Category Archives: History

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.

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

 

 

 

Dress Shopping, Victorian Style

january1843fashionsI 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.

 

Fashion Plate A

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.

Daytime BodiceIn 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.)

Mom, Apple Pie & Birth Control

Old-Birth-Control-Devices-245x300This post first appeared on Authors by Moonlight on March 23, 2012. It has been slightly edited.

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.

Favorite References: A History of the Wife

HistOfWifeBorrowed from my local library.

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.

A History of the Wife, Marilyn Yalom, Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (February 5, 2002)

Building Historical Worlds

World building is a familiar concept to writers and many readers of science fiction and fantasy. Writers from C.J. Cherryh to Marion Zimmer Bradley have written about the importance of pulling your readers into the world of a book, and the works of Tolkien are a primer for building an alternate world.

Historical romance is not in the business of building completely new worlds (that would be for the Fantasy, Futuristic and Paranormal members of the Romance Writers of America), but historical romance writers still have to draw our readers in, so that they can feel themselves inside the story, wearing crinolines or a hoop skirt or a toga, traveling the high seas in a pirate ship or taking the air in Hyde Park on horseback.

World building, whether for sci fi, fantasy or historical writing, works best when the writer has done his or her homework. When building a world from scratch, that includes notebooks covering geography, history, languages, customs, religious or spiritual beliefs, the presence or absence of magic, and on and on. Lots of work!

Historical romance writers have it easier in that we can research times past to find out about the world our characters are going to inhabit. We also have giant binders full of information, of course. We just have to research existing knowledge, using the best research material we can find.

Even simple things were harder 150 years ago. Travel was a much bigger deal when Victoria ascended the throne. In an era when it’s possible to cross hundreds of miles in a single day by car, it’s nearly impossible to grasp the speed of carriage travel. Drive your car down your street at 14 miles an hour and try to imagine that as the absolute top speed you can achieve in a vehicle. The sensory description will be entirely different in the 19th century world. Hoofbeats, not the sound of tires, characterized traffic, for example.

To our modern sensibilities, the past is an alien place, not just physically, but in mental attitudes. Victorian England was a place of overt class consciousness, where people who moved from level of society to another (up or down) were viewed with suspicion, if not outright scorn. There was a strong impetus to keep to one’s place, and not only in the upper classes. This attitude loosened up as the 19th century wore on, but even servants preferred to work for a suitably aristocratic family to one with ‘new money’. America also had its unofficial aristocracy, with Ward McAllister’s decree that truly fashionable New York society was made up of only 400 people. (He was trying to keep out those dreadful Westerners, Midwesterners and Vanderbilts at the time.)

If a writer chooses not to have her characters reflect the social mores of an era, her characters need solid motivation to explain why they think differently.

What are your favorite details about historical romance? The clothing? The food? The customs? Let us know!

To the Bedroom!

I do love a comfy bed. There are so many delightful things to do in between the sheets, some of which are sleeping, reading, writing, thinking, doodling; and some of which are…um, not. Ahem. Beds were not always the comfortable refuges they are today, but for opulence and beauty as well as comfort, the 19th century might have us beat.

While the middle and lower classes, and servants in large houses, had to make do with hardwood floors, unadorned furniture and hand me down rugs, the master or mistress of a great house slept in beds of rare woods furnished with feather mattresses and fine linens.  The newly rich would purchase matching bedroom furniture like this rosewood suite from the 1860s.  The armoire, washstand and commode on the left side were necessities in the days before built in closets, clothes hangers and bathrooms!

In a large house, the latter two items might have been placed in an adjoining dressing room.  Still, a number of grand houses had commodes and washstands in the bedroom itself, due to the age of the house itself or to family custom.  Retrofitting pipes into house built in the 18th century or earlier often resulted in the toilet or bath being tucked into a former linen closet or under a staircase – not something people wanted to wander down the hall to in the middle of the night!

The dressing table had some kind of cloth protecting its surface from dust.  Girls and women often received matching sets of brushes, combs, hand mirror, and bottles or jars, all resting on their own tray.  The materials for these ranged from horn or carved wood to elaborate silver.  Ivory, plain or carved, was also popular in the days when people considered wildlife a commodity.

