Friday, January 29, 2010


I wonder if anyone notices the historical detail? The no, no, forks only had two tines at that point in history, people used lipstick made out of this kind of red beetle, carpets cost this much and it was raining on that particular Thursday in 1668? Will they check? I worry there is one historical fanatic who will pop out of the woodwork and say "aha! It was hail and not rain on that Thursday!" Unless it is a glaring mistake, I usually don't mind when I am reading historical fiction. I do not like to be pulled out of the story by minding. On the other hand, if someone suggested a 17th century woman did up her boots with velcro and hopped into a volvo I would mind very much.

In order to accommodate this fictitious persnickety person I check and recheck the weather, the days of the week, the clothes, the food, the gossip. Was the 27th of March 1668 a Thursday? Was it a leap year? I should mention at this point that math is not my strong suit.

But getting it historically right is not just a move to avoid persnickety person censure. It is addictive. A non concrete fact will niggle and wiggle and insist on resolving into certainty. It will eventually drive me bonkers and get me up in the middle of the night to plow through whatever 17th century text is required, get out my calculator, realize it was actually a Tuesday and fix it.

This is exactly what happened with buttons. When did buttons come into common usage? Aristocrats were sewn into their clothes by their armies of staff. Great, but what about a candlemaker's daughter who had no staff? Was she busy sewing herself into her clothes? Improbable. Information about working class people is invariably harder to verify than their wealthier counterparts. Only lovely expensive clothes get preserved in museums. No one enshrines worn out working boots. People save their best things, not the things they use everyday. Frustrating. As it is also easier to take in clothing than to let it out, the clothes that get saved tend to be tiny as they can no longer be taken in any more. Were these people that small?

Getting it right is fun but at times impossible and I can only hope that the persnickety person will have some patience.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Second Thoughts

Choosing a subject for a novel is huge fun, especially if you are writing historical fiction. You shop. You try on different times, places, lives, milieux. There are questions. Do I want to deal with corsets? The piano or the harpsichord? Railroads? Wooden teeth? Indoor plumbing? The telephone or the pony express? Considering that I write novels that are in a huge part epistolary, communication makes an enormous difference to what story I write. Roaming around from century to century I can drift through the Roman Empire on my way to the court of Louis XVI and then wander through Czarist Russia just for fun. I have no idea why I am drawn to certain subjects over others. Why when I love the sun, the sea and bare feet I would rather write about rain, snow and red, cold noses. Some things just fit.

But a decision must be reached. So, I impose a totally random deadline to forestall perpetual meandering. (That makes it sound so clean and precise when in fact it is an unwieldy and totally messy process.) The witching hour arrives and the subject crystallizes into fact. Done.

And then come the armies of second thoughts. The 'is this right?', 'no, of course it isn't, don't be absurd' type of second thought launches a frontal assault. Yuck.

Choosing a subject is much like choosing a house or car or really expensive pair of shoes (you know you'd better wear them forever to justify the outrageous price tag). You move in. You meet new people, wear new hats, shop in a new grocery store, use new soap and shampoo, wear new clothes, eat new food, feed new pets, grow new flowers. Well, grow some flowers, unlike my real life where I grow no flowers. Most of your day is spent in this new time and place; either writing about it, reading about it or thinking about it. It is wonderful. It is also easy to doubt and to look around with envy at other times and places. If I had written about 19th century India, I would be riding elephants after lunch type of thinking. Not good.

And then I get further along in my new life. The people become familiar. I know them by their walk. They no longer knock on the front door but come barging in. And then I fall in love with them.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

17th Century Medical Stuff

Whenever I see lovely Baroque or Rococo rooms with the swirls of gilded boiserie and the tall fragile windows, I imagine wandering about in a whispering satin gown with flowers woven through my hair (thick, curly and long in this daydream and not four inches short as it is now) and I think how lovely it would have been to have lived in a time of such beauty and then I remember... the medical treatments of this period were... not good.

It wasn't just the lack of anesthesia--although that is quite sufficient. Or just the tricky grasp of dentistry--yank a solid tooth out of a buxom, healthy farm girl and shove it in the mouth of a wealthy patron and you are good to go. It was the weirdness of it all. The things people genuinely believed would work.

