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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

30 May 2016

Series writing - Continuity & Change


My new release London Gambit ends with a major game changer that pretty much guarantees that at least the next novella and novel in the series will take place out of Britain. This opens a lot of intriguing new options I’m excited to explore. But it also means that not all the ensemble cast will be present. Over the course of the series that cast has grown. I like large casts of characters, so from the first the series focused not just on married agents Malcolm and Suzanne Rannoch but on their family and friends (not to mention enemies). And as the series has gone on, new characters who were part of one story have become key parts of the ensemble.


For instance, Harry and Cordelia Davenport. I added them four books back because i realized I needed a soldier character in Imperial Scandal, which focused on the battle of Waterloo. And with the tangled marriage and competing loyalties of my central characters, Malcolm and Suzanne Rannoch, it seemed thematically appropriate for Harry to have an estranged wife. I knew Harry and Cordelia would become friends of the Rannochs and appear in subsequent books in the series, but I didn’t quite realize that they would become the Rannochs’ best friends and major ongoing characters who are an integral part of each investigation. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine the series, or Malcolm’s and Suzanne’s lives, without Harry and Cordelia.



I love ensemble series, in books and on television. I love getting to a whole group characters and returning to a familiar world. As an author, I love exploring their ongoing interactions. But there’s no denying that as the cast grows, it can tricky to work such a large cast into each story. So in a sense it's refreshing to have a new locale with new people for Malcolm and Suzanne to interact with, and not to have to constantly think "but this character would be there." Or "they would go to that character for help." Even when all the ensemble cast doesn't appear in a book, I feel I have to account for where they are. With the next book, they will simply be "in Britian."

And yet-- Already I find myself missing Malcolm and Suzanne's friends and family as much as they do. Already I'm working on ways to bring at least some of them into the next story.

How do you feel about ensemble series? Do you enjoy a large cast of continuing characters? Do you like it when a change of scene limits the cast, at least for a book or so, or do you miss your old friends?







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01 May 2016

London Gambit






My new book London Gambit, which is out this Thursday, May 5, is a book I had looked forwards to writing for a long time. But it is also a book I hesitated to write. Or rather, I had known for a long time that the major  plot twist it contains would occur at some point in the Malcolm and Suzanne Rannoch series, but when I decided that plot twist belonged in this book, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go through with it. The book is set in June 1818, three years after the battle of Waterloo. The denouement of the book takes place on the third anniversary of the battle. Echoes of Waterloo and the Napoleonic wars run through the story. It’s a time when, despite victory, many still feared Bonapartist plots, when economic hardship fostered discontent in Britain, when the Bourbon restoration was far from secure in France, and Spain teetered on the brink of revolution.

London Gambit
begins with two seemingly unconnected mysteries. Former British spy and M.P. Malcolm Rannoch is summoned to a shipping warehouse where the run-away nephew of a friend has stumbled across a dead body. On the same night, Malcolm’s wife Suzanne is called away from a Mayfair party to assist a wounded man who has slipped out of Paris one step ahead of Royalist pursuit. In fever-wracked delirium, the man warns Suzanne of a plot to rescue Napoleon Bonaparte from exile on the island of St. Helena. A plot that could bring chaos to Suzanne’s life, for though now married to the grandson of a British duke, she was once an agent for Bonaparte herself. Before she can ask further questions, the man disappears into the London night.




photo: Raphael Coffey

These two mysteries intersect in unexpected ways and shake Malcolm and Suzanne’s world. The end of the book shifts the board the series is played on. Malcolm and Suzanne’s lives, and those of the other central series characters, will never be the same. As I said above, I had been writing towards this development in the series for sometime, but when I got to the point, I wasn’t sure I really wanted to go through with it. I love my characters, and I felt as though I was being mean to them. I was, perhaps, reluctant to leave the somewhat settled world of the series as I knew it. And yet, that very settled nature was precisely why this was the right time for this plot twist. I considered changing or softening it, but in the end I went through with it as envisioned. I’m glad I did - I’m very excited to explore the new possibilities it opens up for the series (I’m already in the midst of writing the next novella and planning the next novella). But reading over the galleys, I still felt a pang for my characters. Which, as a writer friend pointed out, is probably a sign that I made the right decision.

