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.

‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore

“Publish and be damned!”  — Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington

Everyone recognizes the line.  Not everyone recognizes why Wellington said it, or to whom.  It was a response to a letter Wellington received from Harriette Wilson, arguably the premier courtesan of her day. Unlike, say, Emma Hamilton, who you might call a serial courtesan, Harriette Wilson was the real deal; even when she was a man’s mistress that didn’t keep her from taking other clients.  She was one of those women who, despite a lack of conventional beauty, had so much charm, sex appeal, and chutzpah that mere looks didn’t much matter.

There are two versions of the “publish and be damned” story.  In one, Wilson was writing her memoirs, Wellington got word of the fact that he featured in them and tried to find a way to stop her publishing.  When he found out he couldn’t, Wellington petulantly uttered the famed phrase.  In the other version, Wilson, retired from prostitution and deeply in debt, wrote her memoirs specifically so that she could extort money from former lovers, and Wellington, refusing to pay, told her to go to Hell.  The first version redounds somewhat to Wilson’s credit; the second version to Wellington’s.

Wilson was one of fifteen children of a Swiss watchmaker; she was fifteen when she became the mistress of William, Lord Craven.  Later lovers (aside from Wellington) included the Prince of Wales and any number of peers and wealthy men.  She lived well, and was passing famous, but most of the men she got involved with renegged on promises of financial support.  Once the bloom was off the romance the men didn’t stay long–in fact, several of Harriette’s lovers transferred their interest to the three of her sisters who also became courtesans.  There was not much loyalty to the courtesan one slept with, so why would the courtesans feel loyalty to their clients?

Harriette retired when she was in her mid-30s–like football, prostitution is a game for younger people.  Like most of her peers she did not manage her money particularly well, and within a few years found herself in need of cash.  “Having no other power or public voice, the betrayed woman reaches for her pen,” Wilson wrote in her memoirs. Once the memoirs were done, she reached for her pen again and wrote letters to virtually every man she named, offering to redact his name for the low bargain price of £200. Famously, Wellington refused to pay up, so the memoirs included this damning tidbit:

“My own Wellington, who has sighed over me by the hour, talked of my wonderful beauty, ran after me . . . only for a single smile from his beautiful Harriette. Did he not kneel? And was I not the object of his first, his most ardent wishes, on his arrival from Spain? Only it was such a pity that Argyle got to my house first. . . .my tender swain Wellington stood in the gutter at two in the morning, pouring forth his amorous wishes in the pouring rain, in strains replete with heartrending grief.”

Was the Hero of Waterloo humiliated? Wilson certainly exacted her revenge. Enough other, um, former clients paid her so that her immediate money problems were solved, but her publisher, John Joseph Stockdale, went to prison for extortion.

Wilson is an interesting character: an autodidact, a fashionista, a woman with the same sort of fame that a pop star or Real Housewife has now–shortlived but potent.  If there was someone she hadn’t slept with but thought could be useful to her, she would write one of her famous “letters of invitation.”  But she was so well known and so sought after that there were not too many men worth sleeping with left to invite.

After the Memoirs were published, Wilson turned to writing poetry and novels.  The fact that we don’t number her among the minor female novelists of the 19th century suggests that she was not particularly good with either.  Her greatest gift seems to have been her charisma, the charm that made her briefly a superstar.

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!


I have a fainting disorder.  Doesn’t that sound Victorian and elegant?  It isn’t.

“Run mad as often as you choose, but do not faint!”  — That’s Jane Austen, from Love and Friendship.  As usual, Miss Austen knows what she’s talking about.

Swooning–fainting–was not in vogue during the Regency, at least not the way it was during Victoria’s era, when the swoon was so much a part of society life that there were fainting couches and fainting rooms:

“We must have two dressing-rooms in the third story, one for the gentlemen, one for the ladies–and a little fainting-room besides; the small east room will do for that–we can put in it the easy-chair, with the white batiste cover I brought over from the city, with a pitcher of iced-water, and restoratives, all ready. It is always best, Mrs. Bibbs, to have a pretty little fainting-room prepared beforehand–it makes the thing more complete.” — Susan Fenimore Cooper, Elinor Wyllys

Isn’t that lovely?

