Rule-Defying Regency Heroine
The Big Thrill Interviews Celeste Connally
My first question to Houston, Texas, author Celeste Connally in our Zoom conversation was about the nifty title ACT LIKE A LADY, THINK LIKE A LORD of her Regency-era mystery novel, which her publisher Minotaur Books releases mid-November.
“Originally, we were considering ‘Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Duke,’ but I soon realized it had to be ‘Think Like a Lord’ instead. Not only did I love the way it sounds, but it’s also more fitting to the plot as my main character deals with male aristocrats of varying ranks.” She’s finished writing a follow-up book in an intended series.
Celeste is one of a handful of authors writing in the Regency-era mystery genre, and found her inspiration for her heroine during the pandemic.
“I watched a lot of period dramas, including Pride and Prejudice and Emma, Downton Abbey, and Bridgerton. And Miss Scarlet and the Duke began to air on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre as I was writing as well. They all featured a spinster in one way or another, but not always in the kindest of lights. I found myself wanting to write an unmarried heroine that could be both ladylike and strong-minded. Essentially, a woman who did the unthinkable and thought like a man.”
Her protagonist is wealthy aristocrat Lady Petra Forsyth. “Petra is Greek for rock and Lady Petra is a strong character. I liked the fact that Petra is a name you don’t see as often and hopefully suggests someone with a certain level of stubbornness and intelligence.”
Page one makes that clear: Petra has returned from galloping astride her horse, flouting the ladylike rule of side saddle and sedate trot. We quickly learn that she defied another taboo by losing her virtue with her fiancé instead of waiting until marriage. We also discover that he died in a tumble down his staircase while Petra slept upstairs and that she subsequently vowed never to marry. Petra is a character who is contravening convention, an independent-minded woman.
Celeste sees a parallel between then and now. “Women still are expected not to push boundaries. Women still have to be strong in order to be taken seriously.”
At a ball, Petra hears that a female friend has died of “melancholia.” Petra isn’t so sure she believes this news, however. She traces the very much alive woman to a private asylum, learning that men pay to have their wives and daughters locked away. Petra works to unveil the scheming and save the women, putting her life in danger as she does so.
Celeste’s inspiration came from reading articles about such real-life asylums at the time where men could relegate their wives and daughters for little or no reason at all. “This practice lasted well into the early twentieth century,” she said with horror.
That being said, Celeste enjoys mixing levity in with her more serious topics and wrote quite a bit of humorous banter and a playful scene or two into ACT LIKE A LADY, THINK LIKE A LORD. “I love writing the more light-hearted moments,” she told me.
Though when it was important to get a topic correct—such as a sub-plot containing gay characters—Celeste asked her editor for a sensitivity reader to take a first pass at her manuscript. Also known as authenticity readers, these are generally freelance “beta readers” who read a book before it’s published to look for potential issues in the way an author presents a topic that is outside their own personal experiences. Celeste has used sensitivity readers before and has nothing but praise for the feedback she receives, which only helps her fine-tune her book.
Celeste Connally is actually one of two pen names of Stephanie Perkins. The other is S. C. Perkins, which she used for her Ancestry Detective cozy mystery series about modern-day Texas genealogist Lucy Lancaster, who uses her skills as a genealogist to solve crimes in the past and the present.
She explained: “I decided not to use my real name because there’s already another author named Stephanie Perkins. Thus, I first chose S.C. Perkins, with the ‘C’ standing for Celeste, my middle name. However, as ‘S.C.’ doesn’t flow off the tongue well, I’d tell people to call me Stephanie, which didn’t always work out well when readers would search for me on the internet and find the other Stephanie Perkins instead.
“Thus, I took on a new pseudonym, and one that had meaning to me. I decided on my middle name of Celeste, plus Connally, which is the maiden name of my great-great-great-grandmother on my mother’s side.” Celeste plans to continue publishing under Celeste Connally from this point forward.
Her first signing for ACT LIKE A LADY, THINK LIKE A LORD will be in her hometown of Houston at Murder By The Book bookstore, which is one of the oldest and largest mystery specialty bookstores in the U.S. She developed a friendship with the staff through regular visits over many years.
“I started going around twenty years ago, long before I became published. I went to book signings, where I heard authors speak about what inspired them, their ups and downs, and writing decisions, and listened to audience questions as well.” She’s still a regular at the bookstore. “It’s wonderful listening to other authors; I soak it up.”
(An aside by me: A good idea in general for aspiring and published authors alike.)
The Big Thrill Interviews Celeste Connally