Inca Autumn and Victorian Halloween – a few traditions

But where’s my apple?
In one of my first blog posts, I mentioned that, being a woodsmoke-and-gluhwein kind of girl, I was a big fan of autumn. It isn’t quite woodsmoke season yet (it’s a balmy 23 degrees at my desk) and pregnancy will mean a little less of the mulled wine for me this year, but that doesn’t change the fact that autumn is just around the corner.

When I was a child, autumn brought a new pencil case and a stiff, yet-to-be-worn-in pair of school shoes. I haven’t purchased the former in a decade, but the season is still full of promise to me. Now it means spicy bean soups, scary films watched from beneath a blanket, and cider at rugby matches in the cool (and, most likely, wet) air. It also means BACK TO SCHOOL, or rather, back to my self-editing and my blog.

This time last week, I was working on my chapter summary in a swimsuit, with a glass of fruit juice and a view of the Adriatic and its myriad islands. Today, it’s Helly Hansen hoodie, cup of mint tea and loooong to-do list scrawled across my desk whiteboard. So in the back-to-school spirit, and before I slog on with my chapter summary, I thought I would steal an idea from my springtime blog post and write about Victorian and Inca autumnal traditions.

Victorian autumn – skulls and sliced apple

  • Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes Night as it was known back then, has changed relatively little since Queen Victoria’s reign – fireworks, bonfires and blazing effigies all played a part then and still do today. Effigies of Jack the Ripper were particularly popular during the autumn of 1888, around the time of his infamous killing spree.
  • In contrast, Halloween (one of my favourite celebrations) has evolved over the last century and a half. True to form, many people living in the Victorian era, especially in Britain, preferred a highly sanitised festival, more about matchmaking and marriage than ghosts and ghouls. Across the Atlantic, Halloween retained a little more of its Samhain-derived creepiness.
  • Should you have attended an American party on October 31st in the late 19th century, you might have found yourself (if you were a young maiden at least) eating apple segments in front of a mirror at midnight. If you were lucky, the face of your suitor might have appeared next to your own reflection. If you were unlucky, you might have seen a skull instead, a sure sign of impending death as opposed to an upcoming marriage.
  • If apple-eating didn’t appeal (no pun intended), you could have hitched up your skirts and jumped over a candle flame. Should the flame remain, good luck was yours for the year to come (notwithstanding any skulls seen in mirrors, of course).

Inca festivities – ear plugs and hair hangings

  • My post on the Inca festival of the moon mentions llama sacrifice, deceased guests of honour and saliva-fermented corn beer, none of which were unusual aspects of an Inca festival at any time of year. But what else might you have expected to see during autumn in Peru (March – May) in the 16th century?
  • Pacha-Pucuy (broadly, March) saw the potato harvest. Shamans would contact “the other side” to ensure a good crop, and men would purify their souls by staying away from salt, fruit and their own wives.
  • Inca Raymi (April) was time for a festival (yes, another one) honouring the emperor (more llamas were sacrificed, naturally), including feasting, chicha-drinking, throwing games and ear piercing. The inhabitants of the Inca empire favoured huge ear piercings made even wider through the use of ear plugs – the larger the hole, the more noble its bearer.
  • During Aymoray Quilla (May) the corn was ready for harvesting. Reason enough for a festival? Of course. It wasn’t all fun and games during this month though – everybody was expected to contribute charqui (jerky), fabric, meat and crops to the empire’s vast stores, and failure to do so resulted in prompt punishment. Given that the Inca favoured such punishments as hanging by the hair over precipices, I think this was probably best avoided…

Back in the 21st century, autumn 2016 is only just kicking off, and I’m hoping for plenty of feasting and fireworks, plenty of ghost stories, but a little less of the ritual sacrifice.


Book research: the weird and the wonderful

Weird and wonderful llama
Llama holiday selfie (
Since I finished the first draft of my book three weeks ago, I have been reading, writing and reading about writing. As much as I love all of those things, I fancied a bit of a change, so I have spent the morning trawling through my book research board on Pinterest. In my first ever blog post, I promised a link or two to some of the weird and wonderful things I have discovered about the Inca Empire, the Victorians and the circus in the course of my research.

