Yesterday I treated myself to a whole day of research in my beloved Cambridge University Library. I am at that delightful stage of “Plank 4” where I give myself permission to roam freely with my reading, to follow any story that interests me. It’s not a stage that can last for long – although ideally it would last for the rest of my life – as I need to home in fairly quickly on my core plot so that I can be as discerning as Sam is in my enquiries.
But yesterday – ahhhh! For reasons that may or may not make it into the final story, I spent time in the Rare Books Room (so rarefied that only pencils can be used within its precincts, and all books must be rested on cushions as you read them). I asked for two publications: a French language guide from 1826 and a customs manual from 1829. Let me just repeat that: a French language guide from 1826 and a customs manual from 1829. And they handed me the actual items – both nearly two hundred years old. I held them in my hands, put them reverently on their cushions, and lost myself in their world. Who knows who owned them originally – perhaps one of Sam’s colleagues down at the docks, employed in levying excise duties on incoming cargo. Or maybe a friend of Miss Lily Conant fancied learning French in order to increase her accomplishments in readiness for marriage. But to think that these books have been preserved and are still cherished and protected, and that I, a jobbing writer, can take hold of them – I’m still reeling. And that’s why I write my books set in the past – where’s the thrill in describing email and spin classes and Range Rovers? But discovering that in Sam’s day duty was payable on pickled cucumbers, and the first word of vocabulary taught to new learners of French was “Dieu”, well, I feel richer for it.