In which I reveal my previously unknown tendency toward obsessive behavior

So yesterday they announced the winners of the Lone Star contest at the annual Lone Star conference. Sadly I was unable to attend, Houston being rather a long way from Cleveland for a day trip, so I have been obsessively checking my email since 1 PM yesterday even though I knew they wouldn’t notify the finalists until today. This afternoon as I was watching my kid’s hockey game, I got the call, which I didn’t hear because ice rinks are really noisy, and because he was in goal, which makes me neurotic. So I called back while I was driving home, which was probably stupid because all I wanted to do was a happy dance. I squealed instead, which would have alarmed my son had he not been rolling his eyes at me from the back seat during the entire call.

Yes, it’s true, I won in the historical category. OMG! (If you know me you may also know that I never, ever, use that expression. I have used it at least three times today, which will tell you how excited I am.)

I also got two requests for the manuscript. (OMG!) And since I still have pots more editing to do, I have no time to blog for you today. Instead I will leave you with an excerpt from the manuscript, entitled Stirring Up the Viscount:

Her eyes darted around the room as the smoke grew thicker. She spotted the cookery book her mother had given her when she married, and on an impulse she grabbed it, clasping it to her chest as she began to cough.
Theodora rushed toward the door and grabbed a light wrap off a peg. She stowed the book in her satchel and adjusted the wrap around her shoulders. She opened the door, the fire behind her beginning to roar with the added oxygen. She closed it firmly behind her and inhaled great gulps of air.
Her eyes were burning and her head ached, but she walked quickly around the house to the street. Fortunately Christopher Street was nearly deserted at this late hour. She stole a glance at the house behind her and saw smoke starting to curl around the windows. She spared Lucien a thought. It wouldn’t be long before someone noticed the smoke, and he wasn’t a particularly heavy sleeper. The chances were excellent that he would wake in time to escape.
She shook her head to clear her thoughts. There was no time for regret, and certainly no room for compassion. Not for him.  

Contest News!

Awhile back I gave you my musings on contests. I still agree with everything I said in that post, but now my perspective is slightly different. I mentioned that I entered three contests this past spring. In the first, which was NEORWA’s Cleveland Rocks Romance contest, I didn’t come close to being a finalist. However, one of the judges gave me some fabulous feedback which I used to make some changes that greatly improved the manuscript.

The second was the Romancing the Lakes contest, which is a fairly new one; I think this was its first year. Wonder of wonders, I was one of five finalists in the Historical category.  I didn’t dare hope I would be in the top three, let alone win, but I did. It was the first real validation that my writing does not suck. For a newbie, that is a tremendously good feeling.

The third was the well-respected Lone Star contest, sponsored by the very first chapter of RWA. For the last two weeks, my husband and I have been doing a cleanse, which means a lot of cooking for me and no caffeine, alcohol, sugar, wheat, or anything else that’s fun to eat. Last Saturday, I was feeling crabby. So crabby, in fact, that I was in the middle of making gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free chocolate cookies (which rock, by the way–here’s the recipe) to cheer myself up, when I got The Call. The call that told me I was a finalist. (Actually, it was three calls, since I was too crabby to answer the phone or check my voice mail the first two times.)

I spent the last week editing and polishing the first four chapters of my book. I will admit I was thoroughly tired of them by the time I sent the entry back to the category coordinator last evening, so I am ready to move on and polish the rest. In the spirit of eternal optimism, which is generally a stranger to me, I will have it ready to submit by the time the winners are announced in October, just in case.

So now it’s back to work for me, and time for you to share your thoughts on contests. Do you enter them? Have you won?

Marin

Reality in Historical Romance

One of the blogs I follow is Hearts Through History, which features some marvelous posts on history in general, as well as historical romance in particular.  A recent post by Merry Farmer caught my eye, about historical body image. The concept of skinny, as she notes, is purely a 20th century notion, but most heroines in historical romance are portrayed as the young skinny girls of our current reality, rather than the curvy young women their real-life counterparts actually were.  Take a look at this piece of “genteel erotica” from 1886 and you’ll see what I mean:

Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1886-female-bathers-No4-nude.jpg

Anyway, Merry’s blog led me to another I hadn’t seen before: Rakes, Rogues, & Romance by Nancy Goodman. How real, she asked in a recent post, do we want our romance? Do we read it purely to escape the reality of our not particularly romantic lives, or do we want something else?

