That which we call a historical romance hero by any other name would smell like sandalwood and MAN

Naming characters has been on my mind recently. I’ve been cleaning up and doing the first round of beta revisions on the next Lively St. Lemeston book, and I always leave a lot of names of secondary characters to be finalized at the end. I’m also planning my next project, a novella for an anthology, so I’m choosing names for my central characters.

I take names very seriously, especially for heroes and heroines. I was on a writing date with a friend, working for hours, and I think she was a little taken aback to realize I was thrilled to have finalized three names! What can I say, I’m picky about names. Plus, the heroine and her best friend in the novella are both not originally from England, which means tracking down a different set of naming resources than I usually use.

So I thought today I’d share some of my favorite naming resources, plus the fruits of my recent research.


Resources, England:

The Guiness Book of Names by Leslie Dunkling includes lists of the top fifty first names for girls and boys in England and Wales for 1700 and 1800. I figure names on either list are fair game.

Homes of Family Names in Great Britain by Henry Brougham Guppy (possessor of an amazing name himself), 1890, includes lists of English last names organized by county, sometimes with notes on their origin. I love this book so much I had it printed and bound at the Third Place Books espresso book machine. Did I mention organized by county?

I stole this trick from Cecilia Grant: Debrett’s Baronetage of England, 1835, is a great place to find first and last names that I can be sure are appropriate for an aristocratic character.

When I’m choosing a title rather than a last name (e.g., the Earl of Tassell), I sometimes go with a last name, and sometimes with a place name. The Guiness Book of Names, mentioned above, has a lot of great place names in it, plus building blocks for creating your own. Wikipedia also provides lists of villages in UK counties. For example:

Genealogy sites are an amazing resource, and you can often find them for other countries, too! My favorite for Regency England is this Genes Reunited database of England and Wales death records from 1837 forward. Here’s a search for the name Clementia limited to people born between 1770 and 1790. As you can see it is great at recognizing related names, too!

Resources, Not England:

The thing about naming characters from other countries and cultures is that I don’t have intuition about the name. Even when I was naming the Jewish characters in True Pretenses, I discovered that Ashkenazi Jewish surnames (very familiar to me in their modern form) were completely different during the Regency. So I only chose last names that actually appeared in my research books, and I did the same for some first names (though not all–a couple of people who are only briefly mentioned have common Yiddish or Ladino names that I just hope were in use at the time, like Faige and Speranza). Obviously that provides less options, but I really didn’t want to fuck it up.

I followed the same method for naming an Indian secondary character/future heroine in my upcoming book, although I’m still hoping to find more good online resources for this before I write her book and have to choose dozens of names.

(For a good start at understanding the complexities of naming an Indian character without accidentally mixing and matching religion, location, caste &c., check out these tips from Alisha Rai and Suleikha Snyder. You can see them walking someone through the naming process too! Of course, that’s not even getting into whether the name was used in a particular time period.)

For naming the heroine of my novella, who was born in Portugal, I started with Behind the Name’s list of Portuguese girls’ names. Once I had a shortlist of names I liked, I tested their historicity by plugging them into this FamilySearch database of Portugal Catholic baptisms 1570-1910. (Obviously this only works for Catholic names!)

The name I eventually chose: Magdalena Da Silva. She goes by Maggie.

For naming her best friend (with benefits), I found this amazing database of eighteenth century Dutch Ashkenazi Jews (organized in lists alphabetically by surname which makes it fantabulously usable for my purposes). His name: Meyer Hennipzeel. He goes by Meyer Henney in England.


While paging through Debrett’s for my hero (eventually named Simon Radcliffe-Gould), I discovered some marvelous things.

Debrett’s contains a list of baronet family mottoes. I haven’t had time to go through it fully but my favorite on the first page is “Agitatione purgator. Cleansed by agitation. Russell, of Middlesex.”

I found a couple of family crests worthy of Monty Python. The Acton family, of Aldenham Hall, Shropshire, are represented by “A human leg and thigh in armour, couped, and dropping blood, all proper, garnished, or.” [Image]

And the Prices of Treggwainton, Cornwall, use “On a wreath of the colours a dragon’s head vert, erased gules, holding in its mouth a sinister hand erect, couped, dropping blood from the wrist, all proper.” [Image–and look, you can buy a set of Georgian silver dessert spoons with this crest on it!]

