Monday, 27 June 2011

Flash Fiction: Seven Deadly Sins Challenge

I'm taking part in Lady Antimony's Blog Challenge:

Seven Days
Seven Deadly Sins
Seven Flash Fictions up to 100 words
Starting 7/7

I'm a chronic over-writer so this should be a real challenge for me! Where to start?
How can you tell a whole story in just 100 words?

If you're interested in joining the Challenge, pop on over Lady Antimony's Blog and sign yourself up!

Friday, 24 June 2011

Dryads in the Wild

My Work in Progress, Serendipity, is set in 1825. It's heroine (Perdita Moon) is a pragmatic, well dressed spinster, it's hero is a fairy. Well, a Fae Lord.

As the story unfolds Perdita runs into dragons, nymphs and selkies. Her companion, Lulu Larch, has a terrible phobia of being turned into a dryad in situ or in other words... A tree.

So imagine my delight to discover a tribe of dryads strolling through Vogrie country park today... Majestic, spooky and straight out of The Chronicles of Narnia.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Mustard-Pots and Modicums – the Failure of the Female Lexicon

In my previous post, I described a debate raging over on the History Hoydens blog about use of historical terms / archaic references in sex scenes. There is much debate about what is purple and what is acceptable, what jars and what steams but one thing is a constant: descriptions by women of their own body parts are difficult. Beyond difficult, it's fair to say they are politically loaded, rare and challenging.
Commenting on the blog, Maryan makes two points:
  1. The relationship should determine the quantity of description in the sex scene; in a well written narrative it should move the plot and characters along.
  2. Women haven't developed a language to describe "it" ('good girls don't).
Maryan suggests it's time for a new lexicon – I thought that was interesting. In Bringing Past Sex Back to Life is Complicated,

Eloisa James says "although eroticism is culturally, geographically and historically specific, we writers of historical romance sexualize history without regard for the specific epoch in which we set a novel.... we write sex from the point of view of our own contemporary attitudes and mores."

We can see this in the 1980s bodice-rippers, when in order to get it on a hero had to overpower the heroine practically against her will. Whilst traces of this linger in romances today, it's pretty much verboten. A quick squizz at the reviews on Smart Bitches Trashy Books will tell you that readers now aren't fond of the 'he made me do it and I just loved it storylines'. Romance heroines now are more likely to be doing the ripping; they're also more likely to remember to use protection.

More than any other genre of book, I believe that romances reflect contemporary values and perceptions. Perhaps one day we will see a lexicon developing within romantic fiction by women about their own vaginas and sexual organs and then, maybe we'll know that women finally feel ownership over their own bodies and sexuality.

On a less serious note, here's a back catalogue of terms used through the centuries to describe women's 'bits'. The ick factor is fairly high; though some have a certain hilarious charm (masterpiece and modicum quite tickled my fancy)!


Euphemism Century 
Garden C.16-20 
Hairyfordshire 1865 
Jacob's Ladder C.19-20 
Jam-pot C.19-20 
Ketch / Jack Ketch C.18-20 
Lobster-Pot C.19-20 
Mangle 1860 
Masterpiece C.18-20 
Modicum C.1660-1840 
Mouse-Trap 1850 
Mustard-Pot C.19-20 
Old hat C.17 
Oracle C.18
Pillock Hill C.16-17 
Rattle-ballocks C.18-20 
Tit C.18-20 
Tuzzy-Muzzy 1710 
Twait/Twat C.17-20 
Water-box C.19-20 

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Spanking your Belly Ruffian: Archaic Terms for the Common Penis

This post is inspired by an entertaining debate stimulated by Lesley Carroll over on the History Hoydens Blog on purple prose and archaic terms in sex scenes in historical romance. I am in the process of reading yet another wonderful book by Laura Kinsale, this time For my Lady's Heart
(still never read a bad Kinsale, the stakes are rising all the time). It's medieval and makes wonderful and challenging use of archaic medieval language throughout. Not a few sporadic thees and 'tarses but consistent, contextualised convincingly written archaic dialogue that enhances the story and builds the world with extraordinary talent (another string to the marvellous Ms Kinsale's bow). Her love scenes are not exempt from this; they draw upon the cultural references, religious values, knowledge and language of the world she's writing in – and they are wonderful.

On the Hoydens blog, I quoted the use of the word 'quaint' e.g. "he pressed his mouth to her quaint," as an example of Laura Kinsale's characters using their own language to define their body parts. However, seems that my love of this particular style is not shared by all. One woman's piece of contextualised, evocative world-building is, it seems, another's purple prose.

There appears to be something of a debate on whether historical romance authors should go for a modern usage (cock, clit etc), a gilded euphemism (manhood, bundle of nerve etc), or something archaic (tarse, quaint)?

