History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

30 November 2011

Characters Downstairs

As an historical novelist writing about early 19th century aristocrats, servants inevitably play a large role in my books. Particularly valets and ladies' maids, who were intimately involved in their employers' day-to-day lives. I confess I find this a difficult relationship to juggle, and I often worry that my own modern-day sensibilities make me not do it justice. I want to be true to the period. On the other hand, there’s a wide range of behaviors in any era and people are people with the same emotions and compassion. It’s hard to believe there wouldn’t, at least in some cases, be a strong emotional bond between two people who spent as much time together as valets and ladies’ maids and their employers.

When I blogged about this on my own website, the post elicited some fascinating comments. Some pointed out that servants, particularly valets and ladies' maids, can often have interesting insights into the heroes and heroines and their situation. They are close observers of their employers' lives yet at at the same time a little removed. Our own Pam Rosenthal does this brilliantly with the heroine's maid in The Slightest Provocation. The maid is quite uncompromising about her mistress's faults and the heroine, though a very sympathetic person, is often quite blind to her maid's feelings.

Other readers pointed out that in a number of novels the heroes and their valets have served together in the military, and that these shared adventures can create a bond that breaks down class boundaries, at least to a degree. One wonderful example of this type of relationship is Dorothy Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey and Bunter, who served together in Word War I. Neither is the sort to verbalize his feelings, but the respect and affection between them is evident. My mom and I had a hero and his valet (his former batman) with a similar sort of relationship (less formal actually) in one of our Anthea Malcolm Regencies, A Touch of Scandal.

Lord Grantham and Mr. Bates in Downton Abbey have also served together in the military. One of the things I love about Downton Abbey is the subtlety and insight with which it handles the relationships between the family and the staff. You see the intolerable nature of the whole system and yet the earl and countess are decent people who genuinely care about their staff. Which makes the fact that it’s an intolerable system all the more interesting.

One of my favorite hero/valet relationships is Lord Damerel and his valet Marston in Georgette Heyer's Venetia. Neither has been in the military, but they have had a lot of adventures together all over the Continent. Their friendship is understated but evident, and to the disapproval of some of the other servants, neither behaves precisely like a typical master and valet. I love the scene at the end where Marston congratulates Damerel and Venetia on their betrothal. Marston is one of my favorite valet characters.

In my own series, the heroine Suzanne and her maid Blanca have a distinctly atypical relationship. Both are playing roles, just as Suzanne is playing a role in her marriage and her position as a diplomatic wife. While Suzanne and Blanca conform to the roles of aristocratic lady and lady's maid in public (including to a large degree in front of Suzanne's husband) in private they are friends. Both women can be honest with each other in ways they can’t even with the men in their lives. Which is fun for me to play with as the author. Suzanne's discomfort with the whole idea of servants (while at the same time she acknowledges the luxuries of the world she lives in) reflects some of my own discomfort.

Suzanne's husband Malcolm and his valet Addison have a much more conventional relationship, yet they too have shared adventures and they too are very fond of each other, though neither would put those feelings into words. Their relationship, as a reader pointed out in the comments on my website, is based “more on action than words.” Both are hemmed in by the roles they were born to (even though Malcolm in many ways disagrees with those roles). And then there’s the fact that neither is good at putting his feelings for anyone into words – including the women they love.

What are some of your favorite valet, lady's maid, and other servant characters in books? Writers, what challenges have you faced in writing about the "downstairs" world?

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28 November 2011


Over Thanksgiving I had a discussion with a re-enactor girlfriend in which she stated that she hadn’t seen lace used much as a trimming on gowns in the Georgian era, but that she was reading it all the time in books, and it bugged her. While I agree that the use of lace (or “blond” as it was sometimes known) doesn’t appear to have been as widely used as self-fabric trims, eyelash trims, and other bits of “passimentarie”, it was used*. Here are a few examples:

Saque c. 1770s.

This beautiful silk gown is trimmed with lace both at the edges of the bodice and sleeves as well as in patterns on the petticoat and skirts.