And of course, names:

Philadelphia-Letitia Cotton
Sir Peter Parker

And my absolute favorite…

…the Page-Turners! YES. There was an actual family named the Page-Turners. I want to name my hero this so badly, I can’t even tell you. I know it would be distracting but it’s SO FUNNY. I don’t think I would ever get tired of it.

portrait of Sir Gregory Page-Turner in a red suit, being stared at by a bust of Pallas Athena
Sir Gregory Page-Turner (1748–1805). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

This guy is a babe, I have to say. I also enjoyed this tidbit about his life:

“Sir Edward Turner, 2nd Baronet had a country house, Ambrosden House, built by the architect Sanderson Miller in the 1740s. Sir Gregory never lived at Ambrosden, thought the house too big and in 1767 sought to demolish part of it to make it smaller. This proved impractical so in 1768 he had the entire house demolished.”

Do you have a favorite historical name you’d like to see in a book? How about a favorite name resource?

ETA: Joanna Bourne alerted me to this, for late 18th-century French names: The Guillotined. So cool!

Posted in Names, Research | 12 Comments

More on the Foundling Hospital

fabricHere at the Riskies we return quite frequently to the topic of London’s Foundling Hospital, founded by sea captain Thomas Coram, composer George Handel, and artist William Hogarth. Today I’m sharing some recent finds I made–one is this quite splendid documentary Messiah at the Foundling Hospital (sit tight, it’s an hour long).

I discovered more about Hogarth’s contributions. He designed the logo in the form of a coat of arms, which is, as the documentary’s narrator points out, quite brilliant. Because it’s a coat of arms, it would have had instant appeal for the well-heeled aristocrats who were being targeted as donors. But the legend is in English–just one word: Help.

Arms of the Foundling Hospital
Arms of the Foundling Hospital

To be honest I’m not sure who the figure on the left is–a sort of female corkscrew? Anyone know? On the right is Britannia. The rest is self-explanatory, the baby and the innocent lamb. Anyway, the point is that this worked. It became hip and fashionable to be a philanthropist.

foundlingsHogarth also designed the children’s uniforms, some of which are on display at The Foundling Museum in London. (Ignore the well-scrubbed angelic appearance of the children in this painting. The clothes are correct.)

One perspective I’ve never encountered before is what other, more fortunate, children thought of foundlings and orphans. Some families might have a young maid who was trained at the Foundling Hospital. foundling samplerOne can only hope that no impressionable child saw the dying and abandoned babies on the streets of London whose fate so moved Coram. Here’s a sampler made in 1825 by ten-year-old Mary Ann Quatermain.

But back to those uniforms. What happened to the clothes the children wore when they were admitted? Historian Alice Dolan tells us that:

In 1757, when the Hospital was overwhelmed by the clothing due to the large influx of children, the Hospital committee decided to sell the

‘old Raggs and useless things brought in with the Children of this Hospital’

because they were causing problems with ‘Vermin’.

After enquiries, the Hospital Committee decided to sell to the rag merchant Mrs Jones in Broad St Giles who would pay 28 shillings a stone for linen rags and 4 shillings 6 pence a stone for woollen rags. This was more than twice what her competitor Joseph Thompson offered for the linen and woollen rags.

Considering the thousands of children were admitted to the Hospital, this was a valuable form of income. It’s a reminder too, that nothing was discarded–vermin or not–if it could be sold or upcycled.

The exhibit Threads of Feeling, some of the fabric samples and tokens mothers handed in with their babies for later identification, showed a few years ago at the DeWitt Museum in Williamsburg. Both I and Diane, who blogged about it, visited. While I was poking around online I checked out future exhibits at the Foundling Museum, although I doubt I’ll get to any. Are you planning, or have you been to, anything inspiring at a museum recently?

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How to get a little chocolate in your (character’s) life

Original chocolate pot c. 1750-1800, Colonial Williamsburg

The easiest way is what we could call “hot cocoa”. This was a very common breakfast drink for the gentry and upper class (aka anyone who could afford it). It was also often served at coffee houses (in fact, White’s started out as a “Chocolate House”). It was generally made with water (not milk, alas) with a “mill” which very much resembles a simpler version of the wooden whisk (molinillo) that is used to make Mexican hot chocolate today (which makes sense when you think about it, as Europe got chocolate from Mexico in the first place so the method of making it would remain the same).

