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31 March 2010

Anti-Heroines, Likability, & the Double Standard


There were a couple of fascinating posts and follow-up discussions on Dear Author in the last couple of weeks. The first was a post by Robin on Loving the Unlikeable Heroine, particularly interesting to me as I love to write and read about characters who are at least potentially unlikable. Especially heroines, I think because I love characters who are rule-breakers and heroines, at least in historical fiction, tend to face many more rules than heroes. Which leads to the follow-up post Jane wrote after Robin’s piece about whether there’s a double standard in the romance genre for what readers consider “allowable” behavior in heroines versus heroes and why.


Both of these posts took me back to a blog I wrote a a couple of years ago on my own website about anti-heroines. I got the idea for the blog when Sarah, a poster on my website, wrote to me because she was reading The Three Musketeers and getting to know the fascinating Milady de Winter. Sarah wrote, “I know I tend to prefer heroines who use their ‘feminine wiles’ – or sexuality – to achieve their own way, instead of resorting to the cliched ‘PC’ approach of typically male methods, such as physical violence, and Milady is the perfect example of a strong woman.”

As with so many classics, my first introduction to The Three Musketeers was my mom reading it out loud to me when I was quite small. I remember her describing the book before we read it and saying “It has a fascinating heroine–I mean villainess.” That’s a perfect way to describe Milady, because while she’s definitely an antagonist to d’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, she’s a compelling, fascinating character. As Sarah said, Milady “was actually wronged as well as in the wrong, and yet was punished for her ambition and desire.” Sarah compared Milady to the Scarlet Pimerpnel's nemeiss. “Milady reminds me a lot of Chauvelin, actually – the sympathetic villain, the ‘anti-hero’.”

Anti-heroine seems an appropriate description of Milady and, I think, sums up the contradictions of her character. Milady is an agent of Cardinal Richlieu which pits her against the musketeer heroes in the complex intrigues of the novel. She also, it is later revealed, has a connection to Athos. Athos (the most tormented of the musketeers) was once married. He was madly in love with his wife until he realized she bore a brand which meant she had been in prison. Enraged that she had deceived about her identity and past, he killed her. Or thought he did. It turns out she escaped, and she and Milady de Winter are one in the same. From the time I first read the book, I was far more sympathetic to Milady than to Athos (a view my mother reinforced). Sarah had the same response. As she wrote, “I think Milady won my sympathy in comparison with the men in the story, particularly when her ‘crime’ is held up against her husband’s. Imagine if Percy [the Scarlet Pimerpnel] had flown so violently and absolutely off the handle when he learned that Marguerite had kept her past from him!”

I hadn’t thought of this comparison until Sarah brought it up, but it’s very apt. Athos trying to kill Milady is much as if Percy tried to kill Marguerite. Or if Charles tried to kill Mélanie when he learns about her past in Secrets of a Lady. As much as I’ve thought of alternative ways the revelation of Mélanie’s past might have played out, that’s one scenario that never occurred to me. And yet, Charles would have had a “better” justification than Athos, because Mélanie was using him when she married him. Milady lied about her past to Athos, but as far as I recall she wasn’t spying on him or otherwise betraying him at that time.

What makes an anti-heroine? Are they the opposite of a heroine? Or of what we expect of a heroine? As with an anti-hero, I think the term encompasses a wide range of characters. I wouldn't I’d call Marguerite Blakeney an anti-heroine. She has some interesting flaws, but for the most part she is a caught in a fiendish dilemma and trying to do the right thing (at considerable personal cost). Mélanie may be an anti-heroine. Her actions are certainly food for debate, she elicits a wide range of responses from readers. I always knew that Milady de Winter influenced Mélanie a bit, but until I wrote this post, I didn’t realize quite how much :-) .

JMM pointed out in the discussion on my website that "Historically, women have always had the odds stacked against them.... That’s why I enjoy seeing heroines who 'play the game' in historical romances/mysteries. Honestly, I think these women are often punished merely for *surviving* in a world which gave them little choice."

Sharon added "There’s another trait that I think many anti-heroines share: they are ahead of their times. In another time and place, they would be perfectly admirable women. For me there are differences between an anti-heroine and a villainess. The 'crimes' of an anti-heroine are against societal stricture, not humanity. She has a conscience and would suffer from remorse if she committed a crime against humanity. In this regard, I think Milady starts out as an anti-heroine and ends up a villainess.

"By the way, I think what is pure-and-sweet depends on one’s definition. I saw the movie although I never read The Age of Innocence. At the end, I think the countess purer and sweeter than the Winona Ryder character. Now who are the heroine, the anti-heroine, and the villainess?"

The Age of Innocence is a fascinating example in this context. I’ve seen the movie (several times) and read the book. Ellen, the countess (the Michelle Pfeiffer character), starts off with a lot of the trappings of the anti-heroine–sophisticated, glamorous, a bit jaded, mysterious, possessed of a past. Whereas May (the Winona Ryder character) is innocent and pure and starry-eyed and very much a conventional heroine. Yet in the end, it is May who manipulates the situation (I think Winona Ryder is brilliant in those scenes) and Ellen who makes a choice based on what she thinks is right. I don’t think the story has a villainess, but I think I’d call Ellen the heroine and May the anti-heroine.

