Cara Elliott


One of the interesting questions Cara Elliott/Andrea Penrose asked when she interviewed me on Word Wenches about The Paris Affair concerned how I developed Malcolm’s & Suzanne’s pasts and how I developed them. In addition to the fascination of researching history, I love creating my characters’ history. I knew from the start that Malcolm & Suzanne’s allegiances would be divided, Malcolm a British diplomat and spy, Suzanne a French agent. Then I began to think about what kind of people would end up their situations. The divide between them seemed to be to strongest if Malcolm came from the heart of the British aristocracy – he doesn’t have a title himself, but his mother’s father is a duke, he’s connected by family or friendship to a good portion of the beau monde, he went to Harrow and Oxford.

Whereas with Suzanne, I had to figure out a background that would have made someone an agent in her teens. It made sense that she had been orphaned and left to fend for herself in the tumult of the Peninsular War. She also needed to have considerable acting ability, so I made her parents traveling actors. I think the fact that she had a nurturing childhood for her first fifteen years and then had her world violently wrenched apart says a lot about her. In some ways she has a very hard edge, but though she might deny it, she’s better than Malcolm at believing in happy endings. Whereas Malcolm grew up in luxury but with parents who were a lot more emotionally distant. The irony is that Malcolm’s and Suzanne’s political ideals are remarkably similar. They’re both reformers, Radical reformers for their day, with a keen belief in human rights. They just have different very different approaches to how to bring about social and political change.

Authors, how do you go about creating backstories for your characters? Readers, what are some of your favorite examples of characters shaped by their personal histories?

photo: Raphael Coffey Photography

photo: Raphael Coffey Photography

One of the things I love about doing book release interviews (aside from the sheer delight of the chance to babble on about my own books) is how the questions can cause me to think about my own books in a fresh light. In the very fun interview about The Paris Affair that I did with her recently on Word Wenches, Cara Elliott/Andrea Penrose asked some wonderful questions, in particular about the themes of loyalty and betrayal that run through my books and why I chose the Napoleonic Wars as a setting for those stories. Meditating on those questions turned into a post on History Hoydens that I thought was worth reworking here.

I first gravitated to the Regency/Napoleonic era through my love of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer. But I also love spy stories, both James Bond adventure and the sort of intricate chess games and moral dilemmas John le Carré dramatizes so brilliantly. The Napoleonic Wars offers are a wonderfully rich setting for both types of story. So many different sides, so many different factions within sides. The French under Napoleon had been bent on conquest, but they had also brought much-needed reforms to many countries. Some liberal Spaniards saw supporting the French in the Peninsular War as the quickest route to progressive reform. And after the Napoleonic Wars, a number of the victors wanted to turn the clock back to before the French Revolution  and saw any hint of reform as one step away from blood in the streets. Friends easily melt into enemies and back again. Napoleon’s longtime foreign minister Prince Talleyrand  later became prime minister under the Bourbon restoration. Joseph Fouché who had been ruthless in using terror against enemies of the Bonapartist government, was equally ruthless in going after Napoleon’s supporters who were proscribed from the amnesty after Waterloo. In the midst of breakneck adventure, a love affair can have political consequences, a tactical decision can shatter a friendship, it can come down to a question not of whether or not commit betrayal but only of who or what to betray.

I’ve always been fascinated by moral dilemmas. And I’m intrigued by how romantic fidelity and betrayal can parallel other types of fidelity and betrayal (whether between husbands and wives or in their relationship with other characters or with a country or cause). I like writing stories of intrigue set in tumultuous times, but I think in those sorts of times (probably always but then more than ever) choices don’t tend to come down to easy, clear-questions of right and wrong. It’s interesting to see how characters wrestle with those issues and how the personal and the political intertwine. The possibility that a loved one or friend isn’t who you thought they were is perhaps one of our deepest fears in a relationship. And yet most of us are somewhat different people in different aspects of our lives and have different loyalties – to spouses, children, lovers, friends, causes, countries, work. Sometimes it isn’t so much a question of betrayal as of deciding which loyalty comes first. It’s not so far from the seemingly lofty sentiment of “I could not love thee, dear, so much, Lov’d I not Honour more” to betraying a lover for a cause.

