History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

29 April 2011

Midnight cowboys: bounty hunters of the Old West

Bounty hunters go back to 1872, when the Supreme Court ruled they were part of the U.S. law enforcement system. Thus, the bounty hunter was pretty much a free agent; he was not held accountable to the rules of due process as sheriffs and marshals were. While this may have contributed to the general lawlessness of life in the Old West, it did ease the burden on local law officers, who in those days had trouble enough in their own back yards.

Pinkerton detective Charlie Siringo, for example, had a long and controversial career as a bounty hunter. Reputed to have “steely nerves” and the devil’s smarts, he tracked and brought back alive hundreds of robbers and murderers. (The incentive to bringing them back alive was that the bounty hunter’s fee was cut in half if the prisoner died.)

Charlie Siringo was unusual not only because of his spectacular success but because he used his real name, and that name was - contrary to common practice at the time - recorded. For most bounty hungers, anonymity was their protection.

Movies about the Old West have made the bounty hunger into a larger-than-life Good Guy, witness Richard Boone’s Paladin or Steve McQueen’s Josh Randall. But in reality high moral character was probably not the norm. Many town marshals and county sheriffs supplemented their incomes (and their reputations) with bounties, and their activities often straddled the fence between law-enforcing and law-breaking.

Charlie Siringo was unique. First of all, a photograph of the man shows a skinny guy with his shirt collar buttoned all the way to his neck, a definitely-not-10-gallon hat, a worn pair of jeans hitched up around his waist, and a single revolver hammed into a scruffy looking holster. Perhaps his nondescript appearance contributed to his success.

Born in 1855 in Matagorda County, Texas, Charles Angelo Siringo was the son of an Italian immigrant and an Irish mother. He had little schooling, worked as a cowboy in Texas, and rode as a trail driver for a herd of 2,500 longhorns over the Chisholm Trail from Austin to Kansas. During these years Siringo came to know Billy the Kid, and later he led a posse into New Mexico in pursuit of the outlaw and his gang.

In 1884, Charlie married Mamie Lloyd, left the Texas ranch where he worked, and set himself up as a merchant in Caldwell, Kansas. Then he wrote a book about his cowboy years: A Texas Cowboy: Fifteen Years on the Hurricane Deck of a Spanish Pony, published in 1855.

That made Charlie famous as the first cowboy autobiographer, and in 1886 he moved to Chicago to work for Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency. For the next 22 years, he worked all over the west, tracking outlaws as far as Alaska and Mexico City, and became famous for not only his cleverness but his marksmanship. Most of his arrests were made without violence - probably because of Siringo’s reputation for sharp-shooting.

Charlie Siringo wrote other books about his experiences as a Pinkerton detective; unfortunately, the Pinkerton agency objected to his revelations and he was forced to re-title it as A Cowboy Detective (1912) and substitute fictitious names for real ones. Charlie returned to Santa Fe and in 1916 was appointed a New Mexico Ranger. He then published A Lone Star Cowboy (1919), followed by History of “Billy the Kid” (1920).

In 1927 Houghton Mifflin published Riata and Spurs, a composite of his first two autographies. Again, Pinkerton threatened a lawsuit, but the book was reissued with a revised subtitle and substituted material on outlaws to replace Siringo’s detective experiences.

Charlie Siringo’s life and experiences aided in romanticizing the West and helped promulgate the myth of the American cowboy, adding to a store of legends about the western expansion and enriching our cultural heritage Charlie Siringo died in Altadena, California, in 1928.

27 April 2011

In Praise of Turnips

I recently wrote a brief essay on the history of the Turnip. Not the root vegetable, but the unlikely hero of my seventh book, The Mischief of the Mistletoe. Turnip was my experiment with a different brand of hero, a hero so far from alpha one might even call him gamma.

Turnip, aka Mr. Reginald Fitzhugh (although almost no-one calls him that) first blundered into my books as a disposable side character in my second book, The Masque of the Black Tulip. I had intended him purely for comic relief, but before he had uttered his second “deuced havey-cavey!” I knew he was there to stay.

Turnip emerges from a long literary tradition. Chaucer’s naïve narrator has a bit of Turnip in him (when the literary critics refer to a man as a good-natured bumbler, you know he’s of the lineage of Turnip), as does Jane Austen’s beloved Bingley, over whom Mr. Bennett shakes his head for “being so easy, that every servant will cheat you; and so generous, that you will always exceed your income”. Fortunately, Turnip’s income is quite large. On the distaff side of the bookshelf, you can find Turnip’s near relations scattered as comic side characters through the works of Georgette Heyer and her modern imitators. One of my favorite proto-Turnips is the endearing but awkward Nigel from Jill Barnett’s Bewitching, for whose sake there wasn’t a chapter thirteen (bad luck, don’t you know!).