Sex-writing is an area of writing that writers – and readers – have a strong reaction to. Personally, I believe that all language throughout a book should help to build the world and flesh out the characters and love words are no exception to this. If a love scene doesn't forward the character and relationship development, it's not worth having in a romance. I've read well written love scenes ranging from hot and gripping to sweet and romantic in all the afore mentioned styles. Like they say - it's not what you have, it's what you do with it that counts.

However, in the spirit of sharing and because purple is my favourite colour, I thought it would be fun to collate some of the archaic names/euphemisms for your historical male's purple-headed warrior, culled from the undeniably and exquisitely marvellous A Dictionary of Historical Slang by Eric Partridge and Oxford English Dictionary. I present them below, for your delectation. How much fun can you have coming up with historically accurate and extremely foolish chat up lines?

I'll never forget my ex-boyfriend (aged 15) at the Camelot Theme Park asking Lancelot if he could have a glance at his lance... I'm sure you can do better!


EuphemismDate Used
Arbor VitaeC.18-20
Bit of Hard (Stiff)C.19-20
Holy Poker1866
Jockum / JockamC.16-19
John ThomasC.17-19
KnockerFrom 1650
Old AdamC.19-20
Old horney, Hornington C.18-20
Raw MeatC18-20
TadgerC.19-20(North of England)
The Athenaeum1903
The Member for Cockshire1840
Yorkshire Compliment(specifically means, large penis no money)
Zerd/YardOld English

For those exploring this dark and dingy corner of the craft, come and stop by my May 2011 blog post on the icky business of writing sex scenes.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Tea-Drinking through the Centuries: a Romance Author's Guide

I love tea.

I love the ceremony of tea. My favorite birthday present of the last five years was a gorgeous flower printed Cath Kidston tea set, complete with a tiered cake stand. I like to bake. I'm a dab hand with a fruit scone and a positive marvel with a victoria sponge. And cake plus tea plus a pretty tea set equates to afternoon tea heaven. Tea is an integral part of the culture I was born to and the culture to which most Regency heroes and heroines belong.

However, on occasion I've noticed that in the historical romances there is a tendency for heroes and heroines to drink coffee. Indubitably, coffee and chocolate were drunk in the Regency era and yet, I mourn the absence of tea. Tea after all, is a substance as integral to the British psyche as incessant rain. I recently realised that in my stories tea features large. Tea drinking binds friendships, enables gossip and restores the spirits. And yet, I find myself wondering whether I have got it right - or are my characters transgressing all sorts of complex rules of etiquette and anachronisms. Subsequent investigation informs the following guide to habits of tea-drinking through the centuries:

17th Century Tea-Drinking

"And afterwards did send for a Cupp of Tee (a China drink) of which I never drank before".
Samuel Pepys, 25 September 1660

In the 1660s, the Restoration brought England a constitutional monarchy and what was to become its greatest national treasure: tea. Charles II married tea-drinker Catherine of Braganza in 1662 and thereafter tea mania swept the nation. By 1708, 240 pounds of tea were being imported annually.

Tea for her:For your 17th Century heroine, tea was a boudoir activity, to be enjoyed served in a china tea set kept in a closet in my lady's bedchamber when in a state of undress. The first tea sets were imported from China along with the tea and made of delicate porcelain with handle-less cups like the one below. Tea for ladies was bought in loose leaf form from the coffee houses and brewed at home.

Tea for him:For your 17th Century hero, tea was a coffeehouse activity to be enjoyed whilst talking business. In 1657 Thomas Garway started advertising tea in his coffeehouse on Exchange Alley touting its virtues at "making the body active and lusty", and "preserving perfect health until extreme old age." Unfortunately for your hero, the gentleman's cup of tea was considerably less fresh than the ladies'. In the 17th century tea was taxed in liquid form - so the whole day's tea was brewed in the morning, taxed by the excise officer and then kept in a barrel and reheated as necessary. Ugh! It wasn't until 1689 when tea became taxed in its loose leaf form that it became a rather tastier drink.

Two types of tea were likely to be drunk, bohea (black tea) and hyson (green tea), with both offered on the tea table. Your 17th century protagonists may also add milk to their tea, as by the late 17th century this trend had reached England from her continental neighbours in Holland and France. Writing in the mid-17th century, Madame de Sévigné tells us: "Madame de la Sablière took her tea with milk, as she told me the other day, because it was to her taste."

18th Century Tea-Drinking
An exotic import from China, tea was extremely expensive and became more so with the imposition of taxes. It was therefore strongly associated with the wealthy upper classes. This did not however dim the spread of its popularity.

