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Monday, April 25, 2016
Thursday, March 31, 2016
|Russell Pope, February 14, 1947 - March 23, 2016.|
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
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
|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
|Pub in Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland.|
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
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.
|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
|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
Mutton collops, anyone?
Thursday, February 18, 2016
|Photograph of Dundonald Castle, c. 1903.|
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.
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.
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.
Thursday, February 11, 2016
It’s February, which means that Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. Whether or not you’re into the candy hearts and overpriced roses, it’s a perfect opportunity to take a look at the matrimonial adventures of Kate and Thomas Cochrane. These kids got married not once, not twice, but three times – and yes, to each other every time.
|The River Annan near the village of Annan, Scotland.|
#1: The Scottish Marriage, 1812
What can be more romantic than an elopement? Thomas is 37-year-old a war hero, Kate is about 18, adventurous, beautiful, and charming (but penniless). The couple heads off to Annan, Scotland by coach for a private ceremony, so secret that it was concealed from Thomas’ family for months.
But the ceremony is far from romantic! After marrying his young bride, Thomas flies off to London – alone! – leaving Kate to trail behind. Back in the city, Kate returns to her aunt’s house, and the couple do not share a home for many more months. When news of the marriage breaks, Thomas’ rich uncle, incensed that his nephew did not marry the wealthy heiress his family had intended for him, cuts Thomas off from a sizable inheritance.
#2: Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Speldhurst, Kent, 1818
|St. Mary the Virgin, Kent.|
Unlike the first ceremony, which had no priest or church, Kate and Thomas’ second marriage took place with a traditional ritual according to the Church of England. The ceremony was held in the small parish church of St. Mary the Virgin on a Monday morning in June. Thomas paid an extra fee for a license for the ceremony. By this time, Kate and Thomas had two young children, although he signs the register as a “bachelor” and she as a “spinster,” the common term for an unmarried woman.
Interestingly, one other couple was married in the church that same day. The bride, a Sarah Morris, made a mark in the register in lieu of signing her name.
Sadly, the church that Kate and Thomas were married in no longer stands, The parish, however, is still active and the present church building was erected in the late 1800s on the basis of a previous medieval design.
#3: Again in Scotland, 1825
The third and final marriage was held according to the rites of the Church of Scotland. It is believed that this ceremony took place so that Thomas could receive an inheritance from one of his relations!
Kate and Thomas traveled to Scotland during the summer and autumn of 1825, retracing part of their earlier elopement route, visiting the villages of Fife, and spending time in Edinburgh. While in Edinburgh, Kate caught the attention of Sir Walter Scott, who promptly dashed off six verses of poetry in admiration!
Information on the first and third marriages drawn from Cochrane: The Real Master and Commander by David Cordingly.
Information and documents related to the second marriage acquired through the kind assistance of staff at the Kent County Archives.
Thursday, February 4, 2016
|View of Edinburgh from the gunports on the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle. Google "Mons Meg" - you''ll be amazed!|
When I stepped out of the train at Edinburgh Waverly station, a misty rain pattering the cobbles as I heaved my suitcase through the late afternoon crowds along North Bridge Street, I found that my eyes could go only in one direction – up.
Edinburgh is hilly. As a Pennsylvania native, I spent a stint living in Pittsburgh and that taught me all about cities built on hills – or so I thought. But Edinburgh is another species altogether. I moved in a perpetual uphill trajectory from the time I stepped off the train until, half a mile later, I reached the courtyard of my rented flat. From the courtyard it was two flights of stairs up to the building’s doorway. I tugged my suitcase and laptop along, keyed in my door code, and tumbled into the corridor.
The journey didn’t end there. The flat waited four flights above. Stiff upper lip, I thought, and hauled my gear along.
What I found was worth it – a snug living room, a tiny but well-appointed kitchen, a bathroom with stacks of fresh towels, and a bedroom furnished with neat furniture of a recognizably Ikean stamp. I was now four stories above the streets of Edinburgh. Across the courtyard, I caught sight of a turreted building marked with a plaque reading “Edinburgh Writers’ Museum.” A sign if there ever was one.
The grey spires of Old Town rose above me as I made my way through the streets for groceries, and later, as I made daily pilgrimages over the bridge to the National Records of Scotland to pore over Katherine Cochrane’s correspondence.
It was easy to be in Edinburgh. The National Records building practically cajoles passerby to pop in with a welcoming sign – imagine finding that kind of invitation at the British Library! – and on my second day, I must have looked native enough, because a Brit stopped and asked me for directions. Even being assaulted with bagpipe music (both real and recorded) incessantly throughout the Royal Mile became an amusement rather than a nuisance. I learned to ignore the Braveheart posters everywhere; everyone else did.
By days, I read Kate’s letters. By night, I explored for Thai food, availed myself to the flat’s extensive DVD collection, and even, in a fit of creative fury, hauled self, boots, bag, laptop, and notes to one of the loveliest Starbucks in the English-speaking world for a pumpkin spice latte and a session hashing out the next stage of Kate’s adventures.
There are places where the creative spark flows, and where it withers. In Edinburgh, I found only sparks.
|Quotes from Scottish writers line the street leading to the Scottish Parliament Building. I got snapshot happy!|