Sunday, November 13, 2011

History of Coffee

The history of coffee can be traced back to at least the 13th century, but if may have been used for years before that. After the 16th century, Dutch traders brought coffee plants to Italy, and from there coffee’s popularity spread through Europe and to the New World, aided by frequent trade between Venice and Muslim countries.

The English word coffee may have come, in various forms, from Kaffa in Ethiopia, where the plant originated.

Legend has it that a mystic saw some birds acting particularly lively, and experimented with the berries himself, but the first credible evidence of the coffee bean’s use was in monasteries in Yemen, where the monks used it to keep them awake during evening devotions.

In 1720 traders brought coffee plants to islands in the Caribbean, where plantation owners quickly realized the plant’s value, setting in motion the massive transport of slaves from Africa to Cuba to work the fields.

At various times, coffee has been forbidden, in Turkey and other places, but because of its popularity, the bans were always quickly overturned.

For myself, I’m just grateful to whomever the first man was who got past the bitter taste of the raw bean and experimented with making a tasty brew.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Coffin Portraits

The protagonist in my current work-in-progress is from Warsaw, and in doing research about the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, I ran across an article of interest. Coffin portraits, seldom used outside the Commonwealth, were an important part of Polish funerals, usually lavish and ceremonial, even for the common people. However, a farmer’s portrait may have been drawn by a family member, whereas a nobleman’s image was done by a professional artist.  Portraits of the deceased were attached to the coffins, then removed before burial and hung on the walls of the church.

The metal on which the portrait was painted was shaped to fit the end of the coffin where the head of the deceased would be. The opposite end of the coffin generally held the epitaph, and on the side of the coffin mourners would see the coat-of-arms of the deceased. Because most were painted in oils, on either tin or silver, the images have disappeared from churches as years passed, either taken as booty during one of several wars, or stolen by vandals.

Aside from this period in the Polish Commonwealth, the term coffin portrait was also used to describe the funerary art from Ancient Egypt, portraits common during 1 BC and until 3 AD, a relatively narrow expanse of time. The Egyptian portraits were painted on wood. The portrait covered the face of the mummy, and was attached to the cloths used to wrap the mummy. Some nine hundred of these Egyptian portraits are in the hands of collectors and museums, but because of the warm climate in Egypt, which helps to preserve the wood, the portraits are useful in determining hairstyles and clothing of the period.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Review of an Historical Mystery

I loved mysteries as a teenager, but somewhere along the way, I turned to historical novels, my first love. However, not long ago I took the time to read a debut mystery written by another member of Historical Novel Society. I love books set in France (as is evident by my writing), and so I settled down to read Judith Rock’s Rhetoric of Death, an historical mystery set in 17th century Paris. To my delight, the novel has all the appeal of good historical fiction—the ability to transport me to the past, to the streets of Paris, where a Jesuit monk follows leads down dusty back alleys to solve the mystery of a murdered student and the attempt on the life of another.

If you love historical novels, you will love Rhetoric of Death. Judith has another mystery just out, The Eloquence of Death. The book titles would be off-putting were the author not so talented, the plots interesting, and the characters so real. I’m recommending it to both my book groups, and highly recommend Judith’s books to anyone who wants a book they can’t put down until the final page, wishing then the read was not yet finished.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

History of Keyboards

As early as the 8th century, musical instruments have had keys, though the keyed instrument Emperor Constantine sent to King Pepin of France was probably nothing like the keyboard instruments of today.

In the early part of the 11th century, Guido of Arezzo, a Benedictine monk who is regarded to be the inventor of modern musical notation (the staff) and the ut-re-mi (do, re, mi name for tones) devised a way to attach a keyboard to a stringed instrument.

One of the earlier keyboard instruments was the clavichord, which at first had only twenty keys.

After the 15th century almost all the key-stringed instruments used the chromatic scale, as we find it in modern pianos. Keyboard size varied from instrument to instrument.

In the 18th century, a piano maker in Vienna built a concave-formed keyboard, convinced it would better serve the tendency of the human arm to move in a semicircle.

A piano maker in the 19th century designed a keyboard on which the semitones (our black keys) were the same color as the full tones, and were not raised. Thus, the keyboard we know today is the result of experimentation through the ages. As a pianist, I am grateful to have raised black keys and the full 88-key keyboard of today.
For further reading go to

Friday, July 15, 2011

Are Conferences Worth the Price?

