Monday, August 27, 2012

How fast can you travel by horse anyway?

How fast could this horse go?
While working on my second historical mystery, From the Charred Remains, I came across a rather straightforward mystery of my own.  How long would it have taken to travel the fifty-plus mile trek from London to Oxford, by horse and carriage, in the mid seventeenth-century?

 I have some faint memory of an equation that claimed distance=rate x speed (and even worse memories of trying to apply that equation).  I don’t think that equation works, though, when you don’t know the weight of a cart, the strength of a horse, or the conditions of the roads. 

So I had to set some parameters. I needed the cart (wagon, really) to be able to carry two men and two women, along with two or three barrels or bags of miscellaneous supplies.  I needed the journey to take less than a day.   The wagon had to be decent, but more serviceable and sturdy, than luxurious. It had to be capable of traversing 50 or so miles of the muddy, unpaved London Road. Similarly, the horses had to be from a hearty stock, and affordable for hire by a journeyman. Not being an equestrian, a farrier, or a blacksmith (okay, let’s face it, I’m not even sure if I’ve ever even been on a horse), this has been a truly puzzling question. 

So doing a little digging into the Early English Books Online and a few other primary sources, I first learned what kinds of wagons would have been available to a London tradesman in 1666. Here, I relied mainly on woodcuts to show me pictures of how tradesmen conveyed goods.  Hackney carriages were available for hire, but those would not likely have been owned by a tradesman. Coaches (Berlins) were just coming into fashion, out of Germany, but again my tradesman would not have found such a vehicle suitable to his needs or budget. 

Wing / 1917:08 
As for the horses, I looked to Gervase Markham, a seventeenth-century self-titled “Perfect Horse-man,” who shared his “experienced secrets” on horse care and training. He mentions some different kinds of horses (or perhaps more aptly, the services horses can offer), including the “courier,” the “carter,” the “poulter,” and the “packhorse.”   

Unfortunately, throughout Markham’s lengthy 200+ pages of advice to the horse-challenged, I could only find one bit of useful information for my purposes.  He says: “In journeying, ride moderately the first hour or two, but after according to your occasions.  Water before you come to your Inn, if you can possibly; but if you cannot, then give warm water in the Inn, after the Horse hath fed, and is full cooled within, and outwardly dried.” He then went on to say something about applying copious amounts of “dog’s grease” to the horse’s limbs and sinews, but I think I wandered off the page at that point.

Then I needed to find out how fast two horses can even pull a wagon.  Throwing my question to the whims of Google yielded an oft-repeated response: a team can travel 4 miles an hour on paved or semi-paved roads. Horses can only travel a few hours at a time; so it looks like my fictional travelers will have to exchange horses several times at various coaching houses along the way. 

This would mean it would take my travelers 15 hours to travel from London to Oxford, which is FAR TOO LONG for the purposes of my story. Yet, I've always been extremely scrupulous in my attention to historical details. So my puzzle has resulted in another conundrum—bend the facts to fit my story, or bend my story to fit the facts? 

What to do? What to do? What would you do?

Monday, August 20, 2012

Todd Aken: Ignorant and Unfit for Public Office or Aristotelian Philosopher?

by Sam Thomas

If you’ve been paying any attention to the news of late, you doubtless heard about Todd Aken, the Republican nominee for Senate candidate from Missouri. In an interview in which he defended his opposition to abortion even in cases of rape, Aken made the remarkable claim that it is extremely rare for a woman who is raped to become pregnant. (Ezra Klein makes the disheartening point that others, mostly pro-life politicians and activists, agree.)

“If it’s a legitimate rape,” he explained, presumably to any OB/GYNs who might be watching, “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

To sane people, this smacked of sexism, misogyny, or ignorance. Some lawyer types wondered how a “legitimate” rape might differ from an “illegitimate” rape. And the biologists wondered what “that whole thing” might be.

They might be right, but I’d like to offer a different interpretation of Mr. Aken’s argument. Rather than being misogynistic, grossly ignorant, and manifestly unfit for public office, I think he’s just relying on a somewhat outdated conception of the human body. Aken is a closet Aristotelian.  

According to Aristotle (and medial experts for over a thousand years after), a woman could not become pregnant if she didn’t have an orgasm.

Why? It’s complicated, but kind of fun, and if you trot this out at your next cocktail party, you’ll be awesome.

