History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

31 August 2007

Have a Great Labor Day Weekend!

There’s nothing better than fall weather and a lovely labor day weekend in California. The sun is warm, there’s a cool breeze, and the trees in the hills are just beginning to turn orange and red. Perfect time for a hike or a trail ride. So I’ll diverge from a historical post and take a break. I'm ready to enjoy a long weekend.

The season inspires me to pack a snack and wander in the woods---preferably on horseback. Then my mind tripped over the wandering part and I wondered what would happen if I got lost on my horse and both of us were hungry. Well, the horse could probably survive eating whatever grass and nibbles could be found, but I’m not much of a naturalist. I wouldn’t know an edible berry from a toxic one, but if I’d had the forethought to pack food for a “just in case I get off the trail”…I’d have something in my edible in my saddlebag. Hopefully, I was creative and I packed some kind of food I and my horse would actually eat.

I’m not usually a granola/trail-mix-eater, preferring chips and chocolate to the healthier stuff, but hey, when you’re hungry and lost in the woods---just the thought of dried fruit and peanuts makes your mouth water. How about:

Kathrynn Dennis’ Saddlebag Trail Mix

1/2 cup raisins
1 cup roasted, lightly salted peanuts
½ dried mixed fruit bits
1cup dried banana chips

I’ve had testimonials from horse owners that their horses dig this. I’ve tried it, too. It’s pretty good. I kinda like the mix of salty and sweet and the boost you get from just a handful. Reminds me of the bottom of the feed sack where you find the little clump of grain stuck together with molasses. We used to fight over it as kids (and, I’m ashamed to admit, we rarely shared that nugget with our horses).

Anyway, saddlebag trail mix is my contribution to the History Hoyden post today, and as far as I know it’s safe for horses, too, as long as the peanuts aren’t moldy. ;-)

My first book, Dark Rider, is released next week and I’ll be blogging then about the book, writing, and something I’ve mused a lot over lately, the making of historical novel video teasers. I’ll be giving away cover flats and other goodies to commentors.

Oh yeah, in Dark Rider, what the horses eat is a pivotal plot point (hint, it isn't trail mix).

Have a wonderful holiday weekend!

Kathrynn Dennis

30 August 2007

The Dark Side of the Regency

The Regency had a dark side. I've known this since my early days researching the era. In my mom's and my first Anthea Malcolm traditional Regency, for all its London season setting, the heroine has a reformer cousin who hosts meetings in support of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Climbing Boys and Improving Child Labor Conditions (at the later of which the politician hero speaks). Our second Regency included a meeting at the home of the same reformer at which a former prostitute speaks about contraception (researching that book was where I first learned about the Regency use of sponges soaked in brandy or vinegar). Subsequent books dealt with government agents provocateurs infiltrating radical groups, the often harsh reality of life at Eton, the Highland Clearances, conditions for millworkers, the debate over emancipation of slaves (of which there were still a number in British colonies, though the slave trade had been abolished in Britain). But by and large most of these books took place in Mayfair drawing rooms, on Rotten Row, at balls at Almack's, in the coffee room at Brooks's, on country estates.

In SECRETS OF A LADY, I knew I wanted Charles and Mélanie to have to leave their jewel-box perfect life in their Berkeley Square house and scour the dimly -lit recesses of the London underworld. As Charles learns the secrets behind Mélanie's perfect-wife façade, I wanted him and Mélanie to explore the dark corners behind the elegant façade of Regency London. (Hoyden note: Please visit Tracy's Gallery for more pics of locations from the book!)

SECRETS OF A LADY begins in the point of view of Meg, born in a lodging house near the London docks, one of two surviving children of a family of eleven, her own son dead of a fever at the age of three, her sister gone to work in a mill in Yorkshire. There are few escapes from poverty open to Meg, but she's found one of them. She's become a thief. She's fortunate to have survived into her late twenties. The law held a child of seven legally responsible for his or her actions, and I came across a mention of a boy of six who went to the scaffold crying for his mother. Five children (one of them eight years old) were sentenced to death at the Old Bailey on a single day in February of 1814. A girl of ten, charged with stealing a shawl and a petticoat, and a boy of eleven, accused of stealing two silk handkerchiefs, were sentenced to transportation for seven years. Until 1814, a parent could legally sell a child to be a climbing boy or a pickpocket or a prostitute. The only crime was the stealing not of the child but of the child's clothes.

Violet Goddard, whom Charles and Mélanie meet at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, is one of the lucky few who has found another, more secure avenue of escape from poverty. She's become a successful actress. She's learned how to speak and carry herself. Her face, Mélanie thinks, could belong to any lady in Mayfair, but her eyes have seen things no gently bred girl was meant to witness. If Violet is prudent with her money, she should have financial security. She may well have a lover from among Charles and Mélanie's acquaintance (I actually wish I'd alluded to this in the book). She could even end up married to an aristocrat, as did the actress Elizabeth Farren (whose lovely painting (at left) by Thomas Lawrence hangs in the Met in New York). Elizabeth Farren married the Earl of Derby following the death of his first wife and was received at court, even taking part in the procession at the 1797 marriage of George III's daughter Princess Charlotte to the Duke of Württemberg.

But if it was possible to escape from poverty, as both Meg and Violet have sought to do in different ways, it was far easier to sink into it. The Regency had a scant social safety net for those without the protection of family and fortune. Readers of Jane Austen are familiar with the plight of girls like the Bennet and Dashwood sisters who must marry men of fortune and have little but their charms to recommend them. In SECRETS OF A LADY, sisters Helen and Susan Trevennen are the daughters of a Devon clergyman. Their options would have been few. Marriage, if they could find men in the confined society of their small village who could afford to marry them without a dowry, or employment as a governess or a companion. Instead, both girls have turned their back on the veneer of respectability and run off to seek their fortunes in London, Helen as an actress, Susan as an opera dancer. Helen has been moderately successful. Susan has sunk from an opera dancer to a prostitute at an elegant house in Marylebone ("not one of the grandest in the city, but quite nice. Gilt mirrors and velvet sofas and gentlemen in proper coats and neckcloths") to a whore at a crumbling brothel in Villiers Street called the Gilded Lily. At thirty she has rotting teeth and is dying of consumption. And even at the Gilded Lily, Susan makes less money than Amy Graves, a posture moll, who performs erotic poses for the customers. Amy, Susan observes, is almost young enough to be her daughter.

Susan and Helen's uncle, Hugo Trevennen, has also achieved some success as an actor (to the horror of his clergyman brother), but his love of gambling has led him into debt, and he has been confined in the Marshalsea Prison in Southwark. Charles Dickens's father was imprisoned for debt in the Marshalsea in 1824 when young Charles Dickens was twelve. Dickens later brought the prison vividly to life in LITTLE DORRIT. The Marshalsea was a like a small (if walled) city, in which whole families often lived (the Dickens family lived in the prison for a time, and in LITTLE DORRIT Amy Dorrit is born and grows up within the Marshalsea's walls). Peers were exempt from arrest for debt, but commoners who moved in the first circles could face imprisonment if they fell too deeply into dun territory. Beau Brummell fled to the Continent to avoid arrest for debt, as did his friend Scrope Davies and many others.

In my original version of SECRETS OF A LADY (when it was called THE END OF RECKONING, my working title before it was first published as DAUGHTER OF THE GAME), Helen Trevennen had an illegitimate daughter named Lucinda, who had been fostered out at birth. Charles and Mélanie found young Lucinda working as a seamstress's apprentice, a twelve-year-old drudge with pinpricked fingers, strained eyes, and little control over her fate. The book was already long and other scenes needed expanding. Lucia Macro, my very sensible editor, pointed out that Charles and Mélanie didn't really learn anything from their encounter with Lucinda that they couldn't learn elsewhere. So that chapter went onto the cutting room floor. I think the story is the stronger for it, but I did like the way the episode with Lucinda showed another fate that could befall a penniless girl.

At one point in SECRETS OF A LADY, Mélanie reflects that "if her life had taken a different turn, if she had made different choices, she might be preparing to open a new production of Romeo and Juliet, like Violet Goddard. Or dying of consumption in a brothel like Susan Trevennen." Or thieving like Meg or confined to debtors' prison or toiling as an apprentice like Lucinda. The corners of the Regency I explored to write SECRETS OF A LADY were not easy or pretty, but by the time I finished the book, I felt my knowledge of my favorite era was infinitely richer.

29 August 2007

Killing Them Off

There comes a time in every writer’s life when she must kill off a family member. Oh, I’m sorry! Did I say that? I meant a character. She must kill off a character. But how to do it?

