Dorothy Dunnett

I recently returned to reading Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, which I had started last summer and then put aside (I sometimes hit moments when I’m writing when I just can’t read anything). I was drawn back immediately by the richness of the writing and the sharp emotional details. I was also struck by comparing and contrasting the book with the recent film, which I also liked. The major events are the same, but the emotional arc is quite different (though Kitty Fane does grow and change in both). It’s rather as though someone were to film Secrets of a Lady with the same basic plot but have the story end with Charles and Mel realizing they’d never really known or loved each other but staying together for practicality.

The other the thing The Painted Veil got me to thinking about is one of my favorite literary tropes–marriage in trouble plots. They’ve always fascinated me, long before I started writing about Charles and Mélanie. That’s why, when I cite influences and inspirations for the Charles & Mélanie series, in addition to the more obvious ones like The Scarlet Pimpernel, Scaramouche, Dorothy Dunnett, and Dorothy Sayers, I mention Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, and Len Deighton’s Bernard Samson books.

Reading The Painted Veil, I was pondering the fascination of this plotline. The intimacy of marriage ups the stakes in the conflict between two people. Percy’s devastation at Marguerite’s seeming lack of trustworthiness is all the great because she has just become his wife. Betrayal, I think, is one of the worst things that can happen to a person. How much worse is it when that betrayal comes from a spouse? Years of living together also gives characters a knowledge of each other that recent lovers wouldn’t have. In The Real Thing, the hero has a wonderful speech about knowing one’s spouse, in a way that goes far beyond carnal. That knowledge can be used for good or will. George and Martha know just how to push each other’s buttons. So, for that matter, do Maggie and Brick.

Particularly in an historical setting, marriage makes it difficult for two people to walk away from each other, no matter how poisoned their relationship has grown. There’s a fascinating tension in two people pretending to be a couple to the outside world, while being estranged when they’re alone. Think of Percy and Marguerite keeping up appearances to the beau monde yet unable to communicate in private, Maggie and Brick maintaining the charade of their marriage (or at least Maggie trying to) in front of his family. Kitty and Walter Fane sharing a bungalow in a cholera-infested town, seen by most as a devoted couple who’ve risked infection so as not to be separated.

Unlike most of the other couples mentioned in this post, Kitty and Walter actually know each other very little (hence much of the tragedy). But even they share a history. With any married couple, there’s a past to explore–how they came to be married and why, what they both expected, how that expectation compares to the current reality. And history is something I love to explore as a writer, whether it’s historical events or the personal history shared by two people.

Do you like marriage in trouble stories? Why or why not? Any favorite examples to suggest? What do you think makes them work?

The Fraser Correspondence takes a new turn this week. To go along with some research I’m doing for a possible project, I’ve gone back to 1814, when Charles and Mel have just arrived at the glittering Congress of Vienna. This week’s letter is from Charles to David.

My friend Penny Williamson and I spent Friday afternoon at a matinée of the new Star Trek movie. We both loved it. It manages to simultaneously be fresh and innovative and yet true to the original. The actors do a fabulous job of capturing the characters we know so well, in mannerism and vocal patterns (and the way the writers wrote their dialogue). You can really believe these characters will grow into the characters from the original tv series. And yet the new actors never seem to be mimicking, they make the characters their own. Since I love to move back and forth in time in my own writing and examine my characters at different points in their history, I particularly enjoyed the prequel aspect.

As I’ve mentioned in past blogs, Penny and I both love to talk about favorite series. When we first became friends, we spent endless lunches analyzing and speculating over Dorothy Dunnett’s books (this was in the years when the House of Niccolò series was still being written and published). More recently, we could be found picking apart Alias over lattes in our favorite café. Waiting for the movie to start Friday, we were discussing the season finale of Lost. Penny and I’ve been discussing Lost a lot lately. In fact, we talked about it for the entire five hour plus drive from the San Francisco Bay Area to Ashland, Oregon, on our recent trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Lost fascinates and baffles both of us. Usually we can come up with a theory about where we think a story arc is headed (wrong perhaps to varying degrees but at least a theory that works with the information at hand). With Lost, every time we think we have something figured out, the next episode pulls the rug out from under us.

