History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

31 October 2008

The Best Seductions Begin With Words and Ideas: History Hoydens Interviews Pam Rosenthal

: Your last novel, The Slightest Provocation, painted a less pretty picture of Regency England than we often get in romance. Does your upcoming The Edge of Impropriety continue in this vein?

PR: Edge is probably a lighter book, a comedy of manners and a satire of the ton.

My heroine, the arriviste Marina Wyatt, Lady Gorham, supplements a respectable but not luxurious widow's portion by writing silver fork novels (books about London high life: these things really were popular during the period, especially among middle-class strivers whose only chance to see Almack’s was in the pages of a novel).

My hero, Jasper Hedges, starts out shabbier, snobbier, more upper-class, and slightly appalled by Marina's commercial success. (Remember that Lord Byron, as a gentleman, didn't take money for "Childe Harold.") Jasper's a Cambridge classicist, an antiquarian, and (because I love finding ways for my brainy heroes to get their hands dirty) an erstwhile Mediterranean adventurer who digs up Roman coins on his family's estate.

While as for prettiness - well, the cover is certainly as pretty as any author could hope for. And this time the conflicts under the covers have largely to do with art and culture.
I like to call The Edge of Impropriety a novel of eros, esthetics, and empire. Jasper and Marina exchange their first glances among the beautiful sculpted bodies of the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. But Jasper believes (as did Lord Byron as well) that the marbles were an illegitimate spoil of empire. So there's an imperial theme woven through the class comedy.

HH: You did a lot of research about classical art and literature for this book, didn’t you?

PR: A better way to say it might be that I took the opportunity to address my own shocking ignorance of the subject, when my husband/research partner showed me a book about the erotics of Greek and Roman art and got me hooked. So I’m a very little bit less ignorant now.

I posted about my joys of discovery on this blog and continued posting my discoveries as I researched and wrote the The Edge of Impropriety.

Because one of the joys of being a History Hoyden is having a venue for sharing the goodies. Just as one of the joys of being me is having a husband who knows what I like sometimes before I do. (And if that knows-
what-she-likes business has a familiar ring, it's because I’ve used the phrase elsewhere in my books, in a different, more down-and-dirty context).

HH: You’ve managed to bring down the tone of the discussion with remarkable rapidity.

PR: Probably because I’m beginning to believe that whatever I do (and no matter how much reading and research) at heart I’m an erotic writer. You wouldn’t think it to look at me, and I certainly didn’t set out to be one. But the muse has a sense of humor and it seems to have fallen to me to pour all the lonely yearnings of a bookish adolescence into my erotic imagination.

Which means that I also get to pour the ongoing joy of discovery of other erotic traditions into my writing - most recently of poets like Sappho and Catullus, though there was also Ovid in The Slightest Provocation.

HH: So it turns out that what you write is erotica rather than, as your web site has it, “erotic historical romance.”

PR: I’m coming to think so, and to think that my historical romance-writing persona Pam Rosenthal has an awful lot in common with my evil twin Molly Weatherfield, who’s written the wild and crazy comic BDSM.

Because for me (for both me’s) no matter how graphic the writing ultimately gets, the best seductions begin with words and ideas. As in this snippet from the excerpt from Edge that’s currently on my web page:

The copper wire of [Jasper Hedges’…] spectacles had caught the light. “And what thrills [the gods…], what torments them with curiosity and desire, Lady Gorham, is the possibility of death. Mortality. The fragility of our bodies, their vulnerability to the passage of time. Human limitation is something the gods can never truly know, but they find its pathos quite beautiful. And the only way they can experience death’s pathos is through a human’s touch.”

A shiver passed through her. Followed by a flood of warmth.

I write erotica for people who find that sort of thing as hot I do and want to follow my characters upstairs after the dinner party ends.

But since it's skin rather than subtext that makes the romance industry deem something erotica rather than erotic romance, I get counted as a writer of erotic romance -- which is probably why I've been getting gorgeously dressed (or half-dressed) women on my covers instead of bare-chested men.

HH. The Edge of Impropriety will be released next week, on election day. And on your own blog, Passions and Provocations, you told your readers, "if you only have time to do one hugely, critically important thing on election day… you know what that is. And it’s not rushing out to buy The Edge of Impropriety." How seriously did you intend this?

PR: Absolutely. There's nothing like being at a pivotal point in history to bring things into perspective. I’ve felt myself overwhelmed these past weeks -- by the economy, the level of
interest in the election, the intended and unintended narratives of the candidates and their campaigns, the ways in which people have begun to access and reassess their own places in this present very complicated juncture. All of which seem to me particularly complicated things for a historical romancer to address, and which I’ve been trying to puzzle out for myself.

There’s something amazing about living in a moment when the stakes are so huge and the outcome so perilously unknown. Historical romance -- and to my mind all historical fiction -- trades on some opposite approaches to this issue, and so I’m seeing online discussions (like Kathrynn’s here and Janet’s at Risky Regencies) about the ways in which we turn to romance and other escapist fictions for comfort at times like this.

About which (Gemini-like) I’m of two minds. On the one hand, I need as much comforting as the next person -- and the most comforting thing I know is the overarching romantic fantasy of a universe that wants to bring its lovers together after testing and finding them worthy (or more generally any narrative that promises and delivers on a satisfying resolution).

But on the other hand I find myself rather thrilled by the knowledge that this is not how things actually work, and that fictions and stories are our consolation for the maddeningly difficult truth -- which is that emergent human history just keeps spiraling into the unknown and unresolved. And that we have nothing but the best of ourselves to rely upon along the way.

Or at least to make us more passionate, more deeply engaged romance writers and historical novelists.

And I’d love to hear from both readers and writers about where you find yourself at this moment.

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29 October 2008

"Many Loving Kisses" : Love Letters between Spouses

I've always been intrigued by the private self that is revealed by famous people in their letters, particularly those that pass between lovers, and even more tellingly, between spouses. It's become a revelation to me as I research my work-in-progress on notorious royal marriages; the most obnoxious, autocratic, boorish people can become tender and gooey as S'mores when their ink is flowing as rapidly (or lustfully) as their blood.

In 1795, a rising Corsican military man, Napoleon Bonaparte, had become commander of the Army of the Interior and then, through the assistance of his friend Paul Barras, secured a post within an influential department of the Committee for Public Safety in Paris. Napoleon decided that in his quest for status, wealth and power, it was time to find a rich wife. “It is not necessary that our wives should be good looking,” he asserted. Of course, “with a mistress it is different” as an ugly paramour would have failed in her only duty.

He’d had his eye on Barras’s lover and salon hostess, Rose de Beauharnais. Rose’s rapt attention to Napoleon's war stories at dinner one evening cemented Napoleon Bonaparte’s desire for her. He yearned for recognition and her praise had stroked his ego into a lustful frenzy. They became lovers—if not that night, then not too much later. For Rose, the affair was a pleasant diversion, but Napoleon was smitten.

After their first night between the sheets Rose gave him a sketch of herself as a memento. Only hours after leaving her bed, he scribbled a note headed “seven in the morning” and filled with rhapsody.

I awaken full of you. Between your portrait and the memory of our intoxicating night, my senses have no respite. Sweet and incomparable Josephine [by now he had renamed her], what is this strange effect you have upon my heart? What if you were to be angry? What if I were to see you sad or troubled? Then my soul would be shattered by distress. Then your lover would find no peace, no rest. But I find none, either, when I succumb to the profound emotion that overwhelms me, when I draw from your lips, from your heart, a flame that consumes me. Ah, it was last night that I realized that your portrait is not you and that . . .

You will be leaving the city at noon. But I shall see you in three hours. Until then, mio dolce amor, I send you a thousand kisses—but send me none in return, for they set my blood on fire.

