastened, to my lawfully contracted manuscript.
Most of these crushes (like the boy kind of crush), are pure infatuation. They're an unfounded bubble of optimism and ignorance, heady while they last, but invariably short-lived. Once I get to know the plot better, I start to see all sorts of flaws. The idea loses its lustre, the notes I took get jammed into a drawer or stuffed between the pages of a book, and I emerge a sadder and wiser author—at least until the next one. Oh, and I go around pretending to all my friends that I never meant it to begin with, and it was always "just another idea" and not anything I had taken at all seriously. No, sirree. Not like I'd gone around saying it was going to be the Best Book Ever, get written in about three weeks flat, win the Pulitzer Prize, and bring about peace in the Middle East.
But every now and again, it isn't just infatuation. Once in a century, when the moon is in the seventh heist and Jupiter aligns with Mars, it turns out to be True Love. Those are the plot crushes that mature to become books. Like any relationship, they have their ups and downs. There are times when you hate the plot and wish you'd never married—er, started writing it. There are times when it feels like you and the plot have gotten into a rut and you need to take it out for drinks to liven things up. But there's something there, a magic something that makes you stick with it through thick and thin, through days when the writing flows and days when you never want to see a computer again, through summer afternoons when you'd rather be in the pool, and winter mornings when you would have preferred to stay in bed. And, in the end, it's oh so worth it.
Whether my current plot crush is the Real Thing or not… well, I just don’t know. I’ve been burned enough times by literary infatuation that I’m determined to play it safe. We’ll ignore the fact that I spent my thirty block walk to work yesterday morning stopping every two blocks to huddle in the shadow of a building or plop down on those little benches that front Central Park, whipping out my notebook and scribbling down bits of narrative and dialogue that I just had to record before they got away. (This odd behavior caused considerable confusion among the homeless men inhabiting the neighboring benches). But I haven’t let myself buy it any presents (i.e. research books), and I’m not going to babble all about it to you right now, even though it’s going to be the Best Book Ever and…. Damn.
I never learn.
I’ll Go Sailing Far– Off to Zanzibar….
Monday, March 12th, 2007
In the beginning of M.M. Kaye’s classic suspense novel, Death in Zanzibar, she writes that she was captivated by the notion of Zanzibar after hearing a song with the refrain, “Then I’ll go sailing far– off the Zanzibar!” That song was well off the charts by the time I came into being, but for me the damage was done by M.M. Kaye’s own Trade Wind, a brilliant historical novel set in Zanzibar in the 1840s. For those of you who haven’t had the good fortune to stumble across it, it boasts one of the best swashbuckling heroes of all time; scoundrel, black sheep, and all-around heartthrob Rory Frost. Even Errol Flynn at his best couldn’t hold a candle to Rory. After reading Trade Wind, my teenage daydreams were filled with the intrigues of the Seyyids of Muscat and Oman (doesn’t the very phrase give you shivers down your spine?) and dashing English rogues with dubious morals and biting wit.
Well, I’m not sailing far off to Zanzibar, but I’m doing the next best thing to it. For my thirtieth birthday (there! I’ve said it!), I’m heading off with a group of friends to the Sultanate of Oman. The fourteen hour flight from New York isn’t nearly as glamorous as the long boat journey of M.M. Kaye’s American heroine, but, considering that I only have one week of vacation, it is a good deal more expeditious. I also rather doubt I’ll run across rascally English slave traders, court intrigue, or a massive cholera epidemic (I definitely don’t regret missing out on the latter– those nineteenth century heroines had a tough time of it), but I’m still rather thrilled by the notion of wandering through a Middle Eastern souk, rambling over sixteenth century forts, and swimming in the waters of the Arabian Sea. Naturally, I’m already trying to figure out just how to work this all into a new book….
Are there places you’ve always daydreamed of going?
Cupid: Miscreant or Just Misunderstood?
Wednesday, February 14th, 2007
Don't hate the little guy in the toga. Every year, as the drugstore trots out its red doily decorations, all my single friends grumble that there are no more good men/women/sheep out there and threaten to wear black, while all the coupled ones wail about the pressures of expectation and the impossibility of attaining decent restaurant reservations. Whether you blame it on Hallmark or on Cupid– or the elusive St. Valentine, who gets remarkably little attention despite the cavalier appropriation of his name– Valentine’s Day inevitably brings with it enough sighs to fill the sails of a small flotilla.
Nonetheless, I find myself reluctant to join the hordes of Valentine haters. There are many things to love about Valentine’s Day, such as the excuse to wear shocking shades of pink and societal blessing on the consumption of massive quantities of chocolate. But it’s not just gorging oneself on Godiva that makes Valentine’s Day great. No– it’s that little guy in a toga with his quiver at the ready, wreaking havoc across the centuries.
What glorious havoc it is. Where would we be without foolish passions and grand romantic dramas? We wouldn't have this blog, certainly. We would also lose most of the great literary canon, from Helen's precipitate flight with Paris straight down to the tangled webs of love and betrayal in "War and Peace". Jane Austen isn't the only author to deal with that most human of conditions, love and the inevitable confusions that attend it. Nor is the historical record free from Cupid's dart. Henry VIII's amorous peccadilloes resulted in religious and political upheavals whose reverberations can be felt to this day. And who's to say just how World War II might have turned out had Edward VIII not abandoned crown and throne for the love of Mrs. Simpson. Don't underestimate Cupid? Those arrows pack a powerful wallop. (Children, don’t try this at home).
Abdications and Reformations may not be all that common, but Valentine's Day inevitably whips up drama in its wake. Declarations of love, break-ups, lost restaurant reservations… the full panoply of human emotion gets played out, year after year, state after state, town after town, on this one little day, among the paper doilies and the litter of cellophane candy wrappers.
So what I want to know is… what are your Valentine's Day stories? What was your best Valentine's Day? And what was your very worst?
Have a very happy Valentine’s Day!
Wednesday, January 17th, 2007
A few weeks ago, our own Access Romance Interview Team stumped me with one of their hard-hitting questions. No, it wasn’t that perennial favorite, “Where do you get your ideas?” It wasn’t even “Why do I always have fewer socks when I empty the dryer than I had to start with?” (I can give you than answer to that one. It’s simple. Sock goblins. They live in dryers and eat socks. It’s a fact). The question that sent me stuttering and staring off into space was, “Which of your books do you most see as a movie, and who would you cast as the characters?”
