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30 September 2009

Following In Famous Footsteps

I just returned from a few days in Paris, and I'm way behind in my research and writing schedule (yeah, yeah, I know, cue the violins), so this post will be primarily visual.



Because I researched the lives of Napoleon and Josephine for NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES, I took advantage of the fact that our hotel room wasn't yet ready on our arrival, so my husband and I took the metro and then a bus out to Malmaison.



The origin of the name "bad house" is unknown, but a house on the location dates to the twelfth century. On April 21, 1799, Josephine Bonaparte bought Malmaison, having been charged by her husband (who was off attempting to conquer Egypt) to find a nice country retreat. It became their favorite spot to unwind as the imperial couple; and Napoleon gave it to Josephine as part of their divorce arrangement in 1810.



Although we arrived on a somewhat gray day, and the facade is a dove gray as well, there was something very sad about the bad house. It's a museum of Napoleona now; the rooms contain period furniture, though not necessarily what was in the château at the time Josephine and Napoleon lived there.








Apart from the gardens gracing the entry to Malmaison, the grounds, including Josephine's famous rose gardens, seem sadly neglected. In late September, there isn't much blooming, but I did take a couple of pictures of the descendents of Josephine's roses. It wasn't until I uploaded the photos and noticed the speckled detail on this rose, that I was really struck by the poignancy of what looks like blood-spattered purity. Thoughts of the Revolution and Madame Guillotine came immediately to mind, as well as the broken marriage of the imperial couple.


The Conciergerie, once the residence of Medieval French kings, its purpose perverted during the Revolution, is similarly bleak. The heaviness of the atmosphere, the sorrow in the air, were palpable to me.





Lower level of the Conciergerie; the frieze of is of Bacchus and grapes, contrasting with the glum mood of the castle that became a prison.



The Women's Courtyard -- the Cour des Femmes. Female prisoners were permitted to take some fresh air here.













They tried to discreetly wash themselves and their dirty hose and linen in this fountain in the cour des femmes; feeling clean(ish) was a rare opportunity to retain a modicum of dignity in the crowded, filthy, and smelly prison. The male prisoners were afforded no such "luxury."

And how ironic that the place where Marie Antoinette spent her final months should now have a gift shop selling replicas of her head (this is the original marble bust, which is at Versailles)!


At Versailles I walked and walked in the footsteps of Marie Antoinette. For research purposes I've spent a lot of time in her company lately and have come to appreciate and understand, even love, her. Sometimes it were the little details that struck me.






Was this cupid relief on the chapel door the last thing she saw before walking down to aisle to be married to the dauphin, Louis Auguste, on May 16, 1770?



What did her bedroom (this is of course a re-creation of her furnishings) look like on that horrific day in 1789 when an angry mob armed with pitchforks, clubs, and pikes, stormed the queen's rooms in search of L'Autrichenne, beheading the faithful guards who tried to block their entry?


Who did she frolic with in the Temple of Love on the grounds of Le Petit Trianon?














Did she sip chocolate, gossip, or play cards, in the remote and sunny Belvedere?













Did she ever share this single bed at Le Petit Trianon with Axel Fersen?



Have you ever walked in the footsteps of your characters, whether for research purposes, or for the sheer pleasure of it? Who were they, and what did you take away from the experience?

29 September 2009

Letter from Kodiak

Here is the letter I mentioned yesterday. One woman's account of the Good Friday earthquake and tsunami and its impact on Kodiak.

Dear Annie,

Thank you for your lovely heart-warming letters. We shall keep them always as proof that we are loved.

I'm sure you probably know more about what happened than we do. For two weeks we knew almost nothing except of our own small section of town. I am going to tell you what we saw and did. We live about three blocks from the center of town and two blocks from the creek that runs near a main street, under others and into the bay. This creek area a hundred years ago was a fresh water lake and is near sea level. We live up just a little on a steep mountain.

Near six-thirty (D-Day) we sat down to one of our usual dull meals. After three bites all dullness ended for several days. The quake hit with a jolt and a rumbling noise like a heavy "cat" pulling hard in the distance. We each got under a door but it continued. I stood where I could see our canned goods falling wildly to the floor. We then went out (Jack without his shoes). It was a little difficult going down the stairs and the front yard was still waving. Our neighbors were all out. A chimney fell from the Taylor Apartments just in front of us. I thought, "I must tell the owner real soon because of fire danger." An hour later he had nothing to hold up any chimneys. It finally quit and we went back inside. As far as I know, the only damage the quake did here was broken windows, chimneys, and breakage from fallen objects. We had some small glass balls on a high shelf in the bedroom. They had fallen and traveled out of the bedroom through the door and out into the living-room. I went to work cleaning up the debris on our back porch. You wouldn't believe how two jars of mayonnaise and three jars of pickles can spread. Jack kept answering the phone. People were calling up to see how we had fared. Our power then went off (I think they threw the switch because of fire danger), but a loud speaker began announcing the wave. We dressed in warm clothes; people were pouring up the hill so we opened our three gates and they stayed open until last week. I believe that five thousand trips were made through here.

