Thursday, March 31, 2011

Review: Maid to Match

 Maid to Match 
by Deeanne Gist 
Bethany House Publishers

From the back cover:
Falling in Love Could Cost Her Everything.

From the day she arrives at the Biltmore, Tillie Reese is dazzled--by the riches of the Vanderbilts and by Mack Danvers, a mountain man turned footman. When Tillie is enlisted to help tame Mack's rugged behavior by tutoring him in proper servant etiquette, the resulting sparks threaten Tillie's efforts to be chosen as Edith Vanderbilt's lady's maid. After all, the one rule of the house is no romance below stairs.

But the stakes rise even higher when Mack and Tillie become entangled in a cover-up at the town orphanage. They could both lose their jobs, their aspirations... and their hearts.

I read Gist's first book, A Bride Most Begrudging, years ago and enjoyed it, but this book's setting drew me in first and foremost. I'm a sucker for anything set in the Appalachians. If it's the Blue Ridge of North Carolina, all the better. Historical? Well, that's just about perfect. Add in the fact that a.) Gist's hero, Mack Danvers, is a tall, rugged, fiery-tempered mountain man, with a strong sense of justice and responsibility that compels him to defend those weaker than he, and b.) is possessed of a smoldering physical presence that Tillie couldn't possibly overlook, though Mack's the identical twin to a footman she already works with and isn't the least attracted to*--and it makes for a very compelling hero.

From the moment Tillie first sees Mack, engaged in a brawl with a townsman (who deserved far worse comeuppance than he ever got), there was only one face I could put on him. This one (who played a well known character also introduced to the viewer in the midst of... you guessed it...a fist-fight).

*I found the contrast between the brothers, and Tillie's response to them, an interesting angle to explore. Though they look enough alike that they're sometimes confused for each other, Mack and his brother, Earl, are very different men. This served to make Tillie's attraction to Mack come across as far deeper than the physical, since his brother Earl is every bit as handsome. The romance between these two made sparks fly off the pages, which you don't always find in CBA romances.

I've never visited the Biltmore Estate, near Ashville, NC, but Maid To Match has made me want to. An aspect of this story I greatly enjoyed (being a fan of the recent British drama Downton Abbey) is a look inside the lives of the large servant staff of an American mansion at the turn of the 20th century, and the differences between them and their British counterparts.

Some of the services Tillie had to perform for a certain rich visitor to the estate, as a trial run for a lady's maid position, were so revolting and the treatment she received so humiliating, at first I wondered why Tillie would still want to pursue this goal after such an experience, especially when she has another offer on the table that seems overwhelmingly appealing (to me!). Gist provided enough sound motivation for Tillie to believe this is the path she needs to pursue, no matter the cost, and to make me believe she could believe it, as well as showing just how good Tillie would be at the job; patient and hard-working and humble, in contrast to the experience of her rival for the ultimate lady's maid position, Lucy.

Another plot line I found engaging was that of the children in the orphanage in the town of Asheville. It was wonderfully and sometimes heartbreakingly utilized through the story to bring Mack and Tillie together... as well as keep them apart. Mack's character, in particular, is allowed to blossom through the use of this orphanage setting and the plight of the children therein.

As a writer I found myself rereading phrases throughout the book, wishing I'd written them. As a reader, this is the first book I've read in quite some time that I didn't want to put down. Yet it was more than a page-turner. Watching Tillie and Mack struggle to hear God's voice, to find the setting and role where their dreams could be realized, their gifts and talents used, and the yearnings of their hearts be fulfilled, was a pleasure. While the ending was predictable, the journey to their fulfillment was well worth it and I hated to see the story end, to say good-bye to Tillie and Mack. I would have gladly read on through their lives, since their company was a great joy. Which is, in my opinion, the final litmus test of a good book.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Celtic Odyssey in song

To my surprise (though why I'm surprised anymore I don't know) I found the tracks to one of my favorite Celtic music CDs on Youtube. 

Celtic Odyssey, a Narada collection, is one of the few CDs I own of which I can honestly say I adore every single track, and never skip a one no matter how many times I've listened to them. I do have a favorite, though. Listen through, it's the only song with no instrumental accompaniment. This was the music I found inspiring during the writing of Kindred, which has a lot to do with Scots, and Scottish immigrants in North Carolina.

Follow the links. Hope you enjoy them, and check out more of each artist's work.

