Friday, November 23, 2012

Mrs Chronism and her chatty daughter Verbal Anna

Since writing COACHMAN I've had a few conversations on the topic of conversation - as in, were the words I put in my characters' mouths actually current in the year 1838?

Well, yes they were.

Weren't "mate" and "kid" too modern for a Victorian coachman to use?

Well... actually, no.

Rest assured folks - when writing of characters in a past era, the dear old Oxford English Dictionary Online is an ever-open tab in my browser. It has a fantastic Historical Thesaurus which details when words appeared in print with quotations from the earliest examples of how they were used. (And the OED online is free to access if you have a library membership card. Just type in its number to sign in.)

Words I've looked up for earliest usage have included these: (dates below if you want to guess before I tell you!)

mate - my friend
kid - child
customer - client
sandwich - bread & filling
chit-chat - idle discussion
slipshod - careless workmanship
fusty - ancient and old-fashioned
upright - righteous
cash - ready money
brat - two meanings, child, and rough apron
cocky - my friend
daft - foolish
dasher - elegantly dressed and attractive person
gob - mouth
snotty-nosed - contemptible

I've had queries about the contemporary use of mate and kid in particular, which is why they are the top of the list.

One word I encountered in a mid-Victorian carriage driving book, An Old Coachman's Chatter (1890), was the term muff. You probably are familiar with its use for a hand-warmer, often of fur. My grandmother left me a fox-fur muff, complete with a head whose jaws were sprung so you could put a scarf or a pair of gloves into its grip. However, in that book, "muff" seems to have been a term of contempt - a stupid, inept, clumsy person; a klutz; and "muffish" described something badly done, not stylishly. It was so emphatically used in Edward Corbett's advice about how NOT to drive that I just had to check to see whether it was something I could use in 1838!

So here are the answers:

mate - my friend - 1380 "man" and 1500 a term of friendly address
kid - child - 1690
customer - client - 1480
sandwich - bread & filling - 1762
chit-chat - idle discussion - 1710
slipshod - careless workmanship - 1818
fusty - ancient - 1492; old-fashioned - 1609
upright - righteous - 1530
cash - ready money - 1596
brat - two meanings, child - 1557; and rough apron - 1691
cocky - my friend - 1693
daft - foolish - 1450
dasher - elegantly dressed and attractive person - 1807
gob - mouth - 1568
snotty-nosed - contemptible - 1682

Oh, and muff - inept person - 1819.

Happy word hunting.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Take a letter

I learnt a lot about the British postal service when I was writing COACHMAN.

One obvious reason for this was that my hero George Davenport aspired to drive a Royal Mail coach. Mails were well designed and well maintained, they were supplied with good quality horses and above all they were required to be fast. Other individual coaching routes perhaps exceeded the Post Office's average speed: a commercial stage coach, the Shrewsbury "Wonder," was timetabled to cover the 153 miles between that city and London in 15 and 3/4 hours including meal breaks and changes of horses. Its arrival in St Albans was so punctual that people regulated their watches and clocks by it, and in its latter years its average speed was said to have gone up to 15mph. That exceeded the fastest of the Royal Mail routes, Liverpool to Preston, which was 10.5 mph, and it more than doubled one of Royal Mail's slowest, the Kent route between Canterbury and Deal, which only managed 6 mph; but the sheer scale of the network that carried His (or later, Her) Majesty's Mail across the British Isles has to be admired. A letter posted from London at Monday teatime could be in Glasgow early on Wednesday afternoon.

The Royal Mail was assisted by laws such as the automatic right of way of the Mail coach on the road, its exemption from stopping to pay toll at toll gates, and the outlawing of letter carriage by any other means. The Mails were not just the best-organised and quickest method of transporting letters and parcels across the country: they were a Royal monopoly. While the Mail coachman was employed by the proprietor who supplied the horses, and was not directly responsible for the Mail, the guard was a Royal employee whose duty was to protect and carry the mails forward even when blizzards and floods might stop the coach itself - and these men carried out their duty so conscientiously that some of them died doing it. George, my coachman, was lucky not to encounter such conditions in his brief spell in this work.

Top two Iillustrations by John Sturgess in The Coaching Age

The annual procession of Mail coaches took place in May each year up to 1838, as shown in this drawing on the cover of COACHMAN. The 27 London Mails assembled in Lincoln's Inn Fields. The bang-up teams were provided by the coaching proprietors or lent by wealthy London "whips" and they trotted proudly through the streets of London to the West End of the city. They stopped to salute the Postmaster General in St James's Square, and then the reigning monarch in St James's Palace, before going on a circuit through Hyde Park and coming back into the city via Regent Street and Trafalgar Square. I decided that if George wasn't at that time a Mail coachman, he would be far better able to observe what was going on, and interact with people, which of course he could not have done as a driver on the coach, except at the assembly point.

