Historical lapses in historical writing: a copy editor’s tips

I enjoy an absorbing historical novel just as much as any fan of the genre. But there are a few things some historical novelists stumble over, so I’m putting on my copy editing hat to offer a few tips. And by “few,” I mean only…two. :) But they’re two big stumbles that can take readers out of your story:

1. When writing the historical novel, never assume that the way the world is now is the way it was back then: This seems like an obvious rule — after all, even the laziest researcher knows, for example, folks didn’t drive cars in the 17th century. But I’m not talking about that kind of glaring difference.

I’m talking about things such as having your character order a cocktail in a Mississippi town after Prohibition was repealed, not bothering to check if it was still a “dry” state. Some states remained dry, due to state laws, for years after Prohibition was repealed. Ensuring plot verisimilitude means digging a little deeper, beyond obvious historical milestones.


Hmm…what’s wrong with this picture?

Don’t have your 19th or even early 20th century character wander into a store on a Sunday, either. Virtually all places of business closed on Sundays back in the day — there were actual “blue laws” on many town/city/state books that required businesses to shutter on the Lord’s day. (Caveat: you can write a Sunday open-business scene, but you need to acknowledge to the reader this wasn’t common: “Clark wandered into the only place open on a Sunday, a small coffee shop near the local hospital.”)

Don’t just check when various items were invented–try to find out when most families would have been able to afford them. For example, the TV might have been invented in the 1920s, but wouldn’t have been widely available for many, many years later, and most households wouldn’t have been able to afford to purchase one even when they did become widely commercially available. Same is true for color TVs. I’m old enough to remember what a luxury a color TV was.

The same goes for things such as movies with sound. Even though the first feature film with sound, The Jazz Singer, was released in the fall of 1927, it took years for theaters to be wired for sound. Many small-town movie theaters still played silent movies for quite a while.

While on the topic of movies, check release dates at IMDB.com. You can’t have a character going to see The Jazz Singer in August 1927, since it wasn’t released until October of that year. And even then, it wasn’t released simultaneously around the country.

The above tips mostly concern 20th and 19th century issues, but the same principles apply to earlier times. Some things we take for granted now were not the same back then, and some things you discover through research might require a bit more digging to accurately reflect the time and place.

2. Words are added to the lexicon every year; make sure your characters aren’t using words and phrases from the future: This is a tricky topic because, if historical novelists were really being true to a particular time period, their manuscripts would be littered with odd spellings and hyphenations we don’t use today. Many closed compound words, for example, start as open compounds, progress to hyphenated ones, then close up entirely. Readers wouldn’t expect to see such words printed the way they were back in the day. And many historical novelists consciously decide to ignore language accuracy, giving their characters a more flippant, modern tone to convey distinct personalities and themes. If done well, it works, and the reader stays in the story. But in narrative, anachronistic usage might jar, so be careful.

There are some words that didn’t enter the lexicon until the 1900s or later that even readers who aren’t linguists or language experts might stumble over. For example, a 19th century duke wouldn’t think to himself that he is “out of sync” with the world — sync didn’t enter the lexicon until 1929 as a noun, 1945 as a verb (or so saith Webster’s 11th).

An 18th century duchess wouldn’t think to herself how unfortunate it was that the duke was “plastered” the night before. That word, meaning drunk, didn’t enter the lexicon until 1902.

And even a princess in 1900 wouldn’t muse on how “posh” her surroundings were–posh came into use in 1918 (and some believe it was an acronym for “port out, starboard home,” the best cabin positions on a trip to India).

I’m not arguing for being a language purist when writing historical novels (see my comments at the beginning of this point). But I do think readers with even a minimal knowledge of language might stumble over certain words, at least wondering to themselves: Was this really in use back then? They might not know the answer for sure, but if they suspect it’s “no,” they’re taken out of your story for a few seconds.

That’s it for now — hope these two tips are helpful, historical novelists. Now, get writing!

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Carmen, je t’aime



“Just at that moment we were passing one of the many narrow lanes one sees in Seville. All at once Carmen turned and struck me in the chest with her fist. I tumbled backward, purposely. With a bound, she sprang over me, and ran off, showing us a pair of legs! People talk about a pair of Basque legs! but hers were far better –as fleet as they were well-turned.”    from Carmen by Prosper Merimee

We — hubs and I and a friend — went to see the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Carmen this week. We saw it at a local movie theater as part of The Met in HD series, where the company broadcasts live performances on Saturdays and reshows them on Wednesday nights.