But the poet had a pragmatist’s soul. Before pursuing a serious involvement with Josephine, Napoleon visited her notary to inquire about her wealth.

Although Napoleon could not seem to remain sexually faithful to Josephine, she was his acknowledged soulmate. Josephine had enjoyed a passionate affair of her own early on in their marriage, so Napoleon spent the rest of it exacting his revenge by sleeping with just about everything in a petticoat. Nonetheless, when he was off campaigning, he wrote passionate, graphically bawdy letters that never sugarcoated his desire. In fact, one of the words he used to describe a certain part of his wife's anatomy is unprintable in this milieu.

He longed to kiss her heart, then her lower anatomy, then much lower (he emphatically double-underscored the word), referring to her as his “sweet love . . . the pleasure and torment” of his life. “Never had a woman been loved with more devotion, fire, and tenderness.” If she ever left him he’d have lost everything that made life worthwhile. He dreaded losing her and her “adorable person.”

On April 3, 1796, Napoleon wrote: You are the one thought of my life. When I am worried by the pressure of affairs, when I am anxious as to the outcome, when men disgust me, when I am ready to curse life, then I put my hand on my heart, for it beats against your portrait. . . .” Is that why he’s always painted with his right hand shoved under his left lapel?

By what magic have you captivated all my faculties, concentrated in yourself all my conscious existence? It constitutes a kind of death, my sweet, since there is no survival for me except in you.

To live through Josephine—that is the story of my life.
That last sentence can leave one breathless.

In the wake of his decisive victories against the Austrians that winter, his correspondence expressed his eagerness to show her the proof of his “ardent love”; to be in bed with her and once again see her face, and her hair bound into a headscarf à la Creole, and her “little black forest.”

I kiss it a thousand times and wait impatiently for the time when I will be in it. To live within Josephine is to live in the Elysian Fields.

Alexandra of Hesse, known to her family (including her grandmother "Gangan" Queen Victoria) as "Alicky," had fallen in love with Nicholas Romanov, the Russian tsarevich, as early as 1884 when as a little girl she developed a puppy-love crush on the handsome "Nicky." Yet even though she turned down other offers and her family was afraid she'd end up a spinster, Alicky was reluctant to marry Nicky because she would have to convert from Lutheranism to Russian Orthodoxy. However, her older sister Ella (Elizabeth) had married Nicky's uncle Serge and convinced Alicky that her religious qualms should not be an obstacle to her heart's desire. Once she got past that hurdle and gave her heart fully to Nicky (one of the few true love stories among royal marriages--each of them held out for the other), she had no problem pouring out her emotions on paper. During their brief engagement, Alicky discovered that Nicky kept a diary; so she would add her own little notes, in English, beneath his entries.

Nicholas and Alexandra: official engagement photograph, 1894.

Many loving kisses, she would invariably begin. Below is a sample of one of Alicy's early entries:

I dreamed that I was loved, I woke and found it true and thanked God on my knees for it. True Love is the gift which God has given, daily, stronger, deeper, fuller, purer.

And on their wedding night, Alicky wrote in Nicky's diary: At last, united, bound for life, and when this life is ended, we meet again in the other world and remain together for eternity. Yours, yours.

It proved eerily prophetic.

The following morning she wrote in his diary: Never did I believe there could be such utter happiness in this world, such a feeling of unity between two mortal beings. I love you, those three words have my life in them.

Her last sentence also takes my breath away.

I know that Tracy has used love letters in her novels to tremendously compelling effect. Tracy, how did the love letters shape your characters and what was it like to incorporate letters from actual historical personages; how did they feed and/or effect your story? To everyone else, have you used love letters within your stories, or read love letters between real-life lovers and/or spouses to inform your research for your own books? What do you think love letters say about character that can't be shown in other ways?

26 October 2008

Queen of Fashion

Sunday afternoon at the Walters Gallery in Baltimore I heard an excellent one hour biography of Marie Antoinette given my Dr. Caroline Weber of Columbia University. In conjunction with a mediocre exhibit on jewelry (Bedazzled – 5000 Years of Jewelry,)it was Dr. Weber’s talk that was the real gem.

Her most recent and, I think, most successful book: QUEEN OF FASHION: WHAT MARIE ANTIONETTE WORE TO THE REVOLUTION was the basis for the talk. Like the good titles we discussed in my last post on October 6, this title is about more than the chemise-like white dress the former Queen actually wore to the guillotine. It is all about the choices she made that led to that moment, about how she made most of her political statements through what she wore. More often than not, especially as the years wore on, those choices were reactive rather than showing an awareness of what was coming.

After this talk, I can date any painting of Marie Antoinette based on what style of clothing she wears. The picture at below: when she was trying, almost desperately, to convince the people that she was everything a queen should be.
This painting by Vallyer-Coster shows her dressed in classic queenly garb with a relatively simple coiffeur (see blog by Amanda on August 27 on the style eaerlier in her career as queen) and pearls, the traditional jewel of a French monarch.

In the question and answer period following, and in the nature of an, as yet unresearched, aside Weber expressed the opinion that the inclination to make judgments about what women who are in the public eye wear may come directly from Marie Antoinette.

Before Marie Antoinette came to Versailles it was the men who were the fashion focus. With deliberate effort she changed that and for the first time it was the Dauphine's and later the Queen's choices in fashion that made her a trend setter and eventually led to her fall. It helped that her husband, Louis XVI was shy, unimpressive and not at all interested in attracting public attention.

I mention this as Maureen Dowd of the NYT and Robin Givahn of the Washington Post have both written on the phenomenon during this election cycle. I would love to share lunch with the Givahn, Dowd and Weber and listen to their discussion.

In a related coincidence I have been looking through what can only be described as an adult picture book, A DRESS FOR DIANA by design team David and Elizabeth Emanuel. It is coffee table book of two hundred pages about the selection and production of Diana Spencer’s wedding gown.

“We were both aware as designers that Diana was young and inexperienced and that she was going into St. Paul’s as Lady Diana Spencer, but that she would come out as the Princess of Wales, the wife for the heir to the throne.”

Whatever you may think of that dress it did accomplish exactly that goal, that is suited the fairy tale AND the royal nature of it. Despite the fact that almost two hundred years separate the two ill-fated royals, there is an amazing echo of Marie Antoinette in Diana’s life and style. I would be willing to wager that anyone who pays close attention to clothes could date a photo of Diana by the style of dress she is wearing, It changed almost as much as she did.

There is no doubt in my mind that I am a very visual person. I love watching people but also respond emotionally and sometimes physically to clothes, fabric, jewelry, and architecture not to mention the more traditional works of art such as painting and sculpture.

So tell me how do you see fashion? Are clothes something you pretty much ignore? What do they tell you about a person or do they influence how you “see” that person?

How important is what your characters wear? To you as the author. To your hero and heroine and/or the people around them?

24 October 2008

I must admit, I'm a Georgette Heyer virgin. I know, I know...how could I have never read a single book by the fabulous Ms. Heyer? I started wondering that, too.

So last week I decided it was time. I browsed a couple of Heyers, and decided on These Old Shades.

The first two sentences had me:

"A gentlman was strolling down a side street in Paris, on his way back from the house of one Madame de Verchoureux. He walked very mincingly, for the red heels of his shoes were very high . . ."

And now I'm hooked. Where I have been and why had I not discovered this wonderful author earlier? I have no explanation. But I'm glad I finally met her.

Today the stock market took another tumble. Book sales are sluggish to say the least, and wonder what the economy will do to the publishing business in general. Not good for authors. The bookstores I've visited lately have not been busy.

So I retreat into the delighful pages of TOS. Along the way, I started wondering why do I read and write historicals--historical romance, specifically?

