Help me welcome author Lauren Willig on her first visit to Romance University. Lauren recently finished a long running series of books, the Pink Carnation series, and has headed an entirely new direction. Read on to find out more!
When I was in ninth grade, a Dark Shadows remake aired on television, one episode a week. My friends and I were a little obsessed. In French class the next morning, while our teacher was “getting a breath of fresh air” (aka a surreptitious cigarette out the window of her office) we would discuss the latest developments in hushed tones. Hey, there was a character on the show who was French. So it was relevant. Sort of.
And then the show stopped. Just stopped. In the middle of an extended flashback. No wrap up, no resolution, no nothing.
So when Carrie asked me to write about why I’d decided to wrap up my Pink Carnation series and move on to pastures new, at least one part of the answer was easy: I didn’t want to pull a Dark Shadows. If there’s one thing Dark Shadows taught me, it’s that you never, ever leave a reader hanging. (Also, never go out alone at night in a small town in Maine, particularly if you’re wearing glitter eye shadow.)
I stumbled into writing a series by accident. When I wrote the first Pink Carnation book, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, it was a one-off, entirely for my own amusement. But there was a character in that book who needed a story told—and my brand new publisher offered a two book contract—so, voila! A sequel.
By the time my publisher signed me up for a second two book contract, it dawned on me that I was writing a series. I didn’t have much faith in it lasting, so I created a close-ended multi-book plot arc around the mystery of the identity of the French spy known as the Black Tulip, which was wrapped up by the end of Book Four, The Seduction of the Crimson Rose, and would provide the reader a measure of closure should the books end there. Which is when my publisher signed me up for books five and six and I started thinking more expansively—but always with an exit strategy in view.
There were two prospects that haunted me: 1) that the market would change, the series would be canceled, and I would leave readers hanging, or 2) that I’d be branded a one trick pony, good for nothing but writing Pink Carnation books. It wasn’t that I didn’t love the world I’d created in Pink Carnation. I did. But I’d known since I was tiny that I wanted to be a career writer, the sort of writer who jumped through genres, who died with her great-grandchildren at her bedside and one last finished manuscript in her hand.
I’d been toying for years with the idea of a mystery novel set at my alma mater, Yale. Or maybe a sweeping historical epic, set during the English Civil War. Or a young adult boarding school novel with paranormal elements. But there was always another Pink book to write, and since I was being paid to write the Pink books and had left my law firm job to do so, paying the rent was a rather powerful argument for not rocking the boat.
Life went on like this until 2011, when a few things happened. I turned in a manuscript very early; my editor left my publishing house, with a long gap before her replacement was chosen; and I sat down to write my tenth Pink book and found I couldn’t. I’ve dragged my feet with every book (there’s no book so loathsome and irredeemable as the one you’re meant to be writing and no book as tempting as the one you’re not), but this was different. It was less a block than a solid wall. Part of it was that this tenth book involved a tough heroine, Miss Gwendolyn Meadows, the quirky chaperone who had shown up in all the previous books and who wasn’t going to go gently into her own narrative. But part of it was that I’d been writing about the same characters, in the same time period, for a decade. I loved the Pink Carnation novels, but I was also burned out on them.
I tried to write a Pink Carnation novella, just for variety. I got three pages in and stuck. No amount of caffeine seemed to do the trick. It didn’t help that it was February and grim, as only New York in February can be, with treacherous sinkholes of blackened slush at the street corners. I started daydreaming about warmer climates and found myself revisiting a story idea I’d toyed with back in the fall, about expat Brits in Africa in the 1920s. A friend of mine had sent me Idina Sackville’s biography, The Bolter, and the story of the hard-partying Happy Valley crowd, all so scarred from World War I, all leaving such a complicated legacy of broken hearts and broken families behind them, set my imagination going.
Well, I had time, didn’t I? I set my barely begun Pink manuscript on a shelf and began playing with my Happy Valley story, so different from anything I had ever imagined writing. At first, I tried to write it as a single, linear narrative, told in the first person by my heroine, the artsy poor cousin of an aristocratic family. But it just didn’t quite work. Okay, time to try another tactic. I had the narrator begin in her eighties, as a retiree in Nairobi in the 1980s, telling her story backwards from memory. And on it went, trial and error, fitting the pieces together this way and that, experimenting with different styles and tones. I’d been writing in one style, in one particular voice, for over a decade. It was terrifying and exhilarating knowing that the field was entirely open, that I could make this book anything I wanted it to be.
You know what they say: if you’re not scared, you shouldn’t be doing it.
And that’s how I wound up jumping genres, completely by accident. The new book, The Ashford Affair, came out as a sort of women’s fiction/ historical fiction hybrid. It also brought me into the twentieth century, to World War I and the roaring Twenties, a time period I had never imagined I would ever write about. The manuscript went to auction at exactly the same time my old publisher assigned me a new editor and made an offer for two more Pink books.
I was lucky, in that I was able to make the transition between genres gradually: there was a three year overlap where I had both a stand alone and a Pink book out each year. (The Ashford Affair and Pink X, The Passion of the Purple Plumeria in 2013; That Summer and Pink XI, The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla in 2014; and The Other Daughter and Pink XII, The Lure of the Moonflower in 2015.) It was a stretch for me—especially since I had my first child in 2013, smack in the middle of the multi-deadline marathon, which was its own additional challenge!—but it gave me time to wrap up the Pink series the way I wanted to and to prepare my readers for the switch.
Right now? I’m testing my limits, trying different styles, writing about topics that scare me. My latest book, The Other Daughter, was my first ever single viewpoint, single narrative, single time period story. The book I’m working on right now is a multi-generational, multi-viewpoint epic set partly in a time period I swore I’d never write about: World War II. The research makes me cry. But, for some reason, that’s where this story had to go.
Would I like to go back to tongue in cheek romantic mystery some day? Absolutely. I miss it terribly already. There are at least two more Pink Carnation stories I want to tell—so I’m not ruling out the possibility of staging a Conan Doyle-esque Return of the Pink Carnation one of these days. But I wanted to make sure that my readers had the closure they deserved by giving them a proper end to the series.
Dark Shadows, I’m looking at you!
As a reader, do you prefer open-ended or close-ended series? Series or stand-alones?
Join us on Wednesday for author Kayelle Allen.
Bio: Lauren Willig is the New York Times bestselling author of sixteen historical novels. Her books have been translated into over a dozen languages, awarded the RITA, Booksellers Best and Golden Leaf awards, and chosen for the American Library Association’s annual list of the best genre fiction. After graduating from Yale University, she embarked on a PhD in English History at Harvard before leaving academia to acquire a JD at Harvard Law while authoring her “Pink Carnation” series of Napoleonic-set novels. She lives in New York City, where she now writes full time.
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