Friday, March 26, 2021

Bringing Characters to Life

One of the most difficult tasks for any novelist, including myself, is to create characters who seem like real people: more noble, often, or more evil than the rest of us—depending on their role in the story—but neither wholly one nor completely the other and, most of all, distinct. Characters like that grow beyond an individual book and achieve a kind of immortality. Long after we have forgotten the plot details of Little Women or Anna Karenina or Vanity Fair, we remember Jo March and her saintly sister Beth, the doomed Anna and her faithless Vronsky, and Becky Sharp.

It’s true that after a while characters acquire a certain kind of life; they say and do things an author doesn’t expect. Such behavior offers insights into their being and makes a writer’s life easier. It’s also true that some characters arrive fully formed, with their own voices and traits, whereas others hide and require extensive coaxing to reveal their hidden selves, their goals.

But it’s equally true that showing those developed characters from the very beginning of a novel is a task for the author, and no rewrite should be the last rewrite until that step has taken place. So how does that happen?

I’ll give you a favorite example of mine, one I go back to when wrestling with my own beginnings. It comes from Rhys Bowen’s Her Royal Spyness, and the person speaking is the heroine, Lady Georgiana Rannoch. Her very name hints at her character: although “Lady” has many shades of meaning in British society, it always refers to a noblewoman, and Rannoch is obviously Scots. The Lady First Name, especially for a woman, means a duke’s or perhaps an earl’s daughter; anyone lower is Lady Husband’s Title or Last Name. But in the first line, we find out what it means specifically to Georgiana, known to friends and family as Georgie.

There are two disadvantages to being a minor royal.

First, one is expected to behave as befits a member of the royal family without being given the means to do so.
[A list of royal tasks follows, one that will be familiar to anyone who has been following the latest flap among the Windsors over the departure of Prince Harry and Princess Meghan, followed by examples of the things royals cannot do, including applying for a job at Harrods, something that Georgie plans to attempt this very day.]

When I venture to point out the unfairness of this, I am reminded of the second item on my list. Apparently the only acceptable destiny for a young female member of the house of Windsor is to marry into another of the houses that still seem to litter Europe.

This opening excerpt reveals a surprising amount about what makes Georgie unique. We learn that she is royal, well educated, and quite proper (her use of “one,” for example) but aware of the contradictions in her world, willing to defy convention, and capable of questioning the strictures imposed on her in childhood. She also has a sharp tongue and a sense of humor, made even clearer on the next page, where she describes her grandmother as “the least attractive of Queen Victoria’s daughters,” an apparent burden that allowed Grandma to escape marriage to “a Romanov or a Kaiser, for which I am truly grateful and I expect she was too.”

We’re not two minutes into the story, but we already have Georgie’s quadruple-barreled name, insights into her heritage and approach to life, and most of all a clear sense of who she is. In a sense, as readers we’re already in love, ready to follow her wherever she wants to take us.

Here’s another example, one I encountered just recently while reading Deanna Raybourn’s A Curious Beginning, the first of a series set in late Victorian England starring Veronica Speedwell, the first-person narrator. Again, the first line is presented as action but actually reveals character: “I stared down at the open grave and wished that I could summon a tear.”

In the next line, we learn that Veronica is attending the funeral of Miss Nell Harbottle, “my guardian for the whole of my life,” yet she cannot cry and by the end of the paragraph is disconcerted by a sense of euphoria. “As if to match my mood, the breeze rose a little, and on it fluttered a pair of pale wings edged and spotted with black. ‘Pieris brassicae,’ I murmured to myself. A Large Garden White butterfly, common as grass, but pretty nonetheless.”

You may think that Veronica is just cold, but that’s not the case. She notices butterflies because she has adopted lepidoptery as a profession—in an age where women did not, as a rule, have professions—and to her they symbolize freedom and beauty. Her failure to weep at her guardian’s grave reflects both the relationship between them, “tepid at best,” and a mystery about Veronica’s past that drives the novel and becomes clear only toward the end. Veronica is certainly unconventional, as her having a profession indicates, but she is also passionate about her convictions, enough to get her into a spat with the vicar’s wife within half an hour of the funeral. By the end of chapter 1, we know she has no interest in marriage, that she has had lovers (extraordinary for a young, single Victorian woman), that she treasures foreign adventure and intends to run her own life, and that she doesn’t give a hoot about either gossip or social censure.

