Thursday, October 24, 2013

Time travel to the year 1740 . . .

I haven't posted recently because I've been spending substantial time in 1740. After getting past the initial dip (in which I wondered where the story was going, and what was going to happen to it upon arrival), the characters took over and now the novel is flowing. I've been fond of that particular year ever since college, when I wrote a paper on happenings in that year, in relation to the novel Pamela.  However, it's a great deal easier to do research now. When I think of the time I spent in the basement of the University of Washington library, reviewing microfilmed English newspapers of the time, it seems like a bad dream. Nowadays, I Google for almost anything I need to know (i.e., what year did the term "bluestocking" come into use? What was a horse-drawn "for hire" vehicle called?); although I have several 18th century cookbook reprints to consult for food, and various websites cover the question of clothing. Then there are the weird and wonderful "print on demand" reprints of really obscure 18th century books. All of these are useful not only for background, but to remind me how different life was 250 years ago, a fact it's all too easy to overlook, when most of us have difficulty remembering life before computers and Internet. Some can't recall life before cell phones.

Authenticity is important to me, when I read a historical novel. Does it matter in the greater scheme of things? Maybe not, but I usually stop reading novels with egregious errors. When I write one, I stop frequently to ask myself questions like, If you're in a corridor lighted by occasional candle sconces, how dim will it be? Can you look up at the man confronting you and see his whole face clearly? Or, more likely, only the half that's toward the nearest sconce? And I had to come up with a new plot twist when I realized that baptismal certificates were not yet in use (and if anyone out there knows otherwise, please let me know!). Baptisms were recorded in the parish register. Most people did not move from where they'd been born, or at least not far.

How much has life changed since 1740? More than even I imagined. You could be hanged for stealing something worth 40 shillings (an English pound was 20 shillings). As late as 1752, a woman was burned at the stake for poisoning her husband, and hanging, drawing and quartering was the punishment meted out to male traitors. If you needed to contact someone, you didn't "reach out and touch" them, as the phone company ad used to suggest. You wrote. In longhand, with a quill pen and ink from a bottle, then shook sand over it to blot the excess ink. When they received the letter, they had to pay for it (unless you could get a relative or friend who was a peer to "frank" it by writing his name across the outside. The letter was folded, not put in an envelope.

Does checking  on issues of fact take a lot of time and slow down the writing? Not as much as you might think, thanks to the Internet. I'm about 37,000 words in and still hope to include a duel, a murder, an abduction and a terrifyingly high stakes game of cards. But it all depends on what the characters want to do.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Waiting for the Chile Roaster

This morning when I glanced at the grocery store ads, I saw that my local store had 30 pound bags of Hatch green chiles (yes, in New Mexico, hot peppers are spelled the Spanish way, chile rather than chili) for $14.88 including roasting. Naturally, I reorganized my day's priorities to include getting my year's supply of Hatch chiles. Five minutes to buy them, about an hour or an hour and a half waiting to have them roasted in the grocery store parking lot and then some time at home packing them into freezer bags. 

It actually only takes a few minutes to roast them in the rotating steel grated barrel over a line of propane flames, but there were half-a-dozen people in front of me , and some had two or three bags. But time spent in line waiting for the chile roaster is never time wasted.  Quite often the person in front of me or behind me is Hispano, with roots here that go back to before the U.S. acquired New Mexico in 1850 (more or less--the Gadsden Purchase was in 1853), or even back to the earliest Spanish settlement of the area, before 1600. And that's assuming none of their ancestors were Indians who had settled here a long, long time ago. New Mexico has a lot of prehistory.  So while waiting in Hatch chile-scented air, I've learned that while some people take their chiles home and peel the charred skin off before canning or freezing, some don't. I belong to the latter group. The first year, I tried to peel them and while some of the skin would slip off nicely, some of it . . . wouldn't. It took a long time. The next I stopped worrying about it. Some skin comes off as you handle them, and what remains adds to the flavor, in my opinion. 

Sometimes we've talked about bizcochitos, the state cookie. Say what you will about the benefits of a low-fat diet, bizcochitos need lard. Not to use lard in them would be like trying to make pastrami out of tofu. Anise is often considered vital, too, and brandy (or brandy flavoring). Mine use both (I found the recipe in a recipe file at an estate sale; its late owner appeared to be a very good cook).  

Once I talked to someone about making tamales for Christmas Eve. That was a little discouraging. I'd found bags of pre-mixed masa dough at a supermarket and gleefully made a filling from a reasonably authentic recipe. When I mentioned the supermarket masa dough, she closed her eyes and turned pale. She made her dough from scratch.  Embarrassing.