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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

24 June 2013

Savoring the Moment - in Life & in Literature

My 18-month-old daughter Mélanie and I have a routine on most days. In the late morning, we go to the local outdoor mall and settle in at the Peet's Coffee & Tea, where the staff are incredibly friendly and welcoming (where I sit now writing this post and sipping a latte while Mel eats fruit salad). When she's ready for the some play time, we talk around the mall, play with the toys at Pottery Barn Kids (where they are also incredibly welcoming), look at the clothes at J. Crew (ditto on welcoming and where Mummy has been known to use our rambles as an excuse to pick up a new pair of ballet flats or a cardigan). And we almost always visit the play park. Mélanie loves other kids and there are almost always kids to play with at the park. One afternoon this week we met a nice family with a very cute 10-month-old. For once Mélanie, who tends to be the one of the younger ones in a group of kids, was the big girl.
Like me, the 10-month-old's mom was telling me how she's trying to savor every moment of his growing up. It was such a good reminder to hold on to the moments. Like sitting on a bench with Mélanie that same afternoobn sharing her first ice cream cone. Or stopping at an outdoor restaurant last night after a local Art & Wine Festival and appreciating Mel's dexterity with the tortilla chips as she sat up like a big girl in her high chair.

Revising my WIP, I began to think about savoring the moment as a writer. Particularly in historical fiction, it's often those moments that make the setting and era come to life. The shimmer of candlelight on damask wall hangings. The sent of the orange trees in the Jardin du Luxembourg. The gnarled branches of the plane trees in Berkeley Square against the pale charcoal of a twilight sky. Doing up the strings on a gown, lacing or unlacing a corset. Yet at the same time, lingering too long over such details can slow the pace, particularly in historical suspense which I write. Sometimes in revisions I find myself pruning to hone in on the key details that bring a scene to life and make sure I'm moving from plot point to plot point. Other times I layer in more details. Or I realize I need some quiet moments of my protagonists savoring their own life in order to give a contrast to the adventure (particularly true in my WIP as Malcolm and Suzanne have a new one-year-old). I'm never quite sure I get the balance right - it's difficult to judge in one's own book, though I do find it a bit easier on a revision, when I've had a couple of weeks away from the manuscript.

What moments in your life have you stopped to savor recently? Writers, how do you find a balance between lingering over moments and descriptive detail and keeping your story moving forward?

photo: Raphael Coffey

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17 June 2013

Nova Albion

I love sites like This Day in History. I get so many ideas for books (often books I'll never write, LOL!) by looking at the daily events.

Today is full of fodder (the Statue of Liberty arrived in 1885, the Battle of Bunker Hill took place in 1775, the Watergate break-ins happened in 1972), but my favorite tidbit was that today Sir Francis Drake claimed what would become California for Queen Elizabeth I today in 1579:

"During his circumnavigation of the world, English seaman Francis Drake anchors in a harbor just north of present-day San Francisco, California, and claims the territory for Queen Elizabeth I. Calling the land "Nova Albion," Drake remained on the California coast for a month to make repairs to his ship, the Golden Hind, and prepare for his westward crossing of the Pacific Ocean."

What an interesting starting place for an alternative history series. What if Roanoke colony had been established in there instead of an island off Virginia a few years later? What if the Spanish had never established a foothold here? What if the English had colonized Northern California? What would the repercussions be? I think if I was to write a steampunk series or an Urban Fiction series, this would be my starting point for the history. It would give me such scope for invention and world building.

My brain works much the same way when I'm plotting my historicals. I see something and it sparks (often, it's something tragic that I think deserved a better ending). I turn it over and day dream about it until I suddenly have a plot, or at least an idea to hang a plot upon.

How about you? What's your favorite plot genesis?

10 June 2013

Low gamblers, ring droppers, sharpers and thieves of every description...

Ash, the hero of my WIP Crimson Joy [ETA: since retitled True Pretenses], is a Jewish con man who grew up in a gang of street thieves in London. It's distressingly difficult to find information about Regency con artists. Everyone seems to agree that the principles of conning had very likely been worked out for centuries, and that many modern short cons (as distinguished from long cons, in which the victim is sent home for his money, and which require a fixed location where the mark can be "played") have probably existed in some form at least that far back. But the details...those are fuzzy. Here are a few things I have found:

1. The word "con," and pretty much all the vocabulary that we now associate with the profession, were developed in the decades around the turn of the 20th century. In the Regency, con artists would probably have been called "swindlers," and their marks would have been "flats." Interestingly enough, according to the OED, the word "swindler" comes from the German schwindler, "giddy-minded person, extravagant projector, especially in money matters, cheat," and was "originally a cant word, said to have been introduced into London by German Jews about 1762."