We walked up on the road above our place and watched the bay. The water came up slowly the first time -- the boat harbor dock covered, then about twenty cars were covered and the next time I looked, the small house by the pier was covered. The water came across town and into the low area. The next wave was announced. I heard someone calling down below us and started down. Just then a marine heard it too and turned and went in that direction and I came back into the yard. There were several building off their foundations. Jack returned and then we heard someone calling down below us. The marine hadn't heard him, I guess. Jack went down, broke out a window, and with help brought an old man to our house. (Russian Frank is still the only name I know.) He had recently had two strokes, can't talk and just barely walks. His house was off the foundation. We go him into dry clothes to keep him warm. I said "Frank, would you like a drink?" He indicated yes so I brought him a drink of water. O, how he spluttered - so we got him fixed up with the right kind of drink and he stayed a week with us. We never left our yard again but we had lots of company. It was a beautiful, calm, moonlit night. It was about the third or fourth wave that really stirred things up. It hit the boat harbor and it was like a thousand guns going off as moorings and lines snapped like toothpicks. Everything moved toward town. The boats hit the stores and the stores hit each other and they all moved up the creek and away from the bay. Frank's house was in front of a bank just in front of our fence. The apartment building (chimney I had worried about) was in three pieces and also just in front of us with several other houses. Where the apartment had stood a metal hut had hit a large building (laundry and newspaper office) and they had all collapsed in one pile. Eric couldn't find even a piece of the hut for several days. All of Kraft's store buildings, except the store, moved up around Clark's garage. Tony's (the longest bar in Alaska) was in front of Clark's in the middle of the street -- one end up and one end down. Then the boats began coming in, riding high, fast, and beautiful. The much written of "Selief" had its own lights and looked like a fairy ship. It was in communication by radio. A big red pile driver sailed up past us. A few minutes later I said "where is the pile-driver?" You just could not watch everything. It had gone back out through the channel, and was found next day safe and sound a couple of miles away.

Several of the boats made several trips. At least ten are still high and dry. The last tide warning was for three and nothing happened. We came in and went to bed with our clothes on. Between each tide some of our neighbors came in to get warm by the fireplace and nibble on crackers and cheese or whatever we could think of to put out. Our rug was thick with dry grass from our yard. Jack's office gal and her mother, who had watched their house sail up toward city hall, stayed with us. We were all up at five huddling around the fireplace. Most of the People had no heat, light, water or phone or radio. So we were lucky to have a fireplace for heat and cooking.

It was a grim sight that sunny morning showed. Clark's garage and Eric's Oil stood, but we could not see them, there was so much in front. The bakery still stood, but is still not operating -- the telephone building still stood -- still not operating. A big barge sat beside the main street, partly on the sidewalk where Kia's liquor store should have been. The street in front of us was packed solid with debris and houses all in the wrong places. The lot in front of us was packed solid. The $100,000 barge "Selief" was on the hill twenty feet below the down town school. She had three thousand live crab that had to be hauled away and discarded. The military was in charge down town and we could not go down. In the afternoon, Jack and I walked a mile over the side of the mountain to the new school to offer help. They fed and slept over 800 people there. The whole ocean was very high and stayed up for several days. Buildings floated all over it. The next morning, Easter, Jack and a crew went to work on the dock. The dock had buckled in the middle about fifteen feet. The back of the old warehouse was ruined. The doors gone from the new one and the approaches washed out. The water had gone so high that it was pouring from the second story into the warehouse and office. How they ever got it ready for a ship I don't know, but they did. Jack still hopes for a calm day for a ship arrival.

We kept having tide warnings and Monday I moved Frank to higher ground for the first time. The sad salvage started. Easlene and here mother got quite a few things from her house. The people in front of us carried things threw our yard for several days, such a hopeless time for them. Many had to wait until a building was move off their belongings. Everything was soaked and smashed.

We have a narrow channel about five blocks from us. Stores, two big canneries, docks, airways and some big homes were swept from it out to sea. Since we stayed in our yard we did not see all this, but many just above us did. At one time the wave went out and left the whole channel completely dry. A boat was in it at the time and it sank on the next wave with a loss of life.

A mile from town there were two beautiful little lakes. Two of our doctors (Johnson's) had built homes on a bluff overlooking the ocean with Mission Lake just behind them. The waves went into the lake and out at a low place at the other end, leaving them on an island for a while. Now the lake is wide open to the sea and empties with the tide. At least twenty homes in that area have only salt water left in their wells. Houses at the end of the lake were seriously damaged by the ice. At the other lake, the waves came in, swept a night club (Beachcombers), a trailer court, several homes, and hundreds of driftwood logs back into the lake where they still are. At the opposite end, all the ice from the lake is piled high on dry land. This lake is now a lagoon also.

Then came the next step. Jack worked from seven to six. We fell into bed at eight. No lights, no heat, no radio. We at our house had water right away. I stayed at home tending fire, serving coffee and warmth to our cold neighbors, and listening to rumors. It was wonderful when the power came on - about seven days for us as we were so close to the disaster area.

We were real lucky on our clean - up and it was miraculous. We are now neat and lean and empty-looking. Dad's Barber Shop - off foundations.
Looking up Main Street, still standing is Kraft's Market and Sportland, both just shells.

...more of this story to come when I have time to type it in...

--courtesy of the Kodiak Historical Society--

28 September 2009

Kodiak A Brief History

Last time I posted about my experience in Kodiak, Alaska. It was a heavy dose of mememe but it was fun to recall and share the fist great adventure of my life. This time I want to tell you something about the history that has shaped Kodiak.

Keep in mind that what I am writing about is Kodiak's history, not all of Alaska. This state is so big that it is in two time zones and has such a small population that it has one area code.

