Friday, September 8, 2017


A writer friend uses the term “barnyard” to describe what W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan) called “… corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.” Don’t give your reader a passive, one dimensional picture of animals standing in the barnyard. Give them a sense of the smell, the flies buzzing around, the cows chewing their cud, the chickens scratching the dirt and pecking at bugs. It’s easy to do, if you’ve spent any time around barns, cows, and chickens, isn’t it?

What if you have no experience of living on a farm but still need to describe one?

Over the years, I’ve read a lot of historical novels and romance novels set in other periods. Since beginning to write historical romance myself, I’ve become an enthusiast (in the 18th century sense) about doing research. It’s not enough to know that ladies wore long dresses.  You can give the generic Regency novel description of the heroine’s gown: high-waisted, short, puffed sleeves, low at the bodice, a flounce around the hem. You can skip mentioning what she wears to go walking, or what her shoes, reticule, shawl and hat look like, if you wish.  It’s a little bare-bones but you can scrape by. 

But “Sir Marmaduke strode down the street” with no description of his surroundings is disappointing. If he’s going to his club, where is it located? What does he see and smell? Horse droppings, probably, if it’s a warm day, perhaps the aroma of chocolate from a chocolate house. Does he hear street vendors crying their wares? Pass a confectionery shop? What's in the window? Hint: in the 18th century, it won't be fudge or peanut brittle. How far is it to his club? If he‘s oblivious to his surroundings because he’s on his way to challenge Sir Ecklemore, the reader should still be aware of what Sir Marmaduke doesn’t notice.

Can you simply make stuff up? Many years ago, at Bouchercon, the big mystery convention, a woman asked why she couldn’t “make up” a gun for her character. Well, heck, no! Would you “make up” a car? The real thing is available and more convincing than that loosely-described thing you invented to save effort.  So why do it, when you can get it right with even minimal research?

Now, thanks to the Internet and Google, it’s easy to do enough research to get the authentic touches that provide gritty realism. No, you probably won’t be able to pinpoint a confectioner or wig shop on High Holborn in 1745, but you will know what one looked like, both inside and out, and what they sold. The hard part of research now is not getting access to material. It’s realizing that you don’t know how an 18th century city lighted its streets (if it did!) or how people ate before everything became available all year, thanks to modern transportation.  

My published novel, An Unsuitable Duchess, and the one I recently completed, are set in 1740s England, so I have a trove of references specific to that era. However, there’s plenty of information available online for virtually any period in the last ten centuries or so.

What do you need to know in order to bring your setting alive and make it believable to the reader?

Clothing and hair styles: what do your characters wear?
This is easy. From the Renaissance on, people who could afford portraits, had them painted. In some countries and eras, “genre paintings” (i.e., pictures of peasant weddings, market place scenes and the like) were popular.

Google Images: You will fall face-down on your keyboard before you exhaust Google Images. You’ll have to sift through things that are not relevant but it’s well worthwhile. If you Googled “American Civil War portraits” you would get many photographs as well as actual portraits, the invention of the camera having made portrait photography an option.  Search “American portraits 1860--1865” and you get fewer military photos and more painted portraits (and more women and children).

Pinterest: Good for period clothing and too many other things to list. Caveat: some pinners are careless about dating and attributing their Pins. I usually rely only on posts with a link back to a museum website, or some authoritative blog. All right, a little compulsive.  Also, bear in mind that a source from your period is preferable to someone’s possibly hypothetical or inaccurate recreated garment or coiffure.

Location: What kind of house do your characters live in? What is the countryside like? What do they see in the streets? How far is Pall Mall from St. Paul’s?

London & Environs Maps and Views:

More old maps of London:

National Library of Scotland (includes some of Great Britain):  A little hard to navigate but a useful source.

The London Guide (ca. 1782)  Addresses of major buildings and government offices ("Guy's Hospital, Southwark"), descriptions of major buildings and sights, coach fares and watermen's rates (which were set by law). Available as a print-on-demand book.

Remarks on London: Being an Exact Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster ... by William Stow (1722) Some of the same information as The London Guide but includes a street directory ("New Leg Court, in Peter Street, W[estminster]"), list of post offices, churches and times of services, market towns and fairs, and the days stage coaches and carriers to various towns leave from which inns. Available as a print-on-demand book.

A Trip from St. James’s to the Royal Exchange (1744) Satirical essays. Available as a print-on-demand book.

Google Earth can also be useful.

Again, Google Images: Period landscape paintings, etchings, drawings and photographs of buildings, many of them done in your story’s time period (depending on when it is, of course). Toward the end of the 19th century, London urban renewed out of existence a number of buildings dating to the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries (the houses on Wych Street and several coaching inns, among other structures). Thanks to the relatively new art of photography, we have a record of them.    

Word usage:

Online Etymology Dictionary Look up a word or phrase to find its earliest occurrence. The first use of “sexy” occurred in 1905, but it was not used to mean “sexually attractive” until 1923. And “arsonist” was not a word until 1864, although “arson” dates to the 1670’s.   

