History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

29 September 2010

Second Time Around

Not so very long ago, an interviewer asked me what I would change if I could go back and do my first book all over again. I laughed, not because it was a silly question, but because, bizarrely, I found myself in the position of doing just that. My publisher was reissuing my first book in mass market paperback and they had just offered me the opportunity to make any changes I felt necessary.

How often does one get to go back and do it all over?

I began writing The Secret History of the Pink Carnation in 2001 as a wee little twenty-four year old grad student (naturally, I thought I was old and wise and sophisticated), finished it in 2003, and saw its release as a hardcover in 2005 as an elderly and jaded law school 2L. It’s 2010 now. There’s been a lot of water under the bridge.

I firmly believe that any work is the product of its circumstances, rooted in a specific place and time. I couldn’t write The Secret History of the Pink Carnation today, any more than the girl I was then could have written the much more cynical Betrayal of the Blood Lily. Read any author’s work and you’ll see marked divergences as she changes and as society changes around her. Are there things I would have done differently about Pink if I were to write it now? Probably. Would I go back in my magical Reissue Time Capsule and change them now? Absolutely not.

Except for one small thing.

Yes, I admit it. Despite all my philosophical convictions, I did go back and change one line. It wasn’t a particularly big or important line—it was what I think of as a throwaway line—but it had been a thorn in my flesh since the book’s publication in 2005. Contemplating the prospect of an evening at Almack’s Assembley Rooms, my hero muses, “The prospect was enough to send anyone into a precipitate decline that would make the consumptive Keats and drugged Coleridge look like strapping specimens of British manhood.”

The line was intended as a deliberate nod to the Blackadder III silly poets episode, Ink and Incapability. (Hello, my name is Lauren, and I’m a Blackadder addict). Sure, I knew that in spring of 1803, Keats was only seven years old, but, hey, people knew this was all tongue in cheek, right? It was a nudge nudge wink wink between me and the reader. Besides, who would care?

You can see the train wreck coming, right? My little throwaway line blew up into a huge internet firestorm as the electronic lines started clacking. Before I knew it, people—who hadn’t read the book—were claiming that my hero had engaged in a whole discussion about Keats, in which, and I quote, he had called Keats a “pantywaist” for refusing to engage in the war effort against Bonaparte. ?!?! (My hero, Lord Richard, would like me to point out that he would never have used the word “pantywaist”. He is deeply offended by the implication and would demand satisfaction if he weren’t currently busy being reissued.)

That experience taught me a cardinal rule of historical fiction writing: no matter how clever you think you’re being, never throw the reader out of the story. It didn’t matter that I’d done it deliberately or that I knew exactly how old Keats was in 1803; the minute I lost the reader’s trust, the game was over. It wasn’t a fun lesson, but it was a valuable one.

And, in the end, I cut the line.

What about you? If you had the chance to go back, what would you change?

28 September 2010

Music to Make the Book Sing

I always try to involve music in my books: my heroes and heroines have theme songs, I listen to music while I write, and I try to weave music into each book’s scenes whenever possible.

Okay, that’s easier in some books than others. Rodrigo, my medieval Spanish knight in BOND OF BLOOD, is an accomplished musician. But Morgan and Rosalind, THE SOUTHERN DEVIL's hero and heroine, traveled through the high Rockies of 1870's Colorado, a beautiful place but hardly overflowing with orchestras, opera houses, and street musicians.

This does give an extra zing! to the research. Tracking down sources of music or what historical music sounded like is both challenging and fun. I bounced for joy when Milladoiro, a band I already liked, recorded some 13th Spanish songs – which Rodrigo would have considered contemporary pop tunes. Nineteenth century Mississippi riverboats hired topnotch singers to perform Negro spirituals and work songs, especially as advertisements when they entered ports. Their owners actually competed for the finest singers, since antebellum passengers flocked to these ships.

KISSES LIKE A DEVIL is set in 1900 Europe, a time of rapidly changing music and dance tastes. Some royal courts displayed their liberal tendencies by allowing modern dances like the turkey trot, while others emphasized their conservatism by enforcing more traditional dances, like Strauss waltzes. Ragtime’s syncopated rhythms mixed African-American rhythms with classical melodies and became wildly popular on both sides of the Atlantic. Jazz, its child, is still powerful today. I had so much fun researching the music for this book that I was glad I patterned its setting after Prague, a centuries-old mecca for artists and musicians – and especially the home of Dvorak. How could I forget his New World Symphony or Slavonic Dances?

Then there’s music used for characterization. William Donovan, THE IRISH DEVIL’s hero, is Irish and quite romantic so, yes he does serenade his beloved. Figuring out which Stephen Foster song to turn to was intriguing! The heroine definitely does not speak Gaelic so I needed 1870’s American popular songs to express his sentiments. (Oh it’s lovely dealing with lyrics from the pre-copyright era!)

Of course, there’s a place for cacophony, too. Viola, the heroine of THE IRISH DEVIL, was born and raised a Southern belle but suffered a life of privations in Arizona Territory during the Apache Wars. Her goal at the book’s beginning is to become a piano teacher in San Francisco and spend the rest of her life listening to small girls massacre Beethoven and Chopin on the piano.

Do you like to include music in your books? What do you find the hardest part to research? What’s your favorite scene in a book or movie that involves music?

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24 September 2010

Jane Austen In Boca, Maryland, New Jersey... and Coming Soon to Media, Pennsylvania

I wrote at some length in my last hoyden post about Ann Herendeen's smart and original take on Pride and Prejudice, by way of summarizing my recent presentation at the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance Conference.

So enough with the Jane Austen, you'd think -- at least for a while.

And yet here she is again, refusing to let me out of the clutches of her genius.

