Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Colin Firth Through the Ages

To celebrate the new year, I decided to do a retrospective of my favorite historical film roles played by Colin Firth. Few actors can wear such flamboyant costumes with such casual panache. I think that is the secret to his appeal -- even when he is wearing doublet and hose, he carries himself like he is at the Academy Awards in a tuxedo, or taking a walk in the park in T-shirt and jeans. He is always comfortable in his own skin, no matter what is covering it.

15th Century - The Advocate
One of my favorite Firth films is this obscure 1993 movie, also called The Hour of the Pig. I love the dark humor and the attention to detail. Anyone who has dealt with building contractors or received a credit in settlement of the e-book price-fixing lawsuit will be amused at how little business practices have changed in 550 years.

16th Century - Shakespeare in Love
Firth portrayed the villainous Lord Wessex, romantic rival to young Will Shakespeare. This movie was said to have inspired HRH Prince Edward, who once had a backstage theater career, to request the title of Earl of Wessex upon his marriage. Good choice. In a bit of stunt casting, Colin Firth also briefly portrayed William Shakespeare in the Black Adder Back & Forth television special.

17th Century - Girl with the Pearl Earring
Firth portrayed the great artist Johannes Vermeer. I love the practical, slightly disheveled period clothing in this picture. He has his usual brooding facial expression in this picture. He is capable of a great range of emotions, but audiences love to see him brood.

18th Century - Valmont
A very young Colin Firth plays a wicked rake. 'Nuff said. I love the costumes, particularly when they start to come off. Notice that he is smiling (or at least smirking) in this picture. This could almost be the cover of a historical romance novel.

Early 19th Century - Pride and Prejudice
Firth's most famous role, leading to artistic likenesses on display at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath and (temporarily) Hyde Park in London. I adore men's fashions from that era. The brood is back. Playing billiards gives him an excuse to remove his coat. I approve.

Late 19th Century - The Importance of Being Earnest
Men's fashions changed a bit, but Colin Firth still looks just as good several years older and several decades later. What a lovely day for a stroll with an amiable escort.

20th Century - The King's Speech
I do love a man in uniform. Look at all those medals! Do you suppose he is compensating for something? Surely not.

21st Century - Kingsman: The Secret Service
This film will be out in February (just in time for Valentine's Day). There is nothing like a well-tailored suit to get my heart beating faster. Few men age as gracefully as Mr. Firth.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Christmas in Georgian England Included Christmas Trees and Turgoosen Pies

I am equally amused and frustrated by the annual kerfuffle over American holiday traditions. Amused because I can see humor in the absurd, and frustrated because I hear so many people defending the sanctity of particular Christmas traditions with no idea of their actual provenance.

So I am always fascinated to learn more about Christmas traditions in previous centuries. I had read many years ago that the Christmas tree was introduced into England by the German-born Prince Albert. While I had known that, by Albert's time, England had already been importing its royalty from various German states for a century, I assumed that the popularity of the young royal couple allowed the Prince Consort to introduce innovations in a way that his predecessors had not.

As it turns out, Prince Albert did not introduce the Christmas tree to England. Mass media coverage of the royal Christmas decorations in Victorian times (thanks to the proliferation of literacy and inexpensive magazines) made the Christmas tree popular among the common people for the first time, but the upper classes had been putting up and lighting Christmas trees in their houses since the first decade of the 19th century. The first documented English Christmas tree was set up by Queen Charlotte in Windsor in 1800. So if you read a Regency romance with a Christmas theme, and there is a Christmas tree, it is not an anachronism (assuming it is at an aristocratic gathering).

I was highly amused by this reference to a traditional Yorkshire Christmas pie from 1788. While it is not quite a turducken (because it features a goose rather than a duck nested between the turkey and chicken), it is superior to that modern symbol of excess, because inside the chicken is a pigeon inside a partridge. The pie also includes rabbit and miscellaneous game birds, but they are left outside the matryoshka fowl.

Here is another bit of 18th-century trivia related to German Christmas celebrations. Most Americans of a certain age remember (thanks to Schoolhouse Rock) that the continental army "surprised the Hessians in their lair" after crossing the Delaware "one night" but few realize that night was Christmas. The date chosen was likely deliberate, as one of General Washington's officers wrote "They make a great deal of Christmas in Germany, and no doubt the Hessians will drink a great deal of beer and have a dance to-night. They will be sleepy to-morrow morning."

The assumption about beer-drinking was likely incorrect, as another witness wrote afterward:  "I am certain not a drop of liquor was drunk during the whole night, nor, as I could see, even a piece of bread eaten." The element of surprise was sufficient to carry the day.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The 18th Century Fashion Revolution

The high-waisted, neoclassical women's gowns that we now associate with the Regency actually came into fashion during the last decade of the 18th century, following the French Revolution.

The radicals who toppled the ancien regime in 1789 deliberately rejected the aristocratic fashions of the day. Citoyens wore long cotton pantaloons rather than velvet knee breeches and silk stockings. Citoyennes turned away from stiff corsets and elaborate silk skirts supported by panniers and toward simple cotton gowns with neoclassical lines.

The new gowns were meant to evoke the days of the Roman republic. Ironically, the fashion developed at least in part out of a style that was favored by Marie Antoinette (and called the chemise a la reine in her honor).

Nicholas Heideloff's Gallery of Fashion, 1795
(Museum of London)
French fashions, then as now, were soon adopted in other parts of Europe. The round gown, a garment made from a column of fabric gathered at the neckline and just below the bust, was the height of fashion in 1795. By the end of the decade, it was old-fashioned, replaced by the chemise dress (a more tailored version of the neoclassical gown). You can see several examples of round gowns on my Pinterest board for 1790s fashion.

The evolving political situation in Paris during the 1790s continued to impact fashion. An anti-Jacobin petit-bourgeois militia known as the Muscadins (for the musk cologne they supposedly favored) came to prominence in 1794-5. They wore bright, contrasting colors and coats with large lapels. Their fashion choices were taken up and exaggerated during the Directoire period (1795-1799) by the aristocratic subculture known as the Incroyables (for men) and Merveilleuses (for women).

Diaphanous gowns with scanty or no undergarments were worn in public (and were lampooned by British cartoonists at the time). Men's frock coats and waistcoats were shortened, and lapels became more popular. With the rise of Napoleon at the end of the decade, women's fashions became less risqué. New styles of corset, without boning, were introduced in the early years of the 19th century, after several years of less supportive fashion.

This is not to say that the older fashions disappeared completely. The two very different modes coexisted, with the younger generation preferring the radical new fashions and their conservative parents often clinging to the old. Knee breeches continued to be worn for formal occasions. The specialized costumes for court presentations preserved the longer waistcoats for gentlemen and skirts with hoops for ladies through the Regency (although these garments were only worn for court events).

