Category Archives: History

Writing Workshop – 5 Great Ways To Place A Twist On Putting Your Character In A Coffee House

charles-dickens-for-writing-blog-post

When people ask what can I write about, it is often answered by ‘write what you know’. This is good advice but I would like to offer you a twist on that. Think about the things that you do in your own life and then let your character do them but in a different time. It means that you will have to do some research but this always helps with ideas and the flavour of the piece that you are writing.

One – Find an atmospheric setting

Let me give you an example. You probably go to a coffee house and could easily set a story there so how about doing that but setting it in the past? Wouldn’t this make your story stand out that bit more?

old-london-coffee-house

Let’s explore the situation. For a start, it is easy to imagine that coffee houses are something invented by us modern folks but that is not true. The reality is that if you pop down St Michael’s Alley which is a passage in London you will find a blue plaque on the wall of a wine house. The plaque states that the original London coffee house stood on that site and opened in 1652.  Just from that we have a place and a time that could send your mind buzzing with ideas.

Springboard 1 – A story set in 1652 in St Michael’s Passage, London when a new fangled coffee house is just opening. Imagine how the owner must feel.

Two – Find some larger than life characters

samuel-johnson

Many coffee houses sprang up in the 17th and 18th century and they were extremely important because it was where men met to do business and share ideas. We know from records that many men who were involved with the arts and scientific enquiry frequented coffee houses. Wren, Dryden, Reynolds, Johnson, Swift, Gainsborough, Garrick and Hogarth, to name but a few, were regularly seen discoursing over their passions in coffee houses. There we have a wonderful set of characters. It only takes a little bit of research and some poetic licence and you have a story about one of them.

Springboard 2 – A story about Wren, Dryden, Reynolds, Johnson, Swift, Gainsborough, Garrick or Hogarth getting into a troublesome situation in a coffee house.

Three – Create some domestic conflict

mary-w-the-rights-if-woman

In fact, it is believed that many insurance companies and other financial businesses started as a result of deep debates in coffee houses. It has been suggested that men spent so much time in coffee houses that they were often more associated with their regular haunt than where they actually lived.  If men were at the coffee house more than at home this could cause marital rifts – this is a good plot line.  If you want to use an idea following this line, I have actually written about this on the post ‘Trouble in the Coffee House – Get Writing.’

Springboard 3 – A man would rather spend more time at the coffee house than at a home with his wife.

Four – Have a coffee house trail

outside-a-coffee-house

It wasn’t just the capital that boasted coffee houses either. Oxford and Cambridge both had coffee houses and Bristol is recorded as having 4 by 1666. There was at least one in York by 1669 and others in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dublin. Exeter, Bath, Norwich, Great Yarmouth, Chester, Preston and Warwick also had coffee houses. This means that you don’t have to set your story in the capital, you have a wealth of settings to choose from. In fact, you could use coffee houses as a trail.

Springboard 4 – A man is on a secret mission that leads him around various coffee houses until he ends up in a coffee house in York about 1700. Who is he meeting there?

Five – Use details from your research to cannon ball your plot

coffee-house-sign

However, it was London, because of the business which was carried out in them, which had the most coffee houses and it is said that by 1714, there were at least 1,000 coffee houses there then. The houses were usually identified by a hanging sign; however, in 1762 all such signs, except at public houses, were banned.  It seems their creaking at night stopped folks from sleeping. Furthermore, if you were trotting along on a horse on a windy day, you could be knocked right off your mount by one of those blasted signs. This actually happened. Basically, the signs had become a menace to society and that is why they had to go. We can use details like this both to add authenticity to our story and to amuse our readers.

Springboard 5 – A man is knocked off his horse by a coffee house sign and a comely woman helps him – is she as kind and good as she seems to be or does she have ulterior motives?

Inspiration is everywhere – I hope that I have offered you some today. Happy writing.

 

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Scrooge or Sensible? True Thrifty Happenings

Illustrated by John Leech in 1843.

Illustrated by John Leech in 1843.

How do you view the thrifty? Sensible or like one of Dickens’ most famous characters, Scrooge. Perhaps this will help you to make up your mind.


Thrift For Thought

I first became interested in thrift when my late uncle sagely announced that he never let a grocer weigh the tomatoes until he insisted that the stalks be removed.  If that seems extreme, it soon becomes obvious that it is nothing to what has gone on in the past.

