Sunday, June 30, 2013

Petticoat Sleuths

I look to my wonderfully creative friends for inspiration and they do not fail me—ever.  Over the past few weeks, Nichole Christoff has inspire me with her summer reading list and last week's blog guest, Christine Trent, inspired me to focus my reading on what I'm dubbing:  "petticoat sleuths." That's right, those crime-fighting women of the sub-sub-genre: historical mystery with female protagonist. 

Happily, this is fertile ground and there are many choices. For your reading pleasure, I've assembled a selection of authors and their creations spanning 13 centuries and two continents. The selected books all feature a female amateur sleuth with or without a husband, lover or boyfriend.  For a more in-depth listing of the genre over many centuries go to Women In World History by clicking here or see this slide show at Huffington Post here.

7th Century Ireland
Sister Fidelma Mysteries by Peter Tremayne. Sister Fidelma is a Celtic religieuse and a dalaigh, an advocate of the ancient law courts of Ireland.  Fidelma usually solves crimes with her partner (and eventually husband) Brother Eadulf, a Saxon religieux.  I've read a number of these books and they're fascinating.  The series focuses on domestic and royal crimes.

Regency England
The Mr. and Mrs. Darcy Mysteries by Carrie Bebris. This series feature newlyweds Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice as reluctant sleuths who become embroiled in intrigues surrounding their friends and family. The series offers plenty of lively dialogue, suspense, and romantic interplay, with eerie twists reminiscent of the gothic novels so popular in Austen's day. I've read a few of these and found them delightful.  A good spinoff on JA's work and the tone of the time.

Death and the Courtesan by Pamela Christie.  Pamela Christie’s sparkling historical mystery goes beyond the modest drawing rooms of Regency London in the company of the city’s most esteemed and scandalous courtesan Arabella Beaumont.  It falls to Arabella and her resourceful sister, Belinda, to clear her good—or at least innocent—name. Utilizing all the talents in her arsenal, the irrepressible Miss Beaumont will endeavor to catch the real culprit, before the hangman catches up to her… Haven't read this, but just put it on my wish list. I like a feisty heroine who bucking the system.

19th Century England

The Amelia Peabody Series is a series of nineteen mystery novels and one nonfiction companion volume written by Elizabeth Peters, featuring Egyptologist Amelia Peabody Emerson. Everybody knows the famed egyptologist Amelia Peabody. 'nuff said.

Charlotte & Thomas Pitt Series by Anne Perry. Victorian policeman Thomas Pitt and his well-born wife Charlotte solve mysteries. About the first book, The Carter Street Hangman, reviewers said: "An ingenious mystery and an excellent example of manners and caste systems of the Victorian era." 

19th Century New York
The Gaslight Mystery Series by Victoria Thompson. "Turn-of-the-century New York, a courageous midwife-sleuth, a fast-paced plot, and plenty of authentic period atmosphere," says one reviewer. Edgar® Nominated author Victoria Thompson writes series feature midwife Sarah Brandt and Detective Sergeant Frank Malloy of the New York City Police. Apparently Sara and Frank have been solving mysteries and gradually falling in love over the first 14 books. I've read one and I'm going back for more.

Early 20th Century England
Edgar-winning mystery writer Laurie R. King writes the Mary Russell series. May is partner/wife to Sherlock Holmes. Mary became first Holmes's apprentice, then his partner. Starting with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, Russell and Holmes move through the ’teens and ’twenties in amiable discord, challenging each other to ever greater feats of detection, traveling the world from Sussex to Simla. Haven't read this series yet but it has come highly recommended.

England WWII
The Maggie Hope Mystery Series by Susan Elia MacNeal features whip-smart heroine Maggie Hope. MacNeal introduced the remarkable Maggie Hope in her acclaimed debut, Mr. Churchill’s Secretary. Maggie graduated at the top of her college class and possesses all the skills of the finest minds in British intelligence, but her gender qualifies her only to be the newest typist at No. 10 Downing Street. Her indefatigable spirit and remarkable gifts for code breaking, though, rival those of even the highest men in government, and Maggie finds that working for the prime minister affords her a level of clearance she could never have imagined—and opportunities she will not let pass.  That sounds like a great premise to me!  Sign me up.

