Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Butler Did It!

Since most of us don’t have servants, it’s sometimes tough to picture what people in service in the grand houses of the past actually did all day. If you've read my post on the housemaid’s job, you may have concluded that the upper servants had a far easier time of it. And that’s true, though it depends on how large the household actually was.

In the grandest of houses, the head of the staff would be a house steward who was in charge of hiring and firing servants and paying the tradesman’s bills, but in the merely grand houses, those duties would be split between the butler – assisted perhaps by an under-butler – and the housekeeper.

While the housekeeper is (naturally) in charge of the house, the butler is in charge of the dining room – including protecting, polishing, and counting the silver and maintaining the wine cellar – and overseeing all the male servants. If there was no valet to wait on the master of the house, the butler took care of his clothing and dressing room.

While the pattern of a butler’s day varied greatly depending on the size of the household and the activities of the family, here’s a pretty normal pattern for the butler in a medium-sized house:

It is the butler’s duty to set the breakfast table, bring up the food and drink, wait on table, and clear after the family has finished – a pattern which is repeated at luncheon, dinner, and with the evening tea tray just before bedtime. After each meal he supervises the cleaning of all the silver, china, glasses, and serving dishes and makes sure they are put away in their proper places.

Between meals, he takes up his other duties. He take care of the master's clothes, laying out what he'll need next, cleaning or brushing or mending, and straightening the dressing room. He checks the wine cellar, tending to any wines which may be off in taste or color, or bottling wines which were delivered in casks. He polishes the silver (no tarnish-proof strips in those days!), and he’s on duty to answer the door from morning till night. After the household has retired, he makes sure all the menservants have gone to bed, then locks up the doors and windows before (finally!) retiring himself.

By the Victorian era, when paying calls over tea became a standard afternoon activity, the butler had it a bit easier. The fashion for Victorian ladies was to have a very attractive parlormaid who would answer the door and wait on the ladies and their afternoon callers at tea time. Since the butler was not required, he could rest for an hour.

Pay during the Regency period? From 30 to 80 pounds sterling per year – depending on the size of the family and the household staff. But he also received his master’s cast-off clothes, as well as the leftover pieces of the wax candles, once they were too short to burn! 

Sources: The Complete Servant, by Samuel and Sarah Adams, published 1825
Etiquette, by Emily Post, published 1922

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Top Ten --Er, Six -- Pet Peeves in Historical Romances

I admit it, I'm a fan of historical romance. Always have been, even long before I started writing it. But I have to say there are some things that drive me straight round the bend and make me toss a book aside...

1. Getting the titles wrong. Lady Sarah Winchester isn't the same person as Lady Winchester is, and when the author gets it wrong, it's easy to dismiss the story entirely.

(Here's the skinny on how to handle dukes ... marquesses ... viscounts ... barons ... and baronets.) 

2. Getting the succession wrong. Inheritance of money is one thing, titles are another. Illegitimate sons could not inherit titles, period. Oldest sons could not be bypassed in favor of younger ones. Daughters could not pass along titles at all (there are a very few exceptions, by royal decree).

3. Getting the geography wrong. London to Gretna Green is 320 miles. Even if you figure an average speed of 10 miles per hour for a team of horses (and that would be tough to maintain over time, what with having to stop to change teams every few miles), it was impossible to do the trip in a day, much less overnight, during the Georgian or Regency eras. Which was the entire point, of course, since by the time a couple had been together and alone for such a long journey, the girl's reputation was ruined and irreparable. 

4. 21st century characters who turn up in historical time periods. I don't mean modern-day characters who time travel. I mean people who were supposedly born and reared in the 1300s, or the 1500s, or the 1800s, but who think and act and talk and behave as though they just stepped out of Starbucks holding a latte and an iPhone, complete with modern sensibilities and politically-correct attitudes.

5. Magically-survivable injuries. Before modern antibiotics, being shot in the abdomen was pretty much a death sentence. There are real-life stories of survivors, yes, but they’re remembered because they were rare. Concussions were just as serious then as they are now, and being hit over the head hard enough to cause unconsciousness for a period of time is likely to lead to bleeding in the brain and death, not a nice long sleep and then waking up feeling just fine and remembering everything. (Author Eileen Dreyer, who was a trauma nurse before writing thrillers, does some great seminar sessions on medicine in historical eras and how authors get it wrong.)

6. Trusting other authors to get it right. I swear I’ve read a historical novel where the hero complained about the heroine feeding him pablum – but when I checked, I discovered that particular baby formula was invented in the 1930s instead. Oops.

What about you? What are your pet peeves, the things that make you toss a book aside? Please share!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Thinking about Perspective

I've been asked how, after writing so many books, I can make each set of characters different...

