The Speckled Monster

At this moment we are all affected by the Coronavirus pandemic. I, for one, am rather obsessively following all the news about it. I hope everyone is practicing social distancing and staying home, washing hands, and any other measures necessary to keep from spreading the disease.

We all are quarantined, to some degree or another. I hope none of you or your loved ones have contracted the disease. These are scary times.

“Our” era, (Regency England in the early 19th century) was no stranger to feared outbreaks of contagious illness. Smallpox, the Speckled Monster, was one of the most deadly. In 18th century England, smallpox was responsible for half of the deaths of children under age 11.

Smallpox is a viral disease characterized by fever, vomiting, and a skin rash covering the body with fluid-filled bumps which scab over and often cause severe scarring, blindness or death.

Smallpox was present in ancient times, as early as 360 BC in China. It is thought that Ramses V, Pharaoh of Egypt, died of small pox in the 12th century BC. By the 1700s the disease had been spread to the New World, decimating the indigenous populations of North and South America and Australia.

There were no effective treatments for smallpox in the Regency era, although, in 1767, William Watson, a physician at the Foundling Hospital in London tried unsuccessfully to treat it with mercury and laxatives. What was effective was preventative inoculation. Inoculation, pricking the skin with the fluid from a smallpox pustule, had been practiced for a long time in China, India, parts of the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire, parts of Africa, and even in Wales, but it did not become widely used in the West until the 1700s. One of its proponents had been Lady Mary Montagu, wife of the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, who had learned of the practice when in Turkey. Her brother had died of smallpox and she herself had suffered the disease. She had her own children inoculated.

Inoculation was not without its risks. While most patients experienced mild symptoms, some patients developed the full disease and died. It did, however, greatly reduce the death rate from smallpox.

In 1796 Edward Jenner created a vaccine for smallpox from the much milder disease of cowpox. It had been observed by Jenner and his colleagues that people who had suffered cowpox did not contract smallpox. Jenner’s vaccination was much safer than inoculation with the smallpox virus itself.

Edward Jenner vaccinating patients

Certainly, the push for vaccination for smallpox would have taken place in the Regency Era and our characters would have known of it and likely would have taken the vaccine. It took awhile for inoculation and vaccination to be universal, but wide vaccination effectively erraticated the disease by 1977.

How are you all coping with our pandemic?

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When Books Go Wrong!

Annoyed-looking girl stares out at us (front-view), cheek resting against her hand while an open book lies on table in front of her.

Let’s face it, writing isn’t easy. It LOOKS easy, to our readers, and that’s because we authors work hard to make sure what we eventually deliver to them is seamless, smooth prose that tells a logically believable (and well-researched) tale that’s also emotionally satisfying. But how many drafts did we go through to get there?

Granted, some books are easier than others. Sometimes a story is so clear to us that it very nearly writes itself. Some authors are blessed with many of those. But in my experience anyway, that is rare.

“Think of Olympic athletes,” I often told my students years ago when I was teaching romance writing. “Don’t they make their respective sport achievements look easy?” I used the analogy to provide some perspective, as they often came in thinking the writing would be easy. “Think of how smooth and graceful they are, how effortlessly they seem to flow through the motions of their sport. Watching them is like reading a finished story. Then think of the years of practice and study, the repeated successes and failures, the continued drive to keep getting better that they have invested to achieve that apparent ease. That is also the struggle behind most successful stories (and their authors).”

Pair of Olympic swimmers shown in simultaneous action in parallel pool lanes via underwater camera.

The writing does get easier the longer you’re at it. Practice helps just about anything! Yet every book seems to present its own challenges. Just when you think the process is getting comfortable, the next story comes along with its own unique twist you’ve never needed to handle before. New learning curve, every book.

Not to mention there are so many ways a book can go wrong. And I’m not even talking about the marketing part, here. Bad cover? Bad blurb? Oh, no. I’m only talking about the story here. Every aspect of a story, from the tone to the characters, the plot, the emotional arcs and the structure, the pacing, the dialogue–even the balance of those elements, or the choice of point-of-view characters in scenes, and more –all of these can make or break the successful telling of the story. Readers don’t see this, because we hope that all of those issues are smoothed out before they ever see a page.

You may have guessed I am in the throes of revising a book that has “gone wrong” and that’s the inspiration for this blogpost. Yup. I have been working for ages on a prequel to LORD OF MISRULE and had it at least ¾ done, maybe more. But something wasn’t working. Sent it to several critique partners, and it was clear from their comments that I was right, something wasn’t working. But none of them could quite put a finger on it. Their multiple views did help me to do so, I think!

