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Words, Words, Words

I love my Compact* Oxford English Dictionary. Yes, it weighs a young ton, and requires a magnifying glass to read, but it’s a gorgeous reference, and one of my favorite world-building tools.  Especially when there’s a word I want to use and am not sure it works in period.  You don’t want your 13th century German serf saying “okay,” or your 19th century English maiden talking about “actualizing her personhood.”**  Because that’s wrong, and it will yank the smart reader right out of the story.

But what about when the word is right but no one will believe it?  My favorite example of this is the word “dude.”  If you don’t immediately think of Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski, you doubtless hear Keanu Reeves saying “duuuude.”  And yet.

See the chap on the left? That’s Evander Wall, a New York City social lion in 1880s, who was known in the papers as The King of the Dudes.  The word “dude” dates at least from the mid 1800s (and may be related further back to the medieval word “dudde,” for clothes, as in duds).  While “dude” was often used to indicate a city-guy who is out of his element anywhere except in the city (thus “dude ranch”), it was also used (per Wikipedia) as a job description.

So: Dude is a perfectly legal mid-1800s word.  But if I set a story in a Victorian-era steampunk setting and have a character refer to another as a “dude,” most readers will be snatched up by the nape of the neck and pulled right out of my narrative because it carries a weight and an image that doesn’t fit.

A similar case: I was reading a book set in 1815 in which the hero uses the word “libido.”  Perfectly fine Latin word that the speaker, a university-educated gentleman, would have known.  Except that “libido”, as a word, has Freud’s fingerprints all over it.  I was startled out of the story and had to take some time to talk myself back into it.

English is a fabulous language, but it’s not a set-in-stone one.  It shifts.  Jane Austen gives her hero and heroine a little run-in in Northanger Abbey about the word “nice.”

“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.”

I am happy to say that Henry’s sister more or less mashes him flat for teasing poor Catherine about her word use.  But it does point out that a word that used to mean one thing might later come to mean something else, and if you’re writing in a past setting, you want to know when that change happened.  “Relationship,” in the sense of “Louise and Jim are in a relationship,” is relatively new in the language–Miss Austen, in fact, would not likely have recognized its use that way.  The word was meant to express a familial link, or the way in which two things or people behave toward each other.

Words aren’t just the tools that lay out a narrative in a nice linear (or non-linear) fashion.  They can be brilliant world-building tools.  Language can set up the formality of a society, the caste relationships, the manners and beliefs of a people, as well as the beliefs or personalities of characters.  If you’re writing in a period, or near-period setting, spending a little time on your words can set the scene–and save your readers from the disorientation that comes with the insertion of Keanu Reeves into the narrative.


*compact here means 18″ x 11″ x 3.6″ and 15 pounds.  You could kill someone with the thing.

**honest to God.  I saw this once.  My head has not returned from the exploding place.

A Good Month for Miss Tolerance


At the World Fantasy Convention in San Diego, Plus One Press is holding a joint launch party for The Sleeping Partner and Tales from the House Band (a Plus One music-themed anthology in which I have a story).  Should you happen to be in the neighborhood, it’s on Saturday, October 29, at 3pm.

And then, on November 13, Borderlands Books in San Francisco is hosting the Norcal launch of the two books from 3-5pm (there will be cake.  Also, perhaps, singing.  And certainly reading).  Again, if you’re in the neighborhood, do please come!

This is the first time I’ve had a launch party.  I don’t mean that to sound pathetic: my first five books were published as part of a 4-book-a-month line of Regencies, and there was no publicity at all.  A friend and co-worker of mine who did PR for the programs I ran got me an interview with the Boston Globe, but other than that, the books went out, got sold, and that was the end of it. The publishers I’ve had since then have done more than that–reviews, arranged interviews and the odd reading, things like that.  But this is my first launch party, and I’m pretty chuffed.

Plus, Tor (the publishers of the first two of Miss Tolerance’s adventures) have just told me they intend to do Point of Honour and Petty Treason as e-books (along with The Stone War, my dark urban fantasy novel–that’s right, my imagination contains multitudes).

So October is shaping up to be a pretty nice month.  Hope yours is as good!

Lights, Camera, etc.

Remember that coat I made?  And the dress?  And the corset?  And the bonnet?

Last weekend I got to wear them all as the model for the cover of The Sleeping Partner, the new Sarah Tolerance book.  I have never been so intimately involved in a book’s cover before; it’s gratified to have my opinion solicited at every turn, but a little unsettling, too: you don’t get to complain about the cover if you’re this involved!  Still, I trust my new publisher enough so that, at this point, I am merely eager to see what they produce.