Sarah wrote that “another literary ‘black hat’ is of course Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair – I couldn’t quite finish that novel, but I did admire her determination and guile!” I would definitely call Becky an anti-heroine. Unlike Milady she is the protagonist of the story rather than the antagonist, but she schemes her way throughout the novel, managing to make her friend Amelia, a more “typical” heroine, look distinctly dull in comparison. Catherine, Robert Goolrick's A Reliable Wife, which Kathrynn wrote such an intriguing blog about, crosses all sorts of moral lines in classic anti-heroine fashion, as do the book's other major characters. Though part of what fascinated me about the book was that I felt a great deal of empathy for her and for her husband and to a lesser extent for the third major character.

Troubled, spoiled Barbara Childe in Georgette Heyer’s An Infamous Army perhaps might also be called an anti-heroine. Certainly her prospective sister-in-law Judith sees her as an undesirable wife for the hero. Judith would prefer him to marry sweet Lucy Devenish, like Amelia more typical heroine material. But Lucy proves to be not precisely what she seems on the surface. And Barbara grows and changes in the course of the novel and ends up with a quite believable happy ending. Scarlet O’Hara also grows and changes in the course of Gone with the Wind, though the end of the novel is more up in the air. And then there’s Emma in Jane Austen’s novel of the same name. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Emma described as an anti-heroine, but a friend said that much as she loved Austen’s novels, she just couldn’t sympathize with Emma. Emma is arguably more flawed than the heroines of Austen’s other novels. Given my fondness for flawed and imperfect characters perhaps it’s not surprising that she’s tied with Elizabeth Bennet as my favorite Austen heroine :-) .

What makes anti-heroines so intriguing? Well, for one thing (as I noticed as a child) they usually get to wear the best clothes :-) (only compare Emma with Jane Fairfax or Becky Sharp with Amelia or Milady with Constance). But more seriously, I think it’s in large part that they often are characters who break rules and defy conventions. That’s part of the appeal of anti-heroes as well, but I think there’s something particularly interesting about women who defy conventions in an historical setting in which there are so many restrictions on a woman’s role. Becky Sharp has nothing but her wits to rely on (unlike Amelia, who is protected by fortune and family, at least in the beginning). I’ve always seen Barbara and Emma both as bright women who have trouble finding an outlet for their intelligence.

As a child of seven, I liked Milady because she got to *do* things, instead of waiting to be rescued. She plays the game with (and against) men and sometimes wins. Going back to the Dear Author post on the the double standard, it always bothered me that such a big deal is made about Milady's adultery, and yet heroic d'Artagnan sleeps with her while supposedly madly in love with Constance. And sweet, pure Constance is in fact involved in an adulterous relationship. She’s betraying her husband, even as Milady betrayed Athos. For that matter, the musketeers spend a large part of the book preventing Queen Anne’s adultery from being revealed to her husband. I have no problem with this in context or with Constance’s relationship with d’Artagnan, but it makes Athos treatment of Milady even more infuriating. Fascinating irony, but from what I can tell from reading the novel, the irony was lost on Dumas.

JMM pointed out on my website that "I think it’s telling that in the Disney 'Three Musketeers', Athos begs Milady’s forgiveness and tries to save her." I would have ended Milady’s story quite differently had I written it. Sarah asked “Is it necessary to believe that an anti-heroine can be ‘redeemed’? In a previous topic, you mentioned that you would have written Milady with a ‘heart’, but what would that mean for her? Should she have spared Constance? …I think this is what intrigues me – the concept that ’strong’ women must be caring and forgiving at heart, or face their own destruction, as ‘independent’ heroines are really only awkward, plain creatures searching for a husband!’”

I certainly don’t think anti-heroines need to be redeemed or even redeemable. I would have written a Milady with a bit more compassion (I wouldn’t have had her kill Constance) because that’s the way my mind works and the sort of story I write. I would have wanted to give her a happy ending with Athos–which would have necessitated changing Athos’s character a great deal (more than Milady’s, I think). That’s me, and the stories I tend to tell. My heroes and heroines (and even a number of my villains) tend to have a fair amount of compassion and empathy (when my mom’s and I attempted to write a hero who began the book as amoral–in A Touch of Scandal–he didn’t turn out nearly as amoral we intended). But I too dislike the idea that heroines or anti-heroines need to give way to softer impulses. Mélanie has her share of compassion (though not as much, I think, as Charles), but she puts her loyalty to her cause before her loyalty to her husband, and if she had to do it again, I don’t think she’d make a different choice.

Do you like anti-heroines or do they simply lose your sympathy? Any thoughts on the characters discussed above or any other anti-heroines to suggest? If you’ve read The Three Musketeers (or seen any of the film versions) what did you think of Milady? Do you think Mélanie is an anti-heroine? What about Ellen Olenska? Or Emma? (I suspect Pam may have something to say here). What makes a character likable or unlikable for you? Do you think your standards differ for female or male characters?

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26 March 2010

Writing is writing is writing



A non-writer friend of mine recently expressed interest in the "process" of writing.
"What about it?" I said. "You pick up a pen and -- "
"Stop right there. I want to know how you do what you do every day; other people would be interested in your 'process.'"

I don't know how interested anyone might be, but here goes. I'm a pantser until I get near the end (last 100 pages) of my book; then I turn into a plotter.
I write in the morning and the late afternoon or evening (propped up in bed with a bowl of nuts and chocolate at my fingertips). I write first with pen on yellow note pads, in longhand, making numerous crossouts, circles, arrows, and other roadmap markers so I can wade my way through the draft pages later, when transcribing them onto my computer.

I write 4 longhand pages per day, which equals about 1000 words on the MSWord program I'm using, and I do this almost every day including Saturdays and Sundays and many holidays. In the afternoon or evening I create the 4 pages from scratch; the following morning I type them into the computer. I do have some personal rules for myself that I try to follow.

