Sunday, August 29, 2010

I've been Derbyshire

We managed to go away this weekend for a flying visit over the border into deepest Derbyshire. It's a beautiful county if you love little woods, rivers, fields and 'curvy' landscapes - which we do. It's fertile and rich in history, too - ancient history with its sacred springs and more recent with its scattering of medieval, Tudor and Georgian houses, of which Chatsworth and Haddon Hall are two of the more famous.

We stayed (technically just over the county boundary in Staffordshire) at Mayfield Hall, where we had a room with a four poster - very comfortable and very high! - and a date of '1608' over the fireplace.

We roamed a little - to the pretty village of Tissington, with its holy wells that are dressed with flowers each spring, its ancient church and handsome hall. There was a craft fair on in the village hall, so of course the cash came out for fancy soaps, woodwork and a small framed print.

Otherwise we chilled out - watched the swifts, wandered the local paths and nipped into Ashbourne in the rain to have a look round and tuck away a tasty Chinese lunch.

I'm certainly looking at Derbyshire now as a setting for one of my novels!


Friday, August 27, 2010

Creating or reflecting war wounds

Like many small towns, my hometown has a traditional summer festival that celebrates a unique aspect of American life just for fun. In this case, it's Derby Days, which is always held in August and begins with a parade down Main Street.

Parade participants are staples of small-town life: The high school band. Little League football players and cheerleaders. The youth soccer association. Churches, businesses and veterans. This year, the armed forces were represented by a small group soldiers from conflicts as far back as World War II and as recent as Afghanistan.

Whenever I see a group of marching veterans, I always wonder about those not marching.

Years ago, during an interview for the dedication of a new VFW Post in upstate New York, the topic turned to post traumatic stress disorder. "We didn't have a name for it," a WWII veteran said then (I'm paraphrasing) "but we all knew we weren't the same. We talked to each other."

But not everyone talked about it. My great-uncle Powell Henry was drafted into World War II. Because he'd been studying to be a doctor, he served as a medic, both in Europe and Asia. Although he was physically unharmed, he wasn't the same man after the war. When he came home, he put away his med kit, hid his medals and never told his stories. He lived on the family farm, growing tobacco, until his death in 1989.

In my studies and research for medieval romances, I've never come across an individual knight's reflections on war. In fact, I've not come across an individual's reflection on anything. However, drawing on more modern experiences, I assume the Crusaders (at least some of them) returned home different men. After all, how much can "being human" have changed in a thousand years?

The truth is I have no idea whether 12th century knights were changed by war or if they ever sat around the hearth and discussed it with fellow veterans. I make it so in my WIP, but I can do that because it's fiction. 

How about you? As an historical author or reader, do you think war has always changed those who fought?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Banners of Alba

Posted by Jen Black, 25th August, 2010
The first book I published was The Banners of Alba, and I'm still very fond of it even though there are places where I long for an editing pencil! I console myself with the thought that at least it proves I'm learning as I go on writing. Banners is the story of two young men engaged in the struggle for the crown of Alba, their women, and how they marry, each believing they love someone else. The setting is the rich, exciting world of Viking Scotland in the century before the first millenium. In the extract below, the first couple, Finlay and Ratagan (Rada), have been married scarcely an hour. The spelling is US English, since it was published in America.
The hall had been decorated, there was laughter and harp music and the smell of food jostled comfortably with that of rush lights, seal oil, smoke, ale, wet fur and leather. Finlay escorted his new wife to the place of honor while everyone else scrambled for a seat.
The feast had meant raiding closely guarded stores of food at a time of year when food was less than plentiful, but Ratagan was confident that the Steading would not go hungry because of it. Seated so close she could feel the warmth of Finlay’s thigh, Rada was aware of a constraint between them. Given the circumstances, it was not unexpected. He had dressed correctly, at least, in fine linen and a crimson tunic that set off his dark good looks. The heavy leather belt that gripped his waist was embellished with snakeheads, and even the money pouch at his belt was enameled and studded with garnets.
She sipped her mead, cracked hazelnuts and watched him from the corner of her eye. He drank little, ate sparingly and seemed cut off from the great good humor around him. He toasted his wife only when courtesy demanded, barely spoke, and was careful not to touch her.
Thorfinn watched, and thought of ways to force the young man into behavior more suited to a bridegroom, but abandoned it; he could only do so much. Ratagan would have to solve the problem herself.
She knew, better than anyone present, Finlay’s feeling of being trapped, and was prepared to make allowances. She sat at her bridal feast, her back straight, her hair adorned with gold, and smiled, and nodded, and longed for it to be over.
Thorfinn’s harpist had sailed from Birsay for the occasion, and the crowd simmered and seethed and squashed itself down to hear his latest musical tribute to Thorfinn. The man felt challenged by the presence of a wandering harpist, and as soon as the tribute was delivered and received Thorfinn’s approval, he moved onto songs known to them all and the mood of the hall changed. Ratagan’s attention wandered as voices mingled with the music.
Gille mac Malbride sat in animated discussion with the travelling harpist while Thora stared at Gille like a child at a feast.Thorfinn had his head in the lap of a buxom slave, and toyed with the girl’s long golden hair. He might be dreaming of his wife, but Ratagan doubted it. Erik whispered softly in Frida’s ear while she giggled and her husband glared at them both. Ross was fast asleep in a corner, his mouth open, oblivious to everyone and everything.
Ratagan’s lips twitched, and, forgetful, she turned to Finlay. The rush light flashed off the gold wheel brooch at his shoulder as he straightened and glared at someone across the width of the room. Ratagan glanced around, saw nothing of note and frowned. The harpist’s song burst upon her awareness; an old tale of a young man forced to give up his true love to an older, more powerful lord.
She turned at once and looked for Hundi. She found him in the hazy, smoky light at the back of the hall and he was glaring at her husband with a mixture of challenge and contempt in his face. Ratagan made to rise from the board. Finlay trapped her wrist without taking his eyes off Hundi, who turned and headed for the door. Finlay spoke to his wife for the first time that evening. “Sit. Smile. You should not leave without me.”

