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23 June 2010

Midsummer Nights


Happy Midsummer (or just after Midsummer). Today was close to the longest day of the year, and I spent close to five ours of it absorbed in San Francisco Opera's fabulous production of Die Walküre. Not precisely a midsummer opera, though it does include some glorious music about spring. A couple of years ago, I gave a Midsummer Night’s Dream party (what’s more fun than a party with a Shakespearean theme?). Rushing around doing party prep, I was listening to Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music (one of my favorite musicals), and I found myself thinking about the allure of stories set on midsummer nights.

Shakespeare created a brilliant template with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Under a midsummer moon, lovers find and lose each other, friends become enemies and back again, lines are blurred between classes and between fairies and mortals. Until recently, I didn’t realize how much one of my favorite plays and movies, The Philadelphia Story, owes to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There’s the estranged/divorced married couple, the pre-wedding setting, the characters falling in love (and blurring class lines) under influence of a mind-altering drug, whether it’s the juice of a rare flower or Pommery champagne. Philip Barry even sets the play on midsummer night and explicitly refers to it by having Tracy’s younger sister Dinah say “it’s supposed to be the longest day of the year or something” (to which Tracy, coping with the escalating complications of her wedding day, replies, “I wouldn’t doubt it for a minute.”).

Then there’s A Little Night Music and the movie upon which it is based, Ingmar Bergman’s exquisite Smiles of a Summer Night. Once again lovers change partners beneath a midsummer moon (beautifully evoked by a waltz among birch trees in the opening of A Little Night Music). But while the majority of the lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Philadelphia Story end up back with their original partner (Demetrius being a notable exception) in A Little Night Music/Smiles of a Summer Night, the majority of the lovers change partners and end the story with the new partner. One might say that the events of the night help Frederik recover from the madness of his love for his child-bride Anne and back to his far more real love for his former mistress Desirée. “A coherent existence,” as Desirée puts it. Frederik, like The Philadelphia Story’s Tracy Lord, finds his eyes opened in the course of a midsummer night’s adventures.

Beneath a Silent Moon offers my own take on the midsummer night theme. I actually scoured A Midsummer Night’s Dream for quotes when looking for a title. for the book but couldn’t find one my publisher and I agreed on. I love Beneath a Silent Moon as a title (it was a suggestion of my agent, Nancy Yost) because while it isn’t a quote, to me it conjures up the moon imagery which is so prevalent in Dream. Perhaps not surprisingly, my version of midsummer madness includes lots of spies, smugglers, and secret meetings beneath a silent moon. But the elements are still there. Lovers find and lose each other, partners change, old loves are rekindled. Lovers and lunatics seem not so very far apart. “Love isn’t sensible,” Quen tells his former lover. “Love’s a fire that can’t be contained. Until it burns itself out.”

Writing this blog post, I realized Beneath a Silent Moon even offers it’s own dark twist on theme of a wedding party. Charles and Mélanie aren’t precisely estranged, but they are certainly struggling to define the dynamics of their marriage. And there’s a birch coppice which serves at the setting for midnight adventures, my own homage to the birch wood in A Little Night Music.

At the end of the book, Mélanie thinks, somewhat ironically, of the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 'Jack shall have Jill; Nought shall go ill'. I think that Charles, like Tracy and Frederick and Titania waking from enchantment, finds his eyes opened in the course of the story.

Do you like stories with midsummer settings? Any favorites? If you've written a book with a midsummer setting, how did the setting impact the story?

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21 June 2010

HISTORICAL romance vs. historical ROMANCE

I was recently talking with a group of fellow historical writers and was pretty much flabbergasted to find that I was the only one who finds the seemingly endless supply of anachronistic sleepwear bothersome. One writer was willing to go to the mattresses in defense of the red silk nighty. She said that even though she knows it’s “wrong”, it says “sexy” to a modern reader in a way that nothing else can.

I find the entire concept depressing. The idea that accurate history is somehow not sexy enough, that it must be embellished and modernized in order to appeal to readers, verges on the insulting. I find it especially distressing that people would choose such specifically egregious errors to latch on to (it’s as though they’re throwing up their hands ecstatically and saying Sophia Coppola was right, what readers really want is a modern girl in a Halloween costume and high tops; stop jamming history down their throats!).

To me, it seems ridiculous to even bother writing “historical fiction” (be it romance, mystery, whathaveyou) if the “historical” part is optional. I know, I know . . . in Romancelandia a lot of the history has become optional: our characters are abnormally clean, have perfect teeth, and somehow our heroes never have the ridiculous haircuts that were in vogue for their age (has anyone ever written or read a medieval hero with a bowl cut?). Is a man with Fabio-locks in the Middle Ages any less offensive than a red silk nighty in Regency England? I think they’re both problematic, both a betrayal of the entire point of the genre, but clearly my perception of the genre as HISTORICAL romance is not universal. My friends, I think, view it as historical ROMANCE (I’m guessing these types of books are the ones so often labeled “wallpaper historicals” in reviews and reader discussions; the label is used pejoratively, but clearly their strong showings on “the lists” backs up my friends in their assertion that readers like this sort of thing).

Today I’m going to take a look at the different types of anachronisms I see in books, and because I think it unfair to point the finger at others, I’m going to use my own books and mistakes as fodder.

WORDS & LANGUAGE

There are a lot of different ways in which words and language might be anachronistic. Firstly there are words for concepts, ideas, and things which simply didn’t exist. I can say my hero is “enchanted” by the heroine, but I shouldn't say he is “mesmerized” (the word comes from the name of a specific man and he had not yet come to fame during the period in which my books are set).

