Friday, May 25, 2012

The Importance of Scenery

Scenery is not only important in a story for your reader to "see" the setting of the book, but its also important for writers to be able to see that scene vividly in their minds. Obviously as writers we might have a grand imagination and most of the time can picture our settings in our minds. But I really love to get visuals on settings. It helps me to not only put myself in that scene, but to get a sense for everything that might be happening--the temperature, the weather, the scents, the surroundings, and also a real live picture can really get the mind working creatively.

Recently, we took a trip to the Smoky Mountains and went hiking at a botanical gardens. It was different than any other garden I'd been too--it was just all natural greenery. I took tons of pics because even though I write in historical European settings a lot of the places I saw were bringing my own story ideas to life.

My advice--if you pass something in your daily travels that you think would be a great setting for your book, take a picture.

This reminded me of  a road that my characters might ride on in a carriage or by horseback.

Perhaps a cave where characters might seek shelter from the rain.

Took this in the car, I just couldn't resist the rolling hills and water.

Doesn't this bridge bring all sorts of scenes to mind?

A babbling brook my character might stop to drink at.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Hanging offenses

My debut romance, Ruined by Rumor, comes out this Monday, May 21. It’s the story of a shy, dutiful politician in love with the acknowledged beauty of his neighborhood, though she’s engaged to a dashing soldier. I wanted to give my hero a political cause he could feel passionate about. Then I read this description of public executions, from Hanging in the Balance: A History of the Abolition of Capital Punishment in Britain by Brian P. Block and John Hostetter:
According to The Times the crowds at the hangings made the atmosphere like that of a fairground and included ‘the dregs and offcoursings of the population of London...Irish labourers smoking clay pipes and muzzy with beer, pickpockets plying their light-fingered art, little ragged boys climbing up posts...’ As to the hangings, the newspaper continued; ‘In an instant [the executioner] withdrew the bolt, the drop fell...They died almost without a struggle...The mob during the terrible scene exhibited no feeling except one of heartless indifference and levity.’
I figured that was something my hero would feel strongly about.

Before Britain established its first modern police force in 1829, the nation’s chief weapon in the fight against crime was the threat of execution. Property crimes--robbery, burglary, even vandalism--were punished as severely as murder. Children as young as seven could be held criminally liable. And because forgery, coining, and “uttering” (passing forged or counterfeit currency) constituted high treason, those crimes were likewise punishable by death—in fact, until 1790 women convicted of such crimes were burned at the stake. A woman could also be burned to death for murdering her husband, since he was considered her lord and master and the crime therefore constituted petty treason.

Burned at the stake
Ann Beddingfield was burned at the stake in 1763 for killing her husband.
(The reason women were burned at the stake for treason but men were hanged had to do with the original punishment for the crime, drawing and quartering. Since carrying out such a sentence required the condemned to be stripped naked and even emasculated, women were instead accorded the modesty-sparing courtesy of being burned at the stake. The sentence remained in force even after the penalty for men was changed to hanging. In later years, the executioner began by strangling the condemned woman to spare her the worst agonies of the fire. The last such burning in England so horrified the Sheriff of London that he pushed for the abolishment of the penalty in the House of Commons the following year.)

The Black Act of 1723 alone made more than fifty property crimes relating to theft and poaching capital offenses. By the regency, more than 200 different offenses carried the death penalty. They included sending an anonymous extortion letter, “wandering as or in the manner of gypsies for one month and more,” and impersonating a Chelsea pensioner (a retired army veteran). In 1801, the peak year for capital punishment, 219 felons were executed in England and Wales for crimes ranging from scuttling a ship to sheep theft.

A number of politicians attempted to address the penal code, most of them Whigs. William Wilberforce, best known today as the leader of the British abolitionist movement, introduced a bill in 1786 titled “For Regulating the Disposal after Execution of the Bodies of Criminals Executed for Certain Offences, and for Changing the Sentence pronounced upon Female Convicts in certain cases of High and Petty Treason.” The bill failed, mostly because its twin objectives--making more bodies available for medical dissection and changing the method of execution for female traitors from burning to hanging--lacked a unified message.

