Research and the Author – Clothes Maketh Man

Why would anyone with any shred of sanity worry about researching clothes for a romantic novel set in the present day? Everyone knows what jeans look like. Everyone has a clue about the difference between polyester and wool. You can use adjectives to get the effect without fussing around the internet. After all, describing someone sliding sensuously out of an expensive silk blouse conveys plenty without having to study Vogue back issues for the last thirty years. I do not need to know the life cycle of the silkworm, the difference between chemical and plant dyes or pattern cutting techniques from 1932.

This is particularly important when you remember the point of research. The reason for research is to stop an author looking like an idiot. Surely the best thing from this point of view is to describe someone wearing a well cut warm woollen coat and not worry if it’s Hermes or Dolce & Gabbana. Okay, I did a little research on that last sentence. I buy my clothes from the supermarket and I have no idea what brands are good for coats. I was thinking about Kurt looking manly in a warm coat over his sweater, t-shirt and jeans, striding in his work boots, so I looked on eBay (other online auction sites are available), sorted by most expensive and picked two names. Looking at some of the fancy coats on there, I can’t see Kurt picking many of them, especially if he’s a motor mechanic. There would be too much of a risk of getting them dirty.  

The only reason I can think of to research clothing is if it’s important to the plot. Sane people would say that you don’t start a plot without knowing the background information. However there are far too many authors like me who get ambushed by plots with no idea about the detail and suddenly I’m trying to work out what an accountant does. Besides, I write about werewolves and vampires and I have no personal experience with either of them. If a story is knocking at your attention, you have to write it and research as you go. So let’s think about clothes in a modern day plot. The last time we saw Kurt and Gwendolyn in Machias, Maine, they were bumping into each other as she went to the post office while he was visiting the grave of his ancestor. Why would clothes matter?

Okay, let’s float some ideas. Kurt was visiting the grave of his great-great-grandfather. After Pearl Harbour, Kurt’s grandfather visited that grave before going off to Europe. Kurt’s grandfather had told his grandmother that he had just discovered the secret to a treasure, and that he would share everything when he came back. Perhaps something was hidden on the grave? I’m not sure about that. What would last in a grave? Wonderful things have been dug up on archaeological sites, but they’re the exception. As this article is about researching fashion – what clothing would last on a grave for eighty years?

I thought about belt buckles. Perhaps old Grandpa Kurt scratched some information into a distinctive belt buckle. I had a look on eBay.com and lost a few hours of time. This sent my imagination off in several directions – a benefit of research when writing an actual story but sort of inconvenient here. After a strong cup of tea, I got back on track (more or less).

I had gone with the idea of designer clothes being useful in a plot, but the quick rummage I had showed me that there were far more uses of clothing than that. To my surprise, I found listings for some civil war belts on US eBay.com. A belt buckle would have a chance if it was hidden in a grave, especially if it was buried in a tin or well wrapped in oiled leather. My mind raced – how about… During the Civil War, a ship smuggling gold from the Confederate States to Canada to pay for war materials was shipwrecked on the coast of Maine. I’ve only seen the coast of Maine on Google Maps but it looks like a tricky place to sail. The gold was brought ashore and hidden, but the Confederate sailors died of fevers and injuries before they could retrieve it and take it to their contacts on Nova Scotia. Grandpa Kurt found it, years later, but had to leave for Europe before he could do anything with it. He scratched information on the back of a belt buckle that he found with the gold and left it in the grave, well wrapped up. That sounds like a great adventure.

Meanwhile, Gwendolyn can’t be left out. She’s unpacking a box of books left to the library by an elderly widow. There are some valuable first editions, some trashy novels and a small box. Inside there is a beautiful silk scarf wrapped around a scrimshaw broach. Grandpa Kurt sent back a fancy scarf when he made it to Paris in 1944. It couldn’t be Dolce & Gabbana because, according to their website, they weren’t founded until 1985 and Chanel closed during World War II, apart from perfumes and accessories (which could include scarves, I suppose). Hermes started producing scarves in 1937 which would make the scarf perfect for a soldier to send back to his loved ones in 1944 after the liberation of Paris. And the scrimshaw broach, also thrown up on eBay during the same search, could be a picture of the ship that smuggled the gold, scratched into a walrus tusk and set into a broach. She’d have to return something as expensive as that and, by coincidence, it came from the house that Kurt recently inherited. Little does Gwendolyn know that she’s about to meet up with that handsome hunk she bumped into on the way to the post office – the one she can’t get out of her mind…

And all of that came from looking up some stuff about clothes.

I should add, this shows my bias towards adventure and older things. But there are other ways that clothes can add to the plot. For example, who is the love rival who left the expensive Chanel scarf in Kurt’s pickup truck for Gwendolyn to find? Does Kurt’s Gucci belt mean that he came from wealth and is suddenly poor? Or is he hiding his money? And does the Versace dress that Gwendolyn found in a thrift shop lead to a mystery about a disappearing woman? These examples show that sometimes it’s worth worrying about the details as they can really boost the plot. For now, I think that I’ll stick with the Confederate gold, but who knows what may come up next?