So, while we are tempted to think of knee breeches and hooped skirts as Georgian and trousers and column dresses as Regency, the reality is that the two eras and two styles overlapped.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

'Tis the Season

...for Christmas anthologies. The holidays are a busy time of year, and I have less time to read. For that reason, I really enjoy romance anthologies in December. The short story format allows me to get through the whole emotional arc and reach the happily-ever-after before I forget the backstory and plot set-up.

I am not the only romance reader who feels that way. Publishers always release Christmas-themed romance anthologies, because they sell like Christmas cookies. Regency Historicals are my go-to comfort reads, so those are the type of anthologies I gobble up.

I am currently reading (and enjoying) Christmas in the Duke's Arms, a brand-new anthology with stories by best-selling authors Grace Burrowes, Shana Galen, Carolyn Jewel and Miranda Neville. All three stories take place in the same Nottinghamshire village, home to an inn called The Duke's Arms. They are tied together by having a common setting and some overlapping scenes and secondary characters. In that way, they are reminiscent of the non-Christmas, wedding-themed anthologies that Miranda Neville has done with Katharine Ashe, Caroline Linden and Maya Rodale.

I am beginning to do more reading on my smartphone (although I still prefer paper most of the time). I was delighted to discover today that A Grosvenor Square Christmas is currently free in digital formats. On our first trip to London, my husband and I visited Grosvenor Square, mainly to see the FDR memorial and the mid-20th-century U.S. Embassy building. Other sides of the square are still occupied by the Georgian townhouses that have provided a steady income for the Grosvenor family (the Dukes of Westminster) for more than two centuries. While we were sitting on a park bench enjoying the pleasant surroundings, a gentleman dressed like an Elizabethan town crier came through the square, inviting all and sundry to a free Shakespeare play later that week, courtesy of His Grace, the Duke of Westminster. Alas, our itinerary would not allow us to accept the Duke's kind invitation.

Several years ago, I read Snowy Night with a Stranger, with stories by Jane Feather, Sabrina Jeffries and Julia London. The title says it all -- each story involves strangers who meet due to winter travel disruptions. The stories are not interconnected, but they are delightful. The anthology's theme means that each story contains the meet-cute as well as the falling-in-love part of the romance. There is something especially exciting about a new attraction (and in the pages of a romance novel, we needn't worry that the guy will turn out to be a bad credit risk). While travel is no longer as difficult or hazardous as it was two hundred years ago, most of us can relate to the notion of being stranded over the holidays due to bad weather.

Mary Balogh has written a number of Christmas-themed novels and novellas over the course of her long career. I have enjoyed many of her novels, but of the Christmas-themed stories, I prefer the novellas. They often appear in anthologies with other authors, but I recommend the all-Balogh collection Under the Mistletoe. No one writes about lonely introverts who have difficulty communicating their true feelings like Balogh. This collection includes two stories about married couples who finally learn to communicate and trust.

Happy reading, and Happy Holidays.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Sullivan's Travels: a Film that Every American Should See

I've been thinking a lot lately about Preston Sturges' classic 1942 film Sullivan's Travels. It has often been called the best movie about movies ever made. It takes sharp aim at privileged Hollywood liberals who try to raise awareness of social issues that they do not understand at all. Director Sturges also wrote the screenplay about a successful Hollywood director of light comedies who wishes to make an important movie about the plight of the downtrodden. Sullivan's project was to be called O Brother, Where Art Thou? (a title used decades later by the Cohen brothers for their homage to Sturges' film). Sullivan's studio tries to discourage him at first and then makes a publicity stunt of his attempt to do research by impersonating a hobo (brilliantly anticipating any number of modern "reality television" shows).

 While the movie was marketed as a romantic comedy, the comedy is definitely of the dark variety, and the romance does not take center stage. It does, however, play an important part in the story. Sullivan only begins to understand the real problems of poor people who cannot go back to their comfortable mansions when he meets Veronica Lake's character in this diner scene:

Their acquaintance grows, but they are separated when a series of misadventures leads to Sullivan losing his true identity, running afoul of the law, and being sent to prison.

The depiction of life on a prison chain gang is realistically bleak, so much so that the movie was banned from overseas distribution during wartime (for fear that it could be used as anti-American propaganda). Highly unusual for its time, it portrays incarcerated men in a sympathetic light and shows the very different versions of justice that exist for the rich and the poor.

In the end, Sullivan concludes that escapist entertainment is more valuable to the poor than serious films about their plight. Critics of the film point to that rather self-serving conclusion as the hypocritical moral of the story (when it was released, the NYT complained that "Sullivan should have been more affected by his experience than he seems to be"). I think they have rather missed the point. I believe the real moral of this film is that most of us spend our lives blithely unaware of our own privilege.

I think Sullivan's Travels should be annual viewing around the Thanksgiving holiday -- both to help us better appreciate what we have, and to help us feel genuine compassion for the downtrodden. I also think it should be required viewing for those in the publishing industry who make elitist distinctions between "literary fiction" and genre fiction. Just because a novel is structured to entertain and deliver a happily-ever-after does not mean it cannot make us think about larger issues. The value of entertainment and the HEA should also be weighed in the balance when considering the merits of a work.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Rags to Riches

A thought-provoking post on the Wonkomance blog got me thinking about how my own working-class upbringing has impacted my taste in romance novels.

I am one of those readers who prefers novels that provide an escape from real life rather than a story that mirrors the challenges that I have personally faced. To that end, I usually read historical romances, particularly those that take place in Regency or Victorian England.

I have noticed that most of the heroines are members of the gentry. They may be poor, but it is genteel poverty. The hero may have grown up poor, but by the time the story begins, he has usually amassed significant wealth through his own hard work and ingenuity. If he is a nobleman (or at least a gentleman), he may be facing debts that his forbears amassed and need to marry money for the sake of the family estate. He is almost never a poor man of the lower classes. One exception is Tessa Dare's Spindle Cove novella Beauty and the Blacksmith. I did not enjoy it nearly as much as her other books, perhaps because the HEA seemed less happy to me.

Less rare is the historical romance novel that features a poor, lower-class heroine who manages to win the love of a wealthy gentleman. It is hard to resist a good Cinderella story. I am currently reading The Bridal Season by Connie Brockway, which features an illegitimate music hall performer/con artist impersonating a noblewoman. Naturally, the hero is the local magistrate. I have no doubt that the two will eventually fall in love and live happily ever after. In keeping with the spirit of the Cinderella story, the heroine does have noble blood (she is the natural daughter of a viscount).

