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 ridiculous 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 felines? 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 purpose. 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.
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
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:
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.
May 24, 2021 • No Comments
Even 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.
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
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:
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.
May 9, 2021 • No Comments
April 26, 2021 • 3 Comments
Queen 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.
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.
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. Please see this blog for the results.
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!
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.
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Funeral 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.
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.
As 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.
March 31, 2021 • 1 Comment
Imagine a knock at the door and, when you answer, the caller hands you a package. It contains a wrapped packet of biscuits tied with a black ribbon. Instantly, you know there’s been a death, and this is your invitation to the funeral.
A Victorian Funeral Tradition
Funeral biscuits flourished as part of the elaborate panoply of the Victorian funeral. References to them are found in England and parts of North America. Surviving recipes are rare, which suggests they might have been very simple or an adaptation of something most cooks already knew how to make.
Those recipes or descriptions that do exist suggest a sweet similar to shortbread or a molasses cookie. More elegant households favored a lighter sponge similar to ladyfingers or Savoy biscuits. The shortbread style often bore a design such as an hourglass, heart, cross, skull, cupid or other symbolic image. The use of such stamps gives us a clue to the consistency of the dough in use.
The biscuits appeared at the funeral as an accompaniment to a restorative glass of sherry or port wine. Mourners or to those unable to attend received wrapped packages of biscuits. And, as mentioned above, they could also be used as an invitation.
Bakeries produced biscuits to order, especially for large funerals. Between two and six biscuits were bundled in waxed paper. Sometimes, this wrapping bore a design with the usual skulls, hearts, etc. since the Victorians were apparently Goths at heart. At other times, the paper displayed the death notice of the deceased, a poem, or a Bible verse (see an example here). Black wax or a black ribbon sealed the package. For this keepsake of the departed, presentation mattered.
Digression alert: There is an odd parallel with wedding cakes here. If you’re royal, cake mementos can persist down the centuries. For those craving a slice of Queen Victoria’s wedding cake, this article is for you.
You Are Who You Eat
The funeral biscuit tradition faded with the advent of professional funeral parlors and the maelstrom of the World Wars, but its roots run deep in history. There is a connection between these tidy little biscuits and the the idea of claiming an energetic connection to the deceased.
Prior to the oh-so-hygienic funeral parlor, family members awaited burial in the home–in the parlor, if the house had such a room. Relatives, friends, and neighbors visited to pay their respects. According to folk tradition, objects belonging to or placed around the dead absorbed some of their qualities, and it was possible for the living to gain those qualities by possessing or consuming them. The same kind of sympathetic magic appears in Game of Thrones, when Daenerys consumes the heart of a stallion so that her child will have the horse’s strength. In both cases, a tangible (edible) medium transmits the deceased’s qualities to the living.
Neolithic funerals involved the occasional bit of cannibalism (several examples have been found in southern Iberia). In Central Europe during the Middle Ages, household bakers made “corpse cakes” (sometimes shaped like gingerbread men) from dough risen on the body. Mourners consumed the cakes to absorb the deceased’s virtues. In similar fashion, in Wales and the West Country of England, sin-eaters (usually someone at the bottom of the social scale) consumed bread and salt left on the body, thus absorbing the dead man’s guilt. In some accounts, villagers beat the sin-eater afterward to punish those transgressions.
There is a long and winding connection between corpse cakes and the Victorians’ polite shortbread marked with a skull. Nevertheless, given the nineteenth-century appetite for heavy symbolism, it’s likely at least some understood and accepted that grim association.
I did make an attempt at recreating funeral biscuits. Because this entry is already getting long, I will detail that adventure in another post.
Frisby, Helen. Traditions of Death and Burial. Oxford, UK: Shire Publications, 2019.
March 16, 2021 • 4 Comments
Forget using stinky old garlic against vampires. The Vampire Diaries ushered in a new era of preternatural pest control with vervain, making a plot device from a relatively common herb long associated with warding off unwanted magic.
Curiosity prompted me to take a closer look at this plant, and what I found piqued my interest—especially since I feature herbalists in my upcoming books. Who doesn’t like a useful research rabbit hole?
Alternate names for vervain include enchanter’s plant, herb of the cross, and Juno’s tears. Some legends claim druids used it to purify their ritual waters. Others say Romans used bundles of vervain to cleanse their altars.
The Romans also called vervain herba sacra, or the “divine weed.” They believed it could cure the bites of all rabid animals, arrest the progress of venom, cure the plague, and avert sorcery. They even held verbenalia, a feast in the plant’s honor. Another name for vervain was herba veneris, so called because of the aphrodisiac qualities ascribed to it by the Ancients (presumably also the Romans).
Lore has it that vervain grew on the Mount of Calvary, where the faithful used it to staunch the wounds of the Saviour. For this reason, “Herb of Grace” is another popular name for vervain, although this term is also applied to rue.
This is the difficulty with studying herbs—proper plant identification is everything. Common names are confusing and using the wrong plant (especially in medications) could be hazardous.
Speaking of nomenclature, A Modern Herbal says the name vervain possibly comes from the Celtic languages, fer meaning “to drive away” and faen meaning “stone.” The name might reflect the herb’s early use in treating bladder ailments.
There are two kinds of vervain
Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) is known as American vervain or false vervain and is native to North America. It has medicinal properties, but they are different from European vervain (Verbena officinalis), which is the kind I’m writing about here.
Verbena officinalis hails from the Mediterranean region and has escaped gardens to run wild in North America. This perennial likes roadsides and sunny pastures. It has white or lilac spiky flowers that bloom from June to October. Its stems are quadrangular and branch. The leaves grow in opposite pairs. It has little scent and a slightly bitter taste. When harvesting, pick the plant before it flowers and dry it immediately. Typically this happens in July, though this could vary with climate.
