Penelope Williamson


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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As those of you who follow me on Twitter or Facebook know, I just got back from a very fun few days at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. I get a lot of inspiration for my writing from theater and music, particularly opera, as I’ve blogged about before. Which means that I usually come home from Ashland with new ideas for story lines or characters and plot problems solved. Especially because I go to Ashland with my fellow writer Penny Williamson and we analyze the plays over brunch, while shopping in Ashland’s fun boutiques and galleries, over leisurely dinners at wonderful restaurants (this trip Dragonfly, Amuse, Peerless, and Chateaulin) or glasses of prosecco in the OSF Member Lounge.

The personality of the villain in my Waterloo book fell into place during our conversations on this trip. And I got a lot of inspiration from the wonderful Henry IV Part One we saw the last night of our trip. Prince Hal and Hotspur made me think of the soldier characters in my book and their differing attitudes toward war. The debates about honor made me think of Charles’s and Mel’s debates about what is, in Falstaff’s estimation, merely “a word.” The rebels’ conspiracy made me think of the Bonapartist conspirators in my book. The ironic, challenging, wonderfully equal yet surprisingly tender relationship between Hotspur and his wife Kate made me think of Charles and Mel. Particularly in the second act, when Mortimer and his Welsh bride are lost in romanticism (though they don’t speak the same language), and Hotspur and Kate look on with dry amusement, while at the same time one knows just how deep their feelings for each other run. I can imagine a very similar scene with Charles and Mel.

But sometimes inspiration comes from more unexpected sources. The weekend before we left, I got together with a group of friends and watched a DVD of the film version of Tony Kushner’s brilliant Angels in America , (“a gay fantasia on national themes” in the apt subtitle), Part I Saturday, Part II Sunday. I love the play, and I’ve wanted to see the Mike Nichols film version for ages, but I was a bit stressed about giving up most of the weekend to watching it, when I needed to get ready for the trip and wanted to get more writing done before I left. Yet when I went back to my book Sunday night, I found my writing was rejuvenated. Angels holds fewer obvious parallels to my Waterloo book than the story of Prince Hal, Falstaff, and Hotspur, but it still stirred my imagination and freed my creativity to take the story in new directions. But then again, in Angels, just as in Henry IV, the personal and the political intertwine, personal betrayals shatter relationships, characters’ stories intersect in unexpected ways, and humanity shines through when one least expects it.

Do you like to analyze plays or movies? Where do you find inspiration for writing or other projects?

I’ve just posted a new letter in the Fraser Correspondence from Mélanie to Raoul about Easter dinner at the French embassy in Vienna, just after the news of Napoleon’s escape from Elba.

As you may have seen from my updates on Twitter and Facebook, I just got back from a wonderful few days at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival with my writer friend Penny Williamson. OSF is a wonderful theater company, but this year’s crop of plays (we’ll be back in July to see the rest of the 75th anniversary season) was overall one of the best in my memory.

We began with Ruined, a powerful play by the brilliant Lynn Nottage about women struggling to survive and living with the consequences of rape during the brutal war in the Congo. A painful play to watch at times, it had an amazingly hopeful ending, the sort of ending that takes one by surprise and yet in retrospect fits the story perfectly. The production, directed by Liesl Tommy, was riveting and heart-rending.

That evening we saw Hamlet, directed by OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch with the amazing Dan Donohue in the title role. I find new things in Hamlet whenever I see it. This production beautifully captured Hamlet’s youth (I’ve never seen the character played as so young and it really worked). His character arc of growing up over the course of the play was fascinating and paralleled the character arcs of Ophelia (Susannah Flood) and Laertes (David DeSantos). All the performances were sharply detailed and nuanced and the production also wonderfully brought out the surprising amount of humor in the play.

The next day we saw Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which I think is my favorite Tennessee Williams play (I love the fact that Maggie is so tough and not a victim as many of Williams’s heroines are). Director Christopher Liam Moore brilliantly brought out the raw emotions in the play. Maggie (Stephanie Beatriz) was tough and a fighter but also palpably desperate. Brick (Danforth Comins) had a look of bleak torment in his eyes. His confrontation with Maggie at the end of Act I brought tears to my eyes.