Round gown c. 1800-1805

This silk gauze gown from the beginning of the 19th century has a large lace frill about the neckline as well as bits of matching lace on the short sleeves.

Apron-front gown c. 1810-1812

This taffeta gown as a simple lace frill all the way around the neckline.

*It should be noted, however, that the two most common uses I see in books are lace trim on shifts/chemises or on corsets, and this IS incorrect for the era. I don’t start to see such trims on extant garments until the mid-Victorian period (c. 1850-1860).

26 November 2011

Thanksgiving day adventure

On Thanksgiving day I walked (along with some movie actors in "The Way")the pilgrim road to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain! The reason I found this so fascinating and satisfying is that the movie was filmed on-site in Southern France and northern Spain, and this is the setting for my very first novel--the story of doomed love between a Muslim sheik and a Christian novice in the 12th century.

Back in 1993, I was a raw beginner at novel writing, but I got hooked one day by a photograph of a darkly handsome Arab man with the most mesmerizing expression in his eyes... and that started me thinking about what story might be behind that look. So I started in... and I wrote for 7 months, rewriting the whole thing every few chapters as I learned something new about writing fiction (after 30 years as an aerospace editor I knew nothing - absolutely nothing - about writing fiction).

Long story short: I finished this work and on a whim sent it in to Harlequin Historicals. Lo and behold, the editor who ended up with it in his (Don D'Auria's) lap liked it and sent it "upstairs" to the head editor, with a recommendation to buy. This he kindly told me when I inquired by telephone... and in a later telephone call he related the problem.

The head editor read the ending, screeched, and said "I wouldn't touch this with a ten-foot pole! It's a hot potato."

This was about the time that Salmon Rushdie had fled to London with a Muslim fatwa on his head, so I can (somewhat) understand her hesitation.
Well, not hesitation--it was flat-out rejection.

I should have been crushed, but I was too naive to be deterred. I then started another novel, a western about my grandparents' courtship on adjacent ranches in Oregon, and that book ("Western Rose") was bought by the same editor.

O frabjous day!

But each and every day since then I have mooned over my 12th century Spain love story... and that's why I loved "The Way." However, I confess I was watching the scenery so closely I missed a lot of the fine acting of the principal characters.

And that's why I'm working on this 12th century Spain story again... revising extensively because I've learned a lot in the 18 years since I first started writing fiction. And thinking again about that Arab man with the arresting face and haunting expression in his eyes . . .

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23 November 2011

Happy Thanksgiving! Hope everyone is enjoying the holiday, family, and friends (the latter two still apply even if you're not an American).

We'll see you next week!

21 November 2011

I'm over on Man Candy Monday's blog today talking about historical films and the men we love to see in them. Tonight (6PM PST), I'll be joining the gang on Twitter under the hastag #ManCandyMonday to see everyone's contributions to the topic.

Hope to see you there!

18 November 2011

Research on the Run

As the days grow shorter and colder, I find myself looking for ways to investigate in comfort. You know, look up historical facts while wearing my pajamas and sipping hot cocoa, rather than after driving downtown and hunting down a parking spot. Or visit an eighteenth century frigate at sea, as in my photo.

Thankfully, modern technology is more than happy to ride to my aid. A laptop equipped with wireless can quickly connect me to the Internet and the wonderful variety of websites to be found there.

Tablets, such as the iPad and its Android cousins, offer even more comfortable ways to do research. When something weighs less than a pound and a half, it’s easy to slip it into a purse then pull it out later for some quick dives into history.

My household is graced with four iThings – uh, that’s members of the Apple family that can be used for research. The apps that suck me in the fastest are (in alphabetical order):

Bing: This app has the snazziest interface ever for a search app. I swear I look stuff up, just to play with it. Luscious. Free.

Bodleian: Yes, the Bodleian Library at Oxford University is digitizing their treasures in high-def. There’s truly astonishing stuff here, like ancient Roman scrolls and an unfinished manuscript from Jane Austen. There’s also a rich interactive experience, including a timeline, games, explanations from the curators, and the opportunity to suggest the next treasures to be digitized. Free.

