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RITA Best First Book 2012 Interviews: Historical

RITA Best First Book 2012 Interviews: Historical

Welcome to part two of the 2012 RITA Best First Book interview series. Up today are the rakes and scoundrels, strumpets and spies, ladies and lords. Luscious historical tidbits follow, so let us know in the comments what struck your fancy and if you’d like to win this set of books.

About the nominated books…

The Darling Strumpet, by Gillian Bagwell: Nell Gwynn, one of history’s most famous courtesans, is the inspiration for this novel, set in 17th century London.

The Darling Strumpet by Gillian BagwellOpening lines: The sun shone hot and bright in the glorious May sky, and the streets of London were rivers of joyous activity.

Nell Gwynn’s six word memoir: From nothing to the king’s bed!

She is… one of the first actresses in England! Nell got her start in the theatre selling oranges, but it wasn’t long before her saucy wit and likeable sex appeal got her noticed. She rapidly became a beloved comic actress, and she and her lover and mentor Charles Hart, one of the leading actors of the King’s Company, inspired a wave of romantic comedies and became the William Powell and Myrna Loy of the 1660s!

What readers will love about the hero: He’s Charles II, King of England, one of the most charismatic men in history! But he understands Nell and can identify surprisingly well with her impoverished childhood and desperate need for security.

The first kiss happens… in the king’s privy chamber, after a private supper engineered by the Duke of Buckingham, who was raised with Charles II and was like a brother to him. Nell knows what she’s getting into—Buckingham has made it clear he wants to put a mistress in the king’s bed who will be friendly to him and influence the king for him.

A scene I vividly remember writing: There’s a scene when [Nell] and Charles Hart walk out to observe the devastation in the aftermath of [the Great Fire of London in 1666]. St. Paul’s Cathedral has fallen and the streets around it are unrecognizable jumbles of ruin. I wrote that scene as an exercise when I was taking Kerry Madden’s class—the direction was to have the character start in stillness and then move faster and faster and finally come to rest. I had Nell have a panic attack as she is overwhelmed by a sense of loss, devastation, and disorientation, which worked well in the context of the story. I know that area of London very well and could imagine how it might have looked in those awful days after the fire. And fortunately the diarist Samuel Pepys left a very vivid description of touring the fire area and what he saw.

An unexpected research detour: One of the books I read while writing researching The Darling Strumpet was Derek Wilson’s All the King’s Women, about the various women in Charles II’s life. Wilson wrote about Charles’s desperate flight after the Battle of Worcester in 1651, and how a young woman named Jane Lane helped him by disguising him as her servant and riding with him to Bristol…. The Royal Miracle, as the whole odyssey came to be called, was a very formative episode in Charles’s life—after he was restored to the throne he told the tale over and over…. When my agent asked what I was going to write next, I suggested Jane Lane and her adventures with Charles, and was delighted to find that no one had written a novel about her yet!

What readers seem to love about The Darling Strumpet: Nell Gwynn’s life really was a Cinderella story—a rags-to-riches, local-girl-makes-good rise from obscurity and hardship of the kind readers love. She was born into poverty, with an abusive drunk for a mother and no father. According to legend, when she was a small child she actually gathered cinders and the leavings of fires and sold them to soap makers, and later she sold oysters on the street. But she rose to become a beloved comic actress and the life-long mistress of King Charles II.

The Devil in Disguise, by Stefanie Sloane: The title character is also known as “Iron Will,” a spy charged with the duty of protecting a lady who doesn’t approve of him at all.

The Devil in Disguise, by Stefanie SloaneOpening lines: Lady Lucinda Grey had not precisely decided what she would do if the overly eager Matthew Redding, Lord Cuthbert, compared her eyes to the Aegean Sea.

The protagonist’s six-word memoir: William Randall, the Duke of Clairemont, is a sexy spy for God’s sake. He doesn’t have the time to write a memoir.

The heroine is… part-owner in a horse breeding business. But it is a Regency historical, so officially she’s a tea-drinking, gown-wearing, waltz-dancing, pianoforte-playing lady of the ton.

What readers will love about the hero: See answer to question #1.

What readers seem to love about The Devil in Disguise: It’s witty, adventurous, and fun. Their words, not mine.

