History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

26 November 2012

On weddings, holidays, and His Spanish Bride

Hope everyone celebrating U.S. Thanksgiving had a wonderful holiday weekend.
Ours was made extra special by the fact that my daughter Mélanie waked three tiny steps from the hearth to me. She did so naturally, I almost didn't realize what she'd done until my uncle commented on it. She also had a great time playing with one cousin's golf balls, which made great toys, and another cousin's kitten [who beat a prudent retreat to high places].

I've always tended to avoid the chaos of shopping on Black Friday {the day after Thanksgiving that kicks off the U.S. holiday retail season). This year, thanks to a friend who babysat, I spent the afternoon at a matinee of Skyfall. But the day had an extra significance for me. It was the release date for His Spanish Bride, my e-novella about the wedding of Malcolm and Suzanne, the central couple in my series.

Because Malcolm and Suzanne's marriage marks the start of their adventures not the culmination, this meant going back in time to when they have just met, an interesting exercise because marriage changed both of them, and so much of their identity for me is wrapped up in their being a couple, not to mention being parents. As might be expected for two spies who marry in the midst of the Peninsular War, their wedding is hardly a conventional affair. But it occurs in December, so the story combines two literary traditions - wedding stories and holiday stories. I have a fondness for both types of story, from wedding stories like The Philadelphia Story and Busman's Honeymoon to holiday tales like Lauren's delightful The Mischief of the Mistletoe. I think what i like about both types of story is that they bring together friends and family with plentiful opportunity for conflicts, reunions, and revelry. Parents and children, sibling rivalry, ex-lovers home for the holidays or attending the same wedding--or perhaps one disrupting the wedding of another. Jane Austen recognized the benefit of such gatherings for bringing characters together. Emma opens with a wedding and includes a holiday party.

Both weddings and holidays involve certain traditions which give a frame to the story yet to which individual characters give their own unique spin. It's fun seeing fictional characters, even historical ones, go through some of the same traditions we go through ourselves, and also fun to see the differences. Malcolm and Suzanne's wedding takes place at the British embassy and is wrapped up in the investigation of a missing letter that could drive a wedge between Britain and her Spanish allies in the war against the French. Not surprising, given that Malcolm is a diplomatic attaché and intelligence agent and Suzanne is-- well, that's part of the story.  They slip away from their betrothal party for a bit of skullduggery, and Suzanne arrives at the solution to the mystery on their wedding night. Both their motives for entering into the marriage are complicated, and perhaps they are even deceiving themselves about the true reasons. The story ends at an embassy Christmas party at which, again typically for them, Malcolm and Suzanne are wrapping up the investigation.

What are some of your favorite holiday and wedding stories? To celebrate the release of His Spanish Bride, I'll give a signed cover flat for my forthcoming The Paris Affair to one of the commenters.

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23 November 2012

A Moment of Gratitude

All the Thanksgiving posts about things for which we are grateful got me thinking about the books that have made an impact on me in various ways over the years.  Some of these go way back; others are more recent. They all have one thing in common: they opened up new worlds and new eras for me.

In the spirit of thanksgiving, here are some of the books for which I am deeply grateful:

E.L. Konigsberg's A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver. Someone-- possibly my parents-- gave this to me when I was six. I hadn't realized until then that there was such a thing as historical fiction (before that, I was all about fairy tales), but that was all it took to get me hooked. Eleanor of Aquitaine was my heroine-- until I encountered Queen Victoria.

Jean Plaidy's Victoria Victorious. The reign of Eleanor of Aquitaine ended when my father gave me Victoria Victorious when I was eight. That launched a fascination with all things Victorian (we will not discuss the hookskirt I tried to construct using a hoola-hoop.) Strangely, all of that is now coming back, twenty five years later, as I work on my first Victorian-set novel. Isn't it amazing how this stuff sticks in the back of your head?

I owe Jean Plaidy a great deal, not just for Victoria Victorious, but for the entirety of her wonderful Queens of England series, which introduced me to Caroline of Ansbach and Prinny's secret wife and put me on nodding terms with most of the major characters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Theo Aronson's The Golden Bees. When I was ten, a mini-series about Napoleon and Josephine piqued my interest in the Bonapartes. Never at a loss, my father handed me this heavy tome (I can still remember the worn blue cardboard cover, sans dust jacket), which followed the Bonapartes from their early days through to the dwindling branches in the late nineteenth century. This sparked a fascination with the Bonapartes that led me to write a novel in high school about Napoleon's stepdaughter, Hortense de Beauharnais, and later the Pink Carnation series. Napoleon's crazy family continues to fascinate and amuse me, all these years later.

