Friday, March 09, 2012

Guest Post & Giveaway with Christine Blevins - Author of The Turning Of Anne Merrick

Let there be light!

Evil smelling things… Anne stripped off her coat and eyed the half-gone tallow candle in the dish. I wager there’s more of pig than sheep in those candles…

We take it for granted, don’t we? It’s dark and you turn the switch. There it is – hanging from the ceiling, or maybe aimed at your work surface, or even held in your hand – odor-free, safe, brilliant light. So conditioned am I to this convenience, when a bad storm strikes, and our power goes out, I stumble about the house trying to get to my stash of emergency candles by flicking on the useless wall switches along the way :)

Living in a well-illuminated world is a relatively new phenomenon. Though it can be hard to imagine the darkness of the 18th century world when you live in a big metropolitan and light-polluted area like Chicago, I keep lighting at the forefront of my mind as I imagine and write stories to take myself and my readers back in time. Since research in means and methods is essential in order for me to feel and write a credible historical fiction, I have been known to go out and tramp the northwoods at midnight to get a sense for the natural light cast by a waxing or waning moon, or to find out how long it really takes for our eyes to adjust to the light cast by a star-filled sky. I bought a reproduction of a pierced tin lantern and equipped it with a beeswax candle to experience for myself exactly how it might light my path on a moonless night. 

When “lighting” my 18th century scenes, I am limited to flame-based light - the minimal golden glow derived from hearthfire or campfire, and the more portable forms of pinepitch torches, candles, oil lamps and rush lights. It has helped me to view the works of “candlelight painters” like Carravagio, de la Tour, and van Schendel to feel this sans-electricity atmosphere.

Candles - the go-to light for most historical fiction writers, were in reality a very expensive commodity and used with some discretion. Candles were not generally used to illuminate a room, but more often carried from place to place to illuminate a small area. The candles of yore were nowhere near the equivalent to the even burning, scented paraffin tapers and pillars we pick up at the Bed Bath and Beyond. If you were burning a candle back in 1777, it was most likely one made from tallow with a plaited cotton wick, and even those varied in quality depending on the type of tallow used and the quality of the wick fiber. Tallow candles generated a light that was strong smelling, smoky and wavering at best. Sweet-smelling, gentle glowing beeswax candles were quite an extravagance for most Americans, and prior to the Revolution, all candles were heavily taxed, and used judiciously by even the wealthy.

Colonial Americans contributed to lighting technology when they discovered the grayish green berries of bayberry bushes produced a naturally aromatic, clean-burning wax. Both gathering the huge amount of  “candleberries” necessary (15 pounds of berries for one pound of wax) and extracting the wax was a tedious process that produced few candles. For this reason bayberry candles were cherished and used for special occasions.

Neither beeswax or tallow candles had the stability to fare very well in un-airconditioned hot weather. A summer day would cause expensive tapers to droop into uselessness. A great advance in candle technology came about in the mid 18th century with the development of the spermaceti candle. Spermaceti candles were made from the waxy substance derived from the head of a sperm whale. Stable, smokeless, clean-smelling and emitting a pure white light, spermaceti candles were also very expensive – but they cast best quality light at the time, and became the standard by which all light is measured. The terms “candlepower” and “footcandle” are based on the amount of light a spermaceti candle of a certain size produces at a distance of one foot from the flame.

People who could not afford candles of any sort used “lights” made from natural materials like rushes or cattails dipped in grease, or resinous splinters of pinewood known as “fat wood” or “heartwood”.  These lights were held fast in special “pinching” holders. Extremely smoky, odiferous, and short-lived, the quality of the light cast by these means was the poorest.

Oil lamps were used as a cheap way to bring light into the home. Simple “betty” or “cruisie” lamps made of iron or tin equipped with wicks of twisted cloth could be filled with fish oil or other animal fat. Imagine sewing a shirt, or knitting a stocking, or repairing your rifle to the smoky light of burning rancid pork fat.

Any of these light sources were easily extinguished by wind or rain, or inattention. Wicks needed to be tended and trimmed to keep candles burning evenly and safely. Lamp wicks would often draw up oil quicker than it burned, causing the oil to spill over and catch fire. Wicks falling below the surface of the fat in a lamp or melted wax of a candle would sputter or gutter, and needed to be picked back out with the aid of a pickwick. It was no small thing to lose your light in the time period I write about, as the first practical friction matches would not come into being until nearer the mid-nineteenth century. By striking flint to steel and catching the spark in some dry tinder a skilled and lucky person might have a flame going in half an hour – if you were lucky!

I know it all sounds like quite a pain, but I can’t help but find the thought of living in a nighttime world lit only by the soft glow cast by moon, stars and flame to be somehow peaceful, beautiful, and yes… quite romantic.