HNS Reception - photo by Adelaida Lucena-Lower

Recently I attended the Historical Novel Society's conference in San Diego, where I was a panelist with three other authors, all of whom have a stack of best-sellers to their credit. Flights cross-country, hotel room prices, and conference fees can add up pretty quickly, and people have asked me, are conferences really worth the price? My answer is an unequivocal yes. First, you know that anyone there has an interest in your genre, or at least, in books and what makes them great. Secondly, no matter where you are in your writing career, you can always find workshops that will give you fresh knowledge, and improve your writing. I attended a workshop on Writing Gay Characters, and took notes like crazy--even spoke with one of the panelists who said he would gladly look over some scenes I was not sure were right. Thirdly, of course, are the pitch sessions, where you can meet that editor or agent you've been wanting to talk to, face to face. Add to all these benefits the networking, one of the most enjoyable parts of the conference. At one meal, I sat next to an author who I later learned sang in a group that does medieval music. What a coincidence! She and I started talking, and she knew I had written The Tapestry Shop, my 2010 release about a trouvere, one of the wandering poet/musicians in northern France during the thirteenth century. After I returned home, she wrote me that she read my book on her return flight, plus she send me a nice review. At a reception one evening, I met the author Karleen Koen, whose recent release, Beyond Versailles, intrigued me with its title. I am about halfway through the novel and loving it, and I loved meeting Karleen, a talented and intriguing personality.
Are conferences worth it? Of course, and in this changing industry, I believe writers' conferences are more important than ever, not only for the reasons I mentioned, but to keep track of what lies ahead on the horizon--for authors and publishers and agents. Right now I'm looking forward to the Colorado Gold conference in September, sponsored by Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. Maybe I'll see some of you there.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

History of Pockets

Because pockets are sometimes hidden from view, it is difficult to know, from images alone, when pockets first became a standard part of an ensemble. I found a fascinating article about pockets on the Victoria and Albert Museum website, a valuable resource for seeing the shape and purpose of ladies' and men's pockets in the 19th century, the setting for my current work-in-progress. In addition, the website has illustrations as far back as the 17th century.
In the 18th century, pockets were underneath ladies' petticoats, as seen in photo at the right. Men's pockets were sewn into coat and breeches' linings, much as they are today.

Because there was less privacy in previous centuries, when families frequently shared rooms, people sometimes kept their personal possessions in their pockets.

Before handbags came into general use, pockets were used as a carryall, where ladies could carry common articles like thimbles or scissors, as well as money, snuff boxes, smelling salts, or even food and a bottle of gin.

For detailed photos and further information, go to the Victoria and Albert Museum website.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

History of German Breweries

In researching for my latest novel, I discovered an interesting website which tells the story of German brewing. Surprisingly, I learned that the enterprise of beer making was intertwined with the politics and religion of Germany from as far back as Caesar’s time, when his legions were menaced by brewers in the forest clearings.

Louis Pasteur’s interest in fermentation led to a discovery that saved countless lives, and it all began with his experiments with beer and wine. To read further, and trace the development of ale to lager, and learn who controlled the brewing of beer during specific time periods, go to

Friday, May 6, 2011

Win a Hardcover Mystery from Edgar winner

Today I welcome Stefanie Pintoff, author of historical mysteries. Last week I reviewed her debut mystery, which won a coveted Edgar award for Best First Novel. Today, she’s giving away signed copies of her latest mystery, Secret of the White Rose, to TWO lucky people who leave a comment.

I’ve asked her to give a brief summary about the statuary that appears on the cover of one of her books. Even if you live far from New York, as I do, I found the story fascinating. Here it is, in Stefanie’s own words.

Throughout my historical mystery series, which began with In the Shadow of Gotham, I regularly include several major New York City landmarks. While my early 1900s setting can sometimes feel far removed from 2011, these places can be strikingly familiar to readers – and help develop a sense of being connected with the past. But it’s important to realize that New Yorkers of a hundred years ago sometimes viewed these landmarks very differently than we do today.

One such landmark is the Angel of the Waters, who appears both on the cover of my first book and as well as in its chapters. In cover artist David Rotstein’s creation, she is a dark figure bathed in light, yet clothed in ice; reaching out, yet remaining aloof as cold snow swirls around her. The UK edition kept her as their cover figure, but accentuated her darkness as well as the heavy snow surrounding her.

