Remember When . . . We Went back to 1776? (Our Trip to Colonial Williamsburg)

Remember When . . . We Went back to 1776? (Our Trip to Colonial Williamsburg)

Finally, two weeks late, here it is. A bit about my trip to Colonial Williamsburg!
So, Roseanna is an eager beaver when it comes to history. And given that it was Homeschool Days at CW, I figured the place would swarming with other eager families. So me and mine were there when the gates opened (metaphorically), a few minutes after 8 a.m. Got our passes, headed out . . . and quickly saw that while the Group Sales office opened at 8, the rest of the place–er, not so much, LOL. So we wandered around for a good long while until other shops and buildings began to catch up with our day. 😉 Still, that provided a good chance to walk the length of the town and decide what we wanted to fit in.
I decided in short order that I felt very out of place in modern dress and that next time, I wanted to be wearing period garb. And got the distinct impression that next time, I may be coming alone if I insisted on that, LOL. (Well, I could probably convince Xoe to dress up with me. The boys, though…um, no.)
First we toured the gaol (very interesting!) and the capitol. By which point the kids were hungry, so while we waited to the restaurants to open, we also stopped in to see the wigmaker, which was great. The lady working in there knows how to bring the process alive, asking us who would like their head shaved first and trying to sell us on the purchase of one of the more expensive wigs–which cost as much as a team of oxen, FYI.
Our next stop was the milliner and mantua maker (read: dress shop). This was another fun one, where we go to handle fabric and watch as they make hats and dresses and talk about shoes–wondering whether the company that once made shoes for both the king of England and George Washington is still in business (hey, you never know!). Getting in the spirit of things, we inquired about apprenticing our daughter there once she’s twelve.
Insert said eleven-year-old scowling at us like we are not–funny.
We visited the apothecary and had a rousing discussion on the evolution (and not) of the medical field, the uses of certain items back then, and how people today tend to turn their noses up at the old treatments that did little or had terrible side effects (mercury, anyone?), in all actuality, people today still gladly take remedies with terrifying lists of side effects.
Our favorite stops came after lunch. We went to the cabinetmaker’s shop, where the wood worker makes furniture of all kinds. The two boys in the family were highly enthralled–even the nine-year-old who also didn’t want us apprenticing him out yet (sheesh, unambitious children, I’m telling you…). But what he did want was to be able to try this sort of work, so Mama’s now putting out feelers on how to get a kid started in wood working…
A harpsichord from the museum, which they did NOT let me play. 😉

While the guys were chatting awls and lathes, I went into the outer shop to play the harpsichord with the cabinetmaker’s permission. I’d never actually played one, so that was a real treat! (My husband is now checking out how much these things cost, LOL. Answer: quite a bit. It’s like they’re rare or something these days…) Naturally, I earned the applause of those who came in after us, ahem. 😉 And the kids found the hidden compartments in the desk beside where I played. A marvelous time was had by all.
From there we went to the brickyard, where no one was making bricks because, alas, it’s a summer-only thing. Still, my hubby, from a family of stone masons, had tons of questions for him, and we learned a lot about what brickmaking was back then, and what it is today. They do indeed make all the bricks they use in CW, which is pretty darn cool. And so, as we walked to the Governor’s Palace for our last tour of the day, we were spotting the glazed bricks placed artistically within it and reminding ourselves that those were the sides facing the heat directly when the bricks were fired.
Now, I have a cousin who’s a docent at CW, so she’s the one who gave me a plan of attack for the town, and she offered to meet us for a few minutes when we were done the tour of the palace (thanks, Sierra!). She gave us the tip of the day: go and see the maze.
I’m a history buff. I love wandering around a place like Colonial Williamsburg and learning with every step. My children, however, like just wandering–preferably through something green. So once we found the shrubbery maze (it’s not on the maps!), they really started having fun. Laughter was ringing through the afternoon, and my tired kiddos suddenly had energy. So glad we got that tip!
I got to meet with a writer friend of mine for dinner at a local restaurant (yay for Carrie Fancett Pagels!), and then we all soaked our aching feet in the pool at the hotel.
On day 2, we didn’t head over quite so early–lesson learned–but were still among the first there. We talked for probably half an hour to a groundsman about the state of the modern country (where my kids proved true to form yet again and had a great time doodling in the dirt with a stick…). We walked to the print shop, learned a lot about how that’s done which could be a post in itself (note to self…) and then headed for the museum. We had to get back to WV, preferably before dark, so then called it quits and packed up.
All in all, we had a lovely time, came home with sore feet and legs, learned a lot, and realized that the kids still enjoy the wild exploration above the planned–a note I shall incorporate into future field trips, since they’re supposed to be for them and not for me. 😉
Remember When . . . We Chose Coffee Over Tea?