British Library
: Every 19th century book in its collection is here. Bliss, total bliss – and they keep adding more from other collections! Free.

Dictionary.Com: Free, fun, and quirky. And did I mention free?

Google Search: Hey, it’s Google, what else do I need to say? It’s nowhere near as much fun as Bing, but you need to have it, right? Free.

Oxford English Dictionary: Yes, that’s right, you too can have the entire Oxford English Dictionary on your iPad – fully searchable and in a readable font! I’m in heaven. Dictionaries for other languages are also available. $54.99

The Civil War Today: The History Channels brings you a day-by-day account of the American Civil War, complete with maps, photos, newspapers, and diaries. Plus, there’s a game and amazing factoids to surprise you, just when you thought you knew what to expect. Amazing. $5.99

Virtual History Roma: Gorgeous graphics in three dimensions and tons of facts bring to life Imperial Rome. You can zoom in and rotate objects to find hidden delights. I wish more cities and ages could be explored this way. Free.

What’s your favorite app? Do you have a website you can’t live without?

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15 November 2011

Blurring the Lines

Recently, I had the great honor of contributing to an anthology of stories inspired by Jane Austen (there's a reason the title of the anthology is Jane Austen Made Me Do It!). There are some wonderful Austenian stories in there by Regency veterans such as Syrie James and Jo Beverly. Having spent a good deal of time in 1804 recently, I decided it would be fun to do something modern, something a little quirky... something involving a team of ghost hunters and a "real" Northanger Abbey. I call it my Scooby-Doo story.

This has now spawned my absolute favorite angry email. My correspondent irately informed me that if I had taken five minutes to Google, as he did, I would have known that Northanger Abbey wasn't a real place. And I should be ashamed of myself. Hmph.

Okay, so he didn't actually say hmph. It was, however, highly implied.

Of course, Northanger Abbey isn't a real place. (As far as I know-- there are more things in heaven and England....) That's the fun of it. Maybe it says something about my lifelong desire to slip into the pages of the books I'm reading, but I've always enjoyed blurring the lines between fiction and fact, incorporating real people and places into fiction, and, on the opposite end, treating fictional people and places as real.

I've played this game before, with my first book, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, in which the premise was that the Scarlet Pimpernel had been real, and had given rise to a host of other flowery spies, including the Purple Gentian, the Pink Carnation, and their dastardly French foe, the Black Tulip. I once overheard someone solemnly telling a friend that, naturally, I'd made up the Pink Carnation, but everyone knew the Scarlet Pimpernel had been a real person. As a former historian, there's a little fact problem there. As a writer, it de lights me that Baroness Orczy's character has become so real that people believe he existed in the flesh as well as in fiction. (And, to be fair, there was actually a spy running around France under the alias Le Mouron. Sadly, he wasn't Sir Percy Blakeney and he didn't look like Anthony Andrews. In real life, he was French and no one sought him here or there.)

It always thrills me when I come across references to fiction as fact in other peoples' novels. There's an old Regency by Elsie Lee, The Wicked Guardian, in which a character refers disparagingly to "that Blakeney boy" who ran off to play spy in France. Sara Donati incorporates Diana Gabaldon's Claire Fraser in her Into the Wilderness. I was, as you can imagine, over the moon when our own Mary Blayney decided to incorporate my Lord Richard Selwick into her Traitor's Kiss.

How do you feel about fictional people or events being incorporated into fiction as fact?

(And, authors, I know I probably shouldn't ask this, but I can't resist.... What's your favorite angry email?)

13 November 2011

Madame Pompadour's Backside

History Today's blog (URL below) is running a profile on a series of racey, humorous caricatures from the mid to late 1700's. The November issue of the journal History Today features 'The Other Cheek', and authors Colin Jones and Emily Richardson reveal who a little-known collection of obscene and irreverent caricatures targetting Madame de Pompadour from a book of drawings entitled the Livre de caricatures tant Bonnes que mauvaises.

