History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

29 July 2008

San Francisco: Arriving

The last time I was in this city it was only for six months. We lived in an apartment in Pacific Heights and I loved every minute of it. San Francisco has only improved in my absence.

From my hotel window I can see the giant statue of a man reclining high up on the roof top edge of a building, a structure that is such a visual distortion that it must be the oddest place in the world in which to work, the Bridge to Oakland and a spot called Mel's Diner that apparently has the best milk shakes.

It's amazing how many RWA people now arrive on Monday. I've been doing it for years but the few I talked to came early to do some serious sightseeing before the conference starts. The group I am with will do what we always do on Tuesday -- go shopping. There are some fabulous stores all within walking distance of the hotel. I know this is the land of Ghirardelli chocolate but I am hoping to find some See's Truffles -- my personal favorite

Note that the only bit of history in this post is that I lived her for six month once upon a time. I must add that I would love to do it again.

28 July 2008

RWA National Conference

We Hoydens will be taking this week off from blogging for the annual Romance Writers of America's National Conference. This year it happens to be in San Francisco (which is home to a good number of us).

If you live locally, please come and find us at the literacy signing. Wednesday, July 30th, from 5:50PM - 8PM there will be hundreds of authors signing books at the San Francisco Marriott (55 Fourth Street). Our publishers donate the books, and all the money goes to literacy programs. Get there early, as the lines for the big authors can be loooooooong.

Otherwise, my advice is to look for us in the bar . . .
We may pop in now and then to post a few updates about the event, but you can certainly count on seeing us back here in August.

25 July 2008

A loaf of bread, and thou, and ... a cuppa Joe?

[With apologies to Omar Khayyam.] My September book [Templar Knight, Forbidden Bride] which is set in 12th century Spain and France, elicited a copyeditor’s question: “Did they drink coffee in that era?”

So I researched the history of the brew, and oh, my! Coffee drinking goes back to the 9th century. In Ethiopia, goat herder Kaldi noticed his goats got friskier after eating red berries; curious, he tried the same berries and felt decidedly more springy himself. He couldn't wait to pass the word.

Coffee as we know it originated in Arabia, where the roasted “berries” were pounded to smithereens and brewed in a broth that made the goat herders happy in their work, kept Muslim worshippers in the mosque from nodding off, enlivened conversation, allowed a man to make love all night (!), and drove dervishes to heights of ecstasy.

And where Islam went (the middle east, northern Africa, and Spain), qahwa went, too. In the 10th century, a Persian physician, Razi, refers to “bunchum” which apparently derives from the word “bunn” or “bunna,” as the coffee plant was termed in the Kingdom of Kaffa in Ethiopia. Traditional Islam prohibits use of alcohol as a beverage, but coffee became a suitable alternative to wine. The word qahwa is derived from qahwat al-bun, or wine of the bean.

Though the Arabs guarded the secret of the brew, sometime in the 1600's, one Baba Budan, an Indian smuggler, left Mecca with fertile coffee plant seeds strapped to his belly and launched a coffee plantation near Mysore.

The world’s first coffee shop opened in Constantinople in 1475; the date is significant since in 1453 the Ottoman Turks overran that city and much more. And once again, wherever the Turks went, so did coffee. [I once made the mistake of ordering “Turkish coffee” in a Greek restaurant... talk about instant ugly American! Greek coffee is brewed three times before serving, and it's so thick it
leaves a sediment at the bottom of the cup. A very small cup makes one very talkative.]

By 1600, coffee had flowed into Venice and in 1607 Captain John Smith, founder of Virginia at Jamestown, introduced coffee to the New World.

Even England opened coffee houses, first called “penny universities” because for a penny you could buy a cup of coffee and discourse on timely topics with other happy drinkers. Do you know the origin of “tips”? A sign in an English coffee house read: “To Insure Prompt Service” (TIPS). If you wanted quick service and a soft seat, you tossed a coin into the tin.

Not to be outdone, Paris opened a coffee café, and in 1713, Louis XIV planted the first coffee tree in France.

The Turks, defeated in a battle near Vienna, left behind sacks of coffee beans, and voila! Italy joined the klatch. In 1690 the Dutch smuggled coffee seedlings out of the Arab port of Mocha and started cultivation in Ceylon and the East Indies. Hence, the slang term “cup of Java.”

Berlin opened its first coffeehouse in 1721. And in 1723 Gabriel de Clieu, a French naval officer, transported a seedling to Martinique. Within 50 years there were 19 million coffee trees on the island, and eventually 90 percent of the world’s coffee spread from this plant.

Seedlings smuggled out of Paris in 1727 launched the Brazilian coffee industry. Brewed coffee was considered a delicacy by some, and the “devil’s drink” by Christians. One open-minded pope, Vincent III, decided to taste the banished liquid and fell in love with it: “Coffee is so delicious it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.”

In 1732 Johann Sebastian Bach composed his Kaffee-Kantata, an ode to the delights of coffee: “Ah! How sweet is coffee taste! Lovelier than a thousand kisses, sweeter by far than muscatel wine! I must have my coffee.”

But the most significant event of all occurred in 1668, when coffee replaced beer as New York City’s favorite breakfast drink.

And the rest is history.

Sources: telusplanet.net; wikipedia.org; nationalgeographic.com.


24 July 2008

Welcome, Susan Holloway Scott!

Available Now!

Susan is one of the members of Word Wenches (a favorte blog of mine) and she's been kind enough to have me over to visit on multiple occasions. Today she joins us to talk about her newest novel about the many mistresses of Charles II.

Nell Gwyn was never a lady, nor did she pretend to be one. The illegitimate daughter of a royalist soldier, she is taken to London by her widowed mother to work in a bawdy-house. At fourteen, she becomes the mistress of a wealthy merchant who introduces her to the world of the theater. Blessed with impudent wit and saucy beauty, she swiftly rises from an orange-seller to a leading lady. She is still in her teens when she catches the eye of King Charles II, and trades the stage for Whitehall Palace and the glorious role of a royal mistress.

The King’s Favorite: A Novel of Nell Gwyn & Charles II (NAL/Penguin) is a fictionalized biography of the famous 17th century actress and royal mistress. How did you become interested in her?

My last three books have grown from one another. When I wrote Duchess, about Sarah Churchill, the first Duchess of Marlborough, I became intrigued with Barbara Palmer, Duchess of Cleveland, who was the lover of John Churchill before he married Sarah. Barbara was also the lover of a great many other men as well (to put it mildly!), and the most infamous of Charles II’s mistresses. Barbara was such a notoriously fascinating “bad girl” that I had to write her story next, in Royal Harlot. While researching and reading about Barbara, I kept coming across Nell Gwyn, another of Charles’s mistresses, but Barbara’s complete opposite in appearance, background, and temperament. I hadn’t even written half of Royal Harlot before I’d begun sketching out King’s Favorite. Like many writers, I don’t find my ideas so much as they find me.

Nell is a pretty irresistible heroine. She a real-life Cinderella, a small woman with a huge personality and boundless charm that climbed from appalling poverty to become one of the most popular actresses of her time, and, finally the most popular of the king’s mistresses. To this day, she remains a kind of folk-heroine in England, and her name still graces bath-soap, pubs, and hotels.

There have been many books about Nell Gwyn, both fiction and non-fiction. Why did you write another one?

Every generation interprets the past through their own eyes and attitudes. Nell’s “story” began evolving even during her own lifetime. Because she was for the most part illiterate, she left no journals or diaries, no version of her life in her own words. Everything was up for grabs, and throughout the next three hundred years or so, she has been both vilified as a whore and a guttersnipe who didn’t deserve to be loved by a king, and practically turned into a Protestant saint for her legendary kindness and generosity to the poor.

