Have you seen the Muffin Man?

 

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The number one rule of writing is, write what you know. Since the first novella I published is told from the point of view of a male retired cop, I guess I must be a rule breaker. I’m a curious person by nature, which is probably why I love the research that goes with writing something I don’t know. It makes telling the story more interesting when I can share some little nugget I learn with my readers.

I’m so curious that any mundane activity has the ability to get me to run to my computer to look something up. I do love the internet.

One morning I was making myself breakfast. I was just popping an English muffin into the toaster, when I started to wonder about the hole-filled breakfast food. Is the English muffin really English? Is it related to the crumpet? How did it come about? As soon as I could lick my fingers clean, I was on my laptop giving Google a work out.

The first article I found said the English muffin was indeed English. In Victorian times it was a food created from leftover bread and biscuit dough scraps along with mashed potatoes. The batter was poured on a hot griddle, creating light, crusty muffins for the servants. When the well-to-do upstairs discovered the tasty treat, it became a popular pastry, especially during tea time. It became so popular, that English muffin factories began to pop-up and men carrying the baked good to sell on wooden trays could be seen walking the streets. This is what the song “Do you know the muffin man…” refers to.

So I was slightly confused when the next link I clicked on claimed that the English muffin was not English, but an American invention. It turns out that the credit is given to Samuel Bath Thomas who immigrated from England in 1874. Thomas, who worked in a bread bakery, opened his own bakery in 1880, It was there that he took his knowledge and created the modern day, Americanized English muffin. It is a Thomas brand English muffin that started me on this quest. Thomas English muffins have since made their way back across the pond to Britain. Talk about full circle!

So, although the English muffin you buy in the store today was technically invented in America, it was done so by an Englishman who brought with him the knowledge and history of the muffin of Victorian England as well as the crumpet.

As for the crumpet, it is a very similar type biscuit credited to the Anglo Saxons, only it’s holes are on the outside, not the inside, so a crumpet is not split. Both are a griddle cake but unlike the English muffin the crumpet holes come from adding baking soda. Crumpets are made with milk, English muffins are not. The texture of a crumpet is spongier than the English muffin.

So here’s my conclusions based on what I learned. Crumpets were around forever. The British upper class favored them. The poor servants were hungry and invented their own version out of the bread dough scraps they could get from the kitchen. The aristocrats, not wanting the servants to have something they didn’t, started eating their “muffins.” Mr. Thomas, a baker from England, came over to America. He saw that we didn’t have anything similar, so he decided to take what he knew about making crumpets and muffins and invented the modern day English muffin that can be heated in a toaster.

I say the English muffin is indeed English. Just because I may put slightly different ingredients in my version of spaghetti sauce doesn’t mean that spaghetti sauce is American and not Italian. When we say a food is Italian, or Mexican, or English, we are talking about it’s origin, not just of a particular recipe, but of the food itself. It seems to me that what we call an English muffin today is just the progression any recipe goes through. Thomas did name his product an English muffin for a reason after all. Regardless of how it came to be, I can’t deny that those crags and crevices filled with melted butter and jam taste terrific!

Now for the french fry…not French at all. The french fry originated in Belgium, but that’s for another day.

 

A Road Trip with Charles Dickens

As some of you already know, I seemed to have developed an obsession…no… fascination…umm…let’s say a fondness for Charles Dickens. It started with an idea about a Christmas story and ended up with months of research.  Although my Christmas story is finished and published, the man just won’t leave me alone. There may even be a full-length novel in the future, because Mr. Dickens doesn’t seem content with just a novella.

In the process of all this research, I started a Facebook page called “The Charles Dickens Project.”  http://www.facebook.com/TheCharlesDickensProject

Every week I post summaries on the Dickens book I’m currently reading (I’ve decided to read all of his books, in order), biographical facts, Dickensian term definitions, quotes, and other fun facts about the author.  I also share links with other pages dedicated to Dickens including the Charles Dickens Museum in London.

Totally unrelated to this, my daughter, Emily moved to California. Well she flew to California to stay, the moving she left with us. So on Thursday morning, at 936028_520125411367979_1224355279_no-dark-hundred, as we like to call the wee hours of the morning. my husband, another couple and I are embarking on a road trip from Wisconsin to California in van filled with my all my daughters possessions. We decided that if we have to drive, we might as well make the best of it, so our plans include stopping to see as many sites as we can in two weeks.

A couple of days ago, the Charles Dickens Museum posted a link on Facebook about a fun event they were hosting. It’s called Dickens On Tour, and it’s similar to Flat Stanley. They posted a picture of Charles Dickens and asked followers to print it. The idea is to take Charles Dickens with you to interesting places and snap a picture to post online. Could this be more perfect?

