It’s All About the Hall…

Apethorpe Hall, Northamptonshire

…or the manor, castle or house. I live in suburbia, but I learned my love of old houses early thanks to aunts who lived in homes built in the early part of the 20th century. My aunts’ houses had features like huge screened in porches, high ceilings, socket doors and sleeping porches, all terribly exotic to my youthful mind. The kleenex-box sized bathroom on Aunt Bert’s first floor that had no insulation and was always freezing cold in winter and the old fittings in Aunt Helen’s kitchen struck me as insignificant. Mind you, Aunt Bert and Aunt Helen, and their families, probably felt differently since they actually had to live with these inconveniences. But I loved those houses. I can still recall the layout of each of them.

Apethorpe Hall interior

One of the most important parts of my process is figuring out where my characters live. I could never be an architect, as my math skills stop at basic geometry; nor do I have a great eye for interior decoration, but I study floor plans and hunt down drawings and descriptions of historic houses, furniture and textiles. Here is a Jacobean interior, similar to some you’ll find in To be Seduced.

When a house was built influences its exterior, but how it’s furnished and decorated inside is a matter of the owner’s taste. I had great fun in Her Scottish Groom comparing the tastes of Diantha’s family with their new money and Kieran’s much older house. I used photos from visits to England, Scotland, and France to get ideas for details of the Rossburn seat. To emphasize the ‘old money vs. new’, I also looked for ways to make the Scottish house sound older than the book’s 1875 setting. Their antiques, for example, would date from 1775 to 1825. And they did not, to the heroine’s dismay, have indoor plumbing. (I don’t have plans for a sequel to HSG, but if I ever do, I will find a way to mention that one of the first improvements made with Quinn money was the addition of bathrooms. Lack of modern bathrooms would be a huge drawback to time travel.)

Marble House, Newport, Rhode Island

For the Quinns, I studied mansions in Newport to see how ultra-rich Americans of an earlier era spent their money. Opulent, dripping with gold leaf or frivolous fake oriental details, they provided an idea of the mind-set of people who could buy whatever they wanted, including an aristocratic bloodline for their descendants.

For my current WIP, I’ve gone online to explore English Heritage houses, London townhouses and the homes of the working poor. As always, I am fascinated by the different designs and styles, each lovely in its own way. I am quite happy in my suburban house, since it contains my family, but the pleasure of creating dream houses for my characters never fades.

What about your dream home? Is it a modern loft or an 1800s Queen Anne mansion or a 16th century farmhouse? If you need inspiration, visit http://www.english-heritage.org.uk to find more house like Apethorpe Hall, pictured at the top of this post.

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To Keep or not to Keep?

I am a pack rat by nature, and have to force myself to go through closets and drawers and throw out the old, the worn, the unused. I’m honestly not sure why I cling to things. My mom went through her closets and mine regularly as a child, so it sure isn’t her fault.

Part of my problem is that I am strongly visual. The downside to that is literally ‘out of sight, out of mind’. I keep things out if I need to do something with them, because if they are put away, I will forget to do whatever it is I am supposed to. Yes, there are always lists, but if I don’t see something to put it on a list in the first place, it won’t get done. One of the greatest things about my Nook is that I can borrow books from my library without having to leave them in piles by the front door so I’ll remember to return them.

The thing is, some old stuff is meaningful. I won’t throw out books about biographies, cities, or history. All of them are potential references. So is the occasional article I come across online about antique kitchenware or baby farming or some other all-but-forgotten aspect of life in times past. I will print and file them because I can retrieve them faster than by running a search or going through my large list of bookmarked sites. One of the best gifts I ever got was an album from my mother filled with old photos of her family. (A sneaky way of trying to pass her old stuff on to me? LOL!)

On the other hand, with the advent of online radio and digital music storage, I am okay with tossing out older CDs, while my normally ‘toss ‘er out’ husband still has his beloved REO Speedwagon records. My youngest daughter kept one of her old Barbies as a memento of her childhood.

It is said that when you get rid of old things or attitudes, you make room in your life for new ones that suit your life now. What kind of things do you hang onto, and what can you let go of easily?

P.S.: I’m double-blogging today! At www.authorsbymoolight.comI take a quick look at the history of birth control in America. And ABM is giving away a gift certificate to one lucky commenter in March!

The Cheapskate Writer

In a perfect world, I would write in an entirely separate wing of my house, which would include sound-proofing and a stocked fridge. My housekeeper and personal chef would eliminate the need to deal with interruptions like vacuuming and assuaging my family’s ridiculous desire for regular meals. My vast personal library of information would sit on shelves lining every wall.

Aaaand then there’s real life. And my real budget. Since getting published, my goal is to keep writing expenses out of our household income. One, that’s how I can justify to the Internal Revenue Service that I am a professional writer. Two, it makes me feel like, well, a professional writer. But since most authors only know what their income is when the advance or royalty check arrives, or when the month’s sales hits the Paypal account, this means I squeeze my writing pennies until they’re crumpled on the floor begging for mercy. Like Pseudolus, the protagonist of A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum, my favorite word is ‘free’.

Here are a few things I do to save a buck (or more):

1. Free anti-virus software: I know, this sounds like the Worst Idea Ever, but hear me out. I have used the free version of AVG Anti-Virus for at least the last three years. It blocks viruses, warns of unsafe sites, scans my laptop daily and gives me summaries, and alerts me to problems. They offer yearly updates, FREE, and I have not had any problem with malware. And now that I’ve reached a point where I can pay for a security program, guess who’s going to get my business?

