History Hoydens

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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

30 April 2009

Visiting Mayfair--and some news

I came back from a quick visit to London last week. I packed a lot into a very short time, including a visit to the Regency Town House in Brighton--I blogged about it last week at the Riskies, where today I'm blogging about my newest favorite place in London, the excellent and fabulous Fan Museum in Greenwich.

But while I was there I blatantly played tourist by going on a London Walk of Mayfair--something I've never done before. A couple of other Americans talked the entire time about some poor woman in their town whose ears must have been burning and I took (mostly dreadful) photos. The walk was pretty good, but obviously previous walkers were fascinated by London real estate so a lot of the information given was about house prices (ridiculously high).

Mayfair was originally the site of a fifteen-day May Fair, renowned for its rowdiness and finally banned in 1708. Architect/developer Edward Shepherd was commissioned to develop the area and by the mid-eighteenth century completed the site, which included paved alleys, a duckpond (aaw!) and a two-storey market topped with a theater. (Now I'm kicking myself because I think that building still stands and is a pub and I didn't photograph it).

So in the center of the grand Georgian houses we associate with Mayfair there's a charming area of picturesque alleys, shops and restaurants, Shepherd Market (according to our guide, it's a busy red light area at night). I do enjoy a bit of sleaze and narrow alleys...

I really loved the frontage of this shop that sold statues and I wished I'd used this setting in The Rules of Gentility when Philomena and Inigo go shopping together. Next time I'm going back to look inside...

But yes, the grand houses. This was the area where Caroline Lamb and Florence Nightingale lived (although not together or at the same time, although their houses have gone--either knocked down by the Blitz or developers) and many other big names. Handel lived next door to Jimmi Hendrix (although not concurrently) and the BeeGees also get a blue plaque (honest).

Here's Beau Brummell's house (left) and the house of the Duke of Clarence, Mrs. Jordan and their ten offspring (right). The blue plaque at the Duke's house, however, celebrates a more respectable resident whose name I can't remember.

Here's Berkeley Square and one of its venerable plane trees (two hundred years old). And on the right, the London home of American president John Adams.

Here's an interesting factoid about the shift of the fashionable from Soho to Mayfair. After the rich and famous moved to the new development (which was pretty much in the country then, thus achieving the Georgian ideal of the pleasures of the town with the salubrious effects of the countryside), Soho became a lower class, artisan area. William Blake set up shop there. So did several thousand French emigres, mostly weavers, which I thought was really interesting, because I wrote something one time where the heroine lived in the ground floor of a Soho house which resonated to the thud of a loom above. My critique group said, as one woman, huh? But I was right; something, sometime, had lodged in my brain and come out at exactly the right moment.

And now the big news... remember, you heard it here first unless you came from the Riskies...

I've sold a two-book deal to HarperCollins, Immortal Jane, and the first is about Jane Austen joining forces with sexy vampires against a French occupation of Bath (and you should have heard me cackle when I wrote the proposal). My working title is... yep, Blood Bath (I really, really hope they let me keep it). It's scheduled to come out next summer so I'd better get busy.

So since I'm supposed to end a blog with a question, have you ever taken a walking tour in London? Or any other city? What did you think?

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29 April 2009

Ramblings on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, The Music Man, & Mismatched Couples


My good friend and critique partner, Penny Williamson, and I just got back from our annual spring trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It’s wonderful going to the theater with a good friend who’s also a writer. I've found some wonderful literary inspiration on visits to Ashland, Oregon--the allusion to Othello which sets the theme in Chapter 1 of Secrets of a Lady, the Hamlet references running through Beneath a Silent Moon, the question "whom do you identify with in Julius Caesar?" which runs through the as yet unpublished The Mask of Night.

This trip was no exception in the literary inspiration department. Between performances Penny and I indulged in some of our favorite activities--we walked, shopped, lingered over meals at favorite restaurants, and analyzed the plays.

