History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

28 February 2011

Is that a new cover, why yes it is!

No history today, just a little bit of whoo-hooing over my new cover. This showed up on Valentine's Day in my email. Best V-Day presie ever. Makes me want to say inappropriately lewd things about about how hard my publisher rocks my world.

Love the pose, and adore that garter . . .

The rough draft had a higher neckline on the gown (and no cleavage) and her hair was a bit on the skimpy, Regency side. How they fixed those issues, I have no idea, but I clearly need to sacrifice a goat to the Photoshop gods they've got working in the art department (or maybe take them a nice bottle of Napa Zin this summer when we're all in NY).

Given how high they've set the bar, I can't wait to see what they come up with for book three, LOL! Maybe I'll finally convince them to give me a long-haired hero. *grin*

I may need to have this one made into a necklace or a pin. It deserves some serious flaunting.

25 February 2011

Lady Lavender: The post-publication glow

After many long months of angst and annoyance, I’m happy to report that my new book, Lady Lavender, is at last on the shelves! Angst and Annoyance because it’s been three years since my previous book (Templar Knight, Forbidden Bride) was published, and I have the sweat and frown-lines to document each and every month of the interim period.

But no matter, the novel is here and I am celebrating.

Lady Lavender is a western historical romance about an immigrant French woman on the frontier trying to grow lavender (yes, they grew it in Oregon) to support herself and her 4-year-old daughter. The problem is the Oregon Central Railroad and the dishy exec it sends to gobble up her land, and her lavender field, by laying shiny steel rails right down the middle of it.

Hence, a romance blooms. For me, the “romance” derives not only from Jeanne and Colonel Halliday and their struggles, but from the early 1900's, when my mother was a young woman raised on a ranch in Douglas County, Oregon. I’ve visited the old Banning homestead, seen the barn my grandfather built - still standing but listing badly after all these decades. I’ve researched the Deer Creek School where my mother and her brother and sister went to school, tramped over the hills and meadows where she rode her horse and picnicked, and reveled in the feel of the land, the smell of the trees, and the whispers of long-ago stories.

The tiny town of Dixonville, Oregon, is the setting for my very first book, Western Rose (and most of my 16 subsequent works). Now there’s only a moss-kissed split rail fence and a post office - general store, but then . . .

Then it was alive with stories handed down from my grandmother and grandfather, Leora and Claude Banning, which grew into wild tales and imaginings about dramatic confrontations, dangerous exploits, and enduring love stories. And ended up as the characters in my stories. Western Rose, for instance, was based on the rather oddball courtship of my grandparents, both of whom grew up on Douglas County ranches.

Now I have a Big Fat Confession to make: recently I re-read this first work, Western Rose, and found that I still like it! I also re-read a later work, The Ranger and the Redhead. Ditto. O frabjous day!

Maybe I’ll work up the courage to re-read Lady Lavender. In the meantime, I’ve fallen in love with yet another story from that era and my favorite Oregon setting, and . . .

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24 February 2011

Historical Romance March Madness

Coming Soon: Historical Romance March Madness

Some people might think of March as the month for basketball tournaments and St. Patrick’s Day, but starting this year March will be known for a celebration of historical romance readers and writers. From Tuesday, March 1st through Thursday, March 31st, come interact with some of your favorite authors, meet new ones, and enter to win 40+ prizes as Ashley March hosts the 1st Annual March Madness Blog Party at www.ashleymarch.com/blog.

A fantastic line-up of historical romance authors will be guest blogging with giveaways every single day, and a special daily feature will highlight romance community sites, reviewers, and bloggers who support historical romance.
In addition to the recent releases, upcoming books, and ARCs given away by historical romance authors each day, historical romance readers will also have a chance at winning:

1. A bundle of 5 historical romances every Sunday.
2. 8 Victorian lady postcards
3. 8  “Do you know the way to Pemberley?” postcards
4. 8 “Well behaved women rarely make history” medieval postcards
5. A “Romance Reader & Proud of It” tote bag
6. Two secret prizes (to be announced during the month)
7. A Grand Prize package of historical romance books and a Victorian-styled lovebirds necklace

Aspiring historical romance writers also have a couple of things to be excited about:

1. Kris Kennedy’s agent, Barbara Poelle of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency, has generously agreed to give away a partial critique to the writer she believes has the best 3-sentence written pitch. One of Kris Kennedy’s books will also be given away, as an example of the type of work Barbara loves.