I blogged a while back about the delights of speculating over a series. Part of it of course is trying to unravel the plot. When I was a teenager, my mom and I had numerous discussions about Star Wars in the years between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. I still remember the moment when, thinking about Arthurian mythology, I said “oh, I know, Luke and Leia are brother and sister.” Of course, I was thrilled to be proved right when we saw Return of the Jedi (the day it opened). But mostly, I was relieved to see the characters I cared about get the happy ending I so wanted them to have. Thinking about Star Trek and Lost, I realized how much of the allure of an ongoing series is the characters. Characters you care about and root for. Characters who seem to have a rich inner life off the screen/page. Characters you want to learn more about. Characters whose fates seem very real and a matter of great concern (I confess to having tears in my eyes at one point in the new Star Trek movie, and the recent Lost season finale definitely left me choked up).

I returned to the world of another favorite series recently when I read Laurie King’s The Language of Bees. It was a delight to step back into Russell & Holmes’s world. When I finished the book, I didn’t want to leave that world (partly because of the questions left to be answered in the next installment, but mostly because I wanted to spend more time with these characters). I’ve been rereading earlier books in the series since, unable to move on to something new.

What makes you bond with the characters in a particular series? Have you seen the new Star Trek movie? Do you watch Lost? If so, do you have the faintest idea of where the show is headed? :-).

Returning to my own series, this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is Cecily Summers’s reply to Mélanie’s letter from last week about their children and the Edinburgh premiere of Simon’s play.

As you may know, I began my writing career collaborating with my mother, Joan Grant. We wrote eight books and four novellas together, seven Regencies romances (and four novellas) as Anthea Malcolm, and one historical romance, Dark Angel, as Anna Grant (which is the first of of a quartet that continues with the three historical romances I

As I mention in the long version of my bio, my mother, a social psychologist (as was my father), loved books and read out loud to me a great deal. She introduced me to Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Orczy and the Scarlet Pimpernel world, Sabatini, Mary Stewart, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh. I in turn introduced her to Dorothy Dunnett (we used to discuss the Lymond Chronicles and the House of Niccolò endlessly) and Elizabeth George. I think my mom would have loved Laurie King’s Russell & Holmes books. I think the fact that we loved the same books and shared the same literary influences made it easier for us to plot and write together.

In honor of Mother’s Day (a holiday my mom deplored as too commercial :-)), I thought I’d post a video clip where I talk my mom’s influence on me as writer. I still feel her influence when I write. In fact, Charles and Mélanie were inspired by two secondary characters from an unpublished book my mom and I wrote together.

Has anyone read the Anthea Malcolm/Anna Grant books? Do you see an evolution from them to the books I write now? What similarities and differences do you note? Are there other writers you read who are writing partnerships? Writers, have you ever written with a partner? What are the rewards and challenges you’ve found?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is a letter from Mélanie to Cecily Summer, Simon Tanner’s actress friend who appears in Beneath a Silent Moon. Cecily Summers is the only character so far to have appeared in both the Anthea Malcolm books and the Charles & Mélanie books. Cecily appears in my mom’s and my Anthea Malcolm Regency, An Improper Proposal. Readers of both sets of books may have noticed that Simon’s theatre, the Tavistock, is also Rachel Ford’s theatre in An Improper Proposal. It hasn’t been dealt with in the books thus far, but Simon is partners with Rachel and Guy Melchett and Rachel’s uncle by marriage.

In her letter to Cecily, Mélanie writes about the challenges of juggling motherhood and her other work and responsibilities. What do you think of Mélanie as a mother? Where do you think motherhood fits in her complicated life as a priority? How well do you think she manages to juggle the many, complicated (and often contradictory) aspects of her life?

12 May update: I’m guest blogging today on Jaunty Quills about Damaged Characters. Do stop by and comment.

My friend and fellow writer Penny Williamson and I spent a wonderful afternoon today at a party of Dorothy Dunnett readers. Dunnett readers, as I’ve blogged about before, tend to be a fun, well-read, and extraordinarily nice group of people. Over tea and wine and a delicious array of food we talked about books by Dunnett and others as well as favorite television series.

