Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Ancient Romans Unveiled: Pompeian Graffiti

I was just reading about the graffiti at Pompeii. It's an interesting combination of lame stuff (Saturna was here), sweet love declarations, rental advertisements, political ranting, jokes, and bawdy bathroom-stall style humor. It's a complete slice-of-life in an ancient Roman city.

Here's an article about it to place it context:


The article discusses  how graffiti in ancient Rome wasn't like it is today in say, New York or London. It was not something just delinquent kids do to deface things. It was something everything did both inside and outside of buildings for a variety of purposes.

The following is a link to some translations. Please note that many of these are extremely bawdy and/or sexual in nature.


This one just made me laugh because it was sublimely mundane:

"On April 19th, I made bread."

Some Wounds Never Heal: An interview with historical thriller author Tim Ashby

Today, I'm talking with Tim Ashby. Tim's had a varied career including working as a counter-terrorism analyst and assisting in privatization projects in Central and Eastern Europe.

His novel, Devil's Den, is a nested historical thriller taking place in the 1920s but also including elements from the American Civil War.


1) Tell us about your book.

In Devil’s Den, the 1923 murder of a Civil War veteran leaves a trail of conspiracy, cover-up and corruption stretching from the Battle of Gettysburg to the halls of the Harding-era Congress and the fledgling Bureau of Investigation (precursor to the FBI). Someone is killing elderly Civil War veterans and BI agent Seth Armitage must discover what links the victims in order to find the killer, unaware that the investigation is being manipulated by the Bureau's corrupt director Harry M. Daugherty (real-life Attorney General in the tainted Harding Administration) and a shadowy member of the Senate. Providing a Machiavellian counterweight to the plot is the BI's ambitious assistant director J. Edgar Hoover. The case draws Virginia-born Armitage, haunted by his memories of World War I France, to the site of the bloody battlefield where his grandfathers fought for the Confederacy. Armitage uncovers a conspiracy that goes to the highest levels of government. Devil’s Den shows the absurdity of Prohibition, the violence and racial injustice of the resurgent Ku Klux Klan, and the unparalleled corruption that pervaded the Harding government. As such, the "Devil's Den" of the title works on two levels, referring both to the rocky corner of the Gettysburg killing fields and Washington of the Roaring Twenties.

2) When people think of thrillers with political elements, they tend to think of more modern settings, not the 1920s. Even the core canon of the hard-boiled detective genre is a bit more contemporary than your setting. What drew you to this time period?

The decade of the1920s was a time of great social and technological change, and was a fascinating “bridge” between America’s (and the world’s) agrarian past and the “modern” era. The decade is filled with famous and infamous characters, as well as a number of real “history’s mysteries” which my hero, Seth Armitage, will investigate.

3) The juxtaposition of the 1920s and Civil War elements is unusual. Why did you choose to intertwine the Civil War in your plot?

My family has strong ties to the Civil War and northern Virginia (where scenes of the book are set). I was influenced by childhood stories from relatives whose parents and grandparents served in the conflict. The interlocking conspiracies in Devil’s Den – separated by 60 years – are based on real events. Many Civil War veterans were alive in the 1920s, and some were still active in the US government and business.

4) Often when doing historical research, authors stumble upon something they didn't expect. Did you have any experiences like this?

I had not previously grasped the magnitude of corruption within the Harding administration, or the national extent and power of the Ku Klux Klan - which was not confined to the Old South. I was also struck by the rapid growth of new technologies. We think that we live in an era of rapid technological change, but between 1918 and 1923, telephones, radios, motion pictures, and automobiles were adopted at exponential growth rates. Closed cabin passenger and cargo airplanes were also in use – I feature one in Devil’s Den!

5) Even if one ignores the over-the-top technology one occasionally sees on some television police procedurals, it's hard to escape the association of forensics and advanced data mining techniques with investigation. Did you find it challenging to explore investigation in this story absent many of the technologies and procedures now taken for granted by law enforcement?

In Devil’s Den, I show the resistance to new forensic investigatory techniques. For example, my protagonist, Seth Armitage, an advocate of using fingerprints, clashes with a rural sheriff who considers such methods akin to witchcraft. Throughout the book, I demonstrate the Bureau of Investigation’s use of 1920s “leading edge” forensics techniques. Regardless of what one may think of J. Edgar Hoover – and he is portrayed as a Machiavellian character in the book – I give him credit for being a staunch advocate of such investigatory technologies.

6) Hartley declared that "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." That being said, it's often striking how little we moderns do differ from our ancestors. Although no one can deny that striking changes have taken place in the United States over the past ninety years, there are many aspects that seem to have changed little if not at all. In what ways do you think 1920s America was the same, if not very similar, to modern America?

As I have discussed on my author blog at www.timashby.com, xenophobia was widespread in 1920s America and it seems to be returning today. In the USA of 90 years ago, young people were similarly fascinated by technology, cars, airplanes, fashion trends, movie stars and sports.

7) People often tend to grow attached to the protagonist in mysteries and thrillers. Should we expect a sequel?

Yes. Devil’s Den is intended to be the first in a series. The sequel, In Shadowland (the title is from a popular 1925 son), is my current work in progress.


Thanks, Tim. If you'd like to see more from Tim, please check out his website  http://timashby.com/.

Devil's Den can be purchased in physical or electronic form from Amazon or physical form from Barnes and Noble.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Mr. Beard's Regency Tour Day 15: What's a Little War Between Fashionable Friends? English respect for the French during the Regency

Welcome to my continuing series on late Georgian/Regency England. If you haven't a clue what I'm talking about, please check out this post.


Large swaths of British and French history are defined by the two nations, in various forms, waging war against each other. The latter Georgian period was no different. The political shockwave of the French Revolution lead to war with the French Revolutionary forces; wars that England participated in.

Though the 1802 of Treaty of Amiens temporarily ended hostilities between Great Britain and France, 1803 brought the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars, which would rage, in one form or another until 1815.

In 1805, Emperor Napoleon's dreams of quickly invading and smashing the British were thwarted by stalwart sailors under the command of Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson. The dramatic Battle of Trafalgar cost Nelson and many sailors their lives but ensured the nearly 200,000-man army Napoleon had gathered would never be delivered to the English coast.

At the start of the Regency, Napoleon was bogged down in the Peninsular Campaign (the so-called "Spanish Ulcer"), a struggle against Spanish and Portuguese forces (making heavy use of guerrilla tactics) and aided by regular support from the British under Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington. The British government poured large amounts off money both into military efforts and espionage. Temporary defeat in 1813 sent the French emperor into exile for a short period. His final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 ended his dream of a unified Europe under his control.

With all the wars leading into the Regency and the wars persisting for a good chunk of the period, one might assume that the Regency English despised all things French. The truth, however, is more complicated.

The bulk of English citizenry were rather anti-French even though there was some debate about how much the country should be involved in the war. There was some concern, even after Trafalgar, about how much blood and treasure it was worth to fight Napoleon. The Royal Navy dominated the seas, and helped disrupt Napoleon's attempts at economic blockade. There was not a significant concern about another French invasion plan.

A perhaps more unexpected attitude, though, prevailed among many fashionable sorts of the upper-aristocracy. France, even as the nation rampaging across Europe, was still seen as a center of fashion and culture. The ability to speak French was considered both fashionable and a sign of respectable education, and not a mark of suspicion.

French fashions and foods remained  popular. Even as Napoleon attempted to strangle trade into Great Britain, the upper-classes still managed to import (or smuggle in) French goods. French fashions continued to influence the English.

Of course, depending on one's perspective that may not seem that odd until you consider it'd be roughly equivalent to the aristocratic elites during World War I and World War II spending a lot of time speaking German at parties, decorating their homes with German objects, being influenced by German fashion, et cetera (insert your own joke about Edward VIII here). The war, for this fashionable elite, was a mere inconvenience.

In the short interval between the Treaty of Amiens and the restoration of hostilities, the fashionable elite did their best to travel to Paris to enjoy its glories before the two nations began shooting each other again. Even after the aborted invasion of England, there was no serious turn by many in the upper-classes against all things fashionably French even if they were limited in their ability to go to France and attempt to hob-nob with top French officials, Napoleon, and the Empress Josephine.

