Tag Archives: Research

Addictive Research

I recently stumbled across an Ebay auction of a double volume of THE ILLUSTRATED LONDON NEWS. Of course, I had heard of that newspaper before (after all, my current academic research focuses on Victorian periodicals), but I hadn’t realised what a gem it was. But the person selling his copy on Ebay kindly provided pictures. OH MY! Where are my smelling salts?!?!?!?

That volume on Ebay was in a bad shape and the price was already quite high when I discovered the page, so I decided not to bid on it. The volume that I ended up buying (because, hey, it’s for research, right? and I can use it for both my academic work and my creative work — awesome! it’s like “Buy one get one free”!!!) arrived today. In a word: it’s gorgeous!

So far I’ve just leafed through it and took pictures of some of the highlights, e.g.

  • intriguing bits of paper pasted into the newspaper (pic on upper right)
  • prize cattle
  • masses of people emigrating to the New World
  • the construction of the Crystal Palace for the Grand Exhibition in 1851
  • the new railway station in Newcastle upon Tyne (pic on upper left)
  • some sheet music
  • the Assyrian sculptures from Nimrod at the British Museum*
  • Stamp Duty in action

* I yelled “Wheeee!” when I came across that particular picture because DEVIL’S RETURN deals with the excavations in Nimrod in the mid-1840s. 🙂

Stalking Dead People (Again!)

John Leech’s first cartoon of Mr Briggs, a middle-class gentleman residing in the suburbs with his family. Mr Briggs’s adventures are partly modelled on Leech’s own experiences with middle-class life in the suburbs

Today I did some research on the editor (Mark Lemon) and one of the artists (John Leech) of PUNCH, the wonderful, wonderful, wonderful British magazine (of which 70 kilos reside on the shelf in Sandy’s sitting room). In particular I tried to figure out how long the Lemons and the Leech(e?)s lived at No. 10 and 12 Brook Green after finding a reference that by July 1849 the Lemons lived in Notting Hill.

So I started to dig.

The letters of Charles Dickens proved to be particular helpful for, as it turns out, Dickens was a very good of Lemon’s until the former broke up with his (and PUNCH’s) publisher, Bradbury & Evans. Unfortunately, the transcribed letters only seldom give the address of the recipient (grrrr!), and for 1848 (the year I was particularly interested in) only one letter to Mark Lemon includes an address – 11 Bouverie Street, home not to Mr Lemon, but to Mr Punch: this is the address of the PUNCH office. *sigh*

But as if to make up for his shocking lack of foresight, Dickens referred to a most interesting tidbit in one of his letters from 1847. On 3 August 1847, he wrote to a friend: “What a tremendous chance that Leech’s little girl was not born on the Railway!” A footnote was helpful to supply further background information: Mrs Leech, heavily pregnant, had gone into labour during an outing with Dickenses and a group of other people. In another letter to another friend, Dickens described how she was brought to the Victoria Hotel in Euston in a Bath Chair and had her baby girl in a hotel room. “She is a capital little woman!” Dickens concludes (11 Aug. 1847).

Ha! You do know how much I love such anecdotes, don’t you? 🙂

The Joys of Research

One of the great joys of writing historicals, I find, is doing research. I’m curious about how people lived in the past and I think it endlessly fascinating to stumble across new tidbits about their everyday life. Thus, for the story I’m currently writing, DEVIL’S RETURN (to be released in April *fingers crossed*) I explored old maps of London. The National Library of Scotland has come up with the most wonderful feature: not only did they digitalise a lot of their maps, but their website also has a section called “georeferenced maps”, where the images of the old maps are laid over a modern map. And you wouldn’t believe the details that can be found in some of these old maps! For example, they have a map of London from the 1890s, which shows drinking fountains, troughs, and urinals (!!!) scattered throughout London. Magical!

One of the characters in DEVIL’S RETURN lives in Brook Green, in Hammersmith, and as some of the PUNCH men lived there in the 1840s, I tried to find out as much as possible about the area. Thanks to that very detailed map from the 1890s I was even able to locate John Leech’s house (I guess that could be called stalking a dead person….). In a letter to a friend, he described it as being opposite some almshouses “at the corner of Cornwall Road”. That bit stumped me for a while until I found out that Cornwall Road had been renamed a few years later and had become Rowan Road by the time the map from the 1890s was created.

 Well, but how to get one’s characters from Town to Hammersmith? Because of my studies involving the magazine PUNCH, I already knew that there had been an omnibus service in London since 1829. (The following picture is a cartoon from PUNCH, drawn by my favourite illustrator of the time, Richard Doyle.)

