Friday, 19 October 2012

Dancing with the dead - Anne Rooney

I'm off to London in a few minutes to look for a brothel and some dead bodies. No, not a new career in either debauchery or police work, but research for a new book. It's set in 1878, just after the sinking of the Princess Alice in which 700 people drowned in the Thames. That's nearly half as many as died in the Titanic, but had you heard of it?

My characters include a baby-farmer, so I went to the Museum of Childhood on Tuesday and looked at the bottles and 'pap boats' used to feed babies who were not breastfed. A third of all bottle-fed babies died, because no one knew to sterilise bottles.

One of my characters is an old man who has Parkinson's. Luckily for him, he owns his hovel, so he can live with his widowed sister-in-law. If he didn't have the hovel (and the sister-in-law) he'd be moved to the workhouse where he would die very rapidly. For a good account of a workhouse, see Meg Rosoff's The Bride's Farewell. Yes, they really were that bad.

I've been using Booth's Poverty Map and a brilliant online map of London from 1878. The poverty map colour-codes all London housing by levels of affluence or poverty. My characters live in the black (criminal) and dark blue (desperately poor) areas of Bankside and Whitechapel. I went to look at the baby-farmer's house, but the Whitechapel Gallery has been built on top of it. This building alongside in Angel Alley was probably there at the time.




It's good to see where characters live and walk, even if it has changed. Covent Garden is very different now, but the church of St Paul's is still in the same place, and is still the backdrop for puppet shows and other street entertainers. It's not hard to imagine back 150 years to a different type of entertainer and populate it with street-sellers and other characters from Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor - four volumes of contemporary interviews with such characters as 'the blind seller of bootlaces' and 'the bone grubber' and 'the street buyer of umbrellas and parasols'.

1878 is late enough for there to be photographs, and I'm off to the Museum of London to look at some of them. But photographs were posed then. I like to look for other things that show, less self-consciously, how things looked. The Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green has a large collection of ornate Victorian doll houses, some of them exact replicas of real houses. I will use one of those for the layout and decor of a grand house. This little clockwork man rowing a boat on the river probably represents pretty accurately how such a man would look.

The story is still unfolding in my mind at the moment, but all the research helps it to do that. Research is not just about getting the details right - it often directs the story as some discoveries are just too good not to use. Such as the name of my baby farmer, Selina Wadge. She was real. She was convicted for baby-killing. She's going to be involved in some quite shady business.

 RIght, off for a happy day of research, ending with drinking in the Anchor, the pub on Bankside where the dead bodies are deposited for identification. Hope there won't be too many there tonight.

Stroppy Author is Anne Rooney
Latest books: Vampire Dawn series, Ransom Publishing, 2012


9 comments:

Joan Lennon said...

"Research is not just about getting the details right - it often directs the story as some discoveries are just too good not to use."

Absolutely true! I can feel the excitement all the way up to Scotland!

Penny Dolan said...

Sounds a wonderful day you've planned and a useful reminder about how to make settings feel real and characters - even dead ones - live.

Enjoy that final drink but watch the company, especially those sitting unusually still in dark corners for any unusually long time . . .

Sounds like a novel to look forward to, Anne!

Sue Purkiss said...

Really interesting. Love the idea of using the dolls' houses for interiors!

Lucy Coats said...

Nothing quite like feet on the ground research, Anne! I've never forgotten being in Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore and singing the immortal lines: "A many years ago, When I was young and charming, As some of you may know, I practised baby-farming." I'm guessing that may have come from the Selina Wadge case or one like it. Terrible times.

Sarah Taylor-Fergusson said...

Blimey. (Have you read Matthew Skelton's The Story of Cirrus Flux? Set in London in and about 1783. Less babies, more orphans but still dark.)

adele said...

Brilliant! And the name is the cherry on top of the cake! Have fun.

Savita Kalhan said...

Awesome, Anne! I love doing research for a book too, finding out and discovering, and then picking and choosing what stays in what goes. I hope you made it out of the Anchor...

Karen said...

Oh my god, your book sounds gorgeous! I love anything like this. What wonderful research. Such a happy time in the life of a novel.

gargoylebruce said...

Parkinson's, baby farming, dead people, brothels...this sounds like my kind of book! What will it be called? I wish to look out for it.