Christine Blevins

Historical Fiction

Archive for May, 2012

Let There Be Light!

Posted on: May 17th, 2012 by christine

Evil smelling things… Anne stripped off her coat and eyed the half-gone tallow candle in the dish. I wager there’s more of pig than sheep in those candles…      from THE TURNING OF ANNE MERRICK

We take it for granted, don’t we? It’s dark and you turn the switch. There it is – hanging from the ceiling, or maybe aimed at your work surface, or even held in your hand – odor-free, safe, brilliant light. So conditioned am I to this convenience, when a bad storm strikes, and our power goes out, I stumble about the house trying to get to my stash of emergency candles by flicking on the useless wall switches along the way.

Living in a well-illuminated world is a relatively new phenomenon. Though it can be hard to imagine the darkness of the 18th century world when you live in a big metropolitan and light-polluted area like Chicago, I keep lighting at the forefront of my mind as I imagine and write stories to take myself and my readers back in time. Since research in means and methods is essential in order for me to feel and write a credible historical fiction, I have been known to go out and tramp the northwoods at midnight to get a sense for the natural light cast by a waxing or waning moon, or to find out how long it really takes for our eyes to adjust to the light cast by a star-filled sky. I bought a reproduction of a pierced tin lantern and equipped it with a beeswax candle to experience for myself exactly how it might light my path on a moonless night.

When “lighting” my 18th century scenes, I am limited to flame-based light — the minimal golden glow derived from hearthfire or campfire, and the more portable forms of pinepitch torches, candles, oil lamps and rush lights. It has helped me to view the works of “candlelight painters” like Carravagio, de la Tour, and van Schendel to feel this sans-electricity atmosphere.

Candles – the go-to light for most historical fiction writers, were in reality, a very expensive commodity and used with some discretion. Candles were not generally used to illuminate a room, but more often carried from place to place to illuminate a small area. The candles of yore were nowhere near the equivalent to the even burning, scented paraffin tapers and pillars we pick up at the Bed Bath and Beyond. If you were burning a candle back in 1777, it was most likely one made from tallow with a plaited cotton wick, and even those varied in quality depending on the type of tallow used and the quality of the wick fiber. Tallow candles generated a light that was strong smelling, smoky and wavering at best. Sweet-smelling, gentle glowing beeswax candles were quite an extravagance for most Americans, and prior to the Revolution, all candles were heavily taxed, and used judiciously by even the wealthy.

Colonial Americans contributed to lighting technology when they discovered the grayish green berries of bayberry bushes produced a naturally aromatic, clean-burning wax. Both gathering the huge amount of  “candleberries” necessary (15 pounds of berries for one pound of wax) and extracting the wax was a tedious process that produced few candles. For this reason bayberry candles were cherished and used for special occasions.

Neither beeswax or tallow candles had the stability to fare very well in un-airconditioned hot weather. A summer day would cause expensive tapers to droop into uselessness. A great advance in candle technology came about in the mid 18th century with the development of the spermaceti candle. Spermaceti candles were made from the waxy substance derived from the head of a sperm whale. Stable, smokeless, clean-smelling and emitting a pure white light, spermaceti candles were also very expensive – but they cast best quality light at the time, and became the standard by which all light is measured. The terms “candlepower” and “footcandle” are based on the amount of light a spermaceti candle of a certain size produces at a distance of one foot from the flame.

People who could not afford candles of any sort used “lights” made from natural materials like rushes or cattails dipped in grease, or resinous splinters of pinewood known as “fat wood” or “heartwood”.  These lights were held fast in special “pinching” holders. Extremely smoky, odiferous, and short-lived, the quality of the light cast by these means was the poorest.

Oil lamps were used as a cheap way to bring light into the home. Simple “betty” or “cruisie” lamps made of iron or tin equipped with wicks of twisted cloth could be filled with fish oil or other animal fat. Imagine sewing a shirt, or knitting a stocking, or repairing your rifle to the smoky light of burning rancid pork fat.

Any of these light sources were easily extinguished by wind or rain, or inattention. Wicks needed to be tended and trimmed to keep candles burning evenly and safely. Lamp wicks would often draw up oil quicker than it burned, causing the oil to spill over and catch fire. Wicks falling below the surface of the fat in a lamp or melted wax of a candle would sputter or gutter, and needed to be picked back out with the aid of a pickwick. It was no small thing to lose your light in the time period I write about, as the first practical friction matches would not come into being until nearer the mid-nineteenth century. By striking flint to steel and catching the spark in some dry tinder a skilled and lucky person might have a flame going in half an hour – if you were lucky!

