August 29, 2019

A Death in the Royal Family - Writing Prompt (August 2019)

Flowers outside Kensington Palace following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales
Photo Credit: Maxwell Hamilton from United Kingdom [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The theme for this month's writing prompt comes from our August book review, a murder mystery.

Writing Prompt
There has been a death in the Royal Family.  Write a scene about the aftermath of the royal's death. Feel free to write about a fictional, historical or real royal family. (3-5 pages)

Things you might include:
  • Who passed away?
    • How did they die?
    • Their connection to the Monarch? 
    • Their connection to your main character?
  • What is the public's reaction? 
    • What did politicians and other public figures say?
  • What mourning traditions do the Royal Family have?
If you want something more challenging, write the scene twice, changing your point of view to another character.

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August 23, 2019

Her Royal Spyness Solves Her First Case by Rhys Bowen - Book Review (August 2019)

Disclosure: This blog post contains some links to books on Amazon. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

For this month's book review, we are looking at our first Royal-themed Mystery. It takes place in 1930s London and focuses on the Great Depression's effect on the upper class and Prince Edward's relationship with Wallis Simpson.

I stumbled across the "A Royal Spyness:" Mystery Series at my local library. Originally, I had selected On Her Majesty’s Frightfully Secret Service (Book 11) as a possible book review choice. But when I realized the book was a part of a series and all royal related, I had to start with book one. 

The book is an absolute delight. And I'm about half-way through book two. 

Her Royal Spyness Solves Her First Case
By Rhys Bowen
(Book 1 of A Royal Spyness Mystery Series)

The year is 1932, and the world is only two years into the Great Depression and two decades into the reign of King George V of the UK. Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie, or Georgie for short, is 34th in line to the throne. As the great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, she is the pinnacle of high society and has just finished her debutante season. 

The Great Depression and her late father's reckless gambling has left the family in financial ruin. Her brother, The Duke of Glen Garry and Rannoch is forced to cuts off her allowance, leaving Georgie broke. Her family hopes to marry her off to a wealthy, foreign prince. But Georgie, ferociously independent, would rather make her own way in the world than marry that fish-face. 
"Things are bound to be brighter in the morning, I wrote in my diary. I have taken the first steps in a new and exciting adventure. At least I am free of my family for the first time of my life." (Pg. 18)
Georgie flees Scotland for London and takes on a series of jobs to support herself: sale assistant at Harrods, housekeeper, and model. Georgie is forced to hide her identity, as it would cause a scandal for a member of the extended royal family to be taking on jobs like this. 

While in London, Georgie is asked by Queen Mary (her first cousin, once removed) to spy on the Queen's son, Prince Edward (then Prince of Wales) and his new fling, Wallis Simpson. Prince Edward has only recently begun his relationship with Mrs. Simpson, and Queen Mary wants to know if things are serious between the would-be king and the married American. 

Things get more complicated when an arrogant Frenchman tries to lay claim to Georgie's 800-year-old family estate, Castle Rannoch. Georgie & her brother are prepared to fight to the death to hold onto the castle. But when the Frenchman is found dead in their bathtub, George must clear her family's name and find the killer. 

Some Musings on: 
Her Royal Spyness

With each month's book review, I share with you some of my musings on the book. What I thought interesting, thought-provoking and inspiring, etc.

A Cozy Mystery?
One of the goals of our monthly book review is to learn more about the different writing genres. While you don't need to include all of the tropes of the genre in your writing, understanding the genre and what readers expect allows you to craft a satisfying and understandable story. 

Her Royal Spyness can be best defined as a "Cozy Mystery." Cozy Mystery (also called Cozies) is one of the mystery subgenres. I had never heard the term, Cozy Mystery, before reading this book. I first came across it in my library's catalog, which described it as:
These popular mysteries typically feature cleaver amateur sleuths (usually women) with very little violence. Murders happen off stage, and generally to unlikable people.
I think that is a perfect little description. (We do go into a little more detail about the subgenre in our writing research blog post.) As I was reading Her Royal Spyness, I could definitely see how this book, and the subgenre, differed from other mystery novels I have read that weren't Cozies. And I could see how this book shared characteristics with other cozy mystery novels I had read (even if I wasn't aware of the subgenre at the time). 

I really liked the book and the subgenre. And I definitely want to read more Cozy mysteries, starting with the rest of this series. (I am currently half-way through book 2.) I am excited that I now have a term for this kind of mystery I like. It will make finding an enjoyable book much easier. 

