Murder and scandal in the Gilded Age! Join me in celebrating the release of my latest novel, THE ENGLISH WIFE, by chatting about writing, publishing, favorite historical novels, and what it is that makes historical mystery quite so fascinating-- or Ask Me Anything else you like!

Lauren Willig
Jan 9, 2018

Hello!  I'm the New York Times bestselling author of several works of historical fiction-- or, at least, that's how my bio goes.  After spending many years writing about swashbuckling spies during the Napoleonic Wars in my Pink Carnation series (think a little bit "Scarlet Pimpernel" and a little bit "Blackadder"), I moved on to other books and other time periods with stand alone novels ranging from 1840s London to 1920s Kenya.  My latest, THE ENGLISH WIFE, is set among New York's elite in the cold winter of 1899, when Bayard Van Duyvil is found murdered on the grounds of his Hudson Valley estate, his English wife, Annabelle, mysteriously missing.  How did Bayard die?  And who was Annabelle, really?  I'm here to answer any questions you might have about THE ENGLISH WIFE, writing, publishing, the blizzard of 1899, Napoleonic spies, or, really, pretty much anything else!  Ask away!  And join me in raising a glass of virtual bubbly to the launch of THE ENGLISH WIFE!

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When do you plan the sequal, The Canadian Wife? ;)

Jan 9, 10:51AM EST0

Set in the frozen north, with guest appearances by Anne of Green Gables and a chorus of singing Mounties....  

Jan 9, 11:05AM EST0

So many questions! :) Would you ever write a children's book? Do you make up stories for your own kids? Is it easier to write about relationships when you're single rather than not? Do you still have certain playlists for the books you're working on? Will the 3 W's ever reveal who wrote which section of your book?! 

Jan 8, 8:37PM EST0

Hi, Rachel!  Wow, where to begin?  

-- I can't see myself ever writing a children's book, but that's also what I said about writing a book set during World War I.  So my track record on "I'll never write..." isn't the best.  It's probably safe to say I'll never write a picture book, but YA is fair game.  And two of my idols, M.M. Kaye and Mary Stewart, both wrote children's books as well as historical epics and mysteries.  So...  See?  Now look what you've done.

-- I do make up stories for my kids, some more involved than others.  They tend not to appreciate the ones that go along the lines of, "Once upon a time there was a princess who was very tired.  So her mother, the Queen, told her to go to bed.  And she did.  And there was great rejoicing in the kingdom.  The end."  Unfortunately, the older one has now discovered that she can counter-storytell and come up with alternate endings....

-- I've found that relationship status has little bearing one way or another on what I'm writing.  Strange, no?  You'd think it would be the other way around.  But my characters are so far from being me, the contexts in which they live, and the circumstances in which they find themselves are so far from mine, that their relationships and mine have little overlap.

-- I haven't done playlists since, oh, the sixth or seventh Pink Carnation book, and I do miss them!  Maybe one of these days when my kids sleep through the night and I have more time/mental energy.

-- The Ws are currently in discussion over whether to reveal who wrote which section of THE FORGOTTEN ROOM when the Lusitania Book comes out.  We have come to a decision yet, but stay tuned!

Jan 8, 11:04PM EST0
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How long does it take you to finish a novel?

Jan 7, 10:58PM EST0

It depends on the novel.  My first book, written way back in the Stone Age (i.e. 2002) took me roughly two summers, working around teaching classes and writing my dissertation.  The fastest I've ever written a book, under extreme deadline pressure, was six weeks.  Usually, it takes me about nine months: a month of research, three months to dither, rethink and compulsively rewrite the first three chapters, a month where nothing gets done (because life), and then three months to write the rest of the book in a mad, caffeine-fueled rush.  I keep trying to work in a more measured and balanced way, but, nineteen books in, I'm slowly coming to grip with the fact that this is just how my process works (and that I should probably buy stock in Starbucks).

Jan 8, 11:42AM EST0

Do you have particular habits or rituals that you have observed when you write?

Jan 7, 9:44PM EST0

I remember reading, back in the day, that Thomas Wolfe wrote "Look Homeword, Angel" while balancing his manuscript on top of a refrigerator (either he was much taller than I was, or his refrigerator was much shorter), and Lytton Stratchey composed his "Eminent Victorians" lying in the bathtub (one dunk and there goes the manuscript!).  Sadly, I don't have anything quite so entertaining as that.  What I do have is my own favorite seat at the counter at Starbucks, and I like to have my drink positioned just so next to my laptop.  Different books call for different drinks, and the taste of a certain beverage can bring back a specific book for me: peppermint mochas for one, caramel macchiatos for another.  When I work at home instead of Starbucks, I listen to music on my computer, different music for different books.  When you think about it, both provide a gentle nudge to the subconscious, so that when I taste THAT drink or hear THAT song, I'm chivvied along into the world of that particular story.  Or, at least, that's how it's supposed to work!

