This may clarify a few things about me. What life lessons did your mother teach you?
As a writer or a reader, the types of stories we love reflect something about us: the kind of people we are (or would like to be), eras and places – real or imaginary – that we want to visit, characters we wish we could hang out with. (Book boyfriends, anyone?)
Whether they’re labeled ‘Heist’, ‘Road Trip’, or ‘Redemption’, we all have cherished books and movies that push our personal Like button. Sometimes they’re guilty pleasures, sometimes they’re best sellers, but reading or watching our favorite stories touches a special place in our hearts. They make our world better, even if only for a little while. They inspire us.
Screenwriter/novelist Alexandra Sokoloff believes writers especially should make their own list of story types that resonate with them. Making up our own labels gives each of us a private mental shorthand that tells our brains what to expect from the tale. Also, it’s way more fun.
Here’s a sample of her personal list, cribbed from her extremely helpful book on plotting, Writing Love. (Check out the link below!)
Caper/Heist/Con: Ocean’s 11, Inception (caper structure in a sci fi film)
Mentor Story: Karate Kid, The King’s Speech
Soul Journey: The Razor’s Edge, Eat Pray Love
Mysterious Stranger: High Plains Drifter, Mary Poppins
Note that these types of story cross genres, but they all have recognizable elements, such as ‘assembling the team’ in caper stories or ‘setting out for the special destination’ in road trip stories. Often a book or movie will fall into more than one category. ‘Thelma and Louise’ is a road trip story, but it’s also an ‘On the Run from the Law’ story.
Here are some of my favorite story structures. Naturally, you will find several historical romances.🙂 :
The Big Makeover: Princess Diaries, Pretty Woman, My Big Fat Greek Wedding I
Master/Mistress of the Game: The Grand Sophy, These Old Shades, Second Season
Rescue/Mission: The Magnificent Seven, The Blues Brothers
Road Trip: The Lady Risks All, It Happened One Night, Angel Rogue
Noble Rogue: The Traitor, All the Ways to Ruin a Rogue
So what kind of stories talk to you?
OR, A Plethora of Love Letters
In August 1774, a Massachusetts lawyer wrote to his wife of ten years, “I must intreat you, my dear Partner in the Joys and Sorrows, Prosperity and Adversity of my Life, to take a Part with me in the Struggle. I pray God for your Health – intreat you to rouse your whole Attention to the Family, the stock, the Farm, the Dairy. Let every Article of Expence which can possibly be spared be retrench’d.”
The lawyer was John Adams, newly-appointed representative to what is now known as the First Continental Congress. Attending this assembly risked his ability to support his family, not to mention his neck. He could have been tried for treason against the British crown, but he and his wife Abigail both agreed he should go.
(To their friend, Dr. Joseph Warren, he wrote, “I am at a loss, totally at a loss, what to do when we get there…” So much for images of a juggernaut of patriotic feeling.)
As a child, Abigail had not been permitted to attend school. Her mother feared too much learning would ruin her health and sully her mind. As an adult in 1774, she could not legally act in her own interest, for the law did not recognize her as a person separate from her husband. She had not permitted the repressive atmosphere of the era defeat her. Thanks to the books in her father’s and grandfather’s libraries, she was well read. When 14-year-old Abigail Smith first met 23-year-old John Adams, he described her to a friend as “quite lacking in tenderness”. Always forthright, teenage Abigail refused to curb her tongue for the benefit of a pudgy lawyer.
Within a couple of years, however, he was writing flirtatious letters to ‘Miss Adorable’ or ‘Diana’ and she replied in the same vein to her ‘Lysander’. (Presumably she referred to the Shakespearean lover.) After their marriage in 1766, their mutual salutation became ‘My Dearest Friend’, and deep-seated expressions of love replaced flirtation. As a lawyer, John had to ride a circuit of Massachusetts courts to make a living, which required him to leave Abigail and their growing family for days or weeks.
Letter-writing was the only way to communicate over long distances, and in the 18th century, people considered it an art. Abigail, conscious of her lack of formal education, often apologized for poor handwriting, spelling and punctuation, once going so far as to ask John to burn her correspondence. He wrote back “You bid me burn your letters. But I must forget you first.”
