Sunday, November 29, 2009

Now That Thanksgiving Is Over...

I forgot to write my blog for today. Well, not exactly. Obviously I wrote one because here it is. The problem is that I didn't write it ahead of time so I could post it first thing this morning. Right now it's 8:15am Central time and I'm just starting to write without having a real topic or anything firmly in my mind.

How did this happen is the question. And the answer is: Holiday Weekend. Today is the fourth consecutive Sunday that's happened this week. Last Wednesday seemed like Saturday because it was preparation for the next day's Thanksgiving holiday. That made Thursday seem like Sunday. The Friday after Thanksgiving, the biggest shopping day of the year termed Black Friday because it's the day merchants have covered all their expenses through the end of the year and move out of red ink financial losses and into black ink profits, felt like Sunday. Then the next day, being part of a holiday weekend, felt like yet another Sunday. And today, of course, is actually Sunday.

And speaking of Black Friday…people started lining up at Best Buys here about midnight Thursday for the store opening at 5am on Friday. It was the same at Target and Wal-Mart as well as many other stores in the malls. I did some shopping, but I did it online. Far less stressful and the same good bargains. :)

And if you are the one who had all the friends and family to your house for Thanksgiving turkey with all the traditional trimmings, you've probably been eating leftovers for three days and by now you don't want to see another turkey for a while. :)

So, with four Sundays available to me this week, here I am scrambling to get my weekly blog written so I can post it Sunday morning.

I don't know about anyone else, but recovering from a holiday weekend always feels to me as if I'm learning a set routine all over again from scratch. With tomorrow morning I need to think Monday again. I really don't want to deal with a fifth consecutive Sunday in one week. :)

How many of you braved the crowds to get the super bargains stores were offering on Black Friday? Any of you stand in line in the middle of the night waiting for the store to open? I'm assuming that big ticket electronic items made up most of the purchases…all those flat panel HDTVs and new computers.

And now, take a deep breath and prepare for the Monday morning return to normal.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Thanksgiving Facts, Myths, And Those Naughty Pilgrims--Part 2

Last week I posted some facts about Thanksgiving By The Numbers. This week, before talking about more adventures of those sexy pilgrims, I have some Mayflower myths to share with you.

Myth: The first Thanksgiving was in 1621 and the pilgrims celebrated it every year after that.
Fact: The first feast wasn't repeated, so it wasn't the beginning of a tradition. In fact, it wouldn't have been called Thanksgiving because to the pilgrims a thanksgiving was a religious holiday. That feast in 1621 was a secular celebration and would not have been considered a thanksgiving in their minds.

Myth: The original Thanksgiving feast took place on the fourth Thursday of November.
Fact: The original feast in 1621 occurred sometime between September 21 and November 11 and was a three day celebration based on the English harvest festivals. President Franklin D. Roosevelt set the date for Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday of November in 1939, a decision fraught with controversy. The date was approved by Congress in 1941.

Myth: The pilgrims wore only black and white clothing with buckles on their hats, garments, and shoes.
Fact: Buckles did not come into fashion until later in the 17th century. Black and white were commonly worn only on Sunday and formal occasions.

But what about the actions and activities of those naughty pilgrims? As with so much in life, there's the fa├žade and then there's the reality. :)

Although not liberal in their thinking or lifestyle, the pilgrims were not as uptight as history would have us believe. They tried to create a strict religious society, but had an understanding and mercy unusual for their time. As time passed, intolerance grew and was reflected in their laws as demonstrated by the notorious Salem witch trials.

Men were not the only offenders in Plymouth colony. The prim women weren't always so pious either. Women were often caught with the evidence of their dalliances: babies. The records of the times are filled with one out-of-wedlock child after another. Babies showing up just a few months after marriage were also evidence of wrong doing. Pre-marital sex was severely punished. Fines were levied even for making passes, for appearing to have a "lascivious carriage" in public, or partying in mixed company at an unseemly time of night.

Sex outside marriage, even between two unmarried consenting adults, usually meant a whipping and fines. If the woman became pregnant, the man had to either marry her or pay for the child's upbringing. The man was usually placed in the stocks and whipped while the woman was made to watch. Sometimes mercy was granted as in the case of a servant, Jane Powell. Following years of hard servitude, she was destitute and had agreed to having sex in the hopes of marrying the man. Apparently the court found her plea convincing and she went unpunished.

