One of the best parts of my job is claiming tax deductions on trips to England for research. The first time I went, I specifically needed to know what it felt like in a 14th century house. I wanted to have a strong impression of the sorts of buildings typical in Medieval London, in particular, in order to capture them in words for Elisha Barber.
There’s not many buildings of that era left in London itself, but there are lots of wonderful antique houses to see and visit around the countryside–several of which have names like “King John’s Hunting Lodge,” regardless of their location in the middle of a town far from any royal forest–and the fact that they all date from a couple centuries after the unloved King John himself.
Even visiting authentic dwellings furnished with original or reproduction items can be a bit misleading however, because I need to keep in mind two key things: these houses are now centuries old–and I need to picture them new or nearly so; and they were thoroughly occupied. The residents cooked over wood or coal fires, adding a particular atmosphere of light, scent and smoky air. They needed to store and prepare food, to wash and dry clothing, care for children, and, often, perform their occupations inside the house or in an attached building or yard.
My quest started, naturally enough, with books, including the Landmark Trust Handbook. I love these guys! They not only preserve old buildings and open them as holiday cottages, they publish this handbook with photos and floorplans of the houses themselves. I found my first copy, used, before I understood I could actually go and stay in the places it described. I’ve now stayed in several (including the standing Great Hall of a 15th century manor, and a thatched cottage in a seaside village) and I’m looking forward to staying in a castle when I go over for Worldcon. The chill of the thick stone walls, the lighting consoles high above, the narrow stairs tucked into odd corners all helped me create a clear vision of what medieval houses are like.
In order to envision them new, it helps to visit places like Dover Castle, which have been staged as if occupied, or some of the live medieval recreations–often feasts or special events. Fortunately, many of these events have been recorded and are also available online, including a Christmas celebration at the Tower of London. Filling in the smells based on reading period recipes–or better yet, eating them!–can help as well.
To transport these houses to London required the aid of archaeology, especially The Archaeology of Medieval London, and the Museum of the City of London, which has an excellent display of recreated homes from different periods. These resources provided a sense of the streets themselves, with their sewage ditches and twisting mews. All of which, I hope, have created an image in the reader’s mind such that, when Elisha goes home, his home feels as solid and believable as the home of a distant friend–a friend distant not in space, but in time.