Friday, March 30, 2012

Sir What's His Name

Nothing says "lack of research" faster than getting the titles wrong in a historical set in England. When a hero is referred to as Lord John Smythe one minute and as Lord Smythe the next, or he's Sir John Smythe sometimes and Sir Smythe at other times, or the heroine is Lady Jane Reynolds at one time and Lady Reynolds at another -- well, the only thing certain is that the writer didn't check her facts, and that always makes me wonder what else she got wrong, too.

If you're trying to figure out the aristocracy, reading the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries by Dorothy L. Sayers makes a good start, and it's a fun pastime as well. I'll use her fictional family, the Denvers, as an example in talking about the families and titles held by dukes. (We'll take up earls, marquesses, viscounts, and barons some other day.)

Dukes are the highest and most exclusive aristocratic rank, and are outclassed only by royalty. Sons and brothers of the monarch were -- and are -- often named as royal dukes.

Sayers' duke is the Duke of Denver; his wife is the Duchess of Denver. Though the family name is Wimsey, the duke and duchess seldom, if ever, use it.

The oldest son of a duke -- his heir presumptive -- uses one of his father's secondary titles. The Duke of Denver's son is Viscount St. George. But that title gives him no power; it's a courtesy only, setting the heir apart from the younger children.

The duke's younger sons are known as Lord Firstname Lastname. Again, this is a courtesy title and there's no power -- no seat in the House of Lords, for instance -- to go with it. This is why Sayers' detective, who's a brother to the Duke of Denver, is Lord Peter Wimsey. As the son of the previous duke, he uses the family name as a part of his honorary title. But he's not Lord Wimsey; he can be referred to as Lord Peter. When he marries, his wife isn't Lady Wimsey -- she's Lady Peter Wimsey.

The daughters of a duke are Lady Firstname Lastname (Lady Mary Wimsey is the duke's younger sister). When she marries she keeps her title, even if she assumes her husband's name -- so when Lady Mary marries a detective who has no title at all, she becomes Lady Mary Parker (but never Lady Parker).

To go back to the original examples, Lord John Smythe would be the son of a titled gentleman but not a lord in his own right. He has essentially no powers; it's an honorary title only -- while Lord Smythe's title is entirely his own. Sir John Smythe would be a baronet (more about them later) but Sir Smythe doesn't exist at all. And the only way Lady Jane Reynolds and Lady Reynolds can be the same person is if she's Lady Jane because her father had a high title and Lady Reynolds because she married Lord Reynolds -- and even then she's apt to prefer one title or the other.

Next time we'll take up Earls!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Writing Period Dialogue

It's tough to walk the line between authentic period dialogue and a style the modern reader will find readable.

Words mean different things these days --for instance, "nice" used to refer to a person who was picky and petty and who found fault with everything. Slang from bygone eras can be totally incomprehensible -- when a Regency hero says, "I'll put a monkey on that" he was NOT referring to a small primate with a prehensile tail; he meant 500 pounds sterling which was a huge sum of money for the time.

Slang and period expressions are like salt -- a small sprinkling adds flavor and zest, but too much and you're grabbing for the water glass to wash it away.

I try to write the first draft without fretting too much over what the character says, or how, or whether there's too much dialect/slang or not enough, or exactly which word to use. Then when the story's in place, there's plenty of time for revision.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Cucumber Sandwiches

Tea, scones, and cucumber sandwiches makes a wonderful afternoon treat.

Peel a medium sized cucumber and slice very thin. Soak slices for one hour in salt water to make them crisp, then drain and pat dry with paper towels.

Combine mayonnaise (or ranch dressing) and cream cheese in equal proportions until smooth. Cut rounds from white bread with a cookie cutter. Spread each slice with mayonnaise-cream cheese mixture. Top with a thin cucumber slice and sprinkle generously with dried dill weed.

Cucumber slices are also excellent on deli cocktail rye bread. When I'm feeling particularly ambitious, I bake my own bread in miniature pans, so each sandwich is a full slice of bread, two inches or less square. Don't be afraid to try exotic varieties and unusual combinations. Imagination is the key.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Greetings from the Regency!

As I sit here in late March suffering the aftereffects of a nasty head cold and remembering the three rules of avoiding infection (1.--Wash Your Hands. 2.--Wash Your Hands. 3.--Wash Your Hands), I can't help thinking about how people in the Regency period did things differently.

