Lauren Willig’s romantic mysteries charm readers There are few authors capable of matching Lauren Willig’s ability to merge historical accuracy, heart-pounding romance and biting wit. The Seduction of the Crimson Rose, the latest in her popular Pink Carnation series, continues Willig’s trend of making each installment even better than its spectacular predecessor. This accomplishment is all the more amazing given that Willig, in addition to being a novelist, has a demanding full-time job as an associate in a New York law firm. By working late in the office during the week, she frees her weekends, locking herself away to write from seven in the morning until midnight. It’s a system not without its drawbacks.
"I did manage to get The Seduction of the Crimson Rose written that way, only three months behind deadline!" she says. "But it’s not necessarily something I’d recommend as a lifestyle choice. The plus side of the experience—aside from having a salary—is that you learn to write very quickly and efficiently, since there’s no spare time to indulge in writer’s block. The downside is all your friends e-mailing to ask if you’re dead." A New York native, Willig grew up in Manhattan, and doesn’t live far from her early stomping grounds, a situation that’s wonderfully convenient when she feels the need for a home-cooked meal: She can easily drop in on her parents. "I have a whole group of childhood friends in a five-block radius of me who also came back to the Upper East Side like homing pigeons. We all went to the same tiny all girls’ school for 13 years, which meant there was a lot of trading of romance novels back and forth, since none of us actually knew any real boys, except for a handful of boys from the local all boys’ schools who didn’t really seem to count, at least not when compared to Judith McNaught heroes."
Willig’s writing process "involves a lot of strong tea and personal bribery, along the lines of ‘If you write a chapter, I’ll buy you a Starbucks,’ or ‘If you finish 10 pages by seven o’clock, you can watch a BBC costume drama.’ I find it very hard to write in bits and pieces, so I generally try to block out a whole day at a time for writing. It takes me an hour or two of whining and foot-dragging to get myself to the computer, but once I’m there, I’ll usually wake up several hours later to find that pages have magically appeared on the scene, all my tea is gone, and my knees hurt from sitting cross-legged on my desk chair for four hours at a stretch."
The Seduction of the Crimson Rose is the fourth novel in the Pink Carnation series, in which each volume follows both a contemporary storyline and an historical one. In early 19th-century England, Mary Alsworthy is living with the aftermath of her sister having married her would-be fiancé. Unhappy and thoroughly aggravated by the sympathies of her family, she allows the dashing Lord Vaughn to persuade her to work as a double agent against the Black Tulip, the dastardly and dangerous French operative, and assist England’s favorite spy, the Pink Carnation. While she has a general idea as to where the series is going as a whole, Willig says her plot ideas invariably play second fiddle to the needs of the current book. "There have been times when I’ve tried to plant information for the purposes of future books—and I usually find myself going back and deleting those scenes. It works best when I let the series grow at least semi-organically, following the lead of my characters. For example, The Seduction of the Crimson Rose was supposed to be about a separate set of characters entirely, but as I was finishing the previous book, Deception of the Emerald Ring, I realized that the story in Crimson Rose followed much more logically out of preceding events than the other plot line that I had been planning for two years."
Switching between different voices and time periods gives Willig a wonderful freedom. "I’ve found that whenever I get stuck on the historical sections that form the bulk of the books, working on a modern chapter is like taking a brief, breezy vacation. Of the two, if I had to pick just one, I would go with the historical, since I’ve always wanted to live in another century, preferably one with men in knee breeches. But popping back to the modern always makes me appreciate the historical even more," she says. "I always emerge from a modern chapter energized and ready to tackle my historical plot problems."
"Both the historical world and the modern world seem sharper and clearer to me after hopping from one to the other," Willig says. "When I’ve been in Almack’s [the famous Regency assembly rooms, site of weekly balls during the London Season], admiring the gentlemen’s knee breeches and sipping ratafia, things like buying Starbucks while rushing to the Tube suddenly seem exotic and interesting." Willig names L.M. Montgomery and Louisa May Alcott as early influences, citing their skills at taking seemingly everyday events and making them compelling and memorable. She still re-reads the Anne of Green Gables books at every opportunity. Margaret Mitchell and M.M. Kaye have been her models for weaving history into a fictional narrative since she was in fifth grade, and she’s gone through at least five copies of Gone With the Wind because her old ones keep crumbling at the seams. So where did her love affair with English history begin? "[It was] fed by Jean Plaidy’s Queens of England series, which made everyone from Margaret of Anjou to Queen Victoria feel like close personal friends, and Karleen Koen’s Through a Glass Darkly, which still makes me want to go live in the 18th century. When it comes to writing style, though, the hands-down biggest influence was Elizabeth Peters. Anything I know about comic timing in fiction, I learned from Peters’ brilliant mystery novels."
It is the humor in Willig’s work that sets it apart from other historicals. The banter between Lord Vaughn and Mary Alsworthy in The Seduction of the Crimson Rose is more than worthy of Peters at her best, and the continuing romantic and academic adventures of Eloise Kelly, heroine of the contemporary storyline, is deliciously satisfying. Readers will be delighted to know there are more volumes to come in the series. And Willig, at last, will have a bit more freedom when writing them, since she’s quitting her job and joining the ranks of full-time writers. "There are certainly things I’ll miss about the practice of law, like my wonderful colleagues at the office," she says, "but I’m very much looking forward to having the time to return e-mails, write more books, and, of course, indulge in massive fits of writer’s block."
Tasha Alexander is the author of And Only to Deceive and A Poisoned Season.