Het, http://schemas.google.com/blogger/2008/kind#post, silliness, Thomazine. Christmas

November at White Notley – Christmas starts early, in 1646

Not the cheeriest of months, even with that engine of domestic devastation and her boys absent about their military duty.

Het Babbitt is somewhat at a loss.
(Remember, this is 1646, so Christmas still exists, and the Parliament is not yet so strict as to ban the celebrations altogether, although Het and her family celebrate it peacefully. Fair enough, as peacefully as anything involving her husband is likely to be.)

It is a dark time, and a lean one, and she worries about them, a little. That Hollie might not have a sufficiency of handkerchieves, because he always gets miserable colds at this time. She makes a note to find a pot of sage oil to send back with him, when he must go back to the Army. If he were here, which he is not, and is not like to be for another month – for he will be here for Longest Night, though fire and flood and all the King’s men stand between them; it is a thing of pride that he will be here for the anniversary of the night they first met – she could see to it that he was rubbed with it, and had a plaster on his chest, and a dry bed to sleep in –
Well, he is not, and so she reminds herself to hem more handkerchieves. Even in 1646 people exchange gifts – or at least they do when he remembers – and not on Christmas Day, as we do, but on New Year’s Day, instead.
Hollie’s Puritan absentmindedness notwithstanding, Het sees Christmas as a serious business of loving, and so it is her joy and consolation in his absence, in these dark November days, to prepare.

So. Handkerchieves for Hollie, and medicaments, but – well, she will think of something less practical, nearer the time. Something edible, most likely. It’s not a thing she needs to prepare. She may embroider the handkerchieves, under the pretence of a laundry mark.
Thankful, of course, being a better Puritan boy than Hollie, will neither expect nor receive gifts. This is a difficult concept to explain to a bright and loving little girl, and so no matter how much he neither wants nor expects gifts Thomazine will demand that he has them. She is not yet old enough to embroider neatly, and her hems are wobbly and uneven, and so instead she has very carefully tied bundles of lavender and rosemary and costmary with thread, to put amongst his linen. It is only the fact of his physical absence that has prevented the child from giving her friend his gifts already, and no doubt Thankful will receive his Christmas present within moments of his arrival, for if Thomazine must wait longer she may burst.

And Luce? She finds him hardest of all to think of gifts for, because he is much-beloved, and yet she is aware that he is between being a little boy to delight in nuts and sweets and little books, as Thomazine and Joyeux do, and being a grown man to receive sensible, useful things, like handkerchieves.
(If she  perhaps could make him some stockings, then, in a bright, frivolous colour, as a compromise.)

So, then. It wants just over a month to Christmas. The pig’s cheek is sousing in pickle for the collar of brawn for the Christmas table. There are nuts, and apples, and pears aplenty stored in the attics, and a few raisins – not many, for they are expensive, though still obtainable even in the wars. Those she has are somewhat dry and dusty with keeping, but he has promised to bring more when he comes home, and so she is happy to plan to use the last of her store for the festivities.
There is cider, and it will be good by Christmas, being last autumn’s brewing.
It crosses her mind that she needs to go up into the attics and check her apples and pears, and that perhaps Thomazine may be the ideal partner for this cheerful, if chilly, occupation. Thomazine’s quick little fingers are deft at finding soft places in the fruit, and she can promise that any damaged pears might be baked sweet, later.
Het wishes there would be new cheese, but there will not. New cheese is a spring treat, and Hollie must make do with its ripe, buttery counterpart, in these dark, wet days. (She hopes so. She would lay out the riches of her store, for her boys, and send them back to their duty sleek and cared-for.)