Crushed dried bees rubbed on the scalp twice a day was said to cure baldness. Puppy or human urine splashed on the face will encourage a good complexion. Tie pigeons to the feet of a dying person and it will stop their soul from flying away. For severe wounds, dip a finger into the wound and write the name of the victim in blood across his chest. Ground fox lung to bring down a fever? Eew.

The psychology behind it all is difficult to fathom. Whatever is in the patient is making him sick and so it should come out. Unfortunately when Charles II, a life long disbeliever in blood letting and medicine (physick) of any kind, lay dying he was too weak to rein in his over eager physicians.

After the first round of massive blood letting, Charles 'stirred', a sure sign that he was responding well and more ill humours needed to be drained. And so they drained some more. They spiced up the blood letting with various other nasty treatments: herbs to bring on a prolonged sneezing fit to rid the nose of whatever baddies lurked in there, and 'voluminous emetics' (won't describe it but not good), a draft made from the crushed skull of an innocent man to bring on seizures--ick. And all this when the poor man was feeling rotten anyway.

When all this didn't work they shaved his head and covered it with burning mustard plasters, intended to draw blisters--ouch. Eventually, with his sense of humor marvelously intact (he apologized to everyone for taking so long to die), the poor man passed away. And then, to commemorate the occasion they made a life size wax mold of him.

... And the pretty dress reverie comes to an abrupt end and I find I like 2010 very much.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Over the Moon

Yipee! People I love and cherish and miss are reading the plum bean and I had no idea. I can send out random twinkly stars and wonderful people are out there to catch them. I am a lucky lucky girl. Thank you!

So in totally unrelated news I have to come up with an author photo erm... now. Now, before I go back to Kauai where I have friends who are photographers. I vaguely remember my flatmates needing bio photos and watching them get up early and go out into the mist to have them professionally done. I also remember an author friend of mine (the Bun) getting hers professionally done.

My editor asked me if I have any snapshots that would work. Not beachy? Not messy? Not blurry? With no other people in them? Looking semi professional? Umm no. If my dear friend Matt is willing to photoshop whiten my teeth can my mom take the photo?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Giant Limb

Ok, I am taking a huge risk here because no one might answer and then I will feel silly but who is reading the plum bean? I think I will just periodically throw this question out there and see if anyone responds. I think that is called scattering your risk?

I have gotten lovely, encouraging messages from everyone from: wonderful lower/middle/highschool friends to college friends to London friends to Hawaii friends to vagina friends (Vagina Monologues and VDAY, just to be clear) to family friends to my brother and sister's incredible supportive friends to my super students but it is all in my email and facebook or on the phone and not here. And then I signed up for a sitemeter thing and it told me in no uncertain terms that no one, ever, has been to the plum bean. of course i might have set it up wrong and i have definitely lost the password...

I totally understand the read but do not comment thing as I have left a grand total of three comments on the blogs of other writers (even though my New Year's resolution was to leave comments on the blogs of other writers). Those were three hard won comments as well, each with an average of four false starts.

Nathan Bransford has a super helpful, informative blog that covers everything from how to write a query letter to the current landscape of publishing. It has saved my bacon on a number of occasions and I have recommended his marvelous blog to everyone, and yet I cannot work up the oomph to leave a note and thank him. I will let you know as soon as I locate the oomph to thank him.

But I am just curious... who is out there?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

New York

I went into the Aldo shoe shop ten minutes before I was supposed to be there. Good. Nothing in my teeth. Sweater on the right way round. All good things. Seven minutes of loitering in the black granite Rockefeller Center lobby and then the guard at the security desk smiled, pointed to the elevators, wished me luck and suggested I breathe. I tried it. Breathe? In the Simon and Schuster elevator on the way up to meet my editor and everyone at Touchstone Fireside? Nope. Not an option. And the doors opened and my editor Danielle was waiting. And everything clicked into wonderful place. She is fantastic! She is the supercalifragilistic, hatstand in a handbag kind of fantastic. Warm, brilliant, encouraging, funny, smart as a whip, ask her anything, so happy she is editing the book, fun.

