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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Puss in Books!



We were talking yesterday on the Word Wenches Blog about how our pets manipulate us, train us and generally make sure that if we are paying too much attention to our writing and too little to them then that imbalance will be addressed as quickly as possible. The natural charm and intelligence of animals cannot be overestimated and here, to prove the point, is the story of Puss in Books, Fidel the cat, who has visited his library in Kent almost every day for the past 2 years. Fidel spends the day on his favourite blue chair, only leaving the building when he sees his owners arriving home. As well as checking out the books, Fidel is apparently something of an art critic and has been seen examining the paintings on the library walls. The story is on the BBC at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/kent/8021407.stm and yes, you guessed it, it's one of the most emailed news stories of the day!

The story reminded me of a talk I did at Pewsey Library a few months ago. When I arrived a rather beautiful ginger cat was waiting on the doorstep and came inside with me. When the librarian tried to show her the door she refused to leave, clearly determined to learn more about Regency Christmas customs! She sat down in the front row but decided she wanted to go after twenty minutes. Evidently my public speaking skills need improvement!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Blogging with the Word Wenches!

Today I am blogging with the fabulous Word Wenches at:

http://wordwenches.typepad.com/

Amongst other things we will be discussing manipulative pets, Scandinavian melancholy and the wonderful diversity of the Harlequin Historical line! Please join us!

There are also prizes, including an advance copy of my NEW HQN Regency historical, The Confessions of a Duchess!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Writing Horror Story with a Happy Ending!

This is the book cover for my new HQN e-book, The Secrets of a Courtesan, which is coming out next month from e-harlequin. It's the short story prequel to my new Brides of Fortune series and introduces the village of Fortune's Folly and some of the characters. And once again I think the cover goddess has been smiling on me because I think it's beautiful!

I've been lucky in more ways than one because this is the short story that seemed destined to crash and burn. I love writing short stories and particularly enjoyed my recent one for Harlequin Historical Undone, The Unmasking of Lady Loveless. So I set out on this one with the same cheerful intent to create something that was fun, witty and sexy (of course!). I wrote the story at the start of the year. I had a tight deadline of my own making because I was going on holiday and it simply had to be finished before I left so that I could press on with a new book on my return. And I had what I thought was a good story idea, I loved my characters, I had included what I immodestly thought was some sparkling dialogue, so what was the problem? The plot, as it turned out. Specifically the lack of conflict. Even as I was writing the story I knew that something didn't quite work. It should have done - but it didn't.

It was the classic story idea of the hero requiring a temporary wife, but with a twist, and I loved the concept. So I made a big mistake. I carried on writing it instead of acknowledging my gut instinct, admitting that it wasn't going to work and stopping to rethink. It was only when the whole thing was finished and I read through it that the nagging doubts returned, but I liked it so much and I was determined it would be okay so again I ignored them. Then my editor read the manuscript... and put her finger on the problem straight away, as she always does. The characters were too nice, they had no flaws, there was no real conflict between them, the whole story simply didn't work.

With ten days before I went away I scrapped the original idea totally and tried to write a different short story. That was probably mistake number two because that didn't work either. By now my writing confidence was plummeting and my stress levels rising exponentially. I hadn't done my holiday packing because I'd been too busy trying to write this story, which was why I ended up in the Grand Canyon in the snow without a hat, scarf or gloves. Fortunately my editor had pointed out to me that as long as I could write the story in a week when I got back from holiday, we would still be okay to go.

Which was where I made my first good decision. I didn't think about the story for the entire three weeks that I was away. Instead I took a break, enjoyed my trip and lived in the moment. When I got back to the UK I was raring to write, and produced the Secrets of a Courtesan in a week. It was the third incarnation of this particular story, different again, but with some deep conflict, slightly flawed characters, still some sparkling dialogue (I hope!) and lots of hot and sensual romance.

Maybe one day I will use the first version of the story in my creative writing classes as an example of how every writer can make mistakes regardless of how long they've been writing or how many books they've written (I'm assuming here, of course, that I'm not the only person this has happened to, but please put me right if that assumption is incorrect!) I'm a great believer in the idea that you should follow your writing instinct, and from now on I'll be listening more closely to mine. In the meantime I think I'll just look at the cover of The Secrets of a Courtesan - and enjoy the happy ending!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Wine!

In the newspaper yesterday was the intriguing idea that the taste of wine changes with the lunar calendar. Have you noticed this?! A delicious glass of white "reminiscent of clean seashells on a ocean beach" to quote one wine connoiseur can on another day taste a bit fishy. Apparently in order to know when is the best time to drink your wine you need to consult the lunar calendar, which has been published for 47 years by a gardening great-grandmother called Maria Thun who lives in rural Germany. Days are divided up into "fruit," "flower," "leaf" or "root" with fruit and flower being the days on which the wines tastes good and leaf and root the ones on which it goes off. This coming week the best days are from 11pm Sunday and then from 8pm on Wednesday until 11am on Thursday and from 6pm on Friday - good timing for the weekend!


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Beat the Blues with a good book!

