I’m so pleased to welcome author Lauren Willig here today! Her new book, The Ashford Affair, hits bookstores this very day. You may know Lauren as the author of the Pink Carnation series, about spies in the Napoleonic era. I asked her some questions here:
Tell us a little about yourself: How did you get started writing historical fiction?
I blame it on E.L. Konigsberg. When I was six years old, my parents gave me a copy of A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver, her slightly tongue-in-cheek novel about the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine. I fell in love with both Eleanor and historical fiction. My first work of historical fiction was a sequel to the novel, told from the point of view of Eleanor’s—entirely fictional—horse, Beau Noir.
That was the end of my experiments with equine narrators, but the historical fiction remained a constant. When I was eight, I discovered Jean Plaidy and Norah Lofts; a year later, Victoria Holt and Margaret Mitchell. Each spawned various manuscript attempts of my own. (None of which, will ever see the light of day.) I’ve been writing historical fiction ever since.
You tackle the challenge of two time periods in this novel—the present day and the early 20th century. What were the tough parts?
Bizarrely, I found the modern harder to write than the historical. I tend to think of writing historical fiction as a form of method acting. I immerse myself in the sources available to me, particularly contemporary diaries, letters, memoirs and fiction, and use those to create a composite character, someone steeped in that culture and entirely different from myself. I was fascinated by the impact of World War I on the people I studied, on the effects of shell shock and rapid societal change, and by the strange, expatriate world created a continent away in Kenya by displaced aristocrats, seeking to replicate an idealized feudal past—jazzed up with cocaine and gin.
Writing the present day portion posed a greater challenge, particularly when it came to accuracy. I’d set my modern story in 1999, so it was simultaneously contemporary and not. It was before the widespread adoption of the internet, before smart phones, before Facebook, before so much that we take for granted now. I spent some time researching the odds that my heroine, as a senior associate at a law firm, would have an early model blackberry. By the time I started at a firm as a summer associate in 2004, the blackberry was already taken for granted. Keeping my 1999 world accurate was far harder than the 1920s.
Have you been to Kenya? If not, how did you do your research? Are there lots of references and photos available to help?
My travels to Kenya were effected purely via journals, letters, biographies, maps and memoirs. I would have loved to have been able to go before writing the book, but, as I’ve written about at more length elsewhere, on location research for historical novels can be a mixed bag. The world changes and moves on; what we see when we visit is often not what would have been there at the time. I’ve been nearly mown over by mopeds in the Boulevard Saint-Germain, trying to figure out just where the Abbaye Prison would have been, and mourned over the blue plaque that’s all that’s left of Tyburn Hill near Marble Arch in London. In many cases, even the climate has changed, so our own observations on the feel of the air or the quality of the light may not be what our characters would have felt.
Even when I’ve spent considerable time on location (as I did for my books set in England, France, and Ireland), walking the same streets my characters would have walked, visiting their homes or the homes of those akin to them, I’ve found that it’s often most reliable to work from writings of those who did experience what my characters would have experienced, to mine their letters and memoirs for the visual and sensory details that I need.
Of course, whenever possible, I take those research trips anyway!
Your Pink Carnation series (an impressive 10 novels!) has the common thread of British spies, with suspenseful plots. What made you decide to take a try at something different?
The Ashford Affair was one of those stories that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. After spending a considerable amount of time playing with Napoleonic spies, I’d been toying for some time with the idea of trying my hand at something different, but I always assumed I’d go back in time, rather than forward: my undergrad degree is in Renaissance Studies, and my graduate area of expertise was sixteenth and seventeenth century England (with a particular focus on the English Civil War). Since I’d handed in my ninth Pink manuscript early, earning myself some discretionary time, I intended to use some of my yellowing dissertation notes as the basis for a seventeenth-century set novel—and then a friend gave me a copy of Frances Osborne’s The Bolter.
I was deeply intrigued by her tale of the much-married Idina Sackville, who racketed back and forth between Jazz Age London and Kenya, acquiring and shedding husbands along the way. I was even more intrigued by the intro, in which she commented that she hadn’t known that Idina was her own great-grandmother until her teens. It got me thinking about how much we assume about our own families and how little we know. Especially in a time of tumult, like the aftermath of the first World War, what sort of complications and secrets might ensue?
The next thing I knew, I had begun work on the novel that became The Ashford Affair… and found myself wallowing in descriptions of Edwardian great houses, World War I nursing, and 1920s Kenyan coffee plantations.
What’s your writing process: post-its, outline, pantser?
I’m a partial pantser. My books tend to be very character driven, which means that I spend my first few chapters working by trial and error, getting to know them. In my latest book, The Ashford Affair, I spent months playing around with different tones and styles before I felt that I’d found the right way into the book and the characters. Once I’m launched, I try to outline four or five chapters ahead. That way, I have a sense of trajectory, but I still leave room for my characters to take the plot in directions I might not have anticipated. It’s not the most organized system, but I’ve learned that it’s the one that works best for me. My few attempts at trying to outline everything in advance led to a lot of frustration and scrapped chapters!
What’s the funniest thing a fan has ever said to you?
I’m always amused when I get emails directed to “Lauren Willig’s assistant”. I’m my own assistant, chief cook, and bottle washer. I do have a web mistress who does the actual programming of my website (I’m too much of a Luddite to manage that on my own), but otherwise I’m a one stop shop: I answer my own emails, mail my own packages, and, despite a complete lack of any graphic design skills, painstakingly design my own bookmarks. I do love the image of the glamorous novelist, lounging on her chaise longue, feather boa nonchalantly draped around her neck, with her secretary taking dictation and running packages down to the post office, but the reality couldn’t be more different.
What is your biggest challenge in writing?
Sitting down at my computer every day and forcing myself to wrestle the perfect story in my head into the imperfection of the written word. I always know exactly how the story should go, complete in every way—until I try to translate it onto paper. And then, suddenly, things get messy and nothing goes quite as I thought it would and the words are leaden and the characters are wooden and I discover a sudden, burning need to check my email or do my laundry or bake cookies or schedule a trip to Timbuktu.
I find that the solution is generally caffeine. Lots of it.
Name a few of your favorite books (I’d never ask for just one!)
Oh, goodness, there are so many! Gone With the Wind is a long time favorite, as is Karleen Koen’s Through a Glass Darkly (she brings the early eighteenth century so vividly to life), Judith Merkle Riley’s The Oracle Glass and The Master of All Desires (historical fiction with a humorous twist), M.M. Kaye’s sweeping epics, and any of the mystery novels, contemporary or historical, of Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels. My keeper shelf has a fairly eclectic range of genres on it: from L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle to Mary Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting to Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle to Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg…. I have a more complete list of my favorite books over on my website, www.laurenwillig.com.
If you’d like to learn more about my books or read an excerpt of The Ashford Affair, please stop on by my website (www.laurenwillig.com)! I can also be found procrastinating on my Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/LaurenWillig
Thanks so much, Susanne, for having me over!
You’re most welcome, Lauren!