History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

31 March 2008

How Our World Influences Our Writing

The answer to the title question is in your hands! I've thought a lot about it but, to be honest, I am distracted by my deadline.

Tracy wrote a wonderful essay last week about unrest in the England of 1817 and asked us to comment on how much we use what is happening in the world in the books we write.

Her question was fun to answer but as I was typing away I wondered how much what is going on in our world today effects what we write. “Our world” can be defined on so many levels. I thought about those different levels as I considered the subject.

My first thought was the world view we all share through the myopic eye of the media. The easiest one for me to pin down is my writer's response to September 11th. I have close ties to New York, children who live there and friends who died that day. In the long term though I was struck by how life can change in an instant. The first book I wrote after 9/11 – a novella for Kensington – had at its core what happens to a woman when her world is destroyed in a minute and without warning. In Carolyn Morton’s case she was suddenly responsible for a seven-year-old child who was made an orphan by the disastrous riot that led to her parent’s death in revolutionary France.

That story will always be one of my favorites, most probably because I could write with insight and the writing gave me more of the same.

Personally, I think that the increased popularity of the paranormal genre has a lot to do with the way our minds and hearts are trying to deal with terrorism – a culture with a mind set of hatred and murder that most of us cannot understand. The paranormal plays with the concept of the unknowable on a more bearable level and shows us one of two things: that compromise is possible or that we can beat the paranormal and reclaim our lives.

On another level stories come from personal life experience that influences our writing. In my case, the death of a friend, the wedding of our youngest son, the fabulous spiritual insight from our church community – all these have had a significant influence in what I have written and am writing now.

Even more micro are the moments or observations that give birth to a story. It is one of my favorite questions to ask a writer: What was the seminal idea for this book? Here's one of mine: a Christmas gift -- the Admiral Gardiner Shipwreck Coin -- was the object that made me wonder “what if this were magic” and that question became my novella “Poppy’s Coin” in The Bump in the Night anthology.

Would you care to share how the world view influences what you write? On the macro or micro level. And does anyone have an explanation for the increase in the number of romances featuring spies or former spies like the one that I have coming out in October? By the way I began writing this book more than five years ago?

30 March 2008

Antiquities on eBay

Surfing the net late one night, I went to eBay to see if I could find medieval horse relics and Roman rings for sale. Sure enough, I could. I found tons of those little horse medallions knights used to decorate their horse’s tack and hundreds of Roman rings (see to the right). Most of the plentiful doo-das were selling in price ranges that were within my reach. I sent my DH a note and told him this is what I want for my next birthday present.

When it comes to research, there is no substitute for owning a piece of history from the era you love. I am especially intrigued by the personal things that once belonged to someone who walked the earth centuries ago—Roman toga clasps (there are lots of them on eBay) and ancient jewelry. Combs. Shoes.

Granted, the authenticity of antiquities sold on eBay (or anywhere) is always suspect. You really need to do your research and deal with reputable dealers before you make a purchase. Here’s a website that offers great tips on buying antiquities online:


Check it out. The author knows the business. So does my father, who deals in old gold coins. He trades on eBay constantly and has had an overall good experience with the system.

I love looking at this “museum” online, with pieces I could actually own. I know some of the Hoydens have vast collections of clothes and books and other things that date back a hundred years or more. I must admit, the old things I love most, like paintings and photographs were passed down to me from my grandmother. I haven't actually made a purchase off of eBay--yet.

Readers and writers, anyone care to share info on your favorite acquisitions (and source)?

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26 March 2008

An Age of Unrest: Britain in 1817

I'm in the process of updating my website for the May trade re-release of my second Charles and Mélanie Fraser book, Beneath a Silent Moon. I've been writing text, pulling photos, and in general thinking about the book. Set in 1817, Beneath a Silent Moon takes place mostly in Mayfair (with a few excursions to the London docks) and at a castle on the Scottish coast. As I blogged about a few weeks ago, thematically the book deals with the manners and mores of romantic intrigues among the upper classes. Yet beyond the ballrooms and drawing rooms and elegant gardens, the Britain to which Charles and Mélanie have just returned when the book opens (Charles after nearly ten years in the diplomatic corps, Mélanie as a French/Spanish war bride) is a very unsettled place.

The Battle of Waterloo is only two years in the past. The long wars with Napoleon's France have left Britain victorious but badly in debt. With the end of the war, the British Government is no longer pouring money into munitions and supplies for the Army. Without Government contracts, the textile mills that made uniforms and the iron foundries that made cannon have cut back on workers (and changes in manufacturing had already made jobs scarce). At the same time, soldiers released from the army are flooding the job market.

Work is scarce and the price of food is exorbitant. With the Government no longer buying food for the Army and foreign grain markets opening up, the price of corn (wheat) had dropped. But Parliament used the Corn Laws to protect the price of homegrown corn. This also protected the profits of the landowners who grew the corn (and who had already benefited greatly from the high corn prices during the war). But the unemployed factory worker or the discharged soldier returning from the Continent (possibly less than whole), faced high prices as well as dwindling income. Yet though the conditions are bleak in Britain's industrial towns, the rural poor keep leaving the countryside and pouring into the cities.

In Scotland, where much of Beneath a Silent Moon is set, the Highlands are still reeling from Bonnie Prince Charlie's defeat at the Battle of Culloden over seventy years ago. Famine had always been a threat in the Highlands. Now that the society has been forcibly demilitarized by the English, a large tenant population is no longer useful as a force against raiding neighbors. Seeing the old way of life as dead, many Highland landowners are turning their land into sheep runs for lowland sheep.

Unfortunately, the tenants have to be moved to make way for the sheep. Some landowners simply burn them out (as Charles's father Kenneth Fraser has done). Others try to provide their tenants with an alternate living. But it is difficult for Highland crofters to make the transition and the new industries are often not as successful as hoped.

This is the milieu to which Mélanie comes as a war bride in Beneath a Silent Moon. It is also a world in which the echoes of the French Revolution still linger. Many of the leaders of the countries victorious at Waterloo see stifling dissent and reform and preserving the status quo as the best guarantee of stability. In France, now governed by the restored Bourbon monarchy, the zeal of the Ultra Royalists has led to the White Terror in which scores of Republicans and Bonapartists are imprisoned or executed. In Britain, 1817 began with a crowd surrounding the Prince Regent's carriage as he drove to open Parliament. Someone threw rocks at him or possibly fired an airgun.

As J.B. Priestley writes in The Prince of Pleasure, "The Regent may or may not have felt panic-stricken--if there is evidence either way, I have not found it--but Lord Liverpool's government soon behaved as if there had been barricades in St James's Street and the rattle of musketry along Piccadilly. They may have been genuinely alarmed or they may have seized upon a good excuse to be repressive, but what is certain is that they rushed through a number of deplorable measures, which could hardly have been worse if half the towns in England had been in flames."

Habeas Corpus was suspended. Based on an act from the days of Edward III, magistrates were given the power to imprison anyone they thought likely to behave in a way that threatened public order (a wide definition, which could end in someone being thrown in prison for making a face at a person of higher social status). Protesting any of this in person or in writing was made difficult by acts against Seditious Libel and an act that prohibited meetings of more than fifty within a mile of Parliament at Westminster Hall.

The Tory government (Lord Liverpool the Prime Minister, Lord Sidmouth the Home Secretary, Lord Castlereagh the Foreign Secretary, among others) had a pervasive fear of violent revolution at home. At the same time, they feared Parliamentary reform and saw repression rather than reform as the best way of preserving the world as they knew it. While they feared revolution, they knew that revolutionary talk, violent actions, and rioting were an effective way to separate moderate radicals and reform-minded Whigs from their more extreme fellows and also to pave the way for repressive measures. As a character says in my WIP (set in early 1820) "And with every act of violence more sober bourgeois and nervous aristocrats decide that even modest reform is the first step to the guillotine." With this end in mind, the Government, particularly Lord Sidmouth, employed agents provocateurs, who infiltrated radical groups and not only reported back to Westminster but actually incited violent action. My fellow Hoyden, Pam Rosenthal, wrote about this to wonderful effect in her book The Slightest Provocation.