2. Ashley March will provide a full critique of another aspiring historical writer’s completed novel.

Rules of Eligibility

Daily Author Giveaways

To enter to win one of the books given away daily by our guest authors, simply reply with a relevant comment. A winner will be chosen randomly from all participants. Authors will decide whether the giveaway will be open to US and international residents; this information will be posted at the bottom of each blog.

Historical Romance Reader Prizes

1. Each Sunday, all the daily participants’ names from the last week will be gathered and one random winner will be drawn to receive a bundle of 5 historical romance books. To increase your chances of winning, make you sure you post a relevant comment on each blog. This includes guest author blogs and Featured Romance Site of the Day blogs. (Note: More than one comment on a post will not increase your chances of winning.) These prizes will be open to US and international residents.

2. The 3 packages of historical-themed postcards will be given away randomly throughout the month. To enter to win, you must post a relevant comment on the blog announcing each random giveaway. These prizes will be open to US and international residents.

3. The 2 secret prizes will be announced randomly during the month, with the rules contained in the individual blog posts. These prizes will be open to US and international residents.

4. The winner of the “Romance Reader & Proud of It” tote bag will be the first person to correctly answer a set of trivia questions about historical romance books and authors. Hints will be provided in the form of an online scavenger hunt. The trivia contest will be presented on a random day during the month. This prize will be open to US and international residents.

5. On April 1st, all the daily participants’ names from the entire month of March will be gathered and one random winner will be drawn to receive the Grand Prize. To increase your chances of winning, make sure you post a relevant comment on guest author blogs and Featured Romance Site of the Day blogs. (Note: Posts for other giveaways such as the postcards, tote bag, and aspiring writer prizes will not be counted.) This prize will be open to US and international residents.

Aspiring Historical Romance Writer Prizes

The rules for the partial critique & giveaway and full critique will be posted with the individual blogs announcing the contests. Make sure you visit daily to find out when each contest opens!

Our thanks to all of you who read, write, and support historical romance. We look forward to seeing you soon at the 1st Annual March Madness Blog Party!

