Readers, thanks for visiting! Today, Theresa Romain and I are chatting about our January historical romances, which both feature heiress heroines (mine: True Pretenses, and hers: Secrets of a Scandalous Heiress). But as we talked, we discovered many more things we wanted to talk about—everything from character casting to mall singers to “manflirting” as an aristocratic cultural marker.
To celebrate reaching 100 Twitter followers, Heather Rose Jones offered a choice of blog topic to the 99th and 100th. One of the winners, Ursula W., noting that two of her friends both wrote Regency-era romances, requested a blog trade. When Heather suggested each discussing how our stories interact with Heyer, especially in regards to how we use class difference to create conflict in our books, I was sold! My post is up at Heather’s blog if you’d like to read it. An excerpt:
My relationship with Heyer is complicated. In some ways, I relate to her like a critical mother. Her work has influenced my genre and my writing so heavily, she’s written some of my very favorite romances, and yet…I know she wouldn’t approve of me (apart from anything else, I’m Jewish!). I’m unable to simply set aside the places we disagree. Instead, they inspire in me frustrated stomach churnings if I think too much about it.
Because here’s the thing about Georgette Heyer and class issues as a roadblock to romance:
In Georgette Heyer, real class difference is an insuperable barrier to romance.
Heather’s debut novel Daughter of Mystery (Bella Books) is concisely described as a “Ruritanian Regency lesbian romance with magic and swashbuckling” (okay, I clearly need to check this out) and features Margerit Sovitre, an aspiring scholar who unexpectedly inherits a fortune…and a bodyguard named Barbara.
Here’s Heather’s post!
A romance author’s most important task is to keep her protagonists apart. Seriously. Without roadblocks to the romance, you may have a happy couple undergoing adventures together, but you don’t have a romance novel. One of the attractions of historic romance is exploring the palette of roadblocks specific and appropriate to the time and place of the setting. And one of the classic failures of historic romance is overlooking barriers rooted in your novel’s era in favor of more modern motivations and attitudes.
Any Anglophone romance novel set around the turn of the 19th century will inevitably find itself in dialog with both Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer. Austen, because she gives us a boots-on-the-ground view of the attitudes, assumptions, goals, and aspirations of the time. Heyer, though she’s less bound by historic realities, because she essentially invented the concept of the Regency romance and mapped out an amazingly prolific array of character types, plots, tropes, and resolutions that form the basis for the genre. One may follow their lead or consciously write in contrast to them, but one cannot ignore them.
My novel Daughter of Mystery aimed, in part, for the look-and-feel of a Heyer romance, though differing significantly in the details. (It has fantasy elements, is set in the invented country of Alpennia rather than England, and concerns a same-sex romantic couple.) So I found it interesting to see how my characters’ problems compare to Austen and Heyer’s use of class, economics, social attitudes, and gender as romantic roadblocks.
Ceci is a wonderful friend and a wonderful writer, witty and awesome with great taste in TV. Her debut historical A Lady Awakened is fantastic and fresh and charming and sexy, and if you don’t believe me, just ask Smart Bitch Sarah Wendell, who named it a 2011 Must Read!
Newly widowed and desperate to protect her estate—and housemaids—from a predatory brother-in-law, Martha Russell conceives a daring plan. Or rather, a daring plan to conceive. After all, if she has an heir on the way, her future will be secured. Forsaking all she knows of propriety, Martha approaches her neighbor, a London exile with a wicked reputation, and offers a strictly business proposition: a month of illicit interludes…for a fee.
Theophilus Mirkwood ought to be insulted. Should be appalled. But how can he resist this siren in widow’s weeds, whose offer is simply too outrageously tempting to decline? Determined she’ll get her money’s worth, Theo endeavors to awaken this shamefully neglected beauty to the pleasures of the flesh—only to find her dead set against taking any enjoyment in the scandalous bargain. Surely she can’t resist him forever. But could a lady’s sweet surrender open their hearts to the most unexpected arrival of all…love?
