In the Saddle: Regency Riding

foxhunting The horse was a vital part of everyday Regency life, but few of us today have such an intimate acquaintance with that lovely animal.  We all know how to describe someone getting in and out of a car, but what about getting on and off a horse?  What does it actually feel like to ride side saddle?  How can two people ride a single horse?

The English saddle has changed little in its appearance over the past two hundred years.  The major change came at the end of the 19th century when the modern “Forward Seat: was invented and the saddle flap began to be cut “forward” so that it lay over a horse’s shoulder (allowing a shorter stirrup).  Prior to this, riders sat very straight in the saddle, leaning back when jumping fences, as seen in hunting prints of the era.

The Side Saddle

sidesaddle1790-1810Prior to 1835, a side saddle had one or two pommels; one turned up to support the right leg, some with a second pommel which turned down over the left leg.

Riding Habits

The riding habit had to be cut so that it draped down over the horse’s side, covering ankle and boot in a lovely flow.  This drape required that a loop also be attached to the hem, so that, when dismounted, a lady could gather up the extra length of skirt.

The modern Thoroughbred, on the other hand, has changed a good deal. The Eastern breeds (Arabian, Turk, Barb) were introduced to England in the mid 1700′s. Cross-breeding to English mares produced the Thoroughbred’s ancestors. Horses in racing and hunting prints of the era reveal characteristic Arabian features– dished face, large eyes, dainty, clean legs. More important is the size of these horses: rarely did a Thoroughbred of that era stand over 16 hands (64 inches). Most Blood horse of the ear resembled their Arabian fathers and stood around 15 hands (60 inches) at the wither. This makes a big difference when mounting.

A lady’s side saddle requires a slight alteration in the standard mounting and dismounting method. Again, the reins are held in the left hand. The lady stands facing the horse, or even slightly forward. She also holds the reins and whip in her left hand. Taking the stirrup iron in her right hand to hold it steady, she places her left foot in the iron. With her foot in the iron, she can reach up to hold the saddle. As she hops up, her weight goes to the left foot in the iron and she leverages her weight up. However, instead of swinging her leg over the horse, she pulls her right leg up in front of her and seats herself sideways in the saddle. She then can settle herself with the right leg over the top pommel, the left under the left pommel and in the stirrup.

To dismount, a lady unhooks her right leg, takes her left foot out of the stirrup and slips off. (If she has any sense, she only does this if she’s certain she can get back on again.)

Modern views make it seem as if riding side saddle must be awkward and uncomfortable. In fact, it is neither.

girl_sidesaddle     The skirt has always been designed to facilitate both mounting and riding. It is either a full skirt, usually cut with a drape on the left; or a wrapped skirt is worn over pantaloons (which came into fashion around the early 1800′s). Because of its cut, as you mount, the skirt falls into its natural position, covering the legs to the ankle. In the saddle, the skirt is forgotten. On the ground, a loop over the wrist keeps the draping skirt out of mud and dust.

These skirts are neither difficult to wear, nor are they heavy and cumbersome. The fabric is usually a heavy cotton or twill. A habit provides any woman with a long stride as much freedom as breeches (and more than a fashionable round dress of the era would offer). Having worn both, I should always prefer a habit and can well understand the country ladies who wore little else.

The important factor in riding side saddle is the horse: a comfortable stride and good manners are essential. In other words, a lady’s mount is preferred. This does not have to be a placid horse, but a horse with a rough or bumpy stride is not any fun under a side saddle.

The side saddle requires the rider to sit with a straight back and with hips and shoulders absolutely even. Slightly more weight should be carried on the right hip to compensate for the weight of both legs on the left. Any tilting to one side, leaning or twisting eventually results in a horse with a sore back.

Side saddles have a broad, flat and comfortably padded seat. The right leg goes over a padded leather branch which turns up (the top pommel). The left leg is in a stirrup that is short enough to bring it firmly up against a second pommel which turns down. If the horse plays up at all, you clamp both legs together, gripping these horns to stay up. It is not as secure as being able to wrap your legs around a horse that’s bucking, but only the worst riders would fall from a mild mishap.

sidesaddle     On a comfortable horse, riding side saddle soon begins to feel a bit like riding a padded rocking chair. It’s far less tiring than riding astride for the only effort is to sit straight and still. It is also amazingly comfortable to let the right leg rest on the horse’s shoulder (the right foot actually rests a bit forward of the horse’s left shoulder).

