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Researching Oddball History

One of the things I love most about writing historical fiction is research, and most often the question that comes up when I'm writing is "wait, did they have those back then?" "When was that invented?" Or "can this bird/bear/plant be found in England?" Some of my questions produce really oddball facts, like these:

 

 

  • Did medieval kings and queens really send out diplomats to find Prester John, a man who turned out to be fictional? Answer: yes they did. Between the 12th to 17th century (500 years!), they believed him to be a powerful king of a long-lost Christian nation in the East full of riches, marvels, and strange creatures. They sent entire fleets out to find him, and I think it's a great example of how limited information was in the Middle Ages, even at the highest levels. The baker in my new novel loves to tell stories of Prester John.
  • What was the Statute of Laborers? Answer: The plague, called the Great Mortality, first came to England in 1348 and killed nearly half of the population. This caused a tremendous labor shortage and threatened to end feudalism because the gentry relied on profits from agricultural labor for their wealth. After the plague, workers demanded higher wages and the rich pushed back: King Edward III issued the Ordinance of Labourers in 1349 which threatened imprisonment for any peasant who left the property on which they originally worked, and then in 1351, issued the Statute of Labourers which made it illegal to ask for wages that were higher than their pre-plague levels. Enforcement of these laws is a central tension in the new novel. Read More 
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Women's History Month: Firebrands, Inventors, Spies and Warriors

Women's History Month! I consider it my life's work to write about the world of women, especially women of great accomplishment who are overlooked by standard history books. Here are the fascinating stories of some unsung women:

 

Eleanor Roosevelt, A Tale of Two Firebrands: Discover the fascinating friendship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Pauli Murray, a civil rights advocate and brilliant writer. 

 

The Woman Who Smashed Codes, Rumrunners and Hitler: The modern science of cryptology was largely invented by a husband and wife team who battled rumrunners and Nazis. Here's their fascinating story, and other tales of unsung women.

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Visiting the "Millstone Rebellion" Manor House

I'm diving into another draft of my novel set in 1351 and I thought I would share with you the building that I'm using as a model. This is a schematic entitled Michaelhouse circuit 1348[i] , "a college for scholars in Holy Orders" that existed between 1323 and 1546 and has now been incorporated into the College at Cambridge. Despite it being a college, it has features that can be found in many medieval manors.

 

  • First, note that this manor is nearly self-sufficient. It has a fruit orchard, kitchen gardens, and a fishpond for food, with a brewery and bakery for bread and ale. Read More 
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The Stunning Evolution of Beauty

 

Three things thrill me when I stumble across them: theories on why the world is so varied and beautiful; how the females of all species exercise more agency than traditional culture understands; and that animals have far more cognition than we realize.

 

It turns out that Charles Dawin championed all three concepts, but his work on these specific topics has been undervalued for 140 years.

 

Yale ornithologist Richard O. Prum's 2018 book, The Evolution of Beauty: How Dawin's Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World, uses his extensive understanding of birds to set the record straight.

 

"Darwin hypothesized that mate choice had resulted in the evolution of many of those traits in nature that are so pleasingly beautiful… from the songs, colorful plumages, and displays of birds to the brilliant blue face and hind quarters of the mandrel," Plum writes.

 

Darwin understood that mate choice is mostly driven by the females of the species. Read More 

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Convo on Research and the Crazy Writing Life

So thrilled to be part of the podcast series run by Anita Kelly. Here we chat about historical fiction, my own love of research, feminist fiction and the writer's life. 

 

Check it out!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AGdJHeHmJt8

 

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A Slender Tether and Ties that Bind

I'm very pleased to say that A Slender Tether, a novel in linked stories, is now available as an audio book in a number of places, including the free library site Hoopla. In celebration, I thought I would outline the ways that the tethers in our lives, ties that bind us or secure us and the threads between us, appear in the book and what they say about the human condition.

