Do you ever rediscover books you haven’t read for years and take new inspiration from them?
For me, this week, it was the first two books of Iris Johansen’s Wind Dancer trilogy. These are books I adored in my teens. In proper, sweeping epic 80s fashion, the first book takes place in the fractured Italy of 1503, in the waning years of the Borgia papacy; the second during the bloodiest phase of the French Revolution. There are some… interesting… sexual politics involved (we’re talking Old Skool romance here), but what really impressed me about these books after all this time was their daring. These are no drawing room novels. They encompass battlefields, sea journeys, sieges, warring city states, corrupt tribunals, upheavals on a grand scale.
What I love even more? How they interweave with history along the way. “The Wind Dancer” involves a fictional statue in a fictional city state, but Cesare Borgia, who plays a more than cameo role, is real enough, as is the disarray of the beleaguered and fragmented Italian city states– not to mention tongue in cheek references to meeting a Messer Machiavelli. Likewise, the fictional cast of “Storm Winds” is firmly anchored in the real people and events of a revolution rapidly deteriorating into the Terror, with all its factionalism, crosses and double crosses.
These books reminded me of the joy of using fiction as a window onto history, not just one period of history, but a grand sweep of dramatic events. There’s something to be said for books that tackle tumultuous events that fearlessly….
The paper ribbons are festooning. The heavy red drapes hang with languor, while brass chandeliers dance next to Tintorettos. The entire ballroom is packed with people in costumes and masks, creating a delicious air of mystery. I grin to myself, underneath my mask. I’ve done it. And I actually got away with it.
“Miss Noble!” I hear the familiar outrage with my usual guilt.
I turn – Lady B bustles her way through the crowd, tearing off people’s masks, looking for the culprit of today’s injury.
I decide to cut to the chase, and un-mask myself, saving untold characters ruthless unmasking. Most of them only speak Italian anyway, and are already pretty alarmed to find themselves in a ballroom in London.
“Lady B!” I cry, painting a smile on my face. “What do you think? Isn’t it glorious?”
It’s all a little Kubrick
“Miss Noble – you have transposed my beautiful, elegant ballroom into a… a…”
“A beautiful, mysterious ballroom?”
“A DEN OF INIQUITY!”
“It’s not a den of iniquity!” I protest. “I know, it looks a little Eyes Wide Shut, but these Venetian Carnival masks long pre-date Kubrick.”
Lady B blinks at me, and tactfully glazes over my non-period appropriate references.
“It’s just all so… so…”
We both turn, and I can’t help a relieved sigh. “Oliver. Thank goodness you’re here.”
Oliver Merrick, his laughing light eyes a contrast to his silky dark hair and tan (well, of course he’s tan, he’s been in Venice for five years). I have never been so happy to see one of my fictional characters in my life. If anyone can smooth Lady B’s ruffled feathers (the plume sticking out of her turban today looks suspiciously like one of Albert’s feathers. And I suddenly realize just how long it’s been since I’ve seen Albert), it’s Oliver.
“My Lady,” he says with polished grace, bowing over Lady B’s hand. “And my author,” he winks at me before bowing over mine. “How can I be of service?”
“Erm, Lady B is a bit thrown by the décor for tonight’s ball… the one celebrating the release of Let It Be Me?”
Oliver nods, understanding my predicament. He moves gallantly to Lady B’s side, and offers her his arm.
“As well she should be.” Oliver chides. “The hostess of the ball not having any say over the decorations?”
“Oh, Mr. Merrick,” Lady B trills. “I’m so glad someone understands.”
This is Bridget. She wasn’t thrown under the gondola.
My brow comes down. I didn’t think Oliver would smooth ruffled feathers by throwing me under the bus. Or the gondola, as it were.
“Of course. An Italian masked ball must be terribly surprising to someone of your faint sensibilities.”
“Faint? Faint?” Lady B stands up straight. “I assure you I never faint. I am made of much sturdier stuff. Good British stock.”
