History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

30 April 2007

Where Ideas Come From

Where do ideas come from? Is that your least favorite interview question? I was at a conference this weekend where Nora Roberts had an answer. "Ideas? I get them at the little store around the corner. I paid a buck ninety eight."

Even before Nora made us laugh, that question came to mind recently. Two Mondays ago a tree fell on our house. Our only “premonition” was the sound of the tree cracking and the crunch as it took out the deck headed for the roof and us in the kitchen.

Paul and I did, indeed, have a moment of eye-to-eye wordless communication we write about that went something like “Here is comes! Let’s get out of here!” We never once thought we would be injured. We were not. We don't recall any noise beyond the crack and first crunch. We have a very responsive insurance company and are well on the road to rebuilding one wall, the roof, the kitchen and the chimney.

As the dust settled (literally), I began to think, “How could I use this in a book?” Trees must have fallen on houses in the Regency. What did they do without cranes to lift them off? How long did it take to repair them? I have yet to find the answers online but I am sure it is out there somewhere. What amazes me is that an idea would pop up even in a moment of great distress.

At a friend’s house a few weeks ago I picked up a book on her TBR stack “The Giant O’Brien,” by Hilary Mantel, a novel about a late 18th century giant. What grabbed my attention was the work of man-of-science John Hunter and how he was castigated for the (illegal) acquisition of cadavers for his research. Here was exactly the element I needed for my book currently undergoing revision. I found an excellent discussion of Hunter's life and work in the (non-fiction) book "Doctors: The Biography of Medicine" by SB Nuland. The author also examines the lives of a several other pre-19th century men-of-science.” Giving rise to even more ideas.

Years ago, when we were living in Juneau, Alaska, I was hiking toward the Mendenhall Glacier with a friend who was visiting. All of a sudden I heard a sharp crack. Grabbing Teri's hand I yelled, “Run!” We headed out to the overlook in time to see the glacier calve, a gigantic piece, the size of a ten story building, broke off and fell into the river, causing a huge wave, rising up as a respectable iceberg and leaving behind the dark, dark blue of compacted ice.

Teri was not nearly as impressed as I was. I explained to her that this was a once in a lifetime experience. Her response: “I thought we were running from a guy with a gun!” That incident was the core idea of a book where the place – Juneau – is s much a character as any person in the story. (Sorry to say that book never sold)

I have an endless list of where ideas come from. Incidents, books, artwork, the actions of a complete stranger, all have pushed me to research beyond my own experience. That research often opens the door to whole new worlds. Isn’t that one of the best parts of writing? Creating a world and living it with your characters? A world you could never truly be a part of. Care to share where your ideas come from?

Mary Blayney

27 April 2007

Medieval Unicorns and Maidens of the Purest Kind

I recently learned more than I wanted to know about unicorns. Just surfin the net one night last week doing “research,” I decided to just look up what the hell a unicorn really is. A cross between a horse and a goat? A horned ungulate with equid mane and tail? What exactly?

If you want an in depth explanation of what unicorns really might have been, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unicorn.

But since the unicorn has such a prominent presence in western medieval mythology and symbolism, I focused on the “can only be captured by a virgin” part of the lore.

Gotta say, when I poked a little deeper (no pun intended) into the obviously erotic and very phallic symbolism behind the unicorn’s horn, it me made me think twice about the beasts.

I had no idea that the relationship between the elusive unicorn and the virgin of the “purest kind” (is there any other kind?) was anything but platonic. Medieval art frequently depicts women in suggestive poses or scantly clad in the presence of a unicorn. Apparently, unicorns were incredibly attracted to a virgin’s scent and in some cases (but not always) she must be naked before he would climb into her lap and fall asleep---this of course after he suckled at her breast (let us assume he was thirsty), or she suckled him (not gonna go there), or she fondled him. Once he was asleep, he was killed by hiding hunters and his horn was removed. The prized horn you see, could detect the poison in a great lord’s drink.

In 12th and 13th century England, it was a common belief that a woman’s truthfulness about her virginity could be definitively determined by a unicorn. If you stood a woman in front of a unicorn, he could tell if she was a virgin or not…if he determined she was not, he would run his horn through her heart. If she was a virgin he would naturally take a liking to her, and if she had a suitor or got married, her lover or husband was at risk for being run through.

So maidens beware. Avoid encounters with a unicorn. They are not warm fuzzies. ;-)

Any other unicorn facts and trivia you care to share?

25 April 2007

Get Thee to a DECENT Library!

I’m not a very good researcher. When this blog was first proposed, I was a little skeptical about my qualifications. Sure, I write historical romance; I LOVE historical romance. But research? Wellll. . .

Kalen Hughes wasn’t buying it. "Just blog about your process! The heroine of To Tempt a Scotsman starts the book in boys’ clothes. Talk about the research you did into nineteenth-century women who dared to wear men’s clothing." Errrr. . . Research. Right. Well, some of my favorite romance novels of the past put women in boys’ clothes. And I was aware that there were actual historical figures who did this, George Sand for one. But mostly I just love the gimmick of it.

Now don’t get me wrong. I didn’t change the mores of mid-nineteenth century England to do it. The heroine isn’t being sassy or cute. She’s thumbing her nose at a world that’s already branded her a harlot. Being scandalous is a self-defense mechanism against the scorn she’s already suffered for her behavior. And the hero doesn’t think it’s charming. He finds her behavior shameful, as does the rest of society. So the fun of it is, we get to start at the low point of the relationship and work our way up!

