History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

26 December 2010

A Fine Taste for Scarlet and Miniver

If you are an Eleanor of Aquitaine admirer, as I am, or simply a fan of strong women in medieval times, this book, by E.L. Konigsberg, is for you.

Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, became Queen of France when she married Louis VII (The Pious), but she bore no male heirs. One day Eleanor went from prayers in the chapel with Louis out to her garden, where she took one look at young, handsome Henry Plantagenet and subsequently wangled a divorce from Louis. Shortly thereafter came a formal invitation into Henry's bed as Queen of England.

Eleanor bore many illustrious children, including Richard the Lionhearted and (later)
John, who "inherited" Ireland, became king after Richard, and signed the Magna Carta.

While still married to Louis, Eleanor satisfied her taste for culture and luxury by going on crusade with her husband to Constantinople and beyond. She was indefatigable and later, at age 84, the queen crossed the Pyrenees to secure a bride for her son Richard.

Eleanor, together with her daughter Marie de Champagne, established the tradition of "courtly love" and hosted poets and troubadours wherever they went.

This novel is a witty, sly re-telling of Eleanor's story from the points of view of Queen Mother Mathilda (wife of Henry I); French cleric and diplomatic wizard Abbot Suger; King Louis of France (Eleanor's first husband); and the knight William [the] Marshal, protector of the royals. The stories are shared as they wait in heaven (termed "Up") for the arrival of Eleanor's husband, Henry, from "Down There."

The book is imaginative and fun to read; the writing is lively; and you gain a wonderful insight into the thinking of the royals and their ministers, along with their antics, anguishes, and achievements.


Sources: A Fine Taste for Scarlet and Miniver by E.L. Konigsberg; The Book of Eleanor by Pamela Kaufman; Eleanor of Aquitaine, by Regine Pernoud.

25 December 2010

Happy Christmas!

We hope everyone is having a merry holiday season! The Hoydens will be taking a break through New Years, but we'll see you in 2011 with lots of new books and new historical tidbits.

And yes, that's a tree dressed as a giant Christmas Pudding.

22 December 2010

A Little Bit of Christmas

An English Christmas conjures up all sorts of images: mulled cider and carols, candle-decked trees and frost-laced windows. You've got to hand it to the Victorians, they knew how to do Christmas well. Or, as that ultimate Victorian of the Victorians, Charles Dickens put it, "and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge".

This, however, poses a slight problem for those of us who dwell (metaphorically, at least) in those eras prior to the introduction of the Victorian English Christmas. My latest book, The Mischief of the Mistletoe, was set in Bath in 1803. As you've probably deduced from the title, it is a Christmas book. This meant a fair amount of scrounging around to try to figure out exactly how Jane Austen would have celebrated Christmas. (I'd like to say that was also meant metaphorically, but, since Jane Austen was coopted for a cameo in the book, I really did need to know how she would have celebrated the holiday season).

Here are a few of the more interesting things I learned. Holly and ivy? Absolutely. Christmas trees? In the immortal words of HMS Pinafore (more Victorians! They're everywhere!): "What never? Well, hardly ever." I'd always thought the Christmas tree was entirely a Victorian addition, brought to England with Prince Albert. It turns out that it actually came over a little earlier, with Queen Charlotte (formerly of Mecklenburg-Strelitz), who put up a Christmas tree in 1800. It didn't catch on. My characters would, however, have had plenty of greenery and seen the blazing Yule before them.

Which brings us to another Victorianism: Christmas carols. There were certainly Christmas songs and hymns, but Christmas caroling, as such, only became popular in the reign of Victoria. In fact, the entire Christmas season had a slightly different complexion. Whereas, for us, the big show is Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the earlier English Christmas comprised all Twelve Days of Christmas (I make no promises about the inclusion of partridges or pear trees), with the major celebration taking place on Twelfth Night.

What would Christmas be without Christmas pudding? My book involved a lot of Christmas pudding. It turns out we have George I to thank for that. Plum pudding, it seems, had rather fallen out of favor until the monarch put it back on the map in 1714. There are all sorts of interesting traditions around the pudding. Some claim that the thirteen ingredients are meant to represent Christ and the Twelve Apostles, while the holly garnish stands in for the crown of thorns, and that one is supposed to stir the pudding three times in honor of the Three Kings. My favorite of the Christmas pudding traditions included making a wish as one stirred the pudding and the practice of hiding coins, gold rings, thimbles, or, in humbler households, a bean and a pea, in the pudding, with those who found the item being proclaimed Queen of the Feast or Lord of Misrule, given a prize, or simply getting to go home with the coin, depending on which tradition people were following.

