Tuesday, January 22, 2013

On the Casting Couch with Regency writer Heidi Ashworth

I am especially delighted to welcome author Heidi Ashworth to today’s Casting Couch for two very personal reasons. Firstly she is an anglophile which, of course, greatly gladdens my very English heart. Secondly I am a great Jane Austen fan and Heidi writes about the Regency period in England, so I am fascinated by what she has to say about casting her English Regency characters.
Thank you for agreeing to sit on the Casting Couch Heidi. As someone who, like you, devoured Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer books when young, I can identify with the difficulties you face trying to create characters who not only lived 200 years ago but who also lived in a different country. Writing is always a challenge but the authors of historical fiction probably have the greatest challenge of all because if they get anything wrong it is quickly picked up by the ‘history police,’ although I’m sure nothing like that has ever happened to you.
Now, assuming you’re sitting comfortably, let’s begin.
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When an idea strikes, do you work through the plot first and then cast the characters, or is it characters first? 
My stories are character driven, not plot driven.  It is the characters who inform me of what is to happen.  I have been a student of human nature all of my life–I write a book when a hero and heroine come to life and need their story to be written.  It sounds terribly dramatic but it’s true.  I have also studied homeopathy, in which people can be divided into types.  Certain personalities tend to look a certain way.  This can be a bit trite but it can also be fairly accurate.  I am not always accurate but it’s a fairly solid starting point, a bit like ‘method acting’.  It’s a very British thing, I think, and I tend to embrace a lot of what is British.
Can you give an example from a published story?
I have four published works, three of which are about the same hero and heroine (I guess they had a lot to say!).  It’s difficult for me to be objective about them because we have spent so much time together.  I wrote the first book about them 14 years before it was published, and that was four years ago, so, they are my very good friends.  I have unpublished portions of manuscripts peopled with characters who came to me the same way–like Athena from the head of Zeus.  Perhaps the one exception to that is the novella, It Happened Twelfth Night, that appears in A Timeless Romance Anthology:  Winter Collection.  I based the heroine on a young lady I have known and gave her the hero of her choosing.  It was a fun challenge to bring them to life.
When deciding how your characters should look, do pictures inspire you or do you think of someone you know? Or perhaps you just rely on an active imagination or another method entirely. 
I usually have a pretty good idea of what they look like from the get-go.  I do have a hero in a halfway done book who I had to figure out, though.  I googled actors with the hair and eye colors I chose and picked someone (a relatively unknown young man) from that.  That is an exception, though, rather than the rule.
Do you have a system for developing their character traits? I know some people use Tarot or Astrology. Others produce detailed life histories. There are also writers who allow their characters to develop as they write. What’s your method?
Again, I write by the seat of my pants based on who these people are when they first come to me.  Once in a while I have to stop and ask myself  ’what would this person do in this situation?’ but most of the time it is pretty instinctive.  It’s what I love best about writing fiction.  One character in particular, Lucinda Barrington, who appears in three of my published works, is what I term ‘a force of nature’.  I have no idea what she is going to do next and am just as surprised as the next person when she does it.  (She’s hilarious, by the way)
All characters have goals. Can your characters’ goals usually be summed up in a word or two, or are they multi-layered? Do they change as you write the book? 
Sure, goals need to be summed up succinctly.  Where the characters are at the outset of the book is meant to be ancient history as soon as they meet the love of their life, so those goals are just background.  They can and do change in the course of a book, ideally when the hero and/or heroine decides to make room in his/her life for the other
Motives drive a character. How do you discover your character’s specific goals? Are they based on back story or do other elements influence their motives? 
 I can have a lot of trouble with this if I am writing about a character who isn’t already real to me.  That hasn’t happened often but when it does it presents me with a challenge.  If a character doesn’t come to me complete, then I have to invent something, and that will always, for me, be a plot device.  However, in a romance, there aren’t as many choices for a character’s goals and motives as in, say, a full-out fantasy.  This is even truer for a regency, which is what I write, because it is a very specific world with very specific rules.  I think it is safe to say that the goals and motives of characters in a traditional regency don’t stray far from those Jane Austen wrote about.
Historical romance that is regency set and contains sex before marriage is an entirely different kettle of fish and I can’t speak to that.
And last but not least, do you like your characters? Are they people you would want to spend time with? Assuming they are not just a paper exercise, which of your characters would you most like to meet, and why?
 I love my characters.  We have been through a lot together:  time and effort and interactions with readers, etc.  I wrote about them because I really liked them to begin with.  I feel as if I have definitely met them and I don’t entirely dislike any of them.  However, if I had to make a distinction, I would have to say that as amusing as Lucinda Barrington is, I would not want to spend much time with her in real life.  Having said that, few of my characters are people who would make very good friends because their sensibilities, politics, religion, culture and way of life are so very different from mine.  They lived 200 years ago, after all. 
I still remember the look on my writing teacher’s face when I read my first assignment out loud to the class.  It was a contemporary romance class so that is what I wrote even though I had never read one.  I figured it would be easy since I had had enough of my own contemporary romances but I was wrong. 
She asked, “Why in the world would your hero do something like that?!?!?” 
“Well,” I hedged, “I read regency and that’s how the men behave in a regency.” 
“Well, then!” she said, “By all means, write a regency!” 
So, I went home and wrote the first chapter of my first novel, Miss Delacourt Speaks Her Mind, and when I was done, she said “This is publishable.  You will be published one day.” 
It took 14 years to find a buyer for Miss D, as I affectionately call her, (I also talk to my roses but I’m not crazy or anything) but it’s been a super fun ride ever since.

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Author Heidi Ashworth is an anglophile who loves to read and write books set in England. Miss Delacourt Speaks Her Mind (2008) and its sequel Miss Delacourt Has Her Day (2011), are Jane Austen-era romantic comedies. Both are now available as paperbacks and ebooks via Montlake Romance. Lady Crenshaw’s Christmas, a regency novella, is a follow-up to her Miss Delacourt books and is available via Kindle and Smashwords. It Happened Twelfth Night, also a regency novella set during the winter holidays, can be found between the covers of A Timeless Romance Anthology: Winter Collection via Kindle, Nook and Smashwords. You can read more about Heidi and her books at http://www.heidiashworth.com and  http://www.amazon.com/Heidi-Ashworth/e/B001JSDUX6

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