Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Guest post: Independent heroines and how to keep them accessible by Elyse Mady + Giveaway

Today I am happy to welcome back to Ex Libris Elyse Mady who is here to celebrate the release of her latest novel The White Swan Affair, a historical romance not like any other! Elyse stops by to tell us more about Hester the heroine of The White Swan Affair and share with us what in her opinion makes a heroine independent and interesting. Please give her a warm welcome and don't forget to enter the giveaway, you could win one of Elyse's novels!  

Independent heroines and how to keep them accessible
by Elyse Mady

I read and write historical romance to escape. To explore worlds that have disappeared and visit societies that no longer exist.

But that means being presented with a real conundrum when it comes to the heroines in historic settings. Reality is that the expectations and behaviours that were acceptable two hundred years ago would be very difficult for many of us to accept today. (Don’t believe me? Check out this post I wrote about ‘proper’ Regency manners and see how many you could achieve. I flunked! )

Balancing the behaviours and mores of the past with the expectations of the present is especially important when talking about the heroine because that’s who the reader usually connects with first. Too wishy washy and you risk alienating the reader. Doormats don’t make for great characters. Too gung-ho and stay-burning though and you risk distracting from the historical setting. That might work in a time-travel novel, where the disjunction is purposeful, but in a Regency setting, it’s jarring.

So here are three things that I do to write strong, independent heroines in my novels.

Strength of Purpose

It’s not enough that a heroine be emotionally strong but I think for readers to connect, the heroine has to have a goal we can connect with. Hester Aspinall’s goal in “The White Swan Affair” is to free her brother, Robert, who is facing the death penalty because he has been charged with sodomy.

That threat motivates Hester. She’s lost her family; her brother is her only remaining member. She braves a crowd of rioting Londoners to preserve the family; she choses to accept Thomas Ramsay’s utterly unorthodox offer of help, even though it will mean her ruin, because it means she will be better able to help her brother. Her purpose is crystal clear

When I’m writing a character, I always ask myself ‘Why’? Why is a character acting this way? If it’s just to meet a good looking duke, then ho-hum. That’s a very superficial reason. But if the character’s purpose or goal is clearly motivated and worthy, then I think it inherently increases the interest and makes a situation that will naturally draw the reader to the heroine because they become invested in the outcome.

Robert’s hands were clenched. Even in the dim light, Hester could make out the whitened knuckles, stark and taut.

Without allowing herself to reconsider, she stripped off her gloves and took his tight fist between her palms. She stroked his skin, letting her fingers trace the back of his hand.

One fingertip traced a scar that meandered across his knuckles. It was fresh, still tender, and she wondered what misadventure had prompted the injury. She massaged his long fingers and ministered to the tender, pink skin beneath his iron manacles. These nimble fingers, that could transform cloth into works of art, that had always been so neat and kempt, now sported ragged fingernails, the dirty half-moons testifying to his life behind the thick stone walls of Newgate.

These were her brother’s hands. She had held these hands, touched them, seen them her entire life. Yet had she ever really looked at them?

These were the hands that had clutched her own childish one as they’d torn over the wild downlands. And when she’d cried, “Wait, Robbie, wait. You’re too fast!” these were the hands that had swept her onto her back and carried her, with boyish strength, across the fields, while she’d clutched at his neck and laughed with delight at her brother’s speed and daring.

These were the winter-chapped hands that bobbled countless hot conkers, snatched from glowing coals, peeling back the scorched skins before offering up the tender nutmeat. “Here, Hessie, a treat for you.” On how many nights had they sat thus, telling tales and laughing? Too many to count.

These were the gloved hands that had led her through her first bourées and country dances. He’d coaxed and encouraged her, made her laugh when she’d stumbled or made a wrong turning. He’d been an apprentice then, and she’d never questioned his appearance but now she knew how much effort it must have taken for him to secure those free evenings.

These were her brother’s hands, and she knew them as she knew her own.

And soon, in a fortnight or so, these were the hands that would be clenched round the prisoner’s rail, awaiting the judge’s verdict. These were the hands that could very well clutch and claw at a hangman’s noose, for the crime he had committed was one that could not be forgiven or overlooked.

At least not by the courts.

“I will be there, Robert. At the trial. Every minute of it, I will be there.”

“I don’t want you there.”

“I know, and I love you for that. But I will be there all the same.”


Life isn’t always easy and while the purpose of a romance is to offer a ‘happily ever after’ at the end, I always find the stories that balance the sweet and the painful more poignant. After all, very few of us get to live without suffering in real life. The difficult times serve to make the happiness that much more important.

Hester faces loss. Her parents. Her unborn child. Her standing in society when her brother, Robert is arrested. She is threatened by a mob angry at her brother’s ‘deviant’ behaviour. These things all combine to make the outcome less certain and her position more fraught.

Strength and vulnerability aren’t mutally exclusive, either. Hester has doubts, like we all do, about choices she’s made or not made. Experiences that she’s lived through and that have changed her. The point about having a character be vulnerable is not to make her weak or door-mattish but to offer a possibility for the hero to connect in a way that will go deeper than mere attraction. Attraction isn’t enough to create an authentic life long bond.

When she and Thomas finally succumb, not by disregarding those difficulties, but by overcoming and accepting them, it makes their love story that much more substantial.

