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?