Wednesday, 14 December 2011

More Christmas Fare

Browsing around, I found a wonderful description of a medieval Christmas feast, complete with links to other sites and recipes, at A Book of Gode Cookery.
Below are a couple of recipes in their modern versions; click on the links for the original. 

  • 4 cups honey
  • 1 lb. unseasoned bread crumbs
  • 1 tbs. each ginger & cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. ground white pepper
  • pinch saffron
  • whole cloves
Bring the honey to a boil and skim off any scum. Keeping the pan over very low heat, stir in the breadcrumbs and spices. When it is a thick, well-blended mass (add more bread crumbs if necessary), remove from heat & let cool slightly, then lay out on a flat surface & press firmly into an evenly shaped square or rectangle, about 3/4 of an inch thick. Let cool, then cut into small squares to serve. Garnish each square by sticking a whole clove in the top center. OPTION: add a few drops of red food coloring when adding the spices, "if thou wolt haue it Red."

  • 3 -4 pears, sliced
  • 3 cups red wine
  • 1 Tbs. cinnamon
  • 1 Tbs. sugar
  • 1 tsp. ginger
  • 2 Tbs. vinegar
  • few threads saffron
Boil pears until they just become tender; drain well. In a separate pot, bring wine and cinnamon to a boil, stirring well. Let cool, then strain. Bring wine back to a boil, then add the sugar, ginger, saffron, and vinegar, stirring until spices are dissolved. Add pears, and allow to cook for several minutes until they soften slightly and change color. Remove from heat. Serve hot or cold. Serves 4. 
This is essentially poached pears in wine, with a little vinegar added for sharpness. The period receipt advises to cook the pears first, then pare and cut them, but I find cutting and paring cooked pears a bit difficult, and prefer to pare and slice them before boiling. "Wardonys" or "Wardens" were a type of English pear not common today - feel free to substitute any slightly hard, not-too-sweet variety. Be sure that the final product is both "poynaunt" (piquant with vinegar) and "dowcet" (sweet).

Friday, 9 December 2011

Christmas Fare

 Where did the time go?  First Thanksgiving, and then Finals time at the university, and I realize it's been several weeks since I posted.  For the Christmas season, I thought I'd pass on some historical recipes in the next couple of weeks.  First, two treats from the Edwardian era:

This recipe makes a quick and lighter alternative to traditional Christmas cake. It can be decorated or left as it is

 4oz butter or margarine
 4oz soft brown sugar
 7oz mincemeat
 2 large free range eggs
 7oz self raising flour
 3 tbsp brandy/sherry
 7in deep round cake tin – lined

Pre-heat oven to 325F/160°C/gas mark 3. Cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Gradually add eggs, mincemeat and brandy.
Stir in flour until well mixed. Put mixture into lined cake tin and place in oven for 50 to 60 minutes.
Cake is cooked when a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean.
Cool completely on a wire rack.
It keeps for up to two weeks in an airtight container.

This can be served as a cold cake at tea time or warm as a pudding with custard

 8oz butter or margarine
8oz caster sugar
 10oz self raising flour
3 free range eggs
 1 medium orange
1 cup of cranberries (fresh or frozen)
 8in deep round cake tin – lined

Pre heated oven 350F/180°C/gas mark 4.Cream the sugar and butter together until light and fluffy, then add in the eggs and flour. Finely grate the rind from the orange and squeeze out the juice. Add both the rind and the juice to the cake mixture, stirring well. Now gently fold in the cranberries.
Place the mixture into the lined cake tin and bake fro 40 to 50 minutes.
When cool dust with icing sugar. This cake keeps for two to three days stored in a cool place in an airtight container

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Friday, 18 November 2011

History and Fiction

Thanks to author and critique partner Maggi Andersen for passing on this link: an interview with historical fiction authors Phillipa Gregory and Wayne Johnston on the topic of "truth, lies and historical fiction."  I'll get out of the way and let you enjoy it!

Friday, 4 November 2011

Blog News: English Historical Fiction Authors

Crossdressing women, ghostly chickens, riots in Georgian London, what to wear when you go shooting, feminist writers of the French Revolution: these are just a few of the topics covered thus far on the new blog, English Historical Fiction Authors.  The authors are an unusually eclectic bunch, publishing historical fiction of all genres, and in media from large presses to ebooks.  Men are also very well represented for a change!  And if that's not enough to get you to take a look, they even have a page for posts and short stories by readers.

