getting at it

For obvious reasons historical fiction and research go hand in hand.  Libraries are my friends and I’ve spent many hours in online databases and dusty stacks pursuing all facets of sixteenth century life, from the religious and political climate to such everyday details like food, clothing, housing, and travel.

Book research is valuable and has helped me discover and clear up some major plot and setting questions but sometimes there really is nothing like the real thing.

Case in point: I’ve been struggling with Elizabethan interiors. No matter how many books I read or pictures I look at, my imagination still wants to put my characters in modern rooms with artificial light, controlled temperature, prefab uniformity, etc.  Given that the first two-thirds of the book takes place in a sixteenth century gentry home outside London it’s pretty crucial I get this basic setting right. Simply reading wasn’t enough for me to “get at it”.

The solution was obvious: visit an Elizabethan gentry home.

In the past I’ve done historical costume and swordplay for the same ease of mental access: why wonder how heavy all those layers of clothes are when I can just put them on? Why take descriptions of parries and footwork at face value when I can perform them myself? I always end up wanting to experience my passionate interests in a more immediate way and this time I have a real need.

I thought I’d have to wait until I could afford to travel to Europe, but fortunately for me I live relatively close to a transplanted Tudor house. I visited it with friends a few weekends back and it made all the difference in the world!

I’d looked at floor plans of a house wrapped around a central courtyard, but it didn’t prepare me for the simultaneous feeling of intimacy and sprawl: the house spreads further than I realized, but with all the windows my characters can see a great deal of household activity without leaving their private rooms. This layout solves some narrative problems and creates others.

Courtyard at Agecroft Hall

Courtyard at Agecroft Hall

All those windows also meant that the house was better lit than I’d envisioned. Even with lower ceilings and smaller rooms it didn’t feel as closed in as I’d expected. It turns out one character might be able to prowl through the library using only the light of a full moon as I’d planned, but I’ll have to remember that the dark was truly DARK without streetlights and lightbulbs.

A dozen little observations sunk in as the tour wound through the upper floors. The study was small and crowded with furniture, so I  can well imagine how stressful it was to work in such a tiny place. I knew servants often shared bedrooms with their masters, but the small size of the rooms and the need for drapes around the bedsteads highlighted the different concepts of privacy and how very difficult it would be to hide objects or keep secrets.

The “common areas” are also much different from what I’m used to due to the more formal manners of the time. The great hall was surprisingly public by modern standards, but only family and intimates made it to the rest of the house. My con man will have to use all his charms to get to the great parlor, and from there to becoming a guest/servant.

The least obvious but most important difference was the flooring: during my time period they were typically covered with rushes to soak up spills and dirt, so as the con man sneaks around he has to worry about rustling as well as creaking floorboards.

The exposure to the space, distance, and light really makes it easier to feel how my characters would navigate the house, how difficult it was to hide anything and how noisy and busy a private home could be. I hope to visit again in the spring to see the gardens, because the lady of the house often kept a herb garden (as my protagonist’s master did) both for cooking and home remedies.

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