Regency Holiday Traditions

christmaspuddingWe tend to treat things such as Christmas trees and holiday gift giving as if they’ve been with us forever. While these are old traditions, they were once far more localized. In this world of media everywhere, we tend to forget that customs were once far more specific to the area.

In England, many areas held to older customs, dating back to Saxon days (and sometimes earlier). The word Yule meant mid-winter and came to use from the Saxons. It was converted to mean Jesus’ birthday, and Christmas (or Christ’s mass) was not used until the Eleventh century.

In England, Advent was the day that began the celebrations leading up to Christmas.

The Feast of St. Martin, or Martinmas, fell on November 11, and St. Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland, had his day on November 30. St. Andrew’s day also marked the beginning of Advent to celebrate the four weeks before Christmas.

In late fall and November, the landed gentry still dined on wild foul as well as domestic poultry—which was now getting a bit old and aged (meaning tough and needing sauces to make the meat palatable). They also had beef, venison and pork with their meals. Fish could still be caught and served, and winter vegetables graced the dining room, including: carrots, turnips, parsnips, potatoes, leeks, cabbage, celery and lettuces. With November, walnuts and chestnuts came into season.

Feasting over the holidays might include game—both wild and tame birds—seasonal fish such as flounder, plaice, smelts, whiting, prawns, oysters and crab. Broccoli made a welcome change from the other winter vegetables, as did cress, herbs, cucumbers, beets and spinach. Preserved fruits would be running low in all but houses with large orchards, and stored apples and pears would have to serve guests. Roasts were popular Christmas fare, usually of beef if it could be afforded, or possibly goose.

Many decorations came from ancient times: Druids, Celts, and even the Romans used evergreen branches made into wreaths in winter solstice celebrations. Holly and ivy were also pagan symbols which remained green (a promise of life to return in dead of winter) and were adopted by the Church. Holly–prized for its ability to bear fruit in winter and its healing uses–became a said to be the thorns Christ wore on the crucifix and the berries were stained red by his drops of blood.  From the Norse and the Druids, Mistletoe (which was often found growing on the sacred oaks and featured in several old myths) was held to be sacred and associated with fertility, which led to kissing boughs. There are several local variations on the kissing bough custom. One holds that a woman who refused the kiss would have bad luck, and another is that with each kiss a berry was to be plucked, and the kissing must stop after all the berries were gone.

Strict Methodists might scorn such customs as smacking not of the pagan, but of the Catholic Church. During Cromwell’s rule, Christmas was even banned. Charles II restored the holiday in England. However, the Parliament of Scotland officially abolished the observance of Christmas in 1640, to purge the church “of all superstitious observation of days”, and it was not restored as a public holiday in Scotland until 1958.

coachsnowOn Christmas Day, and Boxing Day on December 26, which was St. Stephen’s Day. Boxing Day did not get its name from gift boxes, for the exchange of gifts was a German custom still new to Regency England (and only practiced by a few families). Instead, Boxing Day got its name from the older tradition of it being a day in which pleadings could be placed in a box for a judge to privately review. (It’s also said that Boxing Day’s name comes from the boxes given to the poor, or from boxes of goods given to servants–so there are several stories about this day’s name.)

In December, besides beef and mutton to eat, pork and venison were served. Goose was cooked for more than just the Christmas meal, and there would be turkey, pigeons, chicken, snipes, woodcock, larks, guinea-foul, widgeons and grouse to eat. Cod, turbot, soul, sturgeon and eels joined the list of fish in season. Forced asparagus added a delicacy to the usual winter vegetables. Stored apples, pears and preserved summer fruit appeared on the better, richer tables. Mince pies made from mincemeat, which has no meat in it, were another traditional fare, with the tradition being that everyone in the household should stir, for luck, the mix of dried fruit and spices before it was baked.

But households also celebrated not just according to the season, but also to the customs of the area. In the Regency, while some traditions were widespread such as caroling and church bells ringing (or ringing the changes), local customs in the countryside might well hold to the old ways and be more individual.

In Cornish, Christmas is Nadelik, and the Cornish custom of mummers and the “lord of misrule” was very popular, as was caroling, Morris dancing, and the lighting of the Mock or Block. The Cornish tradition was to draw a chalk man on the Christmas or Yule log to symbolize the death of the old year and then set it on fire.