Yes, I love the escape, but as my crit partner put it (and she is very pop-culture hip--you would never guess she is such a devoted Regency fan):

In historicals, there are behaviors and expectations for civility. Today nothing is taboo. I want gentility and manners and consequences if you don't have them.

I paraphrased the above, but I think she's right. I love historical romance--a story where merely "Leaving the company of one man (who sits beside you on a settee in a drawing room) to talk to another was not the custom of the time. . ."-- would set the gossip rags on fire.

Why do you read historical romance? And if anybody want to give me the "best of Heyer" book rec's I'm all ears. I can't wait to start the next one!

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23 October 2008

The Great Scone Infiltration

Today I'm making the case for and against scones.

Why scones? Because they've become a staple food of Regency Romancelandia and they shouldn't be. (See my related post today at Risky Regencies on things that annoy me.) There's a tendency to think that if it's English it's okay, and what could be more English than a scone? Or afternoon tea? Or... well, the list is endless, I'm afraid.

The scone is Scottish poverty food. Think of it as a bowl of rice or a tortilla. Elegant living? Yes, if tarted up. The humble scone was first mentioned in 1513, rather charmingly in a translation of the Aeneid by Scots poet Gavin Douglas. I sing of arms and the man and afternoon tea...?

Here's an early recipe from 1874. Much of my information is taken from the excellent foodtimeline.org.
Put as much barley-meal as will be required into a bowl, add a pinch of salt, and stir in cold water to make a stiff paste. Roll this out into round cakes a quarter of an inch thick, and bake on a griddle. Split the cakes open, butter them well, and serve hot. A little butter may be rubbed into the meal if liked. Richer scones may be made by dissolving an ounce of fresh butter in a pint of hot milk, and stirring this into as much flour as will make a stiff dough. When it is not convenient to bake the scones on a griddle, a thick frying-pan may be used instead. Time to bake the scones, about four minutes.
Now do you see the connection between the words scone and stone? Barley has some, but not a lot, of gluten, the substance that gives dough stretch and the ability to rise. Gluten can be released by yeast, or in this case, by beating the heck out of the dough and subjecting it to heat. By the way, the authentic Scottish pronunciation rhymes with gone, and the English, wrongly, with stone; I don't know why unless it was a bid for gentility, a bit of verbal pinky-crooking.

So how did the scone cross the border and assume its current form? Two factors were needed, a raising agent and a royal agent, baking powder and Queen Victoria respectively. Sometime in the mid nineteenth century, baking powder was developed, replacing earlier substances such as saleratus, which, as its name suggests, gave food an unpleasant bitter taste, and pearlash, potassium carbonate from wood ash. And Queen Victoria fell in love with Scotland--here's the Balmoral drawing room in all its tartanned splendor.

The scone, for some time, until hip coffeeshops decided it was the breakfast food of yuppies, remained the starch that would fill the stomach, with the most modest of ingredients. The 1874 recipe above suggests slathering on the butter because at that time butter was relatively cheap and it didn't keep indefinitely. My mother, whose cooking skills derived from English World War II food rationing, was shocked--shocked!--that I used an egg in a scone recipe, and advised me to skimp on the raisins. Obviously the raisins were meant to be a rare and unexpected treat when you encountered one.

For some fancy recipes that would make my ma roll in her grave and some luscious pictures, visit joyofbaking.com. Here's a recipe for the World's Best Scones, which is similar to what I make, except I use all milk and don't really measure much beyond the flour to get things going. For some reasons scones impress the unitiated, although they are tremendously easy to make, particularly for the slovenly cook.

No wonder they've been popular for so long. But one thing is for sure--scones were not around in the Regency drawing room.

Would you care to share any scone experiences or gripes about historical food inaccuracy?

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20 October 2008

The reader as story-teller

A couple of years ago, I saw a great production of the play Bus Stop at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The play ends with the seemingly mismatched showgirl heroine and the cowboy hero going off into the sunset to his Montana ranch. The actors played it affectingly. I was quite prepared to believe in their hard-won happy ending. My friend (and fellow writer) Penny Williamson on the other hand said with certainty as we walked out of the theater onto the sun-splashed bricks, "It won't last. Chèrie won't make it through a Montana winter." (That's Penny and me at Dukes Hotel in London, because I didn't have a scanned picture of us in Ashland. But we were on our way to the theater when this one was taken). Later on our trip we had dinner with our friend Elaine, who agreed. I should add that both Penny and Elaine have been married (very happily) for well over twenty years, while I've never been married (yet :-). Interestingly, both their husbands were more inclined to believe in the possibility of a happy ending for Chèrie and Bo. So was another guy friend. But I think all of us saw somewhat different versions of what happened after the end of the play. Because I think that when we watched the play, we were each watching a somewhat different story.

I think that to a certain extent every time we watch a play or a movie or tv show or read a book we collaborate with the author. We bring our past experiences, own likes and dislikes to the story, our own preconceptions, our own historical knowledge. We may hear lines inflected differently from the way the author hears them, imagine different expressions of the character’s faces as they speak, even fill in bits of back story differently in our imaginations. Our sympathies may not lie precisely where the author’s do. The words on the page may be the same, but every book is slightly different depending on who is reading it.

In a discussion on my own website following a blog I wrote about Anti-heroines a few months, Sarah commented, “An anti-heroine isn’t, in my eyes, necessarily a good girl gone bad, or even a better person trapped by circumstances, but a character fighting against the hero, for whatever reason - opposing interests, whether personal or political - who inspires the reader to follow their story just as much as that of the protagonist.” Sarah was talking specifically about Milady de Winter in The Three Musketeers. Both Sarah and I found ourselves sympathizing with Milady when we read The Three Musketeers, seeing the story from her perspective, wanting to follow Milady’s story as much as the story of the four musketeer protagonists. Interestingly, I remembered my mother talking to me about The Three Musketeers before I read it and saying, "It has a wonderful heroine--I mean, villianess."

A great deal of fan fiction is based on retelling television show episodes, books, or movies from the POV of a character who isn’t the protagonist in the original story. I've never written fan fiction, but I spent a considerable amount of time imagine Alias episodes from Irina Derevko's perspective. Lately in particular there seems to be a trend of re-telling classics from a different POV from that in the original story, which books such as Geraldine Brooks’s March (which I’ve heard wonderful things about but haven’t read yet), Sally Beauman’s Rebecca’s Tale, a number of retellings of Jane Austen. As I've mentioned before, I always sympathize with Mary Crawford when I read Mansfield Park. I wonder if there's been a retelling from her POV.

My fellow Hoyden Lauren in a sense re-examined one of her own stories from a different character's pov when she turned Mary, the heroine's seemingly cold, difficult older sister in The Deception of the Emerald Ring into the heroine in The Seduction of the Crimson Rose. In the latter book, we see some of the events of the first book through Mary's eyes and get a different take on them. But I have to say even reading The Deception of the Emerald Ring, I find myself sympathizing with Mary or at least intrigued by her side of the story. Part of that was that I knew she was the heroine of the next book. But part was also that I tend to like characters like Mary--clever, cynical, sharp-tongued, unapolgetically scheming. So I was reading the book my way.

