Interview with an Author: Sheri Cobb South

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Sheri Cobb SouthAmazon bestseller Sheri Cobb South/ is the author of the John Pickett mystery series (winner of two Earphones Awards from AudioFile Magazine!) as well as a number of Regency romances, including The Weaver Takes a Wife and its two sequels. She’s currently working on a new Weaver book before getting back to work on the next John Pickett mystery.

How did you get started writing fiction?

I was an early reader, and for as long as I can remember, I wanted to write books. I wrote my share of angst-ridden teen poetry, but it was really all about story. When I was a teenager, I started writing a Regency romance, writing longhand in a spiral notebook every night after I went to bed. I never finished it, which is probably a good thing, as the plot was very derivative! I didn’t really get serious about writing for publication until I was 28 years old. I saw that big 3-0 looming on the horizon, which seems awful young now, but at the time, it made me think, “Okay, are you going to spend the rest of your life saying ‘someday,’ or are you going to WRITE?” I chose to write. I wrote a young adult novel which I hoped to sell by the time I was 30. (Yeah, naïve, I know.) I didn’t reach that particular goal, although I did have an agent by the time I was 30, and the book was published by Bantam as part of its Sweet Dreams series in February 1991, five months before my 32nd birthday.

You focus both your romance and historical mystery series on the Regency era. First, can you explain what exactly the Regency era is and why it is called that?

The historical Regency period refers to the time from 1811 to 1820, when, after several temporary bouts of insanity, it became clear that George III was no longer mentally competent to rule. His oldest son, the Prince of Wales, was named Prince Regent, ruling in his father’s place; that’s where the term “Regency” comes from.

Fiction writers, though, often talk about an “extended Regency” period, spanning the years from about 1790 to 1837 (the year Victoria came to the throne), when the manners, styles, and general mindset of the Regency period were still in vogue. That’s why my John Pickett mystery series is considered Regency even though it predates the actual historical period by a few years.

What draws you to the Regency era?

The short answer is, “Georgette Heyer.” I discovered her books while I was in high school, and never looked back. From there it was a short step to Jane Austen, and other works set in the period, like The Scarlet Pimpernel. The combination of elegance and humor was, and continues to be, irresistible.

Of course, it wasn’t all waltzing and Almack’s. There were the Napoleonic wars abroad, and the beginnings of industrialization at home, and all the conflict (literal and figurative) that those entail. In other words, plenty of fodder for a novelist.

The Regency Period is very popular in historical fiction, especially romance. What do you think is the draw of that era?

I think a lot of the credit goes to Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen. The rise of Regency romance as a genre seems to be concurrent with Heyer’s death, as other writers, mostly fans of Heyer herself, attempted to fill the void left by her passing. The increase in sensuality levels, although Heyer herself would likely have deplored it, appears to reflect the change in publishing as a whole.

But that doesn’t explain the popularity of the period even among people who have never read Heyer, or who complain that they’ve tried her books but can’t seem to finish them. I think much of the credit there goes to Jane Austen–not her books, but the big-screen adaptations of her works. Thanks to them, the look and feel of the period are at least somewhat familiar even to people who have never actually read her works. Then too, someone once said (I regret that I can’t give them credit for the theory, as I can’t remember who it was) that the Regency period is one of the few historical periods whose fashions are both attractive and accessible to modern eyes. Go back a few decades, and we can’t see the appeal of powdering one’s hair to look white (that’s why schoolchildren think America’s founding fathers were a bunch of old men!); go forward a few, and although we might think tiny waists set off by full crinolines or draped and bustled skirts are pretty, we really can’t imagine having to wear the undergarments necessary for the proper silhouette! Regency fashions, though, with their relatively unstructured lines, are flattering to most figures, and don’t require being stuffed or squeezed; we can imagine ourselves in such clothes, if only we had someplace to wear them.

Your historical mystery series (which I thoroughly love, by the way!), the John Pickett Bow Street Runner series, is about the precursor to Scotland Yard. What made you choose the Bow Street Runners to focus on?

First of all, thank you! I’m so glad you’re enjoying the series. The mystery genre is very series oriented, so I knew I would have to come up with characters that I loved enough to live with for a long time. I’d had good response to a Regency romance I’d written some years earlier called The Weaver Takes a Wife, which features a low-born hero and a high-born heroine. More importantly, I’d had so much fun getting Ethan Brundy and his Lady ’elen together that I decided to draw again from the same well. Since the Bow Street Runners were, as you say, the forerunners to Scotland Yard, it seemed logical to have a Bow Street Runner as the hero, and an aristocratic heroine whom he meets quite literally over her husband’s dead body. I knew their romance would be a harder sell, since John Pickett possesses neither Ethan Brundy’s wealth nor his self-confidence, but the series format allowed the relationship between Pickett and Julia, Lady Fieldhurst to develop gradually — and, hopefully, made readers want to see them together badly enough to suspend their disbelief.

