Tag Archives: Victorian era

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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Victorian Lady Detectives – Loveday Brooke.

The murderof old Sandy.

Loveday Brooke was sent to work undercover to investigate the murder of old Sandy.

Loveday Brooke is a genuine Victorian lady detective.  By that, I mean that she was created in the Victorian period by Catherine Louisa Pirkis.  Many of the different adventures (The Black Bag Left On a Doorstep; The Murder at Troyte’s Hill; The Redhill Sisterhood; A Princess’s Vengeance; Drawn Daggers and The Ghost of Fountain Lane) were first published in the Ludgate Monthly in 1893.  In 1894, these stories and Missing were put together to produce the book, The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective which was Pirkis’s fourteenth and last book.

The stories have been criticized because there is no character development with Loveday but it is important to take into consideration that atmosphere and plot or solving the puzzle are what make these stories work and, for me, the fact that that we know little about Loveday makes the stories all the more intriguing.

So what do we know about Loveday?  She dresses in black and is “almost Quaker like”in her attire.  She is of average height, medium colouring and nondescript looking.  We know that when she is concentrating she droops her eyelids over her eyes until she seems to be peering out through slits.  In essence, Loveday is perfect for going undercover and not being noticed.  We also know that poverty was beckoning to her like the grim reaper but she did not meekly follow it, no, she laughed in the face of Victorian society and re-invented herself by finding work in a Fleet Street agency.  There have been criticisms that we do not know why Loveday suddenly faced poverty.  Again, I feel that as I read the stories, this makes her more mysterious, like the later Albert Campion by Margery Allingham.  In effect, Loveday Brooke is somewhat an enigma and that is one of the reasons why the stories the stories work.

Another winning factor for me with Loveday is that she uses logic to solve the crimes instead of relying on feminine wiles as women often have to do in fiction for some strange reason.  In The Murder at Troyte’s Hill, Griffiths of the Newcastle Constabulary is asking Loveday to explain one or two things about the case to him.

“Put your questions to me in categorical order,” said Loveday.

For women and men the world over who wince at the stereotypical dotty female portrayed in fiction; this has to be a triumph and it was actually written in the Victorian era which makes it all the more delicious.

For anyone who loves the atmosphere of the Victorian era and the female detective, I would suggest that you lose yourselves in the atmosphere of The Murder at Troyte’s Hill ( by following this link) in which Loveday goes to work undercover in the country house.

What do you think – does Loveday Brooke work for you as a Victorian lady detective?

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Diary of a Writer – Graveyards.

My eyeballs felt as if someone had tried to peel them like an onion.  Actually, it might have been with an onion they were stinging so much. Does terror from staring at a computer screen cause sore eyes?  It was no use, it did not matter how long I glazed over at the manuscript of “Mulgrave Castle”, I was not feeling spooky, Victorian or psychic.  For a second, I played with the idea that somewhere on the internet there could be a sort of Viagra for writers which instead of making them feel sexy sort of erected the atmosphere they were meant to be in.  I didn’t think there would be one and one has to be so careful what one searches for these days.

In a state of desperation, I went from staring at the computer screen to staring out of the window.  I overlook a graveyard and a six hundred year church.  It all looked spooky and I thought I could stare at that to get in the mood. Not so, suddenly car after car arrived on the car park.  The next thing was that a gang of energetic, octogenarian walkers all had their car boots up whilst they took their flasks of coffee out and started drinking and socialising before their walk.   It then occurred to me that I could make some film clips of a graveyard and that might be helpful in summoning up atmosphere anytime I am working on “Mulgrave Castle”.

I grabbed my video camera but couldn’t film at the graveyard next to me as the gang had now taken sandwiches out of their car boots and seemed to be settling down for the day.  After thinking up an elaborate plan to get rid of them, I decided that dressing up in my Loony Literature gear and brandishing a large bell whilst shouting “plague” might not actually work.

I glared some more out of the window and then decided to go to a nearby market town and film there.  I didn’t want to look conspicuous hanging around a graveyard alone so I asked my mother if she fancied going out for hot chocolate.  As she is under five feet tall, just under eighty and looks charmingly innocent, I thought she was the perfect lookout for me.

All was going well, apart from my mother complaining about the lack of hot chocolate, until an elderly man with white, curly whiskers around his chin and leading a similar looking dog tried to cross examine me.

“You one of them family historians then?”  Both dog and man stared at me whilst they waited for a reply.  I was relieved that I didn’t have to lie, after all, I do do family history, I just wasn’t doing it then.  I nodded and waited for him to pass by.

