History of Woo-woo

Patbookmark Mary Jo tells me I have Uranus in my chart, thus making me the wench who wants to try everything at least once. I assume that’s the reason I’m the wench who doesn’t just write historical fiction but dabbles also in contemporary and paranormal and anything else that catches my fancy. Which means my research wanders far and wide and not always down historical pathways.

But sometimes my contemporary research takes a turn to the past, as with my current idea—I can’t even call it a work in progress at this point since I’m still in research mode. And what I’m researching is feng shui, the ancient Chinese—not art or science but a school of belief—that employs methods of living auspiciously with the earth’s energies. That’s a pretty modern concept for several thousand years BC!

Today, we think of feng shui as a method of decorating to promote “good vibrations,” but the practice is ancient and much more far-reaching. By 888 AD, there were written texts and exams from the court of  Emperor Hi Tsang laChinese templeying out a complex method of capturing the vital energy, or chi, of an architectural site and channeling it through  design and landscape to promote health, power, and whatever good fortune was required of the building. Considering most of Europe didn’t know the meaning of  sewers at the time, architecture to promote health was a pretty woo-woo concept.

The fundamental elements of feng shui come from many sources—astrology, astronomy, religion, superstition, architecture, primitive environmental science, as well as cultural and social issues, among other things. The basic principle is to place and situate a building so it is in harmony with its surroundings (shades of Frank Lloyd Wright!), and to create a structure that balances the yin and yang of chi energy. The simplest description is to envision a house in which water flows in the front door and gently floods the entire house with positive energy. If you have a back door that is completely open to Franklloydwright the front door, then the water will flow in one and out the other without embracing the house. (My house was built counter to every feng shui principle I know and I feel it. Have you ever hated a house you lived in? Bad chi energy might be why. Or the fact that the windows are in all the wrong places, the landscaping is an eyesore, and the garage is wonky, if you want to be scientific about it.)

Feng shui was first introduced to the United States during the gold rush in California when the Chinese workers brought their beliefs with them. Of course, back then, Americans ignored the principles, but today, feng shui is seen as part of the California-gold-rush teachings of Confucius, part Taoism and I-ching, and very Californian New Age woo-woo as well as a respected principle of interior design. Laying out furniture for energy flow also improves the flow of the household, giving an open, more inviting feel instead of the claustrophobic conditions of many of our boxy rooms.

Without going into the “why” and "how" of feng shui decorating (a fun site for tips: http://www.fengshuitips.co.uk/home.htm) , some of the minor suggestions are not to leave shoes around the front door. The feng shui reason is that the chi energy will carry the smell and sickness through the house. The practical logic is that visitors can trip over them and sue you, and they’re ugly and offensive to look at. Feng shui Shoes says no TV in the bedroom. So does Psychology Today. Feng shui doesn’t allow children to sleep on the floor because they need chi energy to flow around them. I’m thinking kids sleeping on the floor are going to get into a lot more trouble crawling around picking up bugs and toys than kids safely tucked beneath covers. And I really love the warning against mirrors in the bedroom—who wants to look at themselves when they first get up? That would be enough to ruin my energy for the day.

Anyone else fascinated with the “whys” behind the woo-woo sciences? Have you ever applied feng shui to your house? I swear, my husband got a great new job after we re-arranged the “Career” section of our last house!  Oh, and a fun book to introduce you to feng shui is Move Your Stuff, Change Your Life Move by Karen Rauch Carter, just in case you’d like to grasp fundamentals from a modern point of view. And there I go again, straying away from history.

What’s in a Name?

  ReadShorthairWomanHandHeadGIF                              Pat today, substituting for Mary Jo:

I go to insane extremes sometimes to name my characters, probably because I have utterly no memory for names. So unless I call a character Drogo or Dunstan, I’ll be calling him Billy in one chapter and Bobby in another. I kid you not. I just did that with a secondary character.  For the Magic books, I had odd families steeped in history and legend, so I dug around hunting out the names of old saints or at least warriors of Celtic origin. For the Mystic books, I was playing with an  The-trouble-with-magic200x300 Atlantis-like world, and I combined Greek, Roman, and a dash of Celtic.  Needless to say, current baby name books do not work well with my idiosyncrasies.

On my shelf, immediately at hand so I can grab them the instant a new character appears, is Teresa Norman’s A World of Baby Names, The Cassell Dictionary of First Names, the Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names, and Writer’s Digest Building Believable Characters because it lists common last names for different countries. Then there are the online resources…  Well, you get the picture.

And what do I do with the latest proposal and this wealth of resources? I name my protagonists Nick and Nora. And I do not even realize I’ve done this until I’m on Chapter Three. There is a long and twisted explanation of how Nora got her name, and it made perfect sense with the plot and characters I was developing.  So while I was typing out ideas, I shortened her Eleanora to Nora and she felt like a Nora, so I kept it when I started writing. Except Nick is one of my Rebellious Sons, and he’s already in two other books. I really can’t change Nick! 

