Oh To Be in England Now that Spring is Here

Sadly, my visit was several weeks too early.  I went to a cold, rainy place for a week.  I’m tired of visiting when the UK weather sucks. No more! I’m not coming back until it can be during some lovely summer weather. Or at least solidly, gently spring. Not the I-am-so-not-spring-yet misery I recently endured.

My trip was in the name of research, but I have learned that when the weather is bad, you miss key information. In this case, I did not see where the connection is between Windsor Castle and the Thames River. No big deal, you say, but I am writing a novel taking place during Tudor times;  I was not visiting Windsor to see the current queen. Now I have to rely on Internet satellite maps, and dig, dig, dig into the sources and hope someone mentions just where the typical transfer from a boat was. At the current “front” of the castle that tourists use to come up from the town? And where was the front in 1527? And how did they do it? A litter? Horses? Did they walk? I walked from the train station, but there were no trains in 1527, so what was there then? And for that matter, where was the river all those years ago? Rivers move.

This is the major pitfall of writing a historical novel. You can’t fudge the historical details, because those are exactly what readers like to know. Or may already know. It’s easier to make up dialogue that never happened between major historical characters than it is to mess with how garments were put together. The beautiful gowns of yesteryear were constructions more similar to a Japanese wedding kimono than to what we know as a dress today. Separate pieces, often tied together, and layered. Not the simple item we today merely slip over our heads and zip or button up. Zippers weren’t around until the 1930s. As for buttons, remember that the Amish still think they are newfangled frivolities, so that means buttons to assemble clothing for ordinary people only have a reliable history of a few hundred years. It turns out that buttons were used mostly as ornamentation by the wealthy until cheap milling processes in the 19th century made them affordable for all. No wonder the Amish are against them. I need to know this, because Henry VIII, a major character in my novel, had plenty of gold buttons on his costumes. But they did not open and close the garments; they were for grand show.

This novel is taking me a long time to research. The couple dozen books by scholars aren’t enough. The original sources aren’t enough. The Internet isn’t enough. I’ve stared at portraits supposedly of the key characters, but most surviving portraits are copies of originals, not the originals themselves. Those were lost in fires and wars, and so on. And it’s a mistake to lend too much credence to a portrait, to impute intellectual or moral characteristics from a 17th century copy of a 16th century piece. The most well-known portrait of Henry VIII’s last wife, Katherine Parr, showed her as unattractive, and rather squinty-eyed. A decade ago, London’s National Portrait Gallery suddenly identified a very beautiful lady in a painting as Katherine Parr. Previously, the lady had been identified as Lady Jane Grey. From Internet shots, it’s hard to see just how magnificent the re-identified portrait is, because computer screens are small, and this painting is life size, or nearly.

And so it goes. I can’t simply take the historical data in a scholarly work written twenty years ago at face value. I have to check out the latest information and interpretations. The best scholars pore over the original sources, of which we have a surprising number considering all the upheavals in Britain over 500 years. New ones are constantly being found through the efforts of these scholars. But, curiously, I have come to realize that each scholar tends to highlight certain facts as evidence of his or her own interpretation of events, motivations, and more. I have to gather different details from each scholar, put them together, and consider my own beliefs. It’s work.

All the rain did not help, but at least the Internet and the excellent interlibrary loan system allow me ample research opportunities even if I can’t be in England during decent weather.


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