Dorothy Dunnett


11.8.14DunnettDayMélanie and I just got back from a wonderful lunch party celebrating the Scottish Historical Novelist Dorothy Dunnett. All around the world, Dunnett readers gather on International Dorothy Dunnett Day (the Saturday closest to November 9, the date of her death) to celebrate her work. At 1:00, we toast in her favorite Highland Park Whisky. The pictures above shows our group toasting and below you see Mel and me with our lovely hostess Olive DePonte.11.8.14TracyOliveMel

Dunnett has been a huge influence on me as a writer, and this seems a good time to repeat a post about her work and her influence on my writing that I first put up in 2007. First, because everyone has been so kind about entering into the discussion of Mélanie’s and my Halloween, a few pics of Halloween and our recent trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for closing weekend (I saw All the Way, Cocoanuts, and The Tempest for the second time – all were amazing).

Arrived in Ashland, a stop at the Member Lounge

Arrived in Ashland, a stop at the Member Lounge

A Halloween close up of our Elsa and Anna outfits while shopping at <a href=In our Elsa & Anna costumes shopping at Paddington Jewel Box

Ready for the Halloween Parade through the center of town

Ready for the Halloween Parade through the center of town

A visit to our friends at <a href=Visiting our friends at Weisinger’s of Ashland, our favorite winery

A magical dinner at <a href=A magical dinner at Alchemy Restaurant & Bar

A leisurely brunch at<a href=A leisurely brunch at Brothers’ before we headed home

I first discovered Dorothy Dunnett’s books the summer between high school and college. I picked up “The Game of Kings”, the first book in the Lymond Chronicles, and spent a couple of days curled up on the sofa, glued to the page. I promptly devoured the rest of the six volume series. I told my mother she had to read them. It took her a bit of time to get into “The Game of Kings”, but soon she was as hooked as I was.

For those who haven’t yet discovered the Lymond Chronicles, the series begins in 16th century Scotland (when Mary, Queen of Scots, is a young child) and ranges all over the Continent. At the heart of the series is Francis Crawford of Lymond, mercenary, scholar, musician. Brilliant, tortured, an enigma to the reader and to most of the other characters. A lot of the fun of the series is trying to find the key to the fascinating code of who Lymond is, both literally (his parentage is in question) and in psychological terms. There’s a wonderful supporting cast of characters, both real historical figures and fictional characters blended seamlessly together. There’s adventure, angst, political intrigue, witty dialogue, and poetic allusions. The writing is wonderfully rich (Dunnett was also a painter), the pacing breakneck.

After the Lymond Chronicles, my mom and I both read Dunnett’s stand alone novel “King Hereafter” and her contemporary mysteries. And then to our excitement, she began a new series, the House of Niccolò, set in the 15th century, beginning in Bruges but again ranging all over, this time as far as Timbucktu and Iceland. The hero of the new series was a young dyeworks apprentice named Nicholas, dismissed as a buffoon by many but with abilities which lead him to rise in the commercial world and pull him into political intrigue in more than one country. Again, fictional events are blended with real historical events and mysteries abound. Reading the Lymond Chronicles, I thought, “it would have been really hard to read these as they were written and have to wait for each book.” With the House of Niccolò we had to do just that, with two years or so between each book. With their complex characters, intricate plots, and cliffhanger endings, the Dunnett books cry out for discussion. My mom and I talked about them endlessly, but we didn’t know anyone else who read them. I was thrilled to meet fellow writer Penelope Williamson and discover she was also a Dunnett reader. Penny and I spent many long lunches analyzing Dunnett’s books and speculating about what would happen next in the Niccolò series.

Then, in the mid-nineties, Penny and I both got online. We discovered there were whole online groups devoted to discussing Dunnett’s novels. Suddenly we could analyze and speculate with people all over the world. Dunnett readers tend to be a wonderul group–warm, friendly, well-read. I’ve had a great time geting together with fellow Dunnett readers both in the Bay Area and while traveling. In 2000, Penny and I and a number of our other Dunnett-reading friends went to Scotland for a conference in honor of the publication of the last book in the House of Niccolò series. Even now the series is finished (and Dunnett sadly passed away a few years ago) we love to get together online and in person to discuss Dunnett books and other books (not to mention tv shows from “Deadwood” to “Spooks/MI-5″ to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (which seems to be a particular favorite with Dunnett readers) :-).

