Lobcock! The Fear and Terror of Researching a Historical Novel
At the 2010 Readercon, I remember listening to SF author Barry B. Longyear describing how he wrote Confessions of a Confederate Vampire—The Night, a historical vampire novel set during the Civil War. The amount of dedication he put into setting the mood for writing a novel set during the Civil War was impressive, to the point of playing music from the genre, displaying artifacts on his desk, and even eating food from the era. It sounded daunting. He had performed a megaton of research, all organized into folders on his computer.
The problem is there’s not quite as much ready information floating around about the Carolina colonies circa 1701-1703. Okay, I already hear an American history major sighing in disgust. Let’s put it this way: I am not an American history expert. I would have a better chance of writing a novel about Great Britain because I’ve always been a British history fan.
In truth, it’s not so much a matter of the broad history; it’s a matter of seeking out everyday details. One huge question: what type of clothing did people wear? There’s ready info on what the rich wore, but what about the common people? What materials were used for clothing? What styles, colors, or textures were used? I never imagined that folks wore shoes crafted from wood.
Describing meals is important to me. I hate reading stories where no one eats. What food did people eat back in 1701 Carolina? What did they drink?
Then came the matter of what people lived in. What house styles were in use in 1701-1703 Charleston?
What type of insults would have filled the air? When I found a site featuring insults from that timeframe, I jumped for joy. I want to start calling people lobcocks (a large relaxed penis or a dull inanimate fellow).
Then I made the mistake of inflicting a serious wound on a character. Now I needed medical research. Talk about stomach-turning!
All this research baggage is why I was scared stupid of attempting to write a M/M historical romance. Fellow writers warned me if I screwed up a detail, a savvy reader would happily call me out on it. Readers with degrees in history would wait with daggers, studded clubs, and blunderbusses. Damn, I do love that word. Fellow writers also warned me that reviewers would cheerfully point out any mistakes, down to “well, that buckle style wasn't used until 1715, not 1701.” It made me terrified to talk about shoes, but I did!
Hell, compared to historical research, fantasy world building is easy. Let’s face it, when you world build, you call all the shots. You draw maps, name cities, determine what people, wear, eat and how they live. It’s a blast. The author is God. How fun is that?
Happily I swallowed down my historical fears and took the plunge. I researched, researched, and researched the research. The research was equal parts fun and frustrating. When I found solid, factual information, I grabbed on with both hands and changed my vague descriptions to match reality.
The result? I am proud to have written “Love in the Shadows”, a mix of a historical and contemporary romance. The historic novel is set in 1701 New York, then over 1702-1703, in the Carolina colony, Boston, and Sweden. At least the contemporary story is set only in Stockholm. I cut myself a break there. I was also lucky enough to have a Swede read the novel and point out glaring errors regarding aspects of modern Swedish culture. Many thanks to Alison and Christina for their valuable support.
A note to the 16th century Colonial History majors— please, I tried my hardest. I did. Be gentle with me.
Thanks to Charlie for having me here today! xo
Here’s the first chapter from “Love in the Shadows,” a chapter set back in 1701.
When history, romance, and the supernatural collide, can love triumph over all?
Opening an ancient trunk transforms Doctor Rolfe Almersson’s life. When the spiritually-sensitive academic breaks his rules about touching an article sans gloves, fierce love wells at him. The unwrapped parchment reveals a burnt diary written by Magistrate Nels Halverson. The diary documents meeting seventeen-year-old orphan Aindrias Aster in 1701. Nels describes their eventual love affair, along with tragedies and triumphs in infatuated, intimate detail.
Rolfe’s obsession with his find overwhelms him. Reading about the men’s evolving relationship influences Rolfe’s tempestuous relationship with his lover. Will the story’s romance and tragedy push Rolfe forward into romantic liberation and academic triumph, or will it ruin his life?
Afternoon, January 26, 1701, Kingston, North of the City of New York
(This is where I wish to begin my memories. I own no reason to begin elsewhere. I need to begin here. This is when my heart truly started beating.)
I stealthily raised my worn leather flask to my lips and indulged in a mouthful of inferior rum. My body needed the false comfort on this cold, miserable day. Faugh. Winter’s deadly bite ruled the day. My mind also needed fortification before I conquered the crucial matter at hand.
