July 3, 2020 • No Comments
Every so often I come across a reference to something that sends my brain scurrying down a rabbit hole. As a fantasy writer, I particularly love twists on everyday items that could otherwise slide into an ordinary social landscape. Food is a favorite, because we all encounter it on a daily basis and there are oh, so many possibilities.
Imagine yourself at a feast—maybe a good ol’ grimdark medieval banquet with dogs under the table chewing on Bob’s remains (what the guests haven’t already eaten). Or, perhaps you’re attending a prettier version of the above at the Sun King’s court, or even a Victorian soiree with champagne on ice and … someone serves a platter of fish, prized for its hallucinogenic properties. Chaos ensues.
Apparently, this is a thing. Several species of fish contain hallucinogenic toxins. The best known is Salema porgy (Sarpa salpa), a type of sea bream. Whether or not diners experience an effect from Salema may depend on the season or the diet of the fish—certain microalgae and also Posidonia oceanica, a kind of seagrass, is thought to contribute to toxins building up in the fish’s flesh (particularly the head). The delirious trip lasts for days.
Salema is found in the Mediterranean and East Atlantic, ranging from Great Britain down to South Africa. It is known in Arabic countries as “the fish that makes dreams.” Romans apparently organized entire banquets around getting stoned on Salema. I pity the slaves who had to clean up afterward but there is an excellent story scene there somewhere.
Sadly, although I have a good many historical cookbooks, I found no reference to preparing Salema porgy in Roman times. However, a search of the internet suggests grilled with salsa verde.
Thanks to Annie Spratt for sharing their work on Unsplash.
June 26, 2020 • No Comments
There are many for whom eating their peas is hardly a moment for celebration. What we need to change our eating habits is a princess as a garden pea brand ambassador.
When Catherine de Medici married King Henri II of France (1533), she brought a love of fresh petit pois (shelled peas) with her. This was a somewhat novel vegetable—most knew only the coarser field peas. Those were similar to chickpeas or split peas and dried or sometimes ground into flour. Wheat flour existed at the time, but was more expensive.
Once peas arrived on the scene, their history reads like the gourmet column of a society magazine. All the cool kids served peas.
Louis XIV, France’s famous Sun King, received a hamper of green peas from Genoa in 1660. They were then dramatically shelled and presented to the court in tiny dishes. The pea craze persisted well into the 1690s. Mme de Maintenon and Mme de Sevigné both reported a craze for securing a taste of the first harvest.
Edible pod peas (pois mange-tout) are reported to have arrived somewhat earlier from Holland during the time of Louis’s grandfather. Sadly, snow peas do not seem to have created such a splash.
In England, green peas came into fashion during the reign of Charles II, who probably ate them in France before the Restoration. As late as 1769, shoppers reportedly paid enormous sums for peas at Covent Garden Market, although other sources report the vegetable becoming common earlier in the century.
One other kind of pea—the lovely flowering sweet pea—is worth mentioning. Beyond its presence in our gardens, its claim to fame is as a favorite subject of Father Gregory Mendel. Mendel lived in Moravia and was three years younger than Queen Victoria. His work on genetics benefited from the sweet pea’s easily distinguished inherited characteristics.
One might ask what Mendel has to do with food fashion, and the answer is not much. However, royalty and peas do intersect when it comes to genetic consequences. Mendel’s work with peas was instrumental in understanding hemophilia, a blood clotting disorder that plagued Victoria’s descendants.
March 9, 2020 • No Comments
Consider setting versus worldbuilding. According to Novelist and screen writer Chuck Wendig, when we say worldbuilding “We’re talking about the revelation of your story world and its details through the story itself. It’s easy to think this means “setting,” but that’s way too simple — world building covers everything and anything inside that world. Money, clothing, territorial boundaries, tribal customs, building materials, imports and exports, transportation, sex, food, the various types of monkeys people possess, whether the world does or does not contain Satanic “twerking” rites.”
That means there is work to do on your story. The basic place to start is forming a clear picture of your setting. Chances are, it is a real place or it is similar to a real place that can be investigated.
If you’re writing about a real time and place, research the history of your setting up to the time period you’re working with. Your characters will know the history–at least the recent history–of their world, so you need to as well.
- One question you might ask is who founded your location? Why?
