Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Blog Award and Things That Are or May Not Be Lies

Thanks to fellow historical fiction junkie and blogger-extraordinaire Haley for bestowing this blog award upon lowly old me! Haley has a fab blog where she chronicles her writing adventures, and I admire her fortitude in posting so frequently!

So, for the fun part of this award...I get to tell four lies and one truth about myself, and make you all guess which is true. Here's the problem. I'm real bad at lying, ya'll. So, I took a slightly different tack--five true things about me, all from a different time periods I've landed in. So some, also, are sort of like lies. We're going paradoxical here.

18th Century: I'm an officer's wife and a physician's daughter, so I get to be a lady if I want to. Except...there's always too much work to do, so you can usually find me in a plain linen work gown, swathed in an apron, hauling, chopping, or cooking something. My husband claims that blue gown is his favorite. Somehow I think it has more to do with the food I make while wearing it than it does with its sartorial features.

1900s: I used to work at a historic house museum, built in 1908. My favorite part was turning on the lights every day--because I was usually all by myself and got to feel right at home--and digging through the closets catalogueing items. Like shoes. And gloves. And ephemera left in handbags that people forgot about. To answer the most common visitor question: No, I don't think it was haunted. To answer the least common visitor question: No, I have no idea what the provenance on the rugs is (from a Turkish carpet specialist who came, I swear, only to look at the rugs).

1930s: The Peacock 1930s gown made its debut at a historic resort that was, incidentally, a popular hangout in the 1930s for movie stars, politicians and gangsters. But get this--my mom and her family used to vacation there when they were kids in the 50s and 60s! Felt like coming full circle.

1940s: My first date with my husband was a 1940s/WWII swing dance. I was two hours late because I got lost in Chicago. A firefighter's wife called her husband to get directions for me--because he was a firefighter, he knew the streets really well! We still do a lot of historic swing dance.

Time Warp: Reenacting has its risks--once we had an event where the rain had been so bad that the nearby river began to flood. We had to evacuate certain areas of the camp--including the artillery. They even called in the National Guard. To get the cannons out, we hitched them up to a Humvee. Now that was a fun anachronism! Less fun--hand-carrying all our gear out in the rain.

OK! So there you go. Sorry about the lack of lying. I'm apparently bad at following rules :S Also bad at following rules--I feel completely unable to play favorites today. So--if you are a faithful reader, you are a winner. Please feel free to post proudly. And to follow the real rules instead of copping out like brain-dead me.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

How Colonialism Makes Everyone Look Stupid

I've gotten very into 1930s music recently. Not just dance music--though that's fun, too--but popular music from the 30s. The radio hits and movie themes. And... ...this song. Noel Coward's Mad Dogs and Englishmen is probably a teensy bit racist (or more than a teensy bit racist) in spots, but it's also a hilariously rendered bit of lingual dexterity. Because most of my blog friends are either writers or history geeks or both, I thought you might enjoy this! What I find so interesting about this song is that no one gets off scot-free. There is definitely the ingrained and rather offensive use of terms like "natives" for people who are not English, but are part of the colonized Empire. I definitely sense an assumed hierarchy invoked here Yet, we're also poking fun at the colonizers, and how their customs and clothing are ridiculously out of place in the territories they've claimed as their own. In a stanza missing from below, "It's such a shame when the white men claim the earth; that they give rise to such hilarity and mirth!" A few stanzas for your reading pleasure:

In tropical climes there are certain times of day
When all the citizens retire,
to tear their clothes off and perspire.
It's one of those rules that the biggest fools obey,
Because the sun is much too sultry and one must avoid
its ultry-violet ray --
The natives grieve when the white men leave their huts,
Because they're obviously, absolutely nuts --

Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.
The Japanese don't care to, the Chinese wouldn't dare to,
Hindus and Argentines sleep firmly from twelve to one,
But Englishmen detest a siesta,
In the Philippines there are lovely screens,
to protect you from the glare,
In the Malay states there are hats like plates,
which the Britishers won't wear,
At twelve noon the natives swoon, and
no further work is done -
But Mad Dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.

