History

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11 May Mother’s Day 2014

Mother's Day 1947

It was Mother’s Day 1947. In those days (gulp) taking pictures was a rarer and more formal thing. Someone (my father? My grandfather?) lined up the women of the family for a snapshot with fourteen-month-old me in my beautiful young mother’s arms. I don’t remember it, of course–not even the enormous sunbonnet. Can you imagine putting something like that on a toddler today?

 

Left to right, my paternal grandmother Elizabeth Schroeder Gross (I’m named for her, although that’s a story in itself), my aunt Margaret Gross Paugh, me, my dear dear mother Margaret Fleming Gross (to whom The Flower Reader is dedicated), and my maternal grandmother Bonnie Otto Fleming. Bonnie’s real name was “Bonnalynn”–one has to wonder where that came from, as she was born in 1887. But her mother’s name was Margaret Roxanne Landers, so perhaps a penchant for fanciful names ran in the family. In any case, she herself hated “Bonnalynn” and called herself “Bonnie.” but I loved it and always thought that if I were ever fortunate enough to have a daughter of my own (which I’m not, alas) I’d name her “Bonnalynn.”

 

Perhaps one day there will be a “Bonnalynn” in a book….

 

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08 Aug A Second Wife Named Camilla

One meets the most interesting (and sometimes heartbreaking) people around the fringes of history. Here, for example, is Camilla Martelli, the second wife of Cosimo I de’ Medici, the first grand duke of Tuscany. But was she the grand duchess? No. Cosimo married her morganatically (meaning she didn’t get to share his title) and reluctantly, only because the Pope insisted he confess all his sins and regularize his life (Camilla had been his mistress for several years and borne him a daughter) before being elevated to the title of grand duke.

Poor Camilla. Cosimo’s grown children loathed her (she was younger than both Francesco and Isabella), considering her vulgar and grasping. If the dress she’s wearing in this portrait is any indication, she did have a rather gaudy taste in clothes and jewels. But to me she looks sad.

When Cosimo died in April 1574, the new grand duke Francesco immediately (the very same night!) sent Camilla to a convent called “Le Murate,” which means “the walled-in ones.” Needless to say, it was a prison for Camilla. Supposedly she made life for the actual nuns such a living hell with her hysterics that a few months later she was moved to a different convent with a somewhat less severe way of life—but imprisoned she remained, pretty much for the rest of her life. She was allowed out to attend the wedding of her daughter Virginia de’ Medici to Cesare d’Este (remember the “weedy little boys,” Duke Alfonso’s nephews, in The Second Duchess? Well, Cesare was one of them), and once again, briefly, toward the end of her life; she apparently could not help attempting to meddle in politics and was soon forced back into the convent, where she died in 1590.

One is left to wonder why Francesco treated his stepmother so harshly. There is a hint in a letter in the Medici Archive in Florence, which comments that in January 1576 Camilla gave up her property, including her jewels and the villa were she and Cosimo had been living, the Villa di Castello, to her eight-year-old daughter Virginia. For all practical purposes this gave the property back to the Medici, and this property, particularly the Villa di Castello, may have been at the bottom of it all. There must have been more hysterics when Camilla learned that even after giving up her property, she was to remain behind convent walls—forever.

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26 Jan The Best Crispy-Chewy Coconut Cookies Ever

 

Well, in my opinion, at least. I cobbled together two or three other recipes to come up with this, and experimented on my own with chopping the coconut finer and finer. I’m very pleased with the result, which combines the crispness of a shortbread with the chewiness of coconut. The trick is whizzing the coconut in the food processor until it’s chopped very very fine. The original cup of shredded coconut should be reduced to a rounded half-cup when finely chopped.

The chopped coconut also makes slicing the cookies easier, and I love slice-and-bake refrigerator cookies—so easy.

It occurs to me that if you like Mounds candy bars (which I do), you might like these with a bittersweet chocolate frosting instead of the plain (but deliciously vanilla-y) powdered-sugar glaze.

Here’s the recipe:

Coconut Cookies

1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
1 1/4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 cup sweetened shredded coconut, chopped very fine in food processor

Cream together the butter, sugar, vanilla and salt until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg. Mix in the flour until just blended. Fold in the coconut. Roll dough into a log with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least two hours.

Preheat the oven to 350°. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Slice dough into quarter-inch (or so) slices and bake just until golden around the edges, 12-15 minutes. Cool and ice thinly with powdered sugar glaze.

