Charles Dickens Meets Downton Abbey

Here’s the interview I did for Many Books about my experience writing When It Rained at Hembry Castle. Enjoy!

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Meredith Allard fell in love with Charles Dickens’ work when she was in college and after watching every Downton Abbey episode multiple times, she decided to create a work inspired by her favorite author and TV show. When it Rained at Hembry Castle is the perfect marriage between the humor and mystery of Dickens’ work and the upstairs/downstairs world of the English aristocrats. Allard tells us more about what made her want to write a book set in the Victorian era, how she makes her characters come to life and how Hembry Castle has been brewing in her mind for 20 years.

Please give us a short introduction to When it Rained at Hembry Castle

When It Rained at Hembry Castle is set in Victorian England in 1870. It’s the story of American Daphne Meriwether, the granddaughter of the Earl of Staton. When the Earl dies, Daphne and her father Frederick return to England. It’s a challenge for Daphne, learning to live in the upstairs/downstairs world of her father’s family. And she may fall in love with the aspiring writer Edward Ellis while she’s there. Of course, obstacles get in their way. Hembry Castle is a love story at heart, though it has an interesting cast of characters who make life interesting for Edward and Daphne.

Why Victorian England? What fascinates you about this time period?

I fell in love with the novels of Charles Dickens and the Victorian era when I was in college and I always wanted to write a book set during this time. The Victorian era is interesting because it’s a time that is both historical and yet in some ways it feels modern. I love learning about history, and writing historical fiction is a great way for me to do that.

Did it require a lot of research to keep your novel historically correct? Which part of the research did you find the most interesting?

This was one historical novel that I didn’t have to do a ton of research for because I already had a lot of knowledge about the Victorian period from reading Dickens and other books about the era. I did double check everything I wrote, but since I knew where to look for the information that made it a shorter process than usual for me. I was able to travel to London twice as part of my research, and I absolutely loved that. London is a great city. In fact, I’ve walked many of Edward’s walks through the city. I think being able to visit and see the places for myself make the story much more realistic.

What, would you say, makes the English aristocrats so interesting to read about?

When It Rained at Hembry Castle was partially inspired by Downton Abbey, and the popularity of Downton Abbey is largely based on the curiosity people have about the upstairs/downstairs world of English aristocrats. In America, the upstairs/downstairs world is not part of our culture the way it is in Britain, and I think that accounts for the fascination about that lifestyle. It’s an introduction to a world we knew nothing about.

Privilege and class division are recurring themes in When it Rained at Hembry Castle. Why?

Since Downton Abbey was such a big influence on Hembry Castle, it seemed appropriate that privilege and class division should play a part in the story. My love for all things Dickens also inspired the novel, and privilege and class division are often themes in his stories. While I love watching Downton Abbey and am fascinated by the lifestyle of the upper classes, I can’t imagine ever having to live according to such arbitrary rules and regulations. Daphne represents the way I would look at that lifestyle if I were thrust into that world—with a sense of detachment and maybe some humor about it all. The fact that Daphne falls in love with the butler’s grandson when her grandmother means for her to marry a duke allowed me to probe a bit deeper into class division.

How did you manage to describe England’s countryside and other locations in your book so vividly?

Partially it was through reading, partially it was through photographs on Pinterest, but mainly it was my imagination. I was able to picture the scenery in my mind’s eye and I did my best to describe what I saw. And watching every episode of Downton Abbey many times helped!

Which classic author do you admire the most?

Charles Dickens, if you haven’t already figured that out. I read Dickens for the first time in college and knew that that’s what I wanted to do—write stories that were entire worlds unto themselves. I love his sense of humor, his spot-on observations, his way of pointing out things that were wrong in his world, many of which are still wrong in our world today. He’s the smartest, funniest writer I’ve ever read. Dickens has been the biggest influence in my own writing.

When it Rained at Hembry Castle contains many hilarious scenes. Why do you find it important to use humor in your writing?

This goes back to my love for Dickens. Dickens was a hilarious writer, and from him I learned that if you’re going to write truthfully about people then you have to include the light as well as the dark. People are funny. We do and say funny things all the time (sometimes without meaning to do so—which makes it even funnier). And besides, a sense of humor goes a long way in making a story fun to read.

