I am American and have never yet visited England. So of course the first work of fiction I submitted to a publisher was set in Victorian England. I’d read a number of Regency romances (Regency and Victorian are the same thing, right?) and I’d watched BBC America. I’d drunk some tea. No problem.
That first novella proved my point, receiving high accolades from reviewers and readers alike for its authenticity.
At least, in the little fantasy world I’d built up in my head. In reality, it was something of a disaster. The story and characters got some kudos, but even readers who liked it usually prefaced their praise with, “Despite several anachronisms and Americanisms….”
Oh, Earl Grey… how you betrayed me….
While I did in fact do some research for my Victorian novella—I read several books on the subject, including the excellent “Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England” by Kristine Hughes—I clearly should have done more. But beyond that, I discovered that some things are simply not found in books, because everybody who actually lives in a country knows them.
The biggest problem with my novella was that, as an American, I had no concept of the role of class in British society. Oh, yes, I can watch Downton Abbey with the best of them, and I love those “big house” dramas. But as an American, I always feel a bit squeamish about clear-cut class distinctions, and it’s difficult for me to conceive of servants who are happy to be servants. Surely they were all dreaming of starting their own business and becoming filthy rich, or at least marrying an earl?
However, I’ve learned this wasn’t the case. And apparently inviting all of the locals into the house for a hootenanny was simply not done. Which was kind of the crux of my plot.
It also turns out the British aren’t big on scones for breakfast, though I think I could have worked around that one.
I’ve since written a novel that takes place in Viking Age Iceland. The history and culture of ancient Iceland is actually a hobby of mine. I researched it for at least fifteen to twenty years before tackling a story in that setting, so my historical detail was fairly solid, though there are always things that seem to slip through the cracks. I discovered for instance that a throwaway line of dialog about a bat was a rather odd comment for an Icelander to make—there are no bats in Iceland.
But the essential lesson I took away from my Victorian was this: always have at least one native from the country you’re writing about read the novel. More, if you can find them. I probably wouldn’t have caught that tidbit about bats, if it hadn’t been pointed out to me by a native Icelander. I might have, of course—it’s information available in books and online. But trust me, it’s easier to spot what is there in a book than it is to spot what isn’t there. I never found a book telling me that there weren’t any bats in Iceland. I assumed there would be, because… well, they’re everywhere in my part of the world. It took a native to say, “Oh, no. We don’t have those.”
More importantly, it took a native Icelander to tell me whether my characters sounded like Icelanders, and whether my descriptions of the countryside were accurate. In one scene that takes place in Norway, I used Google Maps to locate an area the characters were traversing, and zoomed in as much as possible to get an idea of the terrain. (This works surprisingly well, by the way.) But what Google Maps neglected to tell me was that the short stretch of water I thought my characters could boat across was a fjord, hundreds of feet deep, with no easy way to get down to the water and back up on the other side. It took a native from Norway who’d actually lived in that area to tell me that.
So now I’m once again tackling Victorian England, fool that I am. It’s rather frightening, because I’ve forgotten half the research I did three years ago. And I still don’t live in England. But I’ve at least learned that I’ll have to have the story read over by somebody native, who can tell me what the heck “clotted cream” is, and why on earth would anybody want to ingest it?
Jamie Fessenden set out to be a writer in junior high school. He published a couple short pieces in his high school’s literary magazine and had another story place in the top 100 in a national contest, but it wasn’t until he met his partner, Erich, almost twenty years later, that he began writing again in earnest. With Erich alternately inspiring and goading him, Jamie wrote several screenplays and directed a few of them as micro-budget independent films. He then began writing novels and published his first novella, “The Christmas Wager,” in 2010.
After nine years together, Jamie and Erich have married and purchased a house together in the wilds of Raymond, New Hampshire, where there are no street lights, turkeys and deer wander through their yard, and coyotes serenade them on a nightly basis. Jamie recently left his “day job” as a tech support analyst to be a full-time writer.
Visit Jamie at http://jamiefessenden.wordpress.com
Blurb for Billy’s Bones:
Kevin Derocher was thirty-two when he walked into Tom’s office, newly married, a baby on the way, and the collar of his red flannel shirt pulled up to hide the bruises around his throat from when he hanged himself in his garage. After his initial consult, therapist Tom Langois believes he’ll never see Kevin again—but Kevin turns up three years later to make repairs on Tom’s new house.
Kevin and Tom become fast friends, and Tom begins to suspect Kevin may be interested in more than friendship. However, Kevin remains haunted by something from his childhood—something so terrible he blocked it from his mind. These suppressed memories make it impossible for Kevin to get close to anyone without panicking and lashing out, sometimes violently. But as his past begins to surface, it becomes apparent that Kevin may hold the key to a twenty-five-year-old mystery: what happened to Billy?
