Down a Delicious Writing Research Rabbit Hole

A couple of days ago, I was working on my book, which is historical women’s fiction set in 1868 Charleston, South Carolina. It’s a tough era to write about because not much detail about the way people lived during that time is readily available. To find what I’m looking for, I’ve discovered I have to go at it obliquely because so much of what I find out is buried in within other history.

That’s what happened when I was looking for a map of Charleston in 1868. What I ran across was this map of White Point Gardens in 1874. My two characters were strolling along the flagstones of the Battery, a seaside promenade, and I wondered what they would see where the Ashley and Cooper Rivers meet. So I started searching and found something I hadn’t known about. At the time I’m writing about, there was a two-story bath house connected to the peninsula via a footbridge. How cool is that!

View of the bath house before it was destroyed by a hurricane in 1874. Picture from the Preservation Society of Charleston

The public bathhouse had two floors, the first was the bath house, and on the upper floor was a cake and ice cream shop! Interesting for sure, but that information only made me curious to know what sort of cakes that shop might have served–just in case my characters decided to have dessert there.

I found some interesting cakes, one of which I plan to make. It’s called demon cake, a dense cake made with molasses, ginger, apples, brandy, and lots of spices. It’s just the sort of thing I love in fall. Here’s a picture of it from Food 52, one of my favorite cooking blogs. If you click the link, you’ll go to the recipe.

Demon Cake from Food 52

I also found out that Linzer torte is said to be the oldest cake in the world and is named after the city of Linz in Austria. Although the cake shop might have served Linzer torte, I believe it would have served more Southern fare, like pound cake and something called muster cake, which is now known by its more modern name of Election Cake and has the distinction of being the first American food associated with politics. Don’t know if that’s good or bad! You can read the fascinating history of that cake in the link above.

Election Cake (muster cake) photo from Food 52 and taken by James Ransom

The day I did this research I had a hard time not dropping everything to make one of thee cakes. I love baking. It has always been a huge stress reliever for me, and right now with covid19 still such a disruption, I really had to exercise self-control and keep my butt in the chair to make my writing goal for the day.

I wish I could say I do all my research BEFORE I start writing, but something always crops up that I need to know. I could put in a marker as some people recommend and do the research after I’ve written the scene, but that’s not how I roll. My curiosity gets the better of me and the details can sometimes change how the scene I’m writing unfolds, so I often research as I write. When I find out fascinating information like the above, I struggle to go back to my book!

Evocative Words

When I got my haircut yesterday, Claudia, my stylist, told me about her trip to Florida, a place we all would like to go when the snow still flies here in the Midwest. When she was there, she went out onto her mother’s lanai and heard the crickets singing in the shadows. I don’t remember where she said her mother lives in Florida, but it doesn’t matter. That word lanai and the idea of crickets singing in the shadows took hold of my imagination and transported me to the place in my imagination where I settled onto a cushioned lounge chair beside a canal thick with boats and lined with manicured shrubs under which the crickets sang. Together Claudia and I shared our own daydream of summer where the word lanai had meaning. It is not a word I use in Wisconsin. My reverie was short but one I longed to repeat. The word lanai and the song of crickets made me think about how words evoke place and meaning, especially in our writing.

During revision of my historical novel, I have been mindful of the words and the cadence of speech of my characters. My book takes place in 1869 in Charleston, South Carolina, so when I inhabit my characters, I speak and hear the Southern drawl I grew up with, but even more than that I take a trip back in time to the Ashley River during Reconstruction. I use words like pluff mud, great hall, parlor, and live oaks. I envision a ruined landscape and a city and countryside rebuilding but still ravaged from war. Horses whinny and nicker, camellias bloom, and thunderstorms grumble in the distance. The scents of salt water, manure, pluff mud, and Carolina jessamine mingle in the heat and humidity, both of which are a presence, as are the mosquitoes.

When I inhabit the world of Charleston and Winterhaven Plantation, I describe trying to climb out of a well this way: “Sometimes I feel I’ve been thrown down a deep well. Like I’m trying to climb out, but I can’t gain purchase on the slick walls. I’m looking up at a little round spot of light, but no matter what I do, I can’t seem to reach it.”

The way my hero Josiah sees Faith, the heroine, is different from the way men look at women today. He’s not moved by her cleavage or her tight pants, not because he wouldn’t be, but that view is not available to him. Instead, he notices “her slender back” and “the twin cords of muscle on either side of her neck where wisps of hair had escaped her plaits.” And he longs to press his lips to the hollow there.

Objects matter too. Some important objects in my book are an the embroidered handkerchief Faith gave Belinda when she was a child which Belinda gives her as a gift when she leaves Winterhaven. Josiah’s mother left him some Repousee sterling silver, embossed with a garden of silver flowers.

The motifs we choose to evoke place communicate with our reader as well. My book is filled with flowers and gardens. Each one communicates something different. Noisette roses adorn the cemetery where Faith’s parents are buried, only white flowers bloom in the gardens at the mansion where Faith and Josiah attend a ball. Yellow jessamine grows in the pines at Winterhaven. Josiah leaves a gardenia on the pillow for Faith after they make love. The list goes on.

As writers we must think carefully about place and time when we choose our words. Like master painters we create worlds with our words, full of people, objects, and conflict. We provide the reader a private reverie that we can share, a bit like stepping out onto a lanai to enjoy a warm evening while being serenaded by crickets.