An interview with Elizabeth Essex

I recently had the good fortune to listen to Ms. Essex read from her latest novel, After the Scandal, at my local Lady Jane’s Salon. There, I asked if she’d answer a few questions. The result is this interview.

After the ScandalDabney: Elizabeth, you are the current historical romance writer I most associate with the sea. And so many of your books the characters are either on the sea, defined by their relationship to the sea, and/or deeply aware of their family’s debt to the bounty and education provided by the sea. I remember reading, after I read your first novel, you have a Masters degree in nautical archaeology. So I must ask, really? Nautical archaeology? What called to you about that field?

Elizabeth: I blame those marvelous old Jaques Cousteau National Geographic specials I watched when I was a kid. They just riveted me to the screen. I grew up on the seashore, sailing all summer long in a small pinnacle on Long Island Sound, so I have always felt very drawn to the sea and ships. And National Geographic showed me that there were actually people who studied shipwrecks as a profession. That combination of being underwater, and studying the remains of ships as an archaeologist was my idea of heaven. I got to travel all over the world, and work with some of the finest individuals I’ve ever met. And my studies gave me a very deep background in the history of 19th century sailing navies. Archeology and writing popular fiction aren’t as unrelated as they might seem—they both involve studying people, and figuring out how, and why they do the things they do.

Dabney: You’ve just written the fifth book in your second series, Reckless BridesAfter the Scandal. The hero of After the Scandal is the brother of Meggs, the heroine of The Danger of Desire, the last book in your series Dartmouth Brides. I always wonder how authors plot the lives of characters that appear in many of their books. Did you always plan for Timothy, the Duke of Fenmore, to have his own book?

Elizabeth: I didn’t plan it at all! It seems that characters just stroll into my head and start talking, and I just write down what they say. I do get very attached to my characters, especially Meggs—I missed her so deeply when I had to move on to writing the next book, it took me a very long time to find the heart of my next heroine.

For After the Scandal, I began by thinking about a certain kind of hero, someone who is very analytical and detached from his emotions, or perhaps has no idea of what to do with his emotions. And then that character just seemed to fit Tanner like a glove. I had always thought that he would have had a very rocky transition from street thief to becoming the Duke of Fenmore, so off I went.

And then, I looked around the world of my characters, and there was Lady Claire Jellicoe, with every advantage, and who was supremely at home and confident in society—his complete opposite in every way. And I thought she would the perfect sun to Tanner’s dark moon.

Dabney: After the Scandal has many of the characteristics readers expect from Elizabeth Essex novel: luminous writing, subtle yet sensual sexual tension, and a lead who defies conventional description. And yet the thing I found the most unusual about it was its time frame. The vast majority of the novel takes place in just two days. That’s far more common in contemporary romance then in historical. Tell me about that.

Elizabeth: Thank you so much! For After the Scandal, I wanted to work with the idea of the “coup de foudre”—literally the strike of lightning at the heart, that changes people in an instant. But my idea was that this love at first sight had already happened to Tanner—he’s loved Claire secretly for so many years that the moment he sees his chance to finally be with her, he moves as quickly as possible. I wanted the plot—solving the murder—to drive the pace and force Claire to see Tanner in the right circumstances to let her fall in love with him. I really wanted to call this book It Happened One Scandal, to give it that It Happened One Night, lovers-to-be on-the-run connotation, but I think that was felt to be too like another title that came out this past year.

I will admit that I tried to draw the timeframe out in my earlier drafts, to give Claire more time to fall in love, but a longer timeframe removed that sense of urgency that drove Tanner right from the opening moments, so I tightened it up in defiance of a more courtly Regency courtship. And I really wanted to write a couple who don’t fight and battle with each other, but just have the opportunity to fall deeper and deeper into love.

Dabney: After the Scandal is as much a mystery as it is a romance. I was fascinated by all of the historical details you inserted into the novel that were clues guiding the reader to an understanding of both the societal evil and the evil individual that led to the murder that occurs in the beginning of the book. What kind of research did you do for this book? What did you learn about that you weren’t already aware of?

Elizabeth: One of the things I like to explore in my stories is the steaming, gritty working world outside the ballrooms of the Regency Ton. I’ve peopled my fictive world with characters who intersect with that mannered world, but don’t belong to it. After eight books, I already had a great working background for the story, but I did some very specific research about reform movements and politics of the era, especially the monetary systems and policies. I also got some very particular assistance from a former Nautical Archaeology colleague, who is now a well-known ancient coin specialist, who guided my research about counterfeit ancient coins.

But in fact, my inspiration for the crime that is at the heart of the story, came from very contemporary events—like the television commercials that prey on people’s fears in the recent recession, and urge everyone to join their schemes to invest in gold. Perhaps that’s what surprised me the most—that greed and venality are just as alive today as they were in the Regency, when the power was concentrated in one social strata.

Dabney: When I read your books I often encounter words I’m utterly clueless as to their meaning. Furthermore, the dictionary that is a part of my e-reader is also clueless to their meaning. At best I am told a word is archaic. Where do you get your vocabulary from? And would you ever consider a lexicon in the back of your book to help out those of us who love to learn new words?

Elizabeth: You have, in a very kindly way, hit upon one of my chief failings. My editor is always striking out words as too obscure. The problem is my use of language is just a part of my voice—a product of all those years of academic study, and reading, reading, reading, especially 19th century British authors like Austen, Trollope, Dickens. My language also comes from a steady diet of BBC dramas, and my habit of doing the New York Times crossword every morning to get the words flowing in my head.

I try very hard to put as many terms, especially the nautical terms, in context so the reader can get a sense of their meaning without having to resort to looking up that a halyard is a part of the standing rigging on a ship, but sometimes that just isn’t possible. If my editor objects (strongly) I’ll change the word, but there are times when the cadence of a character’s dialog just demands that word, and I can’t bring myself to change it.

For my own reference, I find my online subscription to the Oxford English Dictionary invaluable. It has an impeccable chronology of when the particular word was in general usage, with excerpts from written sources of the time. Very often I find that words, and especially phrases that come second nature to me, are (predictably) American slang, and even some British-isms I am dying to use, like ‘numpty,’ meaning a stupid or foolish person, an idiot, are modern Scottish slang.

But I take your suggestion of a lexicon to heart, and have decided that I will open a new page on my website for one, where I’ll keep an alphabetical list, and take reader’s queries for definitions. Thanks for the suggestion!

Dabney: What’s next for Elizabeth Essex? Are there more Reckless Brides for readers to look forward to? And I’m curious. Can you see yourself ever writing a contemporary romance are you firmly ensconced in the realm of the historical?

Elizabeth: There are at least two more Reckless Brides in my head, with one of them already on the page, and headed for print in August 2014. A Scandal to Remember will be a shipwreck story, featuring Charles Dance who was one of the young midshipmen in Almost a Scandal. (I have a very soft spot for those boys.)

After that book is put to print, I have a real pip of a story in my head that will feature quiet, steady Jack Denman, a secondary character in After the Scandal, as the hero, and a very unlikely heroine, who is also a fringe character in After the Scandal. Can you spot her?

As to other genres, my agent has been after me for years to write a contemporary romantic suspense series with a nautical archaeologist heroine. I’ve been hesitant to take a crack at it, as I really feel my voice is more suited to historicals, but we’ll see what characters stroll into my head, and demand that I tell their story.

Thank you very much for the opportunity to chat with you and share some of my thoughts about After the Scandal. It’s been a pleasure. Cheers.

Dabney: Thank you!

Dabney Grinnan

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