How to Marry a Duke, by Vicky Dreiling: In the midst of a mad matrimonial contest, a matchmaker falls in love with her client. Dreiling’s books are also nominated in two other categories.

How to Marry a Duke by Vicky DreilingOpening lines: The belles of the Beau Monde had resorted to clumsiness in an effort to snag a ducal husband.

Tessa Mansfield’s six-word memoir: Everything happens for a reason.

She is a … matchmaker.

What readers will love about the hero: Tristan’s wit and his sense of honor.

The first kiss happens… in a library.

I vividly remember writing… The proposal scene. I knew from the beginning that I wanted a Cinderella twist of an ending.

This book taught me… to expect the unexpected. The surprises are the best part of writing.

An unexpected research detour: I took a boat tour of the Thames that gave me the idea for the ill-fated barge scene in How to Marry a Duke.

What readers seem to love about How to Marry a Duke: The night before the RWA nominations, I told a friend I was managing my expectations–below sea level. Imagine my shock when I got the call and learned that I’d finaled three times. I have no idea how I got so lucky. ;-)

About the authors…

Number of books I wrote before this one sold:

VICKY DREILING: One.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: Zero; this was the first.

How I found my agent:

STEFANIE SLOANE: Random House party, RWA 2000-something. Jenn told the best beaver story ever and I was smitten. No, not that kind of beaver.

VICKY DREILING: By accident – twice. You can read the crazy story here: http://tinyurl.com/4o7qlwe

GILLIAN BAGWELL: I attended a writers’ conference and paid extra to get critiques of my first 20 pages from two different agents. The first one I met with said she loved it and wanted to see the first 100 pages. She loved that and passed it on to her colleague, Kevan Lyon, who told me she was very interested and was willing to work with me as I finished the book—I didn’t even have a complete first draft yet. It took almost two years, with her reading my work and giving me feedback, before I finally finished the book. Kevan called me when she was halfway through reading it and said she wanted to sign me. And then she sold it—and a second book, as yet unwritten—within a few weeks.

Someone who helped me along the way:

STEFANIE SLOANE: Jennifer McCord, publishing professional. Jenn’s an absolute font of knowledge and a total mensch to boot.

VICKY DREILING: There are so many, but to keep this brief, I must mention my mentor Gerry Bartlett. She’s given me great advice and lots of encouragement.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: Besides Kevan, who I can’t thank enough, I received a lot of encouragement, support, and good writing advice from Kerry Madden, an author whose classes I took at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, California when I came back from London in 2006.

One piece of wisdom I’ve gained:

VICKY DREILING: Trust my writing process.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: Just write the book. When I’m having a hard time I tell myself it doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be done. I can revise it later and make it better. For me rewriting it much easier than getting than cranking out that first draft. And believe in yourself!

Acceptance speech—wing it, prepare it, or something in-between?

STEFANIE SLOANE: Totally prepared and ends with a Susan Sarandon moment where I demand world peace and encourage everyone to support their local animal shelter.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: If I’m fortunate enough to win, I would thank the RITA voters, my agent, and my editor. I think I can manage that without notes!

What’s coming up next?

STEFANIE SLOANE: The Scoundrel Takes a Bride will be published December 26th, 2012. Here’s the skinny: A notorious scoundrel, the right Honorable Nicholas Bourne has spent years in the East Indies amassing a fortune through questionable means. Still, his loyalty to his older brother, Langdon, and his childhood friends remains true and trusted. But when Lady Sophia Southwell, the woman promised to Nicholas’s brother, seeks his help on a dangerous mission, he is troubled—and torn. Unable to dissuade her from her quest to find a killer, he vows to keep her safe. This makes his mission the hardest test of his wits, honor, and skill. For Sophia is the secret love of his life. For years, Sophia has planned her daring act of revenge against her mother’s killer. She has painstakingly prepared herself by studying the criminal mind. Now she knows that the moment is right and that Nicholas is the man to help her. But she doesn’t count on the reckless temptation of his rugged sensuality or the captivating intensity in his deep eyes. When desire and emotion intoxicate her as they venture together into the darkest corners of London’s underbelly, Sophia must contend with a yearning even more powerful than the quest for vengeance: the call of love.

