15 Jul

Story Snippet: Cinderella’s Big Night

An alternative fairytale, originally written as a flash fiction challenge for my group blog, Eight Ladies Writing.

Cinderella inched open her dressing-room door and paused seductively on the threshold of the bridal chamber. Her wedding dress had been a demure cloud of white silk and tulle, but there was nothing virginal about her nightgown. If the populace could see their fairy-tale princess now, there’d be a riot.

Her outfit was a scanty mix of midnight-blue satin and lace, with a few strategically placed ribbons and buttons to make life interesting for Prince Charlemagne. The inarticulate croak that emanated from the royal four-poster was all she could have wished, but when it was followed by another she stopped smoldering and closed the distance to the bed in record time.

The frog that stared furiously at her from the center of the coverlet had smooth, shiny skin with an elaborate pattern that bore a disturbing resemblance to Charlie’s richly embroidered ceremonial coat. Across the room, the cabinet that had held her crystal Jimmy Choos stood empty.

She tried the door and both windows. Locked. Her godmother had blanketed the room with a silence spell, so there was no point in shouting for help. She had to figure out a plan. Fast.

The obvious first step, kissing Charlie-the-frog, was surprisingly enjoyable, but didn’t achieve anything except to confirm the amphibian in question was indeed her prince. Lingual dexterity was one of his most delightful distinguishing features.

She set Charlie back on the mattress, calling on the ingenuity that had taken her from pauper to princess before her twenty-first birthday. What would her godmother say? If at first you don’t succeed, scry, scry and scry again.

Cindy grabbed a silver bowl from the pile of wedding presents on the table, moved it until it caught the moonlight, and filled it from the pitcher of ambrosia beside the bed. The reflected image was hazy, but over short distances the resolution should be good enough.

“I’ll buy you a new one,” she said to Charlie, as she reached for his state-of-the-art game controller. She dunked it briefly in the bowl, turned it on and felt magic tingle in her thumbs. As soon as the surface of the liquid settled, she started to search the castle. Up, down, right, left, image followed image. Nothing outside. No-one in the guardroom or the guest chambers.

Her blood began a slow boil when she flipped to the throne room – everyone who was anyone was gathered there. At the top of the thickly carpeted steps stood Wanda, her treacherous stepsister, looking like the ‘after’ section of a makeover show. The witch was arm-in-arm with a hunk who was superficially indistinguishable from Charlie. Wanda was wearing Cindy’s Jimmy Choos, neon pink lipstick, and a triumphant smile.

This wasn’t a heist, it was a goddamn coup.

“I don’t think so,” she snarled at the bowl. “This is my story. My shoes, my prince, and my happy ever after.”

She finger-combed a piece of confetti from her hair and let it fall into the bowl of moonlit ambrosia. Next came a sequin from her negligee, and as the mixture began to bubble she dropped in her wedding ring and made a wish. A shimmering lilac-scented cloud rose into the air, hovered for a moment, and disappeared under the doorframe.

Charlie hopped athletically to the top of a carved bedpost; together they held their breath and watched the scene in the scrying bowl as the cloud slowly re-materialized above the impostors.

“Now!” she yelled, and Charlie croaked his agreement.

The bowl lit up with a flash of brilliant lilac-colored light as the cloud exploded, drenching the throne room in glittering droplets. By the time the image cleared, Wanda was standing between two of Charlie’s elite Royal Guardsmen. They held her arms and avoided her eyes as she stared at the floor, where a suit of formal court clothes sat in a shimmering purple puddle. The fabric of the linen shirt moved intermittently, as though something inside was trying to hop its way to freedom.

There was a rush of air behind Cindy; a moment later Charlie’s arms came around her and she was dragged back against his muscular chest.

“Damned in-laws.” His lips found her ear. “You told me not to invite her.”


“You told Wanda you’d settle her once and for all if she stepped out of line.”

“Yep.” Cindy leaned in to his hands as they worked their own magic over satin and bare skin. “My godmother’s on standby. She’ll take it from here.”

She did.

And without further ado, Princess Cindy took her handsome prince to the matrimonial four-poster and loved him very happily ever after.