Guest Author
Featured Site
Other Prizes

Tuesday 3/1
Elizabeth Hoyt
The Season for Romance

Wednesday 3/2
Courtney Milan
Beck’s Book Picks

Thursday 3/3
Lori Brighton
Coffee Time Romance

Friday 3/4
Vicky Dreiling
The Romance Reviews

Saturday 3/5
Delilah Marvelle
Romance Bandits

Sunday 3/6
Mary Wine
Book Fare Delights
Book Bundle

Monday 3/7
Robyn DeHart
Romance Novel News

Tuesday 3/8
Katy Madison
Smexy Books

Wednesday 3/9
Laura Lee Guhrke
Not Another Romance Blog

Thursday 3/10
Margaret Rowe
Seductive Musings

Friday 3/11
Anne Mallory
Fiction Vixen

Saturday 3/12
Julie Anne Long
Cheeky Reads

Sunday 3/13
Sara Lindsey
Romance Writer’s Revenge
Book Bundle

Monday 3/14
Melissa Mayhue
Unusual Historicals

Tuesday 3/15
Julianne MacLean
The Book Pushers

Wednesday 3/16
Leigh Michaels
Edwardian Promenade

Thursday 3/17
Kris Kennedy
Novel Thoughts & Booktalk

Friday 3/18
Emma Wildes
Love Romance Passion

Saturday 3/19
Katharine Ashe
Book Binge

Sunday 3/20
Kate Noble
Deserted Island Keepers
Book Bundle

Monday 3/21
Eileen Dreyer
Romantic Crush Junkies

Tuesday 3/22
Elizabeth Essex
Dear Author

Wednesday 3/23
Lecia Cornwall
Night Owl Romance

Thursday 3/24
Maya Rodale
The Book Lovers

Friday 3/25
Madeline Hunter
The Romance Dish

Saturday 3/26
Kieran Kramer
Book Lurve

Sunday 3/27
Erica Ridley
History Hoydens
Book Bundle

Monday 3/28
Shana Galen
Jaunty Quills

Tuesday 3/29
Monica Burns
Book Thingo

Wednesday 3/30
Stefanie Sloane
Get Lost in a Story

Thursday 3/31
Sarah MacLean
Buried by Books

Friday 4/1
Grand Prize


22 February 2011

The Hostess's Dilemma

The Hostess’s Dilemma, or When to Throw the Party

Whenever I start plotting a historical novel, I always ask myself whether I want to include genuine historical events. If answer is yes, then I figure out when they occurred because I’ll have to schedule everything in my book around them. Sometimes this is so easy that it feels like inviting your best friends over for an al fresco dinner. Sometimes it’s so hard that it’s worse than including the in-laws from hell in your holiday at the beach – and you’ll rethink the entire party!

THE SHADOW GUARD, my April release, is set in a thinly-disguised version of Alexandria, Virginia – a town with a very rich history.

George Washington is Alexandria’s most famous son. Every year, the city graciously accepts the United States’ announcement of a three-day holiday in his honor and throws him the country’s biggest birthday party. There’s a parade with fife and drums – whose grand marshal this year was a naval commander – various races, cooking competitions, and more. Best of all to Washington’s ears, there’s a Birthnight Ball – the same festivity that honored Georgian monarchs – where twenty-first century people twirl in eighteenth century dances.

But “President’s Birthday” isn’t on George Washington’s Birthday. Yes, I know it’s on the Third Monday in February, the official Federal holiday. That’s very close to February 22nd, the day the history books say when George was born. But it’s not when Mary Washington, George’s remarkable mother, said he was born.

Does “President’s Birthday” have anything to do with Abraham Lincoln? He’s another great American president who was born in February. But he popped into the universe on February 12th in the Year of our Lord 1809, which hardly falls close to the Third Monday in February.

So what happened? The conversion from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, that’s what.

The Julian calendar was originally invented to stop politicians from messing around with the civil calendar. It seems that their terms of office ran from January 1st to December 31st (using our names for the months and days) – but the top guy got to say how many days were in any month while he was in office. You can guess what happened: Years started changing length in strange and wacky ways. Julius Caesar wasn’t above being the beneficiary of those political plums – but he also liked cleaning up the calendar. (Somehow I suspect his spin doctoring instincts approved of being the guy who put the harvest festival back at harvest time, and so on.)

After that, the Christians and later the Muslims enjoyed the fruit of his labors. The Berber calendar still use the old Latin names for months.

There was one big problem: The solar calendar actually has approximately 365 – and a quarter days. The Julian calendar doesn’t deal well with that quarter day and by the 1500s, the Catholic church wasn’t able to schedule some of its big festivals very well. (Remember what I said about parties? Right.)

Pope Gregory XIII therefore called on the greatest minds available to come up with a solution. In 1582, he enacted their recommendation in the most solemn form available, a papal bull. Unfortunately, this is the same bit of language that usually wraps up pieces of Catholic dogma – and it didn’t help the new calendar’s chances of acceptance. For one thing, this was the height of the Protestant Reformation, when anything coming out of Rome was automatically tested with a sword by half of Europe. (Heck, not even all of the Spanish and Portugese empires implemented it right away, because communications were so slow.)

Even so, the Protestant countries slowly adopted the Gregorian calendar, one by one, throughout the seventeenth century. This was usually a straightforward process but sometimes it took years. Sweden needed decades, for example.

Britain held out longer – until 1752, when it finally changed over. By that time, the young George Washington was twenty-one years old in frontier Virginia.

As far as young George was concerned, he’d been born on February 11th, following a calendar where the New Year started on March 25th, the festival of the Incarnation of Christ. (According to Pepys, this made it the civil calendar. Any similarity to the vernal equinox and the old pagan calendar was probably not discussed in polite Virginia society at the time.)

His twenty-first year was a particularly hectic one. In the spring, he surveyed lands in present-day West Virginia. Then Lawrence, his older brother and mentor, died and George began his career as a great landowner. He also became a major in the militia, with an appointment as adjutant for Virginia’s southern district. Then January 1st, 1753 became New Year’s Day and February 22nd became George Washington’s new official birthday.

George remained a traditionalist: He celebrated February 11th for his birthday party, even if he noted it “O.S.” for “Old Style” in his letters and diary, rather than “N.S.” for “New Style.”