What really struck me, though, was just how much Christmas traditions varied by region or even by town, with all sorts of ideosyncratic local practices-- much as we all have our own bizarre family holiday traditions.

What's your favorite (or quirkiest!) family holiday tradition?

p.s. Speaking of holiday traditions, I'll be following one of my own this Christmas. Two years ago, I wrote a free Christmas novella as a present for my readers. I'll be posting it on my website again this year on Christmas Eve. Just visit my News page on December 24th to find it!

21 December 2010

A Glass of Cheer

Today is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. I’d like to salute winter with a good drink, or chase the chill out of my bones in a time-honored fashion. Yes, I do like to know exactly what my characters ate so I can imagine the tastes and the scents.

George Washington and Robert E. Lee both enjoyed eggnog, a delightful concoction of eggs, cream, and brandy. (Or eggs, cream, brandy, whiskey, and sherry, in Washington’s case.) Or, from my grandmother…

Three dozen eggs, three pounds of sugar, half a gallon of brandy, half a pint of French brandy, half a gallon of milk. Beat the yolks and whites separately. Stir the sugar thoroughly into the yolks, add the brandy slowly so as to cook the eggs, then add the milk, and lastly the whites, with cinnamon and grated nutmeg, reserving enough for top dressing.

I think Dickens and Austen would have enjoyed it.

Cavalry punch, as drunk by officers at Fort Laramie and Fort Lincoln, was composed of very strong tea mixed with rum and homemade blackberry wine. A recipe for artillery punch from the same era calls for a pound of gunpowder green tea steeped overnight in two gallons of cold water, then mixed with rum, sauterne, brandy, whiskey, gin, sugar, cherries and other fruit, plus dry champagne. Just in case, you thought there weren’t quite enough alcoholic spirits involved, several modern cavalry regiments celebrate their storied histories at big parties by pouring a new variety of alcohol into a punch bowl every time they list another campaign. Given how long some of them have been around, there are a few dozen types of booze from multiple continents swishing around there. (Okay, I admit I wonder about other countries’ regiments’ drinking traditions.)

I just turned in “Talbot’s Ace,” my novella for next July’s Improper Gentlemen anthology. It takes place during the depths of winter in a 19th century mining town, and features several saloons. My family vacations while growing up featured many trips to Wild West towns, including historic restaurants and saloons. But researching this story gave me the excuse to delve deeper into matters like lighting and beverages. I must say that all those old horse operas my father and foster father loved to watch never hinted at bars which served only beer. Or who knew that Englishmen complained even then that Americans corrupted their alcoholic beverages with ice?

The original cocktail was a Sazerac cocktail, invented in New Orleans. The second place it could be found was Denver. Or how about Deadwood’s fascination with gin cocktails? It basically consisted of gin, bitters, and simple syrup (or gum syrup). Deadwood Dick invented the Yellow Daisy, which contained 2 glasses gin, 2 glasses French vermouth, 1 glass Grand Marnier, plus a dash of absinthe before shaking. Honestly, those ingredients sound more like The Great Gatsby than Deadwood to me.

But those recipes, glamorous though they might be, involve ice. I’d like to focus on nice, warm, comforting thoughts. Like hot toddies or perhaps a rum punch.

A very simple recipe for rum punch, which I’ve never tried, states “Make a rich, sweet lemonade, add rum and brandy to taste, only dashing with brandy. It must be sweet and strong.”

Care to suggest a hot toddy recipe? What’s your favorite recipe for a good, old-fashioned winter drink or a scene featuring a good winter drink?


17 December 2010

Mashups and Revisionings:The Romance of Shared, Imagined Worlds

This will be a quick one, (even without pix,which blogger seems to be ignoring today). Because I'm trying to finish up a publishable version for the Journal of Popular Romance Studies of what I spoke about last summer in Belgium: Queer Theory, male/male romance by women for women, and what we can learn from one about the other. With proper academic citations and proof of argument -- which, I find, is particularly challenging as I lack much advanced academic background and as a fiction writer being used to making stuff up.

