In this episode of Tart Words, Suzanne Fox and Linda Hengerer are discussing Mary Stewart’s book Nine Coaches Waiting and how she develops her characters and uses genre.
It was first published in 1958 by Hodder & Stoughton and is now available in ebook editions.
In this episode of Tart Words, Suzanne Fox and Linda Hengerer are discussing Mary Stewart’s book Nine Coaches Waiting and how she and develops her characters and uses genre.
It was first published in 1958 by Hodder & Stoughton and is now available in ebook editions.
Description from Amazon:
A thrilling, twisty tale of a dangerous romance set in the heart of mid-century Savoy, from the author of Madam, Will You Talk.
Linda Martin understands what is to be lonely: her parents died when she was young, and she was raised in an orphanage. When she is hired as a governess to the orphaned young Philippe, Comte de Valmy, Linda finds a kindred spirit in the lonely little boy.
But Philippe is the heir to a vast estate in Savoy, and his dangerously handsome uncle may be willing to kill to ensure that Philippe never inherits it . . .
Takeaways for writers:
In Nine Coaches Waiting, Linda Martin hides her early childhood in France and that she’s bi-lingual. She feels certain her being hired as governess to the young Comte de Valmy hinges on her lack of family and knowledge of French.
The characters are developed for best effect, and Mary Stewart uses Leon de Valmy’s being wheelchair-bound to elicit sympathy for him. As the story develops, the reader’s sympathies shift as we see that he will do anything to keep the chateau, including murder his nine-year-old nephew, Philippe.
Philippe is lonely; his Uncle Hippolyte, his guardian and with whom he was living, is off on a dig. Philippe is living with his Uncle Leon and his wife Heloise and has no children around to play with. His new governess, Linda Martin, is also an orphan. She understands how bereft Philippe feels, first by losing his parents and then by Hippolyte’s absence for work. Raoul de Valmy, Leon’s son, is an orphan in spirit although not in actual fact; his English mother died when he was a child, but his father is still alive. These three bond together through their shared experience of loneliness.
Mary Stewart uses genre to enhance the reader’s experience. The isolation of the Chateau de Valmy, Linda Martin’s lack of friends or family, and the gothic feel of the story contribute to the story’s moody feel.
Exercises for writers:
Characters – In Nine Coaches Waiting, we first see Leon as the victim of an accident, but as the story progresses we see him as a determined man who won’t let circumstances stop him from getting what he wants, at any cost.
Do your characters go through a transformational arc that is internal – they realize something about themselves, or external – the reader sees the character in a different way at the end of the story than they did at the beginning? How do you develop your characters to change the reader’s perception?
Genre – Nine Coaches Waiting has a gothic feel, and Linda Martin is alone. She does strike up an acquaintance with an Englishman who is working in the area and with a visiting French fashion designer who speaks English.
How can you use reader’s expectations of your genre to set up and payoff story arcs?
tvtropes.org is a terrific resource for writers who want to see many genre-related tropes, and what the expectations for those tropes are. Put your own spin on the bare bones of a trope.
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Transcribed by Otter.ai; Lightly edited by Linda. Please forgive typos and grammar errors.
Episode 108 - Nine Coaches Waiting
Welcome to Tart Words. I'm your host, Linda Hengerer. And I'm a writer, a reader and a baker. I talk to writers about their latest book and what inspires them; chat with fellow author Suzanne Fox about what writers can learn from reading their favorite authors; and share fast and easy recipes for anyone looking for a sweet treat. Join me as I share tart bites, tart thoughts, and Tart Words. Today I'm talking with Suzanne Fox. She writes fiction and nonfiction, reviews books for Publishers Weekly, edits the online journal Society 19, and works with authors to shape, publish, and market their work. Her handmade jewelry and digital art, including that used for the Tart Words Mary Stewart podcasts, is inspired by favorite books and authors. A graduate of the Columbia University MFA writing program, Suzanne now lives in North Carolina.
On this episode of Tart Words, we're discussing Mary Stewart's book Nine Coaches Waiting and how she develops her characters and uses genre. It was first published in 1958 by Hodder and Stoughton and is now available in ebook editions.
Description from Amazon:
A thrilling, twisty tale of a dangerous romance set in the heart of midcentury Savoy from the author of Madam, Will You Talk?
Linda Martin understands what it is to be lonely. Her parents died when she was young, and she was raised in an orphanage. When she is hired as a governess to the orphan, young Philippe Comte de Valmy, Linda finds a kindred spirit in the lonely little boy. But Philippe is the heir to a vast estate in Savoy, and his dangerously handsome uncle may be willing to kill to ensure that Philippe never inherits it.
Welcome to the podcast, Suzanne. How well do you think that sets up Nine Coaches Waiting for a reader?
