The Wenches Horse Around

Cat_243_doverA subject that comes up again and again in historical novels is horses.  In the pre-automotive era, a horse was essential transport.  And, like cars, horses and horsemanship are often used as an aspect of characterization.  Seldom does one see a Regency hero who is a horse klutz (any more than we’d see a contemporary hero driving a Plymouth Valiant, unless eccentricity is desired <G>), and it’s not uncommon for the ladies to also be bruising riders. 

But horses are complicated critters, and for the majority of us who are horse ignorant, opportunities abound to make mistakes when writing about them.  So horses seemed like a good blog topic.  Though I grew up on a farm, I’m fairly clueless about our equine friends, but luckily, we have an expert close at hand: Our very own Whipster, Sherrie Holmes! 

Sherrie is a horse owner and has competed in Endurance and Competitive Trail Ride contests.  She has generously (and often hilariously) shared her experiences on Regency loops that we’re both on, and I’ve saved pages and pages of material she posted about riding, endurance, accidents, and horsy eccentricities.   

She has graciously agreed to educate us on care and use of horses, plus answer some Wenchly questions.  Sherrie, would you like to start by giving us a bit of your history with horses?

Sherrieimage1 SH: Mom said the first word I spoke was “horsy” and the first picture I drew was of a horse.  When I was a toddler, Grandma was babysitting one day and I went missing.  To her horror, she found me in the paddock with my arms and legs wrapped around the front leg of one of Grandpa’s draft horses, sitting on his huge foot.  That gentle giant, who was a working horse and not used to children, was patiently dragging his foot as he walked, being careful not to step on me.  I guess you could say I’ve been horse crazy from an early age. *g*  (That’s Sherrie on horseback to the left.)

But I had to settle for collecting horse knick-knacks and horse books as a kid, because we couldn’t afford a horse.  My dream came true when I bought my first horse at 22, and I’ve now owned horses for 38 years.  (I’ll do the math for you–I’m 60.) Highlights: winning the State Championship 60 mile Competitive Trail Ride, and placing second (missed first place by 1 point!) in the 100 mile CTR, completing the ride in 20 hours with energy to spare.

I’m down to one horse now.  Windigo’s Tempest is 23, but still the life of the party.  Tempestwine He steals laundry from the clothesline, drinks pink Chablis out of a wine glass and Pepsi from the can, fell passionately in love with my old Boxer (they used to French kiss through the fence), loves to wiggle his lips over anything with texture, and if you don’t watch out, he’ll untie your shoelaces or unzip your coat.  He sneaks the dog’s milkbones when nobody’s looking, and twice he’s come into my house during the summer when the slider was open.  You have *no* idea how big a horse is until you have one in your kitchen, flapping a dishtowel! (That’s Tempest drinking the wine. <G>)

TempestbwMJP: Now here are the basic questions of interest to historical writers.  How much ground could a rider reasonably cover in an average day of riding?  What techniques would be used?  (Can’t ride horses at top speed all day!)  What kind of care and feeding would be required?  What if the baddies are coming after him—how far and fast could he go with a decent horse?  (That’s Tempest again on the left.  Handsome fellow, isn’t he?)

SH:  To arrive at the answer, here’s a breakdown of horse speed:

Walk:  3-5 MPH
Trot:  8-10 MPH
Canter/Lope: 10-17 MPH
Gallop:  30 MPH

A decent horse can walk and trot all day, but he can only canter or gallop for short periods–one or two miles.  Also, the gallop is very tiring.  The trot is the horse’s cruise control, his most efficient working gait and the most appropriate gait to use for covering long distances at speed, interspersed with breathers at the walk. 

So, assuming an average rider and average horse over average roads, a conservative estimate for distance is 25 miles in 5-6 hours at a walk. A well conditioned horse ridden by a good rider over relatively even terrain can easily cover 50 miles in 10-11 hours, walking and trotting (but he’ll be one tired hoss). 

Horses1 If the hero is being chased by baddies, he might gallop for a mile to put distance between them, and then drop down to a medium or slow trot, or even a fast walk, to give the horse a breather while staying ahead.  Then he could rev up to a fast trot and maintain that for a long time.  And you could always have the baddie’s horse throw a shoe if you need to slow him down.  Once a horse loses a shoe, he’s out of commission.

MJP: What about those stallions?  Historical romance characters often have them to show how macho they are, but there are reasons why there are so many geldings in the world. <G>  And what about the mere slip of a girl who can control huge stallions by the force of her perky charm and tossing hair?  How likely is that?

