Barbara Hambly


Lauren Willig recently referenced a post I wrote for Valentine’s Day a few years ago, which prompted me to go back to the post, one of my favorites. In honor of last week’s holiday, this seemed a good time to re-post it.

I’ve wanted to do this blog for a while and Valentine’s Day seemed the perfect time to write it. Favorite romantic scenes–first declarations of love, resolutions of seemingly insurmountable conflicts, and other heart stopping moments. Here are a few of my favorites, scenes that bring an ache to my throat and put a smile on my face, many of them scenes I’ve reread so many times I know them by heart.

In no particular order:

1. “Oh, Damerel, must you be foxed just as this moment? How odious you are , my dear friend!”

The extended sequence at the end of Georgette Heyer’s Venetia in which Venetia and Damerel work out their differences has it all–conflict, humor, passion, and poignancy. Damerel is a world-weary rake and Venetia is a sheltered, unmarried woman, yet they’re so uniquely themselves that they pop off the page, and so obviously soul mates that you can’t but feel a catch in your throat as they battle through to their happy ending.

2. “I’ve just won a wager with myself.”

The scene in Freedom & Necessity by Steven Brust & Emma Bull in which Susan and James confess their feelings (and do rather more than confess them) may be my favorite literary love scene. It’s character-driven, emotionally fraught, erotically frank, and yet still filled with mystery. The final scene between the couple in the book is also lovely, and then there’s that fabulous last letter James writes to Susan, not to mention all the moments in between.

3. “Monseigneur, I would so much rather be the last woman than the first.”

These Old Shades is a comfort read for me, but it isn’t my favorite Georgette Heyer. It isn’t even in my top three. And yet I’ve reread the last scene between Avon and Léonie countless times. It’s beautifully written and structured, with a wonderful economy of gesture and emotion that speaks volumes. There’s very little inner monologue, and yet the emotional shifts are crystal clear.

4. “Now forget your responsibility to everyone else for once in your life and give me a straight answer. Do you want me to stay?”

The final scene in The Armies of Daylight, the third book in Barbara Hambly’s Darwath trilogy, may be the most satisfying lovers-getting-together-against-the-odds scene I’ve ever read, largely because the odds seem so very high and the happy ending so very much not guaranteed. There’s also something about this scene that to me is very much parallel to the Léonie/Avon scene, though the words are very different as are the characters. Yet both stories involve heroes who are considerably older than the heroines and who men capable of shaping the world round them (Ingold is a wizard, Avon a wealthy, powerful duke). Both men are convinced they’ll only bring unhappiness to the woman they love and are trying to do the noble thing and give her up (as is Damerel in scene 1. Doing the right thing can be very sexy). The heroines, Léonie and Gil, are very different women. Yet both are trying to convince the man they love that they know what they want and would much rather face the future with him, hand in hand. Like the scene from These Old Shades, this one has beautifully delineated emotional shifts and wonderful tension between desire and perceived duty and the competing objectives of the two characters.

5. “I do love nothing in the world so well as you: is not that strange?”

I got to do the church scene between Beatrice and Benedick from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing in acting class in high school. My fellow sophomore Benedick and I barely scratched the surface of what the scene has to offer. But we had a lot of fun, and I still know most of the lines by heart. And every time I see the play, I find new things in this incredibly rich scene, which is funny, touching, romantic, and fraught with dark emotion. In the History Hoydens discussion, Pam Rosenthal said, It stops my heart now, as completely as it did when I first read it in my late teens. And Leslie Carroll, who is also an actress, said, That admission always takes my breath away. And it did when I played the role, every time we got to that moment. It’s a moment that is so well crafted; it manages to be totally earned and yet steals up on the lovers unawares.

6. “Placetne, magistra?”
“Placet.”

I think I studied Latin college partly so I could understand the dialogue between Peter and Harriet in the final scene of Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night (thanks to which I now know that Peter phrases the question in a neutral way, rather than a way that expects a yes or no answer). That this scene manages not to be trite or anticlimactic or trite after three books of angst and adventure, countless marriage proposals, and several brushes with death is no small feat. You can really believe in the balance these two characters have fought their way to, yet there’s still enough tension to keep the reading anxiously turning the pages. Harriet’s done a great deal of thinking in the pages before, but here, as in some of the other scenes I’ve mentioned, there’s very little inner monologue. And yet every word and detail is weighted with subtext, down to the traffic lights blinking Yes; No; Wait. And as Janet Mullany said in the History Hoydens discussion, it’s a book that has a breathtaking amount of sexual tension in it.