Author Christine Blevins writes what she loves to read – historical adventure stories. The Turning of Anne Merrick is the second in a 3-book series set during the American Revolution, and the companion book to The Tory Widow. A native Chicagoan, Christine lives in Elmhurst, Illinois, along with her husband Brian, and The Dude, a very silly golden-doodle. She is at work finishing the third novel inspired by a lifelong fascination with the foundations of American history and the revolutionary spirit.

Tour Event Twitter Hashtag:   #TurningofAnneMerrickVirtualTour  
Christine Blevins' Website
Christine Blevins on Facebook
Christine Blevins on Twitter

Thanks to Christine Blevins for the fabulous guest post - I make soya candles so I found the 'lighting lesson' fascinating. Bayberry candles sound a whole lot more labour intensive than my candle making efforts :) 

Now check out the wonderful giveaway Christine has generously offered. I was lucky enough to receive some of these goodies myself and I'm telling you they're gorgeous!!


A signed copy of THE TURNING OF ANNE MERRICK and a Revolutionary Survival Kit (see photo above) which includes black tea, liberty tea, lavender soap, lavender sachet, bayberry candles, a tin of sugar comfits, a bottle of lavender water and a lace hanky. Spread the word: it's International!

*Leave a comment on this post telling me which historical figure you'd share your  Survival Kit with? Don't forget an email address.

*You MUST leave a comment on my review of THE TURNING OF ANNE MERRICK to be entered in the giveaway and yes I loved it! 

Extra Entries:
+2 tweet giveaway and leave a link

Giveaway ends 24th March and the winner will be announced on my blog. Good luck everyone :)


  1. I would share with Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her stories are what made me a reader. She and all pioneers of America were so brave to found a nation with nothing but their covered wagons and oxen.

    Thanks for the giveaway!

    1. Here's my tweet!/juliababyjen/status/178136763934588930

  2. Such an interesting read!!! I really loved this post!! I would share with Laura Ingalls Wilder... have had a love for her since I was a child!!! Thanks for the great information today!

  3. Is that real or fictional?
    If it is fictional I would choose Edmund Dantes BEFORE he took on the role of the Count of Monte Cristo. He needed all the help he could get then.

    Real? Michelangelo.
    Thanks for the giveaway.
    kaiminani at gmail dot com

  4. Here's my tweet:!/BrokenTeepee/status/178170029215465473
    kaiminani at gmail dot com

  5. I would love to win this book.

    Here is my link to my twitter -!/griperang/status/178187736270901248

    I would share my survival kit with Sacajawea - she is one of my favorite people to read about and I think she could at times have used this survival kit

    Thank you for the chance to win

    griperang at embarqmail dot com

  6. Hi
    I just left a comment on your book review. This sounds like an awesome read.
    In India, it was Rani (Queen) of Jhansi who dressed like a man and led the troops in battle against the British.
    The survival kit would have been a gift for her. You can read more about this Rani on the url below
    My email: lukathewriter (at) gmail (dot) com

  7. Hey Chickie, you really should take up writing for paid work. You have an amazing way with words. Love it. Xxxx

  8. I just love that painting with the lights in it. So beautiful! I do love old art.

    Now who would I share it with? I have no idea at all. Ohh Eleanor of Aquitane :D Cos I'd love to know her better

    Commented on the book review
    booksforlife1 (gmail dot com)

    1. I should not have made a new email add
      it's booksforlife01 gmail dot com

  9. Thanks for the giveaway!
    Funny how when I read your question all the historical figures I know just vanished from my brain... One remained. Laura Perryman. She's from a book I read long back in school, and I still love her character, I'm sure she would've really made use of the survival kit!

    Oh and here's my tweet:!/Crystal_Rosette/status/178466794770669569

  10. That was a fascinating account of the darkness of times gone by. I love gaining an understanding of what it was really like in our world filled with light. I would share my Survival Kit with Queen Victoria just so she could tell me about her life and I could ask her lots of questions.

  11. I would share my Survival Kit with Cleopatra! I bet she's never tried using these items!

    +2 tweet giveaway!/aikchien/status/178681063881703424

    aikychien at yahoo dot com

  12. I so take Light for granted!!! This was a cool post!!!

  13. Oh wowo Sheree, this looks amazing - I am thinking my book club and a theme night... FUN!

  14. This was a fascinating post!
    Hmmm -trying to think of an historical figure to share the kit with... How about Martha Washington. She has a good name. :-)

    I retweeted your post... @MSEREADS Hope that counts:!/teddyree/status/178110543415099393

  15. Very interesting information!
    I would share my kit with Rebecca Nurse. She would have made good use of all these items.

  16. I left a comment on your review. I would share my survival kit with John Adams, of course! One of my favorite historical figures in American history. Thanks for the giveaway!

    +2 tweeted:!/truebookaddict/status/180121420037238784


  17. I got the prize pack in the mail today, and it is by far the best one I have one on blogging yet! Thank you so so much!

  18. That was a fascinating post. Not all of it alien to me but a big chunk certainly had me going "I did not know that" lol.


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