I’m awful at picking actors. My means of identification generally consists of cross-referencing other movies, as in, “You know, the woman who played the duchess in the third Hornblower– no, not the real duchess, the fake duchess.” This tends to turn into a rather circular exercise, especially when the person I’m talking to hasn’t seen the same movies.
So I appeal to those more cinematically savvy. Which of your favorite books would you like to see turned into a movie? And who would you cast?
Tales of Thanksgiving
Wednesday, November 15th, 2006
When I was in third grade, we had to write a composition entitled, “Turkey Lurkey had his own reasons to be grateful.” Clearly, his gratitude was not owing to the person who named him. What reasonable turkey names its offspring Lurkey? It’s downright cruel. But I digress. Like the ill-named Turkey Lurkey, I have my own reasons to be grateful. My new book, The Deception of the Emerald Ring comes out tomorrow.
Having a new book come out is always like a birthday and Christmas morning rolled into one, but this time, the timing couldn’t be more appropriate. Do you have books that make you think of a particular season? For me, Little Women, Judith McNaught’s Paradise, and Elizabeth Peters’ Trojan Gold will always be Christmas books. Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown is high summer, and Mary Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting belongs to rainy autumn afternoons.
The Deception of the Emerald Ring is my Thanksgiving book, not just because I’m grateful that it’s here (and Turkey Lurkey makes a nice lead in to this blog), but because the modern plot of Emerald Ring takes place in a damp London November, right around Thanksgiving. Writing the modern portions of Emerald Ring brought vividly back my own ex-pat Thanksgiving in London– the days getting darker and colder with that peculiar early dusk that belongs so particularly to London, the Christmas displays in the window of Marks and Spencer’s, and a very odd ex-pat Thanksgiving with a scattered bunch of other Americans all determined to celebrate the New World while sojourning in the old one.
Do you have books that evoke a certain time of the year for you? Books that have to be read at a particular time or season?
Welcome to the Jungle
Wednesday, October 25th, 2006
After many years of leading the carefree life of the perpetual student, I’ve finally knuckled down and plunged into that last great American rite of passage: the Office Job. Having pressed my shirt, bought extra pairs of stockings (since the first few were sure to rip before I left the house) and set no fewer than three alarms, I thought I was all set for my new life as a bona fide working girl. Little did I know the number of missteps and minor kerfuffles that awaited me in the treacherous waters of the workaday world.
Now that I have a whole week and a half under my belt, here a few of the crucial lessons I’ve learnt:
–If you aim to leave the house at 8:00, the laws of time and space will conspire to ensure that you are still searching for your house keys/ cell phone/ left shoe at 8:15.
–Five minutes before you are due to leave for work is not a wise time to return that email to your best friend/ check your Amazon rankings/ read Access Romance All-A-Blog (see laws of time and space above).
–The commute that takes you forty-five minutes on a normal day will invariably expand to twice that if you have an 8:30 a.m. meeting.
–When the elevator light says it's going up, it means it. It won't change its mind. Not even if you jump.
–If you try to make it change its mind by jumping, the doors will open while you’re in mid-leap.
–No matter how hard or long you work, the moment you choose to check personal email is the moment your boss will choose to drop by your office.
–Make sure the lid on your coffee cup has been firmly pressed down before gesticulating. Failing that, carry stain remover. Lots of it.
–Coffee is meant to be a beverage, not a perfume (see coffee cup and gesticulation, above).
–Do not put off tasks till a more convenient time. There is no such thing as a More Convenient Time. It's a myth, like El Dorado or the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Perhaps someday some intrepid explorer will find it, but by then it will no longer be convenient.
–Yes, they really do expect you to come back and do this all again tomorrow.
On the plus side….
–Carrot cake makes an excellent breakfast food (the icing has no calories if consumed prior to nine a.m.).
–Ditto Halloween cupcakes.
–And Snickers bars.
–The longer your bus is stuck in traffic, the more novels you get to read.
–The office coffee may not taste particularly good, but it's free.
–Paychecks are lovely things.
What woes and advice do you have to share from your experiences in the workforce?
Trick or Treat
Tuesday, October 3rd, 2006
All right, so perhaps it isn't quite Halloween yet. But the displays of plastic pumpkins and light-up tombstones have been up in the drugstore for more than a month now, and I've drunk so many pumpkin spice lattes that I'm about to turn into a pumpkin. So, as far as I'm concerned, it's officially Halloween Season.
I love Halloween. It isn't just the pumpkin spice lattes (those came fairly late to the scene), or the fact that it's the one time of the year you can buy whole bags of candy without the cashier giving you strange looks. It's not even the getting to flounce about in public in a flowing gown and tiara—although that is a strong point in favor of the holiday. I have a long-standing love affair with ghosts and ghouls and things that go bump in the night. Vampires, witches, tormented spirits… dim the lights, bring over that bag of candy, and I'm right there. It should be no surprise that, growing up, my favorite Sherlock Holmes story was "The Hound of the Baskervilles"— although it did come as something of a disappointment to discover that the ghostly apparitions had been perpetrated by a mortal hand.
As the days dim early to twilight, as the air grows crisp, and orange leaves eddy along the sidewalk beneath your feet, there's nothing like hurrying home to a well-lit room and a good ghost story. Edith Wharton may be famed for her satires of Gilded Age mores, but "Mr. Jones", her tale of a ghostly butler, still gives me chills. I grew up on Barbara Michaels' tales of supernatural suspense, traveling with her heroines from Cornish castles to the coast of Maine as historical mysteries were unraveled and unquiet spirits laid to rest. Then, of course, there's Shirley Jackson's brilliant psychological take on the ghost story, The Haunting of Hillhouse. Without a single mutilated corpse, she produces the sorts of chills that special effects artists can only dream about. As for movies, you can't beat The Uninvited, which combines my favorite elements—a storm-wracked cliff, an innocent young heroine, a warm-hearted housekeeper, a dashing hero, his pithy sister (I do like my heroes to have families), and a ghost who obligingly puts in increasingly alarming appearances. And, of course, a happy ending.
What are your favorite ghost stories? Do you have any good (i.e. wonderfully creepy) books or movies to recommend as Halloween season gets underway?
This year, I have an additional reason to love Halloween. The paperback of my second book, The Masque of the Black Tulip, will be making its appearance in stores on October 31st! I couldn’t think of a more auspicious day for it to appear– especially since Black Tulip is the only one of my books so far to boast a ghost of its own, the grandiloquently named Phantom Monk of Donwell Abbey. (A rather pompous spectre, he prefers to be addressed by his full title). In honor of the occasion, one poster will receive a beautiful new paperback of Black Tulip.