By the mid-18th Century tea sets looked much more like they do now, with globular tea pots and porcelain cups with handles. The 1735 tea set below is one of the earliest complete sets in existence from this period.

The tea canisters above are engraved with initials G., B. and S. for Green tea, Bohea (black) tea and sugar respectively. There is also a tea chest, which the lady of the house would have kept under lock and key to protect so valuable a commodity.

Due to the high rate of taxation, tea smuggling was big business. Your 18th century heroine might therefore have sourced her tea on the black market before drinking it from the new English style porcelain cups with handles. Tea was served either after dinner, or to callers.

Your heroine would unlock the tea chest and then mix her leaves to create her own blend (or use a pre-blended mix). The pot would be warmed with hot water, which was then discarded and then the tea leaves and hot water added. Tea would be poured into individual cups through a strainer. If taking milk, this would generally be added to the cup before the tea was poured. Sugar, imported from Jamaica, was often added to sweeten the bitter flavor.

Tea might be accompanied by crumpets or scra of bread and butter, but the full blown afternoon tea for which England has become famous was not invented until the following century.

One lovely 18th Century development was the creation of the Tea Garden, as visited by Handel and Mozart. Here, tea could be consumed as visitors strolled around lawns and down shady walks, viewing ponds and statues. Between 16th and 19th centuries more than 200 tea and pleasure gardens sprang up in London alone.

Tea drinking in the 18th century was not, however, without its controversies. Its supporters described it as a cure-all, its detractors as injurious to the health and many felt that the poor should be kept from drinking it at all. In 1748 John Wesley, the Methodist preacher argued for complete abstinence from tea claiming it caused 'numberless disorders, particularly those of a nervous kind.' Philanthropist Jonas Hanway claimed that working class mother's would neglect and starve their children, to spend their money and their time on drinking tea.

One sinister aspect of tea-drinking in the 18th Century was the widespread adulteration of tea, with added ingredients such as sheep dung and hawthorne used to pad it out and poisonous dyes like copper carbonate and lead chromate used to turn it green. The use of dangerous dyes like this in green tea is one of the reasons black tea became more popular.

19th Century (Regency and Victorian) Tea-Drinking
Ironically, in the 19th Century John Wesley's methodists brought tea to the forefront of the temperance movement and teashops and tearooms began to open across the country. By the 19th Century, tea drinking was habitual throughout all the classes, drunk at breakfast and throughout the day.

Prior to the 19th century, people typically ate dinner fairly early at five or six o'clock. By the early 19th century however, upper class dining habits were changing. People would be likely to have a substantial breakfast and at 1pm, a light luncheon but dinner was not served until seven or 8pm. In 1841 Anna Maria, the Duchess of Bedford, therefore started a trend for tea to be served with moderate sustenance at around 4 or 5pm: the afternoon tea was born. As with her 17th century forebears, this was a social occasion - guests would be invited on the expectation they would depart by 7pm, in time for the fashionable promenade around Hyde Park. Upper class afternoon tea was a light repast, with delicate sandwiches, scones and dainty cakes served prettily presented on china plates. Despite the relative informality, ritual and etiquette were paramount. The hostess would pour and any gentlemen present would hand round the cups.

Working class eating habits were also changing as the nation became more industrialised. In agricultural society lunch had been the main meal of the day but this was inconvenient for people working in factories. For the middle and working classes, high tea became the order of the day, with tea served at 5pm or 6pm along with hearty food.

For the regency romance author tea therefore can be a subtle indicator of social status. The fastidious upper class mama in law dropping round to pay a call on her son's proposed fiancee can note a table weighed down with pie, tarts, jellies, meat and cheese and comprehend immediately that her prospective daughter in law springs from the middle classes and snobbishly decide that her family are undesirable 'cits' or 'mushrooms'.

Or perhaps to illustrate extreme vulgarity, an author can depict a gentlemen tipping his spilled tea from his saucer back into his cup - or worse still, drinking it from the saucer itself!

Not a tea drinker?

Then try this great post about chocolate from those clever word wenches.

Mad about Tea? For further reading see:
All you need to know about Tea, by the UK Tea Council
Beautiful Rococo Tea Equipage
Georgian Index on Tea
Tea and Pleasure Gardens in London

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Harlequin Love Inspired by Granny

My Granny died before I was born. My little sister and I are the only ones amongst her twenty five grandchildren never to have met her.

I know certain facts about her. I know she was born in 1899. I know she was one of the first women to graduate with a medical degree from Manchester University, but never practised medicine. I know that later in life she went on to do a business degree, but never ran a business. I know that she lived in Manchester all her life. I know that she had three children and twenty five grandchildren. I know that she wore lace dresses, walked for miles and attended St Winifred's church every day.

