I had the pleasure of asking the author of THE SECRET LIFE OF LADY JULIA, Lecia Cornwall, questions for this post and her answers are just delightful and so worth reading!
Are any of the historical settings and happenings in THE SECRET LIFE OF LADY JULIA based on real events?
Everything except for the main characters and their personal stories is historically factual. When I decided to set the story in Vienna during the Peace Conference of 1814, I did a lot of research. It turned out to be one of the most interesting episodes in the history of that era—literally, even the most talented writer couldn’t make up the wonderful intrigue, social events, illicit romances, and misbehavior that took place over six months of parties and politics. The setting is as real as I could make it without resorting to a heavy history lesson—even the palace occupied by the British delegation was the one the real ambassador stayed at in Vienna. One of the books I read as research, Vienna 1814: How The Conquerors of Napoleon Made Love, War, and Peace at the Congress of Vienna by David King was very enjoyable book, if you’d like to learn more.
Lady Julia’s story came from wondering just what a ruined lady might do to make a new life. The opportunities for women were rather limited at the time. Her family insists she must leave England when they disown her. I looked at events that were taking place in Europe at the time, and discovered the Congress of Vienna that way. Julia becomes a companion to the sister of a diplomatic aide.
Are any of the characters in the book inspired by historical or real people in your life?
The Secret Life of Lady Julia includes lots of historical figures—from the notorious French Ambassador Talleyrand and Lord Castlereagh to the charming Prince de Ligne and Madame Anna Protassoff. Anna was once served Russian Empress Catherine the Great as her Royal tester, meaning that she tried out the sexual abilities of court gentlemen who caught the Empress’s eye. They got the, um, position—or not—based on Anna’s recommendations. How could I not include her?
I have never used real historical figures as speaking characters before. I usually chose to write the story around them, but this was a tale that couldn’t be told without them. I hope I’ve done them justice. In Anna’s case, her jewelry is my invention.
I never, ever use people I know as characters! That could lead to really awkward questions at holiday parties, and my family are already shocked enough that my books include s-e-x.
What are some of the ways you do your historical research? I trust it involves a trip or two abroad to all of these wonderful places, e.g. London, Paris, and Vienna as in this book.
I visited both Paris and London a few years ago. It was wonderful to finally go to the places I’d read about and longed to see all my life. I was standing in the street in Mayfair, staring up at the church of St. George’s Hanover Square, imagining the characters of the story I was working on at the time inside, saying their vows, when a modern London taxi nearly ran me over, ending my reveries! I loved walking the same streets my characters would have known, and visiting some of the same shops, like Hatchard’s, where the Duke of Wellington bought his books. In Paris, we visited Malmaison, the home of Napoleon’s first Empress Josephine. We arrived early on a beautiful summer morning, before the tour buses got there, and had the empty house to ourselves. It’s a sad, wonderful place, and one of the highlights of that trip.
I am now the proud mother of two university students. That means they travel, and I don’t. My son is currently visiting Kosovo (and Russia) on student exchange. He had a stopover at the airport in Vienna, and I was hoping he’d take some photos of the city and my book settings for me, but his connecting flight didn’t allow the time. Since both my children intend to live and work in Europe some day, I will be spending long holidays there before long. Until then, most of my historical research is still largely done through books.
Do you have multiple ideas rambling around in your consciousness waiting to get out, or is it one at a time?
I often say that being a writer means never having to go to the bathroom alone— there are hundreds of characters in my head clamoring to have their stories written. Right now, I have six stories rolling though my brain, and I am also doing the accompanying research for some of them. Remarkably, my World War II Nazis in Paris never get confused with midsummer rituals in the Scottish Highlands. I tend to forget character names at times, but I’m at that age where I yell three names at family members before I hit on the right one. I find that if I’m not actively engaged in a project, then ideas keep crowding in. I rewrite movie dialogue in my head, correct the grammar on roadside signs, or imagine stories starring the woman ahead of me in the grocery check out queue.
Can you share what it felt like the first time you held a copy of a book you wrote in your hand?