Buy Link: Dreamspinner
KEVIN DEROCHER was just thirty-two when he walked into Tom’s office, newly married, a baby on the way, and the collar of his red flannel shirt pulled up in an attempt to hide the bruises around his throat caused by hanging himself in his garage. He was a lean, quiet man with a shy smile and a disheveled appearance—unshaven, with a tangle of chocolate-brown hair, as if he’d scrambled out of bed too late to even grab a comb. When Tom shook his hand and looked into those sleepy, soft hazel eyes for the first time, he was struck not by the pain he often saw in his client’s eyes, but by the confusion he saw there, as if Kevin had no idea why any of this was happening.
“So, Kevin,” Tom said when they were seated in the overstuffed, faux leather chairs, “how have you been for the past few days?”
Kevin crossed his legs, as if trying to find a comfortable position, and then immediately uncrossed them again. “Okay, I guess.”
“Good. How’s your wife… Tracy, right? And the baby?”
“The baby’s not born yet,” Kevin replied.
Tom already knew this. It had been Dr. Belanger’s opinion when he’d counseled Kevin at Androscoggin Valley Hospital, that learning of Tracy’s unplanned pregnancy had been the trigger that led to Kevin’s suicide attempt. Kevin had denied it. Of course. Having a child is supposed to be one of the happiest moments of a man’s life.
It doesn’t usually lead to suicide.
“I understand that,” Tom said pleasantly, tugging the short black hair of his beard between thumb and forefinger. “I simply meant, how is the pregnancy coming along?”
Kevin shrugged. “It’s fine.”
Tom realized he was thirsty, so he stood and went to the water bubbler in the corner. “Would you like some water?” he offered, holding up an empty paper cup.
It wasn’t until Tom carried both cups back and set them on the slightly battered coffee table that Kevin volunteered, “I think she’s mad at me.”
“Your wife?” Tom settled back into his chair and smiled at him. “Mad about what?”
“Trying to kill myself.”
“Has she said anything?”
“Not really,” Kevin said. He crossed and uncrossed his legs again, looking at his cup on the coffee table without seeming to focus on it. “She hardly talks to me at all now. She spends most of her time after work visiting with her mom.”
Tom didn’t feel comfortable doing couples counseling since he’d never been married. The state of New Hampshire had legalized gay marriage this past year, but Tom wasn’t even dating anyone. He generally referred people with marital trouble to his colleague, Sue Cross. But in this case, talking to Tracy might provide some valuable insight into what had happened, so he offered, “Do you think it might help to have Tracy join us for a session?”
“Well, it’s an option if you decide you’d like to do that later.”
“How many times do I have to see you?”
This was just an outpatient follow up since Mark Belanger hadn’t felt Kevin’s short stay in the hospital was enough to really help him. They’d released him when they believed he was no longer a danger to himself, but they’d never ascertained what the real issue was. That could take months, if not years. But Kevin couldn’t be forced to continue counseling.
“Why don’t we talk about that at the end of the session?” Tom asked. He suspected Kevin would simply get up and walk out if he gave him half a chance. “Right now, I’d like to talk about why Dr. Belanger referred you to me.”
When Kevin just stared blankly at his cup of water, Tom asked him, “Would you care to tell me what happened a couple weeks ago? On that Sunday?”
Kevin sighed and leaned forward to take a sip from the cup. “We went over that about a million times in the hospital. Didn’t they write it down for you?”
“Dr. Belanger did send me some notes. But I’d like to hear it from you.”
“I don’t really remember.”
“So the case notes say.”
“Well, they’re right,” Kevin said, irritated. “Tracy went out shopping for baby clothes or something with her sister. And I was feeling pretty low—”
“I don’t know. I just was.”
“I’m sorry. Go on.”
The story Kevin told wasn’t much different from what Mark Belanger had written. Kevin had decided to have a beer, and then a few more. His feeling of being “a little low” worsened until, in his intoxicated state, the depression seemed insurmountable. Then he went out to the garage, stripped completely naked, and hung himself by tying one leg of his blue jeans to a crossbeam and the other around his neck, and then stepping off the tailgate of his truck. He didn’t fall far enough to break his neck, and the way he’d tied the pants leg still allowed a trickle of air into his throat. So he didn’t die. He just hung there, choking. He passed out after a few minutes, but the medics estimated he dangled for ten or fifteen minutes before someone driving along the road in front of his garage saw him and called 911.
“Why do it naked?” Tom asked.
Kevin shrugged and downed the rest of his water. “I don’t know. It must have seemed right at the time.” He paused and then glanced up at Tom with a slightly mischievous smile. “You want to hear something gross? About when they found me?”
Tom had a pretty good idea what was coming, but he said, “Sure.”
“I guess I was… kind of….” Kevin made a gesture, as if he was flipping Tom off, but he kept his hand balled into a fist.
Tom laughed. “It’s apparently not uncommon for men who are… hanged… to get erections. Don’t ask me why I know that. I read it somewhere.”
“That’s kind of fucked up,” Kevin said, but he was still smiling. “I suppose I’m lucky I didn’t take a dump while I was hanging there. I heard that can happen.”
“I’ve heard that too.”
“Now that would have been completely undignified.”
