Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Christmas Snap-dragon

Of all the strange Christmas traditions observed in English-speaking countries over the years—kissing under the mistletoe, hanging stockings by the fire, standing in line to sit on Santa’s lap—the strangest of all may have been the playing of a parlor game called snap-dragon. It literally involved playing with fire.

The game consisted of warming some form of alcohol—brandy was traditional—in a large, shallow bowl and floating treats in it, typically raisins but sometimes items like almonds, plums or candied fruit.

This 1858 depiction of “Snapdragon” by the artist Charles Keene (1823-1891) appeared in the Illustrated London News.
The alcohol was then set alight, creating an eerie blue flame. Participants would dart a hand into the fire to pluck out a prize, and the alcohol-covered treat would continue to burn until the victorious player popped it into his or her mouth to extinguish it. The fun was in the daring required, and the excitement of watching one’s fellow participants risk injury, blue flames clinging to their lips and hands.

The origins of the game are old enough that Shakespeare makes reference to it, using an older variation of its name, flap-dragon. In Love’s Labour’s Lost the rustic character Costard says, “Thou are easier swallowed than a flapdragon,” and in Henry IV Part 2, Falstaff refers to a character with “a weak mind and an able body” as someone who “drinks off candles’ ends for flap-dragons.”

Though the practice apparently began as an individual drinking game, we know it had evolved into a group activity by the eighteenth century because Dr. Johnson defines flapdragon in his 1755 Dictionary as “A play in which they catch raisins out of burning brandy, and, extinguishing them by closing the mouth, eat them.” We also know the game was alive and well during the regency, since Grose’s 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue defines it as “Christmas gambol: raisins and almonds being put into a bowl of brandy, and the candles extinguished, the spirit is set on fire, and the company scramble for the raisins.”

It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt. In this 1887 illustration from “Holly Leaves” (the Christmas edition of The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News), one child appears to have burned his fingers.
Despite—or perhaps because of—the danger involved, the game remained popular throughout the nineteenth century. In The Pickwick Papers (1836), Charles Dickens writes, “When they were all tired of blind-man's buff, there was a great game at snap-dragon, and when fingers enough were burned with that, and all the raisins were gone, they sat down by the huge fire of blazing logs to a substantial supper...” Twenty-five years later, Anthony Trollope included an extended passage in Orley Farm in which his characters play snap-dragon: “Snap-dragon by candlight? Who ever heard of such a thing?” says Madeline Stavely. “It would wash all the dragon out of it, and leave nothing but the snap. It is a necessity of the game that it should be played in the dark, —or rather by its own lurid light.” Lewis Carroll even included a “snap-dragon-fly” in Through the Looking Glass: “Its body is made of plum pudding, its wings of holly-leaves, and its head is a raisin burning in brandy."

Eventually, however, electricity arrived to shed its own lurid light, and people became a bit more leery of playing near open flames, or perhaps parents just became more cautious about small children plunging their hands into fiery alcohol. Snap-dragon fell out of favor, and now the game is little more than a literary footnote. Still, the next time you’re looking for a way to liven up the holidays, you might want to play...No, on second thought, Jenga is a lot less likely to cause serious injury.

Merry Christmas, and happy New Year!

Alyssa EverettAlyssa Everett's debut regency romance, Ruined by Rumor, is currently available from Carina Press, and her second regency, Lord of Secrets, will be out March 25, 2013. She hopes you'll visit her website and follow her on Twitter and Facebook, where she promises not to spam you relentlessly.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

History as we wish it could be.

I love history, but I also love modern medicine, microwaves and the ability to buy what I eat instead of growing it. Luckily, modern life allows history buffs like me to enjoy a taste of history through movies. Since I'm obsessed with period pieces (I am a historical romance novelist, after all) I'll watch any movie with a costume and an accent. As a result, I've seen some great movies, some terrible movies and some that are just great fun.

Below is a sampling of the good, the bad and the fun to watch. This list only represents a small portion of the movies I love. So feel free to post your own favorites. I'm always on the lookout for another flick to add to my list or, at this time of year, to add to my Christmas wish list.

There is something decadent about watching Dangerous Liaisons. The costumes are rich, the story is intriguing and the characters are down right evil. It's wicked fun and a lot less calories than chocolate.