Bowen and Raybourn, of course, are big-time authors with large followings—undoubtedly because of writing like this. But even self-published and small-press writers need to aim for the same standard. It’s not easy, but it can be done. At the risk of giving myself more credit than I deserve, here are two openings from my own novels, The Golden Lynx (2012) and Song of the Sisters (2021). The first is told in alternating third-person and the second from the perspective of a first-person narrator, but each book begins with its heroine.

Here is Nasan, the central character of The Golden Lynx and its entire series: 

The lynx found Nasan just before the ambush. She glimpsed its tufted ears through the tangled branches of the birch tree, then lost sight of it when her brother launched his attack. Alerted by his joyous shriek, she jumped sideways and stuck out a foot, sending him somersaulting over the blizzard-kissed ground. She pelted him with snowballs, taunting him. “You forgot again, silly. How can you take me by surprise if you yell like that?”

And here is Darya, at first observing her older sister:

“Oh, Darya, you have to see this. A strutting peacock just entered our yard!” Solomonida stood on tiptoe, leaning forward until I worried she might tumble right through the open window in her eagerness. The late morning sunlight glinted off her jeweled headdress and found an answering glow in the wisps of blonde braid that had worked their way out from under the rim as she sewed.

“Peacock?” I stared at her and sighed. It wasn’t fair. My older sister was lovely, even at thirty-one. Not just beautiful, either, but vivid and charming—outgoing, outspoken, eager to interact with life beyond our courtyard gates. Next to her I felt like the quiet mouse she teasingly called me. “How would a peacock get into our yard?”

So what can we tell about these two  women interacting with their siblings? Nasan is probably a teenager at most, since she still enjoys a snowball fight with her brother. She is active and competitive, and she takes no prisoners, pummeling her brother even when he’s down (we soon see him doing the same to her). Why the lynx is looking for her, we won’t find out for a while, but she notices it lurking, so she is at home in the forest and alert to its perils. Even so, we discover within a page or so that she is in fact courting danger, that she and her brother have defied their parents’ orders to stay within the fortress because of a threat that will sweep them into the story before they know it. So she is courageous and willing to buck authority—or simply young enough to believe in her own invincibility.

Darya, in contrast, views herself—and is viewed by others, so her perceptions are accurate—as a quiet mouse, inferior to her older sister (less pretty and charming), and shy about life outside her estate. She is perceptive and honest as well as observant, and she is not proud. If anything, she underestimates her own worth and defers too readily to others, including her sister. She has a developed aesthetic/artistic sense, describing Solomonida as a painter might. The jeweled headdress indicates that the family is noble, or at least wealthy—unlike Nasan, who at first glance could be anyone, although it soon becomes obvious that she’s at the very top of the social hierarchy, something that concerns her not at all. And the sisters have been sewing, a traditionally female occupation that brands them as fundamentally conventional even though as time goes by they will push at the boundaries of their world. It won’t surprise you, I’m sure, to learn that Nasan would rather do almost anything than ply a needle. Give her a sword and a horse any day.

See how much you can tell from a few sentences? It’s no accident that I use my characters over and over, once I’ve developed them. Finding them takes so much time, and getting them on the page requires an even greater investment. Keeping up with them as they grow is a challenge, too—maybe we'll talk about that another day—but nothing like as hard as getting to know them in the first place.

Even with all that, not everyone will create another Jo March or Becky Sharp. But it’s certainly worth a try.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Smith Women at War

I’ve made no secret on this blog that I enjoy Lauren Willig’s writing. Whether it’s the fabulous eighteenth-century romp of her Pink Carnation novels, with their sly invocations of the works of Georgette Heyer (a long-time favorite of mine) as well as the more explicit references to Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, or stand-alones like The Summer Country, with its evocation of plantation slavery and its discontents in nineteenth-century Barbados, her books are a joy to read.

