Tag Archives: rabbit trails

Rabbit Trails, or: All Roads Lead to Romantic Authors

Schloss Boitzenburg von vorne.jpgToday’s rabbit trails:

Read the news headlines – click on the one about the Syrian air strikes – read what Justin Trudeau had to say about it – watch brief video clip on Angela Merkel’s comments on it – wonder about her accent and where she’s from – look up Angela Merkel in Wikipedia – find out she’s from the Uckermark – wonder where the Uckermark is – look it up in Wikipedia – see on Wikipedia page picture of gorgeous castle, Schloss Boitzenburg – click through to Schloss Boitzenburg’s page – find out it’s the ancestral home of the von Arnim family – remember that that’s one of the principal families of German Romanticism, i.e. poets, fairy tale collectors, friends of the Grimms etc. – look up the von Arnims, including Achim von Arnim and his brother-in-law, Clemens Brentano

All that remains is to find Schloss Boitzenburg on Google maps, click through to the home page of the castle itself, find out that for €45/night one could rent a room, and get lost in dreams of a holiday in the von Arnims’ castle in North-east Germany.

And there you have it: even the daily news can lead to Romantic literature. You just have to be determined enough in following rabbit trails.

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The Wonders of Google Maps, Take 2

(Edited to include link to the graphic for email feed)

In addendum to yesterday’s post: I keep finding more crazy-amazing stuff on Google Maps. Just for instance, and for your delectation, here’s a Photo Sphere image of the Great Hall of Nymphenburg Palace (click your mouse inside the image and drag it around for a 360° view):

(If you can’t see the embedded graphic, click on the link here)

Isn’t that something?

And now I have to go fix a sentence in my NaNo manuscript – from my own photos, I thought that marble tile floor was black and white…

Life, the Universe, and Research. What did writers ever do before Google? (Write, probably. Hmph. Okay, okay, I’m getting back to it!)

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On Princes and Princesses

mme-pompadour

I’m still knee-deep in researching 19th-century Bavaria. It’s a little disconcerting when inside your head, you’re surrounded by ladies in towering hairdos or spaniel curls, wearing great big swoopy gowns; gentlemen in top hats and tail coats; steam trains and horse carriages – and then you look up, and the realities of 21st-century life are staring you in the face. The writer’s dichotomy…

But anyway, there was something I ran across in the course of my research rabbit-trailings. Have you ever wondered why there is such a proliferation of princes and princesses in fairy tales? I have. But I think I may have found the answer.

One of the things that I was looking up was the German titles of nobility, and to my surprise I found that “prince” is ranked below “duke”. In the English system, “prince” is the highest title you can possibly hold, short of “king” or “queen”, and princes and princesses are in quite short supply. As far as I can see, only the immediate offspring of the monarch get that title, and even then it seems to be restricted to the male line. According to Wikipedia, there’s all of seventeen British princes and princesses living today; and the list of all princes and princesses since 1714 is short enough to fit inside two Wikipedia articles (here and here).

ludwig-i

A real-life prince: Ludwig I, Crown Prince of Bavaria. Painted by Angelica Kauffmann, 1807.

In the German system, on the other hand, “prince” or “princess” doesn’t necessarily denote “child of king”. Yes, it does mean that, too, but it can also be a translation of “Fürst”, which is a lower-ranking title of ruling nobility than “Herzog”, i.e. “duke”. So a “prince” can be a ruler of a – wait for it – principality, a small realm that doesn’t qualify as a kingdom, so its ruler isn’t a “king”. Germany, up until 1871, was a patchwork of those small principalities and duchies (unlike England, which has been one large kingdom for more than a thousand years). Add to that the fact that among the German nobility, all children get the title – not just the eldest son – and you have more counts, baronesses, marchionesses, grand dukes and what-have-you than you can shake a stick at. And yes, princes and princesses too.

So, seeing that most of the well-known fairy tales of the Western tradition originate in mainland Europe, that would explain why we can have so many princes and princesses wandering in and out of fairy land. They were pretty normal, as far as blue-bloods go. And even when they were rulers, they didn’t necessarily reign over vast island nations like Our Gracious and Noble Queen, but maybe just a little postage-stamp realm, next door to another equally minute patch of principality.

That’s how you can get princes like the one from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Swine Herd”: “Once there was a poor Prince. He had a kingdom; it was very tiny. Still it was large enough to marry upon…” In fact, his kingdom is so tiny, at the end of the story “the Prince went home to his kingdom, and shut and barred the door.” That ending always tickled my fancy as a child – a kingdom so small, you can shut the door on it (and leave the bratty, stuck-up princess outside, as she deserves).

So there’s one mystery solved. You might get a prince – there’s enough of them around – but his kingdom could be kind of tiny. However, if you’re proper princess material, you won’t mind that. At least so long as there’s no peas under the mattress.

Life, the Universe, Princes and Princesses. Mine’s the one in the blue tunic, thank you.

 

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More Rabbit-Trailing, or: White Cliffs and China Clay

I’m still rabbit-trailing, uh, sorry, researching. And for some reason, I always seem to arrive in the early 19th century again – the time of the Regency, Jane Austen, the Brothers Grimm. What’s with that?

