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Susan Sarah here ... joining in on the warm welcome to our new Wench, Anne Gracie!!
I'm waiting to see a new cover soon for the trade paperback edition of LADY MACBETH (release date is April '09), which I will be happy to show you all once it's actually and finally here! In the meantime, while my mind is on images, I thought it might be fun to play around with some images and the stories they can immediately conjure in our imaginations. Being a Very Visual Person (my degrees in studio art and graduate art history still come in handy) -- I am a sucker for artwork. A painting that seems to tell a story can evoke all sorts of stories in my head -- ideas bubble up as I wonder what's going on, who the people are, what the circumstances may be, the time frame, the location ... this can be an easy way to feed an exhausted creative well sometimes.
Also, being a Very Visual sort, I find looking at paintings just very soothing and refreshing. I really do begin to feel more creative myself. Looking at art can be a great, fun way to limber up the writing and storytelling muscles. So let's take an art break on the blog today ....
And since our blog server has changed its formatting parameters so that some images seem to be coming out ABSOLUTELY FLIPPIN' HUGE, I thought I'd take advantage of that (until we figure out how to use the "new and improved" features), post a few pictures and let you all have at them.
Do these paintings conjure stories in your heads? If so, if you're not already a writer in actuality, you probably are in spirit! Take a look through today's art gallery and tell us what you think is going on ... captions always welcome, or play with quick stories ... and if you don't have time for that, just enjoy a little visual break today....
Good luck, have fun!
Painter's Honeymoon, Lord Leighton
Sir Frank Dicksee, Yseult
Vermeer, Young Lady and Gentleman at the Virginals
J.W.W. Waterhouse, The Tempest
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Silent Greeting
From Mary Jo
A blog is a life form of sorts, and it grows, changes, evolves. The Word Wenches will miss Loretta Chase’s wit and wisdom as she disappears into the thorny toils of her next wonderful book, and two other hard working Wenches will be cutting back on the number of posts for similar reasons.
But—the good news for regular Word Wench readers is that Anne Gracie has agreed to join us! Anne has been a guest here, and a popular one. Not only is she a terrific writer of Regency historicals, but the fact that she is Australian adds to our cachet as sophisticated international bloggers. <g>
A former teacher and long time world traveler, Anne is one of those intrepid Australian writers who makes the long flight to the U. S. to attend romance conferences, which is how several of us have had the chance to meet her face to face. I can testify that she is just as much fun in person as her books are on the printed page.
Having just turned in her third Devil Rider book, she is now taking her bow. So here she is—Anne Gracie, distinguished author of historical romances and the newest Word Wench. Welcome, Anne!
Thanks, Mary Jo for that gorgeous introduction, and Sherrie, too, for the one the day before. I'm thrilled to be here—thank you to all the wenches for inviting me. I feel very sad that Loretta's stepping back, and I hope she doesn't take this the wrong way when I say she has big shoes to fill ;) so I'm not even going to try to fill them. She's irreplaceable — as are all the wenches.
So... for an introduction: I grew up as the youngest (by a long shot) in a family of four kids, two schoolteacher parents, and various animals — many of which I brought home, usually just after sundown so my mother couldn't send me out in the dark "to take the wretched creature back ." I knew that despite her apparent hostility, the wretched creature would soon become "a poor little thing" in dire need of feeding by my mother, and that once fed, it could stay.<G> I was animal girl by day and bookworm by night. I read everything and anything and in any town we moved to the first place I found was the lib
Once I escaped from the gypsy parents (who were living in Malaysia by then), I settled down, studied, and became a high school teacher. But itchy feet are in my genes and after some time I decided to spend a year backpacking around the world — starting with North America, then heading for the UK and Europe and coming home through Asia.
It was actually my third time in the UK and Europe — the first as a kid, when we lived in Scotland and traveled the UK, Europe and Ireland with a caravan in the summer. And I'd been to Europe for 3 months with a school friend while we were at university. It's not an unusual thing for young Australians and New Zealanders to go a'traveling — it's a kind of rite of passage for us.
But on this last big trip I was traveling on my own, and that's what started me writing again — all my writing had been teaching related for years. So at the end of that year I came back to Australia with A Plan — I was going to become a full time writer. (I had visions of sitting on a Greek island or a beach in Brittany, tapping out books. LOL
I tried a few different types of contemporary romance, but I was pretty ignorant about the market. I had no idea people were publishing historical romance — I'd never seen any in Australian bookstores. And then I spotted some Mills and Boon regencies in my local library.
That was the lightbulb moment. I'd grown up on Georgette Heyer — had devoured them since I was eleven. (My first, for any Heyerites out there was These Old Shades.) So then I started writing a Regency historical — and felt right at home.
My first book, Gallant Waif, was published in 1999 by Harlequin, Mills and Boon, London, and a year later it came out in Australia (in a "brick" of three 90K historicals in one book— tiny, tiny print and nobody bought it.) Then in 2001 it came out in the USA and everything changed. Suddenly I had readers — and none of them were related to me. (Pause for quick rest on fainting couch.)
HM&B were very good to me (and still are) but I found it depressing that the books only stayed on the shelves for a month. So eventually I sent a manuscript to an agent I'd met at RWA national in Washington, and she sold it to Berkley.
That book was called The Perfect Rake. It was about a plain heroine who was trying to care for four beautiful younger sisters. My Berkley editor floored me when she asked what the rest in the series were about. I hadn't even considered a series. (I'd started the book, thinking it would go to Harlequin, and they'd made it clear they didn't want a series from me.) So then I found myself with a series to write and I found I loved doing it.
Now I'm on my 13th book, half way through my second series, and can't believe how lucky I am. And I'm a Word Wench! I'd head for that Greek island, too, only my dog won't let me leave the country for long. That's her in the red boa. She's a kelpie (a sheep and cattle working dog) and don't be misled by the feathers — she's very smart. She supervises me as I write (muscling in on the strip heater under the desk, mostly) and drags me out for walks if I forget the time.
I'm giving away a couple of books -- your choice of my backlist (as long as I have a copy left of that title) and a copy of the current HM&B reprint of my Christmas novella, The Virtuous Widow. It's a historical — don't be misled by the modern cover. It's a special edition: one of twenty-four books reprinted to celebrate the 100th birthday of Mills and Boon. I'm really honored to be in there, too.
Anne's life has been varied and fascinating. She's backpacked around the world and sung in a band, climbed glaciers and kept bees, been a school teacher and swum most of the famous rivers in Europe by the time she was eight. She lives in Australia with her dog, her bees, and her feather boas, but has also lived in Scotland, Malaysia and Greece.
Anne is immediate past president of Romance Writers of Australia, having served 2 years as president and 6 years on the committee.
Anne's first post will be tomorrow, 10/27, so please drop by and say hello. (Keep in mind that Anne is in a different time zone--she's a day ahead of us here in the U.S.)
Welcome aboard, Anne!
Here's Jo, along with smiling Charlie my biggest fan -- ha! ha! -- so steeped in the book that I forgot about my Wench blog, so this is going to be bitty and brief. Also, Typepad has changed their set up, causing me all sorts of problems that I don't have time to figure out now. Apologies in advance if some of this in odd (like enormous images, for example.)
I saved a little bit out of the newspaper from a regular column by Pam Frier called Pleasures of the Table. This one's titled 17th Century Cooks Had Their Finger On the Pulse, and it's about old cookery books that measured time by the pulse. I'd not come across that, but it makes sense when a clock wasn't always to hand. They were expensive items. Referring to Sir Kenelm Digby's cookbook, she related that he instructed the cook to let an egg boil for about 200 strokes of the pulse. That would be about three minutes. Neat, eh?