Many of the drawings are a little--well, what should I say? They reflect French humor of the time (the image posted here is very tame compared to many of them). You can see them all here:

The cartoonist, one of Madame Pompadour's contemporaries, told it like he saw it, that's for sure. The 'Book of Caricatures both Good and Bad' was composed over almost 30 years from the 1740s to the 1770s. The man responsible for them was Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin, who was, from the 1740s, embroidery designer at the royal court. He never fessed up to drawing these images (it would have certianly cost him his head) but it seems like everyone knew it was him.

Powerful women in history have always intrigued me and Madame Pompadour had plenty of power. That she was the subject of such wickedly cutting cartoons is proof of her domination of the political scene at the time. Interesting to see this from era when a different kind of media ruled. No way would these cartoon ever see the light of print today. What do you think? Would a powerful woman today be publically spoofed like this? Or a man, for that matter?

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09 November 2011

Theatrical References

I spent this past weekend in Ashland for the closing weekend of the season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Crisp air, gorgeous autumn leaves, snow-capped mountains, lovely time with friends, and a glimpse of three of our own Leslie's books prominently displayed in the Tudor Guild gift shop. And three wonderful plays, all of which I was seeing for the second (or in the case of Measure for Measure the fourth) time.

One thing I noticed is that all three plays dealt with theater in a variety of ways. Saturday I saw Ghost Light, a fabulous, wrenching world premiere developed by Jonathan Moscone and Tony Taccone, written by Taccone, and directed by Moscone, It's a wonderfully theatrical play both in style (moving back and forth in time, combining elements of dream and reality) and in substance, as the central character struggles to come to terms with his father's assassination while directing a production of Hamlet. The scenes of the production team discussing how to handle the Ghost of Hamlet's father, and of Jon, the central character, working with his acting students and auditioning actors are spot-on and at moments hysterically funny.

Saturday I saw a matinee of Julius Caesar, a play, as the production notes pointed, filled with theatrical references, from the assassins meeting in the porch of Pompey's theater to the political theater of Marc Antony's funeral oration (not to mention the fact that Antony's scene where he seemingly makes peace with the conspirators just after the assassination is a brilliant piece of acting). That evening I saw Measure for Measure, another play where the story is largely played out upon the public stage (particularly in the denouement) while a key plot element involves one woman playing the part of another in a secret tryst.

During breaks between plays I was working on a sequence in my current WIP that takes place backstage at the Comédie-Française. I love theatrical references in books and plays. Actual scenes backstage and onstage become metaphors for the roles we all play - with different people, in different aspects of our lives. For the fine line between illusion and reality, for the difficulty of discerning truth amid artifice and the way that theatrical artifice can sometimes ring with truth. Reading Isobel's great interview with Joanna Bourne on Monday, I was thinking that a large part of why I love writing about spies is that like actors they too play many parts, though on a rather more dangerous stage. The sequence I was working on set at the Comédie-Française gave me lots of opportunities to play with the parallel, as it involves the escape from Paris during the White Terror of an actress who is also an agent.

Do you have favorite books that deal with theater, whether on stage or backstage? Does theater become a metaphor for other elements in the story? Writers, do you like writing scenes set in the theater? Do you get inspiration from plays?

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07 November 2011

Welcome, Joanna Bourne!

The amazing Joanna Bourne is here with us today to talk about her new release The Black Hawk.  She'll also be giving away a copy to one lucky commenter! If you're like the rest of us, you're addicted to Jo's very special world of intrigue, and you're chomping at the bit to read Adrian's story...

Attacked on a rainy London street, veteran spy Justine DeCabrillac knows only one man can save her: Hawker, her oldest friend . . . her oldest enemy. London's crawling with hidden assassins and someone is out to frame Hawker for murder. The two spies must work together to find who's out to destroy them...