Next time I’m going to talk about the sort of clothes and clothing that could affect the story as Lord Kurt and Miss Gwendolyn chase the dastardly vampire Count Dominic through London and beyond.  

You can find the rest of the posts on this here – Research and the Author, Collected Posts

Research and the Author – Fantasy Locations

In the previous articles, I’ve looked at researching locations for the modern world and in the nineteenth century. That should be fairly straightforward – you can look things up and find things out. Perhaps you can even get inspiration. You can’t do that for fantasy, at least not in the same way. I mean, if you’re making up a world with dwarves, elves, dragons and goblins, surely you can’t research a location? You underestimate the madness of this research junkie.

Image from Unsplash, taken by Dan Dimmock as I’m not ready to share the sad pile of scraps of paper that are my researchhttps://unsplash.com/photos/3mt71MKGjQ0

Why Do Research for Fantasy?

I am incredibly lazy. If I’m working with a fantasy location, I don’t want to work too hard trying to remember what I’ve set up. And that is why I use a little research to pin things down. My fantasy novel, King’s Silver isn’t currently in print, but while I may have sketched out a rough idea of what was where on the back of an envelope, I used ideas from modern locations if I was trying to work out things like weather, sunset times, landscapes, food etc. I have never had a lesson in geography in any classroom (there were a few issues with my education) so I don’t feel able to use ‘proper’ geography. However I can look at places in our world and take ideas from that. And if I get it wrong, I can say that it’s meant to be like that in my world

If I use a location from our world as a benchmark, I don’t need to worry about inventing too much. If I want a world with mighty quests from frozen tundra to steamy jungles I need to look at a place perhaps like Samarkand. It was one of the great cities on the Silk Road and so you could go north to the Russian steppe, south over the mountains to the jungles of India, east to the ancient and isolated civilisation of China or you could go west to the green and busy lands of Europe. You don’t have to use those particular routes. What you can do is have a quick check to see the sort of weather that Samarkand has, the seasons, sunset times, local wildlife and even local food. That can be imported wholesale into the fantasy city of Tarsh or could be used as a starting point. You don’t have to worry about building something from scratch.

For example, it’s 10th November (or the fantasy equivalent – there’s a calendar creator on rollforfantasy.com) so Kurt the Barbarian knows that the days are getting shorter and the longest night will soon be here. As the sun sets at 5.21pm (or the fantasy equivalent), Kurt the Barbarian pulls his cloak around him. It’s made of the fur of a Himalayan brown bear he hunted nearby and killed with his own hands. The weather is cool and dry, with a light wind ruffling his long hair and he is glad that Gwendolyn the Healer has a new cloak made from Angora wool from the local goats. She is back in their dwelling preparing a meal of rice with beef, mutton or goat and dried fruit, seasoned with exotic spices (I checked Samarkand cookery and the food looks amazing. I also checked on the wildlife in the area, Uzbekistan, and found a site that included mountain goats, ravens and ceratopsian dinosaurs. The dinosaurs caused some concern but perhaps it could be a plot hook).

Perhaps you want something a little more intimate. It could be a mystery set in a small town, perhaps with a feel of Tolkien’s Shire. Tolkien was an Oxford Professor, so let’s look at that. Sunset on 10th November in Oxford, England is at 4.22pm, and the rain is falling steadily in the chilly air. Kurt the Barbarian’s fur cloak is made from the pelts of wolves that he hunted alone in the wildlands but Gwendolyn the Healer has a cloak made of good local wool from the many sheep on the mountains to the west. She’s preparing a meal from bacon, barley and split peas.

On the other hand, you could consider something more maritime. I’ve randomly picked a date of 1200CE for the time to keep things consistent. There’s no reason why you can’t use the knowledge and inventions of, say, Oxford at 1200CE but the climate and general geography (altered to fit your plot) of the Caribbean. Kurt the Seafaring Barbarian has sailed into the harbour of the equivalent of Havana, grateful to be home as the storm season is ending. The sun sets slowly at the fantasy equivalent of 5.46pm and as the weather is warm, Kurt the Seafaring Barbarian has no need for more than his cotton tunic as he strides through the narrow streets to where Gwendolyn the Healer is preparing a pork stew, spicy with chillies and served with cornbread. As an aside, I thought cotton wasn’t indigenous to the Americas, but I checked just in case and the earliest fragment known comes from Mexico, closely followed by Pakistan. I love learning new things.

All of this information has been freely available and instead of trying to remember what I decided about the food or local animals, I can just refer back. I’m not doing this as a research project and I’m not getting marked for accuracy. If I say that there are tomatoes in a Medieval European setting in my world, then let there be swathes of tomatoes, because this is a fantasy world and as long as I keep things consistent, it doesn’t matter. In my flawed view, consistency helps the reader settle down into the plot and enjoy things. If Kurt the Barbarian hands Gwendolyn the Healer some chillies as a rare and exotic spice, then they shouldn’t be sold by the bucket in every small marketplace in the next chapter – unless it’s part of the plot.

