Lois Leveen

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February 19, 2012

Fear of a Red Tractor

When it comes to historical fiction, the devil is in the details.

Fear of a red tractor. That is what keeps a novelist up at night.

Remember the good ol' days when barber, surgeon, and dentist was a single occupation?

Okay, maybe those days weren't so good. But these days, everyone's a literary critic. Including Dr. Miller, who's also my dentist.

Last year, he told me about a book he'd been reading. A book he really liked. Until he got to a description of a field wherein there sat "a red John Deere tractor." He immediately put the book down, never to finish it. Because, as he put it, "everyone knows, John Deere has never made a red tractor. That was put in there by some New York editor."

Only an Oregon dentist can make New York editor sound like such an unseemly villain.

But Dr. Miller was onto something. Writers are always trying to add specificity to our descriptions, to make things more real. Except that when you get that *real* detail wrong, you have blown it big time.

As it happens, one of my New York editors, the lovely Laurie Chittenden, is originally from Virginia. She suggested that the bird's nest I'd tucked into a magnolia tree on the very first page of my novel should have gone into a dogwood, because that's the state tree of Virginia.

Now, I'm an obsessed lunatic. I'd already checked on whether magnolias grew in Richmond. But here was a bona fide Virginian making the case for dogwood. So what did I do? I emailed one of the Virginia state arborists, just to make sure that a bird would actually nest in a dogwood if it were in the exact location of the tree on page 1 of my novel. Only when he said yes did I make the change.

As you can imagine, this level of obsession takes an awful lot out of a novelist. I was reading the galleys of my book last fall, and lo and behold, I realized I'd made a reference to a straight razor. You know, the olde timey open-bladed razor that any nineteenth-century character would be familiar with. And so I took my big purple pencil (the red pen of galley proofing) and Xed it out.

Why?

Because nobody called a straight razor a straight razor, until after there were safety razors (that olde timey kind everyone's dad used). Until then, they were just razors.

I swear, sometimes writing historical fiction is like pulling teeth. Just joking, Dr. Miller!
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February 18, 2012

Did Burnside have the best sideburns?

The nineteenth-century was a period of amazing innovation. In facial hair.

Indeed, the less-than-Civil War obsessed individual may not realize that sideburns were named for Union General Ambrose Burnside. But as this quiz from the fine folks at Smithsonian.com makes clear, when it came to fantastic facial hair configurations, Burnside had stiff competition.
civil war facial hair examples

Another fascinating fact. Especially for *The Secrets of Mary Bowser* in which a certain handsome barber figures prominently.

Tomorrow: razors! tractors! and my dentist!
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February 17, 2012

Forget the Cheesesteak

Forget the cheesesteak. In antebellum Philadelphia, it was all about the pepperpot.

Given the popularity of yesterday's rat 'n' squirrel bake-off, I thought it would only be fair to discuss the culinary obsessions of the North. Or at least of Philadelphia, where about half my novel is set.

So if you were feeling peckish in the City of Brotherly Love circa 1851, you just needed to prick up your ears for the cry, "Pepperpot, smoking hot." That meant the pepperpot vendor--always an African American woman, in the depictions I've seen--was plying her signature dish. For Portlanders, think of it as being like a food cart, but without all that bulky cart business. For the rest of you, think drive-through without all that internal combustion engine.
Pepperpot vendor

What was in pepperpot? A lot of meat, usually tripe, oxfeet, whatever else was cheap, and then a lot of spice.

And yes, Mary does try pepperpot when she arrives in Philadelphia. Does she like it? Let's just say regional cuisine can take some getting used to.
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February 16, 2012

The Jefferson Davis Cookbook

Today's Civil War Fact: You do NOT want to buy the Jefferson Davis Cookbook.

Why not?

During the Civil War, one of the most successful Union strategies was the blockade of the Confederacy. Which meant food shortages. At a time when people in Richmond were desperate with hunger, Jeff Davis purportedly proclaimed, "A fat rat is as good as a squirrel."

A rather distressing sentiment for his constituents, both because he was advocating eating rats, and because it reveals that he saw squirrel as some standard of culinary excellence.
squirrel

(Plus he may have hurt the feelings of rats who felt judged on their body size. I can just imagine some non-fat rat hearing Davis compare its more corpulent companions to mmmm tasty squirrels and thinking, "what am I, chopped liver?")
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February 15, 2012

Upriver Was the Uptown of Civil War Encampments

Nothing says "America's great love of history" like a Civil War reenactment encampment. Complete with PortaPotty.
Civil War encampment

Squint and you can see it, there in the background.

How is this a fascinating fact? Um, what if I mention that during the Civil War there were no chemical toilets? So often they used streams/rivers near the encampment. But not always ones DOWNRIVER from the encampment.

Not the only reason there were so many disease-induced fatalities during the War, but perhaps the grossest one.
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