Sunday 29 April 2012

Visiting the Past by Sally Nicholls

We are very pleased to welcome Sally Nicholls to our blog today:

If you read the blog on 16th April, you'll have seen Sue Purkiss's review of All Fall Down, Sally's latest book. Now you can have the pleasure of seeing the story from the other side, how the author did the research that fed into the authenticity Sue found in the book. But first, a bit about Sally:

I was born in Stockton-on-Tees, just after midnight, in a thunderstorm. My father died when I was two, and my brother Ian and I were brought up my mother. I always wanted to write - when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I used to say "I'm going to be a writer" - very definite.
I've always loved reading, and I spent most of my childhood trying to make real life as much like a book as possible. My friends and I had a secret club like the Secret Seven, and when I was nine I got most of my hair cut off because I wanted to look like George in the Famous Five. I was a real tomboy - I liked riding my bike, climbing trees and building dens in our garden. And I liked making up stories. I used to wander round my school playground at break, making up stories in my head.

I don't have a very visual imagination. This is a problem when trying to decide what colour to paint your kitchen (yellow, like Anne Sexton) and also when trying to imagine what a medieval peasant girl's house looks like.

When I was writing All Fall Down, about a peasant family surviving the Black Death, I bought a book on fourteenth century peasants. It was very good. It was full of useful details such as the fact that medieval children were usually named after their godparents, and it was therefore not unusual to have siblings with the same name in a family. It had gruesome accounts of babies trampled to death by pigs, or burnt to death by chickens who picked up a smouldering piece of straw from the fire and dropped it in the cradle. It had a copy of the wedding vows (in which the woman promises to be bonere and boxom, in bedde and atte bord) and incantations against rats:

I command all ye rattens that be here about,

That non dwell in this place, nor within, nor without,

By virtue of Jesus Christ that Mary bore about,

To whom all creatures ought to lout …

This book informed me that a two-room peasant house was thirty-three feet long and thirteen feet wide, and that this space was shared by the family's animals – a pig, a cow, an ox, and some chickens.

I couldn't imagine it. My heroine, Isabel, has five siblings, three of whom are still living at home. Where would they all sleep? In one bed, in two? How would her father and stepmother have any privacy? And how on earth would you stop the cow trampling on the pots?

I decided I needed some help, and took a day off to visit Cosmeton Medieval Village, in Wales. From the website, I pictured a colourful place filled with cheerful museum attendants dressed in kirtles and hose. Not, it turned out, on a wet Thursday in term time. In fact, the little village was completely empty, although the hearth-fires were lit and the candles were burning.

As museums go, it wasn't much – a few houses, an oven, archery butts and some stocks, with a couple of pigs and some geese wandering around. But for an author? It was brilliant. Utterly brilliant.

It wasn't until I'd sat in a peasant's house that I realised how small it was. How this wasn't a space for living in, but for coming home to sleep in. I hadn't realised how much stuff would be there – looms, fishing rods, buckets, scythes, hoes, bags of corn, hammers, spades, ewers, spindles and distaffs, children's toys. Like a caravan or a houseboat, everything had its place, and if it wasn't kept tidy, chaos ensued. It was this visit that taught me that 'mattress' means sacking stuffed with straw, but that ewers could – and did – come all the way from France.

I hadn't realised how dark and smoky it would be. And the smells. I hadn't imagined the smells. All Fall Down is full of smells because of that visit – woodsmoke, and straw, and pig dung, and wet grass, and tallow candles, and herbs drying from the rafters – rosemary, and lavender, which later represent Isabel's family's only protection against the pestilential miasmas.

Even the biggest house didn't seem to have space for four children, so I did what any good writer would do – poked around until I found the guy in charge of the chickens, and asked him. My book had mentioned priests denouncing the immorality of brothers and sisters sharing a bed – but, as my new incredibly knowledgeable best friend pointed out, sometimes families didn't have much choice.

That visit changed the whole way I thought about Isabel's house. I still didn't have a very visual imagination. But now I didn't need one. I knew exactly what Isabel's house looked like – I'd been there.

All Fall Down is published by Marion Lloyd Books at £7.99
Sally's website


Jean Bull said...

I know what you mean, Sally. I've visited Plimouth Plantation at Plymoth, Massachusetts,
where they have recreated the seventeenth century settlement of those who sailed on the Mayflower. It was peopled with Pilgrims as well as Native Americans. Apart from the evocative smells, memories that I have are how the Native Americans burnt out the wood from a tree trunk to make a canoe, and the fact that the floors of the small houses were all compacted earth. Obvious really, if it was filled with hens and a cow!

michelle lovric said...

Dear Sally, welcome to the site!

Yes, physical research is absolutely necessary. My favourite experience was visiting a Peruvian convent at night, when it was lit only as it would have been when my story was set, the early eighteenth century. So there were candles and fires burning, but all they did was create little fierce red hells in the midst of the darkness, seeming to intensify the blackness rather than allievate it. I had needed to evoke a sense of evil to further the storyline, and that night it was suddenly possible to do so because I personally had been physically convinced of fear.

I've just been in Ireland to see an old mossy bridge where, in my next book, a terrifying encounter takes place. The scene was already written when I went there, but it was torn apart and rewritten as a result of my standing in the spot where my protagonist meets her attacker. The writing was lifeless before I went there.

Very best of luck with the book.

Katherine Langrish said...

I couldn't agree more! I've walked miles in the sleet, crawled down a Roman copper mine, sailed a Viking ship and (more recently) bounced down the Thames in an infatable dinghy to try and get that authentic flash of 'THIS is what it would be like'. Can't wait to read your book, Sally!

H.M. Castor said...

Fascinating post! Thanks so much, Sally.

michelle lovric said...

Forgot to say I tried a Turkish version of that rat curse in Venice. It didn't work.

Sue Purkiss said...

My book, Emily's Surprising Voyage, came about because of a visit to the ss Great Britain in Bristol. I agree with you, Sally - there's nothing like seeing the spaces where people lived. What amazed me was how tiny the cabins and bunks were - even for first-class passengers.

Penny Dolan said...

Yes, those "out in the field" moments do have a way of giving you the writing a deeper sense of place and space. Recall going backstage in an empty theatre to get the feel of the space for my "Boy Called MOUSE" novel.