Today I have the pleasure of welcoming the talented and lovely Maria Grace. She will be talking about some of the extensive research that goes into her work, more specifically her new release TWELFTH NIGHT AT LONGBOURN. Let’s hear from her about her fascinating process.
I am probably the odd one out. I actually love the research process. It is probably one of my favorite things about writing historical fiction. As a kid, I loved to read reproductions of old cookbooks—and honestly I still do. Those vintage cookbooks often offer insight into those mundane household activities from eras long past. Knowing how people cooked and ate, cleaned their homes, their clothes and themselves, the medicines they prepared and the maladies they prepared them for all paint such a vivid picture for me of what life was like, I feel a little transported to that era myself as I imagine what it would have been like to prepare dinner, go shopping or manage laundry without the modern conveniences I have come to rely upon.
All that research is the crux of world-building, a skill every writer must have whether they are creating their own fantasy world, or recreating an historical one. So, I indulge my researching-itch with period references whenever I can. Digitized period books have made my efforts so much easier. I now have hundreds of such references on my hard drive, with access on my phone if I really want. It is a bit of a head trip, referencing a 1794 cookbook for instructions on cleaning fruit juice stains from silk using the WiFi connection on my cellphone! I have gotten some interesting looks standing in the grocery line reading those. The things writers do for their craft!
I frequently find myself researching out little details that I could otherwise gloss over, since, really, they aren’t THAT important to the story. Things like specific items served at meals or teas, what did they taste and smell like. Were they just placed on the table, or was there some particular ceremony used when they were presented? Were there special serving vessels used or just everyday dishes and did those dishes communicate anything about the host or hostess. These are little things which don’t necessarily carry the plot, but they can transport the reader into the story world and that is important to me.
One place the characters in my most recent book visit is a Regency-era chocolate house something like a Starbucks of today, but with some significant differences. Preparing drinking chocolate was a time consuming, labor intensive process, beyond the means of many. So, coffee and chocolate houses sprung up to meet the demand.
Preparing drinking chocolate took at least 30 minutes and a number of specialized tools. Learning more about them made me really appreciate the luxury of instant hot chocolate mix. A specialty chocolate grater would be used to shave a solid tablet of chocolate already mixed with spices like cardamom, aniseed, cloves, and bergamot. The powdered spicy chocolate would be added to a large pan containing water, milk or possibly a mixture of water and wine or water and brandy and placed over heat and brought to a boil, while constantly stirring to prevent scorching. The cook would then remove it from the heat and use a special tool, known in England as a chocolate mill (in France a molinet, in Spain a molinilla) to beat it, adding eggs, flour, corn starch or even bread to thicken the mixture.
After beating, the pot was returned to the heat where cream might be added. The chocolate mill would be employed again to raise a head of froth that chocolate drinkers expected. When finally ready to serve, the finished drinking chocolate would be transferred to a special chocolate pot.
A proper china service would contain at least three pots and three sets of cups, one for tea, one for coffee and one for chocolate. A chocolate pot was taller and straighter than a tea pot, with a shorter spout than a coffee pot, placed high on the pot. It also sported a hinged finial on the lid to allow a chocolate mill to be used while the lid was down to prevent splashing.
Chocolate was served in cups were taller and narrower than coffee or tea cups. Their unique shape made them more likely to spill, so special saucers known as coffee stands developed to steady the unstable cups.
Chocolate was usually served at breakfast, but if taken during the day, dainty confections might accompany it. For example short cakes and lemon creams, both of which represented a fair amount of kitchen labor themselves. These are recipes taken from period books handwritten by cooks and housewives of the era, including the original abbreviations and spelling errors.
Rub in with the hand one pound of butter into two pounds of sifted flour. Put one pound of currants, one pound of moist sugar and one egg. Mix all together with half a pint of milk, roll it out thin and cut into round cakes. Lay them on a clean baking plate and put them in a middling hot oven for about five minutes.
I’d love to try this recipe, though I’m not sure what moist sugar is. I do live fairly near the coast though and given we’ve got better than 70% humidity now, I’m going to guess that my sugar might count as moist. Also not sure what middling hot is for an oven, but I’ll either try it at 350F like I bake everything else, or check a modern book for baking temperatures for short bread.