SH:  Not very likely!  When I rode endurance and CTR, I *was* a perky slip of a girl.  (Not anymore!)  But I was also a knowledgeable horsewoman and a good rider.  Stallions:  (rolls eyes).  There’s always the exception that proves the rule, and there are certainly nicely mannered stallions out there, but it’s more likely for a stallion to be obnoxious, fractious, dangerous, and quick to use his teeth.  A friend of mine who’s an experienced horse trainer had her ring finger bitten clean off by her normally well-behaved stallion during breeding season.  You never let your guard down around a stallion.  And how fun is it to be riding a stallion in company when there’s a mare in heat nearby? 

Sherrieimage5 Historically, I don’t know how common it was to geld horses, however.  Perhaps (just perhaps) there were more stallions back then, though I can’t imagine why anyone would bother with a stallion for a riding horse when mares and geldings are more tractable and less dangerous. 

MJP:  What about those covers with the heroine riding in front of the hero.  Uncomfortable?  Unlikely?  Not to mention the occasional book that has them having sex on horseback.  (I vaguely recall a book some years back where they not only had sex while galloping, but were being chased by Indians or some such!!!) 

SH:  I’ve always scoffed loudly at the very idea of having sex on horseback, let alone while galloping.  Virtually impossible, I always said, unless you were a contortionist with a fine sense of balance.  But then last year a horsy friend of mine told me that in her younger days she did have sex on horseback.  More than once.  At a gallop.  So while I can no longer say it’s impossible, I still think it stretches credibility.  Regarding heroines riding in front of the hero:  see my answer to Pat’s question about riding double, below.

MJP: Any thoughts on riding sidesaddle?  Though we modern folk tend to put that in the same category as corsets, I understand that it could be a very stable and secure way to ride.

Sidesaddle SH:  The biggest misconception about riding sidesaddle is that people think the rider sits sideways and then twists her torso to face front.  That’s not so.  She sits facing forward, so there’s no twist to the body. As far as stability in the sidesaddle, the rider’s seat wasn’t all that safe and secure until after the invention of the leaping horn, which is the horn that curves down, over the top of the rider’s left leg.  Here’s a picture, to show the position of the legs and the body in a sidesaddle, including the leaping horn.  There’s controversy as to when the leaping horn was invented, but the general consensus is that it was *after* the Regency.

MJP: Now for the Wenchly questions:

JO:  Sherrie, this just came up today in my MIP. I have a coach and two riding
horses, but might be short one rider. Would it be better for the rider to lead
the spare horse, or to link it to the back of the coach? I’m thinking the rider
should lead it.

SH: I agree, Jo.  I’d have the rider lead the spare horse, even though riding a horse and leading another is a pain in the posterior–the led horse often crowds the ridden horse or lags behind, dragging on the rider’s arm.  However, if the horse were used to being tied to a coach, there likely wouldn’t be a problem.  It’s just that horses are absolute magnets for trouble.

Hunting_print JO: Oh, and another. They’re stuck in a place overnight where there’s not much for the horses to eat. Plenty of water, but basically an empty barn with no grass nearby. (Though I can change that.) Would the horses be okay for a few hours work the next day or do I really need to find them food?

SH: They wouldn’t die if they missed a meal, though they might grumble a bit.  Water is important, however–they must have water.

JO:  If there is grass and they want to let them eat in the morning (can’t do it overnight) how long to eat and how long before they can be on the road?

SH:  Grass would be good.  It’s the best horse feed, especially in the spring and summer when it’s loaded with nutrients.  If they have limited time, even 15 minutes of grazing would be adequate.  Half an hour is better.  Ideally, you’d want to give them time to digest (30-60 minutes), but in a pinch they could eat and then get right to work.  But they need water.  The average horse drinks 12 gallons a day.

JO:  Ah, the problems of road books!

PAT:  My big question is about saddles, especially when riding double.  What’s the relative position of the person holding the reins compared to where the tagalong sits?  And that depends on saddle.

Ourhappyhorses SH:  This is where poetic license (or suspending disbelief) comes in.  It’s so romantic to put the heroine in front of the hero, so he can hold her in his strong arms as he guides the horse, but in fact, it’s a bunch of hooey.  The pommel (the hump in front of the saddle) and the horse’s neck would make such an endeavor uncomfortable and precarious.  It’s far more logical for the heroine to sit astride, behind the rider.  However, if they’re riding without a saddle, it’s appropriate and more romantic for the heroine to be in front, one of the hero’s arms encircling her waist, and his other hand holding the reins.