Fainting, aka syncope, is a brief loss of consciousness and “postural tone.” In other words: you pass out and fall over. It’s caused by a sudden lowering of blood pressure, and concomitant lack of blood and oxygen to the brain. Not long enough or profound enough to cause damage, just enough to…well, make you faint. In some cases syncope is caused by heart problems or other underlying physical ailment; but sometimes it’s something simpler. The Victorian women who required dedicated couches and rooms to faint in? Likely way too tightly corseted. Having recently built and been laced into a corset, I can tell you that it’s unlikely that Regency corsets caused this sort of problem: the cinching doesn’t feature the waist; it’s designed to push the breasts up. The Victorians, with their fondness for 19″ waists, were more likely to fall over from tight lacing.

You don’t have to lace to fall over, of course. I generally don’t, and yet I have a clinical diagnosis of vaso-vagal syncope. Put simply, sometimes my body over-reacts to a harmless stimulus (a momentary stomach cramp, for example) by going into red alert and reducing blood flow to everything but the core systems; the blood flow to my brain slows wait down, and I fall over. What’s it like to faint? There is nothing delicate and ladylike about it. If you’re smart (which I have finally learned to be) you get down low when you start feeling dizzy; if you don’t you can fall flat on your face. I did this once; it had some unfortunate dental side effects. Crumpling gracefully to the ground requires a lot more “postural tone” than you’re likely to have, and most of that is spent fighting the inevitable. Bonks on the head, the chin, the nose, etc. are likely. As for the faint itself, visually everything contracts and gets fuzzy and gray, like monotone tunnel vision that swallows the world. And there’s a ringing in the ears that gets higher pitched as one gets less conscious.

This is all in a matter of seconds.

Coming out of a faint is different depending on how deep a faint it is. Once I found myself on the floor and thought, for a moment, that I was in bed and was waking from a sound sleep. Other times I’m aware, somehow, that I’ve fainted and that I have to get up and get going, that I can’t stay where I am. The first thing I’m really aware of is that ringing in my ears (I fainted in gym class in high school once and came to with the sound of 35 teen aged girls squealing “what happened! what happened!” sounding like a flock of soprano gulls). Then the sight comes back. Finally, the gross motor tone comes back, and you lumber to your feet and give profuse thanks and apologies to the people around you who have been totally freaked out by your falling over.

I have fainted at the top of the up escalator at an NYC department store; in the ladies’ room of a London cinema; in the coffee shop where I sometimes write; in gym class; on the street a few times; and in a doctor’s office (that was convenient).  None are ideal.  It would be much nicer to have a convenient couch to swoon onto. Preferably with a fainting-room attendant there with a fan and a vinaigrette. Or a nice military man with mustachios to catch me as I slouch gracefully to the ground…

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.)

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.

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

You’re Never Really Dressed Without a Smile

Or a hat.  In the olden days–by which I mean the first half of the 20th century–people wore hats.  Look at photos from the 1940s–even in the 1960s, men wore hats.  Women wore hats and gloves.  These days, not so much; the world is damned lucky if I wear slacks rather than jeans; a hat?  Forget it.  But in Miss Tolerance’s time you really weren’t dressed to go out unless you wore a hat.  Or a bonnet.  The difference between the two appears to be ribbons: if it tied under your chin it was a bonnet.  If it stayed on by some other means (karma? hatpins? library paste?) it was a hat.  The bonnet I faunch over is one worn by Kate Winslet in Sense and Sensibility:

I wouldn’t look good in it, but really, who cares?  It’s gorgeous.  Note the ribbon ties that make it a bonnet.

Anyway: this week I made a bonnet.  Yup.  As with all my recent excursions into Regency clothing, I suspect the next time I do this I will do a better job.  But it’s a start.

I found a tutorial on making a simple soft-poke Regency bonnet and pretty much followed it, except that I could not find a straw hat to use as a base.  The best I could find was this:

This will henceforth be referred to as The World’s Ugliest Plastic Hat.  My first task, then, was to remove the ruffle on the brim and lop the hat roughly in half:

Next, I bound the edge of the cut, because this stuff will unravel if you look at it sideways:Because TWUH is made of plastic, not straw, I wanted to cover the brim so the Ugly would not be as easily noted.  Because this is Miss Tolerance, who prefers, for business purposes at least, to make her clothes as severe and respectable as possible, I went with a shade of slate blue slightly darker than the dress I made: 

This, if I say so myself, was a big pain in the neck, but once the brim was covered and pinned into place, I started to line the bonnet, again because TWUH’s interior is no lovelier than its exterior.  So I sewed a ruffle onto a piece of light-weight gray “satin” and started pinning that to the underside.  My thinking here was that once pinned, a single set of stitches would attach both the brim covering and the lining, and Lo, it worked.  I love it when it works.