Here are some other memorable rags-to-riches historical romances that I have read over the years:
  • River Lady by Jude Deveraux - This book is unusual in that the heroine, Leah, grows up in grinding, not genteel, poverty; during their first encounter, the hero has concerns about her personal hygiene. After they are forced to marry, his female relatives do the requisite make-over to turn Leah into an acceptable wife. While the book's values seem shallow at times, it also makes a strong case that Leah's admirable qualities are largely because of rather than in spite of her unfortunate upbringing. She is intelligent despite being illiterate, and she has keen memory skills because she cannot rely upon written notes. The setting on the American frontier makes such extreme social mobility seem more plausible.
  • The Shadow and the Star by Laura Kinsale - One of the most outrageous plots that I have ever enjoyed -- poor English shopgirl meets white Hawaiian ninja. Just go with it; you won't regret it. Check out the old Fabio covers and the author's amusing comments on the website (note that she names "shark" as the book's mascot animal, for obvious reasons).
  • An Offer from a Gentleman by Julia Quinn - The third book in the Bridgerton series was deliberately patterned after Cinderella. Sophie is the natural daughter and "ward" of a deceased nobleman, but her stepmother treats her like a servant (just like in the fairy tale).
  • Any Duchess Will Do by Tessa Dare - This is probably the least plausible plot in the Spindle Cove series, in which a lower-class farmgirl-turned-tavern-wench finds herself betrothed to a duke. The book is well-written and enjoyable, however, even if it required a greater-than-usual suspension of disbelief.
Happy reading. Try to turn in before midnight.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

What to Wear in the Late 1780s

One of my current works in progress takes place mostly in London during the 1788 Season. I was aware that fashions evolved in the 18th century, with noticeable differences between decades and more radical changes after the French Revolution.

To help me visualize my characters and their social scene, I spent some time researching the fashions of the 1780s. When I first started writing, this would have involved a trip to the library and possibly a lengthy wait for an inter-library loan. Now, thanks to some excellent museum websites, I did not even have to leave the house.

Thanks to Pinterest (which I am only beginning to use), I have a handy place to gather my research for future reference.

While I enjoy oohing and aahing over the beautiful women's garments, I find the men's garments far more distracting. There is nothing like a well-tailored silk waistcoat with a dozen tiny buttons to make me think about undoing them.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Second Chances

Second chance romances are perennial favorites in both the contemporary and historical romance genres. It is human nature to want to go back and correct our past mistakes. In a way, second chance romances are both time-travel and alternate-history stories. We revisit the past with our knowledge of the future intact, and we enact our "what-if" fantasies. What if we were both ready to settle down at the same time? What if we were able to truly understand our loved one's needs and priorities? What if we had not allowed that bitter argument to fester?

Nearly a decade ago, I helped two friends move from their shared apartment near campus to a split-level house that they bought together. She was a young professional; he was still in grad school. They were both good friends to me and my husband. We had gone on trips together and shared many interests.

A little over a year later, I helped him move out of that house, alone, and depart for another state. Their relationship had not survived the pressures of different responsibilities and priorities. We were sad for both of them, but we understood. Our own marriage had weathered some serious storms over the past decade, and we knew very well how difficult it can be to stay together when it seems like your wants and needs are diametrically opposed at times.

We remained friends with both of them over the subsequent years, although it was never the same. We saw them both strive for happiness with other people. She and I bonded over tears and alcohol after the break-up of her rebound relationship. I tried to lend a supportive ear to each of them, as she dealt with some health issues and he dealt with the death of one parent and the increasing frailty of the other, while completing his degree and struggling to build a career in the current economy.

It was a relief and some consolation when the drama of their break-up receded and they rebuilt a friendship. We no longer needed to avoid mentioning one around the other, and we were occasionally able to socialize with both of them at once. She was able to share her own experiences and knowledge about long-term care to help advise him with his own family situation. They even started sharing rides to visit mutual friends out of state.

A few years ago, he confided to my husband that his current relationship was dying, a casualty of his changing life circumstances. My husband mentioned that his ex had not found anyone she could stay with long-term, and that he should consider getting back together with her. The advice, I must admit, was given for partly selfish reasons. I am reminded of an old episode of Roseanne, where the eponymous character laments her daughter's break-up with boyfriend David, because she already loves them both. "No new people!" she insists.

Last year, there were hints that their occasional ride-shares to visit friends were not merely to save on fuel and share the driving burden. By the time they finally, somewhat sheepishly, admitted to their friends that they were dating again, we had long since figured it out. They seemed to worry that we would disapprove or advise them against revisiting old mistakes.

On the contrary; we not only understood the appeal of a second chance romance, we firmly believed in their ability to make it work this time. We watched them both grow and change over the years, and we realized that they are now in the same place.

Several months ago, we helped him move into the new house that they bought together, and one of this Autumn's highlights for us was attending their wedding.

I am a sucker for a good second chance romance.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

How to Have Historical Hair

Over the years, I have dabbled in various types of historical re-enactment and attended retro conventions and theme parties that gave me the opportunity to experiment with the fashions of many different eras. I often tried to do something appropriate with my hair but lacked knowledge of the necessary techniques.

Thanks to "hairdressing archaeologist" Janet Stephens, I now know how to do those tight spiral curls (and loosely frizzed hairstyles) that were so popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Check out her brilliant instructional video:

Stephens' area of specialty is ancient Roman hairstyles. I found those videos on her YouTube channel to be equally fascinating, and many of the braid-and-loop techniques are easily adaptable to Victorian hairstyles as well. Watch them and you will be the envy of your friends at the next Halloween party (or the other mothers at the next Latin Club gala).

You can find additional useful information about early-19th-century hairdressing here.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Why I Will No Longer Read The Guardian

As an American, I believe very strongly in the importance of free speech. That means occasionally tolerating hurtful (but not threatening, slanderous or libelous) speech. An author who releases his or her work to the public must be willing to tolerate negative reviews. Author Cecilia Grant explained it very well in this blog post over the summer.

Last week, The Guardian published an article by author Kathleen Hale in which she admits to stalking a book blogger who gave her a negative review. You can read more about it at the Smart Bitches Trashy Books blog, Jenny Trout's blog, and Dear Author.

They all said it far more eloquently than I could. I have no influence nor power to change this ugly situation. However, as a former semi-regular reader of The Guardian (mostly via their app on my smartphone), I can vote with my feet. I thought it was only fair to let them know (not that they likely care), so I sent the following email to their Books team (with the same subject line as this post):

I am completely appalled by your endorsement of Kathleen Hale's disturbing stalking behavior toward a book blogger. How can any organization engaged in journalism promote something that will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on free speech? I am reminded of the Texas beef lobby going after Oprah Winfrey for daring to state that she would no longer eat hamburger in the wake of the mad cow disease scare. Now authors are using their publishing industry connections to similarly intimidate individuals who give them bad reviews. By giving Hale's actions your tacit approval, you have completely undermined your credibility in regard to book recommendations and also in regard to The Guardian's coverage of news stories involving stalking or bullying (since you seem to have a poor understanding of the meaning of both of those words).
I no longer consider The Guardian to be a reliable news source.  I have uninstalled your app from my smartphone, and I will no longer visit your website.
Elinor Aspen
I do not expect to receive a response. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Find Your Beach Read

The term "beach read" has long been used to describe a completely frivolous book with no literary value. The connotation is that it is best enjoyed on the beach while on vacation, when your brain can be turned off.

The term has often been used to describe romance novels and other genres, such as suspense and mystery, that are considered purely for entertainment.