This milieu forms the outer shell for the intrigues in Beneath a Silent Moon. Even though many of these details are not in the book, I was aware of them as I wrote. They touch on the world of the book most strongly when Charles returns to his family home, Dunmykel, in Scotland, and sees the effect his father's Clearances have had on the tenants and what his own absence may have meant. But I think they also show in things such as the instinctive fear engendered by a cloaked woman huddled the area railings in Grosvenor Square, in the political differences with the Foreign Secretary that have led Charles to leave the diplomatic corps, in the way echoes of the French Revolution linger over the story.

Authors, how do you deal with the tension between the more intimate canvas of your book and the wider context of the world in which the book is set? Readers, are you interested in the broader context in which a story is set?

[Sources: The Age of Elegance 1812-1822, Arthur Bryant; The Prince of Pleasure, J.B. Priestey; The Industrial Revolution: The Birth of the Modern Age, Peter Lane; The Lion in the North: A Personal View of Scotland's History, John Prebble; Scotland's Story: A New Perspective, Tom Steel.]

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24 March 2008

Regency Refreshments: Pound Cake

I am sad to report that I’ve had my first complete and utter failure. My cake looked nothing like the one pictured here.

Most of us have had pound cake, so I approached this as more of an experiment to discover the true flavor of the Georgian version. The original recipes look remarkably similar, with the exception of the addition of various spices, which seems to be a commonality among cakes of all sorts from the period. If currants are added (and they seem to have liked to add dried currants to nearly all their cakes) the recipe become nearly identical to that of Royal Cakes or Queen Cakes (The Universal Cook, 1806).

The English Art of Cookery (1788):

A “quick” oven is a hot oven, as opposed to a “slack” oven, which indicates medium heat. In looking at the temperatures required for modern recipes I don’t see any real difference, though. Most cakes are baked at around 350º, with a few requiring 400 º - 425 º. These do not, however, align with the period notions of which cakes take slack and which take quick.

Some recipes also call for “wine”, which is not further defined. I decided to use sherry, as that was a common wine and it is often used in cakes today. Other than that, I simply started with a modern recipe and altered it.

The Universal Cook (1806):

Things did not go well . . . it would not set. The recipe called for a baking time of one hour, to one-and-a-quarter hours. When I hit the two hour mark and the middle was still soup and the edges were starting to blacken, I knew it was doomed.

I’m still licking the wounds to my ego and trying to formulate a new plan of attack. I’m either going to go wit ha bunt pan, or with a series of small “tins” as in the Royal Cakes recipe. I’m hoping that one of these methods will fix the soupy middle problem.

I can report that the bits that did bake were tasty, though! Hopefully I’ll have better results to report in the very near future. Anyone out there have a wonderful "never fail" pound cake recipe they can point me at?

21 March 2008

"Let them eat baklava!"

I just discovered phyllo dough, those filmy sheets of pastry you smear with butter and layer into something sinfully rich. Along with phyllo I discovered home-made baklava! Then I grew curious and ...

The Baklava wars. Apparently baklava originated with the Assyrians around the 8th C B.C., who layered some thin bread dough with nuts, added honey, and baked in their primitive beehive ovens. Voila! A treat everyone wanted credit for!

The Greeks claim the Lebanese stole the recipe. True, the name "phyllo" was coined by Greeks (it means "leaf") because they figured out how to roll it thin as a leaf.
The Lebanese say the Greeks flat-out stole the recipe.
The Turkish say their pashas and viziers "owned" the recipe and refused to argue.
The Armenians claim they invented and improved the recipe with spices, and special nuts (see below).

By the 3rd century B.C. everybody (at least the rich, who had cooks) was baking trays of Baklava for weddings, family feasts, and celebrations. From Ancient Romans
to the 18th century French chefs, everyone wanted a cut of the ... pastry.
The Armenians, located on the ancient Silk and Spice routes, integrated cinnamon and cloves into the recipe. The Arabs introduced rose-water and cardamom. Baklava was baked in the kitchens of the Byzantine Empire until its fall to the Turks in 1453 A.D.

But oh, those Turks! After their invasion of Constantinope (and the Armenian kingdom) until the 16th century, the Imperial Ottoman Palace kitchens in Constantinope became famous for their baklava. But the cooks and helpers were recruited from various ethnic groups--Armenian, Greek, Persian, Egyptian, Assyrian, Serbian, Hungarian, and finally the French. Each contributed a little special something to the pastry.

The Aphrodisiacs. Turkish sultans, with large harems, coveted baklava because two principal ingredients--the pistachio nut and honey--were believed to be aphrodisiacs. Spices, too, were added as aphrodisiacs: cinnamon for females, cardamom for males. Cloves for both sexes. Ancient Romans threw walnuts instead of rice at weddings because walnuts (they believed) held aphrodisiac powers. Walnuts were also used in fertility rites. Chick peas (garbanzos) are also viewed as aphrodisiacs (for men), as well as pine nuts

The French Connection. Thus perfected, the French couldn't resist polishing the pearl and added cosmetic modifications in shaping and presentation on a baking tray. The General Manager of the Turkish Imperial Kitchen wasted no time in hiring Monsieur Guillaume, former pastry chef to Marie Antoinette ("let them eat baklava?") created the "dome" technique of cutting and folding the baklava squares, which was then dubbed "baklava Francaise."

Whatever you call it, and however you make it, it's a delicious pastry. Easy recipe below.

1 lb chopped nuts (walnuts, pistachios, etc.)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 l6-oz pkg phyllo dough
1 cup melted butter
1 cup white sugar
1 cup water
1/2 cup honey
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest.

Toss cinnamon and nuts together. Unroll phyllo and cut whole stack in half to fit a buttered 9 x 13 inch baking dish. Cover phyllo with damp cloth while assembling to keep it from drying out.

Place two sheets of phyllo in the bottom of the baking dish. Brush with butter; sprinkle 2-3 tablespoons nut mixture on top. Repeat layers until all ingredients are used, ending with about 6 sheets of phyllo. Using a sharp knife, cut baklava (through to the bottom of dish) into four long rows, then nine times diagonally to make 36 diamond shapes. Bake in 350 degree oven about 50 minutes, til golden and crisp. While baking, combine sugar and water in saucepan and bring to boil. Stir in honey, vanilla, and lemon zest, reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes. Remove baklava from oven and immediately spoon syrup over it. Let cool completely before serving. Store uncovered. (recipe from ARVILLALAR/www.allrecipes.com)

Bon appetit!

Sources: www.habeeb.com; kitchenproject.com;gourmetbaklava.com.


18 March 2008

Another Mary

Amanda’s wonderful post about Mary Boleyn got me thinking about one of my other favorite 16th century Marys: Marie de Guise. Poor Marie has also suffered at the hands of the film industry. She was grossly maligned by the movie “Elizabeth”. Here’s the real story.

Considered as a bride by Henry VIII of England after the death of his third wife, Jane Seymour, Marie reputedly repudiated Henry with the comment that although she might be a tall woman, she had a very small neck. (The actual story behind Marie’s refusal of Henry’s offer is more complicated, but far less fun). At the urging of King Francis, Marie accepted Henry’s neighbor to the north, King James V of Scotland.

James was no prize, either as a husband or as a king. In 1542, the Scottish army was routed by an invading English force at Solway Moss while James dallied with a mistress nearby, leaving the English to rampage unchecked throughout the Lowlands. As James took to his bed with shame, news was brought to him that the Queen had been delivered of a daughter. According to contemporary chroniclers, the superstitious king recalled an old prophecy foretelling the fall of the Stuart monarchy with a female heir. “It came with a lass, it shall go with a lass,” sighed James V, turned his face to the wall and died. He left his Queen with a six day old baby, a marauding English army, and a group of squabbling nobles all fighting for ascendancy, several claiming the right to the throne themselves.

In the south, Henry VIII immediately proclaimed himself Suzereign of Scotland, claiming right to overlordship by virtue of his relation as great-uncle to the infant Mary Queen of Scots. All that stood between these formidable men and the Scots throne was one frail infant—and her mother.