PAT: And any kind of tackle question is usually nutsoid in the writing world. Stop the horses for the night and remove saddle? Remove bridle? (and then chase the critter down again in the morning) 

Regency_event_winner SH: You always remove saddle and bridle for the night, and a good horseman (or his groom) brushes the horse down afterwards, and wipes off the tack (or tackle) and cleans the slobber off the bit.  Most horses went into a paddock or pasture, or a tie-stall or loose box stall.  And yeah, there’d be the occasional horse that would make you chase him all over the pasture, but usually all you had to do was shake a bucket of grain at him and he’d come running.  Sort of like how a romance heroine glances provocatively at the hero, and he comes running. *g*

Chinese_horse_print Thanks for all the great information, Sherrie!  I’m sure some of our other readers are horse people.  What are your pet horsy peeves in novels?  Heck, even if you don’t have a horse yourself, I’m sure you’ve got some opinions.  So what are your romance likes and dislikes in respect to horses?

Mary Jo

Roman Holiday

Seductioncropped_front_cover_jpg
By Miranda/Susan

Summer’s here, or at least here enough that everyone has the summer-travel-itch.  Our characters are no  exception.  Yes, the majority of historical romances published today take place in London and the counties that surround it, with maybe a junket or two to Bath or Brighton.  But English aristocrats have always been intrepid travelers, even in times when journeys were full of hazard and hardship.  They traveled for education, for amusement, for love, for health, and for escaping creditors or difficult spouses.  They traveled modestly by themselves, with one or two servants or friends, or with huge retinues of footmen, cooks, tutors, relatives, and traveling carriages brought from England.

Writing as Miranda Jarrett, I’m currently in the middle of a three-book series of books loosely titled “Love on the Grand Tour,” following three Georgian ladies on their tour through France and Italy.  The second book in the series, Seduction of an English Beauty, will be released 1 July (which my editor reports is a “landmark book”, my twenty-fifth for Harlequin Historicals and a rarity in these days of publisher-musical chairs!) Seduction takes place in late 18th century Rome, a wonderful place to visit in any century.  Click here for a peek at the first chapter.

Researching historical “road books” is a special challenge.  Places or experiences that fill contemporaryRoman_bridge
travel guides often didn’t exist in 1784, and others that were “can’t miss” destinations to earlier travelers have since vanished.  Fortunately, it seemed that every visitor kept a journal or dairy of their trip, noting every meal, inn, famous site, and crooked innkeeper.

Rome was a favorite destination of English travelers. As the second-largest city in Italy (only Naples was larger), Rome had much to recommend it: great beauty, much edifying art and architecture, agreeable, if expensive, inns and houses, operas and theaters, a favorable climate, and hospitable inhabitants.  Portraits could be painted by one of the numerous painters in the city, and (often dubious) ancient artifacts  procured for the family collection back home. In a time when a good education always included Latin and Greek, the classical ruins of Rome were lessons brought to life.  And for Protestant Englishmen –– particularly impressionable young lords –– there was also the mixed lure of Papal Rome, a beautiful siren to be withstood at all costs, and Roman women, reputed to be among the most seductive in Europe.  Special treats could be arranged, too: for a sizable fee, some of the famous fountains of Rome could be forced to overflow and flood the surrounding streets, so the English visitors could have their carriages driven through the splashing puddles.  Praised one traveler, “Rome is so beautiful that all the rest of Italy seems to me little in comparison.”

Yet just like modern tourists, their 18th century counterparts still found plenty to complain about.  English palates at this point weren’t known for their sophistication (as one Continental wag noted, “the art of cooking as practiced by most Englishmen does not extend much beyond roast beef and plum pudding”), and they howled at unfamiliar Roman food. 

Si214691jpg_maxdim400_resizeyes
“All over Italy,” whined one English visitor in l7l7, “oil and  garlic are put in every dish.”  Roman cookery seemed too light, too insubstantial, to most English tastes –– “raw ham, Bologna sausages, figs and melons….and the soup is no better than broth.”  Appetites raised by determined sightseeing were doomed to be unsatisfied: “Any Englishman whose stomach is not depraved will soon wish to see a plain, wholesome dish or two of meat a la mode d’Angleterre set before him.”  (Not unlike the homesick college students today willing to pay top tourist-dollar for a Big Mac in Paris.)  On the other hand, nearly all of the traveling English raved about the wines they discovered in Italy, and longed to be able to transport them for their tables back home.