So far in my historicals I’ve killed people off via childbirth, stabbing, dangerous proximity to a cliff, carriage accident, duel by pistol, and arson. (Don’t worry, I’m not that bloodthirsty. Most of it is back story.) I’ve never killed anyone with poison, but I’m thinking about it. I was going through the boxes of books I’ve been lugging from house to house (waiting for my dream office to miraculously materialize) and I found a book I’d bought years ago called Deadly Doses: a writer’s guide to poisons by Serita Deborah Stevens. Ooooo. Good stuff. (Hey, I’ve actually marked a page! But it looks like I was noting an abortifacient, a Juniper bush called savin.)

Here are some interesting notes:

In medieval times, food was so highly spiced that even the bitterest poison might go unnoticed, hence the need for food tasters to try the food first.

Scientists were able to identify arsenic in a body as early as the 1830s! A Madame Lafarge was convicted of the murder of her husband in 1840 after a scientist showed there were substantial amounts of arsenic in his body. Anybody writing Victorians, keep that in mind!

In the seventeenth century, Antonio Exili, a notorious poisoner, made his living touring the courts of Europe, offering his services to whichever noblemen and woman could afford his fees.

Now for the fun part: the poisons! We’re all familiar with arsenic, strychnine and cyanide, or if you’re not, it’s easy enough to find the information. So I’ll skip these, aside from mentioning that arsenic poisoning was so common in Victorian England that the symptoms were called and/or mistaken for “gastric fever”. Anyway...

Belladonna (Nightshade) - We’ve all heard of this. The infamous eyedrops that women of the Renaissance used to dilate their pupils. All parts of the plants are poisonous and, when consumed, the poison causes the dilated pupils as well as blurred vision, increased heart rate, hallucinations, rapid pulse and respiration and “loud heartbeats audible from at several feet”. Ew! Death can come in several hours or several days. Fascinating note: Rabbits may eat the nightshade plant and pass on the poison to a person who eats the rabbit. I hear back-story, people!

English Yew (also American Yew) - This ubiquitous plant is poisonous when ingested and causes vomiting, diarrhea, pain, weakness and convulsions before death. “Survival after poisoning is rare.” And this is interesting… symptoms occur within one hour and the poison can only be detected in stomach contents. The poison is also an abortifacient, and this use often led to accidental death.

Tansy - Causes convulsions, frothing at the mouth, spasms, dilated pupils. Tansy oil was another abortifacient that could cause death. I feel so sorry for these women. Many of you probably know that abortion was actually an acceptable form of birth control throughout much of history. Herbal abortion was widely practiced but seemingly very dangerous.

Yellow jasmine - Wow. “At high doses, death occurs in ten minutes; at low doses, after several hours.” Causes weakness, frontal headache, tremor, paralysis of tongue, low temperature, labored breathing. Sounds to me like you could pass this off as apoplexy, though the pupils become dilated. Still, I think a villain could blame a stroke, especially if the death occurred deep in the country or perhaps even deeper in the city. *wink*

A few more you may want to look into: hemlock, Lily of the Valley, rhododendron, savin, corn cockle, fool’s parsley, meadow saffron, privet, byrony, ergot, ipecac, and dog mercury. I’ve concentrated on Northern Europe here, only because that is the setting I use. If you write American historicals there are even more to choose from. And if you are writing anything from the Regency on (and perhaps earlier), there are many, many exotic poisons that could be imported from India and Africa.

I hope I’ve given you some good ideas! Limit these poisons to your fictional world, please.

28 August 2007

Welcome, Tracy Grant!

Secrets of a Lady by Tracy Grant
(Previously released as Daughter of the Game)

In the glittering world of Regency London, where gossip is exchanged– and reputations ruined–with the tilt of a fan, Mélanie Fraser is the perfect wife. Devoted to her husband, Charles, the grandson of a duke, she is acknowledged as society’s most charming hostess.

But just as the elegant façade of Regency London hides a dark side, Mélanie is not what she seems. She has a secret: one that could destroy her perfect jewel-box life forever…and the cost to keep it is an exquisite heirloom ring surrounded by legend and power.

The search for it will pull Mélanie and Charles into a gritty underworld of gin-soaked brothels, elegant gaming hells, and debtors’ prisons.In this maze of intrigue, deception is second nature and betrayal can come far too easily…

“If Jane Austen and Len Deighton could have collaborated, they’d probably have come up with something very much like Tracy Grant’s original and riveting novel.” — Chicago Tribune

“A masterfully crafted novel; gripping and emotionally profound, with the page-turning suspense of The Alienist and the sweeping, swashbuckling adventure of The Scarlet Pimpernel.” — Penelope Williamson, author of Wages of Sin

SECRETS OF A LADY is set in Regency England. How did you become interested in this time period? What you love about it?

My family used to go to old movies a lot. When I was six, we saw the Olivier/Garson PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. I knew it was based on a book, and I wanted my mom to read it to me. She said "I'm not sure you'll like it, but we can try." I was completely drawn into the world of the novel. To me, at that age, it was a story about girls (older than me but young enough that I could identify with them) dealing with their sisters and parents, growing up, falling in love. (Every time I reread Pride and Prejudice I get different things from it, but I was totally hooked at the age of six). I remember on a family trip to England later that year walking through a country garden pretending I was Elizabeth Bennet.

My mom and I went on to read the rest of Austen's novels together (I've subsequently reread them many times on my own) and then discovered Georgette Heyer. AN INFAMOUS ARMY, with its fabulous depiction of the Battle of Waterloo, started my interest in the Napoleonic Wars (at thirteen, I could pretty much recite an hour-by-hour chronology from the Duchess of Richmond's ball through the end of the battle). The Regency/Napoleonic era continues to fascinate me all these years later. I love the fact that it's a period on the cusp of change. The decadent world of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" hovers in the background, the more ordered world of Dickens and George Elliot lies ahead.

The French Revolution is still a real, vivid force (and reaction to it drives much of the politics), the Industrial Revolution has begun. Rossini's melodies sparkle with classical elegance, but you can hearing stirrings of romanticism in Beethoven's form-shattering compositions. Plus I love the clothes :-). And it's still possible to work a sword fight into the story.

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

Hmm... you know, there really isn't anything I dislike about the Regency era as a novelist (as an era to actually live in, it has a number of drawbacks, such as extremes of wealth and poverty even vaster than today, limits on freedom of the press and assembly, the slave trade, child labor, the position of women...). There are times I've found myself wishing railroads had been invented so I could get my characters from point A to point B faster (in SECRETS OF A LADY Charles and Melanie's search takes them to Brighton; in my original outline it was going to be Bath, until I realized it would take far too long) but overall I'm very happy writing in the Regency period.

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

I started out my writing career co-writing traditional Regencies with my mom (as Anthea Malcolm). Our second Regency, which was never published, had a subplot involving a beautiful emige named Melanie and a young British politician named Charles who almost ended up getting married. At one point I remember thinking "if Melanie and Charles really did get married, it would be very interesting to see what would happen in about seven years, when some of the secrets behind their marriage came to the surface". I knew it wouldn't work as a genre romance--way too morally ambiguous--so I filed the idea away at the back of my mind. Years later, when I decided I wanted to write an historical suspense novel, I decided this was the perfect way to tell that story. I changed quite a few details and a lot of the back story, but I kept the names Charles and Melanie.

And then, as always seems to happen (I love the process of creating a book), I wove in other ideas that had been percolating. I'd been addicted to the show "Murder One". At the first appearance of the character Julie Costello--beautiful, mysterious, very tough, very damaged, very able to take care of herself--I remember thinking "she'd make an interesting heroine". I'd got hooked on "The X-Files" watching it in syndication on a trips with a friend who loved the show. I liked the idea of doing a hero who was brilliant but a bit of an outsider, committed to uncovering the truth in a corrupt world, compassionate yet emotionally isolated. And then there's my enduring fascination with THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL'S take on marriage and deception. All of those are bits and pieces that went into Melanie and Charles Fraser and SECRETS OF A LADY.

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've been writing books set in the Regency era for twenty years, and there are *always* new things I need to research for each book (which keeps it interesting, I love research). Charles and Melanie's search for the Carevalo Ring takes them out of the jewel-box security of their Berkeley Square townhouse into the dark recesses of the Regency underworld. I researched settings I'd never used before--the Marshalsea Debtors' Prison, a brothel, a gaming hell; aspects of Regency society I hadn't touched on in my earlier books. Such as posturers or posture molls, women who would perform erotic poses, either scantily dressed or completely naked. Charles and Melanie encounter a posture moll at the Gilded Lily, a coffeehouse that doubles as a brothel. Charles is more shocked than Melanie.

