Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Devil in the details

Over the weekend, I happened to read a contemporary romance. The writing was well done and I was really enjoying the story when the details pulled me out. She had gone into the recent past, given a named date, made a cultural reference and my suspense of disbelief was shattered. The reference was to a character in a Disney film which appeared in 1994. The time in the story was supposed to be 1991. I went and looked it up because it had been one of my children's faves and I could remember how old my eldest was when it appeared and wondered -- did I get it wrong? There were a few other references that then had me wondering and in the end, I didn't enjoy it as well as I could have done as it seemed sloppy. The writer in question is particularly known, according to Donald Maass, for her sense of place and her use of detail to really create that place. So while I was reading for enjoyment, I was also reading for enlightenment.
When you have a named date, you do need to check that books, movies etc have appeared by that time and what was known about the author. This is important in the first half of the nineteenth century when pen names were often used. For example, Charlotte Bronte published Jane Eyre in 1847 as Currer Bell and it wasn't until after her brother and sisters' death in 1849 that she was persuaded to reveal her identity. Saying that a character was reading Charlotte Bronte in 1848  wouldn't work as she would have been Currer Bell. Equally a charater could not have been certain that she was even a woman. When you are writing about the past even in an extended flashback, a character can only know what was known at the time.
I do slightly blame the copy editor as she should have queried the reference. The author in question might have been told to change the date in revisions and forgot to change the reference. These things happen. She is a good storyteller and a NY Times bestseller.  It is a measure of her story-telling that I did finish the book.  However, I will be a bit wary the next time one of her books comes out.
Details really give a sense of time and place but they are a dual-edged sword as they can pull readers out. As a writer, you have to check and check again, particularily if you alter the date. You owe it to the reader. It is good when I get a reminder.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Carrier Pigeons, the Rothchilds and Jane Austen

One of the great stories about Waterloo is the communication system that the Rothchilds used. Because of it, they received word about the victory first. There were some stories that they profited from this but apparently they go straight to Whitehall with the news. But until yesterday, I didn't know anything about the people who supplied the communications. It was done by a system of carrier pigeons run through a firm called Latham,Rice and Co who were also in banking. The senior partner, surprise, surprise was a woman --Sarah Rice. Sarah apparently made a lot of money personally from supplying the info.
Sarah inherited the senior partnership of the firm from her husband who got his start in the East India Company as a captain. Apparently if successful, the captain could clear about £10k per voyage. In order to secure Sarah's hand (she was an heiress with connections to Samsonware) he brought his ship into the Dover harbour and gave a ball. He won his bet and got the girl. He didn't bother to insure his ships. He made sure that they were copper-bottomed for use in the tropics. Her husband died 1797. Sarah then took over and ran the firm until 1811 when her  younger son became the senior partner but continued to retain an active interest until she died in 1842.
She is perhaps better known to history as one of the potential inspirations for Fanny Price's disagreeable aunt Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park. Sarah's eldest son Henry took holy orders and married Lucy Lefroy. Jane Austen who consider Henry a pleasant boy with bright eyes wanted his mother to enable him to settle at a certain curacy Deane. She didn't. Sarah settle him at  another one instead -- Great Hollands in Essex. Jane might not have liked having her will crossed and took revenge in this way. Who knows.
Henry as was his wont quickly sold the house as he was in debt and lived there as a tenant. Sarah did not trust his money skills, although she was scrupulously fair in doling up the money -- dividing the wealth between her profligate elder son who chose not to go into the family business, and the younger one who did. Henry had his money left to him in trust in her will and was constantly going into debt. He regularly sent his mother begging letters for more money.Apparently he liked to gamble. She could have the inspiration for Mrs Norris but that isn't to say that she was exactly like the character. Jane Austen had an unique outlook on certain aspects of her life. It is always  in the point of view.
The younger son Edward married Jane Austen's niece -- Elizabeth Knight. Jane's brother Edward had been adopted by the Knights.  Edward Royds Rice went into parliament and prospered.
Interestingly, Sarah specified that after Henry's death, his sole surviving daughter would get the bulk of his inheritance, again just the interest but that it was to go to her alone for her sole use and not for the debt of her husband or any husband she happened to marry. Sarah was obviously aware of the problem of married women not having any property to call their own.
Given that there are stories that Sarah 'persuaded' the Duke of Wellington  to re-sight a gun battery as she didn't like the sight or the sound of the guns and the Duke complied very speedily, I suspect she was not a woman to be crossed. I also suspect that she knew her own mind and was scarily formidable. She had a reputation as being pain-stakingly honest. Towards the end of her life, letters addressed simply Mrs Rice, Dover reached her.
In short she was a successful businesswoman and not to be lightly crossed.  And I had no idea that she existed until I read Women Who Made Money.
 Successful Regency businesswomen were less rare than one might think. Actually as far as I can tell, there were more successful Regency businesswomen than there were late Victorian/Edwardian. This could be because of limited liability companies. The heroine of the book which was just accepted was a Regency businesswoman but I find the whole thing fascinating.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The two wealthiest bankers in the 1820s