That evening provided a contrast to the first three very intense plays with the enchanting musical She Loves Me. She Loves Me has a beautiful score and a lovely story (it’s based on the Hungarian play Parfumerie that was also the basis for The Shop Around the Corner and You’ve Got Mail). This production was a sheer delight from the opening ensemble of the various characters arriving for work at the parfumerie to the delightfully romantic resolution between the central couple (Mark Bedard and Liza McCormick). The ensemble cast captured the various characters wonderfully and the production was staged (by director Rebecca Taichman) with wonderful wit.

We rounded out the trip with a delightful adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (adapted by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan) directed by former OSF Artistic Director Libby Appel. The familiar characters came to vivid life. OSF is such a strong rep company that the cast was uniformly strong, down to the smallest roles.

I find good theater so exhilarating Penny and I talked about the plays over brunches and dinners and after theater drinks. As always, we found many wonderful parallels between them. Maggie’s desperation for financial security through her marriage and the Bennet sisters’ need to find husbands, the feuding lovers who need to get past their first impressions in both She Loves Me and Pride and Prejudice. And as always I got wonderful ideas for my own writing, from a specific Hamlet quote I want to work into Vienna Waltz to ways of enriching my characters’ back story.

Have you seen any exciting theater lately? Writers, do you get inspiration from theater or movies?

Be sure to check out this week’s Fraser Correspondence additions, a letter from Aline Dacre-Hammond to Gisèle Fraser just after she arrives to stay with Charles and Mélanie in Vienna.

This week, I had a number of occasions to think about the invaluable role writer friends play in a writer’s life. Tuesday, I had a fabulous writing date with Veronica Wolff. We sipped coffee (and later in the day wine), enjoyed her fabulous view of the Pacific Ocean, caught up on families and writing projects, but still managed to spend most of our time working on our laptops. I wrote 2300 words, the most I’ve written so far on any one day for this book, and a *very* good writing day for me on any day. There’s something about working alongside another writer that helps me focus in and be productive.

Wednesday, I had lunch with Anne Mallory, Monica McCarty, and Penny Williamson at the wonderful Café Rouge in Berkeley, celebrating, among other things, Anne’s book For the Earl’s Pleasure being a finalist in Romance Writers of America’s RITA contest and Monica making the NYT list with her latest book, The Chief. That’s another thing about writer friends. They understand just how important it is to celebrate all the good things, because the writer’s life can be very unpredictable.

Wednesday night I went with Monica when she talked to a romance readers group at a Borders in Los Gatos (with some time spent working in the Borders café between lunch and the talk). It was fascinating hearing readers’ insights on the books they’re reading. Then Monica, Veronica, Bella Andre, Jackie Yau, and I had dinner with more writer talk.

Saturday, Penny and I wore hats and went out for tea at the gorgeous Garden Court in the Palace Hotel. Like stepping back in time to the days of art deco (my dad used to go tea dancing at the Garden Court as a teenager). It was a long-delayed celebration for my new book contract (and no less fun for being delayed).

The whole week was a very rejuvenating combination of fun and work. It made me realize yet again how much support and inspiration I get from my writing friends, whether it’s writing together, celebrating successes, or brainstorming plot ideas. I love writing at home with a cup of tea on a gray, rainy day like this one, but I don’t think I could get through a book without the support of my writer friends.

Do you write or work on other projects with friends? Do you find sometimes friends who share your field (whether it’s writing or something else) are the only ones who understand the particular joys and stresses of that field? Does knowing particular writers are friends influence what you think when you read those writers’ books?

Following up on the playlist for Secrets of a Lady I posted a while ago, here’s a playlist for Beneath a Silent Moon:

Moonight Sonata, Ludwig von Beethoven

I spent a lot of time listening to Beethoven sonatas, trying to pick Mélanie’s favorite. I resisted this piece because I was afraid it was too obvious, but I kept coming back to it. This hauntingly beautiful music somehow seems right for Mélanie. She is playing it in the drawing room during Charles and Honoria’s scene on the terrace. It was only after Beneath a Silent Moon was published that I learned, to my profound embarrassment, that this sonata wasn’t called the Moonlight Sonata until after 1817 when the book is set. I was very happy to be able to correct this in the trade reissue. After consulting with a pianist friend, I reworded the lines to have Charles thinks of it as “Mélanie’s favorite Beethoven sonata, the one that always put him in mind of moonlight shimmering against water.”