7. Too late, too late, too late. It had happened.

My mom and I used to call this the “Gigi” moment–where the hero suddenly realizes, with the force of a thunderclap, that he’s madly in love with the heroine who’s been right there under his nose for years and years or pages and pages. The moment when Francis Crawford of Lymond comes to this realization, in The Ringed Castle, book five of the Lymond Chronicles is all the more powerful for the world “love” never being used.

8. “I prefer you as you are–tainted and tarnished.”

The scene where Mary casts caution and calculation aside and crawls into bed with the wounded Lord Vaughn in Lauren Willig’s The Seduction of the Crimson Rose is just lovely. A truly romantic confession of feeling on both sides, made all the stronger by the fact that you know just what it costs these two people to let their guard down and make themselves vulnerable. Both maintain their wonderfully acerbic sides, which makes their confession of their feelings (couched or allude to in character-appropriate terms) all the more powerful.

9. “A bath and some inoculations are called for, Holmes.”

I think the “dock scene” from Laurie King’s A Monstrous Regiment of Women may be my favorite proposal scene. Intensely romantic in large part because so much about it is is quite the opposite. Holmes and Russell are filthy and soaking wet and in the midst of an argument about his having gone after the villain without her. There’s a wonderful juxtaposition of acerbic dialogue and passionate breaking free of restraint. As with Gaudy Night and the Darwath Chronicles, and the Lymond Chronicles, it has extra power from being the culmination of
more than one book of longing. It sends chills up my spine every time I read it (play on words intended, to those familiar with the scene).

10. “Well,” he said, with a transitory gleam of himself, “you’re my corner and I’ve come to hide.”

Peter and Harriet are the only couple to appear twice on this list. Much as I love the last scene of Gaudy Night, I think I may be even more fond of the final scene between them in Busman’s Honeymoon. It grapples with a question I’m fond of addressing in my own writing, “what happens after happily ever after?” And it balances the scales by letting Peter need Harriet. As Lauren Willig said in the History Hoydens Discussion, I think it’s the first book I read that really took the time to deal with what happened after that initial, hard won resolution. She then made a nice comparison to Charles and Mélanie and watching the struggle of two people struggling to find a way to fit together on an ongoing basis, achieving small victories and dealing with the occasional reversal. Which prompted me to mention that The last scene in Busman’s Honeymoon was my inspiration for the last scene in Beneath a Silent Moon, which was my starting place for the book. I knew I wanted to get Charles and Mélanie to that scene, and I worked backwards :-) .

Ten very different scenes. And yet, as I revisited them to write this post, I realized that the very differences in scenes and characters are something the scenes have in common. Each is unique to the characters involved, in the setting and circumstances in which the scene occurs (a sitting room in the French countryside, a rocky hollow in an alternate universe the London docks, an Oxford street) to the circumstances to the words and gestures the characters find to express their feelings. There’s also a wonderful tension to all of them, a sense of the fragility of emotions and the bonds between two people and the risk of letting down one’s guard. None of them seem quite certain in advance and yet once the characters find their way to each other, you absolutely believe in the possibility of their happiness.

Have you read any of the books above? Did any of these scenes resonate with you? What are some favorite literary heart stopping moments of yours? What is it that makes them particularly effective?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is Raoul’s reply to Lady Elizabeth’s letter from last week.

Last week I did a post-Valentine’s blog on History Hoydens that I thought I’d repeat here for those who missed it. I like to do a romantic moments blog around Valentine’s Day. This year I thought I’d focus on moments where a happy ending for the couple in question seems an impossibility. Sometimes they are the ending to a story. Sometimes they are the bleak moment before a triumphant ending. Either way, they can be intensely romantic, despite or perhaps because of the edge of sorrow.

My examples are mostly historical and come from novels, films, and a Broadway musical.