To four large lemmons squees’d put 3 qrs of a pd of ye finest loaf sugar, 8 or 9 spoonfuls of water & a piece of ye peel. Set it over ye fire until ye sugar is melted. Put in ye whites of 4 eggs & strain it through a napkin doubled. Set it on ye fire again & stir it all ye while. When it grows thick, take it off. Put in two spoonfuls of orange flower water. Lay some shreds of boyled lemmon pele at ye bottom of yr glasses.
This one sounds good too, but I find it a touch more intimidating. I have no idea what size spoonful of water makes sense here or what a large lemon looked like in the late 1700’s. Something tells me that might not be the same as what I’d consider large today. What do you think?
Recipes from: http://lostcookbook.wordpress.com
Learning all these details is wonderful, but the challenge comes in using them in an authentic way, weaving in the details to build the world, not make the reader feel like they are in the midst of a history lesson. Here’s an excerpt from my book Twelfth Night at Longbourn where I try to do just that.
Kitty shifted the basket on her arm. The streets of Meryton bustled with foot traffic, but no one stopped to speak to her. Several mothers, their daughters in tow, crossed the street or ducked into shops, no doubt to avoid contact with her. None looked at her or smiled in her direction. She might as well have been invisible.
She stared at her feet. Her hand-me-down nankeen half-boots, mud spattered and layered with road dust, needed a good cleaning. Since no one accepted her calls, and no one called on her, she would have plenty of time to attend to that task later this afternoon.
Her throat tightened hard around the lump she could not swallow back. She must not cry. How could Lydia have done this to her?
It was all so unfair! Lizzy and Jane and Mary, all married and immune to the effects of Lydia’s folly, left her alone to bear it. She dragged her sleeve across burning eyes
Wait. Was that—yes, Charlotte and Maria Lucas, there, near the milliner’s. Surely they would not cut her.
Kitty hurried across the street. “Charlotte, Maria! How good to see you!”
“Had we known you were coming to town today, we might have walked together.” Charlotte smiled as though Lydia’s transgression never happened.
No wonder Lizzy considered her such a dear friend.
“Excuse me. I must nip in here for a moment.” Maria pulled the shop door open and disappeared inside.
Not Maria, too! Kitty gulped hard and sniffled.
Charlotte took Kitty’s elbow. “The coffee house is serving lemon creams. You cannot imagine how delicious they are with chocolate.”
Kitty mumbled and nodded as she followed Charlotte down the street. She stooped to hide within her poke bonnet’s generous brim. That is what they were for, was it not, to hide a young woman from the censure of society?
The dark walls, covered with too many decorations, invited them to find a place in the crowded coffee house. Conversations hummed around her. How could so many be smiling when misery enveloped her like a red riding cloak?
Charlotte left her at an out of the way table and procured a tasting plate. “I am sorry Maria did not join us. She does so enjoy sweets. I hope you did not think—”
Kitty flicked her hand and shook her head. “She is just doing as everyone else.”
Charlotte pushed a plate heaped with cheery glasses of lemon cream, dainty slices of pound cake, savoy biscuits and shortcakes at her. “You simply must try the pound cake. I have never tasted the equal of it.”
Kitty picked up a piece, examined it, and put it down again. She sighed. At least Charlotte would permit her the luxury of a little dissatisfaction.
Charlotte touched her hand. “You are still upset over Lydia?”
She blinked hard and turned her face aside.
“I understand,” Charlotte whispered. “Maria’s behavior has earned me no little censure.”
“It is true. The same families that cut you and your sisters this spring cut me as well.” She stared at Kitty. “You did not know?”
“Before Lydia’s…ahh…” Charlotte rubbed her palms together. “The Smiths, Longs and Bonds stopped keeping company with both our families.”
“Lizzy and I discussed it.”
“I was so busy sewing I never realized.” Kitty worried the edge of the tablecloth between her fingers. “What did Maria do?”
“Maria is a thoughtless, foolish girl even as you saw just a few moments ago.”
Kitty picked up the crystal glass of lemonade and sipped the slightly too sour mixture. She stared into the cloudy liquid. A few lemon pips swam along the surface. How like Charlotte to be so concerned for her feelings—not that it helped, but it was very sweet.
