Ask A Wench—Our favorite research sources

LonghouseAndrea here, putting together this month's Ask A Wench feature, which poses a particularly fun question from Wench reader Claire Phillips. (Thank you, Claire!): What are the best resources you've found for your research? What are the most fun ones?

Christina:  For me, both the best and most fun resources have been seeing historical reconstructions and trying things out for myself – in my case, Viking longships and houses, and some of their implements. Being able to take a short trip in a longship and help with the rowing was invaluable as I would never have known exactly how it felt otherwise. I couldn’t possibly have imagined how smoothly the keel cut through the waves or how easy it was to use Quern stonethe oars – I would have thought it was much heavier. It was good to know that as a female, I could have played my part and taken turns at rowing. To sit and lie down on a fur-covered bench in a reconstructed Viking hall also added so much to my picture of life a thousand years ago. And having a go at turning a quern stone gave me huge respect for the poor thrall women who had to use those all the time – it was incredibly heavy! When you experience things first-hand your senses are assailed in every way and you gain a more complete understanding of what it was like. I’m always thrilled when I get to do anything like that!

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World Building, Historical Style

  MerelysourcebksPat here: As readers, we probably started talking of world building in fantasy, where the monsters had to have their own society, their own faults and strengths, and the setting had to make them real.

But now, as series become more popular in other genres, we’re all engaging in some lengthy world building. When I first started writing about the Magical Malcolms about ten years ago, I was simply creating a world of characters with special psychic abilities. Yes, the era was Georgian, but the setting wasn’t as important as how the characters felt about being weird in a normal world.

About the same time, Jayne Ann Krentz started mixing her Arcane Society paranormal romances into her historical world. JR Ward turned vampires into contemporary romance, and suddenly, any kind of series was hot and could branch off in any direction as long as the reader could buy into the richly-created worlds they built.

I’ll admit, I love the world building, but it’s not easy when limited by history—or a related series.

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The Monthly

Blue2Way back 8 years ago — that seems way back to me. We're talking pre-Kindle. Pause to think. Anyway, way back then I answered a reader question, which led to a blog about menstruation in the past. I thought it worth repeating.

The original question was: "Why don't women in historicals get PMS and chew holes in everyone around them?" Here's what I wrote, somewhat updated.

My first response is that mine rarely do because I rarely did. I'm one of those annoying women who had very little problem with menstruation other than the general hassle of it. No particular mood changes, no cramps. We write what we know. 

It would be interesting to know how many women regularly have PMS today, and even more interesting to know how common it was in the past.

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Gather ye sundew….

AndelJo here. I'm in deadline dementia for the book on the left, so I've pulled an oddity from my files.

 From an 18th century book. "ROSSOLIS — an agreeable spiritous liquor composed of burnt brandy, sugar, cinnamon, and milk water; and sometimes perfumed with a little musk: it is so called as being at first prepared wholly of the juice of the plant ros-solis, or drosera."

That is, sundew.

My first question is, where does anyone get that much sundew juice? I know the plant and at times have had a small one in the kitchen to catch fruit flies. It does a great job. But enough to make a drink?

An on line search suggests it's not that uncommon in Britain. Drosera anglica is also known as the Great sundew or the English sundew. 
SundewHowever, it is as small as I thought.

I searched a little more and found that "sundew juice" is a little misleading. The liquid was apparently obtained by steeping sundew in something like brandy.Nearly anything steeped in brandy, especially with sugar added, is likely to perk a person up, don't you think?

Ih does appear to be mainly medicinal, with claims that it will cure coughs and aid sleep. Other sources suggest that it's an aphrodisiac, and one that it will remove warts. That's a bit alarming in a drink, don't you think?"

Wikipedia says: "Sundews were used as medicinal herbs as early as the 12th century, when an Italian doctor from the School of Salerno, Matthaeus Platearius, described the plant as an herbal remedy for coughs under the name herba sole. It has been used commonly in cough preparations in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Sundew tea was especially recommended by herbalists for dry coughs, bronchitis, whooping cough, asthma and "bronchial cramps". A modern study has shown that Drosera exhibits antitussive properties.