Still, it's been interesting, especially when I try to analyze my friend Ann Herendeen's bisexual take on Pride and Prejudice, Pride/Prejudice -- and as I trace its roots back to slash fan fiction. I wrote about this sub-genre a while back -- the amazingly popular grouping of do-it-yourself female Star Trek fans, who loved to share their own made-up alternate Universe wherein Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock maintain a hot and also tender erotic relationship. Kirk/Spock fiction it was called. Kirk SLASH Spock... giving rise, some two decades later, to Pride/Prejudice.

But I'd never read any of it until recently, when I got hold of one of the old zines, called Naked Times, and featuring, to my fascination, a story that I learned was a respected classic in the genre, the very hot and sweet 1979 "Desert Heat," by Gayle Feyrer, who some decades later wrote some well-loved and highly prized historical romances, under her own name and as Taylor Chase.

Connections everywhere... and to me the connections seemed particularly apposite since a few weeks ago I attended my first JASNA (Jane Austen Society of North America) conference, and found myself feeling like... well, like I imagine a Trekkie feels at their conventions, engulfed in the warmth of shared knowledge of a world and a population that seems, when you talk about it with other fans, almost as real as our own. "What would Eleanor Tilney say to that?" we asked each other -- or particularly dearly to my heart, "What did the maddeningly quiet Jane Fairfax think at that moment?" (I've got my own answers to that one on my hard drive that I hope will someday make it to print, in a work-in-progress currently called Jane Fairfax's Dream, though my husband likes to call it Bad Mr. Knightley.)

Connections and questions. About why romance -- and popular culture in general at this time -- lends itself so readily to mashups and revisionings. Why do the stories become so much our own, and so shared and beloved, that we want to bring the "hidden parts" into view? As, of course, some of our Hoydens have done, with Lauren's intrepid graduate student heroine on the trail of the "real" Pimpernel, and Janet's disclosure of what really happened during Jane Austen's trip to Bath and an encounters with a sexy bunch of vampires. Or even, on a less fan-fiction note, how Tracy and I have attempted to tell some of the "real" stories of political struggle under the glamorous Regency surface.

Readers, writers, and those hybrid reader/writers among you: Why do we love to retellings so much?

What are some of your own attempts (perhaps, still, like mine, in progress)?

And what are some of your published (or filmed or televised) favorite mashups, revisitings, and revisionings?

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15 December 2010

William & Kate: Why Their Wedding Will Be Historical

On November 16, Prince William of Wales announced his engagement to his girlfriend of more than eight years, Catherine (Kate) Middleton. It was the moment that millions had been waiting for with bated breath.

Royal-watchers released said breath with a joyful exhalation and then began bloviating about what it all meant (mine to follow); and manufacturers from Stoke-on-Trent to Shanghai released the work orders for the commemorative tchotchkes: the tea towels, plates, thimbles, and spoons, and all manner of junk that in fifty years' time will become treasured scraps of memorabilia.

But there is something exciting about a royal wedding, especially this royal wedding. William's parents did not wed in love. On July 29, 1981, when those of us who watched Charles and Diana walk down the aisle of Westminster Abbey, could we have imagined the sorrow that lay ahead and the tragedy that would end Diana's life at the age of 36? William and Kate give us the chance to believe in a royal happily-ever-after again.

And there is an added significance to William's choice of bride. You've heard ad nauseum that Kate Middleton (she will be known as Princess Catherine after her royal wedding on April 29, 2011) is a "commoner."

Well, Diana, was a commoner, too. So was Elizabeth the Queen Mum, born Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. A commoner is someone who is not of royal birth. BUT in the past, the heirs to the throne have wed commoners who were born to the purple, of noble lineage. For example, the Queen Mum was the daughter of the 14th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne. Diana's father was the eighth Earl Spencer and her noble lineage goes back several generations farther than the Windsors' does.

What makes Kate Middleton special is that her background is not remotely aristocratic. Her father Michael was a flight dispatcher and airline officer for BA, where her mother Carole (née Goldsmith, as was I -- so I'll be eagerly anticipating my wedding invitation) was a flight attendant. The entrepreneurial Carole Middleton later started a party planning company for children, Party Pieces, which took off, so to speak, landing the family in financial clover. Consequently, through the dint of her parents' hard work, Kate was able to grow up in soft surroundings and attend the best schools.

The last time an heir presumptive to the British throne wed a true commoner--one absent all aristocratic blood--was in 1660 when the younger brother of Charles II, James, Duke of York (the future James II; 1633-1701), clandestinely wed the zaftig . brunette Anne Hyde (1637-1671).