I think we have been misunderstanding the function of beach reads. It is not that they are good for beach reading because they will not force us to think. Rather, they enhance our vacation by allowing us to escape our everyday lives and vicariously experience adventure and romance.

It was those Corona "find your beach" commercials that finally helped me make the connection. Just as Corona is supposed to help you escape the stresses of ordinary life and imagine you are on a sunny beach rather than a downtown watering hole after work, a beach read will transport you to another world and allow you to imagine a more exciting and romantic life for a little while.

I think that is why I enjoy historical romances so much more than contemporary romances. Contemporary romances deal with real-world stresses and emotions and do not allow the same level of escapism for me.

My beach is generally 19th-century England.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Sharing Is Caring

When we discuss our feelings or experiences with another person, we are communicating more than just the information contained in those words. We are also saying: "I found this interesting and want to share it with you" or "this is important to me, and I hope you will understand why I feel this way."

Romance novels are often based on the premise of a Big Misunderstanding or a Dark Secret. As readers, we sometimes become frustrated by characters who could clear everything up if they just had an honest conversation. There are Reasons why they don't however, and it isn't only because there would be no story if they did.

We all wear social masks to some extent or other as we go through life. You may pretend that you really enjoy your Aunt Betty's pumpkin bars (even if they taste like she used last year's Halloween pumpkins). You probably avoid letting your BFF know that you really find her boyfriend annoying. In a new relationship, it is normal to show your best qualities and hide the more irritating ones.

No one is perfect, and we often carry around some heavy emotional baggage. Letting a loved one see one's vulnerabilities requires a great deal of trust. That's why, in a romance novel, the conversation wherein the hero or heroine reveals the Dark Secret often seems more intimate than their first sex scene (which may come either earlier or later, depending on the particular book). The stakes are high -- will the revelation result in rejection by the significant other? Will he or she respond with true acceptance, or merely tolerance and/or forgiveness? Will they even understand each other's reactions?

How many of us take the time to really listen to our own significant other?  Do we listen shallowly to the words and respond with conversational small talk ("That's nice, Honey" or "I'm sorry you had such a rough day")?  Or do we listen deeply to the words and also to the coded message they carry?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

How Courtney Milan Is Like Star Trek

I recently read Unclaimed by Courtney Milan. It is the second book in her Turner series (I had already read the first one, Unveiled).

I know that Ms. Milan does a fair amount of research for her books, but I have also noticed that she feels free to depart from that research. She also seems less familiar with the language of the era than authors who have read a lot of Victorian literature. There were a few casual malapropisms.

She is such a skilled storyteller, though, that I am able to overlook those lapses rather than being pulled from the story. I finally realized why I can stay immersed despite the anachronisms. Unclaimed is not really a story about Victorian England. It is a story about our own contemporary society told through the lens of a different era. It has a very strong message about slut-shaming and victim-blaming, and a more subtle message about the thinly-veiled misogyny in evangelical purity movements.

Why, then, does Courtney Milan not write contemporary romances instead? It is likely that many romance readers would be put off by strong social commentary about real life. That is not what most readers expect to encounter in a romance novel. However, by setting the story in Victorian England, Milan allows the reader to maintain a comfortable distance (and temper our outrage over some of the secondary characters' actions and attitudes, since those were different times) while still empathizing with the main characters and appreciating the book's philosophical lessons.

In much the same way, the writers of the original Star Trek series presented scripts about timely social issues like race relations and the rise of the military-industrial complex without incurring the wrath of the network, because it was science fiction set in the future rather than contemporary drama.

Well done, Courtney Milan.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life

"...for there is in London all that life can afford."  So said Samuel Johnson in 1777. The quote applies equally to women. The first time I visited London, I was reminded in some ways of New York City, particularly the theater district. However, I came to realize that NYC is like London's younger brother, trying on his elder brother's cool jacket and trying to look sophisticated. One must admire his energy and give him points for trying, but he is a somewhat paler imitation.

New York City can brag to history buffs of its Dutch colonial history and former identity as New Amsterdam. That's adorable. Londinium was founded by the Romans. The oldest part of the Tower of London was built by William the Conqueror nearly a thousand years ago.

I love travelling to London, even if it means staying in a small, overpriced hotel room, eating the abomination that is an English breakfast (complete with runny scrambled eggs and black pudding) and rarely finding a decent cup of coffee. I even enjoy spending time at Heathrow, although my flight home is always at least an hour late, and the repeated security warnings about unattended parcels delivered in a calm female voice with a perfect BBC accent makes me feel like I am in a dystopian science fiction film. Those minor inconveniences are a small price to pay for being in London.

Interior of The Orangery
During our first visit to London, we wanted to have a nice afternoon tea but had not made reservations in advance. Happily, we discovered The Orangery at Kensington Gardens, where we had delicious tea sandwiches, scones that were to-die-for, and decadent pastries with our tea. The building was originally Queen Anne's actual orangery. That visit started my addiction to fancy afternoon teas. One minor disappointment was the lack of a tiered service for the refreshments -- it was served in three courses instead (first sandwiches, then scones with clotted cream and jam, then dessert pastries).

St. Paul's Cathedral
Saint Paul's cathedral is truly magnificent. The influence on the U.S. Capitol building (and therefore numerous State Capitols, including Wisconsin's) is obvious. For those Mary Poppins fans out there, be warned -- they have posted a sign asking one not to feed the birds, in the interests of hygiene.

Being a fan of the late Warren Zevon, I also felt compelled to order a pina colada at Trader Vic's. The waiter seemed a bit confused, since they actually call that drink a Bahia at Trader Vic's. Also, the waiter was an immigrant and probably unfamiliar with the cultural reference. However, I eventually got a pina colada, and it was very good.

I recently discovered a fantastic travel guide -- Walking Jane Austen's London by romance novelist Louise Allen. It's a terrific book for aspiring writers of Georgian and Regency historical fiction, as well as being a delightful travel guide. I am looking forward to trying a couple of those walking tours myself.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Revisiting the Matter of Britain

I have vague memories of pop culture references to King Arthur and Sir Lancelot while I was growing up, but I first learned the basics about the legends in high school, when my English class read Tennyson's Idylls of the King. The teacher also told us about Thomas Malory's Mort d'Arthur, on which it was largely based, and some of the ways in which Tennyson departed from his source material.

I was hooked. In college, I took as many literature electives as a business major could manage to fit in and began reading some of the earlier medieval versions. For recreational reading, I devoured many of the modern retellings (some with a high medieval or fantasy setting, some firmly set in a realistic late-Roman-Britain setting). My favorites were those by authors who leavened the tragedy with humor and had a firm understanding of the medieval source material. I am particularly fond of Thomas Berger's Arthur Rex: A Legendary Novel and Sharan Newman's Guinevere trilogy. No matter how many times I read the story, however, I always knew going in that there would be no happily-ever-after.