And I know certain apocryphal stories. There's the tale that her husband gave her an emerald ring his birthday to express his gratitude that she was his wife. And the rumor that she carried on an impassioned correspondence with a catholic priest who had been billeted with them during the war. Letters that were allegedly destroyed after her death, leaving her grandchildren filled with rampant speculation.

And then there are the items she left behind. A wardrobe full of fur coats. I used to stroke the sleek, soft sleeves when I was little and imagine I could brush through them and find myself in Narnia. A worn but serene statue of the Virgin Mary who smiled down at us from the carved welsh dresser throughout childhood. And then there were her stories.

Granny was a writer.

Not just any old writer. A romance writer. We have a box filled with clippings of the stories she had published, yellowing and fragile with age. We have the tiny book in which she recorded her writing income in shillings and half pence - foreign currency to decimalised me.
"In all these long years there seems not a stick or stone that is altered; just as though time had stood still in this enchanted corner of the earth!"

Granny didn't leave a diary. Her letters were destroyed. Her stories are the only words I have left of her. And they are fascinating. Not because they are high brow literature - they aren't - but because of what they hint about the woman who founded my family and the times in which she lived.

Between 1932 - 1952 Granny published more than twenty stories. She started writing just before the birth of her youngest child and continued well into her middle age. Her published stories span two decades which saw war, austerity and a rapidly changing post-war world.

"Before the eyes of her mind the great purple mountains of Connemara reared their mist-crowned heads above a lough of shimmering silver that was set in the ebony bogland."

Granny was a second generation Irish catholic immigrant. She barely set foot in Ireland her entire life, yet her misty eyed attachment to the Emerald Isle permeates practically all of her work. When I travelled to Connemara ten years ago, it was my second visit to the county. I had been taken there first by Granny's stories. I expected black stone walls and patchwork fields ringed by misty mountains. I expected to see bare foot girls with streaming black hair running across the fields.

Many of Granny's characters return to Ireland after an absence where their material success and change in class has led to an erosion of their religious faith - a conflict which she must have witnessed frequently in her own circles. Her characters' return to Ireland and often a reunion with a childhood sweetheart is usually the catalyst for faith to be renewed. Granny's fantasy, her re-imagining of Ireland is as the wellspring of simple faith and love.
"She felt it was impossible to pray, and stifled her conscience with an adopted air of cynicism; but beneath it all she was restless and unhappy, although she refused to admit it even to herself."

This theme of faith is very strong in Granny's stories. True love comes to those who believe and heroines don't put out. Priests are often the agents of romance, the bearers of messages and providers of sage advice. Those who have lost their faith feel jaded and sad; the reinvigoration of their faith brings love in its wake - and a happy ever after.

"When the hour of your need came he did not fail us... and 'twas he firmly believe that led you to hospital and to us. May he bless you both!"

It was only this year that I stumbled across the massive market for faith-based romance, with imprints such as Steeple Hill Love Inspired selling thousands of books every year. It's odd to think that my Granny was at the vanguard of this, publishing in publications like The Catholic Fireside and The Dowry of Mary.

Meanwhile the trend in other strands of romance is utterly counter to this. Historical romances, for example, are getting hotter and its heroines are more sexually liberated. New more heavily sexualised romance genres are emerging all the time (Blaze, Nocturne Bites, Historical Undone). Eloisa James makes an interesting point:

"No matter how historically accurate the details and language in our novels might be, we write sex from the point of view of our own contemporary attitudes and mores."

I would argue the same is true of romantic fiction in general: romance reflects our cultural beliefs and we choose genres that fit with our construct of the world. It is interesting therefore, to see two such rapidly diverging streams of romance - faith-inspired romances with christian characters versus saucy courtesans and sexually active women with little or no religious affiliation. I wonder what this says about the world we live in now?

As for myself, I wonder what Granny would make of me and I would make of Granny. My romance, Merely Players, has the heroine throwing off the shackles of her religious upbringing to find love. It shows her discovering that human warmth and love is in fact what attracts her. If anything, it's almost humanist in its ideology - though that is not intentional. I'm working on an Undone, which is fairly heavy on the sauce - though it does show two characters finding a redemption of sorts by reuniting with each other.

Would she have hated my work or liked it?

In honour of Anne Howard Fay 1899-1976

Monday, 6 June 2011

The Hermit revisited - Flash Fiction Historical Romance

You may recall that a week ago I rose to the challenge of fellow tweeter Katherine Mahon and wrote a short piece of Flash Fiction featuring a hermit as the unlikely hero of a historical romance. And there it would lie, but for the nagging of my older sister Helen.