I'd never actually written about Brighton, and when I decided they'd go to Brighton rather than Bath, I decided to set a sequence at a racing stable. Which I'd also never written about before, and which also entailed more research. And I never written so many scenes involving pistols--fortunately a friend's son who loves Napoleonic Wars history was able to help me. I was very fortunate in that I was able to go to England while working on the book. My good friend and critique partner Penny Williamson and I traced a lot of the path of Charles and Melanie's search on foot (we got very lost in the winding streets round Covent Garden, I can totally see how people could contrive to vanish in the Covent Garden stews). We also picked a house in Berkeley Square that I used as the model for Charles and Melanie's house. Pictures of various locations in the book are in the Gallery section of my website .

I know you're very interested in opera and music. Have you ever worked this passion into a book? Any plans to?

I'd love to do a book with opera as a major part of the story (I love any sort of theatrical setting). I don't have any immediate ideas, but if I get to continue with Charles and Melanie series, I'm sure they will cross paths with a composer (perhaps even a real one) and an opera production. Meanwhile, I think my love of opera and music informs all my books. I listen to music while I write (mostly opera, but also other classical music, film scores, musicals). For each book, I pick a composer who to me reflects the mood and tone I'm trying to achieve in the book. SECRETS OF A LADY was definitely Beethoven. Though when I think about the story, I realize there's a lot from Wagner's Ring--the literal search for a ring that is said to hold power, the machinations of the older generation, the secrets about parentage.

I also love to work musical references into my books. There's a scene in SECRETS OF A LADY where Charles is thinking how intimately he knows Melanie--the amount of boiled milk she puts in her coffee, the precise chord in a favorite piece of music that always brings tears to her eyes. In my very first draft, the piece of music was Beethoven's 9th. Only then I realized (very embarrassingly) that it wasn't premiered until well after the book takes place. I listened to a bunch of Beethoven CDs and settled on the Moonlight Sonata, which is what I used when the book was first published as DAUGHTER OF THE GAME (only then I learned that it wasn't actually called the Moonlight Sonata until later). But even though I could imagine Melanie playing and loving that sonata, it never seemed quite right. Then the Merola Opera Program (an opera training program I'm on the board of) did THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO, and I realized the Countess's aria "Dove Sono" was perfect. Just the right tone and the Countess is reflecting on the loss of happiness in her marriage, so it seemed particularly poignant. So when I got to make small changes for the book's re-release as SECRETS OF A LADY, one of the things I did was change the reference to "Dove Sono".

Last time I was in London I saw Rossini's LA CENERENTOLA at Covent Garden and learned from the program that the London premiere was in January of 1820. I was in the midst of writing the third Charles and Melanie book, THE MASK OF NIGHT, and I knew I wanted to have a sequence at the theater, so I was able to work in the LA CENERENTOLA premiere. The Covent Garden program even lists the original cast.

What/Who do you like to read?

Right now I'm reading a lot of 19th century novels. I just finished Henry James's THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY and in the midst of rereading Jane Austen's PERSUASION. I read less romance since I'm not writing strictly within the genre anymore but I read my friends' books and in the last few months I've read a bunch of wonderful historical romances which remind me of how fabulous the genre is--Kalen Hughes' LORD SIN, Monica McCarty's HIGHLANDER UNTAMED, Anne Mallory's WHAT ISABELLA DESIRES, and Candice Hern's LADY BE BAD. I read a lot of mysteries, and I particularly love mysteries with an ongoing love story that unfolds over the books. Dorothy Sayers's books, especially those featuring Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, are among my all-time favorites, as are Margery Allingham's books with Albert Campion and Amanda Fitton, and Ngaio Marsh's with Roderick Alleyn and Agatha Troy. In current mystery fiction, I love Laurie King, Elizabeth George, Anne Perry, and Elizabeth Peters. I regularly reread Georgette Heyer and Dorothy Dunnett. I love any sort of novel with an historical setting, whether it's any of the authors I've previously mentioned or the Elizabethan world of Philippa Gregory, Sarah Dunant's Renaissance Italy, or the 1930s and 40s of Ian McEwan's ATONEMENT.

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 definitely a plotter. It's hard enough to stare at a blank computer screen while sipping one's first cup of coffee. I think I'd go mad if I had to stare at a blank computer screen with no idea of what was going to happen next. I brainstorm plot ideas with a wonderful group of writer friends, do a lot of thinking, jot down ideas in a notebook, and finally start laying out scenes and plot twists on index cards. When I have enough index cards to have the shell of a book, I lay them out on my dining room table (inevitably my cats decide to lie on them or chew them). Then I start to shuffle them around, play with when a revelation or a major scene will occur, figure out the key turning points in the story. I'll jot down bits of dialogue or business that occur to me on different cards and sometimes highlight different plot threads in different colors. By the time I start writing, I have a quite clear outline of the book, though inevitably I think of new scenes, plot twists, and sometimes even characters as I'm writing.

I think of my books in terms of scenes (my theatrical background, I think), and I write the scenes in layers, first sketching in the dialogue and whatever business and description occurs to me, then going back to polish, tweak, bridge transitions I wasn't sure how to handle. I usually start each work day by reading through what I wrote the day before. Then idea is that I will then just naturally start writing new stuff. It's never quite so seamless, but it does help. I'll often do a couple of edits of the manuscript, perhaps at a third of the way through and two-thirds through. And then I'll do a couple of revisions when I have a complete draft. That's all before my agent (Nancy Yost) and my editor (Lucia Macro) see it and contribute their always wise advice. I actually love the revision process. It's getting the first draft down that's hard.

What are you planning to work on next?

I have the third Charles and Melanie book, THE MASK OF NIGHT, finished, and I'm working on the fourth. I'm also working in an historical novel set in the French Empire in 1811. I have lots of ideas for subsequent adventures for Charles and Melanie and the other characters in their world. I'd love to explore Jeremy Roth and Raoul O'Roarke more. Both of them play prominent roles THE MASK OF NIGHT, and I have an idea I'm very excited about for a love story for Raoul...

Thank you, Tracy. What a fascinating interview! (Everyone remember to check back on Thursday for more from Tracy!)

24 August 2007

Who'd a Thunk?

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Recently I bought a book about antiques and sent it to my brother, who likes to estate-sale browse. Before I shipped it, however, I peeked inside... and my, oh, my! What an eye-opening source of research details--and color pictures!

Of course I immediately bought myself a copy of Antiques Investigator, Tips and Tricks To Help You Find the Real Deal, by Judith Miller.
No, I'm not an estate-sale devotee; I'm not even an antique collector. But wow, what a resource book for period furniture, glassware, knick-knacks of all kinds.

For example: This is where I learned about "prisoner-of-war" carvings done during the Napoleonic Wars against France (1793-1815), during which so many Regency gentlemen were wounded and/or captured The prisoner-of-war bone spinning jenny pictured was carved by some POW about 1800, and its working parts actually work!

More on just this one page: Horn snuff mull. An 18th century snuff storage container and small mill for grinding the snuff, fashioned from ram horn (dark brown) with silver mounts.

Ivory miniature portraits: a winsome curly blonde girl and her carrot-topped brother, framed in ivory during the 19th century.

French ivory snuff rasp: carved with coat of arms and used for grinding the tightly twisted rope tobacco in the 1700's.

Visiting card cases: Calling cards were de riguer by the late 1700's, but not until the 1820's were cases made for them, many of ivory from the Fast East.

How about an entire page showing styles of European drawer handles ? Swan-neck (France); Louis XVI plain squared (France); stirrup (England); pierced backplate (England); neoclassical squared drop (Italy).

And chair backs: William and Mary caned with S-scroll (17th c); Colonial split-banister and crown crest with inverted heart (mid-18th c); Queen Anne with vase-shaped splat (1710).

And...18th century wine glasses, Dutch, French, Bohemian, Jacobite. French rococo tables. Ever hear of a Schwarzlot wine glass (1700's, made using black or brown enamel)? Viennese Cupid beaker? Trailed snake vase? Venetial Revival sweetmeat dish? Steiff teddy bear... May Freres and Armand Marseille dolls with eyes that move...

'Nuff already.

22 August 2007

The Edwardian Lady

I’m taking a small break from the Regency era in my writing, and am currently in the process of ‘discovering’ the Edwardian era--a time often called the “Golden Age” or the "Golden Years" in British History. Technically, the reign of Edward VII ran from 1901 to 1910, but generally the years 1901 through 1914 (the year that England declared war on Germany) define the Edwardian period. English author John Betjeman wrote that, "The Edwardian era was the last age in which a rich man could afford to build himself a new and enormous country-house with a formal landscape garden, a lily pond, and clipped hedges." It's an age where the inequalities of rich and poor were most clearly delineated and the conventions of social class were still rigidly defined, perhaps more so than during the Regency era. The rich made grand displays of their wealth and leisure, hosting not weekend house parties at their country houses, but "Saturday to Monday" house parties.