Blast Samuel for running off with a flirtatious doxy. Lively Samuel’s love for lasses had destroyed his dedication. I had found him at a Quaker orphanage near Philadelphia. My former clerk was adept in Latin and competitive thought, yet deep in my heart, I realized that Samuel’s destiny lie elsewhere. The sprightly youth had never displayed the proper spine to wear the magistrate’s wig. No wonder he escaped after a mere six months.
Many a day I wondered if I still had the proper spine myself. After long years as a competent yet hardly brilliant judicial specimen, did I still deserve the sacred honor? Did this sad fool deserve to pass judgment on others?
My thoughts skidded toward self-defeating bleakness. My fingers clutched the slick reins. I refrained from indulging in more drink, tucking the half-empty flask into my right saddle pouch. To arrive reeking of cheap swill seemed unwise.
I urged Bel Canto forward through the murk. My colleague Howard had warned me that St. Luke’s Home for Orphans looked more like a stone jail than a benevolent almshouse guiding young souls toward a better life. His words rang true. The lumpy stone building looked foul, almost rotten. I curled my upper lip in disgust. However, three years ago, Howard had unearthed his highly praised clerk from this establishment. Just after that, a new deacon had stepped into place. The notion worried me.
My meager funding did not allow me to hire a seasoned clerk. I had hired my past clerks from charitable institutions such as this one. Often my choices worked well for me, except for poor Charles. Damn. My heart tightened in remorse.
I refocused on my task, urging Bel Canto to the gate. During my dismount, my coat caught on the saddle. Happily no one watched my near fall from my horse. When had my life turned into a sad comedy?
I clanged the battered outer bell. The worm-eaten, stout wooden outer gate did not raise my spirits when it opened. Curious lizard-green eyes set in a gaunt, pockmarked face examined me with suspicion. “Master Halderson?”
“At your service, sir.” I bowed. “I am here to interview my clerk candidates.”
A cringing boy scuttled out, pushed forward by the slovenly man in the doorway. He accepted my horse’s reins with trembling fingers, greeting me with a brief, frightened bow. “If you please, sir, I shall stable your horse.”
“Thank you, lad.” The poor boy acted positively browbeaten.
A cold breeze swooped around me. I slapped down my wrinkled gray greatcoat from flapping up. A stray raindrop ran behind my collar. Typical. The miserable weather was accompanied by miserable company. The ill-kept man standing in the home’s outer doorway sparked worry in my soul. His appallingly defiant stare raised my hackles. I had done nothing to warrant such a rude welcome. If this was the teacher’s caliber here, my journey beyond New York’s energetic confines seemed useless.
The scarecrow’s reedy voice wavered between respect and mockery. Quite a verbal feat. “Welcome to St. Luke’s, sir. I’m Master Amos, teacher of numbers. Right this way, if you please. Deacon Buck will show you the selected candidates. I’m sure one will suit your legal needs.”
“Lead on, Master Amos.” We entered the dim recesses. The smell of despair, unwashed bodies, and rotting garbage assailed my nostrils. I was far from a dandy, but the bitter smell even overwhelmed my senses. I left my wet tricorn on my head. Why expose my tied-back hair to the cold dampness? This rank, foul place did not deserve my gentlemanly consideration. At least my casual day wig sat safe in my room. The infernal curly confection took forever to dry. When wet weather threatened, I ignored the need to appear proper.
We entered a dismal central courtyard. Slick brown rats rooted through a tumbled refuse pile in the far corner, dispersing only when the youth returned from stabling my horse and shooed them away. What an unhealthy sight.
In another dreary corner of the courtyard, five youths, dressed only in patched black breeches and rough, gray, homespun shirts, stood under a sheltered area. How barbaric to make them stand in the raw cold without coats. Four appeared to be normal young men, slightly defiant, nervous, and uncertain. They shivered in the murky damp.
