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.

A Very Good Place To Start…

Elaine Roberts talks about how she hopes to make the year ahead count.

Christmas and New Year have come and gone and I have decided I am going to make 2016 work for me. Due to a rather hectic latter part of 2015 and bad health, I haven’t written any serious amount of words since about September.

If you have read the New Year blog, where I set out my goals for the year, you’ll know I want to finish my saga and get it sent out to agents/publishers. However, until I finish work at the end of March, my writing time is extremely limited, but that doesn’t mean I do nothing.

report_writingI’m very lucky to belong to The Romantic Novelists Association New Writers Scheme (RNA NWS) so I read my report again. The critique is part of the RNA NWS membership and is worth its weight in gold. The writer of the report gave me some valuable direction but I didn’t know where to begin. I had written over 53,000 words and had lost touch with my story. I was stuck.

As Julie Andrews once famously sung, let’s start at the very beginning, so I did. I returned to basics.

Starting with the three-act structure, I looked at my story to see how it fitted. I’m pleased to say that overall, it wasn’t too bad. A scene I had in the first half should be in the second half of the story. I had gaps as well, so going back to the beginning helped kick start my imagination and deliver some ideas. Some will be used, some won’t, but they have all been written down.

I have also watched some documentaries that are relevant for the time period I’m writing in, this has also given me ideas. The research has continued and the reader of my manuscript gave me a few things to think about. Some of those things meant changing the order of the story and raised the question prologue or no prologue.

Victorian Saga Family Tree

Victorian Saga Family Tree

I also have plans to go to many writing events. I am attending two conferences, which involves listening to established authors, agents and publishers as well as actively participating in workshops. Once I have given up work, I intend to become a regular attendee at the London Chapter meetings. I also have writing retreats planned.

Currently, I am placing my building blocks where they need to be, so come the 1st April, I know exactly what I need to do to finish my story.images

When I look at my diary for the year ahead, I wonder how I would have managed to find time to go to work, oh but I won’t have to anymore, lucky me!

@RobertsElaine11

Dreaming Of a Write Christmas?

Francesca and Elaine compare Christmas preparations with their writing

No wonder it took us till 6.30pm to unwrap the presents!

No wonder it took us till 6.30pm one year to unwrap the presents!

Francesca: In recent years, my immediate family has more than doubled from six to thirteen, with the addition of partners, grandchildren and step grandchildren. It’s made Christmas quite expensive, and time consuming, as you can imagine. Eight adults buying presents for seven adults each equals at least fifty-six presents.

This year, one of my daughters came up with the idea of doing a secret Santa for the adults. Our names have gone into a draw and we each have only three people to buy for. One present is chosen off that person’s gift list. One is maybe a smelly or foody present up to a maximum of £10. The third is to be a recycled or pre-loved present, therefore costing nothing.

Perhaps re-set the story in the 1960s?

Perhaps re-set the story in the 1960s?

It got me thinking about my writing. With time a premium in December, can I fit in anything beyond editing my novel? I’ve been thinking of getting back to writing short stories. Perhaps I could take the ‘Secret Santa’ approach here too. One story could be completely new, a longer piece, say two to three thousand words (which some magazines are calling for). A second could be shorter, a maximum of a 1,000 words. There are a number of competitions around currently requiring this word count or less that would be ideal. A third story could be a recycling of a pre-loved one. I have plenty that I like but have never sold. Clearly something about them was unsuitable but it might easily be put right. What if I changed the age of a character, or the gender? The setting could be altered from town to country, or vice versa. The main character might have a different job. Perhaps the ending is lacklustre and in need of some zing. Then there’s the title.

If things go to plan, by December 25th I’ll have three stories in my outbox and three nice presents under the tree.

@FCapaldiBurgess

Elaine: When Francesca and I discussed Christmas, we were astounded to discover that our families were doing similar things. I also have an ever-expanding family; in recent years there have been fourteen around our table, so we are also doing a Secret Santa. Of course, that doesn’t include other family members that I buy presents for, so Christmas is a well-planned campaign.

I can easily relate our day to a novel structure.IMG_1845

First, there’s the preparation before everyone arrives. The present and food buying are the obvious ones. Then there’s preparing vegetables, setting the table and writing out the times everything has to be switched on or placed in the oven. This is not that dissimilar to planning your novel, with the research, synopsis and chapter breakdown. It’s all in the planning. Fail to plan and you are planning to fail.