She hesitated. No one had ever spoken to her like this; but he could physically stop her leaving or he could choose to leave with her. If he suspected her of wishing to meet Hundi, then she had better stay. “This once, perhaps, I shall stay.”
His eyes widened and his brows lifted. “What makes you think you have a choice?”

Her heart sank. She had no stomach for another argument, but sarcastic words slipped out before she could stop them. “Shall I address you as your Grace now, or will my Lord suffice?”

Finlay’s jaw muscles flexed and he stared at her down the length of his splendid nose. “There is no need to be caustic, Rada. This marriage was more your idea than mine, and you’ve got what you wanted. It may take me longer to adjust, but adjust I shall, given time. If you are wise, you will not try and engage me in argument tonight.”
So he did not want to argue either. Reflectively, head on one side, she regarded him. “I think it was Thorfinn’s idea more than mine, so please place the blame where it is due.”

There was no response. He did not even blink. “Silence always makes me defensive,” she said.
“And you’ll prod away until you get a response, I suppose?” He sighed, and glanced round. “You’re right; we should be seen to talk to each other at our wedding feast.”
Ratagan smiled. “Sulking is so childish, don’t you think? I grew out of it years ago.”
His gaze rose from the low neck of her gown and came to rest on her mouth. “I have always thought public displays of temper to be ill-bred.” He lifted his goblet and drank for the first time that evening.
“Are you calling me ill-bred?”
“No. I merely said that to—”
“I ought to have guessed.” She leaned towards him. “You’re filled with pride! What’s so wonderful, I’d like to know, about your bloodlines?”

“Descended from kings on both sides.” His smile was mockingly inviting. “What about you?”
“Not from kings, but Sigurd was a man to be honored and my grandfather an Irish chieftain of repute—not a king who murdered to get his crown!”
Finlay drained his goblet in one long swallow. “I thought all Irish kings murdered to get a crown,” he said mildly. “I suppose, then, that you inherited your temper from your grandfather.”
Her eye had lingered on the line of his throat as he drank, but her face altered at his words. “Don’t you dare!” Hastily she lowered her voice and leaned closer as nearby heads turned. “Just because your mother was jealous of mine, there’s no need for you to insult my grandfather!”

Finlay stared at her. “Are you nervous?” he asked at last. “Is that why you are driving us closer to an argument?”
She stiffened but before she could reply he said quickly, “Here’s a thought for you: I can supply the bloodlines you lack for any child we make tonight.” He rose to his feet and held out his palm. “That’s what we’re supposed to do, isn’t it? Should we not complete the contract in private?”

His hand closed about her fingers like a vice. Conscious of the many watching eyes, she accompanied him gracefully from the hall and tried to ignore the rising chorus of growls, yelps and explicit instructions from the rabble.
Publishing details: The Banners of Alba is available as e- and POD from , and ISBN: 1 59431 326 1

Monday, August 23, 2010

Fashion in the Sixteenth Century French Court

Living at court was expensive for everyone. Henry III demanded high standards of dress from his courtiers. It was a requirement that every gentleman must possess at least thirty suits, the jacket short and pointed, and never wear the same clothes two days running. These must be of the finest silks and satins and bright of colour. The cloak or mantle must be placed just so over one shoulder, and allowed to fall from the other. One sleeve of the doublet should be worn loose at the wrist, and the other tightly buttoned. Gloves of scented leather were popular, and when on horseback cavaliers were expected to ride with a drawn sword in their hand.

Catherine de Medicis first introduced the fashion of ruffs to France, but Henri’s mignons favoured the tall ruff, so stiff that it crackled, a fashion which soon became the object of much satire and caricature.

Ladies wore the skirts of their dresses open in front to display a richly coloured petticoat. The sleeves were full and often attached separately, and the gown cut daringly low in the neck. It was the fashion to wear a blond peruke, which Margot would do on grand occasions, atop which would be a cap adorned with plumes and jewels.

This is Louise de Lorraine, Queen of Henry Trois whose hair he loved to dress.In her later years it was Catherine's daughter Marguerite de Valois who was considered the leader of fashion.

Here is a description of Margot in my book Hostage Queen as she prepares to meet the Portuguese ambassadors who have come to consider her as a possible bride for their King.