VICKY DREILING: A novella starring a minor character from How to Ravish a Rake and three additional full-length Regency historical romances.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: I’m just finishing my third novel, Venus in Winter, based on the first 40 years of the life of Bess of Hardwick, the formidable four-times widowed Tudor dynast who began life in genteel poverty and ended as the richest and most powerful woman in England after Queen Elizabeth; built Chatsworth House and Hardwick Hall; and is the forebear of numerous noble lines including the Dukedoms of Devonshire, Norfolk, Somerset, and Newcastle, the Earls of Lincoln, Portsmouth, Kellie, and Pembroke, the Baron Waterpark, and the current royal family of Britain.

Oddest or most reliable writing ritual/habit:

STEFANIE SLOANE: I twist my hair around my finger. You know, like a mindless flirt in a really bad romantic comedy. Only I’m not flirting, I’m thinking. About the book, of course. Or what Kate Middleton might wear to the Olympics opening ceremonies. But probably the book.

VICKY DREILING: I wear Bose noise cancellation ear phones and listen to playlists I put together for each book. Readers can listen to the playlists on my website.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: I don’t really have any particular rituals or habits. I need a reasonable amount of peace and quiet; that’s about it. One of my favorite quotes by an author is something to the effect of “I write when I feel inspired. And I make sure I’m inspired every morning at 9 o’clock.”

The worst part about writing a novel:

STEFANIE SLOANE: The writing part.

VICKY DREILING: Writing The End, because I know I’ll miss the characters.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: Feeling under the gun to meet my publisher’s deadline. My books take a massive amount of research and I feel overwhelmed when I start and wonder how I can ever possibly finish. I’d love the luxury of more time— and a big enough advance so I’m not worrying about money while I’m writing!

The part I relish:

STEFANIE SLOANE: Having written.

VICKY DREILING: The first kiss.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: It’s magic when I’m able to really get into a character’s world. When I first began working on The September Queen, I went on a research trip to England and visited Boscobel and Moseley Old Hall, two of the places where Charles II hid. Looking down into the actual priest hole where he hid at Moseley gave me chills.

How I fill my creative well:

STEFANIE SLOANE: Wine.

VICKY DREILING: I read, watch movies, and go to lunch with friends.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: I find that once I start writing and am in the groove things just come. I love it when I write a scene that I didn’t know I was going to write, or when a scene comes out differently than I thought it would.

I’m an author, but I’m also…

STEFANIE SLOANE: A wife, mom, volunteer, businesswoman, chocolate cake lover, pitbull advocate, and card carrying member of The Clash fan club.

VICKY DREILING: A reader and a mom.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: I grew up around theatre, began my professional life as an actress, and then began directing and producing theatre. I founded the Pasadena Shakespeare Company and ran it for nine years, producing 37 critically acclaimed shows. My years of experience in theatre very much informed my writing about Nell’s life on stage.

Last class I took or skill I learned:

STEFANIE SLOANE: Last class I took? “Good God, get a hold of yourself because puberty is coming and you’re about to die” class with my pre-tween. Skill I learned? How to lock myself in the bathroom and avoid my “Good God, get a hold of yourself because puberty is coming and you’re about to die” pre-tween.

VICKY DREILING: A workshop with Michael Hauge.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: I recently took a class in copy editing, adding an arrow to my quiver of word-related skills that can give me freelance work while I’m writing.

A book or author I recommend again and again:

STEFANIE SLOANE: Anything by David Sedaris. He’s hysterically funny and heartbreakingly true all at the same time.

VICKY DREILING: Loretta Chase.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: Well, of course Diana Gabaldon is a big favorite of mine. I love her books and have read them several times. She was at the Historical Novel Society Conference in 2007, the first writers’ conference I went to. I was working on The Darling Strumpet at the time and was really inspired by hearing her story and how she became a writer after being well established in a much different career. Especially because she talked about starting to write Outlander and considering it to be her “practice book.” Some practice book!

My favorite book at age ten:

STEFANIE SLOANE: The Black Stallion series. Walter Farley’s horse smarts and love for his subject, combined with the fantastic adventures Alec and Black experience, made for a reading experience I’ve never forgotten.