I’ve sung in the chorus of two Carmen productions — one in a small company, one with Washington Opera at the Kennedy Center. I love the opera. Along with Puccini’s Turandot, it counts as a favorite. But like Turandot, it is also a very difficult opera to fully dramatically realize on the stage. Part of this is due to its pitch-perfect music. Everything you need to know about Carmen and Don Jose, their friends, acquaintances, family, is written in the score by Georges Bizet, from the seductive allure of the Habanera to the haughty pride of the Toreador’s Song to the melancholy of the card scene and even to the cheerful plotting of the smugglers’ ensemble (and let’s not forget the purity and fearlessness of Micaela).

carmenSo any staging of Carmen is destined to fall short, in a way, to the images one sees in one’s mind as soon as the first notes of the Fate Theme sound. Add to this the challenge of making some fairly static scenes come alive and some incredible coincidences (Escamillo showing up at the smugglers’ lair…and dressed well, to boot!) credible, and you have an opera that tests the artistry and intellectual understanding of the best directors.

The Met production was very good. The singing was outstanding. Anita Rachvelishvili’s Carmen was velvet lyricism from the top to the bottom of her range, not an easy accomplishment when so much of the low singing has to be done in chest voice which can become harsh and rough in the wrong vocalist’s hands. The other singers were equally wonderful.

What of the staging? The New York Times called it “grim,” likening it to a Wozzeck more than an opera about sensuality and high spirits before its sad denouement. I concur. There was a lot to like, but a few things didn’t quite work.

This production was moved up to the 1930s, and that meant no “toy soldier” costumes for Jose and his officers. Instead, dully green-gray, a nice touch. Other than that, why set it in this period? One kept waiting for some other tie to the period that never came. In fact, costuming was ragged with some choristers dressed as if they’d mistakenly grabbed 1800s’ garments, others not so much.

The cigarette girls chorus staging was odd. The women entered…from a trap door! Usually, the lilting, smoky tendrils of music that introduce this chorus are used to allow the choristers to dreamily, steamily saunter on stage, sometimes from a second-floor set indicating the factory’s upper stories. Why did the director choose to forgo using this evocative music to overlap that kind of visual and opt instead for women being helped out of what appeared to be a big…..sewer? Beats me.

Later, when this chorus reappears to take sides in the Carmen factory fight, the action seemed too stagey and static. The key to keeping this scene moving is to make sure that even the chorus that’s not singing is still doing something, not just waiting for its cue to come in. carmen2

While on the subject of the chorus (and since that’s what I know from true experience), the most difficult one is the fourth act, the pageant before the bull fight. This chorus can feel ragged with its  stops and starts, and it requires a real parade of supernumeraries to make the scene itself appear like anything beyond a high school production level of staging. Sadly, the Met had that high schoolish feel, a disappointment given this company stages far bigger pageantry for other operas.

But the most challenging part of Carmen is communicating with action, not just music, the deep attraction between Don Jose, the good soldier, and Carmen, the sultry gypsy, an attraction so strong and fierce that he ends up throwing away his good life to lead one of banditry just to be with her. In the Prosper Merimee story the opera is based on, Jose tells of how Carmen convinces him to let her go free after she’s taken into custody following the factory fight. The part of this story that’s always stuck in my mind is the passage I quote at the outset of this essay, where Carmen leaps over Jose’s prone body, showing him her beautiful “Basque” legs. How I’d love to see that enacted in a production of the opera! (And less of the vamping that Carmens usually resort to in order to communicate sensuality.)

I’d love to see, too, a sense of the pride and dignity of Jose. He might be a lowly corporal, but he is, after all, a “Don,” from Navarre, from such a good family that, in the Merimee story, he is spared hanging (for murdering Carmen) and will be killed with a garrotting, a death reserved for upper-class men. Jose must have the bearing of the elite. He must communicate with his posture that when he succumbs to Carmen, it’s a total transformation, giving up that ingrained sense of dignity. He is so besotted by her that he lowers himself.

