Remember When . . . The Ballet Was Cutting-Edge?

Remember When . . . The Ballet Was Cutting-Edge?

The cast of ABT’s Coppelia, a classical comic ballet
Last weekend, my daughter danced in the final ballet for Appalachian Ballet Theater. After 23 years, the only classical ballet studio in our area decided to shut down…their building is being sold, Beth, the founder, is ready to retire, and Leah, who choreographs all the shows, is expecting baby #2 any day now. This mother-daughter duo built an amazing studio and instilled passion and discipline in a generation of local dancers. It’s bittersweet to say farewell to the dance family that has nurtured my daughter since she was 5. 
Our last rehearsal in the studio on Tuesday!
Anyone who’s read my Ladies of the Manor Series knows that ballet plays a part in my stories…largely inspired by the classes I took my daughter to twice a week for the last seven years. In The Lost Heiress, Brook has been practicing with Ballet Russe–a group of dancers trained in St. Petersburg at the Imperial school. So I thought I’d take a few minutes to look back at this ground-breaking, iconic ballet group, in honor of ours.
Xoe, left, with friends Saylor, Heaven, Phoebe, and Marina, before their final show
Russian ballet impresario and founder
of the Ballets Russes Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929)

The Ballet Russe was formed in 1909 by Sergei Diaghilev. In 1908 he had presented a season of Russian art, music, and opera in Paris, with great success. The upper class of Europe quickly became enamored with all things Russian, and so Diaghilev was invited back the next year to share more of Russia’s culture. He responded with the Ballet Russe (the Russian Ballet), a dance troupe made up entirely of dancers schooled in the finest of Russia’s schools. These dancers brought something to Europe that no other ballet had ever offered–passionate, energetic dancing that pushed the boundaries of what had always been accepted. Their dancing was considered avant-garde and contemporary in the extreme.

For 20 years, the Ballet Russe toured the major cities of Europe and even America. I, of course, had fun with this–they were stationed a good while in Monaco, which is how Brook came to know them. And also in Paris, which is where they are when we meet Kira, the injured prima ballerina who plays a vital role in the third book in the series, A Lady Unrivaled. I had so much fun digging deeper into ballet and Russian culture with this character, who had been friends with Brook during her months of practicing with the group.
Bain News Service, publisher. Ballet Russe practicing
[between ca. 1915 and ca. 1920]

As most of you probably know, anything that involved the stage in the early 1900s was considered scandalous–the elite loved to be entertained by them…but it was well known that most women who made their living upon the stage had, er, looser morals than “ladies.” Now, obviously, this isn’t always true. But it was assumed. Which is why a young woman born to a respectable family would never consider a career upon the stage…which made things interesting for Brook, who was raised by an opera singer. She’d lived the first half of her life in a very different world from where she ended up–an heiress, a baroness, the daughter of an earl.

Today, ballet isn’t the edgy stuff–it’s the “tame” stuff. We chose classical ballet rather than modern dance because it isn’t risque…rather hilarious when one considers that it used to be THE risque dance. But in this world of hip-hop and gyrating moves taught to our primary schoolers, give me ballet’s moves any day! Because it isn’t just a passion–it’s a discipline. One I’ve loved watching my daughter learn and embrace.

Learning more about the history of ballet and its ground-breaking years during when my books have been set was so much fun. And looking back from our current viewpoint and seeing how it’s turned into the classical, respectable institution as opposed to the scandalous one is always interesting. I loved writing about it, with Brook and then with Kira. And I look forward to taking Xoe to a new studio next year and seeing where she goes with this dance from here.

Have you or your kids done any kind of dance?

Remember When . . . Styles Shifted?

Remember When . . . Styles Shifted?

As I dive into working on the first book in The Codebreakers, my story world advances a couple years, to 1917. And as I build my Pinterest board, I end up looking at a lot of fashion. So naturally, you get to take a tour with me through WWI styles. =)
As always, the military styles of the day impacted not only men’s fashion, but women’s. This, for instance, is the first introduction of the trench coat, and it had begun to edge its way into even ladies’ suits.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
But of course, war isn’t only about new cuts and belts and lengths of jackets. The hard reality of war is that it results in shortages–and this is what ultimately led to higher hems and less extravagant styles in the late 1910s. Over the course of a few years, dresses went from this…

…to this…

Note that the overall profiles became more slender, with skirts that are less full and shorter. It was in the late teens that floor-length really started becoming a thing of the past. Even much evening wear became ankle length or above.

