A Victorian evening at home

Leisure time wasn’t much of a problem for a lot of Regency and Victorian working class families, but the more well-to-do found themselves with evenings that had to be filled with something. All those accomplishments ladies sought after, which might seem frivolous to us today, came in handy. They could read, play cards, write letters, do needlework, draw, sing, play instruments, write stories, perform plays, etc. Jane Austen started her writing career to amuse her family members, and the March sisters in Little Women performed Jo’s melodramas.

They had some entertainments that seem odd to us today, like putting on a tableau. This was a bit like charades, except they would put together an elaborate scene with props and costumes and silently hold the pose as their audience admired it and perhaps tried to guess what they were re-enacting.

Other of their activities would be very familiar to us. Board games have an ancient history and were played in the 1700s and 1800s, and jigsaw puzzles had their advent around this time. Jigsaw puzzles were called dissected maps or dissections until the late 1800s, as the originals were cut up maps or other educational pictures. (I tried using the term “dissected picture” in context in one of my Victorian novels, but my beta readers were so confused I relented and called it a puzzle.)

My husband collects old board games, and he found this replica dissection for me. It’s a picture showing all the rulers of England from William I to George II. My kids like puzzles, and they loved this one. So, we spent a nice Victorian-style evening putting it together several times. At this rate, the kids will have all the British monarchs memorized soon. The tiles even have little facts about each ruler. Those Georgians and Victorians were tricky–always making sure there was a lesson behind the fun (In fact, I’ve heard “fun” was considered a vulgar word–don’t get caught having too much of it!).

A replica "dissection" from 1788
A replica “dissection” from 1788
Details of Queen Anne and King George
Details of Queen Anne and King George

E.B. Wheeler’s official unofficial Pitch Wars mentee bio

Pick me, pick me, for your Pitch Wars mentee!

calvingif_giphy

I’m taking part in Pitch Wars this month, a chance to pitch my book to a group of awesome mentors in hopes that one of them will fall in love with the story and help me polish it for the agent round in November. Pitch Wars is hosted by the wonderful Brenda Drake. You can read more here.

Many of the Pitch Wars hopefuls are participating in #PimpMyBio, and I wanted in on the fun, so this is mine. Go here to see everyone in the blog hop lineup. The animated gifs are kind of a Pitch Wars thing, but I’m trying not to go overboard with them, because they’re addictive.

So, I’m E.B. Wheeler, and here are some reasons you want me as your Pitch Wars mentee:

  • I’ve worked as a freelance writer for nine years, so I work hard, I’m self-motivated, and I know how to get along with a variety of clients and work partners.
  • I’m a member of one of the roughest, toughest critique groups in the wild, wild West (full of talented writers and great people). I’m not afraid of critiques, and I know how to use them to improve my writing.
  • I read widely, though I always make my way back to historical stories. Some of my read-’em-over-and-over books include The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Huck Finn, A Midwife’s Tale, The Secret Garden, Northanger Abbey, Night Watch, and The Lord of the Rings. I’m currently reading Unbroken and rereading Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.
  • I have a plethora of random skills, like fencing, archery, playing harp and hammered dulcimer, knitting Viking helmets, and getting crayon off walls (heat it with a hair dryer and use dish soap–it wipes right off). And, yes, I know what a plethora is. 😉
  • I have direct access to rich, smooth Spanish chocolate. I also make some pretty scrumptious cookies.
  • Applejack is my favorite pony, but I’m most like Twilight Sparkle.
  • My book, Within the Sickle’s Compass, is a YA historical supernatural mystery (that’s a thing, right?). It was my NaNoWriMo book last year and has gone though a lot of polishing since then. In short:
    Lucy is haunting the Victorian estate of Springett Hall, certain she died trying to fix a terrible mistake–one she must remember and set right before oblivion reclaims her.

Still want to know more about me? Since I’m a huge history geek, and this is a war, I decided to use questions from a Civil War veterans’ survey to tell you about myself. The state of Tennessee created this survey to capture “a true history of the Old South.” Some of the questions are so delightfully biased that I’m including them as they were written, though I’m tweaking the answers to fit my purpose. You can find more about the surveys here.

Remarks on ancestry

I’m part Celt (Welsh) and part Viking (Danish), so I go after what I want with dogged determination. Being an underdog just makes me fight harder.

As a boy and young man, state what kind of work you did. If you worked on a farm, state to what extent you plowed, worked with a hoe and did other similar types of work. (Certain historians claim that white men would not do work of this sort before the war.)

Certain historians sure are shady, aren’t they? Not at all like surveys that beg you for the “right” answer. I love history.

As a young woman, I mucked out horse stalls, set up chairs and tables for a local church, and did filing and other paperwork. In college, I worked early morning janitorial, waited tables, tutored other students, worked at a fabric and craft store, and managed a computer lab (not all at the same time). I then taught high school English and went back for my MA in history and MLA in historic landscape preservation. I’ve worked as a teaching fellow, historic preservation consultant, and freelance writer. I’m currently a work-at-home mom with two wonderful, challenging little girls.

To what extent were there white men in your community leading lives of idleness and having others do their work for them?

