History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

31 July 2009

One RITA , Two Carries, and Many Good Friends

Absurdly brief, after all the elaborate preparation. But it was as long as I could stand. And, well — I won, that’s all. I mean, sometimes life is like that, you know: no complications, no reversals. Later for the intricacies...

That's Carrie, the intrepid girl heroine of my Molly Weatherfield erotic novels, speaking from the midst of a deeply compromised situation at the far reaches of my sexual imagination.

But what she has to say will serve quite well for how I felt two weeks ago in Washington DC, when (if you don't already know) my most recent romance novel, The Edge of Impropriety, was awarded Romance Writers of America's RITA® Award for Best Historical Romance, at our annual National Conference.

Joyous, amazed, and exhausted. And (like my overeducated, motormouth heroine) willing, just this once, to let complexity and unlikelihood pass without brow-knitting analysis.

And perhaps also little bit like Stephen King's Carrie before the bucket of blood descends -- which might seem an outré comparison unless you remember the movie really well. I searched YouTube for clips, but everybody only wants to show you the carnage.

What I remember best, however, is the moment of happy triumph, done in silent slow motion, as she makes her way up through a sea of smiling faces and applauding hands to the microphone to be crowned prom queen.

Swear to God, that's what it felt like.

Some hints for future RITA® hopefuls:

It's best if your book has a long title: I was so dim-witted and slow on the uptake that I might have missed my name being announced if the awards presenter hadn't had to make her way through the thicket of syllables in Impropriety.

You'll feel less like an idiot afterwards (take it from me) if you haven't repeatedly assured every last one of your wonderful, long-suffering friends (see below for pix) that you have absolutely no chance of winning.

There's bound to be someone you forget to thank -- my mea culpa is author/blogger Lisa Dale (check her out at Book Anatomy 101 or at her smart, wonderful, inquisitive interview of me). Online thanks aren't as good, but they'll have to do -- Lisa, thanks again.
And that's all, folks, at least for now. No complexities or reversals. I've got my ass back in the chair (which is what you want, as a writer, qua Nora Roberts in that delightful New Yorker feature story in the June 22 issue) and am happily back to work on the new book. Because the real -- the maddening, exhilarating, scary -- fun has got to be in the everyday work of writing. But I'd be lying bigtime if I said that all the smiles, hugs, applause and congratulations weren't a huge encouragement.

As are the friendships. So here are the pix I promised.

Hoydens at lunch in DC:

That's Janet Mullany and me seated, and (left to right), Lauren Willig, Mary Blayney, Diane Whiteside, and Kathrynn Dennis standing.

And hoydens over drinks in San Francisco:

(left to right) Me and Tracy Grant in back, and Amanda Elyot, Kalen Hughes, and Doreen DeSalvo in front.

No Lynna Banning, I'm afraid. We're going to have to do something about that. How about some more celebrating? I know there's lots of good news from the just- and soon-to-be-published among you.

Do tell.

And hey, thanks everybody. Again.

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29 July 2009

The Russians are Coming -- to California!

The year is 1809. In England, the portly figure of the Prince of Wales cuts a wide swath through the drawing rooms of the titled and wealthy while his father George III struggles with the illness (porphyria, likely) that has left him with intermittent lucidity and will eventually claim his life.

Napoleon continues to expand to the east, cutting a rather wide swath himself through Europe and claiming everything his Grande Armée trods upon for his empire. And in Russia, Tsar Alexander too, feels the tug of the east -- to a wild and rugged continent where the waves of the Pacific Ocean lash the ragged rocks splashing the sunning seals -- not too many miles from a place where just forty years later, gold would be discovered in "them thar hills."
The Russians came -- to California! To a stretch that is known now as the state's "lost coast," for its remoteness and lack of development even in this age where nothing beats an ocean view.

They were looking to trade in furs. In 1809 the Russian-American company's principal Alexander Baranov sent his manager Ivan Kushkov to California to scout out the perfect location for a trading base. In January of 1809 Kushkov's ship, the Kodiak, arrived in Bodega Bay carrying 40 Russians and 150 Alaskans. Their initial sojourn lasted until that August, but Kushkov subsequently returned to California and established a trading base or outpost at Metini, protected by a fort that would remain in operation until 1841. The stockade was impressively fortified, in order to give the enemy Spanish, entrenched in Southern California, second thoughts about invading the Russian outpost.

Kushkov returned in 1812 with 25 Russians and 80 Alaskans; and on August 13 of that year the colony was named Fort Ross (Ross being a corruption of Rossiia, or Russia). They constructed structures from local redwoods. Their palisade was defended by two towers, each fortfied with cannons.
And in the mid 1820s they buit a chapel.

The population of Fort Ross was a melange of races. Children born of Russians and Europeans who mated with Alaskans or Indians were known as Creoles.

Enclosed within the protected palisade were storehouses and outbuildings for curing animal hides, and for spinning and weaving yarns, in addition to a kitchen, an apothecary, and facilities for studying and evaluating the local botany, geology, biology, and meteorology.