Of course, to many sons of the aristocracy serving as officers either in the Army or the Royal Navy, France was not a source of fashion and fine food, but instead the lead being blasted at them on the battlefield.

Now, as noted earlier, the vast bulk of the citizenry took a dim view of France and all things French, fashionable or not. Love of French culture wasn't universal either among aristocrats, but it still was significant enough that even the Prince Regent himself publicly partook of all things French.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Age of Tranquility and Peace: Heian Japan #13: Exile, Opportunity, and a Deified Bureacrat: The Provincials

Welcome to my continuing series on Heian-era Japan. If you have no clue what I'm talking about, just click here for an overview of the Heian era.


Last week I discussed the rigid rank system that defined the most elite of the social classes. The highest aristocratic elites were those typically concentrated in the capital. Court society was the center of Heian Japan, and high court position was the target of the ambitious. Despite the relative grandeur of the capital,  there still was an entire country filled with citizenry. What of the people who had some social standing but were not directly present for the social and political battles at court?

Heian Japan, while lacking the vastness and population of their neighbor and cultural mentor China, still was divided into various provinces. These provinces required governors and subordinate officials. In many societies, governorship of a province would seem a plum assignment, a way for an ambitious man to make his mark. The rigidity and peculiarities of Heian social organization, however, could make such an assignment a form of social suicide.

Court was the center of social and political life. Anything that put a person away from it was damaging not only that it kept people away from the front lines of social and politically maneuvering, but also just in the inherent less prestige associated with provincial assignments. Indeed, the typical rank of many provincial governors was equal or less than the rank associated with relatively minor functionaries in the government ministries of arguably lesser importance. In general, provincial distance from the capital and size influenced the rank associated with provincial positions (governorship or otherwise) and the relative hit in potential prestige. 

If one was given a provincial position and then returned to the capital, it could be difficult to successful re-enter court society (though not impossible). Indeed, being assigned to a distant province was used, on occasion, as a form of exile. It should also be noted, though, that many officials of lower initial status  ended up just having to do a requisite tour-of-duty in the provinces. So, the whole thing became a sort of self-fulfilling cycle. A high status official would be able to stay in the capital and consolidate their position, while the lower status officials would be sent off and have to play catch-up. Some officials with status might be assigned a provincial position but through deft maneuvering send a subordinate to actually perform the actual job. While one could see how in some occasions this might result in a talented lesser man being sent, there were many occasions where the men sent were not up to the task. Poor provincial administration would be a continuing issue as the decades and centuries of the Heian era passed.

One individual who demonstrates both escape from provincial social damage and provincial life as a form of exile is Michizane Sugawara (845-903; I will be doing an entire entry dedicated to him at some point). He started his career as a sixth-rank official. He had to do a four-year tour as a provincial governor. He later returned to the capital and worked his way up to third rank, but later political struggles had him reassigned to a remote province at reduced rank.  

Now, Sugawara-san is a rather unusual example. He was a hyper-talented individual who advanced in rank with more success than many officials. In addition, he was so respected and influential that following his death, a series of ill omens (drought, disease, lightning striking the palace, imperial children death, et cetera) were actually attributed to his angry spirit venting his wrath for an unjust exile. In response, not only was his higher rank and position restored posthumously, the court even built a shrine to him. He would subsequently be deified as Tenjin-sama, the kami of scholarship. To this day, there are people who pray at Tenjin-sama shrines.

Anyway, excluding future kami, many officials realized they would have trouble gaining decent status back at the capital and elected to stay in the provinces where they could consolidate local wealth, political, and even military power. This would, on occasion, lead to some issues including the occasional rebellion.

Trouble In Tropical Paradise: An interview with adventure author J.D. Gordon

Today, I'm talking with action adventure author J.D. Gordon about Dartboard, his latest novel of tropical adventure.

1) Please tell us about your book.
One of my favorite authors recently offered up a blurb for the story. The fellow's name is Paul Kemprecos. Paul is wonderful author in his own right but he's also the bestselling author of Clive Cussler's NUMA Files. Paul summed it up best when he said "Dartboard is a rollicking adventure by any measure. Writing with amazing energy and wild imagination, J. D. Gordon has churned out a tale that’s a cross between Carl Hiassen and Treasure Island. It's loaded with zany and deadly characters. Exotic locales. And pure fun!"

The story starts out with a historical sequence set in the Caribbean during the late 1700s which tells of the sinking of the Lorraine, a British treasure ship. The story moves to the present day where Jimmy Quigley, a small town cop inherits a boat from his Uncle Jackson, a reclusive Museum man for the Field Museum in Chicago. On the boat he finds a treasure map. Hot on his tail is another nutty museum man, Jackson's old assistant, the Ratman. Ratman has hooked up with a pair PIs and some displaced candy queens from Wisconsin. There are pirates too. Its the Caribbean, there has to be pirates right? Everyone of them has their sights set on this lost loot buried on a remote island in the Caribbean.

2) What inspired this book?

Prior to Dartboard, I had written three books centered around a protagonist named Eddie Gilbert. Eddie is a firefighter from the Midwest. He's a reluctant hero as well, caught up in deadly sparring matches with the Crows, a family crime syndicate operating in the Caribbean. So, we see a Caribbean theme here. I love the islands, a mysterious and exciting location for sure, anything can happen down there making it really easy to fiction. Well, it was time to set Eddie aside. I wanted to see if I could write a new character so I came up with Jimmy Quigley. I did want to keep it in the Caribbean, I'm kind of big Jimmy Buffett fan, you see my stuff is littered with quite a bit of booze and other such intoxicating substances. I'm also a big fan of action adventure, a big fan of Clive Cussler, that being the case, I do like to keep the bullets flying and the bombs blowing up, say a fluffy boat drink in one hand, an assault rifle in the other. I think it works. I like to add humor to my stories, nothing too serious or difficult to read. Its great beach reading or by the pool or on the plane.

3) Boats are a major aspect of your stories. Can you tell us about your own sailing experience?

Well, I've been on few in my time, pleasure boating mostly but honestly, growing up in Chicago I have to admit I haven't much practical experience. I do love boats though, especially old classics like the yacht featured in the story, and sail boats rock too. There's one of those in the story as well. That's one of nice things about writing fiction, if you don't know something, look it up, if that doesn't work, make it up. I'd like to say that one day, or someday, I'll live that old school, life long dream many have and sail around the world. Unfortunately, my wife gets sea sick just looking at a boat. I'll think I'll be stuck with my feet in the sand just writing about the stuff and not actually getting out there for any real time under sail.

4) What is it that continues to appeal to people over the decades and centuries so much about treasure hunt stories?

Who doesn't want to strike it rich? Beyond that, I think many people just like the idea of getting away from their desk, leaving all that stuff behind, getting out on the ocean and just seeing where the tides take them. Its something very few people will ever have a chance to do in real life, but at least we can read about folks who do, whether they're real or not.

5) Many of your previous books, such as Island Bound, were also tropical adventure stories. Why do you find such settings so intriguing? Will Eddie Gilbert or Jimmy Quigley end up in the Bering Sea and a heavy coat in a future book?

Wow, Island Bound, someone has done their homework! My first book ever! I've recently opened that book up just to take a look at it. I hadn't done so in years. I was amazed to see the difference in the writing and embarrassed that I ever tossed that one out there. But we all have to start somewhere right? I'm thinking Island Bound needs a rewrite and then another toss out, we'll see. Anyway, to answer your question, No freakin' way will any of my writing end up in the Bering Sea, at least I hope not. It's too damn cold up there. I am considering a Chicago-based story that would include some time out on the freshwater. But you can be sure it will be summer time and that Caribbean feel will somehow be stuck in there.

6) Your protagonists are firefighters and police officers. How did your own background as a firefighter influence your writing? 

