The Making of a Regency Costume

Part 1 of 4:

The Dress & Pelisse

My plans for this year (2018) include going to both the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention in Reno and the Romance Writers of America conference in Denver (including the 1-day Beau Monde Mini-Conference featuring all things Regency)–not just one, but two occasions to wear historical costume. So I decided at the beginning of the year to create a Regency costume—not just a full-length, high-waisted gown, but the whole shebang. This post is the first of a 4-part series on the construction of that costume, its accessories, and, finally, the results as seen in the professional photo shoot to which I treated myself after the three-month-long project was complete.

Having decided to make the costume, I went shopping right after New Year’s for a pattern and fabric. Unfortunately, there aren’t many Regency patterns available at present, as these tend to be directly proportional to the number of Jane Austen adaptations on the big screen at any given time; as of this writing, 18th-century patterns tend to be more prominent, thanks to Outlander and Poldark.

McCalls #7493, the pattern I used to make my costume.

I did find a few, though, and settled on McCalls #7493. I liked the fact that it offered, in addition to the aforementioned full-length, high-waisted gown, either a short spencer with a pleated peplum in the back or a full-length pelisse with a cutaway front, pleats in the back, and a double-breasted bodice with a draped collar in a contrasting fabric. Both had two-piece sleeves, and both were fully lined. In other words, this was not a pattern for beginners. But I’ve been sewing since I was nine years old. Few patterns have the power to defeat me—and I’m rather a snob about that. So this fairly complex pattern was right up my alley.

Now that I had the pattern, it was time to shop for fabrics.  In my opinion, fabric stores have gone downhill in recent years, with more focus on crafters (especially quilters) than on people who sew, you know, actual clothes. Thanks to all those quilters, I knew it would be no problem to find a cotton print that looked reasonably accurate for the period; fabric for the pelisse (I’d decided to go for the pelisse rather than the spencer, because harder. Yeah, I’m a snob that way.) was likely to prove the greater challenge, so I concentrated on that first. I looked at both Walmart and Joann’s Fabrics (my only local options) for a coat-weight fabric that wasn’t an anachronistic polyester or an obvious poly blend, but without success. In desperation, I went to the back corner of Joann’s, where the upholstery fabrics were kept on enormous cardboard rolls against the wall. And there I found a dove-gray fabric with a slight nap. It was certainly coat weight—in fact, my first thought was that it weighed a ton—but upon reflection, I decided it was no heavier than denim, and lighter than some denims I’ve worked with. For the lining, I bought a length of gray broadcloth that would conceal the wrong side of the fabric while keeping the added weight to a minimum. The upholstery department also yielded another treasure: a relatively lightweight brocade whose color would match the body of the pelisse while the weave provided a contrast.

Clockwise from top left: the gray pelisse fabric; the cotton print I chose for the gown; the silver-gray brocade I used for the contrasting collar of the pelisse.

Now, for the gown. As I had expected, there was no shortage of cotton prints. I’m not generally a fan of sweet little floral patterns, and given that I’m *ahem* past the first blush of youth, I wouldn’t be presenting myself as a young lady in her first Season, but a fashionable society matron. Still, I wanted something that looked reasonably accurate to the period. I finally found a somewhat bolder print, a gray-on-gray pattern punctuated by yellow-and-brown birds and butterflies along with yellow roses and green leaves. This would not only match my pelisse, but also give me additional colors for accessorizing without looking like I was in half-mourning.

Detail of pelisse back view, showing princess seaming & pleated skirt

True to the fashions of the period, my pattern contained no zippers or snaps; the pelisse buttoned in the front, and the gown buttoned in the back. (This also meant that I would be unable to get in and out of the dress without assistance; I made a mental note to make sure to have plans in place before the event for someone to help me into and out of it.) I knew that fabric-covered buttons were popular during the Regency, so I decided to make covered buttons. Alas, both the gown and pelisse called for ½-inch buttons, and I couldn’t find covered-button forms in that size locally. Thank goodness for Amazon! I was able to buy a button-making kit in the correct size, plus a bag of additional button forms—a good thing, too, as I would need eighteen buttons for the pelisse alone (four for each sleeve and ten for the double-breasted bodice), plus another four for the gown. Then, too, there was that pelisse fabric. I suspected it would be too thick for buttons that small, and when my button kit arrived, one practice attempt was enough to prove that I was right. I decided to use remnants of the gray broadcloth I’d used for the pelisse lining. The color was so near a match that they looked identical, and the lighter weight was much better suited to the purpose.

