DFH interview #6: Lauren Willig

As part of my blog tour for Sweet Disorder, I wrote a guest post at Heroes and Heartbreakers about the tradition of widows and dead first husbands in historical romance. For that post, I interviewed the authors of some of my favorite historicals with widow heroines, and I got back such awesome, detailed answers that I wanted to share the complete interviews with you.

Lauren Willig’s The Betrayal of the Blood Lily is one of my very favorite dead first husband stories because Penelope and Freddy are still married at the beginning of the book, so we get to see their relationship (which is mostly bad, but not all bad) and we get to see her grieve for him, too.

bloodlily_pbEveryone warned Miss Penelope Deveraux that her unruly behavior would land her in disgrace someday. She never imagined she’d be whisked off to India to give the scandal of her hasty marriage time to die down. As Lady Frederick Staines, Penelope plunges into the treacherous waters of the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad, where no one is quite what they seem—even her own husband. In a strange country where elaborate court dress masks even more elaborate intrigues and a spy called the Marigold leaves cobras as his calling card, there is only one person Penelope can trust…

Captain Alex Reid has better things to do than play nursemaid to a pair of aristocrats. He knows what their kind is like. Or so he thinks—until Lady Frederick Staines out-shoots, out-rides, and out-swims every man in the camp. She also has an uncanny ability to draw out the deadly plans of the Marigold and put herself in harm’s way. With danger looming from local warlords, treacherous court officials, and French spies, Alex realizes that an alliance with Lady Frederick just might be the only thing standing in the way of a plot designed to rock the very foundations of the British Empire.

“Dead first husband” is hereafter abbreviated DFH.

RL: DFHs fall on a spectrum between evil abusive assholes and great guys the heroine could have been with forever if they’d lived. How did you decide where on the spectrum you wanted Freddy to land? (And let me just pause for a second here to talk about how much I LOVE Freddy and Penelope’s relationship. Because they had an awful marriage but she also kind of loved him? And I also loved that their problems weren’t sexual. Also I just have a soft spot for Freddy’s type of jerkness. But seriously, <333.)

LW: I was frustrated with the trope of the first husband who is old, cold, and, for, bonus points, evil with a capital E. When I was writing The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, I wanted to address the question of: what happens when the heroine marries the wrong guy? Not a parentally arranged marriage to a much older man, not a nightmare marriage to an incurable sadist, but just your fairly typical specimen of slightly debauched aristocratic manhood, no better and no worse than many of his fellows. When I imagined Freddy, I saw him as a frat boy in Regency clothing, with an elaborately tied cravat rather than a baseball cap, and a decanter of claret rather than a keg of beer. It’s not that Freddy is evil; he’s just entirely the wrong person for Penelope, who is much more complicated than her public persona of daredevil debutante would suggest. They bring out the worst in each other, while, at the same time, being very physically attracted to each other—which is what got them into their mismatch in the first place.

Having them be physically attracted to each other, even in the worst of their troubles, was very important to me. For one, because without that attraction they would never be forced into their marriage of inconvenience, but also because I have less than fond memories of all of the romances I read during the 90s in which the heroine’s first husband was invariably impotent, deviant, inept, or just plain not interested in women. Penelope is a very passionate woman. I wanted the sexual chemistry to be the one thing in Penelope and Freddy’s relationship that did work.

On the other end of the spectrum from the evil first husband, you have what I think of as the Sainted First Husband trope: the one who was so wonderful that the heroine Can Never Get Over Him To Love Again (that is, until she meets the hero). This is one I played with in another book, The Garden Intrigue, in which my heroine, Emma Morris, ran off with a much older Frenchman, Paul Delagardie, when she was only fifteen. When we meet Emma a decade later, she’s grappling with her husband’s death—not because he was perfect, but because she had only just learned to love him for his imperfections. When sixtee-year-old Emma realized her husband wasn’t the romantic swain of her imaginings—after alienating her important family by eloping with him—she went off in a sulk. Over time, though, she and her husband had arrived at their own peace, and his death of a fever years later, just when they were truly beginning to understand each other not for their early romantic imaginings, but for who they really are, throws her for a loop and makes her curl up like a hedgehog.

RL: DFHs mean something a little different in Regency-set historicals since divorce wasn’t widely available, and because women’s control over their money was so tied to their marital status. How do you think that affected your story? Would you have needed Freddy to die anyway?

LW: I had a really tough time decided whether or not to kill Freddy off. It just seemed far too easy—getting him out of the picture like that. Until about halfway through the book, I wobbled on it. Part of me was tempted to keep Freddy alive and see how Penelope and Alex dealt with a relationship out of the bounds of society. But even if my heroine, Penelope, might have been willing to flout society and live in sin, I couldn’t see my hero, Alex, going for it. Plus, there’s exactly what you say about the Regency-set difference. Because of the rarity of divorce and the social code that surrounds these characters, any ending that didn’t leave Penelope and Alex free, not just to be together, but to marry, would be vaguely unsatisfying. And for that, Freddy needed to be dead.

I realized, as I was working on the book, that killing Freddy off wasn’t actually an easy out for my characters, that, in fact, the guilt of his death just as Penelope was becoming romantically involved with another man was probably more of an impediment to her relationship with Alex than a Freddy alive and carousing. And we’re all about those impediments…

RL: How did you want Freddy to contrast with Alex, and how did you want Penelope’s relationships with them to contrast with each other? What does Alex give Penelope that Freddy didn’t and couldn’t?

LW: It’s all about the contrast, isn’t it? Freddy has guinea gold hair. He’s fashionably dressed. He’s charming. And, fundamentally, deeply shallow. (Again, not evil. Just shallow, in a frat boy kind of way.) In one of my favorite passages in the book, when Penelope realizes he’s dead, she thinks back to the first time she saw Freddy: “He was smiling at her, as he first had all those months ago at Girdings House, his hair as glossy as his boots, his cravat a miracle of engineering, his cheeks flushed with cold, port, and that indefinable eau de rake that Penelope found more compelling than any number of virtues…She had seen him and wanted him. She had wanted him as a child might want a shiny gold coin, not because she had any particular use for it, but because it glittered and it was pretty and other people didn’t want her to have it.”

In contrast, Alex is brusque. He’s business-like. He has greater worries on his mind. As the eldest child of a polyglot family, he has a confusion of siblings and half-siblings he cares for and worries about. Unlike Freddy, who has inherited money and lives for pleasure, Alex works for a living: he’s in the diplomatic end of the East India Company and is forced to navigate between his own loyalties and strong beliefs and the mandates of the Governor General. In short, he’s a serious kind of guy with a lot on his mind. Penelope has never met anyone like that before, someone who actually has a purpose beyond a party. When it comes down to it, Alex is a born caretaker, and Penelope desperately needs someone to look past her flippant façade and take care of her—without making her feel patronized or diminished.

RL: One of the cool things about widow-type stories is the contrast between the decision the heroine took to be with the DFH and the decision she takes at the end of the story to be with the hero—and because she’s been married before, she knows what it means to compromise her autonomy in that way. Widow stories are often about learning to balance love and prudence, if that makes sense? Like a lot of times the heroine married her first husband either entirely out of love without thinking about whether it was a good decision, or else she married him for money or reputation or because her parents made her without really being in love with him at all. How does Penelope’s first marriage shaped the course of her romance with Alex (other than, um, Freddy dying in the middle of it—another bit I absolutely loved, how she really does mourn Freddy and how that separates her emotionally from Alex)? And how do you think that applies to how she lives the rest of her life, and what she expects and doesn’t let herself expect?