There’s something about Dunnett’s books that particularly lends them to discussion and analysis. They’re so complex and multi-layered. The books aren’t mysteries, but there are mysteries running through both the Lymond Chronicle and the House of Niccoló which provide endless food for debate and speculation. Even now both series are finished, plenty of unresolved questions remain. Add to that vivid historical context, rich literary allusions, and a fascinating cast of characters, and it’s hard to read Dunnett and not want to talk about the books. As we discussed at the party today, in the dark ages before the internet, we all had long lists of questions we wanted to discuss with other Dunnett readers. For a long time, the only other Dunnett reader I knew was my mom. We would discuss and debate the books all the time. Penny and I first became friends because we both loved Dunnett books. We’d spend long lunches talking over the Lymond Chronicle and debating what might happen next in the House of Niccoló.

Through my Dunnett friends, I’m also involved in a discussion group of Dunnett readers who watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer (you’d be amazed at the parallels :-)). This evening, I’ve been pondering what it is about certain stories that seem to particularly lend themselves to discussion. Ongoing story arcs are a big part of it, so book and television series both lend themselves to reader and viewer discussions, online and in person. Dunnetts’ series and BVTS both have complicated, ongoing stories, with plenty of questions about who’s real agenda is what, who will end up with whom, how characters may have been related to other characters in the past, and a host of other mysteries. Not to mention books, episodes, and seasons that end with nerve-wracking cliff hangers.

Another important element is characters one comes to care about and root for. Sometimes, particularly when there are romantic triangles, the rival merits of the characters become a topic of discussion. I recall a number of debates over Gelis verus Kathi in the House of Niccoló or Angel versus Spike on BVTS.

The X-Files and Alias also lend themselves to discussion, as does Lost (I’m watching last week’s episode as I write this and will probably have to rewatch it to make sure I didn’t miss a vital clue). I think the more a series, television or book, has an going mytharc (to use an X-Files term), with story and character development that extends from episode to episode or book to book, the more it lends itself to discussion. The mystery series I talk about the most with fellow readers may wrap up the central mystery within a book but the continuing characters have plenty of ongoing issues that stretch from book to book. Elizabeth George’s Lynley/Havers series, Laurie King’s Mary Russell series, and C.S. Harris’s Sebastian St. Cyr series all come to mind. When I finish one of the books, I inevitably want to talk about it (particularly the in the case of the recent George and Harris books which left lots of unresolved questions). They aren’t mysteries, but the same is true of Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series. There are always questions, whether it’s about the identity of villains, Colin and Eloise, or the Pink Carnation herself.

Another thing all these series have in common is vivid, richly-detailed world-building, whether it’s Dunnett’s 15th and the 16th century Europe and beyond, suburban Sunnydale, Mulder & Scully’s conspiracy-rife FBI, Sydney Bristow’s CIA and the Alliance, an island that moves back and forth in time (and goodness knows what else), Lynley & Havers’s Scotland Yard, Holmes & Russell’s 20s Britain and beyond filled with puzzles and adventures, Sebastian St. Cyr’s dark Regency London, or the Pink Carnation’s adventure-filled Napoleonic Europe. They’re all worlds I enjoy visiting, filled with characters I enjoy spending time with.

Do you have favorite series, whether literary or on television, that lend themselves particularly to discussion? Do you seek out friends to talk them over with? What elements in series do you find particularly good topics for analysis?

Be sure to check out this week’s addition to the Fraser Correspondence, a letter from Quen to Charles.

With Valentine’s Day a week away, I thought I would rework the blog I wrote this week for History Hoydens, bringing in some of the comments in the discussion that followed (not to mention fixing a misquote on my part!). 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 Amanda Elyot, 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?”

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 Isobel Lydgate’s reply to Mélanie’s desperate plea last week for help with a seating arrangement for one of her first political dinner parties in Berkeley Square.

As I went about a long list of Saturday errands, I found myself thinking “what am I going to blog about this week?” As I often do, I returned to the thoughtful comments readers made on prior blog posts. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to everyone who reads my posts and comments and gets such wonderful discussions going. It keeps the blog dynamic, which I think is so important with any web-based material. And it provides much needed inspiration to me as I do my weekly updates :-).