Naturally I had to look up some of the history of coconut as a foodstuff. Rather to my surprise, I found that the nux indica, the Indian nut, was at least known in Europe as a botanical curiosity as early as Marco Polo, and possibly earlier. The term “coconut” itself is later, and derives from the Portuguese and Spanish “coco,” “grinning face,” as a description of the face-like markings at the base of the shell. Vasco da Gama (who died in 1524) is supposed to have brought coconuts to Europe from India. So it’s entirely possible that the Este and the Medici, living in very wealthy Italian courts in the mid-sixteenth-century, could have been served coconut as an expensive and exotic delicacy. Rinette in faraway Scotland? Sadly I think it’s pretty certain she never tasted the sweet, chewy deliciousness that is the coconut.

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12 Aug Dumbarton

One does come across the most interesting stories in the course of research.

At one point in The Flower Reader, Queen Mary and her household go off on a summer progress which includes a stop at Dumbarton Castle. My friend and long-suffering Scots beta reader Leslie Thomson pointed out to me that in the sixteenth century both the castle and the town would have properly been called Dunbarton, from the Scots Gaelic Dùn Breatainn, Fortress of the Britons. It turns out that only in the last hundred and fifty years or so has Dunbarton become Dumbarton, all due to a misprint on a nineteenth-century map. There are even old street signs still in existence—see image at right.

I’m going to leave it as Dumbarton in the story, because modern-day readers would probably pounce on “Dunbarton” as a mistake. But “Dumbarton” itself sprang from a mistake. The lesson has to be: watch out for those darn typos, because you never know how long they’ll last!

 

 

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08 Jan The Flower Reader

My Scotland book has its final title at last: The Flower Reader. This was one of my top choices and I’m delighted—I think it’s intriguing and unusual, and it puts the spotlight right where it belongs, on my heroine Rinette Leslie, the girl who can read the future in flowers. I’ll probably have more to say about The Flower Reader next week.

Cressie is doing beautifully. She had another follow-up vet visit on Wednesday and Dr. Clawson (such an appropriate name for a vet!) pronounced her a champion healer. She’s still wearing her plastic bag (an invention of my own, of which I’m justly proud) and probably will be for another week at least, just to let the healing progress past the itchy stage. Here she is, “in the bag” and oh-so-bored with it all:

Boudin has been feeling quite left out, and so here’s a wonderful new picture of him as well, snapped by the Broadcasting Legend™:

In Second Duchess news, there’s a giveaway slated to start on January 15th on Goodreads. Twenty-five copies up for grabs! So mark your calendars to enter. And anyone in the Houston, Texas area—put a big red “X” on March 5th, because at 1:00 on that Saturday afternoon I’ll be signing at Houston’s iconic Murder by the Book bookstore.

My Link o’ the Week for writers: StoryFix from Larry Brooks. As Larry says in his subtitle: “Get it written, get it right, get it published.” A great resource, packed with energizing information.

My Link o’ the Week for historical fun: The page on Lochleven Castle in the Douglas Archives. I particularly like the sketch of what Lochleven Island would have looked like in the mid-1560s at the time of my story—the island today is much larger because the level of the loch has lowered. Lochleven! Just the word is embroidered with history and romance…

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24 May The Bones of Copernicus

This past weekend, Nicolaus Copernicus’ remains were re-buried with great honor in a cathedral in Frombork, Poland, after spending over 460 years under the floor of the same cathedral in an unmarked grave.

This is all very well and it’s excellent to see Copernicus vindicated at last, but if his body was buried in 1543 in an unmarked grave—how did they know they had the right person?

It turns out scientists began looking for Copernicus back in 2004—they knew he’d been buried under the floor of the cathedral but didn’t know where. They found the skull and bones of a man of about the right age, and did a computer reconstruction of the face (hello, Bones) that resembled a portrait Copernicus drew of himself. Suggestive, but not conclusive.

Then the most amazing thing happened. They leafed through a book known to have belonged to Copernicus and found hairs. (I also pull my hair out over books from time to time, so I can relate.) They extracted DNA from the bones they’d found and from the hairs and eureka! A match.

So now Copernicus lies under a black granite tombstone identifying him as the founder of the heliocentric theory (well, not really, but the first to model it in full mathematical detail) and a canon of the Roman Catholic church. The stone is inlaid with a design representing the solar system, a golden sun encircled by six planets (the only ones they’d discovered at the time Copernicus lived).

One of the most poignant things about the whole story is that Copernicus published his masterwork De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium in the last year of his life. Supposedly the first printed copy was placed in his hands the day he died. One can only imagine what he felt.

Rest well, Master Nicolaus.

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19 Mar The Real Silver Casket

Am deep in sixteenth-century Scotland—want to join me? Here’s a link to photographs and details of the real silver casket which may (or may not, no one knows for sure, and of course the things no one knows for sure make the most delicious historical fiction) have held the “casket letters” which besmirched Queen Mary Stuart’s reputation forever.

