History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

22 May 2013

This is Not Your Great-Great-Great Granddaughter’s Roller Derby

“The truth is, we have always been competing against one another. To be prettier, more accomplished, better-dressed. To be the most marriageable. And though none of us dare say it, this new contest is so much more fun.”

Fishnets, knee-pads and girls called Bette Noir or Babe Ruthless - the world of roller derby isn’t exactly your average setting for historical fiction. But when women’s writing website For Books’ Sake teamed up with the London Rollergirls and announced they were putting out an anthology of short stories about my favourite sport, I found myself wondering if I could bend the rules a little - and as any rollergirl worth her salt knows, it doesn’t count if you don’t get caught.

As For Books’ Sake’s resident historical fiction expert, I’m a lot more comfortable with corsets than crash helmets and having skated with the London Rollergirls briefly, I decided that writing about it would be a slightly safer way of enjoying the thrill of the track (a theory disproved by a rickety desk chair and a hot cup of tea). When I realised that the 1860s saw a craze for rollerskating, I couldn’t resist imagining exactly what would have happened had a few bored young ladies decided to swap paying calls for outpacing each other on the track.

Beneath the veneer of civility, Victorian women were plagued by many of the same concerns, hopes and rivalries as women today. Why give someone the cut direct when you can booty block her using her own bustle as leverage?

Transplanting the most riot grrl of sports to the nineteenth century wasn’t without its challenges. One of my favourite things about roller derby is the inventive team names, but whilst the LRG have the Suffra-Jets and the Ultraviolent Femmes, finding something period-appropriate was a little harder. Paying homage to two of my favourite Victorian authors - who, let’s face it, would totally be rollergirls if they were alive today - I came up with the Currer Belles and the Northanger Abbesses and, before long, rival gangs of bored débutantes were ready to do battle with each other.


Although my story is a fun romp through an alternate history, it does have some historical precedence. I’d been researching the history of women’s cycling for my novel, The Wages of Sin, where one of the first female medical students in Scotland discovers intellectual and physical freedom (and the odd dead body) and one thing that struck me was how liberated those early girl racers must have felt. There’s a reason every suburban teenager dreams about getting their first set of wheels, and Victorian women were no different.

A writer in 1890s women’s cycling magazine The Wheelwoman describes it:

“What enjoyment to a cramped and warped woman’s life is the whirl of the wheel ... by raising the thoughts in gratitude alone the household cares and drudgery, it gives a woman for one brief while the chance to rejoice in the feeling of liberty and delight in her own strength.”

Derby Shorts was released into the wild on Monday with my contribution leading the pack, and any fears I had that my Victorian vixens might seem out of place next to Magda Knight’s rollerblading assassins or Kat M. Grey’s ballerina gone bad were allayed by a lovely reception.  One reviewer called it “the best piece of Victoriana I’ve read in a long time”, which I’m thinking of putting on my business cards or at least in my next query letter. The thing about roller derby is that there’s a place for everyone, whether you’re a rock chick in ripped hotpants or a society lady in the 1860s.

Kaite Welsh is a journalist, author and failed rollergirl. She writes a monthly column on historical fiction for For Books' Sake, her fiction has been nominated for several awards and she once skated face first into a brick wall.

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20 May 2013

With a candlestick in the conservatory

I'd been looking all over for someplace for my hero Ash and my heroine Lydia to have sex. They're in a betrothal of convenience so they can be alone together without a chaperone, but: it's wintertime, cold and wet outside; Ash is staying at an inn where she would be recognized; and Lydia's family home is huge but filled with windows and it's unpredictable when a servant might pop in or a gardener or visitor wander by outside.

Then, in an unrelated conversation, Ash (who grew up very poor) asked if Lydia's house had an orangery like he's heard about. And it hit me: the conservatory would be warm, and in the evening there wouldn't be anyone there. Could this be the place?

I did some research, online and at the library. I highly recommend the book Glass Houses: A History of Greenhouses, Orangeries, and Conservatories by May Woods and Arete Swartz Warren. I discovered a few things that surprised me (having known absolutely nothing about the topic previously).

The building I was thinking of would almost exclusively be called a "greenhouse" until the early nineteenth century (including some buildings, like the Orangery at Kensington Palace, that were referred to as orangeries in the Victorian period and still are). "Orangery" had not yet generalized from referring only to orange trees and usually meant an outside area where the orange trees were placed in summer, although it could also refer to a minimally heated building where they were moved in winter to keep them from freezing. A building that was for tropical plants generally would be a greenhouse, although it usually included orange, lemon, and lime trees in wintertime. Other popular plants included gardenias, jasmine, camellias (although those didn't reach the height of their popularity until the 1840s), agaves (then called American aloes), and myrtles.