N. Bailey’s Universal Etymological Dictionary (1721). Some words have changed their meanings in the last 300 years. Available as a print-on-demand book.

Miscellaneous useful material: How do they travel? What do they eat? How do they address characters with titles? What do they read? What plays do they see? What’s happening in their world (apart from their all-consuming romance)?  
Correct forms of address (English; everything you need to know about how to address a nobleman/noblewoman and their various offpring):

Internet Library of Early Journals, a digital library of 18th and 19th century journals contains several British publications, such as The Gentleman’s Magazine:

There are other sources for newspapers and magazines but they tend to be hit-or-miss. Search on Google for publications for the location and century you want.

Google Books: Many books that would be impossible to find in print are available for free on Google Books. Search Google for the topic you want—“1745 rebellion” for example. If you want to see what your characters should be eating, Google Books includes a variety of early printed cookbooks. Don’t overlook the popular fiction of your period.

Reenactment/living history groups: These can be a useful resource.  So can various other groups, like the ones which enjoy black powder shooting (i.e., flintlock pistols and muskets). It would be embarrassing to have your hero fire a flintlock repeatedly without having to reload after each shot.

Wikipedia: Wikipedia excels as a resource for sources. Use the list of references at the end of each article. Most of the articles are probably right about basic facts (“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue …”) but it’s best to go to the source material.

There are some things you won’t be able to find out, or not without investing a great deal of time. I never learned what the inside of a small 18th century schooner looked like. I found out that a small one would have two masts and how it would be rigged, that it would have a crew of five or six, and what they ate, but only a couple of rough plans of the below-deck area—and one of those plans was obviously mis-labelled. So I studied pictures of the living quarters of other kinds of 18th and 19th century sailing ships, and pieced together a description from those.

Finally, for enjoyable and informative reading, I recommend Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders: A Writer’s (and Editor’s) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Anachronisms, Errors and Myths, by Susanne Alleyn. The cringe-worthy examples she cites (cigars in medieval England? Really?) serve as a reminder about the importance of checking our facts.  

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Giveaway sweepstakes for my novel, An Unsuitable Duchess

For a chance at winning a free e-book of my novel, An Unsuitable Duchess, visit the Amazon giveaway site:

Best summed up as:

London, 1740. A scientifically-minded young lady. Elegant drawing rooms. Dens of vice. A cynical duke. What could possibly go wrong?

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

How I Spent (Part of) My Summer Vacation

I had a vitrectomy. I’m not going into the gory details here (Google “vitrectomy” if you want those). Personally, I preferred not to have too clear an idea of what the ophthalmologist planned to do to my left eye.  If it had been surgery on my ankle or heart, that would have been different. But thinking about someone messing with your eye … that’s creepy.  But the simple answer is, the surgeon takes some fluid out of your eye and puts in something else. No, not a micro-miniature bathysphere or an alien spore. In my case, it was a gas bubble.

The actual procedure was a breeze. I recall being wheeled into surgery (at a hospital, because, terrifyingly, the surgeon wanted to be sure of having "tools that are long enough"--a phrase one does not like to hear applied to one's eye surgery). I noticed I was in a large room with a couple of other medical personnel in it (I could hear their voices). And then I had a drape over my face and Dr. R. said something like,

 "Hand me the cat grader"*.
The reply was "Not the heron wader*?"
 "No, the cat grader."

And no, that isn't actually what they said but it was all Greek to me. 

*Actually, as everyone who is familiar with the rigging of 18th century British naval vessels knows, the cat grader secures the mizzen mast to the catstick and the heron wader performs the same function for the fore-mast and the twiddle-poop.

At one point I thought of something witty to say ("Are we having fun yet?") but decided it might be a mistake to move my face if he was using a cat grader. It wasn't until I got to the recovery room that I realized that I'd missed five probably rather fraught minutes when I was given two shots to ensure that I didn't feel anything. And I only know about the shots because at the appointment at which Dr. R. scheduled the surgery, he told me there would be two shots and that I would be given something to relax me beforehand. When he said I wouldn’t remember afterward, it was not particularly reassuring. Yeah, yeah, I thought, but I’ll be aware of it at the time.  

But there was absolutely no sense of ANYTHING having happened between arriving in the operating room and the moment I found myself admiring black and white geometrical patterns (I’d have said, inside my eyelids except that my eyes must have been open, since Dr. R. was … doing something to one of them).

I arrived in recovery and the recovery room nurse said, “Let me take the pillow out from under your knees”.

I said, “Why, however did that get there?” I hadn't understood how thoroughly I wouldn't recall and how efficiently it works.

The procedure was easy. I never had any pain. I’ve had more discomfort from an ingrown toenail.

The ordeal was the week of face-down recovery. Apart from 15 minutes for meals and five minutes an hour to get up and go to the lavatory or simply walk around, you have to be face down. You sleep on your stomach. That was the worst part of the whole thing. I never sleep on my stomach. I’d wake up once or twice or three times a night and have to sit up (face down) for a while, listening to audio books. You’re discouraged from reading, which makes your eyes move too much.