Hamilton Palace : Treasures of the Palace : Lennoxlove

Where did the casket come from? What was its history before Queen Mary decided to use it to lock up her letters? (If she did.) If it’s fifteenth-century work, could the crossed F’s under a crown (if they were ever actually engraved on the casket, and not simply embroidered on the case) refer to Francois I instead of Francois II? Could its history have brought evil fortune to the queen? Could it even have been cursed? And if so, by whom?

So many questions to answer. Such fun!

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01 Feb Ferrara Live

Am immersing myself in sixteenth-century Ferrara. So much of the old city has been preserved—the medieval city walls, the Castello with its four massive towers, the magnificent Romanesque cathedral, the many palaces of the Este including the Palazzo dei Diamante, which today houses the National Picture Gallery, and the Palazzo Schifanoia with its incredible fifteenth-century frescoes. My Barbara would have known them all, walked their floors, touched their walls, breathed their air. It’s a daunting and delightful thought.

Sometimes I watch the various webcams of modern-day Ferrara.

Città di Ferrara, various webcam views

Today, for example, it’s clearly sunny and cold—the sky is blue behind the clouds but there is snow on the roofs and here and there in the streets. Much of my story takes place in December, January and February of 1565 and 1566, and I imagine the weather to have been similar. I imagine Barbara’s breath as a visible cold mist when she goes out into the city to pursue her secret plan…

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26 Nov Happy Thanksgiving!

A Puritan Mother. Long before the invention of baby monitors, pop-up wipes and Pampers.My ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower, but they were not far behind on one of the voyages of the Abigail, which sailed from London April to July 1635, arriving in Massachusetts Bay. Henry Collins, my ninth great-grandfather, a starchmaker (all those ruffs and caps had to be starched by someone, you know) from Stepney, Middlesex, brought his wife Ann and his three young children Henry, John and Margery. I’m descended from John (who was only three at the time of the voyage), through the Motts, Rhodeses, Sarjents, McConnells and Flemings.

So although they weren’t Pilgrims but ordinary Puritan tradesmen, here’s to the Collins family, who sailed to the New World and settled in Lynn, Massachusetts. Here’s to Ann Collins, who undertook a two-month-plus voyage across the Atlantic in cramped shipboard quarters with three children, ages five, three and two! Men may have gotten all the credit for bravery in those days, but a woman who could manage that is a woman I’m proud to be descended from.

Happy Thanksgiving wishes to everyone—because even if you don’t celebrate Thanksgiving Day as a holiday, it’s always good to be thankful.

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25 Sep Her Last Letter

Last week the National Library of Scotland offered a week-long opportunity for visitors to see the last letter of Mary Queen of Scots, written only a few hours before she was executed at Fotheringay Castle. For preservation reasons, the letter is put on display only rarely.

The letter is directed to her brother-in-law Henri III, the king of France, and dated 8 February, 1587. It closes with the phrase, “Wednesday, at two in the morning.” When you look at the images you can see blurry splotches, particularly on the first page. Was Mary crying? Or are the blotches the product of the many hands through which the letter passed after her death?

The letter itself is remarkably cool and rational, the writing steady, the lines even. What was Mary thinking as she wrote it, in the middle of the night, knowing she would be taken to a scaffold and publicly beheaded when the morning arrived?

Readers and writers of historical fiction don’t always agree about how much of our art should be history and how much should be fiction. This, to me, is a good example. The letter remains; we know Mary wrote it. We have her words. We know something of what she did before and after she wrote it. But what was she truly thinking and feeling? Ah, now that is where the storytelling comes in…

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18 Sep By Request: Lumbago

Early 17th-century drawing of human musculature showing the loins, by Jehan CousinHad a good chuckle at Lisa Brackmann’s comment about why plumbago is called plumbago—“I would have gone with ‘it’s plum-colored and can be used to treat lumbago.’ For that matter, what IS lumbago?”

Ask and you shall receive. The word “lumbago” dates to early in the seventeenth century and comes from the late Latin lumbago, “weakness of loins and lower back,” which itself is from the Latin lumbus, “loin.” Here’s a fellow from an early 17th-century book of “anatomies” [Cousin, Jehan. Livre de pourtraiture. Paris: Jean Leclerc, 1608] who has obligingly taken off his skin to show us his musculature; his loins are indicated by the number 3. For more fascinating historical books of anatomy, see the Research section of the Wonders and Marvels website. I particularly like the ones in which the subject is rather coyly peeling back his or her own skin and muscles in order to display the organs beneath. What were the artists thinking?