Here's the story of James and Anne, excerpted from my book ROYAL AFFAIRS: A Lusty Romp Through the Extramarital Adventures That Rocked the British Monarchy.

The prodigiously buxom and flirtatious Anne Hyde was the daughter of Edward Hyde, a Wiltshire lawyer who turned to politics, becoming Charles II’s chancellor. Her contemporaries noted her intelligence, though they admitted she was not very pretty; in fact, Anne was most often described as a cow. A hearty eater during an era when slenderness was the vogue at court, the girl’s booty came in for some serious ribbing in a popular rhyme:
With chanc’lor’s belly, and so large a rump,
There, not behind the coach, her pages jump.

For several years before the Restoration, Anne had been a maid of honor to Mary, the Princess Royal, sister of Charles and James. But it was in Paris at the exiled court of the Queen Mother Henrietta Maria where Anne first met Mary’s brother James, the Duke of York.
The stuttering duke was stiff and reserved, with a downer of a personality, but by all accounts, James, tall, blue-eyed, and fair, was even more of a rake than his less classically handsome brother, Charles. It certainly wasn’t charm or affability that was the chick magnet—in fact, James was considered rather slow and plodding, particularly compared to the exceptionally bright and witty Charles. But then again, James didn’t attract the beauties of the age, as did his elder brother. On James’s embracing of Catholicism as well as loose women, Charles observed,
“My brother will lose his throne for his principles and his soul for a bunch of ugly trollops.” He jested that James’s mistresses were so universally hideous that his priests must have given them to the duke as penance.
With Anne Hyde, however, “dismal Jimmy” (as Charles’s famously clever mistress Nell Gwyn called him) must have scintillated. Apparently their affair grew passionate after the exiled court had moved to The Hague. After the Restoration, Anne’s father sent for her, and she returned to London, fat and glowing—but as Anne was always fat and glowing, her father didn’t notice that she was also pregnant.
Hyde should have congratulated himself on the fact that his daughter had inherited his canny political skills, because in August 1659, Anne had successfully convinced the duke to sign a marriage contract. After that, they cohabited intermittently and clandestinely as man and wife.
On Anne’s return to England, realizing they’d be caught sooner or later, James sneaked into Worcester House, her father’s home, with an Anglican chaplain in tow. The chaplain married Anne and James in a private ceremony on September 3, 1660. Only after they were legally wed did Anne’s new husband throw himself upon the king’s mercy, begging him to allow them to publicly marry.
King Charles summoned Chancellor Hyde, a portly Polonius who had known nothing of his daughter’s affairs until the news was broken to him by two of his friends, the Marquis of Ormonde and the Earl of Southampton. Hyde assured the monarch that as soon as he got home to Worcester House, he would toss Anne out into the street as a strumpet. At the suggestion that Anne might actually be married, the politician then changed his tack, ranting that he would sooner see his daughter be the king’s whore than the duke’s wife—and if Anne were really married to James, she should be thrown into a dungeon in the Tower of London and an Act of Parliament passed to behead her.
“And I shall be the first man to propose that to Parliament!” Hyde shouted.
Charles endeavored to smooth things over, but poor Anne ended up locked in her room. However, Anne’s sympathetic mother managed to sneak the duke into her daughter’s chamber for conjugal visits.
But Anne, a mere commoner, had unintentionally created an international incident.
The Queen Mum, Henrietta Maria, came over from Paris “to prevent so great a stain and dishonor to the Crown.” Then a group of courtiers was enlisted to convince James of his wife’s rampant promiscuity—and therefore, her unsuitability to be his duchess. Anne was traduced by men who had never even met her, all claiming to have bedded her. It seemed that every man in England had crawled out of the woodwork to testify to Anne’s lasciviousness, each sworn statement more outlandish than the last.
Charles didn’t believe a word of it, and assured his increasingly livid chancellor that his daughter was being unjustly slandered. As Anne lay abed, the birth of her baby imminent, the king sent his most trusted ladies to attend her.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Anne, shrieking with labor pains, was forced to endure another torment. The oh-so-sensitive Bishop of Winchester visited her bedside and demanded, “Whose child is it of which you are in labor? Have you known any man other than the Duke of York?” Anne responded in the negative, and probably spat out a lot of other negative things to the bishop besides.
Enter Henrietta Maria, in high dudgeon at Dover, ready to defend her son’s good name and tar Chancellor Hyde with the brush of treachery for daring to marry an undeserving creature of his own lowly brood into the royal house—little realizing that she and the chancellor were on the same side.
Charles stepped in and averted a crisis by making Hyde a baron, with a gift of £20,000 (well over $4.3 million today) to sustain the honor. By the time the groom’s mother reached London, she was greeted by the bride’s father, now Baron Hyde of Hindon, a peer of the realm. The following year Charles made Hyde Earl of Clarendon.
The dowager queen’s argument about the worthiness of Anne Hyde’s family had thus been gracefully nipped in the bud, and eventually, Henrietta Maria grew to accept her new daughter-in-law.
Anne was clearly the dominant partner in the marriage, yet she could not prevent James from returning to his rakish ways soon after their union was legalized in the eyes of family and state. “The duke is in all things but his codpiece led by the nose,” Samuel Pepys observed.
Anne coped with her husband’s frequent infidelities by overeating. She was also perpetually pregnant, giving birth to eight children in nearly as many years, but only two daughters, Mary and Anne, survived to adulthood. The rest died in infancy.
After suffering from cancer for three years, Anne finally succumbed to the disease in 1671, a few weeks after giving birth to her eighth child. In her final days, she also became a secret convert to Catholicism.
One evening after enjoying a hearty dinner at Burlington House, Anne retired to pray, and then collapsed in the chapel. A frantic James sent for the Bishop of Oxford, but by the time he arrived, Anne was incoherent.
She died at St. James’s Palace in her husband’s arms, with the words “Duke, Duke, death is terrible. Death is very terrible.” She was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Anne’s two daughters each went on to become Queen of England, and both would make their mark in British history. Mary, born on April 30, 1662, would marry William of Orange and become a key player in the Glorious Revolution that would overthrow her own father and place herself and her husband on the English throne. Her younger sister, Anne, born on the sixth of February in 1665, would inherit her mother’s corpulence as well as her father’s crown. Under Queen Anne, England and Scotland were combined into a single nation in the Act of Union signed on May 1, 1707, thereby making Anne Hyde’s younger daughter—the issue of the woman who was such a “stain and dishonor to the Crown”—the first monarch of Great Britain.

