How Stories Come to Life

3 assistantsAndrea here, breathing a happy sigh. It’s always a good feeling to finish a manuscript, fiddle and fret over the last little revisions, and then draw a deep breath and press SEND to my editor. The story is a new Wrexford & Sloane mystery, which is slated to publish in September of 2022. (Publishing schedules gets very disorienting for authors . . . my head is still percolating with the plots of this one, but as I gear up to begin promo for my upcoming September release, I have to return to a previous murder investigation . . .)

So, am I putting my feet and having my editorial assistants bring me melon by the pool? (I wish . . . but they’ve informed me that they are taking a summer vacation, leaving me to fend for myself.) The truth is, I already have snippets of ideas dancing around in my head for the next book . . .This is the time when I collect all those shiny little baubles—a place, a person, a “MacGuffin” that I think would be fun to weave into a plot—and put them in a folder. (That’s the easy part! When I get to the middle of the next manuscript, I’m usually gnashing my teeth and asking “Why did I ever think this was a good idea?”)

Merton 1But I’m digressing . . .

One of the baubles for my next manuscript is Oxford University’s Merton College, in which I set a scene in the book that I just sent off. Sometimes history is such fun in that it gives an author a perfect plot scenarios from real life. I won’t talk too much about the specifics, since the book won’t be out for over a year, but there was a wonderful gathering of foreign monarchs and dignitaries in Oxford for several days, which allowed for some very fun skullduggery to take place at the actual events that happened within university—especially in Merton College.

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Which Jane Austen?

Which Jane AustenNicola here.  Last week I was in Oxford at the Bodleain Library to see the Jane Austen exhibition. I love “The Bod” as it’s known; when you join you have to swear an oath that dates back to when the library was first open to scholars in 1602. Amongst other things you have to promise not to set fire to the place which suggests that those 17th century students were a bit unruly, not unlike some of their modern Oxford counterparts!

The exhibition was quite small, just one room, and I did wonder when I went in whether there Juvenilia was anything new that could be said about Jane Austen or any new slant that could be taken on her life and work. It was titled “Which Jane Austen” and had the theme of “the writer in the world.” So it focussed on objects and writing associated with specific times and places in her life. There was a section on the juvenilia she wrote with other members of her family (in the photo), with her original diaries and notebooks on show.  There were features on her time in Bath and her connections to London, with many letters on show. There was a book of recipes Jane’s family used at Chawton House. A particularly interesting section focussed on Jane as a woman writing in a time of war which pointed out that she was one of the first writers from the “home front” giving a domestic view of life for those living through the Napoleonic Wars. It’s always mind-blowing to see original possessions and belongings on display and one of the things that moved me most was a pair of Jane’s spectacles resting on her writing desk! I imagine a lot of us could relate to that!

Pride and Prejudice 1995 (1)In a studio next door they were playing extracts from all the different films and TV adaptations of Jane Austen’s books. The idea was that you could sit and draw your own comparisons between the different versions of the story and see how they could be depicted in so many ways. Or, if you were like me, you could admire the houses, the fashions and the different Mr Darcys!

It’s fascinating to fill out the background life and influences of a writer like Jane Austen. She attended the balls and parties we read and write about. She met the people and danced the steps of the country dances. I love the fact that like many writers, she used aspects of the people she knew to inspire the characters in her books. One of the most exciting things that I discovered when researching the history of Ashdown House was a completely unexpected connection between the Craven family and the Austen family. Sir Charles Craven, who was Governor of Carolina between 1711 and 1716 was married to a very beautiful younger woman called Love and Friendship Elizabeth Staples. This woman was the grandmother of three of Jane Austen’s closest friends, Martha, Mary and Eliza Lloyd. They regaled Jane with tales of Elizabeth’s private cruelty and vice, and the outrageously scandalous life she led after she was widowed. It’s said that she was the model for Lady Susan Vernon in the book Lady Susan and recent film Love and Friendship. Similarly, John Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility was supposedly based on the Earl of Craven of whose morals in keeping his mistress at Ashdown House Jane Austen so clearly disapproved!  Willoughby is charming, extravagant and amoral. William Craven was, arguably… well, you guessed it!