And if you enjoy creating worlds with all the fun of plotting rivers and mountains and telling the story of why things as they are – go for it! If the setting is based on Ancient Rome but you have potatoes (introduced to Europe in the sixteenth century and long after the fall of Rome), then let them have fries by the bucketful! It’s your world and your story and the heck with anything else. I’d love you to share your world with me. And I’d love to hear any comments on thoughts of my ramblings on this matter – all are welcome.

You can find the rest of the posts on this here – Research and the Author, Collected Posts

Research and the Author: Location and the Lost City

This is another part of my series about Research and the Author. I’ve talked about time and variable sunsets, finding information about an unfamiliar location 3000 miles away and some of the pitfalls around places in Victorian London. This week, I’m taking Lord Kurt and Miss Gwendolyn out of Victorian London as they chase the vampiric Count Dominic.

For convenience, the date is the same 10th November 1875. It’s still useful to keep this in mind as a date can make all the difference. For example, if Count Dominic is preying on the people of the East Coast of the United States then it’s good to have the detail. Railways were being built, towns were being founded and the Mississippi River changed course dramatically at Vicksburg in April 1876. And while it will be obvious to any Americans reading that not all of the states in the USA came into being at the same time, it’s good for the rest of us to remember that in 1875 while Nebraska was a state, Colorado wasn’t quite there yet and became a state 1st August 1876.

And it’s also good to put in a reminder that this is fiction. The story is about two valiant vampire hunters and a vampire. It’s not about real things. If the research gets in the way of a good story, junk the research.

Let’s start with Count Dominic. He’s leaving London for places abroad – but where? There were a lot of options from London which was at the heart of a huge communications network at the time. If he was heading to Canada or the United States he could sail from Liverpool. The main train line to Liverpool from London has its terminus at Euston Station, London. If the dastardly count was headed to Europe, he would head for either Charing Cross or Victoria to get one of the boat trains that are organised to take passengers from London to places like Amsterdam, Brussels or Paris. Paris would be the perfect place to catch the luxurious Orient Express, but it didn’t start until 1883.

The real problem with research is that it can take you to strange places. I can’t even remember what I was looking for, but I found that for most of the nineteenth century, maps of Africa included a mountain range called The Mountains of Kong. It’s a wonderful name, deep in the jungles and forests of West Africa, near the source of the Niger River and close to the relatively well known Ivory Coast and Gold Coast. I have an atlas that I inherited from my great great aunt

which she dated 1898 but which I suspect was printed earlier. It has this map.

And if you zoom in, you can see the mountains – very faintly.

A comment from OneVikingGirl, who has a Baedeker, has left me deeply envious as I would love something so informative about travel at the time. I purchased a Times Gazetteer of the World 1899 edition a few years back. I bought it from eBay when under the influence of alcohol and it cost a fortune in postage.

I checked if it had a reference to the Mountains of Kong, and it did – it reported that it was a mistake, that someone had once believed that the mountains were there but in 1899 people knew the Mountains of Kong didn’t exist. At least, those with up to date maps. And those who thought that the new maps were just hiding a great lost city stuffed with gold. Or those who had heard travellers’ tales about these Mountains.

People love strange travellers’ tales. Back in the Middle Ages, stories of Prester John told tales about lands with dog headed men and people without souls. The conquistadors and adventurers who sailed to Central and South America came back with stories of El Dorado and Pirate Islands. The nineteenth century was no exception, and as more and more people became literate and had access to books and libraries, those tales were in desperate demand. Around the World in Eighty Days, published in 1872, was incredibly popular and there are five separate versions in Project Gutenberg. Later books in the same adventuring flavour are King Solomon’s Mines (1885) by H Rider Haggard, The Lost World (1912) by Arthur Conan Doyle and Tarzan of the Apes (also 1912) by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I read Tarzan of the Apes when I was far too young to deal with the racism, misogyny and dubious interpretation of the Theory of Evolution. I loved the adventure, though, and wondered about lost cities, forgotten kingdoms and strange worlds. If you are taking the flavour of an adventure, perhaps it’s good to remember that while everyone loves an adventure story, some ideas need to stay firmly in the past.

Now that I know that there is a reference to fabled and non-existent mountains, I have to send Lord Kurt and Miss Gwendolyn there. How could I resist? I know that boats sail from Southampton to South Africa at the time, where diamonds were discovered in 1867 (gold was discovered later) so there would be ships along the West Coast of Africa. Some may have called in to supply missionaries, traders and forts along the coast. Looking at a grossly inappropriately named map which you can find here, but I feel uncomfortable sharing, even if it was normal to use those terms back in 1736

The mountains shown at the top appear to be the fabled Mountains of Kong. They aren’t labelled but there are no mountains in that area on the current Google Maps. Looking at the combination of this elderly map and current Google maps, the best course of action, from my point of view, is to get a ship to St Louis in Senegal which was a French colony at the time. Then Lord Kurt and Miss Gwendolyn could sail along the Senegal River to where it joins the Niger River, and then, at the right moment, head north to the mountains, no doubt silhouetted against the tropical evening sky.

