Tuesday, May 31, 2016

In An English Country Garden

Flowers have been much on my mind recently. A trip to the Chelsea Flower Show reawakened all my enthusiasm, partly because of the show gardens and partly because of the enormous range of flowers in the marquee. I think my favourite show garden was the Harrods Heath-Robinson inspired garden, which had revolving flower beds and window boxes that went up and down, as well as a roof that lifted on and off the folly. If you haven't seen it, you can watch it here . But although the eccentric British touches were wonderful, it was the planting that really won me over.

It set me thinking about Jane Austen's garden and all the flowers she would have known, as well as the uses to which they would have been put. Celia Simpson, the head gardener at Jane Austen's House Museum, writes a regular blog about Jane Austen's garden , which is full of interesting information. Alongside flowers in Jane Austen's garden there were herbs for the kitchen, for medicinal use, for nosegays and insect repellents. Additionally, there were plants that could be used for dye.

This reminds me of one of my other favourite gardens at Chelsea,  which showed traditional techniques for extracting dyes from the leaves and flowers of various plants as well as their roots. It impressed the judges as well, winning a silver gilt medal.

If you're thinking of visiting Jane Austen's garden, summer is the perfect time. You can sit on the seat which rings the oak tree - believed to be descended from a tree planted by Jane Austen - or you can picnic on the lawns, imagining Jane choosing some choice blooms for the house or picking a sprig of mint to go in with the potatoes!

Monday, May 30, 2016

In Memory of Jo Beverley

We have all been immensely saddened by the death of Jo Beverley. Jo fought a brave battle against cancer a few years ago and appeared to have beaten it but unfortunately it returned and she passed away last week. Jo was an immensely popular author and  won many awards for her fabulous books. She was also inducted into the RWA Hall of Fame. Her death has come as a sad blow to her many, many fans on both sides of the Atlantic and around the world. It has also come as a blow to those of us who knew her. Jo was a very generous author who gave a great deal of help and advice to those who were starting out as authors, as well as those with more experience. She had an enormous knowledge and willingly shared it with others.

She was a calm and gracious presence at RNA conferences, where she became a familiar face after her return to England, having lived in Canada for many years. She joined our Historical Romance UK blog , where she entertained readers and supported writers through her lively blog posts. Her last blog post was written only a few short months ago, in March. It was about one of her favourite plots, the marriage of convenience, a familiar plot she brought vividly to life with her own unique style. That was the key to Jo's success. She could take a familiar plot and stamp it with her own unique voice.

We are all thinking of her family at this difficult time and offer them our condolences. We would like to thank Jo for the joy she brought into so many lives. She will be sadly missed.

