What is “essence”? I find out at the circus

Essence of the circus
Performer at Circus Zyair
When I saw that the circus was coming to town, I had to roll up for a ticket in the name of book research (or perhaps it’s just a decent excuse for an evening out, a bit like the time I went for dinner at Ceviche…).

I insist on flouting the advice to “write what you know”, so reading history books and memoirs and scrawling through vintage photos is absolutely necessary to me, but it’s clearly not the same as actually being there and experiencing history first-hand. Which is problematic, given time machines don’t exist yet (note the “yet” – I’m a sci-fi fan).

The library and my local Oxfam book shop have been a godsend since I started writing my book. There are many brilliant textbooks and essays (and even guides on living as a historical figure yourself in case that’s your kind of thing) out there, but there’s one thing even the best struggle to give you – the “essence” of a particular era or place. The unique feeling it inspires in you, or its zeitgeist if you will.

What is essence?

I suppose essence means many different things to many different people, but to me it can’t really be described in words. It’s walking down a jetty in the sun and suddenly realising you’re 1000 miles from home (or 1000 years when science fiction eventually becomes science fact). It’s the collective inhalation of candy floss–choked air as a tightrope walker stumbles in the middle of the ring. It’s probably one of the reasons Shakespeare‘s comedies don’t come across as particularly comedic to a lot of people nowadays.

Although layers comprising wicked humour, exotic foods and a love of the bizarre were added to it as the result of my research, my idea of the essence of the Victorian period came pretty fully formed from years of Dickens and Galsworthy. Inca Peru has required the use of a little more imagination. This is why, meagre consolation as it might be, I have jumped at the chance to eat at Peruvian restaurants and even cook Andean recipes like this at home. I think a trip to Peru would be the logical next step (hint hint to my husband if you are reading this).

The Inca Empire has been particularly difficult to research in the conventional way because there is relatively little information out there. They didn’t have a writing system (they used quipus – lengths of knotted, coloured string) and the main written historical accounts were set down by a conquering force as the empire was drawing to a close. I haven’t even found many examples of novels set in the Inca Empire as of yet (let me know if you know of any as I would be interested to read one!). I find photographs help a great deal though in my quest for essence, as do memoirs of epic journeys like John Harrison’s Cloud Road. It’s illuminating to read a first-hand account of what it’s like to drink coca tea or stand in an Inca temple complex, even if it is 500 years since the characters in my book would have done the same.

Essence is also what leads me to sit in a coffee shop screwing up my nose and sticking out my tongue in an attempt to mimic a character’s facial expression as I try to find the perfect words to describe it, but that makes me look silly so let’s not talk about that…

So did I find it?

So, back to the circus. Did my trip capture the essence of sitting in a big top in Victorian–era Peru? Yes and no. I ate popcorn. I sat on a wooden bench. There were scantily clad acrobats and clowns throwing objects that really ought not to be thrown. But there were also motor bikes and heavy metal and Styrofoam cups. We did, however, collectively inhale the candy floss-choked air when a tightrope walker stumbled in the middle of the ring, and that’s the important thing.

– Kirsty

Victorian Easter and an Inca festival

Victorian Easter card
Victorian Easter card from thegraphicsfairy.com
Call me crazy but I’m not a huge fan of spring. Lolloping lambs and brilliant blooms are all well and good, but I’m more of a woodsmoke and glühwein girl myself. However, whether I like it or not, spring is in the process of springing and Easter is soon to be upon us (and sorry if you are a friend or family member reading this and expecting an egg off me as I have yet to purchase a single one…).

One of my favourite things about writing a historical novel is all of the RESEARCH I get to do, and because I am writing a book set in two time periods, I get to do twice as much. This type of research is far more my style than the politics, dates and multinational agreements that seemed to form the core of the history I learned at school. Now I get to find out all about Victorian burlesque dancers and Amazonian clifftop tombs.

In celebration of all things March, and because I am sad that my research phase is mostly over, I have decided to post about springtime traditions relating to the two periods featured in my book. For the Victorian era that means Easter, and for the Inca Empire that means the festival of the moon (although being in the southern hemisphere, spring in Peru is September to November).

Victorian Easter

Many of the elements of a 21st century Easter, e.g. eggs, bonnets and parades, originated from Victorian times or before, but some of the more unusual Victorian Easter traditions were:

  • Giving gloves as a gift – it was customary for men to give gloves to their intended during springtime as a sort of circumspect marriage proposal. Should the lady choose to wear the gloves for the Easter Sunday parade, the offer was assumed to have been accepted (so be careful who you buy gloves for at this time of year!)
  • Hot cross buns – these are obviously still eaten today by those with a penchant for hot, buttery, currant-studded dough, but during and before Queen Victoria’s reign, hot cross buns held a more superstitious importance. It was believed that foodstuffs baked on Good Friday would not go mouldy for the coming year, and could ward off bad luck and illness, even going so far as to prevent kitchen fires should they be hung from the rafters above your stove.
  • Egg rolling – exactly what it sounds like. Rolling eggs down hills for fun is a traditional Victorian Easter activity that takes place even to this day. Another egg-related pursuit (more Elizabethan than Victorian but it sounded so fun I couldn’t resist including it) was egg dancing, whereby the lucky participant twirled and swirled around a dance floor strewn with eggs, trying to break as few as possible. Probably not one to try unless you have a spring clean coming up…

Inca festival of the moon

The Inca festival of the moon was equally jubilant in nature (even moreso if my research is to be believed) but slightly more bloodthirsty. The Incas were predominantly a sun-worshipping culture, but the moon also held an important place in the pantheon of the gods. Should you decide to hold your own festival of the moon this Easter weekend, along with singing, dancing, food and friends, you will need the following:

  • A few llamas to slaughter. You could then pour their blood by the gallon through a channel carved into the rocks. If the blood goes one way, the gods are happy. If it goes the other way, watch out. Human sacrifice was less common than the animal variety, but was carried out in times of great need or disaster.
  • A large quantity of chicha (corn beer). If you would like to prepare it in the traditional manner, you will need to chew corn kernels until they turn suitably mushy, spit them into a vat and wait for the whole to ferment. See here for a recipe (with or without the saliva).
  • Some mummified, deceased royal ancestors to oversee proceedings from the safety of their ornate litters (and a couple of devoted female attendants to make sure they are kept happy and well-fed). Ancestor worship was one of the central tenets of the Inca religion, and there was a strong belief that the soul could only reach the afterlife if the body was kept intact after death.

On that note, I am off to write a bit more (and probably buy some Easter eggs). Whether to you Easter means church, chocolate or Chinese takeaway, I wish you a good one.


Hello and welcome to my blog

BlogWelcome to my blog! This is just a quick post to say hi and let anybody interested know my author website is up and running (which is probably pretty obvious as you are reading this on my website right now…). I’m ALMOST there with the first draft of my book (expect to see a blurb and an extract or two very shortly) – after that will come the scary business of editing and the even scarier business of trying to find an agent.

In the meantime, I’m going to be sharing my thoughts on my book, writing and life in general, and possibly linking to some of the many weird and wonderful websites I come across in the name of book research (common poisonous plants and scary Victorian wedding photos, anybody?!).

So that’s it from me for now (read: I want to carry on drinking my glass of wine)…

– Kirsty