Why I Love History’s Bad Boys

Guys may think being called “nice” is the kiss of death, but I love nice guys.  I married a nice guy.  He supports my dreams, takes care of the kids when I go out of town and doesn’t complain when we have scrambled eggs for dinner because I’m on a deadline.  I personally don’t see the attraction of hanging around someone who doesn’t treat you well.

But I have a thing for history’s bad boys.

Richard III was my first historical love.  I saw Ian McKellen in the film version of Shakespeare’s play and fell head over heels.  I’ve seen different stage versions since then and have the same gut reaction every time.  Pure, unadulterated infatuation.  He’s so vibrant, so evil, so breathtakingly wicked.  He’s like the Grinch, only he’s never reformed.

Here I am with Richard at Bosworth. Don't we make a lovely couple?

Here I am with Richard at Bosworth. Don’t we make a lovely couple?

I’ve learned since then that Shakespeare was prone to exaggeration and poetic license. (Actually, I knew that before.)  History makes an impressive impact when it’s fictionalized.  All writers of historical fiction play with nuances and form–with character and characterization–to make a compelling story.  Yes, perhaps Shakespeare went a little above and beyond, but his audiences ate it up.  Hunchback? Yes! Withered soul?  Yes!  Regicide?  Fratricide?  Infanticide?  Yes! Yes! Yes!

After reading every volume of popular history on Richard that I could find, I now love him more as an underdog.  An unappreciated and much-maligned scapegoat.  It’s entirely possible he did some of the things Thomas More and William Shakespeare accuse him of (like the murders of the princes in the tower).  But it’s equally possible that he didn’t.  Read Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, and tell me what you think.  But either way, I find his story–and his character–fascinating.  I even wear a pin modeled on his white boar badge whenever I do a book event.  And I’m waiting not-so-patiently for next Monday (February 4), when the University of Leicester is going to announce their scientific findings of a dig that could possibly have been his remains.

My subsequent favorite historical bad boy is pretty obvious from my novels.  Henry VIII is most often seen as a fat, bloated, tyrannical megalomaniac who disposed of wives like the rest of us dispose of plastic bottles.  Though this certainly may apply to his later years, at the beginning of his reign, it doesn’t appear to be true.  Nor do I believe he was the dark and devilish sexy satyr of the Showtime series.

Instead, I think history has again given us a hindsight that doesn’t let us see his finer points.  He was incredibly intelligent and supported education, including that of his daughters.  As a young man, he gave the impression of being highly sensitive, thoughtful, and was probably extremely attractive (tall, handsome and very fit).  I believe he honestly loved his first three wives (at least at the beginning of their relationships) and he was probably a romantic.  The drawback to this was that when the shine wore off a romance, he wasn’t willing to put in the work.

Not like a true “nice guy”.  I can’t see Richard cooking tater tots and doing the vacuuming while his wife attended a library conference.  And I certainly can’t picture Henry quietly eating scrambled eggs instead of his usual thirty dishes at dinner.  So as much as I love the historical bad boys, I’m very glad I married the Englishman I did.

Addendum:  The University of Leicester has announced that the bones found in the Leicester car park are those of Richard III! 


Bad Boys of RELIC (and the Old West!)

When writing in a historical (or in my case, alternate historical) era, it’s important to search for universal elements that modern readers can to relate to. We all love to see those timeless themes and timeless characters that have existed in every era of history.

Today I’m writing about one of the very enjoyable timeless characters: the Bad Boy. I was immediately drawn to this topic, because RELIC is set in the Old West, an era and setting positively crawling with troublemakers. Here are just a few Bad Boys that grace the pages of RELIC:

The Outlaw
You’re probably already imagining the type. A dangerously handsome young man, with a bandana hiding half his face, bursts into the bank and shouts, “This is a stick up!” He gets the cash, shoots his pistols in the air, and rides off on his trusty horse into the desert.

A band of outlaws called The Chimera Gang play a role in RELIC, but I can’t give too many details about them. Needless to say, they’re bad, bad boys.


