History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

13 July 2016

At Romance Writers of America's Annual Conference

Going to be quiet this week as I'm in San Diego enjoying the annual romance writers conference. I'll report in next week. So far it's lovely. Just enjoyed a wonderful workshop on codes, spies, & cipers.

26 June 2016

Turning 50

Please forgive this shamelessly self-indulgent post. I had a very busy weekend preparing for and enjoying my own 50th birthday party (my daughter Mélanie, with in the picture above, was a big help!).  With my time preoccupied by my own history, I had no time to formulate a post about the finer point of historical research. Though I have been thinking about my books and the history of my characters. In general I avoid dramatizing their birthdays, unless the celebrations play a major role in the story. Though in an ongoing series, one can get locked into dates. I needed to work the fifth birthday of Colin, Suzanne and Malcolm's son, into London Gambit, because I had set it as 14 June and the anniversary of Waterloo on 18 June was part of the plot. I ended up liking how it showed Malcolm and Suzanne juggling real life as parents in the midst of a murder investigation and a possible plot to free Napoleon.

When I started writing the series, I was the same age as Malcolm. His grand dame aunt, Lady Frances, seemed like an older woman to me. I remember turning 45 and realizing with a shock that I was now Lady Frances's age. And now, at 50, I'm the same age as spymaster Raoul O'Roarke, who also happens to be Malcolm's father. Though I still don't feel I have nearly the worldly wisdom of Frances or Raoul. I'm twice as old as 25-year-old Suzanne, but I still identify with her. Partly because, given the era and the life she'd led, she's grown up much faster. Partly because I think part of the fun of reading and writing is being any age we want mentally.

I may not dramatize many birthdays, but I like to imagine what my characters would give each other for birthdays and how they would celebrate them. I like to think they'd have parties as fun as the one I had last night, with good friends from lots of parts of my life.

What are some of your most memorable birthday celebrations, either ones you've had for yourself or ones you've read about in books?

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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?

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