Crooked Mile by Ben Bealzey
I feel a bit like Scott of the Antarctic, sitting in his tent in 1912 with an icy blizzard howling around outside, scribbling away with a stub of pencil, wondering what to say next … Captain Oates has just stepped out of the bivvy, having uttered the immortal phrase … ‘I am just going outside and may be some time…‘ (I have never been quite clear on this one – was he nipping out to take a leak, or have a quiet smoke… I know he didn’t get on with Scott, but what was that all about ?)
Anyway I think I can empathise with Scott who is no doubt thinking, ‘should I pen a few erudite words for the guidance of those who may follow, or tell the truth and say that I wish I had booked a cruise next month on that new boat – the Titanic’.
Yesterday I mentioned the occurrence of Christian and forenames during the eighteen hundreds. As in present times, there was definitely a fashion in which certain expected names seem to appear whilst others are missing. Just as an aside I was equally intrigued to find that most of today’s surnames were in current use then and remain virtually unchanged.
As I said, over recent years I have spent an awful lot of time in my local Record Office doing research, (the head archivist, a lovely lady by the name of Dr Margaret Bonney gets really up tight when people refer to her domain as the ‘Records’ Office, pointing out that HMV and Virgin sell ‘records’), and of late I have become involved in a volunteer scheme to transcribe various areas of material onto electronic data bases.
My specific job every Thursday morning is to sit down in front of one of the computers which they have designated for the purpose, (I think that they are a bit short of readies because there are only two machines each of which chugs along on Windows 2000), open the dusty ledger that, on one side contains entries of those unfortunates being admitted ‘to the house’, on a daily basis, and on the opposite those who are either being released at their own request, kicked out because they are ‘casuals’, or have simply legged it with the workhouse clothes. (The odd variance is an inmate who has either gone completely mental and been carted off to the asylum or been sentenced to seven days with hard labour in gaol for being rude to, or taken a swing at, the Workhouse Master).
The point being that, like the Watch Committee minutes that first set me off on the trail of writing Crooked Mile, this is another wonderful source of names for anyone similar to myself who is involved in attempting to recreate history. At present we are working on the late 1880’s – a period that apart from being the setting for my present book interests me greatly, and I am quite surprised at the dearth of what I would have thought at that particular time should have been common names.
Some of those that as yet I just have not come across are: Judith, (biblical); Barbara; Julie; Donald … Matilda – we had a Queen Matilda back when Stephen was lobbying to become king in the 1300s. (As a matter of fact – I haven’t seen a Stephen either). Another thing that I have picked up is that whilst we now take for granted the option to spell names in more than one way, such was not then the case – for instance Elizabeth was never spelt with an ‘s’, always a ‘z’ – Ann never took an ‘e’ as in present times, and so on.
Doubtless, twenty five years on, by the time of the First World War, (when I get to it), trends will have altered once more, and there will be whole new raft of names to play with. What I am getting at is, I hate picking up books where the author has made a guess at something, or simply not bothered. I actually recently came across a new work by a particularly renowned author, writing a tale of the middle ages in which there appeared characters named Dave and Ric – in the 1300s’ ? So I probably spend as much time on background work as I do writing, because the truth is there will always be someone who says… ‘I don’t think so’.
With Crooked Mile coming out early next year, I have not unnaturally been exercising my mind on what to do next, and helping out in a project such as the one that I am involved in at Leicester Record office is probably one of the best ways to stimulate the imagination.
A couple of weeks ago Caroline made the point that her plot for Kill-Grief began to emerge from many of the intriguing details that she turned up in her research into 18th century hospital practices. Similarly my plot for Crooked Mile began to take form whilst I was researching the history of a police force during the 19th century. I suspect that there are two kinds of researcher. Those who treat it as a means to an end, and those who do it because they like it and find it stimulating. Fact is that if you want to try your hand at writing historical novels, you have got to fall into the latter group.