Or so Suzanne might argue. Malcolm might have more difficulty with the idea. He takes personal loyalties very seriously, though he was the one who went off to the field at Waterloo and risked himself (though he wasn’t a soldier) leaving his wife and son behind in Brussels. In the midst of the carnage, he wondered which loyalty he should have put first. While Suzanne, for different reasons, was wondering much the same thing. It’s a question that continues to haunt both of them in The Paris Affair and to fascinate me as a writer.

Which brings me to one of the discussion questions for The Paris Affair. Suzanne says, “Sometimes honesty can make things worse.” Malcolm replies, “Than living a lie? Difficult to imagine.” Would their situation improve if Suzanne told Malcolm the truth? Or would it make it impossible for them to go on living together

On another note, you may have noticed that the site has a new For Teachers section with information for teachers and anyone interested in a structured read of the Malcolm & Suzanne books with additional materials. It repeats the Historical Notes and Reading Group Discussion Questions found on the detail pages for each book and also includes new Quizzes for each book. These were a lot of fun to put togehter and are a fun way to test your knowledge of all things Malcolm & Suzanne – though be ware, they definitley contain spoilers.

 

 

Happy March! Hard to believe the publication of The Paris Affair is just over two weeks away. We’ve updated the sidebar with some interviews and events I’ll be doing to promote the book. On March 15 I’ll be doing an interview (and ARC giveaway) on Deanna Raybourn’s blog. On March 25 (they day before the book’s publication) I’ll be on Susan Spann’s blog. On March 30 at 4:00 pm I’ll be talking about and reading from The Paris Affair at Book Passage in Corte Madera. If you can’t make the event but would like a signed, personalized copy, you can order one through the link. And then on April 5, Cara Elliott/Andrea Penrose will be interviewing me on Word Wenches.

Do check out the interviews, as I have lots more to share about the book and the series. And if you can make it to Book Passage, I would love to see you or love to sign a book if can’t make it but would like to order one. Meanwhile, here’s a new teaser featuring Malcolm and Harry Davenport. More soon!

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Harry stared after him as the door closed and his footsteps retreated down the stairs. “Wellington gave you no clue?”
“None.”
“Interesting man, our duke. Do you think Rivère approached him about the Laclos affair himself?”
“Then why Rivère’s dramatic approach to me last night?”
“Cover?”
“They wouldn’t need the cover for the Laclos affair, since Rivère brought it up to me. But if he approached Wellington about something else—”
Harry met Malcolm’s gaze for a moment. “Wellington can be ruthless.” It was a flat statement about the man they had both served for years and risked their lives for. “We considered in Brussels that he might be capable of murder.”
“But in the end he wasn’t behind Julia Ashton’s death.”
“Which doesn’t mean he isn’t behind Rivère’s death. Julia was an English lady. Rivère was a French double agent who was trying to blackmail the British.” Harry kept his gaze on Malcolm. Uncompromising, yet oddly compassionate. “War isn’t played by gentlemen’s rules. You know that.”
“Neither are politics or diplomacy.”
“Go carefully, Malcolm. Wellington can be dangerous.”
“At least I know him.”
“That’s precisely what makes him dangerous.” Harry cast a glance round the room. “You take the boxes on the left. I’ll take the right.”

Congratulations to Susan, who won the copy of Veronica Wolff’s Devil’s Own and to Sharon who won the ARC of Vienna Waltz. Susan and Sharon, watch for emails from me so I can get your mailing addresses.

As you may know from my posts on Facebook or Twitter, I just got back from a fabulous few day in New York. More on that next week or the week after. Meanwhile, since I’m still catching up, I thought I would revisit a post I did on History Hoydens a few weeks ago on love scenes. As I will through the month, I’ll give a copy of Vienna Waltz away to one of this week’s posters.