Venetia by Georgette Heyer. Damerel sending Venetia away for her own good. I feel a heart tug every time I read about him throwing her up into the saddle for the last time. Much as I want to shake Damerel, there’s something that always gets me about a guy trying to be noble.

Atonement by Ian McEwan. Cecilia running after Robbie and embracing him before the police take him away. The fact that she stands by him against the seeming evidence, against her family, against the pressures of class prejudice stunned me the first time I read the book and stunned me the film version as well.

The Silicon Mage by Barbara Hambly. Antryg saying farewell to Joanna before sending her off to her own world, both of them fully expecting him to die. There’s a lovely restraint to the scene which makes the words all the more powerful.

The Empire Strikes Back by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, based on a story by George Lucas. Princess Leia saying farewell to Han Solo before he’s frozen in carbonite (“I love you.”/”I know.”). I was talking about this scene to a friend over dinner on Valentine’s Day. The moment my thirteen-year-old self fell in love with Han Solo/Harrison Ford. I still remember sitting with my parents in a restaurant afterwards and saying “It’s so unfair we have to wait so long to find out what happens next.”

“Send in the Clowns”, A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler. Desirée’s song captures the poignancy of the moment when love seems lost, wry irony with a wealth of pain underneath.

Casablanca by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch, based on a play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. Rick putting Ilsa on the plane. I can’t think of another scene that is at once so poignant and so satisfyingly right.

Shakespeare in Love by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman. Will and Viola saying goodbye. I find this scene much more painful than the end of Casablanca. And yet there’s the power of the fact that you can already see Will beginning to think about writing again and you see Viola’s will to go on.

The Temptation of the Night Jasmine by Lauren Willig. Robert sending Charlotte away for her own good. Like the scene in Venetia, this one brings a lump to my throat. But unlike Damerel, who simply thinks he’s too tainted to make Venetia happy, Robert is caught in a dangerous web he really can’t tell Charlotte about. Fortunately for both of them, the intrepid Charlotte unravels things on her own.

Any examples of your own to add? What makes this type of scene work or not work for you? Writers, do you find these scenes harder or easier to write than happy love scenes?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is David’s reply to Simon’s letter of a couple of weeks ago about his visit to his family in the north of England.

The follow up discussion to my post last week on “Bad Boy” Heroes got me to thinking that in general I don’t like stories where bad boy heroes are reformed by heroines who (in Stephanie’s apt description) are “pure as the driven snow.” A fascinating post by Pam Rosenthal on her blog and and the follow-up discussion got me thinking more along the same lines. Pam was writing about children in romance representing innocence, but the discussion touched on the redemptive arc often found in romantic fiction. I like redemptive arcs, but I much prefer it if the character redeems him or herself, rather than being magically healed by innocence and true love.

So in general I prefer “bad boys” or “bad girls” paired with a lover with some worldly wisdom. But execution can make me love all sorts of stories. Georgette Heyer’s Venetia is one my favorite love stories, despite the fact that it follows a trope I don’t generally care for–jaded, cynical rake tries to seduce and then falls in love with beautiful, sheltered, romantically untouched girl. Of course it helps that Venetia is five-and-twenty and hardly an innocent in her understanding of people whatever her life experience. I think the reason the story works so well for me is that one has a deep sense that Venetia and Dameral are “soul mates” despite their vastly differing life experiences. They share a sense of the absurd, as Stephanie pointed out. They share a love of literature, a disregard for society’s conventions, and a certain innate kindness. There’s a wonderful intimacy between them that’s only partly physical, though interestingly the intellectual intimacy makes the passion between them that much more palpable and intense. Their minds work in a similar way. Reading about them, you can sense that “click” that occurs between two people whose minds are in sync (which, to me, is as romantic as the rush of physical attraction).

That sort of connection combined with sexual attraction is a powerful combination. I like to think that Charles and Mélanie have that sort of mental click in the way their minds work, which is what gives me hope for them despite their differing backgrounds and to some extent differing goals. At least that’s how it is in my head–how well I’ve portrayed it is a different question :-).