You deal a lot with social status in your books. Can you tell us about the social issues your characters tussle with?

I think it’s hard for modern readers, especially Americans, to grasp just how impenetrable the barrier between social classes was, and continued to be, until really quite recently. As a familiar example, both Prince William and Prince Harry were able to marry women their father could never have even considered less than forty years ago. If Charles’s & Diana’s unhappy marriage accomplished nothing else, it did free their sons to marry for love. If Charles had been allowed to marry Camilla in the first place, both he and Diana would have been spared a great deal of unhappiness. (Yes, I know that Diana was much more beautiful than Camilla; but since when are only beautiful women deserving of love?)

Okay, getting off my soapbox. I decided at the very beginning of the series to set up Julia’s widow’s jointure in such a way that it would continue after her remarriage — although I have no idea how historically accurate such an arrangement would be — because I found the social obstacles to their marriage far more interesting than the strictly financial ones would have been. Even though she doesn’t have to live on John’s earnings, she still has a lot to lose, as a woman at that time would have taken the social position of her husband. When Julia’s friend Lady Dunnington warns her that marriage to John would be social suicide, she’s speaking no less than the truth.
But I was even more intrigued by how John would feel about being a “kept man,” with a wife whose income was almost ten times greater than his own. And of course, Julia is accustomed to impoverished noblemen or prospectless younger sons trying to marry heiresses, so she doesn’t see what he’s making such a fuss about. All these things come into play in Book 7, Mystery Loves Company, which will be available in audio in early to mid-August.

You obviously do a lot of research for your books. What kinds of things do you research, and how do you do it?

Thank goodness for the Internet! It’s made research so much easier. Still, I’ve been fortunate enough to make a couple of trips to England for research purposes — mostly the London-Brighton-Bath triumvirate, but also a visit to the Lake District in 2017, where Book 8, Peril by Post, (coming out in October) is set.

I’ve read and written so much in the Regency period that there are some things I no longer have to look up; dress details, for instance, rarely send me back to my reference books, and after all this time I have a pretty solid grasp of aristocratic titles and their proper usage. I did a lot of research into the Bow Street Runners while the mystery series was in the early stages of development and for some time afterward, most of it gleaned from Henry Goddard’s posthumously published Memoirs of a Bow Street Runner and its lengthy and very informative prologue by Patrick Pringle, the 20th century’s greatest authority on the Bow Street organization from foot patrol to magistrate.

But most of my research these days is specific to whatever book I happen to be working on. When, three books into the series, I decided to write a prequel novella (Pickpocket’s Apprentice) I realized that I’d written myself into a corner with Pickett’s being apprenticed to a coal merchant — one brief mention in Book 1, In Milady’s Chamber, and a more lengthy description recounted by magistrate Patrick Colquhoun in Book 3, Family Plot — and now had to go back and learn everything I could about coal-hauling in late 18th- and early 19th-century London! In Mystery Loves Company, I had to learn all about cyanide (including what it would have been called in 1809, as it wasn’t called cyanide until almost twenty years later), and in Peril by Post, I had to discover all I could about mail smuggling — that is, sending mail within the country by means other than the Royal Mail. It wasn’t easy; plenty has been written about the smuggling of brandy and tobacco, but domestic mail . . . not so much, except for the fact that it existed and it thrived.

Your website says you dream of waltzing the night away like Regency ladies. How are your waltzing skills?

It’s funny you should ask! I absolutely adore my husband. He’s smart and athletic, a 6’5” research chemist and former high school basketball player. But . . . he has no sense of rhythm whatsoever. (I knew this before I married him, and recognized that dancing would not be a significant part of my future. I gave it up willingly, and have never really regretted it. At least, not much.) I, on the other hand, come from a very musical family, played clarinet and bassoon in high school band, and currently sing first soprano in my church choir. On those rare occasions when my husband and I have occasion to dance, I have all I can do just trying to keep him on the beat. So at a recent church barn dance, when I had a chance to waltz with a man who knew what he was doing, I kept trying to lead!

How do you plan out your writing? Are you organized by detail, or do you write from the seat of your pants?

