By Lauren Willig
I’ve heard all sorts of variants on these rules. There’s never head hop. Unless you’re Judith McNaught. Or Nora Roberts. Or Julie Garwood. Or… Well, anyway. There’s one about staying away from the first person. Unless, of course, you’re Jessica Benson’s ACCIDENTAL DUCHESS, one of my absolute favorite Regencies. I’m sure we all have our own personal variants of these bugbears and others.
In writing my last book, THE BETRAYAL OF THE BLOOD LILY, I decided to take on two of the inchoate rules floating around historical fiction. One, I had been warned that books set outside England don’t sell—so I set my book in India. I’ve read several books set in India, but most have been focused on the upheavals of 1857, well into the reign of the Raj, after the British position had already been consolidated. I set my book in Hyderabad in 1804, a time of transition during which the Raj was just beginning to take shape, but still hadn’t settled into the form one recognizes from M.M. Kaye novels.
My second risk was making the main relationship an adulterous one. Adultery is generally a no-no in Romance Land. (Unless it’s a side character that’s going to get her comeuppance anyway.) My heroine is married at the start of BLOOD LILY, and not to the hero. I thought about trying to white wash the issue by killing off my heroine’s inconvenient husband prior to her consummating her relationship with the hero. I knew, though, that by doing that I’d be taking the coward’s way out and dodging a genuine source of conflict that needed to be part of the story.
Interestingly, there’s been little fall-out on either front. I’ve had readers tell me how much they’ve enjoyed learning about a different place and time—and there’s been almost universal silence on the issue of adultery (aside from a handful of people who expressed the opinion that Penelope’s husband deserved whatever he got). In the end, I’m a lot more proud of this book because of the risks I took with it.
Which all goes to say…. There may be rules out there that actually make some sense (punctuation, for example; I’m a big fan of punctuation in prose), but don’t let them get in the way of the story you want to tell.
If you’re curious as to how Penelope wound up in India—and with the wrong man—here’s an excerpt from the first chapter….
Now was one of them. Rain drummed against the roof of the carriage like a set of impatient fingers. Penelope knew just how it felt.
“You spoke to Lord Wellesley, didn’t you?” she asked her husband, as though her husband’s interview with the Governor General of India were one of complete indifference to her and nothing at all to do with the way she was expected to spend the next year of her life.
Penelope was learning to hate that shrug. It was a shrug amply indicative of her place in the world, somewhere just about on a level with a sofa cushion, convenient to lean against but unworthy of conversational effort.
That hadn’t been the case eight months ago.
Eight months ago they hadn’t been married. Eight months ago Freddy had still been trying to get her out of the ballroom into an alcove, a balcony, a bedroom, whichever enclosed space could best suit the purpose of seduction. It was a fitting enough commentary on the rake’s progress, from silver tongued seducer to indifferent spouse in the space of less than a year.
Not that Freddy had ever been all that silver-tongued. Nor, to be fair, had he done all the seducing.
How was she to have known that a bit of canoodling on a balcony would land them both in India?
Outside, rain pounded against the roof of the carriage, not the gentle tippety tap of an English drizzle, but the full out deluge of an Oriental monsoon. They had sailed up the Hooghly into Calcutta that morning after five endless months on a creaking, pitching vessel, replacing water beneath them with water all around them, rain crashing against the Esplanade, grinding the carefully planted English flowers that lined the sides into the muck, all but obscuring the conveyance that had been sent for them by the Governor General himself, with its attendant clutter of soaked and chattering servants, proffering umbrellas, squabbling over luggage, pulling and propelling them into a very large, very heavy carriage.
If she had thought about it at all, Penelope would have expected Calcutta to be sunny.
But then, she hadn’t given it much thought, not any of it. It had all happened too quickly for thought, ruined in January, married in February, on a boat to the tropics by March. The future had seemed unimportant compared to the exigencies of the present. Penelope had been too busy brazening it out to wonder about little things like where they were to go and how they were to live. India was away and that was enough. Away from her mother’s shrill reproaches (“If you had to get yourself compromised, couldn’t you at least have picked an older son?”); Charlotte’s wide-eyed concern; Henrietta’s clumsy attempts to get her to “talk about it”, as though talking would make the least bit of difference to the reality of it all. Ruined was ruined was ruined, so what was the point of compounding it by discussing it?
There was even, if she were being honest, a certain grim pleasure to it, to having put paid to her mother’s matrimonial schemings and poked a finger in the eye of every carping old matron who had ever called her fast. Ha! Let them see how fast she could be. All things considered, she had got out of it rather lightly. Freddy might be selfish, but he was seldom cruel. He didn’t have crossed eyes or a hunched back (unlike that earl her mother had been throwing at her). He wasn’t violent in his cups, he might be a dreadful card player but he had more than enough blunt to cover his losses, and he possessed a reasonable proficiency in those amorous activities that had propelled them into matrimony.
Freddy was, however, still sulky about having been roped into wedlock. It wasn’t the being married he seemed to mind—as he had said, with a shrug, when he tossed her a betrothal ring, one had to get married sooner or later and it might as well be to a stunner—as the loss of face among his cronies at being forced into it. He tended to forget his displeasure in the bedroom, but it surfaced in a dozen other minor ways.
Including deliberately failing to tell her anything at all about his interview with Lord Wellesley.♥
A native of New York City and a proud member of RWANYC, Lauren Willig is the author of the New York Times bestselling Pink Carnation series, featuring swashbuckling spies during the Napoleonic Wars. She holds a graduate degree in History from Harvard and a JD from Harvard Law. Now a full-time writer, she is hard at work on the next Pink Carnation book.