Category Archives: Research

Vocabulary Lesson

So there I was in the basement, doing my annual “how many years am I going to keep this book if I’m not going to re-read it” cull, and I came upon a couple of Regencies I had liked enough to keep for an embarrassing number of decades, and decided to re-read them.  They are fun, fast reads, a little predictable (beyond the necessary predictability of a Happily Ever After) in that the author seems to like heroes of a certain age, highly placed in the peerage, and upstart young women of good family.  But fun, and decently researched as to place and clothing.  The dialogue is full of Heyer-isms, but having drunk deep at that well myself, I can’t complain.

However: in the first of the two I read, somewhere in the first third of the book, the hero casually drops the word “libido.” Using it in way that distinctly evoked psychology.  Which almost made me drop the book.  

Libido: Psychoanalysis (fr. Latin libido: desire, lust) Psychic drive or energy, particularly that associated with the sexual instinct.

That’s the OED, which gives the first English language use in 1909.  But clearly the word libido would have been known to a man who had studied Latin, which a well-educated peer of the realm in 1812 is likely to have done. The problem is with modern reader: I see libido and I think Freud, and it drops me out of the story.  And that’s a problem for the writer.

I swear that I have seen a usage of the word dude dating from 1829, although the OED places it in 1883, with New York City as its point of origin.  An novelist working in the 1890s could use it, but would it be wise?  I mean, really: the word conjures up surfers, board shorts, Keanu Reeves.  So not what I want to imagine when thinking of Diamond Jim Brady or Lilly Langtry.  So nix the period-correct but unfortunately-evocative dude.

The English language is one of my favorite playgrounds; like many of my colleagues, I find it easy to get lost in the OED for an hour or three, just discovering new words.  The right word can set the stage, establish mood, character, all that stuff.  The wrong word–even if historically correct–can blow your scene out of the water.  Again, per the OED, O.K. can earliest be cited in 1839 (as a shortening of all correct or orl korrect–oh, orthography, how I love you!).  Charlotte Brontë could conceivably have used it–it was American slang, so it’s not likely, but they are contemporaneous.  But throwing an Okay into Jane Eyre–let alone into your Tudor-era novel–doesn’t fly, not even if you rationalize it as “well, it’s what they would have said, and aye sounds too quaint.”  That’s a slippery slope: a friend swears that she read a novel set in medieval England where the heroine spoke of actualizing her personhood, but I’m hoping she made that up.

Vocabulary is hard for the historical writer–and not only because you want the mot juste.  I want to use the vocabulary that was current in the period. I want to not use vocabulary that wasn’t in use.  And I want to avoid using period-correct language that means something different now than it did then.  Like contact.  Or nice.

The OED has a columns-long citation for nice:

  • in 1290 nice meant foolish or senseless, but it also meant lascivious, wanton, bawdy.  A “nyce minstral” was not a pleasant, kind musician, he was a ribald one.
  • by the 1500s nice meant fastidious, dainty, scrupulous.  A “nice sense of dress” meant you were fussy about your appearance.
  • in the 1700s nice was beginning to mean agreeable or capable of causing pleasure or delight–we’re getting closer to the modern sense of the word, but still not there yet.
  • by 1830 nice is kind and considerate; if you do something in the nicest possible way, you’re being thoughtful, not picky.

Jane Austen noted, in Northanger Abbey, the shift in meaning of nice (with a little bit of a jab at her pedantic hero, Henry Tilney);

“But now really, do not you think Udolpho the nicest book in the world?”

“The nicest — by which I suppose you mean the neatest. That must depend upon the binding.”

“Henry,” said Miss Tilney, “you are very impertinent. Miss Morland, he is treating you exactly as he does his sister. He is forever finding fault with me, for some incorrectness of language, and now he is taking the same liberty with you. The word `nicest,’ as you used it, did not suit him; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way.”

“I am sure,” cried Catherine, “I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should not I call it so?”

“Very true,” said Henry, “and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! — It does for everything. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement; — people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word.”

“While, in fact,” cried his sister, “it ought only to be applied to you, without any commendation at all. You are more nice than wise.”

What it comes down to, I suppose, is: When writing historical fiction you must be nice in your choice of words.  (Take that as you will.)

History is an Unknown Country

Sake Dean Mahomed, Shampooing Surgeon to George IV and William IV

History is made up of stories.  About people.  Often about people behaving miserably, or heroically, or foolishly; people thinking they were smarter than they were, people who wanted to be important, people who were unexpectedly kind or cruel.  The tricky thing about history is that it tends to belong to the people who wrote it, or to the people who got the best press or yelled the loudest or wrote the best version.

