Warning! Spoilers Ahead! This article is about the writing of A Regency Invitation, published by Harlequin Historicals in November 2005. If you're planning to read the book, you might prefer not to read this article till later.
In the beginning was an e-mail. And the e-mail said . . . Can we tempt you?
BY NICOLA CORNICK, JOANNA MAITLAND & ELIZABETH ROLLS
Finding ourselves thus invited by our editors to what became the Regency House Party of the Season, not one of us could resist.
The premise was suggested to our editors by Joanna Maitland: it became three linked novellas set during a house party. Season, setting and story line were up to us. Realizing that editorial wouldn't do the decent (and to us obvious) thing by transporting Elizabeth from Australia to England to confer with Nicola and Joanna, we settled down to an entertaining exchange of e-mails. Nearly 500 e-mails later we had our stories, and wondered where they had come from.
Looking back over the e-mails, we found that the process had fallen into three stages.
Stage One: Getting Started
This included setting, timeframe, general plot and characters' back-stories, structure and interlinking of stories.
Q) How do three writers settle on a single story?
A) They don't. They have three totally different ideas and start tweaking.
Joanna had the idea of a lady disguised as a maid in order to search for her missing brother. Joanna's e-mail: In my back-story, the host/hostess run regular and slightly risqué large house parties. At the end of the previous one, heroine A's brother (her only relative) wrote to her to say that he'd discovered something very odd and he'd tell her all about it when he got home. Then he never arrived. She has become increasingly concerned and also has no money without brother. She decides she has to investigate but can't go as herself since the host would twig, so she goes as lady's maid to her married friend (because lady's maid goes both above and below stairs). Plan is that heroine A will do bedroom searches and such like while nobs are at dinner etc. The intrigue, I had thought, would be that an escaped felon is being hidden in the house. He was wrongly convicted of course and, by the end, will be proved innocent by one of the heroines (possibly the lady's maid) and they will live HEA. Haven't worked out where heroine A's brother would have been all this time. Perhaps he's being kept as a "guest" alongside the felon so that he won't spill the beans. Or perhaps something else has happened to him, as long as the word count isn't too long. He could be one of the three heroes, perhaps?
Nicola had the idea of a hero forced to woo a wealthy bride to save his inheritance from ruin.
Elizabeth wondered why any sensible man wanting a peaceful life would invite all these ill-assorted guests to visit in the first place.
In the end our starting point was the house party itself. What was it for? What was the host trying to achieve? Elizabeth's e-mail: Actually I did just have an idea. Something along these lines. How about if the host is estranged from his wife-she's left him and he even thinks she may be dead, but can't find out. If the estate isn't entailed, then he has to decide on an heir from within the family since he can't marry. So he summons a large portion of the family to try and make a decision. We could probably even squeeze a murder out of that in the first novella which could be solved in the third. With perhaps various heroes and heroines being suspected. Anyway, if the host's wife isn't dead, but actually in attendance as a companion or something, but we keep that very quiet as to who this female is that the host is lusting after, then that would make a nice explosive ending. Just ideas to play with.
We also needed a setting. Nicola's e-mail: We could use Ashdown (my National Trust place) which is compact, unusual and very attractive; it's comparatively small-only 8 bedrooms. I do have loads of info (you know what an Ashdown bore I can be!) so if you'd like to go for it that's no problem. If we decided on a summer house party, Ashdown would be good as it's designed as an over-sized hunting lodge and there's lots of potential for shooting accidents!
Joanna's e-mail: Terrific stuff, Nicola! I do like the sound of Ashdown, largely because you know it so well. We could always extend it, in an imaginary way, so that it has more bedrooms upstairs, without necessarily extending the public rooms. The readers won't see anything wrong because they won't know the size of the downstairs rooms or even if we've mentioned them all. And it would be very useful to know all about the grounds. Also love the idea of hunting accidents. I feel a murder coming on.
So there we were, with our setting and three independent ideas, one of which supplied the background for the whole set. Oh, all right! It wasn't quite that easy. There were masses of e-mails before we got that far. Christmas was looming, so a lot involved tips for cooking geese, shortbread and how to make your personal hero do enough mince pies. What made this possible, apart from e-mail, was our willingness to work together, compromise-although it never felt like that-and our respect for each other's work.
Stage Two: Who are these people anyway?
After nailing the shape of the plot, we came to the characters. Sort of. Most stories start with the characters, and ours were no exception. We had our characters in mind from the first but we needed to develop their back-stories to know what made them tick. Authors all do this very differently. This time, since our characters were to move in and out of the three stories, we had to ensure that we could write each other's characters effectively.