No, they couldn't cure the common cold any more than we can. And they didn't even have the benefit of knowing what caused it, because the discovery of viruses was yet to come. But they had one thing right -- they didn't shake hands. No warm handgrips between businessmen. No "pleased to meet you" hands outstretched in greeting. No hands clasped in peaceful greetings in church.

Instead, they bowed or curtseyed -- in greeting, in respect, in acknowledgement of an introduction. Dancers of both sexes wore gloves -- and even the famous kiss-on-the-back-of-the-hand was morely likely to be a brush of his lips against her leather glove, not her bare skin.

I wonder if practicing my curtsey would have kept this stuffy nose at bay...

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Six Commandments for the Romance Writer

There's a lot of talk about the "rules" of writing romance novels -- largely because romance is often perceived as being formulaic. (Not true -- but that's a subject for another post, I think.)

But there are a few rules that it's not safe to break, if you want to be published.

1. Remember that you are writing a romance. Not a mainstream novel. Not a travelogue. Not a textbook.

2. Create a likeable heroine. Not Poor Pitiful Pearl. Not stupid. Not a victim.

3. Present an attractive hero. Not a brute. Not a wimp. Not an abuser. Not a stalker.

4. Make the initial attraction and initial conflict plausible. Not an instant hormone attack. Not instant hatred on first meeting.

5. Construct a believable conflict, a real problem between the hero and heroine. Not a misunderstanding. Not interference by malicious other characters.

6. Write a commercial novel, one that readers will enjoy. Not a book they should read for their own education or the improvement of the world, but one they want to read.

Follow those six commandments, and your story will stand a much better chance of reaching the bookstore shelves and the reader’s hands!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Scones -- A Taste of England

Now that you know how to make a perfect cup of tea (and if you don't, scroll on down the page to find out), you need something to go with it -- and the perfect "something" is a scone.

2 cups flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup butter or margarine
1/4 cup raisins, sultanas or dates (optional)
1/2 cup milk
1 egg
1/2 pint whipping cream
Strawberry or raspberry jam
Sift flour and add baking powder, salt and sugar. Cut in margarine with a pastry cutter or two knives. Add raisins or sultanas or dates if desired, and stir to coat them with flour. Mix milk with beaten egg and stir mixture into dry ingredients. Gather dough into a ball. Knead lightly and roll to 1/2 inch thickness on floured board. Cut into circles or other shapes as desired and place on a lightly greased baking sheet so they do not touch. Bake at 450 degrees for 10 minutes or till golden.
While scones are baking, pour whipping cream into chilled bowl and whip with chilled beaters till the cream is very stiff and almost buttery.
Serve scones immediately after baking; they lose much of their flavor within half an hour. Let your guests split each scone horizontally and top with whipped cream and jam.
Makes 12 scones.
There's a rumor that the only reason scones were invented was to transport the weight of jam and English clotted cream (a very rich whipped cream) from one's tea plate to one's mouth. In fact, the combination of sweet biscuit, cream, and jam is so delicious that your guests will think you slaved over the scones for hours, but in fact they're as sinfully easy as they are good. I must admit, however, that sometimes I say modestly, "You wouldn't believe how much effort it takes to make these."

Friday, March 16, 2012

What Would the World Be Like If...?

A few years ago a friend suggested I read 1632. It's an alternative-history novel by Eric Flint in which a small town in modern-day West Virginia is transported back in time to -- drum roll, please -- 1632, and set down in Germany, smack in the middle of the Thirty Years' War raging across Europe.

I was utterly fascinated by the details, as the small band of West Virginia coal miners and their families set out to change the new world they must now live in. It's not the big things that cause trouble for the West Virginians. For instance, they have a generating plant and a coal mine to fire it, so they have plenty of electricity. But what happens when the light bulbs burn out? -- once the stock is gone from the supermarket, that's it. (As for toilet paper -- well, let's not even go there.)

Much as I enjoyed 1632, there's another alternative history I want to read. In 1817, Princess Charlotte of Wales, the daughter of the Prince Regent (later King George IV), died in childbirth along with her son. Because her death left no next-generation heir, the Regent's brothers rushed into legitimate matrimony in the hope of siring a future king or queen -- and that's the only reason Victoria was born at all (in 1819).

So here's the challenge. What would England -- and for that matter, the world -- be like if there had been no Queen Victoria? If there had been a Queen Charlotte instead?

Won't someone please write this book, so I can read it? Please?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

FAQs -- How Do You Research Jobs?