Time passed and he became a Great Man. After the Declaration of Independence, his birthday was celebrated as a holiday instead of King George III’s. General Washington graciously accepted the public festivities on February 22nd – and celebrated privately with close friends and family on February 11th. (The fellow sure knew how to party, didn’t he?)

His hometown of Alexandria remained with the Julian calendar throughout his lifetime. His neighbors threw America’s first president a spectacular birthday ball on February 11, 1798, the minute George Washington retired from public life.

Eleven years later – on February 12, 1809 – Abraham Lincoln was born in Hardin County, Kentucky. Still, the most popular American president, his birthday was first celebrated in 1874 by Buffalo, New York.

In 1971, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act provided one Federal holiday in February for U.S. citizens, instead of the two holidays in many states. Personally, I think George Washington’s party-going ghost might have been a little disappointed. On the other hand, his frugal side might be pleased.

But if those congressmen had looked at when Lincoln and Washington’s mothers had celebrated their birthdays, they might have found a simpler solution. After all, February 11th and 12th are very close together.

What’s the oddest date you ever stumbled across during your research? Have you ever had difficulty fitting the date of an actual historical event – or series of events – into your book?

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18 February 2011

Here's Looking at You, Kid: More About Romance in the Movies

I'm indebted to Tracy for her Valentine's Day post about romance in historical movies, which afforded me a week of delicious meditation on some of my own most romantic movie moments -- historical or not.

Or should I say historical AND not? Because when considered over my own lifetime of film-going, even a movie as utterly, aggressively of its own historical moment, like Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, becomes a document of that moment, an opening to an era as heady as the 1960s when I careened into precarious adulthood.

But then, movies are always this combination of historical and not, because they're always simultaneously documentary and imaginative. Reality, as Godard has famously said, twenty-four frames a second. When we're watching a movie (though NOT a DVD), for most of the experience we're sitting in the dark: the time slices between the frames are longer than the time it takes for the frames to flash by us. What's happening at the movies is that for most of the time we're reconstructing, remembering, making motion in our heads out of the just-past memory images burned onto our retinas.

The persistence of vision, it's called, wherein all movies are in a sense historical movies. And all movies (again, at least when we're at the movies) are like dreaming.

So it wasn't entirely surprising that when I compiled my own dream list of romantic movies, what came to me were moments rather than whole arcs. Moments of dream vision, like those moments of action and utter passivity that dreams are made of. Those doubly conscious mirror-moments (as in the Breathless still above) that you get when you're not quite conscious.

And not surprising either that my list contains as few typically happy endings as it does. To me the romance of the film moment is in how simultaneously fleeting and indelible it is (best, perhaps, when seen through now all-but-forbidden, delicious, poisoned, shimmering miasmas of cigarette smoke).

Moments of unsatisfied longing passing into moments of ecstatic memory.

For every HEA couple strolling together into the future (here's
Charlie Chaplin and his then-wife Paulette Goddard, of course, at the end of Modern Times), I remember a moment of near-unbearable renunciation, frustration, loss, and sadness (like Claude Rains, at the right, in Notorious, as one of the most heart-rending villains in film -- directed, of course, by Alfred Hitchcock, who knew as well as anyone that we can't all be Cary Grant. I hope that for as long as I'm able to write romance, I won't forget the pathos of unrequited lovers; I tried to put a little of it into Rackham, in The Edge of Impropriety.)

But I hadn't meant to get too snagged into sadness in this post. OR into black-and-white -- especially because part of this meditation was jogged into being by our recently renting the DVD of The Secret in their Eyes, the wonderfully romantic Argentinian film that won an Oscar last year. Which Oscar might be why we haven't seen it until now -- foreign film Oscars, it seems to me rightly or wrongly, being too often affairs of cute kids and wise people of the village.

The Secret in their Eyes
has none of that. It's a smart, compelling mixing of past and present, political and personal: it's a murder mystery that starts during Argentina's military dictatorship in the 70s and also the for-many-years unrequited love of a man for his beautiful, upper-class boss. And it uses color exquisitely: no sepia tones for the past, it's done in the pure rich hues of live memory and lovestruck point of view. Check it out with someone you love.

As of course I did, with my husband, the lifelong filmfreak who taught me how to love and appreciate the obnoxious genius Godard, who took my on our first date to the rapturous French costume epic Children of Paradise (no time for more than a still here, but rent it if you don't know it, you won't be sorry).