But anyway, back to research. When Kalen said this to me, it only freaked me out further. "I’m a poser! A complete amateur! I’ll embarrass the other Hoydens!" I decided I’d better get me to a library and research something to blog about. So I trotted off to my county library and found. . . Ugh! Nothing! First search: Victorian, Women, Scandalous. Zero items found. Hmm. Okay. How about Victorian, Women, Outrageous? Zip. Victorian, Women? Nothing! NOTHING? Soooo . . time for the town library.

The first time I stopped by my new town library here in Utah, I was in for a rude awakening. I picked out a few books. The kids picked out a few more. I filled out the application and handed it over with a big smile. The librarian typed in my address and frowned. "You’re outside the city limits." Yep. "This isn’t your library. You’re in the county system." Huh? "You can get a card here, but it’ll cost you forty dollars a year." WHAT! We got directions to the county building, dropped everything, and ran. Still, I crawled back a few months later, forty dollars in hand. Winters are long in the Utah mountains, and the county library only has so many kids’ DVDs.

Still, my forty dollars did me no good in the research department. Victorian, Women? Nothing. I needed a much bigger system. With trembling fingers, I pulled up the website of the big, big, BIG library down in Salt Lake City. I didn’t bother with a book search. I went straight to the "How to Become a Member!" I clicked on "Not a Resident", then almost choked on my non-fat latte. EIGHTY DOLLARS! Argh. I couldn’t do it. Between the eighty dollars and the fortune I’d spend in gas money on a sixty minute round trip. . . This is the point at which I realized I’d once been library-spoiled and I didn’t even know it.

Flashback: Englewood, Colorado, 1996. Unbeknownst to me, I’m living in library paradise. If you join, say, the Arapahoe County library system as a resident, you’re automatically qualified to join any other library system in the state. Feel like spending the day at the big, beautiful downtown Denver library? Feel free! Show them your local library card and get a Denver library card. Check out whatever you want. Everyone’s family here!

My apologies to Colorado. I had no idea how lovely you were. Eighty dollars to join the SLC system. I didn’t want to do it, but I took a look at the catalog. Maybe it would be worth it? Victorian, Women. One hit. So not worth eighty dollars. And then. . . Then I stumbled into nirvana!!!

The University of Utah! So many books about Victorian women and Victorian sexuality and Victorian vice!!! Oh, I wanted to go down there and roll around in them. But I’m not a student there and never have been. What does this mean? I couldn’t find anything on the website! I called, was put on hold, waiting with baited breath. Finally the answer I’d been looking for! Fifty dollars, no need to pretend to enroll in the school, and I could check out an unlimited number of beautiful books!!! I'm proud to say I am now doing more research than I ever have before, and loving most of it.

It should never have taken me so long to find nirvana. Of course, I should have STARTED with the university library. Duh. Live and learn. So what’s the library system like in your town? Better than mine, I hope. Or are you forced to go to the university library right next to the university stadium on game days too? Where’s your favorite place to get lost in the stacks? And what's your record for longest time spent rolling in--I mean 'looking through'-- the books?

23 April 2007

How Dirty Girls Get By

One of the reader/writer complaints I see over and over is historical characters not giving a second thought to pregnancy or disease. Personally, I think this just goes part-and-parcel with being human. When I look around our modern world, with all its neat and efficient means of contraception and protection I still see plenty of venereal disease and unwanted pregnancies (just today there was a story about a woman giving birth on a street corner and leaving the baby there while she walked away!). People want what they want and they want it when they want it. As a species were just not that good at the whole restraint and consequences thing.

That said, ALL of my heroines (and most of my heroes) think about pregnancy and birth control. I think it’s only realistic since I’m writing about women who aren’t married and can’t just pass off the odd bastard as part of the family brood. And I have made a conscious decision not to address the issue of venereal disease (at least not in the context of my heroes and heroines!). While sexually transmitted diseases were rampant, clearly plenty of people managed never to catch one (or the entire population would have died off due to congenital syphilis).

There are several options, some of which are far more conductive to spontaneity than others:

Sponges with some kind of astringent. Vinegar, lemon juice or alcohol changes the PH of the vagina and kills the sperm. That's why it was at least partially effective. This is the option that my heroines most frequently use (it keeps the control in their court and it lets me snigger about the hero being “sponge worthy”).

Condoms. I doubt I’ll ever have these in a book. It cracks me up when I see the hero in an historical pull one out of his pocket and put it on. These were made of sheep's gut and had to be soaked in water to become pliable before use. Not very spontaneous, and kind of gross.

Abortifacient. Throughout most of history some kind of herbal D&C was known. They often were prescribed as some kind of tonic to “bring on the menses” or to abort a “mole”. There are several recipes for them in Aristotle’s Masterpiece, one of the most widely distributed books in England from the time of its first printing in the 17th century on through the 19th century. It is also worth noting that it was not considered an “abortion” until the fetus quickened (could be felt moving), usually around 4 months. This is the option the heroine of my first book chooses, but she’s a very “in charge” kind of gal (and I knew when I put it in there that it might offend some readers).

Cervical Caps. Casanova recommend a half-lemon or half-lime. I’ve also heard of beeswax plugs (no idea how effective that would be). I’ve yet to go there, but you never know . . .

What do you all think? Do you care if characters just leave this sort of thing to chance in historicals? Or does it bother you just as much as it would if a modern hero left off the condom?

20 April 2007

The Great and the Small: Medieval Military Orders

The best known and most romantic of all the military orders of the Middle Ages were the legendary Knights of the Round Table, from which developed the chivalric ideal expressed in medieval romances and chansons de geste. The initial concept of chivalry included bravery in battle and skill at arms, loyalty to one’s lady, and obedience to God; the later historical medieval military orders emphasized bravery and skill and obedience to God.