A few other fictional couples who to me fit this definition of “soul mates” – Russell & Holmes, Mulder & Scully, Ingold and Gil in the Darwath books and Antryg and Joanna in the Windrose Chronicles (both by Barbara Hambly), Susan and James in Brust & Bull’s Freedom & Necessity, Beatrice & Benedick, Peter Wimsey & Harriet Vane.

How do you define “soul mates” in fiction? Do you like to read or write about characters with this sort of mental intimacy? Other favorite examples to suggest?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is a letter from Raoul to Mélanie. Speaking of two other people with a mental connection which I don’t think will ever completely go away…

As I mentioned in last week’s post, one of the things I love about the blogosphere is the way a post and the attendant discussion can inspire another post and create a rich conversation among readers and writers. Last week’s post was inspired by a wonderful post of Pam Rosenthal’s on History Hoydens. Pam’s blog on History Hoydens this week took off on the 1930s romantic comedies I’d mentioned in my post and as she said social class and escapist glitter in the Depression-era movie, The Philadelphia Story.

My thoughts also drifted to The Philadelphia Story this week, particularly after Angelique’s wonderful follow up comments on my post. I got out my video and watched the movie for the umpteenth time. It’s been one of my favorites since I first saw it at the age of ten. Even before that, I’d read and loved the Philip Barry play on which it is based. What struck me watching this time is how, in a movie that says a great deal about love and types of love and in which who will end up with whom is an open question, Tracy and Dexter’s love story is almost entirely in subtext. They talk about their past, but they don’t talk about their present feelings until the very end of the movie, when he proposes. And even that is indirect. Tracy is announcing to the assembled wedding guests that she and her fiancé have called off the wedding. She asks Dexter what to say next, and he feeds her the lines a speech saying that the two years ago I did you out of wedding in this house and I hope to make it up to you by going through with it now as originally planned. Even their brief exchange afterwards doesn’t contain any “I’ve always loved yous”, but the words they do use (“Are you sure?” “Not in the least; but I’ll risk it–will you?” “Oh–I’ll be yare now–I’ll promise to be yare!” “Be whatever you like, you’re my Redhead.”) are somehow more meaningful.

One of my favorite Georgette Heyers, The Grand Sophy, is similar in that hero’s and heroine’s feelings are not expressed either in dialogue or, this being a novel, in inner monologue. Sophy and Charles spar from their first meeting. Perhaps the closest we get to a window into Charles’s feelings is the moment when he looks at Sophy across his young sister’s sickbed as though a thought, blinding in its novelty, had occurred to him. Charles does ask Sophy to marry him but even then either says “I love you” in so many words. In fact his proposal is Will you marry me, vile and abominable girl that you are? and her reply is Yes, but, mind, it is only to save my neck from being wrung!

I first read The Grand Sophy at about the same age I first saw The Philadelphia Story. I remember reading the scenes between Sophy and Charles over and over, trying to tease out who felt what when, trying to decipher clues to their emotions (just as I would look for clues to Tracy’s and Dexter’s feelings whenever I saw The Philadelphia Story)). Much as I love Heyers like Venetia and Frederica, in which there is much more exploration of the characters’ feelings, there’s something fascinating about a story in which so much is unexpressed.

Writing this blog, I tried to think of other stories in which the romance develops without the feelings being verbalized. Mulder and Scully’s love story unfolds without the words being spoken and without the viewer even being quite sure what is happening. Yet the clues are there when you rewatch the episodes (one of the things I love about rewatching Seasons 6 and 7 in particular). Mulder’s I don’t want to risk–losing you in Requiem (the Season 7 finale) is much more powerful than a more explicit declaration of feeling.

Thinking back to my Declarations, Resolutions, & Other Heart-Stopping Moments post, Gil and Ingold in Barbara Hambly’s Darwath Trilogy don’t express their feelings until that last scene where Gil asks Ingold if he wants her to stay with him. Their feelings for each other are more palpable than Charles’s and Sophy’s but expressed in gestures and often as much in what is not said as in what is said. The same is true of Holmes and Russell in Laurie King’s Mary Russell books. The books are first person, so the reader is privy to more of Russell’s feelings than in some of other stories mentioned. But Russell and Holmes never express those feelings to each other. And Holmes finds a way to propose without putting any of it into words (You do realize how potentially disastrous this whole thing is? I am old and set in my ways. I will give you little affection and a great deal of irritation, though heaven knows you’re aware of how difficult I can be). Neither has said “I love you” to the other through the eight books of the series thus far. Though Holmes’s behavior in those books perhaps contradicts his claim that he would give Russell “little affection and a great deal of irritation.” In fact, to me one of the most romantic lines in the series was in Locked Rooms in which he says (don’t have my copy in front of me so I’m paraphrasing) that he doesn’t think the the sun rising in the west would cause his heart to stop but The sight of my wife going over the rail of a ship might have done the trick however.

