Worst Literary Characters to Sit Beside at Dinner

As autumn arrives and winter sneaks ever closer, the seasonal changes seem to bring lots of opportunity for family meals and friendly get-togethers. It’s a time for Thanksgiving and making lots of things with apples and inviting people over to eat them. The idea of big holiday gatherings got me thinking about which characters from literature would be the worst to sit with at a formal dinner, and why. I came up with a few examples, where if I was seated next to them, I’d certainly be thinking of excuses to move.

Mr. Collins

Ever wondered if Lady Catherine de Bourgh enjoys poached salmon or glazed carrots? Well, you’d be bound to find out, willingly or not. Mr. Collins would delight in regaling his supper captives companions with all the details of meal preferences at Rosings. Of course, the dishes in that beautiful house are also much finer, as he’d describe in detail, adding that Lizzie Bennett could have been basking in the generous favour of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, being served meals on her porcelain supper dishes almost every week! What regret she must feel.
(On the opposite of this list, Lizzie Bennett is definitely on the list of people I’d like to sit beside at an imaginary dinner of literary characters).

Hamlet

David Tennant is the only way Hamlet is slightly bearable

You knew he’d be on this list, didn’t you? My dislike of Hamlet as a character is pretty well documented on my blog. No doubt he’d sigh and push his food around his plate without really eating it, probably splashing you with soup and not even noticing. Even that would be better than if he launched into a mournful soliloquy about how he’s the only one who’s ever had an emotional crisis – he’d stare at you so intensely that you wouldn’t be able to keep eating until he finally concluded his speech. Just sitting there, waiting, with your soup hovering in the air. And it would probably be even worse if Ophelia was present – his remarks to her would doubtlessly be uncomfortable for the whole table.

The one bright side, you could possibly fashion your napkin into a little ghost and see how he reacts.

Miss Trunchbull

Pity the poor person stuck sitting beside Miss Truchbull at a dinner party, particularly if cake is served at dessert. She’s also described as a “gigantic holy terror” and is known to be cruel, so I’m sure she would bash her elbows into your sides quite vigorously, probably waiting until an opportune moment when your knife is poised over your plate.

However, she’s also very superstitious and frightened of ghosts – perhaps banishing her and Hamlet to the ‘awful dinner guest’ version of the kids’ table could be interesting!

Hercule Poirot

Look, Hercule Poirot is a nice man, overall. He’d have some fascinating stories to regale the group with at supper, and I think anyone sitting near him would automatically feel safer. “No chance of me accidentally ingesting poison or ground glass,” you might think, blithely scooping stew into your spoon. “Monsieur Poirot would certainly notice, save my life, and solve the crime before cake.” But his obsession with symmetry and his, frankly, kind of judging attitude, could spark a lot of self-consciousness while you’re trying to slice a tough bit of beef or spear a carrot with your fork or spoon a little sugar in your coffee.

Mrs. Danvers

She might actually be a great dinner companion if you’re on a diet, because I can’t imagine having any appetite with the sinister, gloomy presence of Mrs. Danvers looming over my shoulder. I also can’t imagine her remaining in her seat for the duration of the meal. “Does anyone need more coffee?” she’d intone ominously, already rising to her feet. “I’ll just fetch some more. My dear Rebecca always had a cup after the dessert course. She was like coffee itself, in a way. Vital and irresistible.” Her cold breath would skim the back of your neck. “Oh, look at that. There’s none left for you.”

Miss Havisham

Poor Miss Havisham. And poor you, if she was hosting the dinner! After being jilted, she stopped her clocks at the precise time she received the letter from her ex-fiancé, and left all the wedding food and the cake out on the table. Sounds appetizing…for maggots. Ugh!

And if someone else hosted this theoretical dinner, I still wouldn’t much fancy sitting next to Miss Havisham, since she also wore her wedding dress ever since that fateful day. Based on this dedication to preserving the moment, and her lack of hygiene where the food is concerned, I’m guessing laundry isn’t high on her list of priorities.  Although, she did repent of her ways (and their effect on Estella and Pip) later on, so perhaps she might offer some surprisingly deep conversation.

