History Hoydens

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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

30 July 2012

The House of Commons opera hat

Rose here! My next book, Sweet Disorder, is set during a Parliamentary election in a small town. The Regency political system is so different from the modern one that I wanted to do plenty of research to make sure I didn't mess it up (for example, one thing that consistently confused my beta readers was that each voter got two votes!). Luckily I'd already done a little research on Parliament for a book proposal that didn't go anywhere (although I haven't given up hope for the future).

One book I read was The Great Palace, by Christopher Jones, about the Houses of Parliament themselves. It was published in 1985 so not up to date, but that didn't matter for my purposes! Some things I learned:

"The Mace, the symbol of Royal authority, must always be present when the House is sitting. Without it, the House is totally powerless."

The Lord Speaker, accompanied by the mace and doorkeepers, makes her way to Sovereign's Entrance to await the arrival of the Queen
"The Lord Speaker, accompanied by the mace and doorkeepers, makes her way to Sovereign’s Entrance to await the arrival of the Queen." Image: Parliamentary copyright/ Catherine Bebbington.

More on the Mace from Wikipedia.

23. Serjeant at Arms places the Mace on the Table
"The Serjeant at Arms, Jill Pay, places the mace on the Table to signal that the House is sitting. May 18 2010." Image: Catherine Bebbington. Parliamentary Copyright.

On the next page:

"The Serjeant-at-Arms[...]is the only person in the Chamber allowed to wear a sword." This doesn't make clear to me whether s/he actually wears a sword--I can't see one in the above picture. (But is that a change since 1985?)

Two pages later:

"The House of Commons snuffbox. It is kept by the Principal Doorkeeper. Any Member may ask for a pinch of snuff before going into the Chamber."

According to Wikipedia, "A floral-scented snuff called 'English Rose' is provided for members of the British House of Commons at public expense due to smoking in the House being banned since 1693. A famous silver communal snuff box kept at the entrance of the House was destroyed in an air raid during World War II with a replacement being subsequently presented to the House by Winston Churchill." (The new box was made from the timber recovered from the damaged Chamber.) Nicholas Fairbairn, an MP until 1995, was known during his tenure for being the only person to actually use the snuff.

I'm not sure the snuff is English Rose anymore, though, because check out this 2010 Freedom of Information request I found! The respondent states, among other things, that "The cost of the snuff is approx £6 per tin and the House has purchased 4 tins in 8 years, the cost is paid from Serjeant at Arms' petty cash. There is no specific company make and the House just purchases it from a local tobacconist," and that "Members who have taken snuff in the past year numbered perhaps less than five, Members taking snuff in the present Parliament has yet to occur."

And guess what: it turns out the US Senate has ceremonial snuffboxes too!

But my very, very favorite is this:

"The House of Commons opera hat. The collapsible top hat which Members must wear if they want to raise a point of order during a division [their word for a vote]."

And there's a little picture of an old top hat sitting on a bench.

I was desperately sad to discover that this custom had been discontinued following a recommendation of the Select Committee on the Modernization of the House of Commons:

"64. At present, if a Member seeks to raise a point of order during a division, he or she must speak 'seated and covered'. In practice this means that an opera hat which is kept at each end of the Chamber has to be produced and passed to the Member concerned. This inevitably takes some time, during which the Member frequently seeks to use some other form of covering such as an Order Paper. This particular practice has almost certainly brought the House into greater ridicule than almost any other, particularly since the advent of television. We do not believe that it can be allowed to continue."

Another beautiful image was provided by Hansard's record of the discussion on the issue:

"We recommend a new procedure for raising points of order during a Division. At present, we have the opera hat, and, although some Members may feel that they look particularly fetching in it, it makes the House of Commons look ridiculous when someone wearing the hat is trying to raise a point of order from a seated position while everyone else is milling around and going to vote."

(Sidenote: If anyone writing historical romance with a political dimension doesn't already know about the online Hansard's, here it is! It is saving my life with things like dates of parliamentary recesses, when bills were proposed, &c.)

Can anyone find a picture of the opera hat? Preferably being worn. My Google-fu is failing me.

