27 Dec

Victorian Wedding Rings


Victorian Wedding Rings

Today’s research reading on Victorian wedding rings–and engagement rings–comes to you from pages 48-49 of The Jewelers’ Circular and Horological Review, Vol XV, No. 2, March 1884. I’ve reached a point in my current novel draft where the hero believes he has reason to purchase an engagement ring, so of course I went looking to make sure that was a thing in the 1890s, and to see what sort of ring he might buy. Something with just pearls, I think–he’s not quite sentimental enough to spring for the turquoise and seed pearl forget-me-not!

Buying Wedding Rings.

A shy young man went into a Broadway jeweler’s store, so says a local reporter, and looked at gentlemen’s rings, fingering them and asking questions about them, and yet appearing to take only a forced interest in them. The jeweler’s clerk whispered to a bystander, “By-and-by he will come around to the wedding or engagement rings. That is what he has come after.” Sure enough, the young man presently pointed to a tray of flat gold band rings. “What are they for?” he inquired. The clerk said that they were merely fancy rings, worn by ladies and gentlemen, and that some folks bought them for wedding rings. The shy young man tried two or three on his little finger, and, finding one that would not quite go over his knuckle, said, “Give me this one. How much is it?”

“It’s five dollars,” said the clerk, “but if you want a wedding ring I would advise you not to buy it. Every now and then we sell them to people who insist upon having them, but as soon as they find out the fashion they come back and have them melted up and rolled up into this old-fashioned round form. The only wedding ring is the round ring, plain and simple.”

“Gimme a round one, then; same size as this.”

He got one and went away. The clerk laughed, and said he could tell when a young man wanted a wedding or engagement ring every time; though sometimes they ask to be shown clocks, bracelets, or anything rather than what they come for. Very many come right to the point, though they stammer and falter about it quite painfully. Others again ask frankly and boldly to see what they want. “There never has been a change int he fashion of wedding rings,” said the clerk; “the plain round gold ring has always been the only correct thing. Men sometimes choose other kinds, but women never make that mistake.”

“Do women choose their own wedding rings?”

“Oh, very often. Frequently they come in alone, fit a ring to the right finger and leave it for the prospective bridegroom to pay for. Sometimes they pay for it and take it away, and of course the young man reimburses them. Quite often, too, the brides come in with their mothers. Very serious and grave the mothers are, and show neither timidity nor sentiment. They ask for wedding rings, they look them over, buy one, and go away. Irish and German girls often bring their lovers as well as their mothers. There is not a funnier sight in the world than to see a clumsy fellow hanging behind and looking unutterably foolish while his sweetheart and her mother discuss the purchase. They pay no attention to him until they come to the final selection. Then they tell him how much is to be paid and he pays it and they all go out. Irishmen are apt to be close buyers. They will scarcely ever buy anything without knocking something off the price, but no Irishman ever haggles over a wedding or engagement ring. It does not matter if the wedding ring he chooses comes as high as nine dollars. He pays the price without a murmur.”

“Many foreigners, particularly Germans, exchange wedding rings. The bride pays for the groom’s ring and vice versa. At the altar they exchange rings. They come in together to buy them.”

“What is the fashion in engagement rings?”

“Oh, there is no fashion in them particularly. Any pretty ring set with small stones does for the purpose. Turquoises and pearls are popular just now, and so are pearls by themselves. Diamonds are the rage with people who can afford them, and from that the precious stones range downward in price to amethysts. Engagement rings cost from $15 to $150; wedding rings from $5 to $15. Very many persons have initials, dates, or mottoes engraved in their wedding rings. ‘Mizpah,’ or ‘Thine forever’ are favorites, but the commonest custom is to have merely the initials and date–‘J.S. to S.J., Nov. 11, 1883’–cut in the inner surface of the ring. Nothing is engraved in engagement rings. The manner of wearing them has changed, however. They used to be word on the index finger of the left hand, you know, but the ladies think that a little too much of an advertisement nowadays, and they wear them on the third finger of the right hand. That finger of the left hand is still the one on which wedding rings are worn.”

On page 39 of the same issue, you will find an article on Electric Jewelry! Perhaps I’ll find a way to work that into a future story.