Kodiak is an island about the size of the sate of Connecticut with a population of 13,000, half of which lives in or near the town of Kodiak on the northeast end of the island. As you can see from the photo at right, Kodiak has an extremely irregular coastline with giant fjord like inlets, mountains and various islands as the most significant part of its makeup. There are only 100 miles of paved and gravel road leading from Kodiak. Air travel is the most efficient way to visit the outlying villages.

Since you all have other things to do with your day I am going to explore the four events since 1750 that have shaped life on Kodiak the most.

In 1785 Russia's Peter the Great authorized the establishment of a Russian colony to curb English hunting in the area. With Kodiak as the capitol, this venture marks the beginning of non-native interest in Alaska. The most lasting contribution by the Russians was not their governance which ended in 1867 but the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church whose missionaries arrived in 1794 to convert Alaskan Natives.

With the sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867, Kodiak lost its role as capital and returned to the status of "fishing village" -- a sufficient description for over fifty years.

But before World War II changed Kodiak's personality forever, nature took its turn. In 1912 one of the most powerful volcanic eruptions occurred. Mt.Katmai is one hundred miles west of Kodiak and if you check out this link you will find a brief but effective description of how the populous responded.

During the sixty hours of the Katmai explosive eruption, twelve inches of ash smothered the region. Kodiak residents had no communication with the outside world due to the failure of their radio station. Having read of Pompey they were terrified and began preparations to evacuate the island. The rain of ash ended before evacuation could be acted on. No human died as a result of the eruption. However farmers' and fisherman's livelihoods were compromised for years. In my own amateur excavations it was easy to find the ash layer, still very much intact about twenty inches below current ground level.

In 1940 the navy began construction of a base about seven miles from the town of Kodiak. During World War II the population swelled by 20,000 and the naval personnel took turns at strongholds like the one pictured at right watching for possible enemy invaders. Having visited these bastions I can assure you this was cold, miserable, fruitless duty. And very safe, since the only (short lived) landing on Alaska soil was almost a thousand miles away at the end of the Aleutians.

It was not the war itself that forever changed Kodiak but the the installation of the naval facility. Since 1972 the US Navy turned the base over to the Coast Guard and today it is its largest operating base. The government presence contributes to the economic stability of the island and the Coast Guard Air Station, one element of the integrated command, provides a valuable search and rescue presence in an area where commercial fishing is considered one of the most dangerous professions.

On March 27, 1964 at 5:30 PM, a powerful earthquake struck with an epicenter near Anchorage Alaska. Measured at 9.2 on the Richter scale the Good Friday Earthquake is the second largest earthquake in recorded history.

Kodiak felt the shock, but it was the tsunami generated by the quake that did the most damage. A number of Kodiak Island towns were destroyed including Kodiak itself with the loss of more than 25 lives. Tomorrow I will post a letter, courtesy of the Kodiak Historical Society, which recounts once resident's experience.

As a result of the tsunami the fishing industry had to be rebuilt, this time with an emphasis on king crab and the canning industry was more centralized in Kodiak. Some of the smaller villages were not rebuilt and the ones that survived no longer had the economic security of the fishing industry.

While the historical detail is interesting what is most captivating about Kodiak is the physical beauty of the place. Mountains encroach on every town and village. Most are situated near the Gulf of Alaska since fishing is such a significant part of everyone's life, whether commercial or for private entertainment. Wildlife is amazing from eagles to brown bears. It is a naturalists delight.

Thank you to the History Hoydens for giving me the opportunity to share Kodiak with you. And thanks to all the readers whose comments make every post come alive. The Hoydens are a wonderful group of women to share the blog with but this is my last post. My other writing commitments make it necessary for me to say goodbye for now. Diane Whiteside will be taking over this Monday slot and I look forward to commenting regularly.

23 September 2009

Sex as a Literary Challenge

In her recent post Pam talked about writing a seduction scene. Which got me to thinking about writing love scenes. Or to be more accurate, sex scenes, as there are certainly love scenes that don’t involve sex, except as subtext. Sex scenes are perhaps a particular challenge for the historical novelist because, as Pam said, of the need to carry "with it the feeling of its historically understood world, quite as fully as any other scene in the novel." Which includes everything from the mores of the time to contraception or the lack of it to details of clothing as it is removed (with which last issue Kalen is a wonderful resource).

When I first began co-writing Regency romances with my mom, under the name Anthea Malcolm, my friends teased me that our books started very chaste and slowly got more explicit. In our first book, The Widow’s Gambit, the characters barely embraced. In the second, The Courting of Philippa, there were more detailed kisses. (There was also a description of birth control methods when the radical reformer hero took the Silver Fork novelist heroine to a meeting put on by another reformer). In the third, Frivolous Pretence, which focused on an estranged married couple, there was an actual sex scene, though it faded to black. Our fifth book, A Touch of Scandal, had ex-lovers who resumed an illicit affair. Sex scenes were part of the story. I told my mom she had to write them. Our sixth book, An Improper Proposal, was a marriage of convenience story. My mom said, “You have to write one of the sex scenes this time.” I wrote my first draft of the scene on a day when my mom was out shopping. And (this is true, though it sounds so funny now), I turned down the screen on my computer, so I couldn’t look at the words as I typed them. When my mom got home that night, I said, “Okay, I wrote the scene. Go look at it and tell me what you think. But I don’t want to be there when you read it.”

