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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

10 May 2007

Welcome, Gretchen Craig!


Gretchen Craig

EVER MY LOVE

Zebra—Available Now!


Gretchen Craig returns with another sweeping story that brings the Old South to life in all its glory – and a passionate heroine compelled to follow her heart.

On the eve of the Civil War, the daughter of Southern planters finds her loyalties tested in a magnificent saga of family pride and forbidden love.

EVER MY LOVE is set in the pre-Civil War South. How did you become interested in this time period? What do you love about it?

Don’t all of us love the look of those huge skirts like Scarlet O’Hara wore? (Not that I’d want to get through the aisles at WalMart in one.) And the luxurious houses with expensive drapery puddled on the floor? (That someone else kept the dog from chewing on.) That’s the romantic aspect. The other appeal of this time to me is imagining what is was like for women with so few choices in life. What were the essentials for them? I’m also fascinated with what life was like before the industrial revolution was in full swing. They certainly had technical advancements in the early 1800s, but very few impacted daily life. What did they do for toothaches? How did they wash a dress with twenty yards of fabric in it? How did they find a soul mate when they were never alone with a gentleman?

What do you like least about this period? Anything that constrained you or that you had to plot carefully around?

Slavery is a touchy subject. Well, I’ll rephrase that because there is no controversy in maintaining that slavery was despicable. What is touchy is having a main character who owns slaves and yet is presented sympathetically. This was especially true in the first book, ALWAYS AND FOREVER. There was some flak for not having the heroine, Josie Tassine, striving to end the institution of slavery. But that was not my thesis at all. I wanted to get in the heads of people who did own slaves, but were otherwise very much like you and me. How is it possible to live with that immorality, owning other human beings, and still live an honorable life in other respects? Understanding people are capable of that is an important part of understanding humanity, whether Iraqi or Chinese or Texan.

The other difficulty with writing about slaves from the points of view of both owner and owned is to try to be accurate. Not every overseer was a Simon LeGree, but the slaves didn’t sing all those work songs in the fields because they were happy, either. I wanted to make my characters individuals experiencing life in that time so that we could feel we’d walked that mile in their shoes.

What sparked this book? Was it a character? An historical event? A scene you just couldn’t get out of your head?

EVER MY LOVE is a stand alone novel, but it is also a sequel to ALWAYS AND FOREVER. The criticism of the first heroine being an unapologetic slave owner got me thinking. I thought then, and think now, that the critic missed the mark. We should be able to look into the minds and souls of slave owners without stereotyping them and without projecting our own values onto them. The fact is, many slave owners felt no conflict in going to church, in praying to God, in loving their own families, and yet – owning slaves. That’s worth thinking about – how a society shapes our thinking.

Okay, I’ll get to the point – the characters in the first book stayed with me night and day. Their stories continued to grow in my head until I realized their children were ready for their own story. Times changed between 1835 and 1860. The second generation’s ideas would be different from their parents’ ideas. And so we have Marianne Johnston, daughter of a slave owner, struggling to reconcile her conscience with her life as a plantation mistress.

Did you have to do any major research for this book? Did you stumble across anything really interesting that you didn’t already know?

The research was fun. No battles to keep straight. I looked into all kinds of 1850s healing and used a lot of that. It struck me all over again what a leap it was later in the century to believe in tiny disease-causing creatures one could not see! Miasmas make more sense than bacteria. I read about the slave market at Vicksburg , Forks-in-the-Road, and then visited the site. Nothing there to suggest what that corner once was. I read about how the slaves were primed for presentation to buyers, given new clothes – very cheap ones, you can be sure – and even new hats in order to look good to the folks looking for hands.

A fact I hadn’t fully appreciated was how many freed blacks lived in the South, and that some of them owned slaves. That’s boggling, and addresses again how pervasive the institution of slavery was, how the culture was saturated with it.

The Civil War can be a really hard sell, or so I’ve heard. How did you manage to sell multiple books with such unusual settings? Any advice for those who wish to follow in your footsteps?

I’m sure editors have eras they’d rather avoid, just as I’ve heard they’re cutting back on Regencies (but I don’t know if that’s true). Maybe they think we’ve read all we want to about the Regency era and about the Civil War years. BUT – I believe that if you write an outstanding novel with compelling characters and a fresh take on the era, whatever the era, you’ll sell. Though I shied away from the Civil War itself, that was mostly out of laziness. All that reading about battles – ugh. But -- how can you ever tell all the stories there are to tell in such a nation-shattering time as that? As long as your story is new and exciting, the setting shouldn’t be a hindrance.

And how did I sell these settings? Hard work and some luck thrown in. Can’t discount luck in this business. I met an editor at the Frontiers in Writing Conference in Amarillo one summer, and she was intrigued with the premise of the first book: two young women, one the slave, the other her mistress, who struggle to remember their love for each other through the trials of prejudice, betrayal, and heartbreak. It was the characters who sold that book. That’s what I mean about setting: If you have intriguing characters, the setting can’t be an obstacle.


