Wanted: A Respectable Woman to take charge of a Motherless Child Three Weeks Old to Bottle Feed it.
That’s the last line I read before I left the library today. It was placed in a tiny box, on page seven of the Drogheda Conservative 1880, a newspaper that disappeared in the 1890s. I re-read the advertisement, thinking of the man and the child and woman who had most likely died during or from complications of childbirth.
Liberal terms will be given. Apply to W. D. Thomas.
How sad, I thought. How very sad. Questions raced through my brain. How and when did the mother die? Had she hung on for three weeks, battling fever, trying to nurse her child? Was there not a nanny; were they not well off? Why was the child to be bottle fed, when breast feeding was so much more common and safer?
I could research the family name and maybe find some records, but this would defeat the purpose I suppose. I’m looking for stories you see. I’m searching for snippets of news that spark the imagination, that give rise to wonderment. I’m actively looking for nuggets that make me ask; what happened, how did they feel, how can I write about it?
Scrolling through newspapers of the era I’m writing in has long been a goal of my research process. It’s taken me six months to get the time and peace to do so and it took me an hour to read just two papers today, both only eight pages long.
The papers are dense, with print packed into columns in each page, stories often running into each other with little headline or punctuation. But they are filled with gold.
I’m learning about the people and their daily lives. The names of shops, where they were located, the items they stocked, dates, times when the steamer left for Liverpool. What’s striking is the amount of coverage of foreign news, lifted from British papers. Stories about Afghanistan, Russia, and Germany. It’s only in the middle of the paper that you find domestic stories – the total opposite to what we know local papers as today.
There is great humour in the stories. There are escapades and adventures, animal stories and court reports of hilarious mishaps. One article reports of a drunken horse, who refused to pass by a public house on the way to London unless the driver stopped to give him a bucket of beer. Another tells of a cat, who was seen to gather bread, drop it in the grass, wait for the birds to descend and then pounce.
Another, less humorous story tells of an unfortunate woman who heated up her hot water bottle (one of the old earthen types) only to take if from the oven, have it explode and take her head off. She died from an exploding hot water bottle!
Of all the stories today, one had me glued to the library stool, mouth agape at what I was reading. It was like something out of a horror movie.
Shocking murder in Mornington
My mother’s from Mornington, so naturally I was interested. The murder took place at Coney Hall, a large residence house once owned by James Henry Brabazon. He left in his carriage for Drogheda one evening, his 26 year housekeeper alone in the house. She had replaced a former maid who had been sacked, possibly for drinking. After he’d left, the former housekeeper came to the door, gained entry and bludgeoned, slashed and mutilated the young woman to death. They found a pool of blood in the hallway, finger prints in blood along the walls, blood up the stairs, where the victim had ran, trying to escape, only to find the doors above locked. The deranged killer dumped the woman’s body in what was some sort of inside well. Jealous much?
Where would you say you might find a story such as this in a newspaper 1880? Front page? Special pull –out supplement? No, it was buried in the middle of the paper; the front was reserved for advertisements about soot and hay rick coverings and clothing sales.
This week has been a bit of a turning the corner. My last post related to my literary progress proudly declared that I had reached 30,000 words on the novel. How great I felt. How bloody proud of myself.
Being the naturally bored and always seeking distractions person that I am though, I googled 30,000 words / novel straight after that post and up came the news that authors regularly get stuck at this point. The experts suggested you read over your work, check where you’re going and reassess.
So I decided to get stuck, read over my work and reassess. My assessment? It sucked. Totally sucked.
The opposite of brilliant.
Disappointed, I gave myself some time and I began to think about the story and the plot differently. I had myself under time pressure to deliver – I was churning out text but it was a case of quantity over quality. So I’ve gone back to the drawing board a little, and returned to what I love; research. I’m so glad I did.
I’ve learned bundlefuls of stuff. We’ve visited old houses, spoken to historians, gone back to reading my favourite authors. I’ve found books that etch out the daily minutiae of 19th century life, watched the whole series of Victorian farm, and had time to write. Outside of the novel.
In June I penned a short story and entered it into OriginalWriting.ie. They run a summer competition and pick ten winners each month to be published in the Autumn anthology. This week I found out that I’d won. I’d been picked. I’m officially going in print. And honestly, nothing like that news has made me as happy in a long, long time.
Spurred on by this, last night I sent off three chapters to a pocket novel publisher who is seeking submissions. I’m not holding out much hope, but what I am delighted with is my enthusiasm, desire to write and commitment to write well.
The time off has also allowed me to spend time on my blog, and I’m trying to post more and market well. I’m up for an award in the Boots Maternity and Infant Awards (VOTE HERE, AH GO ON). Again, I’m not holding out much hope, but it’s the experience and kudos of having people think you’re good enough for an award, that counts.
Tonight, I will dream of the servant girl murdered, the babe without a mother, the people who lived their lives before us, with the same dreams and hopes short centuries ago. I’m sure some of them aspired to be a novelist .Well Jane Austen had to start somewhere right?