Mid-20th Century England
Miss Jane Marple Series by Agatha Christie. Miss Marple is an elderly spinster who lives in the village of St. Mary Mead and acts as an amateur detective. Alongside Hercule Poirot, she is one of the most loved and famous of Christie's characters and has been portrayed numerous times on screen. My personal favorite actress to play JM is Joan Hickson.

This is just the tip of the ice berg and I’m sure I've left off YOUR favorite sleuth. In fact, I've left off a lot of favorites.  A thousand pardons. Please, enlighten me and our readers by leaving a comment with the petticoat sleuth you like the best.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

An Interview with Christine Trent, Lady of Ashes

The Rockville 8 is pleased to welcome historical-fiction writer Christine Trent to our blog. Christine is the author of four novels set in England and France during the Industrial Revolution. Her newest novel, Lady of Ashes from Kensington Books, was released in March 2013 and tells the story of Violet Morgan, a Victorian lady undertaker.

Perhaps you're wondering if I mistyped that. Undertaker? That's right; the book's feisty and resolute heroine is a dismal housekeeper, but a very successful undertaker. When the book opens, Violet Morgan operates a funerary business with her then-husband Graham. As the story evolves, the reader quickly learns that it is Violet--her business savvy,  hard work and empathy--that makes Morgan Undertaking a success. Let's chat with Christine and learn a little bit about her heroine, her creative process and historical research.

R8: Christine, most historical fiction focuses on women of leisure but Lady of Ashes (LOA) is the fourth in what I call your "career woman" series. What draws you to create stories about working women during this time period?

CT: Well, I’ve actually written about working women from the late 18th century through the middle of the 19th century.  The Queen’s Dollmaker, about a dollmaker to Marie Antoinette, was set in France and England of the Revolutionary period.  I’ve also written about an apprentice to the great waxworker, Madame Tussaud (A Royal Likeness), as well as having written a Regency-set piece about a cloth merchant (By the King’s Design).

I think a lot of traditional professions (seamstresses, fan-makers, lacemakers, and so forth) have been done really well by several authors, and I thought it would be interesting to explore more off-beat professions a woman might have.  The ideas for the professions mostly stem from my own interests. 

For example, I have an extensive doll collection, and when I learned that Marie Antoinette collected dolls, it really made me wonder about who would have supplied them to the queen.  I’ve also visited Madame Tussauds in several cities, and have always been fascinated by the art of waxworks.  In By the King’s Design, the hero is a cabinetmaker, which is homage to my husband, who is my very own talented cabinetmaker hero.

What prompted your interest in undertaking and funerary occupations for your characters? In your research, did you find examples of women undertakers?  Was this an unusual occupation for a woman?

CT: The idea for Lady of Ashes actually came from a writer friend of mine, Mary Oldham, who suggested to me that an undertaker would be a “fun” profession to explore for a heroine.  Indeed it was.  I was amazed at how much there was to the funeral business beyond black dresses, black bunting on the windows, and those silly bell-ringer coffins.  For example, did you know that when someone died, all of the household clocks would be stopped?  It was a signal that time had stopped for the deceased, and he needed to know this so that he could move on to the other side.

Also, embalming was not widely practiced until the U.S. started using it during the Civil War, to preserve the bodies of dead soldiers who might need to make long train rides home.  British Victorians found embalming to be a very un-Christian practice, because it amounted to filling a body full of nasty chemicals and then committing it to the ground.  Who says the Victorians weren’t environmentally conscious?

As for existing female undertakers…they would be unusual indeed.  I have no doubt that there were women who worked in undertaker shops with their husbands, and who may have inherited the shops when their husbands died, but it wouldn’t have generally been a “seemly” practice for a woman.  After all, women did not frequently even attend funerals, much less coordinate them!

It was difficult to find detailed information about specific undertakers of the Victorian era.  I think this was primarily because funerary practices were—and still are today—closely held secrets.  Now, if you want to hear about a Victorian era undertaking scandal, let me know, and I’ll tell you about the undertaking team of Hutton and Williams…

R8: Not only is Violet a career-minded woman, but she is also interested in medicine and science—almost unheard of I assume at that time period. Further, Violet is a self-proclaimed failure as housekeeper. Why were these traits important in developing Violet's character?

CT: I wanted Violet to be a really great, scrupulous undertaker.  But I didn’t want her to be perfect, because that would be boring.  So I decided that as a lousy housekeeper, she would be a Victorian rarity—a woman who isn’t domestic AND dallies in a man’s profession.