The relationship between William Craven and the famous Regency courtesan Harriette Wilson, which was said that been reflected in Writer in the world Sense and Sensibility, was also the inspiration for the story thread involving the courtesan Lavinia Flyte in my own book, House of Shadows. Jane Austen, in writing about the fate of  Eliza Williams in Sense and Sensibility was completely aware of the restrictions on the lives of women in Regency England, the balance of power and the way that the wider world worked. She was indeed a “writer in the world.”

Do you think Jane Austen was a writer who reflects the wider world? Do you have a favourite adaptation or a favourite re-imagining of her work? To celebrate the US publication of House of Shadows next week I'm giving away a copy of the book to one commenter between now and midnight Saturday!

Christmas Fun and Games!

AshmoleanA couple of weeks ago I went to the Ashmolean Museum Christmas Party in Oxford. The Ashmolean is one of the most famous museums in the UK and one of my absolute favourite places. It was there that I first saw the 17th century engraved Bohemian glass that gave me a key idea for my book House of Shadows. I also set one of the scenes in the book there, so it was wonderful to revisit and celebrate with canapés and champagne, followed by carols in the sculpture gallery.

After the speeches and buffet we were divided into groups and given a short lecture by one of the Snakes board curators on an item in the museum that had a connection to Christmas. In our case it was the snakes and ladders board in the oriental gallery. Snakes and ladders is of course a traditional Christmas game that has been played for hundreds of years. I’m told that in the US it’s called Chutes and Ladders, apparently because when it was launched in the 1940s, children didn’t like the snakes. The object of the game is to navigate one's game piece, according to the roll of the dice, from the start (bottom square) to the finish (top square), helped or hindered by ladders and snakes respectively and it is based on pure luck.

However, the game in the Ashmolean was quite different. It is an 18th century version of the game as a morality tale. Based on the idea of karma, it teaches the players all about their spiritual path to enlightenment. The snakes have names like “greed” “envy” and “pride” and represent the pitfalls for man as he or she struggles upward towards heaven. This particular board is painted on British watermarked paper and was made for a British patron in the East India Company. The instructions on the board are written in Persian and English. It’s a beautiful and very rare artefact.

Snakes and ladders AshmoleanSnakes and Ladders became popular in England in the 19th century when families returning from colonial India brought it with them. It was the perfect game for reflecting Victorian ideas of morality.  Squares of Fulfilment, Grace and Success were accessible by ladders of Thrift, Penitence and Industry and snakes of Indulgence, Disobedience and Indolence caused one to end up in Illness, Disgrace and Poverty. While the Indian version of the game had snakes outnumbering ladders, the English counterpart was more forgiving as it contained each in the same amount. This concept of equality signifies the cultural ideal that for every sin one commits, there exists another chance at redemption.

In modern versions of the game the idea of morality has faded and it has become a game of chance although it still embodies the idea that for every ladder you hope to climb, there is a snake waiting around the corner! The phrase “back to square one” derives from the game.

Snakes and Ladders was one of my favourite Christmas games as a child and perhaps this association with Christmas has its roots in Old jigsawtoe northern UK because each year there is a snakes and ladders championship held at Christmas in the city of Sheffield. This year we are doing the Christmas jigsaw, another game with a fascinating history. What about you? What are your favourite Christmas games?

One Man’s Legacy

Dr John RadcliffeNicola here, talking today about the influence of Dr John Radcliffe on the beautiful city of Oxford. I’m fortunate enough to live only 20 miles from the “City of the dreaming spires” and I visit it as often as I can. The sense of history in Oxford is all pervasive and very inspiring and last month I had an extra-special treat; a tour of two of Oxford’s most iconic buildings, The Radcliffe Infirmary and the Radcliffe Observatory.

Dr John Radcliffe was an English physician, politician and academic. He was born in 1652 in Yorkshire and educated at Oxford University from the age of 13. He rose to become court physician to William and Mary and is buried in Oxford. When he died he left £40k in his will, which was used to endow a library and other academic projects in the city. Amongst the buildings constructed with funds from his estate was a new quadrangle for University College, and also the Radcliffe Camera, which housed the university’s science library.

