My Favorite Bit: Katherine Cowley Talks About THE LADY’S GUIDE TO DEATH AND DECEPTION

Katherine Cowley is joining us today to talk about her novel, The Lady’s Guide to Death and Deception. Here’s the publisher’s description:

What is a spy willing to do when both her heart and her country are at risk?

Life changes once again for British spy Miss Mary Bennet when Napoleon Bonaparte escapes from the Isle of Elba. Mary quickly departs England for Brussels, the city where the Allied forces prepare for war against the French. But shortly after her arrival, one of the Duke of Wellington’s best officers is murdered, an event which threatens to break the delicate alliance between the Allies.

Investigating the murder forces Mary into precarious levels of espionage, role-playing, and deception with her new partner, Mr. Withrow—the nephew and heir of her prominent sponsor, and the spy with whom she’s often at odds. Together, they court danger and discovery as they play dual roles gathering intelligence for the British. But soon Mary realizes that her growing feelings towards Mr. Withrow put her heart in as much danger as her life. And then there’s another murder.

Mary will need to unmask the murderer before more people are killed, but can she do so and remain hidden in the background?

What’s Katherine’s favorite bit?


When I sent a writing friend an early draft of the first book in my Mary Bennet series, The Secret Life of Miss Mary Bennet, my friend was surprised by the fact that Mary Bennet did not fall in love. After all, in each of Jane Austen’s six published novels, the heroines find love and get married.

Regency romance is a huge genre—hundreds of Regency romance novels are published each year. It would’ve been very easy to write a romantic subplot for Mary Bennet to experience while she investigated a murder.

But I intentionally avoided doing so. The first book in the series is all about Mary Bennet figuring out who she is and who she wants to be. She is coming to understand herself, she is learning to put herself forward in the world, and she is wrestling with questions of self and identity. If I added a romantic subplot to the mix, then falling in love would need to be connected to this internal character arc.

I didn’t feel like this was the right decision. I wanted Mary Bennet to figure herself out without needing a man to help her do it. Mary Bennet does not need a man to make her whole.

When the book was published, people responded really well to it. They liked the arc. They liked that the book wasn’t a romance. However, some readers observed that there seemed to be breadcrumbs, hints that Mary might experience romance in the future.

These breadcrumbs were intentionally planted. And my favorite bit in writing the third book in the series, The Lady’s Guide to Death and Deception, was giving Mary a romance.

In the first chapter, Mary is absolutely appalled when one of the other spies discusses kissing—and other uses of “feminine appeal”—as a useful way to gain information. She is determined to prove to herself that she is in the right for refusing this avenue of information gathering, so she turns to the Bible. Instead of easy moral statements, she finds the story of a harlot who helped the Israelites. Mary reluctantly decides that kissing may be morally acceptable for spies. But this presents a new difficulty: she has never kissed anyone before, and she suspects her inexperience may prevent from her from properly utilizing this tool. As such, Mary proposes kissing practice.

The spymaster, Lady Trafford, decides that the kissing partners should be determined by ladies’ choice, and Mary’s sister, Kitty, adds her own thoughts on the matter:

I think Mary should choose first,” said Kitty, “as it was her proposal. And she likely needs the most practice.”

Do not be impertinent, Kitty,” said Mary.

It is not impertinent if it is the truth.”

When forced to choose a partner, Mary attempts to use logic to make her decision:

[Mr. Withrow] clearly despised her, so kissing him could be considered the most moral option.

Oh, innocent Mary, misinterpreting the tension between her and Mr. Withrow. The training scene—aka kissing scene—that follows is one that I had wanted to write for years. Not only had I wanted to write it, but if I’m being honest, I had spent hours and hours daydreaming about it.

Yet while I had visualized the scene dozens of times and knew several core components, I hadn’t made any final decisions about what the scene would look like. This gave me room for discovery and spontaneity while putting the scene onto the page. As I wrote, I realized that Mary and Mr. Withrow would talk first, and Mr. Withrow would keep everything so very formal and official. And then Mary would make the first move and initiate the kiss.

The first kiss is short. Because this is spy training and Mary is Mary, she objectively (and extensively) analyzes the kiss in her mind, along with the physical sensations it produces. Then she says,

I suspect I need more practice than one kiss, if you are willing, Mr. Withrow.”

Yes, I am willing,” he said.

More kisses ensue, along with criticism from Lady Trafford and brief lines of dialogue between Mary and Mr. Withrow, including commentary on British versus French styles of kissing. Through it all, Mary can never tell what Mr. Withrow is thinking. And just as Mary is the one to initiate the first kiss, I realized that she needed to decide when kissing practice was over.

I took my time writing the scene. I didn’t watch the clock or try to write a certain number of words per hour, as I sometimes do. Instead, I let myself savor the writing process and take as long as I wanted on the scene. After all, why rush something you have been dying to write?

Most of my scenes and chapters undergo a solid amount of revision, and some undergo extensive rewriting. But this kissing scene required almost no revision at all. I removed a couple of adverbs and tweaked a few phrases, but besides that nothing in the scene changed from the first draft to the final copyedited version. I managed to capture the moment on the first try.

I had many other favorite moments as I wrote Mary’s romance, from undercover scenes to ball scenes, from battle scenes to waltzing lessons. Like the Mary Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the Mary Bennet is my book does not always say the right thing at the right time. She does not always understand relationships and contexts or properly read the emotions of others. And she clearly lacks personal experience with romance.

I loved giving her the chance to create a relationship. At times there is awkwardness and at times she stumbles, but there is also a delightful sense of discovery. She is swept off her feet—emotionally and literally—and has her own chance at a swoon worthy romance.


The Lady’s Guide to Death and Deception Universal Book Link





Katherine Cowley read Pride and Prejudice for the first time when she was ten years old, which started a lifelong obsession with Jane Austen. Her debut novel, The Secret Life of Miss Mary Bennet, was nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award. Her Mary Bennet spy series continues with the novels The True Confessions of a London Spy and The Lady’s Guide to Death and Deception. Katherine loves history, chocolate, traveling, and playing the piano, and she has taught writing classes at Western Michigan University. She lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan with her husband and three daughters.

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1 thought on “My Favorite Bit: Katherine Cowley Talks About THE LADY’S GUIDE TO DEATH AND DECEPTION”

  1. I just discovered this series and I find it delightful. I love how Mary has to think of which sister to emulate when she decides she needs to be gentle or flirty or regal. I’m currently about a third of the way into the second book and now looking forward to the third one.

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