Thrift in the nineteenth century was a well-rehearsed skill from the highest seat of society down to the lowest.  One of the perks of being a ladies’ maid was getting the mistresses’ gowns whilst other unused pieces of cloth would be collected together in a ‘rag-bag’ and household servants would often be allowed to keep these.  They would be passed on to a street buyer, rag and bone man or rag and bottle shop.  Linen would be separated to be sold to a paper manufacturer as paper was made from linen and rag well into the nineteenth century.

Bring out your rags.

Bring out your rags.

Used tea leaves would be utilised to clean carpets and then passed onto cleaning ladies who sold them to dealers.  With a bit of artificial colour thrown in, the dealer would then put the tea leaves (which had been on the carpet) on sale as fresh tea.

Who claims the fat

Each servant appeared to have their own expectations of the booty they could claim and the fat from the roasted animals was earmarked by the cook.  The dripping, as the fat was called, would be used like butter by the poor.

Even bones were sold onto the rag and bone man for fertilizer and household ashes and dust were marketed to help make bricks.  It seems that nothing was thrown away, as soot from chimneys was vended for manure and insect killer.

As people were not aware of how germs were transmitted, it was a regular practise for the very poor to collect dog manure or ‘pure’ as it was politely called.  This was sold to tan yards for the processing of leather for the soft kid gloves so beloved by the rich.

Where there is muck there is brass.

Where there is muck there is brass.

Mrs Child, an American housewife, advised in 1828 that after old coats and pantaloons for boys had been cut up and were no longer capable of being converted into other garments, the housewife should slice them into strips and use the leisure moments of children or domestics in sewing and braiding them into door mats.

Waste is an act of treason

By 1915, thrift in the home was the order of the day.  “Waste is an act of treason when every penny saved helps to save your country.”  This reminder was on the bill announcing the opening of the Patriotic Thrift Exhibition at Hamilton Rooms, Park Street, Bristol 25 – 30th November 1915.  The exhibition was organised by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies who offered a range of lectures on domestic subjects which represent war service in the home.

A familiar theme concerning thrift is that of the wealthy preaching to those less well off.  At the Exeter Society in 1923, the president, Lady Rosalind spoke on women’s extravagance.  She warned of the ‘melancholy spectacle’ of cheap pianos, cheap jewellery and cheap furs bought by women who could not afford them.

During World War II, women found it difficult to get hold of stockings.  Stockings were made of silk as nylon wasn’t invented until 1938 and initially only on sale in America from 1940.  As silk was used to make parachutes for the wartime effort, silk stockings became a rare commodity as both manufacturers and retailers charged high prices and asked for too many clothing coupons for them.

What you have to do.

What you have to do.

Snatched the stockings

In 1944, a bus conductress from Truro found herself in court after being thrifty over silk stockings.  On June 28th, she acquired two pairs from a bus driver without surrendering coupons.  Captain Craze for The Board of Trade snatched the stockings for disposal but they were later seized by the Customs and Excise Department.  Craze opposed this measure saying that he would have to take further instructions from The Board of Trade.  The case was adjourned for a fortnight; thrift can end up causing a lot of expense.

It seems that thrift is here to stay.

 

 

 

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Writing – Making sure That Your Pongs Stand Out

When we write narrative, it is important that we embrace all the senses. Smell often gets overlooked because it is easy to forget that as our characters go about their adventures that certain whiffs will travel up their snitches whether they like it or not. To get you started, I want you to think about how when we go into public lavatories, we sometimes wrinkle our noses up because someone has been in before us and left a pungent smell or has not flushed properly. Yes, even modern tales have smells in them.

Public Urinals

If you are writing a historical piece, you have won the Lottery because in the Middle Ages virtually everywhere carried an unpleasant odour. Think about it, it must have been totally pongy because most rubbish ended up in the streets. If we drop something down the sides of a bin and it is not noticed, it smells dreadfully within days, multiply that reek by about fifty and you may be near the mark.

Also, if a butcher killed an animal and sold the meat, he would not discreetly and hygienically get rid of the guts, he would fling it out in the street. Over weeks and months of that practise, the smell must have been putrid.

As for the lavatories, well we know that the town council in London passed a law to try to clean up the streets. This was to have public conveniences built over the river Fleet. This meant that people travelling under the bridge, for instance the boatman, had a constant eyeful of bare buttocks and if they were unlucky much more.

Jester

Cor Blimey! I bet there was a whiff under that lot.