Well, when I first decided to try my hand at writing I recalled reading somewhere that one should write what they know. So what did we get? A firefighter protagonist, Caribbean locations, a few cocktails and plenty of guns, bullets and bombs. I spent fourteen years as a professional firefighter/paramedic. I left that gig after an injury ended my career. That's when I tried to get more serious about writing. Anyway, so a main character with a similar background just seemed natural to me, that, and no one else had done it. It seems like every adventure hero is some sort of secret agent or with some government in someway. They are always larger than life. I kind of wanted to write about a regular guy who really just got caught up in the role of being the hero. I switched over to a cop in Dartboard just because I was ready to give Eddie a break and try something new. A cop isn't quite like a secret agent so I figured it still fit in with that regular guy thing.

7) You've been compared to Clive Cussler. Was his work an influence at all? If not, is there any other author who influenced your writing?

Wow, compared to Clive Cussler, what an honor!!!!! His work was and still is a huge influence. I love the action adventure stuff. I feel my stuff is really much different than Clive's. Clive is a master at writing those intricate plots. He goes with the whole government agent deal and the future of the world is always hanging in the balance. I go for writing the adventure stuff but that's about as far as the comparison goes. We already know I steer clear of the government agent deal. My stories are not very complicated and rarely affect anyone beyond the main characters. I'm ust looking to entertain with some stuff that just fun to read. So I do look to Clive where the combat is concerned. I do look elsewhere for some of the other aspects in my stories. I love to add humor along with colorful characters and nutty locations. For that I look to folks like Carl Hiaasen and Christopher Moore. There are others of course but those are the big ones.


Thanks, J.D.

If you'd like to see more from J.D., please check out his website at  www.jimmygwrites.com.

Dartboard is available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Swashbuckling action and Religious Principle: An interview with Christian historical fiction author Shawn Lamb

Today I'm speaking with former screenwriter and Christian historical fiction author Shawn Lamb about her novel The Huguenot Sword.


1) Please tell us about your book.

The Huguenot Sword is about the struggle of the young Protestant religion in France under Cardinal Richelieu and Louis XIII. It's a war within a war - The Thirty Years War. What is fascinating is that those involved were so powerful they withstood Richelieu based upon principle and personal fortitude.

2) What inspired this book?

The book started out as a tribute to Dumas and the writers of swashbuckling historical fiction I enjoyed reading when I was younger. Where girls swooned over Mr. Darcy or longed for their knight in shining armor, I wanted to be a Musketeer and fight beside D'Artagnan. In fact, I studied fencing with Ralph Faulkner, the predecessor of Bob Anderson in Hollywood, and responsible for working with such actors as Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone and others. I also was cast as the stunt double for Bo Derek in the 80s for a pirate movie that got canned before shooting started.

As I researched the period, I came across Henri de Rohan, a figure not mentioned in Dumas' book. I became intrigued by him, and wanted to know more. The deeper my research took me, the more the story evolved from a tribute to telling about the struggles of the Huguenots to defend their faith and freedom.

Your book contains a mixture of historical and completely fictional characters. Did you have any concerns about the way you were depicting any of the historical characters?

No, I try very hard to keep true to historical events and portray the people as they were, good and bad. Example, Richelieu wasn't all bad or his motives ruthless. He was a lover of the arts, encouraged education, not the total evil villain seen in movies.

I'm telling about real people and events in the 17th century, and feel an obligation to tell it correctly, but be entertaining as I introduce my readers to the time period.

One problem associated with writing historical fiction involving known events and groups is that the historical record gives us an insight into what will happen to them. Do you worry that people's knowledge of the grim fate of the Huguenots in France will affect their reaction to events in this book?

 No, and for a similar reason as mentioned earlier. I only describe a fraction of the events, battles and conflicts that happened with the Huguenots, but I'm hoping what I do use helps readers to understand and appreciate them. I know it affected me learning more about these courageous people. The Three Musketeers and some older books, truncate them, concentrate more on the Catholic side or the secular and downplay the importance of religion during the time in people's lives. Probably because it's not politically correct today, but religion and faith affected every day life from the King down to the lowliest peasant.

Writers have a variety of backgrounds that influence their novels. How did your screenwriting background affect your writing process and final product?

It was tremendously helpful in teaching me to craft my story visually. With scripts, pacing is critical; dialogue must be tight, the action compelling and the story constantly moving forward. Yes, in prose writers have the luxury of going in-depth in description and developing characters, but not to the point of belaboring a story. I try to merge my love for epic historical fiction by placing the readers in the time period with authenticity and incorporate the energy of scriptwriting, thus my style is cinematic in nature.

If The Hugenot Sword were turned into a film, who would be the perfect fit for your main characters?

Oh, I don't know. To be honest, I don't keep up the new or young actors. Sounds funny coming from a former screenwriter, but I more watch movies for story then for a particular actor or actress. To me, I don't care whose name is on the marquee, if the story doesn't interest me, I won't watch the movie.

Can you give us any hints about your current works-in-progress?

I'm working on a couple of manuscripts, one set in England during the Civil War, and the other in Scotland at the beginning of the Highland Clearances. That's for the historical fiction side.

I'm also editing and preparing the 5th book in my YA fantasy series, Allon, for release in May. Yes, I write in multiple genres, but not totally unrelated. My historical fiction background is heavily employed in creating my fantasy kingdom.


Thanks, Shawn.

If you'd like to see more from Shawn, please check out her website http://www.allonbooks.com/home.html.

The Huguenot Sword is available at a wide variety of vendors. Click here for a list.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Mr. Beard's Regency Tour Emergency Links Edition: Snow In the Regency Over at Regency Redingote

A rather unfortunate Word crash demolished my poor entry on English-Franco relations during the Regency. I think I spent more time trying to recover the darn thing from the alleged back-up

So, instead, I offer a link to this November entry by Kathyrn Kane over  at the Regency Redingote blog on how people of the Regency dealt with snow. It seemed appropriate given the weather for many readers (I shake my fist at you Southern Hemisphere types). I also recommend the blog for anyone interested in learning more about the Regency.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Religious transition, mystery, and adventure: An interview with historical fiction author, Nancy Bilyeau

Today, I am talking with Nancy Bilyeau. Nancy is a long-time writer and editor who has worked at a number of magazines including InStyle, Rolling Stone, and Entertainment Weekly. Her debut novel, The Crown,  has her tacking mystery under the backdrop of religious transition in Tudor England.


1) Tell us about your book.

The Crown is a historical thriller set in 1537-1538 about a half-English, half-Spanish Dominican novice named Joanna Stafford who gets caught up in a conspiracy and quest to locate a hidden object of mystical importance.

2) English history is filled with fascinating chapters and episodes. What caught your interest about the period covered in your novel?

Ever since I was 11 years old, I loved the 16th century, I suppose for the high drama of the personalities. More recently, I’ve wondered if our fascination with the Tudors goes beyond the obviousness of “Divorced/Beheaded/Died/Divorced/Beheaded/Survived.” Thanks to Holbein’s portraits and the chroniclers of the age—among them some wonderfully snarky ambassadors--the central cast of characters leap out at us. They feel close in. Much more so than the Plantagenets earlier. And as time went on, and Parliament became more important and governmental movements and issuances, the royal family was not quite as directly responsible for what happened to ordinary people every day. Henry VIII, while flailing about trying to divorce Catherine of Aragon for Anne Boleyn’s flashing dark eyes, would ride out and people occasionally shouted, “Back to your wife!” Even now, we feel as if we have a front row seat to the show and people feel emboldened to shout at Henry or Mary or Elizabeth. They have some sort of stake in it all. Also, there is something intoxicating about the mix of the time—the medieval world shading into the early modern age. I love the writers of the time: not just Shakespeare but Erasmus and More and Henry Howard.

3) The overall Tudor period, particularly in recent years, has been a popular period for fiction, but a lot of this fiction has primarily focused on key royal figures and those closely associated with them. Although there are a few famous faces in your book, your protagonist is a Dominican novice, someone pretty far from the hallowed halls of power. What went into your decision to focus on this sort of protagonist?

I felt that the royals of the 16th century had been quite well covered. I’ve always been curious about the more “ordinary” people of history. I wanted to write a story that thrust a character into the heart of the most compelling conflicts of the time. Because religious conflict fascinates me, I thought a person who had taken vows to follow a monastic life would inevitably be part of the turmoil. I wanted to write a female main character, and so I came up with a novice in a Dominican order. The order existed: Dartford Priory, in Kent.