Because I'm going to be speaking about her next month -- three times, as it happens, but most directly in the talk I'm giving at the assisted living community where my mother lives, in Media, Pennsylvania.

With its population of energetic culture vultures (my mom runs the community's excellent lending library, so I know it'll be a readerly audience), community residents can choose from an ongoing festival of films and lectures, discussion groups and classes. Lifetimes of love and work deepen the quality of attention brought to the table, especially now that this (perforce largely female) audience has the time a go-round of self-education.

The location in the greater Philadelphia area permits access to a wealth of local intellectual talent. But what -- especially for this group -- could be better than a son or daughter strutting his or her area of expertise? My Brother the Cardiologist and My Sister the Acupuncturist have both given lively presentations to appreciative audiences. And since I visit pretty regularly (and will be doing so after the two erotic writing workshops I'll be giving this October for romance writers -- more about that later), my mom kept wondering if there mightn't be something I could get up and spritz about.

Just not "that sexy stuff you write about, please."

Not that my mom isn't a huge fan of my writing -- or hasn't tossed back a chaser or two of Amanda Quick herself, along with her favorite Ann Perry. But mostly we share a more sedate set of literary pleasures, qvelling over Cranford (I introduced her to Mrs. Gaskell) or delighting in Geraldine Brooks's wonderful March. It was Mom, of course, who gave my writing caree its first and biggest boost when she introduced me to Louisa May Alcott when I was seven. And she still helps me, even unknowingly, as when, a few years ago when I was with her for an extended visit while she was recovering from back surgery, I ran across a taped-from-TV copy of the Andrew Davies version of Emma on her shelves (the one with Kate Beckinsale). So late one night when I couldn't sleep I put it on the VHS player she still has, and knew that I'd found the feel of Regency English village life I needed for The Slightest Provocation.

Which I was gratefully remembering when... Hey, wait a minute, I thought. "How about," I said, "I give a talk about Jane Austen and why everybody is still making such a fuss about her?"

And that's what I'll be doing. With this particular audience in mind, I'll be trying to explicate Austen's themes and why we still care so deeply about them. And also (being me) I'll endeavor to explain how, in her effort to represent love, family, and community from a woman's point of view, this spinster daughter of a Georgian county vicar pretty much invented the novel as we know it (and hardly broke a sweat defining the parameters of popular romance fiction along the way).

I'll mention modern adaptations and usages, of course -- from Bridget Jones's Diary to Clueless to Bespelling Jane Austen (a lively recent paranormal novella collection by popular romance writers including our own Janet Mullany, whose contribution, according to Publisher's Weekly, "sparkles with genuine wit").

And of course I'll include the book that many audience members have doubtless already read -- and that you should read as well: Paula Marantz Cohen's Jane Austen in Boca, which brings Pride and Prejudice to a Jewish retirement community in Boca Raton, Florida, in the stories of three widows, sweet May, acerbic Flo, and hungry-for-love, pressed-for-cash Lila. The Austen parallels are executed as lovingly as they are deftly, with a fine clear eye for what's most important in life when life grows short. I won't give away any of the plot, except to say that the situations of Charlotte Lucas and even Mrs. Bennet are viewed with rare understanding and compassion -- from a contemporary feminist point of view but still, you'd have to say, as the story of "two or three families in a country village."

But also, because I can't resist, to indulge myself here in one quote -- from the end of the novel after May, Flo, and Lila have all actually read Pride and Prejudice:

"Once you get used to the Old English," noted Lila, "it reads very fast."

May said... that the tone of the book put her in mind of Flo. "I didn't know they were sarcastic back then," she commented, "but I guess being sarcastic isn't necessarily modern."
And isn't that how some of the best classic fiction always strikes us? A voice from far away and long ago brings us back to the ways of being we've somehow convinced ourselves that we've invented. I do hope I'm able to communicate some of that.

While as for the other ways I'm thinking about Jane Austen -- well, here (sorry, Mom) I do have to get back to that sexy stuff I always write about, because I just might be the only erotic writer on the planet who uses Austen as a muse for the naughty bits, for her clear-eyed, meticulous use of voice and p.o.v. -- as I'll be explaining both at a Maryland Romance writers meeting and at the New Jersey Romance Writers Put You Heart in a Book Conference next month, when I give erotic writing workshops at both venues.

Check the events listing on my web page for more details and hope to see you there.

But meanwhile, do you share reading with your loved ones?

What do each of you bring to the discussion and what do you learn from it?

And what's your favorite Austen updating and why?

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22 September 2010

What Do You Read As You Write?

Most writers would say, if pressed to discuss how they work, that they have a system. If they're feeling lofty at the moment they might refer to it as a "process." And all of us are avid readers as well as writers, or chances are, we wouldn't have ended up facing the business end of the computer in the first place.

Since my career began a little over a decade ago I've written in three genres (four if you count the 1940s mystery in my desk drawer). I've been published in women's lit (some of the titles would fall under the "chick lit" category), historical fiction, and historical nonfiction. And I've tended to make it an unwritten policy not to read other people's titles from the same genre I'm writing in at the time. My rationale is that I don't want to be influenced, even subconsciously, by my colleagues' plotlines, characters, or twists. And when I'm working on a nonfiction title, it's always such a scramble to get all my research accomplished that I don't have time to read anything else.

That said, my self-imposed policy has been difficult to maintain at times because historical fiction in particular is like "literary crack" to me.

So this past summer I decided to try something new: every night before I went to bed I would read Someone Else's Fiction for a half hour or so. And I discovered that rather than have another author's words gumming up my own "process," the act of reading right before bedtime ended up calming my brain into a sedate trot, slowing my blood pressure, and enabling me to sleep more fully and awaken with a clearer, less stressed head.