This week’s inspiration comes from another comment Taryn made, in responses to the discussion about my What makes you want to buy a book? post a couple of weeks ago. Taryn brought up a question I’d love to hear answers on from more readers of this blog:

I have a question for this crowd: Who, among your favorite authors, would you put Tracy’s books? For me, I pick Elizabeth George, Anne Perry, Pam Rosenthal, Judith Ivory, but even Harlan Coben (for the horrible things that happen to ordinary people) and whose novels are relentless. Vince Flynn has the relentless part down and while his circle of people is very small he is completely committed to them, so if feels like there is room on this bookshelf. The are others – what are yours? My criteria is spectacular writing about compelling people who can’t help but hurt the one they love because of things in their past, they don’t need to be a love story but a history/mystery is probably a better fit.

In any case what I want to know is who’d be on your bookcase?

Authors are often asked what other authors’ books are like theirs. It’s a tantalizing and often frustrating question. It’s hard to step back and see one’s own work from enough distance to come up with an answer. But I know as a reader I find such comparisons a very helpful way to discover new authors. I discovered Freedom & Necessity by Steven Brust & Emma Bull, when people discussed it on a Dorothy Dunnett list I’m on. It was described as having Dunnettish qualities and someone referred to the “Harriet Vane-esque” heroine. With a recommendation that referenced two of my favorite authors (and one of my favorite literary heroines) how could I resist? I ordered Freedom & Necessity from Amazon and devoured it in about twenty-four hours of almost non-stop reading. It remains one of my all time favorite books. And I totally agree with the Dunnett and Harriet Vane comparisons.

I started watching The X-Files when readers on a Laurie King list I’m on compared the relationship between Russell & Holmes to the relationship between Scully & Mulder. As anyone who reads my blog will know, I became totally hooked on The X-Files. And I definitely see the comparison to Holmes & Russell. Very different characters, but the intellectual partnership is there, the strong emotions simmering under the surface and expressed in a sort of code, the interplay between the mystery solving and the relationship, the understated words that speak volumes because so much is unsaid (Mulder’s “I don’t want to risk losing you” in “Requiem”; Holmes comment that the sun setting in the east wouldn’t cause his heart to stop but the sight of his wife going over the rail of a ship might do so in Locked Rooms).

I’d love to hear more on this topic from readers of this blog. What books would you compare the Charles & Mélanie books to? Did any of you find the Charles & Mélanie books because they were recommended by someone who said “this book is sort of like…”? Have you discovered other authors (or television shows or movies) because someone recommended them as similar to a book you loved? Do you find yourself comparing authors to other authors when you make recommendations to friends? Do you group books on a mental bookshelf with books you find similar?

I posted a new addition to the Fraser Correspondence last night–a letter from Gisèle, on the one month anniversary of her marriage, to Lady Frances.

Taryn had some wonderful comments on the Mask of Night page recently–wonderful both in the sense of making me as an author, very happy, but also very-thought provoking in terms of what draws us as readers to a novel. As Taryn pointed out, the Charles & Mélanie books are hard to categorize which can be “a bit hard a bit of a positioning problem – is it a murder mystery, a spy novel, a romance? Not that it can’t be and isn’t all of that, but although I’m not in publishing, just a passionate end-reader, often I think the marketing is an afterthought and they don’t always trust their audience, so they want to “dumb it down” to make it “one thought.” Your work is so textured that it isn’t easy to distill – for me this is what has me staying up way too late trying to find out what happens!”

Hearing that readers have stayed up too late reading one’s book is one of the nicest compliments a writer can receive. But Taryn’s comment also sums up why the Charles & Mel books can be tricky to market. I’ve always loved books that cross genres. Mysteries (Dorothy Sayers, Laurie King, Elizabeth George, C.S. Harris) and fantasy novels (Barbara Hambly, Steven Brust & Emma Bull) with strong romantic threads, romances with lots of plot and history and adventure (Penelope Williamson, Laura Kinsale), historical fiction with intrigue and adventure and romance (Dorothy Dunnett, Bernard Cornwell, Patrick O’Brien, Robert Goddard, Lauren Willig). But it can be hard for publishers and booksellers to figure out how to market these books. I don’t think it’s so much that readers don’t like books that cross genres as that marketing strategies are book store shelving tend to be based on slotting books into genres.