Jan 8, 11:49AM EST0

Does The English Wife have any Pink Carnation connections?

Jan 7, 6:58PM EST0

What, me, put Pink Carnation connections in a stand alone novel?  Well, yes.  The Pink link in this particular book is a  descendant of a side character from THE TEMPTATION OF THE NIGHT JASMINE, and you will absolutely recognize the last name once you see it.  

Jan 8, 10:57AM EST0
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One or two things you would like your fans to know about you?

Jan 7, 10:20AM EST0

That's such a good question!  It made me really stop and think-- and the first thing that came to mind was, "How much should readers know about authors?"  I love that the internet now brings readers and writers together, but, at the same time, there are times when getting to know the author can get in the way of the story.  There are, sadly, books I loved-- until I met the author.  (Naming no names!)  So I'd say that what I'd like my readers to know is that I care deeply about both writing and reading; that I value their suggestions and their book recommendations more than I can say; and that I will always strive to write the very best books I can.  

Jan 8, 4:53PM EST1
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Other than reading and writing what do you like to do on your free time?

Jan 7, 9:33AM EST0

When I can, I love to binge watch British crime dramas.  It doesn't matter if it's a cozy or a psychological thriller, if it takes place in a small, country village or a gritty urban police station.  If it's a whodunnit and takes place in the UK, I'm in.  Poirot, Line of Duty, Father Brown, Shetland...  And, of course, Midsomer Murders, which has a crime rate that rivals that of Cabot Cove.

My other guilty pleasure is jigsaw puzzles.  I find that there's something about the act of sorting those little pieces and putting them together that frees my mind and helps me puzzle through plot problems.  So, really, it's work, right?  And if it's work, then it's a completely legitimate use of time....  (As you can see, among my other favorite activities are self-justification and procrastination.  These go particularly well together.)

Jan 8, 4:58PM EST0

How much research do you do before plotting a story, considering that you do a historical fiction genre?

Jan 7, 8:16AM EST0

Ages and ages ago, back when I was in my teens, I read an article in a writing magazine by the great John Jakes, historical fiction author extraordinaire, saying that before getting started on a book, he spent a year immersing himself in the sources, so that the history would permeate every bit of the story.  I loved that idea.  But, times having changed, it's no longer possible to spend a year buried in the archives.  (For a while, I was writing two books a year, so by the time I'd done my research I would have been two books behind!).  But I do a modified version of the immersion method.  I always take at least a month to read everything I can get my hands on about the topic-- more, if it's an area that's less familiar to me.  Often, while I'm researching, my image of what the story will be changes dramatically based on what I'm reading.  Of course, it's impossible to think of everything in advance, so, while I'm writing, I do what I think of as spot research, chasing down specific details that pop up as the story unfolds.  It's always fascinating to me what you can find (like Napoleon's foreign minister's bedroom furniture from 1805) versus what you can't (a specific merchant's house in Bridgetown in Barbados).

Jan 8, 11:03AM EST0

What aspect of writing do you find most challenging?

Jan 7, 6:46AM EST0

Bridging the disconnect between the story in my head and the words on the page!  When you start a book, it's complete and perfect in your imagination.  But once you start wrestling it onto the page, all the chinks in the scaffolding start to show.  Characters branch off in unexpected directions; motivations that seemed straight-forward no longer make sense; scenes that were clear in my head sound clunky jumbled into words.  In the end, there's a sort of rough compromise that happens between what I wanted to story to be and what I can make it be.  I think of it as the equivalent of a painter trying to find a way to put the image before his eyes into oils, mixing and mixing to get the right shades, straining for the proper perspective, trying to catch the elusive tricks of light.  Sometimes, just sometimes, it all comes together.  And that's the best feeling in the world.  For all the other times, there's strong coffee....

Jan 8, 11:07AM EST0
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How does one become a New York Times bestselling author, are there criterias needed and who determines that?

Jan 7, 4:22AM EST0

If you ever want to start a brawl at a writer's conference, just ask about the criteria for the NYT list.... 

The truth is, no one-- except, perhaps, the New York Times-- knows exactly how the list works.  It's based on reports from a sample of stores, from which the Times extrapolates which books sold the most copies on any given week.  The stores send in their numbers, the Times adds it up, adds a swirl of their own special quantitative sauce, and then comes out with their weekly list, which is broken up into categories: fiction, non-fiction, hardcover, paperback, and so on.   