So, are you a royal watcher? Do the impending nuptials of William and Kate have you excited or are you more fascinated with their place in the pageant of history?

10 December 2010

Holiday Wish List: Books, Books and More Books

'Tis the season: things are slowing down at my day job and I finally have the chance (I hope) to catch up on my reading! Nothing beats sitting by the fireplace late at night, reading by the low lights and glow of holiday decorations---my wish list is naturally longer than "War and Peace" but my preference for a good historical tale, romance or otherwise, comes shining through. Here are my top picks this year:

1. Cleopatra, A Life, by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Stacy Schiff. Everything I've heard about this book is spectacular. Move over Philippa Gregory, from the excerpts I've read and the reviews, Ms. Schiff has done for ancient Egypt what Ms. Gregory did for Tudor England. Here's a bit from the New York Times review: "Ms. Schiff waves onto the stage Cleopatra’s Alexandria in all its splendor and beauty: its gleaming marble edifices, the oversize sphinxes and falcons that lined the paths to the city’s Greek temples, the Doric tombs decorated with crocodile gods in Roman dress. She enables the reader to see Cleopatra’s court — her elaborate retinue of tasters, scribes, lamplighters, royal harpists, masseurs, pages, doorkeepers, notaries, silver stewards, oil keepers and pearl sorters — and to picture her fleet of royal barges, equipped with gyms, libraries, shrines to Dionysus and Aphrodite, gardens, grottos, lecture halls, spiral staircases, copper baths, stables and aquariums." Ms Schiff portray her Cleopatra as the ultimate heroine: "Her death , an honorable death, a dignified death, an exemplary death,” over which she presided herself, “proud and unbroken to the end” — even won over her detractors, Ms. Schiff observes: “by the Roman definition she had at last done something right; finally it was to her credit that she had defied the expectations of her sex.”

I can't wait to read this book. And BTW, check out the beautiful cover. When I first saw it, I thought this was some kind of Regency-Cleopatra-Story. But I saw the author in an interview (on the Daily Show, no less) who said as soon as she was seated, "The cover is historically accurate. A Queen in ancient Egypt would have worn pearl earrings and pearls threaded through her hair." After that, I got this sort of "you had me at hello" feeling.

