Stephanie Carroll has given us a truly amazing gift and I can't wait to see this one as a movie. A brilliant debut novel and I look forward to reading more of her writing. Thank you for a beautifully crafted tale. - Amazon UK Review

A White Room Won!

Shelf Unbound Magazine Notable Page Turners & Favorite Cover! Pg 36 & 40
“The best historical fiction makes you forget it’s fiction and forget it’s historical. Reminiscent of The Yellow Wallpaper, this book shows with alarming clarity what life was like for women before the modern age freed us of so many restraints … absolutely mesmerizing.”—Eileen Walsh, Ph.D. U.S. Women’s History, University of San Diego

USA Book News Best Book Award Cross Genre Category
A novel of grit, independence, and determination ... Despite the consequences, Emeline defies society’s expectations in her endeavor to help others, risking not only her marriage, but her reputation—and ultimately, her freedom. An intelligent story, well told.” 
—Renée Thompson, author of The Plume Hunter and The Bridge at Valentine

Appearance on Authors & Artists

A White Room Made No. 1!!!

I totally loved this book. It's been described as being similar to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper, ... Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, and Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. Though I concur that all that is true, I go further by being reminded of why the Gothic writing work and home remind me of Nathaniel Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables ... and some of the works of V.C. Andrews, such as Flowers in the Attic. She gives us a gothic feel reminiscent of Daphne de Maurier's works. - Amazon US Review

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If you enjoyed A White Room or Legacy, show your support and help me find new readers by posting a review on Amazon or Goodreads today! 

(On Amazon just click the "customer reviews" link next to the star rating and it will take you to the reviews where you can click "write a review.")

Thank You!!! 
Your time and support means so much to me!

. . . if you want some realistic historical fiction that deals with difficult issues, that doesn't allow a love story to overcome the plot, and that has you really feeling for the characters involved, go and read this right now. - Goodreads Review

Q&A on Central Valley Talk

Fans of The Yellow Wallpaper will love this debut from Stephanie Carroll because it's about a woman feeling her house is alive and that other people are living in it. I, for one, couldn't put the book down but was also reading with the covers up to my chin and all of the lights on. It's not because the book is scary but because I could absolutely understand why Emeline was losing it. I could have sworn that my own walls were watching me ... - Barnes and Noble Review

Check out the Fire Section!
In addition to being an author, I am also a fire dancer! Betcha didn't expect that, did you?

The Particular Sweet Sadness of Aimee Bender’s Magical Realism

I recently discovered the fantastic magical realist/surrealist author Aimee Bender, and I just loved her anthology The Color Master and just devoured her fantastic novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.

Other posts on this topic:

I don't usually do book reviews, but I really have to recommend these two and probably anything else Aimee Bender has up her sleeve.

The Color Master is full of unique and fun short stories. Not every single one is magical or surrealist, but they are all great! Also, I really love that these stories are varied in length, some only being like two pages. They are also easy to read, which is a major plus as literary fiction goes. Plus, it's almost as if each one contains an important lessons about the art of writing or about a particular fiction technique. I don't think she intended that, and it might just be me noticing because I'm a writer. Last thing I got to mention is how awesome the cover is! The title words are actually sewn in different color thread, which corresponds to the short stories "Tiger Mending" and "The Color Master."

Close up of the unique cover design of The Color Master.
I was planning on reading maybe one or two of the stories, to just get an idea for her writing style and use of magical realism, but after reading the very first story, I was so hooked!

This was "Appleless." First off it's short, which is really smart to start out with in an anthology is you ask me. Secondly, it immediately draws you in with all the unique descriptive language related to apples, and then with the strange way the story about apple obsession and addiction turns into something much darker that is portrayed in such an intriguing way, that you almost don't realize the horror of it at first. What's really interesting is how I wanted to devour the story itself, because of it's scrumptious word-choices and intriguing voice, and that feeling kind of paralleled the obsession of these apple addicted characters.

After that, how could I not want to read everything in this book!