In their daily work the Mail coaches all left London at the same hour each evening, 8pm, which enabled them to cover the busiest part of their route when the roads were quiet. This meant that the London inns which horsed the Mails were jam-packed with horses and staff up to 7.30pm, which was when the coaches went round the block to be loaded at the General Post Office in St Martins le Grand.

Illustration by Pollard.

They were a popular sight, hence George's admiration of them loading at the Swan with Two Necks. (The name of the inn is a corruption of "Swan with two NICKS" - the beaks of swans on the Thames are marked with notches to indicate ownership, and the two nicks, one either side, denote the Vintners' Company who were, of course, innkeepers!) Mails from provincial cities, however, left at all sorts of times, depending on the distances they had to cover. The Mail from Carlisle to Newcastle, for instance, left at 7 in the morning in company with the Scottish coaches for Edinburgh, Glasgow and Port Patrick, and reached its destination around 1 in the afternoon.

Another aspect of my story that had to be researched was postage itself. George had left Lucy behind in Carlisle when she was ill, which meant he had to keep in touch by letter. In order to put these little snapshots of their lives into the right places, I needed to know how long it would take to send and receive responses. Alan Bates' Directory of Stage Coach Services 1836 was invaluable as my starting point. I began to feel rather like a trainspotter as I flicked forward and back through the pages of Mail coach timetables.

I also needed to know how much Lucy would have to pay for her letter from Carlisle to London. In 1838 postage was still priced by distance and by number of sheets of paper, so even though I didn't have an example available I was able to calculate that one sheet cost 11 pence to travel that distance. In an era when the coach guard was paid ten shillings and sixpence for a week's work, it's clear that sending a letter over a long distance was not something that every person could have done, which we now expect almost as a right.

My grandmother owned old letters which had been written at that period of time, so even as a child I knew that there had been an age in which you either cut your letter short or you "crossed" the lines. Crossing meant writing on the same sheet of paper a second or even a third time, with the direction of the 2nd or 3rd set of lines being at 90 or 45 degrees from the first set. The Penny Post that was then being planned must have been a great improvement on this system.

My grandmother had a seal ring and several sticks of sealing wax. I never discovered how old they were but I do remember that they were bright red, hard and brittle.

During the re-writes of COACHMAN I discovered an antiques web site with Victorian seals for sale and I'm afraid lust overcame me. With the excuse that it was my birthday I splashed out and bought myself one. Its handle is delicately turned mother of pearl, with pierced silver mountings that hold the amethyst stone that forms the seal. I felt it must belong on a lady's desk, but even so when it arrived I couldn't believe how tiny it was. The jeweller must have gone half blind carving the black-letter "M" into its flat surface.

Well, I had to have a go with it, didn't I? I bought some sticks of sealing wax: two red and one gold, both of which would have been used in Victorian times, though a lady might have preferred the gold, or rose or some other colour, to the red.

That's when I discovered that modern sealing wax is softer and more flexible than the old wax I remember. The sticks I bought have a wick in the middle. Even when it's lit it is not very easy to use. There's an edge of danger in lighting a stick of wax in the midst of your correspondence and computer equipment, and a great deal of dexterity involved in handling the dripping wax. You have to get the blob to fall in the correct place on your document and then set the seal (right way round) onto the blob at just the right moment when it's beginning to set but has not yet hardened. It's difficult to get the M the right way up by ceiling-mounted electric light, but when I did it by candlelight it was very easy to see because the light is closer to desk level. Sealing a folded piece of paper to create a postable, private letter is tricky, but here's a photo to prove I did it. Complete with blobs that went astray in the process! Turning the corners under into a point like the flap of an envelope means you only need to seal it once.

And I'm still finding little round red test seals with an M stamped on them, hiding in my desk tray. I'm too fond of them to throw them away.


Victorian Historical Novel - COACHMAN -

"K M Peyton meets Malcolm MacDonald."

Good-looking and ambitious George Davenport travels to London with his bride Lucy, determined to make the most of his skill in driving a four-in-hand of horses. It’s 1838. Queen Victoria is crowned, and England is at peace, but it isn't a good time to be a coachman.

