Martha Waters didn’t set out to write a historically accurate Regency heroine. With no slight intended to the female wits of the early 19th century, she was aiming for something a little funnier to modern readers in her debut novel. What emerged was Lady Violet Grey, the heroine of To Have and to Hoax (Atria, Apr. 2020), whose hobbies include writing indignant letters to newspaper editors and faking tuberculosis to get even with her estranged husband.
In your day job, you work as a children’s librarian. How did you end up writing romances?
I’m a lifelong lover of all things British and olden-timesy, but I didn’t come to romance as a genre until graduate school. I read a Julia Quinn book and I was hooked and never looked back. I didn’t realize, because romance doesn’t get fair coverage in the wider world, that there would be so many funny writers like Julia Quinn and Eloisa James. Each author has a slightly different style, of course, but I enjoyed seeing the same things pop up over and over again, like Wednesday nights at Almack’s and how nobody liked it because it was boring.
With all of history for inspiration, why do you think so many writers are drawn to Regency England?
I have a couple of theories. One of them is the least optimistic and negative view of humankind: Regencies tend to be really white and really straight. If there’s a subset of readers who want to read about straight white people, reading Regencies is a way to do that without explicitly stating that that’s what they want. There are authors challenging that, and I’m glad, but they are vastly in the minority. Looking more positively at it, I think it hits a sweet spot of feeling historical but not too historical. A Regency feels quaint and mannered without feeling too foreign, in part because it’s so prevalent in our culture, with Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer and 5,000 BBC adaptations.
What were your starting points for understanding the period?
One book I discovered at my local library is Georgette Heyer’s Regency World by Jennifer Kloester. It’s the bible for anyone who wants to write a Regency romance, because it has all of the information you would need if you want to write about aristocrats—everything from the differences between a landau and a coach and a brougham to all the types of fabric that a lady’s gown could be made out of, to how many servants you could expect to see employed by people of a different status and how much money would seem like a reasonable amount for rich people to be betting.
Do you ever worry that readers will play gotcha with you about the details?
I realized at one point that I was using terms related to railroads, like “things going off the rails,” and railroads hadn’t been invented yet. It’s hard not to have contemporary-sounding dialogue slip in, especially in romance as a genre, because we don’t expect the characters to sound like they came out of a Jane Austen novel. We as readers have accepted a contemporary sound to the dialogue. But there’s a line. I don’t know where it is, but it’s where things feel too anachronistic. And maybe that’s a different line for different readers. I know Sarah MacLean gets angry emails whenever she uses the F word in her books, and that word is hundreds of years old.