Pride and fear of the Queen Mother ensured that Margot look her best for the ambassadors. She bathed in warm scented rose oil, and Madame de Curton patted her dry before smoothing more fragrant unguents over her soft skin. The law strictly forbade any artisan or common bourgeoise to wear silk, which was permitted only for those of noble birth as it signified social prominence and power. Margot’s own chemise and petticoats were of the finest, costing more than some people earned in an entire year, as was her boned corset that cinched in her tiny waist, and the high lace edged collar that framed her beautiful face and her lovely bosom, so firm and white it billowed delightfully above the neck of her gown. The mere sight of it was meant to entice Guise to kiss it.

It was for him that she dressed this evening, her would-be lover whom she wished to impress, not the Portuguese ambassadors.

Margot had a natural talent for style and was already becoming a leader of fashion at her brother’s court. She knew how to adapt a gown, a dainty cap or ornament into something charming and desirable. The ladies and maids of honour would emulate the design, hoping to borrow some of the wearer’s beauty.

Her gown this evening was of cloth of crinkled gold tissue, the richest and most costly in her wardrobe. Diamond pendants in the shape of stars hung at her ears and adorned her throat. Her hair, which was dark and not considered to be a fashionable colour, suited her perfectly, enhancing her chestnut eyes. She had Madame de Curton twist and curl and arrange it high upon her head in the style favoured by her beloved late sister, the Queen of Spain. A touch of colour to her cheeks and lips and lashes, and she was ready.

Margot, however, was very nearly eclipsed by the dazzling magnificence of her own brother. Henri was resplendent in a doublet and hose in a delicate leaf green, threaded with gold and silver, a white lace ruff of immense proportions about his slender neck. His dark hair was brushed up into curls behind his cap, and he smelled divinely of violet water.

The Portuguese ambassadors marvelled at the sight of such a fop, seeming more Italian than French with his olive skin and long eyes, and so very effeminate. He had clearly taken as much trouble over his toilette as many of the ladies.

Indeed he had.

His favourites, or mignons as they were called, loved adornment, and happily advised the valets, or made comments as the King’s hair was curled with hot tongues till it smoked with the heat, then dusted with violet scented powder. One plucked his eyebrows, leaving a clearly defined arc above each elongated eye, while another prepared a paste of rose water and cypress oil to apply to his cheeks, forehead, and neck. Last of all, the chief valet knelt before the King, gently tugged on his beard to open his mouth, then after rubbing a white powder on to his gums, took some false teeth from a tiny cedar wood box and fitted each one wherever there was a space. With his beard washed with perfumed soap and water, and neatly brushed, Henri was at last ready.

In the court of sixteenth century France, style was everything.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Long and Short of Reading -- And Writing

This past week several of us had a discussion on trends in reading and therefore, writing. Like many of us I’m a life long reader. How many of us were the ones back even in grammar school who preferred sitting with a good book than hanging around people? I was one. I was happiest sitting in my room, reading. The weekly trip to the library, as I recall on Wednesday nights when they were open late, were the high point of my week. More than once the librarian would speak with my mother about the kinds of books I wanted to check out because, in her opinion, they were beyond your average grammar school kid’s reading level. Talk about annoying! More nights than you can count were spent huddling under the covers with a flashlight and my latest read. My dad had a collection of the world’s greatest literature as well as the complete collection of Charles Dickens, in leather-bound volumes, which I still have.

Fast forward to my first job after college. Well, actually it was my second job—my first one wasn’t too far from where I lived and I drove to work. This job was just outside New York City and I took the Long Island Railroad to work. There I was, twenty-one to twenty-two years old and feeling like such an adult taking the train to work. At night I’d sit in the bar car and have a cocktail like all the other business-type people and even though I didn't care much for the drinks, feeling like a major grown up was fun. In retrospect, I must have looked utterly dumb.

But, each way, I read and my favorite books were the long ones. Books like The Ladies of the Club and The Far Pavilions were favorites because they took me more than a day to read and the characters became as familiar to me as the regulars on the train. The first romances I read, as I’ve said before, were Rosemary Rogers and Kathleen Woodiwiss. Ms. Rogers Steve and Ginny books are in the range of 600 pages and many of Ms. Woodiwiss’ such as Shana and Ashes in the Wind are in that neighborhood. My paradigm is that romances are long reads where you become immersed in the characters’ lives and see them through more than one adventure.

Consider Ginny Brandon-Morgan in Sweet Savage Love. We see her as a teen anticipating her first ball, she comes to America and travels west, finds herself in the middle of the Mexican Revolution, sees the beginning of the end and has a series of adventures in between. Alana in Ashes in the Wind is no slouch in the events setting the course of her life – she is accused of murder, poses as a young boy, witnesses events of the American Civil War and it’s aftermath and finds herself in Minnesota with a husband I think most of us are a little in love with. But before she can come to terms with her feelings about him her life is put in danger.

The earlier romances, no, not the Barbara Cartlands’ you can read in two hours, but the other icons of our genre, were all longer books. Stories took place not over a few days, but months; sometimes years. Even with the longer books, if I got down to the last 100 pages I always had the next book in hand because I couldn’t imagine commuting without reading.

