Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Season, Explained

A reader recently asked me: "I read a Regency romance novel, and I saw 'the Season' mentioned several times. Is that something I'm supposed to know? Is that a real thing? What is it?"

Dearest reader, these are good questions, and I'm happy to answer them. For those new to Regency romance novels, you will stumble across this term, and knowing what it means will give you some clarity as you delve into the genre.

"The Season" was absolutely a real thing, not the invention of fanciful romance authors. It was the name given to the London social whirl which accompanied the spring session of Parliament. It started with the opening of the session--usually sometime in March--and ended in June.

Titled members of the aristocracy all held seats in the House of Lords. And so, every year, they commenced on a migration from far-flung corners of the nation like the slowest moving flock of geese you ever saw. They converged in London, the center of the known universe, as far as these people were concerned.

Once there, the men took up the important task of governing the nation and drinking in their clubs, while the ladies saw to the equally important tasks of shopping, catching up with friends, gossiping about social rivals, and hostessing parties.

For the next twenty minutes, I shall be scoring you on poise, conversation, physical attractiveness,
demeanor, biddableness, likelihood of conceiving, and whether you know the steps to this dance,
so as to judge your suitability for the esteemed station of my wife. Don't forget to have fun!

Besides passing laws, the real business of the Season was to arrange marriages. Since most everyone of the upper class lived on family estates in the country, the Season was the best opportunity a gentleman had to meet a wide variety of eligible misses.

Young noblewomen of marrying age were introduced to society at the beginning of the Season. A young lady new to Town first made her bow to the Queen, which entailed donning full court dress (complete with feathers in the hair, I kid you not) to make oneself presentable for Her Majesty. Upon being admitted to the Royal Presence, each girl curtsied to Queen Charlotte, who would acknowledge the introduction, thus giving her stamp of approval.

Debutantes were the fresh meat on the Marriage Mart, and their anxious mamas and chaperones did their best to throw them in the path of men deemed good catches. It was positively tragic to fail to catch a husband within a few Seasons. By the age of 25 or so, an unmarried woman was considered on the shelf, while a 30 year old unmarried woman was a confirmed spinster.

"Girl, you look so good!" "Ohmigod, so do you!" "Did you see
the ridiculous parasol Jane is carrying? It totally clashes
with her reticule! What was she thinking?" "I knoooow!"
Ladies and gentlemen were given ample opportunity to meet and socialize at balls, the theater, the opera, soirees, dinners, picnics, teas, musicales, and the five o'clock fashionable hour at Hyde Park, which was the place to see and be seen. London was replete with amusements for the privileged, and they took full advantage of the offerings to play long and hard for several frenetic months.

By early summer, Parliament wrapped up its business and the Season wound down. London was inhospitable in the summer months, as the stew of heat and unhygienic conditions led to frequent outbreaks of cholera and other dread diseases within the city. Naturally, the wealthy fled to the clean air of the countryside, leaving London to the unwashed masses.

The long months of rusticating in the country were broken up with occasional house parties and hunting trips, but these diversions were nothing compared the glorious thrill of the London Season.

I hope you can see how this mad rush of socializing and courting makes the perfect backdrop for Regency romance, which is why you'll so often find these novels set in London in the spring.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Mick Jagger is a Lying Liar Who Lies

 My current earworm is the Stones' "Time is on my Side." Musical introduction!

As a too-long-to-be-parenthetical aside, I have to say that "earworm" gives me the heebie jeebies. The term does a marvelous job of evoking an absolutely horrifying image. It puts me in mind of the Babel fish, but 10,000% less useful. When I was a whippersnapper, we called it having a song stuck in your head, but I guess that's too many syllables these days.

Back to your regularly scheduled Mick defamation...

I've had this song stuck in my head for over a week now. The only line I know is "Tiiiiiiiiiiiiiime is on my side, yes it is," so that's been looping in my brain ad infinitum. It's pretty annoying, but it's given me an opportunity to reflect on the sentiment. Somewhere in the recesses of my brain, I'm aware that the song actually goes on to talk about a faithless lover coming back to the narrator, or something.