I have previously posted on spring-time festivals in both periods covered by my book, but it gets much weirder (and much more wonderful) than that.

Here are some of my favourite things I have discovered so far…

Weird beginnings

Did you know that guinea pig is considered a delicacy (yes, the kind you eat) in Peru? I’m sure you might have if you have been there as it continues to be consumed to this day. As it stands, my book opens with the sentence “Umina bit into the guinea pig”. Umina is the protagonist in the Inca portion of my book, and she was biting into a guinea pig because… well, I won’t spoil the surprise.

Sightseeing llamas

I have included a link to this photo for no reason other than it makes me smile every time I see it. I can’t help but envisage a group of llamas deciding to visit Machu Picchu, getting there and saying “It’s smaller than it looks in pictures”. Not that llamas can talk obviously…

Crossing the bridge when you come to it

…or not. I don’t mind heights, so I would probably be perfectly willing to amble across this traditional, Inca-style rope bridge. Bridges such as this were replaced on a regular basis in the Inca Empire as part of the mit’a (or labour tax) that was expected of all healthy adults, and, perhaps surprisingly, were strong enough to carry battalions of Spaniards on horseback. This particular bridge crosses the Apurimac river in Peru and is still reconstructed by locals every year.

The rope is woven from vegetation, so let’s hope the plants used to construct it don’t get any ideas from the section below…

Killer tomatoes

I had a handwritten shortlist of poisonous plants on my coffee table for about a fortnight so I was really hoping nobody I knew became ill in mysterious circumstances that prompted the police to search my house. And yes, before you ask, it WAS related to the writing of my book.

As well as finding out what I needed for one of my chapters, I read some interesting things about toxic crops more generally. Most people are aware deadly nightshade isn’t the best plant to go near (I mean, the clue’s in the name for a start). Something I didn’t know though was that cows and rabbits can seemingly ingest it with no ill effects. Putting deadly nightshade firmly aside, it turns out that even many of the plants we know and love as foodstuffs have done some very bad things. Kidney beans prepared in a slow cooker can be highly toxic, nutmeg – at very high doses – can have hallucinogenic properties, and at least one person has apparently been killed by an infusion made from tomato leaves.

In this light, my childhood phobia of salad actually seems quite sensible…

Pepper’s Ghost

If you have read any of my previous blog posts, you will probably be aware I am a fan of all things supernatural. Which is great, because – thanks to my research into a Victorian carnival mainstay – I now know how to make my own ghost

A picturesque ending

Victorian photographs are endlessly fascinating, amusing and terrifying. There are numerous examples of clowns, contortionists and fortune tellers on my Pinterest board. One thing you won’t find, despite their prevalence at the time, is commemorative photographs of the dead (don’t make the mistake I just did – Googling this latter while you are at home by yourself). I won’t share a link to the particularly macabre page I just looked at, partly because there is a lot of speculation around the authenticity of most of the images said to be of this type found on the internet, and partly because I don’t want to be responsible for anybody else’s insomnia. Suffice it to say that the pictures aren’t made any less chilling by the fact that most of them are probably just photographs of regular, living people.

Unlike some of the more vital Victorian subjects (including babies), I have never been offered opium or laudanum to encourage me to sit still when having my photo taken (usually a glass of wine or prosecco does me just fine). Then again, my wedding photos weren’t quite as nightmare-inducing as this one, even towards the end of the day when hair was skewiff, eyeliner was smudged and dress was torn.


These are just a few of my favourite weird and wonderful facts, but I hope you’ll agree it’s easy to see why I get sidetracked when researching a period or place. The Wikipedia trails and hours of reading can be useful though – aside from the sightseeing llamas, the majority of the above have been incorporated into my book in some way. (I would love to write about sightseeing llamas though – maybe a future children’s book?!) As soon as I am finished editing this book, I plan to start researching the ideas I have for my next. So watch this space for freaky and fantastical facts about ancient Iceland, emotions and mind control…


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