And before you comment about my choice of reading matter providing a soporific, I will hasten to add that I knew my selections were going to be marvelous; they were books at the top of my TBR pile just waiting for me to find the time to grab them. Plus, they were all written by personal friends.

Indeed, every title has proven to be "unputdownable."

I began with my friend Sharon Pomerantz's stunning literary fiction debut, RICH BOY, then moved on to Leanna Renee Hieber's THE DARKLY LUMINOUS FIGHT FOR PERSEPHONE PARKER.

Then it was on to our own Lauren Willig's THE BETRAYAL OF THE BLOOD LILY (and now I'm catching up on THE TEMPTATION OF THE NIGHT JASMINE.)

Just waiting to have their spines gently cracked are C.W. Gortner's novels THE LAST QUEEN and THE CONFESSIONS OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI

(I love reading historical fiction about the women I cover in my nonfiction Royal series for NAL and both "Juana the Mad" and Catherine de Medici merit chapters in NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES.)

And after Gortner, comes the latest from Susan Holloway Scott, THE COUNTESS AND THE KING.

How do you work? Do you read other authors while you're researching and writing your own books? Is there a method to your madness? Do you steer clear of pleasure-reads in the same genre as your wip, or do you dive in? Do you tend to read within the same genre as you craft your own books, or are your literary tastes more eclectic?

I apologize for writing a quickie post; multiple deadlines are claiming my attention this month. But in this economy, that's a good thing, so I'm not complaining.

20 September 2010

Everything has a story

One of the geekier things I do--and one of the few things that doesn't involve parking my butt in front of a computer--is volunteering as a docent at Riversdale House Museum. It is writing-related since the house dates from the federal era and was built by the Stier family, immigrants fleeing the French revolution, who wanted their home to reflect a grand European style and sensibility. I am lucky enough to be able to pick the brains of the museum staff on period food and clothes, since we have two experts in those fields working there.

But last week I had the pleasure of attending a symposium for museum guides and ushers, and what I learned there relates so much to writing fiction that I thought I'd share it. First some odd stories came up: in one historic house, which shall remain anonymous, the visitors were led around by a strange-looking person, as darkness fell, who at one point opened a creaking door and pronounced, "This is a closet. Would you like to see inside?"

Overwhelmed by the gothic overdose, the visitors fled.

When you give a tour of a historic building, your aim is above all to engage the visitor. You have to establish some rapport with them: why did they come, what interests them about the house, how does their life relate to that of people two centuries ago? Several mentions were made, as an example of museum excellence, to the Tenement Museum in NYC, which I am now longing to visit. And I really think that's what we try to do as writers--look, these people are like us in so many ways. We have shared experiences.

Surveys taken by museums reveal that people really enjoy walking through a site on their own, able to soak up the atmosphere and create their own experience. Yet the Tenement Museum only gives guided tours, as do many places that have a delicate structure and fragile artifacts. The secret of their success is that they relate the museum to people's lives and family stories ("Where did your family come from? When? Do you know where they lived?..." and so on).

When we take visitors at Riversdale to the building where open hearth cooking demonstrations are given, even if no one is cooking that day the smell of wood smoke brings back memories ("my grandmother had a nutmeg grater like that!") and stimulates the imagination. Even seeing someone cook from scratch is a new experience for many people. I gave a tour last week to a woman who was raised in the Appalachians by her grandmother whose house had no electricity and who basically cooked 18c style; she taught me a lot. People love to use all five senses; I encourage people to smell the spices, and pinch and sniff the herbs growing outside.

Above all, holding and touching an item, even a replica or even stuff which is essentially the trash of the past, like these ceramic fragments (which aren't from Riversdale but are very typical of the sort of items found during excavations) brings history to life. What was the story behind these? Was the blue and white import a treasured possession? Who broke it and what happened to them?

Every artifact, every building, has its story and it's the docents' job to bring that to life and make the visitor excited about the past. And that's what good fiction should do--we engage the reader, stimulate their imagination, and make our story part of their lives. It's an amazing process.

Have you visited the Tenement Museum or any other place that fired your senses and imagination?

And now for the obligatory self-promotion and news: Win a copy of Jane and the Damned at goodreads.com--less than a week to go before its release! And I'm happy to announce that my Regency chicklit Improper Relations is a finalist in NJRWA's Golden Leaf contest.

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17 September 2010

Historical Rejections

As a writer, I've had my share of rejections, but like most of us, I keep pitching.

So here I am on a Friday night, waiting for my muse and surfing the net, procrastinating about writing those "next five pages", when I came across this list of rejection letters sent to some now very famous writers.

I take solace in these biting, and sometimes hilariously off-base critiques of pre-published classics. I'm glad these authors never gave up. I have enjoyed so many of their stories. To writers everywhere, take heart, I've posted some of monumentally incorrect rejections ever made public:

Madeleine L'Engle's A WRINKLE IN TIME was turned down 29 times.

And THE TALE OF PETER RABBIT was turned down so many times, Beatrix Potter initially self-published it. (She was soooo ahead of her time!)

"I'm sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don't know how to use the English language." Editor of the San Francisco Examiner to Rudyard Kipling.

Mystery writer Mary Higgins Clark recently received a $60 plus million dollar advance on her next five books, but this is what happened when she was sending out her manuscript "Journey Back to Love" in the early 1960s: "We found the heroine as boring as her husband did."

Classic writer Colette was told in a letter of rejection: "I wouldn't be able to sell 10 copies."

A rejection letter to Pierre Boulle about his "Bridge Over River Kwai" said, "A very bad book."

Jean Auel, author of "The Clan of Cave Bear" was told, "We are very impressed with the depth and scope of your research and the quality of your prose. Nevertheless ... we don't think we could distribute enough copies to satisfy you or ourselves."

