Monday, April 25, 2016

I've Moved!

Please visit me on my new site, You'll find the newest blog posts as well as all the details of my forthcoming novel, The Admiral's Wife - including an excerpt for a sneak peek!

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Death and Intersections

Russell Pope, February 14, 1947 - March 23, 2016.
The day I learned that my uncle passed away, I spent the afternoon staring at the computer screen, making false starts to type up notes about project status. Eventually I gave up and did what I really wanted to do - write about my Uncle Russ.

He was a tough man, tall, with a salt and pepper beard, wild eyes, and an ever-present earring made
from a rat’s jawbone. He was an iron worker and a welder, and had, in his youth, served in the Army. Russ wore black leather jackets and rode a Harley. He drank a lot. He cussed. He didn’t take advice, and for most of my life, he scared me a little bit.

But he could be kind. One year during our family’s white elephant Christmas gift exchange – which sadly replaced the chaotic free-for- all I had grown up loving – I ended up with a tacky magic set. Russ took it, freeing me to choose something closer to my liking.

When I was a kid, my sister and I played often with his two boys. One winter day as we all rode in the backseat of Russ’s car, my uncle unleashed a torrent of cold weather survival advice.

“Stay dry!” he warned us. “Keep your hands warm. If you need to, stick ‘em in your armpits. Or your

I figured that was good advice – go where the warmth is.

Many years later, after college and when I had grown weary of living in the Washington, DC rat race, I mentioned that I planned to move to Montana.

“You’ll freeze your ass off,” Russ said.

“Maybe. But I have a really, really good coat,” I said. It wasn’t a great answer, but it was the truth.

He could be funny, too. We came from hardy Pennsylvania stock – winters meant ice skating and sled riding. We all grabbed boots and sleds one night at a local hill and zipped across the snow. My uncle watched, incredulous, as an immigrant family brought out empty plastic milk jugs, bits of carpet, and other objects as makeshift sleds.

“What are they gonna do next, take the damn hubcaps off the car?” he muttered.

Wherever he is, I hope Russ is warm, and comfortable. Maybe I didn’t know him well – and he didn’t know me – but as I write this, I can laugh a little, and I can remember. I can remember the times when we intersected. And the intersections, after all, are what we leave in our wake when we are gone.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Good Girls Don't Waltz

I’m in Nashville this week, Music City USA (although Austin, TX may also put in a claim for that title), and where there’s music, there’s bound to be dancing.

I don’t expect to see any foxtrot or waltzes here, which like Nashville’s original speakeasies, belong to another era. For me, witnessing a waltz has always felt like a step back in time. What can be more refined and more romantic?

Illustration of the nine waltz positions. Correct Method of German and French Waltzing (1816).

But it wasn’t always that way. Waltzing, when it first inveigled its way into British ballrooms by way of Austria during the Regency era, was met with shock and outrage. Matrons disapproved of it, the patronesses of Almack’s banned it, and no less a libertine than Lord Byron derided it.

What was so bad about the waltz?

First, unlike other popular of the dances of the period, couples danced with each other rather than as a group.

Secondly, the waltz involved the man touching the lady. For an extended period of time. In public. Scandal! In his poem satirizing the waltz, Byron wrote, “Waltz – waltz alone – both arms and legs demands, Liberal of feet and lavish of hands; Hands which may freely range in public sight.”

Attitudes gradually relaxed, and even the formidable clique of Almack’s patronesses began to permit waltzing, under certain conditions, by 1815. But the dance itself would continue to be considered “riotous and indecent” in certain circles for another decade.

If the waltz created such a stir, I cannot imagine what the response would be to what happens in today’s clubs!


Saturday, March 12, 2016

Getting the "Look"

Queen Amalie Auguste, c. 1823.
It’s Paris Fashion Week, an event I am sure that Kate Cochrane would have loved – certainly the spectacle if not all of the styles.

When it came to dressing my own heroine, the prospect took me in directions I couldn’t have imagined. I periodically found myself in the midst of writing a scene – a ball, a dinner, a horseback ride – and then stopping cold when it came to describing what Kate had on. For inspiration, I turned to the fabulous collections of material objects at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

I didn’t want to describe any old dress, or any type of jewels; I wanted what Kate wore to be as authentic and specific as possible to the age in which she lived. One of my favorite scenes in the novel involves Kate receiving a pair of emerald earrings from her husband. But how were they shaped? Were the earrings large or small? Did the stones appear simple or ornate? After many winding paths via Google searches and scouring museum collections, I found an image of a stunning pair of emerald earrings (and matching necklace!) that was allegedly a gift from the emperor Napoleon Bonaparte to his adopted daughter. Quelle merveille!

Emerald earring and necklace. V&A Museum.
I followed a similar approach for other aspects of Kate’s wardrobe, finding example of dresses and fabrics that show likely possibilities for what she would have worn. Silk for evening, or perhaps an airy muslin trimmed with silver threads, with cotton fabrics for daytime. Luckily, there are many people just as interested in the Regency and Georgian periods as I am, and I found a wealth of sources. The Jane Austen’s World blog, Jane Austen Centre, and Jane Austen’s London were all enormously helpful.