As a writer, I find the thought that readers are reading a somewhat different book from the one I wrote totally fascinating. I’ve heard from readers who have sharply differing views of my charaters Charles and Mélanie. One reader, Perla commented, “I have not had much sympathy for Melanie, I hadn’t forgiven her even if Charles had. And Cate said, “I’ll echo Perla in saying that I didn’t precisely ‘like’ Melanie on my first reading of the books. I found her fascinating and wanted to know more about her.” On the other hand, a good friend of mine said on reading Secrets of a Lady, “Why is Charles being so stubborn, she was only doing her job?” and some have gone so far as to suggest Mélanie should take the children and leave since Charles is being so unforgiving. ”

And as I've mentioned, another important character, Raoul O’Roarke, inspires such conflicting feelings that some see him as a villain, some as a potential hero. I’ve heard from readers who find him a fascinating character and want me to write a book about him (one of my friends, also a writer, said that while Charles is the most “marriageable” guy in the book, Raoul would be fun to have a fling with :-). On the other hand Perla wrote, “I intensely dislike Raoul. And not because of Melanie, but because of what Raoul did.” You could retell Secrets of a Lady from Raoul’s POV. An intriguing thought...

Have you ever read a book and then discussed it with a friend or in a book club and been surprised by how differently others viewed the story and characters (so that it almost felt as if you’d read different books)? Have you ever found yourself more engaged by the story of an antagonist or a secondary character than by the story of the protagonist? Have you found yourself wanting to retell the story from that character’s perspective? Writers, have you been surprised by how readers view your characters and story?

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Books Inspiring Real Life

All Kathrynn’s talk about horses and pets and the personalities of pet owners really got me thinking about the pets I give my characters (and the pets I, myself, own). Anyone who’s read LORD SIN has “met” my heroine’s Italian Mastiff, Caesar. He features pretty prominently in the novel, and even makes a guest appearance in LORD SCANDAL. I thought long and hard about what kind of dog to give George. I wanted something LARGE, protective, and extremely loyal. I also wanted the dog to be slightly unusual, but entirely plausible. So I picked a dog that we know has existed pretty much forever (the Neapolitan Mastiff) and had it be a gift brought back from someone’s Grand Tour.

England, of course, has it’s own giant breed, known simply as the Mastiff (or sometimes as the Old English Mastiff, for the sake for differentiating it from all the other mollosar breeds).

My 1819 Dog-Fancier’s Companion describes the Mastiff thusly: The Mastiff is much larger than the bull-dog, and every way formed for the important trust of guarding and securing the valuable property committed to his care. Houses, gardens, yards, &c. are safe from depredations, whilst in his keeping. Confined during the day, as soon as the gates are locked, he is left to range at full liberty. He then goes round the premises, examines every part of them, and by loud barkings, gives notice that he is ready to defend his charge.

I recently got myself a couple of puppies . . . they’re Bullmastiff and Neapolitan Mastiff (an accidental breeding which I’m happy to have lucked into), so I’ve been thinking fondly of Caesar lately. I’ve also been sleep-deprived and covered in drool, LOL! That's my boy, Clancy, pictured above (11 weeks, 28lbs!).

Anyone else out there find that their books inspire their real life on occasion?

17 October 2008

Author Interview

Question: What is your writing regimen? I write by hand on yellow lined note paper, usually at night propped up in bed or in my den (or on airplanes, in restrooms, hospital waiting rooms, dentist's office, etc.) and the next morning I type my daily goal of 4 handwritten pages into the computer. This prints out about 5double-spaced pages, about 1200 words/day. That afternoon or evening I (1) edit the printed pages and (2) write 4 more handwritten pages.

I don't particularly recommend writing by hand unless it comes naturally to you. I was an editor for 34 years and it feels "right" to draw circles and arrows and move things around on the first draft. But I do recommend writing consistently--every day, if you can manage. Even a little bit, 10 minutes, keeps the creative juices flowing.

Question: Do you enjoy the research stage of writing? Oh, boy, do I! I'm really a frustrated history major at heart and I love doing research. On the other hand, it can bog down the writing time, to say nothing of clogging the written story itself. My suggestions for not bogging or clogging are two: (1) do the research concurrent with the writing; (2) in your book, use the specific concrete details gleaned from research as you would use other adjectives, for example, the "carved silver box," the "heavy gold-link pendant"; the folds of her "green silk gown."

Question: What was your favorite part of writing Templar Knight, Forbidden Bride? The tournament at Carcassonne! Derring-do and brave knights and lovely ladies, oh my!

How do you balance your historical information with telling the story? Mostly, I don't. I love using the historical details I find, and I tend to "flavor-up" my stories a lot. My editor first says, "Great--it feels like I'm actually there." Later she adds, "But the reader doesn't really need to know who was fighting whom in 12th century Spain."

I usually write about a period I love, and I read books and look at pictures until I'm immersed in the era. I want the setting to feel real to the reader.

Have you any advice for aspiring authors? Oh, wow, where's my soapbox! First, try to write consistently, every day if you can manage, but not if you have a migraine or your child has the measles. If you wrote 2 pages/day, you could finish a 365-page novel in 6 months!

Second, go to workshops, writing groups, and classes. Join the toughest critique group you can find. You may suffer, but you can learn a lot from published writers. You can learn a lot from how-to books, as well.

Third, read widely--not just in your own genre. Note how other writers deal with things like point of view, foreshadowing, tension, etc.

Fourth, always, always use correct grammar and punctuation. If you need better control over the tools of this trade, take a basic English class. One good book for quick-reference is Write Right, By Jan Venolia (paperback).

Note: A version of this post was previously published on Shauna Roberts' For Love of Words blog at: http://ShaunaRoberts.blogspot.com.

15 October 2008

Queens, Courtesans, and Warrior Maidens

I began reading historical romance because of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Way back when, in the mists of the early eighties, my father gave me E.L. Koenigsburg’s A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver, my very first brush with historical fiction. And there was Eleanor, striding across the scene, going off on Crusade, disputing with theologians, eloping from one king for another, and generally taking over whatever she touched. I adored her. I wanted to be her (although without that distressing imprisonment bit). It was my Eleanor of Aquitaine obsession that led me, at the tender age of six, to my very first historical romance novel, Ann of Cambray, in which Eleanor had a walk on role. Ann, like Eleanor, was prepared to defend her territories at all cost, even if it meant defying a king to do it.

I relate this touching anecdote because Doreen's post got me thinking about the ways in which historical fiction and feminism interweave. The conventional histories (much as I love them) tend to focus on the conventional narrative, a narrative of battles and parliaments, warriors and statesmen, fields in which women, for obvious reasons, play a lesser role. Historical fiction, on the other hand, has always been a place where a heroine can shine. Throughout my early teens, my heroine and role model was Caroline of Ansbach, the canny Queen Consort of George II, educated by Liebniz, crony of Walpole, de facto ruler of England. And why? Because Jean Plaidy had written a novel about her. Otherwise, she was little more than a footnote in an account of the Walpole years.

Both historical fiction and historical romance (the line is notoriously blurry) provide a means for shining the spotlight on the spunky women of the past, whether they were queens or courtesans and in so doing reshape our notions of women's roles in the historical narrative. I’ve found this to be especially true in the book on which I am currently working, set in India in 1804. I had very firm ideas about purdah and that sort of thing. And then I started researching. There was Begum Sumroo, who began her life as a dancing girl and rose to rule her own state, leading her own troops into battle against the British during the Mahratta Wars (she apparently retained the power to fascinate well into old age, wowing the men sent to negotiate a treaty of surrender). In Hyderabad, where my story is set, I found the courtesan Mah Laqa Bai, who was considered the foremost poet of her age and so respected for her wisdom that she was elevated to the Nizam’s council of advisors. The Nizam also employed an all-female regiment of soldiers, the Zuffur Plutun, or “Glorious Battalion”, commanded by female generals, Mama Champa and Mama Barun. These formidable ladies also served as his masters of ceremonies at court. Mama Champa began her career as the Nizam’s nurse, but, in the words of a contemporary chronicler, “As she was very intelligent, therefore his Highness of Illuminated Glory entrusted many of the works of state to her.”