In Devonshire, instead of a Yule log, the tradition was to burn the ashton fago, a bundle of nine ash-sticks bound with bands of ash. Devonshire traditions also hold with eating hot cakes that are dipped into cider (hard cider).

Like most of England, Wales had the traditional caroling but y Nadolic (Christmas) would be celebrated with an early church service held between three and six in the morning known as plygain or daybreak.

Yorkshire held to many old Norse customs, including the lighting of the Christmas candle by the head of the house (which was also to be extinguished by him, but never fully bunt), and the frumety (a dish of soaked wheat, milk, sugar,  nutmeg or other spices). Along with this would be peberkage or pepper-cake or gingerbread or Yule cake and the wassail-cup. In a Yorkshire village, even today, the Morris men might be longsword dancing in celebration.

Under the Kissing Bough_200For one of my books, Under the Kissing Bough, I needed a Christmas wedding and customs that suited the countryside around London. In ancient days, a Christmas wedding would have been impossible for the English Church held a “closed season” on marriages from Advent in late November until St. Hilary’s Day in January. The Church of England gave up such a ban during Cromwell’s era, even though the Roman Catholic Church continued its enforcement. Oddly enough a custom I expected to be ancient—that of the bride having “something borrowed, something blue, and a sixpence in her shoe”—turned out to be a Victorian invention.

For Christmas customs, I relied on those that have carried down through the ages: the Yule log from Saxon winter solstice celebrations (which gives us Yule Tide celebrations), the ancient Saxon decorations of holy and ivy, and the Celtic use of mistletoe on holy days, which transformed itself into the kissing bough. Carolers might well travel from house to house, offering song in exchange for a wassail bowl—a hot, spiced or mulled drink, another tradition left over from the Norse Vikings.

The holidays were a time of games as well, and the game of Snapdragon is a very old one. It’s played by placing raisins in a broad, shallow bowl, pouring brandy over them and setting the brandy on fire. Players then must show their courage by reaching through the spirit-flames to snatch up raisins. And the game even comes with its own song:

Here comes the flaming bowl,

Don’t he mean to take his toll,

Snip! Snap! Dragon!

Take care you don’t take too much,

Be not greedy in your clutch,

Snip! Snap! Dragon!

Celebrations continued to mix tradition and religion when the Twelfth Night feast arrived on January 5, which mixed the Roman Saturnalia with the Feast of the Epiphany (a much bigger celebration in the Middle Ages than was Christmas), when the three wise men were said to have paid tribute to the Baby Jesus.

iceskatingBeside family gatherings, the Christmas hunt might well meet up for December is the height of fox hunting season. Large house parties would be held, and of course, attending church was almost required of everyone.  If local ponds or rivers froze, there would be ice skating and with snow on the ground, the sleigh could be taken out.

For those less fond of the cold, there would be indoor games as well as amusements, which was one reason why young ladies were meant to have accomplishments such as singing or playing a musical instrument, which might pass the time.

Is the Narrative Voice Dying Out?

title1I’m teaching my Show and Tell workshop in October and that got me thinking about the narrative voice. The two things that always happen with this workshop is that everyone comes in wanting to know more about “showing”–as in they’ve been beaten over the head in various critique comments to show more. The other thing is that I try to convince folks that good narrative is as important as good showing–each has it’s place in fiction, but I do worry that writers are being pushed into too much showing. What–is such a thing possible?

My answer is yes, and here’s why showing can be a bad thing at times.

1-Narrative can set a reader into the world. Too often I’m reading manuscripts and the description is more than sparse–it’s nonexistent. As a reader I want to know where I am, when I am and I want to experience the world. This means weaving in details to make the world vivid–sights, sounds, textures, tastes, smells. This can be done through a character’s viewpoint to show the world, but sometimes narrative can be a lot more effective to set your scene and put a reader into the story.

2-Narrative can weave in backstory. Yes, you can clog the opening of any story with too much–but too little can be just as bad. It’s like throwing someone into the deep end of the pool–the reader is left struggling. Too little information and the story becomes confusing and right after that the reader is going to check out of the fiction. Telling the reader a few things can keep the reader interested, particularly if you bait the hook with interesting bits of background so the reader wants to know more. And narrative can keep the backstory clean and crisp, so there’s no clunky exposition in dialogue.

