Jilly: Behind the Scenes

I enjoyed Michaeline’s post yesterday, about her love of secret passages and rooms, trap doors, hidden compartments and all kinds of mystery architecture. She loves them as a reader, so she likes to incorporate them into her own stories.

She set me thinking.

Mystery architecture is a wonderful tool for storytellers. There are so many good examples, but below are a few of my favorites.

The hidden basement and secret shelter in Jenny Crusie’s Agnes and the Hitman.

The smugglers’ cellar and well-oiled trapdoor that Francis Crawford of Lymond uses to sneak into locked-down Edinburgh in Dorothy Dunnett’s The Game of Kings.

Another smugglers’ construction— the concealed tunnel between Darracott Place and the haunted Dower House in Georgette Heyer’s The Unknown Ajax.

All kinds of hidden delights, from ancient temples to sneaky palace passageways, in Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief and its four sequels.

I like all that undercover stuff, but what really thrills me is an insider story. When I see a swan gliding serenely along, I want to see the feet paddling like mad under the water. I love, love, love to watch characters working on their craft. I need to share their setbacks, mistakes, failures and ultimate triumph. I like to write those stories too.

In real life I love it when restaurants offer a chef’s table so diners can watch the kitchen in full flow. I really like that pro tennis has been experimenting with allowing players to talk to their coaches mid-match—and we all get to hear their discussion. And some of my best trips to the Royal Opera House have been to watch working rehearsals, or to see costumes being made, props being constructed, and choreography developed. To give you an idea of what I mean, click here for a ten-minute video of the Royal Ballet working flat out on the big sword fight between Tybalt and Romeo in Kenneth MacMillan’s version of Romeo & Juliet.

One of my favorite movies ever is Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom—double dealing, dirty tricks and the private language of competitive ballroom dancing. Christopher Guest hilariously gives dog shows the same treatment in his mockumentary Best in Show. And for books, what about:

Faro’s Daughter (Heyer again), where the heroine is a gambler’s daughter who runs a fashionable gaming house with her delightfully clueless aunt; or

Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor—half-goblin Maia loses his entire family in an airship crash and unexpectedly becomes Emperor. He has no training, no allies, and seems an easy target for every ambitious, manipulative, scheming courtier in the palace. Maia outwits them all by learning the system from servants, soldiers, airship crews, and other ordinary people that make his world work.

A hairdresser friend of mine once told me he’d never book a chef’s table. He’s spent his entire working life behind the scenes and he knows exactly what happens. When he reads a novel, or goes to dinner, or to a movie, he wants a finished product, all glossy and shiny. He’ll take the fairy tale presentation every time.

Where do you stand on insider stories? Are you a fan, or would you rather sit the other side of the curtain, watching the action from the plush seats?

Jilly: Fix It With Gold

Just when you think 2020 might be getting a little better, it gets a whole lot worse. Elizabeth captured the zeitgeist perfectly in her Wednesday post, Living the Conflict Box. That’s exactly how the world feels to me every time I check out the news.

I spent much of yesterday staring at my laptop, trying to decide what to talk about today. Eventually, for reasons I hope will become apparent, I settled on the ancient Japanese art of kintsugi.

According to that fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia:

Kintsugi (金継ぎ, “golden joinery”), also known as kinsukuroi (金繕い, “golden repair”), is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum, a method similar to the maki-e technique. As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise.

I’m not Japanese and I’ve never been to Japan, so clearly I’m not the best person to talk about this (hi, Michaeline!), but I can broach the subject and invite you to learn more. I’ve been in love with the idea ever since it was featured on BBC Four’s 2017 season celebrating all things Japanese.

Click here for an article from the BBC series, including some stunning photographs.

I’d love to own a piece of kintsugi, but it would have to be something that has personal significance for me. If I ever break a cherished vase or bowl, say a wedding present, maybe something that was bought for my husband and me by my parents (who aren’t around anymore), I’m going to see if I can find somebody who can fix it with gold.

The reason I like kintsugi so much is that it doesn’t seek to hide a fracture, or even multiple fractures. There’s no attempt to mend something that’s seriously broken by fixing the damage so that it’s invisible to the naked eye. Quite the reverse. The idea is that the breakage is an important part of the pot’s history and should not be hidden or forgotten. But if it gets fixed with care, and love, and valuable materials, the pot not only becomes usable again, it becomes differently beautiful—a celebration, a reminder, even a triumph.

