The single thing I have loved most about writing a novel is writing the novel, especially on those occasions (more frequent than you might think), when the characters take over and I seem only to be channelling them directly from the Eighteenth Century. My other favorite thing is being part of a writing community. You will never feel that community around you more than when you are down, unless it is when you are up. How amazing is that?
I’ve just returned from the PNWA Summer Conference, where Of Ships and Sealing Wax was a finalist in the 2017 Literary Contest. I was honestly overwhelmed just to be named a finalist. As it happened, I walked out of the awards dinner still a finalist and still feeling overwhelmed. The warmth and support from fellow writers, including those nominated in the same category, was palpable during the entire conference. Yes, when you have that “finalist” ribbon on your badge, people go out of their way to congratulate you and ask about your work, but guess what? Every time I turned around someone was asking someone else about their work. The dinners, large assemblies, and breakout sessions all vibrated with energy, intelligence, and humor. There is not much to beat the feeling that you are among your tribe.
At the moment I’m both exhausted and inspired. I have new connections, new ideas, new ambitions. I am full of admiration and gratitude for so many people.
Once I had a finished MS, it was time to start thinking about what to do next. The logical steps seemed to be (1) attending conferences where there’s an opportunity to pitch to agents and editors and (2) maybe entering a few contests. Deep breaths, Suzanne. Deep breaths. In spite of a certain amount of nerves, I’m looking forward to my second Historical Novel Society conference in Portland later this month. Last year, I was fortunate enough to attend the 2016 HNS conference in Oxford — an unforgettable introduction to conferences for writers and readers. According to all I’ve heard and experienced, conferences are chock full of opportunities not only to network and to pitch, but also to take in one-of-a-kind workshops, seminars, and panels or to sign up for in-depth master classes.
In July, I’ll be hitting the road again (even if only for a short distance) to the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Conference near the Seattle Airport. I’m particularly excited about this conference because I just learned the MS for Of Ships and Sealing Wax is a finalist in the PNWA Literary Contest, in the historical category. More information on the contest will be forthcoming soon.
I also entered a couple more contests sponsored by publishing houses. All of this requires homework. Every contest and every interactive conference workshop demands a different iteration of your material. As a result, I now have a one-page synopsis, a full synopsis, cover letters, a bio, a resume, and outline. I also created a template for query letters because queries are on my to-do list right after honing those conference pitches.
In the throes of writing and editing, a writer sometimes neglects her website and blog. When I finished the manuscript for Of Ships last December, I should have posted the news here as part of the hooping and hollering that ensued. I should have profusely thanked my readers Kay, Teresa, and Rebecca for their thoughtful, thorough, and insightful advice and comments. I am equally grateful to my mentor Deborah, who constantly inspires and dispenses wisdom. At least as much gratitude goes to my friends Kathy and Candace for their patience, humor, and understanding. Sure, you write alone, but underneath is an intricate ecosystem of support and infrastructure. I hope to have many more chances to recognize these folks, and others too, as this adventure continues.
At the end of August, right after I wrote the previous post about researching food in the Eighteenth Century, I got on a plane and went to the UK for the Historical Novel Society Conference in Oxford. I went with friends, we had time to enjoy London beforehand, and the conference was just fine. The program included some excellent speakers and presenters and I got to stay in college at St Anne’s and meet some lovely fellow writers.
St Anne’s College
In truth, however, the best part was hanging on in Oxford for another week, more or less on my own. Staying out in East Oxford, I learned my way around, used a bus pass, walked a lot, took hundreds of photos with my iPhone, visited museums and colleges, drank countless cappuccinos, and, best of all, became a Bodleian reader and conducted research for my novel in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Reading Room at the Weston Library.
Some of the naval material I reviewed in the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera has informed writing I’ve done since. One very relevant document was an 1804 report on certain naval affairs in the London Gazette. I was also able to review handwritten documents from the 1790s, the period that Of Ships and Sealing Wax covers. By the way, the earliest handwritten document I handled was dated 1706. The entire experience was made even more delightful because of the unfailing kindness and assistance of everyone I came in contact with at the Bodleian. And, yes, you really do have to read that oath aloud on admittance!
By roundabout means, I uncovered another resource in London, though I have yet to visit. I was excited to stop in at Persephone Books, where I had obtained by mail the cookbook (I should say, cookery book) that informed so much of my August 27 blog post, not to mention the entire last half of my draft manuscript – Mrs. Rundell’s A New System of Domestic Cookery. Do click on this link to read the wonderful Persephone article about Mrs. Rundell and her book, which “Jane Austen would have used (had she cooked).”