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22 July 2012

A Different Kind of History


As historical novelists, the Hoydens all spend a good portion of our writing time delving into the past and finding creative ways to bring it to life. I did that on my most recent project, but in a different way from my usual historical research. The project, His Spanish Bride, is a novella about how my characters, Suzanne and Malcolm Rannoch/Mélanie and Charles Fraser, became betrothed and married. At this point, I know Malcolm and Suzanne/Charles and Mel very well. One of the joys of writing about them is that their dialogue and interactions come very easily while at the same time I feel I'm always finding new aspects of them and their relationship to explore.

Several of the books I've written about the Rannochs/Frasers have been out of chronological order, and I've always found it quite easy to pick up with them at different points in time. But in all the stories they've been married and the parents of at least one child. There are secrets between them, yet in many ways it's their familiarity with each other and shared history that defines them. With the novella, all that was different. Malcom and Suzanne barely know each other at this point in their story. They have yet to develop any intimacy, physical or emotional, They are just coming to know each other, awkward and uncertain. And I felt awkward and uncertain as though I was just coming to know them. Interestingly, I think I had an easier time writing another character, Raoul, because I think he changes less over the subsequent books (though he too changes).

Many writers, including my fellow Hoydens, excel at capturing the magic of characters meeting and falling in love. But even when my books were historical romances rather than historical suspense, I've always preferred to write about characters who already have a shared history. I love creating and exploring a backstory for my characters. In the novella, I was writing that backstory. In the process I learned new things about Suzette/Mel and Malcolm/Charles. including the fact that they were both quite different people before they met. Being married, working together, and being parents changed and shaped them both. In its own way, the novella was research for further books in the series. And like all research it helped me develop a richer, more complex world for my subsequent books.

Do you ever find yourself wanting to know more about characters' backgrounds or to see their backstory dramatized? Writers, do you find it easier to write about characters who share a history or characters who are getting to know each other?

photo credit: Raphael Coffey Photography

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21 July 2012

2012 "Readers for Life" Literacy Autographing

Many of the Hoydens will be in Anaheim for Romance Writers of America's annual conference, so the blog will be quiet until August.

If you happen to live in Southern California, please come see us at the 2012 "Readers for Life" Literacy Autographing! It will be held at the Anaheim Convention Center, Wednesday, July 25, 2012, from 5–8 p.m. in the Ballroom (third floor).

You can find a complete list of authors here. The event is free, though you have to pay for the books, but the proceeds go to ProLiteracy Worldwide, Read Orange County, and Literacy Volunteers—Huntington Valley. Please note: No outside books will be allowed in, which I know is a change from past years. Sorry.

17 July 2012

Rant About Poor Scholarship

I’m going to be a bit ranty today. I just saw something on The Daily Mail that really concerns me. Supposedly Hilary Davidson, the fashion curator at the Museum of London, says that the discovery of these two items “totally rewrites” fashion history. To which I say BOLLOCKS!

These items were found in Lengberg Castle in east Tyrol (Austria). They are thought to have been buried c. 1480. I’ve spent 30+ years as a re-enactor studying late 15th century and early 16th century “German” Landsknechts. It’s probably the period I know the most about, and these garments don’t rewrite ANYTHING from where I’m sitting. In fact, they appear to be rather common.


Let’s start with the underpants (please click on the images to enlarge them, I had to make them small to fit them all in). I haven’t the slightest idea how Davidson came to the conclusion that the underwear were for women. Every scrap of evidence I’ve seen supports the opposite conclusion. Here is a detail from The Men’s Bathhouse by Albrecht Dürer, 1498. What are all the MEN wearing? Little undies that tie on the sides. They look suspiciously familiar, don’t they? Not entirely sure how anyone claiming to be a fashion historian with a specialty in the Medieval period could fail to have connected this garment and this image in a heartbeat.

UPDATE: Please see the comment from Nutz below. "Davidson NEVER came to the conclusion that the underpants were for women and I NEVER said so either. I always said that underpants were a male garment in the Middle Ages." So the quote in The Daily Mail is misleading. 

On to the “bra”. Please look closely at this garment. The bottom is frayed. Why? Because there’s something missing. Please look at the side. See all the little eyelet holes? Those are for lacing. What was the MAIN female undergarment of the day? The kirtle (a long, tightly-fitted smock). You can see tons of examples of this garment in the Wenceslaus Bible (dated to the late 14th century). There is NOTHING groundbreaking about finding the top portion of a kirtle. 