While most visitors found the Roman people to be charming, “full of good breeding and more obliging than any other part of Italy”, the English in particular were shocked by what they perceived as a general lack of industry.  Begging was an art form, and tourists were easy targets.  Tobias Smollet complained that, wherever he went, his carriage was “surrounded by a number of servitori di piazza, offering their services with the most disagreeable importunity."

There’s also a certain smugness to many of the Georgian travelers that unfortunately echoes theRomanforum
complaints modern Europeans make about American tourists.   “If one thing more than another evinces Italian candor and true good nature,” wrote Hester Lynch Piozzi with unabashed satisfaction in her Observations, “it is their generous willingness to be ever happy in acknowledging foreign excellence.” Ouch!

So what does Lady Diana Ferron, the heroine of Seduction of an English Beauty, discover on her visit to Rome?  She learns to drink the local red wine instead of afternoon tea.  She tours the Coliseum, the Forum, and the Catacombs, tosses coins in the Fontana Trevi, and attends the opera at the Teatro delle Dame.  Best of all, she finds adventure and loses her heart to a handsome, unsuitable Roman gentleman.  Sounds like a great summer vacation to me!

Now what about your plans for the summer?  Do you like to experience new things, see new sights, try new food?  Do your summer trips always involve junkets to museums or historical spots, or would you rather unwind with the familiar, and happily veg out in delicious peace?

If you’re interested in reading more, check out Ladies of the Grand Tour by Brian Dolan; The Grand Tour: The British Abroad in the Eighteenth Century by Jeremy Black, and Rome: Biography of a City by Christopher Hibbert.  The paintings illustrating this blog are by Gaspar van Wittel (1653-1736), whose glorious landscapes of Rome were highly prized by 18th century English tourists, who took them home to add to the private art collections of many a country house.

**Oops, I almost forgot the contest!  I’ll be drawing a name at random to win the first two books in the "Love on the Grand Tour" series: The Adventurous Bride and Seduction of an English Beauty.  All you have to do to enter is post a comment to this blog by Friday.  The winner of the books will be announced here on Sunday.  Good luck! **

This Noisy Old World

By Susan/Miranda

Royalharlotfront_coverWriters and noise are not a good combination.  While some of us write to carefully chosen music and others prefer as much peaceable silence as is possible, no writer enjoys the general racket of modern life.  Nothing can wither a perfectly good visit from a Muse faster than a monstrous trash truck, working its thumping and crashing way up the street.  Teenagers cranking up rap music, weed-whackers and power-washers, high-decibel fire sirens and low-flying aircraft, all play havoc with writerly concentration. 

And there’s at least one Wench (who, me?) who has been known to charge outside in her bathrobe to confront mystified lawn-crews with leaf-blowers about their misguided commitment to blast every last blade of new-mown grass to ear-splitting oblivion.

Modern folk like to think of this general din as one of the banes of contemporary life, another of our special crosses to bear for being so technologically advanced.  “Noise pollution”, we call it, a splendidly polysyllabic term for something our more peaceful great-grandparents wouldn’t recognize.

Ah, but we history-geeks know otherwise.  The past –– especially the urban past –– was one noisy place.Hogmusician  True, the noises were a very different sort, but the distraction was there just the same.  A famous 18th century illustration by William Hogarth called “The Enraged Musician” shows an earlier creative-type, pitifully tormented by the sounds of the London street outside his open window.

I’ve always tried hard to incorporate sound into my writing, one more way to evoke the past.  Yet it seems my imagination has fallen far short of reality.  I’ve just discovered a splendid new non-history book (oh, be still my history-nerd heart!) called Hubbub : Filth, Noise, & Stench in England, 1600-1770 by Emily Cockayne (Yale University Press, 2007).

This is not history for the faint of heart, or the weak of stomach, either.  (All the following examples and quotes come from Hubbub.) Stuart & Georgian Londoners would have had to contend with constant traffic noise: metal-bound wheels and shod horses against paving stones, squeaking, creaking wagons and carriages, trumpets to herald arrivals and departures of coaches, and the bellowed oaths of drivers and footmen.  Traffic noise was so bad that by the late 18th century, city churches and court houses were being designed without windows on the street levels in an attempt to quiet the spaces within.

Each morning terrified livestock was herded through the streets to market and slaughter, but hundreds of other unneutered animals ran wild through the city: stray dogs, spit dogs, and family pets alike played and barked and fought.  Squabbling cats were also everywhere.  So were goats and squealing pigs, and even city-dwellers were awakened by roosters before dawn.  Early morning was also the time when the dog-skinners (I cannot begin to fathom a market for dog-skins, but then our ancestors were far more unsentimentally resourceful than we) were chasing down yelping strays.

