On Serendipity . . . and Research

I had what I hoped would be an amusing post all ready for today, Monday, on local pronunciations of such Maine place names as Madrid, Avon, and Lewiston (among other things), but I’ve put it on the back burner because of something that happened in my writing life on Saturday. Like Kate Flora, I’m in the throes of starting a new novel, only mine is one of the non-mystery historicals I write as Kate Emerson. I’m working on this one (Historical #6) while the rough draft of Liss MacCrimmon #7 is “resting” prior to a major revision/rewriting session.

Beginnings are always slow going for me, even when I’m writing about real people and events. Finding just the right place to start can be a challenge. I’m particularly prone to starting in the wrong place, sometimes more than once, before I finally get a handle on the situation. In this case, what I thought would be the opening chapter is now Chapter Two. I should point out that, in my historicals, each scene is a separate chapter, so they are quite short. Anyway, moving on to Chapter Four, which I hoped to rough out on Saturday, I plunged into writing an encounter between my protagonist and King Henry VIII. The scene takes place in 1538 in a garden at court. The king enters, accompanied by the usual retinue of yeomen of the guard and fawning courtiers. (The poor man never got to go anywhere alone, not even the bathroom!) I’ve been writing scenes like this for quite a few years now, and I was poised to sprinkle a few descriptive details concerning flowers and topiary work into the dialogue, along with a whiff of the king’s favorite perfume (a combination of rosewater, musk, ambergris and civet) when, out of the blue, two half-grown dogs bounded toward my heroine, tongues lolling to show how eager they were to play.

Since I hadn’t planned for dogs, I hastily typed (in red) WHAT KIND OF DOG? WHAT INTERACTION WITH AUDREY? WHAT DOES THE KING SAY AND DO? MAYBE HE GIVES HER ONE OF THE DOGS? WHAT IF THERE ARE THREE AND THEY ARE REALLY PUPPIES AND NOT HALF-GROWN?

Then I went on with to finish what I had planned to do in the chapter. This is my rough draft, so my writing is not polished. Lots of things will change before the book is turned in. The important thing to me at this stage is to get something down on paper and to keep going. I try to do one of my chapters/scenes a day if I can, no matter how pitiful the effort turns out to be.

Anyway . . . dogs. After I was done “writing” for the day, I had time to do some research. I had no real picture in my mind of what these dogs looked like, so I had to decide on a breed and it had to be a breed that a king would own in sixteenth-century England. I turned first to the file folder in my file cabinet labeled, cleverly, “dogs.” No luck. All I had there was a list of types of dog taken from William Harrison’s The Description of England, written during the reign of Elizabeth I. Unfortunately, categorizing hounds as harriers, terriers, bloodhounds, gazehounds, greyhounds, limers, tumblers, and thiefs didn’t do a lot for me, so I turned to my biographies of Henry VIII. An index is not helpful for something as general as “dogs.” This is where having an ebook version with a search function is really nice! However, since these are my own copies, the biographies are heavily hi-lighted and bristling with flags and post-it notes.

I’d already done some research on dogs at court for the last historical (The King’s Damsel, in stores August 7) and knew that Queen Anne Boleyn had owned a bichon frise, but by 1538, both Queen Anne and “Perky” were long gone. It didn’t take me long to find the page in Alison Weir’s Henry VIII: The King and his Court where she talks about the king’s dogs. They wore decorative collars of red velvet and kid, some with silver or gold spikes and others with pearls or the king’s arms or one of the badges he used, such as the Tudor rose or the portcullis. Dogs were King Henry’s favorite pets, I read, especially beagles, spaniels, and greyhounds.

Ah-hah! As soon as I read that, I knew the dogs in my garden were beagles. Not that I knew much about beagles, you understand. It just felt right. My experience with dogs overall is fairly limited. We had a fox terrier, Skippy, throughout my childhood. He died at age eighteen the same year I went away to college. And my husband and I have had only one dog here in Maine, a mixed-breed mutt we named Not-a-Cat. He was a great dog. He used to go camping with us. But after he died, we resigned ourselves to being cat people.

Anyway, getting back to beagles. It was time go online and see what I could find on the breed. It didn’t take long to confirm that the word beagle was in use in England by 1475. Yea! Edward III used beagles to hunt rabbits. This was called beagling and was done on foot, not on horseback. Interesting, but I’m not planning any hunting scenes. Been there, done that in previous historicals, although not, of course, with beagles. I read that beagles are “scent hounds,” meaning they track by scent, and that “beagle” was used back in the sixteenth century as a generic description for smaller hounds . . . in other words they were a bit different from the modern breed. Then I hit the jackpot. There were beagles at court, yes. But there was also a miniature version. Henry VII, my Henry’s father, kept a pack of “glove beagles,” so called because they were small enough to fit in the palm of a heavy leather hunting glove or gauntlet. By the time of Elizabeth I, Henry VIII’s daughter, they were called “pocket beagles” and were carried in a pocket or a saddlebag. They literally rode along on a hunt. After the larger dogs ran the prey to ground, the hunters released the pocket beagles to chase them through the underbrush.

Isn’t research fun? I’ve always thought so. I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do with these dogs yet, but after reading about pocket beagles, I know I have to make use of them. They will emerge on the pages of Chapter Four when I go back and revise and they will no doubt reappear, perhaps more than once, in the 300+ pages that follow.

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4 Responses to On Serendipity . . . and Research

  1. Lea Wait says:

    Thanks for taking us along your research route! As someone who also writes historical novels … I know that road well .. and have found myself both lost, and found, there often. And isn’t it wonderful when that road turns corners and you find snipets (or even major pieces) of history that you didn’t know were there … and maybe few other people did either. I love the pocket beagles! And will look forward to seeing how they work their way into your next Kate Emerson book!

  2. MCWriTers says:

    Fascinating post, Kaitlyn. And I am so jealous of getting to research pocket dogs instead of degrees of burns and adolescent psychology and the question of whether a high school sophomore could really not have known she was pregnant. Cuter pictures, too.

    But there really is so much that comes up in the beginning that we need to know, and it’s always a challenge not to stop forward momentum when those questions come up.

    Kate

  3. Lea and Kate
    Glad you enjoyed the post. A humorous sidenote: Googling this morning under Henry VIII and dogs, I found several sites, most associated with the notoriously inaccurate The Tudors, that claimed there was NO evidence that Henry kept any! Considering the number of dog collars and leashes in the inventory made when he died, that’s a hard case to make, but I don’t suppose the folks putting that misinformation out there actually consult books, let alone contemporary documents.

    • MCWriTers says:

      Hurrah for contemporary documents (also known as primary sources) and people like you, who pay attention to them, Kaitlyn! Lea

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