Today’s author spotlight features historical romance author Scarlett Peckham.
Introducing Scarlett Peckham
Scarlett Peckham fell in love with romance novels as a child, sneaking paperbacks from the stash in her grandmother’s closet. By the time she came of age she had exhausted her library’s supply and begun to dream of writing one of her own.
Scarlett studied English at Columbia University and built a career in communications, but in her free hours always returned to her earliest obsession: those delicious, big-hearted books you devour in the dark and can never bear to put down. Her Golden Heart®-winning debut novel, The Duke I Tempted, was named a Best Romance Novel of 2018 by BookPage and The Washington Post and called “astonishingly good” by The New York Times Book Review.
Scarlett recently moved to Los Angeles after spending most of her life in Brooklyn and London. When not reading or writing romance she enjoys drinking immoderate quantities of white wine, watching The Real Housewives, and dressing her cat in bowties.
Welcome Scarlett, and thanks for taking the time to chat with us. I know you’ve been intrigued by romance since you were a child. Was there anything in particular that motivated you to choose to write historical romance?
I like my genre fiction to have extremely high stakes. Dramatic plot twists! Tragic miscommunications! Things that go bump in the night!
I also really, really like mood lighting.
And do you know what is conducive to all of these things? The absence of modern technology.
There is such heightened potential for melodrama and hijinks when you don’t have electricity and no one can text and a chance rock on a darkened trail can overturn a carriage, leading to the necessity of sharing that one single bed in the only room left at the inn.
All amidst the flickering of candles and roaring fires, naturally.
From a thematic standpoint, history also lends itself to extremely high emotional stakes. Going back in time allows you to take some of the anxieties of modern courtship and blow them up to their most dystopian extremes. It’s not just “I’m looking for someone to spend my life with to enrich my time on this earth” but “I’m looking for someone to spend my life with so that I don’t starve to death because I have no monetizable skills, family connections or voting rights, and I certainly hope that social conventions and prejudices about our genders or races or class don’t stand in the way of love on the off chance I happen to find someone who enriches my life!”
In other words, massive structural power imbalances are rich hunting grounds for conflict, and conflict is the best atmosphere in which to create that swoony, layered intimacy we seek out in romance novels, because the jags and cracks on the plot terrain open gashes from which souls reveal themselves.
That leads me to the next question. Your heroines are spectacular: strong, opinionated, and independent, not necessarily what we usually find in Regency romance. I admit to being more than a little enamored by them and the spine they show in the face of many odds. What led you to focus on alpha heroines, rather than the traditional go-where-the-wind-takes-me type?
I want to write stories in which female strength of all kinds is unapologetically centered, celebrated, and explored. But that strength can manifest in all sorts of ways. Bucking convention to demand power—open rebellion—is a type of strength. Strategically selective conformity–welcoming the traditional trappings of convention as an adaptive strategy to get what you want or need—is a form of strength. Discreetly forming micro-communities within hostile environments, or drawing lines within your own intimate relationship, to live with a degree of freedom you might not otherwise be granted, is a form of strength. And I am endlessly fascinated by all these expressions of female ingenuity and power.
So when I say “alpha heroines” it’s not really to distinguish between one type of woman and another. It’s more a winking nod to romance readers that I’m inverting some of the tropes of the “alpha hero” and celebrating the strength and agency of the heroine.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the series to me is the respect with which the BDSM elements are treated. What I don’t know is how prevalent that was in London society at the time. Did researching these books turn up many surprises for you?
Perhaps the most shocking thing is how “shocking” people having always been in the creativity of their sexual expression. I think each generation imagines it was the first to invent “adventurous” sex. Maybe we do this as a form of self-protection, because it can be disquieting to imagine your sweet great-great-grandmama was a total, stone-cold freak in the sack.
But the historical record attests that since people have had bodies they have wanted to rub them against things that feel nice, and to live out their erotic fantasies—be those fantasies totally conventional or a little imaginative or wildly fetishistic. All that changes is our ways of talking about these things, and the mores and conventions around how they are practiced and viewed.