Your book has a very Downton Abbey feel to it. Was that intentional? Are you a Downton Abbey fan yourself?

I love Downton Abbey and it was absolutely intentional to include the upstairs/downstairs feel of the show. In fact, Downton Abbey gave me an angle from which to tell the story. I came up with the original idea for Hembry Castle about 20 years ago (no joke) when I decided I wanted to write a story set in Victorian England about a writer who would be loosely based on a young Charles Dickens. I went on to write other novels and kept the Victorian story on the back burner for years. After I fell in love with Downton Abbey I realized that I could take elements from that TV show and use it to bring my Victorian story to life.

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What are some tricks you use to create such believable characters?

Mainly, I use my imagination. It took me longer to write Hembry Castle than I thought it would because it took me some time to get to know all the characters. I can’t write about a character until I get a sense of his or her personality. Hembry Castle has a larger cast of characters than I usually write about, and it took me some time to get them all straight in my head. Really, it’s about not thinking too much during the first draft, allowing the characters to materialize in front of me, and then writing down what I see. Sometimes I’ll put a favorite actor in the “part” of that character and imagine that actor acting out the scenes. That helps me get a sense of cadence when the character speaks, the types of movements the character might do, and so on. But really, it all boils down to allowing my imagination freedom.

Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?

Writing is my most obvious superpower, but when I’m not writing I love to read. I also love to cook, and I just started art journaling, which I really enjoy.

Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?

The best place to find me online is my website, www.meredithallard.com. I’m also on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/authormeredithallard/. My favorite social media is Pinterest, and you can find me at https://www.pinterest.com/meredithallard/. I could stay on that all day!

When It Rained at Hembry Castle:
Missing Downton Abbey? Read When It Rained at Hembry Castle. A lush historical novel set in Victorian England, When It Rained at Hembry Castle is the story of an aristocratic family, secrets that dare not be told, and the wonder of falling in love.

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The Book in Your Head Versus the Book Your Readers Read

Since February 9, When It Rained at Hembry Castle has sold over 1000 copies. Thank you! I’m sure there are other authors who can sell that many in a day, but I think those are pretty snazzy numbers.

After the release of my new book, I had an interesting conversation with a fellow author about what happens when you put a book out into the world. As writers, we spend hours, weeks, years living with a story, and then one day we have to set the story free. But what happens when other people (also known as readers) begin to read that story?

images-1I have a friend who is struggling with this issue while she’s getting ready to release her first novel, a venture into Steampunk complete with Victorianisms and fancy-pants machinery. The fear that nearly paralyzes her is the worry over bad reviews. I’ve tried to explain to her that it’s all part of the game. Every book gets bad reviews. I want you to check your favorite book’s Amazon page. I’ll wait. While you’re looking, you’re likely to see some bad reviews there.

I had a few things to say about negative reviews here. Focus on the people who like what you do, I say. They’re the ones who will look forward to your new releases. And if you really can’t handle book reviews, you can always do what I do—not read them. I kid you not. I don’t read negative reviews of my own books. My mother tried to catch me out once when I was talking about a movie review I had read. “I thought you said you don’t read reviews,” she said. What I said, I explained, is I don’t read my own reviews. I read other people’s reviews all the time.

The discussion with my friend about book reviews led into another conversation about the book writers think they’re writing versus the book the readers read. Think of it this way—when we’re writing a story, we know what we intend to do, why the pieces of the puzzle are set out the way they are, why this character says one thing when she means another. But when readers read, they’re not in our heads, they’re in their heads. Which is just as well. My head is crowded enough with only me in there. Readers have their own experiences, their own likes and dislikes, their own tastes. In the end, it doesn’t matter what I intended when I was crafting the story. To the readers, it only matters what happens when they engage with the story.

