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20 January 2010

Williamsburg in Winter


I moved to the East Coast from California several Decembers ago. Lucky me, it happened to be a winter filled with minus-twenty degree wind chills. By February, I was so frozen stiff that I demanded a vacation. I headed to celebrate Washington’s Birthday where my historian’s heart had always dreamed of visitingWilliamsburg, home of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry. Land of impeccably restored eighteenth century architecture, peopled by historical interpreters, and dotted with fine restaurants and good shops.

Even better, surely it was far enough south to feel balmy, right? Well, we did step out of the car to find mid-twenties temperatures during the day, swept across our faces by forty mile-per-hour winds. We reminded ourselves this was warmer than where we had left and sallied forth.

In the summer, Williamsburg’s streets swarm with tourists and historical interpreters shout at them like barkers to catch their attention, in hopes of focusing their fickle attention on a story from the past, or a building to enter, or a recreated treat. It’s as vibrant and alive as fish leaping and dancing in a crowded river.

But Williamsburg during a cold winter is like stepping through a time warp, until you’re walking through streets which still remember what colonial life meant. In the summer, almost every building offers shelter from the weather to a visitor. But in the winter? A pedestrian must clutch her coat – or sturdy woolen cloak – firmly around her, then trot briskly toward her destination, often with her hands hidden away from the biting wind.

We soon realized we needed to study the map long and carefully to see what was open, then plot our route accordingly. We soon learned which side of the road was best at sheltering us from the gale – no, wind – and mapped our dashes accordingly. We visited some tradesmen’s shops simply because they were open and therefore warm – and found ourselves exploring wonderful things.

We grew to recognize the brisk swing of an interpreter’s cloak as he – or she – hustled between buildings. (Or raced to their twentieth-century vehicle hidden at the edge of the Historic Area.) We tried to avoid any dire suspicions about what was under an interpreter’s costume if his cloak’s swing seemed a tad leisurely. Surely nobody with their heart in the eighteenth-century would stoop to modern long johns?

Indoor spaces became measured by their distance from a fire. The blacksmith’s forge felt warm and cozy as soon as the door swung open. It was full of women, too, who huddled around the front counter which was the closest visitors could come to that massive forge. My, could those females come up with questions about how to make wrought iron keys – and stare down their husbands if they dared suggest moving on!

The private dining room at Christiana Campbell’s Tavern, George Washington’s favorite tavern, was a long, narrow space, barely wide enough for two small card tables set diagonally immediately in front of the fireplace. Since my sister and I had the room to ourselves, we sat down with our backs to the blazing fire and soon grew completely warm for the first time all day. We grew hotter and switched sides of the table so that we could stare into the flames, only to find our backs freezing cold. We quickly learned how to slowly rotate our places at the table so we would remain evenly comfortable, a trick which the server assured us had been frequently performed a few centuries ago.

And we enjoyed our dinner, inspired by eighteenth century recipes and eaten in flickering candlelight, so that servants sometimes seemed to appear out of the darkness beyond by magic.

The fine residences had their own charm, especially the kitchens. I’d never before seen beating an egg white with a twig, whose end had been sliced up into a brush. It took a long time and a strong arm – and possibly magic – but when that egg white bubbled and frothed and finally stood erect and stiff in the goblet, everyone on the tour cheered.

The hearth itself, where cooking was done, was actually more like a room than a box. It had a heavy stone floor to conduct heat from the small fires built at various places inside it. (No wonder so many women died from having their skirts catch on fire!) Wrought iron levers and hooks stretched along the hearth’s roof, ready to move pots and pans from one spot to another. They looked like oriental dragons, sinuous and deadly, ready to snake into the flames to do battle.

Upstairs, light stole into the rooms from all sides Often there’d be a window seat on the landing for the stairs, originally designed to catch a welcome breeze to ease summer heat or brighten an impromptu dance in the wide center hallway below. And always, always the incredibly rich slickness of milk-based paint covering the walls, which makes them feel like silk over stone.

I tried to recapture some of those sensations when I wrote “Caught by the Tides,” my paranormal Regency romance, in BEYOND THE DARK. The terror of being out in the dark in the cold, where a sudden drenching could leave my heroine as vulnerable to the storm as my shipwrecked hero. The unexpected magicks to be found in the kitchen, from its warm shelter to the iron hooks overhead.