According to ancient and medieval medical thought, there were not two sexes as we now think of it. Yes, there were men and women, but women were simply imperfect versions of men. They had the same sexual organs as men did, but because women lacked the vital heat inherent in men, these organs were on the inside rather than the outside.

The vagina? A penis turned outside-in. Ovaries? Testicles, but on the inside. Logically enough, since they had the same organs, both men and women produced the same fluids. Conception took place when male sperm met female sperm.

This is the “one-sex model” made famous by Thomas Lacquer in his book Making Sex.

(Before you disparage this as the stupidest idea ever, it’s worth noting that our obviously true “two sex model” is, in fact, demonstrably false. It ignores individuals who are not clearly male or female, or who have both male and female sexual organs. By some estimates, intersex people are about as common as redheads. See this awesome article by Anne Fausto-Sterling.)

So, if Aristotle (and Aken) are right, in order for conception to take place, both the man and woman must have an orgasm, or else the male and female sperm cannot meet and form a child. And since rape victims do not have orgasms (I think even Aken would agree to this), pregnancy can’t be the product of rape. The body keeps pregnancy from taking place. QED.

So, if Aken attended a European university before 1700 or so, we can be pretty sure that he was schooled in the Aristotelian conception of the human body, and then he’s off the hook.

Let’s check.

He went to Worcester Polytechnic Institute, probably in the 1970s.

Never mind. I guess he’s just unfit for office.

Monday, August 13, 2012

From the Annals of Awesome Historical Research

In other blog posts I have gone on at (too great) length about issues of historical accuracy. I do my best, and feel like the setting of my books is one of my book’s strengths, but I recently found en example of research that boggled my mind.
For those of you who don’t know him, Steve Hamilton has written a number of memorable mysteries, including a series about a former cop Alex McKnight, and The Lock Artist, a stand-alone novel that won the 2010 Edgar Award for Best Mystery. After reading The Lock Artist, I dove into his earlier novels, starting with A Cold Day in Paradise. (The McKnight series is set in the town of Paradise on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.)
In Hamilton’s third book, 2001’s The Hunting Wind, McKnight is visited by an old friend with whom he played minor league baseball. Unlike McKnight, Wilkins was called up to the big leagues and pitched briefly for the Detroit Tigers. Here is where things got interesting, at least for me. Wilkins tells McKnight about his trip to The Show:
In 1971, when I went up to Detroit, there were a few of us who got called up together. You remember Marvin Lane, the outfielder, and Chuck Seelbach, the other pitcher? A couple guys from double-A, too.
 Do the names Lane and Seelbach ring any bells? Probably not, and if you’re like me, you assumed that Hamilton invented them. I mean he invented the rest of his characters, right? I mean why not make up names? They aren't actually characters, and who in their right minds would research the names of people who don't even appear in the novel?
I don’t actually know the answer to that last question, but in a tremendously strange coincidence, I do know Chuck Seelbach. After getting off to a great start as a pitcher, Chuck hurt his shoulder, and we now teach history at the same school (University School outside Cleveland, OH). 
This sort of attention to detail raised a variety of questions that I am still trying to figure out. First, given the long odds that anyone would recognize Lane’s and Seelbach’s names, why in the world would Hamilton go to the trouble of digging them up? In this, Hamilton seems to have two possible constituencies. The first of these is his readers, but the number of people who would recognize the names has to be vanishingly small. (I suppose it is possible that Tigers fans might be a bit more in tune with pre-Watergate roster moves, but there can’t be many of them who know that Marvin Lane isn’t a street in Ypsilanti.) 
Then there are the people (not many, I hope) who read that passage and then ran for their copy of Baseball Reference to see if these people existed. (Looks like they may not have had to go as far as I'd thought. I just checked, and the online version of Baseball Reference has been around since 2000. I find that kind of amazing.) In any event, I have to think that the number of people who a) recognized the players; or b) did not recognize the players, but cared enough to look them up is extremely small.
So we are back to the question, why did Hamilton bother? If it’s not for the readers, who is this detail for? The answer, I think, is that he did it for himself. He wanted to get every possible detail right, so he did the necessary legwork.
And that’s kind of cool.          

Monday, August 6, 2012

How to find a literary agent

Soon after you sign on with a literary agent (Welcome to Hell, by the way), you will discover that a surprising number of your friends are working on novels as well, and one of the first questions they will have is “How did you find an agent?”

