All posts by Ann Stephens

Historical romance writer, mother and self confessed history nerd. Because the best smut is historically accurate.

Fast Five: What I look for in a Hero

Hero 1It’s a holiday weekend, I need to get a post up by the end of the month, and I’m dry as a bone for inspiration. So in my desperation, here is a list of qualities I love to see in a hero. I’d love to get feedback from others about works for you in a hero.

 

Qualities in a hero that make me melt:

1. Kindness: However secretively and grudgingly it’s offered, even the most cynical, badass hero has to be able to scrounge up sympathy for at least one living creature besides the heroine.

2. Fidelity: To family, friends, platoon, mentor, his own moral code — I don’t care which. If a guy can’t show heartfelt loyalty to anyone or anything else, I’m going to have a hard time believing he’s going to stand by the heroine in the long run.

3. Sense of humor: Because there is nothing in this world better than a soulmate who gets your jokes.

4. Master of the Game: The ability to think ahead and to think fast shows smarts. Brawn is great for the heroine to run her hands over, but I love a man who formulates a plan to solve his problems. And then formulates Plan B. And Plan C. And . . . well, you get the drift. There’s a reason I have a soft spot for Batman.

5. Man Brain: If the character is meant to be a straight cis male, please don’t give me a chick in a cravat. I will make serious side eye at a straight hero who analyzes his innermost feelings to his  fellow male BFF. Actual, breathing men have assured me that while they do have All The Feels, they would undergo torture rather than discuss them with another man, no matter how trusted. Men also tend not to notice details like the difference between sea green and sage green unless they’re something like a painter, where knowledge of colors is necessary. Ditto for familiarity with women’s clothing, unless he’s a clothes horse himself or has a lot of female relatives. He’ll register impressions like ‘pretty’ or ‘sexy’, for example, but probably won’t know who designed the outfit.

So that’s my list — what turns you on in a hero? Comments welcome!

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His Royal Highness Who?

Baby bootiesCongratulations to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on their new baby boy!

According to the BBC, bookies have Arthur as the likeliest bet for the new prince’s first name. I’m not holding my breath, and I’ve got my doubts about the second runner-up, Albert. Here’s why: The couple’s other two children have been named for a king and an heir apparent to the throne. If they follow this trend for their third offspring, their choices are limited.

In the nearly one thousand years since the Normans conquered England, there have only been nine names borne by the nation’s kings.

Nine.

Four Williams, eight Henrys, one Stephen, three Richards, one John, eight Edwards, two Jameses, two Charleses, and six Georges. And some of these names are already Right Out.

For example, William. The wee babe’s daddy is already a Prince William. Two would be confusing.

Henry – Same problem. Even if they go with Prince Henry to differentiate him from Uncle Harry, there’s also the fact that the last King Henry went through a lot of wives. I think they’re going to give this one a pass.

Stephen – I would personally be delighted with a Prince Stephen (duh!), but the one and only King Stephen brought ruin to the country by starting an 18-year civil war with his cousin (and rightful heir) Matilda. Also, let’s take a moment to be thankful that the young princess wasn’t named Matilda.

Richard – yes, it conjures the image of Richard the Lion-Hearted, but on closer inspection, I suspect their Highnesses will give this one a pass, too. For one thing, Lionheart used the English as a cash cow to fund a very expensive Crusade. (And to pay his ransom when he was taken prisoner on the way back home. Bad form.) The second Richard is often considered a tyrant, and the third usurped the crown from his young nephews (whose deaths he is suspected of arranging).

John – still one of the most reviled kings in British history. His barons had to insist on the Magna Carta. My guess is this will be a firm ‘nope’.

Edward – a very nice name, and there have been a lot of them. Unfortunately, the last one abdicated when he couldn’t marry a twice-divorced American. Worse, he was a Nazi sympathizer. Hard no here, too.

James – the last one was forced off the throne due to fears of Catholicism. But times have changed, and besides, the little prince will be raised in the Church of England. James might have some potential as a name for the newest royal.

