Ten Days in a Mad-House


July 26, 2021  •  No Comments

There aren’t many historical figures I want to fangirl over, but Nellie Bly (born Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman 1864 – 1922) makes the list. An American reporter, she pursued investigative stories at a time when women were doomed to penning fluff pieces. Bly soon tired of the society pages and insisted on challenging subjects. Danger was no deterrent – among other assignments, she covered the European Eastern Front during WWI.

Around 2019, I read Ten Days in a Mad-House, Bly’s expose of the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. She got herself committed and posed as one of the female inmates to discover what went on inside. Needless to say, it wasn’t pretty. Her revelations of abusive living conditions and the casual cruelty of asylum officials shocked the New York public of 1887. Eventually, it led to reforms at the asylum. Her steady, detailed narrative stands up today as readable reporting.

I returned to Bly’s story in my research of Victorian-era asylums. When I learned there was a film adaptation, I quickly found it on Hoopla. Timothy Hines wrote and directed this 2015 production (10 Days in a Madhouse). Caroline Barry is charming as Nellie, but I question her chirpiness in places. And unfortunately, where the true story is dark enough, the movie gilds the lily in places. As a result, the tone comes out as spunky and sordid at the same time, making me wonder what audience they were aiming for.

That said, the movie worked well enough as a recap. The unsanitary conditions, bad food, inadequate heating, and casual cruelty are all part of the original. So is the maddening truth that institutions silenced the inconvenient far more often than they cured them.

Unruly women were deemed most inconvenient indeed.


Character Interview: Kifi the Temple Cat

Sharon Ashwood
July 10, 2021  •  No Comments

Today, we’re here to interview Kifi, the temple cat who joins the cast in Smolder, the third novel in the Crown of Fae series. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us.

Kifi:  Delighted to pull up a cushion and entertain.

Q: To begin with, what is the role of a temple cat?

Kifi: That is like asking the purpose of water in the sea. We keep the memory of the fire fae, for the tribes of the Flame do not rely on written language. The history and wisdom of all things is ours to preserve, and what one cat knows, we all know.

Q: So cats know everything?

Kifi: Is that a question?

Q: I see. Moving on, how did you come to be involved in the story of Leena and Morran?

Kifi: Leena’s journey took her near the Great Temple. I seized the opportunity to join her, for the Temple is sacred to my kind. It was lucky that I was available to assist my two-legged companions. Such foolish creatures, always in need of rescue. One should never leave home without a cat.

Arwen looking cuteQ: What hardships did you experience along the way?

Kifi: Monsters, bad food, and far too many smelly werewolves.

Q: Audiences have responded to you as a character. How have you dealt with sudden fame?

Kifi: Such adoration is the fate and burden of felines. I bear it with humility. I’ve even forgiven the artist for leaving me off the book cover.

Q: Yes, that is quite a glaring oversight.

Kifi: Indeed. One might think the story is all about the love story between my friend, Leena, and the Phoenix Prince. Who would want to read that?

Q: One last question. Despite your experience, you’re still young for your kind. Is there any advice you could give to other junior temple cats wanting to follow in your pawprints?

Kifi: Accept the challenge of the journey and treasure those who walk at your side. Most of all, realize that not everyone is lucky enough to be one of us. Be kind to the poor two-legged creatures.


Mysterious Green Sauce


July 5, 2021  •  No Comments

pasta dishDespite the title, I resist the term “green sauce” because (something like the enigmatic “brown sauce” encountered in the UK) I feel as if the creator won’t admit to what’s in it. Lots of things are green, but I won’t put all of them in my mouth.

No need to fear this version!  This green sauce quick, easy, and very taste-bud friendly. Although the obvious use is on pasta, it’s also good as a garnish on potatoes, a mixed vegetable plate, or even salad. I also suggest trying it on fish.

Recipe:

I start with two large bunches of kale, stems removed and lightly steamed.

While that’s happening, I fry one small diced onion in a little olive oil.  Once that’s starting to brown, add a generous handful of sliced mushrooms and 3 to 4 cloves of crushed garlic. Once that’s thoroughly cooked, set it aside.  For those who are not garlic/onion tolerant, feel free to substitute a powdered version.

Put the kale into a blender

Add 2 ripe avocados

Add the onion mix

Add 3 heaping teaspoons of nutritional yeast

2 teaspoons of mixed dried herbs or whatever fresh ones you have in the garden (suggest oregano, marjoram, basil, or thyme)

1 ½ to 2 cups of kefir (can substitute plain yogurt)

Juice of one lime

Salt to taste

 

Blend until it’s smooth and creamy with no traces of solid kale.

Serve generously over pasta. For a final touch, garnish your pasta dish with pine nuts or broiled, halved cherry tomatoes.