Well, then. The preparations begin here, for the brawn must souse for a week or two. And should you choose to try Het’s pickled cold meat –

To Collar Brawn
Take a quarter of brawn, lay it in salt three days. Then take some all spice, cloves & mace & season it. Boyle it in a cloath very soft with some vinegar, salt & water till it be tender. Then rowl it over new with another cloath & fresh tape as hard as possible. Then let it be cold. Then boyle yr pickle with some brawn with a little fresh water. Let it be cold & keep ye brawn constantly in it tyed up. Make fresh liquor once a fortnight.
Babbitt, Fairfax, Het, history, new books, ponderations, Russell, writing

Babylon is Fallen, to Rise No More

Well, the good news is, I’ve finished the new book.
The bad news is, it is not “Babylon’s Downfall” – it’s part one of the road to Marston Moor, it’s the battle at Selby in 1643, and it’s called “The Smoke of Her Burning”.

I should like to say, worry not, I am not turning into George R R Martin (tha knows nuthin‘, Hollie Babbitt)

But I’m not sure that I’m not.

I can honestly say no one comes back from the dead, mind, but there is a Walk of Shame, all the way from Essex to Yorkshire. Instead of the Wall I have the Ouse. I have in-fighting Babbitts, disfigured heroes (yes, Russell’s back!) stern heroines, and there may even be one or two scenes of Het Babbitt without her stays on.

Game o’ thrones, my lily-white backside, as Rosie would have it.
Bloody game o’ commonwealths, more like it.

Babbitt, food, Het, http://schemas.google.com/blogger/2008/kind#post, Lucey, new books, silliness

Het Babbitt’s Good Frumenty – Her Receipt Shar’d




She’d see to it there was frumenty for breakfast tomorrow – a good creamy one, stiff with plums and flecked with spices – just as if both Thankful and Lucifer had been her own boys, in need of good feeding. There was always enough that she could set another place at table for her own baby nephew.” – A Wilderness of Sin

 Het is not entirely comfortable with this. She sees to the meals, and her dear Hollie eats what’s set in front of him, being an obliging sort of husband. (And one who knows what’s good for him – HB) To go around setting out her recipe for frumenty, which is a thing that everyone knows how to cook, surely – well, it’s like setting out a recipe for water, dear. No one will be interested in my frumenty. Don’t be silly.

It’s all about the wheat, you see. If you don’t soak it properly and cook it long and slow you could stand for days and it would be none the tenderer. What you must do, is get the proper, husked wheat. Pearled wheat, they call it, in some places. (Sorry, dear? Yes, barley will do as well, if you must, and if there really is no good wheat to be had.)

What you must do is wash it well in fair water, to clean all the dust and husks, and then set it to boil for five minutes of the clock, and then – and only then – can you take the pot down and stand it in a bake-oven or in the hearth overnight. At Fox Barton we cree the wheat on baking-day, and set it to stand in the oven while it cools for a full day. (Failing that, boil the hell out of it for ten minutes or so, clap a lid on the pot, leave it overnight. That’s the rough way. – HB)

Now, my dear Hollie would eat it exactly as it comes, with all the wheat grains burst and soft, though he does like it with milk and honey, the dear man. It sets like a jelly, and Lucifer says it does look most like frog’s spawn, to which I did say, well, dear, I did not see you refuse your third helping of frog’s spawn.

If you would have it the festive way – and I am told they have served it in Yorkshire this way since the Flood, with cheese and gingerbread, on Christmas Eve – then you must add a good measure of cream, and not milk. If I have all the boys to home I will put a quart of cream to the pot and stir it in well, with a good amount of honey, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, and one or two eggs. Some wealthy folk with nothing better to spend their money on will add raisins of Corinth, too, though they are too, too dear in this part of Essex, and dearer yet since Master Cromwell stopped their trade. 

It is a wonderfully nourishing breakfast, you know, served plain, and the girls love it. And so good for the sick, being easy to digest and to prepare, and very tempting to the tender stomach. In parts of Suffolk, not to say tthe parts of Yorkshire where my dear husband saw service in the late wars, they say it has been prepared and eaten so since the days of old. 

Why don’t you give it a try?