Charles – the first Charles was a disaster as a monarch. The divine right of kings may have been a thing across the channel in France, but the British hadn’t bought into that since the Magna Carta (see John). The second Charles didn’t like Parliament any more than his dad did, eventually dismissing it for the last four years of his reign. But nobody wanted to go back to Oliver Cromwell’s dour Protectorate, so Charles II is still remembered kindly. However, there’s currently a Prince Charles.

George – they already have one.

Granted, there are other names that have been borne by princes who didn’t become king: Edmund, Geoffrey, Arthur, Leopold and Alfred, among others. Albert is currently a front-runner, based on the popularity of the television show Victoria. If that’s the case, just name the boy Prince Tom Hughes Something Something and be done with it.

Also high in the books are Arthur and Philip, which could very well have some appeal. Arthur is one of Prince Charles’ middle names, and the Duke of Edinburgh, at nearly 97, might like to see a namesake.

My guess for the new prince’s name? James Arthur Philip Mountbatten-Windsor, give or take a middle name.

Does your family have any traditional names? Or do you have any guesses about the new prince’s name?

Words More Enduring

St. Patrick Fractal (2)A word is more enduring than worldy wealth.  — Irish proverb

At the discovery, several years ago, that I have a pair of Irish ancestors, I smiled a little. They’re pretty far up my dad’s family tree, having left Dublin a generation before the Great Hunger. I haven’t found any other genetic connection with the Emerald Isle to date.

Nevertheless, it tickles me to have this faint connection to the Irish and their Gaelic forebears. I have to love a people who place such high value on a good story.

Like their fellow Celts in Scotland and Wales, pre-Christian Gaels in Ireland developed a respected caste of oral storytellers, poets and historians. With writing limited to Ogham inscriptions in wood or stone, clans depended on the memories of filid, brehons, and bards.

Like druid priests, a fili, or poet, studied for years. Instead of focusing on religion, filid memorized lore, history, and genealogies. Their purpose of protecting and guarding knowledge is still reflected in modern Gaelic. The highest rank of fili, the ollam, is now Gaelic for professor. Filid also composed elaborate poems to praise their chieftain or patron (or satirize him if suitable payment had not been forthcoming for the last poem).

A brehon specialized in legal knowledge. The poetry and stories they learned focused on laws, customs, crimes and punishments – the equivalent of modern case law, perhaps. It’s not clear whether they functioned as advisors to chieftains and kings, or if they had the authority to pass judgement themselves. Either way, they held a valuable position within the household or clan.

Irish harpLess scholarly, and less prestigious, bards provided entertainment. They wrote songs as well as poems, accompanying themselves with a harp to amuse a feasting crowd or a circle of villagers gathered by the hearth. Like the filid, though, they could praise a good patron or heap scorn on a stingy one and they garnered respect.

Christianity brought Latin and slightly increased literacy to Ireland. Monks recorded many of the oral histories in manuscripts like the Yellow Book of Lecan, but the traditions of the poets and bards remained strong. Neither Viking nor Norman settlement could entirely do away with them. But when the English conquered Ireland, official policy was to superimpose their language and Protestantism over the Gaelic-speaking Catholic population.

Marginalized, the Irish clung to their native language, music and history, and so the seanchai, or storyteller, developed from the old bardic traditions. Like bards, a seanchai learned old tales from older storytellers, gathering them year by year without any help from the written word. Often they journeyed from place to place, swapping an evening’s or several evenings’ worth, of entertainment for room and board.

Thus legends and myths of heroes, queens, kings, lovers, and saints were preserved, along with cautionary tales of sidhe and their inhabitants from the Other World. By memorizing and re-telling these vestiges of Irish history and customs, generations of seanchai safeguarded the language and culture of their people until interest in the old language and ways revived.

Behold the power of story.

Love Romance? Love Trivia?

Event Locations

 

What Jane Austen novel is Bridget Jones’s Diary based on? Who made it popular for brides to wear white? How did Ellen and Portia meet?

For Valentine’s Day, Harlequin — the world’s biggest publisher of romance novels — is sponsoring several Romance Trivia Author & Reader parties across North America. Check the list above and see if there’s one near you. It’s a great chance to meet local romance authors and win some prizes.