The idea of a military elite grew out of the caste of knighthood itself. The great ones, Hospitalers (also known as the Order of St. John) and the Knights of the Temple of Solomon (Templars), rose originally to serve as charitable orders: The Hospitalers aided the sick and wounded during the Crusades; Templars protected travelers along the main pilgrim road to Jerusalem. Both were large orders of warrior monks, the Hospitalers based on Cistercian rule, and the Templars also living under monastic rule and taking oaths of poverty, obedience, and chastity.

The Templars, founded in 1128 by Hugh de Payens, made their headquarters first in the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem and later in Cyprus, after Richard the Lionheart conquered it and later sold the island to them. Hugh’s original 8 companion knights grew to number over 200, whose responsibility was to the Church (the pope), rather than king or nation. Hence they were an international order, swearing obedience to God and their Grand Master until death.

As a result of the wealth the Templars garnered, this order grew into respected and trusted bankers and became rich enough to support its own navy (as did the Hospitalers). The jealousy such financial success aroused in the French king, Philip the Fair, prompted the Templars downfall: on Friday, October 13, 1307, Philip accused the Templars in France of heresy, seized their property, imprisoned all but 13 knights who managed to escape, and burned the remaining 57 at the stake.

Hospitalers escaped this fate for two reasons: (1) they had no headquarters in France at the time, and (2) they weren’t as wealthy as the Templars. Also, some historians have suggested, as an order the Hospitalers were not as stubborn (some would say pig-headed) as the Templars, who
flaunted their allegiance to the pope, not the king

Suppression of the Templars in the 14th Century led to creation of new orders: The Knights of Christ in Portugal and Knights of Montesa in Aragon. Gradually such smaller orders slid into secularism, sometimes fighting against each other as they pledged themselves to various countries and counties. From 1130 on, both Templars and Hospitalers established a presence in Spain (Aragon and Castile), and aided in the subsequent Christian Reconquista..

In Northeast Europe rose the Order of Teutonic Knights, which began as a hospital corps for the sick and wounded at the siege of Acre in 1190. This order owed allegiance to king and country rather than God and the Catholic church. This was also true of the Brethren of the Sword, founded early in the 13th Century in the Baltic area known as Livonia (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), and the Order of St. Catherine, founded in the 1330's in south-east France, and the Order of St. George, founded in Hungary in 1326. Another order, The Order of the Sash, founded in Castile in 1330, survived into the 15th Century.

Other smaller orders included the short-lived Order of the Star in France (1353-1356), whose motto “never retreat in battle” quickly decimated their members, and the Order of the Golden Fleece in Burgundy, created by King Philip the Good on the occasion of his marriage to Isabella of Portugal in 1430, which resulted in an organization of 25 knights swearing personal loyalty to the king.

Primary source: Richard Barber, The Reign of Chivalry

18 April 2007

A Country House Party!

You're invited to a (virtual) Country House Party~
Where: Riversdale House

Your Hosts: George Calvert (grandson of the fifth Lord Baltimore) and Rosalie Stier Calvert
Please arrive via carriage on Friday evening, in time for dinner at four. After dinner, there will be entertainments in the drawing room (music, cards) until supper at ten.
Breakfast will be served on Saturday at half past nine. After breakfast, the gentlemen will go hunting or fishing or join the ladies on a walk or an outing, or play billiards in the hall. The ladies will spend part of the morning on their own or in Mrs. Calvert's dressing rooms, then walk around the lake and gardens, watch the gentlemen fish, or go for a drive to a neighboring park. At half past three, ladies and gentlemen will retire to their own rooms to change for dinner, served at four in the dining room. Following dinner, the ladies will retire to the drawing room, where the gentlemen will join them around seven for tea and coffee (after enjoying cigars and port in the dining room once the ladies have vacated). Cards, 'romping', reading the newspapers, verse-making, fortune telling or improptu dancing will fill the time before and after supper (served at ten) until everyone goes to bed around twelve.

Such would be the schedule of a typical late 18th/early 19th century English country house party. Actually, I will be going to such a party this weekend, at historic Riversdale House which is actually in Riverdale Park, Maryland (as England is too far to travel for the weekend, I'm afraid!). It's called the "Regency Ladies' Weekend," and, along with several other guests, I will don Regency-era clothing and enjoy period food, accomodations, and entertainment (gentlemen may join in the festivities on Saturday night!). I will also get to tour the house's collections, and that's what I'm most excited about.

But as to REAL country house parties, there were many reasons to host or to attend one. House parties served a political function, simply as a means of entertainment, or even a matchmaking function. With arranged marriages disappearing over the course of the 18th century, ambitious parents were forced to engineer good matches rather than arrange them, and house parties served as a perfect, relaxed environment for a couple to move toward an engagement.

For the most part, between breakfast and dinner, guests were left to do what they wished, with every possible facility laid open for their enjoyment--a room for reading, a billiard room, print room, drawing room, music room. There was hunting and fishing, informal tours of gardens and orangeries--many ways for guests to amuse themselves. By the early 19th century, country houses had begun to serve a meal called 'luncheon' to bridge the lengthy gap between breakfast (at nine or ten in the morning) and dinner (between six-thirty or seven in the evening). Luncheon was informal and often only for the women, as the men were out shooting or hunting.

A formal dinner, however, was the one given at any house party, involving gathering in formal dress in the drawing room before dinner, a formal or semi-formal procession of family and guests from the drawing room to the dining room, the serving of a grand, multi-course meal, the retirement of the women to the drawing room while the men drank, smoke, and talked, and finally, the return of the men to join the ladies in the drawing room where music, cards, and other entertainments would take place.

The Ladies' Weekend at Riversdale House will certainly not be as elaborate as that, but I hope it will give me a taste of what such a gathering must have been like in such a grand home. Almost like traveling back in time!

