Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Out of Town

I'm writing this post a few days prior because at this very moment, I'm in New York City for the annual RWA conference. Surrounded by thousands of fellow writers, seeing old friends, meeting new ones, networking, parties, workshops, agent meeting, lunches,'s exhilarating. And exhausting.

But such fun and so inspiring! I always come home anxious to write, my creative juices flowing after being immersed in everything romance. Don't we have the best job or what? I wouldn't trade it for the world...

Since I'm gone, I'm keeping this post short but sweet. Though I do want you all to know that my first historical romance novella Lessons In Indiscretion came out last week. You can find Lessons In Indiscretion at Carina Press, Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Anyone for Real Tennis?

I adore tennis, even if I’m a crap player, and use the Wimbledon fortnight as an excuse to take a break from writing. Well, someone has to cheer on the one and only Brit who ever does any good in our national tournament. Really, it’s sooo embarrassing, especially since Murray’s Scottish but, hey, we’re desperate.

Did you know that Real Tennis, dubbed the sport of kings, originated in France? The word tennis comes from the French tenez, meaning ‘take heed’. Very wise if you’re at the opposite end of the court to me, my directional shots kinda lacking direction if you get my meaning! Anyway, royal interest in England began with Henry V in 1413 but it was good old Henry VIII who really took the game to heart. Well, I guess he had to escape from all those wives somehow.  Rumour has it that Anne Boleyn was watching a game when she was arrested and Henry was supposedly playing when news was brought to him of her execution.

The game was played on indoor courts, rather like the one pictured here, still in use at Hampton Court. 

It reminds me of an over-sized squash court. Not surprising really when you consider that shots can bounce off the walls and even from openings in the roof. Weird, or what?

Lawn tennis as we know it didn’t come into being until Victorian times so during the Regency era our idly rich young bucks probably took to the courts and got rid of their aggression by whacking the balls—similar in size and make up to modern tennis balls, covered by woollen cloth—all over the place. A good way to show off their physiques and impress their wives—or more likely, other people’s wives, I’d have thought. The attached picture, taken from an earlier era, gives some idea what it must have been like.

I shall definitely have to learn more about the game and put it in a future book.

Right, now you’ll have to excuse me. The third ladies quarter final is about to start.


Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Let's Talk Books

Coming up with a spew of historical favourites took less than a minute. Whittling that list down to my top ten took a whole lot longer. Shuffling the order could have taken me days if I hadn't finally called it a night and gone with what I had. I tried to be really strict about the order, as in, if the apocalypse was going to strike tomorrow and I'd be stuck in some bunker (or, let's say, a tropical island) for the next year, and I was only allowed to take one, yes one, book with me...

My all time, top of the list, favourite would have to be

I actually came to this book late in my reading life, long after I'd fallen in love with historical romance, but it stuck hard and fast. I love alpha heroes, especially ones who have so far to fall when they're finally ready to admit they're head over heels in love and cannot live with their lady.
But most of all, what stuck with me most in this story is the development of Whitney, how we're right there with her as she grows from a spoilt brat to a hoyden and all the way through to a lovely, mature woman.
I could read this book once a week and cry each time.

Now, let's say I'm allowed to take one more book because, you know, a year's quite a long time...

Sensing a theme here? A 'don't give a damn' hero and a young girl with a lot of growing up to do.
The romanticist in me always wants to give these two their happy ending and, I don't know, maybe there's a black spot on my brain that really thinks if I just read it one more time, the ending will change and everything will be sunshine and roses.
On the other hand, this book just would be the same without that famous... all together now... "Frankly, dear, I don't give a damn."

And then the powers that be make me an offer I can't refuse. Toss out the medical kit, they say, and you can take one more book...