Far more recently, there was Frances Osborne's The Bolter, casually given to me as a gift by a friend, which so intrigued me that I detoured from my usual program of Napoleonic spies to write a novel set around England around World War I and Kenya's Happy Valley crowd in the 1920s. (The Ashford Affair, coming to a bookstore near you on April 9, 2013!).

I could go on and on. There's M.M. Kaye's Shadow of the Moon, which introduced me to nineteenth century India and Antonia Fraser's Mary Queen of Scots which launched a fascination with the doomed queen's mother, Marie de Guise, that eventually led to a summer researching in Scotland, a very long scholarly paper, and the beginnings of a Marie de Guise based historical novel.

For which books are you most grateful?

20 November 2012

The Hoydens hope everyone here in the U.S. has a happy Thanksgiving and that our friends and followers elsewhere will forgive us for being quiet this week as we all prepare for--and recover from--this food-centric holiday.

Here’s my favorite dish to prepare. It never fails to make the guests happy, especially if you have a vegetarian or two attending your feast!


Ingredients 4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 large yellow onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

1/2 pound assorted wild mushrooms, chopped

1/2 pound cultivated crimini mushrooms, chopped

2 teaspoons fresh thyme, or 1/2 teaspoon dried

1 teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon (optional)

1 teaspoon chopped fresh dill (optional)

1 tablespoon chopped fresh Italian parsley

Salt and pepper to taste

5 large eggs

1 cup whole milk

2/3 cup heavy cream

6 cups trimmed and cubed ( 3/4-inch cubes) day-old French or Italian bread (5 to 6 ounces)

INSTRUCTIONS: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter pan. Heat 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large skillet. Add the onion and saute till soft and translucent. Add the garlic and saute for 1 minute. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons butter, then the wild and cultivated mushrooms and saute until soft. Increase the heat and continue to cook until most of the liquid has evaporated. Add the herbs, salt and pepper, then set aside to cool slightly. Lightly whisk the eggs in a large bowl. Add the milk and cream, whisking until blended. Add the mushroom mixture and bread cubes. Season again and stir to blend. Bake the puddings for 35-40 minutes, or until the tip of a knife inserted in the middle of a pudding comes out clean. For optimum flavor, serve warm or at room temperature. Refrigerate for up to 2 days. To reheat, wrap puddings in aluminum foil, set in a preheated 325 degrees oven for about 10 minutes, or until hot.

13 November 2012

And let's extend a warm welcome to...

Susanna Fraser! Susanna's third Regency-set historical, An Infamous Marriage, is out this week. Here's the back cover copy:

Northumberland, 1815

At long last, Britain is at peace, and General Jack Armstrong is coming home to the wife he barely knows. Wed for mutual convenience, their union unconsummated, the couple has exchanged only cold, dutiful letters. With no more wars to fight, Jack is ready to attempt a peace treaty of his own.

Elizabeth Armstrong is on the warpath. She never expected fidelity from the husband she knew for only a week, but his scandalous exploits have made her the object of pity for years. Now that he's back, she has no intention of sharing her bed with him—or providing him with an heir—unless he can earn her forgiveness. No matter what feelings he ignites within her…

Jack is not expecting a spirited, confident woman in place of the meek girl he left behind. As his desire intensifies, he wants much more than a marriage in name only. But winning his wife's love may be the greatest battle he's faced yet.

I absolutely adore this book (for a full review, check out my goodreads, but the short version is that the hero and heroine both feel so incredibly real, and I love the way she deals with the Battle of Waterloo--I've read a lot of Waterloo romances--and loved them all--and this one still felt totally new). Susanna is one of my favorite history geek friends, and today she's sharing her thoughts on using real-life figures in historical fiction, giving away a copy of her book, and letting you know how to be entered in a drawing for a big blog-tour prize!

Before An Infamous Marriage, my personal rule for inserting my fictional characters into the stream of history was to keep them relatively obscure. Fictional lord or Member of Parliament? Sure! Fictional prime minister? No, that’s going too far! Fictional captains? Of course, and as many as my story needs! Fictional general? Of course not!