For the most part, these lovable bunglers tend to be side characters. People like their heroes to be heroic, and we ascribe to heroism certain qualities of command. It’s hard to imagine Henry V at Agincourt stirring up his men with, “Today is called the day of Crispin, don’cha know. Er… least, I thought it was the day of St. Crispin. More like the afternoon of Crispin, really. Not that there’s anything wrong with afternoon and all that—it’s a scrumbly good time for a battle!” But there are other forms of heroism, and, as Georgette Heyer shows us with her unknown Ajax, sometimes an unimposing exterior can hide unexpected qualities of leadership and resolve. Despite the usual biases towards the alpha hero, one can find the odd leading man among the Turnip brigade. I had already written Turnip into being by the time I read Loretta Chase’s Mr. Impossible, but the minute I met Rupert Carsington, I knew him to be a kinsman of Turnip.

All of these are in Turnip’s DNA, but his real progenitor, the one to whom I doff my chapeau (or my carnation-embroidered waistcoat) is P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster. Like Bertie Wooster, Turnip is entirely at home in his own world and his own waistcoats. It takes so little to make them happy: a new waistcoat, a well-mixed drink, a weekend in the country. The Turnip/Woosters of the world are generous companions. They may be thoughtless, but they’re never malicious. What they might lack in erudition, they make up in kindness. As Wooster blunders into scrapes in the attempt to help out one benighted friend after another, just so Turnip can never refuse a friend in distress, even if his cunning plans sometimes turn out to be less cunning than expected. But that’s all right, too. Wooster has Jeeves to set him straight; my Turnip has his Arabella. In the end, the Woosters and Turnips of the world can always find someone to set the world to rights for them.

A final note on Turnip. Turnip may owe his basic nature to P.G. Wodehouse, but his name comes straight out of the British comedy Blackadder. For those of you who haven’t seen Blackadder, it deals with a rascally Englishman, Edmund Blackadder, scheming his way across various eras of British history with more or less success. (If one is looking for proto-Turnips, there are at least three in the Blackadder series: Sir Percy Percy of the first and second series, the Thicky Prince, aka the Prince Regent, in the third, and "George" in the fourth.) There are certain truths one learns from Blackadder: plans must be cunning; sheep are inherently amusing animals; and if one must have a vegetable, there’s no better vegetable to have than a turnip. I hear Baldrick is still saving up for his little turnip in the country. I had already used up my share of sheep jokes in the first book of the Pink series, so, when I needed an amusing name for a side character, what better than a Turnip?

Have you encountered any other heroes of the lineage of Turnip?

26 April 2011

Breaking Free

Into every author’s life a little rain must fall. One example is that all-too familiar moment when she – or he – can’t think of a single word to put down on that smug piece of blank paper.

The condition is called writer’s block. For me, it feels as if words are trapped somewhere deep inside my skull. They race around in a mad vortex, desperate to escape but far beyond my reach. My challenge is to break them free – and give me back my sanity. (Something that helps the book would be nice, too.)

Every author has different methods for cracking writer’s block. My recipes include the following.

I usually start by getting a good night’s sleep (which is rare, when I’m doing much writing), followed by a long shower. That works well for simple problems with a book, so much so that I keep pads of paper close by.

Then there are the bigger problems, the ones that make an author pace the floor for days or seek out wise counsel. Thank God for friends; they can solve almost anything.

Bone-deep problems in a book are like an enormous Gordian knot and can’t be solved by friends in a single session. (We have far too much fun talking about other stuff; at least my friends do!)

My favorite recipe for breaking free of writer’s block is to attend a baseball game.

Time stops inside a baseball stadium. The green field could be that of 1870, 1910, or 2011. The game moves according to its own rules, not an arbitrary clock ticking away minutes and seconds. Today’s players are compared against those from decades past.

Somehow watching the men perform their rhythmic, athletic dance across that timeless, verdant field spins my mind into a creative time warp. Half of it stays to watch the game – but half sneaks off to contemplate the problem underlying my writer’s block. And abracadabra, solutions start popping up like baseball players coming to bat.

One baseball game can break me free of writer’s block – and line me up for another huge chunk of writing. Thank God for a change of scene!

What’s your favorite trick for breaking free from writer’s block?

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25 April 2011

A Hoyden and a Hoyden's Evil Twin: Coming Soon to Small Screens Near You!

Small screen but big news! Our own Leslie Carroll, chronicler extraordinaire of royal marriages through history, will be sharing her wealth of historical knowledge (and maybe a little dish as well) on the occasion of the upcoming British royal wedding, tonight with Katie Couric on the CBS Evening News, 6:30 PM est.

To find out more about Leslie's books about royal marriages, royal affairs, and royal pains (those are the kids), click here.

While the smaller story (the one about the evil twin) deals with Pam Rosenthal's dark, comedic, alter-ego, Molly Weatherfield, author of the erotic cult classic, Carrie's Story, that Playboy listed as #12 (between Lolita and Fear of Flying) of the 25 sexiest novels ever written -- and which will be the subject of the Naked Reader Book Club's online discussion tomorrow night (Tuesday 4/26) 6-8 PM est.

To follow the discussion click here. To register in order to participate, click here. And if you're curious this other side of my writing, click here to get to the part of my website swathed in a plain brown wrapper.

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22 April 2011

Hooked on Classics Yet Again: The Face of Cleopatra

Quick: what did Cleopatra look like?

And if the beautiful face that comes most readily to mind is Elizabeth Taylor's from the lumbering 1963 movie extravaganza -- well, until recently it did for me too, and probably would have done so even before Taylor's lamented death last month.