The plays were a rich and wonderful mix. One favorite was Equivocation, a world premiere by Bill Cain in which William Shakespeare is commissioned (or rather commanded by King James’s right-hand man Robert Cecil) to write a play about the Guy Fawkes gunpowder plot. A brilliant, layered play about politics, writing, family–and theater. (It may spark a blog post when I have a bit more time to think about it). Another surprise favorite was Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man. When Penny and I first heard OSF was doing The Music Man, we were a bit skeptical about a Broadway musical mixed in with OSF’s usual blend of Shakespeare, modern and older classics, and edgy new plays. We left the theater completely entranced. It was a wonderful, clever, sweet-but-not-sappy production that brought out how River City, Iowa, is changed by musical con man Harold Hill and how Harold Hill is equally changed by River City and its inhabitants.

Particularly Marian Paroo, the town librarian. The romance at the heart of The Music Man is delicate and heart warming. Con man Harold Hill who is looking for a “sadder but wiser girl” and librarian Marian Paroo who is waiting for her “white knight” seem complete opposites and yet you root for them to get together. More than that, you believe in their happy ending. Perhaps because, as Penny and I discussed, while Marian and Harold are both misjudged by those round them, they see each other with surprising clarity. Marian falls in love with Harold knowing he’s lied about his past. Harold sees past Marian’s frosty demeanor. Meredith Wilson’s clever lyrics point to the fact that this seemingly mismatched couple may have more in common than one thinks. In the song “The Sadder but Wiser Girl,” Harold refers to The Scarlet Letter and the goddess Diana. He may be the most well-read person in River City next to Marian, who shocks the town by reading Chaucer, Rabelais, and Balzac. Musically, their two signature solos, “Goodnight My Someone” and “Seventy-six Trombones” have the same melody, disguised by different tempos. A clever way of showing how in sync their minds are beneath the outward show.

This got me thinking about other favorite mismatched literary couples who are soul mates under the skin. Such as Beatrice and Benedick from Much Ado About Nothing (which OSF is doing later this year). Despite their war of words Benedick believes Beatrice without question when she swears to her cousin Hero’s innocence. He sees through the truth of the situation while the other men in the play are taken in. Or Mulder and Scully who begin as skeptic and believer but become each other’s touchstone.

Arthur Clenham and Amy Dorrit in Little Dorrit (I came home last night and curled up with the last episode) are mismatched not by personality but by age and circumstance, which prevent Arthur from seeing Amy’s feelings for him or acknowledging his own for her. Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes are also mismatched in age, not to mention her interest in theology and his rationalism and the lack of interest both have in marriage (and echo of Beatrice and Benedick). Yet the spark of sympathy between them is clear from their first scene together in The Beekeeper's Apprentice. (Speaking of Holmes & Russell, I just bought The Language of Bees and am having to remind myself I can't stay up all night reading it).

For me to believe in a happy ending, I need to believe that the characters are somehow uniquely right for each other. That realization can be that much more powerful and interesting when they are seemingly an impossible match. In my own series, Mélanie goes into her marriage to Charles knowing they are an impossible mismatch in ideology, loyalties, background, and life experiences. Yet when she realizes she loves him it’s because “though he might not know her true name or any details of her life, he understand her as no one else ever had”.

Do you like stories about mismatched couples? Any favorite examples? What does it take for you to believe the characters have a chance to be happy? Are there literary mismatched where the author didn't convince you the differences between the characters could be overcome? Writers, do you get inspiration from the theater? Who else watched Little Dorrit (have you seen the 1988 Christine Edzard films, which are equally engrossing)? Who else is looking forward to Russell's & Holmes's latest adventures in The Language of Bees?

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27 April 2009

Crusading Heroines & Readers Who Love Them

Pam’s comments on a recent post had me thinking all weekend . . .

There is a trend in historical romance (or so it seems to me) for heroines to be crusading do-gooders, or at the very least to be overly aware of the myriad of horrors that lurk behind the everyday commonalities of life and commerce and production. This awareness on their part seems to be in direct contradiction to historical reality and even to modern reality.

When I’ve discussed this issue with friends (of both the reader and the writerly persuasion) I get a response that I find quite curious: they think that having characters highlight the dark side of life back then by being reformers makes the character more accessible for a 21st century reader. I like to counter by asking if they felt a lack of connection with the women on Sex in the City or Desperate House Wives because they don’t obsess about the factories full of women (and yes, they’re almost all women, practically girls) who spend 9/10 hours a day sewing their garments, or the boys who cobble their shoes, or the Pakistani children who sharpen and polish surgical instruments so their doctor boyfriends can earn their astronomical salaries to pay for those dinners at Nobu? I never noticed that it was a problem for the masses.