But rules are made to be broken, perhaps all the more so when they’re ones I’ve created for myself. I knew as soon as I began work on this story that my hero, Jack Armstrong, was going to hold high military rank, preferably as a general. I wanted him powerful and confident, but with a power based on his own actions and deeds rather than wealth and inheritance. Take him out of the army and he’d still be a landed gentleman, but not especially wealthy or anywhere near the top of the line to inherit a title.

Having invented a general, next I needed to find some great deeds for him to accomplish without modifying the historical timeline too much, since An Infamous Marriage is historical romance, not alternative history. Most of Jack’s service takes place offscreen, as it were, during a long separation after he marries the heroine, Elizabeth Hamilton, to fulfill a deathbed promise to her first husband, who happens to be Jack’s childhood best friend. At first I figured Jack would follow the path of so many Regency heroes by fighting in the Peninsular War. OK, I thought, the simplest thing to do is pick someone who actually died in battle, so his absence won’t impact post-1815 history, mentally posit he died earlier or was never born, and give Jack his job. So I considered Sir Edward Pakenham, who died at New Orleans, and Sir Thomas Picton, who died at Waterloo, and picked Picton, since I knew I wanted Jack to end up at Waterloo in the end and it therefore seemed simpler to borrow Picton’s Peninsular War role and accomplishments wholesale.

However, very early on my editor and I agreed the five-year separation between Jack and Elizabeth would work better if he was someplace farther away. Next thing I knew, my Peninsular War veteran was on the other side of the Atlantic, and I had to give myself a crash course on the War of 1812. Early on, I ran across Sir Isaac Brock, who was killed at the Battle of Queenston Heights in October 1812. My first thought was simply to borrow his career, only have Jack be severely wounded instead of killed in that battle. You see, the problem with your hero fighting in the War of 1812 instead of the Peninsular War is that it was a messy draw rather than an unqualified success for his side. So I felt like I had to knock Jack out of the war early and give him some nice slow-healing wounds, maybe with a debilitating fever or two following them, because if I had him active throughout the war AND all heroically hyper-competent, he’d change the course of history.

Upon further discussion with my editor, rather than replacing Brock, I had Jack take over for him after he fell and lead the British forces to victory, thereby usurping the role of Sir Roger Hale Sheaffe. I stuck with my plan of having him severely wounded and unable to participate in the remainder of the war.

Doing so changed his character arc, but I decided it was for the better. He’s still powerful and self-confident, but he’s also a relatively inexperienced commander, frustrated by the long recovery that kept him out of the rest of the war and eager to prove his courage and worth on a larger stage. I give him that chance at Waterloo--but with his relative inexperience, I couldn’t realistically give him a divisional command. So instead I put him in charge of a brigade, one that in real life was commanded by Sir James Kempt.

Despite knowing that few if any of my readers will have heard of Roger Hale Sheaffe or James Kempt--I certainly hadn’t heard of them before researching An Infamous Marriage, and I consider myself a military history geek--I made a point of mentioning them, and the fact I’d borrowed from their lives, in my Historical Note. My conscience would’ve bothered me if I hadn’t.

Authors, do you have a policy on how you insert your characters into the historical timeline? Readers, do you think about such matters as you read, and do you ever read Historical Notes?

I’ll be giving one copy of An Infamous Marriage to a commenter on this post in your choice of e-book format, and at the end of the tour I'll be giving away a grand prize of a $50 gift certificate to their choice of Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Powell's Books to one commenter on the tour as a whole. You get one entry per blog tour stop you comment upon, so check out my blog for the whole schedule! If you wish to be entered in the drawing, include your email address formatted as yourname AT yourhost DOT com.

I look forward to replying to your comments, but it’ll be late in the evening in most North American time zones before I get a chance. I have a full-time 8-5 day job and don’t get much time online till the evening.

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12 November 2012

Never enough brandy

The book I'm working on, Crimson Joy [ETA: since retitled True Pretenses], is set in a small West Sussex market town during Advent and Christmas. So I've been reading about Regency Christmas customs. They're really really cool.