UnknownNext, my friend asked how to write a novel that will appeal to everyone. The answer is you can’t. I mean, really, you can’t. I see articles all over Pinterest and Twitter with headlines like “10 Steps to an International Bestseller” or “How to Make Everyone Love Your Book” or “I Don’t Suck at Writing Anymore, and Now You Won’t Either” (for a fee, of course). Here’s the secret that’s not really a secret: you have to write something that could only come from you. I love this quote from Barbara Kingsolver because it explains the point far better than I ever could (yes, I found it on Pinterest): “Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the only thing you have to offer.” How true.

When we write, we figure out what we have to say and we say it the very best way we know how. And if what people read is different than what we thought we were writing? As Toni Morrison once said to Oprah Winfrey, “That is called reading.” Readers are going to bring their own perspectives to the page. They’re going to see the characters and the events through their lens, not yours. And you know what? It’s all good. Many times readers see our stories in a completely different light than we intended, and often they see possibilities the writers never considered.

Here’s a case in point, and one close to my heart because it involves Hembry Castle. When I began writing Hembry in 2014, I had just come off the success of the Loving Husband Trilogy and I thought Hembry would be a great way to go back to writing a love story that readers would cheer for. Edward Ellis and Daphne Meriwether were always the focus for me as I was writing the novel. Yes, Daphne has to figure out how to live in this Downton Abbey-like world, but all along I saw When It Rained at Hembry Castle as a great love story. And here’s what happened…

Before I continue I should say that, while I don’t read reviews of my own books, I do read every email that comes my way. Readers who emailed me about Hembry weren’t gushing over Edward and Daphne. They were asking about Richard, Daphne’s uncle, the 9th Earl of Staton. In the reader’s mind (at least those who contacted me), Richard was the center of attention. He is the Earl of Staton, after all. But I was intrigued by their questions about Richard when to me Edward and Daphne are the stars of the show. Is it wrong for readers to focus on Richard? Of course not. But realizing that readers were not necessarily reading the book I thought I had written was a huge revelation to me and a continuing source of fascination.

Over the years, I’ve learned to keep my focus on writing the best stories I know how before sending those stories off into the world with my blessings. Everything else is beyond my control—even how readers respond to the books I’ve written. If, as writers, we can learn to make peace with that, then there will be much more smooth sailing ahead.

When It Rained at Hembry Castle is Now Available

Enter the giveaway for a chance to win a paperback copy of When It Rained at Hembry Castle.

Enter the giveaway for a chance to win a paperback copy of When It Rained at Hembry Castle.

Finally! My first new novel in two years! When It Rained at Hembry Castle is now available on Amazon, BN, iTunes, and Kobo in ebook and paperback formats. The ebook is on sale for .99 cents from now until April 30 when it will go up to its regular price of $2.99. The paperback is $16.99.

Love Downton Abbey? From New in Books: Six Books to Read if You Love Downton Abbey

Here’s the blurb for When It Rained at Hembry Castle:

From Meredith Allard, author of the bestselling Loving Husband Trilogy, comes When It Rained at Hembry Castle, a lush historical novel set in Victorian England. Perfect for fans of Downton Abbey, it’s the story of an aristocratic family, secrets that dare not be told, and the wonder of falling in love.

When the 8th Earl of Staton dies, his eldest son, the unreliable Richard, inherits the title and the family’s home—Hembry Castle. The Earl’s niece, the American-born Daphne Meriwether, is intrigued by Edward Ellis, a rising author with a first-hand knowledge of Hembry Castle—from the servants’ hall. And Edward, though captivated by the lovely Daphne, has his own hurdles he must overcome. Can Richard come to terms with his title before bringing ruin on his family? Will Edward and Daphne find their way to each other despite the obstacles of life at Hembry Castle?

When It Rained at Hembry Castle is a page-turning, romantic novel with vivid characters and an engrossing story that will keep you guessing until the end.

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Nothing is Set in Stone: Allowing Room For Freedom When Writing Fiction

First of all, I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season. I took a couple of weeks off for the holidays, and then a bout of the flu kept me down for a bit. I ended up spending most of my Christmas break revising When It Rained at Hembry Castle. The novel is in its final edits phase, and I’ll have galley copies in print and ebook in a week or two in case any of you would like a free review copy. I’ll send out word when they’re available. If you’re interested, just contact me at my email address: meredithallard(at)aol(dot)com. In fact, I just started a new Pinterest board for the novel with photographs I used for inspiration for clothing, settings, and characters. If you’re interested in the Victorian era, or in the novel, by all means check out the board. I’ll be adding more pins every day.