And thanks to Google Books, I had soon found a guidebook with omnibus timetables: MOGG’S OMNIBUS GUIDE from 1844. It has to say the following about the bus to Hammersmith:

Hammersmith, 4. European Coffee House, opposite the Mansion House, daily, Sund. included, every 10 min. from 9 morn till 1/2 p. 11 night, Black Horse Coventry Street, a 1/4 of an hour later, and from the White Horse Cellar, Piccadilly, 1/2 an hour later. Leaves Hammersmith daily Sunday included every 10 min. from 8 morn. till 10 night.

Right-ho. But how long would it take to ride the bus from the White Horse Cellar to Hammersmith? Again, Google Books came to my rescue: in another guidebook (this time from 1871), I found a timetable that gave listed the times of departure in a similar manner as modern bus or train timetables:

Neat, isn’t it? 🙂

NaNoWriMo – Day 9: Setting the Scene

The setting has always been an integral part of my books, and over the years many reviewers have remarked upon the descriptions of the setting in my novels. When my debut novel The Lily Brand came out in 2005, Robyn Roberts from Once Upon a Romance remarked:

Ms. Schwab gave such detailed descriptions of the estates, gardens and people that I felt as if I knew them myself.

And when Castle of the Wolf was published in 2007, Sandra Marlow from the Historical Romance Club wrote in her review that

Ms. Schwab’s writing has a flow that pulls you into her stories so subtly that you forget you’re just reading a book instead of actually interacting with her characters. I finally have visited the Black Forest of Germany.

Truly, there is no greater compliment for a writer than “I was right there with the characters.” (Well, “I stayed up all night to read this book” isn’t too bad either! *g*) I’ve always had this particular knack for descriptions – indeed, even when everything else about my writing was pretty much crap, I could pull of descriptions of the setting.

But how do you do it without overwhelming your reader with pages after pages of endless descriptions?

I tend to think of describing the setting as layering the scene, and I was reminded of this when I was working on one particular scene of my NaNoWriMo project this week. So I thought I’d share my process with you. Here’s what I started out with. This is the beginning of the scene that introduces the hero:

Alex entered the City through Temple Bar and was immediately enveloped by the hustle and bustle of Fleet Street.

Well… Nice, but a bit bland, isn’t it? It doesn’t evoke any specific images, instead what you get is a rather blurred view of a busy street. However, for historical fiction, I think it’s very important to take your reader into the scene and let him catch glimpses of that faraway, long-ago world your characters inhabit. So, let’s add a few things, shall we?

I like working with visual cues – that makes it easier for me to get a feeling for the setting and to describe things – so I started by doing a Google search for images of nineteenth-century street life. I also searched for period maps.

Depending on your setting, you can really find the most amazing things online, ranging from drawings, cartoons, and photographs of street scenes to beautifully detailed maps and descriptions in old magazines. Now that we’ve collected all this info, let’s work on our sentence and let’s start with Temple Bar (the online search yielded that it once separated the Strand from Fleet Street and was used in the olden days to display the heads of executed traitors):

Alex entered the City through Temple Bar, which had once been crowned by the heads of executed traitors. The only sightless heads staring down from it now where the two Charleses on their pedestals high up above the bustling street. Arrogantly, their stony eyes watched watched the efforts of carts, carriages, and pedestrians to press through the gates.

Much better, isn’t it? Now you get a glimpse of that construction the hero is passing through, and you also have this nice contrast between the immobile statues of Temple Bar and the movements in the street. Fleet Street was one of the main thoroughfares through the City of London, and as such it was prone to traffic jams. In one of Gustave DorĂ©’s illustrations of London in the 1870s, you can see Ludgate Hill and rather horrid press of traffic:

In the middle of the foreground you can just about make out a horse-drawn omnibus, with passengers sitting on the roof, while in the background at the right a flock of sheep blocks the street.

A flock of sheep??? Now wouldn’t this be something! (If you’ve read any of my novels, you know that I’m often attracted to the weird and slightly ludicrous…. *g*) So, let’s give our readers some glimpses of what the “hustle and bustle” in the sentence from which we started out, actually refers to. And let’s add some noise to involve more senses:

A bleating flock of sheep blocked the path of an omnibus, and the driver swore a blue streak, waving his fist at the woolly [hooligans]. Passengers were hanging out of the windows, complaining about the delay, while behind the bus along line of carriages had become stuck. A hearse, going in the opposite direction to the Strand, tried to pass by and nearly ran down a boardman, sandwiched between advertisements of the latest fabric cleaner and hairwater.

