We know how difficult it is for one author to write a book—but three authors writing one book together? Well, that seemed nearly impossible to us. New York Times bestselling authors Karen White, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig recently collaborated on The Forgotten Room—a rich, multigenerational novel of love and loss that spans half a century.
The book opens in 1945 when wounded Captain Cooper Ravenal is brought to a private hospital on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Young doctor Kate Schuyler is drawn—through clues left in a painting and a ruby pendant—into a complex mystery that connects three generations of women in her family to a single extraordinary room in a Gilded Age mansion. In her pursuit of answers, she finds herself pulled into the turbulent stories of Gilded Age Olive Van Alen, driven from riches to rags, and Jazz Age Lucy Young, who came from Brooklyn to Manhattan in pursuit of the father she had never known. Set in alternating time periods, The Forgotten Room is a decadent treat of a novel told by three incredible storytellers.
Read It Forward sat down with Karen, Beatriz, and Lauren and interviewed them about the secrets behind their writing collaboration.
Read It Forward: How did you build these characters together? When an author sees a character in her minds’ eye, how can that minds’ eye vision be shared with others?
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Lauren: We built these characters on tea and scones. Well, sort of. The characters took shape at Alice’s Tea Cup on 64th Street in New York City as we drank innumerable pots of tea and fleshed out the characters together, exclaiming and interrupting each other as these people came to life for us. By the end of that very long tea, it felt like we were gossiping about old friends we’d known for years. You know, “Oh, OLIVE, of course she’d do that!” Right, Beatriz?
Beatriz: Exactly! I think it really helped that the three of us had already built this wonderful friendship—that’s why we wanted to write a book together in the first place—so we really had a huge amount of fun (and tea) bringing the characters to life together. So much fun that I sometimes wonder whether Karen was spiking the pot with a little something extra during bathroom breaks.
Karen: I’m quite sure I don’t know what you mean, Beatriz. Don’t touch the stuff myself. Besides, everybody knows that tea + scones + clotted cream = literary nectar! It was pretty incredible, though, sitting at that table where ideas and characters were created and fleshed out. I could barely write fast enough so that I wouldn’t lose anything (I’m slower than they are), each idea and thought building on the last. Later, as we read each chapter to prepare to write our own, it was the same thing—a natural progression of the story and character arc. I wouldn’t say it was easy, but I will say it was the most fun writing I’ve ever done. Like sharing a brain.
Lauren: It also helped that each of us was writing a different time period, which meant that, although several of the characters carried over (especially the ubiquitous Prunella!), we were seeing them at different points in their lives, or through the memories and impressions of other characters.
Beatriz: And I think there’s also massive professional respect there, so that when it came time to write our individual chapters, we knew we could trust each other with those characters and their development on the page. We would share our little discoveries about each character and get all excited together and build on that in the next chapters. And if I screwed up some continuity issue, Karen always knew how to correct me tactfully…
Karen: Well somebody had to rein you in! Not that it was all that necessary. It was so great getting an email from Lauren or Beatriz with a “what about this?” and it would be awesome and the perfect launch for the next chapters that we could each build on. I also remember trying to make each of my chapters the best they could be because I didn’t want to disappoint the other two-thirds of my brain.
Lauren: The way everything fell into place, it almost felt like the story existed already and we were just discovering and retelling it. Or, possibly, sharing a brain. A brain that really likes Prosecco….
Read It Forward: How did the process of research go? Was it collaborative? Did everyone take an era?
Lauren: We did each take an era, but it would be disingenuous to pretend that each of us stuck to her own bailiwick. We’ve all written in all of these time periods, so there was a lot of emailing articles and information back and forth along the way. Some of those articles even had something to do with the right time periods…Although, it’s all about learning about human nature, right? Which means those Daily Mail articles that Beatriz kept sending were absolutely informative and instructive.
Beatriz: Look, all you need to know about human nature you can find in the Daily Mail! That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. But it’s true that we’ve all wandered over the time periods in the book at some point in our individual writing, so any research was really more to refresh our memories or to sort out some particular issue. And I loved the way we had each other’s backs—if Lauren stumbled on something useful for me, she’d send it off. And Karen couldn’t wait for my tidbits on anthracite coal!
Karen: I lived for those tidbits, Beatriz. Saving for my next book. Really. My character’s story in The Forgotten Room (must be coy here) required a little more technical research than I’d bargained for. Happily, my husband’s aunt was an expert in that area (not to mention a research assistant wannabe) and that was extremely helpful. Lauren saved me from a snafu with a rare tidbit of information she discovered while researching something else. Almost like there was a Force and she was pulling me from the dark side. Oh, wait. That was something else I watched recently…
Lauren: These are not the research notes you are looking for…Oops, wrong show again. But there were long, white robes involved in my favorite research discussion: the Great Pajama Debate. While we were finalizing the manuscript, one of the points that came up was whether a gentleman in New York would have worn pajamas or a nightshirt in 1892. All of us chimed in for that one! When you write historical fiction, there are thousands of details that go into each chapter, many of them hard to pin down, and some you can’t find at all and have to find a way to replace or work around. Not to mention the “this is technically accurate but it sounds wrong” problem, where you have to decide whether to risk including a genuine fact that might sound anachronistic to the reader. Generally, we’re alone at our desks, fielding all of these decisions by ourselves. With Forgotten Room, we were our own, private crowdsourcing operation. Rough Riders, painting techniques, 1920s slang, mythology, the state of medicine in 1945, extant New York jewelers of 1892, the decor of Delmonico’s dining room in 1920…. You name it, we emailed back and forth about it.
