You know who doesn’t get enough love? Gentlemen in wigs.
While at the RT Booklovers Convention, I got a chance to chat with historical romance writer Elizabeth Hoyt. Her books balance sexiness and angst, a combination that’s right up my alley.
But what’s really interesting about Hoyt’s work is that she doesn’t stick to the time periods that are so popular in the historical romance subgenre—i.e., the Regency and early Victorian eras. (You can probably thank Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen for that.) Her previous series, the four-part Legend of the Four Soldiers, was set in the 1760 and followed veterans of the French and Indian War. She just published Darling Rogue, her eighth installment in the Maiden Lane series, which takes place in 1730s. She uses the time’s obsession with gin to spin a tale of, basically, eighteenth-century Batman. Even during the everything-goes 1980s, when there were more pirates and Western adventurers and medieval knights, those decades weren’t common settings. At least one of her dudes wears a wig. Dudes never wear wigs in historical romance!
So I took a few moments to chat with her about why she picked these time periods, how art museums influence her writing process and lifelong impact of the original Poldark on her taste. A trimmed-down version of our conversation:
One of the things I really like about your books is that there are a couple of time periods that are really popular in romance. Victorian, Regency—
That’s about it, really. And even the Victorians, man, it has to be early Victorian, like Lisa Kleypas.
But you do the 1730s and your previous series was set in the 1760s. And I really like that because I feel like the 1700s don’t get enough love!
Oh I know, guys in high heels and wigs. Why not? And then in the early part they were wearing coats that looked a lot like dresses.
What drew you to those eras?
Well, on a professional level, I didn’t know any better. I started writing without knowing anything. I really thought the Regency was dead. Shows you how much I know.
On a personal level, I grew up with Scaramouche and those ‘30s and ‘40s swashbucklers. I like the adventure of the guy with the sword and the curly hair and he’s often a pirate or whatever. In fact I rewatched Scaramouche for The Serpent Prince and spent the entire time yelling at the screen, because the guy who plays him, he’s a big guy and he’s clunky. He’s so ungraceful. And the bad guy is perfect. Why isn’t he the hero? A lesser-known actor, but he’s so graceful. Miscasting. But I really like the romance of the adventure and the swashbuckle-y stuff and I kinda like the dresses better, too. That sounds awful. It sounds like I’m so shallow, But I like those big dresses. Some of the ones like the sack gowns that are all draped in the back are so beautiful, with the very simple hair. I don’t really like the hair with the wigs later on.
And it’s a little bit earthier. And it’s not so much—I don’t think people do it so much anymore, but I grew up with, they were like proms. Prom books. She’s gonna wear the prettiest dress ever and the guy is gonna notice her at the ball. They’re like early YA, which is great because I was YA at the time I was reading them, but I wasn’t interested in the parlor stuff and the balls. I was more interested in the stuff they were doing on the streets.
And I like the sparring and the wittiness and all that, but the balls I could care less about.
The periods that tend to be popular are very parlor and drawing room and ballroom. Versus in the Maiden Lane series, a lot of the action is down in the world of Hogarth’s Gin Lane. What drew you to that in particular? Is it just that it feels higher-stakes?
I hadn’t thought about higher stakes, but that’s true. I really like the dichotomy between the really rich—and in this time period they were really putting gold on everything. Gold walls, gold ceilings, gold ceilings, gilding their hair. The really rich were just over-the-top extravagant crazy. And then they had the really poor people who were starving to death. There was a terrible case where someone killed her child for his clothes, so she could buy gin. It’s like crack cocaine in the ‘80s. And then the time period—the more I started researching it, this is a time period where London was hugely growing and it was also when you starting hitting the Age of Reason, so people were asking questions about what do we do about the poor? Yeah we can just throw them in the poorhouse, or in most cases they’d just ship them out of the parish. That’s what they used to do. Because if you’re not in the parish we don’t have to take care of you. They used to, like, put them on wagons and take them out in the country.