Pre-war, 1911
During the war, 1916

Hats underwent a pretty drastic change too. Where once they were huge and the-more-ostentatious-the-better…

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

…to a generally smaller and more conservative silhouette.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

And then there was the hair! While the majority of women were still wearing their hair long, the Marcel wave was frequently used on the sides before the length was pinned up… and in many fashion plates and photos of celebrities of the day, we also see a growing number of bobbed, waved styles.

My heroine in this first book is Margot, little sister of Lukas from A Song Unheard, and I posted on Facebook last week asking whether people thought she should get her hair cut. The result–people feel very strongly about hair! LOL. I had some very enthusiastic yeses, and some very horrified nos. 😉
I won’t tell you what I’ve decided. I’ll just say that it’s very in keeping with the character, and that I learned quite a bit about Margot as I debated the question. And I will tell you that the question comes up in the story because Brook from The Lost Heiress makes an appearance, and you KNOW she was the first lady of fashion in England to bob her hair! (And probably make an appearance in trousers at the same time…)

So what do you think of the changing styles of the late Teens? Do you like the new silhouettes on the dresses and jackets? The new hem length? What about the bobbed hair?

Remember When . . . The Family Moved?

Remember When . . . The Family Moved?

Lizard Peninsula    The cliffs where smugglers once stashed their bounty are now home to a revitalised wealth of fauna and flora. (Matt Munro)

In writing the Shadows Over England series, I did a lot of studying of the geography of England. For book 1, I only had two scenes in London, and then the rest was in Cornwall. So the fact that my family’s big trip to England fell during the writing/editing of A Name Unknown served me quite well. We spent a lovely four days in Cornwall, which gave me the opportunity to explore it and get to know the neighborhood in which Peter Holstein lived.

But then that made me all the more aware of how little I knew about the settings for the rest of the series. Wales. London. Ack!
To help me in A Song Unheard, I purchased a few books…and spent a lot of time in Google Maps, traveling down the streets of Aberystwyth, Wales. To be perfectly honest, I was pretty proud of myself for actually learning all the street names around the hotel where much of the action took place. Because, much like Ella from A Lady Unrivaled, I am directionally impaired, LOL. Even with a GPS, I can get lost. Or try to direct my husband down the wrong street. It is a foregone conclusion in my family that if I say, “I think/don’t think this is it…” one should ignore me. 😉 But when dealing only in fiction, I can give directions. I could make Willa (who explores until she’s at home in any town) navigate the small city with ease.
Aberystwyth Castle   Welsh Name: Llanbadarn  In the town of Aberystwyth, Ceredigion, west Wales
Aberystwyth Castle – Pinterest

But also in A Song Unheard, I needed to get more specific about where the family lived in London. I knew it would be a big deal by book 3, which would take place almost entirely in that city, so it was time to get serious. The scenes in book 2 that actually took place in London were based partly upon my own very limited exploration of the place. When I realized Lukas would likely have come into St. Pancras train station–the same place we went by train to France–I decided I’d put my fictional newspaper office that he was seeking on the very street where our hotel was located. Why not? That allowed me to describe things like walking distance and surroundings with a bit of knowledge.
Post from April 2017

But An Hour Unspent was a different story. First of all, I needed the neighborhood where my family of thieves had spent most of their lives. You may remember my post from last April, when my tyrannical book refused to be set where I wanted it to be. *Sigh* After searching through my book of London boroughs, I decided to put them in Poplar–historically one of the poorest sections of London. This, then, is where Pauly’s pub is, and where Rosemary and Willa and Barclay were the most comfortable. The streets they know best.
The awesome book I found
that takes you through London
borough by borough,
following the Thames
But if you’ve read A Song Unheard, then you know Peter offers them the use of his London house, which I decided to situate in Hammersmith. I had fun learning about that section of the city too. And it became an even better pick for them when I realized it was only a 7-minute walk from Whitehall, where the Admiralty buildings are. Given that my mysterious Mr. V is good friends with a naval officer who in fact gives them some of their assignments in An Hour Unspent, this was perfect.
Still, if we’re talking personal preferences, I’m a country girl, not a city girl. At all. So it still feels a bit strange sometimes to be writing so many books set in London–The Number of Love, book 1 in The Codebreakers Series that I’m writing now, is also set there. It was some consolation, however, to realize that my characters were a bit out of their element too, being transplanted to new parts of the city. Or in the case of Margot, moving from small-town life in Louvain (Belgium) to occupied Brussels, and then finally to London, which is obviously very different from anything she’d known before.