I tried to sift through the folklore and repeated hearsay to try to find the girl and woman Nell must have been, within the context of her time. While the king was the great love of her life, I wanted to show the other men in her life, too. I also wanted to include her long-standing friendship with the notorious (and notoriously charming) Earl of Rochester (played by Johnny Depp in the recent movie “The Libertine”). Most of all, I wanted to try to show Nell as a real woman, with real joys and sorrows, and not just the plucky stereotype.

What did you like about the era in which Nell lived?

I love Restoration England, the reign of King Charles II (1660-1685.) Following the grim puritan rule of Oliver Cromwell and the Protectorate, an ecstatic London welcomed Charles back from exile with giddy celebration. It’s a delicious time in English history, straddling as it does the end of the middle ages and the beginning of the age of enlightenment. Traitors are still drawn and quartered, their heads stuck on spikes on London Bridge, yet Christopher Wren is rebuilding London into a modern city and Isaac Newton is making revolutionary scientific discoveries. Much like the Regency, the Roaring Twenties, and the Swinging Sixties (every era needs a snappy nickname doesn’t it?), the Restoration is a time of tremendous social instability and change, with youth ruling the day and traditional moral standards being questioned. The mercantile middle class is increasing its power while the aristocracy is feeling the first pinch of waning influence. Add to this the “big events” of the Restoration like the Plague and the Great Fire of London, and the wealth of fascinating people, and it’s a fantastic setting for a novel.

What do you like least about this period? Anything that constrained you or that you had to plot carefully around (besides being true to her real life)?

In many ways, it’s not a great time for women. Men are overwhelming in charge, socially, legally, and financially. There’s a casual, misogynistic attitude that women-are-only-good-for-one-thing that’s hard for modern-day me to swallow. I’m sure that’s why I’ve written about the women I have, intelligent women who found a way to leave their mark and succeed within a challenging society. In that context, some of the choices that Nell was forced to make to survive (and at a very young age, too) weren’t easy for me to write, but they were important to show the kind of strength and spirit she must have possessed.

Did you have to do any major research for this book?

Because I’d already written two big historical novels in this time and setting, and with many of the same people as characters, I had much of my background research already done. But I always try to read as many original sources from the period as I can, not only for facts, but to get the flavor and vocabulary of the speech, always important when writing in first person. For this book, I also read all the plays in which Nell appeared or attended, and I also read a good deal of Lord Rochester’s scandalous libertine poetry (not for the faint of heart, believe me!) Thanks to the internet, it’s become so much easier to find original sources that would once have been locked away in distant libraries.

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?

Oh, I’m a total pantser. I know my opening scene, and my ending, and between the two, it’s a hundred and fifty thousand words of flying blind. *g* Well, that’s (fortunately) an exaggeration, but not by much. I have a rough idea of where I’m going, especially with the historical novels, since the plot is dictated by historical fact, but it’s still pretty free-wheeling. I don’t outline, or make notes. I just sit down each day and write, with a goal of about 3,000 words or so that I may or may not reach. I don’t beat myself up about that; some days the words are there, some days they’re not. But I do write seven days a week. I’m much too easily distracted otherwise, and if I take the weekend off, then it’s really hard for me to get going again on Monday (or Tuesday, or Wednesday…you get the idea.)

I’m also a single-draft-writer, and now that my publisher has shifted to on-line editing, I never do print out a hard-copy manuscript. It’s been my sorrowful experience that I’m much better off with my first version, and that, for me, rewriting is a fiery pit of despair and adjectival excess that I do well to avoid.

What are you planning to work on next?

My next book is The French Mistress, scheduled to be released next summer. This is the story of Charles II’s last mistress, Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, and in many ways his most interesting. She was sent as a “gift” to Charles by his cousin King Louis XIV of France, a beautiful, well-bred girl who may or may not have been a spy for France. Though Charles adored her, she was despised for her religion and her nationality by the English, and no one ever expected her to find such a lasting place in Charles’s heart, or in history. I’m particularly enjoying writing about her as an outsider in a notoriously cliquish court, where she’s safe as long as she pleases the king, but is always aware that if she fails, she’d end up in the Tower as a spy. I do like a challenge!

Many thanks to the Hoydens for having me as their guest! For more about The King’s Favorite and my other books, please visit my website: www.susanhollowayscott.com

23 July 2008

On the Road

Last week, I had to get three characters from Calcutta to Hyderabad during the end of monsoon season in 1804. After dealing for so long with Britain and France, a much smaller geographical area, the sheer amount of time involved in traveling across India—without airplane, train, or automobile—was mind-boggling. My characters had the option of taking the overland route, riding elephant-back along the foothills of the Eastern Ghats, a journey measured in months rather than days, or taking their chances sailing down the coast to Masulipatam, the nearest port city, and then moving inland from there. This speedy option was bound, with good weather, to take them over two weeks. It makes the trip from London to Bath-- or even London to Gretna Greene--seem pretty short, no?

Even more mind-boggling than the length of these journeys was the size of the retinues involved. Maria Graham, who traveled through India in 1809, described “a small party on a tour to Poonah” as consisting of “one lady, two gentlemen, and three children… but our attendants are near two hundred.” Maria Graham’s was a modest entourage. When Lady Henrietta Clive set out from Madras to Mysore in March of 1800, she took with her two teenage daughters, their governess, their pianoforte, and seven hundred and fifty servants (some of whom were employed specifically to carry the pianoforte), in short, seven hundred and fifty servants for four women. Likewise, when Edward Strachey and Mountstuart Elphinstone made their way to Pune in 1801, they took with them roughly two hundred servants, a detachment of sepoys, and eight elephants, one of which was designated for the sole purpose of carrying their library, which included, among other eclectic choices, works by Homer, Herodotus, Beowulf, Dryden, Boswell, and Thomas Jefferson. One assumes they didn’t play the pianoforte.

As Graham (a bit sheepishly) explains it in her journal, “we are obliged to carry tents, furniture, cooking utensils, and food, so that our train cannot consist of fewer persons”. Among the necessaries of life, Graham lists “coolies to carry our baggage, lascars to attend to and pitch our tents, servants to dress our food, others to take care of the horse and the beasts of burthen, and hamauls for our palanquins”. The multiplication of attendants begins to make a sort of sense. If everything must be transported by beast, one needs servants to care for the beasts, which then means that one needs more beasts and more bearers and bearers for the bearers. It was, essentially, an entire household in motion.

Can you imagine traveling with seven hundred and fifty people and a comparable number of animals? Or taking a brief sight-seeing trip—with two hundred servants?

20 July 2008

Women and Silver

How often have we turned over a piece of silver to look for the "925" mark to ascertain if it is sterling? Some time ago, in high school chemistry perhaps, I learned that silver (AG) is too soft for use in its purest form, but if a small amount of a stronger metal is added the alloy is ideal for utensils and serving pieces as well as cups and tankards.

According to an essay by Jennifer Faulds Goldsborough, "there are dozens, if not hundreds, of silver alloy formulas." The best known is the alloy used in Britain for centuries. It is called "sterling" which is 92.5 percent silver with 7.5 percent copper and trace metals.

When you think about it silver is a classic recyclable. It can be melted down again and again and reconfigured to suit the taste and needs of the time. Its value has varied over the centuries but it has always been a popular metal for coins since it has value even in small amounts and is easy to work with.