The best way to make each set of characters stand out is to look at things through THEIR perspective -- how THEY view the world.

What would THIS person see and notice most? What would THIS person think about? What would THIS person compare to whatever he/she is looking at?

A heroine who's five feet two will have a different reaction to a hero's height than one who's five feet eleven. A heroine who's a cook will have a different reaction to a hero's physical presence than one who's a physical therapist. A heroine who sells perfume for a living will have a different reaction to a hero's aftershave than one who's ... well, anything else. A heroine who's a musician will have a different reaction to the hero's voice than one who's not at all musical.

See what I'm doing here? I'm looking at the hero through the heroine's eyes. What does SHE see, feel, hear, sense that's different from what any other woman would see?

The same thing works in reverse, of course -- what is there about our hero which makes him notice specific things about the heroine?

Let's talk about how you could make this work!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Everybody Needs an Editor, Part Two

Back in January I wrote about the unintentionally-amusing consequences when an author who doesn't know the right word gets the almost-right one, or lets SpellCheck take over instead of consulting an editor. (You can read that post here.)

Today we're back with More Head-Scratching Moments From Today's Books...

“Mildred, a graying brunette with hair as black as her son's..."

Really? Her hair is gray AND brunette AND black, all at the same time? 

The building was modeled after the Pentagon, though it didn't have seven sides.

I hate to tell you, Dear Author, but the Pentagon doesn't have seven sides either. Penta means five. Always has, always will.

Here are a couple of lines from a story set in 1949: 

He passed out after we hit the interstate. 

Nope. The first legislation setting up what's officially called the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways -- no wonder we just call it "the interstate" -- was passed in 1956, and the original network wasn't completed until 35 years later.

We laid in a stock of MREs to eat on our camping trip.

MREs -- Meals, Ready-to-Eat -- replaced canned combat rations in 1981. These two characters could have gotten hold of C rations, but a couple of guys in 1949 wouldn't ever have heard the term MRE.

And these two from a Big-Six published memoir:

"My bedroom was kind of girlie, with a rod-iron bed"

Truly? Who the heck doesn't know about wrought iron? Are they hiring third-graders as copy editors?

"I'd hit the motherload of riches" 

After all of these, I feel like *I* hit the ... uh... mother lode!

Without naming names, what  are your favorite gaffes?


Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Primping in the Regency

A fellow writer of historical romances asked this week: “What amenities did London hotels have in the 19th century for the proper lady to refresh herself in relative privacy in front of a mirror?”

Now that’s an interesting question – and it’s one I don’t have a definite answer for.

The best sources for information about what happened in particular historical periods are diaries, personal letters, and artifacts – surviving locations and/or possessions. For instance, we know what sort of undies people wore during various historical periods because examples have survived. And we know the basics about how and where people relieved themselves, because a few of those places and pieces of equipment still exist. But figuring out whatever the 19th century equivalent of a power room would have been – that requires figuring out context.

Personal hygiene isn’t something that people talk about, even today – at least not unless it’s something unusual. (I’m pretty sure that the first time I encountered a ladies’ room attendant in a posh restaurant, I mentioned it to my friends.) But powdering our noses is such a commonplace thing that we don’t give it a second thought – aside from the occasional complaint about inadequate facilities, I suppose. Our sisters in the 19th century didn’t write about it in letters either, or note it in their diaries.

So I’m speculating here, trying to figure out context – based on hygiene, comfort, convenience, and taxes – of how a 19th century lady would have powdered her nose.

The first question, of course, is what part of the 19th century we’re talking about.

In the Regency period, personal hygiene most often involved an outdoor privy, or a chamber pot (or the equivalent) inside. This crucial piece of equipment was also called a close stool or necessary stool or toilet chair – here’s a picture of one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Close_stool

In the Regency era, there wasn't much incentive for designing or building special facilities for personal hygiene. Running water was rare, early designs for flush toilets often let sewer gases creep back into the room, and servants (to dump and clean those chamber pots) were inexpensive.  However, the resulting odors and lack of cleanliness meant that a lady probably wouldn't primp near her chamber pot.  Her dressing table would likely be across the room from the sanitary facilities, and it might or might not boast a mirror on the wall – because glass was expensive and hard to produce in large sheets, and it was taxed like the luxury item it was.

Because of the mirror tax, public hotels probably didn’t have many mirrors either. In their best bedrooms, possibly – which is why I think the lady who wanted to primp while traveling would most probably ask to be shown to a bedchamber.

It’s also likely that our proper lady would travel with her own hand mirror. Remember those sets that our grandmothers – or maybe we should say great-grandmothers, by now – kept for pretty on their dressers? A hand mirror, a brush, and a comb, all in the same pattern – those sets were treasured and handed down from mother to daughter. If she was carrying her dressing set, our lady could have primped just about anywhere that no one was looking.

