Thursday, October 24, 2013

Time travel to the year 1740 . . .

I haven't posted recently because I've been spending substantial time in 1740. After getting past the initial dip (in which I wondered where the story was going, and what was going to happen to it upon arrival), the characters took over and now the novel is flowing. I've been fond of that particular year ever since college, when I wrote a paper on happenings in that year, in relation to the novel Pamela.  However, it's a great deal easier to do research now. When I think of the time I spent in the basement of the University of Washington library, reviewing microfilmed English newspapers of the time, it seems like a bad dream. Nowadays, I Google for almost anything I need to know (i.e., what year did the term "bluestocking" come into use? What was a horse-drawn "for hire" vehicle called?); although I have several 18th century cookbook reprints to consult for food, and various websites cover the question of clothing. Then there are the weird and wonderful "print on demand" reprints of really obscure 18th century books. All of these are useful not only for background, but to remind me how different life was 250 years ago, a fact it's all too easy to overlook, when most of us have difficulty remembering life before computers and Internet. Some can't recall life before cell phones.

Authenticity is important to me, when I read a historical novel. Does it matter in the greater scheme of things? Maybe not, but I usually stop reading novels with egregious errors. When I write one, I stop frequently to ask myself questions like, If you're in a corridor lighted by occasional candle sconces, how dim will it be? Can you look up at the man confronting you and see his whole face clearly? Or, more likely, only the half that's toward the nearest sconce? And I had to come up with a new plot twist when I realized that baptismal certificates were not yet in use (and if anyone out there knows otherwise, please let me know!). Baptisms were recorded in the parish register. Most people did not move from where they'd been born, or at least not far.

How much has life changed since 1740? More than even I imagined. You could be hanged for stealing something worth 40 shillings (an English pound was 20 shillings). As late as 1752, a woman was burned at the stake for poisoning her husband, and hanging, drawing and quartering was the punishment meted out to male traitors. If you needed to contact someone, you didn't "reach out and touch" them, as the phone company ad used to suggest. You wrote. In longhand, with a quill pen and ink from a bottle, then shook sand over it to blot the excess ink. When they received the letter, they had to pay for it (unless you could get a relative or friend who was a peer to "frank" it by writing his name across the outside. The letter was folded, not put in an envelope.

Does checking  on issues of fact take a lot of time and slow down the writing? Not as much as you might think, thanks to the Internet. I'm about 37,000 words in and still hope to include a duel, a murder, an abduction and a terrifyingly high stakes game of cards. But it all depends on what the characters want to do.