I have recently started my very own blog, so while I will still pop in here from time to time, you can also find me at Writing History. Today I'm talking about books in historical fiction, so come on over!
In drafting my current manuscript, I made a note in the text every time I came to a spot where I needed to do some research, then I skipped it and moved on. Yesterday while I was editing I came to my characters’ first love scene, which was preceded by “[undress].” In romance, of course, the clothes have to come off at some point. Generally, they are either ripped off in a burst of passion, or peeled off garment by garment. I chose the latter approach for this scene, but the trouble with writing historical romance is that it takes a little effort to know exactly what those garments should be.
My book takes place in England during the Victorian era. So what were those Victorians wearing? Victorians are often portrayed as prudish, uptight, staid, and serious, covered from head to foot in elaborate clothing. Indeed, when Victoria assumed the throne in June 1837, the excesses of the Regency period had given way to a more prudish demeanor, including fashion. But never underestimate the allure of what is hidden from view, as noted in The History of Underclothes, by C. Willett and Phyllis Cunnington:
“Prudery was found to have, in itself, an erotic appeal. Effective underclothing developed into an art, serving sometimes as an accessory to nature’s gifts and sometimes as a substitute for their lack.. . . They also serve not merely to accentuate the real differences of physique between the sexes, but even to create illusory ones. For to the masculine mind, a creature so exquisitely delicate that she needs to swathe herself in such a multitude of wrappings must be of a peculiar fragility remotely unlike his own substance. How could natural curiosity resist such an enigma?”
Many, many books have been written about Victorian costume, so I am going to focus on the brief period which my characters inhabit: the 1860s. In this period, clothing became more comfortable; ‘ease’ and ‘elegance’ were the deciding qualities in fashion. Curiously, however, it was also the decade of the crinoline. Although apparently more comfortable than the layers of petticoats that preceded it, the crinoline was, according to the Cunningtons, “that ingenious mechanism which in shape--and almost in size--resembled at first the Albert Hall and later the Great Pyramid.”
|Cutaway view of a crinoline, Punch magazine, August 1856. Source: Wikipedia|
So what might my hero be removing from my heroine?
1. A simple dress with a high collar, or a full skirt with a separate bodice.
2. A camisole, which was worn over the corset. It was more like a fitted short sleeve shirt than the sleeveless camisole women wear today.
|Corset, 1869. Source: Wikipedia.|
4. A corset, intended to provide support, not necessarily figure enhancement.
5. Under the corset would be a chemise, a smock-like garment usually made of linen.
5. Beneath that, a pair of drawers. Drawers were knee-length, crotchless pants. They were essential for women wearing crinolines, as they often accidentally came into view (they really did tend to fall down stairs). They were often trimmed with lace or ribbons, and/or made from brilliantly colored fabrics.
6. Finally, cotton stockings and ankle boots made of leather.
Until next time, here are some additional resources on historical garments for women:
The History of Underclothes, C. Willett and Phillis Cunnington (1951, republished 1992).
The Corset and the Crinoline: An Illustrated History, W. B. Lord (1868, republished 2007).
Everyday Dress 1650-1900, Elizabeth Ewing (1984).
Costumes in Context: The Victorians, Jennifer Ruby (1987).
Two weeks ago I stated my 2013 resolutions, on the internet, for everyone to see, and since then my day job has been kicking me in the teeth. Every day, a new crisis. No time, energy, or creative spirit to edit, research, or write. I will not say things are calming down, since it's not true, and besides, I have tempted fate quite enough this month, thank you. After a weekend of R&R, however, I am feeling a bit steadier on my feet. Fortunately, there are 50 more weeks left in the year to meet my writing goals, so I am trying to remain positive.
In my efforts to forget work stress this weekend, I decided to visit one of my happy places, geek that I am: Ancestry.com. Those of you who know me, or who have at least read a previous blog post or two, know that I love genealogy. Years ago, when I was right out of college, I worked in Washington, DC, and would spend lunch hours and weekends poring over records in the National Archives and the library of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. It was tedious work; microfiche, microfilm and dusty tomes. It was a lot of fun, but frustrating, and I did not get very far--no more than a couple of generations, and some of the data turned out to be quite wrong.
After a few years I moved back to Ohio, went to law school, got married, had a kid, and genealogy became one of those things I wished I had time to do. Until Ancestry.com. The wealth of information right on my desktop is extraordinary. I was able to trace one branch of the family tree back to Norman England (tentatively--the amount of bad information on Ancestry is astonishing--I have found more than a few family trees featuring children born to long-dead mothers), discovered distant cousins and a Revolutionary War ancestor all within a few months. I even joined the DAR.