So who were the wealthiest bankers in London in the 1820's? Two women who were known as the Peeresses.
First was Sarah Child Villiers, Lady Jersey who  was a lady Patroness of Almack's and responsible for introducing the quadrille aka square dancing to London. She had seven children and was the active senior partner in Childs from 1806 until her death in 1867. She retained the right of last say on all partners.  She doesn't have a biography.
Second was Harriot Mellon Coutts who became Duchess of St Albans when she married the much younger Duke of St Albans, a man half her age in 1825.  The Duke and Duchess of St Albans were united by a love of Shakespeare. She also does NOT have a modern biography. There are some early 19th memoirs about...Harriot Mellon is a rag to riches story. She started life as a child of a single mother and went on stage, particularly in the West End. She was incredibly prudent and practical, and always respectible. Her mother abused her dreadfully. She eventually married Thomas Coutts (four days after his first wife died) and when he died in 1822, she became the senior partner of Coutts and drew the biggest salary, basically four times the other partners. She continued in this position until her death.  Like Lady Jersey, she kept the final word on who got made partner. Thomas Coutts's daughters aka The Three Graces were not overly fond of their stepmother and the eldest suggested that she get presented at court, thinking Queen Charlotte would refuse.  Harriot was received with the most marked kindness by the Prince Regent. She lived a full and colourful life.
When she died the senior partnership went to Angela Burdett, the youngest child of Thomas Coutts youngest daughter on the condition she take the name of Coutts and not marry a foreigner. Harriot hoped she'd take an active part.  Angela did not become an active partner and married an American at age 57. The bank was divided between her and her sister at that point and eventually it went to the sister's son 5th Baron Latimer. He didn't take an actuve role but his children and grandchildren did.
I am currently reading Women who made money -- Women Partners in British Private Banks 1752-1906 by Margery Dawes and Nesta Selwyn. My jaw is on the floor.
How can these women have been ignored like this? Why are they not considered influential? Why are more people not demanding biographies?
These are women who should be held up as role models. In 1812, fourteen women owned licenses to print money. And no one has had a modern in depth biography. The Dawes and Selwyn book was published last year by a small press publisher. Get it and read it. These women did not worry about glass ceilings. They got on and did it. Most had families.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Back from London and meeting my editor

Yesterday, I did my annual trek down to London and had lunch with my editor and senior editor. It was very pleasant. The main consensus is to keep writing what I am currently enjoying writing -- warm, witty intimate historicals which are set in the North East and help give a window into the period.
It was the first time that I was able to have a long face to face chat with my editor. She is wonderful in person. She is tough but with loads of heart. Truly the Jillian Michaels of the editorial world. I am very lucky to have her as an editor.

We went to an Italian place and I had all 3 courses -- salad to start, salmon fishcakes and then espresso granita. A few glasses of wine were drunk. A real feast.

The editorial office has been moved downstairs and is very open plan. I loved that one of the conference rooms had a frosted window with the M&B logo and the word Intrigue.  All the other editor I met were looking well - okay as young and beautiful as ever. There is a real feeling of comraderie.