Image from WikiCommons in the public domain and a wonderful pic of the actual Senegal River near St-Louis

St-Louis is near the Tropic of Cancer and going back to the old variable sunset, the sunset on 10th November is 6.33pm, no doubt hauntingly beautiful and strange to the English lord and his awestruck companion. Looking at weather averages for St-Louis, it is going to be hot but dry. Rain rarely falls during November and the temperature range is from 21C to 34C but is most likely around 28C or 82F. It isn’t exactly the depths of the Sahara Desert, but it’s an arid, hot area. It’s hard to imagine a vampire heading to a desert. Apart from anything else, prey would be scarce for the bloodthirsty Count Dominic. My research has led me down a dead end street. I love those mountains, but I can’t imagine sending a vampire there. Perhaps they may go back later for a different adventure. As it is, this is a great example of too much research leading the story astray. It won’t work.

For now, Lord Kurt and Miss Gwendolyn arrive at Southampton only to find that the dastardly count has misled them. He’s not heading to those fabled, deserted mountains. He’s headed somewhere else. That mission can wait. Next week I’ll share some ideas of locations for Kurt the Barbarian and Gwendolyn the Healer in the fantasy city of Tarsh.

You can find the rest of the posts on this here – Research and the Author, Collected Posts

Research and the Author – Ye Olde Location: Victorian London

In the first of this series on research, I wrote about the manly Kurt and the sweet Gwendolyn in three different settings. The first was a modern day romance, the second was Victorian vampire hunters and the third was a fantasy adventure and I talked about how timings like sunset could vary and why keeping it consistent could support the plot. After all, if Kurt is escorting Gwendolyn through autumnal fallen leaves on Monday, it needs a very good reason for him to be meeting her under spring blossom on Tuesday.

In the second of this series, I had a quick browse around an unfamiliar location where Kurt and Gwendolyn could enjoy a gentle romance in a current setting. It’s unnervingly easy to find out menus for restaurants that are around 3000 miles away.

This time I want to write about the issues an author can have if they’re writing alternative history, such as steampunk. If you are an author writing an historically accurate work then you already know far more about research than I do. In those settings, details matter. However, in alternative history, it’s not quite as important to be immaculately correct. Instead, the author can insist that the detail may not apply to our world, but it’s like that in his work of fiction. There are pitfalls, however, when writing about the past, and it’s worth being aware.

In the first article, our heroes were chasing vampires in the foggy heart of London in 1875, and I’ll keep to that. And the first important note is that modern maps can’t be completely trusted. If you look at an online map of London today, you can see all sorts of details about roads and houses and features. It’s a great resource if you are going to visit, and a lot of London is exactly the same as it always was. The Tower of London is in the same place that William the Conqueror left it, and Buckingham Palace is still suffering bad feng sui at the end of the Mall. However a lot has happened to the city between 1875 and now. London was badly affected by bombing between 1940 and 1945, but it was even more damaged by the reconstruction, urban renewal and modern architecture that followed. If a detail of a road or building is important to the story, it’s best to check that things were the same back in 1875.

Let’s set the scene. It’s 10th November 1875. The fog is falling heavily and the streets are shrouded in a typical London Peasouper. Our valiant vampire hunters are stalking the bloodthirsty Count Dominic through the lamplit streets. Count Dominic sweeps his way out of a theatre where he has been charming the lords and ladies of high society and heads for the sordid slums of the East End of London. There are a number of contemporary maps around for London online but I’m going to use current Google Maps (other online maps are available) for ease of reference and to avoid getting sucked down my usual rabbit holes of research. I don’t know London well in real life, but I’m not letting that stop me.

Embarrassingly, I wasn’t sure where exactly the West End of London was in relation to the East End, so I put ‘West End, London’ into the search bar and found it. According to the map, it’s near the Ritz, the Savoy and the Embankment and includes Covent Garden and Soho. As this is not an exam under test conditions, I’m not going to stick rigidly to the area shown by the map, but it’s a start. I zoomed in and looked for theatres. The Garrick Theatre looked promising, but according to its website, it wasn’t opened until 1889. As this is fiction with vampires, I don’t have to stick to that. However, the reason I stick to things like dates is so that if I go back to theatres later on in the story, I don’t need to remember which ones I’ve made up, which ones I’ve opened ‘early’ and where I’ve put the dratted things. I can just quickly check online on the sites and move on. It’s laziness, but it’s also efficient.

I scrolled around a little more and found the Lyceum Theatre. This was a little better, as it had been on or near that spot since 1765. I had a quick look at the website, then went on to Wikipedia. That’s when I realised that I had been lucky. Not only did it talk about the famous Victorian actor, Henry Irving, being resident at the theatre, but Bram Stoker was a business manager there. The author of Dracula worked at that theatre! Now that I know that snippet, I have to use the Lyceum Theatre. According to Wikipedia, Bram Stoker started work there in 1878, three years after Lord Kurt and Miss Gwendolyn are creeping through dark places, but perhaps he heard stories. Or I can fudge the dates as long as I remember what I’ve done. Looking around for locations has helped with plot and story ideas and that’s the useful side of research.

