Guest blog post by Liza Achilles: 3 Lessons I Learned From Writing a Historical Novel

I am delighted to welcome Liza Achilles, a blogger based in Washington DC, USA, who has written a guest post for The Three Hares Blog.

Writing a historical novel was one of the most interesting activities I have done in my life. Unlike many other types of novel writing, historical novel writing requires a large amount of research. That research comes in several forms, as I will explain in this article. Below are 3 lessons I learned about writing a historical novel during my novel-writing journey. Perhaps these tips will help you if you tackle a historical novel project of your own.

#1 The Value of Visiting University Libraries

When I began researching my historical novel, I considered any book on my topic to be relevant. I stocked up on books from local bookstores and libraries. But I quickly discovered that not every book is of the same quality. Some books contain errors, unfair stereotyping, or generalities that gloss over key points. The books available at local bookstores and libraries were good for a cursory introduction to my subject; but to go deeper, I needed a university library.

I was fortunate that my husband (at the time) was affiliated (at the time) with first one university library and then another. Spouses were given, as a perk, a library card. I imagine that for some spouses, that wasn’t much of a boon. For me, it was a golden ticket to the stacks! (Many university libraries allow you to get a library card for a nominal fee if you don’t have a connection to the library.)

The excitement of browsing the stacks – there’s nothing like it. I would look up a subject on a computer and find a few call numbers. I would venture into some dark and crowded corner of some tower, and locate my book. I would then browse all of the nearby books, looking for something new and interesting. Often the book I took home would not be the book whose call number I found, but a book nearby in the stacks.

It was only with the help of these university books that I was able to correct errors, debunk stereotypes, and dig into important nitpicky details. All of this information was essential to crafting a novel that was as faithful as possible to the reality of what happened during my target time period.

#2 The Value of Visiting Historical Sites

No book about a location can replace a visit to that location. Books can and should supplement a visit. But there’s something powerful and special about experiencing a location in person – even if your visit does, of necessity, occur tens or hundreds of years after your target historical time.

Many historical sites have museums, plaques, monuments, grounds, or reenactments whereby you can immerse yourself in the history of the place. You can view some of the actual objects used by people during the historical period and walk on the actual terrain that was walked on back then. You can also talk with historical experts and read the extensive information provided at such sites.

I found immense value in visiting not just the site where my novel takes place, but also nearby and related sites. It’s always instructive to compare and contrast sites, to take in what is the same and consider what is different, and thus to better home in on your target historical location.

I also recommend touring public lands that aren’t part of any museum. Every place has its own flora and fauna, its own terrain and aura. Soak in the feel of the place, while being careful to distinguish between how things were during the historical time and how things are now. For example, invasive species might now inhabit the area, while other species might have gone extinct. Water levels and the climate might be different. (You can find this information through books and the Internet.)

#3 The Value of Using Primary and Secondary Sources

When researching a historical period, it’s important to distinguish between primary and secondary sources. Primary sources are writings done by people during the target time period. Secondary sources are writings done by people who came later, who wrote about the primary sources (or about other secondary sources).

Primary sources are a must-read because these are the people who were present when the action was happening. They are closest to your targeted time period and thus can be considered, in a way, most reliable. However, in another way, their reliability must be evaluated carefully, since being close to the action can result in all-too-human biases, mistakes, and sometimes even lies. This is where secondary sources come in.

Secondary sources are a must-read because these are the people who have carefully evaluated the quality of the primary sources and drawn conclusions not obvious in the primary sources. When well written, secondary sources are extremely reliable, and they may correct any factual errors, biases, or lies in the primary sources. However, when not well written, they may perpetuate errors, biases, or lies, or introduce new ones.

The bottom line is, dig into both primary and secondary sources, but read them critically and evaluate their reliability.

Conclusion

Research for a historical novel comes in several different forms. You might spend time visiting university libraries, touring historical sites, and consulting primary and secondary source materials. These activities helped me immensely while crafting my historical novel.

Are you working on a historical novel? What lessons are you learning from the experience?

Liza Achilles is a writer, editor, poet, and coach based in the Washington, D.C., area of the USA. She blogs about seeking wisdom through books and elsewhere at lizaachilles.com.

Guest blog post for Liza Achilles (lizaachilles.com)

It’s always a great pleasure to be invited to be a guest blogger, and today’s post is for fellow-blogger Liza Achilles. She asked me to reflect on a book that has influenced my life, and my response is a piece called Words, Words, Words – The Book That Made Me a Writer (the picture might just give you a clue about which book that is!). Head on over to lizaachilles.com to have a read – and while you’re there, do have a look at her posts on seeking wisdom through books and elsewhere.

The fallacy of the binary, or why BOTH/AND is better than EITHER/OR

If I am this, then I am not that.  If I am a writer, I am not an artist.  If I am to go on to do this, then I must leave that behind.

This is a common enough view, but it is, I believe, a fallacy.  All of our experiences enrich our lives, and each other.  Also, different perspectives enable us to see things in new ways.  Because I studied history, I see a landscape in a particular way.  Because I am obsessed with maps – including historical maps – I see landscapes in a particular way.  Because I am an artist – and specifically a textile artist, engaged with colour and texture, form and function, techniques and materials, symbols and metaphors – I see a landscape in a particular way.  Because I am a historian, a map addict AND a textile artist, I see the landscape in a way which is uniquely informed by all those lenses – more complex, more nuanced, more sophisticated and more original that if I were solely a writer, a historian, a map addict, a textile artist – a way that is greater than the sum of those parts.