I know sensationalism sells, but is it really worth your reputation to make such easily debunked statements? I know I’ve pretty much lost all respect for the Davidson, and I have serious reservations about anything coming out of the Museum of London at this point.  (I'll cut this given that I'm being told Davidson was misquoted). In conclusion, I’ll wait until I hear something from Dr. Jutta Zander-Seidel telling me that SHE thinks these rather common looking garments “totally rewrite” fashion history.

Rant over. Ok, not quite ... Update:

fighting for the pants
More reading for those who just can’t get enough of the topic. Here is Beatrix Nutz’s article for BBC History Magazine, and here is a shorter piece that was posted on the University of Innsbruck website (where it specifically notes that the cache contained men’s clothing, further undercutting the attribution of the underwear as women’s clothing). Given what I’ve seen so far, I stand by my opinion of the find. Is it possible I’ll change my mind? Sure … at least about the “bras” (there are still two I haven’t seen). But not about the underpants. There’s simply no supporting documentation out there for them to be attributed to women, nor is there any reason to pluck them out of a mixed cache of clothing and come to that conclusion. 

UPDATE from Nutz's comment: "As to the “longline bra”: The bottom is NOT frayed. There is a hem at the lower end, even if it is only preserved over a short length. In addition there is NOTHING to indicate that a skirt may have been sewn onto that end thus making it a kirtle. No tiny holes in the fabric where a sewing needle and thread may have passed through.

And the kirtles in the Wenceslaus Bible: They do have narrow shoulder straps like the “longline bra” but I can´t make out anything that even remotely resembles cups. Besides – there´s still the other “bras” from Lengberg that end right below the breasts and are definitely NOT upper parts of dresses
."


I don't agree that you can extrapolate from art 100%, so it's not possible to dismiss the tie to the bathing gowns simply because you can't make out cups. But given that Nutz has access to all the "bras", I'll again state that I'm open to having my mind changed on this one. Perhaps the French article will have more and better images? Or perhaps Nutz will post high rez ones somewhere? 

I’d love if they made the dig notes and pictures available. I’d also love to see the final thesis that Nutz is working on, as it’s entirely possible that the article she wrote (and the ensuing coverage in the news) isn’t wholly representational.  I’m attempting to get a hold of the partial notes that a friend had previously reviewed, but the link for them has been removed. More to come, hopefully!

Beating husband w/spindle
while pulling on his pants
Another Update: I found the link to another article in German. The ever lovely GrowlyCub gave it a quick look over since she’s fluent and her report is that all it says is that DNA testing on the underpants was inconclusive in attempting to establish which sex wore them and that all the evidence for women wearing them is confined to art. What it doesn’t mention is that all of said art is allegorical in nature, and you can’t use it to show that women wore underpants any more than you can to show that Landsknecht soldiers wore sandals. (Nutz says in the comments that she agrees with this point, so I clearly misunderstood the articles). The images she’s talking about are all about hen-pecked husbands and adulteresses. They all allude to the woman wearing the man’s garments to assert her authority (the underpants in question) and they frequently show the husband desperately trying to get them back. Here are a couple that aren't in any of the linked articles so far. What needs to be acknowledged is that the power of the image is lost if this was a common woman’s garment. The reason underpants were chosen to symbolize the wife stealing the husband’s power is because the garment was unmistakably seen as masculine during the period.

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13 July 2012

Printed Gloves

I love highlight strange clothing tidbits. Something I’ve yet to see appear in a novel is a printed glove. They seem to have been quite popular during the Regency period, with many extant examples c. 1800-1830 showing up in museums and at auction. All the examples I've seen are white kidskin with black printing. Some have stripes of classical patterns, others are commemorative, and some are just fanciful.

Can’t you just see ladies wearing something likes these for Nelson or Wellington?


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09 July 2012

"Not with their property, but with their lives"

While researching smuggling for The Ghost and Miss Moore, there's one problem I run into again and again: the bulk of the records of the customs service were lost in the 1814 London Customs House fire. To me the greatest loss is that every revenue officer was required to keep notebooks detailing his daily activities and submit them to his superior officer. There are almost none extent from before 1814 because of this fire.