Sometimes when books go wrong, it’s not just one big thing, but an accumulation of many small things. Kind of like dropped stitches in knitting. You might not notice them when they happen, but later as you look back at the completed rows, there they are. A character’s attitude is wrong, the tone is off or someone’s emotional reaction is missing. Some plot developments may happen in the wrong order. And as in knitting, there’s nothing to be done except unravel it back to the rows that were intact, and redo it.

I hate having to delay this book even longer, but I won’t release a book that I know isn’t right. That’s not to say my books are perfect, but I hope they are as good as I am capable of offering at the time they come out. Alas, I am a “pantser” (meaning I have to discover the story as I go along), so that usually means multiple drafts to sort things out. I have unraveled a big chunk of this book and am busily “re-knitting” it as fast as I can. I hope now to have it repaired and out by June at least. Maybe with a miracle, sooner. But it won’t be in April as I had planned. (sigh)

Have you read books that you thought the author should have “re-knitted” but didn’t? (please don’t name specific titles or authors) If you’re a writer, which would you say happens for you more often, easy ones or hard ones? Do you find there’s any one specific way books most often go wrong for you? If you are a plotter instead of a pantser, what still goes wrong sometimes even though you are following your thought-out plan?

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Sharpe is Back!

We recently signed up to stream Britbox and, oh, happy days! One of the offerings is the BBC’s Sharpe Series. I haven’t watched Sharpe in years and I’ve been having a great time binging on some young Sean Bean and the Napoleonic War. What could be better?

I dished on the Sharpe series in an old Risky Regency blog and my thoughts are pretty much the same then as now. Here they are, edited for now.

Richard Sharpe, for those of you who may not know, is a fictional soldier in the Napoleonic War, created by Bernard Cornwell in a wonderful series of books, adding new stories beyond those depicted in the tv series. Sharpe is a marvelous character and Cornwell does a masterful job of giving us such rich detail about the war and the time period, so that you actually feel as if you are there, experiencing it with Sharpe.

The BBC series Sharpe is played by Sean Bean, a very sigh-worthy choice.

Here is what Sean Bean’s Sharpe website said about the BBC series at the time of my original blog in 2006:

“The films are based on the Napoleonic campaign novels, and follow Sharpe and his “Chosen Men” (riflemen who are trusted crack shots). Sharpe has been promoted from the ranks, very unusual in its day, so he has the resentment of the “gentlemen” officers, and also that of the men, who assume he is no better than them. He is promoted after saving Wellington’s life, and is often sent on dangerous missions, along with the Chosen Men, due to his skills and bravery.

In the first film, Sharpe’s Rifles, we are introduced to the Riflemen who will become the Chosen Men, and Sharpe has to forge both respect and friendship with their soon-to-be Sergeant, Patrick Harper. The later films show how cohesive a fighting force these few men become, they think and act as one. The last film to be made was Sharpe’s Waterloo, depicting the great battle.”

I was first introduced to Sharpe years ago through the Chivers Audiobook versions. William Gaminara narrated, and his deep, sexy voice truly enhanced the experience. I can still hear him say, “Sharpe swore.” Unfortunately, I no longer can find those versions. I recently started listening to another audiobook version of Sharpe’s Waterloo read by a different narrator. Not quite the same, but good enough.

Sean Bean is also not the Sharpe I visualized while listening to those audiobooks years ago. In fact, almost all the cast of the BBC version are not the people Cornwell gave to my imagination. Furthermore, I think of the BBC shows as “Sharpe Lite.” The shows meld elements of several of the books into one story, but cannot give the richness of detail that is in the books. Another point–these were not high budget productions, so rather than a cast of thousands, you get a cast of….dozens.

Cornwell also is no romance novelist. His Sharpe is actually quite stupid in love, which is quite frustrating, but even unsatisfying romance elements were not enough to keep me from loving the books, the character, the life of the Napoleonic soldier.

And the Sharpe films, for all that they are not being the Sharpe of my imagination, are still wonderful. If you don’t get Britbox, you can also buy the Sharpe films from Amazon and, I presume, other outlets.