I got away from the Matter of Britain for a number of years, largely because the pressures of post-college life led me to want a happy ending in my recreational reading. My interest in Arthurian stories was re-kindled by a trip I took to Glastonbury last summer. I climbed the tor and saw the purported grave of King Arthur (conveniently found by the monks in the 12th century, when they desperately needed pilgrims and donations to help them rebuild the church after a fire). I remembered my love for the legends and their many retellings.

Over the years, a number of authors have written contemporary, fantasy or science fiction books that are based on or inspired by the Matter of Britain. The nice thing about a loosely-Arthurian story with new characters is the possibility for a happy ending. I remember reading Port Eternity by C.J. Cherryh and Excalibur by Sanders Anne Laubenthal when I was still in college. I decided to seek out more Arthurian-inspired books that have the possibility of a happy ending. In a bit of serendipity, I recently found If Ever I Would Leave You, an anthology of romance stories with Arthurian themes. I am currently reading it and enjoying it very much. I think I will make a habit of seeking out new Arthurian-inspired romances.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Lost Art of Letter-Writing

When I was a young woman, I never even heard of e-mail until I took a "Computers in Business" course at UW-Madison. The instructor told us about this new thing called "electronic mail" that was meant to solve the persistent problem of phone tag (this was also in the era before affordable and truly portable cell phones). We all seemed skeptical that it would ever catch on.

I kept in touch with friends and relatives who had moved out of state by regularly writing letters, in cursive handwriting on decorated stationery with matching envelopes. My correspondents regularly sent me handwritten letters in return. I still have many of them packed away somewhere (a handful of them were deliberately destroyed, like Lord Byron's memoirs, out of concern for the reputation of the author).

In 1991, one of my reservist friends was called up and sent to Saudi Arabia for the duration of Operation Desert Storm. For several weeks, I did not have a mailing address for him. By this time, I had access to a computer with word processing software, so I began typing letters to him in one big document, with each entry clearly dated. I chronicled all the gossip about our mutual friends (mainly who hooked up with whom -- we were in our 20s at the time, and our social circle was full of drama).

When I got an APO address for him, I began printing and sending the letter(s) in manageable chunks, with two or three days' worth of entries at a time, mailed a few days apart. He seemed to really enjoy getting them, and he wrote back to me whenever he could. No, it was not the beginning of a romance between the two of us (I was already dating my future husband by then). Another sort of drama was gradually revealed in the letters I received from him. A woman whom he met at a New Year's Eve party (just a week or two before he shipped out) was also writing to him. As the weeks went on, her letters became increasingly romantic and possessive. He swore to me that he had done nothing to encourage her to think of him as her boyfriend, and he was at a loss over how to handle it. I believed him, because I knew the woman in question, and she had a history of that sort of self-escalating relationship behavior. Some of us had to hold an intervention with her, and he decided to transfer to a different campus when he returned stateside.

Nowadays, that whole drama would play out in less than a couple weeks on Facebook, with conflicting relationship statuses and comments from mutual friends. But once upon a time, not so very long ago, it was possible to remain in touch with someone, and even become a close confidante, via letters that took days or even weeks to reach their destinations. Maybe that's why I am fascinated by epistolary novels, and why I felt the urge to write one (a novella, actually) this summer. There have been a number of great contemporary epistolary novels that make use of emails and social media posts. I'm going old school, though, because as useful as I find email and social media, they don't quite have the same magic as a letter written on paper and sent through the mail.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Turning a Villain into a Hero

I've just started reading How to School Your Scoundrel by Juliana Gray. It is the third of her Princess in Hiding books, featuring heroines disguised as men. This is a tried-and-true romance trope, and I began to tire of it after the second book. I was intrigued by this novel, however, because it uses another plot device that is done far less often -- making a villain from a past book into the hero.

That is not to say that the idea is new. It has been done often enough, but it is rarely done well. Often, the character seems to undergo a personality transplant between books. I am curious to see how Gray handles it. So far, she seems to be implying that the characters in A Gentleman Never Tells were mistaken in their perceptions as to the depths of the Earl of Somerton's villainy.

The possible appeal of rehabilitating a hero is obvious. Many women are attracted to bad boys, with the belief that the love of a good woman can save him. I happen to agree with advice columnist Margo Howard, who is fond of saying "Women are not reform schools."  However, the rehabilitation of a villain is the logical next step after rehabilitating a damaged hero.

The damaged hero trope became very popular in the 1990s, largely thanks to the works of Laura Kinsale. She is a master at writing about damaged but redeemable heroes. My personal favorites from her are Flowers from the Storm and Seize the Fire. She eventually took the next step and wrote Shadowheart, which features a brutal medieval villain from her previous romance For My Lady's Heart. I loved FMLH, but I have avoided reading Shadowheart because the description of the plot turned me off. There was a time when I read romances about women being forced to marry their captors, but that trope has long since lost its appeal for me.

On the other hand, I loved Loretta Chase's Captives of the Night, featuring a brutal assassin from The Lion's Daughter as the hero. However, TLD is one of the few novels by Chase that I haven't read (by the time I became interested in her back catalog, that one was out of print, and I'm too frugal to pay collectors' prices for paperbacks). I wonder if I would love the Comte d'Esmond so much if I had gotten to know him as a villain first. Of course, he has that James Bond thing going on (he is equally skilled as an assassin, a spy and a lover), so I might.

I am looking forward to learning whether I can appreciate a hero whom I first encountered as a villain.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Staycation, All I Ever Wanted

After a summer of trying to write while working a full time day job, I finally have a week off.  Hopefully, I will make a lot of progress on the novella I am currently working on (I have 33 pages of my first draft written, and I'm aiming for 100). Unfortunately, my PC picked this week to die (thank goodness for cloud backups), so I will have to get used to my laptop's crappy little keyboard. Maybe I can plug our full-size keyboard into the laptop...

I'm also looking forward to putting a dent in my ever-growing to-be-read pile of books.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Windflower, Windermere and the Differing Effects of Bhang

Last month, I read Lady Windermere's Lover by Miranda Neville. I enjoyed it very much, as I have enjoyed all of her books. The plot is a second-chance romance involving an estranged couple who made a marriage of convenience and then separated for a year when Lord Windermere accepted a diplomatic post in Persia.

Newly returned from the Orient, he finds his wife has developed a close friendship with his former best friend (now bitter rival), and circumstantial evidence leads him to believe they are having an affair. He makes an effort to repair his marriage, and his wife asks for time to become better acquainted before they resume having sex. He agrees, and his patience eventually pays off. They plan a night of intimacy, and in order to help her relax, he fills an incense-burner with hashish resin that he calls by the Persian term bhang.

I knew that would not end as Lord Windermere hoped, for I remembered the infamous opium scene in The Windflower. Poor Merry is forced by Rand Morgan to smoke opium until she is passive and semi-conscious. Then she is left in Devon's bed like a gift. He believes she is a woman of easy virtue and at least somewhat willing (an old trope in romance novels of that era). His kissing and groping is brought to an abrupt end when Merry's stomach rebels, and he ends the night holding her hair instead of more interesting bits of her anatomy.