This week I saw some stats about how shorter books are not more popular than longer ones. It gave me pause and then some things to think about.

I first “discovered” ebooks in 2001 and with my Franklin Ebookman in hand I didn't have to concern myself with carrying a second book with me just in case I finished the first. No, with my Franklin I could have 200 books all set and ready to go. Having a longer book on hand became less of a concern. And convenient? A few ounces weighing less than a 300 page paperback. The Franklin, and later my Palm, were the perfect platforms for smaller books and I bought my fair share of novellas.

But with those novellas I often felt like something was missing. While the stories can evoke an emotional response, I don’t feel like I really get to know the characters. They have one, maybe two, incidents, fall in love in a day, maybe two and ride into the sunset together. I’d read the blurbs for some of them and anticipate an action packed read only to find it over before it began. Story lines seem thin with little time for the reader to connect to the characters.

I tend to write longer books. Yes, I have 3 novellas out with a fourth on the way to round out my Four Cups series but in actuality, they could be combined into one book. Each story is about 100 pages and picks up where the other ended. The series is about four women looking at breaking out of one career and moving into another and the how the men in their lives stand by them. So while each part is short, the end result is a full length novel.

I recently had an editor ask me to cut down my paragraphs into four, maybe five sentences. To find a break point in ones that were longer and limit the number of sentences. The reason – they play better on an e-reader. The size of the screens is conducive to shorter paragraphs rather than longer ones. So instead of describing a room in terms of sight, sound and smells, I needed a separate paragraph for each. It made sense in that context but it made for a change in my writing style.

In light of the discussion this week I thought more about the books I’ve been reading lately. Even in the longer ones which now run from 280-310 pages, the hero and heroine more or less have one incident that brings them together, they fall in love in a week or two at the most, have their dark moment and then their happy ever after. Okay, that’s a general summation. But it’s a summation of what I have seen lately.

Initially I thought the higher novella sellers were primarily eroticas, but another author said no, her mainstream less steamy novellas sold as well as her eroticas did. So that led me to think it is more a sign of our times.

When is the last time you sat down and wrote a letter? For me it was 2004 when my uncle died. I began to correspond with one of his fellow priests who wasn’t much into computers so we wrote letters. Since then, for the most part, I correspond by email. Even my aunt, who is in her mid-80’s, communicates not just via email, but she’s a huge presence on Facebook.

We live in a cut-to-the chase world of 140 characters so it stands to reason we aren’t inclined to sit down and spend hours reading a book. Or are we?

My favorite days are those that are slightly cool, sitting under an afghan, the cats curled against me with a book. It doesn’t matter if it’s a print book or an ebook, but it has to be a book – a full length story where I get to know the characters, see what they are seeing and maybe miss them a bit when the story ends.

What is your preference?

Print of e?

Long or short?

And why?

Do you feel a connection to the characters if you have 50-90 pages to get to know them?

Do you prefer stand alone books or series?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Australian Pioneer Women

The diaries of pioneer women are something which I not only collect but also use for research material in writing my own novels, such as Kitty McKenzie's Land, and other novels I've written - books set in my country, Australia, during the Victorian era.

These brave and resourceful women encountered conditions which would test their resilience and resourcefulness to the utmost: relentless heat, dust and isolation; and no doctors or pioneer women featured who faced the risk of dying from malaria, the scourge of tropical Australia.
Many women lived in wooden huts or tin sheds with concrete floors, cooked on wood-fired stoves, and lacked any of the domestic appliances we take for granted today.

Georgiana Molloy and the Brussell women tamed hectares of virgin bush with primitive implements. Myrtle White was trapped among sand hills, the fine grains invading her home and impeding her harrowing attempts to get her feverish baby son to the doctor before he died.
White's predicament was quoted by the Rev John Flynn while raising funds for his Flying Doctor service.The outback was indeed 'no place for a lady'.

Yet many women with no previous experience of hardship rose to the challenge of creating homes, nursing farming - and keeping journals, which provided a startling vivid picture of the life they faced - part of the outback legend.

The book 'Great Pioneer Women of the Outback' profiles ten female pioneers, from Jeannie Gunn, author of 'We of the Never Never' to equally remarkable but lesser known women, such as Emma Withnell in Western Australia and Evelyn Maunsell in Queensland.

Building on the women's own records and her knowledge of Australian women's history, author Susanna de Vries documents the extraordinary grit and determination it took to build lives that their grandchildren have difficulty in comprehending but some older Australians still remember.

'Great Pioneer Women of the Outback' features women pioneering in some of the harshest land in Western Australia, Queensland, South Australia, the Northern Territory and New South Wales.
Distributor: Harper Collins
Author: Susanna De Vries
ISBN: 0732276632

For my own stories I find the strength of pioneer women fascinating. Their stories sometimes seem too outlandish to be true. If you wrote down half of the things they had to endure, readers would think we wrote fantasy. Yet, these women survived such harsh primitive conditions, rearing children, working beside their men and coping with the demands of running not only a home but usually a large station and staff.

