Memories Light My Books
Here it is summertime and the days cry out to be enjoyed outside with picnics, barbeques, or an al fresco dinner with family and friends.
Books tell about wonderful moments like these. Frankly, my favorite part of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is Lizzie’s vacation with her aunt and uncle when she discovers D’Arcy’s beautiful home and what kind of man he truly is. Isn’t it always easier to fall in love with somebody during fabulous weather?
Authors pull bits and pieces from their own history to build their stories. Sometimes it’s big themes – like Hemingway’s autobiographical FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS – but more often, it’s the little bits of personal interest or family history that enrich a book.
I’m talking about summer and food. But this post was actually inspired by the BBC’s broadcast of Jane Austen’s iPod. She must have adored music to spend so much time copying it out – and then working it into her novels. That casts a richer light on the ball scene in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, for example.
Perfect summer weather always makes me remember my grandmother’s potato salad. Grandmother Elizabeth had only two recipes in her repertoire, both of them handed down through generations of family cooks. Her plum cake is still a staple of our Christmas celebration and my mother’s version had been welcomed on every continent except Africa and Antarctica. (It’s at least a nineteenth century recipe but probably much older.)
According to all her children and grandchildren, Grandmother Elizabeth’s potato salad was the best in the world. She’d produce a tub of it from her Cadillac’s backseat, like a magician snapping his cape to reveal a rabbit, every time the family held a big party outdoors. We could eat buckets of it, together with hot dogs or hamburgers, followed by a magical slice of ice cold watermelon. Heaven on earth. We’re still peeved that none of us inherited the recipe.
But one year, as a Christmas present, Grandmother Elizabeth did give me a historic cookbook – Housekeeping in Old Virginia, by Marion Cabell Tyree, dated 1879. My Swedish great-great-grandmother had used the original after she emigrated to this country. Grandmother Elizabeth and I spent time discussing the oddities of these recipes. Measurements given according to fine china and timing very delicate dishes by meals I’d never heard of, at least as a teenager. Not to mention some of these recipes, like the different kinds of puddings. (I’m still fascinated that they pulled them off in the pre-refrigeration days!)
After that, Grandmother Elizabeth gave me more historic cookbooks, like The Original Fannie Farmer 1896 Cook Book, and I started studying the subject of food history more closely.
Now this interest spills over into my books. William Donovan made his wedding to Viola an extremely memorable party for the local by providing that rarity of rarity – ham! – in THE IRISH DEVIL’s 1871 Arizona Territory. THE RIVER DEVIL’s villain’s inability to provide a good meal for his passengers, other than breakfast, proved he was a low-down wretch, in terms of 1870’s Missouri river trade. Morgan Evans disassembled a queen of puddings to teach high-spirited Jessamyn obedience in THE SOUTHERN DEVIL, and Rachel Davis used a lemon fork to save herself from rape in THE NORTHERN DEVIL.
And I still desperately want that high-tech, Regency kitchen where the griffin stepped out of a ruby signet ring in BEYOND THE DARK’s “Caught by the Tides…”
I know there’ll be food will play a role in my next historical’s plot. I’ll be thinking about my grandmother while I research and write it, and all the details I’ve learned about my family since then.
I’ll also wonder if some exceptionally rich tidbits made it into other books because their author was passionate about the subject…
What personal interests do you sneak into your novels? Has an author ever surprised you in a book with a factoid that had to come from their heart?