History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

31 July 2007

To Tempt a Scotsman is Finally Here! (Kind of)

To Tempt a Scotsman by Victoria Dahl

She Has Nothing Left To Lose . . .
After finding herself at the center of a very public scandal that left one man dead and another on the run, Lady Alexandra Huntington has exiled herself to her brother’s estate and is content to manage his affairs. But the arrival of darkly handsome Collin Blackburn awakens her curiosity and her desire—and the advantage of being a fallen woman is that she can be ruined only once…
Except Her Heart . . .
After a promise sworn to his father, Collin Blackburn is compelled to seek the aid of the woman who brought about his brother’s death in a senseless duel. Yet Lady Alexandra is not the shameless femme fatale he expected. In fact, Collin suspects she is guilty of nothing more than a hunger to experience passion, and the brawny Scot is certainly equipped to oblige. But the quick-witted, keenly sensual Alexandra has a few lessons of her own to impart—on life, love, and the delicious joys of succumbing to temptation…

"Dahl debuts with a sizzling love story peopled with characters you come to adore." -Kathe Robin, Romantic Times Bookreviews

"Victoria Dahl's debut novel was a sensual delight to read. I thoroughly enjoyed it and didn't want it to end... These characters grab hold of you and don't let go til you read the very last page." -January with The Mystic Castle

* * *

To Tempt a Scotsman is set in England and Scotland in 1844. How did you become interested in this setting?

Honestly, I was a bit afraid to write a Regency. As an unpublished author I’d heard frightening stories (told only on the darkest nights) of readers with eagle eyes and sharp talons waiting to eviscerate a new writer who dared to get their favorite era wrong! *g* Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but I was honestly intimidated by the Regency era.

In truth, I settled on the early Victorian because I found it fascinating to write about a transitional time period. Victoria was the queen in 1844, but she was still a young woman, not yet beset by mourning, so her influence was lighter. Society was changing, becoming a bit more rigid and strict in its ideas, but the people of the 1840’s were still emerging from the (extended) Regency.

Also, on a very superficial level (surprise!), hoop skirts hadn’t yet come into style. I just don’t find them sexy. Actually, I’m sure I could lose myself in someone else’s hoop-skirt romance, but I couldn’t write it.

Is there anything about this period that constrained your story? What do you like least about it?

Well, I liked it just fine until Kalen told me the clothing was butt ugly. Thanks, Kalen! But I felt better after I got a better look at the clothing from the 1830’s. Now that was ugly!

Other than that… My genius idea to write during a transitional period made research truly difficult. Books that spoke in any sort of generalities were useless to me. Practices that were “common” during the Victorian era were likely not yet common in the 1840’s, but I could never be sure if people were still doing things the way they had during the Regency. Urgh!

So what sparked the story idea for To Tempt a Scotsman? An historical event? A scene that haunted you? A specific character?

All my books start the same way. With one small disconnected scene. In this case, it was a love scene. Specifically, a love scene that goes wrong. Ha!

I actually started To Tempt a Scotsman years ago. Back then, love scenes in historical romances were almost always perfect. Completely unknowledgeable heroine? No problem. Untouched virgin? Watch for the spectacular orgasm! Hero with a giant staff meets untouched virgin? Don’t worry, he knows just how to use that monster. Bring on le petite mort!

Anyway, a scene popped into my head that defied almost all those stereotypes. What if the first time wasn’t perfect? And what if she told him so? Ouch! To Tempt a Scotsman was born in that moment.

What kind of major research did you have to do for this book?

As I said above, some of the information for this era was hard to pin down. Could my hero still wear a cravat? Sounds so much more romantic than a tie. Turns out he could, though others may not have. And while he wears a white cravat, many other men were branching out to bright colors and patterns. (That makes sense considering they were slowly evolving into ties.) Would the country physician still use leeches? Again, some of the more modern physicians may have moved onto more scientific treatments, but by no means all of them. Still, try finding the date when English doctors stopped bleeding patients to treat fever!

Corsets were changing too, and there was a moment of panic when I emailed Kalen to ask, "Is there any reason my heroine couldn't be wearing this type of corset? It's a new style, but she is rich." Kalen gave me the thumbs up, thank God. I was already working on the final proofs!

There were lots of little things like that. Things that I had at first assumed would be easy to pin down.

Also, I know little about horses, and my hero is a horse breeder. I pray I got all of that right. And have I mentioned that I’ve never traveled to Great Britain? More research there!

But I am lucky in one big aspect of the research arena. I tend to write “small” romances. Meaning most of the scenes are intimate, involving the hero and heroine and a few friends or enemies. People circling each other, drawing closer and closer. There is no espionage, no political machination, few business dealings. To Tempt a Scotsman takes place almost entirely in the country during the Season, and country life is more casual and seems a bit slow to change. Easier to pin down, at least before the industrial revolution!

Any favorite research tidbits you had to leave out of the finished novel?

Hmm. Probably. But I have a horrid memory. If I don’t use something, I usually lose it. There is a lot of character development that didn’t make it into the finished product. For example, Collin Blackburn is a Lowland Scotsman, but his background is much more complicated. His maternal grandmother migrated from the Highlands to the Trossachs, the hills where Lowland meets Highland. And his mother eventually migrated further south when Collin was a boy. Not sure why I know that, but I do. Some strange writer thing, I guess. Maybe my subconscious dreamed it up so I could have Collin and his best friend Fergus able to speak Scots Gaelic. ;-) So sexy! But clearly his mother has a bit of wanderlust; we never meet her in the book because she’s since moved up to Dundee.

There you go. Lots of useless information that (with good reason, clearly) did not make it into the book!

What do you have planned for your next book?

The next book in this series has already been written and will be out in 2008. (Tentatively named A Rake’s Guide to Ruin, but that may change.) This book is the story of Alexandra’s brother, the Duke of Somerhart. Yes, I wrote about a duke. I get a free pass, because Collin Blackburn is a Scottish baron born on the wrong side of the sheets. ;-)

A Rake’s Guide took a ton of research! The heroine is a recent widow, so there was research into early Victorian mourning (much more like the Regency era, and bound to upset some readers). She’s got a gambling problem, so there was lots of reading about period gaming. One character is an opponent of the ways of the Church of England at the time. Can you hear me groaning yet? And they travel all over the damned country, those pesky characters!

Oh, and another bit of work I just finished up. I wrote a short story for Amazon about two of the secondary characters from Scotsman. I fell in love with Jeannie Kirkland (poor girl has eight older brothers), and I wanted to tell the story of what happens the night of her family ball after Collin and Alexandra leave the scene.

Anything else you'd like to add?

Just a big thank you to the wonderful Hoydens!

It's an honor to be here with such amazing women. And a humbling experience, I can assure you. Almost everything I got right in this book is do to my friendship with writers who know much more than I do. (Thanks, Kalen! *g*) And thank you so much to all of the wonderful posters here! Again, a humbling experience to read all the amazing information you guys have to pass on.

To Tempt a Scotsman is onsale now at BN.com, and is slowly trickling into stores everywhere. Official release date is August 7th, so keep your eyes peeled!

Matters of Marriage

It's not easy living in a world where romance is maligned. I rationalize it: anything done by -- and for -- women is going to be maligned. But it's not easy defending my reading choices, to say nothing of answering the question, "Why do you want to write romance?"