VICKY DREILING: Little House on the Prairie.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: I grew up reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. My mother read them to us and I read them to myself over and over, and Laura and her family felt like members of my own family. She brought her experiences and the past so vividly to life. My sisters and I still refer to “Laura” and we know who we’re talking about!

Thank you, authors! The final installment in this series will appear next week, and the RITA winners will be announced at the RWA national conference on July 28.

 

 

 

 

REVIEW:  Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal

REVIEW: Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal

London, 1940. Winston Churchill has just been sworn in, war rages across the Channel, and the threat of a Blitz looms larger by the day. But none of this deters Maggie Hope. She graduated at the top of her college class and possesses all the skills of the finest minds in British intelligence, but her gender qualifies her only to be the newest typist at No. 10 Downing Street. Her indefatigable spirit and remarkable gifts for codebreaking, though, rival those of even the highest men in government, and Maggie finds that working for the prime minister affords her a level of clearance she could never have imagined—and opportunities she will not let pass. In troubled, deadly times, with air-raid sirens sending multitudes underground, access to the War Rooms also exposes Maggie to the machinations of a menacing faction determined to do whatever it takes to change the course of history.

Dear Ms. MacNeal,

Jane sent me a copy of your debut novel, “Mr. Churchill’s Secretary” after picking it up at the BEA Convention. If she hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t have heard about it for a while. After I finish this review enumerating all the things I didn’t like about it, you might wish I hadn’t.

mr-churchills-secretary I love books utilizing historical settings and WWII has become one of my favorites. So I’m thinking “WWII, in London, a character who works with Winston Churchill during the darkest hours of the early war, espionage, spies, danger – what’s not to love?” I enjoy learning historical tidbits but I don’t enjoy history lessons and so much of what’s here seems like it could be dropped straight into a text book. It felt like a lecture and a boring one at that. Lots of other little details are clunked into the narrative – sometimes for a purpose but often it seemed like “wow, look at the research I did. Isn’t this cool? Look, I’m including this for color. See the color?” Why did we have to know about the setup of the ballet where one of the secondary characters dances? What damn difference did it make to the story? None. Now let’s tour the rooms once used by Wallis Simpson. Why? Who knows? There is way too much of this information awkwardly stuffed into the story.

Then there are all the characters. Some play major roles and readers need to know about them. Some are there for reasons I never grasped. The twins who live in Maggie’s house annoy the other flat mates. They annoyed me too. I also didn’t need to be reminded of how much they kept annoying people. Once an author has introduced someone’s characteristics, I assume that character stays the same unless I’m told or see otherwise. Another character is Gay. Hints are dropped early on but suddenly, out of the blue late in the book, he and Maggie start having a conversation about it at a point where it makes no sense. The book is also filled with exposition. Characters tell each other things that the other character ought to already know. Used sparingly, this is okay. Used a lot, it’s an obvious literary tool.

The final sections of the book are riddled with coincidences. This is often a issue when authors weave their fictional characters into the background of actual historical events. I’ll accept this to a point, else the whole framework of the plot collapses, but brilliant Maggie is on hand to save the day, by noticing hidden codes – and working them out – and being the one who guesses how a bomb is put together, way too many times. My credulity was stretched like taffy. I also found myself yawning and skimming. A book which is supposed to be a taut thriller is not one where I should find myself thinking, “I’m bored.”

Finally there’s Maggie herself. She’s brilliant, she’s frustrated with the current restrictions in place for women and it seemed to me that at almost timed intervals she’d explode into an impassioned speech about it much like an opera singer bursts into an aria. Maggie also frequently genuflects to British history and gets goose pimply with emotion about how moved she is to be in England. I almost expected her to begin belting out verses from “Jerusalem,” “Rule Britannia,” or “I Vow to Thee My Country.”

Too many characters, many of whom are just rough sketches, historical detail that is superfluous and/or badly inserted into the narrative, too many coincidences, clunky writing and a plot that gets out of control and over the top as the little coterie of brave civilians saves London in the nick of time end up ruining this for me. It’s a book I was looking forward to and wanted to like but – after skimming my way through the final 1/3 – ultimately didn’t. F

~Jayne

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