History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

20 September 2015

Sweep & Specificity - Lynn Nottage's Sweat

Earlier this month my daughter Mélanie and I spent a wonderful few days in Ashland, Oregon, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. (Mélanie is too young to go to the plays but enjoyed the park, a day trip to Crater Lake, and the restaurants such as Alchemy, above).  As always the plays were a wonderful source of creative inspiration for my writing. One of the highlights of a very strong season was Sweat, the world premiere of a play by the wonderful Lynn Nottage. Set between 2000 and 2008 in Reading, Pennsylvania, a manufacturing town in which the factories are closing down, the play manages to at once offering a broad social commentary and create vivid, heartrending portraits of specific characters so real you feel you could step on the stage and into their world. A great example of examining complex ideas and impact of an historical event by showing not telling.

I was thinking about this as an historical novelist. One of the hardest things, I think, is to capture the sweep of major historical events and social changes while still telling the story of one’s individual characters. This week I talked about another aspect of this with a writer friend who was lucky enough to be in Belgium for the 200th anniversary of Waterloo. As we looked at her great pictures of the reenactment of the battle I said one of the hardest things for me in writing about the battle was showing the reader the “big picture” while staying in the point of view of my characters, who would be experiencing  sheer chaos. Nottage somehow manages to show the big picture of social change represented by factory closures and manufacturing jobs leaving the country through the individual experience of different characters. Different characters who tragically, if understandably, often aren’t able to see the situation from any viewpoint other than their own.

She also uses time brilliantly. The play opens in 2008 and with two characters being released from prison and then moves back in a time to the events that got them there. This creates wonderful dramatic tension. I love playing with narrative and timelines and how it can affect how a story unfolds. I know some think flashbacks bog a story down,but I think if used to reveal information that drives the story forwards, they can be an effective part of the narrative story line. Television shows use them a great deal of late. Lost was built around flashbacks. Scandal uses them very effectively to reveal bits of character and backstory at just the right moment. The first half of How to Get Away with Murder’s first season was a flashback leading up to the murder with periodic “flash forwards” to the murder’s aftermath. A very different story from Sweat, but it created similar tension as one watches events unfold knowing they will lead to an explosive outcome.

If you get a chance to see Sweat, or any of Nottage’s works (including Ruined and Intimate Apparel), I highly recommend them. Meanwhile, I’m still mulling how I can put the lessons of this brilliant play to use in my own writing.

What books, plays, or movies do you think do a particularly good job of balancing historical sweep and character specificity? Do you like stories that play with narrative timelines?

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23 August 2015

Of Friendship & Carnations

My fellow Hoyden and good friend Lauren Willig recently celebrated a milestone with the publication of the final book in her Pink Carnation Series, The Lure of the Moonflower. Despite multiple deadlines, I devoured this book which finally tells the story of the Pink Carnation herself, Jane Wooliston, a British spy in the Napoleonic Wars who could give the Scarlet Pimpernel a run for his money.

Reveling in this book (and also feeling a bitter sweet nostalgia because it is the last in the series) I reflected on history. The history of this wonderful series filled with intrigue and adventure that has swept from London to Paris to India to the Peninsula and other wonderful settings and involved real historical characters from Hortense Bonaparte to Jane Austen. But I was also thinking about personal history. Lauren stared writing these books when she was in law school. I first met her when she came to the Bay Area on a book tour. We've always shared a special bond writing about Napoleonic spies and both being influenced, in different ways, by the Scarlet Pimpernel (not to mention writing characters inclined to swap Shakespeare quotes). We’ve discussed the finer points of early 19th century espionage over dinner and drinks in Manhattan in the days when we were both single and pre-children. Over lattes n a café while my three month old dozed in her stroller, when Lauren was planning her wedding. On  Lauren’s sofa with our babies asleep in our laps. And most  recently while our toddlers cooked pretend meals and discovered a mutual love of The Pirates of Penzance.

It’s been a treat watching Lauren take the journey of writing this series, talking about the history behind it, and sharing a bit of the history of her writing such fabulous stories with such a wonderful cast of characters. I’m feeling a bit sad that it’s done, but I can’t to see what she writes next.

Cheers, Lauren!

