Gilded Age America, with its railroad barons, brash city life and old money rivalries, is an era perfectly suited for fresh and fast-paced historical romance. Elizabeth Camden’s smart, heartwarming new romance, A Dangerous Legacy, hops between the upper-class milieu of Sir Colin Beckwith, head of the New York City Reuters office, and the legal struggles of Lucy Drake, a telegraph operator at the rival AP news service. When Lucy suppresses gossip about Colin that could wreck his chances of marrying an heiress, she asks for his help in winning a generation-spanning family lawsuit. We spoke to Camden about the appeal of the Gilded Age, how telegraphs are like chat rooms and why she doesn’t use misunderstandings as plot points.
Describe your latest book in a sentence.
A desperate aristocrat, a wronged heiress and old secrets collide in this Gilded Age romance.
There are quite a few interlocking plot lines in A Dangerous Legacy, from Lucy and Colin’s work at rival news organizations to Lucy’s family lawsuit to Colin’s quest to marry into money to save his estate. Was one story thread in your head from the beginning, or did you write the book knowing that all of these ideas would eventually come into play?
I was inspired to write this novel after reading a terrific book by Tom Standage—The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s Online Pioneers. The book describes how news agencies telegraphed stories all over the world, and how the telegraph operators who staffed these machines around the clock often got bored and began chatting with one another during slow times. They also eavesdropped on one another. I immediately knew this would provide a great setting for a novel. Although we tend to think of online friendships and internet hacking as very 21st century, all of this was occurring during my 1903 timeframe. All the other storylines grew out of that initial inspiration.
Recently, I’ve been seeing a lot of historical romances set in turn-of-the-century New York City as opposed to Regency or Victorian England. What do you think is the appeal of Gilded Age America?
I think the Gilded Age is appealing because you can still include the glamour, pageantry and romance of an earlier era, but it isn’t quite so foreign as Regency or Victorian times. Most importantly for me, the Gilded Age had realistic opportunities for women to move into the professions. All of my novels feature working women: scientists, artists, translators and in the case of A Dangerous Legacy, a telegraph operator. This gives me the chance to have my heroines interact with men outside of a ballroom or tea party. I can have my heroines engaged in storylines that have huge stakes, such as the quest to cure a deadly disease (With Every Breath) or translate military communications (Against the Tide). The potential for plunging my heroines into these interesting settings is what attracts me to the period.
Both Lucy and Colin place enormous importance on enjoying life and having enthusiasm for their work. I found this interesting given that journalists are usually portrayed in media as quite cynical. Was that a conscious choice on your part?
One way to write engaging characters is to have them be deeply passionate about their profession. In this case, both Colin and Lucy are news junkies. They went into the newspaper industry because of their insatiable curiosity and it provides an immediate touchstone between them. I get a little tired of bitter or cynical characters. Give me a hero who is willing to fight and die for an important cause, and I am immediately engaged.
Something I really appreciated about this book was that Lucy and Colin are very open with each other from the beginning, and the plot isn’t driven by misunderstandings between them. Did you find that choice opened up the story for you? Among romance writers there is a plot device called “The Big Misunderstanding,” which is an easy way to create conflict. I never do this. . . frankly, I can’t respect a character who jumps to conclusions when a simple, honest conversation will clear it up. The barriers between Lucy and Colin’s relationship were real and painful. There wasn’t an easy or obvious solution to their problems, so they had to fight, sacrifice and earn their happy ending. I think readers respect characters who tackle the hard stuff.
Which side character did you most enjoy writing?
Lucy’s brother, Nick! When I wrote A Dangerous Legacy, I intended for it to be a stand-alone novel, but Nick was one of those larger-than-life characters who had such a big and generous heart that I didn’t want to say goodbye to him. By the end of the novel, I knew he was worthy of his own book, so I crafted an ending that leaves him wide open for a sequel.
Lucy and Colin have a disagreement near the end of A Dangerous Legacy over whether it’s better to pursue justice and duty above all else, or to let go and pursue one’s own personal peace. Do you come down on one side or the other?
This one is tricky. There is a reason people who fight for justice and accept heavy burdens of duty tend to go down in history as heroes. I am a big fan of those “duty, honor, country” type of people. . . but sometimes the quest to pursue justice can warp a person and knock their priorities out of whack. I always try to weave some of these ethical dilemmas into a plot, as it adds a bit of richness to a story. Although the goal in my novels is always to deliver a rich, heart-pounding romance, the ethical dilemmas help ratchet up the emotional heft of the novel.
If you could go to one place or event in turn-of-the-century NYC, where would you go?
I get ridiculously emotional when I see old photographs of immigrants arriving on Ellis Island. I love looking at the expressions on their faces—anticipation, exhaustion, curiosity, trepidation. They risked everything for a chance at a better life and I admire their bravery. They were the people who built America, and it would be amazing to sit in one of those balconies at Ellis Island and watch as thousands of people funnel through the doors, lining up for their shot at a better life. I would really love to see that.
What’s next for you?
Nick’s story, A Daring Venture, will be released mid-2018. The heroine is a doctor who’s dedicated her career to fighting waterborne disease. She is part of a research team that proposes a controversial solution for supplying water to the cities. This puts her in stark opposition to Nick, who is the newly appointed Commissioner of Water in New York. It is based on a real life court case from 1908, and I loved the chance to research the courageous scientists, businessmen and engineers who participated in this landmark case. Decisions this big are rarely easy, so it was a wonderful story tailor-made for a novel.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of A Dangerous Legacy.
Author photo by Ginger Murray Photography.