20 Dec

The Artist, the Lady and the Tiger

In my reading about the zoo, I learned about the American painter Frederick Stuart Church, who regularly used the animals of the zoo as models. It seems he was quite fond of depicting young ladies in company with big cats. He wrote a rambling illustrated article about his work and experiences for Scribner’s Magazine in December 1893, Vol. XIV, No. 6, which I found entertaining and intriguing.

Excerpts from “An Artist Among Animals,” written and illustrated by F.S. Church

Frederick Stuart Church illustration for Scribner's

I saw a young girl in the lion-house at the Central Park Zoo modeling a tiger. One morning I watched her for some time, and after she got through her work and was about to go, she took a rose from her dress and threw it into the animal. You know some of the cat family are very susceptible to the different odors, and the action of that tiger must have astonished the young girl. There was every expression of animal gladness in the way that he fondled and caressed the flower. I suggested to the young lady that it might be perfectly safe for her to go in the cage, the tiger seemed in such an amiable mood. She seemed half inclined to act on my suggestion and go in, but perhaps it was just as well she didn’t. You can never trust them.

After reading the first bit, which had come up on my search for “Central Park Zoo,” I assumed, as you may have up to this point, that this was a piece about the practice of drawing and sketching live animals, and maybe the exotic options available at the zoo. But Church, as a working artist, took commissions and therefore shares this anecdote.

I have a sketch on my wall–a rough cartoon of a tigress creeping up through the jungle with a most wicked glare in her eye, as if about to spring on a very pretty young woman in diaphanous drapery, who is seated on a bank with her feet in the water, apparently dreaming over a lapful of lotus flowers. That picture was suggested, and an order given to paint it, by a young New England girl, who is, or thought she was, a “reincarnationist.” She was one of the finest specimens of New England beauties I have ever seen, from the best old Puritan and Hugenot stock, her father, a magnificent specimen of manhood, following in the faith of his fathers; but she, in a future state, expected or hoped to take the form of a tigress, and go around eating up good-looking young girls. Queer idea, wasn’t it, and she had such a sweet and sympathetic disposition?Frederick Stuart Church illustration for Scribner'sI took the order, but do you know I was never able to make that animal take the fatal leap. With a great  of persuasion I induced Mr. Conklin, the former careful and thoroughly experienced superintendent at the Central Park Zoo, to allow a tiger to be enraged up to a most desperate point, by having a young bear cub placed dangerously near his cage, and I made lots of studies in movement and expression of that animal’s most ferocious efforts to get at that cub, but it was of no use. I then changed the whole idea, and made a recumbent tigress looking up with a most placid expression into the face of the young woman, who still continued to dream over the lilies. The “reincarnationist” was disgusted, and I sold my “idyl” at a quarter of the price to “another fellow.” That change of expression cost me $750, and should have taught me a lesson, which some of my realistic friends would say served me right.”

Wait, what?

First, what about this New Englander of good Puritan and Hugenot stock casually appropriating ideas of reincarnation????

Second, she sounds like some kind of badass wanting to be reincarnated as a lady-eating tiger.

Third, that was an amazing character sketch of both the lady and the artist.

You can see that I really had to share once I read that bit. There’s more. Church wasn’t just about the drawing of ladies with animals. Apparently he was also about allegory.

Knowledge is Power by Frederick Stuart Church

One of my female critics, who is not in sympathy with my work, was looking the other day at a picture of mine which I call “Knowledge is Power.” It represents a young girl in college gown reading to a lot of tigers. The lady said: “If anyone needs knowledge that girl does, or she wouldn’t be such a stupid fool as to sit among a lot of tigers.” An excellent criticism from her stand-point, but perhaps it is not what I am getting at.

Okay, Church, you don’t understand the feelings of the “reincarnationist” and your female friends may not understand your philosophy either. I guess it’s a draw? At least you can idealize the nature of the female cats.

