Damsels’ Trip Around the World: North America

January 31, 2011

I think history buffs often have a travel bug as well.  We spend so much time learning about the past in other parts of the world that it makes sense we want to see these places in the present.  So for the month of February, the Damsels are taking a virtual trip around the world, starting in North America and traveling east.

This past August, my husband, in-laws, and I spent a long weekend in Victoria, BC.  In preparation for this, my travel-literature-addict mom-in-law picked up a AAA book on Western Canada and Alaska.  It didn’t have too much to show us on Victoria that she hadn’t learned from a previous trip, but it made for some fun reading.  And I discovered  a truly random place I

map of Manitoba, Canada

really want to go: Churchill, Manitoba.

This actually started with thoughts of a trip to Winnipeg, the capitol of Manitoba, near where my grandpa was born.  He didn’t live there all that long before his family moved to Detroit, but I would still like to see it.  But from Winnipeg, you can take a train to Churchill, Canada’s northernmost subarctic sea port on the Hudson Bay.  Back in the mid-1700s, the Hudson’s Bay Company built the Prince of Wales Fort near this city to house 400 soldiers.  In 1782, though, there were only 39 British soldiers occupying the fort when three French warships attacked.  The British governer surrendered without fighting and the fort was abandoned.  It’s now a partial ruin accessible only by boat, but there are many whale-watching tours that make a stop there.  On the shore nearby, you can visit the Cape Merry National Historic Site, which hosts a stone cannon battery from 1746, which was built to complement the Prince of Wales Fort.

All fine and good, but there’s more.  Wapusk National Park, just south and east of Churchill, is one of the most accessible viewing areas in the world for polar bears.  They congregate in the north end of the park around October, where they prepare for the birth of their young in the coming months and for a re-freezing to the north so they can hunt for food.  The park isn’t full of roads and trails like most national parks, so visitors must be part of an organized tour that uses air craft or a tundra vehicle.

Best of all, this is a trip we could do easily from our home in greater Seattle.  Just hop on Amtrak in Seattle and in Vancouver, BC, change to a Via Rail Canada train to Winnipeg.  Spend a couple days in Winnipeg, then take another train up to Churchill and pretend I’m one of the early Canadian explorers for the Hudson’s Bay Company, enjoying marine mammels, unspoiled wilderness, and the aurora borealis.  Still talking my warmth-loving husband into this one, but some day…


Contest: Prisoners in the Palace

January 28, 2011

This month we’re giving away a copy of Michaela MacColl’s novel, Prisoners in the Palace. To enter the random drawing, simply post a comment about your favorite YA novel involving some kind of espionage. If you can’t come up with a YA, feel free to post about any spy novel.

The winner will be announced next week.  Good luck!

Interview: Michaela MacColl

January 26, 2011

Today we’re talking with Michaela MacColl, author of Prisoners in the Palace. Welcome to Damsels in Regress, Michaela!

Tricia, thanks so much for the opportunity to speak with your readers. I’m delighted to be here.

1. How did Liza’s story come about?

I wanted to write about the young Princess Victoria. But I didn’t want to be constrained in my plot by what would be historically accurate. One of my critique partners kept suggesting that Victoria needed to leave the palace and get into big trouble in London. Unfortunately, Victoria would never have been able to avoid her guardians long enough to get into London. So I needed to create another character who could be intimate with the Princess but who had freedom to move about and have her own adventures. At first, Liza was going to be a young lady with pretensions of being a reporter who would go “undercover” at the Palace. But the more I worked on that angle, I realized it was too modern. So she became a girl who had lost everything and needed a job.

2. I really enjoyed all the historical detail in this book, such as the wood box built into the wall.  What kind of research did you do?

Prisoners in the Palace was originally suggested to me by an editor. She wanted to see a book like Philippa Gregory’s (The Other Boleyn Girl) about a young Victoria. I was interested, but I didn’t know a whole lot about Victoria. So I went to the library and took out two major biographies on Victoria, a traditional one and another that was pretty recent. After I got a sense of her whole life, I began to concentrate just on her childhood.

As you begin to write, you find you need specific information. For instance, I needed to understand the layout of Kensington Palace, how the servants functioned in a large house and just who was Inside Boy Jones? Each topic I looked up individually, starting with the internet, but usually ending up with books or journal articles. I use the library often, along with inter-library loan. University libraries are handy for more obscure information.