Their blurb reads: 

Britain leaves us awed by ancient castles, palaces and museums. History pours out a legacy of battles, a developing monarchy, a structured class system, court-inspired behaviors and fashions, artwork and writings that have created an international hoard of Anglophiles. From among them have come forth those who feel that they must fuel the fire. Welcome to the happy home of English Period Authors. We have come together to share our historical work and to reach out to our appreciated readers.

I've added them to my blog list, and I think readers and writers of historical fiction will find them a useful and friendly resource.


Friday, 21 October 2011

The Man Who Outsold Dickens

Perhaps it’s a sign of a literary mid-life crisis that I’m finally getting around to reading minor classics that have been on my list for twenty years or so.  That, and the ease of downloading classics to my Nook for a couple of dollars.  Whatever the reason, over the past year I’ve read both The Woman in White and The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins – and I could barely put them down.

What puts Collins on my minor classic list is that, along with other authors I’ve reviewed, he could best be classed as a popular rather than a [classic] author.  Of all the fruits of his his forty-year writing career, only the two above-mentioned books are widely read, and only two others, Armadale and No Name receive much recognition.

Collins was famous – if not infamous – for his time.  He spent most of his life in liaisons with two women (simultaneously); his penchant for the sensational led him and his friend, Charles Dickens, into nights of “dissipation” on the streets of London and in brothels on the continent.  The Moonstone was written under the effects of laudanum, the only drug that offered him relief from several painful conditions that afflicted him for much of his adult life.  Like the physician Ezra Jennings in The Moonstone, this addiction caused him to suffer from terrifying hallucinations.

Collins struck up a friendship with the much older Charles Dickens at the instigation of the latter.  Dickens, it seems, recognized in Collins the creative drive and attraction to the seamier side of Victorian life in himself.  Dickens nurtured Collins’s career, publishing his work in his own magazines and helping him negotiate the publishing business.  The two eventually collaborated on a play, The Frozen Deep, about a woman’s two suitors flung together on an ill-fated trip to the Arctic (a plot which it is said gave Dickens the idea for A Tale of Two Cities).  However, Collins’s enormous financial and literary success rubbed his mentor the wrong way, and when he published The Moonstone, a book that outsold Great Expectations, Dickens testily complained that “the construction was beyond endurance.”

But to the novels themselves.  The Woman in White has a plot that hinges on stolen identity.  It begins with artist Walter Hartright’s mysterious encounter with a ghostly woman in white on Hampstead Heath.  On arriving at his new post in Limmeridge, he finds that his pupil, Laura Fairlie, bears an uncanny resemblance to this woman.  He finds himself falling in love with Laura, but she is pledged to Sir Percival Glyde.  When Walter flees to South America in hopes of forgetting his love, Laura is left in the hands of a husband desperate for money, and who, along with her uncle-in-law, Count Fosco, hatches a terrifying plan to gain her fortune.  Filled with melodrama, a full cast of conventional and unconventional heroes and villains, and captivating parallels in plot and character, The Woman in White delivers page after page.  And I have to add that Count Fosco is one of the most repulsive and fascinating villains I have ever come across in literature.

The Moonstone concerns the theft of the fabulous diamond of the book’s title.  Originally stolen from the forehead of a statue of an Indian moon-god, the stone arrives, along with a supposed curse, to England, only to be stolen again on the very night it is bequeathed to Rachel Verinder on her eighteenth birthday.  The list of suspects is long, the plot deftly twisted without ever quite being tied in a knot – and the truth had me guessing until the end of the novel.  The Moonstone is also notable for perhaps the first developed detective character in a British novel: the sharp-witted, rose-loving Sergeant Cuff.

Both novels are narrated in a manner that resembles a dossier on a crime, with each of several characters giving their story, or evidence.  With no single, controlling narrative voice to assure the reader of meaning, and no assurance that we are reading the truth from any one character, we are dragged along in fascinated compulsion to the end.

Like Collins himself, most of his works have been buried without ceremony.  Yet The Woman in White and the Moonstone remain as a fitting monument for the little man who caused such a big sensation in the Victorian literary world.