Greenhouses were only kept at between 40 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit, as being the temperature appropriate for wintering citrus trees. In fact, the entire functionality of greenhouses was a little different than I had expected, which leads to...

Greenhouses were not built with glass roofs until the early nineteenth century. The change happened both because the technology necessary for cast-iron-and-glass construction was developed, and because a much greater variety of tropical plants were being brought to England, such as orchids, which then needed to be displayed. In the Regency era, older greenhouses might have their roofs replaced with glass ones, or might be rebuilt in the new way. But it was also perfectly possible that a greenhouse belonging to a family that wasn't especially interested in exotic plants would still be in the older style.

In the late eighteenth century, the commonest form of greenhouse was a long, narrow neoclassical stone building on the grounds, sometimes near the main house or attached to one of the wings, but often not. (They could also be made of wood if money and labor were an issue, but it was less desirable because less permanent and less heat-retaining.) It had a peaked roof and tall windows with heavy shutters on the south wall only (and occasionally one or two on the narrow western wall).

The orangery at Kew Gardens, built in 1761, shows the typical shape. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

During the day, the shutters would be opened to let in the light, then closed again at night (incidentally providing plenty of privacy for Ash and Lydia!). In the summertime, the windows themselves would be thrown open during the day to let in air for the plants that were too delicate or too stationary (e.g. a vine growing over a wall) to be moved entirely outdoors.

Photo by xlibber, via Wikimedia Commons. Here you can see the orange trees in decorative tubs have been moved outdoors in summer.

The building was heated by stoves below the floor whose smoke was then piped through the northern stone wall with flues that were as close to horizontal as possible. Anything that needed a warmer temperature or any fruits and vegetables that were to be forced out of season were kept in practical and unornamental forcing houses (sometimes called stoves) out of sight, usually near the kitchen gardens. These forcing houses were much smaller and often did have glass roofs.

An exception to this rule is the Dunmore Pineapple, built for the Earl of Dunmore in 1761 in Stirlingshire, Scotland.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons. The pineapples would have been kept in the peak-roofed wings to either side; the central pineapple-shaped part was for recreational use. Originally, there were also glass houses for peaches, melons, cherries, and strawberries that stretched on either side of the stone building.

There were also vineries, which varied in shape but were built specifically for, you guessed it, vines, often grapes. The vinery at Hampton Court still has a Black Hamburg grape vine planted in 1768 by Capability Brown (okay, he probably didn't actually plant it himself, but)--the vinery itself, though, has been replaced many times.

"The Vinery," by Thomas Rowlandson, via Wikimedia Commons. Undated, can anyone hazard a guess based on the clothes?

For more photos of late Georgian greenhouses, including a great one of the unrestored interior of one, check out my Pinterest board for Crimson Joy reference images [ETA: since retitled True Pretenses]. You can see the oldest extant cast-iron-and-glass greenhouse in England, built at Chiselhampton at the turn of the century, here. I'm afraid it's not a great picture but you can see the general shape.

For a detailed and readable primary source on the varieties of available plants and their care, I highly recommend John Claudius Loudon's Encyclopedia of Gardening, 1824 (link goes to Google books).

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13 May 2013

Charting Malcolm's & Suzanne's pasts

One of the interesting questions Cara Elliott/Andrea Penrose asked when she interviewed me on Word Wenches about The Paris Affair concerned how I developed Malcolm's & Suzanne's pasts and how I developed them. In addition to the fascination of researching history, I love creating my characters' history. I knew from the start that Malcolm & Suzanne's allegiances would be divided, Malcolm a British diplomat and spy, Suzanne a French agent. Then I began to think about what kind of people would end up their situations. The divide between them seemed to be to strongest if Malcolm came from the heart of the British aristocracy – he doesn’t have a title himself, but his mother’s father is a duke, he’s connected by family or friendship to a good portion of the beau monde, he went to Harrow and Oxford.

Whereas with Suzanne, I had to figure out a background that would have made someone an agent in her teens. It made sense that she had been orphaned and left to fend for herself in the tumult of the Peninsular War. She also needed to have considerable acting ability, so I made her parents traveling actors. I think the fact that she had a nurturing childhood for her first fifteen years and then had her world violently wrenched apart says a lot about her. In some ways she has a very hard edge, but though she might deny it, she’s better than Malcolm at believing in happy endings. Whereas Malcolm grew up in luxury but with parents who were a lot more emotionally distant. The irony is that Malcolm’s and Suzanne’s political ideals are remarkably similar. They’re both reformers, Radical reformers for their day, with a keen belief in human rights. They just have different very different approaches to how to bring about social and political change.  

