Charles & Mélanie Book #4

My current WIP, the book after The Paris Affair, is set in London in October 1817. This is the point where the Malcolm & Suzanne chronology takes a parallel track to the Charles & Mélanie chronology, with Malcolm and Suzanne experiencing a lot of the same revelations and events as Charles and Mel, though under different circumstances. By the end of this book, Malcolm and Suzette won’t quite be where Charles and Mel are after The Mask of Night (they’ll be rather more raw), but I should be able to write the book I planned to write after The Mask of Night.

The book I’m writing now is a book I’ve been both excited and nervous to write. It’s challenging to revisit key moments in Malcolm/Charles and Suzette/Mel’s relationship and try to make them fresh. But I’m also finding it fun and fascinating to explore those revelations from different angles. The book is set in 1817 and parallels some events from both Beneath a Silent Moon and Secrets of a Lady. The plot that surrounds those revelations is very different – Colin isn’t kidnapped, Kenneth has already died, Malcolm and Suzanne are investigating a very different mystery from either of the other books (centered around Simon’s theatre and a mysterious manuscript that may be by Shakespeare), and Malcolm learns about Suzanne’s past in a very different way. Today I decided that the revelations would unfold in a different order, with Malcolm learning about his parentage before his learns Suzanne’s secret, which shifts the emotional response and reaction for both him and Suzette.

But part of the change is the characters themselves. I know them better now. I’ve explored more of their history. Malcolm is more aware of his own role as a spy, the compromises he’s made and the moral dilemmas he’s faced. I’m still working out what this will mean for his reaction, but it means it will be more complex than Charles’s torrent of anger and hurt. I know the texture of Malcolm and Suzanne’s relationship and just how strong a partnership they had, which, I think, will also shift Suzanne’s reaction as well and how they work through their problems.

I jumped ahead and wrote the first draft of their big confrontation yesterday (with Scrivener, I find I write more out of chronological order). I have a lot more thinking and exploring to do, but I hope the result will be satisfying and illuminating both to readers who’ve taken this journey with Charles and Mélanie and readers who are experiencing it for the first time with Malcolm and Suzanne.

I’ve just posted a new letter to the Fraser Correspondence from Aline to Gisèle again, this one written after Waterloo.

Hope everyone is enjoying the holiday season! Looking ahead to the New Year, this seemed a good time to post a video clip about Charles & Mélanie Book #4.

There’s also an excerpt from Book #4 here.

Any questions about Book #4? Do you like the idea of Laura moving to center stage? Any other characters you’d like to see play a major role in this or future books? Any interesting books to mention from your holiday reading?

I’ll post an update to the Fraser Correspondence later tonight or tomorrow with more letters from the 1817/18 holidays.

Evening update 28 December: I just posted a new entry in the Fraser Correspondence that’s a series of short letters written mostly at Dunmykel on 25 December 1817.

What with plotting, researching, and tweaking what’s already been written, I’m still in the opening stages of Charles & Mélanie Book #4, so openings of books are much on my mind. I blogged a few weeks ago about opening lines. But I was thinking yesterday that opening scenes are in there own way as important as the initial line. Where to start? In the midst of action, which plunges one into the excitement but can be confusing without plot and character details to anchor one and give one someone to root for. With the characters, which sets up the world and can engage sympathies but risks being too slow. And at what point in the story do you open a book? Where does back story leave off and “present day story” begin?

Dorothy Dunnett’s The Game of Kings, the first book in the Lymond Chronicles, begins with the exiled Francis Crawford of Lymond slipping back into Scotland. Action sequence follows action sequence, including a confrontation with Lymond’s family. We see Lymond in action, we see him from the pov of other characters, we learn about him and we want to know more. It’s an opening that had me totally hooked, though I should say that a lot of readers (even readers who end up loving the series) have a difficult time with the first hundred pages or so of The Game of Kings. Some find it confusing. Some find Lymond unsympathetic (my mom was in that category, while to me it was clear from the first that Lymond had more complicated motivations than appeared on the surface; wanting to learn about those motivations was part of what kept me reading.