The fifth lad, taller than the others, stood straight as a slender beech tree challenging a mountainside’s chill snowfall. The others glanced my way. Number five stared forward in resolute determination, ignoring me with peculiar intensity. Tattered ribbon kept his long hair away from his face. Wavy lengths tumbled down his neck, imprisoned by his tight queue. The surface of his long face reminded me of rosy marble. A wild pattern of raw, red eruptions were scattered across his forehead and chin, likely caused by a mix of adolescent growing pains and poor diet.
Although I tried not to stare at him, I concentrated on his intelligent face. I realized he was my choice. Why did he appear desperate? Something in the set of his lips displayed a deep fear, and I had witnessed enough honest fear to judge the sensation in my fellow men.
Something in this hovel terrified the youth.
I studied Deacon Buck’s poorly-shaven face. Discouragement fluttered through my soul. The man looked to be a drunkard, a liar, quick to use the whip for punishment. He had probably procured his current position through patronage, not skill. Nothing surprising there. Any youth who had advanced into manhood under this creature’s tutelage could not be trusted as my clerk.
Neverthelsss, I might as well interview the lads. Perhaps before he passed on, the former Deacon had skillfully crafted the fifth lad’s mind and soul. I wished for such a glad outcome.
“Magistrate Halderson, welcome to Saint Luke’s.” The stout man possessed a whiny voice which could have irritated a saint. He grabbed my unhappy right hand, squeezing as if he intended to woo me. His filth skin felt greasy. “I feel honored my fine establishment is still known for producing learned lads. Before you stand five candidates selected for your clerk position. They can read, write, and think.” The Deacon raked his piggish stare over my candidate with loathing. “Aye, one of them thinks a bit too much for his own good.”
Buck’s open antagonism sickened me. “I feel sure I will find a lad to suit my needs.” Despite my urge to point at the slim youth and declare I would rescue him, I queried the others in my normal fashion. The first four boys answered in coherent sentences, yet they lacked outstanding mental abilities. Candidate one, the biblically named Joshua, displayed a severe stutter, not beneficial in public speaking. Malcolm and Guy acted too obsequious toward me. How badly had this place treated them? As he stumbled on his answers, Matthew scratched a nasty magenta neck rash and refused to meet my gaze.
My head ached in a dreadful fashion. One last chance for redemption stood before me. Number five performed a swift bow and surprised me by speaking first with nervous authority. His alert, green stare met mine. I half expected him to grasp my hands and drop to his knees.
“Sir, believe me, I am a worthy clerk for such an honorable man as yourself. Not only do I read, speak, and write fluently in English and Latin, but I also communicate in French and Spanish. My handwriting is superior and neat. My spelling is flawless.” He darted a sharp glare at the glowering Deacon before he refocused on me.
“Sir, I am accused of thinking too much, but an inquisitive mind is essential for learning. I do not comprehend the law’s sterling rule, but I am a fast study. In addition, I am healthy, I never fall ill, and I am willing to work as hard as you desire. I will endure long, hard hours serving you. In addition, sir, I feel ready to leave this place far, far behind me.” The youth’s intense words ended in a second bow. He looked down at his battered, square shoe tips. Rich, pink color stained his pale cheeks.
My mind reeled. What an astonishingly forward speech.
Something haunted this lad enough to make him beg for the clerk’s position. Indeed, the poor boy acted no different than a shunned leper offered a king’s grand palace. I hardly considered the unpaid two-year clerk’s position a prize.
Deacon Buck snorted in reprimand. He glared as if his irritated vengeance could melt flesh. “This miserable sinner acts awfully bold for his place in life. You can tell he thinks right highly of himself. Sir, trust me, young Aster is an insufferable brat. The chit is not worthy of your important time.”
How odd. I smiled in arch reply. “Pray tell, sir, why do you present this sinful brat to me?”
The Deacon flapped his chapped lips in annoyance until he shrugged off my question. “The law requires I offer you my eldest lads for the position. This dense wretch falls into the category. I’d hardly select Aster to present to you.” The miscreant cozied up to me with physical camaraderie. I almost stepped away from his swill-tainted breath. “Listen well, sir. I warn you, he is not your choice. Mark my words, this mouthy cur’s fantasies, endless questions, and lies will make your ears bleed. Aster’s brash speech shows his shameless disposition. Is that any way for a callow bumpkin to talk to someone like you, sir?”
