Thursday, March 15, 2012


DEBORAH CROMBIE: As we are still feeling historical (or perhaps hysterical) this week, the wonderful Lauren Willig joins us with a few thoughts about why we like history mysteries, and talks about her new book, THE GARDEN INTRIGUE.

I've just discovered Lauren's books, I'm happy to say, (although sorry not to have done so sooner) when I was signing last month at The Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale and Barbara Peters, goddess of bookstores, put THE ORCHID AFFAIR in my hand and said, "Here. Read this. You'll love it." Barbara's recommendations cannot be ignored and this was no exception.

And so I was hooked. Napoleonic Paris. Spies. Romance. And knee breeches. All bracketed very cleverly by an ongoing contemporary story that ties the books in the series together--and now I have a new book to look forward to as well as the earlier books in the series!

Lauren has kindly offered to send a copy of THE GARDEN INTRIGUE to one of our lucky commenters, and I'll announce the winner in tomorrow's post.

Oh, and one more thing. Lauren looks much prettier in a tiara than Brad Parks (no offense, Brad:-)) And now, here's Lauren!

LAUREN WILLIG: I heard that there was some discussion over here about literary salons and things historical, so, inspired by Brad’s appearance last week, I couldn’t resist donning my best tiara and barging over—because, really, wearing tiaras and talking about history are two of my very favorite things. It’s what got me into this job. (The history, not the tiaras. Although getting to wear a tiara to work is always a perk.)

To paraphrase a completely inappropriate source, the past had style; it had flair. Fans, coaches, gilded ballrooms, clever turns of phrase, knee breeches… all these are catnip to me. I’ve always preferred court intrigue to electoral politics. The more mistresses involved, the better. (Charles II, I’m looking at you.) For those of us who have always felt that we might have been born in the wrong era, historical fiction is the best way of rectifying that. We get all the glamor and intrigue of an earlier era without the inconveniences of lack of contact lenses, toothpaste, and flush toilets. Until they invent a proper time machine, historical fiction is the best thing we’ve got going (without any of those pesky worries about throwing off the time space continuum and all that sort of thing.)

In historical fiction, we get to hobnob with history’s most interesting characters. It’s the best possible sort of VIP room, and a VIP room to which anyone with a library card is invited. In previous books, I’ve gotten to hang out with the ruler of Hyderabad, Lord Wellesley, George III (during one of his mad phases), and even Jane Austen. In my latest book, The Garden Intrigue, my heroine, Emma, knows everyone who is anyone in Napoleonic Paris. She’s best friends with Napoleon’s stepdaughter, collaborating on a project with Robert Fulton (yes, the guy who invented the steamboat!), and a frequent visitor at Josephine Bonaparte’s country house, Malmaison. Emma’s relationships mean that we get to see the Bonapartes at home, in all their squabbling glory. It’s like gossiping about old friends—or frenemies.

I also believe that historical fiction serves other, deeper purposes. It provides us with a safe space, a happy never-never land in which we can deal with troubling issues in a non-threatening way. Like fantasy and science fiction, historical fiction has the capacity to provide a laboratory for the working out of real world problems. I’ve always been fascinated by the way historical fiction tends to mirror the preoccupations of our own age. I don’t think it’s any accident, as the disparity between rich and poor rises, that we’ve seen a corresponding interest in books set in the Gilded Age. Likewise, I’ve long wondered whether the rise in popularity of Jane Austen and everything Austen-related in the past decade has had something to do with the decay of courtship rituals in modern society. As we find ourselves in a world that seems romantically unsettled, it provides comfort to imagine a society in which courtship was played by the rules. Historical fiction provides both a cautionary tale and a corrective, a mirror for our current concerns.

Along those lines, someone made an interesting point on a panel I was on at the Tucson Festival of Books this weekend (for which I would provide an attribution if I could remember who it was. Oh, well.). In historical crime fiction, we have no DNA samples. There are no lab guys in white coats coming to provide an anodyne scientific solution to the crime. Instead, historical crime fiction, because of the lack of all those high tech doodads, is forced to rely upon analysis of characters, the whys and wherefores—a why-dunnit, as much as a who-dunnit—to solve the crime. In an age of electronics, it’s sometimes useful to back away from all the devices beeping and ringing around us and take a good, hard look at people instead.

It doesn’t hurt if some of those people happen to be wearing knee breeches.

Which is your favorite historical era?


  1. Lauren, I am meeting so many new-to-me authors here on Jungle Reds! This is wonderful.

    My favorite historical era is 17th century New England and New France. Love those times. Also enjoy reading historic fiction in the16th century England of Henry VIII and Charles IX of France (especially as influenced by his mum, Catherine de Medici)-- all the church figures of the time and the political and social reactions to religious change.

    Got a huge lift one summer living in Henry VIII's Old Library at Christ Church College, Oxford. Being in that space moved me to work and feel and do everything I could to understand the religious and church upheaval of that period.

    Looking forward to reading your books. So glad you were here in Tucson for our humble book fest. Please do come back. Love your TFB pic by the way. You kind of look naked.

  2. Hey, Lauren. Kathy Lynn Emerson (aka Kate) here. I was lucky enough to stumble on the first in Lauren's series when it first came out and have been a fan ever since. Great stuff. I may write about Tudor England, but for my fiction reading I'm especially fond of the early 19th century.

  3. So nice to meet you Lauren! Thanks for visiting JRW. I think you're on to something with the idea of focusing on the people, rather than the techniques of crime-solving. Maybe that's why I go more for the amateur sleuth side of mystery-writing...