- Does that matter to your story (for instance, what would the old prime-time soap opera Dallas be without the oil industry)?
- Think about taking your story and putting it someplace really different. How much of it would work? What would you have to change? What does that say about your choice of time and place?
Writers with a contemporary setting need to do as much or even more research. People live in the city you’re writing about, and they’re not a homogeneous group.
- Different parts of an existing town have different characteristics.
- Different groups of people have different hangouts, different language, different food, dress, etc.
PRO TIP: Climate is important and often a defining characteristic of a region. However, don’t assume. Most of the world thinks of Canada as snow country. Victoria, where I live, has palm trees and rarely more than a few days of snow a year.
You might want to make a story bible, which is a collection of facts, documents, ideas, and everything else about your story world. This is a lifesaver if you’re doing a series.
Here are some tools:
An article on How to use Scrivener for Worldbuilding
An amazing customizable template from Sarah Perlmutter
The type of information you collect and how you collect it will depend entirely on your story and working methods. The only important thing is that you keep the relevant information in a way you can access quickly. Start collecting information before it becomes unwieldy. The time when I normally decide I want a story bible is long past the time when it would be convenient to start one.
Other, more entertaining ways to deal with research:
- Youtube videos about places
- Blogs about visiting places
- Pinterest for pictures of places
Of course, the very best option is to visit a location. Taste the food. Smell the air. Feel the dryness or humidity, and whether the atmosphere is high and clear or soft and sea level. Look at the flowers. Fall in the mud (speaking personally). Find out what is the same and different from the place you live.
October 25, 2019 • No Comments
I’m fascinated by cosmetics from past ages and cultures. Since the Georgian Age is one of my particular interests, I’m naturally intrigued by their makeup. The sensibility is so distinct, it’s impossible to mistake for anything else. It’s not that I want to replicate the look. To me, it seems an uncomfortable mix of Goth and Barbie.
Rather, the attraction lies in the conflict between beauty and corruption. In the eighteenth century, painting one’s face was an artifice that only the wealthy could indulge in. The major exception was the demimonde, who catered to the appetites of the monied class. Needless to say, most of their careers burned bright and brief, until drink, pox and hard living had their way.
The white and pink face was meant to capture the unspoiled looks of youth. Sadly, the cosmetics of the day were poisonous. The more a person painted, the more their natural good looks would be damaged. Some of the ingredients in common use were lead, mercury, and arsenic. Eventually, that stuff could kill you.
Here’s a thankfully toxin-free version of “the look” from a respected source:
October 18, 2019 • No Comments
Almost every historical novel has a scene set around the local coaching inn. Because people came and went there, it was a natural place to meet an exciting stranger. Like a train station or a harbor, it’s filled with the possibility of far-away places.
Similarly, important characters drive signature vehicles, whether they’re rakes or rectors. No Jane Austen dowager is complete without her smart carriage.
It’s important to get vehicles right when creating a historical novel, so I was very happy to find this video about old coaches:
October 11, 2019 • No Comments
Recently, I had a delightful discussion about the fashions of the early twentieth century. The seamstress of the day often had to work with lighter-than-air fabrics and then embellish the garment with stitchery and bead work. I remember family photos from this era where one could see the pleats, tucks, smocking, and drawn thread work. That must have taken hours even with the aid of machinery. The aesthetic was all about simple lines and lush textures.
Here’s an interesting video I found on 1914 fashion showing all the layers of a lady’s outfit from the time.
September 26, 2019 • No Comments
We think of clothing as a means of self-expression—fleeting or classic, occasionally silly, and frequently entertaining. Rarely do we think of adornment as dangerous, but history is filled with literal fashion victims.
Rewind to the beginning of the nineteenth century. Clothing was dyed by natural sources, so unless one’s wardrobe was exotic and very expensive, color choices were dull compared to what we have today. Then when the whale oil used in domestic lighting was slowly replaced by coal gas, the gas industry produced coal tar, and industrialists began experimenting to find a use for this by-product. The result was gorgeous aniline dyes, which created an explosion of bright, clear hues of every description that were affordable to everyone. Predictably, the fashion pages became giddy rainbows of choice.