My favorite is the Christmas pudding. Christmas pudding is a boiled bread pudding full of dried fruit and apples, spices, and brandy. As anyone who's read Lauren's The Mischief of the Mistletoe knows, the mixture was then made into small round balls and wrapped in muslin. In the Victorian era, the custom shifted to putting the pudding in a bowl, covering it and steaming it, then inverting it onto a plate and flambéing it. But in the Regency they were still in the tying-muslin-wrapped-balls-onto-a-broom-handle-and-boiling-them-in-the-washtub phase. (And actually, I took a British Christmas cooking class at my local co-op, and the instructor said her mother used to make them that way in Australia in the 60s. She also said, "I know they're shelf-stable because once they were boiled my mother used to keep them in a tub under the bed for months, but I don't recommend that.")

(1774 edition; the book was first published in 1747).

The brandy is really, really important. So is the sugar. Here's why:

The last Sunday in November has a traditional collect from the Book of Common Prayer which begins, "Stir up, O Lord, we beseech Thee, the hearts of Thy faithful people..." As a consequence it was known as Stir-up Sunday and in an adorable traditional joke, it's when people started stirring their Christmas puddings. The day after Stir-up Sunday, grocers would fill their windows with Christmas pudding ingredients and the pudding-making would begin! In The Folklore of Sussex, Jacqueline Simpson says:

The actual stirring of these mixtures was a pleasant family ritual in which everyone took part. When they were already partially blended, everyone would be called in to help stir--mother first, then father, then the children in order of age, then all other members of the household, including servants, if any. Even babies stirred; the author has been informed that she stirred her first Christmas pudding in 1931, at the age of one. The way it was done was important; one must use a wooden spoon and turn it sunwise, from left to right--some say, because Christ's manger was of wood and because the Magi travelled sunwise as they searched for Bethlehem. And one should stir silently, with one's eyes shut, and make a secret wish.
" ...Wait a second," I thought. "They stirred their puddings over three weeks in advance?"

Yes, they did. And all that brandy and sugar were natural preservatives that kept things pretty safe. I still wouldn't have wanted to sample the batter before it was boiled for hours, though!

After being mixed, the pudding batter was often wrapped in muslin and hung from a hook in order to dry out:

A giant lump of muslin-wrapped Christmas pudding hangs on a hook with a little branch of plastic holly attached
Photo credit: DO'Neil at the English language Wikipedia

Let me tell you, though, having sampled some at my cooking class...those things are DELICIOUS. As are mince pies! Very time-consuming to make, though. The thing I'm probably going to making the most often from the class was the brandy butter.

Let's just savor those words again: brandy butter. Also called hard sauce, brandy butter is exactly what it sounds like: butter and sugar creamed together with some brandy. It's then refrigerated again until hard. Here's a simple recipe (icing sugar=powdered sugar, for us US folks). This stuff is RIDICULOUSLY GOOD. I can't wait to try some on toast.

What's your favorite holiday treat? I'm already getting pretty excited about latkes!

And stay tuned, tomorrow I have a guest post from Susanna Fraser about her fantastic new Regency historical An Infamous Marriage...

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07 November 2012

Welcome to Anna Lee Huber!

I'd like to extend a warm welcome to Anna Lee Huber, whose debut historical mystery, The Anatomist's Wife, hit the shelves yesterday.  Here's the official blurb:

Scotland, 1830. Following the death of her husband, Lady Darby has taken refuge at her sister's estate, finding solace in her passion for painting. But when her hosts throw a house party for the cream of London society, Kiera is unable to hide from the ire of those who believe her to be as unnatural as her husband, an anatomist who used her artistic talents to suit his own macabre purposes. Kiera wants to put her past aside, but when one of the house guests is murdered, her brother-in-law asks her to utilize her knowledge of human anatomy to aid the insufferable Sebastian Gage-a fellow guest with some experience as an inquiry agent. While Gage is clearly more competent than she first assumed, Kiera isn't about to let her guard down as accusations and rumors swirl. When Kiera and Gage's search leads them to even more gruesome discoveries, a series of disturbing notes urges Lady Darby to give up the inquiry. But Kiera is determined to both protect her family and prove her innocence, even as she risks becoming the next victim...

The book has already garnered praise from both the fabulous Deanna Raybourn and Julia Spencer-Fleming, among others.

Anna very generously took time out from a busy book launch schedule to come visit us today and talk about research, writing, and the joy of uncovering historical absurdities.  Welcome, Anna!

First off, thank you so much to Lauren Willig and the other History Hoydens for having me.  I adore so many of your books, so this is very exciting for me. 

What drew you to write historical fiction, and more particularly historical mysteries, over any other genre? 