3-Narrative can help introduce new characters. Again, this can be overdone, but a few bits of telling can help a reader “see” a person and helps keep the cast of characters sorted out. This can be done in a character’s viewpoint, but a lot of times a little bit of telling the reader something important or “telling” about the character is a better way to keep the pace moving and keep the reader involved.

4-Narrative can help the writer’s voice stand out. This is perhaps the most important part of the narrative voice–of telling. Beautiful writing is a wonderful thing. Again, this can be overdone and the writing becomes “writerly” or so self-conscious it throws the reader out of the story. You don’t want to step all over the story–and your characters–to leave thumbprints, but a lovely turn of phrase here and there is not a bad thing. It adds to the overall experience.

Notice with all of this, the important elements of telling are to not overdo it, and to use the narrative voice to help the reader into the story. I like to say it’s about showing more in scenes that need emotion, and telling better between scenes. The narrative voice has it’s place in fiction–I just hope writers will continue to learn how to use it better.


Better Stories

cakeI read a lot of manuscripts as contest entries and a lot of them have the same basic problem–the story doesn’t start on page one.  It’s far too easy for a writer to get caught up in the details. Those details are necessary to make the fictional world come to life. You can focus so much on the right word or the right sentence or fixing the paragraph that you forget that readers want a great story. That’s the most important thing.

A few years back I noticed there were workshops on all parts of writing–dialogue, pacing, showing and telling, viewpoint. I teach a few of those and they’re important. But even more important is how to make all of this come together in a way that makes for a great story. Think of it this way–you can have flour, sugar, eggs, milk, salt, baking powder and still make a terrible cake. It takes knowing not just the list of ingredients, but how much do you need and when these should be added, and how to mix and bake them–you can’t just throw them all in a bowl and expect something wonderful.

That’s why I do a workshop on storytelling. I’m teaching it again this September for RWA’s OCC. It is a dense class with a lot of information but the focus is on story–on getting a great story onto the page. Meaning it’s about looking at the list of ingredients–viewpoint, dialogue, pacing, showing and telling–and how to mix them together into something tasty.

So…are you focusing on story? On your characters? Or are you too focused on details?

Workshops to Learn

wpaI’ve been teaching various writing workshops–and taking them, too–for a number of years online, and I’ll be starting a new workshop on Writing Women’s Fiction next week. Over that time, I’ve found a number of things help some folks learn more than others–and I’ve experienced that as a student. So how can you get the most from any workshop? Here are some tips.

1-Make time to participate. This is so important. Yes, life can get in the way–and I’ve lurked my way through a few workshops. The workshops where I’ve been passive, I’ve never really absorbed the lessons–they didn’t stick. Or I filed the lessons and never really got to them. When I’ve taught, the writers who do the assignments do learn–I can see it in the work.

2-Stay on topic. There are so many things to learn about the craft of writing–viewpoint control, pacing, dialogue, when to use narrative, punctuation, and more. If you try to tackle everything at once, you end up with scattered efforts and not really getting a firm control of one specific thing. Focus also help you refine your skills–you may have some skills, but really working on a technique will improve anyone’s writing. I often see writers who get distracted–by ideas and by other topics. Resist this urge and start developing the discipline that will also help you focus on your stories.

3-Ask questions. This is another way to participate. Try and give some thought to your questions so they are clearly framed–it can be difficult to make yourself understood in just text, but you may spark a discussion that leads to new ideas for you.

4-Respect the teacher and the class. I’ve taught workshops where it seems like one person is ready to dive in and take over the class. This is frustrating to me. I want to encourage interaction, but if someone is hijacking the workshop and taking it off topic it means I have to spend more time pulling the workshop back on track instead of teaching and working with others. Think about what you post before you post. It’s fine to give a few comments, but do not treat the workshop as if it’s Facebook where any comment can be posted.

5-Respect your work. You want to develop the habit of always reading your work aloud before you share it with anyone else. This is particularly important if you are writing new work for specific assignments. Proof your work, then proof it again. A few typos is not bad, but a lot of them makes it seem as if you don’t really care about your own work–and as if you don’t respect your writing. Make every piece of writing as good as you can–work hard to master all the basic techniques such as verb tense, commas, dialogue punctuation, and capitalization.