So, basically, the short answer is that to become a New York Times bestselling author, you write a book, promote it like mad, and hope it sells really, really well.  Whether you make it onto the list or not depends on which other books are selling that week and how well they're doing.  It's definitely not an exact science....  But it does look good on a book cover!

Jan 7, 1:22PM EST0
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How do you stay inspired to fuel your creative vibe?

Jan 7, 2:42AM EST0

Caffeine.  Lots and lots of caffeine.  Also, chocolate.  Which has caffeine in it, so I guess that really still falls under caffeine....

In addition to frequent and liberal application of lattes, I can't write unless I'm also reading.  I read early in the morning and late at night, before and after my work day, sometimes new books, sometimes old favorites.  When I'm in the midst of working on a book, I like to read series, usually mysteries, since something about being in that sort of interwoven fictional world helps me stay in my own.  When I'm between books of my own or in research mode, I read more broadly and experiment with more new books.  Reading fiction is air and water to me; I can't write without it.

Jan 7, 1:07PM EST0

Can you share to us your journey and how it led to where you are now?

Jan 6, 10:47PM EST0

Like most of the best things in my life, my career came about by accident.  I'd always intended to be a writer, but I'd meant to write weighty works of historical fiction, the sort that ran about a thousand pages long and were invariably called "a brilliant historical tapestry" in reviews.  I spent summers attending writers's camps as a teenager and toddled off for a PhD in history after college, so I could get my historical background right.

And then, just for fun, while I was avoiding working on my dissertation, I wrote a tongue in cheek, madcap swashbuckler of a novel, about flowery spies in Napoleonic France, filled with historical in-jokes and Blackadder references.  It was entirely for my own amusement, but a friend, who also found it amusing, handed it to a friend of hers, who happened to be an agent-- and the next thing I knew I had an agent and a book contract!  That book contract turned into another and another, and that just-for-fun book turned into a twelve book series.

I'd say the lesson I've learned from this is that nothing is ever really wasted, that anything you put your heart and your mind to might turn out to be a pivot point for your life-- and that there are a lot of people out there who are, apparently, also amused by the antics of spies in knee breeches!

I'm no longer writing that series, but I'm so grateful that it gave me my entry into the publishing world, as well as years of amusement.  As to where I am now... I'm still learning my craft, still trying to improve with every book, and I hope I can go on doing that for many, many years to come.

Jan 8, 5:06PM EST0

What is the best piece of advice you can give to new authors who are trying to pitch agents and publishers?

Jan 6, 3:57PM EST0

My first piece of advice, if you haven't yet seen the blog "Slush Pile Hell" (slushpilehell.tumblr.com/), spend an hour skimming through.  You'll snort coffee out of your nose, but it's also a very good guide to What Not to Do when querying an agent. 

Once you've cleaned up the spilled coffee... I'd say the most important thing is to be flexible and resilient.  Your book is your baby and you love it, but publishing is a business.  Agents and publishers, while wonderful people who love books, are also looking for products they think they can sell.  Your book may be amazing, but just not fit the niche they want right now.  So try to bear in mind that a lot of success in publishing is just having the right book at the right time, not necessarily the absolute merits of the book, and that a rejection doesn't mean that you can't or shouldn't write.  Be prepared to make compromises-- for example, if an agent says, "I love this, but have you thought of doing XYZ with it?", it's always a good idea to give the suggestion a go.  And remember that the market changes, constantly, and the manuscript that doesn't sell today may sell next week or next year or five years from now.

Good luck with your publishing journey!

Jan 7, 1:02PM EST0

If you could meet one person in history who would you choose?

Jan 5, 10:20PM EST0

This has to be the nerdiest response ever, but... I've always wanted to meet Caroline of Ansbach.  She was the wife of George II of England, and very effectively ran the country in partnership with the Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, while managing to convince her husband that, don't worry, dear, he really was in charge.  (Of course, she would have said it in German, being, well, German.)  She was educated by Leibniz, one of the formost philosophers of the day, and surrounded herself with interesting and clever people.  The early 18th century is one of my favorite time periods (those clothes! the music!  the court intrigue!).  I've never written a book set in that period, but it's the place and time in history I'd most like to visit-- including a tete a tete with Queen Caroline.

Jan 7, 12:55PM EST0

What is your typical day like?

Jan 5, 3:50PM EST0

In an ideal world, I hand off my kids to the babysitter in the morning, make it to my favorite spot at the far end of the counter at Starbucks by eleven, and work until the coffee's run out-- or until the older child needs to be picked up from school.  Then I deal with the extraneous stuff-- website updates, responding to reader email, last minute research-- in the afternoon, when my brain is no longer capable of sustained effort.  Of course, it seldom really works like that.  In real life, there are days when I stare at the computer screen for an hour and then give up, and other days when the characters are chattering away in my head, but I have to attend a meeting or take someone to the pediatrician, and have to just scribble notes to myself on bits of paper and hope they make sense later.  