We divided the characters between us and wrote detailed character notes, adding to them as we asked questions. Obviously the individual author created the lovers in each story. Then there were secondary characters. Some were easy. Lady Margaret Burnside disappears near the end of The Fortune Hunter-in response to an editorial plea for sex on the backstairs-so Nicola handled her, although we all gave her a nudge in her fall from grace. Nicola's e-mail: The more I think about it the more inclined I am to create a scandalous widowed chaperone for Cassie and have her pounce on the footmen (maybe a threesome in the butler's pantry?) That would leave Aunt Harriet intact (so to speak) and I think this is important because the maiden aunt character has a very important role and I don't think it should be compromised by having her flirt with the staff. Anthony could be scandalized when he realizes how inappropriate Lady Margaret is as Cassie's chaperone-she was appointed by Cassie's maternal relatives the Burnsides-and she is sent packing at the end of story 1. What do you think?
And the responses came back by return.
Joanna's e-mail: I think your scandalous widowed chaperone for Cassie will work very well. If it would fit your story line, Nicola, you could start without the Earl and Countess, who might arrive part-way through your story. That would provide a reason for Cassie having to have her own chaperone, and allow your scandalous widow to leave without being replaced at the end of story 1. That would leave Elizabeth and me with the gay valet, the rogering footman, a butler who gets up to unmentionable things in his pantry (unless he was sacked for the threesome with the widow?) and Eliza and Timms if they are still to be a twosome. There's one other aspect i.e. William Lyndhurst-Flint and his penchant for attacking anything in a servant's skirt. So far in my draft, that's only reported by my heroine, rather than shown directly, but I suppose I could show it? In the original brief, they did ask for "dark elements to add depth (without becoming gothic)". Attempted rape by William would certainly be dark.
Elizabeth's e-mail: Something that occurs to me-sorry if this wrecks your gay valet, Joanna-what if William did use his valet to do the dirty work, i.e. assault Frobisher? And what if the valet had the affair with the widow? Anthony would insist on his removal and that would be the point when the blackmail would kick in, because William would agree to sack him just to stay sweet with Anthony. Could that work? Surely that would be dark and nasty enough and it would mean that the whole thing tied in conveniently and not be too gratuitous. What do you think?
Essentially that was how that plot thread remained, because Nicola used it to drive her emotional plot. Nicola's e-mail: I think I've found a way to bring in the sexy widow and advance my own plot in the process. Lady Margaret Burnside is a relative of Cassie's mother and has been her chaperone for a couple of years. Cassie doesn't like her but Margaret is clever-she's had to be to survive as a poor widow-and Cassie can't give any real reason why she doesn't trust her other than instinct. In fact, Margaret once had a thing going with William Lyndhurst-Flint, although he's considerably younger than her, and now William has enlisted her support to marry Cassie and her money by promising her a cut. So Margaret tries to throw them together, come between Cassie and Peter and even makes a pass at Peter himself. When he turns her down she picks up the valet (thanks Joanna!)-who is pretty keen-no harassment there!
It would be fabulous if Great Aunt Harriet could unmask Margaret coming out of a broom cupboard in a state of disarray and Anthony sack her on the spot. Cassie won't need a chaperone for long anyway since she is betrothed to Peter, and the Countess can look after her until the wedding, which will be very soon. And I like the twist with William complaining about having to sack his valet, Joanna.
As a nice counterpoint, I thought Eliza could make some very sniffy comments about Lady Margaret and her carryings on, whilst she and Timms really do exchange no more than longing looks across the room.
One idea sprang from another, weaving the plots together to create a whole. So Stage Two merged into...
Stage Three: Writing the Stories.
A romance is, by its nature, character driven. As we wrote, our characters opened up, developing and pushing the plot in new directions.
Aunt Harriet, aka Great Aunt Harridan, was very much Joanna's creation. As were John and Sarah, Earl and Countess of Mardon, since Sarah had such a large role in The Uncommon Abigail. One day we hope that Joanna will write their story.
Characters with major ongoing parts we handled jointly. William Lyndhurst-Flint, for example, provoked a great deal of the plot development in all three stories, so we each had a hand in his character. In the end, our editors saved his life by vetoing a cobra in his chamber pot.
Some characters, such as Cassie's maid Eliza, and Anthony's valet Timms, evolved along the way. Our editors wanted a "downstairs" touch, and including their relationship strengthened the main story. (Definition: Editorial Suggestion-an editorial idea that strengthens the book. Otherwise it's called Interference. Three authors working together were a lot more Bolshie than one. Our editors probably have a note on file to that effect.)
Another character who gained unforeseen importance was Stella, Anthony's beloved, smelly old setter. She sprang to life one evening in Australia when Elizabeth tripped over her own smelly old dog, and realized a hunting box without dogs was a very odd thing.
Originally intended as a bit of canine authenticity, Stella gradually stole the show. Her moment of glory came when Elizabeth, 6,000 words off completing The Prodigal Bride, found a massive plot hole. What self-respecting heroine, with a reasonable amount of savvy, would hare off into the woods after a man she knows is up to no good? Especially in the teeth of a warning from her husband not to go beyond the gardens?