Dunnett talked about reading and being influenced by other writers I love–Sabatini, Orczy, Heyer (certainly you can see bits of Andre-Louis Moreau and Percy Blakeney in Lymond, no to mention a touch of Peter Wimsey). She’s been a huge influence on me. I can see a number of echoes of her books looking at “Secrets of a Lady”–the conflict between brothers, questions about parentage, the loss of a child. I still pull out her books and reread certain scenes when I have to tackle an action sequence or a sword fight (“The Game of Kings” has the best sword fight I’ve ever read).

Have you read Dunnett? Do you enjoy discussing her books? Are there other authors you discuss with friends, online or in person?

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Last Friday I saw an amazing Lohengrin at San Francisco Opera, including a truly fabulous vocal and dramatic performance by Brandon Jovanovich in the title role. With its story of a heroine who must swear never to ask her husband’s name and then begins to wonder who the man who married really is, the plot gave me a lot to think about in terms of the struggles I’m dramatizing for Suzanne and Malcolm. A key scene in the opera is Elsa and Lohengrin’s wedding night. Though it begins with the now iconic wedding march and includes some ravishing music, it is ultimately a confrontation that marks the end of a marriage rather than the consummation of one.

Watching it I thought about other memorable wedding night scenes. Peter and Harriet’s in Busman’s Honeymoon is probably my favorite for emotional resonance, but I was also thinking about stories in which the wedding night veers off from the expected and, as in Lohengrin, takes the couple in a different direction. One that immediately came to mind is Nicholas and Gelis’s wedding night in Scales of Gold in Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series. It contains what is known to Dunnett readers as The Wedding Night Surprise, a much analyzed and debated scene that changes the course of the marriage and the series. (As a side note, Saturday was Dorothy Dunnett Day, and I spent it at lunch with some wonderful Dunnett readers).

For my November teaser it seems appropriate to post a bit from Malcolm and Suzanne’s wedding night from His Spanish Bride (which will be released on November 23). What are some of your favorite wedding night scenes?

I just got some gorgeous coverflats for The Paris Affair, so I’ll give away a signed one to one of this week’s commenters. And check out this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition from Cordelia to Violet.

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Malcolm drew a breath and rapped at the bedchamber door.
“Yes.” His wife’s—his wife’s—voice came from behind the polished panels. “That is, come in.”
He turned the handle. Never had he felt such trepidation at stepping into his own bedchamber.
Suzanne sat on the dressing table bench, wrapped in a dressing gown of seafoam silk. Her dark hair spilled loose over her shoulders, the cropped bits still curled round her face. Her bare feet peeped out from beneath the silk and muslin of her dressing gown and nightdress. He had seen her in dresses that exposed more skin, but something about the déshabille was at once more seductive and more vulnerable than any glimpse he’d had of her before. His throat closed. His mind clamped down on every impulse of his body.
“Do you have everything you need?” His voice sounded thin to his own ears.
“Yes.” Her own voice was like frayed silk. “Addison arranged things perfectly. Though I’m afraid I’ve quite taken over your dressing table.”
Enamel boxes and glass jars clustered on the dressing table top. He wasn’t sure what had become of his shaving kit until he saw it on the chest of drawers. He saw something else beside the chest of drawers. A silver cooler with a bottle of champagne.
“Addison left that for us,” Suzanne said. “A touch of romance I wouldn’t have expected.” She bit her lip as though she wasn’t sure about the word “romance.”
Two crystal glasses stood on the escritoire, sparkling in the light from the brace of candles. Malcolm wasn’t sure whether to thank his valet or groan. He picked up the champagne bottle and opened it, which at least gave him something to do with his hands. He splashed champagne on the dressing table but managed to hand Suzanne a glass without breaking it or spattering champagne on her. He picked up his own glass and touched it to hers. To say “to us” seemed presumptuous when there scarcely was an “us.” Instead he said, “To the future.”
She smiled and took a sip of champagne. He did as well, a rather deeper sip than he intended. “Suzanne—” He retreated to lean against the chest of drawers. “We needn’t— There needn’t be anything between us until after the baby’s born. Or even after that. Not until—not unless you’re ready.”
He more than half-expected her to look away. Instead she met his gaze. Her eyes looked very open. He realized it was because she’d removed the blacking she used to line them and darken her lashes. “You already made that very obliging offer. But we’re married, and I think we should begin as we mean to go on, as it were. “
He took another sip of champagne. His mouth was dry. “What I’m trying to say is you can define how we mean to go on.”
“And what I’m trying to say is that I’d welcome new memories to make the old go away.”