The heroes and heroines in my 80 contemporary romance novels have held a whole lot of different kinds of jobs, and I'm often asked if I actually did all those things. Was I a banker, a lawyer, a hotel manager? Did I run a bookstore or a B&B?

No to all of those. Maybe in my next life.

I had a fair number of short-term jobs before I settled into full time writing. My longest-lasting job was as a librarian, so when I wasn't busy with my regular duties, I was wandering the stacks and exploring all the intriguing new directions I found. (And even my regular duties helped -- as I re-shelved books, I speed-read them and set aside the ones I wanted to study more thoroughly.) And perhaps most importantly, I'm a reporter by training, so long ago I learned to ask the questions necessary to get a feel for someone else's profession and their daily routine, in order to write feature stories about them.

I was also selective about the jobs I chose and how I handled them. There are professions I never tackled, like law enforcement -- I figured it would be too hard (for me!) to make a cop sound and act like a cop. Or if it was a complex job, I sometimes gave it to the hero -- whose head I was in less frequently -- rather than to the heroine. And then I checked it out with a pro. In the case of my sexy pediatrician hero, that meant having a friend who's a doctor read the manuscript to see if I'd gotten the tone right.

The toughest story, I think, was the book about the two architects -- because their conversation had to always be on a professional level. One of them couldn't exactly explain to the other who Frank Lloyd Wright was and why his Prairie School of architecture was important!

Another challenging profession was in The Takeover Bid, where my heroine ran a junkyard that she'd turned into a classic car business. Though I resisted, she just would not do anything else, so I gave in and read up on classic cars. And when I wrote the book about the two lawyers (The Fake Fiance) I took my attorney to lunch and picked his brain about when attraction crossed the line into unethical behavior.

People love it when their professions are shown accurately and positively, so most of them are happy to help writers get it correct. It helps to have some scenarios in mind of things you'd like your characters to do, and then you can ask concrete questions.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Perfect Cup of Tea

Though the custom of afternoon tea didn't come into full flower until after the Regency period had ended, there's no more perfect combination than curling up with a cup of really good tea and a historical romance. (Unless you add something chocolate, of course.)

The average American makes tea by zapping a mug full of water in the microwave for a minute or two, then dunking a bag in the water till it turns color. Microwave ovens heat quickly but often unevenly, which means part of the water may be overboiled while another portion is hot but not yet boiling. The result is usually a muddy cup of tea.

Instant hot-water faucets, if set at the proper temperature, should produce water that’s hot enough to make an acceptable single cup of tea, but they usually don’t produce near-boiling water quickly enough to make a full pot of tasty tea.

A true cup of tea takes very little longer and very little extra work, yet it returns enormous rewards in taste and satisfaction.

To make perfect tea, start with a kettle of cold water. Let the water run for a bit before filling the kettle, so the water will be fresh and fully aerated. While a kettle is best, water which has been brought to a full boil in a covered pan will also make good tea. Set the burner at the highest temperature, to bring the water to a boil as quickly as possible.

While you’re waiting for the water to boil, fill the tea pot – preferably a china one, which holds the heat better – at least halfway with hot water from the tap. Let the warming water stand in the pot until the kettle boils, so the tea pot will be thoroughly warmed. (This keeps the boiling water from cooling off too quickly as you pour it into the tea pot, and it also keeps the tea pot from cracking because of the sudden temperature change.)

Fill a mesh tea ball with one teaspoon of loose tea for each cup of water the teapot holds. Don’t fill the tea ball more than half full; tea leaves need room for expansion. Or use one high-quality tea bag per cup of water.

The instant the kettle begins to boil, empty the warming water from the pot, put in the tea ball or bags, and pour still-boiling water over the tea. Let the brew steep for three minutes. Remove the tea ball or tea bags. Serve with lemon or whole milk (not cream) and sugar to taste -- and enjoy!

Friday, March 9, 2012

Laws of Inheritance

Many a younger child thinks that the eldest in the family is the favorite and believes that the first-born gets special privileges. In the 19th century, in England, the eldest son may or may not have been the favorite child, but he was certainly the favored one. The system was called primogeniture -- which means first-born -- and it was set up largely to preserve property rights in an era when land was the main source of income and wealth.

The reasoning went like this: The relatively small islands which comprise the United Kingdom had been fully settled for hundreds of years, with all the land claimed. By 1800, there was no room left for expansion, no new acres to be claimed and developed. If  a man's property was divided between several sons at the time of his death, then each of them had less land to till or to rent -- and therefore a lower income. If each of those sons also had several sons, and so on, within a very few generations each individual would be reduced to a tiny parcel, inadequate to maintain a family.