For her viewing pleasure, I have written another random scene drawn from the as yet unplotted, unplanned and unwritten hermit story. Unedited, unproofed and with apologies for it's crapness. This is for Helen AKA Nin:

The Hermit Part Deux

“Mr... er.. Francis,” Anne said, quite unable to meet the hermit’s darkly intense gaze. “I do not wish to be inhospitable but generally speaking hermits, you know... well they live in the wilderness. Fed by birds and wild berries and so on.” Realising she was twisting her hands together in a rather desperate fashion, she tucked them behind her back. This unfortunately, had the detrimental effect of making her feel like a naughty school girl. I am a Duchess, she reminded herself. For once she was glad of the stiff busk within her corset that kept her from melting in a puddle of supine apprehension at the man’s feet.

“Wilderness,” he repeated, carefully annunciating each syllable as though the word were quite ridiculous. His voice had a hint of foreignness in its rich dark tones. It reminded her of aromatic coffee and exotic spices, of warmth and liquid pleasure. She shivered and pressed her soft lips together in a prim line of disapproval.

“Wilderness,” she said. Squaring her shoulders, she forced herself to look him in the eye. It was a mistake. His eyes were as black and unfathomable as a cobra. He looked with the watchful poise of a lethal beast, ready to strike. Anne swallowed. “Hermits live in the wilderness,” she said firmly. “Not in ducal residences. Not in gardens landscaped by Mr Lancelot Brown. People are... they are talking, Mr... Francis.”

“Just Francis,” he supplied. A faint smile curled his lip and she fought the sudden urge to take a step back, to remove herself from his dizzying presence.

“I think not.”

He shrugged and she wondered how an unkempt man clad in nothing but a homespun shirt and breeches should manage to look quite so effortlessly elegant. “Why should I care if people talk?”

“You sir, need not. I must. It is not that I wish to be inhospitable you understand, but all ladies must safeguard their reputations. Particularly widows and particularly widows who are duchesses.” Looking up at him she suddenly felt ridiculous parroting her mother’s words. The hermit’s shirt was open at the neck, showing the strong tanned line of his neck. His hair was almost to his shoulders, in wild black curls and dark stubble shadowed his lean cheeks. She thought of her late husband with his pale paunch and stubbled head. His ornate brocades and velvet breeches, the diamond buckles on his shoes and long curling wig. The epitomy of middle-aged civilised manhood.

For a moment it seemed that seeking true wilderness outside of these walls was an impossibility, for wilderness was bound up within this shabby, dark-eyed man of prayer. It burned inside him, lighting his eyes and dancing in the graceful impatience of his fingers. It was as though a whirling typhoon was spinning within the manicured disarray she had planned, designed and boxed within the walls of her estate, hedged by dainty trees and pretty follies.

A grin lit his face, transforming his onyx eyes to smiling crescents of liquid bronze. “So you wish to force me to the wild, to prey upon wild berries and commune with the wind? And this will relieve the suspicions of... your mother?”

“Oh!” Her hand flew to her throat. “How could you –“

“- I am told what I need to know.” His gesture swept the sky and the landscape in one eloquent movement. Meeting her eyes, his smile faded. “And I know that you are needlessly afraid of censure. This is your little kingdom, my lady and you will grant your favour as you please. It is willed that I am here.” Abruptly, he turned away from her and started walking up the hill in long strides. She watched him, open mouthed. Glancing back over his shoulder he called to her. “You have nothing to fear in me, Duchess. I am a man of God.”

She thought she heard a laugh borne on the light breeze which ruffled the stiffly waxed curls of her elaborate coiffure like a caress. Watching his broad-shoulders leaning forward against the wind, it occurred to her that she had never seen a man less godly in her life.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Undone by Harlequin Historical Undone

In my naivety, I decided a couple of weeks ago to try my hand at writing a Harlequin Historical Undone. I thought, believe it or not, that this would be easier than writing a full length novel. I thought that less research and preparation would be needed.

Uh Oh.

In fact what I'm finding is that to keep a story within the relatively tight word limit of 10,000 - 15,000 words allowed by Harlequin Historical Undone, I have to have to know my characters really well. I need to be able to jump in, and like a fairy godmother, invest them with likeability, emotional depth and attachment. Like Athena, springing from the head of Zeus, they need to be fully formed and ready for action. And, er, they need to get it on. Quickly. But not pointlessly.


Here's some of the hurdles I have tripped over so far:

1. Taking too long to get to The Point. The point being some actually interaction between the heroine and the hero, and the second point being the consummation of that interaction. I put in a prologue, which established the heroine's credentials. I put in a scene where the hero is taunted by a mysterious French spy (the heroine in disguise). We are on scene three before the heroine is thrown into the room.