While it is possible to rise to the trot (post) side saddle, some claim that this is the real cause of giving a side saddle horse a sore back as it requires too much weight to be put into the left stirrup.

Betty Skelton, author of Side saddle Riding, found that….”As a teenager in the 1920′s, side saddle riding was second nature to me. I found it comfortable and I did not fall off as often as I had done from a cross saddle.” In teaching side saddle, Ms. Skelton has found that a beginner rider can often be comfortably cantering during her first lesson– not likely when riding astride!

A Gentlemen’s Mount & Dismount

For a gentleman’s saddle, mounting requires the reins (and any whip) to be held in the left hand. A rider traditionally mounts from the left. The rider stands at the horse’s shoulder, facing the horse’s hind quarters (or haunch). With the right hand, the rider turns the stirrup iron sideways. The left foot goes into the stirrup. The rider may grasp the cantle or back of the saddle with the right hand. He then pushes himself off the ground with the right foot, transferring his weight to the left foot in the stirrup and pushing himself into the saddle. Swinging the right leg over the horse’s back, the rider lands lightly in the seat.

By natural inclination, a horse will move out of the way of any rider attempting to leap onto its back with a vault from the rear or a jump from a high point. However, horse may be trained to put up with this behavior– as movie horses are.

To dismount, the gentleman kicks his feet out of both stirrups and swings off to the left, the right leg coming over the horse’s back.

Horses seem to have a sixth sense for when the rider is off balance with one foot in the stirrup. At that moment, the animal steps forward, making the rider hop along with all the grace of a one-legged duck. Some horses have this timing so exact that it is impossible to mount without assistance.

mounting     A groom who leads a horse out, for a gentleman or lady, will stay and hold the horse’s head. If the gentleman is portly, the groom may also hold the stirrup on the opposite side from the rider to keep the saddle from ending up under the horse’s belly. (This can happen no matter how much the girth is tightened.)

In giving a “leg up” to a lady, a groom would not dare to be so bold as to take a lady by the waist (as a rather forward gentleman might). Instead, the groom makes a stirrup from his hands. He then holds his hands low enough to allow the lady to easily step into them with her left foot. Then the groom boosts her lightly into the saddle. (I’ve seen riders tossed over a horse by too strong a boost, to the smothered laughter of everyone except the rider.)

When a groom is unavailable, a mounting block can help (and is particularly recommended to help keep a side saddle even on the horse’s back). This can be a block about two feet in height, or a fallen tree or bank can serve the same purpose of giving the rider a little extra elevation to easily step into the stirrup and swing up.

Two Astride

tworiders     In a man’s saddle, it is quite easy to manage two on a horse. If the lady stands with her back to the horse, a gentleman can boost her into the saddle by picking her up around the waist and lifting her up so that she sits facing sideways. This is “tossing” a lady into the saddle (best done by tall heroes with short heroines).

With the lady up, the gentleman can mount up behind her so that he sits in the saddle and actually holds her somewhat on his lap. This is a nice arrangement if the two intend to amble home at a gentle walk on a placid horse. The gentleman can use his arms to steady his lady (and to other purposes, if he’s less than a gentleman). The lady can hold onto the horse’s mane for security (hopefully, she won’t grab the reins and frighten the horse).

The disadvantage is that the lady is sitting on the pommel (the round front part of the saddle). At the least, a gallop in this position will be painful on the posterior. At the worst, the gentleman may lose control of his mount.

For fast flight, a different arrangement is necessary.

The gentleman should mount first. (If he’s thin and athletic, he can swing himself up without using the stirrups– a most impressive feat when done right, and a ridiculous scramble up otherwise.) Then he reaches down to the lady. Grasping her hand, he can instruct her to put her left foot on his toe, then he swings her up behind him. Alternately, if he’s strong enough, he might be able to haul her up behind without her help (if he doesn’t mind half-pulling her arm out of the socket).

For a really spectacular mount, it’s quite easy for a rider to gallop up to someone on the ground, reach down and grab that person by the arm, relying on the horse’s momentum to swing the second rider up. The only critical elements are timing, good aim and a brave enough soul on the ground who won’t run from a galloping horse. (This maneuver makes up the modern “Rescue Race” held at some Rodeos.)