In real life, she was one of the few sculptures commissioned specifically for Central Park. Her creator, the sculptor Emma Stebbins, was the first woman to be charged with creating a major work of art in New York City. Stebbins wanted to celebrate not only Central Park, but also the new Croton Aqueduct that fed the fountain and gave New York City its first dependable source of clean drinking water. So Stebbins’s Angel, who presides over Bethesda Terrace, carries a lily (the symbol of purity) in one hand and reaches out with the other to bless the water of the lake (which represents all New York’s fresh water supply). Stebbins may have been inspired, too, by a biblical passage about the healing powers of the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem. As Sara Cedar Miller has suggested in Central Park, An American Masterpiece, this aspect of the Angel perhaps came from the sculptor’s personal life. Stebbins’ companion, the famous actress Charlotte Cushman, battled breast cancer until her death – and sometimes sought water treatments during her illness.

Yet the Angel of the Waters was reviled when she was first unveiled in Central Park on June 1, 1873. The New York Times stated: “All had expected something great, something of angelic power and beauty.” Instead, the crowd’s disappointment was palpable. According to the Times, the angel looked like nothing more than a “servant girl” from the rear, and a “girl jumping over stepping stones” from the front. Her head was judged to appear male, but the rest of her body was a mix of male and female parts. And her wings were “unconnected” to her body, put on like a “ballet costume.” In short, “the revulsion of feeling was painful.”

That’s a 19th-century sentiment I don’t share. Her area of Central Park is one of my favorite landmarks in all of New York City. It’s why I set one of my key chapters in the book around her.

And I'm not alone. Today, she’s one of the most photographed fountains in the world – a celebrity who has appeared in key scenes in Ransom, Bullets over Broadway, Angels in America, Enchanted, and countless others. Each testament to the fact that even landmarks, apparently, can be late-bloomers – especially as generations pass and artistic values change.

For more on Stefanie Pintoff, visit

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Review of Stefanie Pintoff's Edgar Award-winning Novel

Set in 1905, in Dobson, New York. Stefanie Pintoff’s debut novel, In the Shadow of Gotham, was the recipient of the Edgar Award for Best First Novel. The story opens with the murder of a graduate student, young Sarah Wingate, victim of a particularly brutal attack. When a researcher from Columbia, where the victim worked, calls Detective Simon Ziele, claiming he knows the killer’s identity, the book takes off. From the opening chapter, the reader follows Detective Ziele through a labyrinth of false leads and tantalizingly close incidents. Gambling halls, a house of prostitution, and a coroner’s wagon all serve to bring early twentieth-century New York alive, even as time is running out for the killer’s next victim.

Well written and full of historical details, In the Shadow of Gotham is a page turner that is sure to please any reader who likes a touch of history with their mystery.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Sanitation in 19th Century Europe

The industrial revolution in Europe attracted workers to urban centers, creating large, overcrowded slums in the cities. Wealthier citizen fled to residential areas outside the cities, abandoning their houses. The poor moved in, living often in homes vacated by the rich. Rooms were continually divided, making way in a structure for more families. Floors were added with low ceilings. Stairs frequently were only ladders.
Few cesspools were in use, and water was only available in the streets. This contributed to frequent outbreaks of cholera and tuberculosis in the slums, where many people lived in houses with narrow streets and little sunlight.

Gradually, fountains, sewers, urinals, and fire hydrants were constructed. By the 1860s, horse drawn tipcarts were used to collect garbage from sidewalks, where it had been dumped the night before for collection.

In the 1880s cesspools became more popular, sometimes by decree, and in spite of organized protests by cesspool cleaners and some unlikely colleagues, medical men. Louis Pasteur wanted sewage to be dumped into the sea because he believed cesspool treatment did not kill enough of the organisms that caused infection.

When garbage cans came into use, outbreaks of typhoid and cholera became less frequent and killed fewer people. In the late 19th century, as the benefits of fresh water, sewers, and garbage collection became common knowledge, health and life expectancy improved dramatically.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Bed Wagons

Bed wagons were used throughout history, to ease the chores of a servant, assigned to keep her master’s and mistress’ bed warm. Ofttimes, before the invention of the wagons, warming pans were rushed to and fro, from fireside to bedchamber, and slid between the bed covers to chase away the chill of an unheated room.

With the invention of a bed wagon, the task of bed warming became easier. The contrivance was made of bent hoops, either iron or wood, which held the covers away from the heat, and made the job of warming a large bed less labor-intensive. The frames of bed wagons were usually made of ash, but sometimes of oak. The total length was normally three feet or longer, enough to ensure that most of the bed area was warmed. A pot of burning fuel was placed in a trivet built into the middle of the frame. An iron sheet was attached to the frame, directly beneath the trivet, to prevent any scorching of the bed linens. Above the pot, situated between two of the hoops, another metal sheet guarded against the coverlets catching fire. Sometimes, the pot of fuel was hung from the top of the wagon, suspended in the approximate middle of the frame. Pots could be made of iron, brass, or earthenware, with or without a lid. If unlidded, ashes might cover the surface of the fuel.