In fact, most modern Westerners (yeah, I’m pointing my finger at Canadians and Europeans here too) don’t know and don’t care where their “cheap” goods come from. The mom shopping at Wal-Mart for her kinds Dora the Explorer flipflops doesn’t care what conditions they were made under and she doesn’t want to be told and made to feel bad. The college student dumping his old PC for a shiny new Mac doesn’t know (and doesn’t care) about the electronic waste that’s poisoning the 3rd world. People don’t want to be told that their penchant for beef is one of the leading causes of global warming, or that the imported teak floor they just installed is an environmental nightmare.

But I’m beginning to wonder if readers’ penchant for crusading historical heroines isn’t a way of sidestepping their modern guilt over all of the above (I mean, we all KNOW at some level that everything we buy and eat and wear and drink has a cost in blood, sweat and tears that someone else is paying, right?). If characters like Heyer’s Arabella Tallent (who scoops up climbing boys and faces down their masters) and Jeffries’ Lady Clara Stanbourne (who runs a home for pickpockets), and, oh, I don’t know, a dozen other books I’ve read where the heroine runs some committee for the poor, or puts on a ball, or is BFFs with her maid, aren’t giving us an extra jolt of fantasy and an extra hit of feel-good-about-the-world that is totally based on our being able to feel superior along with our heroine? Perhaps I’m too cynical, but I don’t see this same trend in contemporary romances (or maybe I’m just missing the books with the heroines who are consumed by modern causes . . . but I think not, cause in a modern setting such a character quickly begins to feel preachy).

I mean, can you tell me (without looking!) where your shoes were made?

24 April 2009

To Veil or Not To Veil...


My romantic fantasy of veiled woman in Arabic tradition as mysterious and intriguing figures has suffered a “reality split” from current studies of Middle East cultures. The cold hard truth is that my romantic fantasy was... a romantic fantasy.

Islamic law is based on previous Arab tradition, which unfortunately denied women most of their basic rights. The belief that women are inferior to men, and that they need men to protect them, underlies not only the Koran, but the collection of other religious scholars’ writings. Such writings are consulted, in varying degrees, by the ulama, or venerated religious judges, and this explains the variations in interpretation–from conservative (using the Koran only) to more liberal (using additional learned writings as supplements). Picture, if you will, the 20th century Congregationalist and the Born-Again Christian interpretations of the Bible.

The coming of Islam did improve the overall status of women in specific areas, even though many sections of the Koran seem to be addressed primarily to men. “Allah desires to make things light for you, for man was created a weak creature.” [The Koran, Sura 4, “On Women”]

Islamic law recognized a woman’s right to choose her own marriage partner and set limits on the practice of male polygamy (an Arab tribal tradition). A man can have as many as four wives if he can provide for and treat them equally.

Marriage
was defined as a contract between a man and a woman, or a man and a woman’s legal guardian [emphasis added]; the required dowry was to be paid directly to the bride, not to her male relatives. Women are entitled to inherit wealth and, further, married women should be able to control their own money and property. This was a huge change from the traditional Arab practice of a man’s owning not only the woman but all her wealth upon marriage.

Husbands must support their wives financially during marriage and even for a certain period after a divorce; “the divorced woman shall not be thrown out on the street or forcibly detained in the house.” In addition, there are specific recommendations for attaining a divorce, including a cooling-off period and working with an intermediary (a kind of couples counseling).

However, such decrees did not significantly change the dominant position of men in Muslim society. The Koran describes men as a degree higher than women in rights and responsibilities; also, it requires women to be obedient to their husbands. Men are permitted to divorce their wives without cause [emphasis added] and to deny women custody rights over children who have reached a certain age.

As Islam spread during and after the 7th century AD, it gradually absorbed some of the custom of the conquered peoples, including the practice of veiling and secluding of women. Seclusion in this case meant limiting women to the company of other women and close male relatives in their home or confining them in separate female living quarters.