There was only one hiccup—there were no rules about testing these new products for consumer safety. With chromium, mercury and arsenic in the mix, this rapidly became an issue. While the solutions in some fabrics were relatively harmless—perhaps because they were not worn next to the skin—others, like the gaily striped stockings in vague during the 1860s, were activated by heat and perspiration. Consuming alcohol could also speed the action of these toxins. Blisters, rashes, and even death followed, particularly among the factory workers who handled these materials without protective gear.
These new shades were also used in home décor, candy manufacture, and artificial flowers. Green had a particularly nasty reputation, since its key ingredient was arsenic. The pigment Sheele’s Green was a particular favorite of Napoleon Bonaparte. There is some suggestion the arsenical paint on his walls was a contributor to his eventual death.
There is a saying about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. Be careful what you’re getting into! If you were in old Venice, those shoes might be chopines. These platform shoes proved disco had nothing on the Renaissance. Originally arriving from Turkey in the 1400s, they were invented to lift the wearer out of the mud of the streets. The style lasted in Europe until the mid-1600s. The height of the heel also became linked to the status of the wearer, and both noblewomen and concubines wanting to make a statement had them. While many examples of chopines are around seven or eight inches high, other examples reach twenty inches. Women requires canes and servants to move around, and there is more than one story about women falling to their death. Laws were passed to limit the height of the shoes, but to little effect.Cosmetics were another pretty way to die. Queen Elizabeth I was reported to use Venetian Ceruse as a skin whitener. The paste was a mix of vinegar and white lead and was apparently applied quite thickly. A popular companion to this white base was cinnabar or vermilion rouge, derived from mercury and Sulphur. This duo, while the height of Tudor fashion, caused skin eruptions, hair loss, and bleeding gums.
To complete the look, women used Atropa belladonna (deadly nightshade) to enhance their eyes. Bella donna means beautiful woman, and a drop or two dilated the pupils to enhance a dark, enticing gaze—right up until increased heart rate, visual distortion, and eventual blindness took over.
The list of potentially fatal fashions goes on and on, from combustible crinolines to young girls removing ribs so their corsets could be cinched that much tighter. Lest one think women alone were subject to dangerous dress, the mercury used in felting men’s hats was well-known to produce “mad” or at least very sick hat makers. Even setting aside the hazards of sweat shops, it was a dangerous time to be in the clothing trade.
Have we escaped such madness in the twenty-first century? I’m not so sure—we have our own version of fashion madness, though hopefully nothing quite so drastic. All the same, if someone tells me they’ve discovered a trend to die for, I’m running the other way!
July 2, 2019 • No Comments
The selfie craze isn’t exactly new. Back in 1854, André Adolphe Eugène Disdéri, a photographer in Paris, patented a small type of photograph called the carte de visite. This was basically a piece of card with a slightly smaller photo glued to it. The card measured around 2.5 inches by 4 inches and frequently bore the photographer’s address at the bottom. The glory of this new invention was that it was more affordable than previous techniques. Those of modest means could have their picture taken for the first time. We get an intimate view of the working people of the era that doesn’t exist in such variety prior to this period. Many cartes de visites were made for soldiers during the American Civil War.
Here’s one of Edgar Allan Poe in the 1870s. Since pets were also popular themes, he might have also had one done of his raven. A search through the internet will turn up a vast number of cats and dogs, babies, and kids in fancy dress. People really haven’t changed that much.
The popularity of the carte de visite surged when Napoleon III had his card done. Soon all the cool kids were not only getting their own portrait taken, but also collecting the cards of the rich and famous. It was common to display one’s collection of cards and–always a trendsetter–Queen Victoria had an album for photos of her extensive family.
Here’s one of Victoria and Albert:
“[Carte-de-Visite Album of British and European Royalty]” by F. Joubert is licensed under CC CC0 1.0
In the early 1870s, a slightly larger format called the “cabinet card” replaced the carte de visite in popularity.
June 7, 2019 • No Comments
Here are some truly fascinating clips of real nineteenth-century street life.
This is Manchester in 1901. It looks like rush hour to me.
This is a trip through Paris in the late 1890s. Partway through is a horse-drawn fire truck and a moving pedway!