When my husband and I visited Fort Ross earlier this month, I took photos of all of these rooms. Particularly striking to me was the (barely furnished at present) governor's house that had been occupied by the last manager of Fort Ross, Alexander Rotchev and his family, complete with spinet. Rotchev was a cultured polyglot whose home boasted a library as well. That house is now a National Historic Landmark.

Although the fort was predominantly populated by men, there were a few women who dwelled there. After all, one assumes, someone had to do the laundry!

The original purpose of the siting of the fort was to establish a brisk trade in the pelts of sea mammals, but the Russians branched out into other areas in order to be self-sustaining: agriculture, tanning, shipbuilding, and brickmaking--although the fort's structures are constructed of timber.

Overhunting severely depleted the marine mammal population so that by 1820, scant years after Fort Ross had been established, there was little left to hunt and the Russian-American company instituted a moratorium on hunting the native seals and otters. Although they had initially come to destroy, they ended up establishing the first known marine mammal conservation laws in the Pacific. Their contributions to the 19th century's scientific knowledge of California are measurable.

In December 1851 the Russian American company sold the fort to a familiar name ... John Sutter (remember Sutter's Mill of goldlust fame). Fort Ross's livestock were transferred to Sutter's own fort near Sacramento. The fort changed hands several more times during the 19th century until the California Historical Landmarks Committee purchased the Ross stockade in 1903.

Although my mother is from Beverly Hills (which makes my blood 50% Californian by my own arcane calculations), I admit that I never knew the Russians had staked a claim there -- and right in our own writing period!

Did you California hoydens know that a Russian fort had been established just a few hundred miles from where you live?

And for you four, as well as the other hoydens and our treasured blog visitors -- during your book research, have you ever come across a slice of history that took you by surprise? What was it?

28 July 2009

The winner is...

Sneaking a super quick post in here to announce that Jane O. is the winner of a signed copy of A Most Lamentable Comedy.

Jane, please send your snailmail address to me at jrmullany AT yahoo.com.

26 July 2009

The Eureka Experience

The creative process fascinates me for reasons both personal and scientific. In a few weeks I will be making lots of noise about my newest book. Today I want to concentrate on the writing itself and when the creative process works and when it fails and fails miserably.

From the beginning the book was a challenge. I was so worried I would miss my deadline (yet again) that I started writing before I knew the characters. The result was a book that needed much editorial help and a long revision. The whole process was such a challenge that I had one of those "When this is done I quit" moments. Since I am well into the next book I can assure that feeling did pass. By the time I wrote the last chapter I was delighted with STRANGER'S KISS and can't wait to share it with readers.

With that miserable experience and almost failure in mind, I decided that I would not start the next book until I KNEW my characters. There followed six weeks filled with all kinds of work related to writing plus reading, ironing, gardening. Deep down I worried that I was wasting time.

At week four, when I was about to cave and start something -- anything -- I came across an article in the Wall Street Journal. The headline read "A Wandering Mind Heads Straight Toward Insight." I am going to quote from the article because I want to get it right and I think you might find it as reassuring as I did.

Did you know we spend "about a third of our time day-dreaming?" The good side of all that "wasted" time is that "our brain is unusually active during these seemingly idle moments." (If there are any blog readers still in school -- print out the article and give it to your teacher the next time he/she tells you to "Stop daydreaming!"

Remind your teacher that Sir Issac Newton was sitting in an orchard "daydreaming" when he saw an apple fall and according to the WSJ velcro, post-it notes and ice cream cones struck the inventors in what WSJ Science Journal columnist Robert Lee Holtz calls "Eureka moments"

Thanks to a recent study researchers have been able to "document the brain's behavior during Eureka moments by recording brain wave patterns and imaging the neural circuits that become active as volunteers struggle to solve anagrams, riddles and other brain teasers."

This is what they found -- that you need more than methodical thinking to solve some problems. "Solving a problem with insight is fundamentally different from solving a problem analytically". Personally, I can't decide if this is stating the obvious or not, but it is such a validation of my six weeks "off" that I cannot resist sharing it.

How many time have you stepped away from a crossword puzzle and when you come back the answers have moved to the front of your consciousness? How many times have gone for a walk and come back with the answer to a plot issue?

There is another intriguing fact that scientists discovered as they explored the way the brain transmits these eureka moments. In two different studies of brain wave patterns, the testing scientists discovered that the brain apparently knows the answer for a period of time before "the volunteer experienced the insight." This is not news to me. At some point in the process of writing a book, I know what the last scene will be and write it. That final scene written is a message to my conscious self that my subconscious knows the story to the end, well before I am aware of it. Now I have a scientific way of explaining something I figured out instinctively several books ago.

In fact this article is one more way to look at the creative process. Neuroscientist Dr Kalina Christoff at the University of British Columbia had the last word in the article: "We often assume that if we don't notice our thoughts they don't exist,when we don't notice them is when we may be thinking most creatively."

