History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

30 August 2010

Thoughts on Mary Shelley

Today is the birthday of Mary Shelley, born August 30 1797, one of the icons of feminism and the Romantic age. There's a huge resource of material on Mary and her relationships with the other great names of the Romantic era, people who were friends, lovers, collaborators. You can find her works online here.

The most recent book I read about Mary and her circle was Young Romantics by Daisy May, which concentrated on the relationships between the Shelleys, Byron, and figures such as the lesser known Leigh Hunt and the Cockney Poets, now coming back into scholars' radar.

Mary, who lived for almost three decades after Percy's death, has had the reputation until recently of the scholarly widow who abandoned her youthful radicalism and devoted her life to the works of her late husband, thereby doing a cleanup act on him:

The qualities that struck any one newly introduced to Shelley, were, first, a gentle and cordial goodness that animated his intercourse with warm affection, and helpful sympathy. The other, the eagerness and ardour with which he was attached to the cause of human happiness and improvement.

Certainly she loved him. After his death, she wrote to a friend:

Well here is my story - the last story I shall have to tell - all that might have been bright in my life is now despoiled - I shall live to improve myself, to take care of my child, & render myself worthy to join him. soon my weary pilgrimage will begin - I rest now - but soon I must leave Italy ...

Compare this to the rage of Claire Clairmont (Mary's step sister) in her unpublished memoir:

I saw the two first poets of England . . . become monsters of lying, meanness, cruelty and treachery — under the influence of free love Lord B became a human tyger slaking his thirst for inflicting pain upon defenceless women.

Even Leigh Hunt, a kindly family man, had a rather bizarrely close relationship with his sister in law that is an uneasy mirror image of the Shelley-Mary-Claire triangle.

The women and children certainly got the short end of the stick, if not the short end of the lifeline. You could die in childbirth, as Mary's mother did, of puerperal fever some ten days after the birth of her daughter. The lives of the Shelleys was darkened by the suicides of other women: Harriet, his first wife, abandoned by him; Fanny, Mary's older sister (the daughter of Wollstonecraft and her lover Gilbert Imlay); and by the deaths of their children. Only one of Mary and Percy's four children survived to adulthood. Claire had a daughter as a result of her liaison with Byron, who insisted on taking the baby and then putting her into a convent when she was little more than a toddler, where she died. As the New York Times reviewer of Young Romantics so succinctly states: In short, the two poets left the Italian peninsula, along with a few spots in England, strewn with dead relations.

As for fictional treatments of these turbulent characters, my favorite is Jude Morgan's Passion, a book that rings so true I tend to question nonfiction if it contradicts Morgan's account.

Mary was 25 when Shelley died (she was 19 when she wrote Frankenstein). After Shelley's death she appears to have had several relationships and received some proposals of marriage which she refused; I guess it's the writer in me that wants her to at least have had some more passion in her life (but being the sort of writer I am, not necessarily a happy ever after!). Yet I find myself uncomfortable that Claire, in her 70s, ranted still about Byron and Shelley's cruelty, or possibly for the first time; being the sort of writer I am, I'd liked her to have found forgiveness earlier.

Your opinions?

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25 August 2010

Revisiting Pride and Prejudice

Lynna had a great post last week where she talked about this season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and discussed their production of Pride and Prejudice. I saw the production as well (and liked it, I think, a bit better than Lynna did). Pride and Prejudice has been much on my mind lately. I recently bought an ipad, mostly because of the wonderful research books I could download (well that and because I wanted one). I've found I love reading on it. In addition to a whole library of research books for my Waterloo book, the first novel I downloaded on it is Pride and Prejudice, which I'm now re-reading.

Perhaps it's the different medium, but I've been noticing new things about it (but then I always find new things when I reread Austen). Interestingly, in light of our recent discussion of book openings, Austen jumps right into the action (the action being Bingley's and Darcy's arrival at Netherfield). It's only a bit later that she stops to explain the exact circumstances of the entail on Longbourn and the Bennet family history. The five Bennet sisters are differentiated through action and dialgoue as well, without a lot of long narrative descriptive passages. In many ways, there's something very crisp and "modern" about the story telling, which I find fascinating.

The 1940 movie of Pride and Prejudice was my first introduction to the Regency. Yes, the costumes are updated to something more like the late 1830s, but the movie sent me to the book and then to other Austen books. I fell in love with Austen’s novels and with the era in which they were written. The time period continues to fascinate me (I love writing in it), and I keep going back to Austen’s novels and to the film adaptations.