I think this book is a very good representation of the Cozy Mystery genre. But, I will note, that in my research on the genre, it seems a lot of Cozies take place in small towns where everyone knows each other. Her Royal Spyness takes place in the bustling city of London. While this is a little bit of a departure from the genre, Bowen created this "small-town" feel by creating a tight social circle of London's high society. So, we still have this tight-knit group where people know each other and are very interconnected much like a small town. 

The Other Genre
Her Royal Spyness obviously falls into the mystery genre. But would we also consider this Historical Fiction

We looked at the genre, Historical Fiction, a few months ago, when we reviewed Philippa Gregory's The Last Tudor. While definitions of the genre vary, the definition I most agreed with requires that the time-period play an important role in the plot. (I.e. The story would not work/make sense in a different time period.) (And often the specific location is important to the plot as well.)

As I was reading this book, I kept that definition in mind. And I decided that yes, this qualifies as historical fiction. 

Her Royal Spyness does depict fictional events, and the author made up most of the characters. But the setting, time period and larger events are real. (e.g. The Great Depression, Prince Edward & Wallis Simpson's relationship, etc.)

Historical Fiction is one part fact and one part fiction. The genre allows an author to create a compelling story and use their imagination and creativity. Her Royal Spyness doesn't follow historical events as closely as Philippa Gregory's The Last Tudor did, but it is nevertheless Historical Fiction. 

Character's Name
One of the things I had a bit of difficulty with was keeping track of all the characters, especially the young males. Bowen had the difficult task of managing a large cast of characters, who popped in and out of the narrative. And, like a lot of mystery novels, the final scenes bring most of the characters together for the big reveal. 

One thing Bowen did was carefully tie the characters' name to their identities. She did this two ways, though a good use of titles, and ethnic names. 

Who had a title, and their rank was an important element of the story. Bowen emphasized people's titles throughout the book. And while there were a number of titled characters, Bowen used a lot of different titles to distinguish one from another. For example, there were only two Princes who made an appearance in the novel. And, they were noticeably different from each other. 

The second thing Bowen did was, she gave characters names based on where they were from. (E.g. the man for Ireland had an Irish name, and the man from France had a French name, etc.) Where a character is from was often an important part of the characters' identity and referenced a lot. And while there were a number of British character, there was usually only one or two characters from each foreign country. So, the fact that I could immediately recognize O'Mara as an Irish name, reminded me who this character was.

It is very important that when a character pops back into a story that the reader can immediately remember who they are. Writers can do this through a lot of subtle clues, but names are a big way. So, it is important that you give your characters distinct and memorable names. 

Chekhov's Gun
I had first heard about the writing principle, Chekhov's Gun, a long time ago. But I recently came across it in an article and that got me thinking about it in the context of my own writing and then again as I was reading this book. To summarize Chekhov's principle: If there is a gun hanging on the wall in the first scene, it should be fired in a later scene. If you aren't going to fire the gun, don't include it. In other words, every element in your story should have a purpose. Irrelevant elements should be removed as they give false promises to the reader. 

Photo Credit: from Pexels
While I don't think Chekhov's Gun applies to all kinds of writing, I think it can work very well in mysteries. Mysteries are all about those little things that seemed insignificant when you first came across them, but they later proved to be very important. You want to give the reader all of the clues to solve the mystery, but keep them guessing until the end.

I'm not saying every detail needs to point to the killer. Mystery Novels are also all about red herrings and making almost everyone, in turn, a viable suspect. But, use your little details with purpose. You don't have to have an empty wall. If hanging a gun there isn't going to have any significance to the story, put something else up. Maybe it's a coat of arms, that later helps you uncover the character's secret lineage. 

As I was flipping through the book to re-read sections or look for quotes, I came across some clues I had totally missed the first time. They seemed so insignificant, but now that I know who the killer is, I wonder why it was not obvious. 

Real-Life Royals
Her Royal Spyness's main character, Georgie, is a fiction member of the extended royal family. But, Bowen does include some references and cameo appearances from real British royals from the time. Bowen's depicts these royals as caricatures of themselves, focusing on the well-known aspects of that royal. 