A lady, if she’s wearing a habit, she can sit astride or sideways. If she’s grown up riding side saddle, she will probably prefer to sit sideways behind the gentleman. Either way, she should wrap her arms around him to manage any pace faster than a walk. She does not sit in the saddle, but sits behind on the horse’s back. She’ll feel the heat of the horse and her skirts will end up covered in horse sweat and hair.

A side saddle is an added problem when fitting two astride. If both ride well, the best option is to strip off the saddle and have the lady up behind or in front of the gentleman.

Riding without a saddle requires excellent balance– fortunately, most Arabian horses (or part Arabs) have small withers and are therefore fairly comfortable. The horse’s skin slides under you like a silk rag on polished wood, but there’s a pleasant sensation of muscles moving. You feel every twitch, and it can sometimes feel as if you will slip off (which you won’t as long as you don’t lean to the right or left).

If the side saddle must stay on, the next best choice is for the gentleman to mount up behind the lady (swinging himself up, or using the stirrup to mount). Because of the positions of the horns in a side saddle, no gentleman is going to find any comfort in trying to ride a lady’s side saddle. If he has any sense at all, he’ll either strip off the saddle or stay up behind a lady. This requires a good rider on the gentleman’s part to carry it off (and a patient horse).

When two riders dismount, there are several options. The person behind can dismount first by swinging a leg off over the back of the horse. Or, if sitting astride, the person in front can dismount first by swinging the right leg over the horse’s neck. Most horses do not object to this. With a lady up front and sitting sideways, she can easily slip off to dismount, however, the gentleman would most likely dismount first out of courtesy and then help her dismount.

Riding Harness Horses

As a general rule, horses broken to harness are not necessarily broken for riding (the exception being post horses). Being creatures of habit, a horse who is accustomed to pulling a carriage will object strenuously to any attempts to mount it. You will end up spinning in circles trying to mount. The opposite also holds true– attempting to attach a hunter to a carriage is a good way to see the carriage kicked to splinters. It takes months of training for a horse to accept harness and will pull any weight.

Finally, some useful “English” riding terms that you may want to know:

Cantle – the back of a saddle.

Pommel – the front of a saddle.

Girth – the strap that goes under the horse’s belly to hold the saddle.

Horn – an extension to the pommel (as in side saddles and western saddles).

Post– to rise up & down in the stirrups to the two-beat trot of a horse

Reins – the part of the bridle held by a rider, connecting the rider’s hand with the bit in the horse’s mouth.

Stirrup Iron – the metal iron used as a stirrup on an English saddle (which is attached with a stirrup leather– a leather strap that buckles to itself).

Trot – a two-beat gait, faster than a walk, slower than a canter (legs move in diagonal pairs).

Canter – a three-beat gate, faster than a trot, slower than a gallop.

To learn more, the Horse Sense for Your Characters workshop begins in February 2014.

Romance Reviews Year End Splash!

 

yearendsplash

The Romance Reviews is giving away prizes, including a print copy of Burn Baby Burn.

They have more than 400 participating authors and publishers, and there are more than 400 prizes up for grabs during the whole month of November. Grand prize is a $100 Gift Certificate!

IMPORTANT DATE

If you want to win a print copy of Burn Baby Burn, head over to http://www.theromancreviews.com. A Q&A will appear on the event page Nov 12, from 12:00am EST to 11:59pm EST.

Do remember that you will need to register and be logged in at TRR before you can play the game and win prizes. Registration is free and easy.

Visit The Romance Review site starting Nov 1 and have fun!

 

The Regency Meal, or Food, Glorious Food

Hanna GlassThere is something wonderful about food. Why else would we watch shows about cooking, buy cook books, and even enjoy reading (and writing) about food. Regency England was also an era that enjoyed its food.

There was interest enough in food skills that by 1765 Hanna Glasse’s The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy had gone into nine editions, selling for five shillings if bound. (Back then, one could buy unbound books and have them custom bound to match the rest of the books in one’s library.) Hanna’s book remained popular for over a hundred years. However, her recipes can be difficult to translate into modern terms–the quantities often seem aimed to feed an army, as in this recipe for ‘An Oxford Pudding’:

“A quarter of a pound of biscuit grated, a quarter of a pound of currants clean washed and picked, a quarter of a pound of suet shred small, half a large spoonful of powder-sugar, a very little salt, and some grated nutmeg; mix all well together, then take two yolks of eggs, and make it up in balls as big as a turkey’s egg. Fry them in fresh butter of a fine light brown; for sauce have melted butter and sugar, with a little sack or white wine. You must mind to keep the pan shaking about, that they may be all of a light brown.”