Black Hawk is set during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.  That's  from 1794, running to 1818.   Is there any particular reason you chose these years?  How did you become interested in this time period? What you love about it?
Romance genre was my gateway drug to the Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Century.  I'll point to Georgette Heyer and her light-hearted Regencies and to Sergeanne Golon's sprawling Louis XIV world.
There's a fifty or sixty year period in the Eighteenth Century when our whole view of how people should live, and interact with one another, and be governed changed irrevocably. 
When the Declaration of Independence talked about 'all men are created equal,' and 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,' and 'deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,' they are not stating old, well-established truths.  These were hot new ideas.
Exciting stuff.

What do you like least about this period? Anything that constrained you or that you had to plot carefully around?  Anything you flat-out altered or “fudged”? If so, why?

There's the usual lack of washing and opportunity to pick up personal wildlife.  I think anybody writing fiction in the past has to deal with this.
You want to know little thing that drives me nuts? 
Hats.  And gloves.
Anybody respectable was walking around with a hat on their head most of the time and pretty much universally gloves.  And I refuse to picture my characters wearing hats.  Especially my male folks.  I do not think it is manly and heroic to wear hats, and I know this is narrow minded of me and I am sorry.
So generally I don't talk about this.  Or think about it.  And I just wish it would all go away.

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*

I think I make mistakes all the time and mostly the readers are too polite to bring these to my attention.  I know I did once put a reference to a 'kept woman' living in St John's Wood in London about thirty years before this would have been common.  And I made at least one mistake in the timing of some backstory once.
The most impressive Black Hawk gaff is something I didn't do myself and didn't even know about till it was far too late to prevent.  It's on the stepback cover, and I'll let folks have the joy of discovering it for themselves.

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

This next book, Black Hawk, is Adrian's book, so I'll tell you a bit about Adrian.
Adrian has a cat.  What happened was this:
When he was young and working for the King Thief of London -- that was a position of some prestige where he came from -- he had occasion to break into British Intelligence Service Headquarters with the intent of removing papers therefrom. 
He got caught at it.  This is one of those hazards of the thieving profession. And while he stuck knives into several Service agents, in the end he got subdued.  His kneecap was dislocated in the process and it never did get entirely right again, which no doubt served as a reminder to avoid physical confrontation where possible.  For anyone who's read some of the other books, Doyle's the one who did that to his knee.
In any case, Adrian ended up in a secure room in the attic where the Service put people they hadn't decided what to do with yet.  It had a flap on the door for passing food in. 
Adrian was laid up on a mat with his leg strapped to a board.  This was tedious for him, even though he had the excitement of waiting for the Service to turn him over to the hangman.  A bumbling six-week-old kitten pushed through the door flap every day.  Adrian called it 'Cat' and started feeding it the best of his food and teaching it to fetch and so on.
It was Adrian's treatment of Cat that told the British Service the boy was worth keeping alive.

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

I had some readers mention that they'd like to see a book with Adrian as the main character.  I guess I was responding to that, initially.  But when I started thinking about it, I got excited by the idea of giving Adrian his own happy ending. 
I really like him as a character.

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

I always have to do major research. 
Research on the Louvre building.  There was a lot of that. 
Research on assassination attempts on Napoleon.  People just kept doing this, did you know?  Going after that man with poison and pistol.  I had no idea. 
So I sat down and asked myself how one would go about killing the man and it turns out somebody or other had tried just about everything under the sun, so I was authentic no matter what I did.
I guess what surprised me most was that one of the earliest fire extinguishing pumps ever was installed in the Louvre just before my story takes place.  So cool.

What/Who do you like to read?

I mostly read nonfiction, when I'm kicking my feet up and relaxing.  I do enjoy journals and letters of the period I'm writing in.  My fiction is a pretty mixed bag.  Some Romance, some Fantasy, and the occasional mystery.

Right now I'm reading Stephen King's On Writing, Thomas Allen's George Washington, Spymaster,  (Spymaster.  Now that's a good title,) William McNeil's Plagues and People, and Alfred Cobham, Aspects of the French Revolution
In fiction I've been doing a bunch of YA lately.  Recently finished Julie Kagawa's The Iron King, Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy, and Mercedes Lackey's The Fire Rose.  I'm in the middle of Mary Jo Putney's Kiss of Fate.  Next on the fiction bookshelf are Joann Ross', Out of the Mist, Emma Bull, War for the Oaks and Rhys Bowen, Her Royal Spyness.