R8: LOA is set in a very realistic London between 1861 and 1865. How do you research the time period for one of your books?
The Buckingham Palace Mews (horse stables) will figure prominently in 
the book I am currently writing.  Here I am with an audio tour.

CT: Lots of books and lots of Internet time, but I also do original research too.  I always try to find several significant historical events during my time period that I can weave my characters through, as well as having them interact with real historical personages (some famous, and some obscure).

R8: As a reader, I love learning little tidbits of historical information. While several things caught my eye, I'll mention one here: Mr. Crapper and his amazing flush toilet. Unlike our good friends with the X and Y chromosomes, I'm usually not interested in scatological detail, but when I read that Violet's home had one of "Mr. Thomas Crapper's brand-new water closet mechanisms," I admit I ran to Wikipedia right away to learn more.  So, how did this piece of information come to your attention? And what did you learn about Crapper & Co and their slogan,"a certain flush with every pull?"

CT: Well, this goes back to the “lots of books” part of my research.  I have a book called The Compleat Loo.  Enough said.  After all, who isn’t interested in how people once did their business?

R8: In LOA and your earlier novels, the heroine's story is intertwined with royalty and famous people of the time. Tell us about weaving Albert and Victoria into Violet's story.

CT: Actually, my editor liked the weaving of my heroine with Marie Antoinette in The Queen’s Dollmaker, and wanted me to continue the practice of commoners interacting with royalty in subsequent books.  Prior to writing Lady of Ashes, I knew quite a bit about Victoria, but almost nothing about Albert.  Theirs was quite an interesting romance, and she was completely devastated when he died. 
Rockville 8 members may be interested to
 learn that I ran into fellow WRW chapter-mate, Mindy Klasky,
 while standing inside Walter Raleigh’s prison cell at the
 Tower of London.  How weird is that??
I knew that Albert’s death and a female undertaker were an irresistible combination, so I have my heroine work on Albert’s funeral.  Now that was some interesting research!  Did you know that Albert’s body was not only not embalmed, but he was left out to, er, mature, for nearly two weeks before he was buried?  Grenadier guards were stationed at his coffin inside Windsor Chapel, and they had to be changed out every hour or so because they were passing out from the smell.

You learn some really weird stuff when you research undertaking.

R8: With LOA you introduced an element of intrigue and mystery. How did that come about and where do you think that will take you?

CT: As I researched historical events in my time period, I learned about an unusual killer who was on the loose at the time.  I’ll say no more lest I spoil the plot.  But I really wanted to incorporate the killer, which led me to a bit of a side mystery plot.  As a result, Lady of Ashes is becoming a series, with the heroine now an amateur detective.

R8: Can you give us a sneak peek of what you're working on next?

CT: I’ve turned in the first sequel to Lady of Ashes, and am working on the next book of Violet’s adventures.  You can expect more details about Victorian-era undertaking in each book.  Fingers crossed that my publisher will want to buy more.

R8: In the photo on the right, Christine is standing on the very windy Westminster Bridge where Violet will have a harrowing experience in the sequel to Lady of Ashes, so stay tuned for the next book in the Lady of Ashes series (click here).

Haven't read Lady of Ashes?  Win a free book and get started!

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Sunday, June 16, 2013

A Father's Words of Wisdom

My dad is a visionary leader, a droll raconteur, and a sentimental slob who loves his kids and grandkids and chortles like a hopped-up Santa at his own jokes. He’s the best and I love him.

In tribute to him and fathers around the world this Father’s Day season, I bring you some of his parenting wisdom.

Upon the whining of his kids at the prospect of Yet Another Cultural Learning Opportunity:

“You know, it’s my job as the parent to present you with educational experiences and it’s your job as the child to pretend not to like it.”  

His take on the Serenity prayer:

“If you’re happy, I’m ecstatic.”

On being a tourist:

“Always leave something left unexplored so you have a reason to come back.”

Career Advice Part One:

“If you write a page a day, in a year, you’ll have written a book.”

Career Advice Part Two:

“If you wake up in the morning and you’re not at least a little bit excited about going to work, then quit. Life’s too short to be unhappy with your job.”

