Today it’s my great pleasure to welcome author Charlotte Betts to the Word Wench blog. Charlotte is a multi-award-winning author of historical novels who describes herself as a daydreamer and a bookworm (so she’s in good company here) who lives in Hampshire in a C17th cottage in the woods. I first met Charlotte years ago as a fellow member of the Historical Novel Society and the Romantic Novelists’ Association. I love that she has written in different time periods and very different settings, from the Great Fire of London, to Revolutionary France to the Regency. Her books are full of adventure, mystery and romance, with rich backgrounds that make the past come alive. Today Charlotte is talking about her research and her latest novel, The House in Quill Court. Welcome, Charlotte!
Recently I clicked ‘send’ and gave an exhausted cheer as my manuscript for The Dressmaker’s Secret flew off to my editor. As any author knows, that cheer isn’t a signal to take an extended break. The deadline for finishing the first draft of a novel always seems to coincide with the launch of the previous one, while the publishers are simultaneously asking for an outline for the next one. Non-writer friends sometimes ask how I manage to keep all the details of each story in my head at once but really it’s no different from watching several drama series on the television on consecutive nights; you simply jump from one world into another.
This immersion in another world is what I have always prized most about reading. To be able to forget that it’s a cold, rainy day
and leap into a novel set in the warmth of the Mediterranean sunshine, all for the price of a book, is a wondrous thing. Writing takes this escapism one stage further than reading since the author can direct their characters to be anywhere in the world they wish and make them act in any way they choose to further the story. It’s the perfect career for megalomaniacs!
Another aspect of the variety and control of the writing process is research. As an author of historical novels, it’s an exciting journey discovering new facts. Researching a novel is a self-guided education and it’s thrilling to have the freedom to choose areas of research that fascinate. For me, history lessons at school were like eating bowls of gruel every day, whilst now I pick all my favourite centres out of a box of Belgian chocolates.
The House in Quill Court, set in 1814, was published this year. My research for this novel led me to explore the sharp contrasts in a society where the middle and upper classes enjoyed balls and tea parties in elegant townhouses set around garden squares, while the poor lived in squalor in the noisome alleyways only a step away. Two completely different sets of society co-existed side by side. To emphasise this contrast, I wrote the story from the point of view of gently-brought up Venetia, an interior decorator to the rich with a shop in Cheapside and also from that of her maid, Kitty. Their story tells how the two girls worked together from different ends of the social spectrum to overturn a violent protection racket.
Since I had my own interior design business for many years, I already had a thorough knowledge of the skills Venetia needed. Writers are often advised to ‘write what you know’ and I was happy to take that advice but I still enjoyed discovering more about furniture, paint finishes, fabrics and wall hangings specific to the Regency era.
When it came to Kitty’s story, it was a completely different matter. Kitty leaves her employment, falls on hard times and finds herself at the mercy of the criminal underworld. It made me burn with anger to understand how few choices poor girls like Kitty had. Crime reached epidemic proportions in the Regency era and during the course of my research I was astonished to discover that there was no centralised police force at that time.
Provision of law enforcement was patchy and often corrupt and organised crime spiralled out of control. I read transcripts of trials
at the Old Bailey and researched how Henry Fielding had established a centre for law-enforcement in Bow Street. Experienced thief-takers who were fast on their feet became known as Bow Street runners. This often ineffective force was reformed by Sir Robert Peel by his Metropolitan Police Act of 1829. In 1814, however, when The House in Quill Court is set, the power and arrogance of the underworld gang leaders was virtually unchallenged.
The Dressmaker’s Secret, though still in the Regency period, took me along a different path. The extraordinary and tragic life of Caroline of Brunswick, the estranged wife of the Prince Regent, was the inspiration for this story and I found myself in Italy this June, following her footsteps in Pesaro. I walked on the Monte San Bartolo looking for the Villa Caprile and the Villa Vittoria where she lived, ambled around what was left of the town walls, dipped my fingers in the fountain in the Piazza del Poppolo and swam in the Baia Flaminia where she liked to bathe. All the while I had the feeling that Caroline was looking over my shoulder and smiling at the places where she had been happy.
Whilst Caroline wasn’t the main character in the novel, the factual events of her life framed the plot for my heroine, Emilia, who left Italy and returned to England to find her family and unravel the mystery of valuable stolen paintings. This caused me to brush up on my knowledge of the history of art, to find out more about eating an ice cream from Gunters and George IV’s magnificent coronation.
Now I’m nurturing the seed of an idea for my next novel, opening at the end of the eighteenth century and which will be set in a more exotic location. I’ve already spent a few productive days staying in the amazing Gladstone Library near Chester, researching the end of the Moghul empire and I’ve been looking up the history of sea voyages around the Cape. I’m fizzing with enthusiasm as I scribble random ideas in my notebook and stare into space while I daydream about plots and characters.
Thank you very much, Charlotte, for such an interesting insight into your research. I’m very much looking forward to reading The Dressmaker’s Secret! Please feel free to ask Charlotte any questions about her books or her research, or tell us your ideas on design: Do you like the classical elegance of Regency or something more Gothic and Victorian? A French chateau or and old cottage? And for your own homes do you prefer stripped –down Scandinavian pine, or shabby chic? Bohemian, blue and white beach house or something individual to you? We’re offering a copy of The House in Quill Court to one lucky commenter between now and midnight Friday.