One of the great things for me was wearing a burnt orange silk suit that had belonged to my grandmother. At this point last year, I could not get it past my knees! It fits very nicely now  thank you. Various people were suitably complimentary (including an editor that I meant on the street on the way to the office who nearly didn't recognise me but liked the suit).  It does show that all my hard work has paid dividends. Now to continue the hard work and get myself in shape for NYC!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Storytelling and writing: two different talents

Last night, once again I was reminded that there are two strands to be an author of fiction. First and foremost is storytelling. This encompasses the creation of stories with its attendant characterisation, setting and plot structures. Then there is writing or the manipulation of language.
To tell a story, you don't have to write. Stories can be told in pictures or with sounds. You can tell a story orally.  And to write, you don't need to tell a story. Writing can be a list, an essay and is simply the act of putting words on a page. It can be poetry or it can be as dry as dust. It can have a soul or not be very deep at all. But the act of writing does not guarantee a well-formed narrative.
When you have the marriage of the two, you get an author. It is the combination of two talents -- the ability to tell a story and the ability to manipulate language on the written page that creates an author. No one person is equally adept at both.  In commercial fiction, the ability to tell a story outweighs nuanced language. Sometimes in literary fiction, it is the other way around and the poetry of the image and symbolism can hold more sway. There are reasons why commercial fiction is more accessible to the masses.
Once you accept that there are two types of talent, then the question becomes not how much talent do I have, but how can I maximise and make the most out of the talent that I am given. How can I achieve its potential?
 The truth is that you are capable of far more than you think but you have to be willing to work at it. It is not easy. You have to learn to play to the strengths of your talents rather than playing to what others might think. If you adore heavy symbolism, do you want to write a rom-com? If you need the action and adventure rush, do you want to write a tale that is mainly internal and gentle? Conversely if your talent lies with exploring the depth of human relations within a family, do you want to write a thriller? Work with the themes you are drawn towards. Explore the ways you like to tell stories.
You have to accept that storytelling takes maturity because it deals with the human condition. The maturity to tell a meaningful story comes to us at different ages. The desire to tell stories may happen earlier. There are reasons why successful novelists as a general rule tend to be older --- unlike say mathematicians who tend to do their best work early for some reason. Life adds depth to storytelling, rather than taking from it. For example for women, having children can add a resonance and understanding that wasn't there previously. The stories you write in your forties will be different than those you wrote in your twenties.  This doesn't mean that good story tellers don't exist in their twenties btw. It just means the average age for a successful novelist tends to be older.
But however the mix of your talent, it is up to you maximise it and work with it if you want to be a successful novelist.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


My editor emailed this morning to say that my latest tweaks were great and the manuscript has now been accepted. Cue massive relief here. I adore Eleanor and Ben. Eleanor rocks basically.  In the end, I think this manuscript really helped me define my voice and what I want to do. More Regency/early Victorian in my future which is fantastic.

I also learnt the Viking's Captive Princess (Le viking et la princesse) is doing really well in France.http://www.harlequin.fr/ It is number 9 on the French Harlequin and they have a  great ad for all three.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Reshaping My Writer's Bottom: Update

Sometimes, it feels like my fitness is not improving. Every single time I do a dvd workout, I feel marinated afterwards. I know I am better as I can get lower in my squats and I don't die on certain exercises. But I keep trying to give it my all and so my legs tend to be jelly afterwards. Slowly but surely the weight is coming off. But it is tempting to see how far I have to go rather than how far I have come.
There are two important dates looming -- first next Tuesday when I go down to London to see my editor for my annual visit. And second, the RWA National conference. I want to look good for that for a number of reasons... Having events on the horizons is helping me to keep focused.

I am still waiting to hear from my editor about the latest round of tweaks. It never gets any easier waiting (anyone who says it does could hide their own Easter eggs or is being disingenous) . But it is so important to put out a strong book. And I do love these characters. I just hope I have maximised the potential of this book. I want it to be a powerful story.  This time working out is helping to relieve the stress.

I am currently working on the next book. It should be excellent but it is always about pushing myself to stretch and to go deeper. Discovery drafts are for discovering what doesn't work and what does.

Shelfari is now linked into Amazon and so I am slowly updating the extras, providing links to places and books that inspired that particular book, doing character lists etc. What sort of things do readers want to see? Or am I doing this for my own amusement?

Oh and why does HBO have to sex up Game of Thrones? The story is absorbing enough without the various couplings. My daughter and I kept going -- but that isn't in the book. I know they are trying to get important info across but they have used the same device in two different episodes -- basically talk during sex. My editor would not let me get away with that sort of Pope in  the Pool backstory exposition.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Giveaway To Marry A Matchmaker

Goodreads Book Giveaway

To Marry a Matchmaker by Michelle Styles

To Marry a Matchmaker

by Michelle Styles

Giveaway ends June 23, 2011.
See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

Because it comes out on 1 July, I am doing a giveaway with good reads.