RL: You changed your hero’s name because the original name wasn’t popular among the upper class during the Regency. Tell me more about the class connotations of first names!
CG: Theo was “Christopher” for a long time, because it’s a name that happens to please my ear. But it’s not, I found out after a little investigation, a name that a class-conscious Georgian baronet would have given his firstborn son. I know, because I paged through all the baronet listings in the online Peerage, and the only Regency-era Christopher I found was a new creation, probably in reward for military distinction.
The Georgian aristocracy (which baronets were a step below, but close enough to want to follow the same naming conventions) overwhelmingly tended to name their heirs – the eventual Regency aristocracy – after the past few hundred years of kings. Lots of Georges, Jameses, Henrys, Williams, Edwards, and Charleses. Occasionally you come across a more novel name that’s been in a family for generations, like Hungerford (or Theophilus, as I eventually re-named my hero), but for the most part, Regency peers were christened out of that small pool of fashionable names – which almost nobody addressed them by, anyway. Theo would be “Theo” to his brothers and sisters; “Mirkwood” to pretty much everyone else.
As a reader, I don’t mind a little creative liberty in hero-naming, but as a writer, I want to be respectful of those readers for whom it is an issue. Changing the hero’s first name to something historically plausible (in fact, verifiable) was a sort of low-cost no-brainer, so I did it.
That said, I have to mention that the other week I got an email from someone asking the derivation of the hero’s last name, because Mirkwood didn’t look English to her. And I had to say, “Uh, actually that’s just a play on the kind of surname historical-romance heroes always seem to have, all dark and threatening. No historical basis.”
So there you have it. My commitment to historicity lasts just until the next opportunity for a meta-textual joke.
RL: “Murkwood” isn’t nearly as pretty-looking, is it?
The sex in your book starts out awkward and complicated (the hero is into it at first, but the heroine is just doing her duty and won’t allow herself to enjoy it for quite a while), but I thought it was a very hot, almost kinky scenario. Was it fun torturing your hero that way?
CG: I love that you thought the bad sex was hot! You’re the first person who’s said that, and now I’m going to have to go back and re-read it and see whether I mightn’t agree, just a little.
Torturing Theo was tremendous fun, both sadistic and masochistic. (I identify with whoever I’m writing at the time, so when things were going bad for him, and I was in his POV, I was feeling his pain.) There’s this one early scene in particular where things between them just go to hell in a handbasket and I was sure, while writing it, that any eventual editor would tell me I had to cut it or heavily revise.
That would have been a dealbreaker for me–literally, I promised myself I would walk away from a publisher who wouldn’t let me keep that scene, not so much because of the merits of the scene itself, but because it’s eminently representative of the kind of romance I want to write.
And then of course nobody – neither agent nor editor, though both had plenty of revision requests – raised any objection to that scene at all. So much for my pretensions to radical envelope-pushing!
RL: I can’t really be the first, can I? Come on, let’s see a show of hands, who else thought that was hot like burning?
It used to be that every romance I read had an unhappy, tightly emotionally controlled hero and a heroine who helped him open up. When I first started developing the idea for Lily ten years ago (which flips those roles), it was a very unusual book. But now I’m thrilled to see more and more of that type of romance being published: Meredith Duran’s Wicked Becomes You, Sherry Thomas’s Not Quite a Husband, and Courtney Milan’s Unclaimed are a few stand-outs for me, but there are plenty more! Why do you think this type of romance is becoming more popular, and what drew you to writing it?
CG: This is something I spend a lot of time thinking about, and I’m not sure my thoughts have jelled into a cohesive answer. But I’ll give it a try.
The non-nurturing woman is a fascinating character to me for a lot of reasons, probably beginning with the fact that she transgresses against one of the bottom-line social expectations for her gender.
