History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

03 December 2007

Research in Unlikely Places

I can dig into weighty historical sources with the best of them. At least once a week, I try to convince myself that $295 isn’t too much to spend on a copy of The Regency Companion. But I have to confess that the most exciting research -- and sometimes the most useful -- is the random stuff that comes when I least expect it.

One of my hobbies is fishkeeping. Last week, I stumbled across a recent article detailing how to keep fish in unheated aquariums. The author mentioned in passing that keeping unheated tanks goes back hundreds of years. In fact, during the late Georgian and early Victorian period, keeping tropical fish was a popular hobby. Because the average winter temperature of an English home in that era was less than sixty degress Farenheit (brrr…) and they had no means to reliably heat an aquarium, species that White Cloud Mountain Minnowcould tolerate cold temperatures were preferred. The author even referenced a few, like the lovely White Cloud Mountain Minnow from China (pictured).

Now there’s a hobby you don’t see in every Regency book on the shelf. No doubt I’ll use it someday, when I have a heroine in need of a peculiar pastime. It's a little bluestocking, but not a cliche.

Gerard Dou - A Lady Playing a Clavichord, circa 1665Another great find -- while taking a break from writing a book about a Regency heroine who loved music, I saw a review of a new CD of clavichord compositions from the Baroque era. Although I’m moderately knowledgable about classical music, I didn’t know much about the clavichord, a small stringed instrument which usually only has four octaves (the range of modern pianos is 7 and a half octaves). The reviewer gave a brief history of the clavichord, including such tidbits as the instrument being favored in smaller London homes because it wasn’t very loud and wouldn’t disturb the neighbors. My heroine was a cellist, but of course she couldn’t play her cello in polite company. The clavichord became her instrument of choice, making her a shade more interesting than the usual pianoforte-pounding heroine.

To hear samples of many different keyboard instruments through history, check out Dr. Bradley Lehman’s site. You can really hear the increased "sustain" in the fortepiano as compared with the clavichord.

I could go on and on, but I’ll restrain myself. What about the rest of you? Have you found interesting historical factoids in unexpected places? Did any of them spark a plot idea or turn up in a book? Any tidbits you have stashed away for future use?


Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

How interesting Doreen! I had no idea that people kept fish before the 20th century. I've always thought of it as a modern hobby. And very interesting about the clavichord. Although it took me a minute to figure out why a Regency heroine couldn't play the cello in public, but then it hit me! You just don't think about those things sometimes.

5:16 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

I find interesting bits and pieces of research everywhere. Here's one I have never been able to verify much less use -- a docent at a great house told the group that there was a walnut blight in the 18th century and that is why furniture began to be made from mahogany. Fascinating but, I have never been able to find any "tree historian" who knows of it.

Let me think awhile -- I bet I can come up with a few more. Need breakfast first

6:17 AM  
Blogger Gabriele C. said...

Elizabeth, keeping fish was quite popular in ancient Rome, only they were held in ponds (like Koi these days), and heating the water wasn't a problem thanks to the hypocaust system.

I pick up tidbits all the time. Living in Germany (or other Erupean countries) means living surrounded by history if you're aware of it. Not everyone is, I suppose, but my family has always bred history geeks. :)

10:21 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Very interesting Doreen...I'm an aqua hobbyist, too and had no idea about the history of fish keeping. Never occurred to me to look! But I love it.

And thanks for the URL. Cool sound that give a great sense of historical music.

12:52 PM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

Another thing about the cello -- the "end pin" (which allows the cello to rest on the floor) wasn't invented into after the Regency. Prior to that, the cellist had to hold the instrument between the knees and squeeze it (quite unseemly). After the end pin was invented, there was a huge growth in the number of women who played cello.

Mary, I have a similar "unverified tidbit." Many years ago, I read in a fiction book that there was a group that issued formal invitations to the "grand opera" performances in London (similar to Almacks' patronesses). It was mentioned in passing, and I've never been able to verify it.

1:21 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Fascinating! On my most recent trip to England, I went to see "La Cenerentola" at Covent Garden and learned that it's British premiere had been in January of 1819, which was when the book I was writing is set. I knew I wanted to have a sequence at the theater, so I was able to use the "La Cenerentola" premiere--the program even had the original cast from 1819.

1:34 PM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

Was it a cello your heroine played?
Or a viola da gamba?? Just thought I'd stir the pot...

9:16 AM  

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