Now I do realise this is cheating a bit as that's not the real book cover, but pass up a Colin Firth opportunity? Really? No, I didn't think so.
You know how in school you're expected to pull every line apart, imagine snakes hissing and hear the horse trotting just from the word pattern? Understand the character's entire personality from a few well placed barbs? Well, I never used to get that. I'd nod along with the rest of class and stare blankly at plain english words that told me nothing more than the Oxford Dictionary said they should. Until Pride and Prejudice. Suddenly the underwoven play on sentences and words came alive and finally, finally, I knew what the hell my teacher was talking about. I discovered a whole new art with this novel, not to mention Mr Darcy may have been the first man I fell in love with.

Right, so time's a ticking, you know, with the apocalypse looming first thing in the morning and everything, guess I'd better just get on with the rest of the list nice and quick.

4) The Bride by Julie Garwood... possibly the first Scottish medieval romance I fell in love with. All those years ago, these highland laddies just knocked me off my feet. And because the official blurb just says it so well...
     By edict of the king, the mighty Scottish laird Alec Kincaid must take an English bride. His choice was Jamie, youngest daughter of Baron Jamison...a feisty, violet-eyed beauty. Alec ached to touch her, to tame her, to possess her...forever. But Jamie vowed never to surrender to this highland barbarian....

(5) The Steel Bonnets by George MacDonald Fraser... This is not really a romance. Okay, so it's not even a novel. But it is my number one research book for medieval Scotland and for extending the leash on my muse. Just when I think I've put my hero into a situation that is so bizarre I'm afraid it will snap the suspension of my reader's belief, I'll find a real documented case of some wayward Sottish laird who did just that. When it comes to medieval Scottish history, the facts are just as, if not more, entertaining that fiction.

6) Desperate Duchesses by Eloise James...I had to show this gorgeous cover, the reason I picked up the book in the first place Isn't it pretty? Arranged marriages are one of my favourite tropes, but for every one that worked out fine, in reality there must have been dozens where the husband and wife merely endured each other.
What I love is that this is the story of the arranged marriage that did not work out. At least not at first :)

(7) Private Arrangements by Sherry Thomas... Also an estranged husband and wife story, but with a difference. This started out as a love marriage, then turned sour. Now, ten years, hubby wants an heir and these two finally get to sort things out. A beautiful story.

(8) Tempted by Virginia Henley... Ram Douglas is an alpha hero to die for and the heroine is such an outrageous hoyden, you just have to curl up and lose yourseld in this world. One of the things I love most about Henley is her vivid writing that makes you feel as if you're really experiencing that world.

(9) Kingdom of Dreams by Judith McNaught... This one has it all. The rugged hero, The Duke of Claymore. The virgin kidnapped straight from the convent. Family feud. The king's decree that the hero and heroine marry. The hero's refusal to do anything of the kind. And a fabulous ending!!

(10) Beyond the Highland Mist by Karen Marie Moning... Last, but not least by a long mile. In fact, the only reason this one sits at number 10 is that there's time travel and also, I'd have to cheat here and just include her entire Highland series in this spot. Just because.

There are so, so many more favourite historicals that I'd happily be stuck with for a year. What are your favourites?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Hot Iron Age Lovin'

by Susanna Ives

You’ve read Regency, Roman, Victorian, Ottoman Empire, Western and Viking, but let me introduce you to a new romance setting: Iron Age Denmark. Because nothing says romance like sleeping in a thatched mud and wattle hut in sub zero degree weather, snuggled with Lars under your wild boars pelt, listening to the gentle oinks of the pigs in the other half of your hut and calls of the wild aurochs in the distance.

For starters, Iron Age Denmark isn’t as far away as you think. Just fast forward past those Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks, and the beginnings of the Roman Empire to 1 A.D: that’s the Danish Iron Age.

Imagine your Iron Age Lars, sweat pouring down his rock hard muscles as he works over the clay furnace, smelting down some hot iron. He would build that furnace for two days and then fire it up for 5 hours using a cubic meter of wood. Then he packed down 70kg of charcoal and 50kg of the iron he dug up from the bog pit. He baked this for 24 hours to make sponge iron. Then he hammered the sponge iron into 1 kg of usable iron to make ten knives or an axe. Imagine his bulging biceps as he slung that hard hammer down. If that doesn’t turn you on…

When Lars wasn’t making you pretty axes, he was farming with the oxen so he could harvest barley, wheat, and spelt to for you to grind in your super modern grain grinder. Trust me, your man loves you when he gives you this grinder.

