History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

27 January 2014

Writing from Experience

I have small white holiday lights strung along a footbridge leading to my house and wound up into the branches of a tree overhanging the bridge. I turn them on every night over the holidays, but I leave them up all year and turn them on if I give a party or on other special occasions. This year several of the strings had gone out, so one afternoon in December I went out to replace the lights. As I wound the lights around the tree branches, it occurred to me that perhaps I didn't want to climb as high as I had the last time I put the lights up. After all, I'm now a mother. Which, I realized, echoes something Suzanne Rannoch, the heroine of my series. frequently thinks. Of course Suzanne is thinking about going undercover in dangerous situations, stealing coded documents and outwitting enemy agents, not putting up Christmas lights. Still, in that moment I understood exactly how my character felt.

I've always hated the phrase "write what you know." I don't particularly want to write about a 40-something twenty-first century novelist in the San Francisco Bay Area. I've always been drawn to historical settings and my characters tend to live lives of intrigue and adventure quite unlike my own. And yet, as I realized string lights along the bridge, there are definitely ways in which my experiences and emotions make their way into my books. In addition to doing historical research, I draw upon my own experiences and those of my friends, when I create the characters in my books. I did this very consciously in the case of  my new novella, The Paris Plot, in which Suzanne gives birth to her and her husband Malcolm's second child. I wrote the novella after my daughter Mélanie was born, and I wanted to make use on my own experiences.

I've written childbirth scenes before, but it was definitely a different experience to dramatize one having gone through it myself. I used details of my own daughter's birth. The baby's birthday and the timing of the birth. My brief moment of panic once her head was out when I was afraid I wouldn't be able to push her the rest of the way. The wonder of the moment they laid her squirming, blue-tinged body on my chest. And yet Suzanne's situation had distinct differences from my own. She is having her second child not her first, and so unlikely to have the hours of labor and attendant false alarms I did. And, in 1816, she is having the baby at home rather than in a hospital and without an epidural. Fortunately, Suzanne is much tougher than I am :-). And, as one would expect of a child of Suzanne and Malcolm's, the baby's birth is wrapped up in intrigue. Thankfully, I was not required to bash a villain over the head with a candelabrum while in the later stages of labor.

And so writing The Paris Plot was in many ways a microcosm of what we do as historical novelists. Weaving personal experiences with details from historical research and fictional elements from our own imagination to create a story that is hopefully true to the era in which it set while touching on emotions and experiences that are universal. I've always felt that historical fiction says something both about the time in which it set and the time in which it is written, and in a very personal sense, the story of Jessica Rannoch's birth does just that.

What are your favorite childbirth scenes in literature? Writers, how do your personal experiences make their way into your books?

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24 January 2014

Favorite Books and Echoes from the Past: What Moves You?

When I checked the New York Times this morning, I discovered that one of my favorite haunts, the Morgan Library, visited numerous times during my childhood and beyond -- to imagine that Mr. Morgan's library was my own and to ogle one of the Gutenberg Bibles, and to geek out over exhibits focusing on the Greatest Literature Ever -- inagurates a new exhibit today to celebrate the connection between New York City and my favorite book, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's THE LITTLE PRINCE.

I was often a sickly child and pored over my French and English editions side by side, teaching myself French words from the English. I identified with the Prince's rose. When I was in First Form (seventh grade to public schoolers) I adapted a scene from the novel for performance as a homeroom assignments,

In my late teens, the drama counselor at the performing arts camp I'd attended myself as a younger kid, I adapted the entire novel for the stage, and directed a cast of 7-12 year olds in the show, which was performed for their families and the rest of the camp at the end of the summer.

A sentence from the novel, said by the Fox to the Little Prince, remains my favorite literary quote: "It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye."

Evidently, the Morgan curator (or at least the person who wrote the catalog or web material feels the same way as I do about that single sentence).  From the exhibition description:

Since its publication seventy years ago, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince has captivated millions of readers throughout the world. It may come as a surprise that this French tale of an interstellar traveler who comes to Earth in search of friendship and understanding was written and first published in New York City, during the two years the author spent here at the height of the Second World War. 

As he prepared to leave the city to rejoin the war effort as a reconnaissance pilot, Saint-Exupéry appeared at his friend Silvia Hamilton's door wearing his military uniform. "I'd like to give you something splendid," he said, "but this is all I have." He tossed a rumpled paper bag onto her entryway table. Inside were the manuscript and drawings for The Little Prince, which the Morgan acquired from her in 1968. 

Focusing on the story's American origins, this exhibition features twenty-five of the manuscript pages—replete with crossed-out words, cigarette burns, and coffee stains—and all forty-three of the earliest versions of drawings for the book. Also on view are rare printed editions from the Morgan's collection as well as personal letters, photographs, and artifacts on loan from the Saint-Exupéry estate, private collections, and museums and libraries in France and the United States. 

The Little Prince: A New York Story is the first exhibition to explore in depth the creative decisions Saint-Exupéry made as he crafted his beloved story that reminds us that what matters most can only be seen with the heart.

Do you have a favorite book that has stayed with you and/or inspired your own work in some way?a new exhibit

13 January 2014

Servants: the cast of thousands

I've been thinking a lot about servants recently (ok, when I'm writing, they're something I think about a lot, because they're the [mostly] unseen characters that I have to keep track of in my head and pull out onto stage when necessary). I tend to have a LOT of servants running about the pages of my books, because that was the simply reality of the day. It took a lot of hands to run even a small house, let alone a grand estate. In 1901, the Earl of Derby had 37 live-in servants and required an additional 60 to attend to a party of 40, and the Duke of Devonshire requited more than 200 servants to look after a party of 50.

This past week, Meoskop had a bit of a rant about servants (or the lack there of) over on Love in the Margins, Lucy Lethbridge's book Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times landed on my porch, and Katharine Ashe tweeted "Alexis de Toqueville recounts a story told by Voltaire's secretary about Madame Duchatelet, who did not hesitate to undress in front of her servants, 'not considering it a proven fact that valets were men.'" (from Lynne Hunt, Inventing Human Rights).

There have also been some rather brilliant and widely divergent reviews of Jo Baker's Longbourn (Pride and Prejudice from a maid's point of view). SmartBitch Sarah didn't like it at all (and if you read my comment on the review, you'll see I was in full agreement with her), but former Hoyden Pam Rosenthal adored it.

I've never been a fan of the heroine and maid are BFF's trope. It doesn't seem realistic to me given what I've read about servants, how they were called upon in court cases (crim con trials especially!), and how by most accounts they tended to be more transitory than lifelong. In some households they didn't even bother to learn the servants name, instead using the same name for whatever servant held the job (so any man who was coachman was John and any woman who was the maid of all work was Mary, etc.). I tend to fall somewhere in the middle (as would have been likely given the transition the master/servant relationship was undergoing in the late 18thC; moving quickly towards the more formal and familiar one of the Victorian era).

Anyway, back to Lethbridge's book ... I'm not entirely sure it's going to earn a place on my overcrowded bookshelf (not because it isn't very, very good, but because it seems to concentrate mostly on the very late 19thC and early 20thC), but I am enjoying the anecdotes and I can see some of them making their way into my books in one form or another. My favorite so far: "Lord Curzon, whose intellect was regarded as one of the glories of the Empire, was so baffled by the challenge of opening a window in the bedroom of the country house in which he was staying (no servant being available so late at night), that he simply picked up a log from the grate and smashed the glass." 

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