Still, the Edwardian lady enjoyed many freedoms that were denied a Victorian lady, or a Regency miss. But first it's important to point out that, during the Edwardian age, the word 'lady' had a signficant meaning--the word wasn't used casually like we use it today. Instead it identified something more specific: not just the wife of a peer, but a woman of easy circumstances, one who would never accept paid employment, whose fathers, brothers, and husband were all landowners, possibly a member of Parliament or highly placed in the Law, Army or Church. She didn't have to have a title--many ladies were married to Misters, but they were easily identifiable and there were actually very few of them.

Many women who were not 'real ladies' actually had more money--daughters of wealthy merchants or industrialists, fashionable beauties, mistresses who set new fashions. Though they might be tolerated by the 'true ladies,' they would never gain true acceptance.

But what is intersting is that these ladies were liberated in many ways by such simple things as outdoor sports, bloomers, slang, smoking, the bicycle and the motorcar. Ladies could wear "knickerbockers" and ride a bike in the park with a gentleman with no chaperone. Once motorcars caught on, ladies would don long dustcoats or capes, protect their eyes with goggles, wear much smaller hats than the usual fashion with a veil to protect their faces, and go motoring. Many ladies owned their own cars.

Ladies also moved into more active participation in sports such as yachting, tennis and golf (along with cycling). Burberry and Harrod's supplied golf knickers, cycling knickers, cycling skirts, golf collars and cuffs. While these all seem awfully uncomfortable to the modern woman, they were considerably easier to wear than the ordinary fashionable dress of the day.

Cosmetics also came into fashion for the Edwardian lady. Before 1909, when Gordon Selfridge opened his new store in Oxford Street, most cosmetics were 'hidden away' in stores and ladies' salons, where women came in the back doors, heavily veiled, to inspect and purchase the wares. But at Selfridge's, face powders, lip salves, rouge, and eyebrow pencils were placed on open display, and customers were encouraged to browse and experiment. It wasn't long before other stores were following suit, and soon the purchase of cosmetics became routine and no longer hidden.

In these small ways, women were becoming more 'modern' even during a time where a woman still didn't necessarily marry for love but for connections, where it was near impossible to move from the ranks of the working class to that of lady or gentleman of leisure, where rules of courtship still remained. It's an age of elegance and repression for women, while also a time of great liberation.

And, of course, it's a very romanticized age. Anyone have a particular favorite movie or book set during the Edwardian era?

My own particular favorite is the movie SOMEWHERE IN TIME, with Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeve--one of the most romantic movies ever (even if a bit cheesy--that's part of its charm!).

21 August 2007

Welcome, Monica McCarty!

Highlander Untamed (the first in the MacLeods of Skye Trilogy)
By Monica McCarty
Available NOW!

She has a year to make him love her… Isabel MacDonald agrees to a handfast marriage with Rory MacLeod, her clan’s bitterest enemy in order to end a deadly feud. But the handfast is only a cover to gain her access to his castle—and with a little seduction, his heart. But her treacherous plans are immediately tested by the fearsome Rory, a powerful Highland chief who embodies everything she admires. Soon Isabel has found the place in the family she’s always dreamed of with the man she must betray, and her only hope of happiness is to escape her own dangerous web of lies.

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer… Rory’s duty as Chief of Clan MacLeod is clear: He’ll obey the king’s directive to handfast with the MacDonald lass—but under his own terms. As a handfast is only required for a year, at that point Rory plans to return this unwanted handfast bride to her family and forge a different marriage alliance. But his plan to keep his distance from his unwanted bride is challenged by the beautiful seductive siren who proves impossible to ignore. And when he catches her snooping and removes her to his bed to watch over her, Rory finds himself wishing that the year would never end.

Monica will be mailing one lucky poster a copy of Highlander Untamed, which is sure to have you waiting on tenterhooks for then next two books (which, lucky for us, are coming out in rapid succession). So be sure to include your email address in your post!

Ok, I have to admit to a small bit of prejudice here. Monica is not only a fellow Wild Card (Golden Heart 2005 Finalist) but she's also a good friend and local RWA chapter-mate for me here in San Francisco. I got to snag a copy of Highlander Untamed last month, and all I can say is those of you who miss the grand, sweeping, highly-emotional romances of the past: THIS BOOK IS FOR YOU!

Highlander Untamed is set in 1603, Scotland. How did you become interested in this time period and location? What do you love about it?

My interest in Scottish History stems from two events. While attending Stanford Law School, I took a Comparative Legal History class and did a paper on feudalism and the clan system. Not long afterward, I picked up (or maybe my mom passed on) a new book called OUTLANDER by Diana Gabaldon. I became completely fascinated (I have this weird personality quirk where I get REALLY into things—ask my hubby about Lord of the Rings.J) and devoured everything I could find on those yummy Highlanders.

As a reader I never really focused on a certain time period, but while doing general research for my first book I became drawn to the period known as The Age of Feuds and Forays—loosely, from 1493-1620—particularly the end of the period when the a new strong central government (James VI of Scotland/I of England) started to exert authority over the chiefs. The struggle for the chiefs to hold their power and protect their way of life seemed ripe with tons of great conflict. For me, it is kind of the last big hurrah for the chiefs and the beginning of the end of their political power and Gaelic culture. I have a section on my website devoted more to the particulars.

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

The only thing that I wasn’t loving about the period (which Kalen might appreciate!) was some of the court clothing. The books start at the very end of the Elizabethan era which meant lots of ruffs and wide skirts with farthingales for my heroines (all of whom, it happens, have something to do with court). I tried to downplay some of this and even have the characters dress like it’s a masque a few times. Since my heroes are all Highlanders to the core, it wasn’t as much of a problem. The few times they had to wear court clothing I made sure they weren’t in any of the “pumpkin” pants. J

In terms of things to plot carefully around, boy was there ever! In deciding to write about actual historical figures for this first trilogy, at times it was really difficult to make the timing of events work. I also had to take what history I knew about these people and try to spin something that would be conceivable even if not historically based. Although romance, and not historical fiction, I tried to stay as true as possible. So make sure to read the author’s notes. Also, I’ll be adding extended author’s notes to my website over the next few months in the special features section.

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

To this point, the ideas for my books have all been sparked by historical events. For HIGHLANDER UNTAMED it was a small mention of something called “The War of the One-Eyed Woman”—a two year long feud between the MacLeods and MacDonalds. While researching that event, I became fascinated with the revered Rory “Mor” (the Great) MacLeod who happened to be the brother of the one-eyed woman. When I discovered that he’d actually married a MacDonald (star crossed lovers anyone?), the story kind of unfurled itself.

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

Research is probably my favorite part of writing. I love rifling through history books and completely immersing myself in a time and place. For the first book I probably did about three months of research before even thinking about a story. The second book, I did at least two months and by the third book about a month. If at some point I decide to do a different time period, it will take at least three months of research before I would even think about starting to write.

There were so many things I didn’t know, but the biggest one that springs to mind is just how much King James detested his Highland subjects. He often referred to them as “Barbarians,” but it went far beyond that. In what some historians have referred to as an attempted genocide of his own people, he tried to wipe out entire populations (Isle of Lewis) under the euphemism of “colonization.” This actually drives part of the plot of book #2, HIGHLANDER UNMASKED (available August 28th).

What do you like to read?

I read pretty much everything except for paranormal (although I love time travels and I did enjoy JR Ward’s books). My non-romance reading is mostly historical fiction and the occasional classic. Like quite a few other people I imagine, right now I’m reading Harry Potter.

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?

For such a “type A” personality, you would think I would be an extreme outliner, but I actually prefer to have the major plot points clear in my mind—and that’s about it. Unfortunately, as I have to provide my publisher with a synopsis before writing, I need to plot a little bit more than I’d like. When I first conceive a story, I usually have the black moment in mind and write to that.

More true to personality, in terms of revising I’m definitely a perfectionist. I can’t just write and plow forward until the end. I revise heavily along the way, so that when I’m done, I’m done. Of course, my cp’s (Bella Andre and Jami Alden) and editor don’t always agree. For the past couple of books I’ve also been very lucky to have Tracy Grant give me her two cents. Nothing like having one of my favorite authors reading the WIP!

I know your first three books are being released by Ballantine back-to-back-to-back. What’s in store for readers in the rest of this first series?