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08 Jul

Brits in the RWA

The packing list is done. Flights and hotels are booked. In a few days’ time I’ll be leaving my husband behind and heading to the Romance Writers of America National Conference.

I’ll be very interested to see how many non-US delegates are at this year’s conference. I’ve attended three RWA Nationals so far, and although, as you’d expect, the majority of the delegates are American, the non-US contingent seems to grow each year. Last year in New York I met romance writers from Australia, New Zealand, Spain, and a number of Latin American countries as well as a sprinkling of fellow Brits. This year the conference is in San Diego, which is twice as far and twice as expensive for me, but probably more convenient for Pacific-based authors.

I don’t know whether the international membership of RWA is growing, but it wouldn’t surprise me. I’ve been a member since 2012 and I think it’s fantastic value for the $99 annual subscription. The organisation is welcoming to overseas writers and to unpublished authors, who are allowed to become general members. The only requirement is that you must be in serious pursuit of a career in romantic fiction writing, not a hobbyist. The RWA is a professional organisation, so that seems fair.

If you can find the conference fee ($570 this year for three full days) plus the cost of getting there and staying, Nationals is amazing, overwhelming, fabulous value for money. Overwhelming because the sight and sound of more than two thousand romance writers in one hotel is a hell of a spectacle. Fabulous because the atmosphere is so inclusive. First-timers get a special ribbon on their lanyards, and more experienced delegates go out of their way to make the newbies feel welcomed and comfortable. Value for money because the calibre of the presenters is seriously impressive. Workshops and chats are routinely offered by some of the most famous and successful authors in the genre (Nora Roberts, anyone?), together with agents, editors, traditional publishers, indie publishers, and all manner of other experts. Whether you’re focused on craft, career, research, a particular sub-genre, a particular publisher, self-publishing, or just looking for anecdotes and inspiration, you’ll find it. And if you can’t make it to the conference, you can buy the recording and listen to the workshops at home, or during your commute, or whenever you can snatch the time.

Even without Nationals, I think the online benefits of RWA are worth the price of admission for overseas members.

There are online loops for special interest groups such as self-publishing, marketing and social media. Post a question and nobody will call you stupid. Somebody with infinitely more experience will chip in and help.

There’s a monthly magazine and a weekly e-bulletin with news, updates and features.

There are online chapters for sub-genres such as romantic suspense (Kiss of Death) and historicals (Beau Monde), and I’m told that the collective knowledge of the membership is ridiculously comprehensive. Whether you need to know the effects of an obscure poison or the legal position regarding marriage at sea during the Regency, ask the question and somebody will know. There are also general online chapters like From The Heart Romance Writers. I joined that one recently and I’ve really been enjoying their Topic of the Week discussions. They also have a critique loop, an anti-procrastination loop, a regular announcement of good news and member successes, and no doubt lots more that I haven’t discovered yet.

Many local chapters also run contests where for a relatively small entrance fee (usually around $25-$35) you can enter an extract of your manuscript (usually but not always the opening pages). If you’re very good and very lucky, you may win, but even if you don’t, you might reach the final and have your pages read by an industry judge – usually an editor or an agent. If you don’t final, you will still receive detailed feedback on your entry from two or three judges and while the comments may vary from the helpful to the infuriating, I’ve learned something useful from every single contest I’ve entered.

Thanks to the wonders of the interwebs my membership of RWA teaches me something new almost every day. Nationals takes it to a whole different level and I’m ready to make the most of the opportunity. I’ll report back!

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26 Jun

Story Snippet: Daphne’s Last Dance

A Regency-themed short story, originally written for the weekly flash fiction challenge on my group blog, Eight Ladies Writing

Lady Mayfair’s masquerade was the last significant party of the Season, and Daphne’s papa had been distressingly clear about the family’s finances, or lack thereof. Unfortunately she had failed to Take her Opportunity, and so this soiree would be her last hurrah in the Beau Monde.

A long night in the library with a bottle of papa’s best port had done wonders for her resolution. The alternatives were clear. Get herself thoroughly compromised, or go home and marry the vicar. And since he was approaching sixty, had lost most of his teeth, and believed personal cleanliness was injurious to health, there wasn’t really a decision to make.