What is your favourite stress-buster? In the news this week was the story that charities are calling for a nationwide campaign to help promote mental health after a survey suggested that more people are growing anxious. According to the Mental Health Foundation people are more fearful than they were 10 years ago and more people are suffering from anxiety and depression. I suppose this is hardly surprising with so much bad news in the media, the credit crunch and the prospect of looming global depression. So let’s dispel all that gloom and think about happy things. Here are some nice suggestions that were put forward of ways to beat the blues:

Suggestion 1: Invest in a light box. Some people find that the effect of long winters and the depression that they can bring can be shortened with the use of light boxes, which deliver a dose of bright light similar to daylight. I like the idea of this. I found it really difficult to get up in the dark during last winter so I’m planning on getting a light box this year. My cousin warned me, though, that the light must to be bright enough to wake you up. She slept right thorough hers. And through the alarm… On the other hand, when I was in Spitsbergen in the Arctic, researching the book I’m currently writing, a number of people told me that they simply party through the long dark winter nights and that gets them through fine! Whatever works…

Suggestion 2: Get out in the garden or buy a window box if you live in a flat. Gardening has often been cited as a hobby ripe for getting people out of depression. Apparently that's because it takes people out of their own thoughts and helps them focus on something that needs their care and attention. I’m not good at gardening despite coming from a green-fingered family. But I love the idea of being outside and being close to nature. I have my most inspirational story ideas when I’m walking in the countryside, so I can see the pleasure in this.

Suggestion 3: Physical exercise, be it swimming, playing badminton, or going on a 10-mile hike - often tops lists as a way to lift spirits. And it's been proven to aid mental health as well as giving physical benefits. Aerobic activity (of all kinds!) releases endorphins and that's a natural, good free drug. Walking the dog works for me!

Suggestion 4: Cook a meal from scratch. Now I particularly like this one, especially as my dh is a great cook! “Food is destiny," one psychologist commented. "We are what we eat in every sense of the word. And food is the physical pleasure that lasts longest in life.”

Suggestion 5: Stroke a cat. Just not our cat, because she bites and that’s stressful.

Suggestion 6: Pat yourself on the back. We’re all great and we deserve to tell ourselves that.

Suggestion 7: Value our friends and family. Having meaningful relationships is a really good way to boost a sense of wellbeing. Different people needs different amounts of intimacy, but we all need connections. Just being part of a web that weaves together, and needs the other parts to exist makes us feel good.

Suggestion 8: And finally – read a romance book (or several!) It’s no surprise to those of us in the know that sales of romances have increased by over 30% during these tough times. Romances are the perfect antidote to anxiety and stress. They take you away from all that. They have happy endings. They make you feel good!

So what is your preferred form of stress-busting activity? Share the secret!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

I'm indulging my passion...

...For history. Now, I know that I talk about Ashdown House a lot but it is one of the most beautiful and atmospheric historic houses in England so I think that's fair enough. The house is now open for the 2009 season and on Saturday April 11th I will be taking my first guided tours around the property. We're hoping for some lovely spring weather and lots of visitors! So just to whet the appetite, here is a picture! And remember - if you live in the UK or you are visiting this year, do call in to see us. We would love to show you round and afterwards you can go for a delicious cream tea in historic Ashbury village! For more information on Ashdown visit the special Ashdown House blog!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Are there too many women in history - or too few?

Last week David Starkey, who non-co-incidentally has a new TV programme starting this week on King Henry VIII, commented on the way in which history has been feminised by female authors who concentrate on Henry’s wives rather than on the King himself, a situation which Dr Starkey apparently finds “bizarre.” To quote: “But it's what you expect from feminised history, the fact that so many of the writers who write about this are women and so much of their audience is a female audience. Unhappy marriages are big box office.” Earlier this month Dr Starkey said he believed Henry VIII's handwriting showed he had an "emotionally incontinent" personality because he was brought up in a female-dominated household.

Dr Starkey has never made much secret of the fact that he enjoys being outrageously provocative so I suppose this shouldn’t come as a surprise. What is a surprise is that these comments don’t strike me as being particularly scholarly. Let’s start with the emotionally incontinent bit, shall we? I’m not convinced Henry was emotionally incontinent. Yes, he could be sentimental. Yes, he had a marvellous capacity for believing himself to be in love and an even greater talent for conveniently falling out of love when it suited him. His emotional acrobatics when justifying getting rid of his wives are an object lesson in self-delusion. But even if he was “emotionally incontinent” this would not be because he was brought up in a female-dominated household. There’s no unavoidable cause and effect here. Not every man brought up in a female household becomes emotionally incontinent. Such an idea would be absurd. I might as well claim that Henry was a violent man who resorted to judicial murder because he had been brought up to enjoy violent sports. As I say, completely absurd.

Now that remark about the feminisation of history leading to a disproportionate amount of interest in Henry’s wives and their unhappy marriages at the expense of poor old Henry himself. Hmmm. Well, I would never wish to generalise as Dr Starkey appears to have done here, but yes, I agree that the intricacies of relationships, their development and break down, have always fascinated me. Yes, I enjoy reading and writing about them. Yes, I am a woman. So… Oh, hold on… that simply must mean that I can only be interested in Henry in relation to his wives and the failure of his marriages! What nonsense. I’m interested in history, Dr Starkey, in all shapes and forms. That’s why books about the Thirty Years War sit on my shelves alongside books about Anne Boleyn. Please don’t patronise me.

As a public historian I see nothing wrong at all in writing about women and their role in history after several milennia in which white males wrote for and about white males. Public history seeks to discover and give a voice to the history of those who have been ignored, be they women, children, slaves or any other. Dr Starkey also claims that “to paint many women in history as "power players" was to falsify the facts.” I would suggest that women have always exerted a powerful influence throughout history. It’s a tribute to their skill in doing so that some historians haven’t even noticed.