OK, so time might be on your side if you
have one of these. But you don't, do you?
I didn't think so.
But I'm not here to talk about faithless lovers. I'm here to talk about time. And how it is not, in fact, on my side. In high school, my junior year British lit teacher impressed the idea of carpe diem on us, and it's always stuck with me. I've done a lousy job of putting it into practice, even though I'm fully on board with the notion. Today, the Masters Boyce watched a Doctor Who episode in which the character Martha Jones relates this advice from her mother: "Never do tomorrow what you can do today." Her clone (I swear it makes sense in context) helpfully pitches in, "'Cause you never know how long you've got." -- i.e. Carpe the freaking Diem.

Lately, I've had a few experiences which have really driven this point home. We don't know how long we've got. And that doesn't even mean that gravity might reverse itself while I'm having my morning coffee and we all go sailing off into the void of space to meet our untimely ends at the hands of a merciless, airless, freezing / burning (depending on whether or not you're in the path of a wayward sun ray) vacuum.

Anything in the could happen. Debilitating diseases rob people of their ability to use their bodies. Financial catastrophe robs people of their dreams of seeing the world. Children grow up before you get to have them photographed in the smocked jumper Aunt Tilda so thoughtfully made you. Wheat crop collapse could rob you of your burning desire to make the world's largest strudel. You just never know what's around the corner. I could lose my hands in a tragic tooth brushing incident and never type again (Shut up, it could happen.).

You could fall asleep at an awkward angle and horrifying nocturnal gremlins could come during the night to sit on you and / or gape from the corner. YOU DON'T KNOW.

All we have for certain is right here, right now. This moment. What are you doing with it? Are you pursuing a dream--even if it's just getting your ducks in a row so you can actively go for it?--or are you coasting along in a rut, pushing all the things you want to accomplish to the back burner? We never know how long we've got. Even if I never accomplish some of the big things I want to do, I want to be able to say that I tried. That I gave it my best. That I was working on it. I don't want to come to the end of my time--however much that may be--and know that I squandered what I had.

Monday, January 9, 2012


There's a post title for Google to have fun with.

In any event, I planned to blog this morning, but I didn't really have a topic in mind. Usually, I sit down with a fair idea of what I'm going to write about, but not this morning.

I sat here sipping my coffee, willing the old neurons to start firing, but feeling that I just really didn't have anything to say. Just then, a wisp of a memory from childhood came floating to the surface. Something about not having anything to say. And then it hit me:


[Truth in advertising: I did not spell that on my own. Copy / Paste to the rescue.]

This is the word made famous by Mary Poppins, of course. To my deep shame, I have never read the novels, and so I must defer to the marvelous 1964 film as my sole source of canonical Poppins. In the film, young Jane Banks, speaking to her father, defines supercalifragilisticexpialidocious thusly: "It's something to say when you don't know what to say."

Musical interlude!

As Mary and Bert explain to us in song, you don't always have to know exactly what to say. Simply breaking the ice is often enough to get the words flowing, and next thing you know, you find yourself complimented with Edwardian kudos like, "There goes a clever gent!"

Relating this to writing, getting started is often the hardest part for me. Not just the beginning of a novel, but every writing session, every single day. I sit to write and spend several minutes just staring at the screen, with all the words trapped behind a dam of uncertainty. The best remedy for this is just to write. Anything. Even if it has nothing to do with my story. If I get the words going, my brain tends to wake up and move in the direction I want.

I've found the concept of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious works in a variety of situations besides conversation and writing: cleaning the house, planning a trip, getting on track with diet and exercise... Often, a task we wish to undertake feels overwhelming. We can't see how we'll ever get over the hill to the desired result on the other side. Just starting--somehow, anyhow--is often enough to help us overcome our fears and achieve our goals.

Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Give it a try.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

New Year, New Ramble

Happy New Year, y'all! (I'm Southern. Deal.)  How were your holidays? Mine were super--thanks for asking!