They are kindly opening it up to non-Harlequin authors, and I am participating in the Omaha, NE event at The Bookworm, one of the city’s best-known independent bookstores. (Location details under ‘Upcoming Events’, to the right.)

There will be a slew of romance writers there, and we love to meet readers! There is no admission charge. People can form a team with friends, or join a team when you get there. Did I mention there would be prizes?

Here is information about the Omaha event and its hosts, from The Bookworm’s Events page on Facebook:

Hosted by bestselling authors Victoria Alexander, Sherri Shackelford, and Cheryl St.John and sponsored by Harlequin, the biggest name in romance publishing, the evening offers friendly competition tailor-made for Valentine’s Day. Romance Trivia by Harlequin tests contestants’ knowledge on subjects like film, television, music, history, literature, sports, science, food, and nature.

 

Doesn’t this sound like a great way to spend an afternoon?

Till next time,

Ann

Just let me WIP out my Main Characters

Like many writers, the question “How’s the book going?” from kindly friends and family summons up a number of emotions in me, very few of them positive.

What I want to do in response is curl up in the fetal position and moan. “The book is a nightmare! I can’t write anything but garbage! Thank you for bringing up such a painful subject!”

What I actually do is develop a short-term facial twitch and tell them the book is fine. Then I change the subject to the fantastic meal I had last time I ate out. Even that was at McDonalds.

All of which brings me to the topic of this post. For everyone who wants to ask me about my work-in-progress (and even those who don’t), here’s a little bit about what I’m working on:

1. Name: A MOST IMPROPER CONNECTION

2. Setting: Victorian England, 1840

3. Hero: Morgan Tregarth
Once the disgraced second son of titled father, Morgan has returned to London because his family finally has a use for him. Now the guardian of a four-year-old viscount, Morgan has everything he needs to conquer London society: good looks, charm, and a large fortune. The only thing he lacks is a child — his child. The one he’s tried to find for 10 years, thanks to the cold-hearted nursemaid who tricked him into believing she loved him, even went through a marriage ceremony with him, and then disappeared without a word.

4. Heroine: Alix Ellsworth
Disguised as a widow, Alix has fought to raise her daughter for 10 years. Once the pampered daughter of an army officer, she chose a servant’s life over that of a prostitute. Unfortunately, she fell under the spell of the son of her employers, and ended up pregnant. The cad even convinced her to go through with a ‘marriage’ ceremony before abandoning her. Now he’s back, and Alix, threatened with debtor’s prison, is determined to get some help from the man who helped put her in this position: Morgan Tregarth.

A MOST IMPROPER CONNECTION is a second chance at love story, as two people learn to trust each other — and their own instincts — again. All while trying to cope with an adventurous four-year-old and their own daughter, who on a good day can cause a kitchen fire and a cat fight at the same time. Oh, and let’s not forget about the society miss who wants to marry Morgan, and the blackmailing uncle who threatens Alix.

Want to know more? Leave a comment below!

Till next time,

Ann

 

Going Deep

brick-passage
Don’t be afraid to explore the depths of your characters

As in deep point of view. Not necessarily sexy, historical or romantic, but choosing a POV is a crucial part of storytelling. First person, second person, third person. Authors have used all of them to craft unforgettable books.

Many writers enjoy using first person, because they feel like they can dig up all their protagonist’s emotions. For that reason, many readers enjoy stories told in first person. Confession time here: as a reader, I struggle with first person books. Exceptions have been The Martian, by Andy Weir and Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series.

First person isn’t a bad thing! It’s just a matter of personal preference. Like a kid at bedtime, I almost always want to know what the grown-ups are doing when I’m out of the room. Hence, I’m more comfortable reading third person, and a lot more comfortable writing in it. I like the freedom to move from character to character.

Even so, third person has its own pitfalls. I’m making my way through a book by a New York Times best-selling author, written in third person. It makes me want to poke pins in my eyes. Because it is All. Talking. Heads. Every last thought these characters have comes out in dialogue. Everything, including emotion, is on the surface — one of the hazards of writing in this POV.