I’m still very fond of the 1940 Laurence Olivier-Green Garson movie. I know the costumes are the wrong era and the story is truncated and rearranged. But to me, the Aldous Huxley-Jane Murfin script captures a wonderful dry, satirical note that I love in the story (while at the same time having some beautifully romantic moments). In some ways, I think my image of Darcy will always be Laurence Olivier. I also love the A&E version with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth and the recent movie with Keira Knightley and Mathew McFadyen. All of the film adaptations capture different things I like in the book. Each adaptation has made me see new things in the book. For instance, in the Keira Knightley version, in the scene where Elizabeth insists she won’t marry Mr. Collins, for the first time I had a sense that she is actually afraid her father may take her mother’s side and insist on the marriage. This really drove home the precarious economic circumstances of the Bennet family. In the recent OSF stage production, some of the secondary characters came to life with wonderful vividness, particularly Mary, Kitty, and Lydia. Mary in particular was more touching and interesting than I usually find her. There was a wonderful, painful irony in the way the production pointed to the fact that Mary would be a good match for Mr. Collins and yet Mr. Collins ignores her.

No adaptation I've seen of Pride and Prejudice is precisely and completely my vision of the story, I think because the book is so rich and has so many layers and complexiites to explore. It’s a bit like seeing different productions of a Shakespeare play and getting new things each time one sees it.

What about you? Was your first introduction to Jane Austen from reading one of her books or seeing a film adaptation? Do you have a favorite film version of Pride and Prejudice or another Austen novel? Have you tried reading on an ipad or other e-reader?

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23 August 2010

Tickets and Tokens

I’m sure you’ve heard of people having a box at the theatre, or buying a season ticket for Vauxhall (or one of the other pleasure gardens), or paying to attend a charity ball. But have you ever seen the tickets that were issued for these events? Often, they were actually metal tokens which were inscribed either with a number or the owner’s name. This is a Georgian-era “ticket” for Vauxhall Garden.

There’s a wonderful story from the Annual Register (1822) in which an Italian visitor, Belzoni, recounts the travails of his attempt to attend a very expensive charity performance at the Opera House (a 10 guinea ticket, so roughly a $1000+). The subscription was sold out, but he bought a ticket from a man he knew (Mr. Ebers). When Belzoni arrived at the theatre, he was told the ticket he had had a “wrong ticket” which had been recorded as “lost”, and he was arrested! After protesting, a peer he knew came over and exchanged tickets with him, allowing him to go in while the earl straightened things out. After about half an hour, three Bow Street Runners arrived, arrested him (under the direction of the house manager) and hauled him before the magistrate, Sir Richard Brinie, who was attending the event. No one would listen to his protests that the ticket he now had was from the Earl of Ancram and that the Mr. Ebers who’d sold him the supposedly “wrong” ticket was within. Luckily, the Earl of Ancram saw what was happening, substantiated that Mr. Ebers said he had sold the ticket, and said he would be answerable for it. And finally our poor Italian was free to enjoy the Opera. Though mostly he seems to have spent the remainder of the night walking about, making sure everyone who’d witnessed his ill-treatment knew he had been released and found not to be a ticket thief.

I've never written a plot around a theatre token, but I can see lots of possibilities. I love little details such as this, as they fire my imagination. How about you? Do you kind the minutia of the day inspiring on occasion?

18 August 2010

The best of plays, the . . .
I recently returned from my summer trip to Ashland, Oregon, for the Shakespeare Festival. Ashland is always a pleasant place to be, with great places to hang out (Lithia Park and the coffee shop above the bookstore) and fascinating theatrical works to enjoy. This season was no exception.

HAMLET. This was the piece de resistance of the entire festival, in my opinion. The play, directed by Bill Rauch, was innovative, surprising, and memorable: the best production of Hamlet I have ever seen. To begin with, it was set in “modern” times, which lent an eerie resonance to the underlying political plot: a good leader is assassinated by a reactionary dictator who then takes over the country. Consequently, Hamlet’s (played by Dan Donohue) moral dilemma is deeper than just personal revenge against his father’s murderer; it poses a universal question about what a person does when confronted with a moral evil, as in a power-mad leader.

Nuances of expression brought out the subtle ironic humor of Hamlet’s psyche, and the timing of line delivery using pauses and delays and drawing out of particular words for emphasis added yet another layer of expression. The performance was riveting.

