Friday, March 19, 2010

BREAKING THE RULES (includes book excerpt)

By Lauren Willig

No one knows quite what they are, but we all know they’re there. The Rules. Those commandments every good romance writer must follow, inscribed in pink on hidden tablets in an ark hidden deep, deep in the bowels of the RWA headquarters.

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….

There were times when Lady Frederick Staines, nee Miss Penelope Deveraux, deeply regretted her lack of a portable rack and thumbscrews.

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.

Freddy shrugged.

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.


  1. Thanks for posting Lauren. I'm all for breaking the rules. The rules you chose to break the India location and the adultery issue make the story so much more interesting. I was at Lady Jane's for the reading, which was a great reading.

  2. I loved the excerpt you read at Lady Jane's! I think the adulterous relationship in your novel works because the characters are so believable. Just my two cents:)

    Great blog post!

  3. Lauren,

    Great post! I'm definitely a rule breaker, and I love that you are too! I can't wait to read Blood Lily - you know I'm always excited to read your work, but the setting and the adulterous relationship have me even more excited to read this one :) Oh, and I always love heroines named Penelope - Bella was almost a Penelope!

  4. My goodness, this is timely! Today on my blog, I just posted about the last romance taboo--infidelity. So far, comments are running violently against it.

    First, let me say I'm a huge fan of yours, Ms. Willig. I adore your smart, deeply layered prose. I think making the heroine the straying spouse makes your story more palatable to the romance readership.

    I'm also excited to see another romance set in India. I've been in love with the sub-continent since I first read MM Kaye's Far Pavilions. Blood Lily sounds delicious.

  5. Let me start off by proclaiming myself a fidelity partisan. Heck, my newly-sold novel is practically a hymn to fidelity. And with Tiger Woods and Jesse James and what-all popping up in the news every day, who can blame romance readers for wanting to escape into an adultery-free zone for a few hours a week?

    That being said, I'm glad Lauren had the guts to tackle this subject, because historical settings do lend themselves to situations where adultery might just be palatable. Marriages, after all, were more often matters of convenience than genuine liking, and sometimes not even an act of free will on the part of a sheltered young bride, fresh out of the schoolroom. And an adulterous relationship presents all kinds of moral and physical conflict to keep a story moving right along, particularly with such an ethically complicated premise as a forced and loveless marriage. It's a wonder more historical romance writers haven't taken up this cudgel. (Perhaps because the real sensitivity is the heroine's lost virginity? Granted, there are plenty of non-virgin heroines out there in Regency-land, but it's unquestionably the exception.)

    Anyhoo, bravo to Lauren the rule-breaker. Can't wait to read your latest!

  6. I love this series and always eagerly anticipate the next installment! Thanks for the excerpt and insight.

  7. Who was it that said "well-behaved women seldom make history"? It's attributed to just about everyone, but it's true.

  8. Hi, Christine! It was Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who was the early Americanist in the Harvard History department while I was doing my degree there. Small world....

  9. Thanks, Heather! I'm so glad you've enjoyed the books.

  10. Beatriz, I couldn't agree more with your comment. When you have a society in which matches are contracted for reasons other than personal affinity, it creates an entirely different emotional landscape. Adultery was a commonplace of life among the upper classes in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, for women as well as for men. The commonplace was that the aristocratic wife was supposed to create the heir and the spare-- and then she could stray all she liked. One doesn't have to approve of it (I'm with you on the whole fidelity thing), but it was undoubtedly part of that historical moment, and one which creates interesting questions and conflicts in the context of the romance novel.

    That having been said, an adultery plot in a contemporary novel would, I admit, make me very uncomfortable. Double standard?

  11. Thanks so much, Emily! I'm a huge M.M. Kaye fan, too.... I couldn't resist bringing her into "Blood Lily". In my little alternative universe, she was a friend of my modern hero's great-aunt.

  12. Jerrica, I never realized that Bella was almost a Penelope!

  13. I think in doing what you've done with the setting and the subject of adultery, you've made Penelope's story much more realistic and less fairy tale. Some people might be made uncomfortable by it, but I'm glad not every romance writer sticks to the life-is-puppies-and-rainbows route.

  14. i can't wait to read blood lily, i have read all of lauren willg's books, i have decided to re-read them all over again from the beginning!! her books are awesome!!

  15. Brava, Lauren. Both for your wonderful book, which I adored, and for making it a grittier read via the adultery aspect. You clearly set up the marriage of inconvenience and let us readers see exactly the absence of respect that Penelope was subjected to in the marriage. That it was the result of a scandal and that there was no love particularly lost on either side AND her husband was indulging in an adulterous relationship of his own, one in which there was no love, but merely lust, makes it a dynamic choice and one you pulled off beautifully (in my opinion). I am of the mind that stretching the genre and encompassing some of the more "realistic" elements of love, romance, of life, when handled sensitively and deftly as you have done, creates a genre that can provide something for those of us who prefer our romance fiction to include bit of a bite to that puppy and rainbow scenario.