*Note--my source for most of the post--and one of my favorite research books!--is LIFE IN THE ENGLISH COUNTRY HOUSE by Mark Girouard. The pictures, all of Riversdale House, are from the Riversdale House site, where you can find information about the house's history, and even more great photos.

My question to you is this: if you could travel back in time for one week and one week only to any era/location, where would you go, and why? For me, it would definitely be Regency-era England, but only if I could be a 'lady' and not a scullery maid! Second choice would be to an early colonial Virginia settlement (or any of the southern colonies--can't deal with the cold!), just to see how wonderously beautiful this land must have been then.


16 April 2007

The Landscape of a Novel

I'm writing a contemporary novella right now, which gives me plenty of mental space to contemplate the state of the modern historical novel. This is my "down time" -- when I'm writing contemporaries, I do my historical plotting, planning, and pondering.

Lots of pondering.

In a recent chat with the very talented Kensington Brava author Diane Whiteside, we discussed world building in the modern historical. With many publishers cutting page counts every year, authors are forced to produce shorter books. There isn't a lot of room to roam. In the interest of squeezing plot, characterization, and sexual tension into a book, something has to give.

Sometimes it's the world building that's sacrificed. When push comes to shove, the historical landscape can end up feeling a lot like our contemporary world, except there are fireplaces instead of central heating.

When it comes to world building, Elizabeth George is one of the best. (For those of you who aren't familiar with her work, George writes mystery novels set in contemporary England). George's books are long -- Outlander long -- but she could world build even without length. You can open one of her novels to any page, read any sentence, and immediately know you're in contemporary England. Here's an example, from In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner:

Jeremy Britton sat in the parlor. As it was half past ten, he was thoroughly blotto, head on his chest and a cigarette burning down between his fingers. Julian crossed the room and removed the fag from his father's hand. Jeremy didn't stir.

I've never read this particular book, but from these three sentences, picked at random, I can see that this is a dysfunctional British family, probably once wealthy, with an alcoholic father about to ruin the family and a son wearily taking care of things as best he can. The words she chooses and the details she includes -- the cigarette on the verge of starting the house on fire -- conveys a sense of impending doom. Even in this simple scene of a man slumped over drunk in a chair, she tells us a lot about the history of these people and the circumstances of their lives.

Every word counts. Every word is used to full effect. It's something I aim for in my own writing -- to choose the details that are significant, that convey the landscape of the book to the reader. To build the world for the reader purely through the eyes of the character.

George recently published a non-fiction book on the craft of writing fiction called Write Away. In the book, George devotes several chapters to what she calls the "landscape" of the novel. Landscape (as she defines it) is bigger than setting. Landscape is the larger history of the fictional world -- the personal history of not just the characters, but their entire family; the specifics of the weather in their era, and how it impinges on them; the history that's led up to the present time; all the little habits and details that you would take for granted if you were a person living in that particular place during that particular time.

I'm working on building the landscape for my next Regency novel -- a landscape where the family history is built on duty instead of personal fulfillment; where keeping up appearances is more important than the truth; where nothing is what it seems; where the elegant manor is a prison that looks like a palace. And I hope to follow Elizabeth George's example and make every word, every detail, every scene, show the landscape of history that led up to the little slice of Regency England that my characters inhabit.

I'd love to hear examples from romance novels, or any other thoughts you'd like to share.

Best to all,

13 April 2007

The World, on foot and on the page

It was our car mechanic on the telephone.

"Valve," he said.

"Cylinder," he added.

Actually he said a great deal more: he's conscientious, knowledgeable, and a bit of a showoff. But "valve" and "cylinder" were the only words I actually heard.

"Money?" I asked. I'll exercise some reticence here, though, and spare you the lurid details of his reply.

"Uh, time?" I asked weakly.

He thought it would take the better part of a week; it wound up taking even longer. During which time Michael and I discovered how much we loved being carless. We learned the bus routes and schedules, we walked, and we gained a sense of San Francisco that we've never had in our 35 years of living here.

But Rebecca Solnit tells it better in her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, in a brief anecdote about a friend whose truck was stolen:
...though everyone responded to it as a disaster, she wasn't all that sorry it was gone, or in a hurry to replace it. There was a joy, she said, to finding that her body was adequate to get her where she was going, and it was a gift to develop a more concrete relationship to her neighborhood and its residents. We talked about the stately sense of time one has afoot and on public transit, where things must be planned and scheduled beforehand, rather than rushed through at the last minute, and about the sense of place that can only be gained on foot. Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors - home, car, gym, office, shops - disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it.
One lives in the whole world...

Our car runs great with its rebuilt engine, but since we've gotten it back we try to reserve it for bad weather, serious grocery shopping, trips outside the city, and time emergencies. Of course we're not entirely successful - and I hasten to add that this luxurious choice is only possible because we live in a city with adequate public transportation, and because we're at a point in our lives where neither of us is working a forty-hour week or desperately hurrying to the daycare center before it closes at six.

But what a luxury it is, "that sense of place that can only be gained on foot." And what a gift for a writer: trying to live more completely in the world around me is a goad and encouragement to try to build a coherent imaginary world (and yes, Kalen, this post is partially inspired by your post of a few days ago, about world-building).

I think of some of my favorite literary walkers: Leopold Bloom crisscrossing the streets of Dublin, Mrs. Dalloway gaily setting off to buy the flowers herself. A stroll through an urban landscape is a merging of observation and instrospection. The tactile factuality of buildings and bridges and pavement, the ephemerality of ever-changing crowds like the migration of birds - all of it flickers through the lenses, seeps through the filters of a character's conscious perceptions and all-but-forgotten memories. The urban walker is an emblem of modernity, alone and among the crowd, meditative and critical all at once, William Blake wandering "through each chartered street" of a dark, early industrial London.

