23 May 2010

Guest Author: Diane Whiteside

This week here at Unusual Historicals we're happy to have Diane Whiteside back with us as she celebrates her May 25th Kensington Brava release, THE DEVIL SHE KNOWS, set in 1870s Arizona and Constantinople! Here Diane chats with fellow author Jean Marie Ward for us here at Unusual Historicals.

Portia Townsend once nursed an intense crush on her childhood playmate, Gareth Lowell, until he shattered her hopes of a future together and blindly treated her like a child. Nine years later, her vengeful ex-husband has blackmailed her into helping him overthrow the Turkish sultan. Alone and desperate, Portia must turn to the only man who can help, even if it means risking heartbreak once again.

Gareth learned all too young just how easily and brutally happiness could be destroyed. Portia is the last person he wants to see, but he can't refuse to help her, no matter how much that may cost him. And in the corrupt and deadly city of Constantinople, two damaged souls may find the ultimate treasure.

Why 1885 Constantinople?

I spent a high school summer traipsing around Italy and Greece, including a bunch of islands this close to Turkey. My group was supposed to take a weekend excursion to Constantinople (now called Istanbul) but it was cancelled at the last minute. When my heroine needed to get into trouble someplace far from her rich--but clumsy--father, and wealthy but super-protective uncle, I immediately thought of Constantinople.

Thankfully for my story's plot, the British and Russian empires had nearly started a world war there. Only the Turkish sultan's uncharacteristic defiance of Britain stopped that catastrophe from happening. (Wow, did he pay for that insolence, too!) As soon as I learned that, I knew I had my external conflict--and my reason to send Portia and Gareth to Constantinople.

And give me an excuse to happily wallow in research...

How did you begin researching the time and place?

The first places I looked for information were my beloved Russian and British nineteenth histories of the era. That was a bad idea, since they were so Anglo-centric that I couldn't get any sense of what life in Constantinople was like.

Turkish histories tend to focus on the earlier, more glorious portions of Muslim rule under the Ottoman dynasty, such as the mighty warrior Suleiman the Magnificent who built many mosques and married the glamorous Roxellane. THE DEVIL SHE KNOWS is set during Ottoman Empire's final twilight when it's being carved up by European powers--and the latest, fanciest building in town is where European bankers gather the empire's taxes, to ensure the interest on the sultan's debts is paid before anything else. That's just not how you'd prefer to remember great men's legacy mouldering into dust.

The most useful Turkish histories for me were the ones about the founding of the modern Turkish state. In 1922, Mustafa Kemal (or Ataturk) led the formation of a modern, secular Turkey and threw out the European and Russian armies who'd occupied Turkey after World War I. From my narrow perspective as a novelist, he also changed Turkey's alphabet from an Arabic-based one to Latin and fulminated against decadent Constantinople. This resulted in its name getting changed to Istanbul and Turkey's capitol moving to Ankara, a small city located high in the central mountains.

Of course, the alphabet change meant that many common phrases are translated differently into English by scholars, depending on whether you're discussing nineteenth or twenty-first century Constantinople (or Istanbul). Research sources also vary, depending on if you're looking for Constantinople (or Istanbul).

Where did you find your best material?

Decadent Constantinople was fabulously attractive both to foreigners--and to today's Turks who are moving into the city. Old Ottoman houses and textiles bring big prices and people want to restore them. Destination weddings in Turkey are very popular, especially for the British. What better clothing to wear than traditional Ottoman garb in a traditional Ottoman ceremony?

Interior decorating books about Istanbul were endlessly useful, as were "off-the-beaten-path" DVDs. Destination wedding websites could be readily double-checked against cultural museums for information on clothing and textiles. The thriving Turkish fashion and food industries are very proud of their historical antecedents, which also provided information.

What was the inspiration for your characters?

Gareth Lowell was introduced in THE IRISH DEVIL, the first of my Devil books, and Portia Townsend arrived in THE RIVER DEVIL, the second book. They met--and Portia fell in love--during THE NORTHERN DEVIL, the fourth book. I'd promised my fans and myself that this book would be about them.

I've always enjoyed the British Navy's move from sail to the first, sleek dreadnoughts. My villain's love of them reflects mine--and my father's. This gave me an excuse for my villain's background in the Royal Navy.

What surprised you about the period?

