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.

I love books and I love movies. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that I’ve been mentally casting the books I read for as long as I can remember, and that when I start to write a new book, one of the first things I do is cast the characters. When I wrote with my mom, it was a great way for us to be sure we had the same image in mind for a character. Even writing on my own, I find it’s an invaluable help in visualizing how scenes play out. I have some writer friends who clip magazine pictures for images of their characters, but for me I find thinking of actors works better. It gives me a sense not just of what the characters look like, but of how they move and talk, their gestures and mannerisms, all sorts of details that help them come to life for me. Sometimes aspects of more than one actor will go into my image of character, but there’s usually one actor who’s the main image I have in mind when I write about a given character.

Occasionally I change the actor I’m thinking of for a particular character while I’m writing a book. Often the character doesn’t come into focus for me until I have the right actor (that was particularly true with Gisèle in Beneath a Silent Moon; I struggled with her for the early part of the book in my first draft and then she fell into place when I started thinking of a different actress).

Casting beloved books has led to endless discussions on various book lists I’m on, notably involving Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles and House of Niccolò series and Laurie King’s Mary Russell books. It’s fascinating and illuminating to discover the different images readers have of the same characters (yet again going to the fact that everyone reads a slightly different book). Plus it makes for fun discussions :-). Usually when a book I’ve read is filmed, the movie doesn’t seem at all like the mental film strip I had in mind when I read the book. I may love the movie and it may influence me on subsequent rereads (Richard Sharpe will always be Sean Bean for me now), but it isn’t what I had imagined when I first read the book. A notable exception is Atonement. The actors and the overall look of the movie and scenes were startlingly close to the movie in my mind when I first read the book.

A wonderful new website called StoryCasting allows one to virtually cast favorite books, post the casts (complete with pictures), and offer comments. They have five of my books listed (Daughter of the Game/Secrets of a Lady, Beneath a Silent Moon, and three of my historical romances). I’ve joined as an author member and posted a cast with some of the actors I had in mind when I wrote Daughter/Secrets. You can see the cast here and leave comments. As I mentioned in my notes to the cast, I’d love it if readers who have other ideas of how they’d cast the books posted alternate casts.

Do you mentally cast books as you read them? Writers, do you cast your own books before you start to write (or find yourself casting them as you write)? Any books you find it particularly fun to play the casting game with? Any suggestions for casting the Charles & Mélanie books? Any questions about whom I had in mind for a particular character?

I’ve also recently joined a fabulous online literary community called Redroom. Stop by and check out my author page and interact with a host of other authors. And as always, there’s a new addition this week to the Fraser Correspondence–a letter Andrew writes to Charles, after a particularly fraught meeting.

Rifle fire peppered the air. Charles Fraser came awake with a jerk and tightened his grip on his wife. Mélanie froze in his arms, then sat bolt upright in bed. Another hale of bullets. One rifle. No, not a rifle. Rapping. On the oak door panels.

That’s currently the opening paragraph of Charles & Mélanie Book #4. It will very likely change during subsequent drafts, but working on a new book has me thinking about the crucial opening sentences of a novel. They can be daunting to an author–so daunting that I tend to force myself to get something down and not stare at the computer screen too long in writing a first draft. There’s so much one wants to accomplish in those sentences–establish character, setting, mood, theme–above all, draw the reader into the story.

Here are some opening paragraphs that have drawn me in:

“Lymond is back.”
It was known soon after the Sea-Catte reached Scotland from Campvere with an illicit cargo and a man she should not have carried.

From The Game of Kings, the first book of the Lymond Chronicles, by Dorothy Dunnett. Right away, the opening establishes a world of intrigue and adventure. You know you’re in Scotland and while the exact era may not be clear, the word choices (It was known, should not have carried) strike a note that isn’t modern. Above all, the opening sentences establish Lymond as a mysterious, fascinating person one wants to know more about. Which one could say is the core of the entire series.