2.Lady of Hay by Barbara Erskine, a kind of time-travel history. The heroine is hypnotized to regress to the twelfth century in Wales where she re-lives her previous life as Matilda, hanged for treason. Guaranteed to please the lover of Gabaldon's books, as quoted from Geraldine Ketchum on suite101.com. This book has just been re-released.

3. Sarum by Edward Rutherfurd tells the history of a family and a village in England from prehistory to modern times. Somehow, I missed this book. Good thing it seems to be perpetually in print!

What's on your wish-list this season? Any new books that have grabbed your attention? Romance, historical fiction or other?

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08 December 2010

Literary Happy Holidays

In the midst of finishing a draft, starting on revisions, and holiday decorating and shopping (so much left to do!) I found time to curl up with Lauren's The Mischief of the Mistletoe. It was an absolute delight. I tried to use it as writing motivation by telling myself I could read a section if I wrote so many words, but I ended up reading way more than I was supposed to. One of the many things I loved about it was sharing the holidays with favorite characters at a Christmas house party hosted by the Dowager Duchess of Dovedale.

I've always liked stories set during the holidays. There's something fun and fascinating about seeing how celebrations are both familiar and different with different characters, in different historical eras. A familiar frame, filled in in myriad ways. I confess, though I love most Dickens, A Christmas Carol has never been a favorite of mine. But growing up, I was fascinated by the glimpses into holidays in another era with the Christmas scenes in Little Women and also the Hanukah scene in the All of a Kind Family books. Emma has key scenes that take place at Christmas celebrations and Pride and Prejudice has the Gardiners' Christmas visit. Brideshead Revisited has Charles's Boxing Day arrival at Brideshead (vividly captured in the miniseries) moving into New Year's. Barbara Hambly's Darwath fantasy trilogy takes place in a parallel universe, but there's a major scene that takes place at a midwinter festival. Like The Mischief of the Misteltoe, Deanna Raybourn's Silent in the Sanctuary also offers a delightful (if dangerous) Christmas house party.

Writing this post, I realized a lot of my favorite holiday stories are television episodes. I write this I'm watching a Christmas-season episode of House as I write this post (not surprisingly, it steers well clear of sentimentality). The X-Files episode "How the Ghosts Stole Christmas" is probably my favorite holiday story ever. One of my holiday traditions is to watch it as I wrap packages. And of course Mulder and Scully had their first kiss on New Year's Eve (I usually watch "Millennium" while I'm dressing for New Year's Eve).

My mom and I wrote two Christmas novellas when we were writing traditional Regencies as Anthea Malcolm. They were a lot of fun to do. It's a bit of a challenge to write a Regency-set Christmas story, as so much of what we now associate with the holiday (such as Christmas trees) became popular in England in the time of Victoria and her German husband Albert. But one still has Yule logs and wassail bowls, mistletoe, pine boughs, and spiced wine.

I hadn't dealt with the winter holiday season in any of my novels until my forthcoming Vienna Waltz. Vienna Waltz takes place at the Congress of Vienna in late November 1814. A year ago, I was revising my first draft. I knew I needed a epilogue to wrap up some plot lines, but I hadn't written it yet. At a holiday show that included some early 19th century Christmas music, it occurred to me that I could set the epilogue during the holiday season.

Which tied in nicely with my research. Dorothée de Talleyrand-Périgord, Prince Talleyrand's niece-by-marriage (his nephew's wife) and his hostess at the Congress (and very likely later his mistress but that's another post) gave a party at the French Embassy at the Kaunitz Palace on Christmas Eve 1814. Dorothée is a major character in Vienna Waltz, and her Christmas Eve party became the setting for my epilogue. I was even able to include a Christmas tree. Dorothée had one by the staircase in the Kaunitz Palace and set quite a fashion at the Congress. It was called "Christmas Berlin style." Which made me realize in future books I could have my hero and heroine take the tradition back to Britain, long before Victoria and Albert made decorated trees part of a traditional English Christmas. As I writer I find it a challenge not to make a holiday scenes too sentimental. But in this case I think--I hope--the setting ended up being an interesting contrast to some of more disturbing revelations the characters are still dealing with in the epilogue.

What are some of your favorite holiday-set stories? Writers, have you written stories set during the holidays? What are some of the particular challenges?

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06 December 2010

Welcome, Laurel McKee!

Duchess of Sin (book two, Daughters of Erin)
by Laurel McKee
Available Now!