Mad Dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.
The toughest Burmese bandit can never understand it.
In Rangoon the heat of noon is just what the natives shun.
They put their scotch or rye down, and lie down.
In the jungle town where the sun beats down,
to the rage of man or beast,
The English garb of the English sahib merely gets a bit more creased.
In Bangkok, at twelve o'clock, they foam at the mouth and run,
But mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.

Monday, March 28, 2011

What About Underpants?

In my dress/gown discussion last week, the question was raised at the periphery about underwear. What, exactly did ladies and gentlemen of the eighteenth century wear in terms of underwear?

The kind we think of today? Zilch.

Ok, let's back up a touch. They did wear undergarments. Women and men both wore long, white, generally linen shifts or shirts, which served as their basic undergarment. Women and men also both wore stockings, which we can consider underwear, too. Women wore stays and an underpetticoat or two--though many underpetticoats weren't really different from outer petticoats and may have been interchangeable among the lower classes. They also added paniers, hooped petticoats, or bum pads, depending on the decade and the occasion.

Some men wore underdrawers, plain breeches-like garments cut to fit under their breeches. These seem to have been optional and little evidence has been found for them outside of the upper class (mostly because not many such utilitarian garments survived, so most evidence we have is tailors' orders--from people who had the money to employ tailors). This is the closest thing we have to modern-day underwear for men or women.

Pantaloons didn't come into fashion until the nineteenth century, so there wasn't really an underdrawer equivalent for women (that I've found any evidence of). Drawers for women appeared in the Regency era, and didn't become popular until later, and on into the Victorian era. Even then, as this post from Jane Austen's World illustrates, they were often essentially crotchless. (There are some fascinating speculations about gender and sensuality based on the "graduation" from wearing full drawers to these open drawers as women reached adulthood during the Victorian era--unfortunately, the article I read is in a password-protected subscription-based website. If you have access to JStor, give it a search.) do you deal with all the things that underwear helps us deal with? Well, men would wrap their knee-length shirts under as a buffer between their, ahem, bits and their breeches (and the reason those shirts were so long becomes abundantly clear). For the montly inconvenience, women fashioned belts not too unlike those our moms and grandmothers wore back in the day (and that I'm so glad we've moved past). The one thing I can't quite figure out--drafts. Petticoats are drafty. At cold-weather events, I usually wear an old, worn pair of silk-blend breeches under my petticoats--and am so much warmer for it. I wonder whether women might have come to the same conclusion and copped their husbands' or brothers' worn-out breeches or underdrawers.

So, that's what's up with underwear.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Dress? Gown? Dress Gown?

I have to cop to one of my biggest pet peeves as a historical fiction reader. It's really, really stupid. But I hate--with the twitchy variety of fiery passion--when our lovely eighteenth-century herione is described as wearing a "dress."

This is really not that big of a deal. I swear, it's not. But it bugs me because... the eighteenth century you didn't wear a dress. You wore a gown. To us modern people, gown has a very formal connotation, but in the eighteenth century it just meant a certain shape of garment that you wore over stays and a petticoat. It could be formal, informal, made of gorgeous silk or boring old linen, regally trimmed with silk ribbon and silver tread, or tattered and filled with burn holes. Either way, it's a gown. Now, this is silly of me because, um, authors are writing for a modern audience who understands that a dress is a dress. But my eighteenth-century imbued soul wrings a little bit nonetheless.

The word dress in the eighteenth century wasn't used much as a noun (aside from description of a cultural norm: ie, the dress of the common clown is rather silly). Rather, it was generally used in common speech as a verb, just as it also is today: She dressed herself; she dressed the salad. Using dress to mean preparing something or fixing something up was more common, it seems, than now--we rarely say that we are dressing the chicken when we mean preparing to cook it, yet we do say, as did they, dressing a wound in medical terms.