This basic directions are thus (from Experienced English Housekeeper, 1769): “Scrape four ounces of chocolate and pour a quart of boiling water upon it, mill it well with a chocolate mill, and sweeten it to your taste, give it a boil and let it stand all night, then mill it again very well, boil it two minutes, then mill it till it will leave a froth upon the top of your cups.”

I’ve also found this recipe from 1814 which more closely resembles modern hot cocoa, being made with milk. And I like ease of it. Nice to have something made up that can be used for the whole week.

HOT COCOA 1814 A new system of domestic cookery
A New System of Domestic Cookery, 1814







Many of the cookery books of the day have various chocolate tarts, biscuits, pastils (which are basically spot-on modern nonpareils), and even ice cream. So while I haven’t (yet!) found a bonbon with a cream center, I have found PLENTY of delicious options for our characters to enjoy. Below are a few of these for you to explore.

chocolate biscuit 1829 the Italian confectioner
The Italian Confectioner, 1829
chocolate drops 1800
The Complete Confectioner, 1800











chocolate tart 1787 The Lady's Assistant
The Lady’s Assistant, 1787
chocolate ice cream 1814 Cookery and Confectionary
Cookery and Confectionary, 1814
Posted in Food, History, Isobel Carr, Regency, Research | 5 Comments

What I Don’t Know Could Fill a Book

Sandra’s post on May 11th regarding her exhausting (in both contexts) research on Roman history and life is the perfect lead in to my much less ambitious undertaking.

Here is the link to her post:

Really, after fifteen years of researching regencies, and writing them, I thought I knew all I needed to know. I’ll be honest and admit I wrote around the subjects that did not interest me too much (Parliament and politics for one) but felt I had a good handle on how MY Regency set characters lived.

In fact, writing a historical requires its own sort of world building. Not as totally as, say science fiction, but certainly there is a lot of room for the imagination. In the end the writer interprets the regency lifestyle based on her understanding of history and her own view of life, or how she would like life to be. Without a doubt the importance of the history of time and place matter more to some authors and readers than it does to others.Needlework cottage

It’s important to me. I was a history major in college (American history unfortunately) and brought that fascination with me when I decided to write a regency. I have been forever grateful to early blogs I participated in. They gave me a chance to share the information that I never used in a story but could not abandon before I knew way too much about said subject.

Now I’m faced with a challenge. I’m starting a series I referred to in my last blog post. Here is the link if you want to catch up:

I find I need to know everything I can about the life of an Anglican vicar. From the get go I can see MY vicar is not cast in the usual mode. The spiritual life and general well-being of the people in his village are more important to him than an invitation to the right homes or parties (definitely not a Mr. Collins.) I can deal with that. But, because of it, I want to get as much of the rest of his world right.

I’ve pulled all possible books off my shelves including a treasure titled A COUNTRY PARSON 1759 to 1802. Too bad it’s before the war with Napoleon but it should still be useful, don’t you think?

In the meantime here is what Pennsford looks like. I’m sure I can count on you to ignore the modern roadway.iStock_000006145954_Small

The picture above, after the third paragraph, is a hand-stitiched image of one of Pennsford’s cottages

Please tell me how you start researching a subject you know little about and, as reader, how important to you is the accuracy of the world a regency author builds. And if anyone knows any specific books about a vicar’s life around 1817 please share!

Posted in History, Research, Uncategorized | 16 Comments

Where Were You?

There are a handful of events that for good or ill (more often for ill, unfortunately) are unforgettable. I’ll never forget where I was when I heard about the Challenger disaster–I was in 9th grade, and they announced it over the intercom during 4th period Alabama History.

I found out about the 9/11 attacks when I was awakened by a phone call from my parents, who were supposed to be flying into Seattle for a visit later that day. Mom said, “All flights have been canceled.” Assuming she meant all flights out of Birmingham, I asked if there’d been some kind of storm or problem at the airport. She told me there had been a terrorist attack and to turn on the TV.

And most recently, a few years ago I was waiting for dinner at Red Robin with my husband and daughter. Mr. Fraser and I were checking Twitter on our phones, as internet addicts are wont to do, when tweets started to buzz with the news that President Obama was about to “address the nation.”

It sounded ominous, so we speculated about possible war with Iran or North Korea. I also worried that it might be something like a hideous cancer diagnosis for either the President or the First Lady, and that he might be stepping down and handing the reins to Vice-President Biden because of it–ever since I lost both my parents to lung cancer, my mind goes to the C-word in a hurry.