Even though the pilgrims imposed strict punishment for crimes, they also understood human temptations. In 1656, Katheren Aines and William Paule were sentenced for committing adultery. William was whipped and forced to pay the costs of his imprisonment. Katheren was whipped, imprisoned and forced to wear a letter on her shoulder designating her as an adulteress. (Calling Nathaniel Hawthorne!) However, Katheren's husband, Alexander, was also punished. Alexander had left his family for some time and treated her badly during their marriage. The pilgrims viewed him as guilty of "exposing his wife to such temptations." Alexander was required to pay for his wife's imprisonment, and sit in the stocks while William and Katheren were whipped.

This Thanksgiving as you sit down to your turkey dinner, it might be a good idea to take a moment to be thankful that you aren't a pilgrim. :)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Thanksgiving Facts, Myths, and Those Naughty Pilgrims--Part I

We all know the story of how the pilgrims left England seeking religious freedom and finally settled in the New World at Plymouth in what is now the state of Massachusetts. And how in 1621 they invited the local natives to share a dinner with them in order to give thanks for a successful harvest and surviving their first year. That feast of thanksgiving was not repeated the next year, therefore it was not the start of the Thanksgiving Day holiday tradition.

From those humble beginnings have come many facts and as many myths about the pilgrims and our Thanksgiving holiday. So, I'd like to take this week and next week to share some of those facts with you, correct several of those myths, and contradict the belief that the pilgrims embodied the very soul of purity and piety.

Let's start with some facts. Here's a list of Thanksgiving by the numbers.

3,000—the number of calories eaten during an average Thanksgiving meal.

12,000,000—the number of whole turkeys Butterball sells for Thanksgiving.

2,000 - 3,000—the number of people used to guide the balloons during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

214—the average number of miles driven for the family get together at Thanksgiving.

1939—the date the Great Thanksgiving Day calendar controversy began (when FDR declared the fourth Thursday of November to be the official date of Thanksgiving).

23.3—the percentage of Black Friday shoppers who arrive at stores before five o'clock in the morning.

12,000—the number of cubic feet of helium in the Big Bird balloon in the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.

40,000,000—the number of green bean casseroles made for Thanksgiving dinner.

72,000,000—the number of cans of Ocean Spray cranberry sauce sold for Thanksgiving dinner.

Now that we've covered some facts, next week I'll tackle some myths about Thanksgiving.

What about those pious pilgrims? They certainly have a reputation for being a rigid and humorless group. But there are a few surprises to be found. Even though drunkenness was discouraged, beer was accepted as a drink by men, women, and children. The daily ration on the Mayflower was a gallon a day for each individual. Even sex was not taboo under the right circumstances. They had a matter-of-fact attitude about sex as long as it was between a married couple. It's when sex strayed from being the exclusive right between a married couple that the stories get interesting.

Studies by a group of anthropologists at the University of Virginia found that the pilgrims spent a great deal of time thinking about how to punish those with impure thoughts and actions. Studies also discovered that in 11% of the marriages at Plymouth Colony the bride was pregnant at the time. The same study estimates that as many as 50% of the pilgrims engaged in premarital sex. Definitely not an image that fits the staid pilgrims.

According to the Mayflower Compact, the colony was to establish laws based on Biblical teachings "for the glory of God and the advancement of the Christian faith." The Old Testament book of Leviticus was the basis for most of their laws. Adultery? Death. A man has sex with his daughter-in-law? Death. Sodomy? Death. Bestiality? Death. Are you beginning to see a pattern? :)

But interestingly, the pilgrims did not typically enforce the death penalty for sex offenses. There was only one case in which the convicted offender was actually put to death for sex crimes. It was the case of Thomas Graunger, a teenage boy apparently at the throes of raging hormones who sought satisfaction from any and all sources available to him…the farm animals.

According to Plymouth Governor William Bradford, "He was this year detected of buggery, and indicted for the same, with a mare, a cow, two goats, five sheep, two calves and a turkey."

Even though Thomas was the only one executed for a sex crime, punishments were routinely severe even with far lesser sex crimes and usually meant whippings, being put into the stocks, and fines.