Over the years, I've come to realize that one of the key elements of romance is that it explores women's choices and validates the importance of those choices. Even today, one of the most important decisions a woman makes is whether or not to marry. And those of us who decide to marry know that few choices more important, more life-changing, than the specific man we choose to marry. Romance novels validate that these are important choices for women.

Imagine how much more important the choice of a husband was in Regency times. If the man turned out to be a louse, you couldn't get a divorce and a new job, or go to Jamaica to get your groove back with a younger stud. Many of my own stories involve the "forced marriage," so I thought I'd use today's entry to share a few facts I've learned about marriage during the English Regency.

The Legalities of Regency Marriage

The Marriage Act of 1753 (sponsored by Lord Hardwicke), invalidated any marriage not preceded by either 1. the posting of banns, or 2. an official license. In addition, the marriage had to be carried out publicly in a church or chapel by a clergyman during the afternoon hours (marriages after dark were not legal). The act also ended "contract" marriages, and prohibited the marriage of people under age 21 unless their parents consented.

Note the "in a church or chapel" requirement. During this time, Jews, Quakers and Roman Catholics were required to submit to an Anglican ceremony in order to have valid marriages. Not until 1836 was the marriage act revised to legalize ceremonies conducted under the auspices of other faiths, as well as in registry offices instead of Anglican churches. Couples who married in a registry office were often labeled "Married, but not Churched."

Contrary to popular belief, Special Licenses were available only to the wealthy and well-connected. A Special License cost 50 pounds, as opposed to 5 pounds for a ceremony by reading of banns, and were given only to persons of very high rank or prestige. It was a mark of distinction to be married by Special License. In Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennett is in alt when she hears of Lizzy's engagement to Mr. Darcy. Her first words are, "Special License! You simply must be married by Special License!"

Besides the age requirement, there were other prohibitions to marriage. These included mental incapacity (usually referred to as "lunacy" or "idiocy") and incest. Incest had a much broader definition during the Georgian period: for example, a widower was not permitted to marry his deceased wife's sister, nor could he marry his niece by marriage or his stepdaughter. Insanity before the marriage was grounds for an annulment, but insanity that came on after the marriage was not.

Circumventing the Law

Of course, clandestine marriages did take place despite everyone knowing the marriage would not be legal if ever challenged. Many couples who were under age 21 simply went to a large city and asked the local clergyman (who had no way of knowing whether they were locals or not, and no time or motivation to look into their backgrounds) to post the banns and perform the ceremony.

According to published records, dashing off to Gretna Green (where a Scottish marriage ceremony could be held to avoid British law) wasn't nearly as popular as romance fiction would have us believe. One published diary reports that there were 72 such weddings in one year circa 1798, but the average was closer to 40 or 50. The Scottish frowned on the practice, and the men who performed the ceremony were ostracized. As of 1801, there were only three men willing to perform such ceremonies. They did not have to be clergymen; in fact, one was a Tobacconist by profession.

In 1856, a law was passed that invalidated the Gretna Green marriages of English couples, unless both parties had resided in Scotland for a minimum of three weeks prior to the ceremony.

The most famous clandestine marriage was between the prince regent and Maria Anne Fitzherbert. Their marriage was invalid for many reasons: the prince regent was under the age of 21 and hadn't gotten the King's permission to marry; they had no license; and Fitzherbert was a Catholic widow. A clergyman was bribed to ignore all those facts and perform a ceremony.

Marriage Settlements

It's nice to think that marriage settlements were intended to provide some financial security for a woman and her children, both during the marriage and after the husband's death, but the reality is that the marriage settlement was designed to keep the estate intact for future heirs, while providing a modest income for the maintenance of the mistress and her children.

A wife's allowance, or pin money, was written into the settlement, as was her "jointure," or the amount to be paid to her upon her husband's death. Usually, the jointure was proportionate to the amount the woman had brought into the marriage as a dowry. Sums would also be listed for each child to be paid upon death of their father, and daughters' marriage portions were also in the settlement.

Breach of Marriage Contract

Breach of Promise was punishable by law, but damages were usually moderate, ranging from 100 to 500 pounds. Legitimate defenses against Breach of Promise charges included physical infirmity or evidence that the other party had acted immorally.

Married Women and Property

A married woman might be given a separate estate by inheritance, or as a gift from her husband or another relative. She could glean income from activities on the property, such as leasing it to tenants for farming or raising livestock. The bestower often placed restrictions upon the gift forbidding the woman from selling it or willing it to someone outside the family. It was also typical to forbid mortgaging the land.

It was quite rare for a married woman to have property of her own. By 1850, only ten percent of the women in England had income from separate estates.

Gillis, John. For Better, for Worse: British Marriages, 1600 to Present.
Hartcup, Adeline. Love and Marriage in the Great Country Houses.
MacColl, Gail. To Marry an English Lord.
Perkin, Joan. Women and Marriage in Nineteenth-Century England.

26 July 2007

Fact and Fiction: The Parallax View

After my last post here -- about using real, historical characters in fictional narratives -- my husband Michael reminded me about a quasi-philosophical paradox that some time ago he'd found in an essay by the literary historian and historical novelist Umberto Eco. Eco says that while it might always be possible, given new historical evidence, to learn that Napoleon didn't really die on St. Helena, it's impossible that we'll ever learn that Superman wasn't Clark Kent.

Weird, isn't it, how certain fictions have a kind of cast-in-stone quality that fact does not?

All of which seemed deeply relevant to me last week, when I read the wonderful historical novel, March, by Geraldine Brooks -- which just happened to receive high praise on this very blog (thanks to Amanda, whose enthusiasm sent me to one of our many to-be-read bookshelves, finally to take March down from it, open it, and swallow it whole).

It’s a Civil War novel, and as bloody a one as I would want to read, with horrifying violence, not only in battle but in the more daily details of slavery and the profiteering and other brutalities that war attracts to it.

I've got to admit that the American Civil Way is a subject I've rather shied away from. But what enchanted me here, and what kept me reading, was the narrator, Captain March -- who (as anyone who has read Louisa May Alcott's Little Women will know) was Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy's father. And who, as everyone who read Little Women will remember, was too old to serve in that war but who, as a committed abolitionist, joined up as a Union chaplain.

Reading March so many years after I'd read Little Women, I felt as though I was seeing history through the eyes of someone whose reality was as indisputable as Eco’s Superman.

Because back when I was 9 and 10 and 11 (I reread Little Women more times than I can count) the Marches' New England parlor with its shabby hearthrug and old piano might have been a room in one of my friends' houses; I might have gone there to do my homework after school. Mr. and Mrs. March were ideal imagined parents -- like the ones you sometimes meet at childhood friends' houses, these were parents who were benign, admirable, a little more high-minded and less everyday than my own.

The Marches' new England was a kind of Hogwarts for the little Muggle reader I was -- and rightly so, because Louisa May Alcott packed all the energy of the intellectual bohemia she grew up in (the transcendentalist, abolitionist world of Emerson and Thoreau) into the idealized childhood world of her novel for girls.