Over the decades of John’s public life, they would exchange over 1200 epistles, not counting those that didn’t make it through enemy lines during the Revolutionary War or otherwise go astray.
Their correspondence ranged from brief notes when government or diplomatic business took up most of John’s time, to long letters composed over several days. Both the Adams must have found writing therapeutic, for at different times, they referred to it as a way to soothe inner turmoil.
Separation meant their disagreements also had to travel back and forth between Braintree and Philadelphia and eventually, across the Atlantic. Many involved the education of their sons and surviving daughter. And when John made the mistake of writing to Abigail how much he admired the cultured ladies of the French court, she retorted with a sharp complaint about how American girls were routinely mocked when they showed off their educations.
In her jealousy, she might have forgotten her effusions on meeting George Washington in 1774. “You had prepared me to entertain a favorable opinion of him, but I thought the half was not told me. Dignity with ease and complacency, the gentleman and the soldier look agreeably blended in him. Modesty marks every line and feature of his face.” In the parlance of an 18th century New Englander, this was total fangirling. John couldn’t have enjoyed her description of the tall, charismatic, and charming General.
Even during disagreements, they were still ‘Dearest Friend’ to one another. In February of 1779, toward the end of his first diplomatic appointment to France, John lamented that he dared not write to her of political matters: “…I know you can keep a Secret as well as any Man whatever. But the World don’t know this. If…the letter should be caught, and hitched into a Newspaper, the World would say, I could not be trusted with a Secret.”
She had been his sounding board for years at this point; he trusted her more than any other advisor. John returned home later that year, where he was named to the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention in Cambridge, the body responsible for writing the state constitution. John wrote the first draft of the document, reading it to Abigail when he returned to Braintree at the end of each week. He also discussed the assembly’s debates with her, which gave her a grasp of issues of the day. His draft was accepted with minor changes, and is still in effect. It is the oldest state constitution in continual use.
In September of 1779, John was named minister plenipotentiary to France by Congress. The position gave him full power to negotiate a peace treaty Britain, along with fellow ministers Benjamin Franklin and John Jay. To Abigail, this meant another separation. John guessed the peace talks would take six months, and then he would come home to her. Instead, the couple would not set eyes on one another for five years.
After the War of Independence ended, Abigail could travel to Europe without fear of being captured or sunk by an enemy ship. She met John in France in 1784. When Congress selected him as the first American ambassador to Great Britain in 1785, they moved to London. The following years brought John to two terms as vice president under George Washington, then to the Presidency. While Abigail did not always move to Philadelphia or New York with John, she was the first First Lady to live in the White House. Together or apart, he sought her opinion on policy, though at times her devotion blinded her, such as when she supported him on the Alien and Sedition Acts that contributed to his political downfall.
The deaths of their daughter Nabby and their second son, Charles, marred their old age. John and Abigail took consolation in their grandchildren; Nabby and all three of their sons had married and started families. As a grandfather, John spoiled the youngsters with sugar plums while Abigail was the disciplinarian.
When she died in 1818, he was at her side. To their niece Lucy Cranch Greenleaf, John said, “I wish I could lay down beside her and die too.” He later eulogized his wife as “The dear Partner of my Life for fifty-four Years and for many Years more as a Lover.” Truly they deserve to be remembered not just on Presidents Day, but on Valentine’s Day as well.
John and Abigail Adams are fascinating both as a couple and as individuals. Do you have any favorite ‘Valentine couples?
John Adams, by David Mccullough
Abigail Adams: Witness to a Revolution by Natalie S. Bober
My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams, Margaret C. Hogan and C. James Taylor, editors
Source: Flirting with Proper Nouns
OR, COMMONNESS AND CAPITALIZATION
One of the things that never ceases to amaze me when I read self-published books are how often basic rules of grammar are flouted. We all make typos, yes, but a serious writer knows language is her most important tool. Spelling, grammar and parts of speech are our basic building materials. If you don’t master those, you’re not ready to publish. (Don’t even get me started on correct use of apostrophes. The world is not ready for a rant of that magnitude.)
Today, however, I want to talk about nouns. And why sometime they’re capitalized and sometimes they’re not.