With, I'll sheepishly confess, Nefretiri's even more beautiful one a close second in my muddled imagination of the ancient world -- at least until a quick trip to Wikipedia informed me of the little matter of 1300 years intervening between the reigns of the two Egyptian queens.

But even taking into account my historical imagination shamelessly in the thrall of pop history and history according to the movies, it turns out to be pretty understandable that I couldn't call an image to mind of a woman whose name has become a byword for fatal female attraction.

Because the images we have of Cleopatra -- from an age when public representation of rulers was ubiquitous -- are a paltry few, most reliably existing on coins like this one from 36 BC, minted, as Cleopatra's recent biographer, Stacy Schiff, tells us, to announce Antony and Cleopatra's political alliance.

Not that there weren't sculptures aplenty all over Egypt during Cleopatra's lifetime (and one in Rome, too: Julius Caesar had it done all in gold, in the temple of Venus that he built) but they haven't survived. For the simple reason that in the years after Antony and Cleopatra's defeat and suicide, as Rome went from Republic to Empire under Octavian (who renamed himself Augustus) her statues were systematically torn down and replaced by those of the conquering Roman emperor. Even as the ancient kingdom of Egypt lost the autonomy under Rome that Cleopatra had worked all her adult life to maintain -- and as, under Augustus, Rome created its own great literature, and a public mythology that outlasted Rome itself by some millenia, with Cleopatra's story transformed into history's great negative lessons about what happens when a woman gets too much power.

And if all this leaves little memory of the canny and self-possessed -- if notably unbeautiful -- woman on the coin, with her white diadem of office, a fortune in pearls around her neck and woven through her elaborate hairdo, and her knowing smile, Schiff's recent biography has achieved the job of historical reclamation to spectacular effect. The cover of which book -- at least in its current hardback edition -- manages to have it a number of provocative ways, subtly recalling the image on the coin in its aspect and its handling of the diadem, hair, and pearls, hinting at the fabled beauty we've come to assume even as it rotates the face away from us, turning it backward into shadow.

Particularly artful, that turn into shadow, given how little direct information we have about the woman, Cleopatra VII, who ruled Egypt for twenty-two years -- and how much of what we do "know" comes from a Roman political PR machine staffed by the likes of Virgil, Horace, and Plutarch (who was the main source for Shakespeare).

A family values kind of guy (for his citizenry if not for himself), Augustus clad his empire in a strict ideology of masculinist rectitude. How better to do this than to portray the richest person in the Mediterranean, who spoke nine languages -- a charismatic, profoundly well-educated woman who, in Schiff's words, "knew how to build a fleet, suppress an insurrections, control a currency, alleviate a famine"-- as a sexual wanton who ruled by nefarious wiles? Particularly because that same woman did, after all, sleep with two of the most powerful men of her time, have children with them, and at important junctures, cause both Julius Caesar and Marc Antony to do her bidding.

Cleopatra, as Schiff says, "stood at one of the most dangerous intersections in history, that of women and power." Not to speak, I have to add, of love and sexuality. And while the story we've inherited is sure to dazzle by dint of these sure-fire elements, the actual record is woefully short on specifics. Schiff reminds us that "there is no universal agreement on most of the basic details of her life, no consensus on who her mother was, how long Cleopatra lived in Rome, how often she was pregnant, whether she and Antony married, what transpired at the battle that sealed her fate, [even] how she died."

How then to try to tell the story in its own terms and not those that have shaped our own troubled imaginations of men and women, power and sexuality? Schiff says that she has "not attempted to fill in the blanks." "Mostly," she continues, "I have restored context." Which is an impressively modest way to describe the job she's done of absorbing and marshaling a massive array of historical evidence into a three-hundred page read of... can I say "breathtaking"... liveliness and clarity of style?

"How strange --" my husband said, picking up my copy and reading a page or two, "a biography written in the conditional tense." I hadn't realized it, but he was right. With so much of the record gone forever, one must speculate, make one's best judgments, be imaginative and yet precise in the same paragraph, and not yield an inch of ground when the evidence will allow it.

As in Schiff's impeccably controlled examination of Cleopatra's voyage to Rome. Beginning what's not known ("Whether she traveled for reasons of state or affairs of the heart -- or to introduce Caesar to the infant son he had not yet met -- is unclear") the biographer makes her way to firmer ground and states her case in a meticulous blaze of verbal confidence:

Two things are abundantly clear. She could not have left Egypt were she not firmly in control of the country. And she would not have dared to set foot in Rome had Julius Caesar not wanted her there.
A triumph of the conditional, and an inspiration for any journeyperson writer.

I can't recommend this book highly enough, and I'm curious what works of history (particularly in their writing) have thrilled and inspired you in similar ways.

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20 April 2011

When Did You Become a History Hoyden?

I was thinking last Sunday as I was getting ready to watch the new Upstairs Downstairs series on Masterpiece (who else remembers when it was called Masterpiece Theatre?) on PBS that the original series from the 1970s as well as other Masterpiece Theatre series such as Poldark and The Pallisers, probably mark that point when I well and truly fell madly in love with period drama, (not to mention men in poufy shirts, buff-colored breeches and shiny boots, with swords at their hips, and the full-skirted and full-bosomed women who loved them).