2. Free online backup service: One of the smartest things I ever did was to sign up for the free version of Mozy. I don’t know if the free version is still available for new customers, but here is a list of alternatives. Just be sure to get one! When my computer conked out last summer, I lost only a few hours work instead of a full day’s. Or — horrors! What if I’d lost an entire WIP? Yes, you can and should back up your work on an external drive daily, but with automatic backups twice a day, it’s that much more peace of mind.

3. The Library: Until I make the kind of money that gives me unlimited funds to spend on research, I fall back on my local library. I am looking at a biography of Louis XIV, a history of marriage, a book on gardening that I picked up for the gorgeous pictures, and a book about Ellis Peters’ Cadfael mysteries. And those are just the ones I can see right this second. On my Nook I have more.

So, would any of these suggestions work for you? I have more. Better yet, do you have any ideas for tightwad writers to save money? Tell us about them!!

And since tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day, which in my part of the U.S. is an unofficial civic holiday even for those of us with hardly any Irish blood, I added a link about one of my favorite Irish instruments, the bodhran, followed by a few more links. Enjoy!

How to Play a Bodhran

Attack of the Ants

Springtime…balmy temperatures, the cry of geese flying north (more accurate than the first robin), the veil of new growth over shrubs…and bugs.

Inevitably some species of creepy-crawlies tries to overrun our house every spring. This year it was earlier than usual, no doubt because of the mild winter we’ve experienced in Nebraska. But when I went upstairs to clean up earlier this week there they were: a few ants exploring the eastern wall of our master bedroom and bathroom. Of course, we all know there is no such thing as ‘a few ants’.

I can’t stand bugs. Cannot. Stand. Them.  So I responded as I normally do: scream loudly and hunt for the bug spray. Needless to say, since it’s early, there was no unexpired can of insecticide in the house. Eventually I realized this was a good thing, or I’d have a room that stank for months, plus it’s probably not a good idea to breathe in the fumes night after night. (It’s a little too cold still to keep the windows open.)

We didn’t have any ant traps either, and besides, the tiny terrors were on the wall, up by the ceiling, not on the floor. I resisted the urge to call my husband. Like Suzanne Sugarbaker on Designing Women, I believe that the man should kill the bugs. Not only does my husband not share this belief, he thinks it’s hysterically funny when I come across the occasional six- or eight-legged creature.

Luckily, while at the store getting new ant traps and bug spray, I came across some adhesive picture hangers. As I type, there have been no further ant sightings, and our walls are festively decorated with a series of ant traps. I’m not counting the ones on the floor.

I can deal with snakes, lizards, worms and rodents. Just keep the bugs away.

What creatures give you the willies? Bugs in general or specific kinds like spiders? Snakes or other reptiles? You can tell me. I promise not to laugh.

Gardens Great and Small

English: The Knot Garden at the Red Lodge, Bri...

One of the things I noticed most during a springtime visit to Great Britain several years ago is the national passion for gardens. From palatial English Heritage sites to terraced houses with yards the size of hankie, flowers, plants and trees overflow.

From Elizabethan knot gardens to the modern Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, Britons love their gardens. And with good reason: they are sources of beauty for everyone who sees them. However, before supermarkets and drugstores, households great and small depended on their gardens for food, medicine, recreation and ironically, privacy.

Evidence from Egyptian tomb paintings indicate that humanity was planting ornamental gardens by the time recorded history began, but the most practical use for gardens has always been to grow food. In 1631, William Lawson in The Country Houswife’s Garden advises careful housewives to plant  artichokes, cabbages, kale, carrots, garlic, leeks, onions, pumpkins, radishes and strawberries in the kitchen garden, bordered by “herbes…comely and durable”.

The herbs weren’t used just in seasoning food. In Lawson’s day, medicine depended on herbs and most women had a store of recipes for everything from arthritis (a paste made of rose petals) to worms (horseradish or powdered fern root). The physician, if you were lucky enough to have one at hand, would also prescribe such things as lavender oil for faintness, or, I suspect less successfully, for heart palpitations or dissolved in water for ‘palsy’.

As well as medicines, the lady of the house would make cosmetics and personal grooming aids in the still room (so called from its use distilling oils and extracts from plants). Oil of rosemary was used both to prevent baldness and in a ‘hair-wash’ considered especially good for dark-haired women. Their blonde sisters used an infusion of chamomile. Apparently redheads were out of luck, unless they chose to dye their hair brown with the extract of boiled walnut shells.

Despite their practicality, the kitchen and herb gardens were generally planted out of sight if at all possible. Even the middle classes much preferred attractively planted parterres of blooms, if possible with a lawn beyond. One could stroll among the flower beds or read, and exchange confidences with trusted cronies away from the ears of household servants.  The lawn could be used for outdoor meals (served on tables with the good china and silverware, of course) or perhaps a pick-up game of cricket.

In cities, this urge for green was answered with public spaces by the Victorian era, such as Hyde Park and Regent’s Park in London or Bath’s Royal Victoria Park (now the Bath Botanical Gardens). Then, as now, city dwellers could enjoy open space filled with grass, trees and flowers, perhaps before going home and enjoying a fresh tomato from a container garden!

In spite of my black thumb, I enjoy visiting all kinds of gardens with my honey, who is pretty good at growing plants and flowers. What’s your favorite kind of garden – large and stately or cozy and full of flowers (or veggies)?