But such is my enthusiasm for genealogy that I digress. I also use Ancestry.com and other genealogical resources for research and inspiration. Census records reveal a wealth of information. They can give you names that were widely used at the time, show you where people lived, what they did for a living, whether they could read or write, how many children they had, how young--or old--they were when they married, what they named their children, where they were born. You can see how much their property was worth, how much land they owned, how many and what types of servants they had. It is like looking through the window of someone's house. And sometimes, they can reveal a story that the writer in you just itches to explore.
One of my ancestors, for example, was Moses McGinnis:
Moses was born in Ohio in 1828. He was an auctioneer by trade. In October 1864, Moses joined the 180th Ohio Infantry and marched off to war, leaving his wife and 3 or 4 children, including my 5 month old great-grandfather. He was in one battle in which a bullet grazed his neck (or so he told his grandchildren), then contracted typhoid fever AND smallpox and spent the rest of war in an army hospital. When he came back to Ohio after the war was over, he was so emaciated that his children did not recognize him. He recovered, however, fathered two more children (for a total of seven, with two wives), and lived to the age of 85.
He was, by all accounts, a natural storyteller with a ready wit and a twinkle in his eye. Did Moses really see any action, as he told his grandchildren? Was the scar on his neck really a battle wound or something more innocuous? What was it like in a Civil War hospital? How pissed was his wife, who was reportedly a judgmental sort, when he took off with her brother to join the regiment, leaving her with three children under the age of ten, one of whom wasn't even her own? What was it like for his wife to be left at home?
Then there was his daughter-in-law, Jennie, my great-grandmother.
According to census records, she was taken in by a maternal relative after her mother died in early 1865, when Jennie was just a few months old. What happened to her father? For years I thought he must have died in the war, since I could find no trace of him after his wife died. Last year, though, I did a search on FindAGrave.com, which told me he remarried in 1866 and had at least two more children. He lived until 1911, not far from his daughter, but census records do not indicate that she ever lived with him again. Going backwards through Ancestry, I was able to track down information on him, his parents, and their parents as well.
Why did he give her up? Did his late wife's relatives take her away because he was unfit? Did he fight for her? Did he dump her on them because he was grief-stricken? Lazy? Did he play a part in her life? Give her away at her wedding?
See? So many questions, so many possible stories. If you are interested in exploring genealogical records, either for your own family or to seek inspiration and information for your writing, here are a few online sources to get you started:
Ancestry.com, which includes family trees submitted by members, as well as many primary sources, treatises, published genealogies, histories, etc. Some information is free, but most of it requires a subscription. The greatest amount of information concerns U.S. and British sources, but there are other countries represented as well.
The U.S. National Archives, which has a ton of information, research tools, and online databases, all at no charge.
DAR.org, operated by the Daughters of the American Revolution, which provides limited information on identified Revolutionary War patriots and their descendants. It is free to search the database.
familysearch.org, operated by the Church of the Latter Day Saints, which contains family trees, primary source material, and offers free online genealogy courses. It is free to use.
FindAGrave.com, which provides millions of cemetery records from all over the world. If you don't find a record but you know where an ancestor is buried, you can request a photo of the ancestor's tombstone; it may take months for someone to do it, but eventually you will get it. You can also upload records yourself.
Fold3.com, which provides access to original U.S. military records. Limited information is free, but access to most records requires a subscription.
The UK National Archives houses many original genealogical records--some of which you can find on Ancestry--and links to other historical resources as well. Some of it is free and accessible online; other information you need to pay to obtain.
One of the more challenging things about participating in a group blog is that when I am scheduled to post, I need to write something, because I feel very guilty if I don't. So when I realized this morning that I was scheduled to post and had absolutely nothing to say, it was a bit worrisome. As I washed the breakfast dishes (and the dinner ones, since I was too lazy to do them last night), I started to think. Fortunately, the calendar inspired me, so here it is, the obligatory new year post.
2012 has been, all in all, a pretty good year for me (knock on wood; there are two days left). My family and friends stayed healthy (mostly--I just remembered the two ER visits), my law practice didn't go bankrupt, and I lost 10 pounds and kept it off.
2012 was also the year in which I got serious about writing. I took lots of classes and learned a tremendous amount. I joined RWA and my local chapter, NEORWA, which has been so much fun. I signed on to this fabulous blog, which has been teaching me discipline. I even finished a manuscript, something I have been trying but failing to do for several years.