Remember When . . . We Chose Coffee Over Tea?

I’m a coffee drinker. Oh, I love tea too, but when the day is new and I make my way out to the kitchen to start my morning, tea doesn’t cut it. It’s coffee who has my affections just then.

When traveling in England last autumn, I quickly learned that where the American culture has leaned heavily toward coffee in recent centuries, the same cannot be said for England. Though you can buy a cup of perked coffee from any restaurant or bakery, it’s not made as often at home–and when it is, it’s usually with a French press, which is lovely, but doesn’t make a whole pot like American families might be accustomed to. Which meant that when I got home, one of the best parts was having my coffee again. 😉

I knew from research, however, that coffee houses were actually all the rage in England of old. They are, in fact, responsible for its ever coming to America. So why did England then become the tea country, and America in love with coffee?

After doing some digging, it seems that the answer is two-fold.

First, England–though tea, hot chocolate, and coffee were all introduced around the same time in England, and hence in America, the East India Company was in the tea business, and they began pushing to make tea king.

This went according to plan in England, but their plans for New World Domination were foiled by the disastrous Stamp Act in the American colonies. Though most of these taxes were repealed, the one on tea remained–which made the Americans, bolstered by their cries of “no taxation without representation,” turn to other sources for tea–and to coffee.

Coffee houses and taverns have existed here since the 1600s, but it was the strife with England that made coffee the choice of many Americans. Which is curious, since the beans were shipped green and often arrived musty and damp and, well, kinda gross. Still, Americans preferred to drink what might be a rather noxious brew rather than buy tea from England.

New York’s first coffee roaster opened in 1793, which led to a rash of such places. Coffee continued to gain dominance in America, though it wasn’t for another hundred and fifty years that they finally turned to quality beans being grown in Central America. They launched a serious ad campaign in the 1950s that revolutionized coffee in America by introducing the “coffee break.” Suddenly coffee was about quality, which led to the rise of such institution as Starbucks.

But the coffee industry we know today–be it trendy or eco-friendly, designer or instant–all has its roots in the American cry for independence. Without that, we’d likely be sitting every morning sipping our tea, as they do in England.

Remember When . . . Tea Came in Bricks

Remember When . . . Tea Came in Bricks

It was nearly five years ago that Carrie Pagels made mention of “brick tea.” I don’t even remember now how it came up, but I believe she’d purchased some from a local plantation home and was offering it to one of us here at CQ as thanks for helping with a project. Now, I had no idea what in the world she was talking about. And so far as I could tell in my search, she’s never talked to us about it on the blog. So I decided to resurrect the post I’d done 5 years ago that talked about this fun tea and what I learned about it after this arrived in the mail:

The moment I withdrew this brick from its bag, the scent of tea wafted up to me. My daughter, who runs to the kitchen the moment she senses a package being opened, rushed out just then, saw the brown-paper-wrapped block, and said, “What’s that?”

My answer was to hold it out and say, “Smell.”

You should have seen her eyes light up with delight and disbelief as she squealed, “Tea?!”

Tea has been a staple of many societies for centuries. But loose leaf tea is hard to transport, so back in the days of the silk road in Asia, the Chinese discovered that if they use forms to press the tea into standard sized bricks, they can transport them with ease, and the tea lasts through the journey.

This became such a standard that tea bricks could be used as currency, and this was the way most tea was transported for hundreds of years, all the way into the 19th century. So the tea tossed into Boston Harbor during the Boston Tea Party? That was bricks.

Naturally, when something is used so long, for so many purposes, there comes to be a rhyme and reason to each part of it.

I don’t know if you can read the label on this, but if you do, you’ll find its “translation”–what each part of it means.

The front of this particular brick has details that let buyers know that this tea comes from a company managed by more than one person, and is manufactured by Enterprise Company Tea and the Chinese Lee family.