I paint the lioness much more than I do the lion. Probably few notice the difference, but I use the tigress in all my pictures in preference to the male. There is something in the female of the cat species, particularly, that appeals to much more than the male. She has certain lines, movements, alertness and quickness of perception, with a sort of you-had-better-look-out expression, which I don’t see in the male. I often think of that tigress I read of in a report of the London Zoo, who, accompanied by her two cubs, stealthily approached in the middle of the night a small temporary board shanty, where some native East Indian railroad workmen were sleeping. Leaving her cubs at the door, she stole in, grabbed one of the sleeping men, and made off with him before the horrified occupants could realize the situation.

Illustration by Frederick Stuart Church for Scribner'sJust think the peculiar intelligence shown not only in her successful raid, but in her instructions to her cubs, who she made wait outside for her while she did her terrible work!

This bit put me in mind of Kipling’s 1911 poem The Female of the Species, which concludes most stanzas with “The female of the species is more deadly than the male” and posits that females are fierce because they have an unshakeable instinct to protect their young, while males can be logical. For a reply to that, I recommend Charlotte Anna Perkins Gilman’s reply More Females of the Species.

But the poetry is a tangent away from F.S. Church. My imagination is particularly fired, not by his ideas about the females of the species, or by the allegorical meanings of the women he painted, but by the women he describes interacting with: the female painter, the critic, and, of course, the “reincarnationist.”

I had been thinking to make one of my heroines involved in spiritualism or vaudeville in some way, and the idea of a young lady of New England who wishes she were a tigress seems like it could play into that beautifully.  There is something there about women looking for more expansive role in society and not wanting to be confined by the feminine ideals of the time. Why be the allegorical beauty reading to the tigers when you could be the tiger? Her explicit desire is to be a tigress who will “go around eating up good-looking young girls”! She seems ready to completely destroy and discard the current female role. Definitely a suffragist. Perhaps ready to smash the patriarchy as well. I’ll just have to be careful that she doesn’t cross over into Spirit Weavers Gathering territory…

You can see more examples of Church’s work on the Wikimedia Commons, as well as on artnet.com and americangallery19th.wordpress.com. In addition to ladies and big cats, he also painted ladies with polar bears or flamingos, or even by themselves without animal companions.

18 Dec

The Central Park Menagerie

Here’s another historical article I’m sharing from my research reading on Gilded Age New York. This is from The Epoch, Vol. III, No. 73. June 29, 1888, and was written by William A. Conklin, Superintendent of the Menagerie from the 1860s through the 1880s.

I found it by turns informative, amusing, and sad. Conklin provides a history of the institution and is transparent about facts and figures, but, unsurprisingly I suppose, still manages to display the racism of the times. He follows up an anecdote about how he’d intended for a chimpanzee to be named “Uncle Remus” with a note that that primate could be sold for $5,000 any day they cared to put him on the market.

The Menagerie in Central Park has been a gradual growth. It started in 1860 with a few white swans, some of them presented by the city of Hamburg, Germany, and others given respectively by the Vintners and Dyers Companies of London. In 1862 a monkey was added. It was the gift of Mr. Frank Towle of New York, whose brother has lately been appointed one of the Park Commissioners.

In the early days the money needed for the care and support of the animals was paid out of the regular fund appropriated to meet the expenses of the Park; we found it rather difficult to manage the enterprise in this way, for the Superintenden[sic] of the Park very naturally objected to having Park money used for the animals whose expenses were taken from money that should have gone to the support of labor.

It was not until 1882 that the Board of Apportionment recognized the Central Park Menagerie. In that year the Board appropriated $15,000 for its maintenance. That did not go far in the purchase of specimens and was used principally for the care of the animals and for repairs to the buildings. The animals were first kept in the basement and on the second floor of the Arsenal, which was a State institution up to the year 1857, when the portion of the city where it is located was taken for Park purposes.

In 1883 the Board of Apportionment gave $18,000 for the Menagerie, and since then the appropriation has been gradually increased until now the amount received is $30,000 a year. Out of this sum are paid all expenses for repairs to the buildings, food for the animals, wages for the keepers and for additions to the collection.

It is not, I think, unjust to say that the Menagerie is the most attractive feature of Central Park. Nine out of every ten persons who enter the Park by the lower entrances wend their way to the Menagerie, and strangers visiting the city from all parts of the world are sure to pay the animals a visit. People take great pleasure in looking at live animals–very few care for the stuffed collections. In fine weather we have daily from 100,000 to 125,000 visitors. One day last Summer I had an actual count made of the persons coming through the two entrances to the grounds between the “rush” hours of two and six P.M. The number reached 77,000, which represents quite a mass of humanity.

