My Personal HEA Inspiration – I still find it unbelievable but it’s true!

17 Apr

It’s the phone call every child of older parents dreads and one I thought I had received back in February this year. My mother’s husband phoned me to say “You have to take your mother out for coffee…NOW!”

In itself, that might seem an innocuous request, but if you knew my mother, your internal alarms would be clanging and jangling at a great rate. Mum doesn’t “do coffee”, not because she’s antisocial but because it’s simply not her. Normally, we have a chat in her back garden and inspect her latest vegetable crop or she drops in to inspect how the chickens are doing here. A summons to coffee with Mum is therefore cause for expecting the worst, possibly something terminal.

When I arrived at our coffee appointment, I found a shell of a woman who was shaking like a leaf (again not dear Mama) and I was all set to phone for an ambulance. My mother of course refused my terrifying offer and thrust a $50 note in my hand so that I could buy the coffee. The moment I sat down, she blurted it out and here’s how the conversation began:

You remember the baby that died when we lived in (country town in Australia), well he didn’t die. Your father and I adopted him out because I couldn’t cope and he phoned me yesterday.

YOU DID WHAT??????????

1960s nurse

I won’t bore you with the ins and outs of the rest of the conversation, but suffice to say I was more than a little shocked. Don’t get me wrong; I didn’t suddenly reach over and strangle mother for having told me at a sensitive age that the baby had died (I was eight-years-old at the time). Nor did I scream at her “I spent my school holidays that year searching for his grave at the cemetery, you evil witch!” No, I didn’t feel anything but relief that nobody had died – at first.

In the following weeks, after I finally spoke with David (not his real name) and automatically clicked with him, I struggled with what seemed to be an insurmountable heartache as I thought about what had transpired. For all of my life, I had told people that I was one of seven children but that the youngest had died at birth. Even at a young age, it had been important to me to recognise the child I never grew up with, perhaps selfishly or perhaps over-emotionally; I don’t know. Regardless, that little baby has been a part of me since I was eight.

At the time my mother dropped her bombshell, I was in the throes of completing my five novel Historical Romance series. I had finished Book #4 and was already plotting out the last book when we did coffee. The first thing that went out of the window was my ability to write, because at every opportunity I would find myself bursting into tears and wandering around the property in a right state. It affected me so much (and so surpisingly) that I couldn’t eat or sleep and I spent hours questioning (and at times yelling at) the stars. Even the dogs got saturated every time they came up for a pat. I couldn’t tell you exactly why I cried so much, because I wasn’t angry with my parents for making the decision they did. Of course, I was pretty cheesed off that they had both seen fit to take their secret to their graves, but upon reflection I accepted their reasons for doing so; I wasn’t them at the time and it’s not my judgement call.

I was still a mess when David invited me to visit with him. His words were “Why don’t you put some petrol in the car and drive over?” As he lived a thousand miles away and money was tight, this was no mean feat, but we did it. With the three rescued greyhounds boarded and the chickens on long term feeders, off my husband and I went to meet my baby brother for the first time. The fact that David is twice my size and a foot taller didn’t change the fact that he was and will always be the baby. I armed myself with childhood photos, a hundredweight of tissues and the shot nerves of a middle aged nitroglycerine researcher before finally arriving at his house.

Romance Readers & Writers - if you want to know what HEA really feels like, I can tell you that I have been to the mountain!

Yes, David and I hit it off within seconds of meeting. We looked at each others’ faces and saw ourselves, while I cried a river and he hugged me. His family is amazing and so very supportive of his decision to find out where he came from, and I now have a wonderful new sister-in-law, niece and nephew.

Upon returning home, I realised that in less than two weeks I had been transported from heartache to joy by the mere fact that things had never been as I had thought they were. Blissfully unaware of the truth, I had spent nearly forty years of my life thinking that things were one way when they were not. As I finally came to terms with this knowledge, I began to understand that I no longer needed to worry about the past - the past already is, regardless of how we perceive it. With that understanding came a feeling of great liberation. In one simple phone call to contact his biological family, my youngest brother David had handed me the answer that I had been seeking for all of my adult life.