Reading March was like finally getting the other side of the story, in the way that becoming an adult doesn't obviate one's childhood memories but rather creates a context for them. The paradox underlying Brooks' novel is that the anodyne, rather saintly and disembodied messages that Mr. March sends home to his "little women" are, of course, sanitized, moralized versions of the huge, raw, hideous political history of the war he lives through, and how it's overwhelmed him and destroyed his moral certainties. The parts he couldn't tell Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy (or their invisible admiring 9-year-old friend Pam), were the secrets that he revealed in Geraldine Brooks' novel.

The implicit time-travel of March is the novelistic magic of revisiting a beloved site of childhood imagination and getting to see and understand the hidden parts. For me, it's one of the most wonderful paradoxes of reading and writing fiction, a mixture and a muddle and a confusion and a learning all at once.

And it's one that in a small way is familiar to me as a historical romance writer, because one of the ways I like to play with the premises of the Regency romance is to present just a little bit more than the beloved, generally accepted version. As though I were telling the real story beneath the one of the world where we all want to go live. Pssst -- here's a romance heroine who's not so kind to her maid, or a British Home Office that's not above sending out a provocateur to discredit a popular democratic movement.

But the idea of using a fictional character to guide us through a difficult historical landscape -- and a fictional character who has the kind of mythic credibility of the Mr. March of my childhood -- is a strategy that fills me with particular admiration. An imaginary toad, if you will, in a real garden -- where "imaginary" and "real" are not so much opposites but elements of different dimensions. The moments when you can encompass them both in your field of vision seem to give off a shimmer, a depth of field. Parallax vision from paradoxical reality.

I can think of another example of this mode of story-telling -- Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea is told from the point of view of Rochester's mad wife in the attic -- but Rhys's book is more inward, at least in my memory.

Can you readers and writers out there think of others that are more in line with our concerns about historical fiction?

And are you as fascinated as I am, by how the made-up stuff plays hide and seek with the realities of history?

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The Early Piano, with Susanne Dunlap

Whenever listening to or reading about music in the early part of the 19th century it’s always worth remembering that pianos were not really the same as the big, growling concert grands of today. As late as the end of the 18th century, composers still often wrote for the more established harpsichord.

But the harpsichord had a limited emotional range. Because it operated by plucking a string when a key was depressed, the level of volume was the same no matter how one pressed the key. Changes had to be achieved globally, either by pulling a stop that placed a damping piece of felt or leather across the strings, or by having two different keyboards set to two different timbres.

Cristofori’s Pianoforte, invented in the late 17th century, took the action of the intimate clavichord (a chamber instrument where a hammer tapped a string rather than plucked it), and made it audible to more than a handful of nearby listeners. The reason for the low volume of the clavichord was simply that once the hammer struck the string, it remained in contact with it, which damped its sound almost immediately. Cristofori invented a mechanism that would allow the hammer to fall away from the string once it was struck, and let the sound resonate. This was called an escapement mechanism.

(The clavichord, though, could do something a piano could not and never would: it allowed the player to vibrate the pitch my leaning into or jiggling the key. A very expressive instrument, but unfortunately, without amplification, not suitable for a concert environment.)

In the early 18th century, Gottfried Silbermann invented the sustaining pedal, the one that lifts all the dampers away from the strings and keeps the sound resonating even after the player lifts her hands off the keys.

The Romantic era was all about expression over symmetry, breaking the boundaries, being more emotional and heartfelt. In literature, the era more or less started with Goethe in the 18th century. The Sorrows of Young Werther was the watershed book that everyone read, and it captured the mood of the age.

The pianoforte rose to prominence at around the same time. But as with all new musical instruments, use and invention went hand-in-hand. As composers discovered that the pianoforte was capable of wide variations in tone and volume, they wrote music of increasing complexity and technical virtuosity for it. At first, the piano’s range was very similar to that of a harpsichord, which was limited by size and by the amount of tension that could be placed on the frame. Initially, pianos suffered from the same limitations. In particular the Viennese instruments that Mozart and Haydn wrote for were quite delicate, with their wooden frames, two strings to a note, and leather-covered hammers. Their sound is very different from that of a modern piano, and the keyboards are shorter—only five octaves.

In around 1820, development of the piano really burgeoned in London and Paris. Frames were stronger, and the keyboard expanded to seven octaves. A Bostonian maker invented the cast-iron frame, which allowed heavier strings at much higher tensions to be used (the modern concert grand supports 20 tons of tension), and Sebastian Erard invented his double-escapement mechanism. It was this that solved the final technical problem of the pianoforte: The difficulty of playing rapidly-repeated notes. Erard’s mechanism not only allowed the hammer to fall away, but caught it so that it was almost instantly ready to be thrown back against the strings again.

Throughout the 19th century pianos became heavier and stronger, until finally settling on the form they have today: 88 keys (7 ½ octaves), usually three pedals, and cast-iron frames with two or three strings per note, some of them in the lower ranges wrapped around to make them heavier and stronger.

The piano became the parlor instrument of choice in the 19th century. Every middle-class or higher home had one for the daughters to perform on. Early parlor pianos were square, some were upright, some small grands. Unlike stringed or wind instruments, anyone could strike a note and make a sound that did not offend the ear, which was probably one reason why keyboard instruments were so popular. And music—playing the piano or spinet or singing—was an accomplishment that was expected of a marriageable young lady.

The piece that Anne plays at Marie’s salon is Chopin’s study Op. 10 #3. Here are a few different recordings where you can find this piece.

Agustin Anievas Maurizio Pollini Murray Perahia

Chopin’s music is usually played on a modern piano as is Liszt’s, because they were composing for an instrument that was pretty similar. If you want to explore the sound of earlier pianos, look for performances by Malcolm Bilson, John Van Buskirk, and Melvyn Tan. These artists have recorded music by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and other earlier composers.

A few useful definitions:

A keyboard instrument where the sound is produced when the key lifts a plectrum to pluck a string or strings.

Very similar to a harpsichord, but smaller and with only one string to a note. Very much a parlor instrument.

Virginal (or Virginals)
A spinet without legs, usually set upon a table to play. Common in England in the 16th and 17th centuries. No one knows where the name came from. I wonder if it’s from the fact that virgins were encouraged to play it?

A keyboard instrument where the keys raise hammers to strike strings and remain in contact with them. Very similar to a harpsichord in appearance, but extremely quiet.

A keyboard instrument where sound is produced by sending a hammer upwards to strike a string and fall away from the string so that the sound can resonate.

The modern term for an early pianoforte, usually applied to those without Erard’s double-escapement mechanism.

25 July 2007

JUST THE FACTS, MA'AM: Researching and Writing Historical NON-Fiction

My first book as a newlywed is all about adultery.

Nell Gwyn (or is it Barbara Palmer, Lady Castlemaine?) with one of her her royal bastards by Charles II

During the past few weeks I’ve been a fly on the wall in the glittering, debauched court of King Charles II. I’ve spent my summer vacation cavorting with Windsor and Wallis, and with Charles and Camilla, with The Fair Rosamund, and with The Jersey Lillie. And I’m preparing to climb into bed with the Tudors as I write this post. My historical fiction publishers have afforded me the opportunity to flex my authorly muscles, with my first non-fiction contract. I’m to deliver—by November 1—a 320-page (published pages, not manuscript pages) book on British ROYAL AFFAIRS, from Henry II to Charles and Camilla.