The Three Musketeers

I was also mad about the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

A Glorious Day, a musical adaptation of GB Shaw's Getting Married

And from earliest childhood I drew pictures of princesses with flowing tresses and flowing gowns. So I caught the royalty bug early on, too.

Guinevere and Lancelot in King Arthur

Some years ago in NYC, before I started writing, I founded a nonprofit professional theatre company dedicated to performing "neglected classics of the 19th c. English stage." We mixed it up a bit with plays from other centuries, and not-so-neglected classics as well, but I think the work I did with Survivor Productions fulfilled the history hoyden in me. Not only was I the producing artistic director, but I performed in most of the shows -- and I insisted on costuming them. I have never heard so many grown women whine than when I insisted that they wear corsets and petticoats, not just in performance but in rehearsal, because it changes everything about your deportment.

The Taming of the Shrew

This post is filled with photos from shows I produced and performed in with Survivor. I look at them now and clearly see the trajectory toward becoming a historical novelist.

James R. Bianchi as King Arthur

This post is also a tribute to a dear friend and one of my favorite costars, James R. Bianchi, who passed away suddenly last week at the age of 61. Jim played King Arthur to my Guinevere (in an 1895 iambic pentameter version of the story with underscoring by Sir Arthur Sullivan; we got the score from the Morgan Library); we were the first professional performers to play it in New York since it was first performed in the city by the original cast -- starring Henry Irving and Ellen Terry in January 1896! A few months after we did the show I brought Jim down to The Players club on Gramercy Park and showed him around the famous theatrical social club founded by American theatre luminary Edwin Booth. [In the interest of full disclosure, fellow hoydens Lauren and Isobel helped me murder a bottle or two of Prosecco at The Players one night.]

The Players club is like a living museum of American theatre history and as Jim and I were looking at some of the memorabilia we noticed a silver urn inscribed to The Players from Henry Irving in January 1896. They must have honored him when he was in NYC performing King Arthur. Unfortunately, they would not have feted his costar, Miss Terry, as the club was all male at the time and admitted women into the club house only on the rarest of occasions. In fact it took a petition just to have an honorary evening for Sarah Bernhardt!

Jim also played Reverend Morell to my Candida (Shaw's Candida),

and Chasuble to my Cecily (Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest).

He was a gentle spirit and the most generous of actors. He had all the talent in the world to be a star of the first magnitude but lacked the requisite steeliness that it all-too-often takes to make it to the top. But he was a success on his own terms and for that he was deeply admired and loved.

All of these shows, and many more, (I produced between 30 and 40 productions in about 8 seasons), not only fed my passion for acting, but my love of the past and my desire to recreate those eras and share those creations with the public. Sometimes I adapted novels (like Ivanhoe and The Prisoner of Zenda), taking them from the page to the stage. But not until now did I begin to realize how much my artistic career was shaped by going in the other direction as well -- from the stage to the page.

So, readers and authors, what was the spark for you? How did you become a history hoyden/geek/buff/aficionado?

13 April 2011

Celebrating Vienna Waltz: An Interview with Teresa (Tracy) Grant

Nothing is fair in love and war…

Europe’s elite have gathered at the glittering Congress of Vienna—princes, ambassadors, the Russian tsar—all negotiating the fate of the Continent by day and pursuing pleasure by night. Until Princess Tatiana, the most beautiful and talked about woman in Vienna, is found murdered during an ill-timed rendezvous with three of her most powerful conquests…

Suzanne Rannoch has tried to ignore rumors that her new husband, Malcolm, has also been tempted by Tatiana. As a protégé of France’s Prince Talleyrand and attaché for Britain’s Lord Castlereagh, Malcolm sets out to investigate the murder and must enlist Suzanne’s special skills and knowledge if he is to succeed. As a complex dance between husband and wife in the search for the truth ensues, no one’s secrets are safe, and the future of Europe may hang in the balance…

” Shimmers like the finest salons in Vienna…a perfect blend of history, mystery, romance, and suspense." - Deborah Crombie

“Meticulous, delightful, and full of surprises." - Tasha Alexander

“Glittering balls, deadly intrigue, sexual scandals. . .the next best thing to actually being there!” - Lauren Willig

“Absolutely gripping. . .historical intrigue at its finest." - Deanna Raybourn

“Murder, deception, and romance, drenched in a richly detailed portrait of early nineteenth century Vienna." - C.S. Harris

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

I’ve been fascinated by the Congress of Vienna ever since I first read about it in Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy when I was ten. Sophy and her father have been at the Congress and the tidbits mentioned about it are very intriguing. A wonderful lecture about the Congress my freshman year at Stanford further caught my interest. It was such an exciting time. After Napoleon was exiled to Elba, representatives of countries across Europe gathered in Vienna to redraw the Continental map. There was a great deal of intriguing, both political and romantic. In the autumn of 1814, the Congress of Vienna was the place to be. Imagine a combination of a modern international political conference and the Cannes Film Festival. Some claimed the delegates spent as much time waltzing as negotiating. The Festivals Committee, appointed by Austrian Emperor Francis I, felt it their duty to keep the foreign delegations entertained with events each more lavish than the last. There were masquerade balls, balloon ascensions, sleigh rides, a re-creation of a medieval tournament, nights at the theatre and the opera. I used the Congress as part of Charles and Mélanie’s backstory in Secrets of a Lady and Beneath a Silent Moon. I even referred to them investigating a murder there. I found myself really wanting to dramatize those events. There’s a vogue now for including more real historical people in historical fiction, and the Congress seemed the perfect opportunity to write a novel of intrigue that combined real and fictional historical people and events.