You need to know when to stop. For instance, when you read a new biography and pick up only a single new detail that you didn’t know before… then you’re approaching the end.

Inside Boy was a real person, but as for living in the wood box, I made that up—sorry!

3. I’ve read stories about young ladies having to become governesses, but never about one becoming a lady’s maid. Did you come across a situation like this in your research?

The decision to make Liza a maid was based on what was possible. Victoria already had a governess who had to be approved by the King. Also, a governess has to be older and I wanted to make these girls the same age. Once you eliminate governesses, there aren’t a lot of choices to get Liza into Kensington Palace.

The sub-plot of Annie, the disgraced maid, was based on historical fact. I came across a single line in a book about Victoria’s childhood that referenced a maid, Annie Mason, who was dismissed for lewd behavior.

4. I don’t usually talk about book covers in an interview, but yours is stunning.  Not only does the back cover cleverly tell about the story as a news sheet, but the picture on the front—well, let me say, in certain light those eyes followed me across the room. Did you have any input on how it was developed?

They follow you, too? It is an amazing cover, isn’t it? I was expecting the typical stock photograph of a girl in a beautiful dress. But Chronicle prides itself on thinking about design. The editor and an in-house designer work together to create three separate designs. They take these mock-ups to a big meeting with Editorial, Marketing and Sales. Everybody has to agree. Here’s a blog post from Chronicle’s designer Amy Achaibou. I wasn’t really consulted until the design was pretty much set. That’s okay though—I never would have thought outside the box like that.

I was consulted on the back cover. My editor had the idea to reference Victorian newspapers and asked me to write several mini-articles about the book. I don’t know many authors who got to write the cover copy!

5. What were your favorite books as a teenager?

I was into literary mysteries as a teenager (Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh) but also had an enormous crush on Jane Austen (except Northanger Abbey—can’t stand that one).

6. I’ve enjoyed those authors as well.  What are you working on now?

I just handed in the final edits of a novel about Beryl Markham. (We don’t have a title yet.) She was an aviator in the 1930’s who was the first person to cross the Atlantic solo going East to West. It was a much more difficult flight in that direction than from say New York to England. She crashed, but survived. She wrote about her adventures in a brilliant memoir called West Into the Night.  Her father was one of the first colonists in the highlands of British East Africa (now Kenya). She grew up hunting with the natives who worked for her father. She was mauled by a lion, survived a sadistic governess and led a revolt from boarding school. The lessons of her childhood gave her the fortitude to survive her flight. I think this novel is for a slightly younger audience than Prisoners in the Palace, but that was where the story took me!

Sounds amazing. Thanks for chatting with us! For more information on Michaela and her work, visit her website, www.michaelamaccoll.com. Be sure to stop in on Friday for a chance to win a copy of Prisoners in the Palace.

Book Review: Prisoners in the Palace

January 24, 2011
Prisoners in the Palace
Michaela MacColl
Grade 7 and up
368 pages

Okay, listen up, you lovers of all things Queen Victoria. Have I got a book for you! Michaela MacColl’s Prisoners in the Palace has everything you’re looking for—that is if you want good YA historical fiction with a real historical person at its center.

End of sales pitch. Now on to the story. It’s London in 1836. Seventeen-year-old Liza Hastings has just lost her parents in a carriage accident. Her father’s lawyer informs her that all the money is gone. What was meant to be a trip to London to introduce Liza to society and find a husband has ended in tragedy. But the lawyer also offers her an opportunity. Seeing nothing else to do, she accepts.

She heads off to Kensington Palace to interview for a position as a lady in waiting to Princess Victoria. What she finds is that the position is for a lady’s maid. If Liza is to survive, she must become a servant—something she has no idea how to do.

Liza’s ability to speak German clinches the job, because Baroness Lehzen, Victoria’s governess, wants someone to spy on Victoria’s mother and her advisor, Sir John Conroy. Thus, Liza enters a world of intrigue, unable to fit in with the ranks of royalty or the servant class below stairs.  She learns quickly to temper her natural reactions as a young lady to that of a servant. As the story progresses, Liza encounters political machinations that keep her scrambling to do what seems best for Victoria.  And, of course, there’s romance.