I think it sets it up well, maybe a little bit too well, because possibly it's more interesting when you read the book. And I think there's quite a while before you really begin to suspect Leon Philippe's uncle and the person who is running the Chateau. You don't suspect him quite as early as it suggests? I think the early part of the book is very good at making clear things are not entirely well at this Chateau, but you're not quite sure. I think at least I wasn't what it is that's wrong at the beginning. There's quite a few things, for example, that could be accidents. And I think that's interesting. So the pace in which you begin to realize there's a plot afoot, as opposed to just some unfortunate tensions, that that doesn't happen immediately.
Right. I don't want to say spoiler alert, since this book has been out for so long. And you find out quite early on that Leon is in a wheelchair as a result of think it was a race car accident, but it could have been like a horse Polo accident, too, but you don't initially suspect him as the bad guy because you are sympathetic to him as a vital, vibrant man whose life was drastically changed in a moment. And now here he is running this Chateau, and the estate, for his deceased brother's son. So you are, I think, set up to see him as a good guy.
Yes, at least a sympathetic guy, I think he is uncomfortable enough in a certain way, because he takes a bit of his amusement at the expense of Linda and little Philippe but I do think that he seems naturally sympathetic, you know that I think it is not difficult to feel sympathy for someone who by an accident of birth, you know, by not being the older son, you would be the perfect owner and manager of a historic estate, but you instead are consigned to a very much sort of a second life in a certain way. And so as long as Philippe is a little boy, Leon essentially gets to live like the master of this quite spectacular property. But you know, as the reader that's going to change. And so I think that there's a certain empathy that you intrinsically have for him,
Right. And he was expecting that he would inherit it because for the longest time, his older brother Etienne did not marry and have a child. So his assumption was that when Etienne passed, that the estate would naturally come to Leon so he did put quite a bit of his own money into it. And then at the point when his life was disrupted in its expectations that he would inherit the Chateau when Etienne married and then produced a son who would be the heir Leon went back to his estate at Bellevigne and stopped putting his money into the estate. And then, you know, Etienne and his wife are killed in an accident. And once again, he's living at the Chateau de Valmy. And putting his own money into it on the surface, he is taking care of it for Philippe. But we will come to see that not is as it seems.
Exactly. And so he's a very complex and interesting character, and also very handsome and charming, and in his own way, sexually alluring in a way, you know, it's there's, I think Linda is not attracted to him, but she certainly feels, and Stewart tells you as the reader, that she feels the pull of his charisma and this sort of vitality and masculine energy that he exudes. And that tension, you know, is something that Stuart uses very effectively,
Yes. And when Linda meets Raoul, who is Leon's son, she sees that he is somewhat of his father’s son in looks, but not necessarily attitude, although certainly he has a certain arrogance of accomplishment, and the arrogance and privilege that comes with the position he was born into, even though he's had to work for a living at his estate have barely been since his father moved over to the Chateau de Valmy.
Yes, I think he's the characterizations throughout the book, I think are tremendously strong, even secondary characters. Like the Seddons. Mrs. Seddon, who's the sort of cook housekeeper. You know, a lot of the secondary characters are also very vivid and often actually very funny. But in terms of the man of the book, it's so much a book that is about inheritance and family in a certain way and I think stored very effectively because Raoul, Linda's love interest or future love interest, looks very much like his father Leon, you naturally associate those two together, but it actually turns out that Raoul is much like Philippe, vulnerable, overlooked, not considered to be important within the family. There's actually a family resemblance that is not the one that you originally think, you know, is the most powerful comparison.
Yes, I was struck by that too, that Raoul's mother died early on in his life and his father remarried, but Raoul’s stepmother Heloise is not a warm, comforting maternal figure. She is all about Leon. She's very beautiful but very distant. I think there's a reference to her as having somewhat of a chilly personality. I was struck by the similarities between Linda Martin who is orphaned I think at 14, Philippe who was orphaned at eight. And Raoul who technically isn't an orphan because his father is still alive, but who does not have a very paternal father figure and not at all a maternal stepmother. So they are three lost souls who are coming together at a given point in time that I think spells some danger for certainly Philippe and Linda.
Yeah, going into the issue of the book genre. The sense of kinship is intrinsic to the romance plot, that effectively what's happening is that Linda as she falls in love with Raoul even though this is not clear until the end, she's forming a new small family that already has a kind of ready-made child who's not actually the child of either Linda or Raoul, but very much is their, their sort of spiritual and emotional child. It's interesting that, you know, Rachel's mother actually was English. So he's partly English, but his mother died early enough that you that you don't, you know, remember that. But I think that that's very effective in terms of the sense of the romance plot. While there's a lot of sexual attraction between Raoul and Linda. There's also this lovely tinge of just sort of warmth to the little boy, a wonderful scene that's so evocative. And I think, you know, I certainly when I first read this, so wanted to be there where there's, there's sort of a secret midnight supper with this little boy. And yet simultaneously, there's this somewhat Gothic mystery plot where danger is unfolding in all sorts of ways right around these characters.