"Tiger Mending" was sweet and strange and fantastic. The story is told from an outsider perspective (fiction technique) whose sister is a master at sewing and is recruited to venture to another country (I want to say India, forgive me if I'm wrong) to do some extremely important but secret work. She insists on taking her sister (the narrator) who in comparison to her is just going nowhere with her life. She works at a fast food joint and doesn't seem to care about self-improvement. Whenever a story is told from an outsider perspective, the story might seem like it's about the character of focus, but really it's about what's happening to the narrator, and it's really interesting to learn about the narrator through her telling of this surreal tiger mending adventure.

Fun side note. It just so happens that around this time, I heard this song called "Tiger" by a band called MyPet, which is fun because MyPet Tiger, get it? Anyway, the song reminded me of this story, so I Tweeted the song and how it reminded me of the story to Aimee Bender, and she responded "Love that!" It's not that the video or lyrics match up to the story. It's more of the unique sound and tiger element. I don't know, it just connected for me.

Aimee Bender
"Faces" was really strange and one of those stories that just kind of makes you think. The ending was what made me feel like there was some sort of important lesson to be learned regarding fiction writing because at the end there wasn't really any resolution or major change for the character.

I did some reading and discovered that when it comes to short stories, there is this idea that it's not your job as the writer to solve the characters problems or fix things for them but to just to tell their experience and struggle with the problem. The point is that sometimes as writers we force solutions or change upon our stories and characters because we feel we have to, but some writers say we don't. Aimee Bender shows that it can be done with this one, in my opinion.

"The Fake Nazi" was another one that made me wonder about fiction technique and endings. It was a strange one, but really had a lot to say. It was particularly interesting to get a feeling for what it must have been like for the country of Germany after WWII. As Americans, we don't think about it, but the people of Germany had to keep on living life and had to deal on a mental and emotional level, and many must have struggled with a level of guilt for events they were never involved in or even knew about.

"The Color Master" for which the anthology is named, was a beautiful piece that flooded the mind with fantastic hues and imagery. There was definitely magical realism in this one and a strong use of the distant perspective, another one of those fiction writing techniques I mentioned. It made me want to play with the distant perspective more in my own work. Unlike some of the previous stories, this one was dealing with darker things but in a lighter way, and the ending was just right, bittersweet and satisfying.

Speaking of bittersweet and satisfying, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake was an award winner and best seller, and it's become one of those few books that spoke to me on a personal level, but first let's talk story, characters, and magical realism.

The story is told from the perspective of Rose Edelstein who on her ninth birthday discovers that she can taste people's emotions in the food they cook. She doesn't just taste surface emotions, but the deeper and darker layer of struggle that a person has in their lives at that moment. She first discovers this in her mother's homemade lemon-chocolate cake, when she tastes her mother's sadness and dissatisfaction with her life in general. Quite a lot to swallow for a nine-year-old!

Although this magical realist gift is the catalyst for the story, it's only one part of the plot line. Really the story is about Rose's relationship with her family and with the world. What I really love about this book is that it maintains a key facet of magical realism, and that's the realism part. A lot of times the realistic side of magical realism gets lost in all the magic, but in this novel, Aimee Bender mastered the realism of the internal and often secret struggles of a "normal" nuclear family, the type that looks like what society says is great on the outside, but really there is struggle, secrets, and heartache deep within the layers.

This is why the story really spoke to me personally. The family's struggles were quite similar to struggles I experienced growing up in a nuclear family. Much of what Rose went through on a psychological and emotional level felt so familiar to me. As a child, it's difficult to understand how or why, but you can sense things from family members, like dissatisfaction with life or a pulling away from the world. It was like Bender had magically reached inside of me and pulled out feelings from my own life to instill in this book, almost as if instilling emotions into a lemon chocolate cake.

The other thing I have to say about this book is that the last line was one of my favorites in recent reads, one of those absolutely perfect, satisfying, and yet so bittersweet. Don't read it first because it might give something away. Read the book right, leaving the best for last!

