04 April 2010

Guest Author: Jennifer Blake

This week on Unusual Historicals we're excited to have Jennifer Blake with us as she spreads the word about her February MIRA release, TRIUMPH IN ARMS, set in mid-19th century New Orleans. This is the sixth installment in her Maître d'Armes series.

Join us Sunday when Jennifer will be here to answer questions and talk about her work. You'll also have the opportunity to win a signed copy of TRIUMPH IN ARMS!

The dashing Maîtres D'armes of New Orleans are renowned for their swordsmanship--and their relentless pursuit of their desires!

Once a starveling bootblack, Christien Lenoir has risen to become the sword master known as faucon, the Falcon. When a desperate gambler stakes his plantation in a late-night card game, sharp-eyed Christien antes up. For he wants River's Edge--and the tempestuous widow whose birthright it is. And he will stop at nothing to have both.

Reine Cassard Pingre feels trapped: the only way to keep her beloved home--and her inheritance--is to accept Christien's bold proposal of marriage. Though she instantly despises him, and despite rumors that she had a hand in her husband's mysterious death, Reine cannot dissuade him from wedding...and bedding...her. Their union is electrifying, but the honeymoon may be cut short by the lurid secrets at the heart of River's Edge.

Tells us a bit more about TRIUMPH IN ARMS.

Released in February of this year, this is the sixth and final book in my series about the Maître d'armes, Masters at Arms or fencing masters, of 1840s New Orleans. The previous five titles, all based on elements of the duel, are in order of publication, CHALLENGE TO HONOR, DAWN ENCOUNTER, ROGUE'S SALUTE, GUARDED HEART, and GALLANT MATCH. Since research indicated that the original masters at arms were of varied nationalities, I chose heroes to reflect that fact. Accordingly, TRIUMPH IN ARMS has a Native American hero, while the others are Spanish, Irish, Italian, English, and Kentuckian.

How did you become interested in the Maître d'armes?

Some of my best story ideas have been prompted by bits and pieces of history discovered while thumbing through favorite research books. In a chapter titled "Le Créole S'Amuse" from Herbert Asbury's THE FRENCH QUARTER, about the pursuits of French Creole gentlemen in the 19th century, I came across a wonderful item about the fencing masters they often visited. It stated that more than fifty maîtres d'armes operated fencing academies along the Passage de la Bourse, now Exchange Alley, during the golden age of dueling in New Orleans, from about 1830 until 1860.

These men were idolized in the same manner as sports heroes are today. Small boys followed them in the street, young men copied their mode of dress and feats on the dueling field, and older gentlemen vied to stand them a drink or a meal. Some few fencing masters gave themselves airs and entertained on a lavish scale while attempting to break into polite society. They were not often successful for, Asbury pointed out, "while the young bloods of the town lingered at the academies to sip wine with the maîtres d'armes, they did not invite the professional swordsmen to meet their mothers and sisters."

What story possibilities lay in that simple description! How could I resist? I wrote a proposal for a single book, though this soon became a trilogy as my ideas multiplied. Just before sending the three-book proposal to my agent, I added brief paragraphs for three additional tales as a hint that the trilogy could become a series by way of a subsequent contract. To my surprise and delight, my editor contracted for all six books at once.

Where did you discover the many details of the aristocratic French Creole lifestyle? Tell us how you manage to describe 19th century house interiors with such accuracy?

Though a native of Northern Louisiana, or perhaps because of it, I've always been fascinated by New Orleans; my library shelves hold over 400 books on Louisiana and New Orleans history. Any excuse to drive down to The Big East is a good excuse; making it a tax-deductible research trip is only icing on the cake. I've spent many enjoyable hours strolling French Quarter streets, absorbing the scents and sounds and judging walking distances from one historic site to another. I've been lucky enough to go "behind the scenes" in several of the old townhouses occupied by friends of friends, as well.

Then New Orleans has many small, European-style hotels located in what were once the aristocratic mansions of the city, and staying in them gives a great feel for the past. Finally, no research trip is complete without a visit to the William Research Center on Chartres which houses the Historic New Orleans Collection. Photocopying pages from old books and ancient newspapers of the 1840s on microfilm is my kind of fun.

Your fencing and dueling scenes have the feel of reality. Have you had fencing lessons?

For this important aspect of the series, I relied on half a dozen books about fencing and dueling, including one which described an actual duel fought by the author. I also did online research at various web sites devoted to fencing and its weaponry, and consulted a local fencing teacher on a specific question or two. All the rest comes from a PBS special on swords and sword-fighting, a handful of reliably authentic swashbuckling movies, and imagination.

You're known for the historical detail in your books. How do you decide when enough is enough?

Instinct, for the most part! The issue is highly subjective: some readers revel in historical minutiae, some want only moderate amounts, and some could apparently do without it entirely. Since I love it, I put in all the bits that interest to me or lend the kind of color which brings a scene to life in my mind. Later, during author revision, I try to be certain the detail doesn't overburden the action. If something strikes me as too much, I take it out.

Rumor says that you'll have a medieval trilogy out in 2011. What brought on such a drastic change of setting, and where are you going with it?

After decades as an antebellum Louisiana author, my editor at Mira Books requested in late 2008 that I set my next three contracted stories in England as a test of sales potential in that time period. This was exciting as I'd long wanted to do a medieval story, had actually written three pages of one that was received with much encouragement during a workshop at the 2008 Romantic Times convention. After delving into a head-high stack of histories and biographies, I decided to write about the sumptuous late medieval period and the court of Henry VII, father of Henry VIII.

The result is a trilogy filled with early Tudor drama and intrigue which revolves around sisters known as the "accursed Three Graces of Graydon," young women who bring death to any man who attempts to wed them without love. Book one, titled BY HIS MAJESTY'S GRACE, is on my editor's desk, and I just completed the rough draft for book two using a working title of BY GRACE POSSESSED. Book three has a deadline of April 2011 and is little more than a chimera in my head. The three books are scheduled for release in consecutive months beginning in August of 2011.

Many thanks for interest in my work, and for the opportunity to talk with Unusual Historicals. Warmest wishes for all the best with your writing!


Thank you, Jennifer! Readers, if you would like the chance to win a signed copy of TRIUMPH IN ARMS, please leave a comment or question for Jennifer. Are you interested in New Orleans and its history? Parts of it that grab your imagination? Let us know! I'll draw a name at random in one week. Void where prohibited. Best of luck!