The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened can be downloaded from Gutenberg here.
But what's that about smiling? For one thing, it's good for us. The physical act of smiling makes us happier. Apparently chronically depressed people have weak smiling muscles and improve if given smiling exercises. I even found this article about improvement after treatment with Botox.
I quote: Botox’s potential to treat depression dawned on Dr. Eric Finzi, a cosmetic surgeon in Chevy Chase, Md., and lead author of the study, a few years ago, while he was studying facial expressions. Also a painter, he was working on a series of portraits based on late 19th century photographs of patients confined in the French hospital La Salpetriere, an institution for women “of abnormal constitution.” “I went back and read Charles Darwin. Back in the 1870s, he brought up that you sort of are the emotions you express on your face,” Finzi says.
Maybe, he thought, the facial muscles feed information to the emotion centers of the brain, which in turn respond with chemicals that produce happy or sad feelings. The loop is complete when those feelings are sent back to the brain, reinforcing expressions on the face. It’s one theory that some researchers have held, though as yet there is no proof of such a neurological underpinning. Scientists have proven, however, that facial expressions can alter heart rate, skin temperature and blood volume.
But what's this got to do with history? It's a bit tenuous, but I've been dipping into A brief History of the Smile, by Angus Trumble, Basic Books. I have only dipped as yet (see deadline above) but it is interesting.
Consider, for example, this quote in the book from de La Salle's Rules of Christian Decorum and Civility, 1703. "There are some people who raise their upper lip so high, or let the lower lip sag so much, that their teeth are almost entirely visible. This is entirely contrary to decorum, which forbids you to allow your teeth to be uncovered, since nature gave us lips to conceal them."
Here's de La Salle, teeth decorously concealed.
It is good to know, however, that he approved of humorous after dinner wit that caused laughter, for that aids digestion. So that's the origin of the after dinner speaker, is it?
Hmm. His rules would cramp our writing style, wouldn't it. It'd be tight smiles all the way. Though I suppose we could increase the use of twinkling eyes.I remember one man on line who was adamant that a character should never grin unless they were supposed to be demented. Clearly he'd have sided with de La Salle.
What do you think about grinning characters? To me, it's not so much a Cheshire Cat grin, as the emotion behind it, which is not the same as a smile.
The book mentions nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, used for amusement before it became an anesthetic. It was synthesized in 1775, and used experimentally by many including Coleridge and Southey.
And then we have the smiley face, of which I'm very fond. :)
I will leave you with a snippet from The Spectator, the famous newspaper of the early 18th century. In September 1711, it noted at the end of an advertisement in the Post Boy (they had their own newspaper? Anyone want to find out more?) for horse racing "The same day, a gold ring to be grinn'd for by men." The Spectator investigated and discovered that people were exercising for hours a day. "The prize to be grinned for has raised such an ambition among the common people of out-grinning one another that many very discerning persons are afraid it should spoil most of the faces of the country."
Now there's an incident someone can incorporate into a historical novel, I'm sure.
Expand on the topic of smiling, in life and in fiction. How do you like an author to show the many nuances of the smile? What about smiling faces on covers? Some contemporaries have smiling people on them, but historicals rarely. The trad Regencies often had smilers, sometimes manic grinners, and I wonder if it contributed to their demise. Consider the paperback of Emily and the Dark Angel, in which my darkish and dangerish Verderan is simpering. There's no other word for it. Then there's that glitch of light which makes him look as if he's wearing a dangly earring.
Did that make you smile? If not, do it anyway, right now.
Remember to smile, many times a day. It'll do you the world of good.
PS, the mass market paperback edition of Dragon Lovers is out, with brilliant stories by me, Mary Jo, Barbara Samuel and Karen Harbaugh. I'm scared to try to put up the cover of that because all the pictures seem to be so huge and I don't know what to do to fix them.
Ah well, I'll just smile about it.
:D :D :D
It’s pretty much a given here at the Wenches that we love history, and we love the past. For most of us readers and writers alike, it’s been a long-standing love, a time and place we enjoy returning to visit by way of favorite books and authors.
But sometimes our “guide” is not a writer, but an illustrator. In my case, it was pictures, not words, that first showed me the difference between my own present-day and the historical past. I know how old I was, too (four), because I still have the book, with “Happy Birthday, Susan” and the date written inside in my godmother’s distinctive handwriting. The book was Linsey Woolsey, and the author-illustrator was Tasha Tudor.
The plot of Linsey Woolsey is a simple one, documenting the naughtiness of the lamb of the title and how after a traumatic encounter with a bee hive, she learns to behave, a classic cautionary tale for the very young.
But it was the pictures I loved best. Linsey Woolsey is owned by a little girl named Sylvie Ann, living in an unspecified 19th century American farm. Sylvie Ann wore pantaloons, pinafores, and ruffled dresses, had the run of the sunny, cheerful farm, and while her mother (aka Mimmsy) baked her birthday cake and hosted an elaborate outdoor party, Sylvie Ann herself didn’t seem to have to do chores or go to school or do much of anything she didn’t want to. No wonder the past looked so good.
I was hooked. I studied her drawings, and struggled to copy them myself. I forced my friends to reenact scenes from the books. One summer I even managed to persuade my parents to make a detour in the family vacation for a visit to Tasha Tudor’s house and garden, which was open to the public on certain days.
Over the next decade, every birthday and Christmas included at least one book illustrated by Tasha Tudor, from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden to Louisa May Alcott’s A Round Dozen. The stories were always “girl-centric”, though boys, animals, and dolls were permitted, and even when the Bad Things might happen (parents died, family fortunes were lost, George Washington’s army needed saving from the British), the plucky girls always triumphed. Granted, it's a warm and optomistic version of the past. Family was always front and center, with Mom playing the leading roll. Friends were also and nobly old-fashioned virtues like loyalty and courage. Whether in softly lit watercolors or the spare line drawings, my visual impression of the past as a golden place for strong-minded girls and really cute pets was formed through the art of Tasha Tudor.
Since then I’ve come to realize that, on some hazy level, I must have realized a kindred spirit at work. Born in Boston in 1915 with the wonderful name of Starling Burgess, she always claimed she was reincarnated from a 19th ship captain’s wife, her reason for feeling more at home in the past than the modern day. She lived in an old house in rural New Hampshire, happy without electricity or running water, dressed in antique-style clothes, and raised her own food as well as four children. She had learned to draw from her mother, also an artist, and her first illustrated book, Pumpkin Moonshine, was published in 1938. Nearly a hundred others followed, as well as books that offered glimpses into her version of rural life, history, and crafts.
I’ve also discovered that I’m far from the only one who treasures the past as imagined by Tasha Tudor. Her gentle paintings and illustrations are a constant favorite with readers and collectors. She was honored with numerous awards, including Caldecott Medals. In a modern world ruthless with marketing, this reclusive, fragile artist who seldom ventured from her farm became a “19th century Martha Stewart”, inspiring a family empire that oversees everything from greeting cards to her own museum in Marlboro, Vermont. A Google search produces thousands of entries, with scores of blogs devoted to her and her work. When she died this summer at 97, she was mourned around the world, and eulogized in an obituary in The New York Times.