Oddly enough, after that first scene I stopped being embarrassed about writing sex scenes. I got to find them quite a fun challenge, especially trying to make each one true to those particular characters and that stage in their relationship (my favorite, I think, is the one in Shadows of the Heart, which takes place in the crypt of a church after the hero and heroine have narrowly escaped being killed). But when I wrote Secrets of a Lady, it was quite obvious to me that after the opening interrupted sex scene, Charles and Mélanie were too focused on finding the Carevalo Ring and getting their son back to stop to have sex. On top of the fact that their relationship is so strained that Charles finds it difficult even to look Mel in the face let alone make love to her. In fact one of the reasons I had Mélanie be attacked fairly early in the story was to break through some of the distance between them so that Charles at least touches her. If you examine the book, their physical contact slowly increases through their desperate adventures in search of the ring and Colin.

In Beneath a Silent Moon, (which thematically is in many ways all about sex), Charles and Mélanie do make love fairly early in the story. When I wrote the scene, I automatically faded to black without thinking about it. I did the same with a later sex scene in the book. Despite the fact that what happens between them in the second scene is important to their relationship. They both think about the scene later. Charles even apologizes to Mélanie for it being "without thought." But I rather like the fact that it's left up to the reader's imagination to fill in precisely what did happen, why it disturbs Charles, why Mel is much more matter-of-fact about it. I’ve come full circle, in a way, from from being embarrassed to write sex scenes to enjoying writing them to liking the mystery of not showing everything. Of hinting at exactly who does what and how and what it means to them but leaving a great deal up to the reader’s imagination.

When I blogged about this topic on my own website, our own Mary Blayney said "I love writing sex scenes, but I find the longer I spend creating them the less effective they are. I think it has everything to do with my understanding of the characters sexuality which I have to admit I do not always know as well as I know other aspects of their lives."

I had thought about it in quite those terms before, but I think understanding a character's sexuality may be one of the more elusive pieces of developing a character. One can know a person very well without knowing about the intimate aspects of their life. And the historical novelist has to think her or himself into the head of someone whose sexuality is influenced by the societal pressures of another era. Depending on the era about which one is writing, one sometimes has to tease attitudes toward sexuality out of subtext in letters and journals and literature of the era (while in other eras the historical record is much more frank and explicit).

In the discussion on my website, Cate commented on sex scenes that are less explicitly detailed. "One of my favourites is Laurie R King’s Russell, who writes throwaway lines like: 'And then my husband came in looking very handsome in his suit and one thing led to another and we never got around to talking about X until morning.' (Forgive my paraphrasing, I don’t have my books handy.) It so wonderfully suits the characters of Russell and Holmes.

"I find lines like that almost more entertaining than fully-described scenes. Just so delightfully understated — and I can imagine as much or as little as I wish to on my own. I tend to write scenes like this for my own characters, but not always."

I too love the way Laurie King handles handles these moments. The throwaway lines can either be witty as in the example Cate quoted or quite emotionally powerful (as in a later scene from The Moor where Russell is upset–understandably–after having just viewed a dead body and Holmes comes in (reappearing unexpectedly after an absence) and holds her (”Holmes was always very satisfactory at determining, with a minimum of clues, what in a given situation was the required course of action.”). I also love that if you read King closely you can often figure out the physicality of a scene (say how Russell and Holmes are lying in bed) without her overtly describing it.

How do you feel about sex scenes? What makes them work or not? How detailed do you like them to be? Writers, how do you approach writing sex scenes? Do you enjoy writing them or find them a chore? How much detail do you go into? Has your approach to them changed through the years or with the type of books you write?

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18 September 2009

Saloons in the Old West


The saloon, evolving from the pub or tavern, is simply a neighborhood bar. It moved west with the pioneers and gradually earned its reputation as a den of iniquity with card tables full of gunslingers, dancing girls, and barrels of whiskey. Life in those old days was difficult, and the saloonkeeper provided a place to “let loose” or just socialize.

In some towns of the Old West there were more saloons than churches. And in some tent cities sprouting up around gold or silver mining camps, there were more saloons than wooden buildings.

Saloons were the place a cowboy or a rancher or a miner (but never a lady) could drink, gamble, and maybe even get a girl. Some were just shacks (or even tents); some were fancy. The Silver Dollar Saloon in Leadville, Colorado, had a mahogany bar, tile floor, and a real cash register. Abilene saloons featured glass doors, paintings of Renaissance-like nudes, mirrors reflecting rows of whiskey and brandy bottles, polished brass spittoons, and often a green baize gaming table. Abilene in 1871 had a population of only 800, but the city made millions on the 11 saloons that served 5,000 or more cowboys driving longhorns up from Texas to the Kansas railhead.

A glass of beer cost a nickel; two drinks (often watered down) cost a quarter. Hard liquor had some spell-binding names: Tarantula Juice, Skull Bender, and Red Eye that would “make a hummingbird spit in a rattlesnake’s eye.” Sheepherder’s Delight contained clear alcohol, plug tobacco, prune juice to add color and taste, and a bit of strychnine “to enhance the jolt.” The original Tom & Jerry originated in the Old West: whiskey, a raw egg, sugar, and milk.

The saloon stayed open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The sound of gunfire was common, as was piano music plunked out by a musician who doubled as bouncer and, in the really fancy establishments, a woman’s voice singing “Oh Suzanna.” The voice was usually attached to a “fancy” girl who waited tables, entertained the customers (often in the private back rooms), and sang for her supper

So music-starved were saloon clients that an Idaho City Irish fidler had a performing platform built, rigged it to the ceiling by pulleys, and whenever a gunfight erupted, he simply had himself hoisted aloft and played over the noise.

Prize fights were often held in saloons because they were the largest buildings in town. In Cheyenne, in 1867, one memorable prize fight went 126 rounds, each round lasting until one man knocked down the other. The purse was $1,000.