1. Carolan's Ramble to Cashel, by Northern Lights
2. The Butterfly, by Orison
3. Donal Agus Morag/The New-Rigged Ship, by Altan
4. Calliope House/The Cowboy Jig, by Alasdair Fraser/Paul Machlis
5. Chuaigh Me 'Na Rosann, by Scartaglen
6. Trip to Skye, by John Whelan/Eileen Ivers
7. Are Ye Sleeping, Maggie? by Alasdair Fraser
8. Tribute to Peadar O'Donnell, by Moving Hearts
9. Siun Ni Dhuibhir, by Relativity
10. Alasdair Mhic Cholla Ghasda, by Capercaillie
11. Puirt a Beul, by Sileas
12. The York Reel/Dancing Feet, by Gerald Trimble
13. Morghan Meaghan, by Laurie Riley and Bob McNally
14. Strathgarry, by Simon Wynberg

Thursday, March 24, 2011

In Thanks for a Productive Day

Today was a productive writing day. What that means for me is over 2000 new words on the page that didn't exist when I got out of bed this morning to turn off the 5am alarm.

It also means I stayed focused.

It means I sat here in this increasingly padded chair and kept clicking the keys when about 98% of me was sure we'd rather be in the kitchen baking something, or riding an extra five miles on the e-bike while I watch one more episode of something not really worth my while.

It means I didn't go shopping, even though we could use another loaf of bread. And maybe some milk.

It means I didn't answer the phone. But then, I almost never do.

It means I didn't read all the blogs I wanted to read.

It means I have much to be thankful for, the work of today... that I'll probably tear apart and rewrite tomorrow before I push on with the next scene. But what a blessing to have words on the page to play with come tomorrow morning.

The day started with:
Heaving in breath, heart going at a gallop, Jesse sprawled on the bank beside Tamsen Littlejohn while she coughed up what seemed half the mountain’s runoff.

And ended with: 
“But it'll be a great help to me,” he added with a crooked lift of his mouth, “if you don’t try crossing another rain-swelled creek—or take on any more bears—at least while I’m not around.” 

What makes for a productive day for you? What makes you breathe a prayer of thankfulness for the work of the day?

~photo of rain-swollen creek by Scott Basford
used under Creative Commons License
Wiki Commons

Monday, March 21, 2011


Thanks to everyone who paid an extra visit to this blog yesterday, to help skooch me up over the 10,000 hit mark. Very silly of me and very kind of you!

I appreciate everyone who visits, reads, and comments here. It's been a interesting few years, keeping up a blog about writing and historical research, and historical fiction, while I've yet to be contracted for any of my own novels. This has been and continues to be a slow-paced journey, with no way to predict the end, but I hope some of the things I've shared about along the way have been encouraging to others whose writing journey has not proceeded at the brisk clip they'd hoped it would.

In the words of Winston Churchill, "Nevah, nevah, nevah, nevah give up." A gentlemen shared them with me yesterday at church, while you guys were working on my hit count (thank you again!), concerning this long writing journey I've been on, longer than the seventeen years he's known me, and I told him yes, I sit myself down and give myself that talk every few months.

The only way to assure you will never be published is to give up trying. The only way to assure that your writing, published or not, will never touch another human soul is give up writing.

Two things I'll do only when and if God impresses (very very strongly) on my soul that that's His will.

Friday, March 18, 2011

A framework for the beauty to come

Having reached the customary point in my first draft where I start fretting about rising word count (roughly seven chapters in), I needed this timely reminder from author Patti Hill, over at the excellent Novel Matters blog today.

It's a first draft, I'm reminded, and therefore it ain't gonna be perfect. In my case that means it's going to sprawl. It's going to burst at the seams with my indulgence toward setting. It's going to be filled with rabbit trails in dialogue and character internals and way too much stage business as I throw onto the screen everything I see these fascinating people doing and thinking; I'm still exploring who they are, tossing ideas around on the page to see what sticks, what they pick up and run with.

What they leave behind I'll come along in the next draft (or the one after that) and tidy up.

"... perfectionism," sayeth Patti, "will not get you through a first draft, the draft meant to be nothing more than a framework for the beauty to come later."

A framework for the beauty to come. I can get my head wrapped around that freeing notion.

