Archive | November 2010

English Winter Fare

In the still largely agrarian world of the early 1800’s, autumn and winter became a time to relax after harvest. Gentry and yeoman alike could take advantage of old feasting customs that had long ago mingled with the Christian holidays.

In autumn, Parliament opened again and some of society returned to London. St. Michael’s and All Angel Day, or Michaelmas, at the end of September, marked the end of a quarter year. The Celtic calendar also wove itself into English holidays, with one of the main events on November 1 becoming All Saints Day or All Hallows and October 31 therefore set as All Hallows Eve. It should be noted that Saman (also Samana, Shamhain, and Samhain) a minor Celtic guardian of herds, and so important to a herding society, played a part in the celebrations, but modern lore has turned him into an ancient god of death and mixed up several Celtic customs along with imported Christian beliefs to give us Halloween.

October was a month when land owners ate pheasant, partridge, duck and grouse. Fish for meals included perch, halibut, carp, gudgeons, and shell fish. Poachers also looked to snared hares for their pot. Beans were still fresh, and the fruits of summer gave way to pears, apples, nuts and the last harvest of grapes.

On November 5 bonfires burned in mockery of Guy Fawkes and memory of the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament. 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 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.

More celebrations lead to Christmas Eve when the Lord of Misrule danced and the Mummers traveled to perform their pantomimes. Then came 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. 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. 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.

Households also celebrated not just according to the season, but also to the customs of the area. In the Regency, local customs in the countryside might well hold to the old ways.

Under the Kissing BoughFor 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 Viking 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 a 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 combine the Roman Saturnalia with the Feast of the Epiphany, when the three wise men were said to have paid tribute to the Baby Jesus. Deep in winter, there was still plenty of game to eat. Beside those wild and tame birds available in December, lobster came into season in January, as did crayfish, 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 until the expensive force strawberries of February appeared.

For the Celtic year, winter ended February 1 with the celebration of Imbolc or Oimelc. This is the time when ewes begin to lamb and lactate for their offspring, and life begins to return. For the ancient Celts, this was the celebration for Brigid (also Brigit, Brighid or Bride), the Light-Bringer, one of the main Celtic goddesses. She was strong enough to survive and be transformed by early Catholics into Saint Bridget, who was celebrated, along with the Virgin Mary, on February 2, Candlemas Day.

Another ancient tradition, this one of law, was to ignore leap year days—February 29 did not exist. This became the day when the world could be out-of-order. Tradition held that St. Bridget complained to St. Patrick about women having to wait so long for proposals, and Patrick answered that women could propose on Leap Day. In Scotland, their tradition added on that any man who declined a proposal in a leap year must pay a fine, which could be anything from a fine silk dress to a kiss given to the disappointed female.

St. David’s Day the Welsh patron saint came on March 1, and tradition held that all good Welshmen should wear a leak—a vegetable readily available from winter fare. March also brought Lent, and in Shropshire and Herefordshire, Simnel Cakes made with saffron were made for the season.

With March 21, the spring officially arrived, but for most of England, it would still be some time before warm weather and spring flowers arrived, and even longer until the return of the lush abundance of summer fruit and foods.

Edits and Revsions – When is Enough Enough?

Proper ConductWhen I set out to bring my books into e-format, I’d first thought I wouldn’t edit them. Then I did the first book, and I did edit. With Proper Conduct done and coming on sale now in electronic format, I’ve gone a step beyond that. I’ve revised the ending.

Now, there’s a story about JRR Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings, that he was very late with delivering the manuscript for one of the books and someone finally showed up, boxed it up, took it from him, but as it was being carted off for publication, he called out the window that there was one more edit he needed to make. I don’t know if it’s a true story, but I suspect there’s truth in it in that we all want to correct our mistakes, and if you’ve grown up with that urge to perfectionism, you really want to go back and edit. The joy of electronic media is that we can now do so. It’s also the curse.

This doesn’t mean the book I’ve edited ends differently–the hero and heroine still get together, there still is a happy ending. However, when the book came out in print I had the restriction of paper, meaning a hard physical budget. My choices were a longer book and smaller type font, or keep it under 80,000 words, and I was already pushing that.  So I ended the book with the heroine and hero together, but I did read the reviews and I had to agree with a few of those who wanted a bit more.

Sometimes you just need that extra bit of afterglow, that emotional wrap-up that goes with the story to show that these two characters actually have done more than make that leap into love–they’re also going to be able to maintain the relationship. Sometimes you just need to show them getting along as they’re going to be getting along.