Back in the 14th century folks built loos in strange places and it often landed them in court. In 1321, Thomas Wytte and William Hockele were up before the bench for building a toilet in Ebbgate Lane which was supposed to be a public right of way. Apparently, the lavatories projected from the walls of houses so that human waste fell onto the heads of the people who were innocently walking along that stretch of public highway. Mind you, the fact that they were using loos meant that they were the sophisticates of the day, not everyone bothered with them. In fact, many shared rooms with animals and behaved like them.

So get sniffing up while you write, it may produce some results that make you proud.

Happy writing.

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Writing Historical Fiction – Don’t Drop A Bloomer

If the weather and the government are getting up your pip then you should cheer yourself up with a bit of historical writing. It is pure escapism as you forget the world you live in and adventure into another time. However, beware of making historical bloomers – a typical one is having women wearing knickers too early on.

Fancy a pair of these?

Fancy a pair of these?

Strange though it may seem, up until the late 19th century women did not wear knickers. Yes, knickers are yet another invention of the Victorian era. Of course, they were not called knickers back then but drawers. For a Victorian woman, the drawers would have consisted of two separate knee length legs drawn together with a waistband. This means that her nether regions were left uncovered which is rather bizarre as we tend to think of knickers as a garment which cover those parts which we do not mention.

Initially, the drawers were regarded with hostility. They were viewed as nothing more than an imitation of men’s underclothing. This in itself was offensive to female respectability and virtue. To truly understand this we have to imagine that opinions often came from what the Bible suggested and wearing clothes of the opposite sex was frowned upon.

We also need to understand that the drawers were simply seen as an extra layer and that was associated with prostitution. A prostitute would wear an extra garment so that she could add to her client’s titillation as she had more layers to remove.

On top of that, women in European countries had started wearing drawers. The fact that French women wore them added more resistance against wearing them as the Victorian women thought the French woman was rather fast. If there was one thing a respectable Victorian lady did not want to be viewed as was racy.

Happy writing.

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Creative Writing – Research is all important

Losing readers

Getting your facts right is an all important part of being a writer. You will lose your readers quicker than a certain party lost its seats at the election if you drop a clanger like having someone drive a bright red sports car around the centre of Venice. This is why research is so important. We may not use most of the research we cover but we need to pay attention to the small details of the time and place we are writing about so that what we eventually put in is authentic.

Research is also your insurance against talking heads. By this, I mean having characters just standing talking or sitting opposite each other drinking tea. Readers enjoy movement even if your Victorian lady is simply cleaning her teeth – you can actually have her doing something while she is thinking about who might have poisoned the vicar.

Let’s not assume that brushing the teeth then was just the same as it is today. For instance, these days, most of us are able to look after our teeth quite well with the aid of modern dentistry and all the products on the market. However, in Victorian times there was not such a lot of choice. Toothbrushes looked like the ones we use now; although the handles would have been made of bone or wood and the bristles would have been of horse or pony hair.

Fancy cleaning your teeth?

Fancy cleaning your teeth?

Soot and charcoal

Toothpaste was referred to then as dentifrice; many people cleaned their teeth with a little salt or soot though. However, your character could go to the pharmacy or chemist and buy commercial dentifrice. These were mostly coloured abrasives which would polish the teeth. In these pastes you would find that it was the powdered chalk and cuttlefish which were the ingredients which would make your pearly whites sparkle; although soot and charcoal was also used in some pastes.

To make your character’s mouth smell medicated, camphor, myrrh or burnt laurel would be added. These would linger in the mouth to make his, or her, breath inoffensive. The camphor and alum may also have had a small antibacterial effect too.

Powdered coral and dragon’s blood were added so that gums would appear pink and healthy. These days we expect toothpaste to be white to reflect the colour of our teeth but in the Victorian era it was supposed to emphasize what good condition their gums were in. All of these things can be woven in to add detail and keep your characters on the move.

Looking good!

Looking good!

Incidentally, when chalk was added to some brands of dentifrice, it was the same material which folks would use to scrub out their sinks and bath tubs with. The cuttlefish in the paste was found washed up on the beaches. Today we use it in budgerigar feed.

Happy writing.

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Writing a Crime Novel – Ideas

A resource to get you started

Do you want to write a crime novel but don’t have the confidence? Don’t worry, you could always base it on a real life crime. If you are worried about being sued by the people involved, the trick is to set it in the past; this way your book will appeal to lovers of both crime and historical fiction.

To demonstrate what we mean, we offer a springboard to get you started. This is worth reading even if you don’t intend to write anything.