Personally, I like some realism. I want to see the heroine lift her skirts a bit to step over the disgusting muck that filled London streets prior to the end of the 19th century. I want her to wrinkle her nose when she gets a whiff of the Thames as the wind shifts. I want to see the household staff wash off the windows, again, the soot that constantly covers them. In my mind, such snippets of historical fact add much to the setting, but don’t detract from the romance.

Perhaps it is my advancing age, but I am a bit tired of the virginal teen heroine, who loses her maidenhead to the more worldly but gentle hero and almost always has an earth-moving orgasm on the first try. (No comment on the realism of that.) I have read many romances which feature this type of heroine, and have enjoyed them, but nowadays I find I like my heroines grittier, with more life experience before the first page. To me, they are much more real, and these are the heroines I like to write about.

However, as in most things in life, balance is important. I do understand the need to read as an escape from reality–it is very often that impulse which leads me to pick up a book. I read a lot of different types of fiction, but I open a romance when I want to be assured of a happy ending. It isn’t always very realistic, but it is usually immensely satisfying.

So if you read romance, how do you feel about realism? How much is too much?

Inspiration, Italian Style

So I spent the last two weeks in Italy. It was one of those trip-of-a-lifetime sorts of vacations, where we packed in just about every major tourist site, and quite a few minor ones. My husband is a classicist, so there was a heavy emphasis on Roman ruins–Colosseum, Forum, Villa Adriana, Pompeii, Herculaneum, etc.–but we also spent some time in Venice and Florence.

I visited Italy once before, in college. I had an unpleasant experience there and so cut my trip short. Perhaps as a result, I have never had any particular interest in Italy, other than the food, anyway. In getting ready for this trip, though, an idea for a story stuck itself into my head, and so while I was there I spent a lot of time taking crazy pictures that might at some point be inspiring,

Mt. Vesuvius

or useful,

Scale model of ancient Rome

or just amusing.

I have no idea what this is, but there were about a dozen of them in a row, holding up display cases at the Naples Museum.

I have written about inspiration before–for some reason I find the topic endlessly fascinating. I think the interesting thing about this trip, is that I didn’t find it particularly inspiring, although I expected to. Instead my sojourn in Italy was more about taking it all in–soaking up atmosphere, smelling the particular odors of each place we visited (for as Eleanor Lavish said, every city does indeed have its own smell), tasting the food, feeling the unrelenting heat of the Italian sun, and washing off the dust of ruins built nearly 2,000 years before.  I spent more time than I ever have looking at things through a writer’s eyes.

Perhaps that is a kind of inspiration too.

On the importance of recycling

I have nothing to say today. Actually, not quite true; I have a lot to say, but it’s in a new manuscript. I started this one Monday in a FastDraft I’m doing with some of the lovely ladies from NEORWA. I am woefully behind, so I am going to get back to it. My current scene features the hero and his long-lost sister, reunited, enjoying a picnic in a garden.

So, I will leave you with a recycled post on gardens that I originally wrote about this time last year, for the New Kids on the Writers Block.

(Just as an update, our front yard is now gorgeous, and the rose bushes are HUGE.)

Writing History: Gardens

Over the past two weeks, our front yard has been getting a makeover.  We hired landscapers to rip out EVERYthing–trees, shrubs, 6-ft tall hedge from hell, grass, ground cover, front walk and steps.  For over a week we waited for all the remaining foliage to die. (The neighbors thought we were completely nuts.  Every time someone walked by, we would hear wafting through the open window, “Oh my God, they tore out everything!  Do you think they are going to leave it this way?”  Um, no.)  We have now planted four ornamental trees, some ornamental grasses, roses, two tiny, well-mannered hedges, some lilies, and lots and lots of grass, which all require lots and lots of water.

When researching some possibilities for the plants to put in the front yard, I came across many, many references to English gardens.   From the tiniest cottage garden to the most elaborate country house landscape, the English have been renowned for centuries for their garden design.  Which got me thinking: gardens are marvelous additions to novels.  They evoke scents–lush roses, heady lavender, sweet lilac–and vivid color.  They feature marvelous little alcoves for a romantic tryst, or a secluded bower for intrigue.   They provide a peaceful backdrop for a solitary walk, or a tree for a mischievous heroine to climb.  So today I thought I’d take a little walk through the history of English gardens. 

Over the years, styles of English gardens changed markedly.  During the medieval period, gardens were typically enclosed by walls, and grew useful plants–herbs for cooking and medicine.  They often had a mound inside, which was used to look outside the walls while remaining safely within.  There is a lovely drawing of a medieval garden, as well as a discussion of what they may have looked like, here.