Detail of pelisse sleeve showing covered buttons

As for the gown, I ended up making a couple of small additions after it was complete, one to the bodice and another to the skirt. It was important for the bodice to fit closely, and since I’ve always had a small bustline relative to the rest of me, this meant placing the buttons considerably farther inside than the markings indicated on the pattern. I was afraid this would make it look somewhat off-centered from the back, so I added a second row of buttons on the outside of the bodice, a couple of inches from the buttonholes. They don’t really do anything—that is, there are no corresponding buttonholes—but they do give it a sense of symmetry and, as my proofreader and fellow seamstress pointed out, they reflect the double-breasted construction of the pelisse. This brought my total button count to twenty-six, so I was especially glad to have all those extras.

Detail of gown showing hem with double rows of tasseled trim.

Finally, when I stumbled across a braided trim with tassels in exactly the same color combinations as my dress fabric, I couldn’t resist buying enough to put a double row around the bottom of the skirt, reflecting the ornamented hemlines characteristic of the late Regency period.

In Part 2, I’ll be sharing what was, for me, the most challenging part of the costume: the bonnet.

 

Reading: An interactive experience

7781751Back in my YA-writing days in the 1990s, there was a popular series of books for preteen and early-teen boys called “Choose Your Own Adventure.” Every few pages, the reader would be faced with a choice. For instance, one page might end: “To enter the cave, go to page 43. To continue up the path toward the abandoned farmhouse, go to page 26.” The idea, I assume, was that the books would be more appealing to boys (many of whom are/were reluctant readers) if they were interactive.

Something happened recently, though, that has made me realize that all books are interactive to some degree. My husband came home from work and mentioned that one of his co-workers had read one of my John Pickett mysteries. “Hannah [not her real name] said she really likes the characters, especially Lady Fieldhurst.” He continued, with his voice carefully neutral, “She said Lady Fieldhurst is really the smart one of the two.”

Now, I don’t know what book Hannah read, but I’m not at all sure that it was mine! Julia is certainly not stupid, but after years of being treated as little more than a pretty but useless accoutrement to her husband, she’s just beginning to find her voice. (Just wait; the mouse will roar in Book 5, Too Hot to Handel, coming in spring 2016.) John Pickett, on the other hand, is very clever, but largely self-educated. Because he’s painfully aware of how far he falls short of the men in Julia’s circle, he tends to not rate himself very highly. I wondered if perhaps Hannah was taking him at his own valuation of himself.

Then my husband went on to explain that Hannah is a feminist, to such an extent that she scolds my husband for opening doors for her. Aha! The light dawned. Hannah wanted a book in which the female lead is actually smarter than the purportedly clever male, and so she interpreted it according to her own preferences. At first I found it a bit galling that my work was being so misunderstood, but then I realized that it’s a good thing readers to connect with my characters, even if that connection may not take the form I had intended.

7761322I’d experienced a similar phenomenon a year or two earlier, while reading reviews of French Leave on Goodreads. For those unfamiliar with the book, it’s the third in the trilogy that began with The Weaver Takes a Wife, and finds the Brundys, now married for four years, experiencing marital difficulties. Although it ends happily and the farcical misunderstandings that separated the pair are resolved, 18% of the Goodreads reviewers were unhappy with, if not downright offended by, what I had naïvely supposed was a funny and harmless book. (One reader felt so strongly that she changed her original 5-star review of The Weaver Takes a Wife to a 1-star, simply because she disliked the sequel so much!) As much as this hurt at first, a fellow writer pointed out that readers responded this way because they felt so invested in the couple’s “happily ever after” that they couldn’t bear to see it threatened, even temporarily—and that this was something I, as a writer, should be proud of.

She was right. After all, connecting with readers is why we write. Without that interaction, the manuscripts might as well be left to languish in a drawer—“safe,” perhaps, and not misunderstood, but not enjoyed, either.

I hate blogging!

I have a confession to make. I hate blogging. (You’d probably already figured that out, given that my blog hasn’t been updated since last July.) But blogging seems to be expected of writers these days, along with a lot of other things that didn’t even exist back when my first novel, Wrong-Way Romance, was published in 1991. But while I don’t mind Facebook, for instance—in fact, it’s fun to share book covers, reviews, etc. with readers—I begrudge every minute I spend writing blog entries, including this one. For one thing, I don’t think my life is so thrilling that people would want to read about it every week. (I’m reminded of the cell phone commercial from years ago, in which a man “tweets” such thrilling tidbits as “I’m sitting on the porch,” much to the chagrin of his mortified teenaged children.)