Blonde and beautiful Lady Anna Blacknall is in the mood for mischief. Entering Dublin's most notorious den of vice, she finds herself in the arms of a mysterious, emerald-eyed Irishman. And although he is masked, his tender kiss is hauntingly familiar.

Conlan McTeer, Duke of Adair, has come to Dublin to fight for a free Ireland. But he's suddenly reunited with the young Englishwoman who had once claimed his heart, and his passion turns from politics to pleasure. When their sizzling encounter brings danger to Anna's door, she must decide where her loyalties lie-and quickly. For someone will do whatever it takes to destroy Conlan . . . and anyone he dares to love.

Duchess of Sin is set in Ireland in 1800. Is there a particular reason you chose that year?

Thanks so much for inviting me to visit the Hoydens today! I love this blog, and am always learning new, fascinating things here. I chose that year because 1) the first book in this series, “Countess of Scandal,” took place in 1798, and I needed the heroine of “Duchess”, Anna, to grow up a bit before she got her own story!  Also it’s the year the official Act of Union between England and Ireland took place, with much drama and upheaval, and I needed that to be the story’s background. (It also happened to be Christmastime, and I got to research fun Irish Christmas traditions as a bonus!)

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

I’ve always been fascinated by Irish history! I grew up hearing stories of history and mythology at my grandparents’ house, and it always sounded like such a beautiful, dramatic place full of larger-than-life characters and romance. I also love the Georgian period, especially in Ireland—the fashions, the wild parties, the gorgeous architecture, the dangerous background of the times! It just took me a while to find the right characters for the setting…

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

The real history of the times! I wouldn’t say I like it “least”—it’s fascinating stuff, and full of suspense and danger, but it’s also very complicated. Before I even started writing the Daughters of Erin series, I had to read a lot and try to figure it all out in my own mind. We’re used to thinking in terms of “good guys versus bad guys,” but in this period it was not nearly so clear-cut. So many Irish were also English and vice versa, and the issues of the day were complex and very deeply felt. The vast majority of my research didn’t make it into the stories themselves, or they’re just background, but I felt like I needed to understand it if I was to create the right atmosphere! I’m not sure I still totally understand, but I did enjoy the research. 

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

No, everything that’s in there I found in the research somewhere! That’s one of the fun things about these books (to me, anyway!). I was tempted to spend more time describing fashions and furniture, but I restrained myself!

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*

LOL! That’s why I never really read them after they’re “real books.” I just know I would find something and would get upset about it when there’s nothing I can do about it! I’m sure there is something there I wouldn’t like…

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

I do love Conlan so much! He’s a duke, with the accompanying deep sense of responsibility and duty, but also dark and brooding and wild, with green eyes and Celtic tattoos (I sort of pictured Richard Armitage as I wrote!). I know his childhood pet was a beloved pony, because he’s a great rider as an adult!

At first I had a hard time finding the right name for him, but a friend came to my rescue. Her son is named Conlan, which she said meant “hero”—perfect! (but her son is only 3 now, so it will be a while before he can read his namesake’s story)

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

I knew when I started this series there would be 3 books, and Anna would be the second heroine. But I wasn’t sure who her hero would be, or what would happen to her. Then Conlan appeared in the first book and they sort of took over their scenes together, and in my research I discovered the upheaval around the Union and all the great people and stories around it.

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

For the first book, I read a huge amount about the 1798 Uprising, but luckily I already knew something about it and it was easy to find resources. I knew very little about the Act of Union, except that it made the United Kingdom “official” and there was a great deal of skullduggery and corruption about it. I basically had to start from scratch. I also had to find out what life would be like for a duke with an Irish title like Conlan, which was fascinating! And Christmas—that kept it fun

What/Who do you like to read?

I am not a very discriminating reader! I will read anything and everything that looks remotely interesting. Luckily that can be “research” or “inspiration” now and not shirking my chores, as I was accused of when I was a kid and hid out with a Nancy Drew book in my closet for hours! I read lots of historical non-fiction, romance, mysteries, literary fiction, etc. I’m very obsessed with steampunk at the moment! (And when the holidays start to feel overwhelming, I burrow under the covers with an Austen or Bronte novel. It’s like hanging out with old friends)

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 pretty much a pantser! I’ve tried writing out charts and scene boards and stuff like that (I have a weird love of office supplies, so I love messing with colored sticky notes and highlighters), but it just doesn’t work for me. I end up spending most of my time changing the charts. To get to know characters and their stories I just have to sit down and write them. Sometimes they surprise me that way, or run away from me, but it’s what works for me! And by the time I finish a book I’m pretty tired of it and ready to go on to the next project, so I try to make it as clean as possible the first time.

