On Research, Fashion & Prinny: An Interview with Lauren Willig
To mark the publication of bestselling author Lauren Willig’s newest novel in her popular Pink Carnation historical espionage series, Jenny Quinlan talks with Lauren about research, inspiration, and the secrets of her success.
JQ: The Passion of the Purple Plumeria is the tenth full-length book in your Pink Carnation series. What’s your secret to keeping a long-running series fresh?
LW: For me, keeping the series fresh is all about the characters. Even though the books are interconnected, each features a new set of protagonists, which means that I get to enjoy one of my favorite pastimes: rooting around in peoples’ heads. I love taking different sorts of characters and trying to figure out what makes them tick. There’s nothing like dropping them into drastic situations to discover what they’re made of. My heroes have ranged from a French lawyer to a displaced English duke to a bumbling, Regency-era Bertie Wooster (without a Jeeves), while my heroines have run the gamut from ingénue to forty-something chaperone. As long as I’m intrigued and entertained by my main characters, I hope my readers will be as well.
Not to mention that there are so many quirky and ridiculous historical events out there, just begging to be incorporated into a novel. The Napoleonic Wars are a gold mine of “Seriously? That really happened?” Getting to play with all those “truth is stranger than fiction moments” is one of the joys of writing this series for me.
JQ: Where do you draw ideas for your characters and story lines?
LW: Ideas pop out at me from all over the place! Nothing is safe. I went to see All’s Well That Ends Well last month at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival and spent the walk back through the torch-lit gardens to the parking lot scheming over how to take that plot and make it work. I encounter Something I Must Write about once a week—although most of them tend to wind up in my little plot notebook and never see the light of day again.
Every now and then, something grabs me and demands immediate attention. I was just about to start work on The Passion of the Purple Plumeria back in the fall of 2010 when a friend sent me a copy of a book called The Bolter, about the tumultuous life of Idina Sackville, who racketed back and forth between England and Kenya in the 1920s, collecting and discarding husbands. I was so caught by the plight of that World War I generation and by the colorful world of 1920s expat Kenya that I put Purple Plumeria on hold for several months to write a stand-alone novel, The Ashford Affair.
Sometimes, ideas will stew for years and then pop back up. Part of the impetus behind The Passion of the Purple Plumeria was a tidbit I came upon back in 2008, when I was researching The Betrayal of the Blood Lily. A couple of sources mentioned a treasure lost during the siege of Gawilghur. A rajah’s lost hoard? How could I not use this? Four books later, the lost jewels of the Rajah of Berar became one of the major plot points for The Passion of the Purple Plumeria.
LW: The first book was written as a tongue in cheek, private joke for myself while I was avoiding working on my dissertation. It was a deliberately madcap romp (I was overjoyed when the phrase “madcap romp” showed up in an early review, since that was exactly what I’d been aiming at) designed to spoof the conventions of the conventional swashbuckler and historical romances. I was rather amazed when it was picked up by a publisher who then wanted me, inexplicably, to write more. As the series went on, it occurred to me that other people were taking my books rather more seriously than I was, so perhaps I should, too. (Although not too seriously, since that would take half the fun out of it.)
I started writing the first Pink Carnation book back in 2001 when I was twenty-four. It’s now 2013, and I’m . . . well, you can do the math. In the intervening years, both the world and I have changed, and I think that’s been reflected in the books in a slightly darker, more serious tone as the series has gone on. Although, every now and then, as with The Mischief of the Mistletoe, my Christmas book, I like to deliberately revisit that earlier, madcap feel.
There’s been one other major change. When I started writing the series, I had no idea it was going to be a series. Or, once it started spreading to multiple books, how long I was going to get to go on. I remember, back in an interview in 2006 or so, solemnly saying I’d be thrilled if I made it up to six books. Right now, we’re at ten and counting. Somewhere along the way—circa the fourth book or so—it dawned on me that if this series was going to continue, I was going to need to start paying attention to the narrative arc of the series as a whole instead of treating them as individual books that just happened to be linked together. Setting up and developing that series arc within the context of the individual books has been a major factor in the evolution of the later books. It’s also been a hands-on education—by trial and error—in the writing of a long-running series.
Could I have imagined any of this twelve years ago? Only after several drinks, and probably not even then.
JQ: What are your go-to research resources for the Regency and Napoleonic eras?
LW: On my desk, next to my computer, I have A Companion to Eighteenth Century Britain, Secret Service: British Agents in France 1792-1815, Great Houses of England and Wales, and Uniforms of the Napoleonic Wars, to name just a few—but my research go to books vary from novel to novel. When I was working on my India-set novel, The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, my constant companions were dog-eared copies of William Dalrymple’s White Moghuls, Lawrence James’s Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India, and Jac Weller’s Wellington in India. For The Mischief of the Mistletoe, which was set in Bath and featured Jane Austen as a side character, I kept a pile of Austen biographies beside my desk chair. And so on. I’ve written books set at the court of George III, during a rebellion in Dublin, in the heart of the French consular secret service, and at the Empress Josephine’s country place, Malmaison, among others. Each required different resources.