The system of primogeniture means that the oldest son (first-born daughters were bypassed by their younger brothers) inherited the vast majority of his father's holdings, while younger sons had to find other ways to make a living.  During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the second son often went into the armed services while a third son took orders in the church.

In the western hemisphere, the situation was much different. President Thomas Jefferson had just purchased more than five million acres from France in the Louisiana Purchase, which would eventually become all or part of 15 of the United States. With plenty of space for expansion and settlement, primogeniture never became the standard in the United States.

In England the rise of manufacturing meant that land was no longer the main repository of wealth. Families could make their livings from other sources than agriculture, and gradually primogeniture died out -- except for royalty and the aristocracy, where it remains in effect. The eldest son is the heir apparent, inheriting his father's title and most of his property.

Even there, however, modern sensibilities have created changes. When Queen Elizabeth's third child -- Prince Andrew -- was born in 1960, he moved ahead of his older sister Anne in the line of succession. In 2011, however, new legislation provided for succession of the British crown to follow a strict line of birth order. That means that if the first child born to Prince William and Kate Middleton is a girl, she'll be the queen someday -- even if she has half a dozen younger brothers.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Starting Them Young

My eight-year-old granddaughter, reading her very first romance novel (my sweet traditional contemporary, The Takeover Bid -- chosen because it includes a dog named Scruffy and no actual love scenes). I'll keep you posted about how she likes it!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Writing Historical Dialogue

It's tough to walk the line between authentic period dialogue and a style the modern reader will find readable. Words mean different things these days --for instance, "nice" used to refer to a person who was picky and petty and found fault with everything. And slang from bygone eras can be totally incomprehensible. When a Regency hero says, "I'll put a monkey on that", he was NOT referring to a small primate with a prehensile tail; he meant 500 pounds sterling -- which was a huge sum of money for the time.

Slang and period expressions are like salt. A small sprinkling adds flavor and zest, but too much and you're grabbing for the water glass to wash it away.

But it's just as important to know what a historical character wouldn't say. Would he say that his train of thought had been derailed? -- not in an era before railroad tracks crisscrossed the nation. (In fact, the first known use of the term "derail" dates to about 1850.)

But with so much to think about, how can a writer keep it all straight and still focus on the story? It makes sense to write the first draft without fretting too much over what the character says, or how, or whether there's too much dialect and slang or not enough, or exactly which words would have been used or not yet invented. Then when the story is all in place, there's plenty of time for revision. It may even be wise to make a run through the manuscript looking at one character's dialogue at a time -- keeping the flavor by trimming or adding as necessary in order to remind the reader that this person is from another time – without drowning her in "salt".

Friday, March 2, 2012

Day in the Life of a Housemaid

One of the many challenges in writing historicals is finding the right details to surround the characters. If, for instance, I have my heroine notice what a housemaid is doing, then I need to know what sorts of things the housemaid would likely be doing.

I recently got my hands on a copy of The Complete Servant, first published in 1825 and written by a married couple who had been in service their whole lives. They worked their way up from footboy to butler, and from maid of all work to housekeeper. It's fascinating (and exhausting) reading.

The housemaid tidies up each downstairs room and cleans the stoves, fireplaces, and hearths -- including taking out the ashes, scouring the fire-irons, rubbing the backs and sides of fireplaces with black lead, washing the marble hearths (you'll be glad to hear that the chimney pieces only need to be scoured once a week!) Then she sweeps the carpets after strewing damp tea leaves on them to catch the dust, sweeps the floors under the carpets, shakes and dusts the window curtains, brushes the dust off the windows and the ceilings, and puts all the furniture back in place. When all the downstairs rooms have been cleaned, she goes up to the bedrooms of the master and mistress of the house, empties the slops, refills the water containers, and cleans the fireplaces there.

And that's all before breakfast.

The rest of the day she spends making beds; laying fires; cleaning the landings, staircases, and passages; doing needlework; making and caring for all the household linens, and helping with the fine laundry. On Tuesdays and Saturdays she'd give the house a real cleaning, scouring each room instead of merely wiping or sweeping it, including rolling up the carpets so they could be beaten or shaken outside.

According to The Complete Servant, "If the housemaid rise in good time and employ herself busily, she will get everything done in time to clean herself for dinner." Wages? The grand sum of 12 to 16 guineas a year.

I don't know about you, but I'm going to be whining less this weekend as I swoop through my house with Swiffer and vacuum cleaner!