6-Write specifically for the workshop. This goes back to the participation issue. Yes, you can copy and paste parts of any manuscript for any workshop assignment, but you’ll probably learn more by doing work specifically for the workshop. This also has the benefit of getting you writing. To do this, look carefully at your schedule when you plan to take a workshop. If you sign up for any workshop, clear a few other things off your calendar and set aside specific time to both read lessons and do assignments.

7-Schedule your workshop time. I’ve always gotten more by setting aside specific time for workshops–this is both for teaching them and taking them. For me, it’s best to do this in the morning when I’m fresh. I can sit down with my coffee, review notes, read and do some work. At the end of the day, it can be tough for me to focus and sometimes I’m tired enough I just want to sit and read–or stare at a movie if I’m really brain dead from a tough day. That’s when I’ll push things off. So get your workshop time allotted and set in stone. Workshops usually only last a few weeks–Writing for Women’s Fiction is only six weeks, and that’s a huge topic to cover in that short time, so you want to carve out time for getting the maximum learning.

8-Have fun–and try new things. You learn more when you’re relaxed and willing to experiment. Workshops are a safe place to try out new things. Never written first person–give it a go. Want to try present tense verbs. Okay. I generally end up reassuring everyone at some point there are no grades–there’s no right or wrong. There’s writing that works, and stuff that doesn’t work so well–and workshops are a place to go splat because you’ll learn more from stretching your writing muscles.

9-Discard what doesn’t work. In any workshop, if you come out with one or two new tools, you’ve gotten great value from that workshop. But remember–in every workshop, the teacher is sharing what works for her. This tool may not fit your hand. Maybe it’s too advanced a technique and you’re not ready for it–or maybe it’s not the way you work. That’s okay. Just trying something different will improve your skills. Never, ever feel it’s your fault if something isn’t really clicking for you–it’s not the teacher’s fault either. There’s no one right way to write.

10-Be open to new things. While we all have our writing habits, go into any workshop willing to learn. Yes, be critical. But also try even the things where you’re not sure if they’ll work for you. Maybe a workshop about plotting puts down guidelines for so much structure it kills your impulse to write. That’s okay. Look at the guidelines you can use and take them into your tool box. Maybe a workshop about dialogue gives you one great idea, but the rest of it is stuff you already know. Cool! Celebrate that one great idea–that’s the value you got from the workshop.

The great thing about writing is that there is always something new to learn. That’s why I teach–I get as much from the workshops I teach as any student. And I’m really looking forward to this new workshop on Writing Women’s Fiction. It should be fun!


Settings & More

ballroomtuilarisIt’s always tough to figure out where to start a story–and I find a lot of this applies to the setting for the story. Some settings automatically suggest themselves. The opening of Lady Scandal seemed automatic–if an English lady is fleeing from Paris when the peace of 1803 breaks down, the story is going to open in Paris. For the follow up book, Lady Chance, the setting wasn’t so obvious.

Lady Chance takes up Diana’s story–she was a secondary character in Lady Scandal, and she met a French captain and they sparked. But in taking up Diana’s story, the question was when would she have a chance to meet up and have a happy ending with her captain?

With England and France at war from 1803 to 1814, that’s a long time. Would Diana meet her captain when he was a prisoner of war in England? Or what about meeting during the Peninsular war in Spain? Could there be any good outcome in either of those situations, and did I want to get into Spain and the problems there–particularly with things going badly for the French army.

I did have some scenes I wrote, with the idea of Diana and her captain meeting up after the battle of Vitoria–there was a thought of having some fun chasing after the Spanish treasure that went missing. However, those scene stalled out early on. The setting was fun…but it wasn’t really working. Which led me back to Paris.

paris_russiansParis in 1814 was a lot of excitement–and fun. It was a city overrun by armies, and by the English arriving, and the possibilities seemed vast for any story. There was also the glitter factor–let’s face it, slogging around the muddy Spanish countryside or being able to use the settings of Paris left me wanting to write about Paris.

Now, I’ve never been a huge fan of Paris, but then I visited–I won a trip there, which is another story–and fell in love. Paris isn’t just a city of light, it’s a city dense in history–it escaped the destruction of many wars, and you can turn a corner and see how a street looked exactly in 1814. Paris loves its museums–and the art, oh, the art! And since Paris only made a brief appearance in Lady Scandal, with Lady Chance I’d have time to dive into more of the city–the old gates, the houses, the cafes, the gaming salons and the shops. The setting proved to be as much fun as the story.

