Arthur Conan Doyle


A lot of my writer friends have been away this week at the Romance Writers of America National Conference, this year in Washington D.C. I’ve been enjoying their updates on Twitter. Thanks to Twitter, I knew almost immediately last night that my friend and fellow History Hoyden, Pam Rosenthal, had won RWA’s Rita award for Best Historical Romance for her wonderful The Edge of Impropriety.

One of the things I love about Pam’s writing is that her characters have, in Regency terms, “a keen understanding”–they’re brainy people who enjoy talking about ideas (The Edge of Impropriety’s hero and heroine are a classical scholar nd a Silver Fork novelist respectively). Another blog by Jean on the All About Romance blog this week on “The Beautiful Minds of Heroes” got me thinking about this more.

The first brilliant hero Jean mentions falling in love with is Sherlock Holmes. I confess I discovered Sherlock Holmes first through dramatizations (notably the fabulous Jeremy Brett series). I didn’t actually read the Arthur Conan Doyle stories until I discovered Laurie King’s Russell & Holmes books. Because much as I love brainy characters on their own, I particularly love intellectual and romantic partnerships between two exceptionally brilliant people. There’s the fun of watching two fine minds click, especially over solving a problem. I love the scenes of Russell and Holmes talking through a case. The same is true of Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, and I’m particularly fond of a scene in Have His Carcase where they break a code together. Mulder and Scully’s debates about science and paranormal phenomenon were one of the delights of The X-Files.

There’s also the inevitable clash of two people who love to think. As Miss de Vine says to Harriet in Gaudy Night, “A marriage of two independent and equally irritable intelligences seems to me reckless to the point of insanity. You can hurt one another so dreadfully.” That’s certainly true of Peter and Harriet and also of Holmes and Russell and Mulder and Scully. In all three cases, a determination to battle a problem through intellectually and a refusal to open up emotionally can leave the other partner feeling shut out. Peter in Busman’s Honeymoon, Holmes in The Language of Bees, Scully battling her cancer, Mulder coping with family revelations.

I love writing about brainy characters. The intellectual debates, the fun with words, the angst of clashing minds. In theory, at least, Mélanie, Charles, and Raoul are all brilliant. Of course, that means the author has to keep up with them, which is sometimes a challenge :-).

Do you like reading about brainy characters? Do you like them paired with a partner of equal brilliance? Any interesting examples to suggest? Writers, do you like writing about brainy characters? What are the challenges?

Mélanie’s mind is more on matters frivolous than intellectual in this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition, as she writes to Isobel Lydgate about the masked ball at the Hofburg that opened the Congress of Vienna.

As a postscript, going back to last week’s post, I’m listening to Sondheim’s A Little Night Music as I write this. Speaking of characters who talk about books and ideas, I love Frederick’s catalogue of books as he tries to figure out how to get Anne into bed, particularly “Stendal would ruin the plan of attack as there isn’t much blue in the red and the black.”

I blogged recently on both Jaunty Quills and History Hoydens about Damaged Characters. By which, as I said, I wasn’t talking about the damage an author can inflict with one too many rounds of revising (though that would make an interesting blog topic in and of itself). I was thinking of characters who are damaged by their past experiences, whether it’s a painful childhood, battlefield trauma, the morally ambiguous life of a spy, or a love affair gone tragically wrong. Which comes down to the focus of this blog–history. Whether it’s real historical events, such as the brutal aftermath of the Siege of Badajoz, or fictional history, such as a lover’s betrayal or parental neglect, the scars of the past create damaged characters. To explore and heal that damage, a writer has to delve into the character’s history.

As a reader and writer, I’ve always been fascinated by history, both real historical events and the history of fictional characters (I love sequels and prequels, seeing characters at different points in their lives, part of what I so enjoyed about the new Star Trek movie). So perhaps it isn’t surprising that a lot of my favorite characters are defined by their pasts. Francis Crawford of Lymond begins his adventures in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles already an outlaw and an attainted traitor, estranged from his family and guilty over his sister’s death. Damerel, the hero of one of my favorite Georgette Heyer novels, Venetia, is a social outcast thanks to the scandals in his past. He’s convinced he’ll make Venetia miserable by dragging her into social ruin if he marries her. Venetia has to go to great (and very entertaining) lengths to convince him otherwise.