I love the idea so much that I incorporated a version of it into one of the stories I’m currently writing—a novella about sibling rivalry and family fractures and reconciliation.

And I hope it doesn’t sound naïve or pretentious to say that it’s what I wish for our world. The sooner the better.

Take care, be kind, and see you next Sunday.

Jilly: A True Story, Brilliantly Told

Have you ever watched a great musician play? Wondered at the way they seem to be one with their instrument, physically and emotionally?

If you wanted to express the intensity of that connection through the medium of dance, wouldn’t it be inspired to use two dancers, one for the musician and one for the instrument? That’s what choreographer Cathy Marston did in her recent one-hour modern ballet The Cello, based on the life of renowned cellist Jacqueline du Pré.

The role of the cellist was created for British ballerina Lauren Cuthbertson; the role of her cello was created for Portuguese dancer Marcelino Sambé, and the way they move together, almost becoming the music, is breathtaking.

The storytelling is inspired. Everything centers around the cello. The instrument is the emotional link between the cellist and her husband, the celebrated conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim. Then it becomes the means to express the loss and heartbreak they suffer as du Pré develops the multiple sclerosis that cut short her career, and then her life. She died twelve years ago, aged 42.

Even if you’re not a dance fan, you might enjoy this four-minute discussion between the choreographer, the cellist who accompanies the piece, and the dancers who play du Pré, the cello, and Barenboim. They discuss the process of creating the story, including working from a selection of word prompts. Click here to watch on YouTube.

If that whetted your appetite for more, click here for a New York Times review of the ballet.

Best of all, if you’d like to watch The Cello, you can. It’s free to watch on the Royal Ballet’s Youtube channel for another 12 days. Have tissues to hand. Click here.

Sigh. Have a lovely weekend.

Take care, stay safe, and see you next week.

Kay: How a Romance Author Helped Save the Jews

Ida and Louise Cook on their way

Sometimes people ask themselves—or tell others—why they write. Sometimes people decide that their writing will take a different path than they’d expected. (See Elizabeth’s post from yesterday.)

Ida Cook wrote to save Jews from the Nazis just before World War II.

I don’t think that was Ida’s plan, though. Many years later, she said: “The funny thing is, we weren’t the James Bond type. We were just respectable Civil Service typists.”

Born in the early 1900s, neither she nor her sister, Louise, ever married, as was common with many women of their generation after the deaths so many young men during World War I. Instead, they lived at home with their parents in south London. Continue reading

Jilly: Where Would You Go?

Another weekend in lockdown, at least here in the UK. How are you doing? I hope you’re safe and well and facing the corona-challenge as best you can.

This week we finally received confirmation that the 2020 Romance Writers of America  National Conference, scheduled to take place in San Francisco at the end of July, has been cancelled. That’s…kind of a relief, since I saw the writing on the wall a couple of months ago and refunded our plane tickets and hotel bookings. I’m sad it won’t be happening, but glad we won’t be missing out on the fun.

Last weekend I talked about the idea that a cancelled vacation is a double disappointment—you miss out on the trip, but you also miss out on the planning, which may be the best bit. No budget constraints, no logistical difficulties, nothing but good times ahead.

In last Sunday’s comments, Elizabeth said that since much of the fun is in the planning, we should keep working on our itineraries, enjoying the luxury of our virtual trips without being hampered by financial considerations or practical details. I think she’s right.

So. Once this crisis is over, if you could go anywhere in the world, money no object, where would you go? Continue reading

Michaeline: For the Love of Barbara Allen

Pretty young lady with a check or plaid dress.

An autumn version of Barbara Allen/Barbara Allan. (via Wikimedia Commons)

There are a lot of different variations of the old Scottish/English/Appalachian song about Barbara Allen, but I was first exposed to the lyrics through a Bugs Bunny cartoon. (0:14) Porky Pig was dressed Friar Tuck, and strolled around singing about the merry month of May.

It was a great tune, and memorable lyrics. “A young man on his deathbed lay, for love of Barbara Allen.” (“Robin Hood Daffy,” 1958.) 

