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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Researching the wip!

Today I went to Wantage to do some research for my current manuscript. The book is set in 1813 and has as its hero an Irish soldier of fortune held in England as a prisoner during the Napoleonic Wars. The story of the French prisoners of war in England has fascinated me since I came across a footnote about them in a book about the Battle of Trafalgar. I hadn't really thought about the fate of prisoners of war in that era; I didn't even know that there were any, let alone that they were shipped to Britain and held in some cases for the duration of the conflict. The rank and file were incarcerated in prison hulks moored in places like Chatham, or locked up in what we would now call maximum security jails. Dartmoor Prison was built specifically to house French POWs in the Napoleonic Wars. At the height of the war there were a staggering 60 000 French prisoners in Britain and several thousand officers. This seems like a huge number of enemy prisoners in the country and it is no wonder that there were widespread concerns about an uprising. This forms the core of my story.

The officers were allowed to live in small country towns "on parole" ie they gave their word that they would not attempt to escape. This is what took me to Wantage, as it was one of the "parole towns" where the normal populace was swelled by a number of French officers. Prisoners in the parole towns were usually not permitted to travel more than a mile outside the town and were often entertained by the aristocracy and the gentry at parties and balls, a far cry from the fate of their compatriots in the prison hulks! Naturally some broke parole and tried to escape, others had love affairs and even married local girls and plenty got into fights with the locals! All in all, a very rich background for a book!

I'll be blogging much more about the history of the parole towns next year when the book comes out but today one of the highlights of my research was visiting the Vale and Downland Museum in Wantage and holding in my hand an original letter written in French from an officer to Coutts Bank in London, requesting that they send £123 to the banker in Wantage to pay his bills!

Another very pleasurable aspect of my research has been watching the film All For Love or St Ives (thank you, Alison!) which tells the story of a French prisoner of war in Scotland. I love it when my passion for research co-incides with a great historical drama!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Riding Postilion and other coaching tales!

This is the Craven State Carriage, a Victorian coach said to rival in magnificence Queen Victoria's royal carriage (she would not have been amused)! It is part of the carriage collection at Arlington Court, a National Trust property in Devon where you can not only go to view some wonderful horse-drawn coaches but you can try your hand at driving one as well.

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to go to an illustrated talk about the history of carriages, given by Colin Henderson, who had been the Queen's Head Coachman. Not only did he have some wonderful anecdotes about the Golden Jubilee but he had also worked as a riding specialist and stuntman on a number of films and included the role of highwayman on his CV! He gave us a brisk trot through the early history and background of carriages - the word coach, for instance, comes from the Hungarian Kote - but it was when we got onto the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century that my note-taking went into overdrive because he had so many fascinating little details that I had never read in the books so I thought I would share a few of them in this blog!

After explaining to us the difference between "the leaders" - the leading pair of horses - and the "wheelers," the two closest to the carriage, he told us that to ride postilion meant riding one of the front horses and leading the other. This was a hazardous enterprise as it meant that one of your legs was between the two horses and was in danger of being crushed. Postilions wore a steel leg guard to protect them in this position.

The provision of lighting on both the inside and outside of carriages has always interested me so I asked if there was any illumination inside and was surprised to learn that there were candle-lamps inside a carriage as well as out. The smoke apparently made a mess of the upholstery! I had not quite appreciated what a hazardous business travelling at night could be, especially on the Mail Coach. The external lights carried no further than the first horse so you could not see the road ahead at all. Coachmen had to have extremely keen hearing to listen for the sound of approaching hooves. Since the mail carriages travelled at up to 10mph and some coachmen accelerated down the hills in order to gain momentum and make up time, the possibility of running into the back - or front - of another coach or hay wagon was very strong! I was also fascinated to hear that the coaches changed horses on average every 10 to 12 miles, or 15 on the flat, and that a change of horses took only 2 minutes, rather like changing the tyres on a Formula 1 racing car! Mail Coaches were numbered like buses are now and 16 hands was the largest horse that could be used to pull a three and a half ton Mail Coach because anything taller didn't fit under the coachman's footboard.

There were also some fascinating facts about the Grand Tour. The Duke of Beaufort's travelling carriage was decorated in Regency stripe and had secret lockers under the floor for his valuables. It was rather like a caravan; the cushions folded down to create a full length bed! Other luxurious touches included silk-lined steps which were folded up inside the carriage to protect them.