According to The Jews of Georgian England 1714-1830, by Todd M. Endelman, the word originally had a very specific meaning of credit fraud, i.e. "obtaining goods from manufacturers or merchants on false credit and then absconding before detection of the fraud, or declaring bankruptcy and arranging to swap the real claims with false ones," but as best I can tell the meaning had broadened significantly by the turn of the century.

(I worry that I'm perpetuating anti-Semitic stereotypes with this sort of thing. But...there were a lot of really, really poor Jews in London in this era. When extreme poverty is combined with intense prejudice and a resulting sense of isolation from the larger society, a lack of faith/investment in the validity of the legal system is one possible result. Besides, street crime and professional crime were absolutely endemic in England and especially London at the time--really, when isn't it? Jews were a proportion of the population, therefore, a proportion of the criminal population. I don't know. It's a tricky one, and I think the only solution is to keep it in mind while writing and do my best.)

2. Three-card monte doesn't show up until the 1850s and then it originates in America. The "shell game," a variation on the game using walnut shells or other objects (although it doesn't allow for the classic con in which a mark is induced to bet on the pretense that the queen has been dog-eared for him), doesn't show up until 1890 and then only in America. However, the British equivalent is the "thimble-rig," earliest attested in 1825, also known as "pea and thimble" (played with a pea and three sewing thimbles). I think that for a cant term like that, it's fair to assume that it was in use for a while before the earliest known reference in print.

3. "Ring droppers" are mentioned frequently in rhetorical lists of common cheaters, for example this in a Sporting Magazine of 1797: "Low gamblers, ring droppers, sharpers and thieves of every description..." Apparently the swindler pretended to "find" a ring which he had dropped himself, "discovered" it was valuable, and then attempted to sell it.

4. "Pin-and-girdle" and "prick-the-garter" are two names for the same game, in which a belt or long piece of cloth is doubled and then folded a number of times, then held in the swindler's hand. The flat is given a pin and bets that he can stick the pin in the belt at the place where it was doubled. Of course, the game is rigged and he can't. This game dates back a good long way. This game has many names and variations, but one of its earliest names was "fast and loose" (attested 1578, and using "fast" in the sense of "immobile, fixed" as in "stand fast"), which is where the idea of "playing fast and loose with" something or someone comes from!

5. And my favorite I've found so far, as being an absolutely classic short con (from The Jews of Georgian England):

"Two Jews, one in the dress of a sailor, would stage an argument in tones loud enough to attract the attention of passersby. The Jew would attempt to buy the watch of the 'sailor,' who would claim to have paid 12l. or 14l. for it and would refuse to sell it to the Jew, as he had cheated him previously or because he did not want to sell it to any 'damned Jew.' The 'sailor,' having just come ashore and being short of money, would then offer to sell the watch to someone nearby who he thought was a likely target. The 'sailor' would entreat this person to buy it, and then the Jew would approach and whisper that he would buy the watch from the customer if he bought it from the 'sailor,' as well as give him a guinea for his trouble. He would then disappear, telling the customer to meet him at such-and-such place later on. If the stratagem worked, the customer would then buy a watch worth from ten to twenty-five shillings for 6l., 7l., or 8l. Later, when he went to look for the Jew, he would of course have disappeared. So widespread had this confidence trick become in 1817 that the Lord Mayor of London felt compelled to issue a warning not to buy watches from strangers in the street."

(I'm not entirely convinced by the logic of that last sentence, as it seems like there are many reasons not to buy watches from strangers in the street, but.)

And, while writing this post, I found this book: the 1792 The new cheats of London exposed; or, The frauds and tricks of the town laid open to both sexes: Being a guard against the iniquitous practices of that metropolis. Containing a new and clear discovery of all the various cheats, frauds, villainies, artifices, tricks, seductions, stratagems, impositions and deceptions, which are daily practised in London...Interspersed with useful reflections and admonitions. Will be reading!

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08 June 2013

Welcome, Anna Cowan

UNTAMED is set in 1816. Is there a particular reason you chose that year?

I wanted Untamed to be set in the Regency proper, but I have a squeamish aversion to war. I can’t help but be sceptical of happy endings in such a grim setting (despite the many romances that prove me wrong). I liked the idea of setting it in an England that’s dealing with the aftermath of war and social upheaval at the same time.

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

Colin Firth introduced me to Jane Austen, and Jane Austen introduced me to the last golden age of the English aristocracy. That’s always how the Regency feels to me, anyway – like this last, blind hurrah in the face of change. The aristocracy’s money still came from owning land, and they still held the balance of parliamentary power. But all of that would change in the next few decades as parliament was reformed and industry became the driving economic force of the country.

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

Inheritance laws caused me a massive headache. My hero, the Duke of Darlington, has his title threatened by a second claimant. In an earlier draft of Untamed he had already been duke for years before the second claim was lodged. Luckily a chance discussion on twitter lead me to understand that once you’re titled, you’re titled, and no one can take it away from you again. (Unless you commit treason, and then you get hanged.) So a massive thank you for that conversation, Isobel! You saved my book from being completely historically inaccurate.
Anything you flat-out altered or “fudged”? If so, why?