Have you seen the toilet-paper commercial where a bunch of women address the camera about how important toilet-paper-related cleanliness is for themselves and their families? I can’t imagine anyone ever shooting that commercial with a bunch of men, even though men, too, have families, and presumably put just as high a value on that sort of cleanliness as women do. There’s just this assumption that women will be the ones to “own” that concern, since it can fit under the Nurturing umbrella.
In that societal context–even aside from the whole question of whether or not nurturing ought to be women’s sphere–the non-nurturing woman is automatically an arresting figure.
And I’m not alone in thinking so. Look at all the people gobbling up those books about Lisbeth Salander. Look at the ratings for Revenge. Thorny, emotionally unavailable heroines are interesting, and why wouldn’t romance join the rest of pop culture in recognizing that fact?
The obvious challenge, for the writer, is figuring out to what degree you can integrate a character like that into a romance without either diminishing the character (I’m starting to think I’d rather not see Emily Thorne soften up and fall in love with anyone. Stay strong, Emily! Eyes on the prize!) or writing something that’s not true to the fundamental precepts of romance.
But that sort of challenge is invigorating. Between Lisbeth Salander, and the feistiest historical-romance heroine you can name, is a big swath of characterization territory just begging to be mucked around in. So I hope we’ll be seeing a greater and greater incidence of “difficult” heroines alongside the more-traditionally-accessible kind.
RL: Tell me about the coolest book you read for research for ALA. (And bear in mind, one of my favorite research books is The Genesis of Modern Management: A Study of the Industrial Revolution, so “cool” doesn’t necessarily preclude “obscure”!)
CG: I wish I could say I’d read Theo’s bête noire pamphlet, The Utility of Agricultural Knowledge to the Sons of the Landed Proprietors of England, &c &c, by John Claudius Loudon. But I never did succeed in tracking it down–I’m not sure the text has survived–so to get the general flavor I read some of Loudon’s other agriculture-themed work, in particular his posthumous publication (get ready)–
Self-instruction for young gardeners, foresters, bailiffs, land-stewards, and farmers; in arithmetic and book-keeping, geometry, mensuration, and practical trigonometry, mechanics, hydrostatics, and hydraulics, land-surveying, levelling, planning, and mapping, architectural drawing, and isometrical projection and perspective: with examples, showing their application to horticultural and agricultural purposes.
It’s a dry book, as you can imagine, but the context makes it kind of sweet: you can picture an ambitious, disciplined boy whose parents can’t afford a Rugby education working his way through the pages, memorizing how many gallons make up a firkin, and learning how to solve problems like the following:
If 12 roods of grass be cut down by 2 men in 6 days; how many roods will be cut down by 8 men in 24?
Of course I also picture the breeches-clad Beavises and Butt-heads of the era confronting the title with bug-eyed outrage, or falling asleep and drooling on the pages.
RL: What’s your favorite TV or movie romance of 2011?
I’ve talked elsewhere about my love for like-minded government wonks Ben and Leslie on the show Parks and Recreation. So instead of repeating myself I’ll put in a word for a non-romantic TV relationship I loved in 2011: Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson on the BBC’s Sherlock!
It’s not a slash-fiction thing, I swear. I don’t want to see them kiss, or silently yearn for each other, or anything like that. [RL: Well, that makes one of us!] (In fact I’m totally down with Sherlock meeting his match in a female adversary, as I hear is going to happen in season 2.) I just get a lot of the same enjoyment out of that relationship that I do out of a good romance. See, you’ve got Dr. Watson, back from the war, at loose ends, not quite sure what’s missing in his life–and little does he suspect that the cure for what ails him is a rude, brilliant, high-functioning sociopath who’s going to be constantly dragging him into danger!
(Isn’t it just like the setup for an excellent romance? That person who seems like anathema to you is, it turns out, exactly what you need! A lot of their dialogue, too – impatience and exasperation with a side of insuppressible respect – wouldn’t be out of place in a good romance. God, I can’t wait for season 2.)
