Sweet as a … cow? Historical simile searches on Books Google


The “flowering” stage of the writing process is a pleasure. I love making historical simile searches on Google. Such a search can provide a sweet detail for a historical scene, that telling detail that reminds the reader that we’re in another world. 

1) Go to Google and type the lead-in to the simile in quotes. For example, “as sweet as a”.

2) Under More select “books.”

3) Click Search tools, and select the time period you want. I select “custom” and type in between 1600 and 1800. 

Here are the treasures that resulted, images that tell you quite a bit about daily life hundreds of years ago.

  • as sweet as a Parsnip
  • as sweet as a Nut
  • as sweet as a Cow (!)
  • as sweet as a Jordan almond
  •  as sweet as a Lark
  • as sweet as a Pistack Nut
  • (smelled) as sweet as a nosegay
  • (smelled) as sweet as a per- fum’d Spanish Glove
  • as sweet as a wild Fig
  • as sweet as a thin syrup
  • Her Breath is as sweet as a young Fawn’s
  • Her Breath is as sweet as a Grecian Captain. (?)

And, of course, a rose. 

Here are some more:

  • as slender as a Crow’s- quill
  • as hungry as a Church-mouse
  • as hungry as a hawk
  • as tall as a May-pole
  • as tall as a wild-Goat
  • as small as a cobweb
  • as big as a Goose’s egg

I find these simply delightful.

Some recent posts to Baroque Explorations, my research blog:

Happy 376th birthday, Louis XIV!

Honey, figs and red dove feet: cosmetic secrets of the Middle Ages


A treasury of information on daily life in 17th century Holland

A treasury of information on daily life in 17th century Holland

In researching 17th century maternity wear, I came upon a treasure-trove of information on 17th century daily life in Holland compiled by art historian Kees Kaldenbach. The facts of daily life were deducted in part from the detailed inventories of the Vermeer household and paintings.

Fascinating! Enjoy …

On courtship and making love

Childbirths, midwives, obstetricians

Maternity dress and trousseau

Children’s chair, potty chair

Baby child presented in a crisom

Feeding brest milk/mother’s milk

Vaginal syringe

Fire basket, fire holder

Mattress, bed, blanket. A bed was made of three layers:

  1. a flat mattress filled with bedstraw, horse hair or sea grass.
  2. a soft cover filled with feathers, down or “kapok” from silk-cotton trees. This is the layer a person would sleep on.
  3. sheets and blankets

Every day the sheets and blankets were folded so that the head-end and the foot-end did not touch. The pillows had to be shaken and aired for one hour, to dry the feathers, which tended to lump.

pillows (pillows, ear cushion, sit cushion, tapestry cushion — there were no chairs for the children. They were to use pillows when the adults used the chairs.); blanket,

bed cover: fascinating! The Vermeer household of 3 or 4 adults and 11 children had few blankets. People slept sitting up, two to a bedstead, propped up by pillows. The children slept in wheeled drawers which slid under the bed.

bedsheets, pillow cases, bed linen: 8 pairs of sheets were valued at 48 gilders — the equivalent of a workman’s wage for 24 to 48 days.

In the cooking kitchen

In the basement, or cellar

In the inner kitchen

Delft markets

Market bucket

Tables: fold-out table, pull-out table, round table, octagonal table, sideboard: This includes instructions on table manners. (“Do not propose to sing at the table oneself ; wait until one is invited repeatedly to do so and keep it short.”)

Trestle table

Foot stove: “One placed an earthenware container within the foot stove and filled it with glowing coals or charcoal. One then placed the feet on it. If a large dress was then lowered over it, or a chamber coat, it warmed both feet and legs.”

Tapestry table rug: “Only the most wealthy of Dutch households put Turkish rugs on the floor.”

Since I first posted this in 2012, the site moved and none of the links worked. I despaired! However, I emailed Drs Kees Kaldenbach and he kindly provided me with the new sites. Relief! This is one of the most illuminating accounts of daily life in the 17th century. For a historical novelist, it’s a gold-mine.

A tempting story about the “Black Nun of Moret”


I’ve been researching the rumor of the “Black Nun of Moret” — allegedly the Queen’s baby by Nabo, her African dwarf. You can read the results of my research here: “The Queen’s mystery daughter.

What struck me is that this would be a fine 2-week period in which to set a novel — there are a million dramas going on at this time:

Queen was expected to die: she begged the King to forsake his mistress, Louise de la Vallière.

Prayers and processions were ordered.

Meanwhile, former Minister Fouquet‘s trial was heating up. Fouquet’s wife provided the Queen with a secret remedy that in fact cured her — but does not, nonetheless, save Fouquet.

Fouquet is sentenced on December 20, but only condemned to perpetual banishment, which infuriates the King, who changes it to life imprisonment in Pignerol.

Meanwhile, a comet streaks across the night sky.