If you listen well, I'll give you a butterscotch.
A Werther's, if you're really good.
Every year about this time, lots of people hit the ground running with their resolutions. I'm not much of a resolutionary, myself. Still, this time of year always brings to mind the one time I made a resolution and stuck with it. This is the story of how I became a novelist. Gather 'round the fire, children, and listen to my tale...

Books have amazed me from my earliest memories. They introduced me to fascinating people. Characters became my friends, or role models I looked up to, or villains I reviled. I went to new, marvelous places--Narnia, Middle Earth, Prince Edward Island, secret gardens, beyond the tollbooth, Wonderland. I traveled through time to see life as it was once lived, or how it may be lived someday. When I wasn't reading books, I played out their stories with my toys, or in my backyard with my sister and friends roped into carrying out my adaptations. Books captured me like nothing else.

l-r: Beverly Cleary, Louisa May Alcott, Roald Dahl
And the people who wrote them? Wizards. Gods. Idols. Untouchables. To be able to do this thing that words on a page could do... it was wonderful and totally mystifying. I had no idea how a person went about creating a novel, how to become a name on the cover of a book. I longed to join my authorial heroes on the shelf, but it seemed so out of reach, something that happened to other people, important people--not little Elizabeth from a small Southern town.

Through the years, I wrote lots of short stories, poems, and narrative essays, but the novel eluded me. It was too big. Too hard. I didn't know how to approach it.

Finally, in 2004, I made a New Year's resolution: This would be the year in which I wrote a novel. I still didn't know how, but I was determined to figure it out. I went to the repository of all knowledge, Barnes and Noble, seeking enlightenment and came away with this book, which promised to teach me how to write AND sell my first novel. Perfect! I figured this writing career thing was pretty much in the bag, since I am great at following instructions.

I hatched a far too autobiographical idea and built my first novel outline, then plunged into my first first draft. I dutifully kept track of how many pages I wrote each day. Mr. Boyce was so supportive. He took our young boys out of the house to give me quiet time to write.

After not too many months (Four? Five? I can't quite recall now.), I had a completed manuscript in hand and was ready to move on to the selling portion of my guidebook's program. I drafted a query letter and proceeded to carpet bomb the New York literary world with it. When my first rejection letter came, I was ecstatic. I'd been blooded. I was legitimate. Each rejection just brought me one step closer to acceptance, I reminded myself.

Then another rejection letter came. And another. And another. And fifty more after that. As it happened, no one wanted a coming of age novel about a plucky young woman in a small Southern town--at least, not one riddled with a contrived plot and rookie writing errors. Every rejection I received was well deserved. My manuscript was nowhere near close to publication-worthy. I know that now. Looking back, I cringe at the thought of that thing ever seeing the light of day.

Still, I'd gotten a taste of the process. I'd finished a novel manuscript and gone through the motions of submitting. I had a better idea of what this whole novel thing was about, and I was hooked.

I just have to keep spinning my... You know
what? Never mind. That's painfully lame,
even for me.
My first attempt wasn't published (Thank goodness!), but I wouldn't call it a failure, either. I learned so much from that first, terrible novel. It gave me the courage to explore and learn more about the craft of novel writing. It taught me to develop patience, to wait until my work is the very best it can be before submitting. I also learned to put a little distance between myself and my work. A rejection from an agent or editor isn't a judgment about me personally; it's a business decision.

I'm still plugging away, still taking baby steps toward finding a home for my novels. And I'll keep at it until I do find that home, and then I'll keep at it and build my career. There's nothing else I would rather do. In many ways, my resolution from 2004 holds strong, which is why I've stopped making new ones. It's the same resolution every year: This year, I will write and submit. That desire, that need, has never waned. It's the one resolution that stuck and changed my life.

How about you, readers? Tell me a story about how you became a whatever it is you became. Or tell me about your resolutions or why you never make them. It's a new year and it's cold outside. Sit by the fire and chat with us for a little while.