Friday, June 22, 2012

The War of 1812: The Battle of Stoney Creek

First off, I want to say hello.  This is my first post here at Romancing the Past and I'm thrilled to be here.

I don't live in England where my historical books are set, so much of my knowledge of the past is second hand but when it comes to one small slice of Regency history, I live smack dab in the middle of it - and that is the War of 1812.  Seriously, I grew up in Niagara, next to Lake Ontario, where most of the fighting took place, and now, I live down the street (literally) from what was then Burlington Heights and is now Dundurn Castle.

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British Soldiers reenacting in period uniforms
In the grand scheme of things,the War of 1812 was a pretty minor war, notable mostly for producing Laura Secord's famously delivered message and for the Brits burning down the White House in 1814.

It was also the first war in which the Americans declared war on a foreign power and frankly, they weren't expecting a lot of resistance, assuming that the residents of Upper and Lower Canada would welcome 'annexation' from the dastardly British with open arms.

Not so much.  Hence the whole 'at war thing' that ensued over the next two years.

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The Memorial commemorating the Battle of Stoney Creek
2012 is the start of Bicentenary Celebrations throughout the Great Lakes region and my family and I went to visit a reenactment on the site of one of the key battles of the era recently.  It was a great day.

A copy of the original map of the battlefield

The Battle of Stoney Creek was a critical one for the British in terms of defending Upper Canada.  Vastly outnumbered by the Americans and forced to beat a hasty retreat to Burlington Heights, on the night of June 5, 1813, 700 British soldiers  attacked under cover of darkness and were able to drive the 3500 American troops back to Forty Mile Creek (Grimsby, ON) and later to Fort George (Niagara on the Lake, ON)

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The day itself was interesting because not only did they provide an overview of the military strategies that the armies would have employed but also included access to the memorial that was built 1913, and a whole range of activities like baking over an open fire, making traditional recipes like oat cakes, presentations talking about the contributions of Native allies like Tecumseh, what life in British North America was like for settlers and more.  My six year old's favourite part were the explosions during the artillery display.  Typical guy :)

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The rations a British solider   A wife got 1/2 of that; kidlets 1/3.  

Sometimes it can feel like history is a long way away - geographically and temporally.  It's nice to be reminded that it's often much closer than we think.  I took lots and lots of photos so feel free to check them out on Flickr.  I think they capture the experience really well.  And if you're in the region and get a chance, be sure to visit some of the great events that will be taking place over the next while.  It looks like they've got some fascinating things planned that will really bring history to life.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Regency Nicknames

If there’s one thing at which the British excel, it’s inventing nicknames. (My favorite will always be the twentieth-century brain child of author Evelyn Waugh. Waugh called the Earl of Antrim “Lavatory Chain,” for the simple reason that he was always flushing.)

The Carlton House set, the collective name for the Prince Regent’s friends in the early 1800s, raised the practice of nicknaming to an art form. Some of these names are already familiar to regency readers, and more or less self-explanatory. Frederick “Poodle” Byng had light curly hair and kept a poodle, giving rise to the inevitable comparison. Edward Hughes Ball Hughes (he added the second “Hughes” in 1819 after his grandmother’s second husband, Admiral Edward Hughes, left him an enormous fortune of 40,000 pounds a year) was rich and handsome enough to be known as The Golden Ball. And, of course “Beau” Brummel is much better known today by his nickname than by his given name of George.

Others from the same set are a bit more obscure. Thomas Raikes was the son of a merchant banker, a famous dandy and friend to the great. He was said to have “risen in the east [the City, the financial center of London] and set in the west [Mayfair, the fashionable end of Town],” which led in a roundabout way to his being nicknamed after the sun god, Apollo. Lord Yarmouth, later Marquis of Hertford, was known as “Red Herrings,” since he was ginger-haired and Great Yarmouth was a thriving port for the herring industry. Joseph Haynes earned no less than three nicknames: for the color of his coats, he was known as “Pea Green” Haynes; for his rivalry with the wealthier Golden Ball, he was known as “Silver Ball”; and when he proposed to the famous actress-courtesan Maria Foote, he became known as—what else?—“Foote Ball.”