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16 August 2015

The Dog Fancier's Companion

Last week went off the rails for me and I missed posting. My apologies. This week, I thought I'd offer a free book to make up for it. It's not my book. It's not a friend's book, it's my favorite kind of a book, RESEARCH!

A scanned copy of my 1819 copy of The Dog Fancier's Companion.

This little magazine is a fantastic insight into the mind of dog owners of the Georgian era. It offers comments on breeds/types, advice on care (some of which is quite frightening), and a wonderful denunciation of blood sports (in case you want to be sure that such a stance is not in fact ahistorical).

"For the sake of humanity, it is to be hoped, that the cruelty exercised on the animal, had- been repented of by his master, the greater brute of the two [emphasis in original], and that there are none at present who could be guilty of a similar outrage."


26 July 2015

A Hamper from Fortnum's

A wonderful friend and reader of the series sent my daughter Mélanie and me a fabulous gift last week –  a hamper from Fortnum & Mason. I love Fortnum’s. I’ve had some wonderful teas there - both formal tea with a friend all dressed up with hats and more casual popping in for tea and scones after a day of research -  but I’ve never had one of their hampers. I do order things from Britain fairly often, but mostly clothes. It never occurred to me to order one of their hampers, though Fortnum’s was sending their signature wicker hampers all over the world hundreds of years before the days of the internet. Their hampers go back to the late 1730s. Wealthy travelers would take them long on journeys to sustain them in place of the food to be found at coaching inns, often of dubious quality. With the popularity of fêtes champêptres (picnics) in the late 18th century and Regency era, the beau monde found a new use for hampers containing Fortnum’s delicacies.

In my recent release The Mayfair Affair, Spanish-Irish revolutionary Raoul O’Roarke brings a hamper from Fortnum’s filled with typical Regency fare with him when he visits governess Laura Dudley in Newgate, where she is imprisoned on charges of murdering the Duke of Trenchard.

 "I'd have been here sooner, but I stopped for supplies." O'Roarke advanced into the room and set a hamper on the table.

The key scraped as the turnkey locked them in. Laura regarded the hamper. She had seen similar ones tucked into the Rannochs' open landau on expeditions to picnic at Richmond. "That's from Fortnum’s.”

"Do you object to Fortnum's?" O'Roarke opened the hamper, took out a linen cloth, tossed it over the table, and then proceeded to extract a loaf of bread, a hunk of cheddar and one of Stilton, scotched eggs, and apples and oranges. "Perhaps it's hypocritical of me to relish such a symbol of the British establishment, but I confess I'm quite fond of their hampers.”

"It seems a bit extravagant for Newgate.”

"On the contrary." O'Roarke pulled two glasses from the hamper, followed by a wine bottle. "It seems precisely what is called for in circumstances like these.”

In the Victorian era hampers from Fortnum’s were a frequent sight at regattas, cricket matches, and other outdoor events that became fixtures of the social season. But the signature hampers weren’t just found at social occasions. Fortnum’s sent provisions to Wellington’s troops during the Waterloo campaign. Queen Victoria sent beef tea to Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, and during World War I  parcels from Fortnum’s were dispatched not just to troops but to Red Cross outposts and prisoners of war. British troops today still receive consignments of tea, jam, biscuits, and other delicacies from Fortnum’s.

Fortnum’s signature hampers have accompanied explorers all over the world, including on expeditions down the Congo and up Mount Everest and have nourished (and continue to nourish) British ex-pats, Anglophiles, and simply those with a taste for superb tea and other delicacies round the world.

Including in the San Francisco Bay Area. I’m finding the contents of our hamper wonderful writing inspiration (I’m sipping the Earl Grey as I write this post) and Mélanie loves the biscuits (“the best cookie I ever had”) and playing with the hamper itself.

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15 July 2015

Locating Georgian London

I've been working on a project to map out locations in Georgian/Regency London. Currently my Google Map has upwards of 200 locations (I think it might be closer to 300). I have everything from shops to pubs to historical residences, which can prove a bit tricky as a lot of the houses changed hands FREQUENTLY. I had this idea that prominent families had a town house much like they had a rural seat and that it was something long standing. And while that appears to be true for some (like Devonshire House), it's not at all true for many others. This became VERY clear as I combed my way through the Survey of London and looked to see who lived where during our period.