In our culture, we are encouraged to focus on a few things in life.  It starts early, in our education system, where by our mid teens we have to select those subjects which are to be taken forward to public examinations.  If we reach university, our mental paradigms are narrowed still further to one, two, or at the most three subjects.  By postgraduate study, the focus is on one small aspect of one subject, and the emphasis is on depth, not breadth.  There is still the expectation that we will stay in the same job – or at least the same type of work – for the whole of our working lives, as our parents and grandparents did before us.  But we live longer lives than ever before, and this expectation should be obsolete.  More and more of us (myself included) are making one or more career changes – reflecting the massive changes in society and the economy during the half-century and more of our working lives, which have caused entire industries to disappear and others to be invented, but also reflecting the change, growth and development in ourselves as people over that time.  Sure, there are things that don’t change – for example, my love of history was formed young and continues unabated.  But we do develop, change emphasis, change our outlooks.  It would be sad if we stagnated, with our life, work and worldview the same at seventy as it was at twenty – that would imply that we hadn’t lived, hadn’t experienced anything, hadn’t learned or adapted or evolved.

To my mind, there is a close correlation between openness to change and creativity.  Creativity, by its very nature, is the antithesis of the ‘but we’ve always done it this way’ school of thought.  You cannot make a new thing by doing everything the old way.  This is not to value innovation at all costs – that way lies a senseless waste of heritage, skills, knowledge and resources – but to be wedded to habit can only stifle new growth.

It seems perverse, therefore, for me to acquiesce with the cultural notion that we can only be one thing – a writer, an artist, a teacher, whatever – and cannot, should not, also be something else;  that it is a cause for surprise, and somehow unsettling, to find that the local street sweeper is also an award-winning poet, for example, or that the sheep-farmer is a best-selling author*.  The idea that if you are this, then you are not that.

For a while now I have been finding it frustrating that, in order to focus on writing, I have felt that I have to turn my back on my art practice – to say no, I’m not an artist, I am a writer.  But as well as being frustrating, I feel this could weaken the quality of my writing – deliberately excluding the perspectives and insights of the artist me has, I would argue, risked making my writing unnecessarily one-dimensional.  As a writer, I write because of who I am, with experiences, perspectives and insights from all the aspects – relationships, careers, interests, study, skills, identities – which make up my life.  And my best writing is always when I allow one of those things which makes me ‘me’ to play on the page.  When I write ‘as a writer’ I am sometimes disappointed by how flat the resulting work is.  When I write because I can’t help myself, because I am so passionate or fascinated or curious or entranced that I just have to write, it’s then that the magic happens.

Textile art by Lisa Tulfer - an abstract composition in shades of plum, pink and ochre.  Wet process felt, 100% sheep's wool. Image copyright Lisa Tulfer 2012.

A few days ago, a number of factors came together – quite randomly, in that serendipitous way which so often births the best things in life – and I had an idea for a book.  A book that would reflect on landscape and place, and would engage with history and maps and identity and all the things I get excited about.  A book, moreover, which only I can write – because I am a textile artist AND a writer.  BOTH/AND, not EITHER/OR.

It is not unlike the way I am not British OR Dutch, but both – I feel that by embracing a multiplicity of identities my life is enriched by the diversity of experiences, perspectives and insights.  To be one thing to the exclusion of the other feels like a limitation, an impoverishment of my life and, by extension, my writing.  Wilfully to narrow my world-view, limit my sensory and intellectual input, and put large parts of my life into a box labelled (like on the steamships of yore) ‘Not Needed On Voyage’ feels wrong – and, if I am striving for the best writing I am capable of, counter-productive.

So – I am embracing this new book project, which requires me to be the artist me quite as much as the writer me.  It’s scary, it fits into no known genre of writing, and selling the idea to an agent or publisher is going to be a challenge – but I know that I have to write it, because only the BOTH/AND not EITHER/OR that I am can write it.

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

* Both these examples are genuine.

Book Review – The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster

This book arrived three days before the swifts returned to the skies above Somerset.  When I unwrapped the tissue-packed parcel, I was captivated by the cover – Jonathan Pomroy’s illustrations are so evocative of the drama and vertiginous speed of these remarkable, ancient birds.

The Screaming Sky is a book born of an obsession.  On his own admission, Charles Foster is obsessed with swifts – where others might be content to watch them in the skies over Oxford, and be blessed by their occupation of nest sites in the roof of his house, Foster travels on pilgrimage to see them in Spain, Greece and Israel, as well as in the tropical heat and humidity of their African winter homes.  He tracks the progress of their migrations via other obsessives on the internet, and the swifts’ presence or absence in the air above him is mirrored in the highs and lows of his mood.  It is as if he cannot live without them.

This gorgeously tactile little book is divided into monthly chapters, January to December.  In each chapter, Foster explores what the swifts are doing that month, and where, as well as delving into the history, biology and statistics of these enigmatic creatures.  We know quite a bit about Apus apus, the Common Swift.  For example, they spend most of their lives on the wing, landing only to breed and occasionally when encountering very bad weather during migration.  They sleep while flying – the two halves of the brain take it in turns to sleep.  Following the cornucopia of insect life (what Foster refers to as aerial plankton or krill), they migrate inconceivable distances – the swifts breeding in Foster’s summertime Oxford spend the winter months 6,000 miles south in Mozambique.   They lay up to four eggs, but the fourth hatchling (if there is one) never survives.  Young swifts set off for their winter homes within weeks, sometimes days, of fledging. 