Everyone arrives at my house at ten in the morning and an hour is spent catching up with each other; some get impatient to start opening their presents. This is the beginning, our normal life.

The plot really starts as we open our presents, one at a time, in age order, starting with the youngest. There are highs and lows as the presents are opened.

A happy little boy

A happy little boy

There is always the excitement building, before any opening begins. Of course, there’s the disappointment if an item of clothing doesn’t fit and the frantic search for the receipt, which will enable the item to be changed. The happiness when a much wanted gift is opened. Then we have the adults attempting to put toys together for our grandson. One year, nine people tried to breathe life into a blow up goal for a two year old. Now that was funny, but again it had it’s highs and lows as people fell by the wayside because it wouldn’t blow up. Perseverance prevailed and a two year old was very happy to kick a soft ball into a goal that filled my front room.

The darkest moment of the day is when I realise my potatoes are never going to roast and, as usual, I’ve forgotten to cook something. One year it was the Yorkshire puddings, which went down well, as you can imagine. 

IMG_1849The climax of the story is obviously a very happy ending. A good day with excellent memories already stored away, to be told another day.

What will I write over the Christmas holidays? Well, Elaine Everest recently said if you write 100 words a day, that’s 700 words a week, so if you exclude Christmas day, that’s 3,000 words in December. Elaine’s words have made me think, because I often don’t write at all if I haven’t got time to write 500 – 1,000 words, as I think it’s not worth doing. How wrong am I!

@RobertsElaine11

 

Elaine Plans & Searches

Last week our post on new beginnings got me thinking about my new novel and how I’m moving away from what I know.

My first two novels didn’t need extensive researching, I wrote about things I knew about.Victorian My last one required research because a publisher asked my to change the location to a country I knew nothing about. My current work in progress is on a whole new level for me.

I have always done chapter breakdowns for my novels but this time I have done it for three stand-alone projects. It is planned down to the minutest detail to ensure I don’t forget some of the threads to the story.

Last Saturday I dragged my husband to an archive centre in London, despite the trains and underground making it as difficult as possible with the Easter engineering works. Thankfully, the DLR helped to bridge the gap. While we were on the train, a couple of young lads were discussing football at length and how they were going to get to the game that day. I won’t tell you who they were going to support but it was a London team, so that should narrow it down a little, if you’re interested. They were so busy talking, they nearly missed their stop but Super Gran (that’s me) came to the rescue and told them they were at their stop. I was rewarded with thanks, some grateful smiles, and a wave when they got off the train. It made my day. I did wonder afterwards whether they would refer to me as “some old girl” when they discussed it later.

Anyway, I digress, back to the archive centre. I did something that day that I’ve alwaysNewspaper Print shied away from. I admitted to the assistant that I was researching the Victorian era because I was writing a novel. She was very helpful and knowledgeable. She gave me a quick reminder on how to view microfiche. It needs to be said that the more tired I became, the worse my navigating got. I came home with newspaper print outs, old maps, a couple of books and a husband with a very bad headache.

To be serious for a moment, my research has given me a totally different view on the authors that write historical sagas. We spent nearly four hours in there and that was just the tip of the iceberg.

The old maps have shown me roads and properties that don’t exist now, so that has Old Mapsadded a new dimension to my writing. When I got home, the maps were laid out all over the floor and I highlighted different roads on them. I had lists of traders at the time, which adds authenticity to my writing. I spent ages trying to make decisions over which roads to use. Google Earth helped me to look at the properties as they are now, which in turn helped to give an idea of when they were built.

I started off not wanting to do the research and the level of planning that I am subjecting myself to. All I wanted to do was write, but I am shocked to say I have enjoyed it. My writing is easier because of it. The words flow more easily. It’s all part of learning my trade. I am serving my apprenticeship and, hopefully, I’ve just passed the research and planning module.

@RobertsElaine11

“Can I, Can’t I?”

Elaine Roberts discusses her new venture.

So February’s here and my daffodils are rising high in my garden.Where did January go?
Sinceimages_2 Christmas, my nose has been buried in my new project, and I do mean buried, hours upon hours of research, taking copious amounts of notes and bookmarking. Thankfully, we have it easier these days than the writers of yesteryear. What I can find in an hour on the Internet would have taken days and several reference books, I’m sure. I’m beginning to think there’s nothing you can’t find on there, why didn’t we have that when I was at school? Homework would have been so much easier.