Meet Het Babbitt (and Hollie, and the girls, and Luce, and all the assorted household impedimenta of a 17th century Essex household) in the Uncivil Wars books, and, most recently, in the anthology “Steel and Lace”
All profits from the book go to Great Ormond Street Hospital!

Babbitt, Het, history, http://schemas.google.com/blogger/2008/kind#post, new books, ponderations, present, Russell, writing

Scenting Blood…. what does historical fiction smell like?

I should like you to imagine, gentle reader, a soft, late April dusk. The darkening sky is a lightless violet, and in the apple tree at the end of the little walled kitchen-garden a blackbird is singing as if the heavens are falling.

So far, so the view from Het Babbitt’s parlour window. (Give or take the smoke-blue cat stalking through the long grass with an eye to the blackbird. Mathurin, regrettably, is a very real cat with a very real habit of slaughtering the wildlife.)

Imagine the smell of woodsmoke on the air. Imagine, if you can, that faint tang of incense that means that someone’s burning apple logs. The sweet, thin, heady slightly-almond fragrance of the last wallflowers, in a blaze of brick red and yellow against the garden wall. The smell of clean air, and damp earth.

I like to think I write three-dimensional fiction. It’s a matter of record that Hollie Babbitt is a ragged at the edges, slightly over six foot, underfed-looking individual with a prominent nose and rather too much reddy-brown hair. I know what he looks like. (Remarkably fine eyes. An aside. Het quite agrees.) but that’s not really enough. If you’re to think of my Rosie as a real, thinking, feeling, breathing man who was alive in 1642 – more than a vehicle to drive a plot along – then there’s got to be more.

Try a little experiment for me. Close your eyes, and put your face to the crook of your elbow. What can you smell? What does it feel like? You smell of soap, in all probability – soap, or washing powder. Hollie – and even the fastidious Russell – would smell of neither. Depending if he was at home, in which case Mistress B would have him changing his personal linen with zealous regularity and his shirt would likely smell of lavender, or of the sweet sachets with which she’d be hoping to disguise the smell of horse keep the moths out. Of fresh air, and air-dried laundry, and a little of the rosemary bushes Mistress B spreads her washing in to dry.
And, yes, let’s not lie about it, Hollie is going to smell a little bit of sweaty male, because he’s a guy in 1640s England who probably has a strip-wash first thing in the morning with cold water and that’s him done for the day, thank you, till bedtime, no matter how hard he happens to be working during the day.
– Nat Rackhay of blessed memory was a man for oil of civet as a substitute for soap and water, and he did smell like a cheap bordello.

(Russell, if you’re curious, is almost obsessive about changing his linen – but then you may have come across his sister in the books. Cleanliness being next to godliness, which is it’s a hard habit to break. So. Anyway. Russell smells of something like lye-soap, and sunshine. Luce? Clean, uncomplicated, slightly sweaty healthy young man, who will occasionally dab a bit of rosewater behind his ears on special occasions but feels very degenerate when he does it.)

Smell is a much underrated trigger to imagination, I find. Rackhay’s horrible greasy musk fragrance as a substitute for washing – tells you all you need to know about Nat Rackhay, doesn’t it? Poseur. Fur coat, as his best mate might grumpily put it, and no drawers. Somewhat vain, and very lazy.
Luce’s mother’s house at Witham, that smells of baking bread and pot-pourri and beeswax and faintly of river-damp – is a home, where a family live.

The smell of the back room of a charity shop is one of the most forlorn odours in the world: of old dreams, and cast-off hope, and airlessness. A stifled, hopeless smell.
The belly fur of a sunbathing cat, on the other hand, smells of sunlight.
I used to sniff my late fiance’s hair sometimes, when he came in from work. “What do I smell of?” he’d say. and, “Thoughts,” I’d tell him.