"Jonathan Livingston Seagull will never make it as a paperback." From the publisher of a magazine refusing an offer to bid on the paperback rights to Richard Bach's best selling novel. Avon Books eventually bought those rights and sales totaled more than 7.25 million copies.

H.G. Wells had to endure the indignity of a rejection when he submitted his manuscript, "The War of the Worlds" that said, "An endless nightmare. I do not believe it would "take"...I think the verdict would be 'Oh don't read that horrid book'."

And when he tried to market "The Time Machine," it was said, "It is not interesting enough for the general reader and not thorough enough for the scientific reader."

Jacqueline Susann's "Valley of the Dolls" received this response, "...she is a painfully dull, inept, clumsy, undisciplined, rambling and thoroughly amateurish writer whose every sentence, paragraph and scene cries for the hand of a pro. She wastes endless pages on utter trivia, writes wide-eyed romantic scenes ...hauls out every terrible show biz cliché in all the books, lets every good scene fall apart in endless talk and allows her book to ramble aimlessly ..."

When Irving Stone sent his manuscript, "Lust for Life," this is what came back in the mail: "A long, dull novel about an artist." I guess that meant "No thanks."

Before Ayn Rand became known as an intellectual and her books as classics, she had to get past this from one publisher: "It is badly written and the hero is unsympathetic." And this from another: "I wish there were an audience for a book of this kind. But there isn't. It won't sell." So much for "The Fountainhead." Fourteen years later she was sending "Atlas Shrugged" on its publishing rounds and reading in the return mail: "... the book is much too long. There are too many long speeches... I regret to say that the book is unsaleable and unpublishable."

To writer Samuel Johnson (though I don't know which book the editor was referring to): "Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good."

Regarding "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" it was written "(this book has) no future ..."

Did you know that only seven of Emily Dickinson's poems were ever published during her lifetime? A rejection early in her career said, "(Your poems) are quite as remarkable for defects as for beauties and are generally devoid of true poetical qualities."

Edgar Allen Poe was told, "Readers in this country have a decided and strong preference for works in which a single and connected story occupies the entire volume."

Herman Melville, who had written a manuscript entitled "Moby Dick," was told, "We regret to say that our united opinion is entirely against the book as we do not think it would be at all suitable for the Juvenile Market in (England). It is very long, rather old-fashioned..."

Jack London heard, "(Your book is) forbidding and depressing."

Ernest Hemingway, regarding his novel, "The Torrents of Spring" was rejected with, "It would be extremely rotten taste, to say nothing of being horribly cruel, should we want to publish it." Ouch!

William Faulkner may be a classic writer to this, as well as prior, generation, but back when he was trying to crack the publishing market, he had to read letters like this one, "If the book had a plot and structure, we might suggest shortening and revisions, but it is so diffuse that I don't think this would be of any use. My chief objection is that you don't have any story to tell." This was kinder than the rejection he would receive just two years later, "Good God, I can't publish this!"

According to the terrific little book, "Rotten Rejections" (Pushcart Press, Andre Bernarnd, 1990), "Auntie Mame" went through fifteen rejections over a period of five years before finding a home at Vanguard Press.

Crash by J G Ballard

‘The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.'

The Deer Park by Norman Mailer

'This will set publishing back 25 years.'

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

'Do you realize, young woman, that you're the first American writer ever to poke fun at sex.'

Lust for Life by Irving Stone

(which was rejected 16 times, but found a publisher and went on to sell about 25 million copies)

‘ A long, dull novel about an artist.’

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

'The grand defect of the work, I think, as a work of art is the low-mindedness and vulgarity of the chief actors. There is hardly a lady" or "gentleman" amongst them.'

Carrie by Stephen King

'We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.'

Catch – 22 by Joseph Heller

‘I haven’t really the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say… Apparently the author intends it to be funny – possibly even satire – but it is really not funny on any intellectual level … From your long publishing experience you will know that it is less disastrous to turn down a work of genius than to turn down talented mediocrities.’

The Spy who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré

‘You’re welcome to le Carré – he hasn’t got any future.’

Animal Farm by George Orwell

‘It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA’

Lady Windermere’s Fan by Oscar Wilde

‘My dear sir,

I have read your manuscript. Oh, my dear sir.’

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

‘... overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian … the whole thing is an unsure cross between hideous reality and improbable fantasy. It often becomes a wild neurotic daydream … I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.

The list makes me smile.I found it at http://susiesmith13.tripod.com/id12.html.

I know the list is far from complete, but I had to post. Do you have more to add? Anyone have quotes from rejection letters sent to other great writers? Jane Austen maybe? Others?

15 September 2010

The Palm Palace

My wonderful, innovative web designers and friends, Greg and jim, had the idea a couple of years back of filming an interview of me talking about the background to my books, which they then edited into clips that I could post on my website. The interview we filmed for Vienna Waltz, my April 2011 release, deals a great deal with the historical background. So it occurred to me that these clips might also be of interest to History Hoydens readers.

Here's one where I talk about the Palm Palace, where two real historical women, Wilhelmine, Duchess of Sagan, and Princess Catherine Bagration, both had lodgings during the Congress of Vienna. In Vienna Waltz, my fictional Princess Tatiana Kirsanova (who was called Tatiana Volkonsky at the time we filmed the interview) also lodges in the Palm Palace. Like Wilhelmine and Catherine, Tatiana is also involved with both Tsar Alexander and Prince Metternich.

I couldn't, unfortunately, figure out how to embed the video in Blogger the way I do in Wordpress, so here's a link to the clip on You Tube.