Which brings me to the Regency period of my novels, and back to Solnit's Wanderlust. Because although her meandering, splendidly erudite history of walking moves from prehistory to yesterday, it's not surprisingly that it's her discussions of literary walking in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that engage me most fully: Blake in London, Wordsworth walking through France a year after the storming of the Bastille (and taking the Alps at the impressive rate of thirty miles a day).

But Solnit doesn't only write about urban wanderings and epic excursions. She also tells us that recreational walking as an exercise of genteel or romantic sensibility got its start in the "improved" country estates that became so fashionable among the landed classes in Georgian England, when the landscape gardeners Brown and Repton accomplished prodigious feats of earthmoving to produce elegant, "natural"-seeming prospects, with captivating, picturesque views in every direction.

While as for the female walker in that landscape, and as for love and romance - Solnit offers a discussion of Pride and Prejudice in terms of the numerous walks Elizabeth Bennet takes through its pages. I won't try to summarize her enlightening and original argument, but I'll give you a little snippet of it, in an illuminating take on a passage whose depth had eluded me until now:
On a walk where they manage to lose all their companions and "she went boldly on with him alone," Elizabeth and Darcy finally come to an understanding, and their communications and newfound happiness take up so much time that "'My dear Lizzy, where can you have been walking to?' was a question which Elizabeth received from Jane.... She had only to say in reply, that they had wandered about, till she was beyond her own knowledge." Consciousness and landscape have merged, so that Elizabeth has literally gone "beyond her own knowledge" into new possibilities.
Ah. Yes. Wow.

And what about you? Readers and writers alike, do you pay attention to how characters move through a fictional world, and how the world enters the mind of a fictional character in motion? (And I must admit I'm always curious about how you writers who understand horses move them and their riders thru the landscape.)

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12 April 2007

Winner, Claiming the Courtesan!

Jane George! Anna Campbell would like to send you a signed copy of Claiming the Courtesan. Please email me with your snail addy so I can forward it to Anna.


11 April 2007

I'm Henry the Eighth, I am, I am!

So I heard all the buzz about the new series The Tudors, but I read it with a little sadness. I don’t have Showtime, so there was no chance I’d see it until it hit DVD. Which is fine, really. I have a huge TV problem and I didn’t have room in my too-big lineup to accommodate it. And then. . .

Then! I saw The Tudors listed on my Tivo Guide and clicked on it with a lot of doubt. Some sort of preview? A "making of" special? But lo and behold it was the series! Whaaaa? DirecTV cruelly previewed two episodes of the show in a brutal attempt to make me sign up for Showtime! Well, it didn’t work, but I did watch the first two episodes.

This isn’t my time period and it certainly isn’t romance (*cough*wife killer*cough*), but I did enjoy it. I may have enjoyed it more than someone who DOES know about the time period. I wasn’t concerned with costuming, and I actually don’t know what’s going to happen, aside from the obvious wife issues, so I was surprised when the big, sexy, slightly-crazed duke was beheaded.

Also, I’m not very familiar with court traditions in any time period, so although I had some idea that the king was waited on by nobles (and that this was supposed to be a great honor) it was still shocking to see the great duke standing at attention, holding the king’s washbowl for him, a titled servant to his majesty.

The costumes seemed accurate, but I’ll leave that opinion to better Hoydens than I. The fabric was absolutely gorgeous; even a simple black wool cloth was woven with a different black thread to add texture and pattern. This is the kind of thing I find difficult to portray in my writing without feeling that I’m offering an aside that interferes with the flow of the story.

I thought Jonathan Rhys-Meyers made an excellent King Henry. He’s sexy spiced with a clear threat of danger. I feel very strongly that I would NOT have wanted to be a king’s mistress. Talk about playing with fire! I read a very, very interesting take on this time period in Time or Newsweek or some such. (Yes, we have a magazine problem too. Ahem.) And as I was watching the show, I saw the set up for the huge religious problems to come. Henry’s closeness with Cardinal Wolsey. His love for his advisor (a cousin?) who’s a deeply spiritual Catholic. In the magazine article, a history scholar said people these days don’t understand just how huge an upheaval it was when Henry stepped away from the Church. He said it would be as if our president fell in love with a Muslim woman, married her, and made every single person in the country convert to Islam. Imagine the chaos and rebellion and turmoil. This really drove the point home for me, and I wish I could watch the rest of the show.

All in all, I had a good time with Henry. For me, it wasn’t as delicious as Rome or Deadwood, but both those shows are over soon. (Or was that the last episode of Rome already? It seemed like the ending, but HBO didn’t have the courtesy to tell me!) The soapy aspects of it seemed appropriate, considering Henry’s life, and I liked the way they tried to modernize it. We got a nice, long time with Henry’s muscled arms when he was trying on a new doublet sans sleeves and shirt, and then decided to have a meeting mid try-on. *g*

So have any of you seen The Tudors? What did you think? Historically accurate? Just fun? Or neither?

09 April 2007

Dukes, A Cast of Thousands

Recently on one of the loops or blogs (honestly can’t remember which) there was a discussion of justifying badly behaved heroes by saying that it’s “historically accurate” for men to behave that way. I’m not buying it. The whole point of writing romance (and reading it) for me is that I’m writing about the 1% who weren’t rampaging ass-hats.