Sir Samuel Romilly met with more success in 1808, when he managed to have the sentence for “privately stealing from the person” (picking pockets) reduced from hanging to transportation.
Sir Samuel Romilly
Sir Samuel Romilly, a barrister by training, sought to reform the penal code.
Romilly hoped to work his way systematically through the long list of capital crimes, but his first success provoked a backlash, most notably from the harshly law-and-order Chief Justice, Lord Ellenborough, and the equally severe Lord Chancellor, Lord Eldon. (Lord Ellenborough, who also favored the use of the pillory and the jailing of debtors, had in 1803 added ten new capital crimes to the penal code by sponsoring the Ellenborough Act, which, among other provisions, included the first statutory prohibition of abortion, making it a hanging offense to procure a miscarriage or abortion for a woman “quick with child.”) Romilly’s next three bills, designed to eliminate the death penalty for shoplifting, met with failure in the House of Lords. Romilly did manage in 1812 to repeal the Elizabethan statute that made it a capital crime
Lord Ellenborough
Unlike Romilly, Lord Ellenborough believed whole-heartedly in capital punishment.
for soldiers and sailors to beg or wander the streets without a pass, but when Luddite riots broke out, the resulting government crackdown led to the creation of yet another capital crime, frame-breaking. Though Romilly re-introduced his shoplifting bill in 1812, it was quickly shot down, and Ellenborough and Eldon saw that it was likewise defeated in 1816 and 1818.

Sadly, it wasn’t until after Romilly’s 1818 suicide (he slit his throat in a fit of despair following the death of his wife) that reform met with real success. The 1823 Judgement of Death Act gave judges the ability to commute the death penalty for any offense except murder or treason, and the Punishment of Death Act of 1832 swept aside a third of the old capital penalties. In 1861, a series of Parliamentary acts reduced the list of civilian capital crimes to five: treason, espionage, murder, arson in royal dockyards, and piracy with violence. (Certain military offenses, for example mutiny, continued to carry the death penalty.) Public executions were outlawed in 1868, and beginning in 1908 those under 16 years of age could no longer be sentenced to death. It wasn’t until 1965, however, that the death penalty for murder was eliminated in Great Britain, and not until 1998 that the death penalty was eliminated for treason, piracy, and the remaining military offenses, altogether abolishing capital punishment in the UK.

The account that the hero of Ruined by Rumor, Alex, gives of a hanging he witnessed in London is not based on a specific execution but is a composite of actual cases.

Enjoy friends-into-lovers romance? Ruined by Rumor, Alyssa Everett's marriage-of-convenience regency, debuts Monday, May 21. Alyssa hopes you'll visit her website and follow her on Twitter and Facebook, where she promises not to spam you relentlessly.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Dream A Little Dream

The new season of America's Got Talent started this week. I don't watch that much TV but this has always been one of my favorite summer series. I like the variety of acts. Some, of course, are really bad. Then, there are the brilliant ones like this season's Earth Harp. My favorite so far. But, what I really love about this show is the contestants and their dreams.

I think dreams, hope, and happiness are entwined. I just finished writing a story and the core theme is about having a dream and believing in yourself. From experience, I can tell you that nothing is more exciting that pursuing your dreams and having them come true. This year has been a great year for me as a writer but I had to summon up the courage and belief in myself to make it happen. Dreams don't come true unless you act. Wishing is fruitless.

So, if you are reading this and you have a dream, something you would love to accomplish in this lifetime, what are you doing to make it come true? What action are you taking? Are you taking action each day? Doing something to bring you closer to your dream? Are you nurturing hope? If not, you need to start now. Summon up the courage.  Joy will be the end result. 

Patricia Preston
Check out my new website:

Monday, May 14, 2012

Living History Museum

Today we're fortunate to have fellow Carina author Juliana Ross on the blog, telling us about her work as a guide in a living history museum. Over to you, Juliana.

For nearly four years of my life, from age 15 to 19, I spent most weekends between May and October dressed in petticoats, a homespun gown and a bonnet. No, my parents weren’t dedicated historical re-enactors. And, no, I hadn’t developed an obsession with Laura Ingalls Wilder.