In movies, although I had some issues with the movie itself, I thought Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone were insanely adorable together in Crazy Stupid Love. In the back of my brain I was thinking, “Eww, I hate this trope of the player who meets the One Special Woman who makes him change his ways” (Like you, I always feel bad for all the previous women who weren’t Special enough), but the actors’ combined charm just mowed down my resistance.
RL: What’s your favorite non-romance historical fiction book?
CG: Two spring to mind. Jennifer Donnelly’s YA novel A Northern Light, set in the early-20th-century Finger Lakes region of New York, is sort of an anti-romance – you’re rooting hard for heroine Mattie to break her engagement and take that scholarship to Barnard, and when she does, it’s hugely exhilarating–while also being a deeply romantic account of how a girl with the odds against her finds her voice and forges her own future.
And Geraldine Brooks’s March, an imagining of the Little Women father’s experiences in the Civil War, stays with me for a lot of reasons, but chiefly for one pivotal moment in which the protagonist fails, in utterly craven fashion, to step up and stand with the former slaves among whom he’s been living. I have a thing for stories of people who fall short of what they’d like to be/ought to be, and this was a particularly vivid one.
Wow, I will definitely be checking those out, especially the Donnelly book. I love early-20th-century coming-of-age stories SO MUCH. Thanks for visiting, Cecilia!
What was your favorite TV or movie romance of 2011? Cecilia will be giving away a copy of A Lady Awakened to one lucky commenter (in the US or Canada)!
Lucy Jones is a nobody. As an orphan she was reluctantly taken in by her wealthy relatives, the Arringtons, on the condition that she be silent and obedient, always. When her lifelong infatuation with her cousin Sebastian is rewarded by a proposal of marriage, she’s happy and grateful, even though the family finds excuses to keep the engagement a secret.
James Wright-Gordon has always had the benefits of money and a high station in society, but he is no snob. He’s very close to his sister, Anna, who quickly falls for the dashing Sebastian when the families are brought together at a wedding party. Meanwhile, James is struck by Lucy’s quiet intelligence, and drawn to her despite their different circumstances in life.
Lucy suspects that Sebastian has fallen for Anna, but before she can set him free, a terrible secret is revealed that shakes both families. Will James come to her rescue—or abandon her to poverty?
It’s no secret that I am head-over-heels for James, so I’m afraid these questions focus unfairly on him, but Lucy is great too, I promise!
Q: James Wright-Gordon, the hero of A Marriage of Inconvenience, isn’t short, but he isn’t the tallest hero in the room either. And I bet that at this point in England’s history, the short jokes about Napoleon were flying fast and thick. How does James feel about them, and how does he respond, if at all?
A: There’s actually a point very early in the book where I describe the whole Gordon family as having a Napoleon complex, though of course I couldn’t use those words. Instead I had James’s sister Anna reflect, and James agree, that one reason their family might be so flashy and given to drawing attention to themselves is because they’re short and feel the need to make a lot of noise to make sure no one overlooks them.
As for how James would respond to a short joke, it’d depend on who was making it, and if it was directed at him or not. He’s confident enough to let 99% of such remarks roll off, but I can see him, under the right circumstances, saying something along the lines of, “Yeah, Lord TallGuy, I’m not much taller than Napoleon, and yeah, I have all kinds of ideas for improving the world…isn’t it a good thing England is in good enough shape that I don’t feel the need to try to take over for her own good? Now, about your vote on this week’s bill….”
Q: A Marriage of Inconvenience is a retelling of Mansfield Park. If you were going to retell Sense and Sensibility, how would you do it?
A: Ooh, interesting question. The first big change I made to MP’s plot in developing AMOI was to make James, the Henry Crawford equivalent, the hero. Which wasn’t that hard, because every time I re-read MP I feel like Henry is pushed kicking and screaming into adultery so Fanny will have an iron-clad reason to reject him and Edmund will have to cut all connection with the Crawfords despite his ongoing fascination with Mary. It’s almost as if Henry is shouting to me from the text, “No, I mean it! I really am reformed! I love Fanny! Help! Get me a happy ending!”
