Bouchercon 2015

I am getting very excited about Bouchercon, this weekend in Raleigh, NC. This will be my fourth. Each one has been in a different part of the country and has been very fun.

My excitement is tempered somewhat by the weather. Flooding in South Carolina. Parts of 95 closed. We are coming from New York but my heart goes out to those just one state away. For those in New York who are planning to fly, the New York airports have delays. I hope that clears up in the next day or so.

My parents retired to Conway, SC and it is strange and creepy to see the areas around them – that I recognized – flooded.

They say that only Death and Taxes are certain. I think weather should be added to this aphorism. Yipes.

rain and flooding

After a very dry summer, we finally had rain. And a lot of it. Overnight close to a foot;


The above pool cover was dry before the rain.

I am glad for my garden. Cucumbers and beans were beginning to wither, despite my watering. And the tomatoes!

tomato cracks

See the cracks? That’s what happens to tomatoes when they suffer stress from irregular watering.

Now we are waiting to see if Joaquin hits. When Sandy hit, I lost power, my library flooded, and nearby towns were awash.

Ah, weather.

Making cider

As everyone who reads this blog knows, I have a fascination with old things: how people lived in the past. So here is my latest project – making cider.

The Shakers were famed for their cider. Just about everyone drank cider – and it was mostly the hard variety.

so here is the saga of my attempt to make cider.

apple trees

we have four apple trees and a peach tree on the property.

cider maker

we bought a cider maker and put in the apples.



Two hours later we had about a cup of juice and all the apples were covered with a fine silvery powder from the grinding mechanism. I tasted the cider, and it was good, but we discarded it. Now we are going to try the food processor.

Let me tell you, some of these techniques are far harder than they look.

Horses, Buggies, Wagons and Will Rees

Well, we have had a wide-ranging journey through the domestication of horses and the invention of wagons and buggies.

This is one of the things I find so incredible: horses (as well as donkeys, asses and other equines) were not only the main form of transportation for almost 9000 years, they were, except for shanks mare – i.e. walking –the only form. By the time of Will Rees in the late eighteenth century, wagons and buggies were polished and elegant inventions.

Okay, I can just hear someone saying ‘But what about shocks?’ Right, they didn’t have shocks. But the front wheels were slightly smaller than the rear and they were cupped to make for smooth turning. The axle, as mentioned before, is equipped with other pieces to make the operation both smooth and efficient.

And horses have been domesticated for literally millennia.

What does this mean? Well, as with dogs and the other livestock, (cattle, pigs, sheep) they are used to human companionship. Training a horse is a lot easier (I would say it requires) human contact from a very early age. Horses not only have to accept human companionship but also direction. They have to be trained to a bit and reins. If intended for a saddle horse, the animal has to accept a saddle and the weight of a rider as something normal. Horses destined to pull vehicles have to learn, besides the feel of the bit and reins, to accept the weight and the clatter of something following (Remember, horses are prey so they instinctually run).

In Rees’s time, most of the horses were trained as working horses, pulling wagons and buggies. Saddle horses were expensive and, as had been the case for several centuries, were pretty much owned and used only by the wealthy. A horse trained to pull a wagon could not serve also as a saddle horse unless it had been trained as one also. Horses were divided into the aristocrats and the cobs. The working and middle classes ( and I think of Rees as middle class since he owns property and has a craft) did not have the wherewithal to own saddle horses. They needed workers that pulled vehicles.

Of course things are different now.

For a time horses continued to be used simultaneously with the car. But gradually the engine took over. Although the Amish continue to use horses as they have been for thousands of years, for most of us, the horse has become a luxury animal. And it happened in less than one hundred years.

But not completely. One of my readers referred me to an organization that strives to keep the skills of using horses and oxen alive. Since the use of these animals are more sustainable in Africa than tractors, farmers there are assisted in their use. Thanks Kim for that information! I love it.

The mighty horse

Livestock, i.e. cattle, sheep, pigs and horses, have almost as long a history with people as dogs. Sheep, for example, were domesticated between 8000 and 7500 BCE for their meat. They were covered with hair called kemp; their wool was a layer close to the skin and made up of short fibers. How did we get the spinnable long fibers sheep have now? Mutation? Or did the people then do a little selective breeding? We don’t know.

So, on the steppes, horses were –somewhat – domesticated pre-5000 BCE.

Horses originally roamed not only the Eurasian steppes but also the North American plains. Fossils of early and not so early horses have been found here in the USA. But the North American horses disappeared, no one is quite sure why. Climate change has been suggested as one possibility. But I digress.

Like sheep and cattle, horses were first used as a source of meat. Not as draft animals. And then, with the human ability to see other advantageous qualities, someone started riding. Although I can’t know for sure, I am pretty positive the first mount would be a mare. Stallions are fierce and aggressive. But gelded males and mares are more manageable, especially if they have had regular contact with people from birth. And horses, at approximately 800 pounds, are large enough to carry a rider or pull a vehicle.