To which I respond, I knew that.....Take a minute and share your creative process (even if you're not a writer) and your favorite "eureka moment."

24 July 2009

Writers I wish I could have known . . .

Like millions of other people, I wish I could known Oscar Wilde. I would have been a devoted fan even then, following his exploits. Imagine my surprise to learn his gravesite is considered one of the "germiest" tourist attractions on the planet. He would have snorted at this, no doubt, and laughed.

Wilde, who died in 1900 from cerebral meningitis after a botched operation for an ear problem, continues to be a celebrated literary figure today famous for his tabooed sexuality at the time and his novels such as "The Picture of Dorian Gray."

Oscar Wilde is buried is in Paris. His body rests in a tomb speckled with lipstick marks from visitors from all over the world showing their literary appreciation. The kisses display a rainbow of colors -- so much so that travel experts say Oscar Wilde's name on the tomb can be hard to discern. One traveler wrote after visiting the grave, "The tombstone of Oscar Wilde is ... well, wild, excuse the pun."
Someday, I will visit Paris and his tomb, and I plan to leave my lipstick marks right there with all the others, germs and all.
Have any of you kissed Oscar's tombstone? What other great literary figures would have like to have met?

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23 July 2009

Eels, squeals, and Comedy release

I approached my fellow Hoydens and asked about correct behavior on the blog for the release of a book. Should I jump up and down and make squealing sounds; should I mention the release in a discreet footnote after an erudite post, on, say, the early nineteenth century Gloucestershire eel industry; and above all, what sort of gloves should I wear on release day?

The eels have to wait. Yes, my book is out today and although it doesn't have US distribution, you can buy it with free shipping worldwide from bookdepository.co.uk. You can also win a signed copy with a comment or question here. I'll pick a winner after the weekend and make an announcement.

So, the book is, sort of, a sequel to The Rules of Gentility (HarperCollins, 2007; Little Black Dress, UK, 2008). I'd thought originally that if I did write a sequel I'd probably write about Philomena's twin sisters (remember a few years ago everyone had twins in their books?). But after Philomena's breathless twittering about Inigo's trousers and bonnets, I felt I needed to clear my literary palate and chose the bad girl, Caroline, who makes an appearance early on in Rules in intimate circumstances with Inigo.

I was inspired, partly, by Dickens' Our Mutual Friend which I reread a couple of years ago (and blogged about here). It's a sinister, complex, confusing book, Dickens' last completed work. I was fascinated by a pair of minor characters, Mr. and Mrs. Lummle, who discover, after their marriage, that neither has any money. Having conned each other, they then proceed to con others and sink into crime. What a great set up, I thought, and so I invented Caroline Elmhurst and Nicholas Congrevance, who are both on the lookout for partners with money. She's broke and in debt and hovering on the brink of ruin, and he's, ahem, professionally interested in rich, gullible women.

Another astonishing discovery about Our Mutual Friend was what an incredible pantser Dickens is. The book was published originally in installments, and the edition I read includes his plotting notes. He takes some outrageous risks (well, risks for anyone else, but not for Dickens). There's one chapter which is pure exposition, so we (the readers) know the true identity of one of the characters. In Volume II Dickens dumps a whole cast of new characters into the book.

Something similar happened to me with Comedy. I knew, roughly, what was going to happen, but when it happened, and to a certain extent, how, surprised me. I found myself halfway through the book where I thought I'd be a couple of chapters from the end, and yes, I introduced a couple of new characters. This wasn't quite as problematic as I thought. For one, I'd figured out that my hero/heroine were in search of community as much as each other (and money. Don't forget the money). They both start off living in isolation, a necessity of leading a double life, with one other person (a servant and fellow conspirator) knowing some of what they are. (I'm fascinated by characters who masquerade as someone else but they're difficult to write-- how much does/should the reader know? How much should other characters know and when? But that's another post.) Both Caroline and Nicholas discover love (reluctantly) and friendship and discover within themselves reserves of strength and loyalty and ...

Lest I mislead you, it's not really that sort of book. No one starts a knitting club or anything. It's funny. It's set (mostly) at an English country house party in 1822 where the heroine has retreated to escape her creditors and sinks further into disrepute as an amateur actress in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. She really needs a husband or protector as soon as possible and although she's extremely interested in the handsome, mysterious (and undoubtably wealthy) Nicholas Congrevance she wouldn't, and doesn't, turn down a Duke.

Two of the Hoydens have already reported to me incidents of inappropriate public laughter. In fact, the morning after Pam Rosenthal won her RITA for The Edge of Impropriety (go Pam!), I woke to the most wonderful sound in the world for a writer of comedy--an informed and smart reader who's also a friend cackling at my book. In the right places, no less.

Comments and questions, please.

More blogging today at the Riskies and Romance B(u)y the Book. Find a complete schedule of my blog tour and a contest (another! I'm offering a pair of really lovely Regency aquatints as prizes) at my website.