Tigger

Have you seen Tigger? His propensity for constant motion means that all the explanation you’d need to imagine the results of a dinner with Tigger at your side can be summed up with gifs.

Have I missed anyone? Which character from literature would you hate to be stuck beside at dinner?

The Magic of Moonlight Gardens

Recently I’ve been obsessively reading the “Graveyard Queen” series by Amanda Stevens, getting utterly lost in the eerie, evocative settings and the lives of the characters. Protagonist Amelia Gray is a cemetery restorer who can see ghosts, which makes for some bone-chilling and bittersweet moments. I’m hooked. One of my favourite details is that Amelia has planted a moonlight garden in her yard, and often sits outside drinking in the silvery light and dusky fragrances – until a ghost shows up, anyway.

While I’d prefer to enjoy a ghost-free moonlight garden, I hadn’t heard of this before and found the idea really intriguing. A moonlight garden is a place full of night-blooming and light, silvery plants, so that it comes to life in the dark, reflecting the glow of the moonlight. Doesn’t that sound wonderful?

I’m determined to someday plant a moonlight garden, and luckily there seems to be lots of suggestions online for which plants are ideal for soaking up moonbeams and thriving at night. Though white or silvery grey leaves and flowers are quite suitable for adding a bit of glow under the glaze of the moon, they aren’t the only plants to bring a bit of magic to the nighttime garden. Soft colours like lavender, buttery yellow, and shades of pale pink are also ideal.

Photo credit: jochenspieker via Visualhunt / CC BY-SA

Textures are just as important as colours for capturing the moonlight. Plants with different shaped leaves will provide a contrast, as well as plants in various heights. Foxgloves and snapdragons both grow tall enough to add some contrast against low-growing plants like snow-in-summer blossoms. I also love the idea of planting cream climbing against a white trellis.

Lots of plants also release their fragrance in the evening, making them ideal for adding some more sensory appeal to the moonlight garden. Angel’s trumpet, night jasmine, and night phlox are a few examples, and each of them are quite pretty as well.

Extra landscaping touches such as white paving stones or a pool of water can add to the garden’s ability to capture moonlight as well. Mina Edison had a moonlight garden with a rectangular pool in the centre, and one can even visit it at the Edison & Ford Winter Estates.

I think I’d prefer the white stones over a pool of water in order to discourage mosquitoes, but both sound lovely. Some gardens have statues in them, too, but after reading so many ghost stories, I can too easily imagine catching a glimpse of a glowing white silhouette and having a momentary heart attack, before remembering the presence of a statue. Besides, those are expensive!

So now you know the new dream on my list: planting a moonlight garden so I can sit outside and sip chamomile tea and soak up plenty of beauty – and hopefully inspiration. I’d like to write outside then, too, but I suppose the cold light of a laptop would ruin the effect. Anyone have a moonlight garden already? Do tell in the comments!

 

Marie Antoinette’s Fondness for Music

Marie Antoinette had a great fondness for music, and of all the arts, it was the only one for which she tended to offer patronage. According to the memoirs of Madame Campan, who was close to Marie Antoinette, “music was the accomplishment in which the Queen most delighted. She did not play well on any instrument, but she had become able to read at sight like a first-rate professor.” Her personal library contained many music books, ranging from harpsichord music, which was her favourite instrument to play, from sonatas to operas.

The salon de musique at Petit Trianon

While dancing was said to be the art at which Marie Antoinette most excelled, being noted for her grace, she learned music from a young age. She sang at her father’s birthday while only three years old. As a child, she also met Mozart, then himself a child of six, when he played the harpsichord for the Empress of Austria, Marie Antoinette’s mother. Mozart later went to Paris, possibly hoping for the support of Marie Antoinette, who was queen by then. Unfortunately, she was having a difficult pregnancy and was not able to meet him at the time. Marie Antoinette also supported composers such as Gluck, and enjoyed the works of Haydn.