Later this summer, my dad and I will head out on a short vacation together, a little father-daughter time to hang out, and explore, and crack each other up, and be serious. We will eat good food and drink good wine and we might remember to take pictures of  all the venues we visit. We’ll grin at odd moments and think how lucky we are to enjoy each other as adults and it won’t even cross my mind to pretend not to like it, cuz it will be awesome.

How about you? Has your dad gifted you with any sage advice that helps you navigate life?  

Monday, June 10, 2013

On Writing: Characterization and Attitude

We all know what it means to have attitude. And I'm sure we all know what it means to give attitude, too! But what does attitude have to do with your characters?

Don't look at me in that tone of voice!

Okay, first let's make sure we're all on the same page regarding the definition of "attitude," because it's used it in different ways.  Attitude can mean a personal viewpoint or general opinion about something.  It can also mean a challenging or arrogant manner.  And it can mean a physical posture or bodily position. 

So "attitude" is not only the way a person thinks about something, or the arrogant manner in which they're expressing themselves, it's also the way they are physically standing or holding themselves.  And how can you use that when you're writing?

Let's workshop it - with attitude to spare!

Try combining all three of those ideas and applying them to your character.  Let's say you're writing about a woman who's having an argument with her fourteen-year-old daughter.  What's the daughter's attitude?  Let's break it down:

Her personal viewpoint is that she wants her curfew extended to one a.m. so she can go to her best friend's birthday party. 

Is she displaying a challenging, arrogant manner?  You bet your boots she is!  But how does your reader know that?

Well, what's the typical physical posture of a girl arguing with her mom? 

Joanna's hands welded to her hips as her elbows fanned the kitchen air. 

Grace looked up from the bread dough she was kneading.  If that child rolled her eyes one more time, she was definitely going to suffer some serious vision damage.  Or at the very least she'd be grounded for the rest of her life.

"You're fourteen, my dear daughter," Grace said, with as much patience as she could muster.  "There's no way you're staying out until one in the morning!"

Joanna's mouth pulled up on one side as she gave vent to her weakest argument yet.  "Oh please, Mother, you wouldn't dare keep me home," she smirked, "everyone's going to this party."

Okay, obviously those two have a lot of issues to work out.  And I didn't exactly play to subtlety there, with the arms-akimbo, eye-rolling, smirking teenager.  I'm sure you've got a good idea of Joanna's character (at least in relation to curfew and the importance of big parties).  But did you also get an idea of Grace's character?  The bread-kneading, line-holding mom?  Well, that brings up an interesting point, which is this:

You get a good idea of someone's character by their reaction to the attitude of another person.  It's not just the actions your characters take, it's their reaction to the actions of others which will give the reader a concept of who these people are.

But what if the character in question doesn't have quite as much of a challenging arrogant manner?  What if he or she is, for lack of a better term, a human doormat?

Let's workshop it again - and don't give me any of your attitude!

So let's say your character is Harvey, a storeroom clerk in his late forties.  A shipment has come in without the proper paperwork, and technically he's not supposed to accept it.

His personal viewpoint is that he should not sign for the delivery.

Is he displaying a challenging, arrogant manner?  In this case, no.

And what about his bodily position?  Well, let's see:

Harvey wiped his palm on his khaki shorts and pulled the clipboard closer for another inspection.  "I have specific instructions not to accept any shipments from your company unless they have the proper TPS forms attached."  He heard the quiver in his voice and swallowed, trying to steady it.  Dealing with these paperwork issues always made him shaky.  What if he screwed it up - again? 

He forced his rounded shoulders square and handed the clipboard back, using the most decisive motion he could muster. "Sorry."  It didn't help that now his hand, as well as his voice, was shaking.

The brownshirted delivery man held up his hands like somebody at gunpoint.  But this guy wasn't surrendering.  "No can do, bra," he said with a smile.  "Can't take it back, gotta leave it here."

The sweat made its way from Harvey's palms to the back of his neck.  He could feel it beading on his upper lip.  Was this guy serious?  What was Harvey going to do if the delivery guy wouldn't take the package back with him?  The meatball sub that Harvey had eaten for lunch was starting to come back on him, emitting a foul acid that crept up his throat.  He needed to have a glass of milk and lie down.

"I guess I could find a place in back for it, as long as you promise me you'll bring those forms tomorrow."

"Sure thing bra," the delivery guy said.  "No problemo."