In next week's blog (Sunday, November 22) Thanksgiving Facts, Myths, And Those Naughty Pilgrims Part II—I'll demyth some of the Mayflower myths and give you a few more examples of the lusty nature of the pilgrims that they couldn't keep under control in spite of the severe punishments for such crimes including the wearing of the infamous letter A for adultery, a punishment prominently used by Hawthorne in his 1850 novel, The Scarlet Letter.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Researching A Setting Can Be Fun

14th Century Tithe Barn - Bredon, England

There's no denying that research is a part of writing whether non-fiction or fiction. And within the parameters of fiction, the genre somewhat dictates how much research is required. Certainly, historical fiction requires extensive research into place and time in order to be accurate with details down to the simplest clothing items. Techno thrillers, legal thrillers, and medical themed novels need to be accurate in terminology, science, and procedures.

But there is an area of research that is often considered trivial or inconsequential in the overall scope of your story. And that's the location where your story is set. Certainly the setting is important, but as a matter of research it seldom makes it to the top of the list.

A contemporary novel set in your home town requires little in the way of research for location. You live there so you know about the terrain, weather, the businesses, the good neighborhoods vs. the bad neighborhoods, streets and highways, tourist attractions, places of special interest and historical interest. That's easy.

But, what about setting your story somewhere that you have never been? If that is the case, you have options available. The most obvious for accuracy is to visit the location—take in the ambiance, make note of the geographic elements, study the activities of the residents, and grab the tourist brochures available in the hotel lobby. All major metropolitan areas have certain 'must see' tourist attractions that are common knowledge around the world. The Empire State Building, Golden Gate Bridge, Tower of London, Eiffel Tower. Well known tourist attractions can certainly be included in descriptive passages of your setting or become part of a scene where some action takes place. That gives the reader an immediate mental image reference to go along with your descriptive passages.

Travel and tour books can be a great help for general research information. The Auto Club (AAA) publishes tour books for all the states that includes information about the major cities in that state and certainly the tourist areas. A real estate search of a city will give you knowledge of the various neighborhoods. A city's website will tell you about the educational system, shopping, cultural events, sports activities, etc.

My most interesting research experience was for one of my Harlequin Intrigue novels, THE SEDGWICK CURSE, a romantic suspense written under my other pseudonym of Shawna Delacorte.

My story was set in a small stereotypical village of the type found in the Cotswolds in the English countryside. A large estate inhabited by the Lord of the manor—land and a title that had been in the family for centuries. An annual festival that had been held on the estate grounds every year for over two hundred years. And murder involving the titled rich and powerful.

I needed to research several things. Certainly accurate information about the physical setting I'd chosen. And then specifics (beyond what I'd gleaned from various British crime drama series on PBS' Mystery) about the way local law enforcement interacted with the privileged aristocracy when investigating a murder.

I had already been to England several times and had another trip planned, so I included spending one week in the Cotswolds to do the research I needed. **This is where the fun part of the research came in. :) ** I found a charming centuries old hotel in the town of Tewkesbury and used it as my base to explore the surrounding area.

My research started when I walked into the local police station, said I was a writer doing research for a novel, and asked if there was someone I could talk to about how a local murder would be investigated. I was passed on to a Detective Sergeant who was very helpful and spent about two hours with me, which was an hour and forty-five minutes longer than expected. I garnered far more information than I needed for that specific book, but great research material for future needs.

The next step in my research was the immediate location for my fictional Lord Sedgwick's estate. This was a major stroke of good luck. About three miles north of Tewkesbury is the village of Bredon that had everything I needed, including a large estate that hosted a village festival every year and the weekend I was there happened to be festival weekend. I was able to wander around the grounds, take pictures, and get information about the estate straight from the owner's mouth. One of the buildings on the grounds, the Tithe Barn pictured above, is part of the National Trust and dates back to the 1300s. It is accurately described and used in my book, as are most of the features of the real counterpart of my Sedgwick Estate.

Obviously, traveling to a foreign country to research a location isn't that practical. If the location is a well-known tourist attraction, you will have lots of research material available to you. But what if your desired setting is a typical small town or village in a specific area? That brings us to the more practical solution of creating a fictional small town as the setting for your story.

