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…
Hi, Kaaren! Welcome to Let Them Read Books!
Can you tell us about your inspiration for Decorum?
I have to give a lot of credit for the beginnings of Decorum to a course in writing historical fiction that I took in 1999. Up until then I had made some false starts on a couple of historical novels in different periods. It was frustrating. It seemed like the more research I did the less I knew, the more I tried to force dialogue out of the characters the sillier their speech became. The historical fiction course helped loosen me up and focus on storytelling. As a result, one night Connor O’Casey appeared in my sleep, complete with top hat and silver-handled walking stick. He was somehow involved with this dark-haired, exotic-looking woman named Blanche. An icy blonde named Francesca was in the background somewhere. I didn’t try to find the “beginning” of the story; I just started writing where I found these characters and let the story develop from there.
The novel’s title comes from my great-grandmother’s etiquette book, which was invaluable for research and eventually provided the organizing theme. Each chapter begins with a quotation from the etiquette book, how one should behave, followed by a chapter in which the characters did or did not act accordingly—usually the latter.
Are any of the characters based on historical figures?
I decided early on not to worry about forcing historical figures into the story. If the fictional characters had been led to cross paths with real people, then I would have included them. My main concern, especially as a first-time novelist, was to allow the characters to develop and become as well-rounded and real as possible in their own right. To a large extent this involved giving them a free hand to say and act as they wanted. I thought this might be difficult to do with historical figures, especially those who are well known and about whom there might be exhaustive amounts of material written, like Theodore Roosevelt or the Vanderbilts. Inserting people like these who had such distinctive personalities would involve making sure that the plot could accommodate them and their idiosyncrasies without letting them take over the story completely. If they were even minor characters I would have wanted their personalities to ring true, just as I wanted the fictional characters to ring true. So on this first time out in writing historical fiction, I decided to concentrate on bringing fictional characters to life.
What kind of research did you do to bring 1890s New York to life?
As I mentioned, the course on writing historical fiction helped tremendously in preparing me to write Decorum. The topic of research was probably the aspect that was most helpful for me. Previously, I thought I had to know everything; when I realized I would never know everything, I became immobilized. The course helped me learn to attack the research in a couple of ways without the danger of becoming immobilized.
I read several survey books about the Victorian period in America, focusing on social history of the late 19th century, to give me a good general backdrop against which I could set the characters in motion and let them go. Books on fashion helped me with vocabulary for description. Articles and books about society and its concerns and ambitions informed both plot and character. I tried absorb the information but not to get bogged down with it. I focused on storytelling; when I ran into something that the character was about to say or do and I suddenly didn’t know what that might be, I looked up that detail. As you might guess, I’m a very visual person and spent a lot of time looking at engravings, photographs, and art of the period. I was very lucky that the Gilded Age affords all these media to describe 1890s America. 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.
What were the most challenging and rewarding aspects of writing this novel?
The most challenging aspect was learning to manhandle the massive amount of written material I generated and put it in some kind of storytelling order. Decorum is a long, complex book; believe it or not, over many drafts I cut at least two or three hundred pages of bad ideas, ridiculous situations, and tangential scenes. A lot of the writing was trial and error; I couldn’t really tell whether something worked until I got it down on paper and could see it in context. It was probably this most agonizing aspect of developing the book that taught me the most.
The most rewarding aspect was wallowing in the three things I love best about writing fiction—character development, dialogue, and description—and watching these elements come together to form the Gilded Age world of Decorum. Sharing with readers the sights, sounds, and smells of city streets, drawing rooms, opera, music hall, restaurant, or art gallery, the movement of characters in ball gowns or top hats and their bickering or courting speech gives me enormous pleasure. When readers tell me they can picture a room or can hear the characters banter back and forth or that they love a particular character, I think, Wow, I’ve done my job.
What are you working on now?
Lately I’ve been doing research on the colonial period in my own backyard, Alexandria, Virginia. Some characters and plot lines are emerging in my mind. That said, I also have ideas for a story that takes place in the medieval period in England and for a story that takes place between the World Wars. I will never lack for ideas. Too many plots, too little time.
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About the Author:
Kaaren Christopherson is the author of Decorum—a novel about Gilded Age New York—that began taking form in 1999 during a course on writing historical fiction. From that moment, Connor O’Casey (who had been rattling around in her brain for months) finally appeared one night and said, “All right, woman. Here I am. What are you going to do about my story?” So she began to put his words on paper, and he hasn’t kept quiet since. Soon Francesca, Blanche, Tracey, Vinnie, and the rest of the characters began arguing, gossiping, loving, and forming themselves into Kaaren’s first novel.
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.
For more information visit Kaaren Christopherson’s website. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.