The butler, recognizing her ladyship’s only surviving brother at a glance, as he afterwards informed his less percipient subordinates, favored Sir Horace with a low bow, and took it upon himself to say that my lady, although not at home to less nearly connected persons, would be happy to see him. Sir Horace, unimpressed by this condescension, handed his caped greatcoat to one of the footmen, his hat and cane to the other, tossed his gloves onto the marble-topped table, and said that he had no doubt of that, and how was Dassett keeping these days?

From The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer. A much quieter opening, but I remember being completely drawn in by it at the age of ten. The detail sets up the Regency world beautifully. Actions characterize both Dassett and Sir Horace. And the arrival of a family member who has, by implication, not been to visit in some time, sets up that the ordinary world is about to change.

The play–for which Briony has designed the posters, programs and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crêpe paper–was written in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch. When the preparations were complete, she had nothing to do but contemplate her finished draft and wait for the appearance of her cousins from the distant north.

From Atonement by Ian McEwan. We’re pulled immediately in the world of the young Briony. Her youth and emotional intensity (both of which are key to the story which is to unfold) come through and the wonderfully specific details (folding screen, red crêpe paper) begin to establish the world of the English country house in which the book opens. Again, there’s the sense of a world about to change with the arrival of outsiders. Most important, the book begins with a writer absorbed in creation, setting up the theme of the book.

The worst thing about knowing that Gary Fairchild had been dead for month was seeing him every day at work.

From The Silicon Mage, the second book in the Windrose Chronicles, by Barbara Hambly. We know at once that we’re in a fantasy world, and yet at the same time a world grounded in reality (every day at work). We get a touch of Joanna (the heroine)’s tenacious sense of humor even in dire straits. And we want to read on to see what on earth is going on :-).

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered to be the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

From Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. The driving force of the book, summed up with economical irony in the first sentence. Austen doesn’t begin with specific characters, it’s more a wide-angle shot, which sets up the world and the social pressures against which the story will play out, and also establishes the dry, ironic tone of the book. But though there aren’t specific characters, there’s the plot premise–wealthy single man (men) settle in a new neighborhood and every local family sees the prospect of husbands for their daughters.

I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Downs, and nearly stepped on him. In my defence, I must say it was an engrossing book and it was very rare to come across another person in that particular part of the world in that war year of 1915. In my seven weeks of peripatetic reading among the sheep (which tended to move out of my way) and the gorse bushes (to which I had painfully developed an instinctive awareness) I had never before stepped on a person.

From The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, the first Mary Russell novel, by Laurie R. King. It totally sucked me into the world of the book the first time I read it. There’s a surprising amount of setting detail (Sussex Downs, 1915, war year, sheep, gorse bushes) but all couched in Russell’s distinctive voice so you don’t feel you’re being inundated with information. Russell comes through as a vivid character, and the promise of learning about what happened when she nearly stepped on Sherlock Holmes keeps the reader turning the pages.

Thursday, June 18
The best remedy for a bruised heart is not, as so many people seem to think, repose upon a manly bosom. Much more efficacious are honest work, physical activity, and the sudden acquisition of wealth. After being acquitted of murdering her lover, Harriet Vane found all three specifics abundantly at her disposal. And although Lord Peter Wimsey, with a touching faith in tradition, persisted day in and day out in presenting the bosom for her approval, she showed no inclination to recline upon it.

From Have his Carcase by Dorothy L. Sayers. Not first person, but the dry tone fits with Harriet’s pov and frames a surprising amount of back story. Harriet’s lover’s murder, her trial, and acquittal, and her present state of mind. As well as the current state of her relationship with Peter, which sets up their conflict in the book. And there’s perhaps a hint that Harriet is protesting too much which also foreshadows the future.

What draws you into a book? Any particularly effective openings to recommend? Writers, how do you approach the opening sentences of a new book? Do you craft them endlessly or dash off something and find you stick with it? Do you consciously consider where to start and why or is it instinctive?