But there were other points brought up too: Baths (or the lack there of), horse droppings in the streets (street sweepers existed not just because the city was crawling with the poor), and my favorite, the thousand or so dukes that seemingly occupy England (and sometimes Scotland and Wales). Currently there are only 27 dukedoms in all of Britain, and they are held by only 24 people (yep, somebody is doubling up). The first English Duke (Edward, the Black Price) was created in 1337, and the title died out entirely during Elizabeth’s reign (all those political machinations). James I and Charles II were particularly profuse in adding to the peerage, as was Queen Anne, but even then, dukes remained a rarity (earls, viscounts, and barons, however are plentiful, relatively speaking).

But there’s something about a duke: readers love them, editors can’t resist them, and writers all seem to have at least one (and sometimes more!) lurking in their imaginations. What do you all think, are we in duke overload, or are you always happy to meet another one?

06 April 2007

Taking the Heat for Writing Romance

My first book’s publication is looming large, even though it isn’t released until September, this week I am making ARCs, getting bookmarks ready, and sheepishly confessing to astonished co-workers and family that yes, I WRITE ROMANCE. Someone invariably raises a quizzical eyebrow and says “bodice rippers, you?????” Then they snigger, and ask me why don’t I write a real book? That I write historical romance (or in my case, “horsetorical” romance) is even more laughable apparently.

But you know, few things can compare to sitting down at the computer and spinning a tale of my own creation, and when I hit the zone---good grief, it’s better than chocolate!

So, to all those historical romance writers (and romance writers of any genre) who know what I am talking about---the funny looks, the covert or not-so-covert comments from those who have probably never even read a romance (or have and didn’t realize it was a romance), take heart. The truly greats have taken heat for writing romance, especially for romantic comedy. What fluff! the critics say. . .

To the first two History Hoyden blog readers who post the name of the author who wrote the quote below, I’ll send you a signed cover flat of my book, DARK RIDER.

"I could not sit down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I would be hung before I finished the first chapter: No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other."

Happy romance reading!
Kathrynn Dennis

04 April 2007

Casting a wide net, with Anna Campbell

Or should that be casting a net widely? If you saw my interview earlier in the week, you’ll know I’m a voracious and omnivorous reader. I’ll read anything, even the back of the milk carton if I’m really stuck. It’s amazing what you can find out on the back of a milk carton!

Recently, someone asked me where I got my ideas and I answered ‘everywhere’ which is true. Something that often sparks ideas is reading nonfiction based outside the Regency. I read a lot within the Regency period too - I’m currently in the middle of Men of Honor by Adam Nicolson about the Battle of Trafalgar, a book well worth a look.

But I want to talk about those ideas that come from left field. Those ideas that catch my interest and start me asking, “What if that happened in the Regency? What would be the implications?”

One of the germs of my courtesan story was The Glitter and the Gold by Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan. It’s the autobiography of the Vanderbilt heiress who became the Duchess of Marlborough in 1895. It’s a long time since I read it – I borrowed it from a friend. But I still remember Consuelo’s description of visiting Monte Carlo in the Belle Epoque and seeing the grandes horizontales, the famous courtesans of the day. The one who really captured my imagination was La Belle Otero. You will see why if you read the Wikipedia entry about her:


Another woman who really appealed to me was Catherine ‘Skittles’ Walters who was famous in the Victorian period both for her reputation as a demimondaine and also for her innate style. I’m writing another courtesan story and Skittles is with me as I create my heroine. Skittles was smart and brave and never kissed and told which is pretty classy, given who she was kissing, including the future Edward VII. I always get a kick out of the fact that she had herself sewn into her riding habits (she was a famous horsewoman) to show off her amazing figure. Here’s the wikipedia entry for her:


Another woman who inspired my current heroine is the French writer George Sand (Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin – and with a name like that, you can see why she plumped for George!). I was a dedicated piano student for most of my school life and of course, Chopin featured strongly in my education. If you’re into Chopin, poor George is something of a villain. But since then, I’ve found out more about this amazing woman who was a feminist before her time, who wore men’s clothing and smoked (shocking!) and made her living writing. And she died in the arms of her much younger lover at the age of 72. Go, George!

It’s been fascinating reading about these women although only George Sand lived close to the era I’m writing about (she was born in 1804 and my current story is set in 1826). They all had attributes that were easily transferred to a notorious Regency courtesan, the glamour, the independence, the courage, the sheer street smarts.

So thinking about this subject has left me with a few questions I’d love your thoughts on. Have you ever read anything in a book and transposed the situation to another time or place and wondered how it would all work out? Are there areas of the Regency you’d like to see explored more often? What do you admire in a heroine?

The best answer gets a signed copy of Claiming the Courtesan, my debut release from Avon which was released on 27th March.

I've Suddenly Lost My Appetite

Hi all! It’s Spring Break here, so I’m afraid this will be a rather quick and dirty post. I once blogged about food adulteration in Industrial England, but I don’t think anyone wants to revisit that nightmare again. Yuck. So here is some information about the progress of food preparation and sale in England during the nineteenth century. (All information comes from that lovely, thorough book Food in History by Reay Tannahill.)

Until the Napoleonic wars, land use in England wasn’t managed for efficiency. Rather, farming and division of lands were determined mostly by tradition. But blockades during the wars made British production of meat and grain a priority. Britain declared war on "unutilized land," and in doing so, forced many peasants and small farmers out of the country. Livestock had once been free to roam on open land where peasants could also raise a few crops or livestock of their own. But in the interests of efficiency, open land was fenced and hedged.

This change in land use soon met up with the industrial revolution and forced even more rural people to migrate to the cities. So how to feed all these hordes of people? Before this, food had been raised locally and eaten locally. There was no reliable way to preserve and ship food in mass quantities. Potatoes were hardy and easily transportable, and were sold on city streets by baked potato vendors, but the great potato famines caused serious shortages. Bread was therefore the staple food of most city dwellers and was bought from bakers (who apparently kneaded great quantities of dough while half-naked and dripping sweat into their product. Ewwwww!).