It was a sick joke, but it cracked both of them up. And the fact that Tom was willing to laugh along with him about the whole fucked-up mess, both of them snickering like high school kids or younger, seemed to put Kevin more at ease.
“Can you remember anything else?” Tom asked when they’d settled down.
Kevin leaned back into his chair and seemed to give the matter serious thought for the first time since the session began. “I couldn’t breathe.”
Tom was tempted to rib him further—“I’ve heard hanging can cause breathing trouble too”—but he sensed this was more than just a continuation of the joke. “Do you mean… before you tried to hang yourself?”
Kevin nodded. “I remember that’s why I started drinking—because I couldn’t breathe. I thought maybe I just needed to relax.”
That seemed an odd reaction. Unless it was something he’d experienced before and this was how he handled it.
“Have you had that trouble breathing in other situations?”
“Now and then. But it’s no big deal. I mean, I know they’re just panic attacks.”
Tom tried to remember if he’d come across any of this in the case notes. He didn’t think so. The notes were on his desk, but he didn’t want to interrupt Kevin to go read through them. “Were you diagnosed with panic attacks in the past?”
“I figured you knew that,” Kevin said. “I was sent away when I was a kid.”
“Hampstead Hospital. For a couple months.”
Hampstead Hospital had excellent programs for children and teenagers, including inpatient treatments for depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and a host of others, including psychotic disorders. “Those records wouldn’t be part of your file at Androscoggin. Do you recall what you were being treated for at Hampstead?”
Kevin shrugged. “Like I said. Panic attacks.”
“How old were you?”
“I don’t remember. Thirteen, maybe?”
“What was happening at that time?”
Kevin had begun to fidget again, crossing his left leg onto his knee so he could wring his ankle with his hands. “Do I have to sit?”
“No. Go ahead—stand up; walk around a bit.”
Kevin practically jumped out of the armchair. As he talked he circled the office, glancing at the books in the metal racks on the walls, at the water bubbler, at Tom’s desk before stopping at the window that looked out onto the streets of Berlin. “My mother says I was pretty out of control. Fighting with kids at school, breaking things in the house—like dinner plates and… this stupid wooden boy taking a piss in the garden… shit like that. I was yelling at her and my father all the time and locking myself in my room. And I think I ran away once….”
“Your mother told you this? You don’t remember it?”
“Not really. I mean, I remember kicking that pissing kid to pieces.”
“Why did you do that?”
“I was sick of looking at his ass.” Kevin grimaced and turned back to face Tom for a moment. “I mean, why do people think those damned things are cute? Why is it cute to have some little kid mooning you all the time?”
Tom had to laugh again. “I don’t know. I think they’re pretty tacky.”
“Do you remember your time in Hampstead?”
“No,” Kevin said thoughtfully as he watched the cars on the street two stories down. “I had to go in the summer, ’cause they didn’t want me to miss school. I remember being pissed about that. They were afraid I’d run away, so I was never allowed out on the grounds without a nurse. I hated it.”
“Nothing very clear.”
This guy is just one big, giant defense mechanism, Tom thought. He’d counseled other patients who were reluctant to talk about themselves before, but Kevin was combining that with humor and a disarming frankness. Perhaps even a shocking frankness, not that Tom was particularly shocked. But he suspected that, if he were female, Kevin might even become flirtatious. All to direct attention away from what he didn’t want to talk about—why he’d attempted suicide.
Forty-five minutes later, they’d covered topics ranging from Kevin’s fairly average childhood, growing up in rural New Hampshire, to meeting his wife in the local diner where she was waitressing, to his job as a handyman. Kevin had no qualms about telling Tom about his sex life, including how often he masturbated (“I mean, is that normal, considering I’m married?”), even though Tom hadn’t really asked. Nothing was sacred.
Except why he’d hung himself in that damned garage.
The session ended, and Tom had a sense they’d made a small amount of headway, perhaps, but nothing very significant. He liked Kevin, was charmed by him. If he were being honest, he was even somewhat attracted to him. But the man was an enigma. Was his memory really that fragmentary? Or did he simply say “I don’t remember” whenever he didn’t want to talk about something?
As they shook hands at the door, Kevin looked directly into Tom’s eyes with those soft hazel eyes of his, his heavy lids disconcertingly like those of a man sated from sex, and smiled that shy little boy’s smile. “You’re a lot easier to talk to than Dr. What’s-his-name at the hospital.”
“I’m glad you were comfortable.”
The handshake seemed to go on a little too long, Kevin’s eyes holding Tom’s until Tom began to wonder if he wasn’t above flirting with a male psychologist, after all.
When Kevin finally released him, Tom asked, “Will I see you next week?”
“Sure,” Kevin replied, but Tom knew he was lying. They went through the motions of finding a day in Tom’s appointment calendar that worked with both of their schedules, Tom writing it in with a ballpoint pen. Then Kevin walked out of the office.
Tom wished he could have done more. He hoped Kevin was past the crisis that had led him to hang himself, but he couldn’t be sure of that. All he knew for certain was that he would not see Kevin Derocher again.