Susan Grossey

Sex on the brain

I imagine you think I’ve stopped writing.  Certainly my decision to take eighteen months to write “Plank 5” – as opposed to a year each for the first four books – has taken away some of the urgency I used to feel about word counts and deadlines, but rest assured that Sam and I rarely go more than four days without spending some time together.  (For new readers of this blog, I am not the world’s laziest novelist: I actually have a full-time job, and the novels are my – somewhat overwhelming – hobby.)

Anyway, I know you like to hear about the mechanics of writing historical fiction, and recently I have been thinking and reading a lot about sex.  Well, to be more specific, about contraception, pregnancy and fertility.  I don’t want risk any spoilers, but if you have read earlier Sam books you will know that Sam and Martha are childless – and not by choice.  In “Plank 5” I look into this a bit more deeply, and this has proved quite tricky.  For instance, did Sam and Martha know what caused babies?  Of course they knew that sex had something to do with it, but did they know about sperm and eggs?  What did they think was going wrong for them?  Did they blame themselves, each other, God, fate – or did they not see it in terms of blame, but rather simple destiny?  Even today people are reluctant to discuss these very personal matters, so you can imagine that diary entries, newspaper articles and learned discussions about them from two centuries ago are, to say the least, thin on the ground.  I’m reading some pretty peculiar stuff – hope no-one’s analysing my borrowings from the rare books collection at the library…

And you know my fixation with etymology – in essence, making sure that the vocabulary I give to Sam is not too modern.  Surprisingly, it is tricky to find the words that nice people would have used to refer to pregnancy and childbirth.  As ever, there is plenty of rather coarse language, but that’s not what Sam would have recorded in his books.  “Pregnant” was in use, but (and this nearly caught me out) both “expecting” and “in the family way” are much too recent, dating only from the 1950s.  French was back in favour, so “enceinte” could be used in more refined households.  And when no-one could miss it, you were “great with child”.  But the one I had never heard – and I’m still in two minds about using – is “lumpy”.  I mean, not terribly flattering, is it?

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