Monday, July 28, 2014

Jumping on the Courney Milan Bandwagon

When I attended Chicago Spring Fling back in April, one of the totebag giveaways was a small notepad courtesy of Courtney Milan (which I can't seem to find at the moment). The name was vaguely familiar. I believe Amazon had recommend that I read her books. Amazon makes a lot of recommendations, though, and I sadly don't have time to read them all.

It wasn't actually the swag that got me to read something of hers. I read some reviews of the Countess Conspiracy, and it sounded like a book that I would enjoy. However, I prefer to read an author's books in order as much as possible, and she had an extensive back catalog. I found one of her books (Unveiled) at my local Half Price Books and decided to give it a try. I enjoyed it enough to order the next in that series.

I saw that Milan was offering a prequel novella (the Governess Affair) for free in digital format to introduce readers to her Brothers Sinister series (which includes the Countess Conspiracy). I usually prefer print books by far, but it was hard to argue with free, so I downloaded it to my smartphone. It took me a while to get into it (due to brief and interrupted reading sessions and technical difficulties with the Kindle app, which kept losing the downloaded novella for some reason). But once I reached the halfway point, I was really into the story and devoured it over the weekend.

Now, my to-be-read pile of books is getting pretty high (and I have Amazon pre-orders on the way), but all I want to do is read everything by Courtney Milan's.  I am forcing myself to ration her books out, however, rather than binge on them.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

My Jane Austen Pilgrimmage

The Assembly Rooms, where
Jane Austen once danced, now
host the Fashion Museum.
An anachronistic afternoon tea at the
Jane Austen Centre, under the
supercilious gaze of Mr. Darcy.
On our last overseas trip, my husband and I visited the UK.  I talked him into spending a few days in Bath, so I might visit some of the places that Jane Austen frequented and better imagine her life and times. Although Jane did not enjoy her later years living in Bath, after her family's circumstances were much reduced, she did enjoy her early visits there.

That innocent joy is communicated in her early novel Northanger Abbey (and her later discomfort with Bath can be felt when one reads Persuasion).
While her father still lived, Jane's family
enjoyed rooms in one of these
middle-class townhouses on Sydney Place.
Now a peaceful park, Sydney Gardens
hosted concerts and fireworks in Jane's
day, much like Vauxhall in London.

After Bath, we visited Winchester, Jane's final resting place. The cathedral is lovely and peaceful. It is not as overwhelmingly grand as those of Canterbury and York. Winchester's declining importance during the High Middle Ages means that it wasn't completely refurbished. Part of the old Norman cathedral (with its Romanesque arches and 12th-century frescoes) is still extant. Its crypt has always been empty of tombs and chapels, since it has always been prone to flooding (the cathedral was deliberately built over a holy well, which sits directly under the altar).
Jane's austere tomb, in the Cathedral floor.

The church has a warm, lived-in feel that I cannot quite describe. While other great historic churches fill the pilgrim with a sense of awe, Winchester Cathedral filled me with a sense of welcome. It also has a magnificent library upstairs (where sections of the famous Winchester Bible can be seen). Although Westminster Abbey is a more prestigious place for authors to be interred, I think Winchester Cathedral is a better choice.
This brass plaque on the wall and a memorial
stained glass window were added later in the
19th century, after Jane's fame had grown.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Distracted by a New Project

I should be working on my second novel. Instead, I can't stop thinking about an idea for an epistolary novella that occurred to me last week. I don't think I'll get much other writing done until I let myself finish this new project that my mischievous muse has thrown my way.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Ubiquitous Anachronism of Afternoon Tea

About 20 years ago, I read Daniel Pool's delightful popular reference What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew. Pool taught me that the "traditional" British practice of afternoon tea first became popular in the 1840s. In Jane Austen's time, tea was a beverage for breakfast (to help begin the day with a dose of caffeine) and after-dinner (when it was served in the drawing room to help revive guests and keep them lively for cards and conversation).

Kim Wilson's lovely coffee-table book Tea with Jane Austen is also honest in saying that the custom of afternoon tea would have seemed very strange to Austen (the book talks about the rituals of tea associated with Austen's time, not the mini-meal known as "tea" in Victorian and modern Britain).

As the 19th century progressed, social habits evolved and dinner was served later and later (at least in Town). Most sources credit Anna, Duchess of Bedford with beginning the practice (around 1840) of taking afternoon tea with a few tidbits to tide her over until dinner. It was an honor to be invited to join the Duchess for this light repast, and it soon became fashionable to imitate the custom in one's own home.

So, the "tradition" of afternoon tea began during the reign of Queen Victoria.  Somehow, that knowledge has not become general.  I have read a great many historical romances set before 1840 that make reference to sitting down to tea in the afternoon, or being invited to join another lady for tea in the afternoon. Even authors who are usually very good about researching the period often include this obvious anachronism.

Afternoon visits in the early 19th century (called "morning calls" even though they did not happen in the morning) were expected to be brief (no more than a quarter hour, so as not to monopolize anyone's time) and did not include refreshments.