The Romans found deposits of precious metals, including silver, in Britain and it is thought to be one of the reasons for the conquest. After the fall of Rome, silver became increasingly rare and it was reserved for use by the church and royal households. The designs for those silver pieces were elaborate but seen by very few.

The amount of silver available grew significantly after trade began with the Americas in the late Seventeenth Century. As a result the middle class (such as it was)could afford silver. The elaborate working of the middle ages gave way to simple and more affordable designs as the demand for it matched the increased supply.

The regulatory responsibility for maintaining the quality of the silver was entrusted to the goldsmiths guilds -- goldsmith meaning silversmith as well. The Guild of London Goldsmiths was incorporated in 1327. Thus the process of maintaining the quality of silver was in place well before the pressures of demand led to a rapid increase in production.

With the need to increase production, wives and other women in the silversmith's household were drafted into service. They usually worked in the background performing the more routine tasks of engraving and polishing. But widows of silversmiths, as early as the 1600s, continued to run the businesses after the death of their husbands, with the help of male partners who were usually shop managers or journeyman. On occasion the widow assumed the role of shop managers. There were even some women who were accepted as apprentices and artisans though most entered the field through marriage.

According to Peter Earle (The Making of the English Middle Class 1660-1730) about one-third of all women of property in that seventy year period ran a business. Many of these women were involved in the silver trade, either as makers or retailers. The distinction between the two and the overlap is complicated and not what fascinated me about this subject. Here in the goldsmith guild is a niche where women made their mark (pun intended) as early as the 17th century. It was significant enough that The National Museum of Women in the Arts (Washington DC) has a permanent exhibit of the work of English and Irish Women Silversmiths (1685-1845).

Do any of you collect silver and can you elaborate on this admittedly introductory view?

18 July 2008

The Lambs, Again and Still

In my prior post we left the story of Charles and Mary Lamb at the scene of the crime -- Mary's murder of her mother, brought on by a fit of lunacy or simply the pressures of too much work, responsibility, unfreedom, in the life of a poor spinster mantua-maker of unstable temperament.

What never ceases to surprise me about the story was how little scapegoated Mary was. Her crime transgressed one of the most sacred family bonds, and yet the Morning Chronicle, in its report, had no difficulty pointing out that she was stressed by the "harassing fatigues of too much business." Fox News would have done much worse by her. While as for the jury, it brought back its verdict of lunacy "without hesitation."

The story reaches a branching path here. John Lamb, the older brother, wanted Mary committed to an asylum for life, even if it were in Bedlam. It was Charles, whom Mary had taken loving care of as a child, who found a humane private asylum for her, and who, two years later, brought her home. (The law allowed for this: an insane criminal might be released if a family member who could certify his ability to provide proper care.)

And so the brother and sister lived the remainder of their lives in what Charles, in one of his essays, called a life of "double singleness."

It was an urban life, taking delight in London streets great and small. This, quoted from Charles, by Ann Fadiman, in her wonderful essay "The Unfuzzy Lamb":
O! her lamps of a night! her rich goldsmiths, prinshops, toyshops, mercers, hardwaremen, pastry-cooks! St. Paul's Churchyard! The Strand! Exeter Change! Charing Cross!

It was a literary life. Wordsworth and Coleridge, Hazlitt and Godwin attended weekly literary evenings at the Lambs'. There's a tart, funny little play about one of those evenings called "The Coast of Illyria" by Dorothy Parker and Ross Evans. (Yes, that Dorothy Parker: the "you might as well live" Dorothy Parker recast the Lambs' circle as a sort of boozy, druggy Algonquin group. Not without historical basis: one of my favorite bits is when Coleridge, who's gotten his apothecary to agree to prohibit his dosages of laudanum, meets a new guest, a young Thomas de Quincey, who has in his pocket a list of every source of opium in London. The older writer takes the younger writer by the affectionate arm; it's a "Louis, this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship" moment.)

In a century when literary lives for women were hard won, Mary's had been most particularly so. The bitter irony is that if she hadn't cracked under the pressures of her life, the pressures of her life and family would have destroyed her. Charles saw to it that she never had to go back to sewing -- and at times when her stability wavered, he walked her back to the asylum (strait-jacket in hand) for spells of recovery. He worked all his life as a clerk to support her (he detested the work, by the way, and he wasn't very good at it: biographers have found the accounts he worked at, and traced his errors in ciphering).

She kept house; they wrote in the evenings. They got writing commissions from their friend Godwin (Mary Wollstonecraft's widower and Mary Shelley's father), who earned his living keeping a children's bookstore and publishing children's books. I saw a copy of the Lambs' Tales from Shakespeare on the children's shelves of a local bookstore this week (she did the comedies, he the tragedies) . James Joyce read Charles Lamb's retelling of the Odyssey when he was 10; by Joyce's own account, it was this version rather than the original that lies at the core of his formidable Ulysses.

Their output is mixed, minor, and all the more interesting for its marginality and originality. Mrs. Leicester's School, a collection of stories for girls, begins with a spooky (especially in Mary's circumstances) recounting by a child of being taught how to read from the letters on her mother's gravestone. One can see the tag-ends of romanticism (the scary, almost preverbal intimations of life and death) in these stories. There's also a formal playfulness: a monologue told in the voice of the littlest girl at school has the happy, repetitive, anti-narrative quality of say, a Good Night Moon; Mrs. Leicester has to make a comic, almost post-modern interruption to stop the child from speaking forever.

In 1814, Mary published a surprising essay, "On Needle-Work" in the British Ladies Magazine, under the name of Sempronia. A modest proposal, but radical for all that: a request that women not sew, but pay to have it done, written at a time that women of a broad spread of classes were never far from their sewing (even to the supremely decorative and utterly useless Lady Bertram in Mansfield Park).

"Sempronia" proposes needlework as a female profession as a way of questioning the value of women’s time and the meaning of work and leisure. The essay's an attempt to understand how women -- their time, their labor, their emotions and intellect -- might fit into the broader scheme of what would soon enough be called “political economy.” It’s an unusual polemic, addressed both to the rich women who ought to be doing something else and the poor women who need to be paid for this work. The tone is gentle, insinuating, or perhaps mildly passive-aggressive; conclusions hover in the margins. Like so many writers of the romantic era (which was also, importantly, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution), Mary Lamb asked more questions (about the inner and the outer life) than she could answer.

Ultimately, for both Lambs, it was a satisfying and yet a frustrating life. Charles would have liked to marry; he would have liked to write more extensive, more important stuff than his Elia essays (though he couldn't have asked for a better, smarter, and more loving reader than Anne Fadiman -- do check out "The Unfuzzy Lamb" -- it's in her own essay collection, At Large and At Small).

And it's a single/double life that holds more questions than answers for me as well.

Because although I write Regency-set romances -- and although these romances are perforce set in toney Mayfair or on country estates, my own imagination keeps wandering back to London east of Regent Street, to shabby apartments like the Lambs over wigmakers' shops, to the Godwins' children's bookshop in smelling distance from the Smithfield cattle market -- to lives patched together of the fabric of an era just on the other side of our own, just before the Big Bang of western industrialism, and not so long before madness came closer to all our homes via Freud...

OK -- your turn. What are the stirrings of madness, change, and romantic disorder that you see beneath the wit, grace, and gravitas of the Regency period?

(Or would you rather not look at that side of things?)

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16 July 2008

Robin Hood: A Legend In (Of?) Our Lifetime

As authors whose novels are grounded in history, we strive for as much accuracy as possible. Miring ourselves in research, we struggle with the nuances of vocabulary, often agonizing over whether a single word or phrase is anachronistic, let alone the details of period-accurate wardrobe and props within our settings.

