History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

29 October 2013

The Allure of the Masquerade

In Halloween week, in between getting my daughter's costume ready, starting a new book, juggling deadlines, and packing for two trips, I've been thinking about masquerades. Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays and for me the most fun isn't the candy, it's deciding who to be.

My daughter Mélanie is wearing an adorable princess costume that we got at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. But I wanted her to be someone more specific than a princess. She's still young enough that I got the fun of deciding, and I realized the perfect choice was Angelina from Rossini's opera La Cenerentola, otherwise known as Cinderella. Last weekend we went to the Jack-o-Lantern Jamboree at Children's Fairyland. I decided to wear a costume as well. A long gauzy skirt that reminds me of a Russian lacquer box, a black top, a black lace headband with a red rose, a garnet and gold filigree necklace. I was Tatiana from Eugene Onegin (poem by Puskin, opera by Tchaikovsky). One of the delights of having a child is the built in excuse to dress up for Halloween (not that one needs an excuse).

I love writing masquerade scenes in books. So many opportunities for intrigue and it can be fun (and sometimes challenging) to decide who one's different characters will masquerade as. A great way to comment on their personality or to hint at hidden aspects of that personality. I love the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode where Buffy dresses as the sort of 18th-century lady she thinks would appeal to Angel and Willow tries to wear a sexy costume and then at the last minute throws a ghost's sheet over it. Ultimately all the characters turn into the person they are masquerading as, leading to some interesting complications and some interesting commentary on how they see themselves and each other.

Masquerades were very popular in early 19th century, particularly at the Congress of Vienna, which I wrote about in my book Vienna Waltz. The themes varied. Metternich gave one at which the guests were supposed to wear the national dress of their various countries (apparently a number of peasant girls with diamond-encrusted dirndls swirled on the dance floor). Lady Castlereagh caused talk by wearing her husband's Order of the Garter in her hair, leading some to wonder if she was costumed as a Vestal Virgin. One of the most notable in a long line of notable entertainments at the Congress was the Carrousel, an elaborate recreation of a 16th century tournament. Young gallants were costumed as 16th century jousters. A select group of ladies also wore 16th century dress and presided over the tournament as the demoiselles d'honneur. Ironically, the sort of the 16th century tournament they were recreating had itself been an imitation of medieval tournaments, at which 16th century aristocrats had played at masquerading as knights from the chivalric era. The allure of the masquerade extends across centuries.

What's your favorite masquerade scene in a book? Your favorite Halloween television episode? And are you wearing a costume this Halloween?

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23 October 2013

Concerning Cosmetics: Eyelashes & Brows

 If you look at period Georgian portraits, you don’t see a lot of emphasis on the eyes. Not like today. But there were certainly recipes out there for cosmetics to darken the lashes and brows. The following are from one of the books quoted in The Lady’s Stratagem:

To blacken the Eyelashes and Eyebrows.

Rub them often with elder-berries. For the same purpose, some make use of burnt cork, or clove burned at the candle. Others employ black frankincense, resin, and mastic; this black it is said, will not come off with perspiration.

Wash for blackening the Eyebrows.

First wash with a decoction of [oak] galls. Then rub them with a brush dipped in a solution of green vitriol, and let them dry.

Black for the Eyebrows.

Take an ounce of pitch, a like quantity of resin and of frankincense, and half an ounce of mastic. Throw them upon live charcoal, over which lay a plate to receive the smoke. A black shoot will adhere to the plate; with this shoot rub the eyelashes and eyebrows very delicately. This operation, if now and then repeated, will keep them perfectly black.

Kohl, of course, is ancient. With all the trade the English had with India, there’s no reason to assume that Kohl wouldn’t have been readily available. The OED clearly shows the word was known, though I see it in foreign contexts rather than mentioned as a cosmetic in use among the English.

1799 W. G. Browne Trav. Afr. xxi. 318 If any thing be applied in these flussioni..it is generally kôhhel (calx of tin mixed with sheep's fat).