I just happened to have one of the best part-time jobs ever. I was a guide at the living history museum in my small town.

Before you get carried away, I urge you to banish all thoughts of Colonial Williamsburg. The museum where I worked was constructed on a far more modest scale. It was a village, pure and simple, made up of a score of buildings that had been painstakingly relocated in the 1960s and 1970s when they’d been threatened with demolition by widening roads or changing tastes in architecture.

The buildings themselves spanned nearly the whole of the 19th century, from a simple one-room log cabin built by some of the first Europeans to settle in central Ontario, where the museum was located, to a spacious late Victorian farmhouse with all the mod cons of the era. There was also a smithy, a print shop, a general store and a tiny church.

I loved that job, although I can still remember how cold it got in the early spring and late fall, when the heat from the fire or woodstove never managed to chase the chill from my bones. And I will never forget how difficult it was to work in the gowns we had to wear, which for the sake of simplicity were cut in a plain, mid-century style, with tight-fitting bodices, close-fitting sleeves and skirts that were full (but not comically so).

Those skirts were forever getting in my way, or catching a spark from the fire, and the sleeves were so tight that I couldn’t raise my arm any higher than my shoulder. No Anne Shirley puffed sleeves for me!

At the end of the day, I’d change out of my 19th-century garb into my shorts and tee-shirt, drive home in my little Toyota, and happily return to my late-20th-century life. So I can’t honestly say I truly know what life as a 19th-century woman would have been like.

But I did learn a few things along the way. I know how to bake bread in a wood-fired oven. I know how to darn socks. I’ve made beeswax candles over an open fire (with a bucket of water nearby in case my clothes caught on fire). And I spent countless hours smoothing the wrinkles from linens with flatirons that cooled before I could count to ten.

None of this, of course, is of much use today, unless my husband and I decide to turn our backs on city life and go back to the land, or take part in one of those reality series where modern families are expected to fend for themselves as pioneers.

But those years at the museum gave me a taste—just a taste—of what life as a 19th-century pioneer might have been like. The feel of heavy skirts as they swirled around my ankles. The perpetual scent of wood smoke in my hair. The sting of chapped, cracking fingers that had been washed too many times in caustic homemade soap. The ache of my shoulders after chopping a mountain of logs for the fire.

I like to think my work in the village has made me a better historian, one who is perhaps more sensitive to the difficulties of life in an age with none of the modern conveniences for which we barely spare a thought. And I really hope that it might, some day, help me become a better writer.

In the meantime, you can count on me the next time you need the creases ironed out of your chemise, a bonnet frill mended or a sock darned. Just don’t ask me to make any more hand-dipped beeswax candles. That hot wax really stings!


Saturday, May 12, 2012

We were real once...

When I visited the British National Gallery a few years ago, one portrait really caught my attention. It was Don Justino de Neve by Bartolome Esteban Murillo. What made the portrait stand out was the fat little dog with the red bow painted in the corner. In a room full of formality, the trappings of wealth and power, this little dog staring adoringly at his master added a level of humanity to the sitter.

The dog also provided me with a connection to the gentleman, and to all the other people hanging around him who’d been painted with their pets. I know there are artistic symbols attached to dogs, but there is also love and affection that even the passing of a few centuries cannot obscure. It is a powerful reminder that those people in the portraits were real once and, despite the many years between their time and ours, they were not so different from us.   

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

A Brief History of Tequila

In honor of Cinco de Mayo, it might be fun to take a look at the history of tequila. First, let’s dispense with the myth of the worm in tequila, a myth I subscribed to until I started research for this blog. Tequila doesn’t come with a worm (actually a moth larva) in the bottle. Mexcal, another Mexican liquor, may contain the worm. Tequila, however, is only made of the blue agave (Agave tequilana Weber var. ‘azul’), whereas mexcal can be made of any agave. Although the agave is a succulent, it isn’t a cactus but a member of the lily family.

By the time the Spaniards landed in the area we now call Mexico in 1521, the Aztecs had been drinking the fermented juice of the agave for centuries. A beer-like drink octli poliqhui was used in rituals and ceremonies. The Spanish bastardized the name of the drink into pulque. Still, the aguamiel (nectar) of the agave had never been distilled until the Spanish ran out of their own brandy and turned to the local flora to make hard liquor.