Re-reading that book this month, I was amused by Devon's observation: "That's what you get when you force yourself on a seasick woman splattered with bhang and bruises."

I believe that is an important life lesson for everyone.

The use of the word "bhang" (in this case referring to opium) caught my eye, since I had recently encountered it in Lady Windermere's Lover. I started to wonder if Miranda Neville had written that scene as a deliberate homage/parody.

There are some important differences. Poor Windflower Merry does not try opium willingly, nor does she consent to amorous congress with Devon, and she gets no enjoyment out of the encounter. Lady Windermere consents to intimacy with Damien, and although the bhang is not her idea, she is not averse to it. She gets a pleasant buzz from it (probably similar to the high one experiences at a certain type of rock concert, even if one does not smoke). Damien uses his mouth to bring her to her first orgasm, after which she promptly falls asleep. Poor Damien is left with an extreme case of blue balls, which is perhaps karmic payback for the joyless (for her) sex at the beginning of their marriage.

I also notice that the heroes' names and the heroines' title or nickname sound similar. I recall reading a review of Lady Windermere's Lover (but cannot find that one now) wherein either the reviewer or some commenters complained that they disliked Damien and felt he did not grovel sufficiently, and they found themselves wishing Lady Windermere would dump him and run off with Julian. That was similar to some online comments I read about The Windflower back in May, that some readers disliked Devon and wished that Merry would end up with Cat or Raven instead.

There are many differences between the two novels and only a few similarities. Comparing them is a good illustration of how much attitudes and expectations among readers and writers of historical romance have changed in the last 30 years.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Re-Reading The Windflower Part V: the Hero Isn't Real

(In honor of Read-a-Romance Month, I am re-reading my all-time favorite romance novel, The Windflower and remarking on how my perceptions of the book differ this time around).

My perception of the central romance in The Windflower is very different this time around, mainly because my perception of Devon is far less favorable.  It isn't only that he is more abusive than I remember. I suspect I originally measured him against the common romance heroes of the 1980s, many of whom were far more brutal. I found myself hoping that he would grovel sufficiently to make up for his bad behavior. Although he does, briefly, humble himself and express sincere regret for his past actions, he bullies Merry into marrying him on the same day, so it sort of undermines the new leaf he has supposedly turned over. Although Merry delivers a satisfying punch to his jaw, I kept wishing she would chain Devon up and whip him before she finally gave in and agreed to marry him (and I don't even care for BDSM; I just think he really had it coming to him).

I also noticed this time around that Devon is not portrayed as a believable person.  He is a composite of at least three romance hero archetypes: the pirate, the duke and the spy. He is also described as a genius (although we never witness him having any brilliant ideas or using his supposedly-clever brain to figure out who Merry really is). His motivations are told to the reader rather than shown. That was a common approach in classic romance novels. However, The Windflower is full of brilliantly fleshed-out characters, which is what makes it odd that Devon is such an artificial construct.

He is a placeholder for the man of Merry's dreams. He is her unicorn, and also the MacGuffin that sets Merry's adventures in motion. Her trip to England was engineered by Devon's relatives, who viewed her as a potential bride for him. She was kidnapped off the ship by the inept burglars whom Devon hired to steal incriminating papers from his old enemy. Her disastrous escape attempts were motivated by her fear of both his hostility toward her and her growing attraction for him.

When their union is finally consummated, his passion is taken for granted, contrary to the available evidence. The sex is described in a style that was common to many classic romance novels. There are many flowery metaphors for the feelings the pair experience. Devon manages to touch Merry slowly and gently in all the right places, without producing any frightening grunts or messy bodily fluids. It's like a spa visit with a happy ending.  He performed not like a human male but more like a sexbot from a regency-themed sci-fi brothel (imagine Austenland if it were written by Michael Crichton, author of Westworld).

Again, this was a common convention in classic romance novels. The hero exists in a constant state of desire for the heroine, so that he is always ready when she finally is, and somehow this all-consuming passion is expressed by catering only to her desires. When I was a young woman with limited sexual experience, I found that fantasy very appealing.  Now that I am a mature woman of more experience, I find it rather quaint but not terribly satisfying.

However, The Windflower still works for me as women's fiction.  It's really about Merry's journey from shy, lonely introvert to spy, pirate and duchess. I'm still hoping for sequels about Cat, Raven and Rand Morgan.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Re-Reading The Windflower Part IV: the Squid Jumps the Shark

(In honor of Read-a-Romance Month, I am re-reading my all-time favorite romance novel, The Windflower and remarking on how my perceptions of the book differ this time around).

The term "Jumping the Shark" has become shorthand for that moment when a television series, movie or book fundamentally changes in character and tone, altering the audience's expectations.

It is often a pejorative, meaning the show has become ridiculous and/or unwatchable, but that is not always the case.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer jumped several sharks over the course of its seven-year run (the sudden appearance of a previously-unseen younger sister; the musical episode; Buffy's affair with Spike; the sudden deaths of multiple beloved characters), and those changes kept the series fresh and exciting.

There is a distinct moment in The Windflower when everything changes, and it coincidentally involves a sea creature and a jump.  A squid leaps into a small fishing craft and is brought back to the Black Joke for the amusement of the captive Merry. She has become something of a mascot to the crew, rather like the ship's pet pig, Dennis.  Until now, however, we believe that the crew are really cutthroats who would not hesitate to slaughter Dennis if food supplies were low or brutalize Merry if circumstances were slightly different.

The squid sets in motion a chain of events that lead to Merry's escape from the Joke with a defecting crew member during a battle with a rival pirate ship. The defector tells Merry that the rival was known for his particular cruelty toward captive women. He also believes that the crew voted to attack the ship because they spotted a terrified woman with children on the deck of a schooner recently captured by the rival pirate.  So now we are lead to believe that the crew of the Joke are not completely without conscience. I am unsure whether we are meant to think that spending time with Merry has restored their humanity or if they merely put on a tougher façade to frighten their captive into cooperating.

In any case, Merry's relationships with the crew of the Joke are forever changed after her disastrous (and temporary) escape.  Most importantly, Devon (and the reader) begins to realize that he has genuine feelings for her.  He does not yet apologize for his past behavior or grovel in the traditional sense, but he volunteers himself as a human guinea pig for an untested and potentially dangerous malaria treatment that could save Merry's life.

While in a malarial fever, Merry has another double-entendre-filled unicorn dream, filled with metaphors that are so unsubtle that the dream almost hints at bestiality. Some of the imagery in the dream (particularly the shower of white petals) also reminded me of the Tom Cruise film Legend (which came out a year after The Windflower was first published).