Nineteenth century Constantinople respected its womenfolk; who'd have expected that, after multiple books set in nineteenth century Europe and America? The Muslims in Constantinople were monogamous and had been so for decades, if not centuries. Slavery had been unknown for years. Women spied on their menfolk, just as much as the men spied on each other. Okay, so everybody spied on each other, in a totally democratic fashion. Husband on wife and vice versa. Brother on sister, father and daughter, etc.

Women could even hold property and be robbed in court, just like a man. Romance novels were a thriving business, which hints at even broader intellectual independence.

What were the greatest challenges you faced in presenting the time and place to a 21st century audience?

Constantinople was incredibly cosmopolitan, with an immense variety of people and religions. Sixty percent of the population was non-Muslim. The sultan was also the caliph so he was the head of the Muslim religion everywhere, even outside the Ottoman Empire. Therefore, all the different Muslim sects could be seen in Constantinople visiting him. This undoubtedly led to some fascinating diplomatic tensions, especially since Muslims from what is now Iran and Iraq were not part of the Ottoman Empire--but were still remarkably respectful of the sultan's status as caliph.

The religious festivals were very heterogeneous, with some incorporating elements of ancient Greece and Rome.

Yet the sultan was extremely paranoid because he'd seen too many assassinations in his immediate family. Espionage was a booming business and nobody trusted anybody else because the sultan always rewarded spies, whether or not their information was correct. After all, it might be the next time, right?

I hope I correctly painted that incredibly colorful street scene, where everybody looked over their shoulder.

When did you know that you'd gotten it right?

Bindalli embroidery is a style of Ottoman embroidery, done in gold thread on a crimson velvet background to resemble a tree with a thousand branches. At a wedding, the "abducted" bride is first wrapped in a bindalli cloak to show her acceptance into her husband's family. Then she's dressed into bindalli clothing as the month-long celebration progresses. (Bindalli clothing is made in separate pieces, such as a caftan, so it can fit different figure types.)

Bindalli embroidery is very beautiful and very expensive, since it requires the finest workmanship and materials. Like most Ottoman embroideries, it's also highly valued for its lineage. Unfortunately, the art of making it faded during the twentieth century.

While researching Gareth and Portia's wedding, I wanted to know if Portia would need to wear a bindalli caftan or if I could get away with just the bindalli cloak. So I asked my Turkish-American friend, who's lived in the US since she was a child. She promptly told me this was nonsense, since everybody wore regular wedding dresses. (YouTube has many videos of Turkish brides in white wedding dresses.)

I took a deep breath and asked her to check with her mother. My friend grumbled but said she would.

She came back the next day, very excited. Her mother wanted to know how on earth I'd learned about bindalli? The old women of her generation are now busily teaching young women to do it for destination wedding costumes and the fashion industry. (The Turkish fashion industry is developing an intriguing sideline for the modern Muslim woman who wants to look stylish but still respectable and traditional.) My friend's mother was even more surprised that I knew the difference between bindalli cloaks and caftans, since the cloaks had to be fully embroidered which makes them much more expensive.

It was a wonderful ah ha! moment before I returned to more obsessive researching for my next novel, THE DEVIL IN HIS EYES.

Thanks for inviting me to chat at Unusual Historicals!

By day, Diane Whiteside builds and designs computer systems for the government. By night, she escapes into a world of alpha males and the unique women who turn their lives upside down. Noticing the lack of a husband to keep Diane in line, her German Shepherd stepped up to the plate and makes sure that Diane does everything The Right Way--which means lots of walks and dog treats. For more information about Diane plus her alpha males, unique women, and dogs, please visit her website.

Jean Marie Ward is the author of fiction, nonfiction and all points in-between. As editor of Crescent Blues, the multi-genre web 'zine, she helped provide some of the greatest interviews and reviews on the web from 1998-2005. Her latest short story is the contemporary romance "Hoodoo Cupid" from Red Rose Publishing and she's the co-author of FANTASY ART TEMPLATES. She can be found at her website.


Thanks for stopping by, ladies! Readers, if you would like to be entered for a chance to win a signed copy of THE DEVIL SHE KNOWS, please lease a comment for question for Diane. I'm sure she'd love to fill you in on more marvelous details about her research and travels, and to hear your opinions about this unusual setting! I'll draw a winner at random next Sunday. Void where prohibited. Best of luck!