I’m thinking ahead to the next book in the series–Lady Lost–and I think Paris will again be part of the story. There’s even more to dive into with that setting. But we’ll see if we take up with Napoleon’s hundred days, or just after Waterloo, for both times are again rife with plots and schemes, and plenty of great dramatic material.


Only at

“That is a deathtrap! An explosion waiting to go off!” Diana put her hands on her hips.

Taliaris turned with a startled glance. “What? Where is the girl who once traveled with Gypsies? Who rode a donkey cart? Who did not seem to mind anything that was a new experience?”

“She, thankfully, had her adventures and learned to set idiotic notions aside.” She let her hands fall. With a shiver, she pulled her cloak tighter. “I did not think you knew about the cart.”

“Oh, we followed you and your aunt most diligently—from Paris to the coast. A pretty girl is always remembered.”

Diana gave a huff. “Flattery will not get me into that.” She gestured to the boat moored at the riverside quay. It was not a large ship, perhaps thirty feet from bow to stern, but steam puffed from the back where a boxed engine of some sort squatted. Metal gleamed in the moonlight, and a soft, chugging sound came from the boat . She gave a sniff and asked, “Why can you not have stout watermen to row us?”

Taliaris stepped from the quay and into the steam ship. It swayed but did not sink—not a point it its favor, Diana decided. He held out a hand for her. “I have already paid for our tour. And the Seine is the best way to see Paris. Besides, we are not stepping into an untested invention. In France, we have had steam in use for years. You English will soon be wanting nothing but its more reliable power.”

She grimaced. “Rely upon it to explode, you mean. I read about just such a contraption tried upon rails in London years ago which ended in disaster due to too much power trapped in too small a space.” She tried to stand her ground, but since he kept his hand out, his eyebrows arched and his expression expectant, Diana could see no options. Oh, she could abandon the evening with him, but that was not a choice. Jules wanted her close to Taliaris. She gave another sniff and she put her hand in his.

He didn’t wait for more. Putting his arm around her, he swept her into the steam ship. She gave a squeak and closed her eyes tight, clutching at him, her heart beating quick and expecting… Well, she had not expected him to be so strong. Taliaris set her down, but she was reluctant to let go. She like his scent, how it clung to her. She liked how she felt in his arms—sheltered, an unusual sensation for her. The boat rocked under her feet, and water lapped gently against the stone quay. The scent of water—and burning coal—gave a tart tang to the air, mixing with the spice from Taliaris. She opened her eyes and peered around Taliaris’ broad form to where the steam engine puffed and hissed.

“The devil’s own noise. How can this be the best of anything?” Still gripping his arm, she glanced up at him and asked with a small amount of hopeful pleading, “Are you quite certain you do not have watermen?”

A smile twisted up Taliaris’ mouth. He pulled away from her hands and left her. “Abandoned already,” she muttered, shivering a little under her cloak. She swayed again as the boat bobbed. Sitting down before she fell down seemed a wise idea, so she did. The wooden bench was only a little damp, and she had her cloak and gloves to save her gown from ruin and her skin from the worst of it. She turned to look back at the stern.

Taliaris stood talking to the three sailors who obviously managed the boat—rough fellows all of them, with dark hair and eager eyes once Taliaris produced a coin purse and coins coming out of it. One sailor scrambled to cast off the moorings, another headed to the belching engine, and the ship turned its bow into the river. Diana gripped the edge of the bench and bit down on another panicked squeak. She began to honestly think this was a devilish invention, and Taliaris a beast for bringing her onto it. Was he testing her? Trying to terrify her? Or simply inured to danger from too many years of battles?

Easily making his way to her, Taliaris took her hand and pulled her to her feet. A brazen thing to do, she thought. He ought to wait for her to offer her hand, but then she had already quite made up her mind he was utterly and refreshingly lacking in the qualities of a gentleman. He guided her to the bow and settled her on seats with cushions. That was an improvement. The boat chugged along with a not unpleasant, rhythmic sound. She lifted her face into the breeze. Spray from the water touched her cheeks, but she preferred that to the faint, oily smell that came off the engine.