Buck’s crude character assassination stiffened Aster’s body. “I am not a liar, sir.” His defensive assertion barely broke a whisper.
“Did the good magistrate ask your opinion, you bold scum?” Buck lifted his grimy right hand in a threatening gesture.
The Deacon’s hand never completed its threat. If his corrupt flesh had touched Aster’s skin, I might have disgraced myself by punching Buck’s warty nose. Something evil had happened between my candidate and the Deacon. I ignored the vile man, returning my attention to my prime applicant. “Master Aster, I need to see a sample of your handwriting. Deacon, may we use a desk?”
This time the Deacon included me in his glare. My stern, cold stare devoured his mistake, pummeled it, and spat the mess into his face. I possessed a dangerous gaze, ripe with my icy Swedish heritage. I suspected Viking blood fueled my finest stares.
Buck struggled to conquer my will, but he failed. After ungraciously accepting defeat, the ogre angrily gestured toward a narrow opening across the courtyard. My cutting smile betrayed my frigid mood. We traveled down a rank hallway littered with dust-decorated cobwebs which smelled, to my dismay, worse than the fetid courtyard. Did any room in this pit smell remotely pleasant? Horrible.
Our mismatched trio entered a crowded office. The sty resembled the town dump. The sputtering oil lamp’s flicker had blackened the small paned windows. The familiar, welcome aroma of old pipe smoke masked another sinister stench, something my nostrils equated with dire rot. How fitting.
Buck slumped behind his disorderly desk. A crusty inkwell, and a few tattered quills jammed into a broken ceramic mug added to the clutter.
My nervous candidate shuffled his feet.
“What is your full name?”
“Aindrias Aster, sir.”
“What an unusual name.”
“Yes, sir, a family name given by my poor parents, may they rest in peace. Shall we start, sir?” Another respectful bow. “Let me select a quill.” Aindrias critically examined three different quill tips, rapidly dismissing them. Number four earned a thoughtful frown before Aindrias lifted the rusty pen blade and sharpened the tip.
For a second, I feared Buck might strike Aindrias for his innocent effrontery. My stern stare halted him as I encouraged Aindrias. “Excellent. A man who understands his writing quills. You have neat sharpening work.”
“Sir, I cannot abide a dull quill.” Aindrias’s words drifted toward the quill, but they also aimed for Buck’s ears. “A blunt, ill-treated tool wastes ink and time. Any instrument not kept tidy is useless.”
Aindrias stirred the ink and performed a few practice flourishes. His fingers pantomimed a beautifully light touch. He finished his preparation and nodded in approval. His gaze shyly questioned me. “What shall I write, sir?”
Without asking, I selected a clean parchment page, cleared an area on the desk, and silently dared Buck to challenge me. The lout remained quiet. “While I recite, take notes in Latin, please.”
To my satisfaction, Aindrias smiled as if I offered him heavenly solace. His pen anticipated my words. I subjugated my amused smile and spoke in my normal trial pace. Aindrias’s pen raced across the paper with graceful speed, the flow broken only for the needed ink dip. He performed the mundane task with neat precision.
I droned on about nothing in particular, glancing at Aindrias’s tidy, easily readable handwriting. Once I finished speaking, I read the written page and nodded with sincere appreciation. Every Latin word appeared correct. He performed well under stress.
Intelligent Aindrias was my perfect candidate.
His tall grace made me wonder about his true age. “How old are you, Aindrias?”
My question encouraged Aindrias to stand straighter, trying to appear older by squaring his slight shoulders under his threadbare shirt. He reminded me of a young rooster facing down an older, far more experienced cock. He hiked his pointed chin in the air with stubborn pride. “I turned seventeen a few days ago, sir. I am plenty old enough for the job. Truly I am, sir.”
His age suited the position. My choice made complete sense to me. Unlike Charles, Aindrias would be my proud achievement.
Deep in my soul, a knowing voice straight from Hell hissed, “Wrong.” Black-winged guilt smiled and danced in bony malevolence.
Begone! I vowed to wait. I would.
I swore to myself on Charles’s sacred soul.
The act nearly brought me to tears.
(I need to break here. Writing this account is more difficult than I ever imagined. A jolt of sherry comforts me.)