Friday, 30 September 2011

A Scottish Duo: new releases

A couple of new Scottish releases from authors I'm acquainted with.  First, Anita Davison, whose novel, Culloden Spirit, is published by Muse It Up.  Here's an edited blurb from her book - for more information, check out Anita's blog.

When Carrie's family takes a summer trip to her father’s ancestral home in the Scottish Highlands, her handsome Scottish cousin, Duncan McRae, takes an immediate dislike to Carrie, mainly due to her father’s plans to refurbish Cair Innes castle which is in need of extensive repair beyond the means of its present owner and resident, Iain McRae.

Carrie feels the vacation will be a disaster until she discovers a strange young man while exploring the derelict castle, However, she soon learns Ruairi McRae is not what he seems, and the battle he intends to fight was lost by his clan a hundred and fifty years before.

Will Carrie be able to accept that she cannot be part of Ruairi’s world? And when the Roma arrive to camp on Bucks Meadow as they do every summer, who is the beautiful gypsy girl Duncan won't talk about?

Also out this month is Jennifer Hudson Taylor's Highland Sanctuary, the second (but not sequel!) in her Highland series.  The first, Highland Blessings, was a find summer read for me last year.  If you like inspirational historical fiction, you should check out the goodies for offer in Jennifer's book launch contest, running on her blog until October 9th.  Her book blurb:
Gavin MacKenzie, a chieftain heir who is hired to restore the ancient Castle of Braigh, discovers a hidden village of outcasts who have created their own private sanctuary from the world. Among them is Serena Boyd, a mysterious and
comely lass, who captures Gavin’s heart in spite of harboring a deadly past that could destroy her future.

The villagers happen to be keeping an intriguing secret as well. When a fierce enemy launches an attack against them, greed leads to bitter betrayal. As Gavin prepares a defense, the villagers unite in a bold act of faith...

(P.S. I'm experimenting with a font that doesn't need to be huge print to read well on blogger, so bear with me!)

Friday, 23 September 2011

Housecarl and Cold Heart, Cruel Hand by Laurence J. Brown

Laurence Brown was the first author to introduce me to the fact that there are writers out there producing quality work – and doing it pretty successfully – without the backing of either an agent or a traditional publisher.  He’s also a gracious person who is always willing to share his experiences and advice with other writers.

His two novels follow the story of the Saxon warrior Ranulf, a member of King Harold Godwineson’s personal guard.  The first, Housecarl, follows the events of 1066, where the course of European history is changed in one month and three battles on English soil; Cold Heart, Cruel Hand traces the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings and Ranulf’s decision to join the rebellion of Hereward the Wake in a last bid for freedom for the Saxon people.  Laurence has a knack for bringing battles to life and recreating the real, human relationships of those who are barely even a footnote in English history.

Laurence drew inspiration from several sources, in particular, his father, who imparted a love of history, and an enthusiastic junior school teacher.  He recalls, “I remember our history teacher telling us about 1066 and the Norman invasion of England and showing us an extract from the Bayeux Tapestry depicting Harold's warriors lining the hill with their shields overlapping, their hedge of spears pointed menacingly at the Norman cavalry. I asked the teacher who they were and he said: ‘Those were Harold's housecarls, Laurence, the bravest warriors in Christendom.’”

I was pleased to catch up with Laurence and discover he is writing a third novel in the series, in fact a prequel, in which Ranulf, now an old man, recounts the story of how he came to be Harold’s champion.  It is something of a departure of style for me since Ranulf is narrating the tale himself,” he comments.  “In a sense his voice is mine, his thoughts, his character, is mine and it is both exciting and a little worrying - I don’t want to spoil the image that readers already have of him.”

Laurence’s books were first published by Paul Mould Publishing (Empire Books in the US), and are now also available as Kindle editions.  For more information, please visit his website.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Historical Fiction News

Some interesting news from the latest issue of The Historical Novels Review, a publication of the Historical Novel Society.  After a successful fifteen years of conferences, an excellent quarterly review of all new UK and US historical fiction, and a lively magazine, Solander, they are gearing up to become a web-based society.

Among changes touted by the society's founder, Richard Lee, will be daily updates of news and book reviews, facebook links and twitter feeds, and, eventually, a searchable database of all reviews.  Check out the current website for a taste of what is already on offer, including the online review that covers ebooks, non-conventional presses and self-published novels.

