On Pilchards and Asylums

Researching and Writing ‘White Water’ – A Historical Novel

by Sarah Peacock

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Sarah Peacock, author of White Water

While my sister, author Mandy Lee was visiting the ballroom of the The Savoy Hotel and exploring personal shopping in Harrods as research for her erotic romance novel sequel ‘True Colours’, I was researching pilchard fishing and asylums in the nineteenth century. I did find myself wondering at this point why historical fiction was my genre of choice.

‘White Water’, my second novel, is set in a Cornish fishing village in 1873. It is set against a background of social metamorphosis. The population is moving from country to town and women are beginning to campaign for the right to vote. Nell and Francesca – two women from very different backgrounds, both with secret passions, are thrown together following a shipwreck in the tiny fishing village where they reside.

This is my first foray into the historical novel genre. I have to admit, it did scare me a bit. I was worried that I wouldn’t get all the facts right and that ‘the experts’ would pick up on my naivety. However, reading what others had to say about writing in the historical genre put my mind at rest. I realised that, as always, the story comes first and filling the novel full of fascinating but irrelavant-to-the-story facts is more of a mistake, than say, getting the exact type of tea-pot in a guest house in 1873 correct (and believe me, that’s something I have considered!).

I find social history fascinating and have always been more interested in how people lived their day to day lives, how they thought and felt, rather than the great political events of the times. For this novel, set in 1873, I found Ruth Goodman’s book ‘How to be a Victorian’ absolutely invaluable. It covers everything from underwear and leisure time to working practises and schooling. When I wrote about my character’s clothes or talked about using a bathing hut in 1873, I was fairly confident I wasn’t too off the mark.

Finding out about the fishing industry has been a bit more difficult. I started by reading another brilliant book, ‘The Wreckers’ by Bella Bathhurst. It explores wrecking across the British Isles through the ages and goes some way to separate fact from fiction. The history of the fishing industry, however, is not an area that is greatly written about but I found a few really useful websites which I have listed below.

The important thing for me was knowing the details and how it felt. So finding out that the women wore oilskin aprons and layered their skirts, tucking them in while collecting the catches from the boats, was important, as was finding out they sometimes bound their hands with fabric while working because the salt could really hurt.

I’ve only just started reading about the Victorian Asylum and finding out about the changes in mental health practise in the nineteenth century such as the introduction of ‘Moral Treatment’. This has been really interesting and I intend to carry out further research in this area, in particular, into how women were diagnosed and treated for ‘hysteria’.

Some writers like to use a lot of the local dialect and some don’t, just as some readers love it and others hate it. I prefer not to and instead I have chose to drop a few relevant words into ‘White Water’ such as ‘huer’ and ‘lugger’. I was more interested in exploring the voices of my characters. One of the central tenets of ‘White Water’ is how differently Nell and Francesca experience the constraints of their lives and how they voice this. I found reading the prose and poetry of women around the time useful for this, as was reading diaries and letters.

All in all, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed writing ‘White Water’ and here are a few, hopefully useful tips I’ve learnt along the way:
1) The story comes first. Do your research but understanding what your story wants to say, where it is going and your character’s motivations are more important than minute details.
2) Try, if possible, to read some literature of the time. Diaries, essays and poetry are useful in understanding how people thought and felt.
3) Check the important facts. Look up what happened politically and socially at the time. It might provide useful back story and setting, helping to amp up the tension.
4) Be wary. Don’t get caught out. For example, I wrote a whole scene entailing having a bath in great detail before I found out Victorians didn’t actually take baths!
5) Enjoy the research. You never know you might find little pearls of interest to jot in your journal which might become the basis for your next novel. I’ve found some fascinating stories reading about Victorian Asylums in ‘Bedlam’ by Catharine Arnold and have jotted down a few ideas for further short stories.

Useful Books
The Wreckers – Bella Bathhurst
How to be a Victorian – Ruth Goodman
Bedlam – London And Its Mad – Catharine Arnold
The Cornish Fishing Industry – A Brief History – Dave Smart

Websites
http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk Has useful pages on moral treatment and women and psychiatry in history
http://www.mevagisseymuseum.co.uk/
http://www.nmmc.co.uk/ National Maritime Museum Cornwall
http://www.elizabethcrookbooks.com/articles/historical_fiction.htm Author Elizabeth Crooks tips on writing in the historical genre

And if you fancy reading about shopping in Harrods and dancing at The Savoy Hotel rather than pilchard fishing then be sure to check out Mandy Lee’s blog http://www.mandy-lee.com

Sarah Peacock is a writer from Sheffield. She’s had one short story published in Wolf Girls – Dark Tales of Teeth, Claws and Lycogony (Hic Dragones, 2014) When she’s not writing, she enjoys reading, walking in the woods and surfing.

Blog: http://www.sarah-peacock.com Twitter: sarahpeacock16