“Then how could a few masks and a bit of drapery ever offend you?”
“They don’t!” Lady B contends. I smile to myself. Trust Oliver to figure out Lady B’s weak spot and know how to use it. As the owner of a theatre, Oliver is adept at handling problems. And egos.
“I assure you they do not,” Lady B demurred, not wanting to be thought of as stuffy or fainting. “Drapery would have to work very hard to offend me.”
“I should think so!” Oliver chuckled. “Would you like to meet someone who will not have to work hard at all to offend you?”
“Absolutely,” Lady B smiles, and leans even more heavily on Oliver. I should have seen this coming, of course. Oliver does have some very nice legs.
He takes Lady B to the railing of the balcony, offering her a view of the dance floor below.
“Oh my – who is that?” Lady B points to a figure holding court at the center of the room. Even with his mask and harlequin costume, I knew exactly who it was.
“That is my friend Vincenzo Carpenini,” Oliver whispered in Lady B’s ear. “The composer. He excels at making trouble.”
“And one assumes he also makes music.” Lady B returned. “And who is that – the young lady in the green dress playing the piano? She’s quite good.”
“Yes, she is.” I can hear the hitch in Oliver’s voice. The way he leaned forward ever so slightly, to listen to the notes from the pianoforte, spoke volumes.
“That is Bridget Forrester,” Oliver breathes. “Carpenini’s pupil. And she…. she is music.”
Lady B sends me a smirk. Yeah, she clocked his interest too.
“But tell me, Mr. Merrick,” Lady B says. “If this is an Italian ball – why is Miss Forrester playing Beethoven?”
Oliver gives me a quick glance. “Well, for that answer, it might be simpler to just read the book.”
I’m so excited that come Tuesday, Let It Be Me will be here! (Obviously, since I threw a Venetian Carnival masquerade in its honor.) Tell me – what’s your costume to the ball? (by the way I’ve decided to be a 18th century shepherdess. I borrowed it from Lady B.) I’m giving away a copy of Let It Be Me to one lucky commenter!
“Merciful heavens!” exclaims Lady B. “Is that a door I see before me?”
Lady B went to the theatre last night, escorted by Lord B, and I’ve notice that it always seems to affect her speech patterns. Don’t even ask about what she’s like the morning after one of their operatic evenings.
“Four of them?” I offer.
I don’t know why I make it a question. There are unquestionably four portals plonked right in the center of Lady B’s otherwise pristine ballroom. Each is shaped differently: one is very art deco, another is the sort you might find on a Bath townhouse, one is Victorian faux gothic, and the final door is decidedly dark and creepy.
“I can see that,” says Lady B dryly. She has to raise her voice to be heard over the cacophony coming through the various doors. “But what are they doing in MY BALLROOM?”
Somewhat breathlessly, I manage, “It’s a vortex.”
Lady B turns sharply, peering behind the potted orange trees. “It’s that physician fellow, isn’t it?” she demands triumphantly. “The one with the sorcerer’s wand!”
“Er, no.” Ever since Dr. Who landed in the Ballroom by accident, Lady B has been keeping a weather eye out for him. She was just a little too intrigued by his sonic screwdriver—even if she does persist in referring to it as his wand.
Can you imagine Lady B in space?
I try to explain. “It’s not that kind of vortex. It’s a book vortex.” I gesture helplessly at the four doors. “Each of these is a book in a different stage of production—that I’m meant to be working on right now.”
From the art deco door comes the low whir of an early airplane propeller, a burst of jazz music, and the trumpeting of an elephant. “That’s blog posts about The Ashford Affair that I’m meant to be writing over there—and the one next to it are proofs for The Passion of the Purple Plumeria that I’m meant to be going through.”
That’s the Bath townhouse door, where the sounds of a furious swordfight can be heard. In fact, it’s so loud that it nearly drowns out the faint murmurs of genteel conversation from the faux gothic entry and the Bach toccata from the dark doorway.
