Cabined, Cribbed, Confined: Girlhood in the Gilded Age

One of the biggest challenges of placing Her Scottish Groom in the Victorian era was the development of the heroine, Diantha. I had her basic characteristics from the start.  Quiet and shy by nature, she prefers to avoid outright conflict in favor of tact.  As the book opens, her attempts to assert herself have been firmly squelched by her social-climbing parents. Like many real-life couples in the late nineteenth century, they want only to mold their child into the ideal female of the time: passive, subservient and sadly, ignorant. I’m kind of proud of her growth as she takes responsibility for her new position as an aristocrat’s wife, and for her own happiness.

Like many females of that age, Diantha learned to keep her opinions and true nature hidden as she grew up.  Ironically, wealth could limit a girl’s opportunities for education.  For females on both sides of the Atlantic, society considered good breeding and a good education antithetical to each other.  In reading modern biographies of women in the Gilded Age, along with essays and articles from that time, what struck me again and again was the emphasis on restricting women physically, mentally and even emotionally.  Writers from straight fiction to mystery to romance successfully overcome this challenge by creating heroines with unusual backgrounds or unconventional personalities.  But from reading parts of nineteenth century diaries and letters, I have learned that even women who conformed to social pressure harbored strong opinions and great passion beneath a docile surface.  That is where Diantha came from.

In both America and England, girls were raised with the ideal of a ‘perfect lady’, too fragile for any activity more strenuous that horseback riding or dancing.  The thousands of women who spent hours laboring as servants, in factories or mines and on farms and ranches were not, of course, real ladies. (Insert eyeroll here.) An upper-class girl’s education depended on the whims of her parents. Some encouraged serious study, but too many families subscribed to the belief that the rigors of a masculine education would undermine a girl’s health.  Diantha studied mathematics with her brothers, but only because it pleased her father to permit it. Some young ladies attended finishing school, which provided no more than lessons in deportment and a smattering of music and languages. Even finding reading material on one’s own could be problematic. Men could and did forbid their wives and daughters to read newspapers and some books.  Like Diantha, women read the forbidden material anyway, in secret.

One of the more tragic consequences of keeping young women in a state of almost total ignorance was their lack of knowledge about even the basic mechanics of sex.  At most, proper courtship allowed a kiss on the hand and some meaningful glances under the eye of a chaperone.   (I suspect there was a great deal of improper courting going on, however.) Some women faced a lifetime of marital rape at the hands of a thoughtless or indifferent husband. At best those restrictions led to some miserable wedding nights, and not just for the bride.  In the first chapter of Her Scottish Groom, the lack of spirit he has observed in his fiancee so far has filled the hero with misgivings.  Like many men confronted with the prospect of marriage with a poorly educated teenager, he assumes he will only find physical and emotional satisfaction with a mistress.

One of my favorite things about this book is Diantha’s learning curve.  As she gains confidence in her abilities, she becomes braver, more assertive and even sexier — until she’s faced not only with her greatest fear, but with her husband’s impenetrable heart.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year?

As the rush of activities for Christmas slows down for our family (and I hope for you), I turn on some Christmas carols and look around at my home and loved ones.  I’m typing in view of our Christmas tree, filled with beloved ornaments.  A cup of tea is steeping that I will enjoy soon.  My oldest is home following her finals and my youngest has only a half-day of school left before her vacation starts.  Ah yes, the joys of hearth and home during the holidays….

My carols are competing with two televisions, the buzz of texts to a boyfriend, and a discussion between a sixteen-year-old and a twenty-one-year old about the likelihood that an American equivalent of Hogwarts exists. Dirty laundry waits for its turn to go into the washer and dryer by the basement door, because its owner is watching one of the aforementioned TVs. The decorations in the entryway are competing for space with a book bag, shoes, and boots while I ponder whether the Christmas dinner I planned will include enough food for the boyfriend and my aunt and uncle, invited to join us by my mother (thankfully, she informed me of this before Christmas Day itself).