Who can resist the scene in Dangerous Beauty when Veronica's mother instructs Veronica on the art of pleasing a man? The story is a little trite at times but the chemistry between Veronica and Marco is sizzling and Venice provides the perfect backdrop for their complicated love.

How sexy is Rupert Everett in An Ideal Husband? This film combines all the pithy dialogue one expects from Oscar Wilde with excellent actors and lush costumes.

As much as I enjoy King Arthur, I'll be the first to admit it isn't a great film. However, I can't resist Clive Owen and Ioan Gruffadd in Roman costume.
Also, the soundtrack is amazing.

Vanity Fair is gorgeous and it's fun watching Rebbecca scheme her way up the social ladder. Also, James Purfoy is really sexy in his uniform. However, the period detail isn't perfect and neither is Reese Witherspoon's accent. I've read William Makepeace Thackery's novel and the movie is a good adaptation of the lengthy tome.
300. Beefcake. Need I say more?

Sunday, December 09, 2012

A Recipe for Romance

Well, a recipe for a romantic dinner. I love to cook and so does my heroine, Rebeka. This is a favorite recipe of our bookish scholarly heroine, tossed back in time to the 17th century. Rebeka was ecstatic when she found the ingredients for this recipe on Doward's wagon (the traveling tradesman). Imagine her surprise when Lord Arik brought home a fine salmon along with a strong appetite. She couldn't wait to tempt him with her offereing(s). Luckily for both of them this recipe takes less than ten minutes. This is the 21st century version.

PS...Rebeka served the salmon to Arik in the Great Hall. Tantalized  he licked the sticky glaze from his fingers never taking his eyes off of her. But that's a totally different story!

PPS...My son makes this recipe whenever he wants to impress. With a side of whipped potatoes and a vinaigrette salad, all you need is a decadent chocolate cake to finish off the meal.

PPPS...Knight of Runes, Arik and Rebeka's story, is now available in paperback but only through Harlequin.

Rebeka's Brown Glazed Salmon


1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
2 Tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 Tablespoons fresh chopped dill (or 2 teaspoons dried dill)
4 (6 ounces each) salmon fillets
Salt and pepper


1. Preheat the broiler.
2. Spray the rack of the broiler pan with nonstick cooking spray.
3. Mix the brown sugar, mustard and dill in a small bowl.
4. Salt and pepper both sides of the salmon and place on the broiler pan.
5. Spoon on and spread the glaze on top of the salmon. (You won't use all of it. I keeps forever covered in the fridge.)
6. Position the broiler rack about 7 inches from the heat and broil just until the salmon is opaque, about 7 to 9 minutes. Keep a watch as the glaze can burn.

1. Don't turn the fillet.
2. The glaze works equally well on chicken and pork.

Let me know how you like it.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Of Wimseys and Wellesleys, a new(ish) series

For the next few months, I'm going to be recycling a series of posts from my blog on how to manage titles and forms of address within the British aristocracy. First off, an introduction:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the writer of a historical novel set in 18th or 19th-century Britain must be in want of a duke. Even if, like me, you declare yourself a populist, a good small-r republican who doesn't understand what's so fascinating about inherited aristocracy, they have a way of poking their graceful dukely heads up and insisting upon a role in your stories. Or if you can resist the siren song of the duke, you may find yourself writing a less exalted but still lordly creature like an earl or a viscount. And your peer of the realm will have, or acquire along the way, a family.

In every case there is a correct and incorrect way to refer to your peer and his family--his widowed mother, his wife, his daughters, the cousin who's next in line for the title until he fathers a son of his own, etc. And a great many writers get it wrong. They just stick "Lord" or "Lady" willy-nilly into their characters' names. If their hero is John Smith, Earl of Smithton, they'll call him Lord John on one page, Lord Smith the next, and maybe Lord Smithton somewhere in the next chaper. (Hint: only one of the options is correct.)

Admittedly, British titles and forms of address are a confusing and convoluted system, especially for us Americans who have no equivalent in our culture. But I believe it pays to get them right. The more little details you get correct, the richer and more believable your fictional world will be. Also, you'll earn the appreciation and praise of readers like me who've memorized the system and find the errors to be nails on a chalkboard.

There are sites, readily searchable via Google, that explain the rules.  But because stories are easier to remember than rules, at least for me, I've decided to do a blog series exploring proper forms of address using one fictional example and one historical one.