The dispute had attracted a crowd of onlookers. There were jeers and muttered deprecations when Hester followed Stroud into the street. In her anger, she’d forgotten the state of her clothes but now she was mortifyingly conscious of them. She darted to and fro, trying to recover her brother’s stock but was rebuffed again and again.

She tried one last time to persuade Stroud to reconsider. “Please, sir,” she begged, heedless of what it might cost her, thinking only of the need to preserve the means of her brother’s release. “You will condemn him to prison, with no means of support, if you take these things. You will condemn me to a life without a livelihood. Please, I am begging you, sir.”

Her pride decimated, she pleaded without shame. The catcalls escalated but she closed her ears to their insults. All of her energies were for the man before her, who held her small family’s future in his hands. “If you have any mercy in you, if you have the slightest spark of human goodness in you, please do not do this.”

Stroud shook off her hand with an irritated gesture. “We are done here,” he announced. “You and your brother deserve every punishment that will be meted out to you, in this world and the next. I take no leave of you. You do not deserve any such notice.” He stalked towards the heavy cart, giving curt directions to the driver. Around her, the crowd grew noisier and she heard their slurs.



Molly’s piece.

There were no friendly faces. She took a slow step back and then another, her arms wide in supplication. A clod of dried dung hit her shoulder, shattering on impact. Another missile—a turnip?—narrowly missed her head.

She reached behind her, groping for the comfort and reassurance of Jeremy’s arm, but she felt nothing. She turned in a panic and saw that the young apprentice had fled. Why had he left her now? She wanted to cry out. Fear, real and black, churned her gut. She was all alone. There was no one to help her.

Sense of Self

If your character doesn’t know who she is, how will the reader? I wanted to make Hester’s back story more complex than the standard Regency heroine. She’s not a virgin. She and her late fiancé were intimate, once, shortly before his death and it results in a pregnancy. She lost the baby and ever since, has reined herself in, unwilling to risk herself again. But that doesn’t mean Hester doesn’t know who she is. She is presented with the opportunity to ‘sell out’ her brother several times. It would make her life easier, certainly.

But she doesn’t. And even when she’s with Thomas, she doesn’t simply abandon her viewpoint. He’s rich. He could keep her in ease. But she doesn’t take the easy path there, either. Because at her core, she has a certain set of values that can’t be chipped away. I think that this sense of self if perhaps the most important aspect of a character. This is what distinguishes the fictional creations that live and breath from those that just lie on the page. The heroine needs a sense of self that is as full and as robust as the author who is writing her has. They’re not carbon copies, obviously, but that authenticity will resonate and help inform so much of the story’s narrative.

In the ordinary course of things, Hester would never have found herself contemplating engaging in a relationship of the most irregular nature.

But nothing in her life was ordinary anymore.

She could continue as she had, circumscribed, dissatisfied and proper. Doomed to never taste Thomas’s kisses again. Certainly, it was the safest course and one that would shield her from a goodly degree of censure.

Or she could forge a different path.

Today, waiting in Newgate for her brother to appear, she had realized something vital about herself.

She could live without many things but she could no longer live without passion. And it was passion that Thomas offered her. In her shame and her grief, she had cut herself off from so much of her own nature. Worst of all, she had almost convinced herself that it was enough.

It was not enough.

She wanted more.

But more importantly, she deserved more. She had asked her brother to trust her to make the right choices for him but she had not extended that same trust to herself. She and she alone was the person who could decide her fate. Happiness was entirely a matter of chance. She had to make a decision for herself in this matter. No one else’s could count.

Thanks so much for having me to visit today! I hope you enjoyed my examples on what makes a great independent heroine. What makes for a memorable heroine in your view? Have you read any books that have a particularly memorable lead?

Elyse Mady is the author of historical romances “The White Swan Affair” and “The Debutante’s Dilemma” and two contemporary romances (“Something So Right” and “Learning Curves”) with Carina Press. Upcoming books include the Regency novella “The Debutante’s Desire”. She blogs at You can also find her on Twitter at @elysemady, Facebook and Goodreads.

In addition to her writing commitments, Elyse also teaches film and literature at a local college. With her excellent writerly imagination, she one day dreams of topping the NY Times Bestseller’s List and reclaiming her pre-kid body without the bother of either sit-ups or the denunciation of ice-cream.

The White Swan Affair by Elyse Mady

London, 1810

After the tragic death of her beloved, Hester Aspinall vowed never to be ruled by her passions again. Still, she is drawn to her landlord, handsome adventurer Thomas Ramsay–but she doesn’t fool herself that a man of his station would look twice at a poor tailor’s sister.

With the sea for a mistress, Thomas has no intention of entering into matrimony. And yet, he can’t get the plain-spoken and desirable Hester out of his mind, even though she’s never tried to secure his attentions as other women do.

Everything changes the night Hester’s brother is arrested during a raid on a gay brothel, the infamous White Swan. With no one else to turn to, and terrified Robert will hang for his crime, Hester accepts Thomas’s offer to bear the cost of the defense. A true gentleman, Thomas expects nothing in return–but Hester is no longer able to deny her own desires…

She may offer her body eagerly, but can she protect her heart?


Elyse has generously offered an ebook copy of Something So Right, Learning CurvesThe Debutante’s Dilemma or The White Swan Affair winner's choice to a lucky commenter!

All you need to do is complete the Rafflecopter form below.

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Giveaway is open worldwide and ends on 2 July 2012!

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Monday, June 18th – Peace, Love, Books
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