I said in my last post I’m a very visual person. There’s nothing like being and seeing for oneself. I’ve been lucky to travel for historical research. When one writes about the United Kingdom in the Regency, Victorian, Edwardian, and Roaring Twenties eras but lives in a little Maine college town in the 21st century, one needs all the help one can get.
I’ve made some great accidental discoveries. One year, my husband and I stayed in Pitlochry, Scotland, “the gateway to the Highlands.” We stayed in a lovely B & B, but our room was at the tippy-top floor of the old manor house (probably the original servants’ quarters) and the stairs were positively evil. If I’d been a maid back then, I would have handed in my notice or, more likely, tumbled down the steps to my death.
Consequently, we planned our days to spend most of the time out and about so we were only climbing up the horrible stairs at the end of the day. I made a list of local sites to explore from the area brochures each evening, and the next morning we dutifully ate a huge “full Scottish” and trotted out, list in hand.
I’d read there was a museum in the basement of the nearby Atholl Palace Hotel, a gargantuan Scottish Baronial pile that has served as a tourist destination for almost a hundred and fifty years. In the Victorian era, city dwellers fled to the Highlands to get fresh air, and stayed at hydropathic spas, where they were basically tortured in hot and cold water for their “health.” The plot and setting for In the Heart of the Highlander came to me as I wandered around the displays frantically taking notes.
(A few years later we went back in Pitlochry to stay in the hotel itself. I got a bonus surprise—a wedding reception was taking place and I saw lots of handsome young Scotsmen in their kilts. I did not try to sneak a peek under them to answer that age-old question, however.)
A trip to London provided me with the inspiration for house my artist hero lived in in The Reluctant Governess. The Linley Sambourne House is an absolute treasure trove of eccentric collectibles, although I would not like to have to dust its five floors. It too had evil stairs, but I persevered all the way up to the attic. I was lucky enough to snag the last spot on a private tour, and would recommend a visit.
The Geffrye Museum, also in London, is a fabulous resource to see how people lived over the centuries, with authentically decorated rooms you can imagine your characters, in whatever decade they “exist.” The building was formerly an alms house, so you can also experience what the space might have been like for its original tenants.
My very favorite place to visit, The V & A, is filled with clothing, jewelry and household decorative objects that you can mentally borrow for detail in your writing. Most of these museums have wonderful websites to explore, when travel (or money) is limited, as it is now.
I think my historical museum mania was formed on my tenth birthday, when my parents took me to Sagamore Hill, Teddy Roosevelt’s big shingled house in Oyster Bay. I was a little voyeur, wondering what it would be like to sleep on such grand beds in such grand bedrooms, although the dead animals hanging on the walls everywhere were a bit of a turn-off. From there it’s been on to Newport mansions and Sturbridge Village and Cawdor Castle and Buckingham Palace.
Do you like to step back in time? What’s your favorite museum or historic house?