Marie de Guise could easily have cut and run, going home to the cultured life of the court in France. Her son from her first marriage, the young Duc de Longueville, begged her to return, sending bits of string to show her how much he had grown and reiterating how very much he missed her. Instead, Marie de Guise plunged into the tangled politics of her adoptive country, fighting to keep her infant daughter safe and to protect the country that was her child’s legacy.

Young Mary’s existence was a precarious one. Henry VIII pressed to have the child betrothed to his own young son, Edward, Prince of Wales, propounding various schemes to make off with the tiny queen by either stealth or force. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that young Mary would not long survive an English marriage; Henry made clear that should the baby marry his son and then just happen to die of natural causes, he considered the throne of Scotland to be his. Nor was the baby safe at home in Scotland. The Earl of Arran, the regent, pressed his own claim to the throne, spreading rumors that the infant Mary was a frail child, unlikely to survive. In a desperate move to protect her child, Marie de Guise summoned the English envoy, Sir Ralph Sadler, to attend on her at Linlithgow, stripping the baby bare to prove what good health she was in. Marie had gone on the international record to establish that if her baby died, it wouldn’t be by natural causes.

Trying to keep her child safe from both Scots nobles and the English king, Marie forged alliances first with Cardinal Beaton and the so-called French party (Scots lords who favored an alliance with France), then with rival lords of the so-called English party (Scots lords who favored—you guessed it—an alliance with England), using the latter to make her first bid for the Regency in 1544 by staging a rival parliament where the lords of the English faction pledged that they did “bind and oblige us, and promise by the faiths in our bodies, and have given our oaths upon, that we shall maintain and defend the Queen’s Grace our Sovereign Lady’s mother in… the authority of all things.” Stirring words, no? It was a grand gesture, but a short-lived one. The Earl of Arran quashed Marie’s bid for power. It was only ten years later, in 1554, that Marie was finally able to wrest away the Regency from the Earl of Arran. She served as regent from 1554 until her death in 1560.

These days, if Marie de Guise is remembered for anything at all, it is for her decision to send the child Queen Mary out of Scotland, to be raised at the court of Henry II of France. But she did a great deal more than that. During her time as Regent, Marie repaired Scotland’s financial base, working to improve the mining industry, pushing improvements in agriculture, and putting forward legislation for everything from a uniform system of weights and measures to statutes forbidding the peeling off of bark from fruit trees. She was a learned woman, a patron of the arts, and a shrewd politician. And, against all odds, she kept her daughter alive. Thanks to Marie de Guise, the princess who inherited the throne of Scotland at six days old did survive to claim her throne. (Even if Marie’s daughter Mary did rather botch it—despite all the glamour and the romance, I’m not a Mary, Queen of Scots fan).

The sixteenth century was a glorious time for reigning queens.

Do you have a favorite queen? My two are admittedly rather recherché. There’s Marie de Guise and then there’s Caroline of Ansbach, Queen Consort of George II, about whom I’ll have to write a post some other day….

17 March 2008

The Quick Guide to Riding Aside

I confess that I'm not a big fan of horses. I can take them or leave them. Whenever I write a scene with horses, I find myself at a loss. I'm much more interested in researching historical dress, or societal trends, or even the history of finances.

Recently I decided to tackle a bit of research into women and horseback riding during the Regency. I wasn't able to find one source that answered all of my questions (although I'm sure one exists), but I was able to pull together some information from assorted research books that I already had. That's my M.O. as a writer – learn just enough to make the scene believable, and don't spend time reading huge treatises on the topic.

Modes of dress and standards of modesty affected every aspect of a woman's life during the Regency. Nowhere is this more apparent than when a woman rode a horse. Riding "aside," known more familiarly today as riding side saddle, was the only accepted way for a Regency lady to sit a horse. Not only was it considered immodest to ride astride (possibly exposing your lower limbs), but riding astride was also considered dangerous for women who were petite or less athletic. It takes strong legs to stay in a saddle, particularly an English saddle (which lacks the convenient horn of Western saddles). Ladies were thought to lack the athletic ability to ride astride safely.

To ride aside, a lady would place her right leg in a U-shaped ridge on the top the saddle, hooked behind a horn on the side. The left foot would be in a stirrup that was positioned much higher than the stirrup on a regular saddle. Contrary to what I've read in a few manuscripts, the hips and upper body would face forward, even though the legs were positioned to one side.

To control a horse while riding astride, you use both legs to squeeze the horse's sides. Ladies riding aside had both legs on one side of the horse, so they had to hold a riding crop in their right hands, point it backwards to the midsection of the horse, and press down with it to mimic the squeeze of a right leg.

A few factoids about riding sidesaddle --

The first known side saddle was invented by a woman circa 1390. So was the second major improvement to the side saddle – in the 16th century, Catherine de Medici invented the positioning of the pommel that held a woman's right leg, and the side horn that secured the leg in position.

A still more advanced design with two pommels was invented in 1830. (Queen Victoria's saddle, pictured at left, is one of this design). Until that revolutionary addition, women who rode aside were usually limited to a walk or a trot. During the pre-Victorian and Regency era, going faster than a trot was for only the most experienced horsewomen, which prevented the vast majority of ladies from riding to the hounds or taking jumps. Only the most experienced horsewomen of the Regency dared take a jump while riding aside.

Horses were specially trained to take a rider aside, and grooms had to ride side saddle to keep the horses broken to the special balance and motion of the side saddle.

Riding side saddle fell out of favor in the 1930's and disappeared for several decades. In the 1970s, equestrians took up the side saddle. Today there are several societies devoted to riding side saddle (often in Victorian costume) and equestrian competitions hold events for riders seated aside.

There you have it – Doreen's quick and not-so-comprehensive guide to riding aside in the Regency. I'd love to hear any comments, though I don't have any clever questions to ask.

14 March 2008

Oh the Places I'll Go: Romantic Tourism

I've been thinking a lot lately about travel, tourism, and vacations.

Partly I'm thinking about it with regret, because I've had to cancel a trip to Mexico in order to finish revising my November novel, The Edge of Impropriety.

(Which -- apropos of nothing but my own excitement about it -- has a very lovely cover, doesn't it?)

But since this is my day to blog, I'm also thinking about tourism historically. About the Grand Tours of the Georgian era, intended to give young English gentlemen a patina of classical artistic culture, and perhaps some statuary to bring home to the family gallery. And about romantic tourism during the Regency period, when people schlepped to regions hitherto considered unpleasant, to contemplate sublime, craggy vistas and moody ruins. (One of the most intriguing things about history for me is the mystery of changing taste. And isn't it also an odd conjuncture, that the time frame that romance writers call the Regency, literary scholars call the Romantic period?)

And I'm thinking about the ways (especially during holiday trips taken in a holiday mood) that tourists of that period probably saw as selectively as any other tourists.

The romantic poet William Wordsworth certainly did. For all that he was an indefatigable hiker and lover of nature, Wordsworth wasn't above blurring his vision when it suited him, finding what he wanted to find and overlooking those parts of the picture that didn't fit.

In any case, the generations of English majors who've read Wordsworth's "Lines Composed Above Tintern Abbey" might be forgiven if they think the poem is a portrait of an entirely "wild secluded scene". But the more interesting truth is to be found in William Gilpin's Observations on the River Wye, and Several Parts of South Wales, &c. Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; Made in the Summer of the Year 1770. For according to that popular contemporary travel book, the ruin that Wordsworth wrote his poem about might now be called "a homeless enclave."

The hedge-rows Wordsworth mentions, "the little lines of sportive wood run wild," are evidence that the area had recently been enclosed, which process of privatization of what had previously been common grazing land had resulted in depriving many of the poor of an agricultural livelihood. And although Wordsworth does make some picturesque mention of hermits, and more confusingly, of "vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods," Gilpin's view of the scene comes as a revelation, of "the poverty and wretchedness of the inhabitants," who

occupy little huts, raised among the ruins of the monastery, and seem to have no employment but begging.... As we left the abbey, we found the whole hamlet at the gate, either openly soliciting alms, or covertly, under the pretence of carrying us to some part of the ruins, which each could shew; and which was far superior to anything which could be shewn by anyone else...

Nor, according to Gilpin, would it have been possible to miss the "great iron-works," half a mile away, "which introduce noise and bustle into these regions of tranquillity."

Which makes me wonder: When I do get to travel next, what I'll see and what I'll doubtless miss or screen out.

And how much it's possible to see and show in a historical novel.

Readers, what are your preferences?

Writers, how do you handle these issues?

And everybody (*grin*) what do you think of my new cover?

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12 March 2008

Quite Contrary To the Movie: The Real Mary Boleyn

My literary agent and I made a girls’ afternoon out of watching “The Other Boleyn Girl” on opening day. After all the research I did for ROYAL AFFAIRS, my nonfiction debut this June, I found myself wincing in pain. We were watching what I couldn't help referring to as "Betty and Veronica in Tudorland." But this post isn’t intended to debate the artistic merits (or lack thereof) of the film adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s novel, which is in itself alternative history—the other Boleyn history, if you will.

Mary Boleyn (1499-1543)

Here's the scoop on the real Mary Boleyn (1499-1543), her affair with Henry VIII, and her relationship with her relatives.

The French monarch François I called her his “hackney,” explaining that he loved to ride her. An Italian visitor to François’s court thought her “una grandissima ribald et infame sopre tutte” (a great prostitute and more infamous than all of them). She is probably best remembered as the older sister of Anne Boleyn. What seems clear is that this daughter of Sir Thomas Boleyn and Lady Elizabeth Howard knew how to have fun in bed.

Francois I (1494-1547)

Mary Boleyn possessed the blond, blue-eyed, curvy beauty that was the era’s belle idéale. In 1514, she was a member of the French court in the household of the queen, Henry VIII’s younger sister Mary Tudor. But after Mary’s husband, King Louis XII, died on New Year’s Day in 1515, Mary Boleyn remained at the French court, where she became a lady-in-waiting to the new queen, Claude, the wife of Louis’s son François.

Evidently, Mary Boleyn also became the paramour of the new king, François I. But after François tired of Mary, she consoled herself in the arms of enough of his courtiers to create a scandal. In 1519, at the age of twenty, Mary was ignominiously dismissed from Queen Claude’s service and packed back to England, much to the embarrassment and disgrace of her family.

But the Boleyns were a powerful family, so Mary quickly secured a place as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Katherine, the unofficial but de facto usual incubator for a royal mistress. Sure enough, soon after Bessie Blount delivered Henry’s son in 1519, the regal eye began to rove, alighting before long on the new flavor in his wife’s retinue.

Henry VIII (1491-1547)

His affair with Mary Boleyn was reputedly short but intense. And in a situation similar to Bessie Blount’s, Henry saw to it that Mary made a financially brilliant marriage. So, on February 4, 1520, at the Chapel Royal in Greenwich, Mary Boleyn wed William Carey, one of Henry’s favorite Gentlemen of the Bedchamber. His Majesty himself attended the wedding, bestowing an offering of six shillings, eightpence in the chapel. However, some believe that Mary was still Henry’s mistress at the time she was wed to William Carey.

In any case, Henry was so immensely grateful for the gift of Mary’s favors, he enriched her father as well as her new husband. Sir Thomas Boleyn was made Viscount Rochford, and William Carey’s coffers were vastly enlarged.

In 1525, Mary gave birth to a son, who she named Henry. The king never claimed paternity, and Mary never pressed the point, so the boy was likely her husband’s. But Mary’s motherhood had the effect of dampening Henry’s lust, just as it had more or less killed his ardor for Bessie Blount soon after she gave birth.

Yet there was another reason Mary was supplanted: Henry had fallen madly in lust with her younger sister, Anne.

Anne Boleyn (1500 (?)-1536)

Mary wasn’t too upset about it. She devoted herself to her husband and their two children. But in 1528, after the thirty-two-year-old William Carey died during the outbreak of the sweating sickness, Mary found herself buried under a mound of debts. Petitions to her family were fruitless. Requests to Henry fell on deaf ears as well. Only Anne, who at the time of William’s death was the king’s inamorata, managed to procure something for her sister—an annual pension of £100 (nearly $72,000 today), and an elaborately wrought golden cup.

In 1534, Mary secretly married William Stafford, a commoner without rank of any kind. She bore him two children. For wedding a man so far beneath her station, the Boleyns disowned her for good, but Mary emphatically averred, “For well I might a’ had a greater man of birth, but I assure you I could never a’ had one that loved me so well. I had rather beg my bread with him than be the greatest queen in Christendom,” a rather pointed swipe at her sister, as well as a triumphant declaration of True Love. But the jibe struck too close to Anne’s bones, and Anne, now queen, declared that Mary and her husband would never again be received at court.

Her ostracism was probably a blessing; Mary was well rid of the vipers’ nest of the Tudor court. She rusticated with her small family at Rochford in Essex while Anne and their brother George tasted the full measure of Henry’s rough justice. Mary did not visit her siblings as they waited in the Tower for the executioner’s blade to end their lives. Perhaps she was cannier than she’d been credited; she deliberately remained as far from the madness as possible, the better to avoid getting swept into the bloody dustbin of her family’s history.

Mary died at home on July 19, 1543. Her son, Henry Carey, was eventually made a Knight of the Garter by Elizabeth I. Mary’s daughter Catherine became a maid of honor to both Anne of Cleves and Kathryn Howard. One of Catherine Carey’s daughters, Lettice Knollys, was Queen Elizabeth’s bosom companion, lady-in-waiting—and later, her rival and enemy, after she married Robert Dudley, the great love of Elizabeth’s life.

Mary Boleyn’s twentieth-century descendants include Winston Churchill; Mary Bowes-Lyon (the mother of Elizabeth II); Diana, Princess of Wales; and Sarah Ferguson.

In my view, the historical facts are quite often far more interesting (and juicy than fictional versions churned out in Romanceland or Hollywoodland. What other historical personages can you think of whose real lives would have made better stories than the fictive versions?

11 March 2008

Welcome, Delle Jacobs!

Aphrodite's Brew
by Delle Jacobs
Available Now!

Please join me in welcoming three-time RWA Golden Heart winner Delle Jacobs. Delle was one of the Wild Cards (2005 Golden Heart finalists) with me, and I’m extremely excited to get my hands on her latest release.

Aphrodite's Brew is set in 1812. How did you become interested in this time period? What you love about it?

Years ago Micki Nuding told me the Regency period was going to be hot and I should check it out. I did. I fell in love. She actually meant what we today call the Regency Historical, but it was the Traditional Regency I discovered then. But I also think it's wonderful the way so many authors who prize accuracy have turned to the longer Regency Historicals and now give us fully rounded, exciting and historically accurate stories.

There's something unique about the Regency period. It's such a tiny piece of history wedged between two very disparate times. There's an abrupt change in fashion,from the earlier Georgian period to something simpler and in many ways perhaps more elegant than the Baroque and Rococo past or the crinolined future Victorian years. It's an era in massive transition, yet poised on the brink of change. Ideas are emerging. The Industrial Revolution is soon to change everything, and its footprint is just becoming evident. Photography and printing will drastically improve soon and change the worlds of art and publication. The world is being explored and people are looking toward expanding into it., with only the war holding them back. Napoleon's war is changing the world forever, and the outcome is in doubt, hopeful one day, and frightening the next. But for now, most people are bound to their tiny island by the war. No Grand Tours. No great adventures throughout the world. In the future are Clipper ships, steamships and locomotives. Weapons are still more like the previous century than the one to come. Even a rifle, with some rare and primitive exceptions, fires only one shot and then must be reloaded. Someone will no doubt figure out a way to make electricity useful, but it's still a toy. Even time is different, for it will take the introduction of trains before the need for time zones becomes evident. And staying up late is still something only the rich can afford to do. It's a time when people value their social place and put forth the effort to be a part of society. The Regency stand with one foot in the Eighteenth Century with the other touching the Victorian Era by a toe. What an exciting time!

Besides, I love the dresses. And I want my Regency hunks in their inexpressibles.

What do you like least about this period? Anything that constrained you or that you had to plot carefully around?

Sometimes it feels too limited. Sometimes I really wish Regency women could have had more freedom, dared to express more individuality. Yet I know the very freedom we prize today is largely a function of mass communication and mass production. My mother could never have had this sort of freedom I have, and can't imagine not having, but she didn't have time. The laundry and constant housecleaning bound her to her house, and I know sometimes she resented it. But she did what was required of her, just as Regency women did in their day.

The censure of society was a heavy burden then. That would grate on me if I had to live with it. No doubt it was difficult for many women. Yet I try to keep in mind most of us accept whatever world is ours. We can't know the future world. When I think about doing without my laptop, I cringe. But I didn't even have a concept of computers and internet when I was growing up. I didn't miss them then. So would a woman in early Nineteenth Century England miss being treated the equal of a man? I'm still working on that question.

Anything you flat-out altered or “fudged”? If so, why?

Yeaaaahhhh..... the whole concept..... It's about a love potion. How real can a love potion be? And where in all Celtic history is there mention of a Laughing God? And where in all England will you find a hot spring that is located next to a spring of pure, cold water? You won't because it can't happen. Even the hero says that ought to be geologically impossible. But the heroine shrugs and points. "This one's cold. That one's hot," she says. It's been that way all her life, and from time immemorial, so who s she to question it, just because Val thinks it can't be true? I've always found it fascinating how the ancient, irretrievable past continues to influence the modern world. So yes, I confess. I made up a lot.

Any gaffs or mea culpas you want to fess up to before readers get their hands on the book? I know I always seem to find one after the book has gone to press. *sigh*

I found a misplaced modifier that made it through dozens of edits, and it's funny. I'll challenge you to find it. Maybe you'll find even more, and then I'll really be embarrassed, but that's one of my frequent flaws. I did almost forget to go back and change the date of the story from 1807 to 1812 after I added a waltz in the dark corners of Sydney Park. But I remembered in time. And the waltz just has to be there.

However, here's a deliberate gaff: In my book trailer, I used the waltz from Coppelia by Leo Delibes, which was first performed in 1870. It was so perfect, I just had to use it. And I could imagine Val and Sylvia dancing to it in their later years, remembering the time they'd danced alone in the darkness to the faint music of the distant band. Go ahead, check it out. I'll brazenly stand by my choice.

Honestly, if you find something else, I'll blush and hold my hands over my face. But I'd rather know, so tell me.

Tell us a little about your hero. Something fun, like his favorite childhood pet, or his first kiss.

Poor Val. He didn't have a delight-filled childhood. In fact, he'd just as soon forget about it, if you don't mind. But he has a cousin who was his childhood buddy, and they remain very close friends. It isn't really in the book, but in the warm summers he spent with his cousin Lord Albert Pinkerton (Pink), they built a hidden refuge in the forest. It became their castle for two daring knights battling the invading foe, or a hermit's cave where they never talked at all as true hermits would have done-- except when they wanted to change to something else or it was time for supper. Away from prying, disapproving parents and tutors, their imaginations soared, and they could be anything they wanted to be, ancient Roman soldiers invading Britain, Greek philosophers on the Acropolis (or wherever they thought Greek philosophers might be) or even brave knights at Bosworth Field or peasant archers at Crecy). Of course that's all forgotten now. Val has grown up to be a man of reason and science. Grown, responsible men do not engage in such fantasies. Certainly they do not believe fanciful things like witches and potions or forgotten, nameless gods that might possibly be making perfectly rational men do irrational things. But there's something about Sylvia that brings back the magic of those days.

What sparked this book? Was it a character? An historical event? A scene you just couldn’t get out of your head?

I think most of the time a book begins with many tiny sparks that suddenly join together to form a flame. That was true with this book, at least. I had in mind writing a story that was just fluff, just fun, and strictly for me. It was not a time of great joy in my writing career, but then most of us face at least as many hard times as good ones. But I needed to do this just to do it. I was looking for something whimsical and uplifting. I didn't care what anyone else thought of it. It was mine. That was spark number one.

At the same time, I had been thinking about what would happen to a refined lady who had been secretly indulging in trade for some very good reason, all the while knowing it would damage her reputation if caught, and especially if caught at something that might appear to be pure quackery. Spark number two: What if the same lady came from a family Old Wives, with a very lengthy history as local healers? What if people thought them a wee bit odd? Women who knew too much? What if they really did know too much? And had been this way for many centuries? What if they'd learned to keep their mouths shut, perhaps after one of their kind found herself healing someone a bit too quickly and was burned at the stake?

Sylvia came into being, and with her, her product, something rather mundane in her time, but in her case a product widely recognized as effective: Lady Aphrodite's Restorative Tonic for Women.

Spark number three: But if it's for women, how would it affect a man? And what if someone discovers it makes a man fall in love? And what if one of the matchmaking mamas discover it?

Spark number four: I happened to feel like challenging science which can sometimes be so arrogant about its knowledge, when it really knows so little, and knew even less then. What better to do that than the mystical past when men took by faith abd belief what could not be proven? Add to this a man of science and reason who descries all superstition and is determined to prove to his friends they are being hoaxed. And the plot began to form. It was fun from then on.

Did you have to do any major research for this book? Did you stumble across anything really interesting that you didn’t already know?

I really was disturbed when Sylvia informed me her home was in the Cotswolds. I hadn't studied them before. And then she was going to Bath, where she would meet Val. I thought they were going to meet in London. I had to confess I didn't know all that much about Bath either. So I had a lot of research to do. I owe a lot to Vicki Hinshaw for loaning me some wonderful books on Bath, and Kathy Caskie who gave me the marvelous little book, The Last Promenade, about Sydney Gardens. Those books made my settings come so alive that when I visited Bath I could point to my companions and say, "there's Val's house, and over there is where Sylvia and Amalie stayed with her friend Elizabeth..." And we walked exactly to the place where Sylvia and Val stood by the River Avon and watched its roiling brown flood waters.

What/Who do you like to read?

I love history, both research and fiction. I'll read any period, any culture, any place. In novels, the world is mine to explore.

Care to share a bit about your writing process? Are you a pantser or a plotter? Do you write multiple drafts or clean up as you go?

I've tried pantsing. It usually works pretty well up to chapter six. Unfortunately at that point I realize I've written myself into a corner and the only way out it to throw away what I've already written. Why would I want to do that? So plotting ahead, knowing where I'm going, is still the best and fastest way for me. But once I have my map I write fast through the first draft. And usually by the third draft I'm willing to let daylight shine on my manuscript. It's odd, though, that sometimes my very best, deepest thoughts emerge even later than the third draft. I've wakened in the middle of the night with a new idea for a story I thought finished long ago.

What are you planning to work on next?

Aphrodite's Brew has a sequel coming up, Gilding Lilly, and there will be four books in the series. The fourth will be the story of two fairly minor characters in the first book who have been slowly growing emotionally until they're ready for their own story. You would not want them to be hero and heroine of the second book, for they both have a lot of maturing to do first, but I hope by the end of Book 3, you will be cheering them on and awaiting what shall at last be theirs.

My June release from Samhain, Sins of the Heart, was a multiple award winning manuscript as Lady Scandalous. Everybody loved the charismatic black-eyed Davy Polruhan, the Cornish smuggler, and he deserves his own story. Poor fellow. I will torture him so. He has the sort of flaw that requires a hard nudge to the soul.

And I have an erotic fantasy of the sea, Siren, which I am finishing now. It's fairly short, and almost completely fantasy, nudged by the history of the Great Age of Sail. I've finished a video of it too, although the story isn't finished. It was my trial video.

Another project is a heavy fantasy/medieval mix, set in Eleventh Century England, treating the mythology and superstitons of the day as if maybe they are real. There are others, but you don't want to be here all night, so I'll shut up now.

10 March 2008


All of us have a To Be Read pile, but today I am curious about your I Am Reading stack.

The other element that intrigues me as I write this is HOW you read, not CAN you read but the process you use to read a book. It has come to my attention that there are a dozen different ways to read and I want to know how you do it.

Me first. In the last week I have picked up a dozen or so books.

From the library: Great Figures of Mythology which I perused, enjoyed and ordered from Amazon, thinking I could use it to fill in that huge gap in my education. Jewels of the Tsars (no surprise there) which I read carefully, loved and plan to buy eventually. I happened across these in the “Q” section where I went to find the Oxford Companion to Food which I hoped to use for research. I looked at the index and went no further than that.

Second Hand Bookstore: Our Lady of the Lost and Found which was recommended by several friends from church. Loved the title and have read a few pages and might go back to it eventually, but the opening was not as intriguing as the title.

Purchased: Remember Me? Sophie Kinsella’s latest. I enjoy her work though I have never found one I liked better than the Confessions of a Shopaholic. The first chapter of COS – the arrival and opening of her credit card bill – is one of my all time favorite bits of chic lit. The cover of Remember Me? is a great escape from the generally nasty March weather. I read the first few pages, thought the set-up was a little slow but will get back to it after this pesky April 15th deadline for my next book.

Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Taleb. My brother nags me about this book all the time. He thinks it and Taleb’s Black Swan are must reads. That works only if you love non-fiction. I don’t at least not when I am looking for an escape which is generally what reading is for me. Still the concept is fascinating. The back cover says “Fooled by Randmness is an irreverent….exploration of one of the least understood forces in all of our lives” aka luck. You could not prove this by me as I am not beyond the intro. But it is still on my IAR pile.

What Jesus Meant by Gary Wells. I love this book even though it is taking me months to read it (and it’s only 142 pages long.) The author has the most unique, and for me, honest assessment of Jesus that I have read in a long time. For example: He asks if we really do aspire to do what Jesus did (as in What Would Jesus Do): “Would we praise a twelve-year-old who ran away from his parents in a big city without telling them he is staying behind.” “If we would could cast out devils would we sent thme intoa herd of pigs destroying two thousand animals"([and someone’s livelihood) . This book is on target in terms of tradition but unique in his interpretation of the New Testament. Will definitely read every word and look for his other books.

Strangers in Death by JD Robb. I am a huge Robb fan. Cannot get enough of Eve Dallas and Roarke and the people that complicate their lives. I swear I know these people better than I know my neighbors. I inhaled this in three days and it only took that long because of that pesky April 15 deadline.

Before the Dawn by Nicholas Wade. This book explores the history of humanity. One of my other brothers recommended it when I expressed surprise that the story of man begins about 5 million years ago when “ape-like creatures at the head of the human line of descent split from those at the head of the chimpanzee line of descent.” That long ago? Really? (Apparently another big gap in my education) The book looks good but I have not moved beyond the cover flap and general discussion of it with my brother. Once again I run into the "dislike of non-fiction factor."

The Little Ice Age by Brian Fagan. I really wanted to do a piece on the Little Ice Age (1300 to 1850) for today’s blog but science is the biggest gap of all in my education and whenever I approach it I am intimidated. Despite the fact that this book is also non-fiction I have read most of it, and am fascinated. If you are interested and willing to accept a complete novice approach I will write about it next time…fascinating study on that now familiar theme of how weather influences history.

So often I tell people that “I don’t read much.” That is not true at all. You would think I’d know myself better than that. I may not read WHOLE books but based on the above one week’s worth of books considered, read, rejected and saved, I read more than I thought I did.

What is interesting is that while none of the above are actual research they have added interesting elements to my WIP ( the one with the pesky April 15 deadline.)

How about you? Tell us what you have read in the last week or month. How do you decide what to read. And how do you read?

07 March 2008

The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice

I was watching “The History of Prostitution” on the history channel last week and was intrigued (and disturbed) by an establishment called the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV or SSV).
The SSV was founded in 1873 by Anthony Comstock and his supporters in the Young Men's Christian Association. The SSV was an institution dedicated to supervising the morality of the public.

After a few hours of net surfing, I was not surprised to learn of the SSV’s long association with censorship and oppression—the work of this organization had (and still has to some degree) a profound effect on print media and movies of all types. I want to give full credit to the very informative website from which I copied (and edited) much of the information below about the SSV and its founder, Anthony Comstock. For the complete text and lots of photos, see:

The author of the above named website states: “Mr. Comstock was born in Connecticut in 1844 and began his career as a dry goods clerk, but soon recognized his real passion when he witnessed his coworkers stealthily selling what he deemed to be obscene books and pictures. Comstock reported such suppliers to the police and began a lifelong crusade against vice. After poring over an 1866 survey conducted by the Young Men's Christian Association, which mentioned young New Yorker weaknesses for gambling, prostitution and detestable periodicals and books, Comstock in 1873 launched the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Vice societies around the country sprouted.

Comstock passionately lobbied for legislation barring the mailing of obscene matter. His efforts were rewarded with the passage of the bill, which read:

“Every obscene, lewd, lascivious, of filthy book, pamphlet, picture paper, letter, writing, print or other publication of an indecent character … is declared to be nonmailable matter and shall not be conveyed in the mails or delivered from any post office or by any letter carrier. . .”

With the passage of the “Comstock law,” postal authorities were the new censors, and Anthony Comstock was appointed a special agent of the Post Office. Comstock instructed postal staff on procedure and confiscated objectionable mail. By January 1, 1874, he boasted of confiscating and burning 134,000 pounds of books

Status as a literary classic did not sway him from slapping on the obscenity label. He fought Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, Boccaccio's Decameron, Arabian Nights and Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. In an 1894 ruling, Justice O'Brien of the New York Supreme Court prophetically said after clearing the way for Tom Jones that “to condemn a standard literary work because of a few of its episodes would compel the exclusion from circulation of a very large proportion of the best classics” (NYT 6/22/1894). This was a novel declaration since the courts operated on the Hicklin model for judging obscenity. Hicklin was a case in England that determined that if any part of a work could be determined obscene, the entire piece is declared obscene.

Such declarations did not stop Comstock or his colleagues. His counterparts in Boston continued their fight. The Watch and Ward Society managed to have James R. Osgood, a publisher, cancel his contract to put forth a new edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass.

Comstock died of pneumonia in 1915 at the age of 71. The New York Times seemed to connect his death to his crusade, claiming that “his illness was brought on by over-work and over-excitement, resulting from his fight to retain his position as a Post Office Inspector” (NYT 9/22/1915). The Times attributed to Comstock the “blanks [that] occur in the translated pages of 'Zola,' of Boccaccio, and of many modern ancient classics” and noted his fights against “lotteries, policy games, and the operations of the army of ‘green goods' swindlers, who are now but a memory.”

Succeeding Comstock at the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice was John S. Sumner. Disputing books like D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love, Sumner declared that his intentions to pass new censorship laws that extended to motion pictures and women's (largely) magazines.

As a result of Sumner’s efforts, the of the most important obscenity ruling of the decade (and perhaps the early 20th century) was laid down in U.S. District Court in New York by Judge John M. Woosley on December 6, 1933 . The book in question: James Joyce's Ulysses.

Headed by Bennett Cerf, Random House, Inc., was determined to publish the entire book on American soil. To do so, the company arranged to have a copy seized at Customs, thereby invoking a challenge to the ban against an import of obscene literature, which was enforced by the Section 1305 of the Tariff Act of 1930. As defined by the court, “obscene” meant “tending to stir the sex impulses or to lead to sexually impure and lustful thoughts.”

Judge Woosley laid out his ruling in fittingly eloquent prose, declaring “in Ulysses, in spite of its unusual frankness, I do not detect anywhere the leer of the sensualist. I hold, therefore, that it is not pornographic. . . I am quite aware that owing to some of its scenes that Ulysses is a rather strong draught to ask some sensitive, though normal, persons to take. But my considered opinion, after long reflection, is that whilst in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac. Ulysses may, therefore, be admitted into the United States.”

In part due to the Woosley ruling, the 1930s saw an easing of censorship in books due to so-called obscenity. Other media, however, did not fare quite as well. Under pressure, Hollywood adopted the famous Movie Code in 1935.”

I must add that there were many, many romance titles and short stories listed as “obscene” by Mr. Comstock. Even Madame Bovary was banned from libraries and public schools for some time. I often wonder what romantic literature and women’s fiction would have looked like today if Mr. Comstock had not been so inspired. I remember my high school English teacher telling my class that the district school board “forbade us to read specific passages of the Canterbury Tales.” You can guess what the result was—35 high school seniors read the ENTIRE Canterbury Tales, searching for the passages they didn’t want us to read! Clever English teacher, aye?

Please forgive my long post. You can tell censorship gets me riled up
. As a reader or an author have you ever experienced censorship?

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06 March 2008

Regency Refreshments: Rout Cakes

I had a special request for Rout Cakes from blog-mate Lauren Willig. Sadly, I couldn’t find a single recipe for them in my three chosen sources, and had to go further a field . . . I found plenty of period references to them (dating from 1807 onward), but no recipes before 1824. Even the recipe in Tea With Jane Austen is from 1840. The recipes I did find bear very little resemblance to one another, especially as there are “drop” versions and versions that sound more like a thin cake batter (which call for icing), some call for currants, some don’t. It seems to be no different from modern recipes, e.g. some chocolate chip recipes call for nuts, some don’t (mine calls for a packet of pistachio pudding mix, but I bet most of yours don’t). Seeing as there’s no one way to make them, I don’t feel an ounce of guilt about taking a small bit of creative license here and there.

A New System of Domestic Cookery (1824):

The Cook and Housewife’s Manual (1827):

The 1827 recipe for Kent Drop-Cakes looks remarkable similar to the 1824 one for Rout Drop-Cakes.

So, once again I was left to tinker. I liked the idea of sweet wine (I went with sherry) and brandy. And I think currants are starting to grow on me . . . I couldn’t find orange blossom water on short notice, so I used a bit of zest. The dough came out at the constancy of Nestle Tollhouse cookie dough, and when baked, the finished product was similar to a modern currant scone (or at least it’s similar to the ones they sell at Peet’s Coffee and Tea here in the Bay Area).

1 cup butter (softened)
¾ cup sugar
2 egg yolks
2 tsp vanilla
2 tsp sherry
2 tsp brandy
Zest of one orange
OR 2 tsp orange blossom water (if you can find it)
OR 2 tsp orange liqueur (Cointreao, Gran Marnier, etc)
3 ¾ cups flour
½ cup currants

Preheat oven to 350º

Cream butter and sugar. Add egg yolks and beat. Add vanilla, sherry, brandy and zest or orange water/liqueur and mix. Add in flour 1 cup at a time. Add currants with last ¾ cup of flour.

Dough will be cookie-like. Make rounded balls the size of walnuts and bake on a parchment paper or Silpat 20-25 min (until golden). They puff up a bit, but don’t spread so you can put them relatively close together.

My friends’ reactions:

My sister ate the ones I left her and texted “Cookies. Yum!”. Amie thought they were “Medieval, but tasty”. Issa loved them (he’s easy to please). Kristie and I thought they were perfect with a glass of sherry, and would be wonderful with tea. We all agreed that they’d be exceptional with a little orange icing/glaze (orange juice mixed with powdered sugar). Liza’s daughter (who’s just starting to eat real food) ate two (ok, she ate one and crumbled one on the floor for the dogs, who begged for more). Children and pets clearly approve.

05 March 2008

Historical Movie Club

Saturday, I had a fun afternoon seeing a matinee of The Other Boleyn Girl with a friend. I had read the book and really enjoyed it--not necessarily my interpretation of the characters and events, but part of the fun of historical fiction (or even even nonfiction) is reading different interpretations. Overall I liked the movie too. I missed some of the detail that was lost in compressing a long book into two hours, particularly when it came to George who's a fascinating character in the book (Jim Sturgess in the movie did a good job but didn't have as much to do). Mary was a bit softer than in the book, less ambitious, so I didn't think the dynamic between Mary and Anne was quite as interesting. But over all it was fun. Some very good acting, crystalized in some lovely moments--Eric Bana's first closeup, reacting to Catherine of Aragon losing a child, which perfectly captured Henry's conflicts; Natalie Portman's expression as Anne holding the newly born Elizabeth--disappointment, love for her child, and the knowledge of the tightrope she's walking and the danger she's in all wonderfully mixed together; Mary(Scarlett Johanson)'s face at the end, during Anne's execution. Both my friend and I found ourselves crying, which neither of us had expected to do.

I used The Other Boleyn Girl as a jumping off point to blog on my own website this week about siblings in books. On History Hoydens, it seemed appropriate to use the movie as a jumping off point to talk about historical films and research. I've already read a bunch of comments about this or that detail in the film not being historically accurate. I'm always wary of using historical movies for research in the sense of taking historical facts or details of clothes and daily life from them verbatim without double-checking a reference source. There are too many things filmmakers may have changed, either consciously because of the needs of the film or because they don't know (just like, despite all my best efforts, there are things I get wrong because I don't know). But if you know enough to judge the accuracy of details, they can be fabulous for absorbing the look and feel of a period or a sense of place.

Here are a few videos and dvds I watch particularly often while working on my own books:

The Sharpe series. So many episodes in the Peninsular War, which I blogged about last week, brought to life in wonderful, gritty detail. Oh, and it has Sean Bean :-). I watched episodes over and over for inspiration when writing the Spanish flashback sequence in Secrets of a Lady.

The Ang Lee/Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility. Probably my favorite Jane Austen adaption simply on its own terms as a movie--it's exquisitely scripted, directed, acted, filmed. And it offer a fabulous wealth of Regency settings--great country houses, cottages, London town house, London balls, London streets and shops. Also perhaps the best Jane Austen adaption and capturing, subtly but unmistakably, the pervasive importance of fortune. The country house sequences at Barton Park were a big help when I was working on Beneath a Silent Moon, particularly the scenes where everyone is gathered in the drawing room in the evening, engaged in different pursuits (and managing to have different, and sometimes quite intimate, conversations).

The A&E Pride and Prejudice. As I've mentioned before, I'm also very fond of the Oliver/Garson and Knightley/McFadyen versions (there are actually a bunch of Jane Austen adaptations I watch a lot, but I was trying to limit how many I listed). But for research purposes and inspiration, this is probably the version I watch most. It has the most detail from the book, being about three times as long, the biggest variety of scenes and settings. I love the feel of London in the brief sequence of Darcy "scouring the courts and alleys of London." The luncheon at the inn when Lizzy comes back from Rosings. The inn where Lizzy and the Gardners stay. Pemberley (also very helpful in Beneath a Silent Moon, which takes place largely in a great country house). And yes, there is the scene on Colin Firth diving into lake. I mean, if you need to know what your hero would look like dripping wet (which, come to think of it, happens in my current book, though in Hyde Park in the middle of the night) what could be more helpful? (A friend once call me while I had P&P on in the background; just based on the music she said "oh, this is the scene where he's jumping in the lake." :-)).

An Ideal Husband. Eighty years later than my period, but a movie I watch a lot, not to research the era per say but to research its depiction of a political marriage. There's a lot in Robert and Gertrude Chiltern's marriage that inspired Charles and Mélanie's relationship, particularly in Secrets of a Lady and in The Mask of Night, the book I'm working on now.

Do you have favorite historical films to recommend? Do images you've seen in historical films affect the images in your mind when you read books set in that era? Any historical novels you'd love to see filmed? Authors, do you have films you watch for inspiration for particular books? Have you seen The Other Boleyn Girl? Thoughts?

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04 March 2008

My Kingdom for a Crochet Hook!

I started crocheting at age 9, when I spent a year in bed (literally!) with rheumatic fever. I quickly learned that enforced idleness leads to needlework! Off and on over the ensuing (ahem) 50 years, I’ve...er...been idle at various times and have picked crocheting up again.