Boardmen carrying advertisements were part of the fleet of poor people you could see milling about the streets of London. In 1870s photographer John Thomson ventured out to take pictures of these people, of the street sellers and beggars and chimney sweeps and shoe-blacks. Several of his photographs are featured in the book Dickens’s Victorian London and you can see examples of his work here. I’ve added the boardman advertising Renovo and the shoe-black to my scene as well as another kind of street seller featured in Henry Mayhew’s The London Poor. Oh, and I’ve also added smells (in the early Victorian Age, even several of the better areas in London had problems with their sewers):

The din reminded Alex of an Eastern bazaar, but as for the smell—

He wrinkled his nose.

It would appear that today Fleet Street was permeated by the poignant aroma of l’eau de sewer.

And that’s what an Englishman calls civilisation, he thought wryly. He stepped around a shoeblack, who huddled against a wall covered in advertising posters.

In the rise and flow of vehicles and pedestrians from all walks of life, nobody paid much attention to the tall, blond man, his face deeply tanned by Eastern suns. But then, how could they have known that here walked Alexander Crenshaw, a man whose adventures in America and in the Far East many a reader had followed avidly? Indeed, to his own surprise, Alex had found that in the seven years he had spent away from England, he had become something of a celebrity. Society hostesses vied for his attention, invited him to their balls and parties, and men were eager to talk to him, to invite him to their clubs.

A great bother, all of it, really, yet if it ultimately helped to bring in additional funds for Layard’s excavations, Alex would not complain. He owed the man a lot, and the least he could do was to properly prepare for Layard’s arrival in a few months’ time […].

Further down the street, across from St Dunstan’s, a muffin-man ran his bell vigorously and proclaimed his ware. As Alex walked past him, a whiff of warm muffins and crumpets rose from the street seller’s basket to tickle Alex’s nostrils.

See? Isn’t this so much better than “Alex entered the City through Temple Bar and was immediately enveloped in the hustle and bustle of Fleet Street”? While our starting sentence was rather bland and gave the reader only the vaguest impression of this Victorian scene, in the fleshed-out paragraphs the scene comes to life, and you allow your reader to experience the sights and sounds and smells of a Victorian street scene

NaNoWriMo – Day 7: Food for Thought (and for Your Characters!)

I love including references to food in my novels – after all I love eating (who doesn’t?) (okay, well, some people don’t). I have several research books on food (as an author one has to be prepared for everything and anything!):

  • Bruno Laurioux, TAFELFREUDEN IM MITTELALTER (about food in the Middle Ages; I’ve had this book for 14 years and have never once used it, but you never know!)
  • Maggie Black and Deirdre Le Faye, THE JANE AUSTEN COOKBOOK
  • Jane Pettigrew, A SOCIAL HISTORY OF TEA
  • Claire Masset, TEA AND TEA DRINKING (Shire Library book = always good, with many, many illustrations!)
  • Ivan Day, ICE CREAM (another Shire Library book)
  • Krista D. Ball, WHAT KINGS ATE AND WIZARDS DRANK: A FANTASY LOVER’S FOOD GUIDE (also quite interesting for the writer of historical fiction; includes such gems as: “My eighty-three-year old father has been hunting most of his life and he offers his advice to the hero wanting to hunt rabbits while being chased by orcs: go hungry.”)
  • Marcus Gavius Apicius, DE RE COQUINARIA (cookbook in Latin and German; have never used it either, but you never know!)
  • MRS BEETON’S BOOK OF HOUSEHOLD MANAGEMENT (two different editions, both sadly lacking the colour plates – hmph)
  • Gervase Markham, THE WELL-KEPT KITCHEN

In addition, I also own two books on the history of chocolate, but they are both on top of one of my kitchen cabinets (aka far away from my desk and my computer, and I’m really lazy right now and don’t want to get up and walk to the kitchen and climb onto a chair and fetch the books)

(Goodness! I do own a lot of books on food, don’t I? I didn’t know how many until I’ve just hunted them down in the research section of my home library.)

I also own various other books on tea-ware, on china (various books on china, in fact), and a history of Burleigh. Moreover, food is also mentioned in several other research books that are not specifically about food. (Survival guides are particularly good if you want to learn about skinning fish.) (Why would you want to learn about skinning fish, you ask? Oh, I don’t know. Perhaps in one of your books you have a  heroine who feels the urgent need to talk about skinning fish while dancing with the hero at a high-society ball. Just saying…)

The internet is also a wonderful place for doing research on food in the past – try looking on Google Books for old cookbooks! Personally, I really like Frederick Nutt’s THE COMPLETE CONFECTIONER. Bergamot drops for your hero? Nutt has ’em!