~ misty mountain trail photo by Brian Stansbern, used under Creative Commons License, Wiki Commons, because I'm in a Blue Ridge state of mind

Monday, March 14, 2011

Pressing On

Pressing on despite not being able to see the path ahead can be hard. And a little scary. It's where I am right now in regards to writing. I've been in a working and waiting mode for so long I'm not sure I'll know how to "be" whenever God opens a door and one of my novels slips through.

No doubt I'll learn. Just as He is presently, constantly, showing me how to wait, and to trust in His good plans (and that there is, in fact, a path I'm following), I'm sure He will show me how to stride forward through any doors that eventually open.

As it happens, I'm working on a chapter in which two of my characters must embark on a dangerous mountain crossing in the dead of night. They have the stars and moon to guide them, the sure-footedness of the horse one of them rides, the keen eyes and wilderness skill of the one who leads the horse.

I have the light of the promises from God's word to guide me, and the One who leads me has the keenest eyes, the surest step. I can trust Him as my guide.

A few brief excerpts from a high mountain path, the scene-in-progress:

He caught her falling from the saddle twice more before the night wore to gray and the stars faded, and the trail ahead grew clear enough to pick out without all his senses focused on every stone and root and knife-edged drop. It was grown chill. A mist had crept up from the creek hollows below, nipping at their heels though they were yet above it. They were deep in the mountains now, and high, with rank upon rank of red oak and sugar maple, buckeye, black cherry, and ash crowding close, here and there darker pockets of spruce and pine and fragrant fir.

He’d chosen their route well. They hadn’t been seen once—by human eyes at least—but he was thinking that with dawn creeping westward it was time to leave it and take themselves off in an unexpected direction.

Just ahead the trail crested. If memory served it dipped into a saddle meadow where a creek flowed, and along that creek was another path, overgrown but passable. He’d make for that, hold to the creek, find the girl a place to lay her head for a bit.

He glanced back at her, perched on the horse.

The hood of her cloak had slipped back. Her head bobbed on her neck, lolling toward her chest. He reckoned they could be tracked by the hairpins she’d been losing all night, if anyone knew to look for such things. Her hair was in snarls, curling up around her face with the dampness of the morning, and the little lace cap hung askew over one ear. In the growing gray of dawn the shadows beneath her eyes looked dark as bruises, her face strained by fatigue and the horrors she’d endured.

She was still so beautiful Jesse had to remind himself to breathe.....

“Morning,” he said, and gave her a weary smile.

“Uhn,” she said. She rubbed her eyes, but didn’t take her hands away, as if the sight of him and the horse and the world were too much misery to bear. He wanted to give her something to hold against the memories that were surely pressing in on her. All he had to give right then lay behind them.

He nodded toward their back trail. "Look."

Wordless, patently uncaring, she looked, and he thought he heard her breath catch.

They weren’t high enough yet and too hemmed by trees for the grandest views, but through a gap could be seen the distant face of a sheer rock cliff, banded in drifting mist. Forest lapped like a thick green wave rising from the mist to crash against the wall of stone. Above it in the clear-washed air an eagle circled, its white head catching the gold of sunrise, though the forest canopy held them still in half-light.....

The horse beside him shifted. He looked up to find she’d put her back to the view and was gazing up the path, face frozen, eyes wary as a startled deer’s.

The same alarm jolted down Jesse’s spine when he followed her gaze. At the crest of the trail a man clad in buckskins stood at the head of a halted string of pack mules, regarding them.

Copyright 2011 by Lori Benton. All Rights Reserved. 
Blue Ridge Mountains photo by Jurgen Nagel, used under creative commons license, Wikipedia Commons

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Music for an 18th century state of mind

I had a fun discussion with some girlfriends earlier this week about movie soundtracks, and our favorite movies. No surprise that mine are almost all historicals, complete with sweeping soundtracks, lots of fiddle music, often with a Celtic strain. It's the music that transports me to the 18th century mountain frontier, and what I listen to in the car when I'm scene-weaving and dreaming up plot turns, or listening to my characters' urgent voices.

Topping my list of favorites are the soundtracks from:

Dances With Wolves, music by John Barry
Last of the Mohicans, music by Trevor Jones with the haunting ballad I Will Find You, by Clannad 
Braveheart, music by James Horner
The Two Towers, music by Howard Shore (especially the Rohan theme, with its gorgeous Norwegian Hardanger fiddle weaving a haunting strain throughout... yes, I rather like haunting music. I flirted briefly with the idea of learning to play a Hardanger fiddle after first seeing the film. Very briefly.).