The two covers in this post are of the latest books I and my daughter reviewed for the society.  Click on the images to learn more.

Carrie Vaughn's Steel

Amit Mujmadar's Partitions

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Neglected classics: Ben Hur by Lew Wallace

Yes, you’ve seen the movie: you sat on the edge of your seat during the gruesome chariot race scene; you teared up when Charlton Heston’s mother and sister were healed; but have you ever read the book?

The story is that Lew Wallace was inspired to write Ben Hur after a train journey in the company of a well-known religious skeptic.  He was so ashamed of his ignorance of his own faith that he resolved to investigate the political, social and historical origins of Christianity.  The result became a best-selling novel whose reign of over fifty years (in the US) was only toppled by Gone With The Wind.

The novel’s centre is a classic revenge plot.  The Jew, Judah Ben Hur, is betrayed by a Roman childhood friend and sentenced to life as a galley slave.  When he finally escapes this fate, he returns to Jerusalem, where he is presumed dead, and embarks on a path of revenge, not just for his family, but for his people.  He is all too ready to embrace a Messiah; he has no need of a saviour…
A thread in the story I particularly enjoyed is a reimagining of the journeys of the Three Wise Men, and in particular, the lifelong quest of Balthasar to make sense of what he witnessed so many years ago.

Whatever your views about current Christian fiction, Ben Hur deserves credit for helping to soften clerical opposition to novels, and the early stage and screen versions tempted many American Christians to their first taste of these other media. 

I made my daughter read Ben Hur when we were homeschooling one semester in Slovenia.  She started off resenting it (and me), but by the end she had to admit to enjoying it.  I’m not claiming it’s a masterpiece of literature.  At times, I found this substantial novel pretty slow going, but at others I was gripped or fascinated.  If you’re interested in the stories of the Bible, you’ll find this an absorbing and refreshing alternative view of events surrounding the gospels.  If you homeschool, this is a great way to teach the history of the period (as I did).  And if you’re a writer of historical fiction, you may learn a thing or two about integrating fictional and real-life events—and a little more about standards of scholarship we could all do to emulate.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Self-published Historical Fiction

 Part Two - A reader's guide
In my previous post, I tried to make a case for respecting and embracing self-published historical fiction.  If you find yourself interested in exploring self-published historical fiction (often lumped with small publishers as ‘indie’), here are some suggestions to get started.  All these links are those I am familiar with or have been recommended through other authors – perhaps they’ll lead you to others.

  • The Historical Novel Society will not review self-published books in its printed review, mainly from lack of space (ebooks are also not reviewed in print).  However, they do consider them for their online review.  Reviewers (like me!) are unpaid and are supposed to abide by a code of conduct that includes no contact with authors of the books they review.

  • A site that gets you straight to indie authors in this genre is Historical Fiction ebooks, found at  Authors become part of this network by invitation only.

  • Another popular site is, which has both ebook and historical fiction pages.

  • The Independent Author Network is a good resource for readers as well as writers, though it’s open to any independent author who makes heavy use of social networking tools (OK, for me heavy means they tweet!).  Their Avid Reader’s Café offers recommendations for what they consider the best in indie publishing.

A few author sites you may wish to check out include:

  • Mirella Patzer, who helped me with suggestions for this post, writes historical women's fiction, often with an Italian setting.  She also reviews historical novels, including self-published ones, on her website, History and Women.

  • Lisa Yarde, at one time a member of my critique group.  I don’t know her personally, but I often see her comments on Facebook via my author friends!  She has written several medieval novels.

  • M. Louisa Locke.  An example of how far you can get with self published fiction, Locke has been a Kindle bestseller with her Victorian mystery series set in San Francisco.

Looking further into this topic both whetted my appetite for discovering gems that fit the scope of my blog (books outside the mainstream) and encouraged me not to dismiss self-publishing as an option for my own work.  I hope it does the same for you.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Self-published Historical Fiction

Part One:  My Rant An Overview

“More and more authors,” says Mirella Patzer, “are choosing the self-publishing route.”  In fact, I turned first to Mirella when compiling this post because she’s a historical fiction author whose work I love – but who chose self-publishing over traditional methods.  Yet, when the topic came up amongst my online critique group, opinions on both sides were strong.  Why then, would historical fiction authors choose to self-publish, and what are the advantages for readers of the genre?