It happened in stages. First, I saw the cover design for Secrets of A Proper Countess, my debut novel. Next, the publisher sent galleys, which are pages laid out in book form for proofreading, but not bound. Then, my editor sent me four Advanced Reader Copies, mock-ups roughly bound for reviewers.
The most exciting moment was seeing my actual book on the shelf in a bookstore for the first time. Before it was actually published, I’d go to the spot where it would be shelved alphabetically and put my hand between the other books, anticipating release day. And then suddenly, it was there—an actual book with my name on it, with my words inside. It hardly seemed real. I bought one of my own books and just stood there staring at it and giggling. I go through that wonderful feeling every single time a new book comes out.
Besides your cat, what is one likely to find if they had a window into your writing place?
Four other cats? I have five… I make my writing home in my dining room. I imagine that the inside of my head probably looks a lot like my office—cluttered, but rather interesting, in a “Hoarders”, “Museum Secrets”, or “American Pickers” kind of way.
My desk is cluttered with research books, lists of books I want to read, and notebooks full of story details, all in teetering piles the cats have learned not to knock over when they jump up to remind me I’ve been working long enough, and it’s time a few cat biscuits were served up.
I currently have two computers on my desk, a new desktop model, and a six-year-old laptop. I’m in the process of switching over and getting used to the new one. Once the files are transferred, the laptop will move upstairs near the TV, where it will be used to look up actors we’re sure we’ve seen before, or movie reviews.
My laptop sits on a wooden box with two drawers that brings the screen to eye-level. The box holds notebooks, password lists, lip-gloss, and memory sticks. The outside is decorated with fortunes from fortune cookies (‘you have great skill in expressing yourself to be effective’ is my favorite), and has notation of ‘great moments’ glued to it—my release dates, the date I signed with my agent, and my first writer’s business card.
There are rocks on my desk—yep, rocks—picked up on beaches. There’s also an acorn from my former home in Ottawa, because it reminds me of a place I love, and because acorns symbolize creativity. There’s a single serving sized bottle of Writer’s Tears whisky, which is used to toast small writing triumphs in tiny sips, like typing ‘The End’.
My bookcase is crowded with file folders full of book details, publicity notes and reviews. There are stacks of author copies of my books. There’s a map of Britain folded wrong, and a huge battered atlas that pre-dates the fall of Communism (I used it to plan Lady Julia’s trip across Europe from Brussels to Vienna). I have a lucky marzipan pig from a German delicatessen someone gave me two Christmases ago. Research books are stacked in carefully balanced piles, and it requires a code-breaking degree to dislodge one safely. My National Reader’s Choice Award for Best Debut Novel of 2011 for Secrets of A Proper Countess) is proudly displayed.
There are photos of my family on the wall, and each of my book covers. There’s a postcard from the Louvre Museum of a portrait by David of Madame Recamier, a lovely Napoleonic beauty reclining on a chaise longue. She’s my muse—when she chooses to cooperate. There’s a Post-it note list of book deadlines, and a 2013 Chocolate Labs calendar, though not one of the model dogs as handsome as my Kipper. There are also photographs of Russia taken by my son.
Across the room, there’s a stack of magazines—English magazines with photo spreads of great houses, back issues of the BBC History Magazine, and food publications. Beside that, there is the most decrepit wing chair on the planet, once my father’s, and promised to my son when he eventually moves out. Until then, the cats use the chair to take turns minding me with one eye open as I work. They take shifts in the chair and the four-story carpet covered cat tower beside it.
I hook rugs—I design the patterns, cut up old woolen sweaters, and make them the pioneer way—and the first rug I ever made is on the floor in my office.
There are also props for The Secret Life of Lady Julia book trailer—long satin gloves, a plastic betrothal ring, dollar-store champagne glasses, and a fake peace treaty with red food coloring dripped on it to represent blood. My kids helped me put it together, and you can see it at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yEKAHBf7FSI
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If you like to read historical romance this will not disappoint. I am ready for the adventures of Lady Julia to continue.