Don’t worry about anything apart from the present and what is to come – the past is already set in stone regardless of your understanding of it.

Book number five just fell out of me (and yes, it involved the heroine’s search for a long lost brother), and I was unconcerned when I received my proofs and realised that several thousand commas had to be removed. Nor was I bothered when the covers looked terrible – after all, I could simply consign them to the past and replace them with better ones (which I did). Mountains became molehills and tears became smiles as I realised how blessed I was in having a brother who had survived childhood and was simply a really nice bloke. Self confidence I didn’t think I had suddenly appeared. It told me that I was a good author and that my books were worthy of sharing with others, so in April this year I finally published them.

You might wonder why I am sharing this with you, but I wanted you tell you from first hand experience that inspiration comes from the most improbable situations or people at times. If you are struggling with your craft or with a personal matter that is affecting how you write, think about me and David. Whatever you think has brought you to this point in your life might not be as you see it – perhaps things are totally different to what you believe. It really doesn’t matter, because you were born to follow your own dreams and you should follow them regardless. Be that writer NOW, regardless of your previous attempts, successes or failures, and put everything else aside to make it happen. Most importantly, understand that HEA doesn’t only belong in Romance Novels – it has a place in all of our lives and it can come when you least expect it.

This blog post has been written to inspire somebody (anybody) and nothing else. If you want to know about my books, please visit Amazon or Goodreads for now – I shall wait a week to post them as I want to share this story with as many of you as I can before I become all commercial again.

The next time you struggle with your story, think about mine and you will have a wonderful day! (Trust me, I have six siblings so I should know)

Above all else, have a great day!

ON THE STREET WHERE YOU WRITE

22 Mar

Street

‘ON THE STREET WHERE YOU WRITE’

The Authoring Community – A Microcosm of the Wider World

Imagine if you will, a street filled with businesses of all types and sizes. From the slick, multi-storey building that fills part of the skyline, through to multi-national and franchised supermarkets, workshops, manufacturing facilities, service entities and the little mixed-business on the corner, each has a purpose and a place on the street. In turn, each has its own unique story to tell.

I believe that the authoring community is similar to such a street. Each author is a business, selling a type of product (their genre) and each is of a specific size (contracted, indie author etc.). These commercial entities depend heavily upon the businesses surrounding them – the editors, agents, designers, IT gurus and publicists et al, who are an essential cog in the publishing wheel (if I’m to be totally honest, these actually make the wheels move).

Perhaps each morning, when the mixed-business-on-the-corner’s owner sweeps his or her step and greets the milk and bread deliverers, he or she might look up; at the multi-storey-building. As the open sign is turned, and the owner of the mixed-business-on-the-corner takes his or her place to greet the first of the day’s customers, thoughts might stray to dream about being as big as the multi-storey-building. Obversely, there may be eyes looking down from the street’s largest building; eyes that dream of a simpler life, where success is measured in more personal terms. Regardless of how one business regards the other, one thing remains constant – as the street comes to life, businesses supporting everything from the multi-story-building down to the mixed-business-on-the-corner start their days, churning out products in the knowledge that their fortunes lie in the success of failure of others.

Perhaps, as authors, we should build our own virtual streets, and choose the place most suited to our understanding of success, and where we want to be on the street. Before we all flock to the multi-storey-building (Random House etc.), we should ask ourselves, “is this the right environment for me and my work?” I suspect that for many of us, the answer to that question would be, “yes”, due mainly to the prospect of excellent employer support and an awesome pension plan.

For others of us, perhaps there is great joy to be found as the multi-national supermarket (high volume, low priced publishers like Harlequin, M&B etc.), or a franchised electrical store (lower volume, specialist publisher). Your own idea of success could just as easily be to own the mixed-business-on-the-corner (the indie author). Regardless of the choice an author makes, the street’s character comes from the diversity of its businesses, its people, and (most importantly) its sense of community. Where you, as an author, fit in with that community is entirely up to you.