Your friends still have to use the old-fashioned hand and stone method.

And don’t forget the wool Lars sheared for you to weave your family’s fashionable clothes.

At night, when you’re sitting around the fire in your mud hut and your young children are playing with this wooden pig your husband carved, you tell them stories about how you and your hot iron smelting man met.You were still a virgin and it was the spring fertility festival. The elders placed you in the center of the dancing labyrinth. The village boys raced each other through the labyrinth and Lars reached you first.

You were a lucky virgin because they could have just chucked you in the peat bog as a sacrifice to the bog gods.

Also, your Lars fashions himself quite the artist. Look at the beautiful sculpture he made for you. You can see the beginnings of the phallic symbolism that would later characterize Viking art.

I think Danish Iron Age has great romantic potential. If, after reading this post, you have the burning desire to write some hot Iron Age loving please visit Sagnlandet or Danish National Museum

NOTE: The last Aurochs died in 1627. At Sagnlandet there are several Heck Oxen, a type of oxen created by the Germans under Hitler in an attempt to revive the Auroch. The Heck Oxen were very playful and chased each other around the grounds. Here is the only picture I took of them:

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Schoolteacher and The Outlaw

She was a schoolteacher.  A pretty brunette who graduated from college in 1872 with a degree in literature and science.  She came from a well-respected family and she could have married well.  Yet, Ann Ralston eloped with one of the most-wanted outlaws in America.

He was not a handsome man and he shunned the publicity showered on him. Bookish, he was an avid reader and he could quote Shakespeare at will.  It was said he always had novels with him.  Even when he was busy outrunning a posse, his saddlebags contained books.   Is it any wonder Alexander Franklin James fell for a girl with a degree in literature?

The details of how Frank and Annie met and secretly courted remain elusive.  In June of 1874, Annie convinced her parents to let her go visit a relative in Kansas City.   She actually met Frank in Kansas City and went to Omaha with him where they were married.  She sent a note home to her worried parents:  Dear Mother, I am married and going West.  Annie Reynolds.  Her parents had no idea she had married the outlaw, Frank James, until much later.  When her father found out, he disowned her. 

The unlikely marriage would last for 41 years and, according to most accounts, it was a happy marriage.  Frank and Annie got along well   They lived under aliases in Texas, Nashville and Baltimore.  Their only child, Robert, was born in 1878 while they were living in the Nashville area.  After Jesse’s assassination in 1882, Frank turned himself in to the governor of Missouri and Annie wrote her husband a poem called Surrendered.   Frank’s trial earned more publicity than that of the man who killed President McKinley.  He was found not guilty of the charges against him, and he spent the rest of this life as a law-abiding citizen and loving spouse.  “No better husband ever lived,” Ann said of him.

In their later year, Annie and Frank lived on the James farm where Frank sold tours for twenty-five cents.  When he died, he wishes were to be cremated and his ashes stored in a vault until he could be buried with Annie.  She would continue to live on James farm until her death in 1944.  She was 91 when she died. 

Now, the schoolteacher and the outlaw are together again, resting peacefully beneath a simple grave marker.  Frank would have approved.

Patricia Preston

Thursday, June 09, 2011

It's the Historical Romance Hero, Stupid

Every once in a while, reality whips up and smacks me between the eyes.  That happened to me recently when I finished a contemporary romance novella.  My first love is historical romance, but I write in all genres.  For some reason, I loved this particular contemporary more than just about any other contemp I'd written.  Of course, I loved the story because I loved the hero.  What was different about him?

Whap, right on the forehead.  He was bigger than life.  My heroine even pictured him as a prince in one scene - imagining him with a sash across his chest and a sword hanging by his side.  No wonder so many authors write Navy SEALS, firefighters, and members of the SWAT team.  These contemporary heroes are larger than life, most of the time.  When they go home at night, the probably leave their dirty socks on the bedroom floor and forget to put the toilet seat down.

