Monday, November 19, 2012

An English Harvest Home

Americans in the United States learn the history of Thanksgiving as school children--how the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth in 1621, sharing their harvest with their Native American neighbors, the Wampanoag. Though many in the U.S. think of Thanksgiving as a quintessentially American holiday, harvest celebrations are an ancient and widespread tradition, closely tied to our agrarian past.

In England, the feast of Harvest Home was usually held at the time of the Harvest moon, the full moon closest to the autumnal equinox (the word “harvest” comes from the Old English word for autumn, “hærfest”). Though Harvest Home traditions varied from village to village, all were meant to celebrate the conclusion of the farming year and the completion of a successful harvest. Typically, the local landowner hosted the celebration, with the head reaper appointed to preside over the festivities as Lord of the Harvest.

A typical feature of Harvest Home celebrations was the arrival of the “hock cart,” the wagon that carried in the final load of the harvest.

"An English Harvest Home" by Samuel Hieronymus Grimm shows a hock cart traveling through a village, having just visited a tavern along the way.
In 1648, the poet Robert Herrick described the cart as “Dressed up with all the country art,” adding, “The harvest swains and wenches bound/For joy to see the hock cart crowned.” The cart would make its way to the celebration with numerous stops at local ale-houses. Often, the cart carried the “corn dolly,” a harvest effigy fashioned from the last sheaf of wheat cut from the fields.

There were folk songs and later hymns associated with Harvest Home, and the festivities included games and dancing. The day culminated in an impressive feast attended by gentry and laborers alike. (As the local landowner, the hero of my regency Ruined by Rumor hosts the Harvest Home celebration for his workers.) The pre-industrial Harvest Home was a high-spirited occasion, one that mingled the expression of gratitude with jovial good cheer. And, even going back hundreds of years, I'll bet there were quite a few merry-makers who ate so much they couldn't wait to unbutton their breeches.

Alyssa EverettAlyssa Everett's debut regency romance, Ruined by Rumor, is currently available from Carina Press, and her second regency will be out in March of 2013. She hopes you'll visit her website and follow her on Twitter and Facebook, where she promises not to spam you relentlessly.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Hot Cocoa: A Winter Night's Treat

Hot cocoa or hot chocolate as we say in the South dates back the ancient Mayans and Aztecs. It was nothing like the hot cocoa we have today. Milk was not used and it was served cold with a blend of wine and chili peppers. EWWW!

Chocolate was brought to Europe in the 1500's and in the 1600's chocolate houses, much like coffee houses, were found throughout England. The most fashionable chocolate house was White's, which opened in 1693. Later, like many chocolate houses, White's became a gentlemen's club and still exists today.

Besides being enjoyed as a drink by the aristocracy (cocoa was very expensive), it was used to treat various stomach disorders, liver disease and fevers. In France, chocolate was used to "fight fits of anger and bad moods". I think it is still used for that by women everywhere!

Cocoa progressed through the decades and some of the historic names associated with hot cocoa are present today. In 1842, John Cadbury is selling 16 types of drinking cocoa. 1879 milk chocolate is invented in Switzerland using powdered milk invented by Nestle. In 1926, Hershey introduces Hershey syrup, 1935 Carnation comes up with instant hot cocoa and in the 1950's Swiss Miss produces packets of hot cocoa for airline passengers.

Hot cocoa has become a well-loved comfort food. What is better on a cold winter night than a cup of hot cocoa? And, this is definitely the week to enjoy it as the deep freeze continues. Here are my recommendations:

Instant chocolate mix:

I give Land of Lakes five stars! It is the best instant hot cocoa mix that I have used. Great rich chocolate taste. It is an expensive brand, compared to Nestle or Swiss Miss. But the flavor, which doesn't taste instant at all, is worth it.

A simple delicious recipe for making hot cocoa yourself and cheaply, too:

1/3 cup dry milk
1 tsp cocoa
1 tsp sugar
Add 1 cup of hot water. Stir and enjoy!
you can also mix with cold water and heat in microwave)
This hot cocoa will have a creamy milk taste, more chocolaty and less sweet than the store-bought mixes.

Regardless of how you prepare it, I hope you enjoy a hot cup tonight!

