Yesterday was bitterly cold here in Cambridge, and today is rainy, so what better to do than to turn on the heating and spend two who days with “Plank 4”? What I enjoy about this stage of writing is that things are still very fluid: I have the general plot outlined, and some of the details, but for the most part I can go where Sam takes me – and this weekend he has taken me to Sittingbourne. I’ve never been there in real life, but I now feel I could have wandered around it quite happily in 1827.
Sittingbourne, you see, is on the route of the nightly mail coach from London to Dover. England in the 1820s was very proud of its speedy postal service – soon to be improved even further by the industrious Victorians, but already streets ahead of everyone else’s – and one of the most important destinations was Dover, where mail was loaded onto mail packets (a type of boat) and carried across to France. (And of course mail came back the other way too, from Calais.) In order to guarantee fastest travel times and to fit in with the demands of commerce, the mail coaches travelled at night, leaving London at 8pm precisely and arriving in Dover, for instance, at 7.30 the next morning. En route they stopped to change horses – that’s a seventy mile journey, after all – and to drop off and collect mail. This was by far the speediest way to travel – much faster than the more plodding stage coaches – and anyone for whom time was of the essence would pay the extra to “take the mail” and avoid “the slow coach”. So why is Sam is such a hurry to get to Sittingbourne? Well, you’ll just have to read “Plank 4” when it comes out.
But as I was researching all of this – mail coach timetables and routes, and coaching inns – it struck me how infinitely simpler this all is with the Internet. I could just sit there in the warm and find nearly everything I needed – or at least get a firm steer on which archive I would need to consult in person. Pity the historical fiction writers of old, who had to spend hours leafing through books in order to find (or perhaps not find) their information. It may be that Sam’s trip to Sittingbourne doesn’t make it into the final edit of “Plank 4”, but it won’t really matter because it only took me a few hours to research it. If, on the other hand, I had devoted a weekend to visiting Sittingbourne and going through local archives at the library, I might be much more reluctant to change tack.