HIGHLANDER UNMASKED (August 28th) belongs to Rory’s brother, Alex, a fierce warrior fighting against injustice and the demons of his past. HIGHLANDER UNCHAINED (September 25th) is the story of their half-sister Flora, a headstrong heiress who vows to be a prize for no man.

What are you planning to work on next?

I’m already knee-deep in my next project. I’ll be doing one more back-to-back trilogy, this time centered on Clan Campbell. It will probably be released sometime in early 2009.

20 August 2007

Grist for the Mill...or, make lemonade

While writing my unpublished Regency historical, In the Face of Scandal, I had nagging, chronic back pain for months at a time (probably a legacy of a too-long flight to London and back). Yet practically every day, I dragged my laptop off to the public library to write, determined to get the book done on time and ship it off to my agent.

At one point in the story, I needed a convincing reason for the heroine and hero not to have sex at that particular moment. There were no external factors to hold them back: they’d stopped at an inn on the way to London, they were alone, they were married. But for plot purposes, I needed to delay the sex. As I tilted my head forward to jot down a list of possibilities, my neck protested, tightening in a fiery burst of pain and clenching muscles.

Ah, I thought, there’s the answer. My heroine’s been riding in a carriage for ten hours. Her back must be killing her. In fact, her back must be so tensed up and painful that she can hardly move…just like my blasted neck right now. No hero worth his salt could possibly bed a woman in that much pain. And to the heroine’s great disappointment, the hero insists on leaving her untouched that night.

I used the pain of real life in the story, and I think it worked well. The character seemed more real, like a woman who might have existed, because her pain made her more sympathetic. It became one of those details that contributed to the landscape of the story.

Sometimes I read a book that has a lot going for it, but one of the characters seems one-dimensional. It’s usually because the character is a little too perfect. Perfectly groomed, perfectly mannered, perfectly healthy. Oh, she may quibble a little over her feelings for the hero, may make a tiny misstep or two while she’s pursuing him, yet she comes across as though she has all the feelings of a mannequin. Perhaps she’s too perfectly pain free for me to relate to her.

Joss Whedon once said, “Buffy in pain makes for a great storyline.” (I’m paraphrasing a bit, but he’s my writing idol so I hope he won’t mind). In an historical, there is already a veiled curtain over the mores and customs of the characters; when they also carry a veil of perfect health, it’s that much more difficult for me to relate to them.

I’m reminded of some illnesses in Austen: the potentially life-threatening cold that Jane Bennett suffers in Pride and Prejudice; the self-inflicted concussion and coma suffered by Louisa Musgrove in Persuasion. In the latter case, the willfulness of the character led directly to her fall. It made her more sympathetic, at the same time it showed the heroine as much more capable and sensible…a much more fitting wife for the no-nonsense hero.

And yet, it’s all too easy for a book to turn into a “disease of the week” opportunity for educating the reader about a particular health issue that’s important to the writer. I’ll exercise some good taste and not name names here, but I’m curious about when you’ve seen this sort of thing done well. What books come to mind where the characters have flaws that make them seem that much more sympathetic? That much more real, in a “this person might actually have lived” way? And for authors, how have you used your own pain in stories?

An afterthought –

I wanted to start this column with an anecdote about a fictional detective who suffers from migraines, but I couldn’t recall either the name of the detective or the author. (Is it Sherlock Holmes? I honestly can’t recall). My memory loss, brought on by an operation in 2005, continues to expand. It started with short-term memory loss – new facts weren’t being recorded properly in my brain, so when I tried to recall them, I received a “File not found” message. As recently as last year, I could joke that I remembered events from thirty years ago more accurately than events from thirty seconds ago. Now that thirty years ago is starting fade, it’s a little scary.

But it’s all grist for the writing mill. Someday I'll write about a character with memory loss. Perhaps a secondary character, like a mother-in-law or an aging, autocratic father, furious with his diminishing faculties. Oh, yeah. I can use this.

19 August 2007

A (Very) Brief History of Perfume

I’ve always loved perfume. Ever since my aunt gave me a gigantic bottle of Jean Nate when I was about 8, I’ve been addicted to department store perfume counters, to smelling and blending, to taking on a new persona through the magical combination of scent and packaging. (The woman who wears Vera Wang Princess, for instance, wouldn’t be the same woman who wears Tom Ford’s Black Orchid!). Perfumes can mean memories, too. Miss Dior makes me think of my grandmother; jasmine oil, my first boyfriend, because he bought me a bottle at a Renaissance fair. Lauren takes me back to college, since my roommate wore it (and, in one memorable and stinky evening, spilled it on the floor!).

Sadly, many scents that I love in the bottle (Joy, Fracas, Chanel #5) smell oddly like motor oil when I put them on. So, I stick to my own tried-and-true in the end—Crabtree & Evelyn’s Evelyn for everyday (it actually smells like summery roses, without that weird mustiness rosy perfumes sometimes take on). Coco Mademoiselle for special occasions.

When I started writing A Notorious Woman, my heroine Julietta needed an occupation in Venice. Something that would bring her in contact with Venetian society, allow her to meet the hero Marc (the current heartthrob of the city!), and also cover up her secret alchemical experiments. What better than an exclusive perfume shop? After all, perfume has an alchemy of its own. Who would guess that Sicilian lemon, magnolia, and musk (the main ingredients of Sarah Jessica Parker’s new perfume Covet) could add up to something lovely and evocative?

I had so much fun researching the history of perfume, the process of making this magical elixir, and even the making of perfume bottles (often works of art in themselves). I bought some essential oils and tried blending my own scent with, well, less that successful results. At least my carpet no longer smells strangely of carnations and potting soil…

So, here is a brief (very brief!) history of perfume!

Ancient Egyptians used perfumes as part of their religious rituals, as well as for cosmetic and medicinal purposes (as incense, oils, and creams). From there, scent spread to Greece, Rome, and the Islamic world (where, eventually, it reached more Europeans through the Crusades).

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the use of perfume grew even more popular (to cover up the lack of hygiene, I suspect!). Italians, the French, and even the English (influenced by the sensitive nose of Elizabeth I) couldn’t live without their oils and pomanders. The great popularity of perfumed gloves in France led in the 1650s to the formation of specialized guilds for perfume makers. The 18th century (when the court of Louis XV was even nicknamed ‘the perfumed court’ for its copious use of the stuff, even on furniture) saw the important invention of a concoction known as eau de Cologne. A blend of rosemary, neroli, bergamot, and lemon, it was light and refreshing, and could easily be diluted in bathwater; mixed with wine or eaten on a sugar cube for mouthwash; even used as an enema or for poultices. Not only liquid perfume (in beautiful bottles of Murano glass, or after 1765, Baccarat), but scented sponges kept in gilded vinaigrettes and oil diffusers for rooms were popular. (A fun source for this is Elisabeth Feydeau’s book Scented Palace, about Marie Antoinette’s favorite perfumer).

Due to a flourishing trade in jasmine, rose, and oranges, the town of Grasse in Provence became one of the largest producers of perfume ingredients, with the statutes of the perfume makers of Grasse in 1724. Paris became the commercial counterpart to Grasse, with famous houses such as Guerlain and Houbigant (whose Quelques Fleurs is still sold today). Not to be outdone, in London James Henry Creed founded the House of Creed in 1760 (also still going strong today!).

Not even the French Revolution could slow things down—it just changed trends a bit. The top seller of the day was a scent called “Parfum a la Guillotine.” I’m not sure I want to know what that smelled like…

Some fun websites to check out:

The Perfume Museum of Barcelona
Museum of Grasse
Perfume Smellin’ Things
Peppermint Patty’s Perfume Posse


18 August 2007

Welcome, Amanda McCabe!

A Notorious Woman
By Amanda McCabe
Available Now!

Venice belongs to the mysteries of night, to darkness and deep waters. And so does Julietta Bassano. The beautiful perfumer hides her secrets from the light of day, selling rose water and essence of violet to elegant ladies rather than taking her rightful place in society.

Then enters Marc Antonio Velasquez—a fierce sea warrior determined to claim her. Seduced by his powerful masculinity, Julietta begins to let down her defenses.

But in the city of masks, plots spiral and form around Marc and Julietta—plots that will endanger their lives and their growing love….

A Notorious Woman is set in Renaissance Venice. How did you become interested in this time period? What do you love about it?

Romeo and Juliet! Or rather, the Zeffirelli movie version of it, which I first saw on cable when I was a kid. So, I guess it was the aesthetics of the Renaissance that first grabbed me. The fashions, the villas with their austere stone facades and glorious interiors, the art. It has a very ‘romantic’ aura about it.