The next one on my list to read is Aimee Bender's The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, so I'll make sure to Tweet or Facebook post what I think. =)

About Stephanie Carroll
Stephanie Carroll is the author of A White Room and "Forget Me Not" featured in Legacy: An Anthology. She blogs about magical realism, her research into the Victorian Era and Gilded Age, writing, and life in general at and at The Unhinged Historian. She also founded Unhinged and Empowered, a blog for Navy wives and girlfriends.

Join her journey with her quarterly newsletter (only four emails a year) for VIP Readers!

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Why My Life Felt Pointless Even When I Was Succeeding at It

After I published my first novel, I thought finally I had reached my goal, my defining moment of success, that legitimate status, and from then on I could soak up the glory of a life with purpose and meaning. . . . but that’s not what happened.
In fact, the hole I had felt my entire life felt bigger. Why? WHY! I told myself it was because I didn’t have enough success, didn’t make enough money, or hadn’t accomplished enough yet. So I drove myself like a mule in an effort to get more, but then I would get burnt out really fast and whenever I felt crisp and black, I’d find myself looking up from the bottom of that pit wondering, is anything I’m doing really important and if it isn’t then why am I doing it? I’d find myself without an answer, and suddenly everything felt meaningless. I didn’t know what to do with that, so I just pushed the thought away, forced myself back up, and kept pushing.

I’ve always struggled with the need for meaning. Growing up, I thought that need would be satiated by discovering what it was I was talented at. When I got into high school, I thought the same thing about what I’d be when I grew up, in college it was about choosing a major, and after graduation it was about building a career. When I discovered my passion for writing fiction, I thought, "Finally, this is it!" And I pursued publishing with gusto certain that when I held my first book in my hands, everything would change . . . but it didn’t.

It wasn’t until two years after achieving all my goals and after a psychologist diagnosed me with an anxiety disorder that I finally got the slap in the face I needed. I stumbled onto an article that said generalized anxiety is essentially a lack of trust and especially a lack of trust in the Almighty – in God. When I read that, I was appalled because it’s not that simple for people who have a disorder, but then I honestly considered whether or not it was true for me. Did I trust in prayer anymore? Or the Bible? Or even in God? It was like I had the wind knocked out of me! Somewhere along the way, I had lost my faith.

More Good Foundation via Flickr cc.
With that realization, I fell to my knees and wept, begging God for forgiveness and for guidance. When I finally got back up, he did guide me. He guided me to take it slow and make a list of things I needed to do to regain my spirituality. That was the summer of 2015. Today, things look very different than they did one year ago. I’m not cured of my anxiety nor am I without problems, but I’m not struggling with perpetual meaninglessness anymore either.

My experience has been quite transformative, and I’d like to share some of the realizations I had along the way:

Realizations of Purpose & Meaning From My Year Climbing Out of the Pit 

No Longer Living For Myself

I’m not a god: I was not created to achieve my goals or pursue my dreams or gain the glory of my accomplishments. Before, I believed in God, but I didn’t rely on God, and I didn’t concern myself with his will, only my own. I was trying to live for myself and rely only on myself. I was trying to be my own god, which  is, you know, the reason satan fell from grace!

By Jacopo Romei via Flickr cc.
We were designed to live for God: I've come to realize that we were designed to love and focus on God, to serve and let him lead our lives, and when we don’t, we are miserable. Living for God is actually one of our purposes as human beings. It’s how we were made. I learned a lot about what we were designed for from a fantastic book and video collection called What on Earth Am I Hear For?

Living for God does not mean being super religious: Being a servant of God means that no matter what I’m doing, work or otherwise, I’m doing it for God. This doesn’t mean that everything I do is “religious.” I’m not going to start writing Christian fiction just because I'm living for God. If God called me to do that, that would be different, but it's not a given.

Living for God is about dedication: What is dedication? Even people who go to church and who are good people aren’t always fully dedicated. I know because I was once one of them. For me, living for God has been about dedicating myself and everything I do to God and Jesus, giving him authority over my life, and letting him fuel my efforts. When I finally submitted everything I was to God and gave myself to him in the literal sense of a servant, I realized how much purpose and meaning my life actually has.   