Other innovations: The ghost sends his message from the “other” world in sign language. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are played by women! The “Players” are a troupe of reggae-type musicians with microphones who not only sang but danced!

And Ophelia was a typical 13-year-old - - bratty, impudent and confused about the adult world. The actress (Susannah Flood) played the “mad scene” like a berserked-out druggie and she grabbed me by the throat.

The most plangent scene for me was when the live-and-let-live philosophy of Laertes (David DeSantos), which Hamlet grows to embrace as well, comes to nothing as they accidentally kill each other.

The audience gave the performance a standing ovation.

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. Jane Austen’s book was adapted for the stage by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan and directed by Libby Appel. It works as a farce-y comedy, but it wasn’t Jane Austen. The play was lively, clever, and funny, very “girly,” with delicious Regency-era diaphanous gowns and biting caricatures of the amusing excesses of mother and father figures Mrs. Bennett (Judith-Marie Bergan) and Mr. Bennet (Mark Murphey). But . . .

Austen’s subtle social criticism was lost in the comic antics; her acute observations of life around her were not treated in sufficient depth. For example, the significance of Charlotte Lucas (Lisa McCormick) marrying Mr. Collins (James Newcomb) was skimmed over in favor of humorous characterization and slapstick. Likewise, the impediment to Lizzie’s (Kate Hurster) joining her life and social milieu with that of Mr. Darcy (Elijah Alexander) was left to “read-between-the-lines” gestures between the two.

To me the play was “surface-y.” True, it was a delicious, frothy farce, but as a play it gives short shrift to the real humor and pathos Austen intended to portray.

I liked the recent movie versions better. But I wanted to rush home and re-read Austen’s book!

Welcome, Katharine Ashe!

The History Hoydens are thrilled to welcome Katharine Ashe. A professor of European history, Katharine has made her home in California, Italy, France, and the northern US, all excellent training for a debut historical romance that RT Book Reviews awarded a “TOP PICK!” review, calling Swept Away by a Kiss “a page-turner and a keeper.”

Katharine was kind enough to take the time out from her busy round of writing to talk to us today about love and war (in which, as we know, all is fair).

So, without further ado, over to Katharine....

Romancing Revolution

What do love and war have in common? We could easily imagine them polar opposites.

Consider: Passion.

Here’s what the Oxford English Dictionary says about passion: “any controlling or overpowering emotion, as desire, hate, fear, etc.; an intense feeling or impulse.” Hmm, I ponder. That sounds about right to me. But here’s the thing—love, even sex, only appears in eighth place upon the list of sub-definitions. “8. Strong affection; love. Sexual desire or impulses.” That’s pretty low down the list.

If you will humor me, now consider: Revolution.

I am a professor of history. Perhaps because I teach courses on conflict, I did not find in the OED what I expected for this word. “Circular movement; the movement of a planet, moon, satellite round another.” Only the second category of definitions mentioned war, under the general heading “Change, upheaval,” and even way down on that list: “8. Overthrow of an established government or social order; rebellion.”

My point?

For starters, I like the circular movement notion. Isn’t that how a hero and heroine behave for a time, in the earliest stages, revolving around each another in a dance of attraction and desire that holds them bound by a force as powerful as an interstellar orbit?

But perhaps we ought to move away from the galactic model back to earth. To terrestrial revolution. To war.

Revolution. The word suggests chaos and danger. But it also suggests a struggle for something grand, something powerful, something meaningful that reaches far beyond every day concerns. Doesn’t every great love story do the same?

Here’s the sub-definition that shows up for “passion” right after love and sex: “9. An intense desire or enthusiasm for something; the zealous pursuit of an aim.” My stomach gets all tingly when I read this. Because that marks every great romance I have ever read or seen on screen, as well as every great war story. Revolutionaries carry within themselves a passion that turns things inside out, passion more powerful even than guns (consider Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr.). And in most war stories we hear of nobility of character, bravery for honor’s sake, and courage beyond compare.

Possibly because of this, some of my favorite love stories are set in times of war. I discovered historical fiction with John Jakes’s Civil War trilogy. This was family saga at its best, including all the heartache and triumph of love and war intimately combined. And what about Gone With the Wind? (“Oh, Rhett!”) Or my all-time favorite, The Scarlet Pimpernel, in which the foppish Sir Percy Blakeney masquerades as the dashing Pimpernel, saving French aristocrats from the guillotine all for his wife’s sake. War and love often intermingle, I think, because of their common bond: passion.