“Lumbago” has rather fallen out of use these days, in favor of “Owie! I just threw out my back!” Perhaps we should bring it back. Or perhaps this evening I’ll tell the Broadcasting Legend™ I’m going to cook him a nice lumbus of pork with potatoes, apples and sauerkraut. Mmmm!

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15 Sep Plumbago

The plumbago, or skyflower, growing just outside our back door

Because Rinette, the central character in my new book, is a floromancer deeply connected to flowers and their properties, I find I’m becoming fascinated with everything I can find out about flowers as well.

Take the plumbago bush in our back yard. What a strange name for such a lovely flowering shrub, with its masses of bluish and lilac-colored blossoms, so sweet and irresistible to butterflies. The name comes from the Latin “plumbum,” the metal lead, as dull as dull can be. How on earth did it get connected with such a beautiful flower? (It’s also called skyflower, because of its color, but that’s a modern invention.)

The stories differ. Some say the plant—called for centuries plain “leadwort,” and only given its Latinized name in the eighteenth century—was used to treat lead poisoning, which was recognized as an affliction as early as the second century BC. Others say it was associated with lead because it was used to treat conditions that turned the skin a leaden color. Still others say the plant itself is toxin-loving, and where it grows there is lead to be found. Traditionally it’s also been used to treat warts, wounds and broken bones; made into a powder to be sniffed for headaches; and brewed as a tea to ward off nightmares. Sticks of leadwort were woven into thatched roofs to ward off lightning. In French it was called dentelaire, and the chewed root was said to relieve toothache.

So in the sixteenth century Rinette would have known it as leadwort. How to work it into her unique personal scheme of floromancy? With its association with nightmares, perhaps it could bring on a vision of bad things that might happen if one makes a particular decision. That would certainly fit into the plot. Heh.

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03 Sep Guilty Pleasures

…having nothing to do with history. Well, maybe only a little.

  • Top Chef. Jennifer Carroll for the win! That chocolate bread pudding with peanut butter sauce sounded delectable, but people—what’s the point of posting a recipe calling for 120 egg yolks and 5 1/2 gallons of heavy cream, which ends up serving 100 people? Cut it down a little. Top Chef website fail.
  • Homemade Apple Crostata. The Broadcasting Legend™ brought home a bag of Granny Smith apples by mistake, and so I’ve been baking up a storm. Delicious as a dessert with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, or as a breakfast pastry with a wedge of cheddar cheese. I don’t really follow a recipe—I make piecrust the old-fashioned way (rubbing the butter into the flour by hand) and just mix up the filling as the spirit moves me—sliced apples (skin left on, please), a little lemon juice, a little white sugar and brown sugar, a pinch of salt, a sprinkling of flour to thicken, and of course lots of cinnamon.
  • Attention Deficit Theatre. I love Mad Men and these are the best recaps ever. J. Kristin Ament is a hoot and a half.
  • And speaking of recaps, History Spork, from Two Historians. This comes with a hat tip to the best agent ever, Diana Fox. Needless to say I love historical movies but I sometimes follow along with commentary much like this. Although I’m nowhere near as funny.
  • The Daily Digital. The adventures of my friend Laurie, her husband Philip, and their wonderful beagles. I’m nowhere near as funny as Laurie is, either.
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15 Aug ‘S wonderful! ‘S marvelous!

As the Gershwin brothers would say.

Wonders and Marvels

Anyone interested in history to the slightest degree must check out this site. Want reviews of wonderful new historical novels? Want to know what the Romans used for toilet paper? (You will be surprised.) Want to read about nose jobs in the Renaissance? (I have to work this into a book somehow.)

Wonders and Marvels is more than just a blog. It’s a “community for curious minds who love history, its odd stories, and good reads.” My kind of place.

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11 Aug The Sale of a Wife

This is quite a bit more modern than my beloved sixteenth century, but I ran across it while researching other documents and couldn’t resist sharing it. After all, how often does one come across:

“A full and particular Account of the Sale of a Woman named Mary MacKintosh, which took place on Wednesday Evening, the 16th of July, 1828, in the Grass Market of Edinburgh, accused by her Husband of being a notorious Drunkard; with the particulars of the bloody Battle which took place afterwards.”

You must read the full transcription, if nothing else for its vivid nineteenth-century slang. One of the fighters (and yes, a huge fistfight between women and men broke out, with the women pretty much carrying the day) is described as being “as drunk as 50 cats in a wallet.” I can’t wait to use that one. Heh.

The Scottish broadside, ladies and gentlemen—the TMZ-crossed-with-Craigslist of its day!