I don't usually make New Year's resolutions, because (1) I always forget what they are, and (2) if I do remember them, I get very annoyed with myself for not sticking to them. But this year I am going to make a few writing resolutions, and I am going to tell you all what they are in the hopes that I will be guilted into adhering to them.
First, I will finish editing my manuscript, and start to query it. Second, I will enter it into contests. Third, I will get started on (and hopefully finish) my next book.
What are your writing resolutions for 2013? Come on, post them here and we can push each other along the path.
In the meantime, I will leave you with this wonderful thought that I came across yesterday, by author Neil Gaiman: "May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you're wonderful, and don't forget to make some art--write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself."
Happy New Year.
December in my world is mayhem. Work is always insane, there are quite a few birthdays, Christmas shopping, wrapping and shipping, homemade food gifts to make for my son's teachers, packing for our trip to visit my husband's family, etc. I don't even bother to send out cards any more, and I no longer feel guilty about that, either.
What I do feel guilty about this year is not making more progress on editing my manuscript. My plan was to have it ready to go by January 1. There is always a chance I will get my act together by then--I do have two weeks, after all--but knowing me and what my life is like in December, I am dubious.
So instead of making it one more source of stress, I have decided to relax and let it go for now. This is a time to be exceedingly grateful for what I have, and to hope for peace, love, and success in 2013.
Whatever you celebrate, I wish all of you the joy of the season, and the happiest of new years.
Some of the most challenging things I find about doing historical research in the modern world are the sheer amount of information I have at my fingertips, the fact that quite a lot of it is crap, and how easy it is to be distracted by the crap before I find the useful stuff.
On the second page of my book, which is set in 1866, there is a reference to postage. As I started to edit, I thought that I ought to verify exactly how much it cost to send a letter across England in 1866. You would think that this would not be a difficult endeavor, given the wonders of the Internet. However, you would be wrong.
There are tons of articles which discuss the development of the Penny Post and the Penny Black stamp in 1840, and how this revolutionized the British postal service.
|The Penny Black|
|The Penny Red|
So was the rate still a penny in 1866? This was the tougher question. There are surprisingly few sources of information which discuss how much it cost to mail a letter during the Victorian period. Finally, I discovered the website of the British Postal Museum (accompanied by a dope slap to the head for not looking there first). It explained the dearth of information: postal rates for letters remained virtually unchanged during Victoria’s entire reign. The museum provides a downloadable spreadsheet of postal rates from 1635 to the present day, and in it I found the answer to my question: In 1866, it would have cost my heroine 1d (one penny) to mail her half-ounce letter from London to Durham.
Interestingly, the postage rate remained the same until 1871, when it actually went down--from 1871, you could mail a one-ounce letter for 1 penny. The postage rate did not effectively go up until 1940--a full century after the introduction of the Penny Post--when it cost 2-1/2 pence to mail a 2 oz. letter.
My point to this admittedly fascinating discussion about postage, you ask? It took me a ridiculous amount of time to research this tiny, nearly insignificant detail in my MS. If I had not been in the editing phase, it would have tripped me up and it may have taken me a week, or longer, to get myself back into the story again. This largely explains why it took me five years to write my now-trunked first book. I have since found (thank you, Candy Havens) that if I do preliminary research before I start writing, I can write faster and more consistently. Although I still end up with things to research after I start writing, I can leave notes to myself to research after I finish the first draft.
How do you research? Before you write a single word? During your writing (in which case you are clearly more efficient and less distractable than I am)? Or after you finish your draft, when you go back to fill in those holes?
My WIP is set in Victorian England, and food plays a prominent role in it. You may recall that I mentioned Mrs. Beeton in a previous post, and she was in some ways the inspiration for the current book.
Isabella Mary Mayson was born in London in March 1836, the eldest of four children of Benjamin Mayson, a well-to-do fabric wholesaler, and his wife Elizabeth, the daughter of two domestic servants. After her father died suddenly at the age of 39, five year old Isabella was sent to live in the country with her paternal grandfather, a clergyman. Shortly thereafter, her mother married Henry Dorling, a widower with four children, in a hasty Gretna Green ceremony. The entire brood moved to Epsom, where Henry was Clerk of the Course at Epsom Downs. Mr. and Mrs. Dorling proceeded to beget thirteen children, the eldest born just 7-1/2 months after the Dorlings' wedding, and the last born when Elizabeth was 47. The children, all 21 of them, reportedly resided for at least part of their lives in the Epsom Grandstand in a complicated existence I cannot possibly do justice in this short post.