4) Though this book is set during a time of great religious transition, it is, at its heart, a suspense-filled mystery focused on a lost artifact. Did you find it difficult to balance the mystery elements and the historical elements?

No, I loved it. I found that the history of the time lent itself to mystery and suspense without much effort on my part. I’m writing a thriller set in Tudor England, rather than a historical story that happens to have a mystery in the plot.

5) What was the most surprising thing you learned in doing research for this book?

The audacity of the manipulations that allowed the government to dismantle the monasteries. It was done ostensibly for reform, yet there was no reform. The abbeys and priories were closed, the people living inside ejected. And then these beautiful buildings were often stripped down to the lead. All that remains of the Dominican “Blackfriars” monastery in London, a complex of magnificent buildings that stretched between the Thames and Ludgate Hill, is a four-foot-long piece of stone wall. I’ve seen it. No, this was a financial initiative, no question. At various junctures, resistance would be met with incredible savagery. Monks were starved, tortured, beheaded. Abbots were executed and pieces of their bodies were displayed in public. This did a lot to deter others from resisting! Yet there was a popular uprising—the Pilgrimage of Grace—in large part to the common people’s outrage. Of course nothing stopped it in the end.

6) This period is filled with countless fascinating figures. Is there anyone in particular that you found particularly compelling?

Bishop Stephen Gardiner, my antagonist, was such a complex man. He was one of the legal minds behind the divorce from Catherine of Aragon—he was brilliant, everyone agrees. Yet as the country moved more and more toward Protestantism, he tried to halt that. Such irony in his struggle.

7) Arguably, the primary appeal of historical fiction is letting a reader experience, in some small way, a past they will otherwise never know. At the same time, people still are interested in fundamental storytelling aspects such as plot and pacing. How did you balance the detail necessary to turn your novel into a time machine without overwhelming the reader?

I tried as much as possible to weave in the historical detail as part of the action. I don’t like it when writers come full stop to describe a ceiling—gosh, having said that, I hope I didn’t do it. I find writing in first person helps in this regard—everything is through the eyes of Sister Joanna Stafford. By the way, what I’ve done in writing a first-person thriller set in the 16th century is not common. There are murder mysteries written this way. But thrillers are often split it into two time tracks—modern and the past, with the two plots intertangling. I broke ranks, so to speak, because I just felt this was the way for me to tell a story.

8) HF authors are knowingly creating stories and details they know may not have existed, but they can't risk deviating too much from the known history without risking losing the very appeal of their subject matter. At the same time, some aspects of the past can be so alien to modern readers that they are difficult to communicate well in novel. Did such thoughts influence your choices concerning what historical details to emphasize or include?

I revel in details and behavior that may seem alien today! I tried as much as possible NOT to force modern perceptions and standards onto my characters. I think when someone selects a book such as this to read, that person wants to explore a different mindset. But I don’t use dialogue that is accurate to Tudor England, people would find it heavy lifting. Here is an excerpt from Mouzell for Melastomus (do you like that title?), which was written by Rachel Speght, the first printed defence of women, in the early 1600s: “Thus if men would remember the duties they are to performe in being heads, fome would not ftand a tip-toe as they doe, thinking themlfelues Lords & Rulers, and account every omiffion of performing whatfoeuer they command, whether lawfull or not, to be matter of gret difparagement, and indignity done them.” I think you’ll agree with me it’s best to find a middle ground.


Thanks, Nancy.

If you'd like to see more from Nancy, please check her out at www.nancybilyeau.com.

The Crown is now available at all major bookstores and online at all major vendors including Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Age of Tranquility and Peace: Heian Japan #12: The Narrow Tip of the Pyramid: The Rank System

Welcome to my continuing series on Heian-era Japan. If you have no clue what I'm talking about, just click here for an overview of the Heian era.


Although I've alluded to the complexity of social organization in Heian society, I've not really shared much in the way of detail other than repeatedly referring to the Heian-era people as rank and status obsessed. Over the next few weeks, I'm going to delve a bit deeper into the social classes of Heian society. We shall start at the top and work our way down to the bulk of the population, the working peasants.

The keystone of the social pyramid, of course, was defined by the emperor. Though, as discussed in a previous entry, the relative political power of the emperor varied by decade and century thanks to the machinations of the Fujiwara clan and others.

Before we take another step down the pyramid, I should note that the social structures that defined Heian-era Japan were mostly codified by the Taika Reforms in 645. These reforms heavily influenced land and governance. They were key in establishing a true centralized imperial government. Although they were heavily influenced by Chinese society and Confucian thought, they did not set up a mere copy of Chinese society. Among other things, the established pre-Reform aristocracy retained considerable power and influence. It'd be far too much of a tangent to wander off on now, but the summary version of why this is important is that it contributed rigidity in Japanese court society, which, in turn lacked most of the (albeit limited) social mobility seen in Chinese society in the same period. So even if the Taika Reforms crystallized things a bit, and in many cases made things a bit more complicated at court, in practical terms they were also, arguably, just doing a lot to cement already existing social hierarchies.

The reforms helped established a detailed rank system for court officials and aristocrats. There were ten court ranks with the a junior/lower upper/senior division for the top three (kugyō, mostly peopled only by members from branches of the imperial family or members of the most powerful clans). The various other ranks could also be divided into lower and upper divisions. Overall, there were thirty distinct political ranks and sub-ranks.  Each of these grades had distinct privileges, but all received reduced criminal penalties and immune to unpleasant things like conscription either for military or labor purposes. 

Rank was, for the most part, assigned by existing family status and connections. Promotion was possible, but, in reality was also mostly related to existing family connections. This marked the system as rather distinct from its main inspiration, imperial China, which while imperfect, still offered the possibility for talented men of more modest birth to rise in stature and enrich the quality of the bureaucratic machinery of the government.

The ranks were not just about who could wear the longest tail on their sokutai. Rank determined both what types of positions you could have in the government and relative wealth. Income from rice holdings or tax revenue from peasants, for instance, was assigned on the basis of rank. There were even government allowances for things like silk.

Despite all the legal privileges and wealth that came with court rank, it wasn't all fun taxing peasants and free silk. Rank also rigidly defined many behavioral codes, which were bolstered by imperial regulations.

For example, the number of riders that could accompany a person during travel was determined by rank. Now, much like aristocrats in all societies throughout the ages, the Heian aristocrats certainly didn't always obey these rules, but these rules carried both societal and legal power, and made  life as a ranked noble a complicated affair. 

An often ridiculous level of bureaucracy defined their actual working lives as well. Indeed, one can make the argument that, at the time, the Heian government was much more concerned with the ritual of government than anything approaching actual efficient governance (the more things change, the more they stay the same). The rank system narrowed the field of competition for many positions, but given the limited opportunities for advancement, competition could be ferocious and often played out through social and political battles that rippled throughout the tiny and tight-knit aristocratic community.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Twice the work: Motherhood and Career: An interview with women's fiction author, Karen Bell

Today I'm talking with Karen Bell about her women's fiction book, Walking With Elephants.


1) Tell us about your book.

When I wrote this book I considered the story to be a platform for an underlying message, my burning observation concerning the change in families since women have joined the workforce en masse. Although, a serious topic, I have always inserted humor into my assessments about life and the human condition. The story was from the heart and came together on its own, but the message was from seeing the transformation of women's roles in my lifetime.

2) What inspired this book?

One day at work, I walked into the ladies room and a young woman was pumping her breast. How sad, I thought, that somewhere, right now, a baby is crying for its mother. I began to do some research and found out that there are countries that provide mothers with a much more civilized maternity leave, provide the necessary time to finish nursing, have the child imprint on the mother instead of a caregiver. I was bothered by this. Mothers are given short shrift in this country, and nobody is pushing to change this. Abortion is a focus, but not how to weave work with family time. Also, I had my own lab experiment so-to-speak, working full time while trying to run a household with all its accompanying chores and give a normal childhood to my kids.

3) Are any of your characters based on and/or inspired by people you've known in your life? 

Yes. Some of the characters are exaggerated versions or composites. Some spring just from my subconscious.