Perhaps authors know it is an anachronism but choose to include it anyway because the idea of afternoon tea is so beloved to history nerds and anglophiles.  I have to admit that I greatly enjoyed visiting the "Regency Tea Room" at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath and partaking of afternoon tea accompanied by small sandwiches, scones and desserts (on a lovely three-tiered serving tray). Even better, a nice painted portrait of Mr. Darcy (as portrayed by Colin Firth) looked down from the wall while I had my tea. Anachronisms can be delicious.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

So Many Books; So Little Time

Working full-time while also beginning a writing career leaves far less time for recreational reading. Between revisions on my first novel, working on the first draft of my second novel, and "building my platform" online (which is something I have always enjoyed -- posting and commenting on blogs), my summer reading pile keeps growing, and I do not have any vacation time scheduled until September.

Some of my autobuy authors have new books releases in June or July, and reading other industry blogs has encouraged me to try some new (to me) authors as well. I have also decided to re-read The Windflower this summer, now that it is back in print (my first edition is somewhere in a box in the basement, and I'm afraid to discover its condition).

While I dislike reading on a screen, I do intend to read a few Kindle books this summer as well. I downloaded Courtney Milan's free e-novella The Governess Affair, and once I finish that, I plan to purchase If Ever I Would Leave You, the new Arthurian anthology from Abigail Barnette, Bronwyn Green and Jessica Jarman (I met some of the authors at Chicago Spring Fling, I love Arthurian romances, and it's not available in print, so Kindle it is).

My paperback pile of books to-be-read includes some by new-to-me authors Isabella Bradford, Connie Brockway, Emma Holly, Madeline HunterGina MaxwellMolly O'Keefe, Lindsey Piper and Lisa Valdez, as well as Lauren Dane's urban fantasy Blade to the Keep. I just finished Vixen in Velvet by Loretta Chase and have started Lady Windermere's Lover by Miranda Neville. Other autobuy books in the pile (already delivered or shipped) include The Escape by Mary Balogh, With This Ring by Celeste Bradley and How to School Your Scoundrel by Juliana Gray. I'm looking forward to new releases later this month from Katharine Ashe, Suzanne Enoch and Sabrina Jeffries. I also want to purchase and read books by Beverly Jenkins and Rainbow Rowell in the near future (and I will be buying more by Courtney Milan).

A new round of autobuys are released in August.  I will never catch up.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Making Good Use of Negative Critiques

I entered some RWA chapter contests earlier this year. I wanted some feedback from objective strangers who were knowledgeable about historical romance. I still find it emotionally easier to take criticism from people I do not know personally.

Some judges really liked my excerpt and were rather encouraging overall while pointing out some specific weaknesses that I should address. Some judges really disliked my entry and were not shy about telling me what they disliked or found problematic.

Both types of feedback were ultimately very helpful.  The critiques with higher scores and more positive comments were easier to take in right away (after all, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down).

I had to take a step back and wait a day or so before focusing more closely on the negative critiques.  It helped that I had taken Sarah Wendell's workshop at Chicago Spring Fling on romance reviews. She discussed how to take a bad review in a positive way. While right now I can only hope to one day have bad reviews to face, her advice largely applies to critiques as well. Getting low scores and negative comments from some judges tells me that they are willing to be honest and not just blow sunshine. Hopefully, that means the higher scores and more positive comments were also honest.

Also, negative feedback does not automatically mean that I suck at this. It means that a particular scene or chapter did not have the impact that I intended. I need to ask myself why that might be. Did I assume that the reader would interpret my characters' words and actions the same way I do, without giving them enough to go on?  Is there something I could do to better guide the readers' conclusions?  Are the problems cited intrinsic to my book, or something I could fix with some editing?  Can I rewrite some scenes or rearrange some chapters without destroying the integrity of my story?  Is it simply a matter of the judges' personal taste and preferences?

I'm thinking hard about those questions, and I hope to figure out the answers soon.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Ah, Venice


A few scenes in my second novel (still in the works) are set in Venice. I had the tremendous good fortune to visit La Serenissima several years ago. It's one of those places I always wanted to see, and with rising sea levels slowly subsuming it, I did not want to put it off for "someday".

My hero will spend time in at least some of the places in these photos. How could I not be inspired?

The city is a beautiful hodgepodge of architectural styles, from medieval churches and renaissance palazzos to 18th-century villas. While there are some newer buildings, the city's strict preservation regulations have kept it looking much as it did when the Republic surrendered to Napoleon's army a little over two centuries ago. Cars are not allowed. The main "roads" are canals, but there are also pedestrian footpaths along most of them. The paths are not straight, however, as they meander around buildings. One must also find bridges to cross the many canals, so travelling on foot involves a labyrinth of mysterious alleys and potential dead-ends. Americans visiting Venice must get over their aversion to walking through twisting alleys in a strange city. It's a magical place.
The Natural History museum is housed in the former Turkish
(merchants') foundation. You can see the river frontage where
they once received cargo, now submerged for much of the year.
 
The medieval church of San Giacomo
dell'Orio in Santa Croce, not far from
the Natural History museum.

The Turks' lovely courtyard.
Wandering Venice after dark adds an air of intrigue.