The Central Park Menagerie now contains specimens from the different varieties of genera such as the rhinoceros, hippopotamus and elephant; specimens of the carnivora, such as tigers, leopards, jaguars, pumas and hyenas. Of birds we have not a very large collection. We have a few Australian ostriches, some parrots, a number of small singing birds, some cranes; our water fowl are scattered over the lakes.

Our most distinguished guest is the chimpanzee, “Mr. Crowley.” Just as I received him into the collection I was starting for Europe. In answer to the keeper’s question as to what we should name the new arrive, I said: “Call him Uncle Remus”–having in mind the negro story-teller of the South. The keeper did not remember the name, and substitute that of “Mr. Crowley,” which he has retained ever since. It is safe to say that he is the most notable “Mr.” in America. Like a great many pubic men, however, I must confess that “Mr. Crowley” owes his reputation to the newspapers; he has been “written up” by countless journalists in all parts of the country. “Mr. Crowley’s” money value is $5,000, i.e. we could get that sum for him any day we wanted to sell him. The two hippopotami and the rhinoceros are each worth $5,000, and as they grow larger each year their value increases.

Young lions are worth more than old ones. The average age of a lion in captivity is about fifteen years. It may not be generally known that animals captured in a wild state are more easily tamed than young ones brought up in captivity. When the lion is captured his temper is broken by the rough treatment he receives from the natives who capture him. Thus he becomes afraid of man. The young ones, on the countrary, brought up in captivity, seeing humans around them constantly, get used to the sight, retain their wild nature and often show it.

It is said, as in the story of Androcles and the lion, that wild animals exhibit gratitude for favors received. We do not see that trait displayed, possibly because we are not placed in opportunities to show any remarkable favors. It is true, however, that animals become attached to keepers who are constantly with them and who give them their food. The secret of lion-tamers going into the cages of the animals is simply that they are fearless of harm, the lions see, intuitively, that the man before them has no fear and knows he is their master. It is an apt illustration of the influence of mind over matter. I could go into any of our cages of wild animals without fear of being harmed because the animals would see that I was not afraid of them. But there are times when a wild beast, just like a man, is in an angry mood and out of sorts, and when it would be dangerous to molest him.

Animals are subject to some of the diseases that are peculiar to man, want of exercise affects the regularity of some of the natural functions, and this is a trouble that has to be constantly looked after. They take cold easily and their lungs are liable ot be affected. These remarks apply both to the larger and the smaller animals.

The hot weather affects the appetite of the carniverous [sic] animals. They are fed 250 pounds of meat a day in the cold weather, and in the warm weather, from the first of June until the middle of October, they get only 200 pounds a day. We feed the carnivora but once a day, which we find better than allowing them to eat twice a day. The hay-eating animals are fed twice a day, and as to the elephants, it may be said that they eat all the time; they eat grain, hay and fresh mown grass.

The carnivora eat horse meat. We purchase old horses that have outlived all their usefulness and kill them ourselves, so that our meat costs us about a cent and a half a pound.

An animals appetite falls off in Summer just like man’s; he cannot eat so much and, like a man, in hot weather, he feels heavy and sluggish, walking languidly up and down his cage, or, lying down in it overcome by a dull, stupid feeling.

Appleton's Weekly published lists of new additions to the Central Park MenagerieWe buy nearly all our animals from F.J. Thompson of New You city. He is the largest dealer in the business and supplies nearly all the “shows” in the country. He is the American representative of Hagenbeck, of Hamburg, Germany, and Jamrach of London, the two largest animal dealers int he world who have their agents in the wildest parts of the Eastern countries where the most curious and wonderful specimens of animal life are to be found.