We know that swifts are truly ancient, having evolved over 30 million years ago. Swifts are also long-lived – they can have a lifespan of 20+ years.  They return to the place where they were hatched, spending their first couple of summers screaming around the sky with their companions and generally, it seems, having a ball, maybe even tentatively pairing up, before scoping out a potential nest site for the serious business of claiming a nest and breeding.  We know that most of the birds which travel to western Europe for the summer breeding season spend a while over Liberia, gorging on the insect soup swirling in the air after the rains.  From there, the swifts I see in Somerset will have travelled some 3,100 miles, in as little as five days.

However, there is so much we don’t know about swifts.  There are myriad theories, for example, about how they navigate over these immense distances, how they decide that the time is right to start their migration, how they re-unite with their mate, and what accounts for the wide variations in how long it takes individual birds to make the journey.

Foster explores the place of the swift in literature, the emphasis on the bird’s speed (the clue is in the name) and its totemic role as the essence of the northern European summer.  He also rails against the appropriation of the swift as somehow the possession of the observer.  Swifts, he says, are not ‘yours’ or ‘mine’ or ‘his’.  They are their own selves, untameable, masters of the sky in a way that we can only dream of, and in no way reciprocating the sense of connectedness we feel with the swifts who condescend to make fleeting use of our roof-eaves and insect supplies.  It is this unconquerable wildness which, for Foster (and for me) makes swifts so compelling.

Perhaps more than anything, though, he is full of admiration for their mastery of their environment, the sky: ‘they inhabit the air as fish inhabit the sea’.  Their speed and seemingly effortless command of the tides of the air is not only functional (hunting insects) but also seems to have a powerful element of fun and joy: ‘not everything is about the algorithms of survival’ and the screaming parties of swifts hurtling through the sky are ‘colossal fun’.

I love this book.  The blend of facts and personal enthusiasm for the subject makes it an engaging read, and Jonathan Pomroy’s illustrations are perfect.  Of course, I loved it all the more – and was so excited when I heard that Little Toller Books were going to be publishing it – because of how I feel about swifts.  The sight of those exuberant little black sickles slicing through the late spring sky at the end of their epic migration is viscerally energising.  Shrieking squadrons, skimming just over my head between the red-brick cliffs of the town houses, sound so intensely full of life that they make me feel alive, too.  And the day in August when suddenly the sky is silent, empty of little black sickles as they follow the call of their African winter home, is the day the year turns towards winter for me, too.

The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster, illustrated by Jonathan Pomroy, is published by (and available from) Little Toller Books, 2021.  ISBN 9781908213846

Photograph of the front cover of The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster

Living in the past – old buildings as homes and stories

A few days ago I visited Presteigne, on the border of England and Wales (the counties of Herefordshire and Powys, to be precise).  With a population of fewer than 3,000 people, Presteigne would be classed as a village in most parts of the country, but here in the remote and sparsely-populated hills it is a town, with shops and services drawing people from the surrounding hamlets and scattered dwellings.   Sheep farming and tourism are the area’s main occupations, both capitalising on the sweeping hills and valleys of these unostentatiously beautiful borderlands, miles from anywhere.

Presteigne, which is called Llanandras in Welsh (loosely translating as ‘the enclosure around the Church of St Andrew’), is a historic town and was formerly the capital of the old county of Radnorshire (now subsumed into the administrative county of Powys).  It still has the court house, now a museum, as a legacy from that era.  The town is located beside the River Lugg, which forms the border between England and Wales.  It has a long pedigree as a settlement, featuring in the Domesday Book of 1086 – however, it also has charging points for electric vehicles in the town car park, a trendy deli, a modern convenience store on the high street, and a Chinese take-away.   

Modern features notwithstanding, what struck me most on my first visit to the town was how old it feels.  In the centre, along the high street and the area around the church, the houses are hundreds of years old.  Even where the facades appear newer, the buildings behind are constructed of traditional vernacular materials such as plaster and lath, half-timbering, cob, and stone.  Some, like the building which is now a charity (thrift) shop and a barbershop, are adorned with pargetting (ornamental plaster).  Centuries seep out of the walls of the buildings.  Each is grounded, venerable, secure in its place, a survivor.    Compared with the new-build boxes in the estates on the edge of town, which we drove past on the way in, these buildings are the ancestors which simply stayed, did not crumble and die, but remained rooted here in this community.

I find it interesting, though, that the town feels ‘old’ rather than ‘historic’.  Although I’m sure there are ‘listed buildings’ here, and that there are conservation orders in place for many of the streets, it doesn’t feel like a historic theme park.  Some places I’ve been – such as Holt in Norfolk, almost completely re-built in the Georgian period after a fire, or Stamford in Lincolnshire, with its picturesque stone buildings of homogenous limestone – are cohesive, visually harmonious, easy for the local tourist board to market as ‘historic’.  Presteigne is different.  Here, the buildings are jumbled together, built over centuries, fitted into gaps left by their predecessors, form following function.  The have been re-worked over time to the needs of each successive generation of occupants, which storeys added, extensions built, windows and doors relocated or bricked up, cottages and workshops fitted into the back premises of the buildings that front onto the street.  These aren’t picture-perfect ‘period homes’ – they are simply old houses, getting on with the business of living.

The contrast with the new houses on the estates is profound.  It is, in essence, a contrast between convenience and character.  These old houses are themselves – they have mass, substance, personality – they have their own stories.  The new houses are just blank pages.  Will the stories created there leave an imprint on the new buildings in the same way they have on the old?  I doubt it somehow.  The old buildings are not simply receptacles for living in.  They are themselves protagonists, characters in their stories.  They have adapted – with varying degrees of success – to the changes in society, in the way people live, and in technology, and the palimpsests of those changes are written upon them.   Have the new houses been built to last enough centuries to gain their own palimpsests, their own ghosts, to be characters in their own stories?  Looking at the neat estates of bungalows and semis, it’s hard to imagine.  Yes, the new buildings are more economical to heat, have regular-shaped rooms, conform to modern building standards.  But with little expectation that new-builds will last more than, perhaps, 60 years, issues of sustainability must be measured against the hundreds of years of service given by the timber frames and quarried stone walls of the old buildings.  What does that difference in life expectancy say about our society’s attitude to homes, to permanence, to community?

