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Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Short Lived but Long Remembered


      From the time the Pony Express was founded, people admired the speed with which it delivered mail in the West. The service gained a stellar reputation, often bordering on mythical. Perhaps that’s why it shows up in numerous novels, even some set in times when the Pony Express was no longer in business.

     The Pony Express actually operated for only eighteen months, from April 3, 1860 to October 26, 1861, although service continued into November until all the mail in the agency’s possession on the closure date had been delivered.

     Before the telegraph and the transcontinental railroad, letters from the Midwest sent by stagecoach could take nearly a month to reach the west coast. If sent by ship, delivery could take several months. The Pony Express could carry mail from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California in an average of ten days.                                              

Pony Express Route - Library of Congress

     In order to attain this speed of delivery, the founders of this service—William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William B. Waddell—established a series of nearly 200 stations, approximately ten miles apart, across the current states of Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California. A rider generally changed horses at every station along his 75-100 mile route to make sure the steeds were fresh and could travel as fast as possible. Although the service was called “Pony” Express, most of the mounts were actually horses. The preponderance of the approximately 400 horses involved in the enterprise were half-breed mustangs (referred to as “California horses”), Thoroughbreds and Morgans. 

     The main goal of the Pony Express was speed, so great pains were taken to keep the weight the horses had to carry to a minimum. Most riders were small, wiry and thin, weighing between 100 and 125 pounds. Their average age was about 20. Many teenagers, some as young as fourteen, were employed. To further minimize weight, they wore close-fitting clothes. It is unlikely that they wore wide-brimmed cowboy hats, even though riders were frequently depicted with them. At any given time, a total of approximately 80 riders could be on the route, including those going east and those going west. 

This logo illustrates the special saddlebags.

     Special bags called mochilas were designed to minimize weight and expedite horse and rider changes. The mochila had a leather cover that fit over the saddle with four padlocked pockets beneath it. The rider sat on the leather with a mail pouch on either side of each leg. This special saddlebag could carry a total of twenty pounds, which was a significant amount of mail since most of it was written on very thin paper.

     Pony Express riders were required to swear an oath to the company, in which they pledged in part: "I will, under no circumstances, use profane language, that I will drink no intoxicating liquors, that I will not quarrel or fight with any other employee of the firm, and that in every respect I will conduct myself honestly, be faithful to my duties, and so direct all my acts as to win the confidence of my employers, so help me God." Riders who broke their oath risked being dismissed without pay.

     Co-founder Alexander Majors gave each rider a leather-bound Bible and asked that he keep it with him. Most likely, riders ignored him as the books would have added weight thus compromising the effort to maximize speed.   

via Wikimedia Commons

     Sending a letter via the Pony Express was an expensive proposition, another incentive for using thin paper. The company initially charged $5.00 per half-ounce for each item sent. (That is more than $130 in today’s money.) Even when the price was later reduced to $1.00 per half-ounce, the cost was still too high for ordinary people to afford. Most of the material transported by the riders was made up of government dispatches, business documents and time-sensitive newspaper reports.

     Despite the high prices they charged, the Pony Express was a financial disaster. According to the Smithsonian Postal Museum, the owners of the fastest mail carrying company in the country lost $30 for every letter they carried because they were not able to win a government mail contract. They had lost approximately $200,000 by the time the service ended, two days after Western Union completed the transcontinental telegraph line.

  Ann Markim




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Monday, April 25, 2022

My Romance Writing - the Hows and Whys.

This blog explains a bit about my love of romance, particularly historical romance, plus how and why I write it. 

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I write about tender, realistic, developing relationships, set in the past. People in past times did fall in love and that's what I like to show. I also strive to show the non-noble, non-royal sides of history - how it felt to be a spear carrier, a slave, a medieval house-wife, a medieval hedge-witch or a serf. I like to explore the vital  role women played in history and how ancient and medieval women are different from people today because of the demands of biology (no reliable birth control) custom and religion. 

I write romance and adventure as do other writers in the historical romance genre, but these points: the celebration and evocation of the non-royal, the revelation of the true role of women, the way beliefs impacted on relationships, are, I think, what makes my work different.

 Why do I write what I do?

I have always been fascinated by the medieval and ancient worlds. I like the 'epic' scope of the history and the great differences in beliefs between then and now. I enjoy transporting my readers back into the past with me and to take them on an exotic, exciting journey.

How does my writing process work?

 I tend to start with a picture or scene in my head and often a snippet of conversation. That’s where my latest, “A Summer Bewitchment”, came from—a scrap of dialogue, “I am the troll king of this land and you owe me a forfeit” and the picture that gave me.

