Tracy Grant: Writing a New Romantic Sub-Genre

(January 3, 2003)

2005 Tracy Grant interview

Tracy Grant's first historical thriller, Daughter of the Game, garnered fine reviews from online romance sites (including DIK status here at All About Romance), and I've heard a number of readers call it their favorite historical of 2002. Daughter of the Game, with its twists and turns, its numerous plot pivots all revolving around the theme of betrayal, was nothing if not memorable. Reading it made me want to seek out Grant's backlist, both the books she wrote as herself and also the ones she co-wrote with her mother, Joan Grant, as Anthea Malcolm and Anna Grant. Having read several of these, I had some questions for Tracy. Her Regency world is a bit different from that of many other authors in the things that she chooses to emphasize. Very little of the action of her stories takes place in the ballroom. Most of it centers around the political maneuverings and military happenings of that era. Tracy graciously consented to answer my questions. Let's begin.

--Rachel Potter

 

Your traditional Regency Romances and Regency-set historicals include a fair amount of period detail: historical, political, and military. How much background do you think it's appropriate to include in a Regency? And why do you choose to focus less on the nobility and its society and more on British and world politics or the plight of the poor? Do you have any interest in writing a historical set in a different time and place? Or a contemporary?

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I majored in history in college and I've always loved historical novels that are rich in detail. I think that with any Regency-set historical novel, whether it's a traditional Regency romance, a Regency-set historical romance, a Regency-set mystery thriller, or a Regency-set literary novel, it's important to focus on those details that illuminate the story and characters and themes. Like most authors of historical fiction, I've sometimes been tempted to include a fascinating bit of research that really is extraneous to the story I'm telling. How much political and military history it's appropriate to include really depends on the story one's telling. The political and military worlds (and the Napoleonic Wars) are central to some traditional Regencies and Regency-set historical romances and so a lot of political and military background is important to the story. Other Regencies and Regency-set historicals focus on different aspects of that society and don't need those details (but need details about other aspects of Regency life).

I guess my own books do focus a fair amount on politics and social and economic issues. Your question about my books focusing less on the nobility made me smile, though, because after one of my closest friends saw Gosford Park, he asked me when I was going to live up to my supposed political ideals and write a book that focused on servants as much as aristocrats. I love reading about the ton, but I also like exploring other aspects of the Regency society. It's an era of tremendous contrasts (Charles Greville wrote in 1829, "I am afraid there is more vice, more misery and penury in this country than in any other, and at the same time greater wealth"). I find those contrasts a rich mine of plot ideas.

The more research I do into the Regency era the more fascinating I find it. So far, I'm very happy writing books in that era - I continue to learn new things which give me new ideas for books. So for the foreseeable future I'm very happy writing in the Regency era.

Your books have a heavier than usual dose of period politics in them. Is this because you have an interest in politics? Your characters tend to be highly democratic and politically liberal. How much of your own politics bleed through in your characters?

I've always been fascinated by politics, both contemporary and historical (my parents worked on government-funded social science research projects, so I grew up on the fringes of the political world; we made a lot of trips to Washington D.C. when I was a child). As a writer, I find the Regency political world provides wonderful opportunities for intrigue and moral ambiguity and for grappling with issues - ambition versus idealism, how to achieve compromise without compromising away one's integrity, reform versus reaction - that I think still have resonance today. I readily admit that a huge amount of my own politics bleed through in my characters (though hopefully in an historically appropriate way). I think most writers' world views influence the stories they choose to tell, the qualities they think are heroic, the themes they think are important. I definitely know that's true for me.

You have made several of your characters completely a-religious. Charles and Mélanie in Daughter of the Game are both atheists, in fact. One person I know chose not to read Daughter because of this. Since most romance writers tend to leave religion entirely out of their books, it's noticeable when a character has specific religious beliefs or a lack of them. Why did you choose to do this?

I've come across atheists and a-religious people in the course of my research (Percy Shelley was sent down from Oxford for writing a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism; Shelley's future father-in-law William Godwin was an atheist; Caroline Lamb accused her husband William of corrupting her with his impiety). As an atheist myself, I found this interesting. With several of my characters - such as Paul and Robert Lescaut - whose lives and world views were grounded in the early ideals of the French Revolution it seemed a natural part of their characters as I developed them. Given Charles's and Mélanie's backgrounds and the things they'd been influenced by, it made sense to me that they'd both be atheists. Touching on this in the book was a way of showing that despite their obvious differences, they are very similar under the skin. Both of them are out of step with conventional society of the time, in that way and a number of others.