The price paid for animals varies very much. A good male lion is worth $1,000, and a tiger, $1,200; leopards costs $350; for monkeys we pay from $10 upwards, according to the species. Ordinary East India or African monkeys are worth about $10, and monkeys of rare species costs as high as $30, $40 and $50 each. For the female Chimpanzee in the Central Park I paid $500. The best speaking parrots are either the African or the Mexican double yellow head. For young birds of this species the dealers pay $10 apiece when buying a number at a time, retailing them at $15 and $20 each. The old, talking birds of this variety are worth from $40 to $100 apiece, the price depending of the number of words that the parrot can talk.

The Central Park Zoo was brought to my attention after listening to an episode about it on The Bowery Boys podcast, which mentions the 1874 hoax perpetrated by the New York Herald, which falsely claimed that many of the animals had escaped and were rampaging through the city, leaving death and destruction in their wake. It’s an interesting bit of history, but significantly before my own setting in 1896, so I don’t get to use it this time around. I did, however, decide to send some of my characters on a visit to the Zoo and, having read Conklin’s numbers, I’m confident that it was a popular pastime and a plausible thing for them to do!

Also recommended, the fiction story “How I Happened to Marry,” which begins at the bottom of page 407 in the same publication.

12 Dec

The First Woman in the New York Yacht Club

For my historical romance in progress, I have a scene set on a steam yacht. I went looking for info about such vessels and settled upon a particular historical boat to use as a model in the scene – the Dungeness, owned by Mrs. Lucy Carnegie, widow of Pittsburgh steel magnate Andrew Carnegie’s brother Thomas.

As I looked for more info about the boat, I ran across this wonderful article under the byline of A.J. Kenealy in The Illustrated American, edition of July 7, 1894.

Aye, Aye, My Lady

Yachtsmen of the old school are always conservative. Some of them are cranks. The New York Yacht Club has a few of these eccentric antiques on its muster roll, who serve as a foil to the lively and progressive members with which the organization abounds.

When Mrs. Lucy C. Carnegie, of Pittsburg[sic], Pa., ordered her new steam yacht Dungeness, she thought it would be a capital thing if she could prevail upon the New York Yacht Club to grant her permission to fly the club burgee and to use the club floats and stations. With this ended in view she opened diplomatic negotiations, and caused as much consternation among the “old barnacles” just alluded to as a hungry hawk in a chicken walk.

Mrs. Carnegie’s sponsors were Mr. Archibald Rogers and Mr. Fairman Rogers, two fo the most popular men in the domain of clubdom, and each an excellent and enthusiastic sportman. When these gentlemen proposed her for membership, the old fogies were aghast. In dark corners of the club, over strong cigars and jorums of punch, they brooded over their troubles and caucused and caballed with all the dark secrecy and tireless energy of South American conspirators plotting a revolution.

The worst of it was they were so few in number, and their cause was so patently weak and flaccid, that they reminded one of the Irishman who flocked by himself. When they sought sympathetic followers they found “offensive partisans,” all devoted to Mrs. Carnegie; and thus the conspirators were foiled and Lovely Woman won the day.

At the last general meeting of the club, held on May 17, the constitution was amended, and now any woman owning a yacht is eligible as a flag member. She may fly the club burgee, have her private signal emblazoned in the club book, enter her yacht in races, and use the club floats and stations to her heart’s content.

There is, however, one proud prerogative from which she is debarred, and that is the right of suffrage. The male owner of a 40-footer, that leaks like a sieve, can vote, but the club is not yet prepared to allow a like privilege to the possessor of a steel steam yacht, brand new, 135 feet long, and superbly appointed. But the pessimists say the entering wedge has been driven in, and they predict, with dismay, the reign of a petticoated commodore–the very thought of which dread contingency makes them feel like taking a swim in the styx.

The more gallant and go-ahead members take an opposite view and would welcome with open arms (this is, of course, figurative) as many ladies as possible into the club. The more the merrier is their jocund cry. What would the cruise of the New York Yacht Club–the great aquatic event of the year–be without the girls? Mighty dull I promise you, and as insipid as cold boiled veal without the stimulating and snappy addition of salt and red pepper.