Some houses I could easily label, but others had far too many occupants even during the few decades of the "extended Regency", and I only attempted the major squares! For example, here's the complicated history of No 8, St. James's Square (which during most of the Regency was the Wedgewood showroom):

"This house was the last in the square to be granted away by the representatives of the St. Albans interest, being owned by the Earl's heirs until 1721. The earliest evidence of its existence is in 1676 when it was occupied by the French ambassador, Honoré Courtin, on a yearly tenancy from the Earl of St. Albans at £400 per annum. (fn. 3) It first appears in the ratebooks in the following year, and until 1684 was occupied by Sir Cyril Wyche, the Earl of St. Albans, or the French ambassador for whom St. Albans seems usually to have paid the rates. It was here that in July 1684 Henry Compton, Bishop of London, received from the representatives of the deceased Earl the title-deeds of the site of St. James's Church and took sustenance during an interval in the ceremony of consecrating the church (see page 33). In 1685 the Earl of Pembroke occupied the house and from 1686–8 the French ambassador was rated as occupant. (fn. 1) From 1689 to 1693 the house was inhabited by the Earl of St. Albans's nephew, Henry, Lord Dover.

In June 1721 (fn. 4) Lord Dover's executor and heirs sold the house to Sir Matthew Decker, a banker, who lived here until his death in 1749, after which his widow continued to occupy the house until 1759. Bowles's view published in c. 1752 compared with Sutton Nicholls's shows that the house then still retained its original appearance except for the insertion of a new doorway of round-headed form (Plates 128, 130).

In 1768 Sir Sampson Gideon, later Lord Eardley, bought the house from the trustee and heiresses of Lady Decker, (fn. 5) and soon afterwards the house was altered or perhaps rebuilt for him by the firm of Henry Holland, senior. A record of the work of the mason, Joseph Dixon, survives (fn. 6) and includes work to the value of some £374 on the house, stables and street paving: old chimneypieces were cleaned and reset and plain mason's work carried out. It was perhaps at this time that the entrance to the house, which in c. 1752 was still in the square, was moved to York (now Duke of York) Street as shown on a plan of 1793 by John Soane.

Sir Sampson left the house in 1784 and for twelve years it stood empty. (fn. c1) Towards the end of this period Soane surveyed it. (fn. 7) In 1795 the house was bought by the younger Josiah Wedgwood for £8500, and a further £7000 is said to have been spent on the house, (fn. 8) the showroom here in 1809 being illustrated in a plate in Ackermann's Repository of the Arts, and the plain exterior in the Ackermann view of the square in 1812 (Plate 131). Wedgwood and his partner, Thomas Byerley, used the premises until, trade apparently becoming depressed, they were given up in 1830. (fn. 9) In August 1830 the property was sold by Wedgwood to the Earl of Romney. (fn. 10) Until 1839 the house was occupied by the Earl as a private residence but was not again used as a private residence alter that date, being usually occupied as a club-house."


28 June 2015

26 June 2015

I’m an historical novelist and an historian by training, but sometimes it’s hard to recognized major historical events when one is actually living through them. Sometimes the significance of events only becomes clear in retrospect, set off by developments before and after. But others are immediately clear. When I got up the morning of 26 June and saw that the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in favor of marriage equality through out the country, it was clear it was clear we were living through something that would be remembered in history books.

I thought about friends of my parents for whom marriage seemed only a distant, theoretical possibility. I thought about friends of mine who have got married in recent years. Several people I know said a few years ago that while they thought marriage equality was important to fight for they didn’t think they wanted to get married themselves to their longtime partners. But in the last year several of them decided to get married and said afterwards they were surprised at how significant it felt.

And then I thought about two of the ongoing characters in my series, Simon Tanner and David Mallinson, Viscount Worsley. David, a Member of Parliament, and Simon, a playwright known for his Radical views, have been lovers since they met at Oxford and share rooms in the Albany. They are closer, Suzanne Rannoch thinks in the series, than many married couples she knows. Closer in many ways than Suzanne and her husband Malcolm who married for reasons on necessity and convenience. But officially, to most of the outside world, David and Simon have to preserve the fiction that they are just friends who share lodgings. David, the heir to an earldom, is under considerable pressure from his family to marry and produce an heir. His family is willing to turn a blind eye to what he does after and he could probably find a wife who was as well, but neither he nor Simon could stomach being part of such a deception.