Passion drives humans to the extremes of emotion, its greatest heights of joy and profoundest depths of despair. The adventure of passion is intoxicating, the risks enormous. When passion ignites action, in both war and love, everything is at stake, everything of any importance—the dignity of the human person, the treasures in the human heart. Because the payoff is unequaled.

The hero and heroine of my debut Regency-era historical romance, SWEPT AWAY BY A KISS, find themselves in the midst of a passionate love that turns their lives inside out. Steven Ashford, black-sheep lord with a noble mission, cannot be distracted from his pursuit of a dangerous villain. After a two-year exile in Boston, scandalous Lady Valerie Monroe has vowed to reform, to mend her wicked ways and reenter London society a proper lady. When they meet, neither Steven nor Valerie understands the extent to which their passions will now take them because of the other.

True love causes a radical alteration of the heart, an upheaval of mammoth proportions. Revolution does the same for a society. I created a radical history for my hero and a scandalous past for my heroine. Coming of age in the French and Haitian Revolutions, Steven lived the passions of his youth through sword and fire. For her part, in her first season in society Valerie played out her young passions in a contest of wills with her cold father. Upheaval and rebellion were Steven and Valerie’s daily bread and water.

But in love they discover a different kind of passion. A transcendent passion. A passion whose desires and impulses overpower only to restore and nourish. A passion whose radical power fuels a monumental change in that greatest of all frontiers—the human heart.

What is your favorite story that mingles love and war?

If you'd like to hear more from Katharine, you can visit her at her website, www.katharineashe.com.

17 August 2010

Absolutely Modern Mysteries – Or Are They Old?

“It is at the movies that the only absolutely modern mystery is celebrated.”
- André Breton, 1896-1966

Okay, I admit I love to do research. In fact, one of the biggest problems for me is always figuring out when to stop the research and start writing the book. While it’s always lovely to delve into volumes of delicious text about days gone by and ogle fabulous drawings and paintings of those intriguing people and their times, today I’d like to talk about a little more modern way of investigating their worlds – the movies. Or, to be more precise, places like YouTube where historic aficionados like ourselves can upload snippets from movies and videos with all sorts of fascinating information.

I truly enjoy hunting for images that I can’t find between the pages of a book, like how skirts whisk across the floor during a fast dance or the way people extend greetings differently, simply because their clothing is cut differently. Here are two videos, one from a Jane Austen evening in Pasadena, California (I’ve attended one of these gatherings…) and another of a nineteenth century two step at the Library of Congress.

Here’s that nineteenth century dance…

Or there’s the so-called “purely educational” but actually highly dramatic like this footage of a blacksmith at his forge. Honestly, I could study this for hours and get ideas for many different periods of history – or fantasy!

I adore these little children being absolutely natural in their Civil War-era clothing. The balance between skirt, pantalets, and shoes is so perfect on that little girl that it just blows every drawing out of the water for me.

Of course, there’s always the purely promotional, like book trailers. But some are delicious entertainment, such as this fan video for JANE EYRE.

Finally, where else can I safely find out about historic guns? For some reason, every guy wants to show off his weapon on YouTube the minute he obtains anything with a pedigree. Or even better, goes off to a reenactment. (Yes, I do love to attend reenactments! But YouTube is available 24x7 from the comfort of my own home. Honestly, I’d never manage to write as many westerns from the East Coast without it.)

Here’s a clip from the 2010 reenactment of Waterloo.

Anyone else ever visit YouTube or other video search sites to do research? What delightful snippets or search hints have you come up with?

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12 August 2010

Further Travels of Theorygirl

I'd been working on the paper forever, it felt like -- the rather formidably titled "The Queer Theory of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick at the Edges of the Popular Romance Genre," to be delivered at the second annual Conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance, to be held in Brussels, Belgium, Thursday August 5 through Saturday August 7.

And it was a pretty sensible plan, I thought, to show up in Brussels on Wednesday, to shake off my jet lag, make some final, fussy, changes to the paper and get the thing slimmed down at long last, to the 20 minute length the conference organizers had asked for, before I delivered it at at the 11:00 am panel on Friday, the conference's second day.

A sensible, even a good plan. But a plan, alas, that required the cooperation of American Airlines and the weather (as in no thunderstorms in Chicago in August).