June 6, 2019 • No Comments
So far, at least, there is no online reservation system for me to book a B&B in my story world. This makes literal boots-on-the-ground research impossible. So—now what? For anyone writing outside their own experience, this is a genuine problem. How do you get real intel on places you can’t go or don’t even exist?
Advice on world-building abounds. Maps, naming conventions, operating codes, and heraldry are all legitimate reference points. My only quibble is that, while they provide valuable detail, they don’t necessarily grab a reader’s heart and soul. Despite the excruciating care writers take with constructing the subjunctive in their new Elvish dialect, most readers skate by that stuff until they reach Rabid Fan territory. What they do remember is the character’s joys and sorrows, because that’s something they can participate in right away. When a character is tossed in a dungeon, their despair, their horror of rats, and the dank stink are more memorable than the name of the prison and where it is located, although that info has its role, too. In other words, worry more about creating an emotional and sensory response and sprinkle in fine detail once you’ve nailed the drama.
This approach makes research somewhat easier because equivalent experience might be available. Got a desert planet? Go find a desert. Need alternate Victorian England? Well, there are bits of the original left, if you squint past the traffic. Castles? Yup, and a person can even sleep in one. Travel is best. Museums can help. Anything that duplicates aspects of your story location will do. The object of the game is to find your imaginary world in the one already around you and to answer the question, “What would my character actually experience if…”
While you’re making the rounds, keep a journal and pay attention to everything. High mountain air feels different than sea level. Dirt isn’t all black. Water tastes different from one city to the next. The sound in an ancient stone building carries differently than in a modern house. Observe and select the most telling details about a place, and this will create an experience that is concrete to your reader. That’s when they say, “I feel like I’ve been there.” Best of all, that’s when they wish to go back.
The same goes for the character’s emotional response to the world around them. Once upon a time, I took a gondola up to a mountain top and discovered to my horror that it was a literal mountaintop with no handrails, no fences, nothing. As I’m terrified of heights, my emotional response was—um—acute, especially when another tourist missed his footing and suddenly slid down the mountainside (he was okay). But the mountain scene I wrote afterward was razor sharp because my emotions were so strong at that moment. How does a character feel about their surroundings? Chances are, those same emotions are somewhere inside the writer. Take the narrative out of the head and put it in the gut.
Once a story world is full of vivid detail, other things to consider include demographics, the economy, transportation, and sanitation. There are too many books where no one seems to have a job, and yet they all have money and nice houses (where do I sign up)? It’s as if the story action occurs on a floating platform very separate from the everyday. Any location seems far more real if there is industry, immigrants and visitors from other lands, and the usual mix of old, young, rich, poor, and in-between. The research lab for the way a city works (or occasionally fails to do so) is all around us. Most historically-based industries and transportation systems have museums, books, and documentaries. Futuristic infrastructure might be based on similar principles. Throughout history, nations rise and fall because of trade profits and how they can take them away from someone else.
How does any of this impact day-to-day living for your characters? It’s the world they move through. It might be their means of survival. It might be motivation. Everyone has an opinion about their Internet provider, the bus/underground system, the price of electricity, rents, the price of groceries, and so on—not to mention industrial pollution and the environment. Providing an awareness of the everyday that is appropriate to your character makes it seem as if the world extends beyond what we see on the page. That makes readers curious, and they come back for more. In addition, because some problems are universal (the price of groceries), that makes characters relatable.
That’s not to say a fairy-tale fantasy filled with prom dresses and glass slippers isn’t okay. Gritty, bloody, darkness isn’t for everyone and despite what nitpickers say, no author’s world is wrong because it’s theirs to make and love. Medieval castles might be damp and uncomfortable in our history, but they can be sparkling and filled with unicorns someplace else—as long as I can hear the unicorns clip-clopping across the marble floors. At the same time, an understanding of the castle’s workings gives it depth. A bit of “how did they live” research will point out obvious factual pitfalls. If the medieval princess puts on her lace gown and looks in the perfectly clear looking-glass before attending a ball with a violin orchestra, I’ll buy that if I am told why and how that world has industries out of step with our own historical timelines. Do what you like but make it so real to the reader that it doesn’t pull them out of the story. Fill their senses and stir their emotions until their brains stop caring about the improbability of it all.
As a reader, we all want to believe. As an author, it’s our job to make it easy. Put down good roots as you let your imagination explore the stars.