All of the street’s commercial entities are currently open for business, and anybody can walk through any of its doors and exchange greetings. As an author, you might not be received in the manner you expected, but you can always drown your sorrows at the coffee-shop-down-the-road, where you’ll find a sympathetic ear and the company of like minded people, who have perhaps had a similar experience. The great thing about the street however, is that you decide how you want to run your business, and you decide what doors you enter.

As for me, I think I’ll own the coffee-shop-down-the-road, in one of the older and more quaint buildings. As well as selling reasonably priced coffee and wickedly delicious pastries, I shall have a reading room (graced with Chesterfield couches, of course), internet that rocks (for author research and social networking) and a small book shop filled with the works of my favourite indie authors (including me). I think I’d enjoy welcoming everybody through my doors, regardless of the building from which they emerge.

Personally, that’s my idea of the best possible authoring community.

What’s yours?

Reading room

UNDERGARMENTS, UNMENTIONABLES AND UNDESIRABLES IN HISTORICAL ROMANCE

17 Mar

The Appropriate Use of You-Know-What, You-Know-Where and You-Know-How

Perhaps I’m a little odd, but I have a thing about hygiene in Historical Romance. Whenever the captain of a buccaneering vessel sweeps his love interest into his arms and carries her into his cabin, I tend to wonder when he (or she) last washed. I know, I know; we are supposed to presume that our protagonist and love interest have taken care of the essentials, but the question of love’s bare necessities remains for me.

 Perhaps my obsession comes as a result of the years I spent studying history, and the need to understand it at its contextual level. As a student, I was expected to research everything and assume nothing before attempting to offer my opinion. As there were no Regency rakes hiding in 19th century census transcripts, and little mention of heaving bosoms among the Old Bailey records, the hard graft of understanding the ordinary person took precedence. Then again, my sanitary preoccupation might be the result of my addiction to Time Team, and Phil Harding’s love of the ‘good tomato growing soil’ at the base of a castle’s long drop toilet system. Regardless, historical hygiene has always fascinated me.

 Paula Lofting, author of Sons of the Wolf, is a childhood friend of mine, and our shared passion for our writing and our children has seen us through most of our lives together. When Paula’s debut novel began to take shape, and her ongoing involvement with Regia Anglorum fascinated me, I recall wanting to know all about pre 1066 England. So excited was I, that my first question was, ‘So, what did the Anglo Saxons use for toilet paper?’ It’s true; the University of Oxford conferred upon me a piece of paper assuring the world of my historical abilities, and I ignored the status of Anglo Saxon women, their societal structure, architecture, medical knowledge and so much more, to ask about the act of wiping one’s nether regions!

 All buccaneers, rakes, heaving bosoms and moss wiped bottoms aside, I have to wonder if this is a subject considered by other Historical Romance readers. Are the undergarments, unmentionables and undesirables better left unsaid in Historical Romance? Personally, I believe that the more of life’s ‘little things’ there are in historical fiction, the more it can lend credibility to a good story. I’m not suggesting that a hero or heroine should be portrayed as an OCD sufferer in a ritual cleansing frenzy, and nor do I believe that a manifest of undergarments should be provided each time anybody disrobes. No; what I would prefer to see is the occasional, tasteful reference to how they kept themselves clean, and to ensure that it is appropriate to the era in which they lived.

 This requires a fair amount of research, but it can pay dividends in terms of believability. The practise of soap making, for instance, is an ancient one, and lye soap has been used by everybody with access to animal fat, ash and a fire since time immemorial; possibly since before the Anglo Saxons were gathering moss for the purpose of wiping themselves! Lye soap however, was only fashioned into solid cakes when mixed with salt, and was definitely not to be applied to the face in that form; not unless the heroine was intent on ageing before a reader’s eyes. Soft lye soap was used for bathing, and was generally scooped from a pot with the fingers.Soap

 Toothbrushes too, have been around in one form or another for centuries, and toothpaste as we know it today since at least the 19th century. Before then, salt or charcoal were the most effective dental cleansers. There were no antiperspirants in days of yore, but deodorants in the form of powders and perfumes were in common use by the middling and upper classes since the Middle Ages at the very least. As to underwear, the simple act of having one’s bloomers (the precursors to pantaloons) removed in the late 18th and early to mid 19th centuries, required the removal of two separate legs, each joined by a tied fronts piece. This is the context about which I write when discussing historical accuracy and the ‘little things’.

