Deanna Raybourn talks about City of Jasmine & her writing

City of JasmineToday Deanna Raybourn, New York Times best selling author, talks about her writing and her latest novel, City of Jasmine, which has just released. Readers selected Deanna as one of the top historical fiction authors in both 2012 and 2013 and, having read several of her novels, I can fully appreciate why. To sample her writing, you can read the free novella, Whisper of Jasmine, a prequel to City of Jasmine downloadable from Deanna’s website.

Thank you for being on A Writer of History, Deanna.

Looking through all your novels and novellas, I see mysteries and romance at the heart of the stories you tell. What themes motivate your writing?    I’m always interested in the second story—not just what’s happening up front, but the undercurrents and secrets. My books are usually structured as mysteries with a definite problem to unravel or crime to solve, and there’s always a relationship aspect as well whether it’s a couple meeting for the first time or exploring where a connection is going to take them. When you have romantic entanglements as part of the equation, it complicates things beautifully. Suddenly the stakes are much higher because in addition to justice being served, there’s a “happily ever after” at risk. And being attracted to someone can blind you to their faults—even faults as grave as murder!

The Lady Julia Grey mysteries are set in Victorian times. More recent stories featuring Delilah Drummond & Ryder White and now Evangeline Merriweather Starke transpire in the early part of the twentieth century. What enticed you about this time period?    I have several “pet” time periods—eras that I read about for pure enjoyment, and they all have the same things in common. They are periods that saw social upheaval and change but with a gloss of glamour to heighten the atmosphere. Usually, these are periods when women’s roles were changing. There’s a myth that women’s public roles have had a steady trajectory upwards, but the truth is it’s been more like the swinging of a pendulum. Women have come to the fore and receded again as times have changed. The Restoration saw them appearing on stage for the first time since antiquity while in the Revolutionary/Regency periods they were hosting salons and participating more freely in society than they would in the Victorian age when behavior was generally more restricted. By the 1920s, the pendulum swung again, and the flapper great-granddaughters of Regency belles who had dampened their chemises to show off their figures were taking jobs and raising their hemlines and bobbing their hair and pushing for the right to vote. In the aftermath of the Great War, some people were desperate to a return to the formality of Edwardian times, but many more embraced the coming of change, and that’s always exciting to explore. It also lends itself beautifully to conflict between characters. People who spend their time looking back never seem to understand those who are firmly fixed on looking forward.

Mysteries are complex stories involving hidden clues and complex twists and turns. How do you construct your mysteries?    Mysteries are actually the easiest to structure for me because they’re just giant logic puzzles. If I want a character to discover D, she has to know A and B first and somehow learn about C. It’s figuring out how to get that information to her that’s the challenge and the part I enjoy most. I like laying out the trails of tempting breadcrumbs that lead nowhere, and frying up a red herring is one of the most enjoyable things a writer can do. Assembling the bones of the story is the easy bit because you can see quite clearly where everything fits together. Putting on the flesh and dressing it up is just embellishment—the bones always look roughly the same.

You often weave amusing and eccentric characters into your novels. Where do you get your inspiration for them? Do you have a favourite one?    Between my English blood and southern upbringing, I have a very soft spot for eccentrics. I collect them, in fact, and I’ve been related to quite a few. There were always stories passed around in the family about relatives who were a little larger than life. I also love reading about the most unusual characters in history and taking note of what made them a little off of plumb. Most of what I read about is far tamer than anything I’ve actually used in my fiction because it simply wouldn’t be believable! It just makes for more intriguing characters when you can color them vividly, so I always like to have an original type floating around in each book. Sometimes it’s an entire family—like the Marches from the Lady Julia series—or a single eccentric aunt like Dove in CITY OF JASMINE. They act as a nice foil for the main characters too. If there’s someone in the background behaving truly oddly, then a hero or heroine with a quirk doesn’t seem quite so strange.

Can you tell us a bit about your latest heroine, Evangeline? And is she modeled on anyone in particular?    I never base my main characters on real people, but if there was a bit of inspiration from real life for Evangeline, it came from Hellé Nice, a French rally car driver. Hellé was rather gorgeous and lived life very much on her own terms. She started as a music hall dancer and model and had heaps of affairs, eventually taking up race car driving because she adored the speed. She simply refused to do things she didn’t want to, and made quite a name for herself. Evie has that same determination to make her way in the world doing what she pleases. For her that means flying airplanes and snagging newspaper headlines and sponsorships to pay her way. She has opportunities to marry for money and security, to take mundane jobs, but Evie refuses to settle for being ordinary.

Can readers expect to read more stories about Julia, Delilah or Evangeline?    I’m still writing Julia’s story in the form of digital novellas with two out this year. Delilah made an appearance in my digital novella WHISPER OF JASMINE, the prequel to Evangeline’s book, CITY OF JASMINE. I loved the idea of making these two very different but very audacious women friends! And the fact that Delilah interferes with Evie’s life by playing matchmaker is entirely true to both of their characters.