I once almost got into a fight with a Beefeater in the Tower of London when I dared suggest that Shakespeare might have been wrong about Richard III killing off his nephews.  Shakespeare’s version of the story has become enshrined as something “everybody knows.”  And “everybody knows” is almost always a problem if you want to get something right.

I was thinking about this because I’m reading Black London, a terrific and fascinating book by Gretchen Gerzina about the history of Africans in England.  Early in the book Gerzina tells of going into a bookstore looking for material about people of color in London.  The saleswoman told her, with a touch of asperity, that everyone knew that there were no blacks in England prior to the end of WW II.   Continue reading

The Sign and Statement of Loss

I have been, for one reason and another, thinking about mourning.  There have been several deaths in our circle this year, and after one of them my daughter chose to wear what I can only call “mourning” to school the next day: black shirt, skirt, stockings, and boots.  Which startled me–only because I don’t know that I’ve ever worn all-black after a death, not from lack of respect, but because I didn’t always have black to wear. When I see a funeral on a TV show, I wonder: do all these people have mourning wardrobes?  Even the little kids are often in little black suits or dresses (despite the advice of Emily Post, who says children of eight and under are never dressed in black).  All this made me wonder about mourning: the why, the what.

The why is both simple and complex: particularly if you are in the decedent’s family, mourning is meant to indicate loss.  Today, when many people wear all black as a fashion statement, that doesn’t work so well except at a funeral.  But you wear mourning, as much as anything else, as a useful social cue: it shows to the people around the mourner that jokes or thoughtless comments are not appropriate.  Mourning could also flag where the mourners were in the grieving process.  Which is where it started getting complex. Continue reading


I have just finished reading Emma Thompson’s screenplay of Sense and Sensibility (which is to say, the final shooting script–Thompson wrote dozens of versions of the screenplay before it was acquired and put into production) and her diary from the shoot*.  She is uniformly witty and down to earth (her comments about zits, hangovers, and feeling like a talentless hack are not only reassuring to the rest of the world–which is to say, to me–but are funny in their own right) and endlessly appreciative of her colleagues on camera and behind the scenes.  I wish I’d been a gofer on that film.

Reading the diary, in particular, reminded me of the extent to which the production of an historical film of good intent (meaning, one that wants to get it right) relies on experts: the horse wrangler who teaches Willoughby how to drive a curricle (the sportscar of its day); the costumers and designers; the dance teachers; and Jane Gibson, “movement duenna and expert on all manners historical,” who taught bearing and manners and the reverence.  By which I mean bowing and curtseying.

During my brief career studying ballet as a kid the first thing Miss Dear (honest to God, it was her name) taught us was the “reverence,” a deep bow which was to be given to her at the beginning and end of each class.  Her class of 7-year-olds mostly teetered and tried not to fall over.  Later, when I took some classes in historic dance, I learned several different reverences: it wasn’t until some time in the 17th century, I believe, that bowing and curtseying split off into sex-differentiated motions.  According to Wikipedia, that font of all wisdom, the curtsey is a gesture of respect from an inferior to a superior.  Hence all those bobbing Victorian maids in the movies (“yes, m’lady.”  **bob**).  Per Thompson:

“We learn the root and meaning of the bows and curtsies–or reverences, as Jane calls them.  As you enter a room you ‘cast a gladdened eye’ about you.  Beautiful phrase….

The bow is the gift of the head and heart.  The curtsy (which is of course a bastardisation of the word ‘courtesy’) a lowering in status for a moment, followed by recovery.”

I had always understood the “lowering in status” part of the reverence, and that a superior may nod or bow less deeply to an inferior, either in dismissal or acknowledgment.  You would bow very deeply–abase yourself–to a King, less deeply to a baron, acknowledging their superior status.  My 21st century feminist self gets the status thing, even if she doesn’t believe in it, but was always troubled by the fact that a gentlewoman curtseyed to a gentleman (I believe in practice she was supposed to curtsey to him, then he would respond with a bow).  The idea of a recovery from that lowering of status pleases me.  “I submit to your authority,” the curtsey says.  Or maybe, “I acknowledge that society places a higher value on your gender than on my own.”  And then the recovery: “But I submit only so far.”  And then the bow, acknowledgement and “gift of the head and the heart”.

It’s easy for me to want to read a taking back of authority in the recovery from a curtsey: I love the past, but I am firmly a creature of now.  One of the great tasks of writing then is to remember that Sarah Tolerance has no Gloria Steinem or Betty Friedan or Ms. Magazine in her background; that however independent she is, she’s still a woman of her time, and while she might not feel that the man she’s curtseying to is worthy of her respect, she would still go through the proper forms.  It’s her age, and not mine, that I am playing in.