I’d rented recovery equipment, a sort of modified massage chair with a variety of face support and other cushions and a device for supporting my face in bed. It included an angled mirror which would have allowed me to watch TV. However, the TV was in a different room than the massage chair, and moving either one was not an option. Fortunately, I’m not a big TV fan, and I had lots of audio books. I also spent some time thinking deep thoughts: is there an easy way to convert Centigrade to Fahrenheit in your head? What, exactly, is Ottoman silk? Could I use curare as a poison in some future novel set in the 18th century?

If you have to have a vitrectomy, unless you have a live-in Jeeves or Bunter, stock up with food that doesn’t need preparation, apart from a quick heat-up in the microwave. I made a big batch of Irish oatmeal, the steel-cut oats kind, which reheats better than  rolled oats oatmeal. Those lunchbox size cups of pudding, Jello, yogurt and apple sauce work well. So do pre-cooked bacon or deli meat, entrees from the freezer case, some of which aren’t bad. Salads (pasta or fruit) from the deli case are a possibility. None of these are things I’d usually ingest; I almost always cook from scratch. But 15 minutes is not a long time to eat even a rather minimal meal; any prep for it should not take more than 2 or 3 minutes. You will not have time to make a salad—or anything else, really—from scratch. Maybe a scrambled egg—but then you’d have the clean up to do. Trust me on this: I have a wonderful roommate, a former R.N., who was extremely helpful. But we don’t eat the same kinds of things on the same schedule. It was just easier to have stuff in the fridge I could zap. She did bring me a gift of chicken tenders, however. They were delicious.

I’m still recovering. The gas bubble will take time to dissipate. The left eye will improve, I hope, but it will take weeks. It’s been a week plus two days, so I’m no longer face-down, and I’ve almost finished weeding out my junk email. I haven’t tried reading yet, except for the labels of the four eye drops I’m using and the occasional news alert online. I’m supposed to take it easy for a while—no hiking, hoicking around heavy loads, going up in airplanes, etc. In a few days, I plan to resume the edit of the first draft of my next historical romance.  And that’s how I’m spending my summer. 

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Mike Rendell, The Georgian Gentleman: excellent source of Georgian research

The Georgian Gentleman (source of some of my research material) kindly invited me to submit a guest blog. Here’s the link:

Monday, June 5, 2017

A must-read for readers and writers of historical fiction

Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders: A Writer's (and Editor's) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, and Myths by Susanne Alleyn

For anyone who enjoys historical fiction, this is a good, fun read. For anyone who writes or wants to write historical fiction, it's a must-read. Nowadays there is no excuse for a writer getting basic historical facts or details of life in one's chosen time period egregiously wrong (an 11th century knight smoking a cigar--one of Alleyn's examples--is as much a sign of bad, careless writing as an inability to write a coherent English sentence). I'm putting it on my list of necessary research materials. And I'll be getting her novels, too.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Today my novel, An Unsuitable Duchess, was featured on POTL: All Things Books, Reading and Publishing. This is exciting stuff, as I recall the days before the Internet, when the most thrilling thing I ever encountered was the sight of a book I'd written (pseudonymously) on the rack at the bookstore.

POTL (Princess of the Light), the creation of N.N. Light, a husband and wife writing team, features book reviews, writing tips, and promotional services. The latter should be of particular interest to writers who, like me, have little or no experience in promoting their own book. 

Friday, May 19, 2017

An Unsuitable Duchess

Back in 2013, when I was writing An Unsuitable Duchess—and only about 17,000 words in—I wrote a post about Time Travel to the Year 1740. An Unsuitable Duchess came out today, May 19, 2017, published by The Wild Rose Press, Inc. at

It’s been a long, peculiar three and a half years.

Things I’ve done that I never expected to:

Received a contract offer 44 days after submitting my query letter. When I first began submitting work (back before home computers, the Internet and cell phones), getting a response from a publisher routinely took six months. Agents? They were often too busy to respond at all.

Had an “author photo” taken. Helpful hint to new authors if you find yourself in the delightful position of needing a photograph but feel you are insufficiently photogenic. Wear large or ridiculous headgear—an exuberant garden party hat, a pith helmet or an “Indiana Jones”-type hat. Holding a cat up is also a good move.

Loved the cover art! Almost exactly what I had envisioned, thanks to RJ Morris of The Wild Rose Press, Inc.

Bought a DVD of John Rocque’s 1746 map of London and Westminster. This is a treasure for anyone who needs to know the streets, yards and docks of mid-18th century London. A modern map is almost useless—so many streets and landmarks have been destroyed or re-named. You will not find Wych Street or Craven Buildings Yard on a modern map.

Ordered promotional business cards and postcards.

Set up a Facebook page for my book:

And yes, in spite of a bad case of nerves, I’m thrilled.