Lymond Chronicles


Lauren Willig has a very fun contest going on over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. You can vote on a sexy cover for the inimitable Turnip Fitzhugh, and if there’s sufficient acclaim, Lauren will write a love scene between Turnip Fitzhugh and Arabella which did not appear in the wonderful Mischief of the Mistletoe.

It’s a great idea, born about because two different reviewers regretted the lack of a love scene between Turnip and Arabella. It got me to think about “missing scenes” – scenes which don’t take place between the pages of a book which I’ve always wanted to read. For instance:

Darcy and Elizabeth’s engagement conversation. Some authors fade to black for love scenes. Jane Austen does it for the final romantic resolution between her heroes and heroines. In many ways it’s a wonderful literary technique, leaving so much tantalizingly to the imagination. And yet I would so like to know what they actually said and did…

Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane after “Placetne, magistra? / Placet.” and the final embrace at Oxford in Gaudy Night. Busman’s Honeymoon reveals that they spent the rest of the night in a punt madly kissing, but I would so have liked to see that scene dramatized.

Percy and Marguerite’s meeting and their wedding (not to mention their wedding night, I can never be certain if they ever actually made love or not), not to mention Percy learning of Marguerite’s denunciation of St. Cyr. Basically all the complicated back story of The Scarlet Pimpernel. (If you’re a Pimpernel fan be sure to check out the great discussion of the 1982 film and other adaptations at Dear Author).

Lymond seeing Kuzum again at the end of the Lymond Chronicles, how he dealt with him, what kind of relationship they had.

Sophy and Charles on the carriage ride back to London at the end of The Grand Sophy, not to mention the scene with Sir Horace and Lady Ombersley when they reached Berkeley Square.

Are there any “missing scenes” from the Charles & Mélanie/Malcolm & Suzanne books you wish I’d dramatize? From other favorite books?

I’ve just posted a new Fraser Correspondence letter in which Aline writes to Gisèle about Charles/Malcolm’s arrest.

Earlier this week week, I turned in revisions on Imperial Scandal, my Waterloo-set book (which will be out in April 2012). My greatest challenge during the revision process was how to handle a scene involving Mélanie/Suzanne that my editor wanted me to change. I discussed this scene in the comments on my post on sympathetic characters a few weeks ago and found everyone’s comments very helpful. This week I blogged on History Hoydens about how I ultimately handled the scene and again touched on what makes characters sympathetic–or not. I thought I’d repeat the blog here. Warning:this post contains spoilers for the series, particularly for Secrets of a Lady and Imperial Scandal.

I love the revision process, a chance to hone and shape and refine the story and characters (though I get very nervous letting the book go, afraid I’ve missed something). Thinking back through the revisions, I didn’t actually make that many major changes (though it certainly felt as though I was working on them long enough!). But I did make one significant change at my editor’s suggestion. It involved reworking a scene which originally involved infidelity on the part of the one of the major characters.

This was a scene I’d had in my own mind for a long time before I wrote Imperial Scandal, and I was sure that this was how this would play out for these two characters (two people who are devastated and cast adrift in the wake of the battle of Waterloo). But my editor was afraid it would destroy reader sympathy for the character committing infidelity and on reflection I could totally see her point (I had actually known I was pushing the envelope with this scene). When I broached the topic on my website with some readers who were familiar with both characters, reactions were mixed, but in general convinced me my editor was right to worry about the sympathy issue.

Oddly enough, going back to Leslie Carroll’s and Pam Rosenthal’s recent excellent posts on writing sex scenes, this was the one sex scene I’d written recently where it actually seemed important to show some detail of how the scene played out. I’d actually had some qualms myself about whether or not one of the characters (not the one committing infidelity as it happens) would actually go through with it. I ended up writing two new versions of the scene, one in which the characters almost make love and break it off, one in which is a tearful farewell without lovemaking (though it does still include a farewell kiss). I ended up using the later, and I’m quite happy with it and how it fits into the arc of the book. But when I was describing the revision over the weekend to a writer friend who had read the original manuscript, she said she’d liked the way the scene originally played out (even though it surprised her) and that it actually made her more sympathetic to the characters.