LW: There’s a great Rowan Atkinson sketch in which he plays the devil, welcoming sinners to hell. As part of his intro speech, he informs them that they’re going to be there for eternity, “which, as I hardly need tell you, is a heck of a long time”. When Penelope plunges into marriage with Freddy, she doesn’t stop to think that this is going to be forever and a Wednesday; she doesn’t think of all those years and years yoked together. She acts, as she so often acts, on a bitter impulse. Marriage is, after all, the goal. Her social climbing mother has been pushing her to make a good match, and Freddy, on externals, is quite good indeed. To Penelope, Freddy is largely interchangeable: he might be any good looking young man with a future title and a large income. The entire shape of the marriage market creates an image of marriage as a goal without giving any sense of the eons of time that will follow that triumphal announcement in the paper. If she did think of it, I’m sure Penelope, desperate to leave her mother’s house, would have said, with a shrug, “How bad can it be?” The first half of Blood Lily is Penelope learning how bad it can be, to be yoked to someone on whom she is entirely dependent, but with whom she has no genuine bond. Penelope’s first marriage teaches her that understanding and liking are as much a part of marriage as sexual attraction or a line in Debrett’s Peerage. When she gets together with Alex, it’s not about the externals he can bring—because, let’s face it, he’s a social and financial step down for her. It’s about really liking and needing another human being, with a full awareness that marriage is about tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, and that some of those tomorrows might be sunnier and others might be gloomier.

RL: It’s safe to say that most readers have had an unsuccessful relationship at some point. Do you think DFH stories connect with readers in a unique way? Were you trying to reflect an aspect of real-life romantic experience?

LW: Yes, yes, and yes! I’m so glad that you brought up this point. One of the things I find occasionally maddening about the very books I loved in my teens is that the heroines so often seem to stumble upon their true love at the very first ball of their very first Season. (Or he wanders naked into their bedroom, as so many confused Regency rakes seem wont to do.) It doesn’t generally work out that way for most of us. In both The Betrayal of the Blood Lily and The Garden Intrigue, I wanted to show a heroine who’s been around the block, a heroine who doesn’t get it right the first time around, but—and this was important to me—isn’t considered sullied by her previous experience, but instead emerges stronger and more sure of what love actually is. Because of the nature of courtship and marriage in the Regency, there isn’t the space to portray failed attempts at love that we have in our contemporary lives, which is where the dead first husband comes in. The romantic missteps most of us experience as a matter of course (except for those lucky few who marry their high school sweetheart) come at a much higher cost in Regency Land than they do in today’s world.

I had a bit more leeway in my second Dead First Husband book, The Garden Intrigue, because that one is set in consular France, where mores are somewhat more flexible than in London. My heroine, Emma, makes an impulsive first marriage at a very young age, and is just learning, after a period of initial disillusionment, to truly understand and love her husband when he dies. She has a rebound that wouldn’t be unfamiliar to those coming off a relationship now: to dull the hurt, she takes a lover who is the antithesis of her husband, and then regrets it. As a widow, in France, Emma can get away with that sort of behavior and still be socially received. Penelope, as an English debutante, has a much more difficult time of it.

Anyway, back to the original point, with both books I wanted to portray all the floundering and missteps and bruised emotions that come in the pursuit of love—where the right person just might not be at that first ball…or even that first season…but might appear years later at a deeply inconvenient moment.

RL: In historical romances, heroines who aren’t widows (and even some that are) are often virgins. Did writing a sexually experienced heroine affect the story and the romance in ways you didn’t expect? Were you able to do things you couldn’t do in other books?

LW: Oddly enough, that didn’t make much of a difference. I’ve found in all my books that the level of eroticism depends on the nature of the hero and heroine, ranging from full-on canoodling in some books to chaste kisses in others. I’ve had some very passionate inexperienced heroines (Amy, the heroine of my first book) and some very wary experienced heroines (Emma, the heroine of my other dead first husband book, who has already had her rebound fling and is leery of jumping into bed with yet another man). It all depends on the people and the circumstances.

Where Penelope not being an innocent did make a difference is that I got to turn yet another trope on its head: in Blood Lily, Penelope is the more experienced party and the sexual aggressor in terms of her relationship with the hero. Over her years in society, Penelope, has learned that sex is power—and the only power available to her. That’s simply the way she interacts with the world. It’s by refusing to play that game with her that her hero, Alex, makes a real place for himself in her life. Usually, we see the heroine holding out, attempting to protect her virtue from the hero’s advances so he’ll respect her in the morning. In this case, it’s the hero.

RL: What kinds of DFH stories in romance influenced how you wrote? Were you reacting to or interacting with any genre conventions that you were aware of?

LW: In writing The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, I wanted to turn the forced marriage trope on its head. In so many novels, the hero and heroine are flung together in a compromising way (see all those Regency aristocrats who appear to wander naked into innocent maidens’ bedchambers, above), forced to marry, and then—gasp!—discover that they’ve been just the right people for each other all along. But what happens when the pair in question aren’t the right people for each other? What then? By turning the forced marriage plot on its head, I found myself with a dead first husband story in the making.

RL: Tell me a favorite historical romance you’ve read with a memorable DFH or first marriage.

LW: The author who does it best, in my opinion, is Joan Wolf. In The Arrangement, the heroine had a perfectly happy first marriage with her husband Tommy, her childhood love. When she meets the hero, the heroine reflects that Tommy was the love of her youth, the Earl the love of her maturity. I think it’s a beautiful way of giving each love its due, without diminishing either relationship or resorting to the trick of running down the first relationship to give the second more oomph.

Thanks, Lauren! At her website, you can read excerpts from The Betrayal of the Blood Lily and The Garden Intrigue.

Check out the full interview series:

4/4 – Theresa Romain
4/7 – Susanna Fraser
4/9 – Jeannie Lin
4/11 – Cecilia Grant
4/14 – Tessa Dare
4/16 – Lauren Willig
4/18 – Courtney Milan

DFH interview #5: Tessa Dare

As part of my blog tour for Sweet Disorder, I wrote a guest post at Heroes and Heartbreakers about the tradition of widows and dead first husbands in historical romance. For that post, I interviewed the authors of some of my favorite historicals with widow heroines, and I got back such awesome, detailed answers that I wanted to share the complete interviews with you.

Here’s what Tessa Dare had to say about Twice Tempted by a Rogue, possibly still my favorite of her books (although it has a lot of competition!).

ttbar-cover-250x410Luck is a double-edged sword for brooding war hero Rhys St. Maur. His death wish went unanswered on the battlefield, while fate allowed the murder of his friend in the elite gentlemen’s society known as the Stud Club. Out of options, Rhys returns to his ancestral home on the moors of Devonshire, expecting anything but a chance at redemption in the arms of a beautiful innkeeper, who dares him to take on the demons of his past—and the sweet temptation of a woman’s love.

Meredith Maddox believes in hard work, not fate, and romance isn’t part of her plan. But when Rhys returns, battle-scarred, world-weary, and more dangerously attractive than ever, the lovely widow is torn between determination and desire. As a deep mystery and dangerous smugglers threaten much more than their passionate reckoning, Meredith discovers that she must trust everything to a wager her heart placed long ago.

Dead first husband is hereafter abbreviated DFH.