Back to the locations – how far is it from the Lyceum Theatre to, say, Whitechapel? It’s around three miles, which isn’t very far, certainly not for the vampiric Count Dominic. But if it’s a dark, foggy night with the cold creeping in, it’s quite a way for the intrepid Lord Kurt and the dauntless Miss Gwendolyn. They could get a hansom cab, but would a cab driver be willing to take them down Whitechapel Road at that time of night? If it’s useful for the story, then Lord Kurt and Miss Gwendolyn can absolutely rattle through the dark streets behind a horse and driver. But perhaps they take the Underground with trains running underneath London?

Trains are tricky. Lots of people are really keen on trains and are willing to share their knowledge with the flimsiest of excuses. If you get details about trains wrong without a good reason in the plot, there may be complaints. The nearest underground station to the Lyceum Theatre is the Temple, and Lord Kurt could stride in and purchase tickets there without any problem as it opened in 1870. If he wanted to go to Whitechapel Station, however, he would have something of a wait as it didn’t open until 1884. It’s going to have to be a chase by hansom cab.

The slums of the East End of London were notoriously cramped, crowded and difficult to navigate, full of alleys and small yards. I personally wouldn’t try and use the exact streets of the East End in fiction. The chances of getting things wrong are a little too high for me even if I could find a decent map of the correct date, and it would take far too long to be completely accurate. Instead, I would focus on the things that I know that I could get wrong and that people would easily notice. That includes things like – is Whitechapel north or south of the River Thames? If Miss Gwendolyn is searching through documents in the British Museum (Reading Room opened in 1857), is it easy for Lord Kurt to hurry back to her from a meeting with a German professor, Dr Ernst Baum, at the Reform Club (the starting point of Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne, published in 1872).

And taking inspiration from Jules Verne, perhaps Dr Baum has news that Count Dominic has left London and travelled abroad for his own dark reasons. In the next article, I’ll discuss the pitfalls of charting Lord Kurt and Miss Gwendolyn’s journey away from the well-trodden paths of Victorian London and into the wider world.

I’d love to hear what you think, and if I’ve made any mistakes I would seriously love to know as it will help me learn. Thank you for reading and I hope that you enjoyed this

You can find the rest of the posts on this here – Research and the Author, Collected Posts

Websites used for this article

Wikipedia

List of London Underground Stations

Google Maps

Lyceum Theatre, London

The History of London

List of German Baby Names of the 1890s which I thought was near enough

Research and the Author – Location, Location, Location

In the last post, I talked about Gwendolyn, our soft and sweet heroine, and Kurt, our strong jawed hero, meeting at a very variable sunset. You can read about it here, as I discussed the effect time could have on their meetings. Now let’s talk about place.

I feel more comfortable describing places that I know or are close to what I know. For the purposes of this article, however, I’m going to push outside my comfort zone and show how I pursue research in unfamiliar places. But let’s keep to the sweet Gwendolyn and the manly Kurt.

Starting with the modern day romance, let’s head to the United States. I’ve never been and I don’t expect I’ll be lucky enough to travel there in the near future, so I’m almost going in blind. I’ve picked up bits from films, tv, social media and books, so I have a place to start and it could be worse. This is a great point to find all the bits that I’ve got wrong and point them out in a kindly way.

I thought I’d pick a place in Maine and randomly chose Machias as a reference point. Because I’m unfamiliar with the area and don’t want to get into trouble, I’m going to give a fake name but use the town as a starting point to look up climate, sunset times, seasons, languages and all that fun stuff. I’ll use Morley as the name of the town, picked at random after a quick check on the internet to make sure that there isn’t actually a place called Morley, Maine, USA. As in the last article, we’ll use 10th November as a starting point as Gwendolyn first meets Kurt at sunset. Sunset at East Machias (just down the road from Machias, and a point on the Time and Date website but with far fewer houses) on 10th November is 4.06pm so Gwendolyn has just popped out from her work at the local library as it starts to get dark.

The local library has been in existence since the early 1800s according to its website, with the first catalogue printed in 1843. As an author who breaks out in supernatural unless I’m very careful, having old and possibly haunted things around is useful. There doesn’t seem to be many staff according to the website but I’m writing fiction so Gwendolyn has left her good friend Becky in charge as she leaves to do something – but what? I’ve checked the map on Google (other internet maps are available) and there is a USPS post office right across the street. Gwendolyn is obviously picking up a parcel for the library. By checking the map I’ve given Gwendolyn a reason to be crossing the road around the time of sunset to bump into the manly Kurt, and the delay of their first encounter means that she misses the pick up time at the post office (closes at 4pm according to their website). This gives me conflict and interactions to play with straight away.

Kurt has just bought a local auto repair shop and has called into town. Checking on the map, there is a cemetery a little further down the road. Perhaps he was on his way there to visit the grave of an ancestor when he bumped into Gwendolyn for the first time and was dazzled by her loveliness. He may wonder if he could see her again and if so, where could he take her on a date? According to the local Chamber of Commerce, there are no festivals on in November (the Wine and Beer Tasting Festival in October looks fun, though) but there is a local Chinese restaurant that does Shrimp Lo Mein for $13 which may be good.