Walking back through the high street to the car, I felt a acutely aware of the long line of people who have come to Presteign in the last millennium and more, to live, to trade, to pause – as I was doing – on a journey.  The buildings I passed have seen perhaps the last 20 generations of those people, who walked and shopped and greeted people on the street as I did that day.  And in some indefinable way, the buildings are imprinted with their presence.

Don’t go there – imagination, the weird, and why I haven’t written fiction

Recently, I have tentatively started writing short fiction again.  Apart from occasional poetry, most of what I write is nonfiction, often around history and place.  This is partly because nonfiction is my preferred genre (both as a reader and as a writer) but also because of something that happened when I was seventeen.

I have written before on this blog about the creative writing A level I did in the 1980s, which included both poetry and short fiction.  The poetry element was fine – I enjoyed it, was good at it (so much so that my work was published in a volume of examples by the examinations board) and I got a lot out of workshops with poets including Gillian Clarke.  Fiction, however, was another matter altogether.

Like most children, I had always written stories.  I was also an avid reader, often of books well beyond my age group.  The town where I was at school at the time also housed the county library, and I spent a lot of time browsing the shelves, often discovering books which had not seen the light of day for many years.  One particular find was a volume of ghost stories by M.R. James, which according to the date stamp had last been issued in the 1950s.  James was a revelation – obviously, I’d come across ghost stories before, but what I particularly liked about his work was the ambiguity.  His stories did not have tidy endings, they did not provide explanations for what the characters had experienced, they left possibilities open for the mind of the reader to pursue.

Fresh from reading M.R. James, then, I took on the challenge to write a short story for my portfolio.  My English class had recently gone on a field trip to the graveyard of a local chapel, which had resulted in my writing a poem (‘Churchyard on the Hill at Salem’).  It also gave me an idea for the end of my story.

I no longer have the manuscript, but the story went something like this.  Told in the first person, it concerns a teenage girl who is gradually losing her ability to judge what is reality and what is her imagination.  Strange things appear to happen to her in her ordinary life of home and school.  She thinks that a procession of men visit her mother when her father is away on business, but as she becomes increasingly detached from her own life, she wonders how much she can trust her own judgment.  She plays truant, and find herself wandering through the churchyard.  Finding herself drawn to one particular headstone, she brushes away the ivy with her hand to reveal the inscription.  It is her own name, and the date of death is the following day.

Black and white photograph of an old headstone, carved with a winged skull at Felbrigg Hall (National Trust) Norfolk. Copyright Lisa Tulfer 2020
Headstone at Felbrigg Hall (National Trust), Norfolk. Copyright Lisa Tulfer 2020

I was rather pleased with this story.  I felt I had managed to evoke a mood of dreamy unreality, create an unreliable narrator, and write an ending with supernatural overtones but with, to me, pleasing ambiguity.  I submitted it to my English teacher for comment.

Two days later, my teacher kept me behind after the lesson.  She had ‘concerns’, she said.  She had spoken to the deputy head with responsibility for student welfare, and they had decided to speak to me before referring the matter to the Social Services department of the County Council.   Was the story, she wanted to know, in any way autobiographical?  Was I having suicidal thoughts?  Was I living in a household that was, effectively, a brothel?

After a few seconds of stunned silence, my first reaction was to laugh – the idea was hilarious.  My mother had always made it quite clear that she didn’t like sex, that it was a necessary evil which had to be endured to have children, and that once the menopause precluded me having any siblings, sex was something she was relieved no longer to have to do.  The idea that she would have more sex than was essential for procreation was, frankly, hysterically funny.  I tried to explain this to my teacher, as delicately as possible.  She looked doubtful, but accepted my response.  My second reaction, though, was bewilderment.  The assignment was to write a short work of fiction.  I was using my imagination – both in terms of the home scenario, so different from my own, and also the supernatural element.  I was juxtaposing the mundane contexts of home and school, and weaving a story from the results of letting my brain freewheel.  Surely that was the nature of fiction – that it wasn’t a true story?  So why were they – the teachers – assuming that it was autobiographical?  Why did they think that my brain wouldn’t be capable of making that jump from what is to what might be?  Why was I getting into trouble for doing what I had been asked to do – using my imagination to create a fictional world with fictional characters and events?

Evidently what I said reassured the teachers, because Social Services were not brought in.  But the remaining short fiction I wrote for my portfolio was anodyne, tame, safe.  I made sure I didn’t give any cause for concern about my safety or my mental health.  A family goes on a daytrip to the beach, eats sandwiches, plays ball, swims, comes home.  Someone goes for a walk in the woods, sees some animal tracks and wonders what has made them.  The stories I wanted to write were very different – a family goes on a daytrip to the beach, and play with a lone child in an old-fashioned style swimming costume.  When the family swim, the child disappears.  They summon the lifeguard, there is a search.  The child isn’t found.  Cut to an Edwardian newspaper report of a drowned child on that very beach.  Or, someone goes for a walk in the woods.  They see animal tracks, and follow them.  Gradually the tracks morph into human footprints.  In a clearing, they come face to face with the creature they have been following.  But I didn’t write those stories – I played it safe.  Got a good grade.  The teachers stopped watching me.  I had learned that to write fiction that explored the possible, the unexplained, the dark places where the mundane meets the unthinkable, was a Bad Idea and would Get Me Into Trouble.  I never wrote fiction again.