Enjoy!
Diane

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Black London

One of my favorite books to revisit when I’m trying to imagine Georgian England is Gretchen Gerzina’s BLACK LONDON. There are many free blacks from the era with whom some of us may be familiar: Francis Barber, Ignatius Sancho, Olaudah Equiano, Elizabeth “Dido” Belle, Jonathan Strong, Ukawsaw Gronniosaw. There is also the ever present black groom, footman, and page who are seen in art and mentioned commonly in letters and printed sources. What interests me most though is the thriving community of free blacks that clearly populated London. There were Africans sent directly by their families to England to learn English (mostly to further trade). There were shopkeepers, clerks, athletes, and musicians (LOTS of musicians!). Much of what we know about this community comes, sadly, not directly from them, but from their being mentioned in the news or by racists complaining about them. I’m going to quote directing from BLACK LONDON here (p.24):

Portrait possibly of Francis Barber, attributed either to James Northcote or Sir Joshua Reynolds

“A newspaper article from 1764 refers to ‘no less than 57 [black] men and women’ who held a party filled with music at a Fleet Street pub. Dozens of black people sat in the gallery at the famous Somerset suit in 1772, and hundreds celebrated afterwards at a Westminster pub…[Philip Thicknesse] complained in 1778 that, ‘London abounds with an incredible number of these black men, who have clubs to support those who are out of place.’ In other words, not only must a viable communal network have existed, but it could be quickly and effectively mobilized for the purposes of social and political action, even at a time when their political clout seemed non-existent.”

So, when picturing Georgian London, remember black Londoners existed then as now, not in isolation, but in relation to one another and to the community at large.

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I’ve always loved Persuasion

I came late to loving the Regency, not until I started writing in 1995. I’d read Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility in some English class along the way, but it wasn’t until my writing pals Helen and Julie introduced me to Georgette Heyer and Regency Romance (the Signets and Zebras) that I began to really fall in love with the Regency.

One event clinched it.

Helen, Julie, and I went to see the 1995 Amanda Root/Ciaran Hinds movie Persuasion, which had been a BBC TV production in the UK but released in theaters in the US. It was this movie adaptation of a Jane Austen book I’d never read that made the Regency come alive for me.

From the country house of the Elliots to the chic rooms in Bath to the simple seaside abode of the Harviles, the Regency world the move depicted seemed so real to me. Maybe it was because the whole movie was filmed on location, but, even so, the details were not prettied up for film. The livery of the Elliot footmen looked a bit shabby, as it would have for a baronet whose fortunes were dwindling. Skirts and boots got muddy during country walks, as they would have in a time without paved walkways. The dancing was boisterous but not polished and practices, as professional dancers would have performed. The hero and heroine were attractive but not “beautiful people.”

The Regency people in the story also acted in ways I believed were true to the period. The emphasis on status, on honor and obligation seemed genuine to me. There were bored privileged young women, proud impoverished ones, scheming social climbers. There were also “normal” people, like the Musgroves and the Crofts. And Ann and Wentworth, of course.

Jane Austen may have been exploring the role of persuasion throughout the story, but she also crafted a lovely, satisfying romance, with familiar Romance themes. Persuasion is both a reunion story (Ann and Captain Wentworth were once betrothed) and a Cinderella story (Ann, the put-upon sister finds great love in the end). The conflict was poignant – Ann regretted breaking her betrothal to Wentworth; Wentworth remained bitter that she threw him off in order to seek better prospects.

There’s a lovely villain in Ann’s cousin, William Elliot, who becomes intent on courting her, and more complications ensue when Wentworth considers himself obligated to marry the injured Louisa Musgrove. The steps Ann and Wentworth each make to find their way back to each other are subtle, but very satisfying and very typical of romance novels of today.

After seeing the movie, I had a picture in my mind that was my Regency. I read Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice and all of Jane Austen’s books, even Lady Susan. Persuasion is one of the few books I’ve read more than twice. I’ve watched the movie more times than that. The social attitudes from Jane Austen’s books seeped into my brain, as did the language, the rhythm of the conversation.

So you might say Jane Austen helped create my Regency world! And now I’ve decided to write my own Persuasion story. It is just the germ of an idea right now, but, if all goes well, it should be for sale late this year or early next year.

It will be my homage to Jane Austen and her wonderful book, Persuasion.


(I adapted this blog from an earlier one written in 2012)

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Book deals and mid-January

Do you find mid-January kind of bleak? The holidays are over, and I always feel a bit of a let-down. Putting away the decorations and what-have-you isn’t as fun as getting them out. Even the leftovers are usually all eaten up by now. (This year ours aren’t, yet, but that’s a different story.) As Charlie Brown might say, “Bleh.” But there are some good book deals out there this month, plus we’re not far from February now, the biggest month of the year for romance!