Saloons could be the core of a community. In some towns they had the only women in the area--dancers and “calico queens” as shady ladies were known. Sometimes an enterprising owner added a stage to present variety shows or short plays. Gradually some of these performances moved from amateur to professional theatrical performances; Lillie Langtry (an English courtesan) was a big hit playing Cleopatra and Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils.

One saloon owner turned his establishment into a theater featuring both local productions and professional performers from the East, including Lotta Crabtree. A serious production (Shakespeare’s “Richard III”) would be followed by a farce. The Taylor Family Troupe, performing in Dodge City, was a big hit as well, as was Eddie Foy. Foy, a wisecracking song and dance man, was riding high until he composed a ditty which poked fun at certain members of the audience: Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Bat Masterson. The lawmen captured Foy with a rope and ducked him in the horse trough.

San Francisco was the wildest of saloon cities; during the Gold Rush, the population of the city was 90 percent men. Massive shipping through the Golden Gate brought people from China, Brazil, Russia, and points inbetween. Life was hard, work in the mines was back-breaking, and everyone wanted to “make it” one way or another. The most successful of entrepreneurs were those who “followed the money.” Such men made millions of dollars off the millions of miners trying to make their own millions: foremost among these were (1) the manufacturers of denim work pants and (2) saloon-keepers!

Long may they reign.

16 September 2009

Leanna's Haunted London Blog Tour

The Hoydens would like to give a warm welcome to Leanna Renee Hieber, who is visiting us on the thirteenth and last day of her Haunted London Blog Tour. One of the founders (foundresses?) of Lady Jane's Salon, Leanna has combined her interest in ghost stories, London, and the Victorian era to create a ghostly Gothic tale of ancient prophecy and gas-lit intrigues.

Here's the blurb from the back of Leanna's book (and the incredibly gorgeous cover): "What fortune awaited sweet, timid Percy Parker at Athens Academy? Considering how few of Queen Victoria’s Londoners knew of it, the great Romanesque fortress was dreadfully imposing, and little could Percy guess what lay inside. She had never met the powerful and mysterious Professor Alexi Rychman, knew nothing of the growing shadow, the Ripper and other supernatural terrors against which his coterie stood guard. She knew simply that she was different, haunted, with her snow-white hair, pearlescent skin and uncanny gifts. But this arched stone doorway offered a portal to a new life, an education far from the convent—and an invitation to an intimate yet dangerous dance at the threshold of life and death…"

And now, without further ado...


The STRANGELY BEAUTIFUL Haunted London Blog Tour – Lucky day 13 and final stop!



Last but certainly not least, hello my History Hoydens! Thank you so very much Lauren, for the invite and to the Hoydens for hosting me today on the final Strangely Beautiful Haunted London Blog Tour stop! Today is very special because I unveil a ghost from Book II of the Strangely Beautiful series – an exclusive sneak-peek excerpt!

For those of you just joining us, the purpose of the Haunted Blog Tour is to celebrate the release of my Gothic Victorian Fantasy debut, The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker, this Tour has introduced the real, documented London haunts who “ghost-star” in my book. When Professor Alexi Rychman and his Guard of spectral police make their rounds, it is to any number of London phantasms. Since these characters are familiar to The Guard, I don’t get to tell all their details. But here I can give them their due. Leave a comment and you’ll be entered to win a signed copy of the novel, first in the Strangely Beautiful series!

Oliver Goldsmith and Ye Olde Cock Tavern – 22 Fleet Street, EC4

While you may know Fleet Street from Sweeney Todd, there’s more than just a demon barber down Fleet Street. Of mid-16th century vintage, Ye Olde Cock Tavern is the oldest pub on Fleet. Writer and playwright Oliver Goldsmith (1730-74; She Stoops to Conquer, The Vicar of Wakefield) is buried in the graveyard of Temple Church which lies to the rear of the Tavern. A barmaid once exited the rear door and found herself face to face with a floating, disembodied head. It took a great deal to calm her down, and she only started up screaming again when, upstairs in the Tavern, she saw a portrait of Goldsmith on the wall, shrieking that his was the face she saw.

Here’s how I use his spectral presence in the Strangely Beautiful sequel – to be released May 2010…

“Busy night tonight, Lord Withersby,” Headmistress Rebecca Thompson stated with a partial smirk. “I was just on my way to Ye Olde Cock Tavern.”

Elijah made a face. “Oliver Goldsmith’s floating head again?!”

“Afraid so. It won’t take but a minute, just up Fleet Street.” Rebecca mounted her horse and they moved slowly, Elijah walking beside.

“Damn writers and their bloody legacy,” Elijah scoffed. “Loathe to leave anything. Damn them all, there isn’t a single noble profession in the world.”

“Save for those born with money and therefore need not labour?”

“Oh, no, my class is constituted entirely of sniveling idiots.”

“What then,” Rebecca laughed. “There must be some worthwhile aim-”

“Yes," Elijah said firmly. "Ours. We’re the only noble ones, Rebecca!” He then eyed her. “How are you faring these days?”

Rebecca snorted. “And where have you been these few days?”

“I was asking the question, Rebecca. I was wondering how it feels to be free of the looming shadow of His Highness for a bit,” Elijah grinned.

Rebecca thought a moment. “Not bad, I suppose. Not bad.”

“Good then. Keep your strength sound. Leader Alexi may be, but you of all people oughtn’t be kept at heel.”