Until this year.  Perhaps because I have felt unable to read fiction in the dystopian reality of Covid 19, I have started to think about writing it again.  I am dipping my toe into the dark pool of my imagination and am writing short stories set in the everyday, about the past, death, the unexplained, with supernatural elements and enigmatic endings.  What I didn’t know, aged seventeen in my provincial small-town school, was that an entire genre of weird writing has been around since the Victorian era – there is even a ‘thing’ called women’s weird – which nowadays is celebrated.  Three decades and more later, I know that having an imagination that enables me to dream up weird writing doesn’t make me weird, and this time round I hope that exploring my imagination will not Get Me Into Trouble.

Time travel – family history, handwriting, and meeting a familiar stranger

Recently I have been spending time in 1950. No, this isn’t some weird Lockdown experiment.  Nor is it one of those popular history programmes on television, where a family pretends to go back in time to another era, where they invariably find that a) everything is much harder work than they are used to, b) the food is boring, bland and monotonous, and c) women have a considerably worse time of it than in the 21st century suburbia they are used to.  My time travel is altogether more personal.

I have blogged before about the cache of family photographs and papers I inherited a while ago.  Most of them relate to the maternal, Dutch side of my family.  But there are just a few items from the paternal side, including, for some unknown reason, my grandfather’s diary from 1950. 

Detail of diary entry for Thursday 30 Paril 1950

This side of the family were Liverpool Welsh, part of the large community of immigrants from Wales which was a significant part of the population in the great port city of Liverpool, in the North West of England, from the middle of the 19th century.  A large proportion of the Liverpool Welsh originated from the island of Anglesey, off North Wales, probably due at least in part to the island’s tradition of fishing and seafaring which would give them plenty of relevant skills for working in the docks.  My grandfather was born on Anglesey into a seafaring family – he was just five years old when his father died when the ship he was skippering went down with all hands in Bardsey Sound in the 1880s.  Although the details I was told by my father are a little hazy, there is documentary evidence that my grandfather was in the Merchant Navy at some point in his life, and also that he was the captain of a tug boat based in Bootle docks.  I wonder how it felt to be able to see Anglesey across the water from the banks of the Mersey?

I never knew either of my paternal grandparents as they died long before I was born.  Neither did I ever meet most of the cast of characters whose names are familiar to me from my father’s stories and from Christmas cards – aunts, uncles, cousins.  But in this diary I get a snapshot of their lives, their preoccupations, their daily activities and their holidays, and little details such as my grandfather’s birthday presents (socks, a muffler and a neck tie).  Several weeks of the diary are devoted to the business of getting electricity installed in the house, and frustration with Mr Jones, the electrician (presumably another member of the Liverpool Welsh community), who doesn’t turn up when he’s supposed to, and goes off for days at a time to work on other houses, leaving the place a mess and the job half done.  It seems some things don’t change!

From my grandfather’s diary, I learn a lot of things I either didn’t know, or wasn’t sure about.  One of my uncles is a coal merchant, and he and his wife and young son are obviously going up in the world as they are the proud new owners of a motorcar, a pre-war Rover 10.  This same uncle upgrades his coal lorry, only to have an accident when his shiny new purchase collides with a tram cart on Derby Road, in the docks area, and has to be ignominiously towed back to the coal yard for repairs.  One of my aunts, disabled by polio as a child and still living at home aged 43, goes on holiday to London and while there marries her pen-friend (a precursor of internet dating?).  This event warrants only a couple of lines, and none of the family seems to have attended.  Did she elope?  It’s a possibility, but there is an intriguing sentence a month earlier, when the pen-friend is staying with them in Liverpool: “hoping for the best.”

There are some things which seem inconsistent to me.  His world seems very small – every day consists of shopping and housework for my grandmother, a walk for my grandfather, various uncles, aunts and cousins visiting every day to do things like help carry the shopping home, scrub the doorstep or bring round the evening paper, taking it in turns to keep them company in the evenings.  More than half of each day’s entry is pretty much a verbatim repeat of the previous day, and his life seems a far cry from the active 71-year-olds I know these days.  But the family also travel extensively – I know from photographs that my grandmother visited London on holiday in 1948, and according to the diary in 1950 various family members have vacations in North Wales, the Isle of Man, and London (in the latter case, lodging with other members of the Welsh diaspora).  They have a daytrip to see the Flower Show at Ruthin in North Wales (my grandmother’s home town).  My father at this time is living in the South West, and my other uncle is at college near Sheffield, with placements all over England and even Ireland.

Extract from diary

My grandfather’s spelling is positively Shakespearian at times, often phonetic, with a level of literacy which suggests he was not educated beyond elementary school.  However, he reads the newspaper every day (including newspapers sent by relatives in other parts of the UK), and engaging with the written word through keeping a diary is obviously important to him.  There are hints too that it is my grandfather who deals with the business correspondence for the uncle with the coal yard.

I find the nature of his Welsh identity enigmatic, too.  For example, I know from my father that my grandfather was a first language Welsh speaker, but he chose to write his diary – that most personal document – in English.  Where he does use Welsh, for example in place names, his spelling is every bit as erratic as it is in English!  As with so many in the Liverpool Welsh community of the time, much of the family’s social life is based around Welsh-language churches and chapels, although by his own account my grandfather attends less than the rest of the family – he prefers to listen to Sunday morning services in Welsh, from chapels in Wales, on the radio.