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 have been trying to outline more and plan more so I don't end up doing these multiple drafts.  I hate to write my way down a blind alley and then have to throw out lovely writing.
So you could call my method, 'in transition.'   

What are you planning to work on next?

This book that's coming out now is Black Hawk.  It's Adrian's story, as I say. 
In Black Hawk, we have a spy for England and a spy for France, one each.  Adrian Hawkhurst and Justine DeCabrillac.  In the small spy community of Europe, everybody knows everybody else.  These two have been friends and enemies and cautious allies and sometimes lovers. 
But they can't be together.  They can never wholly trust each other.  This business of being on opposite sides in a long war is a complicating factor of great magnitude.
Now, after the war is over, someone's out to kill Justine . . . And frame Hawker for the deed.
 The story after this, getting to your question, is Pax's story.

04 November 2011

Gauchos and Gumption

Gauchos were the residents of the South American pampas or Patagonian grasslands, found in Argentina, Uruguay, Southern Chile and Southern Brazil. Loosely, the word is the South American equivalent of “cowboy,” (vaquero in Spanish), and, like that of his North American counterpart, it’s mostly a 19th century term.

Theories as to origins of the gaucho vary. The term may derive from the Mapuche cauchu (“vagabond”) or the Quecha huachu (“orphan”). The first recorded uses of the term date from the time of Argentine independence in 1816. At one time, gauchos made up most of the rural population in Argentina, herding cattle and practicing hunting in addition to serving as guerrilla fighting forces.

Cattle came to the pampas from Paraguay in 1580. In the 18th century, the gauderios, who lived by hunting wild cattle, were recorded by the travel writer Alonso Carrio de la Vandera when he passed through northern Argentina. Commercial cattle ranching began in the second half of the 18th century.

My grandfather, who ran cattle on the Argentine pampas from 1910 to 1913, told me the gauchos were descendents of the native Indians who escaped over the mountains from Chile during periods of political oppression. The gauchos who worked for my grandfather, Claude Banning, were a tough, scrappy-looking lot; some even looked astonishingly young.

They were hardworking, loyal, good-humored, and, yes, prone to violence (see photo). They were also generous and gentle toward womenfolk (my grandmother, Marie Banning, and her mother-in-law, Lizzie Rice Banning). My grandfather and his brother, Ray, admired them so much they adopted the typical gaucho dress—bombaches and a serape of sorts, plus a gaudy woven sash (see photo).

Gauchos were nomadic, living on the pampas--the plain that extends from Patagonia, bounded on the west by the Andes and extending to the east to Uruguay and the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, which belonged to the Spanish Crown for over two centuries before it became a Portuguese possession in 1750. Most gauchos were of Spanish and/or Portuguese and/or Amerindian (native American) ancestry; they lived by hunting wild cattle, both for meat and for leather.

The gaucho plays an important symbolic role in the nationalistic feelings of the Argentine pampas. As depicted in the poem “Martin Fierro,” by Jose Hernandez, the national epic of Argentina, the gaucho is a symbol of forces against corruption. Pitted against Europeanising forces, Martin Fierro, the hero of the poem, is drafted into the Argentine military for a border war; he deserts and becomes an outlaw and fugitive. The image of the free gaucho is thus often contrasted to the slaves who worked in the northern Brazilian lands.

During the wars of the 19th century against the dominance of the Spanish Crown, the cavalries on all sides were composed almost entirely of gauchos. In Argentina, gaucho armies slowed Spanish advances and many caudillos relied on gaucho armies to control the Argentine provinces.

Gauchos were generally reputed to be strong, honest, silent types but proud and capable of violence when provoked. Their use of the facon (a large knife generally tucked into the rear of the gaucho sash) is legendary, often associated with considerable bloodletting. Historically, the facon was the only eating instrument that a gaucho carried.