“And the last two?” Lady B asks sternly.
“Revisions for my Victorian-set novel”—I gesture to door #3—“and, finally,”—door #4—“another Pink Carnation book, set in London in 1806. The hero is rumored to be a vampire,” I add, in the hopes of diverting Lady B’s attention. (I’ve seen the copy of Byron’s Giaour she keeps under her bed.)
It doesn’t work.
Lady B pulls herself up. “Bad enough that Miss Darby was dropping manuscripts all over the floor last week! Do you mean to tell me, Miss Willig, that you have invited the characters of not one, not two, not three, but FOUR books to the Ballroom all at once?”
I’m too tired to argue with her. “I didn’t invite them,” I say in despair. “And I can’t make them leave! They all say they won’t go until I’m done with them. But I can’t work on all four at once.”
“Then,” said Lady B imperiously, “you must work on one at a time.” She makes a little shooing motion. “Go on now. Get started.”
“Where?” I demand. The characters from all four doors are waving frantically, all trying to catch our attention, trumpeting out their various claims.
Oh, dear. In fact, they appear to have begun arguing amongst themselves, doorway to doorway. Is there going to be inter-book litigation? It’s like something out of a Jasper Fforde novel, only with no Thursday Next and the Book Police to sort it all out.
“Start at the beginning, of course,” says Lady B impatiently, like a souped up version of Maria von Trapp. “Which novel will be published first?”
Lady B wafts me in the direction of the Ashford Affair door. “Go do your duty by those characters while I have a nice visit with that interesting Miss Gwen in Purple Plumeria. And Miss Willig?” She turns on one satin-shod heel. “By the time I get back, I expect ALL THESE DOORS TO BE CLOSED.”
I nod obediently. There’s no way I’m going to be done with “Ashford” promo, “Plumeria” proofs, Victorian Book revisions and writing a whole new Pink book by Thursday’s ball, but one doesn’t deny Lady B when she speaks in capital letters.
And she may have a point about that “start at the beginning” thing…. Even if only two of those doors are closed by Thursday, it’s still better than dealing with four.
I don’t know about you, but when I’m overwhelmed with too many things at once, my inclination is always to bury my head under the covers and try to hide from all of them.
How do you tackle multiple tasks?
Also, if Lady B were to have the chance to travel with Dr. Who, where do you think she would go?
I spent last weekend at the first SoCal RWA California Dreamin’ writers’ conference – and conferences are quite the place for inspiration! In between the seeing old friends and making new ones, the speeches, the workshops and the discussion groups… they feed us a decent lunch. And it was at one of these decent lunches, that The Ballroom’s own Tessa Dare spouted this bit of infallible wisdom:
“If you ever need to punch up a scene, make one or both of your characters wet. It automatically makes them vulnerable.”
(Tessa, you’ll have to forgive me for paraphrasing, but I think I remembered the gist of it.)
And as by the clips below you’ll see it’s true! Water has the most amazing way of forcing characters to be looser, or to be more open, or to be sillier.*
*note: I’m excluding hanky-panky-in-the-pool scenes from this list. Yes, I know Neve Campbell and Denise Richards making out is hot, but there are a million of those types of scenes and rarely do they expose anything about character except use of silicone as a flotation device.
Now, after Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed fall into the pool, they walk home entirely disheveled and lasso the moon, and Donna Reed gets stuck naked in some shrubbery. Do you think their walk home would have been so filled with laughter if they hadn’t been messy and damp? Do you think those first few moments of falling in love would have happened? Or would Jimmy Stewart have just dropped her off on her doorstep with a handshake and gone back to college?
But what about something that’s not a first act integral plot moment? What about a moment that would occur, wet or not?
At the end Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Holly Golightly is in an alley calling for the cat she just tried to give up, because she’s not tied to things or people except she is tied to things and people and she just realized it. She wants her cat back, and George Peppard is there and they make out. And find the cat.