Each day’s entry starts with a report on the weather: “Very nice morning nice and clear not too cold, wind South West light” or “rather dull at first then rained hard, stoped [sic] some sunshine then more heavy showers and more sunshine. Wind about South West by South.”  Along with occasional references to going to sign for his Seamen’s Pension, it’s the only clue to his years aboard ship, where the state of the weather – and the wind in particular – would have been of utmost importance.

I have written about the personal nature of handwriting, which gives an immediacy and intimacy that cannot be replicated by the typed or printed word.  Through this diary I have spent time with someone who is at once both familiar and a stranger.  I know of him, but almost everything I knew before reading this was mediated through my father, who was a fairly unreliable narrator.  I never knew my grandfather – but although I never met him in person, I have here in my hand a book which he held, every day of the year.  I have his words, written with a fountain pen, the quality of his handwriting reflecting his state of health on any given day.  I can see where he has gone back and added in an afterthought, or corrected a mistake in the day’s chronology.  This man is responsible for a quarter of my genes, and this is the first time I have had any physical contact with him.  When I turn the pages, I am touching his fingerprints.  This is the closest I will ever get to him.

The last full entry in the diary is for Boxing Day, Tuesday 26 December 1950. He writes:

“In the afternoon R and B came up for us all to go to there [sic] house for a party, but owing to the coughing and spitting I stayed at home.  I hope that they will have a good time there.”

The following day he writes only “Nice day” – not even a weather report.  Within a fortnight, just a few days before his 72nd birthday, he is dead.

Front of diary - 'Letts Desk Diary 1950'

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

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Personal writing – reviving the lost art of the handwritten letter

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions.  I gave up on them many years ago, dispirited by the trail of broken ones in my wake.  In 2021, though, I have decided to try something.  I want to resurrect the practice of keeping in touch with my friends by writing letters – letters written in actual handwriting, with pen and ink, on real paper, sealed in real envelopes (not envelope icons) and sent by snail mail with proper invented-in-1840 postage stamps.

A few of my friends wrote handwritten cards during the first lockdown, and receiving them was lovely – so much more personal than a comment on a Facebook post.  But it wasn’t until I was writing a recent post on this blog (In their own handwriting – connecting to the creators of the Lindisfarne Gospels) that I started thinking about the importance of the personal connection that handwriting gives, especially at this time when so many forms of personal connection are impossible because of restrictions necessitated by the pandemic.  It seemed strange to me that I know the handwriting of Eadfrith, a scribe-artist on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in c.700CE, and Aldred, a priest-scribe in the north of England in the second half of the 10th century, but have no idea what the handwriting of most of my friends looks like.  Friends whom I have known a long time – before social media, text and email became the currency of communication – did used to write, but now it’s mainly just a line in a birthday card and their signature.

An image of a page of handwriting

Regular readers will know about my addiction to notebooks.  This habit extends to some degree to stationery in all its forms – I have drawers full of sticky notes, pencils, coloured marker pens, highlighters.  However – and this is an indication of how long it is since I wrote a personal letter by hand – I had no writing paper or envelopes – only A4 printer paper and soulless DL envelopes for business letters.  So my first challenge was to find some suitable correspondence stationery.  This proved more difficult than I expected – my local stationers had only a very basic, rather scratchy pad and no envelopes.  I wanted my journey into handwritten letter writing to be a tactile and sensory experience, both for me and the recipients, so I wanted a bit of luxury.  OK, I wasn’t quite going to the lengths of the Lindisfarne Gospels and writing on vellum with handmade inks and gold leaf, but I wanted something a bit special.

In the end I compromised, with paper and envelopes from a brand (Basildon Bond) that used to be ubiquitous in my youth in the 1980s but which I could now only track down online.  It’s cream, and smooth, and a pleasure to write on, but next time I might go for something a bit more fancy from a specialist stationers.

That was the paper and envelopes sorted out.  Stamps were bought from the Post Office when I was in there anyway before Christmas to post some gift parcels.  The modern self-adhesive stamps are less environmentally friendly (with all that backing paper, which is coated so it can’t be recycled) but I don’t miss the foul taste of the ones you used to lick.  All that I was still missing was a pen and ink.  Now, I am almost as obsessive about pens as I am about notebooks, and I’m very particular about what I like to write with.  Even my ballpoint pens are carefully selected – fine point, black or purple ink, slim body – and inevitably I own a fountain pen.  Having owned Parker pens since childhood, I finally abandoned them a while ago as I was tired of the ink blobbing and I found the barrels too chunky for comfortable, sustained use.  I sought inspiration online, and found a Japanese company called Sailor who produce inexpensive fountain pens with fine nibs as standard.  Their inks also come in funky colours, although so far I had only used black.

Let me tell you about the history of the Sailor brand.  Early in the 20th century, a Japanese engineer was inspired by a fountain pen brought from England by a friend who was a sailor.  The engineer determined to manufacture high-quality fountain pens in Japan, and became the first to do so.  The brand, as its name suggested, travelled across the world.  Even their entry-level pen (which I like because it is lightweight and fairly slim) is robust and pleasingly engineered, with the fine nib that is characteristic of Japanese writing implements and which I really like.

Fortunately, my favourite pens supplier, Cult Pens, stocks Sailor ink cartridges, and an exciting lumpy parcel soon arrived.  I was ready to write a letter.

Handwriting a letter is a very different experience to handwriting notes from books, articles and websites, which I do a lot when researching.  It is sustained, focussed, and it’s about the writing process and how the reader will engage with the words rather than just recording notes for future reference where, as long as it makes sense to me, that’s fine.  A letter is written with the recipient in mind, sifting through all the possible topics to tell them about things which will interest them, which you want them to know about, and which strengthen the bonds of friendship between you.  As a writer, especially someone like me who often writes for unknown readers on the other side of the world, it’s quite a shift of mind-set.