It’s easy to dismiss those who self publish as vanity authors, but in fact they follow in some august footsteps.  Authors who began, or continued, by self-publishing include Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, James Joyce Virginia Woolf, Margaret Atwood and John Grisham.  And you may not know that the queen of American style guides, The Elements of Style, was first self-published! Yes, people self-publish badly written books, but who among us has not at one time or another read a book published by one of the big publishers that left us wondering how on earth it got into print?

And talking of big publishers, it’s no secret among writers that most changes in publishing houses have not been to the advantage of the author.  Tasks from editing to publicity can now be put on the author’s back.  The decline of the copy editor in particular has been very noticeable to me.  Ten years ago, it was rare to find a typo in a book; now, I see them with an alarming frequency.  Independent author Kristine Kathryn Rusch takes an in-depth and somewhat alarming look at the wider subject in her blog The Business Rusch.

True, historical fiction is doing pretty well in a time when readers are choosing genres that take them away from reminders of the present economic decline.  However, historical fiction authors can themselves be the victims of the present day: agents and editors, afraid to take risks, can push for more formulaic writing; publishers drop established mid list authors in favour of pursuing the next big thing; publishing companies fold overnight.  Almost every author I know, including myself, has either personally suffered one of these setbacks or known others who have.  Little wonder then, that many follow the heroes and heroines of their own books in taking control of the situation.

Why should we automatically turn up our noses at self-published historical fiction?  The author has chosen to go into business for herself.  If she were making and selling clothes, we wouldn’t dismiss her because she wasn’t working for a fashion house – we’d see if we liked her product.  Perhaps we need to ask why books have this snob value. 

The new force in self-publishing is, of course, the ebook.  Now that e-readers aren’t just for the likes of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, authors can take advantage of the low overheads and get their work out to readers at competitive prices.  However, this isn’t true when it comes to self-publishing the traditional way, where the cost of a softback is almost as much as a hardback, a difficult hurdle for an author who is trying to build up a readership.

Even established authors have been choosing to take control of their back lists, using the flexibility of ebooks to self-publish out of print titles.  An example would be historical fiction author Kathy Lynn Emerson, who has partnered with other professional authors on the site A Writer’s Work to offer both previously published and original work in ebook format at extremely low prices.

To sum up the advantages of self-publishing: authors get control of their work, the opportunity to build up an audience with lower overheads, and the chance to continue to profit from their back lists.  Readers get a wider choice and cheaper books.  So, how do we get the two together?  In the second part of this post, I’ll review some of the ways readers can sift through the chaff and find quality self-published historical fiction.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Neglected classics: The Mysteries of Udolpho

Ann Radcliffe
Proof (if proof is needed) that I really am a nerd is made manifest in my response to the Twilight/vampire/gothic phenomena of recent years.  I did eventually read Twilight at the urging of my teenage daughter, but my response was not to devour the rest of the series, but to at last fulfill an intention I’ve had for the past twenty years, to finally read some of the original, eighteenth century gothic novels.  Although I blogged previously on The Monk, the first true gothic novel I read was Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho, satirized by Jane Austen refers to in  Northanger Abbey.    

The heroine, Emily, left orphaned and at the mercy of uncaring relatives, is forced to leave the man she loves and travel with her guardian aunt (who has made a rash marriage) to Italy: first Venice and then the remote Castle Udolpho.  In between resisting her aunt’s husband’s attempts to sell her to the highest bidder, she seeks to unravel the mystery concerning her dead father’s connection to a supposedly murdered Marchioness, who was once an inhabitant of the castle.

This is a typical, peripatetic and lengthy eighteenth century volume.  One of the chief things it did was to remind me once more of Austen’s own achievement in launching her pithy, domestic novels on the world.  The lengthy travelogues (although making a point about finding meaning and consolation in the divinely created world) can be tiring, as can the poems, and the deus ex machina ending was quite a disappointment to me.  The element of horror is subdued; there is almost a humour in the way Radcliffe leads the readers to the brink of horrific discoveries time and again, only to draw back. 

What the novel does highlight, though, is the plight of young women of the upper classes dependent on their guardians’ whims.  Emily is often left physically helpless, and only survives through the philosophy of self control imparted by her father before his death.  Although historically interesting, I think The Mysteries of Udolpho is best read if you are already familiar with novels of this period, or you may find the style offputting.