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HISTORICAL RESEARCH FOR NOVEL WRITERS

By Madeleine McDonald


Please welcome Madeleine McDonald to the Writers Journey Blog with her feature on Historical Research!


HISTORICAL RESEARCH FOR NOVEL WRITERS


The seed for my historical novel, A Shackled Inheritance, grew from a visit to a small Scottish museum many years ago. One of the displays mentioned a will written by a remorseful father 200 years ago. He left his entire estate to his two daughters by a West Indian concubine, who were both born disabled.


Years later, I sketched out the idea of a third. Scottish daughter discovering on her father’s death that she must share her inheritance of a sugar plantation with two unknown half sisters, who are free women of colour.


Like most people in the UK, my knowledge of historical slavery, the triangular trade, and the conditions of plantation life were sketchy. I knew the basic facts, no more.


Although I invented the name of an island, there is a treasure trove of information online about life in Jamaica, much of it digitised and stored in the national library. See https://nljdigital.nlj.gov.jm/, Then I found http://www.jamaicanfamilysearch.com/. I owe its compilers and contributors a debt of thanks.


Letters, wills, almanacs, newspapers and travellers’ journals all provided snippets of information about daily life in the 1800s. For example, I found the description of a slave village, including pigs reared for extra food, and small fenced-off plots for families to grow vegetables; I also found an inventory of the clothes handed out to each enslaved person. (no shoes, of course, they were expected to work barefoot) All this background information found its way into the book.


Research was fascinating, and I had to limit my explorations. If I had not set time limits to each session, I would never have written a word.


Clicking from link to link, I found it was not unusual for white men to leave substantial property to their freed, mixed-race children. The free coloured community, as it was then called, occupied a middle position in society, between the enslaved and the privileged white community. The men were educated, sometimes in England, and worked as overseers, shopkeepers, schoolteachers, or lawyers. They were often slave owners themselves.


For women, however, the choice was dire, as I attempt to show in my book. They could marry a fellow free man of colour, ensuring their status within that community. Or they could become a white man’s concubine, enjoying privilege and wealth, but knowing they could be cast aside at any time. My character Desiree faces this dilemma. I did not find any accounts written by concubines, but observers commented on their plight.


The sad counterpart to the rise of the free coloured community (created over time by white men having children with enslaved women), was that free mixed-race people identified with the white community. By the late 18th century, abolitionists in far-away London and Edinburgh were agitating to outlaw slavery. Yet in the West Indies, freed mulatto overseers continued to treat the enslaved with barbarity and brutality.


Another strand of research was to read Mary Wollstonecraft’s seminal book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which my character Abigail reads during the long sea voyage. Regency Britain was a deeply hypocritical society. The French revolution had ended in civil bloodshed, followed by a long war. Despite this, the concept of the Rights of Man still fizzed in the air – for men, not women.


About Madeleine McDonald I left school with a certificate in shorthand typing in my pocket and the intention of working my way round the world. I got no further than France, where I settled in the Dreyeckland, the "three cornered land" where France meets Switzerland and Germany.

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