The pile of cards needing stamps catches my eye, as does the cat snoozing in a previously cat-hair-free spot on our tree skirt.  There’s some additional baking to do as well. And I just realized that I can’t remember where I put some of our gifts. Wrapping paper and ribbons cover the basement floor because the last person that used them didn’t put it away.

Oh, and I just realized that I need to research the British East India Company for my WIP, possibly resulting in some major rewriting.

The most wonderful time of the year? YEAH, BABY!!!

Beyond Kilts and Claymores

The archetype of a Scottish romance hero is a Highland warrior wielding a sword in defense of his lady and his clan in the centuries before the Battle of Culloden in 1745.  Those are some of my favorite heroes ever! Take a look at Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) from the first Highlander movie.  Sooo masculine and yummy!

But what about Scotsmen from other times, or from the Lowlands? I have the blessing (or misfortune) of characters that arise in my mind with their era and nationality firmly intact.  This realization hit me while working on the book now entitled Her Scottish Groom.  Although I originally intended him to be English, the book’s hero would not stop speaking with a Scotsman’s burr.  (Obviously HSG wasn’t the working title of the book, lol!) Another challenge was that the characters for this book were creatures of the Gilded Age.

Her Scottish Groom takes place in 1875, when Kieran, Lord Rossburn is forced into marriage with the quiet daughter of an American shipping magnate.  Culloden is over 100 years in the past.  Aristocratic families all over Scotland sent their sons to school at Eton or Harrow. Throughout the Victorian era, Scotsmen served the British Empire in roles from soldier and sailor to Prime Minister.  (William Gladstone, who led Her Majesty’s government four times, was born in Liverpool but both his parents were Scots — a fact he pointed out with pride.)  Robert Burns‘ poetry and Sir Walter Scott‘s novels still preserved Scottish pride in its culture and history decades after their deaths, while in science and technology, Victorian Scots blazed many trails. At the University of Edinburgh’s medical school, Joseph Lister developed antiseptic methods of surgery and argued for the acceptance of the germ theory of disease.  James Clerk Maxwell formulated the electromagnetic theory of physics and predicted the discovery of radio waves.  Future founder of the Labour Party Kier Hardie was a 20-year-old miner in 1875, and Patrick Geddes, a pioneer of town planning and the study of ecology, was 22.

The steelworks and shipyards of Glasgow and the banking and mercantile business of Edinburgh provided most of Scotland’s employment opportunities in the late 19rh century, making life harder in north and west of Scotland.  After a brief period of prosperity during the Napoleonic Wars, when kelp burning, weaving and fishing provided jobs, the potato blight that ravaged Ireland entered Scotland in 1846.  This drastically affected the Highland crofters who depended on them for food and income.  Clearances, the forced emigration of tenants by Scottish estate owners, also continued in the 19th century, while other tenants left the area for jobs in the south.  While the fictional Rossburn estate of Duncarie is just east of the Highland line, it also suffers from the effects of famine and low employment.  It is his family’s only estate, giving the hero a close bond to its crofters.

Like any good Highlander, Kieran Rossburn knows he must honor his obligations to his people, even at the cost of his own happiness.  He just has to use a business plan instead of a blade.  And like any smart lassie, Diantha knows a true hero when she sees one.  Especially when he fills out a kilt as well as Kieran does. (Oh come on! You didn’t think I’d pass up a chance to put my gorgeous Scottish hero in a kilt at least once, did you?)

Thanks for stopping by to read about a different Scotland than we see in most romance novels. What unusual time period or place would you like to read about in a romance?

Hitting on Readers: The First Line

In some ways, going to a bookstore reminds me of going to a bar hoping to meet someone. You figure you’ll indulge in something you enjoy, and will hopefully meet somebody you’d like to get to know better. Or you might rediscover an old flame. I scope out all the most attractive guys…um, covers…and approach the one I like best.  Good looks aren’t everything, though. If the pickup line is lame, I’ll find somebody else with more originality.  I want a book to hook me from the first sentence.

The first line of a book is its pickup line.  It has been my experience that authors have little say in what’s on the front or back of their books, so that opening sentence is the first chance our own words have to impress the reader. It has to count, to intrigue the reader enough to keep reading.  It should set the tone of a book, or at least make the reader want to know more about hero or heroine.  Cause as a writer, I am totally hoping some nice person will want to pick me up and take me home.