This will keep in the fridge for a few days. A wide-mouthed jar is perfect for this.

 


The Three Inspirations of Leena: building a character


June 26, 2021  •  No Comments

Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world. ― Voltaire

Fire is light and movement and passion. It comforts and terrifies, gives life and destroys it. To embody this element, my heroine of the fire fae had to be a creature of contrasts, so itdancer seemed natural that she’d be a dancer. Few things demand such primal abandon and rigorous discipline at once.

*

Where do characters come from? It’s one thing to imagine the type of character we want—a fire fae, a spunky barista, a master thief. However, creating a protagonist who can lead a complex story goes beyond a simple archetype. We need broad strokes, but we also need emotions, contradictions, history, and a deep well of desires that are completely unique to that individual. Real people are messy and complicated. Characterization should capture some of that, even if the heroine is a paranormal being.

My characters come to me in many different ways, but in this case Leena and Smolder arrived through three inspirations. The first came from Stravinsky’s 1913 ballet, The Rite of Spring. At the time of its premier, both the music and choreography shocked audiences—a lusty depiction of ritual sacrifice was just too distant from the floaty tutus usually seen on the Paris stage. But if anything could summon flame from the core of the universe, it was this creation, and I loved its strangeness and power at first sight. Stravinsky also wrote The Firebird, so my subconscious clearly owes him a debt for my book about a dancer and a phoenix.

So, I had my concept of what a fire fae should be—the flavor or keynote of her nature. But Leena is a person and not a ballet, so I used a writing meditation to find the core of her psychology. It’s perfect as a second step, when an author knows the basic facts about a character and it’s time to find out more:

Imagine yourself in a character’s room. What is there? What does it tell you about the character?

shawlLeena’s room in the poorer district of Eldaban has little in it, but I found a woolen shawl woven in a pattern that is typical of her mountain tribe. What does it say about her? A shawl is used to keep warm, but it’s also good for carrying possessions, gathering apples, making a baby sling, or as a shroud. The wool would come from the family’s sheep. The women of the tribe would spin and weave it. A mother might make a shawl as a gift for her daughter as a sign that she was ready to forge her own future. That told me a lot about Leena’s people—humble, independent, and steeped in the love of their home and family.

I did a similar exercise around Leena’s chatelaine, which she carries with her in Smolder. (For those who don’t know, chatelaines were a short of tool-holder that clipped to a belt. Here is a beautiful example of one from the nineteenth century.) At first, I didn’t know how Leena would use the chatelaine in the story, but she insisted on having it. It turned out to be essential to the plot, so sometimes the character knows best!

So now that I knew who Leena was, I had to know how she finds the courage to walk into extreme danger. My third inspiration was Fionn, her brother. She held his hand when theydancer 2 fled the destruction of their homeland. She raised him from the time they were orphaned children, but now he’s a grown man with ambitions of his own. When he makes a terrible choice, what’s a big sister to do? Try to save him, of course, even if it’s a task far beyond anything she’s braved before. This was the motivation that launched my story’s plot.

So, to return to the initial question of where do characters come from–mostly they walk into my head fully formed, but once in a while I get to know them in a more organized way. These three steps describe how I discovered enough about Leena to begin writing her adventure. I found the inspiration, developed her backstory, and gave her strong motivation. They helped me find her spark at the start.

As befits a fire fae, she needed no help from me to set the rest of the story ablaze.


Pawsitive Attraction


June 20, 2021  •  2 Comments

Never work with animals or children. – W.C. Fields

Pets steal the show, whether at a family picnic, in a meme, or as part of your story. Thousands of cat videos prove the magnetic attraction of furry characters, the more Brigid 1ridiculous the better. As a case in point, readers of Smolder, third in the Crown of Fae series, talked as much about Kifi the talking temple cat as the hero, heroine, and villains combined. Small, sassy, and very much the star of her own story, she got to be outrageous in ways that human characters could never pull off.

Writing such characters well isn’t always easy. Stage management is a constant problem. If your book is a romance, Fido has to be parked before the humans can have alone time. If it’s an action-packed thriller, one is in a constant state of saving the cat. As a rule, I carefully control the amount of time the little scene-stealers are on the page. Otherwise, as the storyline becomes a logistics nightmare, dog-napping starts to look like a practical plot twist. Plus, while any side character can hog the limelight, animals are the worst. Don’t give them all the best lines.

So why include an animal as a side character in your book? The cute factor wears off eventually, but pets can be effective character extensions of their humans. What does it say about the lumberjack when it turns out he picks a goggle-eyed pug over a pit bull for his rescue project? Have you noticed how many B-movie villains own smug Brigid 2felines? The Game of Thrones series (especially the books) used a litter of wolf puppies as shorthand for the lives and fates of the Stark children. Through their presence, animals can contrast or comment on the rest of a narrative and its characters.