The simplest definition of a noun is any word that represents a person, place or thing. A more detailed definition, from the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, is that “a noun is a word that names something, whether abstract (intangible) or concrete (tangible).” In other words, a noun can name things both perceptible, like a tree, and imperceptible, like goodness.
A common noun names a generic person, place, thing, activity or condition: The mayor of the city visited the ball park. Common nouns are capitalized only when they begin a sentence or appear as part of a title: “Detective Johnson examined the body.” vs. “The detective examined the body.”
Concrete nouns name things that are perceptible to the five senses: apple, rose, window, music. Abstract nouns name things than cannot be directly seen, heard, smelled, tasted or touched: grief, anticipation, schizophrenia.
A proper noun is the specific name of a person, place or thing. To rephrase the example above using proper nouns, it could read: Mayor Daly of Chicago visited Wrigley Field. Proper nouns are always capitalized, no matter how they’re used.
Titles of works are also proper nouns and have their own rules of capitalization. Big Sky River, (book), The Importance of Being Earnest (play), Downton Abbey (television show), Zero Dark Thirty (movie). Note that in two- or three-word titles, all words are capitalized. In longer titles, prepositions and articles are all lowercase except when they are the first word: The Old Man and the Sea, Of Human Bondage.
Articles on the web or in print can follow the same rule, or it is acceptable if the first word and proper nouns are capitalized and other words are lowercase.
Common nouns can become proper nouns: Democrats, Republicans, the Big Apple. And sometimes a proper noun may be used informally as if it is a common noun: “Who died and made you Hitler?” implies that someone is dictating their wants without regard for right or wrong.
A class of common nouns called eponyms are derived from proper nouns that passed into such universal usage that the formal version was dropped. Today we might pack sandwiches, not Sandwiches (from the Earl of Sandwich, who popularized them) before setting off on an odyssey (a long journey, from the adventures of Odysseus in Greek legend) .
Do you have a spelling or grammar pet peeve? Which resource do you check for correct usage?
I do love a good makeover: That scene where the heroine discovers the perfect clothes to bring out her best features. They make me want to fist pump and say ‘Go girl! Bust out that bustle (or crinoline or redingote, depending on the era)!’
As in life, women in literature dress for other women – namely their female readers. But how did one actually go about putting together that killer outfit guaranteed to turn the hero’s head and bring him straight to one’s side? In 1840, the internet did not exist, Mr. Selfridge’s father was still a boy, and Mr. Harrod, having given up on the linen draper’s business, wouldn’t move his grocery and tea enterprise to Knightsbridge until 1849. Mr. Harvey did sell linens, but he had only hired clerk James Nichols the year before.
Until sewing machines were invented, every last hem, flounce, tuck and bead was stitched by hand. Ready to wear clothing consisted of shawls, simple hats and bonnets, smocks and the shoddiest of work clothes for the poor, referred to as ‘slop-ware’.
It amuses me when romance novels feature female characters going to the dressmaker’s or sending for one, as if buying several gowns at £200 – £300 apiece is no big deal.
In an age where middle class income ranged from £100 – £1,000 a year, believe me, for most women this would be a big deal.
What you wore depended on what you could afford combined with what you knew how to make. The ‘slop-ware’ mentioned above was worn by the poorest working classes, for dirty jobs. As England had no compulsory education during the early Victorian era, girls in the poorest families could not count on coming into contact with textile crafts in sewing classes. They might learn to sew at home provided their mother or another female relative had picked up the skill. To avoid widespread public nudity, families depended on charity, or used clothing vendors.
Large numbers of Victorians wandered the streets in second-hand clothing. Even in the best families, new clothes were time- and money-intensive. Children customarily wore hand-me-downs. Even oldest children could find themselves in a cousin’s outgrown suit or dress. If the family had a trunk of grandma’s old dresses, that might be raided for free cloth.
A woman at the pinnacle of society, whose family income stretched into the tens of thousands of pounds or more, could afford new wardrobes of the latest fashions every year. She would customarily give her outmoded gowns to her lady’s maid to dispose of. The privilege of claiming her mistress’ cast-offs was a valuable benefit of that servant’s employment, and was often included along with her wages.