Just by picking a location, having a rummage around and playing with ideas I have found all sorts of possible starts to a story. What is more, I’ve found out all this information without leaving my very comfortable chair at my home in Leeds. You should never put the research and detail before the story. If you feel that Kurt would like to take Gwendolyn to an Italian restaurant but can’t find one on the map – invent it! You are telling a story, not swearing an oath in court. The story always comes first. However, if you take time to look around a location, it can be a wonderful boost to the start of a story and a great store of inspiration.

I’ll go into historical locations in the next article.

You can find the rest of the posts on this here – Research and the Author, Collected Posts

Sites that I used for research

Google Maps

Machais Post Office

Porter Memorial Library

Machias Chamber of Commerce

Time and Date

Hing Garden Restaurant

History Has Turned a Page

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has died. May she rest in peace. And may her son, King Charles III, be blessed and follow in her footsteps.

A woman who has worked so hard, and taken service as her watchword for so long has left us. Her son, who was passionate about the countryside and environment long before it was fashionable and has worked through agencies such as The Prince’s Trust to try and make lives better, now has to step into her place, whether he would or not.

As a UK citizen and a human being, I am saddened, lost and feeling adrift. As a writer, I recognise the cold relentless logic of the succession to the Crown. As a realist, I recognise that the country will be full of confusion and complicated feelings at a time that is already trying. As an unimportant person, I ask that people are kind to each other as a pillar of the foundation of our country is shaken.

I am a small, insignificant member of the realm. I still send my deepest, sincerest condolences and my prayers. May Her Majesty rest in peace. God Save the King.

Do Werewolves Eat Dog Biscuits?

I need to consider the sites I subscribe to. I mean, I quite like knowing that today is (probably) an anniversary of the first Bible printed at Gutenberg in 1455 and that it’s also the anniversary of the siege of the Alamo. I just worry that I am too easily distracted. I also worry about my priorities as my attention has been mainly caught by the idea of National Dog Biscuit Day.

I don’t have a dog but I’ve occasionally bought hand baked, artisan treats or supermarket snacks for my brother’s dogs. I’m always bewildered by the choice. And then I start wondering – do werewolves eat dog treats.

I suppose it depends on the werewolf type. If it was a werewolf from something like An American Werewolf in London then I don’t suppose that they have much opportunity. They would be too busy ravening and rending to bother much with the supermarket own brand meaty snacks or hide chews. On the other hand, the werewolves from my world that you find in The White Hart are quite happy to snack on the good stuff, even in human form.

As an aside, I did have a quick internet search about whether humans could eat dog biscuits. On the whole, I don’t personally recommend it. Most of the sources said something along the lines of, ‘if you must then it probably won’t kill you’. There were far more articles about why dog biscuits are bad for dogs.

But going back to werewolves, would their shopping basket have washing up liquid, a bag of potatoes, some sausages and a family pack of kibble? Would they make the choice to have value brand soap so that they can get top of the range meaty bites? Or would it be something that they could knock up in their own kitchen between full moons?

I found a recipe for homemade dog biscuits here. I’m not sure about icing them, but they look inoffensive and would be okay for non-werewolves. But what about allergies? I know of at least one Alsatian that has a gluten intolerance. Would the werewolves have the same issue with chocolate that dogs have? That really would be a curse – every full moon, you grow hair, turn into a beast and can’t eat chocolate! And if the chocolate issue applied all of the time, regardless of the moon, then that would explain a lot about werewolves raging and ravening. People denied chocolate may not necessarily be reasonable.

Asking questions like, ‘do werewolves eat dog biscuits?’ can get some really interesting answers, and some of those answers turn up in my books, like Tales from the White Hart. So I suppose that I shall carry on with my subscriptions to those sites and see what else comes up.

I’d love to hear what you think about werewolves and dog biscuits, so feel free to leave a comment.

A Victorian Dinner

dessert food in tray
Image from Unsplash, taken by Richard Iwaki

Do you eat avocado toast? Because if you do, there will be people out there who will label you as soon as you confess. Do you eat ramen? How about swordfish steak? Do you eat tofu? How about truffle oil in your omelet aux fines herbes? Food can come with more labels than ‘best served hot’.

Throughout the ages the difference between the peasant’s pot and the lord’s table was always there. However, in Great Britain during the nineteenth century, there were new differences and complications.

As the events of ‘Out of the London Mist’ were unfolding, households were coming to grips with new foods and ideas. Curries had been popular in Great Britain for over a hundred years at this point, and were becoming more widely eaten as the men and their families returning from Colonial India brought back a nostalgia for the food they had enjoyed. Along with curries, fish and chip shops started opening, often credited to Eastern European immigrants. Markets now had such exotic stuff as bananas as well as the familiar onions and turnips, and the grocer now had stacks of meat in tins from far off Australia and South America.