In the current chapter of my NaNoWriMo project, my heroine is attending a dinner party, so of course, I had to include at least some throw-away references to the food that is served at this party. And because I knew that Mrs Beeton is unbeatable when it comes to visual guides on how to present food in the nineteenth century, I did a search on Mrs Beeton and fowl and ended up with the picture above. Isn’t it splendid? Especially the way in which the roast partridges and pigeons and fowl are holding up their little roast feet! That was just too good not to use:

Fran stared at the roast pigeons on their splendid silver platter in the middle of the table, daintily stretching their little roast legs up in the air, and thought she might be sick.

On Fake Ruins and Pineapples: Garden Follies

As a lover of all things weird and wondrous, I’m a big fan of garden follies, and I try to put as many as I possibly can into my novels.

Follies were, and still are, an important element in the landscape gardens that became so popular in the early 1700s. These gardens were fashioned to imitate nature, and follies were used as vocal points: they were supposed to steer the gaze of the people ambling about the gardens and to present the finishing touch to a pretty vista. They could serve more practical purposes, too, and, indeed, many of them were used as tea houses or bathing houses.

Many follies were built in the neo-classical style, with clean, symmetrical lines (as far as follies go, they are of the plain variety). But if you were rich (well, let’s face it, if you could afford a landscape garden with a few follies thrown in, you inevitably were rich) and had eccentric tastes, you would want some more … uhm … colourful stuff in your garden.

Crazy about Egypt? Put a mini pyramid in your garden.

Love all things China? A Chinese pagoda is the way to go.

Do you like nothing more than pineapples? Well then, there’s no need to just grow them in your hothouse. Put stone pineapples onto your garden follies!

Are you fascinated by the Middle Ages and chivalry and tales about King Arthur and the Tableround? In that case, I would suggest a gothic temple (or two) and some fake ruins. You can never go wrong with fake ruins!

The sketch at the top of this post shows the fake ruins in the park of Rousham House (sorry for the crappy quality of the picture; for some reason, Blogger doesn’t want to upload a cleaner version – duh). I love those ruins; they are one of my favourite follies. So of course, I just had to use them in The Lily Brand, given that it was my first published novel and all that. (If you’d like to find out more about fake ruins and the appeal of the gothic, come over to Bookish, where I’ll be doing a guest post next week as part of their SPOOK-tastic Bookish Halloween.)

There are no garden follies in Castle of the Wolf, alas. But hey, they live in a halfway ruined castle on top of a hill – where would I have put a garden folly in that scenario??? Bewitched, however, more than makes up for the lack of follies in Castle: the hero’s family has this lovely big country estate, whose park simply begged to be filled with exotic architecture. A small pavilion in the garden of Veitshöchheim in Bavaria provided the inspiration for the following:

Fox drew her along the path. “Come on, there must be a bench somewhere around here.”

Still laughing, Amy complied. “If you think I’ll let you talk me into shedding my boot and stocking, you belong in Bedlam!”

“Hush. This is serious. Oh, look here! There’s the small pavilion. Even better than a mere bench.”

“There are pineapples on top of it.”

“Stone pineapples.” He urged her to sit down onto one of the benches in the pavilion.

“Why are there pineapples on top of it?” It struck her as absurd.

He shrugged. “Because grandfather liked pineapples?” he suggested. “I really don’t know. Now show me your foot.”

She laughed. “You’re mad.”

He went down on one knee in front of her, which brought their faces nearly on one level. With an impatient gesture, he whipped his hat off his head and put it on the other bench. A few strands of coppery hair tumbled into his face.

Oh my, she thought. He looks delicious. Her stomach lurched. This time, her laugh sounded more like a squeak.  “You are mad.”

Putting his hands on the bench on each side of her, he leaned forward until they were nearly nose to nose. “Mad with love,” he whispered.

This time, her stomach didn’t lurch, it somersaulted. Oh my. Ohmyohmyohmy.

By the way, did you know that Bewitched is available for only $ 0.99 right now? Grab your copy here. (For some strange reason, the German price is much higher. So far I haven’t been able to figure out why; I might need to contact the KDP support team about that.)

Hands On! Music in a Bygone Age

In our age, in which printed matter is so easy to come by – indeed, our daily life is dominated by printed matter as are our correspondences – it’s very easy to forget to what extent handwritten texts dominated everyday culture 200 years ago. I knew that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a lot of poetry was still circulated privately among friends and family, and would be copied into private albums.