Once in possession of a second-hand garment, a lady’s maid could keep it, refurbish, or wear it. (Ideally not where her employer would catch her.) If she sold it, dealers would come to the mews or servants’ entrance and buy them for their shops or stalls. After going through multiple owners, used clothing ended up in places like Petticoat Lane, where vendors would pull goods out of enormous bags to present to working-class customers. Men and women alike found gowns, trousers, mantles, frock coats and more for a few shillings each. When a common laborer could expect to put by maybe one or two shillings a week for clothes, outfitting a family even in these dirty and worn clothes took a chunk out of his savings.
In the middle class, women often did learn at least basic sewing, which enabled them to take advantage of new-fangled paper patterns, introduced in the 1830s. The wives and daughters of artisans and middle class perused fashion prints as enthusiastically as wealthy women did, though with the intention of using cheaper material and simpler decoration. Patterns often came with one skirt design and two bodices, one high-necked and with longer sleeves for a respectable daytime appearances, and one with a lower neckline and shorter sleeves for evening events. Thrifty women would make up both bodices to get more wear from their garment.
Once they had a design and a pattern, there were several steps between the page and the finished product. They would start at the linen draper’s (seller of general dry goods) or mercer’s (seller of textiles only). In the 1840s, the choice of dress materials ranged from wool and cotton to silk, velvet, satin, and lace. Within types of material, quality varied. ‘Wool’ encompassed everything from merino to cashmere; cotton ranged from cheap calico to fine batiste.
It was not unusual for a dress to require 20 yards or more, so once all that cloth was cut, it had to be hand-stitched. Sewing women could be hired for this, some of whom might have workshops of their own. Some establishments could deliver a gown the day after it was ordered, for during the London Season, they would employ a workshop full of seamstresses that were required to work up to 20 hours a day.
Do you have any favorite makeover scenes in movies or books? Some of mine are Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Penelope Featherington in ROMANCING MR. BRIDGERTON by Julia Quinn, and just to keep in mind men can benefit from The Makeover as well, Philip Jettan in Georgette Heyer’s POWDER AND PATCH. (It takes place in the 18th century, not the 19th, and the heroine is decidedly childish, but it’s still entertaining.)
As a writer of historical romances, I guess you could say I have a professional interest in birth control methods of the past. Basically, humans have been trying to prevent pregnancy, with varying levels of success, ever since we figured out what causes it. People think of the Comstock Laws and don’t realize that contraception has been part of American life since the beginning.
Colonial women grasped the implications of controlling their reproduction early. Before obstetrical medicine developed, 1 out of 10 pregnancies ended with the mother’s death, according to centuries of parish records in both Europe and America. Add to this the number of deaths from complications, infections from dirty hands exploring the birth canal, and general lack of basic hygiene, and maternal mortality approaches 25 out of every 100.
One less mouth to feed meant more resources were available for a family‘s existing children, and eased the husband’s economic burden. Women could not compel their husbands to use abstinence (and probably didn’t like it much themselves) or withdrawal. Breast-feeding provided some protection, but lacked dependability. Vaginal sponges and condoms don‘t seem to have been common. That left plants in cottage gardens that could be used to induce abortions. There are North American plants with similar qualities, and I would be very surprised if Native American women did not know how to use those.
During the nineteenth century, Americans continued to search for ways to manage the size of their families:
1839: Charles Knowlton publishes the first pamphlet in America describing various methods of contraception, aimed at married couples. He advocated douching after sex as the best method. A hundred years before the FDA, no one realized that douching has a 90% fail rate and can lead to painful pelvic inflammations. The same year, Charles Goodyear invents vulcanized rubber, enabling the manufacture of rubber condoms in the 1840s. Compared to the porous condoms made of animal skin or intestines since the 16th century, the 50% fail rate of these ‘capotes’ and ‘cundrums’ is hailed as a miracle by married couples.
February 1840: Queen Victoria, a figure of fascination for many Americans, marries Prince Albert and discovers sex, which she privately describes to her doctor as “fun in bed”.
November 1840: Queen Victoria gives birth to her first child. She does NOT consider this fun and discusses birth control with her doctor. He suggests she and Albert use the rhythm method. At the time, doctors believed that a woman’s ‘safe’ days were midway through the woman’s menstrual cycle. You know, the days when she is actually most fertile. To her dismay, the Queen went on to have eight more children. She never lost her passion for Albert, although she shared a dread and loathing of pregnancy with women on both sides of the Atlantic.