I’ve yet to try this recipe, and when I do I’ll probably substitute vegetable oil for suet, but it does sound tasty.

Amounts in older cookbooks are also often confusing to the modern reader, often listing ingredients to be added as handfuls, as in the rue, sage, mint, rosemary, wormwood and lavender for a “recipt against the plague” given by Hanna Glasse in The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy.

Brighton KitchenThe time spent on making these recipes could also be considerable. This was an era when labor was cheap, and if one could afford servants, they could provide that labor.  The Prince Regent’s kitchen in Brighton was fit for a king of a chef, and large enough to allow an army of cooks, pastry chefs, under cooks, and scullery maids. It also sported windows for natural light as well as large lamps, and pillars in the shape of palm trees to carry on the exotic decor of the rest of the Brighton Pavilion. Elaborate dishes could be concocted both for the well and the sick.

Shank Jelly for an invalid requires lamb to be left salted for four hours, brushed with herbs, and simmered for five hours. There are few today who have time for such a recipe, unless they, too, are dedicated cooks.

Sick cookery is an item of importance as well for this era. Most households looked after their own, creating recipes for heart burn or making “Dr. Ratcliff’s restorative Pork Jelly.” Coffee milk is recommended for invalids as is asses’ milk, milk porridge, saloop (water, wine, lemon-peel and sugar), chocolate, barley water, and baked soup. (Interestingly, my grandmother swore by an old family recipe of hot water, whisky, lemon and sugar as a cough syrup, and that’s one recipe I still use.)

As interest expanded, and a market was created by the rise of the middle class, other books came out. Elizabeth Raffald had a bestseller with The Experienced English Housekeeper. The first edition came out in 1769, with thirteen subsequent authorized edition and twenty-three unauthorized versions.

Dinner_FromMrsHurstDancingIn 1808, Maria Rundell, wife of the famous jeweler, came out with her book A New System of Domestic Cookery for Private Families. This book expanded on recipes to also offer full menu suggestions, as well as recipes for the care of the sick, household hints, and directions for servants. This shows how the influence of the industrial revolution had created a new class of gentry, who needed instructions on running a household, instructions that previously had been handed down through the generations with an oral tradition. The rise of the “mushrooms” and the “cit”, merchants who’d made fortunes from new inventions and industry, created a need for their wives and daughters to learn how to deal with staff and households.

Any good wife had much to supervise within a household, even if the servants performed much of the actual work.

A household would make its own bread, wafers, and biscuits, brew its own ale, distill spirits, and make cheese. In the city, some of these would be available for purchase. Fortnum and Masons specialized in starting to produce such ‘luxury’ goods (jams and biscuits, or what we Americans would call cookies).

In London, wines would be purchased from such places as Berry Brothers, a business still in existence as Berry Bros & Rudd. Establish in the late 1600’s at No. 3 St. James’s St., the store initially supplied coffee houses with coffee and supplies. They expanded into wines when John Berry came into the business due to marriages and inheritance. Berrys went on to serve individuals and London clubs such as Boodles and Whites with coffee, wines, and other goods. They put up their ‘sign of the coffee mill’ in the mid 1700’s, and Brummell as well as others used their giant coffee scale to keep an eye on his weight and keep his fashionable figure.

Laura Wallace offers more information on wines and spirits of the Regency (http://laura.chinet.com/html/recipes.html. She notes Regency wines: port, the very popular Madeira, sherry, orgeat, ratafia, and Negus, a mulled wine. Other wines you might find on a Regency dinner table include: burgundy, hock (pretty much any white wine), claret, and champagne (smuggled in from France).

For stronger spirits, Brandy was smuggled in from France. Whiskey, cider, and gin were also drunk, but were considered more fitting for the lower class. (Whiskey would acquire a better cachet in the mid to late 1800’s, due to the establishment of large distilleries and after it again became legal. The Act of Union between Scotland and England in the early 1700’s and taxation drove distillers into illegal operation. After much bloodshed, and much smuggling, the Excise Act of 1823 set a license fee that allowed the distillery business to boom.)