Laurie King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, the first book in her Mary Russell series, opens in a very different way. There’s a bit of action–Russell nearly stepping on Sherlock Holmes–but then the opening chapter becomes essentially a long dialogue between Russell and Holmes, during which they learn a great deal about each other and the reader witnesses the delicate but amazingly strong bond that begins to form between them. After that scene, I would have followed those two characters anywhere.

Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy begins with Sophy’s father, Sir Horace Stanton-Lacey, calling on his sister, Lady Ombersley, and asking her to take charge of Sophy while he goes to Brazil. The first chapter is a long conversation between Sir Horace and Lady Ombersley, which sets up the family, the problems they face, and the conflicts that will drive the book. When I read The Grand Sophy, my first Heyer novel, at the age of ten, I was completely pulled into the world depicted. The characters seemed vivid even before they appeared on the page, and I wanted to learn more. But I’d probably be afraid to start a book with a similar scene–I’d worry it was too “talky.” Which is perhaps too bad, because it’s certainly an opening that worked for me as a reader.

I knew from the first that Secrets of a Lady/Daughter of the Game would open on the night Colin was kidnapped. I started out in Colin’s pov, then decided I needed to set the stage of the broader world in which the book takes place more. So I added the opening in the kidnapper’s pov. The reader in introduced to Charles and Mélanie’s world through the kidnapper’s eyes, which seemed to me a good way to set up both the glittering world in which the Fraser family lives and the darkness lying beneath it. The book underwent a lot of revisions, but the opening essentially remained unchanged.

Beneath a Silent Moon on the other hand originally began in Scotland on the night of the murder. In fact, what was the original opening of the book is now the end of Chapter 13. At another point (still in the early stages of writing), the book opened with Charles and Mel arriving at Dunmykel. The plot changed and evolved and I realized I needed to start in London. Once I knew that, it made sense to start with the Glenister House ball. But I still wanted a darker opening. As soon as I thought that through, I wrote the scene with with the unnamed many sneaking into London. It took me a while to get there, but it now seems inevitable to me that the book begins there.

It seems obvious to me where Charles & Mélanie Book #4 should start. We’ll see if it stays that way by the time I finish a first draft of the book. The scene is below (it already needs some rewriting based on plot changes I’ve made). It doesn’t really contain any spoilers beyond what’s on the book’s detail page, but you an always skip ahead to the comments section. Do post your thought about opening scenes. What are some of your favorites? What do you think makes them work? Writers, what are some of the challenges you’ve found in deciding where and how to open a book?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is a letter from Mélanie to Simon with a rather delicate question relating to Charles.