1842: German physician W. P. J. Mensinga invents the diaphragm. Copies are soon available in the U.S.
1860s: Newspapers from New York to Charleston to Cleveland carry adds for ‘capotes’, douching syringes, penis caps, ‘wife protectors’ (rubber cervical caps or diaphragms), sponges and ‘female solutions’. Quality was dubious, making them undependable and in some cases dangerous. They become connected with the sex trade and promiscuity in the minds of many who might otherwise have taken advantage of them.
1873: The Comstock Laws, a series of anti-commerce laws are passed, which define contraception as ‘obscene’ for the first time. The U.S. becomes the only country in the Western world to criminalize family planning. Dr. Edward B. Foote advocates the benefits of ‘fertility limitation’ for married couples, citing improved health for mothers and infants as well as relief of the husband’s economic burden. (Sound familiar?) In spite of the Comstock Laws, he distributes birth control devices and information about them.
1876: Dr. Foote is tried for breaking the Comstock Laws and sentenced to a fine of $3,000, equivalent to $67,000 to $73,000 today. When he asks for help paying it, 300 people come forward to offer support.
1879: Connecticut passes the stiffest anti-contraceptive law in the country: Even married couples cannot legally obtain from a doctor birth control to protect the wife’s health. For both health and economic reasons, It is regularly flouted for nearly 100 years.
1888: Dr. W. R. D. Blackwood writes “Is it proper, is it human, is it desirable that the lot of a married female should be a continual round of impregnation, delivery and lactation?…I do not hesitate for an instant to say NO! And I look with more than suspicion on those who, assuming superior virtue, condemn any and all attempts to control conception.”
1892-1920: Gynecologist Clelia Mosher asks her married patients to fill out questionnaires on their sexual practices and beliefs. Only 45 did so over the years, but their comments are interesting. 41 of the women used birth control, including douches, condoms, and ‘womb veils’, all illegal. One woman used a rubber ring around the cervix, which was apparently painful, but not as bad an another child. Many of the 41 considered reproduction a secondary reason for martial sex.
1913: On October 16, Margaret Sanger and her sister Ethel Byrne, both nurses, open America’s first birth control clinic in Brooklyn. They see 488 women in the ten days before they are shut down. At their trial, the judge rejects the idea that “a woman has the right to copulate with a feeling of security that there will be no resulting conception.”
1920s: Spermicidal gels and suppositories (some foaming — how festive!) are sold over the counter as ‘feminine hygiene products’ to get around laws forbidding the sale and use of contraceptives. Adding spermicides reduced the failure rate of diaphragms to 20%, the most reliable birth control until the Pill. Although more effective, this method as it is messy and pretty much kills spontaneity.
1936: In the face of the Depression, 70% of Americans favor birth control in a national survey. An upswing in abortion as a method of birth control also occurs during the decade. One doctor in Chicago reported after his arrest that the majority of his patients were married women aborting third pregnancies or higher. He didn’t say whether they had tried contraceptive measures that failed.
1945: Alabama becomes the first state to establish a tax-supported family planning program. Several southern states follow suit. Poor families shrink and illegitimate births drop across the region.
1950: Katherine McCormick, one of the wealthiest widows in America, finances the research that would lead the first Pill.
1955: The Margulies spiral, the first American made IUD, is invented. Its long tail intrudes into the vagina, causing “pain and trauma” to partners. Unsurprisingly, it never catches on.
1960: Enovid, the first pill, goes on sale. It causes headaches and weight gain, but users flock to their doctors demanding prescriptions anyway. It becomes the best-selling drug in U.S. history to that time, thanks to its dependability and ease of use.
1965: The first American-made IUDs prove popular long-term permanent birth control solutions. The modern IUD was invented in Germany in 1920, but could not be legally imported.
1965: The U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the 1879 Connecticut ban on all contraceptive use and confirms that a “right to marital privacy” exists in the spirit of the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments. In 1972, the Supreme Court extends the right to privacy in deciding to use contraceptives to unmarried people.