So instead, I and my husband Michael found ourselves dragging our wheelies into the Paleis der Academiën (Palace of Academia) some fifteen minutes before the event got underway on Thursday, trying our best not to yawn through a day of fascinating and exciting presentations (Eros! Agape! Shame and Other Good Stuff!) before we tumbled into bed.

We figured we'd sleep in, say to nine or so, before I did the final polishing on my piece. I'm an early riser, accustomed to getting to my desk around dawn. I honestly can't remember ever sleeping past nine in the morning...

...but you see where this storyline is inevitably tending, don't you? So you're surely less surprised than I was when all-too-suddenly I was awakened by the phone ringing in our hotel room, to hear that we'd slept until eleven on Friday, the morning when I was supposed to present my ideas... at a panel that was scheduled to start at, uh, eleven.

Yes, I told long-suffering conference organizer, Professor Eric Selinger. Yes, of course I'll be there. And yes, I was soon running down the street to the Palais, talk clutched in one hand and flash drive (with my first PowerPoint ever on it) in the other.

Amazingly, it came off quite well. Theory, I think you could say, was served -- in my case in under twenty minutes (since the people who'd gotten there in time to present first went way over). And since I do have a pretty good sense of the absurd, I simply rolled with it, felt pretty good about what I was saying, and even pulled a decent ending line out of nowhere.

And now that it's over, I think that I just might have a take on this strange business of how and why recent popular romance, which any non-romance reader would certainly assume to be the most heterosexual of reading activities (not to speak of heterosexist) -- has suddenly developed such an exuberant engagement (at least at the margins of the genre) with m/m and m/m/f love and sex.

All based, of course, on the Queer Theory of the brilliant Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who died last year after a long bout with cancer, and whom I deeply regret never having met.

And the substance of which will constitute my next Hoyden post, written at leisure and at my own desk rather than at O'Hare -- which is where Michael and I are now, en route to home after that delicious if all-too-brief trip to Brussels and thence to Amsterdam, a city we fell in love with for its overwhelming richness of art, canals and bicycles and coffeehouses, delightful cityscapes (as a small person, I take especial joy in small spaces deftly arranged), and its huge, painterly skies. (Has anybody out there read Simon Schama's The Embarrassment of Riches? I've got to finally get to it.)

And although we saw oodles of extraordinary Big Great Art -- not to speak of contemplating sad, sober, awful history (the Anne Frank House is not to be missed), what I want to write about in the remainder of this post is the lightest, most frivolous of our sight-seeing expeditions, the whipped cream on top (also see below), our visit to Amsterdam's fantastic Museum of Bags and Purses (which my sweet and generous husband deserves hugs for having found in the guidebook, knowing I'd adore, and good-humoredly suffering through).

Because what is the fascination for women about handbags? Why can we never have enough of them and why are we willing to spend such indecent amounts for them -- Doreen, are you out there? -- even my beloved consignment shop Prada bag was hardly cheap (and who knows if it's even authentic). You'd think that if I could theorize m/m romance, I could take this on (at some point during the conference, IASPR guiding spirit Professor Sarah Franz said that "you could theorize all day, Pam").

Well, I can speculate, anyway.

Is it something about how we feel ourselves not entirely human without our stuff? Or, purse-shaped as we are, carrying our vital organs in the sacs of our bodies, do we somehow mimic that effect and dress it up?

Or some other bodily metaphor suggested by the Tassenmuseum's awesome, oldest piece, this "buckle bag [of goat leather from 16th century France] with 18 secret compartments was worn attached to a belt by men... a status symbol for men of the aristocracy" but also reminding me childhood memories of those Breugel guys with their codpieces in the paintings section the World Book Encyclopedia.

While a few other marvels featured on the museum's web site prompting me to Hoyden-ish astonishment at the pure, spirited exuberance and also the wretched excess of this stuff are:

This bridal bag of sablé beads, France, 18th century -- called sable because it's made of glass beads that are the size of a grain of sand, having a cross-section of between 0.5 and 0.6mm (did the beaders -- I imagine them as women -- go blind?)

Or this beaded bag with an image of a giraffe, France, ca. 1827, to commemorate the first giraffe shipped to what was perhaps the first French zoo, a gift from the Egyptian viceroy to the French king Charles X, the giraffe (named Zarafa) "walked to Paris in 6 weeks, accompanied by 2 Egyptian carers and 100 cows that provided her with milk. The procession attracted immense crowds and on arriving in Paris she became the highpoint of the fashion season."