Stretching out on the seat next to her, Taliaris began to talk about the steam power that was become so popular. “Andre Dufour—a man I know—it is his cousin who owns the Mirabelle. He built her two years ago and she has had no accidents.”

“Yet, you mean.” She threw out the words with a challenge and glanced over her shoulder to the white steam, winding its way up from a funnel. “At least it also provides warmth—a pleasant thing on a night, but what of a hot summer day?”

“You are determined to see nothing but bad in this.”

“And you are an optimist when it comes to new contraptions. I did not expect that of you.”

“You think a man who fights knows only how to fight? That was not the example set by the Emperor. Innovation. That is the key to win battles in these years. To build nations. The Emperor sought to make Paris—to make France—first among all.”

Diana locked her hands around one knee and leaned against the back of the bench. She tipped her head to the side. Might as well dig a little to see if she could pull out information that Jules would find useful. “You still admire Bonaparte even though he is now banished to a small island?” she asked.

“Politicians gave him up. He would have fought for France still, would have defended Paris. I know he wrote to the Convention to tell them so. I had friends on his staff, but the cowards in Paris…” Shaking his head, he let the words trail off. His mouth had pulled down, and she could sense the impatience flowing off him. He obviously did not care much for politicians.

“But what?” she prompted.

He glanced at her, his eyes dark and unreadable in this dim light. Shadows danced over his face, easing the lines the years had put on him, but showing the hard edges he had acquired. “This is not a night to speak of sad things. You wished to see Paris, did you not? Let us see what is good and right before us.” He swept out a hand, and Diana turned to stare at the city. Perhaps that was better—safer. For that old tug of attraction to him still pulled on her. She drew in a sharp breath and stared at Paris.

Music floated to the river from nearby great houses, and illuminations for the new king still flickered on some of the buildings. Taliaris gestured to the lights. “Candles or carbonic gas is lit within transparencies affixed to the windows. Would you call that a danger, too? Another unsafe invention?”

Diana slipped a sideways glance at Taliaris. She found him watching her, his arm slung across the back of the bench behind her. If she shifted an inch, his fingers would touch her shoulders. She stayed still. She was not quite certain she wanted to forget anything between them—not the bad, or the good. “Tell me more of what innovations you would have. Would you back them with your own investment?” And do you need funds from others for that—would that tempt you onto the wrong path?

He gave a snort that might have been a laugh. “My family will be lucky enough to keep our lands, I think. But others will come out of these times with titles to their names and money in their pockets.” She could not see his face, but he sounded tired and a little frustrated.

“Oh, do not be so surly.” She waved a gloved hand at him, brushing off his tone and his words. “Bonaparte restored titles and lands to those he favored and those who kept him in power. Do not chide your new king for planning to do the same.”

“Spoken like a true daughter of a monarchy.”

She stiffened. His words held a harsh bite, and she found she resented them being thrown at her—by him of all people, a…a mere soldier. “Your last king would have done better if he had acted with far harsher measures when his troubles first began. He might have kept his head, or at the very least saved his wife and son and prevented his daughter’s suffering!” She bit off the rest of it. She was saying more than she should—and she was here to pull words from him. Instead, she was flinging opinions at him. That would get her nowhere.

But it seemed it had.

Taliaris’ mouth curved in an inviting and warm smile—he looked honestly amused and some of the tension in him seemed to ease.

Overhead, stars glittered bright, splashed across the sky in lush abandon. The moon glimmered pale on the eastern horizon like a fat bowl tonight. It seemed a night for the romantic—for forgetting the past perhaps.

Taliaris’ voice dropped to a low murmur near her ear and his breath brushed her skin. “Meaning he should have sent those who talked revolution to prison, as does your king and your princely regent? I have heard you like to tout how free you are, you English. But I also read of how you treat those who print complaints—anyone who speaks or writes that kings are a thing of the past is soon locked away. Your England fears any real freedom.”

“And it worked so well to have a Committee for Public Safety instead—to behead anyone who dared speak against your glorious Revolution, to call everyone citizen even when more than a few were using that as an excuse to gain enormous power. When you killed your king and queen you invited a war upon France and paved the way for a dictator. What sort of freedom is that?” Skin hot and pulse quickening, Diana threw her hands wide. Taliaris gave a short laugh, and she glared at him. “You think it amusing for a woman to express her views? Of all the patronizing and—”

“Hush.” He put a finger to her lips. “I think you sound a woman who bottles what she thinks up far too much, so it comes all out in a burst. Tell me, do your Englishmen not want to listen to you speak of politics?”