This is how the rabbit trail ran today: I was looking at the creation of porcelain or china (because that’s important for Septimus book #3, Checkmate, which I’m editing at the moment). Unlike regular clay, which you can just dig out of the ground and use more-or-less straight up, the clay body that makes up porcelain is a mixture – the recipe varies depending on what kind of china it is. Bone china, the fine English stuff invented by Josiah Spode in the late 18th century, contains a sizable proportion of actual bone (cow, for the most part, apparently), which is burned and ground up before it gets mixed with the other ingredients. Recipes for china clay were a closely guarded trade secret; in fact, when in 1712 a French Jesuit missionary transmitted the secret of how to make porcelain from China, where he was working, to Europe, it was considered one of the first instances of industrial espionage (however, some German scientists had already figured it out for themselves a couple of years earlier, establishing the porcelain manufacture in Meissen. Science beats spy work – so there!).

Now, that key “other ingredient” in porcelain is kaolin, also called, for obvious reasons, china clay. Kaolin, one of my sources informs me, is really white, and is primarily found in Malaysia and in Cornwall, England. And here’s where today’s rabbit trail comes in: my mind goes, “White deposits of mineral? In Southern England? Wait – the White Cliffs of Dover?” Back to Google I go, to find out what you probably already knew and I remembered just before Google brought it up, namely that the White Cliffs of Dover are made of chalk, not kaolin clay.

Caspar_David_Friedrich's_Chalk_Cliffs_on_RügenAnd then Wikipedia told me that the ones in Dover are by no means the only chalk cliffs around Europe, and that another famous instance of white-cliff-ness occurs on the German Island of Rügen. So, of course, I had to look that up, and remembered and found the famous work by Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, “Chalk Cliffs on Rügen”, from 1818.

And there you have it: the research rabbit trail arrived in the second decade of the 19th century. Just look at that dress, and the hairstyle of the lady! In 1818, Persuasion was published – can we picture Anne Elliot in that outfit? If it wasn’t for the two gentleman in the picture obviously being civilians, it might well be showing Captain and Mrs Wentworth on their honeymoon (they took a friend along on the hike to the cliffs, okay? There’s nothing wrong with spending time with friends, even if it is your honeymoon). Or it might be Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, on holiday with their sister Lotte. And when they get back to their Pension (bed-and-breakfast, or inn), they’ll have a lovely Kaffee und Kuchen (afternoon coffee & cake) off a set of Meissen porcelain.

Life, the Universe, and Rabbit Trails from China to Jane Austen. The pleasures of a writer’s life.

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Reckless Rabbit-Trailing

One of the pleasures of writing fantasy fiction is world building. In fantasy, anything goes. You want your characters to have interesting-coloured eyes? Make ’em purple. Or better yet, turquoise. (Just as an aside, the turquoise-coloured eyes of some of the main characters in Seventh Son simply appeared in the course of writing the story. I sat down and started to write,  and when it came to finding a simile for the colour of the pottery bowl – you know, the one that sucks Cat off to Ruph – I wrote “It was a turquoise blue, very much like the eyes of the weird guy that had stared at Cat so disturbingly…” Completely unplanned, but there they were – turquoise eyes. When I wrote that, I had no idea who this person was, or that he was important in any way. Turns out he was; very much so. Good thing he strolled into the pages of the story with his turquoise eyes just when I needed something to compare the glaze colour to.)

Anyway, point being that in fantasy fiction, you can just make things up. But still, they have to be coherent. In the Septimus world, for example, it turns out that turquoise eyes are unusual. Most people have ordinary-coloured eyes – blue or brown or grey; and their skin tones are just normal people-colours, too. In other words, that whole world is pretty much like ours here, with a bit of magic (and turquoise eyes) tossed into the mix. Well, it’s like ours was a long time ago. Being an inveterate history nerd, I made the setting something akin to the European Middle Ages. And within that setting, things have to work together. I’m not dealing with actual history, so I can get away with giving my quasi-medieval characters a closed cook stove with an integrated water heater – something that wasn’t invented in Europe until almost Victorian times. They also have a town clock. But no electricity or steam power, and no magical equivalent thereof, either (at least not yet. I think. Maybe. Who knows, something might stroll into the pages again…).

And so, taking together the requirement for coherence with the freedom to make things up, I have to do research. Yup. Must. It’s one of the hardships of writing fiction that is set anywhere other than the here-and-now. I’m forced to google things, and it is my writerly duty to keep running after the rabbit trails that appears in the process.

So, today’s starting question was: if Ilim is two days’ travel from Ruph (which is a fact that strolled into the pages of Cat and Mouse), and Rhanathon five days (which is something you’ll find out in Checkmate), just exactly how far is that in physical distance? Given that Ruph is in the mountains with a fair amount of forest around it, and that they travel by horse carriage or on foot, well…?

StagecoachSome two-and-a-half hours later, I had more than a dozen windows open in my browser, and had arrived at reading about the average income of a Regency labourer and the cost of taking the stage coach from London to Bath in the time of Jane Austen. (In case you’re wondering, according to this page it was approx. £2. Given that a worker earned no more than £25/year, that’s pretty much the equivalent of the cost of an airplane ticket from Canada to Europe today. Hiring a post-chaise, as the likes of Mr Darcy would have done, meant renting a private jet – it was about £100 for the trip.)

Anyways, see how that happens? You start out researching how long it takes for a horse carriage to travel from one point to another, and end up with Jane Austen. And you find out all kinds of interesting things about the Pony Express on the way – those guys were fast! And really young – just kids, most of them. Oh, sorry, where were we? Travel distances, right.

Life, the Universe, and Writer’s Research Rabbit Trailing. Those are the pleasures of creating.

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