More than that, though, if I’m writing, I want to be WRITING. There are only so many hours a day that I can devote to it, and I’d much rather spend those hours writing a book than a blog. In other words, I’d rather be living the writing life than waxing philosophical about it.

In fact, lately I’ve been so consumed with my characters that when I’m not writing about them, I’ve started drawing them. I haven’t done any freehand sketching in years, but for some reason I decided to give it a whirl. I used to draw a lot when I was younger, but to my frustration, I couldn’t draw anything realistically; everything I drew had a cartoony look to it. With the rise of manga, however, I decided that cartooniness might actually be a good thing. And so I drew this sketch of John Pickett and his Lady Fieldhurst, from the mystery series.

And it was FUN! So much fun, in fact, that I drew another, this one considerably . . . warmer. (When I texted it to my younger sister, she promptly texted back, “Oh, get a room!”)

So, I’ve fulfilled my writerly duty and updated my blog. Now it’s your turn: do you blog? If so, what do you find to write about? Do you read blogs? Obviously you’re reading this one, but why? What do you think of authors on social media—do you enjoy getting an inside look at what their lives are like, or would you rather they spent that time working on their next book? Do my sketches look anything like you imagined John Pickett and Lady Fieldhurst, or do you think I should put the colored pencils down and stick to writing? Inquiring minds want to know!

How a Social-Climbing Southern Belle from Mobile, Alabama Changed the History of the World

PictureAlva Erskine Smith (later Vanderbilt) as a young woman.

The social climber in question, Alva Erskine Smith, was born in 1853 to Murray Forbes Smith, a wealthy cotton merchant in Mobile, Alabama. (Her childhood home has long since been demolished, but my friends in Mobile will know exactly what I mean when I say that it stood at the present site of the Government Plaza on Government Street.) The family summered at Newport, Rhode Island, the popular playground of wealthy Americans, and left Mobile for New York City in 1857. Alva was sent to a private boarding school in Paris, and returned to New York afterwards to make her social debut. In 1875, she married William Kissam Vanderbilt, grandson of Cornelius (aka “Commodore”) Vanderbilt. The couple had three children, two boys and a girl. It is their daughter, Consuelo, who concerns us.

  Meanwhile, back in merrie olde England, the Spencer-Churchills, dukes of Marlborough, needed money—again. The magnificent Blenheim Palace had been constructed between 1705 and 1722 as a gift to the 1st Duke of Marlborough in gratitude for military victory over the French and Bavarians. It had been an albatross around the family’s necks ever since. The house—so huge that if its wings could be folded out straight, the façade would measure half a mile in length—required constant infusions of cash. What to do? Why, what every titled Englishman in need of funds was doing in the late 19th century: marry an American heiress. Charles Spencer-Churchill (aka “Sunny”), the 9th duke, looked about him for a likely candidate, and found Consuelo Vanderbilt and her railroad millions.

  He could not have asked for a more formidable ally than his prospective mother-in-law. Almost from the moment of Consuelo’s birth, Alva had been grooming her daughter to make a brilliant marriage, and no marriage could possibly be more brilliant than one to a duke, the highest level of British aristocracy. And not just any duke, but the Duke of Marlborough, whose wife would be mistress of Blenheim Palace. The drawback that Consuelo was in love with someone else? Unimportant. The fact that Sunny, at only five feet six inches tall, was shorter than his bride—ludicrously so when she was dressed in the high heels and large hats of the day? Insignificant. Alva wanted the Duke of Marlborough for Consuelo, and that was the end of it.

  Consuelo, only eighteen years old, was no match for her mother’s ambition. And so she and Sunny were married on November 6, 1895, with the future duchess in tears as she marched down the aisle. Of course, she was expected to ensure the succession by giving birth to a son. In the meantime, the duke’s heir presumptive was his second cousin, Winston. (Yes, Winston. Of the Spencer-Churchills. You figure it out.) Sunny’s grandmother put it to Consuelo in no uncertain terms: “Your first duty is to have a child, and it must be a son, because it would be intolerable to have that little upstart Winston become Duke.”

  Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough, outdid herself. She not only had a son to inherit; she had two, and it was she who coined the term “heir and the spare.” Since it was obvious that he would never be Duke of Marlborough, young Winston Churchill was obliged to find something else to do with his life—something appropriate for a scion of one of England’s greatest families. Something like, oh, politics. The rest, as they say, is history. Alva and Winston were not related by blood, but they had the same bulldog tenacity. Had anyone else been Prime Minister during World War II, who knows what would have been Britain’s fate—and, by extension, America’s?