I’ve always had a deep love of history.  It was always my favorite subject in school.  Of course, there were certain time periods and locations that interested me more than others, but overall I found the entire area of study fascinating.  It was impressed upon me at a young age by one of my wonderful teachers—I wish I could remember exactly who—how history repeats itself, and how important it is for us to learn from the past so that we don’t make the same mistakes in the future.  That concept captivated me, and I’ve been examining it in one form or another ever since.

After I finished college, and found time to read for pleasure again, I immediately gravitated toward historical fiction, which led me to historical romances and historical mysteries.  So when I decided to try my hand at writing a novel, it was absolutely a no-brainer that it would be a historical of some kind.  I just couldn’t imagine writing anything else.  Most of my daydreams and plot ideas happen somewhere in the past, and my voice just seems to naturally fit historicals.  Deciding which sub-genre of historical fiction to write was the hardest.  I tried several, but the first time I sat down to write a mystery, I knew something magical was happening.  For whatever reason, all of the elements seemed to combine in the right manner. 

Looking back at my earlier manuscripts, it seemed I had always been trying to write a mystery.  I just hadn’t consciously realized it.  This probably grew out of my deep and abiding love for the mystery genre.  I have a very analytic brain, and I love the puzzle that a good mystery provides.

Your debut novel, The Anatomist’s Wife, is set in 1830 Scotland?  Is there a particular reason for this?

I chose the year 1830 precisely because it fell after the trial of the infamous murderers Burke and Hare and before the passage of the Anatomy Act of 1832.  Prior to 1832, British medical schools had difficulty procuring cadavers for their anatomy classes, because only the bodies of executed criminals could be used for this purpose, which amounted to only about two to three bodies annually per school. This led to the practice of body-snatching, where recently buried bodies were stolen from their graves and sold to medical schools.

It was a lucrative trade, and Burke and Hare, two laborers in Edinburgh, sought to take advantage of the practice. Rather than risk being caught while performing the difficult labor of disinterring bodies from the local cemeteries, they began inviting victims to their lodging house, plying them with alcohol, and smothering them to death. They then sold the bodies to the Surgeons’ Hall at the University of Edinburgh, namely to well-known anatomist and lecturer Dr. Robert Knox.

Burke and Hare were caught in November of 1828, but not before they murdered sixteen people.  The people of London and Edinburgh were panicked by the idea that similar enterprising criminals might be at work, murdering hapless citizens and selling their bodies to anatomists and medical schools.  Public opinion turned sharply against anatomists like Robert Knox for their part in providing incentive for these murders.  Medical schools were forced to pay closer attention to where their bodies were procured, and legislation reform became a necessity.

All of this feeds into the public’s reaction when they discover that my protagonist, Kiera, Lady Darby has assisted her late husband, a great anatomist, with his dissections, regardless of whether she did so willingly or not.  Kiera is feared and vilified, and her removal from London becomes necessary.  She runs as far as she can go, to her sister’s home in the remote Highlands of Scotland. 

It wasn’t common in 1830 for a woman, particularly a lady, to take part in a murder investigation.  What skills does Kiera, Lady Darby bring to such an inquiry?

You’re right.  During that time period, gentlemen would have attempted to keep ladies sheltered from such grim realities.  There would need to be a strong reason why they would allow a female to become involved with such a gruesome undertaking.  First and foremost, Kiera is a talented portrait artist, with keen observation skills.  But more importantly, thanks to her late husband, she also has a knowledge of human anatomy.  Though she never wished to acquire such information, it comes in handy during a murder investigation, especially when the closest official who can help is four days ride away. 

What kinds of research did you do for this book?

Lots of reading—from encyclopedias, to journals and diaries, to detailed research texts.  Some were for cultural reference, while others pertained to more specific areas of study, like nineteenth century medicine, or the practice of grave robbing.  I also visited the UK—strolled through the Highlands, toured castles, and tried to get a feel, a sense of my environs.  My visit to the Surgeons’ Hall Museums at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh was particularly insightful.  There you’ll find the famed would-be-body-snatcher-turned-murderer Burke‘s death mask, skeleton, and several articles made from his tanned skin, including a book cover.  I also always keep an etymology dictionary handy, as I find making sure the terminology and turns of phrase I choose to use are historically accurate is often the most difficult thing.

Any interesting historical tidbits you stumbled upon that you’d like to share?