Which prompted me to think about what makes me lose sympathy for a character. It’s an elusive thing. In general, once I’m engaged with a character, I will stick with her or him through a lot. And an action that might make me lose sympathy for one character in one set of circumstances might not bother me so much with another character in other circumstances. Heathcliff lost my sympathy when he let his sickly son die (not calling a doctor). Francis Crawford of Lymond held on to my sympathy when he was more directly responsible for the death of his son, the difference for me I think being that Heathcliff acts out of anger and hurt whereas Lymond is trying to save others. And that Lymond is wracked with guilt afterward. I confess I lost sympathy for Fanny Price when she objected to amateur theatricals. Whereas Emma’s Woodhouse’s treatment of Miss Bates saddened me but didn’t destroy my sympathy for Emma. Of course Emma too feels guilt afterward.

I’m still pondering other characters and what engages or disengages my sympathy. Meanwhile, while I like the revised scene in Imperial Scandal, I’m also glad I had the chance to write it the way I originally envisioned it. After Imperial Scandal is published, I’ll post all three versions on my website. I’ll very interested in reader reactions.

Writers, what’s the biggest change you’ve made in the revision process? Have you ever changed something because you were worried about reader reactions? Readers, has a character you liked (particularly in an ongoing series) ever lost your sympathy? Why? And what do you think of the decision I ultimately made about the scene in question?

Perhaps appropriately for this blog, this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is a letter from Mélanie/Suzanne to Raoul.

My good friend and fellow History Hoyden Isobel Carr had a great post recently about anti-heroes. (Isobel has a wonderful new book out, by the way, Ripe for Pleasure, featuring an anti-hero and a courtesan). The fascinating follow-up discussion on Isobel’s post took me back to a question I pondered a bit myself in a post on “Bad girl” heroines. What exactly makes an anti-hero or anti-heroine? Is it the behavior or the motives?

I’ve heard the term anti-hero used to encompass a range of characters. There’s the Talented Mr. Ripley, who commits murder for his own advancement. There’s Don Draper, who has principles of a sort and is remarkably loyal to some of the people in his life, but seems to have no concept of romantic fidelity–(or at least no ability to be faithful. (One of the things I love about Mad Men is how all the characters are flawed and yet all of them have sympathetic moments.) Francis Crawford of Lymond does all sorts of seemingly horrible things, and yet he inevitably proves to have done so for the noblest of motives. Is he an anti-hero? Or is an anti-hero someone who acts out of selfish motives and doesn’t have a core of principles? Both Han Solo and Rick Blaine claim to only be out for themselves fairly early in their respective stories. And yet neither of them does anything remotely approaching Lymond’s actions (burning his mother’s castle, being responsible for the death of his son).

Isobel described Lady Barbara Childe in Georgette Heyer’s An Infamous Army as “a benchmark anti-heroine.” Lady Barbara’s behavior is certainly destructive and causes pain to a number of people. On the other hand, I don’t think she does anything as morally questionable as Mélanie/Suzanne (entering a marriage on false pretenses, lying to her spouse for years, being responsible for deaths because of information she passed along). But Mélanie is acting out of loyalty to a cause and comrades, whereas Barbara’s behavior is driven by being discontented and unhappy. Does that make one more an anti-heroine than the other?

How do you define anti-heroes and anti-heroines? Is it their actions or their motivation or both? What are some of your favorite examples? What does it take for you for such a character to be redeemed?

If Tatiana Kirsanova were the protagonist of a novel, I think she might be an anti-heroine. This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is a letter from Geoffrey Blackwell to Lady Frances about Tatiana’s death (dealing with some of the questions in response to last week’s letter about who knew what when about Tatiana’s birth).