  And that is how a social climber from Mobile, Alabama changed the history of the world.


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The Duke of Marlborough and his family, by John Singer Sargent. Left to right: Charles Spencer Churchill (“Sunny”), 9th Duke of Marlborough; Marquess of Blandford (later the 10th Duke of Marlborough); Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough; and Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill (the “spare”). Notice how poor little Lord Ivor is practically shoved out of the edge of the painting, while the eldest son and heir is the focal point of the picture!

Living in the Shadow of WRONG-WAY ROMANCE

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As I write these words, I’m packing my bags (okay, I ought to be packing my bags) for a trip to Denver for RomCon, a 3-day conference for readers and fans of romance. Although I’ve been to writers’ conferences galore, this is my first experience with a fan-centric function. I’m not quite sure what to expect, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if, at some point during the weekend, someone comes up to me and says, “I know who you are! You wrote Wrong-Way Romance!”

 
And they would be right. Way back in 1990, I sold my first novel, and a year later, in February 1991, Wrong-Way Romance was published by Bantam Books as part of its popular teen romance series, Sweet Dreams.

I went on the write four more Sweet Dreams titles—which have since then been translated into Polish, Chinese, Dutch, and French—but that first novel must have struck a chord that none of the others were able to match. If you look them up on Amazon or Bookfinder.com, you’ll find that used copies of most of them can be had for mere pennies—except for Wrong-Way Romance, which as of this writing can’t be found for less than $270. Yep, a 136-page paperback that originally sold for $2.95 is now listed for almost 100 times that amount–an increase of over 9000%. Not only that, but scarcely a month goes by that I don’t get an email from someone in their 30s who remembers reading that book as a teenager, and wonders if I have old copies to sell. (The answer is “no”; this was, after all, my first novel, and I didn’t know that I should buy up as many copies with my author discount as I could afford. Then again, who knew that it would be commanding those prices more than twenty years later?)

But wait; there’s more. I’ve been to more than one writer’s conference where another attendee, upon seeing my name badge, exclaimed, “You’re the one who wrote Wrong-Way Romance! That’s the book that made me want to read, and then write, romance!” At the close of the 2012 conference of Romance Writer’s of America, I met a finalist in the Golden Heart Awards for Best Young Adult Novel on the van taking a load of conference attendees back to the Los Angeles airport. When she learned who I was, she told me that was the book that led her to write for teenagers. After she got off the van, another woman told me, “That gave me goosebumps!”

It gives me goosebumps, too. And yet . . . sometimes it’s frustrating, living in the shadow of my first published novel. Some part of me wants to say, “Have you tried reading what I’m writing now?”

Don’t get me wrong. I am genuinely humbled to think that something I wrote more than twenty years ago is still being read, much less influencing people’s lives, today. It’s the sort of thing most of us as writers dream of.

But at the same time, I would hate to think that I peaked with my very first novel, and that it’s all downhill from there. I know that my writing is more finely crafted today than it was then, and my current novels, set in Regency England, are much more demanding, as they require more research and are over 2½ times as long in terms of word count.

I suspect part of the problem, if it can be called a problem, is simply the fact that Wrong-way Romance was a book written for, and read by, 12- to 14-year-olds—in other words, readers at an age where their tastes, preferences, and life goals are still being formed. I can still remember quite plainly books that made an impact on me at that age—or even younger—and my discovery of Georgette Heyer at age sixteen was certainly a watershed moment. But although I’ve discovered authors as an adult that I read (and re-read) faithfully, I can’t think of any who have had a truly life-changing impact on me. This is not to say anything against those writers; it’s simply that I have more of a backstory of my own, so to speak, and each individual book I read is a smaller percentage of the whole than it would have been when I was, say, thirteen years old, reading voraciously for a glimpse of what life “ought” to be like.

And, in all fairness, I’m not the same person I was twenty-five years ago, when I wrote Wrong-Way Romance. Ironically, I quit writing for teenagers about the same time my daughter and her friends began reading in the genre; suddenly I was looking at those high school years as someone’s mother, instead of writing from the perspective of the insecure teenager I once was. Maybe that’s why most successful young adult authors are still young themselves.

And so I’ll keep plugging away at Regency England, aware that lightning of the sort that was Wrong-Way Romance probably won’t strike twice. In the meantime, Ethan Brundy of The Weaver Takes a Wife has a devoted contingent of fans, and John Pickett of the mystery series got me noticed by both Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews.

And maybe that, added to the early success of Wrong-Way Romance, is all any writer has any right to hope for.