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Of Libraries and Love Poems

AccWeddBookmark Anne here. I love libraries. For me, there's nothing better than being let loose in a building full of books. It's my idea of heaven and it has been since I was a small child. A library made me the writer I am today — it was a small regional library where at the age of 11 I borrowed my first Georgette Heyer. Or maybe it was the remote little country school library where, in grade 5 and 6, a friend and I competed to read the most books, and the librarian "tested" us to make sure we really had read them. Made me a fast reader. Yep, I've never met a library I didn't love.

I've been seeing a lot of the State Library of Victoria lately — that's it in the picture below. It's in Melbourne, my home city and it's an absolute treasure of a place.
Quick detour into history: the State Library of Victoria is one of the oldest cultural institutions in Australia (which, remember is very young as modern nations go.)
The "village" of Melbourne began in 1835, with a handful of free British settlers. The village grew steadily but in 1851, it received a huge boost when gold was discovered in Ballarat and other regions and the gold rush began. Fortunes were dug out of the ground and people came in their thousands. In a decade the population of Victoria increased sevenfold.

In 1854, just three years after Victoria was declared a state (the same year as gold was discovered) the State Library of Victoria was founded. It's hard to imagine the forward-thinkingness (is that a word?) of the original founders, but just consider this: In 1854, this was the part of the city nearest the port.

In 1855, this was the city of Melbourne. (Goodman Teale, engraved by Nathaniel Whitlock,
And yet, with more than half the population transient and living in tents, this is what they planned — see the architect's vision below—an enormous library, that would be free to all people, regardless of birth, income or education.
A magnificent, forward-looking vision, is it not? In 1853, they decided to build the library and they didn't wait around; by 1854 they had the plan and the foundation stone laid, and in 1856 the library opened with a collection of 3,800 books. All done without convict labor (Victoria was a free colony) and in a time when workmen were in drastically short supply because of the gold rush.
See the dome in the architect's drawing above? This is it now.

This is the reading room where I first got the idea for An Honorable Thief. It's also where I read the journals that I based so many details of the journey in Tallie's Knight.

    And here's the Queen's Hall. Can't you just imagine a fabulous Regency event here?

 So you can understand why I'm proud to be a member of this library. It's also a fabulous research resource for my books — still free, and with brilliant on-line resources as well,  but I digress. 

The reason I was there last week was for the announcement of an exhibition coming in 2012 — Love and Devotion – from Persia and Beyond. It's a collection of stunning illustrated manuscripts dating from the 13th-18th centuries, on loan from the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, with the theme of Love and Devotion.

We're talking love poetry, and more.  I'm no expert, and I don't intend to go on about the history of Persian writing, except to say that Persian art and literature extended far beyond Persia and had a powerful effect on European culture as well. At the announcement event, they had on display a collection of rare and beautiful books, all influenced by Persian literature. 

 Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet was influenced by it, Chaucer, Dante, Kit Marlowe, Byron, all read and studied Persian literature. And I'm sure we all know a line or two from one of the many translations of the Rubaiyat of Omar Kayyam: A jug of wine, a book of verse – and thou.

RomandelaRose  I'm so eager for this exhibition to come here, but I'll have to be patient, because it's a year away. In the meantime, I'm delving into Persian love poetry. While I was writing The Perfect Kiss, I developed a taste for some of the Arabic poetry that flourished in Ottoman Spain in the middle ages — also strongly influenced by Persian culture. Those of you who've read the book will remember my heroine, Grace, reading this from the poem, Night of Love by the Poet of Andalusia, Ibn Safr al-Marini:

And she came like bright dawn
opening a path through the night
or like the wind
skimming the surface of a river.

The horizon all around me
breathed out perfume
announcing her arrival
as the fragrance precedes a flower.

And here's part of a lovely poem written by Khusrau in Persian in 12th century India. 
Do not overlook my misery by blandishing your eyes,
and weaving tales; My patience has over-brimmed,
O sweetheart, why do you not take me to your bosom.
Long like curls in the night of separation,
short like life on the day of our union;
My dear, how will I pass the dark dungeon night
without your face before.
(trans. M. Rehman)

I could go on — but I won't. Do you enjoy poetry?  Here's a task for you: share with us a few lines of a favorite poem from any culture or any era. Or else tell us about your favorite library and why you love it.