Researching for Historical Fiction

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Historical fiction is something I love to write. The reason…? I simply love history, any time period and any setting. At present I’m concentrating on the Viking era in the mid-ninth century as I finish the third book in my Sons of Kings trilogy. The first two of these are in my sidebar over there, and the third will be titled Wyvern of Wessex. After that, I have plans for several other ‘histfics’, but not set in the Viking era.

So what exactly is historical fiction?

Well, until recently, most definitions told us that stories set fifty or more years ago could be classed as historical fiction. Recently, however, I’ve seen various sites that have reset that definition to twenty-five years. For someone of my age, twenty-five years ago seems just like yesterday and that definition does little for my self-image. I’m already feeling like an old fossil.

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Twenty five years only takes us to the early nineties. So a book set in 1991 is now classed as historical fiction. Oh my…! But when I think about it, even yesterday is history… one second ago is history. I suppose past times, no matter how recent, are all ‘history’.

As for actually writing historical fiction, just what does it involve?

For starters, like several other genres, it involves the writer doing a lot of research (unless he or she a hugely successful author and can afford to hire people to do it for them). Fortunately, doing research is so much easier nowadays than it was years ago when the only place for doing it, other than buying your own text books, was the good old library. But now, authors have the Internet and access to numerous informative sites, including those about history.

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Having said that, I would never, ever, dismiss the value of good books about the period and historical characters I want to write about. I have some excellent texts that have been invaluable. But online sources can give us lots of interesting – and different – information. And, of course, there’s still the library.

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Exactly what you research can include anything from dates of characters’ births and deaths, to dates of important events of the time. But details about everyday life are important, too. We need to know things like building types, foods (and how and when they were cooked and eaten) clothing and general customs and attitudes. All add to the authenticity of the story – but must be ‘fed’ carefully and intermittently into the story.

Getting details about the period wrong is definitely not a good idea, as there will always be at least one reader who’ll notice. Several years ago I read an article in a Writing magazine by an editor in the US. In this article, he quoted what he called the ‘worst example of historical inaccuracies’ he’d ever come across. It was in a book about Mary Queen of Scots, who was beheaded in 1587. (The author’s name and book title were not divulged, of course). He quoted a scene between Mary and her husband, Lord Darnley, which I’ll re-quote as closely as I remember it. Mary supposedly says:

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Darnley, honey, let me fix you a chicken sandwich.

I’ll leave you to pick out what’s wrong with that one – but I found it hilarious!

For my trilogy there were two main things I had to focus on. The first was the life of King Alfred the Great, one of the two main protagonists. This is one of the two statues erected in his honour (both in Victorian times as you can probably tell from the photo below). This one is in the Market Place in Wantage, Oxfordshire (formerly Berkshire), which is believed to be where Alfred was born.

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I also had to focus on Viking ships and voyages as well as everyday lifestyles of both Vikings and Anglo-Saxons in the mid-ninth century.These are a few ‘photos of photos’ we took in Denmark, so I apologise for the poor quality of them. They were taken at Lindholm Høje in northern Denmark. Some are from inside the museum, others are of the very famous Viking burial ground there.

The Jorvik (pronounced Yorvik) Viking museum in York (Yorkshire, UK) was also excellent for information about Viking life. The museum succumbed to floodwaters when the River Ouse flooded in December 2015 and won’t be open again until spring 2017. Fortunately, most of the exhibits were saved.

All in all, the research kept me busy for quite some time. But, we visited some wonderful historic sites and museums in both England and Denmark as part of it. So that can’t be bad, can it? The visit to Denmark really helped with the parts of the books set there – a lot of Book One in particular, which is mostly about my second protagonist, Eadwulf of Mercia. Although he’s a fictional character, the main events in my book that take place in his kingdom, are not.

We still love to visit historical sites related to all periods of history. Reenactments are a particular favourite at the moment, and we’ve been to a few this year. These photos are from a battle between Alfred and the Danes staged at Corfe castle in Dorset in May.

And these are from the Viking Village at Murton, near York. I wrote a post about this in April this year.

‘Bear’ is really quite something, and he was very helpful in explaining all about his unusual helmet and why few Vikings ever adopted that style. All ‘grist to the mill’, as they say.

