Again in response to a very helpful suggestion from a “dear reader” of MPM’s, we are venturing into an exploration of the clues she left about her writing process. Over the years, she kept various notebooks and loose notes tracking her projects, all of which we’re just beginning to unpack (literally and figuratively). Eventually, this will all be archived (about which, more as we have information).
So we can start here with just a modest set of handwritten notes from a small three-ring notebook Barbara was carrying with her between 1962 and 1964 (with a few random notes from later years). In this notebook she documented aspects of her family’s move to live in Rome for 2 years, as well as a trip she took to Egypt. The loose-leaf pages contain her observations on many topics pertinent to her writings — intermingled with to-do lists, etc., and occasional brilliant artwork by her young kids. (We are completely objective on this last point.)
Within this funny mix of mundane and writerly notes, it’s apparent that Barbara was always busy scouting various terrains for possible book topics and ideas. As devoted readers of Peters and Michaels know, settings for the books ranged across time as well as all over the Middle East, Europe, and the U.S. It probably would not surprise those readers that we found notes on English history peppered throughout a notebook where she tracked the costs of an outing to Pompeii and kept shopping lists. Some of the notes detailed her ongoing and systematic search through a journal (Archaeologia– and remember, this was long before one could search online…). For example, there’s a series of notes on heraldry:
“Archaeologia 1949: The Ghost or Shadow as a Charge in Heraldry. Charge is blazoned “ombre” or “umbra” in Fr. + Latin. Tr. “ghost or phantom;” but by Engl. armorists it was misread shadow”…. (& these MPM notes go on for several pages-the underlining in these excerpts is hers)
More notes from the same journal track articles on “King John’s Baggage Train,” the “Body of Henry IV at Canterbury, lead perfectly preserved,” and one from 1883 on “Decorations of H. VII’s chapel” that clearly delighted her imagination:
“St. Wilgeforte (sic), In H. VII’s chapel, a young woman with long hair + turban and beard. … Was a famous image of her at St. Paul’s, + she was once a favorite. A saint who had obtained a beard to escape matrimony, thus should have some sympathy for ladies who wished to escape from it. Ladies who had husbands they wished to get rid of used to ask for her help, hence her popular name of St. Uncumber.
(Ladies who wanted husbands paid their devotions to Rood of Northdoor at St. Paul’s — Paston Letters, 11, 23.)
Uncumber is mentioned by T. More. She is offered oats — possibly because she provides a horse for an evil “housebonde” to ryde to the Devyll upon. In Ger. she was called Kummerniss, St. Liberata in Portugal + France.”
A small triumphant notation states: “Checked Archaeologia 1890 – 1909“. This was years before her book on The Murders of Richard III, but it seems as if Barbara was busily soaking up ideas from all over the historical sources she could access, as they engaged her interest and imagination. She would later explain that: “The research skills I learned can be applied to any field; I have used them to collect background material for novels that deal with the Peasants’ Revolt, Etruscan archaeology, vintage clothing, the Risorgimento, the chartist movement, and innumerable other subjects. Accuracy is very important to me as a novelist; not only does my own professional pride demand it, but I have many readers whose expertise in various fields is at least as great as my own. They can and do chastise me when I make mistakes.” (Yikes! Daunting!)
Whether to avoid mistakes or just to pick up ideas, she was clearly scouting many possible terrains for her novels from very early on. Canadian comics artist Kate Beaton seems to engage in a very similar process, investigating all sorts of historical sources to come up with ideas for her hilarious send-offs of people and events from long ago. For Barbara, going to original sources and places as much as she could, steeping herself in the little details of different lives: all this became a rich and fertile background from which more full-blown characters and plot lines would eventually emerge — sometimes surfacing as a (seemingly) throw-away line that made dialogue feel richer, other times forming a major backbone for particular plot arcs. In the meantime, it’s apparent she was also having a lot of fun!