In this section of the book, I was also reminded of a phenomenon in classic romance novels that I call "Calgon, Take Me Away!" (in honor of the 1970s TV ads for powdered Epsom salts that could magically create a bubble of quiet relaxation around a woman's bathtub, allowing her to tune out ringing phones and screaming children). The sex scenes in classic romance novels often transport the heroine to an altered state of consciousness, where she is seemingly unable to remember the reality around her while she experiences magical sensations that go beyond the neural impulses caused by the stimulation of erogenous zones.  The scenes advance the plot but exist slightly outside reality, rather like a song-and-dance number in a Bollywood film.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Re-Reading The Windflower Part III: the Forgotten Conflict

(In honor of Read-a-Romance Month, I am re-reading my all-time favorite romance novel, The Windflower and remarking on how my perceptions of the book differ this time around).

The novel opens in 1813 Virginia and rather quickly references the ongoing war against the British (which naïve patriot Merry calls The Second War for American Independence). The heroine's brother and father are directly involved in the war effort and her brother occasionally involves her in a bit of espionage on behalf of her country.

The Windflower can be classified as a Regency-set historical romance (since it takes place during the Regency and its hero is a British aristocrat). I did not realize in 1984 how unusual it was for such a book to deal with the War of 1812 in a substantial way. It is usually seen as a sideshow of the Napoleonic Wars (which, from the British point of view, it rather was).

Very few Americans know much about it; most believe that it was an aggressive attempt by the British to re-take her former American colonies, and that the British lost (as documented in Johnny Horton's classic pop tune "the Battle of New Orleans").  In reality, it was part trade war, part labor dispute (over the shortage of able-bodied seamen) and part land war between the U.S. and Canada.  Both sides sustained a great deal of damage, and in the end everyone agreed to return to the status quo antebellum.

There are many reasons why the average American school textbook presents such an oversimplified (to the point of being misleading) version of the War of 1812, and they all have to do with cultural propaganda. As a nation, we are uncomfortable talking about the wars that did not end in glory for the American military and new territory for the United States. Also, during the first half of the 20th century, Britain was an important ally during both world wars, helping to strengthen the "special relationship" between our two nations. We did not care to dwell on the spats early in that relationship.

In the 1990s, I read a book by Donald R. Hickey called The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict.  I found it to be fascinating.  When I started re-reading The Windflower, I wondered if the war would be portrayed superficially and/or inaccurately.  Much to my surprise, the historical references seem pretty accurate (given that 20 years has elapsed since I read that scholarly tome about the war).  Characters hear news about actual battles.  Merry's brother eagerly declares that, if the coming campaign in Canada is successful, the British will soon be driven out of North America (taking Canada from the British was a major motivation for the American war hawks to pursue the war in the first place). The New York merchants grumble about the ruinously expensive war disrupting trade. Devon muses about the poor decisions by the Madison administration.

I have read a great many historical romances that really skimped on the historical research.  The Windflower isn't one of them.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Re-Reading The Windflower Part II: The Hero Is a Villain

(In honor of Read-a-Romance Month, I am re-reading my all-time favorite romance novel, The Windflower and remarking on how my perceptions of the book differ this time around).

In the Sizzling Book Club chat about The Windflower back in May, some readers remarked that they could not like Devon because he was abusive toward Merry, and his only redeeming quality seemed to be that he did not actually rape her.

In the early 1980s, a lot of classic romance novels featured villainous heroes, some of whom actually did rape the heroine. Even at the time, I found most of those books to be distasteful (although some provided unintentional comedy entertainment because they were so ridiculous).  I wondered if I only liked Devon because I was too young to know better when I first read the book, or if I was willing to cut him some slack because I liked the book so much for other reasons.

Reading it this time, in the scene where Merry first encounters Devon, I realized that he reminded me of James Bond. He was competent, ruthless, and utterly convinced of his ability to charm any woman out of her secrets and her virtue simultaneously. In that first encounter, he has good reason to believe that Merry is engaged in some sort of intrigue that could endanger all of his colleagues. I did not feel that his behavior was beyond the pale.

In their second encounter, aboard ship, his behavior is worse. I do not recall if he does genuinely grovel and apologize later on in the book. I know that he will come to genuinely love Merry and treat her with tenderness and affection.  I will have to see if the redemption arc works by modern standards (the hero is expected to grovel in proportion to his earlier bad behavior).

I suspect that readers who find James Bond appealing are more likely to enjoy this book than those who are not Bond fans.

Something else I noticed this time around is that my perception of Rand Morgan (the pirate captain who is also Devon's half-brother) when I read the book 30 years ago was based less upon his actual description than upon my preconceived idea that he should look like Blackbeard. I actually pictured him as Brian Blessed might have portrayed Blackbeard, which was a completely mistaken impression. He is not described as having a beard, and he is presumably rather fit (and probably at least a few years younger than I am now).

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Re-Reading The Windflower Part I: Unicorns and Phallic Vegetables

In honor of Read-a-Romance Month, I am re-reading my all-time favorite romance novel, The Windflower by Sharon and Tom Curtis (originally published under their pen name of Laura London). It has been 30 years since I first read it (and close to 20 years since the last time I read it), and the genre has changed quite a bit.

I just started it today, and so far, I've only read the opening scene. Freud would have a field day, but I believe that was intentional. Historical romances in the early 1980s were filled with lush descriptions and euphemisms that made a thesaurus a necessary tool for any successful romance writer. The Curtises show a mastery of description and euphemism that rises to the level of affectionate satire. In the opening scene, 18-year-old sheltered virgin Merry Wilding is sketching vegetables in the kitchen garden. The authors slyly use phallic euphemisms to describe the vegetables without even mentioning cucumbers. Merry is apparently too innocent to notice the phallic symbolism (or wonder why the garden contains no eggplants or tomatoes). Then we are treated to descriptions of Merry's dreams about unicorns and how those dreams have suddenly changed in nature. Again, the Freudian symbolism is obvious to the reader but not to Merry.

One of the many things that delights me about this book is that it was obviously written by educated people who assumed that their readers were reasonably well-informed as well.  While the story works even if you know nothing about Freudian symbolism or the conventions of the romance genre, there is a whole extra layer of humor for those who do. In that way, it's a lot like watching episodes of The Muppet Show from the same era.

There were fewer entertainment choices in those days, and as a culture we participated more broadly in the mainstream. For that reason, some of the biggest hits in many entertainment media were able to appeal to people from diverse subcultures and educational levels (and not necessarily by dumbing things down to the lowest common denominator). I think we've lost that in this day of niche markets and nearly infinite entertainment choices.

Re-reading this book has also reminded me, to my embarrassment, that I had a collection of porcelain unicorns on my dresser when I was 18.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Persistence, Inspired by J.K. Rowling

It can be rather demoralizing when agents and editors are uninterested in your manuscript. I knew from the start that rejection is the rule rather than the exception. However, knowing something intellectually is very different from accepting it emotionally.

I'm working on developing the emotional callouses that a writer needs to endure the occupational hazard of repeated rejections. I remember reading somewhere that J. K. Rowling received many rejections for her first Harry Potter manuscript. Doing some checking shows that the number may not have been vast. Still, a dozen publishers rejected Harry Potter.