“I hope she will come to her senses soon.”
“Even if she does not, I doubt she will ever rival Lydia.” Kitty smoothed the tablecloth under her glass.
Kitty crossed her arms over her chest. “I will never forgive her.”
“I know you feel that way now—”
“I will always feel this way.”
“Perhaps, perhaps not.” Charlotte shrugged. “Have you spent much time with the Bonds? After Olivia—”
“No.” Kitty snapped a biscuit in half. Pale crumbs littered the blue table linen. “The Bonds still blame Lydia for Olivia’s elopement. You might think Margery Bond would be sympathetic. She has received as much censure as I. She said I am only getting what I deserve for being related to such a wicked girl.” Kitty covered her face with her hands.
“What a horrible thing to say. Mrs. Bond certainly did not agree—”
“I do not know as I avoid her whenever possible. I cannot—”
“Perhaps you are taking this too hard.”
“You do not understand.”
Charlotte turned her face to the ceiling and shook her head. “It may be worth little, but you are always welcome at Lucas Lodge.”
“Thank you. It is some comfort.” Not that she actually felt any ease, but it was the right and proper thing to say. Kitty dabbed her eyes with the edge of her sleeve. How could she have forgotten a handkerchief?
“If you are so unhappy here, what about your aunt and uncle in London? Perhaps you might visit them for a month or two?”
“That is a good idea.” Kitty nibbled the edge of her broken biscuit. “With four young children, my aunt would surely appreciate help. She does not employ a governess. I could make myself quite useful to her.”
“I thought you did not like children.” Charlotte’s eyebrows climbed under the edges of her droopy bonnet.
Kitty huffed and crossed her arms. “Well, I shall learn to like them. At the very least, they will speak to me whilst no one here will.”
Charlotte chuckled. “I am sure you will find your cousins delightful.”
“I shall ask Papa for permission to write them. London is just a few hours away and the horses are not needed on the farm right now.” She chewed her lip. “Do you think he might allow me to go?”
“I would not have suggested it if I thought it impossible or even unlikely.”
Was it possible? Might she escape to a place where her disgrace was unknown? Surely the Gardiners would be willing, and Papa could not object if they did not. She blinked hard, her lips turning up just a mite.
The pound cake did look appealing. She took a hearty bite. “You are right. This is delicious.”
If you would like to read more you can find Twelfth Night at Longbourn at:
Amazon kindle: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00H9YDXTU
Amazon Paperback available soon:
NOOK: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/twefth-night-at-longbourn-maria- grace/1117684737
Gumroads (pdf) https://gum.co/SbVX
Twelfth Night—a night for wondrous things to happen.
At least for other people.
In the months after her sisters’ weddings, nothing has gone well for Kitty Bennet. Since Lydia’s infamous elopement, her friends have abandoned her, and Longbourn is more prison than home. Not even Elizabeth’s new status as Mrs. Darcy of Pemberley can repair the damage to Kitty’s reputation. More than anything else, she wishes to leave the plain ordinary Kitty behind and become Catherine Bennet, a proper young lady.
Her only ray of hope is an invitation to Pemberley for the holidays. Perhaps there she might escape the effects of her sister’s shame.
Getting to Pemberley is not as simple as it sounds. First she must navigate the perils of London society, the moods of Georgiana Darcy, and the chance encounter with the man who once broke her heart. Perhaps though, as Catherine, she might prove herself worthy of that gentleman’s regard.
But, in an instant all her hopes are dashed, and her dreams of becoming Catherine evaporate. Will Kitty Bennet’s inner strength be enough to bring her heart’s desire?
On an ordinary night perhaps not, but on Twelfth Night, it just might be enough.
Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful.
She has one husband, two graduate degrees and two black belts, three sons, four undergraduate majors, five nieces, six cats, seven Regency-era fiction projects and notes for eight more writing projects in progress. To round out the list, she cooks for nine in order to accommodate the growing boys and usually makes ten meals at a time so she only cooks twice a month.
She can be contacted at:
On Amazon.com: amazon.com/author/mariagrace
Visit her website Random Bits of Fascination (RandomBitsofFascination.com)
On Twitter @WriteMariaGrace