Chapter 1

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.
“I’m sorry, sir. Madam.” It was Michael, their footman, outside the door. “But Inspector Roth is below.”
Charles pushed back the coverlet, letting in a blast of chill air. “Dressing gown,” Mélanie said, which was sensible as he wasn’t wearing a nightshirt. He grabbed his dressing gown from the bench at the foot of the bed and struggled into it. By the time he got to the door, Mélanie was beside him, similarly garbed.
Michael’s young, fine-boned face was white above the flame of his candle. “Mr. Roth didn’t say what the trouble was. But he insisted I wake you. I thought—”
“Yes.” Charles touched him on the shoulder. “Quite right. Thank you, Michael.”
He met Mélanie’s gaze for a moment. A dozen possibilities, each more unpleasant than the last, hovered between them. “Best to know at once,” Mélanie said.
But before they went to the stairs they turned down the passage to the nursery rooms. The tin-shaded night lights showed Colin, six-and-a-half, tangled in the coverlet, and Jessica, three, sharing her pillow with the family cat. Charles heard Mélanie give a sigh he thought only he could have detected. He took her hand, only in part because of the house was shrouded in darkness.
The light of his candle jumped and leapt over the stair wall and the curving balustrade. In the ground floor hall, cloud-filtered moonlight spilled through the fanlight over the front door. The marble tiles were cold underfoot. The long-case clock said that it was twenty-five minutes past four. Jeremy Roth, Bow Street Runner, had become a friend, but even their closest friends weren’t in the habit of making calls at this hour.
Roth was in the library, pacing before the banked coals in the fireplace. He turned at the opening of the double doors and came quickly forward. The sharp-featured face which had been alight with compassion when he investigated the abduction of their son in November and intent with the chase when they investigated a murder together in January was set, the eyes oddly hooded. “I’m sorry,” he said. “But this couldn’t wait.”
“It’s hardly the first time we’ve been awakened in the middle of the night. And I doubt it will be the last.” Mélanie gestured him to a chair, as though she wore a morning dress with every hook done up instead of being wrapped in seafoam silk and ivory lace with her feet bare and her dark hair spilling over her shoulders.
“Mrs. Fraser—”
“I thought you’d finally got round to calling me Mélanie.”
Roth took a step forward. “Do you know where Miss Dudley is?”
Of all the names they might have heard, their children’s governess was the last Charles had expected. “Asleep upstairs,” he said.
“When did you last see her?”
“In the drawing room after dinner. We played lottery tickets with the chidlren.”
“What time did she go up?”
“About half-past ten, I think,” Mélanie said. “I wasn’t looking closely at the clock.” She exchanged a look with Charles.
“You’re sure she went to her room?”
“I thought I was,” Mélanie said. “Colin and Jessica are asleep. But we didn’t look in Laura’s room. I’ll be right back.”
Charles watched the doors close behind her and turned back to Roth. “What in God’s name—”
“Was Miss Dudley acquainted with the Duke of Trenchard?” Roth asked.
Charles rubbed his eyes. “Trenchard? Good God, no. At least not to my knowledge.”
“She hadn’t met him at your house?”
“Trenchard doesn’t exactly move in our set.”
“He’s a duke. You’re a duke’s grandson.”
“Trenchard’s a Tory, a crony of the Prime Minister. I’m a Whig. Yes, I know, our friends cross political lines. Trenchard’s been here once or twice. I can’t remember Laura ever meeting him, but it’s possible they shook hands at one of our larger parties. Why is this important?”
“How long has Miss Dudley been in your employ?”
“Three years. No, three and a half now. Mélanie engaged her when we were in Paris after Waterloo.”
“Miss Dudley was living in Paris?”
“She’d gone their with her former employer and found herself without a position when her charge eloped with a junior officer.”
“You saw her references?”
“Mélanie did. I was still an attaché and being given intelligence work. I was gone much of the time.”
“Miss Dudley wasn’t one of your agents?”
“My agents? I don’t have agents.”
Roth stared at him.
“Yes, all right, when I was more actively involved in intelligence there were people who reported to me. But why on earth would I engage an agent to look after my children?”
“For cover. Or to protect her. You take looking after your own seriously.”
“Laura Dudley never worked for me except as governess to Colin and Jessica. Roth—”
The doors swung open and Mélanie hurried back into the room. “Laura’s bed is neatly made up and one of her cloaks is missing. Jeremy, in God’s name where is she?”
“Do you recall Miss Dudley ever meeting the Duke of Trenchard?”
“Once, at a reception for the Esterhazys’. She brought the children in. Why?”
“Because Trenchard was found stabbed to death in his study an hour ago. And Miss Dudley was in the room, holding the knife.”
Charles stared into Roth’s hard eyes and bit back an exclamation of disbelief, closely followed by a curse.
“I knew things had been quiet for too long,” Mélanie said. “You’d think by now we’d be used to hearing shocking revelations
“What’s Laura said?” Charles asked.
“That she called on the duke to discuss some private business she won’t reveal, and that he was dead when she walked into the room.”
“Where is she now?”
“At the Brown Bear with one of my constables.”
“The room when Trenchard died—”
“I’ve kept people out of it. There’s no sign of forced entry. Miss Dudley says that when it was clear she could do nothing for the duke, she summoned one of Trenchard’s footman. She gave him a note to send to Bow Street and addressed it to me.”
“That doesn’t sound like the action of a murderer,” Mélanie said.
“It might be the action of a very cool-headed murderer. Miss Dudley, from what I’ve seen of her, is exceedingly cool-headed. When I arrived she gave me a very brief statement and suggested I remove her to Bow Street before I woke the duchess. She refused to explain further.”
“Who else knows?” Charles asked.
“I woke the duchess after I arrived and informed her. The eldest son returned home in the midst of it. Neither of them had the least idea of why Miss Dudley might have had business with the duke.”
“The Home Secretary—”
“I haven’t informed him yet. Or the Prime Minister or anyone else. I came to you first.”
“Thank you.”
“We want to see Laura,” Mélanie said.
“I assumed you would. Though I should warn you she says she won’t talk.”

