Back in Time For a Cup of Coffee at The Criterion

Francesca talks about the inspiration behind her 3-part serial, The Criterion, which begins in The People’s Friend this coming week. 

The Criterion in the 1970s, having gone through a name change

I know I’ve mentioned before on this blog how some of my writing has been inspired by my family history. The very first novel I wrote, a Young Adult called Sea Angel, came about because of my own experience working in the family cafe as a teenager. My short story Far From Home,  published in the anthology 7 Food Stories from Rome began as my attempt to imagine what it might be like to move to England from Italy as a young widow with a twelve-year-old son, as my grandmother did. The idea for the historical novel I’m currently working on came from a World War One document I found on Ancestry.co.uk detailing the discharge of a Welsh great-grandfather on medical grounds.

The Criterion today, now a hair salon

The first of those is a contemporary, while the latter two both take place in 1915. My serial for The People’s Friend, The Criterion shifts to a different time entirely: 1955. It’s the era of the Ten Pound Poms, and the story begins with my main female character, Gwen Hughes, talking to her disgruntled grandmother about her impending departure to Australia. Renzo Crolla, the male protagonist, owns a cafe in Worthing, The Criterion of the title.

Some of the characters in the serial are based on real people, some are an amalgam, while others are completely fictitious. The story is based only very loosely on that of my family (I might tell you the real story one day). The Criterion in Worthing, however, was a real cafe, owned by my grandmother and father, a kind of character in itself. My grandmother, a war widow, emigrated to England in 1927 with my father. Much of her family were already over here. In 1930 she bought

My mum behind the counter c1958

The Criterion from her brother. I was born in the cafe twenty-eight years later and lived there until I was nearly four-years-old. My father rented the cafe out for a further seven years. Finally he sold it in 1968. It went on being a cafe for a number of years afterwards, known as the Californian, but today it’s a hairdressing salon.

The building itself is Georgian, so what it was originally I have no idea, presumably not a cafe. Perhaps my next project will be to find out something of its history. If I gather enough material I might be able to use it for another story!

Evening trade, c1958

 

The Criterion, a 3-part serial, starts in The People’s Friend in the issue dated 27th May.

7 Food Stories from Rome is available here.

In the story, Renzo was interned on the Isle of Man during World War 2, as was my father. The piece I wrote for The Guardian about it can be viewed here

 

Me outside the cafe, 1959, with Worthing promenade in the background

Mum and Dad in 1955

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

@FCapaldiBurgess

Ill Advised?

Francesca’s been investigating the death certificates of her ancestors in the hope it will help her with research for her novel.

For anyone who’s been watching the TV series, Poldark, you’ll know that one of the characters died of something they called ‘putrid throat’. (I won’t say which, in case you haven’t caught up with the first series.) This revolting sounding affliction, it would appear, is what we in modern times call Diphtheria. There have been other names for it over the centuries like ‘putrid fever’ and ‘membranous croup’.

mother-and-sisterAlthough I tend to write more contemporary then historical fiction, I’ve recently been writing a novel set in 1915. In it, one of the characters, a young woman, dies, and I’ve had to consider what might be the cause. Her mining village is based on the one some of my ancestors lived in around this time, so I thought this might be a good place to start.

A couple of years ago I ordered a few certificates – birth, marriage and death – from the General Register Office, having found several family members on an ancestry site. I discovered that three of my female ancestors – my great gran’s mother (M), sister (S) and daughter (D) – died at age 42, 16 and 28 respectively, in 1891, 1899 and 1935.

d-and-b-1931-cert

‘D’ in c1932, with her first child.

S is recorded as dying with phthysis, D with phthsis pulmonales, while D died of pulmonary tuberculosis. Clearly the last one was TB, but I was surprised to discover the first two were also.

TB is clearly a strong contender for the death of my character. But why did so many people contract it? What conditions caused it? Was it rife in that area? Why did it only seem to strike the women in my family? These are all aspects to look into to make my story stronger.

It seems unlikely that everyday Victorian folk referred to the disease as phthisis. More likely they called it tuberculosis, TB, or consumption. Other terms over the years have included lung disease, scrofula and white plague.

Looking at death certificates for the other side of my mother’s family, I’ve discovered one great-great grandfather died in 1892, aged 46, of apoplexy. Until I read that, I thought apoplexy was a description of someone getting extremely angry. Medically it’s a type of stroke. Worth remembering.

His son died on the operating table aged 36, in 1927, during a second operation for appendectomy complications. mor-father-and-sonTalking to a friend about it she asked how it would have been paid for before the NHS came into being. Good point. The 1911 National Insurance Act provided only basic medical care. This great grandfather was also a miner, and I believe that hospitals were often provided by mine owners or jointly by them and workers via subs. Could they have paid for him to go to the Cardiff Royal Infirmary for the op? Perhaps my family simply had some savings?

Considering all this has certainly thrown up more questions than answers so far. Finding out what they died of is only the beginning. There is much scope for research.

gran-c1964

Great Gran, c 1964, who suffered much loss in her long life.

If, like me, you can mine family records, (sorry, no pun intended), they can be a good start for research. A word of caution: discovering family deaths and their circumstances can be harrowing. I cried when I found out why sixteen-year-old S had disappeared from the census. I cried again when the certificates confirmed my mother’s story of not only D’s death from TB, but that of her prematurely born baby a month later.  I try to imagine how Great Gran must have felt, losing all those family members. She was ninety-seven when she died, but never talked about it. She also lost a toddler son in 1922 and two other sons in World War Two. Life was cruel.

Perhaps if I can inject a little of that emotion into writing about a character’s death, I’ll not go far wrong.

@FCapaldiBurgess

 

A big thank you to my cousin Janine who lives in Australia. She also has undertaken much interesting research into our shared family.