Maria Foote

Maria Foote won a breach of promise suit against Pea Green Haynes before marrying the more loyal Beau Petersham.

Having been persuaded by friends that Maria was perhaps a bit too scandalous for matrimony, Haynes twice broke off their engagement; Maria sued him for breach of promise and won 3,000 pounds. She went on to marry a much higher-profile member of Prinny’s set, the older but kindhearted 4th Earl of Harrington, known during the regency by his courtesy title of Lord Petersham. After the court and most of the ton refused to receive the new Lady Harrington, the earl angrily withdrew from public life, even telling Queen Victoria when she visited Derbyshire that he would only receive her at Elvaston Castle if she ordered him to do so. Lord Petersham enjoyed two nicknames; “Snuff” for his habit of taking snuff and collecting snuffboxes (he had a different one for every day of the year); and “Beau” after his reputation, like Brummel’s, for being a dandy and trendsetter.

Lord Foley's disastrous balloon launch.

The 2nd Lord Foley, an early champion of flight, was known as "Lord Balloon" after the abortive September 29, 1784, launch that ended with a hot air balloon ablaze in his Portland Place garden.

Nicknames were often as uncomplimentary as they were descriptive. Lord Petersham’s cousin, Lord Sefton, was known as “Lord Dashalong” for his unrestrained style of driving. Captain Gronow, who went on many years later to write his Reminiscences of regency life, was short enough to be called “NoGrow.” Lord Foley, 3rd Baron Foley, was known as “Number Eleven” for his skinny legs—but at least that was a more clever nickname than that given his father, who was called “Lord Balloon” after a hot air balloon launched from his garden failed to get off the ground, leading disappointed onlookers to form an angry mob and attack the balloonists. It's never a good thing when a nickname immortalizes a dramatic public humiliation.

What about you? Do you have a favorite historical nickname, whether real or fictional?

Alyssa Everett's debut regency romance, Ruined by Rumor, is currently available from Carina Press. She hopes you'll visit her website and follow her on Twitter and Facebook, where she promises not to spam you relentlessly.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Inspiring Journal of Louisa May Alcott

Recently, I moved a ton of books from my den into my writing. In the process of moving, I came across book I've had for many years. Revisiting it gave me a new appreciation for the author of LITTLE WOMEN, Louisa May Alcott.

The journals consist of her diary entries from the time she was eleven years old until four days before her death. She was what I consider a "true" writer. A person who is born to tell stories. Despite hardships, setbacks, rejection, criticism, they continue to write because this is who they were born to be.

Here are a few excerpts from her journals, which most writers can relate to.

March 1846 (age 13) I have at last got the little room I have wanted so long and am very happy about it. It does me good to be alone and Mother made it very pretty and neat.

1852  My first story was printed and $5 paid for it.

Jan 1855 The principal event of the winter is the appearance of my book, "Flower Fables." I will put in some of the notices as "varieties." Mothers are always foolish over their first-born. Paid $32

May 1862 Mr Fields did say "Stick to your teaching, you can't write." Being willful, I said, "I won't teach and I can write, and I'll prove it."

November 1864  Proof began to come and the chapters seemed small, stupid and no more my own in print. I felt very much afraid that I'd ventured too much and should be sorry for it. But Emerson said, "that what is true for your own private heart is true for others."   (Love that remark)

Feb 1865  Being tired of novels I soon dropped it & fell back on rubbishy tales, for they pay best and I can't afford to starve on praise when sensation stories are written in half the time & keep the family cozy.

Sept 1866 Went to the wedding and had a dull time. Ticknor added to my worries by sending word the manuscript of the fairy tales was lost.

April 1870 A happy month for I felt well for the first time in 2 years. I knew it wouldn't last but enjoyed it while it did. Little Men was out the day I arrived. 50,000 copies sold before it was out.

Oct 1872 Went to a room on Allston Street. I can't work at home, and need to be alone to spin like a spider.

Jan 1874 When I had the youth I had no money, now I have the money, I have no time and when I get time, if I ever do, I shall have no health to enjoy life.