Amanda Grange

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Jo Beverley

I didn’t want to have to write this. Jo Beverley was to me, as she was to many others, a friend and mentor. First of all, she was a great writer of historical romance.
Her first love, and the one closest to her heart, was the medieval. Her lesser-known medieval romances are well worth reading, if you can find them. There are four. I’m a “Shattered Rose” girl myself.
But at the time medieval romances weren’t selling and so Jo turned to the Regency romance. Her first books were for Signet, as were many American-based authors (Jo was born and brought up British, but moved to Canada in her twenties). “Emily and the Dark Angel” dates from this time, and is many people’s favourite.
She hit the big time with her first Fallen Angel book, “An Arranged Marriage,” which as she was often proud of saying, broke all the rules. In the first chapter, the heroine suffers a rape, (not by the hero!) Even when “rape into love” books were popular in the market, this caused a ripple through the reading community. Back then, the US and British markets were very separate, so while we were wallowing in clogs and shawls, the US had a wave of Regency romances with lashings of sex. Sometimes literally.
From the first Rogues book onwards, Jo was a premier author. She won the prestigious RITA award so often that she was put in the RWA Hall of Fame, an honour very few writers attain. She was a rock star writer, selling millions of copies and often teamed with Mary Jo Putney and Mary Balogh as the three at the top of the tree. They were the queens of historical romance.
I discovered Jo with her Malloren series. It’s set in my favourite Georgian era, in the first years of George III’s reign. I devoured the books. I had written the first of my Richard and Rose series, which was very different, but set in the same era, and I joined a critique forum. Two people were of inestimable help; the science fiction writer Linnea Sinclair, and Jo Beverley. She was a wonderful teacher. She taught me what a professional writer needs to do, how to go about getting published, and she wrote my first query letter for me, the one that got me published.
Jo was selfless, kind and generous, but she didn’t take fools gladly. That made her a wonderful critique partner, (yes, I had the privilege of critting her work – she was fussy about tweaking and details, but that made her even better). She would tell it like it is, but as she said, it was better than being rejected repeatedly by publishers and agents.
When she came back to the UK to live, she was already ill, but her cancer went into remission, and we thought she’d beaten it. Not quite. It lurked, came back this year and got her.
I can’t believe she’s gone. A world without Jo Beverley is sadder and a lot less fun. I’m going to miss her.
Please share your memories of Jo, and what you enjoyed about her books. I'm sure I'm not the only Beverley fan around here!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Playing quoits with 'Miss Darcy's Companion'

In this day and age of entertainment available at the touch of a button, it is hard to imagine a time when teenagers or even adults would amuse themselves with games that modern-day eight-year olds might find too childish for their taste. Yet we have romps, forfeits and blind-man’s buff in Charles Dickens’ ‘Christmas Carol’, alphabet games in ‘Emma’ and a game of quoits in the 1995 adaptation of ‘Pride and Prejudice’, played with gusto by Kitty and Lydia Bennet.

And their real-life counterparts might well have played it. They might have played sticks-and-quoits too, or ‘ringtoss’, if this 1817 engraving is any indication. 

Opportunities to flirt? Perhaps. Rosy-cheeked young ladies scampering about chasing the circle and dissolving into fits of giggles – definitely! Childish? Yes, that too, but still great fun 200 years on, when some of us go to beautiful Bath to play dress-up and go back in time.

Which is one of the reasons why I have included the game in the opening chapter of my latest ‘Pride and Prejudice’ variation, ‘Miss Darcy’s Companion’. It is another ‘what if?’ story. What if Miss Elizabeth Bennet got to know Mr Darcy not as he would present himself to strangers in some remote corner of Hertfordshire, but as his nearest and dearest know him? What if their first encounter was not at the Meryton assembly, but in the garden of a fashionable London house, where several young ladies were amusing themselves with a game of sticks-and-quoits?

* * * *

Miss Darcy's Companion
(Excerpt from Chapter 1)

The peal of laughter that came to greet Darcy’s words was not his cousin’s – too light and sparkling, and the wrong pitch as well. In the same instant, both gentlemen turned to its apparent source, somewhere beyond the open windows. Glass in hand, they wandered closer to cast a glance outside.

The sight that caught their eye was at the very least surprising, for neither could remember the last time they had seen young ladies playing sticks-and-quoits on the lawn of Malvern House. One of them, Darcy noted with a surge of pleasure, was Georgiana. She had just caught the beribboned circle and flicked it with uncommon skill towards Lady Amelia, who caught it in her turn and made it fly sideways to her eldest niece. Margaret caught it too and squealed delightedly, making Darcy wonder if she had been the one whose peal of laughter had first caught their notice. But it mattered not, and he sipped his drink, a smile warming his countenance as his glance drifted back to his sister.

How many years were there since he had seen her thus? Cheerful and carefree, thrilled by a childish game, rather than burdened by their parents’ loss, by loneliness and the proverbial Darcy shyness. Georgiana was in dire need of companionship her own age, yet in all her years at school she had formed no special friendship with any of the other young girls entrusted to Mrs Rossiter’s care. Which was one of the two reasons he had suggested she remain with Lady Malvern while he visited in Kent.

