History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

19 October 2007

The Joy of (Primary) Sources

It was my first time, and it was thrilling. In order to research The Slightest Provocation, my husband Michael and I went to the British National Archives at Kew, where we read the microfiched copies of correspondence between Lord Sidmouth, the British Home secretary, and the agents provocateurs he sent out to foment mischief among the parliamentary reform movements in 1817.

Michael had learned which boxes of microfiche to ask for, in the indexes of books like The Making of the English Working Class by E. P. Thompson, and England's Last Revolution: Pentrich 1817, by John Stevens.

We got to the National Archives early (there was quite a crowd of us walking over from the tube station; I gather many people go there to do genealogical research), It wasn't hard to find the boxes of microfiche we needed; the staff were really helpful. We spooled up the rolls into the fiche readers, took deep breaths... and stared at each other in mortal terror.

Because since the night before our visit, each of us were thinking the same thing and had been afraid to admit to each other: that we were going to have to read this correspondence in the original handwriting and suppose we couldn't?

As it turned out, we could. Not every word, but it got easier as the day got on. Sadly, it was our last day in London, which was too bad; I know it would have gotten much easier with practice. (Here's a photograph, btw, from the National Archives' web site, of a Home Office communication about the Peterloo Massacre in 1819 -- but lots of the letters aren't this legible).

But what a treasure trove it was, even if we couldn't read every word. Michael's first box contained a letter from the provocateur we'd been reading about, the famous "Oliver the Spy." And it had a note scrawled in the margin from the Home Secretary himself, telling his other agents, "hands off, this guy works for me" (well, in Regency English). "A smoking gun," Michael whispered.

And pretty soon I found a long, wordy, wonderfully entertaining report of a midnight Luddite machine-breaking raid. According to the agent, they shot the guard in the leg, but he took it very well, agreeing that it was for the sake of "the trade," as he put it, meaning weaving, and bidding them do their work fast so he could get to a doctor soon. (They could have worked fast, by the way -- machine-breaking didn't always have to mean wrecking a whole shop; sometimes it just meant making off with a crucial part of the machine.)

Of course, there's no way to know how much (if any) of this spy's account was true. If you hire informers (and pay them by the word) you have to expect this: The Slightest Provocation talks about the confusion that can ensue in such a situation. And moreover, the agents Sidmouth hired for domestic spying were amateurs (though Oliver was a very gifted one). So it wasn't at all clear to them what was valuable information and what wasn't, and for my purposes, they produced wonderfully evocative jumbles.

In fact, my favorite part of the report on the machine-breaking episode was an extensive , meandering preamble, about meeting up in an inn to have dinner before the raid. The informer seemed absolutely delighted to natter on about who had chops and who had ale, who had to borrow money in order to eat, and who sold a pair of stockings to pay for his dinner.

The detail about the stockings makes sense, though, because Luddites were often stocking-makers. One of their most serious gripes was a new sort of frame for weaving stockings - the machine made inferior ones and workers who used it got paid less - which is why it seemed plausible to me that the guard could have said it was for the sake of the trade. Wasn’t it interesting, too, that the agent wasn't afraid to put that radical sentiment in his report to the Home Secretary?

Part of what made this so much fun, as you can see, was that we understood a lot of what we were looking for. Of course, this wasn't primary research. Rather, it was a search for the feel, the smell, if you will, of the period and of the incidents. We'd already read about Luddites, parliamentary reformers, and the provocateurs who dogged their heels, but seeing the papers made all the difference. I was able to get a feel for the size and scope of the operation -- really quite small (since then, I've read that the Home Office had a staff of maybe a dozen people), but sinister, nonetheless, to be watch the Home Office setting spies and provocateurs throughout the countryside. And fascinating and chilling, to see the marks of the living hands on this correspondence.

It was an amazing experience for a couple of amateurs like us -- I can barely imagine what it must be like in the big leagues, when a professional historian unearths a trove of papers and has to figure out to make sense of it. Which I'll be writing about on a future post -- about the book that made me decide to try to write a romance novel in the first place, The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France.