Later in high school or college, we sang a different version in choir. The lyrics could be sung to Porky’s melody, though, so I’d switch between the two in the shower, depending on if I wanted to be light and lovely, or dark and mournful. Continue reading

Jilly: Getting Away From It All

It’s a holiday weekend here. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and we’re in limbo, waiting for the corona-crisis to be resolved or at least assimilated into our post-pandemic daily lives. Wherever you are, I hope you’re safe and well.

Usually around now people in the UK get the first inkling that summer is around the corner. That promises vacation, relaxation, maybe a change of scenery, perhaps a beach read or two. Except this year relaxation is not an option, and the scenery is depressingly familiar. Mr. W and I had tickets to visit San Francisco at the end of July for RWA Nationals. We expected to meet up with California-based friends and to enjoy a civilized meander down the coast with Kay. Clearly none of that will happen. We’ll be lucky if we’re allowed to hop on a train and visit friends and family outside London.

Many of my friends have reported increased cabin fever lately, and I wonder if at least some of it is down to the loss of that holiday promise, the anticipation of a treat or just the idea, the possibility of something new. Chez Jilly we’d have shared days and weeks’ worth of fun planning our road trip, investigating possibilities online, talking to Kay about places to stay, discussing landmarks to visit, imagining food and wine we might sample. Planning a vacay is like a free holiday-before-the-holiday, with only the good bits—no budget constraints, no sunburn, and no jet lag. I think being robbed of that fantasy is almost as bad as missing out on the trip itself. Continue reading

Kay: Today’s News, Yesterday

“Liberty Leading the People” by Eugène Delacroix (1830)

I struggled to find a topic to write about this week, and I decided to go with an old chestnut idea: find out more about an unknown literary figure who was born on today’s date. Initially, the only person I could find was Anna Robeson Brown Burr, whom I located on some wacky web site. She was a wealthy socialite, married a wealthy socialite, wrote books, volunteered at the library, and died at age 68 of pneumonia.

Not that interesting.

However, her obit ran on the front page (!) of the Chester (Pennsylvania) Times of Sept 11, 1941, which was fascinating, although (full disclosure) I read and catalogued 18th-century newspapers for my research grant when I was in grad school, so I admit I might have a stronger-than-usual interest in old newspapers.

In any event, Sept. 11, 1941 was before the United States entered World War II, of course, and the front page was full of war news. But there was a lot of news about polio, too. Continue reading

Jilly: Traditional treats, surprising skills

Another week, another Sunday. I’d swear the days are dragging, yet blink! and here we are again. I hope you’re still keeping safe and well as we inch toward the new normal, whatever that may be.

An unexpected upside of the current crisis has been a surge in demand for various niche businesses. Amid the general gloom and depression, it’s been lovely to see artisanal flour producers, needlepoint tutors, hen-keepers and the like enjoy an unexpected moment in the sunlight.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned here before that I’m a huge jigsaw puzzle fan. Jigsaws are traditionally regarded as a staid older-person’s form of distraction, but apparently in these stressful days of lockdown confinement they have seen a huge resurgence. Yay! Long may it last!

I always have a jigsaw on the go when I’m plotting a book. When I get stuck trying to figure out character arcs, world-building, turning points and plot holes, I take a time out with the puzzle and the challenge of identifying colors, patterns, and shapes seems to re-set my brain. According to the interwebs, this is because jigsaw puzzles Continue reading

Jeanne: Another Delivery from the Girls in the Attic

In the atticWhen the Eight Ladies were in class at McDaniel College years ago, our instructor, Jenny Crusie, used to talk about the Girls in the Attic. The Girls, she said, were the source of inspiration. What they handed down might be weird and totally not where your conscious mind wanted to go with your manuscript, but you should never disregard them.

(The Girls, by the way, were Jenny’s answer to Stephen King’s Boys in the Basement, who serve a similar purpose.)

Last week I started noodling around with another demon book. I have no idea why. I have one manuscript with 60,000 words written that’s waiting for me to come back and mold it into a readable story. And the next logical book in the demon series isn’t the one I started playing around with.

Clearly, following a straight line is not something I excel at. Continue reading