Once I started studying the era, I also loved the contrasts of it all, the sense that it was such a huge turning point in human history, in the whole way people thought of being ‘human.’ It was so very violent—just as in R&J, vendettas and blood feuds were common. There were battles, invasions, shifting alliances. Milan versus Venice, Florence versus Pisa, Rome versus Florence, Naples versus Milan. Yet juxtaposed with this ruthless warfare, there was tremendous optimism, the rise of humanism and art. Individuals were, for the first time since antiquity, rising to prominence in almost every area of human endeavor—art, exploration, science, philosophy. Art, especially, was making huge strides, not just in terms of technique but in what it meant to be an Artist. Very exciting.

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

Well, I don’t think I would have liked the plague! Or the lack of hygiene. My characters, of course, are remarkably clean, LOL. One thing I did have to work around was the rigidity of Venetian society. Venice was nominally a republic, yet not at all the way we think of it. Caste was strict. Patrician families, suitable for marrying and associating with, were listed in the famous “Golden Book.” I needed to find ways for my hero and heroine (outsiders) to move freely and be involved in society events. Also, I was careful not to set the story in a plague year!!
What sparked this book? Was it a character? An historical event? A scene you just couldn’t get out of your head?

My heroine, Julietta, actually came first. I read a biography of the d’Este sisters, patrons of the arts and ruthless Renaissance figures in their own rights. I’ve always been fascinated by people (women, especially) who fight the system, who forge their own paths by using their talents and wits. Julietta learned when she was very young that a constrained, “feminine” life would never work for her, so she runs her own business (a perfumery). She makes her own life in a very complicated city—and even finds a man who is a perfect compliment for her! Marc is a sea captain, a hero of Venice, with secrets and a vengeful mission of his own.

(Also, I just happen to love Venice! And movies like A Dangerous Beauty, Casanova, and The Wings of the Dove just feed that addiction. Julietta and Marc seemed to belong there, more than anyplace else…)

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

Since I had been immersed in the Regency for so long, and hadn’t really studied the Renaissance since college (my grad school ‘specialty’ was Elizabethan poetry!), I had to do a lot of reading. Or I should say “got to do” a lot of reading! I’m not sure I found anything really startling, but I did come across a ‘treasure’ at a book fair, a reproduction of a 16th century souvenir book of colored sketches of Venetian scenes at Carnival. Masked revelers pelting each other with eggshells full of perfume, sword-dueling thugs, the Marriage of the Sea ceremony, dance barges on the Grand Canal. It was a great inspiration for many scenes in my book! I incorporated a torchlit ball in the Piazza San Marco, a secret party somewhere near the Ghetto, the Marriage ceremony, hanky-panky in a gondola…

What/who do you like to read?

Do you have about a week for me to answer that?! I read almost anything I can find—fiction (romance, mystery, literary, historical), non-fiction (history, biography), travel narratives, fashion magazines. Even sometimes cookbooks, though I don’t cook! Some recent good reads were Michael Gruber’s Book of Air and Shadows, Ian Sansom’s new “Mobile Library” mysteries, and Susan Vreeland’s Luncheon of the Boating Party (historical fiction centered around Renoir’s famous painting!)

Care to share a bit about your writing process? Are you a plotter or a pantser? Do you write multiple drafts or clean up as you go?

I’m pretty much a plotter! When I was first starting, I was very much an “into the mist” writer. Had no idea where a story was going to go. Practice has made me clean up my act somewhat when it comes to pacing, seeing where I need to go. I still can’t be a total “plotter”! Things like chapter-by-chapter outlines and storyboards, which work so well for other people, would be a waste of time for me. I keep changing things! And I get impatient, can’t do multiple drafts—I usually fix as I go, so I won’t get bored.

What are you planning to work on next?

I just started working on a Regency-set story (book #2 in my yet-to-be-released “Muses of Mayfair” series) which is set on Sicily. So, I can reuse some of my Italian research! After it’s done, to quote Monty Python, “now for something completely different”! A story set in the 16th century Caribbean. Balthazar, from A Notorious Woman, will be the hero of that one. I really think I need to do some on-site beach research for that one…

Speaking of research, here are a few sources I found useful:
Adrienne Mayor, Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World
D. Chambers & B. Pullan (eds.), Venice: A Documentary History, 1450-1630
S.K. Cohn, Women in the Streets: Essays on Sex and Power in Renaissance Italy
G. Ruggiero, Binding Passions: Tales of Magic, Marriage, and Power at the End of the Renaissance and The Boundaries of Eros: Sex, Crime, and Sexuality in Renaissance Italy
G. Wills, Venice: Lion City
Stella Mary Newton, The Dress of the Venetians, 1495-1525

17 August 2007

Doin' What Comes... Naturally?

One of my strongest memories of first becoming a mother is of a day when my son was about a week old. My husband had gone to work and baby Jesse was asleep. I stepped into the shower, turned the faucets, and immediately heard the baby crying.

He’s up, I thought. He needs something. Barefoot, soaking, anxious, lactating, I hurried down the hall. The baby was asleep in his bassinet.

I got back into the shower. Same thing.

I could hear him crying. He must be hungry.

Got out again, shivering, dripping milk and water. Nope.

I don’t know how many times this happened before I figured out that some overtone of our hot water pipes bore a distant resemblance to the timbre of Jesse’s crying. And that even though I have a tin ear for melody and harmony, my heightened post-partum sensorium had caught the subtlety of sound.

Astonishing. Who knew?

Certainly nobody had told me that at that point in early-motherhood, my body (myself?) had resolved to attune itself (myself?) to my baby’s cry. And because it (I?) wasn’t about to risk getting it wrong, for a week, I heard Jesse’s cry everywhere.

Years later, I wrote this about my new-mother heroine in The Bookseller’s Daughter:
She heard Sophie’s cry in the wind, in the calls of birds and vendors outside her window, even in the plumbing of the water closet. It took a week or so until the cry became part of her, utterly unmistakable and unlike any other sound in the world.
What a pleasure it was to write about something so intimately and completely my own discovery. And what a surprise, a few years later, when I read a contrasting passage in Emma Donoghue’s Georgian-set historical novel, Life Mask. The passage is another intimate post-partum scene, set among historical personages: The Viscountess Lady Melbourne (later to be Caroline Lamb’s notorious mother-in-law) is in bed after having delivered her daughter Emily (later to be a patroness of Almack’s). Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and the sculptor, the Honorable Anne Damer, have come to visit her.
The baby started to cry and Lady Melbourne reached for a bell-pull on the wall. [She continues to tell her guests about an amusing incident, when a diamond meant for her husband’s mistress was delivered to her by mistake].

Anne had to admire her old friend’s verve. “Perhaps, if I’d been as pragmatic as you, I’d have made John Damer a better wife.”

Lady Melbourne shrugged. “One can’t conquer one’s nature. Could one of you pass the baby?”

Georgiana leapt up to scoop up the wailing infant… [the ladies continue laughing and joking for several paragraphs]

The wet-nurse hurried in just then, curtsied, and took the screaming baby.
The baby has been screaming for almost a quarter of a page, causing the fictional ladies no anxiety, no slowing of the flow of wit and gossip. No lactating. No problem (for anyone but me, the reader, who was squirming with discomfort at the imagined sound of a screaming baby). The wet-nurse has been rung for and is on the way. Donoghue has Lady Melbourne note that one can't conquer one's nature. But in this fictional rendition at least, it seems that one can do so quite well, thank you very much.

Or is it human nature at all, to respond to the cry of a hungry baby as anxiously, intensely, and all-encompassingly as I once did? Perhaps not, if you’ve got a wet-nurse to take care of things. Perhaps, it she's the one responsible for feeding your baby, you teach yourself to concentrate on other things.

I admire the passage, as a striking attempt to suggest the profound effects that custom can wreak upon what I’d felt to be so deeply natural. And to do what historical fiction should do, imo, which is call into question what we assume is human nature, by making the ordinary strange. I love that little intimate shock of the different, the foreign - the past as another country where they did things differently.

And I was particularly struck by it, not just because of my own experience, but because of my historical research. I know a lot less about Georgian and Regency England than I do about Enlightenment and Revolutionary France in this regard, but I do know that in France, the question of breast-feeding and wet-nursing was huge, and fit right into a still-bigger question of what was natural (or should I say "natural"?).