I've noticed that many of your books have personal betrayal as a theme. Why?

Hmmm. I hadn't really considered this before. Personal betrayal goes to the core of what hurts most, what creates the bleakest dark moment, the deepest hurdle to overcome. That's the stuff of good drama. Trust, I think, is essential to love, so a betrayal of trust is one of the most difficult challenges a love affair can face. Betrayal raises all sorts of interesting moral and ethical questions. As Raoul says in Daughter of the Game, "Betrayal of a country, an ideal, a lover, a spouse, a friend. It's often impossible to be loyal to all. Which loyalty comes first?" As a writer, and a human being, I find that an interesting question.

Of all the Regencies I've read yours are the only ones that present Napoleon and France in a halfway positive light. It's interesting to see the other side of that conflict. Can you comment on why you chose to write characters with French and republican sympathies?

I think because it interests me to see the other side of that conflict too. Napoleon fascinates me. He was a republican who made himself an emperor, a conqueror who also spread much-needed reforms to the countries he invaded (many of which welcomed him). To many of those on the political left of the day, he represented the last (admittedly tarnished) legacy of the French Revolution. On 17 November 1813, Byron wrote in his journal "Buonaparte! Ever since I defended my bust of him at Harrow against the rascally time-servers, when the war broke out in 1803, he has been a 'Héros de Roman' of mine - on the continent; I don't want him here!". In 1814, Byron's friend John Cam Hobhouse dined at Holland House [a center of the liberal wing of the Whig party] and noted "the news of the day was the defeat of the French...which hardly pleased them [the Holland House set] - now this seemed to me carrying the feelings of domestic politics too far." So for me, writing about left-leaning British politicians of the day, French and republican sympathies seem appropriate for many of my characters to voice.

I very much enjoyed Daughter of the Game and loved Rightfully His. Which are your favorites of your books? Considering all your books, are there any you look back upon and wish you'd written them differently?

My books are like children, so it's hard to have favorites. There are things I like in all of them. I think I continue to grow and improve as a writer, so I always feel my most recent book is my "best." Because I've matured as a writer, there are probably things I'd do differently if I wrote some of my earlier books today. But there aren't any books I look back on and say, "Oh, no, I wish that was different." I do confess that I am particularly fond of Charles and Mélanie and find them the most interesting pair of characters I've written about so far.

How do you feel about the kisses-only sensuality rule for Regencies? The Regencies you wrote with your mother were quite a bit longer than the average Regency. Are your Regency historicals different in scope or focus?

Actually, not only were the Regencies I wrote with my mom longer, several of them had fairly explicit love scenes. My close friend (the same one who challenged me to write a novel that focuses on the servants) used to tease me that Mom's and my first book barely had an embrace, and from then on the sensuality level got more explicit, from more graphic kisses to actual sex. I think ideally in any type of book, the sensuality level should be dictated by the story the author is telling. If explicit love scenes are important to the story and the characters, I don't think one should shy away from dramatizing them. If it doesn't make sense for the characters to make love (or if there's no reason to show their lovemaking) then I think the author should be free not to show it.

I've always constructed stories that are fairly long and complicated. When I moved from the Regency Romances I wrote with my mom to Regency-set historicals, I did feel somewhat freer to move away from the world of the English ton which is central to most Regencies and I included more action and adventure. Now that I'm writing Regency mystery thrillers, the scope and focus is more on the plot and suspense than exclusively on the love story, but I think everything I write will involve a love story in one way or another.

I write with a partner, my sister, and we have found it to be very satisfying, but most authors do not write as a team. Can you tell a bit about what it was like to write with your mother: how you managed the process of writing and editing and whether it's more satisfying to write alone or as a team?

I loved writing with my mom and I'm so glad we had the chance to write together. We plotted our books together and then wrote alternate chapters or alternate blocks of chapters (for instance sometimes I'd write 2 & 3, she'd write 4 & 5). We did at least three or four drafts of each book. In the first revision, we'd make notes and then do major revisions to our own chapters. In later drafts, we'd revise each other's material. My dad said he loved going by our office because we always seemed to be laughing. I don't think he quite realized that it was sometimes a case of laugh or cry. <g> Mom and I worked amazingly well together, though we probably argued more about writing than we ever did about mother-daughter issues. In one of our books, An Improper Proposal, the heroine's mother had left the family when the heroine was a child and returned to France to resume a career as an actress. In the course of the book, through the offices of the hero, the mother returns to England and sees the heroine. The heroine is very bitter. I thought the mother was horrible and dreadfully selfish - she'd abandoned her children, after all. My mom would say "Oh, but I can understand, she was stuck in this horrible marriage..." In the end, I think the mother-daughter relationship in the book was more balanced than it would have been if either of us had written the book alone.