That does rather belie the conventional image, doesn’t it? Nothing annoys me more than sweeping statements about the oppressed state of women prior to our enlightened modern era. Far from being counter-feminist, historical fiction and historical romance remind us that women have always played a rousing role in world affairs, whether it’s Joan of Arc or the spunky girl who helped James, Duke of York, escape from Cromwell (dressed in one of her gowns-- James must have loved that), or the warrior maidens of the Zuffur Plutun.

13 October 2008

The Feminine Mystique of Romance Novels

"Romance novels can't be feminist. They're all about women who change themselves to get a man." The woman who said this would never, she assured me, actually read a romance novel. But she felt secure in her criticism.

Many feminist critics of the past would have agreed with her. Take this comment from Kay Mussell of American University:

"I saw romances back then [the 1970's] as a kind of backlash against the more aggressive and controversial aspects of feminism -- something that reaffirmed traditional values and made women who hadn't bought into the feminist critique feel validated about their own choices. I also expected romances to fade away as more and more women entered the labor force and became practical feminists if not theoretical or political feminists."

We can all chuckle about her theory that romance would die out. But as to the rest of it --

Although her assertion that romance novels were a conservative backlash against the women's movement was definitely the accepted feminist position on romance in the 1970's, I've never seen romance novels in that way, not even when I was reading the old "nurse/doctor" romances, or the category romances featuring poor heroines and wealthy Greek men. Even in those books, the needs of the woman were paramount. Her challenge was to not lose her own sense of self in the face of her overwhelming love for this man who was stronger, wealthier, and more knowledgeable about the world. In the end, she always reclaimed her self-esteem and her personhood, as well as getting a really rich, handsome guy to top it off. The man was the icing on the cake; the real story, or so it seems to me, was her journey to not lose herself while in the grasp of love.

Where does the "rape her until she loves you" story fit in all of this? In the 1970's, such plotlines were common. But although they were blatantly anti-feminist, they were also a harbinger of good times to come. The sexual revolution was in its infancy, and women who admitted they enjoyed sex were still seen as sluts or whores. In order to make a heroine having sex somewhat palatable to the masses (or perhaps to make her motivation more palatable), the hero had to force her into it. Only after they had declared their love was it acceptable for the heroine to willingly go to bed with the hero; up until that point, she could have no justification for having consensual sex. Modern romances, with heroines seeking sex for its own sake, are a refreshing change. It's not that writers are more brave now; it's simply that society has caught up with where romance novels were always headed.

I thought the "overpowering hero" flavor of romance had died out in the mid-1970's, but they seem to be making a comeback. It's troubling to me that we are reverting to stories where bold men take women against their wills, only to have those women end up in love with the men who have de-humanized them. I'll be honest and admit that I never read such stories. I have a low tolerance for non-consensual sex, unless the lack of consent is clearly what the heroine prefers and the hero is well aware that she does, in fact, want to screw him. A little BDSM never did any harm.

But here we are in the not-so-new millennium, with romance novels that run the gamut from inspirational to traditional to no-holds-barred erotica. Across all these genres, I think romance is more a feminist genre than ever.

If you look at the surface of romance novels, they seem to be saying that women aren't complete without men. I think the opposite is true -- it's the MEN in romance novels who aren't complete without a woman. The hero is usually flawed in some way: He's damaged emotionally, or he's a rake who refuses to marry. In some way, he is not a full participant in society. He's on the outside looking in, and he may be perfectly happy that way. Or if not perfectly happy, he's content. Along comes the heroine, a woman who, by her unique qualities, catches his interest and engages him despite himself. Rodin's ETERNAL IDOLOften the hero resists her pull, or gives it another name (lust) to make his emotional need for her more palatable. Eventually he's brought to his knees by his love for her, and after (only after!) he demonstrates his deservability, does she accept him fully and bring him into the wider world of society. She isn't waiting to be rescued by him; she chooses him, and chooses a committed relationship with him, because she sees that he will add to all that she already has.

This was true even of the majority of the older romance novels. The hero might have seemed to have all the power, but the heroine had the power of her own acceptance of him. Only after he proved he was worthy did she accept the relationship.

I'd love to hear other thoughts on this subject. Do you think romance novels have feminist underpinnings? Does the political message matter when reading an escapist fantasy, or not? Why do you think society in general frowns on romance as a genre?

10 October 2008

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Sex, and Money

I was going to continue posting about vampires today, but when I sat down to write, my mind kept wandering to a set of observations I heard on the radio last weekend, about a high-powered academic meeting that opened its proceedings by asking participants to introduce themselves vis-a-vis their (1) institutional affiliation, (2) current project, and (3) sexual orientation.

And what was remarkable, the commentator said -- and strikingly revealing of our times -- was how little surprise or distress the sexual orientation question seemed to cause anybody. Especially when one considers how much havoc and consternation would have been wrought if the attendees had been asked to specify the dollar values of their salaries.

The speaker, Slavoj Zizek, has written with similar manic, iconoclastic zeal about politics, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and the movies.

My account is only a paraphrase of his much funnier commentary. But my point is that his observation brought me face to face with my preoccupations as a writer of explicitly sexy historical romances.

Because what always worries me when I write the erotic scenes that I and my readers want and deserve, is wondering whether there's something not-period (as we say) about doing this. Because isn't there something very much of our times about the kind of sexual frankness I try for?

I'm not referring to what my characters actually do in bed: the human body hasn't changed so much in the past couple of centuries; the apparatus is as finite, the possibilities for sensation and expression limitless as ever.

But the attitudes? Aren't there certain assumptions that we cherish -- about a woman's right to her own pleasures, perceptions, and point of view -- that would have been incomprehensible or at least unsayable in that past? Is it period, in short, to portray a couple in bed who already seem to know what well-meaning men and women have had to put some thought into, during a couple of tumultuous decades of second-wave feminism and unprecedentedly open erotic chattiness in the media?

Or -- to turn around the question -- if it would be more accurate to this historical period to represent a less egalitarian sexuality, would we even want that? What sort of twenty-first century reader would bother to go to that benighted past, even for an afternoon's escapist pleasure?

As usual, I'm happy to be among history hoydens who've also thought about these matters.

And certainly, Tracy's recent post about unconventional heroines and the discussion that ensued provided some answers. History always presents us with people who were ahead of their times, and fiction is often about what happens on the day that isn't like the ordinary days preceding. It's possible to write believable period pieces that engage the constraints of the past by evoking aspects of actual rebels and standard-bearers -- those who were strong-willed enough to flout convention, and those (I'm thinking particularly of some of Amanda's true-life heroines) who rose to the extraordinary challenges their extraordinary lives presented them.

All good. All worthy and interesting. But Zizek steered my thinking in another direction that until now I've only dimly apprehended. Because every bit as much as dress, manners, or decor, what marks a historical period is what people can and can't say or think -- not because they don't know it on some highly personal, intimate level, but because it's simply not part of the public conversation.

So when I'm writing a book set in the English Regency, I should be paying attention not only to a veiled public discourse about matters erotical, but to a cherished literary tradition of open discourse about matters financial. This is a world (at least as we've inherited it) where everyone speaks of Mr. Bingley's four or five thousand a year and knows about Emma Woodhouse's portion of thirty thousand. Because it's a world in which you are, publicly, your fortune (or the one you'll marry).

Not entirely so, of course: everyone also knows -- or learns -- that Mr. Darcy is more than his ten thousand a year and that Elizabeth Bennet's wit and charm are (as Mastercard would have it) priceless. But it's exactly this tension between received public discourse and achieved private valuation that allows a reader to feel she's taken possession of the fictional world. It's the structuring irony, in fact, that allows her to feel that she understands it better than the literary characters who live there, who have to learn what we already know (not in the least, as Emma puts it, that "Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself.")

