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30 November 2010

Cinema for Authors


Pam's post last Friday reminded me of how much inspiration and honest-to-goodness craft authors draw from movies.

I'm currently taking Alexandra Sokoloff's fabulous Screenwriting Tricks for Novelists, where we study movies' structures to improve our books. As you can imagine, we discuss a lot of movies as the best model for our novels. Now this is not quite the same as being a favorite movie, since things like thematic similarity have to be considered as well as plot line.

Sometimes the class feels like a wild discussion among friends where everyone's trying to suggest the best possible movie for somebody else to study, including the reason why.

To my fascination, only four historical movies (in the New York publishing sense of "history") get mentioned regularly.

Chinatown
Gladiator
The Last of the Mohicans
Sense & Sensibility

Of these four, The Last of the Mohicans and Sense & Sensibility are definitely my favorite two films. I've undoubtedly seen Sense & Sensibility a lot more often. (I adore Alan Rickman in this film!)

But I'd have to say The Last of the Mohicans is much closer to my novels, for more reasons than sharing an American frontier setting with my books. I cherish the line "I will find you" as a declaration of love in the face of all odds.

What movie is most like your book or books? Is it a historical movie or a contemporary movie? How is it different from your "favorite" movies?

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29 November 2010

A Shout Out to Thomas Edison

On Thursday, November 29, 1877, Thomas Edison revealed a device that was to fuel all of my adolescent fantasies: the phonograph.

It's difficult for me to imagine what life must have been like before recorded music. I recently completed a novel in which the heroine is a violinist, the hero a composer. In the first scene, she desperately tries to memorize the song she's just heard played. Without a way of recording the music, she had little hope of remembering the piece after only one hearing. Yes, there was sheet music, but it's difficult to recreate an entire symphony when you're looking at one instrument's part at a time.

Parts of a turntable
Edison's first attempt wasn't all that different from the record players I knew and loved during my youth. There was a spinning cylinder, a groove, and a needle; there were speakers.


David Bowie's UK release of Space OddityWhen I was a child, I watched a man walk on the moon for the first time. At school that autumn, I was one of a dozen children in my class who dreamed of becoming an astronaut. The teachers told us that sometime in our lifetime, we'd be living in outer space. A scant four months later, David Bowie released "Space Oddity", and the song became the soundtrack for all my dreams of space flight. (Only as an adult did I catch the double-edged metaphor between Bowie's astronaut and heroin use).

That was the first of many moments of my life that were punctuated by music. I remember where I was standing and what I was wearing the first time I heard The Damned's "New Rose" (arguably the first punk rock record). I met my husband in a record store while Elvis Costello's "Armed Forces" LP spun on the turntable.

In 1983, as my husband and I drove over the Bay Bridge together for the first time to the city where we'd live for more than 27 years, we listened to Bach's Brandenburg Concerto number 2. In a way, this song brought me full circle to my childhood memories of "Space Oddity." Is it any coincidence that this song was chosen to be the first one recorded on the played on the "golden record", a phonograph record containing a broad sample of Earth's common sounds, languages, and music sent into outer space with the two Voyager probes?

It's no wonder I wax nostalgic over vinyl records (no pun intended). They were a huge part of my identity; they were my obsession and the soundtrack of my life. A friend of mine who happens to be a full generation younger than I am came over for Thanksgiving dinner a few days ago. As I spoke of Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, and punk rock, he nodded rather dazedly, like I used to do when my father spoke of World War II or the Great Depression. When he piped up, it was to say that he had never seen a vinyl record! I was sad and amazed, and pulled out one of the thousands in my front parlor. We spent a good portion of the evening listening to some of those old songs -- none of which he'd ever heard. How does one grow to adulthood without having heard "Blue Suede Shoes?"

Today, in honor of the man whose invention gave me so much joy, I lift a glass to Thomas Edison.

Am I alone in having such vivid musical memories? Is this phenomena limited to my generation, or do youngsters have their own modern soundtracks (stored digitally, no doubt) that old fogies like me know nothing about?

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26 November 2010

Harry Potter and the Paradoxes of Adaptation


First, a question, for any of you who might have also already seen Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I -- and who know your British landscapes better than I do.

Where were those wonderful location shots taken?

What were the regions the filmmakers sampled: now high and dramatic (was it the Lake District? Scotland?); now infinitely flat with moody, lowering skies (I took it to be the East Anglia I imagined for Almost a Gentleman, but I'm probably dead wrong.)

In any event, there was none of that all-too-recognizable teacozy greenery checkered by hedgerows you're likely to encounter in one or another televised Jane Austen redo. As Harry, Ron, and Hermione go on the lam from the Ministry of Magic and in pursuit of the horcruxes, the camera plunges them into bleak dark gray nights of the soul when it's not leaving them unprotected and vulnerable to the sky's glare. As though the land were conspiring with the miserable, horny adolescence they're trying to work through, under the worst of conditions. Like those earlier miserable, horny (if much less heroic) English adolescents, the romantic poets.