For weaker fare, ale, porter, and beer were to be found in almost any tavern, and would be brewed by any great house for the gentlemen. Water as a beverage, was often viewed with deep suspicion, wisely so in this era, but lemonade was served.

As Laura Wallace notes on her site, “port, Madeira and sherry are heavy, ‘fortified’ wines, that is to say, bolstered with brandy (or some other heavy liquor). Port derives its name from the port city of Oporto in Portugal. Madeira is named for an island of Portugal…

“Madeira is particularly noted as a dessert wine, but is often used as an aperitif or after dinner drink, while port is only for after dinner, and historically only for men. ‘Orgeat’ is… ‘a sweet flavoring syrup of orange and almond used in cocktails and food.’ Ratafia is…a sweet cordial flavored with fruit kernels or almonds.”

In the country, a household functioned as a self-sufficient entity, buying nothing other than the milled flour from the miller (although many great houses might also grown their own wheat and mill it), and perhaps a few luxuries that could not be produced in England, such as sugar, tea, coffee, chocolate, and wines that could not be locally produced. Fish could be caught locally; sheep, beef, and pigs were raised for meat as well as hides and fat for tallow candles; chickens, ducks, and other tame birds were raised for eggs and for their feathers (useful things in pillows); wild birds, deer and other game could be hunted on great estates; bees were raised for honey and wax candles of a high quality; breweries and dairies were found on every estate, and every house would have its kitchen garden with vegetables and herbs. Berry wines could be made in the still room, along with perfumes, soaps, polishes, candles and other household needs. Many of the great houses also built greenhouses or orangery to produce year round, forcing early fruits, vegetables, and flowers, and providing warmth for the production of exotics such as oranges and pineapples. (The concept of heating with local hot springs had been introduced to England by the Romans, and was still around in Regency Era, and many new innovations were also being introduced for better heating and water flow into homes.)

For a gentlemen who lived in the city without a wife or a housekeeper, cheap food could be purchased from street vendors in London, but most meals would be taken at an inn, a tavern, or if he could afford it, his club. Many accommodations provided a room, and not much more, with the renter using a chamber pot that would be emptied into the London gutters, and getting water from a local public well (and this shared water source accounted several times for the spread of cholera in London). Cheaply let rooms had no access to kitchens. Hence the need for a good local tavern, or to belong to a club.

According to Captain Gronow, remembering Sir Thomas Stepney’s remarks, most clubs served the same fare, and this would be, “‘the eternal joints, or beef-steaks, the boiled fowl with oyster sauce, and an apple tart.’” From this remark about the poor quality of food to be had, the Prince Regent is said to have asked his cook, Jean Baptiste Watier to found a dining club where a gentleman could have a decent meal. Headed by Labourie, the cook named by Waiter to run the club, it served very expensive, but excellent meals. It was no wonder that a single gentleman might well prefer to perfect his entertaining discourse so he might be invited to any number of dinners at private houses.

As with all eras, in the Regency, meals provided a social structure for life.

a simple mealTo start the day in London, a fashionable breakfast would be served around ten o’clock, well after most of the working class had risen and started their day. The Regency morning went on through the afternoon, when morning calls were paid. In London, five o’clock was the ‘morning’ hour to parade in Hyde Park. A Regency breakfast party might occur sometime between one and five o’clock in the afternoon.

During morning calls, light refreshments might be served.  Ladies might have a ‘nuncheon’ but the notion of lunch did not exist. Also, the lush high tea now served at most swank London hotels actually originated as a working class dinner, and was perfected by the Edwardians into an art form, but was not a Regency meal.

In London, the fashionable dined between five and eight, before going out for the evening. This left room for a supper to be served as either a supper-tray that might be brought into a country drawing room, or as a buffet that would be served at a ball. Such a supper would be served around eleven but, in London, this supper could be served as late as nearly dawn.

Country hours were different than city hours. In the country, gentlemen would rise early for the hunt or to go shooting. Breakfast would be served after the hunt, with only light refreshments offered before hunting. These hunt breakfasts might be lavish affairs, and if the weather was good, servants might haul out tables, silverware, china, chairs and everything to provide an elegant meal. Again, tea might be taken when visitors arrived in the country, and this would include cakes being served, along with other light sweets.

Dinner then came along in the Regency countryside at the early hour of three or four o’clock. This again left time in the latter evening for a tea to be brought round, with light fare, around ten or eleven. A country ball might also serve a buffet or a meal during the ball, or a dinner beforehand.

