Crafty Skills and Writing Thrills

Joanna here with this month's question for the Wenches:

Do you have a hobby or handicraft that's important to you? Does it ever find its way into your writing?


Mary Jo sWench MaryJoPutney_RiverofFire_200pxays:

Alas, I am not crafty, except perhaps in my plotting.  I learned basic sewing as a girl and made some of my own clothes because that's what girls did in that time and place, but I wasn't enthusiastic about it, and I was a complete loss at handcrafts.  I botched cross-stitch and never mastered crochet and had zero interest in embroidery.  I did learn to knit in college because it was a way to keep hands busy when we sat around and talked, and I even managed a few large needle sweaters.  But they weren't very good except for basic warmth, and I haven't knit since I got out of college. 


 With the exception of young Bree, the hero's daughter in Sometimes a Rogue, my female characters aren't very interested Wench NotQuiteAWifeMMin handwork, though they can mend things as required. And now that I think of it, Laurel, the heroine of Not Quite a Wife, crocheted baby blanket squares while on a long carriage ride, but that was more because poor babies needed warm blankets.  I don't think she was much interested in crocheting for crochet's sake.  <G>  So I guess you could say that my lack of handicraft interest has made its way into my writing!


  On the other hand, while I don't have much gift for crafts, I have my share of interests.  As an art school graduate and a professional designer, art and design creep into stories, most strongly in River of Fire, where all the major characters are artists and don't know how they feel unless they have a paint brush in hand.  <G>  And I love music, though again I have no particular talent other than being able to do some research, but it's fun finding a four hand piano version of Vivaldi quartets on youtube, then telling my characters to take it from there.  <G>  A nice thing about writing is all the elements we can weave into our stories!


Nicola offers us music:

It’s interesting how many writers are also creative in other artistic fields. I have absolutely no talent for painting or drawing, or sewing, Wench Unmasked - US publishedknitting or making anything with my hands. As a child I did make patchwork cushions in my sewing classes at school and I was also passably good at cookery, which I think is another creative talent. However it was music that I loved and singing was a hobby of mine from childhood.


 I studied music at school and learned the piano and wrote some (bad) songs. I joined my school, college and church choirs and was also a member of a local choral society that toured Europe one summer. That was very exciting. My first love was always church music but I have tackled just about everything except opera! My singing tutor was a very fierce Scots lady called Mrs Buchan who had been a professional singer and was a very inspiring teacher.


 A number of characters in my books are musical and have good signing voices. Some of my heroines are talented at the piano or other musical instruments. When I am researching a book I do enjoy seeing which pieces of music were popular in the period and choosing something that my heroine might be singing or playing in the drawing room after dinner to entertain the other guests. In Unmasked, the heroine Mari gives away the secret of her ancestry by singing a Russian folk song.  When I write musical characters I am always reminded of Mary in Pride and Prejudice who loved playing the piano even though she had little aptitude for it, and her father saying: “You have entertained us long enough!”


Susan is musical as well as craftsy:



Writers and some kind of creative handiwork are a natural fit — the creativity often spills off the page and Wench susan 1into some other expression like arts, crafts, gardening and so on. And if we're not craftsy otherwise, we can scribble and type a mile a minute, and that's a talent of the hands if there ever was one! 



I went to art school, so for years I did paintings, drawing, prints and so on, even while I thought about stories. I haven't made art for years (though I do want to return to it), but I always have some kind of handiwork going. I try different things rather than stick with one, so I am master of none and explorer of many. I've done lots of crochet and knitting, and usually have a knitting project going; I've churned out throws and scarves and such, and keep it simple (I love big circular needles and soft yarns, and have no patience for small-stitch projects). I've done beading, basket weaving, needlework, sewing, collage, murals, scrapbooking — it often comes down to my degree of patience for the thing. I especially love to refinish furniture and paint rooms. My routine after completing a book usually involves painting walls or redoing furniture. Give me a ladder, a can of paint, some music and I'm happy.