And if all roads lead to chicklit, this "Cupcake" evening bag, completely covered in Swarovski crystals and featured in the film "Sex and the City."

And reminding me, that since I'm having dessert, our feast of a trip is almost over and it'll soon be time to get on our plane for the last leg of our journey back to San Francisco...

Where I fully intend to let go of the theory jones for a while and write some romance for a change.

But until then, I'd love to hear your thoughts on handbags, Amsterdam, theory (queer and otherwise) or the joys of travel.

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Welcome, Susanna Fraser!

by Susanna Fraser
Read Excerpt
Available Aug 23rd from Carina!

Highborn Anna Arrington has been "following the drum," obeying the wishes of her cold, controlling cavalry officer husband. When he dies, all she wants is to leave life with Wellington's army in Spain behind her and go home to her family's castle in Scotland.

Sergeant Will Atkins ran away from home to join the army in a fit of boyish enthusiasm. He is a natural born soldier, popular with officers and men alike, uncommonly brave and chivalrous, and educated and well-read despite his common birth.

As Anna journeys home with a convoy of wounded soldiers, she forms an unlikely friendship with Will. When the convoy is ambushed and their fellow soldiers captured, they become fugitives—together. The attraction between them is strong—but even if they can escape the threat of death at the hands of the French, is love strong enough to bridge the gap between a viscount's daughter and an innkeeper's son?

Susanna will be giving away a digital copy to one commenter, so please include your email in your comment!

Q: The Sergeant’s Lady is set in 1811-12. Is there a particular

reason you chose that year?

Most of the story’s action takes place with Wellington’s army during
the Peninsular War. The summer of 1811 was a relatively quiet time in
the conflict, so I felt free to invent such skirmishes and troop
movements as I needed to drive my hero and heroine together.

The final act of the story, by contrast, hinges on the storming of
Badajoz in April 1812, which gave me the opportunity to involve my
hero in a Big Real Event. I ended up taking a book on the battle and
highlighting everything Will’s regiment played a role in--which
happened to be the bloodiest part of arguably the worst battle the
British endured pre-Waterloo.

So I got the best of both worlds--getting to invent incidents from
whole cloth AND show off my research!

Q: How did you become interested in the military side of the Regency
era? What you love about it?

The same year I started kindergarten, my youngest older brother, who’s
13 years my senior, entered West Point, and I spent a good part of my
childhood dreaming of following in his footsteps. He left his cadet
dress sword with our parents after he graduated, and I used to take it
down and pose with it.

I changed my mind about West Point long before I was old enough to
apply for college, but retained a latent interest in military history.
I’ve been reading Regencies since high school, and when I discovered
Bernard Cornwell and Patrick O’Brian, something clicked for me. I
started researching the history behind their fiction and was instantly

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

To make my ending work, I needed to get Will out of the army well
before Waterloo, and there just weren’t that many options for getting
an enlisted man an honorable discharge back then. I found a way to do
it, which I won’t reveal here to avoid spoilers, but it wasn’t my
first choice.

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

There’s an early scene where Will and Anna sneak a dance together,
just the two of them, when at that time all either would’ve known were
group dances with lines or sets of partners. I fudged because I had
them out in the darkness listening to music that would make their feet
itch, so I decided to make them creative enough to improvise a private

The scene was just too good to resist writing--it’s practically the
first time they touch, the first time they consciously break the rules
separating aristocratic lady from lowborn common sergeant, and let’s
just say sparks fly from more than just that nearby campfire.

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

Anna attends her first husband’s burial, and I swear someone posted on
the Beau Monde loop about how women didn’t go to funerals mere DAYS
after my final copyedits. The same for nightrail. I used it as a
synonym for nightshirt, learning from the Hoydens’ own Kalen that it
actually meant a wrapper just a little bit too late to change it.

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

In my head, Will looks like Firefly-era Nathan Fillion. THAT’s fun, amiright?

As for his first kiss...well, he had a childhood sweetheart back in
his home village. When they were 15 or 16, they started sneaking off
to make out (only they would’ve called it something
period-appropriate, maybe “kiss and play”), feeling very naughty and
sure their parents would KILL them if they ever got caught.