For more information about the great books Susanna de vries has written you can visit her website:

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Gorgeous Men in Tight Breeches and Ruffled Shirts

Today we'll talk about men's clothes in the Regency era, which occurred about two hundred years ago in England. This post is a primer on the subject, because I'm no expert. But in order for my stories to ring true, I must know how to dress--and undress--my hero.

Our modern world began to take shape in the Regency. Many facets of the era are recognizable to our eyes, including men's clothes.

Here’s a list the Regency gentleman's wardrobe, and the modern equivalent, as close as I can find: (I apologize for the ragged table, but blogger is not cooperating.)




undershirt--no equivalent




belt--no equivalent

boxer shorts--drawers

trousers--breeches, pantaloons, trousers (the Regency gentleman had 3 lengths)

socks--stockings (not quite the same)



Fabrics of choice were wool and linen because they were produced in the British Isles. Imported fabrics, like silk, and our everyday workhorse material, cotton, were luxury items and used mainly by the rich.

Here's a description of male attire from my Regency time travel, Lady of the Stars. The twenty-first century heroine, Caroline, gets her first good look at the Regency hero, Richard:

Good heavens, the aggravating man was gorgeous. Tall and slim, his broad shoulders tapered to narrow hips and long legs. But where had he found that outlandish outfit? He wore a top hat, out here in the middle of nowhere. His shirt collar was turned up and he wore a huge white tie. And his waist-length, double-breasted jacket had tails, like the one an orchestra conductor wore. Muddy black boots with the tops turned down came up to his knees. Skintight trousers, or were those breeches--of all things?--emphasized every well-formed muscle.

This passage illustrates another aspect of Regency men's clothes: they were tight. A man's coat often fit so closely he needed help putting it on, and then he might be unable to lift his arms as high as his shoulders. Form-fitting breeches literally left little to the imagination. Then, as now, such clothes could look good only on men with the best physiques, like romance novel heroes.

The Regency hero--a handsome man with a great physique and gorgeous clothes. What a fantasy. Stay tuned for part 2.

Thank you all,

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Censorship. How Far Have We Come since FOREVER AMBER?

Back in mid 20th Century, erotica and erotic romance was hidden in dark bookshops off the main thoroughfare. You wouldn't want to be seen going into one. Interesting to compare the reception the book - Forever Amber got when it was published in 1944 with those published today without an eyebrow raised. It was definitely mild by today's standards.

While many reviewers "praised the story for its relevance, comparing Amber's fortitude during the plague and fire to that of the women who held hearth and home together through the blitzes of World War II", others condemned it for its blatant sexual references. Fourteen U.S. states banned the book as pornography. The first was Massachusetts, whose attorney general cited 70 references to sexual intercourse, 39 illegitimate pregnancies, 7 abortions, and "10 descriptions of women undressing in front of men" as reasons for banning the novel. Winsor denied that her book was particularly daring, and said that she had no interest in explicit scenes. "I wrote only two sexy passages," Winsor remarked, "and my publishers took both of them out. They put in ellipsis instead. In those days, you know, you could solve everything with an ellipsis."

Despite, or perhaps because of its banning, Winsor's Forever Amber was the best-selling US novel of the 1940s. It sold over 100,000 copies in its first week of release, and went on to sell over three million copies. Amber became a popular girl's name.

The Catholic Church condemned the book for indecency, which no doubt added to its popularity. One critic went so far as to number each of the passages to which he objected. The film was finally completed after substantial changes to the script were made, toning down some of the book's most objectionable passages in order to appease Catholic media critics. The film was too long, repetitious and dull and suffers from its inability to detail the eroticism of the story due to 1940s censorship. The Motion Picture Production Code was the set of industry censorship guidelines which governed the production of the vast majority of United States motion pictures released by major studios from 1930 to 1968. It was originally popularly known as the Hays Code, after its creator, Will H. Hays.

A 21st Century movie would not suffer the same problems, but it would now have to tantalize a far more sophisticated audience.

Erotic novels also suffer the same problem, and maybe why they are delving more and more into subjects that were not too long ago, taboo. One might ask where do we go from here?

Sources: Wiki and Rotten Tomatoes

Monday, August 16, 2010

So Just When Do We Become "Historical"? Thoughts from Regan Taylor

I started to think about this the other day when, after my muse hiding for a bit over a month, I returned to writing. I'd open up a file and feel nothing. I'd bring up a blank page to start a new book thinking it would help and it didn't. And finally, digging into revising The Photograph to prepare it for submission, my muse peaed around the corner. And instead of creating, she brought to my attention some things I needed to consider, such as when does a book actually become a historical.

To me "historicals" were stories that took place from any time in the past through the American Civil War. There were stories where clothing was quite different from what we wear today, food not quite as varied, travel a bit harder and entertainment not as readily available. Heroes were brave and cunning and always in charge. They could also be jerks such as Vikings pillaging a Saxon village before taking the beautiful princess captive and winning her heart. And the heroines would fight as best they could but were always overpowered by wide shouldered, broad chested heroes with flowing hair, narrow hips and big you-know-whats. They took place in ancient Egypt or Greece or Rome. They were adventures set during the Norman-Saxon wars or during the birth of America. For the most part, looking back now, war or some sort of dispute laid at the center of the tale. Or which side of the tracks the couple was born on caused the couples to initially believe they didn't suit.