Self-publishing was not such an attractive option when J. K. Rowling was pitching her first novel. Nowadays it is far less expensive to reach readers yourself (although you have to compete with a great many other self-published, as well as traditionally-published, authors). Some very successful and critically-acclaimed books have been self-published in recent years (and one of them even won a Rita Award this year).

So, it's not the end of the world if an author runs out of agents and publishers to pitch.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Celebrating Romance, Which Enabled Me to Discuss Emotions

August is Read-a-Romance month, and I am celebrating by thinking back on the many ways that reading romances has enriched my life over the past thirtysome years. Two of the authors with books on my to-be-read pile -- Katharine Ashe and Lauren Dane -- have already posted in celebration of Read-a-Romance month, as has my fellow WisRWA member PJ Fiala. To see if your favorite authors are participating, visit

I started reading at an early age. I was a shy introvert, and I spent a great deal of time by myself, reading DC comic books and Nancy Drew mysteries (which gave me the impression that it was a good thing to be embarrassed by praise).

In my early teens, I started reading my mother's romance novels on the sly. Like many adolescents, I was drawn by prurient curiosity, which was more than satisfied by Judith Krantz (Scruples is the first romance novel that I remember reading).

My grandmother was also a reader of romance novels. She and my aunt would trade paper grocery bags full of paperbacks that they bought at garage sales.  My grandmother was more permissive than my parents, and by the time I was 15 or 16, she included me in the circulation of the paperback paper bags.

I was not popular in high school, and my social life (and social skills) were negligible. I also come from a subculture (Upper Midwest Scandinavian-American) which is very stoic and discourages the discussion of feelings. Romance novels gave me a vicarious way to feel connected to other people. They also gave me a vocabulary for expressing emotions.

While I have read many contemporary romances over the years, I have always preferred historical romances, because they provide me with more of an escapist fantasy, without reminders of the stresses of real life (traffic, housework, job responsibilities).

If you are looking for recommended reads this month, consider starting with two of my current favorites, Miranda Neville (her Burgundy Club series is about Regency-era book collectors) and Courtney Milan (I have read only a couple by her so far, and I'm delighted that there are so many of her books still to read). A newer author with only a few novels already published (and a fourth coming in February) is Jennifer McQuiston. Her debut effort, What Happens in Scotland, has a delightful premise that drew me immediately.

If you enjoy heroes who are damaged and vulnerable (but oh-so-redeemable), get thee to a Laura Kinsale novel. My personal favorites are Flowers from the Storm and Seize the Fire. If you like your romance novels with an over-the-top premise and a dose of crazysauce, you may prefer The Shadow and the Star. Its hero is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who was rescued, raised in Hawaii and trained to be a ninja. Yes, he is a white Hawaiian ninja who ends up in Victorian London (having accompanied the Merrie Monarch, King David Kalakaua, to Queen Victoria's Jubilee celebration). I love that Laura Kinsale took an obscure bit of historical trivia (King Kalakaua and his sister, the future last Queen of Hawaii, Liliuokalani, really did go to London for the Jubilee) and used it to bring her hero and heroine together.

This year's Read-a-Romance Month format asks participating authors to answer the same three questions. Here are my responses:

1. Describe the most daring, adventurous, or inspiring thing you ever did.  It's hard to choose just one adventure, but I think the most inspiring was exploring the ruins of ancient Ephesus with my husband several years ago. We both love history and share an interest in ancient civilization. My husband once dreamed of being an archaeologist. We both come from blue-collar backgrounds, and we did not have the opportunity to study abroad in our youth. During the recession that followed the tech crash of 2000, even domestic vacations were beyond our means. One of the ways we got through the lean years was by telling each other that, someday, we would cruise the Mediterranean and explore ancient ruins. We finally had the opportunity to keep that promise we made to each other, and it was a wonderful experience.

2. Tell us about your journey to becoming a writer. (How did you decide to get started? Did you always know or was there a specific moment when you knew?)  It is perhaps unsurprising that I started writing my first romance novel while in my late teens. It was an Arthurian romance, set in the late 5th century. I had fallen in love with the Matter of Britain after reading Idylls of the King in 9th grade English class. I never finished that novel, and I burned the manuscript (handwritten in a spiral notebook) before I moved out of my parents' house. I started a medieval romance novel in the 1990s, which I still have saved somewhere on a 5-1/4 inch floppy disk. I have finally taken the bull by the horns and finished a manuscript (set in the early 19th century) and allowed other people to see it. We'll see where it takes me.

3. Tell us about The (or A) Book That Changed Your Life. (Why?)  When I was 18, one of the paper bags from my grandmother contained The Windflower by Laura London (the pen name of Sharon & Tom Curtis). I cannot express how much I enjoyed that book without employing paragraphs of purple prose (which I will spare you). When I was 10, my family visited Disneyworld. My favorite part of the park by far was Adventureland, and my absolute favorite attraction was Pirates of the Caribbean. The Windflower is a classic romance that is basically set aboard a ship full of Disney pirates, with a heroine who reminds me of Princess Gisele from Enchanted. It is the best escapist fantasy ever. When I passed the paper bag of books along to my aunt, it no longer contained The Windflower. I saved it to read again and again, the first romance novel (but not the last) that I read more than once. There are many books (in many genres) that have had an impact on my life, but probably none greater than that one.  I'll be re-reading it this month (for the first time a couple of decades) and seeing how different the experience is now that I know so much more about the structure and elements of romance novels (and have so much more life experience). I'll share my impressions on this blog throughout August.

About Me: I grew up in Southern Wisconsin and attended UW-Madison in the 1980s. I have been working in the non-profit sector for more than twenty years, which is important work but rather frustrating at times. I never attended my prom, but I did once crash a genuine debutante ball (in perhaps the unlikeliest city in America for such an event), so I have long been fascinated with observing the social rituals of high society.

While I would love to be a full-time author, I will be content if I can someday earn enough from writing to finance my travel habit. At the very least, I can justify spending money on UK travel by telling myself it is research that will make my future novels better (even if it isn't a tax-deductible business expense).

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Going Back in Time

No, I'm not reading a time-travel novel at the moment, nor am I referring to the upcoming Outlander series on Starz.

After years of reading mainly historical romances set in the 19th century punctuated by occasional contemporary romances, I just started reading Isabella Bradford's When You Wish Upon a Duke, which is set in the 18th century.

I used to read a lot of 18th-century historical romances (mainly Old Skool ones where the hero was either a pirate or a highwayman).  My tastes shifted back in the 1990s, and I became fixated on the Regency era for quite a while.  As I have learned more about the history and technology of the Victorian decades, I have also come to enjoy books set later in the 19th century.

Now I am returning to my previous love for the Age of Enlightenment and its fashions. My current in-progress novella takes place in the late 18th century, about a generation later than Bradford's Wylder Sisters romances. As it happens, my novella opens in 1787, although it is set in England and has nothing to do with the Constitutional Convention. I still can't get that Schoolhouse Rock song out of my head, however. I need a new earworm to drive it out.

This should do the trick.

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.