From the Georgian era to the Regency the method for serving dinner changed. “…as soon as they walked into the dining-room they saw before them a table already covered with separate dishes of every kind of food…,” states The Jane Austen Cookbook.

Family MealThe idea was that with all courses laid on the table, those dining would choose which dishes to eat, taking from the dishes nearest. It was polite to offer a dish around. Food in History notes, “It was a custom that was more than troublesome; it also required a degree of self-assertion. The shy or ignorant guest limited not only his own menu but also that of everyone else at the table. Indeed, one young divinity student ruined his future prospects when, invited to dine by an archbishop who was due to examine him in the scriptures, he found before him a dish of ruffs and reeves, wild birds that (although he was too inexperienced to know it) were a rare delicacy. Out of sheer modesty the clerical tyro confined himself exclusively to the dish before him….”

This style of serving dinner was known as service à la française. During the Regency this was replaced by service à la russe in which the dishes were set on a sideboard and handed around by servants.

Introductions

introductionsReader meet character–character, meet reader.

Character introductions are a bit tricky. Too much information and you risk boring your reader. Too little information and your reader doesn’t know enough about your character to really care what happens. So how do you get this right?

First off, you want to recognize that characters need to be introduced–dump a character on a reader and you risk confusing and that lack of caring. For example, a woman is running through the woods. Okay…so what. Why does this matter, why should I ( as a reader) care? Notice how the lack of information leaves an emotional void. Every character who has a name should be introduced–take a few sentences and sketch in some description or background or details that will make the reader interested in this person. The more important the character, the more important is that introduction.

Next, you want to use information that makes that character unique. A woman running through the woods is not unique–so what matters. What if she’s pregnant? Notice how that detail changes everything–therefore, that detail matters. Does it matter if she’s a red head or brunette? Not really. But it may matter if she’s a long-distance runner, or a housewife. So use the most important information up front in your introduction–you want relevant information.

After that, you want information that is geared to making the reader emotional invested in that character. A pregnant woman running through the woods–and running for her life–automatically generates reader emotion just because most people will care about such a vulnerable person (we’re wired that way). Same goes for a child who is in danger–we’re geared to start caring more for that child. So if you have a warrior swinging a sword, you might not get as much emotion–the reader figures, hey, he can look after himself. So you have to look at what else matters.

What is your character good at?

How is your character vulnerable?

Can you show your character doing something–taking some action–right off that will incline the reader to sympathy or admiration?

A great example is from Dick Francis, the mystery writer who was a  master of character introduction. He would often show his main character in the very first scene doing something that makes a reader “buy into” that character. For example, in one of his books, the hero saves a baby in a pram (or baby carriage) from a horse trailer that’s broken loose and is headed for the kid. That right there is going to make you inclined to like that guy–he is shown being a hero.

And that’s the next big point–be aware that what you SHOW your character doing is more important than what you tell the reader.

If you introduce a character and say she’s a wiz at magic, but you show her flubbing a spell, or show her picking flowers, the reader is included not to believe you telling and instead will believe this girl is a disaster.

The strongest introduction show the character’s core. Think of the opening of Indiana Jones–the first movie–where Indy is shown recovering a golden idol. We get right off that Indy is an amazing guy–he gets through traps that would kill anyone else. We also get his enemy set up (the man who takes the idol from him), and we get that he hates snakes. All useful information for anyone, and notice that we get both how Indy is admirable with his courage and vulnerable with his dislike of snakes. He’s not a perfect guy and that helps us to like him even more.

So step back and look at how are you introducing your characters. Are you taking enough time to handle a smooth introduction, are you getting in the important information, or just details that don’t really matter? Are you making sure you engage the reader emotionally before you dump the character (and the reader) into too much action?

Action without emotional investment will lead to a bored reader–so look to hook your readers into your characters with a strong introduction.

Are you a writer or a story teller?

readerI’m doing a workshop on Storytelling this August — the idea for it came out of reading a lot of manuscripts where the writing was really good, but the story just didn’t work. Either the characters didn’t really make sense, or the story itself went off the rails about midway through and became a bunch of actions instead of a story arc that worked to really explore the characters and their relationships. This is something we all have to work on (constantly it seems). So what makes a good story compared with good writing?