It was also used as an adjective indicating level of formality. You find that adjective, I've noticed, with military parlance (Dress Blues, Dress Whites) to indicate degrees of formal wear, and this is also how it was used back then--dress and undress indicated the degree of formality (probably still actively used in the military because much of their particular culture is historically based). To say someone was in "undress wear" didn't mean that they were naked or even in their underclothes, but that they weren't dressed for a formal occasion. Court function? Dress wear. Hanging at home with the ladies knocking back a cup of tea? Undress wear.'s a silly pet peeve but a (I hope) potentially interesting historical aside that the term gown applied to everybody. Like here:

In one of Francis Wheatley's late eighteenth century "Cries of London" prints, the working-class woman selling and the middling-sort buying are both wearing gowns--the seller's likely of linen, the buyer's of a finer silk (check the pretty sheen of the fabric). (OK, the seller might be wearing a caraco. I can't quite tell if it's a super-rucked-up gown or a shorter garment. Point stands. Plus--I love the Cries of London.)

As an aside, petticoat as a noun in historical fiction also tends to crop up as a nuissance word. This is because we eighteenth-century folks mean "skirt" when we say petticoat, and later folks mean "undergarment skirt" when they say it. In eighteenth-century parlance, a skirt is "the edge of a garment" according to contemporary dictionaries (or, in one volume, the edge of countries--weird!)--usually referrering to the loose flappy bit on the bottom of many eighteenth-century items. Such as, of course, gowns. The skirts are the part that hang loose from the fitted waist.

So, there's your fashion language lesson for the day. Hope you at least enjoyed the pretty picture (I did).

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Cannon Makeover and Answers to your Questions

So, when you first look at a cannon that hasn't been painted in a few don't think it looks all that bad...

Then you get a closer look...

And in addition to the rust, the paint on the carriage is worn away to almost nothing and the wood is starting to split.

So you sand the heck out of the iron barrel, taking all the rust off, and buff down the wood and pick a nice, pleasant, greenish-blue-grey that matches what you seem to remember the carriage being painted in the first place.

And then you paint. Flat black Rustoleum on the barrel, a nice exterior flat paint on the wood.

At some point you realize that you've gotten some blue-grey on the black and some black on the blue-grey, so you spend a few hours detailing the whole thing.

Then you finally finish, and it looks very pretty.

Also--some answers to good questions:

Anachronist asked how much the cannon cost. Well...good question. I think this one was purchased used (not by us) for about $8000. You could probably swing it for less if you found someone extra nice to make the carriage for you. Anachronist also asked if anyone has tried to steal it. You know, we're really overprotective and worried about that, to be honest...but nope. We keep it locked in a trailer.

It just uses basic old black powder--we use 1F or cannon-grade. Ironically, when we sanded off all the buildup on the barrel, we found the manufacturer's mark that said to fire black powder only. Fortunately, we already knew that.

Carrie asked if we needed a license. I'm no international legal expert, so I can only answer for us--in our state, we don't. In fact, many states treat educational reproductions differently than "normal" firearms--in my state, you can actually bring reproduction and antique weapons onto school property (with permission) for demonstration purposes (which we think is pretty fab as education is what we're all about. And kids learn more about history when a cannon is involved for some reason).

And the obvious question--what did our neighbors think?!? Well, the sweet older lady who used to own our house was enthralled. But the cranky hippie next door was annoyed that it was pointing at his defunct school bus (yes, you read that right).

Anything else? Hit me up in the comments!

Friday, March 18, 2011

I Have a Secret

I have a secret new project. I feel like kind of a jerk telling you about it--because all I'm saying is that I'm writing. I'm keeping mum on the concept, the plot, the characters, everything, except to say it's a huge departure from what I've worked on in the past.

And that I'm actually giddy about it.

I made my intentions to work on this project official to myself, and abandon the tentative steps on a WWII era homefront-set novel I'd been scratching at, less than a month ago. I'm now a quarter of the way through the first draft. This has never been my modus operandi--I'm nearly always a sloooow writer. Like a slow loris:

Except with writing instead of arboreal movement.

Not this. I'm zipping. I'm salivating to put my fingers to keyboard (well, not literally--all that drooling might short circuit my laptop). I'm pounding out 1000 words a day without blinking. I can't wait to keep this story moving.

I just wanted to tell you that I'm excited. And that I'll post more when I've finished a draft and developped some confidence that I really can tell this story, even though it's different in nearly every way from everything I've ever tried before. And to excuse myself for not posting more about writing specifics recently and in the near future.