The eighteenth century was the heyday of wet-nursing in France. Not just by the aristocracy, but by the artisan and shopkeeping classes. In 1780, the lieutenant-general of the Paris police estimated that of the twenty thousand of more babies born in Paris yearly, “only one thirtieth sucks its own mother’s milk.” For the rich, it was a matter of habit and fashion; the aristocrat Talleyrand claimed that his mother had never inquired after him during the four years he spent with a wet-nurse. But the exigencies of poverty caused others to send their children away - for some years, to be nursed by women who made wet-nursing a longterm if miserable source of income. And some of the children didn't come back at all; a third of them died in at their wet-nurses’ cottages.

The situation was dire; in this, as with so many things, society was ripe for a turnaround. And so it did, in the years preceding the revolution. Jean-Jacques Rousseau had a lot to do with it. Passages from his novel Emile (which my bookseller’s daughter reads) were widely quoted, like this one, which fiercely condemns women who “having got rid of their babies, devote themselves gaily to the pleasures of the town.” (Though I must also mention that Rousseau and his mistress had five children, all of whom they gave away to foundling homes.)

As surely as the fashion for bodices shifted to loose muslin, nursing one’s own infant became modish. Even Marie Antoinette (who had a lot to do with the craze for white muslin as well) tried it, though she soon gave it up and sent for the court functionary known as Madame Poitrine. But in the earnest middle classes, the fashion stuck and became a new ethos of intimacy, what we might call “family values,” and - that sticky word again - naturalness. Late in his life, Caron de Beaumarchais (whose career included writing near-subversive and vastly influential play The Marriage of Figaro and secretly representing Louis XVI’s in its effort to arm the American revolution) created a foundation in the service of breast-feeding.

What’s natural and what’s custom? How does our sense of basic human instinct and ordinary common sense change through time and custom?

Writers, have you had occasion to think about these questions and use some instances of it?

And readers, what do you think, and have you noticed any examples in your reading?

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16 August 2007

About Writing Rising Wind

I was raised on a battlefield. Some of my first memories are of visiting the memorial at Tu-Endie-Wei Park and wondering about the battle fought there and the men who died. The place was full of history and I loved it. The battle I am referring to is The Battle of Point Pleasant, the only battle fought in what was referred to as Dunmore ’s war. The battle was between the Virginia Militia and the united Indian nations led by Chief Cornstalk. It is of historical significance because after the English victory there was peace on the Frontier along the Ohio River . This peace allowed the colonists to come east and fight in what was to become the Revolutionary War.

I lived in Point Pleasant WV as a child so I suppose it was destiny that led me to write this story. The places I knew well, the history was part of me and the research involved led to many late nights and tired eyes. I used actual people from history and intertwined them with my characters, Connor, Carrie and her father and brother. It was not my intention to make this book into a history lesson but to represent the courage it took to build a nation. So if some of you are history majors and know that General Andrew Lewis was not in a certain place at a certain time all I can say is sorry. I loved the image of him as Connor’s mentor and placed him in time accordingly.

The accounts of the Shawnee atrocities were taken from actual historical records given by eye witnesses. It was the way of life then. It amazes me to think of the courage our forefathers possessed. It also gave me and my editors nightmares. And Connor too as you will find when you read the book. Connor is by far my favorite character to date.


15 August 2007

Becoming Tom: the Real Lefroy

Like many Jane Austen fans I am fascinated by Jane's early infatuation with the young Irishman Tom Lefroy. In fact, in my novel, By a Lady, my heroine, C.J. Welles is an actress auditioning to play Jane in a semi-biographical Broadway show about the thwarted romance between Jane and Tom.

The Jane Austen pseudo-biopic Becoming Jane is packing the cinemas this summer, and some movie critics were quick to inform their readers that Jane Austen’s love interest Tom Lefroy was the model for Mr. Darcy. Well, no. While there are several hints in Pride and Prejudice that are homages to Tom Lefroy, with regard to the love story element of the plot—if anything, this young man and distant relation of Jane's provided the literary fodder for the Willoughbys and the Wichkams, Jane’s feckless (though charming) heroes who give every inclination of proposing to one of the penniless heroines, only to wriggle off the hook and swim off in search of a wealthier bride.

During the time Jane knew Tom Lefroy (Christmas-time, 1795 into January of 1796) she was hard at work on her novel Elinor and Marianne, which would finally be published in 1811 under the title Sense and Sensibility. So it’s far more likely that her feelings about Tom’s departure, and the reasons for it were in the forefront of her mind and infused her imagination as she continued to revise Elinor and Marianne.

Though we’re all rooting for the despondent Marianne after Willoughby so caddishly (and so publicly) jilts her, the economic realities of the late Georgian era made things very difficult for potential bridegrooms as well. It was all very well and good to fall in love, but without an income, many of them simply could not afford to marry where they wooed. Class dictated one’s place in society, and in Austen’s immediate world, the gentry, gentlemen were not brought up to work for a living. Trade was sneered at. If a man did not have the means to support a wife and family, he would have to find a way to gain it through acceptable means. And those avenues were limited, even for an oldest son. Many young men applied themselves to the study of the law.

Such was the case with Tom Lefroy and Jane Austen.

Thomas Langlois Lefroy was born in January, 1776. He was raised in Ireland, and at Christmas, 1795, had come to Hampshire to visit his aunt and uncle, Anne and George Lefroy. Anne Lefroy was a dear friend of the Austen family, who lived in nearby Steventon; and it was at one of the several local balls held during the holiday season that Tom was introduced to Jane.

“A very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man,” was the writer’s first impression. Tom, just a few days shy of his twentieth birthday, boasted boyish good looks, with large, expressive, ever-so-slightly-shy eyes , a slightly aquiline nose, and a cupid's bow mouth. Their flirtation began at their very first meeting, and after enjoying three balls they were dancing together with enough regularity to excite comment from Jane’s cautious and conservative elder sister Cassandra. But Jane laughed it off in a letter to Cassandra, writing:

You scold me so much in the nice long letter which I have this moment received from you, that I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. I can expose myself however, only once more, because he leaves the country soon after next Friday, on which day we are to have a dance at Ashe after all. He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you. But as to our having ever met, except at the three last balls, I cannot say much; for he is so excessively laughed at about me at Ashe, that he is ashamed of coming to Steventon, and ran away when we called on Mrs. Lefroy a few days ago. . . . After I had written the above, we received a visit from Mr. Tom Lefroy and his cousin George. The latter is really very well-behaved now; and as for the other, he has but one fault, which time will, I trust, entirely remove — it is that his morning coat is a great deal too light. He is a very great admirer of Tom Jones, and therefore wears the same coloured clothes, I imagine, which he did when he was wounded.

The pale coat and the mention of Fielding’s lovestruck hero, Tom Jones, was a veiled allusion to Tom Lefroy’s emotional state: he was in love. Jane mentioned him frequently in her letters to Cassandra from that time. Anne Lefroy seemed to encourage a match as well, hosting a ball herself, evidently in the hope of bringing the young couple into an understanding. I look forward with great impatience to it, Jane wrote to her sister, as I rather expect to receive an offer from my friend in the course of the evening. I shall refuse him, however, unless he promises to give away his white coat.

Yet something must have happened at this ball. Or not happened--because Jane learned that Lefroy was soon to depart for London (gee—just like Willoughby!) In a letter Jane began on Thursday, January 14, 1796, and completed the following morning, there is another mention of Tom. Friday. — At length the day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, and when you receive this it will be over. My tears flow as I write at the melancholy idea.

In London, Tom resided in Cork Street with his great-uncle Benjamin Langlois (who was very much his benefactor) and applied himself to the study of law. The Austens soon followed, taking lodgings on the same short street, but there is no evidence that Tom and Jane’s flirtation continued. In a letter to Cassandra, Jane seemed grateful for the evening entertainments that provided a distraction—from her broken heart, perhaps?

In 1798, Tom came back to Ashe for a visit, but he did not pay a call on the Austens. Jane learned from Anne Lefroy that he was to return to Ireland, where he would practice before the bar. Although his own father had married for love, Tom either had a stronger sense of familial duty, or else thought it would be selfish to marry a woman he had no present means of providing for. Perhaps we have him to thank, for Jane--who had every expectation that he would offer for her--channeled her experiences and disappointment into her writing, where they are as plain on the page today as they were nearly two hundred years ago. Tom never became Jane's husband, but he remained in her fertile imagination until the end of her days. He probably was The One for her, because never again did she wax rhapsodic (if wryly so) about any other gentleman who entered her life.

Tom did become a lawyer in Ireland, and married well. His personal life and career flourished. Tom fathered several children and was eventually named Chief Justice. As for Jane, on July 18, 1817, she died of what is now believed to be Addison’s disease. Tom Lefroy outlived her by fifty-two years, dying on May 4, 1869 at the age of ninety-three.

