Cakes, Crooks and Fallen Women. Controlling Characters?

So. It is Almost Out (just like one of Heyer’s hopeful young ladies of the Regency). The Highborn Housekeeper. My book about a noblewoman turned cook. A kind of Regency Nigella.
And funnily enough, my heroine resembles her, too. In my head.

Picture by Brian Minkoff-London Pixels

Controlling Fallen Women?The Ton's Most Notorious Rake by Sarah Mallory

A few years ago I wrote about the fallen women of Compton Parva. (That was my working title. It was published by Harlequin/Mills & Boon as The Ton’s Most Notorious Rake.)

One of the “fallen women” was Nancy, the big-hearted, big-bosomed earl’s daughter who was the mother hen of the group, looking after everyone.

Controlling Nancy? She was far too large a personality to be confined to a bit part in one book.
I fought it, I truly did, but no. She would NOT lie down.

She persuaded me to let her have a role in Beauty and the Brooding Lord, where she masquerades as the widow of a rich tradesman to help bring down a villain…

Gillray's Lyoness, controlling her impossible?

Beauty and the Brooding Lord by Sarah Mallory

possibly NOT quite like Gillray’s “Lyoness!” (shown right)

A BIG mistake.

Having taken an inch, Nancy wanted a mile!

Or, in this case, her own book.


controlling characters? author at computer in despairControlling characters — a trial for authors

What is it with the characters we create?

Mary Shelley knew a thing or two, when she wrote Frankenstein. He puts together a creature that he cannot control.

Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. 1922 Cornhill Publishing Company

And so it is with authors everywhere. Even after we are long gone. Just think of all the fandom sequels that have been written, featuring Jane Austen’s characters. They will just not give in.

woodpecker on tree trunk

We authors think we dream up the character, but do we, really?

Perhaps they are already there, waiting for us to let them into our consciousness, and then they stay there, banging on the inside of our skulls like a woodpecker…

…until we let them fulfil their potential.

And are they grateful for all our hard work?

The English Housekeeper, by Elizabeth Raffald, 1769Controlling Cooks and Crooks?

Take Nancy, for instance. She is a jolly good cook.

But who was it spent hours poring over 18th cookbooks, reading Elizabeth Raffald’s “The English Housekeeper”, published first in 1769 and containing such gems as how to dress and make a sauce for a cod’s head, how to souse pigs ears and feet?
Even how to fricassee ox palates, should you have a couple you don’t know what to do with.

Not Nancy, but yours truly. Hmmph.

Maria Felice Tibaldi. Dinner at the House of the Pharisee

Maria Felice Tibaldi. Dinner at the House of the Pharisee

Not that these delicacies ended up in the book. Keeping the modern reader in mind, Nancy prepared much simpler dishes such as pork ragout, brisket and stewed mushrooms.  And, channelling a certain “Mr K”, she does make exceedingly good Bath cakes (a type of breakfast roll, served fresh and warm from the oven. FYI)

Then there is her soulmate, Lord Gabriel Ravenshaw. Nancy’s equal in birth — not that she would have worried about that — and intelligence — much more important to our Nancy! Amongst his many skills he is an expert lockpicker.

Lockpicking Tools, courtesy of Chris Mitchell

Lockpicking Tools, courtesy of Chris Mitchell

Now that’s all very well for Gabriel, but as the author, I feel I need to know something about it.

Cary GrantSo it’s off to the internet, trolling through websites for information on eighteenth century locks and ways to pick them. (I sometimes think,  if MI5 really are screening everyone’s online searches, then authors must be constantly popping up as prime suspects for any number of varied and nefarious crimes.)

Not that Gabriel is a criminal, you understand. Oh no. He is on the right side of the law, but he needs to know these things. He is a Good Guy.

Like Cary Grant. Trust me.

Out of control heroine?

The Wicked Baron, by Sarah Mallory

Still one of my favourite covers!

In an even earlier book, The Wicked Baron, there is Carlotta, the heroine.

Carlotta is the  daughter of an Italian artist. She’s capable of taking over from her father to paint the ceiling frescos of the hero’s grand mansion (as you do).


For someone who barely knows her Rubens from a Rubik’s Cube and who thought Raphael was a ninja turtle, this was a vast learning curve!

[Do I really need to explain?]

Raphael the artist

Ninja Turtles








Suddenly, I was studying fresco technique, (virtually) grinding pigments and mixing colours. And learning about Italian snails (don’t ask). Not to mention experimenting with a ballet shoe to see if it really was possible to drink champagne from a lady’s satin slipper (messy).

That last piece of research was on behalf of my hero, you understand.
Not my idea at all.

Not the author’s fault…honest

So please, dear Reader, when you next wonder why a book takes an unexpected direction, don’t blame the author. It’s the characters. Sometimes they just get away…

La Dolce Vita, Mastroianni and Ekberg

Me: “No. No! Move away. You are not meant for one another!”

Author Sarah Mallory Honestly, it’s like herding cats!

Yours, in frustration,


The Highborn Housekeeper is published on 27th June and available to preorder now.

10 thoughts on “Cakes, Crooks and Fallen Women. Controlling Characters?

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    Hilarious! I sympathise. These days with me it’s peculiar ways to kill people, thought up either by dead characters or murderers. Presented with a corpse popping up, your author has no choice but to turn detective and find out what killed it. Invariably involving a delve into ancient books of the era for contemporary medical lore as well as modern anatomical data from the forensic end of the spectrum.
    Where do these ideas come from, I ask you?

  2. Louise Allen

    I so identify with this! I had one character turn up – he was supposed to be a 50ish, portly, Bow Street Runner. He turned into an altogether gorgeous and mysterious type who made a spirited attempt at out-heroing the hero and had to be firmly suppressed. He then demanded, and got, his own book – The Dangerous Mr Ryder – and that led to a 6 book series. Give them an inch and they’ll take a full 70,000 words…

  3. Sophie

    Oh, me too. Me too. I had a villain all prepped and ready to go and then, well, he turned out to have a sense of humour. AND he’s gorgeous. He’s still altogether too willing to bend the law if necessary. But he has a Code of what he thinks is and isn’t OK, which I hadn’t expected. Worst of all, because of what I’d plotted him to do and he just won’t, I’ve managed to break his heart into the bargain.

    I see Book 2 coming down the pike at me…

    1. Sarah Mallory

      Oh I know that feeling, Sophie! My villain in one book just had to show a streak of chivalry at the end…and made me reincarnate him in a later book (as a descendent).

  4. lesley2cats

    A warning to us all! The murderer in my current epic has turned out not to be, and the whole sequence of events has changed. And as I unravelled it, it made perfect sense, as if someone else had thought it up…Oh, yes. The real murderer. The added complications of writing a different era became too much for me and I have stopped my Edwardian series at a trilogy.

  5. Sarah Mallory

    Lesley, that is exactly it! I sometimes think someone else IS thinking up the story, because it seems so right, as if it was meant to be all along. Shame about the Edwardian series – maybe you will get back to it later. When the time is right.

  6. Annie Burrows

    I’m so glad it’s not just me that can’t keep my characters under control! I feel so much better after reading this post!!

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