Viscount Wandering-Hands, irreverently known as Lord Pianoforte, was a terrible rake, but he was a stylish one. The matched bays harnessed to his curricle smelled sweeter than Reverend Whiffy, and his way with a freshly-starched cravat was a thing of beauty. No wonder he was all the crack, despite his propensity to take outrageous liberties.

Fortunately the orchestra had been playing an unexceptionable suite of classical dances when they arrived. Daphne had migrated to her usual wallflower position behind the potted palms and despatched her chaperone to play whist with the other tabbies. Aunt Evelina knew the end was in sight, and the opportunity to invest papa’s miserly allowance in an evening’s gambling was too great to resist.

A judicious dousing of water in the Ladies’ Retiring Room had rendered Daphne’s gown practically diaphanous. Exactly on cue, the band struck up a waltz. She pulled her bodice down until her décolletage was the epitome of scandalous, tripped strategically on an outstretched satin slipper, and landed, as she had intended, in the arms of Lord Pianoforte.

He looked down at her magnificent, barely covered bosom and took a firmer grasp around her hand-span waist.

“My dance, I believe?”

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23 Jun

Make Me Care

Last week I was lucky enough to go to a revival of Massenet’s Werther at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. I’m not a true opera aficionada, but I love the way great composers use music as a vehicle for story.

The story of Werther is simple, intimate, romantic and tragic. The eponymous hero, an arty, melodramatic young man, is in love with beautiful, unattainable Charlotte. Charlotte, the epitome of integrity, is already promised to boring, respectable Albert. Charlotte chooses duty and Albert but continues to hanker after Werther, which poisons her marriage. Werther, unable to live without Charlotte, commits suicide. Charlotte runs to his death-bed and gives full rein to her feelings when it’s all too late.

I had a fabulous afternoon. Massenet’s music is beautiful, and the ROH orchestra did it full justice. The leads, Vittorio Grigolo and Joyce DiDonato, looked great, acted beautifully, and sang with passion and finesse. Every one of the supporting cast did likewise. The lighting was a bit moody for my taste, but spot on for a story of dark passion and mutual obsession. The sets were traditional and appropriate to a story based on an 18th century novel; no arty cleverness or quirky takes or reinventing anything, which was refreshing.

Shame about the narrative.

I like a good operatic tragedy, and I’m prepared to commit to characters that I’d never tolerate in a novel (sorry, Goethe fans). With the right music, OTT characters can be fascinating. So even though a temperamental tantrum-thrower isn’t my ideal hero, and a goody two-shoes martyred bride sets my teeth on edge, there was more than enough juice in this plot to get me invested. A love triangle where the girl has to choose between a handsome, passionate suitor and a solid, socially acceptable one is a classic romance trope and I was expecting to have my heart broken on behalf of all three of them. It never happened for me. In fact, pretty much nothing happened until Werther shot himself.

Neither of the main characters had any arc whatsoever. It was ‘I love you;’ ‘I’m married to him,’ over and over with spectacularly good music, until the very end, when Albert loses patience with the histrionics. When Werther asks for the loan of the household pistols, Albert says to Charlotte “You give them to him.” She does. And that pushes Werther over the edge. I loved that. Character is choice under pressure, and those few minutes made my hair stand on end.  I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t have been thinking ‘Good for Albert.’ I cried a little at the end, because the music and the performances were so emotionally powerful, but ultimately I didn’t care what happened to Werther or Charlotte.

I know Werther is a classic opera, based on a very famous book that was a sensational best-seller in the 1770s. I’m sure I’m bringing contemporary attitudes to a period story, but the same could be said of Eugene Onegin or Anna Karenina, and those characters kick me right in the heart-strings.

Purely from a story perspective, Werther feels like an opportunity lost and that undermined my emotional experience even though the performance was stellar in every other respect. Great food for thought there.

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18 Jun

Story Snippet: Copacetic Cop-Out

A sixties-themed short story, originally written for the weekly flash fiction challenge on my group blog 8 Ladies Writing.

“Copacetic Corner? A Counterculture Commune for Retired Revolutionaries? What the hell is this?”