Now there are times I’m impatient with a book that drags on a bit much–none of us care for those guests who stay and stay and keep on until dawn. But there is such a thing as an end that comes too soon which leaves you wanting that extra bit more. I’m hoping I’ve erred on the side of enough without too much (or maybe it’s still not enough–it’s so hard to tell when you get that close to the work).  But there it is.  I’ve added edits, now, I’m revising myself.  And I’m already thinking about a couple of books where I wanted those extra scenes and just didn’t have the page count for it (or the time on the deadline).

But I do see the danger here, where one can revise and revise and never get to anything new. So I’m going to have to learn to balance this. For now, Proper Conduct is out on Smashwords with a fine new cover by Albert Slark, who also did the original cover, but I love the new cover.  It should also be showing up soon as well on for Kindle and for Nook.

I’m bringing out A Proper Mistress next, and while I don’t anticipate changes there, as I convert the book for electronic formatting, I wonder if I’ll find that I need a new scene, or an extra bit somewhere in the book.  It’s actually more fun to go back to these characters than I’d thought it would be, and now I can see why folks return to their old schools and go back to hang out at the old playground. The really interesting thing will be to find out if I have made the work better–or if I’ve just made it different.

It’s Not Just a Point of View

Let’s start with a disclaimer—I am not a POV purist. I’m probably going to sound like one, but really I’m fine with viewpoint shifts in a story, so long as they work. But I think most folks use the “I’m not a purist” line as an excuse not to master POV technique. And a lot of folks just don’t know why they need strong POV control in a story.

Back before my first book sold, I was lucky enough to get Jo Beverley as a judge in a contest (she writes historical romance and if you have not read her work, go and buy her books—she’s good). She stressed one comment—master your POV and you’ll sell. She was right. Back then, I had something I see a lot from journeyman writers—floating POV.

Floating POV is when the viewpoint is sort of third person and sort of omniscient. It’s sort of in one character, but sort of not. This can show up in first person, too, where it’s sort of first person, but sort of omniscient, so don’t think you’re immune there. However, it is less likely to show up in first person, which is one of the big advantages to using it. The big problem with floating POV is that it leaves the reader floating above and out of the story, too—the reader ends up emotionally detached. It’s weak writing.

Deep POV, the opposite of floating POV, is about reader immersion. And by deep, I mean viewpoint that is locked within a character. This means locked right behind that character’s eyes and within that character’s head and emotions. Deep POV can be locked in first person or third person, but it is locked tight. When you lock POV like this, it’s very tough to shift—both because you as the author start rolling along with the character, and each shift is a place to lose the reader. With deep POV you naturally tend to want to put viewpoint shifts at chapter breaks or major scene shifts instead of putting these viewpoint changes within a scene.

All transitions in a story are slippery places—chapter shifts, scene shifts and viewpoint shifts are the places where a reader can pause, slip out of the story and put the book down. Put enough of shifts into a scene, or too many fast shifting scenes before the reader is deep in a story, and you can see how POV purists end up having a good point—you’re better off being a purist than someone who changes POV so much that it pushes the reader out of the story.

Like any other writing technique, POV control is about mastering the technique. That’s an advantage a POV purist has because that person has nailed this part of the craft. And if you don’t practice a discipline, if you’re always loose with your POV, you won’t learn how to control your story (or the reader’s attention).

Coming from a background where I’ve dabbled in the other arts—music, painting, dance—I’m a believer in solid technique as a foundation. The stronger your technical skills, the more you can let them run on auto-pilot and focus on the fun stuff. When I played violin, every practice started with a half hour of scales. Only then could I dive into the music and have it come out sweet. Scales both limbered up my skills and improved my technique. A writer doesn’t really have the equivalent of musical scales, but we can still practice technique.

To improve my control of POV and my technical skills, I set myself the following disciplines.

First book I sold, I kept to one character’s viewpoint per chapter. This became the technical exercise in the book. If I needed to cover another character’s emotions in a scene, the following chapter could go back a bit in time to do that scene from that character. But I was a POV Nazi for myself and kept to one character’s POV in each chapter. This deepened my characterization and the emotion in the scenes. It gave me the control I needed—but I still have to go back to this practice at times (yes, those skills you don’t practice get rusty).

Next thing was to write more in first person. I still do this. While I like third person for the flexibility it gives of putting the viewpoints of a lot of characters into a story, I’ll still use first person to write a scene. After the scene is written, if the story is all in third person I’ll shift the first person scene into third person. First person helps me get into my characters and also works a lot like those musical scales to keep my technical skills sharp. It also gives me more emotional bang in my scene, and keeps me honest about my viewpoint control (it’s so easy to think you’re doing this well when you’re not—I always say there’s the story in your head, the story on the page, and the story in the reader’s head, and these don’t always match).

