Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Guest Post: Marsali Taylor

Costume is vital - and fun too! 

I love clothes, so my way into the past is through costume - what did my characters wear, and what did those clothes feel like?

It started with my very first novel, A Crown of Roses, in which a lost Jacobite heiress is returned to the rowdy London of 1770.  It's the prettiest china-shepherdess period, all lace frills and powdered hair - except that for my poor Sovra, brought up in a Spanish convent, the clothes are as uncomfortable as the morals of those around her.

But how uncomfortable?  I started my research in London, at the V & A and City museums, and spent a couple of hours sketching their 1770s robes.   I also bought a book, Janet Arnold's Patterns of Fashion. When I got home I drew my pattern, bought 6 metres of old-gold lining fabric, got out my dressmaker's dummy, oiled my 1906 Singer sewing machine, and set to work.

Stays first.  I wouldn't have used whalebone, even if I could have got it, but I laid short lengths of the stiffest Rigilene so close together on the stay shape that I could only just get my needle between them.  In London, my Sovra's 'boning' would have been made of iron rods.  Long shoelaces provided the back lacing.  Our school's technical teacher made me a hoop out of fencing wire, and I attached a waistband.

Once I'd got the underwear, I began on the robe (the noun dress, then, meant formal attire, rather than an article of clothing).  The intricate looking 'saque-back' is surprisingly easy - a wide back, pleated to fit, sleeves, fronts pleated to fit, and a decorative stomach panel.  I even discovered what 'furbelows' were: the thrifty woman's trimming, left-over material cut into long, narrow strips with pinking shears, and gathered to make decoration.

When I put it on, I was surprised at how easy it was to wear.  The skirt hung out around me, rather than being underfoot, and the hoop waistband took the weight of the material.  However, I couldn't bend my body at all, which made normal tasks hard.  But then, ladies wearing this finery wouldn't normally be trying to wash dishes.  I soon realised why the fan was a must-have - to hold over your cleavage when you're talking to someone taller than you!

Even though Death on a Longship is contemporary, I've managed to squeeze costume into it.  My heroine, Cass, is the skipper of a Viking longship being used as the set for a big Hollywood movie, and Cass has recruited the crews of the local rowing teams as oarsmen.  Naturally, they're able to supply their own Viking costumes - because they've all been involved in an Up Helly A.  It's one of the most spectacular reminders of our Viking heritage: a fire festival which takes place in Lerwick, Shetland's capital, in late January.  It's led by a squad of Vikings, stunningly attired in velvet tunics, shining breastplates and horned or feathered helmets.  Up to a thousand guizers march in a torch-lit procession through the streets of Lerwick (the streetlights are put out specially), with the chief Viking, the Jarl, brandishing an axe from his replica galley.  There are special songs, the galley is burnt, then everyone parties till morning.  The country version of Up Helly As aren't quite so large, but the lead Vikings are still resplendent in swirling cloaks and sheepskin boots. 

The star of the film in Death on a Longship, Favelle, has a long, green velvet dress (dyed to match her eyes) and Cass tells DI Gavin Macrae: 'Green velvet, floor-length, very heavy ... I can't believe the real Gudrid went anywhere near a ship wearing something like that.  It tangled round ropes and trailed everywhere.'

It means that when a rock is rolled down towards the actors, Favelle has the least chance of getting out of the way ...  Is it sabotage of the film in general, or an attempt at murder?

Cass doesn't do pretty dresses.  They'd ruin her equality image in the male world of sailing.   When her opera-singer mother arrives, elegant in French black-and-white chic, then Cass is horrified to find herself being dolled up in a dress and heels, to give her a better image with the press.  Her Maman says, 'They have seen you as the captain of the ship, and the one who found the body, and perhaps a love interest for this Ted Tarrant.'  She said the name French-style, with a disapproving intonation.  'Now we will do the young girl with her family around her.'

Cass's Maman knows the importance of clothes to make you look like, feel like, a different person - and it's a great way to begin getting inside the heads of characters who lived centuries ago.


Giveaway Info

Marsali is giving away THREE prizes; a copy of Death on a Longship at each blog stop on her tour, a 1st place grand prize giveaway at the end of the tour of some silver Viking-inspired jewelry from the Shetland Islands, and a 2nd place $15 Amazon gift card.

To win a book: leave a comment on this blog post to be entered to win a book (open internationally for ebook or the US, UK, and Canada for a print book). Be sure to leave your email address in the comments so we can contact you if you're the lucky winner. This giveaway ends five days after the post goes live.

To win Viking-inspired Jewelry OR a $15 Amazon gift card: Click the link to go to the contest's website and enter the Rafflecopter at the bottom of the post. A first and second place lucky winner will be selected on October 1st. First place person gets to choose which grand prize he/she wants. The second place person gets the remaining grand prize. Open to every country. Click to enter


Marsali Taylor grew up near Edinburgh, and came to Shetland as a newly-qualified teacher. She is currently a part-time teacher on Shetland's scenic west side, living with her husband and two Shetland ponies. Marsali is a qualified STGA tourist-guide who is fascinated by history, and has published plays in Shetland's distinctive dialect, as well as a history of women's suffrage in Shetland. She's also a keen sailor who enjoys exploring in her own 8m yacht, and an active member of her local drama group.