Instead, of course, the big news was the death of Osama bin Laden. We’d figured it out from Twitter before one of the TV feeds in the restaurant switched from sports to the news–which was neither captioned nor audible in the noisy restaurant, so Mr. Fraser and I leaned over the booths to tell our fellow diners what was happening as soon as we heard their baffled concern. Eventually, the headline at the bottom of the screen said something like, “Bin Laden death confirmed,” and the line cooks, most of whom would’ve been in junior high on 9/11, started cheering and stomping their feet.

We were home by the time the president actually spoke, so Mr. Fraser and I stood together our den–somehow it seemed too solemn a moment for lounging on the couch–and listened.

Chelsea pensioners

In the time period I write about, there was plenty of momentous news, though of course it rippled through the world much more slowly. I imagine if I’d been born in 1771 instead of 1971, I’d remember where I was when I heard about the French Revolution and Trafalgar and Waterloo, to name a few. So, when I read a collection of first-hand accounts of Waterloo in The Hundred Days (compiled and edited by Antony Brett-James), I was intrigued to find a chapter about how the news reached France and Britain. I was then flabbergasted by the following account by Mrs. Boehm, the woman hosting the ball the Prince Regent was at when Wellington’s messenger arrived:

That dreadful night! Mr. Boehm had spared no cost to render it the most brilliant party of the season; but all to no purpose. Never did a party, promising so much, terminate so disastrously! All our trouble, anxiety, and expense were utterly thrown away in consequence of–what shall I say? Well, I must say it–the unseasonable declaration of the Waterloo victory! Of course, one was very glad to think one had beaten those horrid French, and all that sort of thing; but still, I always shall think it would have been far better if Henry Percy had waited quietly till the morning, instead of bursting in upon us, as he did, in such indecent haste; and even if he had told the Prince alone, it would have been better; for I have no doubt his Royal Highness would have shown consideration enough for my feelings not to have published the news till the next morning.

…After dinner was over, and the ladies had gone upstairs, and the gentlemen had joined them, the ball guests began to arrive. They came with unusual punctuality, out of deference to the Regent’s presence. After a proper interval, I walked up to the Prince, and asked if it was his Royal Highness’s pleasure that the ball should open. The first quadrille was in the act of forming, and the Prince was walking up to the dais on which his seat was placed, when I saw everyone without the slightest sense of decorum rushing to the windows, which had been left wide open because of the excessive sultriness of the weather. The music ceased and the dance was stopped; for we heard nothing but the vociferous shouts of an enormous mob, who had just entered the square, and were running by the side of a post-chaise and four, out of whose windows were hanging three nasty French eagles. In a second the door of the carriage was flung open, and, without waiting for the steps to be let down, out sprang Henry Percy–such a dusty figure!–with a flag in each hand, pushing aside everyone who happened to be in his way, darting up stairs, into the ball-room, stepping hastily up to the Regent, dropping on one knee, laying the flags at his feet, and pronouncing the words “Victory, Sir! Victory!”

The Prince Regent, greatly overcome, went into an adjoining room to read the despatches; after a while he returned, said a few sad words to us, sent for his carriage, and left the house. The royal brothers soon followed suit; and in less than twenty minutes there was not a soul left in the ballroom but poor dear Mr. Boehm and myself.

Such a scene of excitement, anxiety, and confusion never was witnessed before or since, I do believe! Even the band had gone, not only without uttering a word of apology, but even without taking a mouthful to eat. The splendid supper which had been provided for our guests stood in the dining-room untouched. Ladies of the highest rank, who had not ordered their carriages till four o’clock a.m., rushed away, like maniacs, in their muslins and satin shoes, across the Square; some accompanied by gentlemen, others without escort of any kind; all impatient to learn the fate of those dear to them; many jumping into the first stray hackney-coaches they fell in with, and hurrying on to the Foreign Office or Horse Guards, eager to get a sight of the List of Killed and Wounded.

I first read that account years ago, and it still boggles my mind. I can understand that it would suck to put down the kind of money it would take to throw a ball for the highest of London’s elite and have it all go to waste. But to still resent it, years later (her account is from 1831), when it was abundantly clear just how important Waterloo was? And the way she seems to focus on breaches of propriety above all else–Henry Percy was dusty, and he shoved people out of the way in his haste to reach the Prince Regent. One might almost think he was bearing critical news for his country’s acting head of state or something! Not to mention those ladies running out in their muslin gowns and slippers, with or without escort, all because they had brothers or sons or sweethearts with the army and wanted to know if they were still alive. How shocking! And lest you think her reaction is somehow typical of her time, the behavior of her guests belies it. Also, all the other accounts sound remarkably like what happens now in those moments we all remember–normal social barriers breaking down, everyone turning out into the streets to talk it over, etc.