Il catalogo è questo, Don Giovanni, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart & Lorenzo da Ponte

Leporello’s aria about Don Giovanni’s legion of conquests sums up Honoria’s and Val’s attitudes toward their love affairs. Mel refers to the aria, adding that Val’s appeal was “The eternal lure of Don Juan. Women like to think he’s looking for his one true love and that they’ll be the one to tame him. And all the time all he wants is another name to add to his infernal list.” That line came out of a talk I had with my friend Penny Williamson after a performance of Don Giovanni.

A Weekend in the Country, A Little Night Music, Stephen Sondheim

I love stories where characters with tangle lives and tangled love affairs converge at country house parties, as they do in both Beneath and in A Little Night Music. This song captures the delights and plot complications of a country house party story perfectly.

Per pietà, ben mio, perdona, Così fan tutte, Mozart & da Ponte

As the puzzle pieces are swirling in his head, Charles unconsciously finds himself picking out this aria on his mother’s Broadwood grand pianoforte. In this aria, Fiordiligi resists (with increasing difficulty) the impassioned pleas of her would-be lover Ferrando, not understanding that she is caught up in a romantic game that hinges on a bet. As Mel says, Charles’s choice of music is “Perhaps more apt than you know.”

No Place Like London, Sweeney Todd, Stephen Sondheim

I’ve always loved Sweeney Todd, but it wasn’t until I was watching the recent movie, not long before the reissue of Beneath, that I realized how much this opening song where Sweeney returns to London by boat, reflects Tommy’s attitude in the prologue to Beneath.

ll core vi dono, Così fan tutte, Mozart & da Ponte

Mel recalls joining Charles at the piano in a rendition of this duet, where Dorabella succumbs to Guglielmo’s romantic games. The Merola Opera Program did Così fan tutte the summer I was working on Beneath, and the opera, with its tension between a vision of love as a game and what treating love as a game does to the emotional reality, was definitely an influence on the book.

Being Alive, Company, Stephen Sondheim

As I’ve said before, my idea for Beneath began with the scene between Charles and Mélanie at the end of the book. The inspiration was that scene was the concluding scene in Dorothy Sayers’s Busman’s Honeyroom and this concluding song from Stephen Sondheim’s Company. A song that brilliantly and poignantly sums up why people need other people. And also, I think, sums up Charles’s opening up to Mel at the end of the book.

Do you have any pieces of music to add to the Beneath playlist? I’d love to hear some suggestions. Any pieces of music that call to mind other favorite books? Writers, do you come up with playlists for your own books?

I was watching North & South last night (for the umpteenth time), so in honor of it, this week’s addition to the Fraser Correspondence is a letter Simon writes to David while visiting his family in the industrial north.

My fellow History Hoyden Lauren Willig had a great post last week on authors are characters in fiction. It’s fascinating topic and very timely for me, as one of the plays my friend Penny and I just saw at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland was the world premiere production of a fabulous new play called Equivocation by Bill Cain.

Equivocation begins with James I’s minister, Robert Cecil, demanding that Shakespeare write a play about the Guy Fawkes plot, adding almost apologetically “The King wants witches.” Shakespeare, called Shagspeare or Shag, is torn, seeing the impossibility and dangers of writing the play, seeing the risks of refusing. The members of the Globe Theater company are torn as well, but in the end agree he should take the commission. Then Shag begins to investigate the Gunpowder Plot and to question is the official version of events is really the truth.

In addition to the actor who plays Shag, four actors play members of the Globe company and also play Cecil, James I, the conspirators, and other characters. The one other actor plays Shag’s daughter Judith, with whom he has a fraught relationship owing to the death of her twin brother and the fact that, in his words, “We both know I wish she was the one who had died.”