Lauren Willig has a very fun contest going on over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. You can vote on a sexy cover for the inimitable Turnip Fitzhugh, and if there’s sufficient acclaim, Lauren will write a love scene between Turnip Fitzhugh and Arabella which did not appear in the wonderful Mischief of the Mistletoe.

It’s a great idea, born about because two different reviewers regretted the lack of a love scene between Turnip and Arabella. It got me to think about “missing scenes” – scenes which don’t take place between the pages of a book which I’ve always wanted to read. For instance:

Darcy and Elizabeth’s engagement conversation. Some authors fade to black for love scenes. Jane Austen does it for the final romantic resolution between her heroes and heroines. In many ways it’s a wonderful literary technique, leaving so much tantalizingly to the imagination. And yet I would so like to know what they actually said and did…

Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane after “Placetne, magistra? / Placet.” and the final embrace at Oxford in Gaudy Night. Busman’s Honeymoon reveals that they spent the rest of the night in a punt madly kissing, but I would so have liked to see that scene dramatized.

Percy and Marguerite’s meeting and their wedding (not to mention their wedding night, I can never be certain if they ever actually made love or not), not to mention Percy learning of Marguerite’s denunciation of St. Cyr. Basically all the complicated back story of The Scarlet Pimpernel. (If you’re a Pimpernel fan be sure to check out the great discussion of the 1982 film and other adaptations at Dear Author).

Lymond seeing Kuzum again at the end of the Lymond Chronicles, how he dealt with him, what kind of relationship they had.

Sophy and Charles on the carriage ride back to London at the end of The Grand Sophy, not to mention the scene with Sir Horace and Lady Ombersley when they reached Berkeley Square.

Are there any “missing scenes” from the Charles & Mélanie/Malcolm & Suzanne books you wish I’d dramatize? From other favorite books?

I’ve just posted a new Fraser Correspondence letter in which Aline writes to Gisèle about Charles/Malcolm’s arrest.

My good friend and fellow History Hoyden Isobel Carr had a great post recently about anti-heroes. (Isobel has a wonderful new book out, by the way, Ripe for Pleasure, featuring an anti-hero and a courtesan). The fascinating follow-up discussion on Isobel’s post took me back to a question I pondered a bit myself in a post on “Bad girl” heroines. What exactly makes an anti-hero or anti-heroine? Is it the behavior or the motives?

I’ve heard the term anti-hero used to encompass a range of characters. There’s the Talented Mr. Ripley, who commits murder for his own advancement. There’s Don Draper, who has principles of a sort and is remarkably loyal to some of the people in his life, but seems to have no concept of romantic fidelity–(or at least no ability to be faithful. (One of the things I love about Mad Men is how all the characters are flawed and yet all of them have sympathetic moments.) Francis Crawford of Lymond does all sorts of seemingly horrible things, and yet he inevitably proves to have done so for the noblest of motives. Is he an anti-hero? Or is an anti-hero someone who acts out of selfish motives and doesn’t have a core of principles? Both Han Solo and Rick Blaine claim to only be out for themselves fairly early in their respective stories. And yet neither of them does anything remotely approaching Lymond’s actions (burning his mother’s castle, being responsible for the death of his son).