Although veiling and seclusion are not specifically stipulated in most Islamic sources, some Muslim scholars have used passages from the Koran and the collection of Mohammed’s subsequent traditions to justify such practices. “Say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except for what must ordinarily appear; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands.” ["The Book of Light," 24:31]

The issue of a wife accused of infidelity is handled thus: “Bring four witnesses from you [supposedly all witnesses were men] and if they testify to the whoredom, shut those women up in the houses till death take them... but if they repent and amend, turn away from them.” [Sura 4]

Through the centuries, as new situations arose, Islamic jurists and scholars have added learned opinions to the basic tenets of the Koran. One can hope that what is–or will be in future–added to the body of written opinions on women’s rights will be increasingly less repressive and more open to liberal and female-empowering interpretation.

17 April 2009

Time and Again: Hanging with the Romance Scholars

A lot of vampires this year.

I mean discussion of vampires (though since it was Anne Rice's home town you never know) at the annual meeting of the PCA/ACA (Popular and American Culture Association) last week in New Orleans.

And of course a whole lot of discussion on romance novels, including presentations from fellow hoyden Lauren Willig and myself, on panels sponsored by the Romance Subject Area of this scholarly organization.

All a little bit new to me, since although I'd signed up for last year's PCA in San Francisco the conference wound up conflicting with my Amazing Three-Week Revision-turned-Rewrite of The Edge of Impropriety, so all I did was limp in to deliver a limp presentation and limp back home to the computer. Other than which my conference-going has been mainly limited to Romance Writers of America's annual national extravaganza and (deep in my past) a few extramural meetings of software developers.

But I do know enough to predict a few inevitabilities re myself and big meetings...

  • First, that I will start out shy, convinced that no one will talk to me. It'll be RWA 1999 all over again, I tell myself, when I genuinely believed (now it can be told) that the point of getting a book published was so you'd have somewhere to go on the Friday night of RWA National when the publishers gave their parties and the published girls got all dressed up.
  • Next that I will discover (again!) that people are really quite nice and friendly -- whereupon (wired by the opportunity to talk face-to-face with all entities I've hitherto only encountered online or in books -- or in the case of Lauren, both) I talk way too much; toss around in bed thinking of what-all I could additionally have said; wreck my health (at least temporarily) by agonizing over my own panel presentation and falling to pieces after I give it; finally to stagger happily onto an (inevitably) germ-infested airplane and cough and sniffle my way through my first days home.
  • And finally that the conference hotel elevators will never be up to the task of getting everybody where they want to go as fast as they want to get there, so it's best to learn to make elevator friends.
All of which were true of my experience at PCA/ACA -- including a great conversation during a long elevator wait with a very very young man who'd just given a presentation on The Wire, which I would have gone to if there weren't so many romance panel discussions. Still, it was great to connect with a non-romance pop-culture homie, greeting one another in the local patois, viz, "are you into Omar or Stringer Bell?" (It's Stringer for me, of course -- evil, gorgeous, and heartbreaking in his glasses and lonely doomed dreams.)

While as for wrecking one's health -- I did tell you the event was in New Orleans, didn't I? It was my first time there, and though of course I was looking forward to the food, I didn't expect that for my first lunch, wandering around the city before the conference got underway, I'd eat the single most delicious thing I've ever eaten in my life -- a fried oyster po' boy sandwich at Parasol's Restaurant and Bar (yeah, it's as funky as the picture -- and wonderful) in the Irish Channel Neighborhood near the Garden District (found with Lonely Planet's help).

Nor did I have any idea that New Orleans cooking is so good and skillful that you can ingest more grease, sugar, carbs, meat, and alcohol than you'd have imagined possible and it doesn't catch up with you until sometime after you get off the plane back home and start in on the hacking and sniffling.

But by now the coughs and sniffles are almost gone, I'm sure that any day now I will return to my Weight Watchers regimen, and I had a terrific time, mostly due to the energy and enthusiasm of the romance scholar contingent. You can find out more from and about this smart and lively, warm and wonky bunch at the Teach Me Tonight Blog, and most particularly about their missionary zeal that romance fiction should get the same scholarly attention that all the other popular culture forms (like detective fiction, sci fi, etc etc) get. Which means conferences (check out the big news about this upcoming do -- Love as the Practice of Freedom, at Princeton), an academic journal, and attention paid to research and classroom teaching.

