I had a very earnest email from Cynthia with a question that deserves an answer:

I am captivated by the life, struggles, and victories of the characters in your Into the Wilderness series. The one thing I find dissonant and disturbing is this intense and at times shocking elaborate sexual revelation. Being a Christian woman who discerns what to read by God’s directive moral command, it leaves me uncomfortable to say the least. Especially the homosexual endeavor in Lake in the Clouds. I know my option is to put down your books and not pick them back up, but there is a quality to your storytelling that I find enjoyable except for that. Why? include it at all. It seems to me it does not enhance your characters, and without it, these books are appropriate for women of all ages. Just curious.

One of the basic truths about storytelling and fiction, in my view of things,  is this: not every book is for every reader. There are well-written, important novels out there that don’t work for me personally.  I can have objections to a novel that are about style, or approach, or subject matter. Hundreds of critical review praising it to the heavens, thousands of five stars reviews by readers: if it doesn’t work for me, that’s something for me to wonder about and explore for myself. It’s not about the novel. For every novel I come across  I have to decide whether the novel is worth my time.

Cynthia is disturbed by sex scenes in my novels because, as she puts it, they are in conflict with her beliefs as a Christian.  

For me personally, religion is not an issue; my understanding of right and wrong is not founded in any scripture or any faith. I am what is generally called a Freethinker. Wikipedia has a good general definition:

Freethought (or “free thought”) is a philosophical viewpoint which holds that positions regarding truth should be formed on the basis of logic, reason, and rationalism, rather than authority, tradition, revelation, or other dogma. In particular, freethought is strongly tied with rejection of traditional religious belief. The cognitive application of freethought is known as “freethinking”, and practitioners of freethought are known as “freethinkers”.  The term first came into use in the 17th century in order to indicate people who inquired into the basis of traditional religious beliefs.

So I have to take religion out of Cynthia’s question and answer it from a different direction: is there any logical, rational reason to omit sex scenes from my novels?

My goal is to tell an engaging story with characters who are as close to life as I can make them. They may face unusual challenges, but in the end they deal with universal issues, things that are common to all of us: simple survival, connections and responsibilities and expectations in relationship to other people and to communities. What makes life worth living, in a more general way.  The way people relate to each other sexually is not a secondary or unimportant element of their lives.

If I write a sex scene, it is because I believe that the scene will contribute to the understanding of the characters.  I don’t write sex scenes to arouse the reader, to titillate or irritate or shock.  Some people enjoy erotica — and there is some beautifully written erotica out there to enjoy, if that interests you — but I don’t fall into that category. In an 800 page novel a handful of scenes that involve sex do not indicate an overwhelming preoccupation with that subject.  

So I write sex scenes for the same reason I write scenes where my characters argue, or laugh, or weep: to tell the whole story. I am sorry to lose a reader because his or her world view requires them to turn away, but I tell the best story I can, and leave this ultimate decision up to the individual. 

after thirty-five years of marriage


Back to Scotland: Dawn on a Distant Shore

This post is 1 year old.

I had a comment from Liz to  my last post, asking about my decision to set part of Dawn on a Distant Shore in Scotland. It was a good question, but I think I need to answer it more fully. So here goes.

The reason I sent the Bonners to Scotland in Dawn on a Distant Shore is really quite simple or at least, it started out that way. I had this crazy idea that it would be funny if it turned out that Hawkeye was of high birth.

At the time I was in contact with Frederick Hogarth, an expert on heraldry and genealogy of the British Isles, and formerly the editor of Burke’s Peerage.  I asked his opinion on how I could pull off giving Hawkeye this backstory.

Mr. Hogarth is an incredibly generous person, and he went to huge amounts of trouble to show me how to handle this. He came up with the family crest and all the bits and pieces, provided me with the layout of Carryckcastle, including blueprints and sketches, and pretty much constructed a complicated  family tree. It was so interesting to work through all the details that I had a really good time pulling it all together. Now, if  he had told me there was no realistic way to structure the backstory, I would have let it go. But his enthusiasm and extraordinary support made it all possible.

After answering Liz’s question I asked myself  what had become of all the images and information that Mr. Hogarth provided.  His website (Baronage) is still in existance, but hasn’t been updated since 2007. I haven’t been able to find out what happened to him, sorry to say. 

