Surprising absolutely no one who’s ever been sucked into a show on HGTV, romances with a home-improvement plot have been a steadily growing little subgenre in recent years. Christy Carlyle’s A Duke Changes Everything hits all those beats, but with a Victorian gothic twist. Mina Thorne is the steward of Enderley, a crumbling country estate that just passed to the new duke, Nicholas Lyon. Nick has always hated Enderley, and fled years ago to run a gentlemen’s club in London. But Mina’s passion for the property and devotion to the people whose livelihoods depend on it make Nick reconsider his plans to sell as soon as he and Mina have completed their renovations. We talked to Carlyle about her love of the Victorian era and what her characters have taught her.
You clearly have a passion for history—I see that you got your bachelor’s degree on the subject. When did the 19th century steal your heart and start to inspire you? What was it that caught your eye?
My grandfather had a big influence on my interest in history. He loved books and introduced me to lots of 19th-century literary classics—Dickens, the Brontes, Austen, Eliot—and that led me to explore and find new favorites like Stoker and Le Fanu. When I entered college and chose history as my major, it felt natural to gravitate toward that era where so many of my favorite stories had been set. I’m continually intrigued with the cultures, fashion, technology and history of the period.
You’ve been magically transported to the world of one of your series! Which one would you choose?
That’s a great question! I think I’d choose my Romancing the Rule series. It’s set in the late 19th century, in the 1880s and ’90s, and that’s probably my favorite period of the era. So many technological advances had sprung up and were altering Victorian lives. I love the way fashion had changed during that era to allow for more natural skirt shapes and tailored waists and even the big poofy sleeves on gowns.
Which do you enjoy writing more: shy wallflowers or bold temptresses?
I like writing bold wallflowers! I like writing heroines who are unexpected and who end up surprising even themselves with their tenacity and drive. They may seem like a wallflower or a shy young woman, but I enjoy writing their journey to discovering they are much more.
What is one life-changing lesson or writing technique you’ve learned from your own characters?
My characters have definitely helped me push past the fear of putting emotion on the page. Writing is a revealing endeavor, and I sometimes find it hard to be vulnerable on the page, but truly wounded characters like Nick, Duke of Tremayne in A Duke Changes Everything have forced me to explore emotion in new ways.
You’ve said that you’re a lifelong learner—what’s your go-to source for knowledge? And is there an author, a former teacher or a character that you cite for inspiration?
I’m a constant reader, not only many types of fiction but history and biographies, too. Books are where I tend to go for my knowledge. This may sound odd, but when I was younger I read a multivolume biography about Percy Shelley, and his thirst for knowledge inspired me. He was constantly reading multiple books on a variety of subjects, and did so on purpose in order to expand his mind. As a teacher, I always viewed myself as much as an instructor as a co-learner with my students. I think it’s vital to stay curious.
Would you rather travel in America or Britain?
I’d have to say Britain. I’ve done a fair bit of traveling in the U.S., but there are many places in Britain I still haven’t explored. I’ve never been to Wales or Scotland, for instance. Both are high on my travel wish list.
If you were to write about a different cultural or time period (besides Victorian times or the Regency period), what would it be? How do you think it would change your writing?
Actually, I’m working on a Gilded Age story set in Chicago, and though it’s essentially still the Victorian era, it has a distinctly different flavor. American history was on its own trailblazing track, and there were lots of unique cultural differences.
I’ve also toyed with the idea of writing science fiction, and that is a whole new level of world building that intrigues me. I’d like to flex those writing muscles and imagine that the process of creating new worlds would enhance my historical writing, too.
How do you get into your writing zone? You’ve said you think about your characters constantly, but what do you do to focus up when it’s time to put pen to paper?
Mostly I try to lose myself in the story world. I usually refer to notes and images (often saved on a Pinterest board) when I start writing, but once I’m into the draft of a book, I read over previous scenes to get back into the motivations and emotions of the characters. Then most of all, I try to turn off my internal editor and just get the story down as honestly as I can.
You’ve done a little work in supernatural tale telling with Enchanted at Christmas. Any plans to do more of that?
I am always a sucker for a good ghost story, and I’m also a longtime fan of gothic romance. I’d love to explore those spooky supernatural elements in a future book.
As a former teacher, what’s the one lesson you would impart to a timid writer afraid to add to such a vast, developed genre as romance?
As a confirmed bookworm, I’d definitely advise someone wishing to write romance to reads lots of them. But I’d also encourage them not to be frightened, to dig in and put their own spin on old tropes. It’s a beloved genre, but definitely one that’s still full of new possibilities.