Isabella spent at least a couple of years in boarding school in England and in Heidelberg, Germany. It was apparently in Germany where she discovered an interest in pastry-making. That being deemed a suitable task for a gentlewoman, she was allowed to take lessons from a local baker when she returned to England.
|Samuel Orchart Beeton|
Not long after, she fell in love with a man who had been an acquaintance for many years, a young publisher named Samuel Beeton. Her parents were not pleased with the match--they thought Isabella could do better--but after a rather tortuous year-long engagement, the couple wed in July 1856. After the obligatory honeymoon tour on the Continent, they settled into a house in Pinner, in northwest London. Nine months later, Isabella gave birth to a baby boy, who died just 3 months later. Isabella suffered numerous miscarriages and a stillbirth in the next six years; Ms. Hughes posits rather convincingly that Isabella contracted syphilis from her husband on her honeymoon and passed it to her children.
This sad obstetrical history is important because without it, the Book of Household Management might not exist. In an effort to stay busy (and to fill the family coffers) while she was pregnant with her first child, Isabella had started to write columns on cookery and fashion for a new Beeton publication, the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine. The Beetons had apparently already considered that the columns might be made into a full-length book, and work on the BOHM reportedly began prior to the death of her child. Afterwards, Isabella immersed herself in research and the compilation of recipes for the BOHM. The book was intended to be a collection, with Isabella its editor, and it certainly is that. She did not, however, credit her sources, and she seems to have altered language in her book to hide the fact that some of it was taken directly from someone else.
In the end, Isabella gave birth to two healthy children, Samuel Orchart in 1863 and Mayson Moss in 1865. She died a week after Mayson was born, in February 1865, at the age of 28. The official cause of death was puerperal fever.
Although Sam published a moving tribute to his wife at the time of her death, otherwise it was kept quiet. The title of the BOHM, "edited by Isabella Beeton," was changed to Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management, and by 1868 it had sold nearly 2 million copies. Several subsequent editions were published, and numerous other publications bore her name long after her death. Amazon.com has a "Mrs. Beeton page" which lists 46 books; the most recent is a no-frills edition of the BOHM published in May of this year (currently free for Kindle).
Hughes, Kathryn. The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton. New York: Knopf, 2006.
Happy dance at the Cahoons!
Here's a taste...
A Member of the Council
Yes, it’s true! Yesterday morning, I finished the draft I started about two months ago. Alas, it is far from perfect--it is too short, has some holes, needs some layering, and I want to develop a secondary story line or two--but it is a complete narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. As I am famous for starting things but never finishing them, I cannot even tell you how amazing this feels.
It was particularly rewarding because at the time I typed “The End” I was sitting in a cabin in the woods with three other romance writers, all of us enjoying a respite from the real world to hang out with each other, eat cream puffs (okay, I ate most of those all by myself), and write.
If you are a writer and you have not been on a writers’ retreat, you need to find one, or create one, and go. I went with the Northeast Ohio chapter of the Romance Writers of America (NEORWA). There were 15 of us, in three cabins at a local State Park. After a solid week of wind, rain and Superstorm Sandy, it was incredibly muddy and there weren't a lot of leaves on the trees, but it was a great setting anyway.
I am new to NEORWA, so although I had met most of the retreat attendees at one time or another, I didn’t know anyone well at all. We had a workshop Friday night, spent Saturday writing, and had a progressive dinner Saturday night (our cabin provided dessert, hence the little cream puff problem mentioned above). In between, there was lots of time to talk. I can't tell you any more because apparently "what happens at retreat, stays at retreat."
This weekend, I made some new friends, started to outline the next book, was gifted with some great title ideas, and laughed more than I have in years. And every single person knew exactly how it felt to type "The End" for the very first time.
Please share your own retreat stories (if you can!). I'm off to kick my pastry addiction, and alternate between revising the first book and researching the second.
Until next time,
- ► 2012 (84)
- ► 2011 (222)
- ► 2010 (333)
Monday: Food of the Week
Tuesday: Favorite Recipes I
Tuesday: Favorite Recipes II
Wednesday: Foxy Foodies
Thursday: Best Foodie Books
Thursday: Writing Prompt
Friday: Food Network Shows
Friday: Food Shows on TV
Saturday: Foodie Romances
Saturday: Foodie Blogs