Along with the new foods appearing on the tables, new social distinctions were causing confusion. As the Industrial Revolution progressed, the Middle Classes of doctors, lawyers and business men expanded massively. Suddenly there were polite households, desperate to keep up to high standards but completely unaware of how to run a household with servants. Housewives in the new, brick-built villas of the expanding suburbs were faced with a swathe of social difficulties. How does one ‘leave a card’? How should one pack a picnic? What are the duties of the second housemaid?

Instruction manuals on cooking and housekeeping proliferated as women who once would have stayed at home and cooked the stews and puddings that fuelled the working class were suddenly and unexpectedly thrust into a more supervisory role. The most famous of these was the weighty Mrs Beeton’s Household Management. It was originally published in 1861, and by the time of Out of the London Mist it had a huge following and had already gone to many editions. Along with clear, logical and precise instructions for how to clean a bedroom and how to lay a fire are cleaning tips (mirrors should be cleaned with gin and an old silk handkerchief), morality (‘Charity and Benevolence are duties that a mistress owes to herself as well as to her fellow creatures’), etiquette (‘in giving a letter of introduction, it should always be handed to your friend, unsealed’) and several hundred recipes.

I love reading recipe books. I don’t necessarily use them, and no-one should expect fine dining from me, but I love the social history behind the food. Along with such recipes for dishes such as a toast sandwich (yes, a piece of toast between two slices of bread), an Indian Dish of Fowl (cold, cooked chicken seasoned with curry powder and sautéed and served with fried onions) and Collared Calf’s Head (I always skip that one) are recipes for sumptuous desserts, elegant entrees and some very intriguing recipes for liqueurs.

Mrs Beeton was aware that most of her readership were middle class and quite content with plain cooking with a cook and a housemaid. Lady Clara grew up in such a household, and the meals that were served to John Farnley were very middle class in nature with mutton featuring heavily. However, housekeeping books always include the aspirational and Mrs Beeton included plans for formal dinners of the sort that John Farnley would have found familiar.

A suggested formal dinner for October, for six persons, starts with Hare Soup, Broiled Cod a la Maitre d’Hote, and Haddocks with Egg sauce. The entrees are Veal Cutlets garnished with Green Beans and Haricot Mutton. The second course is Roast Haunch of Mutton, Boiled Capon and Rice and Vegetables. Finally the third course would be wheeled in with Pheasants, Punch Jelly, Blancmange, Apples a la Portugaise, Charlotte a la Vanille and Marrow Pudding. After all that culinary splendour, there would be coffee, fruit and liqueurs before the ladies left the room and the gentlemen enjoyed their port and cigars. I have stomach ache just thinking about it.

Of course you would not have a full plate of each dish placed relentlessly in front of you. Instead you could take some of each or just have a portion of one of the offerings. Even so, it was a hefty amount of food laid on the table. Mrs Beeton was much more realistic with plain family dinners. One October menu starts with ‘the remains of a codfish flaked and warmed in a Maitre d’Hote sauce’, followed by cold mutton and salad, veal cutlets, rolled bacon, French beans and potatoes and followed by an arrowroot blancmange with stewed damsons. That would be much kinder to the household bills, though still extremely substantial.

Food was very different in the East End of London. In the overcrowded slums, it was rare to find a family with access to the basic means to cook. Houses often were crammed with a different family to each room. Cold and draughty attics and dank, dark cellars were all crammed in with the rest of the house and shared communal washhouses and toilets at the end of the street. Food was bought elsewhere, usually from the street vendors. A halfpenny could get you some hot eels in broth or some pea soup. You could buy baked potatoes, whelks, oysters (then very much a staple of the poor), pies and cold meat from hundreds of street vendors. If you had a few pennies there were stalls selling nuts, fruit, pastries, coffee, tea, cocoa and cakes, all of varying quality. There were no food inspectors checking whether the food was safe. One of the regular sights were a herdsman selling milk fresh from a cow. At least then you could be sure of what you were getting and its freshness.

And on every corner there was a pub, and cheap gin was always available.

Less well known than Mrs Beeton, Alexis Soyer produced a shilling cookbook aimed at the working class. Soyer was a Frenchman who had moved to England and was a celebrated chef at the Reform Club. He was not, however, merely a celebrity chef. He advised the British Army on food and supplies during the Crimean War and took an active part in organising soup kitchens during the Irish Famine. His aim was to help those poorer people who couldn’t afford the veal cutlets that Mrs Beeton described. Instead he described how to make a hasty pudding, how to cook a cow heel for a good soup or stew and how to buy meat that, while not of the first quality, is still fit for eating.

Many of the East End would be unable to read the book, and they would have had no access to any sort of stove or fire to use for cooking, but it was a useful resource for those struggling in less straitened circumstances. Soyer described his meals clearly and methodically, always aware of the meagre resources available to the poor. One of his recipes seems very thin. ‘Poor Man’s Potato Pie’ which is sliced potato, laid in a dish with some suet or dripping, seasoned with salt and pepper and covered with pastry. Soyer suggested that perhaps some smoked herring could be added for flavour. For many of the people huddled in the streets where John Farnley pursued his brother’s murderer, even if they could afford the potato and fat and the pastry to go over it, the access to any form of fire that could cook it was out of their reach.

