Over the millennia, the acquisition and preparation of food has immensely changed. There was a day when it was the primary occupation of human beings; now, for most people, it’s a sidelight, and a great many people never touch the food they eat except when it’s served to them. Researching a historical period, for the historical writer, often means understanding the food people prepared and consumed. Food distribution, food habits and beliefs, availability and ethnic interest–all of these are the mundane details that make the past come alive.
I spent significant amounts of time working in the twelfth century, and found a fabulous resource in a book called The Medieval Kitchen. I was stunned at how sophisticated the menus could be in the castles and palaces of the time. I could write about the meal served to Eleanor of Aquitaine in the Convent of Fontevrault with absolute confidence.
Now that I’m working in the 1920s, and in America, I search out differences between menus of that decade and those of our own, hoping to accentuate the historical feel of the novel. As with most recent-era research, it can be tricky to get it right.
I needed cookies! It’s a small thing, trivial, really, but I wanted it to be right. Fortunately, researching cookies–which will receive only the briefest mention in the current novel–brought me to a fabulous blog, and to a writer who cared enough about the lowly snickerdoodle to track down its century plus of history. You can read about it here: American Food Historian Cookies are a long-established kitchen item, of course, but did you know that the most popular one, for Americans, wasn’t invented until 1930? That would be, of course, the Toll House or chocolate-chip cookie–but I can’t use it. Most readers might not notice, but I would know, and so it won’t work. Oreo cookies, on the other hand, made their debut in 1912, but I wanted something homemade, something that helps make my character come alive. As I searched for my choice, I found another great resource: The History of Cookies! Amazing. Did you know there were people who do research only on cookies?
I do hope it’s not only we writers who care about these tiny, telling details. We can, of course, get lost in details, and forget to tell our story. Chasing down historical facts can become a compulsion. And, of course, I may have to try some of these recipes.
July 10, 2013 Wednesday at 1:56 pm
I’m in the process of approving copyedits for the second book in the Benedict Hall series, Hall of Secrets. My quite fabulous copyeditor questioned my use of the Levy Tube, which was the first swivel lipstick, copyrighted in 1915. Her concern was that she didn’t recognize it, which is easily addressed; it’s real, and discoverable. It brought up my own concern, however, about excessive detail.
There’s no easy answer here. The rule of thumb in writing historical fiction is that if the story doesn’t need the detail, it should be omitted. Those of us who do hours of research, though, find it difficult to omit something that fascinates us, and that we think–and hope–may fascinate readers, too. I even found a photograph of a Levy Tube, with lipstick still in it! It’s all but irresistible to me. (Not that I’d want to try that lipstick–brrrrr, that stuff is old.)
We’ve all read the books that feel like a list of historical facts, and it’s irritating. There should be a balance, of course. It’s just tricky finding that tipping point! Especially in recent-era historical fiction, when we know so much about the period, it’s a delicate process to winnow out what’s necessary and interesting from what is excessive. I may have to go back and say farewell to the Levy Tube.
July 6, 2013 Saturday at 10:36 am