Writers, have you ever hesitated to write a particular plot twist? Readers, how do you feel about “game  changers” that shake up a series?

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19 April 2016

Fun with Primary Sources

Tracy talked recently about first person research. I've  been reading Boswell's London Journal 1762-1763 recently. It's nice, because the entries are small and I can read one or two whenever I have a moment to spare from whatever else I'm doing.



As these were his private journals, he's quite frank in them. And it's interesting to see just how a single man about town whiled away his time. For example, here is a typical entry, dated Saturday 4 December (1762):



I breakfasted with Dempster. He accompanied me into the City. He parted from me at St. Paul's, and I went to Child's, where there was not much said. I dined and drank tea with Lady Betty Macfarlane. We were but cold and dull. The Laird was low and disagreeable. I resolved to dine there no more; at least very, very seldom. At night, Erskine and I strolled through the streets and St. James's Park. Were were accosted there by several ladies of the town [whores]. Erskine was very humorous and said some very wild things to them. There was one in a red cloak of a good buxom person and comely face whom I marked as a future piece, in case of exigency.



This entry has a footnote which also gives Boswell's daily memoranda of the same day (yes, the man kept TWO different forms of journal of his daily life!).



Breakfast first at home. Then in Bath [coat] and old grey [suit] and stick, sally to City. Send off North Britons to Digges. Get the one of the day. Go to Child's, take dish of coffee, read Auditor, Monitor, Briton. Then come to Douglas's and inquire about parade. Then Leicester [Street], dine. Be comfortable yet genteel, and please your friend Captain Erskine. Drink tea. Then home, quiet, and wind up the week's journal in grey and slippers. Be always in bed before twelve. Never sup out. Breakfast R> Mackye Sunday and take franks [get Mackye to send his mail for free]."



Clearly, I need to see about tracking down a copy of Boswell's memoranda to go with the journals. I love this kind of daily minutia. It really helps me fill out my scenes, understand how my characters would have spent their time, and how they would have thought about the world.

03 April 2016

A Day at the Met


My daughter Mélanie and I are in New York for me to have book-related meetings. Saturday we spent a lovely afternoon rambling through the Metropolitan Museum of Art (and only seeing a fraction of its treasures). They have a special exhibit of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun's paintings which was an added treat for me, as I got to see portraits of real historical people who are characters in my books. But I think Mélanie's favorites were the period rooms, which have always been favorites of mine as well. For me, it's like stepping into history (and now into my books), and it's such a treat now to watch my daughter having the same experience (with Mummy saying things like "Sofia's family could eat at this dining table" or "that looks like it could belong to  Anna and Elsa").

We sat on the steps of the façade of an 1823 building (an American bank, but it's not hard to imagine it as a London great house).


The Federalist rooms in the American Wing for me evoke the type of room that my characters might actually live in, particularly in a smaller London house (as opposed to a London great house like Devonshire House or a country estate). Mélanie seemed intrigued too.



We had a late lunch in the American Wing café and enjoyed this sculpture of a mama jaguar and her cubs.

We drank in the atmosphere of the Robert Adam dining room from Lansdowne House that has already inspired several scenes in my books.




Mélanie is fascinated by period china and silver.


We examined a firescreen that will probably find it's way into one of my books though the colors and composition reminded Mel of Ariel on her rock in The Little Mermaid.


One of Mélanie's favorite things was throwing coins in the water by the Temple of Dendur.




What spots at the Met or other museums do you find most inspiring? Writers, do they make you feel like you're walking into a scene from one of your books?

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14 March 2016

Documenting Shakespeare -- Word by Word

As a classically trained actress who has a strong background in the Shakespearean canon, with years of experience as both performer and scholar dissecting the nuances of individual roles as well as entire texts, I remain an unashamed Stratfordian. Which means that I believe Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. Not Francis Bacon. Not the Earl of Oxford. Not Amelia Bassano, daughter of a Jewish Venetian courtier (though that would be really cool; and I know there are a few good historical novels in that idea). And not your great aunt Lula.


Yet historians, academics, theatre directors, and armchair time travelers alike continue to debate whether the Bard's oeuvre is just too damn brilliant to  be attributed to a nearly unlettered (except that he wasn't: he had rather a comprehensive education for a youth at the time) guy -- who came from nothing (except that he didn't: his father was not just a glover -- he was an alderman, quite a respected local office).