What/who do you like to read?

My favorite question! I’ll try not to drone on and on. In romance, I think Judith Ivory is tops (if you haven’t read BLACK SILK, you’re in for a treat). She does it all – plot moves along, wonderful historical details, but best of all, living breathing fascinating characters. I would willingly be her groupie. And then there’s Jennifer Cruise for contemporary romance. She is laugh-out-loud funny. I’ve read BET ME twice trying to figure out how she plots so seamlessly. (I think she cheats – she uses talent.) I’ve just discovered Jodi Picoult (THE PACT). I’m about to read Phillipa Gregory’s A RESPECTABLE TRADE. Oh, and then there was WHITE OLEANDER by Janet Fitch. I’m sort of in and out of the Jefferson biography, AMERICAN SPHINX. I love Ann Tyler. And Jo Beverly. And . . . .

Care to share a bit about your writing process? Are you a pantser or a plotter? Do you write multiple drafts or clean up as you go?

All of the above! The writing process: must check email before opening current work in progress. Must answer email. Must check if more email has come in while I answered the first ones. It’s exhausting. The mean word would be obsessive.

I would dearly like to be a plotter. I do plot to the extent I’m able to see ahead. But that isn’t very far. I know where I want to end up, maybe a couple of key scenes in the middle, and then I have to grope my way along. Makes me feel very insecure, but “it’s what I do.” (Any Jack O’Neil Star Gate fans out there?) Yes, I'm familiar with several how-to-plot methods, but they just make me tense. I clean up a lot as I go, rereading the pages from the day before as I begin a new morning. And I also do multiple drafts. I keep seeing the gap between what is and what ought to be, and I keep rewriting, keep tinkering, and eventually I reach the point I would rather eat sawdust than go back into that manuscript. That’s called “Finished.”

What are you working on now?

I’m doing an insane thing: working on two manuscripts at once. One is another historical. The Acadians first arrived in Louisiana around 1765 after the British expelled them from what we call Nova Scotia . Lots of Cadian dancing, gator hunting, smuggling, and falling in love.

The other novel is a contemporary about two evil women. I’m interested in how ordinary evil can be. We’re not talking about the Holocaust. The banality of evil – that’s what I’m trying to uncover and reveal. The hero is a vet of the Iraq war (this one) and now a beat cop who gets involved in the, at first, petty deeds of the evil women. I’m fascinated by them, and hope you all will be too.

I’ve loved answering these questions. If you’d like to read the first chapter of ALWAYS AND FOREVER or EVER MY LOVE, drop by my website at www.gretchencraig.com. And drop me a note, please. (There is no such thing as too much email!)

6 Comments:

Blogger Kristina Cook said...

I Loved Gretchen's first book ALWAYS AND FOREVER and am really, REALLY looking forward to reading EVER MY LOVE!

7:41 AM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Oh, I haven't read these! How high can a TBR pile get?

About slavery in a romance. . . I think this is why I've always shied away from the idea of writing a Southern-set book. You're very brave! And I really admire the story you took on for the first one. I find it tiresome that EVERY SINGLE heroine has to be a secret (or not so secret) abolitionist. Certainly that's admirable! But, as you say, society helps build our beliefs.

And I love your reasoning for not writing about the war. Me too! Heck, I decided the year of my very first novel because I was trying to avoid the Civil War. And that book was set in England! *wink*

8:25 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Hey, Gretchen! Always nice to have another Deb over here. *grin*

Since my books are set in Georgian England, I struggle with the English Abolition movement. It's been really hard for me not to allow it to take over my WIP for some reason (could it be watching Amazing Grace like a million times?).

I do find it curios that slave owning heroes and heroines get such a hard rap now, but that everyone just glosses right over this fact in their rush to heap love on Gone with the Wind. Why the double standard?

8:44 AM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Ooo, good question, Kalen. That IS interesting. Perhaps it's because our current romance heroines seem so much more in control of their own worlds? Also, I think there has been a tendency for a long time to only write perfect heroines. I'm thrilled that this is changing now. I wouldn't be the least bit interested in a perfect heroine.

8:52 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Hi, Gretchen! Thanks for blogging with us.

I love the pre- and Civil war period. Your books are on my radar!

Thanks for dropping by. ;-)

4:27 PM  
Blogger Gretchen Craig said...

This site is a new one for me and I LOVE it. I'll be dropping in often, and thank you all for your responses to my interview.

Oh, bty, Always and Forever won the Colorado Romance Writers Award of Excellence this past weekend. This may not be the place to mention this, and if that's so, please excues me. I'll get the drift as I read more of your blogs.

And Hi, Christina and Kalen.

12:08 PM  

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