First, I try not to pick up my pen until I have an idea about "what's coming next" in my story. If I draw a blank, I go do something else, research reading, maybe. Or practicing the harp. Or sweeping off my deck.

Second, If I have a headache or am overtired or don't feel well, I don't write, on the theory that nothing worthwhile comes from pain or nausea.

Third, I used to do a quick edit on the printed-out 4 pages each day; now I stifle that inclination with a promise to myself that I will revise and polish when I reach the end of the book. It's tempting to nitpick and try to perfect, but I'm learning.

Fourth, I have never experienced writer's block, but I have had moments of grave doubt, fear, feelings of inadequacy, and "I-don't-know-what-I'm-doing" angst. I don't stop writing and the doubt passes. Eventually.

I don't work with a critique group, but I do have one long-time critique partner who will read for me and comment honestly. We've been friends for 25 years, and I trust her [trust is essential!]. I also work with a "study group" of three writers; it's not a critique group but one that undertakes "craft exercises and craft explorations." Every week we pick an exercise to hone our skill in aspects such as pacing, character goals, subtext, dialogue, etc. and how other writers handle particular issues (Bernard Cornwell on tension, for example).

I don't write for money; I write because it's personally satisfying. I try to do it well and keep improving. I read a lot of fiction (latest is nonfiction: Tracy Kidder, Mountains Beyond Mountains), history, and selected books on craft (lately Donald Maass's The Fire in Fiction. I read other writers whom I admire (Pam Rosenthal), and I go to bed each night counting my blessings: I am retired; in good health; I don't do this under deadline pressure, and I find crafting a good historical novel is an absorbing challenge.

As for choosing settings, finding stories, and creating characters... I'm still working on it.


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24 March 2010

Welcome, Cara Elliott!

Please join me in giving a warm Hoyden welcome to historical romance novelist extraordinaire Cara Elliott! Her books have been called "deeply, deliciously, divinely romantic" and "magnificently compelling". Some of you may have encountered Cara during her previous incarnation as Andrea Pickens, her nom de plume for her award winning "Spy" series, featuring a trio of swashbuckling heroines more interested in ripostes than ratafia. I have the privilege of knowing Cara/Andrea in yet another role: as co-creator of Reading the Historical Romance, a seminar on the Regency romance that we're currently teaching together at Yale. Despite juggling multiple personae, book deadlines, and, yes, a pile of papers to be graded, Cara has taken time out from her hectic schedule to speak to us today about the pioneering female scientists of the Regency-- the focus of her new series, the Circle of Sin.

I tend to write offbeat, unconventional heroines. I’m not quite sure why I’m attracted to quirky characters—maybe because I tended to be a tomboy as a child and was often chided to “act more like a normal young lady!” (To her credit, my mother was not one of those voices. She always encouraged my enthusiasms—whether they involved cutting out cardboard swords and crowns, or making bow and arrows— for which I am profoundly grateful.) In any case, none of my heroines are demure, dainty demoiselles swathed in layers of satin and silk. They are more the sort of women who don’t mind rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty, both physically and metaphorically.

I’ve been scolded in the past for not creating “real” Regency ladies, but I beg to disagree—albeit politely. For the more I research the Regency era, the more I discover what fascinating and adventurous women lived during the era. Poets, scientists, artists, writers, musicians—there were many individuals who had the courage to defy the strictures of Society and risk censure or ridicule in order to explore their passions.

As my new “Circle of Sin” trilogy revolves around a small group of lady scientists, it’s no wonder that I find the women who dared to step out of the ballroom and into the natural world—as well as the intellectual world—such intriguing figures. Here are a few of the individuals who caught my fancy.

Augusta Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, was Lord Byron’s daughter, though never knew her father as her parents separated soon after her birth. As a child she suffered through a difficult childhood, as her mother was a manipulative woman who used physical pain and guilt to try to control those around her. Ada exhibited a special talent for mathematics and was fortunate enough to meet Mary Somerville, the leading female scientist of the times, who encouraged her to study seriously. (Somerville College at Oxford is named after her.)

After her marriage, Ada helped support Charles Babbage, the inventor of the Difference Engine and Analytical Engine, precursors of the modern computer. They worked together on mathematical problems, and Babbage called her “the Enchantress of Numbers.” Indeed, Ada’s notes on calculating sequences of Bernoulli numbers on the machine is credited with being the first computer program. Today, the U. S. Department of Defense has named one of its programs ADA in her honor. Unfortunately, she became addicted to opium and alcohol, then, on kicking those habits, she turned to gambling on horses. Like her father she died young, succumbing to uterine cancer at age 36.

Anna Atkins, whose career—like that of the Countess of Lovelace—overlapped into the Victorian era, is another “Original.” The daughter of a noted scientist, she received “an unusually scientific education for a woman of her times” and developed a special interest in the natural world. An accomplished artist as well as a scholar, she did a series of detailed engraving of shells for some of her father’s works.

Anna then went on to study the nascent art of photography with William Henry Fox Talbot, a family friend and innovator of the new artform. Her cyanotype photogram studies of seaweed are recognized as some of the most artistic scientific images ever created. The specimens were dried in a press than exposed in the sun onto treated paper which was then stabilized in a chemical fixer. The results are amazingly graphic, abstract images of striking beauty.