Image of a page of handwriting, cropped diagonally

Of course, I’m not going to give up social media, and often knocking off a quick email, text message or WhatsApp is still a great way of keeping in touch with people in the moment.  But handwriting a personal letter gives another dimension to communication between two people – it’s considered, takes longer (not only because I now type far faster than I can handwrite, but also because the letter takes a day or two to reach its destination) and is more tactile.  It’s an artefact in its own right, its meaning more than just the words it contains.  A letter can be eagerly awaited, re-read, treasured, as our forebears knew.  It saddens me that future generations will not have the personal glimpses into our relationships that we do when we rediscover old family letters – no love-letters, no postcards from the seaside, no homesick letters home.  I do wonder if the historians of the future will find it harder to gain an insight into our lives – will our emails and texts have quite the same longevity and value?  I am not trying to turn the clock back on technology and its effect on the way we communicate, but I am committing to handwriting at least a letter a month, in the hopes that the personal touch will give, for their recipients, a little added value to my words.

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

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In their own handwriting – connecting to the creators of the Lindisfarne Gospels

For the last few weeks I have been researching the Lindisfarne Gospels for a chapter in my book, and writing an article about them for an e-magazine.  For those of you not familiar with the Lindisfarne Gospels, they are a lavishly illuminated hand-written book of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) of the New Testament, in Latin, produced by a scribe-artist called Eadfrith around 700CE, in the monastic community on the island of Lindisfarne (aka Holy Island) off the coast of Northumberland in North East England.  About 250 years later, a word by word translation (or ‘gloss’) in Old English was added above each line by a priest-scribe called Adred, at Chester-le-Street where the community was then living, having fled the island after raids by Vikings.

Incipit, Matthew’s gospel, Lindisfarne Gospels. British Library Cotton MS Nero D IV f.027r

The art of the Lindisfarne Gospels is quite widely known today – the manuscript has been digitised and is available on the British Library website, and its motifs are used on all manner of historically-inspired merchandise.  But, though beautiful, the art is not what excites me about the Lindisfarne Gospels.  What makes my heart beat faster is that sense of glimpsing into the distant past something which connects us physically with the individuals who created it more than a millennium ago.

Far from being dry and academic, my research has been a fascinating journey into the England of the early medieval period – what used to be called the Dark Ages, between the departure of the Romans in the 5th century CE and the Norman Conquest in 1066, during which time it was thought that culture, learning and civilisation were largely absent.  Historians think differently now, in no small part due to the artefacts produced in this period which have been found in various excavated hoards, and probably most famously at the ship-burial at Sutton Hoo which was excavated on the eve of World War II and which was found to contain jewellery of breath-taking beauty and craftsmanship.  The sophistication shown in the illuminated manuscripts of the time is now seen, not as an exception, but as representative of the high standards of creative skill on the part of the peoples of the time.

Carpet page, Matthew’s gospel, Lindisfarne Gospels. British Library Cotton MS Nero D IV f.026v

In an era before print, the production of a book – even the most plain and workaday one – was a major undertaking.  First, the vellum which formed the pages had to be prepared from the skins of young animals – calves or lambs – and trimmed and pricked in preparation for the binding process (making the Lindisfarne Gospels required the skins of almost 150 calves).  Lines had to be marked out on the page (Eadfrith invented the lead pencil, and the lightbox, to do this).  Ink had to be prepared, using oak galls and iron.  Feathers – ideally big sturdy ones like the flight feathers of swans – had to be trimmed into pens.  Then the scribe had to copy the book painstakingly from an exemplar, without the benefit of electric light.  It could take years to produce a book – years of dedication, focus, bad backs, cold, working in a scriptorium lit only by south-facing windows in the summer and candles in the winter.  A number of scribes left notes in the books they produced, complaining about their discomforts – issues around health and safety at work and RSI are not new!

The Beatitudes, Matthew’s gospel, Lindisfarne Gospels. British Library Cotton MS Nero D IV f.034r

What I love about these documents, though, is the immediacy of something which was produced by hand.  Just as our own handwriting is distinctive to each of us, it is possible to identify individual scribes by their handwriting.  Often, teams of up to half a dozen scribes and artists would work on a book – the Lindisfarne Gospels are unusual in having been written by just one man.  It is thought that it must have taken Eadfrith several years to produce the text and illustrations for this work.  It can be a stretch of the imagination, in 21st century Britain, to imagine the life of a 7th century monk on a windswept island in the North Sea, toiling on this work of great beauty, to the glory – as he would have seen it – of God.  Even as a visitor to Lindisfarne, it’s a challenge to look beyond the cafés and gift shops, the retreat centre and the museum, and the ruins of the later Norman priory, and picture this as a working monastery, its central work of prayer and worship buttressed by farming, fishery and the creation of high-quality books.  Seeing the personal handwriting of one of those monks, the strokes made by his pen, the drawings and embellishments he drew in the colours he chose (and created himself from mineral and plant pigments), brings him within reach.  Just as when, while researching your own family history you come across a 1911 census return in the handwriting of an ancestor you have never met and who died long before you were born, it makes them more real, so seeing Eadfrith’s handwriting brings him to life for us.