When a work of fiction set in a time and place other than our own is adapted for the screen, we find ourselves discussing at great and lively length whether the cinematic creators "got it right." We cheer when they slip in a bit of minutiae that history buffs would handily recognize (the right food; the accurate reference to a law; the correct weapon; and the proper silhouette and construction of a costume).

Likewise, we occasionally feel the compulsion to slit our wrists when the specifics of an historical event (e.g., those surrounding the death of Cardinal Wolsey in the first season of Showtime's The Tudors) are wilfully--or cheerfully--ignored by the producers. In an interview with the New York Times published as the second season was about to debut, the series' creators acknowledged that they were perfectly aware of the facts, but elected to ditch the actual history in favor of giving Wolsey a more dramatic exit from the world. How did The Tudors kill off His Eminence? He slit his wrists. With a paring knife, no less.

Tonally, The Tudors takes itself very seriously, even as its creators acknowledge that they are playing fast and loose with history. Of course I wish that they would trust the fact that the actual events are often more juicy and dramatic than the fictionalized ones. But if the TV series encourages more people to be curious about the real Tudors, then (just as cinematic Austen adaptations--for better or worse--might develop and increase a wider audience for her books and others set during the Georgian and Regency eras), I suppose it's not such a dreadful thing.

But how do we feel about a television series inspired by a centuries-old series of legends which themselves were rather creative in their use of historical events and personages?

In the course of researching 12th and 13th century royalty for my upcoming nonfiction w-i-p, I decided to vist Netflix for a bit of pure entertainment that wouldn't take my mind too far from the subject. Curious about the most recent celluloid interpretations of the high gothic era, I rented the first season of episodes of the BBC's relatively new Robin Hood series.

It doesn't take more than a minute to realize that the latest screen incarnation of the Robin Hood legends is not your granny's Errol Flynn swashbuckler. Filmed in glorious Technicolor, that 1938 cinematic extravaganza derived its Normans vs. Saxons societal paradigm not from the original 13th century (and later) ballads; but from Sir Walter Scott, who was making a subtle political statement about the English and the Scots in his 1819 masterpiece, Ivanhoe.

In the 1990s, Kevin Costner and Patrick Bergin put their stamp on the role of Robin; the less said about those screen adaptations, the better. Their respective Maid Marians were feminists of the forest. Marian was a late addition (circa 1600) to the ballads via the elements of May Games. She remained surprisingly feisty throughout the Georgian and Victorian retellings, and that characterization has stuck, reflecting each subsequent generation's brand of feminism. The new BBC Marian, played by Lucy Griffiths, doesn't need to say "I'm with the band" to gain street cred. She fights and rides as well as most of the men in the series, and turns out to be a cross-dressing vigilante superhero(ine) in her own right.

Although he is the eternal vigilante who spurs our imaginations to believe that a life in the greenwood surrounded by other outlaws is purer and infinitely less corrupt than the supposed "civilization" he was compelled to abandon, Robin Hood, too, has always been a hero of his particular era, as readers (and now viewers) rediscover him and recognize the social and political parallels between the events of his story and those on our own nightly news. With each generation's retelling of the tales, the politics of the day--then, as now--found their way into the interpretations, with varying degrees of subtlety.

To contemporary readers, the episodic individual ballads seem closer to a boy's action comic, than to the world of classic literature. Robin is forever meeting someone on the road and goading him (or being goaded) into a fight. When he is bested, as is often the case, our hero recruits the better fighter for his band. Absent in the earliest written versions of the tales is the layering of social history. Centuries later, they will be firmly set during the reign of Richard I, against the distant backdrop of the Crusades--an unpopular war being fought in a faraway land while England's economy tanks and her subjects are taxed further and further into poverty, to pay for it.

The BBC's Robin Hood series makes no apology for any parallels the viewer might connect to current events too obvious to mention. And it's no earnest costume drama, nor has it much of an interest in being seen as one, although there are enough historical details that are accurate (not the costumes) to satisfy most costume drama fans. This new Robin Hood owes much to the recent crop of Hong Kong action movies; its fight scenes are enhanced with special effects familiar to fans of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Swords and staffs "whoosh" through the woods in swift concentric spirals that defy gravity. In one episode, which feels like an homage to the James Bond films of the 1960s, a cluster of Saracen female assassins strips down to jersey jumpsuits and ritual tattoos before inflicting their deadly swordplay on Robin and his band of sullen and often argumentative (no merriness here!) men (and one boyish-looking Saracen woman, who, naturally, is smarter and wiser than any of the peasant boy-outlaws).

Speaking of costumes, perhaps in an effort to convey that the series is intended to be a modern take on a classic story, the wardrobe contains an odd mix of attempts to create an on-the-mark silhouette side by side with some wildly inaccurate elements that look like they were purchased last season at Target. In one episode Marian wears a yellow cropped cardigan over her gown. And the Sheriff of Nottingham seems to be fond of a pair of striped skinny pants that made their way from an Edwardian wedding through punkdom.

The dialogue makes no attempt at recreating what passes for "period" language. It's riddled with blatantly slangy anachronisms, such as "Just shut up--okay!" and "Sorry to burst your bubble, Hood." We're in superheroland now, no matter the costumes or the location (the role of Sherwood Forest seems to be played by a Hungarian wood). With the CGI-enhanced fight choreography and frequent use of modern lingo, this Robin Hood revels in its anachronisms and pop-culture allusions--so much so that once you realize what its creators are doing, you can't possibly "fault" them for an accuracy it had never been their intention to reach.

So how do you feel about these "post-modern" cinematic adaptations of period literature? I'm not referring to the ones that are trying to be accurate and get so much of it wrong (Elizabeth: The Golden Age comes to mind), but to the new series that have clearly been developed for a generation of viewers who cut their teeth not on Howard Pyle but on Hong Kong action films and video games?

Vis-à-vis the BBC Robin Hood series in particular, I'd love to hear the impressions of our medieval authors. But I'm eager for everyone to join the discussion, regardless of the periods you tend to write, or read. Do you watch these series? Avidly, or once in a while? Do you think their success can translate across genres into new audiences for historical novels?

15 July 2008

Welcome, Kimberly Killion

Her One Desire
by Kimberly Killion
Available Now!

Astride a stolen horse, encircled by the shackled arms of Broderick Maxwell, a Scottish spy escaping certain death in the Tower of London, Lizbeth Ives rides to the north, hidden by the merciful darkness. By stealth and by cunning, the daughter of the Lord High Executioner has undone her father’s cruel work, compelled to save the innocent man with her. There is no turning back—they are bound as one in his iron chains. Consumed by mortal fear, driven by passion, they disappear into the night…

A single raven follows them. Is it an omen? Or only the first of those who would capture them? They must ride on. If captured, they will face death together. But if they reach Scotland, he will claim her for his own…forever.

Yep, we're welcoming another Zebra Deb to the blog. Kimberly is a debut author with Kensington's wonderful (and discounted!) Zebra program that brings you shiny new authors each and every month (Katherynn Dennis and I, as well as alum Hoyden Victoria Dahl were all Z-Debs). Kimberly continues this program's strong tradition of hot historical reads!

HER ONE DESIRE is set in 1483 England/Scotland. Is there a particular reason you chose that year?

I have always loved the 15th century. It is when Italy exploded with art and when England was trying to be the Big Bad Wolf. This time period is made of heroes. Research for HER ONE DESIRE was fascinating. I bought books on the history of torture and execution, the mystery behind the princes in the Tower, and biographies of Richard III. I discovered that things are not always as they seem and this became the ‘theme’ behind HER ONE DESIRE.

