Back in 2013 when AAR staffers were asked to choose their top ten romances, one of my choices was A Splendid Defiance by the British author, Stella Riley. It’s a book I read for the first time in the 1980s, and which I’ve never forgotten. More recently, I chose her latest book, The King’s Falcon as one of my favourite books of 2014.
Ms Riley wrote a handful of books back in the 1980s and 1990s, and then just vanished! Her books were not reprinted and second-hand copies were not only hard to find, but very expensive, so when she began to revise and re-publish her back-catalogue digitally a few years ago, I may actually have squealed with delight at the prospect of at last being able to read those of her books I’d not been able to find before.
Following a twenty-year break in her writing career, Ms Riley published a new book – The King’s Falcon – last year, and her latest book – The Player – was published on 6th March 2015, and I’m taking the opportunity to catch up with her and to talk about that and a few other things I’ve been dying to ask for over twenty years!
Caz: Welcome to All About Romance, Stella!
Stella: Thanks, Caz – I’m happy to be here.
Caz: You’ve written books set in two particular historical periods that aren’t commonly seen in historical romances – the English Civil War and Restoration and the Georgian period. What is it that has drawn you to those eras in particular?
Stella: As far as ‘Why Georgian rather than Regency?’ goes – it’s because historical romances in either of these genres are basically just a matter of clothes and manners. The 1770’s were a more robust, less respectable era than the Regency. Duels, abductions, highwaymen … all of these fit better into the mid-Georgian period than they do in the Regency. Also, I love the sheer extravagance of the fashions. All those colourful silks and satins, the lace, the flash of jewels – and that was just the men! Then again, I have a secret weakness for gentlemen with long hair.
Caz: Hah! I suppose all the make-up, wigs and high heels (again, just the men!) might make it a bit difficult to have them appear suitably masculine and heroic.
Stella: That’s certainly true of the Macaronis with their fans and lavender powdered wigs. But, thankfully, my guys manage to avoid these particular afflictions … and, at the end of the day, masculinity and so on is mostly to do with what’s inside the clothes. Or, to put it another way, I’ll bet you wouldn’t mind seeing Sarre without his shirt.
Caz: Um… having read the book, I suspect I’m going to be one in a long line who wouldn’t mind!
Stella: Good to know. And the 17th century? Well, I’ve had an on-going love-affair with that period for as long as I can remember. It’s a complex and hugely important part of English history that isn’t taught in schools nearly as often as it should be – and I don’t understand why. It’s far from boring. In fact, it’s packed with fascinating detail. As a writer, if offers everything I could possibly want in terms of a backdrop. The drama and intrigue of stirring events; gallantry and tragedy; love and loss … and a cast of real-life heroes and villains as varied as any I could ever create.
But there’s a price. The Roundheads & Cavaliers series is historical fiction as opposed to historical romance. Using the history to the best advantage without letting it swamp the book can be difficult; and it’s important to make the historical detail as accurate as possible. I want my readers to know they can trust me to get it right – and that means extensive research. Time-consuming and labour-intensive but enjoyable in its own way.
Caz: Oddly enough, both your newer books are third in their respective series; The King’s Falcon follows The Black Madonna and Garland of Straw; and The Player follows The Parfit Knight and The Mésalliance. Tell us a little about the world of The Player and how it relates to the previous books.
Stella: The idea for The Player came about when I was preparing the e-version of The Mésalliance. I started to realise that I wanted to work with that cast of characters again – particularly Rockliffe, who is a great favourite of mine. I also had an idea for a story about a young man who had been driven abroad by scandal and spent a decade living on his wits. I wanted to know who this man had become; how his experiences had changed him; and how he’d cope with a return to his former life, despite the stain still clinging to his name. And because I always like to give myself a challenge, I created The Player. Adrian Devereux, Earl of Sarre … recently known to Paris as the actor, L’Inconnu – a fact of which he’d naturally like London society to remain unaware. Unfortunately, he’s fairly sure that the Duke of Rockliffe already knows. This is no surprise. Readers of The Mésalliance will recall that Rock always knows everything. The only question is – what will he do with his knowledge?