Even so, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Band of Sisters, about the well-intentioned but challenging effort by a group of Seven Sisters alumnae to undo the damage wrought by the German invasion of northeastern France in World War I. Known as the Smith College Relief Unit, the real-life counterparts of Willig’s characters shipped across the Atlantic in 1917 and for the next two years fought everything from bureaucracy to gasoline shortages and shifting front lines to complete their mission: the restoration of French villages.

But again Willig takes this potentially grim story and finds a way to make it a page-turner. Over the course of the book, each woman in the unit—starting with its organizer, Mrs. Rutherford—emerges as a fascinating character in her own right. But as we discuss in my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction, the focus of the story is three interconnected members of the band: Kate Moran, an impoverished and reluctant teacher of French at a New York girls’ school; her college friend and roommate Emmie van Alden, burdened with the legacy of an exalted family heritage and a crusading but inattentive mother; and Emmie’s cousin Julia, a doctor whose self-confident and beautiful exterior hides a past she hesitates to share and a drive to succeed in her chosen profession that her family and even her medical colleagues do not support. Read on—and listen!—to find out more.

As usual, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction

Kate Moran, a graduate of Smith College, has been making her living tutoring students in French when her college friend Emmie Van Alden appears out of the blue and talks Kate into joining a group of alumnae intent on offering relief to rural families in war-torn France. Despite her mother’s disapproval, in July 1917 Kate boards an ocean liner with the Smith College Relief Unit. She knows few of the other alumnae and dislikes some of those she remembers from her college days. Even her friendship with Emmie has been tarnished since graduation by their disparate family backgrounds.

After a dangerous journey across the Atlantic, where German U-boats still patrol the seas, the Smith women reach Paris. There they encounter one obstacle after another: incomplete paperwork, missing supplies, trucks delivered in pieces, absent members of their unit, and a simmering coup against their leader. Somehow they overcome their difficulties and reach their intended destination in Picardy, not far from the River Somme. But no sooner have they begun to make headway in their central mission—to restore farmlands and villages destroyed during the German invasion—than they hear of a renewed offensive that may undo all their hard work.

In Band of Sisters (William Morrow, 2021) Lauren Willig brings to life, with her signature flair, a little-known but riveting chapter in the history of World War I.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Interview with Deanna Raybourn

Years ago, I read a couple of Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey novels. I had every intention of reading more, because they were great, but life got in the way and they joined the enormous and teetering To Be Read pile—which has only increased since I purchased a tablet to save my overstuffed bookshelves. Talk about well-laid plans that don’t come to fruition!

But about a month ago, Raybourn’s publicist at Berkley wrote to alert me to the imminent appearance of An Unexpected Peril, no. 6 in a different series that hadn’t even crossed my radar. “Would I like to interview her for New Books in Historical Fiction?” was the question. The answer: yes, absolutely. But since I had no space in my schedule then, the three of us agreed to settle for this written Q&A now, with a podcast interview to follow next year when Veronica Speedwell no. 7 arrives. So read on for Deanna Raybourn’s responses to my queries, and then look for the books themselves. If you ever loved a novel about a strong-willed Victorian woman with a profession of her own and a yen for travel—Amelia Peabody, I’m looking at you!—Veronica and her partner, known as Stoker, are definitely for you.

Introduce us, please, to Veronica Speedwell. She is already on her sixth adventure. Where is she when her series starts with A Curious Beginning?

As A Curious Beginning opens, Veronica has returned home from her globe-trotting work as a butterfly hunter to attend the funeral of the woman who raised her. But that very afternoon, a stranger arrives to inform her that everything she thought she knew about herself is a lie and that her life is in peril. She accompanies him to London and embarks on a series of outrageous adventures as she ferrets out the truth of her own identity and solves a few murders along the way.

Early in that venture, she meets a man then known only as Stoker, who is charged with keeping her safe. What can you tell us about him?