What I didn’t know until I started researching this matter for SPRINGTIME PLEASURES was that a lot of music was also circulated in the same manner. And we are not merely talking about short songs here; no, people copied longer pieces, too, like whole sonatas. Chawton House holds eight manuscript volumes of music that belonged to the Austen family:

The musical content of these volumes is varied. Songs, keyboard works (both solo and duet) and chamber music form the core of the collection and are drawn from a variety of sources. The contents are typical of domestic music-making of the period – and consequently include hardly any music by composers famous today. In Jane Austen’s day, Pleyel and Sterkel were more famous than Haydn and Mozart, their music often more accessible via successful printing and distribution businesses than those of their more talented colleagues with their high-powered court appointments and operatic commissions. 

(from the booklet to the CD Jane Austen Entertains)

Isn’t this fascinating? I have to admit that I was rather flabbergasted by the info that longer musical works were copied, too. So I decided to do an experiment, and copy the first few bars of the Haydn sonata Isabella plays at a party in SPRINGTIME PLEASURES. You can see the result above. From what I’ve seen, the Austens used albums in landscape format, so format wise, my attempt is not quite authentic. In addition, it’s been twenty years or more since I last wrote down music – and boy, did I feel these years!

Apart from the resulting awkwardness, I also noticed a number of other things that make copying music quite different from copying a text. First of all, with music you have to plan ahead and decide which hand to write down first. Secondly, you have to be so, so careful because it’s so, so easy to make mistakes. Also, you want to make sure that you (and others) will be able to read the music after you’ve copied it. As a curious side-effect, you become rather intimately acquainted with the piece you are copying, which, I assume, would also make it easier to learn the piece afterwards.

If you are interested in the Chawton House collection of music, I can recommend the CDs Jane Austen Entertains (you might want to listen to the samples first; several Amazon customers apparently didn’t like the soprano) and Jane Austen Piano Favourites. If you’d like to start copying a few musical pieces yourself, I suggest you do it in style and buy this scrumptious-looking Edition Peters album

Revisions in Action, Part 2: The Sphinx

So I’ve got this scene in SPRINGTIME PLEASURES where a character mentions travels in Egypt. Here is the relevant dialogue:

“And to Egypt?” Charlie asked.

“Indeed, I have.”

“Then have you seen the Sphinx? Is it as elegant as it appears in the prints?”

XY smiled. “I must confess I considered its head to be somewhat small. Indeed, there are those who believe that it once had a different head. A lion’s head, perhaps, to go with the rest of the body.”

“Surely, a lion is rather imposing, too,” Charlie said cautiously, “but a Sphinx is an altogether different matter!”

Innocent enough, right?

But it was only after I had written this that I vaguely remembered to have read an article on Egypt during the early 19th century. I also remembered that the Regency prints accompanying this article showed a Sphinx that was largely buried underneath the sand.

 AAAAAAAAAAAARGH!!!!!!!!!! (The print on the cover of this issue of Jane Austen’s Regency World dates from 1804.)

This nicely illustrates the dangers of an innocent throw-away line in a historical romance, and the amount of research you might be obliged to do when you are determined to use such throw-away lines. Did people even know what was underneath the sand? Did they really suspect that she might have had a lion’s head once upon a time????

In the same scene I also happen to mention a zebra. *head desk* Since I wrote that scene, I have learnt about the menagerie in the upper rooms of the Exeter Exchange on the Strand and about the royal menagerie in the Tower of London, both of which operated long before the London Zoological Gardens opened. How I have to figure out whether one of them housed a zebra. *head desk, head desk, head desk*

Traffic Woes in Victorian London

If you think that complaints about pot-holed roads, traffic jams, and incomprehensible bus routes are merely a phenomenon of our modern age, you couldn’t be more wrong. Traffic, the state of the roads, and public transport caused already the Victorians countless woes. Londoners were well acquainted with traffic jams as the following picture shows:

Partly, this problem was caused by the sheer numbers of carriages, carts, buses and cabs that drove about London’s streets each. In addition, the problem was exacerbated by obstructions that were erected and blocked roads, e.g. in Fleet Street in 1846.

 The thoroughfares in particular were so busy and so stuffed with vehicles that getting on and off the bus could present a problem, which is why Punch joked that omnibuses should be outfitted with emergency ladders:

 Omnibuses had been a common sight in London since 1829, when George Shillibeer’s first two horse-drawn buses took up their service. Thanks to Shillibeer’s success, other companies followed and within two decades serval bus services and routes had been established in London. Bus drivers and passengers were the butt of the joke in many Punch cartoons – and many points that the magazine ridiculed are certainly familiar to modern users of public transport. The following cartoon and article, for example, satirise the organisation of bus routes:

 The traffic problem in London was not helped by the state of the roads, as the next cartoon shows. Roads were often full of holes, which made navigating them difficult.(Naturally, this doesn’t mean that they were quite as bad that – the cartoon below once again highly exaggerates the situation.)