How I Discovered 1675 in 1971

From Susan/Miranda:

One of the questions that people love to ask writers (and most writers hate to answer) is “Where do you get your ideas?” While some of us prefer the snappy smart-ass reply – “Why, I get mine at the Idea Store!” –– the truth is often so murky and roundabout that it’s almost impossible to give. But sometimes the answer is so clear and precise that it could come with a date stamp.

Such is the case with my next book, DUCHESS, to be released early in August. My first foray into fictionalized biography, DUCHESS is the story of Sarah Churchill, first Duchess of Marlborough. Recently I received an email from my publicist at NAL, requesting that I answer several background questions about the book to help her generate publicity about it. The first question was, of course, a variation of the old favorite: When did you first become interested in Sarah Churchill?

And I knew at once: 1971. The very first BBC series shown in America as part of PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre was a multi-part saga set in 17th century England called “The First Churchills”, staring Susan Hampshire and John Neville. I was in high school, and though I was already branded a history nerd, I’d never heard of any Churchill beyond Sir Winston, and all I knew of King Charles II and his bawdy Restoration court had come via a well-thumbed copy of “Forever Amber.” But with millions of other viewers, I was instantly drawn into the lives of the beautiful, ambitious Sarah and her dashing soldier John as they contrived to rise from penniless beginnings to the very highest places in the English court and army –– the most powerful and wealthiest couple of their time. For the majority of “First Churchills” fans, the series was a fascinating way to pass Sunday night. For me, it was the germ of a novel I wouldn’t realize I’d write for another thirty-four years.

I began to think of other movies or television shows that helped shape my impressions of the past that still influence me today. I don’t mean actual research, but more the romantic sweep of history that sank so deeply into my impressionable teen-aged bones that it remains with me now.

First and foremost, of course, would be Franco Zefferelli’s 1968 version of “Romeo and Juliet.” The overture alone is enough to reduce a whole generation of long-grown women to shuddering sighs (and apparently remains popular enough that the DVD is #351 on Amazon, with nearly two hundred comments!) In those days of limited movie distribution, my friends and I skipped school and took the bus into Manhattan to the Paris movie theatre on 57th Street, the one place where it seemed always to be playing (and why, I ask you, do I still remember THAT?) and where we’d weep in the dark and savor the gorgeously romantic past of Zefferelli’s Renaissance. Leonard Whiting in dark blue velvet wasn’t so bad, either.

Victorian England had already hooked its marcasite claws into me through Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, and “Far From the Madding Crowd” in 1967 carried me off to Wessex with Julie Christie and her perfect Mod-girl straight bangs and sulky mouth. As Bathsheba Everdene, she was wooed by three heroes –– Alan Bates, Terrence Stamp, and Peter Finch –– which, when you’re struggling to achieve the notice of churlish high school boys, struck me as glorious excess. I’ve never forgotten the wide, melancholy vistas of Hardy-country, Terrence Stamp’s flopping black hair and beautiful army uniform, and Julie’s skirts billowing in the wind.

The 1970 version of D.H. Lawrence’s “Women in Love” was an eye-opener of another kind. Alan Bates again, plus Oliver Reed. Yes, Glenda Jackson won the Oscar, but all I remember was those two men eating figs in a lascivious way that simultaneously embarrassed and fascinated my adolescent self. This wasn’t “Romeo and Juliet” love; this was something else entirely from health class filmstrips, something dark and sensuous and very, very grown-up. Terence Stamp, Oliver Reed, Alan Bates –– are they the reasons that so many of the heroes I’ve written have been Englishmen with dark hair and blue eyes?

There were many more period movies that left their mark on me –– Tom Jones, Dr. Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia, Barry Lyndon –– movies that remain much more vivid in my memory than any of their newer counterparts can ever be. I don’t seem to have the patience for movies now. I see too many historical inaccuracies, inconsistencies in characters, weaknesses in plot development, all the curse of habitual self-editing. Sadly, that innocence of blissful ignorance can’t be regained, any more than I could squeeze into a pair of Landlubber or Britannia jeans from the same vintage.

I don’t buy the DVD’s of my old favorites, either. Just as it’s better not to discover that the old boyfriend is now bald and belting his Dockers south of the equator, I’d rather leave Juliet and Bathsheba in the hazy, flattering glow of the their past, and mine.

And, like Sarah Churchill, I never know how or when they’ll rise up from my memory and into my writing.

Now it’s your turn: what movies influence you back in what was once called “the formative years”? When you write or read, who do you unconsciously cast as your characters? Is Clark Gable your phantom bad-boy, or Brad Pitt? Time to ‘fess up!