Commander Mann pushed the brochure back across the desk with a snarl. Hand-printed with vegetable inks on recycled paper, the cover was an eclectic mix of paisley-patterned swirls and fluffy clouds emblazoned with hippie buzzwords: “Peace”; “Love”; “Freedom.”

“You didn’t read the good bits yet, Commander.” Rainbow pushed it back again. “I think ‘Can You Dig It?’ is an inspired name for an organic vegetable garden, don’t you?”

“I don’t see what this has to do with me.” His eyes met hers briefly and slid away.

“My mother is looking for investors,” Rainbow explained brightly. “She’s not getting any younger and wants to create a sanctuary for herself and her friends, but she’s having some difficulty raising the finance.”

Commander Mann was seized by a sudden fit of coughing. Rainbow straightened her mini skirt, crossed her ankles and waited politely until he subsided before continuing with her pitch.

“Apparently she has some kind of mystery blot on her copybook dating back to the sixties. We’ve been trying to get to the bottom of the problem. It’s very odd. She was in a couple of protest groups, nothing very radical, but afterwards there was a crazy rumour they’d been infiltrated by some kind of super-secret police task force.”

“That’s the most ridiculous thing I ever heard.” Commander Mann’s face was a sixties shade of puce.

“Exactly what I said, sir.” Rainbow reached into her macramé bag, took out a photograph and laid it on top of the brochure. “The flower child in the tie-dye kaftan is my mother. I’m not sure I recognize the groovy dude sharing her psychedelic mushrooms, though he does look vaguely familiar.”

Mann stared long and hard at the photograph. Then he opened his desk drawer and took out his cheque book.

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14 Jun

Writing Like An Insider

Did you ever read a novel that’s set in a world you know well – a location, a workplace or vocation? For me that would most likely be a business-related story, something financial or entrepreneurial. Maybe a plot involving sport or wildlife. Probably set in Derbyshire or London.

Sometimes all the details are technically right, but somehow they don’t feel authentic. I get the impression that the author has done a diligent research job, but they’re regurgitating what they’ve found online, without any experience to match the information against. I once read a historical romance set in the Peak District, a place I know well. The parade of birds and animals up on the high moors – coveys of grouse and partridge, families of adorable otters – read like a BBC wildlife spectacular. Whilst it was true that all those creatures would be present somewhere in the peak, I’d put the chance of them coming out en masse to enchant the heroine as slim to zero.

Sometimes I’ll come across a howler – the literary equivalent of Kevin Costner’s classic in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves. Kevin/Robin lands at Dover, mounts his thoroughbred stallion, and announces that by nightfall he’ll be in Nottingham. That’s 220 miles as the crow flies. I saw the film in the cinema, many years ago, and to a man, the audience burst out laughing.

And sometimes every detail is so spot on that your inside knowledge enhances your experience of the story, and when it’s over you wonder what it was in the author’s background that enabled them to get it so perfectly right. There’s another historical romance set around Matlock Bath in the Peak District – Loretta Chase’s Miss Wonderful – and every detail, from the misty weather and lichen-covered rocks to the disused mine shafts, rings true. I love Loretta Chase’s books, but I have an extra-soft spot for that one because of its setting.

More recently, I had the same reaction to Rivers of London, Ben Aaronovitch’s supernatural police procedural. The hero, Constable Peter Grant of the Metropolitan Police, lives in Kentish Town. The murder that launches the story takes place in the Covent Garden Piazza, just outside the actors’ church. I’ve lived in Peter Grant’s patch of North London for nearly twenty years, and I’ve been hanging around the Royal Opera House for almost as long. Peter Grant lives in my manor, and everything about him, from his voice to his pithy observations of the daily habits and ingrained reactions of rank-and-file Londoners, makes me yelp with delighted recognition.

I’ve had this on my mind lately because I’ve been writing a new story in a different sub-genre, with a plot that involves subjects I know nothing about. Things including (but not limited to) hand-to-hand fighting, weapons, injuries and their treatment. I’ve done plenty of research online, but I’ve also racked my brains for friendly contacts with expertise in those areas. I’ve been lucky enough to find friends who will read my manuscript when it’s done.