Now, to further muddy the waters, lets say I’ve shifted back in time and/or moved my book to a non-English setting. Is it now ok to say he’s mesmerized? I would argue that it might be, since the writer has an entirely different set of rules. Now it’s even more about making the dialogue *feel* authentic to the setting and characters, but the burden of being limited to historically accurate words is basically gone. By no means is this an easier challenge for a writer however. In fact, it might be harder.

There are also words that *feel* period but aren’t. For example, I think “hellion” and “mount” (as a synonym for horse) both feel appropriate to the Georgian/Regency era, but they aren’t. They are both Victorian. Conversely, there are words (or names) that are period, but somehow feel anachronistic: the name Skyscraper for a horse. It’s just so wrong, and I’d never use it in a book, and yet, it’s perfectly period: Skyscraper won the Derby Stakes in 1789.


CONCEPTS & IDEAS

This can be a hard one. So many of the things we say and do everyday are based on the technology we’ve grown up surrounded by: Photographic memory, replay, steamrolled, derailed. There’s also all the self-help, introspective stuff we get from psychology (oh the ego of the man!), not to mention the scientific discoveries (honestly, he behaves like a Neanderthal!). So many ways in which we think about ourselves, others, and the way we experience the world are modern. Finding a historically appropriate way to express the same idea can be a challenge.


THINGS & FACTS

This can be both the hardest and the easiest thing to get right.

It’s hard because in order to get it right, you have to do a lot of research, and the odds are high that even if you do, some basic thing will trip you up: Scones, for example. Did you know that scones are Victorian? I surely didn’t. What’s more basic and English than a scone? *sigh* Long after my second book came out (where the heroine happily eats scones for breakfast) I discovered that a “sconce” in 18th century England is a bannock (a hard, fried oat cake), not a soft, fluffy muffin-type thing. Mea culpa, mea culpa.

But it’s also the easiest one to get right, at least within reason. Some things are basic, or factual. The law is the law. Forms of address haven’t changed. New World food stuffs simply didn’t exist in Europe before the end of the 15th century.

This is the category that our red silk nighty goes in. It’s not as if even the quickest survey of historical sleepwear wouldn’t show you that it’s white linen, white linen and yet more white linen (and it’ a basic t-shaped garment, not a Frederick’s of Hollywood slut-gown with lace and slits). So, getting this detail wrong shows one of two things: either the writer literally did NO research, or this is a willfully chosen anachronism (which I find hard to overlook and forgive). In this same category, you find the missing stays/corsets, the Regency heroine’s chocolate bon bons, medieval knights eating potatoes while their flowing Fabio-locks swirl about their shoulders, bastards inheriting English peerages, earls who are addressed as ‘you grace” . . .
MADE UP THINGS

There are some things which authors make up which are not anachronisms, but do seem to freak out many would-be authors because they are supposedly “afraid to get it wrong”. Here I’m talking about things like titles and businesses. Endless amounts of time gets spent (dare I say wasted?) on the various discussion loops I’m on batting these things around. How we pick titles and names for our characters seems to mystify—and frighten—people. Even worse, some writers are actually afraid to make up a small detail like a shop! If I need a shop and I don’t know of a famous example, I *gasp* MAKE IT UP! And guess what, I’m not damaging history or the authenticity of my book one jot by doing so. We all make up characters and give them imaginary titles and estates and family histories (sometimes even making them related to real people). Given this breach of reality, I have no problem simply making up an inn, or a book shop, or a tailor.

IN CONCLUSION

Perhaps I’m being ridiculous, but the willfully chosen error just gets under my skin and itches like mad! There’s something demeaning about it, something dismissive. Something about it says: It was too much trouble to find a way to make my vision/story work within the framework of history, and rather than alter my vision/story, I chose to alter history instead.

Am I insane? Am I being too picky? I understand that mistakes will happen, errors will slip though, but should I also be more accepting of the willful (or blatantly sloppy) anachronism? Perhaps I simply don’t see eye to eye with other authors about which details matter and which ones don’t? Are HISTORICAL romances and historical ROMANCES simply entirely different types of books? I’m still not sure, but I’m beginning to guess that my goal of creating HISTORICAL romances might not be shared by some of my friends . . . and maybe I just need to learn to be ok with that.

What do you all think? Are there really two distinct types of historical romance, and if so, does it matter to you to know which type you’re getting?





17 June 2010

Prejudice and pride


My first encounter with prejudice occurred when I was in high school and a girls’ organization I belonged to blackballed an applicant - not because she was Japanese, but because she was Catholic!

I attended an ethnically-mixed California public high school; the student body was a combination of Japanese (some Chinese), Mexican, and Caucasian kids, all of us Americans. What prejudice was I aware of? (1) Jealousy of the Asian kids because they tended to get superlative grades; (2) In-fighting among the Caucasian kids over status and who wore Lanz dresses and circle skirts; and (3) Envy of the manly Mexican “pachukos,” whose jeans hung around their hip bones and whose t-shirts sported cigarette packs rolled up in one sleeve.

Which brings me to the subject of my current work in progress: Chinese immigration in the 19th century and the extreme reaction of the indigenous (which included a large number of Mexicans) population. Yes, the Chinese “looked” different ; but so did the dark-skinned Mexicans; the Negroes, who found their way west following the Civil War; and the occasional off-the-reservation Indian. Americans were (are?) a woefully rascist people.

The Chinese laborers who flocked to the west on ships that were allowed to debark passengers only at the “mail docks” endured considerable discrimination in the “land of the free.” Chinese had been reported in the sleepy Mexican trading village of Yerba Buena (later San Francisco) in 1838. When gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, the U.S. government simply took over tracts of land from Mexico’s northern territories, and Chinese miners flocked to the diggings.

Most original pioneer Chinese were merchants and traders, but in the mid-1800s the fabric of Chinese society was unraveling and thousands of starving Chinese men flocked to America. Not many women, however; wives were left at home, were sent money, and were occasionally visited by their husbands, who were shortly off to America again to earn a livelihood.