1817 T. Moore Lalla Rookh 11, Others mix the Kohol's jetty die, To give that long, dark languish to the eye.

21 October 2013

Concerning Cosmetics: Rouge

From The Art of Beauty: "If ever paint were to be proscribed, I should plead for an exemption in favour of rouge." 

One of my favorite books for this kind of thing is The Lady's Stratagem by Frances Grimble. She put together information about hygiene, cosmetics,fashion, laundry, and pastimes
from six French ladies magazines from the 1820s. I know I've heard a lot over the years that women of the Regency didn't paint themselves the way the ladies of the 18th century did, but I'm not convinced that's true. I think it more likely they just opted for a more subtle application. The huge number of recipes for cosmetics in the period magazines convinces me that this is true. Ladies weren't just pinching their cheeks for color, they were painting it on.

True Vegetable Rouge, or Rose in a Cup

Take the kind of red lac extracted from the safflower, which is sold cheaply under the name "rose in a cup." Dry, it is a greenish-bronze. Dissolve it in a glass of water, and pour it on talcum power of on a piece of fine woolen. In this state it returns to a beautiful rose-colour. You may apply it to your cheeks without withering them, and if you have been careful in preparing the hue, the rouge will not be detected.

Portuguese Rouge

Of Portuguese dishes containing rouge for the face, there are two sorts. One of these is made in Portugal, and is rather scarce; the paint contained in the Portuguese dishes being of a fine pale pink hue, and very beautiful in its application to the face. The other sort is made in London, and is of a dirty, muddy red colour; it passes very well, however, with those who never saw the genuine Portuguese dishes, or who wish to be cheaply beautified.

Spanish Wool

Of this also there are several sorts; but that which is made here in London, by some of the Jews is by far the best. That which comes from Spain is of a very dark red colour, whereas the former gives a bright pale red.

Spanish Papers

They differ in othing from the above [Spanish Wool]; but the red colour, which in the tinges the wool, is here laid on paper; chiefly for the convenience of carrying in a pocket-book.

Chinese Boxes of Colours

These boxes, which are beautifully painted and japanned, come from China. They contain each two dozen of papers, and in each paper are three smaller ones, viz., a small black paper for the eyebrows, a paper of the same size of a fine green colour, but which, when just arrived and fresh, makes a very fine red for the face; and lastly a paper containing about half an ounce of white powder (prepared from real pearl) for giving an alabaster colour to some parts of the face and neck.

A further quote concerning the safety of these concoctions:

"As to the carmine, the French Red, the genuine Portuguese dishes, the Chinese wool ... they are all preparations of cochineal...and the least harm need not be dreaded from its use."

Any kind of cosmetic that particularly interests you? Let me know in the comments and I'll try to cover them later in the week.

11 October 2013


Versailles, 1789. As the burgeoning rebellion reaches the palace gates, Marie Antoinette finds her privileged and peaceful life swiftly upended by violence. Once her loyal subjects, the people of France now seek to overthrow the crown, placing the heirs of the Bourbon dynasty in mortal peril.

Displaced to the Tuileries Palace in Paris, the royal family is propelled into the heart of the Revolution. There, despite a few staunch allies, they are surrounded by cunning spies and vicious enemies. Yet despite the political and personal threats against her, Marie Antoinette remains above all a devoted wife and mother, standing steadfastly by her husband, Louis XVI, and protecting their young son and daughter. And though the queen and her family try to flee, and she secretly attempts to arrange their rescue from the clutches of the Revolution, they cannot outrun the dangers encircling them, or escape their shocking fate.

September 24 marked the release of CONFESSIONS OF MARIE ANTOINETTE, the final novel in my historical fiction trilogy on the life of France’s most glamorous and notorious queen. I’ve spent the past five years researching and writing the trilogy, which began with the August 2011 release of BECOMING MARIE ANTOINETTE, chronicling her childhood in Austria and her years as France’s dauphine. It continued with the story of her triumphs and tribulations during her years as queen in DAYS OF SPLENDOR, DAYS OF SORROW, published in May 2012.

