Please welcome Lauren Willig, author of The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, which started her bestselling series!
by Lauren Willig
The two most dangerous words in the English language aren’t “why not?” or “refill, please!”. They’re “what if?”
What if always gets me into trouble.
I blame what if for my writing career. For as far back as I can remember, my automatic reaction to any story was “what if?” What if Scarlett O’Hara had a Northern best friend (who looked suspiciously like me) who wound up with Rhett Butler’s equally dashing blockader brother, Charles Butler? What if a female disguised as a boy tried to join the Three Musketeers? What if the Berenstein Bears left the tree house and moved to an apartment in New York?
As a small child, I drove the adults around me crazy, suggesting alternate plots and counter-plots. As I grew older, I entertained myself for endless hours spinning my fancies into fiction, taking all my what ifs and translating them into character and plot.
What if led me straight to The Secret History of the Pink Carnation.
It was the spring of 2001. I was a disgruntled second year graduate student in the Harvard history department, burned out on caffeine and footnotes. (Author’s note: there are two basic laws of grad school: one must be disgruntled and one must drink black coffee. Whether there is any correlation between these two items is undoubtedly being examined in a dissertation by a disgruntled grad student hyped up on too much black coffee). After two years of being buried in the basement of Widener Library, squinting at microfilm, reading Seminal Texts, and wondering whether that coffee splotch on my skirt could be passed off as a pattern, I had just passed my Oral Exams. In celebration, I gave myself an evening away from the footnotes to enjoy some haute grad school cuisine (a hot dog with squirty cheese) and watch one of my favorite guilty pleasures: the Anthony Andrews Scarlet Pimpernel.
[amazonify]0451413016[/amazonify]For those who haven’t seen this seminal work, it’s the ultimate in swash and buckle. Fool by day, man of mystery by night, Sir Percy Blakeney spirits aristocrats from the jaws of the guillotine, thwarting the forces of revolutionary France. It was all quite satisfying (there’s nothing like a good rendition of “They seek him here, they seek him there”)—until my what if antennae started quivering. Yes, the story was all very well as it was, but, what if you gave your debonair English spy a real problem? Those French operatives, like Chauvelin, are always remarkably insignificant adversaries, rather like those Star Wars storm troopers who never manage to shoot straight.
What if one were to take a dashing English spy, used to his missions always going as planned and his minions always obeying without question, and throw into his path the ultimate object of destruction: an attractive and spirited young lady. He would never know what hit him. Ha! I wolfed down the rest of my hotdog and raced for the computer. And thus The Secret History of the Pink Carnation was born. My heroine acquired a quirky chaperone, my hero acquired a very noisy and involved family. A whole world of characters, side characters, plots, and subplots blazed into being, all on the strength of that one what if.
Once you open the door to what if, there’s just no stopping it. Since writing the first Pink Carnation book, “what if” has led me to colonial India (what if you took a rebellious English debutante and drop her in the midst of intrigue in Hyderabad in 1804), the court of George III (what if his madness was caused not by hereditary illness, but foul play?), and, most recently, in The Mischief of the Mistletoe, to none other than the great Jane Austen. What if the reason Austen didn’t finish the Watsons wasn’t grief over her father’s death, but—never mind. Spoilers!
Now that I’m done with that, what if….