I want to do more than eliminate howlers. I want to get the small details so spot on in terms of an insider’s experience that people in the know believe I am too.

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24 Oct

Smooth Writer v Storyteller

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been judging romance writing contest entries. It’s time-consuming and headache-inducing, but as a learning experience it’s invaluable.

I guesstimate that on average it takes me about three or four hours per entry from first read to submission of score-sheet. Multiply that by four or five manuscripts, and you’re talking about a major chunk of precious time. It’s relatively quick, and usually great fun, to read an entry and reach a first impression. Are the scenes well-written? Do I care about the characters? Would I read on? It’s much harder to pinpoint what it is about the writing that makes me feel that way, and harder still to find the right words to give that feedback to the author in an honest, courteous and professional manner. The upside is that digging so deep into my reactions to other writers’ stories is a great way to improve my own work.

Last week I was lucky enough to read two particularly good entries back-to-back, which resulted in a prolonged period of head-scratching followed by a lightbulb moment.

The first story was beautifully written and it slid smoothly into my brain. The world was fascinating, somewhere I’d never visited but could imagine perfectly thanks to the deftly drawn descriptions. I loved the characters, major and minor, and I totally bought in to their relationships to one another. The dialogue sounded exactly right for those people in that town. The pace was snappy, and all the usual building blocks for the genre were neatly put in place. I had a great time reading, and if the rest of the book had been under my nose, I’d have kept going. But it wasn’t, so I read the opening scenes of the second story instead.

Entry Two was engaging, though the prose wasn’t as polished as Entry One. I jolted a bit over the first page, and then I adjusted my reading to allow for the bumps because by then I was so engrossed in the story that it didn’t matter. The opening scene was dramatic, but the best thing about it was its impact on the heroine. She wasn’t in immediate danger, but in that moment it was abundantly clear that life as she’d known it was over. She had to act, quickly and decisively, and she did. I liked her immediately. I liked her style and her resourcefulness. She made an interesting (surprising but smart) choice. I knew it would push her to the limit and I wanted to see her make it work. And when the story switched to a new chapter, I liked the antagonist. His mission was natural, believable and powerful, and it put him on an unavoidable collision course with the heroine. They hadn’t met by the time the pages ended, but it was inevitable that their paths would cross, and that a spectacular power struggle would ensue. I was dying to know what happened next, and if the rest of the book had been available for sale, I’d have bought it on the spot.

It wasn’t until I read Entry Two that I understood how lukewarm my reaction to Entry One had been. Given the quality of the writing, I should have been desperate to read on, but I wasn’t strongly invested, and eventually I realised it was because in Entry One, the critical events affected the heroine indirectly. She was involved, and I felt sure that she would slowly be drawn in until she was at the centre of affairs, but in the pages I read, she wasn’t challenged. Interesting things were clearly going to happen to her and the people she loved, but at that early stage in proceedings she could have walked away, and so could I.

Like every other newbie writer, I’ve read a gazillion articles about the importance of hooking the reader from the first page, and of starting when the conflict starts, and getting the reader to empathise with the main character right away. I thought I’d taken those lessons on board, but I’m willing to bet that the excellent writer of Entry One thinks that she has, too.

Tomorrow I’m going to re-read the opening pages of my current story, and then I’m going to get my thinking cap on. I want my writing to be technically sound, and if I can make my prose as clean and sparkly as Entry One, I’ll be happy. But I’m not going to spend another moment on that until after I’ve done everything I can to concentrate my story glue to Entry Two’s industrial strength.

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11 Oct

Must Like People

A couple of months ago we had a discussion on my group blog, Eight Ladies Writing, about what we look for in a book.

Most of us offered a shopping list of preferences supplemented by a few comments. Mine was: “Intelligence, humour, snark, and community. I like the hero and heroine to have a goal or task, not just be in the same place at the same time and be hit by a wave of insta-lust. They don’t have to save the world, but they have to do/solve/find something. And I like a strong hero – confident and capable, doesn’t have to be loaded or drop-dead gorgeous. He doesn’t need to be charming, I love a dark, growly hero, but he has to appreciate and encourage a strong heroine, maybe stronger than him in some circumstances. I love great dialogue, and I adore subtext, especially when it demonstrates a deep understanding between the main characters (and the reader).”