The Cowboy
My favorite cowboy in RELIC is Landon Black. He’s a rogue with a heart of gold. He’s not a criminal, like the Outlaw, though he may have seen the inside of the local jailhouse from time to time. He works hard, and so he likes the play hard. When he comes in from the range, he wants women and whiskey, and that usually means trouble. You don’t need to fear for your life with this kind of Bad Boy. Maybe just your heart.


The Warrior
The Apache warriors in RELIC have good cause for behaving badly. With relic miners encroaching on their most sacred mountain, they have little other choice than to send a message that won’t be forgotten.





The Creole
In my alternate history version of the Old West, Spanish Creole make up the ruling class even as far north as Colorado. Thanks to the massive wealth gleaned from their mines, they maintain a kind of financial hold on most of the town. Álvar Castilla is young, handsome, charming, and filthy rich. He has a taste for expensive and dangerous relics, which can only lead to trouble . . .


History has provided us with so many delicious Bad Boys. We could easily devote an entire blog to the subject, let alone one post. What do you think? Who is your favorite historical era Bad Boy?


*  *  * 

 Renee Collins is a YA writer and professional ponderer. She loves historical settings, fantasy, and semi-tragic romance. RELIC is her first novel, coming Fall 2013 from Entangled Teen!

Slang of 1896

This week’s topic is exploring the slang of our eras. 
One of the challenges of writing historical fiction is keeping the language appropriate to our era. The Cahill Witch Chronicles takes place in 1896, but it’s an alternate version where New England was colonized by witches and is now ruled by the patriarchal Brotherhood, the South consists of Spanish territories, and the West is governed by Indo-China. Still, I try to keep the language accurate with the times. One website I’ve found amazingly helpful (thanks to fellow YA historical fiction author Fiona Paul) is the Online Etymology Dictionary
According to that resource, here are some fun words and usages that popped up in 1896:
battle-axe – meaning “formidable woman” 
bottleneck – narrow entrance, spot where traffic becomes congested

brunch – British student slang merger of breakfast + lunch

cagey – evasive, reticent; earlier usage meant “sportive”
cheapskate – miserly person
cheesy – as in “cheap, inferior”
choked up – as in “overcome with emotion and unable to speak”
con – to swindle
grouch – as in “ill-tempered person”
headliner – as in “one who stars in a performance”
hot dog! – as an exclamation of approval
kosher – generalized sense of “correct, legitimate” 
main squeeze – most important person 
mumbo-jumbo – as in “big, empty talk”
night-night – nursery talk, “good-night” (nighty-night attested from 1876)
pinhead – person of small intelligence 
rags-to-riches – as in “rise from poverty to wealth” 
rough-house – as a verb (uproar, disturbance from 1887)
spiel – as in “glib speech, pitch” 
willies – “spell of nervousness,” perhaps from the woollies, a dialectical term for “nervous uneasiness,” probably in reference to the itchiness of wool garments
Fascinating, no? Which one is your favorite?
 Jess3blogJess Spotswood grew up in a tiny one-stoplight town in Pennsylvania, where she could be found swimming, playing  the clarinet, memorizing lines for the school play, or – most often – with her nose in a book. She’s been writing since fourth grade but studied theatre in college and grad school. Now she lives in Washington, DC with her brilliant playwright husband and a cuddly cat named Monkey. BORN WICKED, Book 1 in The Cahill Witch Chronicles, is her first novel. Book 2, STAR CURSED, will be out in June 2013.


Today’s Post Is Brought to You By the Letters…

WJ 200x313The story of THE WICKED AND THE JUST’s cover begins with V and ends with F.

The original design of the cover was very similar to the final version with one major difference: the castle.  The original castle was small, pointy and situated in a forest.

My first thought was Who in their right mind would put a castle in the forest?  That’s a security breach waiting to happen.

I asked my editor whether we could change the castle a little.  Couldn’t we use a picture of the real one, the one that’s featured in the book?