For a true fantasy man, I'll take history.  That's just my taste, but I think I share it with a lot of readers.  In reality, of course, historical men were no different from the ones we have today.  But it's easier to imagine that they were bigger, better, and bolder, removed as they are from our current reality.

Furthermore, I'd like to argue that a historical hero can be a dangerous character without losing his romantic appeal.  A case in point:

This man had two of his wives beheaded, but I'd still give him a tumble, even though no way in hell would I agree to be his queen.  "But Alice," you say, "the real Henry VIII didn't look anything like that."  Everyone knows the famous portrait of King Henry.  I'd still consider him more heroic than this:

Here's another one of my favorite heroes from English culture.  Petruchio from The Taming of the Shrew, as portrayed by actor Steven Boxer.

Looks as if he's manhandling his woman, doesn't it?  He is.  In this century, I'd kick a guy like this down the stairs and tell him never to darken my doorway again.  But, how can you resist a man who objects to being told to leave with "What, with my tongue in your tail?"  It's clear throughout the play that, although he's taming the shrew, he also respects her wit and independence and would have never been able to stand her sweeter, more obedient sister.  (I actually rewrite the end of this play in my imagination to make it more of a romance.  I figure that her subservience in front of their friends is an act and on the way home they have a good laugh at how they put one over everyone else.)

Here's another man who could never exist in our modern world.

Rhett Butler doesn't take the freeway to work.  Rhett Butler doesn't shop at Costco.  Rhett Butler doesn't Tweet.  We all know what line he's famous for - "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."  (I have to rewrite the end of that story in my head, too.)

In our times, capture by a pirate is an occasion for terror.  Modern women don't really want men to fight a duel for them.  Having the local nobleman demand his right of first night would seem like rape to the bride involved.  In historicals, we can make these things work as romance.  That may not be reality, but it can be our fantasy.

Monday, June 06, 2011

When I care about accuracy...and when I don't

I’m a history geek, have been for as long as I can remember. I think it must’ve started with my mother introducing me to the Little House series. Or maybe it was all those family vacations to museums and historical sites around the country. Whatever the cause, the past is my most lasting passion. I read histories and biographies for pleasure. (The photos in this post are some of the shelves of my personal research collection.) I’ve toyed with the notion of going back to school for an MA or even a PhD in history. Whenever I see reenactors, I think, “That looks like so much fun! I’ve GOT to find the time and money to try that someday.”

So it should come as no surprise that in the great debate over the importance of accuracy in historical romance, I come down on the side that favors more rather than less. As Kalen Hughes put it on History Hoydens last year, I think of myself as an author of HISTORICAL romance rather than historical ROMANCE. And while I’ll make the occasional exception for an unusually well-written but inaccurate book, in general that’s what I look for as a reader too.

This is a big and often controversial topic, and I may blog about some of its nuances in the future. But for now I’ll say that in my observation my kind of historical readers are looking for a sort of mental time travel. Since Doctor Who is unlikely to show up with the TARDIS to take them to, say, 1815, a well-researched and compellingly written novel set at Waterloo is the next best thing. Other readers, however, are looking for more of a timeless and glamorous Not-Now. They might not care one way or the other how accurate a romance’s historical background is, or they might actively prefer a less accurate story that meshes better with their own fantasies or sense of what’s romantic.

Until recently, I didn’t understand the second group of readers. I did my best not to judge them, because I don’t believe in doing that. When it comes to books, your pleasure is your pleasure. If a story makes you happy, for you it’s a good book. Period. But I still wanted to take those readers and say, “But don’t you care about history? What could be more awesome than history? Try it. You’ll like it.”

Then I became a fan of the TV show Castle. I started watching for Nathan Fillion but stayed for the appealing characters, the witty banter, the sexual tension, and the overall sense that everyone who makes the show--actors, writers, what have you--is just plain enjoying the telling of a fun story.