Or, they can level up and play a role in the action. Murder-solving pets are a staple of the mystery genre. A favorite of mine is Monty the golden retriever and his handler, Sarah Patrick, in Iris Johansen’s mysteries. Monty is a cadaver dog, which gives him an important role in the stories. He knows his role and understands when he’s done his job—or when he’s failed—in a very realistic way. An animal’s vulnerability naturally heightens the emotion of a situation, whether that’s for laughter or nail-biting drama.

Integrating an animal character into the plot can mean giving them a story goal and character arc. In Smolder, Kifi joins the quest so she can meet her queen, a decision that turns out to have important consequences for the human characters. Kifi is also a feline, with all the sassy good and bad that entails. There is a temptation to make pets too adorable, and a dash of naughtiness avoids sentimentality.

The gold standard, in my opinion, remains the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis. He writes about talking animals, but they are memorable creations with personality, flaws and a Brigid 3purpose. The author treats them as fully formed characters and so makes them integral to the story. No one who has met Reepicheep or Mr. Tumnus will soon forget them.

Even if that’s going deeper into fantasy than is appropriate for your story, it’s worth considering what’s on your fictional pet’s mind. The trick is to make those fuzzy characters work hard for their time on stage and deliver good story value. When W.C. Fields warned that animals can easily steal the show, he understood their power to entertain.


Coconut Squash Soup


June 7, 2021  •  No Comments

The tale of this coconut squash soup begins with a trip to the farmer’s market, where a New Zealand blue squash followed me home. The variety was new to me (and, apparently, to the cat) so I was curious to see what I could do with it. As it turns out, this variety cooks up nicely with a flavor between a butternut squash and a pumpkin.

Quarter the squash, scoop out the seeds (these can be saved and roasted later) and bake on a cookie sheet at 325F until fork tender. Peel off the skin and mash.  This should give you around 4 cups of cooked squash. If you have too much, it freezes well.

Fry until thoroughly cooked:

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 large diced onion

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger

Add:

1.5 tsp cumin

1.5 tsp coriander

1/2 tsp cardamom

1 tsp salt

1/4 tsp pepper

Cook for two minutes and add:

Your squash

6 cups vegetarian broth (low salt is best–you can add salt if needed)

Optional: Fresh garden herbs, if available (I use chives, oregano, and thyme)

1 can (14-oz) of low-fat coconut milk

Simmer for about half an hour. At the very end, add the juice of 1 lime. Then puree thoroughly so there are no lumpy squash bits.

This coconut squash soup is a very attractive, colorful soup, and makes a great centerpiece of a light meal.

 


Fast and Easy Rhubarb Muffins


May 24, 2021  •  No Comments

muffin and teacupEven if you’re not a baker, these fast and easy rhubarb muffins are a go-to for any occasion. The topping looks fancy, even if it’s no-fuss, and the buttery flavor of the pecans makes the topping rich but not oily.

Rhubarb is one of the first treats to appear in the garden. It was used as a tonic in the old days, probably because it offered a shot of fresh vitamins after a long winter of dried or canned foods. Although we don’t need spring tonics in quite the same way, we still love our rhubarb pies and preserves. This recipe has a fresh, sweet and sour quality that makes it one of my favorite muffins. It’s light enough that it is almost but not quite dessert.

Rhubarb Muffins

Preheat oven to 400F

 

Sift dry ingredients and set aside:

3 ½ cups of white flour

2 tsp baking powder

2 tsp baking soda

1 tsp salt

 

Mix in a large bowl:

2 cups of buttermilk

3 eggs

1 ½ cups of brown sugar

½ cup melted butter

3 tsp vanilla extract

Stir in 3 cups of fresh, finely diced rhubarb. Then add in dry ingredients a bit at a time until the mixture is combined.

Spoon into greased muffin pans and top with a generous dusting of:

Topping

1 tsp cinnamon

½ cup of granulated sugar

½ cup of pecans

I throw the topping ingredients into a food processor and grind to a crumble. Leftover topping goes well over fresh fruit. I keep thinking it might be nice to add chopped candied ginger in the mix, so if anyone tries it let me know if it’s a winner.

Bake about 25 – 30 minutes and cool on a rack. These rhubarb muffins are excellent fresh. They can be frozen, but after that are best warmed before serving.