“He did not put me at heel.”

“No, he didn’t,” Elijah’s gaze was uncomfortably frank. “You did. He respects you the most. But you never did yourself that honour, did you?”

Rebecca’s discomfited clearing of her throat satisfied Elijah.

“Hold onto your head, Oliver!” Elijah cried. “We’ve come for it again, you witless sot! I never did like a single one of your tired phrases!” Elijah threw open the tavern door and burst inside with a raucous yell, drawing a pretend sword and clearing the entire first floor in a few bounds.

Rebecca witnessed the instant commotion and couldn’t hold back a laugh. Before the burly man behind the bar could tackle him, Elijah held out his arms in one swift, grand gesture like a conductor halting a symphony and all was immediately quiet, the entire assemblage staring suddenly off into space, content and unaware.

Elijah, unable to help himself, waved his arms about a bit, seeing how the entire company moved their heads in response like marionettes on strings. This caused him limitless glee and Rebecca had to take his arms gently and lower them lest he play the giggling puppeteer all night.

“You allow me no fun,” Elijah pouted, a stray finger still making one slovenly drunkard’s gaze turn loops. Rebecca confiscated both his hands in hers and nearly pressed her nose to his.

“Ask Jane about all the fun she had. We cannot all entirely misbehave.”

“I thought I saw something about a children’s ward...”

“She was guilty as charged. Healed the whole ward.”

“Ah, brilliant,” Elijah grinned.

“You picked the locks, didn’t you?” Rebecca chided.

“What, and let Michael steal my mischief? If Alexi gets the privilege of a honeymoon, then we’ve most certainly the right to our own bit of fun.”

Elijah and Rebecca entered onto the back stoop in tandem. Sure enough, Oliver Goldsmith’s disembodied head bobbed at eye level, his transparent features looking entirely offended.

“Stop scaring the barmaids, Goldsmith! Let your prose do it for you!” Elijah pinned the writer by his century-dead eyes while Rebecca’s bold incantations settled to a soft hush.

The hovering skull of the infuriated writer soon dispatched, they crossed back through the quiet, lazing pub. Elijah relinquished his spell with a flick of his wrist only as the front door clicked shut behind them.



--- (End of Excerpt)

I confess, that’s some of the most fun I’ve had with a ghost story.

I’m indebted to Richard Jones, founder of the Discovery Walks of London and author of the fantastic compendium “Haunted London” and “Walking Haunted London” published by Barnes & Noble Books, a main resource for my research. Visit him at www.haunted-london.com. Come visit me at www.leannareneehieber.com to find out more about all things Strangely Beautiful! I hope you’ll pick up the book and love it as much as I loved writing it! If you have the book, enter my CONTEST! (Details on website). Be sure to comment here to be entered to win a signed copy of The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker!

Thanks to those of you who have been ardent Tour followers, it’s been a joy to have you on board! I’ll be doing periodic ghostly tidbits and previews on my blog so stay tuned and keep in touch!

Strangely Beautiful Blessings!

Leanna Renee Hieber

11 September 2009

Sex and (the historical) Sensibility: Sickness, Seaside, Seduction

In my last post, I wrote about needing to know about Regency boating attire. And how the good advice I got from generous colleagues in the romance writing biz helped me develop the boating scene I was writing.

Which scene happily led to The Seduction Scene by the Sea.

Mutual seduction, let me add, a good time being had by all including the author.

Because I'm not the kind of romance writer who's given to protest that she writes the hot stuff purely in the Service of Plot and Character Development and at great personal cost to herself. Erotic writing, as I always stress in the Writing the Hot Historical workshops Janet Mullany and give from time to time, ought to be its own reward. While also, of course, carrying with it the feeling of its historically understood world, quite as fully as any other scene in the novel.

My own shorthand for thinking this way is that while you probably need to get some of characters' clothes off (in this case, the boating costume I worked so hard to put together), you don't want to ignore the constraints and complexities of authentic period underwear.

Or the constraints and complexities of a period's assumptions and beliefs -- many of which I've been happily learning on a website Kalen recommended to me during the discussion of beach attire (and of which I've recently become a Facebook fan). The Jane Austen Society of Australia offers a wonderful set of discussions of Jane Austen "at the seaside": reports of talks recently given to the Society, both about Austen's own travels to English seaside resorts, and about how the various venues figure in her work.

Reading these discussions (as well as one important source, Roger Sales's book Jane Austen and Representations of Regency England), I felt once again the pleasure of researching historical romance: the discovery of everyday meanings in earlier times, of assumptions and associations we wouldn't make now, but which were only common sense then.

As in the title of this post. Sickness, seaside, and seduction are not a set of categories I would have thought to link together (as Sales does in his chapter on Emma). But the more I considered it, the more sense it made.

Of course we know that the state of medical science was pretty primitive. No antibiotics to kill germs -- well, there was no germ theory of disease. We sometimes finesse this in our romance novels by imagining a wise herbalist, often a woman, who can cure this or that via the natural antibodies in this or that leaf or twig.

And doubtless there were such healers. But in the main, this was a society that knew a great deal of invalidism, whose middle and upper classes built a holiday culture of health resorts based upon dubious therapeutic regimens, and whose popular imagination held some highly romanticized views of disease -- particularly of tuberculosis, or (as it was so evocatively called) consumption, with the hectic flush, the wasting, the heightened sensitivity the popular culture attributed to it.