A movie I recently watched for the first time, The Journey of August King (Jason Patric and Thandie Newton), based on the book of that title by John Ehle, was set and filmed in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina (home of my heart). It has a gorgeous soundtrack by Stephen Endelman that I don't own, but would like to if only it was available. I've yet to find it, but since I own the movie I can at least hear it from time to time.

Other music that puts me in the right mindset for writing my 18th century stories is a haunting (again with the haunting!) and inspiring book/CD package called No Man Can Hinder Me, The Journey from Slavery to Emancipation through Song, by Velma Maia Thomas. There are songs on this album that I cannot listen to without weeping, even after years of hearing them. They are powerful, evocative and raw. Some of these songs have inspired scenes I've written, especially in my novel Kindred.

And Music of the American Colonies, by Anne and Ridley Enslow. Many of these songs were completely new to me, some of them political, some of them humorous, some highly educational. One of them, Anna, is played on Benjamin Franklin's invention, the glass armonica. And yes, it is a haunting sound. And very beautiful.

There are so many Colonial and Early American inspired collections out there. I'd like to sample a few, but would love to know your favorites first. Or are there other movie soundtracks that transport you to the 18th (early 19th century is fine too!) century? Please share them in the comment section.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Deerskins to Shillings: What stuff cost in the 18th century

Instead of having to track down various websites or book resources that give lists of what this or that item was worth in the late 18th century when I find myself needing to insert such historical tidbits into a scene, I'm proposing to start my own list here on the blog.

This Fair Trade post will be for me and anyone else in need of knowing, say, what a prime beaver skin was worth on the North Carolina frontier in 1785 (six shillings). I plan to update it periodically (and give a shout out when I do), with my sources cited.

Feel free to copy and use this information as you may need. New information, links, or sources will be added at the top of the list, so you won't have to wade through older stuff to find it. If you know of a website where such lists exist, please post a link in the comments section and I'll add it to my compilation.

* * *
Fair Trade List  
what stuff cost in the 18th century

1785. If you had to pay land taxes on the North Carolina frontier in 1785, and had no hard money (specie or coin), or paper currency circulated by the state, you could lawfully pay your tax by the following means:

clean beaver skin = 6 shillings
cased otter skins = 6 shillings
uncased otter skins = 5 shillings
raccoon and fox skins = 1 shilling, 3 pence
woollen cloth = 10 shillings per yard
bacon, well cured = 6 pence per pound
clean tallow = 6 pence per pound
clean beeswax = 1 shilling per pound
distilled rye whiskey = 2 shillings and 6 pence per gallon
peach or apple brandy = 3 shillings per gallon
country made sugar = 1 shilling per pound
deer skins = 6 shillings

~ from History of the Lost State of Franklin, by Samuel C. Williams. 

1700s (mid century) The First Foot Guard's 18th century cost of living website lists many everyday items and their value during the mid 1700s, London.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Dressing in the 18th Century

I've had a crash course on stays this week, between my friend Carla Gade's posts on Dressing a Colonial Lady, and the blog and emails of the Colonial Lady herself, Mary Spencer. If you'd like to tell between stays and corsets, check out Mary's informative and interesting site (she's a Colonial reenactor), and don't miss Carla's blog series from this week:

Dressing a Colonial Lady, Day One
Dressing a Colonial Lady, Day Two
Dressing a Colonial Lady, Day Three

In case you'd still like more on the subject, I went on a "getting dressed in Colonial times" hunt for videos on Youtube. Here's what I turned up:

A video showing an 18th century farm couple, from Claude Moore Colonial Farm, dressing in their workaday clothes.

Dressing with pocket hoops and petticoats

Mid-18th Century upperclass fashion

Another video, using drawings, showing the steps of dressing an upper class Colonial Lady

Clothing Layers for the 1780s and 1790s

For a slightly later period, a video of a woman donning an 1805 Regency drop front style dress, over 1790s stays and petticoat.  Looks like having a maid, or a double mirror, would be very helpful.

These are good resources for a writer of 18th century fiction who lives on the West Coast, and can't visit the sites and the folks who have a shared passion for (and far more knowledge of) 18th Century Colonial and Federal clothing.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

When the stakes are life and death

I seem to need pretty high stakes to make a lifestyle changing resolution and stick to it.