And though missionary zeal isn't my favorite stance on anything (in any roomful of head-nodders, you'll find me knitting my brow), I'm happy to report that at PCA my yes-buts and calls for explanation brought forth interesting, respectful responses and much to ponder. Some snippets being...

  • The roundtable on pedagogy where I learned that many college students (including, sacre bleu, English majors!) don't immediately understand that a text is a structure that can be taken apart like a car engine. Who knew? But given that that seems to be the case, it makes good sense to teach them literary analysis is with a book they know they like -- like a romance.
  • An ad hoc to-be-continued-I-hope conversation I had with An Goris, who's doing her dissertation on Nora Roberts, as we tried to find words for what, stylistically, makes Nora Nora -- typical and exceptional, creator and participant of the genre at the same time. No conclusions, but I was fascinated by how interesting and challenging a question it was.
  • A terrific presentation on British and U.S. takes on the Regency -- from Professor Maryan Wherry -- which began with a quote from The History Hoydens Blog.
  • You've already gotten preliminary taste of Lauren's presentation here -- it was even better extended and out loud, and the only problem was that she was the only historian presenting (her panel-mates talking about the psychology and sociology of romance communities -- interesting all, but not the same thing). Yo, romance scholars! Get more historians! Lauren's discussion of how romance readers understand history needed more stuff to bounce off. Re-enactor culture maybe, Kalen? Hoydens, what do you think?
  • As for my presentation -- it was about time. By which I mean that I talked about how time works in the the romance novel (with some help from Jane Austen and the genre's ancestors in drama and religion). Which was fun to think through and which taught me something about the romance form as I'd been using it even before I knew I was doing it. Because before I prepared this paper I hadn't entirely realized that all of my romance novels end in the same space they begin, as per the loopy shape of the romance story as I understand it, the ongoing plot making its way along a great circle route through the past. And I'm grateful for the comment from the very lovely Professor Julie Moody-Freeman, that for journeys through the past I should look to the work of Toni Morrison (whom I haven't read in years but whom I will soon again, now that I've got a new hook to hang her work on in the lumber room of my musings).
And, as they say, much much more -- including, I see, an extensive set of reports on the vampire panels at Professor Jessica Miller's fascinating and new-to-me blog, Racy Romance Reviews (it was also great to meet Jessica at the conference) -- a gazillion books to resolve to read -- and plans for the future... if they'll have me... 'cause I'm sort of thinking of taking on space next year.

But I left out so much. Thanks again, romance scholars! And all input from participants, would-be participants, vampire fans, hoydens and theory-groupies, and anyone with a hopeless crush on Stringer Bell... all welcome.

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15 April 2009

When Life Imitates Art: Creating Characters

Have you ever "met" a character you created?

This phenomenon has occurred twice so far in my writing career. In my debut contemporary novel, Miss Match, a romantic comedy, I created the character of a self-important actor, Rick Byron, whose career was built on the shaky foundation of a megawatt smile rather than any discernable theatrical talent. In my mind, he physically resembled a hybrid of two "himbo" actors who began their careers in the '80s and who have had remarkable staying power, not just on the screen, but because of their respective tabloid-fodder marriages. The sandy hair, that killer grin ... and then, one night I caught an episode of one of America's most popular reality shows ... you know the one--where young people of limited vocal skills bend notes into pretzels in the hopes of winning a recording contract. And there on the television screen, hosting the show, was the character I had written.

The eeriest thing about seeing a very credible version of the character I'd invented was that I'd had so much fun writing Rick Byron that he made a second appearance as the fatuous host of the reality dating show that is at the center of my second novel, Reality Check -- written when reality TV was in its infancy and no one knew that it would take over the boob tube, thereby sending scads of professional actors and writers to the bread lines.

Although this exceptionally popular musical reality show might have been running at the time my novel hit the bookstores, it didn't yet exist when I created my character in both incarnations (as movie star and as reality show host); and, not being a viewer, I didn't see the real-life host until years after it was up and running. It was disconcerting, to say the least, to see a product of my imagination made manifest.

The second time I "met" a very reasonable facsimile of one of my characters was a couple of years later. A secondary character in Herself is Kelly Adonis, a tall, bald, gay, former Olympian diver and ex-commercial spokesman, now an aqua fitness instructor. While the novel was in the publishing pipeline, well past the copyediting stage, a substitute teacher filled in for one of the water aerobics classes at my gym -- and, good grief (!) there he was!