All true, and I thought I’d captured my reading preferences perfectly until fellow Eight Ladies bloggess Michaeline Duskova came up with this gem: “One thing I really, really want in a book is the sense that the author likes human beings and can sympathize with their foibles. A sense of humour often plays into that, but mostly it’s the kindness.”

Micki is super-smart, and as soon as I read her comment, I knew she’d nailed it. A deep enjoyment of people is the fundamental quality that draws me to the work of all my favourite authors, fiction and non-fiction. Everything else flows from that.

So in honour of Micki’s insight and in no particular order, here’s a selection of authors I think have that magical quality in spades.

Terry Pratchett

The world is a poorer place without Sir Terry, but at least we have his books, especially the Discworld novels, all 41 of them. His characters inhabit a magical world borne by four elephants balanced on the back of a turtle, but his aristocrats, administrators, policemen, politicians, low-lifes, priests, dwarves, witches and werewolves are laugh-out-loud funny, flawed, lovingly drawn, and wholly human. I read in an interview once that Sir Terry’s assistant said that the author ‘listened like a vacuum cleaner’. I hope I remembered that right. It stuck in my mind, because it makes so much sense. Every word he wrote rings true.

Ilona Andrews

My current favourite author. I even devour her (their) blog. I love their books, because the characters are all strong, driven, active and honest. They’re a joy to read. I’m a huge fan of the best-selling Kate Daniels books, set in a magical, alternative Atlanta peopled with mercenaries, shifters, vampires, knights, magicians and monsters, and as that series draws to its natural conclusion I’m investing in Nevada and Rogan, the lead characters in the new Hidden Legacy series. Rogan’s a powerful mage from a ruling house, Nevada’s head of her family’s detective agency, compensating for her debts and obligations with bags of attitude and action. Though she’s currently punching above her weight, she’s full of potential and I’m guessing there’s a clue in the series name, Hidden Legacy. I can’t wait for White Hot, the second book. Having said all that, I think my favourite of all may be Dina, magical innkeeper and heroine of Clean Sweep, Sweep in Peace, and (yay!) a new book next year. The first two Innkeeper books were posted as free weekly instalments on the Ilona Andrews blog, before being professionally edited and self-published. I can’t imagine how much talent, discipline and sheer bottle it must take to write a book in public as a side-project while wrapping up one traditionally published best-selling series and launching another.

Loretta Chase

My favourite historical romance writer, no question. She couldn’t write a bad book if she tried, but Lord of Scoundrels is genius – a hilarious, sympathetic, portrait of a physically powerful, ferociously intelligent but temperamental and totally messed-up hero, and the beautiful, clever, unshockable, unstoppable heroine who decodes and redeems him. The book is funny and as unsentimental as its heroine, yet sympathetic and emotionally satisfying. Its sequel, The Last Hellion, is fabulous, too.

Eric Newby

Superb travel writer. I have all his books on my keeper shelf, but my absolute favourite is A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. The story is a hoot from the very beginning, where he describes in hilarious detail his decision to quit his job in the fashion business in favour of an expedition to a remote, inhospitable corner of Afghanistan and his wholly inadequate preparation for the extreme challenges ahead. It’s written in first person and his voice shines through. He’s smart, kind, funny, moving, quirky and unmistakably British.

Other authors on my ‘must like people’ keeper list: Douglas Adams, Jane Austen, Nigel Barley, EF Benson, Anne Bishop, Christopher Brookmyre, Georgette Heyer, Julie Anne Long, Redmond O’Hanlon and Peter Temple.

How about you?

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24 Aug

Bath Ramble

A few days ago we took a mini-break and went to stay with a friend in a small village near Bristol. I hadn’t planned to do any writing during our trip, but a visit to Bath provided an unexpected opportunity for some bonus story research.