Your springboard is the Poison Ring in Paris in 1673. During that year of Louis XIV’s reign, two priests told the King that a number of penitents had asked for absolution after murdering their spouses. Obviously, names could not be given but the Chief of Police, Nicholas de la Reynie was put onto the case. He found out that a ring of fortune tellers were supplying what were called ‘succession powders’, in other words poisons, so that people could get rid of inconvenient partners.

What is going on in the minds' of those in Louis XIV's court?

What is going on in the minds’ of those in Louis XIV’s court?

International poisons ring

The problem for De la Reynie was that he had no names. However, he kept sniffing the air and after four years he managed to fit together clues which led him to understand that there was an international poisons ring. It was similar to the drugs and paedophile rings which go on these days. Even more surprisingly, De la Reynie discovered that the ring was headed by men of influence.

Eventually, De la Reynie got the lead he had been waiting for. The fortune teller, Marie Bosse said that she was going to retire after she had arranged three more poisonings. A disguised policewoman consulted Bosse on how she could get rid of her spouse and an arrest was made when Bosse sold the poison to her. Her house was raided and many poisons were found there. Bosse, her husband and two sons were arrested. La Vigoreux, another fortune seller who shared a communal bed with the family, was also arrested.

A later burning alive execution.

A later burning alive execution.

After they were interrogated, it was revealed that up to half of the aristocracy were trying to poison one another. The king was shocked but even more so when he discovered that two ladies were planning to get rid of one of his own mistresses, Louise de la Valliere. Marie Bosse was burned alive.

So here we have it – a setting, a plot, main characters and even a detective. What are you waiting for? Happy writing.

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Creative Writing – A Great Character Needs Attitude

Here at Loony Literature, we love distinctive characters and feel that an important part of characterization is attitude – theirs not yours. So how can we encapsulate this in our writing?

Let’s imagine that you want to create a middle class, Victorian, married woman who has a family. What type of attitude might she have about her main occupation of being a home maker? One of the easiest ways to do this is to read what she might have read.

Make the most of free resources

A good place to start in this particular case is with The Book of Household Management by Mrs Beeton which can be downloaded for free if you follow this link. Mrs Beeton is probably the most famous British cookery writer in British history. She lived in the 19th century and gave advice on most things to do with a woman’s life. If you need to know how to deal with servants – it’s in there.

This is full of interesting information for the writer .

This is full of interesting information for the writer .

Lying in opium dens smoking

For instance, Mrs Beeton suggested that if you have young people still living at home, agreeable pastimes should be promoted. She stressed that homes should be comfortable, full of happiness and offer a great source of amusement. If the young folks cannot find pleasure at home they will seek it elsewhere. She pointed out to parents that they should make it a domestic policy that their children should feel that ‘home is the happiest place in the world’. We can imagine Victorian ladies worrying that if they do not come up with the domestic goods, they would be to blame for their children lying in opium dens smoking funny looking pipes. Some things never change.

Worry not because Mrs Beeton does actually explain how this can be done. The mother can gather the girls of the household around her to enjoy a couple of hours of light or fancy needlework. If they want to have a real rip roaring time, they can always throw in a game of chess or backgammon.

Mrs Beeton also suggested that feminine members of the family like to sit around and listen to amusing publications being read out loud. However, if the whole family is joining in the listening it must be polite literature which is on offer – no Frankenstein or Dracula then.

Mm - Guess who is keeping a happy home?

Mm – Guess who is keeping a happy home?

Books like this are a goldmine of information for the writer and will inspire you endlessly. Even more importantly, they will give you an excellent awareness of attitude which is all important when creating character. Happy writing.

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Writing Short Stories – Using Gruesome Keepsakes as a Springboard

Here at Loony Literature, we are always looking for springboards to get folks writing. So if you are thinking of writing a short story, you may be interested to know that buying a keepsake when you visited somewhere or experienced something is not a new thing. However, in the 19th century some of the keepsakes which were purchased were rather gruesome to say the least. In essence, they were real short story fodder.

Murder Most Horrid.

Murder Most Horrid.

For instance, when Burke, of the famous Hare and Burke duo of body snatchers, was to be executed, 20,000 people cheered as the scaffold was built. When Burke appeared, the mob went wild screaming what they would personally like to do to him. Every time Burke convulsed as his body was hanged, the crowd raised an even louder roar, a sort of cheer because he was suffering so much.