Happy (almost) Halloween!
Tea and the BBC
Wednesday, September 13th, 2006
I have an addiction. Well, I have many addictions—tea, romance novels, the scrumptious cupcakes they sell four blocks from my apartment—but the addiction of which I currently speak is an old and deep-seated one. BBC costume dramas. I can go cold turkey for whole months at a time, but flip past an episode of Sharpe or stick the first segment of that eight hour long Pride and Prejudice into the VCR, and that's it. I'm a goner. It's like that old potato commercial warning that once you pop, you can't stop. One episode is never enough. I want more, more, more. It doesn't matter if it's two in the morning, I have to know how it's going to turn out. We'll ignore the fact that I know exactly how P&P turns out (and I'm pretty sure everyone else does, too), or that the ending hasn't changed in all the fifteen times I've seen it. I still have to watch the blasted thing through to the end.
This is all a very roundabout way of explaining why this blog almost didn't get written. You see, the other day, I received a package from Amazon. Always a dangerous thing, rather like those mysterious gifts that appear at the beginning of fairy tales, after which the heroine sets out on some long and desperate journey, aided by the acorn that contains a magic cloak or a feather that turns into the latest model flying carpet or whatever it was that set her off in the first place. My dangerous journey involves my couch and my DVD player. Within that package was twelve hours of self-imposed serfdom: the entire first season of The House of Eliott.
Does anyone else remember this series? It aired on Masterpiece Theatre way back when, before there was such a thing as DVD players. I watched it religiously every Sunday, aching to know whether the two sisters, Beatrice and Evangeline (unexpectedly left penniless by their scapegrace father, as all the best heroines are), would succeed in their dressmaking business in Roaring Twenties London, and whether Beatrice—like me, the older, blonder sister—would wind up with the dashing rogue about town, Jack. I had no idea whether it was as good as I remembered, but I was running out of items with which to bribe myself—and a bribed author is a productive author. Or, at least, that's the theory. I promised myself an episode a night as reward for filling my writing quota. Um, right. Make that three episodes a night… and, no, I did not write three times my quota. All I can say is that Jack is just as dashing as I remembered and, by gad, he has to wind up with Beatrice or I will be one unhappy author. Not like I'm getting a little too into this or anything.
What is about series that exerts that fatal fascination? After my recent House of Eliott binge, I've compiled a little list of the strengths of the series format– just to prove that I was spending my time productively. 1) Long term character development. By episode nine, my two orphaned alter egos had grown and changed in ways that were foreseeable in the earlier episodes, but needed time and care to get them there. 2) Side characters and side plots. When you have an open-ended format, rather than a distinct beginning, middle and end, there's more time for bit players and subplots. Which, when you think about it, feels rather more like real life, where characters and crises come and go in unexpected ways. 3) The chance to work through what happens after the happily ever after. Okay, I'll admit it, I peeked at the back of the DVD box, and I know that a certain two characters do wind up together, but have to work through problems with their marriage, oh, around episode twenty or so. To tie back to what Julie wrote yesterday about romance novels versus real life, the single episode format provides less room for exploring the ups and downs that occur after the seemingly neat denouement provided by the exchange of a pair of I do's.
Or maybe it’s just that when I really love a story, I can’t bear to see it end.
What do you think of series? Do you have any secret series addictions of your own (BBC or otherwise)? Do you enjoy the uncertainty and loose ends of an on-going drama, or do you prefer a more structured single story?
And now, if you’ll excuse me, a fresh pot of tea is brewing and Episode Ten awaits….
The Simple Guide to Self-Torture
Saturday, August 26th, 2006
I've just begun writing a new book. Being a veteran author of three whole books, I've gotten to the point where I can recognize certain patterns (other people have been heard to employ the term neuroses, but I think I'll stick with patterns here) that inevitably occur at the beginning of each new book.
The first stage is blinding euphoria. This will be the book that Makes My Career (careers can only be made in capital letters). Dialogue, motivations, those tender Oscar-winning moments—I've got it all. The entire story has unfurled in my head like a triumphal banner flying from the turret of a castle. Hell, I can write this sucker in a month! (Forget the fact that all my previous books have taken the better part of a year). High on the brilliance of my Best Idea Ever, I fling myself down on my desk chair—and find myself facing a blank screen.
Wait. How did that get there? Doesn't it know that it's supposed to be full of Brilliant Prose ™?
I stare at the blank screen. The blank screen stares back at me. It wins. I break eye contact first, and go to the fridge to find something to fuel my creativity. Because, really, what great writer has ever set quill to paper without first eating peanut butter from the jar? I'm sure Shakespeare would have eaten peanut butter from the jar if he had been in possession of both peanut butter and a jar. Would Shakespeare have had a jar? Even more intriguing, would Shakespeare have had peanuts? They're obviously a New World comestible. Suddenly, I find myself consumed by a burning need to ascertain the availability of peanuts in London in the late sixteenth century. After all, I was a Renaissance Studies major in college. I'm supposed to know these sorts of things. I go and dig out my old notes on Raleigh's journeys. Nothing on peanuts in there, but, hey, ol' Raleigh was really pretty gullible when it came to dealing with those natives. Didn't he realize they were pulling his leg half the time? No wonder James I put him in the Tower. He was probably trying to protect Raleigh from himself.
Three hours later, I've gotten sidetracked onto Elizabeth and Essex, but I still have no idea whether they had peanuts in London in 1600. More importantly, my screen is still blank. Obviously, the thing to do is read a novel. Reading someone else's prose will inspire me with the pure, clear joy of storytelling and I will return to my keyboard with winged fingers. Or, I could become incredibly disheartened because everyone else knows how to write and I don't, followed by curling up into a disgruntled lump on the couch. Guess which option I go with. Time for more peanut butter. Even better, I could buy more peanut butter. Everyone needs to eat, and grocery shopping is such a responsible, grown-up type activity… except that my fridge is already full. Damn. I could eat everything in it so I'll have an excuse to go food shopping, but even in my book-panicked fog, I realize that that probably isn't such a good idea.
I trudge reluctantly back to the computer and type a tentative word. The. The what? I don't like it. It's so indeterminate. And it's such a cliché. Oh goodness, I've only written one word and I'm already being trite. When did I lose my ability to write? This is, in fact, the Worst Idea I've ever had. My characters make no sense. My plot line is as full of holes as old gym shorts. My book will suck. My career will be over. I'm going to have to practice law for the rest of my life.