Scotney Castle--one of the influences for Hembry Castle and the castle used on the book cover.

Scotney Castle–one of the influences for Hembry Castle and the castle used on the book cover.

This is always the point of writing a new novel where I’m reminded of Dorothy Parker’s great saying: I hate writing but love having written. I admit that Hembry was difficult for me to grasp ahold of. I hadn’t struggled like that with a novel since I wrote Her Dear & Loving Husband from 2009-2011. Her Dear & Loving Husband was the most complicated plot I had written up to that point, and I had a lot of trouble understanding how to make the past and present storylines work. It wasn’t until I had the novel professionally critiqued that I understood the flow of the story, and then once I figured it out writing the next two books in the series, Her Loving Husband’s Curse and Her Loving Husband’s Return, came easily because they followed the same plot structure. My next novel, That You Are Here, was such a dream to write. For whatever reason, there were no struggles with that book. I understood who the characters were immediately, and I saw the story play out like a movie, which meant all I had to do was take dictation. The book took me four months to write—a crazy-quick time, at least for me.

Again, with When It Rained at Hembry Castle there were struggles. In a sense I was back to where I was when I wrote Her Dear & Loving Husband—I had this whole new world I had to figure out. The plot for When It Rained at Hembry Castle became the most difficult plot I had yet undertaken, even more so than the plots in the Loving Husband Trilogy. In the Loving Husband Trilogy there are two points of view, from the two romantic leads, James and Sarah, and two time periods, the present and whichever historical period that novel is set. In When It Rained at Hembry Castle, I initially thought I would use the same two person point of view as I had in the Loving Husband Trilogy, but after beating myself about the head for a few months trying to make it work, I realized that two points of view were not enough for this novel. In keeping with its Downton Abbey inspiration, there are upstairs stories and downstairs stories in Hembry, and I finally realized that I needed more points of view in order to make this work. I haven’t yet tried the head-hopping omniscient third person point of view (one of these days I’ll write a novel where I try that one), but for Hembry I opened the field so that we get the point of view of more than just the two romantic leads (in this case, Edward and Daphne). I limited the scope of POV to one character for each chapter–this way it isn’t difficult for the reader to follow.

Hembry CastleFor me, that’s the frustration (and the fun) of writing fiction. Anything goes, which means sometimes it takes a while to figure out exactly what you need to do to bring each new story to life. The two person point of view worked well for the Loving Husband Trilogy, so I assumed it would work for Hembry. It didn’t. There are too many characters in Hembry, and there’s too much going on for my two romantic leads to be everywhere. I needed to let some of the other characters have their moments in the sun. Once I allowed the characters the freedom to speak for themselves, the headaches started to go away and the novel started to resemble the story I wanted to write in the first place.

Once I understand the plot structure and the way the pieces fit together, that’s when I’m in the flow of writing and there’s nowhere else in the world I’d rather be. The first part of writing a novel has always been difficult for me. That’s when I flap about like a fish out of water (or an asthmatic without an inhaler—speaking from experience), spending hours writing scenes that don’t make sense and have nothing to do with the story I want to tell. Every time I’m about to give up, though, I force myself to keep going because I’ve been at this long enough to know that the “shitty first draft” phase will pass and the story will reveal itself in the end. How much hair I have in the end always remains to be seen, but bald or not bald, I know that I’ll figure out whatever it is that’s not working. This is something I need to relearn every time I write a new novel, but most especially whenever I start a novel set in a new world. I also need to remind myself that nothing is set in stone, and I can experiment, play, and try things until I find the winning combination. I could have imposed the two person point of view on Hembry because I know that works and I’ve had success with it before. But it didn’t work in this story, in this world, and I needed to allow myself the freedom to play around until I discovered what did work. Of course, now that all the heavy lifting is done, I can say that I love having written.

Happy 2016!