I'd argue that the same possibilities exist for literary eroticism -- and that what makes an "erotic historical" erotic and historical is the author's respect for the public decorum of her period and her delight in undercutting it (in the privacy of the characters' growing intimacy). Happy historical romances are always in some sense novels of education, in which characters learn to grow into their social roles and be worthy of them as they also learn to be worthy of each other. I'd argue that one of the legitimate pleasures of historical fiction is watching the action tend in ways that we might understand better -- or at least can speak more comfortably of -- than the characters acting their own transformations and discoveries.

Which is probably why, as an author, I love teaching my characters how to speak.

In Almost a Gentleman, my hero and heroine test and stretch the limits of their growing intimacy by trying out every word in the early nineteenth century glossary for sexual organs.

While in my forthcoming The Edge of Impropriety I send a thirteen-year-old girl for a walk along the Rotten Row to ponder the public discourse of marriage and money, and to wonder how one learned to perform the conjurer's trick of reading, as if from an invisible placard hanging from this or that elegant neck, exactly how money a personage riding, driving, or strolling along here possessed....

(My editor was worried, btw, about my introducing such a young character into so explicitly erotic a book as this one; I think I solved the problem by making my young person a student of the public discourse of her time, and leaving the private self-education to her fortunate elders. If you read The Edge of Impropriety, I'll be curious about what you think about how I negotiated this.)

A decade ago now, when I first made up my mind to write a romance novel, it never occurred to me to write anything but a historical. Partly, of course, this was because I had a specific idea for one and also because I've always loved long, stately, historical costume drama.

But also, I now think, it was because to me there's always been an affinity between historical fiction and romance. For the exquisitely simple reason that all historical fictions -- even quite tragic ones -- exist in the romantic roundness of the fact that we already know the end of events, even as in romance we know which lovers will end up together.

Which is a simple distinction, but not an easy one.

As everyone living in real history -- which is all of us -- are learning these days, when we don't know the end of the story at all. And -- who knows? -- may learn how to speak of money and fortune as quite a personal matter before we're done.

But what do you think?

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09 October 2008

"The color, vibrancy, and excitement of the Middle Ages allow Dennis to create a memorable tale of two people whose destiny is tied to a mystical colt. Dennis tells her story with passion, drama, and a love of animals that will enthrall readers."
--- 4 Stars! Romantic Times Reviews

"...a great read for lovers of horses, romance and history."
--- Top Pick! ParaNormalRomance.org

“I've never been one to get excited about animals in books, but this one grabbed my heart. I felt the pain of Sybilla when her choices are taken away with her horse and the agony of Sir Guy's guilt in his sister's death. Their perilous journey and the unusual horse that unites them, makes this tale a keeper.”
--- Publisher's Weekly

Welcome, History Hoyden Kathrynn Dennis! Your second book, SHADOW RIDER (Kensington, Oct 7, 2008) hit the stands this week. Tell us, what do you do as an author the first week your newest release goes on sale?

I eat way too much chocolate and spend way too much time checking and rechecking my email. And oh yeah, I surf the net. A lot. ;-)

That’s what it’s like I think, for most authors until they have a few under their belts (books I mean, not drinks).

So tell us, where did you get the idea for this unusual medieval romance? The plot involves a “lost and vengeful knight, a horse midwife, castle intrigue, and a colt that barks . . .” to paraphrase a reviewer. How did you come up with that?

I eat too much chocolate and drink too much—just kidding. ;-)

I’m a horse veterinarian and you know what they say …“write what you know.” So, I drew on experience and thought “what if” a foal born in the 13th century was affected by a real-life neurological condition that resulted behavioral abnormalities, made him do strange things like gaze at the stars, sit like dog and bark? Wow. Drop that scenario right into the hey-day (pun intended) of superstition in history—the middle ages. My heroine, of course, is a 13th century horse midwife who delivers the foal and then gets accused of all sorts of misdoings and witchery. She needs a hero. Enter Guy of Warwick, who thinks the “magic” horse is meant for him. He saves them both, but things go down hill from there. Turns out, everybody wants that magic horse. The bad guy in this book is pretty bad (will not tell how for fear of spoilers). I had fun writing him.

You like to say you write “horsetoricals,” all about heroes, heroines, and horses. Is there any story connection between this book and your first, Dark Rider?

Not really, but they are both set in the Middle Ages, have mystic elements and the development horses as characters who are pivotal to the plot. I’ve done a bit of research lately on animals and pets in romance novels and find they run the gambit from decoration, to strong secondary characters who move the story along. In my books, I wrote them to do just that. Also, the kind of animal a character owns tells you a lot about their personality. Writers use this to layer their character’s development. The heroes and heroines in Shadow Rider and in my first book, Dark Rider, are just as pet-owner profiles suggest they would be: male horse-owners are dominant and high in autonomy, aggressive, and less expressive in general. Female horse-owners tend to avoid aggression and are easy going, but limited in cooperativeness and warm human relationships. Sounds like romance heroes and heroines to me!

If you’d like to dig a little deeper into pet-owner profiling, check out Word Wenches tomorrow, where I’ll be blogging on the subject: http://wordwenches.typepad.com/word_wenches/.

Thanks everyone. Have a great upcoming weekend!


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08 October 2008

Relative Immortality

Last year for Christmas (because I asked for it), my husband bought me a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words "Careful, or you'll end up in my novel." Just for good measure, he bought me the companion t-shirt. They make terrific conversation-starters at the gym

My novels are, in fact, sparsely populated by highly fictional versions of several of my friends and relatives, as well as a few ex-boyfriends and obnoxious former bosses. And sometimes I create characters whose names are amalgams of family and friends, just to give them a little inside joke to chuckle over, as they read the book. My best friend from college is certain she can identify the source for several of the characters in a few of my contemporary novels--even those I assure her are wholly fictional.

With historical fiction, where most of the characters in the novel are based on actual personages, much has been written about their looks and their personalities. But because there are always a number of supporting and "walk-on" roles in the historical novels, on occasion I endow some of them with certain behavioral traits or physical characteristics that are based on people I know, have met or worked with, or who I am related to. My paternal grandmother with whom I lived for a number of years after I graduated from college, and who was immensely supportive and loving, and one of the most generous souls to grace this earth, shows up in one form or another in a few of my books. And yet I wasn't even aware of creating a wise motherly (or grandmotherly) figure as a sort of perennial in my novels until someone--probably my husband--pointed it out to me.

Occasionally, people have asked me to put them in my novels! So sometimes, I do, just for fun--like the time I met a pair of New York Mets fans on a walking tour of Chinatown while I was researching my contemporary novel, Play Dates. It's fun to "honor" someone I know by putting them into one of my novels. And, on the flip side, revenge can be just as sweet. Sometimes, when I want to create a "villain," I look to my own unhappy experiences in the workplace (or the boudoir) and see if there are some threads I can delicately extract in order to weave my character. Rarely--very rarely--do I create my fictional character from the whole cloth (or nearly so) of the original real-life personality.

Do you incorporate personality or physical traits of people you know, love, hate, and/or are related to, into your characters? If so, have your "victims" recognized themselves--or thought they did? What was their reaction?

06 October 2008


Not duke and earl but BOOK titles. How do you come up with them? How often are they changed by the publisher? Have they ever made a better pick than your original idea?

Here is my experience. When I wrote contemporaries I looked to song title for inspiration. You can date my first book by its title: TRUE COLORS. TC was actually my young son's suggestion and it fit the story perfectly.