And, of course, to share that adorable slow loris picture. I love me some strepsirrhini primates. (Umm, minored in anthropology with a concentration in bioanthro. I really like primates, ok? Insert requisite PSA that primates don't make good pets despite their adorability here. But I don't need to tell you all that.)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Why We Celebrate Saint Patrick's Day

I am of Irish descent. Both sides of my family hail, in part, from Ireland. We've other nationalities in the bloodline, too--German, Welsh, Dutch, Swiss, probably a half-dozen more. I'm a mutt with a strong strain of Irish.

So why do we celebrate Saint Patrick's Day? I mean, I've a strong love for soda bread and Guinness, so any excuse. But beyond that, I think that this is why:

King of 'Shanty--cartoon depicting poor Irish as ape-like

And this:

I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black one would not see it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours.
- Cambridge historian Charles Kingsley, letter to his wife from Ireland, 1860

This, too:

A "White" face and bone structure contrasted with an "Irish" face and bone structure--the Irish face is shown with features characteristic of apes.

Though we often characterize racism in America as being a "black and white" issue, our ancestors both here and abroad managed to complicate and convolute the issue of race far beyond skin color. The Irish were caricatured as base, akin to monkeys, and more closely related to "Negroes" than "proper" white people like the English. (The disgust I feel at the comparison to Africans being a bad thing is enough for another post entirely.) Degrading the Irish through monkey-comparisons and slurs reduced them to something less-than-human--and, in the wake of the potato famine and other social/political issues, a people whose needs didn't really matter and who could be denied their voice.

So, it's because of this:

A creature manifestly between the Gorilla and the Negro is to be met with in some of the lowest districts of London and Liverpool by adventurous explorers. It comes from Ireland, whence it has contrived to migrate; it belongs in fact to a tribe of Irish savages: the lowest species of Irish Yahoo. When conversing with its kind it talks a sort of gibberish. It is, moreover, a climbing animal, and may sometimes be seen ascending a ladder ladden with a hod of bricks.
Satire entitled "The Missing Link", from the British magazine Punch, 1862

And this:
An Irish servant, depicted as oafish, brutish and with ape-like features, as well as red hair (and boats for feet--dang!), causes domestic problems for the poor, docile white mistress.

that I celebrate Saint Patrick's Day. The Irish weren't the only group to be marginalized in America's history, and other ethnicities were disparaged across Europe and elsewhere, too. But there's a story of overcoming there--and overcoming intact. Because if any of these cartoons has a grain of truth, I think it's this one:

It depicts the American melting pot, and the stubborn Irish refusing to blend in. Sure, this is a violent and ugly depiction of that. Yet I find some comfort, over 100 years later, that the Irish in this country were eventually accepted--but that they never quite gave up all their identity to do so. It gives me hope that, with time and effort and lots of brave people, we can eventually move past all our self-inflicted racial issues while maintaining pride in our heritage and history.
Happy St. Patty's Day! Have a pint (or a dram...whatever your pleasure!)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

He's Not Heavy, He's My Cannon: Cannon Basics with Milton

So, when I offered to write a full post on cannons, I probably ought to have considered that that's a lot of post for one topic. So, new plan--more than one post on cannons. Cannons are just that fantastic.

This is a common three pounder. He is a reproduction of an eighteenth-century British artillery piece. He lives in a trailer in my backyard. His name is Milton.

Let's break Milton down into his component parts. The part that makes Milton a cannon is the tube--the black iron cylinder riding on the other part, the carriage. You can strap a tube to a log and it's still a cannon. A carriage without a tube is just, well...wheels and some boxes. Milton is a common three pounder--cannons are classified by the weight of shot that fits down their bore. So, Milton fires a three-pound solid shot. If he wasn't such a pacifist--because really, Milton doesn't fire much of anything besides powder. He's "common" because he's not "light." Some pieces were designed specifically for mobility on the field, and are known as "light three pounders" or "grasshoppers."

Not Milton. Milton is as heavy a three-pounder as they come.