Even before a book hits the shelves, the first line must catch the attention of an agent or editor.  If that publishing professional got a good night’s sleep, lost a pound the day before and is having a good hair day, and thus feels up to adding yet another manuscript to an already enormous list waiting to be read, a writer has maybe five pages to convince him or her that this book should be printed or digitized. An opening sentence that is just words on a page will not induce a pro to read on.  One that is poorly phrased or grammatically incorrect (unless it’s dialogue that fits a character) raises the fear that other sentences in the manuscript will be just as bad.

It’s said that J.R.R. Tolkien simply jotted down the first line of The Hobbit while grading essays:  “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”  While the passive construction might be criticized today, it was acceptable in the 1930s.  And if you read it aloud, there is an irresistible rhythm to those words, compared an active version like “A hobbit lived in a hole in the ground.”  Lucky JRRT.  It takes me several tries to come up with a decent opening line.

There are a lot of common mistakes writers make with opening lines. Weather reports, geography lessons, “Hi, my name is ______”, and cameo scenes are some of the errors we all make.  In my case, it’s because I usually struggle to find exactly were my backstory ends and the book starts.  Or which character should start the story.

In a Weather Report, the opening line is something like “It was a warm spring day in Gopher Gulch, with just enough wind to cool the brow of Bob Manlyman as he trudged along the dirt road.”  This is just me, but I prefer an active opening:  “A spaceship swooped down from the bright April sky and disgorged a furious alien that pointed a disintegration gun straight at Bob’s heart.”  Now there’s something at stake.

The Geography Lesson is similar to the Weather Report, except it describes the surrounding area instead: “Brill Court, the estate of Lord Manlyman, nestled into the rolling  landscape.”  Pretty, but how does this matter to the rest of story? Does Lord M. love his estate? Does he hate it? Has he just gambled it away?  “Lord Manlyman swallowed the lump in his throat as his gaze swept over his home one last time.”  Aha, emotion!  Now the reader wonders why Lord M. has a lump in his throat  and why he’s leaving his home.

And the introductory opening, which one of the writers in my crit group refers to as the Call Me Ahab approach.  I make this error a lot.  “Lady Sophronia Girlygirl lifted her head at the sound of approaching footsteps.”  Aside from the boring approaching footsteps, we don’t (as I have been reminded often) need to know Sophronia’s entire name and title in the first few words.  There’s an entire book after the first line in which I can provide that information.

The original opening scene of my current WIP took place in the dress shop where the heroine works and she interacted with two secondary characters I was never going to use again.  What was I thinking? I replaced it with “Alix fingered her reticule as she inhaled the savory aroma of fresh-baked meat pies.”  The character is now on her way home to her daughter, a location and character that will play a big part in the story.

A good first line presents the hero or heroine’s immediate quandary and their response to it.  It gives a sense of immediacy and action, even if the character is only thinking about a problem.  It must make the reader want to read more. The hook in my first book, To be Seduced, starts with “He had picked a prodigious cold day to abduct someone.”  The opening to my second proved a greater challenge, as I wanted to open it in the heroine’s perspective.  Her Scottish Groom (March 2011) takes place in the late Victorian era, when upper-class females were often kept in a state of submission and ignorance.  I had to keep my heroine true to her time and upbringing even as she acted against them. So I came up with this: “Tonight called for some act of rebellion, no matter how insignificant.”

Here are some of my favorite examples from different genres. I like them because they are brief and vivid:

“The small boys came early to the hanging.” — Ken Follett, Pillars of the Earth (Prologue)

“Matrimony. The very word was menacing.” — Nicole Jordan, To Pleasure a Lady

“For seven days we had been tempest-tossed.” — Johann Wyss, Swiss Family Robinson

It is possible for a long sentence with involved clauses to start a book, of course. Consider one of the best hooks that ever opened a romance novel:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a good wife”.  — Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Is there an opening line from a book that has stayed with you? What are some of your favorite first sentences?