4) Though written with an overall light tone, your book tackles some serious issues concerning gender roles and responsibilities. Why did you choose to approach the topic in this way?

As I said earlier, I find humor in everything. That's who I am and my writing is an extension of that. A spoonful of sugar and all that. And, we can't take ourselves too seriously. As I quote Shakespeare, all the world's a stage… But there are also serious moments of high emotion. I was invited to speak at a book club today and two of the ladies said there were times where the book brought tears to their eyes.

5) Given that slice-of-life stories don't necessarily benefit from common reader appeals like escapism, what do you feel it is about books like this that continue to appeal to readers?

Being real. A feeling of, I think I know that person, or that's me this is how I feel. We look at Jane Austen novels as being historical romances but when they were written they were about people of the day, a slice of life, if you will, but because they are now period pieces we think of them differently. There is lasting power to characters with real problems in real situations. Werewolf and vampire stories are the rage and then they are gone.

6) Some reviewers have compared your book to Bridget Jones's Diary. In thinking about that, it's interesting that many of the popular working-woman books of the 90s and 2000s were defined by somewhat younger protagonists that, though entangled in business and romantic matters, rarely had children. Do you feel that the working mother is under-represented in mainstream women's fiction? If so, why do you think that me be?

Yes and no. There have been a few attempts--I Don't Know How She Does It for example. But, for the most part the hook in stories is the erotic tension between two singles. But if you make your characters real enough and women connect on a deep level then that's the hook. Women who have read my book have had a sense of loss when they are finished--missing the characters that they had come to know. That is a real feat for an author. I was quite taken aback by that. To be able to create a world of friends for my readers. That's heady stuff. But you know the publishing world isn't about finding a niche market. It's about slam dunks. Widespread appeal, lowest common denominator, easy marketing. Hard to fight that. This book was a tough sell and still is to publishers. I didn't realize that but I would not, could not write a book to pander to that reality. I never thought about the underrepresentation of working mothers. It was just a story I felt I had to tell. Funnily, I wrote it before any of the others that have since come out, but no one would publish it then.

7) The passing of the decades continuously changes the status of women in the United States. How do you see the situation of working mothers changing in the coming decades?

Interesting question. My book raises these questions with no real answers. My hope was to get a dialogue going among women to figure out how to fix the current situation. Along with the the thrust of women into higher and higher positions in the workplace and in government there is also a backlash of women who opt out of working to raise their kids--who leave lucrative careers. That's the real problem because right now women can't have it all. Something, someone suffers. Unless women decide that raising their children is a priority and getting that done in the most satisfying way for all is a priority, women will bear the burden and the guilt. You know when kids go crazy like in Columbine there is an undercurrent of Where was the mother? When the news was full of the shaken baby by the nanny, it was Where was the mother? I grew up in a world where roles were more defined in the family unit. It was hard on a woman if she had to work. Jobs were menial. There was very little support for that situation. It is easier today to go work, expected, lots of support with daycare popping up everywhere. But is it easier on the child? The generation of children raised by caregivers has to grow up and become adults for us to see if this works. From my perspective, there are not too many jobs as satisfying as raising your child (a sentiment I realize not shared universally by women). In the absence of a plan, a structure, that gives women the opportunity to somehow have time with their babies and still remain viable in the workforce, I see the status quo continuing. Each family figures out what's best, based on what they can afford. And fingers are crossed that the kids don't feel too neglected.


Thanks, Karen.

If you'd like to see more from Karen, you can visit her at www.karensbell.com.
Walking With Elephants is available at Amazon and Smashwords.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

New England, The Haunted Region: An interview with YA contemporary fantasy author, Edward Eaton

Today I'm talking with Edward Eaton, author of Rosi's Castle, the first in a YA contemporary fantasy series set in New England.


1) Tell us about your book.

Rosi's Castle is a novel about Rosi Carol, a teenager who is sent to live with an eccentric uncle in a small town in coastal New Hampshire after her father disappears. The Castle she moves into appears to be haunted. The locals think the town is haunted--by her. When Rosi goes to her uncle and asks to explain why everyone is treating her oddly, he simply tells her to figure it out on her own.

Rosi's Castle is part fantasy, part science fiction, with a bit supernatural thrown in for good measure. It is probably more fantasy than science fiction. There is a certain physics to Rosi's new world, but much of it has been tweaked to fit the physics of my imagination. I do not want to give too many spoilers, so I cannot explain too much. Over the course of the series, Rosi's Doors, the physics will be explained. It is certainly consistent throughout the books. However, it plays a greater role in some than in others. There is also an element of historical fiction to the series. That is an aspect I will talk about when the second book comes out.

The whole series is Rosi Carol's journey to maturity. She learns about responsibility. She also learns about sacrifice. What sacrifices is she willing to make to keep the power that she is being offered? What sacrifices is she willing to make to do what she has to do?

2) What inspired this book?

I have a process for writing. I have an idea. I play with the idea, running it back and forth in my mind. If the idea continues to follow me around after a few days, I talk about it with my wife or my reader, Brian. Not all of the ideas are stories. I come up with games. I have even play tested a few of them, which is fun. I come up with scholarly works. If, after I talk with Silviya and Brian, the idea still follows me around, I take action. What that means is that I write it down someplace. Computers are great because the notes do not take up any space. There is a folder with a document in it. Some ideas, ones I particularly like, get a small notebook (I am partial to the Moleskin notebooks). Poetry always gets a notebook. I always write that by hand.

I work for a living. I teach, and I direct plays and stage fights for the theatre. So I do not carry around lots of notebooks at a time. I do not have the time. I simply choose one work to focus on and make sure that notebook is on hand. At a certain point, I start outlining. Then I start writing. The hard part is making myself focus. I could be one of those writers who has fifteen or twenty works at various stages and never finishes any of them. I do find it kind of fun to pull out a notebook in the middle of a meeting or social function. If I whipped out a book or my cell phone, everyone would think it terribly rude. Start taking notes on my next book and everyone is very solicitous. Of course, then they practically expect me to write the book in front of them. It reminds me of the Monty Python Novel-Writing sketch.

I love deadlines. In the theatre, you know that the show will open in three and a half weeks. This is not a debatable issue. The sets have to be built. The actors have to know their lines. Tickets are sold. The doors open. An audience comes in. Of course writing a novel is somewhat different, but if I go through the whole process thinking that it needs to be finished vaguely 'someday,' I will find all sorts of reasons not to do it. Indeed, that is what has happened to quite a few 'brilliant works of literature' that are sitting on my hard drive.

My writing got a big boost when a play I had written, Orpheus and Eurydice, was published. About the same time as I was polishing the play, one of the actresses in the original production, a young woman who is in her teens, read an early draft of Rosi's Doors. She loved it and encouraged me to continue working on it. Then I found Dragonfly Publishing and the ball really started rolling.

So, to answer your question: I did not really get inspired to write this book. I came up with an idea that I liked. I played with it. I did other projects. I returned to it. Encouraged by some friends and readers, I finished it. Then, given publication dates and an editor by a publisher, I polished, reworked, rewrote, and got it ready.

3) The United States is a large country with many regions that have both geographical and historical backgrounds that lend themselves well to supernatural stories. Why did you choose New England?
Short answer: taxes. One of the conflicts found in the series (it will be more pronounced in later books) is between the local families, mostly shop owners and fishermen, and the wealthy newcomers from Boston. The reason the Boston families moved just across the border from Massachusetts was because New Hampshire has no state income tax.

I chose New England for other reasons as well. There is the relationship between New England and early American history, which will be an important part of Books 2 and 3. Another reason was that there is this tradition of the supernatural in the area. There is Puritanism, witchcraft, the devil. New England is full of haunted houses

Another reason is that I live in New England. I have been here for some time. I have lived in the Boston area for longer than I have lived in any other place. There is a rhythm to New England that lends itself to the story I want to tell.

Different regions in the States have different personalities. Generally speaking, most people whose families have been in the States for more than just a couple of generations have a history that includes some time in the Eastern United States. Most of them will trace roots back to the Northeast: New York, Boston, Philadelphia. These are cities with which all Americans are familiar. These are the cities that founded America. We collectively, unconsciously, identify with them. Because of this, they, and the Northeast take on a more universal quality when used settings for books or movies. That is not to say that there is not universality in regional literature. But, it is regional literature. It is hard to understand Faulkner without understanding the South, Reconstruction, and the Civil War. Readers do not face quite the same obstacles when reading Hawthorne.