Patricia Preston

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Name that God: Anath

History is littered with civilizations. Some of which we know a great deal about, while others are shrouded in great mystery.  We know a lot about the Greek and Roman civilizations but often very little about the peoples they conquered. As I started a new story set during the Roman era, I was looking for an obscure god that had meaning to women, but who’s worship may have also seemed brutal and senseless both then and now.
Enter Anath, also known as Anat, a major Semitic goddess. She has a Biblical tie-in to the infamous Ba’al as either a sister, a lover, (or both—ewww). Some accounts mention her as a virgin, the meaning here more along the lines of an independent and strong-willed woman (not sexually inactive). She is credited with putting a violent end to the seven-headed serpent Yamm and has a ferocious reputation, cutting off heads and wading through rivers of blood. She avenges Ba’al’s death with the fearsome anger of a woman scorned. She is a Middle Eastern goddess, and quite possibly the forerunner of Athena, a warlike goddess in her own right.
Not much is known in detail regarding the rituals or worship of Anath and those of the same pantheon.  Cultic practices included animal sacrifices at high places. Sacred groves with trees or carved wooden images are noted. Divination, snake worship and ritual prostitution were practiced. Male prostitutes were called qadesh, female quedsha. Sexual rites were supposed to ensure fertility of people, animals and lands, as typical for the time.  She is often represented as a naked woman astride a lion, a lily in one hand and a serpent in the other. 
That leaves a great deal of leeway for the imagination. The ancient world isn’t known for its “warm fuzziness” and the difficult life of those pressed into service to such deities can only be described as brutal. A life of ritual prostitution and blood sacrifice leaves the modern mind bewildered. It will be challenging to go that far back in time and slip into the ancient mentality that endorsed—or rebelled against—such practices. “What if” questions continuously pop into my mind, leading me toward characters, motivations, and plot points that I'm attempting to string into an intriguing narrative for readers.
So I must ask, which ancient god or goddess captured your imagination? As children, we all learned the Greek and Roman stories, and some will know more Biblical details than some.  Share--who fasinated you and why?

Friday, November 09, 2012


Last month’s offering was about the ancient Avebury stones in Southern England. The stone circles and megaliths that pre-date written history leave much to the imagination. It’s no wonder they are the setting for mystical and magical stories. The Druids, a mystical order of people, have spurred legends and stories of magic, human sacrifice, and ancient rites. It seems like a match made in heaven!
The earliest references to Druids are in the writings of Julius Caesar. He cited Greek and Roman texts from 200 BCE. These now lost early writings depicted the Druids as wise Celtic elders. The responsibility of these elders was to memorize the history and knowledge of their tribe and pass the information on to the next generation to ensure the future of their society.
The Druids, with their revered knowledge, played an important role in society and were a respected warrior class. They were a single authority responsible to act as judge, a lifelong position passed down in secret, to the next generation. This elite training, held in caves and forests, along with their herbalist expertise and the later development of the Ogham alphabet, associated with the Celtic lunar tree calendar, may have led to the summation that Druids were strongly linked to nature. Their vast knowledge gave them unequaled power over their people.
They met annually at a sacred place in a region owned by the Carnute tribe in the heart of Gaul. Gaul was a large area in Western Europe that is now France, Luxembourg, Belgium, as well as parts of Switzerland, Northern Italy, the Netherlands and Germany.
Without any written history, it is difficult to know the ritual, political and clerical practices. However, if we look at documented Celtic history we could make some assumptions about the druids.
The ancient Druids were priests, teachers, physicians (herbalists), legislators, astronomers, chemists, musicians, poets, theologians, philosophers, diviner, and judges of their time. Their insight was highly respected and their religious, judicial, and scholastic authority was absolute. Viewed as the conduit between the people and the gods, they handed down their knowledge orally from generation to generation.
Druid beliefs focused on the supreme power of the universe and the belief that the soul was indestructible/ immortal and after death passed on to another. Because of the diverse geography and number of tribes and cultures that made up the Celts, there were a variety of gods. This is one of the strongest factors in supporting the theory that Druids did not teach religion but rather taught their philosophy which gave order to the many different structures, instilled morals, virtues and ethics. So strong was the teaching that aristocrats, even kings, sought out Druids to teach their children. Because druidic instructions were memorized verses, none of the verses have survived.
Claims that Druids participated in human sacrifice are uncertain. Caesar claimed they sacrificed criminals by burning them in a wicker effigy, the wicker man. But other authorities claim Caesar’s information is all propaganda to demonize the Druid and justify his move to eradicate them.
Because the common people held them in such high regard, the Romans feared them. It was this reverence that prevented the success of Caesar’s invasion of Briton in 55 BCE. As a result, Caesar ordered their extinction. While almost successful a few Druids survived by hiding or converting to Christianity.
As with any invading and winning army, the Christian church absorbed the Celtic religion. Many of the pagan gods and goddess had new life as Christian saints with many sites that held spiritual significance becoming locations of cathedrals. By the 7th century CE, Druidism was all but destroyed or had gone into hiding.
In medieval tales from Ireland, the Druids were portrayed as sorcerers with super natural powers. In the 18th and 19th centuries, fraternal groups and neo-pagan organizations revitalized the ideas held by the Druids and there was a resurgence in Druidic beliefs. Today, modern Druidism is one of the pagan religions which include Wicca, Asatru, Shamanism.
If you are wondering about the picture at the top of this month’s blog, I couldn’t find a Druid but I found Gerard Butler from the movie 300 *sigh*  If you find a picture of a Druid, please send it along. 

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Politics got you down? Or up? Read a book!