Caz: I’m sure this is a question you’ve been asked before, but what – if anything – is different about your writing process now to your approach back in the 80s and 90s?
Stella: The main difference is that I’m enjoying myself. I’ve re-discovered the pleasure of creating what, in essence, is a massive jigsaw puzzle; one where you can’t resist going back to put in just one more piece. I’ve also stopped being quite so fussy about the first draft. Years ago, if a sentence or paragraph didn’t ‘balance’, I’d spend ages picking at it until it did. Now I follow the golden rule. Don’t get it right – get it written. You can put it right later.
Caz: This is probably another question you’re sick of being asked, but I’m going to do it anyway – why the long break?
Stella: By the time I stopped writing – a few months after the publication of Garland of Straw – the whole thing had become a chore. All the joy had gone out of it and sitting down to work every day felt like pushing rocks uphill. I wasn’t happy with my publisher – but I had a four book contract of which I’d only delivered the first two. Something had to give. Either I pressed on and ended up climbing the walls or I bought myself out of my contract. I chose the latter and, as you can appreciate, going back after that – certainly in the conventional way – wasn’t an option.
Caz: What made you decide to revise your older titles rather than just republish them? The advent of digital publishing has led to an explosion in the republication of authors’ back-lists, but I think it’s fairly true to say that the majority of those books are published “as is”. You decided not to do that, however.
Stella: Originally, I didn’t think beyond republishing my back-list and the first title I chose to produce was the first one I ever had published – The Marigold Chain. With hindsight, I think this was the book I thought I ought to write, rather than the book I wanted to write. At any rate, when I started looking at it from the perspective of re-release, it became clear that the ‘voice’ wasn’t wholly my own and that it needed work. It probably still isn’t my best work but I believe the digital version is a distinct improvement on the original.
For the rest, I made virtually no changes to The Parfit Knight but spent a long time restoring The Mésalliance to the book it would have been had not the publisher insisted on massive cuts. And, on a general note, I felt that styles and tastes had changed during my long break from writing … that readers expect more these days. Since I had the opportunity to up-date my books a little, it seemed sensible to do it. Also, I think that inserting those new sequences helped me to see that I hadn’t forgotten how to write from scratch.
Caz: So following all that work on your older books, you then returned to what I believe was planned as a quartet of books set during the English Civil War. Was the idea of writing something completely new after your long break a daunting one? Or was it like you’d never stopped writing?
Stella: The most daunting thing about producing my first new title in over twenty years was the possibility that readers might be disappointed. When my backlist started gathering pace on Amazon, something remarkable and totally unexpected happened. I found out that readers not only remembered me (which was amazing enough) but they remembered me with affection. I’d started something purely for my own pleasure and amusement, only to discover that it was turning into something more. Exciting – but also rather scary.
I had a head-start with The King’s Falcon in that the first section of the book – the part covering the Worcester campaign – had been lying in a drawer gathering dust. This was helpful. What wasn’t was the fact that the rest of the original story-line was completely useless. In short, plot-wise it was necessary to re-think the whole thing. Fortunately, the words flowed and characters started to take charge of their own destiny … and, truthfully, writing Falcon was an absolute pleasure.
Caz: Well, that’s excellent news – as it means we will see more from you! So what are you working on now? It seemed to me that there are some characters in The Player that we might meet again soon…
Stella: I’m finally starting work on book four of my Roundheads & Cavaliers series which is the long-awaited – and frequently requested – story of Eden Maxwell. As for characters from The Player and further books in the Rockliffe series … well, maybe. I’ll admit taking quite a fancy to Nicholas Wynstanton. But that’s for another day. Eden comes first.
Caz: That’s good to know. Readers familiar with Eden’s story so far will no doubt agree with me that the guy deserves a break! Stella, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me. Best of luck with The Player, and even though it’s somewhat belated – welcome back!
Ms. Riley is giving an eCopy of the two previous books in the series —The Parfit Knight and The Mésalliance – as a “set” to one lucky reader. To be entered in this giveaway, make a comment below.