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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

31 August 2012

Regency Land


I was reading a book the other day, set in a Regency land far, far away, and thinking what an odd thing it is, this composite faux Regency that’s been created.  In the historical romance world, the Regency has spread to encompass everything from the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars in the late eighteenth century all the way up to the ascension of Victoria in 1837.  That’s a pretty long stretch of time. 

Even within the actual Regency, which spanned from 1811, when the Prince of Wales finally wrangled the Regency, to 1820, when George III shuffled off both this mortal coil and his throne, you get a wide divergence in attitudes, styles and mores.

Just look within the Hoydenage.  My books, even though they get dubbed Regency, on the extended Regency-land principle, are really late Georgian or Napoleonic, or whatever you want to call them.  They’re set in 1803 and 1804, on the earlier side of the Napoleonic Wars.  My characters are, in many ways, still closer to the Georgians than to their Victorian descendants; Napoleon has yet to make himself Emperor, the struggle with France is still raw and new, and people are still wearing gowns that show off the lines of their legs. 

Tracy (aka Theresa) writes books set smack in the middle of the actual Regency, from Waterloo on.  That’s a very different world from the one my characters inhabit.  The Congress of Vienna has reshaped the fate of nations, Napoleon is off on his island prison, and fashion and mores have become more constricting.  That’s the vaguest thumbnail sketch of much larger divergences.  (And I'm sure Tracy could do a better job summing it up than I can!)

What I’m really talking about is that elusive sense of period or feel.  One of the hardest parts of writing historical fiction is trying to get the “feel” of a period, especially when you’re dealing with sub-increments of sub-increments.  It’s one thing to make generalizations about what mores were like during the Regency, but quite another to be able to pinpoint just how 1803 felt different from 1810.

In our time, we have a very keen sense—albeit, inchoate and somewhat simplified—of what makes the 70s different from the 80s and the 80s from the 90s.  Even just within the Regency proper, to conflate 1811 with 1820 would be akin to someone blithely pretending that 1991 was just like 2000. 

How does one winkle out those elusive distinctions?  There’s no sure path, but clothing helps.  What people wore—not just high fashion, which rarely trickles down, but the outfits of the average person on the street—tells you a lot about the current culture.  Then there are contemporary novels, which, again, provide a biased view, but give you clues all the same.  Letters and diaries are even more revealing, the unmediated product of the moment.  Even so, it’s a daunting task.

Right now, I’m immersing myself in early Victorian fiction, fashion and social history for a new book set in 1849.  One of the challenges I’m finding in the secondary sources is that tendency to conflate, to say, as we do of the Regency, “in the Victorian era….”  Not very helpful when it’s an era that extended sixty-four years!

27 August 2012

Is My Six-Foot-Plus Hero an Anachronism?

I’m gone to Burning Man for the next two weeks, so I’m recycling and oldie but a goodie that never fails to get people talking. Have fun without me!

Coming Dec 18th
Available for Preorder
One of the things I get asked about all the time, or that I see misrepresented all over the place, is the issue of just how tall were people in the past. People see a few gowns obviously made for short women and up and decide that ALL women of the era were that small . . . did it ever occur to them that the gowns that survive might have done so specifically because they were made for EXCEPTIONALLY small women, and so couldn’t be readily made over for someone else?

I was recently at Kent State to view their The Age of Nudity exhibit. On one side of the room was a group of truly Lilliputian ladies in gowns c. 1810-1815. At 5’10” I towered over the dummies. On the other side of the room stood a group of Georgian ladies c. 1780-1800. At least three of the gowns would have fit me. If you’d mixed the dummies together the Regency ladies would have looked like the Georgian ladies’ prepubescent daughters. I highly doubt that in one generation the women of England shrunk so significantly. A more likely answer is simply that the gowns of tall women were more likely to be cut down and made over than those of short women, as there was more fabric involved to accommodate the change in style or owner.

There are all kinds of studies out there about height. Some are archeological, taking the measurements from bones (usually femurs which allow for a good approximation of height). Some work off army records for recruits, others off the records of slaves and indentured servants. Only one that I’ve been able to find takes specific account of the social status of the people being measured (which is vital, as you'll see when we get there).

Let’s get our bearings by looking at the average heights of modern American non-Hispanic Whites. Per the US government Body Mass Index study of 2003 were looking at roughly 5’10” for men and 5’5” for women. Let’s add the data from the Health Survey of England, 2004 into the mix: men 5’9” (6’1” in Scotland), women 5’4” (5’6” in Scotland).

Per Professor Richard Steckel the Georgians were an average 2.5” shorter than their Medieval counterparts. He states that Medieval men were, on average, about 5’8”. This declines to about 5’ 5 ¾” in the 18th century.