Thomas Langlois Lefroy, Chief Justice of Ireland

Toward the end of his life, Lefroy was asked about his relationship with Jane Austen. In a letter written long after Tom's death, from his nephew T.E.P. Lefroy to Jane’s great-nephew, James Edward Austen Leigh in 1870, the younger Lefroy wrote My late venerable uncle . . . said in so many words that he was in love with her, although he qualified his confession by saying it was a boyish love. As this occurred in a friendly & private conversation, I feel some doubt whether I ought to make it public.

A marble bust of Tom Lefroy, sculpted during his days as Ireland's Chief Justice, occupies a venerable place in the Long Room of the Old Library at Trinity College, Dublin. There, visitors can gaze at the craggy jowls, the Roman nose, and the bald pate of the elderly Tom Lefroy and wonder what might have been had it become him to marry Jane Austen.

14 August 2007

Welcome, Cindy Holby!

Rising Wind
By Cindy Holby
Available Now!

Last of the Duncans - Leaving behind the Highlands for the New World at the tender age of ten, Connor Duncan learned quickly that only the fit and the fortunate survive. He was both, becoming a scout and an expert marksman…a man to be reckoned with. He knew his way through the backwoods as well as any Shawnee, but he was far less comfortable in the drawing rooms of Williamsburg. What was a rough-hewn frontiersman like he to do with a sheltered beauty like the governor’s niece? But there seemed to be no way to avoid the “Virgin Widow,” especially when she insisted on accompanying him on a dangerous mission through the wilderness to Fort Savannah. Neither capture, nor torture, nor the violent birth pangs of a young nation could keep them apart or stop the founding of a brand new dynasty of Duncans.
Cindy will be giving away a copy of Rising Wind to one lucky poster, so don't forget to put your email address in your posts!

Rising Wind is set in 1774, right before the Revolutionary War. How did you become interested in this time period?

I grew up on a historic battlefield so I’ve always been drawn to the place and the time.

What you love about it?

The courage of the people. They carved a society out of the wilderness. They sacrificed their lives for freedom.

What do you like least about this period?

Probably the lack of running water. It was a hard life. And the horror of being a captive of the Shawnee. To be at someone elses mercy would be a terrible thing.

Anything that constrained you or that you had to plot carefully around?

The fact that I used actual people from history was kind of freaky. I felt like I owed them respect for their accomplishments but also kind of juggled their stories to fit mine.

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

The Battle of Point Pleasant where I grew up. And Connor Duncan. He came alive so quickly when I placed him in this time.

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

Lots of research. A lot I knew but wanted to get the facts straight. I learned a lot about Daniel Boone. Such as the horrible death of his first son and his brother died practically in my back yard 250 years ago.

What/Who do you like to read?

About anything. Right now I’m anxiously awaiting Harry Potter. I just got hooked on Jodie Picoult. Also Alyssa Day, Barb Ferrer, Linnea Sinclair. A wide variety of genre’s.

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?

Defininetly a pantser. I clean up as I go.

What are you planning to work on next?

I’m fnishing up Twist, an urban fantasy for the new Shomi line that I’m writing under my Colby Hodge name. Then next is Fallen, another colonial piece about an English Soldier and a Scottish bondservant. I’m looking for the perfect local now. Which will involve lots of research.

13 August 2007

Attic Adventures

Yes, I have been AWOL. It's summertime and I so wish the livin' was easy. Don't get me wrong, my life is great, but the plate is too full at the moment. The tree-falling-on-house episode is history. The moving-back-in part will take months. So much of the house had to be packed up for the rebuild that we are now facing dozens of boxes of stuff that I have learned to live without. It's the perfect opportunity to simplify our lives and share the useful and useless with others. Which only makes the process of re-nesting take longer.

What does this have to do with research? Not a whole lot but it did start a train of thought about far more glorious stores of treasure: the attics of the great houses.

My favorite books on the subject come from two twentieth women: Lady Victoria Leatham, daughter of the Marquis of Exeter and Deborah Freeman-Mitford Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire.

As I investigated the subject I was surprised to find that some of the great houses did not have attics. The roof of Lady Victoria's home, Burghley, pictured to the right illustrates a small part of the roof (the Doric Columns disguise chimneys). It was a space that was much used by the household as an exercise and meeting place. Access to it was from the main part of the house. Still the family managed to find places to store things.

Before the last half of the 19th century I wonder if anyone every threw anything away.

Of course they did, but not nearly as much as we do. They passed things on. Lady Victoria uncovered a record of a deed of gift( c 1670) from the Countess of Devonshire to her daughter the Countess of Exeter: "gems, precious stones, 'Agats' and gold objects."

(An aisde -- that example shows how close the aristocracy is/was. Over the centuries the Exeter and Cavendish families are related by marriage more than once.)

Items of lesser value were handed "down" to servants and the needy. Thousands of bits of trash and treasure were stored away in abandoned parts of the house, secret rooms and desk drawers. In her memoir, COUNTING MY CHICKENS, the Duchess of Devonshire talks about opening a drawer to discover "a miniature of Georgiana, a Women's Institute programme of 1932, a bracelet given by Pauline Borghese to the Bachelor Duke to hide a crack in the marble arm of a statue of Venus, and a crystal wireless set."

The second photo is a picture of one of the "dark nurseries" at Burghley which Lady Victoria describes as "Burghley's answer to attics." These rooms had no electricity when the Leatham family began restoration (1982!) and were the source of endless entertainment, disappointment and discovery. Some of the tragedies: ten Venetian seventeenth century walnut chairs, "piled anyhow" that had become nothing more than "wormwood limbs and bits," small paintings stacked on top of larger ones so that the frames became "embedded in the canvas behind."

There were treasures: the jewels described in the deed of gift above and lost for generations. According to Lady Victoria it took six years to discover and organize the trash and the treasures.

I expect it to take me about two months to sort through our boxes and decide what to keep, what to toss and what to pass on. (A November 15th deadline does take precedence over the sorting!) Two months is a snap compared to six years. And I know I will be spared the duchess's experience.

She decided to explore the upper floors of Chatsworth, long abandoned (no central heat or electricity) and filled with "nothing but junk." She opened a door to a small room wondering if, at one time, it might have been a servant's bed chamber. Stepping in, she found a light on and a man seated in a crumbling chair, reading a book. He scowled at her. Startled, she begged pardon and immediately left the room, closing the door firmly behind her. She never went to that part of the house again.

The duchess never uses the word "ghost" but leaves the reader to draw her own conclusion. We may not have 16th century gems in our basement but we have been here seven years and I have seen no sign of ghosts either. For me, that's a fair trade.

Have you ever found a treasure in an attic? Tell us about it.

12 August 2007

Upstairs Downstairs, Regency style

As a seat-of-the-pants researcher (leave a space, look it up, if you can’t find the answer, make something up), about my only area of expertise is that of servants. Why? Because I find them fascinating in their relationships with each other and with the master/mistress upstairs. They’re great plot devices and can be terrific characters in their own right, and possibly more interesting than the aristos upstairs. In The Rules of Gentility, one of the main secondary characters is Hen, the heroine’s maid, who’s Philomena’s cheerleader and critic.

What I found in my research was that every household was different; it’s the historian’s quandary of not knowing whether an example is cited because it’s the norm or outside the norm. Even the major “how-to” book by Sara and Samuel Adams, The Complete Servant (1825) may not be an example of how things were, but how the Adamses thought they should be. And Sara and Samuel certainly liked things to be done right!

By the Regency period servants were the largest workforce in England--as many as one in four people in Regency London may have been in service at some time in their lives--and increasingly feminized. Servants on average stayed about two years in a position, and many saw being in service as a shortcut to upward mobility; perks (leftovers that could be sold) and vails (tips) inflated modest salaries. Most households seemed to run on a balance of trust and mutual exploitation--for instance, if the person (the cook) ordering the butter is also allowed to sell excess fat (a perk), then there’s an obvious opportunity for abuse. And servants--particularly valets and lady’s maids--knew all their employers’ secrets.

Servants were also a visible sign of affluence. Even though employers were taxed a guinea a year per male servant, the wealthy kept ranks of liveried footmen (paid according to height!). Female servants, who didn’t wear formal uniforms, were paid less, and did most of the behind the scenes work--cleaning, making fires, carrying hot water and slops. Upper servants--butler, housekeeper, lady’s maid, valet--were expected to represent their master in household business matters and be well-dressed--fairly easy for the lady’s maid and valet who received the perk of discarded clothing.

I don’t want to make this post too long so please ask if you have specific questions about who did what in a household, and I’ll try to answer!

-Janet Mullany

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