The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia
22 January 2008
Interview with multi-award-winning romance writer Jennifer Blake
Jennifer Blake’s career has spanned more than 35 years, and she has written under the names Patricia Maxwell, Elizabeth Trehearne, Patricia Ponder, and Maxine Patrick. Her first published books were Gothics, but she has since written historical romances, a murder mystery, a suspense, and contemporary romances. Her current Master at Arms series (published by Harlequin/Mira Books) takes place in New Orleans in the 1840s. The heroes are sword masters—feared and respected for their deadly skills, but not considered worthy suitors for young women of Creole society.
Welcome, Jennifer, to my blog, and congratulations on the forthcoming publication of your fourth Master at Arms book, Guarded Heart, on February 1.
Thanks so much. I sincerely appreciate this opportunity to tell people a little about both my career and my swashbuckling sword masters.
How has the romance market changed since you first published in 1970?
It’s exploded, to put it simply. When my first book came out, the only thing approaching historical romance of the kind we have today was Forever Amber by Kathleen Windsor and maybe the Angélique books from the husband-and-wife team who wrote as Sergeanne Golon. A few authors, such as Emilie Loring, Grace Livingston Hill, Faith Baldwin, and Elswyth Thane, had “modern” romances leftover from the 1940s and 1950s on library shelves, but Harlequin reprints of Mill & Boon books from England were the only game in town for paperback contemporaries.
Characters in these books, and in my early Gothic novels and contemporary romances, might kiss or become involved in mild petting, but love scenes happened discreetly offstage. This means I’ve seen it all: the publication and wild popularity of Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower and The Wolf and the Dove; the discovery of Rosemary Rogers, Jennifer Wilde, Bertrice Small, Shirley Busbee, Cynthia Wright, Rebecca Brandewyne, Jude Deveraux, Janelle Taylor, and dozens of others. I’ve applauded Janet Dailey’s first American originals from Harlequin, plus those of Sandra Brown and Nora Roberts and all who came after them. I’ve seen the rise and fall of romances with pirates. knights, Scotsmen, Vikings, Native Americans, cowboys, and a dozen other heroic types, and survived the brouhaha and backlash over “forced seduction” as a plot device. I’ve seen the breadth and scope of romances expand into trade-size paperback and hardcover, and also into chick-lit, ethnic stories, paranormals, erotica, and those with faith-based overtones. In short, I’ve watched the whole romance revolution from the chair in my office—and occasionally sallied out to help erect and defend the barricades.
You’ve written more than 50 books. How do you stay fresh? Have you ever burnt out, and if so, what did you do?
If my books have remained fresh, it’s probably because I’ve always loved trying something different, something original. It tickles me to add a feather to a love scene, say, or reverse the captor/captive scenario so that it’s the hero who winds up chained to a wall. The energy and excitement in these concepts are transferred to the books.
I’ve never burned out, but will admit to being scorched around the edges a time or two. The first was in the mid-1990s, after almost fifteen years of back-to-back contracts that required two 150,000-word historical romances every year. I was tired and also more than a little weary of corsets, crinolines, and carriages. For that entire period, however, I’d had a contemporary story idea in the back of my mind. Rather than sign a new historical contract, I took time off to develop this Southern glitz & glamour saga. My agent then talked my publisher into accepting it, though at a reduced advance and royalty rate. My interest in writing was revitalized. Of course, it didn’t hurt that when Love and Smoke was turned in, Fawcett/Ballantine liked it so well that it was released in hardcover and with the backing to make it a bestseller.
The second incident came in 2001. I’d written nearly a dozen contemporary stories and changed publishers by then, signing with Mira Books. I was working on what became the last of my Louisiana Gentleman series with a plot involving a heroine who must be rescued from “behind the veil” in Afghanistan. On 9/11, she and the rescuer-hero had just flown back to the States with a group of vicious Al Qaeda terrorists hot on their trail. Suddenly, all the research I’d done, the places where I’d set the first half of my story, were front and center on CNN; the whole scenario was far too immediate. I offered to scrap the book and provide another story to complete my contract. Instead, it was suggested that I create a fictional Islamic country and soldier on. Finishing that book was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done; the amount of effort required to reach creative concentration was draining beyond words.
Afterward, I took a sabbatical while I decided whether I wanted to retire or take a different publishing road. The final decision was to return to my historical roots, where plots devices had no chance of becoming real. Also, I had been mulling over a series of books using the sword masters of old New Orleans for some time; they had been with me ever since I came across a mention of them in Herbert Asbury’s French Quarter in the late 1980s. By the time I sat down to write the proposal for the first novel, I had six stories crowding my mind.
On a whim, I included a brief paragraph about each of the extra five when I sent in the proposal. My feeling was that Mira might possibly contract for three books. Instead they negotiated for all six and closed the deal in a matter of days. Then my German publisher, who happened to be in New York at the time, bought the first three books based on no more than a brief description over the dinner table. Again, I was energized by the change of career direction and show of faith by my publishers.
You married at 15 and started writing at 21. How did that affect the development of your career? Were your youth and lack of experience in the world helpful or something you needed to overcome?