I enjoyed learning the derivation of a few other coaching-inspired words as well - the "fore-gone" was the carriage that you sent on a day ahead with your servants, linen and silver, so that when you arrived, everything was prepared (or concluded!) The phrase "cheerio" originally comes from calling for a sedan chair - chair ho!

My favourite anecdote from the Victorian period was that the footboards on ladies' carriages were enormous because it was thought indelicate that a lady should have to sit looking at the horse's posterior! During this time a combined whip and parasol was developed which looked extremely complicated to use. I also liked the pictures of little "baby carriages" used by the British in India in the nineteenth century. These were developed to enable the infant to "take the air." They were drawn by a ram or a heifer and were led by a groom with the nanny walking alongside!

All in all this was a fascinating gallop through hundreds of years of coaching history and was a talk packed full of useful snippets of information that I'm sure will appear in some of my future books!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Broadsheet Broadside!

Yawn! That's the sound of the Sad Puppy waking up from a few month's happy snoozing in the sun to discover that as at least six months have passed it must be time for the UK broadsheets to have another go at romantic fiction. A few months ago The Guardian newspaper made a slight tactical error when they asked Julie Bindell to comment on Mills & Boon romances and it became clear in the course of her remarks that she hadn't read one for thirty years. So this time the Guardian had a Cunning Plan - get Tanya Gold to claim that she was a M&B junkie and that way the paper wouldn't be caught short fielding someone who hadn't picked up a romance book in decades.

Why should we doubt Tanya's romance-reading credentials? Only because there were some odd discrepancies in the article. Oh, and also because most romance readers are very proud to support the genre whereas it seemed to make Tanya feel quite nauseous. It also seemed that every M&B book Tanya had recently read contained the hero saying the phrase: "You stupid little fool!" I don't for a moment believe that this is representative of the current crop of Presents/Modern Romance. (And as an aside, why do these articles almost always concentrate on the Modern Romance imprint? Do the writers do so little research that they don't realise the wealth of different lines? And why do they equate romance only with Mills & Boon books?)

The article provided the revelation that it wasn't easy to write "a Mills & Boon book" - again this catch all description was used as though they were all interchangeable and identical. It's not easy to write any book so why should it be easy to write one for Mills & Boon? Only prejudice and value judgements suggest that it would be. Science fiction isn't easy to write, crime fiction isn't easy to write, short stories aren't easy to write. Writing for Mills & Boon isn't easy.

I don't have time to take the article apart here because I have a romance book to write but I do want to make the point that the article, so witty and well-written, was particularly clever because it looked as though it was saying some positive things about romantic fiction whilst managing to reinforce the view that it is WRONG. Perhaps the clue to this approach was in the heading in the paper, which referred to the writer enjoying Mills & Boon books "even though she knows it is wrong." That's quite a statement. Who is making that judgement and upon what moral authority? As I said in my Twitter on this last week, in what way is it "wrong" to enjoy romance books? Is it "wrong" in the sense that The Guardian and other broadsheet papers are "wrong" to take money from punters looking for happy ever after through adverts in the lonely hearts columns? Or is that quite different??

In the same newspaper on the same day was a completely different yet related article by Simon Jenkins. In it he lamented the fact that items of bad news in the media used to be balanced by the inclusion of an equal number of items of good news. His contention was that these days that has all changed. You only need to turn on the radio or TV, or to read the paper, to be faced with item after item of grim news; flood, famine and pestilence. Okay, occasionally there will be the eccentric item at the end of the news bulletin - the one that usually features a cute pet doing something wacky, like the cat that likes to travel on the bus, for instance. And of course there are sometimes genuinely happy, moving and uplifting pieces of news but they seem few and far between. For example, as I'm writing this the three top stories on the BBC website are about soaring unemployment, a knife attack and an air crash. Simon Jenkins' posited that bad news sells, which is why we are given so much of it. Life hasn't actually changed that much; the way it is reported has. He also takes it one stage further and suggests that having such a diet of bad news served up to us by the media cannot help but set a national mood of depression and fear.

This is where romantic fiction comes in. It is escapist and it makes people happy. It lifts the mood and is the reverse of bad news. And it feels as though we can't be allowed to enjoy this happiness without someone criticising our pleasures.