The heroine of Untamed is Katherine Sutherland, and she’s pretty unconventional. She’s certainly not alone in this – we readers love unconventional heroines! However, she’s unconventional out loud. Like, you couldn’t miss it. I love hearing about actual historical women who were loud and unconventional and effective in their own times. It’s just hard to know, when you’re writing a fairytale version of history, where the line is between plausible and entirely far-fetched. I couldn’t help going there with Katherine, though – she was such a joy to write.

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*

The scope of history is so terrifyingly large, I’m sure I’ve gotten hundreds of small details wrong. I still think about a mention of kale in the garden, and can’t remember whether I researched it or not. The most glaring liberty I’ve taken is to have one of the characters buy Gentleman Jackson’s as a savvy business investment. It’s utter rubbish, and I knew it even as I wrote it, but I couldn’t resist.

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

Darlington spends a good deal of the book dressed in elaborate Georgian dresses, pretending to be a woman. He looks pretty spectacular, and acting the woman doesn’t trouble him in the slightest. This is probably because he’s had a thing for dress-ups ever since he was tiny. He once ordered his mother’s dress-maker to make him an Egyptian headdress.

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

I was discussing the trope of cross-dressing in romance with a friend, when it suddenly occurred to me that the cross-dressing only ever happens one way round. As soon as I’d thought it, I imagined a rake trying to fall asleep in a room with five sisters who all thought he was a woman. The story has undergone tectonic shifts since that single idea, but I couldn’t resist trying to write the kind of man who would masquerade as a woman.

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

The first draft of Untamed was mostly informed by a general knowledge of the Regency from reading within the time period. As I redrafted I had to research small details and read scraps of parliamentary sittings and menus and newspapers. My favourite fact I came across was that sensibility was a respected quality in men, and they used to cry in parliament to underline important matters. The most frustrating detail I uncovered was that the British pound, gold standard, was created in 1816, the year Untamed is set. It was frustrating because I couldn’t find a single record of when exactly during the year it was brought into use. Parliamentary records from that year are suspiciously thin on the ground.

What/Who do you like to read?

The more I write, the less easy it is to really lose myself in reading. It’s a sad state of affairs! I still read predominantly romance, and especially loved Cecilia Grant’s A Gentleman Undone.

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?

I’ve finally admitted the horrifying truth about my writing process: I write a whole draft of the novel, set it aside, then write the whole novel again. Then I work on that and probably mostly rewrite it again. No matter how carefully I plan and plot, I can’t seem to get past this method of getting to know a novel and its characters!

What are you planning to work on next?

I’m really excited about the next book. The heroine is a debt-collector who lives on her own terms and by her own means. The hero is the naïve, lovely youngest son of someone-or-other, and he’s engaged to a proper girl whose family have just been dispossessed – by the heroine. The first time the two meet, he’s gone to speak to her about getting his fiancée’s belongings back, and he sees her murdering a man in an alleyway.

06 June 2013

Forensic Detection & the Historical Sleuth

In a blog interview I did around the release of  The Paris Affair, Heather Webb asked a question that got me to thinking about forensics in historical mysteries. So much of present day mysteries, in books, on television, in movies, involves analyzing forensic evidence. My Malcolm and Suzanne Rannoch have no CSIs, medical examiners, or forensic anthropologists to assist them in gathering and analyzing data. On the other hand, even without 21st century technology sleuths can still forensic evidence. C.S. Harris has a doctor character whose analysis of corpses is often of key help to Sebastian St. Cyr. The Victorian Sherlock Holmes was, as my father liked to say, a classic empiricist, his solutions built from the data he gathers. Both John Watson and Mary Russell frequently record him bemoaning the lack of data.

Like other literary investigators  in the 19th century and earlier, Malcolm and Suzanne look at footprints, find stands of hair or threads of fabric caught on cobblestones of table legs or left behind on sheets. Of course they can’t do DNA or chemical analysis, but they can do is compare the color of the hair or fabric or look at where the mud left behind by a shoe might have come from. If they’re really lucky someone drops a distinctive earring. They can use lividity and rigor to roughly arrive at time of death They can sometimes determine from a wound whether the killer is left or right handed.

Of course as a writer there are times the lack of sophisticated forensic analysis presents challenges in how one's detectives will solve the mystery. On the other hand, sometimes it can complicate matters in a good way. A killer in a crime of impulse, who probably would not be wearing gloves, would most likely to caught much more easily today than in the days before fingerprinting, let alone DNA analysis.

Writers, how do you deal with the lack of modern day technology in your books? Readers, what are some of your favorite examples of forensic analysis in an historical setting?

photo: Raphael Coffey


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