I’ve been in England for almost three weeks. I’m heading home tomorrow. Jason was with me for the first 10 days, while we were tourists in London, and since then I’ve been on my own in Bristol, exploring the city where the first seven chapters of my work-in-progress A Roll of the Bones is set.
Problem is, the book is set there in 1610, and I could only visit in 2018.
I would, of course, love actual time travel if it came with a guaranteed return ticket (no way am I getting permanently stuck in a world without flush toilets, hot showers, or chocolate bars). But until that technology exits, the struggle for the writer of historical fiction remains: you can never really visit the places your stories are set, because those places exist only in the past.
If it’s the recent past (as with several of my Newfoundland historical novels) you can at least talk to people who lived at that time, look at old photographs, listen to stories. But going farther back — say, to the early 17th century, as I’m doing with A Roll of the Bones — there’s no-one left alive who remembers it, and no photographs. Some descriptions in very, very old texts. A few maps. But no way to get back there.
So all the while I’ve been researching this book, especially while in England, I’ve been poking at the edges of the past. That might mean spending time in recreated 16th and 17th century kitchens, whether that’s the kitchen of a palace …
… or of a labourer’s cottage:
It’s also meant watching modern stonemasons at work on repairs to a cathedral, using tools very similar to those that would have been used 400 years ago:
And it’s meant standing on the deck of a replica ship, imagining how it would have felt with the sails unfurled, pulling away from Bristol’s docks down the Avon river to the sea and then across the ocean to an unimaginable new world:
Fortunately, there are many places dotted around England (and Wales, where I visited the wonderful National Museum at St. Fagan’s) where you can explore little bits and pieces of the past. And Bristol itself, while very much a twenty-first century, still retains some of the cobbled streets, old buildings, and other bits and pieces that allow you to step through a gate into — not the past, exactly, but a place where you can briefly imagine you’re there.