By the mid to late Victorian era, flush toilets were more common, bathrooms were being included in houses and water closets built in public areas, and the mirror tax was defunct or nearly so.  So a Victorian lady could most likely have primped in front of a mirror in a semi-public area of a hotel – though I’m still not sure what that room would have been called. A ladies’ retiring room, perhaps?

If anyone has sources or speculations to add, I welcome your insights!





Monday, June 17, 2013

Random Thoughts From Writers

For years I've collected snippets and quotes from authors about writing. Here are a few of my favorites.

Samuel Johnson: "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money."

Agatha Christie: "The best time for planning a book is while you're doing the dishes."

Mark Twain on doing research: "Get your facts first, and then you can distort 'em as you please."

Ken Kesey (author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest): "I like being a famous writer. The problem is, every once in a while you have to write something."

Alan Jay Lerner (author of the screenplay Gigi): "A daydream I have often had about lyric writing... I am locked in a hotel room for three days working on a song. Suddenly the door opens and there stand all my closest friends. "One of them says, "What have you been doing in here for three days?" I reply, "Writing." One of them says, "What have you written?" I reply, "I could have danced all night, I could have danced all night, and still have begged for more." They look at each other hopelessly, call the appropriate medical authorities, and I am put away for the rest of my natural life."

Megan Daniel (author of Regency romances): "For any writer, however talented, to try writing the kind of book she doesn't enjoy and respect is cruel and unusual punishment -- and useless, besides."

Judith Krantz: "I'm so used to people saying, 'Now that you've made enough money with these bestsellers, isn't it time to write a really good book?' Now would anyone have said to Irving Berlin, 'You could write like Mozart if you tried,' or to Willie Nelson, 'It's time you wrote an opera'? They don't understand that I'm writing the best I can, each time."

Kurt Vonnegut: "This is the secret of good story-telling: to lie, but to keep the arithmetic sound."

Dr. Seuss, about And To Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street: "After the 23rd rejection, I found myself lugging the manuscript up Madison Avenue, headed for my apartment, where I was going to dump the damned thing in the incinerator. If I had been going up the EAST side of Madison Avenue, I would probably never have become a published author. But I happened to be lugging it up the WEST side of Madison Avenue when I bumped into a long-unseen college friend, Mike McClintock. Mike said, "What are you doing these days?" I said, "I'm an unsuccessful author of children's books. What are YOU doing these days?" And Mike said, "I am an editor of children's books. We're standing right in front of my office. Why don't we step inside?" Twenty minutes later I became a legitimate author with a contract, and since that day I have always made it a point to walk up the west side of Madison Avenue."

Alan Jay Lerner (author of My Fair Lady and Camelot): "In the end I have come to realize that I write not because it is what I do, but because it is what I am; not because it is how I make my living, but how I make my life."

Which of these comments resonates with you? 

For me, I have to admit: some days, I agree with Sam Johnson -- but on good days, that last comment from Alan Jay Lerner hits home.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Creating Suspense in Fiction

Suspense is what keeps the reader turning pages, anxious to find out why and what and when and how. Suspense is what makes the reader worry about the characters -- whether they’ll be all right, if they’ll finally reach their happy ending.

Now, we’re not necessarily talking about suspense in terms of actual danger, here. The character's life doesn't have to be at stake for us to create suspense for the reader.

 Suspense is the reader’s natural desire to know what happens next.

Too often, the author – because she knows what’s happening and why and what’s going to happen next, sacrifices the suspense which would keep her reader moving forward.

Here’s an example of how an author sacrificed all the suspense in her situation with a giveaway last line to a scene where she’d told the reader about the scheme her heroine was cooking up:

It was a great plan. And it worked.

At that point, we know what the scheme is. And we know it worked. So just how likely are we to turn the page and read on?

Oh, we might, just to find out exactly how things worked out – especially if we really like the character, or it’s a funny setup. Or if we’re blowing off a slow, lovely Sunday afternoon and have nothing better to do.

But if it’s midnight and we have to go to work in the morning… or if we just recalled that there’s a load of laundry needing to be folded before the wrinkles set… or if the kids are whining about being hungry… or the husband wants to go for a walk on a slow, lovely Sunday afternoon… then the book is apt to get set aside. 
And once a book is set aside, it might never be picked up again.

But what if that author had written this instead?

It was a great plan. And it almost worked.

Then it’s going to be much tougher for the reader to close the book and turn off the light and go cozily off to sleep or out for a walk, or feed the kids anything that takes time to fix. And the laundry? She’ll forget it entirely.

In this case, just one word makes a huge difference – because instead of the reader knowing that the heroine’s plans went just as she hoped they would, all we know is that they didn't.