If you are looking for something new to read and you don’t mind reading “sweet” historicals, then check out this group of romances on special offer until January 20. You can find them here.

I think many of us here at the Riskies are on deadlines or involved in major projects presently. We are also, as we have been for the past year, pondering the future of this blog. Readership has definitely fallen off, but several of the regular Riskies have not been able to post this year and the rest of us haven’t been able to fill in with extra posts, for the most part. So there have been fewer posts to offer. Is that the reason for the fall-off, or is it just that blogs are less popular now than they used to be, before Twitter, Instagram, and so much else came along? I would guess it’s both….

At any rate, we are still here for now, and even if we decide to discontinue the blog at some point later this year, we don’t want the fabulous archive of all the past posts to disappear. We will certainly keep you posted if we decide to make changes.

In the meantime, happy mid-January, and happy reading! This is the very BEST time of year to curl up with a good story, the best antidote to the blah’s that I know of. What’s your favorite way to deal with mid-winter? Are you still here reading the blog?

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Looking for Luck in the New Year?

New Year’s Eve has come and gone, and here we are, already three days into the new year. If you were hoping to increase your chances for a lucky year, it’s too late now for most of the folk lore and practices you might have tried!

The Risky Regencies blog has been around since 2005, so we have covered a lot of January beginnings by now. If you’re in the mood, scroll down through our archives list and pick some early January posts at random. Some themes are recurring –for instance, making resolutions for the new year, which Regency people seem to have done just as we do today. But some of the other old customs seem to have fallen by the wayside. In January of 2016 my post included quite a few gathered from a variety of cultures.

Just for fun, below is an excerpt from my 2018 December release, Lord of Misrule. The main characters are traveling on New Year’s Eve and must spend the night at an inn. Nevertheless, they make an attempt to honor a few old customs. How did you spend your New Year’s Eve? Did you try to follow any old practices to influence your year ahead?

“Tell me, what would you all have been doing to celebrate the new year in Little Macclow if I had not spirited you away?” Lord Forthhurst said, introducing a new line of conversation.

“Oh, playing cards or charades, roasting chestnuts, singing or dancing, teasing each other with puzzles and riddles to try our brains,” said Lady Anne.

“Dining on plum puddings and mince pies. Listening for the peal of the bells to tell us the new year has begun,” the Squire added.

“We might have been entertaining any visitors in a similar manner,” Miss Tamworth said. She had resumed her seat and turned her unfathomable blue eyes on him. “I had considered asking you to be our midnight caller.”

“The old first-footer custom?” He knew no one who followed it. Mostly it was practiced up in the northern counties and Scotland. Still, he was flattered. The first person to step into a house after the stroke of midnight was supposed to bring luck and set the tone for a good and prosperous year. He doubted he was a likely candidate for any such thing. “I am honored, but why in heaven’s name would you ask me?”

“Oh, just because it is considered much luckier if the visitor is a handsome man.” She shrugged, her tone utterly off-handed.

He looked for any sign that she was flirting. Catching her eye, he tested her with a devilish grin. “Ah, so you admit that you find me handsome?”

Her frank, clear gaze seemed perfectly in earnest. “I needn’t admit it–I say so quite freely, Lord Forthhurst. It is simply a fact about you, one that must be obvious to anyone with eyes. …”

…“’Tis a shame you’ll not have the opportunity to be first-footer at the vicarage, Lord Forthhurst,” Squire said, rescuing him from having to respond. “The vicar serves a very tasty punch on New Year’s Eve that I suspect you would like. It has rendered many a visitor barely able to make his way home again after indulging.”

“That sounds quite wicked for a vicar. Indeed, I am sorry to forego both the honor and the pleasure.”

A short while later, they decide to leave their private parlor to join in the revelry downstairs in the public room.

“I think we should all go down and celebrate the new year’s arrival with everyone else.” She looked pointedly at Cassie and the viscount. “Did you bring new clothes to wear?”

“New clothes?” Lord Forthhurst tilted his head, looking bewildered. He clearly did not know much about country customs.

“Yes, to bring luck and prosperity in the new year.”

“I see. I’m afraid I did not bring any.” He sounded unconvinced.

“I did not have any to bring,” Cassie admitted.

“Well, I have a splendid idea how to fix that,” Lady Anne declared, her hands sweeping up into the air. “I shall loan Cassie one of my shawls, and Squire can loan Lord Forthhurst one of his cravats. The items will be new–to you, at least. I feel certain that will serve. Oh, do let us get ready, and then go down.”