And who also introduced me to my all-time favorite romantic movie dance routine, that I blogged about this week on my own page, from the not-very-good 1958 Damn Yankees, a sublime Gwen Verdon and her husband and choreographer Bob Fosse.

Check out my page to see why I love it so much. And check out the video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BIiZuAVZH4w”.

And happy Valentine's Day, a little late. And still.

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16 February 2011

The Writer's Process: How Do You Reward Yourself?

I juggle historical fiction and nonfiction, and lately I've found myself feeling a lot like the circus performers or vaudevillians who keep a row of plates spinning atop individual stalks, running back and forth up and down the line, giving each plate just the right push to keep it in motion so that all of the plates are spinning at the same velocity and none of them crash to the floor. An agile performer can also stop all of the plates from spinning without breaking a dish.

I've got five literary plates in the air these days, and it's taking every waking moment, plus every ounce of my concentration to keep them all airborne. I can't schedule vacations. Heck, I hardly take breaks.

But when I complete a manuscript and hit "send" to dispatch it through cyberspace to an editor, something happens inside my brain -- the equivalent of "Now comes Miller time!" to quote a famous beer commercial. And after analyzing my behavior over the past several completed books, I've discovered my pattern.

I find myself needing to shop.

Clothes. Shoes. Linens. But clothes mostly. In the past, this entailed physical excursions to (e.g.) Macys, Banana Republic, or my favorite little boutiques on the Upper West Side. Now I find myself surfing the net and scrolling through hundreds of images of dresses on sale at Neiman Marcus or Nordstrom. Or I venture outside my comfort zone and wonder if Topshop sells clothes that would fit my body type (we'll see). Or whether I'd look good in the white Reiss dress that Kate Middleton wore for her engagement photos (I don't).

Invariably, 90% of what I order during my "post-submitted manuscript behavioral reward interludes" gets mailed back to the point of origin because it doesn't fit. And as a respite from thinking so hard, for lack of a better phrase, my brain may need to scroll through photos of garments more than my body needs to wear them -- and certainly more than my credit card needs to fund them!

But this seems to be part of my writer's process, so I thought I would post it and ask my fellow authors to share with our readers how they tend to reward themselves after finishing a book.

Chocolate? Champagne? Massages? A vacation? A nap? And at what stage in the process do you tend to reward yourself?

09 February 2011

Valentine's Day Viewing

Saturday night I re-watched the 1982 Anthony Andrews/Jane Seymour Scarlet Pimpernel. I was hoping Percy’s league would help me make sure the band of aides-de-camp in my Waterloo book are properly differentiated (which it did). I love the banter among Percy, Tony, Andrew, and Timothy Hastings. It has a tone I’d love to capture in some scenes in my book. Even though I practically know the dialogue to the film by heart (I actually had a tape recording of it before I saw it, because when it first aired I was at a rehearsal, and my family didn’t have a VCR yet, so my mom tape recorded it), the magic still works.

I was also reminded what a wonderfully romantic movie it is, with scenes such as the heart-melting scene where Marguerite visits Percy in prison (which is actually based on a scene in Eldorado, one of the Scarlet Pimpernel sequels; the 1982 film is based on both The Scarlet Pimpernel and Eldorado). One of the scenes in my April release, Vienna Waltz, is an homage to that scene. Interestingly, when I recently blogged about the film on my own website, not all the commenters found the movie convincing as a love story. Which shows, I think, how much romantic chemistry in a story is in the eye of the viewer/reader.

But at least in my mind, The Scarlet Pimpernel would make great Valentine's Day viewing. Which prompted me to think of other movies and tv series that seem particularly appropriate to Valentine's Day. Here, in no particular order, is my list of Valentine's Day viewing, all historical in keeping with History Hoydens:

The Scarlet Pimpernel (1982 and also 1934 with Leslie Howard & Merle Oberon)
Pride and Prejudice (1940 and also 1995 and 2005)
Sense and Sensibility (1995 - to me that version is about as perfect as an adaptation gets)
Shakespeare in Love
North & South
An Ideal Husband
Much Ado About Nothing

What are your recommendations for historical Valentine's Day viewing?

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08 February 2011

Advanced Reader Copy Giveaway!