Having done this three times already, I now know to keep the peanut butter jar at the ready and all the windows bolted shut. And when my mother and little sister respond to my moans with, "You say this every time," I blithely reply, "I know." And then I whine anyway. (Because if you can't whine to your family, what's a family for?). It may not be fun (especially not for my mother, sister, and the various friends who also have to listen to the ritual whine), but it's become an inevitable part of the process. For some reason, each book needs to be inaugurated with a sacrificial period of elation and despair before I reach the point where I can simply sit down and write.
Do you have similar patterns in your own life? Rituals that simply must be observed before you can get down to serious work? Things you panic over even when you've completed them successfully ten times before?
On a completely unrelated note…. Just as I was writing this blog entry, I received word that my second book, The Masque of the Black Tulip, is up for a Quill Award! The Quills are the publishing world's answer to the Oscars, complete with celebrity presenters, slinky gowns, and televised awards ceremony—and even after lots of jumping up and down and squealing, I still can't believe I made it into the final five in Romance! Winners are picked by popular vote on www.quillsvote.com, and the televised awards ceremony airs October 28th on NBC. You can be sure that I'll be blogging with the details in October—with lots of pictures! In honor of my fabulous Quill news, I’ll be giving away a copy of Black Tulip to one poster, selected at random.
Now back to our regularly scheduled blog….
Thursday, August 10th, 2006
Reading Julie's post yesterday started me thinking about early influences. We all have books from our formative years—Louisa May Alcott, L.M. Montgomery, Frances Hodgson Burnett—which shape the way we look at the world and inform the sorts of characters and situations we employ in our own writing. Bedazzled by books, it's easy to forget about those tales that precede our introduction to formal fiction: the nursery rhymes our mothers sang to us; the fairy tales that peopled our imaginations with princesses, dragons, and malicious gnomes; or, in my case, my very favorite childhood bedtime entertainment: family stories.
These weren't your common garden variety "when I was your age I had to walk twenty miles to school while milking a herd of maddened cows" sorts of stories. My ancestors had a flair for drama and a notable dearth of common sense. Put the two together, and you have family stories that make "All My Children" look tame. They were constantly doing harebrained things like running off to America with nothing but a suit of dress clothes and a gold-headed cane. (That would be my great-grandfather, who got into a tiff with his father and decided to go off and sulk several thousand miles away—but neglected to pack or do any of those other things one generally does before transatlantic voyages. He just booked a first class cabin and hopped aboard in the clothes he was wearing at the time.) But my absolute favorite is my great-great-great-grandfather, Herman Karl Ludwig Maximilian von Willig. As my brother would say, lots of names, not a lot of smarts.
Picture it: 1848. The Austrian Empire seethes with incipient rebellion. Young Herman Karl Ludwig Maximilian, an incredibly unimportant officer in His Imperial Majesty's army, is stationed just outside of Milan, happily eating his weight in pasta and admiring the pretty brass sheen on his buttons, when the Italian city explodes into anti-Austrian rebellion. A sensible man would have ridden hell for leather back to the Austrian border, which is what the rest of the regiment was doing. Not being the brightest bratwurst in the bunch, Herman decided to go the other way. He rode into Milan, right into the heart of the insurrection. With his Croatian batman trotting along behind him, he limped up and down the streets of Milan, knocking on doors, saying, "Hello. I'm an Austrian officer. Would you please take me in?" This did not make him popular. Unsurprisingly, someone shot him. Did this daunt Herman? Nein! Dripping blood, he kept on going door to door, only this time his line was, "Hello, I'm a wounded Austrian officer. Would you please take me in?" You have to give him points for perseverance.
Fortunately for Herman (and me), at the next house he tried, the door was opened by the daughter of the family, a Hungarian countess with a taste for romantic fiction and about as much common sense as Herman. Her father might be one of the instigators of the rebellion (he was a hard-boiled Hungarian nationalist, committed to the downfall of the Austrian imperial regime), but Sofia-Elisabeth took one look at the handsome Austrian officer drooping becomingly on her doorstep and thought, "Hmm, kind of cute." Smuggling him up to her boudoir with the aid of a devoted servant (there's always a devoted servant in these stories), she secreted him beneath a pile of petticoats. According to one of my great-aunts, that's not all that happened beneath those petticoats. About nine months later, the happy couple (by then husband and wife, with the blessing of the Emperor, who cheerfully executed Sofia's treasonous father and, in a nice touch, bestowed the Count's estates upon her new husband—one can only hope that father and daughter had never been close) were delivered of a little bundle of joy. They named him Arturo, in honor of their Italian adventure. And they all lived happily ever after.
Well, sort of. Herman, being Herman, managed to run the estates into the ground, and wound up mortgaging anything that could be mortgaged. As for Arturo, he grew up to rival the magnificent foolishness of his father. But stories always sound much better with a happily ever after at the end—and I like to think that they were happy, at least for a while. And isn't that as much as anyone can hope for?
With bedtime stories like these, I had very little choice but to become a writer of historical fiction. My dreams were peopled with ladies in petticoats and daft officers in gold-spangled uniforms with a tendency for riding in the wrong direction (sadly, that lack of direction has been handed down in the family from generation to generation—I've been known to get lost in my own room).
Running for the Border
Monday, July 24th, 2006
One of these days I will actually get around to writing about writing, but today I'm a bit distracted. Tomorrow—as in tomorrow—I'll be taking the New York Bar Exam, a whirlwind of two days of examination fun. For the uninitiated, the Bar Exam is, alas, nothing to do with spiritous liquors. Instead, it’s the qualifying exam to practice law in a given state, since the board of law examiners has very correctly determined that over three years of law school one learns very little about the actual practice of law, although a great deal about the fine art of sleeping while in an upright position at a desk.
Over the past few months, I've heard my fair share of exam horror stories: there's the girl who gave birth in the middle of the exam (as far as I know, that shouldn't be a problem for me); the man who went mad from the pressure and ran up and down the aisles of the Javitz Center announcing the Second Coming (no one seemed particularly interested, unless He appeared bearing exam answer sheets); and, of course, the inevitable boy who filled in all the answers to the multiple choice in the wrong bubbles. Then you have my mother, who has pointed out that she managed to pass the Bar Exam with a small, screaming child in tow. For the record, I don’t remember there being any screaming involved. But Mom flatly refuses to replace “small and screaming” with “utterly adorable.”