But I can say with complete surprise that the information about Dawn on a Distant Shore posted in 2002  is still there. How’s that for a shock? Given the age of the Baronage website I’m reproducing some of that page here for posterity. It also gives me another opportunity to thank Mr. Hogarth and acknowledge his tremendous contribution to bringing the backstory together.

From the Baronage website, by its editor:

To produce plausible, fully-rounded characters an author will often compose substantial back-stories that shape their novels without actually appearing in them. In her best-selling series, of which the first titles were Into the Wilderness and Dawn on a Distant Shore, Sara Donati wove a hidden tale that created the fascinating situations in which her characters fought for their lives, but one of which readers are only dimly aware. The arms of one of her principal characters tell some of this story, and Miss Donati has kindly allowed us to publish it.

The introductory pages of the second book, Dawn on a Distant Shore, feature a family tree showing the descent of the 4th Earl of Carryck from the 5th Lord Scott of Carryckcastle, his great-great-grandfather killed in the service of Charles II, but the backstory begins several generations earlier with Sir Colin Campbell of Glenorchy. (In this summary the historic characters will be printed in red.) [Note: I have adjusted the colors to make the distinctions clearer.]

Glenorchy’s elder brother was the ancestor of the Earls and Dukes of Argyll, and his own eldest son was the ancestor of the Earls of Breadalbane. (He himself is recorded in history as one of the cleverest and most unprincipled rogues of his century, at a time when clever and unprincipled rogues were active everywhere.) From his third wife, Margaret Robertson, he had a daughter Margaret who married David Johnstone of Carryckcastle, from which marriage there was an only child, Catriona, and from his fourth wife he had a son, John Campbell of Auchreoch, who was killed at Flodden in 1513.

John Campbell of Auchreoch had a bastard son, John Campbell, who was badly wounded at Flodden, escaped, and was nursed back to health by a girl, mute from birth, Mary Scott, with whom he fell in love (as very sick patients tend to do). Her father also had been killed at Flodden and she was in the care of her great-uncle, Walter Scott of Ballerlaw, who, when he learned that the two wished to marry, settled his estate on them on condition that John Campbell took the name of Scott. (Such arrangements were  not then uncommon.)

Let us look at the heraldry so far.

c-scott1 c-scott2 c-scott3
Scott of Buccleuch,
the Chief of the Scotts
Scott of Ballerlaw,
a distinct branch from early times,
differenced by a buckle and a change
in the tincture of the bend’s charges
a break in the male bloodline
The idiosyncratic addition of the second buckle (above right) reminds us that the laws of heraldry as we interpret them today were not yet, in the early sixteenth century, set in concrete. The new John Scott of Ballerlaw remembers he was born a Campbell and seeks to be not quite a Scott. (This Campbell link is a critical factor in the story.)

The new Laird of Ballerlaw and his wife, Mary, have a son, Robert, who marries his first cousin once removed, the heiress Catriona Johnstone of Carryckcastle. Subsequently he is created Lord Scott of Carryckcastle by James V, and the following year he entails his lands on his successors in that title, which failing to his nearest heirs bearing the name of Campbell and of the blood of his paternal grandfather John Campbell of Auchreoch.

Let us now look at Catriona’s arms.

c-johnst c-johns1 c-johns2
Johnstone of that Ilk ~ the undifferenced arms An early branch makes the chief black, and another cadet line then makes the cushions silver. Johnstone of Carryckcastle ~ yet another cadet line replaces one cushion with a crescent.

 The eldest son of Robert Scott and Catriona, Robert, 2nd Lord Scott of Carryckcastle, quarters his mother’s arms ~ with Scott of Ballalaw in the 1st and 4th quarters, and Johnstone of Carryckcastle in the 2nd and 3rd quarters. He marries Jean Scott of Balweir; their son, the 3rd Lord, marries Flora Johnstone of Craigieburn; and their son, the 4th Lord, marries Mary Scott of Glenkerry, whose son, the 5th Lord begins the family tree printed in Sara Donati’s second book.

The 8th Lord, Roderick Scott, 3rd Earl of Carryck, marries Appalina Forbes, an heiress whose arms we shall next consider.

c-forbes   c-forbe1 c-forbe2 c-forbe4
Lord Forbes
Chief of Clan Forbes ~
the undifferenced arms
An early branch replaces a charge with another, a mullet for a bear’s head   A younger son later takes abordure argent for difference . . . . . . . . . .subsequently another cadet charging the border with red mullets. 