"The fatal Conflagration of the Custom House, on the Morning of the 12th February 1814"
(British Museum)

The fire was discovered by the porter at 6AM. By 7 the fire engines had arrived, and by 8 the flames were so high they had given up on saving the Customs House and began trying to save the surrounding buildings.
[A] report was circulated that many barrels of gunpowder were deposited in the vaults, and that consequently an explosion might soon be expected. This report had nearly a magical effect. All withdrew to a distance, both firemen and spectators. At half-past nine the report which had been circulated was confirmed not to have been an idle one. The explosion of about two barrels and a half of gunpowder was tremendous. The shock was distinctly felt on the Royal Exchange, and by persons who came to London by the Whitechapel Road; it was felt four miles in that direction. Many of the buckets were carried as far as Billingsgate; and one man was hurt or killed by two bricks falling on his head. The concussion spread devastation around the neighbourhood breaking many windows in Cannon Street, East Cheap and the adjoining streets, and exciting in the breasts of the inhabitants apprehensions of the complete destruction of that quarter of the City.
[...]The explosion of the gunpowder carried the burnt papers, ships registers, and a variety of matter, as far as Dalston, Shacklewell, Homerton, Hackney, and all the adjoining villages in the direction of the wind. A bundle of signed debentures is said to have been picked up by a gentleman at as great a distance from the scene of destruction as Spital Square.
(From the British Fire Service's contemporary accounts on their website, which are definitely worth reading all the way through. I couldn't find any citations of whose accounts they are, though, and they are clearly a composite of several authors' work since there are two different stories about Colonel Kelly's "(late of the Guards)" actions. He was the housekeeper's brother and one writer claims he "hurried to his sister and found her in such a senseless state from the fright, that it was with extreme difficulty he could drag her out almost naked."  In the other, he was paralyzed with fear in his burning room when the porter found him, and then ran to a window from which he was "saved by a ladder with the greatest difficulty and shockingly burnt in the face and hands," while the porter went and got his sister and the servants. While I am not by any means criticizing the guy for freaking out while his room was on fire, if I were the porter I might be annoyed by that face-saving story, although I'd feel guilty about being annoyed since Colonel Kelly died a few days later of his injuries.)

It later turned out that there were only about 10 or 12 pounds of gunpowder stored in that nearby building, for use by the volunteers, but rumors that there were barrels and barrels spread quickly and kept many of the firemen from wanting to get very near the fire, with the result that it spread fast and far.
The flames soon communicated to the houses in Thames Street opposite the Custom House, and embraced, in a short time, warehouses in Globe Yard, and the whole of the tenements extending from Beer Street to Water Lane from which it required the utmost activity of the inmates to escape, not with their property but with their lives.
The flames didn't get under control until around 3PM, by which time the Customs House was ashes.

The Customs House before the fire, by Rowlandson, 1808. (Wikimedia Commons)

Some of the amazing non-archival things lost in the fire:
The actual loss to government by the sudden destruction of the Custom House cannot be calculated; books, bonds, debentures, pearls, coral, valuable property of every description and securities of all kinds have been consumed.[...]The private property lost within the buildings is very considerable: several gentlemen had left large sums of money in their desks, ready to make payments on the following day. One individual has lost upwards of six thousand pounds in bank notes, which will be irrecoverable, as the memorandum of the numbers was in the desk with the notes and met the same fate. 
A very fine collection of pictures was also lost, which the Commissioners had permitted a gentleman to leave in deposit till it would be convenient for him to pay the duties, amounting to one thousand five hundred pounds. A genteel young man, in appearance, was stopped by some police officers, in Thames Street and, on searching him, his pockets and breeches were found to be stuffed with coral beads, silk handkerchiefs, and other valuables of small bulk. It appeared that his boldness in venturing nearer than even the firemen dared to do, had enabled him to obtain this booty.
Fortunately a new Customs House was already being built, the Napoleonic Wars (and resulting embargoes) and increased trade having vastly increased the work of the Customs. The new building was completed in haste...which may or may not have led to the design flaws that caused a huge part of the floor of the Long Room to collapse and fall into the King's Warehouse below in 1825, leading to major repairs, a new, much more classically Neoclassical facade, and the ruin of David Laing's career as an architect. But that's another story! (Which you can read a bit more about here, along with looking at many more engravings and drawings of the Custom House through the years.)