Isobel described Lady Barbara Childe in Georgette Heyer’s An Infamous Army as “a benchmark anti-heroine.” Lady Barbara’s behavior is certainly destructive and causes pain to a number of people. On the other hand, I don’t think she does anything as morally questionable as Mélanie/Suzanne (entering a marriage on false pretenses, lying to her spouse for years, being responsible for deaths because of information she passed along). But Mélanie is acting out of loyalty to a cause and comrades, whereas Barbara’s behavior is driven by being discontented and unhappy. Does that make one more an anti-heroine than the other?

How do you define anti-heroes and anti-heroines? Is it their actions or their motivation or both? What are some of your favorite examples? What does it take for you for such a character to be redeemed?

If Tatiana Kirsanova were the protagonist of a novel, I think she might be an anti-heroine. This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is a letter from Geoffrey Blackwell to Lady Frances about Tatiana’s death (dealing with some of the questions in response to last week’s letter about who knew what when about Tatiana’s birth).

Lauren Willig recently referenced a post I wrote for Valentine’s Day a few years ago, which prompted me to go back to the post, one of my favorites. In honor of last week’s holiday, this seemed a good time to re-post it.

I’ve wanted to do this blog for a while and Valentine’s Day seemed the perfect time to write it. Favorite romantic scenes–first declarations of love, resolutions of seemingly insurmountable conflicts, and other heart stopping moments. Here are a few of my favorites, scenes that bring an ache to my throat and put a smile on my face, many of them scenes I’ve reread so many times I know them by heart.

In no particular order:

1. “Oh, Damerel, must you be foxed just as this moment? How odious you are , my dear friend!”

The extended sequence at the end of Georgette Heyer’s Venetia in which Venetia and Damerel work out their differences has it all–conflict, humor, passion, and poignancy. Damerel is a world-weary rake and Venetia is a sheltered, unmarried woman, yet they’re so uniquely themselves that they pop off the page, and so obviously soul mates that you can’t but feel a catch in your throat as they battle through to their happy ending.

2. “I’ve just won a wager with myself.”

The scene in Freedom & Necessity by Steven Brust & Emma Bull in which Susan and James confess their feelings (and do rather more than confess them) may be my favorite literary love scene. It’s character-driven, emotionally fraught, erotically frank, and yet still filled with mystery. The final scene between the couple in the book is also lovely, and then there’s that fabulous last letter James writes to Susan, not to mention all the moments in between.

3. “Monseigneur, I would so much rather be the last woman than the first.”

These Old Shades is a comfort read for me, but it isn’t my favorite Georgette Heyer. It isn’t even in my top three. And yet I’ve reread the last scene between Avon and Léonie countless times. It’s beautifully written and structured, with a wonderful economy of gesture and emotion that speaks volumes. There’s very little inner monologue, and yet the emotional shifts are crystal clear.

4. “Now forget your responsibility to everyone else for once in your life and give me a straight answer. Do you want me to stay?”

The final scene in The Armies of Daylight, the third book in Barbara Hambly’s Darwath trilogy, may be the most satisfying lovers-getting-together-against-the-odds scene I’ve ever read, largely because the odds seem so very high and the happy ending so very much not guaranteed. There’s also something about this scene that to me is very much parallel to the Léonie/Avon scene, though the words are very different as are the characters. Yet both stories involve heroes who are considerably older than the heroines and who men capable of shaping the world round them (Ingold is a wizard, Avon a wealthy, powerful duke). Both men are convinced they’ll only bring unhappiness to the woman they love and are trying to do the noble thing and give her up (as is Damerel in scene 1. Doing the right thing can be very sexy). The heroines, Léonie and Gil, are very different women. Yet both are trying to convince the man they love that they know what they want and would much rather face the future with him, hand in hand. Like the scene from These Old Shades, this one has beautifully delineated emotional shifts and wonderful tension between desire and perceived duty and the competing objectives of the two characters.

5. “I do love nothing in the world so well as you: is not that strange?”

I got to do the church scene between Beatrice and Benedick from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing in acting class in high school. My fellow sophomore Benedick and I barely scratched the surface of what the scene has to offer. But we had a lot of fun, and I still know most of the lines by heart. And every time I see the play, I find new things in this incredibly rich scene, which is funny, touching, romantic, and fraught with dark emotion. In the History Hoydens discussion, Pam Rosenthal said, It stops my heart now, as completely as it did when I first read it in my late teens. And Leslie Carroll, who is also an actress, said, That admission always takes my breath away. And it did when I played the role, every time we got to that moment. It’s a moment that is so well crafted; it manages to be totally earned and yet steals up on the lovers unawares.