 

In "Raptor Among Bluebirds"

A connection about to break: In "Raptor Among Bluebirds" the father of Christine de Pizan is confronted with his own pending death and remarks that "unable to heal her husband on his deathbed, a wife will sew a leather tie, a slender tether, on his doublet" as a futile attempt to reinforce a connection that is about to break.

 

A tether to prosperity or the strings of puppets: Christine's mother her mother sends granddaughter away to a convent with the princess. "I've done us a great service!" Tessa insisted. She strode around the room, gesturing with expansive arms, and Christine heard snatches of logic that it would tie them to the court and position them well, but to Christine her mother was engaged in her profession, bartering with the lives of others." Pg. 63

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Why Violence has Declined

I get raised eyebrows and harumphs of disagreement when I mention this book, but Steven Pinker, Harvard professor and author, makes compelling arguments that violence is declining worldwide, and he backs them up with a trove of statistics and analysis in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.

 

Granted, his timeframe starts in the Paleolithic, and the book was published in 2011 before the hate-filled debacle of the Trump years, but he has a point: "for most of history, war, slavery, infanticide, child abuse, assassinations, pogroms, gruesome punishments, deadly quarrels, and genocide were ordinary features of life."

 

Pinker not only proves that these conditions are declining but explains why and when.

 

 

Why: Pinke identifies several historical forces.

1.     The changing role of government: "Instead of thinking of government as the local franchise of God's rule over his kingdom, people began to think of a government as a gadget invented by humans for the purpose of enhancing their collective welfare." This reduced tolerance for governmental violence against its citizens. The state and judiciary having a monopoly on the legitimate use of force" reduces intrastate violence, he says. And finally, he says, "Democracy… would turn out to be one of the greatest violence-reduction technologies since the appearance of government itself."  Read More 

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A Tale of Two Firebrands

The Firebrand and the First Lady highlights a decades-long friendship between Eleanor Roosevelt and African American civil rights advocate, lesbian, author and brilliant attorney, Pauli Murray.

 

Pauli Murray was a driving force in the burgeoning civil rights movements, launching National Sharecroppers Week in 1940, organizing boycotts of whites-only restaurants, founding an advocacy campaign for Odell Waller's fight on death row and orchestrating protests over discrimination in the military, all the while writing newspaper and magazine articles as well as personal notes and missives to Eleanor Roosevelt (ER).

 

While the book is an engrossing (and enraging) tale of personal hardship in the midst of Jim Crow America, it is also a description of a tender intellectual, political and personal friendship between Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt, who answered her letters and celebrated her achievements. One reads of Murray's excitement  Read More 

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The Woman who Smashed Codes, Rumrunners and Hitler

 To do battle against rumrunners and then ferret out Nazis, Elizebeth Friedman and her husband William invented the modern science of cryptology, described in a lively and highly readable saga, The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone.

 

It Started with Rum

 

Elizebeth Friedman started using her talents to catch gangsters and smugglers during Prohibition by solving 12,000 rum messages "which covered activities up the Pacific coast …along the Gulf Coast to Tampa; from Key West to Savannah, including Havana, and the Bahamas; and from New Jersey to Maine. Until 1930, she did almost all code breaking for the US government's planetary war against smuggling."[i]

 

Extracting Intelligence From the New Technology: Radio

 

"As good as she was at solving the individual messages, Elizebeth's ambition didn't stop there.  Read More 

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Startling Lives of First Women in History

Land pegs inserted into a building to denote ownership. These of the first woman mentioned in history, GAR-GIR-gal.

Two books on women's lives in the distant past reveal fascinating differences and similarities to our own time. Here are highlights from She Who Wrote: Enheduanna and Women of Mesopotamia and Women at the Dawn of History.

 

  • The first woman in history known by name was KA-GIR-gal. They discovered her name on a land sale peg, which would have been inserted into the wall of a building to denote ownership, ca 3000-2750 BCE.[i]
  • Prosperous and autonomous: "During the old Babylonian period there existed a class of so-called cloistered women (Naditus/Naditum)  Read More 
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