What dedication looked like for me: If you were wondering about that list of spiritual to-dos I mentioned earlier, the ones I wrote after my slap in the face, here they are in a nutshell: Start talking to God again. Stat reading the Bible daily. Attend church regularly. Join a Bible study group. Volunteer within the church. Volunteer in the community. Start being open about your faith and talk to people about God.

Each step was small at the time and taken over the course of a year, each time waiting until God actually called me to the next thing. 

What does dedication look like to you?

We were designed to love each other: We were made to live for others and not for ourselves. When we focus on ourselves and no one else, we cannot find things like meaning or purpose. When showing others love is a priority, the simplest of acts can have great significance.

It’s not about giving up who you are: When I first asked myself if I was willing to sacrifice my hopes and dreams for whatever it was that God wanted of me, I was scared. I was afraid He would take me away from writing, but the truth is God gave us our talents and our passions for a reason. He wanted us to pursue them.

Excelling for God: Doing a good job at something God gave me the ability to do brings Him joy because He made me. Just like parents are joyed to see their children excel, even if it’s just at toiletry.

God may use me in unexpected ways: It’s impossible to know how, but anything I do might directly or indirectly be used by God for a purpose. By living with a dedicated mindset my daily choices are going to be made keeping God in mind, giving me purpose from the smallest of moments.

Fulfilling God’s will on God’s time: When I realized I was on God’s time, I could feel confident that when I didn’t reach a specific goal or achievement by a certain time, that was okay. It will happen when God knows it should happen.

I can rely on God’s strength: I don’t have to figure everything out. If I don’t achieve all of my goals or become the best of the best, that doesn’t matter. It’s not that I failed or couldn’t do it. It means that what I did accomplish was exactly what God needed me to accomplish.

The pressure is off: When I stopped living for myself, all of that pressure to gain more success, more money, more accomplishment in an effort to find meaning was no longer there.

The Meaning of Life
By Martinak15 via Flickr cc.
Everything is more meaningful with God: As soon as I realized that I was willing to sacrifice my wants for God’s, my day-to-day work and life became that much more meaningful because I was a useful person for the Almighty. I am confident I'm part of his plan and that he will use me for his work, which is kind of a big deal.

God uses me in meaningful ways: The things that God has directed me toward in the past year have been things of great meaning. I volunteered to help with the children on Easter Sunday and that day a little girl asked me to help her accept Jesus into her heart. I will never forget that and from that it was clear God wanted me to work with the children's ministry. Then as I tried to live a life of love, I felt myself constantly conflicted about the homeless, so I called up the local shelter, thinking there was no way they could utilize me, but it turned out they needed someone to write their newsletter! 

Lasting meaning: When I’m gone from this earth someday, whatever worldly achievements I made will fade away, but the achievements I made for God will continue to ripple through the generations.

My life finally makes sense: When I stopped trying to achieve glory for myself and started winning it for God, I finally understood the answer to that classic question, why am I here? I am here to bring Glory to God in everything I do and for the first time, things finally make sense.

About Stephanie Carroll
Stephanie Carroll is the author of A White Room and "Forget Me Not" featured in Legacy: An Anthology. She blogs about magical realism, her research into the Victorian Era and Gilded Age, writing, and life in general at and at The Unhinged Historian. She also founded Unhinged and Empowered, a blog for Navy wives and girlfriends.

Join her journey with her quarterly newsletter (only four emails a year) for VIP Readers!

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The Difference Between Magical Realism, Surrealism, and Slipstream

I've been reading Aimee Bender's The Color Master, and it's just fantastic, so I started doing some research on her, and I noticed that some people said she does magical realism and others say she does surrealism and all of a sudden slipstream was in there. So I did what I always do in these circumstances - research spree! Here's what I found:

What is Magical Realism or Magic Realism?
Okay, this one I already knew as I work with it in my own fiction. Magical realism or magic realism is a genre of fiction and film that blends magical elements with reality in a way that blurs the edges until seamless. The stories are generally, but not always, characterized by a unique tone and atmosphere of wonder, magic, mystery, or just a sense of strangeness.