That the club is quite eager for more ladies to join the body is significantly shown by the circumstance that it does not exact its usual pound of flesh from women yacht owners, but gallantly lets them off from paying the entrance fee and is content with the annual dues.
Mrs. Carnegie is a devoted yachtswoman. In her old steam yacht Missoe she has made many a delightful cruise, but in her new boat, Dungeness, designed by Mr. George B Mallory of this city and built at Sparrow’s Point, Md., she may venture on voyages of more ambitious endeavor and greater length. The trial trip of the Dungeness was eminently successful, and she may be expected in these waters ere long.

No money has been spared in the fitting out of this vessel, for she is owned by a lady of immense wealth, whose winter home on Cumberland Island, off the coast of Georgia, is one of the finest in the South. Cumberland Island is a lovely place, with beautiful parks and gardens, with preserves abounding in game, and, in fact, everything that gives zest to existence.

Mrs. Carnegie is a widow in the prime of life, and the fact that she has a lovely daughter approaching a marriageable age may not be without interest to certain young bachelor yacht owners who voted for her mother’s admission to the yacht club.

That other clubs will follow the example so nobly set by the premier yachting organization of America is as certain as the rising of the sun to-morrow morning. The Seawanhaka Corinthians, although hitherto credited with dry devotion to nautical science and souls whose only solace, according to popular belief, is in logarithmic sines, tangents, and secants, surprised the yachting world by their action at their last general meeting, by electing Mrs. C.B. Thompson an honorary member for the year.

Mrs. Thompson is in her element on the sea. She prefers sailing craft to steam yachts, and can take her trick at the tiller with the best. She owns the smart little cutter Indra, and in Newport last year was often seen sailing her with her boys, and handling her capitally, too. For more extended cruising she chartered the schooner Orithyia, in which she sailed on the Sound and also enjoyed several trips off shore. Finding this vessel scarcely large enough for her, she recently purchased the fine and fast schooner OEnone from Mr. Hugh Cochraine, a member of the New York and Eastern Yacht clubs whose home is in Boston.

The OEnone is a smart racing craft designed by the late Mr. Burgess. She is by no means outclasses yet, but can show the graceful contour of her fantail stern to many of the schooners enrolled int he New York Yacht Club. I have it on excellent authority that Mrs. Thompson will be the next lady empowered to fly the burgee of the club, and that she will enter her yacht in the regatta of the club and also make a bold bid for the handsome cups presented to the yachts making the fastest passages from port to port during the August squadron cruise.

Thus the era of lady membership begins under favorable auspices. That no girl will be considered positively “swagger” unless she is also a yacht owner is not unlikely in the near future. The ambition of the American girl is boundless, and nobody doubts her daring. That a lady may yet defend the America’s cup is by no means beyond the bounds of possibility, and I hope to live to see the fun.

In England, ladies have recently been admitted as members of that august body, the Yacht Racing Association of Great Britain, before whose sceptre all the recognized clubs bow down and before whose dread tribunal delinquents are summoned and duly disciplined. English women have taken great interest in the sport for many years, but it cannot be said to have yet attained the dimensions of a fashionable ad. But the pastime is becoming more popular every day, and who knows that an international rivalry of absorbing interest may not in time be developed, and that American girls may vie with their English cousins for honors on the open sea? If they do, I know not on what side my bets would be placed.

Isn’t that a fun piece? I like how progressive the author is, though I don’t think the “old barnacles” were overthrown quite as quickly as Kenealy might have predicted from 1894.

06 Dec

Why I’m switching to romance

Over the summer, as my child started to sleep through the night and my mental powers of cognition started to return, I did some hard thinking about my writing career and which direction I want to go. I wrote a business plan. I thought about numbers and I thought about the number of stories rattling around in my head, wanting to get out. Ultimately, I decided to set aside some writing projects I’d been working on for a while and start something new and, seemingly, entirely different: historical romance. I have an eight (!!) book series planned, set in Gilded Age America — the first book is 1896 New York City.

Why romance?

I have two main reasons. First, I’m ready to write happy endings. Second, historical research is fun.

Happy Ever Afters

If you know anything about popular romances, you know that they always end with a couple happily together. Maybe with some sexy times, or maybe just with an as yet unconsummated plan to spend their lives together.

That’s not the sort of ending that I’ve written in the past. I have often written from songs, and you know what makes a good emotional song that gets stuck in my heart and my head and tickles around until it comes out as a novel? Tragic death. And you know who often dies? The lady.

