A few years ago my son was watching the Disney cartoon Tarzan. Around the same time I saw a documentary on feral children. Authors will tell you that their story ideas usually start with a “what if?” After watching Tarzan for the tenth time, I started to wonder…what if my hero had been lost in the jungles as a child? I love those alpha males and you couldn’t get much more alpha than that. But the question remained, where would he have been lost? My husband had been to India for work and with that Country fresh in my mind, it was the perfect place for my hero, Leo, to live. I didn’t need to know much about the history of India for Wild Heart, my debut book, as Leo ends up moving back to England but I knew the second book would take place entirely in India.
And so I started to research. Sure, there were plenty of books on India, but most were inadequate for what I needed. A travel guide on the best places to visit, a history on politics and wars…nope. What I needed was real stuff. What did they eat? What sort of plants and animals would a visitor come across? What was the weather like? How did they live?
It’s no secret that up until recently, the British were deeply entrenched in India. Why did the British feel the need to visit such a far away land? It started the way it always does; someone found something they could make money off of. And so in the 1600s the British started traveling to India. Silk, tea, and opium were just a few of the coveted things found in India.
Of course resentment between Natives and Foreigners quickly flourished. Pick up a book on India and you’ll find information on the tense political climate. But I was writing a romance and romances are about life; the everyday life of men and women. And yes, there were women there. Officers brought their families and wives with when they traveled. In the 1800s in particular, people, especially women, were traveling. Fortunately a couple of these amazing women wrote down their accounts.
There was Mary Sherwood, the daughter of a clergyman, who lived in India for about ten years in the early 1800s. She traveled to India, like most women, because her husband was in the military. Mrs. Sherwood left accounts of her travels as well as her beliefs and fears. Upon arrival poor Mary worried that her unborn child would be born somewhere where he/she wouldn’t be able to be baptized. Because of Mary, we get an idea of what life was like for a woman moving into a culture so unlike her own. And although some of her fears may seem silly to us now, one can’t help but feel for Mary.
But by far the most interesting account of travel was left by a woman named Fanny Parkes; a woman who stayed over twenty years in India. Not only did she write about everyday life, but she wrote about women, a subject sadly lacking in most accounts. Her book, Wanderings of a Pilgrim, is well known with historians. Fanny left for India in June 1822 with her husband. She smoked cigars, traveled without her husband camping in tents, navigated rivers and waterways of India. She was completely outspoken, and talked about every subject under the sun; from elephant-fighting, famine, plague and poverty.
But she also wrote about everyday details; and it’s these everyday details that are jewels for a writer. I was able to find information from Ms. Parkes books that I never would have found in a book on Indian culture/history. “The floors are entirely covered with Indian matting, than which nothing can be cooler or more agreeable.” Fanny’s entries are done by months, which provide the reader with a great reference for climate and change across time. For instance, in December she writes that the weather is wonderful. In March the weather is very uncertain; beautiful one moment, the next moment filled violent rainstorms. Food, weather, wildlife… everything is discussed in Fanny’s journal.
The typical history books we read in school are great for general knowledge. They give us the basics on the dates of war, conflict, political strategies. But history books are written by men and often lack that simple humanity that we, as authors, need in order to write our books. It’s often to women we turn, women like Fanny who kept detailed accounts of everyday life. How about you, where do you like to find your pieces of history?
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