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.
April 26, 2021 • No 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. 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!
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.
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.
August 20, 2020 • No Comments
Would you like me to tell your fortune? For a silver coin, I will consult my tarot cards. Ah, yes, I foresee you’re about to encounter a large to-be-read pile…
I imagined a unique set of tarot cards while planning the Hellion House series. The images in the deck came to me very strongly while I was first making notes about the books. Scorpion Dawn, Leopard Ascending, Chariot Moon—these are all airships, but those vessels got their names from the cards. Fortune’s Eve recounts the first time that tarot comes into play. For those who like to follow story breadcrumbs, pay attention to that scene.
Of course, it had to be a deck I’d never seen before, which meant recording the entire thing as it appeared in the story a bit at a time. Here’s what I know so far…
The deck has five suites (sky, fire, earth, water, spirit) of thirteen cards each. Each suite relates to an aspect of being. For instance, earth rules the material plane.
Most of the images on the cards are single animals, plants, or other straightforward objects.
To cast a reading, lay out the cards in a triangle. They naturally fall into the rising, descending, or hidden positions on the three sides. Therefore, the leopard in an ascending position means that its influence is on the rise and all that fiery animal passion is going a-prowling. The closer it is to the apex of the triangle, the more pronounced its energy will be. If the leopard is on the other side of the triangle, it would indicate the hunt was waning or going awry. If the card was at the bottom of the triangle, it would mean kitty’s energy was turned inward, either asleep or rebuilding for a future time. A fulsome reading would involve a dozen or so cards.
Scorpion Dawn refers to the first awakening of the protective scorpion. The legend has it that when the mighty hunter Orion slaughtered far too many animals, the goddess sent the lowly scorpion to protect her creatures. Too small to be noticed, the scorpion nonetheless poisoned Orion with a sting to the heel. Never underestimate the little guy—or girl—especially if she gets this card.
The main function of the cards in the story is as a means of exploring the characters and their drives. Like all such elements in fiction, it’s a seasoning and not a main dish. Too much and it gets awkward, but it’s a useful way to highlight a moment here and there.
Custom illustration by Leah Friesen
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.