And if you’ve done your due diligence (ie. Googled the question), you’ve discovered there are a couple of ways. First, you can have a friend or relative in the business. This, of course, is a disheartening piece of information to unearth because if you had a friend in the business, you wouldn’t have just googled the phrase “How to find a literary agent” would you?

Absent some sort of connection, you’re going to have to claw your way from the slush pile, past an agent’s assistant and into the rarefied realm of Those-Who-Have-Been-Asked-For-A-Partial-or-Full.

The question then becomes, how do I do that? The key here is the cover letter. The good news is that cover letters are really short, so you can rewrite them endlessly. The bad news is that writing a good cover letter is nothing like writing a good novel. I have no doubt that there are hundreds of excellent novels out there, unpublished, because the author can’t write a one-page proposal.

What I’ve got below is an annotated and slightly edited version of my own cover letter. I’ll mention at the outset that as letters go, it was pretty effective: I received manuscript requests from over half the agents I queried. (I would venture to say that my letter is better than my novel. Ah, well.) Note that this is formatted for email rather than a paper letter.


Josh Getzler
Hannigan Salky Getzler Agency

Dear Mr. Getzler,

Because of your professed interest in historical mysteries, I think you might like to see my historical mystery, The Midwife’s Tale: A Mystery. (Keep your opening brief. Do some quick research on your target agents, and pick ones who like books in your genre. Do NOT over-google agents. It is a waste of time.)

It is 1644, and Parliament’s armies have risen against the King and laid siege to the city of York . Even as the city suffers at the rebels’ hands, midwife Bridget Hodgson becomes embroiled in a different sort of rebellion. One of Bridget’s friends, Esther Cooper, has been convicted of murdering her husband and – like other mutinous women – is sentenced to be burnt alive. Esther proclaims her innocence and begs Bridget to help clear her name. Bridget believes that her friend has been wrongly convicted, and sets out to find the real killer. (In the opening paragraph you have to provide a few things: the setting, the protagonist, and the central drama of your story. Make sure all three of these are compelling. If your reader doesn’t want to spend time with the main character, or in the time and place you have set the story, you are toast.)

Bridget is joined in her search by a new maidservant, Martha Hawkins, who has fled to York to start a new life. Martha proves a quick study in the delivery room, and Bridget has high hopes for her protégé. But when the two women are attacked in a dark alley, Bridget sees another side of Martha, as she shows herself far more skilled with a knife than any respectable woman ought to be.

To save Esther from the stake, Bridget and Martha must dodge rebel artillery, confront a murderous figure from Martha’s past, and capture a brutal killer who will stop at nothing to cover his tracks. The investigation takes Bridget and Martha from the homes of the city’s most powerful families to the alleyways and brothels of its poorest neighborhoods. As they delve into the life of Esther’s murdered husband, they discover that his ostentatious Puritanism hid a multitude of sins, and that far too often tyranny and treason go hand in hand. (Another couple of paragraphs summarizing the book. Do not go too long here, and if it is a mystery/suspense, don’t give away the ending. Your goal is to make the reader want to see more. N.B: If you write a synopsis, that is the place to give away the ending.)

The Midwife’s Tale is a 95,000-word historical mystery, and the first in a potential series set in Revolutionary England. I have a doctorate in history with a focus on early modern England, and have published articles on the history of midwifery in top historical journals including Social History of Medicine and Journal of Social History. (Let your prospective agent know how long the book is, and if it is part of a series. In certain genres, publishers want series. If you have any qualifications that make you a good fit for writing this kind of book, mention it here. Think a bit about this – there is probably a reason you chose to write the kind of book that you did.)

As a part of promoting the book, I would be happy to join in reading group discussions of the book. I can also give public presentations on the history of midwifery, and on the real Bridget Hodgson, who practiced midwifery in York during this period. Thank you for considering my work. I hope to hear from you soon. (I’m not sure how effective this was in my case, but if you have a platform from which you can publicize your book – a weekly radio show, for example – this is where to bring it up.)


Sam Thomas


So that’s it, easy-peasy. Now you shouldn’t have any trouble finding an agent. 


Sam Thomas is the author of The Midwife's Tale: A Mystery from Minotaur/St.Martin's. Want to pre-order a copy? Click here. For more on midwifery and childbirth visit his website. You can also like him on Facebook  and follow him on Twitter.