Poor Harvey.  He's sweaty, slump-shouldered and has stomach problems.  And do you think that the delivery guy is going to bring those forms in tomorrow?  No, me neither.

Lack of attitude can tell your readers just as much about your characters as attitude can.  When something unpleasant confronts Harvey, does he attack or retreat?  He probably lies down with a glass of milk.

But what about Joanna, from the example above?  How would she have handled the delivery guy?  Well, she probably would have made some cutting comment about his shorts not being kind to his knobby knees, and then gone back to filing her nails. 

Summing up the attitude issue

With attitude and characterization, keep these things in mind:

  • The person's posture and physicality: what does it say about them?
  • Their reaction to events: when confronted with something pleasant or unpleasant, how do they react?
  • Getting what they want: how do they go about it?
  • Remember that attitude is not necessarily a bad thing!  If Joanna used those same mannerisms when dealing with a bully at school, we'd be cheering for her.

When was the last time you saw someone "giving attitude"?  What did it tell you about them?  And what did it say about the person on the receiving end of that attitude?

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Fun in the Sun: Nic’s 2013 Summer Reading List

Ah, summer… ’Tis the season of lazy, hazy days when sprawling poolside with a tall lemonade and a good book is the perfect pursuit. I don’t know about you, but when winter is in its death throes, I find myself building my summer to-be-read pile as eagerly as I plan my first pedicure paint color. Now, with Memorial Day in the rearview mirror, the summer season is upon us. So, without further ado, here are my top five picks for reading, Summer of 2013 style:

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II5. The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan
“What?” you say. “Non-fiction in the summer? Nic, what happened to fun-in-the-sun reading?” But what could be more fun than the war-time tale of a secret city in the mountains, populated exclusively by women, hired to work in a mysterious complex of factories and labs without any idea of how their jobs relate to the jobs of their colleagues? Well, the entire tale is true. We’ve all heard of Rosie the Riveter, but the ladies of Atomic City, hidden deep in the American countryside, were building bomb parts and no one knew it—until now. So this summer, I’m going to celebrate the untold achievements of the women who came before me by reading all about their hush-hush role in winning my freedom and yours.

4. The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
The Long GoodbyeI’m an enthusiastic Chandler fan, but somehow, I’ve never read this winner of the 1955 Edgar® for Best Novel. Many, including Chandler himself, have said this novel is his best work. Others say it’s his worst. So, I realized, I should decide for myself. After all, Chandler’s work is foundational to my own. If we’re writers, we’re following in the footsteps of others who’ve paved the way. Why not read the work of an author who blazed the trail you follow? For me, that’s Chandler and his Edgar®-winning work.

3. The Other Woman by Hank Phillippi Ryan
The Other Woman

I first met Hank Phillippi Ryan at a champagne reception in San Francisco. My first manuscript was up for the Romance Writers of America Golden Heart® while her debut novel was on the short list for the Golden Heart’s® big sister, the RITA®. She probably wouldn’t remember me among the nervous writers who clutched a champagne flute that day, but I certainly remember her first novel. This year, it came as no surprise to hear her latest book won the 2013 Mary Higgins Clark Award. This summer, I plan to enjoy Hank’s latest novel as much as I enjoyed her RITA®-nominee.

The Other Typist
2. The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell
Summer is the perfect time to find a new love and that’s why I’ve got my eye on this debut novel from doctoral student, Suzanne Rindell. Kirkus is calling it a cross between a Hitchcock film and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous work. So if you’ve got a crush on Jay Gatsby, and if you want to flirt with a fresh mystery about a Flapper-era police stenographer caught in the middle of a murder case, make a date with this book.

London Falling
1. London Falling by Paul Cornell
A veteran of the writing team that brought us the return of Dr. Who, Paul Cornell says he faced a genre identity crisis when it came to writing this book. And which of us writers can’t relate? Cornell believes Urban Fantasy—and maybe some Paranormal Romance—is rapidly becoming the new Horror. As a result, London Falling straddles genres. But with its new take on two cops combating evil on London’s dark streets, I can’t wait to get my hands on it, no matter how the booksellers decide to shelve it.

Now you know what I’ll be reading this summer. When you visit the pool, if you see a woman with There’s Something About Cherry on her toes and one of these books in her hand, that’ll be me. Feel free to stop by and say hi. In the meantime, tell the Rockville 8. What’s on your summer reading list?