Mary Anning began digging up fossils from the sea cliffs around her home in Lyme Regis at age twelve to help support her family. Collecting had become popular among wealthy tourists, and Anna showed an uncanny knack for finding spectacular specimens. Her interest soon became intellectual as well as financial. Fascinated by the extraordinary wealth of life forms preserved in the stones, she carefully preserved and catalogued her finds.

Mary’s shop became known throughout the scientific world, drawing such notable visitors as the geologist George William Featherstonhaugh and King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony. As she gained confidence in her knowledge, she began writing articles for scientific journals, and despite her lack of formal training, she is considered one of the pioneers in paleontology. (Among other things, Mary is credited with discovering an ichthyosaurus and a pterodactyl.) The Royal Geological Society eventually recognized her accomplishments by making her an honorary Fellow.

Caroline Herschel was a tiny women who stood only four foot, three inches tall, but she looms large in the history of astronomy. Born in Germany, she was brought to Bath by her brother, William Herschel, who had been appointed organist of the Octagon Chapel in Bath and needed someone to help him keep house.

He soon gave up music in favor of building high-power telescopes, and Caroline (who had already won recognition as an accomplished singer) started to help. In 1782, William was appointed King’s Astronomer to George III. They moved to the Observatory House near Slough, and Caroline soon learned to “sweep” the skies with the powerful lenses, studying the stars and helping to record the complex calculations of their observations.

William is credited with discovering the planet Uranus (which he named the Georgium Sidus—the star of George—in honor of the English King) but Caroline earned her own place in the scientific firmament by discovering no less than eight major comets and meticulously cataloguing countless stars. In 1828, Caroline was awarded a gold medal from the Royal Astronomical Society for her work. And in 1835 she and Mary Somerville were the first women ever elected to an honorary membership in the Society.

I could go on and on, for there are countless other compelling women. But now it’s your turn. Do you have a favorite “Original” female from Regency England?

23 March 2010

Surprising Voices


The first funeral I ever attended was one of those wacky affaires enlivened by jaw-dropping moments when the assembled throng could not believe the Dear Departed’s Best Beloved had chosen something so totally opposite of anything the Dear Departed would have favored while above ground.

I had no idea what was happening or what to do next. Mercifully, my uncle’s partner came to the rescue. He had been raised by his grandmother, a Victorian lady of high principles who was an avid newspaper reader. Every day she scanned the obituaries column to find the most promising funerals to attend, hoping to find dynamic family interactions. After years of attending funerals under her tutelage, my uncle’s partner knew very well just how strongly life can pulse even at graveside.

He also left me with a residual fascination for obituaries. If I find the obituary page in a newspaper, I will read it – because there’s almost always unexpected history in a person’s life. Whether it’s a celebrity or an everyday person, a political genius or a scientist – it doesn’t matter to me. I’ll at least glance through the person’s history to see how their story came together.

Historical editions of newspapers are fascinating, too. If nothing else, they give me a feel for how contemporaries felt about the Dear Departed. “One of the most sagacious statesmen that England ever produced” said the London Times about Sir Robert Peel in 1850, as compared to the New York Times Magazine’s description of a CIA founder, “conservative politics, social views that included crude prejudice against Jews and blacks and a manner that could veer from fawning on the great to public abuse of menials.”

Then there are the obits that make me want to meet the people involved. “At Paris, also, he met the Countess d’Agoult, well known in the literary world as ‘Daniel Stern,’ who for years remained attached to him. By her he had three children – a boy who died in infancy, a daughter, also dead, who married Emile Ollivier, the statesman who went into the Franco-German war ‘with a light heart,’ and a second daughter, the widow of Richard Wagner, who survives her father,” said the London Times about Franz Liszt.

Or, “Mrs. Garrett Anderson Anderson remained the only female member of the British Medical Association until 1892…Recently her powers were failing; but she was fond of going to London stations to wish God-speed to soldiers starting for the front. Mrs. Garrett Anderson’s sister is Dr. Millicent Garrett Fawcett, to whose husband the blind Postmaster-General she acted as medical advisor. Her son, Sir Alan Garrett Anderson, last August succeeded Sir Eric Geddes as Controller of the Navy; and the first list of appointments to the new Order of the British Empire, which we published last August, contained not only his name among the Knight Commanders, but that of his sister, Dr. Garrett Anderson, among the Commanders, as ‘organizer of the first hospital run by women at the front,’” wrote the London Times about Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.

And, even more simply, “It was one hot day when she decided her oldest son Thad plow that she decided her children wouldn’t spend their lives following a mule through the South Carolina dirt,” said the Philadelphia Daily News.

I also enjoy reading obits for samples of period prose. “That he might perfect his formidable military machinery he provoked unpopularity by laying heavy burdens upon Prussia, by exacting what seemed in those days to be an unendurable blood-tax, and by setting the popular Chamber at defiance when it refused him the indispensable money votes,” complained the London Times about Bismarck.

Or, “He often participated in scientific meetings, where he could be irascible while amusing his colleagues with profane asides,” said the New York Times about Maurice Hilleman, a microbiologist who’s saved probably more lives than any other scientist in the 20th century.

Obits may be occasioned by death but they’re full of life, a treasure trove for a historical novelist.

Do you read historical newspapers, too? What hidden corners do you like to mine for voices from the past?

1. Marilyn Johnson. The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries. Harper Perennial, New York, 2006.

2. The Times. Great Victorian Lives, An Era in Obituaries. Gen. Ed. by Ian Brunskill, ed. by Prof. Andrew Sanders. Times Books, HarperCollins Publishers, London, 2007.