And in the Lindisfarne Gospels we are lucky enough to have the handwriting of two identified people.  I mentioned earlier that an Old English word-for-word translation (or gloss) was added in the middle of the 10th century.  We know that the man who did this was called Aldred, because he left us a note (a colophon) at the end of the Gospels to tell us so.  He also names Eadfrith as the original scribe/artist, as well as crediting the people who bound the book and made a jewelled cover for it.  By translating the text into English, Aldred was part of a movement championed by King Alfred (‘the Great’) in the late 9th century to make English a language not only of the people but also of learning and religion, alongside Latin.  Here we not only have Aldred’s handwriting, we can also see him wrestling with language as he frequently offers several alternative translations of Latin worlds into Old English.  Anyone who has ever attempted to translate from one language to another will relate to this!

Aldred’s colphon, Lindisfarne Gospels. British Library Cotton MS Nero D IV f.259r

In these times of emails, word-processing and SMS, handwriting is becoming a dying art.  In one way, that doesn’t matter – as long as we are communicating with words, it’s irrelevant how they are produced – but in other ways we are maybe losing something.  There is no digital equivalent of the personal, intimate legacy of someone’s handwriting – the notes and letters of past generations, which are often all we have left of our own families – and future generations will not experience the particular thrill of poring over a hand-written document produced by known, named people over a millennium ago.  I wonder what ways they will have instead to connect to the human individuality of the people whose words they are reading?

My article on the Lindisfarne Gospels is published in Issue 7 of The Pilgrim, which is available online here.

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

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Tools of my trade – techniques and technology for non-fiction writing

What image pops into your head when you think of a writer?  For many people, I gather it’s an image of a solitary figure, toiling for long hours in a shed or an attic, maybe even still writing in longhand or using a typewriter, surrounded by books and dust, and forgetting to eat.

Well, in my case, the image would be almost totally wrong.  Only almost, because I do actually work in the attic, or more accurately the top floor of an Edwardian town house (it’s not as grand as it sounds – the first occupants were glove makers, working from home, but more about that another time).  In my previous post, I write about the view from the windows.  But I am not solitary – my partner, who is a postgraduate researcher, and I share a study, with our desks facing each other across the floor of the room.  I do have quite a few books, but very little dust.  And I am keen on cooking and even more keen on eating.

Longstanding readers of this blog will know about my notebook habit, and I do write in longhand in my notebooks.  Often this is where initial ideas – or notes jotted down from reading or visits which may morph into a piece of writing later on – are recorded.  I have a general notebook, one for business-related notes, one each for the writing projects I am currently working on or planning, and one for courses I participate in.  Since I discovered the Pentel 1.3mm propelling pencil, most of my notes are written with that as I find it gentler on the hands than a pen.

If I am making notes from books – generally when I am researching historical topics, and referencing academic books – or from online sources, I use a narrow-ruled A4 student pad.  This makes it easier for me to file my notes in a ring binder if I need them for future reference.

For the actual writing, I use my ancient laptop (I really must upgrade it sometime, as it’s getting slower and slower) which I back up regularly.  Mindful of the importance of an ergonomic workstation, I use a separate keyboard and mouse, and my chair and desk are at the right height for me.   I loathe conventional office chairs, so my chair is an early 20th-century ‘smoker’s bow’ which originated in Pembroke College, Oxford, until it was sold off when one of their buildings was re-built.  It has a pleasing patina of age and use, and is built for comfort.  And to celebrate my move to Somerset, I recently treated myself to a new desk, made from reclaimed timber by Pegasus Furniture.

Picture of a desk with laptop, keyboard, diary, pens and books.

Planning a new piece of work – and the steps involved in making it happen – is done in two stages.  The first involves a large sheet of paper, a lot of lovely coloured pens, and often my partner to act as scribe and to challenge my thinking and provide research tips.  The ensuing mind map is then transferred to Trello (my planning tool of choice) as a series of colour-coded lists.  The book I am currently writing has an introduction and 12 chapters.  Each has a Trello list, with the structure, visits, research, reading, interviews, photography etc required for each chapter listed, with notes to myself where appropriate.  I find that working with Trello helps me to keep on top of the various strands of research, and allows me to have an easy overview of what needs to be done – geographically, for example, while I am visiting Hadrian’s Wall to do research for one chapter, it makes sense on the same trip to schedule a visit to Lindisfarne for another chapter; and I see that three chapters will require expertise from the British Museum – maybe I can cover all three on one visit to London?

For each chapter, I first sketch out where I see the chapter going – what I want to include, what angle I am taking, why this chapter is in the book, who are the key people to interview and why, and insights from previous visits where relevant.  Then I do the research, do the site visits and interviews, take photographs were possible, and take lots of notes and voice recordings of my impressions.  Later, these are all collated and, once I have created a detailed structural plan of the chapter, written up into the first draft.  It’s a slow process but it allows for rigorous background research and fact checking, as well as giving me time for ideas to develop as I reflect on, and respond to, what I have experienced.

It may come as a surprise to some people that the actual writing is a relatively small part of the process.  Bear in mind that I write non-fiction, so although what I write is filtered through the lens of my own personal perspective, experience and personality, it is based on something external.  Most of what I write about involves history or place, or both, and therefore writing about it requires close reference to the place, object, event or person that is my subject, and to what is known about it.  For example, my personal reflections on the music of Benjamin Britten in a recent piece for Issue 5 of The Pilgrim are informed and enriched by studying his life and work, as well as by experiencing for myself the sights and sounds of the beach at Aldeburgh which is the setting for his opera Peter Grimes.

No two writers – not even two non-fiction writers – will approach their work in the same way, or use the same tools and technology in their writing, but this is how I work.  The process evolves, too – prior to my discovery of Trello, I used whiteboards and a lot of coloured maker pens and sticky notes.  Trello is essentially a digital version of this, which has the advantage of leaving my walls free for inspiring art!

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com