It is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer, embarking on a new novel, must be in
want need of a fieldtrip. And so, at the end of last year, I headed off to …. the UK, of course! But we writers can be secretive creatures, so I’m not going to tell you too much about where I went, except to say that I discovered, again, just how helpful it is to be in the place I’m writing about.Going through my photos and research material has me thinking about what I look for on a research trip.
I’m a big believer in the power of what I call ‘informed imagination’ — doing research, and allowing that to feed my imagination of what might have been. Given that I write about thirteenth and fourteenth century England, I’ll never know entirely what a town or city was really like, but I hope to build an historical world that is consistent with all that we know from research.
In many ways, it’s a matter of being open to what the place offers, especially in historical terms; I never know what tiny, fascinating thing might come my way. As I wander, I’m always asking myself what a thirteenth or fourteenth century person might have seen or heard, or been most interested in. What do buildings or artefacts tell me?
And the body matters. Being in a place impacts all five senses, and they feed imagination.
Here’s a short list of the elements I look for, all of them contributing to my sense of the past world, and to story and character,even if I don’t specifically use them.
I like to have an early map of a town or city, as close as possible to the time I’m writing about. Much will have changed, but the main landmarks of river, castle and many churches usually remain in some form, so I can imagine the trip from river to market; how houses would have huddled near the castle, or the churches marked out significant centres of community life.
And topography really matters; it’s one thing to read about a really steep hill, but it soaks into your bones when you climb it a few times a day! Having physically experienced the shape of the land helps me to imagine my characters living in that place. Even though the streets and buildings of London have changed enormously in seven centuries, I learned about the way the river snakes through the city, or the way the land slopes down to the water, or how far it is from St Paul’s to Smithfield Market.
Even though I know English weather pretty well, an English day ‘with the lot’ (rain, sleet, wind, numb fingers and toes) has a distinctive quality in a particular place. Grey clouds or rain can change the colour and atmosphere of a forest, or mud, or old stone and paving so that they feel drear and ominous, or sunshine transform the same place into somewhere beautiful, even romantic.
And all that rain really does create a different landscape: mud, lush growth and grass so green that it almost glows.The light is distinctly different, too. Even on a sunny day, the light is softer, not as intense as Australian glare. I’m pretty sure the elements would have an influence on character.
Seven centuries is a long time for buildings to remain unchanged. In London, even the great St Paul’s was damaged by fire and rebuilt. But some cathedrals, churches, and here and there, even houses remain, sometimes a preserved ruin. Sometimes the interior has been altered through the centuries as others have used it, or upgraded it, or — more lately, used it for different purposes, perhaps as a restaurant, or a baker’s, or even a hairdresser’s.
Can I peel away all that has accreted over the centuries, either damage or repair, and imagine what it might have once been? Standing in the place, I can try. A glimpse of the outside, a touch of the old stones, offers a body memory.
In many places in England, medieval churches have remained, some lovingly maintained, some ‘retired’ but kept for their heritage value. When I was researching anchorholds, I visited hundreds of tiny churches (along with my poor kids!) looking for a squint, or a sign of a cell. It was always exciting to find one, or even the markings on the external walls that show where a cell had once stood.
And churches offer much more than a simple statement of Christian worship; a medieval person might have gone to church to worship, but most of them wouldn’t have understood Latin, so they would have absorbed the art, ‘read’ the stories in stained glass windows, wall paintings or stone and wooden carvings; they would have looked up at the soaring vaulted ceilings, designed to suggest heaven; they would have looked at the coffin and effigy of a great man or woman — and what might they have thought about such power?
And outside, of course — gargoyles, reminders of human frailty and sin, and creatures of fun and humour, even on holy ground.
But I also found these two grotesques recently carved on the lower external walls of a cathedral. What would Will have thought of them, I wonder? If you look closely at the skull, you might see that it is painted with a pound sign, a contemporary warning about the dangers of love of money. When we were there, visitors had left a coin or two on its bony hand, but when we walked back that way a few hours later, the coins were gone!
If you’ve read either of my novels, you might have guessed that I’m most interested in exploring the lives of ordinary people, the ones with limited power and wealth, not the kings, queens and politicians. While aristocrats manoeuvred for advantage, life was being lived elsewhere.
In the same way, it’s the everyday objects, more than grand buildings or monuments, that show us the culture of a time and place. And so, I go to museums of all kinds.
There’s such a world to be revealed and imagined from a single, tiny artefact like a child’s toy, or a loom weight, or a much-used pot. I imagine women in Sarah’s village, Hartham, would have used the simple spindle to spin wool. The objects below, some of them rudimentary and simple, some of them more refined and expensive, all contribute to my developing sense of medieval life. Similar photos are available online or in books, but even inside a glass cabinet, their texture and quality become more apparent.
Clockwise from the top: clothing fastenings; seal matrix used to make an impression in wax and seal a document; pot; brooch; comb; Saxon pendant; drop spindle and loom weights.
And the experience of seeing so many artefacts, near the location where they were discovered, brings a kind of immersion in time and place
And that, ultimately, is what I’m seeking.
I used to think archive offices were dusty, boring places, but they are really windows into the past.
Documents like diocesan records and court rolls might be transcribed and bound in volumes that go on and on, far too lengthy and time consuming to read in full. But it’s worth dipping into the relevant years that I’m writing about, just to get the flavour of the things that were considered worth recording. Most big events — births, deaths, the installation of a noteable figure of power — are recorded elsewhere, but it’s the smaller events that I look for: little squabbles and power plays.
The London court rolls will record briefly a man convicted of affray, or a stall holder defrauding customers by fiddling with the weights he or she uses. Any one of these apparently small occurrences can spark an idea, set in train the development of a character or an episode.
There’s nothing quite like opening a document from the period I’m researching. Sometimes the content doesn’t matter; it’s enough to have the physical contact with the parchment, smell the ink and see the distinctive script.
The most exciting contact with parchment and ink was in the British Library manuscript room, where I sat with illuminated manuscripts from the early fourteenth century. Seven centuries poured out from the pages and into my senses: touch, as I felt how thick the pages were, compared to paper (even though I was wearing gloves); sight, as I examined the painting with its ripples and brushstrokes, its colour and shading; sound, as I heard the rustle of a turning page, and the smell of mingled paint, ink, parchment and, probably, the many places they had dwelt and the people who had read and touched them.