I wanted to name my second book, SILVER BELLES. It was a Christmas story with twin blond six-year-olds who bring the hero and heroine together. My editor told me that stories with "father" in the title sold better so she suggested FATHER CHRISTMAS which did put the emphasis on the hero and was, I thought, better. Mind you, this was one of the first times the Silhouette used "father" in the title and I should have realized that this decision was marketing driven. I never sold a book to Silhouette again because I am not marketing driven and my books were not what they thought the public wanted.

My book titles for Kensington were often a happy compromise. My favorite was MY title HIS LAST LOVER which actually started out as the less conventional (for a sweet regency) Her Last Lover - but the story went in another direction and so the pronoun change. I argued for His Barefoot Bride for my last Kensington regency but it was firmly nixed and so it became the more telling and salable THE CAPTAIN'S MERMAID. Love that title and love the book.

Now I am with Bantam Dell with my next two books about to come out. TRAITORS KISS was a title that stayed through the first submission, the major rewrite that both Shauna and I realized was necessary and it will be released under that name at the end of the month.

It is part of a two-for-one series launch with the two books under one cover. Given that, it made sense to title the second book LOVER'S KISS. I guess I am committed to (something) Kiss for the last three books in the series. Already have two of the three in mind.

Which brings me to another question. How do you feel about series titles using the same word? I have mixed feelings myself, especially for long series like the JD Robb IN DEATH books and the John Sanford PREY series. I am a big fan of both but find I have to review the blurb to see if I have read them before.

Two series that I think are brilliantly titled are the Sue Grafton mystery series where each book starts with a letter of the alphabet and our own Lauren Willig's series where the first title identifies with a flower and the next four continue in the same style. The titles are evocative and easy to recall beginning with THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE PINK CARNATION.

Kalen, are you headed in the same direction with LORD SIN and LORD SCANDAL?

Finally, tell me some of your favorite book titles, even if you never read the book and they are not historicals. Here are three of mine: Pam's ALMOST A GENTLEMAN, (because it plays with the reader), Amy Tan's THE OPPOSITE OF FATE (you tell me: what is Fate's opposite) and HELLO, HE LIED by Lynda Obst (non-fiction about Hollywood -- do you even have to read beyond the title?) I have never actually read Obst's book but it is still on my TBR stack -- solely because of the title.

Your turn!

03 October 2008

SHADOW RIDER: Out Next Week!

My next release, SHADOW RIDER, hits the stores next week. Now I’ve had a jpeg of the cover for sometime now, wondering, as I did for my first book, DARK RIDER (Kensington, 2007), how I might explain that my books are historical romances set in the 13th century. Look closely at the cover jacket of SHADOW RIDER and you will see the reason for my quandary —the “knight” on the cover is wearing blue jeans! Yep, denim blue jeans. Again. The knight on the cover of DARK RIDER did, too, and he even had buttons on his shirt and a collar (GASP).

I’m sure you’ve heard it many times before—most authors have no real control over their covers. I certainly don’t. But despite the anachronistic attire, I do like the covers, especially SHADOW RIDER’s.

Could it be possible, I wondered, for a knight in 1276 to actually wear the fabric that we’ve come to know as denim?

Much to my surprise if I’d just set my stories a couple of hundred years later—the answer is yes. He could have if he’d been a knight in the 1600’s.

The info I researched below can be attributed to the Levi Strauss Historian, Lynn Downy. I paraphrase what she writes (see http://www.levistrauss.com/Downloads/History-Denim.pdftext for the complete text):

“In 1969 a writer for American Fabrics magazine declared, “Denim is one of the world’s oldest fabrics, yet it remains eternally young.” From the 17th century to the present, denim has been woven, used and discarded; made into upholstery, pants and awnings; found in museums, attics, antique stores and archaeological digs; worn as the fabric of hard honest work, and as the expression of angry rebellion; used for the sails of Columbus’ ships in legend; and worn by American cowboys in fact.”

Legend and fact are also interwoven when scholars discuss the origin of the name denim itself. Most reference books say that denim is an English corruption of the French “serge de Nimes;” a serge fabric from the town of Nimes in France that was in production as early as the 1400s (my fact-finding here). However, some scholars have begun to question this tradition. A fabric called “serge de Nimes,” was known in France prior to the 17th century. At the same time, there was also a fabric known in France as “nim.” Both fabrics were composed partly of wool and exported to England. “Denim” made in France tended to ad a certain cachet that translated to higher sales. But the English recognized a fashion trend. “Serge de Nimes” purchased in England was very likely to have actually made in England, and not in Nimes, France.

There still remains the question of how the word “denim” is popularly thought to be descended from the word “serge de Nimes.” Serge de Nimes was made of silk and wool, but denim has always been made of cotton. What we have here again, I think, is a relation between fabrics that is in name only, though both fabrics are a twill weave. Is the real origin of the word denim “serge de nim,” meaning a fabric that resembled the part-wool fabric called nim? Was serge de Nimes more well-known, and was this word mis-translated when it crossed the English Channel? Or, did British merchants decide to give a zippy French name to an English fabric to give it marketing boost? It’s likely we will never really know.

What we do know is that denim’s popularity grew worldwide. President George Washington toured a Massachusetts mill in 1789 and was shown the machinery which wove fabric.”

So there you have it. My 13th century knights on the cover of SHADOW RIDER and on the cover of DARK RIDER would not have worn denim--quite yet.

Obviously, they were men ahead of their time. ;-)

Sign me,
Kathrynn Dennis, Author-of-the-Blue-Jean-Medieval
4 Stars! Romantic Times Reviews
TOP PICK, ParanormalRomanceReviews.org

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02 October 2008

Bladensburg, bloody Bladensburg

By way of introduction, since this is my first post as an official member of the Hoydens, I thought I'd blog about my neighborhood. Not actually where I live, to be honest (we consider ourselves more upscale), but close by. Besides, my town isn't that old, although we do have a historical marker for a spring that invading British troops used in 1814.

The troops were on their way to the inglorious Battle of Bladensburg, the decisive event of the War of 1812, which ended up with the British marching into Washington and burning the White House and much of Georgetown. My mother, visiting me a couple of decades ago, commented that Georgetown, the extremely upscale, expensive, and historical part of Washington, DC, was "quite nice, but in England we would have knocked it down." We tried, believe me, we tried in 1814.

And in this roundabout way I want to talk about Bladensburg, in Prince George's County, Maryland, a sprawling mixed area, part residential, part industrial and retail, that hides a lot of history. In the colonial and federal eras it held a significant position on the (only) road northward and was also a bustling port town on the Anacostia River.

The Indian Queen tavern, now know as the George Washington House, and home of the Anacostia Watershed Society, still survives. The Society works to clean up the river and its watershed, diligently campaigning, educating, clearing invasive plants, and planting trees. It's hard to believe that this sluggish, shallow river was once used by great ships.

Just outside the tavern is the site of the US's first tethered hot air balloon ascension on June 17, 1784, the invention of Peter Carnes, an enterprising local lawyer and innkeeper. Although he originally intended to have a passenger aboard, a gust of wind damaged the basket, and it wasn't until a week later in Baltimore, with the basket repaired, that Carnes sent a 13-year-old boy aloft.

So where does the "bloody" come in? In the federal era, the town was was known as "bloody Bladensburg," since it was, at two hours' drive outside the city, a popular location for duels. It was the site of the famous duel between Stephen Decatur and James Barron in 1820, which proved mortal for Decatur.

Near Bladensburg is historic Riversdale House Museum, which I've blogged about elsewhere--there was a Ladies Regency Weekend last year where I spent a lot of time washing dishes while wearing my gorgeous silk gown (yes, I wore an apron. Yes, I removed my gloves). Rosalie Stier Calvert, the mistress of Riversdale and the original occupant of the house, took advantage of her proximity to the port to send letters home to her family in Belgium and receive Paris fashions, fancy marble fireplaces, and bulbs for her beloved garden.

