So I was writing the scene in which Catullus stammers out his first love poem to Clodia. I was residing in his head, writing with his hand, but I suddenly realized that I couldn’t feel the paper under his fingers and I didn’t know how the stylus felt in his hands. And how bright was the light in his room where he scribbled after midnight?
No problem. In those days I lived at the intellectual end of Covent Garden. In five minutes I was in the Roman domestic department of the British Museum. I had my choice of oil lamps, found the perfect stylus, peered at the simulations of the rolled books. While I was there, I chose a divan on which the luscious but vicious Clodia would brutally seduce my young poet. Greedily, I noted the details of its decoration. Mentally, I told the guard, ‘I’ll take these. Bag ’em up.’
Physically, I took them home in my notebook, and now you'll find them in my novel, The Floating Book.
As an historical writer, I’ve always window-shopped in museums. You get to a certain point in writing a scene – often the second draft – when you need a more hands-on contact with the past. Many museums these days have Writers-in-Residence. But I am sure that for every paid Writer-in-Residence, you’ll find ten times as many writers of historical fiction window-shopping for their novels.
Conspicuous consumption is often a part of historical fiction. I think there’s a reason for that. Human nature has not changed over the centuries, and it’s generally agreed amongst modern writers that we should not render our written conversations incomprehensible to the modern reader by the use of period-perfect and hence now-archaic language. Therefore it’s the accessories that define the period and infuse our books with the provoking perfumes and stenches of the past.
So the writer of historical fiction turns interior decorator. We furnish our castles in time-correct taste, set our groaning banquet tables with non-anachronistic cutlery, polish our period-perfect weapons. We become bankers – filling our purses or pouches with the right coins of the realm.
We also become couturiers, dressing our characters in authentic costume (the names of the fabrics are so delicious: tarlatan, dimity, bombazine…) As my books are set in Venice, my characters tend to fall in the water or otherwise get themselves soaked, so I particularly need to look at the underwear to which they are frequently forced to strip.
At the moment most of my window-shopping is being done at the Natural History Museum in Venice. The delightful curator, Margherita Fusco, has shared so much with me; not least an 1898 abstract on ‘The Skeleton of the Monstrous Bird’ – but that’s another blog. For The Book of Human Skin, I’ve shopped for leather strait-jackets in the Museum of Madness on the island of San Servolo, and in the secret medical museum above Venice’s Ospedale Civile for diabolical obstetrical tools. The Querini Stampalia is good for 18th-century coffee cups, and the Correr Museum is currently helpful with accessories for the venditori ambulanti – street traders who walked around Venice hawking their peaches, figs, pasta and cherries. I found a finger-twitchingly handle-able book bound in human skin at the Wellcome Trust in London. For The Mourning Emporium’s quack medicines for women, I shopped at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s archives in Lambeth, where the curators hold valuable sessions during which you can sniff drugs from the past and handle their delicate, beautiful packaging. The Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons gave me a graphic illustration of ‘Phossy Jaw’ – phosphorus necrosis – the disease that afflicted the poor girls and women who worked in Victorian match factories – and provided the name for my tragic character Fossy, whose jaw is so damaged that she can express herself only with notes on her violin.
We writers can find much of what we need to furnish our books in published historical tomes. But I would contend that the pseudo-retail experience can generate fresher descriptions and be a great deal more enjoyable as well.
Any other writers out there willing to share their museum window-shopping expeditions? Looking at what I’ve written, I’ll admit that the contents of my window-shopping bag are on the grim side. Hopefully, some of you look for and find much prettier things than I do?
The Mourning Emporium came out in paperback on August 4th.
Museum bags from www.Treehugger.com