Earlier this week, on the Fog City Divas blog, Allison Brennan had a great post on that question so often asked of writers, “Where do you get your ideas?” Thinking about my own answer, I realized my ideas often involve playing “what if…?” The question might be sparked by research (part of the idea for The Mask of Night came from saying “what if Hortense Bonaparte had secretly come to England in 1820 to see her former lover, now married to an Englishwoman?”). It might be sparked by the plot of a play, movie, opera (operas are a great source of gut-wrenching conflict), tv show, or another novel (though I didn’t realize it at the time, looking back I know that part of the idea for Secrets of a Lady came from watching the Jane Seymour/Anthony Andrew version of The Scarlet Pimpernel and saying “what if Marguerite really were a spy?”). Sometimes the question is sparked by my own characters (part of the idea for Beneath a Silent Moon came from saying “what if there was a girl back in England everyone had expected Charles to marry and thought would make him the perfect wife?”).

Lauren Willig raised an interesting “what if…?” in an email exchange this week, saying, “I couldn’t help wondering what that marriage would have been like” if Kenneth Fraser and Honoria Talbot had actually married. That question brought me up short, because I hadn’t really considered it, and I’m not sure of the answer myself. Given the events of Beneath a Silent Moon, it’s not a question I’ll explore in subsequent books, at least not with those specific characters, but it’s still fun to ponder. Secrets of a Lady actually sprang from a similar “what if…?” My mom’s and my second book, a Regency romance that was never published, had two secondary characters named Charles and Mélanie. They were a bit different from Charles and Mélanie Fraser, but he was a young British diplomat and she was a French spy. They almost ended up married at the end of the book. At one point I thought idly, “if these two people actually did end up married, it would be very interesting to see what happened to them in seven years or so.” I filled the idea away at the back of my mind. Years later, I returned to it when I began the book that became Secrets of a Lady.

Sometimes I’ll play “what if…?” with my own characters or other authors’ , not to to come up with a story but just because it’s fun to consider what might have happened to the characters under other circumstances. We’ve talked a bit in prior discussions about what might have happened to the Blakeneys and their marriage if Marguerite hadn’t learned Percy was the Scarlet Pimpernel. I sometimes ponder what might have happened if Charles had learned the truth about Mélanie under different circumstances, without the threat of Colin’s abduction overriding all else and forcing them to work together. Or what if Mélanie had faked her death and disappeared like Irina Derevko only to return years later? (Hard to believe Mélanie would have done this, but then part of “what if…?” can be “what if this character was different in this way?”). “What if Darcy had married a woman from his own world and then later met Elizabeth?” “What if Eugene Onegin didn’t reject Tatiana as a young girl? Or if Tatiana ran off with him instead of rejecting him when they met again later?” “What if Edmund had married Mary Crawford?” “What if Jane Eyre had only learned about the first Mrs. Rochester after she and Rochester had married and gone off to the Continent?” “What if Willoughby’s aunt had disinherited him before he could propose to Marianne?”

Do you find yourself playing “what if…?” with books you’ve read? Writers, do you get ideas for your books this way? Any thoughts on the “what ifs?” mentioned above? Any favorite “what ifs” from other books? And if you’ve read Beneath a Silent Moon, what do you think would have happened if Kenneth Fraser had married Honoria?

Speaking of Honoria, while I want to go back later and explore Charles and Mélanie’s time at the Congress of Vienna and in Brussels and Paris in the Fraser Correspondence, for the next couple of months I’m moving ahead to 1817 in preparation for the May trade re-release of Beneath a Silent Moon. I want to examine Charles and Mélanie’s return to Britain and what the other major characters are doing in the months before the novel opens. This week’s letter is from Charles’s sister Gisèle to her friend Evie Mortimer.

And as an extra to this week’s update, if you didn’t see Menaca’s question and my answer last week, she wrote to me asking about readers’ guide questions for Secrets of a Lady. I realized I should add readers’ guides for my books to the site, something I’ll work on for my next major update. Meanwhile, I came up with some questions for Secrets of a Lady. Here there are again. Do comment if they spark any thoughts on the book or if you can think of any others I should add.

