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September Book Club Choice

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig

Cover of The Secret History of the Pink Carnation

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The first book in the New York Times Bestselling series that blends history, adventure, intrepid spies, romance and wit to produce a delightfully captivating read.

Setting off for England, Eloise is determined to finish her dissertation on two spies, the Scarlet Pimpernel and the Purple Gentian. She tracks down the Selwick family, descendants of the Purple Gentian, and whilst rummaging through a pile of old letters and diaries she discovers something historians have missed: the secret history of the Pink Carnation - the most elusive spy of all time. As she works to unmask this obscure character, more and more questions arise. How did the Pink Carnation save England from Napoleon? What became of the Scarlet Pimpernel and the Purple Gentian? And closer to home...why is the very modern Colin Selwick so frustratingly charming, yet determined to interfere with Eloise’s research?

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Author Q&A

Q. How much historical research did you have to do for this novel and how did you go about it?
Corrie Taylor, Glasgow

A. I had a bit of a head start on the research, since, when I began writing 'The Secret History of the Pink Carnation', I was pursuing a PhD in English history. (I pursued, but it got away.) My dissertation was on the seventeenth century rather than the nineteen, but I had to do a field on Modern England ("modern" meaning anything after the Glorious Revolution) as part of the program, so I had shelves stuffed with books on the policies of George III, the social and cultural history of the Regency, and all those fun things. That bit of it came easily to me. What I found harder was getting the physical details down. For example, it my heroine was about to fling herself into a chair, what would the chair have looked like? None of the weighty tomes dangerously overbalancing my shelves had anything about that. I've since had a lot of fun roaming around museums, badgering antiques dealers and dancing around my living room to eighteenth century music.

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Q. What inspired you to write this series - were you a big fan of The Scarlet Pimpernel?
Hannah Grimsby, Newcastle

A. I grew up on the old swashbucklers, those dashing rogues from Captain Blood to Zorro who could neatly pop off the villain's shirt buttons with his epee in one hand while proffering a rose to the heroine in the other. The Scarlet Pimpernel gained a boost in the dashing hero stakes when I was thirteen, when my school decided to show the Anthony Andrews version as part of our French Revolution unit. We all fell madly in love with that "demmed" elusive Pimpernel, and no sleepover was complete without a breathless rendition of "They seek him here...They seek him there..."

Q. Did you set out to write two intertwining stories - the modern and historical - or did that idea come later?
Leila Murdoch, London

A. I wish I could claim that I had thought of it from the beginning! Like most things in my life, I stumbled into the dual plot by accident. When I was about three quarters of the way through writing the historical story that became 'The Secret History of the Pink Carnation' (at that time tentatively titled 'A Rogue of One's Own', based on a very long-running private joke between me and my best friend, who had been stuck playing Virginia Wolff in a school play), I moved to London to research my dissertation about dashing spies during the English Civil Wars. At the time, I was also reading tons of chick-lit in my non-British Library moments. Between the chick-lit and my comic experiences trying to work the water cooler in the Public Records Office, the trials and travails of Eloise were born. One of the things I loved about adding a modern narrator - other than getting to chronicle all the comic idiosyncrasies of the grad school experience - was that it afforded me license to play with some Blackadder-esque humour in the historical sections, on the grounds that the story was all being filtered through Eloise's imagination.

Q. Do you already have a grand plan for the series or do you come up with the plots as and when you write each book?
Barbara Werner, Essex

A. I'm the perfect example of the best laid plans going agley. I always start out with a grand plan, but, as I'm writing, the characters invariably take over and tug me off down primrose paths to places I never quite anticipated. I keep my old notes so I can laugh hollowly over them later, since they never seem to bear much resemblance to the finished books. Fortunately, my characters (or my subconscious) are much brighter than I am, so it all seems to work out in the end.

Q. Did you project any aspects of your own character in Eloise and/or Amy?
Anna Peterson, Weston-Super-Mare

A. My college roommate answered that best. After reading Pink Carnation, she exclaimed indignantly, "But Eloise isn't you at all!" And she's not. We share the same London flat, the same penchant for toffee nut lattes and the same liking for perilously high heels, but our characters are very different. There are definitely bits of me in both Eloise and Amy - probably more than I realize! - but I work very hard to try to keep my characters different from each other and from me. I view character creation as akin to an actor adopting roles for a performance. In writing each character, I try to forget my own instincts and inclinations and, instead, put myself into the head of my fictional creation, playing the old, "If I were a horse, what would I do?" game. The only character I've consciously crafted after myself is Charlotte, the heroine of the fifth book, 'The Temptation of the Night Jasmine'.

Q. Where do you write your books?
G Mortimer, Cumbria

A. Back when I wrote 'The Secret History of the Pink Carnation', I wrote primarily at my rickety old roll-top desk, which has years worth of clutter spilling out of the pigeonholes, sticky tabs that are mean to remind me of things but never do (since they're all covered with other sticky tabs) and a swivel chair held together by one remaining screw and a lot of wishful thinking. I would make a big pot of tea and work for hours at a time, emerging from my haze only when the teapot was suddenly, unaccountably empty. Then I got a high speed internet connection and my productivity plummeted. Since then, I've discovered the joys of working at Starbucks, away from my phone and email, with the ringer turned off on my mobile and lots of nice people who are very happy to make me latte after latte. Since I live in New York City, there are four Starbucks within a five block radius, so I get to mix it up, divvying them up into different purposes, one for everyday work, one for one I need a change, one for extreme deadline panic, and one for when it's too cold out to walk more than a block.

Q. What other historical fiction books would you recommend?
J F Flower, London

A. How long a list can I fit on this page? M.M. Kaye's epic novels of India are a constant source of awe and inspiration to me. Among my other old favorites are Karleen Koen's early eighteenth century set novel, 'Through A Glass Darkly', Diana Gabaldon's 'Outlander', Anne-Marie Selinko's 'Desiree', and Kathleen Winsor's 'Forever Amber'. Susan Holloway Scott writes wonderful first person narratives of the lives of historical characters (my favorite is her 'Royal Harlot', the most balanced account I've ever read of the life of the notorious Lady Castlemaine). I still love the old-fashioned swashbucklers like Rafael Sabatini's 'Captain Blood' as well as George MacDonald Fraser's hysterically funny send-ups of those books, 'The Pyrates' and 'The Reavers'. My favorite authors of historical mysteries are Tracy Grant, who writes the Charles and Melanie series set during the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, Kate Ross, who wrote the Regency-set Julian Kestrel books, and Tasha Alexander, who has won well-deserved acclaim for her Victorian Lady Emily series.


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