The first was of course Lady Catherine. No one in his right mind would think her suited to drawing a shy child from her shell and putting her at ease. The other was Amelia, Lady Malvern’s youngest daughter. She was of Georgiana’s age and of Fitzwilliam’s open disposition, and Darcy had long thought that fostering a greater closeness between her and his sister would be to the dear child’s advantage. Yet the scene before him was even better than he had allowed himself to hope. Perhaps, to some extent, he had wronged Lady Stretton. It was plain to see that Georgiana took great pleasure in spending time with her two daughters.
Darcy smiled again as the youngest, Hetty, tottered into view, balancing the circle on the crossed tips of her well-polished sticks. She cast a quick, uncertain glance to her companion, the governess perhaps or another minder of some sort, judging by the dark, utilitarian attire.

“Just so?” the child asked and her minder promptly crouched beside her.

“Yes, Hetty,” the assurance came in kindly tones. “Keep pointing the sticks up, then spread your arms wide as fast as you can.”

The little hands shot sideways, but the quoit had already fallen into the grass at Hetty’s feet. She gave a cry of disappointment and her lip curled, but her distress was instantly forgotten as soon as her companion reached for the circle and, covering the tiny hands with hers, she guided them into sending it high up into the sky, the white and purple ribbons fluttering behind it.

“It flew, Miss Bennet!” Hetty cried excitedly. “Did you see? It flew!”

 * * * *

Why would Miss Bennet engage herself as a governess to Colonel Fitzwilliam’s nieces?
And where does the story go from here?

The synopsis at Amazon might give a hint or two.

And if you would like to see more snippets of places and details that have inspired my stories, do check out ‘AllRoads Lead to Pemberley’ on Facebook, and I hope you’ll like what you see. Because, no matter what obstacles are set in her path, Miss Elizabeth Bennet’s journeys should always finish at Pemberley!

Friday, May 13, 2016

Are you clubbable?

Later this month, the last in the series, “Even Gods Fall In Love” is released. At least, it’s the last for now. I have many more stories to tell about the gods in the eighteenth century, but this book brings the series to a natural hiatus.
The series centres around a club set up by my hero, Mercury, or Amidei, the Comte d’Argento, in St. James. I wanted the club to be as true to its period as possible, with one exception––it allowed women to be members. With goddesses and immortal woman wandering around, that had to be possible.
In reality, women were explicitly barred from the world of the gentleman’s club. They had their own literary salons and gatherings, but not the kind of clubs that would rival the likes of Whites, Boodles and St. James.
Since I set most of my books in the 1750’s, this was a very early time in the development of the club. So I dived (or dove?) down the rabbit hole of research.
Very enjoyable it was, too.
The first club to have its own purpose-built premises was White’s, in St. James’s, across the road from St. James’s Palace, the official residence of the monarch, although the Georges usually preferred to live somewhere else.
White’s was soon followed by others, like Brooks', Boodles and the Atheneum, which were castigated as dens of iniquity by the moralists of the age. Here the fever for gambling gained its height, and the likes of Fox gambled their hearts out, in between attending Parliament to govern the country.
Before the big clubs of St. James’s, and even during it, came a plethora of smaller places, more gatherings of people (men!) than premises. It’s generally acknowledged that the clubs evolved from the coffee-houses of the City of London, but establishments like the Pudding Club, and inns like the Cheshire Cheese in Fleet Street, the favourite haunt of Johnson and his crowd, gathered.
Men also formed clubs for more nefarious activities, many of them sexual. The Hellfire Club may have been a kinky sex club, or it may have been more, but orgies definitely went on there. What was the Royal Society but a club of like-minded gentlemen who decided to study the sciences?
While it’s natural to condemn them for their single-sex policies and their more debauched activities, the clubs were an important part of the development of British society, and the furtherment of knowledge. As well as being a way to have a jolly good time away from the ladies!
But what were the ladies getting up to? Ah, that’s the question!