My own Charles and Mélanie, as Angelique commented a while back, don’t often verbalize their feelings. Neither says “I love you” in Beneath a Silent Moon, including in the final scene. Charles instead tells Mel he “needs her” which somehow seemed a stronger declaration. They do say “I love you” in the first chapter of Secrets of a Lady, but even then it’s with the slightly embarrassed acknowledgment that the words can seem a cliché (Will it sounds hopelessly redundant if I say I love you too?). Charles tells Mel he loves her again, late in the book, but the words are clipped, almost harsh, wrung out of him by extreme emotion (as is his first declaration of love in the vignette I posted recently). Charles and Mélanie talk in code more than verbalizing their feelings directly. In that, I suspect I was influenced by many of the stories discussed in this post.

Speaking of code, this week’s addition to the Fraser Correspondence is Raoul’s coded reply to Mélanie’s coded letter of last week, inspired by Sharon’s thoughtful and fascinating comments on Mélanie’s letter. Raoul is certainly someone who expresses his feelings in code (if he expresses them at all).

What do you think of love stories in which the romance is expressed in subtext? Do you like them or do you prefer more explicit declarations?

With Valentine’s Day a week away, I thought I would rework the blog I wrote this week for History Hoydens, bringing in some of the comments in the discussion that followed (not to mention fixing a misquote on my part!). I’ve wanted to do this blog for a while and Valentine’s Day seemed the perfect time to write it. Favorite romantic scenes–first declarations of love, resolutions of seemingly insurmountable conflicts, and other heart stopping moments. Here are a few of my favorites, scenes that bring an ache to my throat and put a smile on my face, many of them scenes I’ve reread so many times I know them by heart.

In no particular order:

1. “Oh, Damerel, must you be foxed just as this moment? How odious you are , my dear friend!”

The extended sequence at the end of Georgette Heyer’s Venetia in which Venetia and Damerel work out their differences has it all–conflict, humor, passion, and poignancy. Damerel is a world-weary rake and Venetia is a sheltered, unmarried woman, yet they’re so uniquely themselves that they pop off the page, and so obviously soul mates that you can’t but feel a catch in your throat as they battle through to their happy ending.

2. “I’ve just won a wager with myself.”

The scene in Freedom & Necessity by Steven Brust & Emma Bull in which Susan and James confess their feelings (and do rather more than confess them) may be my favorite literary love scene. It’s character-driven, emotionally fraught, erotically frank, and yet still filled with mystery. The final scene between the couple in the book is also lovely, and then there’s that fabulous last letter James writes to Susan, not to mention all the moments in between.

3. “Monseigneur, I would so much rather be the last woman than the first.”

These Old Shades is a comfort read for me, but it isn’t my favorite Georgette Heyer. It isn’t even in my top three. And yet I’ve reread the last scene between Avon and Léonie countless times. It’s beautifully written and structured, with a wonderful economy of gesture and emotion that speaks volumes. There’s very little inner monologue, and yet the emotional shifts are crystal clear.

4. “Now forget your responsibility to everyone else for once in your life and give me a straight answer. Do you want me to stay?”

The final scene in The Armies of Daylight, the third book in Barbara Hambly’s Darwath trilogy, may be the most satisfying lovers-getting-together-against-the-odds scene I’ve ever read, largely because the odds seem so very high and the happy ending so very much not guaranteed. There’s also something about this scene that to me is very much parallel to the Léonie/Avon scene, though the words are very different as are the characters. Yet both stories involve heroes who are considerably older than the heroines and who men capable of shaping the world round them (Ingold is a wizard, Avon a wealthy, powerful duke). Both men are convinced they’ll only bring unhappiness to the woman they love and are trying to do the noble thing and give her up (as is Damerel in scene 1. Doing the right thing can be very sexy). The heroines, Léonie and Gil, are very different women. Yet both are trying to convince the man they love that they know what they want and would much rather face the future with him, hand in hand. Like the scene from These Old Shades, this one has beautifully delineated emotional shifts and wonderful tension between desire and perceived duty and the competing objectives of the two characters.