After my mom died, it never occurred to me to look for another writing partner. My mom and I thought alike in so many ways. I can't imagine writing with anyone else. There are ways in which I desperately miss writing with my mom and ways in which it's easier to write alone, to be the sole one determining the vision of the story. The bottom line is that I miss my mom, as my mother as well as my writing partner. In my books on my own I've built on what we began together. And I'm so grateful that we were able to work together. I learned a lot about her and about writing.

As a writer, what is more interesting to you, developing plot or developing character? Which is harder to accomplish? Do you start a book with a set-in-stone, detailed outline, knowing exactly what is going to happen? Or do you start with a set of characters and see what they do?

For me as a writer, plot and character are pretty inextricably intertwined (and neither is easy to develop). From when I first started writing as a child, I've dreamed up characters I like and find interesting and then wanted to tell stories about them. My characters are like friends and definitely my constant mental companions. I love thinking about what they'd do in different situations, what their childhoods were like, what they'd give each other for Christmas. I also love complicated plots, with lots of twists and turns and revelations (which is why I like writing mystery thrillers). But I think the twist and turns should be grounded in the characters. I try to structure my books so I peel back layers of character as I peel back layers of plot.

I've always been an outliner. When I wrote with my mom, we had to outline in advance because we were writing different chapters simultaneously. As my plots have become more complex and I've moved into writing suspense, my outlines have become more and more detailed (I put the different scenes down on index cards and then move them around as I'm laying out the plot, which works great except when my pets decide to walk across the cards or take a nap on top of them). Because I want the plot to come from the characters and hopefully show their development, I also spend a lot of time thinking about the characters when I'm plotting a book. With Daughter of the Game, I began with Charles and Mélanie and the situation of their marriage. I then had to come up with a plot that would bring the conflicts between them to a head and force their secrets into the open. How they would react to those secrets and deal with those conflicts drove the story to a large extent (as, obviously, did the motivations and reactions of the other major characters). I wanted the plot to develop so that bit by bit both the reader and characters themselves would learn different pieces of Mélanie's and Charles's pasts and see different facets of their characters. I did a lot of thinking about the two of them and their histories, together and separately, as I developed the plot.

With my next book, Beneath a Silent Moon, (which will be published in March) I actually wrote out profiles for each of the major characters (based on a character workshop I heard Elizabeth George give at a mystery writers' conference) as I was plotting the book: core needs, coping mechanisms, family history, past romances, etc... In several cases, incidents from a character's past that I thought up while doing this gave me ideas for plot twists. I found these character profiles enormously helpful when I began writing. I had a really rich sense of each character, even some of the secondary ones whom I might otherwise have given short shrift. It still takes me a few chapters to have a sense of how a character talks, though, no matter how much work I do before I begin writing (I went through endless drafts of the opening Mélanie/Charles scene in Daughter before I got their voices down). And every so often a character will surprise me by displaying unexpected depths when I begin writing about him or her. That happened with a new character in a scene I was just writing. It's one of the things that's makes writing so magical.

Share with our readers how you got into writing, writing romance, and writing Regency Romance. Feel free to go back into your history as far as you'd like. Also, share your publishing history, if you wouldn't mind. And, please include the romances you read that inspired you along the way.

When I was in third grade, for the first time we were asked to write a story that was more than "what I did on my summer vacation." Suddenly I found I had characters, scenes, a story, spilling out of my head onto the paper. It was as magical an experience as the first time I saw a live theater performance. From then on, I was always writing something - lots of it unfinished and all of it unpublished. I worked on a young-adult mystery, started a fantasy trilogy, wrote a play that was ultimately given a staged reading by a theater group my high school drama teacher was involved in.