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07 Aug The Time Traveler’s Life

I’ve changed the title of my site a bit. Here’s why.

Reading and writing historical fiction is the closest we can ever come to traveling in time. From my earliest days as a reader I loved stories set in “the olden days”—I loved Little Women and Black Beauty, Gone with the Wind and Forever Amber and the Angélique books, ancient Frank Yerby and Thomas B. Costain novels lurking in dusty library bookshelves like pirate treasure, my beloved Crawford of Lymond novels by the peerless Dorothy Dunnett. To this day I gobble up historical fiction with relish. Right now I am reading the mother of all historical novels (no pun intended), Eve by Elissa Elliott. It’s a beautiful and somewhat controversial book and a fascinating piece of time travel.

My life as a writer is a time traveler’s life. When I slip inside my characters and look out through their eyes, I’m away—in a Ferrarese castello, in a garden by the sea in sixteenth-century Scotland. I return almost reluctantly to the twenty-first century. I say “almost” because, for all the delights of the sixteenth century there are still modern necessities like clean hot running water, gleaming conveniences, air conditioning, and—of course—Ghirardelli chocolate.

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13 Jun There’s a Long Long Trail A-Winding

Happy trails to me...A Google trail, that is. I’m stealing an idea from my friend and fellow Shrinking Violet P.J. Hoover, and tracking my “Google Trail.” What have I been Googling this past week in the name of research?

  • Wildflowers of sixteenth-century Scotland
  • Pierre de Bocosel de Chastelard
  • Quatrains of Nostradamus
  • Lennoxlove House
  • Antoinette de Bourbon, Duchess of Guise
  • Battle of Corrichie
  • Clan Leslie

One of the great delights of writing historical fiction with sprinkles is that one can spend hours reading about the most fascinating bits and pieces of history and actually be working. Could there be any better job?

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01 Jun Hello, June

What have you seen and heard? What has been tucked away inside you?And look, there’s summer, right behind you. One of my summer projects (in addition to my wonderful new book that I’m madly in love with but don’t really want to talk about too much yet for fear of jinxing it) is refurbishing some beautiful old pieces of family furniture I’ve had in storage for years and years. I’m starting with this chest—four large drawers and then two small drawers on top. It dates back to about 1910, and as you can see, it has actual shelves inside for each drawer to rest on. Solid mahogany. Weighs a ton, as the Broadcasting Legend™ and our neighbor the Proud Father of Twins™ can attest, after wrestling it out of the storage unit, onto the truck, off the truck, and into our front foyer. My first step is to take out all the drawers and give it a good scrubbing with Murphy’s Oil Soap.

What has it seen, in the century or so of its life? What stories could it tell? I dream as I work on it. What was folded away in its drawers? One element of my new book is an object (not really a piece of furniture, but definitely a personal object) that passes through various hands and affects each person, on its way to its moment of destiny on the world stage, and then back to obscurity. What could be more intriguing? (Oh, and it has Nostradamus, too.)

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11 May The Séance by John Harwood

I just finished The Séance by John Harwood, and what a deliciously eldritch gothic tale it is. As a reader one must have a little patience through the first few chapters, but it all turns out to be important in the end and there are rewards to come. Constance Langton, orphaned and dependent on a single feckless uncle, unexpectedly inherits Wraxford Hall, a derelict manor house by the Sussex coast with—would you ever doubt it?—a dark history. A dark history entangled with Constance’s own past. Or is it her past? Told in multiple viewpoints and narratives, The Séance is like a crumbling scrapbook of mysterious apparitions, betrayal, blackmail and horror.

With a dreamlike photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron (see the post below on the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood) on its cover and the stuff of nightmares inside, The Séance brings late-Victorian England to effortless and mesmerizing life. One of the best books I’ve read so far this year.

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03 May The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood

My beloved Pre-Raphs are usually referred to as “The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood,” even though there were women peripherally associated with the group—the poet Christina Rossetti; the model, poet and artist Elizabeth Siddal; the model Jane Morris, the artist Marie Spartali Stillman; the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron come to mind. Here, however, is a way-cool website that turns the whole concept around:

The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood

…and focuses primarily on the women involved in, and inspired by, the Pre-Raphaelite movement. The site is full of tidbits (a “Lady of Shalott” film!) and dozens and dozens of gorgeous images. I often call myself a Post-Pre-Raphaelite, and this site is definitely going on my must-read list. When I “see” scenes from my writing, I almost always see them as intricately detailed, color-saturated, intensely romantic Pre-Raph-style images.

I suppose you could say (as Alec Baldwin does in those funny Hulu commercials) it’s just the way I roll.

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