1- Good writing can make you stop in awe. This is actually a problem in a story. A good story keeps you turning the pages, not stopping to admire the scenery. I find if the writing stops the reader for any reason, it’s a place the author needs to look at to see if the writing is just getting too “writerly” and getting in the way. Truman Capote said you want to be that voice by the fireside telling the story–invisible but compelling.

2- A good story sweeps you away. This means the reader doesn’t stumble over complicated sentences, or even more complicated plots–instead the reader is pulled into a fully developed world where the characters all make sense as people who work in that world. And the world all makes sense (things don’t just happen because the author thinks it would be cool or a great twist, but they happen within the rules of that world–and that takes a lot of development).

3- Good writing can be intellectually pleasing, but a good story catches your emotions. This is something I see a lot–the author has gotten carried away with a story that is just too much about the author being clever and not really enough about the author digging deep into both their own emotions and their characters’ emotions. This is where the story is just flat. You can overthink stories–and you can overwrite them, too.

4- Good writing is perfect; a good story may have flaws, but you just don’t care because it’s great as it is. This is where someone has edited out the emotion from the page–we all do this at times. We get so caught up in dotting every period and worrying over every comma that we forget that it’s the flawed characters and it’s the story that a reader wants. Ever come out of a movie and suddenly you realize there were a lot of plot holes, but you never noticed them during the movie? That’s a story that did it’s job–it engaged you on an emotional level. That’s a story teller’s job.

5- A good story needs great characters, and good enough writing that the writing comes second. This again is a place where I see less experienced writers struggling–their technical skills are weak enough that they have to focus too much attention on untangling sentences. The more I write, the more I tend to love simple, clean prose. The reason for this is that if I don’t have to fuss with craft, I can focus more on the characters and getting them on the page.

6- A good story has an arc–it goes somewhere. Good writing can wander–you can have beautiful prose that doesn’t really go anywhere. Story telling goes way, way back in the human psyche, and if when you break those rules we all love in stories (even without knowing what it is that makes a story work), the risk is that you’re creating a story that readers will put down.

7- A great story is one that must be told, but it’s rare that a writer really must produce great writing just for the sake of the writing. A great story is the one that burns in you, the one you can’t ignore, the one that you have to get on the page because the characters won’t leave you alone and you know that you’ll write this one even if only your mother reads it. You want to look for these stories.

You can be a good story teller and sell well–Edgar Rice Burroughs, to me, is a perfect example of this. Not a great writer, but it’s really hard to put down one of his books once you start reading. You just keep turning the page. There are other writers who are both great story tellers and really good writers–Stephen King is a good example of this (boy, can he write!). However, there really aren’t any great writers who are not great story tellers on any fiction best seller lists–and even the best non-fiction writers know how to spin a yarn.

So are you a great story teller–what stories are the ones you must tell?

Writing Regencies

writingdeskThe Regency romance is one of the most popular types of romance published–but what makes for a good Regency? What do you need to know to write one.

I’m teaching a workshop on Writing the Regency this July (22-Aug 18), but here are a few basics:

1-Voice. First things first, and the first thing any Regency novel needs is the right voice. Now the Regency voice can be funny or dramatic, but the feel has to be something that invites the reader into a world that doesn’t exist–yes, it’s the past, but it’s a past that no one’s been to, so it’s up to the writer to come up a “tone” or voice that feels right. It’s the sort of thing that readers know, and the writer has to find.

2-Research. This is the one that stops most folks. The odd thing is that contemporary novels can need research, too, particularly when you dip into fields that aren’t your own (medical, legal, cowboys, fire, etc. etc.). The trick to research is to know the right questions to ask–what do you need to know. And where do you go to find it? Too much time spent in research means too little time spent writing.

3-Plausibility. Readers have to buy into the world. You can actually have accurate details–but will readers believe them? The same goes for the characters. Do you have people who make sense within this world you’re creating? The reader has to believe not just in your characters, but that your characters could have existed within the Regency world.

4-Glamour. The Regency is an era of style–of wit. And clothes. And, also, titles. Lords and ladies, and getting this wrong can throw a reader right out of the story. Setting matters, as does the furniture, and the outfits. We all want to be swept away–that’s part of the attraction of the past.

5-History. Technically, you don’t need too much of this in a Regency (you can go for costume drama). But you do need some basics, otherwise why bother setting a book in this era. And if you’re writing a Regency mystery, or historical fiction, you need more than the basics. But part of this is why you pick the Regency to start with–it helps a lot if you’re more than a little in love with the era.

