Sunday, February 25, 2007

Vive la Difference

Chocolate is a perfect food, as wholesome as it is delicious, a beneficent restorer of exhausted power. It is the best friend of those engaged in literary pursuits.
~Baron Justus von Liebig (1803-1873), German chemist

Despite the learned professor’s advice, I confess I prefer vanilla. Maybe that’s why my book isn’t finished yet. As a child living around the corner from a candy store with a soda fountain, I was the one kid with the vanilla sugar cone while my friends ordered chocolate.Does that make me boring? I contend it just makes me different.

Everybody likes chocolate. Even grumpy Lucy from the Peanuts cartoon says, "All I really need is love, but a little chocolate now and then doesn't hurt!" As if that would sweeten her up. Some people think chocolate possesses miracle powers. Chocolate is cheaper than therapy and you don't need an appointment. Sorry, I’ve eaten my fair share and I’m still kind of crazy.

Don’t get me wrong. My Viennese mother taught me to eat fresh fruit with chocolate, alternating bites. Pass the chocolate-covered strawberries and orange peels too, please. I won’t turn away that Valentine’s box of chocolate, either. But I love vanilla ice cream, without the hot fudge sauce. It’s delicious just as it is.

I will not work for chocolate. I don’t think, Forget love -- I'd rather fall in chocolate. I don’t begrudge anybody their chocolate fix, but it just doesn’t do it for me.

But what does do it for me is finding a book that is unique and an author who is addictive. So I highly recommend Barbara Metzger’s The Hourglass. She has combined a sprinkle of paranormal, a dollop of gremlin humor, generous helpings of duty, honor and luscious romance and mixed them up into a very satisfying read. Grab yourself a Hershey bar if you must and go read it. The hero is drop-dead gorgeous. ;)

Chocolate or vanilla? What have you read lately that’s deliciously different?

Monday, February 19, 2007

Beach Blanket Bingo

Most of us have a special place we think of when we long to escape the real world. My husband likes any frigid and fishy lake in Maine, a holdover from his Boy Scout days. But I’m a beach baby. And how I wish I could escape this Maine winter right now. Give me some sand in my bathing suit and peanut butter sandwich, the smell of Coppertone and I’ll be a girl again, hanging out with my parents in the dunes.

That’s right. My parents. Bet you thought I’d talk about my old boyfriend the lifeguard. But the fact is, every weekend when I was growing up, I went to Jones Beach with my parents at the crack of dawn. My father was big on “beating the crowd.” Consequently we had the Atlantic Ocean to ourselves, because sensible people were still in bed. My father would mix up a huge jug of grapefruit juice and vodka for breakfast (none for me), set up an umbrella and chair for himself and a chaise lounge in the sun for my mother. He brought binoculars, not to watch the seagulls. When I got a little older I was permitted to move my blanket down toward the water, and he kept an eagle eye on me and my friends so we wouldn’t drown or, worse, get picked up by pimply boys.

There is something about the pull of the waves. Who can forget the infamous sex-on-the-beach scene in From Here to Eternity with Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster? I’ve used the sea scenario myself in a novella that might be a novel someday. My characters, Neil McInnis and Abigail Anthony, are swimming in Scotland somewhere around 1850.

“Race you,” she said, looking behind her and laughing.

“You’re a cheater, Miss Anthony. You know what happens to cheaters.” Neil was catching up, but she plunged into the surf first. Every inch of her smooth skin contracted into gooseflesh. She dove under the dull green water and came up sputtering, her black hair a midnight curtain of silk.

“Water witch” said Neil softly. “Selkie.”

Abby grinned, wondering if her lips were as blue as the sky above. “It’s odd you should say that,” she said, wiping the sea’s tears from her lashes before their sting made them hers. “My two older sisters, very proper, perfect, teased me all the time. They called me Little Witch, and I would cry my eyes out. I vowed to cast a spell on them.”

“You’ve certainly cast a spell on me.”

Abby stopped bobbing in the water and became very still.

Neil reached for her, drew her close, his chest pleasantly abraded by the coarse wool of her bathing costume. He combed his fingers through her hair, tracing it as it fell to the small of her back.

She could feel his hardness. Everywhere. Something loosened within her as she sought his mouth.

Just a small kiss.

She closed her eyes and felt his arms encircle her more tightly in the choppy waves.