For those of you who live nearby, there's a Regency Ladies Day in the Country on November 15--more information here.

Do you live near a place rich in history? Tell us about your neighborhood.

And I can't stop myself. It's pink (very pink) and it's out today in the UK, Australia etc.--the Little Black Dress edition of The Rules of Gentility. See more about it at my Risky Regency post today.

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01 October 2008

Unconventional Wisdom

It will probably come as no surprise to anyone who's read any of my books (or even my blog posts) that I like characters who are rule-breakers. I strive for historical accuracy in my books, but my most of my characters could hardly be called conventional (if I wrote about modern-day characters I doubt they’d be called conventional either). One of the readers who posts on my blog emailed me recently with some interesting questions about writing historical fiction and being accurate to the mores of the time. She asked if readers prefer historical accuracy in characters’ attitudes and behavior, however unpleasant by today’s standards, or a romantic whitewash of the past. Her question inspired my blog this week on my own website, and I thought it would be fun to revisit the topic here. Hoydens, after all, are rule-breakers by definition, and many of my fellow History Hoydens have written some of my favorite rule-breaking characters.

Part of researching an era is getting to know its conventions, the rules (many unwritten) that governed social interactions, from introductions to insults to courtship and marriage. And yet so many of my favorite characters defy conventions. Sir Percy Blakeney, a seemingly typical pink of the ton, has secret adventures in France as the Scarlet Pimpernel and (probably more shocking from the point of view of the English ton) marries a French actress. Sophy Stanton-Lacey in Heyer’s The Grand Sophy (one of my favorite Heyer heroines from the age of ten) drives a carriage down St. James’s Street, right past the gentlemen’s clubs. Teen-aged Philippa Somerville leaves her home in northern England and follows Francis Crawford of Lymond round the Mediterranean. And rule-breaking characters aren’t found only in works by historical novelists dealing with the conventions of the past. Shakespeare frequently has his characters defy the conventions of their world. Heroines such as Viola, Rosalind, and Imogen disguise themselves as men. Portia not only dons male attire but impersonates a lawyer (quite brilliantly). Benedick breaks with his best friend and Prince to consider Beatrice’s perspective when her cousin is (falsely) accused. Romeo and Juliet marry in secret in defiance of their parents, and Juliet deceives her parents by faking her own death to run off with Romeo.

Elizabeth Bennet can’t get away with the behavior of some more social secure heroines but is definitely a convention-defier in her own way, from tramping through the mud to see Jane to refusing Mr. Collins’s proposal. She stops short, though, of behavior that would endanger her family's reputation and fragile position (unlike her sister Lydia). Jane Bennet is a more conventional foil for Elizabeth. I like Jane a lot as a character, but I’m not sure I’d want to read a book with her as the heroine. There certainly wouldn't be nearly the conflict if a man like Fitzwilliam Darcy fell in love with Jane rather than Elizabeth. Jane and Bingley's romance needs Darcy and Caroline Bingley to create complications. Elizabeth and Darcy have tension inherent in who they both are, not just in birth, but in personalities and approaches to life. It isn't just that Elizabeth comes from a different world than Darcy. Even in her own world, she's not precisely a conventional young woman.

In any era, one can find a wide range of behaviors, some well outside the accepted conventions of the day. Rules create obstacles. Having characters push against those obstacles can create wonderful conflict. The key, I think, is to create characters who would believably break rules based on who they are and the forces that have shaped them and to make sure to deal with the consequences of their rule breaking in the world round them.

Emma Hamilton, whom Amanda brilliantly brought to life in Too Great a Lady, is a real life example of a woman who defied a number of the conventions of her day. She rose to dizzying heights but also suffered the consequences of breaking society's rules. In Amanda's vivid portrait, we see the forces and events that shape Emma into the woman she is.

George, the heroine of Kalen's Lord Sin, is also a rule-breaker, but unlike Emma Hamilton she was born to a secure position in society which affords her a certain amount of protection. And in the course of the book, we learn enough about her past and see enough of her family and friends to understand why she's a rule-breaker. Though she is secure enough in her friends, family, and fortune not to be ostracized for her behavior, we see more conventional characters who throw her behavior into relief. I haven't read Pam's upcoming The Edge of Impropriety yet, but from the excerpts and what I've heard about the story, the heroine is also hardly conventional and her past is sketched out in a way that lets the reader understand why and to see the consequences of her behavior in the society she lives in.

Thinking back to my recent posts on Courtesan Heroines and Libertine Heroes, I think that part of the appeal of both these character types is that they are, by definition, rule-breakers. Lord Vaughn, in Lauren's The Seduction of the Crimson Rose, is a wonderful example of a libertine hero who defies convention not just in his amorous intrigues but in his way of looking at the world. Which is part of the reason, I think, that he is perhaps the only man who can see Mary, the heroine, for who she really is, not the conventional society beauty she appears to be. As the story unfolds the reader, along with Mary, learns the events and forces that have shapes Vaughn into the man he is.

When I created Mélanie and Charles Fraser, I knew I was developing an unconventional pair of characters. They had to be rule-breakers for the stories I wanted to write about them to work. So I kept that in mind as I worked out their back stories. Charles and Mélanie both have a number of reasons for being unconventional—the people and books and ideas they were exposed to as children, young adult lives lived out against the chaos of the Peninsular War instead of in orderly drawing rooms and clubs, unexpected dangers that have forced them outside the roles they might have more naturally played in life (in Mélanie’s case, there is even more to this than the reader or Charles realizes at first).

By the time Secrets of a Lady begins, Mélanie and Charles are living a more sedate life in London, yet they are still known for being unconventional. Charles has some decidedly atypical (from our perspective we might say “modern”) views on men and women and marriage. At one point in Secrets he thinks:

[He] had always claimed that whose bed a woman had shared before her marriage was no more a man’s business than it was a wife’s business to ask the same about her husband. He recalled arguing as much in an after-dinner discussion fueled by plentiful port. ‘It’s all very well to try to outrage us with your bohemian sensibilities, Fraser,’ one of the other men present has said, staggering to the sideboard, where their host kept a chamber pot. ‘You’d feel differently if it was your own wife we were talking about.’

Charles knows his views are atypical. One of the reasons he is able to get away with expressing them is the protection of family and fortune. The grandson of a duke, connected (as Mélanie thinks at one point) “to half the British peerage”, he may cause some raised eyebrows, but he isn’t going to be barred from most Mayfair drawing rooms. And as his wife, Mélanie can get away with things that would spell ruin for Elizabeth Bennet.

Which doesn’t mean she can get away with everything. One of the tensions of Secrets (which will continue in subsequent books in the series) and is the that Mélanie knows she is admired and sought after by a society that would shun her if they the faintest idea of her origins. Mélanie’s rule breaking is usually born of the situation rather than a need to shock (such as Barbara Childe in Georgette Heyer’s An Infamous Army, one of my favorite convention-defying heroines). When I got to a scene in Beneath a Silent Moon where Mélanie and Charles are going to explore a secret passage in the middle of the night, it occurred to me that it would have been very foolish of her not to pack a shirt and breeches, knowing the sort of adventures she might be getting into. On the other hand it would never occur to me (or to Mélanie) for her to dress so for a morning ride in Hyde Park.

Not that I'd necessarily find it unbelievable for the heroine in a Regency-set novel to go for a morning ride in Hyde Park in a shirt and breeches. What I'd find unbelievable would be if no one commented if she did so.

Do you like to read and write about unconventional characters? Do you prefer it to be the heroine who is the rule-breaker or the hero or both? What determines whether or not you find it believable when a character defies convention in an historical setting? Writers, what are the challenges you’ve found in writing such characters?

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