By Francine Mathews
When people ask why I write under two names–Francine Mathews and Stephanie Barron–I like to quip that it’s because I’m a Gemini. If only it were that simple! I’ve fostered a split personality as an author because there are too many good stories to tell, and not all of them fit my brand. It makes complete sense for a former CIA intelligence analyst to write spy novels. Less sense for her to craft a series featuring Jane Austen as a detective. Complex interests can make for even more complex work arrangements–and a tangle of incompatible storylines. Publishing as two different people helps to clarify the mess.
One thing has united my previous titles, however: an emphasis on suspense fiction. Lately, I’ve been struggling as Stephanie Barron with a beast of an entirely different color. I’m writing in another genre–straight historical fiction, without a dead body anywhere–and it’s nowhere as simple as I’d hoped.
|Lady Randolph Churchill|
A few years ago, on the sidelines of Thrillerfest, I sat down with an old friend and mentor who’d edited twenty of my previous books. I told her I wanted to write a novel about Jennie Jerome, Winston Churchill’s American-born mother. I came to this story from various directions. Churchill is a character in several of my spy novels, which required me to research his life heavily; but I’d also dipped into biographies of his mother, Lady Randolph Churchill, purely as an interested reader. One of the first Dollar Princesses to marry into the British aristocracy, Jennie had an enormous personality and cut a glittering social swath through the last decades of Queen Victoria’s reign. She juggled politics, parties, lovers, debts, and a flamboyant husband who kept deadly secrets–all with a smile for the camera. I saw her as a twenty-first century Rogue Woman trapped in the nineteenth, and I suspected her unconventional choices may have shaped her son Winston in significant ways.
My editor agreed to read various drafts of my work over the subsequent years.
What has finally emerged as THAT CHURCHILL WOMAN has undergone at least ten revisions. The manuscript just reappeared on my doorstep via overnight mail, in redlined hard copy, for yet another polishing. There are moments when I despair of ever telling this story successfully. And yet Ballantine appears to be publishing it next spring.
I’ve been writing books for twenty-five years. This is my twenty-seventh novel. So why is Jennie proving to be such a bitch?
Suspense fiction offers its own tight architecture, the puzzle plot. It lives or dies by its pace and sustained sense of jeopardy. Risk is inherent in every scene, and the period of time that transpires from beginning to end of the story arc is usually quite brief. Master those truths, and you’ll have a book that’s a page-turner.
But how to summarize an actual life? How to define it? How to choose the episodes, the passions, the tragedies that convey the essence of a character? How to shift from Manhattan to Newport to London to Paris over a period of four decades? How to paint the backdrop of a different historical era in ways that illuminate Jennie, rather than obscure her?
How to persuade a reader to care as much about this woman as I do?
I’ve had to acquire a set of subtlely different skills. I’ve had to alter my voice, beef up my adjectives, expand my descriptive repetoire and hone my sense of dialogue. And boy, I’ve had to embrace revision.
Revision is to editing, what gutting the interior of a house is to applying a fresh coat of paint. Thank God for editors who say: What if you blew out that wall, and explored a different room?
|Robin Burcell and Friend|
Which leads me to more fresh blood, and another Rogue Woman: Robin Burcell. Robin takes the notion of multiple personalities and a tangle of lives to new heights: over the past three decades, she has worked as a police officer, a detective, a hostage negotiator, and an FBI-trained forensic artist. Those are intimidating chops–but add to them the awards she has won as an author, and Robin is fairly swoon-worthy. Her books have won the Anthony, the Barry, and the Macavity awards. Plus, she gets to live in Wine Country, and she clearly has a sense of humor, if this picture with a rooster is any indication. Robin has enthusiastically agreed to join Rogue Women Writers, and her first post will appear here in the blog on Wednesday! We’re so thrilled to have her–and hope you, our readers, are excited as well.
Anything you’d like to ask Robin about her years of crime? Or her forthcoming novel–THE GRAY GHOST, written in collaboration with Clive Cussler? This is the latest in the Sam and Remi Fargo series, and it lands in bookstores May 29th. If so, you know what to do….Leave your questions in the comments below.