Lymond’s past scars, while they involve fictional plot twists, are rooted in the real historical event of the Scottish defeat at the Battle of Solway Moss. Damerel’s damage on the other hand is more personal–a love affair with a married woman, subsequent estrangement from his family, his father’s death in the midst of it. Both Lymond and Damerel are wonderful examples of the classic tortured hero. Both have a complex backstory, which I think is one of the keys to doing tortured characters well (there’s nothing more annoying than a character who’s tortured over a deep dark secret that seems commonplace when revealed). But while traditionally it’s the hero who’s suffered the most emotional damage, I’ve always liked heroines with emotional baggage. Barbara Childe, the edgy, self-destructive heroine from Heyer’s An Infamous Army, is a wonderful example of the type. So is Dorothy Sayers’s Harriet Vane. I know some readers find Harriet too prickly to be sympathetic, but she’s one of my favorite heroines, struggling to come to terms with the past (her lover’s murder, her own trial on charges of killing him) yet refusing to let herself be defined or defeated by it. Of course Peter Wimsey has scars of his own, rooted in historical events–shell shock from World War I. In one of my favorite scenes from Busman’s Honeymoon, it’s Harriet (who begins the series “sick of myself, body and soul”) who comforts Peter. That scene shows the hard-won balance they’ve achieved in their relationship. (That scene also inspired the last scene between Charles and Mel in Beneath a Silent Moon).

It can be particularly interesting when both the hero and heroine have emotional scars. One of the reasons I found The X-Files so compelling for me is that both Mulder and Scully are damaged characters (and of course acquire considerably more emotional baggage as the show goes on :-)). As I’ve blogged about recently, I just read Laurie King’s latest (quite wonderful) Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes book, The Language of Bees. In this series King (who talks about Sayers as an influence and has some wonderful Sayers parallels in books) took Holmes, who has suffered plenty of damage (some shown, some hinted at) in the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories, and paired him with the much younger but equally scarred Russell. One of the delights of the series is watching these two people, who both guard themselves carefully, reveal bits of their scarred pasts to each other and to the reader.

There’s something particularly heartening about two damaged people being able to form a bond. I love the moment in The X-Files episode Requiem (end of the 7th season) where Mulder says to Scully “I don’t want to risk…losing you.” From the way he delivers it and Scully’s reaction, you can tell exactly how much those words mean. The declaration scene in A Monstrous Regiment of Women is one of the most wonderful I have ever read, right among there among my favorites with the Harriet and Peter scene at the end of Gaudy Night). And of course, the bond doesn’t heal all the damage, which makes for interesting developments over a series. The previous book in the series, Locked Rooms, dealt with Russell coming to terms with the events surrounding her family’s death. In The Language of Bees, Holmes comes face to face with the “lovely, lost son” King referred to in a previous book and with a painful past that goes back to Irene Adler. King creates a Holmes who moves believably into the 20th century, yet he is still coming to terms with his past.

It’s perhaps no wonder that as a writer I can be quite merciless in creating histories for my characters that leave them weighed down with emotional baggage. When I first began sketching out notes on Charles & Mélanie, I knew that the secrets of Mélanie’s past would create plenty of angst for both of them. But it never occurred to me to stop there. Before I even had the plot of Secrets of a Lady/Daughter of the Game worked out, I had given Charles a tragic love past affair with Kitty Ashford, an emotionally neglectful childhood, a strained relationship with his brother Edgar, and questions about his legitimacy. While Mélanie had suffered the horrors of the Peninsular War (specifically the carnage inflicted by the British Army during Sir John Moore’s retreat) and lost both her parents and her younger sister Rosie. Quite a bit of that is mentioned or at least alluded to in the first scene between them in Secrets/Daughter. I wanted to show the damage these two people had suffered and the stable marriage they’d managed to build in spite it. To me, that made it all the worse when the very foundations of that marriage are threatened. All of that past damage also provides rich fodder for subsequent books in the series. Charles’s relationship with his family, particularly his father, was the starting place for Beneath a Silent Moon. And there’s lots more to deal with in Mélanie’s past. A llot happened in those years before she met Charles, not to mention the early years of their marriage…