6-Details. The right details can make or break a story, and this is where you want to find fresh details (and not just repeat what other authors may have done in their stories). The search for these details can be like a treasure hunt–the one trick here is not to stuff every little detail you find into one story.

7-Adventure. We read about the past because it is past–nicely, safely so. But it’s also a time with a touch of adventure, with swords and duels, war and spies, candlelight and balls. It’s a place for the reader to move into and have a short adventure into that past. The adventure may be as simple as an elopement or as complex as an unsolved murder, but a touch of this always helps any Regency.

 

Plotting from Character

rosesI’m going to be teaching a workshop soon on this because it’s something I see in a lot of contest manuscripts–there’s a good start and then the synopsis slips into cliches or takes a left into what comes across as a contrived plot. This comes from forcing a set plot onto the characters instead of developing characters that bring their own conflicts and issues to the party.

Robert McKee who teaches one of the best classes there is on story structure states: story is character and character is story—if you change the story you must change your characters and if you change your characters your story will change.

What this means is that if you approach the plot (the things that happen) from the aspect of forcing certain actions to happen, you’re going to end up with a contrived story—the reader won’t believe the events because they are forced onto the characters. This is where you end up with the heroine kidnapped because she does something stupid, or the hero believes his girl is cheating on him just because he sees her with another guy, or some other external events forces the characters to do stupid things that really don’t match the character’s character.

To avoid this, you look for the story to come from the characters—you set up your characters to generate the plot (the things that happen) because the characters make choices. Those choices have consequences that generate new problems and the need for new choices.

So, how, exactly, do you go about doing this?

1. Start at the deepest point: for every character, find that person’s core need. (And, yes, you need to do this for all your characters, good guys and bad, and secondary characters, too.) Know what every character wants most in this life.

2. Find out why that character needs that one thing. When looking for these motivations for a character’s core need, discard the first two or three ideas. And look for motivations that happen early in life—we’re all shaped most strongly by those things that happen in our formative years.

3. In a romance, set up a potential mate who can’t provide that need for your main character (and know who really is the main character in the story).

4. Decide if your characters recognize their needs and motivations.

5. Go beyond he’s hot and she’s sexy for characters to click emotionally, mentally, and on levels beyond physical.

6. Layer.  Add traits that are strengths and ones that are weaknesses, make them compliment and contrast.

7. Give every character a secret.  Maybe even one that stays hidden in that story.

8. Focus the story on one character’s specific growth—that is your protagonist, and that person’s growth is at the heart of the book. Yes, in a romance you have a hero and a heroine, but one of them needs to be the main focus.

9. Put in clear, specific goals for each character. Avoid negative goals (she wants to avoid being killed)—the reader won’t know if the character archives this goal since it’s an avoidance goal. And make it tangible—a goal to be rich doesn’t mean much since one person’s rich might be a thousand dollars while another’s is a hundred million. In every scene, every character needs a goal. And your characters need a specific, tangible goal that sets the story into action.

10. Make sure every choice (and every failure) has consequences. It’s no good having a character whose goal is a “so what” goal. The character’s life, or at least their image of themselves, should be on the line. If the hero doesn’t get that promotion, he’s got to lose his wife, his home, and never be able to work in that profession again. If the heroine doesn’t find the three hundred dollars to keep her car, she should lose her child because she can’t keep a job and keep food on the table. There have to be costs for failure, otherwise why should the reader care.

Finally, if you get stuck for what happens next, go back to your characters and play the “what if” game with them. Look at throwing more obstacles at your character—how will that person react to this new problem? For example, if your heroine has to get a contract signed to get that promotion to VP to be able to afford the medical bills for her mother’s cancer, what if she finds out the contract is with a mobster? Is she still going to go for it? Or what if the guy does sign—and then shows up dead the next day? What does she do now? Or what if in the middle of the business meeting, she has an asthma attack? How will she handle that?

Look for how to make things worse for your characters—but always look at the story evolving from your characters reactions to those obstacles. Instead of thinking, “Oh, and then this will happen in the story and my character will do that.” Go for thinking, “What if this happens—how would I react to that if I were this person?” And let your story evolve from your characters so that your story is really about your characters, and your characters are your story.

And if you need to know more (or put this into practice), come and take the workshop–we’ll do some hands-on work with this.