There was nothing small about any of it. He kissed her deeply, his tongue probing and teasing until her weightless body wrapped around him. His lips moved down her throat to feel her pulse racing, taste the salt and her sweetness.

This was madness.

Questions and Culture:

So, where’s your special place to escape the madness? I’ll be at the shore---with plenty of sunblock.

When you write, do you put your lovers in a feather bed, or are they apt to be found on the library floor?

Reveal a favorite love scene that you’ve read that isn’t all under the covers.

Wild nights! Wild nights!
Were I with thee,
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile the winds
To a heart in port,—
Done with the compass,
Done with the chart.

Rowing in Eden!
Ah! the sea!
Might I but moor
To-night in thee!
- Emily Dickinson

The painting is Psamathe by Lord Frederick Leighton, c. 1880. My lucky daughter did an internship at the Leighton House Museum in London in the summer of 2004.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Domestic Disturbances

Pas devant les domestiques (not in front of the servants),” said Lord Louche, so that Lady Louche wouldn’t confront him with his numerous indiscretions at the dinner table. I bet the staff could translate that particular phrase, and knew exactly what their lord had done, too.

Books are filled with loyal retainers. Scarlett has Mammy. Bertie has Jeeves. Bruce Wayne has Alfred. We won’t talk about devious Mrs. Danvers because she’s an aberration, although she was loyal to Rebecca. In historicals the footman is always underfoot accompanying the ladies while they shop and the maid is always lacing maniacally. The butlers are all-knowing, cooks always kind and bosomy, unless they are temperamental French chefs written for comic relief.

Alas, I, like most modern women, get my knowledge of such domestic arrangements from Upstairs, Downstairs, The Remains of the Day, Gosford Park and other period pieces, all rather bittersweet if not downright sour. On occasion, I have had cleaning women, but they terrified me so totally I cleaned up before they came.

It’s impossible to write a historical romance without a nod to the servant class. While Lord and Lady Louche had certain responsibilities in running their household and estate, their hands rarely got dirty. From the 1837 diary of a footman, William Taylor, comes this eloquent passage:

The life of a gentleman's servant is something that of a bird shut up in a cage. The bird is well housed and well fed but is deprived of liberty, and liberty is the dearest and sweetest object of all Englishmen. Therefore I would rather be like a sparrow or a lark, have less housing and feeding and rather more liberty. A servant is shut up like a bird in a cage, deprived of the benefit of the air to the very great injury of the constitution.

And it took a great many shut-up birds to keep a household running smoothly. Consequently, Lord and Lady Louche were rarely alone. Perhaps their cage was gilded and had more amenities, but they were prisoners of society nevertheless. No wonder Lord Louche left to frolic with an opera dancer and Lady Louche dipped into the laudanum with far too much frequency. But I’ll save infidelity and drug addiction for another post.

So, how about it? Would you like to travel back in time so you could fill your empty days embroidering, playing the pianoforte, reading gothick novels, gossiping and waiting around for Lord Right? And you’d have to change your outfit up to six times a day, too. If so, who would you be, in fact or fiction?

Or do you think you’d wind up as the housemaid, cleaning the grate and lighting the fire for your mistress each morning, with never a moment of your own? I feel a little like Cinderella myself.

Monday, February 12, 2007

The Unusual Suspects

My name is Maggie and I’m an addict.

Reading is my drug of choice. I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t a reader. My dad used to go to the Salvation Army and come home loaded down with ancient musty cast-offs: adventures illustrated by N.C. Wyeth and Arthur Rackham, the Bobbsey Twins out of order, and Judy Bolton books (Judy was a lesser Nancy Drew but I liked her so much better). I was the geeky little girl who always finished first in the library’s summer reading program. And there was a “candy store” around the corner from my house, with an old-fashioned soda fountain, greeting cards, comic books (before they were called graphic novels) and hardcover books for 59 cents. I bought Black Beauty and Little Women there and cried. I discovered Mad Magazine there and laughed, once I got over the shock.

Okay, enough of the Wonder Years.

I read a lot, mostly historical romances, but I’m pretty open. For a while I was an awful snot and wouldn’t read bestsellers. I’m over that. I want to see what captures the cash and interest of the reading public. I am often disappointed.