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21 July 2009

The Marriage of Two Minds

I seem to have a knack for missing RWA conferences where my friends win Rita Awards. I wasn't at either of the conferences where my friend Penelope Williamson won twice in the 90s. In those pre-internet days, I didn't know she'd won until she got back from the conference and telephoned me. Last Saturday, thanks to Twitter, I knew Pam had won the Rita for Best Historical Romance for her wonderful The Edge of Impropriety at almost the same moment it was announced from the stage.

One of the things I love about Pam’s writing is that her characters have, in Regency terms, “a keen understanding”–they’re brainy people who enjoy talking about ideas (The Edge of Impropriety’s hero and heroine are a classical scholar and a Silver Fork novelist respectively). This past week, while a lot of my writer friends were at RWA, a post by Jean on the All About Romance blog on “The Beautiful Minds of Heroes” got me thinking more about brainy characters.

The first brilliant hero Jean mentions falling in love with is Sherlock Holmes. I confess I discovered Sherlock Holmes first through dramatizations (notably the fabulous Jeremy Brett series). I didn’t actually read the Arthur Conan Doyle stories until I discovered Laurie King’s Russell & Holmes books. Because much as I love brainy characters on their own, I particularly love intellectual and romantic partnerships between two exceptionally brilliant people. There’s the fun of watching two fine minds click over solving a problem. I love the scenes of Russell and Holmes talking through a case. The same is true of Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane--I’m particularly fond of a scene in Have His Carcase where they break a code together. Mulder and Scully’s debates about science and paranormal phenomenon were one of the delights of The X-Files.

There's the delight of clever wordplay, such as Lymond and Philippa's improvised "Languish Lock'd in L" play in The Ringed Castle. And the tension of emotion simmering beneath a coolly intellectual façade, which comes out so beautifully in the scene following the play in The Ringed Castle where Lymond realizes he's in love. Or, as Russell's friend Veronica says in A Monstrous Regiment of Women (speaking, indirectly, about Holmes, or rather someone she's comparing to Holmes) "A challenge, I suppose, to break through that ascetic shell and set loose the passion beneath. Because one could feel the passion. My God, you couldn't miss it, in his eyes and his mouth, but it was under control."

There’s also the inevitable clash of two people who love to think. As Miss de Vine says to Harriet in Gaudy Night, “A marriage of two independent and equally irritable intelligences seems to me reckless to the point of insanity. You can hurt one another so dreadfully.” That’s certainly true of Peter and Harriet and also of Holmes and Russell and Mulder and Scully. In all three cases, a determination to battle a problem through intellectually and a refusal to open up emotionally can leave the other partner feeling shut out. Peter in Busman’s Honeymoon, Holmes in The Language of Bees, Scully battling her cancer, Mulder coping with family revelations.

I love writing about brainy characters. The intellectual debates, the fun with words, the angst of clashing minds. In theory, at least, Mélanie, Charles, and Raoul in my books are all brilliant. Of course, that means the author has to keep up with them, which is sometimes a challenge :-) . It took me a long time (and a consultation with a friend who was a math major) to devise the code Charles and Mel break in Secrets of a Lady (much simpler than the one Have His Carcase).

Do you like reading about brainy characters? Do you like them paired with a partner of equal brilliance? Any interesting examples to suggest? Writers, do you like writing about brainy characters? What are the challenges?

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18 July 2009

Pam Rosenthal, RITA Winner!!!

I know I said *fingers crossed*, and I'm THRILLED to tell you all it worked. Our own Pam Rosenthal is the 2009 winner of Romance Writers of America's RITA Award for Best Historical Romance. If you haven't read The Edge of Impropriety, here's yet another reason to pick up this wonderful book.

You can find it in print at Amazon, or in eBook form at Fictionwise.

For me, it was all about the appeal of the sexy professor . . . if you share my thing for smart, sexy, slightly obtuse heroes, this book is for you.

17 July 2009

Remedies for heartbreak and everything else

Nothing is as enlightening for me as old-time (1880's) advice for women. Mrs. Dunwoody’s Excellent Instructions for Homekeeping, a book of “Timeless Wisdom and Practical Advice” offers answers to all of life’s little wrinkles. This volume, by Miriam Lukken, is drawn from the author’s deep-south grandmother and her great-grandmother’s rules for living as a lady should.

“Yankees don’t know any better, so always be kind to them.” [Aunt Middle Mary]

From the very basic topics of getting rid of ants (wash the shelves with salt and water; then use mint tea, citrus juice, salt, ground cinnamon, or boric acid for repelling the critters. Sprinkle salt in their path. Or mix 2/3 cup of water, 1/3 cup of white vinegar and 2-3 tablespoons of dish soap and wash their marching path) to natural mosquito repellent (dab lavender oil on your pulse points), Mrs. Dunwoody has a solution for every one of life’s little problems.

Mice control: stop up openings to the house with steel wool and sprinkle cayenne pepper or peppermint extract around entry holes; mice hate these smells.