Magical realism originated in Latin-America and is closely tied with Catholicism and religious blending often seen in Latin American culture. According to The Encyclopedia Britannica: “Magic realism, chiefly Latin-American narrative strategy that is characterized by the matter-of-fact inclusion of fantastic or mythical elements into seemingly realistic fiction. Although this strategy is known in the literature of many cultures in many ages, the term magic realism is a relatively recent designation, first applied in the 1940s by Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier, who recognized this characteristic in much Latin-American literature. . ."

Notice it says that these techniques have been around and in many cultures for many centuries but it wasn't really designated into a genre until the 1940s and it was in response to these Latin American authors.

It goes onto say: "Prominent among the Latin-American magic realists are the Colombian Gabriel García Márquez, the Brazilian Jorge Amado, the Argentines Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortazar, and the Chilean Isabel Allende.”

For a really in-depth look at magical realism, check out my posts Everything You Want to Know About Magical Realism, Popular Magical Realism Books & Films and Tips and Tricks for Writing Magical Realism.

What is Surrealism in Fiction i.e. Surrealist Literature?
The Persistence of Memory, oil on canvas, by Salvador Dalí, …
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Surrealism, the movement came out of the period between World War I and World War II and was an expression of frustration with the way rationalism had destroyed the world. Thus these artists' and authors' creations destroyed reason with fantastical and nonsensical imagery and ideas. 

According to What is Surrealism in Literature, the poet Andre Breton founded and propelled the genre by publishing The Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924, Paris.

Surrealism deals a lot with Freudian theories like free association. Artists and authors try to blend the unconscious mind with the conscious. They use a lot of juxtapositions and contrasting imagery and metaphor. What is Surrealism in Literature also says that surrealism challenges readers to tap into the sub-conscious, think beyond what society has to say, and look inside one's self for answers. It creates fantastical, logic-defying, and dreamlike worlds using poetic styles and techniques instead of traditional linear plotlines.

Check out 10 Essential Surrealist Books for Everyone for some examples.

What About Slipstream?
Slipstream is another genre that came up in my research. According to Slipstream Goes Mainstream on the Wall Street Journal sci-fi author Bruce Sterling coined the term in 1989 to describe fiction that "slips" in and out of a variety of genres, most commonly sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, creating work that "makes you feel strange."

The article refers to many authors that are also known for their magical realism or surrealism, including Kelly Link, Aimee Bender, and Karen Russell. However in a USA Today interview with Karen Russell, the author says she's not sure if the term magical realism works for her writings, and that she finds it difficult to put any label on her work.

For more on this, the article Oh Slippery Slipstream has a much more in-depth analysis of the origins of the term in late 1980s sci-fi community that is quite interesting.

What's the Difference Between Magical Realism, Surrealism, and Slipstream?
Obviously, each genre/technique has a different origin story and thus different characteristics. Magical Realism comes out of Latin American countries where natives cultures blended their old belief systems with Catholicism over time. This led to a culture where the idea that magic can blend with reality is really not a strange idea at all. 

Magical Realism also maintains a sense of reality while Surrealism and Slipstream destroy it. It seems like there is a general feeling that magical realism is also lighter in nature. The interviewer in the USA Today interview with Karen Russell said Russell's work seemed like it dealt too much with death to be considered magical realism. As someone who writes darker magical realism, I'm not sure if I agree with this, but it's something to consider. 

Surrealism, like slipstream, defies logic, but it does it in a very specific way, by using contradictory imagery and ideas in an effort to spark something within the reader's or author's subconscious mind. In an interview with Aimee Bender on Distortion comes From the Truth, Bender says that both magical realism and surrealism apply to her work, but that surrealism is dealing more with juxtapositions and moving away from what makes sense. It also moves away from using traditional plotlines and timelines, which is something Bender is known for.

Now slipstream, also defies logic and reason, but seems to go even further, not having the specific constraints of surrealism. It was born out of the need for a word to describe a type of fiction that didn't quite fit into the sci-fi genre or any other genre because it borrowed from so many. The only thing that seems to link slipstream works together is that they are all very fantastical and defying logic. 