Now, imagine this scene without the rain. Completely different tone for the characters, right?
And of course, there is the classic example we all watched and rewatched… and rewatched. And rewatched. Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy meeting Elizabeth Bennet on the grounds of Pemberley after he happened to take a little non-skinny dip in his personal pond.
But it didn’t happen that way in the book. When Darcy comes across Elizabeth, he’s disheveled from his ride, but nowhere does Jane Austen write the words “He emerged dripping wet, droplets glistening off his thick dark hair…” (and trust me, I looked.)
However, the idea of Darcy being wet (aka, being put in a position of vulnerability) in this scene obviously struck a chord, so much so that the most inspired moment in Lost In Austen is a parody of it, of sorts.
I too, have fallen prey to the lure of character and physique-revealing water — one of my novels The Summer of You takes place in England’s Lake District — and plenty happens in, around, and because of water.
So what do you think? What’s your favorite wet-scene? And how is it improved by water?
At Lady B’s voice I look up, and accidentally drop the sheaf of papers in my hands. They drop to the floor, joining the other thousands of pages that are in semi-assorted piles about the floor of my writing room at Beautheringstone House.
“Yesterday was the Equinox and the first day of spring. So I’m doing Spring Cleaning.” I feel quite proud of this because when not at Lady B’s, my tendency towards cleaning of any sort is very latent.
“It looks to me as if you are creating spring chaos.”
“Oh no!” As I am ensconced on the floor, I invite Lady B to sit down in my favorite writing chair, the one that is quite plush and velvety and allows one to daydream comfortably for hours. She picks her way across the cluttered floor. “Each of these piles represents an unfinished manuscript. And the only way I can consider them “cleaned” this year is if I finish them. So… one by one I shall make my way through these piles.”
“Are you saying that you will leave these piles on the floor until you finish the story within?” She’s looking around and I follow her gaze. There are probably two-dozen piles of varying heights. Oh…and then the assortment of unorganized papers I accidentally pushed under the bed. Hmm… what is that?
“Stand and deliver!” The carriage jolted to a stop and Livia winced as her head slammed against the padded wall of the carriage and her legs collided with Elizabeth’s.
“Will the maids be able to clean this room or not in the next five years?”
Five years? I think she’s underestimating me. But at the same time, everyday a new pile of ideas does seem to appear in the room…
“And I thought today was the day you would bring your newest hero to visit. A Daniel something or other?”
Oops. That’s right. I was supposed to bring by Daniel Hartmann of Entry-Level Mistress. But I became so engrossed in the idea of “cleaning” that I completely forgot to summon—er—invite him.
Lady B is giving me an extremely disapproving stare. But as all of us authors have learned in the last nearly two years, one way to distract her is to provide her with new reading material full of yummy heroes and heroines.
I pick up a story at random and hand it her. She arches an eyebrow but begins to peruse the pages. Then she makes a small noise that sounds suspiciously like a snort. She puts the manuscript to the side and suddenly Lady B is down on her knees on the carpet beside me, nosing through all my piles.
“Well, I certainly think as your benefactress, I have the right to choose which one you work on next. And to do that, I need to look at ALL of them.”
I glance once more at all the piles around me, wondering what will excite her. A valet hero? A duke in disguise story? A heroine who has been rejecting all her suitors only to discover the perfect man is the one she can’t stand? What do you think Lady B will choose? And what type of Regency do you want to read next?
I spent most of my weekend at the wonderful California Dreamin’ conference, having a great time with my fellow writers and readers, and I confess, I didn’t start even thinking about this post until last night. My third-grader daughter was helping me make dinner, and I asked her if she had any ideas. She offered to help me write it.
So here goes…
(If you hadn’t noticed, I always call my kids “the darelings” online.)
Me: See, I need to write a scene that takes place in a ballroom.
Dareling: (thinks on it) How about a young man and a young woman meet, and they dance.
Me: That’s a good start.
