Back in the 90s, I picked up a book called ‘Days, Months & Years – a perpetual calendar for the past, present and future’ by the extraordinarily named Magdalen Bear. I’ve no idea if it’s still available, but it’s one of those books that has been turned to frequently and which I always know where it is, despite it being a stapled pamphlet without a spine. By a very simple and clever calculation, you can find out what day of the week any previous date was (at least in the Gregorian and Julian calendars).
As Helen remarked the other day, getting the details right is important (see under ‘Silent Skies’ – it’s funny). It can become obsessive, of course – who will know or bother to find out, for instance, if the execution was on a Wednesday as you’ve said? But it all leads to that wonderful quality, authenticity. And I find it useful to know when Sundays were, so that my characters can have a day off.
This morning I needed to know the date of Easter in 1459 and my little book let me down. Easter is quite difficult to calculate because first you must know the date of the Paschal Full Moon. I found a website to help: http://www.assa.org.au/edm.html#Calculator. The answer is that Easter Sunday, 1459, was March 25th.
What time is it? An hour since I sat down to work and found I’d left myself a comment in the text saying, ‘check date’.
One can’t help wondering about the fall out – literal and metaphorical – of the volcano in Iceland. Is this going to be an event of such magnitude that it turns up later in the archaeological record? One of our guilty pleasures is to video the back-to-back episodes of Time Team which are broadcast on Saturday mornings and then to watch one each lunchtime. Yesterday we watched the one about St Osyth’s, near Colchester in Essex. Some wooden posts had become visible in the creek. Investigation showed it was a dock which was abandoned in the 17th century. The archaeologists, looking at the physical record, said that some catastrophe had happened between 1650 and 1700. ‘In the diary of Samuel Pepys,’ said a historian, ‘he speaks of the great surge which flooded Westminster in 1670.’ [All these dates are from memory and therefore dubious!] The archaeologist couldn’t be sure – I mean, literature as evidence? – but said the date and the time were coincident to the wrecked dock.
Despite the doubts, it was a lovely tingly moment when we saw something which Pepys had mentioned. Everyone is blogging about the ash cloud but how will it show up archaeologically? As a thin grey layer over Europe? Or will it be a marker for a sudden change in economics, when the first world swops places with the third? Anything could happen, and be dated to 2010, when a cloud of ash finished off a culture already brought to its knees by greed and corruption.
A bit dramatic, perhaps, but isn’t that what novelists are supposed to be?
In our stories it’s good to have events happening at three or four levels. International, national, local and personal. It’s a trap, of course, since fascinating research can have us going on about such events too much (don’t I know it) but in right measure it will provide warp threads, i.e. structure to your story.
Meanwhile, we dance under silent skies.
I was blocked this morning, as usual. Today my demon was telling me that I wasn’t clever enough to surmount the latest obstacle. It’s too much, too big, my brain’s too tired. I thought I’d go and shovel soil instead. We’re building a potager in the front garden – a fancy solution to a dead lawn – and I’m Soil-Shoveller-in-Chief. It hurts. Bending over the huge sack and filling a bucket hurts. My lower back is killing me. And I would rather be doing that than writing?
I had a bit of a word with myself, to see what the matter was. The inner writer was curled up in a corner, whimpering at the magnitude of the problem. I told her that I was very familiar with what she’s not good at, but would she like to tell me what she is good at? ‘Being there,’ she said, wiping her hand across her nose. So, right, get there.
- Large scale displacement activity going on in the front garden.
I went back to work and put myself in my protagonist’s shoes, right into the moment, feeling, smelling, hearing what was happening. And the impenetrable wall wasn’t there any more. The latest raised bed, however, remains to be filled, and I’m off there now, legitimately finished with my writing session.
For anyone working on the sixteenth century, there is a blog on Pepys which is a terrific resource. See the encyclopedia section on www.pepysdiary.com.