Victorians out of necessity used their bedrooms for a lot more than we do.  A hundred and fifty years ago, most people were born at home and died at home.  Medicine cabinets could be mounted on the wall for people suffering from chronic diseases.

The custom of separate bedrooms for wealthy couples continued throughout the 19th century in both Britain and America, giving the woman a refuge from household duties.  If she was lucky enough to live in a really large house, she also had a boudoir, or small sitting room, as part of her apartment.  Otherwise, wealthy women and their middle class sisters often had a writing table, chairs, and a chaise longue or sofa in their rooms.

One thing you would not find, even at the highest levels of society, is a bed table.  Instead, a lady set her candle on a chair placed beside the head of the bed.  Reading in bed was frowned upon, for what if one fell asleep before blowing out the candle?  A good draft could send the flame into those lovely curtains, endangering the sleeper’s life.   Gas jets came in before the end of the era, but their light was often dim and unsteady.  It wasn’t possible to curl up in bed and read after sundown until electricity became common in the 20th century.

Just to end up, here is a link to a fascinating article on box beds, which I made use of in Her Scottish Groom.

What kind of bedroom appeals to you?  Small and cozy or large and sumptuous?

Cross-Training for Writers

I was asked in an interview once what I’d write if I couldn’t write romance. I didn’t have to think twice; the answer is fantasy. As in Old Skool, Middle Earth, build-up-your-alternate-universe-from-the-Void fantasy. I devoured the works of Tolkien, C. J. Cherryh, Orson Scott Card, and Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Isaac Asimov, among many others, years before I attempted writing a word of my own books. I loved the chance to escape into another world while I read those books. The best of the romances I gobbled up by the pageful provided the same effect. My entirely unscientific theory is that good writers care passionately about their own creations, whether it’s a planet or a pair of feuding lovers.

I write romance because I enjoy offering hope in the form of happy-ever-afters. I love writing smart heroines and the hunks they deserve. (And okay, this is the only genre that allows me to look at man candy and say with a straight face, “It’s research.”) But I do engage in a form of world-building. Mine is different from speculative fiction writing because I am constrained by the laws, customs, technologies and events of actual past eras. I can tweak the rules and bend them, but if I break them, the reader will be jerked right out of the story and might not be able get back into it.

Fantasy readers are familiar with maps, spaceship diagrams and/or genealogical charts in the front or back of books. I use those tools too, as do most other writers serious about their craft. Maps are a sticky issue for me. The posh area of London isn’t large now, and it was smaller in the 19th century. If we had to squeeze in every London mansion, gaming hell, bordello and alley devised by historical romance writers, the metropolis might have taken up as much space as it does in 2012. On the other hand, I do write fiction. It’s kind of my job to make stuff up. While scholars may howl if I place someone’s home where a tobacconist’s shop existed according to the census of EighteenWhatever, if I make the rest of the street historically accurate, and the furnishings and design of the house, most readers will be okay with that.

Along with hunting for man candy, I do research actual maps, and furnishings, and when people stopped using quills and started using pens, and the beginnings of railway travel in England. Most of the time, I enjoy research, but when I can’t find a crucial piece of information, I wish I could make up my own rules!

I do get to make up my own genealogy charts at least, and that’ s another part of writing prep I enjoy. Speculative writers have to come up with naming systems, and I don’t envy them the task. It’s hard enough to find the exact match of first, middle and last names that scans well and conveys the character’s status as hero or supporting character. Throwing in issues like spaceship allegiance or Elvish naming customs would make my brain explode. Genealogy tells us a lot about family culture and values, personal traits that may be encouraged or not and even diseases that can affect a character. Take a page from fantasy writers and make a family tree or two for your manuscript.

I learned about the importance of creating a historical background for one’s books from the Appendices at the end of The Lord of the Rings. They fascinated me; I would go back and forth from them to favorite passages. I realized that such a deep background gave Middle Earth its breath-taking vision. My history is based in fact, not speculation, but it’s crucial for writers to understand the places and times in which they place their stories. Timelines and calendars are an essential tool of all writers, either to track fictional events or intertwine fictional with real events.

So, writers and readers out there…what do you enjoy about your second favorite genres?

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.

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)?