Nick and nora So now I not only have two protagonists whose names begin with the same letter, but I have a couple whose names are infamous throughout literary mystery circles. Maybe I can hope no one will notice. Anyone else out there familiar with Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora?

Anyway, for the writers among us, here’s a lovely blog by Ann Marble listing some of the pitfalls of naming characters: http://www.writing-world.com/romance/names.shtml. You will notice her warning about temporary names sticking in your head. Wise lady. But do I heed any of these warnings? Of course not. I know better, but there’s something about that subconscious connection with a name and a character that simply demands particular letters and sounds and connotations.  In my next release, THE WICKED WYCKERLY, (link is to my updated website where there's an excerpt) Fitz and Abby had lots of other names.Wicked wyckerly final They even called each other by nicknames—often and not always politely. <G> But they were Fitz and Abby in my mind from page one. 

Admit it, most of us would rather change our own names because they don’t suit how we see ourselves. What would your name be if you could choose it? Why? How did you choose names for your kids? (I gave mine family names and a unique name that was adaptable in several ways so they could play with them as they grew older. And this was before I was published!)  So, what goes into your thinking about names?

A Love letter to Jane Austen

CE-avatar Hi all, Cara/Andrea here,

As spring fever begins to waft through the air, bringing with it beguiling hints that the long, cold winter is finally waving goodbye, I decided it was high time to take off my fuzzy synchilla sweatpants and venture outside of my cozy little writing room. I love sitting for hours on end at my computer, tapping out my stories with my patented two-fingered hunt-and-peck technique. But I also love research forays, which I find are like a breath of fresh air to the creative process.

Whether it’s a museum exhibit, a history lecture, a library talk—I always find something new and exciting to get my heart thumping. Imagination is a wondrous thing, and it’s fascinating to see how each of us has a unique perspective on the world around us.  

JA-letter My foray this week was to the Morgan Library in New York, where they were featuring an exhibit entitled: “A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy. A small but fabulous show, it consisted mainly of her personal letters to family and friends, along with related prints from the era and early editions of her books. (The Morgan owns the largest collection of Austen’s correspondence, and much of it not been shown for over twenty five years.)

It was an incredible experience to see her actual handwriting, and read her astute observations and pithy comments! She becomes so very real as a person, and at times I was almost laughing aloud at her tart humor and acerbic wit. Not that it was any surprise, but it highlighted how much of her own personality is in her books. Here’s one of my favorite examples: in writing about a new acquaintance, Jane comments, “I do not perceive any Wit or Genius in her . . . She seems to like people rather too easily.”

JA-snippet Her brother Henry notes that Jane loved party-going and was very fond of dancing. (It is noted in the exhibition that most of her heroines and heroes were excellent dancers—Jane and Elizabeth Bennett included.) Indeed, one of Jane’s letters says, “I believe I drank too much wine last night at Hurstbourne.” Not that I think she would give Paris Hilton a run for her money, but apparently Jane liked to cut loose on occasion!

Just to give you all a bit more of the flavor, I’m going to share some more actual quotes, as listed in the Morgan’s exhibit notes:

JAPortrait Austen's niece Caroline recollected: "As to my aunt's personal appearance, hers was the first face I can remember thinking pretty. Her face was rather round than long, she had a bright, but not a pink colour—a clear brown complexion, and very good hazel eyes. Her hair, a darkish brown, curled naturally, it was in short curls around her face. She always wore a cap." (Note, this painting on the right is an idealized portrait of Jane, taken from the unfinished sketch done by her sister Cassandra.)

Jane-bennett In her letter dated 24 May, 1813, Austen reports seeing a painting of how she imagines Jane Bennet, who marries Mr. Bingley at the conclusion of Pride and Prejudice. "Mrs Bingley is exactly herself, size, shaped face, features & sweetness; there never was a greater likeness. She is dressed in a white gown, with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favourite colour with her." Scholars suspect that the painting she refers to is the Portrait of Mrs Q by the French portrait painter François Huet-Villiers. (shown at left) Harriet Quentin was a mistress to George IV when he was prince regent. William Blake's 1820 engraving reproduces the portrait. In the same letter, Austen suspects that Elizabeth Bennet, later Mrs. Darcy, would have different preferences: "I dare say Mrs D. will be in Yellow."

Gillray In Austen's letter to Cassandra, written from Bath on 2 June 1799, she commented on the style of contemporary hat decorations with evident amusement: "Flowers are very much worn, & Fruit is still more the thing.—Eliz: has a bunch of Strawberries, & I have seen Grapes, Cherries, Plumbs & Apricots—There are likewise Almonds & raisins, french plums & Tamarinds at the Grocers, but I have never seen any of them in hats." (The image at right is a detail from one of the Gillray prints that are part of the exhibit.)

I adore Jane Austen, and found this exhibit gave me an even deeper appreciation of her as a person and an author. How about you? Are you an Austen fan? Do you have a favorite book or character? (I love Lizzie Bennett and Anne Elliot.)