Monday, May 09, 2016

Is it a sound professional move to write in several genres and eras?

I know of several writers who are successful in a variety of genres but they all use a different pseudonym for each genre. I write Regency romance and World War II family sagas using the same name – my own.
I've now released the first of a two book series set in the Victorian era – also the same author name. This book was written eight years ago when I had an agent and Victorian books were the flavour of the year. It got as far as an acquisitions meeting at Orion but no further.
These are the only books that I've written that haven't been published. I'm known for my Regency and World War II books and I am concerned my readers won't enjoy something so different.
The heroine and hero in this book are brother and sister, rather than a romantic couple. Also, as you can see from the cover, they are not from the privileged class from which I usually take my characters.
I had the books edited and proofed and by the time "For Want of a Penny" was ready to go I had a further three stories in my head for Sarah and Alfie. It remains to be seen if I think it's viable to continue writing this series.
It would be interesting to know whether readers search more for a particular author rather than a genre. I certainly search author name first on Amazon and if I can't find anything new by one of my favourites then I look at the recommended list of similar books that are so helpfully provided. Christian Cameron has three series ongoing, all different eras, and I love them all.  Bernard Cornwall has done the same but writes one series at a time. I would try a new genre/era from an author I like and I hope my readers feel the same.

For Want of a Penny is the first part of a two book Victorian saga –The Nightingale Chronicles and is set in 1840s Colchester and the east end of London. A family tragedy means Sarah is forced to go into service at Grey Friars House as an under nursery-maid. Meanwhile her younger brother Alfie, to avoid being taken into the workhouse, runs away to London to seek his fortune.
£1.99 & $2.99
Although the situation wasn’t of her making Sarah thrives, but just as she is becoming established in the household her past returns to shatter her happy life and she is dismissed without references.
Alfie arrives in London but is tricked and sold to work as a slave on a coal barge. However, eventually he prospers and begins to make himself a better life.

'One Good Turn' the second and final part of this series will be published in July.


Saturday, May 07, 2016

Tips for Authors (and others) on Public Speaking

Most writers I know would rather be writing than anything else. It sounds self-evident but these days there’s a lot more to being a writer than putting the words on the page. There’s marketing and PR for example, the art of selling our books, and this may well include talking about them. In fact speeches and presentations are the kind of thing we all get called upon to do sometimes either for professional or personal reasons, and it helps to be well prepared. Some people love standing up and talking. Others hate it. Whatever the case, if you get the call to perform at a literary festival or talk to the WI, it’s an opportunity to get your book out there into people’s hands – so it can speak for itself.

On Monday I’m doing a talk at the Swindon Festival of Literature and as I was running over my notes I remembered an article I’d seen which summed up beautifully some top tips on making a speech.

Start with the idea, because the only thing that really matters is having something worth saying. It could be insights that will inspire other people who are aspiring authors. It could be practical writing tips, anything that will help.

Have what’s called a “throughline.” This is the theme, or message, of your talk that you come back to
in order to hold it all together. On Monday I’ll be talking about how historical authors blend imagination with historical fact. Fact and fiction will be my throughline.

Make eye contact from the start. Smile at a few people. It’s easy when your nervous to look down or stare at some point at the back but you need to make personal contact with people. On that basis, there’s no hard admitting to being nervous if you drop your notes or fluff your words. Admitting to vulnerability is human; it’s like creating a character that gains the reader’s sympathy.

Laughter is a great way to build a connection with your audience but cheesy jokes are to be avoided. Humour is so personal. I’ve lost count of the talks I’ve been too where the speaker has made a joke I’ve considered to be sexist, racist, political, offensive or just un-amusing. Humour comes from amusing-but-true stories that are related directly to your topic, or from a quirky use of language that appeals to people.