It's kind of hard to determine the difference between these genres mainly because when you seek out an example, you find books that are considered as being all three of these genres, and I'm no expert. Keep in mind that this is what I've concluded are the differences based on this research. I think to really find out for sure, we are all going to have to run and read some of these examples.

What do you know about these genres? 
What can your research or experience tell us? 

Victorian Criminal Identification before Fingerprinting: The Bertillon Record

Measurements taken for the Bertillon Record
It always makes me particularly sad when I have to cut out a scene that has a really neat bit of historical research in it. One of those deleted scenes from The Binding of Saint Barbara (my novel in progress as of July 2016), involved The Bertillon Record.

For those of you who like crime fiction or detective stories, you will really enjoy this. Before fingerprinting, they had a different kind of record system to keep track of people in the penal system.

These records involved taking down detailed information about the person, things like height, weight, physical, and facial characteristics, etc. It also included a photograph, i.e. the first mug shots.

According to Bertillon System of Criminal Identification on The National Law Enforcement Museum, a French criminologist named Alphonse Bertillon came up with the system in 1879, and it was introduced in the United States when the Illinois State Penitentiary warden, R.W. McClaughry, translated the system from French to English. It quickly became widely used.

However, by the turn of the century, fingerprinting was in use and being included in the Bertillon Record. After an incident of mixing up two prisoners with the same name and remarkably similar Bertillon Records, fingerprints began taking over the identification system.

Mental Floss has a fantastic article on The Bertillon Record as do these others:

Asthma in the Nineteenth Century

So if you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you already know that as of June 2016, my novel The Binding of Saint Barbara is in it's final stages, and I have officially begun shopping it around. Eeeee, so excited. Anyway, it may surprise some that even in these late stages some significant content changes can still occur, and one interesting change that has happened as a result of my last edit is the decision to give one of my characters asthma.

The character I'm giving asthma to is guard Daniel McNaughton, who is based on a real person. In my book and in real life, this guard was the primary day keeper for the condemned ax-murderer William Kemmler who became the first man to die in the electric chair in 1890 Auburn Prison, Auburn New York.

The real Daniel McNaughton was an older gentleman, but in the story I have made him young and the initial object of Charlotte Durston's affection. He is a a man who is trying to make something of himself. His hope is to have this appointment guarding William Kemmler turn into a promotion. He has a personal stake in this because his father was a drunk and hardly could keep a job, forcing Daniel's mother to work until she died. Daniel has committed himself to giving no attention to women or courting until he has established a career that can support a family.

Plus, he wants a woman who is like is mother, strong and capable, neither of which Charlotte can manage, so she is the last person who attracts his attention. Nevertheless, in her efforts to stand out to him, she gets herself attacked by the condemned murderer while on Daniel's watch. This leaves Daniel's future in jeopardy as her father now wants to blame someone for the attack. It also forces Daniel to keep a special eye out to make sure Charlotte doesn't get into anymore trouble.

My first set of beta readers haven't responded to Daniel the way I thought they might. They don't really seem to have strong feelings for him one way or the other so I was looking for a way to make him more interesting or sympathetic and as I read back through the manuscript after my beta readers, I realized there are many scenes where Daniel is put into positions where he is out of breath, and it occurred to me that his situation would be a lot worse if being out of breath was a really bad thing for him. (Always make things harder for your characters!)

Now all his stakes are higher. His job is such a big deal because he's been hiding his asthma and normally wouldn't be able to get a job like prison guard because of it. Plus, every time he has to do something physically or emotionally intense, he's in danger of not only getting exposed but of getting an attack so bad he can't recover. It's added depth to his backstory and personality in general, not to mention an fascinating historical footnote!

Obviously, they didn't have albuterol inhalers in the nineteenth century, so what did they do for asthma? There were many interesting treatments like ozone paper, but the two main remedies for asthma were black coffee and stramonium, which was smoked through non-tobacco cigarettes and or from powders. The latter is what I used in the book. I have Daniel light the powder and inhale it that way.

I also learned that chronic coughing is an important symptom of asthma, which I didn't know and which actually led me to my doctor who said my post-bronchitis cough might actually be a sign of adult onset asthma, something that is common where I live in the Central Valley of California.