Links:

Another word of caution: if you’re interested in finding your ancestors’ certificates, whether death, birth or marriage, the various ancestry web sites are a good place to start, but don’t buy them from those sites, as they’ll cost you three times as much than they will from the General Register office, which you can find here.

Another interesting web page about old names for illnesses, The Glossary of  Old Medical terms, can be found here.

We Were Just Chatting…

Francesca and I were chatting about the hobbies we’ve had in the past and present and it was only when I looked back that I realised mine were all solitary activities. knitting-bak

I used to make my own clothes, in the days before the low priced high street retailers. Choosing crocheting over knitting; I could never knit quickly enough although my mother was able to knit at lightning speed.

546px-CrosswordUK.svgAll word games have always given me immense pleasure. I can remember as a child writing the word Constantinople on a piece of paper and seeing how many words I could make out of it. The words had to be at least four letters long.

Reading was always the greatest pleasure of all. It was not unusual for me to get caught reading under the blankets with a torch when I should have been asleep. My mother worried about how much reading I did, instead of being out in the fresh air playing but that was never for me, and strangely enough it still isn’t.

Nowadays, while I still love to read, all my free time is spent with either my family or writing. report_writingWhile I love writing, I also hate it at the same time, which sounds a little strange. It makes me wonder why I persist with it. The answer is simple, I can’t help myself, it’s like a drug with the highs and the frustrating lows.

You would think from that list that I was a lonely child/adult and at times you would be correct but for best part, I think I’m quite self-sufficient. Maybe it comes from being born into a military family and moving around every couple of years.

What do you think Francesca, do you like your own company or are your hobbies more group based?

Thank you, Elaine, for sharing that. I’d say that some of my hobbies are solitary, others communal.

Writing is my very oldest hobby. Ten years ago I started participating on a Lord of the Rings forum, and writing fanfic for it. I enjoyed it immensely. It was one of the things, along with finding a creative writing class, that got me back into writing, and eventually submitting.

HobbiesOf my other hobbies, Italian has been dominant. I wasn’t raised bilingually, but joined a class as an adult. I did that for well over twenty years, gaining a GCSE and an A level. I still meet up with those friends and we have cultural trips out – often with an Italian connection.

The ‘piano badly’ is an instrument I play expertly! I had lessons as a child and have owned a piano most of my life. My father was a proficient violinist, guitarist and mandolin player. That musical gene has made my children much better musicians than me. Between them they play piano, guitar, bass, mandolin, flute, saxophone and drums. The girls are ten times better on the piano than me, and they’ve never had lessons. But tickling the ivories is a good way to relax. I have also been known to clear a room with my recorder!family tree

I took up knitting again recently and have been teaching myself crochet. I like quick patterns these days, so it’s big needles and chunky wool for me. I used to sew, in fact, I made my wedding dress and a Christening gown. I would not recommend it!

I also dabble with genealogy, that is to say, I can spend hours on end on Ancestry.co.uk. I find the social history side of it absolutely fascinating.

Music is the only one of my interests I’ve never covered in a story or novel. I’ll have to put that right some time.

The Devil is in the Detail

Francesca Burgess is happily distracted by research

I first discovered a love for research during my history degree, many moons ago, when given the opportunity to use primary sources as well as secondary. Trawling through the census, parish records and tithe maps almost tempted me to become an archivist. It didn’t occur to me at the time that I’d one day use such research to add authenticity and character to my stories.

Kyle to Portree signOther of my colleagues have extolled the virtues of the brilliant Google Street View. I can’t overstate the usefulness of this. I once took myself on a ‘drive’ around the Isle of Skye, which was exactly what my character was doing. She needed to stop in the middle of nowhere, park and walk up a hill. Although away from the road, a close aerial view showed me where the path went. There are also photos posted by viewers: very handy for seeing things not visible from the road.

Worthing info boardEven if you do visit a place, and I’ve visited Skye on a number of occasions, Street View is handy for reacquainting oneself with an area. My recently finished novel is set in a place based on Worthing, where I lived as a tot. I wanted to check whether I could see the sea standing in the middle of a certain road. You might think, what difference does it make if it’s only based on Worthing? Consistency. I don’t want a character to be able to see it in one scene, and then not in another. Using a real place (though changing it to suit me!) works for me in that way.

A few years back I became hooked on Ancestry.co.uk. I can spend (waste!) hours on it, seeking out my ancestors, but it’s also wonderful for research. A short story I wrote, The Demon Drink is set in a Welsh mining village in 1908. I based it on the village my mother was born in. To get a flavour of it from the time, I explored the 1911 census, finding out something Abertysswgof the people who lived there (I even found my great grandparents!), the kind of trades apart from mining. It gave me a real insight into the community. There were even two Russians, who I included in the story, surely a bit of a curiosity in 1908 Wales.

Then there are the purely practical pieces of research, the ones to do with everyday occurrences. I’m talking about dates, sunrise and sunset, the moon, and, because I’ve set most of my novels by the sea, tides. It’s no good saying it’s Easter Day on the one hand, then declaring that the sun was still up at 20.30. I don’t want to inadvertently have a full moon one evening, then state it’s a crescent the next day. I always have to hand a printed calendar for the year/s. On it I mark public holidays, characters’ birthdays and other significant dates for my novel. Along with that, I have websites open to check the sun, moon and tides.

Be sure if you get it wrong, you’ll be caught out by somebody. They say the devil is in the detail, and it’s certainly true of fiction. Just don’t get too distracted by it!

Useful websites:

http://sunrisesunsetmap.com/

https://www.google.co.uk/maps?output=classic&dg=crsh

http://www.tides4fishing.com/uk

http://home.ancestry.co.uk/