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.









What Makes a Gentleman?

Nicola wenchmark Nicola here, musing on what makes a gentleman. Class has always been a hot topic in English society and I’m wondering a little at my audacity – or even foolishness – in dipping a toe in the waters of it here. When did the “gentry” first emerge as a social class? Was belonging to the gentry synonymous with being a “gentleman”? What did the term mean in the Georgian and Regency period and what makes a gentleman these days? These are big questions but perhaps we can look at a few elements of them.

In 1583 Sir Thomas Smith wrote: “One who can live idly and without manual labourThe English Gentleman  and will bear the port (deportment) and countenance of a gentleman, he shall be taken for a gentleman.” The luxury goods and extravagant clothing of late 16th and 17th century London were an avenue to social mobility. Sumptuary legislation – the laws that governed the types of clothes that the different social classes were entitled to wear – had lapsed and a consumer revolution was taking over. A man could pose as a gentleman even if he did not have the birth for it.

Eighty years after Smith was writing, the diarist John Evelyn also complained: “How many times have I saluted the fine man for the master, and stood with my hat off to the gay feather, when I found the bird to be all this while but a daw.” In other words, in the 17th century smart clothes and an appearance of wealth made the gentleman. Or perhaps gave the appearance of a gentleman. But people still believed that there should be more to it than that and looked down on those men whose birth was not equal to their appearance.

Sir William Craven Sir William Craven (pictured in his mayoral regalia) was one such man who made good at the turn of the 17th century. He was the son of an agricultural worker from Yorkshire who was apprenticed into the cloth trade in London. He worked hard, built up his business, married well, acted as moneylender to the court of Elizabeth I, bought himself a knighthood from James I, and was Lord Mayor of London. You can read more about his dizzying rise to social prominence here. By the time of his death he had amassed a fortune of billions in today’s terms and had moved firmly from the lower labouring classes to the upper echelons of the Middle Class. His sons were both given titles and moved into the aristocracy. Phenomenal social mobility and all through the acquisition of a fortune! But did this make them gentlemen or is the definition of such a term more nebulous? Certainly they were mocked at court for being nouveau riche and the sons of a cloth merchant. Perhaps there was some jealousy in the comments.

The original dictionary definition of the word gentleman was strict. It referred to a gentleman as a well-educated man of good family. It was also used to refer to a man whose income derived from property as opposed to a man who worked for a living (and again it is interesting that as soon as Sir William Craven had made his pile, he started to invest in land.) It appears that it was only in the eighteenth century that the term came also to mean a man who was cultured, courteous and well educated, with a code of honour and high standards of proper behaviour.

By the time of Jane Austen, the gentleman had come to be defined by his personal qualities as much as Mr Darcy by his status as a member of the landed gentry. He was not a member of the nobility but was an “esquire” at the top of the pile of untitled landowners. Class distinctions were well defined: At the top the peerage, then the baronetage, then knights and below them the gentry. Jane Austen emphasises beautifully the superiority of Sir Walter Elliot, for example, as a hereditary baronet, over Lady Russell, the widow of a mere knight! A gentleman such as Mr Darcy, untitled but well-connected, with a beautiful house and a very good income, was sitting at the top of the gentry and was indisputably a gentleman in all particulars.

Further down the social scale was the “lesser gentry” constituting those in the military, attornies, doctors, clerics; the professional elite. This was not as straightforward as it seemed, since some gentlemen in the military and the church might be the younger sons of noble families. But these professions also offered opportunities for fortune and social advancement. The wealthiest of merchants and manufacturers were at the bottom of this “gentry pile”. As a group the gentry described themselves as genteel, polite and civil. They did not pretend to be members of “the Quality” although a connection to the Ton was highly prized. There was in fact a profound cultural gulf separating the lesser gentry from the landed aristocracy.

Victorian gentleman It is the gentleman of the Georgian period who was the precursor to the gentleman of the Victorian period in that he established a code of conduct based on the three Rs: Restraint, Refinement and Religion. During the reign of George III, the British began, through their reserve and emotional control, to distinguish themselves from the peoples of southern Europe whom they considered to have a more hot-headed temperament. This is where the move to define the gentleman by his manners rather than his birth or fortune began. There is a very great deal more to the emergence of the English Gentleman than this of course – a whole separate blog post on the gentleman in the Georgian and the Regency period.

By 1897 when Mrs Humphrey published her book “Manners for Men” the concept of the gentleman was still being hotly debated. She wrote: “ Gentleness and moral strength combined must be the salient characteristics of the gentleman, together with that polish that is acquired… through the influence of education and refinement. He must be thoughtful for others, kind to women and children and all helpless things… but never foolishly weak. There are few such men but they do exist. Reliable as rocks, judicious in every action, dependable… full of mercy and kindness.” A total paragon, in fact. Her comments on the “ill-bred young man,” the reverse of the gentleman, are very funny. He is unkempt in his personal appearance, is so untidy that he creates extra work for the maids, is late for meals and is irritable and rude. Those who use strong language in front of ladies are held up for particular criticism.

Mrs Humphrey then issues some extremely helpful instructions to those aspiring to be a gentleman. It is important for a gentleman to walk on the outside of a lady on the pavement so that he gets splashed by the traffic (and the contents of chamber pots raining down) and she does not. I remember that my grandfather, another self-made gentleman, was a stickler for this although the habit has somewhat died out now along with close encounters with chamber pots. The gentleman, of course, always offers his seat to a lady. Interestingly I noted that a lady should never ask for a seat; this is not ladylike (and that's another blog post – what makes a lady?). All Mrs Humphrey’s advice relates to manners and behaviour, the implication being that even a man without good birth or fortune can become a gentleman. In fact she notes that if he comes from a poor home and still turns out well that is even more laudable.

So in our modern age, do you think it is still important for a man to be a gentleman? What do you think Unmasked - UK front cover are the qualities we look for in a gentleman?  Who is your favourite gentleman, real or fictional? I’m offering a copy of Unmasked, which features not one but two gentlemen heroes, to one commenter.