For a time-saving makeshift measurer you can carry around with you, measure your own index finger ( mine is 3 inches), hand (7 inches) and elbow to middle fingertip (16 inches).

Care of books: dust; open and fan the pages; keep books dry. If they smell musty, put them outdoors in the hot sun for an afternoon and fan the pages frequently. Damp pages should be sprinkled with cornstarch.

I was particularly intrigued by Captain Clementine’s Mint Julep recipe, since the version I was taught by my non-southern daddy knocks my guests onto the floor. Captain Clementine instructs: “Put a dozen sprigs of mint into a tumbler; add a spoonful of white sugar and equal proportions of peach and common brandy to fill up one-third. Add shaved ice to fill the tumbler and drink as the ice melts.”

Remember that old trick your grandmother did to test oven temperature? Hold your palm close to where the food will be cooking and count: “one-and-one, two-and-two,” and so on for as many seconds as you can hold your hand still: 1 second or less = very hot (450 to 500 degrees); 4-5 seconds = moderate (350 to 400 degrees). I suppose this method would work particularly well with campfire ovens.

And, at last, an illustrated “proper” table setting, complete with correctly placed napkin, water and wine glasses, 3 forks, 2 spoons, and 2 knives (one for butter). Fork and spoon instructions: select from the outside in toward your plate.

The proper tea party table is covered with an embroidered linen cloth trimmed with lace; teacups and saucers rest with the spoon in each saucer; plates or pretty doilies exhibit thin slices of lemon, small cookies, cakes or sandwiches, with the teapot just in front of them. Cream pitcher and sugar bowl should be within convenient reach. The hostess pours the tea and allows the guests to put in sugar and cream for themselves. If you expect many visitors, you might want to ask a friend to pour for you.

Remember this old saying for which way to turn a screw: “Lefty Loosey, Rightly Tightly.”

Becoming a Belle: A lady is never rude to anyone. A lady will not dress in an odd way as to attract attention or remarks. A lady is kind to all people and carries with her a congenial atmosphere which puts all at ease. A lady does not smoke, or bite her fingernails. A lady is never late (lest it give her suitors time to count up her faults). A lady’s integrity is never at question. A lady possesses a sense of humor and can easily laugh at herself, but never at others.

Cure for a Broken Heart: Allow 1 to 2 days to sulk, cry, and pout, followed by 2 days of rest and 1 day of exercise. On the sixth day, make a list of your blessings, talents, and accomplishments. Display this list on your mirror. On the seventh day, put your trust in the Lord, carry on, and do the next thing. This too shall pass. [Might work for rejection letters, too?]

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14 July 2009

RWA Convention Week

Things are going to be quiet here this week, as many of the Hoydens are at the Romance Writers of America's yearly convention (with their fingers and toes crossed that our own Pam Rosenthal wins a RITA for best historical romance!).

10 July 2009

Umberto Eco, Barbara Cartland, and Me: Saying I Love You in Historical Romance

Before I became a romance writer, I hadn't read romance for quite a number of years. And yet, on the strength of my memories and the buzz of my own more recent erotic writing, I somehow had the chutzpah to believe in the stories I was imagining, to feel they were mine, to trust my gut and stumble on in.

Beginner's mind, the Buddhists call it. I think I'll always write better when I feel a little like a stranger in a strange land. But I can still surprise myself (and scandalize some among my fellow writers) by how little I know about the genre and the market.

A recent case in point being when a friend remarked that surely most romance novels must be historicals.

Well, I thought, at least I know better than that.

No, I told my friend. In fact the biggest percentage of published romances are contemporaries (single-title and series, though I doubtless did a lousy job of explaining what a series romance was). Probably, I continued (confidently, wrong-headedly), historical romance doesn't account for more than 30 or 35% of genre's readership.

Hah! Check out the statistics, courtesy of Romance Writers of America's web page. Historical romance (which includes Regencies) accounts for only 16% of the market! (And note that if you count in at least half of the romantic suspense, women's fiction, and inspirationals published, there are probably three romance novels with present-day settings on the shelves for every historical.)

But present-day just doesn't say "romance" to me -- any more than it did for my only slightly more ignorant friend.

Why, I began to wonder. Why, for a certain kind of readerly sensibility, is romance a matter of somewhere that's not quite here, sometime that's not quite now?

A while back, in one of our hoyden discussions, I remember Mary saying that she read for escape. Perhaps, I thought, we're trying to create a hermetic, believable place of refuge (which, for a history hoyden, would be as free of anachronism as you can make it) for when life just gets too tough.

But upon reflection I want to put it differently. There's always anachronism. I don't just mean inevitable errors of detail (hey, my husband found one in War and Peace). The essential, inevitable anachronism -- a feature, not a bug, as the computer programmers say -- is the simple fact of history itself: it's impossible to write or to read about there and then except from the point of view of here and now.

We know we're living in the present because we don't know how it's going to turn out. Iran, Afghanistan, the Dow. Sarah Palin. Global warming. Who knows, who can know? In the present, the rules are always changing, the ground shifting under our feet. It's bracing, crazy-making, and not at all romantic to be alive and adult in this ticking time-bomb of a real world we call home.