The marriage with Appalina brings into the family not only the Agardston estates, but also her father’s shipping fleet and her unmarried brothers’ fortune made from trading in the American colonies, both ingredients essential to the story. However, our interest is in the Forbes of Agardston arms which Alasdair Scott, the 4th Earl of Carryck and 9th Lord Scott of Carryckcastle, places in the 3rd quarter.

carryck-4.5The composition of the Earl of Carryck’s arms reflect the changes down the centuries and offer a good example of how many of the arms of our older families have developed. It should be noted that the 2nd and 3rd quarters are the arms brought in by heiresses, not just arms of families with which the Carryck lords have married.

So here you have it, Hawkeye’s genealogical backstory. This is what made the telling of the story in Scotland possible.


Whatever became of Will and Amanda Spencer?

This post is 1 year old.

Petzi asked a question I had been expecting to hear sooner or later. She wonders about Elizabeth’s cousin Amanda Spencer and her husband, William Spencer, Viscount Durbeyfield and what happened to them. The last time you saw the Spencers was in Lake in the Clouds; they lived in Manhattan with their son, Peter.

Handbill_advertising_a_petition_to_the_House_of_Commons_for_Parliamentary_ReformAmanda is the daughter of Elizabeth’s indefatigable Aunt Merriweather. She and Will relocated to New York city from England in large part because Will was implicated in the London Corresponding Society, a group that advocated reform on the French model.   If he had stayed in England he could have been arrested by the Crown on charges of high treason. Of course, that wasn’t quite threatening enough to keep Will out of England when his cousin needed him (Fire Along the Sky).

The Spencers lived just opposite Battery Park when the area was was home to the rich and fashionable.  Will was a couple years older than Elizabeth, and Amanda a few years younger.

Will and Amanda are, of course, long gone by 1883. Peter was born in 1795, and is no longer in Manhattan, if he’s alive at all.

 Sometimes I work out a full story line for a character, and sometimes I don’t. By not setting down a firm storyline I leave some room for plot development. So the answer to Petzi’s question is: I dunno. Not yet, at any rate.



audiobooks & too much information (with video!)

This post is 1 year old.
R-Less Edith Wharton
R-Less Edith Wharton

I’ve been trying to concentrate on writing so I haven’t been posting very often. But something has been on my mind for a while and I thought this would be the best way to resolve it — in my head, at least. 

If you have read this weblog for any length of time you’re most likely aware that I was a professor of linguistics for twelve years before I started writing full time. Linguistics is a huge field — everything from the neurology of speech production to reconstruction of ancient languages to universals in syntax. My field has to do with the sociocultural aspects of language, or sociocultural anthropological linguistics (how’s that for a mouthful?).[1. My best-known publication is English with an Accent: Language, Ideology and Discrimination in the U.S. and here’s a pdf excerpt if you’re so inclined.] The Santa Barbara campus of the UC system has what I consider to be the best program in the field, and this is part of their short description: 

Encompassing research traditions including sociolinguistics, linguistic anthropology, discourse analysis, and others, sociocultural linguistics focuses on how discourse mediates the enactment of social life and the construction of the social world.

A couple more basic points: all spoken language changes; all spoken language varies over different kinds of social space. All that just to preface what I’m about to say.

When they started doing the audiobook recordings for the Wilderness novels, it never occurred to me to worry about the varieties of English (or, more simply, the accents) spoken by the characters, and therefore, by the reader. Simply because we don’t know enough about the way English was spoken on the New York frontier in 1792. But we do know more about the sounds of spoken English in 1883 — primarily because some of the people born in the mid 19th century were still around into the 1960s or longer, and their voices have been preserved on tape.[1. There are a few recordings of the human voice around this time, but the technology was in its infancy and the quality is very poor (for example, this recording of President Benjamin Harrison whose term ran from 1889 to 1892).]

My point (and I do have one) is that in my mind, I have an actual sense of the way Anna Savard spoke English. In late 19th century Manhattan, the accent was much like the current day New England accents. The most tangible feature is the loss of /r/ after a vowel — as in John F. Kennedy’s infamous “Paak the caah in Haaavad yaad” (this is referred to as rhoticity).  There’s a very good short video on Youtube on the history and evolution of urban accents over time that provides good examples of rhotic and non-rhotic pronunciations.[2. Some of the explanations I would quibble with, but all in all it’s a good overview. Less serious but a lot of fun: Shit Boston Girls Say and Shit Italian Moms Say. The accents are right on target.] And here’s an example of the way linguists have fun: an article about a study of rhoticity in Hollywood films over time: 

Elliott, N. (2000) “A Study in the Rhoticity of American Film Actors.” In R. Dal Vera (ed.) Standard Speech and Other Contemporary Issues in Professional Voice and Speech Training. New York: Applause, pp. 103–130.