For another romance novel, “Dark Maiden,” I had a mental picture of a tall dark woman with a bow and the idea of scent—that my heroine Yolande could smell the restless dead. That seemed apt, too, because of the medieval idea of the odor of sanctity—that the bodies of saints could give off a sweet perfume. I took that belief and developed it in a different way, so Yolande could also smell less saintly souls.

From those initial ideas I usually work to a rough outline. I jot down the stakes of the story and the romantic themes , conflicts and arcs I want to explore. Sometimes before I begin a scene I note down the time of day, weather, mood, what I want the scene to do in terms of moving the plot and the relationships forward.

I don’t tend to work to a detailed plan. For my historical romances I often find that the research will give me ideas that are relevant to the story. In “Dark Maiden” the threat of the Black Death, with the natural fears that people had during that time that the end of the world was surely coming, gave me a powerful driver for the final conflict and climax of the novel. In “A Summer Bewitchment” I use medieval beliefs of magic and witchcraft to shape my story.

My romantic suspense and historical mystery books are a little different in that I do plan those out in detail. They are whodunits, so I need to have clues and mystery and suspects, and  some way of keeping track of them all.

I find with all my writing that I can often use aspects that I put into the story earlier and thread these  through and out later.

Sometimes the setting itself can give me wonderful plot ideas. I have used the city of Bath twice in my stories—once as the ancient Romano-British city with its shrine of Aquae Sulis in my historical romance “Flavia’s Secret” and once as the medieval spa town  in my historical mystery “A Widow of Bath.” I used the idea of the bleak landscape of marshes and fens in “Dark Maiden”—there’s something about the mix of water and big skies that I find intriguing and appealing.

What do you look for in romances? If you write, what do you find compelling?

To see my ideas in action, please see "Dark Maiden" and "A Summer Bewitchment." Both are free to read with kindleunlimited.


Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Hand-Me-Down Family Recipe - Fruit Crumb Cake - by Kaye Spencer #prairierosepubs #familyrecipes

While this recipe isn't what I'd classify as old fashioned, I was a young whippersnapper when my mom first made it, so it does have some age on it. ;-) 

This makes a great dessert for any meal, but it's particularly yummy for breakfast straight from the oven. I usually make this with canned cherries, but peaches are just about as tasty.

If the recipe is blurry or doesn't download clearly for you, let me know in the comments, and I'll send a clear copy to you.

Until next time,
Kaye Spencer
writing through history one romance upon a time

Monday, April 11, 2022


I started this blog after seeing a photograph of a really cool chocolate pot. I had a preconceived idea that a tea pot, a coffee pot and a chocolate pot were very different items, and I set off into research to prove my hypothesis. Soon I was deep into a rabbit warren of Limoge and pottery and Colonial Williamsburg and dyeing wool and gunsmithing and mincemeat recipes and this truly amazing… I'm sure many of you have been there, too.
Anyway, I discovered that, while the shape of some pots is better for tea than coffee, and the placement of the spout is the only major difference, they can be—mostly—interchangeable.

For instance, a tea pot is usually shorter and rounder, to give more surface area on which the leaves can steep, while the coffee pot is normally taller and narrower, with a strainer of sorts built into the spout to keep the grounds in the pot. And often sometimes, the spout is further up the pot, so you don’t get those nasty dregs in your cup.

The chocolate pot is almost always tall and straight, to make stirring the chocolate easier. There’s sometimes a hole in the lid for the stirring stick, and the pitcher-like spout is shorter than that of a coffee pot and up at the top… But not always. [That's one of Thomas Jefferson's chocolate pots to the left.]

About the only thing I discovered that makes perfect sense? The pots are different shapes—whatever that shape may be—so the hostess doesn’t pour the wrong drink.

Regardless of your favorite drink or pot of choice, enjoy!

Facebook: Author_TracyGarrett

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

One Foot in the Past

C.A. Asbrey

It's very easy for us to look at the past as another country. The artefacts are now aged and often tattered, the photographs are stiff and unblinking, and the smells emanating from them (when we are allowed to get near them) often reflect the storage more than the owner. Vistas have changed forever; built on or ruined, lost to the relentless march of time. So how can we experience a part of their world? In my experience nothing does that more than touch, sound, smell or taste.  

Napoleon Bonapart is famous for so many things, mostly for being an angry, short man, but he was actually average height for his time. It's probably less well-known that he ordered ten days of official mourning when George Washington died. You may be even less familiar with the fact that he is the man who commissioned Louis Braille to develop a system of writing. It was originally designed as a military device to allow men to read letters in the dark. That system is still in use, so when you see the braille signs situated around public places, you can touch them, and remember that Napoleon ran the same little dots under his fingers and that they meant the same to him as they do today.