StrawberryvendorPeddlers and vendors of every kind shouted their wares, striving to outdo one another.  Apparently the pleasing sing-song cries of legend often degenerated into wordless roars.  Milk-sellers were particularly known for their shrillness, and the writer Joseph Addison noted one seller who became infamous for her “inarticulate scream.”  There were also frequent noisy brawls between vendors over sales turf, fights that were encouraged as free sport by cheering spectators.

Scores of church bells in the city rang for services, deaths, fires, and celebrations, and to tell the time.  Street musicians played fiddles, whistles, flutes, and hurdy-gurdys, or simply sang; a loud, piercing voice was highly prized. Puppet shows, jugglers, acrobats, and other street performers added another layer of sound.  Trumpets and drums were used to “drum up” an audience, and were also employed by the recruitment officers for the navy and the army outside of taverns.   Politicians, charlatans, and itinerant preachers alike made impromptu speeches on street-corners and from balconies and windows. 

Land and real estate was valuable, and most houses for rich and poor alike shared common walls.  Without the muffle of 21st century curtains, sound-proof tiles, or wall-to-wall carpeting, voices echoed freely in most rooms and into the next.  Add to that the open windows (before modern houses became so hermetically sealed for “climate control”), and there wouldn’t have been many secrets left between neighbors.

London was a growing city, and the sounds of construction were everywhere: hammering and sawing carpenters and roofers may not have had high-pitched power-tools, but they still contributed their share of noise.  Other trades that involved striking like blacksmiths, masons, tinsmiths, coopers and coppersmiths added the clanging sounds of hammers on metal, while the rumbling grinding of mill-wheels was literally so deafening that the stereotypical miller had lost his hearing entirely.

The “great guns” (cannons) near the Tower of London were fired to celebrate royal births, weddings, victories, and other holidays.  Shooting off muskets was a more common “noisemaker” that needed little excuse, and grand displays of fireworks (from the pleasure gardens of Vauxhall and Ranleigh as well as for civic displays) routinely exploded into the night sky over the city. More ominously, the broadsides exchanged at sea between the Dutch and English ships during the Dutch wars of the late 17th century were so loud that they could clearly be heard like distant thunder in London.   

Things weren’t much quieter after dark, either. Watchmen with rattles or bells cried the hour throughout5hogarthnight_2 the night. “I start every hour from my sleep,” complained one visitor, “at the horrid noise of the watchmen bawling the hour through every street, and thundering at every door; a set of useless fellows, who serve no other purpose but that of disturbing the repose of the inhabitants.”  Curfews were often created, and seldom enforced.

And in a city full of ale-houses, rumshops, and taverns that were serving customers well past midnight, those celebrants stumbling home in the wee hours contributed to the noise, too.  “Great hallowing and whooping in the Fields,” noted one sleep-deprived gentleman, “by such Persons who have spent the Day Abroad, and are now returning home Drunk.”

Relative peace doesn’t seem to have arrived until three or so in the morning, when the “Whores, Bullies, and Thieves have retir’d to their Apartments; noisy drunken Mechanicks are got to their Lodgings; Coachmen, Watermen, and Soldiers are mostly asleep.”  But by then, it’s not long until dawn, when the markets and trades come back to exuberant life, and begin the whole day’s cycle all over again.

You know, maybe those leaf blowers aren’t so very bad after all . . . .

So what sounds vex you the most?  What modern "convenience" sound would you like to banish from the earth?  Or do you simply slip on the headphones to that ultimate machine of convenient sound, the iPod, and blot everything else out?

The Shirt Off His Back

Royalharlotfront_coverBy Susan/Miranda

There are few garments in Romance-Land more closely associated with historical heroes than shirts.  Full-sleeved, snowy shirts, unfastened down to there and billowing freely in the wind like the hero’s tousled hair, the shirt remains a constant on the cover of almost every historical romance, as frequently torn asunder as any heroine’s hapless bodice.  These shirts carry so much cultural baggage that they even inspired an entire episode of Seinfeld, when (of course) to please a woman, Jerry agrees to wear the humiliating “puffy shirt” on the Today show.   

Yet just as the self-destructing gowns worn by romance cover-girls bear little resemblance to what the women inside our books are wearing, all those tacky polyester dress shirts don’t have much to do with a real 19th century gentleman’s wardrobe, either.