I felt those landscape shots (and they're long; and slow) to be nothing less than a wryly patriotic statement on the part of the filmmakers. Yes well, we could have given you what you've come to expect from quaintsy screen Britain, but we've got rather an embarrassment of riches here, you see -- quite as we find ourselves burdened with a surfeit of acting talent (Alan Rickman, Ralph Fiennes, Imelda Staunton, and more and more). And so we shall be using what we've got sparingly and as we like, thank you very much.

To which I could only gasp, thank you. Yes, I loved it -- my inner art snob and passionate romantic sides going limp and dreamy in tandem at the rate of twenty-four frames a second. Even as I wondered how (and even if) a movie that would be utterly incomprehensible to anyone who didn't know the Harry Potter books could possibly even be called good.

Perhaps viewers who don't know the Potter books are too small a market segment to be taken into account. Which is a shame, because I wanted to share this, as I want to share all the art and entertainment I love, with the non-Potter-reading husband I met a very long time ago in a 17th century poetry seminar, where we shared Donne's Good-Morrow poem as my Mary and Kit do in The Slightest Provocation.

It was Michael who taught me how to love meditative, austere film in the first place. So though he could appreciate the look of it, it was no fun for him trying to figure out who was who and what was what. I didn't know either some of the time, but I knew it probably didn't matter if you weren't sure if you'd ever encountered Mundungus Fletcher before. (You didn't in any of the movies, according to the ever-alert Potter Uber-nerds at Mugglenet.com; you might, as I did, vaguely remember him from the books; and as I did as well, you'd probably figure what the hell, it's one of the great minor-character fictional names of all time, relax and enjoy it.)

But then, I'm a devoted and strongly opinionated Potter reader. Unlike my teenage niece and nephew, I can't keep the horcruxes straight, but I don't think you have to. In fact, I don't think you should bother.

Caution: there are spoilers next (though a reader's spoiler might be an unread movie-goer's salvation).

What I do know (or better, could hardly help knowing by the end of Book 5), was that Snape had always been in love with Harry's mother, that he'd been a fraught and confused (hell, tortured) double agent for most if not all of the time of the books, that he was already a goner -- and that of course he had to kill Dumbledore, because in J.K. Rowling's good and decent world of magic, the worst thing you can do is allow a child to commit a sin that will poison the rest of his life -- as would have happened to Draco Malfoy if he'd killed Dumbledore as Voldemort wanted him to (that was the point of Voldemort wanting Draco to kill Dumbledore, for pity's sake).

And even through all the confused plot comings and goings in Deathly Hallows Part I, a very hot-looking Alan Rickman (with good hair, for once in the film series) managed to communicate all that understanding, even to my befuddled husband, through a very few closeups of the pain in his eyes.


What I also know is that there's no point trying to unravel the mysteries of Voldemort's evil, as the Mugglenet folks try to do. Unlike Blake's Milton, J.K. Rowling is not of the devil's party. Voldemart brings out the worst -- the most banally bad, vain, craven, trivial, self-serving -- in his followers. He isn't interesting or captivating in himself. And the one of his followers who does mesmerize us with horror and dismay is the terrifyingly perky, conformist, officious, racist (and brilliantly named) Dolores Umbridge. As inhabited by Imelda Staunton, a little of her pink-clad presence goes a very long way. And the quick moment when Harry finds some Nazi-style Muggle-baiting pulp fiction squirreled away in her desk drawer for her private delectation, is, I hope, a young person's brilliant and scarifying visceral introduction to the banality of evil.

Other moments I loved included the brilliant and not at all obvious decision to portray Ron's fevered, jealous fantasy of Harry and Hermione kissing in a hyped-up video-game-art style. A seventeen-year-old boy's version of the erotic (simultaneously overcooked and sanitized at the same time, like some novel cover art I could mention, but won't).

But perhaps my favorite moment of all came and went far too quickly, quite early in the film, when, in order to protect her Muggle parents against Voldemort and his followers, Hermione performs the Obliviate Charm on them, erasing all their memories that they ever had a daughter. As the camera pans around the Grangers' middle-class living room, Hermione's image fades from every photograph on wall, mantel, table-top. Little girl Hermione, baby Hermione... all painfully, shockingly gone, from the pictures, from her parents' minds and memories. And of course these must be real little girl and baby pictures of the actress, Emma Watson -- who we ourselves have watched grow up on screen from the age of nine.

The quasi-documentary quality of the Potter films -- watching its three young stars go from childhood to young adulthood is part of the strange metatextual appeal of the series, and something best done on film. Time passes on film and in photographs. Children grow up. Adults grow older -- and if we have kids in our lives, they don't let us forget that.

Which dovetailed nicely with my experience seeing the movie -- metatextual again. My friend Ellie got the tickets -- for her, our friend Fran, me and Michael, and Fran's daughter Hannah, a lovely young journalist, who (I will proudly tell you) recently had 3 front-page stories on The Contra Costa Times.

Fandango recorded us as 4 seniors and 1 adult. "Hannah's our adult," we laughed. And sighed, and marveled, even as I'm sure that each of us reviewed our happy memories of little-girl Hannah and baby Hannah, happily coexisting with the beautiful presence of Our Adult Hannah. As J.K. Rowling and the writers and director of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows have created a paradoxical visual fiction of time and memory.

My thanks to all of them.

Any other thoughts on the Potter books? The movies? And (don't forget) the locations.