One account from Divine Stramonium: The Rise and Fall of Smoking for Asthma, which cited Marcel Proust: letters to his mother, 1956, was really interesting. It came from a letter by Dr. Adrien Proust father of the novelist Marcel Proust:

‘Misery of miseries or mystery of mysteries?’ That is the title of a chapter in one of Dumas’s novels, which would apply very well to me at the moment. Yesterday after I wrote to you I had an attack of asthma and incessant running at the nose, which obliged me to walk all doubled up and light anti-asthma cigarettes at every tobacconist’s I passed, etc. And what’s worse, I haven’t been able to go to bed till midnight, after endless fumigations, and it’s three or four hours after a real summer attack, an unheard of thing for me.

Here are the main resources I used to find this information and there's some really neat stuff about this in these articles so check them out:

How to Bake a Victorian Ribbon Cake and How To Avoid Messing it Up!

As some of you know, I described a ribbon cake in my short story "Forget Me Not" featured in Legacy: An Anthology. I'm not a baker, but I've always looked at baking the way people look at art, with respect and appreciation.

So first I tried to do this on my own and ruined the cake, and then after getting the help of my husband, who actually knows what he's doing in a kitchen, I learned what mistakes to avoid, what changes to make, and also some interesting tid-bits all of which I will share with you so you can bake it too!

Answers to Questions Left From This Recipe

This recipe came from the Northamptonshire and Soke of Peterborough Cookery Book. I originally thought it was Victorian in nature, but I later learned it might actually be from a different era closer to the 1940s but the book doesn't actually have a date to make a final determination. Regardless, it was meant for bakers of a previous time, so it leaves out key information we are used to seeing in recipes, like oven temperature, bake time, pan size, etc. It also provides measurements in terms we are not used to like ounces. Through trial and lots of error, I figured out all the answers to these questions.
  • Size: Be prepared for this recipe to make a small batch. It must have been meant for a small cake or for the baker to double or triple as needed.

  • Measurement Conversions: 
    • 5 ounces: About 3/4 cups
    • 1/2 ounces: 1 tablespoon
    • 1/4 pound butter: 1 stick of butter 
    • Castor Sugar: This was just what we now call quick dissolve sugar, but before you run out and get some, which I did, know that we got away with using regular granulated sugar.
    • Cochineal: Is crushed beetles, horray! This is what used to be and sometimes still is used to color stuff. The Victorian also used stuff like lead and arsenic, so we're just going to use food coloring instead. Historical accuracy is not as important in baking as it is in fiction! 
    • Sandwich tins: round or square cake tins (use small ones if you use the amounts on the recipe without doubling). 
    • Bake temp: 350 Fahrenheit or 180 Celsius 
    • Bake Time: 20-25 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean

    How Much of Everything We Used
    We basically doubled everything that was in the original recipe, but we were kind of baffled by the small amount of flour it called for. After comparing it to a modern recipe, my husband suggested we make a few tweaks, which is why there are three additional ingredients below, marked by an (*). I just took him at his word after I messed up the first cakes.
    • Sugar: 1 & 1/2 cups 
      • We got away with using regular granulated instead of quick disolve
    • Butter: 2 Sticks
    • Eggs: 6 with yokes and whites separated
    • Flour: 3 & 1/4 cups
    • Baking Powder: 1 tablespoon
    • Salt: 1/8 teaspoon*
    • Milk: 1 cup*
    • Powdered Chocolate: 2-3 tablespoons
    • Food Coloring: I combined green and blue to make teal instead of pink because I was already using pink frosting
    • Vanilla Extract: 1 & 1/2 teaspoons*
    • Pink Frosting: 1-2 containers
      • I just barely had enough frosting to cover the size cake that I did (we doubled the recipe), so you might want to get two just to be safe unless you plan to do a small version.

    Mistakes I Made That You Can Avoid
    This is what you don't want your cakes to look like!
    They didn't rise because I didn't cream the butter properly.

    1. I didn't know that "cream the butter" meant to whip the cold butter as is with the sugar, so I melted it and just mixed it in. I just thought they wanted me to mix it!