RL: DFHs fall on a spectrum between evil abusive assholes and great guys the heroine could have been with forever if they’d lived. How did you decide where on the spectrum you wanted Mr. Maddox to land?

TD: Maddox falls somewhere in between, I think. He wasn’t a villain, but they didn’t have a passionate love affair, either. Theirs was a marriage of convenience in the truest sense. He was kind to Meredith, she worked faithfully alongside him, and he left her the business (an inn) when he died. Neither of them went into it hoping for anything more, so I think they were content together, if not wildly in love.

RL: DFHs mean something a little different in Regency-set historicals since divorce wasn’t widely available, and because women gave up so many property rights by marrying. How do you think that affected your story?

TD: I don’t think Meredith would have ever contemplated divorcing Maddox. They were life and business partners. She was the one who actually proposed marriage, not him!

RL: One of the cool things about widow stories is the contrast between the decision the heroine took to be with the dead first husband and the decision she takes at the end of the story to be with the hero—and because she’s been married before, she knows what it means to compromise her autonomy in that way. Widow stories are often about learning to balance love and practicality, if that makes sense? Like a lot of times the heroine married her first husband either entirely out of love without thinking about whether it was a good decision, or else she married him for practical reasons without loving him at all. How does Meredith’s first marriage shape the course of her romance with Rhys? And how do you think that applies to how she lives the rest of her life, and what she expects and doesn’t let herself expect?

TD: Meredith is a very pragmatic woman, by necessity. Her father was disabled in a fire and she had to support them both, while living in a small village with few employment opportunities. So her first marriage was very much a business decision. She needed security for her and her father both, and neither love nor attraction factored into the equation.

Her attraction to Rhys, on the other hand, is anything but practical. Here’s this handsome, sexy, wounded man who was the object of all her adolescent infatuations and quite a few of her grown-up fantasies. Now he’s suddenly come back home, after a decade of absence—and within a day, he’s decided that the two of them are destined to marry. It’s like a dream come true—and that’s exactly why she doesn’t trust it. She’s afraid that if she lets herself give into the romantic fantasy, she’ll lose what ground she’s managed to hold for herself and her community.

RL: In historical romances, heroines who aren’t widows (and even some that are) are often virgins. Did writing a sexually experienced heroine affect the story and the romance in ways you didn’t expect? Were you able to do things you couldn’t do in other books?

TD: Twice Tempted features a role reversal, in that the heroine is more experienced than the hero. Not only was Meredith married, but she’s had a few lovers since her husband died. Rhys, on the other hand, has been celibate for a decade, and even though he wants her fiercely, he insists on waiting until they’re married (or at least engaged). To Merry, this is an entirely novel concept—that a man would think she’s worth courting slowly and waiting to sleep with, especially since she’s not upper-class or a virgin. I enjoyed the chance to write a heroine who was comfortable with her sensuality and could hold her own, in life and in bed. And it gave Rhys’s pursuit of her a sweetness that made me so happy to write.

RL: What kinds of DFH stories in romance influenced how you wrote? Were you reacting to or interacting with any genre conventions that you were aware of?

TD: Well, I remember that I specifically didn’t want Meredith to be a virgin, or a woman who’d never experienced pleasurable sex. I wanted to let Rhys pursue her with all the same intensity and attraction that other heroes display toward the innocent virgin heroines. He doesn’t care that he’s not her first—he just wants to be her best, and last.

RL: Tell me a favorite historical romance you’ve read with a memorable DFH or first marriage.

The most memorable widow heroine I read recently was Violet in Courtney Milan’s The Countess Conspiracy. I also liked how Jennifer Ashley handled Beth’s first marriage in The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie.

Thanks, Tessa! You can read an excerpt of Twice Tempted by a Rogue on her website.

Check out the rest of the interview series:

4/4 – Theresa Romain
4/7 – Susanna Fraser
4/9 – Jeannie Lin
4/11 – Cecilia Grant
4/14 – Tessa Dare
4/16 – Lauren Willig
4/18 – Courtney Milan

DFH interview #4: Cecilia Grant

As part of my blog tour for Sweet Disorder, I wrote a guest post at Heroes and Heartbreakers about the tradition of widows and dead first husbands in historical romance. For that post, I interviewed the authors of some of my favorite historicals with widow heroines, and I got back such awesome, detailed answers that I wanted to share the complete interviews with you.

Here’s what Cecilia Grant had to say about her stunning debut, A Lady Awakened.

lady-225Newly widowed and desperate to protect her estate—and housemaids—from a predatory brother-in-law, Martha Russell conceives a daring plan. Or rather, a daring plan to conceive. After all, if she has an heir on the way, her future will be secured. Forsaking all she knows of propriety, Martha approaches her neighbor, a London exile with a wicked reputation, and offers a strictly business proposition: a month of illicit interludes…for a fee.

Theophilus Mirkwood ought to be insulted. Should be appalled. But how can he resist this siren in widow’s weeds, whose offer is simply too outrageously tempting to decline? Determined she’ll get her money’s worth, Theo endeavors to awaken this shamefully neglected beauty to the pleasures of the flesh—only to find her dead set against taking any enjoyment in the scandalous bargain. Surely she can’t resist him forever. But could a lady’s sweet surrender open their hearts to the most unexpected arrival of all…love?

Dead first husband is hereafter abbreviated DFH.

RL: DFHs fall on a spectrum between evil abusive assholes and great guys the heroine could have been with forever if they’d lived. Where do you think Mr. Russell falls on the spectrum, and how did you decide where you wanted him to fall?

CG: I hope Mr. Russell falls where I wanted him, which is in the absolute neutral middle.

For story purposes I obviously needed Martha to have had a first husband, but I wanted him to take up as little of the reader’s emotional energy as possible. I didn’t want the reader to actively dislike him, so I made sure he had some good qualities—disapproval of his villainous brother, affection for his first wife—but I also didn’t want the reader spending a lot of time feeling sorry for him for having been married to such a cold fish as Martha. I tried to make it clear that the marriage had been a pragmatic, unsentimental match on both sides: she wanted a grown-up life with an estate to be mistress of, he wanted an heir, and neither one had thought much further into it than that.

I also decided to give Mr. Russell a quiet over-dependence on drink. Drinking to excess was so common in that time period, and I think it must have been an issue in many marriages – sometimes manifesting in towering rages and abusive behavior (think of Helen’s marriage in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which takes place only a few years later), and sometimes carving a less dramatic, ever-present rift between husband and wife. It makes Martha’s distance from him a little more relatable, I hope, than if it had all been due to her cold-fishery.

RL: The DFH (and dead first wife) interests me in particular in historicals because divorce wasn’t widely available. Writing a hero or heroine who was married and isn’t anymore requires a dead first spouse, whereas in contemporaries I think bad breakups are more common as backstory. I realize that the entire plot of ALA hinges on Mr. R being dead since Martha is trying to conceive an heir, so I don’t really have a specific question for you about that, but if you have thoughts I’d love to hear them!

CG: Yes, it’s fascinating to read about how people navigated marriage, especially unhappy marriage, in a time when divorce wasn’t really a possibility. There were plenty of people trapped and miserable in ill-advised unions, but there were also people who managed to find at least partial escape.

Among the upper classes there were separations, and marriages where both parties took lovers with the other’s tacit consent, and mistresses who had almost as much security and social standing as wives. Among the lower classes there might be wife-selling (not so common by this time, but it did happen) or people simply dissolving their marriages and taking new partners without legal or church sanction.