Anything you flat-out altered or “fudged”? If so, why?

Wow! You are asking me to confess? Very well…in the very first scene, the hero and heroine are escaping the Tower of London. They succeed through a ‘secret’ passageway built beneath the Tower grounds. As I was writing it, I had a map of said grounds and realized the moat might be a bit difficult to get around. So I had them go ‘under’ the moat. Most likely this would be impossible, but it is fiction and I had to get them out, otherwise they would have been caught and executed and then I wouldn’t have a book. J

Any gaffs or mea culpas you want to fess up to before readers get their hands on the book? I know I always seem to find one after the book has gone to press. *sigh*

There are a couple things, none of which were within my control to change. The first time I read the back cover blurb I panicked. In Her One Desire the hero and heroine are trying to reach the ‘borderland’ of Scotland, but the back cover blurb says, “If they reach the Highlands…” Ack!!! I tried to point it out to my editor several times, but it never got changed. Also, I had more than half the book written when I received my cover flats. I had originally created the heroine with strawberry blonde hair and the girl on the cover shows up with dark brown hair, so I changed her hair color. There is one other thing about the cover model and her ‘flawless’ skin, but I’m make you read the book to find out.

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

Oh this is a fun question. Laird Broderick Maxwell prides himself on being skilled at holding his breath. Here is a bit from the story that shows his humorous personality as well:

“I am the son of a man who sired twelve bairns. ’Tis expected of me to do the same.”

“Twelve?” Lizzy practically drooled. She would have given anything for just one sister.

“I can say all their names in one breath.”

The tickle dancing in her throat snuck out between her lips in a sort of hoot.

His head turned, popping his neck in two snaps. “Think ye I cannae do it?” He took a deep breath, held it, for extra drama, no doubt, and then…“Magnus—named after Da, but died in infancy; Aiden—named after my grandda; Broderick—that would be me, named after my da’s brother; Muira—named after my mam; then Radella, Jean, Lindsay—named after my aunts on my mam’s side; Beth, Deirdre, Lilian, Mattie—named after my aunts on my da’s side; and Ian.” He inhaled and beamed a wide grin.

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

I suppose I was contemplating my next story when I was watching a documentary of the lives of the executioners and how they lived. I was fascinated by their stories. I had been researching the life of Richard the Third, as he plays a role in HER ONE DESIRE, and discovered he, too, had been party to several execution. My little mind went to work and it hit me…what if I wrote a book about the executioner’s daughter? It took root from there.

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

My bible for this book was a Richard the Third by Paul Murray Kendall. The book is 600+ pages and I read it more than once. I discovered fascinating concepts that made me rethink my original ideas of creating a villain out of the executioner. Instead, I wanted to make the executioner a bit of a hero himself. As history buffs, we all know the mysteries that surround the princes in the Tower. I, too, have always wondered about their disappearance and decided to use that mystery as a twist in the storyline.

What/Who do you like to read?

I’m afraid I have one genre that I read for enjoyment; historicals. I have tried horror just to get a feel for how to write the ‘scary stuff’, but honestly, it scare me. J As far as my favorite authors…this list could go on forever, but I have my favorites: Hannah Howell, Julie Garwood, Teresa Medeiros, Gaelen Foley, just to name a few.

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 am a pantser. I like to write as if I were reading. That way I am as surprised by the events as the reader will be. In my opinion, it is less like work when you write like a pantser. I write in the mornings. Typically from 4:00 am to 6:30 am. I type in a first draft, mostly dialogue, then I comb it a second time for internal dialogue and deep emotions. The third time through I will add in the senses, which is my favorite part. I am usually pretty content with the scene after three rounds.

What are you planning to work on next?

I am currently working on a new book that begins in 1488 Italy. As an artist by trade, I’ve always been a lover of the Renaissance era. I am a fan of incorporating historical figures into my books, Lorenzo the Magnificent makes an appearance in my next book. Laird Taveon Kraig travels to Italy in search of an amulet that is said to hold the heart of a woman who cursed his clan. In Italy, he meets Mistress Viviana Gorini de’ Medici Martinus da Vincenza, a ward of Lorenzo the Magnificent who has already suffered the burden of the marriage bed twice and has no desire to wed again. Until…

If I’ve intrigued you, then don’t miss my debut release: HER ONE DESIRE
QUICK BLURB: England 1483—A time when the nobles would do anything to steal the crown. Proof of a conspiracy lies in the hands of the executioner's daughter. Her quest to save her father's soul endangers her life along with the Scottish spy she frees from the Tower of London.


Thank you, Kalen, for inviting me and since I’ve been in a celebratory mood as of late, I’ll be picking a commenter’s names at random to WIN an autographed copy of Her One Desire.

14 July 2008

Regency Refreshments: Naples Biscuits

These seem much like modern Lady Fingers: something that you don’t really eat by itself, but use as a base for making something else. The oldest reference I can find on Google Books is 1810 (which doesn’t, of course, mean that this when they were invented, but it does tell us that they existed during the period). The earliest recipe I could find is from The Virginia Housewife (1838), but I also found that A New System of Domestic Cookery (1824) calls for Naples Biscuits to be used as an ingredient in several other dishes.

The Virginia Housewife (1838) :

Lobscouse & Spotted Dog (ISBN 0393320944) has a recipe for these and I saw no reason to wander:

3 Eggs, separated
1/3 c. sugar
1/8 tsp rose water
¼ c. salt
¾ c. flour

Preheat oven to 350°.

Whip the egg whites until doubled in volume. Continue to whip, gradually adding the sugar, until the whites are smooth and glossy.

Beat the yolks and stir in the rose water and salt. Fold into the egg whites. Sift the flour into the egg mixture and stir gently to combine.

Either pipe 2-3” “fingers” onto a lightly greased cookie sheet with a pastry bag or spoon into a greased Madeline pan.

Bake 10-15 minutes.

My friends’ reactions:

They’re perfectly inoffensive, but they’re not something any of us would seek out as a treat. I think I’d add more rose water, or possibly make them with orange water instead and dust them with powdered sugar.

11 July 2008

Wedding Traditions

'Tis the season--for weddings. I for one will be attending no less than three in the next two months. I spend a lot of time making flight reservations, getting my kids dressed appropriately and picking out gifts. I perused the web on a whim to look up the history of some of our persistant wedding tradtions...and behold, all of this straight from a CNN news article last week!

The white wedding dress:
Technically, today's wedding gowns aren't white. They are "Candlelight," "Warm Ivory," "Ecru" or "Frost." But there was a time when a bride's wedding attire was simply the best thing in her closet (talk about "off the rack"), and could be any color, even black.

To convince her groom that she came from a wealthy family, brides would also pile on layers of fur, silk and velvet, as apparently grooms didn't care if his wife-to-be reeked of sweaty B.O. as long as she was loaded. It was dear ol' Queen Victoria (whose reign lasted from 1837-1901) who made white fashionable. She wore a pale gown trimmed in orange blossoms for her 1840 wedding to her first cousin, Prince Albert. Hordes of royal-crazed plebeians immediately began to copy her, which is an astonishing feat considering that "People Magazine" wasn't around to publish the Super Exclusive Wedding Photos, or instruct readers on how to Steal Vicki's Hot Wedding Style.

Giving away the bride:
Remember that Women's Studies class you considered taking in college? Allow us to summarize what you would have learned: All of our society's gender issues stem from the fact that fathers once used their daughters as currency to a) pay off a debt to a wealthier land owner, b) symbolize a sacrificial, monetary peace offering to an opposing tribe or c) buy their way into a higher social strata.