Yes. And to the killer’s, or potential killer’s, frustration, Linda is thwarting his desire to kill Philippe and we don't know initially that Philippe is a specific target. What happens can be passed off as just unfortunate accidents. But if not for Linda Martin, they would have succeeded and because of her interference, I think there's a certain frustration that's growing on the part of the killer and that they begin to suspect that perhaps Linda Martin is not all that she seems. And they will go to some lengths to discredit her as well.
Yeah, they have hired her, we learn more details of this as you go. But you know from the beginning that they have hired a young woman who, as far as they know, does not speak French, although, in fact she does and was desperate enough for the job to pretend she didn't when she realized that that was important, but they've hired somebody from an orphanage, someone who has no living family, someone who really has no particular friend group in England where she lives and they've brought her very far away. And they've clearly chosen her so that she will not be a kind of worthy opponent to any planning that they need to do to secure the property for Leon and Heloise, and they turn out to be quite wrong, because like Stuart's protect female protagonists, generally Linda is, in fact, both very compassionate and protective, but also very resourceful and sort of savvy.
Yes, and she does meet an Englishman who is staying nearby who will come to her aid at a certain point, we can get into that another time. But I do enjoy the fact that this woman they've hired who is an orphan specifically chosen because she has no immediate family who might come to her aid is able to rustle up someone who will actually come to her aid. And it's just a wonderful way of building relationships within a sort of insular world, where you would not expect to have a relationship with another English person.
Right? And I think, William Blake, the character you're referencing, is one of the people the English people in the book, including Mrs. Seddon, the English housekeeper, are the comic characters. And William Blake is very funny. He's a sort of disheveled, disorganized forester who is just very funny and while in a certain way, you're right, she's able to call on him, but I think he doesn't come to her aid as the effective man that solves the problems for the little woman. In fact, as it transpires by the time he comes to save her, she saved herself, but I think it is important that she feels that there is someone that she can call throughout what turns out to be a long flight from danger, she thinks that there's someone who can perhaps help. I also just wanted to mention real quickly, I hope I'm not interrupting the flow here, that Heloise, Leon's wife, is a really interesting character. And this book makes me think about something that I forget where I heard this, but that was very helpful to me as a writer, which is this issue of that an antagonist, a villain even, does not need always to be somebody who is entirely or even largely villainous, or nefarious, that they can be someone who is doing the wrong thing for what is to them a good reason. And I think Heloise very much fits that bill, that she is naturally a very reserved personality. But Linda has these moments when she feels like Heloise, there's the warmth that she doesn't see. Well, it turns out that that's because Heloise loves her husband, Heloise feels the compassion of the way that Leon has really been cheated in several ways by life. And so she goes along with his plot to damage Philippe, essentially to kill Philippe, but she does so out of love for him [Leon]. And it's very moving at the end of the book when despite the fact that Heloise has very much not been on Linda’s side, you know that she has on a logistical level very much gone along with a plot that would kill a child and as you say, would really damage Linda's reputation. And yet, when Linda realizes that she has done that out of love, she can find it in her heart to feel pity for this woman. And I think it's one of those wonderful things that lifts Mary Stewart's book out of typical genre books of the characters are actually often considerably more complex than you see in other romantic suspense writers of this period, that she just has the ability to depict these people in their complexity and even some contradiction as characters, and I felt as a writer when I read that I was both impressed with how well she did that. And it was a little bit of a kind of teaching tool of saying, Oh, yeah, you know, you're very powerful - antagonists can be someone who thinks they're being a good person. Even as they do things that are very damaging.
I agree. And I think on that note, we'll wrap up our chat about Nine Coaches Waiting, but I know that we'll come back to it at some point because there's so much to break down about it. Thank you for listening. And thanks, Suzanne, for coming on and talking about Nine Coaches Waiting.
Thank you for joining me this week. To view the complete show notes and the links mentioned in today's episode, visit Tart Words.com/tart108. Before you go, subscribe to the podcast to receive new episodes when they're released. Subscribe now in the app you're using to listen to this podcast or sign up for email alerts through an easy signup form for bakers, readers, and writers at Tart Words.com/About. Thank you again for joining me, Linda Hengerer, for this episode of Tart Words.
Author, editor, book reviewer, and book consultant Suzanne Fox earned her MFA in Writing at the Columbia University School of the Arts. Her first book, the memoir Home Life, was published by Simon & Schuster; appearing under the pseudonyms Suzanne Scott and Suzanne Judson, her women’s fiction novels have been published by Berkley Penguin Putnam and Harlequin. Suzanne works personally with writers in many genres on book structure and publication, reviews literary and mystery fiction for Publishers Weekly, edits the online journal Society Nineteen, and teaches workshops in memoir, fiction writing, and the creative process. Until recently a resident of Vero Beach, Suzanne now lives in North Carolina. More information about Suzanne can be found at www.sfoxarts.com.