For anyone who is curious, you can find a bibliography for each book up on my website, as well as a list of more general resources for early nineteenth century England.
JQ: Best and worst Regency fashion trends?
LW: High on my list of best: quizzing glasses for men. I have a thing for a well-wielded quizzing glass. Those tightly tailored jackets weren’t so bad, either.
Hands down worst Regency fashion trend: court dress. You know how waistlines went up to just below the bust at the end of the eighteenth century? It was protocol for court dresses (i.e. dresses worn for presentation to their majesties at the court of St. James) to have incredibly wide hoops. The waistline went up—but the hoops didn’t recede. Which meant that you had women edging sideways through doorways in dresses that jutted out two feet on either side from just below the bust. It was not a good look.
We won’t even get started on the feathered headdresses . . .
LW: Despite the danger of corset malfunction (his, not mine), I’d pick Prinny.
Napoleon was a terrible dinner companion, shoveling down his food in record time and bolting from the table as soon as he was done, regardless of whether anyone else was finished or not. I’m a slow eater. This would not go well for me. Not to mention that there was more than a slight strain of misogyny there. Napoleon had a loudly voiced distaste for clever women. He preferred them decorative and fecund. (He achieved one out of two there with his first wife, Josephine.)
Prinny, on the other hand, while he was a mess in his own way—self-indulgent, frequently selfish—tends to be underrated. The Pavilion may have been a bit over the top, but he was otherwise a cultured and cultivated man, widely read, notoriously charming (when he wanted to be), witty (even when soused), with a taste for intelligent female company. Not to mention that he set a very good table . . . (See corset malfunction, above.)
JQ: Do you have any favorite authors who have inspired or influenced your writing?
LW: So many! In terms of comic timing, I owe a great deal to Georgette Heyer and Elizabeth Peters, each of whom, in her own way, is brilliant at distilling the ridiculous from a situation in its purest and most laugh-out-loud form. Growing up, Margaret Mitchell, Dorothy Dunnett, and Karleen Koen were my guides to weaving history into story, melding real characters and events into a fictional narrative. And Diana Gabaldon and Judith Merkle Riley showed me that historical fiction could be blended with humor and historical in-jokes for those in the know.
JQ: What do you like to read for fun?
LW: For relaxation, I tend to tear through mysteries, from the Golden Age to the more recent, historical or modern: Dorothy Sayers, Elizabeth Peters, Donna Andrews, Elizabeth George, Laurie King, Kate Ross, etc. I also go back again and again to the satirists of the 1920s and ’30s: Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, Angela Thirkell, and, of course, P.G. Wodehouse. Every now and again, I get Gothic urges and go through vast piles of Barbara Michaels, Elsie Lee, and, more recently, Simone St. James and Wendy Webb. When I need a vacation from the past, I indulge in contemporary romance novels by Susan Elizabeth Philips and Kristan Higgins, or nonfiction like Jen Lancaster’s humorous memoirs.
Basically, I’ll read pretty much anything as long as it has a strong, narrative voice.
Up until last week, I would have said “pretty much anything except sci fi”— but for the fact that my college roommate just got me hooked on Lois McMaster Bujold’s Shards of Honor series. So, really, pretty much anything.
JQ: What are you working on now?
LW: Right now, I’ve just finished a stand-alone novel that weaves back and forth between 2009 and the early days of the Preraphaelite movement in 1849. When my modern heroine inherits a house in the suburbs of London from an unknown great-aunt, she discovers a lost Preraphaelite painting hidden in the false back of an old wardrobe. Her search for the painting’s origins draws us back into the lives of those who lived in that house one hundred and sixty years before—and a secret hidden for well over a century. That book, which should (hopefully) have a title shortly, will be making its appearance in stores in summer 2014.
Now that the Preraphaelite book is safely in the hands of my editor, I’m just starting work on the eleventh book (can you believe we’re up to eleven?) in the Pink Carnation series, tentatively titled The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla. So far, this looks like it’s going to be one of the lighter-hearted Pink books, spoofing the Gothic novel craze of the early nineteenth century as my heroine is plunged into an investigation of seemingly paranormal forces—and finds more to do with very human treason than with supernatural forces. Keep an eye out for Pink XI in August of 2014!
About the contributor: JENNY QUINLAN (aka Jenny Q) is an editor and cover designer specializing in historical fiction and romance. She also reviews novels for the Romantic Historical Fiction Lovers Blog and her own blog, Let Them Read Books.