Jan 1875 Fame is an expensive luxury. I can do without it. I asked for bread and got a stone in the shape of a pedestal.

July 1876 Get an idea and start "Rose in Bloom," though I hate sequels.

May 1877 Felt very well and began to hope I had outlived the neuralgic worries and nervous woes born of the hospital fever and hard years following.

Dec 1884 Began again on "Jo's Boys" as Niles wants a new book very much and I am tired of being idle. Wrote 2 hours for 3 days, then had a violent attack of vertigo and was ill for a week. Head won't bear work yet.

Mar 1886 A little better. Dr says I may write next week and get my heard free from stories that haunt me and keep me awake. Wise man.

July 1886 Finish "Jo's Boys" ...much rejoicing over new book.

Jan 1887 Sick day. Lay quietly and lived in my mind where I can generally find amusement for myself...Lay late and forgot my woes in my story. A happy world to go into when the real one is too dull or hard.

Dec 31, 1887 Thank the Lord for all his mercies. A hard year, but over now.

Feb 27, 1888 Wrote on "Sylvester."

March 2, 1888 (Her last entry) Better in mind but food a little uneasy. Write letters. Sew. Write a little. Lulu to come.  (Louisa died the following Tuesday)

Louisa was born in 1832 and died in 1888 at the age of 55, probably of lupus-type disease. She grew up in a cottage in Massachusetts and was the second of four daughters. She had an independent streak and she never married. Louisa worked as a seamstress and a teacher as well as a writer to help out her family financially. Her father, an educator, was never able to support his family. Some of her early education was provided by Henry David Thoreau. She also received instruction from Hawthorne, Emerson and Margaret Fuller, who were family friends.

Her journals give a glimpse into her life, which was not an easy one. I related to her struggle to work at her regular jobs as a teacher and seamstress while writing, too. Plus, as the years passed, her health declined. She contracted typhoid fever while working as a nurse during the Civil War. Later on, it has been determined that she possible had an auto-immune disease that eventually killed her.

Her journals, which she wanted destroyed after her death, were wisely preserved and such an inspiration to read now. I bow to her!

Patricia Preston

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Finding Love in Ancient Rome

The modern idea of romantic love, as the most causal of history buffs know, has not been well embraced across the ages.  Over the centuries, the inequalities between men and women made ideal romantic relationships virtually unknown. People didn’t marry for love, but for a host of other, more practical reasons.

Life in ancient Rome was no different. Girls stopped receiving formal education around age eleven, and between the ages of twelve and fourteen, were considered 'ready to marry.' Often, economic conditions and inter-family relationships were deemed more important than love, and these young ladies often found themselves pawns in power games beyond their control.

Typically, women in Rome lived their lives under the auspices of a man: father, brother, uncle, husband, son, depending on the season of her life. He controlled the money (until late in the Roman Empire) and thereby controlled the women in his care. When a woman married, a dowry went from her pater familia to her new husband in a symbolic transfer of power over her. Even when defining relationships, women never won. They were legally forbidden from adultery, though men were not, and while homosexuality among men was tolerated, lesbianism never found any such equal footing. 

All this is not to say women had no power. Power is gained where one can find it. A wife and mother was the power behind the family and home, and could wield considerable strength. She saw to the education and upbringing of any children, and while she didn't earn a salary, she often decided how and where money was spent.  

We can intuit that true love did blossom between men and women, that spouses who were forced together grew to love one another, that pairings to groom political favor or gain economic advantages did not necessarily exclude the woman from a good quality of life or a loving spouse.   

And, as you may know, many of our traditional wedding symbols come from ancient Rome.  The wearing of a ring on the third finger of the left hand symbolized an engagement. The bride wore a white gown and veil and was attended by a ‘bridesmaid.’ And the month of June was favored by the gods for pairing, and so continues to be the highlighted month for modern weddings. 

I’m interested to hear your take on this question: have we romanticized the past to bring it more in line with modern views…or do modern marriages still look to create advantages, whether economic, political, or personal?


Find my social media links and book purchase links at my website.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

How do you do it?

That’s what all my friends ask me. “How do you do it? How do you write so many stories? How do you consistently put out huge numbers of pages?”

