It would be simpler to believe the one word writers hate to hear is ‘edits’, but other phrases such as bad review can make a writer’s heart do a strange little drop until one takes a breath and gets on with the job. Another such word that feeds the urge to stay in bed and hide under the covers is research.
Imagine the frustration — there’s this wonderful idea, but the writer lacks the information needed to make the details sound plausible. The answer is simple: the writer needs to go into research mode.
That’s not always easy. When I wrote The Teacher I gave no thought to the setting or period. I could have given the story a fantasy background and made my job less complicated, but the story always had that historical feel, so when I sent it to Musa and discussed it with my editor, we decided that was the best genre. With that decision made, right away I decided to go for historical atmosphere rather than specific setting. The Teacher is character driven and the environment merely the stage for the players. In that sense, the facts may not seem important, but the thing about storytelling is that it often requires enough information to make a tale sound genuine. Sometimes that means much reading for just a few authentic sentences, and such was the case here.
The historical information I located and chose to include, those little ‘snippets’ dropped into the story to embed it in time, were numerous, and so a few sentences required several hours of searching and reading.
At one point when considering Justin’s future, Marvis has to ponder possible occupations. Although what Justin may one day ‘do’ wasn’t essential to the story, it was important to know of what Marvis believes him capable, even if I only made the barest references to his feelings. I was lucky enough to discover the pen trade existed in Birmingham and was a growing industry, starting in Newhall Street in 1828, and by 1850 turning the area into a world trade centre for pen manufacture. Marvis also contemplates the possibility of Justin becoming a doctor — I made the important distinction that a private practice physician had a better life and could charge more. I guess some things don’t change.
Other medical issues arose. Between 1886 and 1921 there was a radical change to how fractures were repaired, largely influenced by the invention of anaesthesia in 1839. Documentation exists indicating that as early as 1846 severe fractures could be repaired by surgery using the first type of ‘nails‘ made of ivory pegs.
I wanted the story to have a Dickensian ‘feel’ mostly because Dickens wrote to reveal the woes of the poverty-stricken. He was a voice to their misery, during a time when there was no such thing as child abuse — the term unknown — but, through people like the author, by the end of the century a few had petitioned for better conditions for the poor.
Now, in the clement seasons, he kept the fire alight only for the boiling of water, sometimes the toasting of bread as a treat when they behaved.
Such a simple sentence, but had I got it right? Turns out yes. Many of the old women who ran Dame schools did feed the children. Some gave bread and jam for breakfast. They realised that the children were underfed and that they were wasting their time trying to teach pupils who were starving, so it’s quite conceivable that my teacher did the same. He’s certainly a character with a mind ahead of his time.
Speaking of schools, although there were exams they weren’t as we know them today. Such qualifications were more for the upper classes, those who went to Oxford and Eton etc. Many ‘graduated’ by completing a course or simply finishing school. Once I realised that, I had to change part of my story, as I also had to do when researching the movement of women during that time. Although women of the period did travel alone, in my story it was easier simply to remove a woman from a journey than to try to feed the reader a lot of extraneous information not vital to the story. Cut cut cut.
It was all Marvis could do not to close his eyes. He had hoped for more for Justin but he was being unrealistic and better Justin had work than to be arrested for not paying his way.
Another simple sentence but one very much based on truth. Did you know during the 1800s if you got into debt you were arrested? So different from the credit culture of today.
There’s one reference to France in the story, again based on truth. France offered, not ‘freedom’ but the culture was more inclined to turn a blind eye to ‘discrete’ homosexuality. The country also had more of a schooling system.
So…one story, not even a novel, and I had to read up on education, medicine, law, industry, homosexuality, and Dickens. Still, any historian may pick my story to the bones and chew on them. I know this. I’m not a historian. I’m a storyteller and I’ve done my best to give these characters a world in which they could not only tell their story, but entertain the reader with it. If I’ve succeeded in nothing else, I hope I’ve succeeded in that.
And to anyone thinking, “You should have just made the story fantasy because you can then make it up as you go…” Well, there is some truth in that, but not entirely. Some fantasy projects still need facts. Something I wrote many years ago required me to read up on boat building and sailing. Because of that, although I’ve never sailed a boat, I learned one has to tack into the wind. Some days I wonder how and why I’ve got all these seemingly useless scraps of information in my head. Then I remember I’m a writer and it all makes perfect sense.