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Softie – FFfAW

Flash Fiction for Aspiring Writers is a writing challenge hosted by Priceless Joy. It asks that we write a piece of fiction from the given photo prompt in around 100-150 words – give or take 25 words. If you’d like to join in with this challenge, follow the above link to see what to do. The challenge runs from Tuesday to Tuesday every week.

Here is this week’s prompt, kindly provided by Louise at thestorytellersabode:

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And this is my story:

Softie

Twelve-year-old Charlie braced himself against the biting February wind, scouring the beach as he walked. Dad would wallop him if he didn’t find any coal washed up on the morning’s tide. Mum needed whatever he fetched to supplement the spindly sticks they collected.

The shiny object suddenly caught Charlie’s eye, just nestling amongst the colourful pebbles.

‘You’ve found it!’ a girlish voice squealed as he picked it up. ‘Mum was heartbroken when she lost it yesterday. She’s had it for twenty years. See, the date she got it’s on the back: nineteen fourteen. And you found it…’

Charlie scrutinised the expensive-looking watch. Dad’d be pleased to have it to sell – but furious if he learnt Charlie’d just given it away.

‘Finders keepers,’ he retorted. ‘That makes it mine!’

The girl’s tears flowed and he thrust her the watch. Dad had always called him ‘Softie’…

Eighty-two-year-old Alice laid the flowers on Charlie’s grave, fingering her mother’s watch. Memories of the day she’d met her Softie were never too far away, and she’d meet him again, very soon.

*

Word Count: 176

If you’d like to read other entries, or add a story yourself, click on the little blue frog:

My story about collecting lumps of coal on the beach may seem far-fetched to many people, but that’s just what many poor families had to do in earlier times. I was basing the story on my dad’s early life in the seaside town of Southport in Lancashire (a very sandy beach, with sand dunes – and not the pebbly beach in Louise’s photo, which I’ll leave her to talk about). He was born in 1922, and times were hard.

The coal would mostly have been carried down in the rivers from the Lancashire coalfield and out into the Irish Sea. The incoming tide would then wash some of it up onto the beach – where poor families made good use of it.

How Charlie and Alice met in this story was not how my mum and dad (Millie and Thomas) met. At the time when my dad was collecting coal on the beach, my mum was happily growing up eighteen miles away, in Liverpool – until the heavy bombing of that city during WW2 took her to Southport. My home town.

*****

The Bumpy Road to ‘A Dash of Flash’

A Dash of Flash Banner 0806 2It seems ages since I was active on my blog, but I’m now looking forward to having a little more time for writing and reading posts. It’s been a funny year for me so far, though I know the problems are all of my own making. We’ve been away a lot for a start, and I’ve been writing two books at the same time – probably not the best idea I’ve ever had. I should have finished off the third book of my trilogy before taking on anything new.

But at last my flash fiction book is finished, edited and published on Amazon. Happy me! (This nice, happy-looking young lady is evidently not me – the picture just shows how I feel. 🙂 )

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I thought that having so many stories already on my blog, the book would take little time to do. WRONG. I soon realised I also needed new/unread stories in the book, so I started to write some.  I also decided to make the book a decent length – at least novella size* – so I ended up writing quite a lot of new stories. A good half dozen are almost  1,000 words (the generally accepted upper word limit for ‘flash’.) Several are over 500, and some of the stories from my blog have either been tweaked a little and/or lengthened. The book finally ended up at almost 23,000 words. (*Novellas are usually between 18,000 to 30,000 words.

The editing of A Dash of Flash was finished over seven weeks ago, but the person I initially sent the book to for formatting and converting to epub and mobi files kept me waiting for weeks. And even then it wasn’t done properly! Eventually I was sent a word document (supposedly formatted) with assurances that most of his clients used word documents to upload onto Amazon. Having only uploaded mobi files for my Viking books, I was sceptical, but accepted this ‘professional’s’ advice.

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I uploaded this file onto Amazon at 9 pm last Saturday. It looked good on the previewer, so I was happy. It generally takes anything up to 12 hours before books go ‘live’ and I’d thought that by morning I’d be able to check the book by downloading my own copy and if anything was wrong with it, I could quickly unpublish…

Imagine how I felt when I saw that indents were all over the place for a start. To make matters worse, the book had come live on Amazon before midnight (UK time) and someone on the .com site had already bought a copy!