These men were desperately poor and formed crews of laborers which the resident Americans called “coolies.” Most came on a “credit ticket” and served under bond for years to pay back their fare. They lost no time scraping a living any way they could and soon earned a reputation for being hardworking miners, canny merchants, and extraordinarily industrious, efficient, and courageous railroad crews who blasted through the Sierra Nevada mountains laying tracks to connect to eastern lines.

Other Chinese immigrants became fishermen, but they were resented by hostile Italian immigrants who dominated the California markets. Some Chinese became farmers, and a network of peddlers sold vegetables from house to house; some cultivated fields of strawberries as sharecroppers, tended orchards, and managed farm properties. They picked grapes, made wine, picked cotton and hops, tended livestock, and harvested wheat. In so doing they incurred the resentment of their American farm bosses because in some cases the Chinese knew more about farming than they did!

Conflicts were inevitable; white bosses tended to exploit Chinese workers; businesses resented the fact that their employees sent wages back to China instead of spending money here and boosting the economy. Discipline was extremely harsh and included whippings. Miners were driven off their sites. Attacks against the Chinese became common, and they had no recourse.
The 1854 law which said, “No Indian or Negro shall be allowed to testify as a witness in any action in which a white person is a party,” was extended to include “Chinese and all other people not white.”

Women were another problem. The earliest Chinese immigrants were well-to-do merchants who brought their wives with them. The poorer laborers, who came later, could not. Consequently, immigration of Chinese females was limited primarily to women who walked the streets and sold their bodies. Proper merchants’ wives were rarely seen in public. As a result, a “Chinese woman” was most often thought of as a whore. Brothels flourished, and resentment against the Chinese increased. Their children were denied access to public schools; adults could not become naturalized citizens. Chinese businesses were taxed and harassed.

Pro-Chinese forces supported Chinese rights; anti-Chinese political groups proliferated. In the 1870s, one organization went on the rampage, committing random murders, setting fires, fighting with police. It was not a peaceful time. And the cause? Partly plain old rascist discrimination, coupled with resentment of the Chinese originated in simple economic competition. Add to this dislike and disapproval and...

Looks as if I’ve got the background conflict for my work in progress!

Source: Genthe’s Photographs of San Francisco’s Old Chinatown, by John Kuo Wei Tchen.

15 June 2010

Memories Light My Books


Here it is summertime and the days cry out to be enjoyed outside with picnics, barbeques, or an al fresco dinner with family and friends.

Books tell about wonderful moments like these. Frankly, my favorite part of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is Lizzie’s vacation with her aunt and uncle when she discovers D’Arcy’s beautiful home and what kind of man he truly is. Isn’t it always easier to fall in love with somebody during fabulous weather?

Authors pull bits and pieces from their own history to build their stories. Sometimes it’s big themes – like Hemingway’s autobiographical FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS – but more often, it’s the little bits of personal interest or family history that enrich a book.

I’m talking about summer and food. But this post was actually inspired by the BBC’s broadcast of Jane Austen’s iPod. She must have adored music to spend so much time copying it out – and then working it into her novels. That casts a richer light on the ball scene in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, for example.

Perfect summer weather always makes me remember my grandmother’s potato salad. Grandmother Elizabeth had only two recipes in her repertoire, both of them handed down through generations of family cooks. Her plum cake is still a staple of our Christmas celebration and my mother’s version had been welcomed on every continent except Africa and Antarctica. (It’s at least a nineteenth century recipe but probably much older.)

According to all her children and grandchildren, Grandmother Elizabeth’s potato salad was the best in the world. She’d produce a tub of it from her Cadillac’s backseat, like a magician snapping his cape to reveal a rabbit, every time the family held a big party outdoors. We could eat buckets of it, together with hot dogs or hamburgers, followed by a magical slice of ice cold watermelon. Heaven on earth. We’re still peeved that none of us inherited the recipe.

But one year, as a Christmas present, Grandmother Elizabeth did give me a historic cookbook – Housekeeping in Old Virginia, by Marion Cabell Tyree, dated 1879. My Swedish great-great-grandmother had used the original after she emigrated to this country. Grandmother Elizabeth and I spent time discussing the oddities of these recipes. Measurements given according to fine china and timing very delicate dishes by meals I’d never heard of, at least as a teenager. Not to mention some of these recipes, like the different kinds of puddings. (I’m still fascinated that they pulled them off in the pre-refrigeration days!)

After that, Grandmother Elizabeth gave me more historic cookbooks, like The Original Fannie Farmer 1896 Cook Book, and I started studying the subject of food history more closely.

Now this interest spills over into my books. William Donovan made his wedding to Viola an extremely memorable party for the local by providing that rarity of rarity – ham! – in THE IRISH DEVIL’s 1871 Arizona Territory. THE RIVER DEVIL’s villain’s inability to provide a good meal for his passengers, other than breakfast, proved he was a low-down wretch, in terms of 1870’s Missouri river trade. Morgan Evans disassembled a queen of puddings to teach high-spirited Jessamyn obedience in THE SOUTHERN DEVIL, and Rachel Davis used a lemon fork to save herself from rape in THE NORTHERN DEVIL.

And I still desperately want that high-tech, Regency kitchen where the griffin stepped out of a ruby signet ring in BEYOND THE DARK’s “Caught by the Tides…”

I know there’ll be food will play a role in my next historical’s plot. I’ll be thinking about my grandmother while I research and write it, and all the details I’ve learned about my family since then.

I’ll also wonder if some exceptionally rich tidbits made it into other books because their author was passionate about the subject…

What personal interests do you sneak into your novels? Has an author ever surprised you in a book with a factoid that had to come from their heart?