I was told that the art department couldn’t find a picture of the real castle that was in good enough shape to use.  All the available images were woodcuts or line drawings, and in them the castle was tumbledown.  It didn’t look new, like it would have in 1293.

Frankly, I was puzzled.  The castle featured in W/J is Caernarfon Castle.  It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site.  It’s one of the best-preserved medieval structures in Britain.  It was built to last, and it has.

CaernarfonThat’s when it hit me.  In W/J, the castle’s name is spelled Caernarvon – the medieval English spelling, not the modern Welsh spelling of Caernarfon.  The art department was looking for Caernarvon-with-a-v.  No wonder all they found were relics from the ancient past.

Caernarvon-with-a-v was built as an English town intended for settlement by English people to benefit the English Crown.  Caernarfon-with-an-f represents the kind of social progress that had to come from many generations of coexistence and changing circumstance.  It is not the place built by the English Crown in the thirteenth century.

Once I told the art department to look for Caernarfon-with-an-f, they found what they needed right away.  The very fact that I had to cuts to the heart of W/J – an intersection of language and occupation and unequal power, and the work that can only be done by time.

A Tale of Two Covers… the Cover Story of Maid of Secrets

I had to laugh when I saw the suggested topic for this week, as my cover for Maid of Secrets has had two lives: first as a romantic historical novel cover, and then as its current cover, the intriguing view of Meg as she contemplates who else she might divest of their sewn-on baubles (with her handy knife).

Cover No. 1: The Clinch

Maid of Secrets - Jennifer McGowanWhat I loved about this cover:

1. The costumes! This cover was the result of a photo shoot for which Simon & Schuster designer extraordinaire, Laurent Linn, actually borrowed period accurate costumes from the Lincoln Center in New York. The scene depicted is a formal dance–the first time the two spies meet in person.

2. The romance! Maid of Secrets features an unconventional romance between two spies–one English, the other Spanish. Half the time that Meg and Rafe are having a conversation with each other (or dancing, or even kissing. . .) they’re also in the midst of stealing things from each other. I think the cover shows this give-and-take wonderfully.

3. The Maid of Honor badge! So much win.

However, it was not to be. The cover tested as not teen-centric (which, okay, is true) and slightly difficult to read. And thus we come to the second cover of Maid of Secrets . . . which, bear in mind, had to be created using the same photos that were previously taken for the first cover treatment.

Cover No. 2: The Thief

Maid of Secrets final

Cover No. 2 has a much more modern flare, with a heroine looking like she definitely knows something she’s not ready to share. And she has a knife.

What I love about this cover:

1. That face! Meg is not a classically beautiful girl, but she definitely is striking. I think the cover captures this completely. I would love to know who the model is, because she has gotten Meg’s attitude correct. NOTE: Not everyone who has seen this cover has loved it, since Meg does look a little daunting. But this is a girl who’s been pressed into service of the Crown under threat of seeing her entire beloved acting troupe disgraced and possibly killed. So these are intense times for her!

2. The title! This new, more modern treatment of the title is much more readable and striking, and it will be EMBOSSED. Which will make it pop even more.

3. That knife! With its ethereal gleam, the knife takes prominent position in this cover treatment, and it should. Meg is a heroine who cuts to the quick.

A note on that dagger.

Laurent Linn not only designs book covers, he has designed theater costumes as well. So that knife that you see in this cover? Yeah. He made it. Because he’s that kind of awesome.

Something you don’t see with these covers is the stellar spine and back treatments: trust me when I tell you, it’s a book worth flipping over and peaking inside!

I never realized how much went into the designing of a book cover, though I’ve been in marketing and communications for years. It’s been a wonderful experience, and here’s hoping the final product will be one that will inspire readers to pick up the book!

Since we’re on the subject of covers, a question for you: How much do covers sway you to pick up a book? Do you judge a book by its cover?


MaidofSecretsJennifer McGowan’s Maid of Secrets debuts May 7, 2013, from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. She is currently at work on book 2 in the series, Maid of Deception.

You can visit her online at http://www.jennifermcgowan.com, or via Twitter at @Jenn_McGowan