As I said, we fire powder. It's just black powder, the kind that pretty much any muzzleloading weapon uses, but we do use a coarser grain than hunting rifles or muskets. We wrap about a cup of powder in an aluminum foil cartridge with a half-cup or so of cornmeal for back pressure. Yes, we use aluminum foil--it's safer than the fabric bags or loose powder used in the eighteenth century. Less chance of, you know, accidentally blowing something up when it's encased in metal instead of flimsy cloth.

Even though Milton only fires powder, the resulting report is very loud (you'll see a lot of ears being covered in these shots--plus we're all wearing modern earplugs--eighteenth-century artillerists were likely half-deaf) and sometimes you can capture the flash on film. Like here:

A few notes on safety. Even though we aren't firing live rounds, the concussion from the explosion actually can cause injury. So--rule number one of cannon safety--don't ever get in front of the cannon. Artillery crews yell at you for that. Also, there's a chance that a stray spark could ignite a cartridge and the gun could go off while we're unprepared. To clarify, that would mean potentially: a) firing an implement across the field; b) injury to the crew if they're too close to the barrel c) worst case, gun explosion. To avoid that, we clean the barrel very carefully between each firing. We also keep the powder box far away from the smoldering stuff required to fire the gun (more down the post on that). Also, as a final precaution in case the gun did fire while we have an implement (see the sponge-headed sticks in the pics above and below?) down the barrel, we never wrap our hands or arms around the implement. That way, we're less likely to lose an arm if the worst happened.
Yeah, and they're loud. So cover those ears!

There are roughly six crew positions on the cannon. Two are at the front of the gun, two are behind the wheels, one is one the box (ode to a powder monkey here), and you also generally need a gun commander. In a pinch, the gun commander may serve on the gun in one of the positions. The folks on the front of the gun clean the barrel between firings and load the piece--these positions are the Worm position (uses a device to pull out debris) and the Sponge/Ram position (sponges the gun and rams down each round). One of the fellows behind the wheel tends the vent--he keeps his thumb on the touchhole to maintain a vacuum, and primes the gun when it's time to fire. The other fellow has a simple enough job--he tends to either a burning bit of "slow match" (treated rope that burns slow and hot) or a portfire (much like a flare, for wet conditions) and then, when the command is given, fires the gun. I say "roughly six" because you may also use additional folks for ferrying rounds or minding the portfires sometimes used to fire the gun. In eighteenth-century artillery regiments, more men operated off the field ferrying loads of powder and water to the pieces on the field.

Cannons were used on the field, on shipboard, and in the defenses of forts. The only difference between a shipboard cannon and this field piece is the carriage. Naval guns were on naval carriages--stout, less mobile little things.

Versatile field pieces can be moved with some good old-fashioned teamwork and elbow grease--and larger pieces/longer trips could have relied on oxen or draft horses. British Major-General William Phillips famously noted, when presented with an "impossible" terrain to move artillery over, that "Where a goat can go, a man can go. And where a man can go, he can drag a gun." (Gun, as a generic term, is often used to describe artillery pieces.)

More to come...and answers to any unanswered questions. Leave them in the comments!

I'm off for a nap, methinks...cannons are good for those, too.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Things that Aren't Real. And Cannons.

Maybe it's a sign that, until the reenacting season gets into full swing next month and I can spend weekends steeped in the eighteenth century and weeks washing and repairing all the accoutrements damaged by eighteenth-century steepage, I have too much time on my hands. Maybe, too, because we plan to dig our cannon out of the trailer this weekend and give it a paint touch-up. But I've been thinking. About what's real and what's not. And about our cannon. And reading, and, by extension, writing.

Our cannon is real. We get asked that a lot. Yes, it's real in that it's solid matter, a dedicated reproduction of an original, and could in fact kill you. It's a common three-pounder, to be more accurate. It's made of cast iron, as many eighteenth century cannons were, and has a barrel in which to load rounds and a touchhole by which to fire them off. It's set on a wooden carriage so we can cart it from here to there. It would, if we wanted, fire a three-pound solid shot--or any variation of ammunition thereof.

What we do with it, of course, is not real. We don't fire real ammunition, just rounds of black powder packed at the end with a little cornmeal to give back-pressure enough to effect a big boom. In essence, the cannon is nothing but a noisemaker when we have it on the field at a tactical demonstration, just as all the other muskets and rifles do no more harm than the drums.