How does Vienna Waltz fit in with your Charles and Mélanie Fraser books?

Vienna Waltz is essentially the story of Charles and Mel’s adventures at the Congress of Vienna. Their time at the Congress is referred to Secrets of a Lady and Beneath a Silent Moon as I mention above. But my new publisher wanted new names, so they are called Malcolm and Suzanne Rannoch. However, I wrote the book using their “real” names to I could keep the characters and chronology consistent, and I think readers will recognize that they are very much the same characters. I like to think that Charles and Mel lead such adventurous lives it’s no wonder some of their adventures are chronicled under aliases :-).

Why are you Teresa Grant for Vienna Waltz?

Kensington wanted me to have a more historical sounding name. I chose Teresa, because Tracy can be a nickname for it, so I can still be Tracy online and interact with readers as Tracy. I’m still the same person, and I still write the same books.

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

Definitely. I know the era, but I’d never written a book set in Vienna. I’m used to most of my primary sources being in English. I don’t read German or Russian or Polish. Fortunately I do read French, and a lot of the diplomatic correspondence from the period is in French, but I also ended up reading a lot in translation. I delved into the events of the Congress, from the maneuvering around Saxony and Poland to the lavish parties such as the Carrousel, a re-creation of a medieval tournament (which turns unexpectedly violent in my fictional retelling) and a Beethoven concert which is the scene of the book’s denouement (and a--fictional--assassination attempt).

I also got to know the real people who were important players at the Congress and who are major characters in Vienna Waltz. French foreign minister Prince Talleyrand, who supported the French Revolution, left France during the Reign of Terror, returned to France during the Directoire, became Napoleon Bonaparte’s foreign minister, and survived Napoleon’s downfall to represent the restored royalist government at the Congress, where he adroitly managed to maneuver himself into the heart of the negotiations despite France being the defeated power. His beautiful young niece-by-marriage, Dorothée, who he brought to the Congress as his hostess and fell in love with, despite being thirty-nine years her senior (and despite the fact that her mother had recently been his mistress). Lovely, unhappy Tsarina Elisabeth of Russia who at the Congress found herself reunited with Adam Czartoryski, the charismatic Polish patriot who was probably the love of her life (and had also been her husband’s best friend). Her husband, Tsar Alexander, and the Austrian foreign minister, Prince Metternich, who were fierce rivals at the negotiating table and were entangled with two of the same women, Princess Catherine Bagration (“the naked angel”) and the brilliant Wilhelmine, Duchess of Sagan (Dorothée’s sister). Mysteries always involve past secrets. In Vienna Waltz I was able to weave some real life secret scandals into the plot.

What did you find most challenging in writing Vienna Waltz?

Weaving together real and fictional people and events. This is the first time I’ve had real historical people as such major characters in one of my books. It’s a bit intimidating putting fictional words into the mouth of a real person and involving them in fictional events. Lauren and I talked about this a year ago when I was writing Vienna Waltz and she was writing The Orchid Affair (that’s us in New York more recently talking Napoleonic spies). I struggled with what it was fair to have a real person do, a particularly complicated question in a novel of intrigue. I spent a long time debating how far I could have Talleyrand go in his involvement in my fictional intrigues. But as Talleyrand was a master intriguer, I decided I could go pretty far with him in the book.

Then there the challenge of interweaving events. As I mention above, Catherine Bagration and Wilhelmine of Sagan were rivals in society at the Congress and were both involved with Tsar Alexander and Prince Metternich. I invented a third, fictional woman, Princess Tatiana Kirsanova, who is also involved with both Metternich and the tsar, who is found murdered on the night she has summoned Metternich, Tsar Alexander, the hero, Malcolm Rannoch (who is possibly her lover) and his wife, Suzanne, to her rooms, all at the same time. Not only did I have to weave the events of the book through the events at the Congress, I had to interweave Tatiana’s backstory with the histories of Metternich and Tsar Alexander and others whose path she crosses. I also had to weave events involving Malcolm and Suzanne's years in Spain and Portugal during the Peninsular War with the historical record.

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

The timeline. It’s difficult to stretch a murder investigation out over too many days. I compressed real events slightly, so I could make the Carrousel the midpoint of the book and center the denouement round the Beethoven concert. I also enhanced Dorothée’s role in orchestrating the Carrousel and had Suzanne working with her. And I gave two of the real men who performed at the Carrousel fictional cases of the mumps so Malcolm and his friend Fitz could take their places.

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*

Ditto. There was a glass instrument called a harmonium in the drawing room of the British delegation’s lodgings in the Minoritenplatz. It had a pedal and somehow I got it into my head it had keys like a piano as well. Only to learn otherwise from a (very kind) reader. Yet another reason to hope for a second edition—so I can correct it. I even have the young Schubert, who is also a character in the book, play the harmonium. Which he can still do—but without referring to keys.