Stoker is the rebellious younger son of an aristocrat—he is actually the Honourable Revelstoke Templeton-Vane. But he prefers to go simply by his nickname and for the world to take him on his own merits. He’s a former surgeon’s mate in Her Majesty’s Navy and is currently a natural historian with a specialty in preservation, especially taxidermy. He has earrings, tattoos, an eyepatch, and a nose for trouble.  

By the time we get to An Unexpected Peril, Veronica and Stoker have already gone through a great deal together, including five murder investigations in little more than two years. How have these experiences changed them?

Both of them have been extremely wary of forming attachments with other people, and yet as time passes, they are assembling a found family, one of my favorite themes to write about. They are slowly learning to let other people in, a difficult thing for both of them because each has been badly hurt in the past. They also have work that intrigues them and the hobby of amateur detective work since they keep stumbling into murderous situations.

One important element of this novel is the Hippolyta Club, also called the Curiosity Club, where Veronica is a member. What do readers need to know about this institution?

The Hippolyta Club—known casually as the Curiosity Club—is an enclave for extraordinary women. I modeled it after a typical club for gentlemen of the time and populated it with women who are inspired by actual Victorian scientists, mathematicians, explorers, artists, poets, photographers, etc. Women of the period were often discouraged if not outright barred from different artistic and scientific disciplines, so having a club that not only permitted them but encouraged and celebrated their work seemed like a necessity. I think of it as a place where women could go and relax, challenge each other, debate, discuss, exchange resources and references. I suspect there are many secrets hidden within its walls.

At the opening of the novel, Alice Baker-Greene, another member of the Curiosity Club, has died. Veronica and Stoker are charged with arranging an exhibition memorializing Baker-Greene. What makes her memorable?

Alice Baker-Greene is inspired by two of the most famous Victorian mountaineers, Annie Smith Peck and Fanny Bullock Workman. They were very different women with different backgrounds and climbing styles and motivations, but they were outrageously determined. They were indefatigable and would summit with suffragist banners to draw attention to the cause they believed in. Alice Baker-Greene is exactly such a woman—ruthlessly ambitious in a way that would have been condoned in a man but is deplored in a woman. She is frank and forthright and afraid of nothing.

Baker-Greene, as we discover early on, died in the Alpenwald, a fictional principality in Europe that becomes central to the novel. The whole country is your creation, but why did you decide to create it—and having decided, how did you go about it?

I wanted a very memorable mountain for Alice to climb, and I could have used an existing peak, but where’s the fun in that? It was far more enjoyable to conjure my own tiny principality whose economy is based upon its single mammoth mountain and incredibly smelly cheese. There is also a political angle which made it necessary to create a sovereign state. Once I realized I was going to build a country from the ground up—literally—I decided to go all the way: language, architecture, flora, fauna, folklore. I loved every minute of creating the Alpenwald!

We’re scheduled to hold a New Books Network interview next year, when Veronica Speedwell #7 appears. Is that your next project, or do you have other novels underway as well?

I am writing Veronica #7 now and am also working on my first contemporary novel about a quartet of sixty-something female assassins who have to band together to take out the organization that wants them dead. Both should release in 2022, so it will be a busy year!
Thank you so much for answering my questions!

My pleasure—thanks!


Deanna Raybourn is the award-winning New York Times bestselling author of the Lady Julia Grey series, currently in development for television, as well as the USA Today bestselling and Edgar Award nominated Veronica Speedwell Mysteries and several standalone works. Find out more about her at

Friday, March 5, 2021

Interview with G.P. Gottlieb

Last year, I interviewed G.P. Gottlieb, the host of New Books in Literature, about her debut novel, Battered: A Whipped & Sipped Mystery. You can hear that podcast conversation on the New Books Network.

With the release of book 2, Smothered, we decided to go with a written Q&A instead. Mystery series are difficult to cover in depth, because basic setup in later books may give away crucial plot points in earlier ones. Those spoilers can be more easily avoided in the shorter format of a blog post.

But don’t be misled by the change of format. Smothered is, if anything, an even more compelling read than its predecessor—and not only because of the murder that lies at its heart. Alene Baron, the heroine, is not a professional detective; her life revolves around her café and her family at least as much as the hunt for a killer. So even if you prefer to read about delicious vegan recipes, this can be a novel for you.