So next time you tear up watching a beaming father walk his little girl down the aisle, remember that it's just a tiny, barbaric little hold over from the days when daughters were nothing but dollar signs to daddy dearest.

And that veil she's wearing? Yeah, that was so the groom wouldn't know if he was stuck with an uggo until it was time to kiss the bride and too late to back out on the transaction. (There is also some superstitious B.S. about warding off evil spirits, but we think you'll agree that hiding a busted grill from the husband-to-be is a more practical purpose.)

The wedding party:
Talk about your runaway brides -- the original duty of a "Best Man" was to serve as armed backup for the groom in case he had to resort to kidnapping his intended bride away from disapproving parents. The "best" part of that title refers to his skill with a sword, should the need arise. (You wouldn't want to take the "just okay" member of your weapon-wielding posse with you to steal yourself a wife, would you?).

The best man stands guard next to the groom right up through the exchange of vows (and later, outside the newlyweds' bedroom door), just in case anyone should attack or if a non-acquiescent bride should try to make a run for it.

It's said that feisty groups like the Huns, Goths and Visigoths took so many brides by force that they kept a cache of weapons stored beneath the floorboards of churches for convenience. Modern-day best men are more likely to store an emergency six-pack at the ceremony for convenience, but the title remains an apt one.
Ladies -- believe it or not -- the concept of the bridesmaid's gown was not invented to inflict painful dowdiness upon the bride's friends and female relatives thus making the bride look hotter by comparison.

Historically, that dress you'll never wear again was actually selected with the purpose of tricking the eye of evil spirits and jealous ex-lovers (spicy!). Brides' faithful attendants were instructed to wear a dress similar to that of the bride so that during their group stroll to the church it would be hard for any ill-willed spirits or former boy-toys to spot the bride and curse/kidnap/throw rocks at her. (Ditto for the boys in matching penguin suits, saving the groom from a similar fate.)

Garter and bouquet toss:
This pair of rituals has long been the scourge of the modern wedding guest. What could possibly be more humiliating than being forced out to the center of a parquet dance floor and being expected to demonstrate your desperation by diving for flying flowers?
How about grasping in the air for a lacy piece of undergarment that until moments ago resided uncomfortably close to the crotch of your buddy's wife? At any other point in time, that would make you seem wildly creepy. So why is it acceptable at a wedding?

It used to be that after the bride and groom said, "I do," they were to go immediately into a nearby room and consummate the marriage. Obviously, to really make it official, there would need to be witnesses, which basically led to hordes of wedding guests crowding around the bed, pushing and shoving to get a good view and hopefully to get their hands on a lucky piece of the bride's dress as it was ripped from her body.

Sometimes the greedy guests helped get the process going by grabbing at the bride's dress as she walked by, hoping for a few threads of good fortune. In time, it seems, people realized that this was all a bit, well... creepy, and it was decided that for modesty's sake the bride could toss her bouquet as a diversion as she made her getaway and the groom could simply remove an item of the bride's undergarments and then toss it back outside to the waiting throngs to prove that he was about to, uh, seal the deal.

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue (and a sixpence in my shoe?):
A common theme that you've no doubt noticed throughout this post: humans used to be a superstitious bunch. This rhyming phrase neatly lists a number of English customs dating back to the Victorian age which, when worn in combination, should bring the bride oodles of fabulous good luck.

The something old was meant to tie the bride to her family and her past, while the something new represented her new life as the property of a new family. The item borrowed was supposed to be taken from someone who was already a successfully married wife, so as to pass on a bit of her good fortune to the new bride. The color blue stood for all sorts of super fun things like faithfulness, loyalty, and purity. The sixpence, of course, was meant to bring the bride and her new groom actual, cold, hard fortune.

Just in case that wasn't enough, brides of yore also carried bunches of herbs (which most brides now replace with expensive, out-of-season peonies) to ward off evil spirits.

Saving the wedding cake:
Why do couples eat freezer-burned wedding cake on their one-year anniversary? To answer this, we must look to the lyrics of a schoolyard classic: First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage! It used to be assumed that when there was a wedding, a christening would follow shortly. So, rather than bake two cakes for the occasions, they'd just bake one big one and save a part of it to be eaten at a later date when the squealing bundle of joy arrived.

Eventually folks warmed to the idea of giving the poor kid his own, newly baked cake, but the custom of saving a portion of the wedding cake far longer than it should be saved and then eating it and deluding oneself to believe that it actually tastes good is one that persists to this day.

So there they are---explanations to some those wedding traditions many of us will be observing this summer.

I guess for love and the sake of an HEA, we are willing to overlook the often less-than romantic origins. Care to share the origins of your favorite historical wedding tradtions?


09 July 2008

Courtesan Heroines

Last week, I blogged about courtesans as literary heroines on my own website. It generated some interesting discussion, and I thought it would be fun to repeat the post here where it has a wider audience.

There’s been a lot of discussion on e-lists I’m on and blogs and message boards lately about Your Scandalous Ways by Loretta Chase. I love Loretta Chase’s writing. I haven’t read this book yet, but I’m very much looking forward to it. Going back to a couple of recent posts on my own website posts about Deal-Breakers (things that keep one from even trying a book or make one put it down unfinished) and Deal-Makers (things that make one seek a book out), it combines two of my deal-makers–spies and and an experienced heroine. Francesca, the heroine of Your Scandalous Ways, is a divorced woman who’s become a courtesan (the book is set in Venice in the 1820s).

And that’s been the source of much of the discussion about the book. Some readers find the idea of a courtesan as a heroine wonderfully refreshing. Others are disturbed by the idea of a heroine who had sex for money. Some have suggested the a courtesan heroine glamorizes prostitution. Others have pointed out that there’s a world of difference between a prostitute walking the streets or working in a brothel and a courtesan. Both may have sex for their livelihood, but a courtesan had far more control over her life and her person. She might have sex for money, but she could choose who she slept with. In fact it could be argued that she had more control over who she went to bed with than a married woman did in the early nineteenth century. In my own book, Beneath a Silent Moon, the heroine, Mélanie, says to her husband, Charles:

“Legally you can take whatever you want from me.”

“That’s barbaric.”

“That’s marriage.”

“Not our marriage.”

No, it isn’t their marriage, but that’s thanks to the man Charles is. Legally Mélanie had more control over whom she slept with when she was a spy using her favors for information than she does as a married woman.

The courtesan heroine has a long literary tradition. La Dame aux Camelias/Camille/La Traviata. The courtesan heroine is almost an operatic staple, from Traviata to La Bohème (Mimi and Musetta both have wealthy protectors at various points in the story) to La Rondine.

Violetta celebrates the freedom of her life as a courtesan in Sempre Libere. Magda’s Chi il bel sogno di Doretta in La Rondine plays on another paradox of the courtesan heroine. A courtesan is a sophisticated woman of the world who has had a number of lovers, yet though she has had the freedom to choose her lovers, there’s an economic element to all of them. She may never have actually been in love. In a sense, she’s the literary female counterpart to the rakish hero whose heart has remained untouched. Of course, as I also blogged about in a post on Fallen Heroines, rakish heroes get happy endings far more often than courtesan heroines. I was going to say that none of the love affairs end happily in La Traviata, La Rondine, and La Bohème, but in fact, Musetta and Marcello are back together at the end of La Bohème. One can argue, given their history, over how long it will last, but the romantic in me likes to think they’ve learned something and it will.