When I first saw a call for submissions for historicals set in WWI through Viet Nam I had to stop and think about it. Historical? Viet Nam? Hard to believe it happened forty odd years ago. And how our world has changed since then. But it still doesn't feel like it is historical to me. Yet some forty years later, it is, isn't it?  The calls for submissions setting the criteria focused on beginnings and endings with war. Not Victorian innovations (except for Steam Punk), or the Roaring 20's or travel into space -- and those first Sputnik and Mercury launches would fit in that historical criteria given the years involved.

Stories set in the 20th century open the door for more intriguing stories in terms of cross-culturalism. Read many of the earlier romances, ones written in the 70s-90s and the only multi-racial mariages you find are either white women falling in love with Indian captors or a rare hispanic/white marriage. Rosemary Rogers was, in many ways, ahead of her time with Steve Morgan being half Mexican and Lucas Cord being half white, half Apache or half Mexican depending on what he believed at a given point in THE WILDEST HEART. But with the opening of the east, or rather re-opening because after all, Marco Polo did open up the east so long ago, the opportunities to explore cross-cultural marriage abound.

When I first conceived of The Photograph it was early on in my writing career and while DVDs were around, they weren't quite as popular as they are today. I'd toyed with the idea of the story but didn't write it till the past couple of years. It was one of those things I kept meaning to do and finally planted my fanny down and did. But back when I was considering it, video stores were in every town and city and who heard of Netflix? I certainly hadn't. From the time I started writing it till today we moved not only from video cassetts to DVDs, now we have Blue Rays and can download movies right on to our computers or TV sets. I've had to give thought as to whether and why my heroine would go to a video store instead of just downloading the movie of her choice on to her TV.

In the past few years I had the opportunity to read all of Tess Gerritsen's books, starting with her first from 1987. Back then smoking was common, cell phones were around but they certainly weren't common or as convenient in size as they are today. In the short span of 23 years so much technology has changed. That led me to wonder if perhaps the late 80's might fall into the purview of historical given how much our world has changed.

It seems to me writing a time travel a few years ago would have been much simpler because while our technology changed and developed, it didn't happen quite as fast as it has today. My heroine in The Photograph is an avid reader. She has thousands of books. But when I first conceived the story ebooks were a small elite community of readers. The advent of better and more affordable devices has changed our reading paradigm. The question I ask now is if I need to change her home library which features floor to ceiling book shelves needs to become a jam packed ereader. But if I did that, my hero wouldn't have the opportunity to see and aprpeciate so many books. There's something romantic (as a reader) to pull a book off a shelf and cuddle with my guy to read a particularly juicy scene and then ... discuss it. Holding a book between the two of us is a connection, a shared moment. I haven't tried it yet with a reader. At what point will having a book, a tangible book, in a story make it a historical? Given our leaps in technology, when will we set the bar to what is considered historical?

For me, I still love stories set before the American Civil war. For some reason they hold more romance, more of a connection between the heroes and heroines.

Friday, August 6, 2010

"His Last Duchess" - Giveaway and interview with Gabrielle Kimm

Deborah Swift: Gabrielle Kimm and I met at an awards ceremony in the UK where our then unpublished books were shortlisted for the Impress Prize for New Writers. By chance we were staying at the same place and got chatting. We found we were both writing historical fiction, and when I read an extract of Gabrielle's work I loved it and could not wait to see the rest of it in print. Neither of us won the prize, and it has taken us a while to finish our books and find our respective publishers, but we have kept in touch ever since. Both of us have had our debut novels published this year which has been great, as we have been able to compare notes about the whole process and share in each others success.

Gabrielle's book - His Last Duchess, out today, is based on the poem "My Last Duchess" by Robert Browning. Like many other people I remember the poem from studying it at school, and I thought it was a fantastic idea for a book - the sort of idea you are amazed nobody else has thought of - so I asked Gabrielle to tell me a little about this process - the transition from poem to novel.

 "How does a classic poem become a novel?"

Gabrielle: "I first met Browning's 'My Last Duchess' as an undergraduate and loved it. Then many years later, I rediscovered it when teaching GCSE English (it's in the AQA GCSE Poetry Anthology). It quickly dawned on me that the back-story to this extraodinary piece of writing would make a wonderful novel. It was all there, I thought: a complex and difficult central character, a raft of unanswered questions and a heroine in jeopardy, all set in glorious sixteenth century Italy. My mind raced off at once, and I spent several hours that day, frantically scribbling down all my ideas before they disappeared.

Right at the start, I spent ages mulling over the character of the duke, and worrying about the fact that the duchess, as described in the poem, seemed decidedly unattractive! According to Browning, the duke is proud - of his place in his family's dynasty, and of his prowess as a conoisseur of the arts - and he is highly articulate, despite his insistence that he has 'no skill in speech'. But I also reckoned that he is beset by self-doubt and inklings of paranoia - amongst several understated admissions, he tacitly admits to a very telling fear of losing face, saying as he does that he chooses 'never to stoop'.