Prisoners in the Palace is a compelling look behind the scenes at Queen Victoria’s stifling upbringing. And a gripping story. Besides Liza’s plucky character, I most enjoyed the historical details and MacColl’s swift plot.  Definitely a book I had trouble putting down.

One last note. The image above doesn’t do the cover of this book justice. You have to see it in person. I talk a bit about this in the author interview with Michaela MacColl I’ll have up on Wednesday. So stay tuned. And, make sure to check in on Friday, when I’ll post a contest to win a copy of this fun read.

From Middle Grade Time Travel to Young Adult Science Fiction…

January 17, 2011

I love all things historical, but like Tricia and Emilie, after finishing The Schoolhouse Disappearance I needed a break from it. Unlike Emilie and Tricia, I knew I couldn’t write another contemporary novel. In fact, I had never planned to write a contemporary novel—ever! (Lesson learned: Never say never). Kathryn’s Hero came about because about two months before my brother’s return from his first deployment, all my pent-up emotions spilled over, and the only way I knew how to deal with them was to write about it. When it comes down to it though, contemporary just isn’t my thing.

With historical and contemporary stories crossed off the list of possible projects, that left me with only one other novel (in my idea basket that wasn’t history related) to focus on—a young adult science fiction novel. It was the second novel I’d ever written—and it was a disaster, but the characters and the world I’d created so many years ago still spoke to me. I wanted to go back to that novel and rework it—okay I’ll be honest, completely rewrite it. Rereading the 72,000 (yes it was that long!) word manuscript made me realize there was no salvaging the novel. Which was just as well ’cause I really wanted to start from scratch.

And so the brainstorming began for a new plot. Before I realized it, I was world building!  I’d neglected to really define my world in the first novel, and I found that this time as I built my world, my story started to come into focus. I drew maps (yes, I’ve included a couple at the end of this for you to see just how obsessed I got), created a city, researched rain forests (the new setting for my novel—don’t ask where it came from, I’ve no clue. I’ve never had any particular interest in them…never thought I’d create a planet where 90% of the continent was a rain forest, but then my stories don’t much listen to me when they get going.), created a government and discovered the backstory that would eventually lead to me discovering just what this novel would be about. About halfway through all this I realized I had two stories on my hands. I know, I know I’m an overachiever, what can I say?

You see, my main character has a twin, and I realized that he too needed his own story. Better yet, while the two stories would stand on their own, they’d be partially told simultaneously, and would complement each other (It’s true. I never undertake anything simple.). I did this world building when I should have been rewriting Abby, but obviously wasn’t. I finally got to a point where I had to stop all planning and plotting and either switch over to Abby or start writing Avrina’s story. (Avrina is pronounced Av-re-na — long ‘e’.)  I did stop, and in three months managed to rewrite Abby’s story. Now that she’s done (sort of) I’ve returned to Avrina and there’s no stopping me this time.

I’m moving along with Avrina’s story and having fun. I’ve been missing that in my writing lately. I can’t stop grinning when I start plotting out scenes. I get giddy over the idea of being able to write from two points of views. I’m excited to discover what story she has to tell and I don’t have to force myself to write. I sit at a computer and the story just spills out of me and onto the pages. I’ve missed that in my writing for the past couple years. Don’t get me wrong, I still love Abby, but after two years of her before grad school, then two years in grad school and this past year on her I needed to leave her alone for a while. I needed to get back to being in love with writing and unable to stop even when life’s other responsibilities were calling me. With Avrina, I’ve found that again.

I realize the above doesn’t tell you much about the actual plot of Avrina De Mer (working title–because I haven’t a clue what to title this novel yet!). I’m not sure I can explain it all in a concise way yet…but I’m going to try! The basic plot: Avrina lives on MerDocen, a planet that was exiled over hundred years ago because of a war they started with the Galaxy. MerDocen has a plant known as the Magna which grows only on MerDocen. When a plague breaks out in the galaxy and is it discovered that the seed of the magna plant is an antidote, the Galaxy is forced to remove the exile in exchange for access to MerDocen’s magna’s plants. This removal of the exile comes with some strings, though. Meldon O’Can, president of the Valant Quadrant of the Galaxy, arrives on MerDocen to tell them of his new terms and from there a story filled with a marriage, death, sabotage, backstabbing, learning to trust, and oh so much more begins!