None of these test-taking nightmares can beat my favorite grad school exam horror story. In the history department, we finished up our first two years of course work with oral exams, which involved being grilled by four faculty members. In the middle is a ten minute break, where the department secretary brings in tea and cookies for the faculty members while you flee into the bathroom to bang your head against the wall (head banging is absolutely essential to the oral exam process). One year, the examinee made the traditional trip to the bathroom. He didn't reappear. The faculty, having finished all the cookies, began to get curious. Then they began to get worried. A search of the bathroom yielded no clues. He had vanished, as completely as the cookies on the tray. Three hours later, the mysteriously disappearing historian called his advisor. Forget the bathroom; he wasn't even in Cambridge. He'd gotten so stressed that when he walked out the door of that examination room, he just kept on going, right past the bathroom, down the hall, and out of the building. He climbed into his car and kept on driving until he hit New Hampshire.
No one has ever been able to explain why New Hampshire (it must have just seemed like a good idea at the time), but when I was studying for my orals, the first piece of advice I was given on how to pass was "Don't drive to New Hampshire."
It's probably a good thing that I don't know how to drive, because New Hampshire is looking pretty attractive right about now….
What are your worst exam horror stories?
Friday, July 7th, 2006
I just moved. It wasn’t a particularly long move (just two states down the Northeast Corridor) or a particularly big one (the movers eyed me askance as they surveyed the sum of my goods and chattels: two side tables, a bed, a desk, and eighty-five boxes of books), but the process of adjusting to a new apartment has whetted my appreciation for all the simple things in life that really aren’t so simple at all. There are so many little things we take for granted until they’re just not there.
Take the mail, for example. We needn’t go into why I’m not getting mine (it would take far too long, and involve language inappropriate for a public post), but the sudden inaccessibility of the contents of my mailbox made me realize what an incredible thing it is that you can take a little piece of paper, scrawl an address across it in your sloppiest handwriting, stick it in a box, and nine out of ten times it will actually get where it’s supposed to go. That’s pretty amazing. When you multiply it by millions, it’s nothing short of mind-boggling. Then there are flush toilets, air conditioners, internet connections– hundreds of amenities that we take for granted so long as they work, and occasion much tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth when they don’t.
You can blame some of this on my Bar Exam review class. You know it’s bad when musing about the mechanics of the mail is preferable to memorizing applicable statutes of limitations. But it did occur to me, as I dozed off in Bar Review the other day, that being forced to stop and think about the amenities we take for granted is no bad thing for an author of historical novels. When we look at the weft of our lives, the fibres that make up the base of the fabric aren’t the big or unusual things, they’re the bits we don’t even notice: the automatic stop at the computer to check for new mail, the unthinking removal and replacement of toiletries in their accustomed spots as contact lenses go in or out, the click that activates the air conditioner.
That, I think, is the hardest part of writing historical fiction: recreating the patterns of daily life. Not the nights at Almack’s or the rides in Hyde Park or the tension-fraught outing to Vauxhall, but the sound of metal scraping the scuttle as the maid cleans out the coal dust or the feel of a porcelain handle beneath the heroine’s palm as she reaches for her morning chocolate, all things so commonplace that our heroine herself probably wouldn’t even notice them– unless they were missing. Like my mail. Um, not like I’m bitter or anything.
Of course, having found a commonplace, the breaking of it provides excellent scope for drama. Our heroine gropes for her morning chocolate. But it isn’t there. Why? Have the servants deserted the house, taking with them various valuables (including the chocolate pot) to make up for their unpaid back wages? Is the kitchen in a furor because the new Lord of Blackacre has suddenly appeared after ten years on the Continent, bringing with him an uppity French chef? Or is the heroine not in her own bed at all? Perhaps she’s been kidnapped… preferably by pirates. There are far too few pirate novels in the world today. I miss those.
That, however, is a topic for another post. Before I ramble on further, I should get back to work. I still have seventy-eight boxes of books to unpack….
Which everyday luxuries would you miss the most if they suddenly weren’t there?
On Leaving Cambridge
Tuesday, June 6th, 2006
I have been temporarily in Cambridge for seven years.
I never expected to put down roots. As the Dean of Graduate Studies in the History Department said back in 1999, as we all clustered around for his introductory pep talk, "Cambridge is a very nice place to live. It is also a very nice place to leave." They would really like us, he said chattily, to be out within ten years. Five years would be ideal (this with a wistful glance around the room, at all our eager young faces shining with dissertations yet unwritten, ideal as only unwritten dissertations still can be), but few people ever managed the five year plan. Seven, he admitted, was about the norm.
Seven years. I figured I could handle Cambridge for that long. Sure, it had its drawbacks, like a lack of cabs when you needed them, or those pesky brick streets that seemed to have been specially designed to catch the unguarded heel, but it was only seven years. I could cope.
I didn't buy "real" furniture, because my apartment was only temporary, a stopgap between college and the real world. Instead, I furnished in an eclectic mix of battered antiques and haute Walmart, faux Hogarth etchings and reproduction tapestries. I resisted acquiring appliances—they would only have to be moved eventually anyway—and my clothes made seasonal pilgrimages to my parents' apartment in New York. After all, I didn't really live here. I was just here for school. Temporarily.
Temporary adds up. So do books and shoes and those inevitable knick-knacks that attach to birthdays and holidays like confetti to a parade ground (in this case, five mismatched candleholders, an egg cup shaped like a broody chicken, and something that I think is supposed to be a picture frame, but have never figured out). After seven years, my temporary residence managed to look pretty solid. It had become, despite itself, a home.
As I sit here, seven years on, surrounded by drifts of cardboard boxes (filled with candleholders and eggcups and obscene numbers of books), some of the leaving has already been done for me, as Cambridge changed around me, leaving me before I had a chance to leave it. The photo shop where I used to develop my snapshots before the advent of digital photography has disappeared, replaced by an ice cream shop. Express has become EMS, the pan-Asian restaurant turned into a snazzy dessert place, and where Abercrombie and Fitch once sprawled now hunch a row of ATMs. I'm sure a sociologist could read all sorts of trends into these shifts. All I know is that I'm constantly walking past stores that aren't there anymore.
The Cambridge I'm going to miss isn't the defunct Express or the new dessert place (well, maybe the new dessert place—they mix delicious white chocolate martinis). All three of the books in the Pink Carnation series were largely written during my sojourn beside the red brick walls of Harvard Yard. My characters may not actually ever make it to Cambridge (even if Eloise, my modern heroine, is a Harvard graduate student), but Cambridge is there in the books nonetheless. Every inch of text is imprinted with a material memory.