*I once read excerpts of Thompson’s diary from the movie Junior, with Arnold Schwarzenegger, in which she mentions that he was still so muscle-bound that it was difficult for him to tie his own tie–the muscles literally got in the way.  I was then editing comics, and made sure to mention this to those artists who seemed to think that moving like a gymnast and being built like a fireplug were not incompatible…

Adventures in Tailoring: A Regency Coat

Drunk with power after the relative success of my corset-making expedition last week, I dived right in to making the Regency coat that I need for my photo shoot.  As I said previously, a few weeks ago I found this fabric–actually, six curtains (about 50″ x 90″ each), in an olive green brocade, and at once determined that I must make a coat of them.

This was, of course, insane.  Self-taught seamstress, and one who has avoided highly tailored garments for most of her recreational sewing adventures (and these days, for most of us sewing is a recreational activity, no?).  But I have a long and honorable tradition of doing ridiculous things. Avanti! Continue reading

Blood, Sweat, and Whalebone

Actually, steel.  Be that as it may: the corset is done!  I suspect that it will be an audition for doing it again, now that I know how it goes (I found an error in the directions–or at least an omission, and contacted the pattern maker, who very obligingly gave me the answer I needed, and promised to go fix the directions at once for the next hapless corsetière.

When we left our hapless home-seamstress, all the gussets had been made and all the layers pinned together.  Now comes the fun part.  First I basted the top so that everything lined up, and tacked all the gussets and seamlines together–you really don’t want continental drift in the underlayers of your underlayer, as it were.

Everything basted and tacked, I made a pocket for the busk to go into.  What’s a busk?  A flat piece of bone, wood, or latterly steel.  The modern ones are often jointed in the middle for flexibility, but the whole point of the busk here is to render things less flexible and more constrained.  My busk was about 14″ long, and slightly wider at the top than at the bottom, so I had to top stitch the layers to make a pocket, and then edge the top in two layers so there was a finished edge to the pocket (the bottom edge will be closed in binding, later.

You can see that I also sewed the channels for the stays.  As noted: steel stays (which came in around Miss Tolerance’s time, give or take), 1/4″ wide: two pairs for the back, and one at each seam, plus a set between the bust grommets and one that rides up the side from one hip gusset to just under the arm.  With only one exception, I managed to make all the channels just about the right width: snug but not so snug I had to have an argument with my fabric.

Once all the stays were in place, I started binding the edges.  This is tedious.

It’s also the process during which I did something I haven’t done in years: stabbed myself so badly with a pin that I actually bled on my fabric.  So I have made my blood sacrifice to the Gods of Sewing, and have the blotch to prove it.

Once all the edges were bound, it was time to put in the eyelets.  Next time I do this (if there really is a next time) I may want to use larger-bore eyelets, but these were what I had.  Basically, you poke a hole in your fabric using an awl, then fit one side of the grommet through the hole and use the tool to crush the other side of the grommet onto the first side.  It takes a little hand strength and patience.  Actually, this whole project requires more patience than fabric.

And here it is, all grommetted!

And laced!

But without me in it.  Because infrastructure should remain, err, infra.  Dig?

Another Reason to Write

Research.  The best part of my writing day.

No, really.  I’m finishing Deborah Hayden’s Pox, a fascinating book on syphilis and its sufferers.  I’m a sucker for medical history and forensic medicine.  I discovered Berton Roueche’s Medical Detectives series when I was in junior high school (Eleven Blue Men, The Incurable Wound, The Man Who Grew Two Breasts); the stories in these books have a slightly dated quality since many of them were written in the 1950s.  They are basically public health puzzlers (a number of which have, in fact, been used as the germs for House episodes): eleven bums from NYC’s bowery turn up in ERs around the city, sky-blue and delirious; an HVAC installer comes down with anthrax; children in a rural school start coming down with an unidentified fever.  Part of what’s fascinating now is that–while these stories were cutting edge, or close to cutting edge when they came out, they’re almost quaint, technology-wise.  It’s useful to be reminded of how far medicine has come since 1950, and how many attitudes have changed.  It’s a particularly useful reminder for those of us who play with the past.

Another example: for Valentine’s day my husband gave me a book called The Sublime Engine, a history of the heart in medicine and as a metaphor. In the opening pages of the book there’s a passage describing early man realizing that there’s something living in his chest, something that responds to activity or emotion, something that is a part of him.  It’s the beginning of the long human fascination with the heart, and as a writer I read this passage with a kind of awe, because it’s just something I never thought of before.

I have an A-Z of Regency London (A-Zs, pronounced A-to-Zeds, are English maps and guidebooks) in which I can get absolutely lost, because the shape of the city has changed hugely in the last two hundred years.  I look up and the afternoon is gone while I was wandering in streets that don’t exist any more.  Research will do that to you.