As I’ve blogged about before my attitude toward writing love scenes has evolved in the twenty some years I’ve been writing. In fact, I was talking about this last week in New York over a fabulous dinner with Lauren Willig and Cara Elliott. When I first began co-writing Regency romances with my mom, under the name Anthea Malcolm, my friends teased me that our books started very chaste and slowly got more explicit. In our first book, The Widow’s Gambit, the characters barely embraced. In the second, The Courting of Philippa, there were more detailed kisses. In the third, Frivolous Pretence, which focused on an estranged married couple, there was an actual sex scene, though it faded to black. Our fifth book, A Touch of Scandal, had ex-lovers who resumed an illicit affair. Sex scenes were part of the story. I told my mom she had to write them. Our sixth book, An Improper Proposal, was a marriage of convenience story. My mom said, “You have to write one of the sex scenes this time.” I wrote my first draft of the scene on a day when my mom was out shopping. And (this is true, thought it sounds so funny now), I turned down the screen on my computer, so I couldn’t look at the words as I typed them. When my mom got home that night, I said, “Okay, I wrote the scene. Go look at it and tell me what you think. But I don’t want to be there when you read it.”

Oddly enough, after that first scene I stopped being embarrassed about writing sex scenes. I got to find them quite a fun challenge, especially trying to make each one true to those particular characters and that stage in their relationship. But when I wrote Secrets of a Lady, it was quite obvious to me that after the opening interrupted sex scene, Charles and Mélanie were too focused on finding the Carevalo Ring and getting their son back to be stop to have sex. On top of the fact that their relationship is so strained that Charles finds it difficult even to look Mel in the face let alone make love to her. In fact one of the reasons I had Mélanie be attacked fairly early in the story is to break through some of the distance between them so that Charles at least touches her. Their physical contact slowly increases through their desperate adventures in search of the ring and Colin, though they don’t actually even kiss on the lips again.

In Beneath a Silent Moon, (which thematically is in many ways all about sex), Charles and Mélanie do make love fairly early in the story. When I wrote the scene, I automatically faded to black without thinking about it. I did the same with a later love scene in the book. When I posted one of those scenes as an excerpt, I called it an “almost love scene”. Some commenters responded that it actually was a love scene. Which I guess depends upon one’s definition of a love scene and how explicit it needs to be.

Vienna Waltz is also a book very much about sex with all the romantic intrigue going on at the Congress of Vienna. There are several pairs of real life ex-lovers in the book such as Tsarina Elisabeth and Polish Prince Adam Czartoryski and Prince Metternich and Wilhelmine, Duchess of Sagan. On a revision, I realized I needed to make their love affairs more vivid, so I added moments where the characters remember moments and images from their love affairs. I wanted to use tangible, sensual imagery to bring those past love affairs to life. But the actual love scenes in Vienna Waltz between Charles/Malcolm and Mel/Suzanne still fade to black.

Then in my current WIP, a sequel to Vienna Waltz set around the battle of Waterloo, I got to a love scene where without even thinking about it I didn’t fade to black. It still isn’t a very detailed scene, but somehow I knew instinctively that it was important to show how the scene progressed. I surprised myself, because I thought I was done writing love scenes with any detail. When I paused to think about it, I realized that in that scene the dynamic between the two characters was changing and shifting so much through out the scene and the very fact that they made love was so momentous that it was important to see how the scene played out.

How do you feel about sex scenes in the books you read? What makes them work or not? How detailed do you like them to be? Do you think some scenes require more detail than others because of plot and character dynamics? Writers, how do you approach writing sex scenes? Do you enjoy writing them or find them a chore? How much detail do you go into? Does the amount of detail very with the situation of the characters and plot? Has your approach to them changed through the years or with the type of books you write?

Also, be sure to check out another Fraser Correspondence letter from Lady Elizabeth, this time to the young Charles at Harrow.