Moving characters can be a challenge for a writer–logistics! New streets to pretend you know–but it’s also fun! Because you’re forcing your characters out of the familiar, comfortable places…and we all know that taking characters out of their comfort zones results in some beautiful tension and stressful situations. Mwa ha ha ha–just what every writer needs!

Remember When . . . She Played the Violin?

Remember When . . . She Played the Violin?

I thought it would be fun to take a quick look today at Willa’s violin…or, rather, violins in general, and some info that appears in A Song Unheard about this beautiful stringed instrument.

Violins and other stringed instruments like them began appearing in the 1500s. They were invented in Italy, and some of the first evidence we have of their existence is from paintings by Gaudenzio Ferrari.
Glory of Angels by Gaudenzio Ferrari.
Not to be confused with Enzo Ferrari.
Or, you know, other painters with the same surname.
There also exists a treatise written in 1556 that details the string family as we know it now.
Stradivari Violin

Willa, of course, didn’t know all this history. What she did know was that Stradivari was always heralded as THE luthier whose instruments everyone wanted to own. That’s certainly true today just as it was a hundred years ago.

It’s only been recently, however, that scientists have discovered why Strads sound better than other violins. I happened to catch a documentary on this just before I began writing A Song Unheard (thank you for that, Lord! LOL), which obviously proved useful. 😉
So the secret to the amazing sound of these instruments? The Little Ice Age.
Yep. See, these drastically colder temps resulted in trees’ growth drastically slowing. If you recall your middle school botany, you know that each year trees add a ring of growth, hence how we can count a tree’s age with a cross-section. Well if you’ve ever seen the stump of a really, really old tree, you’ll have noticed that some rings are very wide and others very narrow. The wide rings are the years that were perfect growing years–nice temps, good rain, lots of sun–and the narrow rings are harsher years.

During the Little Ice Age, trees couldn’t grow very much. So the rings were narrow, and the wood, therefore, was very dense. The forest from which Stradivari sourced his wood was full of Little Ice Age trees, whose wood was heavy and dense. Meaning the instruments, while the same size as others made from different wood, would be a bit heavier and denser, and that of course effected the sound.

Now, this is a relatively new discovery–certainly not something they knew in 1914. But I wanted to hint at it, so I had Willa observe several times that Lukas’s Strad felt heavier and more substantial than the battered, cheap instrument she’d rescued from a rubbish bin.
She got up again and strode to the
wardrobe. Not set on grabbing a hat for the trek she had to make, but to pull
out that battered violin case. She set it on the bed and extracted the
equally-battered violin.

Poor thing. It looked like a rag
next to the memory of the Stradivarius she’d held last night. Dull and scarred
and . . . lighter, even, as if the wood were too thin. Perhaps it was. Still,
it was one of her oldest friends, and her fingers caressed the familiar curves
and corners, ran along the strings.

                                  ~ A Song Unheard, Chapter 6
Do you play an instrument? Or is there one you particularly enjoy listening to? One you’ve always dreamed of owning?
I’m a piano player, so I may occasionally drool over baby grands…though not the newfangled electronic ones. Those are just WRONG. 😉
Remember When . . . The Senses of Cornwall

Remember When . . . The Senses of Cornwall

Y’all, A Name Unknown releases in six short days. Less than a week. It’s all getting so close! Yesterday I was packing up the pre-orders that had come into my shop for signed versions, which really brings the excitement home.