The Queen-mother collapses from breast cancer.

On December 26, the Queen’s “monster” baby dies at one month, and is buried at Saint Denis. The King is terribly grieved.

The offending (and suspected) dwarf Nabo, much beloved by the Queen, disappears — into the Bastille, some claim, to emerge as the Man in the Iron Mask.

Man In The Iron Mask

I love this last flight of fancy, but it is impossible, of course. If the Man in the Iron Mask were an African dwarf, we would have known.

background slice

Link to my essay, “The Queen’s mystery daughter”
Link to my Blog Tour details

Top ten research sites


I’m pleased to be a guest blogger on Madam Mayo today, listing my five top historical research sites, and why.

Here is the list:

1. The Medici Archive Project, Document Highlights

This is a site I go to for inspiration, to refresh my delight in all things historical. As the workers who toil in this dusty realm of historical documents put it, every now and then a document comes along that casts a spotlight into that far-away realm and demands to be shared. From this site I’ve read the historical accounts of a rain of frogs, disemboweling kisses, and the sexual crimes committed under cover of the rite of the Tenebrae-— or “The Darkness”-— during Holy Week.

2. The Diary of Samuel Pepys

I enjoy reading Pepys delightful diary on almost a daily basis. It gives me the feeling of life in the 17th century. The annotations are informative and well worth reading as well.

3. BibliOdyssey: Books—Illustrations—Science—History—Visual Materia Obscura—Eclectic Bookart

There are many, many delights in the realm of historical research and coming upon unusual and captivating illustrations is one of them. This amazing blog revels in the unusual, the charming, the beautiful. Not all of the images are historical but most are. I could linger on this site all day.

4. Google Book Search

Google wasn’t the first to put digitized books on-line (the French on-line library Gallica was an early pioneer), but it has quickly become the best in my view, and certainly the easiest to use. If you specify “full view only” in your search, you will be shown books in the public domain, often published some time ago. If you go to Advanced Book Search, you may even specify the time of publication. You may also begin to build up your own on-line library.

I use it for research but I also love to search for old expressions — for example, how someone in the past might have completed the phrase: “as hot as a … “ A Google Book search reveals these tasty possibilities: “as hot as a turn spit,” “as hot as a plum pudding,” “as hot as a melon bed.”

5. Oxford English Dictionary

If I want to know if a particular word or expression was used in the 17th century, this is where I can go to find out. If I want to know what words were used for—say—”pretty” before the 18th century, the OED on-line will tell me (comely, quaint, jolly…). The site, however, is restricted: one must use it through a library that subscribes or pay. I couldn’t do without it.

About my research method

About my research method

First, every document I consult is assigned a number. (See my Sun Court bibliography.)

I begin with recording facts— what happened when—to a timeline on a Word file.

I stagger the entries from the point-of-view of the main character: her personal timeline at the far left, then her family and friends, moving across the page with events in the world coming in on the far right.

This way, on any day, I can see more or less what is happening to my character, her loved ones, her enemies, on the political front, etc. Here is a clip from a page of the Trilogy timeline:


I will usually put my own thoughts, questions, etc. in grey type, and highlight events of particular interest in yellow. I reference each item by document and page number. (Or try to.)

This particular snapshot is of a file created well over a decade ago. For the timeline for Mistress of the Sun—which grew to over 600 pages; there were times when I thought I was writing a timeline, not a novel—I style-coded the entries, which I could then easily re-format and rearrange to reveal the timeline for The Shadow Queen, which is about the same period, but from a different point-of-view.

Recently, for the Young Adult novel I am writing about Josephine‘s daughter Hortense, I began to use Aeon Timeline. This is a nifty Mac software program taylor-made for writers, but for a timeline as detailed as the one for the Trilogy, I’m starting to think I might be better off sticking with my old Word file. I suspect I will bounce back and forth between the two.

For facts about daily life and individuals, I use Notebook, a Mac outlining software program, again referencing details with book and page number. (The Notebook feature on Word is also useful, and I’ve started to use it instead, although the jury’s not yet out on it.)

An outlining program such Notebook is useful because I can search it easily. (The search facility on Word is powerful as well, but not as flexible as on Notebook. There are pros and cons for each.)

The important thing about a research method—any research method—is evolving a way to store facts so one can easily find what one needs to know.

I’ve taken to using both Evernote and DevonThink Pro as databases. (See Research Tools.) DevonThink is more powerful, but Evernote is wonderfully handy because I can email documents to it. I photograph text and email it directly to Evernote from iPhoto.

And then, of course, there is what I call experiential research: the travel and other research (such as taking a Baroque dancing class, traveling on horseback, or spending a week in a silent monastery). I generally begin with the academic research; then, once I’ve written a draft and know what I need to know, I begin the travel and other research. I write many drafts, continuing to research as I go. If I hit a dry spell, research will invariably replenish me.

(Note: see also the research page on my website.)