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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

13 November 2008

Dumb Luck in a Box

I have a haphazard approach to research when I'm writing. It goes like this: look it up fast; if that fails, make something up and hope no one else knows either; prepare to duck. Sometimes, however, I'm right with bells on, and here's an example. This excerpt is from my March 2009 release A Most Lamentable Comedy:
“Paris, then, sir? Or how about Vienna?”
I look up from my writing case, tossing billets-doux into the fire. “No. It’s been too long. I want to go home.” My fingers search for the hidden spring in the writing case, and with a quiet click the secret compartment opens.
Barton raises his scarred eyebrows as gold glints in the firelight. “Ireland?”
“No. England.” England. It must be the damn weakness from nearly drowning that makes me want to weep.
He shakes his head. “Well, I suppose no one knows you in England. It’s as good a place as any. Near twenty years since I was there, too. What shall we do there? The usual?”
I nod and lay a handful of coins on the table for the family who have saved my life and shared their meager food with us. It is the least I can do, for I plan to steal away before dawn.
“And your name, this time, sir?”
My name.
“My own name.”
He looks at me blankly.
“My name is Nicholas Congrevance.” It is a stranger’s name on my tongue.
“Yes, sir. Of course it is, sir.” He winks at me.

I was pretty sure that my hero, Nicholas Congrevance, would have a box to keep writing things in. I was also pretty sure that it would have secret compartments for his emergency cash and other valuables in a life that demanded quick getaways.

And then, lo and behold, I watched an episode of Antiques Roadshow where an 1805 writing box, by master designer Nicholas Middleton (with original label) was on show, a thing of marvelous complexity and beauty, with secret compartments. It looks nice enough although fairly simple when closed, but check out the video here.

Writing boxes, or portable writing desks, were useful things. They kept ink, pens, and paper in one place and provided a comfortable, sloped surface for writing. You could pick them up and take them to a warmer, or better lit part of the house, and you could also, of course, take them on the road.

In the US, they were known as Jefferson boxes--this is Jefferson's, or possibly a reproduction of it--and with their cunning devices, springs, secret compartments, and usefulness combined with fine workmanship, they were the sort of item that would appeal to the presidential master-tinkerer. They were frequently made of exotic woods with stylish, delicate inlays.


They could also be intensely personal items, used to store letters and other treasures. Here's a writing box, once owned by Darwin's first daughter Annie, who died when she was ten, and which her mother used to store these small, touching momentos.

Popular throughout the nineteenth century, the writing box became very sophisticated in design and function, tempting you to think of it as the precursor of the laptop.


This is a box from the 1880s, made of American red oak, designed for shipboard travel and with an inbuilt calendar.

Here's a terrific source of boxes at hydra.com with some wonderful pictures. I would love to own one of these beautifully-crafted pieces.

Have you had dumb luck moments in writing? Or, do you want to make me jealous by telling me about the writing desk you own?

p.s. I'm over at the Riskies today talking about My Theory... about Regency fashion. Come and visit!

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18 Comments:

Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

A writing box such as this features in THE LADY AND THE DUKE, the film about Dally the Tall during the French Revolution. She kept and carried secret messages in her traveling desk (in real life and in the film).

7:40 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Fascinating post, Janet. There's so much glamour and mystery to be mined from using those boxes in fiction.

I still pat myself on the back for figuring out (at least I'd like to think I did) what scores of academics and historians missed. During my research for my novel on Emma Hamilton, TOO GREAT A LADY, I came across references to Emma's nickname for Lady Nelson -- "Tom Tit" -- followed by a disclaimer to the effect that they couldn't figure out how she came up with that moniker. Was Fanny Nelson pigeon-breasted? Certainly no more so that any other woman in the same fashion silhouette.

Nuh-uh. "Tom Tit" is Cockney Rhyming Slang for "sh*t" and I serendipitously came across the definition during a hunt for other cant and Cockney Rhyming Slang expressions to put into the mouth of the Covent Garden fruit seller for whom Emma historically worked for about a day or two until she ended up at Mrs. Linley's house for young ladies who are paid to entertain gentlemen of quality.

When I found the "Tom Tit" definition, bells went off in my head and I literally danced around the room. Dumb luck had answered a question that had puzzled nearly 200 years of historical biographers. It made perfect sense that Emma would use an expression gleaned from her time spent in the East End of London (at the age of 16 she was stuffed into a cramped little room there as her lover Harry Fetherstonhaugh made plans to dump her). She had a bawdy sense of humor and a potty mouth when it suited her, never fitting into society even after her marriage to Sir William Hamilton (perhaps partially because of it).