5. “I do love nothing in the world so well as you: is not that strange?”

I got to do the church scene between Beatrice and Benedick from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing in acting class in high school. My fellow sophomore Benedick and I barely scratched the surface of what the scene has to offer. But we had a lot of fun, and I still know most of the lines by heart. And every time I see the play, I find new things in this incredibly rich scene, which is funny, touching, romantic, and fraught with dark emotion. In the History Hoydens discussion, Pam Rosenthal said, It stops my heart now, as completely as it did when I first read it in my late teens. And Amanda Elyot, who is also an actress, said, That admission always takes my breath away. And it did when I played the role, every time we got to that moment. It’s a moment that is so well crafted; it manages to be totally earned and yet steals up on the lovers unawares.

6. “Placetne, magistra?”
“Placet.”

I think I studied Latin college partly so I could understand the dialogue between Peter and Harriet in the final scene of Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night (thanks to which I now know that Peter phrases the question in a neutral way, rather than a way that expects a yes or no answer). That this scene manages not to be trite or anticlimactic or trite after three books of angst and adventure, countless marriage proposals, and several brushes with death is no small feat. You can really believe in the balance these two characters have fought their way to, yet there’s still enough tension to keep the reading anxiously turning the pages. Harriet’s done a great deal of thinking in the pages before, but here, as in some of the other scenes I’ve mentioned, there’s very little inner monologue. And yet every word and detail is weighted with subtext, down to the traffic lights blinking Yes; No; Wait. And as Janet Mullany said in the History Hoydens discussion, it’s a book that has a breathtaking amount of sexual tension in it.

7. Too late, too late, too late. It had happened.

My mom and I used to call this the “Gigi” moment–where the hero suddenly realizes, with the force of a thunderclap, that he’s madly in love with the heroine who’s been right there under his nose for years and years or pages and pages. The moment when Francis Crawford of Lymond comes to this realization, in The Ringed Castle, book five of the Lymond Chronicles is all the more powerful for the world “love” never being used.

8. “I prefer you as you are–tainted and tarnished.”

The scene where Mary casts caution and calculation aside and crawls into bed with the wounded Lord Vaughn in Lauren Willig’s The Seduction of the Crimson Rose is just lovely. A truly romantic confession of feeling on both sides, made all the stronger by the fact that you know just what it costs these two people to let their guard down and make themselves vulnerable. Both maintain their wonderfully acerbic sides, which makes their confession of their feelings (couched or allude to in character-appropriate terms) all the more powerful.

9. “A bath and some inoculations are called for, Holmes.”

I think the “dock scene” from Laurie King’s A Monstrous Regiment of Women may be my favorite proposal scene. Intensely romantic in large part because so much about it is is quite the opposite. Holmes and Russell are filthy and soaking wet and in the midst of an argument about his having gone after the villain without her. There’s a wonderful juxtaposition of acerbic dialogue and passionate breaking free of restraint. As with Gaudy Night and the Darwath Chronicles, and the Lymond Chronicles, it has extra power from being the culmination of
more than one book of longing. It sends chills up my spine every time I read it (play on words intended, to those familiar with the scene).

10. “Well,” he said, with a transitory gleam of himself, “you’re my corner and I’ve come to hide.”

Peter and Harriet are the only couple to appear twice on this list. Much as I love the last scene of Gaudy Night, I think I may be even more fond of the final scene between them in Busman’s Honeymoon. It grapples with a question I’m fond of addressing in my own writing, “what happens after happily ever after?” And it balances the scales by letting Peter need Harriet. As Lauren Willig said in the History Hoydens Discussion, I think it’s the first book I read that really took the time to deal with what happened after that initial, hard won resolution. She then made a nice comparison to Charles and Mélanie and watching the struggle of two people struggling to find a way to fit together on an ongoing basis, achieving small victories and dealing with the occasional reversal. Which prompted me to mention that The last scene in Busman’s Honeymoon was my inspiration for the last scene in Beneath a Silent Moon, which was my starting place for the book. I knew I wanted to get Charles and Mélanie to that scene, and I worked backwards :-).