Marie Antoinette was also acquainted with the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. An extremely talented violinist, composer, and conductor of the symphony orchestra in Paris, he is also remembered today as the first classical composer of African ancestry. The son of a wealthy planter and a slave, Saint-Georges was born in Guadeloupe. As well as being musically talented, he was also a champion fencer, and had a strong military career, leading the first all-black regiment in Europe during the French Revolution.

Saint-Georges’ immense list of talents and titled lineage (his father was a gentleman of the king’s chamber) didn’t prevent him facing some discrimination, unfortunately. Although revolutionary France’s ideals of equality and liberty mostly included people of colour – slavery had been illegal in the metropolitan areas of France since the 1300s, though it was not abolished in the French colonies until 1794 – Saint-Georges found his heritage became an issue when he was suggested as the director of the Paris Opéra. While the leading ladies didn’t mind working with Saint-Georges, they opposed the idea of working for him and wrote a petition to Marie Antoinette to put a halt to the idea.

A portrait of the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, painted by Mather Brown, 1787.

Hearing of the petition, Saint-Georges immediately withdrew his name from consideration. Marie Antoinette invited Saint-Georges to join the intimate musical evenings she had in the salon of her petit appartement de la reine at Versailles – her private chambers. These evenings were limited to a circle of friends and musicians, and were quite exclusive. Saint-Georges may have regaled the group with his violin sonatas, which he often composed himself, while the Queen likely joined in by playing the harpsichord.

It’s difficult to speculate how Marie Antoinette would have reacted to the petition if Saint-Georges had not withdrawn his name, saving her from making a decision. Since she continued to associate with him at her elite musical evenings, I like to think she would have supported him in spite of the social pressures. However, we shall never know. As part of the aftermath of this incident, her husband, King Louis XVI, also took control of the Paris Opéra, putting its management under his ‘Intendent of Light Entertainments’ (there’s a job title for you). Previously, it had been managed by the city of Paris for nearly a century.

Marie Antoinette ensured that her daughter was also given music lessons. When the royal family was imprisoned in the Tower during the revolution, one of the kindest guards, Commissioner Jacques Lepître, realized that the dilapidated harpsichord in the building was not fit for playing, and managed to have an improved one brought in so the child’s music lessons could continue.

 


The Wardrobe Mistress, a novel of one of Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe women who casually spies on the queen during the French Revolution and finds herself torn between her loyalty to the queen and her sympathy for the revolution, is available now.

Order links:
Amazon | B&N | IndieBound | BAM | Macmillan

 

The Best Conference Ever

Last week, I got to check an exciting writer’s goal from my list – I attended the Historical Novel Society conference. I’d been dreaming of going for quite a long time, and it was amazing to finally make it to the event. I realize this sounds incredibly nerdy, but whatever, I love history and I love novels, so it’s the perfect combination as far as I’m concerned.

#HNS2017 (check the link for various fun tweets from the conference) was held in Portland, Oregon. I arrived the afternoon before the conference started, which gave me time to explore the city a bit. I went to a history museum (of course), saw some beautiful roses, and met some very nice people in a cool little wine bar.

The museum had many great exhibits, but I was particularly drawn to these hats. Definitely lingering research excitement from writing The Wardrobe Mistress

Special sessions and workshops made up the first day of the conference, and I took a copious amount of notes and got ink all over my fingers because apparently I can hardly write by hand anymore. My first workshop was about pacing in a story, and since I’m at the 80K word count on my latest novel, it was perfect timing for me to work all of the smart and creative tips I learned into my edits. As part of the workshop, we read a paragraph from book with gripping pacing, and then read the same paragraph, only rewritten in a way that made it fall flat. Conference chair and author/actress extraordinaire Leslie Carroll read the pieces aloud, and she’s so utterly compelling that even the poor example paragraph sounded good.