I'm wondering if there's a word for this phenomenon; why do I think it's the sort of thing Pam would know?

While we often draw our literary characters, and in particular the historical figures in our novels, partially from life models, what are the odds of it happening the other way? Have you ever had the same or a similar experience to mine? What was your reaction when you "met" your character?"

13 April 2009

Music to Write By

This will not be a long post because you are the source of information for this research project.

I’ve been writing a long time and have always worked in silence. In silence, if you do not count the phone ringing, the lawn being mowed, trucks delivering stuff which means the doorbell sounding. But I digress.

For years I have written in silence but that seems to be changing. As of three days ago I am writing with music in the background. I started with the soundtrack from the movie LAST OF THE MOHEGAN and then moved on to Respighi and even some Enya which, though I enjoy her music, did not inspire me in any way. Actually Enya’s music made me seriously consider a nap.

So here are the questions for the day. Do you write in silence or with music? Do you use the music to inspire emotion in your writing or to motivate you to keep writing? If you use music, would you be willing to share your favorites?

And while I am on the subject of change. Has anyone checked out Twitter? I am having great fun collecting information from my favorite sources all in one place – New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Alan Sepinwall’s reviews of TV shows, CNBC and Vogue. I follow a couple of friends and acquaintances but do not twit myself.

So take your pick: music to write by and Twitter. Your thoughts?

10 April 2009

History in the Obituaries

Call me a morbid historian, but I have always been interested in old cemeteries---there's a civil war cemetery close by and I stopped one day when city docents were hosting tours.

The group had put together a booklet with the actual obituaries on some 25 of people who were buried there. This interesting booklet recorded the lives of the pioneers and soldiers and everyday folk who lived outside of San Fransisco in the late 1800's.

As one reads, it is easy to feel the joys and the sorrow the successes and failures, the dreams and tragedies of people we will never know. Newspaper obituaries of the time were surprisingly uncensored in their accounts of the worth of the person, the way they died and how they were grieved---or not. There was no such thing as political correctness, that's for sure. These obituaries are preachy, prejudiced, judgmental, sentimental, and heartfelt. Deaths were described in graphic detail as were the personal habits and personalities of the recently demised. There were a lot of wagon accidents, shot gun "accidents/suicides/murders"--(it's hard to determine which was which sometimes) and tuberculosis deaths. There was usually a comment and opinion on you as a person--good or bad, virtuous or fast-living:

"Mrs. Underhill's death-age 64, died 1893. After a brief illness lasting less than a day, the soul of Mrs. A. Underhill took its flight to its long home last Thursdays evening....a woman of kindly impulses and an affectionate wife...the funeral was expectantly large..."

"George Green-Age 50 plus, died 1894...Was it suicide? Body of George Green found floating in the bay...George green was inclined to be taciturn and reserved in his habits...an old friend says he has no doubt that it was a clear case of suicide and that the reports of the man's wealth ($35,000) were greatly exaggerated."

"China Charley--Age 59, died 1913--The son of a Chinese woman and a father from Italy...he was well-liked and did not associate with, or recognize little brown men."

"Mrs. Martha McGrew-age 65, died 1893..."In our last records, we learned of the accidental death of Mrs. A.O. McGrew, from her husband, in regard to this sad mishap...the accident took place about 4pm...Mrs. McGrew was holding her little granddaughter, age 2, when the sitting in the back seat of the the rig...when the seat broke short off and fell in the road. Mrs. McGrew was struck on the back of the head and ruptured a blood vessel, she was immediately unconscious and remained so until her death at 7:15 that evening. The rig was hired from Solen's livery and it is said that only two weeks before, the same vehicle collapsed and injured some ladies who were riding in it...the combined weight Mrs. McGrew and of all others in the surrey would not have exceeded the recommended 550 pounds...."

"Little Walter Eberle, age 5, crushed by cruel wheels--The little fellow climbed onto the trail wagon of Sampson Bros. and in some way, getting on or off, both wheels of the heavily laden wagon passing over his head, crushing him beyond recognition....."