Some other resources for medieval gardens include:

http://www.godecookery.com/mtales/mtales16.htm

McLean, Teresa.  Medieval English Gardens (Viking, 1981).

National Geographic story  about a 2003 discovery of the remains of an unusual medieval garden at Whittington Castle.

During the Renaissance period, gardens were also enclosed, but they were much more elaborate. In the Tudor era, gardens were heavily influenced by Italianate style.  The “knot garden” was developed during this period.  Hampton Court Palace has several reconstructed Tudor-era gardens, including a classic knot garden.

The Stuarts, on the other hand, were into French gardens. These often featured a broad avenue  flanked by rectangular parterres made of formal low hedges.

If you are interested in learning more about gardens of the Renaissance era, don’t bother Googling “Tudor Gardens” or “Renaissance Gardens,” as that leads to an astonishing number of urban American apartment complexes and nursing homes, few of which seem to have gardens.  Instead, try searching on gardenvisit.com.

Badminton House and landscape garden, Gloucestershire.
From Morris’s Country Seats (1880). Source: Wikipedia.

The eighteenth century saw a shift to more natural looking landscapes.  Achieving this natural look apparently involved removing everything that was in place (kind of like my yard), and starting from scratch.  Every feature, including lakes, was then engineered to look as “natural” as possible.

Lancelot “Capability” Brown was the most sought-after landscape designer of the day.  Brown is reputed to have designed over 170 gardens.  For a biography of Brown and links to gardens still in existence today, go to http://www.britainexpress.com/History/bio/brown.htm

Gardens in the Victorian period went a little nuts, with lots of flowers and exotic colors, and formal and informal styles mixed together.  There are some wonderful photos at gardenvisit.com, which I am afraid to re-post here, due to copyright issues.

This period also saw the creation of a large number of public parks, including Derby Arboretum (reputed to be the first), Crystal Palace Park in London, and Birkenhead Park, which is said to have influenced Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of New York’s Central Park.  


Some general resources on the history of English gardens, in no particular order:

*Great quick resource, and the starting point for this post: http://www.britainexpress.com/History/english-gardens.htm.

*Turner, Tom.  Garden Design in the British Isles: History and styles since 1650. (1986?)

*The GardenDesign website has a great bibliography of books on garden design and landscaping history.

*Country Life’s website also has a wonderful post featuring links to the best sites for garden history, as well as some wonderful garden and landscape photos from its own archives.

*GoogleBooks has some wonderful free eBooks on English gardens written in the early 20th century.

*The best source I found during this little adventure was GardenVisit.com.   Books, articles, photos–pretty much anything you might want to know about the history of gardens. 

Finally, if you are a visual learner, check out http://www.gardenvisit.com/history_theory/garden_landscape_design_articles/historic_design_styles for illustrations of garden styles through history.

I hope you’ve enjoyed strolling through the garden with me.  If you have any favorite garden resources, please do share!

Marin

Going to the Dogs

Sneaky Pete & his well-ordered bone collection

We recently added a puppy to our household. Sneaky Pete is a standard poodle of indeterminate age. He might be nine months, he might be 18 months; he was a rescue, so who knows?  He and our other dog, Larry, also a poodle but getting on in years, play wonderfully well together. Larry is thoughtfully teaching Pete to bark.

Larry

I adore dogs (I like cats too, but they make me wheeze) and without really thinking about it feature at least one in my WIP, whatever it is. So because my life is currently invaded by dogs–at this very moment they are wrestling next to my chair–I thought I’d dedicate this post to historical canine companions.

Dogs have always been companions to  aristocrats, from the lady’s lap dog . . .

Lady with a Lap Dog, Lorenzo Costa, c. 1651. Source: Wikimedia Commons

to the lord’s labrador. . .

Thomas Gage, 1st Viscount Gage and his horse, James Seymour, 1743.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

pet dogs were considered a sign of status and wealth.

The British Royal Family has been portrayed with dogs in portraits since the 17th century, from the King Charles Spaniel, to Queen Victoria’s border collie, to Queen Elizabeth II’s corgis. Check out this post for some photos of royal pets.

George

Our dearly departed George, Pete’s predecessor, was a representative of an ancient and aristocratic breed. In him you could easily see how Dalmatians were bred to run alongside carriages, and to guard them when they stopped to rest. In his younger days George could run for long distances without tiring (this was particularly problematic when he escaped the back yard), and I have never seen a more dedicated protector of his people. The exact origin of the breed is disputed, but according to various sources spotted dogs resembling the Dalmatian were found depicted in Egyptian tomb paintings. A Dalmatian was depicted in a painting alongside the Dauphin of France, and the breed was “greatly prized in Georgian times as a living ornament and coaching accessory.”