Be sure to check out the new addition to the Fraser Correspondence. It’s a letter from Quen to Aspasia’s sister Cressida.

Over dinner one night on our recent trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, my friend Penny Williamson and I go to talking about what a lot of our writers friends call “deal-breakers.” Something in a book–a type of plot twist or character, a setting, a premise–that will make you not read ever the most well-recommended book or put a book down unfinished if one stumbles on it unawares. Rather to my own surprise, I realized that while I have plenty of likes and dislikes as a reader, I have very few actual deal-breakers.

I don’t tend to like stories in which a major part of the conflict is based on a misunderstanding. And yet to some extent that ‘s true in The Scarlet Pimpernel, a book I love. But the misunderstanding is so grounded in who Marguerite and Percy are as characters that it makes for fascinating reading (and there’s never a sense of “oh, if they just had a conversation they could clear this up.”). I don’t like series in which an ongoing character, particularly a love interest dies, and yet I’m currently thoroughly engrossed in Elizabeth George’s Careless in Red, despite the events of her last two books. I have a really hard time with books in which children die, but several writers I very much admire–Dorothy Dunnett, Sebastian Faulks, Penny herself–have used this plot element in ways that were so integral to the story I couldn’t quarrel with it, however devastating the scenes.

In general, I prefer books with happy endings. But I recognize that happy endings don’t suit all books. I found the ending of Atonement so fascinating in what it was saying about the very nature of fiction, that I can’t imagine the story ending in a different way (or perhaps I should say “ways” :-). In our conversation, Penny and I agreed that Casablanca wouldn’t work with a happy ending–that, in fact, if Rick and Ilsa went off together, it would somehow cheapen the power of their love for each other.

Are there elements in books that are deal-breakers for you? Things that will make you not pick up a book or stop reading a book or series? Have you ever read a book with an element you thought was a deal-breaker for you but found it worked for you in the context of that story? If you read the Charles & Mélanie books, are there any turns the series could take that would be deal-breakers?

Be sure to check out the Fraser Correspondence. I’ve just posted a letter from Aspasia Newland to her sister, written as Aspasia is about to leave for the house party at Dunmykel.

Update 28 May: I’m blogging today on History Hoydens about the ethical and logistical challenges of writing fictional stories that involve real people and events. Do stop by and join the discussion.

Blogging about siblings in fiction last week got me to thinking about other family relationships in novels. I’ve always liked children in books. At first I think a lot of it was wanting someone my own age to identify with. I was ten when I first read Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy (or rather when my mom read it to me). I remember being fascinated to meet Amabel (the hero’s little) sister who was the same age I was at the time. But at the same time, I was intrigued by heroes and heroines who combined their adventures with the role of parents or surrogate parents. This interest grew stronger as I got older. Nearly all my books have children as characters, going back to my mom’s and my Anthea Malcolm Regencies. The hero’s children, the heroine’s children, their children together, younger siblings wards, street urchins, waifs, a governess’s pupils.


I love thinking about the characters in my books. I love to imagine events in their lives before a book starts and after it concludes (which is why I so love to write series and why it’s so fun to fill in the blanks with the Fraser Correspondence). I like to imagine events in the lives of characters my favorite books by other authors as well (what was it like for Elizabeth to arrive at Pemberley as its mistress? did Venetia and Damerel really go to Rome on their honeymoon and take Aubrey with them? what adventures did Holmes and Russell have in France after the end of ‘The Beekeeper’s Apprentice”?).

Sometimes I find myself going one step farther and imagining what might have happened in my own books or in books I love to read if the story had taken a different turn. I’ve considered the different ways Charles and Mélanie’s marriage would have played out if the truth of Mélanie’s past had come out differently, without the pressure of Colin’s abduction forcing them to work together. I’ve imagined scenarios where Mélanie left England (more like Irina Derevko or Fiona Samson), perhaps faking her death to give Charles a clean start. And then returned for some reason (possibly with Charles about to marry again), with Colin and Jessica confused, Charles deeply ambivalent… (more…)