But we can go further. Napoleon was a keen applicator of cologne. So keen, that he actually went through sixty flasks of eau de cologne a month. And he had a favourite which is still available to us today.  One whiff of the enchantingly-named 4711, and you'll know exactly what he smelled like.

The makers have produced 4711 since since 1799, and is one of the oldest still-produced fragrances in the world.

The makes say that the ingredients are:

Fragrantica gives these featured accords: Top: Orange oil, peach, basil, bergamot,lemon Heart: Cyclamen, lily, melon, jasmine, Bulgarian rose Base: Patchouli, tahitian vetiver, musk, sandalwood, oakmoss, cedar

"Ingredients and Effects The precious ingredients are carefully harmonised. Bergamot, lemon, and orange provide a uniquely revitalising effect. Lavender and rosemary have a calming and relaxing effect, strengthening the nerves. Neroli, extracted from the blossom of the bitter orange, has a calming effect in the base note, creating a positive mood.” 

We all know that Queen Victoria reigned over a period of explosive social and technological change. Not only did her husband champion social and intellectual causes, but the family were seen as trendsetters in their youth. Brides normally married in either their best dress, or a day dress, but Victoria introduced the white bridal gown to a world ready for a middle class who hungrily devoured the magazines and periodicals. And even though they wanted to emulate her, she had the design of her dress destroyed so it couldn't be copied. Within her lifetime, most brides wanted to wear a white gown, every home had to have a Christmas tree, and she made it acceptable for women to get treatment for pain during menstruation and childbirth. Prior to her demanding pain relief, doctors saw such pain as 'God's way', and whilst they were happy to turn down everyone else, they were unable to refuse their queen. Her favourite pain relief methods were cannabis and chloroform.    

However, we can't really mention the queen without going into food. She adored it, and having been tightly-controlled as a child, she made the most of her freedom when she gained it. As she aged, she gained a massive amount of weight, and truly indulged. Some say she succumbed to a deep depression after the death of her husband and sought solace in food, and there's probably a reasonable argument to be made for that. At about four-foot-eleven, she ended up with a fifty inch waist, and estimates say she that would make her around 140-150 pounds in weight. So she loved her food, and ate it so quickly that people dining with her often left the table hungry, as all plates were removed when the queen had finished. Maybe the best way to join Queen Victoria's experience is to taste some of her food. 

It's well known that she has a very sweet tooth, so here is a link to her favourite cake. She ate this every day, and the recipe was released by Buckingham Palace. It is still served at garden parties today.

For those with a preference to the savoury, this is a link to one of her favourite curries. Curry was cooked every single day at Buckingham Palace during her reign, and was constantly available.

The entire recipe book of her chef is available online. See the link below. 

We can allow shared experiences to take us a lot further back in time though. The oldest song in the world dates back around 3500 years ago, and was written on tablets discovered in the 1950 in the ancient city of Ugarit. They were written in the Sumarian cuneiform script in the Hurrian language, and is a song to the lunar goddess Nikkal. An approximation of the lyrics can be found below.

I have made offerings to the goddess 
That she will open her heart in love, 
And that my sins will be forgiven. 
May my jars of sweet sesame oil please her,  
That she may look kindly upon us,  
And make us fruitful.  
Like the sprouting fields of grain, 
May women bring forth with their husbands 
And may those who are yet virgins  
One day be blessed with children.

The oldest musical instrument in the world is a carved bone flute dating from at least 50,000 years ago.  It has four finger holes, each with a different pitch. It matches the diatonic scale we use today. Musicologist Bob Fink, says the notes "are inescapably diatonic and will sound like a near-perfect fit within ANY kind of standard diatonic scale, modern or antique."

The flute has been recreated by the Slovenian National Museum. Slovenian musician Ljuben Dimkaroski plays a clay replica of the Neanderthal flute on the link below.

Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville made the first known recording of an audible human voice, on April 9, in the year 1860. It was a 20-second recording of a person singing 'Au Clair de la Lune', a classic French folk tune. It was recorded on a phonautograph machine that could only record and not play back, but is unintelligible and warbling to our ears. It would be a stretch to call it the same experience as the people standing in the same room at the time of the recording.

The same is true of other famous voices recorded in the 19th century, which is why I'm not including the links, but the voices available for you to listen to includes Queen Victoria, Alexander Graham Bell, Charles Dickens, Edison, Helmuth Von Moltke, Joseph H. Hazleton (an eye witness to Lincoln's assassination), and Civil War Veterans doing the Rebel Yell.