Whereas in the worlds of historical fiction (and in other genres as well -- sometimes, I'd suggest, in the most dystopic sci fi) we know where we stand because we know where we're going. Reading our way through the early chapters of a genre novel, we're offered a simultaneous double pleasure: first of recapitulating the early thrill of learning language, gaining mastery over codes and the manners, clothes and tchotkes; and second, of return to and recognition of what we already know.

Critics of the romance genre like to diss it for the inevitability of its happy ending; in response, Julia Quinn rightly points out that in a mystery, no one expects Hercule Poiret not to solve it.

But there's more to it, I think, because in historical romance not only do we know who's going to marry whom, but what's going to happen to Brummell and Byron, Prinny and Napoleon. Equipped with past-and-present parallax vision, the historical romance reader can even see that the heroines (or at least the heroines' daughters' daughters) are eventually going to achieve fuller humanity; we can enjoy all that pretty, protected, muslin-and-corsets second-class citizenship with good conscience, secure in the knowledge that that the witty, sparkly, rebellious moments are actually going to add up to something.

The historical romance doesn't just plop a romance plot into history. It romanticizes history itself, by giving it the beginning, middle, and end we can never get from the rough strife of living our lives.

Some people damn it as costume fiction. Indeed, having gotten my fiction-writing start in fetishistic BDSM erotica, for years I did think was mostly about the props and costumes. And according to one of the most stimulating critical studies I've read in a while -- Historical Romance: Heterosexuality and Performativity, by Lisa Fletcher -- I was partly right; and moreover, the elements of masquerade, role confusion, and crossdressing that I've always been so fond of are pretty important and central to the genre as well.

I should confess that I read this book because I'd heard that Fletcher uses my Almost a Gentleman as one of the examples in her chapter on cross-dressing in popular romance fiction. But what I learned goes far beyond a vindication of my obsessions and intuitions. I'll be mulling over it well into the future, but in right now I've only got space for one zinger of an idea that I want to share. With great gratitude to Lisa Fletcher, for citing this observation by Umberto Eco, the critic and author of The Name of the Rose, who suggests that we think of:

...a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows he cannot say to her, "I love you madly," because he knows that she knows (and that she knows that he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still, there is a solution. He can say, "As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly." At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly that it is no longer possible to speak innocently, he will nevertheless have said what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her, but he loves her in an age of lost innocence.

Oh yes. That's how it for me anyway. I may be a stranger in a strange land, but I'm no false innocent. And I suspect that (in our present Silver Age of the Smart, Romance-reading Bitch) few of us are. That we're all learning to say I love you in the present tense by knowing that we've been this way before, by the great circle route of the recreated romantic past.

Definitely more to come, especially on those gnarly notions of heterosexuality and performativity.

But now I'd love to hear from anybody with whom this strikes a responsive chord. Or any innocents out there, false or perhaps not.

Heartfelt thanks to romance scholar Dr. Eric Selinger, of Depaul University and the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance (note to romance geeks: join IASPR!) for turning me on to this terrific critical study.

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08 July 2009

"Let Them Eat Cake" ... Marie Antoinette maligned

I've been doing a fair bit of research on Marie Antoinette lately, a woman who, despite her foibles, friviolities, and frailties, was made the scapegoat of an era, always despised as an outsider (which was in fact the point of most arranged royal marriages), and derided by even her husband's eldest maiden aunt as L'Autrichienne (a mean-spirited pun on "the Austrian" as well as the French word for "bitch," chienne.)

Sure, she was a horrific spendthrift, but so was everyone else at court; and as Queen of France, not only was she expected to set the tone in fashion, but she was supposed to support the kingdom's various factories. "Buy local" was her mandate and so her extravagant purchases of Lyons silks, Alençon lace, and Sèvres porcelain--all of which were emulated by the nobility--was a way of keeping her subjects employed.

Scorn and derision were heaped upon Marie Antoinette's elaborately coiffed head even during her lifetime. It was often repeated that when bread was so scare that there was rioting in the streets, she callously remarked, "If they have no bread, then let them eat cake."

It made the broadsheets, and even the history books, but she never said it. In fact, the origin of the phrase remains in doubt. Although historian Antonia Fraser cites no attribution for her conjecture, she believes the phrase was uttered by another French queen, and another foreigner to boot, the Spanish born wife of Louis XIV, Marie-Thérèse, who was said to have remarked that if the peasants had no bread then let them eat the crust (croûte) of the paté. She she never used the word "cake" either (which is gâteau in French).

In book six of his autobiography, The Confessions, the noted philosopher, novelist, and radical, Jean-Jacques Rousseau referred to the infamous quote, also without attribution. He wrote:

"Enfin je me rappelai le pis-aller d’une grande princesse à qui l’on disait que les paysans n’avaient pas de pain, et qui répondit : Qu’ils mangent de la brioche. J’achetai de la brioche. ", which translates to: "Finally I recalled the worst-recourse of a great princess to whom one said that the peasants had no bread, and who responded: "Let them eat brioche"... [a savory roll often eaten at breakfast; the recipe is full of eggs and butter, and very rich-tasting.]

