Sadly, today is the last of our series on research. But we’re finishing with a bang!
In delectable medieval York.
Today, we welcome Pamela Hartshorne, a York specialist. Her credentials are beyond doubt — she has a PhD in medieval studies — but she manages to wear her research very lightly. She has written dozens of books for Mills & Boon, a publisher that definitely doesn’t want dry background material to get in the way of the love story between hero and heroine.
Every time someone asked whether she’d use her research in a book, her answer was always no.
Until, one day …
One day, no finally became yes. Pamela turned to writing historical novels set in her beloved York, where she’d done her academic research. Was she taking a risk? Could she make the jump from Mills & Boon romance to mainstream timeslip? Here’s her story . . .
Research may be useful … or not
By the time I sat down to write a historical novel, I was feeling pretty confident. I’d already written over 50 books for Mills & Boon, so I figured I knew something about storytelling. I had a PhD in the history of Tudor York, and after nine years of research, the city and the people who lived there felt very familiar to me. I had a setting, I had a story, I had a real feel for the period: surely I was off to a flying start?
Well, no. It was swiftly borne in upon me that while I might be your gal when it came to 16th-century rubbish disposal, my characters couldn’t spend the entire book cleaning their gutters, shifting dung heaps and complaining about their quarrelsome neighbours. (I promise you, it’s more interesting than it sounds.)
No, they would have to get up (oh, right … where exactly did they sleep?) dressed (hmm, did they wear underwear?) have breakfast (but wait, did they eat breakfast then?) before going off … er, to do what? I had a clear sense of what went on in the streets, but at some point my story would have to move inside, at which point my much-vaunted PhD was completely useless.
Answer? More research into York!
Happily, like all historical novelists, I love research, so I abandoned my precious wardmote court records for the time being.
Instead, I got stuck into some of the wonderful and very accessible printed primary sources which offer vivid details about daily life in Elizabethan England — snippets of conversation and endearments in Claudius Hollyband’s Dialogues; accounts of gardens and orchards, grumbling old men and “our English dogs and their qualities” in William Harrison’s Description of England.
I have spent many hours poring over the recipes and remedies in Gervase Markham’s The English Housewife and The Good Housewife’s Jewel by Thomas Dawson — although not all the dishes described are to the modern taste. A blancmange made of crushed capon brains, anyone? Who fancies a fricassee of tripe?
Or would you like a “sovereign ointment” for aches and pains that involves taking eight baby swallows from a nest and pounding them in a pestle and mortar (ugh)? The eeeuwww factor can too easily jolt the reader out of the story, so you need to choose your recipe with care.
Printed wills and inventories are full of information about houses and how they were furnished.
Archaeological excavations let us see everyday items like pots, dog collars and even a bottle that had been filled with pins and urine and buried under a threshold to keep the witches away. (Both these items found their way into Time’s Echo.)
York is pure inspiration
But my best resource is the city of York itself.
A short stroll into town, and I can walk into buildings that my Elizabethan characters would recognise.
- The spectacular Merchant Adventurers’ Hall has portraits that let you look Elizabethans in the eye, and a wooden chest remarkably like the one in which Nell is trapped in The Memory of Midnight.
- Holy Trinity Goodramgate is tucked away behind a busy street. My characters might stare at the new-fangled box pews installed in the 17th century, but otherwise the church would be familiar to them.
- They might not know what to make of the bottle shop in Stonegate, but if they climbed the metal staircase to the bar called The House of Trembling Madness, they would find themselves in a hall with a fireplace and beams they might have touched over 400 years ago.
York is full of hidden places like this. For me, it is a city where the past feels very close and the boundary between research and imagination often blurs. At times I could almost swear that I glimpse a coifed head whisking out of sight or catch the sounds and smells of the 16th century drifting on the breeze.
Doesn’t York sound a wonderful place to visit?
The Libertà hive may need to go on another trip, in the light of Pamela’s tantalising glimpses of the hidden gems of medieval York. Not sure we share her fascination with drains and dung heaps, though. Many thanks for sharing all your research, Pamela. Even those recipes? … well, maybe not.
For many years Pamela Hartshorne alternated between writing romance for Mills & Boon (as Jessica Hart) and researching her thesis on the street and perception of public space in Tudor York. After 60 romances she finally decided it was time for a change. Time’s Echo, her first timeslip story, written under her real name and set in Elizabethan York, was published by Pan Macmillan in 2012, and followed by The Memory of Midnight, The Edge of Dark and, most recently, House of Shadows.
But Pam hasn’t given up on her research. Until she has time to write a proper history of rubbish disposal, she has set up a Facebook page to make this wonderful material about everyday life in the Elizabethan city more accessible to all. If you’re interested, do take a look here
To find out more about Pam’s books, visit her website or her author Facebook page or follow her on Twitter @PamHartshorne Her latest book, House of Shadows, is available here.
What if the life you were remembering wasn’t your own?
When Kate Vavasour wakes in hospital, she can remember nothing about the family gathered around her bed, or of her life before the accident – a terrible fall from the roof of her home, Askerby Hall. The doctors diagnose post-traumatic amnesia and say her memories should start returning. Which they do … but these memories are not Kate’s own. They belong to Isabel Vavasour, who lived and died at Askerby Hall over four hundred years earlier …
Lovely stuff! The amount of research actually makes me feel faint…
Oh, but it’s the research that keeps us going, Lesley! Of course the temptation to squeeze absolutely all of it into a book has to be resisted, but surely one more little dung heap wouldn’t hurt …?
York is indeed a wonderful place to visit. My husband, daughter, and I spent an afternoon there during as 12-day “tour” of Great Britain. We wanted to stay so very much longer! There is a winding medieval street behind the cathedral that is a must-see. (We got there after the shops had closed); the modern shops had many “old-time” things for sale. It was all just too much for our short time. We want to go back.
By the way, I am not faulting the tour. We thought of it as a good overview of what the island of Great Britain has in store.
Glad you had a good time in York, Sue. Come back some time!
I loved The Memory of Midnight although it was very scary. I love history but do prefer it to be hand fed to me, via fiction so I found this fascinating.
Thank you, Katie – I’m so glad you enjoyed The Memory of Midnight. I’m also a big fan of the way good historical fiction can make the past engaging and accessible. In fact, it was a novel, Sharon Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour, that made me want to do a PhD and as I started writing to fund my return to university, historical fiction ended up kickstarting a whole new career for me. Who says a book can’t change your life?