I never met Tasha Tudor, yet on the day I learned of her death, I felt a great personal sadness, and a greater loss to the world. I still have my little Linsey Woolsey, and though similar copies of the same Oxford Press edition are now being sold for $600 and beyond (gasp!), I won’t part with it, or any of the other books. Though the historical novels I write now might not appear to have much in common with her books (Sylvie Ann, meet Nell Gwyn), there’s an undeniable love and regard for the past that I know I inherited directly from her illustrations. I’ve read that she designed the hand-drawn cover of Linsey Woolsey to resemble an old-fashioned seed packet, and the seeds that Tasha Tudor unwittingly passed along to me continue to grow, and to flourish. May it always be so!
So what was your introduction to the past? What were the images that complimented the words? Was it the Garth Williams drawings in the "Little House" books, or Michael Landon as Pa on the TV series? An American Girl doll, or Shirley Temple dressed as an antebellum girl in "The Little Colonel"? Sleeping Beauty’s medieval castle at Disneyland, Drew Barrymore in Ever After, or a school field trip to the Cloisters in New York? I'll give a copy of any book from my backlist (either as Miranda Jarrett or Susan Holloway Scott) to a reader chosen at random from those who post.
Oh, and one more thing: the MLB World Series begins tonight. Go Phillies! :)
As I mentioned last time, I have been madly spilling pages from my pen these last few months, totally enjoying my mismatched Regency couple. When I first draft a story, it comes straight from the right side of my brain, my subconscious, or some creative vortex that spills directly into my fingers, bypassing my conscious mind. This is where the metaphors and similes—and a lot of nonsense—emerge, not from any careful plotting or planning. I see the scene in my head, feel the emotions, and I use whatever words that spill out to capture those scenes on paper. Later, when I re-read, those words connect me directly to the vision and emotions I’d earlier experienced, even though I shudder in horror at how they’re phrased. At that point, the editor in my head steps in, and writing shifts to the ugly, dreary left side of my brain that fusses over commas and dangling modifiers and excess verbiage. (I love this blog that calls the final stage of the creative process Obsession (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kimberly-brooks/the-creative-process-in-e_b_71909.html). Unfortunately, I don't have the patience to carry my editing obsession to the extreme of rewriting the same book forever!
Right now, I’m fifty pages from THE END, and I’ve run smack dab into the wall of word count. I’ve read lots of reviews where the critic claims the ending of a book “feels rushed.” Well, yeah, and I can tell you why. It’s because it’s utterly impossible to be creative, to let your characters grow and become strong, and rein them in with word counts! I feel sorry for the authors who run into deadline frenzy at the same time. I plan ahead enough to know all my plot points and conflicts and ending, and I try to work far in advance of of my deadline, but it’s still impossible to always make everything come together right.
In the case of this book, I know exactly where I want my characters to go and how to get there. I have the perfect ending in mind. But it will take 5000 more words than I’m allowed to write it to my satisfaction, which rather puts a damper on my creative process.
So now I have the choice of “rushing” my planned ending, or going back and whacking out a heap of verbiage elsewhere, or jettisoning my creative process and moving into editor mode to figure out how I can pull together the conflicts, explode them on the page, and satisfy the reader while preventing my publisher from having hysterics over the size of the manuscript. The next time you hear anyone say that writing a book is easy, shoot them for me, please. Or better yet, hand them a pen and tell them to try it.
For those among you who are more interested in practical process than creative, because I know you’re out there, I try to keep my boisterous creativity within word count by tricking my subconscious into thinking it’s written more than it has. Obviously, that’s not working so well any more, but when my word counts were 100,000, I learned to set my draft margins at 1.2” instead of 1”, and I use Bookman Old Style font for my draft because it’s proportionally larger than the Times Roman that my publisher prefers in the finished product. That way, I can time my pacing by planning an emotional turning point around page 100, 200, and 300. Theoretically. And I know I need to wrap the book up by page 400. Which, as I’ve just said, isn’t working so hot, because that technique pulls me in at 90,000 words, and that’s the new standard in mass market. I need to develop a new trick because my editing will add to those 90k words, not subtract. Arggghhhh!
If I can’t come up with a 50 page ending, I’ll need to cut out the sex. Or maybe the cute kid scenes. Or the secondary characters. At this rate, I’ll have lots of snippets to post on my website! And a book full of holes.
Y’know, there’s something to be said about e-books—I bet they don’t have tight word counts! But that leads us to the question—do readers really want a book that goes on forever? I know we used to buy the biggest book we could find for our dime, but these days, there are so many other things to occupy us, does anyone really want to read a book the size of WAR AND PEACE anymore?
Which also leads to the question—in these dangerous economic times—are books good value for their cost?
We just love to give away books! Our latest winners are Lori Ann, who wins a copy of The Scarlet Spy by Andrea Pickens, and Joanna Waugh, who wins an Edith Layton book. Congratulations, Lori Ann and Joanna! Please send your mailing address to Sherrie.
If you are going to be in Surrey, British Columbia October 24-26, be sure to drop in at the The Sheraton Guildford Hotel, 15269 104th Avenue, and give a wave to Mary Jo, who will be attending the Surrey International Writers Conference. Mary Jo will be signing books at the hotel on 10/25 from 5:30-7:00 p.m.
Once a Wench, always a Wench: we bid a fond farewell to Loretta Chase, who recently moved into permanent sabbatical status. Loretta will be returning from time to time, especially when she has a new book coming out. And speaking of books, Loretta's The Last Hellion will be reissued by Avon on 10/28 with a lovely new cover and back cover blurb. (Please note that while Amazon shows the new book cover, the book details are for the original, published in 1998. Until this is resolved, the best way to purchase the book is from the publisher)
And finally, be sure to stop by the Word Wenches on 10/26 when we introduce a new Word Wench who will be joining our group!!! Then come back on 10/27 to read her introductory post and get to know her!
Susan Sarah here ... Over the next few weeks at Word Wenches, we’ll introduce some surprises and new features. Today we’re launching “Wench Classics,” in which we’ll post earlier, classic blogs for a chance to renew some great discussions. We’ve been blogging on WW for nearly two and half years – that’s a lot of blogs!! – and we thought, with the archives so very full of some interesting stuff, that we'd like to revisit some of them with new perspectives and new thoughts to share.
The first “Wench Classic” edition comes from one of my earlier blogs on the topic of books we’ve read that have become our own personal classics. In going back to it, I’ve revised (that's compulsive by now!!) and added more books....
..... A Wench Classic: * The All-Time Champion List * .....
Yesterday a great discussion about unread books gathering dust on our bookshelves got me thinking about books that I have actually read again and again. These are the ones that have found a permanent place in my heart and my thoughts … we've all read so very many books in our lives – probably a staggering number if we attempted to make a count – yet only a fraction of those will stick with us forever. For each one of us, that list is very different.
I have a short list of the books that I will always remember and treasure, the ones that have moved me, made me think, taught me something essential, and thrilled me with story or characters or artful writing. For me, the quality of the writing itself can be as interesting as the story and the characters; where all the elements are masterfully woven together with some elusive book magic that connects with me -- then I'm in book bliss. I am sometimes drawn to read the books on my list again for a sense of comfort, support, even love that they bring me -- a feeling not unlike pulling on a favorite sweatshirt or curling up with a cosy old comforter on a chilly night.
Some books made my all-time champion list, my keeper list, for emotional and personal reasons. Some books have affected me deeply at certain turning points in my life; others may have taught me something I needed to learn; still others kept me going or gave me an escape hatch when I desperately needed one. I'll be forever grateful to those books, and to their authors, for a sort of therapeutic support, or the sense of an old friend guiding us through.
Here are some of my ultimate favorites. A few are acknowledged as "great" or classic books; some are personally dear to me; some are gorgeously written and thought-provoking; some taught me skills of writing and storytelling; and some are just cracking good stories, and that's enough.