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24 November 2010

Welcome Gillian Bagwell and THE DARLING STRUMPET


The History Hoydens are pleased to welcome novelist Gillian Bagwell, who makes her s historical fiction debut on January 4, 2011 with THE DARLING STRUMPET: A Novel of Nell Gwynn Who Captured the Heart of England and King Charles II.

Advance praise for The Darling Strumpet! "
"Richly engaging portrait of the life and times of one of history's most appealing characters!"
- Diana Gabaldon, author of the best-selling Outlander series
"Bawdy and poignant ... an ebullient page-turner!" - Leslie Carroll, author of Royal Affairs
"Hard to resist this sort of seduction - a Nell Gwynn who pleasures the crowds upon the stages of London and the noblest men of England in their bedrooms. A vivid portrait of an age that makes our own seem prudish, told with verve, humour, pathos... and not a little eroticism." - C.C. Humphreys, Actor and Author of Jack Absolute.
Apart from what I said in my blurb, I think that Gillian hit it out of the park on her first at-bat, not only because she wrote an exceptional novel about one of my favorite women in history, but because (see Isobel's recent post on covers) her publisher's art department gave her one of the most eye-catching (to say the least) covers to ever grace a work of historical fiction.

Congratulations to Gillian!


What follows here, is her guest post for the hoydens and our readers:

~Leslie

SEPTEMBER 1660
September 1660 was the fourth month since Charles II had ridden into London on his thirtieth birthday to claim his throne after years of exile during the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell.


The new Parliament was still working hard to finish important business before they adjourned. Finances were the most pressing issue. A committee reported that the government’s revenue was estimated at £819,398 and expenses at least £200,000 more than that. They resolved to find a way to get the revenue up to £1,200,000, and also allocated £5000 for the repair of the King’s houses as well as £10,000 and £7000 respectively for the King’s brothers, the Dukes of York and Gloucester.




Diarist John Evelyn recorded his visit to St. Margaret’s Fair in Southwark, where he saw “a monstrous birth of twins, both femals & most perfectly shaped, save that they were joyn’d breast to breast, & incorporated at the navil, having their armes thrown about each other thus.” He illustrated his entry with a drawing, and continued, “We also saw a poore Woman, that had a living Child of one yeare old, who had its head, neck, with part of a Thigh growing out about Spina dorsi. The head had the place of Eyes & nose, but none perfected.” He also saw “Monkeys and Apes daunce & do other feates of activity on the high-rope to admiration…. They saluted one another with as good grace as if instructed by a Dauncing Master. They turned heales over head, with a bucket of Eggs in it, without breaking any: also with Candles (lighted) in their hands, & on their head, without extinguishing them, & with vessels of water, without spilling a drop.” Diarist Samuel Pepys also wrote on September 10 that he had visited the fair in Southwark, “I having not at all seen Bartlmew fayre.”


James, Duke of York


This September was to be a month of high drama for the royal family. The first act took place in secret at about midnight on September 3, when James, the Duke of York, married Anne Hyde, the daughter of the King’s advisor Edward Hyde, newly created Earl of Clarendon. James and Anne had met and fallen in love when Anne was maid of honor to Mary of Orange, the sister of the King and Duke, and had entered into a contract of marriage in Breda the previous fall. At the time, the chances of Charles’s Restoration to the throne had seemed remote, much less the eventuality of James becoming king. Now everything was different. And to complicate matters, Anne was already very much pregnant.

Ann Hyde

On September 5, diarist Samuel Pepys wrote, “the Duke of Gloucester is fallen ill and is said will prove the smallpox.” On September 11 he noted “The Duke of York did go today by break-of-day to the Downes. The Duke of Gloucester ill.” The Duke of York was going to meet his sister Mary, who was coming from The Hague, and also taking the opportunity to review the fleet, as in May Charles had made him Lord High Admiral. The timing was unfortunate. For several days, the attention of the King and court had been focused on the 20-year-old Henry, Duke of Gloucester. Pepys had heard right, and the duke did have smallpox. On the morning of September 13, it was announced that he was out of danger. But as the day wore on, he grew worse, and that evening at nine o’clock he died – “by the great negligence of the Doctors,” Pepys thought.


Charles was devastated. His youngest brother had suffered years of imprisonment as a child when Cromwell was in power, had finally been permitted to go the court of his sister Mary, and had later become somewhat of a religious-political football when their mother Queen Henrietta Maria tried to convert him to Catholicism. Young Henry was well liked. Evelyn eulogized him as “a prince of extraordinary hopes.” He had seemed to have a promising life before him, and now he was gone. The King secluded himself for days, though on Sunday September 16 Pepys saw him in Whitehall garden “in purple mourning for his brother.” Pepys also noted with approval “how far they have proceeded in the pellmell and the making of a river through the parke.”
On September 27 Thomas Rugg reported “Playes are for the present forbidden because of the death of the Duke of Gloucester.”


Meanwhile, the departure of Mary of Orange from The Hague had been delayed by bad weather, so the Duke of York spent five days at sea in the Downs. When there was still no sign of his sister’s ship, he put in at Gravesend, only to learn of his younger brother’s death, and he hastened back to London.