And, most of all to my twentieth-century eyes, the incredible amount of work required to accomplish anything, a craftsman’s pride of accomplishment, and a rich man’s careless acceptance – even dismissal – of other men’s craftsmanship. My hero is a noblewoman’s abandoned bastard, who abhors being classed with the aristocracy. Learning to accept his right to wear fine clothing is a very large portion of his growth – and I couldn’t have written some of his sensations without visiting Williamsburg.

Have you ever visited a place which made the past come alive for you? Do you have a favorite place to visit when you’re writing a book, just to get inside your characters’ heads?

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14 Comments:

Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Did you stay in Williamsburg? I love the fact that some of the houses are can be reserved like a hotel.

I took a workshop with their mantua maker a few years back and it was wonderful. She had lots of stories about cooking on the hob and such. I really want to go and visit (and spend the week in costume!).

7:52 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Great post, Diane. I have been to Williamsburg a couple of times, but only in the summer, and your description of the overwhelming crowds tallies with my own experiences there. But Williamburg in the dead of winter certainly appears to have its charm, even if much of it is in the fact that there aren't a zillion tourists getting in the way of the authors trying to get a bit of research done! :) This of course, includes doing things like eating syllabub without having to stand on line for upwards of 2 hours just for the privilege.

I went to a writers' conference down there once and attended a workshop given by Sally (Kalen, help me out here with her last name)...she was the Colonial Williamsburg costume adviser and she also worked extensively with the Smithsonian. I'll never forget her explaining that beds were NOT appreciably shorter then -- nor were people, adding that it's a common misconception that everyone in the 18th c. was significantly shorter than we are today.

I try to visit the places in my books as much as time and income will allow. I have visited Bath, England numerous times and it remains one of my favorite places on earth.

10:26 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Hmmmmmmm, Linda Baumgarten is the curator, and Janea Whiteacre is the manuta maker. I don't think I know a Sally . . . but then I've only been once and that was in college, years ago.

12:50 PM  
Blogger Susan Holloway Scott said...

Coming out of lurkdom...
This is a lovely post, Diane, and you've captured the magic of Colonial Williamsburg, esp. for writers! I'm fortunate to have family in the town, and therefore I've been able to visit CW many, many times over the years and in every season. Yet there's always something new to see or do, something new to delight, and something new to pretend is "research." *g* I've put lots of CW photos up on the blog I write with Loretta Chase (www.twonerdyhistorygirls.com) if you're interested -- we've made several writer-junkets down there together to ooh and ahh and ask LOTS of questions.

Kalen, the mystery "Sally" may be Sally Queen, a specialist/scholar in historic dress who was at one point based in VA. Not sure where she is these days -- her website no longer works. Janea Whitacre, Mark Hutter, and the rest of the CW experts do give workshops through Burnley & Trowbridge (http://www.burnleyandtrowbridge.com) If that doesn't lure you back to the east coast....!

4:36 PM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Kalen - We stayed on the edge of the historic area in a regular hotel. (Okay, I hadn't figured out you could book an antique house.) Since then, I've never managed to make reservations early enough to get a historic house.

I'd love to go back and spend a few hours there in costume. Not sure I'd lost a few days of Virginia humidity while wearing stays.

5:52 PM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Leslie - Best thing about the summer is that they've got ALL the attractions/reenactments going. Plus, all the animals seem to be out and I'm very fond of the Red Devon cattle. But you do have to dodge a lot of human crowds to visit the other sights.

I'd love to visit Bath just once.

Susan - Isn't it amazing how much there is to discover at Williamsburg no matter how often you're there? The ice house always astonishes me, as does its canals. My current ambition is to visit CW during one of their gardening seminars, or maybe the food/wine seminars. The experts there are always so happy to answer questions. I pestered the living daylights out of them about those enormous napkins.

5:57 PM  
Blogger librarypat said...

