Christine Blevins

Historical Fiction

Quill & Ink

Posted on: June 10th, 2012 by christine No Comments

There’s a scene in the movie Little Women, when Jo March finishes her novel, and gently tucks a bloom under the bit of twine she’s tied her manuscript pages with, and it’s all done – off to find a publisher!

Louisa May Alcott books are near and dear to my heart, and Little Women is top of the heap. I’ve watched the newest movie adaptation several times, and this particular scene always makes me smile, and then cringe when I think about what a complete pain it must have been to be a novelist back then. Just think about writing hundreds of thousands of words with a quill pen that was not equipped with a delete key! Writing without the ability to cut and paste! Without the opportunity make countless and endless revisions with the simple click of a keystroke!

Hmmm… On second thought, that last one might be actually be an advantage!

As an author, handwriting is a device I use to get my creative juices flowing. I always begin a writing session with pen and paper. My pen of choice is a medium tip Liquid Flair, and the paper, an 5” x 8” spiral bound notebook. With these two tools I can curl up in a chair or a window seat and let my mind wander off to the 18th century. Once my margins become cramped with notes and swinging arrows, and the writing starts to become illegible for the scratch outs and carrotted inserts, I take the pages over to my trusty Mac to be finessed and endlessly revised.

 

It is said Louisa May Alcott was a very fast writer, able to finish thirty handwritten manuscript pages a day. Keep in mind, novelists of yore had to contend with the mechanics of the quill pen and the often uneven quality of paper made from cotton fiber. A writer had to be a master of the penknife, able to shape and cajole a nib from the heat-tempered quill of a feather into the precision instrument of her craft.

 

The quill dip pen reigned supreme for over a thousand years. Illuminated manuscripts, Shakespeare’s plays, epic poetry, edicts, law, letters to loved ones – all written by the dip and scratch of a feather. Luckily, bird feathers are a sustainable commodity, as quill pens were notorious for wearing out quickly. Feathers taken from living bird in the spring were considered the prime source for a long lasting pen. The five outer quills of the left wing were most prized by scribes, as the plumes curved outward for use by the right-handed.

 

The type of feather used made a difference in the quality of your stroke. Though goose feathers were most common, scarce swan feathers were the “Mont Blanc” of the quill pen world. Crow feathers were preferred for fine line work, but the feathers from the eagle, owl, hawk and turkey could all be used in a pinch. Charles Dickens was famous for his need to have a large array of different types of quills at his disposal, so he could easily switch pens to match the quality of his penmanship to the prose he was writing.

 

And it didn’t end with paper and pen. Beyond the aforementioned penknife, a writer needed all manner of accouterments to write even a simple letter. A sprinkling of powdery pounce – a mixture of cuttlebone, pumice and gum sandarac – was dispensed from the salt-shaker like pounce pot to speed the drying of the ink. Extra absorbent blotting paper was manufactured specifically for the purpose of dabbing up the blips and blobs and blobs inherent in dip pen writing. Wells made of silver and glass held inks made from lampblack and linseed oil were essential, and a mahogany writing box lined with leather kept your writing gear in good order.

 

As I tap out this blog post, I think about future writers as they access holographic images of us 21st century folk slaving over iMacs from their bionic nanochip implants. I imagine they will shake their heads with bemusement, smile, cringe, and then telepathically communicate with the entire collective, thinking, “Keyboard and mouse! What a pain that must have been!”

Come to the Printers Row Lit Fest!

Posted on: June 2nd, 2012 by christine No Comments

I’ll be speaking at the Printers Row Lit Fest this coming Saturday, June 9th from 1 – 1:45 at the Center Stage.

I am thrilled to be included in the converstion with two very talented novelists – Hillary Jordan and Lois Leveen. We’ll be talking about influences and processes, plus do a few short readings from our latest works  followed up by book signings.

All in all, Printers Row Lit Fest is an awesome event for book lovers, and a great way to enjoy a Saturday in beautiful downtown Chicago.

 

 

Let There Be Light!

Posted on: May 17th, 2012 by christine No Comments

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 1 Comment

 “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.

Women at War

Posted on: April 17th, 2012 by christine 2 Comments

The history we learn in school and what is most often portrayed in popular media is almost always focused on the courage and dedication of men. Women’s stories are often lost or overlooked, and in this regard, the history of the American Revolution is no exception. Some will say, “Aw come on, Christine… what about Betsy Ross, or Martha Washington… or Abigail Adams…” and then the argument usually peters off right there. Most of us can name too few examples of women who played any role in the event considered to be one of the biggest turning points in world history.

Because women’s roles very often occur backstage to the political arena or battleground, they are seldom recorded, and hence become lost to us. Researching and writing a continuing story set during the American Revolution has offered me the opportunity to explore the many and diverse ways women were involved in the conflict.

Apathetic, Patriotic or Loyalist, women could not help but be touched by the events that occurred once “the shot heard round the world” was fired in 1775. Though 18th century society might dictate that a women’s role and viewpoint be either unimportant, or based on that of her husband or father, the events leading up to revolution and the resultant war inspired many women to act upon their own political choices.

Revolutionary America could be a very unsafe place for women. American women became eyewitnesses to war when their towns, cities and farms were engulfed in battle. With men gone off to fight, the women left behind were often called upon to manage the family and farm or business on their own. Many of these women were responsible for defending hearth and home from military foragers (both Continental and British), British Indian allies, and desperate deserters. Those unlucky enough to find themselves in either army’s path were often forced out onto the road as refugees. On her way to marry a Redcoat officer, Jane MacCrae was brutally murdered and scalped by Indian raiders employed by the British. News of her death helped to turn sentiment away from the Loyalist cause.