The trilogy has been a labor of love for me. I can’t recall when I have been so immersed in a project, and of course it was difficult to let my historical figures go after spending so much time with them. It was particularly hard given the cruelty and brutality the royal family was subjected to during the first few years of the French Revolution, in which they were essentially prisoners of the nation, stripped little by little of their possessions and their dignity.

Yet CONFESSIONS OF MARIE ANTOINETTE remains as hopeful a novel as possible, while remaining faithful to the historical record. Although the author (and 99.9% of the readers; I’d be surprised if someone doesn’t know what happened to Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette) are already aware of their horrific denouement, the characters do not. Marie Antoinette finally matures in this book, becoming the queen her mother, the formidable Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa of Austria had always prayed she would be. She is purposeful and hopeful, ever striving to keep her family together and her husband on the throne.

My philosophy about writing historical fiction is to stay faithful to the historical record and to add an author’s note at the end explaining when and why I deviated from it (if I had). The real story is usually far more exciting than most things novelists can invent. In the case of Marie Antoinette, I longed to reclaim her story from the 250 years of propaganda that have falsely mischaracterized her and continue to be repeated today by journalists, political pundits, and even scholars who have not bothered to do their research. My trilogy is not an alternate history in any way. Supported by the historical record, it depicts the true and accurate story of Marie Antoinette’s life.

Do you have a strong opinion about Marie Antoinette? Have you ever walked in her footsteps, i.e. visited Versailles, the Conciergerie in Paris, or her childhood homes in Austria (The Hofburg and Schönbrunn, for example)?

07 October 2013

Time to Write

I’ve been fortunate not to have to work at a “day job” for most of my writing career. But pretty much from the start I’ve juggled writing with other responsibilities. I was still in college at Stanford when my mom and I wrote our first book and started on our second. I’ve worked on various freelance projects while writing, I’ve worked on two books at once, and I now have a part time job for the Merola Opera Program (for which I long did volunteer work).. All of which turned out to be excellent training for writing as a mom.

One of the wonderful things about writing is that you can do it on your own schedule, at whatever time of day or day of the week works best. But the very fact that it is so flexible means that unless you have no outside commitments to family,school, other work, volunteer support, etc…, you tend at least to some degree to end up fitting your writing schedule around your less flexible obligations. While my daughter Mélanie in many ways is wonderful about adapting to my schedule, of course I also adapt to hers. We’ve settled into a good routine of going to a favorite Peet’s Coffee & Tea most afternoons, where I get as much written as I can while Mélanie takes in the crowd (she loves being around people) and has a snack. When she starts to get restless, we go to the nearby playpark for some activity and interaction with other kids. After that, she usually nurses and settles in for a nap, and I have another latte and another writing session.

Of course that sometimes means I often break off my writing not when I’m at a good stopping point necessarily, but when Mel is ready for a break or wakes up from a nap. But I find the break from writing can be useful. Lauren had a great post a while ago about Writing in Fits and Startsww.laurenwillig.com/news/2012/09/05/writing-wednesday-fits-and-starts/. She cogently points out the advantages of time away from a story, including very much for me “Gaps between writing time give your subconscious the chance to gnaw away at plot problems.”

I’ve always found that I do my best work mulling over and resolving plot problems when I get away from the computer – driving, exercising, vacuuming. Or now, watching a small person climb on a toy duck or play with the train set at Pottery Barn Kids. Whether I consciously think about the book or let my subconscious mull, I tend to return to the book reinvigorated. There’s also nothing like knowing one only has so long until your child gets bored, finishes her snack, wakes up from her nap to really focus one’s attention and get words down on paper (or rather computer screen). Although speaking of paper, I used to hand write in my daytimer when I had unexpected breaks on a day of meetings and appointments and didn’t have my laptop with me. Now I tend to use my iPad at those times (even on occasion at the playpark).

What tricks do you use to find time for writing or other activities while juggling other aspects of your life?

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