2. Giving it All Away Too Soon. Now, I've read Stacia Kane's Be a Sex Writing Strumpet. I know that love scenes are about developing the plot and the characters. I know that they should change and deepen as the story progresses, perhaps become more explicit. I still did it wrong. There's too much, too soon.

3. More Twists than Category 5 Cyclone: It seems I'm constitutionally incapable of Keeping Things Simple. I have a maximum of 15,000 words. I need to pack strongly sensual punch. So there's not a lot of word count spare to offer to action. And what do I do? I make my hero and heroine a military intelligence officer and a French double agent intent on a daring escape. Of COURSE I do. And of course I throw in the fact she first appears in disguise, the fact he has to work out she IS a spy and the complication of a French Spymaster and I have enough complication to last me happily through 90,000 words. Because I love to make my own life difficult.

10,000 words in and I'm having to condense important scenes into a few lines because... well I'm running out of space. And they've only made love once. And, you will recall, it was Too Much. Why? Because I've spent too much time having them bash guards over the head, steal horses and murder French spies for them to so much as steal a kiss behind the stable block.

And where does that leave me?

Writing a depressed email to my clever critique partner, who generally has the ability to stand back and point out the problems and even better, to suggest some solutions.

So here's what I'm going to do:

1. Cut. And start by bringing the hero and heroine together in line one.

2. Have the hero realise what she's up to in scene one (a bit tricky this - not sure how my clever spy lady is going to inadvertently reveal herself without being a dumb ass). This will change the whole emotional tenor of the story and impact on how they relate physically.

3. Hold back some of the love action for later in the story (seeing as I'm going to have more words for loving!).

Details, details, details...
One other thing. Historical is historical and that means Knowing Your Stuff. As it transpires, I've probably had to do exactly the same amount of research for my Harlequin Historical Undone as for a full length novel. Dropping in tiny details here and there is what will ground this in the period and make it real. My background research has included:

  • Espionage and military intelligence in the early 19th century (Elizabeth Sparrow is a good first port of call)

  • The habits and clothes of the Guerilleros

  • Battles of the Napoleonic Wars

  • Regiments in the Napoleonic Wars

  • Geography of Spain and Portugal and what was occupied when

  • Travel to and from Portugal during the Napoleonic Wars

  • The life of Sir Charles Stuart

And I thought it would be easy. Still, it's always good to learn and I am discovering that writing is both a humbling and enlightening process. Luckily, there are so many people who are there to help guide you on your way.

Big Thanks to them (especially Andrea!).

I'd love to hear from anyone else tackling novellas of any type - your thoughts and experiences would be of great interest!

Saturday, 4 June 2011

The evolution of an opening scene: first paragraphs revised

I thought it might be interesting to compare and contrast the opening lines from my first draft of Merely Players and my third draft (which is where I am just now). I wanted to reflect on the changes I've made to the novel's start because it tells me a lot about what I've learned from fabulous blogs by writing gurus like Jody Hedlund and Aimee L Salter, thoughtful critique partners like Andrea Walpole, Bronwyn Stuart and Helen Kolacevic and helpful first readers like Aysha Awan and my sisters Patricia and Kate .

Merely Players Draft 1: Paragraphs 1-3

"It isn't worth a damn." He hurled the manuscript across the room. It crashed into the wall in a blizzard of ink-blotched paper and caused the tallow candles on the nearby table to gutter.

Trotwood looked blearily over his glass. "No need to take on so, Ghis. It'll come to you – always does. Just need the muse to take pity on you. Prob'ly help if you have a snifter.... clears the mind. Always at my best after a snifter..." He subsided into the chair in a heap of brandy-stained velvet.

Ghislain Warwick sighed, flinging down his pen on the rutted oak desk. "I have two weeks, Trot. Two damn weeks before Farrow wants his play – and it has to be good or we’re all sunk. After Hesperides we don't have a lot of chances." He placed his elbows on the desk, leaning his aching head on his hand. "By which I mean I don't have a lot of chances. Even Ana's crowd of sycophants barely stayed through the performance." He rubbed his temples: his headache was worsening.

Merely Players Draft 3: Paragraphs 1-3

What if she was wrong? Rachel Stern lifted her hand to the knocker and hesitated. What if the woman she had followed was a complete stranger? There was still time to leave. She could think of any number of things she could be doing right now; composing a fiery sermon for her father to rain down on the heads of the ungodly or handing out temperance pamphlets to the fat merchants hurrying round London's docks, stockpiling their wares for the winter season. Anything but standing here on this cold Covent Garden street about to make a fool of herself by chasing a ghost.

She gritted her teeth. “Be of good courage, and He shall strengthen your heart,” she whispered to herself, not for the first time that day. If there was a possibility that Sarah was alive, she must act. There had been too many years of grief and suspicion to have her courage fail now.