What is your next project?    Besides the two Julia novellas out this year, I have a novel scheduled to release in the fall—it has different main characters than CITY OF JASMINE but there is a thread of a storyline that carries through and some very familiar faces lurking in the background! We’re still batting around titles, but as soon as we have one I’ll be announcing it.

Deanna RaybournYou can learn more about Deanna’s writing from an earlier blog visit when she talked about historical fiction.

CITY OF JASMINE: Set against the lush, exotic European colonial outposts of the 1920s, New York Times bestselling author Deanna Raybourn delivers the captivating tale of one woman who embarks upon a journey to see the world—and ends up finding intrigue, danger, and a love beyond all reason.

Famed aviatrix Evangeline Starke never expected to see her husband, adventurer Gabriel Starke, ever again. They had been a golden couple, enjoying a whirlwind courtship amidst the backdrop of a glittering social set in prewar London until his sudden death with the sinking of the Lusitania. Five years later, beginning to embrace life again, Evie embarks upon a flight around the world, collecting fame and admirers along the way. In the midst of her triumphant tour, she is shocked to receive a mysterious—and recent—photograph of Gabriel that brings her ambitious stunt to a screeching halt.

With her eccentric and elderly Aunt Dove in tow, Evie tracks the source of the photo to the ancient City of Jasmine, Damascus. There she discovers that nothing is as it seems. Danger lurks at every turn, and at stake is a priceless relic, an artefact once lost to time and so valuable that criminals will stop at nothing to acquire it—even murder. Leaving the jewelled city behind, Evie sets off across the punishing sands of the desert to unearth the truth of Gabriel’s disappearance and retrieve a relic straight from the pages of history. Along the way, Evie must come to terms with the deception that parted her from Gabriel and the passion that will change their destiny forever…

2013 Favourite Historical Fiction Authors

Drum roll … here’s the 2013 list of favourite historical fiction authors.

Favourite HF Authors 1Of 2440 survey participants, 2075 people responded with one, two or three favourite authors. And a total of 1017 different authors were mentioned as favourites.

Trust me, that’s a lot of data to sort through particularly when you think of misspellings, use of initials or not, given name or surname written first! Names like Philippa, Iggulden and McCullough have many spellings – just to mention a few! And then I had to count them – well, actually, Excel counted them for me after my son-in-law showed me how to use the ‘countifs’ feature. Grateful thanks go out to him.

Favourite HF authors 2You will notice that we have 43 authors since five authors all had 21 mentions. A HUGE round of applause for these favourite authors.

Caveats: as I pointed out in the main report, the survey was initially publicized through the Historical Novel Society, a number of book review bloggers and my own efforts on Facebook and Twitter. From those original sources people then passed the survey link along all around the world. After about a week, in an effort to continue spreading the word, I posted on the Facebook pages of the 2012 top ten authors. As you can see from the results, Diana Gabaldon’s fans are incredibly enthusiastic about her writing and they came out in droves to vote!

Comparing to last year: (click here for the 2012 list)

  • The top 6 remain the top 6!
  • 31 authors are on both 2013 and 2012 lists
  • 12 authors are new to the top 40 list
  • 9 authors slipped off the list

Is the methodology statistically accurate?

As I mentioned in the main survey report, I am not a statistician and I’m sure some will argue that the results are skewed based on how those responding heard about it. But don’t forget, 2075 took the time to offer the names of their favourite authors.

In addition, many authors are on both lists (2012 and 2013) and of those authors who slipped off the list, most are not far behind the cutoff point. In addition, some who are new to the 2013 list were not far behind the cutoff for last year’s list.

Let me repeat what I said earlier in this post, a huge round of applause for these terrific authors.

Do men and women have different favourites? Is geography or age a factor in choosing favourite authors? Does it make a difference if you’ve recently released a new novel? I’ll return with some thoughts on these and other aspects when time permits.

Comments welcome as well as any thoughts on further analysis and the popularity of these authors.

P.S. For a look at gender differences in favourite authors, check here.

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is available in paperback from Amazon (USCanada and elsewhere), and in e-book formats from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and on iTunes.

Reading up a storm … historical fiction, of course

During the last two months amidst the hectic activity of promoting Unravelled and running the 2013 historical fiction survey, I’ve done a lot of reading. Almost all of it historical fiction.

Although some appealed to me more than others, all are enjoyable reads and will have their fans in the different sub-genres that constitute historical fiction. (For an interesting look at these sub-genres, check out Reading the Past for Sarah Johnson’s blog post and presentation.)

My personal favourites were: A Spear of Summer Grass (intriguing characters, taught romance and beautiful Africa), Life After Life (novel ‘what if’ concept and great writing), Blood & Beauty (Borgia Italy with all its passions, deceits and displays of power), The Painted Girls (Paris in the late 1800s, gritty and compelling), Rules of Civility (exposes the realities of making it in pre-WWII New York), and Letters from Skye (connecting both world wars, an epistolary novel done extremely well).

Reading historical fiction is a passion for me. I’m drawn to superb writing, strong, rule-breaking characters, stories with energy and events that unfold with intensity, believable romantic plot lines that aren’t formulaic or predictable, WWI and WWII timeframes and historical details that transport me to the time and place without being overdone.