I have set many of my Harlequin and Silhouette books in fictional small towns. But the one thing these fictional small towns have in common is that they are all patterned after a real place that I've been in the state where I've set the story. And in lieu of that, there's always the ability of taking something like a beach town or mountain village and transplanting it to another state for the purposes of your story.

If there's someplace you've been, a vacation you enjoyed, and you want to recreate the feel and ambiance for your story setting without fear of getting some of the facts wrong about the real place, the best way to handle it is to create a fictional location. Do some basic research on the general type of location you've selected for your story such as a fishing village on the coast of Maine. That will give you basic generic facts for that type of setting. Then you can take the feel of the real life place you visited and impose those memories and impressions on top of your researched facts for a fully realized story setting. Your characters can then impart that sense of place to the readers with the words and actions you give them in addition to your descriptons.

In my novella FORBIDDEN ISLAND by Samantha Gentry, currently available from The Wilder Roses (the Scarlet Rose line of erotic romances from The Wild Rose Press), the setting is a privately owned Caribbean island. The Travel Channel has a show about privately owned islands and Sir Richard Branson's Necker Island was one of them. I used that as the model for my creation of Forbidden Island.

Do any of you have any research tips for story setting you'd like to share?
Stay Tuned...Sunday, November 15 and Sunday, November 22...I'll be doing a two-part blog on those naughty, sexy pilgrims. It seems they weren't as pure and pious as we thought.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Ten Unbreakable Guinness World Records

The Guinness Book Of World Records has been around for fifty-five years and has compiled an incredible list of achievements in almost every category imaginable.

Over the years, the editors of the book have removed some categories because they chose not to encourage or promote those activities such as bullfighting and excessive drinking. They once published records for the world's heaviest dog but discontinued that because they didn't want to see a pet owner abusing an animal just so they could be listed in the book.

Some records remain on top even fifty-five years after the first edition was published. Guinness has declared them to be 'unbreakable' but admits they might be broken some day.

Here's Guinness' list of ten unbreakable records.

1) TALLEST MAN: At 8' 11", Robert Wadlow holds the record for the tallest man. When he died in 1940 at the age of twenty-two, he was still growing.

2) LIGHTEST WOMAN: Lucia Zarate was 21.5" tall. She had, for a brief time, weighed as much as 13 pounds. At the time of her death at age twenty-six in 1889, she weighed a mere 4.7 pounds.

3) LOUDEST SOUND: The volcanic eruption of the island of Krakatoa on August 26, 1883, sent shock waves reverberating seven times around the globe and was heard 2,200 miles away in Perth, Australia.

4) MOST PROLIFIC MURDERESS: Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Bathory allegedly killed more than six hundred people, mostly young woman. She was finally convicted of 80 counts of murder and locked away until her death in 1614.

5) LARGEST DIAMOND: Found in South Africa in 1905, the Cullinan diamond was 3,106 carats. It was eventually cut into 105 pieces including the 530.2 carat Great Star of Africa and the 317.4 carat Lesser Star of Africa. Both are now part of the British crown jewels.

6) GREATEST WINGSPAN: Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose weighs more than 400,000 pounds with a wingspan of 319 feet which is longer than a football field. It flew only once, in 1947, for about one mile at just seventy feet in the air.

7) BIGGEST PANDEMIC: From 1347 to 1351, bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death, killed seventy-five million people.

8) BIGGEST BLOCKBUSTER: When adjusted for inflation and converted into today's dollars, Gone With The Wind is by far the champ with an estimated worldwide take of $5.4 Billion since it's 1939 release. In comparison, Titanic's worldwide blockbuster box office gross is $1.84 Billion.

9) LONGEST POLE-SITTING: Guinness' oldest record is held by St. Simeon the Stylite who spent thirty-seven years atop a pillar at Syria's Hill of Wonders. He died in 459 and for the last 1,550 years his record remains unchallenged.

10) YOUNGEST DOCTORATE: In 1814, 12 year old Karl Witte of Austria became a doctor of philosophy at the University of Giessen in Germany. He spoke five languages.

And as a grand finale … Ashrita Furman holds the world's record for holding the most records – he has 245 world's records.