So London’s growing and people are like, we’re becoming this important England. I mean, you think of Victorians as being so powerful. They weren’t until about the 1700s. Before then, they were below France and Italy and all those other countries. And as they become more powerful, they start becoming self-aware of who are we as a nation. And they start thinking about, well, London’s growing. At one point, the only reason London, the population was sustaining, so many people were dying, is because of the influx of immigrants. And they realized that.
So I like all that. Balls don’t do it for me. I like the stakes of the man who’s like one of my earlier books, The Leopard Prince, a man who is born poor. He wasn’t really a bastard or a lord. And how can that person be a hero in his own right working within that working-class sytem, when we associate heroic with rich and powerful. Or, what if you’re rich and powerful and you can basically do anything? You almost have life and death over people. So what does that do to your personality? I think that’s really interesting.
How do you do your research? I get the sense you love digging into history and coming up with interesting stuff like the place of gin in London in the 1730s. Are there particular sources you go to?
When I started out I had a baseline, because it’s not Regency, so I had to get a baseline. Which I think is how I got to gin. I can’t even remember now I started reading about it. But a lot of it is fortuitous, where I’m just wandering around online when I should be writing and I find something. There was something recently, what did I find? I can’t remember now, but I just thought it was so fascinating, and that’s the kind of thing where it sits in the back of your mind for six years and then you come back to it.
Specific stuff, a lot of it is Google these days, Wikipedia and things. But my husband’s an archaeologist, and I’m interested in history, so a lot of my free time—for instance, I go to art museums. And I just sit there and stare at the paintings, because that’s really interesting—how the people present themselves. “I am a shepherdess!” You know? Think about that. That’s really interesting—you have a rich person and she’s young and unmarried and she’s going to be a shepherdess with a bow in her hair and the dog. Or the dead baby they decide to paint into the picture. So a lot of it is museums. Hogarth, I have several of his prints—his prints are really good because they’ve got all that detail in the background. And the interpretive stuff, some of it is conflicting, which I think is really interesting. What is that thing over there, what does that mean. A lot of it’s just everyday stuff, like Pinterest is this really great find these days, because I like visual stuff, and these weird things will come up on Pinterest. Like if you start following other people or museums or whatever.
Oh! I know what I saw. It was a needle case in the shape of an asparagus. And I’m like—why? Why would you do that? That’s only a detail. But there’s other things where there was a person who’d done something really bizarre. And it was real! And you put that in a book and people are like, “Oh yeah, sure.” There was one recently, somebody said something about, “Well, nobody could really do this.” And I said, well, you know, there was this actress who started out as a prostitute, became a famous actress, became the mistress of a duke, had three kids by him, and then he married her. So she became a duchess. And she started out as a teenaged prostitute.
But that’s real. That happened.
I was reading about Cromwell’s head. During my time period, his head was still stuck on the Tower of London. That’s gross! Yes, his rotting head, over a hundred years old. And he wasn’t the only one, either. Think about that.
One more thing: the wigs. You turned me around on the idea of dudes in wigs. There’s this moment in one of your Maiden Lane books where the hero is running around his townhouse with his buzzed head that goes under the wig and for the first time I thought, “HM.”
You know, I used to watch Poldark. (And they’ve got a new Poldark, which I’m dying to see.) At a very impressionable age—I think I was 12—I started watching Poldark with my family on Masterpiece Theatre, and I also read all the books at about the age of 12. Which was not good because they’re basically a soap opera.
So the original Poldark, he was broody, broody, broody. But later in the series—I won’t give too much away—but there’s a guy who’s sexy. He’s a dragoon. And he’s a captain. And he’s got this white hair. And I was a kid, I didn’t know the difference. And there’s a scene where he’s in bed and he takes his wig off and I was like, “It’s a wig?” And it was like this nudity thing, almost. He’s exposed. He’s taking off his wig! Obviously, that had a deep impact on my psyche.
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