Then one day Will overheard his father and the girl’s father
congratulating each other on the dear children having paired off, just
as they’d always hoped and intended, but it wouldn’t do to say
anything just yet, because the youngsters DO like to think it’s all
their own idea.

This freaked teenaged Will out so much that the very next day he let a
recruiting sergeant get him drunk and took the king’s shilling.

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

Anna was a secondary character in the first book I ever wrote, during
which she and the heroine started out as rivals for the affections of
Sebastian Arrington (Anna’s first husband, who dies in the opening
chapters of The Sergeant’s Lady). Originally I’d intended Sebastian
as a sort of Edmund Bertram type, serious and moralistic but basically
decent, while Anna was sweet but lightweight. But the more I wrote
and revised, the more Anna revealed herself to have a core of steel
beneath her pretty, pampered exterior, and the more Sebastian became
cruel and misogynistic. By the time I finished, I knew Anna deserved
a better fate, and that I owed it to her to kill Sebastian and give
her someone worthy of her.

Fortunately, since I’d already established that he was an army
officer, that was easily done! And Will came to me the instant I
started to think about what kind of man Anna really belonged with.
I’d been wanting to write an unabashedly common hero or heroine for
awhile--when you’re so common yourself that none of your grandparents
even finished high school, it’s hard to completely identify with the
aristocracy. And with my background and interests, a level-headed,
experienced sergeant with a quixotic romantic streak was only natural.

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

When I first got the idea for the book, I knew little about the
Peninsular War or life in the British Army of the era, so, yes, I did
a TON of research--and enjoyed every bit of it.

As for interesting facts...here’s one that had no bearing on TSL but
that stuck in my mind nonetheless: While researching childbirth
practices, not long after the birth of my own daughter in a difficult,
four-day labor following six weeks of bedrest for gestational
hypertension, I learned that someone like me might’ve survived
pregnancy and childbirth 200 years ago...but probably only if my
physician had bled me regularly. Because I had the one complication
of pregnancy bleeding helps rather than worsens.

Q: What/Who do you like to read?

Broadly speaking, romance, mystery, and fantasy, preferring historical
settings for all three (in the case of fantasy, either alternative
history or set in worlds obviously based on our own). A few of my
many favorite authors are Loretta Chase, Rose Lerner, and Jo Beverley
for romance, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Lindsey Davis, and Dorothy Sayers
for mystery, and Naomi Novik, Jacqueline Carey, and Lois McMaster
Bujold for fantasy.

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

I’m in between, but closer to a pantser. I don’t do detailed outlines
or character bios or anything like that, but the writing goes better
if I give a new story time to percolate in my brain before setting
fingers to keyboard.

Q: What are you planning to work on next?

I’m working on a desert isle novella with a French hero and English
heroine in 1813. And to further complicate their relationship, she
thinks he murdered her first husband.

11 August 2010

Masterpiece [Theatre] Muses

I don't know about you, but I fell in love with the whole idea of historical fiction from watching various series on public television as I was growing up. My parents had one TV -- in their bedroom -- so my sister and I were limited as to how much telly we were permitted to see; and it had to be quality. Which meant we were addicted to Channel 13, NYC's public television station.

Home from school to watch Sesame Street and The Electric Company before sitting down to do homework. And after dark, the big treat was to catch the latest episode of Upstairs, Downstairs, Poldark, The Pallisers, or Brideshead Revisited... and some time later, the entire Sharpe series. Some of my earliest crushes were on British/Irish/Scots/Welsh actors in perfect recreations of period dress. My romantic imagination ran wild. Antony Andrews! Robin Ellis! Jeremy Irons! Sean Bean!

I credit these brilliantly written, gorgeously filmed, and sumptuously acted Masterpiece Theatre series (among others), for inspiring my own writing, particularly my historical fiction. They are clinics in storytelling, and because they are cinematic, offer a terrific lesson in how to craft a scene that "shows" rather than "tells."

It sparked my trip down memory lane, and now I invite you to join me. Are you now, or have you ever been a fan of Masterpiece Theatre (nowadays truncated as is everything else these days into just "Masterpiece")? Did any of the series ignite your creative spark? Did you take any of the famous literary characters depicted in the various series (or the actors and actresses who played them) as inspiration for any of your own creations?

Which ones?

