Tag Archives: Victorian England

How History Books Will Make You a Better Writer


by Lillian Csernica on June 27, 2018

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Why do I write about history?

History gives me an opportunity to get the big picture on how different countries have tried to make different strategies work. Economic strategies, military strategies, and the more cultural and artistic strategies that come under the heading of fashion.

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A good example is Scotland, which has a long history of internal clan conflicts and the border wars with England. The weather in Scotland tends toward clouds and rain. Sheep do well on the landscape of Scotland, so you see a lot of wool in their clothing styles, notably the kilt. I know a lot of people who have spent a great deal of time looking up their family tartans. The truth is, clan tartans are an invention of the Victorian period. This is one of those annoying facts that bursts the romantic bubble of many an amateur historian.

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I’ve written often about my fondness for Japan. Feudal Japan was an era of strict social classes, laws about fashion, and precise rules about social etiquette. While the tyranny of the Tokugawa Shogunate was eventually its own undoing, I must confess I would find a certain comfort in having so many matters of culture spelled out for me. Modern Japanese also enjoy the two-edged sword of knowing exactly who they are and where they stand in whatever social context they find themselves. In the time of the Tokugawa, clothing, hairstyles, personal ornamentation, and weaponry were the indicators of social position. Today we see all that grandeur reduced to the common everyday business card. That has become the crucial indicator of status and context for the Japanese. Westerners are advised to bring plenty of their own. Otherwise there are businesses available which produce cards very quickly with one side in English and the other in Japanese.

It was Eleanor who paid her son's ransom when he was captured

I write romance novels, so I get to take a close look at the techniques of wooing in various times and places. Medieval Europe had the concept of the Court of Chivalry. Eleanor of Aquitaine was largely responsible for this idea. Knights were measured against the Code of Chivalry to see if they met the beau ideal of those times. The real purpose of the Courts of Chivalry was to keep the women occupied while the men were off on Crusade or fighting battles closer to home. Bored noblewomen can be dangerous noblewomen, as Eleanor of Aquitaine herself proved on more than one occasion. In our present time the High Court of Chivalry deals with matters of heraldry.

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Novels from the Regency and Victorian periods entertain me because they’re all about clothes and money. Social position is the bottom line, and so many of the characters are looking to trade up. Finding someone you can love for the rest of your life is nowhere near as important as finding someone with a respectable income of so many hundreds or thousands of pounds per year. It’s possible that I’ve become a tad cynical regarding romance. When you’ve been married for thirty years, the starry-eyed honeymoon phase is a rather distant memory. That’s probably why I enjoy recreating it in my stories.

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Oddly enough, ancient history holds little appeal for me. The mysteries of ancient Egypt focus so much on the afterlife. I know more than I ever wanted to about the process of mummification. I find it interesting that the Egyptian gods have animal heads, which also occur in the Hindu pantheon. What does this similarity mean? What exchange of culture might have gone on that modern archaeologists have yet to discover? As with so many cultures, the most noteworthy people are the upper classes, especially the royalty. The lower classes, especially the slaves, had a hard life. 

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One of the most fascinating aspects of history is food. For the first novel I ever wrote, I had to go looking for Basque cookbooks because the novel was set in Navarre. It took quite some doing, but I finally discovered what my heroine would have for breakfast: chestnuts boiled in milk and sprinkled with nutmeg. Compare that with the necessity in Egypt of having many festal days where the upper classes distributed beer and bread to the lower classes. If not for that, many of the commoners and slaves in Egypt would have starved to death.

In Medieval Europe, bread, watered wine, ale, meats such as venison, game birds, and roast pork, and large wheels of cheese made up the main meal. You can find a number of cookbooks online that provide recipes from the Middle Ages. The key difference in culinary art between the Middles Ages and the Renaissance came down to the use of spices. The Middle Ages saw lots of spices thrown in for rich flavors. Renaissance cooking became more selective, creating unique dishes centered around particular flavor combinations. My research in this area taught me the pleasure of chicken prepared with cinnamon.

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Then there’s jewelry. I could go on and on about the delights of dressing up my heroes and heroines in the bijouterie of their particular time periods. From the hair ornaments of the geisha to the mourning rings of the Victorian period, from the jeweled inlays of the Egyptian pectoral collars to the prayer ropes of the Middles Ages called paternosters made from ivory beads or garnets or even pearls, the treasure chests of history are overflowing. I once had the pleasure of visiting the Smithsonian Institution and seeing the earrings of Marie Antoinette. Given that their total weight was more than 35 carats, it’s a wonder she didn’t end up with earlobes stretched like King Tut’s!

History is full of fascinating details. There are so many ideas out there just waiting to inspire you. Read those history books, those biographies, those memoirs! You never know when you’re going to find the one detail that opens up a world of inspiration.

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#atozchallenge: O is for Olivia Danforth


by Lillian Csernica on April 17, 2018

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Olivia Elspeth Danforth was born in London, England in 1840. Her father ran a tobacco shop. Thanks to a small inheritance, she had enough money to get an education. She worked hard and did not expect to marry at all, much less well. Olivia chose nursing because her mother said she had a talent for keeping her brothers and sisters healthy despite the diseases of the day.

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She graduated from The Nightingale Home and Training School for Nurses in 1870.

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Through Lady Dorothy Monroe, sister to Constance Harrington and patron of The Nightingale Home, Nurse Danforth found a position at Dr. Harrington‘s newly opened practice.

Nurse Danforth acted as part-time nanny for Madelaine after she was born in 1871.

Constance thinks the world of Olivia Danforth, who has become as much a member of the family as one can who is not related by blood. Nurse Danforth knows this is a better life than she’d hoped for and counts her blessings every day. While her demeanor may be stern, she is fiercely loyal to the family. Nurse Danforth literally follows Dr. Harrington to the ends of the earth so she can remain close to Madelaine.

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#AtoZChallenge C is for Constance


by Lillian Csernica on April 3, 2018

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Constance Harrington, nee Dawson, is the wife of Dr. William Harrington. Constance is the epitome of the Victorian “angel in the house,” devoted to being the perfect wife and mother. She does quite well at it, then duty demands she follow her husband all the way to Japan.

Poor Constance. I’ve given her a bad case of culture shock. Through her confusion and distress I can portray the attitudes and values of Victorian England toward the mysteries of the Far East. I can also have Constance ask the questions that will keep the reader informed and understanding the story as it unfolds.

Constance has every intention of raising Madelaine to be a proper Victorian young lady. Madelaine, who takes to Japan like a duck to water, has other priorities. The humor inherent in this battle made Blown Sky High (Thirty Days Later) a lot of fun to write.

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