Celebrating Friendships!

Toy storyNicola here. Today I’m celebrating the power of friendship as yesterday was International Friendship Day. The value of friendship has been recognised since people first walked the earth – and it’s pretty strong between some animals too and between humans and animals. Greek philosopher Herodotus wrote “Of all possessions, a friend is the most precious.” More recently, the lyrics of the song is the Toy Story movie say “We stick together and can see it through, ‘Cause you've got a friend in me.”

What is friendship, really? A dictionary definition calls it “a state of mutual trust and support” but it’s so much more complicated than that sounds. Some of Friends us are lucky enough to have friends we have known since childhood, others from school or college. I’m part of a group of college friends who first came together almost 40 years ago and we still meet up twice a year as a group. It's lovely to have such enduring relationships with people I know so well and feel I can pick up with so easily. Then there are the other friends we make at different stages of our lives. You don’t even have to see each other that much, though when you do, it’s special. The Wenches are an amazing group of friends scattered across three continents; we don’t get the chance to see each other much but we’re so supportive of each other through the thick and thin of writing and life. In fact, being an author is a wonderful way to meet friends across the world, through readers’ and writers’ groups.

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Ask A Wench – One Special Book

Stencil.blog-post-image (1)Nicola here, introducing the July Ask A Wench. This month we’re talking about a book that is special to each of us, whether it’s something that was recommended to us, or a book that was given to us a child, or something we came across on our own that sparked a new reading interest. The results are fascinating and varied, funny and poignant, and we hope you will enjoy them and contribute a special book of your own to the discussion! As you might imagine, choosing just one book was a real challenge to such a bunch of avid readers and the horrified response was "One book only?" We hope you don't find the task as hard as we did but we think you just might…

Mary Jo writes:

Georgette Heyer, the gateway drug

When Regency addicts gather, the topic of "My First Heyer!" often comes up. I found my first Sylvester 1 Heyer when I was in college and browsing for cheap books in the bargain basement of the Economy Bookstore in downtown Syracuse, NY.  I didn't know it was illegal to sell stripped books, but as a poor student, five cent books were appealing and they had a lot by this Heyer person.

 After much perusing, I walked out with Sylvester, or The Wicked Uncle, which looked like an interesting parody of the Gothic romances. 

 And that day, I changed my future, because that led me to fall in love with Regency romances.  Heyer's voice and wit and characterizations and plotting appealed to me in a way that the historical romances of the day didn't. I read and reread my favorites, and in the process developed something of a Regency voice myself.

Which is why years later, when I got my first computer and learned how to use the word processing program and decided to find if I could write the stories that were always jumbling in my head, I started writing the book that became The Diabolical Baron

 By sheer chance, I'd found the genre niche where I fit during a time when the romance genre was expanding and editors were looking for new voices. And in the process, I found a career as a writer that had once been only the vaguest of dreams.

 I've written a whole lot of books since then, including fantasy, Georgian, Victorian, contemporaries, fantasy, and Regency fantasy YA.  But by and large, I've stayed true to Regencies because it's such a great period to work in.

 And it all started with a five cent stripped novel by Georgette Heyer…

Pride and prejudice Andrea:

I was a senior in high school, and I don’t remember how the topic came up, but my Mother and I began discussing books. Now, my mother was an avid reader, but her tastes ran to The New Yorker and non-fiction books. She didn’t read a lot of novels. However, she had once told me that she polished her English when she first came to this country (she was from Switzerland and came to NYC to attend Pratt Institute, an art college) by going to the public library and asking the librarian to give her some of the classic works in English literature. So, when I started talking about books we were reading in English class and what I was really enjoying, she asked in an offhand sort of way what I thought of Pride and Prejudice.

I paused for a moment and said, “Umm, I’ve never read that." Her eyebrows shot up in shock. “You’ve never read Austen?” (I was ashamed to say I hadn’t.) “You must!” she intoned, in a tone that was more of an order than a suggestion. “Get it tomorrow at the library. I think you’ll like it.”