I’ve never been given a strict page count before. Now I understand some of the challenges that “category” authors face. Writing ROYAL AFFAIRS is a daunting task, made no less scary by the tight deadline, the mandated page count, and the vast amount of research necessary to do the job. Every morning I wake up and glance (and sometimes glare) at the piles of books on and around my desk and wonder how the heck I’m going to do this job to my own demanding standards.

Given the parameters of the contract, how do I deliver 50-plus entries with (doing the math) a proscribed page count for each entry, when there’s often so much juicy information about these royals and their paramours? How do I decide what to keep and what to (very reluctantly) omit because of time and space issues? How do I deliver a delicious-but-nutritious bit of amorous history, full of flavor and spice, in an appetizer-sized portion?

And most importantly—how do I get it right?

And what if there’s just no “there” there?

My publisher asked for a table of contents before I began my research in earnest, so I pulled together a list of more than fifty affairs. I reminded them that the list was just a draft because my research might uncover some juicy liaisons I hadn’t previously known about (and therefore weren’t listed in that table of contents). Conversely, I cautioned that I might have to scrap some of the relationships if I just couldn’t find any legitimate sources to confirm them.

Richard I

The love life of Richard I, also known as Richard the Lionhearted, is one such case in point. He may, or may not, have had a passionate relationship with King Philip II of France. I added Richard to the table of contents based on scenes from the film The Lion in Winter, and from historical tidbits I have read for years about Richard’s homosexuality. This is not what is considered legitimate research! So far, I have not found a single credible source (though I keep looking) to substantiate the supposition, other than a lone paragraph written by a medieval historian, which can be parsed to suggest that Richard and Phillip were lovers, but is more easily explained by many other historians as exemplary of the customs of the day between two monarchs demonstrating their détente. And the rest of their story—political adversaries during the bloody and brutal Third Crusade—does nothing to suggest that the two of them shared a romantic backstory. Yet, history is colored by the times; no one in 1199 was about to eulogize their late king as a great gay warrior. Yet a historian looking back from 1999 might have an agenda they want to promote, and consequently will look for, and manipulate, what little facts exist in order to support the tale they wish to tell.

Well, obviously, a non-fiction book cannot be written based on scenes from a movie, or chapters of historical fiction. So, after giving myself a good amount of time to look for it, if it turns out that there’s no academic justification for an affair, I’ll just have to jettison the entry and move on to the next one, or I’ll never meet my deadline.

In historical fiction we have the privilege and the joy of making things up, of filling in the gaps in a person’s life story with colorful scenes of “what if?” We are novelists, not historians, who bring our own prejudices to the narrative and put our own spin on it. In fiction, when we choose to illuminate the lives of characters whom history has judged more harshly than we do, we give them vulnerable warm and fuzzies, so that readers will feel for them.

You don’t get to do that in non-fiction. I’m a newbie at providing just the facts, and am afraid of psychoanalyzing these people the way I would do if I were writing a novelization of their lives. But what I can’t be afraid of is showing their warts; and if they apparently had few, if any, redeeming features, well, that’s what readers will be presented with.

What I’m getting to is, I can’t make stuff up.

And yet that’s one problem I have encountered in the numerous research books and biographies I have been poring over, and will continue to plough through: how do I know they’ve got it right?

We all know that internet research is dodgy. In this most democratic arena, anyone can post something, regardless of their credentials, and very often the information is not entirely bona fide. If a date is wrong, is it because of bad research, or is it a typo that no one bothered to catch? Online, there’s an abundance of blatantly incorrect information slyly masquerading as truth. I’ll never know what’s accurate unless I check several more sources. Given my short deadline for ROYAL AFFAIRS, I must resort to internet research, but only as a backup for vetted and published works of non-fiction.

Yet, who vetted the books I am holding in my hand? Academics, journalists, novelists—suddenly all of these people are considered historians because they have a non-fiction work on the bookshelves. How good is their research? Editors and copyeditors are supposed to make the manuscript read well; it’s not in their job description to make sure the author got it right. Chances are, no one reviewed the manuscript as a fact-checker, unless the book is a published version of someone’s PhD thesis, where the candidate was severely grilled by a committee.

And how am I to know that the research done by these so-called scholars is impeccable? How do I prevent myself from regurgitating “bad history” in my own book?

Among the pile of books on my desk is a book about European royal scandals. This one is now collecting dust because I’m afraid of using it any more, wondering what else the author got wrong. Here’s why: as soon as I got the volume, I turned to the alphabetical index at the back of the book and looked for the name of someone I “knew.” In the course of my research for my next historical novel, ALL FOR LOVE (to be published in Feb. 2008, I believe), I’ve spent more than two years with the 18th-century actress and royal mistress (and oh-so much more than that) Mary Robinson. I’ve read at least a half dozen biographies of her, including her own memoirs. The author of the non-fiction book I refer to in this paragraph gave Mary Robinson a child by the Prince of Wales!

Mary Robinson (1782 portrait by Thomas Gainsborough)

Well! That just didn’t happen! And it’s not even a tiny gaffe on the part of the writer—it’s an egregious error of fact. So, because I’m not an expert on the lives of the other people discussed in that book, how do I know that anything else in it is valid research bolstered by solid facts? I don’t, unless I review several other sources and get a concurrence. I just have to do the best I can, and promise my readers that I am doing my due diligence—all within the time frame I have been given to write the book. My goal is to make it juicy and racy, informative and entertaining--and as right as I can get it.

ROYAL AFFAIRS debuts sometime next year. For now, as I prepare to join Henry VIII in bed, I’ll imagine that the serial beheader is the devilishly sexy, intelligent, and redheaded Robert Shaw (A Man for All Seasons) rather than the surly, churlish Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

24 July 2007

Welcome, Susanne Dunlap

Liszt’s Kiss
by Susanne Dunlap
Available Now!

Set in Paris in 1832 during a deadly cholera outbreak, Dunlap's novel revolves around young Anne de Barbier-Chouant, who has just lost her mother to the disease. Living in solitude with her stern father, Anne is a gifted pianist who longs to make her way in the musical world her mother was so enchanted by. Opportunity knocks in the form of the elegant Marie d'Agoult, a friend of her mother's who chaperones Anne to her first concert. There Anne first lays eyes on the handsome, impassioned Franz Liszt and falls under his spell. Liszt, who has decided to pursue the married Marie, offers to teach Anne and hone her skills. Forced to work around Anne's exacting father, Marie enlists the help of a handsome young doctor who is taken with Anne to find out the secrets the girl's father is keeping. Dunlap immerses readers in the sights, smells, and feel of Romantic-era Paris, making her engrossing novel perfect escapist fare.

--Kristine Huntley, Booklist

Liszt's Kiss
is set in Paris, 1832. How did you become interested in this time period? What you love about it?

I was mostly interested in the time period because I am/was a pianist, and some of the greatest music ever written for the piano was composed during that time, when Chopin and Liszt were both in Paris. And it’s also a politically interesting era, after the revolution of 1830 and when Louis-Philippe was on the throne. Half the world was still in a royalist frame of mind, people were resentful because the dreams of revolutionary reform seemed to have disappeared, and the world was changing economically, too, with industrialization and urbanization.