Amy climbed into a boat in the Seine as I hunched over my laptop at the battered front desk in the History Department library, desperately hoping that none of the first year grad students studying so diligently behind me would be moved to peek over my shoulder at my "dissertation notes". That scene there, the one where Jane speaks in poetic code with Augustus Whittlesby in "Black Tulip"—that was written on a bitter cold January day, in my favorite back table at the Broadway Market Starbucks, lightheaded (and slightly ill) from two lattes one after the other, greedily guzzled for warmth. Even Geoffrey Pinchingdale-Snipe's primary seat owes its name to a fluke of local geography. I had been invited to a dinner at my medieval history professor's house, a long, long way down Brattle Street to a cul de sac called Sibley Court. The name lingered pleasantly on the tongue. I tried it out a few times as I walked down Brattle, past the concrete block of the American Reparatory Theatre and the leafy calm of professors' houses. "It's a long way to Sibley Court." And, lo, Geoff had a country estate in Gloucestershire.
I could go on and on for pages, mapping out every inch of the books like a medieval cartographer, indexing each twist and shift of plot and character to its corresponding Cambridge topography. That plotting epiphany as I was hurrying to meet a friend at Peet's Coffee; the time I had to plop down on a bench on a concrete island midway between the law school and the grocery store, surrounded by traffic, and write an entire scene of Pink III before it got away…. Books never confine themselves neatly to the space between the desk chair and the keyboard; they sprawl to touch every inch of the landscape and infuse it with extraterritorial significance.
Do you have your own private literary landscapes that overlap with the more mundane geography of the material world? Are there places that are linked in your mind with particular scenes in books you've either written or read?
It’s Not Easy Being Green
Monday, May 22nd, 2006
This past summer, during my stint as a law firm summer associate, I finally had a chance to see “Wicked”. Throughout the course of the show, all around me, people were sighing over the fate of poor What’s-Her-Name– you know, the green one. The downtrodden one. The underdog.
I just didn’t see it.
That poor downtrodden Green Girl got all the sympathy, all the magical talent, and stole her best friend’s boyfriend, to boot. And then what does she do? She runs away, leaving Galinda– bereft of her faithless beloved, I might add– to carry the heavy burden of running the kingdom. As far as I was concerned, Galinda was the real heroine of that story.
As we all milled out, into the mugginess of a July night, I discovered that this was a minority view. The general consensus among my peers seemed to be that Galinda deserved whatever she got. After all, she was the pretty one. The popular one. Any teen movie would say the same. We all know that the pretty girls, the polished girls, are invariably evil, and deserve to be brought down. It’s a message that starts with the Ugly Duckling when we’re but wee small things at our mothers’ knees and continues on through teen prom movies and Broadway musicals. In short, to paraphrase Mary Renault, the Prom Queen must die.
I promise, this really does tie back in to romance novels.
In my third book, “The Deception of the Emerald Ring,” I wrote about the classic ugly duckling heroine, the short, plump girl whose inner worth manages to shine through her freckled exterior. She doesn’t make prom queen (or become society’s reigning belle, which would be much the same thing), but she does get the Viscount. In fact, she gets her sister’s viscount. And, of course, it’s completely fair, because her sister is beautiful and popular, and thus deserves anything she gets.
Or does she?
Right now, I’m just starting work on my fourth book. It was originally meant to be about a different character entirely, a side character from one of my earlier books (Charlotte, for those of you who have read “The Masque of the Black Tulip”). But… I couldn’t stop thinking about Society’s Reigning Beauty who loses her beau to her sister. She might be popular– but how many true friends does she have? How many female friends does she lose, because of our instinctive assumption that anyone that gorgeous must be a self-centered witch? Despite earlier resolutions not to write about heroines who launch a thousand curricles and incite duels the minute they walk into Almack’s, I decided that I had to write the story of my nineteenth century prom queen, and show the other side of the coin, the price that gets paid for seeming perfection. In the words of Yeats, “It’s certain that fine women eat/A crazy salad with their meat/ Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.”
At the same time, I have to admit that I’m a little nervous about this endeavor. My Prom Queen heroine is the antithesis of most of the standard tropes. She isn’t particularly self-sacrificing; she doesn’t love children or small animals (or vice versa); and she’s well aware of her own good looks. For the first time in her life, she’s an object of pity rather than admiration, and she doesn’t know how to cope with it.
What do you think? Can a Prom Queen make a convincing heroine? Or are we, as a culture, too attached to the trope of the underdog?
Romancing the Improbable
Friday, May 5th, 2006
Let me beg pardon in advance for incoherence. Right now, I am supposed to be writing a paper on the Globalization of the Modern Legal Consciousness (from 1850 to 2000). It is a topic designed to reduce anyone’s brain to mush, especially since most of the articles on the subject are written in an odd academic pigdin, where nouns become verbs (i.e. one can universalize, or be universalizable, and one is positively encouraged to ventriloquize) and political correctness substitutes for received usage (far from being Americans, as we might have previously supposed ourselves to be, we are, in fact, Unitedstatesians, all one word, in the lower case.). It’s enough to make one run screaming through the streets like Cassandra at the Sack of Troy– um, sorry, I mean, it’s enough to make one ventriloquize the subjective consciousness of the colonized other when faced with the imposition of chauvinist norms of international public law reified in the person of Agammemnon. Right.
Just as an example of what this sort of linguistic rot can do if allowed to progress unchecked, two days ago, my professor grinned at us through the greying hairs of his Castro beard, and apologized for having “a Po Mo moment.” Po Mo? Why, post-modern, of course. Duh! Let’s all go get some Fro Yo at the Co Ho and ventriloquize the universalizable consciousness of the Po Mo. Or not. It’s the literary equivalent of termites. After a while, the entire verbal structure falls apart in one’s head. My version of the exterminator is re-reading “Mansfield Park.” There’s no one like Austen for giving the Po Mo the good heave-ho.
This should also illustrate just why Harvard and Yale Law students have a much higher rate of failure on the Bar Exam than those students from law schools which actually, well… teach law. Just in case you were wondering.
Thank you for letting me get that out of my system! What I meant to write about, before the Modern Legal Consciousness hijacked my brain, was something quite different: the Art of the Improbable.
A few weeks ago, I went into the inevitable fit of the frets that comes about nine-tenths of the way into writing a book, where I decide that my plot is fundamentally flawed, and the whole thing just Won't Work. In this case, what set me off was the worry that the fundamental premise was too improbable. After all, how on earth could I justify two (supposedly) sensible people managing to do something so idiotic as to elope—by accident? I would be eviscerated on Amazon, torn apart by a flurry of acronyms like TSTL, most of which I still haven't decoded. I do, however, have one of my own for people who come up with such acronyms: TMT, or Too Much Time (on your hands).