With regard to kink, in the 18th century you did not have the exact contemporary ethos and language around BDSM and erotic power exchange that we have now, but you certainly had a rich variety of practice. “Birch discipline” was quite fashionable in the Georgian era, and it included all sorts of erotic role play around bondage and masochism and discipline, including punishment, bondage, and elaborate dirty talk, some of which still survives in glorious detail because in the 18th century they really loved to write everything down.
And this was not fringe behavior—John Cleland’s famed Georgian pornographic novel Fanny Hill includes enthusiastic portrayals of flagellation. BDSM play remained popular throughout the era. Theresa Berkely, the whipping governess on whom my character Elena Brearley is based, was a rather infamous cultural figure in the early 19th-century, and was known for having invented the “whipping horse.” She reportedly left her fortune to her brother, a missionary who disavowed the inheritance because he was aghast at where it came from. That detail is endlessly interesting to me. I like to explore all of this in my books—the interest and enthusiasm for sexual exploration that has always existed, as well as the uneasy or condemnatory cultural attitudes that at times accompany and complicate desire.
Now a little change of pace. Congratulations on being a winner as well as a four-time Golden Heart® finalist in Historical Romance! That’s quite an accomplishment. In what ways do you feel that’s enhanced your writing career?
Thank you! (And congrats to you on being a fellow finalist last year! Go Persisters!)
I’m sad the Golden Heart contest is ending because it helped me find a community in the publishing industry. Relationships are the single most valuable commodity to a writer beside actual words, and the contest was a great way of helping me bond with other writers and meet gatekeepers and other influential types who proved helpful in learning the ropes. Without the contest there would have been a much steeper learning curve and I’m certain it would have taken me longer to get traction.
Your Secrets of Charlotte Street series is self-published. What led you down the self-publishing route?
‘Tis a very simple story: my book didn’t sell!
I had always aspired to eventually self-publish a series, because I am a great fan of control and usually think I am right about things and therefore thought it would suit my temperament. But I am also a great fan of learning from the experts, so my original aspiration was to debut traditionally and learn the ropes with a publishing house before experimenting myself. But, alas, the book that ultimately became my debut, The Duke I Tempted, was roundly deemed far too weird for a historical romance debut when my agent took it on submission.
And I, obviously, disagreed. (See: thinking I’m right about everything. LOL.)
But in all seriousness I adored that book, and really wanted that specific story to be my debut, and the Charlotte Street series to be my first series, because I had such a strong vision for the world and vibe and themes and characters. And I figured that because it was unusual, it might just have a chance of standing out if I went indie. And if no one bought it or everyone hated it…well. I would just learn my lesson.
So I decided to lean into all the things that made it weird and double down—make it more intense, more flagrantly feminist, more gothic—and to emphasize those qualities when I marketed it, in the hopes that the very things that made it too experimental for a traditional publisher would make it stand out among readers. And blessedly, it worked out.
And it worked! With two wildly successful self-published books under your belt (or should I say garters?), do you have any words of wisdom to pass along to our readers about self-publishing?
Write the books you long to read.
Don’t worry about the vicissitudes of the market—what is or is not supposedly popular or selling right now. If you feel that you are writing something you wish you could buy, you probably are.
And don’t be scared to be original, to break supposed rules, to push boundaries. There will always be some readers who dislike your choices, or publishers who are apprehensive about their appeal, but the joy of indie is you can do it anyway and see if it works. And if it doesn’t, it’s not the end of the world. You can just try something else until it takes.
Are there any tips or hints about indie publishing that you wish you’d known before you released your Secrets of Charlotte Street series?
I wish I had known the degree to which everything is flexible and there are no hard and fast rules. (I hate rules. Can you tell?)
When I was starting out I read everything I could get my hands on about self-publishing, gulped down podcasts, stalked Facebook indie author groups, took classes…and everywhere I looked I was seeing a lot of advocacy for speed and volume of production as the most important thing to finding an audience. The conventional wisdom was pretty much “write more books faster.”