A wallet was made from his scalp

When Burke’s body was removed from the scaffold, souvenir hunters descended like scavengers grabbing at shavings from the coffin or pieces of the rope. If this seems strange, it was quite normal back then. The rope which hanged Burke would have been sold off in inches because so many people wanted a keepsake of the event. In fact, a wallet was made from Burke’s scalp and is now in the History of Surgery Museum in Edinburgh’s Royal College of Surgeons.

A Grisly Day Out.

A Grisly Day Out.

After he had been cut down, Burke’s body was taken to an anatomy theatre which was ironic as that was where he had taken the bodies of the folks he had murdered so that he could get money for them. A cast was taken of Burke’s head and then a dissection was performed. Outside people fought to get inside to taste a piece of the action. The next day, there was a display of the body and visitors could file past it from ten in the morning until dusk. It is believed that as many as 30,000 people turned up to see Burke’s body.

Come on, this is asking for you to write a horror story.

Happy writing.

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Writing Historical Fiction – Getting to Work in 19th Century London

It Wasn’t Easy

Here at Loony Literature, we love to get folks writing.

Writing historical fiction is a great way to learn something and transport yourself to another time and place. Your springboard for today is to imagine that you have an accident on the way to work. The only difference is that it happens in 19th century London. Think about who your character might be and what are the consequences of the accident are – do you get involved with someone you might never have met before? This could be to do with a romance or a crime.

London Bridge in the 19th century.

London Bridge in the 19th century.

To help you get started, we’ve compiled something for you to think about. For instance, you may be interested to know that if you had to travel across London in the 19th century, it was hard work even back then.

If you had an excellent job, you would navigate your way to work on horseback. However, this was indeed a costly business. We complain about the cost of parking these days but if you lived then and the horse was your mode of transport, you had to feed and stable the horse at home and also at a place which was near to where you worked. City livery rates were so exorbitant that many would ride half way on horseback and then the rest of the journey to work would be conducted by boat.

Getting Across The Thames

Of course, the Thames was a sort of highway for London but at the start of the 19th century there were only actually three fixed points to get across it. There was London Bridge which had been a crossing of some sort since Roman times or there was Blackfriars Bridge which was built in 1769 or Westminster Bridge which first came into being in 1750.

This meant that if you needed to travel across the river to get to work you would probably have used one of the 3,000 wherries or small boats which were available for hire. We can read about characters in books being rowed across the Thames, such as the dastardly Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens.

Happy writing.

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Writing Historical Fiction – A Pair of Stockings as a Springboard

Get Writing

Here at Loony Literature, we try to get folks to have a go at something  they might not have done before. As both of us are history bonkers, we want more of you to try writing historical pieces. They don’t have to be massive literary tomes, for instance, you could try a short story or even a play.

Readers of historical pieces love details and enjoy learning something as well as being transported in time. The springboard for this piece is a pair of stockings. So you need to think about who did the stockings belong to? Perhaps they were found in the butler’s pantry or if you are a crime writer they might have been used to strangle someone.

What story does this item of clothing tell you?

What story does this item of clothing tell you?

To help you along, we’ve compiled some working knowledge on stockings. You may be interested to know that during the Victorian period, ladies all wore stockings as tights were a 20th century invention. The Victorian stockings were made of cotton, wool or silk and available in a wide range of colours.

At the start of the 1800s, white was all the rage but after 1850 brightly dyed and patterned stockings were available. These were enjoyed by the young and also anyone who wanted something different. They were available in tartan, spotted and checked amongst others designs. This is surprising as it is easy to presume that they would all have been either white or black for the Victorians.

Black stockings

However, as the century went on, the black stockings became more widespread. This demonstrates how symbolic clothes can be. Black stockings in the Victorian period were viewed as conservative whereas black stockings these days signify sexiness.

Wool stockings were often the choice because they were the warmest and the most reasonably priced option. Silk stockings were basically only for the wealthy as they were so expensive. Furthermore, if they laddered, they were difficult to darn which made it time consuming. Only a woman with a personal maid would really have the time to commit to darning silk stockings. Well, it wouldn’t be her own time which she was committing to the task but her maid’s.

These days, suspenders are considered the heights of sexiness by some and again they are a Victorian invention. Women began to hold their stockings up with suspenders in the 1880s. Up until that time, however, stockings were held up by garters which fastened around the leg just above the knee. There was a health risk with wearing garters like that. Varicose veins could start if the garters were too tight and stopped proper circulation.

Happy writing.

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