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

Malcolm Rannoch/Charles Fraser is deceptively reserved. He tends to duck out of large entertainments and hide out in the library with a book. (Fortunately for his diplomatic career he has a very socially adept wife). He also plays the piano and has a habit of quoting Shakespeare (he played Prince Hal in Henry IV Part I when he was at Oxford). And being good at code breaking runs in his family, which comes in particularly handy in Vienna Waltz.

What are you planning to work on next?

I just turned the next book in the series in to my editor. It’s a sequel to Vienna Waltz set in June 1815. Napoleon has escaped from Elba and returned to power in France. Malcolm and Suzanne have gone to Brussels with the Duke of Wellington as the allies prepare to fight the French. The book begins a few days before the battle of Waterloo, with Malcolm going to a rendezvous with an agent which turns into an ambush. A decorous young British wife is killed accidentally in the crossfire. Or perhaps, Malcolm and Suzanne discover as they investigate, it wasn’t so accidental. The last part of the book goes back and forth between the battle itself (where Malcolm is pressed into carrying messages) and Brussels where Suzanne is nursing the wounded. Writing the sequences at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball (which was interrupted by the news that Napoleon was on the march) and the battle itself was both exciting and challenging because they're such iconic historical events.

I’m now starting a third book in the series, set in Paris after Waterloo during the White Terror, when the Ultra Royalists turned on Bonapartists.

And I’ve just released The Mask of Night, which is set in 1820, just after Secrets of a Lady, as a Kindle e-book.

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12 April 2011

Historic Garden Week

Every scene needs to have all five senses mentioned in it in order to be complete. But how can an author research the tastes, scents, and textures for centuries-dead plants? Many of these varieties are no grown and often the species have disappeared, too. Books provide words and sometimes pictures but that’s not the same as sniffing a rose, biting into an heirloom tomato, or rubbing a leaf of lamb’s ear between one’s fingers.

Thankfully, gardeners also love to explore the past. Even better, many enjoy restoring historic gardens and introducing others to their glories. Virginians celebrate spring with Historic Garden Week, when historic and modern gardens are thrown open to raise money for historic conservation. It’s affiliated with the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program, which showcases America’s best private gardens.

This year’s 78th Historic Garden Week offers many spectacular gardens from April 16th – 23rd, all of them open rain or shine. Thomas Jefferson’s boyhood home at Tuckahoe Plantation with its spectacular garden is a special feature. Highlights of the more than 250 attractions available, including an early 19th century mountain top village and the grand Victorian townhouses along Richmond’s Monument Avenue, can be previewed here. Each region of the state offers its own calendar of events, such as this one for Alexandria and Northern Virginia. (I used last year’s highlights to research my April release, THE SHADOW GUARD, which involves one of Virginia’s historic estates.)

Of course, some historic districts – like Williamsburg – and great estates – like Thomas Jefferson’s masterpiece at Monticello – are regulars. Every year, I swear I’ll spend an entire week at Williamsburg savoring all of the glorious gardens and filling up gigabytes of disk space with photos! And every year, I’m so overwhelmed by all the options that I wind up flitting from place to place, if the weather’s good. If the weather’s bad, I pick out a single favorite and head there.

Mount Vernon’s gardens are a fabulous time capsule. Great care has been taken to keep everything the way it was in the late eighteenth century, when George and Martha Washington lived there, down to the views across the Potomac River. Even the trees on the far side of the river are the same species as Washington knew. He’d also recognize the dumb beasts laboring on his land, since they come from breeds who served there in his day, even when some varieties only have a few hundred individual animals left. (His current female guests’ attire might startle him, though.)

The General’s special delight was the upper garden, or house garden. Ever a pioneer in agricultural matters, his design was influenced by some of England’s most leading-edge designers. The flowers he grew here were featured in many letters and bloom again today – larkspur, foxglove, crown imperial, cardinal flower, jasmine and guelder roses. Their color and scent is overwhelming on a fine day. Even in winter, the boxwood hedges that Washington planted to border the flower beds still provide enough structure and enough of that distinctive tangy sweet boxwood fragrance to evoke his era.

Martha Washington was much more interested in the lower garden, or kitchen garden, which yielded most of the herbs and vegetables used by the estate. It too has been restored using design books studied by the General and is worked using techniques he would have recognized. It’s a brick-walled, sunny spot, placed close to the stables with its infinite supply of manure. Here beds edged with low-growing herbs produce asparagus, beets, beans, and other vegetables, while apple and pear trees form waist-high fences.

Finally, there’s the “little garden” where Washington grew seeds, many of them rare and unusual which had been sent to him by admirers from far away, including foreign countries. There’s also the fruit orchard, which in the spring is alight with blossoms.

The gardens are very popular, especially in spring and summer, yet I can always find a quiet corner, thanks to their eighteenth century design. (Ah yes, plotting inspiration!) I can sniff flowers, measure dimensions – it’s very cozy between planting beds! – and study the varied colors of heirloom vegetables. It’s bliss for a historical author.