I don’t know how palatable any of these scenarios would be to modern readers, though. An HEA with the love of your life, when you’re still legally married to someone else, is probably a bit too messy for our present-day sensibilities. Thus, widow and widower stories.

RL: Having a dead spouse opens up a possibility for a successful first relationship, because the relationship didn’t end in a break-up—and yet DFHs and Ws are almost always jerks. (While I’m fond of my own heroine’s DFH, they certainly didn’t have a good marriage.) Why do you think that is?

CG: Partly because it makes for a lot of good drama! You’ve got your hero whose DFW cheated on him with his best friend: he’s lost his trust in women and is going to struggle with letting the heroine into his life. You’ve got your heroine whose DFH constantly dismissed and belittled her ideas: she’s lost track of her own voice and needs to find it again; needs to learn to ask for what she wants in the context of falling in love. There are so many ways a jerkish DFW or DFH can fuel the story.

Beyond that, I suspect we don’t want the heroine (or hero in the case of a DFW) to have divided affections. We don’t want to worry that the HEA might contain moments of her wistfully recalling what she had with that first husband, or reflecting that his taste in music more closely matched hers than the hero’s does. We want to close the book knowing that the hero is the right man for her in every way. As with most genre fiction, we like it to be a little tidier than real life.

RL: Related question: It’s safe to say that most readers have had an unsuccessful relationship at some point. Do you think DFH stories connect with readers in a unique way? Were you trying to reflect an aspect of real-life romantic experience?

CG: I think DFH stories must connect with readers in a particular way, but I’m not sure if it’s because readers are relating that failed first relationship to a failed relationship in their own lives. I really don’t know. Part of the action of most romances, I think, is the realization of the wish to be truly understood. And usually the DFH serves as a foil for the hero there; as an example of a relationship that was frustrating because the heroine was NOT truly understood. (Is this the same in the case of DFWs? My impression is that it isn’t, but honestly, I haven’t read enough DFW historicals to be sure.)

As far as trying to reflect an aspect of real-life romantic experience, I can’t say for sure I wasn’t doing that, but I wasn’t conscious of it. In sketching Martha’s first marriage, I was more interested in the aspects of Regency marriage that feel alien to us (the convention of the loveless pragmatic union; a wife’s disadvantages in terms of property rights or sexual autonomy) than in the aspects most of us would find more relatable.

RL: When you created Mr. Russell’s character, how did you want him to contrast with Theo, and his relationship with Martha to contrast with the Theo’s? What does Theo bring to Martha that Mr. Russell didn’t and couldn’t?

CG: The big difference is that Theo engages with Martha and challenges her in ways Mr. Russell didn’t. Martha’s overriding memory of Mr. Russell is of his emotional/psychological absence; Theo is always there. Sometimes irritatingly so—right from the beginning, he’s pelting her with personal questions—but he compels her to engage with him, and gradually draws her out to engage with the rest of the world. He has an emotional intelligence that not only Mr. Russell lacked, but that Martha lacks too—he’s able to set an example for her in that area, pick up the slack when she fumbles, and generally complement her strengths. He becomes not only her heart’s companion, but the teammate she never knew she needed.

RL: One of the cool things about widow stories is the contrast between the decision the heroine took to be with the dead first husband and the decision she takes at the end of the story to be with the hero—and because she’s been married before, she knows what it means to compromise her autonomy in that way. Widow stories are often about learning to balance love and practicality, if that makes sense? Like a lot of times the heroine married her first husband either entirely out of love without thinking about whether it was a good decision, or else she married him for practical reasons without loving him at all. How do you think Martha’s life-decision-making process changed from before her marriage to the beginning of the book, and how did you want to show it changing again over the course of the story?

CG: Martha didn’t give nearly enough thought, before marriage, to what it would mean to share life and physical intimacy with someone for whom she felt no affinity, and by the beginning of the book she’s realized that. Like a lot of historical-romance widows who find themselves unexpectedly freed from unhappy marriages, she builds all her hopes in the beginning around a life in which she doesn’t have to get married again.

Not only did she choose poorly the first time, but she was in some ways too immature, and too ungenerous, to be a good partner in marriage. Her journey through the course of the book isn’t just about coming to love and trust Theo enough to take the step of marrying again, but also about learning to recognize and own her over-judgmentalism and lack of interpersonal skill. And then to learn to respect other people’s perspectives, and cut them some slack. Her journey toward falling in love runs parallel to her journey of becoming a more humane person. So by the time she makes that decision to marry again, she’s better equipped to make the decision and better equipped to be married.

RL: How did you decide how to kill off Mr. Russell?

Poor Mr. Russell. I gave him the quickest, most painless death I could think of (thrown from a horse and instantly killed). He wasn’t a bad guy (yeah, he could have been more sensitive to Martha’s enjoyment—or lack thereof—of sex, but he wasn’t introspective enough to question what society had told him were his rights) and I didn’t want him to suffer.

(I’m pretty sure I subconsciously borrowed the thrown-from-a-horse thing from Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by the way. That book probably influenced ALA as much as any book did, though I tried to steer clear of gothic angst.)

RL: In historical romances, heroines who aren’t widows (and even some that are) are often virgins. (One of the things I love about ALA is that Martha hasn’t had good experiences of sex, and Theo has to work to seduce her, but she isn’t exactly inexperienced either—she’s given oral sex before, for example—and she’s had orgasms on her own. So him seducing her is more about restoring her sexual autonomy and sense of control/safety than it is about teaching her of sensual delights or whatever. It’s a combination you don’t see that often in historicals.) Having written heroines with differing levels of sexual experience, did you find that it impacted the story in ways you didn’t expect?

CG: One of my impetuses (impeti?) in writing this story was to try to create a heroine who was sort of adamantly unmoved by sexual intercourse. I’d read plenty of romances with heroines who were responsive and orgasmic right from the start, or heroines who weren’t responsive, but felt ashamed and disappointed in their non-responsiveness, or heroines who had an aversion to sex due to some trauma in their past. But I hadn’t seen any who were just plain Not Impressed and not particularly bothered by the fact. It seemed like a niche that needed filling.

The unexpected way in which it impacted the story was that it was ridiculously fun to write those sex scenes, and so I kept writing them and writing them—in my original version, her carnal indifference persisted much further into the book than it does now. My agent finally reined me in, saying, “You know, people do pick up these books in search of a fantasy,” and I thought, oh, yeah, she’s right. I think the story came out better for that change.

Also, by the time I finished the book and the rewrites I was burned out on sexual indifference, and that led me to write the vehemently sexual heroine Lydia in my next book [A Gentleman Undone].

RL: Tell me a favorite historical romance you’ve read with a memorable DFH or first marriage.

Elizabeth Hoyt’s The Raven Prince sticks with me, I think because the DFW’s death—bleeding out during childbirth; cursing the hero (and cursing her father for making her marry the hero) with her last breaths—was just so damn vivid. Hoyt really knows how to go for it.

Cheating here because this person was neither dead nor a husband, but something I really enjoyed in Joanna Bourne’s The Forbidden Rose was the relationship between the heroine and the man who’d been her lover when they were young. They’d both grown up and moved on; her old lover was happily married, and there was history and mutual regard between them without any lingering sparks or tension. It’s rare to see that kind of relationship, especially in a historical, and I thought it was really well done.