As you’ll know if you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, I just got back from an idyllic weekend at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I soaked up crisp air and brilliant autumn leaves, caught up with friends, ate some great meals, did some productive writing and plotting. And–the point of my trip–I had the chance to revisit two of my favorite productions from the 2010 OSF season. An enchanting, delightful She Loves Me, directed by Rebecca Taichman, and a riveting, electric Hamlet directed by Bill Rauch, with Dan Donohue in the title role. Two truly phenomenal productions with amazing casts that left me with the feeling of exhilaration and wonder I get from really spectacular theater.

The night I arrived in Ashland, I picked up my tickets, then ducked out of the rain into the Member Lounge where I had a chance to read the fascinating Hamlet production notes by Judith Rosen. I’ve always seen Hamlet has a Renaissance man caught up in the warrior’s world of the older generation (the conflict between the older generation of warlords and the Renaissance courtier is one I wrote about in my honors thesis). I always thought the moment when Hamlet says “O, from this time forth, My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!” is a key turning point in the play. But I never quite made the leap Ms. Rosen made in her notes to Hamlet’s adoption of a more warrior-like approach (his father’s approach) in the latter part of the play being a negative transformation. Yet once I read it, it made so much sense.

The philosopher prince becomes the man who coolly arranges the deaths of his former friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and shows no qualms (to the evident discomfort of Horatio, who in many ways is Hamlet’s conscience). Watching the play with this in mind, so much fell into place for me, including the bitter irony of Fortinbras’s lines about “Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the platform” and the fact that the play ends with the line “Go, bid the soldiers shoot.”

Hamlet has always fascinated me. Every time I see the play I discover new things in it. Lauren Willig and I saw a great production in New York last fall, directed by Michael Grandage with Jude Law in the title role. I see echoes of Hamlet in all sorts of books and other stories, from the Lymond Chronicles to The X-Files. The last time OSF did the play (another wonderful production directed by Libby Appel with Marco Barricelli as Hamlet), I was plotting Beneath a Silent Moon. I tend to pick one or two Shakespeare plays which influence each of my books, and Beneath was definitely a Hamlet play. In fact, my working title for the book was Time Out of Joint (I even have an early draft of the UK cover with that title). Charles’s struggle with his father (and ultimately the legacy of his father’s death), his questions about his parents’ generation, his suicide attempt as a young man, were all inspired by Hamlet to one degree or another. Thinking about the Hamlet production I just saw at OSF, I’m particularly struck by the fact that Charles is a man with a very different world view from his father.

Do you have a favorite production of Hamlet, whether on stage or film? What books can you think of that Hamlet seems to have influenced? Writers, do Shakespeare plays (or other plays) influence you when you write?

Speaking of fathers and sons, this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is a letter from David to Charles, about his conflict with his father in the days before Waterloo.

Last Wednesday, I blogged on History Hoydens about a favorite topic–The Scarlet Pimpernel. In the lively discussion that followed we debated the merits of various film adaptations and the musical and talked about TSP’s influence on our own work. I was delighted and not surprised to find that several of my fellow Hoydens (as well as others who posted) are TSP fans and that the Pimpernel books have influenced their own writing. I said, “I’m fascinated by how many of us are drawn to The Scarlet Pimpernel stories and particularly how many of us found inspiration from them for our own writing. What do you think it is that so resonates about this story? The masks and deceptions? The adventure and daring escapes? The story of two people desperately in love who fear that they don’t really know/can’t trust the object of their affections? To those of you inspired by the story, which piece of it inspired your own writing?”

The main answer was Percy as a hero. Mary Blayney said, “Tracy for me it’s Percy — a true hero who wants no credit and, in fact, presents himself as a fop. A true leader of men.”