 

 


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May 9, 2021  •  No Comments

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DIY Historical Cosmetics: Queen of Hungary’s Water


April 26, 2021  •  No Comments

Jar of herbsQueen of Hungary’s Water aka Hungary Water has been one of my favourite scents for as long as I’ve been wearing perfume. It’s herbal rather than sweet, with a clean, bright finish. Though no two blends are exactly the same, lemon and rosemary are usually the dominant notes. As I was making this up, the scent of the herbs was almost dizzying. It’s like a herb garden in a jar.

Some sources claim Queen of Hungary’s Water is the first alcohol-based perfume, or at least the first European one, and dates from the beginning of the fourteenth century. It’s also used as a skin tonic, the herbal ingredients effective against acne and eczema, among other issues. In addition, it can be used to bathe the temples to cure a headache. It is for external use only. Do not drink it or take it as a tincture.

Ingredients are important

There are a lot of different recipes for Hungary Water, but be careful. Beware of recipes that use lemon verbena as a main ingredient as the essential oil of that plant has been linked to sun sensitivity, which can increase the likelihood of sunburn. Lemon balm does not have the same problem.

Try to get organic herbs and essential oils if you can. Good quality dried herbs will store in a cool, dry place until it’s time to make another batch.

Recipe:

Layer the herbs in a wide mouth jar. A mason jar is ideal (bigger is better – the herbs swell once the liquid goes in).

2 tablespoons of lemon balm

2 tablespoons of lavender

2 tablespoons of calendula

2 tablespoons of rose petals

2 tablespoons of chamomile

1.5 tablespoons of comfrey

1 tablespoon of sage

1 tablespoon of rosemary

1 tablespoon of peppermint

1 tablespoon of elderflowers

12 drops of helichrysum oil

Top with chopped lemon peel (1/3 of a lemon rind, pith removed)

Cover the herbs with apple cider vinegar, witch hazel, or vodka. Allow for a couple inches of liquid above the herbs. Store for several weeks, shaking a couple of times a day.three jars

As this is my first time making this, I’ve done one each using the vinegar, witch hazel, and vodka to see which turns out best. I will add the results to this post when I’m done. I based this recipe on several existing sources both in books and online, including this one, this one, and this one. I’ll adjust the ingredients as time goes on until I create my own preferred combination. For now, I’m sharing my experiment with you!

Post Script

Please note:

Yes, I am a writer of vampiric fiction, but before you get excited, dear reader, the Hungarian noble in question is not Elizabeth Bathory of “bathing in the blood of virgins” fame, nor does this post describe a bracing post-blood tonic or solution for that awful bathtub ring. I suggest a foaming cleanser with plenty of bleach for that.

 

 

 

 

 


Victorian Funeral Biscuits – the Recipe


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Wooden spoonFuneral biscuits played a part the Victorian tradition of death and mourning. I cover their history in my previous post on the topic, and now we come to the recipe.

Sadly, it’s hard to know exactly what the biscuits tasted like. Even if they were available in a museum somewhere, I’m not like the Eating History guys and willing to nosh on decades-old treats. To make things more difficult, I could not find funeral biscuits in a cookbook I trusted. One recipe included modern ingredients and others were vague to the point of uselessness. So, I set out to invent something from those items that appeared in the majority of texts.

Consistent ingredients were flour, sugar, and caraway seed. I tested various combinations of other things, including icing sugar, milk, and cornstarch. Results varied from interesting charcoal to hard as a brick. When I did finally achieve a good result, I understood why rationing during wartime finally finished off the production of these biscuits–they’re no good without lashings of butter.funeral biscuits

Victorian Funeral Biscuits

Preheat oven to 350 F

Cream:  1.5 cups of sugar with 1 cup of soft butter

Add:  1 tsp vanilla and  2 extra-large beaten eggs (or 3 smaller ones). Mix until smooth

Sift: 2.5 cups of flour, 2 tsp of cardamon, and 1/2 tsp salt. Add to wet ingredients a bit at a time along with a tablespoon of whole caraway seeds (some recipes recommend toasting these before adding them to the dough).

Mix until all wet ingredients are absorbed. The dough will be slightly sticky. If you wish to use a cookie stamp, chill for a few hours before going further. Otherwise, make a small ball and press with a fork to form the cookie. Keep rinsing the fork in cold water to keep it from sticking in the dough.

Bake on a greased cookie sheet for 12 minutes or until the bottom just begins to turn brown. (Do not overbake!) Cool slightly before moving to a wire rack. The result should be a crisp, slightly caramelized bottom with a softer top.

baking ingredientsAs noted above, this recipe is only an estimation of what the original Victorian funeral biscuits might have been like. The quality of ingredients today is very different, as those of us who experienced “Buttergate” can attest. However, I think this is a reasonable approximation of the buttery, slightly spicy biscuit that’s perfect with tea after a brisk seaside stroll.