Thanks, Cecilia! You can read an excerpt from A Lady Awakened at her site.

Check out the rest of the interview series:

4/4 – Theresa Romain
4/7 – Susanna Fraser
4/9 – Jeannie Lin
4/11 – Cecilia Grant
4/14 – Tessa Dare
4/16 – Lauren Willig
4/18 – Courtney Milan

DFH interview #3: Jeannie Lin

As part of my blog tour for Sweet Disorder, I wrote a guest post at Heroes and Heartbreakers about the tradition of widows and dead first husbands in historical romance. For that post, I interviewed the authors of some of my favorite historicals with widow heroines, and I got back such awesome, detailed answers that I wanted to share the complete interviews with you.

Jeannie Lin’s The Dragon and the Pearl is one of my favorite romances EVER (my Goodreads review). Technically the heroine is not a widow, she is the Emperor’s former concubine, but I think it fits!

TheDragonandthePearl-9780373296620Former Emperor’s consort Ling Suyin is renowned for her beauty; the ultimate seductress. Now she lives quietly alone–until the most ruthless warlord in the region comes and steals her away…

Li Tao lives life by the sword, and is trapped in the treacherous, lethal world of politics. The alluring Ling Suyin is at the center of the web. He must uncover her mystery without falling under her spell—yet her innocence calls out to him. How cruel if she, of all women, can entrance the man behind the legend…

RL: Dead first husbands (or in this case, protectors) fall on a spectrum between evil abusive assholes and great guys the heroine could have been with forever if they’d lived. How did you decide where on the spectrum you wanted the Emperor to land?

JL: This is going to be odd because I have to talk about a book that does not exist to the public to answer that question. I originally wrote a trilogy of books of which Butterfly Swords and The Dragon and the Pearl were books #2 and #3. Book #1 will likely never see the light of day, but it first introduced the character of Ling Suyin and also the Emperor and sets up the period of unrest and political upheaval. (I was young and counting stars. I fully thought that, not only was I going to be able to sell one historical romance set in the Tang Dynasty, I was going to somehow sell three that constituted an epic saga)

In that book, the Emperor was established as a benevolent ruler who tragically doesn’t leave behind any heirs. So from the beginning, he was a larger than life, almost legendary figure.

RL: How did you want the Emperor, and Suyin’s relationship with him, to contrast with Li Tao and her relationship with him? What does Li Tao bring to Suyin that the Emperor didn’t and couldn’t? (Besides sex. :)

JL: With the Emperor, Suyin learned her games of intrigue and subterfuge. So he was always both her sovereign and also her mentor. The Emperor teaches her how to fool the world. With Li Tao, Suyin finds herself on the same level as an equal. Here, she tries to play the game as she’s been taught, but finds an adversary who is in many ways her mirror image and so she’s able to find herself. In a way, both Li Tao and Suyin were set up in a way that they could only ever discover themselves when forced into conflict against a worthy opponent. (Wow, I just realized how Eastern philosophy that sounds.)

RL: One of the cool things about widow-type stories is the contrast between the decision the heroine took to be with the dead first husband and the decision she takes at the end of the story to be with the hero—and because she’s been married before, she knows what it means to compromise her autonomy in that way. Suyin didn’t really have a choice to be the emperor’s concubine, whereas being with Li Tao is a difficult decision she makes with her eyes open. Um. I’m not sure what the question is exactly, but I don’t know…thoughts?

JL: It is different a bit here because she had no choice technically, but in a way she did have a choice. She chose to excel at the role the Emperor created for her. It was a means of survival and she becomes exceptional at it. She lives for someone else—the Emperor—instead of living for herself. She gives up on happiness, like many a virgin widow. She accepts the fate she’s been dealt and does the best she can with it. With Li Tao, she’s forced to make the decision whether survival is enough or does she want something more than a cold, safe existence? If she wants happiness, she has to fight for it and for him.

RL: What kinds of widow stories in romance influenced how you wrote TD&tP? Were you reacting to or interacting with any genre conventions that you were aware of? In particular, did you have the virgin widow trope in mind when you wrote the story?

JL: I had the virgin widow trope in mind in that I was terrified of it. I knew it was a common trope in romance and I might be skewered for having a virgin, but the trope I was trying to flip was actually an entirely different one. The Tang Dynasty is full of stories of Machiavellian and cutthroat women of power. It is also a recurring trope throughout history to blame the downfall of empires and emperors upon a femme fatale. Most particularly, I was thinking of the tragic love story of Concubine Yang and Emperor Xuanzhong. I’ve always believed historians conveniently vilified these women of power when THE DUDE IS THE EMPEROR OF THE REALM!!!!! Don’t you think he was pretty good at ruling and playing politics? Shouldn’t he, like, maybe take some responsibility?

So Suyin, as powerful as she was perceived, was also a pawn. At any moment, she could become the victim or she could remain the seductress. The way she interacted with powerful men was dictated by trying to find that balance point where she stayed on top.

RL: The virgin widow story is sort of the flip side of the coin of the abusive ex or the ex who was bad in bed, in some ways a really pure form, because instead of having her hope and anticipation of love crushed or destroyed, it was simply…ignored. Yet people around her expect her to have already had this experience that she still longs for. The moment in the flashback when Suyin cries into her pillow because she had thought that eventually she’d get to fall in love is such a powerful one—what do you think is the emotional need the trope fills for a reader? What about the story appeals to you as a writer?

JL: At the heart of it is the idea that everyone deserves a second chance and it’s never too late for love. Even if you believe it will never happen for you, as long as there is hope in your heart, you can still find happiness.

For me as a writer, I was fascinated by these larger than life love stories that historically end in tragedy such as the story of Concubine Yang or Cleopatra or Anne Boleyn. Queen Elizabeth I to some extent—though she didn’t die tragically, she’s still thought of as a tale of unrequited love. (Though I believe she loved ruling, so no need to weep too hard for her.) Wouldn’t that be the ultimate love story? To take a tragic figure like one of these grand ladies, but give her a happy ending?

(An aside: Eeek — ok, here’s the historical writer in me emerging. You’ll totally understand. [RL's note: why yes, yes I do. ALL THE ERRORS I've spotted while prepping Penny and Lily for rerelease, let me show you them.] I’ve been researching the Tang Dynasty for over eight years now and I know a lot more now than I did several years ago. Pillows in the Tang Dynasty weren’t soft fluffy things you could cry into. They’re hard pedestals you rest your head on. I know for the scene it works emotionally, but now that’s going to haunt me FOREVER. Heck, you can still rest your head on one and cry. I’m resting my head on this hard laptop and crying now.)

Thanks, Jeannie! You can read an excerpt from The Dragon and the Pearl at her website.

Check out the rest of the interview series:

4/4 – Theresa Romain
4/7 – Susanna Fraser
4/9 – Jeannie Lin
4/11 – Cecilia Grant
4/14 – Tessa Dare
4/16 – Lauren Willig
4/18 – Courtney Milan

DFH interview #2: Susanna Fraser

As part of my blog tour for Sweet Disorder, I wrote a guest post at Heroes and Heartbreakers about the tradition of widows and dead first husbands in historical romance. For that post, I interviewed the authors of some of my favorite historicals with widow heroines, and I got back such awesome, detailed answers that I wanted to share the complete interviews with you.