We’re now just a month away from the bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo. I’ll be away from the Riskies in June and July because of my family’s trip to Europe, which will include attending the battle reenactment. When I get back I’m sure I’ll have many stories to share!

(The painting illustrating this post is David Wilkie’s Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Waterloo Dispatch, which the Duke of Wellington commissioned at a cost of 1200 guineas. I think it’s a more typical reaction than Mrs. Boehm’s, don’t you?)

Posted in Regency | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Songs of the Regency

My novella for the June historical romance anthology Dancing in the Duke’s Arms (with Grace Burrowes, Shana Galen, and Miranda Neville) is done and off to beta reading, editing, and copy-editing. My story is An Unsuitable Duchess. I posted last time about some research results. Most of that research survived in some form or another in the penultimate version. (Cue applause!!)

While I was madly fixing ::KoffKoff::  revising, I needed some additional research on what songs might have been sung in 1819. This turned out to be slightly harder than I wanted it to be, mainly because what seemed like the most likely on-point resource was a 1794 text that was a Google Books listing only. There was no text available.

I’ve seen this happen when someone, sorry, but often an academic press, has an annotated version of the text on sale, as with The Regency Epicure. There is no defensible reason, in my opinion, for the removal of a public domain title from Google Books just because there’s an annotated version available for purchase. To be clear, of course the annotated version is different and shouldn’t be freely available as to the copyrighted annotations. But the original remains in the public domain and should therefore remain available to the public.

But I digress. The 1794 songbook was not available and I did not have time to see if I could get it on Interlibrary loan. The book is listed in WorldCat, so there are libraries that have it.  Nevertheless, I found something that answered the need well enough, and that was The British Melodist or National Song Book, containing English, Scottish, and Irish songs With a Selection of More than Four Hundred Choice Posts and Sentiments. There are several versions, with the earliest available text dated 1822. A similar book from 1813 is not available because some [ expletive ] is selling a paper copy on Amazon. And that someone just grabbed the book from Google and claims to have cleaned up the OCR text. I hate this. It pisses me off. It should not be permitted. It’s selling for $18.00.  S0 eff you, dude. Right. HE got the benefit of a book in the public domain and now the actual public is screwed. You’re darn right I’m mad. We should all be angry!

I’m in danger of digressing again. Sorry.

The British Melodist of 1822 is recent enough for me to be confident that I’m not far off base in having my characters mention the titles of songs, and a few lines from one, in 1819.

Some of the songs and their titles surprised me. Here are a few examples.

Black-eyed Susan

All in the downs the fleet was moor’d,
The streamers waving in the wind,
when black-ey’d Susan came on board:
Oh! where shall I my true-love find?
Tell me ye jovial sailors, tell me true,
if my sweet William sails among the crew!
(first verse only)

Here’s another interesting one:

The Soldier’s Widow; or Return from Waterloo.

Sad was the plaint of the wand’ring stranger,
Hungry and pale was the infant she bore;
Return’d from the land of misfortune & danger,
She hop’d to find peace on her dear native shore.

O neat was her cottage, and great was her treasure,
A treasure to her more than diamonds or pearl
In the smiles of her William consisted her pleasure,
And the fond caresses of her little girl.

Duty commanded, her William attended,
And she could not bear with her soldier to part
She roam’d oe’r the field when the battle was ended,
She kiss’d his pale lip, & she pressed his cold heart.

They bore her away, of all comfort bereft her,
Affliction her dart at her bosom did hurl;
Oh no, little darling, one comfort is left her,
The sweet smiling kiss of her dear little girl.

Below is a song title I used in my story. I include the lyrics since they’re culturally significant. Talk about a message, eh? But there’s fascinating subtext there. The warning and moral wouldn’t be necessary if there weren’t young ladies who felt just that way.

No One Shall Govern Me.

When young and thoughtless, Laura said,
No one shall win my heart;
But little dreamt the simple maid,
Of love’s delusive art.
At ball or play,
She flirt away,
And ever giddy be;
But always said,
I ne’er will wed,
No one shall govern me.
No, no, no, no, no, no,
No one shall govern me.