Although The Confessions was not published until 1782, the book were completed in 1769 when Marie Antoinette was merely a prepubescent Archduchess of Austria. She did not arrive in France until the spring of 1770 when she was all of fourteen years old, a roses-and-cream child whose only desire was to please her adopted family and kingdom. So Rousseau could not possibly have been fingering Marie Antoinette when he referred to "une grande princess."

Marie Antoinette in 1769 when she was 13 or 14 years old; the same year Rousseau finished his Confessions

Marie Antoinette was such a soft touch that she alone of the French royal family refused to trash the peasants' cornfields by riding through them during the hunt. True, in her nearly twenty years of marriage (before her incarceration in the Tuileries after the mob stormed Versailles in July, 1789), she should have ventured out among her people beyond the outskirts of Versailles and the environs of Paris. But she was more aware of the lives of the laborers than one gives her credit for; and, to quote a fairly recent US president, she did feel their pain.

So, even though we're a bunch of history geeks and sticklers on this blog, how do you feel about playing fast and loose with such a well known remark? Let's assume that Marie Antoinette never said "let them eat cake" (or any permutation of that phrase). Would you attribute the quote to her anyway, for the sake of fiction?

And ... have you ever let the facts not get in the way of a good story, so to speak? When?

06 July 2009

Castles Defined

Quickly, without putting on your scholar's cap, what does the word CASTLE call to mind? My first image is the Disney Castle but then I was raised on Walt Disney every Sunday night. When I asked my niece what words she would use to describe the way a castle made her feel she said: safe (and beautiful but that is a another subject entirely)

Not bad for a ten-year-old. Sir Charles Oman in his book "Castles" defines it as “a fortified dwelling intended for purposes of residence and defense.” It takes four pages of fascinating reading to prove his phrase.

Timber and Earth castles were the simplest castles to bear the name. They were not much more than a raised earth mound and a small house-like structure surrounded by a wooden palisade. Usually made of oak, they could withstand attacks but were built for security and not to impress. I'd love to write a story where the bride is told she will live in a castle and arrives to find "timber and earth" and not one iota of elegance.

Scholars used to think that timber and earth castles preceded stone castles Now it is thought that both were built at the same time, the determining factor being how quickly the castle was needed and what materials were available (source: "Castles of Britain and Ireland" by Plantagenet Fry).

Dating from 1066 to1200 timber and earth castles or their stone counterparts were built for the purpose of controlling newly claimed property and the people who lived on it. There were two types of castles according to Oman: royal and baronial.

The king had a series of castles built to protect his interest. To intimidate the populace, to defend from an external enemy and those built to protect critical rivers, roads and passes. Oman estimates that before 1100 William had some thirty royal castles.

Baronial castles were spots chosen by the new Norman landholders as the best place to site their building, both for defense and convenience of travel. Not being the most trusting king in the world, William rarely bestowed a whole region on a single man. If a knight had more than one castle they were nowhere near each other, each castle protecting a separate holding. The exceptions were in the great frontier areas such as Shrewsbury.

Uusally, castles were built near population centers. There are hardly any castles dating from the Norman conquest in “the long stretch in the wooded weald of Kent and Sussex between the line of castles north of it and those near the sea.” (Osman) The same is true of the moors, fens and bare downs.

One of those classed as ‘near the sea’ by Osman is one of my all time favorite castles pictured at the right – Bodiam Castle. It was built in one complete operation in the 1380’s significantly after the Norman Conquest. It is ironic that the license permitted the knight to build the castle because of the real threat of French invasion. In his book, Fry gives a wonderful description of the interior of Bodiam, clearly built for comfort and defense.

Bodiam’s defenses were not “severely” tested until it was threatened with bombardment during the Civil War – the owner promptly surrendered.

In my book LOVER'S KISS, the art department inadvertently designed the prefect castle for the Pennistan family. When I saw the cover I knew that this was the place the Pennistans had called home for hundreds of years. The rounded part is the original building, built for defense, complete with a partial moat. After the Civil War the square section was added for comfort.

One last thought: palaces were built for lavish comfort and not for defense. The words castle and palace are not interchangeable even though some castles grew into very comfortable houses.

What comes to mind when you think of a castle? Do you have a favorite?

(This is an updated version of a subject originally discussed on January 13, 2007)

01 July 2009

Infidelity - the dark side of romance?


It’s at the heart of the conflict in Casablanca, Tristan & Isolde, The English Patient, Anna Karenina, Notorious, Brief Encounter, The Painted Veil, and countless classic love stories. And yet for many readers, it’s a deal-breaker, particularly when it comes to genre romance.