Wench susan 2Some of the art has worked into my novels – I've written about a painter, an illuminator, a sculptor, an art historian and so on. I also wrote about harp playing after taking lessons in Celtic harp years ago. I loved it, and better understood long-ago harpers and harp music. That definitely helped when I wrote The Angel Knight, Lady Macbeth and Queen Hereafter, and if I write about a harper again, I'll dust off my Irish harp and tune it up!  
Cara/Andrea brings us:
I have an art background, so I’ve featured a both a heroine and a hero who was an accomplished Wenches A Diamond In The Rough-medwatercolor artist. But I’m also the Wench “jock”, as I enjoy sports as a way of relaxing. A while back, I took up golf—I’m pretty athletic, but it was one of the hardest endeavors I’ve ever tried— the swing may look easy, and the ball is not moving, but trust me, getting the timing right takes practice and patience! However I really enjoyed both the cerebral challenge and walking the course. After a day of writing, I love going out in early evening and playing a few holes. I can’t tell you how many plot tangles I have unraveled on the fairways. There’s something about switching gears and doing something physical that clears the brain synapses!
On a trip to Scotland, I visited the Old Course at St. Andrews, where golf was popular during Rgency times, and then was lucky enough to play a round with the Duke of Roxburghe, who is a passionate golfer . . .which got me to thinking! I decided it would be great fun incorporate my new hobby into a Regency romance. I did a little research on clubmaking (there are some wonderfully quirky clubs, like clerks and mashies fron that era) and then penned A Diamond in the Rough.The heroine is a great golfer but must disguise herself as a boy and work as a caddie to be allowed to play at St. Andrews. She’s assigned to teach an English lord how to play the game in order for him to play a match to win back his ancestral home, which his wastrel father has gambled away. And well . . . the game is on, in more ways than one.
Jo comes back with a very down-to-earth hobby:
Wench josgarden2Gardening. I'm not sure I've ever written a garden-obsessed character, but my books often have garden scenes and named plants with significance. My
characters are going to have gardens as most people in the past did until the
worst town developments of the 19th century, which led to the allotment
movement — an awareness that people, especially the poor, need a place to grow
food and also to have touch with the land and growing things.

Most of my characters are wealthy enough to have estates and gardeners, but they still take an interest. Interestingly, my book-in-progress, The Viscount Needs a Wife, has a hero and heroine who don't. They're both London people, not fond of the countryside, and know nothing about how to grow anything. I like to be different!

Anne says (and this is so cool. I had no idea about the dolls):
Wenches myWrapBraceletsI nearly always have some craft activity on the go, whether it's hand-made Christmas decorations, small things for dolls houses, or various kinds of jewellery. I'm more slapdash than meticulous, but I do enjoy making small things.
I used to babysit a friend's daughter on a regular basis and as a result I developed dolls house disease. I made lots of tiny things for a dolls house that one of my adult students had given me when she'd learned I was looking after a little girl and had No Dolls!!
It was a weekly ritual — my little friend would arrive, we'd get out the dolls house and the box of contents and set the house up from scratch — different every time. At the end of the day she'd tell me what new thing the dolls house needed, in that very cute imperious way three and four year olds have. "I think the dolls house needs. . . a dolls house." Or "I think next week the dolls will go . . . to the races. They'll need hats." This was after Melbourne Cup day and someone had been watching "Fashions on the Field" on TV. So I made hats for tiny dolls.
Currently I'm playing with jewelry. Fiddling with small things helps me concentrate and you'd be surprised Wwenches DollHathow often, while apparently concentrating wholly on a necklace or bracelet, I solve a plot problem. I go through stages with the jewelry, too. Not so long ago I was making things using natural crystals, which I love, but was sidetracked recently when a friend suggested I make a beaded leather wrap bracelet — and I was off and playing.
Few of these things ever find their way into my writing. I wrote one story, The Virtuous Widow, a Christmas novella that included a dolls house, and that was inspired by my little friend and our dolls house games — she's mentioned in the dedication. Nothing since then, but you never know . . .
Wenches pat rice wickedPat rounds us off with some wonderfully practical hobbies:
I garden and I fix up old houses, so I’m going to guess those aspects of my life creep into my books on a regular basis. I believe readers have upon occasion remarked that they know they’re going to get houses and kids when they read my books. Apparently I’ve disguised the gardening fever better. Even in Formidable Lord Quentin, when the characters have plenty of fancy London houses that need no work, my protagonists end up in a neglected rural mansion battling rodents and bird nests. We have the kids and horses in that one, but no garden.
I outdid myself in Wicked Wyckerly, though—the heroine owns a farm and gardens, the hero owns a truly neglected mansion AND townhouse, and we have kids galore. But I’m thinking children probably aren’t a hobby!
So. What about you? What hobby brings you joy and makes you more creative? If you were to write a book, which of your avocations would sneak into the text?
Some lucky commenter will win a copy of any of my books they choose.









A House In The Country . . .

AP-avatarCara/Andrea here,

SP-1One of the many reasons I’m enjoying Downton Abbey and all the enthusiasm for British History it has engendered here in the States is the interest it’s stirred in the great country houses. Now, many of us are familiar with the famous estates, like Chatsworth and Blenheim. But there are so many lesser-known places with unique and fascinating histories, as Nicola often points out in her wonderful posts.