But Carolyn Freeman Travers, the Research Manager for Plimoth Plantation, tells us something a little bit different . . . She gives an average height for Medieval England (again based on excavations) of 5’ 6 ¾" for men and 5’ 1 ½” for women. She go on to give the average heights of 17th and 18th century Londoners as 5’6” for men and 5’ ½” for women. A MUCH smaller change than the one reported by Steckel.

Another study of note is the Height and Social Status in 18th Century Germany. It found a 6” average difference between the poor and the middle class and then another 3” on top of that for the upper class. Which makes sense as studies have shown that nutrition and stress play a large roll in height (A modern studies of twins, quoted by Travers, showed that a person’s height is controlled 90% by heredity and 10% by environmental causes. 10% might sound small, but this means that 'a person who would have been 5’ 7" under optimal conditions, in an extremely adverse situation might stop growing at 5’ 1.”').

So, when I make my hero a strapping man, well over six-foot in his stocking feet, am I living in a fairy tale? Not if he’s part of the top ten-thousand, or even one of the wealthy middle class. Let’s take our “average height” of 5' 6"and add the 3” aristocratic bump. Our average male aristo is now 5’9”. Hmmm, that number seems awfully familiar . . . and it should, as it’s the average height of a modern English male!

So, were people really smaller in the past? It doesn’t seem so, or if they were, not by much. Heck, my own family is a case in point: My dad is 6’, mom is 5’4”, my sister is 5’1”, my brother is 6’2” and I’m 5’10”. While the boys and I would be noticeably tall were we to magically appear on a Georgian street, my mom and sister wouldn’t stand out at all. In fact, my sister would be on the dainty side even then!



20 August 2012

Getting your money at the best

While researching A Lily Among Thorns, I came across James Hardy Vaux's Dictionary of the Flash Language (included as an appendix in his Memoirs) (the first autobiography AND the first dictionary written in Australia!). It's a great resource for criminal vocabulary because Vaux is a dedicated author--he includes really detailed usage notes. The footnote on the original dedication of the book (dated 1812, although it looks like the book wasn't published until 1819):

"The Author (a prisoner under sentence of transportation for life) having, by an alleged act of impropriety, incurred the Governor's displeasure, was at this period banished to Newcastle, a place of punishment for offenders: these sheets were there compiled during his solitary hours of cessation from hard labour; and the Commandant was accordingly presented by the Author with the first copy of his production."

This is a two-part post because there are too many great entries I want to share with you, but here's part one:

ARM-PITS: To work under the arm-pits, is to practise only such kinds of depradation, as will amount, upon conviction, to what the law terms single, or petty larceny; the extent of punishment for which is transportation for seven years. By following this system, a thief avoids the halter, which certainly is applied above the arm-pits.

BEST: to get your money at the best, signifies to live by dishonest or fraudulent practices, without labour or industry, according to the general acceptation of the latter word; but, certainly, no persons have more occasion to be industrious, and in a state of perpetual action than cross-coves [criminals, as opposed to square-coves, honest men]; and experience has proved, when too late, to many of them, that honesty is the best policy; and consequently, that the above phrase is by no means à-propos.

BOUNCE: to bully, threaten, talk loud, or affect great consequence; to bounce  a person out of any thing, is to use threatening or high words, in order to intimidate him, and attain the object you are intent upon; or to obtain goods of a tradesman, by assuming the appearance of great respectability and importance, so as to remove any suspicious he might at first entertain. A thief, detected in the commission of a robbery, has been known by this sort of finesse, aided by a genteel appearance and polite manners, to persuade his accusers of his innocence, and not only to get off with a good grace, but induce them to apologize for their supposed mistake, and the affront put upon him. This masterstroke of effrontery is called giving it to 'em upon the bounce.

CAT and KITTEN RIG: the petty game of stealing pewter quart and pint pots from public-houses.

CHRISTEN: obliterating the name and number on the movement of a stolen watch; or the crest, cipher, &c., on articles of plate, and getting others engraved, so as to prevent their being identified, is termed having them bishop'd or christen'd.

COME TO THE HEATH: a phrase signifying to pay or give money, and synonymous with Tipping, from which word it takes its rise, there being a place called Tiptree Heath, I believe, in the County of Essex.

CRAB: to prevent the perfection or execution of any intended matter or business, by saying any thing offensive or unpleasant, is called crabbing it, or throwing a crab; to crab a person, is to use such offensive language or behaviour as will highly displease, or put him in an ill humour.

DINGABLE: any thing considered worthless, or which you can well spare, having no further occasion for it, is declared to be dingable. This phrase is often applied by sharps to a flat whom they have cleaned out; and by abandoned women to a keeper, who having spent his all upon them, must be discarded, or ding'd as soon as possible.