Marrying so young gave me the unique opportunity to indulge a rabid addiction to reading. By the time I turned 27, when I actually published my first novel, I had read eight to ten books every week for more than a decade. My tastes were all-embracing; anything that looked even vaguely interesting went into the pile beside my bed. What this mass of reading accomplished was to give me a crash course in literature plus an instinctive feel for the internal workings of story. It enriched my vocabulary and began my lifelong love affair with words. Since all this reading went forward without outside direction or interference, I had no special reverence for great works compared with lighter fiction, no feeling that writing was, or should be, beyond my scope.
A certain amount of what eventually became my writing style was already set as well: the voice I heard in my head as I read, one made up of thousands of writer’s voices added to my own, became the voice that later went on the paper.
I had few experiences to write about, true, but I’d read about everything in the world. More than that, I had an active imagination and supreme faith in the words of whoever said that experience has its limitations; a writer doesn’t have to have killed people in order to write about murder. But probably the most helpful thing about being a young stay-at-home mom was that I was bored beyond words. The only thing I had to lose if I spent my free time capturing scenes and ideas on typed pages was a few hours of game shows and soap opera episodes.
Your Master at Arms books require substantial research. Do you enjoy researching them? Do you have any suggestions for not getting bogged down in research at the expense of your writing time?
Research fascinates me; I’ve thought about writing a Louisiana history just for the fun of delving into dusty books and yellowed microfiche. After so many years of writing about Louisiana, I have a library of almost 500 titles on the subject, as well as collections of historical journals and books on costume, steamboats, carriages, and so on. More than that, I love having an excuse to head down to New Orleans and spend days photocopying old newspaper pages at the Williams Research Center.
What keeps me from getting lost in the details is the certain knowledge that the story is the reader’s focus. Background and setting are only window dressing for what’s happening to the characters. I don’t try to have everything lined up at the start, then, but only research enough background for whatever incident I’m using to write the book proposal. Other bits are then added as the story progresses. I will admit, however, that thirty-something years of writing about New Orleans give me an advantage over anyone just coming upon the city as a setting. Much of what they might have to dig for is so familiar I don’t think of it as research at all.
New Orleans in the early 19th century underwent dramatic changes in social structure, language, and culture. What one thing do you find most interesting about that era?
I’m intrigued by the class system that prevailed among the aristocratic French Creoles, with its European origins and staunch resistance to the invasion of American mores and ideas. One of the goals for the Masters at Arms series was to make this society come alive for readers in a manner similar to upper-class English society in Heyer’s Regency novels. Of course, the most intriguing, most unique class in the French Quarter was that of the maîtres d’armes.
They were like the sports heroes of our time, so idolized that they were followed on the streets by young boys; their clothing and hairstyles were aped by young men about town, and older gentlemen were anxious to stand them a drink or a meal for the privilege of being seen in their company. Few men crossed them due to their dangerous skill. For all that, they were seldom invited into private homes and never introduced to unmarried ladies. This social dichotomy brings tension to the stories over and above the usual plot conflict. I’ve also tried to show its personal effect, particularly upon the hero of Guarded Heart.
When I looked over my list of books read in 2007, I realized that nineteen of the seventy-three contained sword fights. What is the appeal of a man with a sword?
There can be no greater test of a man’s courage than facing an opponent with this excruciatingly lethal weapon in his hand. Add the skill required for wielding it, the intelligence necessary to anticipate countermoves, the strength and coordination that must be exerted to prevail in a duel, and you have the very image of a hero. The history of sword fighting is grounded in extreme notions of honor as well. We’ve moved so far away from this concept today that it has intense romantic and nostalgic appeal.
What is your writing regimen? Would you recommend it to aspiring authors?
I’ve always treated my writing as if it were a day job. This means I work five days per week from about nine in the morning to three or four in the afternoon. Once in a great while, if an idea is pushing me or I can’t sleep, I’ll get up around three AM and work until sunrise. And I may read for research or outline a chapter or scene before bed if the ideas are there. But I don’t work on weekends and don’t pull all-nighters because that way lies burn-out.
In the early stages of a book—the first seven to eight chapters—my daily goal is a relaxing three to five pages. Later, when the background and situation are set and characters introduced, I try for seven to ten. If I miss my goal, I don’t beat myself up about it and I don’t try to catch up the next day. A writer’s muse, in my experience, works best when you treat it kindly.
I do recommend this kind of regular, healthful routine for aspiring authors—or as close to it as they can get. The myth of the driven writer, working far into the night with eyes bloodshot from exhaustion and a glass of bourbon and smoldering cigarette at their elbow, is a macho construction perpetuated by male authors who were off hunting, fishing, or hobnobbing at the local bar when they should have been working. No one writes at top form in that situation.
Thank you again for taking the time to talk about your series!
It’s been my pleasure, Shauna. Best of luck with all your writing endeavors!
Visit Jennifer Blake’s Website at http://www.jenniferblake.com/ and her blog at http://jenniferblake.com/journal/. Her book Guarded Heart will be available 1 February at all major bookstores and can be ordered online from Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.
On 22 January, I posted Jennifer’s advice to beginning writers at the blog of the Orange County Chapter of the Romance Writers of America, http://occsliceoforange.blogspot.com/. Please visit there for more wisdom drawn from her years of writing.