Friday, December 20, 2013

Casting Light Upon the Darkness: A Solstice Blog Hop

photo: Robert & Mihaela Vicol at

The Dark Ages fascinate for many reasons. First of all, they were really, really dark. Imagine living without street lights to show your way or a lamp to read by--not to mention a computer screen.

I once read a book about the dark and how it felt to live in those times. Some of it was interesting, describing how people feared the night's sinister possibilities and used ritual to protect themselves from what they couldn't see. Some of the book was obvious: of course you'd trip over stuff. Of course you'd bump into things.

Still, I like picturing it.

Research helped me set Camelot & Vine around 500AD. My goal was to tell the story of a modern woman's visit to King Arthur's war camp and make it as believable as possible, which meant I wanted to show what it was like to live then. They used torches and small fires for exterior and even interior use, as long as the smoke could be properly directed to an escape route. Candles were made from animal fat, which was stinky and messy but easy to recycle. Oil lamps were reliable as long as nobody knocked them over.

I kept track of where the moon was while Casey was in the Dark Ages--which nights it waxed, which nights it waned. Minor pollution from the fires of the smithy might have blocked some light but not much. The full moon would have been bright. The new moon would have been extra dark. Except stars--stars like a woman from Los Angeles has never seen.

My favorite thing to imagine was the wide Salisbury Plain at night. This wasn't easy for me to picture. Yes, your eyes would adjust after a while, but what about a night when clouds shroud the moon? Why would you be out there alone in the first place? How far ahead could you see the road as it unfolded before you? What if you had to ride horseback on that overcast night, alone across the open plain, to save a life?

You might have to listen for the brook that burbles alongside the road and let its sound guide you. You might have to stop to hear the hoof-beats of other riders, not knowing if they're friends or foes, your own heart pounding loud enough to interfere with the sound. Something might cross your path in the dark. You'd better trust your horse.

If you can't, and all you have left is ritual you don't believe in and a pair of expensive, painful boots to walk in, you had better figure out how to believe in yourself.

The Camelot & Vine ebook is on special at $3.99 until January 1st, 2014, and today I'll be giving a free ebook to a random commenter (comment deadline midnight, Los Angeles time, 12/22/13). So say something! (And remember, books make great gifts!)

Many other authors are participating in today's blog hop! I encourage you to check them out and see what they did with the theme. Many have included contests and giveaways with their posts.

1.     Helen Hollick : A little light relief concerning those dark reviews! Plus a Giveaway Prize
2.     PrueBatten : Casting Light....
3.     AlisonMorton  Shedding light on the Roman dusk, Plus a Giveaway Prize!
4.     AnnaBelfrage Let there be light!
5.     Beth Elliott : Steering by the Stars. Stratford Canning in Constantinople, 1810/12
6.     Melanie Spiller : Lux Aeterna, the chant of eternal light
7.     Janet Reedman   The Winter Solstice Monuments
8.     Petrea Burchard  : Darkness - how did people of the past cope with the dark? Plus a Giveaway Prize
9.    Richard Denning The Darkest Years of the Dark Ages: what do we really know? Plus a Giveaway Prize! 
10.  Pauline Barclay  : Shedding Light on a Traditional Pie
11.  David Ebsworth : Propaganda in the Spanish Civil War
12.  David Pilling  :  Greek Fire, Plus a Giveaway Prize
13.  Debbie Young : Fear of the Dark
14.  Derek Birks  : Lies, Damned Lies and … Chronicles
15.  Mark Patton : Casting Light on Saturnalia
16.  Tim Hodkinson : Soltice@Newgrange
17.  Wendy Percival  : Ancestors in the Spotlight
18.  Judy Ridgley : Santa and his elves  Plus a Giveaway Prize
19.  Suzanne McLeod  :  The Dark of the Moon
20.  Katherine Bone   : Admiral Nelson, A Light in Dark Times
21.  Christina Courtenay : The Darkest Night of the Year
22.  Edward James  : The secret life of Christopher Columbus; Which Way to Paradise?
23.  Janis Pegrum Smith  : Into The Light - A Short Story
24.  Julian Stockwin  : Ghost Ships - Plus a Giveaway Present
25.  MandaScott : Dark into Light - Mithras, and the older gods
26.  Pat Bracewell Anglo-Saxon Art: Splendor in the Dark
27.  LucienneBoyce : We will have a fire - 18th Century protests against enclosure
28.  Nicole Evelina What Lurks Beneath Glastonbury Abbey? 
29.  Sky Purington  :  How the Celts Cast Light on Current American Christmas Traditions
30.  Stuart MacAllister (Sir Read A Lot) : The Darkness of Depression