She knocked and listened as the sound echoed in the hallway beyond. Footsteps clattered in the distance and her heart leaped to her mouth. The door opened, but the woman facing her was no blue-eyed golden girl. She had a face like dried leather made ridiculous by the bright rouging of her cheeks and the sharp-pencilled lines above her eyes.

Why the changes? Responding to Criticism

First things first, let me acknowledge that Draft 3 starts with a different scene than Draft 1. In fact, the scene in Draft 1 has disappeared entirely from the manuscript, which was not accomplished without some trauma and reluctance. The following feedback gives some reasons as to why I did that. From my first critique partner:

1) The introduction is very heavy, and it seems a lot to get through before you have your couple meeting. I would be strongly tempted to cut some or all of this.

2) There is an awful lot of information in the first couple of pages, it feels a bit like you are being bombarded.

3) I would say that you have too many characters. I’d stick at two main, and three supporting as a maximum.

Feedback from the overall manuscript pointed to too many characters, minor characters trying to take over the story and different point of views (POV) being shown. My own view was that starting with the Ghis scene sets the story up in a misleading way. The overall storyline of Scene 1, Draft 1 was something like this:

Playwright Ghis has lost his inspiration and decides he needs a muse. Through his dialogue with Trotwood it is shown that he is desperate to succeed because if he fails, he might end up having to go back to his father in Lincolnshire, a prospect he loathes. To find the muse in question he decides to call on Sarah, his former leading lady, to see if she can introduce him to suitable woman. On an impulse, he rushes out to call on Sarah.

There is a suggestion here that the two main characters are likely to be Ghis and Sarah. There is no hint of the actual heroine Rachel, Sarah's sister and in fact, scene two is between Ghis and Sarah which further promotes this idea. The reader has to wade through two scenes of Ghis and Sarah and one of Rachel and Sarah, before Ghis and Rachel meet. And one of those scenes is written from Sarah's POV.

Initial feedback on the first draft was that Sarah threatened to take over as a character - there was a risk that her story was more compelling than Rachel's. Rachel, the heroine, was getting squeezed out of her own story.

Something had to give.

What I Changed and Why

Empowering the Heroine: My main purpose in introducing Rachel to the reader upfront is to allow her to take control of the story. The reader sees what is driving her - her fear of losing her family, her attachment to her father's work and how this history shapes her reactions. That's all important later on in defining how she reacts to Ghis.

Character Assassination: The other purpose in deleting Scene 1, Draft 1 is that it was an interaction between Ghis and Trotwood and sadly, Trotwood has disappeared into the cut file. His name lives on as the name of Ghis' manservant, but the character himself is gone for good. It's sad but when your minor characters are threatening mutiny, it's time for tough love. Trotwood was an enjoyable distraction but ultimately unnecessary. Bye bye Trotwood, bye bye Scene 1, Draft 1.

First Impressions: There are other advantages. For example, Ghis and Rachel now meet much sooner in the story. Our first physical impression of him is through her eyes, so the reader rapidly gets a sense of his physical attractions and charisma. In Draft 1, the reader first saw Ghis through Sarah's eyes - and it was a rather jaded impression.

Contextualising: Throughout Chapter 1, I have also built in more context to frame the story. In conversation, Ghis refers to Napoleon's defeat which helps to place the novel in a historical continuum and there is more subtle detail about clothing, lighting and other such things which strengthen the sense of time and place. I've built up the physical image of Rachel more too. The reader now gets an impression of her looks, age and bearing much earlier to it is easier for them to grasp what she looks like to Ghis. This too was missing when much of the text concerned Sarah's POV.

The Overall Impact of the Changes

I think the start is stronger and the response from my critique partners has certainly been positive. I quote:

Super duper! What an amazing difference! I read this at twice the pace as I did before. It’s much quicker, and feels much more natural. The backstory was drip fed and not in big clumps. I found Ghis more likeable (he came across a bit whiny before at the start.) Rachel feels better, and I have less sympathy for Sarah. (Also less interested in her, the story is clearly about Rachel.)


Chapter One begins in a great place, with a strong inciting incident. I wouldn't change that. I feel like it sets up the conflicts of the characters in a great way. Rachel and Ghis come together almost right away, which I know is also an important concern in this genre.

There is still more to be done in tightening up the start and improving the overall quality of the writing, but I feel like I've learned a lot since I started Draft 1. I fully expect to be on Draft 15 by the time the bloody thing is finished, but I'm pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable revision is. Not precisely in a scab-picking sort of a way but more like a successful diet, where discipline and hard work facilitate the emergence of a honed and lovely new you.

I would love to hear about how other people tackle the revision process - what do you find useful and what do you find unbearable? How do you approach it and where do you get your guidance from?