But time on airy pinions flew,
And Laura’s charms decay’d;
Too soon alas! The damsel grew
A pettish pert old maid.
At ball or play,
No longer gay,
Poor Laura now you’ll see;
Nor does she cry,
For reasons why,
No one shall govern me.
No, no, no &c.

A lesson learned, ye ladies fair,
From Laura’s wretched fate;
Lest you, like her, should in despair
Repent alas! Back too late.

Let me advise –
While young, be wise,
Nor coy and silly be;
I’m certain I
Would never cry,
No one shall govern me.
No, no, no &c.
I’d gladly govern’d be.

Here’s another from the last few pages:

Drown it in the Bowl.

The glossy sparkle on the board,
The wine is ruby bright,
The reign of pleasure is restor’d,
Of ease and fond delight.
The day is gone, the night’s our own,
Then let us feast the soul;
If any care or pain remain,
Why drown it in the bowl.

This world they say’s a world of woe,
That I do deny;
Can sorrow from the goblet flow?
Or pain from beauty’s eye?
The wise are fools, with all their rules,
When they would joys controul:
If life’s a pain, I say again,
Let’s drown it in the bowl.

That time flies fast the poets sing;
Then surely it is wise,
In rosy wine to dip his wings,
And seize him as he flies.
This night is ours; then strew with flowers
The moments as they roll:
If any pain or care remain,
Why drown it in the bowl.

Possibly Interesting End Note

Normally, I would have done a copy and paste of the lyrics text or used an embedded image because, wow. LOTS OF TYPING!!!

But while I was doing my revisions and found myself behind because ::hand waving, a tissue, sobs omgwtf!:: I lost five chapters of revisions and had to completely redo them from paper edits. ::horrible flashbacks::

I became desperate to find a way to go faster where I had long chunks of new text. So, I hooked up my microphone and turned on the Mac dictation feature and dictated those sections. And danged if it didn’t work pretty damned well. And that includes the dictation working in my Windows 7 Parallels virtual machine. I honestly didn’t think Mac dictation would work across the virtual machine, but as long as I clicked in my WordPerfect document, my dictated words appeared.

And so, I dictated these lyrics into this post, and while there were a few hilarious interpretations, the dictation was remarkably accurate, all things considered. It was very quick to go a line at a time for these lyrics and fix the mostly minor issues.

I’m converted now to using dictation for work where I have longer blocks of text to transfer. I always do paper read throughs of my manuscripts so this is a regular occurrence for me. I redid my five chapters of edits in two days — working on my lunch hour (on the laptop) and then at home on the iMac, and let me represent to you that many of those chapters were a sea of ink and paragraphs written on the back of the pages.

A win, over all, I’d say because now there’s less of a barrier to posts like this one.

Posted in Regency, Research | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Doing a retreat the right way

Elena_Laura_T_FallsI recently went on my annual writers’ retreat, and it was wonderful as usual. Here I am with one of my friend writers, the lovely and talented Laura J Bear, who’s working on her next book. Laura’s debut women’s fiction novel, Where the Heart Lands, came out in March and deals with the relationship between two intriguing and troubled female characters.

The basic formula for retreat success is the same every year: an idyllic lake house, a group of caring, supportive writer friends, lots of good food, wine and chocolate, romantic films to watch in the evening, and lots of time and space to write.

What could go wrong?

For many people, not much. If you’re a well-adjusted, happy person who can be spontaneous and creative without guilt, the above is more than enough to ensure a happy, productive weekend.

If you are a neurotic, self-flagellating nut sensitive soul who has at times been made to feel guilty about her creative life, it’s also important to bring the right mindset.

The challenge of having a perfect setup is that it creates a lot of pressure to be productive. It would be very easy for me to set crazy-high productivity goals. Such goals work well for people who are sane enough to be happy when they achieve say, 75-80% of their target. For me, setting the bar too high can make me choke, or at least to feel disappointed if I don’t manage to clear it.

There can also just be pressure to make every moment count. Being as starved for free time as I am, sometimes when I get some I worry about how best to use it. (OK, maybe “neurotic nut” is the right term.) I could also easily fall into the extreme of self-indulgence: too much chocolate, too much wine, too much watching videos into the night. Followed by guilt over not having achieved anything regarding the writing.