Where /r/ disappears after a vowel for some part of the population, depending on age, socioeconomic allegiances, location, and communication network integration.
Where /r/ disappears after a vowel for some part of the population, depending on age, socioeconomic allegiances, location, and communication network integration.


Anna would sound more like Katherine Hepburn or Bette Davis, who were both born to upper class families in Massachusetts. The videos below were recorded when they were both quite old, but the accent still comes through, primarily the loss of /r/ after a vowel, the raising and backing of some vowels, and intonation.

So if I had been able to dictate how Cassandra Campbell voiced Anna — and other women of that time and place — in the recording of The Gilded Hour, I might have said “Do your best Katherine Hepburn.” And that would have been a disaster, because unless you’ve studied the evolution of American English on the east coast, it would sound utterly wrong to you. Technically closer to fact, yes. But not a good idea. 

There are no audio recordings of Edith Wharton’s voice, which is a shame, because while she was of a higher social class than Anna Savard, an argument could be made that they would have been very close in the way they spoke. 

I’m very happy with the unabridged audio recording of The Gilded Hour, but when I listen to it, this issue always comes up for me. Some days it would be good to be able to forget my education.

genealogy, characters, mysteries: wiki

This post is 2 years old.

For those who have mentioned to me that you would like to see the genealogy charts for the characters in the Wilderness novels and The Gilded Hour,  here’s what I can offer you. 

There is a Gilded Hour wiki, as you may be aware.


The purpose of the wiki is to serve  as a place to keep and organize all the research I’ve collected while writing the novel (and continue to pull together for the sequel, of course).  If you pop over there and scroll down to the bottom, you’ll see a list of wiki categories on the right. Genealogy will take you to a list of the pages that include genealogical charts and information.[1.  Note: I know there are continuity errors (inevitable over a fifteen year writing period), but if you feel the need to point something out, please leave a comment on that page. Note also: I had to do some restructuring over there, so if you click on a link and it gives you an error, please let me know so I can fix it. You can do that by leaving a comment on the page where you found the broken link.] 

GH Wiki Character Index
GH Wiki Character Index

There are two ways I’m keeping track of characters: first, a general list or index,  in which every character should (eventually) be listed (see to the right).

Second, character sketches or pages for primary and secondary characters (see below).

You will note that character pages are incomplete. Try this: put the name Anna Savard into the search box (in the top banner) and click on the article with that name.  You’ll see that Anna’s page has a great deal of information, but if you do another search, this time for Oscar Maroney you’ll note that Oscar needs some attention. There are many names not yet entered — in the index and in the list of character sketches.  All the existing pages have some information, but getting them into shape will take me a long time, working on this a half hour at a time.  

GH Wiki Character Sketch
GH Wiki Character Sketch

Right now the GH Wiki is limited to characters appearing in The Gilded Hour, but if there is interest enough, I may set things up so that all characters from the Wilderness novels could be included. 

So now here’s the thing: if you have a burning desire to add information to the wiki (for example, to fill in empty character charts, or add information about a landmark), that may be possible in the near future. Right now I’m looking for just two people who have a little time and energy to invest in the wiki, to see how it goes. Those two people will be upgraded from ‘subscriber’ to ‘contributer’ and that will give them limited ability to edit all the wiki pages. If you’re interested, please let me know in the comments.

Just so you know: wiki page edits are kept track of and older versions of an article can be restored should disaster strike. As it always does, sooner or later.  

So there you have it. Go on over and look through all the family genealogy pages. If you would like to see a page on something in particular — for example, you are wondering about the elevated trains in 1883 — you can suggest that anywhere — there, here, FaceBook. If on the other hand you are an expert on the subject of elevated trains in NYC in the 1880s and you’d like to put a wiki article together, please shout at me. I’d love it if people with specific knowledge got involved. 

Character Sketches: Your Input

This post is 2 years old.

For a while I’ve been thinking about the best way to put together character sketches for characters in all of the Wilderness novels and GH. Not a small undertaking, I know, but I think of it as a long-term project.  