Don’t confuse these members of the verbena family with lemon verbena, an altogether different (and delightful) plant.
Uses of Vervain
Modern herbalists use Verbena officinalis as a stimulant, astringent, diuretic, nerve tonic, and fever medication. They employ it in the treatment of skin ailments and for depression following illness. It can be used as a tea to calm nerves and promote sleep or in a mouthwash against gum disease.
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: herbal medicines should be prepared and taken under the supervision of a trained professional (and that does not include me or this blog).
But back to the paranormal stuff.
Magically (or Magickally, depending on your preference) speaking, vervain assists purification, protection, blessings, and communication with nature spirits. Ruled by Venus, vervain belongs to the earth element. A crown of vervain worn by the magician will protect against evil spirits. It is used in ritual incense for exorcism and in prosperity spells.
I never met an herbal dictionary I didn’t like, so I have a lot of them—some from when I was a teenager, some barely out the Amazon carton. I consulted quite a few books to put this post together, so this is just a short list of the main sources.
Beyerl, Paul. The Master Book of Herbalism. Blaine, Washington: Phoenix Publishing Inc., 1984.
Easley, Thomas, and Steven Horne. The Modern Herbal Dispensatory. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books, 2016.
Evans, Ivor H. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 14th edition. Markham, Ontario: Fitzhenry and Whiteside Limited, 1989.
Grieve, Mrs. M. A Modern Herbal. London: Tiger Books International, 1992.
Lust, John. The Herb Book. New York: Bantam, 1974.
March 7, 2021 • No Comments
Released in 2019/20, directed by Marjane Satrapi, with Rosamund Pike as Marie Curie and Sam Riley as Pierre Curie
Description: After the death of her beloved husband, Marie Curie’s commitment to science remains strong as she tries to explain previously unknown radioactive elements. But it soon becomes terrifyingly evident that her work could lead to applications in medicine that could save thousands of lives — or applications in warfare that could destroy them by the billions.
I was curious about this movie from the moment I heard about it. Marie Curie is a fascinating figure, but not one that I knew much about. I came away with a much better idea of how she discovered the djinn of radioactivity and what happened next, but it was a mixed experience.
First off, this was a beautiful movie filled with lush visual detail. Rosamund Pike gave a splendid performance as Marie Curie, who proved to be a prickly, brilliant, egotistical but ultimately sympathetic woman far ahead of her time. Sam Riley played the appealing husband. At times it felt like the story leaned on their romance to give shape to the plot, but that only lasted (obviously) until Pierre Curie’s death. After that, the plot scampered off with more enthusiasm than focus.
The difficulty with telling a story about a real person and real events is that life doesn’t follow a three-act structure. As a result, the film splooshed out of its narrative bounds in an attempt to capture events not fitting the timeline. The assorted uses of radiation—from medicine to Hiroshima to Arizona bomb tests—come stampeding across the screen at random moments. A few passages got too arty—and kind of trippy—for any real coherence.
Overall, it felt as if the film wasn’t entirely sure what it was trying to be. A romance? A biography? A social commentary about the dangers of uncontrolled scientific inquiry? A super cool montage with mushroom clouds?
To be fair, I still enjoyed the ride. After all, we are talking about a Victorian-set film about a strong and opinionated woman of science. I wish however, the writers had formed a better idea of what they wanted to say about the subject. There was a lot to like here, especially Pike’s performance, but the film seemed to get in its own way.
Recommended, but best when in an easy-going frame of mind, possibly with wine involved.
February 7, 2021 • No Comments
Who doesn’t love a good coincidence, especially when it involves ghosts?
Recently I was blathering with a friend about contacting the dead (as one does while folding laundry). I’m stocking up on ideas for a new story, and it was an unplanned but fruitful topic. Literally minutes later, I got an email for a virtual event.
Cue Weird Homes Tour and Atlas Obscura featuring Brandon Hodge. Hodge owns an Austin, Texas residence stuffed with Spiritualism-related objects. For one very fun hour, Hodge took viewers through his collection of antique planchettes, Ouija boards, and other paraphernalia.
It was like a gift-wrapped package falling through the monitor and into my lap. Spiritualism fascinates me, and Hodge’s enthusiasm and fab website are an ideal introduction to the subject.
A Victorian Obsession
The Spiritualist movement gained traction in the mid-1800s. It gave us mediums, automatic writing, ectoplasm, spirit photography, and table-rapping.
Essentially, it’s summoning the dead for a chat. Believers included the rich and famous, from Lucy Maud Montgomery to Arthur Conan Doyle.
For a buttoned-up society focused on industry, cataloguing, and petticoats for the piano legs, it’s interesting how Victorians embraced the paranormal. Their enthusiasm can be seen by the many, many periodicals dedicated to the topic, such as The British Spiritual Telegraph.
Mediums achieved a kind of celebrity, like the Fox sisters in America. Some grew rich. Others were ingloriously debunked for coughing up gauze
“ectoplasm” or manipulating the seance props with wires.
The majority of mediums were women. This was one place she could take center stage without question. And, since the bereaved were willing to pay, she could also make a good living.
Spiritualism carried on—unsurprisingly—through the disasters of WWI and the Spanish flu epidemic until fading in the 1930s.
I’ve used the highlights of Spiritualism before. In A Study in Ashes, Evelina and Tobias attend a séance. At the time, I’d wanted to delve more deeply into the subject, but that wasn’t part of Evelina’s story. She simply paved the way for more.
Now—thanks to a chance lockdown presentation—I’m anxious to do more research. After all, what’s more perfect than something that is Victorian, paranormal, and involves intriguing devices? I’m positive there is a role for a planchette or two in my Hellion House series.