I was mortified!

Confused (from Pixabay)

Naturally I immediately unpublished. If the person unlucky enough to have got that dodgy copy is reading this, please email me and I’ll send you a mobi or epub file of the properly formatted version – with my sincere apologies.

I immediately sent the book to the person who’d formatted my other two books, and kicked myself for going elsewhere this time. Alan Cooper has made an excellent job of formatting and converting all three of my books now, and he’ll certainly be doing the next one.

If anyone would like to read A Dash of Flash, it’s available on Amazon USAmazon UK and Amazon AU. It is on KDP Select, but I haven’t got around to ordering my first 5 free days just yet.

Needless to say, I’d love to know what people think, and honest reviews would be more than gratefully received. Publishing a book of ‘flash’ is new territory for me – although many of the stories have historical settings.

This is how all authors feel about receiving reviews:

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*****

Sudbury Hall and the Museum of Childhood

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Last Sunday we headed off to visit the stately home of Sudbury Hall in the neighbouring county of Derbyshire. Along with us was our elder daughter, Nicola. Sudbury is located close to Ashbourne on the southern edge of the Peak District National Park. We had quite a clear run (meaning no traffic hold-ups) and it took us about an hour and twenty minutes to get there.

We last visited Sudbury in 2003, so we thought it was about time we had a revisit. But this time it wasn’t the Hall itself we wanted to see – although we did have a quick look round – but the adjacent Museum of Childhood, which has been revamped in recent years. To be honest, we couldn’t really remember how the museum was laid out in 2003 so I can’t make comparisons, but it’s an interesting place, with exhibits (mostly toys) dating from the 18th century, but focusing mostly on Victorian times, complete with a Victorian schoolroom.

Sudbury Hall was built by George Vernon in the latter half of the 17th century. It is a redbrick building, now owned by the National Trust. Outside, formal gardens lead down to a lovely lake. These are a few pictures we took of the Hall, outside and in:

We took far too may photos inside the Museum of Childhood to show here. The exhibits were all inside glass cases, too, and the thick glass with the lights over each display made some of the photos very poor, due to the glare. The toys were all very interesting, and took the three of us down ‘Memory Lane’ for a while: with Nick and I it was the toys from the ’50s and 60s while Nicola reminisced over those from the ’70s and 80s. Many of the Victorian toys were just amusing and some of them very clever, if not particularly suitable for children. There were also gollywogs amongst the soft toys and many dolls. Gollywogs have been a controversial issue for some years now, and I’m not even sure whether they were banned. But I well remember them during my 1950s childhood.

Here’s a jumbled up collection of some of the toys:

Parts of the museum focuses on the lives of some of the poorest Victorian children, and the gruelling jobs they were forced to do to contribute to the family’s meagre earnings. These are a few of the snippets of information about three of the jobs that Victorian children would have done – chimney sweep, pit boy and household maid.

The reconstructed Victorian schoolroom was complete with desks that resembled the ones Nick and I remember from the 1950s and the handwriting on the blackboard is very similar to the style I was taught (with the teacher hovering over us all, ready to rap the knuckles of anyone who didn’t get the letters perfect!)

Lastly, this poster, which must show somewhere in the US, since Rachel Carson was an American author, took me back to my days of ‘playing out’ with my friends. We weren’t city dwellers, or so poor that I had no shoes, but the idea of groups of us running round and getting into mischief is just the same. I’ve climbed over lots of walls in my time, as well as up many trees. What fun it was! A Child's World

All in all, a lovely day out – and the weather smiled on us, too.

***

A Perfect Relationship

Nettles and Dock Leaves

Today has been a lovely warm, sunny day here in the UK – at least in the small part of it where I live in Nottinghamshire. While I was out on my walk this morning, I was reminded of a couple of photos I took last week. I was actually taking photos of the local cereal crops (another post I need to do!) when I spotted clumps of stinging nettles and, of course, growing alongside them were clumps of dock leaves.

As children we grow up knowing that if we get stung by a nasty old nettle, we immediately get a dock leaf and rub it on the affected area, which by now will have started coming up in horrid little lumps and not feel very nice at all. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been stung by nettles – even fallen into a patch or two as a child. And thank goodness for the good old dock leaf!