It's a partial list because the full list is very long and always growing. In no particular order:
The Ivy Tree, Moonspinners, This Rough Magic, The Crystal Cave...just about anything by Mary Stewart (these are my comfort reads, exquisite writing and masterful storytelling)
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier (breathtaking in all its aspects)
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte (one of my dearest favorites)
Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell (I read this five times in high school)
Anne of Cambray, Mary Lide (exquisite! Wish I could write like that!)
The Wolf and the Dove, Kathleen Woodiwiss (my first introduction to true historical romance) -- and here's a quick list of some of my favorite historical romances EVER: Prince of Midnight, Laura Kinsale; Lord of Scoundrels, Loretta Chase; The Wild Child, Mary Jo Putney; Tapestry of Dreams, Roberta Gellis...and too many more to count....
Pippi Longstocking (hey, like I said, no particular order! this is probably the first book chronologically to make my all-time list of favorites, and it's still on it. I read this over and over and over when I was a kid)
The Far Pavilions, M.M. Kaye (a huge sentimental favorite, as I remember being stuck in a hospital bed the week I read it. This is a savior book for me)
Vision of Light, Judith Merkle Riley (I adored this book, every word, start to finish)
The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkein (and the rest of the series, though The Hobbit introduced me not only to Tolkein but to fantasy and the epic, visionary storytelling of LOTR)
Henderson the Rain King, Saul Bellow (deep, insightful, poignant, wacky, funny, fascinating and unforgettable… and an early revelation for me that contemporary lit fic could be so very enjoyable)
One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (dazzling writing, wild and gorgeous story and craft)
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (deeply moved me as a kid, when I didn't fully understand it, and as an adult, when I did)
Kristin Lavransdatter, Sigrid Undset (masterful on every level, unforgettable characters and setting)
Moby Dick, Herman Melville (once I got past the "assigned reading" mentality, I loved it--pure writing, as good as it gets in parts)
A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens (I love his work, but of all of his work, this and “A Christmas Carol” speak most closely to me)
On Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau – who had three chairs, "one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society” (I loved this book so much I did an independent study course in college just to learn more about it)
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen (I truly enjoyed this in college, and was fascinated to find this so very readable)
There are more, but that's a start. As soon as I post this, I’ll be smacking my forehead: "Oh yeah! that one! and that one too! And that one!" The list just makes me long to dive in and start reading them all again.
What books are your ultimate, all-time favorites? What books will stay with you forever, on your bookshelf and in your heart? Which books resonated deeply with you – and which books do you consider to be the best books you've ever read to date?
I’m willing to bet that we’ll have a lot of the same books on our lists!
Here we are in the Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness....
Ah, uhm, no.
That's a romantic poet's English autumn.
That's not autumn in New York.
Autumn in New York City is exactly like the song: vibrant and new, action is speeded up, there's a smell of hot chestnuts in the air, and all of Central Park seems to be consumed in brilliant blowing flaming trees. The magic of First Nighting is a bit 'spensive these days, but the rest is true. The lights seem brighter, the City is waking up again. There's a new exciting spirit in the city. Anything can happen on a New York City October day or night.
But even though I love NYC - there is nothing, I repeat nothing, like a suburban or countryside East Coast autumn. The kind of autumn that between one breath and another, is coming down the road to my house.
Suddenly, overnight, the mimosas are showing bright yellow fronds, the wild grapes are twining scarlet ribbons up the trunks of maples whose leaves are growing gold and flame, purple and orange and red. Sumac, birch, willow and catalpa, linden and chestnut, weeds and reeds - all of them all aglow.
It is blinding in its beauty.
By this weekend, you'll likely be able to drive through the dusk with the trees lining each side of the street standing like glowing tapers to light your way.
And yet - one year we went to Colorado and I saw their High autumn. The aspens were a brilliant yellow and their white trunks stood out against that cerulean sky, so crisply blue that it was startling. Mountain streams tumbled down mountains like crystal falls. Blue and yellow and crystal. If you closed your eyes you could still see the scene embedded on your retinas. Then, as we traveled south, we saw the tan and gold of mountain foliage, and the roadside stands with pumpkins and long strings of scarlet peppers.
And then we came home just in time to see a doozy of a New England High autumn, mad with color and the insane variety of hues. Pumpkin orange and pomegranate red, every shade of gold and violet, plum and rose, copper and blush. The Berkshire Mountains looked like someone had thrown dozens of hand knit crazy quilt afghans over them.
I love to write about England, but I must admit, autumn is subtle there.
Here, it comes on like a brass band. And it's difficult for me to write my Work In Progress just teeming with English subtle when October is blaring right outside my window.
I once wrote a novella about an English autumn in a collection called: A LOVE FOR ALL SEASONS. My autumn story was filled with witchcraft and magic, and crispy scuttling leaves of brown and dark gold. "The leaves fled, like from an enchanter fleeing....".
That's a New York November.
Now I'm blinded by October. I'm in a New York State of mind.
How is the autumn where you are now?
Tell me about it. Make me want to see it.
Or, if you wish, tell me about a romance novel that has such an autumn in it.
One reader who does that will get a Layton Book, signed, and bookmarked with a bright autumn leaf.
In recognition of your most gracious visit and sharing of your knowledge and wisdom, the Word Wenches hereby declare you an Honorary Word Wench, entitled to use the letters HWW after your name, and giving you all the privileges of that noble state.
Plus, as a virtual gift, I am giving you a Lifetime Virtual Membership in the Virtual Saint Andrews Golf Course, oldest in the world, and I suspect a course you are not unfamiliar with in the real world. I understand the wind will blow the cheese off a pizza. <g> Enjoy:
Like several of us Wenchly types, Andrea got her start in traditional Regency, writing ten Signet Regencies before moving into historical romance. She’s been a Rita finalist and has won numerous awards, including the Romantic Times Career Achievement Award for Regency Romance, the 2008 Daphne Du Maurier Award, and a Holt Medallion Award of Excellence for The Spy Wore Silk. (http://andreapickensonline.com )
The Scarlet Spy, third in her Merlin’s Maidens series, is just out from Grand Central. Welcome, Andrea! Let the interrogation begin. <G> Tell us about Merlin’s Maidens in general and The Scarlet Spy in particular.
AP: The series revolves around the idea of a secret school for female spies. (Mrs. Merlin’s Academy for Select Young Ladies is a Hogwarts for Hellions, so to speak.) The students are orphans from the rough slums of London, who have studied the art of swordplay and seduction. Now they are highly trained lethal ladies, who have mastered their lessons to become England’s ultimate secret weapons—bold, beautiful, and oh-so dangerous. They are tough, courageous, and smart (not to mention sexy!) Yet they also have an inner vulnerability.
Within the convention of kick-ass heroine, I’ve tried to make each of the three very different individuals, and place them in very different settings. (The books can all be read as “stand alone” stories, but I hope readers will enjoy all three!) Siena, the heroine of The Spy Wore Silk, is a brooding, introspective agent whose assignment involves attending an art auction at ducal manor house in the wilds of Dartmoor.
Shannon, whose explosive temper tends to get her in trouble, is the star of Seduced By A Spy. She sees action in Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland, where she must team with a rakish Russian spy to defeat a French assassin.
Sofia, who is featured in The Scarlet Spy, is the most ladylike of the three. She is sent to London where her job is to expose a ring of corruption operating within the highest circles of government. Her superiors arrange for her to assume the role of an Italian contessa, and enlist the aid of ‘Lord Sunshine’—the charming and popular Deverill Osborne—to introduce her into the ton. Osborne thinks she is a wealthy widow. Sofia thinks he is . . . a frivolous ass.