She took me to a lovely, yummy lunch and then around to all the offices to meet the people at Touchstone. It looked just how I had imagined it: manuscripts on the shelves, on the floor and books and books and books lining the walls. What I had not anticipated was that they would be my favorite books. These people worked on my favorite books. It was a wonderful day.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Modern Language

Researching this book has been an interesting adventure in language. Some of the most modern feeling, familiar phrases such as: "call a spade a spade", "pay through the nose", "cock and bull story", "paint the town red" and "put the cart before the horse" were in usage during Nell Gwyn's life. To "call a spade a spade" was originally from Plutarch and was mistranslated as far back as Erasmus to mean "shovel". "Paint the town red" may have been a particularly gruesome phrase from the Roman Empire. When the Romans conquered a town they would celebrate by "painting it red" with the blood of their enemies. Ick.

In the years during and after the Interregnum "plain" speaking came into vogue. Francis Bacon was praised by the Royal Society for his "mathematical plainness" and lucidity of language. It became trendy to write without the complicated floral Elizabethan epithets and overblown exaggeration that had characterized expression in previous centuries. These idiomatic phrases survived this paring down of language intact.

The result was that the language of the Restoration is not far off our own. Samuel Peyps began most of his diary entries with "Up early and off to my office to..." whatever he was going to do with his day and then ended the entry with "And so off to bed." The direct casual wording sounds modern and it is not until the references to coaches, wenches and nasty, nasty food crop up that the diary really shows its age. Well, that and Peyps' fascination with his digestive system and the commemorating the removal of his "stone" (a yearly celebration in honor of his gall stone surgery--more ick).

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


The bumble bee the bumble bee
It flew away from the tulip tree
It made a mistake and flew into the lake
And never got home for early tea.

I love stories pitched high. I love writing that you have to work for. This little rhyme appears apropos of nothing part way through my favorite film (Stanley Donen's Two for the Road) and then reappears later to lightly denote the perfect mix of wry regret, nostalgia, freedom, remembered fun and loss--all without saying anything. Love that. The characters go sixty percent and we race to make up the other forty--fun. When the plot or structure or characters snap together too easily I sort of fall asleep at the wheel in my head.

On the other hand if I read something that is pitched too high I hate it. I know hate is a strong word. But I greatly, massively, disproportionately dislike it. Self conscious, deliberately out of reach linguistic acrobatics drive me bonkers.

Yesterday, standing in Kinko's Fed Ex (after having a stern discussion with my packaged up book asking it not to be the one in a million Fed Ex package to get lost, kissing it goodbye and freaking out the nice man behind the counter), I realized that I have no sense anymore of where my book is pitched. That finely tuned, ruthless speedometer that is running full tilt when I read, seems to go to lunch when I write. That is, as Tuna says, is no bueno.

I am far to close to what I have written to have any real idea what it says--worrying. I have heard that phrase before but did not really understand what it meant. As I was finishing up my edits yesterday I went around the house reading bits aloud to various animals and humans trying to get a sense of how it really sounded. (Bert seemed to like it, the Major wouldn't wake up, and the Black Cat ran off to eat soy sauce instead). The chunks of words sounded foreign, strange and unfamiliar--like when you repeat the word "fork" too many times and it no longer sounds right.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Copyediting and Christmas--found! But now Anticlimactic...

They don't go so well together. Christmas at our house means fires and chocolate and board games and books and animals and movies and family and friends and more chocolate and then dinner and it all makes one so... sleepy. But no! Must finish! And so I have been waking up after falling asleep in the living room, dining room, den or kitchen (tricky but can definitely be done), at one, two or three a.m. getting into bed with my gigantic stack of pages and editing. Not my most productive time of day to work it must be said.

But I have done it! Five hundred and ten pages later the "To Do" stack is gone and the "Done" stack is enormous. Unfortunately I do not trust myself and cannot remember half of what I did, undid or should have done and so I am going back over all five hundred and ten pages. My dog, who is under a blanket under the manuscript is very pleased as he does not want me to get out of my pajamas, get up from this chair or go out of the house. This dog inspires a terrible brand of multiple days in pajamas type laziness. That is totally appropriate for today as I was up for most of the night (my own fault as I wanted to watch All About Eve with my mom--unfortunately watching Bette Davis makes me want to write everything in a Bette Davis voice--not good for the 17th century).

But now it is done-ish. Unless I check it over one more time. To do:510 pages. Done:0 pages. Happy dog, happy dog, who's a happy dog?

Delete Buttons

Grumble. Wrote blog. Posted blog. Added photo. Deleted photo. Accidentally deleted blog and comments. Grumble. Now must go back to editing.