Finally, in our time-travelling-for-the-senses-piece, I trawled through many old recipes to find something very easy to recreate.This Roman recipe for Moretum (Pesto) come from around 100 B.C.E.

INGREDIENTS 2 head garlic 1 tbsp. coarse or kosher salt 1/2 lb. aged pecorino Celery leaves from 3 stalks 1/2 bunch cilantro 1 tbsp. fresh thyme leaves 1 tbsp. dried dill 3 sprig oregano (leaves only) 2 tbsp. Extra virgin olive oil 2 tsp. white wine vinegar

METHOD Place the garlic and salt in a mortar and mash with a pestle. Add the cheese, celery leaves and other herbs and continue pounding to purée. Slowly drizzle in the oil until a thick paste is formed. Add the vinegar, pounding to incorporate. Remove the moretum and shape into a ball. Eat with a coarse bread.



A wobble on the mattress jolted Sewell out of the arms of his dream-woman. He grunted and shifted under the covers, moving onto his other side. He suddenly felt a dead weight on top of him, an immobilizing, ponderous pressure which left him paralyzed and unable to move. Sewell gasped, sucking in a breath of a sweet, sickly miasma which filled his lungs as he took short pants of fear. His eyelids opened snapped open as the horror of his immobility climbed. He was pinned beneath his bedclothes, unable to move a limb, except for the feet which flailed and floundered beneath the tangling sheets.

He tried to cry out but found his impotent screams lost in the fabric jamming his mouth. He lay, pinned to the bed, rigid and immobilized as his eyes became accustomed to the darkness and a figure loomed into view. Sewell’s heart stilled at the sight of a hideous crone looming over him, her wild white hair standing straight out from her head in a tangled mass in every direction. Her lips curled back in disdain around a mouth which appeared to be laughing, but not a sound was to be heard. The hag’s eyes were in shadow, lending her the appearance of a screaming skull floating above him. She sat on his chest, rendering him unable to scream, or even move as the smell filled his nostrils. It felt like powerful arms and legs kept him pinned down. What kind of nightmare was this?

The gorgon pressed close, so close he could feel the heat of her breath on his face. All he could do was blink and tremble, too stupefied to move. It seemed like the longest time before the blackness crept in, and his eyelids dropped closed once more. The nightmare didn’t leave, it took him; engulfing him entirely until he felt nothing.

Dawn crept in by inches, the dark transitioning from black to gray, until the low morning sunshine added a warming brightness to the scene. The shadows were as long as the sunbeams were cleansing, chasing down the retreating darkness to a mere frown until the morning smiled on another new day. The sun’s confidence grew, climbing higher in the sky, proud of the majestic light which gave life and succor to the whole planet—well, not all of it. Sewell Josephson never saw another day. That day saw him though, swinging gently by the creaking rope fixed to the newel post at the turn of the staircase on the top landing. The ligature bit into the neck below the engorged face from which a purple tongue protruded from his dead gaping mouth.

The only life in the house stared at the figure with unblinking black eyes and a twitching tail. The cat turned her head at the sound of a key in the back door. A human at last. Maybe the cook would know what do to?

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Sunday, April 3, 2022

Find A Rainbow

Post by Doris McCraw

writing as Angela Raines

In addition to April being National Poetry Month, April 3, 2022, is also National Find a Rainbow Day. I do like the idea of a day devoted to rainbows. To me, they have always been calming. We've all heard the story of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. To me, the gold is the rainbow itself. 

Rainbows also have inspired poets through the years. Below are just a couple of examples. 

In time of silver rain
The earth puts forth new life again,
Green grasses grow
And flowers lift their heads,
And over all the plain
The wonder spreads

  Of Life,
  Of Life,
  Of life!

In time of silver rain
The butterflies lift silken wings
To catch a rainbow cry,
And trees put forth new leaves to sing
In joy beneath the sky
As down the roadway
Passing boys and girls
Go singing, too,

  In time of silver rain When spring
  And life
  Are new.

by Langston Hughes (1947)

My heart leaps up when I behold 
   A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began; 
So is it now I am a man; 
So be it when I shall grow old, 
   Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
by William Woodsworth (1802)

Of course, no post about rainbows would  be complete without Kermit

So on this Find a Rainbow Day, please find your rainbow, write a poem about it, a short story, or just your thoughts.

Dreaming of rainbows
Colors streaking across sky
Finds joy in the soul.
by Doris McCraw

Until next time, as Kermit would ask, "Why are there so many songs about rainbows?"