These disputes may soon be settled, via the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C.

Since the year 2000, Dr. Heather Wolfe, a multi-degreed expert in paleography, the study of historical, handwriting, has been working on SHAKESPEARE DOCUMENTED, a project at the Folger that transcribes every contemporary (to his era) mention of William Shakespeare.  Shakespeare Documented will digitize and post online every known reference to Shakespeare and his family written in and around his lifetime, resulting in a treasure chest of information that will be a phenomenal boon to scholars, historians, and performers the world over.

None of Shakespeare's plays exist in autograph (handwritten) form; only typset published versions are extant. However, scholars believe that there are three pages he wrote to revise a play by Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle. The penmanship is known as "secretary hand," a style of cursive common in 16th and 17th c. England.

Dr. Wolfe is an expert at deciphering secretary hand. At the Bodleian Library in Oxford, she transcribed a 1611 account written by the astrologer Simon Forman, who recorded his impressions of four plays he'd seen at the Globe. Forman's impressions are currently the most detailed eyewitness account of an audience member of Shakespeare's era.

On May 15, 1611, Forman saw THE WINTER'S TALE, Shakespeare's dark fantasy/romance, which explores the evils of jealousy.  Citing Autolycus, the peddler who tricks people out of money, Forman wrote, "Beware of trusting feigned beggars and fawning felons." For decades, scholars, misreading Forman's handwriting, believed he had written the word "fellows," and academic texts continued to print the error. But after careful study of the "secretary hand," Dr. Wolfe concluded, and colleagues agreed, that the word was "felons," which is a more accurate description of the character of Autolycus,

Bust of Foscarini

Another of Dr. Wolfe's major discoveries is a document referencing the playgoing habits of the Venetian ambassador to England, Antonio diNicolo Foscarini (who evidently saw more than one performance of PERICLES) -- incognito. In 1616, the year of Shakespeare's death, Foscarini was placed on trial in Venice.  His crimes: conversion to Protestantism, being a drunkard, a womanizer, and a theatregoer. In the original trial deposition (now in the Venice State archives) Foscarini's interpreteter stated "I believe he went twice or three times, but I never went with him, because he would go in private, thinking no one would recognize him."


Shakespeare's gravestone


Where do you weigh in? Do you think Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare?

07 March 2016

The Little Mermaid, Once Upon a Time, Downton Abbey, & Happy Endings


I confess that as a child I always shied away from The Little Mermaid because I knew it had a sad ending. I remember thinking how odd it was Disney had made it into a film until I learned they had changed the ending. Which rather horrified me. I was in my twenties by then, the wrong age for cartoon movies and not yet a mom, so I didn't see the movie until my daughter Mélanie discovered it, first through a lovely video someone gave us that’s a sort of novella about Ariel and a baby killer whale named Spot, then through the movie itself. She loves it. Ariel, I think, is her favorite Disney princess, alongside Anna and Elsa. We have several Ariel dolls, including two who sing “Part of Your World” (a couple of nights ago we had them singing a duet). I’ve come to love it myself and find myself very grateful for the changed ending. But then I've always been fond of happy endings.

This weekend Mélanie and I saw a wonderful children’s theatre production of the story at the fabulous Marin Theatre Company (photo above). The play was based on the Hans Christian Andersen original. I was afraid the differences from the movie she loves, and in particular the sad ending,  would bother Mélanie, but she was entranced. As was I. The ending is haunting and so sad - not just the mermaid dissolving into foam, but the fact that the prince never knows of her sacrifice, never knows she is the girl who saved him. It's rich with metaphor and I found myself thinking of thematic echoes in my own writing. At the same time part me really missed Ariel and Eric's happily ever after.

Last night I was thinking more about happy endings watching two favorite tv shows. First, in Once Upon a Time, the heroine went into the underworld with some of the other characters to rescue her true love Hook. Emma killed Hook to save their world in the winter finale. Watching that (very well done) scene with me, Mélanie said, "A fairy tale is supposed to have a happy ending." (While I thought "Oh, my goodness it's Buffy and Angel.")  Once Upon the Time turns the idea of fairy tales having happy endings on it's head as it melds together characters from different fairy tales and takes their stories beyond the traditional endings. At the same time, happiness remains a possibility for most of the characters (including some who are considered villains in the original stories, like Captain Hook and Snow White's Wicked Queen stepmother). Much as I love the twists and turns, I find myself still intensely rooting for ultimate happy endings.