Again Elizabeth's dog provided inspiration. Poor old Jessie, deaf, blind and senile, escaped the house one night and disappeared on five acres of land with dodgy fences. Lightbulb moment. Anthony's affection for his dog was motivation enough for Georgiana to venture into the woods. So Stella, already deaf and rather smelly, was mercilessly struck blind, and Nicola and Joanna were requested to indicate this in their stories-or at least expunge anything that suggested she could see.
Writing each other's characters was a major challenge. Joanna's e-mail: Some questions for Elizabeth. What name is Georgiana using? Not, I assume, Mrs. Lyndhurst? and not her maiden name either? Is she still wearing her wedding ring? (I could envisage a very effective scene with Anthony taking it from the chain around her neck and putting it back on her finger, possibly while she's not wearing anything else. <g>)
Elizabeth's e-mail: Georgiana is using the name Miss Emma Saunders. And you are quite right-she is wearing her wedding ring on a chain around her neck. Hidden of course by the very modest gowns a companion was expected to wear. She sold her mother's wedding ring to get herself back to England. Thanks for the idea about when Anthony could put it back where it belongs. Mmm! Definitely has possibilities.
Joanna's e-mail: Elizabeth, how soon does Cassie discover Georgiana's real identity? She might indeed be cool towards her, once she knows who Georgiana really is.
Elizabeth's e-mail: Cassie discovers Georgiana's real identity along with the rest of the house party because they walk in on Anthony trying to persuade her to remain in his bed-metaphorically speaking-and he is saying something along the lines of, "Dammit, Georgie! You're my wife for God's sake! Of course you're going to sleep in my bed!" I can see everyone except GA Harriet being dumbfounded. She, of course, is unutterably pleased with her role as matchmaker. Perhaps you two might like to flag your characters' likely responses to me?
Joanna's e-mail: The Countess, delighted and bubbling over with it, is about to say something she probably shouldn't. She gets as far as a delighted laugh and "But that's-" when...the Earl, seeing the danger, gets hold of her arm and escorts her out of the room and back to their chamber where they can discuss the development in private. He's grinning non-stop while he does it, though. Marcus raises his eyebrows, grins fleetingly, and then leans back against the door jamb, crossing his arms, to watch what happens next. Throws a speaking look at Amy. May even wink. Amy is just astonished (and struck dumb) since she hasn't caught up with this part of the Lyndhurst family history. She's trying to come to terms with the idea that she wasn't the only one playing a part in the household. At Marcus's speaking look/wink, she blushes violently. William is momentarily horrified in case Georgiana can queer his pitch with Anthony and John, but covers it up so quickly that (probably) no one else notices. They're all too busy goggling at Anthony and his wife. William will then try to be the soul of discretion, shepherding everyone else out so that husband and wife can be alone.
At least, that's how I see them. You may have different ideas, especially about William, since he'll be all yours by then <g>
These are only a sample of the e-mails. Eventually we produced three individual proposals for our editors, a description of the physical setting, the back-story and notes for the main characters. Normally our editors are lucky to get "their names are X and Y" out of Joanna and Elizabeth. They would also be lucky if the finished story bore more than a cursory resemblance to the original outline. This time we all had to stick pretty much to the script.
Life was further complicated by Elizabeth's sister who dragged her, kicking and screaming, to New Zealand to celebrate her fortieth birthday by walking the Milford Track. Not content with that, Elizabeth moved interstate a month from her deadline.
In many ways the physical distance between us worked in our favor. Instead of meeting to brainstorm, probably forgetting half of what was said, and noting things down incorrectly, everything was in writing. Checking something was easy. Even the time difference between Australia and England worked. Elizabeth, having two young children, usually works at night. Joanna and Nicola work more during the day, so we were mostly online at the same time.
In the end we learnt as much about our "normal" creative processes, as about working together. The creative process is a strange thing. People frequently ask writers "Where do you get your ideas?" We still don't know. But we do have a fabulous record of the progress of a set of ideas.
And that is what the creative process is all about. It's not having an idea that counts; it's doing something with it. Anyone can have an idea. That's the easy bit. Working the idea through and developing it, actually getting the story down-that's what counts. In the near future, far more of these e-mails will appear in weblog form on our websites. (Elizabeth still has to create a website!) We hope that this article and the e-mails will help other writers with that development process.
© 2005 Nicola Cornick, Joanna Maitland & Elizabeth Rolls
RITA nominee Nicola Cornick, RNA Award nominee Joanna Maitland, and HOLT Medallion winner Elizabeth Rolls, all write Regency-set historicals for Harlequin. This is their first collaboration. Nicola's début book for HQN, Deceived, will be out in July 2006 and Elizabeth's next Harlequin Historical, The Chivalrous Rake, is scheduled for early 2006. Joanna is currently working on a sequel to My Lady Angel.
The weblog of the creation of the book is at http://cornrollsland.blogspot.com
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