The key, I’ve found, is to aim for a happy medium between rigorous discipline and wild self-indulgence, and to focus on the process rather than the output.

This year in particular, I’m grappling with personal issues. Since I couldn’t write before the retreat and knew I wouldn’t be able to write for some time afterwards, I decided to use the retreat as a traveler through the desert uses an oasis: a place to refresh, renew hope, and gather energy for the next part of the trip.

Lakehouse_Sunrise_2015I made sure to spend some time every morning doing the complete wellness routine I wish I could do every day. This includes journaling, yoga, and meditation. I also made sure to exercise, either hiking and/or taking a kayak out for a paddle. I allowed myself to enjoy all that good food and the wine, neither bingeing nor denying myself.

Instead of striving for wordcount, I used my writing time to brainstorm new stories. I now have a lot of detailed notes that will be very helpful when I’m ready to start writing again. Just as importantly, the retreat reminded me of how good–and very right–it can feel to be creative.

Do any of you do retreats of any sort–writing, spiritual, crafting, etc…? Any particular tips and tricks that help you get the most out of them?


Posted in Writing | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Fictionalizing the Past

[My apologies for this late post. After coming home from university, I spent the late afternoon recording a video of me reading bits of my new book to you lovely people (this involved an accident with the retractable desk and making faces at the camera and checking whether “lamp” is really pronounced with a “p” or not). Then I spent the early evening editing the video, watching the software crash, editing the video again, finally starting the process to upload it to YouTube only to be told it would take 900 minutes to upload this lovely 5-minute video. At which point I nearly broke down and cried. After four hours, I eventually abandoned all hope & decided to do this post without a reading. *sigh*]

sketch of the Saalburg, by Sandra Schwab
The main gate of the Saalburg, a reconstructed Roman fort

When you’ve been reading and writing Regency-set historical romances for more than a decade, chances are that you’ve become quite familiar with the conventions of the genre, including the way the genre fictionalizes the Regency period. In other words, you know how the construction of this particular romantic fantasy works: the characters are typically from the upper classes (with an abundance of dukes *g*); the stories are typically set in London during the Season and / or on a lavish country estate; the hero is often tall, dark, and dangerous and might be a rake, but doesn’t suffer from syphilis; everybody has excellent teeth; nobody has any fleas nor lice. You also know exactly what kind of things are typically not touched upon: e.g., child labor, the massive economic problems after the Napoleonic Wars, the often dire situation of domestic servants.

You know this framework inside out, you know exactly what does and doesn’t work and what needs to be tweaked to fit the fantasy.

And then somebody on Twitter talks you into writing a romance novel set in ancient Rome.

And thus, you find yourself, for the most part, without any kind of framework.

For me this was certainly one of the most difficult parts of writing my Roman romance. It didn’t help that during the first few weeks I kept comparing my work to that of Rosemary Sutcliff, whose books I’ve adored since I was eight years old. No, this didn’t help at all. Instead it threw me into full-blown panic mode. How preposterous of me to think I could even begin to imitate Sutcliff’s work!

It took me a few days to realize that of course I wasn’t imitating Sutcliff’s novel. I was creating my own version of the Roman period, which in turn forced me to consciously think about how to fictionalize the past — something I hadn’t really done in years because I am so very familiar with the Regency period and the Victorian Age.

But suddenly I was forced to think about things like

  • How do you write about a world with completely different religious principles? (Funnily enough, my Roman hero ended up being the most religious character I have written to date.)
  • How do you write about a city that, for the most part, no longer exists? (The perfectionist part of me had a little melt-down over this.)
  • How do you write about slavery? How do you convey the full horror of slavery while at the same time making it part of the everyday life of your characters?
  • How do you explain an understanding of sex that was in many ways radically different from our own?
  • And why the heck wasn’t the Colosseum called Colosseum?!!?!? (This came up during a frantic bout of last-minute research last weekend.)
a sketch of Roman military standards
Roman military standards

Writing my Roman romance thus became a true adventure, which allowed me to not only explore a different time period, but also to question and challenge my own writing process and my process of translating the past into fiction.

Indeed, it also challenged me to rethink my own view on history and made me realize there are many aspects of the past we know little or nothing about.