Jan 7, 12:52PM EST0

Which among your books have been the most challenging one and gives you the most pride and satisfaction, why?

Jan 5, 9:06AM EST0

Oh, goodness.  I'd say any book I'm working on feels like The Book I Should Never Have Written (whereas any book I haven't started working on yet is always The Best Book Ever).  It's just the way it goes.  But getting past that, if I had to pick just one, I'd say it's my twelfth book (and second stand alone novel), THAT SUMMER, which goes back and forth between a modern woman who inherits a house in London and the early days of the Preraphaelite movement in 1849.  I adore the Preraphaelites and their paintings and I loved learning about their early days, but... the book was an emotionally wrenching one for me.  The historical story takes place in the suburbs of London, at the height of the most repressive period in Victorian history, about a woman in a loveless marriage, trying to break free but thwarted by social norms and her own powerlessness as a married woman (married women had very few rights under the law).  The modern story deals with a woman who lost her mother and moved from England to New York as a young child, who finds her memories of her past and that tragic accident triggered by her return to England.  My previous books tended to take refuge in a lot of light humor, banter, and flippancy, but, in THAT SUMMER, the emotion was right out there.  I've never cried when writing before, but, with THAT SUMMER, I did.  In the end, I think it was worth it-- I've had so many people tell me that THAT SUMMER truly moved them, which is one of the best compliments a writer can receive.  Knowing that THAT SUMMER struck a chord for others has given me the courage to deal with darker topics in my books and to continue to stretch myself as a writer.  Although I do still love writing humor!

Jan 8, 5:13PM EST1

What is your writing process and is there a particular place where you feel most creative?

Jan 5, 5:54AM EST0

It's such a cliche, but... Starbucks!  I'm that person at the corner of the counter, hunched over my laptop, nursing one caramel macchiato for hours and hours, while periodocally muttering to myself.  I find that getting away from my own space into the neutral space that is Starbucks helps me get out of my own head and into the world of the book.  (It also helps that I pretend they don't have WiFi.  And I don't want to be told otherwise.)

Vis a vis process, I tend to spend a month or two immersing myself in historical sources (more if it's a time period/place I'm not as familiar with), then three or four months dithering over the first three chapters, as I write my way into the characters and rethink everything at least a dozen times; and then the rest of the book gets written in a wild, caffeinated sprint.  It's not a particularly calm and measured writing process, but it's the one that seems to work for me-- and has resisted all efforts at change!

Jan 5, 1:02PM EST0

What is the best compliment you ever received?

Jan 5, 5:18AM EST0

What a lovely question!  The best compliment I've ever received was being told that my books inspired someone to read more.  Whenever I'm told that my books turned someone into a reader, it makes my week.

Jan 5, 12:59PM EST0

Where can readers find your work?

Jan 5, 4:22AM EST0

Thanks for the question, Michelle!  My work is available in all the usual places: Barnes & Noble, Amazon, your favorite local bookstore or library.  To learn more about the books and for a full booklist, just visit my website at www.laurenwillig.com/books/.

Jan 5, 12:58PM EST0

How do you come up with new story ideas and create totally different characters for your novels?

Jan 5, 12:53AM EST0

Story ideas tend to jump out at me when I'm not expecting them.  My latest book, THE ENGLISH WIFE, is a case in point: I was meant to be working on a totally different book, but, out of nowhere, I had an image of a woman in 1890s clothes standing on a parapet over the Hudson.  Who was she?  Why was she there?  That one simple image led to a whole storyline.  

I'm a former historian, so many of my story ideas come out of historical anomalies.  For example, my Kenya-set book, THE ASHFORD AFFAIR, was inspired by the life of "the Bolter", Idina Sackville, who notoriously racketed about England and Kenya, picking up and discarding husbands (and children).  Reading about her life made me wonder about the people she'd left behind, the children who had to grapple with her legacy.  So I invented my own bolter and told the story from the viewpoint of the other family members affected by that behavior.

The historical time period tends to inform the types of characters.  A woman in 1840 is going to have been raised with a different set of norms/expectations than a character in 1927.

Of course, all that being said, a lot of the time, it feels like these characters aren't my creations at all: that they've always been there and I'm just discovering them and trying to tell their story as best I can,  Michelangelo said once that he wasn't creating his sculptures; he was simply freeing them from the stone.  I feel the exact came way about my books.

Jan 5, 12:56PM EST0
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