Her dance of deception takes on a number of dangerous twists as she spins from the ballrooms of Mayfair to the slums of St. Giles, all the while trying to keep Osborne from getting too close to her secret . . .
But enough said! For those who are interested, a sample chapter is posted on my website. ( http://andreadarif.com/the_scarlet_spy.html )
MJP: Why spy stories?
AP: Well, I’ve always been a bit of a tomboy—as a kid, I always wanted to be the knight who got to fight the dragons instead the princess who needed to be rescued. I guess this never quite rubbed off (I’m still more comfortable in jeans and a sweatshirt than a slinky little black dress) for I’ve always liked creating strong, intelligent heroines, who challenge convention and aren’t afraid of breaking the rules.
In thinking of the Regency era, and how I might do something a little unexpected, I got wondering . . . what would be the least likely endeavor for a female to be involved in? A “secret agent” came to mind, and as a big fan of all the old James Bond movies, I thought it could be a fun idea to pursue. So, I decided to turn tradition on its ear and create a trio of leading ladies capable of beating the men at their own game.
MJP: How did you start writing? Where you making up stories in kindergarten with a pencil clutched in one chubby fist, or did you come to the trade later? How did you become interested in writing historical novels?
AP: Oh yes, I always had stories bubbling around in my brain. My mother kept very detailed family scrapbooks and in one there is my first manuscript—a cowboy story with full color pencil drawings of horses and gunslingers. (I was a huge Hopalong Cassidy fan, a fact my older brother will attest to, as I called him “Hoppy” for years.)
My other childhood memory of storytelling was a fifth grade English class. I had a wonderful teacher who gave us really interesting projects. One day he walked in with a sheaf of pictures he had cut out of magazines, and handed one to each of us. The assignment was to spend the next half hour writing a short story based on the picture.
Then we all had to get up, show our picture and read our stories aloud. After class, as we were filing out to math, or some other odious subject, he took me aside and said that he had been sitting in the back of the room, half listening to everyone as he corrected papers, but that when I started to read, he had to put his pen down. “You have a real talent for this,” he said with a pat to my shoulder.
So, the long answer is yes, I’ve always had a vivid imagination . . . so much so that I think at times it worried my parents that I was so happy in my own little world, drawing pictures, playing with toy soldiers, reading books. My teachers will also tell you that I was the class history geek, even in grade school. I don’t really know why, but I was fascinated with the past and devoured books on everything from the Middle Ages to World War II.
However, in high school, my interest in art sort of took over and steered me away from writing. I remained a voracious reader, and as a history minor in college, I wrote reams of non-fiction essays (well, on occasion there might have been some fiction mixed in!) But storytelling got put on the back burner.
Until one day, about twelve years ago. I was walking down the street in New York City when I saw a little old man on the street corner selling used paperbacks at 50 cents a book. (I am embarrassed to admit they were “stripped” but at the time I had no idea what that meant)
Cheap books? Naturally I stopped, and on a whim bought a Georgette Heyer novel. I’d never heard of her, but well, I was captivated from the first chapter. History and romance? I had discovered a whole new, amazing world. After reading all her books —checked out of the library, not contraband copies—I discovered Signet Regencies (And Onyx and Topaz). Oh, now I was in heaven. Mary Jo Putney, Edith Layton, Loretta Chase, Patricia Rice . . . I had goddesses to worship (I am totally serious, you all were an incredible inspiration , showing that romance could be smart, savvy and sophisticated.)
All that reading seemed to reawaken an inner muse. I suddenly felt compelled to sit down and try writing my own Regency romance. I had never written a full length book, I had no idea whether I could do it, or if it would stink. But I put my fanny in a chair, determined that I would at least give it a try. Four months later I had a finished manuscript.
Through a serendipitous twist of fate, I met an agent, and as we were talking about other things, I bashfully mentioned that I had written a Regency romance. He laughed, said one of his pals was an editor at Signet and offered to show it to her. Three days later he called me back to say he’d sold my book!
That’s probably WAY more than anyone wants to know about me, but I’ve been writing ever since.
MJP: You’re a graduate of Yale and you have a Master’s degree in graphic design. I’m a graphic designer myself (my degree was industrial design, but I ended up doing mostly graphics because that’s where the jobs were.) Do you think your art and graphic background influences your writing, or are they fairly separate expressions of creativity? (For the record, I find your writing very visual.)
AP:That’s such a great question, Mary Jo! I’ve actually thought about this, though you’ve phrased it far coherently than I ever have. For me there is a definite connection, though it’s not quite a linear one. As you well know, graphic design is all about communication, as opposed to the fine arts like painting and sculpture, where the artist is expressing his or her own creativity. In other words, a designer is usually a “middleman”, using visual elements, like images and type, to convey a client’s specific message to a specific audience—think of things like book jackets, annual reports, record covers, logos and advertisements.
To be a good designer, you have think clearly, concisely and logically. Yet you also think outside the box in order to come up with something creative, whimsical and different. You have to be disciplined, yet free-wheeling, practical yet zany. So in many ways, that dichotomy has been wonderful training for writing.
I take it as a huge compliment that you find my writing ‘visual.” The one “formal” class I ever took on creative writing was a seminar on children’s books taught by the legendary Maurice Sendak. Again it was a very intense course of study on integrating images and words to tell a story, and I learned some great lessons from a very amazing man. So, because of my background, I can’t help but picture things very vividly, and description is important to me because that’s how I visualize a scene. I guess that I want a reader to feel the smoke in the air, the texture of the silks and satins . . . but without overwhelming the other elements of the story. As you know, it’s always a delicate balance, and that’s part of the challenge of writing—to somehow make it all work.
MJP: You and your husband publish golf magazines, so you’re simultaneously on two sides of publishing. Do you find that fiction and publishing complicate or aid each other? Have any of your books featured golf, that fine Scottish sport? And have you cloned yourself to have time to do both jobs? <G>
AP: First of all, publishing a magazine has been a great help to my writing career in that I’ve learned a lot about marketing, distribution and the business side of things. It really helps to understand those concerns because it gives a realistic understanding of how “corporate decisions” are made. Not that I always agree with them! But at least I feel I have a pretty good grasp of the business, which is helpful in forming expectations of what a publisher will—and will not do—for an author.
I write some of our travel and lifestyle articles, which I find lots of fun. And I think it helps my fiction writing. Like any discipline, switching a routine keeps you fresh and helps keep your skills sharp and focused. As for cloning myself . . .I’m not sure I could put up with two of me . . . LOL. But one of the good things about being your own boss is that I can set a flexible schedule, I work in the office three days a week, and then take Thursday and Friday to write. Sometimes a fire will flare up that needs to be put out, but for the most part it seems to work out.
And, funny thing you should ask about golf and romance! As it happens, one of my favorite books that I did for Signet Regencies was A Diamond in the Rough, a golf story, where I had the hero forced to learn the game in order to win back the ancestral estate that his father had gambled away. The heroine is the best golfer in St. Andrews but of course she must play disguised as a man. A friend asks her to teach the hero the game, so acting as his caddie, she takes on the assignment. At first blush, sport and Regency romance don’t seem an ideal match. Which is probably what made me think, “Oh, this could be fun.”
MJP: What was your first book, and how well do you think it characterizes your latest work? What themes do you keep coming back to?