 Often in fiction, the most unmentionable of all subjects is a woman’s menstrual cycle; something requiring a well crafted and sensitive approach by an author. It is difficult to ignore the subject if a fornicating couple is trapped by marauding abductors for anything in excess of three weeks, as the inevitable will happen; from puberty to menopause, you can generally set your clock by it. Pregnancy too, is the result of sexual activity at a certain time in a woman’s cycle, and the credibility of a story can often hinge upon such trivialities as the moon and the calendar. Historical Romance authors should ignore these realities at their own peril; but how can they be addressed without risking it being overdone to the point of distraction? I believe that it’s all about balance, and I offer the following advice to those struggling with subjects from moss to menses, and everything in between. 

 Heroines can simply catch a glimpse of a little soap at the base of an earlobe, thus assuring the reader that her love interest is ship-shape in the cleanliness stakes. Alternatively, the hair at the nape of his neck might be damp from his ablutions, or his own musk might mingle with the aroma of lye soap as she falls into his embrace. When crafted as a passing mention, these details don’t detract from the scene itself, but they serve to give characters substance. The requirement for a certain level of cleanliness is something we share with our forebears, and thus it can transcend the ages and allow readers to relate; something all authors continually strive to achieve.

 The inevitable ‘monthlies’ (a term used in antiquity, and still common in the 1950’s) are bound to crop up in a book spanning a time frame in excess of three weeks. It doesn’t have to be spelled out in gruesome detail, but the passing mention of a heroine’s cramps slowing her morning routine can convey to a reader that she is just as human as the rest of us. Childbirth too, can be an interesting subject, but many authors struggle between providing too much or too little information. If it is essential to the plot, a well written delivery (in history, the woman was delivered of the child; the child was not delivered) can add a wonderful dimension to a story. Again, this must be done in the context of the times, and in keeping with the heroine’s knowledge of childbirth. Words such as uterus, contraction, umbilical cord and birth canal have only been in general circulation in modern times, whereas pain, cramp, urge, sting and push are timeless.  

 Long underwear on men is another area of fascination for me. Although the nightshirt, nightcap and long undies of antiquity predominate in modern depictions of life in Tudor England, 19th century Midwestern saloons and colonial plantations, the truth of the matter is that not all men wore long underwear. To begin with, the impoverishedsettlers Dorsetshire agricultural labourer had little chance of affording such a luxury, and I can assure you that no early Australian settler in his right mind would wear long woollen undies and trousers when the mercury hovered around the 110 mark for weeks on end. The latter labouring fellow would either cut out the legs from the offending undergarment, or opt to ‘free-ball’, in order to survive the rigours of his environment.

 I suspect also, that stays, corsets, crinolines and bustles for colonial working class women were reserved for the advent of company, or for venturing outside of the homestead for church, as any restriction to working efficiently would necessitate its removal. Books and electronic sources detail what people wore in a certain era, and such resources contain wonderful descriptions and drawings of clothing and accessories, equipping the historical fiction author with everything they need to put a heroine’s ensemble together. The author must however, be wary of out-thinking daily life, and should acknowledge that life’s practicalities also come into the picture; after all, the flip-flop is not a modern invention, and was worn by the Japanese for centuries. As to the aforementioned night attire, it’s all very well to rug up for a night in a Hebridean crofter’s hut, but sweltering nights in the colonial tropics are best survived by wearing as little as possible under netting, thus allowing perspiration to help cool the skin.

 Finally, let us not forget the most basic function of all; toileting oneself. No romance reader, historical or otherwise, wants to be faced with the prospect of Lord Dunraven grabbing a copy of The Times and heading for his era’s version of the thunderbox; God forbid! The thought is as abhorrent as any mention of poorly functioning bowels, and any author in breach of this unwritten law should find a sturdy cane and administer themselves a damned sound thrashing. If however, mention of ‘the pot’ is appropriate to a scene, it should be tasteful, fleeting and non descriptive, and used only as a means of adding believability.