So today, I wanted to share with you guys a bit of the setting of the book. I’m sure I talked about it last autumn after I’d had the immense pleasure of visiting Cornwall, but some of my experiences actually came at home too. =)

First, taste. While there, we had to eat some famous Cornish pasties–handheld meat pies. And let me just tell you, they were good enough that I came home and immediately set about finding a recipe to get me as close as possible to the actual experience. I tried out several crust recipes before I found this one, and then watched video tutorials on how to crimp the edges (when I learn something, I’m determined to learn it well! LOL). The filling doesn’t require a recipe, per se, but to create an authentic, original Cornish pasty (for any American reader not familiar with the word, it’s pronounced with a short a, like in pat, not a long one like in pastry) you’re supposed to include only beef, potato, turnip, onion, a dab of butter, and salt and pepper. It’s amazing how those simple ingredients combine!

And for dessert, how about some ginger fairings? These cookies are so named because they were a favorite at fairs–and quickly became a favorite in my house too. I researched a few recipes and determined that they were quite similar, involving a few ingredients not exactly common in the US–I actually ordered the spice mix and the golden syrup from Amazon so I could make them, and they were well worth the investment! A bit like a gingersnap but with a hint of toffee flavor, a bit like gingerbread but minus the distinct molasses flavor, these became an instant success in my house. I used this recipe–and had invested a couple months ago in a gram scale because an increasing number of my recipes use weight instead of volume.

Curious about these? Well, stay tuned next week for my big A Name Unknown inspired giveaway, because a tin of cookies, handmade by me, will be one of the prizes!

Some other experiences I found to be unique to Cornwall were the so-dubbed “Cornish palms”–a tree that is actually a cabbage tree, but which looks distinctly like a palm tree. These things dot the Cornish landscape and give you a feel of being somewhere tropical…though the weather doesn’t agree. 😉

And of course, those famous Cornish cliffs.

All of these I enjoyed so very much. Then there were the harrowing sunken roads. My husband insists he loved driving on them, but I recall only the terror of praying we didn’t meet a tour bus or something… (Because yes, that pretty ribbon in the picture below is meant for two-way traffic. Somehow.)

All of these have made Cornwall come alive for me, and I pray it will also bring this beautiful countryside alive for you, through the eyes of Rosemary, who’s seeing it all for the first time, and Peter, who has to fight to keep his place in it.

Both of whom you’ll have the chance to meet in LESS THAN A WEEK! Squee!

Remember When ~ The Library at Kensey Manor

Remember When ~ The Library at Kensey Manor

We are book lovers. I am, and I assume you are too, if you’re here reading the blog of a novelist. 😉 We have all dreamed of walking into a room like the library in Beauty and the Beast, right? The idea of all those books in one place . . . it’s bliss. Pure and unmitigated.

But I am a book lover. And my collection regularly outpaces my shelves. Which means I frequently have random stacks of novels in front of the orderly ones. And on the tops of shelves. And occasionally even beside the shelves, if I’m really in need of a new bookcase. I figure I can’t possibly be the only with this problem . . . which led me to wonder what would happen if someone was so bad about it that they’d managed to turn the heaven that is a library into something far different. Something intimidating and chaotic and overwhelming.

This is the library at Kensey Manor in A Name Unknown.

Peter, the hero, is a lover of books. A writer of books. But he comes from a family with a bit of a, er, problem with collecting them, let’s say. His grandfather began the impressive collection, but ran out of shelf space. His father continued it, only adding to the issue without ever resolving it. And Peter . . . Peter has a remarkable ability to untidy something in thirty seconds flat, so don’t expect him to bring order from the bookish chaos.

Yet he needs order enough from the books to find a few specific tomes among them. Which is where Rosemary comes in.

Now, Rosemary isn’t really a librarian, she’s just posing as one. She doesn’t usually even like libraries all that much. So when she sees the chaos . . . she may have been sent running had she not been there for ulterior motives.

I loved the idea of taking something book lovers like us ought to adore, and making it something to dread. Of watching, over the course of the story, this room go from what they call “the cave” into a beautiful chamber that it’s a delight to spend time in. I loved having Rosemary, who isn’t a die-hard book fan, be the one to effect this change, and through doing so, come to love the place.

I loved making the library another character who had to undergo a transformation.

I hope you all are looking forward to meeting this library as much as I’m looking forward to introducing you to it!