Culbreth's 1927 Materia Medica listed D. rotundifolia, D. anglica and D.linearis as being used as stimulants and expectorants, and "of doubtful efficacy" for treating bronchitis, whooping cough, and tuberculosis. Sundews have also been used as an aphrodisiac and to strengthen the heart, as well as to treat sunburn, toothache, and prevent freckles. They are still used today in some 200-300 registered medications, usually in combination with other herbal ingredients. Today, Drosera is usually used to treat ailments such as asthma, coughs, lung infections, and stomach ulcers"

So it's not as crazy as it first sounds, is it?

Do you know any seemingly odd medicinal ingredients, past or present? I'll pass this one on. The white sap that leaks from snapped off dandelion stems will get rid of warts.No guarantees, but I've found it works.

AscansmHere's a little bit from A Scandalous Countess, where Georgia is trying to learn some country skills.

confess, I’m enjoying this taste of country living, but it’s an idle venture.
After breakfast, set me a country task."

task?" Then Lizzie smiled in a very mischievous way. "I have just the
thing. I'm told that one of the pigs in the home farm has the evil sleep and
needs the cure."

evil sleep?” Georgia exclaimed. ‘I
don't believe you."

your education in country lore is sorely lacking. Come along."

As they went outside Georgia said, “Very
well, tell me the symptoms  and cure of
the evil sleep.”

pig sleeps too much, especially in the middle of the day."

could describe Father when he’s rusticating.”

I don’t suppose your father neglects his food so he’s in danger of starving to

the opposite. Where are we going? The home farm is that way.”

the orchard."

“We tempt
the pig’s appetite with green apples?”

we gather the chief ingredient of the cure.”

hope it’s not snails"

approached the orchard, but didn't go in through the gate. Instead Lizzie
walked along the wall. "Stone crop!" she said triumphantly. "We
must pick the flowers. Only the yellow flowers, note. We'll need at least half
a basket full."

are very small flowers." Georgia complained.

pick faster. The pig may be gasping its last."


So, any odd plant cures in your family lore?

Do you remember any from novels?

Do any of them contain snail?  I have found that many in old medicine books do!


Dreaming of Djellabas

CE-avatar Cara/Andrea here,

Are you ready to go on a little journey to . . .

The Red City.

Window Actually, it’s more of a rich terra cotta hue, which shifts from subtle shades of buttery pink to burnt brick in the luminous Moroccan sun. And like its color, its name is tinted with a mysterious magic. Marrakech. A melting pot of rich history and contrasting cultures, where over the centuries Berbers, Moors, Turks, Europeans and Sub-Saharan Africans have created a unique spot where a whirling dervish of ancient traditions and modern flare dance together in sinuous harmony.

I love visiting historic places. There’s an energy and inspiration to them that seems to resonate in the buildings, the people, and, indeed, in the very air. Last month, I was lucky enough to spend four days in Marrakech, a city that has long captured my imagination. Beautiful, exotic, with an edge of raffish danger—how could a writer of historical romance not feel attracted to such a place! And from the very first glimpse of the old medina walls, it did not disappoint.

Gate You approach Marrakech through groves of silvery-gray olive trees, some of which are over 800 years old.  The hot, dry wind rustles softly through the leaves, while in contrast, the snow capped Atlas mountains rise in the distance, framed by a cool blue sky. An ancient palmeraie, or oasis of palms, fringes the city. Once inside the gates, or babs, (there are 10 main ones set in over six miles of winding walls—which, by the by, are made of a mixture of mud, straw and lime known as pisé, which becomes as hard as brick when it dries) you notice the lush green plantings with fountains and pools. Marrakech  is famous for its gardens—after World War II, Winston Churchill came often to stay at the storied La Mamounia Hotel and paint the local flora. He called it “the most lovely spot in the whole world.”

Citynight The city was founded in the 11th century by the Almoravids, and through the centuries it’s changed hands many times—Almohads, Merenids, Saadians, Turks, and French are among the people who have ruled. The people of this region are Berbers, not Arabs, and though they are Muslim, they have always had a great tolerance for other religions. As a crossroads of the legendary trading caravans, Marrakech became a center of commerce and a confluence of cultures. This mix of East and West, north and south has created a fascinating blend of traditions.

