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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

February 2016

No, You Can't Have Any More Green Beans until You Finish Your Chocolate!

The following article appeared on "The Bright Side" Facebook posting this morning. Scientists have discovered that you can eat as much chocolate as you want — here’s why:

It’s always great to find an excuse to do something that you love more often. Eating chocolate, for example.Very fortunately for many of us, science now favors this sweet habit. Here’s the big reason why being a ’’chocoholic’’ is no longer something to be worried about.

Chocolate makes us smarter.

That’s right. This is a scientific fact! 968 people aged between 23 and 98 participated in a study that was devoted to discovering the health benefits of eating chocolate. It turned out that those who ate chocolate more often had a better developed visual memory, a more impressive ability to memorize things, better abstract thinking, and better powers of concentration. In addition, scientists found that eating chocolate slows down the aging of the brain and prevents the appearance of diseases like dementia.


The substances within chocolate that have these beneficial effects on our mental activity are called ’’cocoa flavanols.’’ However, the majority of these substances were found in dark chocolate, and only in smaller quantities in milk and white chocolate. So as you can see, the chance of getting the benefits here depends on the type of chocolate.

We here at Bright Side think this is the best news ever. We’re going to the store to load up on choc. We need it so that we can work better — and so you do!

The Research Behind Historical Fiction


Every so often I feel a need to defend myself against the charge that I somehow betrayed my training as a professional historian by switching my emphasis after retirement to write historical fiction. I admit that there's a lot of dreck out there -- "historical" fiction that bears little resemblance to what actually happened. When I first went back to graduate school to study medieval history, I had to unlearn a lot of silliness i had picked up from a steady childhood diet of medieval story-telling. I now loathe the kind of novel that mixes fact with fantasy, or that takes a "what if" approach to explore alternative universes. 

But it is also true that historical fiction, when written by a true professional, can cast much light upon confusing historical events. Many important historical figures have fascinating background stories that clarify their actions. Sometimes obscure individuals stepped forward at a crucial moment, did something that changed the course of history, and then fell back into the shadows -- their stories lost. And every writer of historical fiction that I know spends countless hours getting such details right.

My own failing is that I tend to get so involved in the historical trivia that my writing time turns into research hours. Just recently I needed to write about a character who experienced the great Charleston earthquake of 1886. I started by looking at internet pictures, then turned to newspaper accounts, and then ordered two books devoted to the event, both of which I read in depth. When it came time to write the actual description, it took only 420 words. But I had spend three weeks reading and distilling those details. Can the history in my novels be relied upon? I certainly believe so!

Today on Facebook I ran across another example of how hard historical novelists work to get things right. Elizabeth Chadwick writes medieval historical fiction, most often centered on figures from the 12th and 13th century, among them, Eleanor of Aquitaine and William Marshall. Even the Royal Historical Society recognizes her excellence as a writer.And today she demonstrated her historical precision on Facebook with an extensive article on the effigies of medieval knights.

Sound dull? It's not. These effigies, found all over England in medieval cathedrals, have an amazing variety of poses, and she explores the validity of some of the interpretations historians have imposed upon them. Her article recalled for me a discussion I had with my own 12-year-old many years ago, when he asked me why a certain reclining effigy had his legs crossed. When I admitted that I didn't know, he suggested that maybe the knight had to go to the bathroom.  Of course I knew where that answer came from -- the kid had been traveling with us by car across France and had been told more than once to "cross your legs and hold it" until the next town.

Elizabeth does not include that  particular explanation, but her article is well worth reading, both for its historical approach and her own reasoned conclusions. You can find it here: http://the-history-girls.blogspot.co.uk/2016/02/cross-your-legs-and-hope-to-die-what.html

It's a Small, Small World


I’ve become a world traveler from the coziness of my small home office.  Who knew? The trip started with an e-mail from an old friend in England, suggesting that my latest book ought to be reviewed by a certain writers group centered there and dedicated to historical fiction. Moreover, she offered to shepherd it through the process if I could get her a copy. Easy, right?
 
She and I have exchanged Christmas gift books in the past, so I immediately began to wonder if I had a box the right size. I have several USPS Priority Mail boxes that fit the book perfectly, but they can’t be used for international mail without going through a customs declaration.  She suggested that I order a copy from Amazon UK, thereby claiming royalties on the sale and avoiding a trip to the post office, customs red tape, and exorbitant shipping charges.
 