S&S is tougher, because to me it’s the least satisfying of Austen’s books as a romance. Persuasion and Pride & Prejudice work perfectly on that level, and I think Henry and Catherine in Northanger Abbey are adorable. Fanny and Edmund in MP may be uptight and priggish, but they’ll be happy prigs together, and Emma and Mr. Knightley work well enough that I can almost overlook the age difference. But with S&S, I feel like Elinor and Marianne deserve better men than they get. While Elinor has spine enough for two, I feel like she’s always going to be pushing and managing for Edward, which hardly seems fair to her. Marianne ends up with a man who fell in love with her because she’s so much like his tragic dead first love, and doesn’t she deserve to be seen as her own unique self, and not some kind of ghost or revenant?
So, let’s see, how would I do this? My Edward figure would marry Lucy Steele, and be more or less content with the arrangement. Edward needs to be managed and probably wouldn’t much care WHO managed him in the long run, and Lucy would manage to insinuate herself into the Ferrars’ good graces as Edward’s wife just as well as she ultimately did as Robert’s.
Then Colonel Brandon realizes it’s time to move on from his youthful trauma, and what better way to do so than with a nice, level-headed woman like Elinor? As for Marianne, the one thing I wouldn’t do is redeem Willoughby. I think Austen, and Elinor, had far more sympathy for the seduce-’em-and-leave-’em asshole than I can manage. No, I’d find a young officer, maybe one who comes to Col. Brandon for patronage and advice, someone dashing and handsome and romantic but also decent and honorable, for Marianne to have adventures with.
Look what you just did! In three paragraphs you took me from, “I don’t see myself ever adapting S&S, really not my thing,” to “Hey, what a cool idea! I should try that.” [RL: Mwahahahahaha! Victory!]
Q: You actually wrote AMOI first, even though The Sergeant’s Lady was published before it. Were you always planning to write Anna’s book, or did that develop as you wrote? Is anyone else from AMOI going to get to be a hero(ine)?
A: No, I wasn’t planning to write Anna’s story when I started AMOI. Over the course of the story, she grew on me, and Sebastian turned out more evil than he’d been in my original germ of an idea. So I thought, “OK, he’s a soldier. I’ll kill him, and give her someone better. She’ll have a whole army of better someones to choose from, and I love following the drum stories…”
As for other characters from AMOI, maybe. I’ve started Portia’s story twice. I haven’t gotten very far with it, but maybe I just haven’t found the right hero and plot for her yet. And there are a few people mentioned in AMOI who don’t get actual “screen time” I’d like to write about—Lucy’s younger brother who goes to India, even though that’d mean writing post-1815, something I’ve always said I have no interest in doing, and also James’s naval hero distant cousin. I know what happens to him, and it’s great stuff, but I’d have to somehow get past the fact I’m Stephen Maturin-level clueless when it comes to ship matters to write it properly.
Q: When Wellington becomes prime minister, how will he and James get along? James is pretty active politically so they’re bound to run into each other.
Yeah, they’d definitely meet. The House of Lords isn’t that big a place, after all. I think they’d respect each other, because they’re both perceptive enough to recognize brains and integrity even in someone on the opposite side of the aisle. They might even enjoy a certain degree of verbal fencing over issues. But they wouldn’t be close, because they’d be mutually baffled over how such an intelligent, well-intentioned man could be so wrong-headed about everything.
Q. Team Hamilton or Team Jefferson?
A: Well, Hamilton is the hottest guy on our currency, if you ask me. [RL: Couldn’t agree more!] But can I be on Team Franklin instead? Because I get the sense he’d be the most fun Founding Father to have a fling with, or just to hang out with at soirees talking about life, the universe, and everything. Or maybe Team Adams, because he seems to have been the best husband of the bunch.
