Tuesday, September 15, 2015

DECORUM: Q&A with Kaaren Christopherson

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Kaaren Christopherson's brilliantly observed novel captures the glamour and grit of one of the world's most dazzling cities during one of its most tumultuous eras--as seen through the eyes of a singularly captivating heroine... 

In 1890s New York, beautiful, wealthy Francesca Lund is an intriguing prospect for worthy suitors and fortune hunters alike. Recently orphaned, she copes by working with the poor in the city's settlement movement. But a young woman of means can't shun society for long, and Francesca's long-standing acquaintance with dashing Edmund Tracey eventually leads to engagement. Yet her sheltered upbringing doesn't blind her to the indiscretions of the well-to-do... 

Among the fashionable circle that gathers around her there are mistresses, scandals, and gentlemen of ruthless ambition. And there is Connor O'Casey--an entirely new kind of New Yorker. A self-made millionaire of Irish stock, Connor wants more than riches. He wants to create a legacy in the form of a luxury Madison Avenue hotel--and he wants Francesca by his side as he does it. In a quest that will take her from impeccable Manhattan salons to the wild Canadian Rockies, Francesca must choose not only between two vastly different men, but between convention and her own emerging self-reliance. 

Rules Of Decorum 
A gentleman should not be presented to a lady without her permission being previously asked and granted. This formality is not necessary between men alone; but, still, you should not present any one, even at his own request, to another, unless you are quite well assured that the acquaintance will be agreeable to the latter. 

If you wish to avoid the company of any one that has been properly introduced, satisfy your own mind that your reasons are correct; and then let no inducement cause you to shrink from treating him with respect, at the same time shunning his company. No gentleman will thus be able either to blame or mistake you. 

The mode in which the avowal of love should be made, must of course, depend upon circumstances. It would be impossible to indicate the style in which the matter should be told... Let it, however, be taken as a rule that an interview is best; but let it be remembered that all rules have exceptions... 

Q&A with Kaaren Christopherson
Do you consider Decorum to be plot driven or character driven? Is that how you naturally write, or is there a purpose for what you chose? 
Decorum is definitely character driven. No matter what I write, I always start with the characters, the people who carry out the plot and through their interactions will often send the action in a direction I didn’t expect. For example, I wasn’t sure what the outcome of Connor and Francesca’s encounter in Central Park would be until they spoke the dialogue and I watched it unfold in my imagination. I didn’t know who the old friend was whom Blanche would meet at Nell Ryder’s house until Blanche came to call. I didn’t know who was buried in the cemetery until Shillingford and McNee opened the grave. For me, much of the plot unfolds as the characters live it. 

What is your favorite scene in Decorum? 
I have several, but one of my all-time favorites is the Thanksgiving scene in which the Worths and their children and grandchildren host the Francesca, the Jeromes, and the up-and-coming tycoon, Connor O’Casey. It goes back to the importance of character and characterization in my writing. The Thanksgiving scene gives ample opportunity to learn how Connor thinks and feels about many things—his place in society, his ambitions, his desire for a family. I love seeing him interact with the grandchildren and at the same time begin to slowly win over their parents and grandparents. Overcoming the potential disapproval of society looms large for Connor, so Thanksgiving with the Worths is pivotal for him. The scene is also pivotal for Connor because it’s there that he meets Francesca for the first time. He has seen her in society circles several times, but up until that point he hasn’t actually met her. This begins to turn his love life on its head. Little does Francesca know that her love life is also in the midst of change, as a related scene in the same chapter reveals. 

And speaking of Francesca, I enjoy the scenes where we see her feistier side—usually as a result of an encounter with Connor. She may be a good and decorous lady, but she’s a good and decorous lady with spunk. 

What appeals to you most about writing historical fiction? 
One thing that interests me very much is how the characters have to function within the limits of a certain historical period. For example, when the characters have no cell phones and perhaps no telephones at all, what is the quickest form of communication a character can rely on? People had to cope with what to us would be monumental inefficiencies, but they made up for it in ways that have gone by the wayside for us today, such as receiving more than one daily mail delivery or newspaper edition. It forces the author to think about what happens during the waiting time—waiting for a letter to arrive or the length of time it takes a horse-drawn cab to trot across town. It presents lots of opportunities to enrich the plot and the relationships among the characters, especially if a character gets impatient and jumps into action before the vital communication is received or an important character arrives. 

How much research do you do? 
Quite a lot. I generally begin with several survey books about the period—mostly social history about how people lived (what they wore and ate, how they were educated, what work they performed), what technology was like (as it was known at the time), what discoveries had just been made, what political or economic forces affected ordinary people, how people traveled. I don’t try to know everything. I try to have a good grasp of what life was like and the limitations and opportunities the period has to offer so that when the characters are set in motion they begin to act with credibility. Then I start writing and let the action and the characters dictate the next phase of research, which is largely the details—what to call items of clothing, what kind of carriage might be used for a particular event, how a dinner table is set. Researching the 1890s was very interesting because of the variety of material available, not just history books, but biographies and memoirs, photographs, engravings, paintings, novels from the period, all sorts of resources that helped me get closer to the characters and their surroundings. I also took advantage of historic home shows and what the museums and historic homes in New York and Washington, DC, have to offer for steeping myself in the period. One of my favorite resources was my great-grandmother’s etiquette book called Decorum, published in 1881. It not only gave me a wealth of information on the expected behavior of the period, but also gave me the novel’s title and organizing theme. 

Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer to just see where an idea takes you? 
I have a general idea about who the characters are and how they relate to each other, the general direction of the plot, and the “destination,” but no outline or fixed plot. How the characters evolve is important, so I have to write quite a lot—maybe 100 pages—before the characters have had enough page space to reveal their motives and decisions and how they will interact with and react to each other. When I get stuck, it’s usually an indication that I need to do some research, which gives me a break from writing and helps replenish my cache of ideas. As I mentioned, the characters themselves determine a lot of what happens in a particular scene. I try not to force them to do or say something; I put them in a situation and let them loose. Nine times out of ten, they are wiser than I am in sending the plot in a particular direction and are much more adept than I at storytelling. 
Meet the Author

Kaaren has had a professional career writing and editing for over 30 years and is a senior editor for an international development nonprofit organization in Washington, DC. She has written fiction since her school days, story poems, children’s books, historical fiction, and time travel, and continues to be active in writer’s groups and writing workshops. In addition to her career as a writer, Kaaren was the owner of a decorative painting business. She loves to travel and prowl through historical sites, galleries, and museums. She is active in several churches in DC and in her local Northern Virginia community, where she shares her home with feline brothers, Archie and Sammy. A Michigan native, Kaaren received her BA in history and art and her MA in educational administration from Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan.


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