Leslie Carroll added, “Yes, I think that the lasting allure is that Percy is a man who fights with his wits as well as his sword; that he is a gentleman through and through and not a neanderthal, that he has a huge amount of integrity and ethics, passion and patriotism, that he is willing to risk all to save just one life, if need be, that Marguerite has her own profession and life before she met Percy, that she is devoted to and looks out for her brother Armand, that although Percy and Marguerite are first drawn to each other sexually and jump into marriage that they have to really earn the relationship by building trust in each other and that neither realizes how much they have until they have nearly lost it.”

Percy is undoubtedly a fabulous hero who has helped inspire countless other characters (including, I believe, Lord Peter Wimsey and Francis Crawford of Lymond). There’s something so compassionate and intriguing about a hero whose goal is saving people rather than “winning.” But I think what has me coming back to The Scarlet Pimpernel and the sequels and adaptations goes to the last part of Leslie’s comment. I love adventure and intrigue, masks and disguises, but for me a lot of the fascination is that this is a story about a married couple, who both have past experiences, rather the story of young lovers. (I remember as a child seeing the Leslie Howard/Merle Oberon movie–Suzanne appears in the movie before Marguerite, and I was surprised and intrigued that the heroine turned out not be the sweet ingenue but the glamorous, mysterious married woman.) The romantic conflict in The Scarlet Pimpernel centers not on the initial heady rush of falling in love but on issues of trust that come after. On the false impression one can have of one’s beloved in the initial rush of falling in love and the difficulties that false impression can create in building a last relationship.

I didn’t consciously think about it at the time, but I think my very first inspiration for the book that ultimately became Secrets of a Lady was watching the wonderful Anthony Andrews/Jane Seymour adaptation of The Scarlet Pimpernel. During the wedding scene, when Percy first suspects Marguerite can’t be trusted, I thought “it would be interesting if she *really* was working against him…”

I know a lot of people who read visit my site are TSP fans and a lot of you are writers. What draws you to the stories? Which elements in them have inspired your own writing and how? And if you don’t particularly like TSP, I’d love to hear about the reasons for that too. If you’ve never read the books or seen any of the adaptations, I definitely recommend giving them a try!

Speaking of intrigue and deception and betraying one’s spouse, this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is another coded letter Mélanie writes to Raoul from the Congress of Vienna, about Tsar Alexander paying a surprise call at the British Embassy.

San Francisco Opera’s fall season opened with a fabulous production of Verdi’s Il Trovatore. I was lucky enough to see it three times (the final dress rehearsal, a simulcast at ATT ballpark, and the closing performance). The production updated the setting from medieval Spain to the Peninsular War, which of course I loved. The Goya-inspired setting fit well with a story of war, divided families, and one atrocity leading to another.

At the heart of Trovatore’s tangled, over-the-top plot are two brothers, separated at birth, now unknown to each other fighting for opposite sides and rivals for the love of the same woman. Watching the opera, I found myself thinking about brothers in literature. As I write this, I’m watching The Man in the Iron Mask, yet another take on brothers separated at birth who become rivals. Sibling relationships are fascinating, but in British historical stories the laws of inheritance make the rivalry between brothers particularly intense. Among the aristocracy the eldest son inherits the title and estates, while younger sons may at best receive a secondary property of their mother’s and in many cases have to make their own way in the world as soldiers, ministers, or barristers. In As You Like It, Orlando is living as a servant on the dubious charity of his elder brother Oliver who has inherited all the family lands and fortune.

Questions of legitimacy can further complicate this rivalry. In King Lear, the Duke of Gloucester’s illegitimate son Edmund sets out to destroy his legitimate brother Edgar, driven by the pent up jealousy of watching his brother be heir to their father’s lands and title due to the fact that Edgar’s mother was married to the duke while Edmund was born on the wrong side of the blanket.

The issues grow even more tangled when an acknowledged son and heir may actually be illegitimate. The rivalry between Lymond and Richard runs through Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles (including one of the best literary sword fights I’ve ever read in The Game of Kings). At the heart of that rivalry is competition for parental affection and the family estates, and the question of who is who’s son, who deserves what, who is loved best. What makes rivalry between brothers particularly interesting, is that it tends to be mixed, as in Lymond and Richard’s case, with strong love that goes back to the cradle.