AP: When I look back at my first book, The Defiant Governess, I cringe! It was a none-too-subtle homage to Jane Eyre—ye gods, I even named the heroine and hero Jane and Edward. (Please picture me rolling my eyes.) But even though there is MUCH I would do differently these days, I do see that even back then I was interested in creating an unconventional heroine and exploring how she dares to defy the rules and be different. In subsequent Signet books, I tried to push various boundaries. As I mentioned, there was the golf book, and then I set The Storybook Hero mainly in Russia, which was a little offbeat for a Regency romance.
Maybe the best way to answer your question about themes is to explain why I love writing Regency-set historicals. I find the parallels between the Regency and today very intriguing in that both societies confront elemental challenges to the traditional way of thinking. The upheavals in literature, music, science, technology and social structure are so similar, and so individuals—especially women—ask the same sort of questions about their basic sense of self. I try to play with modern sensibilities within the Regency conventions, hoping that the blend will strike a chord with today’s readers. I want historical romance to be alive and relevant, not some stuffy, stiff story from a world they can’t relate to.
MJP: What was the biggest mistake you made when you first began writing?
AP: It took me a long time to discover there were such great organizations, like RWA and NINC, out there for authors. The camaraderie formed at conferences is invaluable especially when starting out. The friendships I’ve made over the years have really enriched my life. Some of my fellow writers are now my best friends.
MJP: What do you consider key elements of a great story?
AP: Hmmm . . . another good question! I enjoy many different genres, for many different reasons. Sometimes I just want to laugh and not think too deeply. Sometimes, I crave a good mystery or a thriller, which may be totally plot driven. And sometimes I need an intensely emotional story that tugs at the heartstrings.
That said, there are certain basic things that appeal to me—textured characters, compelling conflicts and clever command of language. (If a book is really well-written, I will forgive other flaws.) A great story should make me curse any interruption—even from loved ones . . . well, with a few exceptions. If an author can take me on a journey into that wonderful world of imagination for a few hours, then I return to the squeaky dishwasher and unvacuumed floors a happy soul!
MJP: Are there any trends you hope to see in romance in the next few years?
AP: I’m probably sounding hopelessly old-fashioned, but I’d like to see people stick with reading printed books. (I’m not suggesting quills and parchment, just a happy medium between copperplate script and cyber blips.) To me, there’s something very special about the feel of paper and the look of real ink on a printed page.
With that in mind, I’ve seen that Signet has recently announced that it will be re-issuing some of its traditional Regencies. I hope that proves to be a very successful venture. It would be wonderful if they would eventually consider reviving the line.
MJP: What is the best part about being a writer? The most frustrating?
AP: Hey, I get to wear my synchilla sweatpants and Ugg boots to work on Thursday and Friday!
As for what’s frustrating, the toughest thing is that these days, publishers expect you to be very pro-active in promoting your books. This meaning trying to drum up internet “buzz”, which is fun in some ways, but takes up a huge amount of time. To be honest, the introvert in me would much rather be cloistered in my little room, writing my stories. However, life is all about being flexible and going with the flow . . . and look—it’s landed me here, which I consider a huge honor.
Thank you, Mary Jo, and all the Wenches, for having me!
Thank you so much, Kathrynn, for being a fabulous guest blogger here.You are now and forever an Honorary Word Wench.
As a small token of our appreciation, we give you...
this Sancai Figurine of a Horse in Mid-air with a Female Rider
I'm sure the Hong Kong Museum of History won't miss it. :)
There are more lovely pictures here.
Thanks to all the active participants who made this blog so much fun. Julie Robinson, you're the lucky winner of a signed book from Kathrynn. Please see the note below. Congratulations!
Sherrie, here, with my "winners" clipboard in hand. Nancy Barber, you have won a Sherry Thomas book, and Julie Robinson, you have won a Kathrynn Dennis book! Congratulations! Please get in touch with me and let me know your mailing address. Just send an e-mail to Sherrie. Way to go, Nancy and Julie!
Don't go away, now. We have another announcement (see below) regarding guest Andrea Pickens. (Hint: this means more free books to commenters)
Regency and historical author Andrea Pickens will be interviewed by Mary Jo on Monday, October 13. Andrea wrote and illustrated her first book at the age of five, and her mother has that staple-bound book to prove it!
Be sure to drop by on the 13th to say hi to Andrea and join the conversation. If we're lucky, perhaps she'll tell us about "Vandercook," her pet that weighs 2,000 pounds! http://www.andreadarif.com/
She's going to share some of her road to publication and also her research on pets and their people, in reality and fiction.
Jo: Welcome, Kathrynn. When did you decide to try to write a romance novel?
Kathrynn: I bought Rita Clay Estrada’s and Rita Gallagher’s “You can Write a Romance” in the 1990s (back when the book cover was hot pink) and read it cover to cover at least twenty times over the next fourteen years. I finally got serious and joined Romance Writers of America in 2001. After I’d been to so many conferences, workshops, and read more craft books than I can count, I finally decided enough already! Just do it! I finished my first book in 2004 and my second in 2005. My only regret—I wished I’d started writing a long time ago. But I’m the living example of how it’s never too late.
Jo: What were the biggest hurdles you had to overcome?
Kathrynn: The demand on my time from so many other sources—my full time day job, my family, my need for a work-life balance, all compete for my writing time. I think most writers, pubbed and unpubbed, have that experience. I like to think (dream?) authors like the Word Wench authors are so wildly successful they at last have personal trainers, chefs, and live-in maids. You guys all do right? Please say yes . . .
Jo: LOL! Or, sorry.... Of course, darlink. :)
Kathrynn: Seriously, I know every author has hurdles. Mine are mundane, but sometimes they can block the muse completely for days on end.
Kathrynn: I entered a writing contest and won the historical category with the book that is now called Shadow Rider. When the editor-judge called and asked for the full manuscript, I told her I’d just finished the first draft but I asked if could I send her another polished-and-ready-to-go-book, Dark Rider. She said something like “yeah, why not?” Forty-eight hours later, she called and wanted to buy both books. I was amazed.
Funny thing is I’d pitched Dark Rider, my first book, to that same editor five years ago--before I’d written a single word. I pitched to her at my very first RWA conference and I was such a newbie, I didn’t know you it wasn’t great form to pitch just an idea, especially if you haven’t written a word--ever. Thankfully, she took pity on a rookie and said “when you finish it, send it to me.” Five years later, I ended up doing just that.
Jo: Clearly an editor who knows a good idea when she hears one. Shadow Rider has received a glowing review from Romantic Times. "The color, vibrancy, and excitement of the Middle Ages allows Dennis to spin a memorable tale of two people whose destiny is tied to a mystical colt. Dennis tells her story with passion, drama, and a love of animals that will enthrall readers." 4 Stars. Congratulations!
Everyone, you can read an excerpt here.
Kathrynn, what’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned about the business as a new author?
Kathrynn: If you are a romance-reader-aspiring-to-be-an-author, pay attention to what the seasoned veterans say. When list-hitting, award-winning authors like Jo Beverly, Loretta Chase, Miranda Jerret, Susan King, Edith Layton, or Mary Jo Putney are presenting a craft or business session at a conference, go and listen. Buy their books and study.
I’ve heard “there will be things you cannot control that affect your sales (like cover art, title, and back cover blurb, or a snowstorm the week your books are supposed to be delivered to Wal-Mart) a million times. I heard what they said, but until I sold a book, it didn’t sink in. Knowing these fabulous authors have been there, done that, and still write great books that sell takes the sting out of it when the tough part of the writing business happens to you.
I’ve also heard “write the best book you can and then write another, and then another. . . Keep writing and write a lot.” Only now is that advice starting to sink in. I’m a little slow, but I’m catching up.
