The time Britain and America almost went to war… in Oregon

In 1845, Britain and the United States were both considering going to war over which one of them had the right to claim the Oregon Territory. (Neither side seems to have bothered to consult the people actually living there at the time.)

The British wanted to claim the territory all the way down to the border with Mexican-held California. The Americans, on the other hand, wanted to claim the territory all the way up to the Russian-held Alaska. In map terms, they claimed the border was 40 minutes past the 54th parallel. Their motto was 54-40 or Fight. From their point of view, America needed this land, to provide room for the people coming west to settle. It was their right to claim it. This whole argument was what led to term ‘Manifest Destiny’ being coined.

The British didn’t have a catchy motto. They were mainly interested in the resources, such as lumber and furs. Thanks to the fashion in beaver hats dying out, that meant they really only wanted to hold onto the land for the trees. And they still had a whole lot of trees in Canada. Even so, they didn’t like the idea of giving up land, especially to the ex-colonials with whom they’d already gone to war twice in the last 70 years. The British government decided to send out a pair of army lieutenants on a confidential mission to investigate, see how much work it would take to make the territory defensible against the Americans.

That’s what led to me writing The English Lieutenant’s LadyI was fascinated by the idea of the British sending spies into Oregon, the more so as neither of these men were in any way professional spies. One was a general’s aide-de-camp, with a talent for watercolors. The other was an engineer. The two of them posed as tourists while they drew up plans to occupy Oregon City, build forts on the Columbia river, and keep the Americans out. What if one of them also fell in love while he was in Oregon? There is documentation to support this possibility.

I read through a lot of historical documents while researching the Oregon Border Dispute. Though even as a complete history nerd, I still think it’s a bit extreme to have a coat made up of headlines dealing with this issue.

To the manor born… or at least to the manor accustomed

Domestic servant ironing
Just saw a PBS series called Manor House. A group of 12 men, women, and children gathered together in one of the grand old English country houses to live as authentically as possible exactly as they would have lived if the year were between 1904-1914. A man, his wife, her sister, two children were the ‘above stairs’ cast. The rest of the people were servants: a tutor, a lady’s maid, butler, housekeeper, footmen, and maids.

It turned out to be more of a reality show than a social experiment. Lots of conflict between the cast, some of it with a suspiciously manufactured feel to it. But after three months of these people playing these roles, it was fascinating to see how these people started to grow into the traditional mindset that they would have had if they actually were the master of the house, the scullery maid, etc.

The people I felt sorriest for at the beginning of the show were the lowest of the low. The scullery maid, for example, worked 18 hour days and had to get up before everyone else so she could start the cooking stove fire and make tea for the next servants, who themselves got up to start the fires for the rest of the house. The first two women who were given the role of scullery maid quit within their first week on the job.

Sargent Lady Agnew of Lochnaw
By the end of the show, on the other hand, the people I felt the sorriest for were the master and mistress of the house. They’d spent three months living as the elite in the Edwardian age, and their whole existence had been a dream of beauty and gilded ease. The man and woman playing these roles were a successful business man and his wife, an emergency room doctor. Not, at a guess, people who’d led sheltered lives. Throughout the show they acted like the stereotype of the stiff-upper-lip English, who do not believe in showing emotion. Yet both of them became choked up and teary eyed upon leaving the house.

It was fascinating how much the servants knew about their masters, and how little the upstairs group knew about the servants. This influenced the servants’ attitude toward the people they served. They knew full well that the people upstairs had no idea how they lived. The master of the house didn’t even know where the kitchens were until the end of the show–and that strongly influenced the servants’ attitudes. They were polite enough, but there was very little respect for the upstairs people.

Considering how thoroughly these people became immersed in their roles, I’d say it’s a safe guess that this was a good representation of how servants felt through the ages toward the people they served.


Tangential note: I know Shakespeare used the phrase To the manner born, but more recent authors, such as in the 19th century, used the phrase To the manor born. There are arguments on word geek blogs as to which is correct or whether both versions are correct for different meanings. I like the way the Word Detective explains the two phrases.

How much money can you make writing romance novels?

“I’ve never been a millionaire, but I know I’d be darling at it.”
-Dorothy Parker

One question I’ve gotten lately is how much money a writer can make by writing romance novels.

“It depends” is not a satisfactory answer, but it’s the most honest one. How often you write, what type of romance you write, and let’s not forget how well you write. All these factors influence how much money you can earn.