What real life buildings play an important role in your favorite historical novels? Do you ever look for information about the buildings in which scenes from an historical novel are set after you finish reading the book? Writers, what historical houses and other buildings have you particularly enjoyed writing about? How do you go about researching them?

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13 September 2010


Whenever I give a costume workshop, there is always one topic that catches fire and sets off almost endless questions. In Orlando, this topic was gloves. When were they worn? When were they taken off? What were the "rules"?

This is the kind of minutia that writers obsess about. It's entirely possible that someone out there has an etiquette guide from the 18th or early 19th century. I've never encountered one, so what you'll find here is simply my understanding of "the rules".

One tiny thing to clear up first: During the Georgian and Regency era, gloves do not have that tiny, pearl-buttoned opening at the wrist that we all associate with long opera gloves. That sexy little detail is Victorian (and late Victorian from what I understand).

On to "the rules" . . . If a lady expected to be outside her own home, she wore gloves. So, if she's riding, traveling, visiting, shopping, going to a ball, or the the theatre, she's should be wearing gloves. Inside her own home, the only time she would normally wear them is if she was hosting a ball or party (gloves being a traditional part of formal wear).

When does she take them off in public? To eat. If she is at a ball and is taken in to supper, she removes her gloves and sets them in her lap. If she is visiting a friend and is served tea, the same "rule" applies. Why? Because gloves are expensive and stain easily. If she's visiting a friend and intends to stay for a long period of time, she might also remove them, and leave them with her hat and coat. Try to think of it as the difference between being formal and being relaxed. A relaxed gossip with your best friend does not require gloves.

So, any questions?Anyone want to point me at an early etiquette book?

10 September 2010

The joy of paper patterns

The joy of paper patterns

My current work in progress is a western set in 1870 Oregon. In that time, a dress was sewed by taking an old, worn-out garment apart at the seams, laying the pieces flat on the selected yard goods, and cutting around them! That might explain why styles in the Old West didn’t change much over time: the pattern template could have come from one of Grandma’s old dresses.

In 1863, Ebeneezer Butterick changed all that by inventing the tissue-paper sewing pattern in various sizes. It all started when his wife, Ellen, spread out a piece of blue gingham on her dining room table and drew her design using wax chalk. If you couldn’t draw well, your clothes looked funny....

There were patterns that could be used, but they came in only one size; the maker had to enlarge or reduce as needed. Ebeneezer watched his wife struggle with the chalk and the blue gingham and a lightbulb flashed.

He experimented, using heavy cardboard templates that turned out to be unsuitable for folding or shipping. Then he found that tissue paper was easy to package. The first “graded” (in various sizes) sewing patterns were cut and folded by the Butterick family at home in Sterling, Massachusetts. Business grew and they later moved it to New York City.

Originally, paper patterns were available only for men’s and boy’s garments. But after three years of successful sales, in 1866, Butterick began to make and sell women’s dress patterns. Then came patterns for jackets and capes in 13 sizes and skirts in 5 sizes.

This revolutionized the clothing industry. Dressmaking became easier and fashionable garments became available to men, women, and children of all classes all over the world.

In 1867 Butterick introduced Ladies Quarterly of Broadway Fashions, a showcase magazine for Butterick home-sewing patterns. Patterns could be purchased by mail order and by 1876, E. Butterick & Co. had 100 branch offices and 1000 agencies throughout the U.S. and Canada. The patterns were also introduced in Paris, London, Vienna, and Berlin. In fact, more Butterick patterns were purchased in Paris than anywhere else in the world.

In 1929, with the Great Depression, Butterick stock fell along with the rest of the market, but they continued to produce and sell patterns; home sewing turned out to be the backbone of the company and served as the means of pulling the company out of the slump.

In 1961, Butterick licensed the name “Vogue Patterns” from Conde Nast Publications, Inc. and bought their pattern division. Readers of Vogue magazine could buy patterns by clipping a coupon and mailing it in with 50 cents.

Demand for Vogue and Butterick patterns increased and when 1914 and World War I came and the Paris couture business halted. New York became the new fashion center, and Vogue patterns were carried in stores across the country and in Canada.

Home sewing continued to be popular throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and as early as 1937 the pattern books began to feature “couturier” patterns. This was the first time originals from Paris had been duplicated in pattern form, and Vogue Patterns was the only company licensed to produce these designs until the mid-1970s, when Italian and English designers were added.

In 2001 The McCall Pattern Company acquired both Vogue and Butterick patterns. Sewing machine sales must have soared.

My grandmother sewed dresses for my mother on an old treadle Singer sewing machine. My mother sewed endless skirts and blouses and formal dresses for me on her portable Singer, all the way through high school. And when I grew up and got married, naturally my sewing machine went with me.

One of my most treasured memories is going to the yardage store with Mom, running our fingers over the bolts of challis and cotton and flannel, and sitting down at a small table loaded with pattern catalogs to choose a pattern.

It still makes my fingers itch to walk through a fabric store.

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08 September 2010

History Hoydens Welcome Hope Tarr

Hope Tarr is the award-winning author of thirteen
historical and contemporary romances as well as a co-founder of Lady Jane’s Salon, New York City’s first and so far only monthly reading series for romance fiction. "Tomorrow's Destiny," Hope’s first novella, will release November 10th in a single title Christmas anthology, A HARLEQUIN CHRISTMAS CAROL, with Betina Krahn and Jacquie D'Alessandro.

Here to join us today, without further preamble, the one, the only Hope Tarr!

Second chances at love, don’t you just…love them?

A ROGUE'S PLEASURE, my romance debut novel originally published in print with Berkley/Jove, is getting its own second chance at love as an e-book release with Carina Press, Harlequin’s digital-first imprint and like any proud mama I couldn’t be more pleased. The reissue, which sports gorgeous new cover art and an editing facelift, went live on August 16th, two weeks short of what would be the book’s tenth anniversary. How cool is that!?!

