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By Sword and Fan

French fan, first quarter 18th century

Yesterday was a marathon session of editing the last 40 pages of my ninth historical fiction/historical romance (depending on how much romance you require), formatting it per my publisher’s requirements, and writing the synopsis (except for the bit I finished this morning).

I began it in mid-2020, I think, so this took longer than usual. In part it was because after writing a section, I realized that having the heroine pursue the miscreants by boat would be…difficult. That stalled me for a while, until I realized the Scottish border was conveniently close by land.

Then I had to do some revisions on my seventh novel which ate up about three months.

Then I got an idea for the ninth book and I ended up finishing it first and sending that in.

And of course a certain amount of time is spent researching because there’s always something I need to check to add “…verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative” to steal from Gilbert and Sullivan. Dragoon swords, the depth of the River Rede, flintlock pistols in the first half of the 18th century, Great Britain’s Roman roads and drover’s roads.  And how to keep Word from changing my document to the dread “Read Only”.

Fortunately for my story, much of it takes place in the part of Northumberland now occupied by the Otterburn Firing Range, which as far as I and Google Satellite can tell, seems not to have changed much since 1740.

Writing on el Camino Real

Photo by Raychel Sanner, Unsplash

In the interests of full disclosure, the above picture is the Sandia Mountains, near Albuquerque, New Mexico. When I say “near”, I mean they’re the eastern border of the city. I can see them from my front door. El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (the “Royal Road of the Interior Land” in Spanish colonial times) is actually to the west, where the Rio Grande flows through town. So I’m not really on el Camino Real but Writing on el Camino Real sounds cooler—i.e., more romantic—than Writing in the Northeast Heights.

Life in Camp: Hard Tack by Homer Winslow

Where Are The Foods of Yesteryear?

“Hard Times and Hardtack” was going to be the title of my article on Civil War food for Historical Times Magazine. The title apparently failed to please but the magazine and the article will be out on August 1, 2022. https://online.1stflip.com/dssx/3jfn/  

I learned fascinating things while writing it.

American cuisine did not spring into existence with the first colonists. They brought their cookbooks and their ideas of what food should be with them, whether they came from Great Britain, France, Spain, Holland (New York City was originally New Amsterdam, founded by the Dutch), or Africa (via the slave ships). The first American cookbook was published in 1796 and almost all of the recipes came from English cookbooks.

In fact, even in the mid-nineteenth century, American breakfasts did not vary much from those suggested in the preeminent Victorian cookbook, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861). Any cold meat from the larder “can do duty at the breakfast table”, Isabella Beeton advises, as can potted meat or fish and meat pies. For hot dishes she recommends fish, kidneys, mutton chops, rump-steaks, eggs, muffins, toast, marmalade, butter, etc. The only real distinguishing feature of an American breakfast was the occasional appearance of corn, rice, and sweet potatoes.

Mutton ham used to be a common dish in this country, as it was in Great Britain. Potted meat, potted pig’s head, salt cod, and cold mush sliced and fried appeared regularly in cookbooks. So did corn fritters, oddly renamed hush puppies in the late nineteenth century.

A letter from Alexis de Tocqueville to his father dated December 20, 1831, written at Memphis, Tennessee after a trek through the wilderness shows us how primitive frontier food could be:

…we happened upon a log cabin with chinks on every side through which a big fire could be seen crackling…Picture a fireplace half the width of the room…a bed; a few chairs; a six-foot-long carbine; a hunter’s accoutrements hanging on the log wall and dancing in the draught…the [two or three] poor Blacks served us at his behest: one presented us glasses of whisky, and another corncakes and a plate of venison. The third was sent off to fetch more wood.

From https://hudsonreview.com/2013/03/letters-from-america/#.YkG5qOfMIdU, retrieved 3/28/2022.

A Bouquet of Historical Romance

I read a lot of historical romance novels, both without explicit sex and with explicit sex scenes (which I usually flip past, unless they actually contribute to the plot). The following is a roundup of my favorite “no sex, please” books from the past couple of years.

The Weaver Takes a Wife, Brighton Honeymoon, French Leave, The Desperate Duke and Baroness in Buckskin by Sheri Cobb South

The above five titles are my favorite Sheri Cobb South novels of all time, possibly because they’re funny as well as fun. I’m not going to try to describe them but you can get an idea of their tone by the cover illustrations (her books’ covers are usually far less generic than is typical of historical romance).

When I can find a romance that’s well written, funny and does not contain graphic sex scenes, I’m thrilled, because it’s a rare combination. Although I read many historical romance novels, some of which I enjoy very much, I usually flip past the apparently mandatory sex scenes. It’s nice to find an author who adheres to the old standard, in which romance comes before sex, and sex happens offstage after the end of the book.

The Parfit Knight by Stella Riley

I loved, absolutely loved, The Parfit Knight by Stella Riley. I’m a picky reader. I almost always find something to quibble with even in books I like a lot: an odd word choice, a bit of clunky writing, a grammatical problem, typos, plot silliness, repetitive sex scenes that don’t advance the story. I couldn’t find a thing to annoy me in The Parfit Knight.

It reminded me of Georgette Heyer’s 18th century romances: The Black Moth, These Old Shades, and Devil’s Cub, three of my favorite Heyer novels.

Ms. Riley captured the flavor of the time, something not all writers of historical romance manage to do.

The characters were compelling. I ordered the next two books in the Rockliffe series before I finished the first (in fact, after the first couple of chapters).

The writing carried me along with no awkward moments when I had to pause and ask myself what the writer meant by a badly constructed sentence, or cringe at a bit of modern slang.

The Parfit Knight also kept me up well past my usual bedtime. I’m a party animal until 9:00 p.m.

If you like Georgette Heyer’s novels or well-written historical romances without explicit bedroom scenes, this one is for you.

A random sample of historical romance novels I’ve especially liked.

The Country Gentleman by Fiona Hill:  I recently discovered Fiona Hill’s Regency romance, The Country Gentleman (originally published in 1987). Fans of Georgette Heyer and of Jane Austen will probably enjoy it as much as I did. The heroine, Anne Guilfoyle, even reminds me of Austen’s Emma. It’s witty, well-written, and the characters are believable. Those who simply like romances free of obligatory sex scenes should also enjoy it.

Gentleman Jim by Mimi Matthews:  I’ve read a number of Mimi Matthews’s romance novels now and liked them all. I loved Gentleman Jim. It seems to me it’s her most satisfying book to date, with complex characters and motivations. I particularly like that Ms. Matthews fills the no man’s land between romances with adventure and obligatory sex scenes and the “clean” romance sub-genre without adventure. More like Gentleman Jim, please.

Katharine, When She Smiled by Joyce Harmon:   For me, Georgette Heyer’s novels set the gold standard. Katharine, When She Smiled has all the elements of a Heyer novel: above average style, interesting characters, good plot, excellent dialog, and, well, an appropriately period “feel”. There’s no sex, which is a plus for me. I don’t object to explicit sex if it’s actually integral to the story, but it seldom is. I am now going to seek out Ms. Harmon’s other novels.

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Find my blog here: https://writing-on-el-camino-real.blogspot.com/

Photo by Matt Briney on Unsplash. Nice picture of Territorial style windows in an old adobe building, the trim painted in turquoise blue, as is often the case. This may be in Old Town, Albuquerque or in Santa Fé.

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