Monday, 26 September 2011

Washing Day

I was recently without a washing machine for a while. I'd forgotten what life was like before automatic washing machines; how one had to plan what to wear when, because you couldn't just wash something and have it ready to wear again a day or two later; how time consuming washing by hand was; how we had to hope for a fine day to get everything dry (if one had outdoor space to hang things out; otherwise they dripped in the bathroom for days.)

I started thinking about how my young Victorian woman character would do her laundry in about 1880.  She is single and lives alone in London in a rented room. She wouldn't be able to wash more than stockings and handkerchiefs there.

Heavy outer garments, made of wool, weren't washed They were brushed and hung up to air. Stains might be sponged or dabbed with a stain remover.

That left cotton and linen items - dresses, petticoats, underwear, nightgowns, sheets, pillowcases, towels. My character would not have more than two of any of these, three at the most, and not more than one in the wash in any week.

There might be a wash house attached to the house where she lived, or at the end of the street. There would be a copper to heat water, washtubs and a mangle. But my character has a job. I don't think she'd want the trouble of getting fuel, heating water and doing the washing herself. I think she'd have it done for her.

She would have plenty of options.  Laundress was one of the most common recorded occupations for women in the nineteenth century censuses.

Some would have worked for the commercial laundries, which operated on a large scale by about 1880.

The Beulah Laundry and Cleaning Works, in South Lambeth Road, offered its services to families, club houses, hotels, ships &c.

The Sunny Bank Laundry Company, Langley Lane, South Lambeth, guaranteed that no chemicals, soap powder or other injurious compounds were used. Linen was well rinsed and 'quite free from the usual odour.'  

Women did not only do the washing in these commercial laundries; Mrs E. J. Chapple managed the London and Provincial Steam Laundry in Battersea. 

There were also many women who took washing into their homes, returning it the following week. Women such as Mrs Harriet Cripps of 444 Old Ford Road, Bow, or Mrs Eliza Blake of  82 Deacon Street, Walworth, or Miss Mary A. Clarke of 113 Bramley Road, Notting Hill. There was a choice of French laundresses too, such as Madame Angelique Pemmers of 11 Dorset Street, Portman Square.

But I think it's most likely that my character would have an arrangement with a neighbour, whereby her laundry is included in that woman's household wash.  No money changes hands; my character repays the favour by helping the neighbour in some way.

A character's laundry arrangements don't usually need to be described in detail in a novel. But asking such apparently trivial and irrelevant questions can help to build up a picture of the world a character lives in, how she interacts with her community, what particular skills and abilities she might have and use in her day to day life.

Friday, 23 September 2011

E-publishing - or not?

Waterstone's have announced their own e-reader, to go on sale next year. Whether it will be any challenge to the dominance of the Amazon Kindle remains to be seen.

For a writer, the advantages of e-publishing are clear. It's possible to make one's work available directly to readers without going through the time consuming process of repeated submission and rejection, or taking the financial risk of self-publishing in traditional format.

Because there need be no time-lag between completion of a book and its e-publication, it's much easier for a writer to jump into the latest trend in fiction, whether it's vampires or Tudor queens or medieval crime.

Conversely, a writer who e-publishes can experiment with themes and genres currently considered unpopular by traditional publishers and agents.

A traditionally published novel is normally between 75,000 and 120,000 words. Anything shorter or longer isn't commercially viable. An e-book can be any length. Short stories, for which the traditional market is shrinking, are well suited to e-book publication.

When publishing with Kindle, the author sets the price of his or her own book, and keeps a higher percentage than when traditionally published. (E-publishing of course does not have the overheads that have to be covered by traditional publishers.)  With paperback prices now not far off £10, an e-book at £2.99 is very attractive.  Some of the most successful e-publishing authors have set their prices as low as 99p. And e-books do not go out of print; they remain available unless or until the author or publisher decides to withdraw them.

So what, if any, are the disadvantages to the writer of e-publishing?

E-publishing isn't suitable for any kind of non-fiction where illustrations, maps, charts or tables need to be displayed. The screen of an e-reader is not big enough.

So many e-books are now being published directly by their authors that a book by a new or less well known author is likely to sink without trace. Books that are not published by a known and reputable publisher will not be reviewed in newspapers or magazines. It is much more difficult to browse a list of e-books on a screen than a shelf of books in a shop or library; chance discovery by readers looking for something new is less likely, especially given the sheer quantity of books available.

We hear a lot about the reduction in the amount of editing done by publishers. But it is still the case that a traditionally published book will have been read by at least one person other than the writer, and that person will be someone who is knowledgeable about the industry as a whole and the particular genre into which the book fits.

There are many freelance editors out there, of course, and an e-publishing writer could choose to use one. But unless an e-published book was extraordinarily successful it would be a long time before it earned back the cost of a thorough professional edit.

Then there is the sense of validation that comes with the knowledge that someone else, a professional in the industry, considers one's book good enough to publish, and the satisfaction of holding the published book in one's hand, neither of which is possible with direct e-publishing.

Finally, what about posterity? A paper book may survive indefinitely. Any eighteenth century writer of Gothic romance, any early twentieth century writer of girls' books, may one day be rediscovered and republished. Their books are accessible in the copyright libraries to any student wanting to research a thesis on the history of the genre.

What will happen to e-books when the technology has moved on, the Kindles are thrown away, and there is no-one around to ensure that an author's books are available in the latest format?

And how will future researchers write the history of popular literature in the twenty-first century when so much of it will no longer be available to them?

Thursday, 1 September 2011

You learn something every day -

I was thinking of using the name Verity for a woman character in the Victorian period.  I searched for it in the 1881 Census to see how commonly used it was.

The search returned twenty eight people who had Verity as a given name. Twenty two of them were men.

Verity is a surname; there was a Yorkshire cricketer called Hedley Verity. Most, if not all, of the male Veritys were probably named after a Mr Verity of their parents' acquaintance.

Three of the six women had Verity as their second given name, not their first. They too might have been named after someone with the surname Verity.

Which leaves three girls or women alive in 1881 whose parents might have chosen the name Verity intending it to mean 'Truth'.  If I use it for my character I'll be giving her a name that was very unusual at the time, and most people, on hearing it, would probably think she was a man.  Which is a bit too much of a cliche to use as a plot point.

One difficulty with choosing a name for a Victorian-era character is that the Victorians loved short forms or pet forms of names. The Queen's three eldest children were known as Vicky, Bertie and Affie.  I don't want my character to be Kate or Lizzie or Nellie, but realistically, if her name was Katherine or Elizabeth or Ellen (or Helen or Elinor), that's what her friends would call her. So I want a name that could plausibly have been given to a girl born on the mid 1850s that can't easily be shortened or otherwise altered.