Persephone has published several books on food and cooking. I am now the proud owner of Good Things in England by Florence White. The very knowledgeable staff also recommended that I visit the Guildhall Library, which is supposed to have an excellent collection of cookery books, including the Elizabeth David Collection. A different era, but no doubt fascinating. So that’s definitely going on my “to do” list for my next trip.
Oh, and the other Rs referred to above are “readers” and “revision.” Next up: readers.
What to serve a British naval officer for dinner in 1795? Reader, I researched it. After many months of war service in the Mediterranean, Captain Edward Trewin has returned to England. His ship is laid up for repairs in Portsmouth but, for reasons I hope you will find intriguing, he did not immediately go home. When Edward finally does make it back to his family in Falmouth, he and his wife Julia cannot find much to talk about — at least at first. However, they do distract themselves by eating and drinking rather a lot. As a writer, I am more than two centuries, a continent, and an ocean away from these goings on, but I still have to decide what these characters are going to be consuming and imbibing.
No doubt many other writers have researched the food of this period in more depth and with more background knowledge than I, but I so enjoyed looking into the subject that I want to share what I did find. By the way, this is the first blog post to spring out of my novel in progress, so I’m excited about that, too. Thanks for reading and your comments and questions are very welcome!
The internet is one obvious way to discover more about food, cooking, and dining in Georgian times, but I already owned a couple of history-related cookbooks so that’s where I started. Except for the occasional foray to validate a word or check spelling in the online OED1, I have yet to go further. If you are interested in researching meals and food that might be served in the late Eighteenth Century, I have a couple of recommendations for you.
set out to recreate 18th-century cooking, a feat akin to reproducing the orchestral sound of the period. They went in scholarly pursuit of food sources and in their Long Island kitchen prepared meals totally unacceptable to today’s dietary wonts.
The results were chronicled in Lobscouse and Spotted Dog. It served up the flavor of life before the main in the Royal Navy and the recipes for dishes a hungry sailor might enjoy.
These authors were probably far more familiar with the doings of Stephen Maturin and Jack Aubrey than I will ever be. Without question, they were highly attuned to all of O’Brian’s references to food and drink. Thanks to their organization as well as their digressions, I have been able to solve the problem of what might be served at a grand shipboard dinner as well as how to make coffee that would best please a sailor. I benefitted particularly from the list of recipes by category (savory pies, savory puddings, sweet puddings, etc.) and the descriptions of wine and liquors.
Trying to describe family dinners of the period, as well as soirees, routs, and visits to taverns and coffee houses, I found myself wondering what a cook or housewife might have found in the market during certain months, as well as how various foodstuffs could be prepared by or served to my characters. I have not yet got my hands on a book mentioned in the preface to Lobscouse and Spotted Dog — a 1747 recipe book known as The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse — but I hope to consult it eventually.
What I did have on hand was a facsimile copy of A New System of Domestic Cookery by Mrs. Rundell, first published in 1806. The subtitle is “Formed Upon Principles of Economy; and Adapted to the Use of Private Families.” Wikipedia says that Mary Eliza Rundell has been called “the original domestic goddess” and her book “a publishing sensation” and “the most famous cookery book of its time.” It ran to over 67 editions. My copy came from Persephone Books in London. The Persephone edition is a beautiful little volume with flowered endpapers. It contains a section at the back titled “Bills of Fare, Family Dinners, &c,” which is a “List of various articles in season in different months.” Supremely useful for historical novelists! If you would like to know, for example, what fish or meat or vegetable or fruit was likely to be available in April during the last of the Eighteenth Century, this near-contemporary list would be an excellent place to start. One may also find within this book specific suggestions for five family dinners, a section titled “General Remarks on Dinners,” which sets out items that could be served for various courses, and directions to servants, including recipes for pomade and stain removal, and all sorts of tips for household management.
Soon I will be off to London and then the Historical Novel Society Conference in Oxford. In London, I plan to visit the Dennis Severs House in the East End, along with friends who are also writers. By all accounts, the experience of touring this Eighteenth Century silk weaver’s house deeply engages the senses, so I will certainly have in mind Mrs. Rundell, her predecessor Mrs. Glasse, and the talented ladies who produced Lobscouse and Spotted Dog.
1 I’m so fortunate that I can access the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary through the auspices of my local library, which is part of the exemplary Timberland Regional Library system. I worship at their feet.
Recently, I decided to create a separate website to share information about the historical novel I’m currently revising. As you have no doubt noticed, it’s called Of Ships and Sealing Wax, which is also the name of my new website. It has a blog — that’s the page you are on — where I can tell you about work on the manuscript and also share news, resources, articles, books, and tidbits about England in the late Eighteenth Century.
On The Blue Chair Blog, I write about books, writing, travel, and a variety of other topics that catch my interest. I hope you still want to read it or will want to visit if you haven’t already dropped by.