SP-mapFor those of us who don’t live in the UK, and only occasionally get a chance to travel to the Sceptered Isle, these stately houses are incredibly alluring. The grand gardens, the ornate rooms, the opulent furnishings, the memorabilia decorating the niches and walls—it all resonates with wonderful stories and gives us a glimpse into the richly textured past. Last summer I had a chance to visit one of these  marvelous estates, so in homage to the recent start of Season Two of Downton Abbey here in America,  I thought I’d share  a little about Stoke Park, which is located near London, just a few miles from Heathrow Airport.

Elizabeth-1The lands of Stoke Park and the village of Stoke Poges, where it is located, are mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, and through the ensuing centuries the estate passed to various nobles of the realm. Queen Elizabeth graced two of her favorites with use of enclave, first allowing Sir Christopher Hatton  to reside there, and then giving the honors to Sir Edward Coke. Coke became one of the most prominent lawyers in England, and was involved in sending the Earl of Essex to the gallows, as well as prosecuting members of the Gunpowder Plot. Two years before the Queen’s death, he entertained her at Stoke Park.

King-CharlesRoyalty made another visit, albeit a less pleasant one, to the estate when King Charles I was imprisoned for a short time there before his execution. And in 1688, the newly crowned King William III was traveling in the area and wished to see the manor house. However, he was refused entrance by the owner, who said “He has got possession of another man’s house and shall not enter mine.”

Stoke Park eventually passed to the Cobham family, who also owned Stowe, a well-known estate in Buckinghamshire. In 1749, the dowager Viscountess came from Stowe to live at Stoke park—and brough with her another fascinating figure in English history—the legendary landscape designer, Capability Brown.

Cap-BrownLancelot Brown—who earned the moniker “Capability” for often telling clients that their estates had great “capability” for landscape improvement—was born in Kirkharle, Northumberland in 1716. He started his career as a gardener’s boy at Kirkharle Hall, and then moved on to Stowe, where he studied under the famous landscape designer, William Kent.

Brown made a name for himself by breaking with tradition and creating a new “natural” approach to designing gardens and grounds, as opposed to the formal layouts of the past. He called them “grammatical” landscapes—in explaining himself to Hannah More in an encounter at Hampton Court, he said, “I make a comma, and there . . . where a more decided turn is proper, I make a colon; at another part, where interruption is desirable to break the view, a parenthesis . . .” Now as a writer, I of course love this name for his style. And oh, can Brown punctuate!

Stoke-Park-2His style is marked by long stretches of rolling grasslands, with bushes, trees  and lakes—manmade if necessary— artfully placed to create visual texture and interest. Many of the most famous estates in Britain feature his garden designs, including Croome Court, Blenheim Palace, Warwick Castle, and small traces at Kew Gardens. Stoke Park’s grounds—which today include a wonderful 18-hole golf course by the distinguished Harry Colt—showcase Brown’s genius for subtlely shaping the earth and creating pleasing vistas from every angle of the estate.

Stoke-Park-1I was lucky enough to play golf through some of the grounds that he designed at Stoke Park, Now, Mark Twain called golf “a good walk spoiled” but nothing could diminish the pleasure of winding my way through the vistas of rolling grasslands, strategically placed clumps of bushes, and graceful stone bridges crossing scenic waters. It’s not often that I can combine my love of history with my love of sport, so this was truly a special experience.

Thomas-GreyOther notables who owned Stoke Park include Edward Gray, one of England’s premier poets. His most famous poem, “Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard” was written about St. Giles’s church in Stoke Poges. The Penn family, familiar to all us Yanks, was also a steward of the lands. In the early 1800’s John Penn, grandson of William, brought in the acclaimed architect James Wyatt to help design a manor house.

Sp-tennisNow this brings us back to the Downton Abbey era, which also figures prominently in the history of Stoke Park. In 1908, sport-mad Nick Lane Jackson had the grand idea to “establish a country club somewhat along the lines of those which had proved so phenomenally successful in the United States.” He and a group of investors arranged to lease part of Stoke Park with an option to buy. The Stoke Park Club came into being, and today it still offers its members and hotel guests world-class golf and grass Goldfingercourt tennis. (The famous golf match in the James Bond movie Goldfinger was filmed at the club.) The public can book a stay, Stoke-interiorwhich offers the opportunity  to enjoy tea and meals in the fabulous period rooms, or enjoy a quiet read in the library or various sitting rooms. It’s well worth a visit for it’s truly a special place, for everywhere you look, both inside and out, you get a breathtaking look at history.

What about you? Are you enjoying Downton Abbey? Would you like to have a stay at a grand English country house. Which one would you choose?