The back of the brick is separated into squares that can be used as currency. One square, for instance, might equal the price of a chicken.

In addition to being brewed, the tea traditionally pressed into bricks can also be eaten. I don’t intend to try that, gotta say.

I thought for sure, five years ago, that I would immediately start breaking bits off and using them. But I didn’t. Because it was so pretty and interesting, my Brick Tea still occupies a place of honor on my hutch. Occasionally I pick it up and smell it. And tell myself that maybe someday I’ll brew myself a cup with some real history.

But mostly, I just love looking at it and knowing what it represents.

Remember When . . . A Quick Lesson in Coinage

Remember When . . . A Quick Lesson in Coinage

Sometimes the questions a novelist asks leads to answers a novelist didn’t anticipate.

Today, I had the thought that a character should be flipping a coin into the air. So I headed to Google to determine with British coin my character should be flip in 1914. And ended up with an interesting lesson in coinage.

Being not British, I didn’t realize that there was a fairly huge change to the currency in 1968. These days, they use “decimalization” much like we Americans do, with 100 pence to the pound. But prior to that–so certainly in 1914–there were actually 240 pence to the pound. Twelve pence to a shilling, and 20 shilling to a pound.

I’m not sure how I’ve managed to write so many book with English or British characters and settings without looking this up before! Sheesh!

These are the current coins, of which I imagine I’ll collect a few while in England this fall to add to my foreign currency collection (by which I mean the bowl we’ve tossed Euros, Pesos, Canadian coins, and Bulgarian coins into).

These are not, of course, what my mysterious villain would have been tossing into the air in 1914. No, I think he’d be tossing up a George V florin, worth 2 shillings and nearly an inch in diameter.

Interesting note for Americans who are as ignorant of all this as I was, LOL–each monarch had the coins redesigned with their profile upon ascension. So while Victorian coins would all have had the Queen upon them, all new coins during King George V’s reign, for instance, would have had him. A bit different from our Jefferson nickles and Washington quarters and Lincoln pennies that never change. =)

That concludes your very short lesson in historical British coinage. Now back to the man flipping a florin… 😉

Remember When . . . History Came Alive

Remember When . . . History Came Alive

I’m a historical fiction writer–and a historical fiction reader. I have always loved to learn history (or reinforce it) through a fictional story. For me, for my mind, that makes facts stick in ways that an article or non-fiction book seldom make it do. It makes it come alive. It makes it walk and breathe.

Over the weekend, I was hanging out with my family and with a man named Sascha–back in 1993, he came here from Germany for a year and stayed with my family as a foreign exchange student. We’ve seen him several times since, but the last was, for me, 16 years ago, when he came in for my high school graduation and stayed in for my sister’s wedding in July, traveling with friends for the weeks in between. Last year in May, he got married in Palermo, and my parents went to the wedding. Now he and his new bride came for a visit here.

Somehow, the talk around the dining room table turned to different parts of history as we ate. We talked about volcanoes, and I had to tell about the one in Mexico the kids learned about in Hill of Fire (by Thomas Lewis), an early reader about a volcano that came up out of a farm field and erupted in 1943.

We talked about the beautiful, intricate wood carvings he brought for us from the small German village where his father was born and raised, and I was reminded of the amazing carvings in The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs (by Betty G. Birney–a really, really cool book for kids, and which adults can enjoy too, if you’re looking for a read-aloud!)

Sascha brought chocolates, as well, including some Ferrero Rocher from Italy, in their shiny gold wrappers. My niece loves any chocolates in shiny wrappers–she refers to them as “chocolate balls of deliciousness” and collects those wrappers . . . which, of course, reminded me of the candy wrappers in The Kitchen Madonna (by Rumer Godden), and how the inventive children used them to create something beautiful and meaningful. And how the quest for each piece of paper, each scrap of material changed hearts and lives.

And those are just a few examples from dinner. Over the course of the weekend, various conversations also touched on the Baptist movement in Sweden (Gathered Waters by Cara Luecht), the Iconoclastic Fury in Holland (The Sound of Diamonds by Rachelle Rea), WWII in Holland (The Winged Watchman by Hilda van Stockum).

How the Russian Orthodox church was separated from the Western church (research for A Lady Unrivaled). We talked about the early church before the Bible was canonized, and I brought up what I’d learned when researching for Giver of Wonders.