Representing fiction will be Lord Peter Wimsey, protagonist of Dorothy Sayers' Golden Age detective novels. He's the younger son of a duke, and over the course of the series, we meet a good chunk of his family--his widowed mother, his brother the current duke and his wife and children, their sister who starts the series single and marries another secondary character, and, last but far from least, Lord Peter's eventual wife. Between them all, they cover most of the possible forms of address within a duke's family, but they're fairly straightforward and tidy for all that.

For complexity we'll look to history, to the life and family of Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington. He didn't inherit his title (obviously, since he's the first duke). He was the third surviving son of an earl, and for his military accomplishments was made first a knight, then a viscount, an earl, a marquess, and at last a duke. Know what to call him, his wife, and their two sons at every point of his career and you'll be well on your way to mastering the entire system. And once you throw in the extended family--divorce scandals, a peer who didn't get around to marrying his wife till AFTER all five of their children were born, name changes for the sake of inheritance, and everything else that could complicate the lives and fortunes of a big and often dysfunctional turn-of-the-19th century aristocratic family--well, in my experience there's nothing like juicy 200-year-old gossip to help you remember who could and couldn't inherit a title and how you ought to speak of a duke's children as opposed to an earl's or a viscount's.

So, until I run out of material, I'll be running a series on the Wimseys and Wellesleys and using them for examples of how to get your own dukes and their families right. I welcome questions and corrections--I think I've mastered most of the rules, but I wouldn't be surprised if I'm still missing a nuance here and there.

Next time, we'll start with both our protagonists as children and learn the difference between younger sons of dukes and earls.


Sunday, December 02, 2012

Compromising the Marquess

As a Brit now living in warmer climes, I get very nostalgic come autumn time. For me it conjures up images of roaring log fires, the curtains closed against the nasty weather, a decent glass of wine close at hand and, naturally, a good book. If I’m not reading someone else’s, I’m either busy writing one or dreaming up a plot for the next one. Plot ideas come in the strangest guises and at the most unexpected times.

Take Compromising the Marquess for instance. It’s the first in a four book series published by Carina Press charting the fortunes of the Forster dynasty. The idea for it came to me when I was watching Prince William’s wedding. That got me thinking about his mother and how the paparazzi had hounded her to her death. That, in turn, got me thinking about the history of newspapers in England.