My mom, a social psychologist, had written lots of non-fiction but had never published any fiction. She told wonderful stories though. I don't think I realized how special this was - I figured every mom could dream up a story on the drive to the grocery store. She had read to me from when I was very young and even after I was reading on my own we always had a book we read out loud together. I loved historical stories, children's books at first (Joan Aiken, Lloyd Alexander, Elizabeth Marie Pope), then stories like Scaramouche (Sabatini) and The Scarlet Pimpernel (Orczy). Mom read Pride and Prejudice to me when I was seven, after I'd seen the Greer Garson/Laurence Olivier movie and insisted I wanted to read it, or more accurately, hear it. I loved it. It was all about girls growing up and that was easy for me to identify with, even if the girls were older than I was. On subsequent readings I've picked up more nuances, but I've always loved the story. When I was about ten my mom read my first Georgette Heyer, The Grand Sophy, to me and from then on we were hooked on the Regency era. At this time the Regency genre was taking shape, so we moved from Georgette Heyer to the Regency Romances that were being written by contemporary authors.

I decided my mom should write a book - I thought she could do anything and it must have penetrated my young brain that she was an exceptional story-teller. So I bet her a dollar she couldn't write book. On a family vacation when I was thirteen, she said, "I have an idea for a book." We talked about it and decided we'd write it together. We worked on it off and on while I was in high school, but her work and my school and theater work and other writing progects took lots of time away from it. When I was a sophomore in college, I came home for the weekend and my mom, then not working, said, "You know that book we were writing? I'm going back to it." That summer when I came home from college we both worked on the book and the next year, when I was a junior in college, we sold it to Zebra Books. It was published in 1988, as The Widow's Gambit, under the name Anthea Malcolm (the names of the hero and heroine from my unpublished fantasy triology). Mom and I went on to write seven Regencies, four Regency novellas, and one Regency-era historical (as Anna Grant), all for Zebra.

After my mom died in 1995, I wrote three Regency-set historicals for Dell as Tracy Grant. But I was putting more and more intrigue and suspense in my books. I had always loved mystery series with interesting ongoing love stories between the crime solvers. When I was a teenager, in addition to Georgette Heyer, my favorite books were mysteries by Dorothy Sayers, Marjorie Allingham, Ngaio Marsh. As I got older, this carried over to reading Elizabeth George, Anne Perry, Laurie King, and Elizabeth Peters (not to mention being quite obsessed with The X-Files). I realized that what I really wanted to write was a Regency-set mystery thriller. I knew I'd have to write it and then try to sell it (because it was a departure from what I'd been writing) so I took time off to write Daughter of the Game, which I sold to Morrow/Avon in 2000. It was published in hardcover in March 2002 and will be out in paperback this January.

Who are your favorite authors? What are your favorite books?

Authors - lots of 19th and early 20th century century literature, which shaped my love of history as well as literature: Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, Edith Wharton, E.M. Forster. Georgette Heyer and Dorothy Sayers (who I realize overlap chronologically with Wharton and Forster). More modern writers: Dorothy Dunnett, Elizabeth George, Penelope Williamson, Laurie King, Robert Goddard, Bernard Cornwell, Jo Beverley, Len Deighton, A.S. Byatt, Mary Jo Putney. I love theater and get lots of inspiration from it, so lots of playwrights: Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Tom Stoppard, Caryl Churchill, Phillip Barry, Tony Kushner, John Robin Baitz.

Books (and plays) that have influenced me a lot:

  • Shakespeare: pretty much everything, but especially Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure, Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra
  • Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice, Emma
  • Anthony Trollope: Can You Forgive Her?, Phineas Redux
  • Georgette Heyer: The Grand Sophy, An Infamous Army, Venetia
  • Dorothy Sayers: Gaudy Night
  • Bernard Shaw: Man and Superman
  • Dorothy Dunnett: The Lymond Chronicles, King Hereafter, The House of Niccolò
  • Len Deighton: The Game, Set & Match, Hook, Line & Sinker, and Faith, Hope & Charity trilogies
  • Stephen Brust & Emma Bull: Freedom & Necessity
  • Edward Albee: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
  • Jo Beverley: An Arranged Marriage
  • Mary Jo Putney: The Spiral Path
  • A.S. Byatt: Possession
  • Tony Kushner: Angels in America
  • Penelope Williamson: The Outsider, Mortal Sins, Wages of Sin
  • Elizabeth George: In Presence of the Enemy
  • Phillip Barry: The Philadelphia Story
  • Tom Stoppard: The Real Thing, Hapgood
  • Sebastian Faulks: Charlotte Gray
  • Oscar Wilde: An Ideal Husband

Some authors enjoy writing because they love words. Other authors enjoy writing because they love to tell stories. Then, of course, there are authors who love both. Where do you fit on this continuum, and were you a "bookie" growing up?