4) What went into creating your protagonist, Rosi?

Rosi was a process that took several years. My image of her changed a lot while I was outlining and drafting Rosi's Castle. Early on, I was having a lot of trouble coming up with her character. I had the basic idea for the story. I even had the name of the town. I knew the history of the town. The first thing I wrote on this story was a draft of the the British landing with the first Carol. I did not have a handle on my protagonist. One day I was at my in-laws' house with a friend of my wife's. He repeatedly mispronounced my niece's name. It is Rosi, with a soft 's'. In Bulgarian: Роси, short for Росица. 'Rosi' is a simple transliteration of the word. It was not just that he saw the name and said it wrong. He was told the name several times. He just could not get it. A running gag in the book is that almost everyone says it incorrectly. Not everyone, of course. That is a clue.

I cast all of my characters. You probably would not recognize my actors. It is not like I imagine Michael Caine as Uncle Richard (though I can see that) or Walton Goggins as Jessie (a reviewer suggested that; my initial thought was : “YES!”). Rather, I find people, or combinations of people, who have some sort of physical characteristics or personality traits that help me identify and individualize the characters in my mind. Angie's physical model is a friend I knew years ago in West Virginia. Andy looks a lot like her husband and like a friend from prep school. In fact, Andy and Kirk are both 'based' on those same two people. There is a thin line between bully and victim. If Kirk did not have a popular brother and a wealthy family, he might well have turned out just like Andy. Once I can see a character walk or hear him or her talk in my mind, a lot of my job is done. And the image changes, depending on where I am in the story and what purpose the character serves, or because that image has served its purpose and I have to move on.

Rosi was the easiest and the hardest. Rosi is the character I spent the most time with. She is the focal character, so I put myself in her head a lot. Sometimes, I put myself in Rosi's personality. Her taste in books and films is mine. Her taste in video games is mine, though she is better at them than I am. Naturally, her taste in boys is not mine--not that there's anything wrong with that. I teach college students and read their essays and listen to their discussions. They are not that far from fifteen--especially a fairly mature and well-read fifteen year old. When I was growing up, I read girls' books as well as boys' books (Nancy Drew and the like). I am a fan of Buffy (the television show). I hope I have created a believable fifteen-year-old heroine. Some of my earliest readers were women, including the teenaged daughter of a colleague of mine. The responses I got from them and from readers of the published book have been positive in that respect.

Physically, Rosi has changed a lot. Her age has changed several times. There was no one physical model for her. Several young women I have worked over the past few years in the theatre could probably find themselves in Rosi is they looked hard enough.

5) Why do you think there's such an enduring appeal for supernatural stories?

Perhaps we like to believe in the supernatural because science is gradually finding answers to so many questions. Science is leaving us with a fairly dull world. I want my little boy to believe in Santa Claus forever. Not just because I want him to stay young and innocent, but because I want him (and me) to live in a world where there is magic and mystery and the unknown. I think we all want to live in that world. Wouldn't it be really cool if the Wizarding World really did exist? What if there was a magic wardrobe somewhere that could take us to a land of adventure? What if Santa Claus was a magical being who rewarded good boys and girls and punished bad ones and not simply harried, overworked, underpaid parents scratching together enough bits to let the kiddies smile at least one day out of the year. What if the Force really was some mystic force that runs within and between all things rather than a chemical imbalance?

What if there are ghosts and vampires and zombies and devils and demons? Sure, they are scary and dangerous, but they are also exciting and vital and remind us that we are alive. And they allow for angels. They are worth the price paid, the nights huddled under the pillows (if we can't see them, then they can't see us. That is the rule all monsters--save Weeping Angels from Dr. Who--inherently follow.).

We love paranormal stories because we want to live in that sort of world. The evil is easy to define, and the quest to destroy it is glorious. Of course, times have changed. Paranormal creatures used to invoke terror. Now they are being domesticated. Dracula kept me up for weeks. Edward Cullen may be dreamy, but he glitters and is a vegetarian--what's scary about that?

Perhaps the supernatural appeals to us because it is real. Erich von Däniken posited that the gods were aliens. Other ufologists have suggested that devils and demons were as well. What if they were not aliens, but Guardians like Richard and Rosi Carol? The Old Man in “Young Goodman Brown,” could easily be Uncle Richard. Legendary figures who never age, like St. Germain, Merlin, or The Wandering Jew, could well be Guardians. So could vampires, ghosts, even jiang shi and draug.

6) The ending of the first book opens the door (no pun intended) to potential sequels. How many do you have planned?

At the moment, I am contracted to write two sequels to Rosi's Castle. The three books that are scheduled will bring the story arc pretty much to a close. There will, however be some unanswered questions. In my mind, there are two further books. I know what happens in them. I am, though spending my time working on the Books 2 and 3 and getting them ready for publication. They are scheduled to come out this year. We can worry about Books 4 and 5 later.

In fact, the Rosi's Doors trilogy was originally written as one book. Dragonfly [the publisher] decided that it should be divided into three books. This is not as easy as it sounds. The original Rosi's Doors would have been six or seven hundred pages long. We talked about publishing it simply as one book in three volumes (like The Lord of the Rings). That would have been fairly easy. However, in the end, my editor, publisher, and I decided that it should be a series instead. That meant that each book had to have something resembling an end rather than simply a transition. A lot of copy-and-pasting went on. Important events disappeared. Characters were deleted and created. The entire last third of the book was rewritten by hand last summer in a café in the south of France. The mystery that had been spread out over the entire manuscript was now focused on Book 1. Part I had been mostly set up and exposition. Of course, this is how many books are structured. In The Lord of the Rings, for example, the Hobbits do not meet Strider until Chapter 10 (page 175 in my paperback edition); Frodo awakens in Rivendell on page 231; then there are two chapters, 50+ pages of sitting around talking before the Fellowship actually starts on their quest. That is almost 300 pages, most of which is exposition.

Now, Rosi's Doors is structured more like the original Star Wars trilogy (I am in my forties, so I like to pretend Episodes I, II, and III did not really happen--or get made). Book 2 will be the most open ended of the three. The characters will have reached a spot in the action at the end where they are not in active conflict with the antagonists, but a lot of the questions that are raised in Book 2 will not be answered until Book 3.

In terms of chronology, which can be very confusing in this series, Book 2 begins about a month and a half after the end of Book 1. Book 3 starts about one week after Book 2. Book 4 will begin a few months after Book 3 and will be immediately followed by Book 5


Thanks, Edward.

If you want to see more from Edward, you can find him and his work at www.edwardeaton.com and www.rosisdoors.com.

Rosi's Castle is a release of Dragonfly Publishing and is available in ebook, paperback, and hardback from a variety of vendors including Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Mr. Beard's Regency Tour Day 14: Good Fences Make Good Neighbors: Enclosure

"Not so large, I dare say, as many people suppose. I do not mean to complain, however; it is undoubtedly a comfortable one, and I hope, will in time be better. The inclosure of Norland Common, now carrying on, is a most serious drain. And then I have made a little purchase within this half year -- East Kingham Farm, you must remember the place, where old Gibson used to live. The land was so very desirable for me in every respect, so immediately adjoining my own property, that I felt it my duty to buy it. I could not have answered it to my conscience to let it fall into any other hands. A man must pay for his convenience, and it has cost me a vast deal of money."

-- John Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 33

Mr. Dashwood's comments, on the surface, don't seem to have all that great an importance in the grander discussion of the nature of socio-economic disparity and economic realignment in Georgian and Regency England. His off-hand mention of "the inclosure of Norland Common", however, touches upon a rather significant series of land reforms that had major an impact on the rural lower classes in England.

Enclosure (inclosure was just the older way of spelling it) is the process by which land was consolidated, separated from neighboring properties, and deeded to private owners. The name comes from the way  these lands were marked off from others: enclosure with a wall, hedge, fence, or other obvious marker of division. Much of this process involved consolidation of irregular areas into more contiguous lands, but there were also cases of just simple conversion from common-use to private use. The combination of consolidation, demarcation of borders, and simple ownership assignment eliminated any ambiguity about who owned what and effectively eliminated most common-use land.