WINNER: JenJak. I got lots of emails and FB comments telling me that people were having problems commenting on the post here. I'm so sorry. I put everyone from all three sources into the virtual hat when I chose the winner. Thanks again for all the lovely compliments and for the buzz of excitement. I can't WAIT to share RfP with you come April 26th . . .

I got my first ever ARCs hot off the press and I want to share one of my two precious copies of my May release Ripe for Pleasure with a reader. So leave a comment (and an email address) and maybe you'll be my very first reader . . .

"Ripe for Pleasure is a very naughty pleasure indeed."—Bertrice Small, New York Times bestselling author of The Border Vixen

"Sexy, sumptuous, and wicked smart."
—Pam Rosenthal, RITA-Award wining author of The Edge of Impropriety

"Sensuous and sexy with flirty, witty dialogue. Truly a pleasure.”
—New York Times bestselling author Maya Banks

Ripe for Pleasure kicks off The League of Second Sons series were you'll meet a sworn group of friends who aren't destined to inherit vast fortunes and huge estates, nor the tittles that go with them . . . they have to fight for what they want, and then fight even harder
to keep it. From the back cover:

Second in line, first in love

A secret society of younger sons, sworn to aid and abet each other, no matter the scandal or cost . . . Their fathers and brothers may rule the world, but they run it . . . and when it comes to passion, the refuse to accept second best.

Searching for hidden treasure,

finding forbidden fantasy

London's most sensual former courtesan, Viola Whedon, is incapable of being seduced--she does the seducing. Until she meets Leonidas Vaughn. Her salacious memoirs have made her the target of half the lords in England, and Vaughn is the only man she can turn to. When he promises to protect her--and to make her beg for his touch--the alluring beauty finds both offers impossible to refuse.

Leonidas Vaughn secretly believes Viola possesses a fortune given to his family by the King of France. So the strong and sexy Vaughn charms his way into Viola's life . . . and her bed. But when their arrangement is consummated, he'll experience pleasure far beyond his most primal fantasies--and realize his heart may need the most protection of all.

Younger sons, fallen women, desperate competition for a treasure with a dangerous and treasonous past . . . I had a marvelous time writing it, and I hope readers enjoy it--and Leo!--as much as I do.

04 February 2011

In Love and War - A Novel of Ireland

Very rarely have I read a romance novel that has so much to “say” about a historical period. Suzanne Barrett’s work, In Love and War (Turquoise Morning Press), manages this in a way that is informative and gripping, yet so skillfully understated that the love story is what sent me to bed (where I read) each night with the book clutched in my hands.

The story involves a war-shattered TV foreign correspondent/journalist of Irish descent, Quinn Lawlor, who comes to a small village near Waterford, in Ireland, to heal his wounds - both physical and emotional - and to write a book. There he meets my all-time favorite heroine, Meaghann Power, a not-so-young woman who has inherited a dairy farm which she struggles to operate on her own. She is a rare combination of down-to-earth, no-nonsense practicality and sensitivity - a mature woman who yearns for love. Meaghann feels love and loyalty for her family, but when Quinn arrives, this wars with her hunger for emotional/physical connection of her own.

Meaghann makes cheese and sells it to sustain herself and keep the land. While not detracting from the growing passion between Quinn and Meaghann, the specific details about cheese-making are fascinating in themselves. [Ms. Barrett displays a fine empathy for the “working” heroine, whether in cheese-making or wine-producing: her previous novel, Late Harvest, which is about wine-making, showed a similar depth in research and subtle intertwining of a woman’s personal struggle into a page-turning story.]

Quinn opposes violence as a political solution because of what he has seen and endured as a journalist. However, he begins to dig around in the history of the small village for material to use in his book and thus uncovers Meaghann’s family connection with “the Troubles” of Ireland’s past. Quinn also discovers Meaghann’s more personal and current political involvement - and this is what he cannot abide.

“The Troubles” permeate the historical background of Barrett’s work and also form the subtext of the intense relationship between Quinn and Meaghann. This novel has everything - a classic, old-fashioned love story between two unique and admirable characters; wonderfully evocative word-pictures of the Irish village and countryside; skillful rendering of the emotional tenor of the area, the characters, and the times; and an admirable heroine to pull for.