The idea of the image is to evoke the time and place (hence the coat) and something of Sarah Tolerance’s separateness from the various layers of society through which she moves–and her readiness for trouble.  Attending the photo shoot were the publisher, Nic Grabien; his wife and Plus One Press author Deborah Grabien, and the photographer, Annaliese Moyer.  Annaliese does a lot of live music photo shoots, rock and roll musicians, concerts and so forth, so this is a little off the beaten path for her. But she dived in with gusto (and many lights and bits of esoteric equipment).

We shot the photo in different ways: hair up, hair down; bonnet on, bonnet off, sword at the ready, dagger in hand, table with stuff on it, no table at all, photo lights, natural light.  We were shooting for about two hours, and I have no idea how many shots Annaliese took, but every now and then I’d hear a satisfied “Hmmmm” from behind me.

What I learned was: 1) modeling is not glamorous; it’s work.  2) wearing a properly laced corset makes standing in one place somewhat easier over time. 3) the first breath after you take off the corset is really deep and delicious.

I can’t wait to see my cover.  Watch this space.

Just for the Holidays: Free Stories at Book View Café

It’s the holidays, so Book View Café is giving readers a present: Holiday Cheer, a free e-book of holiday stories from the writers at BVC.   Including, she said immodestly, my Regency-Christmas-fantasy story “Bedlam Inn.”
Sit down with a warm cup of something cheery and relax with free fiction!


In Which I Take Sides in History

Poor George IV.  He was set up, by fate and by family.  By the time he became king in fact he was 58 years old and had spent most of his adult life in waiting.  He was an arbiter and patron of fashion and the arts but, by virtue of his unique role as heir to the throne, had little in the way of responsibilities or work.  And as he pursued his interests in architecture and style, he was increasingly disapproved of by his father and his nation.  Can you see I’m a little partisan here?  I think George IV, for all his many flaws, got a raw deal.

Jobwise, the Prince of Wales was expected to be a Good Example to the Nation and to wait patiently until it was his turn to be King.  Since George III had no interest in relinquishing so much as a thimbleful of his own authority (and this was a time when royal authority was diminishing anyway) this meant, in practice, that  Prince George got to stand around for decades essentially waiting for his father to die so that he could have something like a meaningful life.  His brothers were given work (his brother Frederick, Duke of York, was a military man who, among other things, founded Sandhurst)–even countries to rule–but the Prince of Wales had to play a waiting game.

When he was a young man he was regarded as the leader of the new guard of European royalty, “the First Gentleman of England,” the one with liberal ideas, sophisticated taste.  He was handsome and charming and smart, and his interests lay in cities, in architecture and the arts and theatre, and (of course) all the fashionable dissipations of a young man of his time.  His interests were, as a matter of fact, diametrically opposed to those of his father the King.  It’s not for nothing that George III was derisively called “Farmer George;” the King liked the comforts of home and family, and would possibly have been happiest as a well-to-do squire with a big farm (which, in a sense, is how he saw himself).  The King loved children–until they turned old enough to begin to have opinions and ideas of their own (I’ve always thought it telling that the child of whom the King spoke the most fondly was Prince Alfred, who lived less than two years.) Virtually every communication or quote I’ve seen attributed to the King on the subject of his eldest son was full of disappointment; there was nothing the prince could do right as a boy or a man.  When George got out from under that glare of disapproval he was 18; he was given his own establishment and he promptly went off the deep end, overspending and generally raising hell.  And who could rein him in?  The only one with the authority, really, was his father, who seemed to think that scolding his son and being Very Disappointed was going to solve the problem.

And then there was his marriage.  Or rather, his marriages.  As a young man George fell in love with Maria Fitzherbert,  a widow, a commoner, six years his elder (he had a lifelong thing for older women), and Catholic.  She would not consent to become his mistress; nor would she convert from Catholicism.  That last was a real problem, as by law marriage to a Catholic would bar him from succession to the throne.  And George wanted her, and by his lights I think loved her.  So, secretly and illegally, he married her.

But the King wanted his heir to marry and produce heirs.  The prince had, by this time, hell’s own pile of debt (if you can’t be happy, spend money!) and the King would only assist him if he agreed to marry his cousin, Caroline of Brunswick.  The kindest thing that can be said about that marriage (aside from the fact that, morally if not legally, it was bigamous) is that the parties did not get on.  They managed to produce an heir, the Princess Charlotte, but by the time the princess was born George and his wife were separated.  He later tried to divorce her, without success; neither party led what might be called a blameless life.

By the time he achieved the Regency the young, liberal prince had become a middle-aged man.  I don’t think his father would ever have approved of him, although the prince did not gratify his early Whig supporters by shifting the government in a more liberal direction.  He had become a figure of fun; even Beau Brummel, who had thrived under the prince’s patronage, began to believe it was safe to snub George (no, it wasn’t; saying loudly “Who’s your fat friend?” to an acquaintance walking with the prince was an example of a zinger that bit Brummel right back).  When he was crowned he sought to have Caroline (his “legal” wife) barred from asserting her rights as Queen, an action that only increased his unpopularity.  When he died, the Times (the mouthpiece of the establishment) kindly noted “There never was an individual less regretted by his fellow-creatures than this deceased king. What eye has wept for him? What heart has heaved one throb of unmercenary sorrow?”

