Monday, June 1, 2009

Oh, the places you'll go....

Writing a book is a lovely exercise in realizing how much you don't know. Here's why:

I decided that most plausible way to have two characters be mixed (of different combinations) yet still related was to have their father be a sailor. Friendly ports and all.

Fine. The Caribbean was a huge trading stop for the British because they had colonies there--Barbados included--which had slave-produced products like tobacco and sugar cane and molasses. Macau, in China, was a Portuguese colony and one of the few places that the Chinese allowed foreigners to dwell. Which is an improvement over the Japanese, who only let the Dutch settle on an island in Nagasaki Bay and did not allow them to set their dirty white man feet on Japanese soil.

But then there are questions like, "How long does it take to get to Macau from Barbados? By ship? By sailing ship? By 1790s-type sailing ship?" Which leads to research on nautical mileage and the ships carrying convicts to Australia from England, which has a similar nautical mileage.

Then you figure that your characters will be in Barbados for a few years as children. On a plantation. Now, plantations are generally run alike and it's not a setting, so I didn't feel like I had to go back and read the children's book I bought when I visited Colonial Williamsburg ten years ago. But then there's the, "Wait! They would've had slaves!" factor.

Which leads to Madeline deciding to be involved in the abolitionist movement in England. Which, let's face it, makes sense. She's half-black, after all, and her mother's family, who are free, owned slaves. Internal conflict much?

Now, the only things I really knew about the 19th century abolition movement came from a movie called Amazing Grace. It's about a Member of Parliament and evangelist named William Wilberforce who championed the cause of abolition, over and over, finally leading Parliament to outlaw slavery altogether in Britain--in 1833, thirty years before the Emancipation Proclamation.

But my story takes place in 1814. So what was going on then? Luckily, plenty. A former slave named Equiano wrote his autobiography in 1789 and the book went through nine editions. Wilberforce was still in Parliament. The Quakers were active supporters of abolition on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1807, the Slave Trade Act was passed in Britain, banning the international slave trade. Around that same time, Haiti's slaves revolted against the French and fought a revolution.

Since the bulk of this story takes place in Bristol, England, which was a large port city with a notable African minority at the time, it became easy to have Madeline involved and affected.

Then other things come up. Things about the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon had been defeated and sent to Elba in 1814. Finally feeling that the wars--which had been fought almost continuously since after the French Revolution--were over, the British Prince Regent had victory celebrations in London that entire summer. So what did they do? What days? How can I weave it in?

And that is how I read about the Chinese pagoda that was built in a London park, which caught on fire during a victory celebration from the gas lights on it. Seriously, y'all. Could not have made that up.

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