I love novels that feel so real I am actually aching for the characters. I go to sleep worrying about Quinn and Meaghann and hoping for the best ... and the next night the tension, and the passion, mount even higher. When I finished In Love and War, I smiled all day long!

Comment from one reviewer: “In Love and War takes place in a country where legend is based in reality, and reality is often romanticized in prose, poetry, and song. I am an Irish-American woman who was raised on stirring songs of rebellion. In Love and War made me set aside my own romantic ideas and reexamine those shades of gray we so often overlook.” (Margaret Ethridge for Goodreads)

And another: “Occasionally, a romantic novel will catch my attention because it sounds refreshingly different... In Love and War by Suzanne Barrett is one such book.” (CarolAnn for Romance Reviews)

Highly, highly recommended.

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02 February 2011

History in the Slow Lane

I’m all happy right now because I just discovered that the Royal Mail from Bath to Bristol in the late eighteenth century took roughly two hours.

It might sound like an odd reason for jubilation (not like I have any letters in that mailbag!)but my plot depends on my heroine being able to reasonably take a day-trip from Bristol to Bath without it being a big, multiple day on the road, let’s-stay-overnight-at-an-inn-and-why-don’t-we-get-you-out-of-those-wet-clothes kind of thing.

Back in my youth, I found geography inconceivably boring. I couldn’t understand why they made us go to the trouble of memorizing those cities and rivers, coloring those boundaries, reciting those counties. History was enthralling, but geography? Blegh. When my former historian father told me that geography was crucial to history, I thought he was crazy. To me, history was personalities. It was kings and queens and scheming courtiers. Geography was lines on a map. Booooring.

Okay, Dad, you were right. I was wrong. History is geography and geography drives history.

As a writer of historical fiction, I find myself aware of and constrained by geography in ways I never would have imagined twenty years ago, when I was confidently telling my father that geography was boooring. In our current era, we’ve grown accustomed to a mind-boggling degree of mobility; in an early nineteenth century novel, travel and information are constrained by the speed of one’s horse and the quality of the road. A trip we dismiss as taking a few minutes might take a few hours. For example, that Bristol/Bath jaunt, which on today’s A4 would take roughly half an hour (discounting traffic) would have been a minimum of two hours for a speedy mail coach in 1785, while the full run from Bristol to London took sixteen hours.

Once we leave the roads, we’re talking even larger distances. Someone recently asked whether I could have the American heroine of my ninth book go back and forth between New York and Paris, since it would be kind of fun to see both places in the book—- to which my answer was that we wouldn’t see much of either, but we’d see a lot of time on board ship. No Jet Blue, no Concorde. The heroine of that book has been living in Paris for a few years and has only the vaguest idea of what life has been like back home in the Hudson Valley; letters that reach her are always already several months out of date. Even farther away, I shipped a bunch of characters off to India for my sixth book. That meant five months at sea, assuming the voyage was accomplished in a timely manner. It also means that any information going in either direction is delayed by five to six months. No email, no phone, no Twitter.

From a plotting standpoint, this means having to think very carefully about where you set your novel and where you take your characters, especially when young ladies are involved. I can get away with sending my heroine on a two hour drive with my hero to Bristol; a multiple day journey with an overnight would have been much harder to explain away. If there is going to be a journey, that journey has to be part of the story or carefully evaded by dispensing with it via ellipses or sticking it in between two chapters (aka “After three days on the road…”). For the purposes of characterization, it provides a salutary reminder of the limitations of our characters’ worlds—where they would have been able to go, what they would have been able to see, in a world before railroads, steamboats, air travel, and the internet.

01 February 2011

History as Backstory

In the beginning… Wait a moment, what is the start of a historical novel? Of course, it’s when things get interesting for the characters but when and how much should the novelist start feeding the historical backdrop into the story? How do you hook modern readers on the story without losing them in dry details about an era that ended before their grandparents were born?

I admit I’m pondering this as I write the proposal for a new historical fantasy. Writing any story’s beginning is brutally hard for me – don’t even get me started on penning opening lines! – and I usually go through five or six tries before I get a scene that I like. While I was tearing out my hair, it occurred to me that historical authors might have to consider a few more tricks when starting a book. After all, we have to sneak in backstory for our setting – things like war (Waterloo, anyone?), legal principles like women’s rights, wildly different styles of clothing and shelter, and so on – all while rapidly sucking the reader into the book. Contemporary authors can at least hope that somebody else will have told their reader about these basics. (Not that their job isn’t hard, too; some critics argue that the reader knows so much they’ll be picking holes in every detail and the author must get them Right. But I’m here to talk about the extra Big Stuff a historical author needs to sneak in early.)