Soon after the duke got to Whitehall, the news of his marriage to Anne Hyde leaked out. James went to the King and begged his brother for leave to acknowledge the marriage, vowing that otherwise he would leave England, never to return. Charles was not opposed to the marriage, but rightly supposed that Anne’s father might be. Clarendon was not popular, and the marriage of his daughter to the king’s brother might be considered coming it a bit high. (As I write this, the engagement of Kate Middleton to Prince William has just been announced – the first time since the marriage of the Duke of York and Anne Hyde that a presumptive heir to the throne will be married to a commoner.)


Charles knew the situation was delicate, and enlisted the Marquess of Ormonde and the Earl of Southampton to talk to Clarendon. They began by saying that the Duke of York had acknowledged his love for Anne, that she was thought to be with child, and that the King requested his advice.


Clarendon exploded. Not, as one might expect, at the Duke, but at his daughter. He raged, calling her a strumpet and swearing he would disown her and turn her into the street. Ormonde and Southampton, no doubt startled, explained that in fact Anne was married to the Duke. Clarendon, apoplectic at the thought that his daughter had put him in the situation of seeming to aspire above his place, roared that he would rather she was the Duke’s whore than his wife, and that the King should send her to the Tower and cut off her head. He meant it, and when the King checked in to see how things were going, Ormonde and Southampton said maybe the King could talk sense into Clarendon, who was clearly mad. The King didn’t fare much better, and when Clarendon got home he ordered his wife to lock Anne in her room.


In the middle of all this came the funeral of the young Duke of Gloucester. On September 21 Pepys wrote that he went “back by water about 8-aclock; and upon the water saw corps of the Duke of Gloucester brought down Somersett house stairs to go by water to Westminster to be buried tonight.”


On the twenty-third, Pepys wrote, “The King having news of the Princesses being come to Margetts, he and the Duke of Yorke went down thither in Barges to her.” Mary, having had a terrible crossing and narrowly avoiding shipwreck, now faced the double shock of learning of her youngest brother’s death and of James’s marriage to her former lady in waiting, who would now take precedence over her.


A few days later another member of the royal family arrived in London. Prince Rupert, the dashing nephew of Charles I, famous for his military exploits and successes during the war as General of Horse of the Royalist army, slipped rather quietly into Whitehall. Jane Lane, who had helped King Charles escape after the Battle of Worcester, wrote to Rupert’s mother Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia, “Methinks his Highness looks very well. Everybody here seems to look very graciously on him.” Everyone but Samuel Pepys, apparently, who on September 29 sneered, “I hear Prince Robt. is come to Court; but welcome to nobody.” In the same entry, Pepys recorded that he had spent “all day at home to make an end of our dirty work of the playsterers, and indeed, my Kitchin is now so handsome that I did not repent of all the trouble that I have been put to to have it done.”


The turmoil over the marriage of the Duke of York and Anne Hyde was not at an end. Queen Henrietta Maria, the mother of the King and the Duke, was furious when she heard the news, and fired off letters to both sons. Something Must Be Done, and she was going to do it. Jane Lane’s letter to Elizabeth of Bohemia summed up the situation. “We are like to have the Queen very suddenly here, which many are discontented at.”

Sources and further reading:
Online:
The Diary of Samuel Pepys - http://www.pepysdiary.com/
Publications:
1660: The Year of Restoration, Patrick Morrah (Beacon Press, 1960)
The London Stage, 1660-1800, A Calendar of Plays, Entertainments, and Afterpieces Together with Casts, Box-Receipts, and Contemporary Comment, Part I, 1660-1700, ed. William Van Lennep et al. (Southern Illinois University Press, 1963)
Pepys’s Diary, Volume I, selected and edited by Robert Latham (Folio Society, 1996)
The Diary of John Evelyn, ed. Guy de la Bédoyère (Boydell Press, 1995; First Person Singular, 2004)

































Gillian Bagwell is the author of the upcoming novel The Darling Strumpet, based on the life of Nell Gwynn, who rose from the streets to become one of London’s most beloved actresses and the life-long mistress of King Charles II.
This is the fifth in a series of articles chronicling the events from May 1660 through January 1661, in commemoration of the 350th anniversary of the Restoration of the English monarchy, the reopening of the playhouses, which had been closed for eighteen years under Cromwell, and the first appearance of an actress on the English stage, in contrast to the old practice of boys playing women’s roles.

For links to the other articles and information about Gillian’s books, please visit her website, gillianbagwell.com.

23 November 2010

Breeches, Pantaloons, and Trousers


Pam asked about this in the last post, so here we go . . .


When (historically) do men stop wearing breeches

This is a complicated question, as class and age are heavily involved. Assuming that we’re talking about young-ish, hero-aged men (under 40 let’s say), the answer is that they’ve largely adopted pantaloons c. 1795-1800 (with buckskin breeches still being worn for riding by some and silk breeches still being a part of very formal court costume). Older gentlemen, men of the lower classes, conservative types, and country bumpkins will all still be in breeches.

In the image to the right (dated 1826), the young man is clearly wearing breeches. He appears to be in informal attire, as though for an outting to the park or paying morning calls. It's all about who he is, what he's doing, where he is, and what kind of man he is.