But back to syphilis.  The Sleeping Partner (aka ST3) involves, in part, a military disaster with medical ramifications.  I got to do lots of research on that.  But at the same time I was keeping in mind the pox, which was a constant threat to women involved in prostitution (and women married to men who frequented prostitutes, and men who frequented women who frequented men who frequented prostitutes, and…). As I read Pox I begin to wonder how anyone remained uninfected. Given where Sarah Tolerance lives and who some of her friends and relations are, it is inevitable, perhaps, that syphilis will raise its figurative head.  They did have what we refer to these days as “protection” in the Regency–condoms were used for disease protection more than for contraception–but not everyone used them.  What did they use for contraception?  Oh, that’s another afternoon of research entirely, and I really do need to get some writing done or there won’t be an ST4…

Sometimes I have to make a rule: no research today. But one of the many reasons I love my job is that it lets me wander around picking up stray bits of knowledge, the way children pick up bits of string that might be useful later.  Somehow, they always are.

Dressed to Kill

Sometimes the synchronicity is just so…synchronous, you know?  I wasn’t looking for fabric when I went out today.

After the farmer’s market this morning (strawberries! ripe tomatoes! peaches sweeter than my daughters!) I went to a garage sale a friend was having, and for $30 picked up six lengths of green brocade-y sort of fabric–not period, but close enough to play period on TV, as it were.  I had no idea what I would do with this fabric, but it was beautiful, and sometimes things come up (viz: my younger daughter coming home last month to announce that I was costuming, not just her, but three classmates, for a scene from Romeo and Juliet) and you need fabric in a hurry.

Let me parenthetically explain that I am a self-taught seamstress; I love the construction aspect of the whole thing, making a garment come together, the architecture.  I have no patience for the finishing bits, and it’s only because I can hem, or whipstitch, or do whatever it is while watching TV, that things I sew don’t look like a bad pile up on I-280 at rush hour.  So I don’t often take on anything much more complex than a costume for my kids.

Anyway: I got home, settled the dog, and got an email from my publisher (can I say how much I love saying that?  I really do) talking about an idea that would require me to, like, wear Regency clothes for a photo.  I do, in fact, have one Regency gown which I made more than 20 years ago for a much younger and, alas, slimmer me.  It hangs in my closet and I pet it occasionally (silk velvet…slides through your hands like garnet colored water) but I have not worn it for years.  But because I am me, I had to start going through online resources, looking for patterns, thinking about what I would do if I had to make myself a Regency outfit…

And I have this fabric, see, that would make a perfectly splendid coat over a muslin round gown.  It would not be perfectly period; coats were generally made of plain-colored fabric; patterned fabrics generally had very small patterns that were woven in.  But…oh, it would be a handsome thing.  I’m thinking a coat using the spencer pattern shown here: but with an ankle length skirt, worn over a dress like the one below, only in a light muslin (the silk is utterly gorgeous, but 1) not my color and 2) too expensive).

The problem is, even before I began fretting over the spencer and gown, I’d have to make myself a set of stays.  Stay-making is a big production, particularly because I can’t just wear any old stays any more: they’d have to be highly structured.  In fact, I got the pattern for stays this afternoon and spent an hour reading them: I’ll tell you, that sweet ingenuous muslin-gown look had a hell of a lot of infrastructure.  And really, do I need a project like this?

And yet I have this fabric that so wants to be made into something splendid.

But now that the thought has occurred to me, it’s really hard to stuff back into the bottle.  If you don’t hear from me for a while, look under the sewing machine.

The Regency and Me

The English Regency lasted a scant nine years: from March of 1811, when Parliament passed the Regency Bill which made the Prince of Wales nominal head of state, until January 1820, when Mad King George III finally succumbed to his years and the Prince of Wales became George IV.  He was, in case you’re wondering, a rotten king (although there’s a case to be made that, had he ascended the throne a couple of decades earlier, or at least been given some meaningful work to do while waiting, he might have been a fairly good one; there’s a nifty alternate-history premise for you).

In the lengthy continuum of English history, the Regency is, therefore, a mere slip of a time period.  Why is it so interesting?  I can only answer for myself. Continue reading

Fight Fiercely, If You Please

For about five years I studied and practiced stage combat.  Not fencing, where the point is to hit your opponent while remaining unhit yourself: stage combat, where the point is to work cooperatively with your partner to create the illusion of great hazard.

When I first started studying, I told myself it was for research, but with the Sarah Tolerance books not even a twinkle in my auctorial eye, I have to admit that I was really doing it for fun.  And anything you learn as a writer is research, right?  As it turns out: right.  Studying stage combat taught me to break down physical events into beats, to choreograph them in my head or on paper, the better to write about them.  Which means that, even before Miss Tolerance took up her small sword, I was able to write fight scenes in The Stone War and Daredevil: The Cutting Edge with a good sense, both of the physical movements and the subjective experience.

Which means what?   Continue reading