Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Mouse Turds on the Cheese

(and Other Disgusting Historical Details)

I'VE spent the last two weeks in the 17th century.

My Possessed Mysteries are half historical, with a different era in each novel. That means starting historical research from scratch with each new project. Until I understand the world in which my period characters lived, I can't begin writing.

Think of it this way, human beings make lists. When we wake in the morning, we have in our minds what has to be done that day. Fridge getting a bit barren? Grocery shopping. Last pair of clean undies? Laundry. Car has less than a quarter tank? Get gas. And maybe a hope for something enjoyable when work is done--a nice meal, a walk, a movie, a good book.

Before my historical narrators open their mouths to speak, I need to know what kind of lists they wake up with. I've realized that, until now, most of my main historic characters have lived in circumstances where they depend on others to provide for them or at least, tell them where they need to be each day. For instance, in BY BLOOD POSSESSED, my protagonist is in the Confederate Army. Being a pawn moved around a  battlefield, the character can't plan for food and clothing, and needs be alert and resourceful in supplementing the meager army supplies. Which leaves the mind more free time to plot revenge.

For the fifth book, though, I'm picturing a woman living on a farm along the Chesapeake around the year 1700. What she did and didn't accomplish each day might determine in part whether or not residents of the farm survived. Her head would be filled with chores that needed to be done: daily chores like mucking out animal pens and milking cows, weekly chores like making bread, and seasonal chores like sowing the garden. Sure, I've done living history and I plant my own garden each year, but there are so many details, like butter making, that are completely foreign to my experience. And frankly, I'm having trouble getting into the head of someone who has to be that organized simply to stay alive.

So this past week, besides reading up on recipes and clothes and diaries of the period, I watched a 12 part BBC series called Tales from the Green Valley. Five historians lived on a 17th century farm on the Welsh border for a year, running it as it would have been run in 1628. This was an excellent series, filling in many of the details necessary for writing historic fiction (some of them truly gross--for example, using fermented urine as a stain remover). I highly recommend this documentary to anyone who likes history.

I now have 30 pages of notes and more questions to look up, but a believable character is emerging at last, along with the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the period.


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