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11 June 2010

Of Sense and Sensuality -- and the Original Sinful Fruit

I'm having much too much guilty, craftsy fun these days, as I put the finishing touches on my contribution to Brenda Novak's recently completed auction for diabetes research. It's Pam Rosenthal's Sense and Sensuality Gift Basket, a gleaning of the sweet and sexy scents and flavors evoked by certain moments in my romance novels.

Moments like...

~ when Joseph, hero of The Bookseller's Daughter, wakes up in Marie-Laure's bed under bunches of herbs hung from the eaves to dry:

He sniffed: rosemary and lavender. And something else, spicy as cinnamon, tart as lemon. A woman. The sheets of her bed smelled like her. (Which tiny excerpt is affixed -- with curly ribbon, naturellement -- to a little packet of chocolates, infused with rosemary and lavender, lemon and cinnamon.

~ Or when Phoebe, heroine of Almost a Gentleman, remembers what it was like the first time she kissed David, Earl of Linseley:

...sweet as toffee, heady as tobacco, dark as earth... (The curly ribbon this time wrapped around the neck of a bottle of delicious unisex fragrance. It's called "Butch." And it's sold -- most appropriately, if you know about the gender play in Almost a Gentleman -- in a great little San Francisco store called Nancy Boy.)

There are beeswax candles and herbal bath salts redolent of the bathtub scene in The Edge of Impropriety... exquisitely flavored French macaroons that call to memory the banquet in The Bookseller's Daughter...

...and more, including an apple-scented bath and shower gel I hadn't planned to get but which I had to have when I saw it.

Because apple is probably the sharpest, most pervasive flavor of The Slightest Provocation: from the raw one that eleven-year-old Mary steals from her family's sideboard to share with twelve-year-old Kit; to the cooked ones inside the French tarte tatin over which a grown-up Mary and Kit seduce each other in Calais; to the fermented ones used to make the apple brandy in the bottle a furious Mary pitches at Kit later that night.

It's the original sinful fruit, as I once mused in a post to the (now sadly defunct) blog for erotic historical romance writers, The Spiced Tea Party. "Perhaps it's the irrevocability of that first crunchy bite that gets everybody's attention," I wrote. "Once you've pierced the bright red or green skin with your teeth, there's no hiding what you've done, no going back."

Perhaps. Though I wasn't consciously thinking of any of that when I wrote The Slightest Provocation. Fortunately for everyone, I wasn't trying to write "symbolically," which (trust me) never works; I didn't have to try, because, as I wrote in the Spiced post, "the cultural resonance has been so obvious, so everpresent," the apple evoking temptation and transgression since Eve, since the apples of immortality of Norse and Celtic mythologies, since Sappho and since the Apple of Discord that started the Trojan War. Writing about Mary and Kit's temptations and transgressions, I needed only keep my inner ear open to the braided mixed messages of the culture.

Cultural messages are always mixed, as much a matter of passionate improvisation and profound misreading as direct transmission. From Frank Browning's deliciously informative book, Apples, I learned that in the original Hebrew Book of Genesis, "the nature of the tree of all knowledge was left vague," While in the Greek texts, the word for apple is melon and the Latin is malum.

After the fall of Rome, when the only repository of classical learning (save the Muslims on the Iberian peninsula, as hoyden Lynna often reminds us) were the great Irish and Benedictine monasteries. And according to Browning's sources, the Irish translators of the Bible were not only taken by the similarity of the words for apple and evil, but influenced by the ubiquitous pre-Christian Celtic mythologies of apples as the source of knowledge and revelation.

"In effect," Browning concludes," the placement of the apple in the Garden of Eden is one of the most clearly pagan acts in the development of Christianity."

Not to speak of the age-old association of power, knowledge and sexuality, that continues to weave itself though everything I write.

And how about you?

Readers: are there certain thematics and aromatics that enrich your enjoyment of romance and other fiction?


Writers: do you call upon these themes and sense impressions when you write?

Anyone (but probably especially writers): what kinds of fun, time-wasting things do you find to do with your hands when you should be doing something else?

And for anyone who didn't win my gift basket (and because this Sunday's my birthday), here are a few more offerings:

~ A link to the original Spiced Tea Party post, with its discussion of Sappho's extraordinary poem about reaching for apples.

~ A link to one of the most wonderful of the cultural messages I try to keep my inner ear open to: Yeats's "The Song of Wandering Aengus" with its own eternal gorgeous reaching through the Celtic twilight toward "the silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun."

~ And (if you'll permit me) a link to my own web page -- because I've decided to offer another Sense and Sensuality Basket, this time as a contest prize.

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09 June 2010

Character Development on a "Grand" Scale



A recent Facebook exchange about character development with our own Tracy Grant inspired me to share our musings with you. The subject began with Talleyrand and quickly morphed into a brief discussion of the painting titled "Madame Grand" that hangs in the European collection of New York City's Metropolitan Museum. Painted in 1783 by one of the era's few female portraitists, Elisabeth Vigée LeBrun.




Catherine Noelle Worlee was born in India in 1762 to a French official stationed in Pondicherry. And it was in India in 1778 where the (barely) sixteen-year-old Catherine wed George Francis Grand, a British civil servant who could boast of Huguenot (French Protestant) roots.

Catherine was evidently quite the hoyden (I found a reference to her numerous "amorous adventures") both in London and Calcutta, leading me to suspect that she was perhaps the distaff version of an 18th-century rake. In fact, her affair with Sir Philip Francis, the deputy to India's Governor-General Warren Hastings, created quite the colonial scandal, resulting in her marital separation.

This portrait, where Madame Grand rolls her eyes heavenward as if she is so over something (her husband? her life? her social circle?) fascinates me no end.