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A large nettle sting. Ouch. Author: Wilbysuffolk. Creative Commons

Well, today I started thinking about three things: exactly why do nettles sting in the first place, why are dock leaves the perfect antidote for the sting and how come these two plants are always found growing together anyway?

Like many of us, I knew a little about this, and thought I’d look up a bit more once I got home. So here it is.

Most of us will have guessed that nettles contain some kind of chemical that seriously irritates the skin. We may also have thought that dock leaves contain another chemical which, when released as the leaf is crushed by being rubbed against the skin, will neutralise the painful sting of the nettle – an idea that is no longer accepted (as mentioned later on).

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But, to gain any relief from the dock leaf, old folk lore tells us we should cite this rhyme during the rubbing process. (Personally. I don’t think this will help at all, but you’re welcome to try for yourself! Lol)

Nettle in, Dock
Dock in, Nettle out
Dock rub, Nettle out

The stinging nettle is native to Europe, Asia, northern North Africa and western North America. It has also been introduced elsewhere due to its many beneficial uses, which I won’t go into in this post. It is an herbaceous perennial, meaning that it grows back in the same areas year after year. As for why nettles sting, chemists aren’t exactly sure which chemicals are in the venom, but histamine, acetylchlorine and serotonin are present, and possibly formic acid.

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Brennnessel_1 (Species: Urtica dioica.) Creative Commons

Nettle leaves are covered in tiny needle-like hairs called trichomes. When we brush against them them, they break off and penetrate the skin, releasing a cocktail of chemicals into the base of the hair, so causing the sting:

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Urtica dioica close-up. Author: Frank Vincentz. Creative Commons

It stands to reason, then, that something containing an alkaline substance would neutralise the effect of the sting. It was previously thought that dock leaves worked for that very reason but now we know there is no scientific evidence that they work by neutralising acids. Dock leaves are not alkaline, as proven by simple Litmus tests.

Dock leaves may soothe nettle stings for a few other reasons. Firstly, simply by rubbing the dock leaf over the sting we spread the acid over a bigger area which reduces its effects. Secondly, rubbing the area releases sap from the leaf, which also produces a soothing effect. Thirdly, it is thought that actually rubbing the area causes other nerves to lessen the signals of the pain-sensing nerves, which may reduce the pain sensation further.

However, there are some species of dock leaf that don’t work, including yellow dock and red dock. This is yellow, or crispy dock:

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A plant of the Rumex crispus showing the curled edges of the leaves. Author: Oliver Prichard. Creative Commons

Unfortunately, I can’t find any copyright-free images of red dock to show so here’s a link to Google images: Red Dock

Dock leaves have helped many generations of people to counter the effects of nettle stings, and there is little doubt that they do. But it is now thought possible that rubbing the skin with any kind of leaf will have the same effect.

In the past, dock leaves were often called Butter Dock, simply because farm-made butter was wrapped in long, broad leaves to keep it cool while it was being transported to market. In Chapter 8 of her novel, Adam Bede, published in 1859, George Eliot refers to this through the words of Mrs Poysner:

” Molly,” she said, rather languidly, “just run out and get me a bunch of dock leaves; the butter’s ready to pack now”.

As for my last question about why nettles and dock leaves always grow together, it seems to be just a coincidence. Both plants are early colonisers and will quickly move in and spread in any area of waste or neglected ground.

To finish, here’s the first few lines of a poem by William Barnes (!801-1886). Note how he makes use of that odd little rhyme I quoted above:

Dock Leaves

The dock-leaves that do spread so wide
Up yonder zunny bank’s green zide,
Do bring to mind what we did do
At plaÿ wi’ dock-leaves years agoo:
How we,–when nettles had a-stung
Our little hands, when we wer young,–
Did rub em wi’ a dock, an’ zing
“_Out nettl’, in dock. In dock, out sting._”

*

Nettle tea, just one of the many, varied uses of nettles:

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References:

Ask a Guru:  http://gurumagazine.org/askaguru/why-do-dock-leaves-cure-nettle-stings/

http://herbs-treatandtaste.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/dock-leaf-antidote-for-nettle-stings.html

Mail Online: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3112201/Why-stinging-nettles-hurt-Chemist-shows-tiny-hairs-inject-venom-produce-pain-dock-leaves-WON-T-help.html