Back to my own books, Mélanie was never a courtesan precisely. She was a prostitute, an experience she revisits when she and Charles go to a brothel seeking information in Secrets of a Lady. It’s clear, I think, that her time in the brothel was fairly horrific. As she thinks in Secrets, In the past ten years she had known anger and fear and self-hatred. But since Raoul O’Roarke had taken her out of the door of the brothel in Léon, she had rarely felt powerless. It was one of the reasons she would be forever grateful to him. Later, though she didn’t sleep with men for money, she did so for information. I think it’s fair to say her feelings about this part of her life and about sex in general are more complicated. As she says to Charles in The Mask of Night:

“It can’t always be sublime communion, Charles. Not for me. It’s been too many other things. A tool. A weapon. A defense. An escape.” She pulled her dressing gown tight about her. “I told you once that my acting abilities deserted me in the bedchamber. That was true when I was in the brothel. I was too young to put on more than a crude show. But later– Sometimes it was sordid. Sometimes it was mechanical. But sometimes—slipping into a fictional skin, making love to someone for the night, knowing it’s just that night. There’s no freedom quite like it.”

Mélanie, however, is not an experienced woman who’s romantically untouched until she meets Charles. She was in love with Raoul O'Roarke up to when she met Charles and overlapping with her falling in love (against her better judgment) with her husband. That was a plot element I had in place very early in my planning of the book, before I had all the elements of the Charles/Melanie/Raoul triangle worked out. I hadn’t thought of it until I wrote this post, but I wonder now if I was subconsciously reacted against the archetype of the experienced heroine whose heart remains untouched until she meets the hero.

What do you think of courtesan heroines? Deal-maker, deal-breaker or neither? Any interesting examples to recommend? Do you view courtesan heroines differently from heroines who’ve had sexual experiences but not for financial reasons? Do you view courtesan heroines differently from heroines who’ve been prostitutes or who’ve slept with men for information? Does it make a difference to you if the heroine has or hasn’t been in love before she meets the hero?

Now I’m off to buy Your Scandalous Ways.

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07 July 2008

The Gentleman's Magazine

I'm sure many of you have heard this periodical mentioned in a novel or two. Heroes are sometimes shown reading it during a visit to White's or while lounging in their library. Intrigued, I hunted down a copy of my own (it happens to be the August 1788 volume, and I like to imagine that the heroine of my first novel, George, would have had this magazine at her home for her male admirers to peruse). To the right you can see the first page/cover of the May 1749 edition (the "cover" is of the same paper as the pages of the magazine).

On the first page inside the magazine is a report of the weather for the month (I've no idea how they supposedly knew that the 11th would be "fair" and the 24th "showery"). At the bottom of the page is a bit of fascinating detail called simply Observations. In my copy they read as follows:

1 Partridges in great numbers.--2 Some beeches begin to be tinged.--3 Very few quails to be seen.--4 Ladies-traces (ophrys spiralis) is bloom. Stone-curlews (charadrius oedicnemus) pass over, followed by their young, who make a piping, wailing nois.e--5 Fly-catchers have withdrawn themselves some days. Thistle-down floats.--6 Immense flocks of martins hovering over the brooks.--7 Dotterel (charadvius morinellus) on the downs. These birds appear there every spring and autumn.--8 Lapwings (tringa vanellus) leave the low grounds, and come in flocks to the uplands.--9 Harvest finished.--10 Redstart (moticil phoenicurus) still appears. Linnets (fringilla linaria) flock.--11 Hazel-nuts in great plenty. No walnuts or plums.--12 First grapes gathered: they were eatable, but not ripe; berries small, and thin on the clusters--13 Young martins still in their nests.--14 Many swallows, some bank-martins, and a few house-martins, about the ponds. They probably roost in the willows. The swallows washed much; a sure sign that rain is at hand.

These notes might seem insignificant at first, but they are invaluable to a writer of historical fiction. These are the kinds of small details that we rely upon to enrich our world building.

The bulk of the magazine is comprised of letters to its editor "Sylvanus Urban." These letters to the editor cover a wide variety of topics, everything from religion to history to the law (and are all addressed to "Mr. Urban"). There are also reports on proceeding session of Parliament (including detailed accounts of who proposed what, who spoke in favor or against, and how some people voted), reports on foreign affairs, births, deaths, and marriages (no announcements of engagements however, as far as I've ever been able to find these are a product of Romancelandia).

On the very back inside page are reports of the average prices of "corn" (grains) as well as the Theatrical Register, which lists all the plays being enacted for the month at Hay-Market (note, there is very little repetition; it's not like today where one play has a "run" and it's the only thing being produced in a specific theatre. There are 14 different main offerings combined with 17 different secondary plays that take place "a quarter of an hour before dinner"). On the very back page-cover is the stock report (the 3 perCts, 4 perCts, Long, Short, India S. Sea, 1 perCts, Exchange Bills and Lottery Tickets).

If you've any interest in exploring an issue of The Gentleman's Magazine for yourself, you're in luck. Goggle Books happens to have a few issues available on their site: January-June 1800, January-June 1812, January-June 1824. I've no idea why only the first volume of each year seems to be available.

04 July 2008

Confessions of an Historical Fiction Writer

My very first book of fiction (after 30+ years of technical writing/editing) was a real labor of love! Set in 12th century Spain, the “cities-of-light” era when Arabs, Jews, and Christians lived together in relative peace, this start-off project was the launch of a new career, I thought. Instead, it brought me to my knees.

Armed with how-to books (How To Write a Damn Good Novel and others), I “learned” my way through 400+ pages of a swashbuckling and adventurous love story with, I hoped, universal appeal. It’s the story of a young novice coming of age in 12th century Spain and the plot involves the Christian girl and a Saracen (Muslim) general who fall in love. At the end of the book they are wed.

I submitted it, unagented, to Harlequin Historicals editor Don A_____ who said he liked it and sent it up to the head editor with a recommendation to buy.

BUT that editor said she wouldn’t touch it. Her exact words were, “What? A Muslim-Christian marriage? It’s a hot potato I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.”

Now this was in some ways understandable since that was the year Salmon Rushdie fled to London to escape a death threat from Muslims about his current book. Naturally, the Harlequin editor took serious note of the political atmosphere at the time and nixed my wonderful novel. [Of course I would have preferred to get it into print first and then flee to London, but...]

But the story has stuck with me for the last 13 years... and this September the sequel story, Templar Knight, Forbidden Bride, is coming out (To avoid the religious issue I made both hero and heroine Christian.)

And now I am moaning--if only I could now get the first book of the planned trilogy published!

To make this long struggly story short, over the years I have now rewritten that first book (titled Damascene Rose) twelve (12!) times in the process of learning craft.. Now it’s an even better book and, in my opinion, even more relevant to today’s world in light of current East-West squabbles.

BUT: I am quailing at the thought of submitting it again. Granted both editors involved have moved on. And when I researched Islamic law on intermarriage between Muslims and Christians, I found the following:

According to the Koran, a Muslim man can marry a Christian or Jewish [People of the Book] woman, providing that the woman is “proper.”

Even so, I came up with an alternate ending in which the hero/heroine do NOT wed, but instead flee together to Granada to live together in love and happiness. That will probably upset the Christians...

While old stories never die, their authors can fade away...

02 July 2008

The Nabob's Table

In keeping with the culinary theme on History Hoydens this past month, it only seemed fitting to tackle yet another historical kitchen, and the kitchen in which I’ve been spending the most time recently (certainly far more than in my own), is that of the Englishman abroad in India at the turn of the eighteenth century.

