Thursday’s Children, 13 June 2013
One of my favourite quotes is “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” by L P Hartley. I’ve always been fascinated by history. My parents tell the story of when, as a kid, I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. My reply for years was an Egyptologist. My favourite book was “The Cat in the Mirror” by Mary Stolz, the story of a girl who bumps her head and goes back in time to ancient Egypt. Later, in highschool, it was Rome. I took three years of Latin (ahh, the Cambridge Latin Series – “Caecilius est pater, Matella est mater…). It was there we learned about the culture, the people. I was struck by the graffiti that had been found, written two thousand years ago, of older people complaining about the reckless youth of the day. Not so very different from us after all.
When I moved to the UK I became obsessed with the Middle Ages. It started as a way to impress my future hubby, he’s Welsh so I learned some Welsh history. I read Here Be Dragons by Sharon Penman and enjoyed the book so much that I immediately picked her Sunne In Splendour, about the War of the Roses and particularly Richard III. That was it, I was hooked. The obsession started with Richard III (died 1485), went on to include the Tudors and eventually covered the whole Medieval period (approx. 400 to mid 1500s CE). It was the constant studying of this period that inspired me to try my first book.
It’s a terrible terrible book about a guy who dies and goes to Heaven. There, he takes a time travel trip (one of the many fun activities offered in Heaven). He was supposed to wear ‘time appropriate’ clothing but due to a massive mistake he and his travelling companion end up dressed as a penguin and washer woman respectively. Oh, and they start the great fire of London by mistake. It was a one-joke story, drawn out to 65,000 words. Too short I know, but I based the word count on a Douglas Adams’ book I admired. It was certainly a learning experience! The research was one of the best parts, and living in London made it even more so. We took a day off and walked the route my main character takes in the book, from the East end to Whitehall. I was fortunate that many of the same building still exist today and my pen was scribbling furiously in my notebook the entire walk.
More studying led me to the Tudors, specifically Elizabeth I, and a new attempt at a novel about her early life, a topic I found was missing from the historical fiction market at that time. It took me about two years to write but was as accurate as I could make it. The research allowed the discovery of ‘The Eight Kinds of Drunkenness’ and quotes like: “Tis probable that those women that ‘paint’ most shall live longest; for where a house is kept in repair, there is no fear but it will be inhabited.” Keep wearing that lippy, ladies.
I’ve always also had a love of horror (read my blog “Oh the Horror” for more on being inspired by horror) and managed to combine both horror AND history with my next novel. The Mortecarni takes place in 1348/9, during the Black Death, and has a physician monk for a main character. I did a LOT of research on the medieval clergy, medicine, monasteries and travel. It really hit home just how similar these seemingly foreign people from 700 years ago are to us today. For example, in a copy of a fourteenth century Leech book I have (a book of treatments for ailments, named not after the blood-sucking creatures but for the Old English word for physician), it recommends the use of valerian to help a patient relax/sleep, ginger for nausea and willow bark for aches and pains (willow bark is where modern science ‘discovered’ the ingredient for aspirin 700 years later) – all remedies still in use today. The Arabic physicians were even more advanced, advocating healthy eating and exercise, all in moderation depending upon the patient’s age.
Don’t get me wrong, there were areas in which the people of the Middle Ages differed vastly from us and it is both the similarities and the differences that make writing about this period so much fun. For example, the kids in hubby’s grade 3/4 class were delighted to learn about different medical treatments: trepanning, the use of leeches (blood-sucking creatures this time) and the lancing of plague buboes. Well, who wouldn’t be fascinated by that? And while Henry II (1150s) decided that a trial by jury was a good idea, and Richard III (1484) came up with the idea of bail, there were still vast differences from the present in how criminals were punished. Case in point, Mrs Ann Runcorn, accused of disgracing her husband in public (she dared to call him a ‘rogue’ and ‘villain’!) Sentenced to wear a “brank”, a cage fitted over her head with a metal rod poked into her mouth to hold down her tongue. She had to ride on a horse backwards and be led by her angry spouse through town so everyone could mock her. Thank goodness THAT punishment was abolished (but, surprisingly, was still used up to the 1850s).
People are people, they worry about the same things and the same things make them happy. The past may not be as foreign as LP Hartley thought, but it’s just different enough to make writing about it so entertaining!
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