The Archives closed at 5. We were sad to leave but also exhilarated, and wandered around the spectacularly beautiful Royal Botanic Gardens a few blocks away in a beautiful twilight mist and shimmer of reflected history until that august British institution closed at 8. And then we got a lovely French dinner in the nice little main street near the tube stop in Kew.

Sometimes there's nothing better than research.

Writers, have you had similar research experiences? Or contrasting ones, perhaps?
And readers (of historical romance or not), do you think this sort of research "shows" in the reading experience?

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Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Pam, what a great story! how cool to be able to spend time in the archives, having access to all that great material. It sounds like a perfect day. I definitely think it shows during the reading experience. Although I adore Regencies and other lighter historicals, I love books that dig a little deeper into what was going on at the time in the world, and in order to do that, a writer has to research. It adds flavor and spice to the novel, and you can always tell when a writer has done his/her homework and when they have not.

8:58 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Wow! Doesn't it just make yor fingers and spine tingle to view (or even get to handle) the real deal? It was a tremendous visceral (as well as research) boon when I was working on TOO GREAT A LADY. When I was in England in 2005 for the 200th centenary anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, and saw Nelson's coat with the bullet hole in it (and the actual musket ball -- courtesy of the queen, in whose private collection it is, usually) and saw his (relatively tiny) blood-soaked stocking ... and the actual fedele rings they exchanged, and a chair that was at their home together, Merton Place ... I had such a physical reaction: excited tingles, tears, shivers.

Nothing can beat the experience of primary sources for an historical fiction writer.

I would urge all writers, if they can afford to do so, visit your sites, see, smell, touch (if they'll let you -- at Portsmouth, you can run your hands over a facsimile of a death mask of Nelson so I could really capture how Emma felt to caress the planes of his face, the slight bump on his nose, etc). It will add so much more depth to your story and your writing. A cyber-ticket is valuable, but the real thing is priceless.

9:06 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

It was a perfect day, Elizabeth -- perhaps the perfect ones are always the ones when you want another (hmm, sounds like Zeno's paradox).

Amanda, that was beautifully put. And a real challenge. Because I've always made historical figures the minor characters in my books. Makes me feel freer -- like in Almost a Gentleman, where we only meet William Blake via Mrs. Blake: I loved imagining her, but I was too timid to imagine him. But to see the actual clothing, or something... yeah, that gets me thinking.

10:14 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

How cool! I love primary source research (and the great thing about the Regency is that there are so many more primary sources than there are from the late 15th century on which I did my undergrad work). I haven't ever found anything as exciting as a "smoking gun' but I have felt something of the thrill you describe going through microfilm copies of "The Morning Chronicle" at U.C, Berkeley, realizing I could figure out what play my characters would have been at what theater on a given night, reading military dispatches, parliamentary transcripts, arrivals in and departures from London, etc...

I recently wrote a nonfiction book on the first fifty years of the Merola Opera Program (an opera training program I'm invovled with). I;'d never done such recent historical research. Not only did I go through archives and look at actual letters and other documents from the early years of the program, I was able to interview people who were involved in its history. It was a fascinating project.

11:38 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

I've had that visceral experience a few times -- looking through the architectural drawings of Paine and Adam, the first time I read from the book written by my husband's great great something Major General Lord Blayney about his time as a French Prisoner of War during the Peninsula War (did a blog on that a long time ago) and looking at the cut paper transparencies done by an almost anonymous woman in the early 19th century.

While I love to see the results of research I have to admit what makes a story work for me is the characters.

Pam, I felt like I was there -- a true art to make research sound thrilling.

12:37 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I think I'd also love the idea of writing the history of something fairly recent that's still here, Tracy. And my slightly wider-lens version of the current newspapers is to have my bookish characters reading things they really would have been reading.

But ultimately, in romance, the point is the characters (as Mary says). We want to understand their world so we know where they can move freely and how they will be constrained in their journey toward each other.

1:39 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Great post, Pam. I could see myself getting so lost in the National Archives, and closing the place down. I do think this kind of research comes shining through in what we write.

My latest research---surfing the net for pieces of medieval horse tack people are willing to sell. Amazing. I can own something minted in 1300 (but not a very large something, and usually only in "moderate" or "poor" condition). The good stuff goes to museums.

2:48 PM  

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