Why So Many Dead Bodies?

I’ve been sick for a few days with a nasty head cold.  Sitting in bed with the dogs and my iPad for company, I’ve been thinking about a question readers sometimes ask me: why do so many people die in your books?

In truth, not that many people die in my books, but there are definitely a few, and I suppose for romance the number is a bit surprising. The reasons for their deaths are twofold: 1. death can be a useful literary device; and 2. people died in Victorian times. A lot of people.

Although the mortality rate fell during the course of the Victorian era (deaths per 1,000 people per year in England and Wales fell from 21.9 from 1848–54 to 17 in 1901, compared to just over 9 in 2015), sickness and death were regular visitors to Victorian communities, and overall, mortality rates were higher for women than men.  The most common cause of death: tuberculosis, also known as consumption, which caused about 25% of all deaths during this time period. Other common diseases were cholera, influenza, smallpox, typhus, typhoid (the disease thought to have killed Prince Albert), scarlet fever, and syphilis.

In 1858, raw sewage flowed in the Thames, the smell so intolerable it was feared the stench alone would kill Members of Parliament working in their chambers alongside the river. London and other cities, largely because of these conditions, were far less healthful than the country, and the poor were impacted in greater numbers than the middle and upper classes.

 

Although vaccination for smallpox became available in the 18th century, there were few treatments available for any of these diseases until the discovery and widespread use of antibiotics in the 20th century. Cholera, a waterborne disease, killed over 53,000 in 1849. Scarlet fever killed more than 20,000 in 1840. Those who sickened but did not die in a given outbreak were left weakened and susceptible to being carried off by the next illness, which often occurred at nearly the same time as the first outbreak.

 

It is hard now to comprehend the rates at which people died in the Victorian era. My cold is making me miserable but it’s unlikely to carry me off, and even if I do get very sick, two of the best hospitals in the country are less than five miles away. The average Victorian, no matter what class, could not say the same.

I’ve touched on the Victorian obsession with death in a previous post, and when you see the high mortality rates of the period, it’s slightly more understandable. Although I don’t think anything really justifies creepy post-mortem photography.

 

 

Sources:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victorian_era#Mortality_rates
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/12158930/Biggest-annual-rise-in-deaths-for-almost-fifty-years-prompts-warnings-of-crisis-in-elderly-care.html
http://www.ehs.org.uk/press/different-death-rates-of-men-and-women-in-victorian-england
https://www.bl.uk/victorian-britain/articles/health-and-hygiene-in-the-19th-century
http://www.geoffsgenealogy.co.uk/other-articles/life-death-in-the-19th-century/
http://www.victorianweb.org/science/health/health10.html

Trying New Things

So for the last couple of months, I’ve been querying literary agents for my new series. Although I’ve had some interest, I’ve racked up quite a few rejections. The most recent one, a kick in the teeth disguised as a pleasant form rejection, arrived Friday night. Although some writers prefer personalized rejections, I actually prefer the form ones. With them, you can preserve the illusion that they liked the book but it just isn’t right for them, instead of knowing for a fact that they hated it. I haven’t thrown in the towel yet, but I admit my enthusiasm for completing the second and third books in the series is waning the longer the process goes on. It’ll come back, I’m sure, but for now, I’m going to focus on other things to get the creative juices flowing again.

Ever since I was in England last fall, a new series has been percolating in my brain. It’s not a romance, although it will have romantic elements. It’s a cozy mystery set near Keswick in the northern Lake District, right about here:

When you write historicals, one of the most important decisions you make is deciding the time period. Victorian era is a given, but it did last a very long time. I like the middle of the era–1860s/70s. It still has vestiges of the Regency, when people dressed for dinner and wore elaborate gowns, but it’s also hurtling toward the 20th century. Railways are popping up–trains arrived in Keswick in 1865–and society is changing. 1869 saw the opening of the first residential women’s college in England, in 1870 married women gained the right to own property and elementary education was established, in 1871 trade unions were legalized.

I decided to set my series in 1870. The lakes are a popular tourist destination, and the new railway makes it easier to get there. Endless opportunities for new characters, which is essential for a cozy. I’ve uncovered maps and contemporary guidebooks (you may recall Mr. Black from my recent post about Skye, who also wrote a “Picturesque Guide” to the English Lakes in 1870) to get a feel for the area during the time period.