Toilet paper I admit that I like Historical Romances with the right doses of ablutionary reality in them, but only as a means of giving characters and situations believability and depth. I need to rest assured that a kiss allows a heroine to be the recipient of a man’s passion, and not the remnants of the pease pudding and faggots he ate for dinner. Most importantly, I strive to provide my own readers with the correct doses of subliminal reassurance that teeth are clean, nether regions are fresh and underwear is laundered, regardless of marauding abductors and the calendar.

 It’s fairly late as I finish this Blog, and I’m well overdue for a you-know-what, you-know-how and you-know-where (hot cup of tea, white and sweet, in bed). I shall bid you all good night, climb into my 21st century night attire, and start thinking about my next Blog; Language in Historical Romance – Accuracy vs. Readability.

Starvation or Transportation – The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

26 May

Some years ago, I built a database as part of my Local History studies with the University of Oxford.  My assignment was to incorporate information from the Old Bailey Online transcripts, and was an exercise in the value of databases in historical research.  I thought I’d try and be ‘a bit different’ with mine, an ego-borne disease common among students, so I avoided the obvious (being from Australia) and initially settled on the fate of those who stole from the 17th Century Royal Mail.  It didn’t take long to discover that there was no meat in such a blindingly brilliant plan, as the punishment for pinching a letter was, quite simply, death.  Furthermore, as most of those who relieved His Majesty’s public of its mail were illiterate, the only possible conclusion I could draw in terms of motive was that people mailed each other money and others thought they could help themselves to it.  So much for stunning my Tutor with scholarly brilliance!

Transcript from a trial held at the Old Bailey in 19th Century England

After a cup of tea and a quick sulk, I and my somewhat mollified ego decided to put our pants back on and leave that particular party, settling instead for something akin to common sense.  I grew up in Australia, I studied Local History with the University of New England and I should jolly well apply myself to the most sensible course of action – convict transportation.  Having grown up with stories of convicts and bushrangers and having taken those school excursions to Moreton Bay and seen the grisly fingers in jars and the tiny cells in which the transported existed, I’d been conditioned to classify convicts as one of two sorts – those who were hardened criminals and those who stole to feed themselves.  What I wasn’t prepared for was the possible existence of another type of convict – the one who chose transportation as a means of escaping poverty.

Of course, such a possibility wasn’t apparent in the trial transcripts themselves.  No prospective escapee in their right mind would advise the presiding ‘beak’ of their plan for a somewhat terrifying means of escape from the claws of abject poverty, and as the presumption of guilt and a lack of legal representation was the fate of those in the dock, there was little chance to remain anything but mute throughout the reading of the charges and the witness statements.  No, my conclusion began to make its hazy presence known as I began adding further primary source information to the database; the post transportation records pertaining to these individuals.

By the time transportation had reached its peak, the early Ticket-of-Leave scheme no longer provided for a land grant to those transportees who had been of good behaviour, however it did provide for parole terms that were, in light of conditions in England at the time, more than generous. Those serving a seven year sentence could, providing they were well behaved, expect to be free within three or four years, with permission to settle within certain prescribed areas.  In New South Wales from the 1830s to 1850s, this area was known as the Nineteen Counties and spanned an area almost as large as England itself.  Although permission to become settlers or squatters outside of prescribed areas was unlawful, it nevertheless took place, as settlers and convicts alike realised that the authorities could not possibly police such a policy.  Added to this, was the dearth of skilled labourers available within the colonies.

Regardless of their past, the convict carpenters, masons, wheelwrights et al released from their bonds were able, in 1841, to easily draw a wage of 8s to 12s per day.  Many of their English counterparts were earning less than a third of that, and the man on the land was existing on less than 8s every week. As time passed, the widening gap between the transported haves and the English have-nots was becoming apparent to those back home.