A ROGUE’S PLEASURE is a Regency romp that I’m thrilled to be able to share with a new generation of romance readers. To get the soiree started, close your eyes—okay, don’t close them since you need them open to read this—or better yet open your mind to the clip-clop of horses hooves instead of sirens and honking cars.

It is Regency England, 1812. Napoleon is wreaking havoc in Europe, including Spain and Portugal where ousting the rightful royals and setting his sibling, Joseph Bonaparte, on the Spanish throne has catalyzed a sweeping grassroots national resistance supported by Britain and its Allies. On the home front, private coaches traveling between the countryside and London are prime targets for the rogues of the road: highwaymen.

Put yourself in the shoes, or rather the Wellingtons, of my hero, Lord Anthony Grenville. You are in your private coach en route to London for The Season. To drown out the droning of your soon-to-be mother-in-law, you think not great thoughts but rather mundane ones. Will the inn’s beef be soured again? Sigh. Might there be a decent claret to be had in lieu of the usual ale. Must I really marry this pretty but deucedly dull girl? You are not only thinking such thoughts but lost to them when a shout of "Halt! Stand and deliver!" freezes the blood in your veins.

In A ROGUE’S PLEASURE, Anthony is a war hero newly returned from The Peninsular Campaign and traveling to London with his fiancée, Lady Phoebe Tremont, and her mother. As you may have supposed, pretty but dull Lady Phoebe is not the heroine.

Chelsea Bellamy must raise the sum of 500 pounds to ransom her beloved brother. Having exhausted all other avenues, she has taken to the road disguised as the highwayman One-Eyed Jack, accompanied by her faithful manservant, the real One-Eyed Jack. Outnumbered though he is and hampered with womenfolk, still Anthony isn’t going down easily. He isn’t going down at all. Beneath his fancy frock coat, embroidered waistcoat, and frothy shirt, he has a soldier’s spine of steel—and a heart in need of saving.

Enjoy the excerpt below and, I hope, the book.

One-Eyed Jack’s gaze darted between Anthony and the coach.

“W-why are you still standing ’ere?” He gestured to the coach with his pistol. “Go…now.”

Smiling, Anthony advanced a step. “But I’ve no wish to end this encounter…just yet.”

Anthony lunged. Locking both arms around the boy’s spare torso, he slammed him to the ground. He pinned One Eye’s slender wrists above his head and squeezed. The pistol slipped from the highwayman’s grasp.

“Let go!”

Even for a stripling, the boy was delicate as a sparrow, not nearly sturdy enough for such rough pursuits. Easily securing the joined wrists with one hand, Anthony pocketed the pistol.

He smiled maliciously into the frightened face, just inches below his own. “Well, my fine lad, alone at last.” He clamped his palm over the boy’s mouth. “What, nothing to say?”

The taunt seemed to bring his captive to life. His fingers curled into fists, his arms straining to break Anthony’s hold.

Laughing, Anthony remarked, “Well, One-Eyed Jack, for a fierce knight of the road, you certainly fight like a girl.”

Like a girl.

Anthony stared down at his prisoner, examining the small, flushed face beneath the hat with a critical eye. The features were as finely wrought as those of a Dresden china figurine, the uncovered eye lushly lashed and set beneath a delicately arched brow. Could it be that Jack was really a Jacqueline in disguise? The body beneath his felt soft in all the right places. He uncovered his captive’s mouth in order to better examine the softly curving lips.

“Get off me this instant, y-you…you big bully!”

The high-pitched voice, nearly drowned by the din of shrieking horses, could belong to an adolescent boy…or to a woman.

Intrigued, Anthony replied, “All in good time, my little highwayman. But first, I think I’ll have a closer look at you.”

With his free hand, Anthony groped for the lantern. His fingers brushed the toe of a large boot instead.

“Set ’im free as ye value yer life.”

Cursing, Anthony rolled off the boy and stood. Ignoring the pistol prodding him, he offered One-Eye a hand up.

“Bugger off.” Staring at his hand as thought it were a snake, the boy scrambled to his feet and took off toward a chestnut mare tethered to a tree branch.

Anthony started to follow, but the hulk blocked him.

“I’d save me strength if I was you.” He gave Anthony a hard shove toward the coach.

Anthony swung around. Raising the lantern, he saw that the traces hung empty. Only his lead horse had not shied away. It stood nearby, ears flattened and nostrils narrowed.

Young One-Eye, you shall rue this day. Anthony whirled in time to see the object of his wrath push a booted foot into the mare’s stirrup and throw a shapely leg over. Mounted, the thieves galloped past him, kicking up clouds of dust. Coughing, he brushed the soil from his shoulders. We shall meet again, One-Eyed Jack—or Jacqueline. And when we do, you shall either dance to my tune or at the end of the hangman’s rope.

If you'd like to hear more, you can visit Hope online at www.HopeTarr.com or find her on Twitter and Facebook. Hope has also generously offered to give away a copy of her Victorian-set novel, Vanquished, to one person who comments on this post.

Thanks for joining us, Hope!

01 September 2010

Another Take on Pride and Prejudice: Queer Theory in Brussels

I posted last time about the fun we had on our trip to Brussels and Amsterdam, not to speak of our misadventures getting there and getting up in the morning of the day I was supposed to deliver my paper (called "The Queer Theory of Eve Sedgwick at the Edges of the Popular Romance Genre") at the second International Conference on Popular Romance in Brussels.