From Once Upon a Time, I went on to the Downton Abbey series finale. It's always bittersweet and a bit nerve-wracking to say goodbye to favorite characters. This finale brought tears to me eyes, but mostly because it was lovely to see everyone so happy. I hadn't thought everything would be wrapped up in such a neat and happy bow. At various points I'd envisioned different characters dying or the family having to sell the estate. Which could have fit with what had gone before. But overall I'm so glad Julian Fellowes went that way. After spending so long with these characters it's nice to imagine them going on having happy lives.

Did you watch Downton Abbey? What did you think of the ending? What are some of your favorite series finales? What do you think of the different versions of The Little Mermaid?


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09 February 2016

Wellington, Waterloo, Apsley House, & historical liberties






Historical novelists always to a certain degree combine fact and fiction because we fill in gaps in the historical record. This is even more true when one writes novels such as I do with fictional main characters and real historical figures in major supporting roles, one inevitably combines historical events with fictional ones. I try to stick closely to the historical record, but of course I end up taking some liberties with it whether it's Lady Caroline Lamb a childhood friend of one of my fictional characters who of course she never new, putting Lord and Lady Castlereagh at a fictional ball they of course wouldn’t have attended, or having Castlereagh, Wellington and Sir Charles Stuart preoccupied with the intrigue surrounding the death of the fictional Antoine Rivère in post-Waterloo Paris.

With London Gambit, my latest Malcolm and Suzanne Rannoch historical mystery, which I just finished, I faced a dilemma. The timeline of the series naturally put the book in June 1818, three years after Waterloo. Perhaps because I was subconsciously aware of this, echoes of the battle reverberate through the book. I needed a major social event for the denouement of the book, and I really wanted it to revolve round the anniversary of Waterloo on 18 June. I knew from a research visit to Wellington’s London home, Apsley House, that Wellington had given banquets for Waterloo veterans on the anniversary of the battle.

Apsley House  (which stands on the edge of Hyde Park at Hyde Park Corner) was designed by Robert Adam and built in the 1770s for the second Earl of Bathurst (who had been Baron Apsley before he succeeded to the earldom). Wellington's brother Richard, Marquess Wellesley, purchased Apsley House in 1807 and engaged James Wyatt to improve it (with the assistance of Thomas Cundy). Though the grateful nation was offered to build Wellington a London home, Wellington instead bought Apsley House from his brother in 1817 (to help Richard out of financial difficulties). In 1818 Wellington engaged Benjamin Dean Wyatt, James Wyatt’s son, to make repairs to the house. Wyatt installed the nude statue of Napoleon by Antonio Canova, which Wellington had acquired, at the base of the stairs.

But Wellington was still British ambassador to France in 1818. He probably didn’t give his first banquet for Waterloo veterans at Apsley House until 1820, and the first of his banquets took place in a dining room that could only seat 35, so the guests were limited to senior officers. After the Waterloo Gallery was completed in 1830, up to 85 guests could attend, including guests who had not been present at the battle, but the guest list was limited to men. While I worked on the first draft of London Gambit, I danced round what to do with the Waterloo anniversary. I thought about having a fictional character give a dinner on 18 June. I even thought about having Wellington come over from Paris for the dinner. And then I thought—Wellington did own Apsley House in 1818. He could have given a dinner on the anniversary of Waterloo (even if in fact he did not). And, since the dinner in m book would be fictional, he could include women among the guests…

I debated some more, wrote it with Wellington giving the dinner at Apsley House, debating changing it in subsequent drafts. In the end I left it, with an historical note explaining the liberties I had taken. Reading over the galleys, I’m glad I did. The Waterloo anniversary ties the themes in the books together beautifully and having the event at Apsley House with Wellington present gives it added weight.

For more information about Apsley House and Wellington, the Victoria and Albert Museum offers an excellent publication book Apsley House: Wellington Museum (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2001).

Readers, how do you feel about writers taking liberties with the historical record? Writers, what liberties have you taken with historical figures, events, and timing?






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