It’s possible I talk about history more than the average person, LOL–it’s one of my passions, it’s what my writing involves, plus I homeschool my kids, so I’m reading it with them every day. But it’s history that I remember so well because of story. History that’s real to me because characters have made it so. History I rarely forget, because those stories have become a part of my heart, a part of my life.

I’m always baffled by people who don’t read fiction. Or, no–I understand those who just aren’t inclined toward it, whose minds work differently than mine. What I don’t understand are people who scoff at those of us who do enjoy fiction, especially genre fiction. Who deem it stupid or foolish or a waste of time, who call it “not real literature” and feel so superior because they only read non-fiction or so-called “literary” works.

To me, it’s the difference between a line drawing and a realistic painting. Between an indistinct statue and animatronics. To me, a compelling story makes what was real come to life again.

And so, whenever I come across those scoffers, I just smile. And I talk about whatever subject they’re talking about, the things I’ve learned about it . . . and the stories that brought it to life. I don’t ever apologize. I don’t really argue. I just prove the point. Yes, I write romance–and there are a ton of scoffers over that. I write historical romance. I read fiction of every genre and variety. Non-fiction when I must, to research, but it’s usually what I can weave into my story that I really remember. And I can talk intelligently. I know things they don’t, and I’m excited learn things I didn’t already. I can challenge them, and accept challenges in return.

And for me, it’s all thanks to fiction.

Remember When . . . The Snows Came?

Remember When . . . The Snows Came?

It was 1783. The Treaty of Paris had been written, peace was a tenuous string between England and America. There was a deadline for getting the document signed, ratified, and returned to France, where Benjamin Franklin was waiting to present it to the English delegates. The hopes and fears of two nations were on the line.

And the document sat, unsigned, in Annapolis, Maryland, where the Congress was meeting. It sat, and it waited, while delegates from the 13 newly-christened states failed, and failed again to show up.

When I was writing Love Finds You in Annapolis, Maryland many moons ago, I kept reading about how the delegates weren’t there, but it took me a long time to find something that told me why. And given the “snowpocalypse” that just closed in on Maryland again this past week, it seemed like an appropriate time to tell y’all about it. =)

I lived in Annapolis for 6 years, so I knew what normal winter weather looked like for the town. Windy. Very, very windy. Nasty windy. Cold. The occasional just-above-freezing rain, a few days of ice. Snow once a year or so. Overcast aplenty, but some days of nice sunshine too.

Not so in the winter of 1783-84. No, Jefferson and Franklin both termed this “the long winter of 1783-84,” and Jefferson further added that it was “severe beyond all memory.” Even the oldest men alive at the time couldn’t remember a winter that was worse for the eastern seaboard. The snow kept coming. And coming. The temperatures were frigid.

The Laki fissure, from which toxic gases fumed

Yes, I’m geeky enough to find weather patterns cool, but here’s why it’s really neat. This winter not only ravaged the eastern seaboard of the U.S., but it also hit Europe just as severely. And Franklin, who was in Paris awaiting the return of the aforementioned Treaty that he and his compatriots had penned, hypothesized that this great winter was a result of a series of volcanic eruptions in Iceland. It was the first time anyone had thought to associate volcanic activity with weather patterns, but modern scientists are now very certain that he was right, and that Mt. Laki’s continuous eruptions had led to gases being trapped in the upper atmosphere, which in turn resulted in this awful, seemingly-endless winter. (There were also toxic fogs recorded in Northern Europe.)

So as we sit beneath our three feet of snow in 2016 and watch the plows come through, as we thank the Lord that electricity has stayed on and our houses are snug, I can’t help but think back to the winter that nearly kept peace from being ratified, and the snows that trapped delegated and statesmen in their homes for weeks and months.

Even after they eventually made it to Annapolis and ratified the Treaty, the ordeal wasn’t over. The ships meant to carry it across the Atlantic were iced in well past the deadline…but Franklin managed to get said deadline extended. And since the winter was just as brutal in Europe, everyone was understanding…and very ready for peace.

That long winter of 1783-84 recorded the most below-zero temperatures ever in New England. The most snow in New Jersey. The Chesapeake Bay was frozen solid. The Mississippi River froze at New Orleans, and there was even ice in the Gulf of Mexico.

But peace prevailed. The people hunkered down and got through. And now, all these many years later, we can rest safe and warm inside.