I know it all sounds like quite a pain, but I can’t help but find the thought of living in a nighttime world lit only by the soft glow cast by moon, stars and flame to be somehow peaceful, beautiful, and yes… quite romantic.

In Dangerous Service

Posted on: May 6th, 2012 by christine

 “As usual, it is the least likely that make for the best spies.”
Anne Merrick, widow, rebel and spy

The ability to blend in – to become invisible – this is the successful spy’s single greatest asset. Being invisible allows a spy to maneuver between enemy camps without detection to first collect, and then deliver the intelligence vital to their cause.

When the American Revolution first began, the British Empire had been embroiled in European conflicts for hundreds of years, and the British were swift and experienced in building a clandestine network of spies who’s aim was to bring the rebel insurrection to its knees. Once the ardent patriot, Son of Liberty and Surgeon General to the Continental Army Dr. Benjamin Church, was discovered to be a secret agent to the British, General George Washington recognized that without a similar secret service in place, his fledgling army didn’t stand a chance, so he set about building an intelligence gathering organization.

Several characters appearing in The Turning of Anne Merrick are based on the stories of actual agents I discovered while researching the historical record on the various spy networks operating during the American War for Independence. One intriguing character is the clever Quakeress, Lydia Darragh, who eavesdropped on the British military officers who had commandeered a room in her home. Hercules Mulligan was a real Irish tailor who catered to the British officer corps in Occupied New York City, and was also the leader of the Mulligan Spy Ring.

The title character Anne Merrick’s spying persona is inspired by two real life she-spies from opposite sides of the conflict. Tory Ann Bates infiltrated the Continental Army disguised as a peddler woman and successfully gave accurate report on rebel troop numbers, movements, and munitions. The mysterious rebel agent known only as “355” was a female member of Washington’s Culpur Ring of spies. Some historians think she was eventually captured, and imprisoned to perish on a British prison hulk. 355 has gone down in history with her name and ultimate fate never revealed.

We tend to know the most detail about the unsuccessful spies – the ones who got caught. American Nathan Hale was famous for his stirring last words – “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” British John André was renowned for the valor and gallantry he displayed on the gallows – “I pray you to bear me witness that I meet my fate like a brave man.” Unfortunately, both of these men were ill suited to the business of subterfuge, and they paid an awful price for their ineptitude.

18th century spies utilized several methods to transcribe secrets quickly and securely. In my novel, Anne Merrick creates a mixture of water and hartshorn powder (ammonium carbonate derived from the horn of the red deer) and she scribes her secrets with this invisible “ink” between the lines of innocuous recipes. Once the “recipe” is delivered, the page is exposed to the heat of a candle, and the invisible writing becomes visible. Advances in invisible ink technology evolved to require a special chemical reagent,  that, when applied, would make the invisible writing magically appear. Washington supplied this “sympathetic stain” to his agents in the field.

A variety of codes and ciphers were developed to transmit important information. Benedict Arnold composed his secret letters to John André using a cipher whose key was a prearranged published book. Each word of his secret message was represented by a series of three numbers that corresponded to the page number, line number, and the number of the word counting from the left.
The British technique known as the Cardan system was a form of secret letter writing meant to be read with the aid of a special mask. This was complicated system, as the letter must make sense both with or without the mask.

Ingenious subterfuge was used to convey and deliver these secret messages. Spies often made use of the “blind drop”, leaving material at a location that was agreed upon in advance. Written small, on thin tissue, missives were often rolled and hidden inside the hollow stem of a quill pen or other common items that could be carried in plain sight.

The British devised hollow silver “bullets” to store and carry messages. A bit bigger than a musket ball, these bullets could be easily concealed, or even swallowed if the messenger were to be captured. British General Clinton used just such a bullet when he sent an important dispatch to General Burgoyne just before the fateful battle at Saratoga. When the courier was captured, and seen to swallow something, a nice little emetic was administered, which brought up the silver bullet. Clinton’s courier was tried for treason, and treated to a dance at the end of a hempen rope for his trouble.

Spying for either side was a most Dangerous Service. I am absolutely fascinated by these brave and dedicated men and women who worked as agents for their cause – average folk who risked their lives and faced dishonorable death on the gallows in pursuit of intelligence that might possibly turn the tide of fortune.