6. “Placetne, magistra?”
“Placet.”

I think I studied Latin college partly so I could understand the dialogue between Peter and Harriet in the final scene of Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night (thanks to which I now know that Peter phrases the question in a neutral way, rather than a way that expects a yes or no answer). That this scene manages not to be trite or anticlimactic or trite after three books of angst and adventure, countless marriage proposals, and several brushes with death is no small feat. You can really believe in the balance these two characters have fought their way to, yet there’s still enough tension to keep the reading anxiously turning the pages. Harriet’s done a great deal of thinking in the pages before, but here, as in some of the other scenes I’ve mentioned, there’s very little inner monologue. And yet every word and detail is weighted with subtext, down to the traffic lights blinking Yes; No; Wait. And as Janet Mullany said in the History Hoydens discussion, it’s a book that has a breathtaking amount of sexual tension in it.

7. Too late, too late, too late. It had happened.

My mom and I used to call this the “Gigi” moment–where the hero suddenly realizes, with the force of a thunderclap, that he’s madly in love with the heroine who’s been right there under his nose for years and years or pages and pages. The moment when Francis Crawford of Lymond comes to this realization, in The Ringed Castle, book five of the Lymond Chronicles is all the more powerful for the world “love” never being used.

8. “I prefer you as you are–tainted and tarnished.”

The scene where Mary casts caution and calculation aside and crawls into bed with the wounded Lord Vaughn in Lauren Willig’s The Seduction of the Crimson Rose is just lovely. A truly romantic confession of feeling on both sides, made all the stronger by the fact that you know just what it costs these two people to let their guard down and make themselves vulnerable. Both maintain their wonderfully acerbic sides, which makes their confession of their feelings (couched or allude to in character-appropriate terms) all the more powerful.

9. “A bath and some inoculations are called for, Holmes.”

I think the “dock scene” from Laurie King’s A Monstrous Regiment of Women may be my favorite proposal scene. Intensely romantic in large part because so much about it is is quite the opposite. Holmes and Russell are filthy and soaking wet and in the midst of an argument about his having gone after the villain without her. There’s a wonderful juxtaposition of acerbic dialogue and passionate breaking free of restraint. As with Gaudy Night and the Darwath Chronicles, and the Lymond Chronicles, it has extra power from being the culmination of
more than one book of longing. It sends chills up my spine every time I read it (play on words intended, to those familiar with the scene).

10. “Well,” he said, with a transitory gleam of himself, “you’re my corner and I’ve come to hide.”

Peter and Harriet are the only couple to appear twice on this list. Much as I love the last scene of Gaudy Night, I think I may be even more fond of the final scene between them in Busman’s Honeymoon. It grapples with a question I’m fond of addressing in my own writing, “what happens after happily ever after?” And it balances the scales by letting Peter need Harriet. As Lauren Willig said in the History Hoydens Discussion, I think it’s the first book I read that really took the time to deal with what happened after that initial, hard won resolution. She then made a nice comparison to Charles and Mélanie and watching the struggle of two people struggling to find a way to fit together on an ongoing basis, achieving small victories and dealing with the occasional reversal. Which prompted me to mention that The last scene in Busman’s Honeymoon was my inspiration for the last scene in Beneath a Silent Moon, which was my starting place for the book. I knew I wanted to get Charles and Mélanie to that scene, and I worked backwards 🙂 .

Ten very different scenes. And yet, as I revisited them to write this post, I realized that the very differences in scenes and characters are something the scenes have in common. Each is unique to the characters involved, in the setting and circumstances in which the scene occurs (a sitting room in the French countryside, a rocky hollow in an alternate universe the London docks, an Oxford street) to the circumstances to the words and gestures the characters find to express their feelings. There’s also a wonderful tension to all of them, a sense of the fragility of emotions and the bonds between two people and the risk of letting down one’s guard. None of them seem quite certain in advance and yet once the characters find their way to each other, you absolutely believe in the possibility of their happiness.

