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.
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 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!
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?
…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.
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.)
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.
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!
I can’t speak for other writers, but I’ve found that placing exposition into my stories is either a pleasure or a giant pain. ‘Exposition’ is related to ‘expose’, and thus refers to unveiling information the reader must know in order to make sense of the story. One must have exposition, just not too much of it at one time.
The most common example of this kind of information is back story, or past events which influence the characters or plot of a book, but which do not take place during the length of time the book covers. In Nicole Jordan’s To Desire a Wicked Duke, the heroine’s loss of her fiancé in battle occurred well before the book opens, but it affects her decisions and her relationship with the hero. Her fiancé’s death is part of the back story.
Most new writers, including yours truly, often open their first manuscript with pages and pages explaining the hero or heroine’s home, or family of twelve, or college days, or…it really doesn’t matter, because your reader wants to know about the main characters, not their 500-year-old family pedigree, no matter how distinguished it is. These reams of exposition are the dreaded ‘info-dump’, guaranteed to put off agents, editors and readers alike.
For film it’s said that for every foot of film used in the final cut, there are two feet on the cutting room floor. I’ve come to think of exposition the same way. Yes, it is necessary to come up with detailed character biographies that do include birth year, birth place, family history (and probably their dates as well), education, favorite colors, the character’s particular talents and his or her greatest flaws, etc., etc. — even though this information may never appear in the actual book.
Some of you are probably throwing up your hands and asking, “Then why go to so much trouble?” Considering the research and effort that goes into creating this kind of detail, that is an excellent question!
The answer is that when we writers set down that much information about a character, it nails him or her down in our heads. This kind of detail helps us understand how characters respond to each other as well as to challenges, failures or successes. The writer knows how their hero or heroine will go about reaching their goals. And on a purely practical level, if all of this is written down beforehand, the writer has a reference any time a question about a character’s past comes up. That saves a lot of time all by itself.
As a historical romance writer, I also use exposition to explain aspects of life in past eras that modern readers wouldn’t necessarily be familiar with. For example, in Her Scottish Groom I used it to include details about life in Scotland during the late Victorian era. Trains, cruise ships, and telegrams had been around for years by then. The heroine is accustomed to indoor plumbing.
My debut, To be Seduced, presented even more of a challenge because it takes place during the Restoration. Even something as straightforward as attending the theater needed a little explanation. The experience differed significantly from seeing plays during the nineteenth century, which is heavily represented in historical romances. The trick in both cases was to create vivid scenes for readers to enjoy, not give them a history lesson!
Clues to characters and period or universe (in the case of fantasy or paranormal romance) are imperative to an authentic, well-rounded story. But exposition, like everything else in a well-written book, should be layered in carefully, and nothing should appear on the page that does not advance or enhance the story.
What are some of the most interesting or unexpected bits of information revealed about a character in a book you’ve read?
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?
My background includes theater, and during my studies in that area, I learned that there are no new plots. The human condition has a large but finite combination of interactions, and writers have been stealing from each other since the Greeks invented drama.
What makes a book, play or movie stand out isn’t the pacing or how realistic a plot is. (Seriously, even some of Shakespeare’s plots have more holes than a colander.) It’s the characters who inhabit them. (Again, Shakespeare is a prime example. Even his cameo characters have goal, motivation and conflict, which is why his plays have been produced and loved for the last 400 years.)
I have no clue what the Bard’s process was, but in my case finding a character is more a matter of sifting through people who show up and want to be my imaginary friends.
I think I’ve said that I get a lot of my ideas for characters from reading history. Bethany came from reading about the ordeals several heiresses suffered through in 17th century England. I had to make her older, as they were in their early teens when they were married off to fortune hunters, but aging her made it possible to give her the gumption to stand up to her hero, Richard.