I also went to a workshop on historical firearms, hosted by Gordon Frye who also has a podcast called Gordon’s Gun Closet. It was fascinating to be able to see – and touch – these historical firearms. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out muskets are quite heavy, especially with bayonets. The French style was considered to be a little more technologically advanced at the time (and seemed to take a bit more practice to handle than the British one), which I think would have appealed to a few of my characters in The Wardrobe Mistress, who can be a tad smug about the superiority of their country and its revolutionary ideals.

I’m trying to avoid the temptation to over-describe every wonderful little nugget of wisdom, each enlightening conversation I had, every time I turned into a complete fangirl because I spotted one of my literary heroes. There would just be so much if I recapped it all! A lot of highlights stand out in my mind, though. Inspiring keynote speaker Geraldine Brooks talking about the sparks that flare a story to life are the most exciting, but that ‘bum glue’ (gluing yourself to the chair and just writing) is the only way to truly get a book done. I remember glancing around, and seeing other authors nodding just as hard as I was. David Ebershoff, also a keynote speaker, mesmerized the crowd with the moving story of his journey to tell the story of Lili Elbe, which became his acclaimed novel The Danish Girl. Kate Forsyth raised goosebumps on my arms with her enthralling performance of Tam Lin. I’ve never before seen such a large group of people become so silent; I’m convinced she’s as magical as the faerie queen of the story (although much less nefarious, of course). There were so many fun, unique moments, too; sitting in on an impromptu tarot reading (using Kris Waldherr’s beautiful goddess deck), playing Cards Against Humanity near a group of mask-wearing quadrille dancers, staying up far too late because going to bed seems absurd when you’ve made new friends that you might not see again until the next conference, two years away.

So now I’m back home, mostly caught up on sleep, feeling refreshed to get back to work on my writing. I’ve only got about 15K more words before my work-in-project is ready for edits (she says blithely, as if edits won’t be substantial), and there’s a new kernel of an idea unfurling in my mind, something that sparked to life after an evening of socializing and trying absinthe for the first time. Is that cliché? Oh well.

 

In Search of Airplane Reading

I’m headed to the Historical Novel Society conference in Portland this weekend, and I’m extremely excited. It’s going to be an extravaganza of history and writing nerdism, and I’ve also been promised plenty of shenanigans, based off previous years. This is my first time going, but I’ll post a recap of some sort when I get back.

However, I need your help! I had no problem selecting which shoes to pack, but now I’m facing a larger problem. How do I narrow down my book choices? I’m downloading some e-books for airplane reading, and I am asking for suggestions! What’s your favourite read to make you forget that you’re sitting in a cramped little seat thousands of feet above the ground?

If you’ve got a recommendation, please comment! Alternatively, tweet it to me – @MeghanMasterson.

 

Yoga for Desk People

A couple of years ago, I started doing yoga. I didn’t have any real intention to start, but the opportunity came up and my friend was also going to the class so I figured I might as well go too. Between my office day-job and my evening and weekend writing time, I spend an awful lot of time sitting at a desk, so any chance to stretch and move needs to be taken.

I loved the class, and I’m still doing yoga a couple times a week now, two years on. I’ve even managed to reach a point where I can have a decent session on my own at home. (My previous attempts ended with my mind going blank on what poses to do after about five minutes). Over time, I’ve become stronger and more flexible – not that I’ll be doing any crazy pretzel moves, but I can reach poses that I couldn’t at first. I’m better at those long, slow breaths than I used to be.

But it’s the mental benefits of yoga that surprised me the most. I never thought I would be a meditative person. I’m always thinking of plot holes and making up dialogue in my head and wondering what to cook etc. I certainly haven’t perfected the ability to let my mind enter a blank, quiet state, but improvement comes with time there, too. I find that regular yoga practise helps me to stay calm and focused. It can also re-energize and help me to shift gears between the very different worlds of my office job and slipping my mind back into the historical setting of the novel I’m currently writing. As an added bonus, I’ve also noticed it’s easier not to stress out over little things, like traffic.

Since I clearly recommend yoga, I thought I’d share my three favourite gentle stretches here, which are particularly useful for if you’ve been sitting at a desk all day. I’m not a yoga instructor though, so I’ve kept it to fairly simple stretches. I don’t want anyone to get hurt! I included additional links for each for added explanation.