My answer -- one word. Discipline. Rigid, unbending discipline.

In the rest of my life, I’m a pretty laid back character. If I don’t have to report somewhere early in the day, I sleep late. I don’t do housework. I don’t weed my garden. I don’t repot my orchids, poor things. But when it comes to my writing, I pound out 5,000 words per week. More if I need to.

I don’t do this because I’m a virtuous writer. I do it because I have so many books I want to write, and the only way I can get to them all is write as quickly as I can. On the other hand, spewing out thousands of words that I’ll have to throw out later won’t get me to the goal. What I need to do is put out small(er) amounts of pages but do it consistently.

About now, you may be expecting the First Commandment of Writing: “Thou shalt write every day.” I don’t know who thought that one up, but I’m pretty sure it’s responsible for a lot of writerly guilt and depression. Forget it. You need to set your own schedule and stick to it.

My trick for doing that is simple math. You can do it easily with a calculator. I found out early on that if I wrote 5,000 words per week, I could move along at a satisfying clip. I currently have three-day weekends. Five thousand divided by three equals 1,667. Every Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, I write 1,667 words. There’s no magic involved, just discipline. And note, I haven’t written every day.

If something comes up and I can’t get my writing done one day, I can make that day’s output up on my lunch hours. Again, get out the calculator. Four into 1,667 equals 417 words per day. I write 417 words on my lunch hours until I’m caught up.

I can apply the same principle to increase my output over 5,000 words per week. To give you the most extreme example, if I want to wrote 10,000 words per week, I can do my regular weekends and add another 5,000 words by doing 417 words early in the morning on weekdays, 417 at lunch hour, and 417 after work. You can move along really fast at that rate, although I only do it for very short stints. After that, I’m exhausted.

When I get to a place where I have to produce that many words, I often resort to Write or Die. Check it out at

I don’t own stock in the company. In fact, it isn’t a company at all. It’s another writer masquerading as evil scientist, Dr. Wicked. Believe me, you will produce words.

You might answer that that’s all fine if you have the words to push out, but what if they won’t come at all? To which I say, write anyway. If you’re at a point where you can’t think up a single situation or a single character or a single story that interests you, you’re beyond any help I can give.

I think, instead, we edit and censor ourselves when we’re feeling down. We want every word to be perfect and are convinced that we’re writing crap. Fine. Give yourself permission to write crap. As the great Nora Roberts once said, “I can fix a bad page. I can’t fix a blank page.” Get it down now and fix it later. I often discover that what I thought stank when I wrote it often turns out to be not so bad on when I read it later. Sometimes, it’s even good.

Life is too short to spend even a moment in misery. For some reason, probably a break in your DNA somewhere, you decided to become a writer, thereby guaranteeing yourself huge, heaping helpings of misery, all dispensed by well-meaning agents and editors everywhere. Don’t pile more onto yourself. You need to be producing stories. Make yourself do it. You’ll be glad you did. You can use this insane device online for free or download it onto your computer for $10.00. You turn it on, tell it how many words you want to write in what amount of time, and start writing. If you stop writing, there are consequences. The normal punishment for slacking off is a really annoying noise. In the worst case scenario, when your typing stops, Write or Die erases what you’ve already written.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012


Longer ago than I'd like to admit, when I was a teenager just beginning to read romance, I regularly encountered all the following scenarios and accepted them without question:

1) Lord Ravenwolfscar and Miss Pureheart can inherit a fortune...but only if they marry within six months of the death of Ravenwolfscar's uncle, Lord Manipulative-Moneybags.

2) The year is 1740, and our braw hero Hamish is instantly recognizable as a member of Clan MacSexylegs because he invariably wears his family's own distinctive tartan.

3) Lord Unlucky is dying without a legitimate son, so he weighs the worthiness of assorted nephews, cousins, and his own bastard son to determine where he should leave his titles and lands.

4) Lord Hesitant and Miss Doubtful must marry to protect her from an unwanted suitor, but they promise themselves not to consummate the marriage so they can have it annulled and go their separate ways once the danger is past.