Jane Austen, who had a hypochondriac for a mother, wasn't much for romanticizing disease. What we remember instead are her tyrannical or comically passive-aggressive semi-invalids like Mr. Woodhouse and Mrs. Churchill of Emma. Nor do we find much about consumption -- perhaps because the creator of popular romance fiction had her own wonderfully complex and highly ambivalent views of the romantic sensibility (qua Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility and Captain Benwick languishing over Byron in Persuasion); or because this most poetical of nineteenth century conditions was perhaps more readily seen as a disease of urban bohemians and the demimonde.

But consumption does lurk (at least in memory) along the sunny country lanes of Emma's Highbury. Jane Fairfax's mother (née the younger Miss Bates) died of it (along with grief for her husband killed in battle) when Jane was three. Miss Bates never speaks of it, but I think I hear the worry behind her voice every time Jane shows sign of catching a cold. And though it's ultimately impossible to prove a literary point by its absence, it makes sense to me that the threat is simply too real and too frightening for even Miss Bates to chatter about.

What people do chatter about in Highbury, and of course at length, is what they eat, how they keep warm and dry, whether or not to take the sea air at the coast, and which of the resorts along the coasts to frequent. Jane Austen wasn't much for the culture of inland watering places -- some of her finest satire is reserved for the manners and customs at Bath (we're ready to think the worst of the wife Mr. Elton finds there even before he introduces her to the citizens of Highbury).

But Austen did enjoy sea bathing, via the curious contrivance of bathing-machines, closed carriages in which you changed into bathing attire, were pulled into the sea, opened the doors, and were helped into the water by "dippers" employed for that purpose. One of the most delightful pages at the JASA site discusses this activity in detail. I've linked to some of the illustrations, and urge you to check out the discussion itself.

And how nice, given the state of medical science, that such a pleasant set of pseudo-therapies developed. During the Regency, those who could afford it went to watering places for a wide variety of illnesses; it seems to me they drank mineral water or plunged into the sea for just about everything -- in Emma, Jane Fairfax's guardian Colonel Campbell goes to Weymouth in hope of a cure for deafness; one hopes he had a good time anyway.

For Bath and Brighton, Weymouth and Ramsgate became a great deal more than health resorts -- and it's certainly not surprising that resorts originally devoted to physical culture would also come to be places of sociability, sexual license, and perhaps even a whiff of exotic foreignness.

The Prince Regent built his pavilion at Brighton. And Brighton was where Wickham successfully seduced Lydia Bennet, after failing to have his way with Georgiana Darcy at Ramsgate. Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill became secretly engaged at Weymouth. According to Roger Sales, "watering places were among the favored refuges for French émigrés during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars." Mr. Knightley, that staunchest defender of English values, worries that Frank Churchill may be bringing French manners to Highbury, when he tells Emma that "your amiable young man can be amiable only in French, not in English."

Clearly, as Sales points out, Emma is built around a struggle between the values of Frank's looser, Frenchified, watering-place morals and the "true" Englishness of Mr. Knightley's squire-archical Highbury Village. And yet, as Sales also reminds us, when Mr. Knightley and Emma (who up until now has never even seen the sea) do take their honeymoon journey, it's for two weeks at the seaside.

All of which makes me want to travel to Brighton, to Weymouth, even to Chesil Beach, site of Ian McEwan's achingly sad and beautiful novel (an anti-romance, I think, that comes awfully close to romance in a strange and compelling way).

Have any of you traveled on the English coast? Where shall I go?

And (with a nod to Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor, which got me thinking about consumption): how many literary and artistic consumptives can you list, from Mimi in La Bohème to Keats and Kafka?

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09 September 2009

Josephine's Hair



A lock of Josephine's hair; snipped on the day of her death, May 29, 1814.



On September 7, the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia shut its doors on a magnificent exhibit on Napoleon.


It took me two trips to see the entire exhibition, because it was massive, containing an exhaustive and comprehensive collection of items belonging to Napoleon, his two wives, his numerous siblings, and those, like Talleyrand, with whom he had contentious relationships to say the least.


The exhibition is divided into segments covering the rise to power of a Corsican upstart named Napoleone Buonaparte; his roles in the rapidly changing post-revolutionary governments; his marriages to the soigné Creole widow, Josephine de Beauharnais, and to the naive Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria; his numerous siblings (you'll want to take a nap on Jerome Bonaparte's sumptuous bed with it's apricot brocade curtains and bolster); his military career and accomplishments; his coronation as Emperor of France; and his exiles on Elba and St Helena.



The item that has most remained with me from my first visit to the exhibit is depicted above--a lock of Josephine's hair, snipped from her corpse by her physician on the day she died -- at the age of fifty, on May 29, 1814. Tied with a dark green ribbon, it is a shade of pure brown, exactly the color that comes to mind when you think "brunette." I admit to tearing up when I saw such a deeply personal memento, and almost felt as though I was invading her privacy by viewing it. Perhaps my visceral reaction had to do with the fact that the curl was taken after she had died, a true rape of the lock because she had been unable to consent to its loss.



I fell in love with Josephine when I researched her life and her marriage to Napoleon for NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES (NAL, January 5, 2010). She was no saint, but she was not well treated by either of her husbands.


Josephine's prayer book; on exhibit at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia PA through September 7, 2009
Another highlight (for me) from the exhibit is an enameled snuffbox that belonged to Napoleon's nyphomaniacal sister Pauline. It bears her silhouette in gold, which makes it a particularly egotistical gift to have bestowed on one of her homelier sisters. But that's what she did. Pauline will get her due in my third book of the royal nonfiction series, currently titled ROYAL PAINS: A Rogues' Gallery of Brats, Bastards, and Bad Seeds.