Except when you're standing at the mouth of the gun, waiting for the next round to be brought from the ammunition box, and the infantry is advancing and their volleys are persistent and heavy, and the round takes too long in coming. Your heart begins to beat a little faster, and when the round comes you move like clockwork, grounding the piece with a firmly laid hand and setting the round resolutely inside the barrel. You step off, clap your hands over your ears when the sergeant bellows to give fire, but watch for the telltale flame that says the gun has fired successfully. Then you step through the cloud of sulpher smoke back to your position and damn it all but the infantry haven't fallen back, and in fact their muskets are now levelling in your general direction.

You begin your rote task of cleaning the debris from the barrel of the gun, the tool scraping the bits still stuck inside, but they won't come out. You try again. Brisk motions that usually work fail to catch the pieces of unburned cartridge inside the gun. The infantry fires another volley. It sounds bloody close, but you don't turn to look. That's your officer's job. You try again, give a curt nod to your fellow artilleryman standing at the touchhole, let him know to try that last-resort trick you learned. You shove the pieces to the back of the barrel, he sticks his pick down the touchhole to hold them in place, and you twist the junk onto your tool.

Drums in the background rattle off the command to prime and load as you yank the debris from the gun. Stubbornly, you shove your hand to the side, asking for the next round. You feel it land in your hand.

And none of this is real. But it's crazy, in the moment of a smoke-clogged (fake) battlefield, with (fake) muskets advancing toward you and (fake) cannon rounds your only (fake) salvation, how things begin to feel...not at all fake.

Fiction isn't real, either. Those characters, those places, those problems--all fake. Made-up. Just black powder plots with some cornmeal prose wizardry to give enough meat to the story. So why is it that, while you're sitting in a perfectly safe chair, turning pages like your life depends on it, it feels so real?

Because the writer put you there. Dumped you right in the middle of a smoke-clogged battlefield and gave you enough tactile detail and emotional heft to make it feel real to you. Now, I will argue though it's not currently in vogue that there are times to keep the reader at a distance. But it should be a deliberate choice, with carefully crafted walls. In most cases, you as the writer want to plop your reader into a minefield of experience and let them feel they might blow something up at any moment.

Thoughts? What books have felt especially immediate and real to you? What techniques made them so--or what techniques do you use? Any questions on cannons? Should I do a full-length cannon post sometime?

Friday, March 11, 2011

What Do You Need to Write?

Writers are fickle creatures. It seems that nearly every writer I meet has a preference, a neurosis, an odd fetish when it comes to writing. Perhaps it's writing near a window. Perhaps it's writing with a cup of coffee at hand. Maybe writing in longhand first, then transcribing. Maybe wearing a pair of underpants tied on like a bonnet. I don't know. Everyone has something.

I read an "advice to writers" post months ago that had the bullet-pointed thought, "Don't be precious." Yeah, when you write you might like tea in your blue mug at the kitchen table, but you don't NEED tea in your blue mug at the kitchen table to write. Don't be so quirky when it comes to your writing atmosphere that you choke yourself. And I think that's really sound advice. You can write anywhere, anytime, with any manner of paraphenalia surrounding you.

But where's the fun in that?

I'm not suggesting limiting yourself, and I'm definitely not suggesting being a huge priss about the whole process and deciding that, if your coffee has too much cream, your Muse has been drowned by dairy and you can't write until you've revived her. Writers write. It doesn't matter where you are or what else is surrounding you--don't let habitat become excuse. Sometimes, though, everyone is allowed a bit of fun with their occupation, lest good daily work become the daily grind.

So--for fun, a little Q&A I made up. Please steal. I'd like to see your answers--and craft your perfect writing day!

1) Where do you like to write?

I like coffee shops and Panera and the big hulking study rooms at the university I work for, especially the "South Lounge" which looks like a turn-of-the-century train station. I like the ebb and rush of people, the chatter of a dozen conversations melding into a dim cacaphony. I like the change of scenery. I like people. I like that, at the coffee shop, there's no laundry insisting I put it in the dryer already or dishes clamoring to be done.