But often, Jose is played a bit fecklessly, as if a smile, a wink, a flower thrown in his direction is enough to turn his heart and soul to a different path. To make this unbelievable moment believable, you have to see a strong man first who cannot bend in harsh winds; he can only break. Ironically, opera directors could steal a page from soap opera directors to capture this moment. This is a conceit often used on soaps — good guy or gal, maybe on the outs with their beloved, suddenly gives in to passion with The Wrong Type, and Consequences ensue (for many months of storytelling!). And it’s always believable. metcarmen14110

The Merimee story focuses more on Jose — it’s told from his point of view as he awaits his death for killing Carmen — so you become far more familiar with his obsession and how alluring Carmen was in his eyes. Her laughter, in particular, seduced him, and her free spirit that would not be tamed. You also feel, in the story, her love for him…until he pushes her too far.

Those are difficult transformations to capture in an opera, but careful staging, costuming and makeup could telegraph so much more than the typical Carmen production usually suggests. Why not, for example, have Jose’s hair longer, perhaps pulled in a small ponytail, in the smugglers’ scene–telegraphing the passage of time in this tumultuous love affair. Why not, too, have Carmen show more affection for him in that scene so that we see she did, in fact, love him, even as the embers cooled?

I do go on…but Carmen is such a great opera it’s hard not to offer one’s own vision for this magnificent story. The music just won’t let go!

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Where to go…From Here

Years ago, when the publisher of my first book — a YA mystery — asked me what name I wanted to write under, I immediately thought that my nickname — Libby — would be the best way to communicate the fun spirit of the book, and, since most folks knew me as Libby Sternberg…it was a natural pick. FromHere

Then, when my first humorous women’s fiction book was bought by Harlequin, my editor asked the same question: What name to write under? I nixed Libby Sternberg because I didn’t want my YA fans (both of them – ahem) coming to my adult material thinking it would be the same type of read. So I settled on Libby Malin. But then later, I did write some serious adult fiction under Libby Sternberg, wanting to distinguish it from my lighter adult fare. Clear…as mud? :)

But the name I’d always really wanted to write under was Elizabeth Malin, not the nickname Libby. You see, I started in the artistic world as a classical singer. Trained at Peabody Conservatory, I sang under the name Elizabeth Malin, and I have a box full of old programs and mementos of my singing days with that name printed on them. Elizabeth Malin has always felt like my artistic persona.

So, here I am, some ten or so books later, and I’ve decided to start afresh as the author Elizabeth Malin, at least for my more serious adult fiction. To that end, I’m releasing a collection of three short stories, to be followed by a full-length novel.

The short story collection is appropriately titled From Here -- also the name of the first story in the group — to indicate the theme of the stories. They each deal with characters deciding what to do “from here.” Where do they go? How do they deal with large and small challenges? How do they start over — if they do?

Here’s a sample of each story:

“From Here” — the tale of a semi-retired opera singer reminiscing about his life and his now-deceased mentor. Here he recalls the final concert, a benefit program, by his mentor, Frank:

And then, when they’re still clapping, when they’re wanting it so bad they’ll do anything to hear it, he marches on stage and thanks everybody and tells them to get out their wallets and write checks. And he waited! He waited until they started doing it. And then when they’re as still as school kids waiting for the teacher, he sings it, Nessun Dorma, his voice oozing out into that hall like honey, coating everybody’s heart and making you warm and peaceful, like you’ve just gotten a toe in heaven and if you’re real quiet, they’ll let you stay.

I was moved, standing in the wings. Couldn’t stop the tears even though I’d heard it a thousand times, sung by the best, too. Frank’s singing had something that ripped you open.

“The Diva and the Drug Addict” – the story of two very different characters (hence the title!) thrown together in a halfway house retreat after various therapies. Here each of them settles into a week of quiet rest in the country, reflecting on their past…

Debbi had told them of a nearby walking path, and she’d availed herself of it each morning, cheered almost to the point of weeping by the site of shy dogwoods bursting into bloom under the canopy of lime-green leaves, trees about to burst into full leafy bud, now sheer lace above her head letting in the unyielding sunshine that pinked her face….

…He remembered feeling like this once before. In eighth grade, just as spring had warmed the countryside, he and some friends had foolishly gone swimming early in a muddy creek. He’d jumped in, knees to his chest, first leaping high into the air—and landed in shallow water on a buried log, breaking his shin bone. Lordy, that had hurt…

There’d been only a couple months of classes left, and that had been an easy year for him…He’d felt…redeemed, and he remembered thinking all these Great Thoughts about what he was going to do, how he’d be a better person after this, how lucky he was, how life was good. The honeysuckle moments of life, his mother had called them. Holy Saturday, the good kind of waiting.