An Interview with Gary Corby

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Since winning a copy of his fourth book, The Marathon Conspiracy, in a Goodreads giveaway, I’ve become a serious fangirl of Australian author Gary Corby, whose series of mysteries set in ancient Greece are published by Soho Press. I sent him a message via Goodreads asking for an interview, and he was gracious enough to grant it. 

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From the detailed Author’s Notes at the end of each of your books, I get the impression that you were knowledgeable about Greek history long before you started writing your novels. Am I right? Tell me a little about your background.

 You’re right.  I was reading history even as a teenager — mostly ancient Greek and Roman.  But also mediaeval and WW2.  That was just for fun.  By training I’m a mathematician, weird as that may sound.  These days I’m a full time writer of murder mysteries.

 Classical Greece was an easy choice, when I decided to write a historical mystery.  To start with, I already knew a lot about the period.  Or I thought I did.  It’s one thing to know about the wars, the great art, and the geopolitics.  It’s another thing to know how the drains work!  Also how houses were built, what people ate, how they wore their hair, etc.  Now I know all that stuff, too.

 I first traveled about Greece, Turkey and the Aegean when I was in my early twenties.  Little did I know then that one day I’d be writing about the place.  But that local knowledge helps with descriptions.

 Mysteries are so series-oriented that it’s important to create characters that we, as writers, won’t get tired of writing about, and that readers won’t get tired of reading about. I can assure you that you’ve accomplished the latter! Can you tell me a little about how you created Nicolaos?

 Poor Nico!  He’s the dumbest guy in the room.   

 At the time Nico’s alive and detecting, there are about a dozen world-class geniuses walking around Athens.  There’s Pericles the famous statesman; Socrates the world’s greatest philosopher, but at this point he’s only twelve years old; Diotima the priestess-philosopher; Aspasia the brilliant speech writer; Hippocrates the Father of Medicine; the playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides; Herodotus the Father of History…the list goes on.

 Even Sherlock Holmes would struggle against this lot.  It meant that my detective couldn’t be the smartest guy in the room.  Since he couldn’t be the smartest, he had to be the dumbest.

 So Nico’s little brother is a genius.  His girlfriend is a genius.  His boss is a genius.   But Nico’s the one expected to solve all the puzzles. 

What about Diotima, Socrates, and the other real-life characters? Where does the historical figure end and the fictional portrayal begin?

 It varies with the character.  Socrates is easily the best documented person from that entire century.  There are good descriptions of his demeanour, his family, lists of his friends, where he lived, very long reports of his dialogues.  There’s even a first-hand account of his actions during a for-real battle. 

 Diotima on the other hand only gets mentioned in one place.  But if you can only get mentioned once in history, Plato’s Symposium is a good choice.  Her character I had to create.  Her intelligence was obviously top notch for her to have taught philosophy to Socrates, and for him to have been grateful for it.  She heads the most powerful student-teacher chain in history.  Diotima taught Socrates.  Socrates taught Plato.  Plato taught Aristotle.  Aristotle taught Alexander the Great.  Alexander conquered the world. 

 You can pull all sorts of enlightening tidbits from recorded history.  I have Pericles as being very stingy with his money, for example.  That’s because there’s a surviving court case in which it emerged that he underpaid his own son.

Many of the people who read my blog are writers themselves, who know that anything can happen during a speaking engagement—especially when you’re talking to kids! Would you please share with them your experiences when speaking at your daughter’s school (which you describe at the end of The Marathon Conspiracy), and how that experience gave you unexpected insight into Diotima’s character? Besides being a charming story in itself, it demonstrates how anything and everything becomes grist for the writer’s mill!

 It was the custom at the time that, when a girl came of age, she dedicated her toys to the goddess Artemis.  It was a coming of age rite. 

 I once gave a talk at my daughters’ school about ancient Greece, where I described the lives of girls in classical times.  I talked about how they wore their hair, what their clothes looked like, how school worked, etc.  Then I mentioned the dedication of the toys. 

 The girls were shocked.  Absolutely stunned. 

 It was instantly clear to me that my heroine Diotima would have done something about this rule.  To find out what she did, you’ll have to read the book!

From your Author’s Notes (which, by the way, I enjoy as much as I do the novels!), I suspect you’ve made at least one trip to Greece, Ephesus, etc. to research your books. My husband and I are planning a Mediterranean trip in the next few years. What locations do you suggest I and other literary-minded travelers might want to check out that might add to our enjoyment of the novels?