Mosque One of the city’s landmarks is the Koutoubia Mosque, built in the 12th century. (The muezzin still calls the faithful to prayer five times each day from its beautifully decorated tower, albeit by a taped recording broadcast via loudspeaker.) Another architectural gem is the Bahia palace, a 160-room walled enclave built in 1880. The craftsmanship is breathtakingly beautiful. Mosaics, intricately carved stone, painted cedarwood and graceful calligraphy—all cornerstones of Islamic art—grace room after room. The effect is mesmerizing.

IsArt1 From the outside, however, you would never guess that the drab, unadorned walls surround such a treasure, and it was fascinating to hear our guide, Abdel, explain why. He told us that one of the tenets of Islam is modesty, in order not to embarrass a less wealthy neighbor, it is traditional to build an exterior that gives no hint of what lies inside. A gate can hide a tiny dwelling, a riad (a house with an interior garden) or a sumptuous palace. The same principle applies to clothing. A burka or voluminous cloak often hides richly decorated caftans or other dress—and the outer layer is removed when one is in private, among friends.

But Marrakech is much more than museums and shrines. It’s alive with vibrant energy. The sounds of music, the cries of the snake charmers, the sizzle of exotic spices and the swirl of bright patterns fill the famous  Jemaa el Fna, which is said to be the busiest square in all of Africa.

Square5 From morning to very late at night, it’s bustling with people who shop, who stroll, who stop to eat a quick meal at one of the many food stalls (roasted sheep’s head is their version of McDonald’s. I was not brave enough to try it, but my friends Jason and Lyman said it was very tasty! Er, they passed on a side order of brains.)

Sheepheads Acrobats and jugglers weave in and out of fortunetellers who gain a modicum of privacy for their readings by hunkering down under a large umbrella. And the snake charmers are quick to drape their wares around unwary tourists. (I ran as fast as my feet would carry me, but again, the intrepid Jason showed no fear.)

Jason&snakes So where did my flight take me? Why, to the souks, of course! In keeping with its rich trading heritage, Marrakech features rambling covered markets that are some of the largest in Africa. Talk about a shopper’s paradise! The choice of merchandise is staggering (quite literally if you are in the market for fine carpets!) It ranges from the usual junky souvenirs to fine antiques, and everything in between. Scarves and djellabas swirl above tall cones of colorful spices and dates. Fanciful leather slippers rub up against polished inlaid wood. Pierced metal lanterns cast a winking light over tribal silver and terra cotta tangine pots. The list is endless, and as I wove through the narrow twists and turns it was hard to know where to look next!

Spice Merchants were aggressive—but in a very nice way. They ended up smiling when I said no, and more often than not they would offer a cup of the ubiquitous sugared mint tea and want to practice their English anyway. “No” was a word I used a lot, yet I still came away with bags of wonderful swag.

Argan oil, which is unique to Morocco is a special treat to take home. It made from the pit of the argan tree fruit, and is used for cooking, cosmetics and as a traditional medicine. Nutty in flavor, it’s very rich in Vitamin E and is said to have potent anti-aging properties. The oil has become something of a cult ingredient in Europe, and I’m sure it will soon be turning up on shelves here.

Fruitwagon Reflecting its French influence, Marrakech is also a hotspot for fine dining, and after a long day spent poking through the dazzling wares, one can choose from among regional dishes like tangines, couscous and vegetable salads or opt for a wide range of international cuisines.

It was way too short a trip and I really look forward to going back and having more time to explore and get out into the countryside—another thing high on my wish list is to see the Sahara desert. Already I have story ideas percolating inside my head. I’m not quite sure when or how, but I plan on working this historic region into some part of a future book.

Souk I’m not quite sure why I always wanted to visit Marrakech. Maybe it was that haunting Crosby, Stills and Nash melody that made it seem so alluring and exotic. (I almost bought a striped djellaba.) Or maybe it was reading in history books about the spice caravans, the Barbary pirates. Whatever it was, it made me fantasize about visiting the city one day. And now I have—and it was even better than I imagined!

J&l Which brings me to my question—do you have that one Special Place you are yearning to visit? A dream location that tickles at your fancy? And conversely, have you ever wanted to go somewhere and then been disappointed because it didn’t live up expectations. Summer is, after all, the time for travel, so please share where your mind has been wandering!