As George finds employment with William Chaplin, the “Napoleon of coaching”, the first railways are about to open across the country. Their competition will kill off the road-coaching trade. George loves both his work and his wife, so he has a lot to come to terms with… even before the boss’s daughter starts to stalk him.

Bates, A (compiler), 1969, Directory of Stage Coach Services 1836
Beaufort, Duke of, 1890, Driving.
Cross, Thomas, Autobiography of a Stage Coachman.
Dixon, H.H., 1895, Saddle and Sirloin.
Harper, Charles G., Stage Coach and Mail in Days of Yore
Harris, Stanley, 1885, The Coaching Age.
Mountfield, The Coaching Age
British Postal Museum and Archive
Vintners' Hall - Swan upping

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Next Next Big Thing (November 2012)

Lancastrian author Deborah Swift has tagged me in this blogging "chain" where authors write about their Works In Progress. Deborah is a "Word addict, book addict. Nature, art and poetry fan, and writer of thought-provoking historical fiction." I'll drink to that.

I joined in The Next Big Thing previously with a blog post about COACHMAN, which was then almost ready for publication and so is now out in paperback and for Kindle.

However, I'm now doing National Novel Writing Month and I'm starting afresh!

Ten Interview Questions for The Next Big Thing:

1.) What is the title of your book?

2.) Where did the idea come from for the book?
In 1995 I had a novel published by J A Allen, AGAINST THE ODDS, and I've often thought of continuing the story of the two main characters Madoc and Sian. As it's now nearly 20 years since that book ended, this year's NANO was a great excuse to find out what has happened to them in the meantime.

3.) Under what genre does your book fall?
I am finding the characters pushing me into a murder mystery! I've never tried this genre before but it's one I read quite a lot. It won't be a police procedural, because I just don't have the background for that. I want to look at the way such a big event is both a result of change and an agent for change, in family relationships. It's also interesting to put my characters through a bit of hell, and yet set it in a local backdrop.

4.) Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I would rather not type-cast, since it's better for readers to picture their own versions of heroes and heroines. Physically, many of my characters resemble people I have known at some time in my life. Although authors try to insist their people are entirely fictional that can't ever be true - we just hope nobody recognises a character trait that's been lifted. But if someone offered me Daniel Craig to play Madoc I wouldn't object! That's not only because he is famous and good looking. Daniel Craig is a Cestrian brought up on Wirral, as am I, and Madoc worked there for a long while in AGAINST THE ODDS, so their backgrounds would mesh.

5.) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Sian Owen's 18 year marriage to Madoc is in the doldrums and she has a brief fling with businessman Charles Humphreys, but it changes her life more than she expects when Charles is found murdered.

6.) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’ve self published the last 3 of my books and will do the same with this, though not until it's ready. I think nothing does a greater disservice to self-publishing than badly edited and badly produced books. As it happens, I’ve designed the covers for all my books, including those produced by mainstream publishers. So it has been quite good fun to go it alone. It would be nice if an agent picked up my writing, but for now I’ll slog on with selling myself.

7.) How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I'm four days into NANO and have only got 7,000 words so far (and I'm procrastinating by writing this) but the outline is there for the rest. Having chosen the murder mystery structure I'm finding I have to be far more strict about which scenes I include at which points in the narrative - sticking far more closely to the 3-act pattern of stage drama. So my lifelong love of Shakespeare and the stage is of some use after all. Who knew?

8.) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I would like it to be as good as Josephine Tey's BRAT FARRAR, though the storyline is only similar in that there is a murder associated with a family who own horses.

9.) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Sian Davies and Madoc Owen were two characters I liked very much when I wrote AGAINST THE ODDS, and I've always meant to follow up on what happened after they married. Knowing your characters really well makes writing a great deal easier. Also, following them up means they can be nearer to my own age and experience, so I don't have to make so much up!

10.) What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
It’s a love story about a marriage that survives. (I'm beginning to see a recurring theme here.) How does a middle-aged marriage get over that falling-apart that happens when the kids are growing up and wanting to fly the nest? Is it possible for trust once broken to be reforged?


I originally sent this on to Mary Witzl but she is not blogging at the moment, being fortunate to have so much work she can't keep up with it all: "I've been lucky enough to find almost more work than I can do teaching English and Japanese, proofreading, editing, and, especially, writing. I am writing this to explain why I'm disappearing: I have so little free time now that I have to spend it on writing." Isn't that fabulous? Good luck, Mary, and remember to breathe!