In England in 1846, The Rev Lord Sidney Godolphin Osborne began a series of Letters to the Editor in The Times.  In his letters, he was responding to that publication’s cries to rescue the starving people of Ireland from the tragedy they were suffering as a result of the Potato Famine.  While he acknowledged the terrible suffering of the Irish, he pointed out the comparable suffering of England’s Agricultural Labourers.

‘When, Sir, that I call to mind that about a tenth of our population are partly supported by the poor rate, and that yet the felon in hulks is better dieted than the pauper – nay, than the independent labourer in many counties – I cannot but come to the conclusion that were we not forced by law to keep our people from starving, they would be no better off than the Irish are.’    The Times, Monday May 4, 1846

Convicts being rowed out to one of the numerous hulks that littered The Thames in the 19th Century.

As the naysayers publically refuted the good Reverend’s words in their own letters to The Times, Osborne was supported by an articulate Royal Navy Captain, resident in Dorset, who argued that Osborne’s observations were mild in comparison to the reality of life on the land in that County. Osborne then submitted a series of reports on the living conditions he witnessed first hand in December, 1846

I found a farm labourer, with his wife and six children, one of them not a month old, living in a house which belongs to a farmer there: the floor of the bedroom is so decayed that I was cautioned not to step on part of it; the walls are full of cracks; the rafters are so rotten that a piece will break off in a moment in your hand; in two places the roof is only kept from falling in by hurdles, bound under the worst parts; and after all, when the winds are very high the inmates are sometimes afraid to lie in bed, and obliged to get up and go downstairs in the night, for fear the roof should fall in on them.  But wretched hovels like this are eagerly caught up whenever they become vacant, and, I find, crowded with inhabitants.  In Cranborne itself, I understand, a family of eight persons was living in a single room until a few days ago.  In Edmondsham, a village close by, I went to a house, or more properly a barn, for it consists of a single room, and has neither floor nor ceiling; I found living there a widow and her seven children.  There are two beds, but no curtains to either; the three eldest sons are young farm labourers, 20, 17 and 16 years old; the daughters are younger, and for them she is allowed 6s a week by the parish.  The rent of this dwelling she understands to be paid by the parish; I suppose it must be 2/- a year as that is the sum paid by the out-door pauper for the next house, which differs only in having some bricks for the floor.‘   The Times, Friday December 25, 1846.

The Reverend Lord Sidney Godolphin Osborne

Assisted Emigration to Australia was generally only available to the skilled labourer with a family, as a means of further populating the colony with God fearing citizens.  Unskilled labourers or the illiterate were generally unable to find sponsorship or references to support their desire to leave, which left them with limited means at their hands.  It is little wonder that many might have entertained the thought of facing imprisonment and transportation as a means of escaping the finality of their future in England. To the man with a family however, the added burden of providing for his wife and children might have seemed insurmountable, unless he discovered that the Workhouse would shelter his family in until such time he received his parole.  In such circumstances, Parish Unions generaly sponsored a convict’s wife and children to emigrate, happy to make room for those waiting at their doors for food and shelter.

As my research continued, and as I added more and more information to my database, it began to make sense to me.  Records of single convicts marrying and appearing in later Census’ were readily available, and provided evidence of a life far beyond the initial sentence, family trees provided further evidence of survival and prosperity, and Assisted Emigration records confirmed that women and children were indeed sponsored by Parish Unions to join ticket-of-leave convicts in Australia. Weighed against Census information pertaining to those who remained in England in similar circumstances, including those in similar professions from the same villages as convicts, it became clear that it was the transportee who prospered, while their English counterparts continued to struggle into the next generation, with only the hope of a son becoming apprenticed to provide any light for their futures.

While the ordeal of transportation must have been terrifying for all concerned, and the interminable wait for parole unbearable, it stands to reason that an astute man in straightened circumstances might have seriously considered such a desperate move as a means of survival in 19th century England.

As to stealing mail in the 17th Century, that’s another ‘post’ in itself!

Cassandra Page

Writer. Mother. Editor. Geek. In no particular order.

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