First, let me start with a grovelling apology to all the Riskies. This blog was meant to be posted on April 1st. You know; All Fools Day. Also my wedding anniversary, but let’s not go there! Anyway, when I flagged it to give me a reminder on the computer I must have been low on coffee or something because I flagged it for the wrong date. And of course when Diane emailed to remind me about it I was having a very virtuous off-line day keeping away from the evil distractions of the internet. Mea culpa. My bad.
I hadn’t thought about His Lady Mistress in quite a while and when Diane asked me if I’d like to blog I wondered what on earth I was going to say about it after all this time.
A day or so later someone asked me where I get my ideas from . . . If a dollar was donated every time an author is asked that question world hunger would be history! I’m always tempted to reply; “The ideas department of K-Mart – they’re on special this week!” Of course, the reason writers are tempted to sarcasm with this question is that we really have no clue where our ideas come from and feel stupid admitting as much. Anyway, being asked made me remember, if not where the spark for His Lady Mistress had come from, at least what that spark, or sparks, had been.
The thing is we don’t know where the ideas come from, but if we think about it hard, we may actually come up with something that seems as though it has been there forever, just waiting to be used. It’s as though somewhere inside us there is a supply, a well if you like, of seemingly useless tidbits of information, that left to brew for long enough with the right ingredients will eventually bubble up with an idea.
Sometimes tossing in one extra vital ingredient at the right time is all that’s needed to bring forth . . . the premise. At least that’s how it worked with His Lady Mistress. I was reading a research book, Kristine Hughes’s Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England. Near the end Ms Hughes very kindly reminded me of the details of something I’d forgotten; that until 1823 in England, a suicide was buried at the crossroads at night with a stake through the heart to prevent the ghost from walking. Until 1832 it was required that the burial could only take place between the hours of 9pm and midnight. Until 1870 all personal possessions were forfeited to the Crown.
At least that’s how any nice-minded person would react before turning the page quickly with a lady-like shudder. Not me. I’m a writer. My first thought was: ‘Oh, GROSS . . . but how would it be . . . ? What if . . . ?’ Several practice what-ifs slid through my mind and back into the brew before I had the real thing . . . what if my heroine, aged fifteen, was orphaned by her father’s suicide? Hmm. Potential there. But why did the guy commit suicide? Why does his death haunt Verity? Why does she feel responsible?
Still, I had my opening. Dark, wild night. Orphaned 15 year old creeping out to follow the cart to her father’s grave and being rescued by the hero. It’s the only time my original opening has EVER made it right through to the final draft. But I still didn’t know why the guy had committed suicide.
And this is the point where something I’d been interested in academically for years floated up from the depths: opium. At which point I realised that Verity’s father was addicted to opium. Okay, there were a few more, make that a lot more, questions that I had to answer before I had the whole thing worked out. (After that I still had to write it!) But those were the two snippets that bonded in my mind to provide the spark for His Lady Mistress.
Opium and suicide.
These days we are well aware of the dangers of opium and its derivatives. In the early 19th century the dangers were not so well understood. Opium acts on the brain, changing chemical balances to cause addiction. It could be bought over the counter with no questions asked and was widely used as a painkiller. Generally it was dissolved in alcohol and was known as laudanum. Mothers and nurses gave it to teething babies and plenty of people took it in small doses without ever becoming addicted. Yet for those who became dependent on it hell waited. But I still didn’t know why Verity’s father, William Scott, committed suicide over it, let alone why Verity blamed herself.
Opium and the Romantic Imagination by Alethea Hayter was an interesting source. Hayter gives a fascinating account of the English Romantic poets and their opium taking. Perhaps the most striking use of opium in literature, though, is the novel, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. Not only does the whole plot turn on the effects of the drug, but Collins, himself an addict, gives us the minor character of Ezra Jennings as both warning and plea for understanding. But I still needed a reason for William Scott’s suicide . . .
Finally I read a description of going “cold turkey”. The physical consequences for an addict in missing a dose sounded about as grim as a suicide’s burial. Excruciating abdominal pain as the bowels cramp causing extreme vomiting and diarrhoea, muscular cramps, constant discharge from nose and eyes, sweating and shivering all at once. The victim can neither eat nor sleep and this can go on for up to a week. After that the symptoms will abate of themselves, but very few people have the strength to go through all that. I’ve drawn these details from Martin Booth’s Opium: A History where he quotes Dr Robert S, de Ropp’s 1958 study Drugs and the Mind.
Suffice it to say that by the time I’d finished reading Booth and Hayter I had nothing but pity for William Scott and I knew why he committed suicide. If he ran out of laudanum the effects of being denied his dose would have been so physically and mentally agonising that suicide was perfectly believable. But why would Verity have blamed herself for what happened? If you’ve already read His Lady Mistress then you’ll know the answer. And if you haven’t, well, what are you waiting for? Harlequin has your free download waiting.
Last week, Janet likened the prevalence of PTSD heroes in historical romance to war profiteering. I have to agree. But her words scare me too, because I’m writing a war-scarred though not classic PTSD hero myself and always worry that I will not do him justice. I feel it’s important to respect history and the real people who suffered through similar events. I hope that respect comes through in my work.
But what makes the difference between Artificially Injected Angst and the real thing?
Looking at both our current projects and our backlist, many of us Riskies have written military heroes. We’re also writing or have written stories about emotional and/or physical abuse, addiction, loss of close loved ones, and other issues that we may or may not have experienced personally. I’ve always been suspicious of the adage “Write what you know”. I’ve since heard “Write what you love” or “Write what you care about” and that’s what we do.
I think that makes all the difference. If a writer cares about an issue enough to make it a central theme in a story, she ought to do the necessary immersion. If she’s content with Wikipedia level research or less, it shows. (I put down a romance when I realized, just a few pages in, that the author thought the British were fighting the Portuguese in the Peninsula, not the French.) This is why we Riskies and friends regularly break our research book budgets or become good friends with librarians.
I also think it is AIA when a tortured hero (or heroine, though they seem less common) is defined by his issues. As a reader, I want to know what makes the character different from others with similar problems. Is he naturally an introvert or an extrovert? Impulsive or cautious? What are his strengths and passions? Most importantly, how does he deal with the problem? People don’t all react the same way and that’s exactly why yet another story about a scarred military hero or any other flavor of tortured character can still be interesting.
What do you think makes the difference between the tortured and the merely trite?