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21 March 2010

And We Have a Winnah!

Kirsten gets a free autographed copy of The Wild Marquis, Miranda Neville's sexy, witty new historical romance.

Congrats to Kirsten, and thanks to everybody who dropped by to chat with Miranda.

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19 March 2010

Marriages of True Minds

Chatting with Miranda Neville yesterday about her new historical romance, The Wild Marquis, I became reminded of what's in some way dearest to me about writing romance fiction -- the pleasures of participating in a genre that loves female wit and of imagining lovers as hot for each other's minds as for their bodies.

I'm not sure when I first encountered such a couple in my youthful reading. Certainly there were elements in Jo March and her professor, in Darcy's admiration of Lizzy Bennet's wit and smarts (though for Austen heroes, my favorite has always been Henry Tilney, who's man enough to joke about muslin). For me, the fantasy probably found its fullest, most delicious embodiment in the sexy, brainy pairing of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane.

And when I came to write romantic fiction myself, it was because I'd found myself in the clutches of just such a fantasy: of Marie-Laure, the eponymous bookseller's very bookish, rationally-minded daughter, and Joseph, book-smuggler, tortured son of the meanest duke in pre-revolutionary France, and author of Marie-Laure's favorite libertine novel. (Oblivious of romance convention, I was as bound to set The Bookseller's Daughter in France as Joseph was destined to fall in love with Marie-Laure when she deconstructs his book!)

But even when I wasn't writing about such an explicitly bookish couple, I've always been attracted by the idea of a man and woman for being sympathetic, interested, engaged by each other's opinions, and for sometimes simply knowing without being told. What better, stronger follow-up to a night of the hottest sex I knew how to write (as I thought when I was writing Almost a Gentleman) than Phoebe's breakfast-table realization that she might actually like to share the morning newspaper with David?

He shrugged and turned back to his correspondence, after passing her the newspaper. "Not much real news, since Parliament's in holiday recess. But there's an essay on the fight for Greek emancipation that will interest you."

She stared at him. No, he wasn't mocking her. He'd known that the essay would interest her just as she'd known that something was troubling him. They'd begun to know each other. It was as ordinary -- and as miraculous -- as that.

Still, I do like what Kalen called "the brainy professor" hero, like Jasper of The Edge of Impropriety. Or the know-it-all heroine, like Mary in The Slightest Provocation.

Or the hot, funny lovers in Janet Mullany's Dedication (another reader/author love affair).

Or Loretta Chase's intrepid female Egyptologist in Mr. Impossible; Cara Elliott's scientist heroine Lady Ciara Sheffield in To Sin With a Scoundrel; Candice Hern's at-first awkwardly-matched magazine publishers, Nicholas and Prudence in her wonderful Once a Gentleman.

Or Tracy Grant's eternally vital Charles and Mélanie Fraser.

Or so many more, and certainly including Miranda Neville's most recent additions to this lineage in The Wild Marquis...

...a copy of which you have a chance to win, just by commenting here (tell us about your favorite brainy lovers -- in romance, in other fiction, or in history).

Or by commenting at the previous post, where Miranda tells us more about herself and her book.

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18 March 2010

Romping With the Hoydens: A Conversation With Guest Author Miranda Neville

We hoydens not only love the ins and outs of history, we love the company of heroes and heroines who are not only bold and sexy, but brainy -- and sometimes as bookish as we are.

Which makes it a particular pleasure to help celebrate the publication of The Wild Marquis, set in the world of Regency bibliophiles, by chatting with historical author Miranda Neville. (Readers who leave comments: Miranda will be giving away a signed copy to one of you, chosen at random.)

Welcome, Miranda, and tell us a little about The Wild Marquis.

Hello, Hoydens, and thanks for having me.

While as to The Wild Marquis, first book of The Burgundy Trilogy:

The Marquis of Chase wants to recover a family heirloom, a rare medieval manuscript that is being offered for sale at auction. To help him he hires a bookseller, the widowed Juliana Merton who, despite her knowledge of her subject, has a tough time making male book collectors take her seriously.
In the process they are drawn into the obsessive rivalry of two deceased collectors and uncover secrets of both their pasts.

The Wild Marquis is set in 1819. Is there a particular reason you chose that year?

There must have been, though I can't now remember it. I tend to prefer the late Regency because I don't want to deal with the Napoleonic Wars. I don't see how you can write, even light romance, without some awareness of political and social context. This series will go into the reign of George IV and (editors permitting) touch on some the the big political issues of the 1820s.

On the other hand, I don't want to get anywhere near Victoria. I suspect in my next series I shall go backward to the pre-Regency years.

How did you become interested in this time period? What do you like most and least about it?

Like 100,000 other romance writers I started with Georgette Heyer. I don't know if she was the inspiration, but I always read a lot of non-fiction around the period, both English and French history. Despite my dislike of his wars, I find Napoleon and his era absolutely fascinating. Before I started writing romance, my only book credit was a biographical introduction to a volume of Redouté's flower paintings. Since the English Regency is still the most popular period for historical romance, why mess with a good thing?

That said, it's very hard to write Regency set stories that are both fresh and (reasonably) authentic. I endeavor to avoid the clichés of the genre: I've taken the no-Almack's pledge, for example.

Any gaffs or mea culpas you want to fess up to before readers get their hands on the book? I know I always seem to find one after the book has gone to press. ...sigh...