Diana pressed her lips tight—they tingled slightly from his touch. Taliaris did not wear gloves and his skin had been warm, his finger slightly calloused. She sank back upon the bench. Just who was pulling words out of whom this evening? Her shoulders brushed against Taliaris’ hand, but she had her cloak between her skin and his touch. She did not move away. It was too chilly an evening, she told herself, and then danced away from that lie.

Settling back into a flippant tone, she told him, “First off, they are not all my Englishmen—well, one was, and yes, he did listen, but I do not think he particularly cared. Chauncey was not the least political.”

“And second?”

She gave a wave of her hand. Let us get back to trying to know what you think and plot—or if you plot anything, she told herself. “There is no second. Do Frenchwomen not speak their minds? I had heard your emperor did not much care for intellectual women, or so Madam de Stale has told the world.”

“I speak of the women of the Revolution. They fought for freedom. Or they tried. My mother was one of those who embraced the principals—liberty, equality, fraternity. She held those to be everyone’s rights, rich or poor, titled or not.”

Ah, now we get to someplace interesting. She tipped her head to the side. It seemed that he came from a family of revolutionaries. Her parents would have been horrified if she had ever brought him home—her father had been a staunch Tory from a family of even stauncher Tories. She only said, “I cannot think that gained her much. It is far easier to join one group by hating another.”

“That sounds as if you have experience of such a thing.”

She lifted one shoulder in a small shrug. Why not trade him something of her past in the hopes he would say more—so far he’d been maddeningly vague, meaning either he was very good at keeping his secrets or he had none to share. She glanced at him and said, her voice light with scorn, “Politics are everything when it comes to angling for a marriage during the London season. One learns the art of compromise, the ability to negotiate under pressure, and the value of hiding one’s true desires in order to advance one’s long-term goals. And, of course, family must be put first.”

“So the individual is sacrificed? What you want does not matter? And there is no such thing as equality.”

She gave a laugh at such an idea—equality within the London marriage mart, where wealth and beauty mattered most? Absurd! “Not much fraternity, either, not amongst too many ladies with too few eligible gentlemen. I hold France to blame for that.” She drew off one glove and tapped a finger on his arm where the gold braid and buttons of his uniform glinted in the light from the illuminations on the river’s shores. “How can any young man resist the lure of a dashing uniform? You should know about that. It left London’s ballrooms—and most of the bedrooms—frightfully empty.”

“Yours was not.” He threw out the words in a flat tone, and she could not tell if he was mocking her or not.

She turned away and folded her hands in her lap. This was not a direction she wanted to take in any conversation. “That is an assumption.”

His voice dropped so low that she barely heard it over the thump of the steam engine. “Do you say your husband did not love you? He did not want you?”

Lips pressed tight, she glanced back at the engine and the shallow wake arrowing out behind the ship. Traces left behind them—that all they had now, an imprint from the past that faded almost as soon as it had been made. She was done with this line of questing—Jules would have to wait to find out if Taliaris wanted his emperor back or not. Although she was starting to think he was as little a political animal as she.

“Do we turn around now?” she asked and forced a bright tone into her voice. “I think I have seen enough of Paris by night. I think it must be prettier during the day. At least now that spring is come perhaps some flowers may bloom. But it has grown chilly.”

“No.” He took her chin in his hand, his fingers gentle, but his touch still forced her to face him. “You do not get to evade my questions.”

It’s the Characters!

tablettypeI’m just heading home from the California Dreamin’ Writers Conference, and as usual there was talk of craft and marketing, and much other stuff. Sylvia Day, of course, talked about writing the book you really, really have to write–the book you want to write. I find that best-selling writers often do that–they may be marketing smart, but they also don’t follow the market. They make it. They also write great characters, which I think is the real secret.

So how do you get great characters on the page. First, you need talent. But a few other things can help, and I’m going to cover this in detail in my Plotting from Character online workshop starting on April 1:

Twelve steps to create the story from the inside out.