This is a snippet pulled from my research for Out of the London Mist, a steampunk novel set in Victorian London where there is more than just food barrows hiding in the East End in the London fog. – available from Amazon, Kobo, Barnes and Noble and all good online booksellers as well as from the amazing Three Furies Press

A London Peculiar

grayscale photo of street post with smoke
Image by Rory Bjorkman on Unsplash

My novel, Out of the London Mist takes place during a prolonged period of smog, or a London Peculiar. Over the centuries, London became known for its noxious, choking fogs that were sometimes called ‘pea-soupers’ as they were as thick as pea soup. Other countries around the world have suffered from smog, but London became known for them at an early date due to an uncomfortable set of circumstances.

The London Peculiar formed when fog settled and absorbed the fumes and soot of the myriad of fires that fuelled England’s capital. When London, or Londinium, was first built by the legions on the low-lying Thames estuary, and so subject to sea fogs, the soft woodsmoke was not such a problem. However, by the twelfth century, London was the largest city in England, with around twenty thousand souls. Not only did the population use open fires and flame filled ovens for heating and cooking, but many of them were busy with the industry and commerce that was fuelling London’s growth, including large scale iron and glass works. At the same time, wood became expensive as the demands of Edward I’s military expansion and castle building made a diminishing resource even scarcer. London turned to coal.

Woodsmoke is not safe, and, when mixed with the fogs that rolled in through the estuary, would not have been pleasant in concentration, but coal has its own hazards. Like wood, burning coal produces carbon monoxide that, when trapped in the fog, would be far from healthy. Coal, unfortunately, also produces such nasties as sulphur dioxide. Sulphur dioxide becomes sulphuric acid when mixed with water, and fog is, essentially, water vapour. In the still conditions that produce a fog, the fumes of carbon monoxide, sulphuric acid and irritating soot particles, are trapped at street level. There is no escape. By the time of Out of the London Mist, London was a vast, sprawling city filled with workshops and factories and stuffed with tenements with only coal for heat and cooking. Fogs could be so dense that moving around the city was nearly impossible. Only the London Underground was likely to keep running.

The regular winter smogs took a terrible toll on the people of London. Far too many died during these events, and the death toll kept rising. Finally, there was the Great Smog of 1952 which lasted five days and is generally thought to have caused 12,000 deaths, either immediately or in the following few months. This was such a striking event that it led to the passing of the Clean Air Act, which limited what sort of fuel could be used within urban areas and meant a massive reduction in London Peculiars.

As the air quality around the world improves during the lockdown due to Covid-19, perhaps it’s as well to remind ourselves that the air we breathe isn’t always as wholesome as we think, and we should never take it for granted.

And meanwhile, back in the world of Out of the London Mist, the smog rolls around the East End, shrouding the horrible deeds within.

Check out Out of the London Mist on Amazon and other great retailers

Getting in a Tizzy

At the time of typing, it is eight days to go until Out of the London Mist comes out and is available in all good bookshops. Every now and then I feel like I’m doing a little dance of excitement.

I’ll be posting bits here and there in the next few days, just to keep from exploding with excitement. One of the awesome things about Three Furies Press is their graphics, so I’ll be sharing lots of those. In fact, I’ll share this one now.

Available for pre-order in all good bookshops including Amazon

I don’t want to give too much away, but there is indeed a Rabbi in the story, who plays a vital role.

The East End of London in the 1890s (and earlier) was overflowing with Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe. History had not been kind to European Jews. They had been expelled from most of Western Europe in the Central and Later Middle Ages, as early as 1290 in England, after being persecuted and scapegoated for the various ills of the times, including the Black Death. They migrated into the underpopulated lands of Eastern Europe where they were particularly active in towns and promoted trade and industry. However as the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries progressed, Poland, Galicia and Russia became less welcoming and violence and riots against the Jewish settlements became horrifically common.

England had been one of the first to welcome Jews back into their country in 1656, and many Jews fleeing the persecution in the East fled to London and other British industrial cities. They quickly became part of British life. It was a Jewish immigrant, Michael Marks, that founded the quintessentially British store, Marks and Spencer in 1884 in Leeds. Many sources credit Jewish immigrants with the creation of the British staple of fish and chips. Unfortunately, mass immigration led to a dreadful seam of anti semitism and prejudice, which still has traces today.

I am not Jewish, so it was particularly important for me to respect the Jewish faith and culture that is part of the story. I’ll own up to some checking of Wikipedia, but I also spent some time trawling through pages of cookery, history and folklore (gutenberg.org and sacred-texts.com are great sources for original works). I live in Leeds, where there is a relatively large Jewish population, and so I had already been lucky enough to pick up some ideas before I started to research. I was fascinated by the multilayered culture and the diverse traditions across the world and the tenacity of the people and their faith against the persecutions of history.

So rest assured, the names, myths, customs and food I have mentioned are, as much as I can make it, authentic to the time and the people. They deserve that respect, and it is the least I can do.