 For The Pericles Commission, you definitely want to visit Athens.  I know of people who’ve taken The Pericles Commission with them, to find the places.  The first murder scene is on an important rock outcrop beside the Acropolis, a place called the Areopagus.  You can easily find the spot where my first victim dies, and where Nico was standing when it happened.  (I plotted this out myself.)    Then go up to the Acropolis.  To the north you’ll see the agora, which Nico accidentally destroys in the book.  Also the Panathenaic Way which is the major connecting road.  To the south is the road to Piraeus, on which Nico has a knife fight in a later book.   If you look straight down from the Acropolis you’ll see the Theater of Dionysos, which is the setting for the next book, Death ex Machina.

 For The Ionia Sanction, visit the magnificent ruins at Ephesus, which these days is on the west coast of Turkey.  This is the same Ephesus that appears in the Bible (think Paul’s epistles to the Ephesians).   But in classical times it was a major port city.  The theater, the marketplace, the road to the wharves, the ancient brothel, Marble Road where Nico and Diotima have a flaming row…all those places are there to be seen. 

 Sacred Games is set at the ancient Olympics.  Go straight to Olympia!

 The Marathon Conspiracy is mostly set at a temple sanctuary at a place called Brauron in the ancient language, and Vravona in modern Greek.  The sanctuary and temple is a remarkably small area, but it was the world’s first official school for girls.  If you travel up the coast road from there you’ll come to the plain of Marathon, where they fought what was probably the most important battle in history. 

What’s next for Nico and Diotima? When can we look forward to reading about their next adventure?

 The book scheduled for next year is already written.  It’s called Death ex Machina and will be a rather theatrical mystery. 

 Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers or potential readers? Here’s your chance!

 People haven’t changed over thousands of years.  The same desires and fears that drive us today, greed, lust, ambition, love…those are what drove people two thousand five hundred years ago.  All that’s changed is the setting!

Thanks, Gary!

Note to my readers: If you haven’t read Gary’s books yet, I urge you to do so! And I strongly suggest that you start at the very beginning (a very good place to start) with The Pericles Commission,  so you can follow the relationship between Nico and Diotima from the very beginning. You’ll love Nico, you’ll laugh out loud, and you might just learn something about Greek history.


When fan mail . . . isn’t.

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Looking back, I should have known what was coming when I saw the subject heading “Incorrect Word” in my email inbox. But like a fool, I opened it anyway. This is what I saw, reproduced here exactly as it appeared on my computer, complete with lack of salutation:

 “On page 11 of ‘A Dead Bore’ the correct word should be eminently in the sentence: ‘Although imminently suitable, …’.

 ”Also, in the same sentence you wrote ‘…was so daunting …’ As daunting means intimidating, why would Lady Fieldhurst accept the invitation that very day? Wouldn’t she hesitate to accept if she was intimidated? 

“I gave up reading at this point.”

I have to admit, the writer (I can hardly call him a “fan,” except, perhaps, in the worst sense of “fanatic,” and given that he quit reading on page 11, “reader” would hardly seem to fit, either) is correct in the first instance. The “eminent/imminent” distinction is one of those subtleties of language that I have to be constantly aware of, and in this case it managed to slip by not only me, but my critique partner and my editor at Five Star as well.

In the second example, however—and I admit to going back to look, secure in my understanding of the word “daunting”—he completely misread the sentence. Apparently he was so offended by the “eminent/imminent” issue that his reading comprehension skills were affected. Poor guy.

Now, I’ll admit, I hate it when I make this sort of error—most every writer I know does—but these things happen, and will happen as long as writers are human. That same typo (or “mindo” in this case, as it was my mind taking a brief hiatus, not my fingers hitting a wrong key, that was responsible) that jumps out at a reader is surprisingly difficult to spot when the words are my own. I knew what I “meant” to say, and that’s what I read. Every writer I know has this same dilemma.

Don’t get me wrong. Every reader has the right to put aside a book that isn’t working for them. I’m sure we’ve all done it; I know I have. And everyone has their hot buttons, things are deal breakers when it comes to finishing a book or not. Maybe it’s because I was the target here, but I thought this one gaffe was pretty small, compared to some I’ve seen. Ironically, just before I received this email I’d finished a book in which the author cited “The Lady or the Tiger?” a full eighty years before the short story of that name was published. While it did pull me briefly out of the story, I didn’t throw the book down in disgust. In fact, I kept on reading, and would have cheated myself out of a very enjoyable read if I had done otherwise. While as for contacting the author to point out her error and inform her that I was casting the book aside, and why—well, such a thing would never cross my mind. Who does that, anyway?