Even if you are a genius, let people work this out for themselves! Name-dropping and showing off turn people off; be yourself and let your passion for your subject shine through. The nicest feedback I’ve ever had on my talks is when people say they were interesting because my love of history shone through.

Be prepared for the worst. Last time I did a talk at this particular venue the projector didn’t work so we all ended up crowded around looking at the presentation on my laptop. It was a great way for the audience to  get to know one another and as it was a talk about the history of romantic fiction, maybe the proximity even generated some sparks. Passing glitches off with humour and not panicking endears you to your audience.

Finally, breathe deeply and don’t hyperventilate! Very best of luck!

Thursday, May 05, 2016

A few thoughts on Plotting your novel.

It's spring, and a new month, so perhaps you are thinking it is time you actually started on that romantic novel you always wanted to write.  So here are a few thoughts that might help you to plan and plot your book.

For a romance and in fact for most books, characters are important, but you also need a good story to keep the readers turning the pages.  There will need to be conflict along the way and the main characters have to go on an emotional journey – they should both have changed by the end of your story, but unless your characters are going to sit in one place for the whole book you will need to put in some action and events to take the story forward.

So remember the golden rule - Thou Shalt not Bore Thy Reader.

There needs to be some risk – ask yourself what is at stake here? Is it the happiness of the main characters, or maybe the well-being of their friends and/or family. Perhaps it's an adventure so there might be physical danger.   

The main thing is the reader has to care, to believe that the risks are worth fighting for.  

In a romance you have to generate sensual and emotional tension, strong attraction, with good reasons why your characters can't get together. Duty versus desire is a common theme in royal romances and the stakes here might be very high, perhaps even the fate of a country.

So here's a few things to help you plan out your storyline.

What if and Why – ask questions

-        "what if my hero admits attraction, what if my heroine walks away, what if he misses the train, what if she decides not to go out?"

-        "why won't he say he loves her, why is she walking away," etc

Take your characters out of their comfort zone.

-        Make them struggle, readers love to see characters overcoming obstacles, the bigger the better.

-        Maybe they are in an unfamiliar/alien setting. Think of a character like  Heathcliffe, a wild, untamed spirit who is comfortable on the wild, untamed Yorkshire moors. Imagine how uncomfortable and ill at ease he might be in a "civilized" drawing room.

Spread out the excitement throughout the book.

-        Someone once described writing a novel as bit like making a fruitcake. If you just drop the fruit in one place the mixture will be over-rich in one point and the rest will be pretty bland. Mix it up, stir in the fruit (the crises) so that the reader is kept entertained and intrigued to find out what happens next.

Have a tipping point

-        Have one major crisis, one point where everything hangs in the balance – will they get together/save the world/save themselves. Build the tension and the story towards this point and then you can race towards the conclusion.

A satisfying resolution

-        It doesn't have to be a happy ending, but it must be satisfying for the reader. Tie up loose ends, leave your reader with hope, not dissatisfaction.

These are only a few brief points and any one of them could be the subject for a workshop of a couple of hours or more, but maybe they just might help you to get started on that novel.

Good luck!

Melinda Hammond /Sarah Mallory

Melinda Hammond - Four Regency Seasons out now on Kindle

Sarah Mallory - Return of the Runaway. pub Apr 2016 by Harlequin

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

The Regency Lady – Undressed

I was actually invited to the preview of the V & A exhibition: Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear to review it for my local Archaeology and History Society Journal – which I’ve done. But I also wanted to take the opportunity to study Regency underwear with a view to writing a blog or two about it. Amongst other things, I wanted to find out the difference between stays and corsets.

1780s stays and hoop
To answer this, I needed to start before the Regency period. The photo above shows stays and hoop from the 1780s (the shift is modern). They were ordered by a Miss Davis from a London robe maker: stay-making was a skilled occupation. The hoop is made of linen and cane. Women did not wear drawers at this date – and you can see why. The hoop looks very cumbersome – imagine the problems manoeuvering it up and down stairs and squeezing through doorways, let alone having a pee! To have to cope with drawers as well would be almost impossible.