For a good chunk of English history, an open system was in place in many areas where peasants could make use of common land for grazing, small-scale planting, small-scale forestry, and similar subsistence activities. Although various minor cases of enclosure occurred throughout the centuries,  the process really picked up speed during the Georgian era with a many Enclosure Acts being passed by Parliament between the mid-18th century to the mid-19th century. While this was a act passed by the legislature, it should be noted that the process of acquiring enclosed land during most of the Georgian era involved a private citizen petitioning Parliament (until the mid-19th century at least), and so many of these Parliamentary acts were the culmination, in a sense, of private concerns and petitions rather than autonomous top-down decisions by the government. Even excluding the major Enclosure Acts, many smaller-scale private acts were passed by Parliament at the direct petition request of individuals.

It should be noted that in some cases enclosure was done to basically cut down on what amounted to illegal use of private property. A man might own a swath of land, but a lack of clear borders allowed people to come in certain areas, pick berries, graze their live stock, et cetera. That being said, in other cases there were centuries-old common areas that were destroyed by enclosure.

The act of enclosure, given that it removed many economic/food-related rights from peasants in local villages and nearby areas, had wide-spread  secondary effects. Once land was controlled by an owner, usage, if allowed, would require rent, which poorer families may have not been able to afford. Whereas previously they could potentially get by making limited use of common land, many now how to seek out employment. Arguably, without the Enclosure Acts, the huge number of cheap laborers necessary to help fuel the Industrial Revolution in England would not have been available.

Even if one is not particularly politically inclined, it's easy to see how these acts might be viewed with suspicion by some.  A person (and many have) could make the argument that formerly self-sufficient people were forced to go seek out work, sometimes far from home (thus disrupting village life), whereas a small percentage of individuals found themselves in a stronger economic position.

The often unpleasant labor conditions of the early Industrial Revolution or the low-security life that accompanied service were arguably tolerated because of the flood of workers desperate for new means to sustain themselves. Was enclosure nothing more than people of superior means consolidating resources and land at the expense of people of lesser means? Some argue that rather strenuously.

On the other hand, the ostensible logic behind enclosure was in some cases simple protection of property rights and in other cases was about improving efficiency of the land. Some historians suggest that by pushing people out of low-level subsistence farming, enclosure may have ultimately contributed to greater social mobility potential in the long-run. General improved economic efficiency combined with the slowly eroding social resistance to things like trade and investment among gentry arguably led to a consolidation, enrichment, and investment cycle that benefited the nation as a whole. Under this argument, the workers flooding into the factories of the Industrial Revolution, in turn, expanded the economy and helped shift the poorer English away from having effectively zero chance at social mobility.

It's also undeniable that in many areas, over-use and agricultural inefficiency was a legitimate motivation for enclosure. This is the so-called "tragedy of the commons". In such a situation, as no one involved in the use of land/resource has true ownership, they will not take special measures to conserve it because others using the resources may not. This cycle of use and self-interest leads to the depletion of the resource.  The various people who supported enclosure often based their argument on economic reasons (fencing associated with enclosure allowed high-value pasturage), agricultural efficiency, and land restoration.

Did this mean that every enclosed area was actually some horribly depleted over-farmed and over-logged deadland that needed the help of the gentry to rescue it? Doubtful. While there were  areas where this was the case, it's not as if during the process of enclosure, the government first did some sort of complicated land-use analysis. Mostly they were responding to petitions filed by people with enough wealth to hire lawyers to file petitions.

Many enclosed area had been successfully maintained for centuries. Though, as noted above, in some cases enclosure was about making property borders more concrete rather than a more active attempt to expand land holdings. The nature and appropriateness (depending on one's point of view) of enclosure likely varied by case.

Given this is a tremendously controversial topic among historians and economists (of which I'm neither), I think I'll stop here and just note that regardless if you feel enclosure was some sort of land-grab by the elite or if it was a painful but necessary part of an economically maturing England that  benefited everyone, it played a role in changing the nature of the English countryside and working classes.

Coming Soon: A Tibetan in Oz and the Regency with a touch of magic

In my zeal for my research involving my historical products, it's sometimes lost that I'm working on other projects. Two of these writing products are coming to fruition (i.e., on the final stages of editing and proofreading). Now that I have the cover for one, it's starting to hit me that I'll be releasing books soon. Let the panic begin! It's all well and good when you're in the self-flagellation of writing-self-editing-beta reading-editing-rewriting and all that, but actually sending your precious baby to the harsh world of the general public is a bit unsettling.

At the end of January, I'll be releasing a book that I've previously discussed on my blog, The Emerald City. The story is a somewhat loose and modern young adult urban fantasy reinterpretation of The Wizard of Oz centered around a Tibetan-American teen from Kansas who ends up at a more than a little strange boarding school in Seattle.

It's actually a bit surprising, when I think about it, that my first release is going to be a young adult urban fantasy. Although I read plenty of young adult books, I never had any intention, when I began writing, of producing young adult work. Mostly, I intended to produce work in my favorite genres: historical fiction (as one might have surmised by my main blog content), historical fiction with magical elements, and adult fantasy.

I happen to really enjoy musical theater, though. In the course of satisfying that particular interest, I had the opportunity to see Wicked. So, I ended up inspired to write a reinterpretation based on another reinterpretation. The Emerald City will be out at the end of January. This book also benefited from being written after I'd written several other manuscripts. The old saying is that it takes a million words before you produce something worth reading. In my case, that's pretty much true.

The finishing proofreading and editorial touches are also being put on my sweet Regency paranormal romance, A Woman of Proper Accomplishments. Alas, I don't have my cover yet for that one. It was fun, but also a bit challenging, producing a Regency story where a type of reliable supernatural ability exists that still preserved the social atmosphere of the Regency period that interest readers. I think I succeeded (at least some of my beta readers claim I did), but I suppose the general reading public will have to decide here come February.

While I'm on the subject, I have an adult fantasy project, Mind Crafter, coming down the pipe, but it is still in first phase of editing.

Of course, I have a wonderful (I hope) Heian mystery coming out, hopefully, in fall of 2012.

The Age of Tranquility and Peace: Heian Japan #11: Sokutai and Noshi, the Tuxedo and Business Suit of Heian Japan

Welcome to my continuing series on Heian-era Japan. If you have no clue what I'm talking about, just click here for an overview of the Heian era.

I'm a bit behind this week. I apologize for the delay.


In my last Heian entry I discussed the beautiful but cumbersome garments worn by aristocratic females. What then of formal menswear?

For the most formal of occasions, men would wear the sokutai. The sokutai (a tunic over loose trousers) was worn over a kosode smaller (narrow-sleeved robes). So, it was layered like the formal wear of women, but it lacked the huge number of layers typically associated with women's wear. A key element of the sokutai was a long tail attached to a kosode. The tail's length varied with the relative status and rank of the man--something very critical to the rank-obsessed Heian aristocracy.

A kammuri, a stiffened gauze hat with a long tail, was the typical head gear. Accessories included a cypress fan, something associated with masculine authority during the Heian era, and a baton (typical ivory or wood).

A modern Japanese man in a sokutai and  kammuri during  a 2009 festival.
Picture from Wikimedia Commons/Photographer "Corpse Reviver"

If the sokutai was the rough equivalent of a tuxedo, the noshi was more your standard issue everyday business suit. The noshi was was also worn over kosode, but was unlined and worn with very wide trousers that provided better mobility or a hakama (a divided skirt). Though the kammuri might be worn with the noshi, the eboshi, a tall cone-shaped linen hat was more common.

In general, when one compares women's clothing to men's clothing are similar in that the aesthetics of both are based around the emphasizing of the clothing rather than any element of the body. Despite the rampant sexism of the period, there was no particular elevation of the unadorned male body as an aesthetic ideal above women. Male aristocrats, however, weren't burdened with clothing that made moving nearly a much of a chore. They, of course, had more freedom of movement in general, evenin formal wear, so it only makes sense that their clothing wouldn't be designed in such a way to effectively cripple their movement.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A lovable screw-up as an unlikely detective: An interview with mystery writer Kat Jorgensen

Today I'm talking with mystery writer Kat Jorgensen about her humorous mystery book, Your Eight O'Clock Is Dead.


