Now that "Dangerous Waters" has been launched I'm deep into research for my new book, "Devil's Prize," which is set in Cornwall in the late C18th. I have a real problem with research: I love it! Why is that a problem? Because it's all too easy to get drawn along trails that are fascinating but not really relevant to the book. One of my first ports of call when I begin researching a new book is our Local Studies library which keeps copies of the newspapers of the time on microfiche. The Sherborne and Yeovil Mercury, (also called the Western Flying Post) was the only newspaper available in Cornwall in 1795. Here are a few snippets from the edition printed on October 12th of that year.
"Whereas some evil-minded persons have spread A FALSE REPORT to injure the character of JOHN GOODMAN, master of the King's Head, Old Town, Chard, laying to his charge the MURDER of ANN LOVERIDGE, a lunatick; we, whose names are undermentioned declare it to be false, as she is now at her father's at Forton. - Witness our hands: THOMAS LOVERIDGE, father to the girl. JOHN BRYANT. WILLIAM JAMES."
The trouble of reports like this (and those in so many of our newspapers today) is that they never tell the full story. They never say why. What grounds were there to suppose the girl was dead, let alone that John Goodman had killed her? Why was he accused? What had he done to upset whoever started the rumour?
"WHEREAS my wife, ELIZABETH TAYLOR, has lately absconded from me without any provocation whatever, and has been desired, by a respectable person in the neighbourhood of Churston Ferrers, as well as by me, to return and live with me, which she did for a short time, but has since that time left me again: This is therefore to inform her, that I shall be very happy to live with her in case she will return, and will maintain her in a degree suitable to my situation; but in case she will not return to live with me, I do hereby give her, and the publick in general, notice that I will not pay any debts that she may contract. - As witness my hand, EDWARD TAYLOR."
Why did she leave? Is his notice a genuine plea to her to come back, or simply a legal requirement so he can disclaim responsibility for her debts? What exactly is his situation? Why did she return the first time? Did he promise things would be different? Did she realise she'd made a mistake? But then she left again. Is he wealthy? Had she come back to try and get more money from him? Was he determined to punish her for making him a laughing stock among his friends? Where will she go now? Is she alone, or is there a lover?
The stories that people were reading about 200 years ago - whether it's the latest war news or human interest - are little different to those in our newspapers today. That, for me, is what brings the past to vivid life, and can trigger ideas for characters or events in my stories.
Jane Jackson. ("Dangerous Waters" published by Robert Hale, Feb 2006.)
I agree, Jane. Old newspapers are fascinating as much for what they leave out as for what they give us glimpses of.
(And I reckon she had reason to leave, don't you? You can almost see him and his cronies shaking their self-righteous heads and wiping away the crocodile tears.)
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