Bread isn’t exactly an ideal food as far as vitamins and minerals go, especially if it makes up eighty percent or more of your diet, but bread became even less nutritious after the 1840’s. Old-style mills crushed the wheat germ into the flour, giving it almost all its nutrients, but also preserving oils, which caused the flour to spoil quickly. A new mechanical milling process popped the germ out to be sieved off, allowing grain to be milled into fine, white flour, and also allowing the lower classes to sink into a mire of scurvy, rickets, and a general lack of good health.

Milk was a problem too, as it had to be produced in close proximity to its consumers. Local London cows had once grazed in the parks and green spaces of the city, but crowding soon forced them into dank alley sheds. The sickly cows produced thin, nasty milk that was often topped with hot water for sale as "Warm from the cow!" Canning and shipping techniques weren’t perfected until the 1850’s with the invention of condensed and sweetened milk. Unfortunately, condensed milk was usually made with skim milk and lacked vitamins and fats. A whole generation of city children were raised on this type of milk, resulting in (more) epidemics of rickets and other diseases.

Canned meat was developed during the Regency, but canned food was actually MORE expensive than fresh food for many years, so consumption was confined to wealthy travelers and explorers. But as passenger ships began using more and more canned food, canning became a big industry, though there was a minor glitch. Canners believed that the key to preservation lay in getting all the air out of the can. Unfortunately, the key was actually heat. When manufacturers began putting out new GIANT cans of meat that couldn’t quite be heated through during the canning process. . . putrefaction ran rampant, and it took decades for canned meat to recover its reputation.

So does all this make you hungry? Though I’ve addressed the foods of the lower classes here, the truth is that all this affected the rising middle classes in the cities also. Still, not many middle-class or impoverished city dwellers make it into romance novels. And, frankly, there’s nothing very romantic about London food in the nineteenth century, but I’m still fascinated by it. It’s sort of like reading The Jungle all over again! Bon appetit!


03 April 2007

Welcome, Anna Campbell!

Claiming the Courtesan

by Anna Campbell

Avon—Available Now!

He would marry her, and possess her in every way possible.

The Duke of Kylemore knows her as Soraya, London’s most celebrated courtesan. Men fight duels to spend an hour in her company. And only he comes close to taming her. Flying in the face of society, he decides to make her his bride; then, she vanishes, seemingly into thin air.

Dire circumstances have forced Verity Ashton to barter her innocence and change her name for the sake of her family. But Kylemore destroys her plans for a respectable life when he discovers her safe haven. He kidnaps her, sweeping her away to his isolated hunting lodge in Scotland, where he vows to bend her to his will.

There he seduces her anew. Verity spends night after night in his bed… and though she still plans her escape, she knows she can never flee the unexpected, unwelcome love for the proud, powerful lover who claims her both body and soul.

Hey, Hoydens, thank you so much for inviting me. I love your site - it's one of my failproof escapes from the horrors of the work in progress. Pam, congratulations on the RITA nomination!

Claiming the Courtesan is set in Regency/Georgian England. How did you become interested in this time period? What you love about it?

I bet I give the same answer 90% of people give you. Like most girls of my era growing up in Australia, I read Georgette Heyer and just loved her. The sparkle and the romance and the wit and the emotion. Then I discovered Jane Austen and fell madly in love with Mr. Darcy.

Having said that, I set out to write any period BUT the Regency. I started my romance reading back in the days when they used a wide variety of settings. To give you an example, one of my all-time favorites is called The Flesh and the Devil by Teresa Denys. A really compelling bodice ripper (no getting around that one) set in the backwaters of 17th century Spain. They don't write 'em like that any more!

So I became a bit of a setting tart (why does that make me think of wiggly custard in pastry?). I started and occasionally finished books set in the Hundred Years War, the Italian Renaissance, Elizabethan England, 19th century Australia - oh, and the one I did before I started my first Regency was a terrifically commercial proposition set in 18th-century Hungary. Hmm, publishers would line up for that manuscript, I'm sure!

Then I screwed up courage to enter my first writing contest through Romance Writers of Australia with the first kiss scene from Goulash Guy. To my utter astonishment, I placed and got incredibly encouraging feedback. By this stage, it was over twenty years since I'd finished my first manuscript and I'd given up any hope of ever being published. But I suddenly wondered if sitting in my garret writing these stories I loved but nobody else ever saw was selling myself short and maybe I should try and write something commercial. Which at that stage was Regency historical romantic comedy. To give my Regency credentials, though, I have to say I read a lot of nonfiction about the Regency and I'd read literally thousands of Regency-set novels.

The strange thing is the minute I wrote the first words of that comedy (which ended up finaling in the Golden Heart in 2006), I felt like I’d come home. My voice was so suited to this setting. And I knew enough about the Regency through all the reading and traveling I’d done, that anything I didn’t know, I knew where to find, if you know what I mean.

So now I’m a Regency girl! Although to be completely accurate, my current books are reign of George IV and set in the 1820s. There was a decadent edge to that era before Victoria took the throne that fits the darker, more sensual stories I’m now writing.

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

One of the things I love about writing historicals is that you DO have to deal with the restrictions of the times. I like watching people navigate their society to find happiness. Having said that, though, I think all that historical reading has given me a picture of the past that doesn’t necessarily chime with what a modern romance reader will accept. You’re constantly walking that fine line between historical accuracy and telling a story people find compelling and believable now.

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

I actually think what sparks a book is EVERYTHING! You know, something will go to the back of your mind and then something else and eventually you have characters who won’t leave you alone until you write their stories.