Q: One thing I love about your books is how the secondary characters always seem like full people–what I mean is, I really believe that they think about things other than the hero and heroine, and that when they aren’t on the page, they’re living their own lives. Do you have any tips for writers on how you do that? And who’s your favorite minor character in AMOI, Anna excluded?
A: Thanks! I always try to remember that everyone sees himself or herself as the hero of the story. If you could jump into the book and interview one of James and Lucy’s housemaids, she’d probably say something about how they’re a lovely couple and she hopes they’ll be happy, but she’d mainly talk about what working for them means for her—how she’s lucky to be in a place where his lordship doesn’t molest the maids, and how nice it is to be working close to home so she can see her ailing father on her half-days, and how she hopes the second footman will kiss her again, but no more than that, mind, because she wouldn’t want to get pregnant and lose her place, but maybe someday, if they save their money, he could open a pub and they could marry. And while I’m not writing her story, or even usually giving it much conscious thought, that awareness is always in the back of my mind. Her life intersects with the hero and heroine’s, or she wouldn’t be on the page, but she has her own agenda and dreams she’s pursuing, always.
I think my favorite secondary character in AMOI other than Anna is James and Anna’s uncle, the Earl of Dunmalcolm. He’s a proud Scot, but he’s also mellow and easygoing, with a good sense of humor. He’s a lot like my dad and my uncles, really.
Q: What’s something good about storytelling you learned from watching Joss Whedon, and something you learned to avoid?
A: The idea that every character in a book (movie, show, whatever) considers himself or herself the hero came from listening to the Firefly DVD commentary. Also, I like the way Joss tweaks genre expectations and try to bring at least a little of that to my work. And he writes characters who never stop fighting back even when everything looks hopeless, which I love.
On the avoid side, sometimes I think Joss is a little too trigger-happy with the character death. I can see his point that in his kind of story, no one is safe, and I don’t like the opposite extreme, where an author gives you all kinds of warning that SOMEONE WILL DIE and it turns out to be the third cousin who barely has a line or someone who was just introduced in this book, seven books into the series. But I think there’s a happy medium, one in which, say, Tara and Wash might still be alive. [RL: Okay, I agree with this more. Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal, Joss Whedon!]
Q: What’s your favorite romance of 2011 so far?
A: My dirty little secret is that I’m continually way behind on my TBR pile and I’ve barely read any romances published in 2011 yet, even though we’re almost a third of the way through the year. But I really loved Bonnie Dee’s Captive Bride, and I’m not just saying that to toot a fellow Carina author’s horn. She paints a vivid portrait of an unusual setting (1870’s San Francisco), with a strong, likeable hero and heroine I rooted for from their first appearances on the page, and makes me believe they could make a 19th century interracial marriage work. [RL: Wow, she really sold me on that one. ::adds to TBR pile:: You can read more about Captive Bridehere at the Carina website.]
Q: I hear you’re giving a workshop at the Emerald City Writers Conference. Tell me about it!
It’s called “How to Write Like a Full-Time Writer When You Can’t Quit Your Day Job,” and it’s about productivity strategies for the busy writer. I have a full-time job on top of my writing, and my husband has a full-time job and does some freelancing and teaches a class at UW one quarter per year. Oh, and we have a daughter in first grade. I recently joked that two-career couples were nothing, we’re a FOUR-career couple. It’s not easy. But the alternative is not writing, which is unacceptable.
Q: What are you working on now?
Two projects, neither of which is under contract anywhere, but here’s hoping! The first is a short historical romance novella about a common soldier’s widow in the Peninsular War who has to remarry quickly and how she and her new husband adjust to and come to love each other. The second is a historical fantasy, hopefully first of at least a trilogy, featuring a young woman whose unusual upbringing and paranormal abilities lead to her becoming the only woman officer in Wellington’s army.
Susanna will be by to answer comments and give away a copy of AMOI to one lucky commenter!