What exactly is/are a pantaloon/pair of pantaloons

From the OED:

1801 Port Folio (Philadelphia) 25 July 238/1 High collars, embroidered pantaloons, and square-toed shoes, were universal among men of ton. 1806 J. BERESFORD Miseries Human Life I. x. 260 Loudly bursting three or four buttons of your tight waistcoat, and the strings of your pantaloons behind. 1834 J. R. PLANCHÉ Hist. Brit. Costume 316 Pantaloons and Hessians boots were introduced about the same period [i.e. around 1789]. 1857 Chambers's Information for People (new ed.) I. 798/1 Pantaloons, which fitted close to the leg, remained in very common use by those persons who had adopted them till about the year 1814, when the wearing of trousers, already introduced into the army, became fashionable.

Pantaloons are longer (ending mid-calf to ankle) and more tightly fitted than breeches. Here are some examples.





To the left: pantaloons c. 1808



To the right: pantaloons c. 1816












When (historically) can I have done with all this and just say "trousers"?

Short answer? The OED says usage became common c. 1820 (first used by sailors as an outerwear garment (worn OVER breeches, as late as 1786), then used by soldiers (Wellington orders them in 1814 as part of uniform kit for the men). I’d guess that the military usage bled over into the vernacular after all the soldiers came home from the Napoleonic Wars. In the realm of fashion, the Prince of Wales is said to have popularized them c. 1816.

Whatever you do, do NOT use "pants", which is an Americanism from the 1830s.

20 November 2010

Interblogality



























Over on Risky Regencies I found them talking about recent discoveries. One of them was the idea of pulling the skirts of a gown through the pocket slits to shorten it. This was actually very common in the 18th century (wouldn’t really work with a Regency gown though, you’d end up looking like an upside-down mushroom!). It was called retroussee dans les pouches and was used to keep your skirts clean when walking through the notoriously filthy streets or when in the country. In the image shown here, you can see a clear example of this. The cherry and white stripes are the outer fabric. The orange and purple stripes are the lining.

QUESTION ONE: Garters

Hey Diane, I’m adding to the post so that I can post pics. I too have the V&A’s new underwear book (I pre-ordered it; isn't it fab?). Yes, stockings were held up by garters. Garters encircled the leg, either just above or just below the knee (depends on how your leg is shaped). When everything went white, so did the underwear (stays were also quite bright in the 18th century, before they went white during the Regency, and then back to bright in the Victorian era). Also, I'm not sure they would have cared if they showed/were visible through the gown (some groups, esp the French, didn't even care if nipples/aureoles were visible).

























QUESTION TWO: I was at a talk recently on early 19th century American portrait painters and the speaker said that in the early days of the empire gowns stays were not worn.

no No NO! I don't know who she talked with at Williamsburg, but I'll guarantee it wasn't Janea Whiteacre, their mantuamaker.

A lot of people (even ones who should know better) share this misconception. For a TINY period of time, in Paris (not even in France, in PARIS) some women left off their "stays" and instead wore something more akin to an undervest or bra. Here is a pic of said garment, accompanied by a portrait of a women who is very likely wearing such an undergarment.










You can tell just from the portraits that they must be wearing stays. If they weren’t their boobs would look like this:

Ever seen anything like that in a painting? Me either.


Any other strange things you’ve read or seen and have questions about?



17 November 2010

What to do with a villain


I just finished going through the galleys for Vienna Waltz. Reading the final chapters in which the villains are unmasked, I was reminded of a conundrum I face writing historical suspense. What to do with the villains after try are caught. One problem I find with historical settings or perhaps with the kind of plots I write is that prosecuting the villain often entails revealing secrets that would cause scandal and ruin numerous lives. Which can be a dilemma for a hero/heroine who wants to see justice done but doesn’t want innocent lives destroyed. Also in many of my stories the villains prove to be closely connected to the central characters, which means ending with an arrest and the prospect of a trial leaves a great many dangling ends that I don’t necessary want to be the focus of my next book. In Secrets of a Lady Edgar and Jack both die in the dénouement, leaving Meg to go to prison (I’d still like to deal with Meg more in a subsequent book). In Beneath a Silent Moon, Evie also dies, killed by Tommy who escapes (definitely to be dealt with a in a future book). I’m not quite sure what the other characters would have done with Evie if she hadn’t died in the dénouement. It’s rather interesting to contemplate.

But the murderer can’t always conveniently die just as he or she is unmasked. In an as yet unpublished book, I have the murderer get away with the crime. In Vienna Waltz, because the events of the book are very much intertwined with real historical events and people, it was particular difficult to find a solution that worked with the historical record. Reading over the galleys, I’m pretty happy with the solution I found. If you read the book, you'll have to let me know what you think.

When I blogged about this topic on my own website, several readers pointed that there are different types of villains. Sarah said, "I think it depends if the ‘villain’ is a plot device, to be written out with the end of the novel, or an antagonist, who may reappear in sequels (I’m thinking of Chauvelin in the Scarlet Pimpernel books). I can’t think of any books I’ve read recently with an out and out ‘villain’, apart from detective/murder mysteries, where the goal is to catch the killer." As JMM pointed out, "Often the only difference between a hero and antagonist is the side he/she is on."

