Word Wenches

September 27, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Pin It

Last week, a great writer pal of mine, Mary Jo Putney, seen here at left, asked if I would “guest blog” on a great site for historical and romance novel buffs:  Word Wenches.  MJ and some other terrific scribes like Jo Beverly and Patricia Rice have been posting their musings, thoughts, notions, and passionate opinions about their work and the writer’s craft for a couple of years, now, and are considered among the best practitioners of the blogging craft on the Web.

I had a great time and after my stint, was granted an “HWW:”  an Honorary Word Wench award, which to my mind is to be highly prized…

MJ and I decided I was vastly qualified to do a riff on a subject close to my heart: how much covers can make or break a book, a situation that is particularly true when it comes to historical versus romance fiction.

As I said in the Word Wench piece (and elaborated here on a blog post of my own entitled A Tale of Two Covers regarding my forth-coming Wicked Company), what I find so fascinating is the way books are truly categorized by their covers.  Readers obviously take their cues from the images depicted on the front of a book. Here are two radically different approaches to editions of the first novel I ever wrote, Island of the Swans.

Island of the SwansThe new Sourcebooks Landmark trade paperback cover on the left incorporates the actual 18th c. portrait of the heroine, Jane Maxwell, 4th Duchess of Gordon by George Romney, hanging now in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. The Bantam mass market paperback cover on the right used modern models and classic poses used to promote romance fiction.

Romance readers know what they like and expect, and the same holds true for lovers of historical novels.  If the covers don’t match the content, readers can, rightly, become highly incensed—and I don’t blame them.  As with Island of the Swans and Wicked Company, my other novels always include a love story, but each one also centers on the question “What were the women doing in history?”   To answer that query, the books by necessity must be extensively researched as to the role of a very small segment of the population–women who earned their own keep in a day far removed from our own.

The idea that a few, talented and brave females longed for self-expression in various fields that were then the exclusive provenance of men is also central to the dual story historical/contemporary titles I’ve written:  A Cottage by the Sea, Midnight on Julia Street, and A Light on the Veranda.

From the earliest days of my career when I held at Readership in British-American History at the hallowed Huntington Library in San Marino, California, I’ve been fascinated by “professional women” in the 18th and 19th centuries and have chosen to tell the stories of female politicians, artists, writers, and musicians—all based on composites of women who really lived and plied their various crafts for money.

The problem was, the books I wrote in the 1980’s and 90’s as full-on historical novels about these “famous-but-forgotten” women of history were often saddled with some God-awful covers during the period when nearly every historical was thought to have a better chance in the marketplace if it emphasized the romance more than the history.

But bless Sourcebooks/Landmark for creating a “look” this time around that matches the contents of my historicals, so that hardcore romance readers can steer clear of them if they so chose, and lovers of historical fiction (who don’t object to a love story threaded through the narrative) might give them a try!

May all the readers of both the Word Wenches blog and my own blog feel so inclined October 1, when the new cover of Wicked Company–originally given an equally misleading earlier incarnation–hits the stands this time around looking like this…

.

instead of this….

Wicked Company Should be a Movie!

September 19, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Pin It

On October 1, Wicked Company is about to have a new life as a nice, juicy trade paperback, courtesy of my publishers, Sourcebooks Landmark, but really, truly, I think one day it should be a movie on a large screen, in full color, and powered by THX sound!

I hold this opinion not merely because I’m proud of this historical novel–which I am, of course– but because, when I did the research, the images I found in the depths of the Huntington Library, or in the archives of the Theater Museum in London leapt out at me in a fashion that just begs for someone to make a film.

I mean, just look at the cast of characters:

We have King George III, Drury Lane actor-manager David Garrick and his wife, struggling women playwrights like the two Hannahs (Hannah More and Hannah Cowley who hated each other),along with numerous actress-playwrights like Kitty Clive and my fictional villainess, Mavis Piggott, plus the weedy little censor Edward Capell–not to mention the hero and heroine, based on a composite of theatrical figures of the day whose lives  I encountered when doing the years of research.

Added to this are the amazing locations of this novel:  Edinburgh, Covent Garden, Bath, Stratford, the Welsh countryside, Annapolis, Maryland, even!  Theaters on both sides of the Pond became the places I had to visit when researching and writing this book.

As I look over my own photo collection, such wonderful memories rush back.  The day I discovered this image of David Garrick about to stab his co-star in an eighteenth century play, now long forgotten, was a red-letter moment.

I even let out an audible yelp in the hallowed bowels of an archive not-to-be-mentioned when I stumbled across an example of the very tickets issued to gain entrance to the first Shakespeare Festival held in Stratford-Upon-Avon in 1769.

And then there was the day when I uncovered the fact that one of my historical figures, writer James Boswell, had turned up in the pouring rain at the Shakespeare Festival dressed as a Corsican and brandishing a tall, crooked staff in order to promote a book he was writing!  I mean, really!  Does nothing change?

These are the moments when an author is transported back in time and can see a story unfolding as if it were a film!  (From my computer to God’s ears….)

Can Readers Love a “Flawed” Hero?

September 12, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Pin It

When I was first conjuring the characters in Wicked Company and mulling over how I would weave both fictional and historical figures into the story of an 18th c.  woman playwright fighting to get her works written and performed at London’s Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, I thought about some of the men of that era whose lives clearly could be fodder for a novelist’s imagination and well as an historian’s.

Take the 18th c. poet Robert Burns, for example, who figured in my first historical novel, Island of the Swans.  He was an astonishingly good-looking man, from all accounts and surviving pictorial representations.  He also had a reputation for loving the ladies–some of whom were not his wife–and according to the research, there was much gossip surrounding his relationship with my heroine, Jane Maxwell, the 4th Duchess of Gordon.