Out of loyalty, or sometimes due to economic constraints, many women followed their men from garrison, to camp, to battlefield, carrying children (and often bearing children) along the way. Officer wives, like the Baroness Frederika Von Riedesel, crossed oceans and braved the wilds to support their husband’s career. Other women followed their common soldier-husbands and served as cooks or laundresses for the army. No matter their social strata, these camp following women suffered victory and defeat with their armies, and bore witness to the brutality of army life and the horror of battle by nursing the sick and wounded. Though it is debated whether the story of Molly Pitcher – the wife of a Continental gunner who took his place at the cannon when he was killed in action – is fact or fiction, I would be willing to wager the act of a camp follower taking up arms against the enemy was not an uncommon one.

Some women tried to engage in a more active role than those permitted. Deborah Samson was exposed – and is thus remembered in the record – as a woman who disguised herself as a man in order to enlist and fight as a soldier in the Continental Army. Both Loyalist and Patriot women risked having their necks stretched for treason by gathering intelligence on the enemy. The mysterious agent known only as “355” was a female member of Washington’s Culpur Ring of spies who goes down in history with her name and fate never revealed. Anne Bates was one of the Britain’s most successful she-spies, infiltrating the Continental Army as a peddler woman she gave accurate report on rebel troop numbers, movements, and munitions. Lydia Darragh was a Quaker housewife who eavesdropped on the British Command quartered in her home and smuggled the information thus gathered to General Washington at Valley Forge.

These are but a few examples. Patriot or Loyalist, free or slave, black, white, or Native American, women were there. As a writer of historical fiction, I am always compelled to try and ferret out their lost stories. In my digging, I can’t help but wonder about all the unnamed women whose world was turned upside down by Revolution and War – whose stories we can only imagine.

A Novel Idea

Posted on: April 11th, 2012 by christine 2 Comments

Research – I am always at it. As a writer of historical adventure stories, I am always gathering information. In my quest for the wonderful tidbits required to make a historical novel come alive, I often bump into a tasty morsel altogether unrelated to what I am seeking, but compelling nonetheless. So what do I do when this happens? I jot it down. I have a mountain of scribbled in noteboooks. Evidently, sometime during in the course of research for my debut novel, Midwife of the Blue Ridge (an adventure set in 1763),  amid notes regarding 18th century ocean travel and life aboard a sailing ship, I jotted down this completely unrelated fact:
Really? New York City had been occupied by the British Army for seven years? Boston and Philadelphia are the large cities that spring to mind when you think about the American Revolution. New York – not so much. I was surprised the city had been occupied by enemy forces for seven years. Not only did I jot the fact down – I double bubbled it!

Once I completed the manuscript Midwife of the Blue Ridge, I set out to get it published. This difficult process begins with  finding a literary agent willing to take on an uncredentialed and unpublished author. One does this by sending out query letters and sample pages, and suffering many, many rejections and much disappointment. At one fairly low point, I was organizing my research materials and seriously thinking about giving up on ever being published, I ran across that bubbled note again.Really? New York City had been occupied by the British Army for seven years…

We Americans begin learning about the birth of our nation from the moment we gaze in wonder at a firework display at our first Fourth of July celebration. Between kindergarten and high school, a multitude of significant events, the battles and the stories of our forefathers – all of this history becomes etched on, and sometimes lost, in the wrinkles of our brains.

I reread the note and turned to the internet to recover what I had lost, and began  to unearthed things I didn’t ever know. I became swept up in the American Revolution – swept up in the confusion and fervor of that extraordinary time in our history. A story began to coalesce in my mind – and as I researched. I imagined a tale about a woman – not the daughter, or wife or mistress or maid of any historically famous man –  just an ordinary woman who gets swept up by remarkable events taking place around her. It became apparent once I began the deep research that the American Revolution story I envisioned would require more than one book.

I’d of never figured that a single scribbled note written years before would wind up a three novel idea. Needless to say, I keep all my notebooks.

 

Upcoming Event!

Posted on: March 28th, 2012 by christine No Comments

Join me at the
Gail Borden Public Library
270 North Grove Avenue, Elgin, Illinois 60120
this coming

Monday, April 2nd at 7PM
for  Authors on the Fox
“Curl Up With the Past”

Signing, Door prizes and other fun stuff!

Registration is required

Book Release Day!!!

Posted on: February 8th, 2012 by christine No Comments

There’s a special smile on my face and an added bounce in my step today. At long last, my latest novel, and the second in my American Revolution series was released for publication today.

The Turning of Anne Merrick is now available for sale in brick and mortar and online booksellers in paper and electronic formats.

Link up to the first four stops on a Virtual Book Tour that will continue through the months of February and March. Follow along for the latest reviews, guest blog posts and interviews and leave comments to enter and win giveaways of books and other rather cool 18th century sundries.

A Bookish Libraria

2 Read or Not 2 Read

The Book Owl

Historical Tapestry

Go here to see the complete schedule of all the wonderful book bloggers hosting the tour.

Cheers, and  Up the Rebels!

 

Let the Tour Begin

Posted on: January 31st, 2012 by christine 1 Comment

With the publication date for The Turning of Anne Merrick looming, the book blog tour has begun! Go here to see the complete schedule of all the wonderful blogs  I will be visiting in February and March.

And check out my first guest blog post at Historical Tapestry. Leave a comment to enter and win a very cool 18th century-ish giveaway!

 

February 7th is right around the corner…

Posted on: January 23rd, 2012 by christine 3 Comments

Author copies arrived!