A good example of this is the question whether or not centurions were legally allowed to marry. Though there are a good many grave stones that were erected by a centurion’s “wife”, they are not conclusive proof because the terms maritus (“husband”) and uxor (“wife”) were also used by partners who were not formally wed. Apart from formal, legal marriage, there were two other forms of socially accepted long-term relationships, namely concubinatus and contubernium. While the former refers to “lying together”, the latter term was used for a relationship where the partners lived together in one house. (Initially, the term denoted a community of people sharing a tent, and as such it was also used in a military context to refer to a group of eight soldiers sharing a tent during campaign or a room in the barracks in the fort.)

I have to admit that I found it slightly disturbing that my research often didn’t turn up hard facts, but forced me to make decisions about (key) aspects of my characters’ lives. (It gets even worse when you move beyond the borders of the Roman Empire!) (But hey, who would be stupid enough to do such a thing???) (Eh…um…)

Giving all the challenges of writing a romance set in a completely different period than what I’m used to, I am so thrilled that my first Roman romance it out in the wild. :-)

covers of Sandra Schwab's Eagle's Honor: Banished

Here’s the blurb:

A proud warrior.
A brave woman.
A forbidden love that is tested by the intrigues of ancient Rome and the hostilities at the northernmost edge of the empire.

Centurion Marcus Florius Corvus has a splendid career in the legions ahead of him. Yet a visit to Rome and a chance encounter with an old friend change his whole life: He falls in love with one of his friend’s pleasure slaves and becomes entrapped in an evil scheme designed to destroy him. And yet—he cannot help risking everything for Lia, the woman he has given his heart to, even if it means he will be banished to one of the most dangerous places in the Roman Empire: the northern frontier of Britannia.

Do you have a Kindle Unlimited subscription? Then you can now grab a copy of the first part of the serialized edition of Eagle’s Honor: Banished:

If you don’t have a KU subscription, you can also pre-order the complete edition, which will be cheaper for you:

Please note that this is a steamy historical with explicit sex scenes, some graphic language, and shocking questions about a centurion’s vine staff. And people eat, like, the STRANGEST things! 😉

Would you like to be among the first to read Marcus & Lia’s full story? Then leave a comment for a chance to win a digital copy of the complete edition of Eagle’s Honor: Banished.

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The King’s Return

729px-Louis_XVIII_relevant_la_FranceOn this day in 1814, a Bourbon King of France returned to the throne after the tumultuous period in history that included the French Revolution, Napoleon’s Empire, and the Napoleonic wars.

After Louis XVI of the House of Bourbon was overthrown and executed during the French Revolution, Napoleon rose to power in France, ultimately declaring himself emperor and, conquering most of Europe. In 1809, however, Wellington arrived in Portugal and by 1813 marched his British, Portugese and Spanish armies on to drive the French out of the Iberian peninsula. By April 1814, France fell as well.

In France, Napoleon’s former foreign minister, that old survivor, Talleyrand, convinced the Allied powers to restore the Bourbons to the throne. Other options, each with their own supporters, were considered–Napoleon’s son (through a regency), Louis Phillippe  son of the guillotined duc d’Orleans, the King of Sweden, or even Napoleon himself if he agreed to return France to its 1792 borders (Napoleon refused). The war-weary French populous were in support of a return of the Bourbon kings, however, so the decision was made.

Louis_XVIII_recadréLouis XVI’s brother became King Louis XVIII (Louis XVI’s young son, who died after miserable treatment by the Revolutionaries was considered King Louis XVII).

The new monarchy was a constitutional one and many of the Napoleonic reforms were maintained, but Louis XVIII fairly quickly became unpopular when he pressured for the return of lands to the original aristocratic owners or the Catholic Church. He also abolished the tricorn flag and insisted on marking the days that Louis XVII and Marie Antoinette were executed.

Ironically, May 4, 1814, was also the day Napoleon arrived at his first exile, the island of Elba, from where he escaped the following February to begin his Hundred Days– and sending Louis XVIII fleeing again.

Until Waterloo…

King Louis Phillippe gradually turning into a pear. Caricature by Honoré Daumier after Charles Philipon´s original sketch.

The Bourbons reigned until the popular uprisings of the July Revolution of 1830 finally placed Louis Phillippe, son of the guillotined duc d’Orleans, on the throne. He was originally beloved as the “Citizen King” but he became increasingly unpopular when, under his rule, the conditions of the working classes deteriorated, and the gap between the rich and poor became wider. He was the last king to rule France.

That ends your French history lesson for today. Any questions? Comments?

We’re on a historical road to Waterloo (the 200th anniversary) and this was one step along the way!

Posted in History | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments