Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Mouse Turds on the Cheese

(and Other Disgusting Historical Details)

I'VE spent the last two weeks in the 17th century.

My Possessed Mysteries are half historical, with a different era in each novel. That means starting historical research from scratch with each new project. Until I understand the world in which my period characters lived, I can't begin writing.

Think of it this way, human beings make lists. When we wake in the morning, we have in our minds what has to be done that day. Fridge getting a bit barren? Grocery shopping. Last pair of clean undies? Laundry. Car has less than a quarter tank? Get gas. And maybe a hope for something enjoyable when work is done--a nice meal, a walk, a movie, a good book.

Before my historical narrators open their mouths to speak, I need to know what kind of lists they wake up with. I've realized that, until now, most of my main historic characters have lived in circumstances where they depend on others to provide for them or at least, tell them where they need to be each day. For instance, in BY BLOOD POSSESSED, my protagonist is in the Confederate Army. Being a pawn moved around a  battlefield, the character can't plan for food and clothing, and needs be alert and resourceful in supplementing the meager army supplies. Which leaves the mind more free time to plot revenge.

For the fifth book, though, I'm picturing a woman living on a farm along the Chesapeake around the year 1700. What she did and didn't accomplish each day might determine in part whether or not residents of the farm survived. Her head would be filled with chores that needed to be done: daily chores like mucking out animal pens and milking cows, weekly chores like making bread, and seasonal chores like sowing the garden. Sure, I've done living history and I plant my own garden each year, but there are so many details, like butter making, that are completely foreign to my experience. And frankly, I'm having trouble getting into the head of someone who has to be that organized simply to stay alive.

So this past week, besides reading up on recipes and clothes and diaries of the period, I watched a 12 part BBC series called Tales from the Green Valley. Five historians lived on a 17th century farm on the Welsh border for a year, running it as it would have been run in 1628. This was an excellent series, filling in many of the details necessary for writing historic fiction (some of them truly gross--for example, using fermented urine as a stain remover). I highly recommend this documentary to anyone who likes history.

I now have 30 pages of notes and more questions to look up, but a believable character is emerging at last, along with the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the period.


Friday, January 20, 2012

Historical Eating

My Possessed mystery novels are half-historical, and feature a present-day heroine, Pat Montella, whose chief hobby is cooking. It stands to reason that Pat would eventually become fascinated with historical recipes, and that I'd have to delve more into that branch of research for each book.

In POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY, Pat learns what goes into elaborate 18th century dinner parties. You have to love an era that believed in two dessert courses. Research for this involved not only studying colonial cookbooks and experimenting with recipes, but eating out at Philadelphia's City Tavern and all of Historic Williamsburg's taverns. One must suffer for one's art.

But it's not all fancy viands. Pat's latest adventure, FEAR ITSELF, takes place partially in 1933. I had to research what immigrant Italian families on the poor side of town ate in the midst of the Great Depression. My parents were my main resources here.

My dad and his brothers' did odd jobs for the macaroni factory down the street and were paid in pasta and Parmesan. Not having meat, their mother varied her tomato sauce each night--sometimes adding onions or lentils or peas, or whatever beans were on sale that week. Once in a while his dad would bring home a chicken for Sunday dinner. One chicken to feed a family of 10.

My mom's family was smaller--only 5--but also poorer. My grandmother would scramble an egg or two in tomato sauce to make a sort of lumpy stew. (My mom used to make this for me for lunch sometimes. With decent sauce and grated cheese, it's actually a great warm meal on a winter's day.) If they could get bologna, my grandmother would fry it with egg to make it go farther. My grandpop eventually got a job at a bakery. I'm guessing he brought home bread, but my mom only recalled the warm donuts.

Just this month, I found a great blog on the subject of eating through history called Four Pounds Flour. Historic gastronomist Sarah Lohman covers topics from importing in the early 19th century to the roots of the Jello shot. Once in a while, she bravely engages in culinary living history, such as eating like a poor 1877 tenement dweller for a week, or her "Drink Like A Colonial American" day.  I highly recommend this blog, especially for all you historical fiction writers out there who spend tons of time researching wardrobe, vehicles, houses, etc., but take food for granted.

Besides, food research is fun.

I think I'll have go have eggs in tomato sauce for lunch. Find the recipe on Miss Maggie's Facebook page.


Saturday, January 14, 2012

Musings Stirred Up By a January Wind

I'm sitting in an old farmhouse in rural New Jersey. When I left home last Tuesday, the streets of my town were lined with greenish-brown Christmas trees, put out for the trashman. Here, right across the road, are rows of live evergreens, part of a veritable Christmas tree ranch, its herd of spruces and pines grazing under the winter sun.

Back home, when I gaze from my window, I see a fairly constant parade of cars, pedestrians and neighbors' pets. Here, a vehicle passes by maybe five times a day. Otherwise, the only movement on the landscape is created by the January wind, swirling the big rhododendrons beside the house, quaking the shriveled, black leaves that cling to shrubs by a thread, making the tall brown grasses over in the tree pasture billow like the ocean.

Back home my nearest neighbors are on the other side of a cinder block firewall. Here, they're a quarter mile away.

Mulling over these comparisons recalls to mind two things. First, a conversation I had with the editor of Double Cross. She grew up in the city and her feeling was that a small town placed in the middle of the wilderness (which I used as a setting in the novel) automatically has sinister overtones because of its remoteness. I didn't agree.

The other memory is from last week's reading matter. I was researching old Celtic and newer Wiccan beliefs for my next Pat Montella book. Much of what I read stressed the view that humans are a part of nature and shouldn't try to master it or fight it. While reading these materials, I was reminded how much I used to love hiking and bird-watching and star-gazing and rock hunting, even simply sitting by a quiet stream listening to the water. I used to love nature and spent a little time each week enjoying it. I realized, except for working in my garden, I hadn't spent many hours outside in the last few years. So one of my New Year's resolutions is to change that and get back to nature. Which, at least, should help me write the novel.

Sitting here, I suppose I can understand why someone might think this house—a good distance from its neighbors and remote from the nearest town—might make a sinister location for a story. But I think man brings all things sinister with him. This place is lovely and peaceful, which seems to be good for my imagination.

In fact, I can almost picture tree cowboys riding in to roundup those evergreens next fall, to drive them northwest to Philly for the Yuletide season. That would be a sight to see.

Yep, I definitely need to get out more this year.

(and thanks to Robin Hathaway for sharing her solitude)

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Luck in the New Year

If you're eating a piece of toast and a dental crown pops out, it's a minor nuisance. You have to interrupt your week with a dental appointment. You brace yourself, in case the dentist tells you the crown has to be replaced, turning the incident into a major nuisance and unscheduled hit to your budget. Still, you take care of it and move on.

BUT, let that crown pop out on December 31 or on the following day or two, and the event morphs into an omen for the coming year. Me? I started the year with a crater where a molar should be. Bad karma seems inevitable, right?

I realized how pervasive this kind of superstition is when I heard friends and kin view the bad or good occurrences of the last few days in the same portentous light. My brother's oven blew a circuit New Year's Day (despite the fact that he was cooking good luck foods like pork and sauerkraut). Had it happened next week or 2 weeks ago, all he'd have is a broken appliance. Happening when it did, it could portend 52 weeks of, I don't know, undercooked food or something.

Traditional bad omens on New Year's Day include an east wind (which brings famine and calamities), carrying anything out of your house (I took brownies to a party, curse it), doing laundry (no problem there), and failing to make loud noises at midnight (to scare off evil spirits). The tradition of noise making for good luck has been around for thousands of years. In POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY, I showed the colonial American version, which was shooting off guns at dawn (also done on Christmas morning). My neighbors shoot off serious fireworks, ensuring we'll all start the year deaf, at least. I ring jingle bells, being more musical.

For good luck in 2012, you should have filled your larder and stuffed your wallet full of money (I wonder if it matters if it's someone else's money?). You should have paid all your debts before midnight December 31st, and seen the year in wearing a new garment. The first person you let into your house should have been tall, dark-haired and male (I wish).

You can read more good and bad New Year's omens at Snopes.com. If you know of any others, put them in the comments below.

Wishing you peace in the New Year,


Member, Delaware Valley Mystery Authors