In my WIP, David, who rarely speaks about his feelings, confides in his friend Malcolm Rannoch with unaccustomed bitterness.

“A few of our friends accept us. Others—notably my parents—choose to be blind to what’s in front of them. Some others really are blind I suppose, or simply don’t have the imagination to see it.” He poured more whisky into Malcolm’s glass. “But still others are only too ready to gossip. And many to condemn.”

Malcolm looked at his friend, his chief confidant since they’d both been schoolboys Teddy’s age. He had shared things with David he hadn’t even shared with Suzanne. And yet— “You don’t talk this way often.”

David shrugged as he clunked down the decanter. “Nothing to be gained by dwelling. But it’s still a hanging offense.”

Not only does marriage to each other seem as out of reach as the moon to David and Simon, their very relationship is considered a capital crime. “Buggery” had been a capital crime going back to the days of Henry VIII. Jeremy Bentham argued for decriminalizing “sodomy” in a 1785 essay called Offenses Against Oneself.  But the death penalty for “buggery” wasn’t abolished until 1861 while various laws against same gender sex continued until late in the 20th century with horrifying notable examples such as Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing and many, many others less known but equally tragic. It wasn’t until 2001 that the age of consent was made the same for men and women and that laws against group same sex sex were decriminalized. Same sex marriage became legal in England and Wales in 2014.

On Friday I wanted to explain to my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter Mélanie that this was an important day, that our country had become a more equal place, but it occurred to me that she has no idea that there were ever prohibitions on men marrying men and women marrying women. In fact the first time she helped me buy a wedding present it was for two of her honorary uncles. Some day, before too long, we’ll talk about it, and I’ll show her the pictures I took on 26 June of San Francisco City Hall and the War Memorial Opera House lit up in rainbow lights. But for right now, I like the fact that to her marriage is and always has been something between two people who love each other regardless of gender.

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16 June 2015

Travels in England, 1782: Westminster Abbey

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 “On a very gloomy dismal day, just such a one as it ought to be, I went to see Westminster Abbey.

I entered at a small door, which brought me immediately to the poets’ corner, where the monuments and busts of the principal poets, artists, generals, and great men, are placed.

Not far from the door, immediately on my entrance, I perceived the statue of Shakespeare, as large as life; with a band, &c., in the dress usual in his time.

A passage out of one of Shakespeare’s own plays (the Tempest), in which he describes in the most solemn and affecting manner, the end, or the dissolution of all things, is here, with great propriety, put up as his epitaph; as though none but Shakespeare could do justice to Shakespeare.

Not far from this immortal bard is Rowe’s monument, which, as it is intimated in the few lines that are inscribed as his epitaph, he himself had desired to be placed there.

At no great distance I saw the bust of that amiable writer, Goldsmith: to whom, as well as to Butler, whose monument is in a distant part of the abbey, though they had scarcely necessary bread to eat during their life time, handsome monuments are now raised.  Here, too you see, almost in a row, the monuments of Milton, Dryden, Gay, and Thomson.  The inscription on Gay’s tombstone is, if not actually immoral, yet futile and weak; though he is said to have written it himself:

“Life is a jest, and all things shew it,
‘I thought so once but now I know it.”

Our Handel has also a monument here, where he is represented as large as life.

An actress, Pritchard, and Booth, an actor, have also very distinguished monuments erected here to their memories.

For Newton, as was proper, there is a very costly one.  It is above, at the entrance of the choir, and exactly opposite to this, at the end of the church, another is erected, which refers you to the former.

As I passed along the side walls of Westminster Abbey, I hardly saw any thing but marble monuments of great admirals, but which were all too much loaded with finery and ornaments, to make on me at least, the intended impression.

I always returned with most pleasure to the poets’ corner, where the most sensible, most able, and most learned men, of the different ages, were re-assembled; and particularly where the elegant simplicity of the monuments made an elevated and affecting impression on the mind, while a perfect recollection of some favourite passage, of a Shakespeare, or Milton, recurred to my idea, and seemed for a moment to re-animate and bring back the spirits of those truly great men.

Of Addison and Pope I have found no monuments here.  The vaults where the kings are buried, and some other things worth notice in the abbey, I have not yet seen; but perhaps I may at my return to London from the country.”

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