Where do you go to research the five senses, as a historical author? Is there any particular sense that you like to focus on?

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11 April 2011

Horse Shopping with Susanna Fraser

by Susanna Fraser

Available Now!

Lucy Jones is a nobody. As an orphan she was reluctantly taken in by her wealthy relatives, the Arringtons, on the condition that she be silent and obedient, always. When her lifelong infatuation with her cousin Sebastian is rewarded by a proposal of marriage, she's happy and grateful, even though the family finds excuses to keep the engagement a secret.

James Wright-Gordon has always had the benefits of money and a high station in society, but he is no snob. He's very close to his sister, Anna, who quickly falls for the dashing Sebastian when the families are brought together at a wedding party. Meanwhile, James is struck by Lucy's quiet intelligence, and drawn to her despite their different circumstances in life.

Lucy suspects that Sebastian has fallen for Anna, but before she can set him free, a terrible secret is revealed that shakes both families. Will James come to her rescue—or abandon her to poverty?

Some writers don’t start a book until they’ve put together an elaborate outline. Others interview their characters or write character biographies. The more visually oriented make collages. I’ve been known to make soundtracks…and I take my characters horse shopping.

That’s right, horse shopping. You see, I was a horse mad child. I never got the chance to learn to ride, but I spent my childhood reading horse books and dreaming horse dreams. I used to ride my bike around the yard, following courses I’d laid out to represent the Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont. Most of the time I was pretending to be the first woman jockey to win the Triple Crown while riding a filly.

My characters tend to share at least some of my interests, and of course horses were an important part of life 200 years ago. So my heroes and heroines get to live my dream of everyday riding, and I enjoy matching just the right horse to each character. I’ve discovered that figuring out a character’s taste in horses tells me a lot about the kind of person he or she is.

For example, in the historical fantasy manuscript I’m working on I have a heroine who was raised to value the practical and utilitarian. So when I took her horse shopping, I expected her to pick a plain, solid, sturdy horse. But she showed no interest in the nice brown off-the-track Thoroughbred mare that I thought would suit her. I asked her what she did want, and the next thing I knew, we were looking at Andalusians. She picked this spectacular, showy, Baroque horse with a long, flowing mane and tail, because now that she could pick what she really wanted, she wanted something beautiful. The Spanish horse was just as sturdy and reliable as the thoroughbred, she informed me, but with the added bonus of looking spectacular.

Realizing my heroine wanted a flashy horse opened up a whole new window on her personality. She isn’t innately practical and utilitarian, she was just conditioned to act that way. I realized she loves beautiful things, and she also likes to show off sometimes--which impacts everything from how she dresses to how she acts in a crisis.

James, the hero of my current release, A Marriage of Inconvenience, breeds Arabians. His favorite mount is not a sleek black stallion, but a dappled gray mare. Arabians were an obvious choice for him, because if he were a horse that’s the breed he’d be. You see, he’s handsome, well-built, and elegant, but he’s probably the shortest romance hero you’ll read about this year. As my fellow horse lovers know, that’s very much like an Arabian. They’re small, but why would you care when they’re so gorgeous? James is a confident man. He doesn’t care that he’s short, so why would he need to ride a huge horse to make himself feel taller? On an Arabian, he’s a beautiful man on a beautiful horse, and they’re just the right size for each other.

As for why James rides a gray mare rather than a black stallion, a black stallion just struck me as a little too obvious. Every hero rides a black stallion, and James doesn’t want to be every hero, he wants to stand out from the crowd. He thinks, and I agree, that there are few things more beautiful than the glossy coat of a silver dappled horse shining in the sunshine.

What about you? What kind of horse does your character like to ride? Do you have an unusual method of brainstorming? Or do you have a childhood dream like my love of horses that you never fulfilled but has stayed with you into adulthood? I wish I could give one commenter a pony, but instead I’ll offer a copy of A Marriage of Inconvenience.

08 April 2011

Hear that lonesome whistle blow . . .

I live just one mile from Roaring Camp, and I can hear the steam engine whistle from my deck. It has a breathy “tu-whoot-ey” sound and never fails to send a chill up my spine.

Roaring Camp came into being shortly after mountain man Isaac Graham settled in the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains in the 1830s; the Mexican authorities named his settlement “Roaring Camp.” Graham is famous for establishing the first saw mill west of the Mississippi, in 1842,where he thoughtfully left standing the “big trees” coastal redwoods.

Around 1875 the area’s first railroad, the Santa Cruz & Felton, carried tourists to the virgin stand of trees and to the beach; later, the Roaring Camp & Big Trees Narrow Gauge railroad began operation and has been running ever since. Roaring Camp owns several Shay locomotives, a Heisler, Climax, and five diesel engines.

Shay locomotives, designed in 1872, dominated western U.S. logging operations. These engines have provocative names and interesting histories. The Dixiana Shay, built by Lima Locomotive Works, served on six different short-line railroads before coming to Roaring Camp. This was the first locomotive acquired by Roaring Camp founder F. Normal Clark, who inaugurated commercial steam train service from Roaring Camp.