A man on foot can control 200 sheep; on horseback 500. Leather and rope bits and cheek pieces begin showing up in grave goods. Horses begin taking on value and are only eaten at feasts (where the chief is showing off.}

I will add that of course, given our human propensity for war, the horse became part of the effort. Not just as a mount for a horseman but also as a team pulling war chariots. Now chariots speak to a ruling class with the necessary time and resources for the purchase of a chariot and the team of horses as well as the training necessary to use them effectively in battle. I’ve seen a few graphics of an Egyptian pharaoh driving such a vehicle with the reins looped around his hips. Since chariots were used only for war, they had their moment in history. But they didn’t come down through the millennia the way wagons did.


Wheels did not exist before 4000 BCE But within a few hundred years pictures of wheels were turning up on pottery and whole wagons were turning up in graves. As I mentioned in a previous post, wheels are not the only invention necessary for a wagon. Axles and axle arms are important for smooth turning of the wheels. Since, at this time, all the wagon pieces would be carved from wood, everything had to fit perfectly. Too loose and the wheels wobbled, too tight and the wheels struggled to turn. Drag, (remember I mentioned drag?) meant that these early wagons were narrow. Some of the wagons found in these old old graves are only three feet wide.

Wagons had to have something that connected to the draft animal: called harness pole, traces etc. Yes, by the time that wheels and then wagons were invented, horses had already been domesticated. But more about that later.

Later on, say 5000 years later, most of these inventions had been fine tuned. Wagons, such as the one my character Rees would drive, would be wide, fairly heavy, but constructed in such a way it rode smoothly over the crummy roads of the time. The front wheels would be smaller than the back ones, to turn easily, and also slightly cupped. The axle, although still made of wood, had other pieces attached, and by now most were made of iron. The wheels had spokes and iron rims. Sounds relatively simple, doesn’t it? Well, not so much. Even without brakes, there are a number of other parts, with names like bolster stake and flange and hound braces. (Really.)

Before 1860, most wagons were hand built by blacksmiths, wheelwrights and carpenters, probably all three.

Wheels are arguably one of the most important, if not the most important, inventions in human history. Although humans have always wandered, wheeled vehicles made us really mobile, and mobile as communities. Some of the early settlers on the steppes moved from place to place as a lifestyle. For those who settled, wagons enabled the farmers to carry manure to the fields and produce back home. In American history, the wagon is an icon. Think of the Conestoga – canvas covering over a wagon body.

But to be truly efficient, a wheeled vehicle has to have an animal to pull it. The Incas had wheels – which they used on toys – but they had no access to draft animals. The llama is not built properly to pull wagons. (And that’s not even mentioning the topography of the Incan Empire – high mountains, deep valleys and lots of up and down in -between)

Oxen are certainly one choice, in fact they were the first choice, as draft animals but they are not fast. The onager, which is a member of the horse family but more closely resembles an ass, is another. Although fast, they are small. Same goes for mules.

Onto the mighty horse.

For more information on wagon construction, check out the website on Farm Collections.

Horses, buggies and wagons, Part I

Think about this fact for a moment: humans have used horses and wagons for millennia. Yet, in the space of 100 years, less, actually, the use of horses had ended.
Most of us no longer have a connection to these beautiful animals or the really elegant inventions that shaped the wagons and buggies that were used for most of human civilization. True, the advances made for the creation of the humble axle did set up the use of axles in cars. How many of us think about this tool which was really the product of many years of trial and error investigation?

First came the wheel?
Not exactly. Remnants of sledges using rollers, not wheels, have been discovered n eastern Europe. There is a lot of discussion about the dating of these rollers and some estimates put it back to about 4000 B. C. (To my amazement, when I began researching wagons and horses, I discovered that Eastern Europe and the steppes were actually the home of many inventions that today we take entirely for granted. Axle is actually an evolved word (aks) from some Proto Indo-European tongue that spawned of the languages from Greek to German, Iranian to Celtic that we are familiar with today. Honey bees. Pigs. Sheep who were domesticated first for meat – they were short fibers so the wool was unspinnable. No one is sure whether it was a mutation or human intervention that created sheep with the wool we use today. )
But I digress.
Sledges had to be pulled by teams of oxen and were very heavy. Also, and this is where the axle comes in, they didn’t move smoothly. Drag is very important in the movement of objects since it pulls back. Think of trying to move something through heavy mud. Later wheeled wagons and of course our current cars don’t have drag – not from the wheels nor to this degree – because the wheels and axle and all the other pieces are constructed in such a way that the vehicle moves as though it is much lighter, without the clutch of another force holding it back. From mud to a smooth asphalt road, for example.
Are we to wheels yet?