Enter Deep Point of View

Deep POV, also known as third person limited, is a way to marry the intimacy of first person with the wider scope of third person. The reader is pulled into the head of a character from the first words of a scene, and experiences what it’s like to be that person as the story unfolds. Not just thoughts, but emotions and immediate physical sensations. The rush of first love, the burst of grief, the comforting squeeze of a friend’s hand on your arm. Making readers share those sensations gives them an investment in your story. Maybe even in you as a writer.

Going deep takes some work. For one thing, a writer can’t do it unless she or he knows his characters from the inside out. That means knowing more than their appearance and their basic goal, motivation and conflict. Where did they go to school? How do they view themselves? How do others view them? What was their birth family like? Do they speak formally? Swear a lot, or not at all? What are their wounds? For historical fiction, what are the customs, technology and language of their time and place?

The key to this point of view is that the writer is limited to what the current POV character can observed. (Limited third person, duh.) If you’re in your hero’s head, he cannot observe that the heroine thinks he’s hot. He can be aware when she flirts back at him, and can hear if she suggests going somewhere with less noise. But unless you’ve given him mind-reading powers, he cannot read her thoughts.

Besides, what if her ex is sitting in the corner and she’s trying to make him jealous by flirting with the first attractive man she sees? Mr. Hero doesn’t know this. The reader only finds out when the story moves into the heroine’s POV. (Things like this are why I love writing third person.)

Another thing to keep in mind is to avoid phrases such as ‘he thought’, ‘she noticed’, ‘he saw’, ‘she knew’. These place a distance between the story and the reader. Eliminating them will pull the reader in.

Consider the differences in these two examples:

Third person: She noticed a dark-colored splotch next to the building. When she stopped to touch it, her fingers came away sticky. She sniffed and recognized the coppery tang of blood.

Third person limited: A dark-colored splotch next to the building halted her. One touch left her with sticky fingers. She sniffed, then gagged at the coppery tang. Blood.

Ideally, the second passage makes readers share the character’s response to her surroundings. Plus they learn that the smell of blood makes her sick.

The more vivid we can make our writing, the more interesting it is to readers. Interested readers keep turning pages. ‘Nuff said, right?

Till next time,

Ann Stephens

 

 

 

OMG! A 19th Century File Cabinet!

Wellington chestThe 19th century equivalent of a file cabinet! Pictured is a ‘Wellington chest’, sometimes called a ‘side-locking chest’. These got their name because the Duke of Welllington is supposed to have carried a similar chest with him on his Peninsular War campaigns.
     Wellington’s chest had to be portable, but it featured a frame on the right-hand side that overlapped the drawer fronts. This strip of wood, when locked in place, prevented the drawers from opening. It was the latest security tech for that era.
Wellington desk with locking mechanism
     After the war, anyone who needed private and secure storage seized on these useful items. Surviving pieces average around four to four-and-a-half feet tall, with seven to ten drawers.
     Wellington chests were made into the Edwardian era, and are still found by lucky antique hunters today.
     I’ve given a Wellington chest to the factory-owner-turned-earl hero of my current Work-In-Progress. Would you like to have one of them for yourself, or stick to the plain metal models we’re familiar with today?
A full article about this particular Wellington chest is here.

Happy Mothers Day

This may clarify a few things about me. What life lessons did your mother teach you?

10 Things Mom

 

We are what we Read

high-school-booksAs 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?

 

Further Reading:

Writing Love, Alexandra Sokoloff

Save the Cat, Blake Snyder

Story Structure Architect, Victoria Lynn Schmidt

The Dearest of Friends: John and Abigail Adams

OR, A Plethora of Love Letters

cropped-cropped-dewy-pink2In 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.)

john-and-abigail-adamsMr. and Mrs. Adams had already forged their marriage into an equal partnership, surprising not only because of the era, but because of the nine year difference in their ages.

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 and quillLetter-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.

OldJohnandAbigailThe 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?

 

Further reading:

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