It's hard not to post more of the obituaries there are so many tales of human interest, triumphs and defeat...but at the turn of the century, it seems like the less your neighbors knew about you, the more there was to write...headlines like:

"Joseph Bissell, age 66, died 1896. Was there a history?" Joe was one of the twin brothers who lived in seclusion in the woods. Both men are well-liked and respected but no one knows their story...."

This lack of information bothered everyone, including the newspaper. When Joseph Bissell died, a description of the interior of their empty cabin was supplied in the obituary, but no detail on how he died was given, just that "it was a sad sight to witness the silent parting scene between the brother who was called away and the one who is quietly awaiting the his own final summons. It is quite likely that the two were inseparable while living and will not remain long separated....the remaining brother is already 70."

Lastly, there's the death of John G. Wunder, age 42, died 1903...his obit read:

"Romance or tragedy?...Which? Strange Career of John G. Wunder Closed by Death. "

John died after a short illness at the boarding house where he lived. Little is known of him other than that his parents are still living and of well-to-do circumstance. He was a linguist, well-educated and a man of more than ordinary ability. Why he should have chosen a life of tough toil as a cook was never explained ....because he was unusually reticent about his affairs...he was married but if his wife is living or dead is a secret which he did not divulge. An idolized daughter survives to whom he sent presents...he was a favorite at the boarding house."

I could go on, but the are too many interesting tales in my obit booklet. Soooo many stories. Clearly, I want go back and offer justice where there should have been some. Saloon girls working at the "OK" saloon were clearly too often murdered and the killers let go...claiming the bad, troubled girl committed suicide. On the other hand, some of the descriptions of the gun fights sounded like gang warfare of today, only police at the turn of the century were likely to catch and legally "lynch immediately" all of those involved.

There is history in the obituaries...someday, I'll post about what I learned while studying the old cemeteries of New Orleans. Fascinating people. Fascinating stories!

Fellow authors, any story ideas come something you've read in an old (or new) obituary?

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08 April 2009

I Could Have Danced All Night

As I've mentioned in prior blogs, a lot of my nonwriting time is spent working as a board member of the Merola Opera Program, a training program for opera singers, coach accompanists, and stage directors. On March 28, we had our annual Spring Benefit fundraiser. This event is about as close I get to the parties and balls that are so important in many of our novels. I got my hair done (with a ceramic curling iron rather than metal tongs heated in an Agrand lamp); I helped with decorations (laying out Silent Auction items rather than arranging flowers and lighting wax tapers); I scrambled into my dress and helped do up the hooks on friends' dresses (in a hotel room not a boudoir in someone's Mayfair town house); sipped champagne (some things never change); filled a supper plate from a buffet (artichoke ravioli rather than lobster patties); listened to a wonderful concert (some of which, Mozart, might have actually been performed at an entertainment in one of my books); and danced in to the morning (to decidedly different music from that at Regency ball).

The next day, I found myself thinking about parties and balls in novels. A number of memorable ones spring to mind, beginning with the assembly ball in Pride and Prejudice. In fact, Pride and Prejudice has a number of ball and party scenes, including the memorable the Netherfield ball. When the A&E adaptation first aired, my friend and fellow writer Penny Williamson commented on how often the characters went to parties. She said she could imagine Jane Austen as a writer thinking “how am I going to get these characters together? I have to have another party scene.”

In an era before cell phones, texts, emails, and tweets, where it was difficult for unmarried men and women to interact unchaperoned, balls, receptions, and other social occasions were hubs of social interaction. Whether it's a provincial assembly ball, a subscription night at Almack's, a convivial evening at Mrs. Phillips', or a ball at Netherfield Park, these entertainments provided the opportunity for everything from flirtation (not to mention and out and assignations) to gossip to catching up with an old friend or an old lover to mustering support for a Parliamentary bill. For the novelist, balls provide rich opportunities for the characters to interact. There’s the chance for private conversation during a dance (Darcy and Elizabeth at the Netherfield ball) and the opportunity for one character to observe another (Darcy makes a disastrous impression on Lizzy at the assembly ball and the Netherfield ball confirms Darcy’s negatives of the entire Bennet family). The chance to advance multiple story lines in one scene (both the Darcy/Elizabeth and Jane/Bingley relationships move forward in these various party scenes, and the ball early on in Anna Karenina not only showcases Anna and Vronsky's meeting it moves forward the Lenin/Kitty storyline and the story of Anna's brother and his wife). A ball can be the occasion of an unexpected meeting (Marianne encountering Willoughby and his wife in Sense and Sensibility). It can be spun-sugar covering for scenes of intrigue and drama (the Grenville ball in The Scarlet Pimpernel).