My critique partner Susanna Fraser has written no less than three awesome widow heroines: Anna in The Sergeant’s Lady, a cross-class road-trip romance about an heiress and an NCO Rifleman who end up stranded together in a Spanish war zone and have to find (and sometimes fight) their way out together; Elizabeth in An Infamous Marriage, about a general and a mousy young woman who wed because of a death-bed promise and after years of separation try to find a way to live together; and Rose in A Dream Defiant, an interracial romance novella about a soldier’s widow who must marry immediately to keep herself and her son safe in an army camp, but finds herself falling in love with the man she chooses. I highly recommend all three, especially if you like historically accurate military romance!

Dead first husband is hereafter abbreviated DFH.

thesergeantslady-200x316RL: DFHs fall on a spectrum between evil abusive assholes and great guys the heroine could have been with forever if they’d lived. You’ve written DFHs at all points on the spectrum (let’s see, there’s Sebastian, Sam, and Giles…actually Giles is one of the few DFHs I’ve seen that was actually a great marriage, or had the potential to be one). How do you decide where you want them to fall?

SF: It varies from story to story. In general, I feel like making the first husband an evil abusive asshole has become too much of a cliche. It can be the easy way out, narratively. Of course the hero is the best thing that ever happened to the heroine, her One True Love! That other guy was evil, don’tcha know? So my default is to write DFHs who are decent, well-meaning men, whether they’re someone like Giles in An Infamous Marriage whom the heroine could’ve been happy with, or more like Sam in A Dream Defiant, who was a really sweet guy, but without the brains and ambition to make him an equal partner for Rose.

That said, the first DFH I ever wrote, Sebastian in The Sergeant’s Lady, was definitely of the evil abusive asshole variety, and I do think the contrast between him and the hero allowed me to write a powerful story of healing and second chances. But even he didn’t start out evil. He and Anna were secondary characters in the first manuscript I ever finished—one which, in much altered form, eventually became my second published book, A Marriage of Inconvenience. That book took me something like two and a half years to write, and over all that time Sebastian changed from a stern, solemn, but basically good man into a misogynistic control freak, and Anna kept revealing hidden depths. So as I finished that first draft, I promised her I’d write her a sequel and give her someone awesome.

RL: DFHs mean something a little different in Regency-set historicals since divorce wasn’t widely available, and because women gave up so many property rights by marrying. How do you think that’s affected your stories? In a contemporary, might you have chosen to make some of those heroines divorced instead? (I realize that saying “what if this book were a contemporary” about stories so entrenched in their period is kind of meaningless, but it’s still fun to think about…)

SF: I think in a contemporary I’d be more likely to fill the DFH role with a Live Ex-Boyfriend, because in our time there’s less stigma attached to a woman having had romantic and/or sexual relationships that didn’t end in marriage. (I wish I could say “no stigma attached,” but sadly that isn’t always the case.)

RL: How do you use DFHs to contrast with your heroes, and their relationships with the heroine to contrast with the hero’s? What do your heroes bring to your heroines that their DFHs didn’t and couldn’t?

SF: Again, this varies from story to story. In The Sergeant’s Lady, where Sebastian truly is an evil abusive asshole, Will brings Anna all kinds of wonderful things she didn’t have in her first marriage—respect, trust, friendship, playful affection, an equal partnership—but above all healing that allows her to see her passionate nature and her sexuality as blessings rather than curses.

aninfamousmarriage-200x316The contrast between DFH and hero in An Infamous Marriage is more subtle. The heroine, Elizabeth, grew up in a narrow, restrictive environment, and her first husband Giles was able to offer her kindness, affection, and escape from an unhappy home. But as a village clergyman of limited means, he too lived in a narrow, sheltered world—and happily so. He was a quiet, peaceable homebody of a man. That would’ve been just right for many women, but Elizabeth is curious and adventurous. If she had to live in a small village for all her life, with maybe a short trip to London every decade or so, no matter how much she loved her husband and children, some part of her would always feel dissatisfied, like something was missing. With Jack, who shares her adventurous spirit and as a high-ranking army officer is in a profession that takes him all over the world, she’s able to have the kind of life she’s always longed for, one that Giles would never have been able to give her.

In A Dream Defiant, Rose’s first husband Sam was able to see and appreciate her gifts as a cook and ambition to use them professionally, but he didn’t have the kind of matching drive it would take to make her dreams a reality. He was a straightforward, simple, good-hearted man, but he wasn’t so good at holding onto money, thinking beyond the present day, and so on. Given the power imbalance inherent to 19th century marriage, I imagine it must’ve been maddening to be a woman with ambition, self-discipline, and drive married to a man lacking those traits. So what Elijah is able to offer Rose that she’s never had before is true partnership—rather than holding her back, he helps her soar.

I believe a good relationship is one that encourages you to become more—happier, more confident, more accomplished, more true to yourself. I try to show that, in ways large and small, all my heroes and heroines are more at the end of the book than at the beginning. So when the heroine is a widow, the hero has to in some way give her a piece of that more that her first husband wouldn’t or couldn’t.

RL: One of the cool things about widow stories is the contrast between the decision the heroine took to be with the dead first husband and the decision she takes at the end of the story to be with the hero—and because she’s been married before, she knows what it means to compromise her autonomy in that way. Widow stories are often about learning to balance love and practicality, if that makes sense? Like a lot of times the heroine married her first husband either entirely out of love without thinking about whether it was a good decision, or else she married him for practical reasons without loving him at all. How do your heroines’ first marriages shape the course of their romances? And how do you think that applies to how they live the rest of their lives, and what they expect and don’t let themselves expect?

SF: Well, in two of my three books with widowed heroines, marriage to the hero isn’t a decision the heroine makes at the end of the story. When Elizabeth is widowed, she’s left destitute, and Rose is the widow of a common soldier in an army on campaign, so in a very real sense she and her young son aren’t safe alone. So their romances with the hero follow the marriage of convenience trope, where the commitment comes first and love follows. They start out with necessity, and when passion comes, too, it’s an unlooked-for blessing. While they get more from marriage to the hero than they expect, the same would be true of a marriage of convenience romance without a DFH in the picture.

In The Sergeant’s Lady, Anna is wealthy and well-connected enough that she need never marry again, so her marriage to Will is very much a free choice, and a triumphant one. But now that I think about it, there’s actually a certain external similarity in how she marries Sebastian and Will. In both cases she’s marrying against the judgement and advice of trusted, beloved family members and making what the outside world would see as a reckless, hasty match. The difference is that her choice of Sebastian springs from an immature infatuation. She doesn’t really know him—she’s in love with the idea of a dashing, romantic officer and blind to the extremely flawed real man. But by the time she marries Will, she knows herself and him, and their love has been tested and proven. Her marriage to Sebastian is “I want what I want and you can’t stop me.” When she chooses Will, it’s “I know where I belong now. This is my life, this is my love, and here I stand.”

RL: It’s safe to say that most readers have had an unsuccessful relationship at some point. Do you think DFH stories connect with readers in a unique way? Were you trying to reflect an aspect of real-life romantic experience?

SF: Writing widowed heroines in historicals allows me to write heroines who are often a little older and have more life experience than I’d typically write in a Regency with a heroine who hasn’t been married. I think this can make them more relatable for modern readers without having to compromise historical accuracy, since unless you marry your high school sweetheart, you probably have a Past by the time you meet the person you want for your Future.

RL: How do you decide how to kill off a DFH? (I realize that in the case of Sam this is pretty important to the plot, but for Sebastian and Giles I think you had more options.)