The thing is, though? As a cop drama, Castle isn’t even remotely accurate. In fact, Lee Lofland of The Graveyard Shift reviews each episode partly to point out everything the show gets wrong so writers won’t repeat the same mistakes in their own works.

And I don’t CARE that Castle isn’t accurate about police procedure. That’s not what I watch it for. If you pointed me toward another show and said, “You should watch this one instead. It’s better because it’s more accurate,” I would say, “I don’t WANT more accurate. I want the fantasy of a mystery writer hanging around cops and helping solve murders, which is kind of like my own fantasy of going back in time to research my books and hang out with cool dead people, only marginally less impossible. And I want to know what’s going to happen next with Castle and Beckett. Leave me alone and let me enjoy what I enjoy.”

Now, I’m not always the most self-aware person on the planet. But I couldn’t help realizing I’d taken the exact opposite side of the accuracy debate on Castle that I take on historical romance...and that’s OK. I’m allowed to be passionate about history and how it’s represented in fiction, while not particularly caring how my favorite cop show measures up to real police procedures. And someone else has every right to care about getting police procedures right, while having no especial interest in whether the romance novel they’re reading accurately reflects the mores of its time period. Neither of us are wrong. We just have different passions. And it’s a good thing we live in a world with enough variety in storytelling to satisfy us all.

Mind you, I do still think history is worth knowing for its own sake, and I reserve the right to be appalled when I see it botched, especially outside of fiction when someone is spouting bad history out of ignorance or in order to willfully mislead others. But that’s mostly a separate issue.

What about you? What has to be right for you to enjoy a story? And what stories do you enjoy despite or even because of their inaccuracies?


Susanna Fraser writes Regency romance with a focus on the Napoleonic Wars. The Sergeant's Ladyand A Marriage of Inconvenience are available now from Carina Press.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Duty, Honour much!

As a Brit the recent Memorial Day weekend here in America brought it home to me just how patriotic Americans are. They are proud of their armed forces and grateful to their servicemen and women for serving their country. 
In England, up until 1871, officers had to pay for the privilege of dying for their country. It seems unreal, doesn’t it, but there you have it. A supply and demand situation, I guess. Second and third sons had to do something. The church, politics and the military were the most popular choices. I guess you needed a certain calling for the first two. Besides, strutting about in a red coat, earning admiring glances from young ladies and the approval of his peers, would have been difficult for our brave young bucks to resist. The inconvenience of dodging bayonets and bullets was an inconvenient occupational hazzard. 
Social exclusiveness was preserved not only through money but because regimental colonels were permitted to refuse the purchase of a commission in their regiment by anyone who wasn’t from the right social background. This applied specifically to the prestigious Household and Guards regiments which were dominated by aristocrats.
In 1837 the going rate for a Captaincy in the Infantry was £1,800. The same rank in the elite Life Guards would set him back a whopping £3,500. Bear in mind that at those times one pound was the equivalent of $290 today and perhaps it becomes clearer why leadership was often incompetent.
Not all first commissions or promotions were paid for. If an officer was killed in action this created a ‘non-purchase vacancy’. The Napoleonic Wars saw heavy casualties amongst senior ranks, resulting in a glut of non-purchase vacancies. Wealthy dilettantes were no longer quite so keen on active service, thus promoting the exchange of many commissions at face value only.
There was also the possibility of promotion to brevet army ranks for deserving non-commissioned soldiers. Take a bow, Richard Sharpe of the 95th Rifles.

Right, that’s quite enough ogling. Spare a thought for poor Richard. He was a natural leader of men but wasn't an aristocrat so was constantly having to prove himself. His men no longer looked upon him as one of them and his fellow officers shunned his company. Never mind, at least the women seemed to appreciate his worth!
My next Regency adventure, A Scandalous Proposition, due to be released by Carina Press in September, features as its hero, Major Lord Adam Fitzroy of…yep, you’ve guessed it, the 95th Rifles. Can’t wait to see the cover art with him looking all dishevelled and moody in his uniform. Don’t worry, as soon as I do, you will too! 

Wendy Soliman