Have you read any of the books above? Did any of these scenes resonate with you? What are some favorite literary heart stopping moments of yours? What is it that makes them particularly effective?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is Raoul’s reply to Lady Elizabeth’s letter from last week.

Hope everyone celebrating United States Thanksgiving is having a wonderful holiday and everyone else is having a great weekend. After a lovely Thanksgiving dinner with my family (and four dogs and four cats), I’ve been writing, reading (finished Lauren Willig’s The Mischief of the Mistletoe, a fabulous holiday treat), and doing some holiday decorating. Thinking about what one is thankful for, this seemed a good weekend to post about things I’m thankful for, from a literary perspective:

A mom who introduced me Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, Georgette Heyer, Dorothy Sayers, and a host of other writers, as well as the magic of creating worlds and characters.

A dad who listened to my stories and encouraged my creativity

My editor, my agent, and all the people who get my book through production (particularly as I just received the gorgeous ARCs for Vienna Waltz).

All the people who read my books and especially the ones who write, email, and comment online. That interaction and feedback is so important for keeping a writer going in a solitary profession.

Greg and jim, without whom my website and my ability to have much of that interaction would not be possible.

Booksellers who take the time to hand sell books (yes, Cate, I am talking about you).

My writer friends who brainstorm, commiserate, and celebrate, both in person and online.

The History Hoydens, a fabulous group of historical novelists to hang out with online.

Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Georgette Heyer, Dorothy Sayers, Tom Stoppard, Dorothy Dunnett, Len Deighton, the Baroness Orczy and a host of other writers that have and do inspire my own writing and are just plain brilliant to read.

Stephen Sondheim (also a brilliant musician, but in this case I’m thinking of his brilliance with words; who saw his birthday celebration on PBS Wednesday?).

What are you thankful for from a literary perspective? Have you had time to read this weekend?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is Mélanie writing to Raoul about David’s suggestion that Charles leave the diplomatic corps and stand for Parliament.

I had a fascinating exchange this week on Facebook with a new reader who read Beneath a Silent Moon and now is reading Secrets of a Lady. I’m always intrigued by hearing from readers who read the books in the order in which they’re set chronologically rather than the order in which they were written. I’m often asked which order to read the books in, and I answer that I deliberately wrote them so they could be read in either order, but I think there are differences in how the story unfolds depending on the order in which one reads them.

I’ve always written connected books, and I’ve always tended to move back and forth chronologically, in the Anthea Malcolm books I wrote with my mom, in my historical romances, and in the Charles & Mélanie books. Now with Vienna Waltz I’ve gone back still further in Charles and Mel’s history. Answering reader questions about Secrets and Beneath this weekend, I realized that I’ve also tended to read series out of order. My first Dorothy Sayers book was Have His Carcase, well into the series and the second of the Peter & Harriet books. I then read Busman’s Honeymoon (the fourth Peter & Harriet book, because it was the next I could find, my wonderful father drove me to a bookstore on Sunday, and it was the only one they had), then Strong Poison (the first Peter & Harriet book), and finally Gaudy Night (the third book). I didn’t mind reading the series out of order. In fact, I rather enjoyed getting to know Peter and Harriet, seeing them married, going back in time to when they met, then reading the book where they get engaged. I found Lauren Willig’s series with The Deception of the Emerald Ring, Deanna Raybourn’s with Silent on the Moor, Laurie King’s Mary Russell books with The Moor. I think I actually enjoy starting a series at a point where the characters and their relationships have progressed and then going back to see how it all started.

My friend Penny Williamson started Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles with The Ringed Castle, the fifth book in the series. She says she was very confused but also fascinated. She went on to read the other four books that had been published at that point completely out of order, before reading Checkmate, the final book in the series, when it was published.

How do you feel about the order in which you read a series? Do you tend to start with the first book or in the middle? Do you think you view the story and characters differently depending on the order in which you read the books? Writers, do you like moving back and forth in time or do you prefer to write in chronological order?

Speaking of chronological order, this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition continues in the build up to Waterloo with a letter from Isobel to Mélanie.

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