Take exercise for instance. I want to feel good and look my best, but that wasn't enough to get me exercising regularly in my twenties. Then I had cancer at 30, which was cured, but the treatment put me at high risk for other types of cancers. Being well warned that 15 to 20 years out someone like me typically encounters cancer again, I decided I wanted to be as strong as possible physically if/when that day comes. So I've exercised almost daily for the past twelve years. It's become a way of life. Short term benefits are that in my 40s I'm in the best shape I've ever been in, and finally I can keep up with my husband on our mountain climbing forays. I couldn't do that in my twenties.

All that's to say, I think it would be far better if it didn't take life and death stakes for me to "get up off the page" of my life and go out to meet those goals. But I'm like my characters that way. They too require high doses of motivation, where the stakes are life and death, to get up off the pages of a novel and live.

So Make It Worse

In his outstanding book The Fire in Fiction (one of my favorite writing craft books. Read it!), agent Donald Maass writes "In many manuscripts the protagonist's motivation is shallow. We do not believe that protagonist is driven to action, and often the action to which the protagonist is driven is less than it could be. Pump up the motivation. Pump up the response. You may feel afraid of going too far. In fact, in most manuscripts the protagonist does not do enough."

From all I've read of Maass' advice to writers over the years, the main take away I've gleaned is always to make it worse. Make the story stakes higher whenever possible. Make the antagonist stronger*. Take away all the protagonist's props. Make it life and death, which doesn't necessarily mean the protagonist's physical life is in jeopardy if she doesn't reach her story goals. Maybe it's her reputation that will die. Maybe it's her dream. Her hope. Her relationship. Her career. Her eternal soul. Whatever it is, it needs to be of utmost importance to the protagonist, or it won't come across as compelling to the reader.

*Don't forget that antagonist. He has to have a believable motivation for thwarting the protagonist. It won't work in most stories to make a villain oppose your protagonist simply because they are "bad." Delve into that character's past and find the motivation that will make them seem the protagonist in their own eyes at least. Make them convinced that setting themselves against your protagonist is the right thing to do. Or if not the right thing (how about an antagonist who's going against his own conscience?), then the life or death course he must follow or experience a loss, a death, of something he holds dear.

Motivation is a crucial component of a successful novel, for main characters, but also for secondary characters whose actions help drive the plot. Dig deep and take the time you have to in order to explore your characters' histories. I've been known to write journal entries from various characters, even minor ones who have a role to play but aren't viewpoint characters, in which they spill their guts about what they want, and why they see themselves as in the right, or the victim, or compelled to take some action that's going to nudge (or shove) the story plot and my protagonist in a certain direction.

And perhaps don't be too quick to snatch at the first motivation that comes to mind. My talented writing acquaintance Beth Shope* knows the wisdom of making many passes over a scene, or an idea for a plot turn, before moving on to be sure she's delving deep into her creative well where the richer and most refreshing story layers lie:
It's a slow process, though. There are days when I envy those writers who can charge ahead. But if I do that, what ends up on the page is whatever happened to be floating on the surface of my mind--stale stuff, boring ideas, flat word choices. Pond scum. I have to spend time with it, diving deep to fresher waters (i.e., shaping and revising) to discover more original material.

If I moved on without doing that, not only would I miss the story, I'd have an entire novel's worth of pond scum to revise. And I'm not willing to do that. It's kind of like building a structure right the first time vs doing a slap-dash thing that will later have to be completely taken apart to fix it.

Every writer's process is different, but like Beth I find that if I forge ahead too quickly, either through the plotting stage when I'm working out each character's motivation for the actions they take in the novel, or in the scene-by-scene stage, then I'm bound to miss that unexpected phrase or nuance of emotion that crops up in the tenth or twelfth pass over a section that changes something as significant as the tone of the entire story, or perhaps shows me a deeper level of motivation I might never have seen had I rushed ahead.

I'm back to add a link to an excellent post on the subject of upping a protagonist's stakes in a novel, by Donald Maass, over at Writer Unboxed.  What Are You Afraid Of?

*Beth Shope's story Dragon's Eye is published in the Lords of Swords fantasy anthology among "the works of recognized masters Tanith Lee and "cult" favorites John C. Hocking and D. K. Latta, alongside rising stars E. E. Knight and Howard Andrew Jones."