I’ve read half a dozen biographies of George IV.  He was not a good king.  He became a self-absorbed, self-serving voluptuary, and he was wildly inconsistent politically and personally.  But he was also what his times and his expectations made him.  I feel a certain sympathy for the prince.  Allowed to marry as he wanted, given work to do and some responsibility, and people around him who did not regard him as a failure almost from his first moments, he might have been an okay guy.  Which is why the Prince of Wales that Sarah Tolerance encounters in Point of Honour and Petty Treason is an okay guy.  In my history he got those advantages.  I figure it was the least I could do.

Inspiration is Not Always a Muse

One of the things I found myself doing when I started Point of Honour was deliberately trying to take up the glittery surface of the historical romance (particularly the Regency romance, since that’s where I got my start) and check out all the worms and slimy bits below.  A number of the Regencies I read when I was a teen had so little to do with the actual period that even I, as a fifteen-year-old, could catch them out.  And there was one, in particular, that drove me nuts.

Understand, this was multiple decades ago.  I no longer remember the title or the author; I do remember the set up of the book because it was so intriguing.  Briefly: Our Heroine, having lived with a man without benefit of clergy for philosophical reasons, is left alone when said man dies.  He leaves her an income, not large but enough to keep herself on, and the house in which they lived.  The only condition: to keep the house she must live in it or lose it.  Only, see, the house is in the same town where she grew up, where her history is known to all.  To the men in town she’s a dirty joke, a woman to be had for the asking.  The matrons who knew her as a child refuse to speak to her or let their daughters speak to her; she is a cautionary tale, a hissing and a byword.  Maybe some of the servants and peasant-types talk to her, but maybe they don’t.  She’s looking at a lifetime of misery, and I began to wonder why she got involved with a man who would set her up to be punished and ostracized this way.

Well, my fifteen-year-old-self thought.  That’s really interesting.  She’s ruined; can’t even rehabilitate herself by moving somewhere else. How on earth is the author going to rehabilitate her and give her the happy ending this category romance requires?  This ought to be a really fabulous read; I’m dying to see how she does it.

Simple: she didn’t.  Having built herself a really interesting box, the author got out of it by deciding the box wasn’t there.  Within a chapter or two you’d have thought the worst this young lady had done was be seen talking with the guy after church with her chaperone beyond arms’ reach.  By half-way through the book no one seems particularly concerned by her moral lapse.  And even at fifteen I knew this was cheating.  I knew the consequences of making a decision to live with her lover would be serious, and it infuriated me that the author had ignored it.

So many years later, when I sat down write Point of Honour, I wanted to avenge my disappointed fifteen-year-old self by writing a book in which the consequences of a decision were serious, life-defining, and potentially deadly.  I had first readers ask me why I had to make things so hard on my heroine; because the times would have been hard on her, and I couldn’t magically forget that.  All I could do was give her the character and resolve to cope, and follow her lead.

How Miss Tolerance Came to Be

A single sentence can start a cascade of trouble.  Twenty years ago I was working in the production department of a Major New York Publisher; it was, as I remember, a rainy day.  Sales conference, the materials for which were my responsibility, was getting closer every day, and I was slammed.  And I got a call from some of my colleagues on the Editorial side of things.

Understand: I got my start writing Regency romances when I was just out of college.  I had published five of them, and my co-workers knew this.  So when they had a brainstorm, they figured I was the one to share it with.  So I put down the six different conflagrations I was dealing with in that moment and went down the hall to my co-worker’s office.  They had an uncharacteristic lull in their work flow, and had been chatting, as people do.

As a result, as I walked in the room, one editor announced happily, “We’ve come up with a great new genre, and you should be the one to write it!  The hard-boiled Regency!  Think of it!  It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a single man of good fortune must be packing a piece!

I was so concerned with sales conference that I simply laughed, said it was very clever, and fled back to production to keep pumping out slides and cover flats.  But the idea lodged in my hindbrain and kept nibbling at me.  I was, at that time, writing an entirely different book, a dark fantasy about New York City besieged by its own psychic energy–the book that became The Stone War.  But that idea of a hard-boiled Regency, a book that looked at the under side of those lovely, frothy Georgette Heyer concoctions, and worked with all the conventions of the hard-boiled detective story, took root.

Finally I sat down at the computer and wrote “It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a Fallen Woman of good family must, soon or late, descend to whoredom.”

The rest, as they say…