I think I had Lymond and Richard in mind when I created Charles and Edgar in Secrets of a Lady. I know I was thinking of Edmund and Edgar, because I deliberately named my Edgar after the legitimate brother from Lear. I decided quite early on in the plotting process, over lattes with my friend Penny, that Charles was illegitimate, that Edgar knew this and Charles didn’t, and that part of Edgar’s motivation stemmed from feeling that everything Charles had inherited should rightfully be his. I also knew I wanted the bond between the brothers to be strong, so that Edgar’s betrayal would be a particularly intense blow to Charles (poor Charles gets betrayed a great deal).

Beneath a Silent Moon features another pair of brothers in Quen and Val. There’s a rivalry between them that their father has encouraged. Charles tells Mel about the boys trying to scale the Old Tower at Dunmykel when they were children. But I found as I wrote the book that, despite the fact that much of Val’s behavior is appalling, the relationship between the two brothers was more complex and had more affection in it than I had at first envisioned. Quen and Val’s relationship is also clouded by questions of legitimacy as the story progresses. I think that one of the reasons I write about legitimacy and illegitimacy in so many books is that so much of the social order among British aristocrats was build on birth. So that questions about legitimacy can strike at the very foundations of that world (foundations which Edgar, in particular, takes very seriously).

In Beneath a Silent Moon, the reader doesn’t see Val react to the revelations about Quen’s birth, but in the letters I wrote for the new edition, Quen writes to Aspasia that Val said their father “wouldn’t do violence to himself–Talbots have too strong a sense of self-preservation, as we both should know. I pointed out that I’m apparently not a Talbot, as I had explained to him before we left Scotland. Val shot me one of his looks and said I’d been raised as one, I couldn’t escape the legacy.” Val handles the revelation of his elder brother’s illegitimacy better than Edgar. But then, for all his faults, I think Val has more ambiguity tolerance than Edgar.

Do you like stories about brothers? What are some favorites? Writers, do you enjoy writing about brothers as rivals?

In honor of the National Equity March, this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is a love letter from Simon to David.

Last week I blogged about writing sex scenes. As I mentioned, I write them much less often and more sparingly now that my books are suspense driven. The scenes I’m more likely to struggle with are action scenes.

Good actions scenes can combine plot, setting, character, and, in an historical novel, historical background. Dorothy Dunnett writes brilliant action scenes, such as the sword fight between Lymond and Richard in The Game of Kings, the race over the roofs in Lyons in Queens Play, Lymond and Philippa’s escape through the fog-shrouded streets in Checkmate, the opening sequence with the barge in Niccolò Rising. The settings come vividly to life, characters are revealed, relationships change (very notably in the case of the scene with Lymond and Philippa), the plot advances.

I love good action scenes, but they don’t come easily to me as a writer. Perhaps because of my theater background, I’ve always had an easier time with dialogue. When it comes to action scenes, I have to map out the scene were carefully in advance. If they take place in a real setting, such as the chase through Covent Garden Market in Beneath a Silent Moon or a scene I just wrote at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, that means looking at reading up on the setting, looking at pictures (period engraving and paintings and drawings if possible), sketching out a map of the setting, making lists of descriptive detail I want to weave in, and then “blocking” the action. In the midst of all this choreography I have to remind myself to think about what’s going on with the characters, how the scene changes things for them, what it reveals, how it moves the plot forward. Inevitably my first draft of the scene does about a tenth of what I want it to accomplish. But once I have the basic action down, I can begin to layer in details of character and plot and setting.

What are some favorite action scenes of yours? What do you think makes them work? Writers, do you enjoy writing them? What are the challenges?

I’ve just posted a new Fraser Correspondence letter from Mélanie to Raoul with more about the intrigues at the Congress of Vienna, particularly the love affairs of the Duchess of Sagan.

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