Since my books are suspense with murder mysteries, when I used the term villain I was really thinking of the murderer. Susan said, "I would think that a good suspense/mystery would need pretty loose definitions of villains, antagonists, and other misc bad guys. If someone is clearly a villain, committing obvious crimes, the story would be pretty predictable, and there wouldn’t be much debate about what should happen to the bad guy. Things get more interesting when good people are put in desperate situations. When there is not really an obvious choice on what they should do."

I totally agree with this. I think “villain” relates to a character’s position in a story rather than necessarily to something intrinsic about that person. In fact, part of what I think is interesting and part of setting up a mystery that’s tricky to solve is that the murderer is someone who seems like a sympathetic person. In a book that’s more suspense than mystery, you can have an evil mastermind behind a nefarious plot, with the emphasis on how the plot will be stopped. But if there’s a mystery and multiple suspects, I think it’s more interesting if the reader than imagine any of them possibly being driven to commit the crime. In creating the character of the murderer, I need to figure out what drives that person and what would push them over the edge. And then, at the end of the book, how to resolve their story.

How do you feel about how plot lines are resolved for villains? What are some of your favorite resolutions? Writers, do you struggle over what to do with your villains?

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15 November 2010

Judge a book by its cover

I have a confession to make: Even thought I should know better, covers still sell books to me. Truth be told, we authors are obsessed with covers. Especially our own. We hate love hate relationships with them, but I'm not sure we always know what's really in our own best interest. We certainly don't agree on what a *great* cover is. For example, one of the covers I adored and showed to my editors when we were discussing what I envisioned, the author actually loathed. I complemented her on it in Orlando, and she blinked and said, "Wow, I actually hate it."

I think it's always hard to see someone else's vision of your characters (I can't help but think of Ann Rice's full page ad in response to her horror of Tom Cruise as Lestat, and her subsequent apology when the movie came out and she discovered he actually pulled it off). And in your own mind you have a vision (a *VISION*)of what your book deserves.

At the moment, I'm enchanted with the first cover in my League of Second Sons series. They really listened to me (ok, they ignored all me about the hair, but that's probably for the best; the "hedgehog" isn't a style most people find attractive [see Keira Knightly to the left as the Duchess of Devonshire], and not all women think long-haired men are hot, esp with side curls, LOL!).

The blue damask stays they've given my heroine are spot on, and the subtle sheen of the watered-silk petticoat makes me drool. The deep gold is eye-catching (at least I hope it is!), and the whole thing will be set off by gold foiled lettering (any author who says she doesn't lust for foil is lying).

What about you? Are you still seduced by pretty covers?

12 November 2010

The First Chinese Bride in the West



You think you've got problems? Try being a Chinese girl in the American West!

In 1872, a young Chinese girl, Lalu, was sold by her father during a famine and shipped (some say smuggled) from China to San Francisco for nefarious purposes. The girl was pretty, and as she stood on the dock, a miner working a claim in Warrens, Idaho, near the Salmon River, bought her for the fabulous sum of $2,500. Consequently she made the 12-day trip over towering mountains and through steep canyons on the back of a mule into the Idaho gold country. In Warrens she worked in the her owner's bar as a "hostess."

There were so few women in Idaho’s rough and tumble mining camps that a Chinese girl was automatically relegated to the status of "sing-song girl.” However, her luck changed when her owner lost her in a poker game to a neighboring dining hall/saloon keeper, Charlie Bemis. Charlie turned out be the girl’s protector and, apparently, her sole love interest. The photograph at the right is Polly Bemis in her wedding dress in 1894.

The story of Lalu's adventures has been romanticized to some degree in the novel Thousand Pieces of Gold, but it doesn't change the underlying facts: Lalu (renamed Polly) worked in Charlie’s dining hall, saved her money, and prospered. Later, she saved Charlie's life when a gunshot wound in his neck festered, and when he recovered, Charlie married her. Such an act was unheard of in America, which at the time was full of prejudice against the Chinese and poised to enact the Chinese Exclusion Act. Some say Charlie married her to save her from deportation.

The Bemises left Warrens and purchased a small farm near the Salmon River. The industrious Polly tended her vegetable gardens and planted orchards, kept cows and chickens, delivered babies and nursed the sick on neighboring farms, even tamed a cougar cub. She was admired and loved by those who knew her.

In 1923, after Charlie had passed on, Polly came down out of the mountains on horseback to Grangeville, Idaho, where she got her first taste of “civilization.” She’d come for new spectacles and some dental work, but the wonders she beheld fascinated her. She had never seen an automobile, or a train, never heard a radio, seen an airplane, a motion picture, or electric lights. In Grangeville she delighted in watching movies, riding on the train, and eating in restaurants.

But she loved her little farm on the Salmon River, and she rode back to spend the remainder of her life on the river banks where she could fish.

In later age, Polly suffered a stroke; friends found lying in her garden, barely alive. She was taken over the mountains on horseback to the county hospital in Grangeville, where she died in 1933. She is buried in the Grangeville cemetery with a simple stone marker: Polly Bemis, Sept. 11, 1853 - Nov. 6, 1933.