Just as I was at the height of my fret fit, my little sister passed along a book that instantly raised all of my improbability antennae. For starters, it was about a vampire viscount. Given the relative rarity of both viscounts and vampires, a conjunction of the two truly strains credulity. As if an undead member of the peerage weren't bad enough, the book began with that apex of improbability, that mockery among plot devices, the heroine gambled off in a game of cards.
But it worked. It all worked, every bit of it: the heroine won in a wager, the undead dandy, even the hero's eventual reclamation for the human race. The characterizations were consistent, the characters' actions comprehensible, their emotions believable.
Who would have thought?
Of course, once I started thinking about other books I've known and loved, I amassed a veritable parade of the improbables. There is Debbie Macomber's "Morning Comes Softly," about a mail-order bride; Georgette Heyer's "Devil's Cub" (the origin of the accidental elopement trope); that Connie Brockway about an actress successfully masquerading as a society wedding planner; and on and on. One could add on to that the works of the Bard, with Rosalind and Viola in their breeches roles in "As You Like It" and "Twelfth Night," or those masters of improbability, Gilbert and Sullivan, whose operettas all contain plot holes large enough to sail Her Majesty's navy through. With this pedigree of improbability, the real question seems not to be whether or not a specific type of behavior is too unlikely, but whether the author can pull it off.
What do you think? Are some plot devices just too improbable to use? And which books on your keeper shelf are based around grand improbables?
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to get some fattening Fro Yo to fortify myself for ventriloquizing the consciousness of the Po Mo….
Where, oh where did my Gothics go?
Saturday, April 15th, 2006
Outside, the sky is a lowering grey– grey with an “e” is always witchier than gray with an “a”–while inside the lamplight throws queer shadows across the walls. Any moment now, the storm might break. Rain will spatter against the windows; tree branches will sway and moan; and somewhere a heroine will topple off a cliff. At least, a heroine ought to be tumbling off a cliff. I don’t know whether it’s all those cordons on clifftops or the Heroines’ Union refusing to undertake that sort of activity without hazard pay and a guaranteed six month vacation in a swashbuckler in the Caribbean (pirates optional), but there is a decided dearth of Gothics out there these days.
Does anyone else remember those wonderful books that were so popular two decades back? The covers generally featured a wild-eyed female in a dark cloak fleeing from an even darker mansion in the background. The heroine’s head twisted at an improbable angle to stare back at the castle behind her, begging the questions a) whose neck moves that way? b) what made her think that much blue eyeshadow was a good idea?, and, c) how can she run if she’s staring backwards? I guess that explains why so many of them tended to tumble off cliffs.
The books sported titles like “The Castle of Dark Shadows,” “The Shadows of the Dark Castle,” or “The Dark of Castle Shadow”. This last is not to be confused with “The Dirk of Castle Shadow”, a Gothic-Highland hybrid, featuring a brooding laird, a claymore-wielding ghost, and blood-curdling descriptions of Scottish cuisine. “Ye dinna want ta climb the dark tower, ye ken?” snarls the requisite family retainer. “‘Tis the curse…. The curse of the Camerons!” No hooded heroine can ignore that sort of invitation. Notwithstanding the fact that she has just traveled forty-eight hours by coach, been visited by various spirits (Wife Past, Wife Present, and Wife Future), and been kissed by and vigorously slapped the hero (delivering a stinging set down along the lines of, “Sir, you forget yourself!” or another heroine favorite, the incredibly expressive, “Oh!”), our heroine gamely gathers up her filmy skirts, plunks that hood right back down over her head, and treks up the crumbling stairs of the Dark Tower, where she finds…. The laird, ominously sharpening his claymore? A grisly phantom, howling imprecations? (“Leave this cursed house! Leave! Leeeeeeeeave!”). Or the family haggis recipe?
As you can tell, I spent a lot of time with these books. My childhood bookshelves are crammed with Black Winds (“Sure, and the Black Wind of Melrose Island brings naught but doom, child. Dooooom. Turn back before it’s Too Late!”), Dark Towers, enough “Mistresses of” to stock a brothel, and a whole battalion of overly made up governesses jogging backwards. Nothing beats a black wind and a brooding hero on a rainy day. Throw in a sinister housekeeper, a family curse, and a sealed wing of the house, and what girl could ask for more? Ghosts optional; fops, pinks of the ton, and other upbeat types need not apply.
Which brings me back to my initial question: where did they all go? We have fops and fribbles in abundance, but it’s getting harder these days to find a brooding hero in a clifftop manor than it is to find a bargain in Barney’s.
I’ve heard arguments that the paranormal craze– especially the penchant for vampires– is the Gothic emerging in a new form. I have my doubts about that. No matter how the supernatural element skirted the edges of the Gothic, it was never the heart of it. More often than not, the revelations turned out to be quite mundane– disgruntled heirs not wanting to be bumped from the order of succession, jealous ex-lovers, insane wives in the attic– plain cloth tricked out with a frill of suggestion, like the lace edging the hem of the heroine’s gown.
In certain circles, the demise of the Gothic has been hailed as a triumph. After all, they represented an unequal and unregenerate mode of gender relations: the brutal employer, the downtrodden governess, the trope of blind acceptance (“I don’t care what you’ve done! I don’t care who you’ve murdered/locked in an attic/shoved off a cliff! I love you! I love you AND your fifty room mansion!”). The critics have had a field day with “Rebecca” and “Jane Eyre.”
On the other hand, our downtrodden governess could be pretty feisty. Our Gothic heroine is far more of a career woman than her Regency counterpart; she is forced to support herself, to go out into the world and make her own way. Unlike the bizarre tendency of Regency heroines to set up as courtesans the minute the family fortunes go downhill (“Everything? At cards? Oh, Papa, how could you! I shall just have to… become a mistress!”), our Gothic heroine chooses the steep and stony path of respectability, hiring out her brains rather than her body (which may explain why she has so few of the former left when it comes to the crucial clifftop scene).
Nor does she lack sheer guts. I don’t know about you, but I’d have to think twice before chasing a clanking spectre up a dark tower. That’s about when the bedclothes would come up over my head. Our Gothic heroine quails not. She delivers lectures to the hero, whips his children into shape, and even addresses home truths to the family ghost. (“Your haunting me at this hour is most improper! Please be so kind as to turn your back while I don my robe!” The family ghost, unaccustomed to being chided in such tones, instantly complies and begs pardon.)