I confess (as I do in an author's note) that I advanced the division of Shakespeare's quartos into "good" and "bad" by a hundred years. And, darn it, I discovered after I'd returned the proofs that the Limbourg Brothers had not, by 1819, been identified as the artists of the Duc de Berri's books of hours. Don't you find you don't mind "fudging" things as long you know you are doing it? Doing it by mistake is maddening.

Tell us a little about your hero. Something fun, like his favorite childhood pet, or his first kiss.

Alas, Chase had a pretty depressing childhood under the lash of his father, a religious fanatic known as the Saintly Marquis. As he tells Juliana, "My long slide into iniquity began at the tender age of twelve when I leered at one of the maids during evening prayers." Not that the poor boy did anything more until he was thrown out of the house at the age of sixteen. Then he proceeded to live up to his father's low expectations. What I love about Chase is that he really loves women, as people not just as bedmates (though that too). He's the perfect counterpart for Juliana, who constantly smarts at male prejudice.

What sparked this book? Was it a character? An historical event? A scene you just couldn't get out of your head?

I spent some years working in the rare books and manuscripts department at Sotheby's so I always had the setting in the back of my mind. The big auction in the book was inspired by the Duke of Roxburghe's sale of 1812, perhaps the most notable book auction of the 19th century. Chase first appeared as a secondary character in a (never published) book and immediately took on a life of his own.

Did you have to do any major research for this book? Did you stumble across anything really interesting that you didn't already know?

Does anyone but me care for the arcane details of book cataloging practices in early nineteenth-century England? Seriously, I'm always finding interesting things I don't know. It amazes me how often a serendipitous fact will pop up just when you need it. The finale to The Wild Marquis features a knife fight. I learned a lot about knife fighting on YouTube of all places. Very useful. I hope I got it right. Authors equally ignorant of combat techniques can check it out here.

What/Who do you like to read?

A fair amount of romance, mostly historical, though less than before I sold. Of the classics, most years I read or reread something by Shakespeare, Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Trollope, George Eliot. I don't like Dickens much. The New York Times. I can't always keep up with The New Yorker - once a week is too much. I don't read much new literary fiction unless a friend thrusts a book into my hands and orders me to read it. As a result I enjoyed a recent debut called The Murderer's Daughters by Randy Susan Meyers.

I love historical non-fiction, especially if I can call it research. Also cookbooks. I'm now reading a fascinating history of curry which combines the two last.

Care to share a bit about your writing process? Are you a pantser or a plotter?

I used to be an obsessive plotter. I wrote about a quarter of The Wild Marquis before selling it and I had a detailed synopsis of the whole. But my editor asked for changes that altered the hero's principal motivation and eliminated a subplot and two characters. Rather than re-plot the whole thing, I just plunged in and somehow it worked. The next book I'd also sold on synopsis but I decided (with my editor's permision) to change the second half of the book. Now I feel completely liberated and I'm having a very hard time planning anything beyond a vague concept. A pantser is born. Since I'm a newbie compared to you Hoydens I expect my MO will change again.

Do you write multiple drafts or clean up as you go?

A bit of both. I write fairly cleanly but I leave gaps. And I don't finish the book - the last chapter or two -- until I've revised the rest at least once.

What are you planning to work on next?

As he becomes fascinated by book collecting, Chase makes friends with two other young collectors. Sebastian Iverley is his opposite: he loathes women and has nothing to do with them. And I mean NOTHING. Then he falls hard, for a woman who turns out to be trifling with him. The result is Regency Revenge of the Nerd, to be released in October as The Dangerous Viscount. I had more fun writing it than anything so far. And I've also started work on the third friend, a dandy and arbiter of fashion. Since those are traits more desirable in Oscar Wilde than a romance hero, I've had to make his life miserable. Currently he's suffering from amnesia and stranded on the Yorkshire moors in company with a governess who holds a grudge against him.

Misery for him, fun for us. ;-) Thanks so much for talking to us, Miranda.

And readers who chime in with questions and comments -- after our visit is over, Miranda will be sending a randomly-chosen one of you an autographed copy of The Wild Marquis.

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17 March 2010

A Nod to My Irish Ancestor on St. Patrick's Day


Thanks to my uncle Bruce Carroll, the unofficial keeper of the family genealogy, I've learned more about one of our ancestors, Capt. William Haggarty (who until this morning I had believed spelled his name "Haggerty" (Isn't that a song?)


When I was a little girl, his portrait hung in my grandparents' Upper East Side apartment. It was a huge treat for me to stay overnight with them; but I slept on the sofa in the living room, and in truth was terrified to fall asleep, because I was dead certain that Grandpa Haggarty's eyes -- oh, those black Irish eyes! -- were following me wherever I moved.


Grandpa Haggarty's portrait was painted most likely in the 1830s during a time when the middle and merchant classes displayed their wealth and taste by having themselves painted. When you look more closely at the image, you can see that the face, rich in detail and character, was painted by the studio master; but after that, things tend to go south. The hands are not well delineated and appear like soft, mushy appendages -- hardly those of a captain of industry. And Haggerty's garments fade to black fairly quickly as well. The lack of detail in his hands and garments leads me to conclude that the balance of his portrait was completed by the painter's assistants or apprentices.


Here's the family history from my uncle:


Capt. William Haggarty* told the census taker in 1850 that he was born in 1798 "on the ocean" Given the family sense of humor I'm not sure if he was making a joke about his life as a packet boat captain...or if he was really born on the ship coming from Ireland. In 1850 he lived in New Jersey and was a neighbor of Commodore Vanderbilt. Family legend has it that Haggarty was asked by Vanderbilt if he wanted to invest in this great new iron horse technology (eventually the NY Central RR) but Capt. Haggarty felt folks would rather take a boat than a risky thing like a railroad which at the time basically followed the river and Erie canal routes and even had to pay the Erie canal for lost revenue.