“Russian Tropics” — a refugee from Bolshevik Russia lands in Florida, and fifteen years later works as a maid in the estate of a kind, debonair gentleman who’s taken an interest in her. Before finding that safe haven, though, she encounters another refugee to whom she tells her story:

She liked Ludmilla so much that she confessed to her one day her royal background and her desire to return home for her parents. She confided her hope that her parents still lived and prospered, they with their important skills, they would surely be necessary in the new Russia.

And instead of sympathy, she received…cold shock. “You!” Ludmilla said, pointing a shaking finger at her. “You, all of you! You killed my Ivan, my Dmitri, my Sasha!” she cried, rattling off names she’d never mentioned before. Names, Alexia discovered as Ludmilla rambled on, of the girl’s brothers and father and beloved fiancé. They’d been killed by the Tsar’s soldiers in a courtyard, with nothing to defend themselves but broomsticks and shovels, Ludmilla screamed. And screamed. A wail so intense, so frightening, that Alexia knew she would act on it. Deport her, perhaps—telling American authorities she was here without proper documents? Alexia was never sure if Uncle Fyodor had handled all that correctly. Alert Russian authorities to come for her here in America? It was possible. Those murdering savages would roam to the ends of the earth to stamp out her line. And now, it was the Ludmillas of the world who controlled the guns, and she who had nothing but a broomstick.

So, where do I go …from here? I hope I find new readers who will embrace Elizabeth Malin. I hope my old readers follow me to this new place. I hope, like all the characters in these stories to one degree or another, I find tenderness, acceptance and understanding.

Come like me on Facebook. And you can still visit my website at www.LibbyMalin.com to see what I’m up to! And, of course, you can buy From Here for your Kindle at Amazon!

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On the Affirmation of Kindness and the Renunciation of Bitterness

Or…Project Runway Gives the Finger to Korina  project runway

The recap of last night’s episode:
  • The remaining designers went around NYC in Lexus vehicles for some odd reason (couldn’t be the Lexus sponsorship, could it? Naw.).
  • They took pictures.
  • They designed “street” wear or “street looks.”
  • They were then told to choose from among losing designs to create another look, making the losing look into a winner.
  • What they did not know: Choosing a losing look meant choosing the loser, too. The loser designers would end up as their assistants.
  • And, yes, Char chose Korina’s look because it had so much fabric to work with.
  • Korina and the other  losers come into the workroom.
  • One by one, they are matched with their designers.
  • Clapping, smiles, glee….
  • Until Korina must go to Char, the designer whom Korina believes is not Worthy to Breathe the Same Air as the Awesomeness that is Korina.
  • Korina drank a gallon of lemon juice before appearing. Or so saith her facial expressions.
  • She cannot do this.
  • She leaves.
  • Huffing.
  • She is still “hurting,” you see, from her elimination in last week’s episode for designing an outfit made of All the Fabric in the Universe…plus scraps and miscellaneous notions she found.
  • Pocahontas (Amanda) in interview: I know how it hurts to lose, but…

Long story short: Char, despite her usual bumbling tailoring skills and a so-so outfit, is going to Fashion Week. Or at least the episode they do before Fashion Week where they will possibly eliminate one more.

Indigo-haired lady was eliminated because she just never caught lightning in a bottle, you know?

Kini did wondrous things, but the judges didn’t like one of them that Tim had obliquely suggested in his make-it-work moments in the workroom. Nonetheless, our sweet, cheerful, charming Hawaiian is headed to Fashion Week, clapping merrily.

My theory of this episode: although Char’s outfit was so-so, everyone was aware of The Krazy that was Korina, and they decided to reward Char(m) and, by doing so, thus punish The Krazy through the implementation of a sort of Kosmic Karma for Korina.

Or, sweets for the sweet-natured = niener niener niener for the nasty-tempered.

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A Lesson from Project Runway

project runwayMost novelists are not best sellers. Most labor for years selling some books to publishers but not all,  making modest advances and little or no royalties. And when they see not-so-good books becoming popular, the authors of which  making tons of money and acting as if sheer talent and not a bit of good fortune got them to the pinnacle, well, it’s hard not to take up residence in the Bitter and Envious Bed-and-Breakfast. It’s awfully hard not to snark at those success stories, wondering why on earth someone who could barely string sentences together or structure a compelling story made it so big when your own works are just as good, if not better.