DRUMMOND: any scheme or project considered to be infallible, or any event which is deemed inevitably certain, is declared to be a a Drummond; meaning, it is as sure as the credit of that respectable banking-house, Drummond and Co.

FLESH-BAG: a shirt.

(Let's just look at that one again:

FLESH-BAG: a shirt.

Beautiful.)

FLAT: [I'm really happy about this one because I was so upset that "mark," meaning the target of a con man, is out of period, but then I realized "flat" can be used almost exactly the same way!] In a general sense, any honest man, or square cove, in opposition to a sharp or cross-cove; when used particularly, it means the person whom you have a design to rob or defraud, who is termed the flat, or the flatty-gory. A man who does any foolish or imprudent act, is called a flat; any person who is found an easy dupe to the designs of the family, is said to be a prime flat. It's a good flat that's never down, is a proverb among flash people; meaning, that though a man may be repeatedly duped or taken in, he must in the end have his eyes opened to his folly.

GO-ALONGER: a simple easy person, who suffers himself to be made a tool of, and is readily persuaded to any act or undertaking by his associates, who inwardly laugh at his folly, and ridicule him behind his back.

GO OUT: to follow the profession of thieving; two or more persons who usually rob in company, are said to go out together.

KIDDY: a thief of the lower order, who, when he is breeched [in funds], by a course of successful depradation, dresses in the extreme of vulgar gentility, and affects a knowingness in his air and conversation, which renders him in reality an object of ridicule; such a one is pronounced by his associates of the same class, a flash-kiddy or a rolling-kiddy. My kiddy is a familiar term used by these gentry in addressing each other.

KID-RIG: meeting a child in the streets who is going on some errand, and by a false, but well fabricated story, obtaining any parcel or goods it may be carrying; this game is practised by two persons, who have each their respective parts to play, and even porters and other grown persons are sometimes defrauded of their load by this artifice. To kid a person out of any thing, is to obtain from him by means of a false pretence, as that you were sent by a third person, &c.; such impositions are all generally termed the kid-rig.

KNAPPING A JACOB FROM A DANNA-DRAG. This is a curious species of robbery, or rather borrowing without leave, for the purpose of robbery; it signifies taking away the short ladder from a nightman's cart, while the men are gone into a house, the privy of which they employed emptying, in order to effect an ascent to a one-pair-of-stairs window, to scale a garden-wall, &c., after which the ladder, of course, is left to rejoin its master as it can.

Do you have a favorite bit of old slang? A favorite language reference book?

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13 August 2012

Different Views of the Prince of Orange


It's difficult to write about the battle of Waterloo without touching on the noted historical figures involved. Napoleon and Wellington. Lord Uxbridge, Marshal Ney, and other noted military commanders. And one other, who if he could not be called a noted commander, did hold a command in the battle - William, Prince of Orange, later William II of the Netherlands.

The Prince of Orange was born in the Hague on 11 December, 1792, eldest son of William I of the Netherlands and Wilhelmine of Prussia. When he was two, allied British-Hanoverian troops left the Netherlands and French troops swept in to join the anti-Orangist forces. The royal family fled to England. William went on to study at Oxford and in 1811, at 18, became an aide-de-camp to Wellington in the Peninsular War. He became one of the close knit "family" of Wellington's aides, kick-named "Slender Billy."

In 1813, Billy returned to the Netherlands when his father regained the throne. In 1814 he was briefly betrothed to the Prince Regent's daughter Princess Charlotte, but Charlotte wasn't keen on either Billy or on living in the Netherlands and ended the engagement.

In 1815 when Napoleon escaped from Elba and returned to power in France, the prince was given temporary command of the Allied forces in the Netherlands until Wellington arrived from Vienna. Billy, who regarded Wellington with something akin to hero worship, was quite willing to relinquish command, but Wellington's relations with the prince's father were less amicable. Partly to mollify King William, Billy was given command of the I coprs, though he was not yet three-and-twenty. Young and untried as a commander, Billy ordered troops to form line rather than square three times over the course of Quatre Bras and Waterloo, exposing them to cavalry fire and crippling losses. At Waterloo, when the prince insisted that Baron Ompteda follow the order to form line, Ompteda looked at Billy as though he'd received a death sentence and said simply that in that case he would try to save the lives of his nephews, aged 14 and 15. Both the nephews survived, but Ompteda and dozens of others did not.

Billy was wounded late in the battle and carried from the field by his friend and aide Lord March (son of the Duchess of Richmond, who gave the famous ball at which Wellington received confirmation that the French attack was coming through Quatre Bras).