More Living History, Living Research

From Susan/Miranda:

I loved Loretta’s recent entry on visiting Old Sturbridge Village. I’m a great believer in the value of researching through living history museums and restorations, too, and with Loretta’s blessing, I’m adding my perspective.

Writing historical fiction is like writing fantasy: both create alternative worlds for readers to visit. The bare facts of life in the past are available to anyone with a library or computer, but a skilled fiction writer must use all her senses to bring her story and characters and setting to life. For me, living history museums have helped add an extra element to my writing in ways that no research book alone ever could.

For several years (before I started hanging out in ice rink parking lots), I volunteered as an interpreter at the Colonial Pennsylvania Plantation in Ridley Creek State Park. This is a much more modest living history museum than Sturbridge. It’s a single-family working 18th century farm, complete with the original stone house, as well as outbuildings, animals, kitchen garden, and fields planted with crops. The Plantation is primarily a teaching museum, and a favorite field trip for school groups in the Philadelphia area, with hundreds of children a day visiting during the peak spring season. While it’s a hands-on experience for the kids (trying on replica clothing, tasting food they help gather and prepare, drawing water from the well, and, of course, shrieking with gleeful horror over the privy), the Plantation was strict about keeping everything as accurate as possible.

We interpreters weren’t in character, but we did dress like farmer’s wives of the middling sort from head to toe. Our modern colored hair had to be hidden by linen caps, we wore stays that creaked and thread stockings that never stayed up no matter how tightly the garters were tied. The only jewelry permitted was wedding rings,

Dressed like this, we ran the tours, and worked the farm. While it’s always useful to wear clothing from the past and feel how it sits on the body, it’s another experience entirely to feel how those same clothes perform in action. Petticoat hems get dusty from unpaved streets, and wet and heavy dragging across morning dew. Before zippers and velcro, clothes required buttons, lacing, and straight pins to stay in place, and it took a lonnnnng time to dress each morning. Those neat little ruffled caps were not only the last word in goodwife modesty, but also kept long hair in place (and away from the hazardous open flames of candles and hearths) better than any modern scrunchie. An 18th century farmwife or laundress thought nothing of hoisting oak buckets full of water, each weighing as much as twenty pounds. The whalebone strips (ok, now they’re made of plastic) sewn into stays served nicely as a built-in back-support for heavy lifting, much like a weight-lifter’s belt at the gym.

Our clothes were handsewn from wool or linen, natural, indigenous fibers that were both historically accurate and fire retardant. A wayward spark on a wool or linen petticoat will smolder, while the same spark on cotton or silk will immediately burst into flame. I hadn’t realized how those gauzy imported Indian cotton muslins so popular with Georgian and Regency ladies were one more way to demonstrate proudly that the lady was a Lady, who never worked over an open hearth from fear of catching on fire.

I’ve never written a book set in colonial Pennsylvania, and given the current climate in New York publishing, I don’t see that changing any time soon. But my experience at the Plantation helped make my writing infinitely richer, no matter what my story. I learned details of 18th century life that would apply just as readily to a duchess in London as to Quaker farmer.

I learned that no matter how roaring the fire in the fireplace may be, the heat only extends five feet into the room, and yes, the water in the washstand and the ink on the desk will freeze in the winter. I learned different sounds: the squeak of the horse’s leather harness, the dry crack of a flintlock musket or pistol, the way voices and footsteps echo in rooms with uncarpeted floors and uncurtained windows. I learned that no matter how many wool-stuffed mattresses are piled beneath a featherbed, the rope springs that are at the heart of every bedstead make for creaky, uncomfortable sleep. I learned that a closed-up house heated by firewood is smoky, and that the inhabitants have red-rimmed eyes, perpetual coughs, and a fine grey dusting of soot on their clothes. I learned that, before Febreeze, Life Smelled: from wood smoke, cooking, privies, animals, and people.

And if all this learnin’ makes me another of Loretta’s self-proclaimed history nerds, then I’ll proudly wear the t-shirt.

Six More Reasons Why the Regency Rules

Now that we’re settling into our weekly WordWench routine, Monday will be my regular day for posting. I hope you’re all enjoying this first official weekend of summer, and won’t be near a computer to read this until tomorrow. And if you or any of your family members have served in the armed forces, I’m sending along a special “thank you” on Memorial Day for all you’ve done and the sacrifices you’ve made.

Jo’s entry about how Regency settings have nearly taken over the historical market was so exactly on target that I can’t help but add a few more reasons of my own. I’ve written my share of Regency-set historicals; I can relate.