Our guys deserve better.  And so, cheerfully, I’ll digress today from the usual Wenchly topics, and offerPuffyshirt instead a settling of the sartorial record. 

For European men from the middle ages well into the late nineteenth century, the shirt wasn’t only an indispensable piece of clothing; it was a remarkably democratic one, too.  The shirts worn by Henry VIII would have been cut exactly the same as the ones worn by his grooms, as well as by Thomas Jefferson, Beau Brummel, and Huckleberry Finn, too.  These shirts were constructed from a series of rectangles, without a single curved seam.  They pulled over the head with an opening slit to about mid-chest, and fastened with buttons at the throat.  The book cover full-chest-bearing simply wasn’t possible.  The sleeves were luxuriously full, about 24” wide or more, and pleated into the dropped shoulders and wrist cuffs.  Additional gussets were placed under the arms for ease.  The collar was another rectangle, soft and without interlining, whose final shape was determined by the neckcloth or kerchief tied around it.

These shirts were wide and long, reaching to the middle of the thighs.  Suggested measurements from the 18th century calls for an ordinary sized shirt to be 60” around and 40” long!  For most men, the shirt was an all-purpose garment, serving as a nightshirt and underwear as well (underdrawers still be rare and vaguely suspect.)  The oversized nature of a shirt was also a protective barrier between the body and the more expensive (and harder to wash) coats, waistcoats, and breeches that went over it. 

CwshirtA gentleman’s shirt was generally made of linen, Holland linen being the most prized. Farther down the social scale, shirts would also be linen of a coarser grade, such as tow.  (Cotton remained a luxury fabric until the middle of the 19th century, and not much used for shirts until then.)  But forget that stiff, scratchy modern linen you have to take to the dry cleaner.  Old-fashioned washed linen is a marvelously sensuous fiber. It’s long-wearing, easy to wash, and gets softer with wear.  It holds the warmth of the skin gently, without getting sticky or clammy, yet it’s also remarkably cool in the summer.  It’s the perfect stuff for our heroes to wear. If I could figure out a way to link to a touchable swatch, I would.*g*

And despite what the occasional hapless, carelessly-researched hero might be forced to wear, no self-respecting Englishman before 1900, rich or poor or in-between, ever wore a slippery woven silk shirt.  Ever.

Social distinctions did show in a shirt’s details.  The fine twist of the linen, the purity of the whiteness, the daintiness of the stitching and seaming, self-ruffles for the most fashionable, with a discreet monogram embroidered at the hem –– all were the marks of an expensive shirt.  How that shirt was washed and pressed denoted a gentleman’s rank as well: the dozens of tiny vertical pleats pressed into the wide sleeves to compress them enough to fit into a narrow coat sleeve required the most accomplished laundresses using specialized irons.  Among the middling sort, where clothes were stillCwjauntyman_2 made at home, women lavished much care and skill on their husband’s shirts, with needle-lace trim at the throat or whitework embroidery on the cuffs.  A girl wasn’t declared marriageable until she’d demonstrated the sewing skill to stitch a man’s shirt, which her groom would wear on their wedding day. 

But back to our cover-model.  Not only should his chest be covered by his shirt, but that shirt in turn should be covered as well, by a coat or jacket and waistcoat.  Two hundred years ago, a gentleman would no more consider walking about in company in his shirt-sleeves than a modern-day executive would appear on Wall Street in only his swim-trunks.  It simply wouldn’t have been done.  There was an excellent chance that the gentleman’s lady would have had to wait until they were wed to see his bare arms, let alone the other more private parts of him.  If the gentleman is a Wenchly hero, at least we know the Fabioroguewait will be worth it.

So what’s your pleasure?  We all like a handsome rogue on the cover.  But do you prefer him with his anachronistic shirt barely hanging from his manly bare shoulders, or would you prefer him to be properly dressed?  Do the bare-chested hero-covers make you sigh with admiration, or do they make you slip-cover your reading before you ride mass transit?

An interview with Joan Wolf

Cat_243_dover
Joan Wolf’s first romance was published was published in 1980, and she has been one of the most respected authors in the genre ever since.  She made a name for herself with her marvelous Signet Regencies, then moved into historical romance.  She has also published contemporary romances, pre-history romances, and medieval mysteries along the way.  Countless readers have enjoyed her wonderful characters, and her wonderful horses as well.    ( http://joanwolf.com )

The Word Wenches are honored to have Joan with us today for an interview timed to coincide with the May reissue of one of her most Joanandpendleton_framed beloved stories.  Joan, how did you start writing?