Both Guardian pieces in different ways reminded me of another article that was in the Observer newspaper a few weeks ago called simply "Snark." Snark is "sly, knowing and often downright nasty," the header said. "And it attacks, under the guise of wit, without proof or reason." There is a lot of snark about these days, whether it is in newspaper articles, blogs or even book reviews. One of the dangers of snark is that it is seductive because it can be so funny. There is an implication that even if you are the target of snark, if you don't laugh along with it you are either a bad sport, you have no sense of humour or you're too thin-skinned. I'd take issue with this. One of my writing colleagues recently put her finger on the fact that in print, either on the internet or in papers and magazines, there is a distance that leads commentators to say things they would never dream of saying directly to someone, face to face. Or at least one hopes they would not for respect and courtesy's sake. Or is that too old-fashioned a view these days?

Whether it is or not, it brings me full circle. Author Louise Allen wrote an elegant rebuttal of the Bindell piece. Author Michelle Styles made some spot on observations in the Tanya Gold piece. But in neither article nor in many others has a journalist actually interviewed a romance author or authors, asked them why they write the books, why they believe in them, why romance appeals, why readers love the books. Nor do readers get much of a look in. Tanya Gold asked for readers to contribute to the article and then briefly quoted a couple of them. One of the quotes was about a reader's academic qualifications which I believe is wrong on so many levels. When did anyone ever comment on the academic qualifications of a reader of science fiction or crime, for instance? Isn't it irrelevant? We're back to those value judgements again.

I suspect that the truth is that editors don't want to publish a happy, feelgood article all about writers who believe in what they do and readers who love romance books. For where is the bad news in that? Where is the snark?

And I'd be happy to say all this to their faces, no snark involved.

*I'd like to thank very much all the romance readers and authors who responded to my Twitter on this subject and inspired me to write this article - and who inspire me to write the books in the first place! Thank you.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Smugglers' Run!

Last weekend we did the wonderful "Smugglers' Run" at Martlesham in Suffolk. With a name like that this walk was always going to be fascinating - not only is it a walk around a particularly picturesque part of the county, it's packed full of interesting facts for history buffs!

The walk starts in Woodbridge where there is the last remaining working tide mill in the UK. It dates from the 12th century, was working up until 1957 and was restored in 1982. The mill is situated on the River Deben, a waterway frequently used by the smuggling fraternity. One incident in Woodbridge Haven in 1739 records that a smuggler's cutter was stranded by the tide and the preventive officers were able to seize brandy and tea. The smugglers were clearly an audacious lot for they not only raised affidavits for the recovery of their goods, but also managed to have the master of the grounded cutter that they were using to ferry the goods in press-ganged into serving on HMS Boyne which prevented him from testifying against them!
The footpath travels along the edge of the river to Kyson Point and Kyson Hill with lovely views across the water meadows. I particularly liked the part of the walk that went along the beach here - and so did the dog! At high tide this stretch of the walk is impassable and you have to be careful not to get cut off by the tide. This was part of the area that fell to the Harwich Customs Collector to patrol - with a pitifully small army of riding officers. The little creeks, marshes and inlets here were perfect for landing contraband.

Martlesham Creek turns westwards from this point and we walked along the edge of the water following the path taken by the smugglers of old. This little inlet was used as a waterway for the transport of small, shallow boat-loads of contraband. It is said that Phillip Meadows, rector of Great Bealings from 1804 to 1837 gave the free traders aid by leaving his stables unlocked on moonless nights with the chaise and harness ready. Since the owner of the chaise was so well respected locally and was above suspicion, the excisemen and the constable allowed the cart to pass freely and it collected the contraband from Martlesham Creek. In return the rector was given a keg of brandy from each load as thanks for his co-operation. I was intrigued to hear this story of real-life involvement of the gentry with the smuggling trade, and so late into the nineteenth century as well.

From here the path turns along the head of the creek and enters the woods and it would be easy to imagine a moonless night and the crack of branches underfoot as the free traders made their way up to the road with their cargo. The path emerges to cross the fields and comes up by the church from where it is a straight run to the Red Lion pub. This inn dates originally from the late 1500s and was a coaching inn on the old Norwich to London road used as an overnight stopover for the mail coaches. The mail was locked up safely and then the coachmen and guard probably retired to the bar to drink some contraband brandy!

This was a fabulous historic walk through some beautiful countryside with a drink and a meal waiting at the end. What more could one ask?