Or, Accidental Research
One of the fun aspects of writing historical fiction is that you simply never know when you’re going to encounter a snippet of information that will prove useful for one of your own stories, or, alternatively, explain something from another historical writer’s stories.
A bit of digression, but it comes to a point, I promise.
I love Italian food. I have several different Italian cookbooks that I am slowly working my way through. I have progressed to making gnocchi by hand as one of my staple starches in the winter months when heavy food tastes good, and I have begun to try my hand at some of the desserts.
European desserts are always problematic for an American palate, since they tend to rely on richness rather than sweetness—heavy cream, real butter, high grade chocolate, and so on are what make their desserts delicious, not a high sweetness. I can enjoy a chocolate torte for its dense and decadent construction, but my husband prefers the aggressively sweet just because we can make ’em that way cakes and cookies of his Southern childhood. Italian desserts are no exception to the Vienna style of confectionary, and so the first dessert I chose to make was one that seemed the most likely to appeal to us both (because it had the highest sugar content), a bread pudding with chocolate sauce.
The pudding was…not what I normally think of either as pudding (gelatinous goo) or bread pudding (bread made for other purposes re-served with heavy, often alcoholic, syrup). It was some cross between cookies and bread in texture and rise, not quite as sweet as I expected, and both underwhelming and strangely compelling. After I’d eaten the first serving I said, “Well, I don’t think I’ll make that one again,” and yet by the time I had eaten the last serving of it two nights later, I had changed my mind.
The point to my opening comments about research, however, is this: What I realized upon first removing these spongey-cakey-cookieish “bread pudding” cups from the oven was that this must be a recipe similar to what the heroine makes in One Night of Sin (Gaelen Foley’s final book in the Knight series). I had been quite confused, reading the scene I reference in the title, as to how the hero was able to tear off a chunk of pudding, when I was conceptualizing pudding as a mousse… or why he would need to chew it. Enlightenment dawned.
It seemed so obvious in hindsight—classic European dessert from a traditional Italian cookbook; of course this would be the sort of treat available then.
Obviously, I did not bother to look up bread pudding recipes from 1820 when I read that book. It wasn’t enough of a mystery for me to chase down the answer. But I filed the question away in my mind, and when I baked for myself a food that answered the question, I remembered it.
In the process of making the recipe, I also learned an interesting difference between American and British (and presumably, too, European) baking ingredients. The recipe called for “caster sugar”–WTF is that?, I thought. So I looked it up, and discovered that it is the standard sugar across the pond and what Americans would define as “superfine” sugar. It’s not powdered (icing) sugar, but it’s a finer grain of granulated sugar than our standard. Which is something else that will be useful for me to have in the back of my mind if, in turn, I ever need a heroine to bake something.
The point here, is, that I never know what random piece of my life will come back to haunt me (not always in a bad way) as an historical fiction writer. Every day carries with it a thread of information or cultural habit that runs all the way back to the time(s) and place(s) about which I write. It’s all connected; Bloom’s taxonomy of learning was right: in the end, it’s all synthesis.