The linen shift, which was easily washed, provided a hygienic barrier between the skin and the stays which created a rigid foundation for the gown. The top layer was wool, linen and canvas, and the lining was glazed linen. The glazing, which was non-absorbent, meant that dirt was less likely to stick. The structure was held in place by whalebone. You can see that the breasts are flattened rather than supported, and it’s not surprising that actresses in historical roles have frequently complained that stays are uncomfortable.


A working woman’s home-made stays – 1760s

This was one of the most fascinating objects in the exhibition – mainly because of its rarity. The stays are made with wooden busks (slats) padded with wool for comfort, and the lining is cotton. I’ve no idea how the owner put them on but she must, surely, have been able to do so by herself. They, too, look uncomfortable - there’s very little give and take. Bending must have been hell.

New style corset, 1800 (* see below)
By 1800, things have changed. The garment above is a completely different animal. For a start it’s more delicately-fashioned and, dare I say it, sexier. It’s made of cotton, linen and whalebone but now there’s silk and lace, too, and there are added gussets to support the breasts. This garment is about enhancement of the female figure, rather than control. It also has a new French name – corset.   

Corset 1820-30

Twenty years later, the corset has moved on again. It is more sophisticated. There are quilted gussets to support and lift the breasts which are separated by a central busk (a flat piece of wood) which also flattens the stomach. It laces at the back – so its owner must have had a maid or helpful sister (or lover) to do it up. Gussets over the hips allow for curves. The waist is only 48 cms (19 inches) and there are some alarming X-rays nearby which show just what damage a tight corset could do to the internal organs.
There was also a helpful note nearby which explained that front fastening corsets only came in in 1829 and weren’t common until the 1850s. *This gives the new 1800 style corset an extra frisson of interest: it laces up at the back but the decorative front silk lacing hints that, shockingly, it just might undo there, too. (The possibilities here I leave to your imagination.)

Bust bodice, 1820-30

I was intrigued by this cotton bust bodice. It is home-made for a high-waisted dress to allow for breast-feeding – you can see the button at the base of the V. It looks astonishingly modern. 


Dressing-gown, 1820s

The dressing-gown above is also designed for easy breast-feeding; there are hidden vertical openings down the bust. It’s rare to see a female dressing-gown of this period and I was pleased to see this one; I doubt that a normal dressing-gown would differ much in style. It’s good to know that the young mother still wanted to look becoming and the garment has its share of frills and lace.

Transparent muslin dress 1800-5

I loved this simple, yet elegant dress. It is exactly the sort of dress that a daringly fast Georgette Heyer character might wear – Bab Childe in An Infamous Army, for example. It is instantly obvious that it needs a silk petticoat and drawers to make it at all respectable. It is also, surely, best suited to someone young and slim.
Jane Austen’s letters to her sister Cassandra frequently mention the buying of lengths of muslin. For example, on 18th April, 1811, Jane is in London. She writes Cassandra a somewhat incoherent letter:
I am sorry to tell you that I am getting very extravagant & spending all my Money; and, what is worse for you, I have been spending yours too, for in a Linendraper’s shop to which I went for check’d muslin, & for which I was obliged to give seven shillings a yard, I was tempted by a pretty coloured muslin, and bought ten yds of it, on the chance of your liking it; but at the same time if it shd not suit you, you must not think yourself at all obliged to take it; it is only 3/6 pr yd, & I sd not in the least mind keeping the whole.
What one would not give to see the resulting dresses for ourselves!
The V & A’s new exhibition, Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear, sponsored by Agent Provocateur and Revlon, is on until 12th March, 2017. www.vam.ac.uk/undressed . It was a most enjoyable and revealing experience - in every sense of the word. 
All photos taken by the author
Elizabeth Hawksley