Which makes the cover copy for the books that much more important. I asked Taryn about this in the course of the discussion on the Mask page. What would make her pick up the books? (She bought Secrets of Lady based on recommendations not the copy.) Taryn said, “I’d like to think about the back-of-the-book question a bit more but my first thought (for Secrets of a Lady) is yes, you convey time (Regency) and place (seamy London), and secrets, which are always tempting. For Beneath a Silent Moon, it’s closer to making me want to buy, but…seems to focus on Charles and less about Melanie, who is one of the most interesting heroines since Scarlett O’Hara or even about them together and how complex they are. And also the theme of forgiveness – but not heavy-handed, maybe in the form of a question – could you find a way to forgive the love of your life after you’ve learned they have betrayed you? This seems like it might be a direction to consider…don’t know, maybe have a small focus group from visitors to your blog!”

Which gave me the idea of turning the discussion into this week’s blog. What themes or plot elements or phrases on a book cover grab your interest? Did you pick up Daughter/Secrets or Beneath based on the cover copy? If so, what was it in the copy that caught your attention? Are there other ways you think the books could be described that you’d find more compelling? In general, what makes you want to buy a book?

Taryn said, “What makes me buy – spies, tortured war veterans (male and female) as i am intrigued by the parallels to the 21st century version. Relationship is a big part of what makes me buy (cover art attracts (although I hate those men with no shirts, *where* did those shirts go, anyway??)). I picked Secrets up through romance so I was expecting relationship stuff – wow, those revelation scenes early on *blew my mind* – and that kind of inter-personal drama really delivered! Even if it was not a typical romance book, it delivered the best of romance – a strong set of characters with real problems that they need to solve together. Unusual that these are married, that also added to the “I’m intrigued – I think I’ll buy” moment.”

As I’ve mentioned before, anything to do with “spies” or “espionage” on a book cover grabs my interest. Doubly so if it’s historical. The same with politics, particularly historical politics. So do words or phrases implying there’s a complex plot–“twists and turns,” “plots and counterplots,” “maze of intrigue,” “secrets”, “unraveling,” etc… And anything that indicates lovers with a history–married couples, ex-lovers, enemies who’ve betrayed each other. And thematically, anything to do with ambiguity, the elusive nature of truth, loyalty and betrayal is pretty much guaranteed to draw me in.

I’d love to hear other readers’ thoughts on these questions. What makes you want to buy a book?

On another note, I’m now on Facebook. I’m still getting the knack of how it works, but if you’re on Facebook do friend me, and I’d love suggestions for reading and writing-related groups to join.

And be sure to check on this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition–it’s a letter from Mélanie to Isobel Lydgate about Twelfth Night at Dunmykel.

Update 14 January: I’m blogging on History Hoydens today on bringing an historical world to life, inspired by the movie Milk.

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.

Sarah emailed me recently with some interesting questions about writing historical fiction and being accurate to the mores of the time. She asked is readers prefer historical accuracy in characters’ attitudes and behavior, however unpleasant by today’s standards, or a romantic whitewash of the past.

It’s a fascinating topic. I touched on it a few months ago with a blog on Past Imperfect . I also talked about Unconventional Characters in a Conventional World when I was a guest on Romantic Inks last year. As someone who strives for historical accuracy, yet constantly writes characters who break the rules of their day, it’s a topic I find fascinating. I have no desire to paint a pretty picture of the dark (the Regency era has a definite dark side), but my most of my characters could hardly be called conventional (if I wrote about modern-day characters I doubt they’d be called conventional either). As I’m settling in with a new book, revisiting familiar characters and creating new ones, this seemed like a good time to revisit the topic.

Part of researching an era is getting to know its conventions, the rules (many unwritten) that governed social interactions, from introductions to insults to courtship and marriage. And yet so many of my favorite characters defy conventions. Sir Percy Blakeney, a seemingly typical pink of the ton, has secret adventures in France as the Scarlet Pimpernel and (probably more shocking from the point of view of the English ton) marries a French actress. Sophy Stanton-Lacey in Heyer’s The Grand Sophy (one of my favorite Heyer heroines from the age of ten) drives a carriage down St. James’s Street, right past the gentlemen’s clubs. Teen-aged Philippa Somerville leaves her home in northern England and follows Francis Crawford of Lymond round the Mediterranean. And rule-breaking characters aren’t found only in works by historical novelists dealing with the conventions of the past. Shakespeare frequently has his characters defy the conventions of their world. Heroines such as Viola, Rosalind, and Imogen disguise themselves as men. Portia not only dons male attire but impersonates a lawyer (quite brilliantly). Benedick breaks with his best friend and Prince to consider Beatrice’s perspective when her cousin is (falsely) accused. Romeo and Juliet marry in secret in defiance of their parents, and Juliet deceives her parents by faking her own death to run off with Romeo.