Bath is a jewel of a city, all gorgeous Georgian architecture, sweeping crescents and elegant town-houses of honey-coloured local stone. It’s a mecca for readers and writers of Regency romance thanks to the lasting legacy of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer. It’s also the site of the one of the best-preserved Roman bathing complexes in the world, and home to a world-class Fashion museum. And it’s compact enough to be walkable, if you don’t mind a hill or two.

There’s a museum dedicated to Jane Austen, with a charming tea-room where Janeites can take refreshment and plan their schedule for the annual Austen Festival. This year’s event runs for ten days starting on 12th September, and includes informative workshops like Know Your Phaeton From Your Curricle as well as plays, movies, musicales, and a Regency Costumed Masked Ball in the Pump Room. Check out the whole programme here.

Heyer lives on in every street. She set several books in Bath, including The Foundling, Black Sheep, and Bath Tangle. I’m not a fan of Bath Tangle, but I like Black Sheep, with its witty portrayal of the stifling, gossip-ridden social round of the Pump Room, the Assembly Rooms, Visiting Libraries, milliners, dressmakers and musical evenings. I’m lukewarm about The Foundling, but when I walk up Milsom Street I’m instantly reminded of beautiful-but-stupid Belinda’s obsession with a tacky, unsuitable purple gown she’d seen in a fashionable modiste’s window there.

Fortunately for my husband and our host, I’d hit most of the Austen/Heyer highlights in an intensive two-day visit last year with my friend, Regency romance author and fellow 8 Ladies Writing Bloggess Justine Covington. We stayed in Apsley House, a Georgian country house built in 1830 for the Duke of Wellington, haunted the Austen Museum, attended two fascinating workshops about Regency etiquette, visited the Pump Room and the beautifully restored house at No. 1, Royal Crescent, and walked the streets till our feet gave out.

I write contemporary romance, but my current story includes lashings of vintage fashion, so after a leisurely and fascinating visit to the Roman Baths, my companions kindly agreed to indulge me in a visit to the Fashion Museum.

The Museum is tucked away on a quiet residential street, in the grand Assembly Rooms. I knew they had an archive of the work of Charles Frederick Worth, the 19th-century Paris-based English designer commonly considered the father of fashion, but I had no idea of the breadth of the collection, with superb exhibits dating from the 17th century to present day.

The Worth gown was stunning, and I slaked my research lust with a book-buying binge at the well-stocked shop, but I found so much more than I’d expected.

I had no idea 1760’s court dresses were so wide. They’re beautiful but cartoonish. I’d read about dresses with panniers, but I hadn’t understood that it involved basically wearing a basket around the hips under the dress to support the fabric. Imagine holding your arms wide, and your skirts being wider still. If I didn’t know aristocratic English or French ladies had actually worn these creations, I’d never have believed it.

There’s also a beautiful miniature doll’s court dress from around the same period, perfect in every tiny detail, made of silk with a boned bodice, a petticoat and a train. Apparently in the era before fashion journals, this was the method mantua makers used to show their designs to prospective purchasers.

After panniers, women’s skirts were supported by cage crinolines, and then bustles, and then crinolettes (half-crinolines behind the body). I was stunned to discover that the light, flexible steel structure of a crinoline was an improvement on tight skirts and double petticoats, and my story brain really kicked in when I read that very little is known about the leading crinoline manufacturer of the day, Mr. W.S. Thomson, even though crinolines became such big business that at its peak, enough steel was produced in Sheffield to make half a million hoops in one week. You’d think there would be a wealth of information available about the man or his company, but apparently not; just many surviving example of Thomson’s work in museum collections and advertisements for his products in 19th-century newspapers.

Another thought-provoking exhibit was one of Queen Victoria’s mourning dresses. As a dyed-in-the-wool (ha!) historical romance reader, I knew about the tradition of wearing mourning clothes, but I had no idea that it became so prevalent that the textile firm Courtaulds basically built its business on black crape. Or that the town of Whitby, on the Yorkshire coast, was the principal source of jet, a fossilized variety of coal used to make black jewellery. Apparently the number of jet workers in Victorian Whitby went from seven in 1850 to 1,500 in 1870. When I read nuggets like that, I really wish I wrote historical fiction.