The blue agave grows best in state of Jalisco, and it was there that the Spanish first produced tequila in 16th Century, thereby creating the first indigenous distilled spirit. Around 1600, Don Pedro Sánchez de Tagle mass produced tequila near what is now Jalisco. Later, King Carlos IV granted the Cuervo family the first license to make tequila commercially. In 1656, the city of Tequila was founded. Don Cenobio Sauza first exported tequila to the United States in 1873. One hundred years later, the US was importing over a million cases a year.

There are two basic types of tequila -- 100% pure blue agave and mixto, which may contain as much as 40% of other sugars. Tequila can be either blanco (white) or can be reposado or anejo, both of which are stored in oak and take on a golden color. I can personally attest that both white and golden taste really good, especially with the traditional wedge of lime and salt or with a chile pepper mixture appropriately called fuego as a chaser.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Dead Blonds

Now that I've got a total of four completed manuscripts under my belt (three published or contracted, one under the bed), not to mention a fair number of false starts and abandoned ideas, I'm starting to notice certain subconscious habits and pet words. Personal cliches, if you will.

One of my most consistent cliches--and I swear it was entirely unconsciously done--is the Dead Tall Blond First Husband. In The Sergeant's Lady, Anna's abusive first husband, Sebastian, is blond, blue-eyed, handsome, and over six feet tall.  After his death, she finds happiness with Will, who's brown-haired and a few inches shorter.

The heroine of my upcoming An Infamous Marriage is also a widow. Her first husband, Giles, is entirely the opposite of Sebastian in character. He's kind, gentle, smart, sensitive--he really would've made a lovely beta hero had I been inclined to make him the star of a book.  But he looks  almost exactly like Sebastian, being a tall, blond, golden god type. Again the hero, Jack, is dark and just a smidge shorter.

And that book under the bed? Well, it doesn't actually have a Dead Tall Blond First Husband, but only because it was Book One of a projected fantasy series rather than romance, and my hero hadn't yet met his one true love. The hero in question? Think James from my A Marriage of Inconvenience, albeit 3-4 inches taller. Dark curly hair, bright blue eyes, athletic in a slim, lithe way rather than burly and muscular. In Book Two he was going to meet and fall in love with his eventual wife, with the <i>slight</i> initial objection that she's happily married to someone else. The hero, being heroic, keeps his feelings bottled up until Husband #1 dies--in the hero's arms in the aftermath of a battle, no less--but after that I'd planned to have things get messy, angsty, and passionate in a hurry.  Naturally Husband #1 needed to present some kind of physical contrast with Our Hero, so I immediately pictured him guessed it, tall and blond.

I swear I don't have a death wish for blond men. I can even name several I think are very hot.  I mean, Sean Bean, ammirite?

And Matthew on Downton Abbey (Dan Stevens) is really quite pretty:

But in real life, my husband has black hair, and my ex-boyfriends and serious crushes from middle school on up? Brown or black hair. The last time I wanted to go out with a blond was, oh, fourth grade. So my default hero coloring is dark, and when I want to give the heroine a past with someone handsome, but not really my type, I go blond. And I like writing widows, since it allows me to write heroines slightly older and sexually experienced without needing any complex or historically unrealistic backstory. Therefore, by definition, the men in my heroines' pasts tend to be dead.

Still, I'm due for a blond hero soon.  At the very least, I promise to find a way other than hair color to draw a contrast between my heroes and their heroines' first husbands.

What about you? Writers, do you have Personal Cliches? Readers, have you noticed such patterns in authors you follow?

Friday, May 04, 2012

Pass the Plumber's Rods

Writer's Block.

I am blocked. I think I can stop using other excuses after a year and five months and admit to myself that I am good and blocked and I need to do something drastic about it. You can see I'm blocked by the fact this post is a few days late... Trouble is, when I feel like this, I don't want to do anything writerly. I avoid my online friends, (because they are all writing and there's only a certain number of time before they get fed up with asking about the WIP), I don't want to promote, because I have nothing coming up--it's a bit of a dark spiral into depression, to be honest.

