History Hoydens

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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

07 January 2013

Of January and First Person Research






Happy January!  I love the holidays - I confess I still have a hard time getting to sleep on Christmas Eve and writing this post over a peppermint mocha with my baby on my lap I'm still in holiday mode. But I realized that when I think of January I don't think of post-holiday blues. I think of settling in with cozy fires and cups of tea and getting back to work. Those cool, often rainy January days are perfect for writing.

I've been easing back into my WIP this past week and enjoying it, both writing and researching. Looking up some research details today I was thinking about different types of research. Travel - so amazing if often logistically and financially impossible. Websites filled with images, maps, and other fascinating information. History books that give us the benefit of historians' research and expertise. And then there's what is probably my favorite type of research of all. Letters and diaries written by people who lived through the events and visited the places I'm writing about.

I remember sitting in this same Peet's Coffee & Tea reading Colonel Augustus Simon Frazer's account of the chapel of San Juan in the Church of St. Roque in Lisbon which became the setting for a key scene between Suzanne and Raoul in His Spanish Bride. Those details not only gave me the setting, they really informed the tone of the scene. Frazer was a fascinating man, keenly sensitive to the horrors of war, who would stop to take in local culture while in the midst of a campaign. His letters also inspired many scenes in Spain in Dark Angel (including one of my favorites in a war-ruined convent with a piano still standing amidst the wreckage) and around Waterloo in Imperial Scandal, from a beer garden along the canal where Malcolm and Harry Davenport interview a suspect to scenes of the battle itself. The journal of Cavalié Mercer has also given shape and substance to a number of scenes in my books, from Waterloo in Imperial Scandal and Shores of Desire to the boulevards of Paris in The Paris Affair. Details such as sausages sizzling in a pan, elderly, shabbily dressed men and women hiring out wooden chairs to fashionable shoppers, a girl of eight selling matches ("Dix sols seulement, mon pauvre père il est malade") spring to vivid life in first person accounts like this.

Writers, what are some of your favorite first person sources? Readers, do novels ever send you looking for letters and diaries the authors used in research

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17 December 2012

Of Wassailing and Holiday Traditions


Where did time go? It seems like it was just Thanksgiving in the U.S. and suddenly the holidays are in full swing. My daughter Mélanie and I spent today at two very fun holiday parties, an (early) Solstice party and a Wassail party, a word which conjures up images of old English Christmases. Though our wassail party did not include a Wassail King and Queen or drinking the health of the trees, and our Wassail punch was not topped with slices of toast, which it was historically. The punch itself was delicious and very potent, with the nutmeg and cinnamon that are part of many historical recipes.


Following my daughter - an eager explorer - around the party and slowly sipping my Wassail punch (a small cup went a long way!),  I couldn't help but think about Christmas for my characters. Of course an "old English Christmas" is not a static thing but a melange of customs that changed and grew through the years, with a number of things that seem part of a classic British Christmas coming in in the Victorian era, when Prince Albert married Victoria and brought customs from his native Germany to their family. In the Regency, houses might well have been decorated with greenery for the midwinter holidays, such as the garlands twined round the stair rail at the party tonight, but they wouldn't have had my hosts' lovely Christmas tree (a tradition that came in with Prince Albert).

My new novella, His Spanish Bride, takes place in December and ends at Christmas. Though the story is set in Lisbon, it revolves around the British embassy, so the holiday details are mostly British - a band playing “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” (I had “Deck the Halls” until my wonderful copy editor pointed out that while the tune is old enough the words aren’t) and a Christmas Eve party at the end. A reader pointed out on my website that the hero and heroine in my series, Malcolm and Suzanne, grew up in different cultures, Malcolm British (technically Scottish, where the big holiday would have been Hogmanay, New Year's Day) and Suzanne French-Spanish. Given the fact that her father was a secular Jew and her mother was a lapsed Spanish Catholic and she grew up in a traveling theatre company, I imagine her childhood holiday traditions combined elements of different religions and cultures.

My book Vienna Waltz finds Malcolm and Suzanne in Vienna two years into their marriage at the Congress of Vienna. It ends at a Christmas Eve party given by Dorothée Talleyrand at the French embassy where she really did have a Christmas tree – apparently they called it “Christmas Berlin style” in Vienna that year. I have Suzanne telling Malcolm their little boy loved the tree and they talk about perhaps having one themselves some day. Writing that scene made me realize I could believably have them have a Christmas tree and other Continental traditions in pre-Victorian England. I think we tend to think of the blending of different cultural holiday traditions as something more contemporary, but in the Regency as now marriages and travel could lead to elements of different cultural traditions being combined to make holiday traditions unique to a family. The book I’m writing now has moved into December 1817 so I can include their anniversary and their daughter's first birthday. Not sure it will go as far as Christmas, but maybe in the epilogue…

What are your favorite holiday traditions, in your family or in literature?


photo: Raphael Coffey


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26 November 2012

On weddings, holidays, and His Spanish Bride

Hope everyone celebrating U.S. Thanksgiving had a wonderful holiday weekend.
Ours was made extra special by the fact that my daughter Mélanie waked three tiny steps from the hearth to me. She did so naturally, I almost didn't realize what she'd done until my uncle commented on it. She also had a great time playing with one cousin's golf balls, which made great toys, and another cousin's kitten [who beat a prudent retreat to high places].

I've always tended to avoid the chaos of shopping on Black Friday {the day after Thanksgiving that kicks off the U.S. holiday retail season). This year, thanks to a friend who babysat, I spent the afternoon at a matinee of Skyfall. But the day had an extra significance for me. It was the release date for His Spanish Bride, my e-novella about the wedding of Malcolm and Suzanne, the central couple in my series.

Because Malcolm and Suzanne's marriage marks the start of their adventures not the culmination, this meant going back in time to when they have just met, an interesting exercise because marriage changed both of them, and so much of their identity for me is wrapped up in their being a couple, not to mention being parents. As might be expected for two spies who marry in the midst of the Peninsular War, their wedding is hardly a conventional affair. But it occurs in December, so the story combines two literary traditions - wedding stories and holiday stories. I have a fondness for both types of story, from wedding stories like The Philadelphia Story and Busman's Honeymoon to holiday tales like Lauren's delightful The Mischief of the Mistletoe. I think what i like about both types of story is that they bring together friends and family with plentiful opportunity for conflicts, reunions, and revelry. Parents and children, sibling rivalry, ex-lovers home for the holidays or attending the same wedding--or perhaps one disrupting the wedding of another. Jane Austen recognized the benefit of such gatherings for bringing characters together. Emma opens with a wedding and includes a holiday party.

Both weddings and holidays involve certain traditions which give a frame to the story yet to which individual characters give their own unique spin. It's fun seeing fictional characters, even historical ones, go through some of the same traditions we go through ourselves, and also fun to see the differences. Malcolm and Suzanne's wedding takes place at the British embassy and is wrapped up in the investigation of a missing letter that could drive a wedge between Britain and her Spanish allies in the war against the French. Not surprising, given that Malcolm is a diplomatic attaché and intelligence agent and Suzanne is-- well, that's part of the story.  They slip away from their betrothal party for a bit of skullduggery, and Suzanne arrives at the solution to the mystery on their wedding night. Both their motives for entering into the marriage are complicated, and perhaps they are even deceiving themselves about the true reasons. The story ends at an embassy Christmas party at which, again typically for them, Malcolm and Suzanne are wrapping up the investigation.

What are some of your favorite holiday and wedding stories? To celebrate the release of His Spanish Bride, I'll give a signed cover flat for my forthcoming The Paris Affair to one of the commenters.

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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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