So now we have an additional passenger with us for our trip across America!  I will post pictures along the way of Mr. Dickens enjoying the sights. To kick off this adventure, I took Mr. Dickens to work with me on my last day before we start our vacation. It is well known that Mr. Dickens loves animals. He had many pets over the years including several dogs, cats, two ravens (including the raven that inspired Barnaby Rudge as well as Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Raven’), a canary, and a pony.  Lucky for him, my day job is in a veterinary clinic.  As you can see, he looked happy to be there with me, and was thrilled to meet Gibson, the dog of one of our doctors.

If you’d like to follow us on our cross country adventure, you can find us on Facebook or keep checking here! I will keep you up to date on the things we see and the places we visit.

 

Mr. Dickens - YOU ARE HERE.
Mr. Dickens – YOU ARE HERE.

 

 

The Charles Dickens Project and The Pickwick Papers

As promised, here is more facts and information about both Charles Dickens and his first novel, The Pickwick Papers.

(Sorry about the lack of space between some paragraphs, seems to be a problem with the site.)

 

I have a little trouble connecting with Mr. Pickwick and company. They are the typical overly dramatic Dicken’s type characters. But the “stories” they hear and report to the Pickwick Club instantly catch my attention. Especially the darker ones. What can I say? It’s my dark side. I was completely pulled into “The Convict’s Return” as told by a clergyman.

It’s the tale of young John Edmunds who grows up protected by his mother from his violent father. His mother takes the abuse to spare him. He is very close to his mother, and goes to church with her regularily. As he grows older, he drifts from his mother’s side, and no longer goes to church with her.

Once grown, John Edmunds is accused of a crime spree and sentenced to death. His mother’s heart is broken. His sentence is commuted to 14 years in prison.

Despite his hardened attitude, his mother visits him everyday, until she grows ill. He suddenly realizes how much he loves her and how sorry he is when she stops coming to the prison gate to see him. The clergyman tells John Edmunds that his mother is ill and tells him of her love and forgiveness, and the clergyman tells the man’s dying mother of his repentance. During the night John Edmunds is moved to another prison and the clergyman has no way to tell him that his mother had passed away. She was buried in the corner of the church graveyard without even a headstone.

Although John Edmunds had written letters to his mother via the clergyman, none had ever made it and the clergyman had assumed that John had died in prison. John’s father never visited, or cared what happened to his son.

Once released John returned to his village, looking for his mother. He went to the church, but the familiar pew they always sat in together was empty. He went to his childhood home, but someone else lived there. He didn’t have the heart to enquire further, and wandered on, sad and alone.

Quote: ‘On a fine Sunday evening, in the month of August, John Edmunds set foot in the village he had left with shame and disgrace seventeen years before. His nearest way lay through the churchyard. The man’s heart swelled as he crossed the stile. The tall old elms, through whose branches the declining sun cast here and there a rich ray of light upon the shady part, awakened the associations of his earliest days. He pictured himself as he was then, clinging to his mother’s hand, and walking peacefully to church. He remembered how he used to look up into her pale face; and how her eyes would sometimes fill with tears as she gazed upon his features — tears which fell hot upon his forehead as she stooped to kiss him, and made him weep too…’

Later, John Edmunds came upon an old man. At first he didn’t recognize the person who had caused him and his mother so much pain. Then, when the man cursed him and hit him with a stick, he knew it was his father. Although he wanted to choke the man, John couldn’t bring himself to harm his father. The man collapsed on his own of a burst blood vessel right there and then. He died before his son could even raise him off the ground.

The old clergyman finished his story with – ‘In that corner of the churchyard,’ said the old gentleman, after a silence of a few moments, ‘in that corner of the churchyard of which I have before spoken, there lies buried a man who was in my employment for three years after this event, and who was truly contrite, penitent, and humbled, if ever man was. No one save myself knew in that man’s lifetime who he was, or whence he came — it was John Edmunds, the returned convict.’

I actually teared up a bit. Not only is the story heartbreaking, but Dickens creates art with his words. His poetic style brings real emotion to the page.

And now to Mr. Dickens – Here’s one of many interesting fun facts about Charles Dickens. Hans Christian Andersen was Dicken’s close friend and mutual influence. Andersen even dedicated his book Poet’s Day Dream to Dickens in 1853. But this didn’t stop Dickens, a bit of a jokester, from letting Andersen know when he’d overstayed his welcome at Dickens’s home. He made a sign and left it on Andersen’s mirror in the guest room. It read: “Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks, which seemed to the family like AGES.”