  16. I think it would be interesting to read about India in a different time period than is the norm. And I really like this series, so that's a bonus.

  17. I believe the only rule that really matters in romance is that one should empathize with the characters (and even that not all the time). Adultery, like most things, can be pulled off if sympathetically motivated. You're always going to find someone out there who can't stomach it. But that's so of just about anything else too. So bravo for undertaking something different.

  18. Wonderful post, Lauren. Huzzah on understanding the "rules"--and them breaking them so beautifully.

  19. I've always felt that some rules were made to be broken and am grateful for those that have the guts to do so. Thanks!

  20. The introduction of adultery into The Blood Lily was brilliant, as it made the characters more relatable. Most of us have experienced adultery in some fashion, even if it is just watching a loved one go through it, and can probably imagine how it could come about. And it has an impact, which Lauren illustrated perfectly, I felt, through Penelope and Alex's guilty conscience. They may have had an idyllic few days, but that only made the news of Freddy's death that much more crushing. Action leads to consequences and/or impact--thank you for including that.

  21. You know, I have found that I only have one rule when reading romance novels: the relashionship has to make sense. Tons of authors brake this rule though. You know the type, the "We've been together 3 days, we're both sexy, let's get hitched." It's nice when the characters actually suit each other.
    I call this rule the "Throw Mama from the Train Rule of Motivation" There being only 2 characters, one can't be head over heals in the first 5 pages for the only other person in the book who has dialouge. The romance needs motivation; the man in the hat can't just hook up with the chick in the hat. Come on now, criss cross; throw in some personality traits or inconvieniant suitors.
    That's why your books are so good, the characters love eachother for darn good reasons. Tons of authors break this rule and get away with it, so I guess its just my own personal rule, but I still think it counts for "quality romances".

  22. I think anyone who has read the series knew that Pen and Freddy were not a good match. I cringed at the end of Jasmine when Pen was compromised.

    Anyway the adultery was different, and somehow a refreshing bit of conflict in a romance novel. Besides it was hard to not fall in love with Alex.

    I also was fascinated by the backdrop of India. It is a bit of history that I had never really studied. Your story made me curious about it and I wikipedia'd the heck out of the subject.

    I guess as a reader, the rules are there and they do have a point but by the 6th book in a series liberties can be taken.

    All in all love the book!

  23. Thanks for the excerpt! The book was phenomenal and i cherished every moment. We look forward to the next book and good luck on the naming of Pink VII!

  24. It sounds like it's the right time to break "the rules" a bit and bring historical romance fiction into the 21st century. You've established yourself pretty firmly as an author and your series has such a strong following among younger readers, so I'm glad you decided to follow your convictions and introduce some new aspects into the genre. Bravo!

  25. Taking a risk was really brave on your part and it ended being stupendous in the end. Lauren, your really talented and I admire your work and the way you establish yourself. Taking the setting and putting it some place that you were warned might not sell, but doing it anyway because you believed it was just right, was amazing. It's more then some authors can achieve. I agreee that the adultery subject is real sticky. I haven't read bloodlily yet, but I know you've made something wonderful out of it, at least for Penelope and her man. Some authors would take the eays way out, but I'm produ of you for choosing to go on and tackle the problem. Cheers to you!

  26. Rules Smoolze...arn't they meant to be broken??? Well if not I am glad that you did, even though it must have been very scary.

    The Pink Series is the only historical fiction romance that I have on my keeper shelf and every book club I've been in I make them read it...and they all love it and read on. I have also recomended you to my mother who has been writing romance since I was a little girl. Maybe with your example she will be able to break through the formula that seems to be keeping her down.

    I can't wait to read the next addition to the wonderful Pink series...and look forward to many more.

  27. Generally I'm not fond of the main romantic relationship being an adulterous one, or even on one of the leads cheating on a previous love interest with the other lead, but I see no reason not to judge how it works in each story individually. And I don't think I've actually encountered it in a historical before, and yes, that's a bit different.

    (Yeah, I'm avoiding reading excerpts until I get the whole book, which I haven't yet. I'm a little behind.)

    I would love to see more early 19th century books set away from England, though.

  28. Lauren, if you are breaking any rules, then keep doing it. Blood Lily was fantastic. I loved getting to know Pen as a main character and heroine. And Alex certainly did not disappoint.

  29. I am very glad you broke the rules. Delightful results. Which rules do you plan to break next?

  30. I haven't had a chance to read this one yet but I haven't been disappointed thus far! ;)