 In the "Notes and Acknowledgments" page, Bowen says:
"This is a work of fiction. While some real historical personages make cameo appearances in this book, Georgie and her friends and family exist only in the head of the writer. I have tried to ensure that royal personages do nothing out of character and accurately play themselves." 
I rather like that Bowen included the real British royal family in her work, even if they are pretty superficial characters. With historical fiction, I think referencing real events and people can help the reader put the story in the right historical context. My understanding of the 1930s is greatly improved once you remind me what was going on in society and in the lives of the royals. 

While a reader doesn't need to know a lot about British royal history to enjoy this book, knowing a little bit will add some depth and entertainment to the story. If you look closely you will find all sorts of cute little references, like this possible match for Georgie:
"What about the Greek royal Family? That delightful little blond boy? But I'm afraid he's too young, even for you." (Pg. 29)
That delightful little blond boy is none other than Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth II's future husband. He is 11 years old at the time. It did sort of make me laugh, at him being considered as a suitor for Georgie when I know he ends up with her cousin, Elizabeth. It is also interesting to consider that in 1932, Philip & Elizabeth have not met yet.

One thing I would suggest though is making a little Royal family tree for yourself that you can refer to. Even if you are pretty familiar with the royals, King George V can be easily confused with King George VI. I was a little peeved there wasn't a family tree included in the book. 

Here is a simplified family tree, with people's titles as of 1932: (Fictional Royals in Blue.)
  • Queen Victoria I & Prince Albert 
    • King Edward VII (Bertie) & Queen Alexandra
      • King George V & Queen Mary 
        • Prince Edward, Prince of Wales (David) 
        • Prince Albert, Duke of York & Duchess of York 
          • Princess Elizabeth of York
          • Princess Margaret of York
    • Daughter of Queen Victoria & Duke of Glen Garry and Rannoch
      • Duke of Glen Garry and Rannoch & Clarie Daniels
        • Lady Georgiana (Georgie)

Historically Accurate?
Her Royal Spyness is set in 1932 London during the Great Depression. I think Bowen, in general, did a good job of creating this historical context. It definitely felt like 1930s Britain. And it's interesting to see the effect of the Great Depression on Britain's upper-class.

In the background of the story is Prince Edward's affair with Wallis Simpson. This affair is very well-know because in 1936 it was one of the things that lead to Edward's abdication. But this affair is actually where Bowen took some creative liberties. 

 Lady Thelma Furness & Prince Edward in 1932
Photo Credit: Life, 29 April 1932 [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Prince Edward and Wallis Simpson first met at a party in January 1931. But their romantic relationship didn't really start until 1934. Between 1931 and 1934, Prince Edward was in a relationship with Lady Thelma Furness, another married American. So, Bowen's depiction of Prince Edward & Wallis Simpon's relationship in 1932, isn't exactly accurate. Bowen shifted the timeline of their romantic relationship by about 2 years. 

Her Royal Spyness is supposed to be a fun cozy mystery, not a serious piece of historical fiction. So, I'm willing to overlook this and the few other historical inaccuracies. 

I think Bowen wanted to create something entertaining, focusing on the well-known details. Most readers know about Edward & Simpson's relationship, but don't know the exact timeline or much about Edward's previous relationships. So, it's an understandable decision to replace the not all that well-known married American that Edward was seeing in 1932, with his very well know future-wife. 

One thing I have to given Bowen credit for is she accurately portrayed Wallis Simpson as married. This is one of my pet peeves about books/films featuring Edward & Wallis. Most of us, today, think of Wallis Simpson as the American Divorcee. But, in 1932 Wallis is still married to her 2nd husband. And it isn't until 7 months into King Edward's reign that Wallis files for divorce for her husband (October 1936). The divorce is finalized in May 1937, and Edward & Wallis are married a month later.

(If you are looking something more historically accurate, I would recommend King Edward VIII: An American Life by Ted Powell, which we reviewed last year.) 

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August 15, 2019

Chekhov’s Gun - Writing Research

Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)
Photo Credit: Author Unknown [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons

‘Chekhov’s Gun’
is a writing principle often used in novels and scriptwriting. 
The principle basically says: 

If you have a gun hanging on the wall in the first act, then it must be fired in a later act.  
If it's not going to be fired, then it shouldn't be there.
Checkhov's idea is that every element in your story should have a purpose. Irrelevant elements should be removed as they give false promises to the reader. 

This doesn't mean every element needs to play a significant role in the plot. You will have elements that help to describe the setting, character, mood, backstory, etc. But there should be a reason you are sharing this information with the reader. 

Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) was a famous Russian writer. This principle comes from various letters he wrote.  

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