This question was just too funny (and awful) to pass by. A-hem. In my experience, people of all nationalities, cultures, genders, belief systems, etc., are capable of working hard, and of being lazy. People are people. I generally like them as individuals, and I recognize we all have unique challenges and experiences to add to the human story, but in day-to-day life I prefer to focus on the things we have in common rather than on our differences. Love, longing, heartache, fear, wonder, hope–these are the makings of our shared humanity (and elements of a good story, no?).

State in your own way your experience in the War from [enlistment] on to its close.

By “the War,” we mean writing, of course. I’ve always loved stories. When I was little, I would dictate my bedtime story preferences to my mom, who was often totally baffled by my requests (i.e., “Tell me a story about a unicorn, a dragon, and the Smurfs”). I won some elementary school writing contests and had my stories published as a result. I’ve been involved in a wide range of writing projects as an adult (some paid, some not): community plays, web site content, scripts for educational software programs and training videos, field trip guides, guidelines for historic preservation, and both fiction and creative nonfiction. I’ve gotten plenty of rejection letters along with the successes, but I love writing and telling stories too much to ever quit.

If you were in hospital or in prison, state your experience here.

I’ve never spent any time in prison, but I had an extended hospital stay after I broke my neck and back in a car accident and had to get back on my feet (literally). I now have Brown-Sequard syndrome (1,000 points if you know what that is without looking it up!). So, I’m differently abled, and dealing with that has given me a unique perspective that I try to bring into my writing. I’m currently working on a YA novel based on my experience, and it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever written.

Give the names of some of the great men you have known or met in your time.

Who are my heroes, you ask? As a kid, I often found my heroes in books. Adaon in Lloyd Alexander’s The Black Cauldron was one of the first people/characters I remember admiring, due to his willingness to do what was right regardless of the personal cost. I also really like Lloyd Alexander himself, who took time to write back to a little girl who loved his books and give her some encouraging words. I think Bill Watterson is one of the great geniuses of our age. There are some historical figures I look up to, including John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Joseph Smith, Rosa Parks, Ambrosius Aurelianus, and many others who took a stand for what they believed in. My favorite heroes, though, are everyday people I see quietly pressing on, doing good in their corner of the world despite whatever personal hardships they face. That may sound cheesy, but I won’t apologize, because it’s true. 🙂

So, pick me for Pitch Wars, and it’ll be like:

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Using Google Ngram Viewer for historical fiction and historical fantasy

Google Ngram Viewer is one of the writing tools I turn to often when writing a story with a historical setting. This tool searches Google’s vast collection of online books (5 million plus) for the words or phrases you enter and graphs the frequency that the word appears in print. Since it’s searching printed books, it’s pretty sparse when dealing with the Renaissance or Early Modern era, but if you’re into the Regency and Victorian periods, it’s a great help. It does have some options for foreign language books as well.

For instance, during the Victorian period, the cravat of Regency fame evolved into a close relative of our modern necktie. When I’m describing my male character’s clothing, though, I don’t want to say necktie, because that will give my modern readers the wrong mental image (especially if they picture colorful modern ties). On the other hand, I don’t want to call it a cravat if that’s not what the Victorians would have said. So, I went to Google’s Ngram Viewer:

https://books.google.com/ngrams

I entered “cravat” and “necktie,” separated by commas, so they would appear on the same graph. It told me the word “necktie” first appeared in print in the late 1850s, but “cravat” continued to dominate literature until after 1900.

There are some things to be aware of with Google Ngram Viewer. “Cravat” still appears frequently in modern books, almost as often as “necktie.” Why? Because we love Regency and Victorian novels. Not many people would say cravat now–most of us would even say tie instead of necktie–but the word still appears in print because of historical fiction. Still, given the dominance of “cravat” in literature through the end of the Victorian period, I feel pretty safe assuming it was still being used to refer to contemporary Victorian fashion. (Also, it was the word I wanted to use to keep my historical flavor, so I’m prejudiced in its favor.)

Another thing to remember with Google Ngram Viewer is it doesn’t understand the evolution of a word’s meaning; it just tells you if a word was used in print. So, the word “lover” appears more frequently in Victorian literature than in modern, according to the Ngram Viewer. Don’t let this overthrow your ideas of Victorian propriety–they used “lover” to mean a suitor or romantic interest, not necessarily to imply physical intimacy as it would today. In Pride and Prejudice, when Mr. Bennett says Wickham, “… simpers, and smirks, andmakes love to us all,” he certainly doesn’t mean it in the modern sense! This is where a good dictionary that includes archaic meanings comes in handy for the writer, and where readers might need context clues to make sure they understand how you’re using the word (and some words you just can’t use–they’ve acquired too much baggage over the years).

Google Ngram Viewer won’t solve all your historical word choice dilemmas, but it can help you determine if a word is appropriate for setting the right tone for your historical fiction or fantasy. It’s also a fun way to waste time when you’re supposed to be writing, and you can call it research.