Do you like stories about damaged characters? Do you prefer it to be the hero or the heroine or both to have the emotional scars? Any favorite examples to suggest? Writers, when you create characters do you think about how their past history has defined them? Do you try to work real historical events into their past history?

Speaking of real historical events, this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition continues Charles’s & Mel’s updates from the Congress of Vienna with a letter Mélanie writes to David’s sister, Isobel Lydgate.

I discovered Laurie King’s The Moor browsing in a bookstore in 1999. It’s the fourth book in Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes series, but I’ve never minded reading series out of order. I was immediately entranced by the world of the books, Russell’s distinctive voice (the books are first person), and Russell and Holmes’s fascinating relationship. I quickly bought and devoured the three previous books in the series. When the fifth book in the series O Jerusalem was released, I was in the bookstore on the day it went on sale. I did the same last week for the eighth Russell & Holmes book, The Language of Bees.

As I mentioned in a comment on History Hoydens this week, these are books I often return to as comfort reads. Russell and Holmes and the other continuing characters feel like old friends. Holmes and Russell and their relationship are familiar and yet tantalizingly I always want to learn more about them. Like the previous book in the series, Locked Rooms (in which Russell confronted her past), The Language of Bees reveals a great deal and yet leaves one with more questions. In m favorite mystery series, though I look forward to each individual adventure, I also read to learn more about the characters themselves.

At the time I discovered King’s books, I had enjoyed the Sherlock Holmes stories on television, but I hadn’t, I confess, actually read them. I think the literary parallel that caught me more in the books was to Dorothy Sayers Peter and Harriet novels. Laurie King talks about Sayers as an influence, and there are deliberate references/resonances to the Sayers’ books that it’s fun to analyze.

And, of course, I’ve always loved mysteries with detective couples. At the time I discovered the Russell & Holmes books, I was writing the first draft of Daughter of the Game/Secrets of a Lady (which at that time was called The End of Reckoning). Mélanie and Charles are very different characters from Russell and Holmes, but King ‘s skillful depiction of the delicate balance of two independent people being true to themselves and also being a couple, and of the way a mystery investigation can at once challenge their relationship and bring them together definitely influenced me, just as Sayers is a big influence on me.

Do you the Russell & Holmes books? Did you start the beginning of the series or with one of the later books? Are reading The Language of Bees? What authors do you rush out to the book store to buy on publication day?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is a letter from Mélanie to Simon in Edinburgh. Also, I am now on Twitter. (http://twitter.com/tracygrant).

Halloween was always one of my favorite holidays growing up, not for the candy but for the chance to dress up as whatever character I chose. I was a medieval lady (complete with steeple hat with veil), Maid Marian, Lady Jane Grey (the year I’d first gone to England), a colonial girl (in 1976). Admiring the imaginative costumes of the kids out trick-or-treating this past week, I thought about the fascination of pretending to be someone else. A wonderful game when you’re a child, that often becomes a more serious game in fiction.

For many of the characters in “Secrets of a Lady” masquerading is second nature. Mélanie’s whole life has been a masquerade for so many years she isn’t sure who she is anymore (“Charles had accused her of lying for so long that she couldn’t know herself anymore, and he’d been more accurate than she cared to admit”). In the course of the book, she and Charles tell different stories and play different parts with the different people they approach for information. One of the people they encounter, Hugo Trevennen, is an actor who still lives his life changing from character to character even in the confines of hte Marshalsea prison. His niece Helen Trevennen, who holds to the key to the mystery of the Carevalo Ring, has changed her identity more than once, just as Mélanie has.

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