As a reader and a writer, I don’t dislike infidelity or adultery plots per say. Infidelity is an uncomfortable subject but uncomfortable subjects can make for good drama. It can definitely be a challenge to give a story a happy ending after someone’s been unfaithful. Of all of the stories I mentioned at the start of the post, only Notorious has a conventional happily-ever-after ending. The others have unhappy or bittersweet endings. If the marriage survives the infidelity, you need to believe that the couple can get past it, that it won’t happen again, that the betrayed partner won’t constantly blame the unfaithful partner (which is pretty mucht he conversation Steve and Miranda have with their marriage counselor in the recent Sex & the City movie). If the unfaithful lovers end up together, one can find oneself sympathizing with the betrayed spouse. Notorious pulls it off by making the spouse a villain, albeit a complex one who genuinely loves his wife. Although when I posted about this topic on my own website recently, Lesley pointed out that "In classic fiction, it seems that adultery by a woman is punishable by death (Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary), but from the C20th this is less often the case (Lady Chatterley for instance)." but from the C20th this is less often the case (Lady Chatterley for instance)."

Of course the terms of the marriage and the expectations go into it affect the level of betrayal. In my historical romance, Rightfully His, there’s a subplot between the heroine’s sister and her husband who have a society marriage in which both have lovers and they get along quite amiably. However, in the course of the book, they realize that they love each other and the terms of their marriage change.

Lesley brought up the Poldark novels (the tv series based on them), in the course of which both Ross and Demelza are unfaithful and yet ultimately they get past the betrayals. "In the Poldark novels, the repercussions of both Ross and Demelza’s infidelities echo for many years, continuing to put strain on what is otherwise a strong and loving marriage. With a long series covering many years, there is plenty of scope for a writer to work through the issues raised." Stephanie added, "While I don’t think two wrongs make a right, I couldn’t help feeling a glimmer of satisfaction that Ross finally got to experience a bit of what his wife had endured for years, during his obsession with Elizabeth." I have to say, I felt much the same.

Both the hero and heroine in Pam's wonderful The Slightest Provocation have been unfaithful when the story begins with them married but estranged. It gives them a lot of past baggage to work through but it also means they start with the scales, in a sense, balanced.

Lesley also mentioned Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolò series: "I know many readers couldn’t forgive Gelis in the House of Niccolo books, and felt that the reasons given for her behaviour weren’t sufficient to justify her actions." Some of the most spirited Dunnett discussions I've been involved in concern readers differing views of Gelis. Personally, I had issues with the House of Niccolò in the end (while at the start, I liked it better than the Lymond Chronicles) but not because of Gelis. I could understand why she did what she did, and I could believe she and Nicholas got past it. (Though ultimately, when everyone’s motivations were revealed, it all got a bit murky.)

I write about betrayal a lot, so when I write about infidelity, I like to explore how it compares and contrasts to other types of betrayal. In Secrets of a Lady Mélanie has undeniably betrayed Charles in a number of ways, but I deliberately left it ambiguous as to whether or not she committed adultery. I actually was explicit about it in an earlier draft of the book, then decided I wasn’t sure myself so I left it open to question. I figured out the answer for myself a bit later, and at some point, when appropriate, I’ll work it into a subsequent book.

They do confront the issue of infidelity and their different expectations going into marriage, in a scene in the as yet unpublished The Mask of Night:

You didn’t intend to be faithful when you married me.”

She regarded him with that scouring honesty with which she confronted uncomfortable questions. “No, I didn’t. But then I’d never hold my own behavior up as a model of anything.” She smoothed a crease from her skirt. “Did you? Intend to be faithful?”

“Yes, as it happens. But it was hardly as though I had a very active career to abandon.”

“And you take your promises seriously.” In the warm wash of candlelight, Mélanie’s gaze had the bruised look he remembered from last night. “Fidelity hasn’t been a word in my vocabulary for a long time. It might have been once. When I was a girl playing Juliet in my father’s theatre company. Before—”

“Everything else.” Before she’d been raped by a gang of British soldiers, seen her father and sister killed, been left penniless and homeless.

“Being raped was the least of it,” she said, in the low, rough voice he’d learned to recognize from moments when she dredged up long-buried truths. “I could have got past that, I think. It was losing everyone I cared about, fighting for survival. I had to claw my way back to a sense of purpose. When I did, so much I’d used to value didn’t make sense anymore.”

“There’s more than one kind of fidelity, Mel. You’ve been remarkably faithful to a number of things.”

Her gaze fastened on his face. “Charles, you know that I—“

He looked into the scarred, beautiful eyes from which he’d never been able to hide things. He found he didn’t want a declaration based on duty or guilt. “I know you,” he said.

How do you feel about infidelity in books? Is it a deal-breaker? If not, what you think makes it work in some stories? Does it make a difference whether it’s the hero or the heroine who is unfaithful? What the terms of the marriage are? Whether it’s a story about a couple overcoming one or both partners’ infidelity or the story of a pair of unfaithful lovers? Oh, and if you've read Secrets, do you think Mélanie was unfaithful to Charles after they married? Why or why not?

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