We have many historic sites we have visited that have left special feelings.
Most special to us is Fort Ticonderoga, New York. It has been beautifully restored and has a good museum and good interpreters. About 30 years ago we were there with our young daughters. They were having Highland games that weekends and an evening concert by a Canadian bagpipe band.
It was a still, starry night. We were seated around the parade ground in the center of the fort which was lit only by torches. The pipes started a ways off and they marched in through the tunnel. The sound was incredible. You could smell the leather of the pipes. It was an exceptional experience. You truly felt transported back to the 18th century. We went back 2 years ago for a French and Indian war encampment and reenactment. They had an evening skirmish. There is no light pollution out there , the combatants couldn't see each other just 50 feet away. The had cannon volleys That night too.
We have been to Williamsburg several times and are leaving this Saturday to go back. We'll be spending about 4 days there this time. We've taken the ticketed tour once, but just like to walk around.

9:14 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What a wonderful post, Diane! When I was growing up my parents frequently went to Washington D.C. on business trips and took me with them. My favorite part was the times we got to visit Williamsburg. I still have a reproduction straw hat I got there (which on at least one trip I wore with a reproduction Colonial dress my mom had made me as a Halloween costume).

I lovely going to Berkley Square and sitting in front of the house that's my mental image of Charles & Mélanie's house.

11:25 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Ding, ding, ding! Yes, Susan -- and welcome back! It's great to see you here! -- it was Sally Queen. The conference I referred to took place in the late 1990s, maybe 1998, so it's possibly that Sally Queen is no longer involved with Colonial Williamsburg.

Librarypat, I love Fort Ticonderoga. I first visited as a little girl (my family used to vacation in nearby Lake George for 2 weeks ever summer). And a couple of years ago I brought my husband there. The fort seemed so much smaller than when I was six years old (gee, I wonder why), but a visit so many years later with some 18th c. historical scholarship under my belt, was truly meaningful.

5:46 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Kalen, the mystery "Sally" may be Sally Queen.


I know Queen does Colonial textile history (I have both of her fabric books), but it didn't hit me that she was who were were trying to remember. Having a "d'oh" moment.

7:15 AM  
Anonymous Tinky said...

Wonderful post, Diane. You have my sympathy about the weather; last time I was there it was a cold rainy November day, and my mascara ended up running all the way down my face to my neck. I, too, enjoyed being there without the huge crowds, however.

As for places from the past, I love Historic Deerfield. It doesn't make the past come alive the way Williamsburg does; the guides are in modern dress, etc. But they are so knowledgeable that one can't help learning a lot.

7:22 AM  
Blogger Susan Holloway Scott said...

Oh, I'm going to wave my hand here again!

I haven't been to Fort Ticonderoga for years, but I remember very clearly a cannon-firing demonstration. Because they had the land to do it, the interpreters didn't just go through the motions, but actually fired the cannon, with much smoke and thunder. The ball sailed through the air majestically -- more like it had been thrown rather than shot -- and thumped into the ground. Very instructive as to how different real 18th warfare likely was vs. the movie versions!

Tinky, my parents took me to Deerfield many years ago. Do they still have the door with the tomahawk in it? Whoa, did that give me nightmares -- the perils even then of an over-active imagination. Captive narratives aside, I have heard that they have an excellent costume collection, and I hope to return.

It really is a shame that historical fiction set in colonial America is currently so out of fashion with publishers and readers...there's so much cool stuff out there for inspiration.

4:28 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Susan, I wholeheartedly agree. The first historical novel I began to write was set on the East End of Long Island in 1783. At the time, some of the defeated British soldiers refused to go home and set up roots there; and you can still visit the cemetery in Sag Harbor where many Revolutionary soldiers [Americans]are buried. If you know where to look, you can see some of the remaining stones from the British fort. The family in my novel was based on an actual East Hampton one during the era (father was a weaver, mother was an herbalist, grandfather was a colorful, eccentric patriot -- and that's all factual, although the heroine was fictional). What I learned? Americans love books set in the 1770s, 80s and 90s in England, but not in our own country during some of our most fascinating and tumultuous years. Damned if I can figure out why. The manuscript sits in my computer, unfinished.

1:07 PM  
Blogger Susan Holloway Scott said...

Leslie, I know exactly what you mean! Back when I wrote historical romances as Miranda Jarrett, I was fortunate enough to have a Yankee editor to go with my Yankee agent, and I wrote & published twenty or so books with colonial New England settings. The market was much more diverse, and they did quite well. Now, I know they wouldn't have a chance...though I'd really love to write more books with American settings. As you say, there are so many great stories waiting out there, but alas, Jane Austen never visited the colonies. *g*
Your Long Island book sounds like a winner, too!

4:22 PM  

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