SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: A CURIOUS BEGINNING is a fabulous read and I was so, so, so excited to interview Deanna Rayborn for its debut on September 1. Alas, a touch of pneumonia seems to have taken hold and I've been told I've been muttering things about Mr. Tumnis and the White Witch, along with Heffalumps and Woozles....
So, thank goodness mutual friends editor Blake Leyers and writer Ali Trotta have come to the rescue! (I definitely owe you ladies cocktails, and many of them....)
DEANNA RAYBOURN: I’m so happy to be hanging out on Jungle Reds today talking about my newest release, A CURIOUS BEGINNING (Sept. 1), the first installment of a new mystery series featuring Victorian sleuth—and butterfly hunter—Veronica Speedwell! I thought I’d have some fun and ask a few pals, editor Blake Leyers and writer Ali Trotta, to pose a few questions about process, the new book, and writing in general. Because they know me so well, they asked some fabulous questions and I had a great time answering. Hope you enjoy too!
Veronica is the newest in a lien of bold main characters you’ve masterfully written. What characteristics do you feel are essential for a strong female character?
The funny thing is that I don’t think of them as strong female characters. To me they’re just women the way I want to write them. They are doing interesting things; they have a strong sense of their own identity and what their place is in the world. Sometimes that self-awareness is challenged in the books, and sometimes the characters have to grow which can be painful and difficult. But they always end up in a better place than where they started and with a better understanding of what they want which I think is what we all want.
What do you do if you’re having difficulty pinning down [ha ha — I see what you're doing there —Ed.] with essence of a character?
Panic. Then I take a deep breath and remind myself that I always manage to get there in the end. I like to have little touchstones, key things that remind me of significant qualities a character has. To that end, I make a collage for each project, pasting pictures of faces, settings, etc. onto a board about two feet by three. Then I hang that opposite my desk where I will always have it handy when I’m working. I also try to think about other sensory details: what perfume does a character wear? How do they laugh? I want to know what they would snack on, colors they prefer to wear, whether they are morning people or night owls. I find it’s always good to know their musical preferences. With my current main characters, he prefers sappy, quite sentimental music but she likes Beethoven because “that fellow really knew how to raise a roof.” Assembling all those details together is like arranging a mosaic. Each piece is nothing on its own, but when they’re put together the right way, they give you a complete picture.
Usually. Very rarely I will change it up, something I thought was deeply iconoclastic until I read that Agatha Christie used to do the same thing. Apparently she would write most of the book and then choose a murderer based upon who was least likely to have committed the crime. Then she would go back and fill in the details. I find that deeply fascinating, but I haven’t had the courage to try it yet. I have on occasion known someone was the murderer but not the motive until I neared the end of the book, and that’s always fun. By that point in the draft you know the character well enough to discard some obvious motivations, and others will suggest themselves, maybe things you might not have thought of at the beginning.
A CURIOUS BEGINNING is set in nineteenth-century England. How does visiting twenty-first-century England inform your fiction?
The beauty of England is that it has retained so much of its history. I can write a character walking in Hyde Park 130 years ago and it’s going to be largely the same as walking in the park today. Sure, there are changes, but the plane trees are unchanged; the swans are unchanged. I just watched a documentary on Windsor Castle where the presenter was showing a room I had been standing in only the week before—and it looked precisely the same in Queen Victoria’s time. They had Fortnum & Mason and the Underground and the British Museum, so a Victorian transported to modern-day London wouldn’t find it entirely alien. Although they might be surprised by the Gherkin…
In general, what is the hardest part of the writing process for you? What is the easiest?
Over the years it’s changed. It used to be that I would kill myself over the first draft and bang out 120,000+ words and then anguish over the cutting down. Now, I do the opposite; I write a solid first draft of about 80,000 words and really enjoy layering in the details in the open spaces I’ve left. It’s both more relaxing and more efficient. Learning to love revising was the single best thing I ever did for myself as a writer.
Names are hugely important to me. If I don’t have the proper name for a character, I just can’t seem to “get” them. In A Curious Beginning, my heroine is Veronica Speedwell, which is a botanical joke because “speedwell” is the common name for plants in the genus Veronica. I was researching herbs one day and ran across the two terms together and realized they would make a perfect heroine’s name, and as soon as I had the name, I jumped to making her a Victorian explorer. The name just conjures the image of the “petticoat and parasol” brigade of ladies who went traveling the world in the 19th-century.
A Curious Beginning involved a great deal of scientific research. It was often integral to the plot. What made you choose the protagonist’s profession? Did you consider any alternatives?