Early in the writing of THE ANATOMIST’S WIFE, I decided to give Kiera the hobby of putting together puzzles, an interest I also enjoy.  However, I didn’t know if this would be historically accurate.  I quickly discovered that John Spilsbury, a London engraver and mapmaker, created the first jigsaw puzzle in 1750 by affixing one of his maps to a sheet of hardwood and then cutting around the borders of the countries. This production resulted in an educational tool used to teach British children their geography, and until about 1820, jigsaw puzzles were used almost exclusively for this purpose.  Given this, it seemed feasible that in 1830 a friend of Kiera’s brother-in-law would be experimenting with other types of puzzle designs geared more toward adults.  Though not yet in mass-production, there could be prototypes. 

But jigsaw puzzles were not known as such until the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, when the treadle saw, a type of jigsaw, began to be used to cut out the pieces. Until that time, jigsaw puzzles were known ironically, at least for Kiera, as dissections. I stumbled across this absurd bit of knowledge during a late draft of the novel and found it highly amusing, but elected not to call the jigsaw puzzle by its early nineteenth century name to avoid confusion.  Instead, they are only referred to as puzzles. 

To learn more about THE ANATOMIST'S WIFE, visit Anna at her website, www.annaleehuber.com.

06 November 2012

Feel the love with ROYAL ROMANCES

My fourth nonfiction "royal" book for NAL, ROYAL ROMANCES, Titillating Tales of Passion and Power in the Palaces of Europe, releases today!

More breathtaking than any fairy tale, here are seven scandalous, seductive centuries of all-for-love royal desire . . .

Elegant palaces, dazzling power plays, shimmering jewels, and the grandest of all-or-nothing gambles—nothing can top real-life love among the royalty. Louis XIV defied God and law, permitting his married mistress Madame de Montespan to usurp the role of Queen of France, then secretly wed her successor, Madame de Maintenon. Grigory Potemkin was a worthy equal in Catherine the Great’s bed as well as in Russia’s political arena. Dashing Count Axel von Fersen risked everything to save Marie Antoinette’s life more than once—and may have returned her passion. The unshakable devotion of the beloved late “Queen Mum” helped King George VI triumph over his, and England’s, darkest hours. And the unpretentious, timelessly glamorous—even relatable—union of Prince William and the former Kate Middleton continues to enthrall the world.

Full of marvelous tales, unforgettable scandals, and bedazzled nobles who refused to rule their hearts, this delightfully insightful book is what the sweetest royal dreams are made of...
 Some of the cast of characters in ROYAL ROMANCES have been profiled in my other books (for example, I spotlight extramarital affairs in this book where I covered the marriage in a previous volume), which gave me the chance to revisit an old friend (or, in Napoleon's case, an old adversary -- I'm still a Lord Nelson girl!) and delve into another corner of his or her life. Determining whether or not Marie Antoinette did consummate her passion for Axel von Fersen -- with my nonfiction hat on -- set the game afoot for my inner history detective.  
And along the way I discovered that a few historical figures whom centuries of history had maligned, such as Louis XIV's maîtresse en titre Athénaïs de Montespan -- who was dubbed "the real queen of France" -- and Grigory Potemkin, Empress Catherine the Great's "Grand Passion" -- were such complex and compelling people that I would have loved to go back in time and get to know them.
Ever notice that "doppelgänger" stories tend to come out?  As ROYAL ROMANCES was in galleys, a Danish movie was released titled A Royal Affair, starring the handsome international star Mads Mikkelsen, which dramatized the scandalous romance between Queen Caroline Mathilde of Denmark (the youngest sister of England's King George III) and Johann Struensee, the German-born physician to her husband, the insane King Christian VII.
 I spend so much time with the historical figures that I research that they do seem like friends, enemies, or frenemies by the time the book is published.  When I visit their portraits or furnishings in museums, I get an "of course!" feeling as though I've been there before and am saying hi to an old pal again. That's how I felt when I was in London at the end of September for the Historical Novel Society conference and went to Hampton Court Palace with fellow author Gillian Bagwell to see the exhibit of portraiture from Charles II's reign -- gazing at all the court beauties who were his mistresses.
Gillian and I agreed, as we gazed at  full length portrait of Charles II, that he was undoubtedly one of England's sexiest kings and if we'd been Barbara Castlemaine or Nell Gwyn or Louise de Keroualle or Hortense de Mancini or ... we'd have fallen for him, too!  Not only that, we agreed that he was a better king than history gives him credit for -- as we ruminated that most people, if they think of CII at all, think of Charles's priapic and aesthetic interests before they focus on his efforts at governance in a very contentious, fraught time for England.