Today is Election Day in America. I cast my vote weeks ago, since Washington is a vote-by-mail state, so today I'll just be biting my nails, checking all my favorite political blogs during breaks at my day job, and then spending the evening watching the results come in. Depending on the result, I'll be elated or devastated. Either way, I doubt I'll get much sleep tonight.

But I'm not going to talk about that here. You'll notice I didn't even mention which result would elate me and which devastate me. Because I'm declaring this space a politics-free zone. We're here to talk books. No matter how the race turns out, books are the answer!

Don't believe me? Here's how I see it:

Did your chosen candidate win? What better way to celebrate and unwind after the stress of following the race than with a nice, relaxing book!

Did your guy lose? Drown your sorrows and escape your fears for the future in a book!

Recount or the Electoral College tied 269-269? (Please, God, not that!) Well, then, we'll ALL need some nice distractions--like good books!

Citizen of another country? Ignore us and our insane politics by reading a book!

Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I have more reason than normal for hoping lots of people turn to books in the weeks to come. My latest historical romance from Carina, An Infamous Marriage, released yesterday.

Northumberland, 1815

At long last, Britain is at peace, and General Jack Armstrong is coming home to the wife he barely knows. Wed for mutual convenience, their union unconsummated, the couple has exchanged only cold, dutiful letters. With no more wars to fight, Jack is ready to attempt a peace treaty of his own.

Elizabeth Armstrong is on the warpath. She never expected fidelity from the husband she knew for only a week, but his scandalous exploits have made her the object of pity for years. Now that he's back, she has no intention of sharing her bed with him—or providing him with an heir—unless he can earn her forgiveness. No matter what feelings he ignites within her…

Jack is not expecting a spirited, confident woman in place of the meek girl he left behind. As his desire intensifies, he wants much more than a marriage in name only. But winning his wife's love may be the greatest battle he's faced yet.

One commenter here between now and tomorrow at 5 PM Pacific Time will win a download of An Infamous Marriage in the electronic format of their choice, and at the end of the tour I'll be giving away a grand prize of a $50 gift certificate to the winner's choice of Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Powell's Books to one commenter on the tour as a whole. You get one entry per blog tour stop you comment upon, so check out my blog for the whole schedule! If you'd like to be entered in the drawing, please include your email in the format yourname AT yourhost DOT com

So comment on anything but politics. (Seriously. There are other places for that. Argue politics here, and your comment will be deleted. You'll also be barred from winning the blog tour grand prize.) Have you read anything great lately? What's your favorite kind of book for when you just want to escape? What upcoming releases are you most looking forward to?

Thursday, November 01, 2012

What makes a writer a writer?

These are some questions I was asked a while ago, which help to explain why I feel compelled to write. Ring any bells?

1) I started life as an author writing regency romance. I now write contemporaries, too, and also a series of marine crime mysteries.

2) What is a typical writing session like?
No such thing. Every day varies. I have to clear the decks, so to speak, get all the boring daily stuff out of the way first – like cleaning, shopping or whatever – then the rest of the day’s mine and I can lose myself in a world of my own creation.

3) Men: boxers or briefs? Women: underwire or banded? (apparently people want to know this!)
Underwired. I’m an inverted pear-shape so carry most of my weight up top! Enough said.

4) If you use a pen name, why? If you don't, do you worry about stalkers?
I write my contemporaries and marine crime novels as W. Soliman, just so that readers of my regencies don’t get confused. I’m certainly not trying to hide who I am – far from it. And I might as well 'fess up and admit that I also write erotica as Zara Chase.

5) What is the oddest thing about your writing or the way you write?
Went to an Abba tribute band concert a while back and as they sang ‘The Name of the Game’ I thought it would be a great title for a book. (Us writers are never off duty!). That book has now been published..

6) Give us a glimpse into how you choose the names of your characters, please?
If I’m writing regencies I refer to my Penguin book of names and then check on line to make sure the name I choose existed in the time period I’m writing about. A Lady Jenna wouldn’t really cut it! With contemporaries, I usually just choose names that I think fit the personality of the character I’ve created, or a name that I like, but with eighteen published books under my belt, I’m running out of those.

7) Any thoughts on staying healthy while pursuing such a sedentary career?

I walk – fast - at least an hour and a quarter every day with my dog. (A great activity for plotting, by the way), I pump iron at the gym twice a week and have just acquired a push bike.

8) Dogs or cats, and why? (don't say "neither" because even if you don't have one, choosing is informative! )
I love all animals but have had dogs for years. My latest is a rescuee from a shelter in Spain. We paid more than the price of a business class seat to have him flown out to Florida, where we spend half the year. Couldn’t be without him and didn’t think twice about the expense, which is more than can be said for my husband, who had to foot the bill! Here he is. See what I mean?

9) If you research, what's your method? If you don't, how do you get away with that?
I mostly use the internet for research but also have an impressive library of research books, mostly centred on the regency period.

10) What is the most interesting or outrageous comment you've heard/read about your writing?

When my first book was accepted for publication, someone very close to me who ought to have known better, asked if I was actually being paid for it!