Do you have a favorite disaster, natural or otherwise? Tell me about it!

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06 July 2012

Blatant Promo Post: I'm on Sale!

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02 July 2012

Plots & Devices

My daughter Mélanie and I just got back from a lovely few days in New York, including fun visits with my editor and agent. There we are to the left at the Nancy Yost Literary offices. As often happens, I'm in multiple stages on multiple projects. I’m revising The Paris Affair which will be out in April 2013, I just got copy edits for His Spanish Bride, the novella about Malcolm and Suzanne’s wedding which will be out in e-format in late November, and I’m starting to plot the next Malcolm and Suzanne book, which is one of my favorite parts of the writing process.

And of course, inevitably plotting involves research. I usually interweave the research and plotting. Often the plot idea comes from research. But then I need to start thinking about the plot to figure out what direction my research needs to take. And as I do more research, that further drive the plot. Even though I've written in the Regency/Napoleonic era for over twenty years (hard for me to believe!) it seems as though there’s always more to learn. A different setting, a different aspect of society, a different set of real historical characters. That's what keeps it both challenging and interesting.

With Vienna Waltz, the idea for the book grew directly out of research. I'd been fascinated with the Congress of Vienna for years, and the the premise for the book came specifically from my research into two real life women, Wilhelmine of Sagan and Princess Catherine Bagration, who were both involved with both Prince Metternich and Tsar Alexander during the Congress. What if (two of my favorite words in the plotting process) there was a third, fictional woman who was involved with both men? What if she was murdered after summoning both of them? What if my hero, Malcolm, found her. No, what if my heroine, Suzanne, his wife, found her husband kneeling over the murdered woman...

The idea for Imperial Scandal came to me as I was driving home along a pretty stretch of country road after taking my cats to the vet. I already knew the book would involve the battle of Waterloo, but that was when I got the idea of Malcolm summoned to a mysterious meeting at a château outside Brussels, an ambush, a British officer's wife who shouldn't have been anywhere near the château killed in the crossfire. Then it was a game of "what if" to figure out what the woman was doing there, who she was, why she was killed.

With The Paris Affair, I knew I wanted the murder victim to be threatened by the post-Waterloo White Terror reprisals against Bonapartists. I wanted him to appeal to the British for help, which would pull Malcolm and Suzanne in. And I knew I had to add in something to make the stakes personal for Malcolm and Suzanne.

My idea for the book I'm starting to plot came while driving with Mélanie to a one-year-old's birthday party and thinking about Shakespeare. It's still too unformed to say much more but I'm excited about it.

I’ve always been the sort of writer who plots in advance, so once I have my plot idea and some initial research, I begin laying out the story. I used to write down plot elements and scene ideas on index cards and then lay them out on my dining room table, shuffle around the order, look for gaps in the plot. It’s a great way to build the story arc, though my cats have a tendency to walk over the cards and wreak havoc on my plot order.

Then, in the midst of writing Imperial Scandal, I discovered the writing software program Scrivener. I love Scrivener for numerous reasons, but one is that it has a corkboard built in. You can lay out scenes on index cards, switch to a writing view to draft a scene, then switch back to the corkboard. Because of this, with The Paris Affair, which is the first book I wrote completely in Scrivener, I found I could write as I was plotting. If knew a scene had to occur later in the narrative, I could jump ahead and write it while I was still working out plot details earlier in the story. I spend a lot of time mulling when I’m working out a plot, and this way I was able to write while I was mulling. I was a little nervous about writing out of order, but I found it was surprisingly easy to pull the scenes together with transitions and other scenes that needed to be filled in. And being able to switch to the corkboard view at any point (as well as an outline view) makes me feel much more in control of the plot than I did with loose index cards. All of which made me more efficient, which was particularly helpful for this book as I had a baby in the midst of writing it.

Writers, what’s your plotting process? What tools have you found that help with it? Readers, do you find it interesting to read about the writing process behind the book? What questions do you have?

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