Ah, synchronicity. Susan/Sarah mentioned experiential research. I cannot catch an arrow in my hand, but I do like to get in touch with the real thing.
As the Saturday girl, I often have to blog and run, because this is my day to get done what I couldn’t do all week on account of slaving over a hot manuscript. The current work I’m sweating over is the fourth in the Carsington brothers series.
As discussed in my blog about maps, environment is crucial to me. Ideally, in writing MISS WONDERFUL, I would have visited Derbyshire’s Peak District again. For MR. IMPOSSIBLE, I would have explored the interior of an Egyptian pyramid or tomb. For LORD PERFECT, I would revisit certain parts of London as well as the A4, which is approximately the Great Road to Bath my hero and heroine followed.
However, even if I could travel hither and yon whenever the mood or muse strikes–which I can’t–I couldn’t time travel to the early 19th century and experience the world as my heroes and heroines would have experienced it. So I have to do most of my research at home, via books and web surfing. But now and again, a living history museum will do the trick.
My current story, like MISS WONDERFUL and parts of LORD PERFECT, is set in the English countryside. This time I’m working with the part of the early 19th C world that tends to be invisible in many of our stories, rather as the servants were expected to be. This time my characters, though aristocrats, find it necessary (because I say so) to pay attention to all the inelegant, workaday stuff crucial to keeping grand country houses operating and the inhabitants fed and comfortable within them: dairy and laundry, brew-house, bakehouse, game larder, dovecote, cowshed, pig sty, etc., etc.
To get a feel for this world, I longed to travel to England and visit one of the country estates where you can go inside an old dairy or a laundry room. This idea went the way of visiting the Peak, Egypt, and the Great Road to Bath. I found some good books of course. There are always good books. They could not recreate the sight and smell of the livestock, unfortunately. But luckily there is a place not too far away that could.
And so last Saturday, I blogged and ran to Old Sturbridge Village, which is right here in Massachusetts. This is one of at least two living history museums in New England. The other is Plimoth Plantation, a recreation of the 17th C Plymouth, Massachusetts settlement (they spelled it differently, back in the days when people spelled words more or less they way they felt like it).
Old Sturbridge Village recreates a New England village of the early 19th century. The website has tons of useful material, including an online collection of clothing and artifacts, historical documents, and articles by historians.
Still, a website ain’t nothing like the real thing.
It was a cold and rainy day (June hereabouts has been mostly cold and rainy) as we drove there, but my husband and I have spent time in Scotland, where it mostly rained and sometimes snowed with thunder and lightning and gale-force winds and hail (all within the same quarter hour) in June. So a torrential downpour is nothing. We dressed appropriately. As we arrived, the sky began to clear, a good omen.
Here’s the scene that greeted us as we left the visitor center. And my little nerdy heart went pitty-pat. Ooh. Cows (well, it was a bull, actually) and pigs and goats! All in a row.
The bull stood on that ramp, mooing–or bellowing: I’m not sure what bulls do but he was demanding attention. He saw a person inside the barn and assumed she would feed him. Bulls think that’s what people are for.
The goats were sweet, though they tended to look off into the distance as though they had their minds on, oh, I don’t know–pyramids?
After we finally tore ourselves away from the pigs, and began to ramble the place, we learned from an interpreter that the breeds of livestock at Old Sturbridge village are historically accurate. Even more exciting for me, these breeds of animals were English breeds–the sort that might have been on the home farm of my fictional estate. The pigs were Gloucester Old Spots. The red cows were Devon Long Horns. The other cows were Milking Short Horns. And the poultry were Dorking chickens. I didn’t get the breeds of sheep or goats, but I know I can email OSV and someone will tell me. Because that’s how they are. These people are just chock full of knowledge and delighted to be asked questions. They had all kinds of things to tell me that I didn’t know or hadn’t thought about. It was a wonderful experience all around.
I’m covering only a tiny fragment of what’s to be found and experienced there. I was focused on livestock so that’s mainly where I spent my time. But there are beautiful gardens, including an extensive herb garden. A river runs through it, and you can take a boat trip. There are concerts and gardening workshops as well as activities for kids. But if you don’t feel like doing anything in particular, it’s simply a beautiful and peaceful place to spend the day. Plus, there’s ice cream. And shops, of course.
Oh, and there’s a social benefit, too. Many of our living history museums, like OSV, are having to tighten their belts these days, and some of them will not make it unless we support them by visiting and telling our friends. I’m happy to support them because they give so much in return.
Any living history museums in your area? Or historical museums of the more static kind? Pigs are not crucial to my enjoyment. Right now I’m looking for a place that has an early 19th C stable, preferably an elegant one. I’d still like to see a dairy (where they make the butter & cheese, not where they milk the cows). But it doesn’t really matter whether or not it’s pertinent to the current book. We nerds love learning something, anything–and an author never knows where the next idea might come from.