SF: Yes, Sam’s death is the inciting incident for A Dream Defiant’s plot—he’s killed in the act of claiming battlefield plunder that he means to give to Rose, and with his dying breath he entrusts it to Elijah. While I certainly could’ve had a soldier on campaign die without a battle—in those days disease often killed more soldiers than wounds did—the plunder element was a key to the story, so battle it was.

With Giles I wanted something shocking and sudden that could strike down an apparently healthy young man, newly married and happy with his whole life before him. I could’ve used an accident, something like a fall from a horse—the narrative equivalent of dying in a car crash in a contemporary—but I decided to go with illness instead. He catches chicken pox, which I know from personal experience can be severe if you get it as an adult, and it leads to pneumonia.

Sebastian…dies as he lived. He mistakes a respectable young woman for a prostitute, refuses to take “no” for an answer when she resists him, and is killed by her brothers when they rush to her defense when she screams for help. I wanted something appropriate to his character that would emphasize to readers that neither they nor his widow need to mourn this guy.

adreamdefiant-200x316RL: In historical romances, heroines who aren’t widows (and even some that are) are often virgins. What is different about writing sexually experienced heroines? How does that affect the stories and romance (besides simply in the sex scenes)?

SF: When the heroine is a virgin, the first few sex scenes can be as much about sex itself as about her relationship with the hero. Sex, period, is a big mystery, exciting and scary all at once. With a sexually experienced heroine, a man’s body is familiar territory to her, and unless her experience with prior husbands or lovers was uniformly bad, she’s not going to fear physical intimacy in itself. So all the mystery, excitement, and fear is going to be about the hero specifically and what sex means in their relationship. It concentrates the story, in a way, makes it more particular.

RL: What kinds of DFH stories in romance influenced how you wrote? Were you reacting to or interacting with any genre conventions that you were aware of?

SF: I can’t help being aware of the tropes, and with the exception of Sebastian I’ve tried to push back against the evil abusive first husband trope. I’ve also vowed never, ever to write a virgin widow—though now that I’ve posted that publicly, my muse will probably kick out an amazing virgin widow story, one that I’ll be convinced is fresh and different, never ever told before.

RL: Tell me a favorite historical romance you’ve read with a memorable DFH or first marriage.

This isn’t a historical, but it feels like one because of the semi-feudal aspects of the characters’ culture—the two-book science fiction romance arc of Komarr and A Civil Campaign in Lois McMaster Bujold’s marvelous Vorkosigan Saga. For most of the first book, Ekaterin’s first husband Tien is still alive. And he’s an evil abusive asshole…but subtly so. He isn’t overtly violent or cruel, and though he does some horrible things, we see through Ekaterin’s eyes what motivates him, and while we never approve or sympathize, we do understand and pity. After Tien’s violent and mysterious death, she’s questioned under the influence of a truth serum to clear her of any involvement, an event we witness from the POV of Miles, the hero:

“Did you hate him?”

“No…yes…I don’t know. He wore that out, too.” She looked earnestly at Tuomonen. “He never hit me, you know.”

What an obituary. When I go down into the ground at last, as God is my judge, I pray my best-beloved may have better to say of me than, ‘He didn’t hit me.’ Miles set his jaw and said nothing.

Later, but long before they’re romantically involved, Miles and Ekaterin have a rather adorable conversation about his several ex-girlfriends. She quickly notices that every one of them gained more power, more freedom, more of their heart’s desire, over the course of their involvement with Miles and thinks:

Tien had protected her proudly, she reflected, in the little Vor-lady fortress of her household. Tien had spent a decade protecting her so hard, especially from anything that resembled growth, she’d felt scarcely larger at thirty than she’d been at twenty. Whatever it was Vorkosigan had offered to this extraordinary list of lovers, it hadn’t been protection.

Though Ekaterin is by no means ready to consider marrying again at that point in her story, the reader knows then that ultimately she’s going to choose this man with his gift of making his friends and lovers more rather than less.

RL: In older historicals especially, it sometimes seems as if the asshole first husband is almost forced to be an asshole because the heroine isn’t allowed to have any positive sexual or romantic experiences other than with the hero (cf. the classic virgin widow plotline). Even now, there can be pressure in the genre to make the hero and heroine’s relationship supercede and outshine all other relationships in their life. Did you worry, writing Giles, that that would be a problem?

SF: I didn’t worry as I was writing it, because it was the story I wanted to tell—a woman who loses a perfectly good husband and is forced to remarry more quickly than she ever would’ve wanted, and how she ultimately finds a deep, passionate love that will carry her through a lifetime with the near-stranger she marries.

And I think most readers were fine with that aspect of the story. That said, I did get a few reviews who weren’t happy that Jack wasn’t Elizabeth’s only love. While that surprised me—how many people only love once in real life, after all?—I guess for those readers that’s an important part of their Happily Ever After fantasy. And that’s fine, too. I’d even suggest that if they otherwise liked my writing, they try my upcoming Christmas novella. It’s about young lovers reunited who discover their feelings are as strong as ever, so it’s very much in the One True Love trope. ;-)

Thanks, Susanna! At her website you can read excerpts of The Sergeant’s Lady, An Infamous Marriage, and A Dream Defiant.

Check out the rest of the interview series:

4/4 – Theresa Romain
4/7 – Susanna Fraser
4/9 – Jeannie Lin
4/11 – Cecilia Grant
4/14 – Tessa Dare
4/16 – Lauren Willig
4/18 – Courtney Milan

DFH interview #1: Theresa Romain

As part of my blog tour for Sweet Disorder, I wrote a guest post at Heroes and Heartbreakers about the tradition of widows and dead first husbands in historical romance. For that post, I interviewed the authors of some of my favorite historicals with widow heroines, and I got back such awesome, detailed answers that I wanted to share the complete interviews with you.

ITTTT_web-183x300Here’s what Theresa Romain had to say about her adorable, poignant It Takes Two to Tangle. (For the complete schedule, see the end of this post.)

WOOING THE WRONG WOMAN…

Henry Middlebrook is back from fighting Napoleon, ready to re-enter London society where he left it. Wounded and battle weary, he decides that the right wife is all he needs. Selecting the most desirable lady in the ton, Henry turns to her best friend and companion to help him with his suit…

IS A TERRIBLE MISTAKE…

Young and beautiful, war widow Frances Whittier is no stranger to social intrigue. She finds Henry Middlebrook courageous and manly, unlike the foppish aristocrats she is used to, and is inspired to exercise her considerable wit on his behalf. But she may be too clever for her own good, and Frances discovers that she has set in motion a complicated train of events that’s only going to break her own heart…

The dead first husband (hereafter abbreviated “DFH”) is Charles.

RL: DFHs fall on a spectrum between evil abusive assholes and great guys the heroine could have been with forever if they’d lived. How did you decide where on the spectrum you wanted Charles to land? What kinds of DFH stories in romance influenced how you wrote? Were you reacting to or interacting with any genre conventions that you were aware of?

TR: In planning ITTTT, I wanted to twist the trope of the so-called pure widow. You’ve probably seen this character before: she may or may not be a virgin, but she’s certainly never been in love before meeting the hero. I started with the opposite character in mind: what if the heroine had loved her first husband desperately?

That “desperately” is a key word. It was a passionate romance that overrode sense. Frances’s love for Charles is an important part of her character, because it was a cross-class romance that led to a breach with her parents. That shows what she’s willing to sacrifice for love.