Haggarty had one daughter Leonora aka Leah who was born in 2/28/1830 died 12/26/1906. Her mother died in childbirth (name unknown) the painting was done in 1835. Capt. Haggarty died in 1877. Leah Haggarty married [Jewish] German immigrant Jacob Strauss (who became a US citizen in NY March 27, 1855 and married Leah Sept. 1, 1857. They had three children Caroline (aka Carrie) 10/24/1858 - 10/4/1900.
[My maternal grandfather] Carroll [Carroll] was named after her.
Leonora Strauss 7/14/1860 (known to [my mother] Leda and [her brother] Bruce as Aunt Nonie) died 10/19/1942 She had married Edward Harzfeld on Jan 9, 1883.
And [my maternal great-grandmother, Carroll's mother] Bertha 2/21/1864 - 7/6/1959 Married Lucius Weinschenk 9/10/1895 had Carroll 4/11/1902. Lucius died May 30, 1912 in Buffalo NY where he was running the Neal Institute which appears to have found the cure for every disease known to man.

* (Haggarty appears to be the spelling from the family bible...this might be an example of the times and what George Washington, who was alive when Haggarty was born, is alleged to have said: "I have no respect for a man who can spell a word but one way.")


So, here's to the Irish today! May the winds be always at your back and your eyes never lose their smile. And may you continue to be wonderful storytellers!


Anyone else out there with Irish heritage who would like to share something about their ancestors today?

10 March 2010

Movies & History


I spent most of Sunday happily curled up in front of the tv watching the Academy Awards--the preshow, the red carpet, the awards themselves, the post show. (I did work on various projects while watching, though not during the actual awards). From the time I was a preteen, I’ve been glued to the television for the Oscars. When I first started watching, the awards were on a weeknight and often coincided with the end of March Madness. My father would kindly surrender the television to me when the awards started, but not too long after he gave me my own tv for my birthday.

Now that the awards on a Sunday, there’s practically a whole day of fashion details and movie clips to revel in. How could I not love an event that combines movies and fashion, two of my favorite things? But watching the awards this year, I realized there's something else I love about them. History. There's movie history that's made each year with the awards themselves. There are the montages (like this year's salute to horror and the lovely John Hughes retrospective) that capture movie history. And there are nominated movies which recreate historical events and eras, like this year's Invictus, Young Victoria, An Education, and A Single Man.

Thinking about this aspect of the awards this year made me realize how much my love of history grew out of my love of movies. As I've mentioned in prior posts, the roots of the books I write now are in two old movies I saw with my parents as a child, Pride and Prejudice and The Scarlet Pimpernel. The Keith Michell Henry VIII series and the Glenda Jackson Elizabeth I series started my fascination with Tudor history. The Richard Lester Three Musketeers movies sent me seeking more information about Louis XIII, Anne of Austria, the Duke of Buckingham, and Cardinal Richlieu. A Lion in Winter introduced me to the Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and their brood (well, building on what I knew from the Errol Flynn/Olivia de Haviland Robin Hood, not to mention the cartoon version with the foxes and other animal characters).

Of course the historical accuracy of film adaptations of historical stories various widely (from say the meticulously researched Henry VIII and Elizabeth series to Robin Hood which is inspired by legend). Timelines are compressed, characters combined, villainized or heroized. But my response to a historical film was almost inevitably to ask my parents "what really happened?" which would lead to pulling out the encyclopedia and then to trips to the library. So I fairly quickly learned that the Olivier/Garson Pride and Prejudice is set twenty years later than the book, that there are other views of the French Revolution than that presented by the Baroness Orczy, that (even before A Lion in Winter), it's a bit more complicated than evil Prince John and heroic King Richard.

Now historical films about events I'm not familiar with tend to send me googling. Recently I came home from An Education, and read an article by the writer whose memoir the film is based on (and learned the film is remarkably faithful to the memoir). And though as an historical novelist, I'm more likely these days to spot plot or setting details that diverge from the historical record, I still love the power of movies to transport me to another era.

Have historically set movies sent you researching an historical character or era? Any particular favorites that sparked your interest (or inspired your writing)? Did you watch the Academy Awards? What were your favorite movies this year?

p.s.

On a completely unrelated noted, the picture above is my new author photo.

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08 March 2010

Favorite Books . . . We All Have Them

My new agent recently asked me what I think the all-time top five romances are, which got me thinking . . . what follows is a list of books I can read over and over. Books I own in multiple versions. Books I’d own in Hard Back and electronic form if it were possible. If I was to be trapped on a desert island, I’d be ok if I had these books, a Machete and my Ray Bans.

I’m limiting myself to five in each category, and to specific books, not authors or series.

Romances
Persuasion by Jane Austen
Venetia by Georgette Heyer (I’m limiting myself to just one Heyer)
The Seduction by Julia Ross
Something Wicked by Jo Beverley
The Edge of Impropriety by Pam Rosenthal

Historical Novels
The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett
Gallows Thief by Bernard Cornwall
Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
Beneath a Silent Moon by Tracy Grant

Science Fiction/Fantasy
The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley
World War Z by Max Brooks
A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay
Godstalk by P.C. Hodgell
Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

“Classics” which were contemporary for their time
Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy Sayers
Behold, Here’s Poison by Georgette Heyer
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
Piccadilly Jim by P.G. Wodehouse

Books in Translation that make me wish I could read the original:
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind
The Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk





What about you? What novels make your list?