The Tuolumne Heisler was ordered by the Hetch Hetchy & Yosemite Valleys Railroad in 1899 to operate at a sawmill near Tuolumne City, California. She was was the last operating steam engine in commercial lumber service at Tuolumne; designed by Charles L. Heisler and built by Stearns Manufacturing Company in Erie, Pennsylvania, the Heisler was favored by lumbermen for dependable operation up steep grades and tight-turning mountain tracks. In 1962 she was saved from the scrap heap and purchased for $7,000.

The Sonora Shay is a 60-ton Shay engine purchased from the Butte & Plumas Railroad after retirement from long years of service. The Sonora is one of only 83 Shays left in North America, and is one of the few fully operational Shay engines in existence today.

The Kahuku Baldwin dates back to 1890 when it was ordered from Baldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia. This 12-ton narrow-guage steam locomotive was transported by sailing ship 14,000 miles around Cape Horn to her new home in Oahu, Hawaii, to carry sugar cane from the fields to the mill. The engine chugged between the peaks of the Koolau Mountains and the waters of the Hawaiian seas and served under four flags: the monarcharies of King David Kalakaua and his successor, Queen Liliuokalana, the Republic of Hawaii, and ultimately the U.S. Territory of Hawaii.

Retired from service in 1947, the engine was again loaded aboard a ship and transported across the Pacific where she was displayed at the Sutro Museum at the Cliff House in San Francisco. The 76-year-old steam locomotive was in running order, so Norman Clark of Roaring Camp purchased her, loaded her aboard a heavy equipment truck, and brought her to Felton.

Besides the haunting sound of the train whistles, which I can hear all day long, all year long, Roaring Camp offers another unbeatable slice of historical life with the Civil War Re-enactments held each year on Memorial Day weekend. If you ever witness one of these authentic-down-to-the-last-uniform, field surgeon, and cannon shot, do take a box of Kleenex; the experience is moving enough to make you weep.

Source: Roaring Camp Railroad History brochures.

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01 April 2011

Give us Bread But Give us Roses

In the history hoyden imagination, it's often the clothes that propel us back in time and suggest alternative earlier selves. How many of you read (and/or write) Regency historicals because you can't resist the exquisite neo-Grecian draped simplicity of the early 1800s (not to speak of what the guys were wearing)?

Or are you the sort who'd rather imagine yourself moving to the swish of heavy Georgian silk?

Or... if you picture yourself as the smart, independent-minded woman you (or I) surely would have been 100 years ago, you might well see yourself in a shirtwaist and simple, straight dark skirt.

"Waist" was the word for blouse then, and though some of them were frilly, Gibson Girl concoctions like the ones to the left, others were simpler affairs, like the one below...

...which perhaps, if you were a recent immigrant to this country like my grandmothers in, say 1910, you might have worn to work at one of the 450 factories in New York City that made shirtwaists.

The look was wildly popular; the demand helped New York City become a fashion and garment-manufacturing mecca, and the style became a hallmark of young women who didn't have to depend upon a man (or not quite yet, anyway) for their subsistence. Or as my friend Jeff Weinstein put it last week in a wonderful blog post, shirtwaists were "turn-of-the-century blouses that had modernity written all over them, the free woman's uniform -- even if she couldn't vote."

"Think of them," Jeff urges, "as cotton Nikes." Both because of the freedom both products promise, and, he adds insightfully, because "in both cases it's been convenient to forget who makes them."

But this week, on this history lovers' blog, I hope we don't forget who made the shirtwaists, and the Nikes, and so much of the clothing we love, both from now and from then. Because last Friday was the hundredth anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, when 146 workers, mostly girls and women like those in the picture below, died because the factory owners couldn't be bothered to provide the most minimal safety standards.

And after you read more about them in Jeff's superb longer piece here, (having been sure to check out the rest of the photographs he provides), remember as well that the exquisite muslins and dimities of Regency England came from Manchester, where in 1819, almost 100 years before the Triangle fire, a peaceful demonstration largely of mill-workers was attacked by the Manchester Yeomanry.

The rout is portrayed in this Cruikshank cartoon, which I got from Wikipedia, where I learned that of the 684 reported dead or wounded at what became known as the Peterloo Massacre, "...at least 168 were women, four of whom died either at St Peter's Field or later as a result of their wounds," and that "it has been estimated that less than 12% of the crowd was made up of females, suggesting that women were at significantly greater risk of injury than men by a factor of almost 3:1."

And where I also learned that at least part of that 12% represented "female reform societies... formed in northwest England during June and July 1819, the first in Britain" and that "many of them were dressed distinctively in white, and some formed all-female contingents, carrying their own flags."

I wish I could remember where I read that many of them also wore greenery in their hats, which detail I find overwhelmingly moving, and which probably had something to do with the title I gave this post, about the idealism and lyricism woven into these struggles, most beautifully captured in the poem, "Bread and Roses," soon to be a song, by James Oppenheim, published in 1911, a few months after the Triangle Fire, and associated with the successful strike in the textile mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts, and sung by a contingent of women workers:

(You can hear it sung here as you read it)

As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing: Bread and Roses! Bread and Roses!

As we go marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women's children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses.

As we go marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too.

As we go marching, marching, we bring the greater days,
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life's glories: Bread and roses, bread and roses.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; bread and roses, bread and roses.

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