Sources: The Chinese in America, by Iris Chang; Poker Bride, by Christopher Corbett; Thousand Pieces of Gold, by Ruthanne Lum McCunn.

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10 November 2010

Writing Jane Austen

Over the past few years, I've written six books set in the early nineteenth century. I've co-opted the Nizam of Hyderabad, borrowed the madness of George III, lampooned Bonaparte, and pressed all sorts of historical characters both major and minor into service with absolutely no fear or regret. But there was one character I wouldn't touch, not for all the dowagers in Bath: Jane Austen.

I've read any number of Austen-based novels, both good and bad, and the one thing that struck me was what a dangerous endeavor it was, not just to write about the life of a real individual, but an individual about whom so many people feel so strongly-- and about whom we know so relatively little. Napoleon? No problem. Austen? Terrifying. I had nightmares about being pursued by maddened Janeites wielding particularly heavy editions of her collected works.

But.... (You knew there was going to be a "but", right?). Last summer, I sat down to work on a Christmas-set novel about a lovable bungler named Turnip Fitzhugh. I knew that I wanted Turnip's story to be set in Bath. There was something about Bath that just went with Turnip like "pink" and "carnation". Bath, however, is inextricably linked in my imagination, and, I'm guessing, in the imagination of many others, with none other than Miss Jane Austen. Just for my own edification, I decided to take a quick look and see where Austen was in winter of 1803. No particular reason. Just curiosity.

Austen was in Bath.

Not only was she in Bath, but, in winter of 1803, she had just begun work on the unfinished novel that marks the only work of a long, dry spell, "The Watson". One of Austen's darkest works, "The Watsons" involves a young lady, farmed out in youth to a wealthy aunt, cast back upon the bosom of her impoverished family when the aunt marries a dashing young army officer half her age. There are all sorts of theories as to why Austen never finished "The Watsons", but, since no letters survive from that period of her life, we'll probably never know for sure.

What novelist can resist a set-up like that? I was hooked. I shamelessly borrowed the plot of "The Watsons" for my heroine, Arabella Dempsey-- with a few twists-- and coopted Austen herself as an old friend of the Dempsey family. In a circular, meta-way, Austen is inspired by my heroine's story to write "The Watsons"-- but finds herself incapable of finishing it when events take a decidedly odd turn....

I was, I will admit, still nervous about writing about Austen, even in such an attenuated context. So I decided to include a little "scholarly" introduction. This introduction didn't make it into the final version, but here, for your amusement, is the original, lost introduction to The Mischief of the Mistletoe.

From the Introduction to the Oxford Addendum to the Cambridge Companion of the Collected Letters of Jane Austen:

“… the Dempsey Collection, as it is called, was for some time denied a place in the Austenian epistolary canon. Due to the destruction of the bulk of Austen’s correspondence after her death, for some time there were believed to be only one hundred and sixty letters extent. The discovery of a cache of correspondence, preserved in an old trunk in an attic in Norfolk, underneath a series of shockingly gaudy waistcoats embroidered in a carnation print, tucked inside an early nineteenth century recipe book concerned entirely with Christmas puddings, was thought for some time by the Fellows of the Royal College of Austen Studies to be nothing more than a malicious act of sabotage on the part of unscrupulous members of the rival Dickens Society, who had turned to thuggery as the inevitable result of immoderate consumption of late Victorian serial fiction. Although the Dickens Society denied the charge, relations between the two groups remained frosty, culminating in the great Tea Incident of 1983, which scandalized Oxbridge and caused a rift of which the reverberations are felt to this day. As footnote clashed against footnote, and members of warring factions refused to pass the port at High Table, the Dempsey Collection was relegated for some time to the academic abyss, discarded as nothing more than Austenian apocrypha.

“After two decades of painstaking scrutiny, including chemical testing, textual analysis, and the consultation of several Magic 8 balls, the scholarly community has tentatively accepted the Dempsey collection as genuine, with some significant reservations. Although the dates of the letters and the identity of the author have, indeed, been authenticated, there are serious doubts as to the veracity of the contents. While Jane Austen writes in her own name, addressing the letters to a supposedly “real” young lady of her acquaintance, the events narrated within them are of such a sensational and fantastical nature as to defy all belief.

“The more serious members of the academic establishment adhere to the theory that Austen was, in fact, engaged in an epistolary novel, a style she employed for both the unfinished Lady Susan and the original draft of Elinor and Marianne, the novel that was to become Sense and Sensibility. There is some argument that the letters comprise a failed early draft of her incomplete novel, The Watsons. As in that work, the Dempsey collection features a heroine returned to the unaffectionate bosom of her family after being disappointed in her hopes of an inheritance from a wealthy aunt, who casts her from the household upon the elderly aunt’s imprudent second marriage to a handsome young captain in the army. Many of the names Austen uses in the Watsons appear in the Dempsey collection, although somewhat altered.

“There, however, all resemblance ends….

“That the letters and their contents were, in fact, the product of a contemporary correspondence conducted with an actual acquaintance in reaction to authentic events is a possibility entertained only by the most radical fringe of Austen scholars. This view is generally discredited…

“What Englishman, one may ask, would answer to the name of Turnip?”

