Michaeline: Characterization and Envious Casca

Envious Casca's setting is a Tudor manor house where the inhabitants conspire to make Christmas the unhappiest holiday ever. (The Old Hall at Little Moreton. Via Wikimedia Commons.)

Envious Casca’s setting is a Tudor manor house where the inhabitants conspire to make Christmas the unhappiest holiday ever. (The Old Hall at Little Moreton. Via Wikimedia Commons.)

I’ve often heard Georgette Heyer called a writer’s writer, and I think she deserves the title. This isn’t faint praise. Her books, when I read them as a reader, were a lot of good fun, but when I read them as a writer, it’s all rather amazing to see how she pulls it all together. One of her great strengths, as the publisher’s blurb says on the back of the book, is her “sparkling characterization.”

Heyer is the grandmother of the Regency, but she also wrote contemporary (for her) mysteries. This week I read Envious Casca, which is a murder mystery set in a country house before WWII.

One thing I admire is the way she makes me want to read more about the characters in her book. None of them are adorable or perky or kickass. In fact, they are a rather miserable bunch of aristocrats without much sympathy. But with a few words, she draws pictures of people with their own motivations and desires and she makes them very readable.

One character that made me sit up and take notice was Sturry, the very formal butler in the story. He arrives to announce dinner after the murder, and here’s what happens:

“Ah, here is our good Sturry,” said Joseph (the murdered man’s brother), drawing him into the family circle by this affectionate address.

Sturry would not be so drawn. He stood immovable, despising people who did not know their places. “You rang, sir?” he asked frigidly.

One sharp phrase, and we know exactly what kind of butler Sturry is.

If you haven’t read Heyer before, I recommend that you give her a try – in fact, give her three tries. I wasn’t entranced with my first Heyer (The Talisman Ring), but she grew on me, and by the time I read my third Heyer, I was scouring Amazon for the cheapest in-print books. She’s a dependable story-teller, a great drawer of character, and she has stood the test of time.

Got any recommendations for writers who helped you grow as a writer? What lessons have you learned from reading a good book?

7 thoughts on “Michaeline: Characterization and Envious Casca

  1. I love Georgette Heyer, Michaeline – well, the romances, anyway. I’m not a fan of murder mysteries, even if they’re fabulously written with fascinating characters. I never tire of Heyer’s romances. The characters are sparkling and the stories are witty and sexy. It’s wonderful to see how much sexual tension she can create from a look or a slight touch. Usually the main characters don’t even kiss until they’re engaged. The plots are precisely constructed and (most wonderfully of all) her period detail is flawless. I think I read that she had something like 1,000 historical reference books by the time she died, and lots of other artefacts for reference. She even bought an original letter written by the Duke of Wellington so that she could get his style of writing correct.

    My biggest problem with a really good book is that I get pulled into the story instead of studying it to see how the author did it. Bad books, OTOH – I spend way too much time thinking about those!

    • LOL, Jilly. I know what you mean. Sometimes it’s hard to learn from a good book because the good is right there — you don’t see the frantic paddling that went on behind the scenes to get the book to “good”. But a bad book? Oh, that’s extremely valuable! Many times, you know exactly how you would fix that rough stretch. If the bad book has the same problems as your own WIP, sometimes it can lead to an a-ha moment about how to fix your own writing. (-: And if nothing else, complaining is a fun pastime and vent for stress.

  2. Another Georgette fan here. Not so many people seem to like her mystery books but I love them – Envious Casca is such a good read and a really good mystery plot too.

    Speaking of good reads – I just finished The Fault in Our Stars about ten minutes ago. Was not the sort of book I normally like (ie serious peril of non-happy ending, given that protags are all teenage cancer sufferers!) but it just had me totally gripped. Now, that’s my definition of a good story. I was too busy reading to pay attention to story structure or any other writerly things but I think the thing that pulled me along was the voice. It’s 1st person POV and I loved the main character’s voice – if you haven’t read it, try the first few pages and see what you think.

    • Jeanne, who posts here once in awhile and has introduced many good stories to us, recommended Fault. I had the same feelings you did, Rachel! I normally can’t stand that sort of story full of misery and heartbreak (see: Love Story). But, it wasn’t full of misery and heartbreak! Somehow, John Green managed to show the simple joys of living day to day. That’s definitely a book I want to read again. (-: Maybe by the third or fourth re-read, I’ll be able to pull back and analyze.

      Very good read! And also, a good example of first person POV working. (BTW, Envious Casca is an excellent example of omniscient in practice. I think we need that distancing because of the mystery, and also because so many of the characters are so very unhappy. With The Fault in Our Stars, the closeness of first person lets us see more than “oh, poor cancer victim” and into the hopes and thoughts of that person — the narrator isn’t a pathetic or sentimental person, and it helps to keep the reader from getting too wrapped up in the tragedy because the narrator is distancing herself from the worse what-ifs. IIRC, anyway. It’s been almost a year since I read it. Wouldn’t mind doing a book discussion on it . . . .)

  3. I love the Heyer romances, so a long time ago I tried one of the mysteries and wasn’t captivated. But now I’m going to try again. She is so terrific. Have you read Josephine Tey, Michaeline? She wrote only five mysteries, and they’re all excellent, but “The Daughter of Time” is my favorite. She, too, does wonders with characterization.

    • I haven’t tried Josephine Tey, yet. If you recommend them, they are worth a look! To tell the truth, I have deep problems with the mystery genre as a whole — I like the problem-solving, but I don’t like death, murder and ugliness. The ones I read tend to be all about characterization. I loved the Brother Cadfael series, and there was a series by Susan Albert Wittig about a woman who gave up her rat race in order to become a herbalist in a small town strangely beset by an epidemic of dead people. (At least six in the series, which is a pretty high body count for a small town!) Loved the characters, though. Oh, and the early Evanoviches with Stephanie Plum. Don’t remember a single plot. Do remember a lot of exploding cars, the hamster and Ms. Plum.

  4. Pingback: Jilly: Writing in Multiple Genres | Eight Ladies Writing

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