In any era, one can find a wide range of behaviors, some well outside the accepted conventions of the day. Rules create obstacles. Having characters push against those obstacles can create wonderful conflict. The key, I think, is to create characters who would believably break rules and to make sure to deal with the consequences of their rule breaking in the world round them.

When I created Mélanie and Charles, I knew I was developing an unconventional pair of characters. They had to be rule-breakers for the stories I wanted to write about them to work. So I kept that in mind as I worked out their back stories and the forces that shaped them. Charles and Mélanie both have a number of reasons for being unconventional. Charles had the early influence of Raoul O’Roarke, introducing him to books such as Paine’s Rights of Man and Beaumarchais’s Figaro trilogy, talking over the ethics of characters in Shakespeare plays, encouraging him to examine ideas and turn them inside out. He also had the influence of his mother–in her own way, Lady Elizabeth Fraser was hardly a conventional woman (and as a duke’s daughter, she could afford not to be). At Oxford, Charles met Simon Tanner, who grew up in Paris in the early days of the French Revolution and whose father was a painter and mother an artist’s model. After Oxford, Charles became a diplomat and intelligence agent. His young adulthood was lived out against the chaos of the Peninsular War instead of in orderly English drawing rooms and clubs.

Mélanie had an even more unconventional childhood as the daughter of traveling actors with revolutionary sympathies. She grew up surrounded by a bohemian life style and radical politica thought. Later, as orphaned teenager left to fend for herself on the streets of Salamanca, she lost all vestiges of conventional morality. When he find her in the brothel, Raoul not only molded her into an agent, he reminded her, as she tells Charles in Secrets of a Lady, of Rousseau and Thomas Paine and William Godwin–all the ideas I’d been raised.

By the time Secrets of a Lady begins, Mélanie and Charles are living a more sedate life in London, yet they are still known for being unconventional. Charles has some decidedly atypical (from our perspective we might say “modern”) views on men and women and marriage. At one point in Secrets he thinks:

[He] had always claimed that whose bed a woman had shared before her marriage was no more a man’s business than it was a wife’s business to ask the same about her husband. He recalled arguing as much in an after-dinner discussion fueled by plentiful port. ‘It’s all very well to try to outrage us with your bohemian sensibilities, Fraser,’ one of the other men present has said, staggering to the sideboard, where their host kept a chamber pot. ‘You’d feel differently if it was your own wife we were talking about.’

Charles knows his views are atypical. One of the reasons he is able to get away with expressing them is the protection of family and fortune. The grandson of a duke, connected (as Mélanie thinks at one point) “to half the British peerage”, he may cause some raised eyebrows, but he isn’t going to be barred from most Mayfair drawing rooms. And as his wife, Mélanie can get away with things that would spell ruin for Elizabeth Bennet.

Which doesn’t mean she can get away with everything. One of the tensions of Secrets (which will continue in subsequent books in the series) and is the that Mélanie knows she is admired and sought after by a society that would shun her if they the faintest idea of her origins. Mélanie’s rule breaking is usually born of the situation rather than a need to shock (such as Barbara Childe in Georgette Heyer’s An Infamous Army, one of my favorite convention-defying heroines). When I got to a scene in Beneath a Silent Moon where Mélanie and Charles are going to explore a secret passage in the middle of the night, it occurred to me that it would have been very foolish of her not to pack a shirt and breeches, knowing the sort of adventures she might be getting into. On the other hand it would never occur to me (or to Mélanie) for her to dress so for a morning ride in Hyde Park.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on unconventional characters. Do you like to read and write about them? Do you prefer it to be the heroine who is the rule-breaker or the hero or both? What determines whether or not you find it believable when a character defies convention? Writers, what are the challenges you’ve found in writing such characters?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is a letter from Mélanie, in a more conventional vein than usual, writing to Simon about their decision to move into the Berkeley Square house.

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