1) Tell us about your book.

A lovable screw-up finds a patient murdered in the psychiatric firm’s waiting room where she works. Convinced the bad publicity from the murder will cause the demise of the fledgling firm, she appoints herself unofficial investigator and finds a host of quirky characters who could have done it. But can she solve the crime, bring the killer to justice, save her job - and maybe even her life - before the murderer strikes again?

2) What inspired this book?

My husband and I had been through some major health challenges and up until then I was writing romantic suspense. Dark and scary stories. After all we’d been through, I decided I wanted to switch genres and have some light-hearted fun killing people and solving the murders. Out of this came my main character, Becca Reynolds. Becca is a lot like me. A younger, thinner version of me with much better hair.

She holds a job very similar to one I once held. As I came up with her personality traits and quirks, I also asked myself what would happen if this character was running late and chattering away and all the while a dead person was sitting in the office. And my imagination took it from there.

3) Mystery remains one of the most popular genres of fiction. What do you think is responsible for its continuing appeal?

I believe there are a lot of readers who love a good whodunit. They love to go along with the story and try to solve the case. It appeals to the natural curiosity in all of us.

4) What do you think forms the core of a good mystery?

For me it’s proper motivation. I want to believe the reason the killer did it was a genuinely good reason and not just there for a plot twist or surprise. It’s important to play fair with the reader. Plant the clues and allow them to have a chance to solve the murder.

One of the few times I’ve been truly upset at reading a book was when a writer failed to solve the case by the end of the book! She had threads continuing on to other books in the series, and I can certainly understand that, but she didn’t solve the murders in that book. After reading over 300 pages, I wanted to know. I didn’t want to wait until the next book in the series. In fact, I didn’t buy the next book even though up until then I’d read all of the previous books.

In The River City Mysteries, I have many unanswered questions about the characters and their interconnections and back stories. These will be answered in future books as I develop the characters. But I always solve the murders and try to play fair with the reader.

5) Mystery runs the range from deadly serious to wacky fun. Why did you choose to create a humorous story?

It was purely selfish. I wanted to laugh and have fun while I was writing. What did I love to read? The early Stephanie Plum books made me laugh out loud. I wanted to create a world where the reader could lose themselves for a period of time in a cute story where there are misadventures, but there’s still a happy ever after ending. Well, for everyone except the murderer.

Since readers have given me lots of positive feedback that this book reminds them of the early Evanovich books, I think I was successful in what I set out to achieve. I love that I can make people forget their troubles and have a good laugh. That is just the best feeling.

6) Did you find it hard to balance the humor and mystery elements?

Actually, I don’t think I thought much about it while I was writing. This book flowed and even though I went back through the manuscript several times to layer, I really didn’t change the basic structure of the book.

My personal favorite scene in the book is the camera scene. I still laugh out loud every time I read it. But it comes at a time in the story when I could have continued to let the story deepen and grow dark. To keep the tone of the book light, I decided to write a funny scene rather than a more serious one.

As I’m writing the next book in the series, Your Time Is Up, I do have to plan for serious vs. funny scenes, but I think it’s just part of Becca and my personality to know when it’s needed.

7) You've created a quirky, likable heroine with Becca. How many books do you have planned for the series?

I know there’ll be at least 6. I need that many to do all that I want to with the character development and growth. As I mentioned, I’m writing book 2 now and hope to have it out in the spring or early summer. And I have book 3 (Your Lights Are Out) plotted out. I’ve brainstormed book 4 (as yet untitled) and I know once I work more on that book, I’ll figure out the future books. I do know how I want the series to end. So it could be 6 books, but I think it’ll be more like nine. I’ll keep going as long as I’m having fun and the readers are enjoying my work.


Thanks for stopping by, Kat.

You can see more from Kat at her blog at www.katjorgensen.com.

You can purchase Your Eight O'Clock Is Dead at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Era of Refinement and Snobbery: An interview with English historical fiction author Debra Brown

Today, I'm talking with Debra Brown about her Victorian novel of manners and romance, The Companion of Lady Holmeshire.


1) Tell us about your book.

The Companion of Lady Holmeshire is an early Victorian novel about a foundling girl who was given the name Emma. She was raised as a servant and then became the companion of a countess. She was polished up and taken along into snobbish, aristocratic society where she was often rejected and treated rudely because of her background.

She had eyes for the young Earl of Holmeshire, but he was engaged by arrangement. Mysterious men seem to be watching both her and the earl's fiance. Sweet romance and humor come together, upstairs and down, as the story moves from a stone castle to London mansions to the Midsummer's Night Dream Ball, and answers begin to fall into place.

2) What inspired your interest in this period of English history?

I love all of English history, but I really love the eras of gentlemen, ladies and manners. If you don't dig too deeply, it seems so peaceful and pleasant. I also like the idea of gentlemen walking ladies to picnics on a hill rather than driving them in a car. The beginning of the Victorian era was still somewhat agricultural outside of the cities.

3) There's quite a bit of period detail in this novel. How much research did you do?

I did quite a bit, but in an unorthodox way. Like everyone, I read some of the classics in school. Then I spent some years making jewelry, and during those years I had period movies on the TV as I worked. I frequently went to books or the computer to find answers to the questions that the movies brought to my mind. With Britain a continent and an ocean away, books, movies and the internet are what were available to me.

4) You've set your book in the early Victorian period, a time of transition away from the lengthy Georgian era. Why this time, instead of earlier, such as the always popular Regency, or the later Victorian era?

I actually like the Regency era better, at least on the Isles. It seems a little quieter without as much grating machinery and influx into the busy cities. However, I needed the help of a certain historical personage, a traveler in the Regency era, as part of the back story. I had to move the "present" to about 1840. I have to say that I really like the lady's fashions and hats of the 40s better than Regency wear. It was quite elegant, with larger hats, billowing sleeves and (artificially) tiny waistlines.

5) Even in this modern more democratic age, the aristocratic societies of the past continue to fascinate readers. Why do you think that is?

It is partly because we allow ourselves to be fooled by it. The class structure allowed for quite the lovely and leisurely lifestyle... for a relative few. The landowners in the magnificent homes had vast sums of money... at the expense of the tenants. If we can close our eyes to the plights of the poor and the servants and other dismal realities of the time, we can picture ourselves dressed to the hilt in finery, lovely hats and jewels, riding in carriages and living in leisure. There was an expectation of absolutely enchanting manners. A gentleman would never turn his back on a lady without excusing himself. People bowed and curtsied to each other. Hands were kissed. Perhaps this all hit me at age 20 when an elderly man from England kissed my hand when we were introduced. I was charmed beyond belief. I want a fair amount of that charm in my novels.

6) Though this is more in the style of the 19th-century novel of manners, you touch on some of the inequities of the period. Why did you include those elements rather than focus on a more straight-forward aristocratic novel of manners and romance?

Though I love the Austen-like fairy tale, I suppose I don't want to mislead anyone about the times. Life was not all beauty. Regency novels are often so pretty that people who don't dig deeper can get the wrong idea of the time- though I am not against such novels. People bowed and danced, but what about those men who carried in the drinks? Did they only exist for that ten or twenty seconds, and then they disappeared and ballroom-perfection returned? Or were there lives and problems downstairs? The vast majority of people were not lords or ladies, and much of life was truly sad. I tried to introduce some of that while leaving the conclusion of the matter pleasant.

7) You've put a lot of obvious effort into studying the period. Do you have any other novels in this time period planned?

My second novel, working titled For the Skylark, is set back in the Regency. I preferred to back out of the noisier, busier Victorian era. I would like it if we, today, could take a step backward. It would be nice if we could all have some quiet land and the know-how to live from it. I think we could manage hot showers and some decent hygiene with what we have learned by now... and I'd be happy with that. I think.


Thanks, Debra.

The Companion of Lady Holmeshire is available in both physical and electronic form at Amazon, Barnes and Noble.