In An Infamous Army, Georgette Heyer portrays Billy as young and enthusiastic, untried but sympathetic. Bernard Cornwell in Waterloo paints a much more biting picture of an arrogant young royal whose bumbling arrogance costs numerous lives. Cornwell has Richard Sharpe himself shoot the prince he exposes his men needlessly to cavalry fire. My own portrait of Billy in Imperial Scandal is somewhere between the two. Because my hero, Malcolm, has known Billy from childhood, I think he's more inclined to be sympathetic to him than is Richard Sharpe who doesn't share a history with the prince. At the same time Malcolm (and I) can't but be sickened by the lives lost by the prince's wanton stupidity. In my story, Billy is shot by one of the villains who is actually trying to kill Malcolm.

Heyer, Cornwell, and I all use the same facts to paint different portraits of the Prince of Orange. What other historical figures have you read different portrayals of at the hands of different historical novelists? Writers, what challenges have you faced writing about historical characters who've been portrayed in other novels?

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06 August 2012

Welcome, Mary Wine!

A Lady Can Never Be Too Curious
by Mary Wine
Available Now!



Beneath the Surface of Victorian Life Lies a Very Different World...

Hated and feared by the upper classes, the Illuminists guard their secrets with their lives. Janette Aston's insatiable quest for answers brings her to their locked golden doors, where she encounters the most formidable man she's ever met.

Darius Lawley's job is to eliminate would–be infiltrators, but even he may be no match for Janette's cunning and charm...

A Lady Can Never Be too Curious is set in the Victorian era, 1843. Is there a particular reason you chose that year?

I just wanted to begin this saga during the early years of this period. It was a time of turmoil and change.

How did you become interested in this time period? What you love about it?

I’ve always loved this time and the years which follow. Making historical garments is one of my passions. The bustle is my preferred era but last year I needed to make an early Victorian dress. This was before the cage crinoline. Constructing the taffeta petticoat for that dress was quite an undertaking. Here I am in it for the Victorian fashion show hosted by Deeanne Gist. That skirt is held out by only a petticoat.

What do you like least about this period? Anything that constrained you or that you had to plot carefully around?

Lack of women’s rights. It was a bit of a challenge to make my heroine seek out her adventure when the reality of the period was that women simply did not have the same rights as men.

Anything you flat-out altered or “fudged”? If so, why?

This is a Steam Punk story so there are lots of creations from my imagination. The place I think I fudged the most on was Janette’s open minded views on relationships. Upper Society daughters were raised to be very demure. Not that there weren’t wild ones in the bunch.

Any gaffs or mea culpas you want to fess up to before readers get their hands on the book? I know I always seem to find one after the book has gone to press. *sigh*

Well, we are writing fantasy…aren’t we? The first encounter with the hero is a major …ah…stretch…because Janette is very bold and that would never have happened with a young lady of the time.

Tell us a little about your hero. Something fun, like his favorite childhood pet, or his first kiss.

Darius is very dark. He didn’t want to give up his secrets but he was once rejected by another lady of high society. Being an Illuminist, he was ‘beneath’ her. He dose spend a fair amount of effort on trying to get Jannete to walk away because he’s just not interested in having anything to do with another ‘lady’.

What sparked this book? Was it a character? An historical event? A scene you just couldn’t get out of your head?

All of my books tend to take over my mind, I think my muse claims Attila the Hun as her patron saint. In this case, I was thinking about Steam Punk in general and the few books/movies I’d encountered in the gene. My brain began thinking…what’s the power source? Where is that steam coming from? That was it, my muse was off on a trail that led to Deep Earth Crystals and Illuminist secret societies.

Did you have to do any major research for this book? Did you stumble across anything really interesting that you didn’t already know?

A fair amount. I feel it’s important to get the setting correct.

What/Who do you like to read?

Isobel Carr [Aww, I swear that was with no prompting!], Shannon Butcher, Lucy Monroe and a host of non-fiction historical books.

Care to share a bit about your writing process? Are you a pantser or a plotter? Do you write multiple drafts or clean up as you go?

I am completely insane. That doesn’t really clear anything up, does it? I often sew something between books and during that time, I tend to get a grasp on the outline of the next book.

What are you planning to work on next?

My next work is a Highlander book. It’s the third book in a set, which began with ‘The Highlanders Prize’, will see the second book releasing in Oct 2012 ‘The Trouble With Highlanders’ and this one will finish up the set.

The follow up to ‘A lady Can Never be too Curious’ is on the editors desk and has been titled ‘A Captain Can Never be too Bold’. Look for it in May 2013. So the world can’t end because you see, I have a book releasing after December.

Thanks so much!

Mary Wine
Twitter: @MaryWine_author

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