2) What time of day?

I love getting an early start on a weekend and having a substantial word count drafted by 11 a.m. Bright morning light streaming in the window. Cheerful people buying bagels or scones or taking their mothers out to breakfast. Mornings are a hopeful, happy time.

Unless I'm writing in my quiet house as evening presses into night and I want to feel a bit morose.

3) What do you prefer to be wearing?

Layers. I like a sturdy pair of jeans and my riding boots in winter or sandals in summer and about five shirts than I can take off or put back on as the temperature fluctuates. I especially like scarves, the pashmina-esque variety with plenty of yardage. I sit near windows a lot. There are drafts. It gets chilly. And I do like to be dressed--no pajamas or sweats. Makes me feel as though I'm serious about my work to be dressed properly.

4) Beverage at hand?

This one is easy. In the morning? Coffee. Preferably hazelnut coffee or my own French press concoction flavored with cinnamon. Afternoon? Tea. Earl or Lady Grey. After sunset? Red wine. Unless it's summer and very hot. Then, chilled Sauvignon Blanc. (Yes, that's me being precious.)

5) Snacks?

Nope. I get so drawn in that snacking would be a distraction. I take breaks to eat, and come back refreshed. Because if you write on an empty stomach, suddenly every scene centers on food. There's no conflict. Just eating. Or maybe that's just me.

6) Music?

Until very recently, none at all. I found it distracting--especially, as odd as this is, instrumental music because instrumentals are usually so complex and rich that I found myself listening to them instead of focusing on my own creative process. I have found, though, that music from the era I'm writing about is not only tolerable but even sustaining, so have been piping 1930s music into my ears. Plus early choral music--Thomas Tallis, Josquin Desprez--can pervade my brain without interupting my writing. When editing, I listen to just about anything. And every story has its inspiration soundtrack from the brainstorming days.

7) By yourself or with others?

I never really have the opportunity to work with others--I don't have any local writer-friends. Once in a while I'll meet up with a student friend and we'll work on our respective projects. Still, given that I'm around people 100% of the time at work (and man! does that get old sometimes) I enjoy the simple pleasure of solitude.

8) Laptop? Desktop? Longhand?

I do all my writing on my laptop. If I get bored or antsy, I can just move a few tables over or to the next room and feel like there's a whole new world opening up to me. And my handwriting has degraded to that of an eighty-year-old baboon with hand tremors.
So--my ideal writing date looks like: By myself, in the corner of a coffee shop or the like, by a window (if I've brought plenty of layers), with optional music and a hazelnut coffee in the morning OR By myself, at home at night with a glass of red wine.

How about you?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Head Cold and a Hot Toddy

Sorry for the absenteeism this week--I've been struck by some sort of nasty, gland-swelling, fever-inducing, congested evil incarnate of a virus and have been spending my free time lying on the couch whining about it. (Exaggeration. I've been lying on the couch watching Scrubs and old movies on Netflix. No one can whine while Scrubs is on.)

You know what makes me feel better when I'm sick? Aside from sleeping a lot? Hot toddies, medicinal style.


1) Pour a splash of your whiskey of choice in a mug (preferably one of those glass ones, because the color is like sunshine--healing in and of itself). Less than a shot glass' worth is more than enough. I use Scotch.

2) Brew preferred herbal comforting tea of choice. Mine is Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime. Not sure if I actually like it that much or if that darn cute-as-heck bear on the package wins me over every time. Look at him in his little sleeping cap, dozing off in front of the roaring fire with his kitty friend on the rug behind him! *Melting with cuteness*

3) Pour the tea over the whiskey.

4) Stir in a spoonful of honey, if desired.

5) Inhale the warm vapors, sip luxuriously, and cocoon self in blanket.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Vintage Film Delights

I visited my parents this weekend, which means two things. One, I ate entirely too much because my mother is a wonderful cook. Two, I watched delightful old movies because my mother has a wonderful delightful old movie collection. And what's the use, I thought, of enjoying delightful old things, if I don't share them with you all for your perusal?

