From the Notebooks of Susan Holloway Scott

Living History, Living Research

Monday, June 19, 2006

Writing historical fiction is like writing fantasy: both create alternative worlds for readers to visit. The bare facts of life in the past are available to anyone with a library or computer, but a skilled fiction writer must use all her senses to bring her story and characters and setting to life. For me, living history museums have helped add an extra element to my writing in ways that no research book alone ever could.

For several years (before I started hanging out in ice rink parking lots), I volunteered as an interpreter at the Colonial Pennsylvania Plantation in Ridley Creek State Park. (Above is a painting of the Plantation at its most idyllic, in the snow, by Pennsylvania artist Nicholas P. Santoleri.) The Plantation is a modest living history museum, a single-family working 18th century farm, complete with the original stone house, as well as outbuildings, animals, kitchen garden, and fields planted with crops. The Plantation is primarily a teaching museum, and a favorite field trip for school groups in the Philadelphia area, with hundreds of children a day visiting during the peak spring season. While it’s a hands-on experience for the kids (trying on replica clothing, tasting food they help gather and prepare, drawing water from the well, and, of course, shrieking with gleeful horror over the privy), the Plantation is strict about keeping everything as accurate as possible.

We interpreters weren’t in character, but we did dress like farmer’s wives of the middling sort from head to toe. Our modern colored hair had to be hidden by linen caps, we wore stays that creaked and thread stockings that never stayed up no matter how tightly the garters were tied. The only jewelry permitted was wedding rings,

Dressed like this, we ran the tours, and worked the farm. While it’s always useful to try on clothing from the past and feel how it sits on the body, it’s another experience entirely to feel how those same clothes perform in action. Petticoat hems get dusty from unpaved paths, and wet and heavy dragging across morning dew. Before zippers and velcro, clothes required buttons, lacing, and straight pins to stay in place, and it took a lonnnnng time to dress each morning. Those neat little ruffled caps were not only the last word in goodwife modesty, but also kept long hair in place (and away from the hazardous open flames of candles and hearths) better than any modern scrunchie. An 18th century farmwife or laundress thought nothing of hoisting oak buckets full of water, each weighing as much as twenty pounds. The whalebone strips (ok, now they’re made of plastic) sewn into stays served nicely as a built-in back-support for heavy lifting, much like a weight-lifter’s belt at the gym.

Our clothes were handsewn from wool or linen, natural, indigenous fibers that were both historically accurate and fire retardant. A wayward spark on a wool or linen petticoat will smolder, while the same spark on cotton or silk will immediately burst into flame. I hadn’t realized how those gauzy imported Indian cotton muslins so popular with Georgian and Regency ladies were one more way to demonstrate proudly that the lady was a Lady, who never worked over an open hearth from fear of catching on fire.

I’ve never written a book set in colonial Pennsylvania, and given how happy I am to be writing in Restoration England, I don’t see that changing any time soon. But my experience at the Plantation helped make my writing infinitely richer, no matter what my story. I learned details of 18th century life that would apply just as readily to a 17th century duchess in London as to Quaker farmer.

I learned that no matter how roaring the fire in the fireplace may be, the heat only extends five feet into the room, and yes, the water in the washstand and the ink on the desk will freeze in the winter. I learned different sounds: the squeak of the horse’s leather harness, the dry crack of a flintlock musket or pistol, the way voices and footsteps echo in rooms with uncarpeted floors and uncurtained windows. I learned that no matter how many wool-stuffed mattresses are piled beneath a featherbed, the rope springs that are at the heart of every bedstead make for creaky, uncomfortable sleep. I learned that a closed-up house heated by firewood is smoky, and that the inhabitants have red-rimmed eyes, perpetual coughs, and a fine grey dusting of soot on their clothes. I learned that, before Febreeze, Life Smelled: from wood smoke, cooking, privies, animals, and people. It's all part of the past, and now it's all part of my books, too.


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