1. The Regency era is a familiar place to visit. Thanks both to the long-established tradition of Regency-set books and to Hollywood, readers come to newer books with a pretty good idea of what this time period looks and feels like. They have an instant connection with Almack’s or an English country house that they wouldn’t necessarily have with a Renaissance palazzo or an ancient Roman villa. From the first page, readers know where they are, and can jump right into the story with the hero and heroine.

2. Not only are the women’s gowns appealing to modern sensibilities, but the men’s clothes are, too. Cropped hair, close-fitting trousers, tailored coats with padded shoulders, and riding boots all fit into current ideas of what’s dashingly “masculine.” While I agree with Jo that Georgian clothing is infinitely more seductive and elegant, most modern women just can’t bend their minds around a guy in high heeled shoes and a wig (though Johnny Depp in The Libertine could change a lot of minds.)

3. “Regency” is such a great concept that it knows no national boundries. In France, those high-waisted muslin gowns and classically-inspired chairs are called Empire; in America, they’re Federal. Truly Regency is a state of mind.

4. There’s a persistent rumor that Regencyland will soon be added to the Magic Kingdoms at Disneyland. No, not really, but from the version of early 19th century England that pops up in many (but certainly not all) historical romances, it does seem to be a charmed world. Everyone’s rich, witty, titled, handsome or beautiful, and lives in gorgeous houses with plenty of amusing servants who just can’t wait to be your confidant or go-between. There’s little mention of that unpleasant war with the French (unless, of course, you’re a spy), or of the unstable economy, or syphilis, or children working in the textile mills, or unemployment, or the fact that the king is mad and his regent-son is more than a little irresponsible. If you’re looking for a great place to escape from the twenty-first century for a few hours, Regencyland can’t be beat.

5. Despite feminist efforts to broaden literature curriculums, Jane Austen continues to be one of the very few woman writers to break into required reading lists. For many high school girls, Pride and Prejudice and Emma are a surprising, enjoyable breath of fresh country air. In other words, you never forget your first Mr. Darcy.

6. Keira Knightley, Matthew Macfadyen, Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, Colin Firth, and Jennifer Ehle.


The Marriage Spell

The Marriage Spell

I’ve chosen to post on Fridays (plus other days as ideas strike), and I was all set to start with “Friday’s child is full of woe,” but being a careful, researching writer, I Googled and found that it’s Wednesday’s child who is full of woe.  Friday’s child is loving and giving.  Thank you, Mother Goose! 

            Actually, I was born on Monday (“Fair of face?”  Nah, strictly average!), but figure that most of us qualify for Saturday:  “Must work for a living.” (Parts of that rhyme are astrological. Saturday = Saturn, the planet associated with work. Monday = Moon Day. Etc.)

            My work includes a brand new book coming out right now!  Since we Wenches are still in our first week, we haven’t developed a protocol for announcing our books, but you don’t mind if I talk about The Marriage Spell, do you?  I’m hoping not, since I intend to go ahead and do it.  <g>

            My last several historicals have all included fantasy elements, and I just love weaving them in.  I’m a life long reader of science fiction and fantasy (nor am I the only Wench who can say that), so adding magic is trés cool.  My last two books have been in my Guardian series—Georgian settings with big themes and conflicts.

            TMS is not a Guardian book—rather, it’s an alternative Regency in a world much like the Regency we know and love, except that magic is an accepted part of life.  (This acceptance goes back to the Black Plague, when the wizards and healers came out of hiding to nurse the ill, working alongside priests and nuns.  Ever since, magic has been accepted as normal and useful.)  Most people are fine with magic—except the top levels of the nobility, who consider it dreadfully lowbrow and tacky.  Worse than being in trade, even! 

            TMS is a classic marriage of convenience, and it starts in the hunting fields of the Shires.  (Look for Jo Beverley’s RITA-winning Regency Emily and the Dark Angel for a great romance with a hunting background.)  If you want to learn more about my new book baby, go to for an excerpt and more plot description.

            To turn this in a more writerly direction—why do authors change the kind of book they’re writing?  In my case, I feared I was going stale on straight historicals, and I didn’t want that to happen.  (With my last two straight historicals, one started with the hero dead and the next started with the heroine dead, which is the sign of an author who is really reaching. <G>)

            Adding magic brings new dimensions and fun to the stories.  I think we all have to balance the creative demands of the Muse with the commercial demands of the marketplace—and in the long run, the Muse must have her due, or she may well pack up her marbles and go home.  Heck, that’s true even in the short run!

            Honor the Muse, and she will honor you.

Mary Jo