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  • Five Questions for...Sarah MacLean (Valentine's Day Edition!)
Five Questions for...Sarah MacLean (Valentine's Day Edition!)
Written by
Five Questions
January 2011
Written by
Five Questions
January 2011

Sarah MacLean is a New York-based author of historical romance, including Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake, the recent Ten Ways to Be Adored When Landing a Lord (part of a trilogy) and the young adult novel The Season. Here she talks to Rachel Kramer Bussel, host of In The Flesh Reading Series and editor of Passion: Erotic Romance for Women as well as over 30 other anthologies, about the allure of historical romance, her favorite research tools and the most common misconception about romance writers.


Rachel Kramer Bussel: Why did you decide to focus on historical romance? Do you find the conventions of that subgenre conducive to your writing process or are they limiting?


Sarah MacLean: I’ve always wanted to write historical romance—since I was probably way too young to be reading the genre! I think I’m drawn to it because it is a genre by women, for women, largely…which allows writers and readers to explore feminine motivation, feminine strength, and the way that women think about love and relationships without having to pull our punches. Add to it the fact that I’m a sucker for a happy ending, and romance is the whole package as far as I’m concerned! 


I have always felt that the conventions of the genre—the clear parameters of one man, one woman, one happily ever after—serve to make romances more thoughtful—knowing that these are your givens and that, ultimately, the goal is to make a love story as compelling as possible, gives me a freedom to explore the many nuances of human emotion. Ultimately, that exploration is how I am fulfilled as a writer.


Rachel: You have 2 books out in your linked trilogy: Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake and Ten Ways to Be Adored When Landing a Lord, with the third, Eleven Scandals to Start to Win a Duke's Heart, due out in April 2011. How did you get the inspiration for them, and did you have all three mapped out when you started writing the first?


Sarah: Nine Rules was a stand-alone book when we shopped it to publishing houses. The story resonates with me on a number of levels, as I think it does with many of my readers—my heroine, Calpurnia, is an aging spinster (twenty-eight, which was frighteningly aged in Regency London) who has lived a proper life and never received her promised future (marriage, children, etc.), and so she decides to throw caution to the wind and finally, finally do the things that she’s always dreamed of doing. First on the list, kissing the man she’s been pining after for a decade…who just happens to be the Marquess of Ralston—an inveterate rake. 


It’s a classic wallflower/rake story, but I wanted it to be more than that. I wanted it to be about a woman coming into her own, discovering herself, her strength, her passions. And when we shopped it to houses, that’s how we talked about Callie. I was very lucky to sell to Avon, an imprint of HarperCollins, and when they made their offer, it was for three books connected to one family (Ten Ways is about Ralston’s twin brother, Nick and Eleven Scandals is about their half-sister, Juliana). I was as surprised as anyone by that, but I’ve always believed in saying “Yes” first, and figuring out how you’re going to do it later . . . 


Rachel: What kinds of research have you done to accurately write about the time period your books cover?


Sarah: First, it should be said that when one reads as many books set in the Regency as I have read, it’s hard not to absorb the world. There are legions of women who have come before me and tackled the Regency in breathtaking ways…so I would be remiss in not giving them their due: the mother of Regency, Georgette Heyer; the modern keepers of the Georgian flameEloisa James, Lisa Kleypas, and dozens of others; and, of course, the great Jane Austen. Considering the rate at which I devour books set in and about the Regency, it was no chore to do my own research.


I start every book with a visit to the microfilm room at the New York Public Library, where I read the Times of London from the year in which I’m writing, filling notepad after notepad with notes about articles, people and places, some of which make it into the book, some of which seed the next one, and many of which will be saved for a rainy day. When you write historical fiction, there is nothing better than reading the newspaper from the time. It’s the closest you’ll ever get to real life in the time you’re researching and, if you let your imagination go, you’ve got a hundred books before you’ve finished a month of news.


I also read a ton of nonfiction while I’m writing…there’s a rich collection of books both new and in the public domain that keep the time period alive—everything from biographies of the Prince Regent (who would become George IV) to histories of gambling and medicine and farming to overviews of the Ottoman Empire and comprehensive explanations of the legalities of land ownership, marriage, children, etc. I would be nowhere without that collection!


That said, there are several books and research tools that have saved me on more than one occasion. I don’t go anywhere without What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew (a great beginners primer on the 1800s in England) and English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century, and the OED online (link: http://www.oed.com/) is a must for anyone actually writing in a historical period. It’s great to know where and when a word was born…albeit frustrating when you think you have the perfect line for your heroine and you realize it includes a word that wasn’t coined until 1920.


Rachel: When you were 17, you stated that your dream occupation was romance novelist. What were the biggest hurdles to achieving that dream, and do you have any advice for budding romance writers?


Sarah: The biggest hurdle to writing a novel is writing the novel—actually sitting in the chair and working on the book. Pushing through all the moments when you really don’t want to write, when you’d rather watch Project Runway or bake scones or go to dinner with your friends or read a romance novel. Writing is a strange activity; it’s filled with people and plot and excitement—all of which disappears when you get up from the page, and there are few others who understand precisely how wonderful or how lonely it can be. 


So, my advice for new romance writers is two-fold:


1) Read. Read as much romance as you can to get a handle on the market, but read good romance. Subscribe to Romantic Times magazine. Read the books they name Top Picks. Check out the All About Romance list of best romances of all time…read the top ten. See what readers love, and as you’re reading, think about why the book works. But don’t stop at romance. Read at least one book a month that’s absolutely not something you’d ever pick up. 


And 2) Make friends who are romance readers, romance writers, romance people. You will need them. They will be your rock when you have no idea what to write next. Or where to go from here.


Rachel: What’s the biggest misconception the general public has about romance writers and readers, and what's your comeback?


Sarah: I think people who have never read romance are always surprised to discover that the writing in them can be so stellar. 


This is usually couched in something like, “Oh, I would never read anything like that.” I try not to be snarky in response (despite every fiber of my being wanting to be), and usually I recommend one of three books, depending upon the taste of the person to whom I’m speaking: Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase, Nobody’s Baby But Mine by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, or Eloisa James’s Desperate Duchesses. They are game changers as far as I’m concerned.


Visit Sarah's website at macleanspace.com/romance.html


Connect with Sarah MacLean and Rachel Kramer Bussel through their She Writes pages:



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