Painting by T. Goetz, 1853. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In addition to serving as pets and “ornaments,” dogs were used for sport. Foxhounds, especially, were bred in Europe to hunt foxes.  The English foxhound was scientifically bred by members of the English aristocracy. Other “sporting” dogs included greyhounds, bulldogs, and mastiffs; the latter two were bred for fighting.

A Couple of Foxhounds with a Terrier, the property of Lord Henry Bentinck, W. Barraud, c. 1845.Source: Wikimedia Commons

Dogs were also used in other ways for hunting: English pointers, poodles, and spaniels were bred to retrieve fallen game after shooting. Poodles ultimately left their usefulness behind and became companions to the royal houses of France.

Self-portrait in oriental attire with poodle. Rembrandt, c. 1631.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

I could keep going, but I won’t. You can find marvelous posts on dogs in history online –check out http://thedustyvictorian.blogspot.com/2011/04/victorian-dogs.html, http://sniffingthepast.wordpress.com, http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/s/schwartz-dog.htmlhttp://www.npr.org/2011/11/08/142100653/how-dogs-evolved-into-our-best-friends, and many, many more.

Here’s to our best friends.

 

Writing History: Books

The other day I was reading a historical romance set in the Victorian era, and one of the characters was reading The Mill on the Floss, by George Eliot. After I checked to make sure the book had actually been published by the time the book was set (because I do that sort of thing), it got me thinking about books in fiction. In historical romance, female characters do a lot of reading, presumably because most of them come from the upper classes and they don’t have much else to do.

In fact, however, portraying readers in Victorian fiction is historically accurate: a lot of people, in every class, did a lot of reading. According to the British Library, almost 60,000 works of fiction were published during the Victorian period. These included novels, “yellowbacks” , and “penny dreadfuls.” The British public, particularly women, were also voracious readers of magazines, 125,000 different titles of which were published during the 19th century. 

In the early days of the period, novels were either published in serial form in magazines–many of Dickens’ works first appeared this way–or in three volume sets. After that, the books were published in a single 6-shilling volume, then, sometimes, as a yellowback. Books could be obtained at bookshops, railway station book stalls, and circulating libraries.

Sense and Sensibility
Sense and Sensibility, 1870

Yellowbacks were precursors to today’s mass-market paperbacks, published in cheap bindings with a characteristic yellow cover, sold in railway station book stalls.  They included such beloved classics as Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Mrs. Gaskell’s Ruth, as well some rather less well-known works, such as Nora’s Love Test: A Novel and Matrimonial Shipwrecks, or, Mere Human Nature.  Emory University has digitized over 1,200 of these gems, which can be downloaded for free, thus ensuring that I will probably get nothing else done this weekend. There is an interesting blog featuring just about everything you’d ever want to know about yellowbacks at http://yellowbacks.wordpress.com/.

title page
Varney the Vampire,1847.

Penny dreadfuls were cheaply made works of serial fiction, intended for the working classes.  They were often violent and bloody, meant to titillate and hook the reader. Titles included such marvels as Varney the Vampire, or, The Feast of Blood. A Romance, which was published in 109 installments. The tale of Sweeney Todd started life as a penny dreadful entitled, oddly, The String of Pearls.

There is great blog post on penny dreadfuls at http://vichist.blogspot.com/2008/11/penny-dreadfuls.html, featuring a marvelous defense of the form by G.K. Chesterton, who declared that any “literature that represents our life as dangerous and startling is truer than any literature that represents it as dubious and languid. For life is a fight and is not a conversation.”

Hello!

Yes, I’ve taken the plunge, and have started my own blog. I have been part of a group blog (New Kids on the Writer’s Block) for a year or so, but have been feeling the need to spread my wings a bit, so here I am.  I am a new writer with no published work to my credit, unless you count a few law-related articles (which I don’t). Since I started writing seriously about two years ago, I have spent more time learning about how to write than actually writing, but I figure everyone needs to start somewhere.

I write historical romance set in Victorian England.  My husband told me the other day that he thinks I like research more than writing.  It is true I love exploring the little factoids that bring history to life, but I love the writing part too–it’s just a lot harder.

This blog explores my writing journey, including those little historical detours that fascinate and distract me. Thanks for joining me for the ride.

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