Thursday, 2 June 2011

The Hermit, Regency Romance Flash Fiction

This week on Twitter, Katherine Mahon of the Scandalous Women blog (well worth a look) was tweeting about Regency House Party. Regency House Party is a British Channel 4 programme which brings together a number of likely lasses and lads to live Regency-style in a restored country house. One aspect of the House Party we both admired was the presence of a real life hermit - presumably the perfect complement to a fashionably picturesque garden.

And he's fairly hot.

This got us wondering about the lack of hermits in Regency Romance. Wouldn't all romances be improved by a dash of mad monk? Thus, in the spirit of adventure here follows and exercise in bringing a hermit to the romantic world.


“Where did you find him?” Lady Clovenstone asked, with a glance across the Duchess’ sweeping gardens. “I must say he is most picturesque. I wonder whether Sir Henry could find one for the manor.”

“Oh how can you think it?” Miss Greenhaugh cried. Shuddering eloquently, she clasped one gloved hand to her thin bosom. “Just one look from those devilish eyes... one can see he must be repenting nameless crimes.”

“I have no interest in nameless crimes.” Lady Clovenstone said. She reached over and picked up a hand-painted china teacup, taking a tiny sip. “I had much rather name them. Do you happen to know his crimes Duchess? Did he perhaps come with a recommendation, like a butler or a housemaid? One can just imagine: My Dear Duchess, I am sending you a perfectly marvellous hermit. He has served in our grotto for three unexceptional years and his lamentations are quite exemplary. He has committed two murders and a fell seduction. I commend him to your service and hope you are able to make use of him.”

“Something like that,” Anne, the Duchess of Montfrey murmured unable to follow Lady Clovenstone’s bright gaze. She stared into her cup of tea, a delicate flush mantling her cheeks. As the Duchess of Montfrey was generally held to be a disappointment, no one appeared to heed this lack of savoir faire. It was obvious when the aged Duke had wed so young a bride that the local gossips had anticipated a most delightful scandal to follow. The Duchess’ quiet manners and steady ways thus came as an unpleasant surprise. Her subsequent production of a healthy heir, which the Duke’s two previous wives had failed to deliver, was felt to be unsporting. That much was obvious from Lady Clovenstone’s barbed witticisms and the pale boredom in Miss Greenhaugh’s expression.

Until the hermit had arrived.

The appearance of so striking a man on the ducal estate had not passed unnoticed. Within a day of his residency in the shell grotto, which represented the focal point of Anne’s lovingly disordered picturesque garden, the harpies had descended. She sighed softly and looked out across the green woods, wondering what her hermit was doing at that moment. Kneeling in spiritual rapture, communing with the sheep... it all sounded wonderful in comparison to taking afternoon tea with Lady Clovenstone.

The gardens were her pride and joy and the shell grotto the jewel in her landscaping crown. In the twelve long months following the Duke’s death at the age of sixty two the gardens had swallowed up all her energy. As she walked through the austere rooms of Grandon House, the Montfrey’s Principal seat, she had dreamed of twisting vines and crumbling statues, winding streams and hidden caves. The gardens would be a fantasy land populated by nymphs and fairies, dancing together in the moonlight.

The grotto had been a fancy, born of one such fantasy. But she had not precisely anticipated its inhabitation by the wild eyed windswept fellow who had appeared at Grandon’s door one moonlit night.

“He did have references, in fact,” she said suddenly. Her unexpected disclosure caused Lady Clovenstone to choke on a crumb. As Miss Greenhaugh patted her companion vigorously on the back she fixed them both with a most uncharacteristic stare. “The Duke’s cousin – the bishop you know – sent him here. I had mentioned a hermitage, merely in casual conversation and I fear he took me quite literally. He sent the gentleman here with a most praiseworthy letter, asking if he could be housed on the estate.”

“But who is he my dear? Who are his family?” Lady Clovenstone managed, whilst spluttering elegantly into a lace-edged handkerchief.

Anne shrugged and took a sip of tea. “The Bishop merely referred to him as Francis.”

“But surely you asked him?”

Anne smiled sweetly and set down her cup. Closing her eyes for a moment, she felt the sun warm on her face and listened to the trees rustle. A sweet smell of honeysuckle drifted from the main house. “Of course. But he has taken a vow of silence.”

“Really? How novel!”

It was novel and also, essential. The man’s eyes were eloquent enough, dark as midnight and full of secrets. She could only imagine what his voice might be like, rich as brandy and unfathomably deep. Last night she had dreamed of him leaning over her, his eyes burning with passion and his unexpectedly sensual mouth curling into a mocking smile. She had awoken hot, flustered and deeply unsettled.

He’s just a man, she told herself. Just a man.