Since Mary's busy life means she isn't blogging I will suggest you go on to read Kathleen Jones' blog. Kathleen has recently published her first historical novel, The Sun's Companion (reviewed here) but she has been writing since she was a child and has published ten books including six biographies and a collection of poetry. She lived for several years in Africa and the Middle East, where she worked for the Qatar Broadcasting Corporation. Since then she has written extensively for BBC radio and contributed to several television documentaries. Kathleen is currently a Royal Literary Fund Fellow. Her biography, "Katherine Mansfield: The Storyteller" was published by Penguin NZ and by Edinburgh University Press.

--and also--
Suzie Tullet. Suzie says of herself: "Going Underground is my first novel and its setting was inspired by my observations of the Mod scene, having been married to a Mod for quite some time now. Of course, it's not a social critique in any way, it's an entertaining physical and emotional journey that uses the fun and nostalgic elements of Mod to weave a very human story - elements that we can all enjoy and identify with. I'm a full time writer, lucky enough to live between the UK and Greece. And when I'm not tapping away on the computer creating my own literary masterpiece, I usually have my head in someone else's."

I shall add links to a couple more authors' blogs very shortly.

Friday, November 2, 2012

A cob is a cob is a cob

I've been trying to explain to a carriage driving list in America that the word "cob" in Britain covers a multitude of animals. So, I thought I'd stick up a blog post about it.

It depends where you are and what you are doing, whether you hear all
the varied uses of the word "cob".

As a general term it means a stocky, powerful, active *type* of horse
"suitable for an elderly gentleman to enjoy a day's hunting" - ie, not too high off the ground, broad, loads of stamina, weight carrying and comfortable and above all well mannered. Breeding is not an issue - they can be part TB, part Shire or Clyde, part pony. They are shown trimmed out, no feather on the heels, mane often roached and tails pulled and cut fairly short (a nod to their hunting purposes). Not a breed as such. Often called a "show cob." Power, stamina and good manners make a cob a good driving animal for a country turnout.

"Coloured cob" means a broken-coloured/pinto/piebald/skewbald horse and usually one with a lot of mane, tail and feather. They are heavy-boned, often with a Fell or Dales pony close up in the ancestry but also Clydesdale further back. These are the type that came over from Ireland in the 50s and 60s and became popular with the tinker/potter men and are now famed as "gypsy horses" (before that, a gipsy horse was usually a Clydesdale cross, black or brown with white socks!) They have a couple of registries for *type* and are rapidly becoming a pedigreed breed in their own right though I can't say whether their stud book is a closed one - I suspect not, since I know people who sometimes breed small coloured cobs from registered Fell ponies. Shown in full mane/tail/feather as a "traditional" cob but occasionally trimmed out and shown as a "show cob". There are also "coloured" horses that are NOT necessarily cobs and these are referred to as "non-traditional" coloureds - they are shown trimmed.

Traditionals make good driving horses for trade and exercise/leisure/pleasure classes, and of course the bigger sorts can pull a "van" of any of the gipsy varieties. Non-traditionals have famously been included in coaching teams and competitive (HDTA/FEI) tandems.

Confused yet?

"Welsh cob" and "Welsh pony of cob type" are the stocky, active horses and ponies from Wales with historic pedigrees recorded by the Welsh Pony and Cob Society. They are a breed, although "Welsh pony of cob type, Section C" is for cobs under 13.2 hands and "Welsh cob, Section D" is for cobs over 13.2, and it depends on their height rather than their breeding which section they are registered in. "On the basis of height certified by a Veterinary Surgeon, the Society may sanction:
4.1 A transfer from Section A to Section B of stock which has grown over 12 hands.
4.2 A transfer from Section C to Section D of stock which has grown over 13 hands 2 inches.
4.3 A transfer from Section D to Section C of stock, seven years old or over, which does not exceed 13 hands 2 inches."(Registration regulations for Welsh ponies & cobs)

Often these are referred to a Section D or Section C cobs, with "Welsh" assumed from the word Section. (One of my gripes is that the Sec D cob in particular often doesn't look cobby any more but like a plump Arabian. And an Arabian is NOT a cob by any stretch of the imagination.) They vary from "hot" to "placid" as driving horses - can be very good, can also be very bad, and while they move spectacularly when seen from the side they often dish or plait at either front or back or both although the requirement for "true" straight movement is still mentioned in the Welsh breed standard.

Therefore!!! when you hear people in England talking about "a cob" they may mean one of several things. If you ask them to be more specific they will define what they mean by saying "show cob", "coloured cob" (traditional or non-traditional) or "Welsh Cob" (plus its section, C or D).

Here endeth the lecture.