It’s even an interesting period in terms of fashions. The Regency, Empire look was giving way to more structured and fanciful clothing again, and it wasn’t terribly flattering to the women: high-ish waistlines, huge puffy sleeves, coiffures that stuck out on either side of the head. Rarely do you see portraits with these styles in them (the gown on my cover is more appropriate to a decade or so later, but there was a lot of fluidity just then in styles, with some women still sometimes wearing gowns that looked borderline regency as well). By the end of the 1830s, styles were settling into what would be come the look we associate with the civil war period.

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

The politics were very complex, and getting things right for characters of different social classes is always a challenge in any historical period. What we tend to hear about, and what information exists about, is the upper classes, the ones who had the power—except in periods of civil unrest. The subtle differences between the way Pierre and Anne would have behaved, because of their classes, were something I always had to keep in mind.

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

I think what sparked the book was the idea of what it would have been like to study piano with Franz Liszt as a young man. The relationship with a teacher, a one-on-one teacher like a music instructor, can be very intense no matter what. Add rock-star good looks and an exotic, Hungarian accent, and the combination could be positively volatile. But I always wanted my Liszt character to be a little unformed, naïve, not quite having invented himself yet.

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 truly stumbled across the cholera epidemic. My historical research has always concentrated on the cultural and social aspects because I am a music historian. Politics and other factors impinged on my consciousness mainly only as they had an impact on what was going on in music. Because the epidemic only lasted a few months, I had only a vague, background knowledge of it, and when I started reading about it and exploring further, it really sparked my imagination about what it must have been like to live through that. More exactly, to be a sensitive artist and live through it.

What/Who do you like to read?

Of course, I return to the classics again and again (Austen, Thackeray, Tolstoy, Woolf etc.), but there are also many wonderful writers today. Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro and lots of others. I also love Lynn Freed, Sigrid Nunez, Margot Livesey. I read a lot of general fiction because anything that’s well-written can be a learning experience for a writer. In historical, I definitely read Tracy Chevalier, Philippa Gregory, Sandra Gulland, and am just discovering the amazing historical novels of Anya Seton. The list goes on and on. I read as much as I can because I’ve always loved to read, and there are “so many books, so little time.”

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 start by thinking vaguely of a story or a character in a particular music-historical setting, then start doing some research (usually I have some research “in the bank,” so to speak, from my years of academic research, so I’m not starting completely from scratch). Before long I bubble over with ideas, and even if I write a short synopsis of what I think might happen, I just start writing, start thinking about what that event is that will begin the story, and take off from there. I use timelines to keep myself oriented in history, but as far as plot goes, I find that the process of writing makes the story take on a life of its own. It’s very exciting and scary. Once it’s down, then I go back and try to make sense of it, bring it into some kind of shape and order. If I start with a strict outline, I never stick to it. Characters sometimes do surprising things and you just have to follow them!

What are you planning to work on next?

I have a couple of ideas and am working an a few things. One that takes place in the early 17th century in Florence and Paris, one in late 18th-century Vienna. I don’t know how these will pan out yet, so I’m reluctant to talk too much about them.

Anything you’d like to add?

First, I want to thank you for giving me an opportunity to answer your questions. I always find I learn a little more about myself and my writing when I have to think about explaining something. I learned so much when I was teaching music history for the same reason.

I guess what I want to leave your readers with is the thought that women and music had a fascinating relationship historically. I think the performance aspects, the sensuality of making music always gave society a bit of a quandary: the angelic purity of a woman as a vessel for music vs. the dangerous depths of emotion that would bubble to the surface if one allowed that kind of expression. Women could make music, but in certain prescribed ways and in certain settings. Like actresses, women who performed music in public were often morally suspect.

And then, think how few women composers there actually were, and not just because of the fact that the institutions that fostered music composition—cathedrals, courts etc.—were closed to them. Unless they wrote music for themselves to perform, like piano music or chamber music, few women had ties that would give them access to an orchestra or an opera company. Just as the novel was at first derided as an inferior art form and “lady novelists” sneered at, women in the 19th century who did compose were usually written off as composing “parlor music.” There were exceptions, of course, including Clara Schumann. But she stopped composing and became entirely an interpreter of music once she married.

That all said, women made a rich and varied contribution to the history of music, and that’s what I try to bring to life in my novels.

23 July 2007

Creating a World

A new book is like contemplating a very challenging puzzle. Thank goodness that even though I generally dislike puzzles I really enjoy crossword puzzles. Too bad that creating characters, their homes, their backgrounds, their lives and then making each piece fit into the whole seems to me much more like a jigsaw puzzle.

The current piece that is hardest to fit is the feel of the place. For the last five years my characters have happily lived in Sussex – deliberately close to London, mild of climate and visually beautiful. It helps that I have visited the area and was able to match the reality with what my imagination conjured from research.

My new family is going to live in Derbyshire, near the Peak District. The Pennistans are more emotionally intense than the Braedons and they insist that the dramatic landscape of the north central part of England suits them.

The best book I have ever read on the subject of place is Defoe’s A TOUR THROUGH THE WHOLE ISLAND OF GREAT BRITAIN, one of those delightful primary sources that stands the test of time. Yes, it is the same man who wrote ROBINSON CRUSOE and, yes, I know it was written way before the Regency, but the feel of his England is so much closer to the Regency than ours is. You have only to compare a contemporary map with a period one to understand that. THE TOUR was published between 1724 and 1726 and the edition I have was edited by Pat Rogers with wonderful photos by Simon McBride.

Defoe’s experience of the Downs was a help in creating the Braedons’ home, and his observations of Derbyshire are just as entertaining. But now I realize how important actually seeing the place is to me. I am longing to experience more of the vistas and villages, to feel the wind, hear the wildlife. With no chance to travel to Chatsworth, or the Peak District Park I am beginning to fear that I will not be able to make this last piece fit perfectly.

Tell me how you handle a sense of place for a spot you have never seen. Yes, I admit to being self-serving. Any help would be greatly appreciated!

20 July 2007

Can a Corset Save the Heroine's Life?

In romance all things are possible, but I’ve been thinking about plotlines where a heroine’s life was saved by a corset. Now I’m not sure this is really possible, so I surfed the net for a while, looking for real-life accounts of:

1. A corset deflecting a bullet---I recall this was reported by women who were caught in the throes of the American Civil War.

2. A corset deflecting a knife---I recall sensational newspaper accounts of actresses surviving attacks from jealous lovers.

Well, my search turned up zip on this topic. As far as I can tell, there are no well-referenced accounts of a corset saving someone's life.

I did find the well documented murder of the beautiful Empress of Austria, Elisabeth of Bavaria, 1854-1898. Known as “Sisi” to friends and family, she was renowned for her beauty and her horsemanship (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elisabeth_of_Bavaria). Sisi was stabbed with a file while strolling on the promenade in Geneva, Switzerland, by an anarchist who targeted a royal (any royal would do).

So the story goes, the wound actually pierced a small hole in her heart, but Sisi was corseted so tightly, as was her custom, the compression on her heart and other vital organs staunched the bleeding---enough that she failed to notice the wound. She actually walked several blocks back to her cruise ship before she collapsed. Elisabeth's last words were "What happened to me?"

This is the only documented historical account I can find where a corset deflected a weapon, even though it did not save the wearer’s life, it probably prolonged it.