Ten very different scenes. And yet, as I revisited them to write this post, I realized that the very differences in scenes and characters are something the scenes have in common. Each is unique to the characters involved, in the setting and circumstances in which the scene occurs (a sitting room in the French countryside, a rocky hollow in an alternate universe the London docks, an Oxford street) to the circumstances to the words and gestures the characters find to express their feelings. There’s also a wonderful tension to all of them, a sense of the fragility of emotions and the bonds between two people and the risk of letting down one’s guard. None of them seem quite certain in advance and yet once the characters find their way to each other, you absolutely believe in the possibility of their happiness.

Have you read any of the books above? Did any of these scenes resonate with you? What are some favorite literary heart stopping moments of yours? What is it that makes them particularly effective?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is Isobel Lydgate’s reply to Mélanie’s desperate plea last week for help with a seating arrangement for one of her first political dinner parties in Berkeley Square.

Taryn had some wonderful comments on the Mask of Night page recently–wonderful both in the sense of making me as an author, very happy, but also very-thought provoking in terms of what draws us as readers to a novel. As Taryn pointed out, the Charles & Mélanie books are hard to categorize which can be “a bit hard a bit of a positioning problem – is it a murder mystery, a spy novel, a romance? Not that it can’t be and isn’t all of that, but although I’m not in publishing, just a passionate end-reader, often I think the marketing is an afterthought and they don’t always trust their audience, so they want to “dumb it down” to make it “one thought.” Your work is so textured that it isn’t easy to distill – for me this is what has me staying up way too late trying to find out what happens!”

Hearing that readers have stayed up too late reading one’s book is one of the nicest compliments a writer can receive. But Taryn’s comment also sums up why the Charles & Mel books can be tricky to market. I’ve always loved books that cross genres. Mysteries (Dorothy Sayers, Laurie King, Elizabeth George, C.S. Harris) and fantasy novels (Barbara Hambly, Steven Brust & Emma Bull) with strong romantic threads, romances with lots of plot and history and adventure (Penelope Williamson, Laura Kinsale), historical fiction with intrigue and adventure and romance (Dorothy Dunnett, Bernard Cornwell, Patrick O’Brien, Robert Goddard, Lauren Willig). But it can be hard for publishers and booksellers to figure out how to market these books. I don’t think it’s so much that readers don’t like books that cross genres as that marketing strategies are book store shelving tend to be based on slotting books into genres.

Which makes the cover copy for the books that much more important. I asked Taryn about this in the course of the discussion on the Mask page. What would make her pick up the books? (She bought Secrets of Lady based on recommendations not the copy.) Taryn said, “I’d like to think about the back-of-the-book question a bit more but my first thought (for Secrets of a Lady) is yes, you convey time (Regency) and place (seamy London), and secrets, which are always tempting. For Beneath a Silent Moon, it’s closer to making me want to buy, but…seems to focus on Charles and less about Melanie, who is one of the most interesting heroines since Scarlett O’Hara or even about them together and how complex they are. And also the theme of forgiveness – but not heavy-handed, maybe in the form of a question – could you find a way to forgive the love of your life after you’ve learned they have betrayed you? This seems like it might be a direction to consider…don’t know, maybe have a small focus group from visitors to your blog!”

Which gave me the idea of turning the discussion into this week’s blog. What themes or plot elements or phrases on a book cover grab your interest? Did you pick up Daughter/Secrets or Beneath based on the cover copy? If so, what was it in the copy that caught your attention? Are there other ways you think the books could be described that you’d find more compelling? In general, what makes you want to buy a book?