I spent most of the summer reading about Spanish colonial California and working on a novella (that I thought would be a short story, but it kept growing) from the California ballad South Coast but as powerful as the story in that song is, I ultimately dropped it because it’s unavoidably about the death of a woman, who is half Native American in my mind, and you know what? Too many Native American women are dying in the present day.  When I went looking for an article to link just now, Google autocomplete filled in “missing” after “native american woman” and that’s why I can’t write that story.

It’s a real pain for the Native American community and I am not going to be the one to add to that.

So that story’s in the drawer and I’m not sure I’ll ever take it out. I still love the song and I have no regrets about reading up on the Spanish and Mexican presence in Alta California. The song is tragic as all getout and the story was going to make you cry.

But so is the news, and there’s enough of that, don’t you think? I don’t think I’ve ever strayed into woman-in-refrigerator territory,  but I don’t like looking back and seeing the stories I’ve written that involved dead ladies in various ways. I’m not going to write that any more.

The other draw of the Happy Ever After right now is the utopia/dystopia dichotomy in fantasy. I use fantasy here to indicate an imaginary world, which could be scifi, or Tolkienesque high fantasy, or historical fiction (which really can only be a view of the past through the lens of the present). Dystopian literature stands as a warning of future dangers, to show our characters fighting the good fight against tyranny and injustice. Utopian stories show the possibilities of a better world.

Haven’t there been a lot of popular dystopian stories lately? The Hunger Games, Game of Thrones, all that sort of rah-rah grim, dark world and brave hero(ine)s stepping up? Well, in the last year, for those of us in America with a progressive and liberal bent to our thoughts, the dystopia has become far too close to the everyday reality. We have rallied in the streets and taken up arms to fight against tyranny and corruption.

To me, writing fiction in that vein seems beside the point right now. I don’t doubt that others will take up the dystopian stories and write brilliant novels that will become our generation’s 1984, but the news makes me want utopian fiction. I can’t spend my workaday life fighting, and go back for more grimness in my leisure time. Therefore, romance and happy ever afters.

I’m not the only one feeling this way either. Romance is a progressive and feminist genre, so it’s no surprise that established romance authors are part of the resisterhood. You can read articles on the subject from Salon and Entertainment Weekly.

Historical Research is Fun

Seriously, half the reason I like writing stories is because it sends me out reading other stories. The writers’ internet is overflowing with jokes around “don’t check my browser history.” Since I’m not writing thrillers or murder mysteries I don’t have to crack wise about the FBI watching me, but I end up looking all sorts of things. Did you know that by the 1840s California was overrun by horses and cattle, and cowhides were basically used as currency? That Mrs. Lucy Carnegie, in 1894, was the first female member of the New York Yacht Club? That the florist business in early New York City was dominated by Greeks? All these facts and more I have learned recently and all these details go into making my stories come alive with verisimilitude.

Writing stories set in the 1890s is particularly fun/dangerous because Google books has scanned a vast amount of printed matter, now out of copyright, and made it available online. Do I want to know what sort of clothing my gentleman wears to a party in 1896? I search for men’s suit and restrict the years to 1890-1900 and peruse the ads of the day until I have enough clues to narrow down and choose his wardrobe. It’s tempting to just sit and read vintage periodicals, and I admit I’ve ordered a couple antique books that weren’t too expensive so I can thumb through them. I’ll be sharing some of the things I find on the blog as I continue. Not everything fits into the story, but some of it is too to pass up!

11 Sep

Working on a Romance MFA Syllabus

This is a crosspost from romancemfa.com – head over there for more updates on my Romance MFA project!

I’ve been working on my Romance MFA syllabus for over a month now. It hasn’t been a simple task: the number of books in the romance genre is overwhelming. I want to write historical romance: the number of historicals is overwhelming. I specifically want to write in the American Gilded Age: the number of books in the niche is limited, but the historical research I feel I need to do is overwhelming. And the number of existing romance authors, romance blogs, romance reading lists…

*deep breath*

It’s going to be okay, though. I have strategies. Or rather, one strong strategy which I am applying repeatedly.