Anyone out there know of other recorded historical events where a woman’s life was actually saved by the corset she was wearing?

19 July 2007

She's Not Wallpaper.

Here it is! Marie Antoinette painted astride! Isn't it GORGEOUS? Thanks for the link Kathrynn. If you want to see dozens more painting of the Queen, please visit this amazing site: http://http://www.ladyreading.net/marieantoinette/

18 July 2007

Clothing for the Indiscreet Heroine

I participated in a discussion about wallpaper historicals over at the Smart Bitches quite a while ago, and I was fascinated by the concept. Unlike some of the Hoydens, I grew up reading historical romance and cut my teeth during the heydey of the great wallpaper books. I loved them. I really did. I probably still do if I'm reading them now. See, it's hard for me to tell, because if I'm sucked in by the story, then I'm a goner. Is it wallpapery? *blank look*

What is a wallpaper romance? Hmm. I guess the definition you see most often is, "Can the characters be plucked out of their time period and plunked down somewhere else in time without any noticeable difference in the story? Then it's wallpaper." But I have a problem with this. I love internal conflict. Love it, love it, love it. And I think the deepest internal conflicts transcend time, and those stories could take place in a different era and be told with only a few adjustments. So what do you consider wallpaper?

Wait, I'm getting ahead of myself. The reason I was most interested in the blog I mentioned above? Well. . . I'm afriad I might write wallpaper historicals!!! I just don't know! But there is some evidence of guilt. For instance, on the first page of To Tempt a Scotsman. . . *grin*

On the first page, my heroine is wearing breeches. It's true! When Kalen first heard about this, she very kindly said, "George Sand!" (I think?) Thank you, Kalen. But the truth is, the breeches had nothing to do with research, and everything to do with those delicious historicals I used to read in my youth. (Lord Harry, anyone? Mmmm.)

I really just wanted that moment of conflict and judgment when the hero sees her, this woman he already despises, dressed in tight breeches. Now, she is wearing a long coat, almost as long as the dress to the right though not so full, but when she turns and feels her coat open and knows he's gotten a glimpse of the shape of her thighs. . . *shiver*

In my defense, she is already a ruined woman and is living in isolation on her brother's estate. She's also rich, defiant and the sister of a powerful duke. She knows what she can get away with and at this point that is pretty much anything. Any man who'd marry her after her ruination wouldn't be scared away by breeches. Not that she cares. And when she rides into town to meet the hero, she wears a very respectable riding habit.

But Kalen got me interested in looking further into this. There is, of course, George Sand, who dressed in men's clothing quite often. And then there is that gorgeous portrait of Marie Antoinette riding astride in breeches. (I couldn't find a copy, darn it.) She was also being purposefully defiant, from what I understand. But I found something even more interesting. . .

A woman named Kath Fryer pubished a biography of Henry L'Strange (1815 - 1862) called A Fine, Strong Boy. The Le Strange family lived in rural Norfolk, and Henry was a great landowner, descended from nobility. His daughter wrote of life in their town, "the labourers fared hard and the children were brought up anyhow, the women dressed in men's clothes and spent much time on the beach mussling and doing other outdoor work to the detriment of the house and children".

I was struck by the idea of rural women, isolated women, and the practicality of wearing whatever worked best for the job. You also read accounts of female miners and soldiers, etc. dressing in breeches.

Does anyone else have any other delicous examples? If we can gather enough together, I can use them to prove that I did my research, if a bit late in the game. *g*
And what do YOU consider to be a wallpaper historical? Do breeches seal the deal? Be honest. I promise not to be upset. I'll be in good company, regardless!
"And when a woman's will is as strong as the man's who wants to govern her, half her strength must be concealment." -George Sand

16 July 2007


Without daring to broach the wilds of Welsh or Gaelic (my poor sister having explained till she’s blue in the face that “bh” is a “v” sound in Gaelic), I thought I’d spend a little time talking about some of the oddities the English have come up. Clearly it’s hard to argue that someone doesn’t know how to pronounce their own name . . . but sometimes it’s very hard not to do so (we are talking about a country where “breeches” is pronounced “britches” and “waistcoat” is “weskit”).

And of course I’m always drawn to these names for characters, simply because they’re so outrageous. LOL! To date, I’ve managed to restrain myself, but one of these days I’m going to break down and begin peopling my world with characters whose names can only be pronounced correctly with the aid of a diagram!

These are some of my favorite pronunciation aberrations (all double checked in the BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names) :

Cholmondeley = chumli
Featherstonehaugh = fanshaw
Foulkes = fauks
St Clare = sinklair
St John = sinjin
St Leger = sellinjer (though not all the time)
St Maur = seemor
Beauchamp = beecham
Beauclerk = boklair
Berkeley/Berkely= barkli
Brough = bruff

Do you have any to add to my list?

13 July 2007

My Favorite Medieval Recipes

My Favorite Medieval Recipes

Salat (Salad)

Use spinach and shredded cabbage (red) as a base.
Add small bits of the following: almond slivers,
raisins, minced figs, capers, olives, currants, minced
pickles, orange segments.

Dressing: oil, vinegar, lemon juice, pinch of sugar
and salt.

Braised Carrots in Ginger and Sour CreamSlice up 1 pound of carrots. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons sugar,
1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1 tablespoon powdered ginger (or fresh
ginger root pieces crushed in mortar and pestle). Let sit for half an
hour until juices appear. Mix 1/4 cup light cream with ½ cup
sour cream. Melt 3 tablespoons butter in a pan and saute carrots
5-10 minutes. Remove to ovenproof dish. Pour sour cream
mixture over, stir to coat, cover tightly and bake for 20
minutes in low (300 degrees) oven.

Note: This is a modernized version, hence the oven temperature.

Ypocras (Hippocras or Spiced Wine)

Take three ounces each of cinnamon and ginger and take spikenard
of Spain (aromatic plant root) the size of a small coin. Take one
quarter of an ounce each of galingale (aromatic root from Asia),
cloves, long pepper, nutmeg, and cardamom. Take an ounce of
grains of paradise (pungent seeds of tropical African plant, like
cardamom) and of powdered cinnamon and make powders of all.

Have three pewter basins for the liquid and three straining bags, one for
each, hanging inside of them from a perch. Pare ginger or beat it into a
powder and be sure to use the columbine variety. Your cinnamon sticks
should be thin, brittle, and fair in color. Use grains of paradise, sugar,
red wine, long pepper and turnsole (plant used for making purple dye)
for coloring. Put each spice into a separate bladder and hang these bags
from the perch so that they don’t touch each other. Place two or three
gallons of wine into each of the basins. Allow the wine to absorb the
flavors from the spice pouches. Then strain the liquid through the long
cloth bag called a Hippocrate’s sleeve. Taste it. If there is too much ginger,
add cinnamon and vice versa.

After you have made hippocras, you can use the spice dregs in the kitchen.

An easier hippocras recipe: combine 1 bottle Burgundy, 1/4 cup
sugar, 4 sticks cinnamon, broken into pieces, 3 thin slices fresh
ginger, 1 teaspoon whole cloves, 5 cardamom pods, coarsely
crushed, 1/8 teaspoon grains of paradise, finely ground, a few
pieces of fresh orange or lemon peel.