Read the rest of this entry »

Dubrovnik or Bust . . .

January 10, 2011

As Emilie said last week, we at the Damsels are taking a few weeks to write about our current works in progress. And they’re not historical! Here’s how mine began:

As some of you know, I went on a family trip last summer. It began with a couple of days in Venice (see photos here) and then a cruise on the Adriatic Sea with stops along the coast of Croatia. It was a great time over all.  But perhaps the best thing about it, and most writers will agree with me here, was the story idea that developed immediately after.

You see, the places we went and the adventures we had were all fresh in my mind. I wondered what it might be like for a young teenage girl to be forced to go on a trip like this with her grandparents. And just like that, I had a character talking to me, telling me exactly what she thought about such a trip—because she was on it.

This, needless to say, has been a lot of fun. One of the hard parts of writing historical fiction is, of course, the research. The need to get the historical context right. This disappears when writing contemporary fiction.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t any research to be done.  For example, the places and events that were so fresh in my mind in July have now become a bit stale. During the fall, I worked mostly on revising my historical fantasy. Then the holidays came along and I worked on—nothing. So now I will have to look up city names and study photos to get myself back on that small cruise ship.

But I’m looking forward to it. Because my young protagonist has a lot of adventures ahead of her.  And, you see, there’s this hot guy . . .

My Work in Progress

January 3, 2011

Happy 2011, Damsels readers!  We took a much-needed blogging break over Christmas and have decided to ease back into our routine slowly, starting with write-ups of our current works in progress, hereby abbreviated WIP.  For each Damsel, our current project is different than the one we were working on when we started this blog.  And, shockingly enough, none of them are historicals!  Not a single one.  Not that I have finally agreed that historicals are too hard to sell right now or anything, but personally, I needed a break after living with one foot (sometimes more) in the 1940s for over four years.

My WIP has the working title I Will Never Leave You.  It came from a few different sources, starting with my soft spot for books like last year’s Newbery winner, When You Reach Me and Madeleine L’Engle’s fantastic but oh-so-human adventures like A Swiftly Tilting PlanetHoles by Louis Sacher fills this niche for me as well.  They all involve real people, real places (more or less with L’Engle, but they at least start on Earth), and real emotions, but there are things that happen that push the story forward that no one can quite explain but seem to come from deep human needs.  A lot of them involve history repeating itself, either literally or emotionally.  I’m not explaining this very well, but the ah-ha moments in these books are some of my favorites ever.  Write what you love, right?  So why can’t I write something like this?

Enter two of my best friends.  One was my roommate for a year in college, but my best pal all four years.  We’ve been close ever since, even though we live many miles apart, and visit when we can.  The other lives here in greater Seattle and is about 2/3 girlfriend and 1/3 “West Coast Mom.”  See, this friend is forty years older than me.  Most of the time we don’t notice it, and in fact we’ll say things like, “I started reading Harry Potter in high school” that throw the other one for a loop.  I love both of these women dearly.   One day my local friend was typing something and her computer suddenly rebeled.  The way she talked to the computer, trying to get it to do what she wanted in a voice like one might use on a toddler, was one I knew I’d heard before, but I couldn’t place where.

Then it hit me: my college dorm room.  It was my roommate’s voice, coming from a woman of another generation who’d never met my roommate.  And I realized that was part of what made me love my local friend so much–she filled the niche in my current life that my roommate had filled in college.  It was like being friends with the same person at different stages of their life, but at the same time.

Then I thought, why not take it a step further?  What if a present-day teen found herself bonding out of loneliness with an older adult who reminded her of her best friend?  And what if their other people in both generations had similar traits, so much so that an episode the older generation wants to forget is playing out in the younger one, but not in a way that’s immediately obvious?

Such is the basic set-up of I Will Never Leave You.  It’s been a fun break from historical fiction, though a challenge as well.  Little things, like the word “like,” which I used very sparingly with my 1940s British narrator, need to be worked back in to this new story.  Communication via texting, social networking, Skype, and even just phone calls without a party line are fabulous after years of writing letters in chapter two that wouldn’t be answered until chapter ten.  But if you noticed the intergenerational premise, you’ll see I couldn’t keep all the past away.

Still working on the rough draft at the moment, and I already know of several changes I will make to the beginning.  I am having a lot of fun with this book, though, and I hope someday, someone else will, too.