Authors, how do you go about creating backstories for your characters? Readers, what are some of your favorite examples of characters shaped by their personal histories?    

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10 May 2013

The "Death" of the Historical

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about the demise of the historical novel.  In fact, I’ve been hearing about it on a weekly basis. 

Three weeks ago, friends back from the London Book Fair informed me that the scuttlebutt there was that the historical novel was dead.  Last week, AAR posted “Where have all the Historical Romances gone?”  And just this week, Dear Author opined that the historical romance should be put out of its misery.

What’s going on?

I have a bunch of theories, none of them terribly coherent.  (I’m in the midst of revisions just now, so my brain is a sub-species of mush.)  But here they are, such as they are:

The market tends to glut.  Remember the rise and fall of chick lit?  A particular sort of book tends to sell very well, spawns a sea of sequels, readers eventually get bored, and the trend dies.  On the historical fiction side, we’ve seen this with the Other Other Other Boleyn Girl’s fourteenth cousin twice removed; on the historical romance side, with Regency rakes who really don’t want to get married until they meet that feisty miss who happens to be running a matchmaking agency/bake shoppe/ early suffragette bureau on the side.

But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t an appetite for the historical. Certainly, the popularity of Downton Abbey should be enough to show that people still hunger after stories set in the past.  Just as chick lit changed and developed, moving into women’s fiction, contemporary romance, and YA, the historical is seeking out new frontiers as well.  There are plenty of historical offshoots out there: time slip novels (like Susanna Kearsley's much anticipated Firebird), fictionalized biography (The Aviator’s Wife, Z), and historical paranormal (think Deborah Harkness or Bee Ridgway).  Certain types of historical novels and historical romances may rise and wane in popularity, but that doesn't mean the historical as a whole is dead.

I also wonder if we’re missing the forest for the trends.  In our internet age, we create odd echo chambers for ourselves; trends come and go at the speed of lightning and small shifts get blown out of all proportion.  Are the books we’re buzzing about on the internet really the books people are taking out of the library, or reading and re-reading?  For those of us wrapped up in the industry, it’s easy to only pay attention to the trajectory of new books (and often only in their first few weeks of publication), which might provide a misleading picture of what people are actually reading on the ground.

Which leads me to my next point.  The number of available books has multiplied.  It’s not just new fiction coming out in greater quantity than ever before.  Suddenly, we have access to authors’ backlists in a way that would have been unimaginable ten years ago.  I know people who have gone from The Other Boleyn Girl to discovering Jean Plaidy, Anya Seton, Kathleen Winsor, M.M. Kaye, and other classic writers of historical fiction for the first time, while, on the historical romance side, I’ve heard a great deal about a return to the classic historical romances of the 80s and 90s, both in e-book form and, in many cases, in mass market print re-issue with snazzy new covers and blurbs from more recent popular authors.  These books aren’t new, they don’t get buzz, and they aren’t hitting lists, but that doesn’t make them any less meaningful to readers or lessen their appeal.  What we’re seeing may not be so much a dissolution as a diffusion.

There’s no denying that paranormal, contemporary and erotica are enjoying an ascendance right now—but I wouldn’t write off the historical yet.

What do you think?

06 May 2013

Regency Paper Doll (coloring contest!)

Several years ago I created a Regency paper doll for my very first RWA conference. I thought it was a fun way to introduce myself to the Beau Monde Chapter. So I drew her and all her clothes and had it printed up in a limited edtion of 100 copies that were put in all the conference bags.

It recently occured to me that I could give her a second life on my website as a freebie. And then a couple of readers suggested it would be fun to hold coloring contests. So I'm going to be doing montly giveaways based around her clothes (and adding new outfits as we go along). This is the first one, and we're coloring her habit.

Download Harriet's habit and color it in however you chose (the full PDF of the doll and all her clothes is on the page as well). You'll find plenty of inspiration over on my Georgian Habit Pinterest Board.

Email me a scan or a snap shot of your final design (isobelcarr.author (at) gmail.com) with HARRIET'S HABIT in the subject line by May 31st.

All entries will be shared on Pinterest (and probably on FaceBook and Twitter) and a winner will be randomly selected.

Prize: A full signed set of the League of Second Sons (US only), OR a full set of the series in eBook form (where I can legally gift this), OR a $25 gift certificate to the online bookstore of your choice (Amazon, Amazon.uk, Kobo, etc., so long as the site will let me buy it and gift it).

Void where prohibited. Odds of winning dependent upon number of entries.

Have Fun!

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