Jo: Yes, "long haul" and "writing career" go together, which is something we don't realize for a while. Your second release, SHADOW RIDER, is out this month. There’s a barking horse, a heroine/horse midwife and a brooding knight who’s lost his lust for life. Where did you get the idea for this unusual 14th century romance?
BTW, Kathrynn definitely knows her horses. The handsome fellow is her horse, Jawknee Reb.
Enter Sir Guy, a knight who believes the little horse is the mystical beast who can lead him to redemption and revenge. He rescues the heroine and her colt, but he has an agenda…and you can bet the heroine is not going to like it. From there, the story turned into a book.
Jo: You mentioned studying pets in novels as an extension of a character’s personality. Care to share what you’ve learned?
Kathrynn: As a veterinarian and an author, I started wondering: what does the kind of pet you own tell you about your character (or about the characters in a novel)? I did some research, trolling through the psychology literature. Pet-owner profiling is still a burgeoning science, but making progress. There are several good studies which suggest pets are an extension of their owners—in looks and in behavior. People tend to chose pets that look like them, much like they choose a human life-partner. Take a look at Paris Hilton, Jessica Simpson, and Jake Gyllenhaal with their dogs. It’s hard to miss the physical similarities.
Here’s what the seminal research by Kidd and Kidd (1980) tells us about pet-owner personality traits:
Cat lovers are high in autonomy and low in dominance and nurturing.
Dog-loving men are high in dominance and aggression. Dog-loving women are high in dominance, too, but low in aggression.
Horse lovers in general are assertive, introspective, and self-concerned, but limited in cooperativeness, nurturing, and warm human relationships. Male horse-lovers are aggressive, dominant, and less expressive in general. Female horse-lovers avoided aggression and are easy going.
Turtle lovers are hard-working, reliable, goal-oriented, and see the world as lawful.
Snake lovers are unconventional, informal, novelty seeking, and unpredictable.
Bird lovers are contented, courteous, expressive, social, and altruistic.
Pet owners in general are considered to be more nurturing and low in autonomy, no matter what kind of pet they own. I’ve noticed dog and cat-loving characters enrich a fair number of romance novels (for an early example, think of Georgette Heyer’s Ulysses in Arabella) and the personality of a male horse-owner certainly has the makings of a historical romance hero—think cowboys, knights, and men who were rich enough to fox hunt. Dominant men. Aggressive, alpha males who had trouble expressing themselves (until they met the heroine, of course).
I keep thinking about Rex, the hamster in Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series. Rex embodies the character of a bounty-hunting woman who keeps a hamster for a pet. She’s high in autonomy and not especially nurturing. Neither is Rex. Both make me laugh.
I’ve not seen many romances where a character owns a nontraditional pet (fish, lizards, or pocket pets like Rex), but I’m sure they are out there.
There are also some interesting reads on the pathological condition known as pet hoarding. Profiles of hoarders suggest the condition is a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder and affected people usually come from chaotic, unstable homes. Just google pet hoarding and you’ll turn up a fair number of psych reviews on the topic.
If you’d like to dig deeper into pet-owner profiling, check out Why We Love the Dogs We Do: How to Find the Dog That Matches Your Personality by Stanley Coren (Simon and Schuster; ISBN 978-0684855028). There are some interesting chapters in there about dogs (breeds) for introverts and extroverts, dominant people, not-so-dominant people, trusting, or controlling people, and an in-depth examination of the dogs owned by various leaders and famous personalities--what their dog-ownership reveals about their non-public personality.
I love an author who can weave a pet into a story and enrich my understanding of the owner’s character. Do you have a memorable pet you think is/was an extension of yourself? As a reader, can you recall outstanding pets in a novel and could you relate better to the owner’s character because of that?
Thank you, Word Wenches, for inviting me to blog!
Jo: Wonderful insights and information, Kathrynn. I have to confess to not being a pet person. I would have loved a pet when young -- preferably a pony, of course -- but only got a white budgie called Snowy. Later the best I can offer is guppies.
So, over to you, all. What are your answers to Kathrynn's questions? Do you see other angles on the topic of pets and their people? Is there anyone out there who shies away from books that have pets in them?
Kathrynn has kindly offered a signed copy of Shadow Rider as a prize. It will go to the author of a randomly picked comment posted before midnight pacific time on Saturday.
From Loretta, via Don Juan
‘Farewell, my Spain! A long farewell!’ he cried
‘Perhaps I may revisit thee no more,
But die as many an exiled heart hath died,
Of its own thirst to see again thy shore:
Farewell, where Guadalquivir’s waters glide!
Farewell, my mother! and, since all is o’er,
Farewell, too, dearest Julia!--(Here he drew
Her letter out again, and read it through.)
‘And, oh! if e’er I should forget, I swear--
But that’s impossible, and cannot be--
Sooner shall this blue ocean melt to air,
Sooner shall earth resolve itself to sea,
Than I resign thine image, oh, my fair!
Or think of any thing excepting thee;
A mind diseased no remedy can physic
(Here the ship gave a lurch, and he grew sea-sick).
‘Sooner shall heaven kiss earth (here he fell sicker)
Oh, Julia! what is every other wo?
(For God’s sake let me have a glass of liquor;
Pedro, Battista, help me down below.)
Julia, my love! (you rascal, Pedro, quicker)--
Oh, Julia! (this curst vessel pitches so)--
Beloved Julia, hear me still beseeching!’
(Here he grew inarticulate with retching.)
He felt that chilling heaviness of heart,
Or rather stomach, which, alas! attends,
Beyond the best apothecary’s art,
The loss of love, the treachery of friends,
Or death of those we dote on, when a part
Of us dies with them as each fond hope ends:
No doubt he would have been much more pathetic,
But the sea acted as a strong emetic.
Lord Byron says good-byes so much more entertainingly than I could ever do.
Farewell blog. Farewell, Wenches. Yes, this is goodbye from this Wench. From time to time you'll see me again but only very occasionally. My time here has been a fine time, thanks to you.
As Wench Pat noted in her blog last week, most writers write a good many words that don’t make the final cut, and are edited/deleted/discarded along the way. For those of us who are History Nerds (you know who you are!) as well as writers, the e-trashcan is also filled with lots of historical facts and scraps that we come across during research that just can’t be squeezed comfortably into a plot or foisted onto our hapless characters. While sometimes these research-leftovers only need a bit of time to percolate in the imagination before they become usable, others will always be fascinating but hopeless curiosities, and no more.
And as an example, I offer smock races.
A fixture of country fairs and holidays in the 17th-early 19th century throughout Great Britain, smock races turn up again and again in bawdy ballads and prints of the time, and I have to admit a certain weird fascination for them. The idea was simple enough: sturdy country lasses competed in a footrace along a set course, the prize being a smock of fine linen. Just as athletic men were wrestling, boxing, and shooting in organized contests to display their physical prowess, healthy young women could do the same in the smock race. Competition was limited to the young and unwed, and often restricted to virgins as well, though the connection between being fleet of foot and pure of body eludes me.
Smocks, or shifts, were the basic all-purpose undergarment of the time for women of every class, worn beneath stays and gowns for day and often also to bed at night. (Left, a modern woman wearing a replica 18th c. smock.) The smocks offered as prizes were usually of high quality Holland linen, and trimmed with lace or ribbons. Some mentioned in advertisments for the races were valued as high as fifteen shillings, making them desirable indeed to young women who worked hard for their livings. The prize smock was often displayed hanging from a nearby flag-pole or tree-branch, to be admired as an incentive, as well as to inspire all kinds of titillating, bawdy jests, because, of course, underwear humor never goes out of style. (I see Paris, I see France….)