My hat is off to the Gothic heroine. She may not be able to resist a cliff, but she has a stronger will than most modern chick lit heroines. She trips over family skeletons; they stumble over their own stiletto heels.
What were your favorite Gothics? (I have to put in votes for “The Master of Blacktower,” “Sons of the Wolf,” and “Nine Coaches Waiting”). And will they ever come back?
Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit
Wednesday, March 22nd, 2006
All right, I know we're supposed to hold off on answering "Ask the Authors" questions until our interviews… but this one was just too good to put off.
In her question, Kim W asked whether I have any good luck charms or superstitions. I haven't had any of the former since my heart-shaped jade pendant broke off its chain in sixth grade (I used to rub it for luck whenever a teacher was handing tests back; good for my nerves, but bad for the pendant); I have no problem at all walking under ladders (unless someone seems likely to drop something on me—ever wonder how much of that superstition was just pure common sense?); and I rather like black cats. But I do have a few well-worn personal superstitions that I scrupulously observe.
First, there's rabbit, rabbit, rabbit. Way back when, in the mists of first grade, our teacher informed us that it was good luck to hop in a circle while chanting, "Rabbit, rabbit, rabbit," on the first of every month. I have no idea why. It might be an ancient Druidic incantation to summon carrots into one's stewpot, a subtle homage to Peter Rabbit, or an etymological corruption of some other word (although if you can think of anything convincing, you're well ahead of me).
Twenty-two years later…. Regardless of having no idea what it means, guess who hops in a circle just before bedtime on the 31st of each month? Yep. That would be me. I've even evolved my own personal set of superstitions around the original one. For example, if I trip while hopping, it's going to be a difficult month. This New Years' Eve, I went sprawling. One could argue that that had more to do with a) my blood alcohol level, b) it being three in the morning at the time, and c) the pair of stiletto-heeled shoes I had just kicked off being directly in the path of my third "rabbit", but that would be far too logical. Clearly, it was Prophecy. And, lo!, January was a tough month. Again, skeptics might claim that that was because I had committed myself to doing forty hours of pro bono legal work, catching up on writing at least ten chapters of Pink III, and writing the first hundred pages of a satirical novel about the law school… but I still think it was that fatal stumble during rabbit, rabbit, rabbit.
Hey, it beats a groundhog.
My other favorite superstition came to me later in life—on my nineteenth birthday, to be precise. A friend had thrown me a little drinks party to celebrate (the party was little, the drinks were large), and, as the hours of my birthday wound down, another friend of mine, a rigorously logical classicist who seemed more prone to analyzing Roman superstitions than harboring any of his own, glanced at the clock and looked suddenly impish. "It's 11:11," he said. "Make a wish."
To which I very eloquently replied, "Hunh?"
"11:11," he repeated, as if it ought to be entirely self-explanatory. "But you can't look at the clock again until 11:12, or your wish won't come true."
I've been wishing on 11:11 ever since. In fact, since my VCR clock is twenty-five minutes slow (due to my inability to figure out how to reprogram it), my bedside clock is fifteen minutes fast, and my computer clock is just right, sometimes I have as many as three 11:11's a night.
That's a lot of wishes.
Some of them have even come true. But I can’t tell you which… because that might be bad luck.
Do you have any favorite superstitions? (Thanks for a fabulous question, Kim!
Monday, February 27th, 2006
It was Valentine’s Day, and I was aloooooone.
Fortunately, such is the way of graduate school (if college is like a large buffet of dating opportunities, graduate school is more like the supermarket salad bar at eleven at night– the better bits have been picked over, and anything that remains is decidedly wilty) that I had several friends who were also alooooooone, one of whom was throwing a “Think Pink” party. As I climbed the stairs to Liz’s apartment, I noticed something rather odd. There were printouts of my book covers pasted all along the wall up the stairs. This struck me as a little strange, but romance novel covers are certainly Valentine’s Day appropriate. The first one, “The Secret History of the Pink Carnation” was even pink. Liz must have run out of the traditional hearts and cupids and resorted to a little desperate last minute decorating with whatever lay close to hand.
Yes, I can be a bit slow sometimes.
Blithely unawares, I trip-trapped up the final flight of steps, knocked on the door, and nearly fell over as it was wrenched open with a loud chorus of “Surprise!” Inside, Liz’s apartment had been turned into Pink Carnation wonderland, hung with carnation-themed streamers, pasted with covers of my books, and set out with enough pink-themed food to permanently clean the supermarket out of pink food coloring. Everyone was in pink, with the sole exception of my friend Jenny, who was representing the Black Tulip in purple sweater and black scarf. After I had picked myself up off the floor, spluttered, made squealing noises, and generally demonstrated incoherent pleasure, pink champage made the rounds and a good time was had by all. It was, in short, the Best Valentine’s Day Ever– and that includes several years worth of flowers and chocolates with devoted boy in tow.
As I meandered happily home in a haze of pink champage, it occured to me that there is a crucial commonality between Valentine’s Day and discussions of romance novels (and, no, I don’t just mean the prediliction for pink). We tend to focus on the relationship between the hero and heroine. Given the genre, this makes a great deal of sense– but it leaves out all those other relationships that make the hero and heroine who they are and give the book much of its dramatic crunch.
Most of us live deeply embedded in networks of friends and relatives, spanning relationships that cover every shade of the spectrum from deep affection to sheer, agonized, nails-on-the-blackboard annoyance. For me, the most memorable books are those that reflect those nuances. Anne and Gilbert’s relationship in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne books is certainly charming, but where would Anne be without her kindred spirit, Diana, the unconditional love of Matthew, and her often troubled interactions with that crusty disciplinarian Marilla? Looking at my shelf of favorite romances, I find Julia Quinn’s rambunctious Bridgerton clan (where Lady Bridgerton serves as an aspirational model for mothers everywhere), Gwen’s two best friends in Jessica Benson’s “The Accidental Duchess,” and, of course, the whole host of Heyer side characters. When people ask me what my favorite scene in “The Secret History of the Pink Carnation” is, it’s not one of the tender moments (or even not-so-tender moments) between hero and heroine. It’s the moment when the hero’s entire family, complete with his best friend and pesky little sister, unexpectedly descend on him and threaten to drive him utterly mad in one easy tea-time.
I would like to raise a toast (in pink champagne, of course) to those non-romantic relationships that shape our characters and enrich our lives– and, in the end, help make True Love possible.
Which relationships, either on your bookshelf or in your life, have meant the most to you?
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