Seriously, I’d really like to know. What did the writer of the email hope to accomplish? Given that the edition he was reading was published in 2008, there was nothing I could do about it at this late date. (I might also add that this book earned me my first-ever review in Publishers Weekly, who called it “delightful,” so apparently it had some redeeming qualities.) What did the writer get out of this, except perhaps a brief feeling of superiority? Perhaps more important to me personally was the question: what was I to do about it? How should I respond?

I wrestled with that one all afternoon. Maybe I could send a very polite and charming email, acknowledging my own error in the first instance, and pointing out his in the second. Then I could offer an exchange: if he would give the book another try, I would promise to be more careful with my eminent/imminents in the future. But no, polite and charming or not, wasn’t my real goal to say “I’m right and you’re wrong?” Wasn’t that exactly what he’d done to me? And, that being the case, would I really change his mind, even if he agreed to such a bargain? Or would he be that much more determined to catch me in some new error?

So what did I do? Nothing. I decided not to engage with him in any way. Was it satisfying? Of course not. Part of me still wants to point out his error, as a gentle reminder to “let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” But unsatisfying as it is, I know silence is not only the best policy, but the only real option. I’ll have to be content with imagining his frustration as he wonders if I’ve received his email yet, or if its arrival is still imminent. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) Better yet, I can stay busy preparing for the release of the next book in the series, coming out in November.

Because as they say, success is the best revenge.


Book Review: The Pelican Bride

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The “Pelican” of the title refers to the ship Pélican, which sailed from France to what is now Mobile, Alabama in 1704, with brides for the colonists. Among the young women is Genevieve Gaillain, a Protestant Christian escaping persecution in Catholic France. But Genevieve soon discovers that a new world doesn’t necessarily promise love or happiness, or even the safety and security she craves.

In the past, Christian fiction has been criticized (often rightfully so) for featuring too-good-to-be-true characters who face trite conflicts which are resolved with simplistic solutions. The genre has come a long way in recent years, however, and nowhere is this welcome change more evident than in Beth White’s meaty historical romance, The Pelican Bride. Contrary to many of the Christian romances you may have read in the past, everyone does not get “saved” by the end of the book, and of those who do, their experience appears to be more of a gradual process than a sudden “Damascus road” experience. Likewise, White leaves unresolved the question of whether Genevieve is doing the right thing by hiding her Protestant faith in a Catholic colony. Readers who look for more overt evangelism in their Christian fiction may find this ambiguity disappointing, but I found it both realistic and refreshingly honest.

It’s a pity, really, that The Pelican Bride is labeled as historical romance, for it doesn’t fit easily into so small a box. In a way, it’s more of a historical novel with elements of romance, as both the lead and secondary couples spend a significant portion of the book apart. The action during these separations never drags, however, for there’s plenty going on in the young French colony located in what is now southern Alabama, including Indian raids, threats from the rival British, and political conflicts in the faraway mother country—to say nothing of the humidity, mosquitoes, and torrential rainfall. White deserves high praise for tackling a little-known period of history, many of the details of which have been lost to antiquity. In the absence of hard and fast evidence (after all, no one saw the need to write down explanations of the minutiae of colonial life, since it was assumed that everyone at the time knew how to bake bread, load a musket, etc.), she had to deduce what she could from the known details, supplemented by her own imagination.

 And I, for one, think she does a fine job. The only misstep for me came when I ran across a couple of brief references to men buttoning up their shirts; the shirts of the time would have pulled over the head, with a single button-and-loop closure at the neck. Also, the wording in a couple of places jerked me briefly out of the story, once when a young Indian slave girl “squared her mouth” (I never did figure out what that meant) and another time when a male character’s eyebrows “hooked together over his nose.” I knew what she meant—his eyebrows drawing together to indicate concentration, disapproval, etc.—but I was briefly distracted by the ludicrous mental image of the man’s eyebrows linking together. This is a personal preference, though, and other readers may not find it bothersome at all. More troublesome, as far as the conventions of romance go, was the Big Reveal at the end, which lost some of its angst due to the fact that much of the subject had already been discussed some 65 pages earlier. As I said, though, in some ways this is more of a historical novel than a romance, so it is perhaps unfair to judge it by the conventions of the romance genre.

In sum, The Pelican Bride is a richly textured tapestry of a book sure to please anyone who wants an inside look at an all-but-forgotten time in our nation’s history, as seen through the eyes of the people—some real, some imagined—who struggled to create a home out of the wilderness. Highly recommended.


On Discipline and Inspiration

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I have a confession to make: I’ve never been a very disciplined writer. After all, I’m an Artist. As everyone knows, Artists work when—and only when—they are inspired by their muse. And if my muse decides to take a pet and not show up for a few days—or weeks, or months—well, that’s not my fault, is it? My muse will return when it’s Time.