Belated or not, I and my sister Riskies all wish you the very best in 2020. That includes lots of happy reading!

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Christmas wishes and a special offer

Do you like Christmas stories? Just wanted to alert everyone to this special promotion! If you love Christmas stories and read them even after the holiday is over (as I do!!), take a look at this group (yes, you’ll see Lord of Misrule is in there –look at me, I finally did some marketing!! LOL). They’re not all Regencies, but some are offering special prices. It runs through Dec 28. https://books.bookfunnel.com/christmas_stories/113qaxih2r

In addition, of course, I wanted to send everyone my best wishes for the holidays. I hope your days are filled with love and hope, the true gifts of the season and what Christmas is all about. Plus a new year filled with all the things that bring you joy!

Merry Christmas (to all who celebrate it) and happy holidays for whatever else you may be celebrating. Happy New Year to everyone from all of us here at the Risky Regencies blog!

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Preparing for Christmas…Again

I am the lady of this house, not an exalted country house, but a respectable one and I must not dally any further. I must prepare for Christmas, once again. It is a daunting task in this modern age – 1820. There is so much to do.

Once before I wrote about preparing for Christmas (see blog of 12/3/12). Alas, this year is no different…well, maybe slightly altered.

First I must check to see if Cook has prepared the Christmas pudding. She should have done so five days ago on Stir Up Sunday. I must discuss with her all the food we shall need for the holidays, because the rest of the family and some friends will gather here and they will stay through Twelfth Night.

I should send invitations to the families near here to come for a Christmas meal. I believe I shall have my daughter write them. She has a better hand than I. Soon it will be time to send the footmen out to gather greenery and we must hang a ball of mistletoe to generate some excitement during the party.

Then there are gifts to purchase. I shall make a list and have my husband’s people purchase them in London and send them to me here. Amazon, the butler in our London town house will see to it. And I must exert myself to embroider some handkerchiefs for everyone, because that is the sort of generous person I am.

Speaking of generous, we will also make up baskets of food for those less fortunate than we. I am certain the kitchen staff and maids might take an afternoon away from their duties to assist in filling the baskets. My dh, Lord P–, and I will, of course deliver them to the families. It will take the better part of the day.

It is such a busy time!
What are you doing to prepare for the holidays??

I know one thing you can do. You can purchase my scribbling friend Darlene Gardner’s latest Christmas Romance, The Christmas Cupid. It is set 200 years in the future (2019), but I am certain you will love it.

Now I shall lie down for a bit. All this planning has quite exhausted me.

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Remembrance Day, Remembered

I originally posted this on November 10, 1914. I’m adapting it today, because….We need to remember!

Today is November 11, Veteran’s Day, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, and the 101th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I. In the UK and the Commonwealth, November 11 is known as Remembrance Day.

888,246 Commonwealth lives were lost in World War I. 888,246. that’s a staggering number. Can you imagine? Everyone in the UK must have been personally affected by that war.

In 2014, the UK marked Remembrance Day in a truly remarkable way. At the Tower of London 888,246 ceramic poppies were planted, one for each life lost. The poppies could be purchased for 25 pounds each and will be sent to the donors in January.

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I visited the Tower of London in September 2014 and saw the poppies that had been planted in the moat so far.
You can see the individual poppies in this photo.

By November 11 the whole moat was filled. The poppies bled from a bastion window, arced above the Tower’s medieval causeway, flowed over the top of the walls and fill the moat with a sea of crimson.

The idea for this art project came from this poem:

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

The blood swept lands and seas of red,
Where angels dare to tread.
As God cried a tear of pain as the angels fell,
Again and again.
As the tears of mine fell to the ground
To sleep with the flowers of red
As any be dead
My children see and work through fields of my
Own with corn and wheat,
Blessed by love so far from pain of my resting
Fields so far from my love.
It be time to put my hand up and end this pain
Of living hell. to see the people around me
Fall someone angel as the mist falls around
And the rain so thick with black thunder I hear
Over the clouds, to sleep forever and kiss
The flower of my people gone before time
To sleep and cry no more
I put my hand up and see the land of red,
This is my time to go over,
I may not come back
So sleep, kiss the boys for me

Today in the UK, think of the 888,246 lives represented in the Tower’s moat in 2014. Think, as well, of the 116,516 American dead in WWI. Or the one and a half million American lives lost in war beginning with our Civil War. Think of all the soldiers who have died in wars.

And honor them.

Do you have a particular person to remember on Veteran’s Day? Mine is my father, Col. Daniel J. Gaston, who spent a whole career in the army.

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