Let's imagine that I did no research on her actual backstory, but merely found her an interesting subject for a novel, as either a leading or supporting character. I am intrigued by her facial expression, rare for any subject, as it's neither placid nor particularly pretty. It's so deeply personal that I want to know more about her -- and even invent it, guessing what lies behind her oh-I-am-so-over-it mood. Was she unhappily married to Grand? Something must have been going on, because she was awarded a divorce, also rare for the era. Was it her own infidelity that sparked the split? Or Grand's?



In 1802 she wed again, this time to her longtime lover, the powerful French diplomat, Charles Maurice Talleyrand, one year her junior, becoming Madame Talleyrand-Perigord, Princesse de Bénévent. It was Napoleon who forced his friend's hand and demanded that Talleyrand make an honest woman of Catherine. But this match was not much more successful than Catherine's first marriage. The couple drifted apart, although Talleyrand provided his estranged wife with enough to retain her luxurious London lifestyle. Catherine died in Paris in December 1834 at the age of seventy-two.




Talleyrand; painted by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon


The portrait of "Madame Grand" immediately struck me as a terrific character study from either end of the equation, either as someone I might like to portray in historical fiction, or merely as the image of a woman who might epitomize one of my fictional characters.

Authors: do you ever come across portraits (or photos) and think "that's my character!" and incorporate that into your writing? During your research stage, do you ever look for a painting that might encapsulate the image of your creation?

Readers: do you "cast" a novel you're reading with images you've seen on canvas (or on film, for that matter)?

For everyone: how does having a "visual" for a character aid in understanding him/her better?

07 June 2010

Jane Austen's Ipod


Much that she played from was manuscript, copied out by herself – and so neatly and correctly, that it was as easy to read as print.

Jane Austen's Ipod is the title of a radio program on Austen and her music that's currently available on the BBC site (but not for long, probably only until the end of the week, so get there soon!).

Several more volumes of Austen's music have been donated by a descendant (who remembers seeing the volumes on the family piano) in addition to the eight already owned by the Jane Austen Museum, Chawton Cottage, Hampshire, where the BBC discussion was recorded, creaky floors and all, with scholars Deirdre La Faye and Samantha Carrasco, and the music interpreted by jazz singer Gwyneth Herbert and a very skilled clarinettist.

The piano in the recording is the one in the Museum, which may or may not have been Austen's, a Clementi dating from the first decade of the nineteenth century. We know from her letters that she paid 30 gns for her piano (approx. $3,000 now) and six shillings for a book of piano lessons (approx. $31). Because of the high cost of sheet music, it was common to copy music borrowed from friends or libraries, which Jane did in her meticulous, careful handwriting.

There's one mystery item in the new acquisitions: an anonymous and not particularly good piece of music that the participants speculate may have been written by Jane herself. I don't think so. I believe she was enough of a musician to know her limitations, and it's quite possible a friend or relative composed it and Jane, impeccably polite as ever, felt compelled to copy it for her album with the proud composer breathing down her neck. On the other hand there are plenty of musicians--Berlioz, for instance--who were as at home in the composition of prose as of music.

We have a record of Jane as musician written by her niece Caroline years later in 1867. The quote at the beginning of this entry is also from Caroline's Memoir:
Aunt Jane began her day with music – for which I conclude she had a natural taste; as she thus kept it up – 'tho she had no one to teach; was never induced (as I have heard) to play in company; and none of her family cared much for it. I suppose that she might not trouble them, she chose her practising time before breakfast – when she could have the room to herself – She practised regularly every morning – She played very pretty tunes, I thought – and I liked to stand by her and listen to them; but the music (for I knew the books well in after years) would now be thought disgracefully easy – Much that she played from was manuscript, copied out by herself – and so neatly and correctly, that it was as easy to read as print.
Can you see Austen as composer as well as performer?

I'm going to England on a short visit in early July and planning to visit both the Museum and Chawton House, the manor house that was owned by Jane's brother Edward Austen Knight, who was adopted by the Knight family. It's been restored and houses a major collection of women's writing in English from 1600-1830. So I'll report on that next month.

Have you visited either? What's your favorite Austen site (internet or real life)?

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03 June 2010

Welcome, Kris Kennedy!


Kris Kennedy
The Irish Warrior

Inhibited, accountant-minded Senna de Valery comes to Ireland to finalize a deal that will save her faltering wool business. What she gets instead is a cunning English lord with dangerous ulterior motives.

Forced to rely on her wits, not her ledgers, Senna frees an Irish warrior chained in the prisons, and together they flee across the war-torn land of medieval Ireland. But Finian O’Melaghlin is much more than a charming, roguish warrior. He is councilor to his king, on a grave mission to recover military secrets, and has a dangerous agenda of his own.

Neither is prepared for the powerful forces arrayed against them …

Neither can resist the fiery passion igniting between them …

Neither can imagine the sacrifices they will face, nor the choices they will be forced to make …

King and outlaws, weapons and war: Can love indeed triumph over all?


The Irish Warrior was the 2008 Golden Heart® winner for Best Historical Romance, and is set in 1295 Ireland. Is there a particular reason you chose that year?

Originally, no. But as the story morphed, so did the date. There is a Scottish tie-in now, and that that point, the date became relevant to events transpiring in England and Scotland.

How did you become interested in this time period? What you love about it?

Ireland. What’s not to love? ;-)

I’m like most of you, I’m sure, and read those dry academic history texts that are so specialized they have print runs and price tags with the same number of zeroes. I got interested as I read these on Irish history, where a single paragraph detailing historical fact might run for three pages, and every sentence spoke of drama: intrigue and battles, princes and petty kings, military triumphs and dying sons, alliances and betrayals and double-crosses, king-making and crowning ceremonies on the ancient hill of Tara.