The next step, at least for me, is characters. I usually start with either a look, a name, or an occupation. My new heroine is Cassandra, and she closely resembles actress Emily Blunt. She’s a longtime widow with a teenage son, and runs a farm and a tea shop at the foot of Walla Crag. (It’s inspired by an actual place that offered salvation–in the form of tea, cake, and a bathroom, not necessarily in that order–after a long day of hiking. Should you ever be in the vicinity, do stop in!)

Anyway, her love interest is the local constable whose name I have yet to determine–feel free to offer suggestions–but he looks a bit like David Boreanz. Cassandra’s childhood friend, he’s back in Keswick after a stint as a policeman in Manchester, nursing the broken heart caused by the recent death of his wife.

Cozies have a reasonably large supporting cast of characters, so I am working on those. I also have the resident pet AND the dead body lined up, but you’ll have to wait for the book to meet them. 🙂

I’m going to get to work–I have quite a few characters to develop, after all, not to mention the plot–so I will leave you with a few questions I’m curious about:

Writers, how do you start a new book (or series of books)? Do you start with setting and move from there, or with characters? Or do you focus on plot first? How do you decide when and where to set your books?

Readers, do you like small town settings or cities? What kinds of characters do you like to see? Do you picture them in your head as you read, as I do when I write them, or is their appearance unimportant to you?

 

Over the Sea to Skye

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you may remember my last post, in which I mused about which of several settings I should choose for the next book. Perhaps subconsciously influenced by this year’s RITA historical finalists–many of which seem to have involved dukes and Scotland–I did opt to send my duke to the Isle of Skye. In case you were wondering, it’s off the northwest coast of Scotland, very far away from the ballrooms of London:

One of the things I like best about setting my books in the Victorian era is that it is very easy to get my characters from one place to another, compared to the Regency period. Trains criss-crossed the country, allowing people to move with relative ease from London to Glasgow, Perth to Cornwall.

Unfortunately, trains did not get anywhere near Skye until 1897, so the other day I spent hours trying to figure out how my intrepid hero–a city boy who hates to travel–would journey from southern Scotland to Skye. The almighty Google revealed two guidebooks: Black’s Picturesque Tourist of Scotland, Ninth Edition (1851), and Anderson’s Guide to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (1850).

Although it was possible to take a steamer from Glasgow directly to Skye (a fact I discovered only after a day spent mapping the picturesque route, naturally), the guidebooks recommended the following route to Skye (in the summer, of course) for those who wanted to take in the scenery:

Loch Lomond. Photo by Patrick Mackie, via Wikimedia Commons.

Day 1:  Starting in Glasgow, he’ll board a steamer and sail up (down?) the River Clyde to Dumbarton, about 14 miles.  At this point, our traveler has two options: Either a brisk 5 mile walk north to the foot of Loch Lomond, then a steamer across the loch (another 14 miles) to Tarbet. This is followed by a 1.5 mile walk to the west to Arrochar, where an inn rests on the shore of Loch Long. Alternatively, he could board a steamer at Dumbarton and sail up Loch Long directly to Arrochar, a distance of about 25 miles.

Ben Arthur, or The Cobbler. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Day 2: Being a sensible sort, our hero will ask the innkeeper to pack a nice lunch for him (unlike when my friend Helen and I set off up a mountain in Keswick, England last fall, because we were so sure we’d be done well before lunch–we weren’t). He’ll then hike around the base of The Cobbler to Cairndow on Loch Fyne, a distance of 12 miles. From there, he could hop on a ferry across the loch to Inveraray (6-1/2 miles), or walk around the head of the loch (9 miles).

Inveraray Castle. Photo by DeFacto, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Our hero will spend the night at an inn in the shadow of Inveraray Castle, the seat of the Duke of Argyle. (Of the castle, Black’s guidebook notes, “in one of the rooms is some very beautiful tapestry, which the old lady who exhibits it, states to have been ‘made by the goblins, wha’ are a’ dead now.'”) On Day 3, our hero will continue his journey overland, perhaps carrying two meals this time and a couple of snacks, for this part of the journey begins with a 9 mile hike across rugged terrain to Cladich on Loch Awe.

Loch Awe. Photo by Chris Heaton, via Wikimedia Commons.

If he is anything like me and Helen, he’ll get lost and it will take six hours rather than three, so he’ll spend the night there. If not, he’ll walk for two hours or so along the banks of the loch to Dalmally and stay there instead.

On Day 4 (or 5), he’ll set out from Dalmally on the hardest part of the journey, a 24-mile walk to Oban. Being a pathetic city-dweller, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d have to stop somewhere along the way–fortunately there is an inn about halfway across in Taynuilt. It sits not far from the base of Ben Cruachan, the highest point in the County of Argyll.