The smell of frying onions and cheap sausages is eau de fairground.
Woodsmoke is the smell of camping, to me – woodsmoke and wet canvas and black powder, but then I am a re-enactor.
Someone used to say to me that my old leather jacket smelt of cheese on toast and patchouli oil – which actually, I deny, most fervently, but she reckoned it smelt of me

Smells trigger memories. I can’t smell Je Reviens without thinking of the inside of my mum’s handbag, and how when I was little that was the most fascinating and exotic place I could imagine, full of grown-up secrets and surprises. Roasting lamb smells of Sundays, when my nan used to roast a joint in her freestanding gas cooker.

Anyone can describe an appearance. But if you go that bit further – what does it smell like? taste like? – you’re tapping into something richer, and more memorable, and more real.

Immerse yourself in what you’re writing about. Live in it, cook with it, wash in it. And then revel in it.

Babbitt, Gray, Het, Lucey, poetry, ponderations, Russell, silliness

A Writer’s Lot Is Not A Happy One

Today, I cannot settle to writing.

There are too many little sub-plots going on in my head. I want to write the Putney Debates, where I know Hollie is going to lose his temper with the prosing and I know Russell will be hurt and humiliated. (I want to know where that one is headed, because I think there may be friendships broken at Putney, and they are characters I like.)

I want to write Ireton’s wedding, which may be done as a standalone just for fun, because Het will attend that (well, dear, you couldn’t expect poor little Bridget to stand up on her own in front of a room full of soldiers, could you?) Where Het goes the girls will go, and where the girls go there is often trouble, of the sort customarily engendered by toddlers.

I want to carry on with the start of the as-yet untitled Marston Moor book, which starts so horribly, and is likely to continue for a good three hundred-ish pages with brawl after brawl until the Gray/Russell dynamic sorts itself out to everyone’s satisfaction. Russell is taller than Gray and considerably madder. Gray is rougher than Russell. Neither of them will back down, and both of them have their little sore points on which they cannot bear to be baited, and both of them will continue to bait each other until they’ve worked out who’s top dog. Russell’s a half-mad Puritan with a drink problem. (He drinks because it hurts, and it doesn’t stop hurting, so he doesn’t stop drinking. All too logical. She says ruefully.) Gray is an enigmatic little bugger with a chip on his shoulder who can’t stand authority and doesn’t take orders. You might wonder at this point how come Gray hasn’t yet been shot or disciplined for his rebellion and there is an answer to that…

And of course it’s such a lovely sunny day that I find myself sitting in the garden with a sprig of rosemary in my fingers, snuffing at the scent of clean linen and rosemary and fresh air. Thinking that even in the mini Ice Age of the 17th century, even in the middle of a civil war, surely Hollie must have got a bit of time off for good behaviour. Time to skulk off somewhere by himself for an hour with a pen and a bit of paper, and find himself a nice tree to lean up against and write letters home to his wife. (He has a habit of gnawing the end of his pen when he’s thinking, and as Luce has pointed out, if it causes him that much internal anguish to set pen to paper, it can’t be good for him and he ought to stop doing it.)
It won’t be the good-humoured Blossom that’s snuffing the back of his neck at this point, the velvety muzzle exploring Hollie’s collar will still be Tyburn’s. But I think for the morning, we can leave Captain Babbitt sprawling in the grass trying to edit his recent exploits so as not to scare his good lady, and sending his best love to his daughters. Luce is reading the poetry of Catullus, to the amusement of the rest of the troop.
(This one shuts ’em up somewhat. Um. Girly? Sorry, Luce, no offence, mate…)

And Russell? He’s doing – absolutely – nothing. And he’s enjoying it.