Combine all in an enamel pan; bring to a boil, reduce flame and
simmer about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Strain to remove
Serve warm in goblets or shallow bowls. Serves 4.

Source for hippocras recipe: Lorna Sass, To the King’s Taste

10 July 2007

RWA Conference

It's July, and that means one thing for most romance writers: It's time for the annual Romance Writers of America conference. It also frequently means things like new clothes (hello, most of us work in our PJs), new shoes (like the fab Fluevogs here), new haircuts, etc.

This is a placeholder post, as most of us Hoydens are in Dallas, TX for the conference. We may be back on and off during the week posting bits of info about the conference, or just chatting about the goings-on, so keep a weather-eye on this space.

06 July 2007

...imaginary gardens with real toads in them...

The phrase is well known. But the poem it comes from, by Marianne Moore, isn't easy to understand. Because what counts as "real" in a poem anyway, and what's "imaginary" when in the end it's all only words and lines on the page?

And of course there's no way that Moore meant her finely chiseled distinctions to apply to novel-writing, much less to erotic historical romances like mine. But the phrase continues to haunt me, to make me ask myself what it is I think I'm doing.

Because historical romance is also a mix of the real and the imaginary.

Because I think that the question of what's "real" and what's "imaginary" is equally interesting and quirky in our genre.

And because every historical romance writer creates her own witchy mixture of real and imaginary -- from a basic list of ingredients, a little research (or a lot -- hi, hoydens!) and a mysterious original pinch of inspiration or fantasy, wish or dream.

For Regency romance writers the imaginary garden is often Mayfair or the country estate -- each of these spaces having visible geographical boundaries and as well as more abstract ones -- the laws of property and inheritance and also "the rules of gentility" (to borrow the title of my pal Janet Mullany's forthcoming Regency chick-lit).

And so it becomes equally important to us to learn what the real space was like (as in Kalen and Vicki's posts on abodes) and the spaces of action and power as well (as in Mary's on the expansion of the peerage). And to admire the genius with which Jane Austen was able to bring together the physical and the abstract. Though if sometimes it's hard to delineate exactly where the physical beauty of a Pemberley becomes a moral value, we can all agree that it's a great pleasure to dream of inheriting and a deeper pleasure to imagine earning.

Though to be more precise, I think the pleasure of the historical romance fantasy lies somewhere between inheriting and earning -- just like the romantic garden lies somewhere between the physical and the abstract. The beautiful happy-ever-after Eden of romance isn't to be taken for granted or simply accepted as a birthright, and yet romance is rarely about extremes of upward social mobility.

Because with the important exception of Brummell as the self-made arbiter of British taste (and he hardly started from nothing), the fantasy of being completely "self-made" isn't a dominant one in historical romance. When I say that romance is about the fantasy of "earning" the goods, I really mean it's about the fantasy of almost having it all. Love is the missing element that finally connects the dots, fills in the blanks, naturalizes the garden fantasy.

I think that the magic of historical romance is most often found in the deeply satisfying fantasy of learning to actualize one's own inner "natural aristocracy." Think of Mr. Knightley, who is not a knight -- except, as Jane Austen makes abundantly clear, in name and by nature -- educating Emma to be responsible to Miss Bates in his "she is poor" speech. The fantasy is so familiar, the erotics of pedagogy perhaps going back to Heloise and Abelard -- that we might forget that "natural aristocracy" is an oxymoron. (Though when we remember it, we might ask how many other of our cherished fantasies are also oxymorons.)

Clearly, this garden is also a maze and a labyrinth for me. Oh yeah, and with toads -- which for me, I suppose, are the real historical figures I bring in for occasional cameo appearances. In the book I'm working on now, for example, I've got a brief appearance by a fatuous, dandified 24-year-old Benjamin Disraeli -- yup, the same one who grew up to became Queen Victoria's Prime Minister.

Since I first posted about silver fork novels last December I've read maybe a hundred pages of Disraeli's 1826 novel Vivien Grey. It's a tough slog: arch, mannered, ironic and cranky to the point of dispepsia. Although it was an initial success (until the author's real identity was revealed) the manners and details are idiosyncratic and sort of... off. Because it all came from Disraeli's fraught, overheated, social-climbing imagination. As a Jew he wasn't allowed into the garden -- I don't think he saw the inside of Almack's until 8 years later, but the rest is, you know... history.

The toads in my gardens are the creatures you don't expect to find landscaping it after their own visions. I like particularly enjoy finding them in literary rather than political history but I also enjoy the overlaps -- as in the case of Pierre Caron de Beaumarchais, who wrote The Marriage of Figaro and also acted as secret envoy for Louis XVI, helping supply money and weapons to the rebels on the American continent (happy belated 4th of July, everybody). And since Beaumarchais was also a notorious lecher, I enjoyed having him make a pass at Marie-Laure in The Bookseller's Daughter.

Real and well-known personages I've brought in for walk-on roles in my books have been William Blake, the Marquis de Sade, and Benjamin Franklin. It goes without saying that I'm particular fascinated by the self-created Disraeli. But I especially love using lesser-known fixers and businessmen rather than more creative figures. The bookseller Isaac-Pierre Rigaud of pre-revolutionary France built up a comfortable living by selling radical philosophy and smutty fiction, smuggled in past the censors and lots of it a challenge to the ancien regime. The silver fork novel publisher Henry Colburn, who also appears in the book I'm writing now, is said to have cleared 20,000 pounds a year (twice as much as Mr. Darcy) by publishing society novels that helped create the Regency's image of itself.

In future posts I'd like to write more about these minor but interesting figures. Because although I enjoy the garden fantasy, it's important to me to know (and perhaps to suggest) that the happy garden of exclusive society was never a static untouched oasis, but something that changed as public opinion did. And that public opinion -- and history as well -- have sometimes been changed by strivers and dreamers and fixers and arrivistes.

So. Readers, do you enjoy meeting real historical figures in historical romance? And how do you authors feel about it?

04 July 2007

Things that go BOOM in the night: the History of Fireworks.

Since my turn to post falls on the Fourth of July, what discussion could be more appropriate to the event than the history of fireworks?

West meets East when it comes to the use of fireworks for celebrations, a tradition that has existed for the at least the last millennium.

The history of fireworks can be traced to China’s Han Dynasty (~200 B.C.). Lengths of green bamboo, which someone may have one evening tossed onto a fire when dry fuel ran short, after a while, unexpectedly exploded. When heated, the air inside of the hollow reeds expands, and eventually bursts through the side with a bam!

This new and terrible noise frightened human and animal alike, leading to the conclusion that if living creatures could be so terrified by the bang, then the noise was probably powerful enough to scare away spirits. Their particular nemesis was an evil spirit called Nian, who they believed to eat crops and people. It became the custom to throw green bamboo onto a fire during the Lunar New Year in order to scare Nian and other spirits far way, thus ensuring happiness and prosperity in the coming year. For the next millennium, the Chinese would celebrate other festivals and special occasions such as weddings, births, and coronations, with the pao chuk or “bursting bamboo.”

Centuries later, sometime during the Sui and Tang dynasties (~600-900 A.D.), alchemists experimenting with sulfurous mixtures, produced a hot, bright flame, which they called huo yao, or the “fire chemical.” By filling the bamboo tubes with the “fire chemical,” a much greater explosion was produced—and bang—the firecracker was born.