ThinkerHaving said that, my decision-making lets me down, my problem is I keep changing my mind about where my characters are going to live and what they are going to be called.

I’ve been looking at old maps to see what roads existed at the time I’m writing about images(have you noticed I’m not saying the time it’s set in, it’s a secret, even to me!) How long will it take them to get from A to B. Then there are character names. A name can tell you a lot about a character and their family history. For example, if a lady is called Fleur, then she is likely to be French or, at least have a French connection. I’ve read lists and lists of names, not just trying to find some that I like, but also trying to find ones that my readers won’t say “What!” to. At this point, more out of frustration than reality, I think maybe I have too many characters. Perhaps I could drop some, but no, I’ve planned eleven of my twenty chapters and all my characters are accounted for. So they stay and that’s final. Back to the name searching then.

I have given myself a deadline of getting ten chapters completed by the end of August, so the Romantic Novelists Association New Writers Scheme can critique it. I’ve never handed in an incomplete novel before but I’m wandering into uncharted waters. Well, they are uncharted for me anyway. The big question is can I write it, the answer is I don’t know, but I’m definitely going to try. There was a time over last weekend when I did get myself in a tizz over my abilities to write it, so against all my own rules, I started writing the opening scene. Only five hundred and ninety words but psychologically they were probably the most important words I have ever written, mainly because I was chuffed with the result. It’s only the first draft but my confidence has been lifted. I’m actually beginning to think I can do it and, when I do, you’ll all hear my screaming from the rooftops.

PlanningYou know, when I used to just read books, I never realised how much work and planning went into them.

Let us know what your scariest ‘can I, can’t I’ moment was, whether it’s applying for a job or trying something new.

Share it so I know I’m not on my own, please…

Twitter: RobertsElaine11

The Four Seasons

With Christmas fast approaching, Natalie kicks off December by asking how the seasons affect our writing.

As writers do we make a conscious effort to link our tales to seasonal events? This can be a good selling point with our short stories but similarly it can tie us down. We have to time it right so that our story lands on the editor’s desk at the right time. If we’re writing historical novels, or even contemporary ones, how important is it to incorporate events of the time frame your book covers?

In the past I’ve been quite diligent about setting some of my short stories to match seasons and events but there is a definite downside to this practice. Without wishing to go into details of percentage uptake and rejection, not all stories are leapt upon by the editor saying they are just what’s neehaunted-house-ghosts-5675901ded. The rejection, if and when it comes, may be long enough delayed to preclude sending it on to another magazine which will by then have filled all available slots. The upshot of this is that you have a story you are quite pleased with (or you wouldn’t have submitted it in the first place) which will now have to wait another year before the opportunity arises to submit elsewhere. Has this stopped me writing a Valentine’s Day story, or one about ghouls, goblins and ghosts for Halloween? It hasn’t.

I have had some degree of success but what I also have is a stock of stories awaiting their time in a ‘to be submitted’ folder. Consequently, I can write these at my leisure and pull them up as and when appropriate.

Does the same thing obtain when applied to novels? Of course it doesn’t. None of us would write a whole book then file it 31311061away until Easter comes around just because that festival is central to our plot. What we do, what we must do, is ensure that we get our facts right. We can’t have our heroine walking around in shorts and T-shirt in the middle of winter, or eating ice-cream in a blizzard – not too sure about this one…I’m sure there are many of us who would eat ice-cream whatever the weather. Why wouldn’t you when it looks like this? Shorts and T-shirt would also not be appropriate if we’re writing a historical novel, no matter what the weather was like! These are the sort of things that challenge and inspire a writer and will often send them off on a ‘research trip’ that might lead to all sorts of fascinating things, none of which is usable in the book but my goodness they’re fun.

In my work in progress I send my heroine to Scotland over Hogmanay. It was a very enjoyable exercise investigating how they celebrate north of the border. Don’t assume just because you bring in the New Year while watching the celebrations on television that you know all about it. Sadly I had to resort to research online and could only dream about actually going up there. One day maybe.

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To sum up, seasons are not just events, they are weather, clothing, even the food we eat. It may not be necessary always to make a big deal about these things. Just alluding to them might be all we need to make a point, a little salt here, a little pepper there. Just another form of season. What we must do is be diligent and get our facts right because as sure as God made little apples someone will notice if you get it wrong.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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/