The Cochranes, my Pinterest board inspired by Kate and her family, shows more of the clothes, jewels, people, and places that inspire my novel! 

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Travelers Tales from Edinburgh

Pub in Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland.
This week find me at World Travelers Today. This is a very exciting new travel site that not only features stories of wanderlust from around the world, but tips for travel safety and security plus behind-the-scenes features on local food and drink. I'm personally looking forward to the "Bartenders' Best!"

I'm very pleased to have the honor of writing a guest post about my travels in Scotland - what a trip down memory lane! Find out why Edinburgh is a UNESCO City of Literature, and learn where to lunch like J.K. Rowling. 

Thursday, February 25, 2016

From Source to Story: How I Used Primary Materials

The most memorable writers I’ve encountered have a way of throwing you into the story through your senses. Think of Zora Neal Hurston’s description of Janie lying under the peach blossoms, or Jack Kerouac chronicling his manic, visceral, joyous romp across the United States. 

Primary sources are our surest means of knocking the dust off the past and getting our hands on it. They are goldmines for writing historical fiction, and here are three ways I’ve used them for my current novel-in-progress.

Regency evening gown, 1810
Evening gown, c. 1810. The Met.
The item: Letters written by Lady Katherine Cochrane

Kate’s surviving letters, held at the National Library of Scotland and the National Records of Scotland and elsewhere, offer an engaging look at a charming, strong-minded, brave, affectionate, resourceful, stubborn, sexy woman - with a bit of a temper. Next to speaking with her, the letters have offered me the best way to hear her voice. Whether she’s reminding her husband of her brilliant success in helping him attain a pardon from the British government, or lamenting her separation from her children, she’s a force to be reckoned with. 

My favorite line – so good it could have come from Jane Austen – is “With a few dinners and a little flattery I might accomplish a great deal."

The item: Clothing from the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A heroine must be dressed! But how? Thanks to the Met’s collection of Regency clothing – much of which has been digitally photographed– I gained a sense of what a woman like Kate might have worn for day-to-day activities as well as special events like balls.

The item: a reproduction of an 1816 cookbook

strawberry jam
Homemade strawberry preserves.
As soon as I saw A New System of Domestic Cookery by Mrs. Rundell listed in the Persephone Books catalog, I knew I had to have it! Not only is it an invaluable source of what people ate and how meals were prepared, it includes the early 19th-century version of Hints from Heloise. There are tips for mending broken china, making homemade ink, and removing stains from linen. 

I’ve found that in the era before freezers, refrigeration, and chemical preservatives, food was much more seasonal! Mrs. Rundell's book includes monthly menus of what meats, fish, game, vegetables, and fruits are available, and also offers suggestions for
which dishes to serve for dinners at various levels of formality.

Mutton collops, anyone?

Thursday, February 18, 2016

3 Types of Primary Sources You Can Use as a Historical Fiction Writer

Photograph of Dundonald Castle, c. 1903.
Let’s face it – historical fiction is easier to get wrong than to get right. When you write historical fiction, you aren’t just writing a story; you’re building an entire 360 degree universe. Your characters likely have ways of thinking, and ways of expressing themselves, that are the result of a time and place very different from our own.

Primary sources can be valuable keys to unlocking past worlds. Mining them for details allows you to recreate a universe that your readers can see, hear, and taste. 

Archival Materials

What they are: Manuscripts, letters, journals, books and documents held in archive or library collections. These are sometimes referred to as “special collections.” Unlike secondary sources, all of these materials date from the period. Sometimes special permissions are needed to access these kinds of collections, but there is nothing like holding a letter written by one of your characters to inspire thrills and chills. These collections may be held in city, state, or national archives, or sometimes at university collections or in research libraries such as the Folger Shakespeare Library or the British Library

What they can tell you: Archival materials are terrific sources of information on details you just won’t find anywhere else. Reading a family’s letters may tell you far more about their dynamics and relationships than a biographer’s account. Census records, or registers of births and marriages, are great place to go shopping for authentic period names. A caveat: you will likely need to do some extensive research in the special collection’s catalog to find what you are looking for. If the material isn’t available digitally, you’ll need to go in-person to take a look. Extra effort, but I’ve always found it to be well worth it.

Digital Collections

What they are: Much like the name suggests, digital collections are digitized versions of “physical” materials. More and more archival materials are being made available in this way. It reduces wear and tear on the objects themselves, and it also makes materials available to people who can’t visit the collection in person.

What they can tell you: You can find much of the same information that archival materials contain. However, touching and seeing an object may reveal things that seeing it on a screen won’t – the quality of the paper, signs of wear like tears or watermarks, etc. The Library of Congress has extensive digital collections of everything from photographs to sheet music to sound recordings.


What they are: Reproduced versions of original items. Not all primary sources are available as reproductions, but when they are, a reproduction may be an excellent and far more accessible version of the original. 

What they can tell you: You won’t get a sense of how the item was originally made or the signs of use it has accumulated over the years, but you will see the tastes and aesthetics of the period in the reproduction. For example, the Museum of Jewelry in San Francisco has many kinds of reproduction pieces representing many historical eras!

In my next post, I’ll share some of my favorite sources in each of these categories and how I have used them.