As for Charles himself, he falls in the middle of the spectrum you describe. At heart, he was young and lusty and somewhat selfish. A lot like Frances herself! Their romance started off hot, then dwindled on his part into indifference. That hurt her deeply, but it wasn’t a pain Charles meant to cause. His love was conditional, but neither he nor Frances knew that until the conditions changed.

RL: DFHs mean something a little different in Regency-set historicals since divorce wasn’t widely available, and because women’s control over their money was so tied to their marital status. How do you think that affected your story? In a contemporary, might you have chosen to make Frances divorced instead? (I realize that saying “what if this book were a contemporary” about a story so entrenched in its period is kind of meaningless, but it’s still fun to think about…) How do you think Frances’s experience of marriage affects how she’s been living the rest of her life—not just practically, but emotionally, and in what she expects and doesn’t let herself expect?

TR: In a contemporary, Frances might have been sued for divorce due to fraud, since she, ahem, neglected to mention key financial details before marrying Charles. In ITTTT, money is closely tied to love and trust. Frances’s money is a large part of her appeal to Charles—and once she doesn’t have access to that money, Charles ceases to trust her. That’s when their marriage begins to fall apart.

After Charles’s death, Frances never again thinks of herself as eligible because she doesn’t have the money that seemed to be the source of her appeal. And she feels guilt not in having lied to Charles, but in not feeling sorry that she did. She was reckless in pursuing the man she wanted. When she meets Henry, he lays his trust upon her. That’s what snares her attention—and that’s what makes her a little reckless again, as she begins to hope for a new romance.

RL: How did you want Charles to contrast with Henry, and how did you want Frances’s relationships with them to contrast with each other? What does Henry bring to Frances that Charles didn’t and couldn’t?

TR: Charles was from a lower social and economic class than Frances, and so it was tempting for him to look to her as his provider. When she lost access to her money and couldn’t fill that role, Charles enlisted against her wishes. By doing so, he took on the “provider” role himself but also abandoned their marriage.

Henry, having survived war, is ready to rebuild rather than to tear apart. He and Frances are both veterans of grief who have decided never to lose their senses of humor. Though he’s not a wealthy man in his own right, Henry also has a social and economic stability that Charles never had. That may not seem romantic, but as Frances learned during her first marriage, neither does poverty.

RL: It’s safe to say that most readers have had an unsuccessful relationship at some point. Do you think DFH stories connect with readers in a unique way? Were you trying to reflect an aspect of real-life romantic experience?

TR: I think DFH stories absolutely can connect with readers in terms of their own romantic experience. What a DFH story shows—no matter whether the DFH was a saint or a devil—is that there’s hope for love after the end of a significant relationship.

In ITTTT, I hoped to reflect that most people have had a past relationship that was, at some point, pretty good. Just because one has loved before, it doesn’t mean love is worth less when it comes again.

RL: In historical romances, heroines who aren’t widows (and even some that are) are often virgins. Did writing a sexually experienced heroine affect the story and the romance in ways you didn’t expect? Were you able to do things you couldn’t do in other books?

TR: Frances frankly lusted after her first husband, and it didn’t seem realistic to deny that they had a sexual relationship. But again, her romantic past doesn’t negate the significance of the present.

We’re used to allowing romance heroes to have a sexual past, and sometimes this can put them in a position of superior knowledge or power over the heroine. In the case of ITTTT, Frances and Henry both have a sexual past, and so in that sense, they’re equals when they move forward with their own relationship.

RL: It’s interesting that Frances’s first husband was also a soldier, but one, obviously, who didn’t make it. Did you consider other ways to kill him off, or did you always know he’d died in the war?

TR: As the story came together in my mind, I always knew I wanted Charles to die in the war. This was the closest way Frances could experience the horror of war without actually “following the drum,” as was said of soldier’s wives who accompanied them into the field. Because Frances thought of Charles’s enlistment as a betrayal, I wanted his death to seem especially unnecessary. And so Charles died not in combat, but from disease—which historically was a much more common killer of soldiers than combat.

RL: Tell me a favorite historical romance you’ve read with a memorable DFH or first marriage.

TR: Julia Quinn’s When He Was Wicked is one of my favorite DFH stories, because both the hero and the heroine loved the DFH (a cousin of the hero’s). His death affected them both deeply, and grief and loyalty are all tangled in with the hero and heroine’s own newfound romance. So. Many. Emotional. Layers. It’s a beautiful story.

RL: This is kind of just for my personal curiosity, but do you know stuff about Charles that didn’t make it into the story? DID he love Frances? How did he feel about her lying to him? On the one hand, he was clearly a jerk, but on the other, you can’t entirely blame him for being angry…

TR: Right, exactly. To Charles, Frances would have seemed like a miracle. A pretty, rich upper-class woman pursuing him? It would have been impossible for him not to be flattered enough to think he was in love. He thought she would change his life, but she couldn’t when (as she suspected) her dowry was withheld. As to whether it was her lies or her change in circumstance that killed his feeling for her—well, it was both. Though I think he’d have forgiven lies and wealth more easily than truth and poverty.

Thanks, Theresa! You can read an excerpt from It Takes Two to Tangle at her website. I particularly recommend it if (like me) you enjoy MTV’s Catfish (OMG I love that show).

Check out the rest of the interview series:

4/4 – Theresa Romain
4/7 – Susanna Fraser
4/9 – Jeannie Lin
4/11 – Cecilia Grant
4/14 – Tessa Dare
4/16 – Lauren Willig
4/18 – Courtney Milan

Last blog tour stop!

Last blog tour stop! I’m over at History Hoydens talking about Byron’s maiden speech in the House of Lords and its reception. Apparently he got a lot of compliments but people talked shit behind his back. Have I mentioned that I adore Byron?

Blog tour: stop #5!

Blog tour stop #5: Today I’m at the Samhain blog talking about Regency joke books!

I share my ten favorite jokes from The Treasury of Wit, or, “A COMPLETE selection of Apophthegms and Jests, arranged, for the first time, in a new and methodical manner; and calculated to please the man of fashion, and the man of science, as well as the publick in general.”

One commenter will win a free copy of SWEET DISORDER, and of course every commenter will be entered in the drawing for the big prize package!

Blog tour: stop #4!

Blog tour stop #4! I’m over at Smexybooks today, talking about William Blake and how romance novels answer the question: “Is love selfish or selfless?” Which kind of fictional love is your fave? The obsessive and all-consuming passion (e.g. Wuthering Heights) or the heroically self-sacrificing adoration (e.g. A Tale of Two Cities)? Comment on the post for the chance to win a free copy of SWEET DISORDER and the awesome blog tour prize package!

And by the way, Mandi also wrote an extremely lovely review of Sweet Disorder! “[A]s soon as I finished this book, I wanted to start all over again…Rose Lerner doesn’t shy away from the gritty, almost unfair life Phoebe lives, but she quietly weaves in a warm romance and by the end, you are smiling.” \o/\o/\o/

Spoiler-friendly “Sweet Disorder” discussion post

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Hi everyone! This is a spoiler-friendly discussion and questions post for Sweet Disorder. I’d love to hear anything you have to say about the book! And if there’s anything you want to know (about the book, about writing the book, about characters in the book, about what happens next, anything really), this is a good place to ask.

Thank you all for giving what I do meaning—a book isn’t REALLY finished until someone reads it.