Always enjoy seeing things through your eyes/lens, I'm looking forward!

Petrea Burchard said...

Oh, goody!

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed your blog very much, thank you Jx

StoneLord said...

I have had the dubious pleasure of stumbling around Salisbury Plain at night on several occasions. Lots of bumps and holes, sheep poo...and then you start hearing noises and those 'primal fears' come over you when passing the mist-shrouded burial mounds (maybe falling into their ditches if you're not careful!) A clear night, though, and the views of the planets can be stunning...especially the Milky Way.

Wendy Percival said...

We live in a small Devon village with no street lighting. Visiting friends on foot is an interesting experience when you turn to go and realise darkness has fallen since your arrival and you didn't remember to bring a torch! But it's amazing how often the stars and moon give enough light to see your way. Only once in a while is it totally black. THEN it really IS interesting finding your way home!

Debbie Young said...

What a lovely post! I love the idea of using sounds to navigate in the dark - I hadn't thought of that before. I live in a small village in Gloucestershire where the council has recently started turning off the few streetlights at midnight to save money, and it's amazing the difference it makes. We all rather like it now!

Lucienne Boyce said...

Thanks, Petrea, really interesting blog. I don’t know if it’s something to do with Saving Money, but a lot of city streets are really dark too, once you get away from the main roads – sometimes the experiences of, say, town-dwelling Victorians or Georgians don’t feel as far away from us as you’d think!

Anonymous said...

Petra, like you, I come from a big city, so the stars aren't anything like they would have been in Arthurian times. This past June I had the chance to spend three nights in Tintagel in a hotel atop a cliff where there were no lights. My room had a balcony and I went out after dark and looked up. I've never been so awed or felt so insignificant in my life. It was a great reminder of how different the mindsets of our historical counterparts would have been and just how hard it is to try to capture that.

Alison Morton said...

I live in rural France. Once you leave a village, there's no light but the moon.

In the military, I trained in the dark, in the middle of the North German plain.
Alone, yes.
Spooky, possibly.
Frightening, no, strangely peaceful.

Anonymous said...

Once you get used to it, the dark is neither particularly threatening nor dark...But I agree; life was much much darker "back then". Nice post!

Sky Purington said...

Fascinating post! I especially enjoyed the part about crossing the Salisbury Plain at night. You’d most definitely have to rely more on your other senses and try your best not to not let fear take over. I look forward to checking out your book. Wishing you and yours a wonderful holiday. (I’m part of the hop so no prize for me.)

Petrea Burchard said...

I love all your wonderful comments and input! Thank you. And Wendy reminds me how we use the word "torch" differently!

David Ebsworth said...

Great post. I still remember reading Rosemary Sutcliff's "Sword at Sunset" as a young teenager and being mesmerised by her depiction of everyday life in 6th century Britain - and there was something about her winter night scenes that especially haunted me. Wonderful memories!

Beth Elliott said...

Once i camped out in a small wood only a ten minute walk from home. Once it was dark there were endless rustlings and little sounds that grew louder and more frightening all the time - until I shone a torch [with shaking hands] into a bramble bush and discovered that it was not an escaped tiger, nor even a ghostly wolf, but just a hedgehog. your post sent a shiver down my spine at the memories.