  1. Start at the deepest point: for every character, find that person’s core internal need.
  2. When looking for motivations (the why) for a character’s core need, discard the first three or four ideas (those will be clichés). Internal motivations are strongest if tied to a specific event in the character’s formative years—create these scenes (you may use them in the story).
  3. Create one main external goal for the main character—needs to be tangible, so the reader knows if the character gets it or not. (There should be consequences for failing to achieve the goal—failure should be personally costly to the main character.)
  4. Look for the motivation for why the character needs this goal—this is strongest if it’s a specific event in the character’s formative years. (Theme will come from the main character’s needs and goals—that will be the heart of the story.) The WHY for the external goal should be WHY this person must do this and WHY now–as in most folks don’t suddenly decide to go out and catch a murderer without a strong reason WHY that person must do that and WHY they most do this NOW.
  5. Decide if your character recognizes his or her needs and motivations.
  6. Focus the story on one character’s specific growth. That is at the heart of the book and will relate to your theme.
  7. For a romance, set up a potential mate who can’t provide the main character’s need—and who has goals that are in conflict. (But make sure this person is fully developed.)
  8. Know each of your character’s sexual history.
  9. Layer strengths and weaknesses into each character–compliment and contrast.
  10. Create secondary characters around the main one, with clear needs, goals and motivations for every character. (These can be opposing goals for what the main character wants or needs–or the same, with approaches adding conflict, or conflict from only being able to reach the goal).
  11. Give every character a secret–maybe even one that stays hidden during this story.
  12. Leave room for characters to surprise you. And remember, even bad guys need love.

With all the above, play the “what if” game – what if this happens to this person? What would he or she do? Create many “what ifs” and use the “what ifs” that resonate most with you and that make life worse for the main character—test your characters.

Remember:  Character is revealed through obstacles and the character’s reaction to those obstacles as he or she tries to achieve his or her goal. That is story. Plot is the construction of the obstacles in any character’s path.



Dialogue and Subtext

lietomeI loved the show Lie to Me for its use of micro expressions–small facial ‘give aways’ that revealed the truth no matter how someone tried to stop it.  But what do these facial tics and bits of body language have to do with dialogue? Isn’t dialogue about putting down what someone is saying in your story?  Well yes–and no.

I’m doing a workshop on Dialogue for Outreach International Romance Writers starting this next Monday and I chose the title to be “Don’t Let ‘Em Say What You Mean.” The title applies to a common mistake that many beginning writers make–the dialogue is too “on the nose.” That phrase is used to describe dialogue that is clumsy–it’s too specific and not the way anyone really talks.

This kind of dialogue crops up when a writer has a character explain his or her actions, give too much information about his or her past (with no motivation for providing all those details), or explain the plot to another character so the reader will catch up. Now, all of this can be done in character and brilliantly–but for most of us, the goal is to weave subtext and have characters not really say what they mean.

You want your characters to lie–and tell white lies. You want them to exaggerate. You want them to duck questions and change topics. Above all, you want emotion to drive most of what a character says. And this brings us back to those micro expressions and bits of body language–because what a character does while he or she is talking is a tip to the reader that something more is going on.

Do you really believe the story the wife is telling while she also fidgets with her wine glass and licks her lips and keeps looking away? Do you really think the guy likes his brother’s pal–even if the guy says he does–if the guy’s smile looks more like a grimace and he’s giving narrowed-eyed stares at the brother’s pal? Do you really think the little boy did not take the candy when he swears he didn’t if he hides chocolate-stained hands behind his back? Yes, those are all lies, but they’re also giving sub-text–more is going on underneath the dialogue than just the words that are spoken.

Now sometimes you do want your characters to be blunt–and honest. But even then, a character needs good reasons to be that blunt. Maybe it’s a habit. Maybe they’re fed up with the other person and want to drive them away. Those motivations have to be made clear to the reader.

Above all, a story must interest and keep a reader’s attention–and to do that you need dialogue that sparks with tension and conflict. It doesn’t have to be world-shattering conflict, but you want more going on underneath your words as characters work to get what they want in each scene. You want characters who don’t say what they mean, who go the long way around to get to a point, who offer indirect statements, and who sometimes never answer any questions. Always look for better ways to get more of your characters’ emotions on the page and less of their explanations.

And for more dialogue tips you’ll just have to take the workshop.