Have you ever been moved to tears by an artifact you saw in a museum exhibition? What was it?

05 September 2009

Secret Signals: Fans, Parasols, and Shawls


My current work in progress is a Regency, and I have another book I’ve just started that’s set during the Victorian era. The heroines are fun to write here…I find everything is a little bit lighter than my medieval romances.

Along the way, I studied up on ballroom etiquette and followed a surfing thread about the secret code of fans, shawls and parasols. All of these fashionable accessories were used to send signals, and communicate messages to suitors—the twirl of parasol just so, the touching of a fan to one’s cheek and the drape of a shawl.

This from a costume website:

“During Victorian times Godey's Ladies book was seen to encourage girls to keep their shawls in motion as the act of letting a shawl slide down your shoulders and then be pulled back up could be used to draw the attention of a likely suitor. Girls were known to practice in front of mirrors to learn these maneuvers.”
Cool. I’ve seen the shawl used in romances like this…but I never knew it was practiced!

On the fan:
“If pictures are worth a thousand words, then fans are worth at least 500. During the Victorian era young ladies were not allowed to speak privately with gentlemen callers at home or at balls and cotillions. To avoid the shrewd eyes of their chaperones, the young people developed an elaborate language using the ladies’ omnipresent fans. These romantic messages expressed a young ladies interest or disinterest in her prospective suitors.”

Here are some specifics:
The fan placed near the heart: You have won my love.
Half-opened fan pressed to the lips: You may kiss me.
Hiding the eyes behind an open fan: I love you.
Opening and closing the fan several times: You are cruel.
Fanning slowly: I am married.
Fanning quickly: I am engaged.
Twirling the fan in the left hand: You are being watched.

This makes for a great writers device. I’ve read maybe one or two passages from romances where the heroine used her fan to communicate to the hero, I didn’t know there was a real silent code of language.

I love the thought of fashion props as secret signals and am wondering if readers or Hoydens know of other ways respectable lovers covertly communicated in the open, so to speak?

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02 September 2009

Betrayal by Any Other Name


Betrayal has such a black-and-white sound, doesn’t it? But like most things, it isn’t anything of the sort. Betrayal of a country, an ideal, a lover, a spouse, a friend. It’s often impossible to be loyal to all. Which loyalty comes first?

Raoul says this to Mélanie in their scene in the library late in Secrets of a Lady/Daughter of the Game. I found myself mulling over these words while driving home from a trip to the grocery store (I do a lot of my best writing thinking in the car). So many of my books deal with betrayal in one form or another. It’s at the heart of four of my mom’s and my Anthea Malcolm Regencies (Frivolous Pretence, A Touch of Scandal, An Improper Proposal, A Sensible Match) and of all four of my linked historical romances, starting with Dark Angel which I wrote with my mom as Anna Grant and continuing with Shadows of the Heart, SLinkhores of Desire, and Rightfully His. It’s the core issue of the Charles & Mélanie series. I can’t imagine writing a book about Charles and Mel that didn’t deal with some facet of betrayal.

In a 2003 ARR interview, Rachel Potter asked me about the fact that many of my books have personal betrayal as a theme. It was something I hadn’t really thought about at the time. Thinking it over, I replied, “Personal betrayal goes to the core of what hurts most, what creates the bleakest dark moment, the deepest hurdle to overcome. That’s the stuff of good drama. Trust, I think, is essential to love, so a betrayal of trust is one of the most difficult challenges a love affair can face. Betrayal raises all sorts of interesting moral and ethical questions. “

I’m particularly intrigued by the moral and ethical dilemmas of characters caught between competing loyalties, as Raoul describes. That’s what I love about Len Deighton’s Bernard Samson books (which, pretty obviously, were one of the inspirations for the Charles & Mélanie books). There’s a wonderful scene in the television adaptation of Game, Set & Match (which I wish would be released on DVD) where a number of the characters (most involved in intelligence work in one way or another) are a dinner party and the talk turns to betrayal. They are discussing it in the personal, romantic sense, but the political overtones are there as well. It’s a fabulous scene, rich in subtext.

Themes of betrayal and competing loyalties go hand and hand with stories about spies. Characters in spy stories are always caught in ethical dilemmas, torn between competing loyalties (every episode of MI-5/Spooks seems to contain an ethical dilemma). Tom Stoppard’s wonderful play about spies, Hapgood, is all about betrayal. But so is another of my favorite plays of his, The Real Thing, which is about marriage, with nary a spy in sight.

The pull between loyalty to a loved one and loyalty to a cause is summed up in Richard Lovelace’s I could not love thee, dear, so much, Lov’d I not honor more, which Mélanie quotes to Charles toward the end of Secrets. It’s a deceptively simple quote, which can seem trite (Mel, in fact, is accusing Charles of dismissing her betrayal too lightly when she brings it up). And yet it says a lot about the tension between love and loyalty or between two competing loyalties. Of course, how one defines “honor,” (a word Charles is inclined to invoke and Mel is inclined to disparage) has a lot to do with which loyalty one puts first. As Raoul is pointing out to Mélanie, there’s often no easy, clean, “honorable” answer.

Do you like stories about betrayal? Why or why not? Any favorites to recommend? Do you find yourself noticing common themes within a writer’s work? Writers, are you aware of themes you return to again and again, or are you sometimes startled when someone points them out to you (as I was when Rachel interview me)?

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