However, my reading of the facts was that the duchess supported his artistic endeavors, helping to get his first book of poems published in Edinburgh, but held him at arm’s length.  Thus, he was not the “hero” in the novel and  so I avoided the issue of whether readers can appreciate a lead character who actually lived on this planet, and yet could not be described as a “man of moral character.”

It is part of the territory when writing historical fiction that there is constant tension between creating a compelling story and balancing the historical facts as best we are able to determine them. Readers of novels tend to want their heroes “heroic”–unless they are lovable “anti-heroes,” which can sometimes work but is very tricky to pull off.  For me, I enjoy working through the flaws as the story’s arc shows the characters growing and changing while the novel unfolds.

However, sometimes a character is fascinating, but simply not “hero” material to my way of thinking.  For instance, in Wicked Company, Richard Sheridan of The School for Scandal and The Rivals fame was a contemporary of my composite heroine, Sophie McGann, a female character drawn from the biographies of several working women playwrights of the day.  However, Sheridan had a character flaw that I couldn’t stomach.  Yes, he was a compelling gent, not too bad looking as you see here, and of course, a prodigious talent , but in my research I concluded that he basically “borrowed”–with no credit–the famous Mrs. Malaprop character in The Rivals from one his own mother had originally created in a play that failed to pass the censor in the Lord Chamberlain’s office!  Interesting, yes.  A hero in my book, NO!

In the end, I created a fictional hero, Hunter Robertson, to go with my fictional heroine, but he, too, is noted for his lapses.  Most notable among them is a fair amount of emotional baggage carried over from his youth that prevents him, early in the novel, from seeing what is obvious to the reader:  that he and Sophie are destined for each other–a state of affairs he ultimately begins to comprehend when they both become involved in the theater in the beautiful spa city of Bath where, believe it or not, in the 18th c. there were co-ed bathing facilities! (Note the lady holding on to her hat in the upper right of the image).

But to a writer, those flaws Hunter possessed were what kept the writing interesting for me, especially when they’re rooted in conflicts and tragedies going back to a period of his childhood he wanted to forget:  a time when his mother chose which of her children to give the meager supply of food during “the starving” in the Highlands of Scotland that came in the wake of the failure of Bonnie Prince Charlie to claim the thrones of England, Scotland and Wales.

I love Hunter Robertson–flaws and all–and I think readers will too, knowing on some level that he will eventually come to terms with his difficult past, recognize Sophie for the valiant, gifted woman she is, and fall madly in love with her.  Until that happens, his role is to save her from herself (and her hot temper), as well as find his own path as a creative talent in the boisterous, turbulent London theater world.

For me, heroes are more interesting if they’re not perfect and totally “heroic,” straight out of the gate.  Perhaps this is what keeps readers interested in the mystery of how in the world Hunter and Sophie are  going to overcome the obstacles facing a “two-career couple” in the eighteenth century!

Truly, nothing much changes, despite our claim to modernity.

Outfoxing “That Little Toad!” Edward Capell, Censor

September 5, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Pin It

There is nothing more delicious for an historical novelist than to run across a generally unknown figure in history who is a person to be thoroughly disliked, as with Edward Capell, an 18th c. play censor in the Crown of England’s Lord Chamberlain’s office.

From all accounts, he had a very high opinion of his own intellect–perhaps deservedly so, as he was considered an expert on the works of Shakespeare and was often asked to authenticate various manuscripts.  However, he held the lowest opinion imaginable of a mere woman attempting to earn her living by her pen.  Thus, any woman playwright trying to get one of her works past this disapproving bureaucrat and granted a license to be performed on a professional stage in London or elsewhere in the Kingdom faced frustration bordering on the urge-to-kill.

Edward Capell could end any writer’s career with a stroke of his pen, but he apparently took special delight in blindsiding “uppity women,” including a number of woman writers who ultimately took refuge in using male pseudonyms to try to get past his overt prejudice against them.

The “cameo” image on the left is highly flattering, for in life, he was an odd little man, with a penchant of eating foods only the color white!  He’d eat mashed potatoes or parsnips, but never orange carrots.  He’d consume white cheese, but never cheddar; white wine, but not claret.  Such was his odd phobia of foods of vibrant hues, that the lack of vitamins in his diet soon produced scrufulous skin disorders, making his appearance behind his desk at the Lord Chamberlain’s office quite a terrifying sight to behold.

Fortunately, there were a number of clever women writers who managed to get their works approved for production by one means or another, including Frances Sheridan, mother of the far more famous playwright, Richard Sheridan of  The Rivals and The School for Scandal fame.  Frances, seen here on your right, had a dreadful time running the gauntlet of the Lord Chamberlain’s office, though she managed to see her The Discovery and The Dupe produced under her own name at Drury Lane by David Garrick, the immortal actor and manager there whose fame continues to this day.

Garrick, as you will discover if you read my forth-coming Wicked Company was the best friend an 18th c. woman playwright would ever find, and chroncling his brilliant handling of the dreaded censor, Edward Capell, was one of the most delightful experiences I ever enjoyed as an historical novelist.

When my heroine, Sophie McGann, comes storming into his office shouting, “Oh, how I despise that little toad!”  having just learned that Capell has refused her latest play a license, Garrick kindly pats her on the arm and replies, “Well, my dear, we must then simply out fox him.  Now, here’s my idea…”

Wicked Companys publication date is October 1 and, hopefully, will be in the books stores a bit before that.  I hope you’ll love to “despise that little toad” Edward Capell as much as I did!

RSS | Facebook | LinkedIn
· ·