Beatriz: I could have really used our hive mind for the book I just finished on my own. In fact, maybe we should just write all our books this way. What do you say, Karen? Collaboration or bust?
Karen: I’ve already notified my editor that I will never again write a book all of my own. It’s such much more enriching, creative, and—dare I say it fun—writing collaboratively. Writing is such a lonely business and to be given a chance to write a book with not only authors you admire, but also authors who are friends, was just such a win-win-win. It goes without saying that the only reason Beatriz and Lauren agreed to write with me is because of my knowledge of all things Southern, which came in handy as two of the characters hailed from below the Mason-Dixon line.
Read It Forward: How was it writing about women throughout history? Did writing The Forgotten Room give you perspective on how far women have come in societal roles or illuminate how still far we have to go?
Lauren: We didn’t set out to make a point, did we, gang? We were just focused on making each character true to her time period, shaped and constrained by the norms of her era—but, in retrospect, we did create a cautious pattern of progress. A cautious pattern, because even though Lucy, in 1920, gets work as a secretary and Kate, in 1944, has gone to medical school and is working as a doctor, each still faces pushback.
Beatriz: That’s so true. For me, writing about women in history isn’t about showing how different they were, it’s about how we’re really still the same, facing the same human struggle: to love and be loved while still finding a way to do something important with our lives. And the exciting thing about writing in all three of these periods is how many women were pushing back. My grandmother used to say that the 1920s and 1930s were a fantastic time to be a woman, and look at all the examples of extraordinary females from that first half of the twentieth century! Although, on the other hand, have you ever heard someone ask a male author how he balances writing and fatherhood, Karen?
Karen: Don’t get me started… But truly—what Lauren said—we set out to write characters true to their time periods. All of us have written historical fiction so it wasn’t a new hat for any of us. I think we all have a little soft spot for history, and am I wrong, ladies, to suggest that perhaps we’ve fantasized living in a different time? Or maybe that’s just me. Ahem. Regardless, women’s lives have changed drastically in the past one hundred to two hundred years and it’s so exciting to jump back in time to relive the past in another woman’s shoes and share her struggles, her hopes, and her dreams.
Lauren: Just this past year, as I was speaking on a panel about juggling work and family, an audience member stood up and spent twenty minutes informing everyone that a woman’s job was her children—and there would be plenty of time for writing after the kids were out of the house. While we were writing The Forgotten Room, it seemed like every other article to pop up on Facebook was about leaning in or leaning out, why we can have it all or why we can’t really have it all after all. Every era, including our own, has its own challenges and constraints; each of us responds to those differently. Some lean in; some lean out; some order a peppermint mocha with extra whip.
That’s one of the bits I love about dipping into other time periods: looking at the varied ways in which individuals are shaped by and react to their environments. I’ve always thought of it as something akin to a chemistry experiment: take a specific type of character, take a time period, and stir. Our three characters, Olive, Lucy, and Kate, are all very distinct people. It’s an interesting thought exercise to wonder what they would have been like if they’d lived in different eras… What if Olive were in the 1960s, Lucy in the 1980s, and Kate in the dot com boom? Somehow, I don’t see Olive wearing bell-bottoms… But I can absolutely see Kate in trendy glasses and Lucy with big hair and shoulder pads. What do you think, Beatriz?
Beatriz: Hmm—what’s that? I was thinking about that peppermint mocha…which I think all three women would have chugged right down, had Starbucks opened up a time-travel branch on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Although, who knows? That’s one of the tricks of writing historical fiction: you have to balance the character’s natural viewpoint as a creature of her time with that nagging little problem of likability. Most readers of historical fiction are pretty good at plunging themselves into a period-specific point of view, and forgiving characters for being “not modern,” but there are those who don’t, or won’t, or just can’t understand or enjoy that experience. And that’s fine. It’s just a challenge to keep that empathy flowing while not betraying your character.
Karen: Can I have extra whip on mine? What? Oh, sorry—got sidetracked with that peppermint mocha… But back to women in history. My first novel was a time-travel, and Beatriz has also written a time-travel novel. For historical writers, I think we find it fascinating to imagine a thoroughly modern 21st-century woman thrown back into another era where women didn’t have the rights, the education, the place in society as they do now. That almost makes it easy because we can stay true to our character while also highlighting how it was “back then.”
Perhaps that should be our next collaborative novel. I get giddy with excitement just thinking about working with Lauren and Beatriz again. Of course, I’ll have to make sure there’s a Southern character so they’ll have a reason to include me.
About the Authors:
Karen White is the New York Times bestselling author of The Sound of Glass, A Long Time Gone, and The Time Between, among other novels.
Beatriz Williams is the New York Times bestselling author of The Secret Life of Violet Grant, A Hundred Summers, and Overseas.
Lauren Willig is the New York Times bestselling author of The Lure of the Moonflower, That Summer, and The Other Daughter, among other novels.