The Italians became fascinated with fireworks when the explorer Marco Polo brought back firecrackers from the Orient in 1292. During the Renaissance the Italians began to develop fireworks into an art form that was continually reinventing itself. Powdered metals and charcoal were added to rockets, which, when they exploded, created bursts of gold and silver sparks in the sky.

A slower-burning gunpowder mix could be put in an open-ended tube, which would give off sparks when lit. Elaborate contraptions were built which, when ignited would resemble spinning wheels, torches, or fountains of colored light. Artisans rigged explosives to sculpted frameworks or set pieces representing palaces or other recognizable shapes. One popular fireworks display was the dragon, a massive papier mache monster that would seem to breathe fire as the fireworks erupted from its jaws.
Monarchs, who could display their power by seeming to tame the elements, impressed their subjects with lavish and costly fireworks displays at weddings and coronation ceremonies. Elizabeth I was such a tremendous fan of fireworks for celebrations that she created the post of Fire Master of England. Her successor, James I, also enamored of the rockets’ red glare, knighted his Fire Master.

Royal fireworks display on the Thames, 1749

During the first half of the 18th century, the discovery of “quick match”—a fast-burning fuse made by putting a regular fuse into a small, continuous paper tube—enabled fire masters to ignite many fireworks simultaneously, and around the 1730s fireworks shows in England evolved from spectacles of royal pomp and privilege into public entertainments, including lavish displays on Guy Fawkes day each November 5 to celebrate [the foiling of] the famous Gunpowder Plot.

Fireworks were brought to the New World in the 17th century, where European settlers used them to celebrate special occasions and to impress or scare off Native Americans. The first time fireworks were ignited to celebrate Independence Day was the one-year anniversary of the 4th of July in 1777. Although the Revolutionary War raged on, the pageantry that lit up the night sky inspired the new Americans with patriotic zeal. And in 1789, when George Washington took office as the first President, a fireworks display was a centerpiece of the celebrations.

In the 19th century, when trade relations were established between the U.S. and China Chinese firecrackers became a major import in America, and to this day, China remains the largest manufacturer and exporter of fireworks in the world.

And the Italians remain masters of the craft—Macy*s famous Fourth of July celebration on New York City’s East River is brought to American audiences each year courtesy of the Grucci family.

Macy*s annual 4th of July fireworks display over NYC's East River

So, here's one instance where editors, critique partners, and readers have no cause to complain that your fireworks aren't "period" unless you've set your novel well before the birth of J.C. (Julius Caesar). Have you included scenes with fireworks displays in your historical novels?

Happy Independence Day, everyone!

02 July 2007

A (true) Proliferation of Peers

When Kalen wrote her April 9th blog on the proliferation of Dukes in our fiction , it reminded me of the first research book I read cover-to-cover. No, not a book on fashion, tiaras or country houses but David Cannadine’s Aspects of Aristocracy. This series of essays on the growth and change of the aristocracy of Great Britain is full of ideas and information. My blog today focuses a small part of one essay entitled “The Making of the British Upper Classes.”

The late Georgian and Regency period saw an unprecedented growth in “the extension, diversification and codification of the peerage.” Or as Michael Cahill names it: “peerage mania.”

This development can, by Cannadine’s reasoning, be attributed to five factors: recipients who became very rich during the period (Grosvenors), those who exerted influence through their political strength (Grenvilles), those who had given significant service to the state (Wellington and Nelson), the inclusion of the Scottish and Irish peerages (Elgin) and finally, the group with ancient but less impressive titles who wanted promotions in order to outrank the newcomers. (Salisbury).

FYI: This last group would also include my fictional character Marquis Straemore, the patriarch of the Braedons, the characters in my series for Kensington. He petitioned the king for a rise in rank from Earl based on his contributions to the improvements of roads and buildings in his part of Sussex. He also had the support of his wife’s father, Duke of Hale. Now there is a bit of backstory I thought I would never get to use!

By the 1820 the peerage had been massively adjusted and stood as a “status group. . . better matched to wealth, power and general consequence” Here are the numbers: In the first seventy-five years of the eighteenth century the creation of new peerages averaged two a year. In the next sixty years 209 peerages were created. Yes that is only about 3.5 a year but a more telling figure is the increase in the number of seats in the House of Lords – from 199 to 358.

To be specific: in 1784 there were only TWO marquesses, by 1809 there were nine and by 1837 there were TWENTY-THREE.

This element alone is filled with plot potential and I happily share it with those who have not yet used it. It seems to me Pam did a masterful job of reflecting social pressure in RITA nominated (yes!) The Slightest Provocation.

Given that my research interests are more social than political, why do Cannadine’s essays intrigue me? His essays gives the big picture from a unique perspective and an explanation for it with supporting details. It has been the basis for my characters' genealogy ever since I first read it.

Do you recall the first research book that fired your imagination?

01 July 2007

Historical Novel Society raves about TOO GREAT A LADY

At last I've gotten hold of the review of my novel TOO GREAT A LADY: the Notorious, Glorious Life of Emma, Lady Hamilton, by Sarah Johnson, editor of The Historical Novel Review. Sarah was the prime mover and shaker behind last month's Historical Novel Society conference, about which Lynna and I recently blogged. Sarah read my post on the Pirate seminar as well as the post discussion I initiated about the differences and distinctions between historical fiction and historical romance, and was so excited about what the hoydens were saying that she linked our blog to hers -- http://www.readingthepast.blogspot.com/

Her own blog post directed her readers to the discussion on our site, which she said was well worth reading, as is my novel TOO GREAT A LADY, which she reviewed for the society's May review issue. I asked Sarah if she could email me her review, et voila!

I've been dancing around the room for the past week.

Amanda Elyot, New American Library, 2007, $14.00/C$17.50, pb, 412pp, 9780451220547

Elyot (the pseudonym used by actress-novelist Leslie Carroll for her historical novels) presents a sweeping, emotionally intense portrait of Emma, Lady Hamilton, half of one of the most famous romantic couples from history. Emma tells her life story in the form of a fictional confession, which she writes from a London debtors’ prison in 1814, less than a year before her death.

For readers not familiar with Emma Hamilton, Elyot recounts everything here, in lush and magnificent detail: her poverty-stricken childhood in North Wales; her time spent as mistress to several wealthy aristocrats; her marriage to the much older Sir William Hamilton, England’s ambassador to Naples, a love match in truth; her close friendship with Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples and Sicily, which made her an important yet unofficial envoy in the war against France; and her all-encompassing love affair with Horatio Nelson, England’s greatest naval hero. Although beautiful, witty Emma continually reinvents herself as she ascends society’s ladder, changing her name several times and improving her education, her irrepressible, saucy attitude remains, along with her unfashionable country accent. Rather than simply disobeying society’s rules, she ignores them altogether, and – for a time at least – people love her for it. Yet despite all the glory, her story is ultimately tragic; she renounces parentage of her daughters for their own sake, and with Nelson’s death at Trafalgar, she loses her country’s affection and respect.
Emma Hamilton is a historical novelist’s dream subject, and her fictional voice is as entertaining as it is convincing. Elyot is a rising star in the realm of biographical fiction, and to me Too Great a Lady is as good as anything Margaret George ever wrote. -- Sarah Johnson

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