 All that changed when I had coffee with Connie Willis, winner of multiple Hugo awards and perhaps the premier science fiction writer in the country. My daughter is a major Connie Willis fan girl, so shortly after moving to Colorado, I contacted Connie Willis and asked if she would be willing to autograph a book for my daughter’s birthday. She agreed, and we met at a Starbucks in Greeley, where she is apparently a regular fixture.

 We talked for an hour, and during the course of our conversation, she told me she does all her writing at Starbucks; when she tries to write at home, she said, she looks around the house and sees all the other things she “ought” to be doing instead.

 Hmm, I thought, that sounds familiar. So the next morning, I took my laptop and went to Starbucks (not the same one; I don’t stalk Connie Willis). I discovered that the internet connection there, while okay for the occasional bit of research, is too slow for efficiently posting status updates to Facebook, reading and replying to email, playing Candy Crush, and all the other things that tend to distract me when I’m on the computer. By the time I left Starbucks an hour later, I’d written a thousand words—and all without a peep from that fickle muse.

 Since that first visit to Starbucks, I’ve written three novels of 65,000 words each, sold two of them, and started a fourth, which at the time of this writing is about 20% complete.

 Thanks, Connie. I needed that.


Patrick Colquhoun, London magistrate

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Some of my favorite comments from readers regarding the John Pickett mystery series concern the father-son relationship of Pickett and his magistrate, and how much the reader enjoys it. In fact, of the questions I’m asked most frequently about the series (aside from the obvious ones about if, when, and/or how Pickett and Lady Fieldhurst will ever get together), several concern the character of Pickett’s magistrate, Patrick Colquhoun. Readers want to know how his name is pronounced, and why I chose to give a character such a difficult name. To answer the first question, according to Debrett’s Correct Form, the name is pronounced “Ca-HOON,” at least in the United Kingdom.

 As for the second question, I chose it because Patrick Colquhoun was a real person, and a real magistrate at the time the books are set. And while I could find no evidence that he ever served in that capacity in Bow Street (in fact, my research sources place him at Queen Square), certain aspects of his life dovetail so nicely with that of John Pickett that I thought he would make a good mentor for my fictional Bow Street Runner.

Patrick Colquhoun was born in Dumbarton, Scotland, on 14 March 1745 (making him 63 years old in 1808, where the John Pickett mysteries begin). He was orphaned at age 16, and traveled to the British colony of Virginia to seek his fortune. He returned to Scotland in 1766 and settled in Glasgow, going into business for himself in the linen trade. When war broke out in the colonies ten years later, he joined with thirteen other Glasgow businessmen in financing a local regiment, contributing £100 of his personal funds to fight the colonists—possibly one of the few bad business decisions he ever made.

In 1775, at age 30, he married Janet Colquhoun, a distant cousin. They had seven children, but only four—one son and three daughters—lived to adulthood.

Patrick Colquhoun was a keen collector of statistics as well as a prolific writer, first on economic issues and later on topics relating to crime. His economic activities in Scotland—he formed the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce and Manufactures, and served as its first chairman—brought him into contact with political circles, into which he was soon throwing his considerable energy. He moved his family to London in November 1789, and was appointed as a Police Magistrate in 1792.

His first reform efforts involved trade on the River Thames, where an estimated half-million pounds worth of cargo was stolen every year. Colquhoun made the shocking claim that fully one-third of the 33,000 river workers were known criminals who were in on the take—a claim which seemed to be confirmed when a mob attempted to burn down the office of the newly formed Thames River Police.

The English people were suspicious of a standing police force, citing abuses by the police in France. By couching the debate in pragmatic terms, often as a matter of cost-benefit, he was able to allay many of these concerns, leading eventually to Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police in 1829. Of Colquhoun’s many books and pamphlets, perhaps the most significant was his Treatise of the Police of the Metropolis, which emphasized the ineffectiveness of the old London “charlies” as a deterrent to crime.

Patrick Colquhoun retired from his magistracy in 1818 and died two years later on 25 April 1820, at age 76. He is revered in England as a police reformer; in fact, the Metropolitan Marine Police—the modern incarnation of the Thames River Police—has a police boat named the Patrick Colquhoun.

One biographer notes that “although Mr. Colquhoun bore externally a somewhat pompous and domineering aspect . . . there never, perhaps, was a heart more alive than his to the domestic interests of the poor, or a mind more actively bent upon improving both their physical and moral condition.”