Italian and French bed-wagons were commonly called a ‘monk’ or a ‘priest’, no doubt another bed-humor reference like the English joke that a housemaid was a “Scotch warming pan”.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Medieval Beds

In the 14th century, peasants slept on straw mats, covered with anything available, while the rich slept on featherbeds and linen sheets. A nobleman’s bed had canopies with rich hangings, sometimes embroidered with his shield. Beds were a gathering place in wealthy homes, and were used not only for sleeping but to receive guests, who, if very important, might be invited to sleep in the bed, even if they had to share. Thus, beds were the most important piece of furniture, a place to display wealth as evidenced with fine textiles.

Birth of Louis VIII

A head sheet, as shown in the Birth of Louis VIII image, was placed over a pillow that rested against a sheet-draped bolster. Around the 16th century, these head sheets were replaced by pillowcases.

The best beds in the late Middle Ages had fabrics draped from a frame suspended from the ceiling. The frame sometimes had additional support from a bedhead. The bed itself was not usually attached to the bedhead. Beds were often set on platforms to extend the elevation, making a step up necessary.
From the 14th century on, beds were mentioned in wills. A fairly well-off family might pass down a featherbed and feather-filled bolster, but a noble family might give several beds to his descendants, along with the expensive hangings and a woolen mattress.

In later centuries, as people became better-off, they wanted better beds, and soon beds were a standard in most homes. Except for the head sheet, beds themselves have not changed that much. What has changed is the way we use them. We would never invite a guest, no matter his social standing, to share our beds, and instead of a gathering place for guests, our beds have become the most private piece of furniture in our homes.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Timely Trains and Tasty Treats, or Strange Name for a Train

In a scene in my work-in-progress, my characters take a train from Baden to Zurich. In doing research, I discovered a delightful piece of 19th century history.

A Baden specialty
While surrounding countries built railroads in order to move people and commerce more economically, the Swiss resisted, not only for geographical reasons (the mountains) but also because land owners did not want to part with their land. Finally, in August of 1847, the first rail line was opened in Switzerland by the Swiss Northern Railway system. The train ran from Zurich to Baden, a distance of twenty kilometers. It took forty-five minutes, making two stops along the way.

Baden was famous for its Spanish rolls, which originated in Milan during the 17th century, when the city was under Spanish control. Later, under the laws of the Swiss canton, these rolls could only be distributed within Switzerland from Baden.

Before railroads came to Switzerland, the gentry of Zurich, eager to impress their clients at Sunday teas, sent their servants to Baden to buy the popular rolls. The servants then had to leave Baden at midnight, in order to have the rolls back in Zurich in time for Sunday morning teas.

With the opening of the rail line between the two cities, servants were sent on the train to buy the buns, bringing the delectable sweets back to Zurich, still warm. The train became known over time as the Spanisch-Brötli-Bahn, the Spanish bun train.

To me, the rolls look a little like hot cross buns, with maybe some kind of filling. No matter. If I ever visit Switzerland, I’m certainly going to buy a Spanish bun.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Marking Time: Royalty, Monks, and Geishas

One of my favorite props, to convey the atmosphere in a room, or a character’s thoughts, is a clock. A timepiece can set the mood while a character writes a letter. In my work-in-progress, set in the 1800s, a girl writes to her father. The ticking of the wall clock, interrupted only by a bell sounding the half-hour, sets the mood. To indicate impatience or boredom, one glance at a clock will let the reader know the character’s thoughts. Here are some interesting facts I’ve come across, while researching timepieces.

In ancient times, sundials displayed the time of day, but because this method needed shadows for time telling, one would have to guess at the hour on cloudy days.

The earliest indoor timekeeping devices were water clocks and hour glasses, whose function was similar: a controlled amount of substance escaped a container, a measure of the amount released marking the passage of time.

With the advent of Christianity, calendars, prominent in monasteries, reminded the monks of Feast Days, of which there were plenty. Church bells wakened the citizens, whereupon they set out for daily tasks. Less important for peasants and commoners during the Middle Ages, timepieces were made with the nobility in mind, because workers began their day with the rising sun, and went to bed at dark.