Sometimes a character literally pops into my head. A friend and I were talking about names and she jokingly said, “You’ll never find a romance heroine named Theodosia.” Next thing I knew, I had a character named Theodosia just waiting for me to write down her background. I knew what she looked like, who her family members were and who her hero was, all from that one comment.
Another source of engaging characters is my family history. (Let me make very clear, I don’t do genealogy even as a hobby. My sister and two aunts do, so I know I don’t have the patience to locate and read through document after document searching for a single name. I merely admire and praise the fruits of their labor.) One of my great-great grandmothers managed to obtain a divorce during the 1800s, a nearly impossible feat. And as if that didn’t scandalize her town enough, she then remarried while her former husband was still alive! Another great-great grandmother eloped with a civil engineer and was disowned by her wealthy Victorian family. Even after her husband died, they refused to acknowledge her. Her sons, my ancestor and his brothers, ended up working in a rich man’s stables. After playing ‘what if’ with these stories, I’ve created some wonderful characters I hope to use in future books.
The cast of my March 2011 release came from reading biographies of Americans during the Gilded Age. American heiresses married into the British aristocracy on several occasions over the last quarter of the 19th century. Again, I played ‘what if’ and came up with a story my editor described in his acceptance email as ‘exceedingly charming’. Diantha has lived a restricted life even for the Victorian era, while Kieran, her worldly spouse, prefers women with a certain amount of polish. Their conventional background presented a challenge when bringing in twists to the story, but one of my favorite ideas comes early in the book. Instead of the sophisticated groom suffering from a hangover after a night of prenuptial carousing, I gave the splitting headache and dry mouth to a very confused bride.
You can read more about her on my newest page, cleverly entitled ‘Excerpts’.
I am writing this in view of the back yard so that I can refresh myself with frequent glances our lilac bush. Every spring, it produces thick cones of blossoms that range in color from violet buds to the lavender of spent blooms. Some people don’t care for lilacs because they bloom so briefly, only a matter of weeks compared with the spring-to-summer performance of roses, for example. And the contrast of shaded purples against the plant’s vibrant green leaves might strike some as garish, but I love it.
However striking their appearance is, the reason lilacs are my favorite flower is invisible, but impossible to ignore: its scent.
Heady, intense, luxuriant, this time of year the perfume hits us as soon as we step out of the back door, even though the shrub sits at the edge of our yard. I could bury my face in the heavy clusters and breathe their odor in for the next two weeks. (Apologies to those who suffer from high pollen counts this time of year!) Trying to analyze the scent with words like ‘sweet’, ‘earthy hints’ or ‘green’ doesn’t work. One whiff hits my nostrils and all I think is Lilac!
Part of this is because our sense of smell is primitive. It’s not processed in the cerebral cortex, so is more linked with memory and emotions than with rational thought processes. I often participated in theater during college and the head of the scene shop never understood why I stuck my head through the doorway and inhaled deeply every time I passed. He didn’t know the smell of sawdust rockets me back to age three or four, watching my carpenter grandfather in his workshop while I happily play on the floor. Grandpa died over 30 years ago, but thanks to sawdust, I retain vivid memories of him. The power of scent works both ways, though. I couldn’t be in the same room with egg salad for years because of a highly distressing experience involving a sandwich, the back of a station wagon and the flu.
Science debates the importance of pheromones in human mating behavior, but each of us does have a unique scent that can only be disguised temporarily by deodorant or perfume. Humans don’t have the acute noses of bloodhounds, but on the same subconscious level that triggers emotional memories of Grandpa, personal scents register in our brains. As a romance writer, I try to keep that in mind as something that draws the hero and heroine together, or repels them from the villain or villainess. I may not always include it, but I give some thought to what my characters smell like: Leather? Pine? Soap and water? Vanilla? Maybe lemons make him remember burying his face in her hair because she used their juice to rinse it. Or opening the cedar chest causes her heart to ache because the odor clung to his shirt.
Scent, feelings and memories — an intimate triad of the physical, emotional and mental aspects of our nature.