After a couple of hours with all those wonderful old dresses, I moved on to the invention, informality and variety of the 20th and 21st centuries. There are beautiful, elegant, brilliant and downright crazy pieces to enjoy and admire. I spent another happy hour there, and I found the inspiration for some great outfits for my hero and heroine.

But that’s a story for another day.

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16 Aug

Judging A Book By Its Cover

I’ve never paid much attention to book cover design, but a fascinating workshop at last month’s RWA National in New York made me realise there’s more to it than meets the eye.

I love bookshops, and I can’t think of a more congenial place to browse away an hour or two, but I don’t spend much money in them any more because I’m not their customer. I read lots of full-length, single title romance and I want one central, uplifting love story with smart characters, great dialogue, lashings of humour, and a strong community. Ideally it will be part of a series so that I can enjoy the author’s world-building over several books. Supposedly there’s not much of a market for these books in the UK, so the chances of me finding a rich selection of them in central London has been approaching zero since Borders on Tottenham Court Road closed its doors (back in the day I’d drop in there on my way home from work and buy half a dozen titles at a time). If there was a romance-loving bookstore anywhere in the city, I’d shop there all the time as a matter of principle, but no such luck. Even the big Waterstones on Piccadilly, which is wonderful in many ways, has a small and not-that-great romance section tucked away upstairs at the back like a guilty secret. It isn’t even listed in the store directory, unlike other popular genres such as crime or fantasy.

So I mostly buy e-books online, which has the double benefit of offering a wide choice and instant delivery. Hard to fight that. Even so, I don’t really browse on Amazon, and I certainly don’t let the 800-lb gorilla suggest what I should read next. I subscribe to BookBub and Smartbitchestrashybooks, and I might pick up an idea or two there, but I don’t rely on their recommendations either. I have so many bookish friends whose taste I trust, that I always have a TBR list with more titles on than I can possibly manage in the time available. If I want something new or different, I check the comments on my group blog Eight Ladies Writing, or use my weekly post there to ask for suggestions (I’m still working through these great recommendations for historical romance). And now there’s NPR’s list of the 100 best romantic reads of all time. It looks like a great selection, and quite a few of the choices are series, making it many more than a hundred titles. That’s going to provide me with a solid fall-back option for quite some time.

That was a long-winded way of saying that I don’t buy a book by its cover. Most of the times I don’t even see it. I have an old model kindle that reduces the book’s cover to a black-and-white thumbnail, and since by the time I get to that thumbnail I’m already committed, I don’t pay it any attention.

Apparently I’m the exception.

I went to a great workshop at RWA National in New York, with book cover design experts Kim Killion of The Killion Group, Shoshanna Evers of SelfPubBookCovers, and author Debra Holland. It was an eye-opener, and since that workshop I’ve been looking much more closely at covers.

In a nutshell, the workshop’s message was that a book cover gives signals to the reader about the genre of the book and the heat level. At a minimum it needs to get both of those messages right and also be sufficiently distinctive that a reader can identify a particular author’s books from a distance. And all these signals should be effective when the book’s cover is reduced to the size of thumbnail.

I was fascinated to learn that the single most important thing about a cover is the typography.  I’d internalized that historicals tend to have swirly fonts and rich colours, suspense often has a blocky, newspaper-headline-ish feel and neon colours, futuristic stories could be digital-esque looking, but I had no idea there were so many choices.

Other useful nuggets: a man’s bare chest on the cover of a book indicates (at a minimum) consummated sex, and putting secondary characters on the cover is almost always a horrible and misleading mistake.

Right now I’m not at the stage of having to worry about whether to put man-chest on the cover of my book (let alone whether that should be waxed man-chest ;-) ). I’m still trying to find the right home for my Scottish contemporary romance series, and if I’m lucky enough to find a traditional publisher, then the packaging decisions will be in the hands of people who spend their working lives fine-tuning typography.

In the meantime, when I get my daily emails from Amazon, and BookBub, and Smartbitches, and especially when I award myself a therapeutic stroll around Daunt’s, or Hatchard’s, or Waterstone’s, I’m going to take a moment, pay attention, and see what I can learn about the fine art of good cover design.

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