06 March 2010

Lure of the Old West




Lately I have been wondering... does it make sense - economic sense - to write about the Old West? What is it about the 1870's, for example, that speaks to us in 2010? If I were a sociologist or an anthropologist I might be able to address the question in terms of cultural or social issues. However, I am a writer. So, what’s the attraction for me?

I write about people. I try to create strong characters who are human, with real problems a reader can identify with. You know, the Aristotelian concepts of Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Man and Man vs. Himself. So, why set my stories in the Old West? Specifically in Oregon? Even more specifically in central Oregon’s Willamette Valley?

First, because a “frontier” time and place is full of inherent conflict: the Old (Back East civilization) vs. the New (rough, tough American west); Native Americans vs. encroaching settlers; law and order
vs. lawbreakers/badguys/outlaws; individual rights vs. majority rights; fish-out-of-water stories that arise when a character first braves the frontier. And so on. Life in the Old West was interesting, precarious, surprising, rough, and dangerous. And fulfilling.

Second, there’s a fascinating aspect of settings in towns that have been created out of nothing; churches, stores, houses all built by hand; railway tracks laid by the muscle power of burly Italian and tough Chinese crews; horses for transportation; one-room schoolhouses; milk from a cow; butter from a churn.

Third, the clothing interests me: eye-catching Stetsons, sombreros, sunbonnets; sheepskin coats; cowboy boots with jingle-bobs; string ties and bolos; tight jeans on lean, well-built men; riding skirts; frilly blouses with lace cuffs; petticoats, bloomers, and corsets; ladies lace-up high-button shoes; long swishy skirts the wind can whip up becomingly;. And so on.

Fourth, I am an Oregonian. My great-grandparents (Boessen family), originally from northern Germany and Denmark, settled in central Oregon and raised 8 children. Great-Granddad was a brick mason, and half the chimneys in Coos County were built by him. My grandparents (Banning family) ranched on Oregon land and my Granddad started the first farmer’s coop in Oregon. My parents (Yarnes family) were both Oregonians; Dad was born in Salem, into a Methodist minister’s family; Mom was raised on a ranch in Dixonville (near Roseburg); she cooked for the hired men at 14 and rode bareback until she was 16.

Me? I was born in Oregon City, just south of Portland, during the year my father held his first teaching job, at Gold Beach High School. He was the English teacher, the basketball coach, and the principal. It was a very small school, with a graduating class of 7 students.

I grew up with stories about my Oregon family, handed down through the years at Thanksgiving dinners until they became like country myths: my grandparents’ rather odd courtship (Western Rose); my grandmother’s first teaching job at 16; the time my schoolteacher Dad unintentionally shot a pheasant in his corn patch with Mom’s .22 rifle at a hundred yards; the Depression years when Grandmother fed hundreds of hungry wanderers at her back door; the time when Mama’s brother rubbed bubblegum into her new hairdo; the time when . . .

For me, the Old West, and Oregon, are full of rich memories (and imaginings) of what life had been like for settlers, ranchers, Native Americans, schoolteachers, lawmen, and everyone else who peopled the frontier.

04 March 2010

The Elusive Historical Figure


Writing a historical novel can sometimes be an excuse to spend more time exploring a minor historical figure and moment who’s been evading you. I’ve written six westerns and spent a fair bit of effort trying to understand the Apache Wars which ravaged the Desert Southwest during the later nineteenth century. Great Indian war chiefs emerged from those bloody conflicts and are still remembered today – Cochise, Geronimo, and more. I’ve centered entire books on my heroes and heroines’ relationships with those big names.

But my research kept highlighting one man: Victorio, the greatest Apache war chief of all – possibly the greatest Indian war chief. I needed to write about him. So when Portia, the heroine of my upcoming historical THE DEVIL SHE KNOWS, needed to be young and silly but gallant, too, in the face of danger – I grabbed an episode from Victorio’s career.

Victorio was the chieftain of the Ojo Caliente (Warm Springs) Apache, who fought beside Mangas Coloradas and Cochise. Betrayed onto a reservation, he escaped with his people after being sent to another one which held more malaria-carrying mosquitoes than arable land. For years, he raided Arizona and New Mexico from bases within Mexico. Geronimo was one of his cohorts.

The Texas Rangers mobilized to close off the border into Texas. Two regiments of cavalry – the legendary Buffalo soldiers, Negro soldiers from the 9th and 10th cavalry – rode their horses and mules into the ground chasing him through some of the roughest, most desolate terrain in the West. Their commander gave full credit to Apache scouts from tribes farther west in Arizona. The Mexican Army’s finest Indian fighter stayed in the field for months, harassing Victorio.

Victorio was ultimately driven out of the United States by stationing troops at every water hole. Even then, he fought a series of pitched battles, most of which he nearly won, before fleeing across the border to Mexico for the last time. He died there in a battle with Mexican troops, probably at his own hand.

It took the combined efforts of the Mexican army, the Texas Rangers, and 2,000 U.S. soldiers to defeat Victorio and his warriors, who never numbered two hundred men and usually far less.

The opening of THE DEVIL SHE KNOWS is set during one of Victorio’s raids into the United States, when the inhabitants were rightly terrified of traveling anywhere along his likely path.

Have you ever had a historical character pique your curiosity but been unable to fit him into a book? What did you do about him or her?

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