“Who you looking for then?”  Both the man and the dog moved closer.  I would never make a spy, I stammered and stumbled and said “we’ve found nothing.”  He shrugged and I expected him to move on but he still watched us.  I linked my arm through my mother’s and we slowly walked away from the graveyard and then I slyly turned to see if the dog walker had moved on.  He didn’t, he watched us as we walked away but then he bent down to talk to his terrier and at that moment I grabbed my mother by the arm and we hid behind a tree and waited for him to go.   He looked up and shrugged in a disappointed manner and slowly moved away.

We hotfooted it back to the graveyard and I quickly did my filming in case the dog walker found me there again on his way back.  I was extremely pleased with myself as I thought my graveyard filming was done with, I simply had to put it on the laptop and it was ready for use – until I looked at it.  The clip is fine until it comes to second twenty seven and then there seems to be a man only from his torso (legs must be in the earth) with his head bent praying by the side of one of the graves.  I examined the clip but could not come up with what it could really be.

A week later, I decided that I would return to the spot to try to see what I had photographed and take some still shots of the spot.  Four teenagers, without coats, were sitting right by my spot, hanging out.  I had to decide whether to continue with my photography or just pretend to be walking past.    I decided to pretend that they weren’t there.  I examined the spot from all angles making sure that each headstone was where I thought it was.  I could not see what could possibly represent the image on the film.  I took my video camera from my bag and somehow it had become as dead as a parish council meeting on a Saturday night.  I quickly put it away and tried not to look at the teenagers who, I could see out of the corner of my eye, were all sitting in a line staring at me.  Luckily, I had my son’s camera with me as a backup, so I quickly took that out and tried to switch it on – dead.  I poked the on button and prodded it frantically.  The teenagers had moved closer but I could not contain my enthusiastic and violent prods onto the camera.  Nothing happened.  I lifted my head proudly and with a majestic air swept past the viewing teenagers with my mother following swiftly behind. How both batteries on both cameras came to be so dead, I will never know.  My video camera had one hundred minutes on it when I checked the night before.

The following Saturday I made sure that both cameras were fully charged when I set out.  I managed to take photographs without an audience but I cannot find out what the shape is in the video.  After all that, I’ve decided that maybe I should try something else to conjure up atmosphere.  Haunted castle anyone?

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Writing – Using Real People in Fiction Can Spell Trouble!

Victorian Lady Portrait

Victorian Lady Portrait (Photo credit: Aminimanda)

The other day, I was telling my son about a dead relative whose personality I have partly used when creating Jane Snow, my heroine’s paid companion and fellow detective in Mulgrave Castle.  My relative had a strange notion that when a man smiled at her, he had certain ideas because the chaps were too frisky for their own good.  One of the theme’s I want to explore in this series of Victorian psychic novels is female desire in the Victorian era as I became very interested in how it was used in Literature whilst a student.  Although, I have used Jane Snow’s attitude to males in a comic way because it was something which was both amusing and endearing in my relative, I think she might react badly if she knew that this aspect of Jane’s character is based on her.  I think she might see it as being laughed at instead of understanding that it is celebrating the fact that she was such a character.  Although, to be honest, I wonder if she would identify herself with the character, she might not.

 

 

The reason I say that my relative might not recognise herself is because of a story I was told when I was doing a course on scriptwriting.  The writer who took the course was a playwright and a television scriptwriter.  He was adamant about only using one aspect of a person’s personality when creating your own characters.  The reason for this was personal experience.  He had written a television drama and used a few aspects of the personality of a woman who was in his circle of friends as one of the characters; at the time of writing, he thought that he had disguised her well enough for no-one to know whom he had based the character on.

 

 

After the drama was screened, he was shocked that most of the circle of friends identified the woman whom he had used as a character.  Fortunately, the woman did not recognise herself and none of the others pointed it out to her.  The experience was enough to convince him though that we should never use more than one aspect of a person’s personality traits when creating a character.

 

 

On the other hand, I created the character, Will Blyton based on my son, Will and am writing a second book about him.  Often, I will read a part out to him and he will call me a cheeky so and so because I am depicting a real live occurrence.  He knows I am writing about a character based on him and likes the fact that he is my muse.  However, if he did not, I would not do it.

 

 

So what about you?  Have you ever written about someone and they have recognised themselves?  Do you use aspects of real life people at all when creating characters?  Do tell!

 

 

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Writing – Embracing Characterisation in a haunted, Victorian Prison.

Lincoln Victorian Prison in Lincoln Castle.

Handcuffs on display at Lincoln Victorian Prison in Lincoln Castle.