To me, these books of academia, telling stories about what really happened, were filled with more drama than any fiction I read. Not that I’d want to live in those times. I just wan to dream in them. :-)

What do you like least about this period? Anything that constrained you or that you had to plot carefully around?

In My Author’s Note, I mentioned that I fictionalized an Irish tuatha (kingdom), because as I zeroed in on plot, I became increasingly constrained by the history, so that that I needed to fictionalize. I couldn’t find the kind of Irish king in the place and time I needed him to be for my hero to have the relationship he needed to have , so it was just as well.

Anything you flat-out altered or “fudged”? If so, why?

Umm...maybe? :-)

As I said above, I did create a fictional kingdom modeled on the Ulster kings the O’Neill.

But to me, here’s the deal: I did literally thousands of hours of research over the course of writing this story. That timeline spans years, as I wrote, then moved to other manuscripts, then came back, wrote again. I studied and read and fact-checked everything I could think to. I emailed people. I bought books. I read those books. I did my best to get it right. And I still got stuff wrong. I’m sure if it.

I’m certain someone will write and tell me not being a full-blood relative of the reigning king would eliminate someone from being considered for kingship. Someone will email me and tell me curaighs, Irish canoe-like boats, were skin-boats, and therefore the bottom couldn’t have been wood like I made it in one scene.

I researched Latin and talked with a Latin scholar to find out how a person knowledgeable in accounting might refer to the word and concept of ‘computations,’ but could someone argue with the word I finally chose? Maybe. I’m not an expert. One character mentions that a book contains ‘Arabic’ numerals (as opposed to Roman numerals.) I had the hero call them Arabic, although at the time, it’s more likely they thought of such numerals as Indian.

Someone’s probably going to write and say they didn’t like that I had a heroine say “a lot” instead of “a great deal” or things like that. Some of those are things I didn’t catch. Others, I left as a conscious decision.

Once, in a pre-published contest, a judge said she couldn’t enjoy the story at all because she couldn’t get past my use of “O’Melaghlin”as the hero’s name, as it wasn’t a real name at the time. But I stuck with it, as I’d found it in A History of Medieval Ireland, A.J. Otway-Ruthven (2nd ed) and I figured it may be somewhat dated, but I trusted Otway-Ruthven more than this person. :-) And in my mind, this complicated collection of sounds was his name. It was possible to change it, of course, but without compelling reason, I chose not to.

To me, as a reader, if the world-building demonstrates research was done, and the story itself is compelling and engaging, I’m in for the ride. I know there are different sources and interpretations of historical sources. I know an author can research hard and still get something wrong. If the storytelling is strong, I will read. As a writer, I will write. Story comes first.

I write in this time period because it’s a joy, and I research because it’s a joy. I work hard to get it right, and if it’s wrong, ah well. We’ll still have a good time. :-)

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*

LOL. See above. :-)

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

Oh, Finian is something wonderful. :-) I think of him as the ‘good alpha.’ He’s an extremely dangerous man, capable of great harm, who does great good instead. And he’s utterly charming, partly because he wants to be, partly because he simply is.

Let’s see . . . In the book, I made reference to how Finian used to go cliff-diving when he was young. So, that would be something about him: he used to go cliff-diving. Very bad idea. Very . . . exciting.

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

The very first scene I ever wrote, many years ago, was an early scene in the book. It’s a feast scene in the great hall when the heroine arrives at the villain’s keep.

She comes for business, gets propositioned for a whole lot more, and, when things go from bad to worse, and then really worse, she sort-of, well, snaps. She’s too repressed to do much (yet!) but, needing to bandage a bleeding hand, she rips the entire tablecloth off the dais table to wrap it around her hand. Everything goes flying off the table—plates, food, drinks. The hall goes silent as she she bandages her hand with the table linen, then she walks to a far window, dragging the yards of linen behind her like a train. She knew it was ridiculous, but it heralds the start of her breaking free of her inner constraints. And I see unfold like a movie in my mind, and it looks pretty cool. :-)

So, yes, that scene stuck in my head. LOL

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

I did major research, and I’d say I didn’t know . . . almost everything. LOL I had to study tons of things I’d never had more than glancing knowledge of, from river-boats in Ireland, to fall-blooming flowers, to the wars of Scottish Independence, to dye-making and Tyrian purple, the royal purple, --Murex-- to lichen and mollusks, to military explosives.

Many scenes and passages ended up being cut and or revised so the research wasn’t actually necessary (at least not for words on the page), but the research was a blast!

What/Who do you like to read?

I read everything! Well, I don’t mean I have read everything, I mean I will read anything. :-) I find I appreciate a good pace more of late, but I absolutely require fabulous characters. I’ll lose almost everything if the characters are engaging and compelling. And I admit to a weakness: I love pretty things. Like . . . sentences. :-) I cut them out of my own work rather rigorously (am getting more rigorous with each book) but I love seeing them.

Right now I’m re-reading E.M. Forest Passage to India. But last month I was re-reading a Ludlum novel, and I have a Roxanne St. Claire romantic suspense and a Victoria Dahl contemporary as the top 2 books in my TBR stack. I just got Even by Andrew Grant from the library, and I recently pulled out some Anne Of Green Gables to re-read because, well, it’s been too long. The Little House on the Prairie books are next on the To Be Re-read Pile. :-)

Care to share a bit about your writing process? Are you a pantser or a plotter? Do you write multiple drafts or clean up as you go?

That’s a scary question. I have a young child, so I write whenever I can I can just write. And I write best when I just let things flow, and I can almost always find a ‘hot’ spot. Then I like to go back and revise ’cold’.

But I am trying to impose some order on this mad process, because when I’m writing on deadline, editors like to actually have a readable story in their hands by that date, and don’t much care for a chipper response along the lines of, “Oh, gee, I was all ‘hot’ for the past three months. Sorry it’s so sprawling . . . !” :-)

What are you planning to work on next?