1971: The Dalkon Shield hits the market. Eventually two million women will use this IUD. Undisclosed problems include severe pain and a tendency to cause uterine infections. 18 known deaths are eventually associated with it, along with hysterectomies, infections, birth defects and miscarriages (not always a problem with other IUDs.)
1988: High dose pills are taken off the market.
2002: Contraceptive patches are introduced. Changed once a week, they have fewer side effects than pills, but are more expensive.
For more reading:
A History of the Wife, Marilyn Yalom
Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America, Andrea Tone
A Distant Mirror, Barbara Tuchman
The Weaker Vessel, Antonia Fraser
The universal flouting of the Comstock Laws amazed and amused me! What do you think is the most surprising thing about the history of birth control in the U.S.?
Also, here is a fun slideshow on WebMD on some of the things people have used in the past to prevent pregancy. Think fish bladder condoms and crocodile poop.
…or Surprise! Your characters had something else in mind!
Revisions. How do I love them? Let me count the ways. They’re the writer’s version of the ‘second chance at love’ trope. You know, stories where the hero and heroine had a relationship in the past, broke up, and have met again with fear (he/she will just hurt me again) and loathing (that louse broke up with me for no good reason!). Both parties have sworn never to have anything to do with one another again. Except then that pesky author (me) keeps throwing them together, making them lean on and value one another all over again.
Revisions are another chance to fall in love with your characters. Seriously, I’m not the only one who finishes a manuscript and declares, “I’m sick of you people! I want to write about new characters! Go away and never darken my brain again.”
Someone somewhere suggested putting the manuscript away for a few months and moving on to other projects, and I heartily wish I could recall whose advice that is. I owe that writer big time.
Revisions are where I can get rid of talking heads, remove unneeded exposition, or add more descriptive detail if there’s no strong sense of place in a scene.
When I pulled out my most recent completed manuscript after a rest, I found that I really did like the hero and heroine. The baddie had a reason for his actions. Everyone had goals! They had motivations! They even had conflict, although I’m looking for ways to beef that up in the second draft. I hate making my characters hurt, but revisions are just the place to break their hearts into smithereens.
I even discovered an unintended theme. I started out writing about the healing power of love and the importance of forgiveness. Those themes are still in the story, but my characters all worked together to create their own idea. Every character in the manuscript is driven to protect his or her family. The hero, the heroine, the villain, even a couple of urchins that showed up in the course of the story all have family members or names or reputations that require his or her protection. In theater, this is sometimes called the spine of a play – a goal that is shared, even if unconsciously, by every character in the piece.
This kind of surprise doesn’t bother me. I’ve come to believe that no matter how thoroughly writers develop personalities and backstories, we know our characters better after we’re done with that draft. During the writing of a manuscript, I discover things about my characters I did not know when I started. It’s not a matter of pantsing. I write out biographies for my characters. I write scenes to show how they got their deepest emotional scars. Those won’t appear in the book, but it plumbs their emotions so that I know in my bones how much they hurt.
Is your writing an adventure? Do you get excited when a nugget of information reveals itself about your protagonist? Isn’t it fun?
I almost laughed out loud at the title! Yalom does a solid job giving readers an overview of wifehood. She focuses more heavily on Western marriage traditions, and later in the book on marriage in England and in America. This made sense to me, as American law developed from English common law, but I don’t know if people searching for world-wide views of marriage would find it helpful.
One of the best chapters in the book deals with the history contraception and abortion in America before, during and after Congress passed the Comstock laws (which outlawed any use of contraceptive devices, sales of the same or even mailing information about birth control). If I could rate individual chapters, I’d give that one 5 stars.
I would recommend this book for anyone wanting an overview of marriage in Westen Europe. While she doesn’t get into detailed notes about every religious and civil law that controlled, and controls, life for married women — that would take an entire library — Yalom takes a huge area of study and breaks it down for the reader, showing the development of marriage as women changed from chattels to individuals to heads of households. <br/><br/>The only reason I did not rate the book higher is that the author’s voice tends to a somewhat dry presentation of facts, which makes some sections tough going. The information presented is well worth the effort, and as a writer of historical romance, this would make a welcome addition to my reference library.