History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

29 April 2014

Chamber Pots and Bidets

Two Nerdy History Girls has a great post about chamber pots (did you know they're shaped like a figure eight when they're meant for use by women?). I thought I'd add to their post with a couple of images of women using them. Yes, these are period images. No, I have no idea WHY someone would choose to illustrate this. This is a painting by a favorite artist of mine. Boucher often painted intimate scenes, but this one is just about as intimate as you can get, and you can clearly see just how the chamber pot was used, and how difficult it must have been to keep your skirts clear of it (and why drawers would have been a problem!).

François Boucher, La Toilette intime, 1760

There's another image from a few decades later that shows a woman washing herself in an earlier bidet. Seems like a much more humane way to have set up a chamber pot for use, doesn't it?

Louis-Léopold Boilly,
La Toilette intime ou la Rose effeuillee,1790

22 April 2014

Net Gowns

Red Net Gown
over red underdress
I've been talking about Regency gowns on Risky Regencies for a few weeks now (Colorful, Print, Red), and I thought I'd continue to do so over here at "home" with a post about net gowns. Ok really, they're overgowns, which could have been paired with any number of different colored undergowns. The prime example is this red one c. 1810-1812.

Netting was machine made (any fiber could be used, but silk and cotton seem to be the most common) and very fine. It was popular for ballgowns and other formal attire. As you can see from the detail of the red gown, the color of the undergown chosen could make a huge difference in the appearance of the gown. 
The netting itself could be embellished with "sprigs" (as in the black example) or it could have trim, embroidery, or spangles (aka sequins) applied to it).

Detail of Red Net Gown
Shown with white underdress

Black Net Gown
embellished with yellow
over yellow undergown

Black Net Gown
Sprigged ad with lace
Double Layer Net Gown
embellished with spangles
c. 1820s

Detail of Black Net Gown

Black Net Gown
over white underdress

14 April 2014

The Little Things

The Ashford Affair, which just came out in paperback last month, goes back and forth between Edwardian England, 1920s Kenya, and 1999 New York, along other stops on the way.  There are wild animals on safari, grand manor houses, fast cars-- and yet, when a reader emailed me recently, she told me the detail that really made the book for her was the reference to Mister Softee trucks, because, she said, it showed her that I knew New York, unlike so many authors, who set books there without ever having set foot in it.

(For the record, my feet have been firmly planted on the sidewalks of New York for the larger part of my life.  Usually chasing a Mister Softee truck.)

Isn't it funny what makes or breaks a book for you?  It's always the little details that make all the difference.  Way back in 2003, when my first book sold, my acquiring editor told me that one of the things that caught her, that made her keep reading, was a mention in the first chapter of my modern heroine's skirt having turned around on her while she was walking.  "Mine always does that!" she said. 

As a reader, it's those sorts of details that catch me.  Recently, I was reading Donna Thorland's latest, The Rebel Pirate.  There's drama and swashbuckling and skullduggery and even a royal byblow, but do you know what I remember?  The pins in the heroine's bodice.  Donna spent many years working at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, dealing with the material arts of just this time period, so when she describes the heroine unpinning her bodice, you know it's exactly the way such a bodice would have worked.  She knows eighteenth century costume the way I know Mister Softee.

And speaking of Mister Softee... I think I hear him playing my tune.

As I go chasing a chocolate/vanilla cone with rainbow sprinkles, are there any small things that have jumped out at you as you've been reading?

06 April 2014

The Hamlet Connection

Authors often get asked where they got the idea for a book. For me, at least, the answer is usually too much a mélange of inspirations and half-formulated thoughts to pinpoint one moment. But in the case of The Berkeley Square Affair, I know exactly when the idea came to me. I was driving with my daughter Mélanie to the birthday party of the daughter of friends who was turning one (at the time Mélanie’s own first birthday party seemed far in the future, and she is now past two, which tells you something about the time that elapses between the genesis of a book and its publication). As I drove the winding back road from West Marin, where we live, to the nearby town of Petaluma, I got the idea of my central couple, agents and husband and wife Malcolm and Suzanne Rannoch, having a peaceful night in their Berkeley Square library. The Napoleonic Wars are seemingly behind them, But then their friend, playwright Simon Tanner climbs through the window, bloody from an attack. Because he was bringing them a manuscript. A manuscript that might be an alternate version of Hamlet. Of course, this being Malcolm and Suzanne’s world, the manuscript contains secrets beyond the identity of its author.

Malcolm and Suzanne have always liberally quoted Shakespeare. It's a sort of code—they can use quotes to express feelings they can't put into words for themselves. I've written scenes set at the theatre during performances of Shakespeare plays and even scenes at rehearsals, but I loved the idea of making a Shakespeare play a central part of my book and using Hamlet seemed singularly appropriate as themes of fathers and sons, lovers who may be working for the enemy, and the younger generation unraveling the secrets of their parents tied into the next story I wanted to tell in Malcolm and Suzanne's world.

I was thinking recently about the myriad works of art that have a Hamlet connection. Quotes from the play lend titles to work as diverse as Edmund Crispin's mystery The Glimpses of the Moon and the comic adventure movie Outrageous Fortune. Lee Blessing's play Fortinbras picks up the story where
Hamlet  ends. A friend and I saw a workshop production in Greenwich Village of a musical that tells the story from Ophelia's POV. Lisa Klein's young adult novel Ophelia is also a retelling from Ophelia's viewpoint. Michael Innes's wonderful mystery Hamlet, Revenge! centers round a production of Hamlet at a country house party. There are thematic echoes in countless books, movies, and television shows. The X-Files and Arrow come immediately to mind.

Hamlet, after all, is a story that can be enjoyed on a multiple levels. It is a political thriller, a psychological study, a coming of age story, a family drama, a tragic love story. It's themes dealing with the nature of life and death, power and love, parents and children grapple with core issues of human existence and can be analyzed endlessly. Yet, as a friend remarked to me at intermission during a wonderful production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, "I forget what a good story this is." Watching the play unfold, one finds oneself simply wanting to know what will happen next.

Do you have a favorite book inspired by Hamlet or another work of literature? A favorite memory of seeing Hamlet? Can you name other plays, books, and movies inspired by the story of the Prince of Denmark or that take their titles from quotes from the play?

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