Excerpt reproduced courtesy of the author, Perpetua Fotherington-Smythe, M. Phil., D. Phil, R. Phil, F.R.C.A.S.*, S.o.S.A.S.S.I..**, GAE (MEOAE).***

* Fellow of the Royal College of Austen Studies
** Symposium of the Society of Austen and Similarly Superior Interlocutors
*** Dame Grand Cross of the Most Excellent Order of the Austenian Epistle

09 November 2010

The Lees of Old Virginia: The Politician, The Lover, the Genius and the Mediator




Two centuries, three wars, how many generals? Better yet, how many great loves can one family put in the history book?

The Lees of Virginia were a proud family, part of the great landed aristocracy who believed in higher education (at least for their sons), public service, and lavish hospitality. They bought fine clothes by the barrel from London after a good tobacco harvest but argued vehemently against high taxes levied by the King’s ministers. Their world has always fascinated me and the legacy of public service that the Lees took forward amazes me. With all that, they even managed a fascinating private life that’s spilled onto Broadway and Hollywood more than once.

First off, Richard Henry Lee was an influential Virginia politician during the Revolutionary War. He’s best remembered for pulling off Virginia’s resolution calling for independence from Great Britain, which triggered the Declaration of Independence by the united colonies. The self-confident dude makes it clear in the Broadway musical 1776 that he can only do this, thanks to his superb political connections as a leading member of one of the great families in an aristocratic culture.

Here’s his political epiphany, together with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams.

Next comes his second cousin, “Light-Horse” Harry Lee, one of George Washington’s best cavalry officers. He received a gold medal from Congress for his actions at a New Jersey battle but is far better known for his heroics during the Carolinas campaigns, where he fought alongside luminaries such as Nathan Greene and Francis Marion. Hollywood likes him, too: the character of Colonel Harry Burwell in The Patriot is thought to be loosely based on him.

Better still to my romance novelist’s eye, the tall, blond, blue-eyed stud made two spectacular marriages. First, he wooed and won his cousin, “the Divine Matilda,” only to see her die eight years later. One biographer says he was desperate with grief afterward but another says he’d squandered her dowry. I suspect both opinions are correct. A few years later, he married Anne Carter, granddaughter of the legendary “King” Carter, who came to him even richer.

Fourteen years later after miserably failing at land speculation, he spent a year in debtor’s prison. His fifth child by his second wife, Robert E. Lee, was only two years old. At the start of the War of 1812, he helped fight off a mob attack on a friend and wound up so badly injured that even his speech was affected. He left Virginia for his health and died in Georgia’s Sea Islands. His body was transferred almost a century later to the Lee Mausoleum, to lie beside his more famous descendants, starting with his sons.

What can I say about Robert Edward Lee? He was certainly a military genius, given the miracles he worked in defeating superior forces on behalf of the Confederacy. Many historians believe that the American Civil War would have ended much sooner, if he’d made the decision to stay with the Union Army rather than resign to join the Confederate Army.

He married well – one is tempted to say, of course! – even if he had to court the lady in secret. Martha Washington’s grandson and George Washington’s adopted son did not approve of the disgraced Light-Horse Harry Lee’s son as a potential spouse for Mary Custis, his darling daughter and heiress. The union proved to be an affectionate one, even if tested by his frequent absences and her slowness to adapt from living as a rich man’s daughter to a soldier’s wife on a strict budget. Her father made Arlington House, her family home, legendary for bravura fireworks celebrating George Washington. But the Union Army illegally seized it during the Civil War in retribution for Robert E. Lee’s service to the Confederacy, and turned it into a national cemetery. The family wasn’t recompensed for its loss until years later.

Of course, Hollywood has paid considerable attention to “Marse Robert.” My favorite performance is provided by Robert Duvall, his descendant, in Gods and Generals. Duvall made particular note in interviews that he got the accent right, unlike so many other actors.

After the Civil War, Robert E. Lee retired to the other career he enjoyed, teaching, and ended his days as a college president. Custis and Rooney, two of his three sons, were also generals in the Confederate, while the youngest was an artillery captain.

But his nephew, Fitzhugh Lee, provided his elders with many more challengers. He was nearly expelled from West Point and barely managed to graduate 45th in the class of 1856, all at a time when his uncle was superintendent of the academy. He resigned his commission in 1861 – and soared to a Confederate generalcy under the legendary J.E.B. Stuart in 1863. After the war, he became a farmer and married happily. He entered politics where he backed unpopular causes, including educating African-American children, and pulled together the solution for paying off Virginia’s massive wartime debt. (Oh, what a miracle worker!)

Not everyone liked the results, however. Being a successful Virginia governor usually means becoming a U.S. senator but not in his case. Instead, the president commissioned him a general when the Spanish-American War broke out but the fighting ended before he could finish training his troops. He wound up as the first consul-general under the occupation and a force for sanity, against pressure from Washington politicians. He retired as a brigadier-general and is remembered as a successful historian.

Aristocratic families fascinate me, whether they’re in Europe or here in America. The Lee family built an incredible set of legends, both in their public and private lives. What fodder for a novel.

Has an aristocratic family ever fascinated you? Did one generation do something special or was it a multi-generation kind of thing?

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