First up: Delightful old movies. We (re)watched Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which, despite playing host to some of the kookiest choreography of all time, the worst song lyric ever ("a man can't sleep/when he sleeps with sheep"--I should hope not), and the potential to offend any woman who doesn't find being carted off in the back of a feed wagon romantic, charms the pants off me every time. Adorable. I love the completely inauthentic old-timey costuming. And the admittedly goofy song and dance numbers.

We also picked up some older fare. First up was The Broadway Melody, which won the second Best Picture Oscar ever in 1929--and was the first "talkie" to do so. Has the caliber of acting, writing, and cinematography improved significantly since 1929? Yes. Could one have said that even in, say, 1935? Again, yes. Was it still one of the sweetest, most charming, most clothing-envy-inducing movies I've seen in a while? Wholehearted yes! Ok, just look at those hats. Also, this movie is pre-Code, and it's an interesting study in comparison--though nothing inappropriate to a modern perception happens, there are allusions--one of the girls is taking a bath in one scene, and a dangerous liasion is a major plot point. And this film had more edge and spunk to it than I've seen in many recent movies--not to mention a completey appropriate, satisfying, but not cookie-cutter ending.

Also, some early Hitchcock. Stick with me. I'm not terribly fond of his most famous later films, such as Psycho and The Birds, either (too scary. Still can't get the concept of The Birds out of my head. Apparently Hitchcock wanted to end the film with a shot of the Golden Gate bridge completely covered in birds, but it was too expensive to pull off, and wouldn't that have been an awful vignette to carry around in your head? Except, having heard that factoid, I imagined it and I do carry it around with me. Shudder). But his less horror-based, more suspense-based films are among my favorites already--North by Northwest, Lifeboat. Add in a rakish rogue with Errol Flynn hair as a main character, fanatastic early 30s clothing (tune in for the lady character's suits with adorable giant collars (see left) alone...sigh), and a setting on the moors of Scotland in our pick, The 39 Steps, and I'm hooked. Highly recommended...and I'll be hunting up more lesser-known Hitchcock.
Anyone see any good movies lately? Good old movies? Movies with to-die-for clothing?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Decorating the Old House with Old Stuff

After two months in the new very old house, we've managed to get mostly settled. I still have aspirations of a little nook in the bedroom that will require scrounging used furtniture stores and garage sales for a chair, but for now--we're done.

Project Alpha was curtains for the great room. I used some silk dupioni I've had sitting around for ages. Quick overview of the process--I hacked rectangles slightly larger than the window of the silk and a linen facing, plus a thin quilt batting, then sandwiched the batting between the lining and silk, and hemmed all the way around. I left a larger hole in the top to stuff the curtain rod (so cool--it's built into the window) through. There are several rings stitched in a two rows down the back to raise and lower the curtains (and make fun poofs with). Love how the grain of the fabric shows through when it's light outside.

I love the deep windows and the woodwork. And yes, that's my Tower O' Wine between the windows. I have a little bit of a fetish for nice wine glasses.
The mantle was also fun to play with--especially as all the pieces were things we already owned. No buying decorations for us, no sir!
From the left: Monkey my husband won in a dance contest on our honeymoon (don't ask, and for the love of all that is good, don't ask him to demonstrate); the green bottle was a wedding gift from reenactor friends; I have no idea where the pewter cup with the rabbit face on the bottom came from, but it's kinda creepy; the pictures are actually calendar pages--I love bird prints in the style of Audobon; peacock feather because, in case you didn't catch onto this with the Peacock Gown, I love peacocks.
One of the bonuses of reenacting is that you're ready equipped with stuff to decorate your house with. If you like decorating with pistols, swords, and various martial paraphenalia, that is.
Shelves with three kinds of fun: Games, tea party, pistols.
Close up of the pistol and the hangar (sword-like thingy) on the shelf. With more peacock feathers. I had to fight to keep those there. My husband thought it was too girly to have peacock feathers on his pistol shelf. I think it's dignified. Thoughts on this one?
Also fun for display--a powder horn my father made. I'll have to do a full post on scrimshaw, the art of etching designs into horn, antler, or ivory someday--I have some gorgeous pieces made by my father.
Any unusual decorating strategies in your house?