The duchess is described by her husband in less than glowing terms: 'She liked whate'er she looked on, and her looks went everywhere'. That, I reckoned, implied that she was either a sort of sweet natured airhead, lacking any sort of discrimination, or she was an atrocious flirt. Neither possibility appealed to me in any way at all.

But then it struck me that the poem's only source of evidence for the character of the duchess - was the duke. The man who admits to having had her permanently silenced. How trustworthy could I believe him to be? Might the duchess actually be something very different: either wilfully misrepresented by the duke to place himself in a better light, or mistakenly believed by the duke to be something other than she is, because of some major psychological flaw in his own character?

Discovering the answers to these questions has been what has lain at the heart of the writing of this novel, and I have wondered on countless occasions at the skill of a poet who , in a mere fifty six lines, has created a character and a scenario that has engaged and intrigued me to the point of obsession for - literally - years! Little snippets of the poem form the basis of several key scenes in the novel - but I'd rather not pick them out - that's for the reader to do as they work their way through the book!

There has of course been mountains of painstaking research - everything from papal edicts and political machinations to how the average bloke kept his hose from falling down. Personally I love the research almost as much as the writing - which is just as well, as the genre dictates such minute investigations into almost everything!

Deborah: So there you have it. I know what she means about the research! Thanks to Gabrielle for taking the time to drop by.

Here is the official blurb about the book -

When sixteen-year-old Lucrezia de' Medici marries the fifth Duke of Ferrara, Alfonso d'Este, she imagines life with her handsome husband will be idyllic. But little does she know that he is a very complicated man. The marriage is fraught with difficulties from the start, and, as time passes, Lucrezia becomes increasingly alienated. For Alfonso, the pressure mounts as the Vatican threatens to reclaim his title should the couple remain unable to produce an heir. Only his lover Francesca seems able to tame his increasing fury. But Alfonso's growing resentment towards his duchess soon becomes unbearable, and he begins to plot an unthinkable way to escape his problems. Originally inspired by a Robert Browning poem, His Last Duchess gorgeously brings to life the passions and people of sixteenth-century Tuscany and Ferrara. It is a story you are unlikely to forget for a long time.

If you would like to win a copy of "His Last Duchess" Gabrielle has kindly offered a signed copy as a giveaway. Just leave a comment on the blog to be entered for the draw. Open worldwide. Closing date 31 August.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Saxon Tapestry

In the Uk a new series has started on television. It's all about the Normans, so I thought it appropriate to post an extract from my new novel. A Saxon Tapestry, as the title suggests, tells the story from the Anglo-Saxon point of view. I am pro-Anglo-Saxon and anti-Norman!

Originally published by Robert Hale Limited as "The Saxon Tapestry" this new version is available in print and e-book and kindle from or

A Saxon Tapestry - Excerpt

A small cage had been constructed, just large enough for the boy to sit in. He could not stand or lay down, but twice a day he was taken out and exercised. Ivo had put a collar about the boy’s neck, and the duty guard would tie a length of rope to the collar and pull the boy about. It always caused a great deal of amusement, but Le Blond somehow could not enjoy the humiliation and left the scene.
Le Blond’s cheeks still bore the scars from the boy’s long nails, and he had ordered his nails to be cut. He didn’t think the guards would have cut the nails gently, but even he was unprepared for the swollen tips of the boy’s fingers as he swung the flaming torch down into the cage and the boy, startled by the sudden furious light, covered his face with his hands.
“I do not understand you,” Le Blond murmured, almost to himself. “You walk to no set pattern. You are either a sniveling coward that no man can respect, or a fool who dares my patience. You change moods as suddenly as a woman at her moon time. I don’t want to treat you like this, but you test me so!”
He poured a measure of wine into a goblet and thrust it through the bars. The swollen fingers seized the goblet, and for a moment he thought the lad was tempted to throw it back in his face, but it was cold and the wine would be warm and whatever else he was, the lad was no fool. He drank greedily, then pushed the goblet back through the bars. Le Blond refilled it with a faint chuckle.
“Come, Alfred, give in, be my companion. God alone knows there is no intelligent company to amuse me.”
“Never. You have no right; you are trespassing on my land.”
Le Blond crouched low on his haunches, peering into the cage at the boy. How thin about the face he had become; gone was that slightly cherubic, innocent roundness, and in its place was an unpleasant wolfish leanness. “I have won by right of battle. I am the victor and this…” He waved a hand. “…is the spoil. Why will you not accept the inevitable? I should put you to the sword, but if you do as I wish, then I will fight to have you pardoned. I swear it.”
“Pardoned from what, pray?”
“For being a Godwineson. You know that the king hates all Harold’s family, yet he lets his sons live. When time has softened his memory, he will pardon you too. I am sure of it. Be sensible, Alfred.”
“You must be uneasy in your ownership, Rolf Le Blond, to let me trouble you so.”
“Perhaps my heart is kind, or maybe looking at you as you look now, my head is soft from too many blows. Think over what I have said. You have until tomorrow to decide. Bend the knee to me; that is all I ask. Promise me you will cause no trouble or do things against us...”
“And if I refuse?”
“There is little point in prolonging your agony. You will be executed at dusk.”
Alfled handed back the goblet. She could feel the wine warming her belly; it stilled her chattering teeth and made her forget her stiff limbs.
“One thing,” she asked. “I am curious, were it my sister left, what fate was to have been hers?”
“She was to be sold into slavery.”
“You would have done that…sold my sister?”
“I cannot say, truly I cannot.”
“It is hardly fair what you ask. You do not offer me the chance to escape?”
“I dare not, boy. It could all fall on my head should you find an army of supporters.”
* * * *
At one time in the night when the temperature was so low she could hardly breathe without pain, when her limbs were so stiff she could not feel them, Alfled felt that death would be a wonderful fate. Le Blond would have her executed swiftly. She knew she would not be tortured to death; perhaps he would hang her, or have a dozen archers shoot their arrows into her body. Maybe he would have her beheaded, but whatever the method, it would be over quickly.
Then as the dawn came, and the hall and its environs came to life, as the cock crowed and the dogs barked, the horses neighed with pleasure and human voices could be heard on the sharp morning air, she knew she would not take a step that might just lead to total blackness.
Part of her believed what the priests had told her, and she could even visualize the great golden gates of Heaven, but so too did she hear her brothers scoffing about it and declaring that there was no such place because if there were, it would be more crowded than Friday night at a London whore shop. No, she was afraid to take the big step voluntarily into the next world. There just might not be a next world, and she was young…so very young.
“The seigneur would have your answer.”
One of the house servants who knew her identity had come to ask the question. He looked at her fearfully; shame for the sorry state she had found herself in caused his cheeks to burn vivid red. There was nothing he could do to protect or save her; he had failed in his duty to the house of Godwine. Alfled read all these things in his face.
“Tell him…tell him…” She began to tremble so violently, speech was impossible.
“For pity’s sake, lady, do as he says,” the man cried.
“Never call me ‘lady,’” she spat. “You fool. I will bow the knee, tell him I will—I swear.”
“Praise be to God,” the servant muttered as he returned to the hall.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Reticule and Ridicule - the often satirized and sometimes political fashion accessories of the Regency era