What are you planning to work on next?

The third Daughters of Erin book, Lady of Seduction (Caroline’s story! She’s the bluestocking sister, so of course I love her) is out in June 2011! There’s a hint of her tale, and we meet her hero, in Duchess of Sin. And my other self, Amanda McCabe, has a book out in March 2011, The Shy Duchess (a spin-off from the Diamonds of Welbourne Manor anthology). It’s duchesses all the time around here!

If anyone is interested in more of the history behind these stories, I have info and sources on my website, http://laurelmckee.net! Plus excerpts, pics, and a fun contest…

Thanks so much for having me here today!

03 December 2010

Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing

I couldn’t resist this book. I’m looking to simplify my life and tighten my writing style, and I admire Leonard’s lean, eloquent, often unexpectedly moving prose. So I thought maybe I’d share his admonitions.

Rule 1: Never open a book with weather.

I guess . . . unless you’re Jack London describing snow or Zane Grey describing the purple sage and the sky.

Rule 2: Avoid prologues.

“A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s okay because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. [One character] says: ‘I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like.”

Sweet Thursday came out in 1954, when I was just beginning to be published and I’ve never forgotten that prologue.”

Rule 3: Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

“Said” is far less intrusive than ‘grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied.’ Or his most disliked word, used by Mary McCarthy: ‘asseverated.’”

Rule 4: Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”

As in “he admonished gravely...”

Rule 5: Keep your exclamation points under control.

“You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.”
Aw, heck.

Rule 6: Never use the words “suddenly” or “all Hell broke loose.”

“I have noticed that writers who use ‘suddenly’ tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.”

Rule 7: Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

“Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.”

Rule 8: Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

“In Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephant, what do ‘the American and the girl with him’ look like? ‘She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.’ That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.”

Rule 9: Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

“Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.”

Rule 10: Try to leave out the part[s] that readers tend to skip.
“Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them . . . I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.”

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01 December 2010

The Other Side of the Coin-- or the Channel

Yesterday, there was a post on All About Romance about the pro-English bias in historical fiction, a world in which the English are always good, the French are always bad, and, yes, the demmed Pimpernel is that elusive.

There’s an interesting post to be written on the sources of this bias. Just off the top of my head, I can come up with half a dozen completely unsupported theories, ranging from linguistic bias to literary tradition to lopping off heads being generally considered both unsporting and messy to that nasty French waiter who corrected your grammar when you were on a class trip to Paris in ninth grade. Fill in your own explanation here.

AAR made an important point. For those of us who write in the early nineteenth century, while it’s fun to play with the burlesqued image of the nasty Revolutionary Frenchman (see Blackadder, e.g. Nob & Nobility), like any historical event, the Revolution consisted of multiple stages, giving way to the Directory, the Consulate, and finally the Empire. There were, as there are anywhere, idealists and opportunists, visionaries and scoundrels—sometimes rolled up in the same person.

This has been much on my mind recently, because, after several volumes of “English Good, French Bad, Please Pass the Port and Mind the Sheep!”, my next book, The Orchid Affair, features a hero who’s not only French, but a genuine, card-carrying Girondin, second in command at the Prefecture of Paris, and right hand man to Bonaparte’s Minister of Police.

My hero, Andre Jaouen, isn’t an Englishman in disguise or Sir Percy Blakeney cunningly masquerading as a Frenchman. He’s not an Andrew pretending to be an Andre, or the lost half-brother of the Dauphin. Andre isn’t an aristocrat at all, or anything close; he’s an avocat from Nantes, a provincial lawyer who got involved in the revolution from the ground up, serving as a delegate from Nantes to the Estates General and later to the National Assembly. A child of the Enlightenment, he read Rousseau and believed it, believed that man’s chains could be broken and the injustices of an unnatural order be set right.

With hindsight, we know exactly how the Revolution went astray, leading to rivers of blood in the Place de la Revolution and the rise of a pudgy Corsican dictator. But we have the advantage of two hundred years and heavy history textbooks. How would someone have felt at the time, not knowing, at the start of it all, how it would all turn out? I wanted to explore the workings of someone who genuinely believed in the ideals of the Revolution—and who is forced to come to terms with the way it all played out.

But we can still pass the port.

What do you think of the English bias in historical fiction?

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