Babbitt, Het, Levellers, Lucey, ponderations, present, Russell, silliness


…. I was challenged to seven, but I already admitted to one!
1) I don’t write sequentially. I have a habit of writing a vignette in my head, and then another, and then another, and then putting them together like a rather badly-strung length of pearls.
This does rather mean that I have to keep rewriting the end of my novels but calling the Uncivil Wars books character-led is a bit like saying that water can be a little bit wet at times.
2) I have no idea what Hollie Babbitt looks like. Actually that’s not true, I know what he looks like, I just don’t know who he looks like, other than himself. I have read a number of books where characters are evidently based on actors. Mine are not amongst them. In an ideal world, I would cast Christopher Eccleston c. “Jude” as Babbitt, and it’d be close, but it wouldn’t be quite right. Orlando Bloom in his Legolas moments for Luce, again not absolutely right, but as near as I can get it, and Julian Sands (when he was young and pretty) as Russell. It’s not spot-on, but it’s close.
Stephen Fry has been suggested for Drew Venning…. Right accent, wrong colouring.
On the other hand, I have no problem at all casting Tyburn!
3) I know what happens at the end of the series and I’m not telling. The actual ending has never changed. It’s already been written, and everything else is just working up to that point. Which is not to say that Hapless Russell will not get his own series, and that there isn’t a Thirty Years’ War series on the blocks. (Is that a spoiler? Only if your chronology is off-cock. Our Hollie is thirty-four at the beginning of the English Civil War and went out to the Low Countries as a big fifteen year-old with an attitude problem. That’s twenty years of learning his business, by my reckoning.)
I didn’t start the Uncivil Wars books with the intention of involving Hollie in Leveller politics. It just sort of happened that way. He started off being absolutely partisan and then it just got personal, the more he put down roots in England again. He is not, absolutely not, any kind of political statement. Someone did suggest that he was and I would like to set it down – really, absolutely, categorically – that Hollie Babbitt is not any kind of political metaphor. He is his own dear bad-tempered self and his involvement in the Leveller movement is purely an emotional response to the treatment of his own soldiers by Parliament.
4) I don’t think I write like anyone else. Possibly Simon Scarrow, whom I quite like. The thought of Rosie and Luce as the Civil War Maco and Cato – hmmm. Certainly sufficiently sweary. Possibly slightly more political, especially as the series progresses. With more poetry. I have to admit to a near-heretical loathing of “Three Musketeers” soundalikes. I struggle horribly with Alatriste, although cannot guarantee that someone very like him does not stray across the radar of a young Hollie Babbitt. Hollie (drunk on his sixteenth birthday at Breda, natch) offered to punch him repeatedly in the head. I believe he took exception to the Spanish gentleman’s facial hair. Being a redhead, he never has succeeded with the fashionable moustache thing. Rather a tragedy for him, in the elegantly goatee’d part of the seventeenth century…
Anyway. I hate all that mannered thee’s and thou’s and have at thee, varlet, stuff. The seventeenth century was the golden age of the English language, undoubtedly. Let’s not forget it was also funny, filthy, and accessible. People spoke in it. To each other. They didn’t order their ale in rhyming quatrains. (Apart from Lucey Pettitt, probably, and I imagine even he only does it when egged on by his mates, or drunk.)
5) I have always written. The first thing I ever wrote was a Sherlock Holmes story, aged about four, and all I can remember about it was that it involved a graveyard at the full moon. Unfortunately it was written in the back of the car on my way to a family holiday and I get car sick. I don’t remember the end…
Hollie and Luce, on the other hand, first appeared in a time-travel comedy romance co-written with a friend of mine, sadly lost to posterity, in which the gallant Captain Babbitt began as a stern and easily-shocked Puritan officer in the Army of Parliament who was repeatedly seduced in some very unlikely environments by a most unwomanly miss.
Luce was a very camp transvestite who desperately wanted to get into the twenty-first century because he could wear make-up to work and no one would pass remarks.
There was a full-length novel written about this foolery (and a horse called Bastard who had a habit of widdling contemptuously on people he didn’t like) but it sadly did not survive a computer crash. It was hellish funny, though.
6) I have a habit of writing longhand on public transport, which is where I do most of my background thinking. There is a pink notebook which contains some very, very intimate information on the matter of the private lives of my lads.

Not all of it will ever make it into the books…