Another serendipitous stroke of dumb luck occurred when I was working on my time travel novel, BY A LADY: Being the Adventures of an Enlightened American in Jane Austen's England. Much of the story takes place in Bath in 1801. I named my hero (who is a fictional cousin of Jane Austen) Lord Darlington. The name popped into my head as I began writing and wouldn't leave. Then I happened to find a map of Bath from the same year (or close to it). Sydney Place forms the two "arms" of a Y-shaped area (Great Pulteney Street is the base) at the edge of Sydney Gardens. But in 1801 only the block where the Austen family moved into number 4 (the left "arm" of the street), was called Sydney Place. The right "arm" of the "Y" (which is now also called Sydney place) was then called "Darlington"

8:15 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Oops -- I was typing too fast. Mrs. Kelly was the proprietress of the salon where Emma "apprenticed." Mrs. Linley was of course the wife of the co-manager of the Drury Lane Theatre. Emma worked in the Linleys' household for a time, falling in love with their sailor son who practically died in her arms.

8:46 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Love the excerpt and title, Janet. And am in awe of your getting in ahead of the scholars, Amanda.

My latest score of dumb luck was seeing a gown I dreamed up for Marina in The Edge of Impropriety in a museum in Berlin last summer. The museum gown is 1830; mine is 1829.

And wouldn't I love one of those writing desks? Perfect for writing in bed -- I gave one to Mary in The Slightest Provocation and wanted to give one to Jane Austen in a story I never could figure out how to write.

9:38 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I've had nothing but dumb luck while I've been writing my WIP, a YA set in 1895 at a women's college. Everytime I write something, meaning to research it later, it seems that my instincts were correct all along. I gave my heroine a job at Wanamaker's in Philadelphia, without knowing whether or not women worked as salesclerks (they didn't at Tiffany's). I also chose the right location for them to live in Philadelphia before I did my research as well.

9:48 AM  
Blogger Susan Wilbanks said...

Janet, this post is a bit of dumb luck for me! I wrote a scene the day before yesterday wherein my hero, who is currently roaming the countryside incognito and virtually penniless, is trying to write a letter with no better flat surface than the Ann Radcliffe novel his traveling companion is reading. Now I know that I can make that scene SO much stronger by having him miss his favorite writing box, the one that was destroyed along with so many other things he valued when the ship he was traveling on exploded in Chapter 1!

10:10 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Janet, and wonderful excerpt! I would love a writing box. I was a great one at the Museum of the City of London, and I carefully sketched it for use in a later book (haven't used it yet). One of the books I'm working on has a fictional character who is Talleyrand's illegitimate daughter. Her mother is an actress. Talleyrand had a number of illegitimate children by different mistresses, so this seemed a legitimate invention. But after I made the decision, I found out that he actually had an early love affair with an actress, at around the time my character would have been conceived.

Amanda, I love the story about your research on Emma and Lady Nelson!

10:53 AM  
Anonymous Santa said...

I have always thought that writing boxes were pure genius. In my humble opinion the modern day version - the laptop - is a poor relation...unless it could come with an oak veneer.

Even though I'm writing a contemporary romance, I still find I have to verify certain parts of my story.

Santa

11:22 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

***I have always thought that writing boxes were pure genius. In my humble opinion the modern day version - the laptop - is a poor relation...unless it could come with an oak veneer.***

If you've got the money or the skill, it can. Google "Steampunk laptop" and drool . . .

http://www.wired.com/images/slideshow/2007/06/gallery_steampunk/steampunkLaptop1.jpg

12:40 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Oh, that desk on Antiques Roadshow was so gorgeous it brought tears to my eyes! Did you see the writing desks in the most recent Northanger Abbey film? Thanks for sharing it!

7:46 PM  
Anonymous Santa said...

Kalen - that took my breath away! And it looks like it could fit in a tote. Don't you think?

7:56 PM  
Blogger Evangeline said...

I had a bit of dumb luck when I was writing a spy romance and envied James Bond his many gadgets. Then, in my inbox came a link to an auction of a spy camera made in the shape of a watch!

8:43 PM  
Blogger Kaite said...

....you have just single-handedly cured my writer's block. Of COURSE my MC's sister has one of these. *toddles off to write about it*

6:00 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

@Santa: I'm pretty much obsessed with Steampunk right now. I just love it. And the Steampunk computers are killer.

8:18 AM  
Blogger Susan Wilbanks said...

You know, I forgot the other piece of dumb luck in the scene I mentioned above in my excitement over the writing boxes. I wanted the other character in the scene to stumble across a collection of Gothic novels, so I did a Google search to find some suitably dramatic titles. I discovered an Ann Radcliffe novel I'd never heard of before, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbane, all about old feuds and romance in Highland earls' families. Well, as my series progresses, the character who discovers those books is going to meet and eventually marry a Highland earl's daughter.

Naturally, I made sure that was the book he decided to keep...

8:39 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I read Gibson and Sterling's The Difference Engine years ago, Kalen, and really liked it, but I haven't otherwise kept up with Steampunk. What books do you recommend? Or even better, how about a blog post?

11:29 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Steampunk is kind of the new Goth. In many ways it's not about novels so much anymore, it's about actual STUFF. There is an amazing artists collective in Oakland that builds steam powered stuff (the victorian house they had out at Burning Man a couple of years ago was beyond awesome).

I think a lot of the inspiration is coming from comic books and films (stuff like Firefly and Hellboy).

12:17 PM  
Blogger jkmmmroy@aol.com said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1:38 PM  

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