Photo via Visualhunt

Arms and Shoulders

Stretch your arms as if you’re a cactus. Elbows bent at ninety degrees, fingertips pointing toward the sky. Look upward, stretching your neck and taking a slight back bend if that feels good (only go as far as it feels like it’s helping, there’s no need to force yourself deeper). It’ll open up your chest by pressing your shoulder blades toward each other. It’s especially helpful if you’ve been hunched over a mouse or keyboard all day. Take a deep breath and feel how much more open your chest and lungs are. This link has some further description.

Next, bring your arms forward as if you’re hugging someone, wrapping your arms around an invisible person (keep hands about face height or a little lower), right hand stacked on top of left, and round your neck and shoulders forward as well. It’s a gentle stretch between your shoulder blades.

Repeat steps 1 and 2, switching with hand is on top during the ‘hug’ part. You could easily do this one at your desk, if you’re not shy about any co-workers possibly seeing you. (The next two are better to do at home).

Low back and legs

Stand with your feet about hip-width apart.  Bending at the hips, move into a forward fold, trying to press your stomach to your thighs. It’s okay to bend your knees – in fact, it’s easier to start that way to deepen the fold. It’s a good stretch for your low back. Do whatever feels comfortable with your arms; rest fingertips on the ground, gently grasp the back of your ankles, or clasp your elbows and rock gently from side to side. Hold for a minute or two, as long as it feels comfortable. If desired, you can gradually straighten your legs to extend the stretch into your hamstrings as well.

This link has a photo and some further description, while this one shares some more information on the benefits.

Legs

Lie down on the floor (use a blanket or a towel if the floor is too hard and you don’t have a yoga mat) and scoot as close to the wall as possible. You’re going to be lifting your legs up, resting them against the wall. It’s easier to start sideways, so your legs are parallel to the wall, and then inch closer as you lift the legs into the air, letting them rest against the wall. Feet can be touching, side by side, or you can stretch them further apart if that feels better. Keep your feet flexed so your toes sort of point toward your shins. Rest here for a minute or two, however long feels good. This one is also very nice to do before bed. It’s very calming.

More description and benefits at this link.

Bonus – eyes

If, like me, you spend way too many hours per day staring at a computer screen, it’s good to stretch your eyes once in a while too. Gentleness is the key here though. Let your eyes rest, unfocused, for a minute before starting the stretch.

Sit straight and raise your gaze upward, sweeping to the right, down, and back up, so that you do a full circumference of looking all around without moving your head. Try to move your eyes smoothly. Do this a few times, then switch directions, so you go to the left first for the second set.

Next, stretch your arm out in front of you, thumb up. Stare at your thumb while you slowly bring your hand all the way to touch your nose, keeping your gaze focused. Do this about ten times. Switch hands partway through if your arm gets tired.

Lastly, make sure you rest your eyes for a minute, letting them gently drift closed or stay unfocused before going straight back to another screen.

Check out this link for more details as well.

Happy Stretching! And make sure to do some deep breaths as well. Try to count to three for a big inhale, and then slowly exhale for a count of five. Doing that for even a minute really helps ease stress and reset focus.

Photo via Visual Hunt

 

And stay tuned for a new Bad Decisions in History next week!

 

A Quick Update

I must confess, I don’t have a blog post prepared for this week, but since I haven’t missed a post in a long time (it might even be over a year), I didn’t want to skip it completely.

Since I don’t really have anything planned, here’s a picture of my dog, Logan. He’s a good boy.

 

As for real updates, I’ve been writing like crazy, working on my WIP. After some research and plot-timing hiccups, I have now made it to 60K words, so I can happily say that the 40K Slump is over. Whew!

I’m also now into the three month countdown to publication day for The Wardrobe Mistress on August 15th, so I’m working on some special Marie Antoinette/French Revolution themed stuff to be posted soon!

Oh, and I’m on Instagram now –  @meghan_m_author. Come find me there!