Taryn said, “What makes me buy – spies, tortured war veterans (male and female) as i am intrigued by the parallels to the 21st century version. Relationship is a big part of what makes me buy (cover art attracts (although I hate those men with no shirts, *where* did those shirts go, anyway??)). I picked Secrets up through romance so I was expecting relationship stuff – wow, those revelation scenes early on *blew my mind* – and that kind of inter-personal drama really delivered! Even if it was not a typical romance book, it delivered the best of romance – a strong set of characters with real problems that they need to solve together. Unusual that these are married, that also added to the “I’m intrigued – I think I’ll buy” moment.”

As I’ve mentioned before, anything to do with “spies” or “espionage” on a book cover grabs my interest. Doubly so if it’s historical. The same with politics, particularly historical politics. So do words or phrases implying there’s a complex plot–“twists and turns,” “plots and counterplots,” “maze of intrigue,” “secrets”, “unraveling,” etc… And anything that indicates lovers with a history–married couples, ex-lovers, enemies who’ve betrayed each other. And thematically, anything to do with ambiguity, the elusive nature of truth, loyalty and betrayal is pretty much guaranteed to draw me in.

I’d love to hear other readers’ thoughts on these questions. What makes you want to buy a book?

On another note, I’m now on Facebook. I’m still getting the knack of how it works, but if you’re on Facebook do friend me, and I’d love suggestions for reading and writing-related groups to join.

And be sure to check on this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition–it’s a letter from Mélanie to Isobel Lydgate about Twelfth Night at Dunmykel.

Update 14 January: I’m blogging on History Hoydens today on bringing an historical world to life, inspired by the movie Milk.

Happy ending, nice and tidy
It’s a rule I learned in school

Marc Blitzstein’s translation of Bertholt Brecht’s lyrics to the finale of The Threepenny Opera is laced with irony. Life, the song goes on to say, does not work out so neatly, with Queen Victoria’s messenger riding to the rescue.

In the lively discussion in response to my blog last week about series and in particular C.S. Harris’s Sebastian St. Cyr series and whether Sebastian would end up with Kat or Hero, there was, I realize, an implicit assumption by all of us (including me) that Sebastian at least would have a happy ending. And I suspect he will. Though one of the things that both delights me and sets me on edge as a reader in mystery series, as opposed to romances, is that the happy ending isn’t guaranteed. Which for me as a reader can make it that much sweeter (one of my favorite romantic endings is to Barbara Hambly’s Darwath Trilogy, because it seems so hard-fought for). But also leaves the door nerve-wrackingly open to other possibilities.

I love happy endings. I root for them against all odds, I worry about favorite characters, I rewrite “unsatisfactory” stories in my head. And some of my favorite stories don’t have happy endings, and, I have to admit, wouldn’t be the better for them. I recenty saw the final dress of a breathtaking production of “La Bohème” at San Francisco Opera, which left me thinking about happy endings and genre conventions. “La Bohème” emphatically doesn’t have one (I usually start crying in Act I–this time was no exception). On the other hand, “Rent,” based on the same story, does have a happy ending. I loved “Rent,” but the ending left me completely baffled, and in a sense ruined the show for me. I thought this was because I’d seen “La Bohème” (I saw it with my friend Penny, who also knows ‘Bohème” well and had the same reaction). But I saw the “Bohème” dress rehearsal with my friend Greg (one of the designers of this site). Greg said he’d seen “Rent” before he’d seen “Bohème” and he found the ending of “Rent” jarring as well. I love and adore happy endings. But not all stories, even–perhaps especially–not all love stories, work with a happy ending. When Mimì came in in the last act of “Bohème,” I had a moment of thinking “oh, I don’t want her to die.” And yet a different ending takes something away from the power of the story.

As a writer, I like the possibility of my stories not ending happily, if that makes any sense. I was going to say I don’t think I’d ever write a non-happy ending, but when I thought about it, I don’t think I’d precisely call the endings of Secrets of a Lady and Beneath a Silent Moon “happy.” For one thing, it’s an ongoing series, to the story doesn’t really end. I think I’d call the ending of Secrets “hopeful.” And the ending of Beneath “bittersweet.” Tinged with hope perhaps.

How do you feel about endings? Favorite examples to suggest of happy or non-happy endings? Or something in between? Has a jarring ending ever damaged a book for you? How would you describe the endings of Secrets and Beneath?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is a letter from Lady Frances to Raoul, describing Mélanie’s first ball in the Berkeley Square house.

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