Blogger is being  annoying. It will not allow me to use the tool bar.
 I did a post at the Healthy Writer blog  http://www.healthywriter.com/ yesterday and today I am the Pink Heart Society  http://www.pinkheartsociety.blogspot.com/ talking about pacing. Tomorrow I am at Tote Bags.
With writing, I am waiting to hear back from my editor and have started the next one.
With exercising, I keep working out every day -- slowly but surely. It takes much longer than you think.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Biographies and the Lady Patronesses

As part of my research, I have been trying to discover any recent or even not so recent biographies of the Lady Patronesses of Almack's.  Basically we know the Lady Patronesses in 1814 because Captain Gronow mentions them in his bio of Brummell. The ones from the founding in 1781 are also known. Others are more shadowy. It is not known how often they changed or how they were chosen or indeed when they were elected. YOu can get sketchy biographies of the women and sometimes you can get the collected letters (Princess Lieven's to her brother Alexander for example) but there is not any really good modern biographies. Why not?
These women had enomormous influence. Both Princess Esterhazy and Countess (later Princess) Lieven played active roles in promoting their respective countries in England.  Princess Leiven's letters give a much more cosmopolitian slant on London and the ton. Lady Castlereagh was the wife of the Foreign Secretary. Lady Jersey was the senior partner of Childs Bank, played an active role in its affairs and did not allow the men in her life to interfere with her duties at the bank. Lady Jersey and Countess Lieven's soirees were known for their political influence. Lady Jersey is credited for introducing the square dance (the French Quadrille) and Countess Lieven the waltz. The women had a number of affairs with influential men. Lord Palmerston figures quite a bit.
So why isn't there a series of modern biographies -- either of the place or the Lady Patronesses (here I am thnking specifically of Sarah Fane Child Villiers, Lady Jersey)? Note it is not my field. I write fiction, not non-fiction. It just irks. I wanted to know more!
Currently I am reading Lady Dorothy Nevill's Reminences from 1902. She is an untrustworthy narrator (her contra-temps in the summer house with George Smythe MP which led to her marriage to Mr Nevill and explusion from court is glossed over -- never mentioned) but fun.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Reshaping My Writer's Bottom Line: Update

Now is the time of a woman's discontent and her thoughts lightly turn towards chocolate. I have been working hard for 16 weeks and yes, I have come a long way BUT  I still have a ways to go. I know some of my eating habits have slipped. However, I am not beating myself up over it because I know why it happened (Easter) and what needs to be done. There are also several dates looming. I am going to London later this month to have my annual visit with my editor and then at the end of June it is the RWA National Conference. Two things to keep me on the straight and narrow.
With exercising, I have really been focusing on paying attention to the form. Making sure that my squats are low enough and my arms are raised high enough. Low weights, high reps. Sometimes, it is just the doing it that matters. Yes, it would be easier some days not to do it. Yes it is a pain in the butt to make the time, particularly when I have a very busy schedule and other claims on my time. BUT the reward is worth it. I want a better figure and the only way to get is to sweat and to put the time in.

The revisions for my full went in yesterday and I wait with baited breath to see what my editor thinks.  The revisions were hard and the book is now very different. Is it better? It has a lighter feel which hopefully give a more upbeat read.  Warm emotion.

I have also started working on my next one which I am very excited about. Again it is thinking about that warmth of emotion and trying to make sure that it is provides a rich but upbeat read.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Festival of Romance

Hard at work finishing my revisions but I took time to join the new social media site for lovers of the Romance genre in the UK -- Festival of Romance.  It is to promote the romance genre in all its forms in the UK.  My dear friend Kate Allan with whom I wrote The Lady Soldier had a hand in starting it. You can join here

Wonderful news about Bin Laden's death. I am under no illusions that the struggle to rid the world of terror is at end. BUT an important symbol has been removed. Hopefully people will now realise that this man was a mass murderer who hid behind the shield of religion and perverted the nature of that religion. He was indiscriminate killer who will now have to answer for his crimes. I very much doubt that he has a place in Paradise.

It is a goregous May Bank Holiday and I hope everyone is enjoying it.