  Here is the finished, gathered lining.  It might have worked better with more fabric or a lighter fabric; next time I’ll know.

Now came the tricky part (so tricky that I forgot to take photos): putting on the capote, or soft crown.  I folded a piece of soft gray lining fabric in half widthwise, sewed it into a tube, folded it in half lengthwise, and gathered it into a soft rounded cone.  (This sounds more confusing than it is…the directions in the tutorial weren’t much easier to parse, I’m afraid.  You kind of had to be there. )

Stitching the crown in place was probably the most difficult sewing of the night, because I had to make sure I caught all the fabric, and the plastic of TWUH was thick and annoying to work with.  I also basted down the upper edge of the brim cover (which caught the lower-edge of the lining inside.  I like it when work does double duty).  . The ribbon is pinned in place to hide the unsightly join.

With the ribbon in place, I basted it to the hat–and to the back of the capote where there was no hat.  A second bit of ribbon in the back covered the raw edge of the capote fabric.  And here, for all its flaws, is my new bonnet:

Next time I will not be in such a hurry, and I will get the proper materials.  I might even get a real pattern.  When I am seized by inspiration it’s really hard not to just dive right in.

Speaking of which, I really should get back to actually writing stuff….

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

Buttonholes, or, God is in the Details

I have made my Regency gown to go with the Regency coat.  It’s a plain blue cotton “round gown” (which term means the gown buttons in the back) with a touch of lace at the neck and wrists.  And I faced my fears and made the buttonholes on the coat (by hand) and the gown (by machine).  I hate making buttonholes.  Mine never come out looking tidy and decorative; they are just barely functional.

I have said elsewhere that I don’t like finish-sewing: hemming, cleaning up seams, sewing on trim and making buttonholes.  I like the big architectural aspect of sewing (in the same way that I like putting together Ikea furniture: you take many pieces and turn them into something else).  But there’s no point in spending money on fabric and notions and then leaving the seams to fray and the bottom to straggle and the buttons to go unbuttoned.  So I screwed my courage and my patience to the sticking point and hemmed and lined and stitched and, yes, buttonholed.

This is the lining for the back.  When you’ve got a curved seam you clip it so that it lies flat.  I wanted a really nice, tidy seam; thus, the French seam: after the seam is sewn, you clip one side very close to the stitching, fold the other on top of it with the raw edge tucked in, and stitch along the fold.  The result: 

When all the lining was stitched to the dress fabric, the sleeves set and the skirt attached, I then had to pin and hand-stitch the lining so that it covered all the unfinished bodice and sleeve seams, like so:

All the seams on the skirt were French-seamed too (really, you don’t want shreds of thread getting caught in your stockings when you’re trying to look ladylike and put together.  Then hemming; another hand-sewing job.  Since the skirt was lined, this meant two hems.  You want your hemstitching to be as invisible as possible, but you also want it to be strong enough to withstand, say, an inadvertent foot catching therein.

This was the best I could do:

Finally, the buttonholes.  I am no way pleased with the machined buttonholes on the dress, but with the buttons in place they don’t look too terrible.  I hope.

Sadly, with the buttons unbuttoned, the result was less pleasing.  With machine-sewn buttonholes I did the sewing first, and cut the hole afterward.

And here is the final product.  Which looks better on than off (the hallmark of a successful garment, I always think):

As for the coat: there were so many layers of fabric in the coat, I didn’t want to do machined buttonholes.  So I did them the old fashioned way, by hand.  With hand-sewn buttonholes, you cut the hole first and then bind the hole with stitching.

Finally: this time I did not make a blood sacrifice to the project, which was a happy thing.  On the other hand, a pin gave its all for the cause.  So glad it was the pin that got bent out of shape and not my finger.

The curious thing about this Regency sewing project?  I’m already thinking about the next project.

Meanwhile, back to writing.