And thus began the questions. First, is the book available for sale in England? I know I get  royalties from all over the world for digital copies of my books, but what about trade paper editions? Does CreateSpace print copies for overseas markets? Apparently they do, because I found it listed in the Amazon UK online catalog. But can US ciitizens order from there when the book is also available in the US? And if so, will they accept my credit card? Again the answer turned out to be yes. I simply signed in to their webpage with my US password and up popped a greeting, “Welcome, Carolyn.” Nice.
 
When I actually clicked on the book to order it, however, I discovered that it is only available in England through a central distributor located in Switzerland. I guess that makes sense. Amazon, it turns out has 12 affiliate companies, located in widely scattered geographic regions – India to Japan, Mexico to Brazil, Canada to Australia – so some sort of centralized distribution points must be necessary. OK, so long as they take my money, I’m good with that.
 
Then I have to fill out a “Ship To:” form. Have you seen a British address?  No simple Street, City State, Zip Code for them. My friend’s mailing address has eight lines, beginning with the name of her family’s farm. And those eight lines of information have to be crammed into a Swiss address form with six blanks. I managed to do that.
 
(Now, I love the fact that even the Swiss form contains a separated line for “Name of House.” I’m not poking fun at European customs. In fact, I find the idea endearing. I’m wondering what I would name my house if it were required as part of my legal address. “House of Four Cats?”  “Retirement Villa?” “The One in the Back on the Left?”  Never mind!)

Then came one more glitch. The website won’t accept the order unless I give them a phone number for the recipient.  Which, of course, I don’t have, since I have never needed to  use one.  That meant I had to shoot off an e-mail message, asking for the number.  And back came an automated response: “Not in the office right now. Will get back to you soon.” 
 
So the order is pending until we overcome distances and time zones. Still, it’s been an interesting morning’s journey.

 

Sometimes an Old-Fashioned Phone Call . . .


I had a delightful surprise yesterday. Authors love to hear from readers, of course, especially when they have nice things to say. But I’ve never had a phone call from a family member of one of the people I’ve written about. Even better, the caller had lovely compliments for my book The Road to Frogmore and wanted to offer access to family records I did not even know existed.
 
The caller was a lateral descendent of Miss Ellen Murray, the life-long partner of Laura Towne. She is the great-great-grandniece of Ellen and has spent years studying Frogmore, the Penn School, and the events on St. Helena Island. How did she find me? She’s not an internet person, so she didn’t just go online. Apparently a friend who was traveling in South Carolina discovered the book and told her about it. She asked for a copy for Christmas, and had just now finished reading it.  She sent her husband to the library to see what he could find out, and he evidently turned up my website, which gave her my contact information. So reaching out was not easy – it took a lot of effort.
 
But what a fun time we had on the phone. We chatted almost non-stop for an hour, and I was so fascinated that I didn’t even mind turning off the Dog Show.  She possesses diaries written by her various grandmothers going back several generations, and they include Ellen’s sister, who visited St. Helena both during the Civil War and after.
 
Our information exchange was valuable on both sides. She corrected my spelling of a name that I had gotten consistently wrong. I informed her of the existence of a copy of Laura’s diary she did not know about. And we discovered some contradictory information – her sources say one thing, while mine say another. I was so intrigued that I was up early this morning to dig back through my sources. Already I think I’ve found a plausible explanation for the discrepancy, but we shall have to talk again. I can hardly wait for our next conversation.  

I keep catching a glimpse of another fascinating story behind this surprise. Is there a book in it? Who knows? I do know I’m feeling a renewed enthusiasm for doing  more research on what I thought was an exhausted topic.

The Country Is Going to the Dogs (No, this is not a political column.)


Every year I get my basic "dog fix" in February by watching the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show from Madison Square Garden. In the midst of all the other February awards shows, this one has a special charm.  Its winners are unpretentious, fully dressed, honestly grateful, and having a good time. In 2011, I discovered a new favorite.  One of the six new breeds admitted to the show for the first time that year was the Boykin Spaniel, the official dog of the State of South Carolina. 

The Boykin is a small dog (about 40 pounds, max.) and 15 to 18 inches high.  It is bred to be a hunter and agile enough to jump in and out of small swamp boats without upsetting the boat. Since most of my books are set in the Low Country of South Carolina,  I can understand the appeal of this energetic little dog.


This year there are five Boykin Spaniels entered in the sporting group. I have no real hope that a Boykin will end up as "Best of Show." Newcomers seldom do.  But while the breed is making its mark among usual favorites, I'll be cheering it on.  If  you're looking for me on Monday or Tuesday night this week, you'll find me wrapped in something fleecy, glued to the TV, and rooting for a South Carolina breed that produces the  cutest pups I've seen in a long time.