1. What kind of mood and tone does the Prologue set? Why do you think the author chose to open the novel with Meg and Jack and to introduce the reader to the Frasers’ world through their eyes?

2. What image of the Frasers and their marriage did you have from the first scene between Mélanie and Charles? How does this scene change if one rereads it knowing the secrets that are revealed over the course of the novel?

3. Did you find yourself sympathizing more with Mélanie or with Charles or with both of them equally? Why? Did your sympathies change over the course of reading the novel?

4. What do you think would have happened if Charles had learned Mélanie’s secrets in a different way, without Colin’s disappearance forcing them to work together? How would events have played out? Would Charles and Mélanie have continued to live under the same roof? Would they ever have revealed the things they reveal over the course of the novel? What would have happened to Colin and Jessica and their relationship with their parents?

5. When Roth meets the Frasers in Chapter 3 in the small salon (”an airy room with sea-green walls and pristine ivory moldings”) he thinks of them as a “typical Mayfair couple, at home in their perfect jewel box of a world.” [p. 34]. In Chapter 8, when Charles learns Mélanie’s secrets, he smashes his fist into the wall of this perfect room. Discuss the ways in which that moment is a metaphor for the events of the novel.

6. How did the secrets Mélanie kept compare with the secrets Charles kept?

7. How did you feel about Mélanie’s secret when it was first revealed? By the end of the book, had your opinion of her changed? If so, why?

8. How are Mélanie and Charles both shaped by their childhoods, particularly their relationships with their parents? How does this affect their relationships with Colin and Jessica?

9. At one point, Mélanie thinks, “If her life had taken a different turn, if she had made different choices, she might be preparing to open a new production of “Romeo and Juliet,” like Violet Goddard. Or dying of consumption in a brothel like Susan Trevennen.” How do Violet and Susan and the other women in the book–Helen Trevennen, Kitty, Meg, Lady Frances, Julia Mannerling–echo different elements of Mélanie’s story? What does this say about the position of women at the time?

10. Just after Mélanie has opened up to Charles about the horrifying circumstances that shaped her early life and led her to be a spy, she says, “Whatever happens, don’t let Jessica be stifled. Give her an education, let her travel, give her an independent income. Make her as free as a woman can be.” And Charles thinks, “The speech at first seemed a complete non sequitur. But in light of their whole conversation, perhaps it was not.” [p. 302]. Do you agree? Why do you think the revelations about her own past drive Mélanie to discuss her daughter’s future?

11. Mélanie says, “You can never know what another person is thinking or feeling. You have to make guesses and assumptions. The picture keeps changing with new evidence.” [p. 335]. Discuss how this is true of the image the other characters–and the reader–have of the major characters–Mélanie, Charles, Raoul, Edgar, Meg, Roth, Helen Trevennen–over the course of the novel?

12. How does Roth attitude toward the Frasers change over the course of the novel. Why is Roth’s confession of some of his own secrets in the last chapter “in its own way an offer of friendship”? [p. 457].

13. Discuss the use of names in the book. What does it say about Charles’s relationship to Mélanie that he almost always calls her “Mel” rather than the more elegant and delicate “Mélanie”? How does the way he addresses her change after he learns her secret? What does it say about Mélanie that she continues to call Charles “darling” throughout the book, even in the darkest moments between them? Is there a difference between when Raoul calls Charles “Fraser” and “Charles”? What about Raoul calling Mélanie “querida”?

14. Why is it significant that Charles’s letter to Mélanie at the end of the book is written from the House of Commons?

15. What new light do the letters in the A+ section shed on the characters and story? What do the salutations and signatures (”My dear David,” “Melly mine,”, “Your affectionate friend,” “R.,” “As always”, etc…) say about the characters and their relationships.

16. Despite working for different sides, in what ways are Charles and Mélanie’s ideals similar? What does this say about the political landscape of the day?

17. Toward the end of the book, Charles says, “I think you were right earlier. We never know what we’re capable of until we actually commit an act.” [p. 454]. How does this apply to the various characters in the book–Mélanie, Charles, Edgar, Raoul, Meg, Jack, Roth?

Update 25 February: I’m blogging today on History Hoydens about the Peninsular War, which plays such a key role in Charles and Mélanie’s back story. Do stop by and leave a comment!