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Last Saturday I attended an event at Riversdale House Museum, Maryland, where historians taught us the skills of the Georgian-Federal era housekeeper. Kate Dolan, who was our guest last Thursday, was also there–here she is with an apron full of herbs.

The house boasts a beautiful garden where herbs, flowers, and vegetables are grown, often sharing the same space, and most of my pics were of the garden. If you’d like to see some really good photos of the costumed participants, go here.

After a short presentation on herbs we gathered them to make our own herb vinegars in the kitchen of the dependency (behind Kate)–it’s a mid nineteenth century building outside the house which is now used for open hearth cooking demonstrations.

We had a delicious lunch we prepared that featured produce from the garden, using some American eighteenth century recipes and a couple from Mrs. Beeton. Joyce White, the Foodways expert on staff at Riversdale, emphasized the importance of setting the table correctly and making sure that each dish (served a la francaise) was beautiful in appearance, garnished with flowers, herbs, and asparagus fronds from the garden.

Here are some pics of the garden. The right one shows the house and the monster asparagus plants on the right.

In addition we experimented with authentic cleaning substances and techniques for brass and mahogany–guess what, they worked!

We were very lucky to have Katy Cannon, an expert in historical cosmetics giving a demonstration. Check out her website at She burned some pastills for us, which were thought to perfume the air and therefore prevent infections, and we learned that our ancestors enjoyed making pastills embedded with gunpowder for innocent fun in the parlor. I bought some of her products, and here is my loot from the event:

From left to right:
A Ball to take out Stains (and it does. In use. It’s soap, lemon, and alum.)
Bags for preffe or clothes, that no Moth may breed therein. Snappy name! From a 1653 recipe, juniper wood, cloves, rosemary, wormwood. It smells delicious!
My very own rosemary and thyme vinegar.
In front, it looks like jam but it’s mahogany polish.

Tell us if you’ve tried any historic recipes or cleaning methods. Did they work?

Also if you’re in the greater Washington DC area, please come to Riversdale’s Battle of Bladensburg Encampment on August 13. It’s free, with house tours, kids’ activities, food, music, uniformed historical reenactors, and loud explosions. More details here.

And in the Blatant Self Promotion department, here are two places where you can comment to enter a contest for a copy of my erotic contemporary TELL ME MORE: Snap, Crackle, and Popping Blog and Write About.

First, a bit of blatant self-promotion that is actually relevant to what I’m talking about today: I’m making a debut as a Harlequin Spice author in the summer (Tell Me More), under my own name since at my advanced age I have no innocence/innocents to protect (and before that, kicking and screaming, drag it out of me, then, Mr. Bishop and the Actress is being released next month. More on that later. Of course).

So I’m writing contemporaries for Spice which means I have to write in American, which is tricky. But what I found even worse was not having the gorgeous array of props and costumes you have at hand when writing historicals. Take this lousy passage:

The Duke leaned against the marble mantelpiece and raised his quizzing glass while taking a sip from the glass of brandy. [Internal Ed: careful, you know where this is heading] The sunlight from the open shutters turned his hair, carefully arranged in the latest windswept to burnished gold. He brushed at a tiny speck of dust on his skintight pantaloons [Internal Ed: oh crap, he does have three hands]. “My dear,” he drawled, “I assure you marriage was the last thing on my mind.” [Internal Ed: what!? Who’s he talking to, anyway?]

Now, translate this into a contemporary:

The [Internal Ed: the what? Cop? I don’t do cops. OK. The mayor? Nah. Come back to it later] leaned against his car [Internal Ed: we’re outside, then? OK] and pushed his dark glasses further up his nose [Internal Ed: I can live with it but it doesn’t imply anything to do with his status, only that he can’t buy dark glasses that fit] while taking a sip [Internal Ed: sip? Are you sure? Gulp?] from his beer [Internal Ed: remember your responsibility to your readers! Is he going to drink and drive?]. The sunlight turned his mussed hair to burnished gold. [Internal Ed: zzzzz] He brushed at a tiny speck of dust on his skintight jeans [Internal Ed: see three hands, above, also sounds a bit gay and not in a good way, but then so does the Duke]. “Honey,” he drawled, “I ain’t talkin’ about a weddin’.” [What? Has this guy ever been inside a library in his life?]

And so it goes.

On the other hand, instead of this:

Heart pounding, she sat at her writing desk and sharpened a knife. On a clean sheet of paper she hastily wrote a note, scattered sand over it, and folded and sealed it. Reaching for the bell pull, she summoned the footman to deliver it to the Duke’s house, warning him that he must return with his grace’s answer immediately.

You have this:

She texted him.

And instead of this:

For three long days and nights the carriage lurched across rutted roads, stopping only for brief pauses to change the horses while the weary passengers took what refreshment they could, and several times alighting to help push the vehicle out of the filthy mud in the torrential rain [Internal ed: enough already]

You have this:

One hour and one packet of roasted nuts later, the plane landed. [Internal ed: long enough for her to join the mile-high club, surely? Call yourself a writer?]

What do you miss when you read contemporaries? What sort of details and how much do you like in historicals?

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