Thing is?  None of these scenarios could've happened, at least not in the Georgian/Regency milieu I currently write in.

1) The law frowned upon coerced marriages, even if the coercing was being done from beyond the grave.  What Lord Manipulative-Moneybags could do was include a clause in his will saying Lord Ravenwolfscar must marry by his 30th birthday to claim the fortune without specifying a bride, which still gives the author plenty of room for plot conflict.

2) While the kilt itself has been around since the 16th century, formalized, clan-specific tartan setts date back no earlier than the Victorian era and were something of a marketing ploy.  There were regional tartan patterns earlier on, so a group of, say, Gordons might all be wearing the same tartan because they all got it from the same weaver, but it wouldn't have broken a rule or been a breach of etiquette for a Fraser or Macdonald to wear the pattern as well.

3) Who inherits a title when a man dies without a legitimate son is a blog post in itself, but suffice it to say it's not the dying lord's choice, and he can't legitimize a bastard child.  (Note that birth is what counts, not conception--if he marries his pregnant mistress as she's going into labor, the baby can inherit.)

4) The law didn't allow annulments for non-consummation.  If the husband were impotent, incapable of consummation, it'd be a different story.  But having spoken the vows, the couple couldn't just get a takesie-backsie by saying, "Oops, we didn't really mean it, and we haven't Done It, we swear!"

I expect to get some reader comments on #4 when my November book, An Infamous Marriage, comes out, because the hero and heroine marry in Chapter Three but don't consummate it till Chapter Twelve--which, incidentally, comes after a five-year time jump.  You see, when they first marry she's still grieving her first husband, and then the hero gets sent away on military service in Canada.  But it never even occurs to them to seek an annulment, because they know darn well the option doesn't exist.

As a reader, sometimes these and similar errors bother me enough to throw me out of a story, but sometimes they don't.  (Of the four, I'm most forgiving of the kilt, because it's not like the plausibility of the whole plot stands and falls on the hero's wardrobe.)  If the writer hooks me hard enough, I can make my inner nitpicker sit down and shut up for the duration.  Well, not if the error is New World foods in Europe before 1492.  The line must be drawn somewhere.

What about you?  How tolerant are you of myth-tory in your history?

Friday, June 01, 2012

Posting Letters Regency Style and other stuff

We’ve been travelling the English West Country this last fortnight and what a feast of historical discovery it’s been. Let’s say straight away that I now understand why so many famous writers and artists were inspired by the area. There’s just something about it that stimulates the creative juices.

One of the writers I most admire is Daphne duMaurier. Frenchman’s Creek happens to be my favourite of her novels so I was determined to see the famous creek where the fictitious French boat came and went, seemingly at will. 

As you will see from this picture of the river, it’s very pretty and even more secluded so I guess the Georgian forces being outwitted by her loveable pirate is fairly believable. I'd often wondered about that.

On to Dartmouth and the almost four hundred year old buildings that are now the Royal Castle Hotel.  In the early 1800’s, with the coming of the turnpike and an easier gradient into the town, The Castle Inn became a proper coaching house.  Agatha Christie’s home is nearby and she once resided at the hotel, using its wonderful library to write one of her books. The shelves are still lined with ancient leather bound tomes - Justice of the Peace Volume XOV 1931 and Public General Statutes 1883 to name but two. 

This is me posing at the typewriter Agatha herself might well have used.

In Lyme Regis we were fortunate enough to stay at the original post office, now a guest house.  It first became a post office in 1799 with John Norman as its postmaster. Jane Austen famously spent two seasons in Lyme and almost certainly posted a letter to her sister Cassandra in the original box, photographed here, on 14th September 1804. 

It’s called an ostler box. The lower slit is for pedestrians, the upper one being more convenient for men on horseback to use. There was no such thing as envelopes or stamps in those days so the postmaster would have used a wooden stamp to frank Jane’s letter.

Corfe Castle, dating back to the 11th century, was another delight. Mary Banks led the defence of the castle against Parliamentary forces, holding out for six weeks until betrayed from within her own ranks.

All in all, it’s been an exhausting but hugely enjoyable trip back in time.