Equivocation is a brilliant play on a number of levels. It’s exciting storytelling as Shag attempts to unravel the truth behind the Gunpowder Plot. There are fascinating philosophical layers about power, forgiveness, the nature of truth, the nature of theater. Much of the dialogue is laugh-out-loud funny, but there are also moments that make you gasp at the tension, and the end had me in tears. One thing that struck me in terms of Lauren’s blog is that the portrait of Shakespeare really seems like the man who might have written Shakespeare’s plays. I felt the same about the Shakespeare in Shakespeare in Love (with it’s brilliant script by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman). What’s more, both characters thought and talked like writers

The actor characters in Shakespeare in Love and Equivocation also ring true. There’s a wonderful scene early on in Equivocation where they’re rehearsing King Lear and complaining it doesn’t make any sense (everyone’s mad or pretending to be mad and no one’s listening to anyone else). Richard Burbage says “if we got through his comedies-don’t-have-to-be-funny period, we can get through whatever this is.” :-).

A sampling of some other favorite lines:

Robert Cecil: “What’s the word for a person who waits till the last minute? A…”
Shag: “Writer?”

Judith: “Lear’s about an old man who causes the death of his three daughters and, when it’s over, everyone feels sorry for him.”

Shag: “He [Cecil] insulted me. He said my work would last fifty years.”

Shag [to one of the young actors]: “Anyone who has the looks, energy, needs approval as much as you do and doesn’t care about anyone but himself–can be a great actor. A rare combination, but you have it.”

Do you have favorite plays or books or movies that depict writers and/or actors? What makes them work?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is a letter from Mélanie to Charles on his birthday in 1814.

As you’ll know if you’ve seen my Twitter updates, I spent the last week at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon. My friend and fellow writer Penny Williamson and I have been going to OSF together for years. We spend a lot of time discussing and analyzing the plays. Over dinner the last night of our trip, we found ourselves discussing the plays we’d seen and, in particular, the heroes of two of them and the transformations they undergo.

Benedick begins Much Ado About Nothing tossing off clever repartee and exchanging witty insults with Beatrice. Then, in the midst of the play, after Benedick has been tricked into admitting to himself his love for Beatrice and she hers for him, the story takes a dark turn. Beatrice’s cousin Hero is falsely accused of infidelity on her wedding day. Benedick’s friends, Claudio (Hero’s fiancé) and the Prince, Don Pedro, believe the story without question, turning Hero and Claudio’s wedding into tragedy. Even Hero’s father condemns her at first. Of the major male characters, only Benedick questions the truth of what has happened. Eventually, he trusts Beatrice’s faith in Hero’s innocence enough that he challenges Claudio to a duel and discontinues his service to the Prince. When Claudio and the Prince try to joke with him later in the play, it’s Benedick who reminds them of the gravity of the situation. Benedick shows his mettle and the strength of his commitment in the second half of the play. In the end, when he and Beatrice—still bantering—are betrothed, you truly believe the marriage will work.

Harold Hill in The Music Man also undergoes a transformation. He beings to woo librarian Marian Paroo under the mistaken impression that she’s a “sadder’ but wiser girl,” planning to skip town before the residents of River City can discover that he’s incapable of leading the boys’ band he’s sold them on. But even as Harold transforms starchy River City (wonderful evoked on the OSF production by the costumes changing from shades of gray to vibrant color), he is also transformed. When he realizes Marian has fallen in love with him, knowing full well that he is an impostor, he becomes the man she believes him to be. Watching the OSF production Saturday, I was struck by the amazing emotional shifts Harold undergoes in the latter part of the story. From realizing Marian loves him but thinking she’ll hate him when she knows the truth, to his wonder at the reveatlion she loves him for who he really is, to his realization that with this he loves her and can’t run. In the end Harold stays in River City to face the music (which at that point looks as though it will be decidedly unpleasant), a moment beautifully captured in the OSF production when Harold holds out his hands to be handcuffed. And then there’s his stunned amazement when Marian hands him a baton to lead the boys—and girls in the OSF production-band and the young musicians manage to scrape together enough notes to delight their parents.

Beneidick’s and Harold’s emotional arcs were brilliantly catpured in the OSF productions by David E. Kelly (as Benedick) and Michael Ellich (as Harold). The audience saw both men grow and change over the course of the play, and in that growth made the endings to both plays ring with heart-warming truth. Do you have favorite characters, in plays or books or movies, who change and earn a hard-won happy ending? What makes the change particularly believable?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is a letter from David to Charles, giving David’s take on the events Simon wrote about last week.

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