I’m also a blogaholic. Besides reading the delightful and diverting women to the left, I visit several other sites almost daily. There’s always a new twist on an old truth under discussion that makes me think.

One constant theme: favorite “usual suspects” in a romance novel. You know, the rake and the bluestocking, the billionaire boss and Betty Sue. Every hero is supposed to be rich and handsome, every heroine a virgin. If she’s been married before, she’s a psychological virgin if not a physical one. We all assume there are unwritten rules that must be obeyed. “They” want a certain type of book, be they editors or readers. But I’ve read some compelling fiction that bends these rules, with unconventional heroes and heroines.

It takes all kinds.

There’s a lid for every pot.

Whatever floats your boat.

Whatever gets you through the night, ’salright.

I watched the movie Casanova recently. How delightful it was when Francesca’s mother stopped in her tracks when she saw the porcine pork king of Genoa. Played with fearless insouciance and a disregard for his dignity by Oliver Platt, he made a most unlikely hero, but it was liberating love at first sight for both of them. And Heath Ledger as Casanova was pretty cute, too.

In honor of Valentine’s Day, when everyone deserves their happy ending, what distinctive characters would you like to see/write/recommend? Are you looking for a heavy heroine whose honey happily hugs every inch? A vixen who is not vilified for her lack of virtue? An author who avoids alliteration at all costs?

I’m thinking experienced woman, younger man, like the characters in Jennifer Crusie’s Anyone But You. They don’t call me Mrs. Robinson for nothing.

Monday, February 5, 2007

A Rose By Any Other Name

Naming characters causes considerable consternation (not to mention alliteration). For Regency-era writers, if we are to be absolutely true to the first part of the 19th century, every heroine born around 1800 would be Mary and her hero would be John. Boring.

I am reminded of a trip to Scotland my husband John (who’s not boring) and I took with a friend, also named John. We met up with several Scottish couples in an Edinburgh pub. We began as strangers, but after a few pints we were all fast friends. Every man was named John, every woman named Margaret. Scary.

So, it’s been fun to name my characters something a bit less plebeian than Mary (or Margaret) and John, still keeping true to the times (no Heathers or Ambers or Tiffanies allowed).

In By Midnight: Cynthia and Harry
In Waking Beauty: Penelope and Dominick
In Third-Rate Romance: Eleanor and Lionel (Regency)
Eliza and Link (Western)
Ella and Liam (Chick Lit)
Evangeline and Lucien (Vampire)…anybody see a pattern here?…
and Kelly and Paul (the hapless author and her real-life honey)

That's right. I'm juggling five romances in one book. I'm crazier than Kelly.

How about you? What have you named your fictional babies?

And now, for pure fun, and because it's not romantic at all...

Your Ten Names

Margaret (Maggie) Robinson.

2. YOUR GANGSTA NAME: (first three letters of your name, plus izzle)
Magizzle..or Marizzle if we’re being formal.

3. YOUR “FLY GUY/GIRL” NAME: (first initial of first name, first three of your last)

4. YOUR DETECTIVE NAME: (favorite color and favorite animal)
Pink Seal (I’m not dead from a kiss from a rose)

5. YOUR SOAP OPERA NAME: (middle name, street you live on):
Maniero Vineyard (yum, buy your cheap red wine right here)

6. YOUR STAR WARS NAME: (the first 3 letters of your last name, first 2 letters of your first name, first 3 letters of mother's maiden name)
Robmaman (looks kind of French to me)

7. SUPERHERO NAME: (favorite color, favorite drink)
Pink Champagne (Hah! My super power: I still act like a lady no matter how much I've had to drink)

8. YOUR IRAQI NAME: (2nd letter of your first name, 3rd letter of your last name, any letter of your middle name, 2nd letter of your mother's maiden name, 3rd letter of your father's middle name, 1st letter of a sibling’s first name, last letter of your mother's middle name...have you given up yet?)
Abnauna (but I refuse to wear the burqa)

9. YOUR STRIPPER NAME: (the name of your favorite perfume)
Chanel (and I’m #1)

10. YOUR WITNESS PROTECTION NAME: (mother and father’s middle name)
Franziska Trumbull (that just seems cranky)

Have a great week, whatever you call yourself. And Chapter One of Third-Rate Romance continues under Maggie's Manuscripts for your reading pleasure.