There are many websites/wikis devoted to book series and movies that do a good job of this.  Examples include Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games) has a character sketch which is exhaustive and very carefully put together and  Debra Morgan (Dexter) is another example of a very intense and detailed character breakdown. Wikipedia has character pages for fictional characters across time and space (here’s the Wikipedia very elegant approach to Katniss Everdeen). Game playing sites go to great lengths and make very complicated character infoboxes.  Wikia provides an example character template which would not work for fictional characters, but could be adapted. It’s interesting to see what they throw in, at any rate:

{{Character Infobox
| name                     =
| image                    =
| alternate name           =
| aka                      =
| d.o.b.                   =
| age                      =
| birthplace               =
| residence                =
| race                     =
| height                   =
| weight                   =
| shoe size                =
| hair                     =
| eyes                     =
| body shape               =
| tattoos                  =
| jewellery                =
| dress                    =
| appearance-other form    =
| dress                    =
| emblem                   =
| markings                 =
| accent                   =
| language                 =
| weapons                  =
| transport                =
| motto(s)                 =
| favourite music          =
| likes                    =
| dislikes                 =
| pastimes                 =
| family                   =
| powers                   =
| fighting style           =
| food                     =
| businesses               =
| lovers                   =


janeaustencslistAt (a kind of Jane Austen super wiki) there’s a simple but effective approach, as you see here to the left. Click for a larger image.

Every once in a while I spend a half hour experimenting in the best way to do this for my characters. Full disclosure: this is something I should have been doing since the beginning.

The easiest way would be to do it just like the Pemberly folk have done for Jane Austen’s characters. So for example anybody who wants to contribute would go to the page for a given novel and leave a comment (if this were a proper wiki, you could edit the page yourself, but in this case, a comment would be enough):

Endless Forest (W6). Mr. Turner. Shopkeeper in Johnstown  who sells Ethan and Callie supplies.

That would certainly be a great start if I could compile a complete list of all characters showing up in the novels.  But historical novelists are OCD by nature and so I also imagine a more detailed accounting, something like the following, for characters who are more substantial. Rough example:

Full NameEthan MiddletonImage/AppearanceBlond, middle height, elegant build
Role__Primary __Secondary __Transient
Date of Birth1792
Place of Birth[[Paradise]], Hamilton County, NYAppearing inW1, W3, W4, W6
Date of Death
Place of DeathHudson River (steam boat accident)
OccupationOwner of most of the town of Paradise, town manager and plannerQuote"I'm a cousin, but I go home eventually to an empty house and I don't like it. You're alone in the world too, and we have always got on just fine. I thought we could help each other." W6
BiographySon of [[Julian Middleton]] and [[Kitty Witherspoon Middleton Todd]], nephew of [[Elizabeth Middleton Bonner]] born after his father's death. Raised by his mother and step-father [[Richard Todd]]. As a young man spends two years. . Marriage or other romantic relationships--Harrison Quinlan, short term
--[[Calista WIlde Middleton]] married 1824
SourcesW1, W3, W4, W6, GHChildrenGuardian to the children of [[Jennet Scott Bonner][ and [[Luke Scott Bonner]] after their mother's death
Factual Conflicts

Before this could get started there’s a big decision to be made: should all of the character sketches be folded into  The Gilded Hour kinda-wiki or should I start a separate wiki for the Wilderness novels. The thing is, I don’t expect this to take off right away or at all, even, so that’s something that could be discussed. So the question is, if you are one of those people who re-reads the entire series on a regular basis (and bless you if you are), would you be interested in participating in the very brief way described first above? You’re plowing through Lake in the Clouds for the xxth time, and you come across Captain Mudge and you wonder, hey, has he been entered into the character list yet?   So you’d go to the page for Lake in the Clouds and leave a comment:

LitC W3. Captain Mudge. Captain of the ship that takes the escaping slaves to Canada.

Now, somebody might come along and say, wait, he has a first name. Or, he’s too big a character for a one line entry, he needs a full template because ….

So then that would be a debate. This kind of discussion is common on real full-size wikis, because the community puts the entries together and debates about the best way to do it. I don’t imagine that anybody has a lot of time or energy to devote to something like this, but maybe contributing once in a while when you come across something — that would be the idea. 

If you know of a website that uses character templates that you like, please leave a link in the comments. I’d be interested in seeing what appeals.

Now I have to go back to writing a very difficult scene.