Historical English Districts, Architecture, Furniture, and Carpets, oh my!

view of Sherborne CastleBecause I’ll be off to France in another month, I’m squeezing a blog in early, which means I haven’t really had time to think about it. As a result, you are the recipient of my Irish blather—which is more or less how I write. I’ll hope it all comes together by the end!

I have mentioned a time or two that Wycliffe Manor, (and that’s not it in the image but a similar effect, perhaps) the star of my Gravesyde Priory romantic mystery series, is an exclave of Shropshire. Now, I am no student of English districting laws. I do know map of England showing Worcestershirethat the shires or counties or whatever they were called changed regularly, most likely for political reasons. Just to show I am Not Making This Up, in the last 150 years, Worcestershire has had parts of its border modified to be included in West Midlands and Hereford and back again. According to Wikipedia, Worcestershire has the most exclaves of any other county (probably because of the above boundary shifts). There are exclaves of Herefordshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Shropshire floating about within its borders. One town, Tardebigge, has belonged to Worcestershire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, and Worcestershire over the centuries. So I don’t feel the least bit guilty by giving the inhabitants of my manor permission to be utterly confused as to where they send their prisoners!

I do, unfortunately, feel guilty about the way I’ve built my manor in such ramshackle architectural drawing of French chateaufashion that I cannot draw any kind of architectural diagram of the rooms. (I can’t even read the one on the right, which is a French chateau, but it has a large vestibule like my manor) I know where the rooms are in relation to each other. One walks in the two-story vestibule, facing the manor, and the long gallery/ballroom is on the right and the cathedral-windowed great hall is the left. Straight ahead is the main corridor. On the right is the large parlor, the dining room, and the withdrawing room. The enormous library, study, and writing office are on the left. After that… someone tell me how those towers fit in again? They have stairs in them, I know! And then there are the wings shooting off the back towers… I really need to visit some more stately homes.

And by book six, as yet untitled, I am now furnishing these medieval rooms. Elizabethan, excuse me. My first earl threw the monks out of their priory under Elizabethan drawing roomHenry VIII’s orders, tore down all but the front part of their building, and built this towering monstrosity for his bride under Good Queen Bess in the latter 16th century. (See, I know all this history of my imaginary family, even if it never shows up anywhere else! Take note of that Elizabethan coffered ceiling in the room to the right. Architecture like that will be important in finding the missing jewels!)

chippendale buffetSince they were extremely wealthy, one has to assume over the centuries, different earls and their families acquired fine furniture—Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and the like—much of which might still be in the manor. There would be carpets, which is another lovely research bunny hole. Hand-knotted pile carpets were available to my first earl, since Flemish Calvinists settled in Norwich in the 16th century. The Axminster carpets probably didn’t come along Axminster carpet c. 1790until the mid-17th. Both would have been extremely expensive since hand knotting is an art. Chiefly, though, I imagine they’d have industrial-woven Kidderminster carpets from right down the road. The factory was in Worcestershire, 20 miles southeast of Birmingham, so it couldn’t have been too far from my manor! Do I need to add that detail when I start dressing up my rooms?

And that’s my next blather, I think. How much detail do we really need so you’re comfortable with the setting? I’m reading an awful lot of books lately, chiefly suspense and mystery, where –if the detail were cut out– manor drawing roomthere’d be exceedingly little story left. These are seriously good writers. They put the reader right in the setting so you can smell the stink of peat and hear the roar of surf. But, personally, I want to know what the characters are doing. I don’t much care about the surf unless it’s coming in the window. So in reading, I skim details, looking for action, and in writing, I broadly sketch the background around my characters’ actions and dialogue. Is that a mistake? Should I be describing the worn holes in the gorgeous Axminster and not where the hero’s hand is roaming as he murmurs seductive words?

 

 

22 thoughts on “Historical English Districts, Architecture, Furniture, and Carpets, oh my!”

  1. All good questions, Pat! Like you, I’m most interested in the characters, not the wormholes in the Axminster, though the owners have my sympathies about the destruction. I’m not sure if this is a helpful comment, but my first agent has an assistant who once told me that she could always if a writer had an art or design background (as I do) because they were good at showing the telling details rather than describing everything. I hope she was right because I’m not much of a describer!

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  2. I am a person led by the characters in a story. Good, likable and strong characters are my desire. That being said, I can imagine really well. I have been reading the series and I could find my way around Wycliffe Manor if I had to do so. I would not be lost. I would know where people were expected to be and I would feel at home there. I generally do not have to have it down to the inch to see in my head how a building looks. If an author describes or provides an plan, that is fine. But, I can get along without that….of course….in the middle of the night when I trip over a table with a vase on top, I will realize I should have turned on the flashlight, or lit the candle or whatever. Thanks for the post.

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  3. All I know is that I am thoroughly enjoying the stories of each character in this series. I also notice the detail descriptions. Keep doing the same thing and don’t stress over whether it should or shouldn’t be. You’re doing it right up my alley.

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  4. Your descriptions of detail in the surroundings are superb, Patricia, and I like writers who get to the action through the characters as soon as possible. It makes the story more exciting.

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    • this is why I adore my readers, thank you! There has at to be a reason others write such detailed descriptions, but other than showing off, I’m not seeing it. 😉

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  5. If a description of the furnishings serves a purpose in the story, e.g. the place is so run down everything needs repairs or replacing, that’s OK by me. Or if a character enters a room and finds it over-decorated, a bit of description is also fine. Or if the colors clash and hurt the eyes…

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  6. It’s a really hard question, isn’t it? The advice to give as much description as the story needs is really begging the question. I know I tend to skip over lengthy descriptions, especially if it’s the sort of thing I know about. On the other hand, I still remember the red coloring in the opening chapters of Hardy’s Return of the Native, and I read that in high school. (We will pass over in silence how many years ago that was!)

    But since I always enjoy your books, I assume you’ve got the mixture right. 🙂

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    • from you, I’ll take that as a strong compliment, thank you! I don’t remember much of anything read in high school except the cobwebs in Great Expectations. And they were a big yawn. Although I loved Tale of Two Cities, which I read with a teacher pointing out any symbolism

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  7. I have thoughts! I too am more concerned with plot and characters than whether a carpet is axeminster or kidderminster. Who cares? Some might but what is really important is: sumptuous or worn? Extravagant decorations or unfaded squares where art has been removed from the walls for sale? Or – devilishly – because the person featured in a portrait is One Who Must Not Be Named.

    However, I think it’s important for authors to diagram key locations. You don’t want the Whomping Willow in a courtyard in one movie but near the Forbidden Forest in the next. That can throw people out of a story.

    There must be a balance in there somewhere!

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    • totally utterly agree but sometimes the Whomping Willow just has to migrate and send up shoots elsewhere. Elsewise, where would we get the Forbidden Forests? 😉

      But yes, we need a degree of accuracy to suspend disbelief. That’s the tricky bit.

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  8. Thank you for your post, Pat. I like some description and admire an author who does it well. I imagine that there is a fine line between too little and too much.
    I hope that you’ll have a wonderful time in France next month. Bon voyage!

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    • Thank you! I wish I could make a quick trip back to England while I’m there because description really requires knowledge, but I’ll have to make do with memory and Mr. Google.

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  9. Personally, I’m only interested in the holes in the carpet if they are woven (see what I did there?) into the plot. A trip hazard for instance, mentioned because later they lead to serious injury or death. Like showing the reader the knife or gun before the murder.

    I confess that I have to force myself to add in description.

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  10. I actually really hate too much description. I hate to skim over it though in case there’s something I’m going to need to know. Anyway Pat – you’re writing it perfectly!

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