04 August 2010

Curtain Up - Opening Scenes

I'm in the midst of the first draft of a new book, so book openings have been much on my mind. I blogged a while back about opening lines. But think that opening scenes are in there own way as important as the initial line. Where to start? In the midst of action, which plunges one into the excitement but can be confusing without plot and character details to anchor one and give one someone to root for. With the characters, which sets up the world and can engage sympathies but risks being too slow. And at what point in the story do you open a book? Where does back story leave off and “present day story” begin?

Dorothy Dunnett’s The Game of Kings, the first book in the Lymond Chronicles, begins with the exiled Francis Crawford of Lymond slipping back into Scotland. Action sequence follows action sequence, including a confrontation with Lymond’s family. We see Lymond in action, we see him from the pov of other characters, we learn about him, and we want to know more. It’s an opening that had me totally hooked, though I should say that a lot of readers (even readers who end up loving the series) have a difficult time with the first hundred pages or so of The Game of Kings. Some find it confusing. Some find Lymond unsympathetic (my mom was in that category, while to me it was clear from the first that Lymond had more complicated motivations than appeared on the surface; wanting to learn about those motivations was part of what kept me reading).

Laurie King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, the first book in her Mary Russell series, opens in a very different way. There’s a bit of action–Russell nearly stepping on Sherlock Holmes–but then the opening chapter becomes essentially a long dialogue between Russell and Holmes, during which they learn a great deal about each other and the reader witnesses the delicate but amazingly strong bond that begins to form between them. After that scene, I would have followed those two characters anywhere.

Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy begins with Sophy’s father, Sir Horace Stanton-Lacey, calling on his sister, Lady Ombersley, and asking her to take charge of Sophy while he goes to Brazil. The first chapter is a long conversation between Sir Horace and Lady Ombersley, which sets up the family, the problems they face, and the conflicts that will drive the book. When I read The Grand Sophy, my first Heyer novel, at the age of ten (well actually my mom read it outloud to me), I was completely pulled into the world depicted. The characters seemed vivid even before they appeared on the page, and I wanted to learn more. But I’d probably be afraid to start a book with a similar scene–I’d worry it was too “talky.” Which is perhaps too bad, because it’s certainly an opening that worked for me as a reader.

I knew from the first that Secrets of a Lady/Daughter of the Game would open on the night Colin was kidnapped. I started out in Colin’s pov, then decided I needed to set the stage of the broader world in which the book takes place more. So I added an opening in the kidnapper’s pov. The reader in introduced to Charles and Mélanie’s world through the kidnapper’s eyes, which seemed to me a good way to set up both the glittering world in which the Fraser family lives and the darkness lying beneath it. The book underwent a lot of revisions, but the opening essentially remained unchanged.

Beneath a Silent Moon on the other hand originally began in Scotland on the night of the murder. In fact, what was the original opening of the book is now the end of Chapter 13. At another point (still in the early stages of writing), the book opened with Charles and Mélanie arriving at Dunmykel, Charles's family home in Scotland. The plot changed and evolved and I realized I needed to start in London. Once I knew that, it made sense to start with the Glenister House ball. But I still wanted a darker opening. As soon as I thought that through, I wrote a prologue with an unnamed man sneaking into London. It took me a while to get there, but it now seems inevitable to me that the book begins there.

When I first began to write my recently completed book, Vienna Waltz, I opened with the hero arriving at the home of a Russian princess who may or may not be his mistress, only to find her lying on the floor of her salon with her throat cut. After a few paragraphs, I decided it would be better to open in his wife's pov and have her find her husband kneeling over the body of the woman who might or might not be his mistress. I then decided I needed to set up the murder victim, Princess Tatiana Kirsanova, so I added a prologue in her pov, followed by additional scenes which set up some of the other key characters/suspects and their relationships to Tatiana. The scene with the heroine arriving at Princess Tatiana's lodgings is still there, but it's preceded by the prologue.

My wip opens with the hero arriving at a château outside Brussels late at night for a rendezvous with a contact in the French army. (The book opens shortly before Waterloo, with the British on tenterhooks about when and where Napoleon will march). The hero's rendezvous with his source is interrupted by gunfire. The scene switches between the ambush he's caught in and his wife at the ball back in Brussels, chafing at being on the sidelines. So we get both immediate action and some exposition and character set up as she interacts with people at the ball. It seems the obvious place to start the book. At least now. We’ll see if it stays that way by the time I finish the first draft...

What are some of your favorite opening scenes? What do you think makes them work? Writers, what are some of the challenges you’ve found in deciding where and how to open a book?

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