Wednesday, 15 June 2011

The pleasures and perils of research

Meanwhile, back at the time slip ...

Having got to the end of the story in the past, I am struggling to get into the story in the present. The truth is that I am missing the sixteenth century. When I’m writing romance, I rarely do much research, but I have been really enjoying reading about Tudor trade and cooking, about clothes and witch trials and bubonic plague, none of which I knew anything about before, in spite of having a Ph.D. in the history of sixteenth-century York (but ask me about disposing of rubbish or noisy neighbours or mending streets, and I’m your gal).

I’d just got to a scene where my heroine, Hawise, gives birth and had realised that once again I knew absolutely nothing about child-birth in the past (or in the present, come to that, other than that it hurts – a lot) when into my inbox popped an email from Samuel Thomas, an historian who was interested in looking at my thesis. It turns out that Sam not only writes about early modern midwifery but is also a novelist.  Based in Alabama, he’s working in a book called Statute of Treasons, which is set in seventeenth-century York.  Serendipity.  At times like those, I think what a wonderful thing the internet is, when you can make connections with people in other countries so easily. 

Sam sent me a couple of his articles and only now do I realise just how little I knew about child-birth before. I particularly enjoyed the account of a “gossiping” in the seventeenth century where the women had gathered together after a new mother was churched, and where the conversation turned ‘as is usual’ to labour and child-birth, then to children and servants, and at last to husbands, ‘Complaining of Ill Husbands, and so from Husbands in General to their own Particular Husbands’.  Most of us may not have servants to complain about nowadays, but in my experience when women get together, we still tend to talk about children and our relationships, and I love those moments when we can recognize how much we share with people in the past.  The clothes and the food and the customs may be different, but stripped of that, we’re the same, with the same everyday preoccupations and concerns. 
Now I’m absorbed in Jane Sharp’s The Midwives Book, or the Whole Art of Midwifery Discovered, first advertised for sale in 1671.  There is so much in it that I would like to use, but it’s a fine line between details that lend authenticity to the story, and research that overwhelms the plot and characters.  As a newbie to writing historical fiction, I’m struggling to find the right balance and to remember that just because I find something of interest as an historian, it doesn’t mean it will contribute anything to the story as a whole.  So I am having to be very firm with myself and stick to the storyline for now.

Oh, and remember that the present is important too.  Which reminds me, I’d better get back to it …

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