    2. I didn't use a sifter to ensure that the flour or the powdered chocolate was uniform. 

    3. I didn't flour the pans. You need to spray a nonstick spray and then put a small amount of flour into the cake pan and shake it around the bottom and on the sides. A fine layer will stick to the pan. This will keep you from having to attempt Wikihow's How to Fix a Baked Cake Stuck to the Pan tricks for like an hour.

    Some Useful Tricks I Learned Baking this Cake!
    The recipe leaves a lot for the cook to figure out. That's probably because back in the day, women who baked just knew their way around a kitchen. To include all the information I'm including would just seem excessive and unnecessary to them.

    1. Separate the yokes from the whites. You can do this easily by using the back and forth shell method (that's probably not the actual method's title).

    2. If you've never turned egg whites into stiff foam peaks, you might want to watch this video to get an idea of what they mean because I know the first time I did it, I was like what? 

    My poor husband who had to come in from working in
    the garage to instruct his helpless wife on baking basics. 
    3. Whisk with the bowl tucked under your arm and your elbow up high, so you're using your arm and not your wrist. If you are like me, and are used to whisking with your wrist, this might be challenging at first, but imagine how much whisking and whipping those women had to do when they didn't have electric mixers and made almost all their own baked goods! They must have been buff! 

    4. Before you frost, you have to line the cake up. The cake layers will rise unevenly. Those who bake often have these wire cake cutters that you can use to make the tops and bottoms perfectly flat. If you don't (which of course I didn't) you either have to try to shave some off with a knife (but being the klutz I am, I wasn't willing to try this) or line the cake up and eyeball it while turning it to get it to look even. I did the latter, and it came out fine.

    5. Frosting was made to hide mistakes! The original recipe said to just put jam or frosting in between the cakes, but as you can see the sides browned and hid the color so my husband said just frost the entire thing.

    6. Traditional home made cakes are dense - in a good way! They are filling, so start with a small slice!

    Exactly As My Husband Showed Me (LOL!)

    We doubled/altered the recipe.

    We creamed the butter with the sugar. Don't melt it!

    We used a sifter to make sure the flour was all uniform, and we mixed in the baking powder and salt while we were sifting.


    We separated the egg yokes and whites and then whisked them both but kept whisking the whites until my arm was numb, and they had formed stiff peaks.

    We added the yokes to the mixer and then alternated adding the  milk and the flour/salt/baking powder mixture until it was all in. This is also when we added the vanilla extract. Finally came the peaked egg whites. Once all was mixed, we divided the batter into three dishes.

    Because I thought we didn't have any powdered chocolate (which we did) I ground up chocolate morsels and ran it through the sifter to make sure it was all uniform.

    We colored one third of the batter with the chocolate, one third with the food coloring, and left the last one it's natural color.

    We baked for 25 minutes at 350F.

    After letting the cakes cool in the pans on racks for about five minutes, we turned them upside down, and this time, thanks to our lesson about coating with flour, they came right out. We let them cool about ten more minutes.

    After eyeballing the cake (with the help of two boys who knew more about this than I did I might add) while rotating to make sure it was even, we put frosting in between the layers. I didn't put a lot because I was concerned I didn't have enough frosting with only one container of it. I was lucky enough to just scrape by at the end. I decided to frost the entire thing because of the browned sides.

    Frosting the outside was surprisingly easy. I had been battling with this cake for like six hours because of my mess-ups and recipe confusions, so I was expecting it to be difficult, but it just went on and looked good doing it too!

    Of course the final touch was my husband's recommendation, some chocolate morsels on top, which also gave it a nice crunch. You could do sprinkles or nuts or just leave it plain.

    Hey, hey, look at that. I managed to bake a cake! I have always been a big cake fan but man, I have a whole new appreciation for what cake can be and what it takes to make it!

    And look how pretty when it's cut! It was yummy too!

    Don't forget to look for the ribbon cake in "Forget Me Not" featured in 
    Legacy: An Anthology!

    OMG, I can't believe I made this freaking cake!