I’m at work on another medieval for Pocket, set on the eve of Magna Carta, about an audacious knight who comes up against a woman on a mission. She upends his world and steals his heart, but unfortunately, their goals not only collide, but threaten the tottering kingdom one of them is trying to save.

Thanks for having me by today!! I’d love to have a conversation about anything historical romance related, from the research end to the joys of writing and reading in this amazing genre we all love so much.

Kris Kennedy writes sexy, adventure-filled medieval romances for Kensington and Pocket Books. At the website, you can sign-up for the newsletter ( http://www.kriskennedy.net/subscribe-to-newsletter ) and drop Kris a line saying Hi! THE IRISH WARRIOR, winner of the 2008 Golden Heart® Award for Best Historical Romance, released June 1. Read a sexy excerpt!

02 June 2010

Clothing Makes the Character


Pam had a great post last year about period clothing in the wonderful movie Milk and the fascinating television show Mad Men and in historical fiction. As I blogged about around the same time, one of the things I loved about Milk was its wonderfully vivid recreation, in settings and costumes, of San Francisco in the 70. At times I felt I was watching scenes from my childhood. I recently caught up on seasons one and two of Mad Men and then was riveted to season three (and am now eagerly awaiting season four). It's a fascinating, layered show, that brings to life New York in the early 1960s. It's the era when my parents were dating and first married. I have pictures of them in similar clothes to those in the show, my dad in suits and ties and gleaming white shirts, my mom in fitted dresses and suits that required a girdle and a structured bra. By the time I remember them, in the 70s, my dad's version of formal was a turtleneck under a sports coat, and my mom usually wore jeans to work or Diane von Furstenberg-type dresses that were fluid and much less structured. They look like different people from the couple in polished, formal clothes in those early 60s photographs.

Clothes are so much a part of defining a character. As Pam wrote, But as a writer I'm more interested in the clothes from the inside out. The way they make us feel when we wear them. Because our clothes may be our most consistent guides and goads to who we try to be in a world we didn’t create; our nakedness when we're alone an intermittent reminder that we aren't exactly those people; our nakedness with a lover a way of revealing this fact.

I love clothes, both as a writer and in real life.I think a lot about the clothes my characters wear and what that says about them. I love to pour over Regency fashion plates (I'm so thankful for Candice Hern's great website)and think about which clothes would fit which character. Sometimes I think about what sort of clothes my characters would wear if they were living in the present day, which can be an interesting way to get a new take on the characters.

I like to describe clothes as the characters interact with them. I think quite a bit is revealed about Charles and Mélanie in the first scene between them in Secrets of a Lady where Charles shrugs out of his evening coat sparing a silent curse for the close-fitting passions of the day while Mélanie unwinds the voluminous folds of her cashmere shawl, peels off her gloves, unwinds the ivory satin ribbons that crisscrossed her silk-stockinged ankles. Charles is impatient with clothing and doesn't think about it much. Mélanie removes each layer with care. I changed the color of Mélanie's dress in that scene several times, until I settled on champagne-colored silk, which immediately seemed right. Writing this post, I realized there's also a metaphorical element in that Charles and Mel are undressing in that first scene, removing the layers of clothing that define and contain their roles, in the way they will strip away layers of secrets in the course of the story. Recently a reader commented on the fact that their clothes disintegrate over the course of their adventures, as the façade of their perfect life also crumbles.

Later in the book, Mélanie thinks She felt naked and vulnerable, as though the layers of goffered linen and pin-tucked sarcenet and rushed velvet had been stripped from her body. Layers that constrained her but also defined who she was, who had been for seven years. I think I pay particular attention to clothes and accessories when I'm writing about Mélanie because she's always playing a role. One of the first lines I wrote about Jeremy Roth was where he thinks that Mel looked like a woman who always wore earrings, which I think says a lot about both Mélanie and Roth. In Beneath a Silent Moon, Mélanie wears a shirt and breeches for a couple of nighttime adventures. I hadn't planned that in advance, but when I got to the scene where she and Charles go to explore Dunmykel's secret passage, it occurred to me that Mel, who always dresses for the part, almost certainly would wear breeches on occasion and would probably have packed them on this trip, knowing the sort of adventures she and Charles might encounter at Dunmyel. That led to the sequence later where she's mistaken for a boy by the smugglers. The morning following the first scene, Mélanie thinks that She'd exchanged last night's shirt and breeches for a cambric morning dress, scalloped and threaded through with peach silk ribbon. The ensemble of a decorous wife. Like me, Mel understands that the right clothing defines a character.

Vienna Waltz, on which I'm currently finishing up revisions, takes place in the social whirl of the Congress of Vienna, so clothes are particularly important to all the characters. Whether it's masquerade ball costumes, elaborate court dress, Renaissance costumes the Carrousel (a recreation of a tournament) or simply what one wears to pay a morning call. In the midst of investigating a murder, Mélanie/Suzanne thinks She chose a Vitoria cloak of Pomona green sarcenet and a French bonnet of green velvet and white satin with Blanca’s advice (she was after all calling on one of the most fashionable women in Vienna though the purpose of the visit was not social). She also ruins an evening gown early on in the book, climbing over the roofs of Vienna to avoid pursuit. She tends to be hard on her clothes. I'd been in tears if I ruined so many beautiful dresses.

Writers, how do you approach clothing your characters? Readers, do you notice details about clothing in books? Any examples that particularly stand out?

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01 June 2010

Welcome, Margaret Mallory!


Margaret Mallory has had a very busy and rewarding year so far: her newest release, Knight of Passion, received 4 1/2 stars and a "Top Pick" from Romantic Times. She's also a 2010 RITA finalist for the middle book in the All The King's Men trilogy, Knight of Pleasure (which is also a Booksellers' Best Award finalist.) We've very pleased to chat with her today about her newest release.