But this past week, if you’re a Project Runway fan, you had a look at how unattractive bitterness can be.  For those who don’t know, Project Runway is a show airing on Lifetime where amateur and semi-professional fashion designers compete for a chance to show a line of clothing at New York’s fashion week (along with some other prizes). This is its 13th season, and we’re down to just six designers.

One of the designers, Korina, has done some good work. She’s even won a challenge. This week, when she designed an outfit using every fabric and notion known to mankind from ancient times to the present, she ended up in the bottom with Char, a charming woman from Detroit, whose body of work so far has been inconsistent, good one week, appalling the next. In fact, Char was eliminated one week, but “saved” and returned to the show through a special dispensation gimmick the show started using a year ago.

Korina clearly didn’t think she should have to be considered even in the same league with Char. She snarked on the runway during the final judging, and she continued to snark while working on a new dress, an assignment given to Char and Korina so they could try to redeem themselves after their awful runway showings. Char won–she deserved it–with a sleek, floating blue dress. Korina lost–with a poorly constructed Mondrian-design sheath.

And when a weeping Korina went back to tell the other contestants she’d lost, she couldn’t resist jabbing at Char, mentioning how she’d been eliminated previously. (Translation: You were never as good as me, yet I had to compete against you, and I lost!)

Here’s a good write-up of the Korina Krack-Up.

But the sad truth of this episode is: Korina was right…to a degree. As mentioned, Char has been an inconsistent designer, with some really bad pieces coming down the runway at various times–bad in design and bad in construction. I remember one monstrosity in particular that appeared as if it had been sewn in fifteen minutes using fabric scraps…while she was blindfolded.

Nonetheless, Korina herself wasn’t brilliant. She, too, sent some real dogs down the runway — she designed a green evening dress that looked as if a beginning teen sewer had chosen the wrong fabric, the wrong color and the wrong Simplicity pattern for her first garment.

Korina was lucky, though, not to be eliminated earlier for some of her flops. She was lucky– just as Char was lucky to be brought back on the show after her elimination. They both have some skill. They both have some talent. They both have exercised poor judgement occasionally. And…they both experienced both good and bad luck.

Korina’s bad luck came this past week. I suspect Char’s will come soon enough.

Authors not in the best-selling ranks probably all have their Korina moments. (And if they’re smart, they keep them to themselves.) You look at author so-and-so selling big, and you think: Really? She made it with her book, but I’m struggling to find an audience or publisher for mine?

She got lucky. You didn’t — this time. There’s no point in dwelling on her good luck and your bad luck. Things can change. And, if you love what you’re doing, telling stories, you’ll keep doing it, no matter how unlucky or lucky you might be.

So, word — don’t be Korina. It’s my new motto.


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How to fold a fitted sheet: a step-by-step NEVER FAIL guide

We’ve all seen those videos on social media with instructions on how to fold a fitted sheet. I don’t know why some folks have a problem with this. This is how I do it, and I end up seeing a perfectly folded sheet on my shelves EVERY SINGLE TIME:



fittedsheet step 1










fittedsheet step 2












fittedsheet step 4










fittedsheet step 5










fittedsheet step 6









STEP SIX: I don’t know about you, but I see a perfectly folded sheet on the shelf now….

fittedsheet step 7







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Apologies, or not, to Dr. Seuss

I do not like you, vac-u-um.

I do not like your noisy vroom.

I do not like your massive weight

I do not like your awkward gait.


Would you like a canister?

I would not like a canister

I would like to banish ‘er

I would not like a canister

I’d send it to a planet, grr….


Would you like an upright, then?

I would not like an upright, when

It falls and rocks my cleaning zen

I would not like an upright, then.


Would you like a Dyson, Shark?

I would not like them, bub, I snark.

I would not like Hoover, Eur-EE-ka

They’re all the same and make me shrieka.


I do not like you, vac-u-um

I do not like your noisy vroom.

Men can send each other to the moon,

But can’t make a lightweight, easy-to-use, not-falling-over-and-smacking-you-on-the-legs, long-corded, quiet, powerful, flexible


What’s with that?

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