It’s relaxing. Mind-soothing.. Makes you feel you’re accomplishing something, even while you are flaked out in front of the TV. But the other day I got to wondering about the history of crochet, and here is what I found:

1. Queen Victoria learned to crochet!
2. Pattern books were widely printed from about 1824.
3. As early as the 1840s, clothing was crocheted from wool yarns.
4. Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1846 and 1847 refer to “crotchet.”
5. Spelling was standardized to “crochet” in 1848.
6. Various terms refer to crochet: shepherd’s knitting; Irish lace; hairpin lace; broomstick lace; Tunisian crochet; cro-hooking; all are variants of the basic crochet method.
7. During the Great Irish Famine (1845-1849), Ursuline nuns taught Irish women and children to thread-crochet; these cottage-industry products were shipped all across Europe and America.

In the beginning. No one is quite sure when and where crochet began. The word comes from croc, or croche, which is Middle French for hook. The Old Norse word for hook is krokr.

Oh, the controversy! Despite the efforts of various crocheters and needlework historians, no archeological evidence supports any crochet work prior to the 16th century, though there are three interesting theories:

1. Crochet originated in Arabia, spread eastward to Tibet and westward to Spain and thence along Arab trade routes to other Mediterranean countries.

2. Early evidence of crochet work was found South America, where a primitive tribe used crochet adornments in rites of puberty. Wow–a crocheted penis sling?

3. In China early examples were known of three-dimensional dolls worked in crochet.

BUT according to researcher Lis Paludan of Denmark, “the bottom line is there is no convincing evidence as to how old the art of crochet might be, or where it came from.”

Some sources state that crochet has been known from the 1500s in Italy, under the name ‘nun’s work’ or ‘nun’s lace, worked for church textiles. Lady Christian de Holacombe notes that “There are some very faint indications that some sort of ‘chained trimming’ was made around 1580 [when it] was mentioned once in Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d.

Many sources cite examples of lace-making and a kind of lace tape in Europe, but de Holacombe further notes: “The earliest ‘physical’ evidence of any kind for the thread technique we now know as crochet dates to about 1800. If [it] was done earlier, we would expect to find some actual examples somewhere–old collections, ancient tombs, archeological digs. ... Crochet as we know it doesn’t begin to be commonly seen until sometime after the mid-1700s, when tambour embroidery [a chain stitch done with a small crochet-like hook] reached Europe. ”

Tambour stitching . Crochet possibly developed from Chinese needlework and ancient forms of embroidery known in Turkey, India, Persia and North Africa as “tambouring,” from the French “tambour” or drum. This technique reached Europe in the 1700s.

A background fabric is stretched taut on a frame. A needle with a hook is inserted downward and a loop of thread is drawn from below up through the fabric. With the loop still on the hook, the hook is inserted a little farther along and another under-thread loop is drawn up and worked through the first loop: Voila! A chain stitch.

And then one day in the late 1700s some clever needleworker (a woman, no doubt) said, “Why not just do the thread-through-the-loop stitch and forget the background fabric? In other words, crochet “in the air.”

In Europe one Mlle. Riego de la Branchardiere took old-style needle and bobbin lace designs and turned them into crochet patterns and the rage was on. With the invention of the cotton gin and spinning jenny, and the manufacture of machine-spun cotton thread, hand-spun linen stepped aside and the devil’s playground for idle hands faded.

Sources: Wikipedia; Stefan’s Florilegium; Ruthie Marks, History of Crochet (Crochet Guild Newsletter).

03 March 2008

Regency Refreshments: Seed Cake

This is the first in a series of posts all on the same topic: Regency (or Georgian) refreshments. I recently decided to give a workshop on this topic this summer, so I need to do some experimenting . . . and since I’m a hands-on kind of researcher, this means some time in the kitchen. The three cookery books I’m focusing on are as follows:

The English Art of Cookery, according to the Present Practice; being a Complete Guide to all Housekeepers, on a Plan Entirely New; consisting of Thirty-eight Chapters (1788) by Richard Briggs, “many years cook at The Globe Tavern, Fleet-Street, The While Hart Tavern, Holborn, and Now at The Temple Coffee-House.”

The Universal Cook; And City and Country Housekeeper (1806) by Francis Collinwood and John Wooliams, “principal cooks at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in the Strand—late from the London Tavern.”

A Complete System of Cookery, On A Plan Entirely New; Consisting of an Extensive and Original Collection of Receipts, in Cookery, Confectionary, etc. (1816) by John Simpson, “cook to the late and present Marquis of Buckingham.”

My first “experiment” was Seed Cake. It seemed just different enough from the ubiquitous pound cake that it was worth making on its own. The variations I found are also quite different from one another. The 1788 one calls for yeast and allspice, while the 1806 one is leavened only with eggs and has spices similar to those in the pound cake recipes. The 1816 book has no recipe for “seed cake”, but it does have one for “savory cake” which is very similar in its general make up, except that it does not call for any spices or seeds.

The English Art of Cookery (1788) recipe:

From what I’ve been able to gather, it seems to have been common in the 18th century for cakes to be leavened with yeast, but during the later part of the century and the early 19th century beaten egg whites begin to dominate the recipes, at least for the “rich” or “fancy” versions. Yeast-leavened cakes continue to be represented as the “common” or “plain” versions though. This makes a certain amount of sense, as a yeast-leavened cake is much less labor intensive than an egg-leavened one, and would have been easier for a housewife who did her own baking to produce.

The Universal Cook (1806):

Since I have a modern kitchen with a Kitchen-Aid Mixer®, I chose to make a “rich” version. It also seemed to me that this version would be the most dissimilar to the pound cake in texture. I made this cake up following the directions from 1806 to beat the egg whites and egg yolks separately. It appeared that all this beating in of air would add loft to the cake (as with a sponge cake). What I missed in my initial reading was the fact that after you’ve gone to all the trouble of beating in air, you beat the batter some more when you combine the eggs with the butter and sugar, and then some more when you add the flour. All that beating knocks the air right out of the egg whites.

Just for comparison’s sake, I made up a second batch which I mixed in a more “pound cake-like” manner (cream butter and sugar, beat in eggs one at a time, add everything else and call it a day). It came out exactly the same as the one I took all the trouble to do in stages. So the recipe I’ll share with you is the easy version:

1 cup unsalted butter, softened
3 cups flour (not self-rising)
2 cups sugar
5 large eggs
1 TBL allspice
1 oz caraway seeds

Preheat oven to 350° F. Coat your pan (almost any kind of baking dish from a bunt to a spring mold will work) with a LOT of Baker’s Pam® or similar product.

Beat together butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Reduce speed to low and add half of flour. Add the allspice and caraway seeds. Then add all of the remaining flour. Beat for 3-5 minutes, until well combined and satiny. Pour batter into pan and rap pan against work surface once or twice to eliminate air bubbles.

Bake until golden and a wooden pick or skewer inserted in middle of cake comes out with a few crumbs adhering (about 1 hour). Remove from oven and invert onto the rack to cool.

Serve with a period sauce (wine sauce is great with it) or with something like Devon triple cream. It needs something to give it a little moisture. It goes great with an digestif wine like sherry, port, or Madeira.

My friends' reactions:

They really ran the gamut. One loved it. He loved it so much he kept all of the cake that was left. His wife thought it would have been better with poppy seeds or cardamom* (and I agree, those flavors would have suited a modern palate much better than the caraway seeds). My sister thought it tasted too much of anise (which she hates). I thought it had a slightly medicinal flavor, but wasn’t unpleasant, especially with a glass of sherry. The guy who loved it reports that it tastes even better the next morning and goes great with a cup of tea.

The bottom line is that it turned out to be a slightly dry, very dense, not too sweet, caraway-flavored, cake.

*I do find cardamom used in period recipes, but never in cakes. It always seems to be in cordials and like for the sick room. Same with poppy seeds.

So, what foods have you seen in books that made you wish you were there to sample them? What foods made you happy it was only a book? Have you ever attempted to create something you read about? And if so, what were the results? Or have you maybe stumbled across something at a shop or event that you had to try because you’d read about it?

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