Joan Wolf:   I actually wrote my first book when I was about 10. I wrote it with a friend who was as horse-crazy as I was.  I remember that it was about a wild stallion in the west and the girl who tames him.  As we had never been west of the Bronx, or ridden anything other than the trail horses at our local public stable, we obviously violated the first rule of writing – write what you know.  But it kept us busy and out of trouble for one whole summer.   

Arrangement225 I always liked writing.  I actually loved doing term papers.  I was the obnoxious person who had her paper done a week before it was due. However, I never really thought about writing fiction until I retired from teaching high school English to stay home with my new baby.  New baby.  New town.  New state.  I was very lonely.  My plan had been to write my Ph.D. dissertation (on Shakespeare), but we didn’t have enough money to pay a babysitter so I could go up to the Yale library to do research.  This was the time when romance was just starting to become popular, so I decided to try my hand at writing a romance novel while my son napped.  I have never regretted not writing that dissertation.

MJP: What drew you to writing romance and historical novels?

JW: I had always adored Georgette Heyer’s books and when I came to write a book of my own, I found I really knew quite a lot about the regency period from reading her. I wrote regencies for quite a while (it was what my editor wanted), but then I branched off into other areas of history.  I have always adored history.  I get that from my dad.  I do not exaggerate when I say that we used to sit at the dinner table and go through the list of the Plantagenet kings from Henry II to Richard III.  (Come to think of it, I wonder why I never wrote a book about the Plantagenet kings?)

MJP: That will be great if you do it, Joan!  What was your first book, and how well do you think it characterizes your latest work?  How has your work changed, and what has stayed the same from the beginning?

JW:  My first book was called The Counterfeit Marriage.  I have never ever re-read it.  It was so sappy.  Drippy, actually.  Fortunately, Hilary Ross, then editor at NAL, Fools_masquerade thought it was publishable and she bought it from me – along with a contract to do two more regencies. By the time I did the fourth one – A London Season – I think I hit my stride.  Anyway, that’s certainly the first of my books that I would recommend anyone to read. 

The change in my books from then to now is a progression of ‘cleaning up’ my writing.  As I went along, my prose became sparer and clearer.  When I think of the profusion of adjectives that litter my first books, I am horrified.

Bornofthesun225 What has remained the same is my belief that character is the most important thing in a novel. A book can have the most exciting plot in the world, but if the characters don’t come to life and grip the reader, then the book is not for me.

MJP:  What was the biggest mistake you made when you first began writing?

JW:  My biggest mistake was to stay with my first agent and my first publisher for so long.  There was a window of time when I think I could have jumped my sales considerably if I had been given the right push. Ah well.  “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, ‘it might have been.’”

MJP:  Staying too long seems to be a common mistake among long term career Avalon_original writers.  But now for the fun stuff!  In May, Chicago Review Press is reissuing The Road to Avalon, Joan’s Arthurian novel that was first published in 1988.  Almost twenty years later, it’s still being read and loved.  Can you tell us something of how you came to write The Road to Avalon

JW:  I fell in love with King Arthur when I was in high school and went to see Richard Burton in Camelot on Broadway. I cried my little teenaged eyes out at the end of that play, and after that I began to read everything I could on Arthur.  The whole time that I was writing regencies, and short contemporaries, and straight historicals, I was planning to write a book about Arthur.  I just wanted to make sure that I was ready, that the book would do him justice. 

I think it may have.  Certainly the response to The Road to Avalon has been amazingly enthusiastic. Even after all these years I have new people writing to tell me that they have discovered the book and that they absolutely loved it.  I even had a whole class of high school students (who had to read the book for school) write to Oprah and ask that she make it one of her recommended books!  I’m absolutely Avalon_new delighted that it is being re-published.  Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s going to be available in most stores.  People are probably going to have to order it over one of the Internet sites – Amazon or Barnes and Noble.  ( http://tinyurl.com/2lqhse  or   http://tinyurl.com/3xh5xj  The new cover is shown on the right; the old cover is above.)

MJP:  I read The Road to Avalon when it came out, and even twenty years later, the story and characters were vivid in my mind when I reread the new edition.  There are many Arthurian books.  What do you think makes The Road to Avalon so special?  Would you share some thought on Arthurian stories, which are collectively known as the Matter of Britain?

JW:  One of the things that struck me as I read the literature about Arthur was that the king was rarely the central character in any of the books or poems that were supposedly about him.  The books often featured Lancelot and Guinevere, or Merlin, or Gawain, or anyone except Arthur. Even in T.H. White’s marvelous book The Once Once_and_future_king and Future King, Arthur appears rather like a little old man in bedroom slippers.  I began to think about why this was so, why Arthur never seemed to be made the hero of his own story, and I came up with an answer.

