Set out to write a historical novel, and you can find yourself traveling down more than a few unsuspected highways and byways, researching tariffs and trade deals as well as dress lengths and hat styles, the grafting of camellias and the appearance of late nineteenth-century bicycles, the wharves and red light districts of the past. To paraphrase one of the authors in my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction, learning about cotton strands is not the most fascinating part of the job.
But human nature has a way of triumphing over mediocrity—for good and for bad—and those cotton strands become the reason for a centennial exposition that excels in cost overruns, construction delays, and funds diverted to the organizers’ pockets instead of the project at hand. As that problem fades into the past with the end of book 1, a new one surfaces: in an attempt to improve revenues, the federal government doubles tariffs on the legal opium trade, leading to a vast increase in smuggling. And we’re off again, following another pair of destined-to-be lovers through the streets of Gilded Age New Orleans as they struggle to find each other past a series of misunderstandings. It’s all tremendous fun, background delivered with a light hand that never loses focus on the central pair but instead places them firmly in a specific historical context that in turn both determines their predicament and directs its solution. Which is, after all, what every historical novelist tries to do.
And now, from the post uploaded to New Books in Historical Fiction:
So far, this podcast has focused on straight historical fiction rather than historical romance. Although love stories have a way of creeping into novels whatever their genre, books that focus on instantaneous passion don’t always give equal weight to the “historical” element in historical fiction. The series written by the mother/daughter team that publishes under the pen name Ursula LeCoeur, however, takes place in the richly detailed, lavishly imagined, deeply researched world of 1880s New Orleans. The Devious Debutante (Royal Street Publishing, 2015), third in the series, follows its hero and heroine through docks and bayous, ballrooms and opium dens, back streets, taverns, and Mardi Gras floats.
Maureen Collins, the daughter of a wealthy cotton merchant, should be focused on her trousseau and on attracting a scion of an old New Orleans family. Instead she spends time in her greenhouse, searching for a way to graft red camellias onto white stems. When by accident she runs into Ben Merritt, an attorney from Philadelphia who has no obvious reason to lurk around her family estate dressed like a workman, his peace offering—an example of that rare red camellia—turns out to contain a tin of opium among its roots. More plants follow, and Maureen’s suspicions grow, especially after her attempts to investigate lead her to the scene of a murder that the local police appear to have little interest in investigating. Is she falling in love with an opium addict, or a person even more sinister? As Mardi Gras sweeps the town into revelry, Maureen strives to find out. Meanwhile, Ben races to collect evidence on the killer before he can carry out his dimly overheard threat against Maureen.