This is the second of your Whipped & Sipped mysteries. People who’d like to know more about the first, Battered, can learn about it through your podcast interview with me on New Books in Literature. Why did you decide to center a mystery series on a café owner/chef?

To start with, I adore a good café! One of my favorite ways to meet friends (pre-pandemic, that is) is at one of the city’s many cafés for lunch or afternoon tea (with something delicious to nibble on, of course). Even more delightful when it’s a warm afternoon, and we can sit outside watching passersby. Who knows which of them might be planning a crime…

How would you describe Alene Baron, owner of the Whipped & Sipped Café, as a personality? What are her issues, and what pulls her into solving the mysteries you create for her?

Alene was a lot of fun to write about. She’s a solid citizen, always trying to help other people and concerned about family, friends, and community. She works long hours at the café, and then at home taking care of her father and children, so she’s a little wound up. She wishes she could be less suspicious and more kind-spirited, like her best friend, the pastry chef, but her suspicions draw her into solving the mystery.

Alene has a romantic relationship—still at a very early stage in Smothered—with Frank Shaw. What do we need to know about him?

Frank is a solid citizen. We won’t know more about his background until book 3 or 4 in the series, but we know that he’s divorced with two young adult children. Alene is falling in love: she’s been a single mother for eight years, and Frank is thoughtful, kind, and sweet-tempered. Plus her kids like him! Is it useful to know that he’s square-jawed, dark-haired, and has a dimple when he smiles?

Whipped & Sipped is a series of murder mysteries. Set up the crime in Smothered for us. What happens, and why does Alene get involved in solving it?

Alene’s neighbor, both at work and in her building, is an unpleasant character. Alene is outside in the alley when he’s found collapsed in his office and assumes that he died of a heart attack. When it becomes clear that he was murdered and one of Alene’s employees is unjustifiably considered as a prime suspect, she knows she has to get involved.

Without giving away spoilers, sketch some of the main suspects for us, including the reasons Alene includes them on her list.
Alene suspects one of the victim’s employees (who found the body), the victim’s son (who recently moved back to Chicago and is asking about his father’s will), the victim’s wife (a lonely, unloved hypochondriac who spends much of the book annoying people from her hospital bed), and the victim’s stepdaughter-in-law (who was once sexually assaulted by the victim). As is her custom, Alene also briefly suspects nearly everyone who crosses her path, but she quickly sets aside those suspicions.

One of the things I love about this series is that the stories are as much about Alene’s family and relationships with the people who work for her as they are about murders and suspects. For a heroine who is not a detective, this seems very realistic to me. What are the main non-crime-related problems that Alene faces in Smothered?

Alene worries about her children and is concerned about what her immature ex-husband is conveying to them. She’s saddened by her lack of a relationship with her younger sister, who scarcely finds time to visit their father when his autoimmune disease flares and he’s rushed to the hospital. She’s a concerned mama hen about the lives and life choices of some of her employees. She’s also worried about growing old alone, and cautiously hopeful about her budding relationship with Frank, the charming homicide detective.

This book has just come out. Are you already working on a third Whipped & Sipped mystery?

I am indeed! I’ve started a first draft of what I think will be Crushed: A Whipped and Sipped Mystery Book 3. When I begin writing a new novel, I like to write the story as if I’m telling it to myself. It’s filled with question marks and convoluted passages, winding paragraphs and indecipherable shorthand notes. I add bits and pieces every day, or I change my mind about who the murderer is, and why it happened. Then I think of that person’s backstory, and how he/she is connected to the café. And when I start thinking too much about recipes, I know it’s time to stop for lunch.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

G.P. Gottlieb holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in piano and voice. Over the years, she performed, taught, composed, and administrated while writing stories, songs, and several unwieldy manuscripts. She also fed her family and developed lots of healthful recipes. After recovering from breast cancer, she turned to writing in earnest, melding her two loves, nourishment for mind and body and recipe-laced murder mysteries. She hosts New Books in Literature, a podcast channel on the New Books Network. Smothered is her second novel. Find out more about her and her books at