Buried in woollen; or, Life, liberty, and the right to eat hamburgers any day of the week

I’ve been reading through some English sources from the late 1600s that mentioned people being “Buried in Woollen.” I wondered at first if Woollen was a place, but there were notes throughout about people not complying. So I did some more research and discovered this random history fact of the day:

In 1666 and again in 1678, King Charles II passed laws that made it illegal to be buried in anything but British wool cloth. No fancy clothes. No white linen shrouds. Plain old wool. Why? To bolster the all-important English wool trade, of course. Everyone’s going to die, and the last thing they’re going to do on their way out is support the national economy. The only exceptions were plague victims (bury them fast to avoid getting infected) and the very poor. If you didn’t comply, you paid a 5 pound fine–a pretty significant sum back then. Some people thought it was worth the fine to be buried in their best clothes, and eventually enforcement got pretty lax, so in the early 1800s the law was finally repealed. But if you’re a writer burying a character in Britain between 1666 and 1814, make sure they’re wearing their woollens!

So what’s that have to do with your right to eat a hamburger right now if that’s what you’re craving?

During the Renaissance, Monarch and Parliament regulated almost every aspect of life and death: what their citizens ate, drank, wore, and read, where they went to church (and they had to go), and where and how they were married and buried. The law also had a significant impact on where people could travel, what work they did, who could inherit their property, and sometimes even who they would marry.

Modern governments still regulate some of these aspects of life, especially when they might impact public safety, but usually not with the same attention to detail as Renaissance governments. Are you an author? Or maybe you’re planning a vacation? In Renaissance England, you couldn’t print a book or travel abroad without the government’s express approval of your plans and of your good character. When the government wanted to support the fishing trade, they banned the eating of meat during much of the year. No hamburgers unless they said so.

People accepted many of these restrictions and rebelled against others quietly, but those who did so loudly found themselves in jail (gaol, as they spelled it) or at the gallows. These words from 1776 may not seem like much more than nostalgia and idealism to us today, but keeping in mind previous attitudes about people’s relationship with the state, they were revolutionary in more ways than one:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

What’s in a name?

I need to know what my Elizabethan characters should call each other.

I feel pretty well-versed in Regency and Victorian name etiquette. For the most part, with Victorian forms of address, someone was Mr., Mrs., or Miss to the opposite sex unless the speaker was closely related or engaged to them. Men almost never used first names with one another (unless they were a “Sir,” and then it was “Sir John” or “Sir Walter”–isn’t that odd?). Mr. Smith and Mr. Wallace became Smith and Wallace if they were good friends. Female friends might “propose” to one another, declaring themselves close enough friends to use first (“Christian”) names. Otherwise they were Miss [Surname] or sometimes, in the case of younger sisters, Miss [First Name]. Male servants were often called by their last names, female servants by their first unless they were older or high up in the servant ranking. Sometimes the mistress of a house would “rename” a servant, so Augustine might be called James and Georgette could become Jane if it fit the mistress’s whim or sense of propriety (not wanting servants to get “above themselves”).

That’s not too hard, right?

The trouble I’m running into is figuring out Elizabethan name etiquette. I’m not interested in Elizabethan forms of address for courtiers at the moment–they’re a whole different matter. But when did your average, relatively well-to-do Elizabethan man or woman call people by their first names? I have an MA in this period of British history, and I’ve never come across an explanation of the social rules of Elizabethan names. I read a stack of “Life in Elizabethan England” type books, and none of them offer the details I’m looking for, so I turned to primary sources–poems and plays from Renaissance England–to see what I could glean.

Men and women were generally called “Master [Surname]” or “Mistress [Surname].” Sometimes a women might be called “Mistress [First name]”, maybe especially by men who were close to her or to her family. I’m still trying to work out the details of when that was acceptable.

Family members used first names with each other, though men often called their wives “wife,” “lady,” or (less kindly) “wench.” The wives commonly called their husbands “sir.” This is an interesting insight into how important ranking was to the Elizabethan mind–the husband was (in theory) firmly ensconced as the head of the house, the wife likewise just below him in her role as mistress of the house, overseeing servants and daily work. Rank and role were central to identity, maybe more so than given names.

Elizabethans usually used “Master” and “sir” (or “Mistress”) toward their social superiors who didn’t have formal titles, used surnames and occasionally first names with their friends and equals of the same sex, and used first names or even pet names when addressing servants. Servants, however, seemed to use first names among themselves, regardless of gender. Maybe because they shared a similar social sphere (though of course there were ranks even among servants).

Does this mean a man and woman who are courting might call each other by their first names? What if they’re lifelong friends of equal social standing? Does using first names imply betrothal as it did with Victorians? The courting couples in the contemporary Renaissance plays I’ve read so far don’t use names much when they speak to each other, and the women don’t do a lot of talking. In Thomas Seymour’s A Woman Killed with Kindness, a man and woman carrying on a illicit affair still call each other “Master X” and “Mistress Y”, but that might be a devise to remind the audience that their relationship is adulterous.

If I can’t find a better answer, I’ll err on the side of Victorian-like formality, but I’m a firm believer that these little details set the flavor of the story, and I want to get them right. If anyone out there knows the answer, I’d love to hear it, and if I find one myself, I’ll post an update.