While as to why I spent countless hours preparing this presentation -- well, sometimes I find myself so fascinated to be writing in the popular romance genre (such a huge market! so little respect from the outside world! such amazing women writing! about what's so incredibly important!) that I have to take a big bite of literary theory, season it for romance, and chew on it for a while. But if I don't commit to having something to share with a roomful of people (particularly in an attractive conference venue), it's a lot less likely I'll take that first bite.

So Brussels sounded like a great opportunity to think hard about something I've been wanting to understand better for a while now: the hot new trend of male/male or male/male/female romance -- written by women for women.

I'm hardly saying this is a majority taste in the genre. But -- hyper-hetero clinch covers notwithstanding -- it is remarkable to contemplate the speed (not to speak of the general humaneness) with which popular romance fiction has come to include same-sex love as a viable and sympathetic theme (and see also Romance Writers of America's "genre overview": the main plot centers around two individuals falling in love...).

My aim in this paper, however, wasn't self-congratulation. Of course the romance genre is smarter than the conventional wisdom would have it (well, it could hardly be dumber than it's generally thought to be, could it?) I took on this project because I wanted to understand more specificall
y how this new development of male/male love works in individual texts, and most particularly in Ann Herendeen's recent tour de force, Pride/Prejudice.

Yes, that's Pride Slash Prejudice: as in Slash Fiction, longtime home for a cult of fans (largely female) writing fantasy narratives that pair up their
favorite pop-culture characters in plots that won't be made into major motion pictures any time soon.

The most popular early Slash Fiction sub-genre portrayed Star Trek heroes Kirk and Spock in hunky, explicit, extra-terrestrial sexual couplings. They got the slash from the one in Kirk/Spock. But when I read Pride/Prejudice, it seemed to me that Herendeen had gone where no one had before (and at warp speed) -- addressing what's always been the vexing question of what Mr. Darcy ever saw in Mr. Bingley, by putting a famous truth universally acknowledged into Darcy's mouth, between kisses (
and more) exchanged in Mr. Bingley's bed.

I think it works -- never, of course, as a replacement for the original, but as smart, sly commentary on the beloved and compelling world Jane Austen built (and that along the way made today's popular romance novel possible).

But what is this world that Pride/Prejudice is seeing anew?

To answer t
his question, I need to introduce an area of literary criticism brought to us by another smart woman whose work I'd long been wanting to understand -- the late Professor Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, one of the originators of what's now called Queer Theory. Which body of thought does not say (as some sloppy readers think it must) that every heterosexual love story has a queer attraction hiding, as it were, beneath the sheets. But which does probe the question of what Sedgwick, in her first statement of Queer Theory, Between Men, called "male homosociality," that vast continent of "male friendship, mentorship, entitlement, rivalry, and hetero- and homosexuality [...] in an intimate and shifting relation to class..."

The boundaries of these loci of interaction are slippery and highly dependent upon context (as when a pat on the butt is legit on the football field and lethal just about anywhere else). The lonely, anx
ious business of male-dominated society, Queer Theory asserts, is the every-man-for-himself struggle for dominance over this world of shifting context and meaning (can you say tortured hero?). Which struggle is facilitated by competition for money, status, and position in the form of rivalry for women who are necessary for male position and its continuance (and who, through history, have by and large been treated as little more than objects and tokens in this struggle).

Men might or might not be sexually attractive to each other -- sometimes they might not even know if they are, having sacrificed whatever coherent self-understanding they might have had to the struggle for dominance (and self-dominance as well). Queer theory, then is often a matter of untangling the fascinating incoherencies in literary texts about men (Sedgwick is terrific on Billy Budd and Gothic novels).

Of course not all literary texts were written by men, nor are they solely about men. But it's certainly true that men and their fortunes have a certain primacy in very many stories (and particularly in novels, which take as their subject the real world); if this weren't true we wouldn't need the term "women's fiction," to differentiate if from the other stuff which is most usually just called "fiction."

While as for men and their fortunes, since, as is "universally acknowledged [...] a single man in possession of good fortune must be in want of a wife" -- particularly in Georgian landed society, where power, position (and every attribute of upper-class male selfhood) depended upon the perpetuity of family ownership, what of those wives or potential wives? Does the author -- does the reader -- view them merely as objects and tokens?

Of course she -- and we -- do not. And it's part of Jane Austen's genius that the opening words of Pride and Prejudice, though syntactically "about" that "single man,"are quite evidently about the wife he is in want of and how such potential wives must feel to occupy such a contingent position. Tracy recently pointed to the wonderful immediacy of this opening, and I couldn't agree more. Or as I put it in my talk:
...if we smile when we read the words in Austen, I’d suggest that we aren’t merely smiling at Mrs. Bennet’s crude, déclassé overreaching. We’re smiling in rueful recognition of an unstated dynamic in the structure of these sentences and the structure of their society: that even if the man in question constitutes the subject of the assertion, the counter-truth of every ironic syllable in that opening is that the author is always and already engaging her reader with the irrepressible subjectivity of female characters who simply refuse to be relegated to contingency.
In the centuries since Austen, the romance novel (and sometimes the literary novel as well) hinged upon a simple, but incendiary, paradox: that a man occupies a primacy of position in the public world, but the power of the female subjectivity cannot be denied.

Until the 20th century, perhaps -- when in romance this changed again. when male power began to be understood as a fraught and painful thing -- with, I think, the tortured heroes of the 70s to the 90s. My own untested theory is that this occurred in a parallel development to Second Wave Feminism. We started seeing tortured lonely hero subjectivities in deep third person (Dr. Sarah Frantz of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance has often written and spoken on this, and I was delighted that she and I were on the same panel in Belgium).