The Times started out as the Daily Universal Register in 1785. An underwriter at Lloyds incurred huge losses due to a hurricane in Jamaica and sought to recoup them through a typesetting process, producing advertising sheets to promote the venture. This, in time, led to the infamous scandal sheets that abounded in the Regency period, so loved by the ordinary people, and that could make or break reputations.
My heroine Leah supports herself and her sister by writing snippets of society gossip for one such publication. When she and Beth remove to the south coast for the benefit of Beth’s health, Leah’s opportunities are severely curtailed, until she meets the powerful and compelling Hal Forster, Marquess of Denby. She erroneously reports that he’s about to marry a local lady, thereby putting him in a compromising position. Worse, she suspects him of working against British interests. Disguised as a lad, she attends a bare knuckle fight held behind the local tavern, which is where she first meets Hal. He sees through her disguise immediately and this is how he talks to her:-
Hal felt a devilish desire to teach her a lesson.
“Come inside, lads, and have some ale. It’s cold as the grave out here.” “No, it’s all right,” she said. Hal shot the woman—Miss Elliott, was it?—an inquisitive glance. She looked away, apparently realizing that she’d spoken in her own voice. “We need to be getting back.”
This time her words were a gravelly slur, partly because she’d pulled a muffler over her mouth, covering half her features with it, but leaving the row of freckles that bedecked her retrouss√© nose delightfully exposed. Hal hadn’t known that he held freckles in such high regard. “Nonsense.” Hal clapped her on the back. She flinched but gamely stood her ground. “I wouldn’t hear of it.”
“Oh, very well then.”
The dog inserted itself between Hal and the woman as the three of them walked towards the tavern. It alternately growled and wagged, proving itself to be a most inept guardian. Hal bent to scratch its ears.
“What do you call the mutt?”
“Pickle,” said the lad. “He’s a stray.”
“Nice dog.”
“He’s good at catching rats,” the girl said with the hint of a mischievous smile.
Ah, so she knew who he was. “I’ll bear that in mind if I ever find my home infested.”
They entered the tavern. It was packed but Hal managed to secure a small table in the corner and ordered tankards of ale for the three of them. They were plonked on the table by a barmaid whose bosom literally spilled out of her bodice as she leaned over Hal’s shoulder. She roared with laughter, adjusted her clothing and directed a cheeky wink at him. Ale slopped over the table, trickling onto the girl’s lap. Hal had to resist the urge to wipe it away. Miss Elliott’s eyes almost popped out of her head as she looked round the place. It must have been obvious that there were many gentlemen present, congenially rubbing shoulders with the lower classes, all rank forgotten as they bonded over a sporting event. His brother Robert was leaning against the bar, deep in conversation with a crew member from Hal’s boat. The few wenches in the place were rushed, quite literally, off their feet as men paid for their favours. Miss Elliott’s gaze was fixed on Sally, a regular at the Boar’s Head, who was all but giving herself to a bosun at the next table. Hal nodded at the bosun—his own bosun, as it happened. He took the hint, stood up and led Sally outside.
“Want a piece of Sally, do you, lad?”
 “Er, no, of course not.” The girl shook her head. “Whatever do you mean?”
“Come on now, we’re all men of the world here and I saw you looking.” Hal was hard-pressed to keep his amusement in check. “I can arrange it, if you like, once she’s free. Shouldn’t be long.”
“Er, no thanks.” “What’s your name, boy?” “Leon. What’s yours?”
Hmm, clever. Flick had mentioned her name was Leah. “Henry,” he said truthfully. “Haven’t seen you around these parts before. Where do you work?”
“We’re…er, looking for work. This is my brother, Jonny.”
“What sort of work are you after?”
“Anything that pays.”
“Well, I might be able to help you there. Are you willing to go to sea?”
“No,” said Jonny.
“Yes,” said the girl.
Hal leaned back and flashed an amiable smile. “Well, which is it?”
“We have a few possibilities on land,” Miss Elliott said, appearing to recall that she had the welfare of an ailing sister to consider. “Besides, now that I think about it, I get seasick.”
“That’s unfortunate.” Hal lifted his tankard and hid a smile behind it. He was enjoying himself enormously, pitting his wits against the girl. She was quick on the uptake but no match for him. “You haven’t touched your ale, Leon. Something wrong with it?”
She picked up the tankard, took too long a draught and choked on it. Hal reached across and slapped her across her narrow shoulders.
“Sorry, did I hurt you?” Hal smiled at the chit. “A strong lad like you. Didn’t think you’d hurt so easily.”
“It’s nothing.” She hid her face behind her tankard, much as Hal had done earlier, presumably in the vain hope of disguising a fiery blush.
“We’d better be getting along, mi…I mean, Leon,” Jonny said, draining his tankard and standing up.
“Oh?” Hal raised one brow. “Do you have to be somewhere?”
“Well, er…there might be some work for us tomorrow and so we have to be up early to stand a chance of being taken on.”
Hal stood also, focusing his attention on Miss Elliott, who remained seated. He could vaguely detect the swell of her breasts, even though he suspected that she’d bound them before covering them with several layers of clothing.
“Well, if you change your mind about the work at sea, you can always find me here.” “
What sort of work would it be?” she asked, ignoring Jonny when he tugged at her sleeve. Presumably he’d noticed more than one person glancing at her with speculative interest as soon as she stood up and displayed her appealing posterior. Hal should have anticipated that but he’d been having too much fun teasing her and, for once, had relaxed his guard.
“Oh, just general deckhand duties. You wouldn’t mind that so much, would you, Leon? Bunking down with a lot of other lads can be quite jolly.”
Miss Elliott swallowed, her blush deepening. “Well, I—”
“Not shy, are you? We’re all made the same way.” The extent of Hal’s desire to discover exactly how Miss Elliott was put together surprised him. That tempting derriere, those deliciously slender thighs, caused no end of inappropriate thoughts to tumble through his head. He didn’t need the distraction of inquisitive virgins to deflect him from his purpose.

Compromising the Marquess – A sparkling Regency in which a marquess finds his destiny in an impecunious siren with a beautiful voice and a scorching pen.

Available from Carina Press Amazon.com http://amzn.to/TZgDHT Barnes & Noble http://bit.ly/QllKUf

Find out more about me and my books at my website: www.wendysoliman.com I’m on Facebook as Wendy Soliman – Author or follow me on twitter @wendyswriter