In his book White Moghuls, William Dalrymple reports that the food served at the English Residency in Hyderabad was essentially a replica of what one might find back home in England, listing “plum cakes, a goose, a turkey, and ducks innumerable besides fowl and mutton”. And that was just for one meal! Likewise, when a British lady named Maria Graham traveled across India in 1809, her review of the foodstuffs to be found in Bombay reflects her diet at home: butter (excellent), beef (tolerably good), mutton (lean and hard), poultry (good and abundant). Graham was impressed by the bread to be found in India—“the best I ever tasted, both for whiteness and lightness; the last quality it owes to being fermented with coconut toddy”—but found the cheese “hard and ill-flavored”.

Maria Graham’s market list does, however, reflect some items one wouldn’t find at home. After going through the basics of bread, beef and butter, she mentions “bumbelo… like a large sand eel; it is dried in the sun and is usually eaten at breakfast with kedgeree, a dish of rice boiled with dol (split country peas), and colored with tumeric”. On a visit to the zenana of a local dignitary, Graham sampled “sweetmeants made of ghee, poppy seeds, and sugar; some of them were tolerably good, but it required all my good manners to swallow others”. Other Europeans abroad were also experimenting with the local dishes. One Frenchman in India sent home rave reviews of biryani, “rice boiled with quantities of butter and fowl and kids, with all sorts of spicery… which refreshed us greatly”. James Kirkpatrick, the Resident of Hyderabad, preferred Indian cuisine for his own table, expressing a particular fondness for a Hyderabadi dish made of aubergines. Maria Graham also commented on the aubergines or brinjaal, writing in her diary from the outskirts of Bombay, “I saw last night at least two acres covered with brinjaal… the fruit is as large as a baking pear and is excellent either stewed or broiled; the natives eat it plain boiled or made into a curry.” Even among the more resolutely insular residents of the British residency at Hyderabad, one finds mention of fowls being boiled down for mulligatawny soup and references to “tiffin”, a South India term referring to a light lunch. The word has since percolated into general English usage as a synonym for snack, a development that my dictionary places circa 1800, exactly this period.

Nearly as telling as what they ate was what they didn’t eat. Graham comments that “cabbage, carrots, and turnips, from European seed, are still scarce”. In Hyderabad, the Resident, who seems to have been dining largely on aubergines, sent to Calcutta for seeds to plant peas, French beans (clearly a favorite at home, as Graham also mentions their absence), lettuce, endive, celery, and cauliflower. Most surprising of all was the absence of the potato from local cookery until this period. James Kirkpatrick wrote to a friend, mourning, “I have not tasted [potato] for these two years or more.” That, however, was changing. Maria Graham wrote from Bombay a few years later that “twenty years ago, the potato was scarcely known in India, but it is now produced in such abundance that the natives in some places make considerable use of it.”

It makes an interesting cross-cultural exchange, doesn’t it? Mulligatawny and kedgeree, now British staples, in exchange for the potato. I’m still looking around for a period aubergine recipe, equivalent to the one my characters in Hyderabad my have eaten, so if I find one (and can make it work as well as Kalen’s culinary experiments), I’ll let you all know….

I can't resist adding one additional random fun fact--although my post is more about the British diet in India, Indian cooking had also made its way to Britain. In 1807, the first ever Indian restaurant opened in London. Called the Hindostanee Coffee House, it became the watering hole of choice for old India hands.

01 July 2008

Welcome, Joanna Bourne!

My Lord and Spymaster
by Joanna Bourne
Available Now!

After her father is wrongly accused of selling secrets to Napoleon, lovely Jess Whitby infiltrates the London underworld for the real traitor—only to end up naked in the bed of a rude merchant captain. Not only is she falling in love with him, but he may be the scoundrel she’s looking for.

My Lord and Spymaster is set in 1811 or 12. Is there a particular reason you chose those years?

My characters are international merchants, I want to build a sense that they made their fortunes, dangerously, on the fringes of the on-going French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. I want to give Jess's company and Sebastian's company a good long time to get rich. So I want to set the story as late as I can in the war period.

Late also gives me an older Adrian Hawker, which is nice. I want to see him when he's older.

But I don't want to start dealing with the War of 1812 and the effect it had on merchant shippers. Very complex subject. That limits how late I can place the story. I settled on 1811 or 1812. Nothing in the story says which it is.

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

Georgette Heyer led a lot of us into her Regency world. I love the wit. I love the sensuality. I love the weird, arbitrary social rules. I love the unreality of the place.

I don't write in that 'world'. My place is grittier and more dangerous.

But when I think 'Regency', the era is filled with light-hearted conversation and dashing heroes and women in beautiful dresses, because that's what Heyer and Austen created.

Victorian times, for me, are always darker, because I approach them through the filter Dickens created.

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

Y'know ... it's not as easy to get women out of those Regency dresses as you would think. (We're talking literally now, not those more abstract barriers that confront our hero.)

There's all kinds of strings and underpinnings and flaps and whatnot to be got through. Before I started researching, I had NO IDEA.

Now I wish I just didn't know.

And pockets. I swear, the whole business of pockets is enough to drive you mad.

Anything you flat-out altered or “fudged”? If so, why?

The actual Secret Service at this time was often as not used to control dissent at home, in England. They were used for keeping the Irish under control, silencing liberal protest, keeping the poor in their place. The real spies of this time were often set to keeping the status quo, status. (Understandable, in a way, when you look at what happened in France when the liberals got loose.)

I avoid this particular piece of historical accuracy.

Any gaffs or mea culpas you want to fess up to before readers get their hands on the book? I know I always seem to find one after the book has gone to press. *sigh*

I got a plant name wrong. I wrote in a 'place-holder' plant that I knew was wrong and I put a sticky note on the manuscript saying to go look up the right plant.

Then the sticky fell off and I forgot, forgot, forgot.

So I have this big wrong plant name sitting in the middle of the book -- horehound instead of ground ivy -- and I feel like such a fool.

I am so embarrassed.

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

I am so tremendously excited by the intellectual debate of this time. Everything we believe about governmental structure and the rights of the citizen can be traced back to this time period. Napoleon was elected by universal manhood suffrage. King George ... less so.

Anyhow, this was a time when they were trying out various ideas, using guns and the guillotine and so on as what might be called cogent arguments.


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

I never stop researching. There's just no end to it.

Leesee. I was surprised to discover that the British occupied the French City of Toulon in 1793. I'd like to use that someday. Napoleon, as a young officer, was at that siege.

The other thing that impresses me, and that I didn't know, was how very active Frenchwomen were in business. Traveller's tales are full of women running some shop or other, or acting as expediters at the port. Impressive.

What/Who do you like to read?

I read more non-fiction than fiction, actually. And I read just about all kinds of fiction.

Instead of looking at my favorite authors, let me list ten books I read in June that I liked a lot. Kinda a slice of my reading pleasure ... Mary Balogh, Slightly Dangerous; Jo Beverley, A Lady's Secret; Karen Harbaugh, The Devil's Baragin: Candice Hern, Just One of Those Flings; Mary Jo Putney, A Distant Magic; Julia Quinn, It's in His Kiss; Nora Roberts, True Betrayals; Julia Ross, The Wicked Lover; Sherry Thomas, Private Arrangements; C.L. Wilson, Lord of the Fading Lands.

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 write multiple drafts, I'm afraid. Very inefficient. But any subtlety I manage to put in a scene only comes to me when I go back again and again. I suppose there's some subconscious process going on. I have been so disorganized in the past. I've replotted and replotted as I wrote onward in the story. I have promised myself that this time I will write a good solid outline and stick to it!

What are you planning to work on next?

Maggie and Doyle are next up. The year is 1794. They're shortening people in Paris, using the guillotine. It's not a felicitous time to be in France. Then Doyle gets in trouble . . .

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