On the last day of my trip, somewhere between New York City and home, I lost my camera. I don't know how, or where — I can't even recall taking it out of my bag, or using it that day, but it's gone. It's not the loss of the camera itself that's so distressing, but the pictures still on it, all my pictures from the RWA conference, my stay in Maryland, and New York. People, places, moments captured for me to look back on for years to come, each one, a small story. No longer. To whoever has the camera now, those pictures are just random shots of strangers. Without context, they're meaningless.
It got me thinking about travel records of the past. Then journeys were more a matter of days and weeks, not just a matter of hours. It was a more leisurely pace and people had more time in which to record their reflections. On my first big solo trip away from home (3 months travelling through Europe) I filled a diary with anecdotes, descriptions, pasted in illustrations, tickets, postcards etc and I brought home enough photos to fill an album. Had I lost my diary, the finder might still have been able to enjoy reading it — assuming they could decipher my scrawl— because writing creates its own context.
I love reading old diaries and letters. They bring worlds and times and people to life. For my second book, Tallie's Knight, I used the letters of an Irish lady travelling on the continent with friends in 1802-3. My third book was prompted by a story I read in an old newspaper — the Fiji Times of the 1870's. When I was at university I did some research for a professor, recording shipping movements in and out of Fiji, and I read years worth of the Fiji Times. I read for hours more than he paid me, because I couldn't help getting distracted by the wonderful stories that kept popping up. And years later, one of those stories sparked a novel.
Journals and letters also played a big part in the writing of my most recent book, TO CATCH A BRIDE (coming in September.) It's partly set in Egypt, and I used a number of travel journals and diaries of Englishmen traveling in and through Egypt at that time.
The trouble with research is that so much of it is so fascinating, but doesn't relate to the actual story. It helps evoke the atmosphere of the time, and throws up all sorts of fun and interesting snippets, but any research that makes it into a novel is very much the tip of an iceberg.
For instance, here's a description by an Englishman of his first experience in riding camels: "I had the rope of the camel's head in my hand, and I found the motion unpleasant, as is that of all animals which move two legs on the same side at one time. I did not know what to make of my fellow travellers, but Mustapha offered me his pipe: I smoked very comfortably, and soon became more used to the movement…[snip] After two hours travelling was much alarmed in respect to the motion of the animal for about that time I felt a most violent pain in my side and back, and this continued to increase, so that I was obliged to dismount and walk."
What interested me was not just that he found the motion
of the camel painful, but that he happily shared a pipe with his
arab servant, despite the presence of plague in the region.
Several openly scoffed at the nonsense talked by "these contagionist fellows" who claimed that the disease came from contact or close proximity. It had nothing to do with that, one fellow claimed; it was all about keeping active. To test this theory, one group of soldiers had been marched quickly through a plague-infested village, while another (hapless) group had camped in the village for several days. Of the soldiers who had marched briskly through the village, only a small number came down with plague, whereas many of those who had lolled about at the ease in the village had become infected. Proof positive, it was claimed, that activity kept the disease from catching hold. There were all sorts of "remedies" for its treatment, too. And debate raged about the proper method of quarantine, and the question of what materials carried the infection and which didn't. Wool and feathers were, apparently, fatal carriers; oil cloth and wheat were not.
My characters were sailing home from Egypt so I became very interested in the domestic arrangements of the ship. On your left is an officer's cabin from an American naval ship of the period. On your right is a bathroom. The captain on some boats had a bath and even a flush toilet. And since my characters were traveling on a private ship, they had even better quarters than this.
There's more information on ships cabins here.
So much of the flavor and small detail of my books comes from diaries and letters kept and preserved over time and published in some manner, sometimes long after the death of the writer. I have boxes of letters saved over the years. I used to be a prolific letter writer. Not so much lately. It's all emails. But I can pull out a letter in my brother's handwriting and it evokes him and his humor and dry wit in a way that photos can't ever do. He died when I was 20. I have letters from my Dad, who's been dead some years, and from friends I haven't seen in years, and I can pull out a packet of letters and be transported to another time and place. I have a box of letters that my mother wrote to my godmother over the years, that my godmother gave back to Mum, and I've learned things about my childhood I never would have known otherwise.
I wonder what will happen to that sort of record from our own time. So often we keep blogs now instead of journals and send emails instead of letters, and cyber communication can disappear without a trace. As can cameras…
So I'm wondering, do you keep a journal? Do you save letters? Do you write letters any more, or is it invariably email? Or tell us about your precious mementoes from the past.