Which brings me to my penultimate point, if you are reading this in America on November 6, 2012.  VOTE! Women fought and literally starved themselves to win our right to vote. You have nothing better to do today!

And -- returning to distant, historical worlds and the world of ROYAL ROMANCES: if you were to engage in a romance with a royal figure from the past or present -- who would it be?

05 November 2012

A Lesson from My Daughter

I'm writing this from my hotel room in Ashland, Oregon, on an autumn weekend trip to see a wonderful Troilus & Cressida and Romeo & Juliet for a second time. So I'm again returning to a post I originally wrote for my own blog, with a few embellishments.

In my WIP, Malcolm and Suzanne have a second child, Jessica. I set the book in October 1817 with Jessica ten months old, so that at one point at least while I was writing it, she would be the same age as my daughter Mélanie. For once I wouldn’t have to try to remember what my friends’ kids were doing at the particular age of the children in my books or ask my friends to remember age-appropriate details only to be told it was all a blur.

So this month, the parental wonder of watching of a child’s growth and development has had an added focus for me. I’ve written scenes with Suzanne nursing while I’ve nursed myself. I’ve sat in the play park and taken notes on my iPad or my phone about how Mel pulls herself up on the edge of a bench and bounces on the balls of her feet, the little squeals and outstretched hands with which she greets other children, the great interest with which she snatches up and studies a leaf.

And in the process, I’ve made discoveries both as a parent and as a writer. As Mélanie’s mom, I’m reminded of how important it is to savor every moment. The weight of her in my arms, the tiny hand grabbing my hair or the bodice of my dress when she’s nursing, the way she crawls with one foot tucked up under her. And as a writer, I’m reminded of how important it is to observe people. I often find myself writing “He drew a breath” or “She adjusted the folds of her gown” endless times in the course of a book. There’s such a rich wealth of gesture, inflection, and intonation to be observed in everyday life. In settings as well, even when one isn't in the location of one's book. Today I was taking note of the sun gilding fall leaves and the sound the leaves made  underfoot. At a friend's wedding last summer, I looked at the candlelight on the gilding in the dining room and realized this is the kind of lighting ornate baroque interiors are designed for. Suddenly all the white and gold is a lot less garish and a lot more subtly elegant.

 Particularly now with Mélanie, it’s easy for me to get caught up in needing to be glued to the computer screen or research books when I have writing time. It’s really hard to remember that just sipping a latte and looking around at other people in the café where I’m writing can also be “work.” There's world of research that can be done not in books or archives or on the internet but by looking up from the computer screen and glancing round a café, taking a walk, visiting a park or a museum or a shopping mall. The smallest specific detail can set a scene, bring a character to life, define a relationship.


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02 November 2012

Pictorial Felicity

Every now and again, I'll run into one of my heroes or heroines on the wall somewhere.  Usually, it's well after I've already created them.  There will be a thrill of recognition at seeing just that right person in just that right time period.

This happened to me in Paris when I was researching my eighth book, The Orchid Affair.  I'd gone to an exhibit at the Musee Cognac Jay on Marguerite Gerard.  I can't remember exactly what it was called.  Something along the lines of "Marguerite Gerard: artiste en 1789".  My book was set in 1804, but an important part of the back story involved my hero's dead wife, who had been an influential painter who rose to prominence during the Revolution.  

And wouldn't you know it.  I walked in and found a sketch of Andre, my hero, just as he must have looked in 1789.  Of course, it wasn't actually Andre.  In real life it was Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson.  That didn't matter.  I knew who it was.

The same thing just happened to me today.  I was looking through portraits of ladies from 1849, the year of my current work in progress, when I stumbled upon one that looks pretty much exactly as I imagined my heroine, from the hairstyle to the modest collar (although not the fur cuffs; my heroine's would be lace, like the collar).

And I thought, "Oh.  There you are!"  

It's not just me.  At the wonderful Morgan Library exhibit on Jane Austen a couple of years ago, they had a letter of Austen's in which she spoke of stumbling upon Jane Bennet in a gallery.  She saw the portrait and knew straightaway that it was Jane.

Do you ever encounter fictional characters out there?

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