So what is history as backstory? How soon does it need to hit a book’s pages?

A story is always about conflict, or trouble. That’s not going to change, no matter how recently it occurred. But what about how it’s told? Les Edgerton’s HOOKED gives several elements to consider. The Setup “sets up the opening scene by giving a snapshot that allows what will take place in the following scene to be clear to the reader.” Backstory is “anything and everything that’s happened up to the time of the inciting incident.” It’s easy to see how history fits into Setup and Backstory. Some description of a castle or ballroom in the Setup, perhaps a long-departed political event or maybe a key cultural change to fuel the Backstory…

But they’re not the important stuff. That comes with what I think of as the Starting Three: The Inciting Incident is what kicks off the story, “the crucial event – the trouble – that sets the whole story in motion.” The Initial Surface Problem “propels the protagonist to take action and assists in eventual revelation of” the Story-Worthy Problem, which “is the real problem that the protagonist must reconcile by the story’s end.” (As you might guess, a large array of Surface Problems usually accompany a solid Story-Worthy Problem.)

Where does history fit into these? It’ll obviously affect Setup and Backstory. For my westerns, I usually handled Setup by a single line at the beginning of each chapter giving the date and place. I used this to very quickly frame THE IRISH DEVIL’s opening scene, where my frustrated hero wakes up in a brothel during Arizona’s Apache Wars. But Backstory? Okay, that will definitely include stuff no contemporary character would think normal. When should it be introduced?

Now, Jane Austen wrote contemporaries but that was centuries ago. Today’s readers consider them historical novels. A male coworker told me he hated Jane Austen because her movies are all about balls and dances and “where’s the danger in that?” I blinked, then asked if he’d ever seen SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, the tale which exposes the dirty historical reasons for women’s fixation on Catching the Right Man.

In her SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, the Inciting Incident is Mr. Dashwood’s death. The Initial Story Problem is will John Dashwood take care of his stepmother and half-sisters? No, he doesn’t, which triggers the rest of the book. The Story-Worthy Problem is will impoverished Elinor and Marianne marry and be happy, despite society’s strict insistence on marrying only for money? Honestly, do we need to know exactly what year Mr. Dashwood’s death takes place? Not in my opinion, at least not when the book opens. However, the tension humming behind Mr. Dashwood’s request that John look after the ladies? Frankly, that’s not very twenty-first century when women usually have other financial options than depending on male relatives’ charity. Hmm, starting to feel the need for some historical backstory here. As for the Story-Worthy Problem? Why do our heroines wind up in that tiny cottage after living at that truly gorgeous estate? Why did the Colonel’s lost love descend from impoverished respectability into prostitution when he didn’t marry her – and is that fate truly possible for our young heroine? All this conflict makes me very sure historical backstory will come in very handy to understand all the dangers to my heroines.

Now I admit I throw history into my westerns a lot faster than that. For example, THE DEVIL SHE KNOWS’ Inciting Incident is teenaged Portia Townsend’s unwelcome arrival at a stagecoach depot deep in Arizona, during a series of Apache raids. Initial Story Problem is how can Gareth Lowell get Portia to Tucson alive and well so she can help succor her foster family? (Alive, yes – but in the process, he totally destroys her hunger for him.) Story-Worthy Problem is will Portia grow up and convince Gareth her home is with him – no matter where that is – in time to save their lives and an empire? Yup, I stuffed the history straight into the Inciting Incident and emphasized it in the Initial Story Problem and Story-Worthy Problem. (Hopefully, it was emotional and fully understandable!)

What about the new book? Mercifully, my historical fantasy is – so far – being fairly well behaved as to when it wants history spoon fed. The first chapter takes place in a setting so iconic that I only need to identify it within a century and a thousand square miles or so. (Yes!) However, the second chapter becomes very specific as to time and place, zeroing in on a single city in a single month and year. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

What about you? How early to you like to smooth your history into your story and how do you do it? What about your favorite historical novel?

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