Claiming the Courtesan came from a couple of places. I live near Sydney’s red light district, or at least I need to go through Kings Cross to reach my local train station. So for years, I walked past prostitutes waiting for clients. And given my historical bias, I started to think about what you’d do in the Regency if you were poor and unprotected by family or friends and you had responsibilities that meant you had to earn a living. You’d do your best to tread the straight and narrow – or at least my heroine does. And about the only work available for a poor girl was domestic service which put her at the mercy of her employers. Throw in the fact that Soraya/Verity is beautiful enough to stop traffic and she’s soon in a situation where she either accepts money for what men want from her or they just take it by force. The streets of every major town were thronging with women who had been domestic servants and had lost their reputation and therefore any chance of finding work. Prostitution was the only way they could feed themselves and their dependents. I’d much rather live now than in the Regency!

Anyway, one day I was lying in the bath (all my best ideas come in the bath) and these characters started to nag me. Verity who surrendered what she believed in for the sake of the people she loved and the Duke of Kylemore, a man who had everything and yet had nothing. A man totally unacquainted with love who was suddenly in the grip of a grand passion. How would he cope? And of course the answer is he wouldn’t – and everything he did to keep this one glimmer of light in his life just drove Verity further away.

I told these characters in no uncertain terms to leave me alone. I wrote comedies, not dark, dramatic stories full of emotion. I didn’t even think I could write emotion, let alone the intense sex scenes that such a story would require.

But these two wouldn’t go away. So one day just to shut them up (um, is it just me or am I starting to sound slightly unhinged here? I swear this was what it was like and I lead a perfectly functional life nonetheless!), I wrote the first chapter. Then somehow a second. And I ended up with Claiming the Courtesan which was unlike anything I’d ever written and which has become my debut romance for Avon. Life is very odd sometimes!

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

I do a lot of reading, as you’ll gather, and courtesans are such an interesting part of high society (well, the fringes of high society) that I’d soaked up a lot of information without actually meaning to. When I realised that I was going to have a crack at telling this story, I started reading specifically about the demimonde. To my relief and delight, I found out that my idea wasn’t off the planet. There was a book by Katie Hickson called Courtesans that described the story of Elizabeth Armistead and Charles James Fox and honestly, EA was my Verity come to life in many ways. And I read a book called Amazing Grace about dukes and was astonished to discover quite how many did marry their mistresses, although usually after they’d had a family with a previous wife or two.

What/who do you like to read?

Dorothy Dunnett is probably the writer (outside classics like the Brontes and Jane Austen and Tolstoy) who I admire most. In romance, I have so many favorites. A few include Loretta Chase, Laura Kinsale, Anne Stuart, Connie Brockway, Judith Ivory, Nicola Cornick, Anne Gracie. I’ve recently discovered J.R. Ward and Nalini Singh who write paranormals - I love the emotional intensity they convey. Dorothy L. Sayers. Barbara Samuel, who writes moments that just cut to your heart. So many wonderful writers, so little time! I could go on forever but I’ll stop there.

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’m most definitely a pantser. Plotting is by far more efficient but the problem is my characters guide the events and the story emerges organically. Which means I write first drafts that should be shot to put them out of their misery. Then second drafts which might be worth triage. Then third drafts… You get the idea. It’s painfully slow and awfully scary as I’m never sure if I’ll be able to do it. But unfortunately the process is the process, insane as it drives me!

What are you planning to work on next?

My second book for Avon, Untouched, comes out in December. It’s another Regency noir. I’m currently in that awful first draft stage of book three which is also a courtesan story.

02 April 2007

A Fully Realized World

I think this is what all authors are attempting to create when they sit down to write, and what all readers are hoping to find when they crack open the pages of a book. Whenever favorite historical novels or writers are discussed, there is one name that inevitably appears: Georgette Heyer. Aside from the fact that she’s simply an amazing story teller, with a gift for wit and dialogue, I think the reason she makes every list, repeatedly, is that she created a fully realized world. So fully realized, in fact, that it spawned it’s own book—Georgette Heyer’s Regency World—and many readers can’t imagine any other competing vision of Georgian England.

That’s right, it’s not just the paranormal authors who have to worry about world building . . . historical writers share this burden. We have to envision our world, know the rules that govern it, the laws that shape it, the mores that twist it up into knots. We have to know the tiny details of everyday life (like how to light a candle without a match) as well as the larger ones (rules of primogeniture, anyone?). So many things that when all fitted together hopefully create a believable world.

There has been a lively discussion of Vic Gatrell’s City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-century England on a loop of historical authors that I’m a part of. I must admit, this book is right up my alley. So much so that I begged a friend to drag the 696 page tome home from England for me before it was released here in the States. I love books of this type. Books that speak to the dirty, steamy, naughty underbelly of people’s lives.

When Gatrell says Allow this rude language a more prominent place in our attentions, therefore—prioritize real behavior and not the evidence of polite discourse, conduct books or sermons—and our view o the age is usefully reconfigured. it's as though he’s speaking directly to me. This “real behavior” is one of the key ingredients in MY Georgian World. A world which is very different from that envisioned by Heyer.

And the beauty of it is that this is a good thing. No two worlds are going to be exactly the same, even though we’re all basing our world on the same history, the same books, the same everything. Why? Because the facts must be filtered through each writer’s personal experience. What I many choose to highlight will never be exactly the same as what any other author will choose. Strive as I might, I can never write a book set in Georgette Heyer’s Regency World, any more than I can write one set in Jo Beverley’s, or Mary Balogh’s, or Julia Ross’s, or Pam Rosenthal’s (though I’m grateful that as a reader I get to visit all of them).

As a reader do you appreciate discovering different visions of the same “world” or do you find yourself disconcerted when discovering some unexpected vista lurking behind a run of the mill clench cover?

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