One of the more dramatic real historical entertainments is the Duchess of Richmond’s ball in Brussels at which Wellington learned that Napoleon had stolen a march on him. Soldiers in ball dress left the dance floor to join their regiments and marched out of Brussels that night. The duchess’s ball has been brought to vivid life in a number of novels–by Thackery in Vanity Fair, by Georgette Heyer in An Infamous Army, by Bernard Cornwell in Waterloo. I had the fun of writing about it myself in Shores of Desire (what could be a better setting for drama? all the major characters together as they receive news that will change all their lives in myriad ways). I’d love to use the Duchess of Richmond’s ball in a Charles & Mélanie book some day, either in flashback or in another prequel.

The public nature of a ball can create a wonderful tension with the intimacy of an exchange between two people. Imagine if Romeo and Juliet's first meeting had occurred with the two of them alone rather than in the fraught setting of a ball in her parents' house, at which he is an interloper. There's the added tension of the fact that even if it isn't a masquerade ball, everyone to a certain extent wears a mask in a very public social setting.

Balls and parties an also be a way for a writer to introduce the reader to an array of characters and to their world. Edith Wharton does this brilliantly in the opening The Age of Innocence. You get a sense of the world of the Archers and Wellands in a way you wouldn’t in small scenes. The ripples in that world caused by Ellen’s return from the Continent come through vividly.

I love to read ball scenes, and I enjoy writing them, but they can be a challenge. There are multiple characters to juggle and an elaborate scene to set, all without confusing the reader. There's the challenge of deciding whose pov to start in, when to switch povs, and how to give the reader the sense of a large, crowded entertainment, when the character in whose pov one is may be entirely focused on his or her personal problems. Secrets of a Lady opens with Charles and Mel returning from a ball, but after that has no scenes set at social gathering. I deliberately wanted to pull Charles and Mélanie out of the jewel box world represented by the Esterhazy ball they’ve attended before the book opens. Beneath a Silent Moon, on the other hand, opens with the Glenister House ball. Inspired by a number of memorable book openings (notably the one from The Age of Innocence) I wanted to set up the various characters and the world of the Glenister House set. And I wanted to show the difficulties both Charles and Mel are having adjusting to London society and the strain that that’s putting on their marriage. And seeing all the major characters react to the news of Kenneth Fraser and Honoria Talbot's betrothal seemed the perfect way to set up the mystery that is about to unfold. I reworked those chapters a number of times, deciding where to start, who to focus in on (how to move the camera in a sense), and what to show from whose perspective.

Do you have some favorite scenes at balls or other parties in books? What makes them memorable? Writers, do you like writing scenes set at parties? What are some of the challenging of writing scenes in which one has to juggle a number of characters and plotlines?


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06 April 2009

Glimpses of the past

I have a thing for old photographs. I have piles and piles of them from my own family (including the fabulous ones of my great-great-aunt and uncle who were trapeze artists for Barnum and Bailey). But I love random ones too. There’s something about the faces and scenes that inspires me, intrigues me, makes me want to know more (even if I have to make it up).

One of my favorite sites for this kind of thing is Shorpy. It’s an amazing collection of vintage photographs, scanned in at VERY high resolution. I think my all-time favorite pic on the site is the one shown here, Women auto racers. Miss Elinor Blevins, c. 1915. Check out that smile. The mud-splattered spats. The fur gloves and the wonderfully dented racer. This is a woman I want to know more about. A woman I want to write about. A woman I wish I could have actually known! She’s certainly inspiration for a heroine (even if mine might have to drive a curricle and four instead of that fabulous automobile). When authors say that everything feeds the writing, this is what we’re talking about.

How about you? Any photos out there (of your own family or of random strangers) that inspire you? (p.s. if you don’t have one, check out Gallahad, 1911 in Shorpy’s Handsome Rakes gallery).



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