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What an icestorm taught me about the Victorians

ice-storm-across-from-usI love writing historical romance partly because the idea of flickering fires and lamp light or gas light sounds so romantic.  It’s in pretty much every book I write: a scene where the sound of the crackling fire fills the room.  I know it’s cliché; I can’t help it.  I think a crackling fire sets a mood like nothing else.

 At least I did until last December.

 I live in the Northeast and in December we were victims of the ice storm that shut power down for over a million households.  We lost power for 5 days, which really doesn’t seem like much, I know.  But it is!  Very, very long.

 A lot of people left their homes, but we didn’t.  We had a fireplace, we had a camping stove, we had candles.  I figured, “hey, my characters live this way their whole lives, how hard can it be?”  Probably, I reasoned, the most difficult thing would be to keep the room warm with a fire.  If you venture too far from a fire in a fireplace, it gets cold fast, one of the reasons stoves caught on quickly once invented.   To keep our living room warm, we hung a comforter over the archway.  This kept the room much warmer.  And the other rooms in the house colder, because the heat of the living room sucked in the heat from other parts of the house.  My son gave me the scientific explanation-I don’t understand it.  But now I know why old houses have doors on all the rooms; to keep in the heat! 

 Second thing learned.  It is very hard to keep a fire burning hot enough to warm a room when it’s 20 degrees out.  We only had one day of those temperatures, but my arms ached when it was over from lifting 5 pound logs and throwing them on the fire.  When it’s that cold people didn’t sit in a chair and sew.  They were constantly working on that fire just to stay warm. I always thought the layers of clothing people wore was to hide the body underneath; I now wonder if it wasn’t because they were cold

 Third thing learned:  it gets dark.  I mean really dark.  Years ago when I was writing Wicked Woman, I wanted to know, for real, if my character could read by lamp light.  So one night I shut all the lights off in the house, lit an oil lamp and yes!  I could read.  I never considered the light from other houses lighting mine. But no one in the neighborhood had power, I found out differently. I’ve lived in this house 11 years and still could not navigate it without some lighting source because I could not see.  As for reading?  You can read by the light of a lamp but it’s much easier if you have several candles as well. And you have to lean towards the light source.

 Which brings me to the final thing-you can’t find anything at night.   Try moving a candle around to find stuff under a chair-you’ll burn the chair.  Oil lamps are only slightly better. By day 3, I was running around the room (we were living in one room because at this point the rest of the house was just one huge refrigerator) trying to put everything were I would easily be able to locate it.  And even at that I lost things.    

 By the time the electricity went back on, I was exhausted, the living room was a mess, and I was heartily grateful to be living in the 21st century.  Although my husband years ago dubbed me The Fire Queen-I’ve had ’em so hot I’ve bent grates-I have only lit one fire since that storm.  Just the idea exhausts me.  Will I keep fires out of my books to come?  Not on your life; I’m just will refuse to be entirely realistic about it.  My characters will have a fire that needs very little tending.  It’s a magical fire.

 How the experience will affect my writing is still up for grabs.  It probably won’t in any big way, but I’ve always thought authentic historical fiction, whether it be straight historical or romantic, is best when the details ring true.  Closing a door to a room to keep the heat in, leaning closer to a lamp to see the words on a page, and making sure to put things away-like the matches should be next to the lantern!–because looking for thing in pitch black by candle light is impossible. Chances are your heroine will be killed  by the guy with the hatchet before she can get her hands on the gun if it’s misplaced.   Always put the gun away just where you hope to find it. . .that’s what I learned best!

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2 Comments

  1. LOL. You did learn about history the hard way. I can’t imagine being without power in my home for one day, let alone five. And from my experience camping, I know it’s hard to find anything in the dark, even with a flashlight. We do use candle lanterns in Civil War camp, but I can’t see a darned thing with them, so always keep at least one flashlight hidden away for those late night trips to the bathroom.

  2. David says:

    Love the detail in this post! You brought me right into your house. Just think how much we take for granted by now. I fear we’ve lost some of our survival instincts.

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