But unlike the big intellects behind Queer Theory, the creative minds writing popular romance did more than let a bunch of fictional heroes stew in their own juicy macho agonies (or, as Eve Sedgwick had it, their texts' "productive incoherence.") Romance fiction isn't incoherent. It's hardworking, pragmatic, empathic -- it sees a problem and it tries to solve it in the interest of a happy ending. AND it draws upon a wonderful camaraderie between authors, readers. and sometimes characters. Committed to pleasure, it wants to share, rather than compete.

So if Ann Herendeen saw the possibility of a love affair between Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley, not only did she share the pleasure she took in this fantasy with her readers, but with Lizzy Bennet as well, who -- during her stay at Netherfield when Jane had a headcold -- (in Ann's version) gets a glimpse of other doings through a door to Mr. Bingley's bedroom that won't stay shut. Lizzy is fascinated; she's aroused; and (in a section of the book that follows Austen's happy ending) sees no reason why her husband still can't have the pleasures she's enjoyed witnessing (especially during what bids well to be a long series of pregnancies for Mrs. Darcy and her sister Mrs. Bingley as well). (Sorry for spoiler: read it anyway, for the wit, intelligence, and marvelous writing.)

The idea that male heroes shouldn't have to be lonely -- that their relationships with other men can be more than competition for power and for women -- and that this freedom can be facilitated by the very women who love these heroes (authors, heroines, and even readers) seems to me to be new, fascinating, wonderfully subversive.

And -- outside of the pages of Queer Theory -- the place you're most likely to find it these days is at certain margins of the romance world. Of course it's in the male/male and male/male/female erotic e-books, but you can find it in more mainstream, best-selling venues as well. Because the male/male relationships don't have to be homoerotic (I stand by Sedgwick's term "homosocial," and I take her at her word that it can mean a wide continuum of relationships). Male romance heroes tend to come in big bunches these days, and not only to facilitate the sequels beloved by readers. Think of J.R. Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood, bound in fealty to the female principle of the Scribe Virgin. Think even of the power wielded by Julia Quinn's Viscountess Bridgerton...

And do also think of the ways I've doubtless oversimplified these things. Tell me what you think...

...though I have to admit (as an amateur literary critic) to being all theoried out for a while and ready to turn my attention to fiction writing again.

And yes (you read it here), that's a commitment.

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A Fellow Artist as Muse: Inspiration or Imitation?

Currently at The Clark art musuem (one of America's loveliest temples to fine art, located in idyllic Williamstown, Massachusetts), is a baby blockbuster exhibit titled PICASSO LOOKS AT DEGAS. It is an exploration of the way in which the work of the two major artists intersected, although they were born two generations apart.

The following paragraph is taken from the exhibition's brochure:

Throughout his long and prolific career, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) obsered, absorbed, and competed with the works of other artists, from his student days in Spain to his first encounters with the art world of Paris and into his last years. One of the artists Picasso particularly admired was Edgar Degas (1834-1917). His response varied over time from emulation to confrontation, and parody to homage. By justaposing paintings, sculpture, and works on paper that have never before been exhibited together, PICASSO LOOKS AT DEGAS explores the younger artist's lifelong fascination with the work and personality of Degas.


Here's what the New York Times wrote about the exhibit in the Escapes section of the paper on Friday, August 27, (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/27/arts/design/27picasso.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=picasso&st=nyt)
I can only speak for my own experience, but I have seen many museum exhibits devoted to Picasso including the recent ecerything-but-the-kitchen-sink blockbuster at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And in this latest look offered by the Clark in conjunction with the Art Institute and the Museu Picasso, Barcelona, I encountered a Picasso I was surprised never to have seen before, even though I am passionate about Art History.

Perhaps I am showing my ignorance by stating that I had no idea that, as a teen in the mid 1880s, young Pablo Picasso demonstrated a precocious talent for classical draftsmanship and and already keen and probing eye that was able to capture the inner life of his subjects with several deft strokes of a pencil. I will have to find the portrait of his father that he drew as a teen, which is such a brilliant psychological study that I could have stood there all afternoon marveling at it.

It is no surprise that during Picasso's spectacularly long career he experimented with many, many forms, and summoned as many muses (Cubism, for example, was born of his fascination with African art forms). But the Clark exhibit also charts an artist finding his identity -- and doing so in public -- as the works are exhibited. How often are we, the viewer, the audience (or the reader -- I'm getting there), privy to an artist discovering him- or herself? In the show's earliest works that bear a signature, we read "P Ruiz Picasso" and even the handwriting is different from the way the artist will eventually sign "Picassso" to his works.

Both Degas and Picasso were fascinated by the female form -- Degas, most notably for his numerous depictions in several media, of young ballet dancers. But the two artists were also intrigued by prostitutes, bathing or otherwise. They were both self-taught sculptors. Both saw something in the sad little lives of the overworked Parisians who gazed dejectedly at their glasses of absinthe in the cafes of late 19th c. Montmartre.

Yet, when it came to women in the flesh, their personalities could not have been more opposite: Picasso, with his outsize appetite for sex, his numerous wives and mistresses; and Degas, rumored to have been quite celibate -- with the voyeur's fascination for la vie gaie. Exhibited in one room at the Clark is Picasso's postmodern series of prints set in a brothel (simultaneously grotesque and whimsical) that he made toward the end of his life, depicting Degas as just that -- a voyeur, as captivated by the whores and their greedy madam or Celestina, as he is repulsed by them.

And now we come to you.

Writers: Have you ever written a deliberate homage to a fellow author (dead or alive) in any of your books, whether it was including the writer as a character, or using a name they made famous (e.g. Holden, Darcy), or something deliberately intended to tonally evoke your literary inspiration? Something else?

Readers: What are your feelings when you discover homages (as I write this sentence I'm thinking that the Harry Potter books, for example, are chock-full of them) to other authors in a book you are reading?

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