It’s very hard to make a great hero out of a man whose wife prefers another man.  Arthur, in short, is a cuckold –hardly a heroic position to be in.  And the Lancelot-Guinevere love affair is too integral a part of the story not to include it.  It’s essential to the legend.

I got around this problem by giving Arthur a great love of his own.  And I used another Arthurian character who was very much at hand – Morgan le Fey – to do this.  I must say, I think it worked out very well.

Sutcliffsword_at_sunset The book about Arthur that I like the most is Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset.  I read this when I was in college, and I loved the way she set Arthur in the historical time in which he probably lived – shortly after the Romans had pulled out of Britain.  This is the time period in which The Road to Avalon is set.

MJP:  Which book, if any, was the most difficult for you to write, and why?

JW:   The most difficult books for me were the last three books that I wrote: White Horses, To the Castle, His Lordship’s Desire.  I have suffered all my life from migraine headaches and, while I was trying to write those books, the medications I Tothecastle had been taking for years ceased to work and I had a headache every single day.  I wrote all three of them with cardboard taped over my left eye because of the knife-like pain that constantly stabbed behind it.

It was truly a horrible time.  I was hospitalized for ten days at the Michigan Institute for Head and Neck Pain (to no avail),  and I underwent disc replacement surgery in my neck to see if that would help. (It didn’t)  I was so drugged up I could hardly stand.  Really really bad time.  If people were disappointed in those books, there was reason to be.

I’m happy to report that the headaches are now gone – due to a massage technique Trigger_point_therapy_workbook called trigger point therapy. (I highly recommend the book – Trigger Point Therapy Workbook by Clair Davies).   I am enjoying writing much more now that I am healthy again.  (Note from MJP: other authors have also reported great results in controlling pain with the techniques found in this book.)

MJP: What do you consider key elements of a great story?

JW: For me, it’s character.  When I think of a book I love, I always think of the characters.  If an author can make a character come alive and live in your brain as if Poisonedserpent225 she was a real person – that’s a good book.  This is why I enjoy getting mail from readers asking me questions about my characters, or asking me if I’m going to write a book about one of my secondary characters. It makes me feel as if I’ve done my job.

MJP: Are there any trends you hope to see in romance in the next few years?

JW: I find the present-day insistence on frequent sex scenes in a romance to be a problem for me – and for any other historical writer, I should think.  Well-bred young women who lived before the 20th century did not have sex before they were married.  Many of my old regencies dealt with the growing relationship between the hero and the heroine.  They fell in love because they were the right people for each other.  Each filled an emotional need the other had. This growing love is finally expressed in marriage and sex.

The problem with writing historical romances is: if you’re writing a novel about two people who aren’t married, how do you keep getting them into bed, as seems to be required?  I have to confess, I haven’t figured it out yet. 

MJP:  What is the best part about being a writer?  The most frustrating?

JW: The best part of writing is when you have a day when everything has gone well and you can look at the scene you’ve written and say, YES!!!

The most frustrating part of writing today for me is the necessity to write specifically ‘for the market.’ The market has a series of niches which editors want their books to neatly slot into – for example, it’s a given truth in today’s publishing world that that all romances must be ‘hot.’ Georgette Heyer wouldn’t have a prayer today.  Her characters don’t even kiss until the last page – even if they’ve been married for the whole book!

It’s getting more and more difficult to sell a book that doesn’t fit into the parameters set by ‘the market.’ If I sent The Road to Avalon out today I’d probably be told that ‘the last book we did on Arthur didn’t sell very well.  It’s been over done.  Sorry.’

Highmeadow225 Unfortunately, thus is the way of the publishing world today, and a writer either conforms or doesn’t get published.

I want to thank Mary Jo Putney and the Word Wenches web site for giving me this opportunity to talk to you. It’s been extremely enjoyable to babble on about myself.  And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go back to my latest book and try to figure out where I can fit in some sex.

MJP:  Your thoughts on publishing are in line with some discussions we’ve been having here, Joan. Thanks so much for visiting us today! 

Comments and questions for our guest?  Memories of your favorite Joan Wolf story?  (That’s a tough choice, but I have a particular fondness for an outrageously delicious Valentine’s novella she once wrote.)  And order your copy of The Road to Avalon today!  You won’t regret it. 

Mary Jo