A combination of both. With romances, I know the beginning and the end, and maybe a scene or two in the middle, but the rest comes to me as I write. With mysteries, I have to plan ahead a little more, in order to plant clues; otherwise, I have to do massive amounts of rewriting. Still, I don’t like to plot out too much in advance; if I plotted every detail of a book before I ever started typing, I would feel like I’d already told that story. For me, the joy is in the journey, and in those little “surprises” that I discover along the way. Curiously enough, these never take rewriting to make them fit in with what I’ve already done; it’s as if they were there all along, just waiting for me to discover them.

As for my actual process, here’s how it works: Before I begin one of the John Pickett mysteries, I take a foam board, divide it into thirds to represent the three-act structure, and take it to Starbucks along with pads of post-it notes in pink and yellow. Yellow represents the mystery plot, and pink the romantic plot between John & Julia. I jot down the little bits I do know — sometimes even lines of dialogue I don’t want to forget — and stick them on the foam board in roughly the place I expect them to fall in the finished book. When I have enough of them to have a general idea of how the plot is going to develop, I put the board aside, fire up the laptop, and start writing.

I’m intrigued by how authors name their characters. How do you come up with the names of the ones in your books?

First, I want to use names that would have been in use during the Regency period. That leaves a much smaller name pool to draw from, which means it can be a challenge to avoid names that are too similar — either because they look too much alike to the reader’s eye as written on the page, or because they sound too much alike when read by the narrator. (Yep, audiobooks have given writers a whole new thing to obsess over.) Anything in the Bible is good, as are Greek or Roman names from antiquity. I try to avoid anything too outlandish; such names can get old to a reader in a hurry, and might even jerk the reader out of the story long enough to wonder if the name is really accurate to the period. A case in point can be found in Georgette Heyer’s The Nonesuch, which features a character whose name, Tiffany, is a diminutive of Theophania. I was surprised to learn that both the name and the nickname go back to the Middle Ages! So even though the name is historically accurate, the fact that this question arises so frequently on the Georgette Heyer Facebook group suggests that if even the Divine Georgette is questioned for it, we lesser mortals should probably avoid it.

In the case of the John Pickett mysteries, I wanted to give John a very ordinary, very common name that would reflect his social status (or, more specifically, his lack thereof), and yet one I liked, since it would be repeated frequently. In order to emphasize the difference between them, the heroine needed to have a more aristocratic-sounding name. Authors are often warned not to have names beginning with the same letter, but I settled on “Julia” anyway. It did lead to John’s drunken “They both begin with a ‘J’!” discovery in In Milady’s Chamber, so there is that.

One book I’ve found particularly useful in naming characters is a baby name book called Beyond Jennifer and Jason, by Linda Rosencrantz and Pamela Redmond Satran. (I believe it’s since been reissued as Beyond Madison and Montana.) Authors choosing names from a baby name book is nothing new, but what makes this book unique is that instead of giving the meaning of the name (what does “man from the crooked mountain” really tell a reader, anyway?), this book organizes names by the common stereotypes associated with them. This can be really helpful, whether I want to play into the perceived personality attached to the name or to go against type. My edition also has a section on common ethnic/foreign names, which is sometimes helpful, too.

What authors have most influenced your own writing career?

Georgette Heyer is certainly the biggest influence on my writing. If she had never written, I think I would have been writing something; I just don’t know what.

I also owe a debt of gratitude to Mary Stewart, Phyllis Whitney, and all the women who wrote romantic suspense during the Golden Age of that genre. Their stories of love and danger in exotic locales gave me a hunger for travel, and after taking a Mediterranean cruise in 2016, I tried my hand at an “old school” romantic suspense novel, Moon over the Mediterranean, which I call my Mary Stewart tribute book, although (despite my best efforts) it lacks the literary quality that makes her books hold up, more than half a century later, so much better than those of her peers. Still, it was great fun to write, and it offers a good opportunity to deduct travel expenses from my taxes, so I wouldn’t mind writing another one.

If you want to go back to very early influences, I have to cite a children’s book called Mystery at Rock City, by Christine Noble Govan and Emmy West, one of a series featuring a group of pre-teen friends/sleuths. I don’t remember anything about the plot or the characters, but I remember that after reading it, I begged my parents to take me and my sisters to Rock City. After all, it was in Georgia, and we were in Alabama, so . . . no biggie, right? Looking back, I think it was that book that first made me aware that authors have the power to — well, to move readers, to paint for them with words pictures of places and things that they couldn’t otherwise see.

You can visit Sheri further at the following sites:

http://www.shericobbsouth.com/
Amazon author page
Audible page

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Interview with an Author: Sheri Cobb South
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Interview with an Author: Sheri Cobb South
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Sheri Cobb South writes both mysteries and romances set in the Regency period so she shares with us today about her career.
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Fangirl Nation
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