There are many different types and degrees of history in historical fiction. There are stories in which the setting is historical but the characters are wholly fictional and historical events don’t impinge on the book. There are novels like my fellow History Hoyden Amanda Elyot’s which center on a real historical person and real historical events. In between, there are an infinite variety of types of books. Novels in which the characters and plot are fictional, but real historical events impinge on the fringes of the story (such as Venetia Lanyon’s brother returning from the Napoleonic Wars in Heyer’s Venetia). Novels in which real historical figures make cameo appearances (such as the Countess Lieven in Heyer’s The Grand Sophy). Novels in which the central characters are fictional but the story is so intertwined with real historical figures and events that it is difficult to tell where fiction leaves off and history begins (Heyer’s An Infamous Army, Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe books, Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles and House of Niccolò; reading Dunnett’s books, you wonder how history followed the path it did without Francis Crawford of Lymond and Nicholas de Fleury and reading Cornwell you wonder how the British could have won the Peninsular War without Richard Sharpe).

Since I tend to write about politicians, going back to when I wrote the Anthea Malcolm books with my mom, most of my books have at least walk-on appearances by real historical figures and some reference to historical events. Emily Cowper and Harriet Granville appear in several of my early books, Lord Castlereagh plays an important role in The Counterfeit Heart, Frivolous Pretence revolves round the divorce trial of Queen Caroline, A Touch of Scandal deals with the renewal of the East India Company’s charter. Dark Angel takes place largely in Spain and Portugal during the Peninsular War and not only Emily Cowper but her lover Lord Palmerston were secondary characters. Waterloo and its prologue and aftermath are crucial to Shores of Desire (and several real historical figures make appearances). The French Revolution and post-Waterloo industrial unrest drive the plot of Shadows of the Heart. Rightfully His deals with 1820s debates over emancipation of slaves in British colonies. Henry Brougham appears in several scenes as the hero’s friend and confidant.

The plot of Secrets of a Lady is inextricably intertwined with the events of the Napoleonic Wars, and several real people are mentioned (Castlereagh, Sir Charles Stuart, Wellington, the Prince Regent) but no real historical characters actually have “screen time.” Castlereagh does appear in Beneath a Silent Moon, however. He has a key scene with Charles, and his presence influence shadows the story.

The vogue in historical fiction these days is for stories that revolve round real people and events. Partly because of this, partly because of the direction my own interests and research have taken, real historical figures are playing more of a role in my books. Hortense de Beauharnais Bonaparte (Josephine’s daughter, Napoleon’s stepdaughter and sister-in-law) is a major character in The Mask of Night, as is her lover, the Comte de Flahaut, and Flahaut’s father, Talleyrand. Josephine appears in flashback and her presence hangs over the book. The younger generation of the Devonshire House set (Harriet Granville, Caroline Lamb) will be important characters in Charles & Mélanie Book #4, and I’d love to find a way to use Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (who was a friend of Elizabeth Fraser’s), in flashbacks. I’m already pondering what real people and events to weave into subsequent Charles and Mélanie books.

What role do you like to see real historical figures play in historical fiction? Main characters, supporting characters, walk-ons? Favorite examples? What real life historical figures would you like to see Charles and Mélanie interact with?

Updated to add–this week’s addition to the Fraser Correspondence is a birthday letter from Charles to Mélanie.

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.