Margaret is also going to be giving away a copy of the book that kicks off this trilogy, Knight of Desire, to one lucky reader (KoD is was a Best 1st Book Finalist in both the 2010 Readers' Crown™ & Golden Quill Contests, so if you haven't yet read it, now is your chance!).


HOW CAN THIS PASSIONATE KNIGHT…

Renowned beauty Lady Linnet is torn between two desires: revenge on those who destroyed her family or marriage to her childhood sweetheart Sir James Rayburn. One fateful night, she makes a misguided choice: she sacrifices Jamie’s love for a chance at vengeance.

TRUST A BEAUTY WITH A PAST?

Jamie Rayburn returns to England in search of a virtuous wife—only to find the lovely Linnet as bewitching as ever. Their reckless affair ignites anew, even hotter than before, although Jamie vows to never again trust her with his heart. Then just as Linnet begins to make amends, she’s tempted by one last opportunity to settle old scores. But a final retribution could cost her Jamie’s love – this time forever.



KNIGHT OF PASSION is set in 1425, Late Medieval. Is there a particular reason you chose that year?

I set it a few years after the death of the great King Henry V, who left a nine-month-old child as heir to the throne. For the historical backdrop, this gave me riots in London and a royal power struggle between the child-king’s uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, and his great-uncle, the remarkable Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester.

Also, Henry V’s young widow, the former princess of France, began an affair with her lowly Clerk of the Wardrobe around this time. What a boon for a historical romance writer! Her lover was a Welshman named Owen Tudor. You guessed it—years later their grandson usurped the throne to become Henry VII and begin the Tudor dynasty.

I use all of these historical figures as secondary characters in Knight of Passion.

How did you become interested in this time period? What you love about it?

The first story that happened to come into my head involved castles, knights, and a noblewoman forced into an arranged marriage. Clearly, I had a Medieval on my hands… That story became Knight of Desire, the first book in this trilogy.

What I especially love about writing in the medieval period—besides all the adventure and political intrigue—is that it lends itself so well to stories with themes of honor and loyalty. And then there are the knights, of course....

What do you like least about this period? Anything that constrained you or that you had to plot carefully around?

That’s easy. I hate the common practice, at least among the nobility, of marrying teenage girls off to middle-aged or old men. A big yuck for me. Also, noblewomen in this period generally married a bit young for modern sensibilities. I could write a YA book about a fourteen-year-old girl, but I can’t write an adult love story about one.

What I’ve done to deal with this is make the heroine’s second marriage be her big romance. My heroines are still young, but they are closer to twenty-one than to fourteen. In this period, it was fairly common for a woman who didn’t die in childbirth to go through more than one husband. As I recall, Henry VII’s mother had at least four husbands during her lifetime.

Anything you flat-out altered or “fudged”? If so, why?

Not in this book, but in Knight of Desire I adjusted the Welsh names. Many Welsh names are hard to read to begin with. On top of that, the Welsh weren’t using last names the way that we do during this time period. I decided that giving fathers and sons different last names would be enormously confusing to the modern reader.

I have characters in that book who are ancestors of the Tudors. To save confusion and make the historical connection clear, I just used Tudor as their last name.

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*

None that have come to me yet!

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

I’ll show you Jamie when he was 15 and more light-hearted. This is from the prior book, Knight of Pleasure, just after his Uncle Stephen has interrupted Jamie’s seduction by an older woman.

[Stephen] looked at his nephew, trying to see him as the young man he was now, without also seeing the boy who used to toddle after him. Deep blue eyes, dark hair. Too handsome for his own good.

“Many women will want you,” he said at last. “That does not mean you must bed them all.”

“You do.”

Stephen rubbed his temples. “Nay, not all of them.”

God in Heaven, he was a fool to think Jamie had been unaware. …

“Aye, there have been a lot of women lately,” he admitted, exhaling a long breath. “And I can tell you, there is no lasting satisfaction in meaningless affairs with frivolous women. ’Tis much better to look for what your parents have.”

“Then why do you not seek it for yourself?”

Jamie’s face was so serious Stephen had to fight not to smile. God, he loved this boy.

“For the right woman,” he said, meeting his nephew’s eyes, “I would give up all the others without regret.” He thought it might even be true.

“So, while a man waits for the perfect woman, he is free to waste time on frivolous ones,” Jamie said with a grin. “Then I say, do not hurry, Perfect Woman. Take your time!”

Jamie ducked as Stephen’s boot sailed over his head.

What sparked this book? Was it a character?

I enjoyed Jamie and Linnet so much as young, secondary characters in Knight of Pleasure that I had to decided to write them each a book. But when I tried to outline separate stories for them, it just wasn’t working. Finally, Linnet TOLD me she belonged with Jamie. Everything fell together once I accepted that. J

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

I did a lot of research. One particularly interesting thing I learned was that Gloucester’s wife, who was still his mistress at the time of this book, joined a witches’ cabal and used sorcery against Henry VI. Once I knew this, I had to make her a character in the book. ;)

What are you planning to work on next?

I’m off to the Highlands! I’m writing a 4-book Scottish series that takes place on the Isle of Skye in 1513. After hearing of a disastrous Scottish loss to Henry VIII’s forces, four young Highlanders return from France to help their clan through the perilous times ahead. The four are willing to give their lives for their clan, but taking wives to further their clan’s interests is another matter altogether….

I miss my characters from ALL THE KING’S MEN, but I’m having a good time with my handsome Highlanders. ;)

Thanks so much for letting me visit! I’d love to respond to comments or questions. If any of you want to watch my KNIGHT OF PASSION book video or hear me read an excerpt, you can find them on my website: www.MargaretMallory.com.

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