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Lauren Willig | History As It Should Be...or, Once Upon A Time...


Once upon a time, in a Cambridge far, far away, there was a cranky grad student.  I realize that this isn’t necessarily a defining characteristic.  Many grad students are cranky.  Especially those who have lived through a Cambridge winter, where the ice lies slick on the cobbles, just lying in wait for the unwary academic trudging out of Widener Library with a large pile of books.  Large piles of books make loud splatting noises when they fall into puddles.  So, for that matter, do grad students.

of the Emerald Ring masque of
the black tulip Seduction
of the Crimson Rose Temptation
of the Night Jasmin Betrayl of
the Blood Lily
But I digress.  This cranky grad student was in pursuit of a PhD in English history, but she kept stubbing her toes on footnotes along the way.  She—okay, okay, I—decided to do something to remind myself of why I loved history.  What better way to do so than to write a historical romance novel? 

It would be, as the historian and historical novelist George MacDonald Fraser put it, not history as it was, but history as it should have been.  History with all the good bits.  History as we like to imagine it.  History full of swashbuckling and knee breeches and men in black masks who raise their quizzing glasses just so and drawl out witty quips just as they run their rapiers through the unfortunate coat of the appropriately floundering villain.  I wanted to write something with mistaken identities, frolicsome sheep, heaving bosoms, and villainous Frenchmen—what better fodder than the intrigue and skullduggery of the Napoleonic Wars? 

Despite myself, a little more grad school had sunk into my soul than I had realized.  Instead of writing the pure historical romp I had intended, I found myself with a modern framing character, a disgruntled Harvard grad student in pursuit of her dissertation. (Nope, nothing autobiographical going on here, folks!)  Baroness Orczy, the author of the SCARLET PIMPERNEL, once wrote that Sir Percy Blakeney appeared to her on a Tube platform.  I met Eloise when a picture of her popped into my head, a bedraggled redhead in a tweed skirt and high-heeled boots, clinging to a Tube strap and trying not to fall into the lap of the man sitting in front of her. 

One of the revelations that most distressed me in grad school was the discovery that history, far from being an absolute, changes based on the perceptions of every succeeding generation.  Our sense of what history was, how it felt and smelled and tasted, is mediated by the assumptions and expectations of our own era, no matter how hard we try to stay faithful to the evidence at hand. 

In THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE PINK CARNATION, it’s Eloise’s discovery of a cache of private family papers that launches her—and us—back two hundred years, into the secret history of that most elusive of spies, the Pink Carnation.  By using Eloise as the lens through which the historical story is refracted, I gave myself free rein to write history as we, twenty-first century readers, would perceive it.  Like historians before her, Eloise translates historical events into her own idiom—which also gave me an excellent excuse to use lines like, “Drop the thumbscrews and step away from my son!” and “Follow that sedan chair!”  There’s also the Cosmopolitan Ladies’ Book, with TEN TRICKS TO A FLIRTIER FAN! If such a publication didn’t exist, it should have.

My other intention in including two time periods in one book was to highlight another of my grad school hobby horses: the commonalities that persist across the centuries, despite changes in costume and custom.  During my grad school years, I spent a lot of time, like Eloise, buried in piles of old documents.  The thing that struck me?  How little has changed.  Human nature remains fundamentally the same, whether we’re torturing ourselves with corsets or Jimmy Choo boots.  One of my favorite examples is the Paston Letters, a series of correspondence from the Wars of the Roses, in which a teenage boy writes home from boarding school because his favorite tunic needs washing and he’s short of funds (which sounded eerily like my brother’s calls home from boarding school), and a grown daughter fumes to her brother that if she has to spend one more day in the same kitchen with her mother, one of them isn’t going to make it out alive.  Haven’t we all been there?

I never did finish that dissertation, but writing historical romance has provided me a passport to places I had never dreamed I would venture, well beyond the reach of a Cambridge winter.  I’ve followed the Pink Carnation books from Napoleon’s Tuileries Palace to Almack’s Assembly Rooms, from the back streets of nineteenth century Dublin to the subterranean caverns of the Hellfire Club, from George III’s private quarters to Jane Austen’s Bath, and even all the way to colonial India.  I try to tell a story that, as George MacDonald Fraser advised, stays true in spirit, if not in fact (that’s what historical notes are for!).  It may not be history as it was, but it is history as it should be. 

The best part?  No footnotes!




11 comments posted.

Re: Lauren Willig | History As It Should Be...or, Once Upon A Time...

Lauren Willig's books are a delight and
I am eagerly awaiting the next book in
the series, The Mischief of Mistletoe,
this November. If you haven't read her
books, then this is your chance t get
caught up before the lates books hits
the shelves.
(Joan Siegel 3:12pm October 12, 2010)

I was kind of wondering which Cambridge she was talking, but I'm guessing it's the original, on the other side of the pond? Especially the one in Massachusetts doesn't have too many cobblestones left!

However, I have read one of the earlier books in this series, and really enjoyed it, and will be picking the others up sooner or later, for future enjoyment!


(Lynn Rettig 3:35pm October 12, 2010)

I've read a couple of her books
and I can't wait to read the
(Margay Roberge 3:47pm October 12, 2010)

I have a smile on my face from your travels on the tube in grad school. How do you stay upright when the train is lurching? I tend to take a few people down with me, making a soft cushion for my landing. Historical fiction is usually true to the period in dress, traditions and customs.
(Alyson Widen 4:04pm October 12, 2010)

Lauren, I haven't had the pleasure of reading any of your books, but after reading your posting, I am hooked. I can;t wait to get my hands on your books.
(Robin McKay 4:17pm October 12, 2010)

We do tend to make assumptions about the past. That is why I love to hear the not so distant past first hand from those who have lived it.
(Mary Preston 6:12pm October 12, 2010)

Cambridge (MA) was bad enough in the winter; I can't imagine winter in the other Cambridge (University).
(S Tieh 6:32pm October 12, 2010)

I've not read any of her books but would love to! Her books look great!
(Brenda Rupp 10:18pm October 12, 2010)

I am so glad that you went to grad school!! Taking all of that knowledge, and using it with such expression is such a gift!! You have retained so much, and it makes for such interesting reading. Your added touches give it that extra "twist" to keep it anything but boring!! Congratulations, and thank you for deciding on choosing writing as your career.
(Peggy Roberson 11:03pm October 12, 2010)

Great post. Most interesting. "History as
it should have been." It does add
something to historical fiction. I have the
first two books in the series and look
forward to reading them all.
(Patricia Barraclough 11:42pm October 12, 2010)

I have yet to read any of her book but thay look good and I think I'll picking one up on my next trip to the book store.
(Vickie Hightower 4:23pm October 13, 2010)

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