Like his North American cowboy counterpart, gauchos were proud and they were also great horsemen. A gaucho’s horse was almost all he owned in the world. The gaucho diet consisted almost entirely of beef while on the range, supplemented by yerba maté, an herbal tea-like drink rich in caffeine and nutrients.

The gaucho dressed quite distinctively, and they used bolas or boleadoras (three leather-bound rocks tied together with leather straps, in addition to the North American lariat or riata. The typical gaucho outfit included a poncho, which doubled as both saddle blanket and sleeping gear, a facon (knife), a rebenque (leather whip) and loose-fitting trousers called bombaches, belted with a woven cloth tirador or a chiripa. In winter gauchos wore heavy wool ponchos.

Just as the disappearance of the “wild west” altered the character and employment of cowboys, so did the nature of gauchos change. But their image still suggests high adventure and romance.

For my grandfather, memories of the gauchos he rode with on the Argentine plains stayed with him all his life. Granddad’s most prized possession was a maté cup given to him by his foreman when the family left Argentina and returned to the States. Until the day he died, this cup hung on Granddad’s bedroom wall, along with his woven striped wool sash, his silver-handled revolver, and a framed ink drawing of the Banning cattle brands.

Source: Gauchos & Gumption: My Argentine Honeymoon, by Lynna Banning (to be published in January 2012 by Turquoise Morning Press). Photos by Marie Banning.

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02 November 2011


Not so very long ago, my editor's assistant called with a question from the copyeditor. In The Orchid Affair, my modern character, Eloise, makes a joke to her boyfriend about "Sit, Boo Boo, sit! Good dog." Did I mean "sit, Ubu, sit"? Or was it something else entirely?

Well, it was and it wasn't. It was really a reference to that old tv bit, "Sit, Ubu, sit" (does anyone else remember this?), but Eloise, being Eloise, had misheard it and thought it was Boo Boo, because that's the sort of thing Eloise does. It's a good thing she has lots of reference works in her professional career as a historian, because in daily life, she's constantly mis-hearing, mis-quoting, and mis-remembering. Not like I'm drawing this from personal experience or anything.

This little interchange did get me thinking, though. Is there a higher standard of accuracy for fiction? In our false world, must our facts be more true?

In real life, people get things wrong all the time-- or, at least, I do. As my Evidence prof in law school loved to point out, human perception is notoriously faulty. He had a favorite example he liked to call the Blue Bus Problem: in a community where the large number of buses are blue and a minority are yellow, if someone is hit by a bus, witnesses will likely claim the bus was blue, because they'll have expected it to be so, even if it wasn't. (Of course, I might be misremembering the Blue Bus Problem, which would just go to prove his point.) We see what we expect to see; we hear what we expect to hear. Memory garbles and hindsight corrupts.

My personal bugbear are song lyrics. In the past, I've come up with such classics as "You're my lover, not my Bible" instead of "you're my lover, not my rival" in Culture Club's Karma Chameleon; "You rocked me all night long" in place of "You shook me all night long"; and, one of my true triumphs, replacing OutKast's "Hey Ya!" with "Hang On". Hey, it made more sense that way. "Haaaang on!" Don't you agree? Naturally, I am always convinced that my version is correct-- until told otherwise while singing at the top of my lungs in a car or at a friend's wedding, just for maximum mockery potential.

On the other hand, in the fictional world, our characters are expected to get their details right. When they quote poetry, everything down to the last comma has to be completely correct, unless we tag it as "he misquoted". On one level, this bothers me. If we're trying to recreate the world, inaccuracy and misperception is a large part of that world. It also tells us a lot about characters' characters-- but only if the reader realizes it's deliberate. And there's the rub. If it looks like an authorial accident, you lose the reader's trust, throwing the reader out of the story. In fiction, that's Game Over.

There are ways around it; you can tag the misperception, have another character comment on it, or set up certain characters as unreliable from the word "Go" (Bertie Wooster, for instance, can misquote with impunity, as can my Turnip Fitzhugh). But, for the most part, it becomes safer, when the copyeditor calls, to say, "Okay, change it."

Would you change it? Or would you keep Boo Boo?

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