Well, I did . . . and I did (like it, that is—or rather, loved it.)  Of course I immediately ran out and read all the others, and fell in love with the Regency romance. it took me a little longer to discover Heyer, and then the Signet Regencies, so it was P&P that ultimately changed my life.  That I was drawn into writing by the classc Regency romance tropes is all because of Austen. And as footnote, our local library has a well-known summer sale of used books (it’s huge, and people come from all around New England to browse through the huge tents set up on the lawns) and next time it came around, my Mother bought me a lovely multi- volume set from the 1920s of Austen’s novels. I still have it, and it's one of my special book treasures.

Christina:

I get very fed up/bored/annoyed with people who denigrate romantic fiction, as if it’s some kind of lesser type of reading material, IMG_0906 so I retaliate by being biased against so called literary fiction. That means I don’t normally buy Booker Prize winners or anything recommended by the posh literary reviewers in papers like the Sunday Times. However, a friend once gave me Possession by A S Byatt (which had just won the Booker Prize) and told me I had to read it. I said thank you, of course, without actually having any intention to do so, but eventually I figured I’d better in case my friend asked me what I thought of it. And OMG, I was completely blown away! Yes, it was very literary, with incredible prose and long Victorian style poems, but the actual story (or stories plural as it’s a dual timeline novel) were fantastic. I was totally spellbound and later watched the film of the same name as well, which I thought was a wonderful adaptation of the book. So I guess this taught me to be less judgemental in my choice of reading material and that you never know where your next great read is going to come from. I would recommend Possession to anyone who wants a truly epic love story. Here is a photo of my copy – I bought myself the first edition as a treat.


Anne:

PigletThis is such a hard question — I have so many special books that I simply can't make up my mind. But if I narrowed it down to childhood beloved books, I'd have to say The House at Pooh Corner and Winnie the Pooh, by AA Milne, which I knew chunks of by heart, well before I could even read. My parents and older siblings used to read the stories aloud, and it taught me that books could make me laugh. Those books are full of wonderful humor and gentle wisdom. I've never grown out of reading them — they speak to adults as well as children.

Many years later, when I was teaching adults how to read, I remembered the lesson of those AA Milne books — that reading could be fun. So much of the curriculum was about serious practical reading and writing, and it never occurred to my adult students that books and reading could be anything other than work. So I did my best to find things to make them laugh, or take their breath away, so that reading was not just something hard and boring they had to do, but was something that could also be a pleasure. Thank you AA Milne, and Pooh and Piglet and Eeyore and Wol and all the rest of the inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood. And thank you to my family who read those stories aloud, over and over.

Pat here:

Since I’m normally surrounded by less experienced readers, I spend more time recommending books than having people mentioning Flame and flower them to me. Although, I once had an elderly neighbor recommend the Pollyanna books. She brought me a stack of them when I was twelve. By that time, I was reading the likes of ATLAS SHRUGGED, and Pollyanna was more than a wee bit twee for cynical me. But I was desperate for reading material back then and would read cereal boxes if handed one.

 My one great story recommendation—which was great at the time and wouldn’t be so great now—was way back in the late 70s. I was a young mother, a fan of literary and historical fiction, with a limited book budget. The library generally provided what I needed, but I liked having a paperback when we traveled. So as I stared at the array of colorful covers at our local Kmart, a little blue-haired old lady pointed at one historical, but slightly spicy cover, and whispered, “Get this one. It’s really good.” So I bought it. That book was the FLAME AND THE FLOWER.

 I had never read anything other than classic literary romance before, so I was captivated—and a bit wide-eyed at the graphic scenes. I went on from there to grab every historical romance I could find, learned which ones I liked, and when I couldn’t find them—started writing them for myself. There was no turning back after that. So there was one recommendation that made a difference!

(and the image is of that original copy that set my career in motion!)