This terrified me. I worried that I was spending far too much time laboring over my books at the sentence level, obsessing over craft and research and etymology, and that it would all be totally futile…because no one would ever find or read them because they were not optimized to a certain algorithm and there would never be enough of them.
It turned out that was not true. People found the books and responded to them in part because they liked the care I put into writing them.
And that’s a lesson very specific to my personal process and fears, since it takes me forever to write and edit my work, but the larger lesson is universal: you can make self-publishing work for you and your particular strengths, whatever they may be. What works for someone else might not work for you at all, so gather information and pick the parts that resonate for you and learn by doing until you hit a groove.
A big part of self-publishing is in the marketing. Your book trailers are absolutely gorgeous. Did you create them yourself? Which tools did you find most useful?
Why thank you! My professional background is in PR and branding so it’s very meditative to switch off of writer mode and use that side of my brain. I use Canva to illustrate my books on Instagram. Sometimes if I’m feeling especially ambitious I make videos using iMovie. None of it is very technologically complex. I think it’s my version of crafting.
What advice would you give to new writers seeking to follow the indie publishing route?
Well, I don’t like rules so I won’t give any. But my big advice would be if you go indie you need to think of your project not just as writing books. Writing is only step one. You have to also produce and sell them.
That part is not optional, and if you conceive of as a chore, you will probably not be very happy, because it is a lot of work. But in return for taking that on, you get to make every single detail exactly to your taste and vision, which is itself a creative enterprise. So think of yourself not just as a writer but also as an entrepreneur and creative director.
(And if that sounds stupid or repellent please ignore me and do you. There are no rules.)
We understand you have very exciting news about your publishing future. Can you share some of your future plans with our readers?
I do! I am working on a new three-book series for Avon called The Society of Sirens. It’s set in the late Georgian era, in the age of revolution, and it’s about three female friends who are all supposedly fallen women—a promiscuous feminist philosopher, a risque painter, and a famous courtesan—who decide to weaponize their notoriety to fight for women’s rights. The first book is called The Rakess and I’ve been working on it for years. I’m so excited for people to finally read it. (….In 2020 or so when it finally comes out.)
I’m also working on my next Charlotte Street book, The Lord I Left. This one is set in part at the secret erotic members club that has been on the periphery of my first two books, and explores the collision of religious and musical and sexual ecstasy, as well as some of my favorite tropes, like “virgin hero” and “snowed in”. It’s darker territory than my last book so I’m enjoying slinging angst everywhere. Angstmongering is my happy place.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
I’m like a year late to the party but in romance I’m currently reading Act Like It by Lucy Parker and it is just as delightful as everyone said it would be. I also just stared Jane Austen: the Secret Radical, by Helena Kelly, which I’m excited about because nothing gets me going like Jane Austen delivering savage remarks behind people’s backs. And I’m listening to Tara Westover’s memoir Educated on audio, which is absolutely extraordinary and beautifully narrated.
Do you have a favorite romance novel to recommend to our readers?
My personal romance holy grail is Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm. Gorgeous prose, angst for days, so layered. I love it.
Any authors or books you’re most looking forward to in 2019?
There are a bunch of friends’ debuts that I am really excited for coming out this year. I am intensely looking forward to Melonie Johnson’s Getting Hot with the Scot and Sarah Morganthaler’s The Tourist Trap—both are contemporary rom-coms by very funny women and I have been waiting forever to read them! And in historical romance I’m so excited for The Art of Scandal by Suzanne Tierney and Lovely Digits by Jeanine Englert. Suzanne is brilliant and I read the opening pages of Jeanine’s book as a judge in the Golden Heart contest last year and was blown away by how original it was.
Thank you so much for being here, Scarlett! It’s been a pleasure getting to know you.
Readers, you can stay in touch with Scarlett Peckham in many ways:
- Sign up for Scarlett’s newsletter
- Check out her (very pretty) Instagram
- Visit her website
- Say hello on Twitter
- Or pop by her Facebook page
All images taken from ScarlettPeckham.com.