 

I am working on a novel called Mulgrave Castle in which my main character Harriet Twine is a psychic, Victorian detective.  In order to really embrace my character as I re-write, I wanted to visit a place I had been to before which I knew had both a mixture of atmosphere and spiritual energy.  It is the Victorian prison in Lincoln castle.

Lincoln Victorian Prison in Lincoln Castle

A faithful dog on display at the prison. His master was a poacher who shot a head keeper in the knee. Unfortunately, the man died and William Clark alias Slenderman was hanged for it at Lincoln Prison in 1877.

I decided to do most of my journey by train as this was a popular Victorian mode of transport.  I would have liked to do the whole day in Victorian costume but after doing other experiments in costume, I decided it really was not practical and I would have to use my imagination as far as clothing went.

I have written about the prison elsewhere on the site under Exciting Excursions.  The place which impressed me most on my last visit is the prison chapel.  In 1849 the Separate System came into force.  It was believed that if prisoners were kept in isolation they would become rehabilitated.  They were only let out of their cells to go to the Chapel and for exercise.  It is said to be the only one of its kind left in the world.  The Separate System meant that the inmates would sit in closed in seats, in The Chapel, so that they could not see or speak to anyone else.  The seats are tilted, therefore if any prisoners dared to fall asleep during a sermon they would fall forward and be punished.  There was an open bench at the back which was especially for condemned criminals; obviously it was thought that they were beyond redemption.  Debtors also were not included in the separate system and they would be seated in the gallery with the men above and the female debtors below.  There were sloping seats at the front for the women.  Each criminal in the Separate System was locked into his seat before another could be let in.  In addition to not being allowed to see others, the prisoners also had to wear masks to cover their faces.  In 1851, it was realized that this system did not work and it was abandoned.

Lincoln Victorian Prison in Lincoln Castle.

This is the only chapel of this kind left in the world.

The remarkable aspect of all this is that visitors to the chapel today can stand in the pulpit and have the view which the prison chaplain would have.  Some seats are fitted with a dummy criminal wearing a mask.  The vision is intimidating and the atmosphere is awful and on my first visit it gave me shivers down my back.

Lincoln Victorian Prison, Lincoln Castle

This is the view from the pulpit.

For this visit, I had strongly psyched myself up not to be so intimidated by the chapel, after all, Harriet is Victorian and has never witnessed the liberal world which I am used to.  As I stood in the pulpit looking down on the chapel to take the photographs, I felt a very strong sensation which made me lean backwards so that I could not be pushed.  I put that down to my own imagination and went down into the seats and sat on the front row.

I had not planned to do this but I found that I was sitting observing the other visitors.  People seemed reluctant to stay in the chapel, I found that most were scuttling straight through and not visiting the pulpit.  They seemed as if they should not be in there and were frightened of getting caught.  I decided to stop the next visitors and explain about the pulpit and directed them up to it.  They didn’t look happy and didn’t actually climb into the box.  So as the next people I directed up there were sneaking off, I pointed the pulpit out.  They declined going in.  I eventually witnessed one couple going in and their faces suggested they had eaten something which had gone off.

I felt at this point that my experiment had worked in that I had become like my intrepid Victorian heroine compared to the other visitors, I had lost my modern day queasiness for harder times than ours.

Lincoln Victorian Prison, Lincoln Castle.

A display portraying the gallows just in case we forget what took place in Lincoln Prison.

However, all of that fell by the wayside when I entered Cobb Hall which was built in the 13th century and has been used as a prison and for executions.  The stench of urine as I entered was overwhelming which puzzled me, later it actually made sense as when people are extremely frightened it is not unknown for them to wet themselves.  There is a ladder which leads down to the dungeon and there was very strong negative energy emanating from that area so I declined to go down.  I felt rather ashamed at that point as Harriet would definitely have gone down to try to find out what had happened down there.  For me however, the feeling of evil was too strong.  I did climb up to the top where the hangings took place.  In the mode of Victorian psychic detective, I did not sense anything there.

Cobb Hall, Lincoln Castle.

For many, when they went through those doors – they never came out again alive.

Whilst I was up at the top, unbeknown to me, my son had entered Cobb Hall seen the ladder area leading down to the dungeon and had left immediately, he too got a really negative feeling from that area and rushed to tell me about it as I left Cobb Hall.

Cobb Hall, Lincoln Prison

Down into the dungeon. There is a malevolent energy around this spot.

Did my experiment work?  I feel it did as I think that I have discovered that Harriet is rather more adventurous than I am.  I have discovered that leading a life as a sheltered Victorian lady has made her more likely to throw herself into situations because her life is dull and it is not enough for her.

Do you ever do experiments like this?  If so, please tell so that I know that I am not the only one hanging around Victorian prisons.

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