One of the most charming, yet one of the simplest devices used, was the candle clock, which was designed to tell time at night. One of the ways a candle clock could be employed was to note the period of time it took a candle of controlled size and substance to burn to a certain length. Marks behind the candle, such as is illustrated in the picture to the right, would designate the passing hours as the candle burned.

Along with water and sand, incense was also used for timekeeping. In Japan, as late as 1924, geishas were paid by the number of incense sticks that had burned down.

In the early 1300s, the mechanical clock was invented in Europe, although the Arabs had used a system of gears and weights in their water clocks as early as the 11th century. During the 14th century, an escapement mechanism was devised, and two centuries later, clocks and pocket watches were spring-powered. Later, the pendulum came into use, an example of that slow, mesmerizing movement we see in longcase clocks.

Friday, January 7, 2011

My Binge on Historical Novels

For a while, beginning shortly after the release of my historical novel, The Tapestry Shop, I was busy with promotion. That, along with finishing another manuscript, kept me going at full speed. Finally, over the holidays, I took time to do some serious reading, and this time it wasn’t for research, but for pure enjoyment.

For anyone who enjoys biographical fiction, be sure to pick up a copy of Claude and Camille: A Novel of Monet, by Stephanie Cowell. Monet’s life and times come alive in her skillful use of visualization, and I learned a lot about him and the artists whose names we now associate with Impressionism.

Mistress Anne was the first Carolly Erickson novel I read, and I was hooked. I had been longing to read another two of hers: The Tsarina’s Daughter and The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette. Erickson’s books just keep getting better. These last two were a real treat. I kept turning the pages, dreading the end when I would have to leave the Romanov family behind at the end of The Tsarina’s Daughter. The Hidden Diaries left me wishing there were a few more pages. This book shows us another portrait of Marie Antoinette and a different look at the world and people around her. The reader is almost blinded by the gold reflection from the chandeliers at Versailles, and the vivid imagery makes you want to put on your dancing shoes and join the crowd in the glittering ballroom, even though you know the music has to end.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Shipwrecks, Crime, and the Frisbee Invention

Tuesday, Jan. 4th on the Travel Channel, you'll see some informative episodes about American history. The series is called Mysteries at the Museum. There's something for everyone this week whether you like history, old cars, or crime scenes. Here's a taste of what they have planned:

Museum of the City of New York: No story is bigger than the attacks of September 11, 2001. But 9/11 wasn’t the first time an airplane flew into a New York City skyscraper. Within the Museum of the City of New York, there is one artifact that tells the incredible and largely forgotten story of another incident that brought dread and destruction to this city.

National Museum of Crime and Punishment: At the National Museum of Crime and Punishment in Washington, DC there is one particularly chilling artifact. It’s a plaster mould of a man’s face, made with impressive precision. It’s called a “death mask” and it was cast directly from the corpse of a notorious bank robber. According to the FBI this death mask is proof that they gunned down a man once known as “public enemy number one”… John Dillinger. But, to people that knew the elusive outlaw, the resemblance between the death mask and the man is no dead certainty.

National Automobile Museum: At the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada, there’s a beat up, old-fashioned car known as the Thomas Flyer. Its seats are perched high behind the steering wheel and there’s no roof, no windows and no windshield. This four-cylinder, sixty horsepower car traversed the globe in one of the most grueling car races ever conceived. In the process, this singular 1907 car shattered the way the world looked at automobiles.

Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum: In Paradise, Michigan, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum displays artifacts from numerous ships that have been lost on America’s great inland seas. But, one artifact ,a two hundred pound bronze bell that once sat on the deck of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, is a somber reminder of the greatest enigma in Great Lakes History. What exactly happened on the Edmund Fitzgerald’s perplexing and tragic final journey?

Sterling Memorial Library at Yale: In New Haven, Connecticut, the grand library of Yale University holds a surprisingly modest artifact. This simple metal pie plate inspired one of the most used, most loved and most widespread toys of all time, the Frisbee. How did a pie maker, a UFO fanatic, and some Yale students all come together to invent one of the world’s most popular toys and sports?

Gerald R. Ford Museum: Inside the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan, some 18,000 artifacts celebrate Ford’s contributions as a statesman and US President. But, there’s one artifact here that haunted President Ford until the day he died. It’s a 15-foot high metal staircase and it symbolizes one of most controversial and tragic moments in US History – the Fall of Saigon. How did this staircase become a lifeline to thousands and close the door on one of America’s longest and most bitter conflicts?