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Beau Monde Member Pens

Emma Hamilton Novel

By Cheryl Bolen

Beau Monde member Leslie Carroll, who writes her historical novels (on Helen of Troy, Jane Austen, and Emma Hamilton) under the pen name Amanda Elyot, was so committed to writing the story of the woman who besotted Horatio Nelson, she wrote the entire book before she had a contract in hand. For an established novelist, this is rare.

Happily, her power agent Irene Goodman has recently sold the book to NAL for trade-size publication in May, 2007. Carroll/Elyot is hoping her publisher will keep her title, TOO GREAT A LADY: the Private Memoirs of Emma, Lady Hamilton, a Novel.

Elyot chose the title because Emma never told the illegitimate daughter (Horatia) she had with Nelson the identity of her mother, but once said, "Sheís too great a lady to be mentioned."

"Iím fiercely proud of the research I do on my books," Elyot said. For Too Great a Lady she spent four months reading everything she could on Emma Hamilton, Nelson, and William Hamilton before she ever sat at her keyboard and began to write. Her research included reading Flora Fraserís comprehensive biography. "Weíve learned even more about Emma and Nelson since that book was published," Elyot said. "In fact, only a couple of years ago, dozens more of their letters came to light."

At the onset of her research Elyot decided she had to be "hyper-organized." She filled six 100-page tablets with notes from her research books. "At the top of each page I would write the surname of the author whose book I was taking notes on, so I could find the actual passage again, if need be, and numbered the pages in the bottom right corner," Elyot said. On the cover sheet of each pad she wrote the book titles referenced in that pad.

She did do some internet research, but it was mostly on the era itself, and most of that consisted of fact-checking during the actual writing. "It would take me forever if I tried to find some of those things in a library." She also uses the internet to track down and buy her research books.

Elyot borrowed a research technique she used for a celebrity clientís "biography." She made a stack of six by eight inch index cards for each period of Hamiltonís life and chronologized the events, cross referencing where her notes on the event appeared in the six notebooks. "That way, I could turn to all the relevant pages of my notes and have several notebooks opened simultaneously on my desk."

To write a historical novel, Elyot said, the author must be meticulous about research and not compromise the integrity of the subject or the era. "The fiction part is probably whatís even more important to editors," she said. "Can you tell a ripping good story, richly complex, with wonderful and fully delineated characters?"

The actual writing of the 715-page manuscript took Elyot less than five months. (To make the book more marketable, Elyot eventually had to cut the manuscript down to 461 pages.) "I was so excited to wake up every morning write the Emma book that it sort of poured out of me," she said. At the computer by 7:30 each morning, she sometimes wrote until 2:30 the following morning, with no more than an hour break at the nearby gym. She even eats at the computer.

Having begun the novel in mid March, she had imposed an August deadline on herself to dovetail it with one of her contracted contemporary books. She writes romantic comedies for Ballantine and Avon under her real (stage) name. "I find it very difficult to snap back and forth between periods," Elyot said. "I canít spend four hours a day on contemporary fiction and then spend four hours on historical fiction, so I try to work on one book until the task at hand is completed before resuming work on another."

She decided to tell the first-person story of Emma Hamilton (1765-1815) chronologically but has actually begun with a prologue from 1814 that was inspired by an actual historical event. When Emma was in debtorís prison in 1814 she read in a newspaper that a two-volume compendium of love letters between herself and Nelson was about to published, and she became livid. (Elyot actually bought these volumes through the internet.) In real life, Emma refuted the books, saying she had nothing to do with them. In Elyotís book, Emma determines that if the truth about her great love affair and other particulars of her life is to be bared for public consumption, she should be the one to do it, since only she knows the real story, and she desperately needs the money her memoirs could bring.

"Her life is a perfect five-act tragedy," Elyot said, "a structure with which, as an actress, Iím very familiar.

"Ema Lyon starts with nothing, begins her social climb, reinventing herself (even changing her name) . . . At the apex of this parabola Emma, now Lady Hamilton, is at the height of her powers: the most beautiful woman of the age, the de facto ambassadress to Naples, the confidante of a queen, a political player, and soul mate and, later, lover to Nelson. . .Emmaís star begins to slowly descend until by the end of her life sheís left with practically nothing again," Elyot said.

Almost all of the book is based on actual incidents. "By the time I began to put words on the page, I had no trouble slipping into Emmaís psyche, or that of the other characters in the novel," Elyot said. "Iíd spent months with all of them and felt I knew them very well, loved all of them very much, and cried my eyes out when any of them died."

Where documentation of Emmaís life is scant, Elyot crafted scenes that could have happened, based on her knowledge of her heroine. Monkeying with the history was "anathema to my sensibilities," Elyot said.

A native New Yorker, Elyot was educated at a private prep school (Fieldston) in the Bronx, then spent four years at Cornell University as a theatre major. She still appears in plays at The Players on Gramercy Park and goes to North Carolina every summer to the New River Dramatists at Healing Springs, where she is hired to cold read new plays during the afternoons and offer constructive critiques to playwrights. During the morning and evening she works on her novels in her cabin.

The granddaughter of author Carroll Carroll, Elyot says, "I am a total history geek and always have been." She loves museums and takes vacations just to explore ancient ruins. Most recently, she spent the Trafalgar bicentennial in England, soaking up all things Nelson (and Emma). "I almost wept with joy when our group got special government permission to tour the old Admiralty buildings and attended a black tie dinner at Guildhall in Nelsonís honor. I felt like I was representing Emma!"

Elyot said her acting career led to her writing career. The lovely Elyot/Carroll was playing Jane Austen in The Novelist, a two-character romantic drama by Howard Fast when she asked herself, "What would happen if I walked offstage and were suddenly in England, in Austenís era?" That was the premise for her book By a Lady that Crown published in March.

After holding down temporary secretarial jobs and working as a legal secretary to support her creative efforts, Elyotís been able to write full time since 2003. "The spectre of having to go back into another law office day job . . . hovers just over my shoulder like a dementor in the Harry Potter books," Elyot said. (The job as a temp secretary became fodder for her book Temporary Insanity.)

With her mounting publishing credits and sparkling reviews in Publishers Weekly, itís not likely Elyot will ever work as a secretary again.

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