The last discipline is to always ask—do I need to shift viewpoint? (Hint: “Because I feel like it” is never a good enough answer.) Viewpoint shifts need to be treated like any other part of the story—they need a lot of good reasons to be in the story, or they need to be left out. That which does not improve a story will detract. If I have three good reasons to need a viewpoint shift—including the best one, which is that another person in the scene now has more emotionally at stake in the scene—only then will I look at crafting a shift.

Granted, sometimes the instinct to shift viewpoints is one you need to listen to. Writer instincts need to be developed and used. But sometimes this is also justification for a lazy habit that you need to pound out of your writing. This is where you have to be able to look at your writing and know that the scene works—it’s giving you the emotion you need, so don’t touch it. Or you have to apply the discipline to rewrite it and keep the reader within the viewpoint of the key character in that scene so the reader gets every ounce of emotion from that scene.

When you have to make a viewpoint transition, you want to use some technique to smooth this (it’s like a baton hand-off in a relay race, and if you fumble this, the reader can trip right out of your story). But that’s the subject for another day, and for the POV workshop that I teach (shameless plug there, but if you don’t take this workshop, at least pick up Orson Scott Card’s book, Characters & Viewpoint to grab some good tips).

I won’t tell you, “Master POV and you’ll sell.” You may have other writing or story issues to address. But I will say that mastering immersive POV—the ability to put your reader into the story and keep the reader there, the ability to control viewpoint so well that it the craft is transparent to the reader—is key to becoming a great storyteller.

At least, that’s my point of view.


(First published as a guest blog at the FFnP RWA Blogspot.)

Backlist Back for the Holidays

There is nothing quite as exciting as an adventure–also, nothing quite as uncomfortable, fraught with peril and generally the sort of thing that makes you both nervous and thrilled. Adventures also make for good story telling after the fact.  I’m still in the early stages of this new path, but seems like a good time to start sharing on what it’s like to bring out books in electronic format. And why not bring back my out-of-print books–I have the rights back and I’ve had folks asking when they could get these for electronic readers, so…let’s go.

Now, I’m not trail blazing here–lots of folks are going electronic, and there are definite advantages. But we’re not talking freeway fast path, either. We’re more like Oregon Trail–there is a trail, many folks have passed this way, and you can see the skeletons of some of them.  And we’re still in covered wagons–this is not a trip for those who aren’t stubborn as hell.

My particular trip started with getting enough info from the Novelists Inc. conference that I decided it was time to do some experiments, at the very least. My day job is web work, so you’d think my adoption factor would be high, but my books ran into the cobbler’s children syndrome–not an electronic stitch to have them shod. Time to change all that.

Under the Kissing Bough

First step–the cover.  The books are all done, so I don’t have to worry about finishing them, or edits (well, mostly not, but more on this later). I had the contact info for Albert Slark who did a couple of my covers. He gave me a great rate, and now I’ve fantastic covers coming, including one for Under the Kissing Bough (RITA nominee for Best Regency).

Second step–file conversion. My final edits were on paper, so I pulled out the books and the files to put in final edits. My initial thought was that I’d keep the books the same–they represent my writing at a certain stage of my life, and I thought that should stay the same. Then I started finding things I just did not want to allow in any new edition. There are no major edits, but I found things I wanted to be cleaner, stronger–my skills have improved as a writer, and I found I wanted the electronic edition to be as strong as I could make it.  Now I’m going to have to do that with all eight books, so this is going to take more time than I wanted.

Third  step–more file conversion. Formatting is a pain in the ass. There’s no way around that. There’s fussing with formats, and fonts, and making sure it’s going to display right on the reader. This is where that stubbornness can really help. You have to get everything ready for upload, and then you have to fuss more with the upload. This is where, on the Oregon Trail, you’re crossing the Continental Divide.  You just have to get  out and push sometimes.

Fourth step–this one is optional.  I bought ISBNs for the books–if you go this route, you need an ISBN for each version, print, electronic, etc.  This also gets the books listed in Books in Print, but it is more fussing. (I already have copyright on the books, but if you want to button everything up, you can also get a copyright on the book for not much money).

Now comes the next steps–promotion, promotion, promotion. Getting the word out in an already noisy world is always tough.  But I feel as if I’ve got my stake in the ground for some of the new promised land–I’ve cross the great divide and now must learn how to make this adventure work on a long-term basis.

I have to thank a few people who provided great info and insight, including Bob Mayer, Joe Konrath, Della Jacobs — these are all writers, so please go buy their books, too, all in convenient electronic format.

And you can now buy my RITA Nominee for Best Regency, Under the Kissing Bough, for: Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook or for Sony readers or other formats at Smashwords…and next month, I’ll let you know how the adventure progresses. I’m pretty sure that, to paraphrase the words of Betty Davis when she played Margo Channing in All About Eve, what we all need to plan on is to, “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s gonna be a bumpy ride.”