Susan writes:

51qcMMmazlLI'll pick just one among the many books that I have found unforgettable, books that have had a profound impact on me as a person and as a writer — I could go way back to Pippi Longstocking (hey, I was six, that book turned my life around!) or Jane Eyre (in high school, I read it over and over, literally would close it and start it again). Those and more are on a special keeper shelf that I'll tote around with me until I'm, well, not around anymore. Today I'll choose a more recent read from that shelf: Alice Hoffman's The Dovekeepers was a profound reading experience for me. It is the story of four women among the 900 Jews on Masada just before the Romans arrived to place them under siege. The power of the story, the characters, the writing, spoke deeply to me–I've rarely been so completely immersed in a novel. The story is vibrant, gritty, whole cloth, the characters walking that landscape so strong and real that the book displaced the world around me. Part of its impact for me is that it not only pulled me in, but demanded something of me, the little reader in her safe little world — I came to love these characters, cared about them, felt dread and hope for them. Hoffman weaves such a tight net of reality with language, image, and historical authenticity that I was in awe–and more than that, I realized the story was asking courage of me. The Dovekeepers is a powerful reading experience and I found it unforgettable. I will one day draw up my courage again and give it another read. It will be worth it. 

 

Nicola: I've mentioned before that my grandmother had a big collection of romance books hidden away at the back of the wardrobe IMG_2700 in her spare room which I discovered at about the age of eleven. One of the books on the shelf was Madam, Will You Talk, by Mary Stewart. I'd already discovered the Regency genre via Nanna's collection of Georgette Heyer books and now it was the turn of Romantic suspense. As you might imagine, this opened up a whole new world for me. Glamorous and exciting stories with danger and adventure, set in places like the South of France, Corfu and Greece that were impossibly exotic to me! It was amazing! I was transported all over the world through my reading, and the books were so romantic too!

I was lucky enough to find almost all Mary Stewart's books in my local library and grabbed them one after another, detouring from romantic suspense into the Arthurian world of The Crystal Cave and its sequels, which also enchanted me. Eventually I tracked down every one of Mary Stewart's books and created my own collection, but one evaded me – the novella The Wind off the Small Isles which had been published in the UK only in 1968 and never re-published. I looked for that book in every secondhand shop I came across which in the days before the internet and online shopping was a life's work! Eventually I tracked it down to the famous Barter Books in Alnwick, Northumberland, and couldn't believe it! I snapped it up and here it is. Inside it's inscribed "To Pat, with love and best wishes, Feb 1969, from Eve and James." I hope Pat enjoyed as much as I still do!

So now it's over to you – please share with us the one special book that means a lot to you and tell us how it came into your life!

The Enduring Appeal of Romantic Comedy

Nicola and SarahNicola here, talking about the popularity of romantic comedy, both in contemporary and historical stories. A couple of weeks ago I was at the London Book and Screen Week, interviewing Sarah Morgan about romantic comedies and why they are so appealing and so enduring. Not only did we have the chance for a great chat, we also had a private screening of Sarah’s favourite rom com movie, In Her Shoes, just for us and the audience in a very cool little cinema!

I love a good romantic comedy. The best and most enduring ones are funny, witty, charming and moving, whether they are books or on the screen.  I think
they are also thoughtful and complex and tell us about ourselves as humans – about emotions such as desire and love, about relationships and our longings and wishes. They often reflect the attitudes, assumptions and prejudices that prevailed when the films were made and from the very start in the 1930s they had intelligent roles with great dialogue for women. They often show heroines and heroes as well struggling to push back the boundaries that confine their lives. There’s a lot of good things in a package that has so often been underrated.

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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!

Title Trends

Gone girlNicola here, with a quick and light-hearted look at title trends. I’m just back from the wonderful RNA Conference where one of the sessions I attended was on fashions in commercial fiction. There was some discussion about the importance of titles and the way that publishers brand a particular style of book. This led us on to the “girl” phenomena. It started with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I think. Then there was Gone, Girl, the Girl on the Train and many, many other girls in various situations, places and circumstances, mostly with a hint of danger about them. Last year over 60% of one UK bookseller’s top titles had a female noun in them whether it was girl, wife, mother, sister or something else.

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