Helen Hollick said...

living in the middle of nowhere here in Devon the first few nights came as a bit of a shock to us - because we had moved from a busy London suburb. No streets lights here in our lane now! On black nights it IS black - but the slightest bit of moon or starlight makes all the difference, and the full moon - some nights it is bright enough to walk up the lane without a torch. Fascinating post - thanks!

Anonymous said...

I live where there are NO street lights. We have a yard light but that's in front of the house I can't tell you how dark it can get out there in the back, cuz I won't go find out. The trees lurk with life and owls and other critters who move about at night. nope. not going. Dark can get as thick as velvet. wow. No wonder many were scared

Petrea Burchard said...

I would love to live in the "middle of nowhere"! I think I would, anyway. Darkness can be a pleasure when you know you're safe, though lurking critters are a bit much.

You all are way ahead of me on tweeting. I must get to it.

Christina Courtenay said...

We've recently moved to the countryside from London as well and it does seem so much darker, except for when there is moonlight! Can be scary, but as someone else said, also very peaceful.

Ms M said...

Great post about your research and process with C&V -- and your imaginings.

Petrea Burchard said...

It sounds delightful, Christina, no pun intended.

Ms M, I hope you read some of the other posts. The history and research in this blog hop today is astounding and fascinating.

Bellis said...

You can experience darkness in the local forest, Petrea. I was in Millard canyon after sunset with a friend when we heard something moving in the wood close by. Was it a bear or mountain lion creeping up on us? It was too dark to see anything, and we froze in terror. Fortunately, I had with me that modern-day wonder, artificial light. Six red eyes appeared among the trees - a mother deer and her fawns. What a relief! Life in the old days must have been pretty scary at night.

Petrea Burchard said...

That's true, Bellis. I've been caught in the dark at Hahamongna more than once, and although I know the place well it's still eerie to hear the coyotes yip, and to know it is now their time and not mine.

Anonymous said...

I have trick eyes, as a result of a virus attack - I seem to be better at night vision than anyone else I know, whilst needing glasses like coke bottles. I quite often wander round the Suffolk countryside at night, walking at my normal daytime speed. I wonder if glasses wearing reduces our ability to adjust to poor light conditions?

Petrea Burchard said...

I've wondered the same thing myself, nickymoxey. I need a new prescription almost as soon as I've got the old one. Doesn't help my night vision, though.

Bob Crowe said...

That's a lot for my brain to digest. My main source of ideas about the Middle ages are the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror.

We can still get real darkness. Go out in Death Valley at night without a flashlight.

Petrea Burchard said...

Death Valley is high on my agenda, Bob. I've been on Whidbey Island without a flashlight, trying to traverse a path through the woods. I don't think I'll do that again.

Susan Campisi said...

I loved Camelot & Vine for the way you evoked what life must've been like back then. Dark nights, traveling by horseback, crazy sword fights. Given the choice, I'd pick now, although back then I would have gotten a lot more sleep. That would be a good thing.

Dina said...

Oi, now I "see" what you mean about the challenges darkness would (and does) pose. It makes me want to read your book even more. You give new meaning to the term Dark Ages.

Once we were deep down in the earth in the Jenolan Caves of Australia. The guide turned off the lights for a few minutes so that the people could experience total darkness, some for the first time.

Yoku Masaki said...

just started reading your blogs as well as your photography, love it all and every informational!

TheChieftess said...

Living up here, I have a pretty good idea about just how dark it can get!!! Of course...I have a big flashlight to take out when I get to be the one to take Miss Kelly out for her nightly constitutional....but all around's DARK!!!!

Petrea Burchard said...

Australian cave! That must be the darkest of the dark, Dina--no moon or stars.

Thank you, Raijphinai!

I can corroborate, Chieftess.