I've been stuck on a Work in Progress, set in 1922 England for well over a year now. I should have finished it (to my own deadline) in December 2010, but I didn't quite do it--being about five chapters short of ending it--and here we are 17 months later and I'm hardly more than two chapters further along.

Oh, granted in that time I have done other stuff, but it's nothing to be proud of. One published short story (let's be honest, I could have written one short story a month, at least, just to keep busy) and a few started new WIPs.

The reason I haven't continued with the new WIPs, even though I've found them interesting and compelling is that I don't want to end up with several unfinished manuscripts. I'm notorious (in my home life) for starting things with great enthusiasm but petering out and losing interest and the thought of that happening to my writing frightens me to death. I don't want this to be a nine day (or even, as it really has been, a nine year) wonder.

So what can I do to push on, get this albatross off from around my neck and get on with something else?

1. Stop playing online games obsessively, for a start.
2. Turn off the internet for two hours a day?
3. Give myself smaller targets. Better, surely to write 300 words a day until I'm back in a groove than to write nothing for 17 months.
4. Use Write or Die, this seems to motivate me (if I can motivate myself hard enough to open Word in the first place, that is!)

As to what causes it with me, I don't really know. I had the same problem when I was writing Transgressions. I just stopped for two years, but at least I was then writing fanfic, so keeping my juices flowing as it were. I wonder if it's a fear that my next book won't be anywhere as well-liked as my last book (Junction X) and then I think that that's stupid, because of course it won't be, but you still have to try and do better and better each time. I know it's not a problem with plots and such drying up as I have more projects in my head and in my WIP folder than I'll ever be able to write, and I am inspired anew every day, so it's not that.

All I know is that I'm sick of it.

Does anyone else have problems like this? I dread to ask, because I know the answer will be no - you lot are all writing!

Wish me luck! I'm going to get the lunch started and then write.

I hope...
Erastes is the penname of a female author living in Norfolk, England with 3 cats and a mad dog. She writes gay historical novels and short stories with gay themes from many genres. Her two books for Carina are: Muffled Drum (Austro-Prussian War) and A Brush with Darkness (19th Cent. Florence) Her website is and she can be found easily on Twitter and just about everywhere else.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

The Old Bailey

I’m having fun writing the second in my series, The Forster Dynasty. The hero is a barrister struggling to make a living by defending common people, who often couldn’t pay him, against the draconian laws of the day. I’m learning quite a lot about the British legal system during the Regency period and about that grand old institution, The Old Bailey, in particular.

The Old Bailey, also known as Justice Hall, the sessions House and the Central Criminal Court is located just off Newgate Street and next to Newgate Prison in the City of London. The Bailey was rebuilt several times from 1674 onwards but the basic design of the courtrooms remained the same. They were arranged so as to emphasise the contest between the accused and the rest of the court. The accused stood at the bar, or in the dock, directly facing the witness box, with the judges seated on the other side of the room. Before the introduction of gas lighting a mirrored reflector was placed above the bar, reflecting light from the windows onto the faces of the accused. This allowed the court to examine their facial expressions and assess the validity of their testimony. A sounding board was also placed over their heads to amplify their voices.

The jurors sat on the sides of the courtroom to both left and right of the accused but from 1737 were brought together in stalls on the defendant’s right, close enough to be able to consult each other and arrive at verdicts without leaving the room. Seated at a table below where the judges sat were clerks, lawyers and the writers who took the shorthand notes which formed the basis of the proceedings.

When the courtroom was remodelled and enclosed in 1737, the danger of infection increased and at one session an outbreak of gaol fever (typhus) led to the deaths of sixty people, including the Lord Mayor and two judges. Subsequently the judges spread nosegays and aromatic herbs to keep down the stench and prevent infection.

A further reconstruction of the Bailey in 1774 saw the area surrounded by a semi-circular wall to provide better security for prisoners and prevent communication between them and the public. The passage between Newgate Prison and the Bailey was also enclosed with brick walls.

The new building provided a separate room for witnesses so that they were no longer obliged to wait their turn in a nearby pub. I bet they still did, though!