Break it down.

Anne Lammott talks about using the “one inch frame”: you can only focus on the bit right in front of you. It’s a concept which holds for more than just writing. In recent years I have started teaching martial arts and learned to give minimal feedback to students. Maybe I can see four or five things she could be doing better, but if I tell her to fix all five at once, she’ll be confused and dispirited. So I pick one thing–maybe adjust her footwork so her knees will still be functional after practicing that kick for five years–and once she hears similar feedback from a couple different teachers, it will sink in and the kick will get better.

Here’s how I’ve been breaking things down to make my reading list. First, I needed some genre authorities. I searched for romance blogs. Now I have 150+ in my RSS reader and after a month I’m getting a sense of who is posting prolifically, who has a readership who comments, who has substance beyond endless !!CLICK HERE NEW RELEASE EXCERPT!!. I got wise to the fact that there are a handful of academic courses on the topic of popular romance which have been taught: here’s a good master list of romance syllabi. That seemed like a good way to get a handle on the genre, but the academics refer to it as “popular romance,” so I wanted to get the people’s view, too. I looked on kboards and found a massive thread called ‘Anyone a Historical Romance Fan?’, started in 2011 and still discussing historical romance reads in August 2017. I consulted a number of Goodreads lists. I also happened across the results of an NPR Books poll related to last year’s ‘Summer of Love’ theme. With 18,000 nominations in their poll, it sounded like a pretty solid source.

Putting together the lists from blogs, syllabi, Goodreads, NPR, and authors mentioned on Kboards gave me a spreadsheet with over 250 entries. Still an overwhelming number of titles, but some were starting to jump out at me as repeated mentions.

I went back to Goodreads and worked out a rough scoring system based on average rating, number of ratings, and number of editions. That didn’t help very much, but I also labeled the titles by genre. At this point, I have a pretty good idea that since I want to write historical romance, I’m probably not going to get a ton out of reading contemporary Western romance. (Too bad I already read a terrible contemporary Western before I really got my list together…) To keep things manageable, I had to choose a limited number of subgenres to read from. Maybe I’ll get into some additional subgenres later, but here’s what I’m starting with.


cover of Pamela, by Samuel RichardsonClassic Precursors & Early Romances

This is the easiest category to populate because the older the literature is, the more agreement there is on whether it is worthwhile, or was influential. I shall start with Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, I shall not skip Austen or Bronte.


Gone With The Wind classic coverMid-Twentieth Century Romance

I have a couple books in this category that may not meet the HEA rules of popular romance but which crop up repeatedly when people talk about great romance stories. If you’re wondering if I’ll read Gone With the Wind, the answer is yes.


cover of Georgette Heyer's Grand SophyRegencies

You really cannot read historical romance without getting into regencies, and once you’ve done a minimum amount of research it becomes obvious that you cannot get into regencies without reading Georgette Heyer, though I shall read titles from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s as well.


cover of The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen WoodiwissBodice Rippers

There’s a few authors and titles from the 1970s and 1980s that come up over and over as genre-definers, genre-changers, the first book that someone read from their mother’s stash that got them hooked. I can’t skip Kathleen Woodiwiss, for instance, if I want to have a full sense of the genre, even if the general report is that the lack of consensual sensuality seems pretty squicky to many contemporary readers.


After this point, it got tricky. I added and discarded classic erotica, contemporary, sci-fi and fantasy, paranormal, and numerous other titles that are hard to categorize but seem important. But then I remembered that I’m focusing on what I want to write, and that clarified my final genre.


cover of The Age of Innocence by Edith WhartonAmerican-set Historical Romance

I picked a few classics – such as Edith Wharton – and added half a dozen more recent romances set in America, mainly Eastern Seaboard, written 1970-2016. Depending on what your target genre is, of course, I’d recommend replacing this category with your own comps in contemporary, western, paranormal, contemporary paranormal western, or whatever niche you are looking to write in.

Want a copy of the finalized syllabus? I’ll be sending it out to my email list on September 15, 2017.

Subscribe to the Romance MFA mailing list

This is a crosspost from romancemfa.com – head over there for more updates on my Romance MFA project!