To tell the truth, the whole truth…or not

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I recently spoke to a group of seventh graders and their families at St. Raphael’s Catholic School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They’re working together on a Build-a-Book project and I was asked to talk to them about writing and being a writer. One of the things I told them, and one of the things I’ve always firmly believed, is that no matter how fictionalized your story is, it has to be realistic. It needs to have truth. Even in fantasy, things need to ring true to the reader or they won’t feel a connection, and subsequently will have a hard time following your story.
There are examples of this out there now. Take the Star Trek series. There’s a reason we now have real life items that look and perform similar to the futuristic counterparts from the stories. They were based on real science.
When Harry Potter waves his magic wand, the spells are based on mostly Latin terminology. Since many of our words today come from Latin, the spells have a familiarity to them. We can pretty much figure out that “Wingardium Leviosa” will make something float. Many of the creatures are based on mythology that we’re already familiar with. The setting is an accurate portrayal of life growing up in a boarding school albeit with some magic thrown in. These pieces of truth ground the reader in that fantasy world.
More so, if your space alien lands on the streets of New York, you need to have the details of the city accurate. If your ghost haunts a location people might be familiar with, you will lose them if describe that location incorrectly.
This has been a constant for me as I work on my upcoming novel. My main character does some time traveling. Not only does she go to many different eras, but she ends up involved with several historic events. This meant a lot of research on my part. For those of you who might not realize it, research is a big part of writing, no matter how long or short your piece is. Take for instance one of the chapters I did in “Where Do I Begin – One Woman’s Story.”
My outline was simply to describe how the two main characters spent time together on a cruise ship. First I had to take her date of birth and the age she was supposed to be and figure out what year it was when she was on this cruise. Turned out to be in the 1970’s. Then I needed to find out what activities were available on cruise ships during that time. If I had ignored that step and had them climbing a rock wall, or surfing the wave pool, it would have been inaccurate. Although cruise ships of today have those things, cruise ships back then didn’t. I have no doubt that some of my readers have been on those cruise ships and would have been frustrated with my inaccuracy.
So as you can imagine, when writing a historic fiction/time travel novel, the accuracy is imperative. It’s been a daunting task to get the myriad of details correct. Unfortunately it turns out the truth sometimes really is stranger than fiction. In one scene I have one character who’s deathly ill. I actually had to make sure that during that time in history the process to lower a fever was to cool the person down. You might laugh, but you can’t assume anything. While doing my research I found out that the common treatment for a burn was to hold the burned area over a flame! They believed it was better to get the burn to blister and for the blister to burst. Ouch! So I learned not to assume anything.
I recently read a part of my novel to my classmates in my writing class. Two questions came up after I read the dialog between two women in 1903, in which one of them, at age 35 is considering trying to conceive another child after losing her two daughters. The first question raised was her age, wasn’t she a bit too old to be having babies, weren’t women back then getting married young and having families young? My answer was no. My research showed that because of poor nutrition at that time, women didn’t even start their menstrual cycles until they were in their twenties. They may have married younger, but children came much later. The second question raised was whether or not birth control, or the idea of “trying” for a child was even a concept back then. Imagine my surprise when I researched the history of birth control. Not only was it a concept, it was widely accepted and used. The condom had been around since the 1600’s, the contraceptive sponge since the 1840’s, not to mention lectures and pamphlets circulated about the rhythm method as well as other methods to avoid pregnancy. It turns out that the idea of birth control and family planning was so prevalent that the Comstock Act of 1873 made any kind of family planning illegal. The law was quite routinely ignored. Believe it or not you could buy contraceptive devices from the Sears Roebuck Catalog in 1930!
So now I find myself faced with a conundrum, do I tell the truth and keep the facts accurate? Or do I lean toward the commonly held misconceptions? Will I do what I was trying to avoid in the first place and possibly have readers doubt the realism I’m trying to instill in my story by telling it accurately?
It was something to think about. In the end I’ve decided I have to tell the truth. It feels wrong not to. Not only do I feel strongly about being accurate in my details, but I also feel strongly in never underestimating the intelligence of my readers. I have to trust that if my readers get stuck on some detail, they will take the time to look it up.
So I have to stand with what I told those seventh grade students. Keep it real. Tell the truth. As a reader I’d rather learn something new, even if it means doing some research myself, than to know that facts the author presented are incorrect. Even in fiction, I want non-fiction.
The reader needs the truth, the whole truth, no matter how unbelievable.