From all reports, the competition was fierce, attracting large crowds to cheer along the race-course. There don’t seem to have been any real rules or restrictions, and the barefoot women freely tripped and elbowed their rivals, knocking one another down into the dust. The more out-of-control the race, the more the audiences roared their approval, and the more celebrated the eventual victor became, waving her prize over her head as she was carried about on the shoulders of young men. Local gentry came to watch as well, sitting on their horses or in carriages, and they were not above taking part in the heavy wagering that usually accompanied the races. In other words, epic combat at its best. (The engraving, right, An Holland Smock to run for, by any Woman born in this County: the best Woman in three Heats by John Collet includes a sailor in the tree peeping at the prize-smock, plus lots of jolly drunken behavior by all parties as the young women sprint by -- except for the one tripped by a dog.)
Irish poet and cleric James Ward (1691-1736) described The Smock Race at Finglas, a village near Dublin, in 1718. To start, the “arbiter” announced the prizes:
'Ye virgins that intend to try the race,
The swiftest wins a smock enriched with lace:
A Cabrick kerchief shall the next adorn,
And Kidden Gloves shall by the third be worn.'
This said, he high in the air displayed each prize:
All viewing the waving smock with longing eyes.
Clearly Ward likes the girls, and spends line after line describing their charms, including “Fair Oonah, pride of the neighboring mill” whose “rosy cheeks with modest blushes glow/At once her innocence and beauty show.”
And, like every supposedly impartial sports commentator, Ward has his favorite, too:
Tall as a pine, majestic Nora stood,
Her youthful veins were swelled with sprightly blood,
Inured to toils, in wholesome gardens bred,
Exact in every limb and formed for speed.
But oh, what cruel fate attacks poor Nora! Though she’s far ahead in the race, suddenly the tie holding her skirt around her waist breaks (and remember that this is an era without drawers, as is evident in Thomas Rowlandson drawing of a smock race, left)
Quick stopped the maid, nor would, to win the race,
Expose her hidden Charms to vulgar gaze;
But while to tie the treacherous knot she stayed,
Her glad rivals pass the weeping maid.
So thanks to a “wardrobe malfunction”, Oonah snags the winner’s smock. She also wins the hottest guy in the village, too, the “loveliest swain” who is so taken with Oonah’s victory that later than night they, ahem, celebrate together:
No jarring Settlement their bliss annoys,
No liscence needed to defer their joys,
Oonah e’er morn the sweets of wedlock tried,
The smock she won a virgin, wore a bride.
How can a mere gold medal compete with that?
There are two ways to view at smock races, especially looking backward from our supposedly-more-enlightened time. They could be a rare early example of a Title IX-worthy event for women, with athleticism admired and rewarded. That the women were also young and attractive, their hair flying out behind them as they ran and their skirts flying up over their bare legs, was not their fault, much like the bikini-clad competitors in beach volleyball today.
Or smock races could be seen as one prolonged snarky joke, a chance for men to ogle pretty girls in an activity that wasn’t at all lady-like. Here were girls with their stays loosely laced and their sleeves pushed up and their legs and feet bare, all flushed and sweaty and breathing hard from . . . exertion as they competed with one another for fancy lingerie, like the ultimate Victoria’s Secret fantasy, or at least the running life-guards that introduced Baywatch. In addition was the fervent, thrilling hope among the male audience that one (or more!) of the competitors would fall down and inadvertently reveal those “hidden Charms.” (Certainly that's the case in the engraving above, A Smock Race at Tottenham Court Fair by J. Pitts, where the largely male crowd seems to be behaving about as badly as they can, including, in the background, tossing one poor woman up into the air.)
All of which probably explains why there aren’t any smock races in historical romances, at least not that I’ve come across. But what do you think? Do smock races sound like empowering sports for women, or one more excuse for Thomas Rowlandson to draw buxom wenches with self-destructing clothes? Can you imagine a well-bred heroine jumping into the working-class fray, or a hero admiring her all the more for doing so? Or perhaps a noble hero falling into first-sight-love when the lowly miller's daughter races by like Diana herself?
The Wenches are delighted to welcome new author, Kathrynn Dennis, as Jo's guest on October 10. Kathrynn writes medieval paranormal with a strong emphasis on horses, and Dark Rider, her second book, is an October release. She'll share her experiences in breaking into the business, and then talk about her "pet project" pun intended, about how animals match their owners, both in life and fiction. In her other life, Kathrynn is a research veterinarian.
I’m still working through the first draft of my next historical, and all my creativity has been sucked into the whirling vortex that is my Work In Progress (or POS, however you want to look at it) , which doesn’t leave a great deal of brainpower for blogging. I could manage a political rant at the drop of the hat, (really, anyone in Congress who couldn’t see the housing bubble popping had to be either a willful idiot or lying thief) but politics are scarcely the kind of escape the wenches provide.
So for your amusement and delectation, I have let my mind slip into the stream of consciousness that is my writing process. Which means you’re likely to see almost anything here until I get that first draft finished.
I know a number of our readers are interested in the writing process, but I trust you don’t think anything we say here has any relevance to anyone besides ourselves. My process changes constantly, and because I’ve been in love with the Regency period since I read PRIDE AND PREJUDICE in fourth grade, my process for Regencies is entirely different from other eras.
I have no idea why I fixated on Austen. I read Bronte at the same time, and while JANE EYRE impressed me, it didn’t make me want to read more about the early Victorians. Quite the opposite. I also read Cherry Ames and Nancy Drew and had no desire to research nurses or roadsters. But I’ve been more or less reading about the Regency era since elementary school.
So I have vast quantities of knowledge stored in the recesses of my often inaccessible brain, books completely covering my office floor as I reach for pictures of carriages or gowns or underwear, and still, I need more. And the internet has been a complete blessing for those tiny details I’ve forgotten or must hunt through three texts to find.
Today, while my hapless hero chased four runaway rapscallions, I had need to call up information on the Surrey Iron Railway, which wasn’t a railroad as we know it, but iron lines for pulling horse-drawn wagons. My texts didn’t mention this nine-mile track, but a quick Google provided pictures and more information than I could possibly use.
While I was there, I decided I needed to know what kind of wagon my runaways might have hidden on. I come from a dairy background, so that was my first thought—cans of milk. Bad thought. During the Regency, the corn laws made feed exceedingly expensive and the number of dairy animals was reduced, thus raising the price of milk to the extent that London kitchens tended to buy it a spoonful at a time. No milk can wagons. But I discovered several lovely Regency sites on this pursuit which took me from one blog to the next learning the various agrarian industries in the area where my runaways would end up. So I wrapped them up in sheep wool, which I now need to investigate to see how badly it would smell.
And while I play with these lovely scenes and the fascinating research, at the back of my mind is always that niggling doubt about the whole effort surviving the cutting room floor. I seriously suspect if I could compile everything I’ve ever cut from my drafts, I’d have another forty books.
I know some authors post these deleted snippets on their websites. How many of you take time to read them? Are they really worth saving? And if you like these snippets, are you the type who likes the DVDs containing the cut portions of films, too? What do you get out of reading/viewing scenes the writer/filmmaker didn’t think worthy of the finished product?
We are also bestowing a virtual gift as a token of our appreciation. Given the rich possibilities of the Gilded Age, the choice was a difficult one. A great period camera? The latest cooking equipment? Perhaps a telephone!
But since we spare no expense on virtual gifts, the final choice is a delicious automobile from the 1890s. We are special ordering it in red, because your heroines deserve nothing less. <G>