    I usually don't read historical fiction (except for rhys of course), but these books sound great. And I AM a recent convert to Downton Abby, so maybe I'm mature enough to branch out:)

  4. Well unlike Lucy, ALL I read these days is historical fiction (and just straight history). So I am perfect example of your logic - I love to escape to another age. Oddly I usually don't like escaping to fhe future (although I made an exception for The Hunger Games)

    Your books sound terrific. Can't wait to check them out.

  5. Hi, ladies! Thanks so much for having me here today.

    Reine, have you read Judith Merkle Riley's "The Master of All Desires"? She does a wicked caricature of Catherine de Medici-- hysterically funny and very spot on.

    I'm so jealous that you spent a summer in Henry VIII's Old Library!

  6. Regency.. then Edwardian... I love stuff with witty writing and beautiful dresses...

  7. Lauren,

    I'd have to say I love getting lost in your books so much (as well as Tracy Grant's)that my favorite historical period is around 1800 to 1820. Though of course, I love reading about the Tudors, Plategenets, Victorians, etc.

  8. Hi, Kate! I have your books going WAY back, including a very battered copy of "Echoes and Illusions".

    It was actually the Tudors who drove me to the 19th century, too-- I was working on a Tudor/Stuart PhD and desperately needed some light entertainment, so I decided to play with Napoleonic spies on the side.

    And we all know how that turned out.

  9. I love, love, love Lauren's books. Nice work having her here, Lauren and Reds!

    And Lauren, I'm with you on the literary visit to history. I wouldn't do well without a shower.

  10. Thanks so much, Tammy! And, yes, the shower thing is really an issue-- or, for me, contact lenses, since I guess we'd get used to the hygiene after a bit, but I'm blind as a bat without my contacts. I remember reading, back in the day, a time travel novel where the heroine winds up back in colonial America with extra contacts and saline solution (they happened to be in her handbag) and thinking, "Really? Yeah, right."

  11. For all of you Tracy (writing as Teresa) Grant fans, I just got to read the ARC of her latest, Imperial Scandal, which comes out on the 27th. Wonderful!! And you've got to admire a writer who tackles the Battle of Waterloo!

  12. Welcome Lauren - you're a new-to-me author and I look forward to going back in time with you! I was about to write that I don't read too much historical fiction, then I remembered Charles Todd, Stefanie Pintoff, Cordelia Frances Biddle and another author whose latest book Gods of Gotham, hits the stores today, Lyndsay Faye.
    I'm in awe of you folks for all of the research and detail you have to include in your books. Lauren, do you ever get emails about your research?

  13. There's a copy of "Imperial Scandal" up for grabs on the News page of my website right now!

    For anyone who hasn't read Tracy's books before, I advise going back and getting a copy of "Vienna Waltz", set at the Congress of Vienna, to read before "Imperial Scandal" comes out-- it's my favorite.

  14. Hi, Rosemary! I was just on a panel with Charles Todd this weekend (hmm, that may be where that comment about historical crime fiction came from....).

    I do get emails about the historical aspect all the time-- from people who want advice on doing their own research, who want sources to learn more about specific aspects, or who have caught errors (and there are always plenty of those!).

  15. Lauren,

    I've read ALL of the Pink Carnation books, including the Christmas story you did about the -ahem- consummation of Turnip and Arabella's love. (Folks, if you want to see how to do funny AND sensitive AND romantic, with a most unlikely hero, read this.)

    I'm delighted to see you were pursuing a doctorate in "Tuds and Studs." Like Reine, my favorite era is the 17th century, especially the Civil War and Interregnum. Alas, not a wellspring of popular fiction. I've often thought I'd like to do a mystery series set during the Civil War...just as soon as I can find the time.

  16. I am so glad to know wonderful authors who make literary time travel easy, to so many fascinating times!

    Lately I've been fascinated by the story of Huguette Clark, the reclusive heiress who died a year ago at 104 and left $400 million, inherited from her scandalous Copper King father (and one-time US Senator from Montana) Wm Clark -- and lots of intrigue and litigation. So I'd love to visit the late Gilded Age, IF I got to wear Huguette's fabulous Art Deco diamond and emerald bracelets! (Drooling on the monitor as I look at the Christie's auction catalog photos!)

  17. Hi, Lauren, I'm so glad you visited JRW today and so pleased to learn about your books. New books to buy!

    My favorite period is the Victorian, followed by the Edwardian, followed by Classical Rome and Roman Britain. Oh, and of course, Elizabethan and... I'm a fan of historical fiction in general, actually.

  18. Oh Lauren, so great to se you! Like Ro, I was about to say, oh, I don't usually...and thn I thight- the Todds! Caleb Carr! Stefanie Pintoff! And it made me think--when an "historical" is wonderfully written, the time of the book seems like " now," know what mean?

    Can't wait to read your book..and thank you so much for being here today!

    ( and I'm at PLA in Philadelphia. And sitting here in my lucky little hot hand is the new Charles Todd -- An Unmarked Grave. Whoo hoo.)

  19. Guess you can tell I wrote that last comment on my iPad, sigh..xoox

  20. Lauren, no I haven't read Judith Merkle Riley's "The Master of All Desires" but will now. Thanks for the tip.

    Staying in The Old Library was plain luck. I'd been assigned beautiful old rooms overlooking the gardens but couldn't access them. The Old Library room was available. Just luck.

  21. Hi - I can't wait to start your series. I like historical and just found Jacqueline Winspear. Even though that is not too long ago the contrasts are interesting. Dee