Dareling: And then after they dance, they discover that they’ve been next-door neighbors all their lives and never knew it!
Me: Well….If they’ve been next-door neighbors all their lives, how did they not know each other?
Dareling: Maybe they lived in the country, a whole mile apart.
Me: And they still never met their nearest neighbor?
Dareling: They were homeschooled.
Me: Oh. Okay. I guess most people were then. So we have the homeschooled young lady and gentleman, and they’ve danced and met, and now what?
Dareling: Now that they know each other, they find a tree that’s halfway between their two houses, and they meet there every day.
Me: I like this! This sounds…really good. Like, maybe better than my own current plot. And what do they do at the tree? Kiss?
Dareling: No. They read books.
Me: Reading books is good, too. Very romantic.
Dareling: And they talk about the books.
Me: And then they kiss?
Me: Okay, okay. No kissing. So what happens next?
Dareling: The girl finds out that she’s moving.
Me: (gasp) Oh, no.
Dareling: Yes. To EUROPE.
Me: (shaking head) Moving to the Continent. That’s sad. They’re going to miss each other.
Dareling: Yes. But then the boy finds out that he’s moving to Europe too!
Me: Well, that’s… convenient.
(I’m wondering if it’s worth explaining the idea of deus ex machina, but she seems eager to wrap this up.)
Dareling: And now they’re next-door neighbors again, except really next door this time. And there’s another ball, and they go to it and dance again.
Me: And then do they kiss?
Dareling: Yes, Mom. They kiss. But they don’t get married.
Me: Why not?
Dareling: Because they’re not ready.
Me: I know this ending is not standard for romance novels, but as your mother, I approve.
Dareling: THE END.
So there you go. If next year, you see THE DESIRES OF A HOMESCHOOLED DUKE on the shelves, you know whom to blame.
Just so my younger dareling doesn’t feel left out, here’s a story about him I shared on Facebook last week:
Yesterday, I was having a discussion with my eldest about countries of the world and their capitals. My youngest said, “I know all the capitals of the world!” I was skeptical, because he’s just in 1st grade – but hey, maybe he’s a prodigy? So I asked him, “What’s the capital of Turkey?” And he said, just bursting with pride: “T!”
Yep. He knows ALL the capitals. All 26 of them. My little prodigy.
We all know kids say the darnedest things. Do you have a story of your own kids or young family members offering pearls of wisdom? Do share!
The story of how Frankenstein came to be is one of those that illustrate the romance of a creative community. I love to think about the artistic dialogue exchanged between people like Chopin and Liszt or Hemmingway and Dos Passos.
One of my biggest inspirations is hanging out with other writers. I love the creative surge that comes from sharing ideas and discussing stories and characters. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen often enough!
However, inspiration doesn’t just come from discussions with other writers, it also comes from interactions with anyone who has an opinion on art.
In that vein, The Ballroom Blog is a bit of nonstop inspiration. I’m surrounded by fabulous authors and fabulous ballroom regulars, writers and readers alike, who fill Lady B’s with fabulous energy. (Lady B’s is clearly full of fabulousness!) So today’s post is a thank you to all of you who help refill the creative glass every day!
And just for fun, I’ll leave you all with a clip of the beginning of Gothic. After all, we don’t really need any excuse for a movie with Julian Sands.
The enormous man, tall and broad, with skin dark as midnight, did not reply, instead silently indicating that she should walk ahead of him into the dark hallway with a seriousness that suggested it would be a mistake to…
Early draft of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Sarah makes Marcel look organized.
The door opens with vigor, and I jerk up from my notebook, my pencil sliding off the page as a hunk of hair falls across my face. Not in an attractive, heroine-like way. In an I-cant-see-a-thing kind of way. Dammit. I thought she wouldn’t find me here. I picked this cupboard for it’s roominess. it fits me, several linen tablecloths, a stack of well ironed napkins and a candle. And my notebook. And a pencil.
I was looking for quiet. And definitely not looking for Lady B.