Ben Cruachan. Photo by Grinner, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

 

 

 

From Oban on Day 6, 7, or possibly 8 (I admit I’ve lost track at this point), he’ll buy some fabulous Oban whisky and then board a steamer which will make its way up the coast, a trip that will take one or two days (possibly three, as getting through Kyle Rhea requires high tide) to Broadford on the Isle of Skye.

Broadford, Skye. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Easy peasy.

Nowadays, of course, you can travel by train nearly the entire way, then cross a bridge or hop on a ferry over the sea to Skye. I just might be inclined, however, to try to retrace the journey undertaken by thousands of adventurous Victorian tourists on my next trip across the Pond. Perhaps Helen would come with me, if I remember to bring snacks. And a good map. 🙂

Since I have mentioned my hike with Helen, I thought I’d share a couple of photos. I look far more exhausted, but in my defense I should like to point out that my picture was taken just after we hauled our middle-aged butts to the top of Walla Crag, while Helen’s was ever so kindly taken as we made our way down the other side.

Helen

Me.

Happy Father’s Day!

Wishing all the fathers out there the happiest of Father’s Days. And because I am far too lazy today to write two blog posts, I will direct you to my post about Victorian fathers at Heart-Shaped Glasses.  I hope you’ll take a moment to stop by.

Zombies and Vampires, Victorian Style

So I came across this picture on Pinterest the other day:

The caption is, as with so many other things one can find on the Internet, utter bullshit, but it did make me curious. The picture itself is apparently real. In the first third of the 19th century, some graves were enclosed with an iron cage, called a ‘mortsafe,’ as a way to thwart graverobbers, who were far more prevalent in Victorian Britain than zombies and vampires.

Under the law prior to 1832, the only corpses which could be dissected were those of criminals who were hanged. Changes to laws in the 18th century widened the number of crimes deemed hanging offenses, arguably to increase the number of eligible corpses. Nevertheless, demand continued to increase with advances in medicine, and graverobbers, known as ‘Resurrectionists,’ helpfully stepped in to meet the demand. Prior to the 1830s, resurrectionists stole bodies from fresh graves and sold them to physicians. (Some more enterprising gentlemen went so far as to make their own fresh corpses. William Burke and William Hare allegedly murdered 16 people in Edinburgh from 1827-1828, selling the corpses to anatomist Robert Knox.)

The Anatomy Act of 1832 made the study of anatomy respectable (sort of), and allowed researchers to use the unclaimed bodies of those who died in workhouses, hospitals, and prisons. Public anatomy museums popped up everywhere, giving ordinary people an opportunity to stare at skeletons, wax models of naked bodies, and pieces of bodies floating in jars. Titillating! In addition, the museums served as another way for physicians, as well as non-physicians, to study anatomy and learn more about diseases, without going to all the fuss of actually dissecting a body themselves. This very interesting article suggests that the Obscene Publications Act of 1857, which ultimately resulted in the closure of most of these museums, was actually orchestrated by the medical profession, and was “a strategy for creating a medical monopoly of anatomy by categorizing it as knowledge from which laypeople could be excluded on moral grounds.”

An image from the 1864 edition of Gray’s text

Notable Victorian Henry Gray, who legally obtained his research corpses from prisons and mortuaries, published Anatomy Descriptive and Surgical, the text that would eventually become Gray’s Anatomy, in 1858.

So, no there were no zombies in Victorian Britain. According to the OED, the word ‘Zombie’ actually derives from a South American term for a deity, and wasn’t used in Britain in the context we now know and love until 1900.

Vampires are another story altogether. Vampires have appeared in English literature since the mid-18th century, and I have to tell you, I find vampires fascinating.  The Victorians loved them too. Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula, of course, is the most famous, but before him there was Varney the Vampire, or the Feast of Blood. Published initially in 1845 in a series of 109 episodes in penny dreadfuls, Varney was ultimately released as a full length novel (rather more than that, actually–it is over 2,000 pages long) in 1847. Varney made vampires sexy–he had beautiful teeth and a mellifluous voice–and introduced many of the vampire tropes still in use today: fangs, hynoptic powers, and superhuman strength, although Sir Francis Varney doesn’t seem to mind garlic, can eat regular food (although he chooses not to), can walk in sunlight without either disintegrating or sparkling, and if killed or wounded, can be revived by the light of the full moon. Varney is terribly written, but oddly gripping–I downloaded a slightly abbreviated version to my Kindle and am probably going to have to go read it now. Perhaps we’ll discuss werewolfs at another time…

 

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