Honestly, I’m not the person to ask. If you want specific numbers, Courtney Milan wrote a post comparing a royalty statement for a traditionally published novella and a self-published one. Cara McKenna described the years it took her to earn as much by writing as she had at her last full-time (non-writing) job.

Brenda Hiatt has a section on her website titled Show Me the Money, where she breaks down how much writers make on average from independently publishing and from various traditional publishers, including the different lines that Harlequin puts out. That’s a good starting place to get an idea of how much money you might make. Mind you, that’s before the IRS taps you on your shoulder and requests up to  half of it.

Don’t write a romance novel because you want to make quick money. Nor if you don’t enjoy reading them in the first place. Writing is a lot of work. If you don’t like romance novels, or you don’t like writing, you’re not going to make enough money to justify the time you spend writing the novel.

Why read inspirational books?

Last year, I read an adult dystopian novel. It stayed in my memory, and not in a good way. Not that it was a badly written book. On the contrary, while it wouldn’t win any prizes for literary merit, the book did its job: it hooked me from the start and I kept reading all the way through to the end to see how it turned out.

All the same, I’ll never read it again, and I can’t say I’d recommend it. It was extremely depressing. It started off with a disaster (manmade? I think so), some kind of virus that killed off most everyone on the planet and left the remainder unable to reproduce. The characters tried to find ways to overcome their short and long-term problems of survival. But the story was so grim that halfway through the novel, characters just started committing suicide because it was all so hopeless.

For example, at the beginning of the story, the heroine is separated from her one true love. She survives all the evil things that happen to her and makes it through to the one place of safety, only to find that her one true love had been there for months. He’d killed himself a few weeks before she arrived because there was no point in going on.

Reading that book left an aftertaste of depression, alienation, a sense of overall grayness to my life that I really don’t think I need. Look, I don’t care how hopeless life is, not every waking moment of every day is always off the scale miserable for days and weeks and months on end. You can find hope even in desperate situations. Victor Frankl, in Man’s Search for Meaning, describes surviving life in a concentration camp by finding positive things to hold on to.

The next book I read after the dystopian story was an inspirational romance, Tracy Blalock’s Wed on the Wagon TrainThe heroine had problems. She was in a desperate situation. She worked to resolve her problems and she held on to Hope even when things looked pretty dire. I put that book down feeling encouraged to go on with my daily burdens, not ready to give up because Everything Was So Dark.

Every military working dog has his day 120323-F-OH250-042Life is dark enough already. I don’t need a book to depress me; I can watch the news for that. I want to read a book that gives me something to hold onto after I put the book down.

A Wrinkle in Time… “the worst book I have ever read”

Have you seen this article on A Wrinkle in Time? I hadn’t realized how much loathing the manuscript generated when Madeline L’Engle’s agent sent it to publishers.

Publishers hated it. Every firm her agent turned to rejected the manuscript. One advised to “do a cutting job on it—by half.” Another complained “it’s something between an adult and juvenile novel.” Finally, a friend advised L’Engle to send it to one of the most prestigious houses of all, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. John Farrar liked the manuscript. A test reader he gave it to, though, was unimpressed: “I think this is the worst book I have ever read, it reminds me of The Wizard of Oz.” Yet FSG acquired it, and Hal Vursell, the book’s editor, talked it up in letters he sent to reviewers: “It’s distinctly odd, extremely well written,” he wrote to one, “and is going to make greater intellectual and emotional demands on 12 to 16 year olds than most formula fiction for this age group.”

It’s been a long while since I read it, but the book left a strong impression on me. I was so young that I didn’t grasp that the opening line was a cliché, but I appreciated Meg not fitting in at school and I liked the way Meg’s mother was able to be a practicing scientist who still had a strong faith.

I’m not quite confident about the movie that’s coming out. The “witches” don’t look anything like the characters in the book. Even as a child, I knew that they weren’t really witches, and while they might be intimidating they weren’t scary. So I’m not sure why Oprah’s had that makeover.

On the other hand, maybe the movie is like the book in that you have to take a chance and trust it to lead you in the direction it wants to go. I think so many publishers turned the book down because it didn’t conform with their expectations of what a children’s book should be. So I’m thinking I’ll watch this move even if it doesn’t conform with my expectations of what it should be.