My mother is English, however, so I know how to fake it till I make it. I paste a smile on my face. “Lady B!”
“You are missing the ball.”
My father is Italian, though, so I find myself gritting my teeth. “Am I?”
Her blue gaze narrows. “You are.”
I have never been good at faking it. My shoulders slump. “I know.”
Her lips purse. “What is it, gel? Miss Neville has brought gentlemen in BOOTS. It’s quite diverting.”
This does not make me feel better. “It sounds like it. Except, you see, I can’t go. I have to stay here. I have to work.”
She looks to my notebook. “Work on what?”
“My book. I’m on deadline. And, you see…” my voice lowers to a near whisper, “The book is quite late.”
She does see. “Well. Are you nearly finished?”
She does not, however, know that that precise question is not something to ask a writer on deadline. You see, probably, to the general outside observer, I am nearly finished. But I feel like I’ve half of Africa to traverse before I’m done. North-to-south Africa. Not the easy way. It occurs that the other way isn’t easy either…but I’d take it.
“I am…getting there.”
“Hmm. And when do you think you will get there?” This woman has clearly taken lessons from my mother on how to ask all the wrong questions.
I sigh. “Before the next ball, I’m hoping. But today…I need a little bit of time in this cupboard, if you don’t mind.”
She leans in, tilting her head to look at my notebook. I cover the page with my hand instinctively. She looks up. “Will it be quite salacious?”
I think of leather straps and bathing chambers and boxing rings. “If it is ever finished, my lady, it will be.”
Her eyes light. “And am I in it?”
I smile. “In fact, you are, and it’s quite a scene.”
She nods, her decision made. “Then I shall leave you to it.”
The door to the cupboard closes with a snap.
When you are nearly at the end of a project — what do you need to get it done? Absolute silence? Chocolate? A week in a posh hotel? Massages? A large man with a whip?
Today I am happy to reveal the cover for THE RUIN OF A ROGUE. The male model on this one certainly captures the perfidious sexiness of Marcus Lithgow while …
Lady B: Miss Neville!
Miranda: Good evening, Lady B. I’m unveiling a cover.
Lady B: That man is wearing a boot–
Miranda: Two, actually, though I grant you that one of them is particularly prominent.
Lady B: –in bed.
Miranda: I am sure you have learned, through consorting with writers, that the covers of novels do not always exactly represent their contents. I am bound to say that although there is a scene in The Ruin of a Rogue where Marcus brings Anne dinner in bed and he is wearing boots at the time …
Lady B: Never mind that. I have no objection to boots in bed. In fact [Lady B appears on the verge of blushing, a somewhat alarming sight] I have, in my time, been Duchessed.
Miranda: Uh, has Lord B been created a duke? Seems rather unlikely, though well deserved, of course.
Lady B: I am referring to the activities of the First Duke of Marlborough (an ancestor of mine). His wife reported that “The Duke returned from the wars today and did pleasure me in his top-boots.” Hence, among the cognoscenti, it is known as “duchessing” when the gentlemen is – ahem – too eager to waste time undressing.
Miranda: Wow, Lady B. That is really hot.
Lady B: When John Churchill wed Sarah Jennings it was a true love match. After his death, the Duke of Somerset proposed to her and she turned him down with these words:
”If I were young and handsome as I was, instead of old and faded as I am, and you could lay the empire of the world at my feet, you should never share the heart and hand that once belonged to John, Duke of Marlborough.”
There’s nothing like the romantic story of the Marlboroughs to remind us that, whatever anyone says, historical romances featuring incredibly hot dukes are FRIGGING REALISTIC. Also boots in bed. If you haven’t ever seen it, rent the DVD of the TV series The First Churchills. I promise you will enjoy the scene when John Neville, IN HIS BOOTS, leaps on Susan Hampshire ….
So let’s talk about love scenes. So we like them better with clothes, some clothes, no clothes? Any particular favorites you wish to recommend?