In Dec 2009, I interviewed historical novelist and short story writer Jane Borodale for my Research Secrets column in the national writing magazine Writers’ Forum #98.
She explained to me how she steeped herself in the period by reading widely, including contemporary commentary such as Thomas Turner’s diary of 1754-65 and the enclosure and rural social change, prostitution, illegitimacy, parish relief, the bills of mortality. She also listened to music; Handel, Rameau, Thomas Arne, secular street ballads and poured over maps of the period like John Rocque’s famous map of London, and images of daily life from Hogarth to Paul Sandby, to get a clear idea of clothes worn at the time.
Whilst researching the chalk downland area for her novel, The Book of Fires, published by Harper Collins, Jane Borodale realised what a rich resource the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum was. Historic buildings, rescued from destruction and rebuilt to their original form on the Museum’s site in Sussex, demonstrate examples of vernacular homes, farmsteads and rural industries from the 13th to the 19th centuries. They’re presented in a historically precise way which also strongly evokes their individual setting and period, and they seemed ripe for exploring with the fluidity of fiction.
“Studying the buildings closely has made an enormous difference to the scale of the way I see history – its human intimacy – and I have learnt much about using texture and atmosphere. The library for researchers at the Museum is a small goldmine – with an authentic 14th-century draught blowing over the flagstones under the thick oak door – and filled to the brim with books about vernacular architecture, building techniques and social history that relates to the Weald and Downland collection.” (Jane Borodale)
Jane explained that it was important to her to involve all the senses so she went to a butchery day one cold November, to discover what the smell of fresh pig fat was like; cooked recipes from Hannah Glasse that always seem to start ‘take a little bit of butter rolled in flour’; sat on the north scarp of the chalky Downs and looked inland, imagining her character Agnes creaking on the carrier up to London before the turnpikes had reached Sussex and grazed endlessly on the internet.
She told me:
“I love research; it’s a huge privilege to spend time finding a trail through the wilderness of something fascinating – and call it work! I always think that looking at history is like putting your hand into a huge barrel for little fistfuls of stories – whatever comes up.” (Jane Borodale)
Researching the fireworks history was more specific, and Jane had the delicious feeling of eavesdropping on a faintly illicit scene to which she wasn’t initiated. She looked at both contemporary and modern fireworks material – the latter partly to verify the former, as many of the grubby fireworks manuals of the early 19th century were full of inaccuracies. She explained it was very exciting to order up little pamphlets at the British Library that had clearly been used over the years, blackened with thumbprints, offering recipes for detonating balls, silver rain, honorary skyrockets, serpents.
Many original documents are now digitised and searchable for free if you access them from your local library or records office – www.ancestry.com offers all census returns for England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland from 1841 to 1901, among other things, or you can subscribe for access from home.
The language of the 18th-century chemistry was also rich and poetic, with its roots still firmly planted in the work of the alchemists. Jane even had fireworks propped up in her workroom, in her desk drawers, and went to displays, rubbed gunpowder between her thumb and forefinger, visited a fireworks expert to talk about his pyrotechnic work (who also demonstrated an explosion for her in his garden).
For Jane, each of her projects has a different organising solution, but she tends to sort notes, maps and copying into a stack of variously coloured Manila folders, usually according to subject, though sometimes to place or period of time. She finds the activity of regularly sifting through helps her to remember what she has, and keeps it all current in her head when she’s working on something. She explained she has separate notebooks for different aspects – one for topographical on-site notes; one for useful scraps, and a (usually) smaller one that she always carry in case of sudden unexpected bursts of inspiration on the bus.
When a notebook is full she transcribes the best bits onto the computer, striking lines through the pages as she goes, and these notes tend to be a kind of halfway house towards the writing itself. At a records office or library she writes out her notes on sheets of unlined A4 and includes the reference of what she’s looking at the top of every page, which she also numbers as it really helps when she gets home and tries to make sense of all the pencilled, frantic scribbling. She finds the use index cards quite constricting.
Her writing tip for other historical writers is to actually go to the places your are writing about. Seeing for yourself the particular scale of an environment, the prevailing wind, light quality, smell, the tilt of the land or the narrowness of a street, where the sun goes down – distinctive things that can’t be got easily on the internet. Even a few, isolated hours makes all the difference. Also (and this is quite boring) she always tries to note down the full reference details of every tiny fragment that might be useful – it is hugely frustrating to be unable to follow up something half-remembered at a later date.
To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #98 Dec 2009 Writers’ Forum online from Select Magazines.
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To find out more about Jane Borodale check out her website: www.janeborodale.co.uk