Satirists christened the reticule - the bag adopted by Regency ladies when their diaphanous dresses allowed no pockets - the ridicule. The reticule spoke of wealth and connections and were a delectable fashion item as well as being practical. Precursor to today's purse, the reticule provided a place to store important things like small parcels, spare change, a handkerchief, a small mirror, perhaps a snuffbox or powder,  smelling salts and letters. The name reticule, most likely came from France, derived from the Latin reticulum the Latin for 'net'.

Reticules frequently featured beading or embroidery and could be quite elaborate. They could be bought from milliners but many ladies made their own, often to match a spencer, parasol, gloves or shoes.

Rectangular and lozenge shaped, they were made of silk and after 1810, increasingly of velvet. During the Napoleonic wars they could be shaped like the military sabretache, each with a tassel from the lowest point. Toward the end of the Regency, they began using clasps as an alternative to the drawstring. They were a source of artistic endeavour, such as those embroidered with floral designs and silver spangles, and even political expression with the silk reticules distributed by the Ladies Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves.

The picture is of the beautiful Madame Recamier, using her expensive shawl to add luxury and sensuality to a very simple muslin gown. Fashionable ladies were spoken of as 'well draped' rather than well-dressed. In France Madame Gardel, a performer of the shawl dance would give instructions in the graces of the shawl. The shawls provided warmth for the evening where spencers were unsuitable.

As gowns grew narrower, muffs grew in size. They were of fur or sealskin and white swansdown for the evening. Muffs allowed the wearer to carry billets-doux and other personal items easily concealed.

The fan was the essential evening accessory, as well as being pretty, they were also practical at assemblies where it was often crowded, hot and airless. Clever use of the fan could draw attention to a lady's eyes whilst concealing her smile. They depicted classical, romantic or fashionable scenes whilst conveying something of the woman's innate taste and sophistication. Political fans played their part in the French Revolution, spreading propaganda or concealing hidden messages of aristocratic support. It is believed that Charlotte Coray carried a fan in one hand as she plunged the knife into Marat.

There is more detail on the Regency on my blog:

Reference material: Sarah Jane Downing: Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen

Vintage Paperback Fun

Back in the 1950's, it took a certain amount of courage to read historical fiction--not because of what lay between the covers, but because of the covers themselves. Some were decidedly titillating, even when the story itself didn't justify it.

Here, for instance, is one of my favorite vintage covers. The lass with the permanent wave is supposed to be Katherine Howard:

As anyone who has read a Jean Plaidy novel knows, the bedroom door is kept firmly shut in her novels. One wouldn't guess this, however, from this 1950's paperback:

(This, by the way, is a novel about Catherine de Medici, who is not known to have been quite so sultry looking.)

This third novel, another Plaidy, is one of my favorite vintage paperbacks. The lady is Elizabeth "Jane" Shore:

Incidentally, The King's Mistress also contains a page where one could mail-order titles as Sin Street, Cage of Lust, Teen-Age Vice, and The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. How the Victorian Wilkie Collins got on the same page as Cage of Lust is anyone's guess, but at three for a dollar, the books were certainly a bargain.