I've always had stories to tell. Even before I started writing them down on paper, I'd make up stories and act them out with my dolls (I sometimes think I'm still spending my days playing, except I sit in front of the computer instead of moving my dolls around on the floor). I've also always loved words, putting them together, contrasting them, making (trying to make) them resonate (I love the scene in Possession where the hero begins to realize he wants to write poetry). I was definitely a "bookie" growing up. As I discussed above, my mom read to me as far back as I can remember. I was always daydreaming about the book I was currently reading and making up stories of my own.

Please share with our readers some personal history: where you were born, raised, education, marital status, family, where you live.... Feel free to share as much or as little info as makes you comfortable.

I grew up in Northern California, went to a three room school, then to a high school called Marin Academy, and then to Stanford where I studied early modern British history. I live in the house I grew up in, which I inherited from my parents. It's a wonderful place to write, quiet and fairly isolated but still pretty close to all the wonderful activities the San Francisco Bay Area has to offer. I'm single (for the moment). I have a dog and cats who think the computer is meant for them to walk across or sleep on and that when I print out manuscript pages it's expressly so they can have the fun of tearing them up.

How long have you been writing professionally? How long does it take you to research and write a book? How much of your life is given over to your writing? How would you advise someone wanting to write historical romance to best research the period?

My mom and I sold our first book in 1987, when I was a junior in college (it was published in 1988, just before I graduated). It usually takes me a year to eighteen months to write and research a book, with some overlap (as I put the finishing touches on a book, I'm usually starting to plot my next one; I've usually started my next book when I get revisions from my editor on the book I've turned in and take a break to revise). Because I write about a particular era, I'm constantly doing research which often gives me ideas for subsequent books as well as the book I'm working on.

I'm lucky enough to be able to write as my full time job. To balance the isolation of writing (which has a wonderful freedom but can also be lonely), I spend time volunteering with arts organization (I've always loved the arts, particularly theater and opera). I'm on the board of the Merola Opera Program, a training program for professional opera singers, coaches, and stage directors. I'm managing director of the performance group h e l p (human elemental laboratory of performance) and I'm on the board of the Marin Arts Council. Sometimes, at the end of a day sitting home alone in front of the computer, I'm very happy to go to a meeting and see people. My fellow board members, who have been in meetings for their own jobs all day, think this is very odd.

My biggest piece of research advice is to read as many primary source documents as possible - letters, diaries, novels of the time (admittedly this is easier with a more recent era like the Regency than with, say, the early Medieval period, but even then there are some documents available). Studying the art work of the time can be very helpful too, particularly for getting a visual sense of the period. University libraries are a wonderful resource. I'm lucky enough to live fairly close to both Stanford and U.C. Berkeley. Berkeley even has The Morning Chronicle, a Regency-era newspaper, on microfilm. Even if you don't live within driving distance of a university, most local libraries can get books from university libraries on inter-library loan (and a lot of librarians are really excited to help someone who's writing a book).

Do you have a project you are working on now? Will we see more of Charles and Mélanie or the Lescauts?

You'll definitely see more of Charles and Mélanie. Beneath a Silent Moon, is set in 1817, shortly after Charles and Mélanie have returned to Britain after the war. It deals with the forging of a "real marriage" after years of living day-to-day in times of crisis, with Melanie's adjustment to the British aristocracy, and with Charles's past and his relationship with his family (particularly his father and sister). There's also a Rebecca-type woman from Charles's youth, a secret organization called the Elsinore League, a murder, and lots of intrigue and skullduggery (and Charles's sister has a romance of her own). The book I'm currently writing (provisionally titled The Mask of Night) is set after Daughter of the Game and begins with a mysterious man found murdered at a masquerade ball. It picks up on some elements from both Daughter of the Game and Beneath a Silent Moon, though each book is written to stand on its own. I plan to do a series about Charles and Mélanie. I'm loving having the chance to trace the evolution of a marriage over multiple books.

Someone asked me if I meant to connect Mélanie (whose real last name is Lescaut) to the Lescauts of my earlier books. Quite honestly hadn't originally intended that. My cat is named Lescaut so I liked working the name into Daughter. But questions from a couple of readers got me thinking that perhaps Mélanie is distantly related to Robert and Paul and Anne Lescaut from my other books. Perhaps that's a connection I can play with at some point down the line....

2005 Tracy Grant interview

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