Well, sometimes I don’t actually think things through…Veronica’s occupation as lepidopterist was suggested by the inspiration for her character—the irrepressible Margaret Fountaine. Margaret was a Victorian traveler and collector, chasing butterflies on six continents over the course of a decades-long career. She amassed a tremendous collection of butterflies—and men—and when I read her diaries, I knew I had to write a woman who had that same larger-than-life, dynamic personality. As a tribute to Margaret, and a good reason for Veronica’s world travel, I made her a lepidopterist without really thinking much about the science aspect of it. The fact that my lead male character, Stoker, is a natural historian and that their quarrels are often about things like reconciling competing theories of natural selection is a weird sort of bonus. I liked the idea of them being scientists, albeit with wildly different approaches. It gives them a kinship and a shared sense of the world. Of course, it also forces me to do a lot of research I wouldn’t ordinarily do! Ask me the difference between Lamarckian and Darwinian theories of evolution. No, really—ask. On second thought, don’t.
Magical realism. I’ve had a contemporary magical realism book hanging out in a drawer for about ten years. It’s not good, and it would take a lot of work to make it good, but it’s a genre I adore. In spite of my love for mysteries—a very pragmatic sort of genre, in general—I have a weakness for magic. They’re like two halves of the same coin, sense and sensibility with apologies to Jane Austen.
(So, about the difference between Lamarckian and Darwinian theories of evolution.... Kidding, kidding....)
I'm absolutely enamored of Veronica — and don't even get me started on Stoker....
This is that book, Reds and lovely readers, the one that gives you thrills, chills, all the good shivers.
Oh, wait, where was I? Oh yes — I love Deanna's love of detail, right down to the perfume each character wears. Reds and lovely readers, what are your literary hero and heroine's favorite scents? (What you imagine the character would wear, if the author hasn't specified.) Maggie Hope's perfume is Après L'ondée — but at this point in the war, she's probably running a little low...
Please tell us your thoughts in the comments.
(Also, Deanna, Blake, Ali and I pal around on Twitter almost daily, talking reading, writing, coffee, and more. Please drop by and say hello!)
About Deanna Raybourne:
A sixth-generation native Texan, New York Times bestselling author Deanna Raybourn grew up in San Antonio where she met her college sweetheart. She married him on her graduation day and went on to teach high school English and history. During summer vacation at the age of twenty-three, she wrote her first novel, and after three years as a teacher, Deanna left education to have a baby and pursue writing full-time. Fourteen years and many, many rejections after her first novel, she signed two three-book deals with MIRA Books.
Deanna’s debut novel, Silent in the Grave, published in January 2007. The first in the Silent series, the book introduces Lady Julia Grey, an aristocrat bent on investigating the mysterious death of her husband with the help of the enigmatic private enquiry agent Nicholas Brisbane. From the drawing rooms of the aristocracy to a Gypsy camp on Hampstead Heath, Silent in the Grave deftly captures the lush ambience of Victorian London.
The series continues with the second book, Silent in the Sanctuary (January 2008), a classic English country house murder mystery with a few twists and turns for Brisbane and Lady Julia along the way. Silent on the Moor (March 2009), set in a grim manor house on the Yorkshire moors, is the third adventure for Lady Julia and the mysterious Brisbane.
March 2010 saw a departure from the series with the release of The Dead Travel Fast, a mid-Victorian Gothic thriller that features novelist Theodora Lestrange as she leaves the safety and security of her Edinburgh home for the dark woods and haunted castles of Transylvania. Deanna turns once more to Lady Julia and her companions with Dark Road to Darjeeling (October 2010) which features an exotic setting in the foothills of the Himalayas and the introduction of an arch-villain. The fifth book in the series, The Dark Enquiry, follows the return of Lady Julia and Brisbane to London for their most puzzling adventure yet. The Dark Enquiry hit the New York Times Bestseller list the week before its official release in July 2011. The digital exclusive novella Silent Night, published in November 2012, is a bright Christmas adventure set in Julia’s ancestral home in the Sussex countryside.
Deanna’s next release, A Spear of Summer Grass (May 2013), chronicles the adventures of a scandalous flapper heroine in Africa and the lives she changes along the way. It is listed as one of Goodreads’ most highly anticipated books of 2013 and was preceded by Far in the Wilds, an exclusive digital prequel novella (March 2013). A Spear of Summer Grass received a starred review from Library Journal. Deanna carried on the theme of 1920s adventure with City of Jasmine (2014) and Night of a Thousand Stars (2014), but is delighted to return to Victorian London with the September 2015 hardcover release of A Curious Beginning, the first mystery featuring butterfly-hunting sleuth, Veronica Speedwell and her natural historian sidekick, Stoker.
Deanna’s novel Silent in the Grave won the 2008 RITA® Award for Novel with Strong Romantic Elements and the Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award for Best First Mystery. The Lady Julia Grey series has been nominated for several other awards, including an Agatha, three Daphne du Mauriers, a Last Laugh, four additional RITAs, and two Dilys Winns. Dark Road to Darjeeling was also a finalist for the Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award for Best Historical Mystery as well as a Romantic Reviews’ finalist for Best Book of 2010. In April 2015, the Lady Julia books were optioned for development as a television series in the UK by Free@Last TV.
You can find her blogging two days a week at www.deannaraybourn.com/blog and are welcome to friend and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.